The best 10 things about rafting the Grand Canyon

The best 10 things about rafting the Grand Canyon

Pam LeBlanc enjoys the view from above Bass Camp in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Mollie Binion

Rafting the Grand Canyon means big water, scenery that scrolls past like the backdrop of an exotic movie, never-ending geology lessons, and, if you do it right, plenty of fun.

I just returned from Arizona, where I backpacked from the South Rim to the Colorado River to meet a passing group of friends who were doing what’s called a “painless private” trip. They hired outfitter PRO (Professional River Outfitters) to provide 18-foot rubber rafts, a kitchen set-up, a groover (essentially an ammo can with a toilet seat attached for human waste), dry bags and food for the three-week trip.

Mollie Binion watches as her son Peyton mans the oars during a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. Pam LeBlanc photo

I jumped on for the final two weeks of the adventure. We supplied our manpower and camping gear, and did our own rigging, rowing, loading and unloading, and cooking.

Here are my favorite things about the trip. Look for a complete story soon in Austin Travels Magazine at www.austintravels.com.

Jimmy Harvey rows through Crystal Rapid. Pam LeBlanc photo

Top 10 things about rafting the Grand Canyon

  1. Unplugging from technology.

Jimmy Harvey jumps into a pool in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. Pam LeBlanc photo

2. Hiking up slot canyons, through streams and into magical pools of water. We even made a “butt dam” in one narrow rivulet – lining up bottom to bottom to back up the water for a few minutes, then standing up to watch the mini flash flood we’d created.

Peyton Manning, Steffen Saustrup and Jimmy Harvey play dominoes. Pam LeBlanc photo

3. Playing dominoes on a sandy beach at the end of a fine day of rafting.

4. Reading “Robinson Crusoe.”

5. Taking the oars for short stretches and trying to figure out how to make the raft go where I wanted.

Charlie Riou blasts through Lava Rapid. Pam LeBlanc photo

6. Sipping bourbon and watching shooting stars with some of my favorite people every night.

7. Sleeping in a tent, in one of the prettiest places on the planet.

rafting the grand canyon

Mollie Binion mans the oars during a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. Pam LeBlanc photo

8. Eating amazing meals – burgers, curry, pasta, quesadillas – cooked in our portable kitchen.

9. Blasting through some of the biggest rapids I’ve ever seen, and only getting tossed out of the boat once.

Mark Poindexter and Leslie Reuter mud wrestling on the banks of the Colorado River in the Rio Grande. Pam LeBlanc photo

10. Impromptu mud wrestling matches.

 

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Ten miles from finish of Great Alabama 650, Hansen forced ashore by wind and chop

Ten miles from finish of Great Alabama 650, Hansen forced ashore by wind and chop

Hansen sleeping Alabama

West Hansen naps on the side of the river. He’s currently holed up in a different spot, 10 miles from the finish of the Great Alabama 650, waiting for bay conditions to improve. Barbara Hansen Edington photo

Austin paddler West Hansen pulled ashore about 10 miles from the finish of the Great Alabama 650 Thursday afternoon, and at 9 p.m. he was still hunkered down, waiting for conditions to improve in Mobile Bay.

A small craft advisory was in effect, and winds were 17 miles per hour. Hansen’s support crew said he likely would wait until morning to cover the final miles to Fort Morgan.

Despite the delay – Hansen has been grounded since about 3 p.m. – he remained in position to win the men’s solo division of the 650-mile paddling race. The next closest paddlers were still more than 100 miles back at 9 p.m.

The tandem team of Paul Cox and Joe Mann, who finished at 7:49 a.m. Thursday, won the overall race. The tandem team of Bobby Johnson and Rod Price were second, followed by solo female winner Salli O’Donnell, whom Hansen had predicted early on would be his biggest competition among solo paddlers.

Cox and Mann broke their own record, finishing four days, 22 hours and 25 minutes after the race started Saturday morning.

Paddling toward the finish of the Great Alabama 650

O’Donnell, 61, and Hansen, 59, paddled within a few miles of one another for much of the race, swapping the lead several times, but she pulled away early Thursday, as they neared the bay.

Salli O'Donnell blister

Salli O’Donnell shows off a blister after finishing the Great Alabama 650. Photo courtesy Salli O’Donnell

When told that Hansen had been forced ashore and was waiting for better conditions, O’Donnell, who had already made it back to her home in Florida, groaned.

“Those are brutal miles,” she said. “My heart is breaking for him because I know he just wants to get off that freaking course.”

She said she found it odd that she and Hansen had paired up for so much of the race.

“He’s definitely a faster paddler than I am,” she said. “Each of us has our own ebb and flow. I told him when you’re flowing you’ve got to keep going because if we match each other’s ebbs we’re going to be slow.”

A long race

The 650-mile race started Saturday morning in northeastern Alabama. Rain that fell steadily during the first three days boosted flows along the route, which follows the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. The rain kept up for three days, turning roads and checkpoints into mud pits.

Last night and this morning, as they cut through the wide, exposed waters of the bay, the racers faced buffeting winds, 2- to 3-foot chop, and much cooler temperatures. At one point Wednesday night, Hansen rolled his boat. He came ashore to dry off, warm up and reset, losing more time against O’Donnell. He also experienced trouble with his boat’s rudder.

“Salli was just well conditioned. She knew the course,” said Robert Youens, one of Hansen’s crew members.

The last 18 miles of the race are a slog, as the racers swing to the west, paralleling a narrow strip of coastline at the bottom of Mobile Bay. Waves today were so big at times that the paddlers disappeared from view between swells, Youens said.

west hansen alabama

West Hansen takes a break during the Great Alabama 650. He was forced ashore Wednesday afternoon and is still waiting for conditions to improve. Photo by Barbara Hansen Edington

A perfect race

Race director Greg Wingo said the race couldn’t’ have unfolded any better. “We have a new record that’s going to be unbelievably hard to beat, and another historic battle between Salli and Bobby (Johnson, in the second-place tandem team) that went down to the wire,” Wingo said.

Youens said he was proud of Hansen’s effort, especially since the racers who beat him all have paddled the Great Alabama 650 before.

“These are experienced people who knew all the tricks,” he said. “He’s a freshman to this race and he ran with three veteran crews. It’s a hell of an accomplishment.”

hansen

West Hansen heads out for more paddling. Photo by Barbara Hansen Edington

 

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Hansen, O’Donnell still battling on Day 5 of Great Alabama 650

Hansen, O’Donnell still battling on Day 5 of Great Alabama 650

Jennifer Fratzke Pettus Bridge

Jennifer Fratzke passes beneath the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma at rush hour Tuesday. Photo by Kimberly Hubbard/Courtesy Alabama 650

With about 85 miles to Fort Morgan, West Hansen and Salli O’Donnell continued to battle it out on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650 paddling race.

The two veteran endurance paddlers, both leading their solo classes, paddled within a few miles of each other all day Wednesday, with O’Donnell out front by a few miles. At 5 p.m. they were both chasing the two tandem teams in the overall lead by another 15 and 35 miles.

It’s going to come down to strategy – and how much sleep the racers take before their final dash across Mobile Bay to Fort Morgan.

The 650-mile race started Saturday morning in northeastern Alabama. Rain that fell steadily during the first three days boosted flows along the route, which follows the Coosa and Alabama Rivers.

The paddlers are on track to break last year’s record of five days, 23 hours and change, set by Joe Mann and Paul Cox, who are also leading this year’s race. The top boats could reach Fort Morgan before noon Thursday.

Hansen’s crew has focused on keeping the Austin paddler, who paddled the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River in 2014, as comfortable as possible. They have rigged a make-shift backrest for the 59-year-old social worker from Austin, scrubbed him down, treated his chafing and blisters, and let him sleep in their support van for three or four hours each night.

O’Donnell’s crew is working hard to keep the 61-year-old Florida athlete healthy, too.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if the body maintenance Salli and West have done is going to pay off,” said Robert Youens, one of Hansen’s crew members, on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650.

Hansen, apparently, has held on to his dry sense of humor through the ordeal.

“The Texas Water Safari isn’t long enough to know if your boat is truly comfortable,” Hansen joked early Wednesday, according to Youens. “This race is.”

The racers have passed the final portage. All that remains now is straight paddling, through the widest, most windswept section of the course.

Related: On Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650, Hansen and O’Donnell race neck and neck 

Perfect conditions for a fast race

Bobby Johnson and Rod Price at Alabama 650

Bobby Johnson and Rod Price glide through the water near Holy Ground Battlefield Park. On Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650, they were in second place. Photo by Terri D. Stokes/Courtesy Great Alabama 650

Thirteen boats lined up at the start of the race, now in its third year. Just one has dropped out.

Race director Greg Wingo credits Saturday and Sunday’s flood-inducing downpours for keeping the paddlers moving quickly.

“Normally there’s pretty much no flow, just a very, very slow river that’s dammed in many areas. (The rain) certainly helped to have a faster race for everyone, including Joe and Paul, who are on course to destroy their own record from last year,” Wingo said on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650.

“I cannot imagine the conditions will ever line up more perfectly than they did this year. This was at that perfect spot where we got so much rain it created really good flow, but a little more and we would have had dangerous conditions.”

A front that arrived last night has cooled things off. Temperatures are expected to dip into the low 50s tonight, chilly conditions for athletes who have been paddling for more than four days straight.

The duel continues on Day 5 of the Great Alabama 650

West and Salli Alabama 650

Salli O’Donnell, left, and West Hansen, right, have paddled within a few miles of each other throughout the Great Alabama 650. Photo courtesy Great Alabama 650

As for that neck and neck battle between Hansen and O’Donnell?

“I think it’s been a very traditional battle on the water, but the more interesting thing is the battle on the land between crews,” Wingo said. “They are always jockeying for better position and trying to outdo each other tactically. All Salli and West have to do is paddle.”

The determining factor will likely be how much rest each paddler gets and how much energy they can channel into piloting their boat.

The racers have been stopping to grab snippets of sleep along the way, but down time opens the door for teams to pass one another. As the final miles approach, some may choose to try to push through extreme fatigue.

For example, the second-place tandem team, Rod Price and Bobby Johnson, slept for just an hour Tuesday night, trying to make up time on the lead boat, Youens said.

“They’re just a time bomb waiting to blow up,” Youens said. “They’re trying to go without much sleep and they’re going to explode.”

All the racers tend to sleep for longer stretches as the race goes on, said Wingo, the race director, but the last 100 miles make some of them push the limits.

“There’s a juggling act of feeling like you need a break but seeing light at end of tunnel and not wanting to stop,” Wingo said.

To complicate matters, the last section of the race is when the racers need to stay most focused. The paddlers must navigate an area at the head of Mobile Bay where the river splits into channels. Then they reach the wide, wind-exposed stretches of Mobile Bay. The final 18 miles, where paddles cross the bottom of the bay, is typically the slowest section of the race.

“Conditions can change quickly in the bay and if you are a little foggy in the brain, that can be an issue,” Wingo said. “I certainly encourage crews to really stay hyper focused on how their racers are doing when they are in the bay.”

Follow the live race tracker here.

Salli at ferry

Salli O’Donnell cruises by Gee’s Bend Ferry. Photo by Holly Grace/Courtesy Great Alabama 650

 

 

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West Hansen and Salli O’Donnell neck and neck on Day 4 of Great Alabama 650

West Hansen and Salli O’Donnell neck and neck on Day 4 of Great Alabama 650

Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650

Lizet Alaniz, left, and Max Dugas, center, assist paddler West Hansen at a fuel stop on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650. Photo by Rob Byrd

Solo competitors West Hansen and Salli O’Donnell were paddling side by side again Tuesday afternoon, tied for second place overall on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650.

The two veteran endurance paddlers – both leading their classes – were about two-thirds of the way through the 650-mile race, with about 435 miles of river behind them as of 5 p.m. The race starts in northeastern Alabama and finishes at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay.

The first three days of the race, the 13 boats that entered faced a deluge of water, the aftermath of storms that have caused flooding across the state. The rains, though, have boosted flows along the route, which follows the Coosa and Alabama Rivers as they snake from north to south. The field, now down to 12 boats, is about 10 hours ahead of last year’s pace.

West Hansen on Day 4

West Hansen takes a break during Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650. Photo by Rob Byrd

Hansen and O’Donnell are chasing a tandem team paddled by last year’s winners, Joe Mann and Paul Cox, who finished the 2020 race in just under six days.

Related: Current Events His Way: West Hansen on paddling

This year’s rain-fueled, fast-moving water will likely mean a faster finish. Robert Youens, a member of Hansen’s support crew, predicts the top boats will reach Fort Morgan sometime during the day Thursday.

“Records are going to fall,” he said.

West and Max

West Hansen looks on as Max Dugas helps during a fuel break on Day 4 of the Alabama 650. Photo by Rob Byrd

But who crosses first will depend on how long each team stops along the way. Hansen has been sleeping three or four hours each night. The racers strategically try to pass while their opponents are down. But it’s tricky – they need the rest to keep paddling.

Related: Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650

“It’s all going to be about sleep cycles from this point forward,” Youens said.

Before sunrise on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650, the teams paddled under the storied Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the brutal beatings of civil rights marchers during the 1965 march for voting rights. They glided through early morning fog, but the rain is less widespread today. Highs Wednesday and Thursday are predicted to hover in the 70s.

Challenges on Day 4 of the Great Alabama 650

Hansen’s support crew is treating the paddler for chafing on the butt and, more severely, his back. “It’s ugly,” Youens said. “But on a scale of 10, with 10 being out of the race, this is a six.”

Hansen is also has a blister on his right hand. His team scrubbed him down in the shower last night. “He’s physically challenged right now but mentally there,” Youens said.

The race includes portages that the support crews ferry the racers around. Hansen rides with support crew member Max Dugas during those stretches.

“We talk about everything but the race,” Dugas said. “His mental game is on.”

Who will win?

Hansen’s paddling resume is extensive. He led an expedition down the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River two years later. He’s finished the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile race from Spring Lake in San Marcos to the Texas coast, 21 times, and has wins at the Missouri River 340.

“I have good feelings about West achieving his goal of finishing before Salli. I feel good about it,” Youens said.

But they’re not done yet. The race ends with a slog through a massive tidal delta, where the paddlers will face slack water and a long, wind-exposed swathe of water.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hansen still leads men’s solo race on Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650

Hansen still leads men’s solo race on Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650

 
Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650

West Hansen stops to meet his crew Monday morning on Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650. Photo by Robert Youens

The rain stopped, the sun came out, and West Hansen hung onto the men’s solo lead on Monday, Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650 paddling race.

By 5 p.m. Monday, last year’s winners, the tandem team of Joe Mann and Paul Cox, had taken a 40-mile overall lead in the event, which starts in northeastern Alabama and finishes at Fort Morgan on the Gulf Coast. Solo racer Salli O’Donnell of Florida was second, with West Hansen of Austin, also racing solo, less than a mile back. A tandem boat paddled by Rod Price and Bobby Johnson was not far behind.

Hansen has paddled almost 300 miles of the 650-mile course. With such a close field, exact position doesn’t mean much now. Teams will stop periodically to rest, and those that take the shortest breaks will gain an advantage.

“Salli looked like hell. West looked like hell,” Robert Youens, a member of Hansen’s support team, said this morning. Hansen had gotten about two and a half hours of sleep in the team’s air-conditioned support vehicle. He described the paddler as “stoic and focused.”

By this afternoon, Hansen’s spirits and condition seemed even better. He barely slowed just before 5 p.m. to pick up water, sunscreen, glow sticks and a headlamp from his crew. He turned down an offer of fried chicken. He’s getting his calories mainly through liquid nutrition and electrolyte supplements, with the occasional handful of Fritos, bite of sandwich, or trail mix tossed in.

“Let’s do this,” he said as he paddled away from shore.

Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650

West Hansen talks to his wife Lizet Alaniz on Day 2 of the Great Alabama 650. Photo by Barbara Hansen Edington

Weather on Day 3 of the Great Alabama 650

Heavy rain has caused flooding around Alabama, and support crews are dealing with muddy portages and impassable roads. After two days of near-constant rain, the sun came out and temperatures warmed to 89 today, allowing the team to spread out and dry some of the soggy gear. The forecast calls for decreasing chances of rain, with high temperatures around 80 until Wednesday, when the high drops to 73 degrees. Thursday looks sunny and cool.

“This river is hauling,” Youens said. “The river’s up really big.”

Hansen passed a 7-mile stretch that typically includes rapids last night, but the water was flowing at 12,000 cubic feet per second and the whitewater was washed out.

Last year’s winners finished the 2020 race in just over five days and 23 hours. Youens predicted the fast-moving water would mean a new record this year. If he’s right, the top boats will finish sometime Thursday.

Hansen is switching boats as the race unfolds. He had been in a fast, sit-inside kayak, but he’s switched back to a C1 canoe typical of boats raced in the Texas Water Safari. It’s got a higher back seat.

“It may not be quite as fast as the other boat, but we know comfort makes a difference,” Youens said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if because of that comfort he gains time.”

So far, the support teams of the leading boats are cooperating, but that could change as the teams get closer to the finish.

“It’s the caginess of the game. Eventually this chumminess is going to fall apart because they’re racers,” Youens said. “We just don’t know where.”

West Hansen the Great Alabama 650

West Hansen on Day 2 of the Great Alabama 650. Photo by Wallace Bromberg Jr.

 

 

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What’s biltong? A less sweet, higher protein type of beef jerky

What’s biltong? A less sweet, higher protein type of beef jerky

biltong

Apex Protein Snacks makes biltong and meat sticks. Pam LeBlanc photo

Sunday’s trip to Inks Lake State Park provided the perfect opportunity to test out an array of meat snacks made by Apex Protein Snacks.

The company makes meat sticks and “biltong,” a drier, more shredded and less sweet version of beef jerky.

My initial reaction to the biltong, a type of dried, cured meat that originated in South Africa? Not enough flavor. Too cardboardy. But the snacks might make good fuel on a long-distance backpacking trip, when you need protein, but sweet stuff might sour your stomach.

Looking for craft-style non-alcoholic beer? Try Athletic Brewing Company’s lineup

Apex bills its products as “Food Fit for Adventure.” I tried two flavors of biltong – spicy peri peri and mesquite BBQ. Per 1 ounce serving, the biltong had 90 calories, 2 grams of fat and 16 grams of protein.

By comparison, Jack Link’s beef jerky has 80 calories, 1 gram of fat and 11 grams of protein. But the ingredient panel for Jack Link’s jerky included sugar and brown sugar – two ingredients that don’t make an appearance on the Apex product.

In a nutshell, the Apex biltong had more protein and less sugar.

I also sampled a few meat sticks, which I liked better, although they still didn’t have enough punch for my taste buds. The original flavor had 90 calories, 11 grams of protein and 0 grams of sugar. The 1.5-ounce stick felt less greasy than some of the other brands I’ve tried, too.

The meat sticks sell online for $29.99 for a box of 12, although they’re running a $24.99 special right now. A 2.25-ounce bag of biltong costs $7.99.

A portion of proceeds goes to the company’s non-profit Kids in the Outdoors organization, which helps bring outdoor experiences to underprivileged youth.

 

About Pam

I’m Pam LeBlanc. Follow my blog to keep up with the best in outdoor travel and adventure. Thanks for visiting my site.

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