Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon

Carol Crooker interviews Roman Dial about his experience with the NPS for securing a permit to packraft the Grand Canyon.

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by Roman Dial and Carol Crooker | 2008-03-12 00:20:00-06

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Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon

PODCAST SPONSOR

This Podcast is sponsored by Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. One step on the Tablelands, a barren mound of rust-colored rocks thrown up from the earth's mantle half a billion years ago, and you are literally standing on the center of the earth. Not a bad place to forget about modern life. To hike in the most easterly point in North America, call Maggie at 1-800-563-6353 or visit NewfoundlandLabrador.com/hiking.

Overview (By Carol Crooker)

Roman Dial makes history by securing the first permit for a packraft/backpack trip in the Grand Canyon and on the Colorado River.

Floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is a once in a lifetime thrill for some and an oft repeated adventure for others. Highlights are the magnificent scenery, killer rapids, and camaraderie. The typical expedition floats in large, multi-person rafts, but the Colorado has been tackled by a menagerie of other types of craft. John Wesley Powell and his men famously ran the Colorado in 1869 in wooden boats as part of a geological survey. Paddlers in kayaks and, more unusually, three women on river boards (four foot long boogie boards) have also run the big Grand Canyon rapids.

What hadn’t been done (legally) until this year was run it in a packraft. Packrafts are inflatable rafts small enough to fit into a backpack and light enough to be toted enjoyably for a combined rafting and hiking expedition. The Grand Canyon is ideal for packrafting, with world class backpacking terrain surrounding miles of exciting river.

Roman Dial, a long time packrafter from Anchorage, Alaska, wanted to share a Grand Canyon packrafting/backpacking adventure with his son. He considered an outlaw run, but his wife Peggy vetoed that idea, as it would set a bad example for twenty year old Cody Roman. So Roman the elder set out to secure a permit for the trip. He studied the regulations: Under the newly revised river runner’s permit system, some undesirable, unclaimed launch dates can be claimed by phone. Several dates were available during his son’s winter break from college. On December 12th, Roman was able to lock in a launch date from Lees Ferry for December 25th.

...But Roman had no intention of being in Arizona on Christmas day. The typical winter raft trip through the Grand Canyon starts from Lees Ferry and ends at Diamond Creek several weeks later. Roman wanted his dream trip to last about a week. They would hike down to the Colorado River from the South Rim, run a section of the river, then hike back to the Rim. He figured he could fit the trip in any time during his twenty-five day permit period. Roman’s initial e-mail to a Park Ranger describing his trip plans was met with astonishment at his misunderstanding of the river permit system and a rejection of those plans.

Roman enjoys a challenge, and he took the Ranger’s response as merely the first volley, thereby opening communications between the Park and packrafters. Here, Roman talks about the communications adventure of turning reluctant Rangers around to become inventive allies in meshing Park regulations with packrafting.

The Story (by Roman Dial)

In many ways, getting to the point where I could write this was as challenging as the big rapids. Jackson Hole packrafter Forrest McCarthy and I had volleyed an amorphous plan to bandit a packrafting trip in the Grand Canyon over the last year. This progressed to the point of enlisting my son and Alaskan Brad Meiklejohn, who proposed an amazing trip highlighting the Great Thumb Mesa and its surrounding canyons. At one time, we were even invited as alternates on a non-commercial, standard big-boat river trip, but remained alternates when the trip kicked off…so our only recourse was going be as outlaws.

Then, Forrest and Brad got cold feet - or maybe their stories that Forrest had to work on his thesis, and Brad had to close a big conservation deal were legit - leaving me and Cody Roman with vague plans to sneak the Grand Canyon in January.

My wife Peggy frowned on this idea: “I don’t want you going there alone with our son, and I don’t think it’s responsible to take him there illegally. What kind of role model does that?”

Fortunately, in my search for packrafting alternatives of our own, a mutual friend sent Colorado Plateau’s adventure artist Glenn Rink’s email. Glenn indicated that I might try for a river permit, as the new lottery system had left some launch dates open (launch date: the date that rafters start their river trip, a date that marks the start of the twenty-five days of the winter-length journey to the Diamond Creek take-out). The dates were Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and January days outside of college vacations. These dates could be spoken for with a simple phone call, which I made on my way to work December twelfth, reserving Christmas Day with a $400 deposit. I figured we would have the whole twenty-five day window in which to do our planned seven day trip around the Great Thumb, as I indicated in my email to the Park Service:


From: Roman Dial
Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2007 11:05
To: Steve Sullivan
Subject: Dec 25 trip

Steve,

It looks like my card has been charged, so perhaps we have the reservation for Dec 25. The trip that the two of us would like to do does not start at Lees Ferry. It is a packraft (http://www.alpackaraft.com/store/index.cfm?CategoryID=53&do=list) trip (see http://www.alpackaraft.com/forums/ for discussions and videos of what we do) that would hike down to the river, float the river for fifty or so miles, then hike back out.

This is our first choice for a trip:

Descend into the canyon from Apache Point on the South Rim (or alternatively on the Bass Trail), dropping down the Royal Arch Route and hitting the river just above Elves Chasm. Boat down through Conquistador Aisle and the Middle Granite Gorge, with a side trip up to Thunder Falls and Surprise Valley. Return to the river at Deer Creek Falls and continue down river past Kanab Creek, Matkat (Matkatamiba Canyon), and hike out Havasu, returning to our car near Apache Point.

As you can see, it is not a full river trip. There would just be two of us. Ideally, we would do this over a one week period in January.

My questions are these:

Would you be ok with this use of a river permit?

Do we still need to go to Lees Ferry on Christmas, or could we have the river briefing elsewhere and/or on a different date?

Have others used packrafts, and what is the Park's view of them?

Thanks for your consideration.

Roman Dial


However, Steve had a different take on this:


From: Steve Sullivan
Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2007 14:23
To: Roman Dial
Subject: Re: Dec 25 trip

Hi Roman,

Thanks for writing back. It looks like maybe you missed something very basic here - you were calling to claim a launch from Lees Ferry that would start on the 25th and not take-out until at least Diamond Creek and operate in full compliance the Noncommercial Regulations. Grand Canyon National Park does not permit these trips to launch from any place other than Lees Ferry, and no trips may take-out anywhere above Diamond Creek. Secondly, Grand Canyon National Park has never and does not intend to authorize the use of packaraft at this point (I just called the River District Ranger to confirm this). In other words, you cannot do what you said you hoped to do as stated in your second paragraph.

I'm not sure how you got this far with such a basic level of misunderstanding of what we would permit. If you really cannot do a full Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek trip on boats that Grand Canyon would authorize, then let me know. If this will not work for you and I hear from you right away, I can authorize your deposit to be refunded.

Sincerely,

Steve Sullivan


“Wow!” I emailed my packrafting friends, “They want to stop us, but I am not going down that easily!” So I fired a volley right back over their bow.


From: Roman Dial
Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2007 12:49
To: Steve Sullivan
Subject: Re: Dec 25 trip

Steve,

Thanks for the quick response; however, the news is disappointing. I have carefully read and re-read the regulations posted by the Park Service and found nowhere that:

Lees Ferry is a mandatory put-in.

Diamond Creek is a mandatory take-out.

There is no allowance for packrafts.

Indeed, I was very excited that the regulations looked totally amenable to our planned trip.

Yes, when reading the regulations, it was clear that the Lees Ferry put-in was a mandatory meeting, but where is it written that it is a mandatory put-in? It does not say it is mandatory as a put-in anywhere I can find in this document: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/Noncommercial_River_Trip_Regulations.pdf.

Similarly, I was unable to find anything about minimum boat length (although I recall there was once a minimum boat length requirement in the past). I missed the requirement that Diamond Creek was a mandatory take-out. Nor did I read anything about minimum trip lengths.

It's too bad that the "Grand Canyon National Park has never and does not intend to authorize the use of packaraft at this point (I just called the River District Ranger to confirm this)," although I had no way of knowing this, since my asking around (of non-NPS people) seemed to suggest otherwise. Indeed, it says nothing in the regulations about this.

Unfortunately, a big boat, full river trip does not interest me. I think I would like to have a conversation with the Superintendent or Assistant Superintendent, as our trip can comply with both the spirit and letter of the regulations and do so in a very low-impact way. I do not want a refund until I have heard from the Superintendent how our planned trip violates the printed regulations.

Again, I am not trying to make a fuss - we just want to enjoy our National Park in a way that does not harm the resource.

Roman Dial


And he responded (graciously, I thought):


From: Steve Sullivan
Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2007 17:13
To: Roman Dial
Cc: Michael McGinnis (with the NPS)
Subject: Re: Dec 25 trip

Hi Roman,

Thanks for writing back, and it is no problem to have this reviewed at a higher level. Both the idea of using katarafts [sic] and the idea of hiking in and out of the river are new here, so getting you an answer cannot be as quick as I would like. I have passed your request on to those above me in the NPS chain, and I have had quite a few follow-up phone conversations. It sounds like it will be Monday before we can get the Superintendent to take a good look at this and give his final judgment. We will write you back shortly after that and let you know the answer.

Thanks for your patience.

Sincerely,

Steve Sullivan


So personal emails flew for the entire weekend, and my mind could think of nothing but the Grand Canyon, and, of all things, a permit.

Some responses from packrafters, slightly edited:

“Hope things work out with the Park. I can't believe he treated you in such a demeaning way…Did you see Into the Wild? Remember the Park Ranger at Lees Ferry? Steve was about the same caliber as that guy. It is not a myth that NPS personnel often miss the boat.”
“I thought you were just getting a backcountry hiking permit and not mentioning the river float. It is always good to test the water, these Park Service people get too complacent and too frequently attempt to interpret laws and regs. I do know that there are people who cross the river using packrafts.”
“Hats off for trying to do it legally. This is the b------- that makes us outlaws. Unlike Yellowstone, where all boating is illegal, Grand Canyon is discriminating against packrafters. I have had bureaucratic battles when getting permits for both Cataract Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Both times it was over unconventional (they said “impossible”) access points, and our ability to carry all the required gear (fire pan, groover, etc.). In the end, packrafters prevailed. I figure we are a new type of user and need to break in land managers.
“So you got an actual Grand Canyon River Permit? Good of ya. Let me know if there is anything I can help with this battle. I want to see you win a victory for packrafters and the public at large. I am very excited that you are calling them on their b-------.”

Then, this support from Glenn:


From: Glenn Rink
Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2007 04:04
To: Steve Sullivan
Subject: RE: Dec 25 trip

Hi Steve,

Roman contacted me regarding his idea to use packrafts to explore the Grand Canyon backcountry. I encouraged him to contact you, because I have had such good experiences with the River Unit when using the river corridor to explore Grand Canyon in other than traditional ways.

At this point, perhaps I could be of some assistance to both you and Roman while you work out Roman's request.

In 1983, I requested and was granted a trip that allowed me to put-in (solo, kayak) at the confluence of the Little Colorado River. The details were worked out between me and Kurt Sauer. There may be a record of that trip that might assist you in sorting out policies related to alternate put-ins, take-outs, or craft type.

Another trip that might be of interest is the one taken by Julie Munger, made sometime in the last ten years. Her trip launched at Lees Ferry with belly boards as their sole craft. Maybe Julie could help with details related to that trip. At first, when she decided to use her river permit for a belly board trip through the Canyon, the Park was understandably taken aback by her unusual request, but upon review, the river unit determined that this was an acceptable use of the resource.

I am not aware that the regs specify a mandatory put-in at Lees Ferry, take-out at Diamond or below, and no use of packrafts? I haven't seen that verbiage, though no doubt you are more familiar with the regs than I am. Perhaps you could paste this passage in the regs to us via email, or cite this material in a way that we can find it?

Facilitating Roman's request may require coordination with the Backcountry Office. Todd Seliga of the Backcountry Office would be a good person to work with on this, since he is an avid packraft user, recently completing a river trip in Canyonlands National Park using packrafts as their sole craft. Like Roman's planned backcountry takeout, Todd's trip also utilized a backcountry takeout.

I hope we can find a solution that accommodates NPS concerns and, at the same time, allows for some not-so-conventional approaches to Grand Canyon experience.

Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Glenn Rink


And finally, this piece of sweet news:


From: Steve Sullivan
Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2007 17:06
To: Roman Dial
Cc: Michael McGinnis, Linda Jalbert, Marc Yeston (all with the NPS)
Subject: Re: Dec 25 trip

Hi Roman,

I have good news for you. We have quite a few excellent managers here at Grand Canyon, and together we have come up with an answer that should work for you. The Park will give you a permit and allow you and your friend to launch using your packrafts, provided you can meet the rest of the noncommercial regulations and the conditions for the permit. I'll explain some more of these rules below.

First, though, I want to apologize for my original quick and negative answer to your request. You were asking for something Grand Canyon National Park has never allowed, something that never even came up in the Park's recent river planning work. In addition, you said you planned to use a type of craft that remains new and untested to most of us. So, I gave you a reasonable answer, however, one that was fundamentally flawed - i.e. it denied your request solely because of nonconformity with the existing patterns. I'm glad you wrote back and pointed out that you could not find anything prohibitive in the language of our Noncommercial Regulations. After reading your comment, I did go back and re-read that document. I also read parts of the Colorado River Management Plan and the Environmental Impact Statement upon which it was based. I did not find anything concrete there either. This helped contribute to our discussions, and by Friday morning, my recommendation was for us to request that the Superintendent to overturn my earlier answer.

Here are the conditions upon which Grand Canyon National Park is allowing your trip and future packraft trips through Grand Canyon:

The trip leader must have secured a Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek launch through the noncommercial river permit system. (You have done this.)

The trip leader must do the Lees Ferry checkout on the day scheduled to launch and must take all the gear currently required for noncommercial trips.

For packraft situations (i.e. where boating gear and equipment are contained within backpacks that do not exceed the sizes of large, backcountry, non-rafting backpacks currently in use in the backcountry), the trip leader can choose to skip a portion of the river trip and hike in and out anywhere along the river provided all the following is true:

The actual date and place where the trip reaches the water must coincide with where a typical noncommercial trip during that season would have been had they actually launched from Lees Ferry. (In your case, you could launch from the Elves Chasm area on 1.6.07. If you need to change your put-in and take-out locations because of #4 below, please let me know so I can re-calculate the acceptable dates for your trip.)

The trip can choose to hike away from the river, but must have a valid backcountry permit to camp anywhere away from the river within Grand Canyon National Park. (I can help you with this also, and there should be space in that area during this time of year. Backcountry Permits cost $10 plus $5 per person per night.)

The trip can again rejoin the river, but only downstream of where they left the river. The actual date and place where the trip rejoins the river must coincide with where a typical noncommercial trip during that season would have been had they actually launched from Lees Ferry. (It doesn't sound like you wish to do this.)

Only downstream travel will be allowed.

If the trip plans hike into or cross any tribal lands, permission from the tribe must be obtained before launch. (Getting permission to hike through Havasupai should be easy - getting permission from the tribe to hike across Great Thumb Mesa may prove extremely difficult.)

(Note, over the next few months NPS staff will be reviewing packrafting in Grand Canyon and tweaking the above conditions to ensure the ongoing consistency of packrafting with the intents behind our river and backcountry management plans. This is the best we could do with such short lead time.)

In addition, all other noncommercial regulations must be followed. Our River District Ranger (Mike McGinnis) wants to speak with you on Tuesday to help ensure you understand all that is required. I am copying him on this email. Would you please call him tomorrow? He can be reached at (number excised).

I hope all this helps.

Sincerely,

Steve Sullivan


To which I responded:


From: Roman Dial
Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2007 15:47
To: Steve Sullivan
Cc: Michael McGinnis, Linda Jalbert, Marc Yeston (all with the NPS)
Subject: Re: Dec 25 trip

Thanks Steve.

I have read through this, but need to absorb it so that discussing it with Mike McGinnis will be effective.

I also appreciate your apology and accept it.

Mike, you can expect a call from me tomorrow.

Roman

Learn More About Packrafting

Backpacking Light has announced the release date of Roman Dial's new book Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide.

For more information about the book, read the press release.


Citation

"Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon," by Roman Dial and Carol Crooker. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/podcast_030512_roman_dial_packraft_permit_grand_canyon.html, 2008-03-12 00:20:00-06.

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Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon on 03/11/2008 20:23:51 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon

Bill Fornshell
(bfornshell) - MLife

Locale: Southern Texas
Re: Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon on 03/11/2008 22:17:42 MDT Print View

I clicked on this Podcast to see if the quality had gotten any better from the last one I tried to listen to. What a nice surprise I got.

Not only was the quality much improved but the content was really interesting. I read all the emails first so I had some idea of the process necessary to get permission for the trip.

Carol has always done a super job as an interviewer and my respect for Roman comes from reading about many of his trips.

Ben Klocek
(benklocek) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: SF Bay Area
Go Roman! on 03/12/2008 00:58:26 MDT Print View

What a great way to expand the understanding of going light. Props to NPS for being willing to work with you!

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon on 03/12/2008 06:12:31 MDT Print View

Ryan/BPL Team,
I have to say in the last few months this site has gone from great to amazing. From the new email formats to the content you guys are putting out there. You guys make my Wednesday mornings at work fly by and all I can say is thanks (and keep the awesome cheaper gear coming :)

Craig Lewis
(craigl28) - F

Locale: SoCal
Off-Limits Areas on 03/12/2008 16:37:29 MDT Print View

A huge percentage of the NP is off-limits to visitors and the "Govt" doesn't want easy access to these areas. It will take an act of God to allow even restricted pack-rafting.

Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
Re: Podcast: The Fight to Permit Packrafting in the Grand Canyon on 03/13/2008 11:40:01 MDT Print View

*** Editor's Note ***
Post deleted because it was irrelevant to the editorial content of this thread.

Edited by ryan on 03/14/2008 00:52:08 MDT.