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The Grand Canyon: If you ever get invited….GO !

Everyone dreams of a ‘trip of a lifetime.’

I’ve been blessed, and can put my trips into categories: that one mountain, that one place to ski, that one elusive black marlin, and rafting the Grand Canyon on a private permit. I wanted a trip on the Grand to be on my terms, not a commercial trip. When I set out ten years ago to take this trip, I didn’t expect it would take until this past year to achieve it.

Grand Canyon private river permits are some of the most sacred in the world. Over five million people go to view the Grand Canyon on an annual basis, and of those, only 25,000 ever reach the canyon floor and go boating. The vast majority goes via commercial trip. Only 450 private permits are handed out annually— better odds on the craps tables of Vegas than pulling a private permit!

Year after year, I struck out on the permit and settled for another amazing river adventure in Idaho, Colorado and Montana, but the “big ditch” always remained on my list. Last year, my wife pulled the permit. Ironically, I was the one who’d signed her up 10 months earlier. When the email came through, “You have won the Grand Canyon Lottery Permit,” we had 45 days to put together a group, details and cargo for the 21-day raft trip of a lifetime.

In early May, our group of 16 friends and family loaded boats onto trailers in Montana and drove south. With spring’s desert bloom, warm days and cool nights, it was the perfect season to be in the Grand Canyon.

Our six rafts held 50 cases of beer and 12 coolers of gourmet meals. Only one person from our group had ever been there. A guest on a previous trip, Dave remembered some fuzzy details, but otherwise we were at the mercy of the topo maps and guidebooks – John Welsey Powell, who pioneered boating in the Grand Canyon in 1869, would have been proud and jealous.

Brandy, Troy and Ben going for a Grand swim in Horn Rapid / Photo by Matty McCain

The Canyon is known for rapids like Crystal, Hermit, Horn and the famed Lava Falls—over 90 rapids in 300 miles. But more than 90 percent of the float is flat water, and regulars had told me the side hikes, campsites, historic ruins and waterfalls would be the highlights. How right they were.

The miles and days clicked by with systematic precision, our group working together swapping out duties cooking, cleaning and setting up the groover. Nicknames were appointed, costumes appeared and everyone took turns on the oars learning to row. My parents, always keen for an adventure, hiked 5000’ and seven miles out of the canyon at the midway point, allowing other friends to join us for the second half of the trip.

I rowed a 14’ Sotar cataraft because I wanted to go in classic style with a small boat, solo. Pulling up to a rapid, I’d quickly scout out the line, give hand signals back to the other boats and then start rowing like hell. The big rapids held waves upwards of 15’, as well as monster, school bus-sized holes in classic pooldrop style. Flat water leading up to them gave me time to stare, witnessing the beast and Mother Nature. Often, the knot in my stomach took my breath away.

Corbett Baker jumping into a side canyon Oasis Photo by Matty McCain

The canyon is rich with history, and floating through it is a journey through 2 billion years of geology —the razor-sharp rock that sliced one of our rafts on an unnamed rapid at mile marker 84 clocked in at approximately 1.75 billion years old. For 10,000 years, humans have been hiking in and out of the Grand Canyon, and today, boaters can explore 1,000+ yearold cliff dwellings. It first gained protection in 1893, when President Benjamin Harrison declared it a National Forest Preserve. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson made the Grand Canyon the United States 17th National Park.

As river time slowed to a snail’s pace, I felt awestruck by the beauty and grateful for visionaries like Powell and Roosevelt who helped discover and preserve this national keepsake. At top speed, you can make eight miles an hour. Our satellite phone barely worked, and we rarely saw other groups.

Side hikes up slot canyons, Indian ruins, caves large enough to hold 15,000 people, and 500’ waterfalls—all in a day’s work. Wine in the box (amazing invention for river trips), grilled rib eyes and Dutch oven desserts. Horseshoes and Bocce ball tournaments and raft repairs after hitting the schist walls. So much better than cleaning my house and paying bills.

The park service deserves a huge “atta boy” for how they manage this amazing resource. Even with 25,000 people on the river every year, the campsites were nearly spotless. 21 days seems long. Can I take that much time off? Will I get tired of the other people on the trip? Do we have enough beer? The days blended together, and before we knew it we were rafting into the upper reaches of Lake Mead and being invaded by the helicopter tours from Vegas. Lake Mead was a mess. Sediment banks were over 30’ high, and there was no shoreline for stopping or camping. A combination of the drought and the massive demand for water in the Southwest has caused the reservoir’s water levels to sink daily.

Even so, with the boats tied together in a party barge, we toasted the canyon as we emerged into the open desert. ‘If you could go back to the put in right now, would you?’ We all agreed, ‘Hell, yes.’ The group decided to spend one last night as a unit and made the foolish decision to go to Vegas. As we were checking into the marble lobby of the Mandalay Bay, we became the show. People stared, and the woman at the front desk gasped. Here stood one of our river mates, Corbett, 21 days out from a shower, hair completely out of control, in stained shorts, holding all his needed possessions in a small dirty dry bag and light blue dented ammo-can. This was no Louis Vitton!

We huddled on the fake beach of the pool and began to recount stories from the canyon. Did that really just happen? Man, this world moves too fast! Is that a margarita in a three-foot tall glass shaped like the Eiffel Tower? Please transport me back to Tequila Beach at the bottom of Lava Falls—now that’s Grand.

Some of the essentials for a Grand Canyon Trip

Raft - Self-bailer, 18’ is the ideal craft for this expedition. Sotar rafts are some of the most durable in the industry, with welded joints, custom coloring and great customer service. Based in Merlin, OR – order your boats early as they take some time to build.

Life Jackets – So many choices, so many great companies. Get one that is comfortable and quality. DO NOT borrow someone’s ‘old’ jacket. Extrasport is one of the leaders in the industry with the Pro Creeker model a favorite of many whitewater enthusiasts.

Outfitting – A few companies can help outfit your Grand Canyon trip, especially food. The outfitting companies are an amazing resource and make these trips happen. It’s an art to pack food for 21+ days, and Pro River Outfitters have the system dialed. Since 1983, they’ve been outfitting groups renting everything from boats, to menu planning, to all the little ‘extras’ that make the trips work. They deliver to the put-in and meet you at the take-out. Totally Pro.