January 17, 2014

Chronicles of Adventure: The Grand Canyon

Once in a lifetime trips come around, well, usually, once in a lifetime. This year has been filled with them for our good friend Jonathan. He took the year off and traveled. When I say traveled, I mean it. This year was aptly named the Radical Sabbatical. Hats were made, hash tags were used, he took adventure to a new level.

Down days were few for this fella and I was lucky enough to share on a few of the shorter trips. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take 3 weeks during the busiest retail season of the year to float the Colorado but he was nice enough to share what a trip like this really means in the big scheme of things.

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It’s hard to distill into one write-up the full 20-day trip down The Grand Canyon – or pair photos down to a manageable amount for that matter. Thumbing through journal entries, and scrolling through pictures, there are so many aspects of a trip like this – a winter expedition down The Colorado River.

::This is a lengthy write-up so grab a cup of coffee, or just scroll down to the pics::

I left Squaw in early December on the heels of a very brutal cold snap in the West. Temps were in the teens as I drove through snow-covered landscape through Nevada, Utah and finally arriving in Arizona – to Lees Ferry, the put in for The Canyon float. There, I met up with my friend Blake, and 12 of his friends from various boating experiences in his life. The Ranger who saw us off, commented that we had more boats (by 4) than any group he check in for all of 2013. And on the 15th of December, all 11 boats pushed off for the 280 miles through The Canyon down the Colorado River to Lake Mead. We would be spending the holidays – both Christmas and New Years – on the chilly river.

Days on the river were characterized by an abundance of flat water, punctuated with huge rapids – waves sometimes 10 to 15 feet high. Chilly mornings, packing up frost covered camping gear, made the shots of sun we would get in the North/South facing stretches of river all the more appreciated. Towering walls stood 2,000 feet at times, straight up from the river. Sunset lit canyon walls and nearby back-eddys up like fire, gave way to star studded nights, only interrupted by a moon that brightened The Canyon to what felt like daylight – though that would change through the trip to almost no moon by early January. If we pulled into camp early enough we would enjoy the last bits of direct sun, sometimes barefoot and in shorts, before redressing in long johns, several layers of down, gloves and hats as soon as the sun neared the elevated horizons.

The big rapids were just that, BIG. Scouting would get the heart pumping, but the group was strong and supportive and allowed me to run sportier lines than I may have otherwise not jumped into. Lava and Horn definitely humbled me, but all’s well that ends well and I ended up right-side-up out of both. Perhaps the offering of a splash of rum from my flask at Vulcans Anvil was the key for safe passage through Lava… On the final day of 2013, I completed the last of 79 named rapids on the stretch of The Colorado River. As I rowed through the tail waves of Gneiss Rapid I couldn’t help but feel a sense of achievement and pride in the not just survival of it, but the true success of my trip as well, only receiving a handful of Colorado River smackdowns in the full 280 miles of river.

We celebrated our holidays in true form. For Christmas, we decorated the camp with a makeshift X-mas tree from oars, strung with lights and tinsel, and enjoyed driftwood adorned with candles. 

What struck me as one of the most special aspects of the trip was that I got to have the experience to really spend the time enjoying The Canyon in slow motion – in a world that rarely moves at that snail's pace. We have high-speed airplanes, fast cars and bullet trains. Getting from point A to B, you tend to miss all the great things in between. But not the case when you take slow transportation down an ancient river corridor. It is truly an epic experience in an incredibly beautiful and special place.

Coming off the river, I had still never seen The Grand Canyon from the rim, so I spent an extra two days backtracking up river, and out a 3 hour dirt road to spend an evening and morning at the beautiful Toroweap Campsite. Set on the edge of the cliffs just above Lava Falls.

The long road back home was quiet. An incredible end to an incredible year. The Grand Finale.

- Jonathan Matthews