Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rafting the Grand Canyon during winter is gamble with the elements

P otential for debilitating desert coldness was the  baseline in preparations to raft the Colorado River through Arizona’s Grand Canyon during February.

Nobody could overlook the group’s experience four years ago of night temperatures down to 9 degrees. Water had to be heated to thaw valves so rafts could be inflated. Beer froze if you didn’t sleep with it.

That arctic-like weather stretch put the chill on the thrill of running some of the raging whitewater rapids, said trip organizer Brian Burns of Boise.

But when the Payette River guide drew a river permit in the National Park Service lottery for this winter, he had no trouble rounding up a group of 10 friends for another whirl at a 30-day float through time.

“I hate to miss the Super Bowl,” said Scott Somerville, a diehard Seahawks fan from Seattle. “But this is the Super Bowl of rafting trips.” He’d left his job guiding eagle-watching excursions on the Skagit River to meet Burns in Arizona in late January.

Beating the high odds against drawing a Grand Canyon launch permit is easier for the winter season than for the more comfortable peak seasons.

“There are good reasons for that,” Burns said. “For one, you don’t see many bikinis on the river during winter.”

The Big Ditch, as rafters like to call the Grand Canyon, is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. “Everyone should see this place,” he said.

Millions have – about 4.4 million a year – mostly by way of cars, RVs, buses and helicopters that usher visitors to the developed sites. About 29,000 people a year float the river through the park on private or commercial raft trips. Up to 150 people a day can launch on the river during peak season and up to 900 can be scattered down the river.

Winter on the river is relatively lonely. Only one group is allowed to launch a day compared with up to six a day during peak periods.

Burns’ group was comprised mostly of Northwest whitewater guides looking for adventure during their offseason. While a 16-day commercial trip costs about $4,000 per person, the guides already have their own rafts and gear, making the canyon trip a cheap escape.

“This is like going to heaven if you’re a guide,” Burns said, noting that they’re surrounded by endless eye-popping scenery and running some of the most fabled rapids in North America.

“Best of all, we can’t spend any money for the month we’re here except what we lose at nickel-ante poker.”

Everyone wore dry suits on the river to protect layers of fleece insulation that would offer the chance to survive a flip or being ejected from a raft into numbing 46-degree water.

In the evenings, one couple wore felt-lined boots they’d purchased for other winter pursuits, such as ice fishing.

I packed a sleeping bag I got years ago for climbing Mount McKinley. It proved to be a wise choice on at least five of my 14 nights on the river.

However, the morning cold usually is offset by the dry comfort of desert sunshine. A 50-degree afternoon was ideal for challenging rapids, hiking side-canyon trails or bringing a chair at camp to the cooler-turned-poker table.

Raft trips start 16 miles downstream from Page, Ariz., and Lake Powell. The National Park Service launch, campground and river rangers are at the site of Lee’s Ferry, which was established in 1871 and operated until 1928.

We arrived a few days early to sort out group rafting gear, hike the lower Paria River and Vermillion Cliffs and explore Mormon history where the tracks of pioneer wagons remain etched in sandstone.

Park rangers take the dangers of rafting and hiking the Grand Canyon seriously, requiring each group at the launch to show they have important safety gear for each boat including extra oars, repair kit, throw ropes, first-aid kit and Colorado River-worthy lifejackets with no defects.

Other rules, which win overwhelming approval from rafters, are geared to preserving the heavily used river shoreline. Gray water is strained to remove food particles that must be packed out with garbage. Cooking is done on tarps so crumbs can be removed to keep beaches clean and avoid attracting ants and wasps. Pee goes in the river, not on the shoreline.

“The river camps would be uninhabitable by now if rafters weren’t required to pack out their poop,” said Burns, who masterfully chose a scenic but discrete group “groover” site at each camp.

This trip was planned with numerous layover days for exploring marked trails and countless miles of canyons, washes, slots, ridges and ledges.

Cultural attractions include petroglyphs, pictographs, wood remnants of an Anasazi bridge and Puebloan granaries near Nankoweap Creek built around 900-1150 A.D. The Grand Canyon has 50,000 known archeological sites, about 500 of which are in the river corridor.

We visited several memorials and boat wrecks of 19th century explorers who ran the Colorado before rubber rafts and lifejackets. The rafters seemed even more solemn as they rowed past several sites surveyed and marked in the 1920s for dams that would have flooded key portions of the canyon.

At the river’s pace, floaters absorb gradual transitions. Every few days, new life zones and layers of geology are exposed.

The wildlife experience ranged from finding 500-million-year-old marine fossils to spotting desert bighorns, mule deer, ringtail cats, spotted skunks, lizards, indigo buntings, canyon wrens – and our breathtaking sighting of three California condors soaring for miles along the rim without flapping a feather in their 12-foot wingspans.

Most campsites are home to a pair of ravens skilled at opening pack zippers for a granola bar. Food must be kept in hard containers.

Floating the Grand Canyon is an expedition in itself, but the hiking opportunities beg for more than the 16-day commercial trip.

Burns pegged campsites for layovers that offered day hiking to scenic destinations, such as the canyon rim or the five waterfalls in Havasu Canyon. Almost every day included a stop for short hikes from the rafts. A trail at Mile 71 led to Hill Top Ruins and overlooks of upcoming Unkar Rapid and the foundations of a Pueblo village.

Hiking from the river to the rim – not for softies – offers a glimpse at the canyon as a garden in the desert. At least 1,737 species of vascular plants have been identified in Grand Canyon National Park compared with about 1,450 in Olympic National Park and 1,350 in Yellowstone.

The variety owes largely to the 8,000-foot elevation change from the river to the highest point on the North Rim. A hiker can sample four or five life zones, from cacti and mesquite up to pinyon pine, juniper and fir trees in a rim-to-rim trek.

At Lee’s Ferry, days before our launch, we hiked Spencer Trail, the first of several routes to the top of the canyon we’d explore during the trip.

At River Mile 0, we could make the 2-mile round-trip to the rim, gaining 1,500 feet in elevation, in an hour.

By Mile 25, the walls tower 2,500 feet above the river. By the time we’d traveled 70 miles downstream, a hike out of the canyon carved deeper by the Colorado River would take more than three hours.

By Mile 88 at Phantom Ranch, a hiker climbs four or five hours and 4,500 in elevation to reach the South Rim or gain 5,600 feet to the North Rim.

Vertical cliffs lining the top of the canyon leave precious few notches for climbing the last 200 feet to the rim. Spanish explorer Coronado, on his 1540 quest to find gold, sent men to explore the canyon but they couldn’t find a way to get a horse down off the rim to the river. Natives weren’t giving away the secrets.

John Wesley Powell’s 1869 pioneering expedition of the entire river was the first effort to produce maps that led to further exploration and eventually tourism.

“This is a committed trip,” said Park Ranger Vonk at the mandatory pre-launch orientation. “It’s a big deal.”

The Colorado River flows 1,400 miles from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. The 277 miles of the river flowing through the Grand Canyon showcases 50 million years of erosion that enlightens geologists and inspires artists.

The first chance to take out a raft is 226 miles downstream at Diamond Creek, followed by Pearce Ferry at Mile 280 and South Cove in the slackwater of Lake Mead at Mile 297.

This stretch of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon is spiced with 86 significant rapids, including Lava Falls, which rampages over garage-size boulders at more than 25 mph. It’s reputed to be the fastest navigable whitewater in the Western Hemisphere.

“There’s plenty of excitement before Lava,” Burns said.

All the rafters on his trip told stories of being ejected or flipping boats in “the gnar” of the river over the years.

“Generally with loaded boats, it’s all about the line you get at the start,” Burns said. “Running one of the canyon’s big rapids can be a breeze if you hit the right line, but if you’re off a little, the going gets gnarly. The holes are huge, raft-eating monsters.”

A few days into the trip, one young woman who’d worked as a guide on Washington rivers such as the Wenatchee, announced she was too freaked out to continue after seeing the size of some of the holes. She left the trip at Mile 88 and hiked out to the South Rim, leaving her boyfriend to continue alone downstream with their raft.

“It’s the best thing for both of us,” she said. “I wake every morning overwhelmed with anxiety.”

But for the rest of the group, the rapids were the main event. The pairs in each boat read river guidebook reports as they approached each rapid. They called to each other, sharing their past experiences in the calm before each rapid. They hiked above the river and scouted the most dangerous whitewater.

They never tired of looking downstream and seeing the white froth splashing above the waterline as though a couple of kids were playing in a bubble bath.

Burns would stand on his seat as the roar of rapids increased, trying to size up the hazards and plan a good line.

“No turning back now,” he yelled over the din as the first heavyweight wave of the trip punched the 16-foot raft and snapped me across the bow like a rag doll holding a panic strap.

“Yee-ow!” he screamed reacting to the chill and the thrill. “One down, 80 to go.”