Divorce Boat in the Grand Canyon

“A successful team beats with one heart.”

— unknown author

John and Mary running “Satan’s Gut” with a divorce boat in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado river.

“My friend Gary has a permit for the Yampa River, and I’ve heard that it’s really good. Would you like to try a river trip?” I asked my girlfriend Mary.

“That sounds like fun,” she replied. “What will I ride in?”

“I have a two-person kayak, and the river starts out really easy, so I think that we’ll do just fine. It’s a really fun boat to paddle, and you can jump on a raft if you get too scared.”

Mary swimming in one of the incredible tributaries of the Colorado River.

We had only been dating for a few months, and she had never been on a river trip before. But she agreed to try, and we met our friends at the launch site.

The Topo-Duo is a two-person kayak that is great for teaching beginners the basics or allowing someone without any experience to enjoy Class III thrills. The paddling techniques are similar to guiding a two-person raft and require a team effort, but kayaks tip more easily than rafts, and the larger kayak is difficult to roll back up. They have often been called “divorce boats” because a lack of teamwork can jeopardize the health and well being of both partners.

My girlfriend had never kayaked before, which may have been an advantage. She trusted my judgment, and we paddled as a team.

The Yampa River run through Dinosaur National Monument was a very scenic desert trip with mostly Class I and II water. There were a couple of significant rapids halfway through, but the first two days were very easy, so we had sufficient time to practice.

Having two paddlers is a big advantage in flat water, so it was very easy to stay ahead of the rafts. We drifted very casually in the warm sunshine and enjoyed the magnificent scenery. Mary listened to my coaching, and we practiced moving the craft in and out of eddies and across the current. I could tell by her smile that she would soon be enjoying the same whitewater addiction that I had indulged for sixteen years. It was mid-June, and we camped in lush cottonwood groves, where orchestras of local songbirds serenaded us each morning.

The river was running at a fairly high level, and the waves and rapids grew in size. But our team effort kept the big boat straight and upright, and Mary’s smile grew bigger every mile.

Warm Springs Rapid was the only really significant drop on this section of river, but it could be quite challenging at certain flows, and the water level was high. We carefully scouted the rapid together and picked a line that went right through the middle of a very strong hydraulic feature. Mary agreed to the line, but somehow I don’t think that she fully realized the consequences of her decision.

“OK! Are you ready?” I asked, as we prepared to launch.

“I’m ready,” She replied, smiling.

“OK! Here we go. You’re probably gonna need those nose plugs,” I added, as we paddled the boat into the strong current, which was faster than it had looked from shore.

The first big wave submerged the front of the boat, but we broke through upright. Mary was laughing and shaking the water out of her eyes as we paddled onward into a giant breaking wave, which towered above us.

“Hold your breath!” I shouted, paddling very rapidly.

Mary suddenly disappeared into the froth, but the big, heavy boat plowed through like a freight train, and we emerged on the other side.

“Wow! That is one of the wildest things that I’ve ever done!” she said, a bit surprised. But she was smiling from ear to ear.

We finished the journey in very good spirits and started to plan some more adventures.

Westwater Canyon in eastern Utah was a very popular destination, and we enjoyed many wonderful trips there, including a 10,000 cfs voyage for Kevin Padden’s fiftieth birthday party. Everyone on the trip was betting against us, but we managed to stay upright and survived the journey with a new level of confidence.

One of our adventures was a seven day self-support trip down the class IV Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River, and we survived in style and had a wonderful time.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River was one of the best river trips in the world, so when I got an invitation to join a group there, we decided to take the infamous divorce boat. The voyage covered 230 miles and involved some big-water Class IV rapids, but we had four rafts to carry the gear, and we had the option of tying the kayak on a raft if the river was too challenging.

The journey started at a very busy Lee’s Ferry put-in, but the boats were quickly loaded, and soon, we were enjoying the pristine solitude of Marble Canyon. It was a fall trip, so the days were getting short, but the sun was warm, and the river wasn’t very crowded. We enjoyed a gourmet dinner in an empty paradise and slept soundly under a star-filled sky.

Day Two brought us to the Roaring Twenties, which can be very exciting at certain levels. This ten-mile section consisted of half a dozen drops that were usually filled with some giant rolling waves. The rapids were usually forgiving, but scouting was very difficult, so the captains of the rafts had to stand up and try to scout from the river.

We had recently paddled Westwater, and our confidence was high, so we bravely followed the rafts. The waves were bigger than anything that Mary had ever seen, and the water was very cold, but she quickly shook it out of her eyes and kept on smiling. The Topo-Duo is a large boat, and two paddlers can make it go very fast, but the person in the front — in this case, Mary — receives the full impact of any turbulent water.

We were splashing our way down a long string of giant waves when we spotted a huge rogue wave that was right in front of us. It was too late to change our line, so we straightened out the boat and paddled furiously, heading straight up the surging slope of the giant wave. The current was moving very fast, and when we reached the crest, the steep wave launched our boat into the air. The long boat stood delicately balanced on its stern for a brief moment, but it finally completed a perfect back-endo and came crashing down into the turbulent water.

We were suddenly upside-down in the cold, surging river, and I put my best effort into a strong sweep roll. I managed to get the boat back up, but Mary was gone, and the boat was full of water. Luckily, she soon emerged out of the swirling eddy line, and the other kayakers helped us get to shore and drain the boat.

“Brrr! That water is really cold,” she said. But she jumped right back into the boat.

The rapids of the Grand Canyon were exciting, and the scenery was fabulous, but hiking was probably the main attraction. The river offered access to hundreds of hidden treasures, and we planned at least one hike per day.

Silver Grotto was an amazing natural water slide through a smooth, slot canyon, and our laughter filled the air with pleasant echoes as we slid back down to the Colorado River.

A few days later, we scrambled to the top of Chuar Lava Hill from Carbon Creek and found a pleasant summit with fantastic views of the river.

The rapids intensified as we dropped into the inner gorge, but our skills increased, and we both continued to enjoy the thrill of the big whitewater. Then we reached Granite Rapid.

A careful scout on river left revealed a long tongue dropping into a series of powerful V-waves that ended in a nasty hydraulic feature right next to a vertical rock wall. The rapid looked very challenging, but there was a clean line, and we carefully planned our route.

The Topo-Duo could go very fast and was also very good at breaking through big waves, behaving somewhat like a freight train in the strong hydraulics. Our planned route started on the right side of the tongue and headed left as we gained momentum. The goal was to break through the powerful wave on the left side of the monstrous hydraulic feature and cruise into the relatively calm eddy below it.

We felt the usual tension and uttered the usual good luck wishes as we eased out of the eddy and entered into the main stream. We wanted to start on the right side of the tongue, but the river was very wide, and it was difficult to judge exactly where we wanted to go. We thought we had a perfect line, and broke through the powerful wave in style, but the view on the other side was not what we had expected.

We had missed the clean line by about ten feet and plunged into the left side of the giant hole. The kayak was forced under in a roiling mass of turbulent water, but some strong braces kept us upright, and we managed to stay away from the forbidding wall. As we’d hoped, our heavy boat barged through the intense hydraulics unscathed, and we thought that we had survived the maelstrom. But before we had a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, a surging eddy line knocked us over, and we were unable to roll back up.

Fortunately, even though the water was cold, we reached the bottom quickly and were able to get to the shore easily. The rafts also had some very exciting runs, including one violent crash into the vertical wall and a missing pilot, but we managed to get through the run without breaking any eggs and camped in another paradise.

Granite put a dent in our confidence, and the next few days were a bit challenging. Even so, our teamwork never faltered, and we gradually regained our stature.

About halfway through the trip, we talked another couple into trading boats with us for the afternoon. I wanted to catch a few of the incredible waves that the Grand Canyon had to offer, and Mary was happy to ride in a raft. The other couple were both kayakers, and they each had their own ideas about how to paddle. They nearly tipped over crossing a small eddy line, and their relationship was facing serious danger, so we quickly jumped back into the boat. They only lasted about a mile in our boat.

A young desert bighorn ram ran along a riverside ledge as we drifted slowly through a majestic gorge in the lower canyon. He appeared to be in a very big hurry, but suddenly stopped to bash a tree with his horns. Then, he stared timidly at the large old ram that seemed to be the dominant member of the herd.

A small group of ewes stood nearby and watched as two very large rams slammed their horns in combat. The noise echoed through the canyon, and the combatants looked a bit stunned, but they quickly recovered and slammed their horns again. The young ram watched in awe and bashed another tree, but he decided to stay away from the main battleground for another year.

Our days were filled with exciting whitewater and scenic hikes up the many side canyons of the remarkable river, but the length of the days was changing very rapidly, and the nights were very cool.  Luckily, park rules during the fall allowed us to gather firewood, so we enjoyed some very pleasant evenings around warm fires.

The rapids eased in the lower canyon, but there was one last hurrah that prevented us from getting too relaxed. The infamous Lava Falls waited patiently downstream, and we spent a nervous night camped above it.

A careful scout revealed a powerful V-wave that was very hard to miss and threatened to capsize any kayak that entered its vortex. The chances of getting through the V-wave upright in the Topo-Duo looked really slim, and it would be a long and nasty swim to the bottom of the rapid, so we searched desperately for another option.

The water level was only about 5,000 cfs, and there was a sneak route on river left that looked reasonable, so we carefully scouted from the other bank. The route involved a very technical maze of rocks and hydraulic features, but the water was not as powerful as the main current, so we decided to give it a try.

By the time we finally launched our craft into the turbulent water, the rafts had already reached the bottom and were celebrating very loudly. We had carefully planned a route and tried to visualize the key landmarks.

“Paddle hard! We need to get on the right side of that big rock!” I advised, as we stroked together in the strong current.

Our teamwork paid off, and we just barely made the line. But the hydraulic feature next to the rock was bigger than it had looked from shore, and it caught the edge of our giant kayak. We managed to stay upright, but the hole spun our kayak backwards, and we struggled to hold our line as we bounced through a rocky channel. Some desperate strokes and a strong brace freed us from a near disaster when the boat nearly broached on a large rock, and we continued on downstream.

Almost immediately, a large hole that we hadn’t seen from shore appeared in front of us, and we somehow managed to straighten out the boat and paddle through it. It wasn’t quite as strong as the V-wave, but Mary got a huge splash of icy cold water. The rapid ended as quickly as it had begun, and we rushed downstream to celebrate with our friends.

The trip ended all too soon, and we wandered home with some great memories. But, our team efforts had also made our relationship much stronger. Surviving the Grand Canyon in the infamous divorce boat had given us a new level of confidence, and we eagerly planned some new adventures. 

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