While this is a classic bucket list item, it’s not actually from my list. It’s from my mum’s list. In 2017, my mum and I were at a Christmas party for the company I worked for at the time. We were all hanging around the pool and BBQing (yes, that is what we do around Christmas time in NZ) when I overheard my mum and another colleague, Luke, talking about the Grand Canyon. I heard her say “I’ve always wanted to whitewater raft the Grand Canyon” and then the conversation continued.
Later that night, when we returned home, I asked my mum about her conversation with Luke. She brushed it off and said, “I think it would be amazing to do but it will never happen”. I said, “Why not? All we have to do is plan it.” That night, I made a promise to my mum, that we would raft the Grand Canyon in the near future. Ever since that day we have been planning our trip. We knew 2018 was not going to work but we were setting our sights for August/September of 2019.
I did a lot of research and found that Rivers & Oceans were a top-notch agent to get adventurers on the river. We settled on a 4-day trip that included a plane ride, a night at a traditional ranch, a helicopter ride, three days on the river and a jet board ride at the end. I checked with the agent in November 2018 to see how many spots were available for a September 2019 trip. At the time there were 20 spots available, but when I checked back in January 2019, there were 5 spots available. I could see that if we waited any longer, we were going to miss out on our spots so I pulled the trigger and put down a deposit.
It felt pretty real then, but it felt a lot more real in July when I put in the final payment for the whole trip. That is when we received our welcome email with a packing list and heaps of great information to get us ready for our trip. My mum and I exchanged emails between July and September comparing our packing lists, and it was as if we were school kids going away to camp for the first time, we were both so excited!
We started off our trip in Las Vegas for a few days, where we saw some great shows and went to our first NASCAR race, what an experience! But the main reason we were there was to start our adventure along the Colorado River, and on the morning of 16th September, it was all a go.
We met our tour bus at the Las Vegas airport in the morning and then we were transferred to the Boulder City airport, about 30 minutes from Las Vegas. While we were waiting to get on our flight, the small groups of people started mingling and getting acquainted. There were 13 of us that booked in for this epic adventure.
The next leg of our journey was from Boulder City Airport to Bar 10 Ranch in a small commercial aircraft. The Hoover Dam came into sight almost immediately after taking off from Boulder City. I had seen it from the ground before, but it was a cool, new perspective from the air. It was a beautiful day and we got a bird’s-eye view of this big hole in the ground that was going to be our home for the next three days.
The Whitmore International Airport (yes, international) sits at the bottom of a valley. This made for an exciting landing as the pilots had to buzz the high ground on their final approach to the landing strip.
During our induction at the ranch they really put into perspective the remoteness of our location. We were 80 miles (128 km) away from the nearest civilisation, which could only be accessed via a washboard dirt road. Not a good place to get injured or sick. Luckily, we were in good hands with the ranch staff. They also highlighted how lucky we were to be going on the river. Approximately 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, but only 20,000 people get to experience it by boat. That’s less than 1% of all visitors!
Bar 10 Ranch is a family-owned operation and an active cattle ranch, still operating as it had since its inception in the early 1970s. A majority of the staff were from the original family and uphold the traditions that have been passed down.
Although the ranch was remote, there was lots to do. We went on a horseback ride in the afternoon through the rocky terrain surrounding the ranch. My horse was named Snap and he was super fun to ride. We got a few good photos together.
Not long after we got back from the horseback ride, they pulled out some machines with a bit more horsepower: ATVs and side-by-sides. My mum and I hired a side-by-side to head out to Engagement Point, which was 45 minutes along that dirt road I mentioned earlier. We took off in a big convoy and left a trail of dust behind us as we ripped through the open range.
The reason it is called Engagement Point is because that is where one of the sons, who owns the ranch, proposed to his wife. I can see why he picked that location as it was absolutely stunning. The lighting was perfect as we arrived about an hour before sunset. No wifi out here!
We returned to the ranch just in time to catch a beautiful sunset before we sat down for a roast beef dinner, with beef that came straight from the ranch. After dinner the staff serenaded us and showed us some of their best line dancing. They got us up to teach us how to line dance as well, but I must admit that dancing is not one of my skills. It was a big day and we were all tired, so everyone staying at the ranch was asleep by 8:30 pm.
An early night was followed up by an early morning and everyone was up by 6:30 am. Good thing everyone was already awake because the helicopter pilot did a low pass over the ranch at 6:45 am. There was nervous energy running through the ranch during breakfast. Conversations were short and sharp and mainly consisted of asking one another whether they were ready for the canyon. Whether we were ready or not, life below the rim was about to begin.
We were on the first helicopter ride into the canyon at 7:15 am. The morning light was casting shadows on the canyon walls, which made it look even more spectacular.
We landed on a small beach and began the exchange of the passengers that had just completed the top section of the river. They were all so excited as they had spent the last 10 days together conquering the river. “You’re going to love it!”, one of them said to me as I walked past their group.
After our whole group was shuttled into the small beach, our tour guides introduced themselves. Sabrina was head guide and the other five were Adam, Abel, Casey, Carter and John. Carter was running the only paddle raft on the trip, so he gave us a run down on the basics of what we were in for over the next three days. He started off his briefing by saying, “I only have three days with you on the river, so if you’re doing something wrong, I’m going to tell you right away. I don’t have time to mould you into perfect little paddlers.” He wasn’t nasty about it, he said this in a joking manner that made us all smile.
He continued, “First of all, when you paddle, I want good solid strokes. None of this dipping the edge of your paddle in the water. We call that teaspoonin’ or lily dippin’ and there’s not going to be any of that on my boat.” He finished off by saying “My job on this river is to shatter hearts, break egos and make dreams come true!” I was happy that Carter was going to be our captain for the next few days, he seemed like a lot of fun.
In no time at all, we were packed up and on the river. Carter was giving us commands and we were running rapids straight out of the gate. In between rapids everyone was scrambling to get their phones out and take photos. The scenery was like nothing we had ever seen before. The height of the canyon walls was humbling and made us feel like little insects floating down the river. I realised pretty quickly that even my photos didn’t do justice to the sheer size of the canyon. I hope you enjoy my photos, but I also hope they inspire you to witness this with your own eyes. There is no substitute for a first-hand experience when it comes to the Grand Canyon.
We continued to run rapids and came together as a team, finding our rhythm. After a few hours we stopped for lunch where the crew set up a sandwich station with all the toppings and condiments you could ever want. I made a massive sandwich because I was already starving from exerting so much energy paddling and knew we had another half a day ahead of us.
It was a good thing I filled up during lunch because after we launched, we were back into running rapids. The river provides a lot of enjoyment and also provides other things. During one of the flatwater sections Abel spotted a can floating in the river ahead of us. He pointed it out so we could go collect. Lucky for us, it was a beer can, and it was full!
No one else seemed keen on drinking it so they passed it back to me. I don’t know what was wrong with this cap, but I was glued on to the can and wasn’t coming off. Casey was in the boat next to us, yelling at me “Shotgun it! Chug chug chug!” In true rugged fashion, Carter lent me his knife, which I used to stab two holes in the can to shotgun it. This was a true river experience that I will never forget and everyone else seemed to enjoy watching me do it.
I was pretty rev’d up after that beer and Carter had to tell me a couple times to slow down my paddling during the next section of the river. We had a few sections of flat water with relentless headwinds ripping up the canyon. This made the paddling tough, but we all knuckled down and worked together to make it through these sections.
We pulled into our camp in the late afternoon, which was on a big sweeping corner full of rapids. There was a small eddy with a sandy beach where we parked the rafts and began to unload gear. Everyone did their part to help unload the rafts and get camp set up. Although we were roughing it, we had toilets, a drink station, a hand washing station, a snack bar, a kitchen, a chair for each person and cots to set up wherever we desired.
While dinner was cooking, we played a river version of washer toss on the beach. These guides really plan ahead and make sure there is always something to pass the time. When they shouted out that dinner was ready, everyone flocked to the kitchen. We were all hungry from a big day on the river. Pasta with garlic bread was on the menu for the first dinner.
As the sun went down, people started migrating back to their cots. It was only 7 pm but we were all tired. I was about to head to bed when Casey said to me “Have you ever seen a scorpion under a black light?” I had no idea what he meant but I was intrigued. Apparently, the exoskeleton of a scorpion is phosphorus based, which means it glows under a black light. We hunted around the camp for about 30 minutes and found three little scorpions. It was so cool to see these little lime green creatures running around.
After our scorpion hunting, it was time for me to get some sleep. I watched shooting stars pass overhead as I feel asleep under the stars. It was dark when I went to sleep but when I woke up in the middle of the night, the near-full moon was overhead. When I first woke up it felt like I was on a movie set with some kind of weird artificial light.
I was in a daze for a while until a realised where I was and what was going on. The moon was reflecting off the white sand and lit up the whole camp site. I walked around without a light and could see everything, it was spectacular. This gigantic night light made it a bit hard to sleep but it was worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In true camping fashion, we all got up with the sun in the early hours of the morning. The drink station had fresh brewed coffee and the smell of bacon was in the air.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we knew we were in for another great day on the river. After some bacon and eggs, we packed up camp and continued along the river. My mum and I had been in the paddle raft the whole time along with Branden and Chris, fellow Canadians who were on the trip. We recruited two newbies, Michael and Leila, to fill the raft on Day 3 so that they could get the full experience.
Day 3 provided beautiful scenery and awesome rapids, just as we had experienced on Day 2. We stopped for a short hike around mid-morning to stretch our legs and take in some views from a different angle. Every corner of the river presents a new view of canyon, each one just as stunning as the last. By this time, I realised that three days on the river was going to feel too short and I know that I want to get back and experience the upper part of the river, from the top dam down to where our helicopter dropped us off.
Leila and Michael really enjoyed themselves as we tackled a few challenging rapids before stopping for lunch. The crew prepared another massive sandwich station for us to fix some “river sammies” to keep us fuelled for the rest of the day. Water and Gatorade were also key to keeping us hydrated. It was really dry and hot at the bottom of the canyon. Making sure to stay hydrated and out of the sun as much as possible can be the difference between an enjoyable trip and a three-day struggle.
After lunch, Leila and Michael gave up their spots so that Jessica and Lance could join us. Lance booked this trip as a surprise for their anniversary, a tradition that they have been doing for the last three years. Next year will be Jessica’s turn to surprise Lance. Nice tradition guys!
Lance and Jessica must have been a good luck charm because not long after we began paddling, we found another river beer. A cerveza this time. No one else wanted a taste so Lance and I took it upon ourselves to make sure it was consumed. We felt like we had earned it after the rapids before.
Our campsite on Day 3 was located on an even smaller beach in an even smaller eddy than the night before. Again, we had the canyon walls providing a beautiful backdrop as we carried on with the same procedures as the night before.
The game for this night was called Kubb. A team game that involves throwing dowels at the other team’s cubes (Kubbs) to try to knock them over. It was a friendly game, but we had bonded so much during the last three days that there was some friendly trash talk and banter going down. We had just finished our game when they made the dinner call.
We raced to see what was on the menu for tonight: ham, mashed potatoes and applesauce. Not bad for roughing it. I filled my plate again as it was another big day of paddling. My mum was a champ and paddled both days as well.
The after-dinner entertainment for the night involve Abel on the guitar and Sabrina on the violin. These two barely get to play together and seemed to just find their rhythm with no prior rehearsing. My favourite was when they played Wagon Wheel, a campfire classic.
At one point, some asked Abel how he came to be a river guide. Abel’s story goes like this, “I just found myself running from the law. I had my own business before but began rafting and have been stuck in a bit of a rut ever since. I figure if you’re going to be stuck in a rut, might as well be the biggest damn one on the planet”! I think there are some half-truths and whole lies in his story, but I loved it.
The last day started much like the previous ones. It was still warm, and the morning sun was bringing life to the canyon walls that surrounded us. There were some groups upstream that must have been up very early because we saw them run the rapids in front of our campsite while we were still packing up. We were pretty efficient at packing the rafts at this point, so we weren’t far behind them.
Carter told us that the last day had three of the biggest rapids, in close succession. I was looking forward to the last day. Jessica and Lance were onto it as well and they made sure that they had a spot on the paddle raft for these rapids. My mum, Branden and Chris made up the other three. We were all excited to see what the river had in store for us.
As we approached the first of the three rapids, at Mile 231, it was obvious that it was larger than anything we had taken on up to this point. Carter gave us the command, “All forward!” and we charged into the start of it. The raft bucked and rolled as we negotiated the rapids. The rapids don’t always hit straight on the nose of the boat and a few ones from the left side almost knocked Lance out of the raft. It was a long rapid and we kept paddling the whole way through it to make sure we maintained our forward momentum.
When we hit the calm water at the end of the rapid Carter said, “Paddles up” and we put them up in the air to celebrate a successful run. The next big rapid was at Mile 232, so there was not a lot of time to celebrate before we were getting mentally prepared for the next run.
This rapid was called Killer Fang Falls because of the jagged fang-like rocks that stuck out of the rapids. Carter had warned us about these rocks, but we didn’t really know where to look for them. He gave us the “All forward” command as entered the start of the rapid and we paddled hard as the waves smashed the raft. About halfway through the rapid the raft started to drift over to the right side of the river and that’s when I saw it… The fangs!
Carter realised we were in a bad place and screamed, “BACKPADDLE”! We followed his orders and began to backpaddle, but our trajectory was taking us straight for the fangs. As we began to back-paddle it turned the left side of the raft towards the fangs. I was on the right side and had a perfect view as the raft closed in on the jagged rocks. The impact was directly between Jessica and Lance. I thought they were both going to fly out of the raft, but they anticipated the impact and shifted their weight to stay in place.
After we rebounded back off the rocks, the front of the boat began to swing around and eventually we were pointed downstream again. Carter screamed again, “ALL FORWARD”! The tone of Carter’s voice told us that we were not out of danger yet and that we had to keep following his orders to get out of this rapid. The stress levels were high, so we all pulled our weight and kept paddling until we hit flat water. Carter was silent for a while as he looked at us, looked back at the fangs, looked at the other boats entering the rapid and then continued this cycle of inspections. Eventually he was satisfied that everyone was safe and gave us the “Paddles up” command to celebrate that we survived. I think that was the biggest cheer that came out of the boat the whole trip!
The last big rapid was at Mile 234 and was just as big as the previous two, but it swept around to the left and then back to the right before the river straightened out. We charged into it hooting and hollering to subdue any fear that was coming over us.
The rapids seem to attack from all directions and this time it was me that nearly went for a ride. A large wave hit me on the right side and launched me out of my seat. I had one foot on the floor of the raft and one hand on the paddle, while my other limbs were flailing around in the air. Luckily, I was able to regain my seated position and resume paddling through the rest of the rapid. That one was quite exciting and help regain some confidence after our run through Killer Fang Falls.
The last few miles of the river were quite tame in comparison to what we had just experienced. It was sad that the best of the river was behind us but was nice to have a bit of a gradual let down as we approached the end. We were still in the canyon when we reached a small sandy beach on the left side of the river where we docked all the rafts. This is where we began to unload all our gear in preparation for our next mode of transportation, the jet boat.
We had bonded with our fellow passengers and all the guides over the last few days, so this was our last chance to say our goodbyes. As we ate our packed lunch, everyone exchanged stories from the last few days. One of the craziest stories that we kept reliving was from Killer Fang Falls, just an hour before. Everyone described what it looked like from their angle as we hit the fangs at full speed. Adam was manning the raft behind us and watched as we hit the fangs. Luckily, we hadn’t done any major damage to the raft, but that didn’t stop Adam from giving our raft the nickname “toothpick”. I’m sure that raft will carry that nickname into next season and they will tell the story of our run through the rapid.
We waited on the beach for a while before the large jet boat arrived to take us out to our final departure point. The next 30 miles of the river was flat water, so the jet boat was the best vehicle to get us out in a timely manner. The captain had the boat at full throttle the whole way and after about an hour, we reached the boat ramp on the outskirts of the canyon.
A tour bus was waiting for us, which was our last mode of transportation to end our trip. We slowly crawled our way up from the river and back toward the main interstate that led us back to Las Vegas.
On the trip back it was good to just sit and reflect on what we had experienced. I stared out the window, in silence, and in a bit of a daze as I thought about the events of the last few days.
This was an amazing trip and I’m so glad that I made that promise to my mum, two years ago. She had been wanting to cross this off her bucket list for the last 20 years and it felt so great to help her accomplish it. I was so proud of the fact that she paddled for all three days and I think she was too.
I’m already looking forward to our next adventure together, wherever it will be.
Have you been rafting along the Grand Canyon? Let me know in the comments below.
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Dave has been on a mission, since 2010, to cross off the 100 items on his bucket list. The stories of his adventures are complimented by life lessons learned along the way and his travel tips are unique to his experiences.