Packrafting Marble Canyon



One of my favorite spots in the world is right here in Arizona, 9 miles upstream of Lees Ferry on the Colorado River in Marble Canyon. The only practical way to get there is on a boat with a captain that knows the river channel. You can't hike to it, it's at the bottom of a deep canyon on the isolated beach bend of a huge western river. The river beach where I will camp is at the famous “Horseshoe Bend” that I have and many tourists have taken pictures of from above on the cliff top, about a thousand feet above.


I’ve been visiting this place as a fisherman for many years. I was introduced to it by one of my hang gliding friends. We would sit around the campfire after a great flight and he would talk to me about this place that was so grand, the soaring cliffs, the ice cold river and the big trout that cruised it’s depths. Here we were on a hang gliding weekend and we were dreaming about camping and fishing at Horseshoe Bend in Marble Canyon.

I finally took him up on his offer to take me there. It was in the early 90’s. I took ten days off, he said that if I was going, we needed to live there for a while to really experience it and that is exactly what I did. It was in February and the boat was loaded up to the gills with mesquite firewood, two ice chests of food, our tents, chairs and all the things necessary for a week plus fishing trip. We drove the four hours North from Phoenix, launched the boat, parked the truck and motored upriver for nine miles to a life changing adventure.


The Colorado River carves through the sandstone earth of the area. Marble Canyon, being just like the Grand Canyon but farther upstream is just a little smaller. The cliffs in this area are about a thousand feet tall and straight up from the river. The river meanders back and forth in this area below Glen Canyon Dam which creates Lake Powell. This dam was completed in 1963. The diversion tunnels were blocked and the beginning of Lake Powell began. Being a bottom release dam, the water is cold and habitable for big river trout.


At nine miles upriver, there is very little sound, maybe a guide boat motoring upriver now and then but only a few times a day, otherwise, silence. The water in all its immensity is flat through the canyon with a few riffles but it’s quiet, really quiet. Being at the bottom of a slot canyon on a grandeur scale, sound, when it happens is amplified and it is also really quiet at the same time. Depending on the time of year, sunlight may not reach the river. During my 10 day stay on my first trip there, a block of ice left by someone prior to us did not melt, it was bitter cold, I wore a snowmobile suit the whole time I was there. During the summer, the temperature is very hot at 100 degrees while the river is cold at 47 degrees.

This is a magical place of extremes.

Camping at the Horseshoe Bend is an experience to remember. You can only get here by boat. The cliffs go all the way to the water. From the camp, the only people you will see are those motoring upriver or the anglers fishing your area. If you look hard at the top of the cliffs on the other side, you can see the tourists viewing the immensity of the horseshoe bend. It's a popular place but it isn't hard to feel small, desolate and alone.


But there is another way to the spot, being backhauled by the big river inflatable pontoon boats that are run by tourist groups for visitors. They sign up for float trips down river from the dam. When they reach Lees Ferry 14 miles down river from the dam, they beach, let the tourists out and motor upriver alone. The tour companies have figured out that there are people like me willing to pay for a ride back upriver with our packraft, kayak or other personal watercraft to float or paddle back to Lees Ferry only to get out and drive back home. If you miss the put in, you are in for a rude awakening. Downriver of Lees Ferry is world class whitewater. 

Don't miss the boat ramp.

I'm no stranger to the area. I've been upriver countless numbers of trips since my first stay. I've camped at the Horseshoe Bend or "9 mile" as I like to call it many nights. I continue to go back for camping and fishing, lots of three and four day weekends and several one day upriver forays. I've crashed boats up there in the silence of daybreak, had 100 fish days where a small fish was 12" and my largest trout there ran about well, pounds, four pounds or so, big.


My respect for the river is as deep as it is powerful. I've been knocked out of the boat by the captain hitting a submerged boulder the size of a travel trailer only to nearly be run over by the boat. I've been smart enough not to be swept downstream by rising water, yes, the dam fluctuates from 7,000 cubic feet per second to a pretty regular high of 14,000 cfs. You must get creative in beaching your boat by placing a couple of anchor lines if you don't want the boat stranded on dry sand when the power generating flows are down.

The focus of this story is not about that, it's about taking on this river in a much more simple craft and fishing it with a tenkara rod. I'm taking my packraft, being hauled upriver with it and some firewood, dumped off and living for a few days, living and re-living, fishing, napping and dreaming.

The drive across the Navajo Reservation is desolate and stark in contrast to the forest of Flagstaff

Navajo Bridges, you have to cross the Colorado to get to Lees Ferry

I have no idea why this guy was down here

The Vermillion Cliffs

Headed upriver, they call it "back haul" and it takes about 45 minutes to get to 9 mile

On the way upriver

My ride upriver driving the rest of the way to the dam at 14 mile

Set up camp and relaxing

I use a block of ice, it lasts longer

Going for a hike

Felt sole tabi work well for pack rafting, wet wading and a little hiking, the felt grips the sandstone that you must climb

Looking back at the horseshoe





A picture through my binoculars 

It's amazing how people will just back up to the cliff to get a selfie

Minimal camp kit

These guys got into my bread, note to self, hard container

Headed just downstream from 9 mile, on my way home

Finger rock on the way back


The river is like glass in some places but you are zipping along



Looking back upriver, that's all my stuff in the yellow bag, about 35 pounds

Almost to Lees Ferry

That's me, about 20' deep, super clear water

On the way back, that's the San Francisco Peaks where Flagstaff is

Pack raft, pfd, dry bag and stuff that goes in the bow bag

Tent, tarp (did not take) quilt, chair, pad etc

Food for four days, I took half, I did three days, two nights

Lees Ferry (web page I created from 1998)
Resources

Lees Ferry USGS Current Flow
Patagonia Simple Fly Fishing

Some of the Equipment used

Alpacka Packraft
Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid


7 comments:

  1. Looks like a wonderful trip! Beautiful area!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I’m already planning my return. It is absolutely gorgeous.

      Delete
  2. Отличный рассказ Адам,отличная поездка!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Спасибо, мой друг. Думаю, ты хотел бы пообщаться здесь. Береги себя.

      Delete
  3. Great account of your trip Adam. Looks like you had an awesome solo adventure! (Furry friends aside) Saw a tenkara rod perched on that tree branch, guessing the fishing was tough in that heat? Looking forward to following along on many more packraft floats in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is a special place to me. A place of time and a place for introspection.

    I brought a tenkara rod and set it up to do simple fly fishing. I hooked into fish after fish and all shook off. At ten I quit.

    Done.

    I was using a 10m line and that was short for the fish I was going for...

    So as I sat there, I realized I quit fly fishing to do this?

    After almost ten years of exclusive tenkara in freshwater, I’m going to buy a nice Sage rod and a beautiful reel and I’ll start fly fishing Marble Canyon again. I’m really good at it and to try to fit a square peg into a round hole?

    Not going to happen.

    I’m not quitting tenkara, quite the opposite. I’ll sharpen it even more than ever.

    Thanks for the nice comment. You are a good guy and I appreciate who you are and what you do. As soon as I finish up this interview, I hope we can complete yours.

    Take care my friend.

    ReplyDelete
  5. What a great looking trip Adam. One bottle of wine wouldn't have done it for me though ;)

    ReplyDelete