In front of our double kayak, a wall of water reared up so high it seemed as tall as a building, and that building was toppling on top of us. In the bow seat, Jill disappeared into the crashing carnage, and with a lurch she re-appeared. Not that I witnessed this, myself now being swallowed up into the frothing torrent and then being spat out with disdain. Blinking the water and grit from my eyes I could see the next wave coming. I also noticed I could not see the bright yellow double sea kayak, which Jill and I sat in; it was still submersed in the turbulent water, rearing and jumping about us. Both of us slammed through the next wave, paddling hard while white water (or should I say “brown” water) exploded everywhere.
There was so much silt in the river from the rain, the Colorado was living up to its name sake meaning “the color red”, and its rapids made our 22 foot kayak feel like a tiny toy riding a chocolate milkshake in a blender. Looking down stream, danger was lurking; my voice erupted from my mouth like an angry lion tamer, “RIGHT PADDLE, RIGHT, RIGHT!” Jill quickly started paddling forward on the right as we steered the vessel left of a large hydraulic, barely missing it’s gnashing recirculating frothing mouth in the river. Suddenly with no option, we hit a large wave side on. I threw my weight into it to brace; we struck it and I was engulfed in brief darkness as the boat was swallowed up yet again and then spat into the eddy. In order to counter the wave impact, I had the boat leaning downstream. As we unexpectedly shot to the side of the main flow, a whirlpool grabbed the nose of the kayak spinning us in the same direction and capsizing us. I tried to brace the boat on its side and initiate a roll, though I noticed Jill lifting her head to the sky. Jill didn’t know how to roll, and I wasn’t able to yell to her to keep her head down before we capsized into the dark gloom of the silty river.
Jill Brown and I have just returned from a unique “Self Support” adventure down the famous Grand Canyon. Together in a 22 ft fiberglass double sea kayak, we completed what has been called a world first self support journey. Over 11 days we traveled down the main 227 mile section of the river from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, carrying all the supplies we needed in our kayak with no rafts following for safety or support. However this journey was not a solo vessel journey; we where members of a motley crew of seven other keen paddlers in a mixed bag of vessels, from white water creek and expedition kayaks to single sea kayaks.
This adventure was not intended to be a world first adventure (and I am interested to know if it really is a world first). It all started a year ago as an idea of how to bring someone down the Grand Canyon on a self support kayak trip, who could not paddle their own kayak. I had been invited on the trip by friends, and there were no rafts, so all the kayakers had to be able to carry all their own food and gear in their kayak. Due to the fact this trip was to be my third trip down the Grand Canyon, my first being a self-supported trip by single sea kayak in 2013, I felt that a double sea kayak would make a great vessel for navigating this Iconic American white water river. After all, they take wooden dories and large rafts down it.
I managed to find what I felt was the perfect double sea kayak; it was a fast expedition touring boat that was maneuverable and could hold a lot of gear, allowing two people to live out of it comfortably. It was designed to handle rough seas and large surf launches and landings on the coast, so I had a good feeling it would handle the huge waves on the Grand. Double kayaks are often jokingly called “divorce boats” and ironically I went through 3 expedition partners during the planning of this trip before finally the last one, with only a weeks’ notice, committed and stuck. Jillian Brown is a brave friend of mine from Squamish, British Columbia, who had expressed interest in the trip when I was telling her about it during the lead up. With a last minute partner cancellation, I threw the option at Jill and she was in. Jill had not paddled on rivers any bigger than class 2 in a canoe, and the kicker was she did not know how to roll. But I felt strongly that none of that mattered, and in fact that was exactly what I wanted; to be able to share this journey with someone who was not experienced enough to do it on their own. On top of it, Jill was a professional photographer and was able to help me document this awesome trip, for good or bad.
On day four we found ourselves upside down at the bottom of a rapid, and it wasn’t even one of the big ones. We had made it this far just fine, but now I was slightly questioning “what were we doing?” as we swam awkwardly through the next small rapid and worked the boat to the side of the river. With help from Kevin in his white water kayak, towing the double sea kayak as we swam with it, we emptied the double like a big canoe on the shore. There I had time to process the problem; I realized there is no reason to try and cut out of the rapids early in this vessel, it’s fast enough, long enough and heavy enough to punch through all but the biggest rapids the river has to offer. We just need to choose the raft lines and stay on line all the way through the ‘Gnar’, I stated cheerily to Jill.
During our trip the air temperature was surprisingly warm, which had us hiking in shirts during the day and sitting around our fire at night in sandals and light jackets. However on the river the water was still cold and a dry suit was a happy asset. I found my Kokatat Idol dry suit, especially combined with the new Habenero liner, a wonderfully adaptable piece of gear for this trip. Going on hikes I only needed to remove the top of the Idol, zip down the liner and tie it around my waist. At camp I could quickly remove the top section of my dry suit, put on a warm dry jacket and go about camp chores before worrying about taking off my entire suit. Even in the rain this proved great, as I could switch to my rain jacket and use the lower section of my suit as rain paints. In the mornings I would do the same no matter the weather, not having to worry about getting changed twice from one pair of pants to my dry suit making camp pack downt to kayaking a breeze.The Habenero liner design allowed full access via a zippered waist and front fly for all toileting needs, and really there was almost no need to get out of paddling gear other than to give my neck a break from the neck gasket.
Eleven days later we had made it through all the biggest and baddest rapids, and had not flipped again… Well… we almost flipped on “Granite” rapid, but managed to roll back up with the help of the next wave. And we certainly took some huge hits, with Jill left pretty battered by the end of the trip after being the first one in the kayak to impact, and always going the deepest and hardest into the rapids. It was a solid journey, and gave us a taste of what John Wesley Powell may have gone through with his wooden boats some 150 years earlier.
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.” John Wesley Powell
The journey was breathtaking in scenery, wonderful in weather, and unbeatable as far as friends and fun. The double sea kayak proved to be a great option for a self supported journey on the Grand Canyon, and I would most certainly do it again. Though no damage was done to the kayak, a plastic one may be a better choice for anyone looking to follow in our paddle strokes.
“It’s massive rapids made our 22 foot kayak feel like a tiny toy riding a chocolate milkshake in a blender."