grand canyon speed descent

By Tyler Williams

The stars shone with perfect clarity, but the smell of wood smoke told me it was time to drag my aching carcass from the sleeping bag and spark the coffee water. Soon the eastern glow would be prodding us to launch. The six of us had set out to ride a 37,000-cfs surge for a Grand Canyon speed descent, completing the run in three days flat, and if we weren’t paddling hard by daylight, we’d blow it.

These early mornings were tough, but not nearly as harried as the 10-minute breaks we took every 20 miles. As those stops neared, I planned a strategy for efficiency: Ibuprofen, water, food and while chewing, note our progress on the map and walk around to stretch the legs. Then it was back into the boat to make another typical days’ distance in the next two hours. Paddling 75 miles a day seemed improbable at first, but as the miles piled up behind us, that crazy idea morphed into reality. Our pace consistently ranged between seven and nine miles per hour. Going faster wasn’t a reality for most of us, so the best we could do was limit our stoppage time. And it seemed to work. Somehow, when sunset crept over the Canyon each evening, we found ourselves pulling into camp with another 70-plus miles behind us.

Night one brought Cardenas Camp—mile 71.5. We anticipated a faster pace through the inner gorge on day two, but to our surprise the boils and whirlpools below each rapid actually made our overall pace slower than it was through the flat water of Marble Canyon. Making time, however, was not always our primary consideration in the gorge. The big whitewater of 37,000 cfs demanded our full attention. The rock at President Harding created a hole that would flip a house. Hermit most definitely did not wash out as some of us had speculated, and Crystal had us furiously paddling away from mountains of surging wave-holes. Late on day two, Bedrock Rapid brought the biggest surprise. Jets of water fire-hosed into unavoidable whirlpools and exploded in chaotic features that have no name in the whitewater lexicon. Two of us were launched into a washing machine eddy, and Harlan, in his sleek ocean-going vessel that none of us could keep pace with, rolled amidst the crazed boils. We all emerged with big laughs and bigger stories.

Most of our 3-day trip was considerably less gripping—pull the knees up, wiggle the toes, remember to drink water, talk with whomever is near and keep paddling. The images that stick in my mind are the ones that just don’t happen on a standard trip, like early morning light turning the water gold in the Muav Gorge, or familiar buttes appearing like entirely new formations as they caught late evening sun. Being on the water throughout all daylight hours brought refreshing perspective, even as uncomfortable as it was. Most of us had numb toes for most of the days, and as we finally circled around the campfire after dark, Dave Dill often spoke for us all. “Well,” he’d say, “I don’t know about you guys, but I feel fairly devastated.” Indeed, Dave, shall we go again tomorrow?

The team (pictured below from left to right) of Pat Phillips, Justin Salamon, Dave Dill, Harlan Taney, Roy Lippman and Tyler Williams paddled 226 miles down the Grand Canyon in approximately 60 hours from Nov. 12 to 14, 2013.

The team at Mile 224. Photo by Tyler Williams

The team at Mile 224. Photo by Tyler Williams