A Grand Adventure

It has been a little more than a week since I got off the Colorado River at Pearce Ferry, and there hasn’t been a day yet when I didn’t relive some part of the trip. This was my first trip through the Grand Canyon. In fact, it was the first time I’ve ever seen the canyon other than in photographs. It is difficult for me to think of the right words to describe such an amazing place. It’s even harder when to describe the feeling of living on the river in this place for 17 days. I will do my best to do it justice here but I’m sure I cannot fully convey this experience just in writing. If you’ve been there then you probably have some idea what I mean. If you haven’t been there then I should start by saying this. When you get the chance to go, go. Stop whatever you are doing and just go. Trust me. Life will be there waiting for you when you get back. You need to see this for yourself.

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The canyon views look promising right from the start. Here we are packing up the rafts after breakfast on launch day. Everyone is pretty excited to get on the river and see what waits downstream.

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We had planned a pretty short first day just to get everyone settled in. We stopped on this apparently sandy beach only a few miles downstream of the get in for a snack and a last glimpse of civilization. The beach turned out to be a quick sand like mud that had us all trying to not lose our shoes as we fought to extract ourselves from knee deep mud.

Our trip launched on September 30, which I think is the ideal time to go to the canyon. They stop letting motor rigs go after September 15th so you don’t have nearly as much commercial traffic zooming by on the loud boats and taking all the good camps. I had heard of this being a problem for other people in the past but we didn’t have to worry about it at all. This time of year is also after monsoon season. We had two overcast days with very light rain the night between them but otherwise it was blue sky all day every day. Highs in the mid 80’s and lows in the mid to low 60’s. Perfect weather for sleeping outside. I not sure why but we didn’t see any scorpions until our very last camp where we did find just one. I’m thinking maybe the cooler night temps made them less active, but we were told they’re everywhere and still never saw any. I didn’t put shoes on hardly at all for the two and half weeks we were there. I was worried about finding scorpions in the sand with my bare feet but fortunately it wasn’t a problem and after a couple days I didn’t even think about it any more. We never saw any snakes either which I was ok with. We did see tons of blue herons and a lot of big horn sheep though.

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Krys Peka, first lady of Peka’s 11 is getting the oars figured out on day 1. By the end of the trip Krys was one of our strongest rowers and was confident taking on rapids up to 7’s. Nicole riding in the bow here was a powerhouse on the oars despite having never rowed before. She would take the helm and motor through the flats at speeds no one else in the group could match.

Our group “Peka’s 11” was comprised of 12 different people. We had 11 at all times. We traded one at Phantom. We had a good crew of people that came together pretty well over the course of the trip. Very few of us knew each other prior to the trip. Some of us including myself had some concerns about this aspect but I think it turned out great overall. It was really fun meeting and really getting to know a variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences. The trip definitely had potential to go entirely different than it did. Of the 12 people on our trip only 6 of us had any kind of white water or river experience at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some had never slept outside before. Of those 6 with river experience we had one experienced raft guide who had never rowed an oar boat before. The only person who had rowed at all was our trip leader. He had rowed a small relatively empty raft on class II and III, but never an 18 foot 2,000 lb. barge on Grand Canyon sized rapids. I know there was some nervousness in the group about this at the beginning. I was a little worried but to me that just makes it all the more of an adventure. One more element of the unknown to go down the river with us. Will we be able to get all of our gear and food down, or will we have a really epic rescue mission to end our trip after only a few days?

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At the beginning the size of the canyon seemed foreboding. The views were amazing but at the same time they seemed to emphasize just how committed we were to whatever was downstream of us. As the days passed this feeling would fade and the views would become simply mind-blowing.

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We were able to get campsites with hikes almost everyday. This was a nice feature that allowed those not on cooking duty to meander around and explore some side canyons after getting off the river for the day. This little canyon was an easy walk from our very first camp spot. Desiree was the only other person to go explore with me. The canyon has a way of making you get to know people. Either your in a raft all day together or you are the only two people around for a few miles.

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Watching the sun go down behind the canyon rim and the moon come up to take its place is such a great time. I’d go back just to do this. Laying on the beach next to the river watching the sun go down just might be one of my favorite things ever.

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On our second day was got to our first real challenge for rowers. House rock rapid. This is the first 7 and the first rapid to test our inexperienced crew’s ability to actually maneuver a raft. We had one oarsmen fall out of his boat but otherwise good lines all around. Confidence definitely increased after house.

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Looking upstream at the crew scouting house. The small dots of bright color on the right are people. The canyon is giant. This rapid has a couple big waves leading into a large lateral followed by a giant hole. I ran it twice in my Jed. On the second run I actually tried to get into the giant hole but the lateral actually guards it pretty well. I was headed right for the hole driving as hard as I could when I hit the lateral and was picked up and deposited to the right of the hole. I’m pretty sure in a raft as long as you’re square on the lateral you’ll be in fine shape. I don’t think you can get in the hole if you try.

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Manny, the team medic, wasn’t quite square on the lateral and went for the first swim of the trip.

After house our collective confidence in our rowing ability was up, but it would still be tested several more times before we were done. Nearly everyone got some time on the oars and by the end we had a few people who were getting pretty good at it. (Disclaimer: when I say pretty good at rowing I mean compared to the rest of us. I haven’t spent much time around oar boats nor do I really know anything about them so what constitutes good at rowing in general I do not know.) In the beginning those of us who brought kayaks were discussing at the start of each day who “gets” to kayak and who “has” to row. By the end it was more who “gets” to row. For the flat water the raft was definitely the place to be. You could have easy access to food, water, beer, music, and tanning. You could stand up and walk around on the raft or roll out a paco pad and nap. If you were in a kayak you had to paddle to shore and pull all your crap out any time you wanted something and you can’t carry nearly as many beers with you. After a few days the rapids became almost an inconvenience. In the beginning I was stoked for the rapids and just thought I had to get through the flats, but after a few days it was the other way around. This trip is all about the place and the experience. Not so much the big rapids. Don’t worry there are plenty of big rapids but after a few days they’re all the same. The features are enormous but if you’re a skilled kayaker they’re so easy that after a few the novelty of their size wears off and there is no challenge. It is fun to paddle a play boat up a wave where you can take 5 strokes up the face and do a huge wave wheel off the top though.

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I would caution you that the canyon can be so unbelievably overwhelmingly amazing that prolonged exposure may lead to a caneurysm, a condition where the mind literally blows. To minimize risk I recommend closing your eyes periodically.

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Home sweet home. This was our second camp. We had hurricane winds and really awesome steak fajitas. This was the only time the winds were really a problem but you may as well get used to eating sand in your food. It will be in everything.

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One down side of going in October is you don’t have a lot of daylight to work with. Less than 12 hours everyday and down to about 10 hours by the end. Whenever possible it’s a good idea to combine a hike with lunch stop and scouting a rapid.

I have heard mixed things about the quality of play on the canyon and I’m sure you will hear contradictions to my assessment but for what it’s worth here are my thoughts on canyon play. There are some rapids where down river play is really good. Wave wheels and kick flips are huge and awesome. However, most of the rapids I found to be very surgey making it hard to predict the waves. The peaks of the waves could disappear on crash on top of you suddenly and unexpectedly. There were some waves that looked like great surf waves but you were coming in so fast it was really hard if not impossible to catch them on the fly and very few had eddy service. There were many times I would come over the top of a wave and see what looked like a good surf hole but it was 10 feet or more to one side or the other and getting to it once I had seen it was not an option. One hole that I did catch turned out to be really shallow. You can’t tell the depth with the muddy water and I ended up plastered to the top of a submerged boulder instead of plugging for a loop. Personally I don’t think it is worth taking a kayak if you have raft support. Just enjoy relaxing on the raft and if you want some real excitement try rowing one of those things through the big rapids.  All that said I have friends who say they love playboating the canyon so I guess you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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Here’s another view that doesn’t suck.

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It never gets old. I could float and stare at these walls forever. Occasionally you do have to tie your things down and put away what can’t get wet so you can negotiate a rapid before going back to lounging on your floating recliner.

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If you’re going to take rechargeable devices such as mp3 players and speakers I recommend you spend some money for a good solar charger. We had a few that were not so great. In october by the time you get to camp you’re in the shade so it’s hard to getting any juice into our speaker for our themed party nights. It is hard to charge things on the river since you have to keep putting them away to keep them dry.

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A lot of the camps are right above or below rapids. I really liked falling asleep to the sound of the river but for some the noise is a problem. Earplugs are a good idea if you’re not into hearing crashing waves all night.

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You’re not officially in the Grand Canyon until you pass the Little Colorado River. The LCR flows under a freeway not far upstream from where in comes into the canyon. It brings with it all kinds of debris which collects in the eddies just down stream. There is a good hike here and a great chance to build some good karma by picking up some trash.

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Roger “Admiral” Peka enjoys some wave wheels.

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After a couple day we are finally in the Grand Canyon proper. Upstream of this is actually Marble Canyon. If nobody told me I wouldn’t have known. It is equally amazing to the GC itself.

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As I understand it our experience is rare, but we didn’t see any other groups until day 5 or 6 on our trip. It was awesome to be so secluded. As it was, we only saw 3 or 4 other groups total the whole time.

There are any number of places that people will say you should not miss while in the canyon. These places vary with each person because we all get something different out of each place, but for what it’s worth here are my top four places you need to see. These aren’t presented in order of ranking but rather in order of which name I remembered first. I don’t have pictures of most of them. I was too absorbed in the moment to think about my camera.

Red Wall Cavern:

This is a giant cave in the canyon wall. Plan to spend a little time here. It is great for pictures. The acoustics are stellar. It would be a good place for a dance party. Also games of frisbee and bocce would be really good here. This is one place I really want to go back to.

Silver Gotto:

This was possibly my most favorite hike. You will want some decent shoes for this one and keeping your pfd and helmet on isn’t a bad idea either. It isn’t a very long hike but it consists mostly of chimney climbing waterfalls, swimming across a pool and then climbing another falls.

Matkatamiba:

This creek bed is carved through steep winding walls that seem to go forever. I walked up the small stream a while and around every bend I found another begging me to go farther. In places the small stream of water disappears under the ground and in the deepest spots it was barely enough to make a splash in but it was easy to see where powerful torrents of water had carved out the walls over many years of flash floods. It was really cool being able to see the current just by looking at the dry rock walls

Havasu:

I don’t think anyone would disagree that Havasu is a must see.  The canyon is beautiful with red rock walls, green vegetation, and kool-aid blue water. I actually have some pictures of this place further down in this post so I will let the pictures say what I cannot possibly describe. I will say this though. Havasu is the place where I coined the term “caneurysm.” Very very amazing place.

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One advantage to the kayak is the ability to move around and find shade when it isn’t so plentiful for the rafts. You can also explore under over hanging ledges from the canyon wall and small cracks that the rafts can’t fit in.

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Around every corner the canyon provides another amazing view and another corner to keep the mystery going.

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Jeff Peka came in with only a few hours of kayaking experience and no rafting but turned out to be our strongest rower. Shame he had to leave us at Phantom Ranch.

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The muddy water made it really easy for huge holes to hide among the brown blur. Here Alex Dey takes an 18 foot raft into a hidden hole and in the next picture below he is all but completely subbed out.

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You can just make out Alex’s head as his entire raft gets buried in a giant hole.

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Getting her straightened out. The massive features could send a raft spinning like a top. and you thought it was hard to recover in a little kayak.

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The admiral drops into the same hidden hole. He isn’t swimming he is rowing and there are two people sitting in the bow in front of him…

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… there they are.

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Manny and Monika find a dryer line after seeing two rafts disappear in front of them.

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For the kayaks this rapid is a playground. You’re flying around crashing through waves, laterals, and giant holes. Hard to see but there are two boats in this shot.

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The sunsets in the Canyon were really ok. I mean since there was nothing better to watch why not watch the sun go down and silhouette the canyon rim.

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Watching the moon come up doesn’t suck either.

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My watershed bag takes in the view after running Hermit.

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Hermit is a well known rapid name from the canyon. It was one of the half dozen or so rapids that I at least heard the name of prior to my trip. It is short, fast, huge, and fun. Justin and Des are about to pull a disappearing act in the big wave here…

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… I told you.

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“Hey there is a big trench running through our camp here.” “That mountain sure is big.”

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This is one of my favorite pictures from my trip. Even an amateur like me can get a nice picture once in a while.

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This is Elves Chasm. I should have put this on my list of do not miss. It is a really short hike back to this little waterfall. It’s a great place to rinse off some canyon grime.

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An elf named Monika jumps to the pool.

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The flying elf Manny attempts to reduce speed before landing.

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Not a bad spot for a full moon party.

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I think this is the crew unloading at the ledges camp. I could be wrong, but if this is the ledges camp it is sadly the only picture I have of the ledges. I’m bringing this up simply to say, camp at the ledges. It was the coolest camp spot of our whole trip. You’ll thank me later.

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As promised, Havasu. Trust me, you want to stop here. We spent about 4 hours and that was barely enough. Plan a day around this hike.

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If you have kayaks and you might consider carrying one up with you. The water was just a little too low when we did the hike to make it worth it but I thought about it. How cool would it be to get a couple boofs in a place this magical?

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Havasu

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Convinced yet?

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How about now?

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I really love sleeping outside. Since I’ve been back I’ve been trying to get Amy on board with just sleeping on the paco pad in the back yard. She thinks I’m insane to want to sleep on the ground when there is a king sized memory foam bed only feet away. I don’t see the problem.

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The pumkin. This is a toxic hot spring. Too bad it isn’t more inviting. Pretty though.

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Fresh mountain water shower. Creeper with a camera included.

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My chacos love the canyon view too.

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Organizing the logistics and herding the cats on trip this big is quite a job. Thank you Roger “admiral” Peka for doing such a great job. I’m glad I didn’t have to do all that.

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The canyon provides.

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Team Orange Crush getting ready for another day of crushing it in the orange crush.

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Looking at our last camp as we load rafts in the morning and prepare for our last day on the rio. 😦

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It might be the last day but Monika is determined not to let that dampen her spirits.

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Somewhere down there is the get out. A few more rapids, a quick pit stop, 30 ish miles to float by night, and then the get out.

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The canyon views were epic all the way through the last day though.

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No reason to hurry to the get out. Everyone is in chill mode today.

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The rock in the walls down here looks like a temple.

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The temple built by the ancient Aztecs a long time ago was burned down by the vikings. (What?)

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I can’t wait to go back. Such a great trip. Such an amazing place. Such great people to share it with.

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April McEwen taking it all in.

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Oh yeah. I’ll be back.

These next few pictures are not in chronological order with the others. These are from my gopro and my phone and so are out of place in the story.

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I kept this picture just to point out how big that hole is that we are about to hit, sideways.

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Just another day on the orange crush.

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Pirates coming up on our stern!

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This was a really cool thing to wake up to. We got in to the put in late the night before launch. It was dark and we couldn’t see anything. We slept on this boat trailer and woke up to this view. Pretty promising start to our adventure.

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At our second camp I got a sweet spot on a little shelf up on the canyon wall above the rest of the camp.

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More views that don’t suck.

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… downstream…

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… and the previous two shots together in panoramic.

I know I’ve said this several time already but I can’t emphasize it enough. You need to see this place for yourself. Everyone should see this place for themselves. Even if you hate sleeping outside, you should still go. You won’t regret it. To help make your trip the best possible here are a few things I learned on our trip…

Canyon Lessons:

Bring more beer. If you have rafts going you have plenty of space. Bring more beer. I would say no less than 10 beers per person per day. Sounds like a lot I know. I rarely have more than one or two in a day at home but on the river you have no where to be tomorrow and you don’t have to drive anywhere so why not have a beer on the raft at 930 in the morning? Trust me, you can’t have too much beer. It will fit and the cans get smaller as you drink them…

Run the meat. The features are huge but just point ‘er straight down the gut and go for it. We flipped three rafts on our trip and two were flipped while trying to avoid a feature. Rafts are huge and heavy. Nine time out of ten it’ll be fine if you just keep it straight and hit it hard.

Don’t rent dry bags. During our flips people who rented dry bags from the outfitters got pretty wet gear. Fortunately it’s Arizona so things dry fast, but still not what you want. Get good dry bags for your trip. You will want them. I know they are expensive but get watershed bags. They are really worlds ahead of everything else. On that note, be sure to close them. I left mine open between my feet while rowing thinking this particular rapid wasn’t going to even splash in the raft. Turned out I was wrong and even a watershed bag isn’t too dry if it isn’t closed.

Tie your gear in. Double check this and triple check this. We lost a fair bit of stuff when flipping rafts and once my camera bag got ripped out of the raft despite my certainty that it was tied in. Luckily it was a watershed and I picked it up floating in the eddy at the bottom of the rapid with no damage to my equipment.

Do your own dishes. We set up our chore distribution so that the dish crew was doing all the dishes after each meal. This was by far the worst chore assignment to have. I think next time I would make it so the dish crew is responsible for the pots and pans and everyone can do their own dishes after each meal.

Don’t have people hike in or out at Phantom. We lost one of our crew at Phantom and it kinda sucks. He didn’t want to go home and none of us wanted him to leave either. Hiking out I think is a bad idea. Hiking in isn’t as much a bad idea, but if you’re the one hiking in it is important to understand that you are joining the crew that has been together on the river for about a week and you are the FNG. It is a tough spot to be in but a couple bottles of liquor hiked in with you will go along way to help you fit in with your new crew.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my pictures and endless ramblings about the stout ditch. Hopefully you found some useful information here for your own trip in the future. Thanks for reading.

See You On The River

Pete

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