Colorado River by Steve Molino

Paddlesport: 

The Colorado River – Another Perspective – Steven Molino

I am sure many of you read Kevin Songberg’s excellent supplement to the September edition of Splash about kayaking the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  I concur with all that he said but would like to provide some additional thoughts based on my own recent trip through the Grand Canyon.

Planning

It was at Basil’s 90th last year that I decided I should give the Grand Canyon a go.  Tim Sindle and Marcus Bisping were there and were telling me about their trip with Kevin the previous year and they suggested it was something I could do.  I think it was Kevin’s 6th trip.  I had seen slides and videos of a couple of his earlier trips when I first got back into paddling several years ago and back then it all looked a bit daunting. 

Then Ali Parker and Scott Williams and Rob Parker arrived and talked about how they had paddled it the previous year with a group of friends.  They made it sound even less daunting.  They also did it differently to Kevin and I was soon to discover there was yet a third way to paddle it.

What you need to understand is that no-one is allowed to travel down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon without a permit.  The National Parks Service issues about 16,000 permits each year with the vast majority of those distributed to commercial tour companies.  The majority of those companies take passengers down the river on huge motorised rafts which seat about 20 people.  Then there are trips they run with oar rafts, paddle rafts or timber boats called dories.

If you want to do your own non-commercial trip then you need to go in the weighted lottery to win the right to go on a waiting list.  However, not everyone is eligible for this, the main applicant must be a qualified boat operator who has commanded a boat down the Colorado or a river of similar difficulty.  There are rules about what you must take with you on the river and what you can and can’t do in camp.  All the details can be found at http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/noncommercial-riv-docs.htm.  If you can satisfy these criteria then the upside of a non-commercial trip down the river is that it will cost you about $US1,200 for permits, boat hire, equipment hire and food supplies.  This compares to about $US4,000 for a commercial trip.  The downside is that it can take you 12 years or more before you get on the river.  Scott however tells me he found out how to play the system so that you have a very short wait.  Best to ask him about that.

Being neither a qualified boat operator nor young enough to wait 12 years to get on the river, the non-commercial option was not for me so I quizzed Kevin about how he organised his trips.  Each time he goes with Outdoors Unlimited (http://www.outdoorsunlimited.com/) which runs paddle or oar raft trips down the river and will permit clients to paddle kayaks instead of being a passenger on a raft.  So I enthusiastically contacted them only to learn that they will only cater for kayakers if you have a group of 6 or more paddlers as they need to provide a kayak guide and it is not commercially viable with a smaller group. 

I did not think I would be able to muster up a group that big so I scoured the internet for another option.  I found Current Adventures (http://currentadventures.com/) which runs a kayak trip on the Colorado every year or two.  They do this by teaming up with Arizona Rafting Adventures (AZRA - https://azraft.com/ ), using their permits, motorised support rafts and raft and kayak guides.  Spaces are limited and I got one of the last spots on the September 2015 trip when I contacted them in April 2014 so if you want to go on their 2016 trip I would not delay. 

I can highly recommend them for a well organised, well catered and safe trip.  The raft and kayak guides were all knowledgeable about the features of the Canyon.  They were also expert river runners, wise guides giving us the line on each rapid and encouraging instructors who were keen to see everyone improve their skills.

It cost me $US 4,000 and I made sure I paid in full while the Australian dollar still had a relatively high value.  That covers transfers to and from the river, guides, food and camping equipment.  It does not cover boat and paddling gear.  I hired a boat for $200, a pdf for $50 and then took my own gear from Australia or purchased new gear from Current Adventures.

I hired a Dagger Axiom 9.0 which Kevin, Tim and Marcus recommended and Kevin said is the best boat he has paddled on the Colorado.  This was also recommended by Dan Crandell, the owner of Current Adventures and leader of the trip, although he and another guide paddled a Dagger Green Boat which is 3.6m long and gave them plenty of speed for rescues.

The Axiom was a great boat with good forward speed (essential for making some of the lines) and nice turn (not needed much on the Colorado).  Where it came into its own was surfing.  The surfing opportunities on the Colorado are few and far between but those of us in Axioms got the best surfs.  The downside: their low volume tail catches in the whirlpools which form along the eddy lines and the first couple of days I was doing unintentional tail pirouettes much more than I would have liked.  I eventually got that under control.

Kevin’s trips always involve flying to Las Vegas and then driving to Marble Canyon right near the put in point.  My trip involved flying to LA, then to Phoenix and then to Flagstaff which is midway between the put in and the take out but a few hours from the river.  Flagstaff is AZRA’s home base and they transfer you to and from the river from there.  It suited me because I didn’t have to do any driving.

What’s it Like?

Awesome!  If you have an interest in geology, anthropology, ecology, geomorphology, hydrology or just enjoy stunning scenery then you will be fascinated or blown away by what you see on every stretch of river.  Then there are the daily excursions up side canyons which provide you with even more to marvel at.  The kayaking is the icing on the cake.  And it is icing laid on thick and rich.

We paddled from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek, a distance of more than 360km, over 14 days.  It is possible to paddle to Pearce Ferry about 90km further downstream.  The river drops at only about 1.5m per kilometre but since 90% of the trip is flat water that means the rapids themselves drop at an average of 15m per kilometre and there are more than 150 of them. 

But it is the sheer size of the rapids which is mind boggling.  This section of river is mostly fed by hydroelectric power releases from Glen Canyon Dam several kilometres upstream of Lees Ferry.  The releases fluctuate during the day reflecting the peaking and waning of electricity demand.  They also vary through the seasons. 

On our trip they were releasing a minimum of 10,000 cubic feet per second and a maximum of 17,000 cubic feet per second.  In measurements that the rest of the world uses that is between 280 and 480 cubic metres per second (cumecs).  By comparison the flow rate at Penrith Whitewater Stadium is 15 cumecs, the peak release on the Snowy River this year was 62 cumecs, the Buller River in New Zealand becomes too dangerous to paddle at about 150 cumecs and the Kawarau in NZ gets run at between 100 and 200 cumecs.  Before the Colorado was dammed flows of up to 2,400 cumecs were common during snow melt.

Because the water is being released from the base of a deep dam it is very cold.  I was told to expect temperatures of around 10oC or less.  Those sort of temperatures are unpleasant to be rolling in.  Fortunately for us there was a drought and Glen Canyon Dam was drawn down and not so deep.  We started in water temperatures of 13.5oC which is warm enough to do several practice rolls in when wearing a dry top.  As the air temperature was a pleasant 30oC, rolling was a nice way to cool off.  By the end of the trip the water temperature was about 16oC.  One of our kayak guides just wore a rash shirt the whole way but everyone else wore a dry top.  I could have got away with wearing just a sharkskin for most of the trip given the generally high air temperatures but there were a couple of wet and windy days at the start when that would have been insufficient. 

I was also told to expect air temperatures in the high thirties to low forties with radiant heat from the canyon walls making it hard to sleep at night.  We experienced high twenties to low thirties most of the trip with it only getting close to forty towards the end of the trip.  Sleeping each night was fine and, apart from a couple of rainy nights I dispensed with a tent and needed nothing more than a sheet to keep warm.  I was bothered by about three flies and one mosquito on the whole trip and that was towards the end.

The most unpleasant feature of the trip is the sediment.  The river is laden with it so it is like paddling in a latte for two weeks.  The campsites are covered in it.  At the end of two weeks every bit of your gear is full of it and so are many of the crevices and orifices of your body. 

Am I up to It?

After reading Kevin’s article and this one you may be asking whether you would be up to paddling the Colorado.  Yes, providing you are willing to accept the limitations your fitness and paddling skills will place on what you can do.

At 54 years of age I was probably the median age in the group with people ranging in age from their late 20s to their late 60s.  I paddled everything and walked all the side tours (other than one section of a side canyon which my fear of heights prevented me from completing).  Having said that I did lots of preparation in terms of my physical fitness and honing my paddling skills over the preceding 18 months. 

While my skills fall well short of most of the other RCC members who have paddled the Colorado, I was probably one of the stronger paddlers on my tour which included people with a wide range of skills, experience and fitness.

There were two women on our trip whose husbands were kayaking but they themselves had never paddled.  They sat as raft passengers for the two weeks and on a couple of days with long flat sections that had a few tiny rapids, they had a go at paddling inflatable kayaks.

Another couple of paddlers only paddled a few of the easier days because they knew they weren’t yet ready for the bigger stuff.  Another two didn’t paddle the first few days because of injuries or illness they sustained just before the trip.  Others hopped on the raft for a couple of days because they became tired after so many consecutive days of paddling.  Some didn’t paddle the bigger rapids because they had a thrashing earlier in the trip or the leaders advised them they were not yet ready to safely paddle a particular rapid. 

There is plenty of room on the support rafts for you and your kayak if you don’t want to paddle something for some reason although you usually have to make that decision at the beginning of the day or lunchtime.

Similarly, some of the sidewalks are strenuous and some people opted out of them because they were not physically up to it. 

I would say if you can make Grade 3 lines, can paddle fast when you need to, have a very reliable roll in white water and can paddle 30km a day for two weeks then you should be able to paddle everything safely.  Those who went for a swim either didn’t paddle hard enough to get away from a feature, were too tired to be able to hang in there until there was a chance to roll, or did not have a reliable enough roll on the side they needed to roll when they got hit. 

If you go for a swim in the Colorado it will be a long swim.  It will be hundreds of metres before you are hauled from the water and it is a cold swim.  A couple of those in a day will sap your energy and most people who had two swims later in the trip called it a day at that point.

While there are some features which will hold and possibly kill you, most of those are easily avoided.  The features which people got a thrashing in were all flushing.  You just had to expect to do a few cartwheels before it let you go. 

Given the number of people that travel down the Colorado River, the number of fatalities are relatively few.  One of my work colleagues helpfully sent me this link when he learned I was paddling the Colorado http://www.esri.com/products/maps-we-love/death-grand-canyon.  When you tool around in it few are drownings and of those there are only a handful of paddlers.

In hindsight the only thing I would have done differently with my preparation would be take my kayak out in the surf a few times.  Why?  Because the hydraulic feature on the Colorado that you don’t encounter much on Australian rivers is a standing wave a couple of metres high which breaks on you as you reach it. 

The best thing I did in preparation was talk to Kevin Songberg who generously gave me half a day of his wisdom on what to expect and what to pack.