Canoes are North America’s original and quintessential river-running craft. Native people used them to move swiftly through forested country, linking rivers and lakes with a vast network of portage trails. Those routes opened the continent to the fur trade, and later served generations of enthusiasts who spent long summer weeks paddling and portaging their way to wilderness bliss. Canoes pioneered American whitewater as well, which is why it’s remarkable that the first known self-supported journey through the Grand Canyon in tandem canoes may have come just weeks ago, in 2020.
The Grand has its own rich boating culture built around wooden dories and inflatable rafts, and it’s evolved over the decades to a state of glorious excess. Multi-day raft trips on the Grand and other big Western rivers are heavy, gravity-powered affairs equipped with Dutch ovens, metal firepans, rows of steel rocket boxes, propane blasters, and case after case after case of beer. Portaging is unheard of. You don’t shoulder an 18-foot oar rig; you haul it behind an F-250.
Quite a different approach from canoe-tripping, especially as practiced in the north woods where the crux is more often a long carry—or the bugs—rather than powerful rapids with names like Lava or Crystal.
These two worlds finally met when a group of Canadian canoe guides pulled a winter permit and decided to run the river not in rafts or whitewater kayaks, but in tandem tripping canoes. They may be the first group ever to run the Grand Canyon in such craft without raft support or resupply (more on that later), though setting a record was the farthest thing from their minds.
“We didn’t start with the idea of canoeing the Grand Canyon. We just had a chunk of time and wanted to do something fun, so we applied for the permit,” said Willa Mason, 22, who organized the trip with Caleb Roberts, 25. They missed out on the main lottery and a cancellation draw, then scored a last-chance cancellation in October 2019—less than three months before their launch. “We knew we could rent rafts,” Mason said, “but we’re canoe guides. We decided just to do it in canoes.”
Half of the eight-person crew are canoe guides with Black Feather, a company specializing in classic northern rivers like the Nahanni and Coppermine, and three others are experienced whitewater canoeists in their own right. Most had cut their teeth on the smaller, rockier rivers of Ontario and Quebec and graduated to the more continuous whitewater of the Northwest Territories. (The eighth member, 21-year-old Alex Guimont, is a whitewater kayaker who had never done a tandem canoe trip. “It’s all about cross-current momentum and transferrable skills,” he said.)
None of them had canoed anything remotely like the Colorado’s massive pool-drop rapids, which was just the point, Mason said. “The Grand Canyon was different because you’re dealing with boils and big waves, but not so much with rocks. And often there’s a pool at the end to collect your stuff.”
Roberts had done the Grand in a raft the previous year and realized that while periodic yard sales would be almost unavoidable, they’d always have a chance to regroup at the bottom. “You’re not worried about your canoe going for miles and miles and miles before you can catch it,” Mason said.
Like all Grand Canyon boaters, they rigged to flip. They covered the open canoes with North Water canvas spray decks, and packed their gear in dry bags and the blue plastic barrels that are as ubiquitous on Canadian rivers as ammo boxes on rafting trips. All four canoes were Prospectors, a classic tripping design known more for all-around versatility than whitewater performance. The team ran them through every rapid in the Canyon.
“It was such a treat not have portages,” Mason said. “Since we all work as guides this was the first personal trip for most of us in four or five years. We wanted to sleep in, read books, go for hikes.”
The team maxed out their time in the canyon, ultimately taking 26 days to run the 279 miles from Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry. Such extended stays in the Canyon are only allowed in the winter, which suited the crew just fine. That’s when they have time off from their summer guiding gigs, and the odds of winning the permit lottery can be as much as 100 times better for winter launches. “You’re also allowed to have campfires, which was a huge benefit for warmth, and there are no commercial trips in the winter,” Mason said. “That made a huge difference in terms of how many people are on the river.” Over their 26-day trip, the canoeists saw only eight other groups, and had their pick of campsites. The weather was fine by Canadian standards, though the deep canyon and short days made sunlight a precious commodity. Sometimes they paddled across the river to bask in a pool of sunlight.
The canoeists prepped all their own meals, keeping three dehydrators running for weeks on end in the living room of Mason’s parents in Chelsea, Quebec. Though they’d done dozens of one- and two-week trips, none of the team had lived 26 days out of their canoes without resupply. Still, they never went hungry. “I wouldn’t change a thing about the food we brought, except maybe to bring a little more coffee,” said Roberts. “We rationed for a while, and then realized we had enough. That was a good day.”
Using an outfitter to prepare their meals was out of the question. Their canoes had no space for coffin coolers or other Grand Canyon accoutrements, or even a proper groover for that matter. “That was one of the things that took the most figuring out,” Mason said. “People would say, “Oh, that’s so cool you’re going to run the Grand Canyon in canoes . . . How are you going to poop?” Their innovative solution involved plastic bags, a PVC aiming aid, and 20-liter olive barrels.
The whitewater went surprisingly well. The pairs switched from time to time, but kept the same partners for the big rapids. Mason and her stern-partner, Roberts, have developed a notoriously chatty river-running style, discussing lines and sometimes changing plans on the fly. The approach served them well through the first 98 miles to Crystal, one of the Canyon’s landmark rapids.
“Up to that point, we’d been having clean lines and just feeling really good in the boat,” Roberts said, “and we’d started joking about back-ferrying because it’s such a classic canoe-tripping method.” The technique involves an artful combination of back-paddling and boat angle to slide sideways across the current, skirting above obstacles lurking just downstream. It’s a neat trick on small boreal streams, but not part of the regular toolkit on big western rivers like the Colorado.
They’d started on river right, planning to split a pair of breaking waves when Roberts called the audible. “We said, hey, there’s a decent window left of the wave, let’s go left,” he said. “We thought we can’t go left because there’s another bigger hole downstream, and then we said well, we can just back-ferry that hole!”
The result of that decision takes up the last 120 seconds of Robert’s delightful video about the adventure, which captures the goofiness, joy and big whitewater that defined the trip. No spoilers here, though classic rock fans will note the backing track switches abruptly from Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” to the Beatles’ “Help!”
In all, the four canoes dumped 11 times. The crew developed a novel style of corralling their boats, scrambling aboard the upside-down craft and rodeo-ing them to the slackwater to collect the pieces. In this way Mason, Roberts, Guimont, Jérôme Côté Jacob, Ayden Dermenjian, Margaret Fahey, Robert Norton, and Christian Rolston navigated the entire canyon—likely becaming the first party to complete the trip in tandem canoes without raft support or resupply.
Roberts said they’re still not sure of that distinction. They’ve heard rumors of a group of canoeists who self-supported the canyon in the late 1980s, and are hoping to learn more. “The idea of being first is such a small factor of why the trip was important to us,” Mason said, though the question has led them on a fascinating voyage through Grand Canyon history, guided by river-running historian Tom Martin.
According to Martin’s extensive database of notable canyon descents, the first decked canoes—think fiberglass kayaks with single-bladed paddles—through the Grand were part of a raft-supported descent in 1968. Jim Raleigh, Mark Fawcett and John Sweet (he of Sweet’s Falls on the Gauley) ran Lava on that trip.
John Goodwin and Albert Woods made the first tandem open-canoe descent in 1971, running from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek with raft support. Jim Shelander made the first OC-1 (solo open canoe) descent in 1979. Nancy McCleskey made the first female OC-1 descent in the late 1980s, and Janet Smith and Bunny Johns were the first all-woman team to run the Grand in an open tandem canoe, in 1995. These days, solo whitewater canoeists regularly run the Grand in good style, as James Weir demonstrated in a 2017 open-boat descent.
The really interesting history surrounds those pioneers who didn’t make it all the way down, Martin said. Start with the intrepid John Wilbur, who launched in 1904 in a canoe rigged with oars amidships and a steersman perched on the stern. “They ran that thing from Lees Ferry to Lava Falls, where they buried it. The water just destroyed it,” Martin said.
The duo hiked out and Wilbur came back in with a new partner at Pearce Ferry and ran the same kind of boat all the way down to the confluence of the Virgin River, now under Lake Meade. That was the first canoe descent of the Grand Canyon, though thanks to their Lava mishap they skipped 47 river miles and many of the most substantial rapids.
In 1953, Leslie Jones started downstream in a 14-foot aluminum canoe that he’d decked and outfitted with oarlocks. “They called him Buckethead Jones—a nickname he hated—because he put an 8mm movie camera on a football helmet with a bucket over it and a little window cut out,” Martin said. “He flipped upside down in Twenty-Four And A Half Mile Rapid, and was going down to Davy Jones’s locker and he had to pop the strap on the thing to get back to the surface.” Jones continued, sans bucket, to Phantom Ranch and returned the following year to run the rest of the canyon.
Canoeing in the Grand Canyon is full of fascinating history, Martin said. Now to the list of paddling legends like Kruger, Sweet and Bunny Johns, Buckethead Jones and John Wilbur, we can add a goofy crew of Canadian river guides with their own links to canoeing history. Mason is the granddaughter of Bill Mason, author of Path of the Paddle and Canada’s foremost canoeing evangelist until his death in 1988. Mason thinks her conservationist grandfather would appreciate the trip she and her friends made through the Grand Canyon, not so much because it was a first but for the way it allowed them to experience one of North America’s iconic rivers.
“It was interesting to be on such a famous river in canoes, in the sense that we were generally a lot quieter than a raft group with 16 people, so we had really good wildlife sightings,” she said. “So I think in that way it really brought in aspects of a traditional canoe trip.”
Top Photo: Willa Mason (bow) and Caleb Roberts in Lava Falls. Photo by Alex Guimont