Single Boat Down the Grand
"Tom, I always knew you were crazy!" So exclaimed my friend Irena, whom I hadn't seen for several years, when I told her what I was going to do the following month. Irena had dislocated her shoulder in Horn Creek Rapid's Green Guillotine earlier, but that was on a trip where nobody seemed to know where they were.
A single-boat Grand Canyon trip is not common, and is even less so when both people are in their fifties. We were the envy of most commercial river guides who saw us. "That's exactly how big a private trip should be!" said one. It was how they said it, too. A river ranger contacted us during our layover at Blacktail, and mentioned that we were now "famous up and down the river." Never been famous before.
Cataraft at scout of Sockdolager Rapid
Our plan didn't begin as a single-boat trip. Starting a couple years before, I'd invited two other groups to join us. In fact, the launch date I'd asked for (July 18, 1997) was so they could join us. You're allowed up to sixteen people on a Grand Canyon private trip.
All these invitees dropped out. I invited a couple others after that. One really wanted to go, but finally had to say he wasn't able to join us. After an initial contact, I simply never heard from the other one. I've found there are very few people in the whole world I can depend on. Those few are priceless, but generally, if you want something done right, do it yourself!
Some love people-management. They like making up duty lists of who's going to do what, when. Who's going to cook, who's going to wash dishes, etc. They express various reasons for liking large trips, but I'm convinced it really comes to this.
I never wanted a large group. I'd been thinking maybe six people. The only thing worse than a mob is being in charge of it. As the trip permittee, that would have been the case. One guy called these "sing-along trips." No thank you. Such trips often begin at Lee's Ferry with a horrible gathering beside the loaded boats. The permittee intones stuff about everyone working together for the good of the group. I hate dealing with people-concerns. I wanted to run the river.
Doing a single-boat trip struck me as being a gratuitous act. That's something done just for it's own sake. Most trips, especially in the Grand, are large-group ventures, but for the last few months of planning, I knew one-boat was what we'd do.
I did a trip solo on an easier river once, for five days, and it was great! I developed a passion for not doing this Grand trip quite like everyone else does theirs. Where I could, I'd organize it to bypass where everyone else goes, and I certainly wouldn't do a Diamond Creek takeout. I don't do Diamond, for that and other reasons.
A Lake Mead takeout requires crossing about 40 miles of lake, with rapidly decreasing river current. Row out? Some do it. Hire a jet boat to come up the lake and get us? We did that once and it was good, but the price has gone up astronomically since then. A tow out would cost about $800, which makes less difference to a large group. This is called gouging. I'm surprised the Park Service allows it.
I built a small frame to fit across the front of my cataraft, so I could carry my small four horsepower outboard motor and sufficient fuel. It worked really well Took us under eight hours to motor out from Separation Canyon. I liked being self-sufficient in that we didn't have to meet a tow boat. We got ahead of schedule and got out in only 16 days, not 18 as planned. We noted that on the 17th day, there was general rain all across the Grand Canyon country, but we were driving by then.
I wanted time to be creative, and you can't be creative in a mob. If I wanted make a photograph along the beach while the light was right, I wasn't going to explain to some duty-organizer why I hadn't washed the dishes yet. Nor was I going to be told I wasn't acting in the group's best interest. With a group you must organize duties, but we were free of that. We weren't there to fit in with others, but to have a great trip. And we did.
One cataraft, one tent, one table, and half the party below Deubendorff Rapid
I wanted a layover day at Blacktail (mile 120) for photographic reasons, and to contemplate the magnificent contact there between the Precambrian and Cambrian rocks. I wasn't interested in justifying this to anyone else, and I didn't need to. We skipped Elves' Chasm (mile 116) to get to Blacktail.
Layover camp at Blacktail
As nice as Elves' is, several boats were tied up there and it would have been crowded. There isn't as much to understand at Elves' as there is at Blacktail. The latter involves the very formation of our continent and the earth itself. It's a very fundamental place in our world.
"You're putting rocks before people!" some would protest in anguish, wringing their hands with pained expressions. Darn right I am! Rocks were here first, and they'll be here longer.
A single-boat Grand Canyon trip is the sort of thing that if you think too long about, you'll come up with reasons not to go. But we did it, had no problems, and had a wonderful trip. If we wanted to do something, we just did it. We didn't consult with anyone.
We had to be careful, since we were a long way from help. But there's a way to run every one of the rapids, at high water at least, without flipping the boat. We turned around on one hike because the way became too precarious. There are things like this that you take into consideration, but it's manageable.
The Park Service fee for launching our trip was still $200, just as it would have been with 16 people. Economically favoring large groups irritates me, but I believe this inequity has since been repaired. In the past, the Park Service had a rule against going solo, but that would really be an experience. See the excellent book Canyon Solitude by Patricia McCairen, who did a solo Grand Canyon raft trip.
My companion on this trip agreed totally with the no-crowd concept, and also pointed out that we had no fun on our trip. What, no fun? Those screaming people on the motor boats were having fun. We, on the other hand, were having satisfaction, she said. Big difference. Jeanette was right.
So perhaps I'm crazy, Irena, but I sure do like it!
Watcher at President Harding Rapid
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