With thoughts of facing headwind gusts up to 60 MPH, we began our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.
Peggy and I performed the ritual of asking a boatman if we could ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.
“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.
The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.
Most boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are few Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.
“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.
We push-off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.
An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.
The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah. For awhile, my brother and I thought some of our ancestors had been involved, had ended up dead. But it wasn’t so.
After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.
Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. Its geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea— before the divorce, before plate tectonics demanded that the continents go their own way.
During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.
The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.
The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.
An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.
Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Creek Rapids. In boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous. It’s labeled a 4-6 out of 10 in the method used in the Grand Canyon for determining difficulty. Ten is reserved for only the most dangerous. Badger involves a 15 foot drop from the top to bottom.
There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.
Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Creek Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.
“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.
WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: I begin my series on the Alaska Highway. We make our way to the start of the highway in Dawson Creek by traveling through British Columbia. Great wood carvings and dog agility trials entertain us along the way.
FRIDAY’S MisAdventures POST: I graduate from playing in the Graveyard to playing on a pond and discover a magical world.
MONDAY’S Grand Canyon Series POST: Beautiful waterfalls, a huge cavern, and ancient Native American ruins are featured.
33 thoughts on “Rowing Against the Wind… The Grand Canyon Series”
What an adventure. Glad you made it to camp.
I think we went about half of the distance we were planning on going that day, Peggy. I’ve dealt with headwinds with my kayak and bicycle. They are never any fun! –Curt
Oh wow… can’t imagine how to manage the boat in the face of such rapids and raw power… Permission to get off the boat? heheh….
Laughing. You put a lot of trust in the boatmen and say an occasional Hail Mary! Or, you can be a bit more Zen and ‘go with the flow.’ 🙂
Still wann get off the boat and back to the car. Cya at the end!
Laughing again! 🙂
Fabulous adventure, gripping stuff.
Wow! I said earlier that I don’t think I’d want to do this because it seems like too much work, but the views have changed my mind. How stunning! Maybe this is something I should consider in the future when I feel like I need to test myself… because it will definitely be a test of my strength and determination.
If you go with one of the tour groups, Juliann, they do most of the work. 🙂 –Curt
What an experience! So many dream of going on the Colorado!
It was right up there with my experiences of backpacking into the Canyon, G, which I have done several times. The Canyon is one of the world’s treasures! The river added a different perspective. –Curt
The rubber boats would have to be strong. With jagged rocks to navigate I wonder how that materials stands up? Perhaps the rubber is layered with material in between, a bit like car tyres.
I suppose while riding the rapids it might be a bit late to worry about it.
You can get interesting discussions from the river runners over different types of materials used in raft construction, Gerard. The Sotar company is actually close to where I live in Southern Oregon and has a reputation for being one of the best raft manufacturers. I’ve been to its plant. Each raft is built by hand with great attention to detail and the company uses urethane instead of rubber in construction. It’s tough. The boats are also built to be self-bailing, so there is no filling up with water like used to be the problem. And no, there is enough to worry about when going through rapids with out worrying about a hole being ripped in your boat. Of course, it can still happen. 🙂 –Curt
I am transported back to our first day on the Colorado. I will say with less adrenaline and effort than your group. My hands started sweating at your description. The photos so gorgeous and so familiar. Loved this one Curt!
Sort of an aside here, Sue, but not really. I was sitting in my dentist’s chair yesterday for a couple of hours, having a root canal and a crown done, which is never a pleasant experience, unless of course, you are a masochist’s masochist! Anyway, John, my dentist, has an overhead screen where you can choose to watch him work in your mouth or watch videos of beautiful natural areas. Peggy always chooses to watch John work. She’s infinitely curious about such things and takes a happy pill before going to the dentist so she can enjoy them. I always choose the videos, and often they reflect somewhere I have been. Yesterday it was the Kaulaulau Valley of Kauai where I once backpacked into for several days, back before the helicopter tours ruined it by buzzing in and out of it every few minutes. Anyway, I was suddenly taken back to that trip, to the beauty and peace of it. And John and his drills faded into the background. Later, I thought about how such experiences own a part of us, and how easy it is to travel back to and relive them. And what a gift they are. Your words on the Grand Canyon reflected my thoughts. Thanks. –Curt
Those headwinds sound intense, even if they weren’t 60 mph the whole time. Hopefully they didn’t persist…
They were gone the next day, Dave. Which we were all thankful for! –Curt
What a great adventure. Thanks for taking us along! 😀
Glad to have you, Gunta! –Curt
Brave adventure and very beautiful.
Thanks, AC. It was both an adventure and a journey through great beauty, with a touch of danger for spice. –Curt
River rafting is so much fun. And the flowers that surprise in nooks and corners… thanks for sharing🤗
You are very welcome, V. And there are always little surprises. All you have to do is look around and be aware.
I am all about Nature’s surprises🍂
I don’t row against the wind, BUT… I still run against it, humming Bob Seger’s famous song! 🙂
Seger came to mind when I wrote the headline, Melanie. 🙂 –Curt
Wow another fantastic trip, nicely written too. I look forward to more
Thanks, Kelly, several more coming. You might enjoy the series I did on the eastern Canadian provides I did a couple of years ago when Peggy and I were retracing a 10,000 mile bike trip I had done earlier. Here’s one on Nova Scotia: http://wandering-through-time-and-place.me/2016/09/25
Oh thank you for the link I will read it pronto
Also wrote about NB and PEI.
Asking permission to come on board? You betcha. It is a reminder of who’s in charge. There’s always room for discussion, consultation, and the offering of opinion, but when a decision has to be made, the Captain’s word is law.
I’ve known only one literal Captain Bligh. In fact, he was one of my customers, and the father of a friend. He was so bad that some people refused to sail with him — including my friend’s husband. Everyone called him Bligh, as a matter of fact, and he didn’t seem to care. There are stories. He came by the name honestly.
I love the vistas, and the bridge, and I especially like the primrose. I just found the first of the season last weekend.
Thinking about those winds, I thought first that being low to the water would be an advantage. Then, I realized that your maneuverability was limited by both the river’s flow and the obstacles — like the rocks. So many sailing techniques for dealing with wind or weather simply weren’t available to you. You couldn’t tack upwind, for example. It’s interesting to think about.
I don’t have your experience with boating, Linda, but I’ve known one Captain Bligh character. It takes a certain personality, the type of personality you don’t want to give power of being a captain to.
The fact that the rafts were loaded helps. But inflated boats as a rule don’t like wind. Peggy and I have a pair of inflatable kayaks, that, like the Sotar rafts are vey well built, but we have been out on lakes and been caught in wind storms. It’s a very dangerous situation. As a rule I try to keep close to shore on larger lakes and make any traverses as quickly as possible.
Don’s got a good eye for photography. I was glad he was along. Usually, some of his photos are included in my Burning Man stories as well.