1984 was one of the very few years since 1960 that Colorado river water from the Grand Canyon actually reached the sea. High snow melt pushed it past the point where golf courses and old-age homes drain it of all its water and so – at last! – the waters of the Colorado reached the beautiful estuary at Baja California and flowed into the Sea of Cortez again!
Unknown to many, 1984 was also the ONLY year Mexicans would have been able to taste Mainstay cane spirits, distilled from South African sugar cane, mixed into that Colorado river water. Well, recycled Mainstay and river water, as the Mainstay that reached the sea had first passed through the kidneys of a mad bunch of South Africans that Chris Greeff had assembled to paddle through the famous American Canyon.
That’s because we were on the river sponsored by Mainstay Cane Spirits and South African Airways. The ‘Mainstay’ we drank was actually an SAA Boeing 747’s supply of tot bottles of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka, rum – and Mainstay cane spirits. We decanted all the little bottles we could find into two two-litre plastic bottles to help the stewardesses on board with their end-of-Atlantic-crossing stock-take. We had resolved to drink the plane dry but man, they carry a lot of hooch on those big babies. Maybe in case they end up with all 350 passengers happening to be as thirsty as paddlers are? Here we are in Atlanta with the loot. Note the Mainstay sticker on one bottle held by our host Dave Jones, a paddler himself. Paddled for the USA in K1, C1 and C2 wildwater, US national champ and also coached the USA team. So we were saddled with not one but TWO national paddling champs who are dentists and military men! Myself I personally reckon mixing guns, boats and teeth with beer can only bring trouble . .
From Atlanta we jetted on to Phoenix Arizona. There we hired another lang slap car and took a slow drive to Flagstaff here we got ‘outfitted’ with kit for the trip. Fifteen canoeists from South Africa joined our guide Cully Erdman and his delightful partner JoJo on a trip down the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to the take-out on Lake Mead three hundred miles downstream. We were accompanied by one other paddler, an Argentine José who was ticking off his bucket list, having climbed Everest. Five rubber inflatable rafts carried the food and the ‘Mainstay’ and hundreds of beers, plus a motley assortment of tag-along raft passengers from America and South Africa. Talking of motley: Us paddlers ranged from capable rough water paddlers to flatwater sprinters to happy trippers to complete novices. Some had Springbok colours, others had a lot of cheek.
Outfitting was also needed for supplies and Greeff put himself in charge of catering for the liquid refreshments. He was good at maths back in Parys se hoerskool so he did some sums: Seventeen kayakers plus some rafters times 12 days times 10 beers each is, lessee . . . OK, and then after breakfast we’ll need . . .
Apparently the yanks thought he’d grossly over-catered and they were worried about how they were going to carry the left-over beer out of the canyon at the end. That’s if the rafts stayed afloat. Well, ons sal sien . .
Some twists in the tale: My boyhood kayaking heroes had been the van Riet brothers, Willem and Roelof, who won the Dusi three times just as I was first learning about the race ca 1970. As I started to participate in the race in 1972 Graeme Pope-Ellis won the first of his eventual fifteen Dusi wins. Both Willem and Graeme were with us on this trip, along with other paddling legends I had met in my recent entry into the world of canoeing. Having ‘paddled lonely‘ from 1970 to 1982, I was now rubbing shoulders with legends!
Another twist: In the year I first saw the Colorado river after walking/running down the Bright Angel trail from the South Rim to the Colorado’s swiftly-flowing clear green water, 1973, Willem had launched a boat at Lee’s Ferry, done an eskimo roll and come up with ice in his hair, causing him to postpone his trip. Now he was back, eleven years later – in the summer! And so was I.
The trip was put together by yet another iconic paddler Chris Greeff, winner of more kayak races than I’d had breakfasts. One of the craziest races he won was the Arctic Canoe Race on the border between Finland and Sweden. About 500km of good pool and drop rapids in cold water. When he arrived at the start with his sleek flatwater racing kayak the other paddlers and the officials looked at their wider, slower, more stable canoes and thought ‘Ha! he intends portaging around all the rapids!’ They had heard of the Dusi and how mad South Africans run with kayaks on their heads, so they amended the rules: Every rapid avoided would incur a stiff time penalty. You portage, you pay! Chris grinned and agreed enthusiastically with their ruling: He was no Dusi runner and he had no intention of getting out of his boat!
Later: On the trip, our American kayak and raft guides kept asking us about the sponsors stickers we had attached to kayaks and rafts. SAA they understood, South African Airways; but what was this “Mainstay” stuff? Ooh! You’ll see! was all we’d say.
At ___ rapid on Day __ around the camp fire we hauled out our two-litre bottles filled with a suspicious amber liquid. THIS we said, was that famous stuff!
The first thing about Mainstay, we told them, was its medicinal properties. Toekoe had turned blue from too much swimming, but after a slug of Mainstay he got his colour back as the before and after pictures clearly show:
As more Mainstay was swallowed, hilarity and a bit of insanity ensued. I have a picture frozen in my mind of Willem sprinting past me, running nimbly across the pontoons of a raft and launching himself in the darkness into the swift current of the Colorado running at 50 000 cfs shouting Yee-ha!! – A bit like this, but at night:
Besides this fortified and fortifying SAA loot, Greeff had also arranged for beers on the trip. John Lee tells the story:
I recall how our Yankee rafting crew were somewhat taken aback at the rather large drinks order they received prior to the departure from Lees Ferry! Despite the huge stocks, somewhere downstream in the depths of the Grand Canyon, to their utter disbelief, the only liquid left was the raging Colorado River. Stocks had run dry .
There were some thirsty, desperate river runners in camp. We were way upstream from the next available beer at Phantom Ranch’s shop on the high rim.
Desperate times call for desperate measures …….
Some of us (hello Felix!) resorted to performing like trained seals, executing dashing eskimo rolls for passing J-Rigs, and being rewarded with frosties for our efforts!
One Captain (PF) Christiaan Lodewikus Greeff called quietly for volunteers, and assembled a raiding party – could also call them ‘SEALs’, one was a parabat – to address the situation. This unbeknown to our unsuspecting, law-abiding river crew.
In the dead of night, wearing beanies, faces blackened, they slid silently into the icy waters of the flooded Colorado River and headed into an upstream eddy towards the distant sounds of happy laughter from a neighbouring campsite.
Reaching tethered rafts, they found the holy Grand Canyon grail . . . multiple nets strung from the rafts, laden with tins of sunset amber liquid.
Their return to our camp was triumphant.
I cannot recall the composition of that courageous group. Suffice it to say, that I am certain that it included one Lieutenant-Colonel A Gordon-Peter (SAB with bar).
The reaction of our guides, later, was somewhat different!
Mules heavily laden with liquor were later cajoled down the treacherous track from Phantom Ranch, and our evenings were once again fueled with fun, laughter and Willie’s moerse yarns!
In closing, who will ever forget that wonderful mirage in the middle of the shimmering Lake Mead – a very naked, very tall and statuesque blonde River Goddess on a drifting raft … … or was it ?
Well, I dunno – but there was one naked lady that I do know of: JoJo posed butt naked for a stealthily-taken pic on George’s camera. What a sport, she removed her bikini top and bottom for the gentlemen doing research on just how much trouble George would get into with his wife back home.
Lee plans his arguments for the court cases sure to follow: YaRonna! These were just Merry Pranksters, M’Lord . . .
At the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado the Little was flooding and massively silt-laden. We stopped on a skinny sandbank and had mud fights and mud rolls. The muddy water from the flooding Little Colorado was so thick that the trout Felix Unite caught thanked him for rescuing them!
It merged here with the clear water coming out of Lake Powell – seen behind Felix – and from here on we had traditionally red-coloured water – ‘colorado.’
Somewhere downstream from here I got sucked under by a big whirlpool that formed under my boat that I couldn’t escape. As I went down I set up to roll but stayed down until I thought ‘I’m outa here’ and bailed. Up on the surface the guys told a more dramatic tale: ‘Swanie! You disappeared for AGES! Then your boat popped up; Then your paddle popped up; And still there was no you! Then at last you popped up!’ So then they started calling me Pete Whirlpool. Lots of that muddy water stayed up my snout and I had a few bad sinus headaches but Wendy – Dave Walker’s connection – very kindly stepped in and saved my butt with strong painkillers. Back in Durban a month later I was rushed into theatre for an emergency sinus washout! As Saffeffricans say ‘Ah neely dahd!’ Some Little Colorado River mud was washed down Durban’s St Augustine Hospital’s outlet pipes into the Indian Ocean that day. Probly also had a smattering of Mainstay in it.
Hikes up the side-canyons:
Map reading: I had a lovely large-scale map of the river through the canyon showing all the rapids. We would pore over it, going over the day and plotting our tomorrow. Here Jannie Claassens stands left, Swys du Plessis is prominent in red shorts, I am just visible behind him, Dave Walker wears a cap, Willem van Riet sports a ducktail probly cos of his last swim, Herve de Rauville kneels like a good Catholic, Allie Peter lying down in the background cursing his shoulder, Chris Greeff in the Mainstay cap ponders his next move, Bernie The Jet Garcin has a beer in his hand and a sock in his speedo, Wendy Walwyn is planning her first eskimo roll soon, and Cully Erdman in blue shorts thinks ‘Wwho ARE these okes? and where was that huge rapid Willem is talking about!?’
Happy daze drifting in the current, lying back gazing up at the cliffs and watching the waterline as century after millenium of geological lines rose up out of the water and each day rose higher and higher above us. Willem the geologist would explain some of it to us. The latest view seems to be that the river is around six million years old, and it has exposed rocks up to two billion years old as it carves downwards, aided also by wind erosion.
Then every so often you would sit up and listen intently. Then peer ahead with a stretched neck and drift in a quickening current as the roar of the next rapid grew in the canyon air. The river was running at an estimated high of 50 000cfs – that’s about 1650 cumecs, big water. 1984 was a high year. Once you could see where the rapid was, you pulled over and got out to scout it and plot your way through it. It was no use asking Greeff. His stock answer was ‘Down The Middle!’
For days before Lava, the bullshit build-up built up: ‘Rain? That’s not rain! That’s the mist from LAVA FALLS!’
Arriving at Lava we hopped out and checked it out, butterflies no longer flying in formation. After scouting carefully most of us went left; a few went right. One – Ryan – went snorkeling straight into the big hole and got chomped, rinsed and spat out. His blue helmet can be seen in the picture if you have a magnifying glass.
And then typical ladies: As we strutted and boasted of derring-do, they quietly commandeered one of the rafts and rowed it ladies-only down Lava! They took one yank with them, just to show him they could . .
At the usual take-out at Diamond Creek before Lake Mead, we stopped for a rest and some team photos. The high water had washed away the road. We had to keep going. Some miles later we hit the dead waters of Lake Mead. The river ran out of push, tamed by a damn dam. Paddling was over for most of us! We piled our kayaks onto the rafts and lay on them – there were still a few beers that needed polishing. Our five-raft flotilla was tugged out by a motorboat to another take-out point, Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead miles downstream.
Downstream? Except of course there was now no longer any ‘stream’ – we were on flat water. Greeff and a few other crazies – including Wendy Walwyn – you know, the types who weren’t issued with handbrakes, brains or limits, paddled the whole flat water way! Holy shit! I drank beer lying on a raft, gazing at the blue Arizona sky.
Too soon, it was over.
Drifting downstream, Dave Walker had led the singing:
The canyon burro is a mournful bloke
He very seldom gets a poke
But when he DOES . . .
He . LETS . it soak
As he revels in the joys of forni- CA-TION!
and (to the tune of He Ain’t Heavy):
Hy’s nie Swaar nie
Hy’s my Swaer . a . a . aer
We went down the Canyon twice
I always say we did the Canyon twice. Once we would bomb down in our kayaks, crashing through the exhilarating big water; The second time was much hairier, with bigger rapids, higher water and far more danger: That was around the campfire at night when Willem would regale us with tales of his day on the water. ‘Raconteur’ is too mild a word! The word ‘MOERSE’ featured prominently in his epic tales and his long arm would be held high to show you where the crest of the wave sat. And this from a man who bombed ‘blind’ down the Cunene River in 1963.
Postscript: While we were paddling Chris spoke of attempting to beat the record for the fastest non-stop descent of the Canyon – the 277 mile stretch we had just done from Lee’s Ferry to our eventual take-out at Pearce Ferry.
Only a handful of boaters have been crazy enough to undertake such a mission. After all, doing it non-stop means having to shoot Lava Falls at night! The Riggs brothers made what could be considered the first speed run in 1951 when they rowed a cataract-style wooden boat through the canyon in 53 hours; Fletcher Anderson, a pioneering Southwestern boater, made a 49-hour solo kayak descent in the late 1970s; and then in 1983, just a year before our leisure trip, Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds completed a now-legendary run on a flood of 70,000 cfs in a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile. Their record of 36 hours and 38 minutes was the time to beat.
Nothing came of it – it would have been a very expensive undertaking from South Africa for an obscure record only the small expedition kayaking fraternity would have known of and anyway, why do it? But the record is ever-present in some people’s minds. In January 2016 the record was beaten twice. First by ‘Team Beer’: Ben Luck, Matt and Nate Klemas and Ryan Casey in three Pyranha Speeders and a Perception Wavehopper, boats much like the ones we used. Then three days later by Ben Orkin, paddling solo in a composite Epic 18X sea kayak, a boat much lighter than the models Team Beer had used and with a metre longer waterline. He reduced the time to 34 hours and 2 minutes. The Emerald Mile’s record, which had stood for over three decades, had been broken twice in three days.
I do (sort of) understand the quest for records (sort of), humans always will go for fastest; but for me, floating down in awesome wonder is really the way to do it.
Before the river became crowded and the park service slapped restrictions on trip lengths, private boatmen in the ’70s vied at ‘slow-boating’, or making a trip last as long as possible. The crowning glory of slow-boating has gone down in river history as the Hundred Day Trip. Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family floated away from Lees Ferry and spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon. They hiked every side canyon, spent as long as a week in favorite camps like Nankoweap and Granite Park, baked their own bread and wallowed in the vast silence of stone cathedrals broken only by the rustle of the river. The moon waxed and waned three times while they were there. It was roughly as long as the very first trip down the canyon led by John Wesley Powell in 1869, over a hundred years earlier – and 150 years ago now; I wonder if there will ever be trips like that again.
Edit: In 2019 the Magnificent Grand Canyon National Park is 100 years old – what a laugh that we humans think that’s old!