1983 High Water Trip Report by Chuck Zemach

From Rafting Grand Canyon
Jump to navigationJump to search


From: "Adobe Mud", journal of the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico (AWC) in the 1980's, Stephen Maurer, Editor. September/October, 1983. Copyright protected. Editor's note: AWC Board member Chuck Zemach of Los Alamos had a permit to run the Colorado River in Grand Canyon late in June this summer (1983). The Colorado's flow reached a post-Glen Canyon dam high of 92,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) while Chuck's party was on the River. ADOBE MUD is pleased to present the first in a series of two articles describing this once - in - a - lifetime experience.

The rapids in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River are always a challenge to boaters. The nature of the challenge varies with the water flow. Thus the lore of the river-wise boater: Go right-center in Lava Falls at low water but sneak left at high water. Go left in Hance at high water. In Horn Creek, go left-center between the horns at medium or high water, but right of the right horn and a quick left at low water. The principal river guides, such as Belknap’s Grand Canyon River Guide, which most Canyon boaters carry because of its compact size and topographical contours, and the Pictorial Color Map of Grand Canyon, rate the rapids on a sliding scale to allow for water-flow variations.

How high is high water and how low is low water? These terms are normally related to the highest and lowest flows expected of the River. The US Geological Survey tables (obtained from Water Resources Division, Geological Survey, 301 W. Congress, Box FB-44, Tucson, AZ, 85701) show mean daily water flows between 2,940 cfs to 20,800 cfs for the April-October season of last year. The previous year, it was 3,240 cfs to 19,800 cfs. Large variations can also occur within twenty-four hours, depending on the diurnal variation of the electric power needs supplied by Glen Canyon Dam, 14 miles upstream from Lees Ferry. One might do a rapid at high water in the morning and another at low water in the afternoon. (And the unwary river runner may find that the boat he beached in the evening is ten-fifteen feet high and thirty feet from the water line the next morning.) Because the difficulty as well as the character of her rapid changes with water flow, the Pictorial Color Map of Grand Canyon gives ratings of rapids at 6-8,000 cfs, 12,000 cfs, and 20,000 cfs. Belknap states his sliding scale of ratings applies to flows between 5,000 cfs and 25,000 cfs. It should now be clear what is traditionally meant by high water and low water in the Grand.

Old-timers, of course, recall that things were different before Glen Canyon Dam was built in the early sixties. Someone tried to tell Georgie White about a high water experience and she said "You should have seen it at 150,000”. Major Powell, incidentally, probably had quite low water, even by current standards; his trips were in August. In March of this year, I received a permit from the National Park Service for a private boat trip through the Grand Canyon, with a launch date of June 26. Good luck and patience were needed for this. The Park service quota for private boaters is 240 per year, with one party permitted to launch each day of the main season, and there is a waiting list of several thousand.

I had hope and some expectation of higher water for a mid-summer trip than for my first time down the Colorado in October of 1981. Not that I would complain of that one: weather was excellent in October, and a Grand Canyon trip in a small boat provides wonder and awe, exhilaration and exaltation, challenge and anxiety in any season. But at a flow of 3,000 cfs at launch, and averaging less than 10,000 cfs, the current was often one mile per hour, rarely up to three miles per hour. We did a lot of rowing to keep within the Park Service’s limit of 18 days to Diamond Creek, 225 miles down from Lee's Ferry, and missed a number of planned side-canyon hikes. The March number of the Agricultural Department's Watersupply Outlook for the Western US (obtainable from National Weather Service, NOAA, Silver Spring, MD, 20910, Attention: Office of Hydrology) projected a "most probable" flow through the Grand Canyon for April-to-July of 96% of normal, good but not exceptional from the river runner's viewpoint. Another datum in the same pamphlet, possibly from a different contributing author, foresaw "spring and summer streamflow" of 70% to 90% of average for the Colorado River from its confluence with the Green River in Utah down through Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam below the Grand Canyon, Parker Dam below that, and on to the Mexican border. In these forecasts were the seeds of the disaster to follow.

We planned for a party of ten in four rafts. This included Mary, my wife, Art and Dorothy, my son and daughter of college-age, son Ken, age 14 but resilient, local friends Maggie Briesmeister, Ralph DeVries, and Hans Ruppel, Jim Beard and Tamara from Durango, and Frank Leroi of San Jose, California. The four boatman, Jim, Ralph, Art and myself, had many river miles behind us and believed we could take whatever water the Colorado had to offer. Logistics and Park Service regulations for such a trip are considerable and I talked with the Park Rangers at the Grand Canyon office a number of times.

The months of April, May, and June were a season of rising expectations.

In mid-May, Ranger Kit Robertson had good news on the water flow. Snowpack on the mountains that feed the Green and Colorado was 110%-120% above normal for this time of year. Lake Powell was fairly full. The river was already running at 25,000 cfs. (Last year at this time, it was averaging less than 10,000 cfs.) The summer flow could rise to 40,000, irrespective of the variation in electric power needs, in order to handle the runoff from the north into the lake. Forty-thousand cfs! That was twice the normal summer’s high and off the scale of the river guide ratings for rapids. Perhaps, we would get a feel for how the river ran before the dam.

On June 8, Park Service Superintendent Richard Marks sent a notice to all trip leaders with permits to launch in June or July. Lake Powell had become filled "near capacity on June 2 to due to an unusually heavy and swift runoff" from the Rocky Mountains, the notice said. Since June 2, the Bureau of Reclamation had been releasing 10,000 cfs through the dam’s spillways, in addition to 28,000 cfs through the generators. "This is high water!" said the notice. Small rafts (under fifteen feet) were not recommended and single-raft trips would not be permitted. Non-commercial trips would not be forbidden, but this "does not indicate that only normal risks remain." Trip leaders that elect to cancel "during the high water", defined as "June through July 15 or until the release is consistently under 30,000 cfs", would not suffer the usual penalties, but instead would get preferential consideration for launch-date requests in 1984.

More was learned from the Grand Canyon River Ranger on June 20. Current flow was 61,000 cfs, and scheduled to rise to 67,000 that evening. This flow would probably persist to mid-July, "but could rise to 80,000."

The input-output arithmetic at Lake Powell was puzzling to the Ranger and remained so for me. The lake level was now 4 feet below the dam. It was being fed by 82,000 cfs, predominantly from the waters of the Green and Colorado above their confluence. There was no immediate prospect of a break in the rain less, hot weather which is melting the snow pack in those areas. Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green could not hold back any more water; it was full. The lower tributaries of the Colorado, Dirty Devil, Escalante, and San Juan were steady and not too high - - so far.

Some problems at the dam itself had arisen. Each of the two spillways have been releasing 17,000 cfs. They had not done this before. The spillways are tunnels of 46 feet in diameter through the Navajo sandstone, lined with concrete, and in principle, could sustain much larger flows. The west spillway had been shut off because of pitting and general deterioration of concrete. (Who looked inside to check?) Attention was now given to a "splash fence" over the top of the dam. Unlike Hoover Dam, which was designed to accept spillover from the top if Lake Mead overflowed, Glen Canyon Dam cannot take such spillover without risking damage or perhaps destruction of the electric generators, housed in buildings with ordinary roofs on the downriver side of the dam face.

A commercial boatman told me later on that he had been through Page, Arizona, at about this time and went to the dam for the usual visitor’s tour. The dam people had stopped giving tours. One could still enter a visitor’s observation room and look out at the dam. The walls of the room were shaking and the windows were rattling. Lake Mead was full for the first time in forty-two years and water did spillover Hoover Dam. Ultimately, millions or perhaps billions of dollars of damage was done to homes, farms, and other property downstream of Hoover and Parker dams. Interior Secretary Watt seemed to believe that people who live or work on a floodplain cannot complain if the river floods. The victims probably felt that so large a river-management system, built at so large a cost, should have been managed better. Indeed, the low river-flow forecasts for March mentioned above were already turned around in April and May. The Bureau of Reclamation had a lot to answer for.

Glen Canyon jets 1983.jpeg Glen Canyon Dam discharge of water through the high pressure outlets.

Substantial changes in the river were now being reported by boaters and by Rangers who flew over it on helicopter tours, and took aerial photos. Grapevine, Horn Creek, and Granite Rapids were washed out, as were Mile 234 and neighboring rapids. Lake Mead had come within 10 miles of Diamond Creek. The usual beach camping areas were mostly underwater. Parties were urged by the Park Service to consult on, and share, the limited remaining campsites.

Hermit Rapid was still there, the Mile 20 Rapids were cooking, and the "gems" (Ruby, Sapphire, etc.) were harder. One could, allegedly, sneak Lava on the left without getting wet. Crystal was huge.

The first major damage to a commercial rig occurred on June 17. A thirty-seven foot motorized pontoon flipped in Crystal, losing much food and equipment which were not tied down. No injuries other than to one lady’s ankle, but the passengers must have had a bracing swim in the 50° F water. The pontoon itself was too damaged to continue and the passengers were helicoptered out. Another commercial smashed its rowing frame in Hance. No major incidents to private so far. Six privates had canceled in response to the Superintendent's notice and launch dates were currently available in July!

I had a final phone check with Ranger Kit Robertson on the afternoon of Friday the 24th before departing with my family for Lee's Ferry. She expected the river flow to continue at its current level of 70,000 cfs for a while, possibly rising to 80,000. The flow into Lake Powell was now 100,000 cfs. For how long could an inflow of 100,000 cfs be offset by an outflow of 70,000, when the lake level was only a few feet below the rim of the dam? Well, the Bureau of Reclamation doesn't tell the Park Service everything. The Park Service had used helicopters to notify boaters on the river of the rise from 60,000 to 70,000 and would do so again if there was a further rise to 80,000. There had been no additional incidents on commercials and all the private parties were making it. But several commercial boats had missed the Diamond Creek take-out. Diamond Creek is in the third, or Lower, Granite Gorge of the Canyon and asking the passengers to sidle along the steep walls of granite and schist to get back to a missed take-out must have been embarrassing to the boatmen, to say the least. For the pontoons themselves, there was nothing for it, but to go 60 miles on down to Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead, the next possible take-out. This is a nice finish to a trip for a private party, but not for a commercial if he has a commitment to get his gear back promptly to Lee's Ferry for another party.

The main warning of the Ranger was to avoid the big hole in Crystal - - as if we needed it after learning that a 37 - foot pontoon had capsized. The other news was mostly on the beaches that were underwater. The picnic tables at Diamond Creek were submerged and the water up to the roofs that sheltered them. There had been twenty feet of beach left at Redwall Cavern at 60,000 cfs - - this is the great amphitheater that Major Powell had said would seat 50,000 people - - but all of its sandy floor was now underwater as was the campground recently set up for private boaters preparing to launch from Lee's Ferry. Some of the major rapids were washed out, some of the minor ones like Mile 36 and Mile 60 could be serious, and be sure to keep far right at Crystal!

All but three members of our party were present at Lee's Ferry early Saturday, June 25. Hans and my daughter Dorothy would hike down the Bright Angel trail from Grand Canyon Village on July 4, meeting us at the beach near Phantom Branch, Mile 87.5. Maggie and Tamara would hike out at the same time and take Hans’ car back home to Los Alamos. After entrusting his gear to Maggie, Ralph drove off to Peach Spring on Highway 40, the main east-west route through northern Arizona, to rendezvous with Frank who was driving from California. There, they would make final arrangements with members of the Hualapai Indian tribe to deliver his pickup at Diamond Creek, twenty miles from Peach Spring, on the eighteenth day of our trip. At that point, Ralph, Frank, and Hans would take off for home, all my family and Jim would go to Pearce Ferry where our cars should be waiting for us. As shuttle arrangements for a Grand Canyon trip go, this was a pretty simple one.

The Diamond Creek take-out is on Hualapai Indian land and the tribe has made a good thing of it. In past years, they charged on the order of $15 per person, per raft, and per vehicle for parties taking out. On April 1 of this year, a resolution of the Hualapai tribe was distributed to interested parties that said, in part, "… Whereas, higher fees in the past have driven customers away…”. The new fee was set at $12.50 per person and per vehicle with a discount applying to any one company after the first ninety-nine charges. Also, the fee was doubled if the Tribe was not notified in advance.

We planned, that Saturday morning, to set up our rafts quickly, get the safety inspections over with, schedule our indoctrination lecture from the Lee's Ferry Ranger as early as possible on Sunday and get on the river. It is more pleasant to spend time on the river then at Lee's Ferry and we had another kind of concern as well. As Ralph had said before leaving for Peach Spring, "All we need is one fatality and the Park Service will close the river."

When I launched back in October, 1981, the painted numbers on the sloping launch ramp indicated 3,000 cfs at water's edge. Today, there was no visible launch ramp. There was, however, a large sign reading "Danger - - Extreme High River Flows - - Approx. Flow Today 70,000 cfs”

Lee's Ferry 1983.jpeg Beach at Lee's Ferry, June 25, 1983.

Ralph and I both had 15’9” long Maravia Williwaw II rafts. We liked the tough construction, fat tubes (22”) and 12” bow and stern rise of the Williwaws. Jim had a 16’ Udisco which had held up exceptionally on two previous Grand Canyon trips, for some reason.

As Art and Ken were putting their boat together, a couple of boatman from one of the commercial parties on the beach paused to watch. "Is this a Hopi?" asked one of them. "Yes, it is" said Art. "A Hopi is a 12-foot boat, isn't it?" "Yes, it is." "You are going down the Grand Canyon in a Hopi?” "Yes." Again: "You are going down the Grand Canyon in a Hopi?" Each repetition carried a more shrill pitch of incredulity. "In a Hopi?" "IN A HOPI????”

Art had learned rafting as a member of Explorer Post 20 in Los Alamos. He had worked summers as a professional boatman on the lower Taos Box of the Rio Grande, using that same Hopi. One of those summers was in the glorious year of 1979, when flows in the Box reached 8,000 cfs, big water for such a narrow canyon. I thought he could handle a Hopi in big water, and that both Art and Ken could handle themselves if thrown out of a Hopi.

Consider some parallels between rowing a raft and driving a car. If you feel that flipping a raft is like overturning a car, you don't want to take a 12’ raft down the Grand. I know perhaps a dozen people who have rowed 12-foot boats down the Grand; all have flipped at least once. Explorer Post 20, made up of high-school boys (and some older advisors) took its fleet of twelve foot boats down the Grand last year. The Post averaged two flips per boat; all the boys want to do it again. They think of the flip is more like a parking ticket. (When Dorothy heard this analogy, she said, "I will never park illegally again.") But just as whitewater boating is not for everyone, doing big water in a 12-foot raft is not for every whitewater boater.

By one o'clock, we were ready for the Ranger’s inspection. We displayed our lifejackets, first aid kits, extra sets of oars, repair kits, stoves and fuel, signal mirrors, panels of international orange (we had tube tents) for emergency signals, air pumps, River maps, waste carry-out equipment, mesh screen for straining food particles from dishwater, and who-can-remember what else. Drivers' licenses and check-off from the permit list would come the next morning, prior to launch. The beach was now crowded with commercial boats, mostly motorized pontoons preparing to launch that afternoon.

At about two o'clock, Ranger John Dick came by with news. Three more commercial pontoons - - these boats ranged from thirty-three to thirty-seven feet in length and carried motors of twenty-five to forty horsepower - - had flipped in the big hole in Crystal. Another pontoon had been trapped in the hole and was subsequently knocked out by collision with a following boat of the same outfitter. The camp Ranger told us the second boat had collided intentionally in order to free the first one, but as a boatman of this outfitter later explained to us, "Nothing was that well-planned." Yet another pontoon was damaged in the hole, bringing the score-to-date for Crystal up to seven. Two of these were now beached downstream awaiting salvage. There were numerous injuries, two of them "serious." There was also one fatality. In addition, a pontoon had flipped in Nankoweap Rapid. Nankoweap is rated 3-4 by Belknap on the customary Grand Canyon scale of 1-10. A 4 rating corresponds to an easy III or III- on the I to VI International Scale. An open canoe can do a 4.

We learned later that in all, 90 people on commercial trips fell into the water at Crystal that day. There were fifteen injuries on the colliding boats alone. The fatality was a sixty-two year old man who had floated for 2 miles and swallowed a lot of water. He was not breathing when taken out of the water and did not recover. He might have also had a problem with a heart condition. Six helicopters were engaged in evacuating the survivors.

The Ranger reported that the Park Service Superintendent and others were now in conference to review the situation. He would have more news in about an hour, and warned that the decision would probably be to close the river.

The members of my party had spent weeks and months learning, planning, preparing, and spending for this, the premier whitewater adventure in the United States. Our equipment represented thousands of dollars, and our immediate preparations hundreds of dollars per person. One of the commercial operators on the beach, Dick McCallum, had nine or perhaps it was eleven boats scheduled to leave that afternoon. Three or four other commercials were on the scene, and of course, others and their passengers would come in the following days. A large pontoon may carry fifteen passengers who may pay up to $1,000 for a Grand Canyon river trip. Much of this money is committed by the operator in advance to support some pretty heavy-weight logistics. Also ready to launch was a team from the US Geological Survey, charged to investigate the special river conditions now threatening to terminate their investigation.

The boatmen at Lee's Ferry, commercial and private, were saddened to hear the Ranger's grim account, but believed that they could manage their own parties. Had the Park Service not already fulfilled its responsibility by warning them? I argued to the Ranger that given our considerable psychological and financial investment, we would be prepared to portage our equipment around Crystal Rapid even if it took us two days. I also asked about helicopter assistance in such portaging. It seemed that the Park Service does not operate its own helicopters, but rents them at an hourly rate close to $200. Others can rent helicopters at a much higher rate, assuming they were not taken up with other tasks on the river. It didn't seem promising.

The Ranger returned in due course and emphasized he only wanted to talk to boatmen. He declared the river was now closed. He was only delivering the message. The only concern of the Park Service was the safeguarding of lives. He reviewed the flips, the collision, the swims, the injuries, and the death at Crystal, adding some detail. He still did not know whether a small or large boat could reliably eddy out at the head of Crystal, or whether small boats could, in fact, be portaged. Dick McCallum was heard to say they should find a Superintendent or Ranger who had been down the river as many times as he had and let that person tell him not to launch. The mood was somber as we broke up. I wondered how much the commercial passengers have been told, and how concerned they might be, either about launching or about not launching.

I went over to a group of passengers who were being addressed by a boatman. He was explaining how to make sandwiches. The problem, it seemed, was that bread was especially difficult to carry and preserve on the river. Therefore, passengers should make only open-faced sandwiches for lunch, using one slice of bread per sandwich. Of course, they would have all the food they wanted on this trip and it would be good food. There would be plenty of filler for the sandwiches.

Only because of the special problems related to carrying bread was there to be a restriction on bread consumption. The boatman was a good speaker and understood the importance of education by repetition. I felt sure the passengers would make sandwiches properly on this trip, if there was a trip.

And then, in the late afternoon, Dick McCallum came up to the Ranger again and declared that he had been on the phone and learned that Superintendent Marks had changed his decision. The river was now open and only Crystal was closed. That is, passengers would have to walk Crystal, and boatmen could use their discretion on how to manage their own boats. He said the Ranger would receive confirmation soon. He then walked off to his boats and we heard a cheer go up from his passengers. A few minutes later, his boats were in the water.

And indeed, the Ranger did receive confirmation of this ruling, and it applied to private boats as well. The next morning the sun shone, the water sparkled beautiful and clear, and the current moved swiftly. And we moved with it.

Above M.21 rapid 1983 .jpeg Art and Ken Zemach in their Hopi approaching 21 Mile Rapid.

Two days later, a helicopter passed over our camp at 19 Mile Canyon, returned, hovered, and dropped a packet attached to a long red ribbon. The packet was a Ziploc bag, weighted with sand, and containing a note. It informed us that the Bureau of Reclamation would raise the discharge from Glen Canyon Dam to at least 90,000 cfs, beginning at 5 p.m., that afternoon. The Bureau of Reclamation was later to say that the flow peaked at 92,000 cfs, though estimates of the USGS ranged as high as 105,000 cfs. New paragraph:

In any case, the summer of 1983 gave new meaning to the notion of high water in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

THE GRAND IN 1983. PART 2: ON THE RIVER From: "Adobe Mud", journal of the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico (AWC). November/December, 1983. Copyright protected

The Colorado River in its course through the Grand Canyon was not tamed by Glen Canyon Dam, but its power diminished. The river flows rarely exceeded 20,000-25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) after the dam was completed in 1964. Compare this with 126,000 cfs in 1957! The Bureau of Reclamation states that the record release from the dam was 36,000 cfs in June, 1980, lasting for five days with a surge to 40,000 cfs for a few minutes.

In 1983, the prodigality of nature and the miscalculations of the Bureau of Reclamation combined to produce something different: the peak summer flows reached 92,500 cfs (Bureau of Reclamation) or perhaps 105,000 cfs (USGS).

The first part of this article (ADOBE MUD, September/October, 1983) looked at the rising expectations of Spring, 1983, as forecasts of river flows were continually revised upwards to match reality. The second part now looks at the special features of the Grand that were produced by such high water.

Discharge from the dam was 70,000 cfs when our party of four rafts launched from Lee's Ferry on June 26, 1983. It rose to 90,000 cfs the evening of June 27, as pre-announced by helicopter to us at our camp at 19 Mile Wash. The peak flows came the following week. We ran Hermit and Crystal at about 80,000 (July 5) and Lava Falls at about 53,000 (July 11). More precise flows for these dates and intermediate dates will be available in USGS tables.

The incidents and numbers quoted in these articles were collected from River Rangers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and from a USGS team on the River at the same time we were, and from a number of commercial boatmen. They are pretty good data, but not necessarily exact.


The current carried us from Lee's Ferry to Navajo Bridge at eight miles per hour, and the USGS reported the same speed a week later at Phantom Ranch, Mile 87.4 (Lees Ferry is at Mile 0.) In the 50,000-60,000 cfs range, the flow averaged about six miles per hour. At these speeds, two or three hours on the river will do for a day’s mileage quota. No downstream rowing is needed for distance, and there's plenty of time for side hikes and layovers. Photography from a moving boat is done quickly if at all, as the view will not wait while you fuss with the focus. As compared with more normal flows, the time available for ferrying or to adjust your entry point into a major rapid or to get to shore, may be compressed by a factor of four to eight.

The river at 70,000 cfs was about twenty-five feet higher than at 20,000 cfs. The next 20,000 cfs raised the river level four or five feet. We could row, but not walk, into Redwall Cavern. Ten Mile Rock, shown as a huge monolith in Belknap’s Grand Canyon River Guide, rose one and one-half feet above the river. Shinumo Wash, South Canyon and Clear Creek were inaccessible. Many beaches were submerged. In the Upper Granite Gorge between Hance Rapid (Mile 76.5) and Phantom Ranch, only the beach at Mile 87, on the left, remained.


Eddies, boils, and whirlpools were huge. The boils and whirlpools were also unpredictable, forming, moving, and dissolving in response to forces hidden below the surface. The eddies presented many technically difficult problems, more than the rapids. Suppose you want to put ashore at a side canyon. Floating at 8 miles per hour, you might plan to start ferrying far upstream of your target and, perhaps, hug the shore as you approach. This plan will often fail. You will be captured by an upstream eddy instead. Some of them are fifty or more yards long and ten to twenty yards wide. There is no way to row downstream in such an eddy. Instead, you must push out into the mainstream again, and with no time to develop ferry momentum, you are in a poor position to make the next eddy, if that's your goal. Sometimes, you overshoot the desired beach by fifty yards but catch the downstream end of the eddy and then can work back up.

All three of our sixteen foot boats missed the eddy at Shinumo Creek, Mile 109, and not by carelessness. Art and the Hopi made it. Score one for the maneuverability of a relatively small and lightly loaded raft in fast or tricky water. Score another for Art’s skill.

The water on the river side of these eddies often flows straight out across the river meeting the mainstream at right angles at the "eddy fence." It is actually flowing downhill. A swimmer at such an eddy fence will be pulled underwater, lifejacket and all. At Nankoweap, I shipped my oars while on such an eddy fence, waiting to see what would happen. Nothing happened. The eddy flow came laterally across the river directly at the boat. On the other side, the mainstream went past at eight miles per hour. Taking a line-of-sight on the shore, I verified that the boat did not move.

The Colorado through Grand Canyon is usually thought of as a "pool-drop" River. The drops, that is, the rapids, are well-defined stretches of whitewater, typically less than a third of a mile long. The river between rapids is flat water and slowly moving. The gradient is quoted as averaging 7.7-7.8 feet per mile but this is misleading. If the drop of 630 feet in the rapids before Diamond Creek is allowed for, the average gradient of the flat water sections is 5.0 feet per mile, enough to generate a flow of one to three miles per hour in "normal" seasons.

But in our season, the distinction between pool and drop was weakened, and was lost entirely in some of the narrow parts of the Canyon, such as the Granite Gorges and some of the Redwall sections. In these, the river was a continuing series of boils and whirlpools, while some of the rapids, both major and minor, were washed out. Sometimes, there was no visible portion of the river's surface actually moving downstream in streamlines. We never did notice the passing of Grapevine Rapid, (Mile 81.6), rated a 6 or 7 on the Western scale of 1 to 10 (10 = most difficult). The Gem series (or "jewels" to some), Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, and then Serpentine and Bass, lying in the Upper Granite Gorge from Mile 101 to 108 and the Middle Granite Gorge series of Fossil, 128 Mile, Specter, Bedrock (Mile 125 to 131) were partly washed out, partly merged with these irritating turbulences.

Mary and I paused at the foot of Mile 36 Rapid seemingly in an eddy, to await the other rafts. About 10 feet upstream, a boil larger than our raft erupted and rose two feet above the level of the eddy. We were sucked upstream and the boil, looking like some giant carnivorous mushroom, started munching on our side tube. It pulled the tube under and did not let go until the raft was more than half filled with water. For a Williwaw II, that's more than a thousand pounds of water. Score minus one for a Hopi, which the mushroom might have swallowed whole. A commercial boatman told of a motorized pontoon boat that had one of its side pontoons pulled completely underwater. These pontoons are three feet in diameter.

Frank M. Brown who drowned at Mile 12 in July, 1889, may have been eaten by one of these carnivorous boils. Here are some passages from Robert Stanton’s book, Down the Colorado:

"just as we turned, in what seemed to be smooth waves, a heavy wave came up out of the whirl on upper side of boat and instantly upset boat … Brown was thrown in whirl between current and eddy … Thus it was that President Brown sacrificed his life which could easily have been saved if he had had a life preserver to keep him afloat …"


The rapids of the Grand Canyon are a challenge in any water level. The aggregate challenge we faced from the rapids did not seem particularly greater or less than we, or others, had faced at lower water levels, but their nature was different.

Some rapids were milder. No rock at Bedrock, no hole at Upset or House Rock, no claw at Mile 232. The meanest were Mile 24 ½, Hance, and Lava Falls. Crystal was horrific in the center, but we sneaked it on the right.

Admittedly, it is hard to assess risks if the dangers themselves pass by unperceived. It may be that the whirlpools, boils and eddies were an extra danger, particularly if encountered after a flip in a rapid. So far as I know, no private party suffered irreparable bodily harm in the period of peak water flows. There was a broken leg at Badger Creek, and a concussion or near-concussion after a flip at Hance, however.

The statistics are not good enough for an evaluation of average risk. For one thing, the number of private parties was somewhat reduced in June and July. Six parties canceled by the time of our launch. Following the increase of the dam discharge to 90,000 cfs, all launches were banned by the Park Service for two days. And some boaters already on the river opted out, as will be noted below.

In Rising Expectations, the first of this series of two articles, I discussed high water and low water relative to baselines established by previous experience. Here I shall distinguish high and low water at a particular rapid according to the nature of the flow through that rapid.

All rapids in the Grand Canyon were built by debris fans. There will be a side canyon of steep gradient. Over the centuries and up to the present time, heavy rains and flash floods have transported boulders and other debris down the side canyon into the bed of the Colorado. The fan of debris spread out from the side canyon partially dams the river, causing a steeper descent downstream and also a lateral slant from the side canyon toward the river bank opposite, where the face of the canyon wall is often eroded by the force of the river. This contributes to a bend in the river at the site of the rapid, with the side canyon at the inside of the turn. Hamblin and Rigby Diagram.jpg

Each rapid will have its own arrangement of large and small boulders on the riverbed. Let us regard the flow through a rapid as a low-water flow if the nature of the rapid is largely determined by this distribution of boulders. Then each rapid at low water will have its own configuration of holes, haystacks and tongues, and thus its own distinctive character.

If the depth of the river over the debris fan becomes large compared to the variation of boulder sizes, the rapid will lose its individual character. At this stage, the rapid may simply be washed out. Alternatively, if the riverbed gradient and the canyon sides are steep enough, the rapid will persist and perhaps intensify. Let us regard this as a rapid at high water. The nature of the rapid will be determined by the direction of the average slope of the debris fan and by the reflections off the bending canyon walls. As these features are common to most Grand Canyon rapids, the rapids themselves display a common pattern at high water which we might call a Standard Rapid. The main feature of the Standard Rapid is a tongue whose breadth, at the onset of the rapid, extends across the river. The side edges of the tongue point downstream in a V pattern which lies, not symmetrically down the middle of the river, but skewed toward the shore opposite the side canyon. The lines of the V are regions of tail waves facing the interior of the tongue. The fiercest tail waves are along the line of the V furthest from the side canyon. The regions between the tongue’s edges and the shore are eddies, generally strong ones. The eddy next to the side canyon shore is much wider because of the skewing of the V away from the side canyon. Sometimes, the eddy on the side-canyon shore is weak or non-existent because of special features of terrain, and the boatman might sneak the rapid by crossing over the tongue’s edge into this region. The river flow down the tongue is not directly downstream, but is also skewed toward the shore opposite the side canyon. If a boatman enters the tongue near the side-canyon shore, he will have to contend with tail waves on that side, but will tend to be carried to the other side of the tongue. The longer he can postpone his drift to the other side and his confrontation with the tail waves there, the better his chances of avoiding a flip.

Here follows a listing of rapids which, at the peak flows of 1983, differed essentially from the descriptions found in river guides keyed to flows up to 25,000 cfs. The numerical ratings are from Belknap’s Grand Canyon River Guide with the underlined number denoting the rating at the 25,000 cfs end. Our dates of passage are supplied for eventual matching with precise river flow data.

June 26, 1983 Badger Creek. (4-6) Mile 7.8. Standard Rapid. Scoutable from the left shore only. Swift water flowing through tamarisk trees on right.

June 27, 1983 Soap Creek. (5-6) Mile 11.2. Standard Rapid skewed to left. A hole on the right arm of the V looked worth challenging, until we noticed a tamarisk centered in the whole, it's top branches visible above the water.

House Rock. (4-6). Washed out.

June 28, 1983 24 1/2 Mile. (5-6). A Standard Rapid and a tough one. A member of an earlier party flipped his Williwaw II and neither he nor the boat reached land until Mile 30. He folded up the boat, left a note for the Park Service, and got down to for Phantom on a commercial boat. Another boater with a Williwaw II quit at the head of Mile 24 1/2 and continued on a commercial boat. The two Williwaws were helicoptered out by the Park Service at a total cost to the owners of $1,500.

Art and Ken flipped in the Hopi, perhaps in a whirlpool. We had scouted this rapid, but had not looked for whirlpools at its foot. Both boys did one circuit in a whirlpool and both were pulled under. Ken was tossed into an eddy on the left and circled onto the left bank. Art was tossed into an eddy on the right, circled in the eddy three times, was pulled under the eddy fence each time, and on the third circuit made it to the right shore.

The boat went on downstream, chased by Mary and me. It was difficult to eddy out while holding onto a second boat; the second boat remains in the midstream and pulls the first boat out of the eddy. We bumbled along through 25 Mile, Cave Springs, 26 Mile, and 27 Mile Rapids, none of which were troublesome, before getting both boats to shore. It wasn't an eddy that time, merely a region of slow downstream flow near the shore, and some quick belaying work by Mary was needed. While either of us could probably have righted the Hopi in the usual way, we were reluctant to try. If the one who tried got separated from the boat after the boat was righted, then either the swimmer or the boat might catch in one of the miserable eddies and we would have a worse problem. (For the correct way to handle this situation, see the comments after Hance Rapid.)

July 1, 1983 Nankoweap. (3-4) Mile 52. Bad hole on the extreme left, but easy to avoid by keeping right.

July 2, 1983 Kwagunt. (4-6) Mile 56. Washed down to a 2 or 3, but said to be fierce at 70,000 cfs.

Lava Canyon (2-4) Mile 65.4 and July 3, 1983 Tanner Rapid (2-4) Mile 68.5. Both of these deserved a 6-7 rating at 90,000-95,000 cfs, so did another rapid near Espejo Creek, Mile 66, which is not indicated at all by Belknap.

Unkar. (4-7) Mile 72.4. Boats were swept toward, but not into, the left wall. Waves up to ten to fifteen feet.

Hance. (7-8) Mile 76.5. A Standard Rapid skewed to the right. A left sneak was not a possibility because of big holes under the left arm of the V. Promote this one to a 9 or a 10. The other three boats did fine, but I entered too far on the right side of the tongue and was swept into the mess of right-side tail waves. The bow of the boat was upended on a wave and stalled while the stern was carried down the tongue. At the time the boat flipped, it pointed directly upstream.

Mary and I climbed onto the overturned Williwaw promptly enough. Righting a heavily -loaded boat with flip lines while standing on it requires weight and leverage, not strength. We didn't have the weight. Jim tried to tow us into an eddy, but failed for the reasons described above. Somewhere before Grapevine and after Sockdologer, which we floated through sitting on the overturned raft, we figured out how to manage. We set our boat alongside Jim’s boat. With Jim, Mary, and me standing on his side tube and pulling on our flip line, we had the extra weight and leverage to right our boat easily. It slid smoothly into the water, not onto Jim's boat. Tamara could have pulled on the flip lines as well if extra weight were needed. No risk of the flip-line pullers falling in the water as the boat is righted; it can be pulled over so slowly and smoothly that there is no danger from flying oars either. This technique for righting boats is strongly recommended.

Hance 1983.jpeg Hance at 80,000 cfs.

Sockdologer. (5-7) Mile 78.6. Washed down to a 2.

Grapevine. (6-7) Mile 81.5. Washed out.

July 5, 1983 Horn Creek. (7-9) Mile 90.2. Washed out.

Granite. (7-8) Mile 93.4. A Standard Rapid washed down to a 4-5. Landing to scout was more difficult than doing the rapid and we didn't try.

Hermit. (7-8) Mile 95. We remembered Hermit from an earlier trip as overrated by Belknap, a series of huge, but benign haystacks, 20 feet or more from crest to trough, which one took straight down the middle. This time, Hermit was a Standard Rapid and earned an 8.

Hermit Rapid 1983.jpeg Hermit Rapid at 80,000 cfs.

Crystal. (7-10) Mile 98.3. Crystal Rapid began as a Standard Rapid skewed to the left but the tongue led into the enormous hole which, in the weeks preceding, had spilled more than 100 commercial passengers into the water, and caused one death. A Ranger had been posted at Crystal by the Park Service to advise boaters and enforce the rule that commercial passengers had to walk. He estimated the hole was at its worst at about 70,000 cfs. The wall of water raised by the hole was about thirty-five feet high at that level and stretched nearly across the River. At 80,000 cfs, as we found it, the overflow on the right bank, through a few tamarisks, was adequate to allow a technically easy sneak to the right of the hole.

The modern Crystal Rapid was formed by flash flood down Crystal Creek in December, 1966. It happened after Glen Canyon Dam, and no one had ever seen Crystal at these levels before.

We watched a number of commercials go by, carrying boatmen only. They all started down the tongue, as the course over the tongue's right edge, which we had followed, was too shallow for pontoons. They missed the hole just barely and two of them kissed it. "That was a lot closer to the hole than I would have gone" I said of one of the boatmen to some passengers on the shore. "And it was a lot closer to the hole than he said he would go" responded one of the passengers. Another boatman turned his rig directly sideways to the current in front of the hole; his was the most impressive run because of how close he came to disaster. The rule that commercial passengers had to walk was a good rule.

Superintendent Marks and Senator Dennis De Concini of Arizona were present as observers. The Ranger told us we had "better not mess up" because they only wanted one more reason to close the River then and there.

Crystal 1983.jpeg Crystal Rapid at 80,000 cfs.

July 6, 1983. Bedrock. (2-6) Mile 130.2. Washed out.

July 9, 1983. Upset. (3-8) Mile 149.9. Washed out.

July 11, 1883. Lava Falls. (8-10) Mile 179.2. The left-side ledge, the bubble route, and the right-side holes were all gone. It was another Standard Rapid, skewed to the right, but with a vengeance. A pontoon crossed over the edge of the tongue on the left, but we could not; there were new holes on the left which precluded a sneak. Tail waves on the right would form and break like breakers in the ocean; the crest line of the breaking wave might extend twenty feet or more. Art was sitting on a rock pondering the awesome scene. Ralph said to him, "If you want to portage, we'll help you carry your gear." A moment of silence. Then Art said, "I'd rather swim than portage."

Eventually, Art said to me, "Dad, we've been here so long. If we spend any more time scouting, we won't get any smarter, but we will get weaker. We should just go. Art and Ken lathered their hair with shampoo, figuring they might as well get a good rinse out of Lava. But they, like the rest of the party, made it without mishap. From the first beach below Lava, they dashed into the river to complete the rinse.

Lava Falls 1983.jpeg Lava Falls at 53,000 cfs.

Other Rapids

There were rapids at 196 Mile Creek (not shown by Belknap) and Mile 205 (Belknap 3-6) which deserved a 6 or 7 rating. All the rapids past Diamond Creek were washed out. BEACHES.

Because the water discharged from Glen Canyon Dam does not carry sand, the beach sand washed off by heavy flows in the upper canyon is not replenished by sediments from further upstream. Over time the Canyon’s beaches may shrink and disappear. We could not tell how the peak flows of 1983 affected the process, but as the water levels subsided, we did see, in the lower part of the Canyon, many fine sandy beaches, apparently new ones.

The Grand Canyon in 1983 is not a new discovery. Only minor supplements can be made to the reporting, the analysis, and the poetry already in books. But each person who seeks to enjoy nature and to confront nature in the Grand will be enriched by his own discoveries, perceived in his own way. Go for it.

The Rafting Grand Canyon WIKI Team is indebted to Chuck Zemach, Los Alamos, NM, zemach@earthlink.net for allowing us to re-print his article here.

Click here to return to the Rapids page. Click here to return to Resources page.