Why We Do This: Historic Wooden Boats on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
A heartfelt series of guest posts from our friend Greg Hatten begins this week.
March of 2014 was a deadly month in the Grand Canyon for river runners. The water level was well below average and even the most experienced boatmen saw water dynamics they had never seen before. Low water created new hazards – holes were deeper, drops were sharper, jagged rocks that rarely see sunlight punched holes in our boats and holes in our confidence.
An accomplished group of nine kayakers just a few miles ahead of us lost one of their team mates to the river below Lava Falls. There was a another serious accident in the group two days behind us midway through the trip.
Some of our wood boats were damaged, a few of our rubber rafts flipped, oars and ribs and teeth were broken, a helicopter rescue was required for a member of our team on Day 4. After 280 miles and 24 days on the water, we reached the end of the Grand Canyon and all agreed we were ready to do it again…as soon as possible.
We are a band of wood boat enthusiasts who came to the Grand Canyon in March to re-run a famous trip from 1964 with our wood dory replicas, our canvas tents and bedrolls, our Pendleton wool blankets, and a couple of great photographers to capture the adventure.
Fifty years ago, that trip played a crucial role in saving the Grand Canyon from two proposed dams that were already under construction. If THAT trip had not happened, THIS trip would not have been possible and our campsites would be at the bottom of a reservoir instead of beside the river. River running on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon would’ve been replaced by “Reservoir Running in Pontoons,” as most of the Grand Canyon would’ve been hundreds of feet under water.
We are celebrating the success of the trip of ‘64 and paying tribute to those men who left a legacy for future river runners like us to run the big water of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in river boats. We are brought together by Dave Mortenson, whose dad was one of those pioneers.
“Who we are” is easier to answer than “Why we do this.” There are moments on trips like these, when we are at the crossroads of chaos – where adventure and wonder intersect with danger and consequence – and the outcome is uncertain. THAT’s what makes it an adventure. I can only speak for myself – but here’s my shot at answering “why…”
I do this because the Grand Canyon takes my breath away. The first time I saw it from the bottom looking up, I fell in love with this place and was absolutely amazed by the size and beauty of the canyon. Everything is bigger, deeper, taller, more colorful, more powerful, more everything than anyplace I have ever been.
I do this because the Colorado River tests my physical ability as a boatman like no other river I have ever boated. This is one of the most powerful rivers in North America and when that strong current bends the oars I’m rowing and I feel the raw force shooting up my aching arms and across my tired back, I’m electrified and anxious at the same time.
I do this because the rapids on this river test my mental ability as a boatman. My friend and veteran Canyoneer Craig Wolfson calls it “Nerve.” Scouting severe rapids and seeing the safest “line” to run is one thing – having the nerve to put your boat on that line is another. Most of the difficult rapids require a run that puts your boat inches from disaster at the entry point in order to avoid calamity at the bottom. Everything in your “experience” tells you to avoid the danger at the top – but you mustn’t. Overriding those instincts and pulling off a successful run is a mental tug of war that is challenging beyond belief.
I do this because of the bonds we form as a team of 16 individuals working and cooking and rowing and eating and drinking and laughing together for 280 miles. We problem-solve together, we celebrate together, we look out for each other, and we find a way to get along when every once-in-awhile the stress of the trip makes “some” of us a little “cranky.” Sometimes, we experience the most vulnerable moments of our lives together. These people are lifetime friends as a result of this adventure.
And finally – I do this because it brings out the best in me. My senses are better, my mind is clearer, my body is stronger and I like to think I’m friendlier, funnier, more generous, and more helpful down in the Canyon. It makes me want to be this open with people up on Rim when I get back to my regular routine. It’s hard to articulate but for me, the place is magic.
Next….. You can read in detail how we carefully “scout” and how we the run the violent rapids of the Colorado in hand-made historic wooden boats made of ¼” plywood. If we make a mistake we pay a heavy price – which you will see in “Running A Rapid.”
Finally…. You can read about camp life on the Colorado. What it’s like to sleep in the canyon for a month. How we cook, clean, relax, and get re-charged for a challenging day on the river. There are beautiful night-time shots for you to enjoy in “Camp in the Canyon.”