Forward Strokes and Free Beer: Grand Canyon in 6 Days

On Monday, September 21st, two friends launched from Lee's Ferry and began their self-support paddle through the Grand Canyon. Their goal? Make it to Pearce Ferry, 280 miles downstream, before September 27th. Kayaker Nick Gilbert breaks down his day by day experience of his "quick lap" in the Big Ditch.

Day 0: 620 Car Miles and Forgetting

The first mistake of our trip was forgetting our guidebook on the dining room table.

Paddling the Grand Canyon from start to finish is roughly 279 miles. Not knowing where you are in the canyon is simply not an option, especially when you are on a tight schedule. JR and I were trying our best to paddle the Canyon in 6 days so we could be back at work at CKS Online the following Monday.

Planning and packing for a Grand Canyon trip is normally a months-long process, but since we secured our permit just three days before our launch date we were forced to get ready quickly. Way too quickly...Hence the mistake about the guidebook.

We didn't realize we forgot the guidebook until we were past Blanding, UT – somewhere around hour 6 of our 10-hour drive from Steamboat Springs. We were planning on stopping at the Marble Canyon Lodge to grab some dinner before Lee’s, so we gave them a call and asked for recommendations on locating a River Maps Guide to the Grand Canyon in the middle-of-nowhere, USA. Lucky for us, the Lodge had a copy. First problem, solved.

Day 1: 40 Miles and A Morning of Waiting

The National Parks Service has a long list of gear all river runners are required to bring down the river. For kayakers, this includes hard-sided groover tubes, tarps to cook on, a handwashing system, a first aid kit, a spare paddle, a spare PFD, a signal mirror, and two 3 foot by 8-foot orange panels to signal a helicopter.

Ready to Go! Lee's Ferry, September 21.

Hoping to make miles on our first morning, we carefully lined up all of our gear for inspection in anticipation of our 9 am pre-trip briefing with the park ranger. Unfortunately for us, the other group launching that day was not so deliberate with their gear. While Ranger Peggy inspected our gear in a matter of minutes, she discovered some broken PFD buckles in the other group’s gear. This pushed our launch time out two hours and we finally made it on the water by 11:15am.

JR and I both wanted to make enough miles per day so we could enjoy a layover (a rest, or 0-mile day) partway through the trip. To make it to the end of the canyon in 6 days, without a layover, we would have to paddle 46.5 miles a day. To make it to the end of the canyon in 6 days, with a layover day, we would have to average 55.8 miles per day.

Navajo Bridge from Below, September 21.

For both of us, this was our first time paddling the Liquid Logic Stinger XP and we had no idea how fast we would be able to go with our kayaks loaded down with gear and food. Needless to say, especially with the delays at Lee’s that morning, we were extremely anxious to start paddling and see how much of the river we could cover on Day 1.

Overall, we found our Stinger’s easy to paddle. Even at 12 feet long they were surprisingly nimble and the skeg helped immensely in flat water. With the skeg, we took very few corrective strokes and could put all our energy towards forward strokes.

Clear Water and Fishes (Also JR), September 21.

By the time we made it to the Roaring 20’s – a quick succession of Class III+ to IV- rapids starting around mile 20 – we were loving life and the canyon. Around mile 23, we had our first encounter with a naked man. At mile 34, we had our first taste of Grand Canyon hospitality when a rafting trip parked just below Redwall Cave offered us some beers for camp that night. By mile 41.5, it was getting too dark to paddle and we posted up for the night at Buck Farm Canyon Camp.

While we didn’t make the mileage we were hoping for, we started to understand our pace and remained optimistic that we could still make up enough miles to have a layover day. We had to remind ourselves that larger groups on a multi-week trip usually camped at Buck Farm on either day 3 or 4 of their own adventures.

Mistake #2 was realized here. While freeze dried meals are light and easy to make, pack a few extras so you can have more food for the big day. I didn't buy freeze-dried meals based on calorie count, and some of the meals I chose just weren't enough for me.

Day 2: 80 Miles and Free Pork Chops

For a quick trip like this, we knew we would have to make some sacrifices for the sake of moving fast and getting on the water early each morning. One of these sacrifices was coffee. We brought Toffee Peanut Buzz Cliff Bars instead. Each bar has 50 mg of caffeine which is incredible, and useful.

JR Getting Caffeine Boosted, September 22.

Another sacrifice we made was cowboy camping. Setting up and breaking down tents at every campsite can be a time-suck. This was a somewhat risky decision as monsoon season wasn’t technically yet over, but we determined if we did get caught in rain at camp we would just figure it out and make the best of a wet situation.

We pushed off from Buck Farm at 7:15am and we quickly realized that starting early was the best choice. By 8:00 am, it was raining and we were happy to be on the water instead of at camp.

Rain. It sucked. September 22.

We realized we were averaging 6 river miles per hour. We couldn’t speed up our pace no matter how hard we tried, so we put our heads down and paddled hard. We set a goal to paddle 70 miles to get back on track for our layover day plan.

Clearing Up + JR Looking Pensive, September 22.

After a long slog all morning, reaching Hance Rapid at mile 77 was a huge relief. Hance is the first big rapid on the Grand Canyon and marks the start of the most fun section for kayaking. This was our first real opportunity to test our boats in serious whitewater.

Since this was JR’s first time down the Canyon, I made sure he had the opportunity to run the rapid first. I gave him some pointers on lines and let him lead the way.

Our lines were good enough and we enjoyed an afternoon of paddling through the Granite Gorge. By the time we reached Phantom Ranch (mile 88) most other trips we passed were on their 9th or 10th day of their own trips.

It was starting to get late in the afternoon and we had only paddled 47 of the 70 miles we were hoping to achieve that day. As we continued down past Phantom, we started checking off more big rapids: Horn Creek, Granite, and Hermit.

Per tradition, JR led the way styling rapids. We still had some daylight left when we reached Crystal Rapid and after a smooth run down the middle, we paddled through the rest of the Gems. We hit mile 70 for the day just as we lost our last bit of sunlight and started looking around for a camp. Unfortunately, every camp we saw was already taken by other groups.

One group we passed offered us dinner and beers. After some conversation and a plate of pork chops, we were back on our way. Ten miles of paddling in the dark later, we reached Blacktail Canyon where we decided to camp for the night. We made contact with the shore around 10PM, completing a full 80 miles.

Layover Camp, September 23.

Day 3: 0 Miles and Kanye West

Due to our big push the previous day, we made enough miles to take a full day off paddling. This was a huge relief as simply lifting my arms above my head was a challenge. Our muscles needed a day to recover.

After a slow morning and a short hike up the canyon, we spent most of our day off escaping the heat and lounging around in the allegedly haunted entrance to Blacktail Canyon. Our NRS Baja Sun Shirts proved to be essential this day. Get these bad boys wet and it'll act like a swamp cooler and provide some much needed comfort in 100-degree heat.

While other groups came to Blacktail Canyon to play their instruments in the heart of a side canyon known for its acoustics, we chose to drink whiskey and play top 40 pop hits on our phones. Some people think blasting Kanye West out of a iPhone speaker in the middle of a huge crack in the ground might be a mistake, but it wasn't for us. The true mistake of Day 3 was improperly rationing our gummies. We're gummy people and we should have brought way more gummies. Lesson learned.

Turns Out We Were The Scariest Things in the "Haunted" Blacktail Canyon, September 23.
My Ride, September 23.

Day 4: 60 Miles and Tequila

Now that we knew we were capable of making the miles we wanted, we felt confident going into the second half of the trip. Our goal for the day was to make it to Lava Falls and camp at a spot the guidebook calls “Below Lava Falls.” Most river runners affectionately call this camp Tequila Beach.

At this point, we were in the groove of things and we were able to fit in three short side hikes to Deer Creek and Matkatamiba Canyon/. We ran Upset Rapid, which provided me with the opportunity to put the Stinger XP kayak to the test. I accidentally dropped into the center of the biggest hole in Upset. This would have been mistake #4, but in a fully loaded 12-foot kayak, you can actually go under just about any river features without any issues. Mistake avoided.

JR Trying To Not Get Wet (He's a baby), September 24.

As we approached Lava Falls, we were wishing we had more time to relax in this part of the canyon. At one hundred and seventy nine miles in, Lava is located in one of the most remote and beautiful sections of the Colorado river. We cleaned Lava Falls at dusk and pulled up to Tequila Beach and discovered that our campsite was already taken. A bit disappointing but it's a fairly large beach and we figured we could work something out.

While we looked for space to camp, one group member offered me tequila while another group member told JR that they would prefer for us to find a new campsite due to COVID concerns. Fair enough. We moved on and found a small sandy beach just downstream and set up camp for the night.

Boats Sleep Too.

Day 5: 60 Miles and a Mouth Full of Sand

On the morning of day 5, we woke up feeling hungover and exhausted. Despite nothing more than a couple beers the previous night, a midnight wind storm filled our sleeping bags and faces with sand.

After a long day of paddling and a sleepless night, packing up camp in the dark and putting on the water at 6:45am was a chore we just barely accomplished. Now that we were past the best rapids and out of the deepest part of the canyon, it was tough to motivate for 100 more miles of paddling.

Luckily for us, we soon ran into a raft with two rowers who went by the names of “Butterfly” and “Hummingbird.” Butterfly and Hummingbird handed us a bag of beers and snacks and instructed us to ask the other 5 rafts on their trip for more beer and snacks. We later learned that this group had taken a high profile family of business tycoons down the river. After the family helicoptered out, the guides were left with a surplus of food and drinks that they were happy to share. After passing the last raft in their trip our boats felt noticeably heavier.

Our encounter with Butterfly and Hummingbird completely changed the mood for the morning and before long we were passing into the last stretches of the Canyon. When we reached camp at Separation Canyon, we still had a couple hours of sunlight left and were able to enjoy dinner and a few beers before it got dark.

Separation Canyon, September 25.

Day 6: 40 Miles and Flat Water

At Separation Canyon, the Colorado River starts to flatten out as the river gradually turns into Lake Mead. For us, this meant a morning of paddling through flat water with relatively little current. Our Sweet Protection Strutter Kayak Helmets were crucial at keeping the sun out of our faces as we struggled to stay cool during our 7-hour paddle to the takeout.

As the canyon walls slowly faded away, we could not have been more excited to round the corner and lay eyes on the Pearce Ferry Boat Ramp. Here it was...the end of our trip at 1:30pm 6 days, 2 hours, and 15 minutes from when we began and 280 miles downstream.

It was an epic week of forwarding strokes and canyon views. Our mistakes in packing and planning ended up working out, mostly from the kindness of strangers on the river. A self-support river experience definitely takes some planning but really it just comes down to a positive attitude and perseverance. Keep your head down, push forward, and have mileage goals.

If there's one way to spend a week, hanging out with a good friend in a Grand Canyon definitely tops the list.

Put in: 09/21/20, Lee’s Ferry

Take Out: 09/26/20, Pearce Ferry

Flow: 6,000/12,000cfs

Gear: Liquid Logic Stinger XP, Werner Surge 200cm Paddle. See the rest of their gear list here.

If you were on the Grand Canyon from September 21st through September 26 and have a memory or story of seeing JR and Nick, leave a comment below!

1 comment

Jungle Kane

Jungle Kane

I just mentioned seeing you guys around mile 195 (our day 17). I was bringing up the rear that day; you were the ONLY other privates we saw entire trip, & you paddled up to me saying, “Excuse me Miss…Do you know how far it is to the Ferry?”

“Pearces Ferry? 90 miles, give or take…”
And you turned around to yr partner and said, “We’re still 90 miles out! Lets pick it up!”
Cracked me the fuck up! 🤣

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