“You’re doing what?”
Most people asked this question during the fall as I explained my winter plans: Costa Rica, Ecuador, and paddling at the Grand Canyon. The idea of being on a raft for sixteen days in January in the Grand Canyon floored people.
“Don’t you know it’s going to be cold down there?”
“Yes, that’s why we have dry suits and all the warm things,” I replied.
Our launch date for the Grand Canyon was January 21. My college friend, Will Butler, won the permit after we both applied at my old, weathered kitchen table. We figured one of us would win a permit, and sure enough he did. We spent a year planning the trip, taking group dynamics heavily into the guest list decisions. By the time we all met the day before we launched in Flagstaff, Arizona, we had ten amazing people on board, four of them girls.
Three of us girls all worked for the same rafting company in Western North Carolina, and the fourth was a freelance writer from Florida. We had three oar rigs on our trip, 18 feet long rafts with metal frames strapped to the top that held all our food, gear, and alcohol for the 16-day trip. Of the three oar rigs, I rowed one and Abby, a Chattooga River guide, rowed the other with the writer, Brooke, as her passenger. The rest of the crew took kayaks, which they would periodically strap to a raft so they could ride through the flatter sections and relax.
The trip started off with a bang. Abby had just gotten off the Canyon and had plenty of beta and advice for the rest of us. I hadn’t rowed since 2010 and was soaking up everything she said from readjusting my oars to bracing my feet. On the second day the raft captained by the boys ran into a rock and got pinned. With the two guys on board, the rest of us worked for an hour trying to find a way to pull the thousand plus pound raft off the raft and back into the river’s current.
After trying a variety of rope trips and rescue ideas, Abby remembered how to set up a z-drag. A z-drag is an elaborate rope system using pullies and other devices. With one end of a long rope attached to the boat, we then used devices to put bends in the rope arriving at a loose “z” shape, hence the name. The arrangement of pullies gave us a mechanical advantage of three, allowing us to pull on the raft with more effective strength. Progress was captured between two of the carabineers with prussik loops.
Most of us who pulled on the raft were in a shallow eddy right above the raft. Focusing on keeping our feet firm in the loose rocks, we pulled in unison, used the prussic to lock the first few feet of progress, and then pulled again. The raft pivoted on the rock and flushed off backwards, spinning into freedom with its two riders cheering. The only damage was a hole in the floor, which wasn’t bad enough to justify spending a day un-rigging the raft, patching the floor, letting it cure, and then re-rigging.
The rest of the trip settled into a routine of early breakfast by headlamps, an hour of breaking down camp and packing rafts, and then rowing until mid afternoon when we set up camp. Abby led most days, with her edge-worn guide book, shouting instructions and giving the rest of us tips about upcoming rapids. Some days we took side hikes, into cavernous side canyons where we would sing any song we could remember the words to just to hear the acoustics.
Towards the end of the trip was a big rapid called Lava. Lava is the biggest rapid on the Grand Canyon, measuring in at a 9 on a scale of 1-10. We took our time scouting the rapid and discussing lines through it. We had just finished three days with no sun and freezing rain, and we could see sunshine on the beach below Lava, so we were anxious to get there. The rapid is huge, with massive hydraulics and waves, most big enough to easily flip a raft.
Abby went first, crashing through eddy currents and waves. Before she finished it was my turn. I sat backwards, where I could pull on the oars and have more power. Paul, my best friend who’d been in my raft the whole time, sat in front of me to give me directions. He helped me set the raft up and as we floated towards the rapid I kept my eyes glued on him as he narrated Abby’s line:
“She’s sideways! They’re all high siding! She’s got it! They’re done! Great line!”
Next thing I knew we were in the first set of waves. I pulled as hard as I could, keeping my eyes on Paul as he instructed me.
“Pull! Now straighten up, we’re not going to make it around this hole!”
Strokes have the most power on the face of a wave, so I pulled on the left to straighten us up as we rode up the wave. On the top we spun ever so slightly back to the right, just in time to ride up the second wave sideways, setting us up for a potential flip. Paul shouted, “High side!” as I dropped my oars and threw my body weight towards the side going up the wave in an effort to keep it from flipping.
The high side worked and as soon as we had crested the wave upright I landed back on my seat and almost magically, my oars were exactly where I had let go of them. We were delirious with excitement and adrenaline.
The last big rapid done with we pulled over onto the sunshine of Tequila Beach, drank a lot of tequila and signed the logbook hidden in a rock. The rest of the trip passed before I could blink, and the next thing I knew the canyon had spit us out onto a large sandy beach where we met the truck picking us up.
Few experiences in life are as empowering as rowing a thousand pound raft down 244 miles of extreme whitewater in the dead of winter for sixteen days. Add to that getting to experience it with other badass women and it will be hard to ever replicate that trip. At the end of sixteen days, still in sand filled clothes that could hold themselves up on smell alone, we posed for a picture in front of the trailer holding our rafts. With no make up and greasy hair we glowed from sheer confidence gained from a trip that turns girls into women.
Annabell Plush is the Operations Manager at Green River Adventures in Saluda, NC, a member of the Kokotat Ambassador team and a regular contributor to Canoe and Kayak Magazine. She enjoys kayaking, yoga, mountain biking, and cold beer on the porch with her dog, Pigeon. When she isn’t working from March to November, she travels the world in search of adventure. Read more of her work on her blog.