The Grand Canyon/Colorado River “Put-In”: Lee’s Ferry and Navajo Bridges

The Put-in

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The Sandra, a “cataract boat” built by Norm Nevills, the first commercial river runner on the Grand Canyon, c1939, oared by his grandson, Greg Greiff

I’ve always loved the simplicity of that term, the put-in, literally the location where river runners put their boats into the water. Obviously, the end of the river trip comes at the “take-out,” but the essence of what is involved in those two places packs so much more weight.

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Photo by Ken Herman

For river-runners, and here I mean the boaters, or guides, in our case, the guys and gals at the oars and their swampers (as opposed to the passengers), the put-in is more than the simple task of passing out life jackets and telling passengers to point their feet downstream if they fall out of the boat in a rapid. There is a science involved in rigging out a boat, balancing necessity versus luxary, packing a seemingly infininte array of gear and equipment, food and beverages into a fininte space that must be perfectly balanced against the power of massive hydraulic holes and ten and twelve foot standing waves. The boaters make it look easy, orgainzing their dry bins, strapping down dry bags, tying boaters’ knots, bantering with customers and other boaters. It’s a science learned over thousands of hours, reinforced through multiple bad experiences–an essential piece of gear forgotten or lost–passed down over generations of boaters.

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Photo by Ken Herman

In addition to all the work that goes into the offseason–gear repair, inventory, training, studying of history and geology and nature, the sometimes tedium of off-river jobs, there is the dreaming, the dreaming of the river and the canyons and the camaraderie of the boaters’ life and the feeling and sound of the way water moves and the way a boat moves over water and the joy of hitting a rapid just right and feeling the rhythm of a perfect run and the frustration over a bad decision or a poorly executed move or the simple powerlessness that must surely be felt over attempting to maneufer a boat weighing several thousand pounds against the force of twenty-thousand cubic feet of water running downhill.

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Captain Dave, “putting-in” (photo by Ken Herman)

 

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There’s the infininte tinkering: adjusting the depth of the floor of the oar-frame, adjusting the collar on the oars where they fit into the oarlock, inspecing weakened or damaged parts, balancing and rebalancing. It’s a dance that has been going on for days, if not months, so that by the end of a boating season the process if fine tuned. But the passengers don’t see the hours that go into raft repair and inspection, blowing up air chambers, applying duct tape, tightening connections, running over gear lists and packing coolers and planning meals and shopping for groceries for twenty or more people over thirteen days.

And the passengers, filled with their own emotions, whether trepidation, anticipation, excitement, confusion, or doubt–“did I pack everything I need?” “Did I pack too much?” “Who are these people I’m going to be camping and boating with for six to thirteen days, and will I like them, and will they like me?”

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Despite all the planning and wrestling with emotions, there comes the time to put the boats into the river, clamber aboard, clip in water bottles and find handholds and make introductions to other passengers and the guide. As you glide down the Paria Riffle you pass under a cable with an orange aircraft warning bubble and pass the point of no return (unless you decide, like other boaters over the years, beginning with some of Major John Wesley Powell’s boatmen, to hike out to the canyon rim–two of Powell’s men did this and were never heard from again), you’re in the Grand Canyon, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and nothing you should want to do about it other than embrace the experience.

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