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A very big adventure

Last fall, Hailey’s Scott Douglas joined a group of friends from the Wood River Valley to embark on the trip of a lifetime: 18 days kayaking the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Battling wild turkeys and wilder rapids, he emerged with a keener sense of place in the American West. Photos by Chris Pilaro.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since I applied for my permit to run the Grand Canyon 13 years ago. Inspired by my first trip down the Colorado River, in 1993, I committed my name to the lengthy waiting list. In hindsight, it was the first long-term commitment I’d ever made. Where would I be in the decade-plus when my number came up? I did not ask. The only thing that mattered was getting back to that wonderful place.

November 11, 2006, was our designated launch date. Sixteen of us (10 from the Wood River Valley) had rendezvoused at Lee’s Ferry the previous day to rig the expedition. About a hundred miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and just south of the Utah border, Lee’s Ferry was the last point of road access before the river plunged into the mile-deep chasm of the Grand. It was 226 river miles to our take-out at Diamond Creek, not far from Las Vegas.

Side by side on the beach, our five rafts were buoyant under their loads. Lashed on board were provisions for 18 days. Beside them, six kayaks were lined up ready for takeoff.

Day eight: mile 89—Located in the heart of the Canyon, at the hub of trails accessing both north and south rims, Phantom Ranch is the place to leave or join a river trip in progress. Today, we were swapping four for four. My wife, Carrie, Anne Marie Gardner, and two others were leaving. Pam Street, Eric Boyer, Gary Boyer and Peter Boice were slated to arrive on the beach by 11 a.m. Those leaving would return to Hailey in the same vehicle the newcomers had arrived in. Beyond this, I’d left the details to them, and basic questions such as which trail, vehicle location, type and where to hide the key were not addressed.

That was my first mistake.

We hit the beach ahead of the incoming crew, and Carrie and Anne Marie (reluctant to leave yet eager to return to their young children in Hailey) wanted to get a jump on the 5,000-foot climb to the south rim. Assuming they chose the same trail, they could meet en route and get the info they needed to get home. If not, I reasoned, they would recognize the vehicle and know where to find the key. I walked the first mile of the Bright Angel Trail with them before saying goodbye. Then, on my way back to the river, I was attacked by a couple of turkeys.

The birds worked as a team to cut off my escape. I kicked and flailed, hoping there were no witnesses, as they pecked my shins. Resisting the urge to cry out, I opted to run, thinking I could get away, but every time I looked over my shoulder, the turkeys sped up, so I kept running all the way back to the beach.

Sweating and flustered, I sat down with the guidebook to plot our next moves, opening to a blurb on John Wesley Powell.

sing wooden boats, Powell led trips down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869 and 1871, through the heart of terra incognita. His grasp of the western climate and geography, with particular respect to water, was unpopular and prophetic. In the face of expansionist boomers insisting that rain followed the plow, Powell’s sober analysis of the arid region won him few friends in Washington, D.C. But despite powerful rivals, he went on to be a founding director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and is remembered for his bold explorations and scientific integrity.

Something was wrong. The car keys dangling from an outstretched finger made no sense. If the car was parked on the rim, what were the keys doing down here by the river? Carrie and Anne Marie were long gone. There was no way to communicate with them. I ran a series of laps back and forth to the Phantom Ranch canteen to troubleshoot the problem. Was there a mule train heading to the south rim anytime soon? No. Could we camp on the beach while we sent runners up and back? No. Could we contact someone on the rim and have them paged? Maybe. Finally, a sympathetic ranger agreed to let us camp so we could run the keys out ourselves. The 5,000-foot, up-and-down, 20-mile roundtrip could be accomplished by midnight if we got moving right away.

Mark and Aaron volunteered to accompany me. We stuffed packs with water, snacks, headlamps and extra layers, and put on our running shoes. Mistakes aside, the net positive was a stunningly beautiful walk. We ascended the Kaibab Trail, the most direct route out, pausing only to gasp at the views.

Vishnu Temple, Shiva Temple, Zoroaster’s Pinnacle, Wotan’s Throne…the Canyon’s most dramatic features spread out in dizzying array. Under Powell’s tutelage, Clarence Dutton wrote the first detailed description of Grand Canyon geology in 1873. Taken by what he saw, Dutton aptly named many prominent features for the deities of world religions. Jacked-up on endorphins during our speedy ascent, the Canyon expanded in multi-dimensional form and scale until we were euphoric.

We found Carrie and Anne Marie in the visitor’s center bar in Grand Canyon Village. After more hugs, apologies and farewells, they hit the road, and we ordered beers and burgers to fortify ourselves for the long walk back to the river. We dropped below the rim at sunset. The canyon turned orange, violet and indigo before falling into shadow and darkness. Opting to descend the longer, less-steep Bright Angel Trail, we got back to the boats at 11 p.m., grateful that the turkeys were asleep.

Day 15: mile 179—Though 99 percent scenic float, the Grand Canyon is famous for its whitewater. The rapids form at the mouths of side canyons, where flood debris shoots into the river, obstructing the flow. The result is a damming effect, producing flat water and horizon lines above the drops, and, given the heavy volume and deep, constricted channel, big waves and hydraulics. A classic test piece, it combines powerful features with mostly good run-outs. Success depends on setup, the ability to pivot and square your craft, and luck. There are lots of places to flip a raft in the canyon. We managed it three times. Two of those involved our smallest raft. At 14 feet, it had the least margin for error. The third flip occurred in Lava to a seasoned Grand Canyon boatman, who would be the first to say the rest of the river is a warm up for Lava Falls.

The result of igneous boulders at the mouth of Senate Creek, Lava Falls is what remains of a flow that once dammed the Colorado back to the confluence of the Green, near Moab, Utah. It drops 37 feet, double the other big ones in half the distance. The approach is terrifying. The river disappears over the horizon line, its only evidence the puffs of mist shot up by the waves and holes exploding below. There is no sneak at this level, so kayaks and rafts cue off the burble line on the rapid’s tongue, and run the meat. There is no other way through. You take your blows, and a good entry guarantees nothing.

Mark had a good entry. He knew all the lines and rarely missed his. But Lava can turn around the best-oriented boater. I was right behind him on the tongue, and saw him swept broadside.

The first wave he was slightly off square, the second a little more and the third one flipped him like a pancake, hard into the whitewater maw. I did my best to shut out Mark’s predicament and row. Unable to see beyond the next wave crest, I didn’t know he was still trapped under his boat.
I pulled through, my crew drenched,
to see Mark swimming next to his
boat in the tail waves with his lips turning blue.

With help from Peter Boice in his kayak and a couple of spare paddles, we got the upside-down boat to shore above the next rapids. I’ve known Mark a long time and, though he’s excitable, I’ve never seen him overly traumatized by an experience. Still, I had to insist he get out of the river and warm up. For the rest of the day he stared into the middle distance, having seen his elephant in Lava Falls.

Alive below Lava, we drifted in silence and awe, the landscape cooked and cooled into shiny black formations radiating heat and drying us out.

To experience such a ride was a gift, the sun warm on the white sand at the river’s edge, barrel cacti and bighorn sheep dotting the hillsides. Kayakers came on board the rafts to lounge and join the party of old friends. In three days we’d return to our separate lives. A convoy of two trucks overflowing with people and gear would drive north to Idaho, where the beauty of home would help ease the pain of reentry.