“It Will Be Fun," She Said: A Friendly Introduction to Packrafting on the Colorado River
Words and Photos by Eszter Horanyi
The sand was never-ending. Each step was an effort, and the grains of sand building up in my shoes were starting to press against my toes and the arches of my feet, grating between my heels and socks, making walking highly uncomfortable. I gave a glance behind me. Meghan had her shoes off and walked dejectedly through our own little Sahara Desert. Hannah had stopped to mess with something in her pack and looked decidedly not happy with the situation. Both had recently fessed up to being out of water. Ahead of me, Scott marched on, oblivious to the struggle going on behind him.
I’d hatched a plan to walk with packrafts from Lee’s Ferry to a trail outside of Page and then drop down to the Colorado River just below Glen Canyon dam. From there, we’d float 15 easy river miles back to Lee’s Ferry. It was mid-October 2020, and it seemed like we’d have just enough daylight to pull it off. It was part of my plan to get Hannah Greene and Meghan Hicks, two of the strongest ultrarunners I know, hooked on packrafting. This was mostly so that I could have more packrafting partners who also enjoyed long rambles in the mountains and desert.
On paper, it seemed like a completely feasible day in the office for the group.
But things were not going as planned. In fact, I was somewhat worried that Meghan and Hannah would never talk to me again.
I may have employed a more-than-acceptable amount of motivated reasoning in my selling of the idea. I had done the walk from Lee’s Ferry to Page a few years back as a quick overnighter. My bag had been packed with light sleeping gear, a small dinner, and a bit of water. The whole thing was under 15 miles, and while I had lost my will to press on for a bit in the quagmire of the sand on my morning saunter out to civilization, my memories of the walk didn’t seem traumatic.
“Four hours of walking. Five tops,” I’m sure I had said. But the packrafts and a day of food weighed more than my minimal sleeping gear had, and everything was going slower than planned. I’d loaned Meghan and Hannah a pair of Alpacka Gnarwhals. While they’re one of the most stable boats in the Alpacka quiver, they aren’t light. I’ve learned that the best way to get people hooked on a new activity is to make it fun. This was decidedly Not Fun. The heat of the day had arrived, and we could see the long stretch of sand separating us from the route that would take us down to the river. It seemed insurmountable, but at this point, five hours into our walk, we had no choice but to press on.
This is how to make sure that you don’t get your friends hooked on an activity.
Finally, we reached solid rock. I had only a vague description of how to get down to the river, but it was enough. Following a series of slickrock fins, we worked our way down a weakness in the sheer cliffs that characterize Glen Canyon. It seemed improbable, but ledge after ledge, down we went. Strategically placed cables provided a degree of protection down the final steep slickrock pitch, and soon it was just a quick scamper down to the water.
By the time we hit river level, we were all out of drinking water and made a beeline into the frigid river. Coming out from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, the water stays at a chilly 50 degrees. It was delightful, and we spent a fair bit of time basking in the glory of not walking on sand anymore. I could sense that maybe I was being forgiven. It really was beautiful down there, and the temperature was perfect for frolicking in the water. We could have spent the whole afternoon on that beach taking it all in.
But it was mid-October, and daylight wasn’t exceptionally plentiful. We inflated the boats and prepared to leave the shore. I gave Meghan and Hannah a quick safety talk that basically consisted of, “Don’t fall in; the water is cold.” It was their first time in packrafts, and while I was confident the river was flat and well within our abilities, I was still nervous. I had Scott around to help if anything did go wrong, but I really just didn’t want anything to go wrong.
I shouldn’t have worried.
It wasn’t long after launching into the current that the giggling began. It was accompanied by expressions of glee. For people who hold running and hiking as their primary recreational activities, being able to coast down a river on a raft without having to work is nothing short of magical. The crystal-clear water let us see down to the bottom. The passage of anchored river plants allowed us to gauge our speed much more accurately than the impossibly tall canyon walls on either side of the giant river. Conversation quickly turned to which packrafts Meghan and Hannah should buy in order to maximize adventure potential.
The afternoon sun warmed us as the miles flowed by. We spent the mile around Horseshoe Bend waving to tourists above us, wondering how many photos we’d end up in on Instagram that evening. For the most part, the river flowed energetically, sweeping us along without a care in the world. I felt fully confident that two new packrafters were being born.
Evening light illuminated the cliff walls. If that wasn’t pure romance on a river in a canyon, I don’t know what is. But there were still miles to go, and I didn’t think that getting benighted on the water would be the perfect end to what was turning out to be a perfect day now that the struggles through the sand had been long forgotten.
So, we started to properly paddle, and that’s when the wind picked up. This wasn’t an annoying little head breeze to slow forward progress, it was a gale-force wind that could only be combated by paddling full power ahead, and then we were lucky to stand still in the water. By this time, we could see Lee’s Ferry in the distance. We were so close, yet so far.
“Please stop, Wind, please stop. This was going so well!” I begged, paddling like a madwoman. Meghan and Hannah both had their heads down doing their best to maintain forward motion. Scott had given up and was drifting slowly upriver, waiting for a break in the wind.
I don’t actually think that the wind listened to me, but somehow it abated just long enough for us to get the packrafts to the boat launch. Group laughter. “That wind was crazy! But that was awesome!” We loaded the boats into the car by headlamp, pleased with our full dawn to dark adventure. The beauty of the river float had eclipsed all the struggle. It really was a stunning day in the desert.
A year later, both Meghan and Hannah own their own packrafts.
Is there a take-home lesson here? Maybe I should try to be a bit more realistic about my selling of the difficult part of a trip, but if I can get away with a bit of motivated reasoning to get a trip together, does the end justify the means?
I like to think so.
Eszter Horanyi is an endurance mountain bike racer and bikepacker, a record setter on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a packrafter, writer, and an address-free camper trailer dweller that can be usually be found somewhere in the Southwestern United States.