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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Swimming in Big Water

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Day Five (July 19th)

From the journal:

I love how well the river coaches and guides you into the more difficult whitewater. Launching into the canyon is immediate and surreal, but the waves and rapids take their time to grow in size and complexity. It is absolutly big water from the get go, but now we are getting into the really big rapids and it is astounding.
We went through Hance today, the first big rapid that we needed to be really ready for. Scouting made it seem less scary, and watching other rafts go through it helped make sense of the maneuvers. Even though Steve did the physical work, I realized how essential my role is as his assistant/coach/navigator. When Max went ahead of us, I saw that his line was further right than ideal, and I told Steve to row hard and he listened. Every direction I shouted, he turned into action, and we ran the best line we could have! He worked his ass off and may have tweaked his shoulder from the oar trying to wrench out of his hands in the biggest waves, but we got through it.

Other highlights from the day include bighorn sheep on the riverbank, meeting the great-grandson of the Nevill for whom Nevill's rapid is named, and seeing the sacred salt mines along the river bank (beautiful mineral deposits protected from visitation).

We camped at Clear Creek at mile 84.5. I left my camera behind on the scramble adventure that Logan and I went on in search of the creek itself, hoping for an accessible spot to get fresh water and rinse away the river silt. We followed what may have been goat trails except for the occasional rock cairn, marveling at the smoothness of the Vishnu Schist (let me tell you, the nine-year-old boy had me in stitches as he celebrated having such a cool word he was allowed to say in place of the similar-sounding cuss word).

We ended up on a trail at least 1,000 feet above the creek and while we saw where the path would take us down to the clear water, we decided it was safer to go back and be with the group. Logan is a natural scrambler and has a fantastic sense of route-finding and navigating uneven terrain. He is going to have a lot of amazing adventures in his life, and I hope I am someday blessed with children even half as great as he is.

Logan and I looked for scorpions again after sunset but couldn’t find any. I never thought I’d be disappointed to not see any creepy crawly critters at bedtime, but there you have it. As we sat around in the camp chairs after dinner, Logan saw a shape in the dark and used the flashlight to show us a beautiful owl perched on the rock ledges above us.

I slept on the boat again, finding the heat radiating from the rock walls a little too hot. Sleep came in fits as every rock of the boat left me wondering if the knots had come untied and sent me drifting downstream. With big waves and water all around us now, it was difficult to feel at ease. Still, you really can't beat the view from the edge of the raft at night.

Day Six (July 20th)

As we begin hitting the big rapids (Nevills, 6-7 with a 16-foot drop; Hance, 8-9 with a 30-foot drop; Sockdulager, 7-9 with a 19-foot drop, etc.), our awareness of the consequences begins to grow and there is more palpable tension in the air. While it is fun and a wonderful challenge to navigate the biggest whitewater in North America, there is always an awareness that the river is in charge and we can only do so much as we dance along her waters. Now, sometimes in the morning, and always when we stop to scout a big rapid, someone begins to pray and the rest of the group bows their heads and joins in. It does not matter what faith traditions we come from or what version of a higher power we are calling on; what matters is that we are together in acknowledging how powerless we are and asking for the grace, strength, and courage to get through every rapid that we approach.

On our sixth morning on the river, we ride through the medium-sized and fun Zoroaster Rapid (5-7 with a now seemingly mere 5-foot drop) and pull off at the beach access to Phantom Ranch. John stays with the boats and the four of us hike up in search of ice to refill our quickly melting coolers, maybe a cold drink if they have any to offer, and the infamous postcards that you can mail which are carried out by pack mules. We pass several backpackers, succeed in our mission for cold items, and spend some time chatting with a commercial group at the beach. It is a fun stop but a brief one because we have a lot of miles to do today.

Plans change, however, when we proceed downstream and approach Horn Creek Rapid, an 8-9 with a 9-foot drop. Horn Creek has huge waves and is more technical to navigate because of the "horns" i.e. two large rocks smack dab in the center at the entrance to the rapid. Navigating around the horns and avoiding the churning holes at each takes the right combination of angle, momentum, and luck. Unfortunately, John's dory does not seem to be lucky today. He approaches the horns and disappears down the first drop in the water. The next moment, the dory is shooting straight up an enormous wave, upside down, and John is missing. In the next glimpse, the boat is bottoms-up cruising downstream and John is a dark speck bobbing among the waves as the current sweeps him towards the rock walls below.

Max plows into the rapid and makes a beeline through the monster waves towards his father, and I yell above the roaring water so Steve knows what is happening. With one boat over and someone swimming, it is paramount that we do not become victims ourselves. Picking up the swimmer is goal one, wrestling the overturned boat to shore is goal two, and in such a small group that means our two rafts are both needed. There is no margin for error--we have to nail this rapid and come out quickly and cleanly, or things could get very ugly.

Steve rows hard and I grip a rigging strap tightly with one hand so I can hold our course with my other arm, pointing towards safety and a clean run through the horns.

From the journal:

We nailed the line and saw that Max was getting Johh, so we went for the lost gear. Logan was trying to hold the dory while Max pulled John in. Steve and I knew we needed to help and we gathered up a lost cooler and an oar that came off of the dory then caught up to them and took the overturned dory from Logan. I do not know how that kid held on as long as he did--the weight of the dory nearly pulls me off the raft as I try to hold on.
Steve worked his ass off trying to row us to an eddy but the dory kept sucking back to the current. Finally we came to shore and the three of us managed to upright the dory. There is checking-in on everyone and we make lunch. Logan and I talked a lot about it being scary but also how well we all worked together.

Video by Steve:

The dory has sustained some damage but the guys feel confident that it can be repaired. Logan and I set up the camp table on the bluff and make sandwiches because everyone is hungry and it brings some normalcy back into the afternoon. I marvel at how smoothly everyone works together and how well we all went into action to get to shore, right the dory, and take care of everything. We make a pretty good team, it seems.

As the adrenaline wears off and tasks get done, we settle into the boats to relax for a little while. It feels good to have the downtime and talking through a near-miss is a proven method to mitigate potential effects of trauma, so I am glad to hear John and Max rehashing the flip and swim several times.

Finally, we reload the boats, ready to proceed downstream. John pulls away from the shore first, I untie Max and help him cast off, then I untie The Swan and jump on with Steve. We are barely on the water when we see John rowing hard for the opposite shore. We pull in after him and he tells us his head isn't right to keep going and we need to make camp here. Even though we have only gone 6.5 miles today, we all agree that it is the right time to stop. If one member of the group is not feeling it, we all respect that, and I am proud to be part of a group that takes safety and wellbeing so seriously. To be honest, as the only woman in a group of men, I have been worried about the impacts of ego and wondered if machoness will get in the way. This afternoon, all of my fears are put to rest. Everyone is looking out for each other's best interests and ego-trips have no place here.

We tie up at 91 Mile Creek Camp and have an awesome afternoon of relaxing on the boats before leisurely setting up the kitchen and making dinner. Of course, the afternoon thunderstorm makes its appearance, but for once the rain feels nice and we have umbrellas to hide under if needed.

We manage to salvage some of the items that got swamped when the dory flipped, including a large number of toilet paper rolls. Max dubs them "pre-moistened" and we use the heat from the rocks to help dry them out a bit. Only six days into a two-week trip, there is no way we are going to lose any of this precious cargo.

The sky keeps spitting rain so I set up my tent and let my fort-building skills take over, enjoying the fun of building a fort to sleep in and then listening to the sound of rain on the tent while I journal and look over my pictures from the trip so far.

Looking through my map, I see a note scribbled at this campsite and realize we are camped in the same place my family stayed in 2009. The thought warms my heart and I look around with new eyes, trying to imagine how it looked when they were here 11 years prior. Just as amazing and full of beauty, I imagine.

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