Grand Ladies in the Grand Canyon


Join river runner Susan Hollingsworth and a group of adventurous women kayak paddlers for a self-support trip through the Grand Canyon.


Me, Tammy, Lana, Lisa, Tina, and Jenn at Pierce Ferry

Lisa’s steadfast composure soothed my nerves. Jen’s multiple injuries dwarfed my blister discomfort. Tina’s mellow-but-charging style exuded humble confidence. Tammy’s lavish meals demonstrated the value of preparation. And Lana’s relentless pursuit of good times brightened every moment.

And I – the sixth female on our two-week, 280-mile self-support kayaking trip through the Grand Canyon – mostly just sat back and enjoyed sharing such an epic river adventure with so many other women.

Cleaning and wrapping my blisters became a morning routine.

Six ladies on a 15-person self-support trip is an incredible ratio, maybe even some kind of record. The fact is undeniable – far fewer women than men undertake trips as rigorous, demanding and committing as our 13-day run down the Colorado. But why? Perhaps it’s the intimidating scale of big rapids at high flows, or the consequences of making a mistake and swimming, or just the labor behind two weeks of minimalist-style camping. Or perhaps the sum of all these factors equals so much stress, work and hassle that this kind of trip simply doesn’t make the calendar.

But for exactly these reasons, the women who do undertake a trip like this tend to be the cream of the character crop. Such was the case on our Grand Canyon trip.

Stopping to hike up Saddle Canyon, despite a 25 mile day on the water, the girls pause for another moment of amazement.

Lisa, the only person to have self-supported the canyon before, had her systems dialed. Packed and dressed before everyone – often hours before everyone – she constantly wanted to keep exploring. On several occasions, she helped me remember that we had a whole playground in front of us, and sometimes that meant sacrificing a lazy breakfast to get out of camp earlier.

Tina, on the other hand, helped me slow down and soak up the fullness of even the littlest moments, often from the back of the pack. She seemed always to know when to charge, and when to chill. And when our trip leader, her fiancé, hesitated to make a decision for fear of offending someone, she stepped up to the plate and made something happen, restoring the day’s forward momentum.

Tammy’s jokes rivaled those of any crusty raft guide and kept the group up late on several starry nights. At the biggest rapid we encountered on day one, Tammy became the victim of a nasty eddy line. The water ripped her from her boat and dragged her deep into seething boils. Her helmet disappeared multiple times, emerging someplace new each time. Finally, she grabbed the stern of my long Green Boat and, even after that exhausting swim, kicked her way to shore. The episode taught us all a lesson – to respect even the simplest river feature. And, of course, Tammy recovered with characteristic voracity.

Jenn smiles after charging through Lava Falls at 20,000+ cfs.

Jenn had barely two years of kayaking experience under her belt before the trip. But that didn’t stop her from smoothing through churning boils, sailing over 20-foot waves and charging into each chaotic mess of whitewater the Colorado delivered. She also battled more bumps, bruises, cuts and unfortunate stomach ailments than any other member of the group, without complaint. Despite being the least experienced paddler on the trip, she met every day with unwavering confidence and a casual sense of humor.

Lana has always been my token fire-it-up girlfriend. She first told me about the Grand Canyon trip during a run on the Upper Upper Cispus, a steep creek in southern Washington. We shared the fears and triumphs of a new run that day, along with the intoxicating beauty of the river’s landscape and the blissful satisfaction of a beer at the take-out. By the end of the day, I knew I’d be stupid not to join Lana for the Grand.

A night at Last Chance Camp prepared us well for a pre-dawn launch and 15+ mile hike to Havasu Falls the next morning.

I played the girl card to get on the trip. An APB went out for female boaters, and the discussion quickly moved from Facebook walls to shuttle talk. Three days after Lana saw the invite, I made my down payment. While everyone in the group turned out to be a five-star character, the ladies brought a balanced vibe to the trip that made a challenging expedition feel more like a vacation in paradise.