My Grand Canyon Whitewater Rafting Trip by Ash Manning

Ash Manning is a 2022 FarOut Scout

Mountain of bags and booze

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I say as I stare at the mountain of bags and booze in front of my recently inflated rig boat. 

“I mean, I brought a lot of beer, but damn. But I didn’t know we’d have this much in our boat! Well, Cierra, throw them on.” We begin throwing rice bags of beer onto our 18 foot long home for the next 29 days. There were waves of aggravation that flowed through me at Lee’s Ferry. The sun beat down on me, even though it was December. I was realizing the task I had taken on being the only experienced oarswoman in my boat. 

PBR cracking open

TPSSH, the sound of a luke-warm PBR cracking open.

I hear the lapping of the water on the shore.

My friends are laughing.

I took a moment.

The Colorado River

I was standing at the end of my boat when I looked out upon the Colorado river. The river genuinely changed the course of my life. All the harsh feelings fell to the wayside. There it was, in all its glory: The mighty Colorado river.

two rafters in a whitewater raft on the colorado river
Photo provided by Ash Manning

My head was swimming

There was a pounding in my chest, my body felt light, and my head was swimming with what the next month was about to be like for me and the 15 other folks that had somehow made it across the country and to the Grand Canyon. Here I was, once again, about to fully reject everything about my life and descend into a giant hole in the ground. 

 

I was so ready for this one.

a big group of rafters posing on a raft on a bank
Photo provided by Ash Manning

Or so I thought

 

The first 3 days of our trip were unusually exciting. While boating for a month down the Grand is generally thrilling, I felt that our first few days were out of the norm. Our first night was extremely cold and froze all of our gear, including my damp hair. Everyone woke up with frozen sleeping bags and pillows, and if there was an inch of paco pad exposed, it was also frosted over. While that isn’t too terrible and typical of type 2 fun, I think it just kind of added to the following events. 

a group of people sitting around a bonfire
Photo provided by Ash Manning

Head On a Swivel

After the cold night, we set off. This day was to be uneventful, just one rapid that’s easy to navigate and the canyon walls to rise above us as we dove into Marble Canyon. However, the very first rapid, we had a boat flip from running the wrong side of Bager Rapid. The flip happened as half of the trip floated downstream, forgetting one of the number one rules on the river: Head On A Swivel.

“I think there is a boat upside down.,.” Chris, a boater from Washington, said.

“There’s no way…” I hesitate to look behind me because I just can’t believe that any of the experienced river runners that I was boating with would flip in the first rapid. 

I crane my neck towards the upstream disaster and there I found myself staring at the bottom of a boat. 

I hammer down on my whistle. My trip leader, Lauri, does the same. 

“Deploy the raft and the ducky!”

 

Lauri and Cierra begin to de-rig my little pink RMR raft that perched on the luggage in the stern of the boat. Three oar rigs are pulling over to the beach. A West Virginia guide, Tristan, has already plunged into the cold December water and begun paddling a Sotar ducky around where the wreckage was floating.

a raft getting covered with water on the river
Photo provided by Ash Manning

Loose Beers

Upstream, the actual issue was just beginning to form. As the upturned raft floated, unmanned, a powerhouse of a boatman from North Carolina, Brandon, jumped onto it. He successfully pulled one of our most seasoned guides up and onto the belly of the raft. As they floated out of control, the boat then struck a rock and pinned itself, creating more wreckage. Those of us that were about a quarter of a mile downstream couldn’t see what was happening. Most of the team began to work their way up to the carnage. In the small raft and ducky, Anna Lee, Tristan, and I zoomed around picking up gear, beer, and luggage that either wasn’t strapped in fully or wiggled loose. Eventually things slowed enough to where I stayed in the ducky and they hiked up to help. 

As I picked up loose beers, Cierra had hiked down to tell me some surprising details of the pin.

“They’re saying we might need a helicopter down here.” She relays to me. 

“What? Is someone hurt up there?” I ask.

“No… Uh, the frame has all but popped off. It’s being held on by one strap and they have it attached to a line from the shore.”

Whoa. 

Brutal Bushwack

I paddle to shore and begin the small but brutal bushwack up towards the pinned raft. I make it just within eyesight of the shipwreck when I see the raft become unpinned and righted, along with the frame. That began an eruption of happy cheers from my friends. Quicker than I expected, everyone was back on their boats and headed down to where my boat and two other rigs were parked. The set back cost us only 3 hours and just a few miles, which were all made up in the coming days. 

a whitewater raft getting splashed in a brown river
Photo provided by Ash Manning

Needless to say, we all learned a big lesson in not underestimating what the maps say and to always rig to flip, even if there’s only one rapid for the day. That night, the guys in that boat put their frame back together and re-rigged their entire boat, dumping water out of dry boxes that didn’t quite stay dry. 

Her tent was flexing in

We all got solid sleep that night and woke up to a beautiful day. We rowed down to the next camp with a sigh of relief that the day was easy going. Dinner went well and the group was enjoying the campfire when the wind began to pick up a little. At first we were all tolerating it, but then really began to become huge gusts of wind. A few folks ran off to ensure the safety of their tents while others worked quickly to break down the kitchen and camp, putting everything flat on the ground. I ran over to the boats and made sure the duckies were tied off well and people’s PFDs were either tied in or in cockpits of the rig boats. I hadn’t set up a campsite and had planned on sharing one with my friend Amanda. After I broke down my camp chair, I ran up to Amanda’s campsite and found her holding onto it. The sand made it difficult to see what exactly was happening until I got up super close to her. Her tent was flexing inward and concaving from the force of the wind. Being a few good inches taller than her, I grabbed higher up on the shelter in hopes to stop the tent poles from flexing but instead, the poles snapped in my hands from the strong gusts.

“What just happened!?” Amanda yelled over the howling blasts of air.

“Your tent poles just snapped in my grip!” I replied with shards of fiberglass painfully sticking out of the palms of my hands.

four whitewater rafts docked on a sand bank off the river
Photo provided by Ash Manning

We decided to get our stuff out of her tent and try to take cover in another friend’s tent. Our friend Jonathan had a 4p shelter that just he and another river runner, Heather, were sharing. We shoved our things into his cover and put rocks on Amanda’s downed tent to make sure it didn’t blow away.

The gale subsided

For hours we all sat with our backs against the walls and our arms outstretched in attempts to fight against the wind. Our little green Big Agnes felt like it would give and snap at any moment. As time passed, our eyes drooped more and more. The drafts would calm themselves with just enough time for us to almost get to sleep, then pick back up more violently than before, bending the tent poles inwards on top of us. Eventually, around 4am, the gale subsided. We finally found rest and relief. 

The rest of our trip was exhilarating, and the enormous hiccups like the first 3 days of our trip luckily stopped. I rowed almost the entire 281 miles of the Grand from Lee’s Ferry to Pierce Ferry, and certainly got us through the majority of the rapids. My trip leader and a friend I met hiking the Appalachian Trail were my boatmates. There’s certainly a bond formed between yourself and the other folks on the trip.

a woman hiking and posing in front of the Grand Canyon
Photo provided by Ash Manning
three women in whitewater rafts on the Colorado rive in the Grand Canyon
Photo provided by Ash Manning

Grand Canyon

There were hikes that had views that continue to impress me and night skies that I will never be able to get out of my head. We chased the sun and welcomed grit with open arms. Warm soup became a delicacy. Cold beer was a must, especially for big rapids. Silly made-up hand shakes and tears shed between boatmates are some of life’s most beautiful treasures. With the bad, comes the good and even the great. There are memories with people that I hold so dear to my heart that I wish I could go back and live in those moments forever. I will always be aiming to get back into that big ditch.

There were more trials and hardships to deal with but those only bring you closer as a team. Like when someone cuts their hand open on the jagged rocks, you’re right there to help them clean and bandage the wounds. If your homie is sick, you’re on it to make sure they’re going to be okay and feel better as soon as possible.

Grand Canyon on Christmas Day

These moments matter. 

Attitude matters out there too. It can be so easy to get frustrated with each other because of the close proximity to one another for so long. But when you’re sitting in the middle of the Grand Canyon on Christmas day, watching each other open up white elephant gifts while laughing and singing, you feel untouchable. 

That’s a feeling I will always chase, untouchable. 

Related Trail Guide

Created in partnership with GoRafting.com. There are few rivers more fabled than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The length of a journey down the grand canyon, paired with the unbelievable scenery and world-class whitewater make this a bucket-list trip for most boaters. Summer trips offer big whitewater, and searing temperatures. Many private boaters prefer the shoulder seasons when temperatures are moderate, and the whitewater remains plenty big. The commercial rafting season for the Grand is April-October. There are non-commercial permits available during this period, but private boaters will be sharing the river with commercial trips during this period. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado is an intermediate-advanced stretch of river in terms of whitewater difficulty.