By Walker Mackay
Rafting the Grand Canyon during the Covid-19 Pandemic
As luck would have it, I got to be the trip leader on the first rafting trip to leave Lees Ferry after the Grand Canyon was shutdown for 81 days due to COVID-19. I was really excited about this opportunity to see the Grand Canyon before anyone else. I wondered what may have changed with the river, canyon, and wildlife. This would probably be the first time in over 50 years the Colorado River through Grand Canyon had been untrammeled by humans for an extended period of time. The trip was originally supposed to leave one day earlier, but thanks to John and Chris Vail at Outdoors Unlimited the park let us move the trip one day forward. Our trip had dwindled due to COVID-19 from a full trip of 24 passengers down to 14, and then with the moving of the trip forward one day down to 11 guests. The trip was small, it was a trip organized by Yendor, and it would mark his 10th trip through the canyon. The small group all traveling together was reassuring given the current situation with COVID-19. Colorado River & Trail Expeditions already had a Covid-19 mitigation plan in place, and we were going to do our best to keep safe. As a river company we were already essentially a floating restaurant, following all of the necessary precautions to stay safe from food borne illnesses and slowing the spread of any disease that might be brought on a trip. To stay safe from COVID-19 we were going to do even more washing and sanitizing, wear masks around food, and do temperature checks. The temperature checks would begin 3-4 days before the trip, then continue at Lees Ferry, and would be done every morning of the river trip. The concept makes sense and although it felt a little strange to point a medical infrared thermometer at everyones forehead the first day, it became much more routine as the trip progressed. It was just part of rafting during COVID-19.
After talking with Yendor and the rest of his group we decided an early launch would be in everyone’s best interest. The early start would give us more time on the river, it would help with social distancing at Lees Ferry, and it would also allow us a chance to experience the Grand Canyon before anyone else. Because of the Mangum Fire on the North Rim, Highway 89A was closed from Fredonia to Marble Canyon. We would instead have to drive around through Page. This would add about 40 minutes each way to our drive to rig. It would also mean missing the delicious cookies at Jacob Lake that my sweet tooth had yearned for all winter.
Starting Our River Season in June
It was such a strange concept to launch the first trip in the middle of June. I had not missed an April Grand Canyon river trip for 20 years and April had become my favorite month in the canyon. In Fredonia it is cold in the morning in April and sometimes it would snow driving over the Kaibab. There was a trip in 2004 or 2005 where our passengers showed up to our warehouse in Fredonia during a blizzard. We even had a passenger change his mind about coming on the trip on the way to Lees Ferry and ride the Coach back to Las Vegas. Inevitably the weather in the canyon was beautiful though. I’m sure there were cold, windy days, but my memory always hit “delete, ” and I just remember the wildflowers, warm days, cool nights, and hiking. Rigging boats in the mid day sun at the warehouse quickly made us realize this first trip was going to start in the middle of June, and although it didn’t seem quite right, everyone at the CRATE warehouse was nervous and excited to get back on the river.
The drive and rig was uneventful. The commercial outfitters had all worked together, staggering rig and launch times. Lee’s Ferrys’ ramp was empty and in great condition. We put our masks on, rolled the raft off the trailer, inflated and attached the side tubes, and did all of the normal things we have done for as long as I can remember. Floating on a boat in the water at Lees Ferry had a calming, yet probably false sense of safety from the virus.
The next morning Mindy and the kids brought me to Lees Ferry to send me off. Two of the people in the group had done trips with Mindy and me before we had kids and before Yendor. Luyen had done a trip with Mindy and I back in 2005, he had come back in 2009 with his friend Fye. On the trip in 2009 we saw the only big rockfall I have ever seen in the canyon. A car size boulder had fallen from the top of Kaibab formation at North Canyon rapid. Subsequently the entire canyon had filled with dust and visibility had been reduced dramatically. We stopped for lunch while the dust cleared and then stopped at North Canyon Rapid to see if anything had changed. The river had swallowed the dust and debry just above the rapid, and there was no sign of a rockfall ever happening as far as the river was concerned. It ended up that Fye lived down the street from Yendor and he had been the one to connect Yendor to myself and CRATE. Since our first trip in 2011 Yendor and I have become great friends. Yendor is hands down the best carpenter and woodworker I have met during my river life, and he has given us some amazing hand made wood gifts. Kaicia and Ridge have the most beautiful hand crafted rocking horse I have ever seen thanks to him, and when I sent him the plans for a Briggs Dory, he built a beautiful one and let me take it through the Grand Canyon in 2019.
Launch Day on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon: June 14, 2020
After getting everyone fitted properly with lifejackets, taking temperatures, and giving the essentials of the orientation we headed downstream. There was a wonderful feeling being back on the river. Our group was super excited, and it was obvious from the beginning the trip was going to be good. We left Lees Ferry pretty close to 8:00 AM AZ time in some of the first rays of sun and the blanket of smoke put in place by the Mangum Fire. The plan was to escape the smoke and head to Redwall for Lunch. As we floated underneath the Navajo Bridges, Mindy and Kaicia waved and Ridge yelled down. Then it was silent. A Condor flew over the top of us and landed on the bridge. Our boat floated around the corner out of site into the great unknown.
March 24, 2020, Grand Canyon river rafting trips including administrative, research, private and commercial trips, were suspended in Grand Canyon. No one had floated in these upper stretches of Marble Canyon for 81 days. The only tracks on the beaches were from the wildlife of the area. The beaches were windblown with riffles of sand all the way across them. We saw a typical amount of bighorn sheep the first day. The rapids had not changed since I saw them in the latter part of August a year earlier. The aura of the canyon was different and special though.
After eating our first river sammies of the year everyone power napped at Redwall Cavern. The soft cool sand made it easy to relax and enjoy the silence and the moment. After the rest, we stopped to look at some Nautaloid Fossils and then headed for camp at President Harding. One of the nicest parts of being first on the river was knowing there were no trips in front of us. We could choose any camp we wanted. It made me think of the stories I had heard over the years from my Dad and Mom (Dave and Vicki Mackay), Amil Quayle, Jake Luck, Paul Thevenin, and the Curreys). In the mid 60s it was still rare to see anyone on the river and you could camp at Redwall Cavern , Deer Creek, Tapeats Creek, or anywhere you wanted.
I have always liked the camp at President Harding. I have memories of pulling in there for lunch on my first river trip during a big rainstorm, surfing the wave in front of the rock in a kayak, and the beautiful bloom of brittle bush that blankets the camp in yellow during each spring. My swamper Kai and I set up camp, disinfected, put on our masks and cooked dinner. By the time dinner was over there was still plenty of light thanks to the long days of mid June. After dinner I took some time to stare at the rapid. The sound of water is powerful and comforting to me the way comfort food is. I then went and socialized as darkness took over. I got a very informative lesson on the use of the GoPro Hero8 from my guests and then fell asleep under the dark starry sky.
Moving Down Stream and the Aura
We started the second day with another round of temperature checks and Covid questions. A good group effort took us to the waterfall in Saddle Canyon. We floated past the Nankoweep Granaries, andswam the afternoon away in the Little Colorado River. As we were leaving the Little Colorado River, another trip was arriving. We did our best to be cordial, but still social distance. We spent the night next to the roar of Nevills Rapid.
Probably the most unique experience of the trip happened on our third day. We stopped at the mouth of Clear Creek and hiked the 3/4 mile up the canyon to where the water cascades, falls, and deflects sideways. On the way down from the hike we saw something I had never seen before. A 4 foot long Gopher Snake aka Bull Snake (Pituophis Catenifer–Thanks to Geoff Carpenter) was drinking out of Clear Creek. Because of the noise from the creek, the placement of the small cobbles around him, and probably because no one had interfered with his daily routine for months he did not notice our small group. We watched and took pictures for over a minute of this beautiful creature guzzling the fresh waters of Clear Creek. It made us all realize how nice it must have been for the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River to have a break from humans.
By the time we got to Phantom Ranch a couple other trips had caught us. The canyon still felt empty, but the aura of knowing we were alone was now gone. By now temperature checks under 100.4degrees fahrenheit were the norm and the Covid-19 routine was just what we do. Our trip slowly floated down river. We pulled in at the bottom of the Island below Crystal and scampered amongst the rocks telling stories over the roar of the rapid that raced around both sides of us. Camp was set up early at Bass Camp, and we motored down to Shinumo Creek for the afternoon. Bass Camp is one of the most popular camps in Grand Canyon. Due to the large numbers of people who camp at Bass Camp the camp can sometimes have mice, ringtail cats, and snakes. This time we did not see any of these critters. The long period free of humans had resulted in the end of a food supply for the camp dwellers. Days 4 and 5 were pretty routine. We got to enjoy Elves Chasm, Blacktail Canyon, Stone Creek(camped), Tapeats Creek, Deer Creek, and Matkatamibia by ourselves.
Rafting the Rest of the Grand Canyon
We camped our 5th night at Upset Rapid. Yendor and I both like really loud powerful places and there is not a louder camp than Upset. House Rock would deserve a honorable mention. You can set a cot up along the gravel there and stare, listen, and peer into the soul of the monstrous hole at the bottom. You pretty much have to yell to hear one another. One thing we noticed from the lack of river use in the canyon was the huge amount of invasive plant life taking over some of the beaches. Russian Thistle (Salsola tragus L.) was growing rampant on the sandy benches at Upset. We did a group invasive plant project and pulled as many as we could at their roots. We laid them on the sun baked recently shaded dry rocks, with the intent to have them wither away to nothing. Some of the group was really into it, others were not so excited about the loud camp with Russian Thistle scattered about it. After all, up until this point we had spent our nights at President Harding, Nevills, Bass, and Stone Creek with a group size of 13 people total. In any event, it seems the Canyon could use a cleansing river flow each spring to clear the invasives and clean the beaches, something much higher than 45,000 cfs.
Days 6, 7, and 8 were great and went by fast. The trip was one I will never forget. During this really hard year there was a bit of normalcy and comfort found within the canyon walls.