My fourth trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and my first to hike out at Phantom Ranch. I rowed a boat for the third time, and once again we had no flips at least as far as Phantom, and only one swimmer! My luck with trips with no boat flips is still holding, although I have to admit I did get my boat hung up on a rock. Luckily there were two other boats and a kayaker behind me to help pull us off. I was invited by my good friends Haley Johnson and Jaime Compos, who I met on my third trip in December of last year. Jaime is one of a few handfuls of people who have hiked the length of the Canyon as close as possible along the River, plus has summitted quite a lot of the inner Canyon landmarks. Jaime has a couple of very nice websites on both his Canyon raft and hiking trips and another on his thru hikes around the country and various other observations about long distance hiking.
Cottonwood leaf in the amazingly clear water of Nankoweep Creek.
Since this was an abbreviated trip for me, I thought I'd use this trip report to describe a few tips and tricks I've learned about having the best possible experience on a River trip through the Grand Canyon. First of all I discovered cot sleeping on my last trip, and highly recommend it. The ideal setup I found is the Kamp-Rite tent cot (be sure to get the "oversized" one; it's also great for truck camping). It's a cot and tent all in one. The best part is it takes less than a minute to setup and take down, a lot less time than setting up and taking down a regular tent. It folds up into a package about 3 feet square and 8-9" thick, comes with a stuff bag with handles for carrying off the boat and up to a camp spot. I've found it easy to pack on top of the back bay and food boxes when rigging my boat, chairs and dry bags go on top of that. It needs an additional pad on the cot for sleeping in the winter, otherwise there's no insulation underneath your body. I use a regular closed foam sleeping pad, which rolls up nicely and fits in my river bag along with blanket, sheet, sleeping bag, and pillow (I like to sleep in comfort on the River!). It has a separate fly that comes with the seams already taped; I've slept in it through several downpours with no leaks. And the best part is not having to climb off the ground every morning! I just swing my legs out, put on my pants and shoes like in my bed at home, and I'm ready to go.
Tanner Wash on River left, looking downstream. We camped at Cardenas, about 2 more miles down-canyon. I've hiked down Tanner Trail six times, always great to finally reach the River. Tanner Trail camp sites are scattered mostly in the band of mesquite at the mouth of the wash and to the left of Tanner Rapid in the right-center of the photo.
Another trick I've learned is a bit personal but here goes: you need to bring a pee jug. One thing everyone quickly learns right at the start of the trip is the extreme importance of cleanliness in camp. Nothing gets left behind; pack it in, pack it out. Even the poop is packed out in rocket boxes specifically brought along for that purpose. I've mentioned in previous reports the "groover", which is a regular toilet seat set over a rocket box where deposits go (the commonly cited etymology of groover is based on what one's butt looked like before someone had the great idea, "hey, lets put a toilet seat on that box!"). The only thing that gets left behind is liquid waste, both from things like dish cleaning and of course pee. Liquid waste goes in the River; the solution to this pollution is dilution. You very quickly get used to peeing just slightly up- or down-river from everyone else at lunch stops and camps; usually the beaches are not spacious enough to allow one to get very far away for any sort of real privacy. But this also means at night you don't pee right outside your tent door. Instead it's climb out of your bedroll, stumble down to the River, pee, then stumble back up to your bedroll. They say some of the worse accidents happen on nightly pee excursions. But the much more practical solution is to use a pee jug that you put out next to the tent or bedroll. Next morning you just carry that down and dump it in the River. I have found that a 2-quart plastic, wide-mouth juice jug works perfectly. Get one that has a handle so it can be hooked to the boat with a carabiner. The handle also makes it useful for bathing and washing hair (it's rinsed out for goodness sake!). Fill up one of the 5-gallon buckets (every trip has several of these) and take it to a quiet spot, stand in the wet sand and dip in the pee jug to do your bathing. That way you don't have to stand in the cold River water while rinsing off (remember all liquid waste goes in the River; never bathe where the water and soap will land on dry sand). And a third use is for bailing your bucket boat, as I discovered when I rowed one on my last trip (check out this video of bailing the boat out after Lava; we didn't actually use the pee bucket here but you get the idea...).
Upper Nankoweep Canyon.
Once the boats pull into a campsite, ideally there is a coordinated effort to unload all the gear needed for the night. This includes all the communal gear - kitchen, groover, fire pan, water, etc - as well as everyone's personal kit - tents, dry bags, and camp chairs. This is best done using a “fireman’s line”, with the boat captains unrigging gear and everyone pitching it on one boat at a time. Save the easiest-to-reach location off the boats for the kitchen, although this also depends on the weather. If the wind is blowing, it's good to look for a more protected location even if it's a bit more of a haul for the gear. The groover also needs to be set up first thing. There is usually a specific groover spot in most camps; look both up- and down-stream. Once all the boats are unloaded and the kitchen and groover are set, you can then look for a spot to set up your tent and camp. Setting up the kitchen involves first laying down a tarp to catch all the food and other scraps. After breakfast the next morning, the tarp will be shaken off into the trash can (the rocket box from the previous night's dinner) and then dragged down to the River for a rinse. Tables are then set up on the tarp. A typical large camp will have three metal foldable tables stored on the front hatches of the boats. One will be for the dishwashing station and the other two for the stove and dinner and breakfast prep. The heaviest item to bring up usually is the kitchen box, with all the pots, pans, and dishes for everyone. Separate boxes for utensiles, spices, food for the evening, and last night's food box for this evening's trash (it's double lined with trash bags to keep relatively clean for reuse next trip) are also brought up.
There were several prescribed fires burning on the North Kaibab Plateau while we were out. The morning we left Little Nankoweep camp the smoke had settled down in the Canyon, which made for some amazing light.
One new item I brought for the first time on this trip was a string of solar-powered Luci lights for the kitchen at night. Dark comes early, especially on winter trips, and these provide a very nice cozy atmosphere for cooking and cleaning up. I have three collapsible tent poles that I also use for a 16' Kelty Noah's tarp that make hanging the Luci lights over the tables very easy. I highly recommend bringing a few of these for both the kitchen and card games in the evening; just hook to the pile of dry bags in the back of the boat to charge during the day.
Looking down-River just below the Nankoweep Granaries; probably one of the most iconic views of any River trip.
In the morning, everything is reversed, with everyone pitching in to bring gear to the boats for the captains to pack and rig. It is important that everyone gets their personal camp packed and to pitch in on the communal stuff in a timely manner so that boat captains can rig their boats. For our October trip, sunrise was relatively early and the earliest risers are in the dark (bring a headlamp and spare batteries!). Getting an early start on River day allows for more rafting miles, longer stops and hikes during the day, and of course more layover days (you’ll have the opportunity to sleep late on layover days). Ideally everything is ready to be on the river by 9 to 9:30 at the latest (commercial trips typically are on the water before 8). The breakfast crew for the day should have coffee and tea pots on well before sunrise along with a start on breakfast.
The blue waters of the Little Colorado River meet the green waters of the main Colorado. We had green water all the way to the LCR, so clear we could see the bottom of the River in the shallower areas.
Another trick I've learned is to pack an "evening bag" that I bring down to the kitchen with me for supper and sitting around with the rest of the group. This is a small shoulder bag that contains a headlamp, hand creme, my current book, wool cap and gloves, toothbrush and paste, and river journal. I tend to set up my personal camp away from the communal area and kitchen; mostly because I like to go to bed early, or sit on a rock by myself and watch the stars go by. Everything I need for the evening is in the bag, and this way I don't have to make the trek back and forth from my camp but once. I'll also bring my water bottle to fill up and a jacket and warm pants for the evening chill. The evening bag sure saves a lot of stumbling around in the dark! And by the way, this next tip almost goes without saying (you will hear it from any and every experienced River runner), but be sure to bring lots of really good hand lotion. You will be amazed at how cracked and sore your finger tips will get from cycles of immersion and drying all day if you don't make a major effort at moisturizing.
River reflections from Lava Camp.
Clothing: Much of the year in the Canyon you can see any kind of weather, from warm, sunny days, to cold and rainy (occasionally even snowy in the dead of winter). The key, of course, is layering; that way you pick and choose how much or how little clothing you need depending on the time of day and weather. Most all my trips have been in the cold months, so warmth has been most important. Check out youtube videos and you'll see lots of people wearing dry suits, even in the warmer months but especially in the winter months. I've done two trips in December, one in September, and this one in October, and never worn a dry suit. Don't even own one. I hate dry suits; I wore one years ago when I worked as a scuba diver in Monterey, California, and learned to hate them then. I cannot stand the neck jasket, feel like I'm being choked all day long. Instead - and I first learned this from my good buddy Tom Martin, who knows what he is talking about - just wear some good splash gear, even rain gear works. I love these Kokatat splash pants with socks. I've worn these on all four of my trips so far (although on both this and my trip in September I mostly wore just river shorts). You can layer all you want under these. On my December trips I've worn some good long underwear with very thick wool socks; hardly ever felt the cold. The only time you need a dry suit is if you fall into the River, and you want to do everything you can to stay in the boat (or you need one if rowing a kayak). The rest of the time you're sweltering in it and it's choking you. Yes, if you fall out wearing just splash gear, you will get wet and cold. But your PFD will keep you afloat (always wear it when on the water!) and hopefully someone can get you back in a boat or on shore fairly quickly. If anyone falls in the River (for example, from a boat flip, which I have yet to experience), the group must stop and make sure that person (or persons) is dry and warm before moving on. Even if they are wearing a dry suit; those things do leak. Which brings up another tip: pack a smaller dry bag with a set of emergency clothes just in case. Mine has extra long underwear, wool socks, flannel shirt and jacket, and wool cap and gloves, with the bag tied to a convenient location to get to during the day if I need it.
Flowing water at Vasey's Paradise. Is there any more romantic sounding spot? "Vasey's Paradise..." I wanted to visit Vasey's ever since I first heard the name. River trips often stop to fill up water jugs straight from the spring.
75 Mile Canyon has the most amazing rock formations. This the Shinumo Sandstone, part of the Unkar Group which is the base formation of the Grand Canyon Supergroup. This is the River frozen in rock: standing waves, keeper holes, flows, eddy lines. Every River trip should stop at one of the Neville's Camps and hike up to see these.
One more of North Canyon...
As I've said before, if you ever have a chance to go on a Canyon raft trip: go. Make it happen whatever it takes. I really thought my first trip in 2009 would be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but I've been incredibly lucky to have these additional opportunities. I have to admit I had planned to do the entire Canyon on this trip, with our take-out at Diamond Creek. The choice to leave at Phantom was a difficult decision but had to be done for my piece of mind (problems with the group dynamic on this trip; so far only time this has happened). When that started overwhelming the joy I get from being in this place, it was time to leave. But I am already ready to go again, and amazingly enough I already have my next trip lined up for next February. And with my buddy Tom Martin again! Can't wait...
(Larger version of header photo; another view of the Shinumo Sandstone in 75-Mile Canyon.)