An Alaskan MacGyver Takes On The Grand Canyon — A 5000 Miles of Wild Packrafting Tale
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Photos & story by David Hertel
Last November, my buddy told me he was going on a river trip down the Colorado River that coming February. He told me the TL was looking to fill spots on the permit with guys because there were already too many gals on the trip. Though I thought this to be a bit strange, I acquired his email address and promptly inquired about getting on the trip. After all, I am indeed a young man, and having lots of girls on a river trip never sounded like a bad thing in my book. (In the end, it was a 50/50)
After some time I hadn’t heard back from the fellow, and after my third inquiry, I decided I probably wasn’t going to land a spot on the permit despite it being for 16 people. I figured it wasn’t in my destiny, and I’d have to keep my packraft stored away at the foot of my bed until spring breakup when the rivers are once again flowing in Southeast Alaska.
I continued cutting firewood and working on my cabin through the winter dreaming of the last adventure I had embarked upon. I had traversed with some friends from Germany and Austria across roughly 500 miles in Southwestern Greenland the previous fall. We used our packrafts religiously to paddle lakes, fjords, and glacial rivers during our traverse. If only I could use my boat again, and soon!
I was playing my banjo at open mic once a week acquiring beer tokens and chatting with all my buddies in Haines that had done previous Grand Canyon river trips, including my pal, Rustin, who told me about the opportunity in the first place. One evening, a few beers deep, he told me they still hadn’t filled all the spots on the permit and gave me the TL’s phone number. I promptly called. He told me how the trip was planned out and how the cost for everything he had set up was going to be split. Despite the absence of funding in my wallet, I pulled together two last residential tree jobs and secured my spot on the permit! Time to bust out my favorite toys again, and only 2 1/2 weeks until the put-in date!
I had never been to Flagstaff, Ariz. before. As I was looking at flights and shuttles to and from Phoenix, I remembered my ex-girlfriend lived in Flagstaff. Obviously I gave her a jingle, not only to obtain beta, but also because I fancied seeing her again. It had been roughly a year and a half since I had last seen her and she has been guiding river trips in the southwest lately. As luck would have it, she was visiting a friend in Washington and was due to arrive in Phoenix approximately 30 minutes after Rustin and I were to land. We had found our shuttle.
When folks showed up at the river house it turned out I had known the permit holder all along as well as a couple other folks in the group I didn’t know were on the trip. Much to my surprise, aside from the five big rafts, one cataraft, and an ISUP, I was the only one who brought along a packraft. It was my intent to paddle everything except the gnarly Rapids such as Lava, etc., where the risk was too great for my level.
The first day on the river was spectacular. I had never see the Grand Canyon before, and I was dumbfounded by its desert beauty. I consider myself more of a rainforest and tundra kind of person, but I found a whole new meaning to the word “grand,” after seeing it first hand. The 30 days that would follow were full of truly “grand” experiences.
I quickly found myself loving life bobbing along on clear green waters and jetting through the turmoil of the first rapids after Lee’s Ferry. I skillfully dodged an upset at a large rapid known as House Rock (the first of many worth scouting) and went headlong into the heart of every rapid following with a lesser grade.
Once we hit the Roaring 20’s, things became overly exciting on my end. The first rapid that flipped me is known as, Indian Dick. I poured into the meat of it ready to tee up to the powerful lateral waves and saunter down the 5′ wave train that followed. In fact, by teeing up, I missed my chance to foresee the monolithic hydraulic wave that had drained moments before my arrival. The force of its Herculean upwelling threw me from the comfort of my packraft long before I reckoned I would take a swim. I was catapulted from a low port side blow that cartwheeled my flimsy corpse a half rotation, heels-over, to a less than graceful swan dive. I was a milestone ahead of my beloved Alpaca and could see the white whale down stream of my course. Fitfully, I swam to the safety of a boat that resembled a beluga and my lawfully betrothed was scooped up by another rescuer.
I renovated my chances for another run on the coming rapids by entering my boat quickly. I wasn’t as shaken as I would have expected after such an upset. In fact quite the opposite was true. I knew by the book’s description, the following three Rapids were much the same. I’d have a chance to account for my errors there. The water was clean and deep, therefore I reckoned my chances were good for the practice.
The first two rafts plunged ahead of me in the rapid called Georgie. I decided I did not like the look of their line in such a tiny craft, so I figured on pulling further left and breaking the lateral early on the inside of the ol’ oxe bow. Much to my surprise, upon rounding out the corner and just beyond sight, obstructed by a large boulder and with the sucking force of an eternally burning out star, I faced what seemed the edge of the earth. My only option was to break the sound barrier and push past the wall of white opposite the hole at the base of the drop. It is possible I caught a split second of air as I rallied the dismal pixels and soared into the heaping distortion ahead. Nevertheless, despite utilizing every muscle in my body, every ounce of strength, and all the perfection upon technique I could muster, I could feel the void pulling me back. It is a climber’s worst fear, the exposure’s success in pulling him free, and that is without a doubt the very feeling I obtained. I fought like hell until the vortex had grabbed the tail of my tricky little craft and pulled harder than a Skagit Yarder in 6th gear on a large high lead turn.
The bow came up, still I fought, but it was all in vain. The next I saw was the stillness of a pale blue sky choked by the canyon rim. A peaceful distraction from the violence of my fight. I took a deep breath, leaned into the deck, and clinging tight to my paddle, I went in backwards, bow over top like a flipping iceberg. I curled myself into a defensive fetal position and felt the water cycle me. I probed out an end of the paddle to hault the Maytaging and was flushed from the toilet bowl into an endless eddy. Kicking away from the rocks, I was picked up by the cataraft and once again, my love was rescued by another boat.
One last attempt at laterals and splashing giants sent me flailing once more on the next rapid. I decided I’d have done better that time if I had thigh straps as I was learning the ways of these kinds of rapids now. I even managed to reclaim the seat in my throne whilst I was amongst the tailing waves; this time unassisted. Regardless, I was knackered from all the time spent swimming and climbing into boats and decided to climb aboard one last time to a large blue raft. There I rested for the next couple miles of easy water to camp.
We had a layover day where I found a quick learning curve on the SUP and a nice diving rock into a deep eddy. There isn’t much to report other than no upsets in any craft and a whole lot of glorious fun and astounding beauty the following few days. The water was emerald green and clear as glass to the bottom.
Our next event of mention came upon the fifth day. We were planning to camp at South Canyon but found that another group was already staying there. We in turn decided to head off to Saddle Canyon. When we made it to camp, exhausted, I placed several rocks in the floor of my boat and tied it off to a cluster of cottonwoods in a place I figured was sheltered from direct wind gusts. I had my sprayskirt stretched over the top tightly and strung up through the shoulder straps. Inside I left my PFD and helmet.
That night, I slept like a drowned rock. The winds picked up to a near gale and tore at our camp somethin fierce. I slept through until sun up. When I heard the winds howling, I ran to check on my boat even before my morning urination routine was complete. The sprayskirt was gone, as well as my PFD and helmet. The boat was flipped but unscathed; still attached to the tree cluster. After a quick search, the cataraft captain, Tuha, said he checked on the boats when the wind started howling and found my gear floating in the eddy. My sprayskirt however was missing.
After breakfast, we decided it near impossible to row our caravan down river into the turbulent headwinds and had another layover day. I utilized this time to search everywhere I could for the sprayskirt. For to me, this was the end of my adventure. I’d be far too likely to take on more water than I could handle in the big Rapids, and the only reason I wanted to come on this trip was to run big white water and hone my technique in my tiny craft. I was rocked to my heels and had no ground for recovery. I was in no good mood, and could not be bothered while my wheels turned in hopes of finding a rebound.
To ease my troubles, other captains allowed me a run at their oars and I rowed some fairly good Rapids in style, but it all came around when Tuha and another of our group, Aaron, discovered a mangled tent pinned against some rocks.
The tent was of no use as a shelter as it had been battered and torn, however, it’s floor remained intact. I pondered upon the discovery in camp as it was laid out to dry. Half way through my 4th beer by approximation that evening, I realized I could make a sprayskirt out of the floor. It would take quite a bit of attention and time, but I possessed in my repair kit, a sewing needle and floss, (which I used to give a travel companion stitches in remote Greenland last fall) and seam grip. If I used the bungie from an extra tent pole, I’d have the elastic I needed to assure a tight fit around the coping on the deck, and with the existing loop in the corner of the tent, I had a pre made pull tab! It would be cobbled together, but I didn’t need it to be perfect. Simply to prevent the majority of water getting in and swamping my boat while paddling the big stuff. True I might not have it done in time to run the infamous, Hermit Rapid, as well as some other big ones I desired to attempt, but with some 20 odd days to go, I’d be able to salvage some of the trip and still hit up, Killer Fang, at the end. After all, I had only five river days in my beloved packraft on this trip and after working as an alpine guide for eight years, I know how to build and mend gear pretty darned well. I could salvage my adventure.
We had a three-day way over at Cardinez Camp where I started on the project. While others hiked and explored and partied hard, I got to the grind stone. I was sewing like a sweat shop production worker in slow motion. I’m simply not that fast, but equally meticulous. I didn’t finish the project there, and I also didn’t find the desire to work on it as often as possible. Obviously, the geology and general exploration called to me as much as the river. I hiked to the inner rim more than a few times, explored ancient ruins, mines, and valleys, and even took some down time to get away from the 15 other people in our group and simply have a moment to myself. Besides, there were other projects to attend to as well as general camp duties.
After Hermit Rapid, which I undoubtedly missed my chance at, we camped just above Phantom Canyon Ranch. The next morning, after post cards were sent, a storm came upon us. We rowed our log train into tremendous headwinds as pea sized hail stung our faces. Most of the group shuttered at the thought of pushing on. However, I thrive in nasty outdoor conditions. In fact, the more displeasing and chaotic the conditions, the more I tend to discover excitement and joy for the circumstance. The struggle is as thrilling as is the puzzle when engaged by vicious weather! Despite low morale amongst the general group, I felt on top with the few others who care not about misery at the threshold of adventure and exploration.
We dried out and set up a hot house with tarps and a small barrel stove and had another long homestead much later at Bass Camp. Despite my ambitions of conquest in white water, I fell upon more inner growth than I could have imagined. I need not discuss the details, but after the loss of my sprayskirt, and the completion of my makeshift recovery piece, I found a whole different reason for ending up where I was. I had almost lost much more than my chance to challenge hulking waves. My time mending the sprayskirt at Bass amongst the cliffs far above camp gave me time to reflect and recover. I will always look back fondly to the tiny picturesque perch I lived upon for a decade in those three days.
At Bed Rock Rapid, I rode along in the only boat who’s captain thought it possible to run left despite the invisibility of our intended run from our scouting vantage point. We missed a sharp turn by the heaving bulge of rock and were carried across the eddy line towards pool drop that acted as the eddy’s drain. We got pinned sideways between the rocks with surging swells at our back. I took the lead building an anchor in the rocks above the eddy and crafted a Z drag 3-to 1 haul system. Turns out all my years as an alpinist and mountaineering guide gave me skills for white water as well! With eight people on the line pulling our guts out between swells, we were able to free the raft. Rustin was able to skillfully break the line on the surging keeper and get back in the main flow. He smashed into the wall that split the river with thunderous force. He spun the boat and pulled so hard at the oars wedging himself against the frame, he broke a toe. When I had the gear packed down he was resting easily in an eddy below after collecting driftwood for our fire. I rowed another raft to the rest of our party and handed the oars back to the boat’s proper captain as she was aboard the Rustin’s boat as we broke it free.
The next big rapid we encountered is known as Dubendorf. Rustin broke his oar clean at the lock and steered us through the torrent with one stick as I clung to the loose wood pile and fetched a spare. I went to work that night sawing logs. I must have plugged the landing for I was dogged tired.
Cheerfully, I inflated my love and paddled once more upon the completion of the skirt at Ledges. I couldn’t control the gargantuan smile plastered upon my mug. We did some cliff jumping along the way, and I had several excellent runs in every rapid we encountered. The water was still green and the weather was lovely. A couple beers in camp around our driftwood fire amongst friends iced the cake. I was soaring again!
I packed up my darling one last time at Lava. I knew all along that I’d be in way over my head there. It’s the gnarliest rapid in the Grand Canyon by far. After pummeling all our boats through the maelstrom without an upset, we celebrated on Toquilla Beech where I inflated my darling and cheerfully paddled to camp.
The water was outstanding for the remainder of our journey. We ran everything head on excluding our last scout at Killer Fang. We picked our lines and I found myself entering as the 4th to try. I skirted the giant pour over at the start and bee-lined it to the meat. A 10′ wave launched me into the stratosphere before I surfed its flank for twenty-thousand leagues. I cruised a wonderfully spirited wave train that lead to my exit before the schist fins that give the rapid its name.
There weren’t many large rapids after that, but travel was stupendous. Once our journey came to a close, I was the first to depart as I was due to be back at work in a remote logging camp post haste. The Colorado River treated me beyond well. I learned, I lived, I grew, and I innovated. I have the charge to return and run the river in its entirety in my Alpacka. Perhaps with some upgrades next time. I’ll be less obstinate in my pursuits, and I’ll carry extra essential gear. So to the Colorado River, I say: Thank you! I’ll be seeing you again.