In A Grueling 277-Mile Kayaking Of The Colorado River, Roman Ryder
Went From Being “Totally Scared” To Having “The Best Feeling”
When it came time to kayak the Granite Rapids of the Colorado River, Roman Ryder was awed, and more than a bit intimidated. Looking ahead at the rapids, he wasn’t at all sure he knew how to read them. “I didn’t trust myself totally,” he says.
He gathered the leaders of his kayaking team and they did what they always do before every huge rapids. They scouted it.
This time, there was a problem. The leaders disagreed about how the river was running. It wouldn’t be possible to agree to a single, unified approach to negotiating the rapids.
The results were dramatic. Once the group moved into the rapids, three kayakers in a row flipped in the wild waters. Ryder watched it all, and his unease grew.
“I’m getting absolutely worked,” he recalls. Instead of giving in to the growing fear, Ryder decided “just to hang out.”
It was a wise choice. Ryder could see he was approaching a hole. Holes are one of the water formations kayakers most respect. “There’s not a lot of air” in a hole, says Ryder. “Waves come over you. You just catch breaths when you can.”
Ryder had a few seconds to patch together a strategy for approaching the hole. “I knew it was coming.”
He quickly made a decision and acted on it. In the midst of the rapids, he got out of his kayak and tried to swim in such a way that he would avoid the hole. “I wanted to get one good breath if I went into it.”
Thousands Of Pounds Of Gear
The long, hard trip to the Granite Rapids had begun on March 26 of this year, when Ryder flew from Lake Charles into Flagstaff, Ariz. At the same time, the gear for his kayaking expedition down the 300 miles of the Colorado River that flow through the Grand Canyon was being rafted in from Arkansas.
Although Ryder had long dreamed of kayaking the Colorado passage, he’d believed such a trip would never be possible. There was a backlog of 14 years for those trying to get a permit to run a private trip down the river.
But all that changed in 2006, when the National Park Service moved to a weighted lottery system for kayaking trips. Five years later, Ryder got this email:
Thank you for submitting an application in the Grand Canyon National Park noncommercial river trip lottery. We are pleased to inform you that your lottery application was successful and we have scheduled a standard trip for you to launch from Lees Ferry on March 26, 2012.
“Not only had I won a permit,” says Ryder, “but I had received my first choice for a launch date. I could hardly believe it. I had dreamed of paddling the Grand Canyon since I first started kayaking, but never truly believed I would get a chance.”
For his great excursion, Ryder put together a team of 17. “I invited kayakers I knew to watch out for me,” he says. He was particularly keen to bring along a friend who’d once shown him how to navigate the whitewater in Salmon River in Oregon. Ryder understood the scope of the challenge that awaited him.
“We had a big group,” says Ryder. “Normally you don’t see that [on these sorts of kayaking trips]. It makes it easier. We had thousands of pounds of gear on each raft.”
These thousands of pounds of gear were loaded onto 10 rafts. There were five kayaks.
A lot of the weight of the gear must have come from the ice required to keep food cold for 18 people. Although it was only March, temperatures in the Grand Canyon were already climbing into the 90s in the day.
As a kayaker, Ryder was dressed in a dry suit: an entirely waterproof suit that covers almost all the body. Only hands and head are exposed. Inside the suit are layers of fleece and even booties. All of this is meant to insulate the kayaker against the coldness of the water, which is typically in the 40s in the spring.
“You’re dressing for cold water, but it’s hot [outside],” says Ryder. During the two weeks of kayaking on the Colorado, Ryder had to somehow negotiate air temperatures in the 90s and water temperatures in the 40s.
One way he did it was to make frequent flips in the kayak. With his head doused in cold water, he’d be able to keep the top part of his body cool for a while.
The group kayaked 20 to 30 miles a day.
Hippo Water And Bloody Hands
Ryder prepared for his long, arduous whitewater challenge on the Colorado by kayaking at the Toledo Bend Spillway during a dry period when large amounts of water being released into the spillway created challenging whitewater situations.
Still, as every athlete knows, there are some events you can prepare for as long as you like. You’ll never be quite ready for them.
That was the case with the kayaking of the long monster waters of the Grand Canyon. “I’d never kayaked anything anywhere near that long,” says Ryder.
Serious kayakers run up against a host of obstacles on a trip like this. One of these is whitewater that’s especially wild: a kind of water that’s called “hippo water.” Ryder describes this water as “boiling, swirling,” with currents “going sideways” and with whirlpools a common risk.
Then there’s the wear and tear on the hands. As Ryder’s hands went from dry to wet over and over during the course of the trip, the skin on his hands eventually chafed severely — finally to the point that the hands became bloody. Each morning, he covered the skin of his hands with Super Glue. But by the end of the day, the glue had been worn away.
“My hand was going numb and waking me up at night,” says Ryder. “At the end, every stroke was pain. I got to the point I considered stopping.”
The overall process of making this Colorado River run is extremely demanding, and, initially, creates a sense of disequilibrium even for well-trained and experienced kayakers.
“At first,” says Ryder, “it’s pure chaos. It seems like complete chaos and you can’t make sense of it.” It’s hard to adjust to the long onslaught of 10-15 feet waves.
“After a week,” though, says Ryder, “it slows down and makes sense.”
When the group reached Phantom Ranch, which is just up-river from the first unusually tough rapids, it had to take a long break. A new team member who was walking in to replace another member was late.
By the time he made it, it had started to rain. The rain made darker what was already a dark environment: that of Horn Rapids, which even on sunny days looks “dark and ominous” beneath the “sheer high walls” that rise up on each side of the water.
In this rapids, Ryder “got turned sideways” in the biggest wave he’d encountered yet. “I should have shouldered into it,” he says. “It was pretty spooky.”
He’d face even spookier moments during his run of the Granite Rapids, described at the beginning of this story. In that run, Ryder was fortunate to swim skillfully and emerge on the far side of the massive hole with enough breath to keep swimming.
Swimming in such conditions is a risky proposition for several reasons. One is the danger of hypothermia. A swimmer who’s gotten soaked in such cold waters must dry off and heat up quickly. During his kayaking history, Ryder’s seen swimmers who didn’t warm up again fast enough transported to hospitals via helicopter.
‘The Biggest Decision I Ever Made’
Ryder and his team still had to get through the Lava Falls Rapids — the baddest of the bad boys. Rapids are rated from 1-10 on a scale of difficulty. Whitewater experts rank Lava Falls as a 9 or 10.
One prominent characteristic of Lava Falls is its V waves: water flows from both sides of the river, converging in the middle, so that the waves look like a series of large Vs. If one is at the center of the V when the waves hit, the water “just crashes,” says Ryder.
Here’s another big feature of the rapids: at one stage, the kayaker experiences a 13-foot drop over the course of eight seconds. It’s been called “the most exciting eight seconds in sports.”
Choosing to go ahead and brave the rapids was, says Ryder, “probably the biggest decision I ever made.”
He once again found himself on the verge of getting stuck in a hole in the water. Again, he decided and acted quickly. He chose to “duck dive” — duck under the surface of the water into the V waves.
“It was like getting hit with a bus,” says Ryder. “It knocked out my nose plugs. It was just the best feeling.”
As he proceeded down the rapids, Ryder again decided to take his “just hang out” approach. “A lot of [kayaking is] relaxing,” he says. One can see that in situations in which one has to choose the right instant to raise the head out of the water to get a much-needed breath. Ryder notes that the adult human head weighs eight pounds. In unusually fast, heavy waters, it can be a real challenge to lift the head out of the water. One has to wait for the moment when the resistance to the head’s weight will be minimal.
Things Looked Doable
Ryder was now into the stage of the trip at which he was feeling a great deal more comfortable with his experience level.
“Everything,” he recalls, “looked a little more doable … I went from being totally timid scared to being out there by myself.” He was now tending to kayak by himself far ahead of the rest of the group. His new feeling of assurance extended from his kayaking to all areas of his life, he says.
Kayakers usually take a trip of 225 miles on this portion of the Colorado River; Ryder’s group would end up extending it to 277 miles.
It’s ironic that as Ryder’s comfort and confidence reached their peak, the difficulty of the course diminished significantly. As the group approached the Nevada border, water released from the Hoover Dam began to dominate the Colorado; as a result, many of the rapids were completely under water. And there was another development that dampened enthusiasm: large numbers of tourists began to be seen. It was a good time to end the trip.
A New Kayaking Journey
Not long after the end of that momentous journey, Ryder began to take another big journey: the journey to his own business.
His River Less Paddled store opened at 3823 Ryan St. just a few weeks ago. Before he opened, Ryder spent a good deal of time researching other kayak shops. For his own, he’s brought in brands he prefers, with the result that the store offers some brands rarely seen.
Ryder will eventually add backpacking and other outdoor sports.
In addition to selling goods, store staff will take people on kayaking trips.
“I’ve been surprised at the interest,” says Ryder. “It’s something totally new” to this area. “You’ve kind of got to create the market.”
One of the things Ryder’s been doing to create the market is informing potential customers that there’s whitewater nearby.
You can find it at Toro Bayou in the South Toledo Bend area. “It’s a little over an hour away,” says Ryder. “Nobody knows about it.” For descriptions and photographs of this Louisiana whitewater, go to Americanwhitewater.org and search for Toro Bayou.
Hours at the new store are Wednesday-Saturday 10-6. You can follow it on Facebook or Instagram, or visit their Website at riverlesspaddled.com.
‘Places No One Can See’
Ryder first got the idea for his new store when he happened to look down at the bottom of his shirt one day and noticed a tag he’d never noticed before. The tag read, “Do what you love and love what you do.”
It’s clear that Ryder not only loves kayaking, but loves it deeply enough to become knowledgeable about it and experienced with it. He can even articulate some of the reasons for this level of commitment.
“Kayaking allows me to go into deep canyons into places no one can see,” he says.
It also enables him to notch whitewater achievements that can’t be seen or felt, but that amount to more than most people will accomplish in a lifetime of ordinary living.