Marcel Bieg paddles in the rain on Dec. 7 near Taverntine Falls.
Marcel Bieg paddles in the rain on Dec. 7 near Taverntine Falls. (Courtesy of David Childers)

FARMINGTON — Nearly two months ago, Marcel Bieg and David Childers set off on a journey they both say was the most grueling trip of their lives.

And in their industry, that's saying a lot.

Both men have been on a lot of trips. Marcel Bieg, 36, is the director of the Outdoor Leadership Education and the Recreation Department at San Juan College. Dave Childers, 26, has a degree in outdoor education from Idaho State University and has instructed many outdoor leadership classes at the college.

Each have been through the Grand Canyon by boat a handful of times, and they have each spent a good portion of their lives in kayaks.

But kayaking the Grand Canyon -- which they set out to do on Dec. 1 -- would be a first.

"We wanted to try it in a different way ... and we wanted to do it self-support," Childers said. "With the two of us, we couldn't do the normal. Most people do it in 11 or 12 days, and we couldn't do that because we had the limited space. Most of those trips have six, eight, 10, 12 people on them, so they can disperse the gear throughout the group a lot easier. With just the two of us, we couldn't quite distribute the gear as well."

And so, it was decided that the 280 miles from Lee's Ferry to Pearce Ferry along the Colorado River would need to be traversed in seven days. Bieg liked the math -- the 280 miles could be divided perfectly to give them 40 miles a day.

To say a lot of planning is needed for a trip like this would be an understatement. To even gain access to the section of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon, one must enter a weighted lottery. Applications for the year are taken in February of the previous year. A minimum $400 deposit must be paid within 48 hours of being chosen, and four months before the trip takes place, an exact itinerary -- including all details of the planned trip -- must be turned in.

One crucial aspect of the trip for the boaters was the kayaks they would use. The P and H Hammer kayak came on the market during their trip planning. Hybrids of sea kayaks -- think the long, slim kayak you would see gliding across Navajo Lake -- and play boats -- the short, quick boats on the Animas River in Berg Park -- have been in existence for quite a while. But the Hammer's 13-foot-8-inch hull provided extra storage and speed, which attracted the boaters to this particular kayak.

The Grand Canyon usually maintains a mild climate in December. According to the National Park Service website, the high temperatures tend to be in the 40s and 50s and lows are in the 30s and 40s.

The bow of Marcel Bieg’s kayak is pictured near Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon in early December.
The bow of Marcel Bieg's kayak is pictured near Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon in early December. (Courtesy Marcel Bieg)

But at the beginning of December, however, the Grand Canyon was experiencing a rare weather phenomenon -- an inversion in which warm air from above caused cold, damp air to sink and fill the canyon. From the rim, this was an amazing sight -- images of the canyon filled with a giant cloud were shown on the CNN and The Washington Post websites -- but from the bottom of the canyon, the view was bleak.

"On the last day, the Phantom Ranch weather report said that there was a low of 10 degrees. During the day, I would say it was mostly in the 30s. It stayed above freezing during the day for the most part, but it did freeze on us a couple times," Bieg said.

Throughout the canyon, there are only a few "exits." Phantom Ranch, 87 miles from the Lee's Ferry starting point, is almost 5,000 feet below the canyon rim and can only be accessed by foot or by mule. Diamond Creek would be the next access, and that's 226 miles into the trip.

"Knowing that there's not necessarily a true escape plan, you really are training yourself harder to make sure that you are physically capable of doing it, making sure you have all your food, all your gear, and everything planned before the trip so that once you're on the river, you're fully capable of being self-sustained," Childers said.

The boaters prepared themselves for just about anything. A 20-page itinerary given to their families, complete with maps and permit information, even had separate sections labeled "PLAN A" and "PLAN B."

After their first full day and night on the river, Bieg said he woke up the morning of Dec. 2 "a little off" and that quickly escalated to him vomiting in the river.

He had noticed the day before that his dry suit was leaking, and this, combined with the colder and wetter than normal air, presented a "potentially dangerous problem."

"I found that the best way for me to stay warm was to just keep paddling, so that is exactly what I did. The wetter I got, the harder I paddled and just had to make sure to replenish calories and keep drinking," Bieg wrote in a short story about the trip.

With the "just in case" z-pak of antibiotics his doctor prescribed beforehand, he was able to alleviate his sickness quickly.

According to Bieg and Childers, the Grand Canyon has its own system of rating rapids. Rather than a Class 3 for example, a Grand Canyon rapid would be on a scale of one to 10.

Each rapid's rating can fluctuate between two or three points. During Bieg's and Childers' trip, the rapids were all at high ratings.

One could say the odds were stacked against Bieg and Childers for this trip: weather that was much colder than normal, a dry suit malfunction, and dangerous conditions.

But they both said they would not have had it any other way.

"I think these are the types of trips you really find out about yourself," Childers said of the experience.

Molly Maxwell covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at mollykmaxwell@gmail.com.