There are very few river trips in the world that are as coveted by such a large population of boating women and men as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The 280 miles (depending on where you take out) is some of the most awe-inspiring geography I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling through. As miles fall away, you feel as if you’re traveling further and further into the past. Deeper into the geology, deeper into the heart of the earth and the history of the world. It feels like you could touch the ancient civilizations that lived thousands of years before us. Clearly, there’s only one way to experience this trip: with thousands of beers stashed away in drop sacks, a four-burner stove, six propane bombs, 75 pounds of cast iron, and 10—yes ten—groovers.
If you wanted to be a chump, you might leave the raft behind and find your way into a kayak. That’s right. A goofy, plastic, shiny, torpedo looking craft where A. you sometimes flip upside down and B. it’s extremely difficult to make mixed drinks on the go. Take it from me, you should definitely go the way of the rubber…
The 6 hours spent at the put-in and take-out to derig a rafting trip is a great time to bond with friends. You could argue running every sandy strap attached to god-knows-what for god-knows-why after 20 days on the river through your cracked hands is a great alternative to exfoliating, but, hey, it’s part of the experience (and you won’t have to pay for that manicure later!). Packing a kayak is way too quick…you can pack it in the comfort of your own home, load it on the truck, and put-in right when you show up. No muss, no fuss, no pondering for hours where to rig that last groover. I personally think tetris is a good time.
And at the take out, there’s no pleasure in feeling the nozzle blast stale air through your hair as you crack open that valve. No, unfortunately, you simply peel off your drysuit, grab that clean pair of clothes out of the shuttle-rig, load the kayaks and go. Where’s the closure? Where’s the rolling of 18 foot rafts in the sand? What are you supposed to do with all your extra time upon returning to home base? You mean, I don’t have a boat to unroll—again—and clean?
The hydrodynamic nature of the kayak allows paddlers to eat up miles far too quickly and proficiently. The canyon is about taking your time. The days it takes to push a raft downriver could potentially be paddled in a kayak in mere hours. The sluggish pace of Hypalon and PVC on flatwater allows the oarsman to truly appreciate every boil and hint of an upstream breeze, not to mention the gale-force winds common in the spring months.
I mean, you spent hours analyzing the statistical chances of winning the GC lottery and upping your odds by switching trip leaders and sending out 15 texts at 7 am eastern standard time to remind everyone to simultaneously hit submit so that you could boat—not hike—through the Grand Canyon. AmIright? I felt like I did more hiking on this past self-support kayaking trip than my previous two rafting trips combined. It was exhausting.
It was so easy to make miles on the water, that we would just pull over at the drop of a hat, shed our dry suits, and start hiking up amazing side canyons. Sometimes walking and scaling cliffs for hours on end. When I would normally be pushing oars through miles of flatwater above, I was forced to explore fossils, pictographs and other historic artifacts. This is certainly one of the downfalls of kayaking the Grand. I was forced to hike 13 miles to the Canyon rim at one point! You’re going to hike your ass off, if you’re into that sort of thing. Otherwise, keep your camp chair and a book easily accessible.
Then again, kayak paddles are lighter than oars, so, your biceps won’t look nearly as good after a long kayaking trip. And while a kayaker might be charging downstream, the rafting crew is upstream getting free desert-sand facials—but they are sipping on delicious G&Ts and playing guitar. Who’s the real winner in this situation? I think we all know the answer.
You can’t have fires when you’re kayaking. Some of my best memories from previous Big Ditch trips were the conversations, bad song renditions, and spooky stories that percolated around the campfire each night. But how could you possibly carry enough wood to light the night, cook your dinner, and offer the proper ambiance required of the red walls without a rubber barge?
To top it off, entertainment is not easy. You might have to figure out how to bring a musical instrument that doesn’t take batteries. Batteries are tough to charge in the winter months in the canyon unless you have the room for a marine battery. Wait, music comes from something other than a boombox? If I could play the flute, I would have stashed it in my pack, but I don’t. Luckily, one of my friends had a small guitar—it’s a thing. Instead of blasting the latest DJ Laser throughout the canyon on the speaker box, we were forced to join in a little sing-a-long fireside session from time to time. We also got a little creative with games. Don’t lose a chess piece.
When it comes to pooping, a rafting trip makes for a team building exercise. You may run with coffee in hand to get to the groover in time to catch the residual heat left by your buddy’s buns on those chilly mornings. You may carry EVERYONE’s morning deposits down to the raft to pack it away for the day. Either way, everybody feels a little closer in the end. If you self-support kayak the Grand, everyone is responsible for their own groovers (or poop-packing-out method—I’m talking to you wag-baggers—oh, wait that’s every self-supporter). While you may choose to bedazzle, glitter, and sticker it to your heart’s content, it’s rare that you will get to carry your friend’s poop or they yours…a depressing thought. Another tick against the kayak groove-tube, no comfy seat. How am I supposed to read my boatmen’s quarterly?
On a serious note, I love rafting and I love kayaking. Both forms of travel make me incredibly happy and I’m fired up to not only be on the water, but to see others out on the river in any way, shape or form (except in creature crafts). I’ve done 25-day rafting trips on the Grand and 10 days of self-support kayaking. Whether going fast or slow, what matters is that we enjoy our time on the water and the people that we share it with.
A long raft trip allows me to bring all the five-star comforts: down pillow, guitar (even though I suck at playing it), cast iron skillet for 50 pounds of bacon, a fully stocked cocktail bar or a tasty beer for any occasion. It’s more work though. The nature of rigging-to-flip rafts, if done right, is simply more complicated than throwing a bunch of gear into a fancy Tupperware bin. However, finding all the nooks and crannies of said Tupperware can be a painful chore at times. There will be blood, there will be hangnails. If you have the skills, a kayak is a great way to make those long trips, that might otherwise seem unobtainable due to time constraints, a little more reasonable.