Never Say Never: Packrafting the Grand Canyon
By Lizzy Scully
“I’m never packrafting the Grand Canyon.”
That’s what I told my partner, “Doom,” not even a year after I moved to Mancos from the Front Range to be with him.
He was heading into “The Grand” with a bunch of buddies for eight days in January, on these little inflatable boats I had only heard of a few years prior. They weigh eight pounds, are less than eight feet long, and look like brightly-colored pool toys.
It’s so cliché nowadays to describe them as such, but it’s true. They’re fancy, expensive pool toys that are so durable they last for decades. And they happen to be capable of running Class V whitewater.
Having worked at Alpacka Raft for two-and-a-half years, I knew the capabilities of a high-quality packraft. I also knew they were far more capable than me.
However, as Alaska Adventurer, Luc Mehl, once told me during an interview:
“A packraft is a gateway tool. Instead of a means to an end, it becomes its own thing. The Alpacka [Raft] boats do that. While you may purchase the boat to cross a river or float Class II, you’ll eventually discover it has huge potential for navigating Class III and IV. Get something that is better than you and learn up.”
OK, OK. I see your point, Luc. But still, even after I became somewhat obsessed with packrafting, I reasoned I’d never be bold enough to do the Grand. Why? Because the waves are five, ten…sometimes 15-feet tall. And when Doom described them to me, he most commonly used the word pummel.
“The waves will pummel you.”
“You’ll get pummeled.”
“You’ll definitely swim, and if you don’t hold on, you’ll lose your boat, won’t be able to breathe, will get pummeled, blah blah blah…”
Sounds enticing, no? I bet YOU really want to run the Grand Canyon in a packraft now, don’t you?!
The Weight of Fear
Cold, big rivers scare me more than pretty much anything.
In fact, my most horrible memories are primarily in snow-melt rivers while kayaking or rafting:
Getting caught in a strainer in the Big Thompson River in the spring and losing my boat.
Catapulting out of a raft on the Arkansas, early season in the middle of a Class IV rapid…and then having the delinquent kids I was “outdoor educating” push me under water and off the boat repeatedly as I tried to get back in.
And wet-exiting from my boat in pretty much any rapid I flipped in when I was learning.
So it turns out I’m really not super brave. Aside from the strainer, none of those experiences was epic in any sense. Drowning was not imminent. But, as mentioned, water scares the crap out of me.
“The Weight of Water”
But somewhat suddenly, something changed on September 28, 2019. That was the night I watched The Weight of Water at the Mancos Valley River Film Fest.
Made by filmmaker Michael Brown, the film documents adaptive adventurer Erik Weihenmayer’s whitewater kayaking trip on the Grand Canyon.
While it’s not the best adventure film I’ve ever seen, nor the most interesting or unique, the dude is badass, and he totally inspired me. He paddled 225 miles through a canyon with 5000-foot walls, and ran 80+ really big rapids—blind.
About the Rapids in the Grand Canyon
When I say Erik Weihenmayer ran “really big rapids,” I mean HUGE rapids.
Colorado River & Trail Expeditions describes the Grand Canyon’s special ratings scale as follows:
- Class 3: “maybe a 3–5 ft drop…”
- Class 4: “Large waves, long rapids, rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed.”
- Class 5: “Large waves, continuous rapids, large rocks and hazards, maybe a large drop, precise maneuvering.”
- Class 6: “Hazardous even for expert paddlers using state-of-the-art equipment. They come with the warning: danger to life or limb.”
- Class 7-10: “Huge waves that require maneuvering.” In other words, harder, much harder, and much much harder than anything in the Class 3-6 rating.
Need I explain more?
In the words of my favorite Swiftwater Safety Instructor, Dan Thurber, “Compared to a normal river, it’s mostly Class III with some big Class IVs mixed in.”
And those Class IVs—Hance, Hermit, Granite, Bedrock, Dubendorff, House Rock, 231-mile, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Specter, 24-mile Rapid and…Lava, especially Lava. Those names strike fear in even the best of boaters.
Lava and the Monster Waves
I love this description about Lava that Doom wrote in, The Portal, a blog post about the Grand:
“There are some big monster waves, holes and rapids that will eat a packraft alive just about every day on the Grand, but with careful attention and a bit of luck all those dangers can be mitigated and navigated within reason.
“But Lava is different. There is absolutely no easy or soft line through this roaring disaster of a rapid. The line is not straight and requires a perfect zig and zag past the initial ledge hole, though an impossible looking maze of crushing laterals, holes, cresting waves, with a final crescendo, if you are lucky, past Cheese Grater Rock and the Big Kahuna.
“The scout is intimidating and far away from the rapid. In approaching the horizon line nothing is visible until it’s too late to change your course. So you better be f’n dead on or it’s over before you even get started..."
So to watch Erik Weihenmayer head into each of those series of enormous waves, and especially Lava (which he paddled twice!!), changed my perspective.
Erik’s face had fear written all over it, but also resolve. And he was having fun and not dying!
Maybe I could do the Grand Canyon, too...
My December Trip Down the Grand
So in early November, when a lottery email appeared in my inbox from the Grand Canyon National Park, with a bunch of open dates in December, I knew instantly I would be going on the Grand.
I texted my close buddy, Jason: “Want to run the Grand Canyon in December?”
“You got a permit?” He replied.
“Well not yet, but I know I’m going to get one.”
And, I did. December 1st would be our launch date.
”Doom, I’m doing the Grand!” I accosted him the afternoon I found out as soon as he got home.
He looked at me incredulously and asked, “In the winter? Seriously? Well, awesome.”
It was winter. It would be cold and wet. But Doom had thought ahead. A year prior he had bought me a moon suit (a thick, water-resistant, fleece layer that scuba divers wear under their suits) in hopes I’d one day change my mind.
I’d be wearing it under my dry suit, along with wool layers, neoprene pogies to attach to my paddle, a neoprene cap for my head, and two pairs of thick wool socks.
Sadly, he had mountain biking plans in Laos, leaving the same day I was, so he wouldn’t accompany me and my small crew of six people. But all his warm gear and encouraging words (minus the continued use of pummel) would.
I prepared my gear that included my Alpacka Raft Wolverine and Aqua-Bound Shred.
Conquering the Fear and Finding My Groove
Turns out the trip blew my mind in ways I never imagined.
I spent the first few days gripped and swimming repeatedly—crying, shivering, and, in general, getting pretty frustrated.
But then things clicked for me on Day 3, and I stopped swimming every rapid. In fact, I spent the entire day after Phantom Ranch—the biggest and most notoriously-difficult day on the river—floating through 6s, 7s, and 8s like I knew what I was doing.
It was part luck and part harmony with the river. I found my groove. That didn’t mean I paddled the rest of the Grand Canyon cleanly. But I no longer wanted to puke when approaching rapids (well, except Lava), and I loved my experience!
Turns out, there’s so much more to the Grand Canyon than just the rapids. The walls rise thousands of feet from the river. The type of rock changes mile after mile, revealing geological history of the likes I’ve seen nowhere in my travels.
Small and large tributaries of varying colors and temperatures run into the river through slot canyons. Hikes abound, and gorgeousness is everywhere.
It’s a lifetime adventure I can’t describe in just 1,500 words. So I’ll just leave you with another of my favorite Doom quotes, also from The Portal:
“Once you go in you can't come back the same. You can come back, but you will be forever altered by a geological time machine that slowly pulls you deeper and deeper into an alien world of rock and quiet, and you will fall asleep to the sound of raging water as it mercilessly carves an unstoppable path closer and closer to its mother, the oceans of our planet..."
Lizzy Scully is co-owner of Four Corners Guides in Mancos, Colorado.
(photos courtesy of Jason Nelson)
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