Grand Canyon Outlaw !!

(a fictitious account)


The Grand Canyon is perhaps the finest river trip in the world. A minimum of 225 miles must be traversed through the canyon to be able to put-in and take-out on roads. The Colorado runs through the National Park in this area, and a permit is required. It is a BIG DEAL. Only approximately 350 private permits are issued per year. If you put your name on the waiting list last year, you go behind 6000 other permit seekers. That translates to 6000/350=17 YEARS before you get your permit!!! Granted, for each permit you can have 20 people and stay in the canyon 14-30 days, but is there a place for the non-wealthy person that wants to go on a shorter trip, alone, or with only one or two others? Should he/she just wait 17 years for such a permit, and then put to waste all those people spots and extra time that the permit allows? For some, this is just too outrageous. Better to become an outlaw and do the run without a permit.

Lee's Ferry Approach

Such was the attitude of one adventure seeker I know ("Joe"). Sometime in December, when a week could be taken off, the trip was planned. Carefully - mind you. Timing is critical. No motorized craft are permitted in the canyon from September 15 - December 15. One doesn't want a ranger speeding up behind you and catching you. Such an event happened to me in Canyonlands National Park in 1994 when I was doing a solo trip from Loma to Hite through Cataract Canyon. It would be nice to be able to locate rangers in the canyon to avoid any contact. A CB radio was brought along in the truck. At the South Rim, the rangers would not tell Joe what frequency they used. All he got out of them was "the radios don't work down in the canyon." Perhaps they use special frequencies reserved for law enforcement people? Hence the CB was not taken on the river. How about put-ins? Lees Ferry is the normal spot swarming with rangers, though Joe, having never done the Canyon before, didn't know what the Lees Ferry area looked like.

Instead, he tried to put in 15 miles upstream at Glen Canyon Dam. Upon arrival at Glen Canyon Dam, he noticed that there was no road down to the river there, and the walls are nearly vertical. In the Dam visitor center, a kind woman informed Joe that there was a trail down to the river on river left just below the dam, but it was treacherous and takes about a half hour down. Joe decided that this wasn't the best idea, so decided to take his chances at Lees Ferry, perhaps launching at night when nobody could see. Joy entered Joe's heart when the lady informed him that they were releasing 13000-19000 cfs from the dam. He had thought there would only be 8000 cfs in the river (as stated on the Colorado Flow Page). More water = faster travel and funner rapids!

Off to Lees Ferry he went, arriving in the afternoon about 2 PM. From the highway, a road several miles long leads down to the river at Lees Ferry. It seemed terribly easy to get down to the river without anybody spotting him. He settled on a spot by the Paria Riffle, just downstream of the Paria River, down a hill from a bunch of mobile homes, but right next to the water. There was a large parking area and lots of shrubs/trees where the clandestine activity of loading the kayak could be accomplished. The normal put-in spot could be viewed about a half mile upstream. The plan was to get everything out/off of the truck (the kayak as quickly as possible, since such a sight is a dead give-away), load up everything into the kayak, then drive back up to the little town of Marble Canyon and find somebody to drive the truck to near the take-out - Las Vegas.

Joe was thinking of finding a party of two or more going to Las Vegas, and having them leave his truck in the Excaliber or Luxor parking lot. He would do that by asking people at the gas station or by holding a sign visible to vehicles driving by. After finding a shuttle driver, Joe would return to the boat at dusk and launch. At the takeout (Temple Bar on Lake Mead), he would get a lift into Las Vegas to his truck, go pick up the kayak and then drive home. Such was the plan.

As he was loading the kayak, a car drove by and then down to the same spot Joe was at. Very apprehensive at first, Joe hid everything that might give away his planned activity and approached the vehicle. The Gods were in Joe's favor! The vehicle contained three foreigners - an Aussie, an Englishwoman, and an Israeli all in their 20s-early 30s. Joe asked, "Sightseeing?" and so began a productive conversation. The three were staying at the hostel in Page and just moseying around seeing whatever there was to see. Just PERFECT! Out of Joe's mouth came the plan to run the river and the need for someone to drive his truck to Las Vegas. He offered them $40 if they'd do it. It turns out the Israeli, named Udi, actually was not with the other two, but was just bumming rides from people going around the country. He had to get to LA in the next couple weeks to fly home. After about a half hour of thought, Udi agreed to take the truck. Joe told Udi he'd give him $60 if he went so far as to leave the truck at the take-out (Temple Bar on Lake Mead) instead of Las Vegas, and this he agreed to do. Joe planned 7 more days on the river, and told Udi, "you must have the truck at Temple Bar by dusk eight days from now." So Joe took off into the wild, still anxious about a ranger spotting him in the first few miles.

DAY 1:

Having launched around 3:30 PM the first day, not much distance could be made. The days are short in December (10 hours of light), so every daylight hour is precious. Passing the Navajo Bridge after several miles with no signs of rangers, Joe knew he was out of danger. It grew dark after he had paddled 8 or 9 miles. Badger Creek rapid was run in twilight. The next three miles were quite exciting in the dark. Coming up on Soap Creek he noticed a couple lights. Afraid it might be the law, he avoided contact with the campers, but paddled just past them as the Soap Creek rapid began, pulling over to the side to camp. Paddling though a rapid such as Soap Creek was not smart in the dark - especially never having seen it before.

Quickly setting up his tent, he settled in for a fine meal of split-pea soup, bread, and cheese (to be had the next two nights as well), with hot chocolate to top it off. Laying in the sleeping bag, he quickly fell asleep starting to read (around 8 PM). In the night he heard what sounded like people walking around his tent. Waking up at 4 AM, he continued to read his recently purchased book by JW Powell, "The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons". In it he read about Powell's group traveling through Marble Canyon and then reaching the Grand Canyon. He also brought along "Cadillac Desert" which contained an abundance of information on the politics of water control in the West.

DAY 2:

Before the first sign of light, Joe got up and stalked over to where the other campers were. They must have hiked in, for there was no raft by the river. And there was only one tent, so not very many people were there. He wasn't worried anymore. He went back and started on a hike/run up Soap Creek Canyon for almost an hour (getting up the canyon probably 2 miles or so before returning). The water had dropped during the night - this day he'd be paddling on 13,000 cfs. Joe went over to meet the camping couple, who were trying their luck at fishing. He asked if they'd take some video of him going through Soap Creek Rapid, which they obliged him. He was off at 9 AM.

The boat he paddled was an old fiberglass Phoenix, something of a hybrid sea/whitewater kayak - probably about 90-100 gallons, 14 ft. long. It was banged up from other rivers, and had been patched a year ago. It leaked horribly, the outfitting was falling out (in particular a loose right hip pad), but it was fast. Luckily Joe brought a sponge and bilge pump, which he had to use every half hour to remove the inch of water that accumulated on the bottom of the kayak. Such a large boat is not great for playing, but since Joe wasn't planning on much of that, the Phoenix was an ideal kayak for the journey. If he had one, a nice sea kayak would have been preferred. Paddling most of the time he was on the water, very good time was made on the journey. The second day he made it to Nankoweap (41 miles from Soap Creek), passing House Rock rapid, Stanton's Cave, and the beautiful Vasey's Paradise on the way.

Initially he had trouble finding Stanton's Cave, looking around a gully that was actually just upstream of it. Giving up after almost an hour of searching, he continued on paddling, only to spot the cave clearly from the river. It is fenced off inside to help promote the Townsend's Big Eared Bat to roost in there once more. In the side canyons above Nankoweap several deer were spotted among the mesquite bushes. At President Harding Rapid (mile 43), a group of 5-6 rafts was passed (clearly a private party), though no contact was made. Downstream he went, looking forward to the long Nankoweap Rapid which the guidebook states is Grand Canyon class 3, but found that it really is not more than a class one.

Joe tried to camp at side canyons with fun hikes that he would do in the morning, and also ones with driftwood that he could build a small fire for warmth with. Such was Nankoweap. Fires are only permitted in the off-season (October through March), and all traces must be removed. Joe didn't take out the ashes (very minor amounts), but usually threw them in the river. Of course, Joe did pack out all solid human waste and trash, keeping the Canyon in the beautiful pristine state that river runners preserve it in.

DAY 3:

The next morning, he rose before dawn and started on the run/hike to see the springs a few miles up the canyon, and also the Indian ruins. The stream here is perennial, with fresh, clear, cold water running down it. The water seeps out of the ground about 2.5 miles up the canyon, and there are many reeds growing around the springs. Going fast, running some of the way, it took Joe about three hours to get to the springs and come back. The Anasazi granaries are up on the side of the canyon just downstream from the side canyon, and a trail leads up to them.

Joe launched after 10 am this day, and again made good distance. The Little Colorado (mile 61) had the grayish-turquoise water shown in photographs and about 50-100 cfs flowing down it. It was at least 10 degrees warmer than the main Colorado River water, and felt pleasant to touch. Getting out and hiking up the tributary a little ways, Joe was quickly forced back to his kayak (shivering!!) due to the frigid 50 degree air, cloudy skies, and a wet wetsuit. He continued on, stopping at a few other places like Carbon Creek. At Nevill's Rapid (mile 75), another group of hikers was encountered, and he had them video his descent of the rapid like at Soap Creek. Hance came next, and though the river drops 30 feet here, it really doesn't look like much from the side, but is slightly challenging. The rocks at the top are easy to hit or scrape your boat on.

Perhaps the most wondrous part of the canyon is encountered next in the Upper Granite Gorge. Joe was struck with awe at the beautiful canyon that felt so foreboding. It was very reminiscent of Westwater Canyon, and slightly similar to the entrances to Gore Canyon and Burnt Ranch Gorge. The walls become dark and nearly vertical, while the river is narrowed down forcing it's travelers to float over the rapids within. Hiking out here would be extremely difficult. So many rock climbs are waiting in the gorges of the Grand. Someday, Joe thought, with the time and equipment, he would return for such first ascents.

Sockdolagger and Grapevine rapids were just absolute enjoyment. The Bright Angel Trail bridge was soon passed, and Joe hoped to make it down to Crystal Rapid (mile 98) by dusk, where a good camp spot existed. In many places, including here, bald eagles soared down the river with Joe and would perch on trees high up the sides of the canyon. A few hikers were seen around the bridge, to which no contact was made, but then arriving at Granite Rapid, another hiker was encountered. Joe had the hiker video the descent of Granite, one of the biggest rapids on the entire run. This would be the last person seen until well past Pierce Ferry. Not thinking much of the rapids so far, Joe casually approached Hermit. Knowing from hearsay that Hermit was just a lot of big waves, he didn't even boat scout and plunged down its gut head-on.

Unfortunately, old man Hermit had it in for Joe. The waves were crashing, and one of the biggest ones (standing about 10 vertical feet) Joe hit slightly sideways and he was flipped over. Well that's not much of a problem, Joe thought. However, attempting to roll up, Joe found he made no contact with the boat and instead of rolling up the boat he rolled himself OUT of the boat!! This was due to the loose hip-pad coming out at the wrong time. What a disaster! He swam, grabbing onto the kayak and paddle and making it over to the left bank shortly. It was nearing dusk. This was not a camp spot. A sponge and throw bag were lost to the river.

Joe quickly emptied the boat of all water and paddled down to Crystal, arriving after dark. A nice camp spot exists on river right just above Crystal. That night, the campfire was most appreciated, warming his chilled bones. A ring-tailed cat visited Joe in the evening, stealing an empty bag of bread (crumbs only). This fellow had no fear of humans at all, and would come within a few feet. Chasing him off, the cat would run around in the dark and appear behind Joe attempting to steal something else. River runners camping here must have a lot of fun with this cat.

DAY 4:

After dawn, Joe hiked up Crystal Creek a couple miles, past a spot where the creek drops over a 10-20 foot waterfall. The high water marks of the creek are impressive, being about 10 feet above the current flow (which was only a few cfs). Back at the kayak, the sun warmed Joe for a while before disappearing behind the canyon wall. Joe continued on after 11 am, having no trouble in Crystal and stopping to explore Elve's Chasm (mile 116) before reaching Tapeats Creek, where he camped (mile 134).

DAY 5:

Joe intended on doing the entire Tapeats hike up to Thunder spring, but after going up the side canyon a quarter mile or so, one is forced to wade through the creek over waist high, and it was just too damn cold for Joe to take it. Dejected, he went back to his kayak and paddled on, passing Christmas Tree Cave (the "tree" is a very small stalagmite way in the back, hidden from view) and the beautiful Deer Creek Falls. The middle granite gorge is pretty but there are not the impressive rapids one after the other like in the upper gorge. The air was pretty warm (about 65 degrees), and it started raining lightly. It must have been a storm coming from the southwest. Coming up on Vulcan's Anvil, the entire character of the canyon changes and lava appears on the canyon walls. For the next 40 miles the lava is a major feature of the canyon, and it creates the largest rapid on the run, "Lava Falls".

Joe had wondered how Lava would compare to Crystal, hearing tales of the mighty power of each of these rapids. Having run both now, in his opinion their difficulty is very different. Lava Falls is clearly the worst rapid on the run. He carefully scouted and decided on what he thought to be a "chicken route" on the left. That "chicken route" was actually tougher than the main line would have been. Joe was thrown off route at the top, flipping sideways in a large hole. Luckily, this time he managed to roll the boat up and went through the rest of the rapid with no problems. Making it another 10 miles, he camped near the Whitmore Trail (mile 188).

DAY 6:

Joe hiked up the Whitmore Trail, climbing almost a thousand feet above the river level and got a grand view of the surrounding countryside and canyon. 4-wheel drive roads lead into this spot, and there is an abandoned shack up there. Joe made it down past the normal take-out that day (Diamond Creek, mile 226), entering the Lower Granite Gorge. There was a lot of slow water in the 40 miles past Lava Falls. It was such a joy entering the Lower Granite Gorge near Diamond Creek.

The canyon walls again turn dark, the river constricts, and rapids come in quick succession. The Lower Gorge is just as impressive as the Upper Gorge - perhaps would have been more so if it hadn't been covered by Lake Mead. It would have continued on for another 30 miles past Bridge Canyon, tumbling over some of the most renowned rapids of the entire Colorado - including Separation Rapid and Lava Cliff Rapid. Joe camped at Bridge Canyon, near the end of the swiftwater and a little before entering Lake Mead.

DAY 7:

Bridge Canyon had a natural arch a little ways up the canyon. It can be climbed to and trotted across. There is luxuriant growth of plants down there, as well as some giant mosquitoes (yes, even in December!!). Joe continued on, stopping to surf a small wave just past Bridge Canyon rapid. It felt like the right thing to do - and it turns out that it was the last riffle on the river. Though Joe was expecting about 5 miles more of whitewater (almost down to Separation Rapid), it all ended there at mile 235.

The water was still swift down to Separation Canyon. Here he stopped to look at the placard placed on the wall commemorating the three men that died after leaving Powell's party, then continued on the flat, moving water of Lake Mead. It took the rest of the day to paddle down to mile 275, just 5 miles from the Pierce Ferry take-out. This is a very beautiful stretch, exiting the Grand Canyon. The river valley really opens up and one can see the awesome amount of earth piled up on either side of the river back in the side canyons. All along the way are lots of trees making use of the nutritious silt laid along the banks of the river. Besides the poor quality of paddling on a man made lake, the only other really unpleasant thing is the incessant helicopters and airplanes flying overhead - most likely flying tours of the Grand Canyon.

Joe was worried that one of them might have been a ranger spotting him coming out of the canyon, but this was not the case. Joe camped as close as possible to Emory Falls as dusk was settling in. The side canyon of Emory Falls was filled with Lake Mead and was not more than 10 ft deep around it. The trees made the entire side canyon area like a large swamp. Mosquitoes abounded. As quickly as possible, Joe set up his tent to escape the blood-sucking insects, then settled in for a delicious pasta meal with almost an entire bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (Hacienda, 1994 - one of the best $4.99 values out there) to celebrate the completion of the Grand Canyon!!

DAY 8:

After awakening, Joe hiked over to Emory Falls. There is a perennial stream coming down the side canyon there and it makes a ~40 ft fall into the silt of Lake Mead, but must have been such a wondrous place in the heat of spring and summer (before the Lake made it a motor-boat destination). It takes a long time (almost an hour) to hike over to the falls from the downstream side of the alcove (the only reasonable place to start from). Getting back to the kayak and starting the engines (i.e. arms) again around 10:30 AM, Joe began the toughest paddling day of the trip - to the Temple Bar take-out.

Over 40 miles of completely flat Lake Mead water. Up to Emory Falls there was still a current in the Lake which helped move the kayak along. But after mile 275, the current is all but gone. Coming around the Pierce Ferry arm of the Lake was a pain because on the map it looks as if one could short cut the river channel drowned a couple hundred feet under the lake surface, but this is not possible because all the silt has settled in this basin and luxuriant tree growth has made an impassable swamp. One is forced to paddle close to Pierce Ferry before turning north again to get around the trees!

After this basin, the lake water turns from the murky sediment-laden river water to the beautiful greenish-clear water of most of the lake. Without a detailed map of Lake Mead, Joe had only hoped that finding the way through the lake canyons would be easy. But approaching Iceberg Canyon, he found it not so. Two wrong turns to the left, down alcoves that ended in small side canyons, was enough to drown the spirits of the most excited flat-water paddler. Such wastes of time and energy could not be tolerated if one was to make it to Temple Bar at a reasonable hour. But eventually Joe found the way. In this area where the river comes through a very narrow passageway the lake constricts to only a few hundred feet. It is extremely difficult to determine if in the distance the lake water goes around a bend or just ends. Could that supposed channel just be a mirage? In many cases, yes. But eventually he found his way. The lake was dead calm most of the way, though an occasional head wind kicked up a few inches of chop.

Iceberg canyon is aptly named for the canyon walls really look like giant icebergs that are sticking straight out of the lake. In this stretch are the first red mileage markers displaying how far it is to Hoover Dam. By timing how long it took to get from one of these to the next, Joe could determine approximately how fast he was paddling. He was making about 5-6 miles per hour - pretty fast for flatwater paddling! It's about 35-40 miles from Pierce Ferry to Temple Bar, so paddling at 5 mph it would take 8 hours of continuous paddling. The paddling was in one word - GRUELING - almost like open ocean crossings to islands. Some interesting fish were seen under the water, a few small motor boats passed in Iceberg Canyon, but overall it was simply concentrating on getting to the fixed point in the distance.

Joe sang through the entire Beatles White Album to keep his mind occupied at one point, and that only takes up 1-2 hours. With a few short rest stops in the day, Joe ended up getting to Temple Bar after dusk (arriving about 6:30 PM). The lights of civilization were a joy to gaze upon as he made the last stretch into the marina. He was looking forward to getting into his truck and taking off for home in Southern California.

Arriving at the marina, Joe didn't find his truck. He was very hungry, so paid the outrageous price of $3.68 for a small pack of fig newtons and continued searching around and asking occasional passers-by if they had seen the pickup he was looking for. That damned Udi!! Where is he? After about an hour of waiting and searching, he phoned some friends back home and told them he was OK and might have to find a ride back somehow. He was just about to phone the police and report a stolen vehicle when he saw the pickup racing down to the marina!! It was Udi, and what a relief it was to see him. Soon packed up and on his way back to San Diego (with Udi, who ended up staying with Joe for five days).

Joe felt very content having completed the Canyon - 320 miles in 7.5 days, and only $60 for shuttle and less than $50 in food. Of course driving to and from the put-in/take-out cost about $70 in gas. But comparing these costs to the average cost a person pays for a trip - $2000-3000 for a commercial venture, or more than $700 for a private raft-supported trip, Joe felt OK. It was surprising to find only one rafting party along the river, but it turns out that November-February are very sparse months for Canyon river runners. Almost all of the river traffic comes in the summer months. If one is to plan a clandestine run of the Canyon, best to do it during the off-season when not many people are likely to be encountered. And of course, don't get caught. I hear the fine for running the Canyon without a permit is in the $3000-4000 range!!! OUCH!!!

James "Rocky" Contos
Neuroscience PhD program
January, 1997
© 1997 James "Rocky" Contos

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