Grand Canyon River Novice Gets in Over His Head

The week before my Grand Canyon trip, I e-mailed a friend: “We put in on November 11— apparently ‘put in’ is some sort of nautical term.” I didn’t know anything about whitewater rafting—actually, the term “put-in” was about all I knew. On this trip, that was where we would put the rafts in the river, and hopefully 28 days later take them out on the other side, all our limbs intact.

My friend Forest, who more or less grew up surfing southeast whitewater in a kayaking family, had invited me a year before: “There’s an open spot on a Grand Canyon raft trip. Do you want to go?”

I don’t hang out with whitewater folks much. The odds of being invited on the Mount Everest of raft trips again was slim. “Of course I want to go. Yes, Forest. What do you need? Take my money, please. What are the dates?”

I mean, I know how to hang onto things (I’m a rock climber), and I theoretically know how to swim (childhood swimming lessons), and I know how to camp and be nice to other people. How wrong could it go?

Two months before the put in, I did an 11-day backpacking trip with a friend, going mega-fast and light. I was so conscious of extra weight, I didn’t even take toothpaste or a second pair of pants on that trip. The Grand Canyon was going to be entirely different.

Raft trips are closer to car camping, if you substitute a small moving truck for the “car” in “car camping.” Say you ask, “Is it cool if I bring my _______?” The answer is always yes. Guitar. Steaks. This bottle of whiskey. This other bottle of whiskey. This bottle of tequila. Solar panels. Twenty-five gallons of propane, six boxes of charcoal, one six-burner stove, a steel 2-gallon coffee maker, 18 5-gallon Home Depot Homer Buckets, and 1,600 cans of beer. At the last minute, we left behind an unclothed female mannequin, probably a good call.

Thankfully, out of 15 people, more than enough of us were qualified to pilot six boats down the 280 miles of river that includes 40-plus rapids Class 3 or higher. I figured this meant I could be a passenger, responsible for nothing besides loading and unloading boats, some camp chores, sitting, holding on and periodically jumping on the high side of the boat when things got rowdy.

I jumped on a boat with Ray, a third-generation Montanan, owner of a tilesetting business whose father had given him his whitewater baptism at age 2. Ray was confident at the oars, and patient with questions like: What is an eddy? What is a hole? Where should I sit? What do I do if this thing flips? How do you know where the rocks are? Do you want another beer?

Being a passenger on a whitewater trip is basically getting on a carnival ride with an unknown outcome and no guarantee of safety. In the Grand Canyon, if you fall out of a boat, you plunge into 42-degree water—the water flows out of the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam, so it’s chilly, year-round. You wear a drysuit and a PFD, and sometimes a helmet, and your time on the raft entails long stretches of placid floating on flatwater, calm enough you can whisper to everyone else on the boat, punctuated by adrenaline dumps through thrashing waves up to 15 feet high, with towering rock walls on either side. After a year of planning climbing and backpacking trips and managing objective danger, I thought it might be nice to sit back and let someone else make the decisions. At times, it was. Other times, it was terrifying.

Ray told me that when we went through rapids, I should sit toward the front of the boat and lean forward, or basically push my face into the waves when they crashed over the bow of the boat. This way, he said, we’d maximize the weight in the front and minimize our chances of flipping. I wasn’t doing a hell of a lot in the front of the boat anyway, so I was happy to stick my face into the waves, and imagine myself Kate Winslet in Titanic.

I got drenched, slammed with gallons upon gallons of water, fire-hosed and hung onto cam straps on the front of the boat. I had no idea if Ray was doing a great job of steering the boat through the rapids, but we didn’t flip, so I figured he was ace-ing it. Each day, we did something bigger, with different objective hazards. Despite his explaining it to me multiple times, I still couldn’t spot the difference between a hole and a wave. I know we hit about a billion of them, and for each one, I leaned forward like a hood ornament.

Rafting culture is partly one of helping each other, because most things require more than one person—lifting the 100-pound box containing our kitchen supplies off a boat, putting a tarp over the kitchen when it starts raining, landing a boat and tying it off on a beach.

We worked together, moving in 4- to 25-mile increments down the canyon on its only thoroughfare, the river. We pulled off every afternoon at a different beach, set up the kitchen, a fire pan, and a ring of chairs around it, and our paco pads and tents spread on the sand or down social trails in the short desert brush. Past Conquistador Aisle, every campsite was hemmed in by soaring canyon walls, the first tier 1,500 feet above our heads, the canyon rims more than 4,000 vertical feet above.

Fine sand got in everything—drysuits, camera lenses, headphones, ears, noses, eyelashes, toothbrushes, coffee mugs. I woke up every morning with the sun, packed up my stuff and tossed it down on the beach by the boats. After breakfast, we broke down our home for the night and moved on down the river, never see that campsite again—unless we happened to do another Grand Canyon trip and repeat the same journey.

Day Off: Havasu Creek, one of many of the Grand’s side canyons. Photo: Brendan Leonard
Day Off: Havasu Creek, one of many of the Grand’s side canyons. Photo: Brendan Leonard

I was told the first day of the trip, “Oh, you’ll do some rowing. It’s 280 miles.”

Indeed, I did get behind the oars, first at calm sections, gradually getting into a little whitewater. I slowly learned how to make the raft move by pushing the right oar or pulling the left oar, and tried to read and react to the river. I learned two lessons right away: 1) a fully-loaded 18-foot raft is not nearly as responsive as a mountain bike, 2) the river will do what it wants with your raft. If you can’t read the river correctly, anything you can do with the oars is basically a suggestion.

The Grand Canyon has its own rapid rating system, up to Class 10. Each step up on the Grand Canyon scale translates to a half-step in the normal river rating system—Class 6 in the Grand Canyon is roughly Class 3, Class 8 in the Grand Canyon is roughly Class 4, etc. I had rowed nothing bigger than Class 5 on Day 10, when we pulled over to scout Hermit Rapid, a Class 8 rapid with a 15-foot drop. I tied up our boat and let Ray hike down to check it out, figuring I was just along for the ride, so I could see it when we were going through it.

When Ray came back to the boat, he said, “You could probably row it if you wanted to,” and I said it’s up to you. He laughed and said, “I know, but I really want to row it.” I said, “Whatever, your call.”

I had already untied our boat. Ray took a second, looked at me and said “You should do it.” We jumped on, and I took the oars. What the hell. If Ray thinks I can do it, I can probably do it. Well, there’s at least a 50 percent chance. Or 40.

I was a kid whose dad had let him drive around the neighborhood a few times, now sitting behind the wheel to get on the freeway, at rush hour. But I didn’t know that. I hadn’t looked at the rapid, or read anything about it in the river map. Had I Googled Hermit Rapid before the trip, I would have seen things like “Perhaps the strongest hydraulics and biggest waves in the canyon.” But, I hadn’t. I had also never seen a fully-loaded 18-foot boat flip down here, so I was pretty naive about what I was getting into.

We started to drift out toward the current. Ray jumped up to the front of the boat and gave me specific directions: “Point the nose that way.” I pushed one oar forward, then the other. “Aim for that big wave.” I pushed both. “A little left.”

Then all we could hear was crashing water, and it got too loud to talk. Ray just pointed, hanging on with his other hand. “Left, OK.” “More left, OK.”

And then we were in it, the boat bucking wildly, a rush of water poured over Ray and the front of the boat and he disappeared under it for a flash. I pushed with the right oar, then pushed hard with the left oar, completely missing the water with the blade. I dug in with the left oar and watched the river push the oar into the boat, and then we hit the big wave and the bow popped up and Ray was in front, above my head, for a half-second, and we came down, the boat still straight and pointing downstream, a total surprise to the guy at the oars.

Ray let out a WOOT, and I did too, and he yelled “One more!” like not-so-fast-buddy and I gripped the oars like oh shit. We hit the last big wave, rolled over the top, and bounced out the smaller waves to the calm water and the raft gently spun.

Ray and I, both drenched in our drysuits, high-fived as I took my hand off the oar for a second.

Doug Woodward, Forest’s father, is a bit of an icon in the paddling world of the southeast. He built his own kayaks, owned a guiding business, was a stunt double in Deliverance, and was one of the first people to paddle the Colorado River in a kayak—back in 1970. This was his second Grand Canyon trip.

Doug was a young 77, and commanded the boat with a quiet ease, kind of the way he did everything. I jumped on with him on Day 11, since Forest wanted to paddle a kayak.

Doug was calm and methodical on the oars. Maybe it was just his demeanor, but I felt like the boat moved like a Cadillac over the waves as I sat on the front. Just above Serpentine Rapid, I considered that many Americans give up their driver’s licenses by age 77, and here I was riding in a boat with Doug, through a Class 7 Rapid. I figured his 60 years of whitewater experience trumped my 60 minutes by a long shot, and he could probably do better rowing the boat blindfolded than I could at all.

We cruised Serpentine, hardly a splash of water over the front of the boat. After it, Doug let me row, and I figured on cruising us over a mile or two of flat water to the campsite at Bass—but after a few minutes of pushing the oars, I heard the rush of whitewater around a corner. As we approached the rapid and watched a couple boats go over the horizon line and bounce over the waves, I asked Doug if he’d rather row, and he calmly said, “I think you’ll be all right.” Of course neither of us knew what the rapid was, and Forest had told me I might need to help Doug a little because his long-range vision wasn’t that great.

We were last in line behind Ray and Allison’s boat, and they sat almost completely unmoving at the entrance to the rapid, to the right of a huge boulder. We gained on them quickly, and I thought at any second Ray would hit the fast water and take off, giving us room to run it behind him. I pulled both oars to slow us down, but that pushed the boat toward the middle of the river, where we’d broadside the big mid-channel boulder. I tried to yell Ray’s name to get his attention, but he didn’t hear me.

I was sure I am going to hit Ray, screw us both going through the rapid together, and someone was going to flip and no one would be back to help us out. I was going to ruin the trip because I couldn’t find the brake pedal on this goddamn boat is shit.

Doug was completely undisturbed, lying on the paco pads on the front end of the raft like a guy relaxing on the beach. I looked ahead and saw total carnage. Doug’s body language said he was not worried in the least. I wonder if his heart rate had even gone up yet. Mine was JACKED.

I pushed the left oar, and then the right, and just when I thought we’d bump the other raft, Ray turned and saw us, and yelled “Not good, guys!”

He pushed into the rapid just in time, and I pushed my oars, just missing the big boulder on our left. Later, someone would tell me that we just threaded the needle between another boulder on the right, which I hadn’t seen in front of Ray’s boat.

We popped into the waves, and I made a couple of oar strokes and kept the boat straight through the part where it mattered, then let the river spin the boat as we exited the rapid. I exhaled, and unclenched my butt muscles. Doug could have ridden the rapid with a box of movie theater popcorn in his hands.

Slowly I began to understand river culture, I think. We were in no hurry, really, often getting on the river by noon, sometimes 1 p.m., then pulling into another beach at 4 p.m. to call it a day. Climbing, by contrast, is a very self-motivated pursuit. You’re in control of every movement, every small decision, and there is little to react to besides geological surprises and weather. On the river, the water mostly decides your speed, and the course of it determines what you’ll do. Your reactions to the river and your split-second decisions are the difference between flipping the boat and staying upright through burly rapids.

You don’t have to be a triathlete—fitness has almost nothing to do with being a good captain. Strength can help, but reading the river and knowing what to do with the cards it deals you are the most important things, and I watched some masterful boaters negotiate the big, scary stuff: Hance, Horn Creek, Bedrock, Upset, Lava Rapid. Dave’s boat always rolled through wherever he wanted it to, as if he was always in control no matter where his boat went. Sara always looked like she worked the oars the hardest, but almost always picked the best line. I doubt Jeff’s pulse ever went up, even rowing the Class 9 Lava Falls. People who know how to relax, take in all the data in a small amount of time, and understand what they can change about a situation and what they can’t—they do well on water. I often struggled, pushing and pulling too much, working hard and misreading the river.

We took out at Pearce Ferry 28 days later without a major incident—no flipped rafts, no lost gear, no helicopter evacuations, and hardly a disagreement among the group. I had rowed a big boat, navigated a gnarly rapid, and learned some of what it was all about. When I jumped off the raft onto the ramp at Pearce Ferry, it felt like I had just hitched a ride through the biggest, wildest canyon in America—which you can’t do on your own.

Brendan Leonard is a climber and writer, and now knows a little bit about boats. His book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at

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