Eagle County locals complete 280-mile SUP journey through Grand Canyon
The Vail Daily
LEARN ABOUT THE GRAND
• Thursday at the 10th Mountain Whiskey tasting room
• 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
• Presentation and music
• Free for all ages
EAGLE COUNTY — When Javier Placer kayaked the Grand Canyon in 2006, it was supposed to be his farewell from whitewater sports.
Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of an odyssey that came full circle this spring, a decade later, in the Grand Canyon once again.
The journey really began in 2002, when Placer taught a young man named KC Chambers the sport of whitewater rafting.
“I spent a lot of time sleeping on his couch during those days,” Chambers said of Placer.
When the opportunity arose to repay the favor, Chambers did so with what would be — for many — a once in a lifetime opportunity. Chambers spent the last decade on the waiting list to run the Grand and learned in 2015 that he would get the chance, in April of 2016. He texted Placer to ask him if he would join.
“I always had (Placer) in the back of my mind as someone I would want on the trip, not only because he’s an incredibly knowledgeable, accomplished river person, but just a great personality to have on a three-week trip of this magnitude,” Chambers said. “There was the safety component, the knowledge component of him having been on the Grand before, all the river miles he has, and then there’s his personality, which is infectious.”
TWISTS AND TURNS
In 2006, Placer was planning on hanging up his dry suit, for good. He had a one-year-old daughter and life was getting complex. Plus, he had attained one of his bucket-list goals in kayaking the Grand.
Like the rivers he was so fond of, however, life was about to take some dramatic turns.
“I ended up getting blessed in a modern-family situation,” Placer said. “My daughter’s mom was getting remarried, we put the past behind us and she asked me what I thought of the idea to move to Maui with her, my daughter, her fiancee and my daughter’s half brother as a modern co-parenting unit. I lived in my ‘87 Volkswagon Bus, all through Maui, spent time with my daughter and did the ocean on a standup paddleboard.”
Around this same time, standup paddleboarding was making its way off the lakes and oceans and into the rivers. Placer was enjoying winters in Maui, but in the summers, he wanted to be back on the rivers in the emerging new sport of whitewater SUP.
“You have these quadrants of the sport of standup paddleboarding … you have the surf part, open ocean touring and downwinding, then you have more touring, recreational, inland bodies of water, and then you have the river,” Placer said. “So now I’m blessed to be able to do the mainland part, and then in the winter, I’m in the Mecca of paddleboarding in Maui, surfing those places.”
Placer started Stand Up Paddle Colorado with business partner and friend Scotty Stoughton, and the company began running trips down the Colorado River in Eagle County.
Being on that river got Placer thinking about its majesty, and more and more he found himself thinking back to being on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon on his kayak.
“When I started paddleboarding on rivers, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone attempted the Grand,” he said.
In 2008, legendary Hawaiian waterman Archie Kalepa attained what Placer knew was possible, completing a 187-mile journey through the Grand Canyon on a standup paddleboard.
“(Kalepa) is native Hawaiian, and he was part of a group of Native Americans who were invited to bring a synergy between the oceans and the rivers by exploring the waters of the Grand,” Placer said. “To see the first paddleboarder attempting a part of the Grand Canyon happen like this — a trip with intention, a trip with meaning — I couldn’t have been more happy for the sport. It set the right tone.”
Back on Maui, Placer reached out to Kalepa by phone several years later in 2015.
“It turns out that my daughter was in the same school as his,” Placer said.
Kalepa took the call, and the two began to chat.
“While I was on the phone with him, I got the text to see if I wanted to go on the Grand Canyon again,” Placer said. “I don’t believe in coincidence.”
Chambers had all but lost contact with Placer at that point. But he was able to track town Placer’s number and get that fateful text out.
“I was definitely surprised when he told me he wanted to SUP it,” Chambers said. “I didn’t even know that was possible.”
Chambers offered Placer another invite and Placer reached out to his partner in business and SUP, Scotty Stoughton.
“He had no idea what he was in for,” Placer said. “But I wouldn’t have asked him if I thought he couldn’t make it. My feeling is, you give someone an opportunity, and the question is who rises? Who is it that emerges?”
Stoughton said he knew it was something he had to do, he cleared his calendar and the group was set — Placer, Stoughton, Chambers, Eagle County photographer Zach Mahone and 8 other paddlers were to realize their dreams on the waters of the Grand. Placer and Stoughton were the only standup paddleboarders in the group.
OVER 100 RAPIDS AND 280 MILES
For Placer and Stoughton, swimming became a means of survival early on in the trip.
“On a paddleboard, you’re on the most vulnerable craft that you can be on, on a river,” Placer said. “You’re not committed to anything, you’re not strapped into anything … you get into a pattern of total immersion and one hundred percent acceptance. You’re improvising the whole way down, because right around the bend there’s another massive beast that’s just as big or bigger than the one you just went through. You’re forced to be in the moment and present all the time. It doesn’t matter if you cleaned a rapid, if you fall or if you swim.”
The same was not supposed to be true for the rafters, but on day 2 of the 21-day trip, a group flipped their boat and were forced to pick up the pieces of their lost belongings and right their raft back to safety.
“The water is freezing — 55 degrees — but the air temperature is really warm, so none of us were in dry gear in the rafts,” Chambers said. “But Javier was in a dry suit and was able to orchestrate the righting of the raft, which was a big win.”
Stoughton lost a camera to the carnage, which was something Mahone did not want to see happen to him.
“I took a more active role in the navigation of the most challenging rapids after that,” Mahone said.
In the end the group made it 280 miles through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado — among the longest Grand Canyon runs Placer has ever heard of for a standup paddleboarder — through more than 100 rapids, hail storms, rain storms and 30-40 mph head winds. Mahone came back with some beautiful photographs, camera in tact.
In addition to those photos the group brought home a collection of amazing stories, lessons learned and even a few songs which they will share on Thursday at the 10th Mountain Whiskey Tasting Room in Vail Village at 7 p.m. The presentation is free for all to attend.
“Every time we get in the water we have such an appreciation for the river, and we’re very aware of the deeper significance that it represents beyond just going and paddling and having a good time,” Stoughton said. “To get down there and paddle into the heart of one of the wonders of the world and see the Colorado so many miles further, it was special. This trip really changed me, it brought me to a deeper level of understanding of all things and a place of larger perspective.”
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