FAIRBANKS — On Jan. 11, 2017, after floating the first half of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, I arduously hiked out on the Bright Angel Trail near Phantom Ranch.
An account of my journey, “Alaskan food, friends fuel Grand Canyon trip,” was published here last February.
I knew I’d return some day but expected it would take many years. Then, exactly one year later, on Jan. 11, 2018, I was hiking the very same trail, downhill, to my delight. I met my new party and floated the remainder of one of the world’s premier rivers.
Two individual journeys had come together to make one unforgettable experience.
Circumstances leading to my second trip down the Grand Canyon were similar to the first — someone dropped out of a self-guided trip and friends recommended me to fill the spot. Girdwood resident Nick Allen, a guide with Alaska Alpine Adventures, was the trip leader.
This time, I only had a few weeks to prepare. However, not having months of anticipation was welcome.
Even though it’s the same Colorado River running through the same Grand Canyon, the first and second half are two different animals — first and foremost because of the whitewater.
Grand Canyon rapids are rated class 1 to 9, with 9 being the most difficult. First-half rapids gradually build in size and include only one class 8. Granted, a class 5 easily can flip rafts.
But on the first day paddling, second-half rafters are assaulted with quadruple class 8 rapids — Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit and the ever-intimidating Crystal — four of the canyon’s biggest rapids, one after the other.
Any hope for a calm introduction to the second half is out of the question.
Having done the first half, I roughly knew what to expect. Even so, the feeling of finding yourself in a remote and foreign land that’s immediately trying to punch you in the face is shocking.
Now is a good time to note that the party sent six oar rafts through the entire canyon without one flipping.
Of course, there were plenty of close calls throughout.
One close call, on the first half, had both members of a boat pitched overboard. A fellow rafter recalled seeing the unmanned boat disappear down a wave, reappear with one rafter, disappear again, then pop back up with all hands on deck.
My scariest moment came on the last big rapid of my first day. I was sitting in the front of a nearly vertical boat, watching a giant wave break many feet above my head. We’d been sucked into one of Crystal’s man-eating holes. The boat climbed up, seemed to pause at the very top, spun 180 degrees and safely down the other side.
Boat captian Sean Johnson characterized the Grand Canyon as “a mix of being at a sweet party, then getting in a fistfight every day.” Johson earned the nickname of “Sideways Sean,” because he often failed to enter the rapids straight, “I can count on one hand the number of rapids I’ve run cleanly,” Johnson joked.
The raw beauty of the first and second halves is comparable. But the side hikes, waterfalls and swimming pools seemed far superior in the lower section.
Instead of going on and on about incomparable beauty, I’ll just quote one of Allen’s morning pep talks: “Today, we’ll have Grand Canyon vistas — blah, blah, blah. Magnificent scenery — yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.”
Instead of the more traditional Diamond Ferry pull-out, this trip traveled an additional 54 miles to Pearce Ferry. The extra distance exits the canyon and reaches the headwaters of Lake Mead. Historically, this was still river, and the guidebook talks about rapids now buried by silt or mud.
This section is notable because the 30 miles features 30- to 40-foot high silt banks lining the river, all deposit from the lake at high-water levels.
The extra section also gave us an unexpected reintroduction into civilization — we unknowingly camped but a few hundred feet below two helicopter landing pads and awoke to dozens of flightseeing choppers buzzing back and forth like a scene from “Apocalypse Now.” That, plus seeing Las Vegas city lights glow on the horizon, and we knew the journey’s end was near.
I do hope to return again someday, but I’m almost certain it will not be on Jan. 11, 2019.
Contact staff writer Robin Wood at 459-7510. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.