Grand Canyon of the Colorado

In January 2009, we ticked a major box on the kayaking hitlist – the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona. From top to bottom, the trip is about 225 miles and took us 15 days and 15 cold, cold nights. For this self-supported trip, the crew comprised fifteen hardy souls in a flotilla of four 16-foot rafts and four kayaks, carrying everything we needed for food, clothes, and shelter.

The canyon itself is, you know, deep, and the river is, eh, big. It pushes along at about six miles an hour so manning the oars isn’t the ordeal you might expect, particularly with so many people to rotate on the oars.

If you’re thinking of going you need to get a permit through the lottery system (the ‘waiting list’ system has been scrapped) and get a local rafting company to sort the logistics for you. We heartily recommend Brady at Moenkopi who made the whole thing hassle-free. All we really had to do was get to Las Vegas (Vegas, baby!) and cruise on up to Flagstaff.

The rafts carry everything you are going to need for the duration. There’s no re-supply and only one trail out, about halfway down the canyon. If it’s not on the raft at the start, you are doing without it until the finish. The reality of this sank in as we loaded up, prompting a last-minute panic buying of yet more beer before we pushed off. A total of 3,000 cans of beer, in case you were wondering.

In the photo above, Angie pushes off, Brian at the oars, and Hugh checks the contents of an ammo can, probably looking for biscuits. All the food goes in ammo boxes or in the coolerbox that Brian is sitting on. Other than that, distributed around four rafts you’ve got sleeping pads, a first aid box, spare oars, ropes, one personal gear bag per person strapped at the back, and buried in there there’s also a satellite phone for emergencies, a full breakdown kitchen, tents, ‘loo in a box,’ deck chairs, a volleyball, a ton of camera equipment, yer ma’s drinks cabinet, and so on.

One of the new experiences of this trip for many of us was getting to grips with working a raft. It’s a tricky skill to get the hang of – there are too many degrees of freedom and the oars can rotate in opposite directions. It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, except with consequences. The oars are fifteen foot long, so the ‘span’ of the craft is about thirty foot, making the action of one blade completely independent of the other. It’s also a good physical workout and it keeps you warm. Above, Karen figures out her aft from her portcullis, or whatever.

Firewood is picked up along the way – it’s the desert so all the lumber is quite dry – even huge tree trunks will burn easily. You are permitted to light fires in your firepans, but only in the winter. You wouldn’t want to contemplate this trip in winter without the fires.

The photo below is a pretty typical view of the canyon, at dusk when the setting sun shows the canyon wall in roses and pinks. I’m not going to try to tell you how amazing the view was or any of that. Get yourself a dictionary and just look up some superlatives. It’s quite overcoming, over days people tended to tune out and just sit in rafts watching the vista change, little by little, around each new bend in the river. The formations soared up, and you knew that the ridge you were looking up at wasn’t even remotely the ‘top’ – the canyon is stepped down and stepped down, like an enormous terrace. The scale gets lost on you fairly quickly but the impression of immensity is always there. Day after day, you see changes in the landscape, the rock formations, the layer cake of strata, in all colours from marble green to redstone to lava black. Some of our crew are geologists, so we got lots of mini-lectures on the way.

Airplane contrails in the evening sky were just about the only sign of civilization for much of the trip. Outside of our own group we met maybe 20 other people in the entire time.

It being January, there was snow up high on the ridge. We met some hikers at one point and gave them a ride a few kilometres down the river and across to the other side. They reported having to wade through waist-deep snowdrifts at the top.

Disco Paddlers in the giant cavern:

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado trip is all about the view. As a piece of whitewater, it’s not extremely challenging – it’s often said that you go the first time for the river and the second time for the side-hiking. A half-assed kayaker can get down the river. Here’s me doing just that:

All the rapids are scoutable and walkable, and you can always clamber into the relative comfort of the rafts as you wish. One could write volumes about this trip, but really, the photos do a better job of it.

At the final campsite, Pink Panther chills by the tent. Another successful mission accomplished with the minimum of fuss.

From here I’m going to point you to MananaManana’s spanking new photo gallery, where I’ve added about 100 of the best photos from the many cameras we took with us.

Click here for the Grand Canyon gallery.

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3 Responses to “Grand Canyon of the Colorado”

  1. A trip report about corsica would be way better than all of this.
    Where’s the ice cream, the chesnut beer, the paramilitaries, the hurtling through the night across france in what cis best described as one of those circus clown car situations.

  2. The make shift robbed roof bars, hot ice-cream-bar lady, the (attempted) turtle kidnapping, the up and coming national liberator, not even a volcano!!

    Looks like a class spot, on the long list!

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