What can I say? A week in the Grand Canyon with thrills, spills, and chills, oh yea. Two days of hiking and five days of paddling: 62 miles of boating and about 26 miles of hiking. We saw six groups of hikers going in, two raft groups, one of which (three guys in three rafts – two 13’ and a 16’) we saw each day on the river, and three groups of hikers on the way out.
We hiked an afternoon down the Hermit Trail to put-in at mile 95, then took out at mile 157 for a solid 11 hours hike out Havasu. We had snow and wind on the rim with two nights of rain and two nights of frost at the bottom. We were never hot, but sometimes very cold. There was plenty of clear drinking water but not really enough sun. The last day on the river was particularly shadowed, but the day we ran through Stephens and Conquistador Aisles was really nice and warm. We wore drysuits over four layers on top and three layers on bottom.
The 62 miles of paddling included 43 of the 96 named rapids between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek. We ran everything, mostly down the middle; Gordy tended to hug the edges on anything rated a “7” or higher, while young Cody Roman ran everything down the middle, except Hermit (a Grand Canyon 9 which I crashed and burned midstream in the fifth wave, easily 12 feet high), Crystal (10), Bedrock (8), and Upset (8). Water level never dropped below 10,000 cfs and got as high as 17,000.
We all swam – I swam every day, generally once, sometimes twice. My son swam only twice, Gordy three times. Everything was runnable, but anything could flip you. We each got flipped once on different no-named riffles but Upset got Gordy as he crept along its right edge and got me in the middle; Specter got Cody Roman near its end in the middle meat of it. Most of the time we could self-rescue in mid-stream, but sometimes righting the boat required someone to take our paddle. We DID NOT tie paddles to boat, we did not swim to shore. We did put grab lines on the boats (indeed my boat has a hand line running its entire perimeter) and learned that the easiest way to right a flipped and loaded boat was by twisting the bow with two hands.
We found the rapids exhilarating, exciting, and interesting enough that the only side hikes we did were Deer Creek and the nightly up-canyon walks past the water pockets and pools we used for cooking water.
Everyone said we’d have a real adventure in our packrafts and boy they were right. Packrafts make the big waves of the Grand ginormous, and big waves – while not technical – require a unique technique, constant attention, ability to read water, and solid bracing reflexes. While we scouted everything for the first five miles, we learned that we could tell from the river whether we needed to scout or not. Generally, anything rated a Grand Canyon “5” or lower we just read-and-ran.
The big rapids (anything rated 8 or above) were enormous, so big that the “sneaks” we made were still in big water that tended to be chaotic and hole-ridden. Whirlpools below the rapids were also spooky, but the Grand is pretty much perfect for packrafting, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m hoping to do another trip at my first chance that puts in at Nankoweap (mile 52) and takes out below Hermit (I want another shot).
Yes, if you are a solid packrafter in Class III and occasional IV with good self-rescue skills you’ll love the Grand. Make sure that if you go, you have lots of warm clothes inside a non-leaking drysuit, a well-tested, secure tie-down of gear, and practised self-rescue skills. You’ll be glad you have all three, because if you are lacking any of those you will suffer. Shucks, we had all three and still suffered, but not enough to make the experience anything less than grand.