By Dave Briggs

Following last years kayak trip to the source of the White Nile in Uganda and the third and final of Africa's 3 main waterways I thought it was high time to explore further a field and undertake that elusive Colorado and the infamous Grand Canyon. With the waiting list for a private permit sitting in the sixteen year waiting period I figured that hooking up with a bunch of Americans would be the next best option so after a lot of E mails I found myself on route for Flagstaff via London and Phoenix Arizona, a good 24 hrs flight one way. Not managing to secure a suitable boat in this country for the trip and nothaving enough time to accept Steve fishers generous offer of lending me a Riot design I opted for the Bandit, a sponsored New Zealand boat, longer than the conventional play boats but amazingly suited for surfing the larger, faster waves that the canyon offers. This was alternated with the short stunt boat made by Jackson kayaks, Canada, which could surf even the highest and steepest wave and hole imaginable (this included the lower cycling wave of Lava!) All our gear for fifteen days was carried on the large inflatables (see pic), which although sometimes over 30 or 40 feet would sometimes find themselves upside down.

My association with the Colorado river originates way back to 1979 when my Brother Nigel, my Dad and I rode down the Bright Angel trail to the base of the chasm in rather icy conditions and back up again. I then returned in 1982 to enter Cataract canyon on an inflatable, which is above Glen Canyon dam and now 23 years later decided it was high time to kayak the main section of the Gorge in this ravine, which sometimes extends over 6000` into the center of the earth. There are approximately 10 major dams (which have had quite an impact on the rivers ecology) on this river, which eventually trickles out into the gulf of Mexico having lost most of its flow to over 20 million people and 2 million acres of agricultural farmlands while generating over 12 million KWs of electricity each year. .
The Grand canyon, now a world heritage site and one of the seven wonders of the world, was first explored in 1869 by Major john Wesley Powell in boats not fit for a bath tub let alone the hydraulics of this geological wonder and since then it has claimed the lives of manyaspiring adventurers (there's even a book out called "death in the Canyon" which details these drownings, climbing accidents, plane crashes, hypothermia and dehydration. (One may still see the remains of these wooden so called boats still lying high above today's water level) The distance from the North to South rim extends somewhere from one to twelve kilometers while the inner rim closes in so tightly sometimes that the sky is hardly visible, and eighty years onwards in 1949, only 100 people had ever traveled the river.

The main entry point and accepted start of the canyon gorge is believed to be Lees ferry, slightly down stream from Glen canyon dam (710 feet high and built 1963). The water originates more than 200-300 feet below the dam surface and the water is freezing, somewhere between 7-13 degrees Celsius while the air temperature is well into the mid thirties and even late forties in summer. This is great for trout of which there is plenty but not underdressed South Africans used to warm tropical water. Just about everyone paddles in dry tops, sometimes wet suits and most have thermal gear etc underneath. The canyon part of the river then winds over 270miles down to Lake Mead and Hoover dam where there is also another hydroelectric station, and which between Glen canyon and Hoover alters the flow rate depending on the demand for electricity in towns such as Las Vegas down stream. If the major tributaries of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado river were placed end to end they would probably cover a distance in excess of 20 000 kms. Before Glen canyon dam flow rates of in excess of 200 000 cumecs have been reported which would have resulted in most of the legendary rapids being washed out, however creating hugeeddy lines and hydraulics. Typically now the level alternates between 5000 to 20 000 cubic meters per second which creates sometimes rather exciting paddling. A lot of the Canyon is fast flowing large volume water with many side canyons entering (also bearing trout) along the way. Initially it is crystal clear however depending which side stream is flowing, such as the confluence of the Little Colorado it more often than not changes to2that of muddy brown, reminiscentof at least something back home. As one travels further into the canyon the rapids become more frequent however not that technical apart from Horn creak where a ferry to the left at this water level prevented one from a series rather ugly, large holes leading directly into an undercut cliff face and a definite, if you lucky, rather unpleasant under water swim for some extended time. Other well known such as Hans, Granite (often referred to as an aquatic hell), Crystal and a few others contained big upstream breaking waves, and laterals bouncing off the cliff faces, interspersed by the usual holes and river hydraulics that large rivers contain. It is however still a relatively forgiving river, which certainly necessitates a bombproof roll or some unpleasant down time. Most of the large waves, even those that are recycling upstream and rolling backwards, would stop one dead, flip you backwards end over end then more often than not release you. Like any other big volume river there are the usual eddy lines at the bottom of rapids and big whirlpools both of which are fun in small boats. Lava (created by a huge lava flow that obliterated and dammed the river for some time and distinguished by this black aerie wedge of lavorous rock extending directly into the river), was undoubtedly the most interesting, probably because of the incredible surfing foam pile at the bottom which would recycle every now and again, and if one was lucky (or unlucky enough!) to catch it, would pick the boat and paddler skywards and bury both in the same way a hollow wave out at sea would do to a cork. (This undoubtedly had to be one of the most legendary surfing waves at this level I have ever seen) On the bottom right the river piled into a rock and became redirected back upstream in quite a violent upstream eddy and boil while exiting downriver again through a very narrow one-meter gap. I did see a kayaker become sucked through this upside down and if it wasn't for her very competent ability and cool head of remaining in the boat inverted, the outcome could have been fatal. It did however create magnificent surfing activity for both long and short boats alike with the top of the foam stack sitting way above the bottom of the trough.
Our trip ended at a place called Diamond creak while the canyon extends downstream, with no major rapids over another 40 odd miles eventually ending in Lake Mead. Egress if difficult over this area and usually means a long paddle across the dam.

There are many more pics on my web site under the kayaking section.


Click on the images to see larger, more detailed versions.

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