Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Prologue - Getting on The Grand

Wow, how do you even start a trip report for the Grand Canyon, let alone finish one. This is especially true for a trip that almost didn’t happen, due to the government shutdown, in October 2013. Without boring you with too much detail, it all started a year and a half prior, when I was informed that I had won a launch date for October 9th, with a maximum group size of 16 and max days on the river of 21. I had been putting my name into the lottery for 8 years, and was never too optimistic about actually getting a permit, since I don’t tend to have that type of luck. The crazy part is that I was born and raised in Flagstaff, and although I lived there for 25 years and had a few opportunities to go on the river, I never jumped at the chance – this was mainly due to the fact that I wasn’t a whitewater enthusiast at the time. The move to the Northwest had transformed me into an avid kayaker, so I was overjoyed when I got the email notification from the National Park Service (NPS) that I had won! Now came the tough part: putting a group together and the planning process; luckily we would have a year and a half to do so.

The first batch of invitations went out to my closest kayaking and rafting buddies, and of course, my wife Emily. At this point I really wasn’t doing any other planning, and instead, just trying to figure out who was going to be on the trip. As I’m sure anyone who has planned one of these trips can tell you, this is one of the hardest parts to nail down, and we really didn’t have a final list until just days before our scheduled launch – it’s just too difficult for 16 folks to commit to a month of vacation, especially with unforeseen events that can creep up pre-trip.

All the other planning started about 6 months later, when we started to decide what gear we would take, how’d we deal with shuttles and getting down there, whether or not to use an outfitter, money transactions, and many other matters made more complex by the amount of people and days on the river. In the end, we decided to enlist the services of PRO (based on many recommendations), a highly regarded outfitter out of Flagstaff (AZ). We would use them for group gear rental, food supply & packing, and shuttle service to and from the river. The price came out to around $1,200 per person , which is an absolute bargain for what you get! The next thing we had to deal with was securing personal gear, and although I had plenty of this myself, I was missing some things you’d need for a 21 day trip.

Fast forward to a few weeks before our launch, pretty much everything was taken care of, and all we needed to do was get down to Arizona and put on the river --of course, what we didn’t know at the time was that the impending madness that would happen on Capitol Hill would come very close to stopping us from doing so. Since the partial government shutdown occurred on October 1st, and our launch wasn’t until the 9th, we had at least a little bit of advance notice that our trip might get canceled. With social media, it didn’t take long for the first reports from the front lines at Lees Ferry started piling in. With the park now closed (as of October 1st), it had turned into a protest movement, as groups of river runners were stopped at a roadblock and started piling up at the turnoff to Lees Ferry. Apparently, all the permit holders that were there to launch, were told that if it was closed on their scheduled launch date, they were out of luck. With each group having tens of thousands of dollars already invested, and planning for a year or more, you can imagine the emotion of the situation. Not having left Eugene yet, we needed to make a decision: to cut our losses and call it, or head down to Arizona and take our chances. In the end we would choose the latter.

An inconvenience...
(photo by Ceiba Adventures; Facebook, here)

(photo by Ceiba Adventures; Facebook, here)

Heading into the unknown, Emily and I left Oregon a week before our launch date. Since we knew it would be a coin flipper, we decided to bring our mountain bikes as a backup plan. It took us two days to reach my parents’ house, in Mesa (AZ), who we had planned to visit for a few days before heading up to Flagstaff to meet the rest of the crew. Unfortunately, most of the time with my parents was spent watching CNN and/or CSPAN, hoping that a deal would be reached in Congress. After many days of watching the political paralysis and finger pointing, we’d just couldn’t take it anymore, and decided to head to Sedona to go mountain biking and try and forget about the whole damn thing. From Mesa, it took us about an hour and a half to get to Sedona, where we checked into a hotel, before heading out for an evening ride – it was just what the doctor ordered!


Desert paradise

The end to a good day

The next day we headed up to Flagstaff, where we once again checked into our hotel and headed out for some more mountain biking. This time we rode at the Elden Lookout / Schultz Creek area, which was awesome to get back to, since they were the trails I had learned to mountain bike on (ride report, here)! After the ride, we went and checked out the aspen groves at Hart Prairie, just down the road. With the fall foliage season in full swing, we were treated to an amazing display of color. It’s funny how sometimes you have to spend time away to appreciate what you once took for granted. The following day we hit the trail again, this time right out of Hart Prairie, which allowed us to enjoy more of the aspens (ride report, here).

Taking in the view, from the Sunset Trail

The author on Sunset
(Photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Hart Prairie

Packed to the hilt

Perfect day (and season) for a ride on the AZT

More AZT

Now that we had gotten a bit of a fix from riding, we headed back into Flagstaff to meet the rest of the Grand Canyon posse, who were showing up that night. When we got back to the hotel, some of the crew was already there, and soon after, the others started to show up. We were all happy to see each other, but with our trip in the hands of the government, the mood was a bit somber. That night we all went out to a group dinner, where we decided that no matter what happened we’d make the best of it. We were supposed to have PRO pick us up the next morning, but since it looked like there was little to no chance the park would be open, we decided we just wait it out in Flagstaff and do more biking. That day, we got word that the NPS had offered up a solution to the crisis at hand. Basically what they decided was they’d let any group launch up to three days late; beyond that, you would be able to reschedule a launch for any day in the next three years, as long as there was an available spot. With renewed hope from the three day extension, we continued the waiting game.

Noah, playin' the Grand Canyon Blues

It was now our scheduled launch day, and the park was still closed, which was a very sobering moment indeed. During our ride that day, we checked our phones for any word of a reopening, but this only brought more disappointment. With a cold front moving in, and not wanting to spend a bunch of money on hotel rooms during the wait, we decided to head down to Sedona and camp/bike. We called PRO to let them know our plan and also to see if we could stop by and pick up some of the food we would have been using for the first few days on the Grand. They were more than happy to accommodate our contingency plan and told us to stop by on the way out of town. We had also called some local bike shops in Sedona, to find out where the best free camping was. They ended up pointing us to an area just west of town, with lots of spots that would work well for a basecamp. Since a few members in our group had gotten into a fender bender on the drive down (what else could possibly go wrong?!), we were only able to setup camp and relax for a bit, before cooking dinner and heading off to bed.

Picking up grub at PRO

Sedona basecamp

Gabe settles in

Sandra and Mark, making the best of it

Winston takes a load off

Justin finds a good way to forget about the mess on Capitol Hill

The next two days found us saddled up on our mountain bikes once again, this time on the world class trails in Sedona (ride report here, and here) -- this, of course, being bittersweet. When we got back into camp the evening of the 11th, two days after our scheduled launch date, we had all but given up hope we’d be getting on the Grand, since it would have taken a miracle for a deal to be struck and the park open the following day. Then it happened, and I still remember the moment when everything changed… I was collecting wood for the fire, when Emily, who was checking her phone, shouted “Arizona just struck a deal to reopen the Grand Canyon!!!” . While I was still trying to comprehend what I’d just heard, my phone rang, with Beth (from PRO) on the line. The first thing she said was, “Are you guys ready to launch tomorrow?!”. Without hesitation, I let her know we were all in. She said that she had already talked with the ranger at Lees Ferry, and that we had a spot reserved. Still in shock, I let the others know the news, and that PRO was to pick us up in Flagstaff at 6:30am, heading to Lees Ferry straight from there. It was clear by the skeptical looks on their faces that they weren’t totally convinced of the news, and it took me a little bit to get everyone re-energized to make it happen.

Sandra finds some smiles on sweet Sedona singletrack

Beautiful Sedona vistas

More sweet trail

Views from Highline

Desert goodness

Not a bad backup plan

The plan was to pack up and head to Flagstaff to camp for the night, since we’d be getting such an early start. I had negotiated with PRO to allow us to crash in their parking lot, which they agreed to, based on the circumstances. When we rolled into Flag, the temperatures were already below freezing, and we knew it was only supposed to get colder. Most of us had only brought warmer sleeping bags, since we were planning to do our camping with the warmer weather on the river. That combined with the trains, which seemed to come through about every 10 minutes, made for a pretty sleepless night; although with all the built-up anticipation of the trip that lay in front of us, I’m not sure we’d have gotten much sleep anyways. The next morning, at around 6am, the PRO crew showed up, and we were ecstatic to greet them. Immediately we started loading our gear into the truck, which took about a half hour or so. Afterwards, we headed to the hotel (where we had stayed our first few nights in Flagstaff) to drop off our cars, before heading to Lees Ferry!

The drive to Lees Ferry took close to 3 hours, and although we were fairly tired from lack of sleep the night before, we were too energized to get any additional rest. Oh yeah, speaking of lack of sleep, this is where I should probably introduce Scott Meininger, the last person to join the team. Scott had been a replacement for a friend who had to drop out a few months before our launch. As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to find someone who can get a full month of free time and come up with the money on such short notice. Scott was the one who was able to jump on board at a the last minute, but with the ongoing government shutdown, I didn't want to make him commit until the park was actually open. To make a long story short, he only had about 12 hours notice, but was able to make it down from Golden (Colorado), with the help of a half dozen or so Red Bulls..

Headed to Lees Ferry!

As we pulled into the parking lot of the put-in, we were confronted by a ranger, who had a stoic look on his face. "Got bad news, Jan Brewer's check bounced, the park is closed again...". Not wanting to make us sweat for too long, he quickly gave a grin and welcomed us to Lees Ferry! I think this was the point where I actually realized that this trip was going to happen.

We still had quite a bit of work ahead of us before we actually got on the river, which would push our launch time later into the afternoon. You see, with any trip not having to deal with a government shutdown, you'd normally do your check-in with the ranger the day before -- Since the park had obviously been closed, we'd have to do it all on launch day instead. This check-in would include gear inspection as well as an orientation, both requirements to get on the river. Furthermore, the rafts had to be inflated and all the gear loaded into them, which ends up being an astonishing amount. Since we had heard horror stories of folks having gear not pass inspection, we made sure that ours was in tiptop shape, and also brought extra of the more scrutinized items. Luckily we passed both the gear and orientation test, with the only thing left being the final packing of gear.

Gearing up!

Keepin' it real


Finally, around 3pm, we were ready to shove off. Almost in disbelief, we took up position in our corresponding crafts and left the sandy beach at Lees Ferry! Both Ranger Dan and Beth (from PRO) looked almost as excited as us that the nonsense in Congress wasn't able to stop us from experiencing what was to come -- that is, one of the most amazing journeys of my life. To be continued...

Rant and appreciation:
I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to get on the Grand Canyon -- Our ability to do so literally came down to hours, and just before we were about to call off the trip. Although we were lucky, many others were not, from private parties and the outfitters that support them, to commercial trips with paying clients. Not only did they take an enormous emotional blow, they took a serious financial one as well, with each group having tens of thousands of dollars on the line. Of course this does not even count the folks who had planned vacations to visit the parks to enjoy other recreation activities. During the shutdown, I heard more than a few politicians  make statements such as “well, if we have to inconvenience a couple of tourists…”, which, to me, only underscored how ‘out of touch’ the people we send to Washington are. I can’t believe that it took the state governments to reopen the ‘national parks’, and that I’m actually thankful to Jan Brewer for making it happen for a few days, which allowed us to launch. In the end, the fact that paralysis in Congress was able to shut down our national parks (which are supposed to be owned by the people) is truly tragic, and I hope that steps are taken to make sure that it won’t/can’t happen again; although I’m not overly optimistic, since it’s proven to be a powerful political tool, used to point fingers and gain leverage for their own agenda.  

Of course, a big thanks goes out to all the private parties and outfitters who stood up and protested the closure at Lees Ferry. (You know who you are.) Without them, I’m certain we would not have been able to launch. It was their presence and energy that brought the NPS to the table to offer a contingency plan, which allowed us to launch 3 days late. I only hope that those who were not able to launch were able to reschedule their trip, and also able to weather the financial impacts put upon them.

And finally, another thanks goes out to Beth and the PRO crew, who stuck by our side and supported us during the whole event. They really went above & beyond the call of duty, from accommodating our contingency plans to making calls to get us a launch once the park had reopened.  If you have a private trip and are looking for an outfitter (to supply shuttle service, gear and/or food), I can’t recommend them enough! To be honest, I can’t imagine putting a trip together without an outfitter like them – for what you get for your money, it’s a true bargain!

(photo by Tait Grundyson)

For part two, Lees Ferry to Mile 44, go here.
For part three, Mile 44 to Mile 92, go here.
For part four, Mile 92 to Mile 132, go here.
For part five, Mile 132 to Mile 175, go here.
For part six, Mile 175 to Mile 226, go here.

POV highlights from our trip:

Greatest hits from The Grand - 2013 from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Great video with an excellent run of Lava Falls! Nicely done!

  2. Glad you made it onto the river! I would have been ... furious doesn't quite capture it...had the shutdown stopped my launch. Can't wait to read the rest of your adventure :)