THE GRAND

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THE GREAT UNKNOWN

By: Roy Webb

The Grand Canyon is the ne plus ultra, the Ultima Thule of river running.  Look how often its compared to other places.  Deeper than the Grand Canyon!  Wider than the Grand Canyon!  The rapids are bigger than the Grand Canyon!  But they aren’t the Grand Canyon.  No other place has that combination of rapids, duration, scenery, isolation, and feel for river runners, and it’s like the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca; every true believer in river running has to run the Grand at least once.

THIS IS WHY WE RUN RIVERS

The rapids start fast and don’t stop, from big and fun and “this is why we run rivers” to “OMG we’re all gonna die” to “thank god we made it this far alive.”  Not only the big names like Soap Creek, Sockdologer, Hance, Horn Creek, Granite-Hermit-Crystal, and of course Lava Falls; but hosts of others: the Roaring Twenties, Lava Canyon, Unkar, the Gems, Walthenberg, Upset make every day a new challenge.

There are few other places where you can immerse yourself so much into a trip, into the rhythms of the canyon and river.  Your life becomes focused down to breaking camp, making your runs, finding a place for the night, cooking and cleaning, tightening straps and doing it all again.  There’s no cell service, no data points, no hot links.  Just you and your companions and your skills, for days, weeks if you want to.

But you never get bored.  Besides the routines of daily river life, there are so many hikes, so many places to go and see and poke around in, again ranging from epic all day treks to a distant viewpoint to quick stops to see a Zen garden of a waterfall that gushes out of a cliff, surrounded by ferns and scarlet monkey-flower.  The scenery is on such a scale that you can’t take it all in and thousands of photos don’t do it justice, and it’s a totally different look than you get from the rims.  There are places I get emotional, it’s just so overwhelming; Conquistador Aisle, Granite Park, the Spencer Towers; the Patio at Deer Creek, National Canyon, Fern Glen.  To make it sound like you understand the millions of years of geology, learn this mnemonic: Know The Canyon’s History, Study Rocks Made By Time.  Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit, Supai, Redwall, Muav, Bright Angel, Tapeats.

CALL OF THE WREN

And so much history; Native Americans, river runners, miners, prospectors, scientists, surveyors, dam builders, Park rangers, guides.  Some you can stop and visit, like Phantom Ranch; others are hidden and secret, like the mysterious remains of the ancient Pueblo people.  All contribute layers of human experience over the natural world.  The wildlife is there, though; ringtail cats visit your camp, you hear but seldom see Canyon Wrens, bighorn sheep graze along the river and up in the cliffs, and yes, there are snakes.  Rattlesnakes, even; you watch out for them and they watch out for you.

If  you can, go all the way out, all the way past the Grand Wash Cliffs, the full 279 miles.  Some commercial trips fly out at Whitmore, ten miles below Lava Falls; it’s an experience in itself, but you miss the lower 100 miles of the canyon.  A lot of people take at Diamond Creek, mile 225, but again, below there are big rapids like Mile 232, popularly known as Killer Fang Falls; exquisite side canyons like Travertine Falls, and absolutely towering scenery; the canyon just gets bigger and bigger until it abruptly ends.  Just below the takeout at Pearce Ferry is a reminder of how dynamic the Colorado still is, despite the dams and the drain on it by 30 million people.  When Lake Mead started falling some years ago, the river found a new channel around a corner and over a ledge, creating Pearce Ferry Rapid, a solid Class V that you can walk down from the boat ramp and see. 

WAVES OF MEMORY

So in a word: Do It.  If you get a chance to do a Grand trip, jump at it.  Yes, it takes time, and yes, it costs money.  You should be in some kind of shape and good equipment is a must.  In the spring you can get snowed on, running small splashy rapids in the gloomy stretch above Havasu in a spitting snowstorm.  In the summer the very rocks are so hot you can’t sit or rest your hand on them, and the winds feel like someone has opened an oven. You live, eat, and breathe sand, and every bush wants to poke holes in your skin.   It’s a demanding trip in terms of time and strength and will, but oh, so worth it.