Category Archives: Rafting

River rafting trips are the best family vacation on the planet

Grand Canyon Raft Trip: An Adventure

I just got off a Grand Canyon Raft trip and it was an awesome experience. I’ve done the Canyon a number of times but haven’t been there for over 20 years.

Mouth of Havasu Creek
Mouth of Havasu Creek

My previous trips were much easier. I was a kayak instructor/guide holding intermediate kayakers’ hands as they made their way down the giant ditch. We had motor-rig support, so when there was a flat water section we simply latched onto the side of the motor-rig and blasted through to the next great rapid.

We’d get to camp late, often pulling in just when hors-d-oeuvres were being served. I didn’t have to deal with the camp scene: no setup, no cooking, no cleanup, no packing. I’d simply eat their food, sleep, and kayak. Easiest river trip ever! I had no idea how good I had it.

This trip, on the other hand, was a private raft trip. I couldn’t get the entire 16 days off, so my 2 sons and I hiked into Phantom ranch and joined the trip on it’s 8th day. The hike in on South Kaibab trail was arduous to say the least (especially with a messed up ankle) but the real work didn’t begin until I joined the trip.

Don’t get me wrong, saying it was work doesn’t mean it was negative. This is good work, much more rewarding than desk work. But the a Grand Canyon raft trip isn’t a walk in the park. My buddy said it best, “this isn’t a vacation, it’s an adventure.”

 

Our adventure was in late June into early July, right on the leading cusp of the monsoon season. It was 113 degrees in the canyon the day we hiked in…brutally hot.

The mornings start early. It’s light at 430 in the morning. there’s no sleeping in, once the sun’s up the temperature rises quickly. If you haven’t gotten breakfast done and things packed up before morning sun hits, you’re going to regret it. By  the way sleeping in 100 degree weather is hard. I used a bed sheet and even that was too much.

You’re on the water early, but  if you want to hike any side canyons you need the extra time. The side hikes are numerous and integral to the whole experience. But these hikes aren’t  what you’re used to; most are arduous, some downright dangerous. You’ll need lots of water, decent footwear and some climbing skills.

On the river you’re faced with huge waves and holes that can flip an 18 foot raft like a child playing with a boat in the bathtub. Every rapid requires constant vigilance. Letting your guard down even for an instant can result in carnage.

After the rapids you’re faced with long, sometimes miles long, stretches of flatwater. But the term flatwater is deceiving, because it’s not really flat. Every tailout portion is filled with swirling eddies and sideways currents that mess with rafts.

You think you’re done with the rapid until you’re suddenly thrust into an eddy spending every ounce of energy you have trying to bust through the eddy line to rejoin the downstream current.

The other rafts blast by knowing you’ll be struggling for the next 20 minutes but knowing you’re on your own. They’re only feet away but riding the main current, seemingly worlds apart. They’ve gotta keep going, there’s miles and miles before camp.

When you get to camp, depending on the time, you must get to work unloading, setting up the kitchen area and your individual site. Choose wisely, always remembering the weather can change in an instant. That cozy little spot you’ve chosen could turn into a swirling mass of dust if and when the wind kicks up with a passing micro-burst.

If you’re on the cook crew, you have little time to relax. Water needs to be pumped (if the water’s silty you’ll have to let it settle before pumping) the toilet needs to be set up; there’s always something that needs to be done. Of course it’s also 110 degrees out.

Once camp’s put up for the night it’s time to crash, but good luck sleeping, the temperature might dip down to 103…perfect. If sleep comes, you’ll wake in a pool of sweat, your body sticky and gritty from the inevitable, ever-present sand.

Sounds great doesn’t it!? It is, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Rafting the Grand Canyon is awesome, but know going in, it’s not a cakewalk.

Though it can be miserable at times, the sheer beauty, the amazing whitewater, the incredible side hikes, far outweigh the misery. The canyon is such a treasure, and rafting it is by far the best way to maximize the experience.

Grand Canyon Rafting: What to Pack

I just had the pleasure of spending 8 days on a Grand Canyon rafting trip. Why only 8 days you ask? Well, I was invited on a private raft trip, but didn’t have enough time to do the entire 16 days, so I joined the trip already in progress.

Grand Canyon Rafting
Grand Canyon Rafting

My boys and I hiked into Phantom ranch and met the trip on their 8th day. The logistics were somewhat hectic, but it all worked out perfectly…with one exception: I packed way too much gear...way too much.

To  be clear, the trip was in late June early July, things will obviously be different at different times of the year, but if you’re planning a grand canyon river trip during this time frame, here’s a tip: you don’t need much.

 

It was embarrassing how much stuff I brought, my dry bag was one of the biggest of the trip. That’s hugely embarrassing for an ex-river guide.

So, here’s a list of everything I used on the trip, and just for fun a list of everything I didn’t use, but first, day to day items I used:

  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag (once, briefly)
  • Pillow
  • Tarp
  • 2 bed sheets
  • 2 pair surf style river shorts
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 pair of Sandals
  • Wide brimmed sun hat
  • 1 Sarong (wetted down constantly) Since i’m a dude, we called it a schalong.
  • Toiletries (tooth brush, paste, lotion, floss)
  • Sunscreen (lots of it)
  • 1 tent (will only bring rain fly next time, the tent was an oven)

Things for Kayaking:

  • 2 polypropylene tops (one heavy, one light)
  • Dry top paddle jacket
  • Kayak helmet
  • Nose plugs
  • Booties
  • Life jacket (must be in top condition, the rangers check them at the put-in)
  • Rescue throw bag
  • Paddle (we had one extra on the trip)
  • Spray skirt
  • Baseball hat (worn under helmet)

Things I brought and never touched:

  • Multiple t-shirts
  • 2 pairs of long pants
  • 1 pair of sweat pants
  • 1 sweat shirt
  • 1 rain gear top (have a hard time not bringing)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • Hiking shoes (not a bad idea, but never used them)
  • Flannel pajama bottoms (honestly have no idea what I was thinking)
  • 1 warm hat (WTF?)
  • Deodorant (what’s the point?)

Lots of stuff I never used yet hauled 225 miles down the Colorado river!  All the extra stuff was bulky, making my dry bag ridiculous. Ah well live and learn.

Portable Toilet Cleaning

The worst part of a whitewater river trip is the take-out. Typically it’s where the entire world seems to congregate at the exact same time to load up for the trip home. It’s hot, dusty, and no one wants to be there.

rocket box
20mm rocket box containing an eco toilet

To make matters worse, there’s a job that needs to be done that can be downright nasty. Remember that nice portable river toilet you’ve been joyfully pooping into for the past couple of days? Yeah, it’s full of the entire trip’s poop, and it needs to be cleaned…guess who’s been elected for that job? YOU!

Scat Machine to the Rescue

Fortunately, this nasty chore has gotten much easier with the advent of scat machines. Most popular multi-day river trip takeouts have these little gems of engineering marvels.

Gone are the days you had to transport your poop over the pass to your home town hoping the methane build up in the toilet system wasn’t getting to explosive levels. (I’ve seen someone almost lose their arm when they flipped the latch and the can exploded…nasty)

You no longer have to drive around town hoping to find an RV dump site that will allow you to dump your can of shit. Now the whole dump and cleanup can be done at the takeout. It’s easy, fairly sanitary and best of all, your done, done, done.

The system i’m most familiar with is the scat machine. It’s a large contraption that’s built in the unlikely town of French Glen, Oregon by the French Glen Blacksmiths. The operation is simple and only requires 1 dollar to operate. (I spend an extra buck and do it twice)

The directions are posted on the machine itself and are pretty self explanatory. I have a few tips though:

  1. They want you to strap down your box to the cleaning surface. The straps you use are in the cleaner when you close the door and come out wet. I don’t think those straps are sanitary after that. So my suggestion is to use specific straps for the job, the poop straps. 2 footers work great. 
  2. Wear a pair of rubber gloves during this entire process. When you open the contraption after the washing, you have to reach in there and unstrap your can. Everything is dripping wet, it makes me feel better to have some rubber between my skin and the wetness.
  3. Spend an extra dollar and send the pooper through the cycle twice. This assures you get every last drop of pooh. Spend the extra buck to avoid any tenacious bits.
  4. Be sure you have dollar bills packed somewhere on your trip. There aren’t generally cash machines at river takeouts and the scat machine doesn’t give change, only dollar bills and quarters are acceptable.

These machines truly are great. They make the whole poop cleaning ordeal much easier.

Prevent Mosquito Bites

One of the basic truths about any kind of camping, including river trip camping, is the presence of bugs. Particularly those pesky little critters that make us miserable, mosquitoes.

mosquito bite
mosquito bite

I’ve been on many camping trips where I’ve been forced into a tent or had to bathe in insect repellent to avoid their pesky little bites. How many times have you laid awake slapping at your face as mosquito’s high pitched buzzing kept you hopping?

Besides the obvious repellents and mosquito nets, the best way I’ve  found to avoid mosquitoes, especially on a river trip is so simple you’ll laugh: stay out of the woods.

That’s it, that’s the big secret, avoid the shady woods. Set up your river camp on the beach near the river. You’ll effectively cut down 95 percent of mosquito activity.

When I was river guiding, clients would constantly choose a nice looking sleeping spot up in the woods above the river. Even though we’d counsel against it, for some reason (maybe it’s human nature) they wanted to be as high as possible…searching for the high rent district I guess.

 

It wouldn’t be long though, before  those campers would be moving back to the beach sometimes in the middle of the night, forced from their chosen spot by the constant bites and buzzes of mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes hang out where they’ve got the most chance of scoring a meal. In the great outdoors the woods are full of mammals. The rivers’ edge doesn’t have nearly the opportunities. Also the heat of the day is easily avoided in the shady woods. The occasional human camping near the river isn’t enough to warrant a move from the forest.

Of course if you’re sleeping outside near the river and you turn on your headlamp for a bit of reading, you’re going to attract all kinds of bugs including mosquitoes. That’s why I always have an inexpensive mosquito net in my bag. They’re light, easy to pack and will keep the dive bombing  moths and mosquitoes out.

You won’t find nearly as many mosquitoes on river trips as you will on back packing trips because you’re not in the woods. Some rivers, however, are swampy with stagnant water. Those kinds of rivers are going to have mosquitoes wherever you go. When it’s like that…Deet’s the answer.

Travel Hacks: For a River/Camp Trip

32 ounce Nalgene water bottle
32 ounce Nalgene water bottle

You’re tasked with cooking breakfast for the final morning of a 3 day raft trip. You decide on everyone’s favorite breakfast: eggs and bacon. But how do you transport eggs on a river trip without having them break all over your river cooler? There’s an easy hack and it doesn’t involve one of those  backpacking egg carriers…this hack is  easier, more effective and fool proof.

Most river people I know have a Nalgene water bottle somewhere in their gear. If you don’t, shame on you. Figure out what you do have and use it for the same purpose.

For this hack, I use a 32 ounce  Nalgene water bottle. It’s the correct size and it’s what we use every time.

Like most hacks this one’s easy:

  1. Be sure the Nalgene bottle is clean
  2. Crack a dozen eggs into the bottle (that’s all a 32 ounce water bottle will take)
  3. Screw the lid on…and you’re done!

The eggs are intact and unless you didn’t put the lid on correctly, aren’t in danger of spilling. A dozen eggs packaged neatly and securely in your cooler.

Now you don’t have to worry about breaking the damned things every-time you open the cooler. Since they’re safe in the bottle you don’t have to pack them on top either. Feel free to shove them all the way to the bottom of the cooler.

 

If you’re doing scrambled eggs, here’s a hack to the hack…shake the bottle of eggs vigorously until all the yolks are evenly distributed…wallah! the eggs are scrambled and ready to be poured into a hot pan for cooking.

If you’re doing fried eggs it’s trickier but possible. The eggs are in stasis in the bottle, the yolks intact. Carefully pour a few out, ready to break off when you see the whites have a separation. Have a knife ready to cut any hangers on, then carefully tip the bottle upright saving the rest for the next batch.

It can be tough separating them but I’ve found cooking the entire dozen as fried eggs gets the pan crowded fast. It’s tough to separate and flip the eggs if there are too many cooking at once.

There you go: a travel hack for  transporting eggs on a river/camping trip.

Remember: the river seasons almost upon us…stay hungry.

Igloo Coolers for Rafts Review

I have always used Igloo coolers in my raft setup for a couple reasons. The main reason is because the cooler fits perfectly in most raft frames.

I’m not sure which came first the cooler or the raft, but they seem to fit perfectly; like they were made for each other.

Igloo cooler
Igloo cooler

The other reason? They keep ice pretty well. But…not so well that i’m discounting all other coolers. In fact, the most recent Igloo cooler we bought has got me wondering if I should switch brands altogether.

Here’s the deal, we bought a brand new Igloo cooler last river season. We always get the one’s with the flat lid because they’re easier to deal with in a raft. The raised, shaped lids are a pain in a fully packed raft, so we get the basic flat lid without any of the special little openings. They’re actually becoming harder and harder to find (people love their gimmicks).

 

A year later; one river season later; this cooler looks likes it’s been to the barber. Both front latches have broken off, making it impossible to truly close it up tight. One side has completely lost the rope and wood handle. It’s gone, snapped off, leaving only the plastic anchor. The other side handle is half off.

Broken handle
Broken handle

So, this cooler is basically useless. It’s actually worse than useless, it’s dangerous. In order to use it we have to put a cam buckle strap around the side without a handle in order to carry it.

We pack our coolers heavy, so you can imagine trying to move it from the back of the truck to the raft. It’s hard enough moving a fully loaded cooler when both the straps are functional. It’s downright dangerous with a strap and half a handle. Every time we do it were ready to bail out if that half a handle breaks.

The thing that really galls me though, besides the fact that it’s fallen apart after only one season, is how expensive the replacement parts are. In order to fix that broken handle, which is simply a matter of replacing the side hinge plate, it will cost us 50 bucks. It’s just a bit of plastic and some screws.

Useless handle attachment
Useless handle attachment

Since we spent a lot of money on the initial cooler buy, I’m unwilling to pay for that part (I need two). I have no idea about the front latches, or even if you can replace them.

Now that the bulk of the river season is over, I’m not going to spend any more money on this damned cooler. I’m going to explore different options.

Broken front clasp
Broken front clasp

I don’t know what’s happened to quality of the igloo coolers. They used to be work horses, but now they seem fickle.

I’m impressed with the Yeti coolers, a friend of mine has one and they seem well made and worth the rather extravagant price tag.

Igloo has served me well for many years but now I think it’s time to move on.

Blossom Bar Rapid

Blossom bar rapid
Blossom bar rapid

Blossom bar rapid, on the Rogue river is considered the pinnacle rapid on the wild and scenic section. It has a nasty reputation for creating carnage and sometimes death.

It  isn’t a terribly difficult rapid, there’s just a couple moves you have to make to avoid rapping on the picket fence. If you know the route and can make the moves you’re golden.

I first rowed Blossom when I was 16. I’d been through it many times with my dad at the oars and he taught me the route.  I always row it the way he showed me, and it has always worked out well (knock on wood).

The key was and still is, to get into the first eddy with time to set up for the slot. Once you’re in the slot, you’re past the picket fence which is where the shit can hit the fan. From there it’s just a matter of picking your way through the rest of the boulder field.

 

I’ve done a Rogue trip every year at least once since I was 14, and I’ve seen Blossom bar rapid change. Rivers are constantly in flux as high water moves rocks or shifts sand, and Blossom is no exception. I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder, but it’s definitely not the same.

The eddy you pull into at the top is smaller, the water moving through it is faster, and the slot above the picket fence is much tighter. The thing that hasn’t changed is the amount of carnage it creates every summer.

The last trip I did, was the 2nd weekend of October. For some reason the river was packed. As one of my drift boat guide friends said, “there sure is a lot of rubber out here.”

The river was low, around 1200 CFS and I was thinking there would be a lot of carnage at Blossom, particularly in light of how many inexperienced oarsmen I was encountering. So our plan was to get through Blossom as early as possible and avoid the traffic jam that seemed inevitable.

It worked out for us, we got there between groups, but the carnage was there nonetheless. It had preceded us. The picket fence looked like a junk yard. It was plastered with shredded rafts, and bent, broken raft frames.

The frames were sticking into the slot, making it even narrower. The frames were broken and bent creating lethal spikes everywhere; waiting to skewer unsuspecting rubber.

Our group of experienced boaters made it through no problem, but it was tight. As I drifted by the various raft wrecks, there was gear floating everywhere in the eddies. Ropes fluttered just beneath the surface, waiting to wrap around unlucky swimmers’ ankles. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

At camp that evening, the masses of raft groups drifted by us one by one. We watched and tried to notice if any boats were missing, but it seemed everyone had made it through.

It always amazes me that there isn’t more carnage. There was one group we were particularly afraid for. They could hardly make it down any of the easier rapids without careening off rocks. I have no idea how they all made it through Blossom, but they did. I guess it goes to show the river can be forgiving.

Although i’m sure the people that owned all that rubber and metal still lodged in the picket fence would disagree.

Boat Ramp Etiquette

Boat ramp etiquette seems like a no brainer issue, but every time I use one to put in my kayak or raft, i’m always confronted with someone not knowing the rules.

This can lead to frustration on everyone’s part. The people trying to efficiently put-in or take-out get pissed at having to wait longer than necessary and the offender is getting dirty looks and possibly yelled at because he/she doesn’t understand the rules.

You can’t really blame the offender too much, it’s not like there’s a book about boat ramp etiquette, but now there’s a blog post, so no excuses!

1. It’s really pretty simple, first come first serve. Meaning if my car’s in front of yours I get to access the ramp before you.

 

Now, sometimes if I’m unloading a 3 or 4 stack of rafts and the guy behind me just wants to throw his canoe in, i’ll let him slide in front, and I’ll even help him get his stuff done. But this is an exception. If I’m in front I have every right to go first.

Being cordial and considerate goes a long way to calming any upset boat ramp people. Everyone wants to get their stuff unloaded or loaded, so work together to make it happen.

If I see someone struggling alone to get their raft off the trailer, i’m not going to sit there and glare at them, i’m gonna get off my ass and help them. This makes it faster for everyone, including myself.

2. Get it done quick. Whether you’re putting in or taking out do it as quickly as possible. I see this not happening all the time. It’s the main issue that rubs people the wrong way. Just because it’s your turn doesn’t mean you can take all day to do it. Put the boat in, unload any gear quickly, put it to the side and pull your rig out of the way.

3. Don’t load your raft on the ramp. I see this one a lot too, pull your raft and gear to the side off the main ramp area and load it there. If you’re loading for a multi-day raft trip, hopefully your things were packed at home and all you have to do is put them in the raft tie them in and be off. Don’t load your whole trip on the boat ramp.

A spread out put-in!
A spread out put-in!

4. Don’t take up the whole ramp. Many boat ramps are wide enough to have 2 or 3 vehicles going at the same time. When you’re backing your trailer, get as far to the side as you can to give the next guy room to pull in beside you. Don’t back down the middle of the ramp unless you must.

This applies even if the ramp is empty. Many times I’ve pulled up ready to put-in and one guy is using the whole ramp because there wasn’t anyone there when they got there. Expect more people to show up and get out of the way!

5. Know your trailer backing limitations. This one drives me nuts. If you’re new at backing trailers, a busy boat ramp is not the place to learn. If you see a lot of people waiting to use it, either wait for it to get less busy, or ask someone to guide you or even take over for you.

Trailer backing is hard and takes a lot of practice. It’s nerve racking enough without a bunch of people glaring at you. Most accomplished trailer backers will jump at the chance to back your rig. It gets them to the water quicker and lets them be a hero… a win win.

Most people at boat ramps are there because they’ve spent the day on the water or are about to. Most aren’t too uptight, but if you disobey these unwritten boat ramp rules, you may raise some ire. Use your common sense and you’ll be fine.

If someone is uptight and having a bad day, let them go first just to get them out of the area. No one wants to ruin their day on the water with an incident at the boat ramp.

Mid-Winter Raft Care: 5 tips

A well taken care of raft

Were smack dab in the middle of Winter. Do you know where (how) your whitewater raft is doing? If you’re like most rafters, probably not. It’s mid-winter who wants to get out on a cold river?

Not me, but this is a good time to check in on your raft and see how it’s faring through the Winter. After all Spring is only a few short months away.

Here’s a list of mid-Winter checks you should do on your whitewater raft:

1. If your boat is deflated and rolled up, you should flip it onto the other side. Just  like humans, if it’s in the same spot for a long time, it can develop wear spots just like we develop bed sores.

 

2. Be sure the raft isn’t sitting in a wet spot (eww). Rafts love the water, but in Winter water can freeze and that can damage valves and even the raft thwarts and tubes. Wipe off any wetness with a dry towel. Wetness can breed mold which just doesn’t belong on a whitewater raft!

3. If your raft is inflated check to make sure the tubes are somewhat equal in inflation. You don’t want one a lot fuller than another, it can lead to a blown baffle. Inflate the less inflated one to match.

4. If you’re inflated raft is hanging, check to make sure there aren’t any wear spots forming. Sometimes a raft will deflate a bit and widen out as it does so; pushing up against straps and ropes.

5. If you have gear inside the boat, like coolers or dry boxes, take a look inside and make sure no mice are living there. Mice can destroy boxes as well as rafts, be sure these little beasts don’t have access to your precious baby.

If you find evidence of mice living in your raft, get rid of them. Pull your boat out, inflate it and spray it down. Put mouse traps and poison out.

Doing a mid-winter raft check shouldn’t take more than a few minutes but it’s time well spent. It could be the difference between a great whitewater rafting season and a completely missed rafting season. Neglect has killed more whitewater rafts than Blossom Bar rapid.

Have some more raft care tips? Post them in the comments section.

 

Dogs on River Trips: Tips and Tricks

A constant companion on our river trips is our dog, Zipper. She’s a black lab and loves river trips. What’s not to love: water, family, sticks, wild animals and dropped smores? It’s a river dogs dream.

We’ve learned some tips and tricks on making a dogs’ river trip even more enjoyable.

1. Buy a Good Life-Jacket. It might seem silly to have a life jacket for a dog but even though most dogs are great swimmers, they need one on a river. Dogs don’t have a lot of fat and sink easily in rapids. Do em a favor and buy a life jacket.

The first doggie life jacket we bought lasted about half a season. It seemed like it was well made and was definitely easy to use, however the front straps came loose after 3 river trips.

As with most things in life we learned you have to spend more to get more. My brother bought his dog a life jacket made by Ruffwear. It cost around 50 bucks but he uses his even more than we do and it’s still in great shape.

ruffwear life jacket
Zipper’s new ruffwear life jacket

We followed suit after our first one died and are very happy with our Ruffwear doggie life jacket.

2. Bring a leash and Stakeout. It seems counter-intuitive to have a leash on a river trip…leash laws on a river? But it’s not for legality but sanity. You don’t want your dog running around a busy put-in while you’re trying to load your raft.

Not only will you piss off other boaters, you’ll also put your canine in danger of being hit by cars backing in raft trailers.

While were floating the river we don’t use the leash but when it’s time to camp we sometimes bring it out to keep Zipper out of our way while were setting up.

At bedtime we usually use a stake-out, driven into the sand with a long strap and leash attached and put Zipper near our sleeping area. We don’t put it too close, otherwise she’ll end up in the sleeping bag with us.

The stake-out not only keeps her out of our bedding but also keeps her from wandering, checking out all the various smells and night critters.

stake out
Stake out with orange flag to help us find it in the sand

Bring extra food and treats. When dogs are on rivers they play hard, they need extra nutrients to keep going.

We always feed her an extra cup of food with her morning and evening meals. We also have treats readily available and give those throughout the day. It keeps her energy up for those long summer days.

Bring a small poop shovel. Be sure to respect the river and bury any droppings your best friend leaves.

I know dogs are animals, but they’re not indigenous to the river corridor and their poop shouldn’t be left on beaches.

Zipper loves river trips and we love taking her. She’s part of the family and we would consider any river trip without her sub-par.

The little tricks we’ve learned over the years have helped to make Zipper’s trip and ours smooth and easy.