Last month, I had the good fortune to take my fifth expedition down the full length of the Grand Canyon. When I first went with a few friends in 2008, my plan was to do it once without any family members to make sure I was up to the task and could bring them safely in 2010. I thought that would be the end of my fascination with Grand Canyon whitewater expeditions, but it was just the beginning, and this month, I will share with you why.
The whitewater is intense on the Grand and many of the rapids have famous names and reputations such as Lava Falls, Crystal, Horn Creek, Hance and Hermit. There are other rapids which are not so famously intense, but can have dire consequences in store for you such as Bedrock, House Rock and Upset. Last year in Upset, I misread the rapid when scouting and ended up hitting the big hole at the bottom a little sideways and I got ejected out of my boat head-first into the river.
There are strong eddies after most rapids on both sides of the river where the current actually flows back upstream to near the top of the rapid. It can be very difficult to tell where the downstream current is between the big eddies as it often winds its way unpredictably in a path that is sometimes not much wider than your boat. Strong afternoon upstream winds are another major navigational challenge. Some sections of the river are famous for winds strong enough to actually blow your boat upstream! I have learned that efficiently navigating the waters between the big rapids is just as important as running the big water.
The blistering sun and arid climate during summer expeditions can cause the skin on your hands and feet to dry out so much they actually crack open. Professional guides who spend their entire summer season in the Canyon often dress like Bedouins with absolutely no skin exposed to the sun and drying winds. Several trips ago, we started outfitting our boats with retractable bimini tops to provide shade when the boats are between rapids, which turned an oppressively hot environment into a relatively comfortable one.
The planning is very complex and always goes a long way to determining how successful the expedition will be. Experience is critically important as the unforgiving environment at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is definitely not the place to try out pet theories, but rather to depend on proven tactics and improve them incrementally. We have used the same outfitter for the past four expeditions, which means we are the beneficiaries of all their incremental improvements also.
The length of a Grand Canyon expedition really sets it apart from other river trips, which usually range from an overnighter to perhaps a week. Non-motorized summer trips last between 16 and 18 days, and that is the thing I love best about Canyon trips. It takes me most of the first week to really settle into the trip and be able to fully tune into the majestic surroundings. Being disconnected from all communication with the outside world facilitates becoming fully present and allows for deeper thoughts and a sense of real peace to emerge. I always come home with a renewed perspective and appreciation for the things in my life that are truly important.
Core Values are True North
The Grand Canyon is a challenging and unforgiving place that offers the richest rewards for the dedicated boatmen and boatwomen who are committed to paying their dues and paying attention to everything that unfolds on the river. When I founded Stewardship Colorado five years ago, I clarified what core values would be our true north: Trust, Integrity, Independence, Competence and Continuous Improvement.
People sometimes ask me what brings me back to the Grand, and I pondered that again on the drive home. The Grand is a spectacularly beautiful place and also an amazingly full experience I love to share with family and friends. The Canyon is a crucible that brings out the best in people, giving very timely and unambiguous feedback on how we are living out our values. I treasure being able to spend over two weeks with friends, new and old, disconnected from the noise and distractions of our modern society and seeing the Canyon anew through the eyes of the expedition’s first-timers.
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