Women float `crazy idea,' carry it off

ON THE OUTDOORS

Outdoors

January 27, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

MARBLE CANYON, Ariz. -- Looking down from Historic Navajo Bridge to the green Colorado River 470 feet below, it's easy to have a boatload of admiration for John Wesley Powell.

The one-armed explorer and his crew accomplished the monumental task of navigating and mapping the river in 1869.

Take a hike down to the river's edge, stick a hand in the shockingly cold water and it's easy to admire a more recent accomplishment.

While others were busy trimming trees and buying gifts in December, Julie Munger, Kelly Kalafatich and Rebecca Rusch floated and bobbed 300 miles through the Grand Canyon, from the base of the Glen Canyon Dam near the town of Page to Pierce Ferry near Lake Mead.

FOR THE RECORD - A caption with the Outdoors column in Sunday's Sports section failed to credit photographer Carr Clifton for the picture of three women who navigated the Colorado River. The Sun regrets the error.

The women accomplished the feat on river boards, 3-by-5 foot pieces of foam used for rescues in swift-moving water, a first on the Colorado. Completely self-sufficient, they hauled all their gear for the 19-day trip and packed out all their trash and waste.

Munger, Kalafatich and Rusch battled enormous whitewater, river temperatures of 48 degrees and a cranky camp stove that exploded. They each wore a polypropylene-lined wetsuit under a dry suit and topped off their garb with life jackets.

"It was just a crazy idea," says Munger, 39, during a phone call from her home in California. "We're just three outdoors women who were looking for adventure."

But make no mistake, this wasn't the female version of the movie, Deliverance, where well-meaning suburbanites were in over their heads.

All three women are experienced river guides and members of the U.S. Women's Rafting Team. Rusch has competed in 20 Eco-Challenge endurance competitions. Kalafatich was Meryl Streep's stunt double in the movie The River Wild. Munger leads trips in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and teaches whitewater rescue courses.

And it wasn't a publicity stunt.

"We were really hesitant to talk to the press about it beforehand," Munger explains. "That would have changed the nature of our trip. We're happy to tell our story now, but we have no burning desire to become media stars."

As a matter of fact, the only other reporter to contact the women was someone from a paddling magazine.

With less Colorado River experience than her teammates, Rusch was extremely nervous at the outset. But even Kalafatich and Munger were on edge, knowing how quickly winter and whitewater conditions could get them in trouble.

"It took all of our attention to accomplish the task," says Munger. "And there were a lot more rapids than I remember."

Powell grappled with similar feelings, as his journal from the summer of 1869 showed:

"We are three-quarters of a mile into the depths of the earth. ... We are but pygmies, running up and down the sand, or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not."

Munger and her crew met their toughest challenge on just the third night out, when their camp stove exploded, spewing flaming fuel on Rusch's hand and jacket.

Kalafatich snuffed the flames with sand from the river's edge, then plunged her friend's hand into the icy river.

"That was a terrifying, potentially heartbreaking and most tense evening of the trip," Munger recalls. "It looked like third-degree burns, which would have ended things right there."

Again, Powell faced similar doubts about his trip: "All night long, I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach, along by the river. Is it wise to go on?

"But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore ... I determined to go on."

By light of day, Rusch's injury appeared less severe and the women decided to continue. The rest of their meals, however, were cooked over an open fire.

Munger says they drew strength from hikers they saw along the way. At Phantom Ranch, people waved from a bridge over the river and shouted words of encouragement.

At the canyon's three biggest rapids -- Hance, Granite and Lava -- the women placed their gear on ropes and guided the waterproof bags through the rocks before going back upstream to negotiate the whitewater themselves.

"We were scared at Lava," Munger says of the biggest and steepest rapids 120 miles downstream from Phantom Ranch. "But it's truly easier than it looks."

After dropping 12 feet and being tumbled in a hole of churning water, the women slipped from the rapids' grasp and floated on.

Each day brought a new challenge -- finding a way to balance gear on the boards, fixing equipment malfunctions, plugging a leaky wetsuit.

"There were no books or answers. We had to figure things out by ourselves," Munger says. "It was an unbelievable process of discovery. Fortunately, all of our challenges didn't come at once."

The trip almost didn't happen.

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