Tye Woodruff, in back of raft, Al Johnson, front left, and Phil LeBlond, all from the Nanaimo area, run rapids on the Colorado River during a rafting excursion through the Grand Canyon in March. (Nathanael Kotzur photo)

Whitewater rafters from Qualicum and Nanaimo aid Americans stranded in Grand Canyon

Expedition recovers overturned raft before returning to Canada and quarantine

Whitewater adventurers from Qualicum and Nanaimo emerged from the the Grand Canyon into a different world than the one they left behind, but not before they helped rescue American rafters stranded on a riverbank.

Phil LeBlond, from Nanaimo, was one of 13 expedition members on a spring break excursion through the Grand Canyon that started March 15 at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. Even before they entered the Colorado River, the world was changing around them.

“We just got a across the border when we were going down there and then they closed it. Then, five days into the trip, the National Parks Service closed the Grand Canyon,” LeBlond said. “We were allowed to finish, but we pretty well had the whole place to ourselves, save another couple of rafting crews. It was just fantastic. All hell was breaking loose here and we were just feeling pretty guilty because we were having the time of our lives.”

The group included eight river rafters, four kayakers and one white water canoeist, mostly from Nanaimo and Qualicum Beach. They packed the 450-kilometre journey into 14 days to fit within spring break, not realizing teaching staff wouldn’t return to work after the break.

The Colorado River’s flow is controlled by dams along its course, but includes what are considered some of the world’s most challenging rapids that can flip large rafts filled with supplies and adventurers.

“There were many times when we looked in front of us and just said, ‘What are we doing here?’” LeBlond said.

The expedition’s rafts, kayaks and canoe had just run the challenging Crystal Rapids, about 150km into the journey, when they encountered a raft overturned on a rocky island in the middle of the river. LeBlond described the scene as “unnerving.”

While two kayakers held back to investigate, the rest of the party continued around a bend and discovered the “slightly dazed” crew of about a dozen rafters from North Carolina – separated from their raft and supplies and unable to return upriver to recover it themselves – awaiting the park’s helicopter to retrieve it and bring them more provisions so they could possibly continue on with their journey.

LeBlond’s group was sharing supplies with the stranded rafters when a bundle of firewood floated by. Seconds later, the overturned raft appeared around the point and floated into the alcove with kayakers Stephen Mcgeragle and Shayne Vollmers riding the raft, hands behind their heads and legs crossed, LeBlond said, “like they were laying on a chaise lounge at the pool.”

“I’m in the bay talking to Janet [Smith, a member of the North Carolina group] and I’m looking at her and her eyes just light up and she goes, ‘Oh, my God. There’s our raft,’ … and they came around the point and they’re lying on top of the overturned raft, with their kayaks on top of the raft as well,” LeBlond said.

Vollmers said he and Mcgeragle were able to get their kayaks into a position to investigate the raft.

“There’s tons of fast current on both sides and not really any eddy space and it’s quite shocking that the raft got as far as it did on its own,” Vollmers said.

The raft was perched high on some boulders and, loaded with provisions, it weighed at least 700 kilograms. It took the two men about 30 minutes of hard work to “wiggle” the raft off the rocks and into the water, then toss their kayaks atop it and climb aboard.

“Steve, at that time, was like, ‘Wouldn’t this be amazing if we could just throw our kayaks on top and leave the raft upside down and float around the corner and find the crew that lost this raft?’ … so we were actually kind of lounging and relaxing when we come around the corner to see our group and the party that had lost their raft,” Vollmers said. “And so everybody was screaming and cheering when they [saw] us coming around the corner.”

Smith said the Canadians ran in, helped flip the raft upright and the teams discovered most of the supplies were still stowed on board.

“When they came around the corner with that raft our group exploded. There was hootin’ and hollerin’…” Smith said. “Then on top of bringing the raft around, everybody just leapt out of their group and flipped it over for us … It was just so cool.”

The groups spent some time sharing cold cuts and cold beers in celebration of the successful raft rescue mission before moving on.

“It’s hard to leave the canyon,” said Smith, who has made seven trips through the Grand Canyon. “We wanted to stay.”

LeBlond’s team emerged from the canyon near Pierce Ferry, Ariz. on March 30 and returned to the Island to start their 14-day quarantine.

TODAY’S MOST-READ: Prospective tenants thwart Craigslist rental scam in Nanaimo

YESTERDAY’S MOST-READ: Trudeau announces pay top-up for essential workers, expands emergency benefit

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Tye Woodruff, Al Johnson, blue hat showing through water, and Phil LeBlond, all from the Nanaimo area, run rapids on the Colorado River during a rafting excursion through the Grand Canyon in March. (Nathanael Kotzur photo)

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