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
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.
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.
The canyon is rich with history, and floating through it is a journey
through 2 billion years of
—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
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. sotar.com
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. extrasport.com
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.
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