First night of the trip was spent getting food at Marble Canyon lodge and camping alongside the river, just downstream of the launch ramp. We setup everything on this cold night, in the dark, awaking with frost on the tents and all the gear. It was peeking out the tent, this morning, that I saw the Colorado River for the first time.
After a few minutes of packing up, NPS Officer Pressey approached us and began discussing the inspection/orientation procedures. A quick breakfast was had, I even took a work call and helped our retail store out with an issue on my computer, packed camp and on down to the ramp we went.
We laid out all of the required pieces of gear she needed to see; firepan/fire blanket, spare PFD, signal mirror, orange tarps, spare paddle, food strainer, hand cleaning system and “groovers”, or human waste management systems.
Following this was a 30 minute talk about Canyon decorum and “how not to die”. Dan and I, both having been river guides, knew the kind of speech well, it was quite similar to the speeches we have given hundreds of times to guests, but with a deal of Leave No Trace added in. It was after she finished and said “Good luck!” that I had one of the more nerve racking moments of the trip.
Dan had never fully packed his LL Stinger XP and he was figuring out how to do it on the spot. At least the truck was still here should he come to realize the volume of the Stinger was less than the combined volume of his gear. It took an hour or so, but finally around noon, it pretty much was all in there one way or the other, with a little bit strapped on to the top of the back hatch. First hurdle of the trip down, but with enough kit and food to do a 3 week trip, I hoped he wasn’t floating at armpit level!
At this point I was chomping at the bit to make some miles. This was the Colorado we were on and this was the Colorado through the Grand Canyon! Kayakers know there are many more intimidating places to boat; Stikine, Yarlung Tsangpo, Susitna, Congo etc. but I would argue amongst the masses and the non-lifestylers, this is the most fabled piece of whitewater on the planet. I knew I had prepared more than most who have done this and my whitewater ability far exceeded what was needed, but still, it’s the Grand Canyon and you don’t know until you KNOW.
After a few miles we approached our first bit of a horizon line, a rapid not even listed in the guide book. I drifted towards the lip, quickly spotted a wave train down the left and just proceeded on down, not thinking much of it. Dan was a bit behind me, maybe a couple hundred yards and I expected he would make the same quick recon that I did and be down here shortly below the rapid. I was surprised when I saw him out of his boat.
Over the years of paddling in the Southeast, the Cumberland Plateau and I have become great friends. The Canyon Lands of east TN are a very familiar place to me and I’ve ventured down many of the ripples in the fabric of the land they make. I believe having done this helped tremendously in boat scouting rapids like this, Dan however, isn’t nearly so versed in the pool drop nature of Plateau country and the horizon lines they bring. Had I not spent so many days out on the Big South Fork, Caney Fork, and Island Creek and so on, I might have been on that shore with him.
Following a 15 minute scout, he chose the line I that was trying to describe with hand signals and met me at the bottom. Quickly I learned that I would need to help him decipher these puzzles until he became better versed in the game.
We got to Badger shortly after, the first real rapid down there and both of us were at the horizon line. I peered over the edge, saw a left to right line that looked good and went for it without getting out. My logic was that he would see my line, get the drift of what needed to be done and we’d be on our way. At this point, that wasn’t working yet. He got out and scouted again and 20 minutes eventually found his way down to me.
At Soap Creek rapid further down the line, we both got out and scouted, I hoped maybe that would help save some time if we discussed it together versus him scouting alone. It might have been a little bit quicker, but it was still 15 minutes or so.
I detail all of this out because it points to a very important aspect of a trip like this. You have to make it downstream; aborting isn’t really an option, portaging really isn’t an option and you are on a deadline. Time is a very valuable and finite resource, you don’t just get more of it. As the trip leader, I’m running calculations in my head the entire time, such as current speed, time needed to break camp, time needed to pack boats, to rest, to scout. It was early in the trip, data collection was still limited, but early conclusions led me to begin to worry. At the end of day 1, we had only made 20 miles and we only had 6 more full days to get down to Diamond Creek, 206 miles downstream. Tomorrow we would tackle the “Roaring 20s”, one of the more continuous stretches of whitewater on the river and as big as anything we paddled this day.
Camp that night was fairly quiet, it was a nice spot on North Canyon. I think Dan fell asleep almost immediately, but for me, it was the beginning of a frustrating occurrence. For all but one night on this trip, I would get less than 4 hours sleep a night, sometimes as little as 2. Laying in the dark, surrounded by the immensity and gravity of a place such as this, with my mind unable to relax, proved to be my greatest challenge. It wouldn’t be the chaos of the rivers rapids, but the chaos of my own mind and thoughts that I would be tackling the hardest.