In preparing for a grand canyon trip in January of 2018, I was in need of some rowing experience. I’ve grown up on rivers but I rarely was able to get behind some oars and feel what moving a large boat around felt like.
Luckily, I was able to hop on a quick overnight trip in West Water Canyon, a beautiful section of the Colorado River above Moad that mimics the hydraulics and landscape of the Grand Canyon’s inner gorge–or at least as close as any river can. Some family friends, Greg and Suzy, agreed to take me on as a novice rower.
I was nervous about the Rapids mainly because this section of water is one of only two sections or river to flip my dad’s boat (the one I’d be rowing). The other river is the Grand Canyon. I figured if I could get through “Skull”, the crux of the run, I’d be confident enough to row a boat down the Grand–I just needed some reassurance.
The first day was short and sweet, consisting of flat water and lots of gazing at old rocks. The canyon is made up of contrasting red sandstone at the rim and black Precambrian Vishnu Schist at water level. While I am not a geologist or know much about rocks at all, it was pretty clear this was cool stuff.
Due to the sculpted, sheer nature of the inner gorge, cliff jumping and climbing opportunities are abound.
After a beautiful evening and morning in camp just about the first of the rapids, it was time to get into the “fun” of the trip on day two. The very same geology that creates such great playing upstream creates some nasty hydraulics once you get into the inner gorge and the river starts to pitch downward. With nowhere to stop and scout, about 10 rapids come at you, one after another, separated only by a few minutes of disconcerting calm water between.
Everything went great until Sock-It-To-Me, one of the last rapids. I was so focused on getting Skull right, I guess I wasn’t listening very well to Greg earlier in the morning when he was explaining the rapids ahead and what to avoid. We punched through the major hole just as planned but got spun around pretty quickly and slammed sideways into “The Magnetic Wall”, a cliff face perpendicular to the flow of water–and the main current goes right to it.
We were not in danger of flipping but we were pretty stuck. The combination of the water level and the fact that we were in a catamaran style boat meant we couldn’t just spin off the cliff face. There were boulders protruding from the water which were now securely wedged in the empty space between the two pontoons of the raft. Luckily for me, Suzy was in the boat with me and knew what to do.
We rocked the boat in rhythm with the surging water and eventually were floated/smashed free of the wall. Now the problem was re-entering the main flow from within the eddy created by The Magnetic Wall. You’d think this would be easy enough, but a few thousand CFS of water flowing in opposite directions creates some gnarly and unpredictable currents. I failed on my first attempt to punch through and was spun once again into the wall, almost getting pinned over the boulders again.
I could see that the eddy wall was less strong a bit up stream so, on my second attempt, I snuck up the eddy which was just about the width of the boat and was able to use the canyon wall as a spring board and leverage the raft out into the main stream using one of the oars. Once we spun past the magnetic wall finally, it was time for a sigh of relief and a beer.
We still had a good number of flat, play-filled river miles before the take-out. During this time I reflected on how fortunate I am to live so close to this beautiful place and have friends who are happy to take me under their wing for a little adventure. Arguably, I was a liability–I was over my head and could have flipped, changing the tone of the trip for a family that was just out to have a relaxing few days. I’m not sure I would have done as well in the white water if I didn’t have Greg to follow and Suzy in my boat giving encouragement and support.
For the rest of the day, we floated as slowly as possible, jumped off cliffs, drank lots of beer and tequila, and soaked up the amazing scenery around us. Eventually, the take out did come and it was time to quickly pack up, say our goodbyes, down some coffee shots, and drive home.
The whole trip took just about 36 hours from home to home–reaffirming the fact that emotionally resetting adventures don’t need to be weeks long and extream.
Coming out of this trip, I was full of encouragement but humbled by the sheer power of a river like the Colorado. I hope this balance of courage and respect for a big river sticks around until January. I’m sure it won’t be as warm in the Grand Canyon or as simplistic. But if West Water is any predictor, the Grand trip will be one hell of a ride.