Rowing Against the Wind… The Grand Canyon Series

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me as we begin our journey on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.


With thoughts of facing headwind gusts up to 60 MPH, we began our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I performed the ritual of asking a boatman if we could ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.

Most boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are few Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.

We push-off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah. For awhile, my brother and I thought some of our ancestors had been involved, had ended up dead. But it wasn’t so.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

Navajo Bridge by Don Green

A view of the Navajo Bridge. The first is the old one and is now used as a walkway. The second is used by cars and other vehicles. (Photo by Don Green.)

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. Its geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea— before the divorce, before plate tectonics demanded that the continents go their own way.

During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.

The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.

The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.

An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as does Tom). Don is also quite generous in sharing his photos, which was particularly helpful on our first day since neither Peggy nor I took many.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Creek Rapids. In boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous. It’s labeled a 4-6 out of 10 in the method used in the Grand Canyon for determining difficulty. Ten is reserved for only the most dangerous. Badger involves a 15 foot drop from the top to bottom.

Badger Creek Rapids by Don Green

Photo of Badger Creek Rapids by Don Green.

There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.

Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Creek Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.

Badger Creek Rapids Google photo

The view from above using a Google photo. Our camp would be on the right (river left)  at the bottom of the photo, in the shade here. Our raft came out on the left (river right) side of the river.

“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.

Jackass campsite on Colorado River by Don Green

Not the world’s most attractive campsite. We scatter out to find places for our tents after emptying the boats. (Photo by Don Green.)

Jackass Camp Area by Don Green

Boats tethered at Jackass Camp. (Photo by Don Green.)

View from Jackass camp on Colorado River by Don Green

View from camp. (Photo by Don Green.)

Grand Canyon evening primrose by Don Green

I liked this primrose captured by Don the next morning…

Grand Canyon floers and tracks by Don Green

And found the tracks under it even more interesting. It’s like the lizard was sidestepping. Its tracks and tail trail can be seen coming down from the right. The hole on the right was made by an ant lion that uses the hole as a trap for insects. They fall in, can’t get out, and become lunch. Next Monday, we will continue our journey down the river.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: I begin my series on the Alaska Highway. We make our way to the start of the highway in Dawson Creek by traveling through British Columbia. Great wood carvings and dog agility trials entertain us along the way.

FRIDAY’S MisAdventures POST: I graduate from playing in the Graveyard to playing on a pond and discover a magical world.

MONDAY’S Grand Canyon Series POST: Beautiful waterfalls, a huge cavern, and ancient Native American ruins are featured.

Jackass campsite on Colorado River by Don GreenJackass campsite on Colorado River by Don GreenSaveSave








33 comments on “Rowing Against the Wind… The Grand Canyon Series

  1. Wow! I said earlier that I don’t think I’d want to do this because it seems like too much work, but the views have changed my mind. How stunning! Maybe this is something I should consider in the future when I feel like I need to test myself… because it will definitely be a test of my strength and determination.

    • It was right up there with my experiences of backpacking into the Canyon, G, which I have done several times. The Canyon is one of the world’s treasures! The river added a different perspective. –Curt

  2. The rubber boats would have to be strong. With jagged rocks to navigate I wonder how that materials stands up? Perhaps the rubber is layered with material in between, a bit like car tyres.
    I suppose while riding the rapids it might be a bit late to worry about it.

    • You can get interesting discussions from the river runners over different types of materials used in raft construction, Gerard. The Sotar company is actually close to where I live in Southern Oregon and has a reputation for being one of the best raft manufacturers. I’ve been to its plant. Each raft is built by hand with great attention to detail and the company uses urethane instead of rubber in construction. It’s tough. The boats are also built to be self-bailing, so there is no filling up with water like used to be the problem. And no, there is enough to worry about when going through rapids with out worrying about a hole being ripped in your boat. Of course, it can still happen. 🙂 –Curt

  3. I am transported back to our first day on the Colorado. I will say with less adrenaline and effort than your group. My hands started sweating at your description. The photos so gorgeous and so familiar. Loved this one Curt!

    • Sort of an aside here, Sue, but not really. I was sitting in my dentist’s chair yesterday for a couple of hours, having a root canal and a crown done, which is never a pleasant experience, unless of course, you are a masochist’s masochist! Anyway, John, my dentist, has an overhead screen where you can choose to watch him work in your mouth or watch videos of beautiful natural areas. Peggy always chooses to watch John work. She’s infinitely curious about such things and takes a happy pill before going to the dentist so she can enjoy them. I always choose the videos, and often they reflect somewhere I have been. Yesterday it was the Kaulaulau Valley of Kauai where I once backpacked into for several days, back before the helicopter tours ruined it by buzzing in and out of it every few minutes. Anyway, I was suddenly taken back to that trip, to the beauty and peace of it. And John and his drills faded into the background. Later, I thought about how such experiences own a part of us, and how easy it is to travel back to and relive them. And what a gift they are. Your words on the Grand Canyon reflected my thoughts. Thanks. –Curt

  4. Asking permission to come on board? You betcha. It is a reminder of who’s in charge. There’s always room for discussion, consultation, and the offering of opinion, but when a decision has to be made, the Captain’s word is law.

    I’ve known only one literal Captain Bligh. In fact, he was one of my customers, and the father of a friend. He was so bad that some people refused to sail with him — including my friend’s husband. Everyone called him Bligh, as a matter of fact, and he didn’t seem to care. There are stories. He came by the name honestly.

    I love the vistas, and the bridge, and I especially like the primrose. I just found the first of the season last weekend.

    Thinking about those winds, I thought first that being low to the water would be an advantage. Then, I realized that your maneuverability was limited by both the river’s flow and the obstacles — like the rocks. So many sailing techniques for dealing with wind or weather simply weren’t available to you. You couldn’t tack upwind, for example. It’s interesting to think about.

    • I don’t have your experience with boating, Linda, but I’ve known one Captain Bligh character. It takes a certain personality, the type of personality you don’t want to give power of being a captain to.

      The fact that the rafts were loaded helps. But inflated boats as a rule don’t like wind. Peggy and I have a pair of inflatable kayaks, that, like the Sotar rafts are vey well built, but we have been out on lakes and been caught in wind storms. It’s a very dangerous situation. As a rule I try to keep close to shore on larger lakes and make any traverses as quickly as possible.

      Don’s got a good eye for photography. I was glad he was along. Usually, some of his photos are included in my Burning Man stories as well.


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