The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part I



July 18, 2017

On day five Julia Rose and I awake eager to begin our day on the Sandra. We have an easy job of packing up for the morning, since we don’t have a tent to break down, and after breakfast and helping load the rafts, we go wait for Greg to give us our special instructions for passengering on the Sandra.


Lee’s Ferry, AZ, August 2016–The story of the Sandra goes back over a year before this day. A few years ago my wife and I made the decision that for their 16th birthdays, our daughters could choose a trip anywhere in the continental United States. Last summer, just after Julia Rose turned 15, our family was heading home following a vacation to Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. We stopped off at Lee’s Ferry so I could finally see the legendary put-in I’d read about for so many years. There were several groups getting ready to go down the river. A couple of private boaters had oar rafts rigged and ready to float, and there were some commercial trips getting ready. I watched a woman swamper rolling out a massive raft and inflate the air chambers, and I talked to one of the guides getting ready to take a group of scientists and elected officials, along with members of an American Indian tribe with cultural connections to the canyon gear up. Since it was late in the day the guides were rigging out the boats in preparation for a morning launch.


Rigging a large motorized passenger raft at Lee’s Ferry, 2015

As I was Geeking out over the rafts, talking to guides and crew outfitting their boats, and explaining to Julia Rose what I knew about the river and the trips that went down it, she made the decision that she wanted to raft the Grand Canyon for her sixteenth birthday. The decision made me happy, since it meant that I would get to accompany her and finally get to live one of  my dreams.

01583   Grand Canyon Nat Park: Historic River Photo

Norm Nevills at Bright Angel Beach, 1947 (courtesy Wikipedia)

As we headed toward home across Arizona, my wife scrolled through her phone, reading descriptions of the trip options for the following summer. As a boater, and as someone who knew that this might be my one chance to see the canyon from river level, I rejected trip after trip. Most of the trips were motorized, giant passenger rafts. I didn’t want the silence of the canyon to be marred by the sound of motors, and I didn’t want to sit on a giant raft like a passenger on a tour bus.  I wanted Julia Rose to experience the river on a smaller boat, where she could feel the size of the waves and get wet, where she could come to appreciate the artistry of a guide angling the boat into the waves and holes, where she could bail and pump water after a rapid, where she could experience the potential danger of a flipped raft and a cold swim, and where she could take in the wonders of the canyon, quietly reflecting on the flat sections, and talk to a guide one-on-one, and listen to his jokes and stories and take a turn on the oars in the slow water. I reasoned, correctly, that we were much more likely to encounter a higher quality of fellow clients on an oar trip–people like us who appreciate quiet wanted to engage with the river on a more personal level. As we drove, we focused in on the oar trips (much fewer than I anticipated), weighing options.

Lisa finally read a description of the upper canyon section of the river slated for mid-July, a trip that featured oar-rafts and no motorized support for the gear. The detail that sealed the deal, the one sentence that led me to choose Canyoneers, and our particular trip, was the fact that it featured a historic cataract boat built by Norm Nevills.

I didn’t remember all the details about Nevills, about his running the first commercial trips through the canyon and taking the first women end to end, but I knew the name from having read a book, over 30 years earlier, titled River Runners of the Grand Canyon. Off and on through the years I had studied the history of river running through the canyon, beginning with Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and the explorations of John Wesley Powell,  and tracing its history all the way to the young adult fiction of Will Hobbs and his book Downriver. Over the years I have marvelled at the courage, audacity, willpower, grit, foolishness, cleverness, and pride of those first men who built wooden boats and pushed them into the river. The opportunity to touch a bit of history, to experience the rapids in a handbuilt boat, to feel the movement of the river in the same way that some of  the earliest runners had felt it, was the only way that I could imagine my (for all I know) once in a lifetime Grand Canyon run.

nevills cataract

We booked the trip while driving across Arizona, and I began to plan and dream. I even gave Julia Rose Riverrunners so she could read up on the history and have an appreciation for just what a trip through the canyon promised.

Throughout our early days in the canyon, Julia Rose and felt a real sense of anticipation as we watched others ride the Sandra ahead of us and waited our turn. I don’t think we could have picked a better day to ride the Sandra. It’s a small boat, probably 14 feet, made out of marine plywood and painted white with green trim. It has a regular prow and a square stern, but it’s designed to float square stern down river. Otherwise, the current would push the square stern making the boat difficult to maneuver. Like all river runners, Greg has outfitted his boat to suite his personality, so the Sandra sports a variety of animal figures–from a plastic Gila monster to a Teddy bear (to remember his son while he’s away on the river)–lashed to the deck and cockpits. Inside a waterproof hatch, there’s a picture of his grandfather and grandmother in a cataract boat, laminated and glued to the inside hatch cover.


Cockpit for the pilot and the second passenger

In operation, the guide sits in the middle of the boat in a little cockpit, and one passenger rides in a second cockpit  immediately behind the pilot. This passenger operates a bilge pump and bail bucket and gets a bird’s eye view of the rapids over the guide’s shoulders. The second passenger rides on a mat strapped to the deck in front of the guide, and in the rapid has to lay prone on the deck of the boat, legs spread out in a V, holding on to two grab loops at the front (stern) of the boat. The front passenger’s face is just above the water level, since the boat only has a foot or two of freeboard above the water line. In the big rapids the front passenger gets an eye-level view of the waves, and a very wet ride. As Greg explained, the front passenger has to pay attention to the holes and troughs in the river and throw his or her weight on the downriver side to help prevent the boat from flipping. Nevills called this “fish-eying.”







The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 2

Day 2


We awake around 5:15 or so to dawning light and the soft colors of the various formations of rock laid down over successive millenia by the sedimentary actions of shallow seas, tidal flats, blowing sand dunes, river and stream channel deposits, layering and compressing to form layers of sandstone, limestone, siltstone, gypsum, and chert. We crawl out of sleeping bags to the roar of propane burners heating the water for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Then take turns heading to the “Duke,” situated at the end of the camp under a narrow overhanging cliff about fifteen feet above the river. The sound of the toilet lid dropping shut echoes between the cliff walls, barely fifty yards apart at this point of the river.


Breakfast is bacon and blueberry pancakes, an Omar specialty. We eat, wash dishes, pack up camp, and get on the river by about 7:30, early, but mainly because everyone has worked hard to pack up and help the crew load the boats, and not because anyone needed pushing by the trip leader.



On Day 2 we join Omar’s crew. I never really hear Omar talk about how he came to be a river guide, but he’s a lot of fun to boat with. His mother is Nicaraguan, a hospice nurse, and he grew up in Virginia and went to college at Virginia Tech. Omar is boisterous, cracking jokes and psyching us up for the rapids. At the put in, Omar had a pair of tiny plastic hands with handles, like doll hands to be inserted into a ventriloquist’s dummy’s sleeves. He kept them in the shirt pockets of his western style shirt with long sleeves and faux pearl buttons. When the trip leader Ethan would make a point Omar would give him an ovation with the tiny hands. Omar keeps up the guide’s, job of explaining the geology and history of the canyon. When we come to the bigger rapids, and we do see bigger rapids on day 2, hitting the “Roaring Twenties,” Omar, out of all the guides, looks the most like he’s having a blast.


Riding in the front is Don, a retired guy on his eighteenth trip down the river with Canyoneers. A Tempe/Phoenix native, he goes once a year, and knows all the guides. It’s reassuring that he found a company he liked on the first try, and kept with them for all those years. As we proceed down the river, I understand why he keeps coming back. He shoots a very nice camera with a variety of lens, which he breaks out in the calmer sections, and he keeps a waterproof point and click strapped to his life jacket to shoot in the rapids. In the past he’s set up on the scouting positions on the bank and filmed the boats running the big rapids. He stays in the boat on the lower canyon, but a few days after the trip ends he sends a link to his pictures.


Along with Don, we share the boat with Ken, an early fifties computer software developer from Florida. This is his first time in the canyon, but he is well traveled around the world, including Asia and Antarctica, and he spends his leisure time at home in Florida hiking the Everglades (wet trails where you wade in waist deep water) and sea kayaking. A friendly guy, Ken, but in the evenings he makes his camp away from the group, seeking privacy, which I understand. Were I alone I would do the same, but Julia Rose enjoys the friendliness of the group, chatting with the younger passengers and the guides, and they are a good group of people to camp with.


The second day is action packed. We hit a lot of good rapids–nothing really major or too difficult–but they are bigger than the day before and more closely spaced.  Sheer Wall Rapid has a good drop of 9 feet, but it’s a straight shot and just some fun waves to wake us up and get us cold first thing on the river, especially since the sun is still behind the canyon rim and we boat in deep shade for the first couple of hours.


A couple of miles later we get to House Rock Rapid, another 9 foot drop, but a ranking of 4-7 and a pushy current that wants to drive the boats into a ledge near the bottom. We scout the rapid, so I’m guessing we’re catching it nearer the 7 level. Omar gives us some instructions, treating the rapids as a group effort, and, I think psyching himself up. He tells us that he likes to be aggressive in the rapids, trying to find the right line that will provide a big ride without flipping. Occasionally we will cheat the bigger “holes”–the areas where water recirculates back over itself due to the action of pouring over a big obstacle in the river bed. Holes can flip boats and hold swimmers. At these water levels they form powerful hydraulics–highly aerated, recirculating water–that can easily hold a swimmer to the point of exhaustion and, easily, drowning. I’m happy to have him cheat the holes.


We see a number of desert bighorn sheep alongside the river, including some babies, probably only a few months old. We also see a few collared lizards and a number of great blue herons, Or GBHs as we begin to call them, ducks and geese, bats and swifts, ravens and canyon wrens (which we hear more than see, but we hear them a lot).


Omar, Julia Rose, and me

In a slow spot Omar gives Julia Rose a turn at the oars, a chance she jumps at, and I can sense the “guide” wheels turning in her brain, a happy moment for both of us.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 1 continued


Lunch stop below Navajo Bridges

The Rhythms of the River

We eat lunch in the shade of Navajo bridges (one is pedestrian and the other the highway). The guides break out aluminum tables and set out a spread of breads, cold cuts, cheeses, lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions, pickles, and bean sprouts. 

The river is the bathroom–guys go downstream to urinate and women up, but the guides are pretty informal and usually only step a few feet away, and it doesn’t take long for the guys on the trip to open their flies in sight of the group, and everyone learns how to avert their eyes at the proper moment.

After lunch we hit the first named rapid, Badger Creek, with a drop of 15 feet. (The River itself averages an 8 foot per mile drop over the course of the Grand Canyon, but the drops are concentrated in the rapids, short bursts separated by long stretches of flat water with swirling eddies and strong currents. The waves are big and the splashes feel good, but it’s a pretty straightforward run.


Scouting: Erin, Omar, Dave, Jason, Ethan

At mile 11.5 we come to Soap Creek Rapid, with a drop of 16 feet. The guides pull over to scout this one, since it has some big waves and a strong current that pushes boats hard toward a ledge on river left toward the bottom of the rapid. Dave is a strong boater and we run it just fine.


The trip leader, Ethan, leads us about a quarter mile on river left to a petroglyph unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Even for Ethan, it’s unique. Etched on a big slab of rock on the ground, is the shape of a man, or a god, or, to be honest, what would appear to most of us raised on science fiction and The X Files, an alien. The figure is over three feet tall, with a bulbous round head, a solid rectangular torso, arms extending out and down, almost akimbo, skinny legs, and what makes it really rare, besides the size, is the fact that the artist etched in a ground line extending several feet for the figure to stand on.


We camp on a rock ledge at Sheer Wall, so named because the rapid below the campsite was the first one Powell ran, since the walls were too shere to line the boats through the rapid. Despite the relatively small space, we each stake out a little territory and roll out our sleeping pads on our tarps. It’s too hot to set up a tent–the temperature won’t drop into anything like comfortable until well after midnight, so Julia Rose and I are glad for the sheets we bought at WalMart the night before. The guides sit on their rafts after getting the basics of the camp kitchen and the “Duke” set up, drinking Coors beer and relaxing after the long day of paddling.


Sheer Wall Campsite

The duke is what we call the toilet, a sturdy sealable stainless steel looking container with handholds and an attachable seat and lid. A duke will hold the solid waist of a party our size for two days, so for the entire trip there are 7 “dukes” riding on one of the equipment boats. According to one of the guides, the Duke is named after John Wayne, who went down the river at some point and objected to the toilet being called the “John.” (It sounds plausible enough, though it could also be a bit of guide “lore” needed to satisfy the tourists.


The “Duke”

Later in the evening, the guides begin to cook supper, taking turns each evening. Everyone in the group relaxes, some with their drinks of choice, and chat about the day or read or just sit and look at the lights and sounds and colors of the rocks and water. I sketch the upstream canyon and color it in with my colored pencils–not a great work of art, but something I want to try and do more of. At dark, it just seems natural to quiet down and get ready for bed. It’s the beginning of a pattern we will follow on the river, waking at daylight and settling down for the night shortly after dark. I try to read, but it’s been a long day, beginning before 5 a.m. back at the hotel in Flagstaff. The moon comes out shortly after dark, nearly full and lighting the walls and river. I’m afraid it may be too bright to sleep, but it dips below the walls of the rim around midnight. At the same time, the evening finally becomes cool and we are glad for the sleeping bags resting in the bottom of our dry bags.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 1

grand canyon departure

Orientation and River People

The night before the trip begins, we meet at the Holiday Inn Express in Flagstaff. Erin, a slightly built enthusiastic woman who looks more like a college freshman than a 26 year old river guide, orients the group and passes out our gear. She will be our hiking guide on day 6, the day Julia Rose and I, along with the Zifkin family, hike up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, while 5 more passengers hike down and continue the canyon trip with our group. Erin is a swamper, an apprentice raft guide, not yet qualified with oar boats, especially with passengers–she tells us later she will probably pilot a motorized raft before an oar raft). We meet the other 13 members of the group–3 couples; a family of four, the son and daughter freshly graduated from college; and 3 men traveling solo–receive our dry bags for our camping gear and our ammo cans for our personal gear, and watch a video and ask questions. Erin reassures us about the hike out, which has worried me for a year, given the shape of my knees. “It’ll be fun,” she says, alluding to the temperatures, which are expected to be 110 or higher. “We’ll take our time and ‘shade-hop.’ It’s just another part of the canyon, something you don’t want to miss.”

Afterward, we go to WalMart for last minute supplies and to  Cracker Barrel for supper, then spend the evening sorting gear into the army surplus ammo cans–waterproof and easily opened, for personal items on the raft–and the larger dry bags, for sleeping bags, clothing, everything else.

We awake the next morning, not having slept a lot, to eat breakfast and catch the Canyoneers bus to Lee’s Ferry and the put in. There, we slather on sunscreen, receive our life jackets and adjust them for the trip, and meet our guides: There are three passenger boats and guides–Ethan, the trip leader, Omar, and Captain Dave; two guides to row the equipment boats–Jason and Leo; and two swampers–Erin, also the hike-out guide, and a friend of Leo’s who is taking the trip as a work-along, essentially paying for the trip by doing all the grunt work. In addition to the rafts, our trip features an original 1939 wooden “cataract boat,” built by the first commercial river runner through the canyon–Norman Nevills–and paddled by his grandson, Gregg Grieff.


The passengers divide up into the three boats. Not quite sure of the etiquette, I ask Captain Dave is Julia Rose and I can ride on his boat for the day. “I’d love to have you on my boat,” he says, and I know that I instinctively made a good choice. Raft guides take great pride in their boats, how they are rigged, keeping them clean, and how they feel comfortable interacting with their passengers. Each guide instructs his passengers how to sit during a rapid, because each rower has a feel for the way weight is distributed and how the boat handles in the waves.


Captain Dave–Photo by Ken Herman

Dave is not a particularly big guy, but once he starts rowing it’s clear that he is powerful. Thirty-one years old, he eventually tells us, with a dark complexion, he rarely applies sunscreen even though he wears shorts and muscle shirts and a white sailing captain’s hat. He’s serious about his guide duties, and as we drift down the entrance to the canyon he entertains us with lessons on the geology that we see on the canyon walls, and stories about the early river runners who named–or had the rapids named for–the rapids and other features, as well as pointing out sites that played a major role in the history of river running. We see a condor soaring beyond Navajo bridges, briefly, before it veers out of sight, and Dave recounts the story of their near extinction and ongoing recovery, point out that there is a release point near the put in.


Riding in the bow with Julia Rose and me is Glen, a quiet 70 year old science teacher from Connecticutt, not yet retired. Later on the trip we discover that we both hung out around the Nantahala River in North Carolina in the 1970s, doing whitewater, though he beat me there by a few years. Still, it’s quite possible we could have been there at the same time at some point. Glen reminds me of the actor who played the old Norman Maclean in the movie A River Runs Through It, in that final scene where he is fishing the Big Blackfoot river alone. Glen proves an inspiration, going on all the hikes, experiencing the canyon with a quiet serenity, the way I like to imagine myself at 70.  Like us, this is his first trip to the canyon.

In the back, riding behind Dave and the drybags which give him a backrest, are Ira and Delana from Kansas City, one of the 3 couples. Ira’s retired military, mid-forties, and still does consulting work to supplement his retirement after putting in his career years. Delana is a special education teacher. Together they are quiet though friendly.

As he rows, Dave slowly reveals his story. He grew up in southern Arizona, and he tells of making an exploratory trip to the canyon about seven years earlier, spending a few days backpacking and being thunderstruck by the country. He quickly realized that in only making a couple of trips a year he could never see it all or even begin to have some sense of a relationship with the canyon. He sold everything he had and committed to the canyon, moving north and working whatever jobs he could in order to live there. He spent a lot of time working as a backpacking guide and eventually moved into river work, advancing from swamper to guide. We would find out later that he and Erin are together, living frugally, with no electricity or running water and not much space, but lots of books. I end up talking books quite a bit with Dave–he reads us a passage from a Loren Eisley essay one night around camp, a passage talking about the appeal of the desert and rivers. We discuss Ed Abbey, and I tell him about Brown’s Four Corners, a book that describes the geography, geology, history, biology, and anthropology of the Colorado Plateau uplift.

As we begin our trip the Paria River enters river right at mile 1. Today there is virtually no flow coming out of the Paria, so the Colorado, flowing aqua green and cool (46-47 degrees) out of Glen Canyon dam, about 15 miles upstream, is unmuddied and will remain so for the remainder of our trip. As the days go on and we get further from the dam, the water will cloud a little, but it still looks pure and drinkable by day six. Last summer when we stopped by the put in on our way home from the North Rim, the Paria was running a low volume, but the incredibly concentrated silt content transformed the Colorado into a muddy brown for the length that we could see, the first five miles of the river, well past the Navajo Bridges spanning the canyon. When the Paria is running, I am told, the Colorado is muddy.


Paria River muddying the Colorado, Paria Riffle, just below Lees’s Ferry,  August 2015

The Paria River also marks the beginning of Marble Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell because he thought the name sounded more majestic–there is no marble in the canyon. Powell describe it this way: “The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. The rocks are of many colors–white, gray, pink, and purple, with saffron tints.” Technically, it is part of the Grand Canyon.

The day is warm and clear, well over 100 degrees, possibly 110 or higher–intense, but with a low humidity, and not as overwhelming as might be imagined by a non-westerner. As we float the sun strikes our legs at the thigh, the most vulnerable part of the body because it’s horizontal, and we dip our bandannas into the cool water and cover the exposed skin, which keeps us cool and prevents any burning on the first day. Our Outdoor Research Sombriolet sun hats keep our faces and neck in deep shade, but sunscreen helps us with the reflections.

Day 25: Countdown to Grand Canyon/Colorado River Rafting


25 days until we put in at Lee’s Ferry and enter Marble Canyon. Our outfitter is Canyoneers, operating out of Flagstaff, Arizona. We will be floating oar powered boats through the upper Grand, approximately 87 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Pipe Springs, near Phantom Ranch. 6 Days on the river, and the we hike out the South Rim.

One of the reasons we chose this group is because of the historical emphasis of the trip. There will be no motor powered support boat, so we won’t have to listen to outboards, just the pure sounds of the river and canyon and the slapping of waves on the bow and the creak of oars in the locks. Along with the rafts, the group will be using the “Sandra,” one of the original Nevills Expedition cataract boats. Built in 1947, the Sandra was the last of the big water cataract boats to be built by Norm Nevills. In 2000, Norm’s grandson, Greg Reiff, began having the Sandra fully restored. She is currently the only fully restored, river worthy, cataract boat originally built and run by Norm Nevills.

01583   Grand Canyon Nat Park: Historic River Photo


Here is a link to Canyoneers explaining the history of Norm Nevills and his boats:

The Canyoneers Story — From Nevills to Nowadays

Nevills was a commercial boater, running trips mainly on the San Juan River (he took his wife down the San Juan for their honeymoon, in a boat he built out of his mother’s horse trough). In addition, he took 7 trips down the canyon between 1938 and 1949, including a 43 day, 666 mile trip escorting two botanists from the University of Michigan to catalogue the flora of the canyon from Green River to Lake Mead. They were the first two women to successfully float the Grand Canyon.

nevills boat

Along the trip we will be visiting scenic areas and taking some short side hikes each day. We expect temperatures to range from 100 – 115 degeed Farenheit (they were running 110 last week).