Most of the 4.7 million yearly visitors to Grand Canyon National Park only stay a few hours to peer from gated overlooks into the mile-deep, 18-mile wide canyon. During the 2015-16 holiday break, Green Mountain College professors Andrew G. Bentley (adventure education) and John Van Hoesen (environmental studies) led 11 students down 225 miles of the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. They used oar-powered whitewater rafts to pass through the remote heart of the park for 21 straight days.
Every day the group floated 10-15 miles downriver. They encountered significant bone-shaking whitewater rapids that if approached haphazardly, are known for capsizing watercraft including Lava Falls, Horn Creek, Upset, and Sockdolager. Students learned key characteristics of whitewater river features, assessed risk management of group travel both on and off the river, and practiced basic whitewater raft operation. The canyon is a stunning example of many geologic concepts and the group lived in an environment where plate tectonics, varying depositional patterns, weathering, and fluvial erosion have created an international treasure. The group learned about the cultural history of the canyon through visits to 1,000-year-old archeology sites with pictographs, petroglyphs, pottery sherds, and granaries, all of which were only accessible by the river.
“The experience was unique because the group was completely self-sufficient once they started the trip, and henceforth over the entire 21-days,” said Andrew Bentley. “They piloted their own boats through the canyon with no roads, few trails, and zero amenities.” According to Andrew, the region was one of the last mapped areas of the continental United States. Traveling the canyon requires specialized equipment and skills to protect both the fragile nature of the arid ecosystem, and its travelers. Accommodations were simple backpacking style tents set up along the riverbank.
To transport the 16-person group, personal dry bags with clothing and equipment, food for 21-days, and associated camp gear, the group used 3 inflatable whitewater rafts, each 18’ in length, a 16’ inflatable cataraft (a raft made from two pontoons connected by a sturdy frame), a 15’ enclosed whitewater dory (a large hard hulled boat with watertight compartments), two hardhulled personal kayaks and one inflatable kayak. Each raft contained a food cooler hefty enough for 200 pounds of fresh food, and additional dry boxes to store fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, and snacks. Group members took turns learning to use an elaborate commercial guide-type kitchen to prepare delicious meals each day. It included three counter-height aluminum tables, a large, four-burner, gas stove similar to those in modern kitchens, and a wash basin system modeled after restaurant kitchens. In addition to raft guide skills and canyon geology concepts, group members practiced a variety of culinary preparation skills.
Students in attendance included Anya Beale, Chloe Bertera, Katie Bode, Maddie Brown, Emily Coleman, Shannon Currie, Alex Howard, Kyle Kolesnikoff, Cullen MacAndrew, Zach Peterson, Cecile Walsh. Also attending were three professional colleagues invited by Professor Bentley including: Chris Moon, William Pearson, and Zach Thomason.
Check out the photos from the trip here.