Fifty years ago this June, Walter Kirschbaum piloted his homemade fiberglass kayak on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Kirschbaum was the first paddler to kayak the entire Canyon running all the river’s rapids.
Kirschbaum learned to kayak in his homeland of Germany, and raced his boats before he began to enjoy exploring remote rivers more than he enjoyed racing. In 1953, Kirschbaum won the Kayak Slalom World Championship.
Obtaining a permit to paddle Grand Canyon required, as Kirschbaum put it, “rather rugged methods”, including a thirty minute shouting match between Grand Canyon National Park Ranger Dan Davis and Kirschbaum’s attorney friend Ty Dines.
One of Davis’s requirements of Kirschbaum to get a permit was that he kayak Cataract Canyon. After successfully running Cataract Canyon, which Kirschbaum noted required “more skill in dodging rocks than any rapid in the Grand Canyon at 40,000 second feet” Kirschbaum received a permit from Davis to kayak the river.
Walter and his wife Ruth built the fourteen foot long by nineteen inch wide fiberglass kayak in their attic in Denver Colorado, lowering it out the attic window once it was done.
Accompanying Kirschbaum were Dines in his freight canoe with an 18 horsepower outboard, and Ted Hatch, running a motorized pontoon boat with six selected passengers.
In order to keep up with the motor boats, Kirschbaum would head out of camp before the others, and would wait for their company at major rapids.
While making a right to left run at Hance Rapid, all went well until Kirschbaum was rolled over in the rapid’s tailwaves. Sucked out of his kayak and stripped of his paddle by a powerful whirlpool, Kirschbaum swam through the “pleasantly warm” (pre-dam) river water to his kayak where he retrieved his spare paddle off the back of his boat.
With new paddle in hand, Kirschbaum rode his upside down kayak to a small beach where he bailed out his boat, then gave chase for his paddle. Once he caught up to his paddle, he pulled to shore and waited for the other two boats.
Dan Davis had asked Kirschbaum to portage Lava Falls, but Kirschbaum ran it left of the Ledge Hole, and found it an easier run then “many another rapid in the Grand”. What troubled him most was eating his way through most of his food by day three.
Kirschbaum went on to run other sections of the Colorado River, including the first kayak runs of Gore Canyon, Cross Mountain of the Yampa, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Kirschbaum’s boat had no foot or thigh braces, and no seat, as he believed that to use more than what he considered the minimum of equipment was a sacrilegious insult to the natural purity of the canyons he so loved.
While Walter Kirschbaum tragically died in New Mexico in 1972, River Runners for Wilderness is proud to honor his legacy of river running, noting kayakers still ply the Colorado River in Grand Canyon to this day.