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Flashed in the Canyon

August 16-25, 2022

Making only one or two river trips a year, I don’t generally think of myself as a kayaker in the same way I think of myself as a climber. I kayak, but don’t quite embrace the title like a real, dedicated river person might. Often I reach for some benchmark, after which I’ll allow myself to have earned a title: after I poop on the side of El Cap on a multi-day ascent, THEN I’ll be a real climber, for example.

This, it seemed, was that trip and that kind of benchmark. When Jonathan Kranzley called to inform me that Janelle (like him, a REAL kayaker), whom I’d met on a trip down the Snake River the previous October, had pulled a cancellation permit for the Grand Canyon and was putting together a ten-day self-supported kayak trip (no rafts carrying our gear, just kayaks loaded with everything needed), it was clear that this would by far be the most serious undertaking I’d ever considered as one who occasionally paddles a kayak. I’d never been on a Grand Canyon trip and it was something I’d looked forward to for years.

Our short-lived stretch of green water below the dam turning into chocolate milk.

The fact that Kranzley had called to extend the invitation at all, I knew, was his vote of confidence in my abilities. As the single person with whom I’d done the most river trips he knew me as an adventurer as well as anyone; this helped me not write the whole thing off from the start as being over my head and above my pay grade as an outdoorsman.

Fast forward past some weeks of preparation, logistical planning, meal prepping, budget crunching, and so forth, and I found myself at Lee’s Ferry, where all Grand Canyon river trips begin, in the height of an intense monsoon season in the middle of August. Heavy rains had been hammering northern Arizona and not long after we had staged our boats at the put-in for our launch the next morning, the moody gray skies opened and we got our first taste of the summer rains in the canyon. As I was laying down to go to sleep that night, with a damp sleeping bag and fine gritty sand coating more or less everything, I wondered - is this how it's going to be? Would I manage to find myself dry for even a moment of the next ten days? To what extent would my fears prove themselves accurate, because they definitely weren’t absent…

Our beach camp at North Canyon upon arrival. Note the gear and clothing hanging in the tamarisk to the right, and the amount of sand below it and the boulder in the foreground.

After our ranger talk the next morning and delighting in the first few hundred yards of beautiful, deep green water coming out of the Glen Canyon dam, the first side creek dumped its sediment-laden flows into the main river from last night’s rain, instantly giving it the chocolate milk appearance that would remain for the entirety of the trip. I was slowly getting used to the biggest and heaviest kayak I’d ever paddled, full of camping and cooking gear, ten days worth of food, nearly two gallons of water and as many beers and canned cocktails as I could stuff into the corners and crevices. What it lacked in maneuverability it surely made up in momentum- a much-needed help to punch through oncoming waves as long as I could keep it pointed downstream.

Hiking up into North Canyon.

Wading through still pools, working our way higher up the sculpted sandstone basins

Upon arriving at our first ‘big’ rapid, House Rock, I totally chickened out and tried to run the far inside line, finding myself in a mess of eddy lines and opposing currents and without the momentum and direction provided by the main channel’s flow, where one can use that speed to skirt the nastiest stuff but still scoot past the turbulence at the edges of the channel. Lesson learned, hopefully.

Hiking in North Canyon

We made camp at the Upper Beach at North Canyon on river right above North Canyon Rapid, about 20 miles below the put-in at Lee’s. While some decided to enjoy the leisure of our new campsite, a group of us ventured up the side canyon for an afternoon hike since the day had been dry. With a few ledges to scramble over to gain access, we found ourselves in a narrowing sandstone slot, carved by water over millennia, with pools of still, clear water being fed by the faintest trickle running down a smooth rock slide. Puzzling our way over rock features seemed to unlock one after another chamber of carved sandstone for us to marvel at. Eventually, continuing on would have required moves of technical climbing for which we weren’t prepared, so we sat and took in our otherworldly surroundings before retracing our steps and joining our friends back at the beach.

Skies darkening once we'd returned to the beach.

Slowly the sky darkened, not yet with the approaching dusk but with roiling clouds accompanied by wind gusts that we knew portended the imminent arrival of the front of an angry monsoon thunderhead. As the wind and rains whipped up, we noted how localized the storm cell appeared, with late afternoon sunlight illuminating the cliffs nearby as it made its way horizontally beneath the clouds. We laughed at how each of us seemed to revert to a different strategy for dealing with the rain: Jonathan stood under his umbrella that he had recently purchased as an afterthought. Abbe and Scotty took shelter beneath a nearby boulder. Drew pitched his tent and steadfastly anchored it with his bodyweight from inside while the winds whipped around him, an experience we didn’t envy, despite him no doubt staying drier than the rest. Lucas and Janelle hunkered down under a tarp strung up between nearby tamarisks, past which a trickle of water had begun creeping across the beach, and I donned my thoroughly permeable old gore-tex layer while JP wore his paddling spray-top. We marveled at the drama the sky produced, in a strange way beginning to feel more comfortable with the atmospheric show.

Ominous skies before the evening storm.

Before long the wind subsided enough for us to pitch a tarp strung up between a tamarisk and a notable boulder in the middle of the beach, secured by an inch-diameter stone we wedged in as a chock in the crack in the boulder and tied around with a length of paracord. Once the rain let up the rest of the way, we finished our dinners and emerged from the tarp to marvel at the stars that were now emerging from behind the clouds, a clear summer night being our reward for the bout of turbulent weather. Our spirits rose, we cracked jokes and beers and huddled near the tamarisks where Janelle and Lucas had tied their tarp off.

After a while, an odd sensation, audible as a low rumble, caught my ear. The wind had subsided, but the noise was unrecognizable. I mentioned it and we paused to listen, Jonathan suggesting it to be wind, despite its absence on the beach, and we quickly agreed that the sound didn’t match the description. It was growing, like the low roar of an approaching train, and before we could put the pieces together in those few seconds, JP, who had been higher up on the opposing rock embankment and not down on the beach, suddenly began screaming with a distinct note of urgency in his voice: “Its flashing! The canyon is flashing! Get out, get out, get out!”, or so were the words I can recall from moments that instantly spun completely out of control.

The beach where we had been hanging out and making camp, where much of our gear and most of our boats had been laid out, was in a matter of seconds turning into a channel of fast moving water deep enough that safe passage across it was no longer guaranteed. The main channel by which North Canyon drained, which we had hiked up only hours before, was flooding with such a thunderous roar that the ground beneath our feet shook unmistakably. The main channel was roaring at such a scale that it had overflowed, creating a new channel just behind the stand of tamarisk we had been sitting next to. As that new channel became unable to contain the flow, a third channel carved itself swiftly into the upstream beach - right where we were to camp for the night. Most of the group was able to cross the small rapid that had formed through our camp safely as the waters rose, but Jonathan and I, in a moment of chaos and reaction, remained on by the tamarisks securing crucial equipment, cut off from the beach by water that was steadily rising and now took the form of dangerous and uncrossable rapids on both sides of us.

The 'beach' the morning after the flood.

We scrambled to grab dry bags and crucial items that were quickly being carried off by the current, but realized that further efforts to salvage gear would no doubt jeopardize our safety and our lives. Our paddling gear, PFD’s (life jackets) and helmets, by a stroke of luck had been hanging to dry in the trees behind us, and as we retreated to our only high ground, a steadily shrinking island of tamarisks, Kranzley quickly and clearheadedly instructed that we should don our safety gear immediately, lest we take ‘the big ride’ downriver. The secondary channel was raging past us behind the tamarisk island and I looked over at it; it had formed a rapid, the crest of which I had to look up to see the top of despite the fact that I was standing on a mound of vegetation.

With life jackets, helmets, and headlamps on, we did our best to asses the situation as calmly as possible through the thunderous roar of the flood waters around us and the electric sensation of adrenaline coursing through our bodies. Our teammates, powerless to help us from the other side of the beach-turned-rapid, trained their headlamps on us so as not to let us out of their sight. It was the only thing, they later confided, that they felt they could do for us. In a panic to escape the raging waters rising around us, I got as high up on the thickest tamarisk as I could, realizing two things in the process: first, that my efforts were futile, as I realized that the swift-moving water was steadily undercutting the sand holding the rocks and vegetation in place and that it was likely a matter of minutes before the island on which we stood gave way. And second, with a prickling sensation on the top of my right foot, that something in the vegetation below me had either stung or bit me, a thought that quickly dropped to the lowest of my momentary priorities. Two kayaks remained in the space below the tamarisk island, floating and tangled, somehow not having been carried off yet. At Jonathan’s suggestion, we did our best to secure them along with nearby paddles, following his logic that, should the flood persist and the little island wash out as we knew it might, we would be in for the ride of a lifetime, forced out into the current and down the rapid below us in the moonless night. His logic held, terrifying as it was: we would sure be better off in kayaks, even without spray-skirts, than swimming the rapid blindly in the dark.

The passage of time was hard to judge, but it was clear after some time that the flood waters were no longer rising, and after some minutes of working through the chaos, the situation seemed to be stabilizing and our efforts to communicate across the flooded beach renewed productively. The cord secured to the boulder that held the tarp had snagged a group of four or five kayaks which we had tied together in the earlier storm, preventing them from being swept into the river. Amazingly, the tiny chockstone to which the cord was tied held on, and as it began to seem that the rapid across the beach was beginning to subside, we used the taught cord as a hand line to get close enough to throw bags to the others, the waters eventually subsiding enough for Jonathan and I to cross safely.

Finally reunited as a group of eight, we did our best to collect ourselves and assess the situation and the damage, with Janelle providing valued direction as our trip leader. We did our best to inventory the gear that we had salvaged, for many a demoralizing exercise as we began to tally our losses. But we were still eight, an outcome that, for many long moments seemed far from guaranteed. As we slowly collected ourselves, the sensation in my foot from whatever wildlife encounter I had had in those moments of chaos was quickly surfacing in my perception. I approached JP, who I knew had medical training, and asked for his insight. We were told that the only venomous creatures in the canyon were rattlesnakes and scorpions, and JP assured me that a rattler would leave two very distinctive puncture marks from its fangs. So when a close inspection of my foot only revealed one tiny little dot, I had the pleasure of realizing that I had met a scorpion among the fray. The tingle was turning into a throbbing ache, and besides a low likelihood of anaphylaxis as JP informed me, I was in for some growing discomfort. I had always wondered what a scorpion sting was like.

The channel through the beach was slowly tapering off and we worked to consolidate our gear on higher ground. We discussed our situation with the information at hand, being interrupted from time to time by a resurgence of the roaring from the main channel which, it seemed, had not tapered off at all. Still on edge, we listened as bouts of roaring shook the ground, the sound of boulders being rolled and tossed toward the river by the flood waters in North Canyon’s main channel. Some without sleeping bags, and all of us thoroughly shaken up, we tried to settle in for some rest among the rocks. The throbbing in my foot had only increased, and in the strangest manner, without swelling but sending twitches up my leg when I tried to relax, so I proceeded to try and get myself drunk to numb the pain, with only partial success.

The next morning I was probably the last one up, the only one with a hangover, and strong emotions felt close at hand from the unprocessed fear from the night before. The kayaks that had been saved by the boulder and tarp cord were mostly buried in sand from the flows and needed excavation. Janelle began trying to reach our primary emergency contact with the satellite device, and the rest of us busied ourselves with whatever we could manage: inventorying gear, processing or releasing emotions, documenting the carnage, or all of these things in no particular order as I seemed to be doing. Before long our main contact had the Park Service up to speed, and at their direction we hit the SOS button on our Garmin InReach to relay our exact GPS position, something we had held off doing knowing the convoluted relay it would take to reach the local rangers.

Within a few hours a National Park Service helicopter was landing on the lower beach, a beach, the pilot told us, that hadn’t been there two days ago. The ranger on scene listened to our tale and walked the site of the flood with us, asking detailed questions and taking notes. Afterward, he assured us that we had done everything correctly, and that the park service wanted to learn from the situation in case it could prove fruitful to boaters in the future. Janelle, who lost nearly everything save for her boat when the water ripped through her tarp camp, and Drew whose heavily laden boat was swept clean off the beach and downriver, would join the ranger for the flight out, the rest of us having enough of our gear to continue.

When the helicopter left, we slowly readied ourselves and sat with the idea that we still had a week and a half deep in the backcountry, over two hundred river miles, and the biggest rapids we’d seen yet still downriver on rising monsoon floodwaters. At least my foot was feeling better, never mind the hangover.

Finding relaxation further down the river once we'd found our groove with the canyon.

Two days later, one more of our party would hike out at Phantom Ranch, the trip simply being more than they bargained for. It was hard to argue. The trip that ensued, Boys’ Trip, as we took to calling it, did slowly rediscover the joy and the awe that were the motivations behind this and every river trip, although we saw every feature of the world around us differently. Never have I had such an intimate relationship with the sky, nor taken such precaution against the ways that the canyon might test us each night. As we would joke: we were in a giant toilet, after all, just hoping it wouldn’t flush.

Scotty and Lucas rediscovering joy in the canyon

In a world of climate change and extreme weather events, summer monsoons in a place like that can provide an up-close demonstration of the power of nature whether you’re looking for one or not. But unlike I had feared, after each drenching, whether by the sky or the river, the hundred degree upstream breeze, The Blowdryer, as we took to calling it, invariably kept us from feeling waterlogged or or susceptible to the unstudied flesh-eating bacteria rumored to attack the feet. Phew! Commercial trips full of howling drunk tourists and families having the times of their lives couldn’t get enough of us, keeping our boats heavy with beer and empty of trash to our deepest gratitude. Slowly we stopped telling our story unless asked directly, as by now it seemed we were the talk of the canyon. And day by day, crashing through the biggest rapids I had ever even seen, somehow still upright, dumbstruck by the scale of my surroundings and the splendor we earned with our sweat and tears, I found myself turning, possibly, into a real kayaker.

'Boys Trip': (left to right) Scotty, Lucas (designated backup Trip Leader), Jonathan, myself, and JP

A walk-through of our camps before and after the flood.

A taste of paddling some of the bigger rapids on the river

A little play-by-play on my only big mistake in ten days on the river.


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