Rowing Hard and Going No Where… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me before we hit the river. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.

With thoughts of facing wind gusts up to 60 MPH, we begin our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can 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.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are no 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.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

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.

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.

A view of Navajo Bridge and its newer sister looking downstream. The first bridge was built in 1929 and is now used as a walking bridge. The second bridge was built in 1995 to handle modern road traffic.

A second view of the bridges; this time looking upstream. The newer bridge is in the foreground.

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. It’s 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.

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.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as do Tom and Beth). Don is also quite generous in sharing his excellent photos.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger 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.

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 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.

Our horrendous day of rowing complete, we have time to enjoy beautiful evening views of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon from camp. (Photo by Don Green)

Painted Toe Nails and Other River Rules… Rafting the Grand Canyon

On a private trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon National Park, everyone pitches into help. Here we are rigging the rafts. Straps and more straps! (Photo by Don Green)

It is time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization are stuffed into bags and dumped into the van.

Plus I have to paint my toenails. It’s a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true; boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true.

We were required to paint our toenails so our rafts wouldn’t flip. We didn’t. Maybe it worked. I don’t think, however, that it made our feet prettier.

Tom lectures me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” He’s serious. Peggy dutifully applies blue polish on four of my toes. Does this mean we will only half flip?

Two acres of paved boat ramp greet us when we arrive at Lee’s Fairy. The transport van disgorges us as the gear truck makes a quick turn and backs down the ramp. Another private party is busy rigging boats.

From off to the right a longhaired, 50-something man emerges. I think 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggests otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangles from his lips. It’s Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group has met him but he comes highly recommended.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admits is his first thought when he meets our green and purple haired trip leader.

He also confides that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confesses, “I didn’t tell him I am on probation.” Somehow this balances out in Steve’s mind. There is no time to become acquainted; we have work to do.

The dreaded pirate Steve threatens our mascot Bone with a knife and demands to know where he has buried his treasure.

There is an unwritten Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper us. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe.

The truck we loaded in Flagstaff demands unloading. Everybody does everything. There are no assignments. Peggy and I become stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulate around the truck.

There is no shade and the desert sun beats down ferociously. It is sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slather on sun block and gulp down water.

The rafts are unloaded last. Rigging our five rafts is technical but relatively easy, assuming of course one is mechanically oriented. I make no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) is already set up and in the water, its pirate flag flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats are self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owns his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut. The three we have rented are yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

Work also requires that we get our feet wet. (Photo by Don Green)

Tom is the last to rig his boat and it is approaching dusk. I hike down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boat down. Peggy and I are totally exhausted. We struggle to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van is coming to pick us up for dinner and we are late.

The walls of the restaurant are covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by rapids.

The windstorm has changed to a dust storm as we crawl into out tents. It covers everything and gets into my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pull out a handkerchief to cover my face. I finally fall asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

We are awakened at five AM the next morning, as we will be every day of our trip. There is personal gear to pack, breakfast to eat, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river are dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.

We also have a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I will face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaves. Dang, why hadn’t I read the fine print?

Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy begins after the boats are packed. Tom starts off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we are required to wear our safety vests any time we are on the boat.

Tom, with his interesting hairdo, and Ranger Peggy check their lists to see which of the many rules they have forgotten to inform us about.

What’s the first rule if we fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chant in unison. And so it goes. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him last year as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectures. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock, stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seems more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to the sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this… 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’ve led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I line up with the guys I can barely dribble out of dismay.

The rules go on and on. Mainly they have to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy is preaching makes sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And I enjoy the fact our campsites are surprisingly clean. The least we can do is leave them in the same condition we find them, if not better. The rules work.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Next blog: Our first three days on the river.

The group, ready to launch. Wife Peggy, as opposed to Ranger Peggy, is holding her and my purple life vests.

A Ton of Food and Homeland Security… Rafting the Grand Canyon

Preparation for our 18-day raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon quickly taught me that eating was going to be a central part of our adventure. This is the back of my 22-foot travel van after a trip to Safeway in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Great adventures start with the mundane. For example, did you cancel the paper? Common sense (and probably your mother) admonish that devious burglars have nothing better to do than to cruise the streets looking for rolled newspapers in front of your home.

More importantly, what about the cat?

Once upon a time Peggy and I had a cat named Effie. Vacations meant I would carefully measure out twice as much food and water as she could possibly eat or drink and four times the kitty litter she might use. The likelihood of her pooping all over the house was much greater that the likelihood of her starving. As a reward for my thoughtfulness, she would shed enough fur in our absence to fill a dump truck.

Now we have food to worry about. Lots of it. Tom Lovering, the trip leader, his wife Beth and their friend Jamie Wilson arrived in Flagstaff three days in advance of our Colorado River trip. Their car was packed to the brim with empty ammo cans and other watertight boxes waiting to be filled with food and the miscellaneous paraphernalia of river trips.

The Department of Homeland Security delayed their journey at Hoover Dam. The Agency is paranoid about mad bombers. Its normally low sense of humor dropped to zero when the agents saw all the ammo cans. The whole car had to be unpacked.

Tom Lovering, our trip leader, has been running rivers since the 70s. I first met him in 1974 when I persuaded him that his outdoor/wilderness store, Alpine West, should sponsor a hundred mile backpack trip I was organizing for the American Lung Association in Sacramento.

Tom is even more paranoid about food than DHS is about terrorists. In addition to being a highly experienced rafter and trip leader, he’s an old restaurateur who had spent months planning the menu.  Each dish has been tested several times and quantities have been measured down to the teaspoon. Recipes are spelled out in minute detail. We will eat gourmet on the trip… or die. The options are clear.

Beth, Peggy and I are dispatched to Sam’s Club with marching orders. We fill seven large shopping carts with food. Think of it this way. There are 16 people going on an 18-day trip and eating three meals a day. This equals 864 individual meals.

When we arrive back at the motel, Tom and Jamie have set up a staging area. Food needs to be organized by meal and day and then stuffed in the appropriate containers. The containers will then be assigned to rafts. It’s important that we know where to find the beer.

We have yet to shop for perishables and more food is coming from Sacramento. Our room, we discover, is to be the recipient of most food. There is barely space to sleep.

Food purchase and storage for an 18-day river adventure depends upon numerous lists. First you have to plan out menus and quantities. Next the food needs to be purchased. Finally it has to be carefully stored so you will find the right food on the right day. Tom’s wife, Beth, was in charge of the lists. (Photo by Don Green)

One of our participants obviously felt that tequila and oranges needed to be stored together.

Our bedroom was packed with food. Personal gear is on the bed.

Food organization took place outside of our motel rooms.

The next day is more relaxed. Other trip members begin to arrive and Peggy and I assume airport shuttle duty. Tom takes time for a makeover into something resembling an English Punk Rocker from the 70s with green and purple hair. Homeland Security was right to be suspicious.

Tom is 50% businessman, 30% adventurer, and 20% character. Or maybe I have the percentages reversed. Here he is having his hair bleached for the trip. You will see the results in future posts.

Next blog: Three days and 39 miles: The Journey Begins.

The morning of the adventure has arrived. Everything we have packed… our food, personal gear and rafts are stuffed into this truck in preparation for our drive to the takeoff point, Lee’s Ferry.

Wild Winds and a Mormon Massacre

The boats are loaded and ready to launch. Tom's wife Beth appears to be much less anxious than he is. The other passenger is Theresa Mulder.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Gusts of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can 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?”

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.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however, good folks. There are no 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.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. It makes Peggy and my successful one time, ten minute effort of obtaining a permit seem grossly unfair.

Dave Stalheim and I with that pristine, fist day on the river look. Things will go downhill.

Dave quit his job as Director of County Planning in Bellingham, Washington the day he left for this trip. He will start a new job with City Planning when he returns. He is strongly committed to sound planning and community participation. I suspect he is not popular with land developers and speculators.

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 between1858 and 1929. The Ferry was named after the infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, who was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.

The old road to Lee's Ferry.

The massacre took place near St. George, Utah in 1857, where a wagon train of immigrants from Missouri and Arkansas, the Fancher-Baker Party, were murdered by Mormons and Paiute Indians. Lee apparently persuaded the immigrants the Mormons would provide safe passage through the Indians if they would disarm. The Mormons then shot the disarmed men while their Indian allies killed the women and children.

For a while Lee hid out while running the Ferry which was given his name.

And for a while, I believed that Lee had killed some of my ancestors. My grandmother was a Fancher and her family came west right about the time of the massacre. Since the babies with the wagon train weren’t killed, my brother’s genealogical research suggested we might be descendants.

Turns out, it wasn’t so. Still, there may have been some distant cousins among those massacred. More research is needed.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. We are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

Lee's Ferry was replaced by the Navajo Bridge in 1929, the first bridge shown above. It has now become a walking bridge with the one behind carrying vehicle traffic.