The Grand Canyon, Solo

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River has seen a few innovative river trips recently, but few have gone viral like this September’s solo “R-1” trip by Montana’s David Roberts. With over 150,000 views, perhaps you’ve seen the video, below. Here’s the basics: a 16-day trip at the end of August, 280 miles of river, alone, single-blade paddling a small raft (hence the R-1 label). The endeavor is impressive since paddling a fully loaded raft by oneself is unconventional, and certainly unheard of on such a long trip.

There’s other factors that make R-1-ing unusual. To start, paddle strokes are only taken on one side. This makes it very difficult to build up speed, making the craft especially vulnerable in waves. What’s more, the lack of paddle power also renders it virtually impossible to make downstream progress with an upstream wind. While in rapids, Roberts had to be ready to throw his weight downstream into waves on the raft’s “high-side,” a technique used copiously in his journey down the Canyon. R-1 paddling in big water also increases the risk of separation from the craft; upping the stakes when alone. Committing to this type of trip required quite a bit of planning and preparation, both things that Roberts delivered in spades.

David Roberts at Lees Ferry, excited to begin the journey. Photo courtesy of David Roberts. All images courtesy of manufacturers

Roberts is a planner, and he attributes much of that to living with bipolar disorder. He’s very open about his diagnosis, noting its manifestation in “the driving forces” of passion and calculation. These qualities led Roberts to detailed trip preparations. He had never boated the Grand before, but he took full advantage of Google Earth to scout every rapid, side-hike, and camp. In the end he packed over 700 pages of information. This planning gave Roberts an encyclopedic knowledge of the river that would likely rival a Canyon guide. The video might seem like a crazy, harebrained ride, but that’s far from the truth.

We caught up with Roberts to get the full story.

Canoe & Kayak: Where did this interest in R-1 paddling begin?
David Roberts: It started in the fall 2013 when I headed down to the Gauley. I took my 10-foot raft and frame with oars. I spent the first weekend perched at Pillow Rock watching boat after boat come through. After two or three days of observing at this spot I knew there was no way I was going to row a 10-foot raft down the Upper Gauley. That’s when I saw my first R-1. Most guides like myself have hopped in a large raft with just one paddle to maneuver it around the put-in eddy, but that is about it. That season I saw 10-, 12-, and 14-foot rafts being R-1ed through Pillow Rock. At that moment I saw the potential for me to connect the dots and get to the point where I could return to the Gauley and R-1 my own raft. For the next 20 days in West Virginia I ditched the frame and spent all my time on Class II stretches of the New River testing out my J-stroke. On my last day of boating I solo R-1ed the Lower New River.

When did you know you wanted to R-1 the Grand Canyon? 
It was more of a know-ing. I knew it was going to happen as the gears of desire started to turn when I first saw the Colorado River from Plateau Point in 2013. That was the first time I ever saw the Grand Canyon and glimpsed one of its iconic rapids. I felt like an eagle, a thousand feet up from the river bottom, scanning every feature. If you can make out waves and holes from half a mile away they must be big. That rapid was Horn.

The Canyon has a way of making boaters feel small. Did any particular rapids give you pause? 
Horn was on my mind ever since I first saw it from Plateau Point. The long rapids such as Hance or Lava did not concern me as much as the quick and nasty ones with big holes. The river wants to go where the big holes are. That’s why they made me the most nervous. Every rapid was like clockwork: Scan the horizon line way off in the distance, and complete the puzzle by taking out the three or four sheets of paper from the library of 700 that would accompany me down the river. I would look at the black and white Google images that showed where large holes and river tongues were positioned.

Horn is just below Phantom Ranch and unless someone is hiking in to replace a member of your rafting crew, no camping is allowed until after Horn. This meant that Horn was my last rapid that evening, and light was running out as the Canyon began to shadow. Running rapids solo at dusk was intriguing but risky. The window for error was much slimmer. Becoming separated from my boat could mean clinging to the rocks or sitting tight until daybreak for the next couple of trips to pass through that point.

Running Horn was quite the moment. I definitely thought about seeing this rapid for the first time. I pulled in just above the entrance but was cliffed out as my boat sat in the only eddy. I turned to my GoPro and explained that I was not able to scout this rapid. With nothing to see but white mist spitting up at the horizon, and nothing more to say I pulled into the current. It was time to run it.

Roberts crashing through a wave in Crystal. Photo courtesy of David Roberts. Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

What type of preparation did you do for the trip? 
I have been R-1 surfing at Missoula’s Brennan’s Wave since 2013. This has been paramount in my ability to handle an R-1 in waves and hydraulics. Living two hours away from Missoula, I would frequent this wave twice a week and even get out a couple times a month during the winter. I also trained on the Wenatchee and Skykomish rivers since I guided on them for a few years, and felt comfortable tagging big hydraulics on these familiar rivers.

Were there ever doubts in your mind about the trip?
On the way to Washington state to train on big waves I ran the Main Payette at high water. It was my third time down that stretch. The last time was over 10 years ago at lower water, and I remembered it as an easy outing. Right out of the gate I tagged a small wave-hole and got tossed from my boat. My boat surfed and was now quite a ways behind me. Even with the help of a kayaker paddling me against the current it took three minutes for the raft to catch up. I instantly thought: Well, looks like I am not going to run the Grand. I learned a lot from that experience.

When getting tossed by the wave I knew my boat was going to flip so instead of holding onto it on the way over I let go and fell out hoping to grab the perimeter line on the other side of the raft as I hit the water. This was a strategy I used when surfing my boat because I could more quickly pull myself in the boat that was still upright and get to shore for the next surf. I would get separated occasionally and have to swim for my boat. That was just part of it. After this incident I changed the way I ran big waves. I paddled to set up, shifted my weight to smash through, and always had one or two hands going for the rope prior to a potential flip.

How many times did you flip in the Grand Canyon? What was the recovery like?
When the boat flips over it is very important to be prepared and have had practice. What I have learned over this last boating season is to stay relaxed and aware. On the Grand I was able to hang on to the boat each of the three times I flipped. After the boat leveled and my head came to the surface I would take two to three seconds make sure my feet were up at the surface and my grip was solid on my boat. It was only with this methodical approach that I was able to scan downstream and assess how turbulent it would be to begin to climb on top of my boat and flip it over. I had two belly straps that ran under my boat to make it easier to climb back on top. My boat was small and compact, so all I had to do was kneel on the boat and pull on the belly strap. Recovery took 15 seconds, 21 seconds, and 29 seconds for each of my flips.

What did the solo aspect add to the trip for you?
Being solo kept me safe down there. With regard to my mental health that meant sleeping on my own schedule, and therefore avoiding the pressure of not being able to sleep well. When I hiked I focused on my steps similar to a three-point rock climbing technique. Because I was by myself I really made sure that every task, no matter how small, was just as important as the key paddle strokes through a rapid like Horn. This was the focus for the entire trip. No stone unturned. I really focused on, ‘slower is smoother, and smoother is faster.’ I never rushed.

Roberts enjoying the solitude and scenery of the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of David Roberts.

There’s a small group of people who solo the Grand Canyon often. Did you reach out to them for any advice, or was the experience totally new for you?
No. I did bounce it off my close river friends. Not necessarily to solicit their advice, but rather to match their reaction to my preparation. One would say, ‘That seems possible.’ Another said, ‘[What about] the wind?’ I was so lucky the water was like glass for the first eight days and never obnoxiously windy in the lower reaches.

What’s the next objective?
Surf more! I love surfing my raft. I am just starting to stay on a wave for awhile, and am working on some tricks like spins. Gauley season is still on my list of things to get back to.

— John Nestler is a C&K contributor whose film ‘Why Rush Through Paradise’ documents a solo 27-day journey through the Grand Canyon. Watch more of Roberts’s rafting antics and expeditions on his YouTube channel.


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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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