“The Portal” – Self Supported Packrafting on the Grand Canyon
Originally published February 2016, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder wrote about his first self-supported packrafting adventure into the Grand Canyon. Please note we do not and never will guide the Grand Canyon, though we can teach you the skills you need to get to the point where you can.
I’m going to start this post with a very narrow minded, polarizing, shitty cliche. But I promise to make it up to you by the end, OK? Here goes. There are only two kinds of people in this world, the ones that have seen this (above) view, and the ones that haven’t. If you are one of the “have seens,” this statement needs very little explaining. If you are one of the “have NOT seens,” please read on so I can persuade you that I’m not a total dick. The above photo is of the Navajo Bridge from the middle of the Colorado River in Marble Canyon. So what you you may be thinking… nice view, cool bridges, but what’s the big deal? I know the have seens are jumping out of their collective seats right now with their hands raised so high at the teacher, all like pick me pick me, I totally got this one!!!!!
So the big deal is, you can only see this view if you are embarking on a river trip through the heart of the Grand Canyon via a 225-mile stretch on the Colorado River, arguably the best long whitewater trips on the continent. People have been known to wait decades to pull a permit via an overflowing lottery system that takes time, money and commitment just to get into.
So, yes, it’s kind of a big deal to see this view for the first time.
Getting back to my earlier stupid cliche. What I was really trying to say was the Navajo Bridge is like a 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. You will ride this watery torrent day in and day out. It will loving lap at your feet in the middle of the night while you are taking a piss. It will destroy you and whatever sly craft you attempt to pilot through it. It’s a maelstrom of chaos and power, irreverent toward your petty need for a breath of air. These experiences will soak into you. And all the swims you encountered couldn’t possibly wash this change from you. At least that’s how I feel about the whole thing. I think we are good here, right?
This passage through the portal was my second in just over a year and I consider myself very fortunate to be one of the have’s as mentioned above. And I would encourage everyone to get in the lottery and or make a Grand trip a reality. This year there were eight of us, all in packrafts on what the permit states is a self-support trip I.e. there was no big boat support. Just us in our little crafts and 11 days of food and supplies.
Only Mike and I had done a full Grand trip in the past, and several in our group had very little whitewater experience. They quickly became known as the ducklings as we continued to lead them into one big raging stomper after another. Swims were common, but the ducklings were learning and getting stronger with every passing mile.
Days blurred into more days and more rapids and more fantastic camps and side canyon explorations. And you know you are right on track when you have to ask around at the fire to find out what day it is and no one is really sure, and you have to count back and try to figure it out. You don’t get that outside of the portal very often. But what we did get was long nights by the fire after big days of paddling with plenty of time to get to know new friends and laugh and joke and hash out ideas, plans and such. Living just living, which is getting harder and hard to do in the real world as we continue to build smarter and smarter devices that rob us daily of normal human interaction.
There is no possible way to feel anything but small and insignificant in a landscape as deep and dramatic as this place. It’s hard to imagine a person not being taken aback with awe and respect at just a glimpse of the Canyon, but traveling through the bottom of time one can hardly get a handle on the scale of it all.
I won’t bore you with the details of every day on the river or with descriptions of the numerous big rapids encountered each day, but we will talk about Lava. 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 with in 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 (bottom left in photo) 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 fucking dead on or it’s over before you even get started. That’s what happened to me last year as I swam at the first lateral at the head of the rapid and through crushing hole after crushing hole just missing the cheese grater and losing my boat in the middle. There is just no way to stand up on that scout and keep your heart rate down.
And so it was decided that Mike, Jesse and Mike W would go first while we shot photos and screamed. And I would lead the second wave through after that. Mike and Jesse had a wild and successful ride through the meat of it all and Webster got munched in the middle! This burst of photos should give you a sense of how crazy it is in there.
Thanks for reading folks, until next time.
Please note that we will never guide the Grand Canyon. However, as soon as we finalize our permits, we can introduce you to packrafting and teach you some of the skills you need to eventually actualize this goal!