Grand Junction Free Press - June 2009

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Recalling the Grand Canyon

By KEN JOHNSON


On the bucket list of life's goals, a river trip in a wooden boat through the Grand Canyon has to be a must.

BIG waves, small boats.

Dories are the smallest, most difficult and most fragile boats running the Canyon today. It is as close as you can get to Major John Wesley Powell's first successful journey through the canyon in 1869.

Big and small rapids for adrenaline and sheer fun. Placid “lakes” with gentle drifting. Unpredictable currents, boils, surges, holes and eddies. Hikes into one of America's last true wilderness areas. Shared days, 16 of them, and brilliant stars filling the night skies. Civilization was seeing a satellite crossing the starlit night.

One-hundred-degree days with 45-degree water soaking you repeatedly. Awesome. Towering cliffs with 15 varieties of sandstone, basalt, limestone and other rock. Big horn sheep, a condor, an eagle and visual overload in scenery, wildlife and plants. Jumbled rocks, steep cliffs, slot canyons, turquoise water at the Little Colorado and at Havasu Creek. Visual overload.

Rapids ... more than 60 big ones, Lava Falls and Crystal rated 10. One boat overturned. No phone. No computer. No ATM. And no bathroom; everyone used the same facility because you leave nothing behind. All waste is carried out.

The adventure became a life experience, the group of strangers a family.

Sound like fun?

It was.

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That's the short answer. The longer one is that these days with Grand Canyon Dories is the ultimate river trip on North America's ultimate adventure river.

Skyscraper rock formations, towering cliffs and unbelievable geology covering 1.7 billion years of the earth's story. Vivid memories that won't fade.

Jim Johnson taught geology at Mesa State College for more than 35 years. He was a special asset on the trip, although the Dories guides were solidly versed in the canyon geology and history. Jim was able to validate their information and add small pieces to the puzzle of how the canyon developed into one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Grand Canyon Dories, with their small wooden boats set the Gold standard for all the canyon tour operators. In 40 years of taking folks down the 225 miles of river from Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek they have never lost a passenger. Nor any guides either.

Two guides live in Grand Junction. Others hail from Arizona, from Idaho, Oregon, California and other parts of Colorado.

The Dories are 17-foot long “Briggs-style” wooden fishing rowboats, high prow and stern, one oarsman (or one oars-woman) in the center and only 4 passengers to the boat. Seating is two in front, two behind.
The waves are astonishing. After the little boat slips down the tongue it disappears into foaming white water.

Dramatic from a distance, it's nearly paralyzing up close. The boats knife into the huge waves, the current lifting them up the wave until they are nearly vertical.

In the big rapids the wave towers another five to seven feet above, and it crashes down on the boat.
You get wet—very wet.  Then the boat weighs 1,700 pounds more than when it’s dry, and is nearly unmanageable with the extra weight. You bail like crazy before the next batch of waves and rocks.
Amazingly, despite lots of directions on how to right the boat it if flips, and how to hang onto the boat as a big “life preserver” going through the rest of a rapid, only in fearsome Lava Falls did one of the little boats flip.

As a sample of high adventure, the story is this:  Nick Grimes was oarsman (and group leader for the trip).  He hit Lava exactly on target, to the right of the huge boil that would suck a boat to the bottom.  Stabbing into a giant wave his luck was three seconds away, because the wave built even higher as he nosed into it.

Luck abandoned the near-vertical boat when one of the passengers lost his grip, plunged down into Nick and took him off his seat—and the oars.  The boats are sensitive to weight changes.  As water cascaded over the boat that passenger’s catastrophic weight shift nudged the boat a tad to the right.  Sideways in a wave is not desirable.

It flipped.
Four passengers in life jackets were tossing through another seven or eight huge waves while Nick climbed onto the overturned boat, grabbed the flip line and shifted his weight off the side of the boat. It flopped back upright.

Nick climbed in, grabbed the oars, steadied the boat, and helped three of his passengers climb back in.  The fourth got lost a bit trying to swim toward some elusive safety.  He was picked up safely by Duffy Dale in the second boat.

No one drowned. No one lost anything. No one got hurt.

It was just another day at the office.

The Dories, brought to the Canyon years ago by legendary Martin Litton, are today’s legacy of the Powell 1869 expedition.  Major Powell started with four boats, nine men and food for 10 months.  He wound p with two damaged boats, most of the food lost in rapids, and only five men after three months of exploration, fighting rapids, and wondering if they would survive their next rapid on their journey through the great unknown.
Powell’s maps, descriptions and geologic interpretations are amazingly accurate today. They were expanded with photographs and more detail by his second exploration in 1871-72.

Ultimately this led to the Grand Canyon becoming the premier National park in America, one of the true Seven Wonders of the World.

That legacy is honored and preserved by the Dories guides, true custodians of history and this great wilderness river.