University of Nevada, Reno




Sailing into the Grand Canyon

By Richard 


RichardThe last powerboat passes us on its way out and we wave goodbye. He hollers "you are lucky." In a few minutes the vegetation along the river bank absorbs the wake, the din of the motor fades and the Canyon falls silent. With vodka gimlets and hors d’oeuvres at the ready, I watch the sunset with friends Tom and Susan. We are sitting in the cockpit of Alissa, my Catalina 25 #1123, anchored in the Colorado River, about 7 miles into the Grand Canyon. Tom’s Catalina 30 Spindrift II is riding her anchor about 75 feet behind Alissa. We watch as the setting sun plays out its symphony of shadow and color on the canyon walls.

This story starts in 1991 when with friends, I began talking about a trip up the river to see Columbine Falls, which are about two miles into the lower Granite Gorge. We found a few sailors who had been up to the falls, but none who had been further into the canyon or knew how much farther the river could be navigated in a sailboat.

Several years of drought had caused low flows in the Colorado and it had not been navigable beyond Gods Pocket, ten miles short of the Canyon. The winter of 1992-93 ended the drought and for the first time in years we could get through. From Hoover Dam to Columbine Falls Lake Mead is over 70 miles long with over 550 miles of shoreline; most of it in undeveloped back country, accessible only by boat. By February, the lake level was up to 1186 feet and we decided that a trip to the falls was possible.

When we arrived, we found a curtain of trees, cattails and brush that obscured our view. Except for an occasional glimpse through the trees, the falls could be better viewed from about a hundred yards down river through a pair of binoculars. We were disappointed and prepared to come about and head for home. Before we turned, I went forward and looked up river into the Canyon. I was struck by its beauty and I wondered if the river could be navigated just a few more miles. I also wondered what it would be like to anchor in the river and watch the sun rise and set.

During the spring and summer I shared with anyone who would listen, my dream of spending a night anchored in the Canyon. Tom caught the fever and we set a date. A four-day weekend at the end of September was selected. We would depart Thursday after work.

We departed Boulder Harbor at 1930 hours with winds of twenty knots out of the northeast, reaching at near hull speed headed for Boulder Canyon. As we passed Beacon Island, the winds eased to what the local weatherman calls variable 5-15 mph. (Translated that usually means calm winds and flat water.) We motored through the canyon using the moon and the lake’s excellent Navigation Aids to find our way out to the Virgin Basin; and at midnight we anchored behind Middle Point Island in 25 feet of water. The hour was late and it had been a very busy week. I was exhausted and sleep came quickly.

The wind gods were with us on Friday morning, fifteen knots from the north. We got under way and soon we were passing East Point. We stopped at Temple Bar Marina to top off fuel tanks and add a block of ice to the cooler. Temple Bar is the last habitation on this end of the lake and we would log over eighty miles before we return.

That afternoon we anchored at North Cove. Dinner conversation aboard Spindrift was about tomorrow and our night in the canyon. After one last check of the anchors, we went to our bunks early.

Saturday, the winds are variable 5-15 mph. We will motor. At 1030 we pass Gods Pocket and the depth sounder shows the bottom coming up quickly from 75 feet and the water is turning from azure to brown warning of our approach to the Mud flats. As we reach the Mud Flats the bottom comes up to12-15 feet.

In February, the channel across the mud flats was well marked by a line of reeds and cattails. All we had to do was keep it between the lines. Still we found depths of only five feet. Today the lake elevation is 1189 feet. The reeds are submerged and the water is the color of cappuccino. The NOAA chart warns of shifting sand bars so Tom and I stop to hold a conference. We agree that I will lead through the mud flats. Spindrift will follow far enough behind to stop safely should I run aground.

Alissa has a swing keel and requires seven feet with the keel down. If I run aground I will be able to lift my keel and escape the grip of the muddy bottom. Under that condition, Tom in his Catalina 30 would be in trouble. I had checked my depth sounder in the slip prior to departure and knew that my indicated error was one foot. I approached the flats slowly, one eye on the depth sounder. It shows twelve feet then suddenly eight feet. I quickly move to the right. Spindrift follows, the bottom drops away and now the reading is twelve feet. We repeat the above exercise several times during the next three miles as we search for the center of the wandering channel. Several power boats whiz past and I feel a slight twinge of envy as they pass over the shallow water with seeming abandon. Later when one of their skippers told us of his grounding, I was satisfied with the care we had exercised.

We arrive at Columbine Falls and drop anchor. After insuring anchors will hold and Tom is able to row his inflatable dinghy against the current, we locate the path to the falls. A fifteen minute hike and we are able to cool off in the pool below the falls and toast our success with cans of soda packed in by Susan.

Back on board we begin to motor deeper into the Canyon. We pass islands of shrubs and cattails. An occasional trout leaps to catch a snack and birds of many descriptions fly in and out of the reeds. The low hills of the Mud flats disappear behind a bend in the river and we are surrounded by the canyon walls which tower above the river for over three thousand feet. At a wide spot in the river the scenery seems to be particularly captivating and we move to the right and drop anchor.

This evening Alissa provides the seating and nature provides the entertainment. A frog croaks somewhere in the rushes and an egret flies by. It is not used to seeing boats here at this hour. As dusk approaches I sit and watch. The sun is behind the rim of the canyon and the color of the opposite wall changes in a rhythm of browns, oranges and reds. Beneath the keel the river churns at two knots, continuing the work of building the canyon.

I watch the sunrise with a cup of fresh coffee in hand and wave to the first power boat to shatter the quiet of the canyon. It is time to return to radios, telephones, TVs and whirring fax machines. I go forward to bring in the anchor and take one more look up the river. And I wonder: Can the river be navigated for a few more miles? What would it be like to spend two nights in the Grand Canyon? John Wesley Powell, in his log said it best:

"...But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge and I determine to go on."

The question is not will I return, but when will I return. Will I make the trip alone in Alissa or will you bring your Catalina to Lake Mead and let me show you the way across the Mud Flats? Mid-April to mid-May is a good time. The falls should have more water, the days will be warm and the nights cool.

Note: Since I wrote this article in 1993 I have returned to the canyon each year, leading a flotilla of sailboats. In May of 2000 I went upstream to Separation Rapids, the last set of rapids on the river and the spot where John Wesley Powell’s expedition separated. It is approximately 35 miles from the Canyon’s west entrance.

Originally published in 1993 in the Catalina Mainsheet.  Reprinted by permission of author.



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