Life lessons from rafting

1. It’s all in the set up

Probably the biggest maxim in rafting, this applies not only when navigating down the river but to the trip overall. There are no services on the river, so if you find that you need something you haven’t brought, you’re pretty much out of luck. Thus, everything you need for the trip has to be planned, prepared, and packed beforehand. This is the most difficult part of the entire trip. If you’ve prepared and set up well, then once you get on the river, you’re free to sit back, relax, and enjoy.

When it comes to navigating around obstacles in the river, it’s all in the set up as well. Setting up well often means the difference between floating through peacefully with a few strokes of the oar and struggling with all your might to not end up beached on a rock, flipped over, or otherwise dumped in the river. If you’ve set up well but messed up everything after that, you’ll still make it through just fine in most cases.

2. Read the river

To set up well, you have to be able to read the river. From a glance downstream, good rafters can tell where the obstacles are, where the current is flowing, and where the river will want to take them. Even from far away, there are small hints of what’s coming: a river bend means that the water will probably try to push you into the wall of the bend, small tumultuous ripples indicate that there’s probably shallow water to avoid. Knowing these things in advance means that you can make small adjustments early on.

What happens if you don’t read the river? My dad is fond of telling a story from his second rafting trip on the Grand Canyon with my mom, when a big, brawny man on the trip came up to him and asked him to “slow down, you’re killing me.” My dad replied that my mother had done all the rafting that day. The difference was that the big, brawny man couldn’t tell where the fast moving water was and frequently rowed into eddies (pools where the water circulates upstream), which he had to muscle his way out of. And my mother? Well, she read the river.

3. Watch the downstream boats

An invaluable supplement to reading the river is watching the boats downstream to see where the river takes them and what they do. Downstream boats help to validate your assumptions (“Yep, there’s an eddy over there”) and reveal unexpected obstacles (“Wow, didn’t see that wave from the side!”). Learn from the moves and the mistakes of those before you, so you can be better prepared when it’s your turn.

4. Different boats have different strategies

However, don’t blindly follow the downstream boat, because it may have a different strategy. Big boats are harder to get moving and to redirect, but they also barrel through waves and are harder to flip. Conversely, small boats are easy to maneuver and can fit through tighter routes, but they are toast in big waves. For the same rapid, they might prefer to take two drastically different routes.

My mother rode her own light 12-foot boat for a portion of the Grand Canyon, and she nailed all the rapids until she followed a 18-foot boat through a moderate class 5 rapid. The rapid was much smaller and easier than ones that she had previously conquered, but the big boat went through the waves and so did she, and the big boat went through just fine, but she flipped.

Later on in the trip, she figured out that her best strategy in a small boat was to skirt along the side of a rapid and avoid the big waves altogether. She could do it in her small boat with her easy maneuverability, going places and performing moves that would be impossible for the bigger boats. Once she figured out the correct strategy for her boat, she was golden!

5. Scout big rapids

When there’s not enough time or information to formulate a plan of where to go and what to do, pull over to the side and scout. We scouted every rapid that was a class 7 or above, and went through all of them without a hitch. But if we had rushed into them without scouting first, there would have been some flips, a lot more swimming, and most likely some injuries as well.

So hike up to the obstacle to get a closer look, figure out your plan of attack along with some backup plans to keep just in case, and take the time you need to gather your bearings and strap everything down tight on the raft.

6. Don’t let your guard down

It’s not just the big rapids that you need to worry about, though. Small obstacles can cause havoc too if you let your guard down. Ironically, we made it through the big rapids just fine but had the most trouble when a boat high-sided (got pushed against a wall, so one side started to flip upward) and dumped two people in the water…at a small class 3 rapid. Thus, even if something is seemingly inconsequential or routine, don’t let your guard down and be prepared to react in event of an emergency.

7. Have back up back up plans and adjust quickly

No plan is complete without a back up plan… or five. Though you may have a preferred way of going through a rapid, you might get knocked in a different direction by a wave, come across an obstacle that you did not see, or encounter a number of other eventualities.

To protect against this, have back up plans handy. When my dad rowed into Upset Rapid (class 8), he had a plan of attack but lost his oar midway and wasn’t able to complete it. However, he knew from scouting the rapid that he could make it through the big hole (where the wave curls back in on itself and where you generally don’t want to go) if he powered through it. So he instantly shifted from plan A to plan G and got us through safely, though with a hell of a ride.

My dad knew what he absolutely had to avoid and what he might be able to tackle with necessary, as well as what he would have to do in order to accomplish it. But most of all, he adjusted quickly, which is ultimately what saved us from going for a swim!

8. Take momentum into account

When executing a plan, it’s important to take momentum into account. As per an analogy that my dad likes to use, bigger rafts are like cars on ice. If you row in a certain direction and then simply turn the raft, it doesn’t do anything until you start rowing in the new direction – the car will continue in the original direction because of its momentum. And to get to a particular location, you don’t want to row all the way there; instead, row part of the and let the momentum carry you for the rest.

If you take advantage of momentum, you can perform more complex maneuvers and expend less energy. But if you don’t take momentum into account, you could find yourself going further than you intended, and then having to spend extra energy to overcome the momentum and move in a new direction.

9. Row into the waves

Momentum is most definitely needed in the waves. If you don’t have enough momentum going into a wave, the raft will stall, the wave will push the raft sideways, and then the next wave will potentially flip the raft. It is difficult to row in the waves because you have to time the oar strokes with the wave crests or you’ll come up empty, but rowing is necessary to keep your momentum going. Deep in the middle of battle, keep fighting until you make your way out.

10. Use your power stroke

You can row the oars on a raft in two ways: (1) pushing, in which you push the oars away from you, moving the boat in the direction that you’re facing or (2) pulling, in which you pull the oars toward you, moving the boat in the opposite direction. The latter is considered to be the power stroke because you can generate a lot more power by engaging your legs, stomach, and back muscles when pulling, as opposed to only using your chest and arms when pushing.

In the middle of a struggle, we may be so busy fighting that we forget to use all of the tools at our disposal – in this case, the power stroke. There were a few times where my mother struggled to push her way out of an obstacle, and my dad yelled to remind her to turn around and pull instead. When you’re in the middle of something and it’s not working, remember to work smarter – with the power stroke – and not harder.

11. Indecision kills

One of the main reasons why people get in trouble on the river is indecision. “Do I go to the left of the rock through the rapids, or do I go to the right of the rock through potential shallows? Left…no right! No left. Wait actually righ—” and BAM you’re on the rock. In reality, you would have been fine either way, but instead indecision took you to the one place you couldn’t go.

Regardless of whether your plan is the best or not, commit to it. If you decide you need to make an adjustment midway, make that quickly, and commit to that. Just decide quickly, and commit!

12. Black side down, stay in the boat!

One of the members of our group chanted this mantra every time we got ready to tackle a big rapid. “Stay in the boat, black side (bottom of the raft) down! Stay in the boat, black side down!”

It doesn’t matter if you had to abandon plans A-D and completely blew everything that you tried to do, only getting through the rapid through sheer luck. If you made it through black side down, with everyone in the boat, it’s a success (although I guess you might also want to avoid punching a hole in the raft too). That’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned and you shouldn’t try to do better next time, but celebrate your victory!

The Grand Canyon in Pictures

Day 0: Lee’s Ferry put in

Mile 0.0

Lee’s Ferry is the first spot down from Glen Canyon Dam where you can drive a car up to the riverbank. This is where the put in is, a long stretch of sandy beach where you prepare the rafts and put them into the water. Every day, a few commercial trips and between 1-3 private trips share the put in.

We arrived at the put in a day early to pump up the rafts, unpack all the gear from the car, and strap all of our stuff down on the raft. Overnight, we left the rafts in the water and then returned the following morning for a safety debrief from the park ranger before setting off on our trip. All of the planning and packing done, finally time to relax and have fun!

Day 3: Redwall Cavern

Mile 33.3

One of the first stops of interest on the trip, Redwall Cavern is a gigantic cave carved at a bend in the river. We stopped here to play frisbee in the sand, take some silly jumping silhouette photos, and seek out some fossils in the rocks.

Day 3: Nautiloid creek

Mile 35.0

Just a short ways from the river is a ledge with nautiloid fossils of various shapes and sizes embedded in it. They’re just faint striped, oblong shapes, so they’re easy to miss. The secret is to pour a little water on it, which darkens the outlines and makes them easier to spot.

Day 4-5: Nankoweap Granaries

Mile 53.4

Ancient Native American communities lived around the Colorado River, and many of the petroglyphs and artifacts have been left for river runners to visit and explore. The Nankoweap granaries, constructed around 1,000 years ago, are one of the most impressive archeological sites along the river.

The hike up to the granaries has the added reward of one of the best views of the river flowing down the canyon!

Day 6: Little Colorado River

Mile 61.7

Tributaries flow into the Colorado River as it winds down, and the Little Colorado River is one of the biggest side streams. The Little Colorado River is known for its clear turquoise waters, but depending on the weather upstream, it might be a chocolatey brown or – as in this case – a milky white instead.

On the Little Colorado River, there’s a stretch with small, shallow rapids that you can slide down safely. The preferred gear for this activity is a life jacket worn like a diaper, which both keeps you afloat and protects your butt against sharp rocks. Even with it, though, expect to get a lot of water up your nose!

Day 7: Unkar Delta

Mile 72.7

An ancient Native American village once sat on the hill at the Unkar Delta. Little remains of the village besides a few rocks that mark where dwellings might have been, along with some pottery shards. When you find something, you’re supposed to put it back where you found it so that archeologists can keep tabs on it, but over time, visitors have built up “collection piles” of artifacts all over the Unkar Delta.

Day 8: Phantom Ranch

Mile 88.1

Phantom Ranch is the only location on the entire trip where some services (food, cold beer, phone calls, mail) can be found. It’s possible to hike in and out of Phantom Ranch, so some people end their river trips here and other people hike in to take their spots.

I tried and failed to place a call (didn’t work) and order some popsicles (never had them – I was lied to!) But I did manage to send a postcard, hauled by mule from the Grand Canyon.

Day 10-11: Bass Camp

Mile 109.0

Bass Camp is one of the most popular campsite along the Colorado River. It has a wide, flat camp that’s great for big groups, and there is a hike out to the refreshing Shinumo Creek that originates from the camp. With some strategic planning and a lot of positive waves, we managed to snag it!

Day 12: Elves Chasm

Mile 117.2

There are a lot of contenders, but Elves Chasm is perhaps the most beautiful side stream that runs into the Colorado River. If elves and fairies existed and, for whatever reason, chose to live in the desert, this is where you might imagine they would live. Except maybe with warmer water. The water here isn’t 55 degrees like the Colorado River, but it’s pretty darn close!

Day 12: Blacktail Canyon

Mile 120.6

Blacktail Canyon is home to some ancient, ancient rocks. Here, you can put one hand on 550 million-year-old Tapeats Sandstone and another on 1.6 billion-year-old schist. In between is 1 billion 50 million years and 12,000 vertical feet of missing rock, which has been dubbed the Great Unconformity.

Day 14: Thunder Falls -> Deer Creek Loop Trail

Mile 134.3

The Thunder Falls -> Deer Creek loop trail runs for 7 miles from one camp to another, with spectacular scenery along the way.

First Thunder Falls, a waterfall that blows out of the side of a canyon and leaves a strip of lush green wherever it flows. Then Deer Creek, a small stream that formed its own miniature, narrow canyon, with a path along a ledge that drops straight down.

Day 15: Matkat Canyon

Mile 148.3

Elves Chasm might be the most beautiful stream, but Matkat (Matkatamiba) canyon holds the title for being the most fun. It’s narrow and sometimes unexpectedly deep, which means that sometimes you can only hike into it by squeezing yourself high up between the walls and using all four limbs.

Day 16: Havasu Canyon

Mile 157.3

Havasu Canyon is known for its travertine, with clear blue water and polished white rocks.

Day 17: Lava Falls

Mile 179.7

The biggest rapid on the river, at a class 9, Lava Falls is highly anticipated with a healthy degree of apprehension well before a trip even begins. It’s the big monster that comes ever closer, until finally you have to face it. As the guidebook says, it only lasts 20 seconds – whether you’re in the boat or out of it, at least it’s over quickly!

Thankfully, we all survived intact. The beach right below Lava Falls is known unofficially as Tequila Beach, because everyone stops there to celebrate making it through alive. With Lava Falls out of the way, everyone visibly relaxes for the remaining few days.

Day 21: Diamond Creek take out

Mile 225.9

Every trip unfortunately ends, and ours concluded at the Diamond Creek take out on day 21. Shuttle runners brought our cars down to the take out, and we began the solemn process of packing all of the gear in the car and loading/deflating the rafts. Until next time, Grand Canyon!

What is rafting the Grand Canyon like?

This September/October, I had the unforgettable opportunity to raft for 21 days down the Colorado River through a portion of the Grand Canyon with my parents. Prior to the trip, I had gone on a few other rafting trips before, but still knew very little about rafting. Now, post-trip, I am hardly an expert, but I can at least answer the top questions that I had before!

Where do you do the rafting, exactly?

The navigable portion of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon runs from Lee’s Ferry, near the middle of the border between Utah and Arizona, to Pearce Ferry, right before the Colorado River runs into Lake Mead at the border between Arizona and Nevada. In between, the river snakes for 280.5 miles. We stopped at Diamond Creek, however, 225.9 miles down the river.

An excellent map from one of the whitewater river running companies, Rivers & Oceans.

How do you get to raft the Grand Canyon?

Because of the high demand for rafting trips down the Grand Canyon and the limited capacity of just a few private/non-commercial launches a day (472 private trip launches total in 2017), there is a lottery system for permits. When applying for a permit, you can specify up to 5 desired launch dates, for a trip lasting up to 21-25 days. In February, the National Park Service notifies the permit winner(s) for the following year.

For 2017, there were 5,550 applications for 472 private permits. That makes a 8.5% chance of getting a permit. But certain times of the year are much more popular (e.g. 371 applications were submitted for September 19th, 2017, when the weather gets more temperate and motor season ends, versus only 1 application submitted for December 14th, 2017, which I imagine is a less ideal time to be in the Canyon). Thus, there was in reality a 0.78% chance of getting a permit for our specific launch date.

My lucky mother pulled both this permit and a previous one less than 10 years ago. While she’s on this lucky streak, I don’t think it would hurt to apply for the actual lottery… In any case, I’m also very lucky that it was my own mother who got the permit, as my chances of getting invited on a Grand Canyon rafting trip would be similarly low otherwise. Although for the record, I do bring a few things to the table: documentation, photography, a helping hand, and a knack for spontaneous gift-giving!

Alternatively, you can also forgo the whole permit system by booking a commercial trip through a company that will provide guides and most of the gear. The number of commercial launches is also limited, and commercial trips have fewer days (16-18). It’s also not cheap – a 16-day trip that I found which covered the same distance, from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, costs more than $5,000/person.

What do you pack?

Organizing and packing is the biggest part of a river rafting trip, especially in the weeks preceding the trip. Everything that you need to eat, wear, and use for 21+ days, along with some group gear like tables, kitchen supplies, and bathroom supplies has to fit on the raft. It must be accessible when needed, but also packed in water-sealed bags/compartments and strapped down so that you won’t lose it if the raft flips. No wonder why, in response to the question “So how hard is rafting the Grand Canyon?”, the river guide writes, “The biggest challenge is often arranging the logistics of an extended river trip.”

We made it especially hard on ourselves by only leaving 5 days to get everything prepared. The 5 days consisted of mad dashes to Costco, where we tried to estimate with limited success how much food we needed for 21 days, hurried orders on Amazon for items that we were missing, and frustrating searches through piles of dusty gear. We got it all together on time, but just barely!

Packing 21 days worth of food and gear on the raft at the put-in at Lee’s Ferry

A very incomplete list of essential river gear:

  • Personal floatation device (PFD) with a knife (to cut yourself free if tangled in ropes) and a whistle
  • Helmet, in case you fall out of the raft and hit rocks or items on the raft
  • Sunglasses with a strap to keep them attached to your head, and a backup pair in case the first pair gets knocked off
  • Sunscreen
  • Quick dry clothes
  • Splash jacket and pants, to stay a little less wet
  • Waterproof sandals with traction
  • Good hiking boots
  • Folding chair
  • Tent
  • Down sleeping bag
  • Headlamp, so that you don’t step on a scorpion or fall in the river in the dark
  • Satellite phone, to call for help in case of emergency
  • Badge balm or some sort of cream for cracked hands and feet
  • Baby wipes, because bathing in the river is cold
  • Beer and coffee – I didn’t personally bring any on the trip, but i have it on good authority that this is critical to survival

Where do you stay at night?

Campsites are usually located every couple of miles along the river, and they can range from large, flat sites with multiple, well-marked sites to small, steep sandbars where it’s difficult to find many places to pitch a tent. No matter the camp, the one thing they have in common is sand.

A camp ground along the Colorado River

The great thing about camping while rafting is that space and weight are not much of an issue. My parents brought two air mattresses that each occupied more volume than their actual tent. If you can fit it on the raft and you can lug it up onto the beach, then you can bring it!

Every night, you pull into a camp ground, tie the boats down, unload the rafts, and set up the kitchen and your tents/sleeping area. And every morning, you pack up your things, load them back on the raft, and tie them down so that they won’t leak or disappear if the raft flips upside down. It’s a cycle that’s repeated every day, for 21+ days. By the end, I got pretty damn efficient at packing my tent and fitting everything onto the raft at record time.

Our campsite on laundry day

What do you eat?

It’s possible to restock water at various springs along the way, but there’s only one opportunity to get food of any kind (at Phantom Ranch). That means that all food that you need for the entire duration of the trip has to be packed on the raft at the beginning and has to last until the very end. That doesn’t mean that the food options are limited, though – we had scrumptious hot meals every day, and only resorted to cans for the last few days (though those meals were delicious too).

Appetizers on the river

The standard system for food is that everyone is in charge of their own lunch, but rotating cook teams make dinner and the following breakfast for everyone. With 10 people and 4 cook teams, we were in charge of dinner and breakfast for all 10 people every 4 days. It’s a great system because you can sample other people’s cooking, and it’s positively delightful on days when you’re off duty to relax and wait for dinner to be served. It’s something I kind of which could be implemented permanently – just get a group of friends together and rotate hosting dinner parties for each other every weekend. Not a bad idea!

Some highlights of the menu de la rivière:

  • Egg habanero
  • Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, and mixed fruit
  • Pita bread, falafel, and couscous
  • Handmade beef and celery dumplings
  • Jambalaya with jalepeno cornbread
  • Chips and salsa, beef tacos
  • Steak, garlic potatoes, and beans
  • Lasagna
  • Ham, sauerkraut, potatoes, and carrots
  • Cherry chocolate cake
  • Peach cobbler

To cook the food, we had what basically is a portable, no-impact kitchen: a small propane stove, a kitchen box filled with all of the pots, pans, dishware, and utensils that one might possibly need, a fire pan and dutch oven, and a few tables. Enough to cook everything on the menu and more! The only dishes we couldn’t make were ones that require refrigeration – though if you pack the coolers right, you could conceivably serve ice cream on day 11, like my parents did on their first Grand Canyon rafting trip.

Preparing breakfast in the camp kitchen (photo credit: Dave)
The dutch oven

Clean up follows a rather ingenius system involving four buckets, river water, some dish soap, dish sponges, and a capful of bleach. The four buckets, arranged in order, are:

  • Swamp bucket: a bucket of plain river water where all the food scraps are wiped off
  • Soap bucket: a bucket of boiled river water with dish soap
  • Rinse bucket: another bucket of plain river water to wash off the soap
  • Bleach bucket: a bucket of river water with a capful of bleach, to fully disinfect
Doing dishes with the 4-bucket system (photo credit: Suzanne)

Where do you…er, do your business?

There are no toilet facilities along the river, so you more or less have to take bathroom matters in your own hands. Or, more literally, in your own raft.

Peeing in the river is standard practice, to keep the land around the river clean. But because poop presents a greater health risk and is harder to dispose of, rafters must carry all of their poop out of the Grand Canyon with them. Yep, you literally pack the poop on your raft along with all of your other belongings and float down with it until the end of the trip.

Early rafters found that ammo cans from army surplus stores made great poop containers. They’re durable, watertight (and therefore, thankfully, airtight), and easy to stack in the raft. Thus, ammo cans became the standard river toilets. And because the metal walls of the ammo can leave two parallel grooves in your butt when you sit on it, it became known as the “Groover.”

The groover in the middle and a pee bucket on the right

The Groover and associated terminology is one of the elements of rafting that I think should be incorporated into everyday life. For instance, some Grover-related sentences:

  • “I’m going to get my groove on” -> “I’m going to go poop”
  • “Everybody groovy?” -> “Has everybody who needs to poop pooped?”
  • “I lost my groove for three days” -> “I’m constipated”

As for bathing, every (hopefully voluntary) swim in the river or side streams is tantamount to a bath. However, the river water is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be refreshing in the hot sun but freezing in the shade. Thus, solar showers, black bags filled with water that can heat to 120+ degrees Fahrenheit under the sun, are an alternative.

Bathing with a solar shower

What are the rapids like?

Rapids are the first things that came to mind when I thought of rafting down Grand Canyon, but in reality they comprise just a small portion of the river. Rapids of various sizes appear in fairly frequent intervals, though, so oftentimes I barely started to dry my butt out from a previous rapid before getting hit by another one.

Rapids on the Colorado River are rated on a scale of 1-10, roughly equivalent to the International Scale of River Difficulty from I to V. The difficulty of the rapid differs depending on the water level, but most rapids are rated 6 or below. Then you have small “riffles” that are too inconsequential to be rated and may not even be on the map. They can still be quite a ride, though – I suspect that some “riffles” on the Grand Canyon could probably qualify as sizeable whitewater on other rivers.

Bigger rapids, rated 7 and above, generally need to be scouted. This consists of parking the rafts just above the rapid and hiking out to see it from land, in order to figure out what hazards to avoid and to identify a suitable line down the rapid.

The boatmen scouting a big rapid

The biggest rapid on the river is Lava Falls, a class 9 rapid at Mile 180 (nothing is class 10, which I imagine would just be unnavigable).

There are plenty of horror stories involving Lava, though most boats make it through unscathed. Not that that’s very reassuring when you’re looking at it from above and listening to its thunderous roar.

Getting ready to go through Lava Falls

In the end, all of our rafts made it through Lava just fine! There were some pretty close shaves, but we adhered to the mantra of “stay in the boat, black side [bottom of the raft] down,” which is a big success in my book!

What else do you do all day?

One of the biggest benefits of floating down the Grand Canyon is being able to access various slot canyons and hikes that are difficult or impossible to access from above. Hikes may lead to clear streams and waterfalls to bathe in, Native American artifacts to examine, or simply ancient rock layers to explore. Some of the most popular places to stop along the Colorado River:

Nankoweap Granaries

Ancient granaries built high up in the walls of the canyon, with a great view of river winding off into the distance.

Nankoweap granaries at sunset

Little Colorado River

An opportunity to wear a lifejacket like a diaper and slide down a (sometimes) turquoise stream.

Outfitted with a diaper life jacket
Where the Little Colorado River (white) joins the Colorado River (green)

Elves Chasm

Where you always imagined fairies would live.

Elves Chasm, paradise on Earth

Blacktail Canyon

See “The Great Unconformity” up close: 550 million year old Tapeats Sandstone resting on top of the roughly 1.6 billion year old Vishnu Schist.

Spanning 1 billion years at the Great Unconformity

Thunder River

A raging waterfall that blows out of the canyon wall and creates a thin oasis strip in the middle of the desert.

Thunder River

Matkat Canyon

A narrow slot canyon with deep pools, that can only be accessed in some areas by shimmying up between the two walls with all four limbs.

Shimmying up Matkat Canyon

Are you really disconnected the entire time?

Yes, in that there is no cellphone service in the canyon. Disconnecting for 21 days was a healthy digital vacation, but with the side effect of an early bedtime – An “Oh god, it’s not even 7pm yet??” bedtime.

However, there are some other ways of staying in touch. Every group brings a satellite phone to use in case of emergency, and a member of our party brought a satellite/GPS device that could download weather forecasts and send and receive texts and emails.

About a week in, as well, is Phantom Ranch. This is the only place throughout the trip that allows for contact with civilization.

Servies at the Phantom Ranch lodge. Send a postcard by mule!

The Phantom Ranch lodge is about a mile away from the river, and it’s there that you can use a payphone, buy and mail a post card, pick up some ice, and buy some snack foods and cold drinks (but no ice cream and popsicles, a major disappointment!).

Any other questions that I didn’t answer?

Comment below, and I will try to answer it or call upon the wisdom of various river rafting experts.