Caleb Norton: Rafting The Grand Canyon On Her Terms
On a cold snowy February morning in 2015
I was sitting on my laptop in Kickstand coffee, a nice locals spot in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was working on filing my taxes and procrastinating doing the homework I needed to finish before class. My buddy had just texted me saying that he did not get a permit to raft the 280 miles of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. My heart sank, I had totally forgot that the permits were being drawn that day. I texted him back, "bummer dude" when a notification slid out of the top right corner of my screen.
"CONGRATULATIONS" it said. "You have won a permit for a standard noncommercial launch in Grand Canyon."
I literally stood up and put my arms in the air and shouted like I had won the lottery… because I had.
I immediately called my dad and asked him what he was doing in December of 2017. Needless to say, he didn’t know 2 years in advance. I told him to make sure to block out the entire month. He would be joining me on this trip. I sent a text back to my friend: “I just won a permit.” I was still in shock. Then it set in…"shit, I have to put this whole thing together now".
In December 2017 I spent a entire month in the bottom of Grand Canyon on a river trip I led, along with 15 of my closest friends.
If you have ever been to the Grand Canyon you would know that it is beautiful and rugged. It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. It has a depth of 1 mile and contains 280 miles of the Colorado River. For me, a trip of this length wasn't just about having an amazing adventure— it was about truly experiencing Grand Canyon on her terms.
A lot of people thought I was a bit crazy to spend a whole month in the bottom of the canyon in the middle of winter; what they didn’t see is that was the whole point. I wanted to truly experience this place. I have spent the last 5 years living in Flagstaff, Arizona, the closest "city" to The Canyon. I was working as a guide— and anyone that has ever worked inside or around the Grand Canyon hears talk about these river trips. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Many people live in Flagstaff and work as boatmen and boatwomen as their careers, spending over 100 days per year in the depths of Grand Canyon. I had hiked all over the canyon, been an intern with Grand Canyon NPS Preventative Search and Rescue, lived on the rim of the Grand Canyon for a summer, and been a guide on the Diamond Down section of the Colorado River (the last 50 miles of the Colorado river inside of the Grand Canyon— which is dominated by 30 miles of flat water inundated by the Hoover Dam).
Despite all of this I had yet to go on a real river trip through the entire Grand Canyon. I felt like I was missing out on seeing the Canyon in a truly unique way. So I "put in" as the locals say, for a private permit.
Because so many people apply each year, permits for a private trip in Grand Canyon are allotted based upon a weighted lottery. When you initially apply for a permit, you are awarded 5 points. Each year that you apply without being drawn, you are awarded an additional point. The more points you have, the more likely you are to get drawn… or so they say.
A co-worker reminded me of the permit application the morning it was due— I put in for my trip in the last 25 minutes before the application window closed, picked a bunch of random dates, paid my $25 application fee and then rushed out the door to guide a 3 day trip somewhere in Arizona, I don’t remember where.
Two years (of planning, logistics, and putting together a crew of friends) go by...
As we drove to the put in at Lees Ferry, I was excited and nervous. I was bringing 15 friends into one of the most remote and rugged places in the world. More people have walked on the surface of the moon than have hiked from one end of the canyon to the other. Some of my friends I brought work as professional river guides like I do. Some of them work as guides but not on rivers but on rock or packed trail. And some of them had never been on a river trip or had ever camped more than 5 days in a row, period.
They had just signed on for a straight month.
So when we hit the ramp at Lees Ferry, river mile 0 for the Colorado through Grand Canyon, it was a bit of a shit show. With the help of the folks at Ceiba Adventures, who outfitted our trip, we got our boats rigged, filled them with all of the charcoal, food, groovers (read- toilets), personal gear and booze we could fit. Every trip I have ever gone on never goes perfectly smooth.
The Lees Ferry Ranger showed up and asked to see our permit, copy of regulations, and trip participant list. We then discovered that my friend had only printed 3 of the 30 pages of the non-commercial river trip regulations— This meant that we couldn't launch. We were 2.5 hours one way from Flagstaff. The ranger was going to come check in the morning for our paperwork, do our trip talk, and check everyone’s ID. "Shit!” I thought. We made a call to Marble Canyon Lodge, the only place with a printer in the surrounding desert. Luckily, they printed the regs for us and we could rest easy that night.
But not too easy.
For anyone that has ever been on a trip where you have to get permits or get checked out by the local authorities, you will know that you are never actually on your trip until you are on your trip. For me and my crew, that meant our trip didn't start until we pushed off the beach and were rowing away from Lees Ferry. It wasn't until then that I could take a breath of relief and focus on the other things that made me nervous… big water. Really big water. And what I wanted out of this trip.
I had wanted to raft the entirety of the Colorado through Grand Canyon for 4 years; ever since I took my first rafting trip on the Diamond Down section of the Colorado River. When it comes to the Grand Canyon, a simple question— why?— may seem more insurmountable to answer than the thought of hiking from one rim to the other—which is 24 miles with 10,000ft of elevation change. It is almost as impossible to say why I wanted to do this trip, as it is to answer the question, how was it?.
The Grand Canyon is a place beyond description. It is a magical and sacred place. It is a place that provides me with healing and respite from the world at large. It is a place that fills me with a sense of wonder, challenges my perception of my place within the world and makes me feel insignificant— a feeling that I love to have in the wilderness.
Esoteric reasons aside, I wanted to do something that challenged me. I wanted to bring my friends and have a blast sleeping under the milky way every night, letting the roar of the rapids lull us to sleep. I wanted to drink beers around the fire and listen to one of my best friends sing and play the guitar.
I wanted to share all of this with my Dad. I have a love affair with Grand Canyon, and I wanted to show him why. We have been on a lot of backcountry trips together. A few years ago we even did an overnight backpacking trip to Phantom Ranch. Time spent together in these amazing wild places brings us together better than anything else, and creates memories that I cherish every day.
I wanted to surround myself with the best people I know, live with them, and learn from them in ways that one can only experience on a wilderness trip. I wanted to experience beauty, loneliness, and silence in a way that only the Grand Canyon can provide.
In every experience, there are highs and lows, positives and negatives, joys and struggles.
That is no different for a month long trip in Grand Canyon. For me, the hardest part was seeing one of our members being forced to leave unexpectedly at Phantom Ranch.
For this long winter trip, drysuits were a requirement. Constant splashing in huge rapids, combined with receiving only a scant few hours of direct sunlight a day, can be very cold. The environmental aspect can be challenging, and it is only made worse by having a piece of equipment that fails or doesn't work well. After 13 days on the river and passing through the Upper Granite Gorge— where we didn't see more than maybe 2 to 4 hours of sunlight per day— one of the trip participants who had borrowed a dry-top and dry-bottom set from a friend had just had it. With dime sized holes in some places in the suit, it wasn't what I would call "dry."
After having mild hypothermia two days in a row before reaching Phantom Ranch, my friend had to call it. As we were preparing for two people to hike out at Phantom Ranch for an exchange, this person decided to leave the trip early. It was an emotional day. After spending 13 days with a group on a life changing trip, it can be hard to leave. The challenge always seems to be self care and deciding what is best for the long term, not just the present moment.
As a leader, I found the challenge of filling the "trip leader" roll day after day for 30 days to be very challenging as well. Keeping high energy and answering the same questions multiple times can wear on the mind. I am a fairly quiet person and prefer to just do my thing. But after working as a guide intermittently since 2009, I have gotten used to those little things. Even with the little annoyances, the Canyon has a way of wiping it all away each day.
Each day I would wake up to the slowly creeping morning light. I would lay in my sleeping bag, feeling the gentle rocking of the boat beneath me, and wait until the call, "COFFEE!!" rang out against the canyon walls. I would watch the sunrise, take some photos and start rigging the boat for the day. After morning prep we would finally be ready to push off the beach.
On the challenging days with big rapids ahead
The first time I would grip the oars I would feel the inside of myself steel up. Every day I had some nerves. There were 15 of my friends on boats following behind me— and we were in the middle of nowhere. We would stop and scout, try to run in tight order and cross fingers for no swimmers or flips. We would run the rapids, with my heart beating fast, but my mind calm. I was in it. I was with the Grand Canyon. There is no conquering of rapids here. There is only working with the river, knowing your place, doing the best you can and being ready to react when things don't go quite as planned. At night we would cook, laugh, share drinks, a meal, stories, and songs beneath the stars. Finally we would rest, and repeat the next day.
After we ran Lava Falls, the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon, the knowledge that it would soon end began to invade my soul. That is the beautiful thing about these types of experiences: they have to end. Without that, they would lack the same richness. Their fleeting nature makes me want to cherish every moment, to suck out the marrow, cherish each sip of coffee at sunrise and each gulp of beer at sunset; to listen to the last fleeting echo of Daydreamer as sung by my friend Jacky Thompson against the canyon walls.
That last final sunset, the night before our takeout, was like trying to gasp for breath before a bad swim. Trying to get every molecule of color out of the clouds with my eyes. Breathing in the cold December air in the Mojave. Hoping that I would be back again soon.
If I went again on a trip through the Grand Canyon, I wouldn't change anything. You only get one chance to lead your first private trip in the Canyon, and mine couldn't have been better. There will always be challenges to overcome on a trip, and those challenges don't detract from the experience—
they make it.
Words and photography by Caleb Norton