Most of us don’t think of January as a time to take a paddling trip. Winter is for ski trips, and evenings at home sitting around a ragin’ fire with hot drinks, and a wool blanket. But what if it's an invite on a Grand Canyon trip? “Yes, I'm in, load the boats we are on the way!”
It’s about a 12 hour drive to Flagstaff, Arizona from Idaho. Flagstaff is the starting point for most GC trips. It’s is about the same distance from the Lee’s Ferry Put in and Diamond Creek Take out. With a large enough airport to get a decent flight in and out, this is the place to stage a grand canyon operation. Flag is one of the cool mountain towns of the west. Its own outdoor culture with a ski mountain, lots of local climbing spots and mountain biking trails close to town. If you’ve got spare time waiting for others to get into town, there is plenty to see and do. Flagstaff has a good mountain scene and good people and lots of outfitters willing to offer shuttles, support, and gear rentals. The outdoor shops are packed with Grand Canyon essential gear, back country food, forgotten items, and those last minute must haves. “What do you mean you forgot the fire pan!” can be an alarming question the night before a trip. So, its best to meet up in Flag and have a day of organizing boats, gear, food, shuttles, etc.
With a 12 hour drive ahead…it’s easy to let “thoughts of doubt” snowball in my highly caffeinated state. How cold will I get? Can I pack enough food for a 12 day trip in just my Remix XP 10, and have enough room for the extra warm gear as well? Could my groover leak and make a mess in my boat? Will there be a whiner on the trip? What if there’s an injury far from a phone or help? Yeah, nothing like a 12 hour drive to raise some doubts. I’ve heard of Christmas day trips canceling at the put in cause its too cold. But not to worry, we got everything covered. Woody, Boyce, and Mike have done this trip before. Last January in fact and everyone had a blast on the 12 day self support. Woody has designed a $35 PVC groover that you don’t have to share and is 100% bomber(i.e-no leakage). The placement in the XP’s bow pillar is perfect, and won’t steal any room from storing enough warm clothes and food for a month. Mike guides commercially on the canyon and stopped counting his 50+ Grand Trips years ago. Mike has spent over 2 ½ years of his life in the canyon, so we aren't going to miss a needed campsite or get walled out on any hikes. Bocye has the sat phone and a killer breakdown lightweight alum fire pan. Most of all, we got our Drysuits! I have a Kokatat GMER and my GMER is warm and dry.
I don’t think I could consider this trip without a drysuit, and the Kokatat GMER is the best drysuit there is. No other drysuit can compare to a Gore Tex GMER. Gore-Tex is the only material specifically engineered for immersion activities like kayaking…Gore-Tex is the only fabric designed to be immersed in water and keep you 100% dry. The Key is the Gore-Tex membrane. Micro pores allow water vapor (sweat) to pass outside the suit, but the pores are too small for any water/ liquid to pass through. My GMER has the relief zipper so I can have hot drinks for hydrating and warmth anytime of day, and not have to take the GMER suit off to pee. The Women’s version has rear zip too, it’s a lot faster anytime you have to “go”. In addition, I just got the new Kokatat drysuit liner for this trip. The liner is a 4 way stretch Polar-Tec one piece suit that looks like fleece long johns. It has front zips down to the waist and a front relief fly in the mens, and rear relief zip for the ladies. Taking less gear on this trip was key…no raft support,which means no big river bags with dry fleece jackets waiting at camp…if you take off the river wet, you’re gonna be wet and cold all night. A big plus taking a liner matched with a GMER drysuit is that you will have a dry expedition weight long johns at camp to sleep in.
Back to the story…. we got everything dialed. Our boats were outfitted with solid waste groovers in the bow of our boats. I filled mine with charcoal for cooking any freshly caught trout, and also to help start a fire quicker each night with wet wood. We picked up the satellite phone, double checked our shuttle service for the pick up time and day,made last minute phone calls to loved ones and then we were off to Lee’s Ferry. Of course one last stop a the LQ to fill any void lefts in the boats for some beer and whiskey. Leaving Flagstaff and several feet of snow you drive up the mountain and over the ridge..the descent losses about 2,000 feet of elevation….it's warming up, the sky is brilliant desert blue across the Colorado plateau. Lee’s Ferry is not busy this time of year. Barely any cars in the parking lot and no commercial trips launching. We had the Ferry to ourselves to unload and do some last minute organizing. For overnight trips like this I like to spread out a tarp in front of my boat and line up all the gear I think I will need. I’ve packed the Remix XP on so many trips before, I know what fits. My only concern was enough food and filling every void, so I could enjoy some fresh produce and vegetables…I don’t like to eat like a spaceman out of dehydrated foil packs of mystery food and the XP is a huge river boat at 10 feet 2 inches. Knowing that my GMER is dry, I knew I could just pack one set of medium wool underwear for camp, wear my liner for the cold nights, pack a down jacket and booties (seriously key for winter camping on the river, like Uggs but warmer and compressible), hat, gloves, neck warmer, sleeping bag, pad, tent, extra bivy, tarp, kitchen stuff and 2 thermos, fishing gear, backpack for hiking and boots…any voids I piled in the cans of beer and bottle spirits.
After a pretty reasonable check in with the ranger and check off list, we are on our way…day one of a 12 day river trip. A Self Contained kayak ready for 226 back country miles! The river water was cold. It comes out of the bottom of one of the worlds biggest dams, but the air is in the 30's this morning, the water was warmer than the air temp. I have pogies, but didn’t used them the whole trip. I like having just my hands on the paddle and it just didn’t feel that cold(maybe because my head gasket is on and my feet are warm and snug).My GMER has GoreTex booties which are sewn and sealed. Dry feet + Dry head= warm hands. It’s a good way to start the trip. A loaded boat can’t be pushed off the sand as easy as an empty one. We learned we had to step into the water then get in the kayak. GMER’s come standard with the goretex booties sewn in. Each size suit has a standard “range” of bootie size that fits most feet per size of suit. I wear an XL GMER. The XL GMER comes with Goretex socks that fit sizes up to…. 12- 15 feet. Kokatat has a fit quide on their website, http://www.kokatat.com/sizing_socks.asp . Each day getting in and out of a drysuit is a lot easier with the socks. Ankle gaskets are just one more thing you have to sqeeze in and out of. I like when I can jump in the suit and lace up my boots. It was also dry. When you have the Gore-Tex socks in a GMER, you can get in and out of your boat in the water without the worry of getting your socks wet(this is key in the winter) . We had to get out of our boats in a foot of water sometimes. You can’t get your loaded kayak up on the sand or rocks like an empty one. And for some of the side hikes, we had to get out in knee deep plus water, then pull the boats up on rocks or up a steep sand incline. For some of the hikes, we kept our drysuits on, and hiked up the rocks and creek to see incredible discoveries like Elves Chasm. Some Drysuits come with Latex booties(the same material as gaskets). I don’t think hiking in Arizona is very good for latex! Sharp rocks, uneven ground, lots of sand, grit pebbles can get between your latex sock and boot and could put a hole in the latex easily on the Grand side hikes. If you didn’t have either type of socks in your drysuit, your booties and socks, and then skin would be wet…all of the time. You’d have to spend hours around the campfire to dry those socks, just to get them wet the next morning when getting back into your boat.It would be a bummer to start out the first day (the coldest for sure ) and have to get your feet wet! And then there’s the hiking stops. On the warmer days, I did take off my drysuit to hike. I kept the liner on, and up and away I went. This liner is not really designed for hiking, but it really did a great job of wicking moisture and sweat off my skin. Each hike, I noticed how dry I was and how dry the liner stayed whether I was cruising fast up a trail, resting on top with the wind blowing, or moving fast back down to the boats. The liner really works great at keeping you and it dry!…Really nice!
Each paddling day ended after paddling 12 to 25 miles a day. We’d get to camp after some amazing scenery, big waves, and killer hiking. The outside of my GMER is a little moist from playing in waves, but inside I’m dry as a bone. Even days with high exertion hiking, surfing, paddling the flats, precipitation is leaving my skin, liner and out the suit. I can’t see it, but I know its working, because I am dry on the inside. In spring and summer, usually the first thing you want to do is get out of the wet stuff fast, and lay it in the sun on the rocks to dry the outer layers. But this is January, and the sun was still shining but not deep in the Grand Canyon. Most camps are in the shade by the time you reach them. Thinking ahead, I don’t want my suit to freeze overnight. Woody and Boyce let us know about this from last years trip. Grand Canyon morning’s leave a frost that creeps up without warning. Crispy ice in on everything left outside for the night. Nothing can be worse than awaking to frozen gaskets with a layer of frost crispy on your drysuit, skirt, pfd, helmet..erghhhhhhhhh.
I also wanted an extra layer between me and the cold ground for sleeping. Drysuits are perfect for adding extra layer under your sleeping pad. Another plus is that if it is rainy morning ….you can suit up in the tent and stay super dry and much warmer. So…. to dry out any moisture in the outer fabric, I just kept my GMER on while unloading gear and setting up my tent. GoreTex adds some windproofing and the wind was there every afternoon welcoming us to camp! Keeping the suit on for the first 15 min to ½ hour setting up camp, really helped get the outside 100% dry. When a suit is moist sand sticks to it. But once dry its easy to shake off the sand. One night after pulling in, just after two long hikes and some epic surf sessions, I had to paddle in the dark to camp. Paddling at night has its own adventure, with the stars and moon lighting your way. Just got to watch for the head lamps and laughter onshore, and ..hopefully the campfire is up and raging! Keeping the suit on again, and spending just a few minutes around the stoked fire, dried the outside moisture out of the GMER’s outer fabric and even heated me up a little. Now warm, really toasty, time to change clothes I guess. I think that was the warmest night in the canyon. Sleeping on a dry and now super warmed up drysuit. By this time in the trip I thought my liner would be stinking it up. The 2010 liner material has some special threads and coatings from Polar-Tec that really do inhibit the bad odor. It was really working for sure. There is no room to pack a pillow on a 12 day self support kayak trip, a rolled up liner makes quick and easy camp pillow. (so long as it doesn’t stink!) But after a week or so, I noticed that I preferred sleeping in my liner. I just didn’t want to take it off. At camp I added other shell layers or a down jacket for water, wind, and cold protection and just didn’t have to take the liner off. I wouldn’t get the “draft” that you get when wearing bottoms and tops of wool or polypro..and the Kokatat liner is just so comfy. I felt snugly like my 4 year old in his PJ’s. This also saved time in the mornings getting dressed. Just less time changing clothes and repacking them. More time to enjoy the big waves and next hiking opportunity. Less changing clothes also keeps you from getting cold in the first place.
Towards the end of the trip, things warmed up a lot ! Three days in the low 60’s put us all in high spirits. Up Earlier, hiking more, surfing more waves, going for the big line at Lava, surfing some more….smiles begin to stick. It was only then that the liner came off and board shorts, t-shirts, flip flops appeared….yeah this is the Arizona I’ve heard about. Next time there is a Grand trip leaving, even in winter, I know I’m ready with my GMER!