The Grand Canyon at 41,000 cfs
|After Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, the source for most of the sediment that covered beaches and provided habitat for fish and other organisms disappeared. Consequently, over the years, beaches have eroded and scientists in part blame the lack of spring deposited sediment for declining numbers of some endangered species.
Starting March 5, 2008 the Bureau of Reclamation, operators of the dam, released up to 41,000 cfs for approximately 60 hours. This was the third experiment (the others were in 1998 and 2004) to see if sand can be repositioned to repopulate beaches, sandbars and side stream back eddies.
Typical March flows are in the 7,000 to 13,000 cfs range, so this release gave boaters the opportunity to see the Grand in its wild pre-dam fury. Here are three accounts of what it was like to be there when the “Big Ditch” went big!
Matt Miglin, Seabrook, Texas
“We launched on March 8, during the rise. So, when we arrived the high flow had been going for three days. There appeared to be a vertical rise in the river of about five feet. That’s an estimate, because we could only see where the water had receded.
“While we were on the tail end of the flow, the water was still high. We had no problem making 50 miles our first day due to the increased flow. We didn’t realize until later that we had run House Rock Rapid, it was just a riffle!
“Signs of the high flows were very apparent. There were several beaches that had what appeared to be a five-foot boulder drop off to the river, where before there had been beach. There was plenty of driftwood at most of the camps and many did not have footprints.
“We were able to stay at two campsites that had been small ones but had increased in size to accommodate a large group. In other places we had to travel several miles beyond where we had wanted to camp due to the flow destroying what had been large camps. For example, the Chevron Campsites were mostly washed away and we had to continue on to 185-Mile Camp.”
Mace Burke, Seattle, Washington
“Rafting the Grand Canyon for the first time was a wonderful experience for me. I’ve been rafting for eight years now and have seen a variety of rivers, mostly in the Northwest. The rapids on the GC are definitely as large and steep as you will find on most rivers you raft on – at normal water levels.
“Before our trip, I spent a lot of time trying to read up on other journeys down the canyon, watching footage of rafts going through the various rapids and trying to get an idea of what I was going to be rowing through come February. Right around the start of the year, I started hearing rumors about a “Big Flush” – come the beginning of February, our trip leader received an email confirming that this event was likely to proceed during our trip. The information they provided was accurate to when it was to occur, beginning March 5th! Our group had much speculation about what we were going to do about this, but nothing was really decided until we were on the river.
“Deciding not to pack a motor down, we opted to have one shuttled down for us to Diamond Creek on March 11th. That decision was fairly well settled as to where we were going to be during the flush, and no matter how we sliced the cake, we were going to have to run Lava at high water. Our group also decided that it was in our best interest to take a layover day on March 6th to watch the water come up (it was supposed to take some 30 hours to reach the peak); thus, ensuring we were at a camp that was above the eventual high water line, and not stuck careening down the river at its mercy.
“We pulled in just downstream and across from Deer Creak at a camp people were referring to as “football field” – being a newbie to the GC, I cannot say for certain if that is their name for it, or what it is called. We made camp fairly high and rigged our boats with a pulley system so that we could begin pulling them in as the water rose. We leashed all the boats together, tied each of the end boats off to a sand stake (to control movement up and down the eddy), and then tied each of the bow lines off to the end of a climbing/rescue line that was secured far up shore (some 20’ up vertically) to a tree.
As the water began to rise up that night, we would move the sand stakes further up the beach and pulley the center line up to keep the boats from floating freely in the eddy. It worked quite well!
“I can say that the change in water level from sundown to morning was rather astounding. What was a casually flowing, big brown river had become a chocolate freeway that had climbed most of the way up our beach; devouring the sand as it did so. The water level at our camp was at least 10 feet higher up shore than it had been when we made camp! A few people had needed to move tents during the night and alas the groover had needed to find a new perch – with much less privacy!
“The water continued to climb that day, devouring what was left of our middle camp, leaving us cramming together on what little high ground there was. Several tents were within spitting distance of the kitchen and the hike to the new groover spot was possibly more precarious than any rapid I’d seen on the river – thus far.
“One day on the river zipped us all the way down to National, where we decided to lay over yet again, as we needed to actually kill time before we got to Diamond Creek. The “little” rapids (rating from 2-4) that we came upon that day were HUGE! Doris had gargantuan waves and Tuck-Up looked like it could flip a boat if you ran the gut – we had one swimmer there. Surprisingly, Upset was completely washed out. It was, essentially, flat water. The real fun was to come downstream, however – on the 3rd day of the high water; Lava Falls at 41K CFS…
“Having no idea if you could pull out just above the rapid, we opted to land about ¼ mile upstream on river left and make the hike to go scout the rapid. You could hear the sucker roaring from around the corner ahead, and as I crested the small hill we traversed to get to the river, I was completely unprepared for the scale of the rapid waiting there. I’d seen pictures of Lava. I’d seen plenty of videos of boats going through; it looked nothing like any of them!
“The right hand run that you see most boats make no longer existed. The mythical left hand ‘sneak route’ I’d heard of at higher waters, apparently didn’t apply to 41,000. The center of the rapid was a humongous, chocolate-brown breaker where the falls used to be, leading straight into some kind of haystack-looking feature that was breaking off of something at the top of a monstrous eddy – so monstrous, the eddy line was creating a rolling lateral wave easily 30-35 feet long. Along the left bank, there were large, elongated holes forming from the boulders that normally line the shore. Just left of the tongue leading to the chocolate giant and right of the holes on the left shore, there lay what we decided to call a “dirty tongue” – more of a calmer spot within the tumult, really. It was obvious from looking at the rapid, that was where you needed to go – everything else looked like certain doom.
The group looks at Lava Falls, with fascination and trepidation. © Mace Burke
“We broke into our two groups (we had a photographer, Dane Doerflinger, along who liked to take pictures of the boats going through, so that was our normal modus operandi) and the first group headed out and toward the rapid. I was fortunate enough to be in group two, so I got to watch the first boats run the rapid. It was apparent that the pull in the river was pushing you very hard right if you were out in the center. The lead boat was lined up to the far right side of the main tongue – heading dead on into the biggest part of the rapid. He was able to push hard at the last moment, just making it through by clipping the left side of the chocolate giant and then being propelled straight into the long lateral breaking off the eddy line.
“Boat number two was not so fortunate – being slightly too close to the lead boat, he was not able to shift his momentum as well and wound up running it down the gut. The sheer size of that giant came into view watching it stand up his 18’ boat – but he made it over that, and headed straight for the big, breaking, haystack-looking thing at the top of the eddy. When he hit that, rowing hard, it brought his boat to a dead stop and shoved it off to the left – directly into the top of the eddy-lateral. His boat, with no momentum and having turned slightly, flipped almost instantly. The rest of the boats made it through, having seen what was happening ahead and making their moves earlier – thus making it over to the ‘dirty tongue’ left of center – just barely.
“The boats in the second float all agreed that we needed to enter further left off of center to keep from being pushed quite so far right, and we were off… I can’t speak too much of the other boats runs, as you cannot see much of anything once you are in hydraulics that size. What I can say is that I severely underestimated the push of the river to the right, and overestimated my ability to compensate for that. I missed my entrance mark to the right and found myself shooting down the main tongue, right into the tempest.
“My initial feeling, as I rowed up that wave – and row up it I did – was sheer awe. As my mentor James has always told me when you’re scouting a rapid – it’s bigger than it looks when you’re in it – and this was even more so true. Pushing hard on my oars my boat just popped through the white crest of the wave and down across the backside. My initial feeling of relief at having made it over the wave was replaced with terror when I got my first glimpse of what I was headed into. That haystack-looking thing was simply gargantuan – and solid breaking white. I pushed on my oars, struggling to keep my boat straight, “Square up and hit it,” I was thinking, as there was no pulling away at that speed from where we were in the river.
“Remember the feeling when you were little and your father or uncle would lift you up into his arms and toss you around in the air? That is something like what hitting that thing at the top of the eddy was like. The boat stopped dead and began to lift up, not the smooth lift of riding up a wave – more like water pillowing up under the boat and slamming it toward the sky. The bow began to swing to the left, and instinctively Alicia and I both moved to our right tube. The lift was momentary and then the water beneath the boat vanished, slamming us downward into a trough that sat between the haystack and the top of the eddy lateral. Seeing it up close, I had a clear understanding of how the 18’ boat had flipped so easily. Alicia and I already being up on that tube and maybe just being a little more straight up must have saved us – as I felt the waves push up on the right side, for a moment I thought we were going over, and suddenly we were back flat – riding the lateral down to the end. I finally took a breath.”
Editor’s Note: The following photos, of an 18-foot NRS Expedition Raft, are of the second boat in the first group to run the rapid, described above in Mace’s fine account.
Click on each photo below for a larger image.
Photo No.2: And reappears atop the monster. © Dane Doerflinger
Photo No.1: The raft disappears in the huge wave at the head of the rapid. © Dane Doerflinger
Photo No.4: Nearing the final truth. Shortly after this photo was taken, as Mace describes, the raft stalled when it hit the haystack, then flipped in the eddy lateral. © Dane Doerflinger
Photo No.3: Approaching the “haystack” wave. Can you imagine the sound? © Dane Doerflinger
John Hengesh, Clear Lake, Washington
“After 13 years on the waiting list, we landed our 16-person permit in Stage 2 of the conversion to the lottery. February was not our first pick, but the non-motorized season was an attraction. The high water release suddenly appeared as a possibility in January. That added some thinking to the pre-trip planning regarding where we would be in the canyon when the water came up. Our trip was planned for 18 days to Diamond Creek.
“We were the only launch on Feb. 19 under crisp blue skies. We had been updated several times that the release could happen while we were on the water. The date circulating was March 4. The rangers could not confirm the date, but told us to check the bulletin board at Phantom. We arrived at Phantom and saw the release was going to happen in a couple of weeks. I called the NPS on our satellite phone the day before and confirmed it was headed our way.
“Our timing would put us below Lava Falls around mile 220 for a camp. The aerial photos provided by the feds with predicted high water marks were helpful for our camp planning. It was now clear we would pull into Diamond Creek at the peak flow of 41K CFS.
“Our trip saw the normal varying levels in the canyon, but felt like we averaged 10-14K CFS. Those are terrific levels. We pulled into camp for our last night and marked the water level. It started rising after dark and came up quickly. We were glad we had brought extra line for the raft anchors. It did add some uneasiness to the night. The morning brought a view of a river that had dramatically increased in size and speed.
“Our final ride to Diamond was a very fast surging few miles. It was an extremely muddy river with normal high water debris traveling along. The few riffles to Diamond had some large waves at that level. We all thought the inner canyon, 100-miles back upstream, must have been wild in the narrows. As we rounded the corner at Diamond, the water was up to the hillside with the barbecue shelters under water. It made a small beach near the creek to de-rig. It would have been very crowded with more than two parties de-rigging.
“The initial feedback has shown it did rebuild some beaches, while eroding some others. The final report will be very interesting and also to see if the release turns into an annual event. It was frustrating to launch with this unknown. I hope the NPS will pin a date before parties launch for future releases.
“The time of year presented some good weather challenges for us. We had snow, rain, sun and wind. As I looked around our gear, there was NRS gear in every raft. It kept the group warm in huge water and chilly skies. Many of the guys had upgraded gear with NRS prior to the trip and everyone was happy with your equipment and service.
“It is a very special trip, well worth the wait!”
Thank you, Matt, Mace, Dane and John, for sharing your high water adventure with us! If any other e-News readers have a story to share, just drop me an email, email@example.com.
Have a great boating season!