Rafter recounts unusual Grand Canyon river trip

Starting out on the river trip.

Tom Martin has been rafting for some 50 years. Two winters ago, he and some friends took an unusual trip through the entire length of the Grand Canyon, and he shared his story in a presentation at the monthly Canyon Club meeting at Courtyard by Marriot in Page on July 15. 

Martin’s presentation was titled “Through the Grand Canyon on a Tule Reed Raft … are you nuts?” While rafting through the Grand Canyon is not unusual, doing so in a tule reed raft, similar to how Native Americans might have done so, is something that has never before been documented. 

Tule (schoenoplectus acutus) – which is found in Arizona, California and Nevada – has a thick, rounded green stem, about the diameter of a thumb at the water level. They grow between 3 and 10 feet tall, with long, grass-like leaves. Native American groups used tule to make baskets, bowls, mats, hats, clothing, duck decoys and even boats. The Pipa Aha Makav, Cocopah, Mojave and Gila tribes used tule reed boats.  

As Martin explained, the first boating excursions in the Grand Canyon occurred around 1300 years ago. In 1540, Spaniards named the Colorado River “El Rio de Las Balsas” (the river of boats). 

Martin and some friends, with the advice of Charles Kennard, came up with the design for the tule reed boat. They obtained a permit in the Blythe area to harvest the reeds along lower Colorado River. Laying them out and choosing the best strands, they tied the tule reeds together in long bundles, each wider at one end and tapering to a tip, “with lots of knots.”  

Lashing the bunches together, a sort of sit-on-top kayak started to form, with the stern quite a bit wider than the bow, which was curved slightly upward to stick out of the water.

Peter Brown, a tree ring researcher with prior Grand Canyon rowing experience but who had never operated a kayak before, agreed to skipper the unusual raft. Brown attached a seat, the only manufactured component on the raft, and used kayak paddles to make his way through the many rapids and occasional flat water.  Fiona Gormley was responsible for safety.  

Martin told the audience that “beaver eat the reeds like carrots,” so they had to be mindful of the animals.

The team started its 30-day expedition on December 30, 2020. Martin and a group of friends launched from the boat ramp at Lees Ferry under the skeptical eye of the park ranger on duty. She watched cautiously, and simply told them, “Don’t make it a habit.” There were other vessels that joined the raft, including a rescue kayak, a raft and a wooden dory.

They didn’t know if the tule raft would make it down the river, but down the river they went! At the end of each day, they would take the tule raft out of the water and prop it up on its large end to drain overnight, since the reeds tended to soak up water while in the river.

The raft made it through the first few rapids and, to their surprise, reached Phantom Ranch. Martin found the ranger on duty at Phantom Ranch and suggested that he might want to see the raft that had made it that far so there was no question about the accomplishment. He asked the ranger to send an email to the ranger at Lees Ferry and let her know they made it successfully to Phantom Ranch and intended to continue downstream.

The major rapids – such as Lava, Crystal, Granite and other famously challenging obstacles – were not as difficult to negotiate as expected and did not spell the end of the raft or the skipper.

On New Year’s Day, Brown added a small board to support the seat. By the end of the trip, the most damaged part of the raft was the nose, which no longer looked like a sort of elegant reed “feather duster,” having become blunter like the bow of a kayak. The only damage to the top of the raft was where Brown’s boots rubbed away some of the outer reeds, with no noticeable effect on handling. The nylon string used to tie the bunches of reeds held well.

Since it was December and January, the coldest part of the winter, Brown wore a dry suit the entire time he was on the raft.  Martin remarked that it was amazing how Brown’s hands seemed unaffected by the cold. The waters of the Colorado below Glen Canyon Dam are typically 45 degrees Fahrenheit year round, which must have felt warm at times compared to the mid-winter air temperatures.

The expedition was a success. The tule raft traveled 280 miles, 2 miles past the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. The team took the raft, still able to continue the journey down the river, and the other vessels out at Pierce Ferry on January 28, 2021. 

The non-profit Canyon Club of Page holds monthly presentations that are free and open to the public. According to the group’s website, “The purpose of the Canyon Club is to actively pursue improvements to the community in which we live. Through our involvement in our community we will create an atmosphere where local citizens can participate in activities that will enrich their lives and the lives of those living in this community.” Those interested in joining or attending the monthly presentations should contact the Canyon Club at [email protected]

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