A Whitewater Race in the Midnight Depths of the Grand Canyon
In the late hours of January 13, the team stowed the last gear by flashlight. Alternately sweating and shivering—overheated by heavy lifting in drysuits and chilled by the weight of responsibility—the eight were about to hurl themselves down the Grand Canyon in a headlong sprint. To topple a speed record set by kayakers two years earlier, they would have to spend at least 34 sleepless hours paddling 277 miles along the Colorado River, crashing through canyon depths by day and threading a perilous course through the “easier” whitewater rapids in inky darkness.
At 11 p.m., the men hugged their wives and children. One read aloud, making the words into an incantation: “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it: Begin it now.”
As they pushed the huge raft away from the boat ramp at Lee’s Ferry, they began a quest that had actually started a full eight months earlier.
“When we put in, I felt all this responsibility,” recalls Ian Anderson. “There were layers of community holding up that raft: the boater community, our trainers, our families, our sponsors, donors who had given us equipment, oars, clothing.” Anderson, a Carbondale resident and PR director for Backbone Media, had been largely in charge of pulling together the support that rippled out around the boaters.
Anderson’s longtime friend Seth Mason, also of Carbondale, played a key role in setting the team’s plan of attack. A retired member of the U.S. Men’s Whitewater Raft Team and principal hydrologist for Lotic Hydrological services, Mason had charted the entire course on a spreadsheet, complete with probable speeds and time checks at key rapids. “It was the night stuff that really made everyone nervous,” he recalls. “We knew if we lost the moon behind a cloud, the visibility would go. In real consequential whitewater, we could wrap our boat and be in a world of hurt because cold water and cold air are tough to come back from.”
Then too, “there’s no manual for how to build a boat for eight people that goes fast through rapids.” Mason’s design of the 48-foot experimental craft—an odd-looking cross between a catamaran and a traditional river raft—involved months of parts-scrounging and testing.
Their six months of training had been brutal. Carolyn Parker, owner of the Ripple Effect Gym in Carbondale, had devised a nutrition, motivation, and exercise regimen that called for extreme weekend-warrior dedication: 12-16 hour days would typically include four hours on a rowing machine, two hours in the gym, a six-hour bike ride plus a two-hour hike.
The ripple effect from all that, plus weekday training before and work, of course, sent waves into Mason’s and Anderson’s families. “We’re both fortunate to have wives who are adventurous themselves and who were supportive,” says Mason.
“Both of our wives—Jessica Mason and Sari Anderson—are athletes. They have raced at the professional level,” adds Anderson. “They have an appreciation for what it to takes to train, and they were both willing to step up and make sacrifices.” (Note: Jessica Mason and Sari Anderson are now taking their turn, climbing and skiing Mount Rainier with Betsy Dain-Owens, one of the women who trained their husbands.)
Yet another layer of motivational support—and with it, anxious expectation—came from the filmmakers who documented the team’s grand dash. Forest Woodward and Brendan Leonard followed the adventure in a 23-minute film called “The Time Travelers.” (The film was shown at the 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale in April and is available on YouTube and Vimeo.) The film was underwritten by Chaco Footwear along with REI, YETI, NRS, Jack’s Plastic Welding, and Cataract Oars.
“I had support from work because Chaco, which makes river sandals and was founded by a river guide in Paonia, is a client of Backbone Media,” says Anderson. “But a big concern, all along, was what if it went really badly? What if we needed rescue?”
The team chose to make its run in January because nowadays, the Colorado’s flow is governed not so much by snowmelt runoff as it is by dams. In January, engineers historically release additional water to meet the needs of downstream cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. The initial speed record for the run, which was set in 1983 and is described in the book “The Emerald Mile,” occurred when a record 70,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) streamed through the canyon. Two years ago in January, kayakers broke that record.
Starting out on 20,000 CFS, Mason and Anderson’s team would have to row hard to put on enough speed to beat the record. After 21 hours and 179 miles of rowing, the team was on pace to do it.
They entered Lava Falls at 8:45 p.m. The river was dark, roaring. They took a clean line down the rapid’s center, avoiding the menacing Cheese Grater rock. Suddenly a surge erupted, shooting the boat up nearly to vertical. With a sound like a gunshot, something gave way. An aluminum tube had snapped, punching a hole into one of the pontoons.
The repairs took three hours, deflating morale and washing away a record-in-the-making. Still, the team dug in and finished, making the trip in 39 hours, 24 minutes.
“It’s a funny thing, spending 39 hours going through a canyon millions and millions of years in the making,” Mason muses. “The river—it doesn’t care. The significance of our run is more about our relation to the place, our efforts to grow ourselves in this magical cathedral. We’re not going to change the canyon, but ideally, at the end, the canyon changes us.”
Although the team made extreme efforts to avoid leaving any mark in the canyon, Anderson frets about the plans of others. “The Grand Canyon is under near-constant threat from development—there’s a proposed tramway to the bottom, a huge proposed development on the South Rim, uranium mining, and more—so our trip and the film were, in part, an opportunity to educate ourselves and other people about those threats.”
“The Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world,” he adds. “We know that all of the water in this valley flows to the Grand Canyon. All the things we do here affect the Grand Canyon. They impact everyone downstream.”
Mason chimes in, musing: “You could run the Mississippi in a raft, but people don’t because it’s filled with barges and cities. Why do we go to isolated places? That kind of challenge in that kind of setting—a majestic, unaltered landscape millions of years in the making—is special. Development limits the opportunities you have to interact with the landscape in a spiritual way.”
Both Mason and Anderson plan to return to the timeless canyon, bringing their families. Mason will wait awhile. He says that his older son, who is four, “doesn’t want to run the river because he thinks you have to go at night.” He needs a little time to grow into the adventure.
As for Anderson: “We were going as fast as we could, and that’s not the way I would recommend. I want to do it again and take my time—21 days would be about right.”