Recently, I know of 3 expeditions that took Alpackas down the Grand Canyon. I was on one expedition. We did 26 days, from Lees Ferry to South Cove. My primary job was as an oarsman (18 ft. boat), so I ran my Alpacka (named the Nuclear Bumblebee, although I like to call it “The Disaster Pod” for style points) when I could.

Major Runs Run By Alpacka:\

Hance, Class 8ish (Canyons scale is 1-10): 3 Alpackas ran it, myself 1. No swims.
Hermit, Class 8ish 2 Alpackas ran, myself run. High point of my trip: massive wave train. Regular fire-hose of fun.
Granite, Class 8ish run by 1 Alpacka my oar-boatless friend… that hooligan! I didn’t get a chance… Recommended for anyone who loves big, deep, friendly wave trains.
Crystal: 9/10 - no runs. we missed out, when someone flipped an oarboat. Would have been bad etiquette to leave them swimming… I hear Roman, RII, & Gordy went big on it, though.
Lava Falls: I wasn’t ready to eat that hamburger yet. Lava Falls was the only rapid on the river I didn’t feel ready to run an Alpacka in. The fact that it ripped one of my oars out of my hands and hit me in head with it probably didn’t help…

Otherwise, we ran a lot of 7s and lower ones, and discovered the boats do very well. Salient things I noticed:

  • 1. The Buoyancy Matters. You launch off the tops of waves kayakers go through. You also float well, even in the big holes (I got knocked butt-first into a HUGE hole at the top of Saphire, and was fine).
    2. Self-Rescue is Important I swam at least a half dozen times, but always got back in my boat. The forces are a little different in big water. You’re more likely to get swept away from your boat, and deep currents might try to grab at your paddle.
    3. The Turn-Speed Matters. With the raft’s high turn speed, I could quickly turn and face laterals, etc. so I rarely got hig hard from the side.

Does anyone else have observations about big water?

My son, Roman, was the best of the three of us at running big water in the Canyon.

First, he’s got a 20-year old’s reflexes and he’s been packrafting since he was like 11, starting with a Sherpa in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, then running whitewater in Sheri’s old “white boat” (essentially the direct ancestor of the Yak). At 15 or 16 he ran Ship Creek in an open boat to the big boulder portage, then pulled on the prototype yellow condom-style spray cover and proceeded to run the rest of the drops. He also ran the big water in the Yanert Canyon which is a bit nastier than the Nenana in a packraft.

Second, he has a totally calm demeanor. He is hard to frazzle. He’s calm and cool and collected when the big waves are crashing all around, a time I just hold on for dear life and pray.

Third, he doesn’t take risks – he only does things he feels he has control over and he gets that control by analyzing the water.

So his style, his technique of running the big water got him through more of the monsters than either Gordy or I got through.
He told me:

"Having a pack on the bow was good. It let the waves break there instead of on the deck [his vintage orange-skirted blue boat opens down the middle], minimizing their effects.

"Running the big water is not classic packrafting, but a different style. You’ve gotta shoot the middle of the wave train and paddle really hard – can’t minimize the water by paddling around and skirting stuff, so you have to paddle aggressively.

"There’s also a lot of luck about when the waves break. You have to run and take big waves right over their crests and watch them. If they break they’ll flip you [he got that piece of info watching me, 'cause no monster waves ever flipped him!], so you need to watch the waves and back-paddle, a bit to slow yourself down and let them break, then ride over them.

“They are not always breaking, so the trick is to control your speed to get through right after they crash. Running the Grand is not like running creeks or small rivers where there’s a lot of scouting and maneuvering to miss things. It’s still fun though!”

Thanks Roman, RII. I like the timing RII talks about - and he’s definitely taken that to a higher level than I have.

I agree on the staying calm & reading the water: I felt like those were the most important skills for me on the Colorado, especially since 1) big water can intimidate and fluster a paddler, and 2) given the scale of things, it’s important to set up well and predict where the river is going to take you.

That said, I felt very privileged to be on such a friendly river. My swims were fun and oceanic, rather than scary.

RII/Roman, what experiences have you guys had trying to pull sneakier lines? I noticed RII’s statement about putting trust in the main wave train, etc.

I can say that I’ve had some scary experiences trying for sneakier lines in about 10,000 cfs water. On the inside of bends I’ve often snuck through with some effort, but once I ended up too far to the outside on a headwall rapid, hoping to catch the smaller waves. Instead I caught a very strong eddy fence which sort of turned the packraft on edge. I didn’t flip but it seemed quite possible and it was super scary to contemplate swimming the recirculating eddy and possibly undercut cliff. Big water hydraulics seem much more difficult for packrafts than for kayaks or larger rafts.

I am inspired (and very envois) of you guys getting to play in the big rapids of The Grand Canyon. I am slowly gaining more confidence in taking the center line and riding the tongue to big waves. On some of the relatively bigger water (bigger then the creeks and small rivers I learned on) I paddled in New Zealand and Cataract Canyon I was not confident that I would get flushed out. Sometimes hugging shoreline provided easy sneaks around sketchy rapids, a better option then portaging. Other times the eddy lines and technical maneuvering required may have been trickier then taking the center line but had less severe consequences. On several rivers in New Zealand and Cataract’s Big Drop 3 the rapids were long with multiple holes after big waves. There was a significant probability of getting flipped on a big wave then sucked into a hydraulic.

My other consideration is the ability to be rescued. Typically a throw bag is only 50 to 70 ft long. In Cataract Canyon the river is wide enough that 70 ft throw bag is inadequate to rescue somebody stuck in the middle of the river. If someone swam or gut stuck near the bank they at least had a chance of getting rescued.

The rivers that I am referring to were all less then 10,000 CFS when I ran them. The only water I have run over 10,000 CFS has been flat water. Hopefully I will get chance to play in the Grand Canyon this year.

I think you’re bringing up a good distinction here, Forrest: big water is a scale, not a difficulty grade, and not all big water is created equal.

Most GC runners I’ve talked to identify everything but Lava Falls on the GC as big-water Class III: big, loud, intimidating, but also pretty forgiving. There are very few keepers (the Black Hole at Lava being a notable exception… and I watched a friend of mine get held in another ostensible “non-keeper” hole in Lava until another kayaker rammed her). Otherwise, though, the wave trains are deep & fun and the holes flush.

Big water Class IV or V are clearly a whole different ball of wax. I’ve never run water like that, and there’s no doubt in my mind I’d following your sneak around Satan’s Gut on Cataract - or that you’d be laughing with me all the way down the wave-train of Hermit.

After reading Roman’s book I was curious about handling bigger water. The consensus here seems to be to keep paddling hard in big water. I was in 4-5 foot waves last weekend and that felt like the thing to do but it could of just been adrenaline.
I got worked in the Sun Beam Dam on the upper Salmon. Though I tried to sneak I got sucked right into the gut. Felt like there was no way to break through the standing wave. Any tips for “breaking” through powerful laterals? Bow was square but it just resulted in a nice “surf” down into the hole.
I was impressed with how long the Alpacka let me move back and forth in the hole trying to get out before getting sucked back into the hydraulics. My buddy got hung up for awhile in his 14’ cataraft before getting through. The dam doesn’t lend it’s self to a portage so once your on the river your pretty much committed. Any tip’s would be nice even if it just gives me something to think about as I go around the bend.

Thanks, Eric