Grand Canyon Rapids, Part One
Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch

By one count, the Grand has about 160 rapids, most of which are down-the-middle easy. Some are just as easy, but quite rough. Others are more difficult, and Crystal Rapid is in a class by itself.

What to call a rapid? Some cling to the plural, as in "Hermit Rapids." To me, this smacks of not ever having seen one. I use the singular, as in Hakatai Rapid.

We saw the river at 20-21,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) on the 1997 trip. It did not fluctuate more than perhaps five inches at our campsites, all the way. This is in contrast to daily fluctuations of many feet, which can happen because of varying releases from Glen Canyon Dam upstream.

When the water is fluctuating, daily surges travel through the Grand Canyon and reach you at various times depending how far down the river you were. It takes the water about a day to reach the Phantom Ranch area, roughly 100 miles from the dam, and about two days to reach the river's end in Lake Mead. If you are halfway between these points, the river may come up at night and go down in the daytime.

Engineers at Glen Canyon Dam only thought of the Grand Canyon as a conduit for their water between lakes Powell and Mead. They cared not a whit that they were destroying one of the finest river trips in the world, washing away the camping beaches, making certain rapids much more difficult to run, and so forth.

But I wonder... The Sierra Club has been talking about making them remove the dam, and a major irritant has been those daily fluctuations. Talk of environmental concern to many pro-dam people is like playing Mozart for your dog. Same for some who suck their living from the destroyed Colorado River around Lake Powell, and for those who go looking for beautiful new places to sling their cans.

Low water flows through the Grand Canyon as air conditioners around the Southwest get turned down for the winter. Low water makes a tremendous difference in these rapids, though I've not seen it. In general, the Grand becomes more difficult at low water.

The very first rapid is the Paria Riffle, within easy sight of the launch at Lee's Ferry. If you can't get down it, you probably can't get down the others either and should consider pulling over to the beach, selling your boat, and going home! This will be your last chance for a long ways. Marble Canyon closes in almost immediately.

The first big rapid is Badger Creek. Not hard, if you're in the right place. Rocks on the left, and a hole on the right where a large, steep wave was breaking continuously in an upstream direction. The water recirculates, and can recirculate you. and I've heard Badger is technical at low water (requires maneuvering around rocks). We heard about one guy who flipped there twice! A slow learner? Do the short left scout so you'll hit it right, go down the tongue, and have a good ride.

I've seen sloppy scouting of rapids. This is my technique: Having walked down the bank, I'll take a general look at the rapid to see roughly where I want to go. That's all some people do, but I like to see where I need to be at the end of the rapid, look upstream to see how I'm going to get there, look upstream again for the same purpose, and so forth, until I come to an exact entry spot. Then I'll follow a patch of water downstream, trying to see if it goes where I want to go.

Many Grand Canyon Rapids are so steep that you can't see down the whitewater if you're approaching on the river. This is when you walk down and scout.

"Entry is everything!" said Joe, a friend who knew the canyon. Joe was right. How do you find that sweet spot where you must enter, if you can't see down the rapid until it's too late? While scouting, you pick out keys to watch for. You're going to be, say, fifteen feet from the bank, or perhaps 40% out into the river. You can usually find a small disturbance, perhaps a small entrance wave, and resolve to be, say, two feet right of it. The object is to use visual keys to guide yourself in, so that when you finally do see the rapid before you, you'll like what you see! You only get one chance, and you aren't going to do much maneuvering once you're in one of these things.

Many Grand Canyon Rapids, with very notable exceptions, don't require you to do much once you're in the rapid, though that probably changes at low water. Maybe you'll want to keep pulling away from a train of large waves, but a primary concern after many rapids are the gigantic eddies below!

Normally, these eddies won't do you any harm, but they'll catch you and take you around a big pool and up beside the rapid again. Boats have flipped at that point, where slower water meets the jet of current from the rapid, but most eddies are merely inconvenient. There are exceptions.

Eddies are the usual way you reach camps. You can go past the camp, "eddy out," and the eddy will carry you back upstream to the camp. There may be a secondary eddy off the main one, between it and shore, where water near the bank is flowing downstream. Then your path from rapid to camp will describe a big "S."

Indeed, these eddies below rapids are responsible for the deposition of sand, and that's why there may be a camp there. The giant one below Fern Glen Rapid is an example. At low water, I've read that you can tell where the eddies were, by the deposition of sand. The slower the water was, the more sand got deposited.

I've been criticized for scouting too thoroughly. "We analyzed each wave," was the derisive remark make to my companion when we returned from a scout of Hance Rapid on an earlier trip. Well, you're damn right I analyzed each wave! I did it again on this trip. The temptation at Hance is to pull too far left, and I started noticing rocks in many of the waves over there. Not gonna wreck my boat on a single-boat trip! For reasons of personal satisfaction, I don't even wanna be sloppy.

In the words of Rudi, a guide with Grand Canyon Dories, private river runners often try to run too far to one side. "Over among the rocks!" he said, not concealing his disdain. "Get out in the middle!" he said. Rudi was absolutely right, and we followed his advice several times in 1997.

Camped at Stone Creek, I watched a private group run Dubendorff Rapid. They came walking down the scouting trail, took a brief look, and turned around. Down the river they soon came, and each had a sloppy run.

I guess the precision of their scout had been, "Ah Hell, go left!" They made it, but it wasn't optimal. I want the most elegant runs possible, runs where even if an oar breaks, I won't slam rocks or flip in holes. Elegant means not just bashing down the rapid, but getting down in a way that is beautiful, as simple as possible, and usually with the least effort. I think this was a key to having a good single-boat trip in 1997, when flipping or boat damage just wasn't part of the program, and it's my approach to river running anyway. Doesn't always work this way, but it's the goal!

Soap Creek Rapid is easy, though I did a quick scout on the left to make sure.

The first hard rapid is House Rock at river mile 17. Here is a problem commonly encountered in the Grand Canyon: At House Rock, water spills across a large gravel and rock bar toward the left side. Along the left is the tongue, followed by a train of large waves that starts far left but curves centerward along a wall. At some water levels, a huge hole awaits you there, but in any case you want to avoid those big ones.

In 1986, on 27,000 cfs, we found a way to sneak across the rock bar and not join the main current for a ways, hoping to remain right of the wave train when we got to it. It worked, but in 1997, I didn't like that plan.

It was partly because the rocks were nearer the surface. But mostly, it was momentum. Had I found a way to sneak across the rock bar, I'd still arrive at the wave train. But with a heavy boat, I'd have momentum toward it when I wanted to run alongside to the end.

Rudi would have been pleased, because I decided to run much nearer the wave train, starting nearer the right side of the tongue. I'd have to work longer to stay clear of the big stuff, but probably not work as hard. Wave trains tend to suck you in, but this one worked out fine!

Several other rapids resemble House Rock, or perhaps the mirror image of it. They include Granite Falls, Upset, and Ruby, where an AZRA guide told me that private boaters very often go too far left, across the bar, trying to miss the wave train. If you get spun out of control, you're still going into the waves, except backwards or sideways.

The "Roaring Twenties" start with North Canyon Rapid at mile 20, which is an easy run down the right side of the waves. Other rapids have a fairly easy sneak one way or the other. Sometimes in the Grand, if you want to sneak a wave train, the side you do it on is determined by the size of the eddies below.

Mile 23 Rapid is easy if you enter left on the tongue. The right side is a sharp hole that flips boats.

Mile 23 Rapid

Mile 24.5 Rapid curves to the left. "Don't get caught on the outside of the curve" Joe had told me! It's an easy scout on the left, and it did require precision for best results. Mile 25 and Cave Springs Rapids follow, but presented no problem.

President Harding Rapid is straightforward, or is it? There's a gigantic rock in the middle of the current, forming perhaps the most beautiful wave in all the world, and also one of the meanest holes. We wanted to camp below on the left, so we started to run left of the rock. But I didn't like what I thought I saw, changed my mind, and rowed right. Just made it!

What I hadn't seen is that the current tends to go from right to left, deflected by a rocky prominence. I was fighting the water all the way over! Had I realized this, I could have easily gone close to the rock on the left, and been in good position to make our camp. At first glance from above, I'd thought the flow was opposite, and I didn't want to get too close to the rock on the left. As it worked out, we came even closer on the right, and then had a hard pull out of the current into the eddy. Oh well.

President Harding Rapid

We didn't see the place to scout Kwagunt Rapid in time (though there is one on the right). But I remembered the arrangement of the rapid, wasn't worried about it, and there was a convenient slow place above on the left from which you could see it. It was down the waves, which are on the left side.

Good to stay left in Tanner Rapid, because of a jumble of rocks.

At Unkar Rapid, we met a large private group whose boats were tied along the right bank. From there, a trail went up the slope. We went up, and found ourselves standing in the middle of an ancient foundation. What a place to live, with a decent view of the rapid! The right side of the tongue would work. But we ended up watching, and then following, one of the other boats that went a little farther right. I wasn't gonna do that, but the guy had a good run and so did we.

In Nevills Rapid, somewhere in the wave train is a rather sharp drop and a big wave, no doubt over a large rock. I hit it in 1986, and I wasn't going to hit it again. It isn't hard to stay left.

At Hance, there's a nice left run at higher water. Somewhat crooked, but you end up left of those big waves and holes out in the middle. Looked like you could get there from a center entry also, but you'd really have to pull hard and it would be a poor time to have a problem with an oar or something. At Hance, don't look for clever ways to sneak too far left! The water was clear, and I could see rocks in some of those waves along the left. A flash flood down almost any tributary upstream will turn the river brown or even red, and then you wouldn't see those rocks.

Hance Rapid

Sockdolager Rapid is shortly after you enter the inner gorge. There's a good eddy and a scout on the left, but it's over smooth, slippery black rock from which you can look straight down into the water. Sock isn't hard at high water anyway. You just go past some whitewater at top left, then pull a little left off the tongue to avoid some bad stuff in the middle. Major Powell spent some time here in 1869, trying to figure out a way to portage Sock, but it really isn't very hard.

At the end of Sock, a rocky prominence protrudes from the left bank. Behind it is a fine camp but you'd have to be downright quick to pull in there. Camps in this stretch are supposed to be left for trips that have passenger exchanges at Phantom Ranch.

Grapevine is said to be the mirror image of Sock, in that you pull right from the tongue. An AZRA guide said he just runs down the middle, though. We would have scouted, but didn't see a good place. We could see the rapid by then, so we just followed advice. We pulled a little right, but generally just went straight ahead for a good ride.

Other rapids are easy down to Phantom Ranch at mile 88. Then come the big ones.

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Continue on to Part Two