Grand Canyon Adventure

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On October 21, 2020, Glenwood Springs ten-year-old Bodie Hilleke became the youngest paddler ever to complete the 280-mile, 18-day journey kayaking the entire Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon
Bodie Hilleke surfing a wave in the Grand Canyon

LUCK OF THE DRAW

When Polly Hilleke texted that she received a coveted Grand Canyon permit, I felt elated, but not surprised. 

Throughout the summer, Polly and I scrambled to get our families on river trips; regularly visiting the rec.gov site, hunting permit cancellations, and frantically texting invites as soon as one was secured. As travel plans shifted for many permit holders due to COVID-19, excitement circulated among the whitewater community. Chasing cancellations became a new addiction.

Typically, you secure a Grand Canyon permit a year before the launch date. This year, due to the pandemic, Grand Canyon river rafting trips were suspended from March 24 until May 21. Permit holders were offered to defer their launch dates, freeing up unused permit dates for the 2020 season. In September, the park service emailed lottery participants. They offered a chance to call-in and attempt to secure a newly released permit available for September-November. Getting a permit became a matter of timing, blind luck on September 18, as the phone lines jammed with permit-chasers.

Polly lined up her entire extended family to call in. Polly’s mother-in-law, Denise Hilleke got through the phone lines from Alabama. She secured a permit, putting Polly down as the trip leader for an 18-day river journey, launching October 5.

POISED FOR OPPORTUNITY

Pulling together an 18-day river trip with eight children and eight adults two+ weeks might seem impossible to some. But Tommy and Polly are not new to multi-day river trips. Tommy – an internationally renowned expedition kayaker. Polly – an accomplished paddler in her own right, who first learned to kayak as a student at CRMS High School. They have taken their four sons, Kelly (14), Daniel (13), Dax (11) and Bodie (10) out on rivers for years.

Polly has the most positive “can-do” attitude of any mom I know. She quickly brushes off compliments about her motivation to get the boys out. “It’s just because I’m not working this summer,” she often shared, having recently left a career in medical sales. But it’s much more than that. Tommy and Polly are always spearheading adventures for their family. Whether skiing Mt. Sopris or surfing in Costa Rica, the family is always in search of the next adventure.

Grand Canyon
The Hilleke family at the base of Deer Creek Falls in the Grand Canyon.

IT STARTED THIS SUMMER

This year, Polly and Tommy found themselves spending even more time on the river with their kids. They paddled local runs on the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers, and countless sessions at the Glenwood Wave. All four boys have kayaked the challenging Slaughterhouse run on the Roaring Fork River.

On any given weekend, the Hillekes loaded the family RV. They headed to various stretches of the Arkansas River or rivers in Idaho. Polly landed a cancellation permit on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. She organized a trip in just three days. She took the four boys on a self-supported six-day kayak trip on the class four river. The Hillekes kayaked more whitewater miles this summer than some kayakers will experience in a lifetime. Bodie claims that this summer prepared him for the big family adventure on the Grand Canyon. “I felt prepared when I really learned to combat roll,” he shares. A combat roll is when a kayaker flips their boat and rolling upright becomes an automatic reflex.  

By August, it was clear the Hilleke boys could handle the Grand’s 280 miles of giant rapids and grueling flatwater. By pushing to go this fall, Bodie, age 10, could set a record. The youngest paddler in the world to kayak the Grand Canyon.

MAKING A PLAN

Right away, three Hilleke generations assembled for the trip. This included including Tommy’s parents from Alabama. Plus his sister Vida and her husband Scott Dillard from Carbondale, and their two daughters (ages 8 and 10). Carbondale local and avid rafter/kayaker Ian Anderson decided to join, bringing his daughter (13) and son (10). I planned to share the duty of rowing a gear boat with Erin Young. (AVSC sports trainer, and commercial raft guide.) She signed on to row the gear boat for the upper half of the trip. She planned to hike out after eight days. I would hike in and meet the group.

It’s common for private Grand Canyon trips to use a gear outfitter for rented equipment. The Hillekes enlisted the help of Grand Canyon rafting trip outfitter, Moenkopi, to provide three rafts, gear, and all food. Polly, Tommy, Vida Dillard, and the four Hilleke boys all kayaked; everyone else rafted. 

In a few days, every detail landed in place. 

Grand Canyon
Axel, Ian and Juniper Anderson on their raft “home” for the eighteen-day journey

THE POWER OF THE GRAND

Before raising a family, I spent summers rowing commercial gear boats on the Grand. There is nothing like a trip through the Grand Canyon to remind one what is truly important in life. The many rock layers exposed in the canyon range from 200 million to 2 billion years old. They provide a literal scale for how infinitely tiny human existence is on our planet. The volume of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon ranges from 8,000 – 25,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). The local Roaring Fork River averages 1,200 CFS. The huge hydraulic features of the Grand are fun and fearsome.

I can still recall my first trip rowing gear through the canyon twenty years ago. I cried happy tears perched at the oars of an 18-foot rig. I’ve experienced tears of similar emotion only on my wedding day and at the birth of my three daughters.

It became clear my husband Ants and daughters couldn’t leave commitments at home for the trip. Ants looked at me, “You should go,” he said.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

Experiencing the Grand Canyon, amid the huge rapids of the Colorado River, changes you. I felt excited about this chance to row the ten-day lower portion of the trip. I planned to hike the South Kaibab Trail to meet the group at Phantom Ranch.

The day I met the crew, we faced a stretch of whitewater known as one of the biggest days of rapids on the Grand. The Hilleke boys all looked like whitewater warriors in drysuits and helmets with Go-Pro camera mounts on every available surface. In the heart of the ancient rock of the Upper Granite Gorge, we scouted and ran the mountainous waves of Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, the infamous Crystal Rapid. And a fun series of big rapids known as “the gems” with names like Ruby, Sapphire, and Turquoise — all in one afternoon. 

You’d see Tommy scouting out ahead of the group often precariously poised on a high cliff at the bottom of a rapid. He often pulled a tripod and video camera out of his kayak like Mary Poppins’ magical bag. He filmed and we all watched the kayakers go first, seeing the Hilleke boys enter the top of a big wave train with a kick-flip move or fearlessly rolling mid-rapid when a stout wave knocked them over. Polly and Vida were always close by, accomplished kayakers, ready to support the boys.

Bodie playing in the turquoise water
of the Little Colorado River tributary.

ADVENTURE ON AND OFF THE RIVER

Seeking every good surf wave and hole on the river, the four brothers were equally adventurous hiking through slot canyons and throwing backflips off canyon walls. 

A favorite hike is Silver Grotto, a technical slot canyon on the upper stretch of the Grand. Silver Grotto is a beautiful 11-mile slot canyon of pools and high polished walls. Tommy, (also a swiftwater rescue instructor) brought climbing gear and secured a safety rope for climbing up the scenic slot canyon. “Silver Grotto was sick!”  Bodie shared; a word regularly heard in the Hilleke boys’ vocabulary — not “sick” as in feeling ill but as the Urban Dictionary defines: “Slang for cool or fabulous.”  

Kayaking 280 miles seemed effortless to the Hilleke boys. Not once did any of the brothers take a break to ride in a raft. The older brothers were always looking out for the younger ones, often sacrificing running a “big line” through a rapid, for eddying out to run safety for rafts and their brother. Kelly, the oldest Hilleke sibling says he didn’t mind running safety for rafts, “the rafts are carrying all our gear down the river, so it’s a symbiotic relationship to be able to look out for them,” he astutely shared. After our victorious runs down the infamous “Lava Falls” rapid, well known to be one of the most difficult rapids on the river, Kelly and Daniel hiked back up to run the rapid again. This is the first I’ve ever heard of anyone doing this amazing feat!

Grand Canyon
Bodie Hilleke, Morgan Dillard, Juniper Anderson and Helen Dillard.

THE LITTLE COLORADO TRIBUTARY

A highlight of the Grand Canyon is the spectacular aquamarine water of the Little Colorado tributary. (Shown in photos above) Calcium carbonate minerals in the Little Colorado tributary create travertine, a chalky limestone that settles out of the water and coats the riverbed in a white hue. The effect is other-worldly and it’s clear why the Navajo, to whom the Little Colorado River drainage is home, have designated the confluence a sacred site.  It is also home to the native Humpback Chub, an endangered fish. In recent years, the Little Colorado has been under threat of development and hydroelectric projects pursued by Phoenix, AZ developers. The Grand Canyon Trust and Navajo Nation have fought hard to protect this miraculous wonder.  It’s important for kids to experience this area, so future generations can help to protect it. 

A RIVER FAMILY

The entire crew of kids, all familiar with multi-day rafting trips, were upbeat, helpful, and self-aware throughout the trip. The occasional squabble might ensue, mostly involving sugary snacks or a sibling spat, but the kids always chipped in, washing dishes by headlamp, bringing gear to boats in the morning, and setting up a chair circle in camp when a new sandy beach became home for the night. 

“You could almost watch the kids maturing as the trip went on,” Ian Anderson shared. 

The youngest adventurer on the trip, Morgan Dillard (age 8) often rode in my boat holding tight to her beloved grandfather, Papa (Tommy and Vida’s father). Morgan and Papa both wore drysuits (especially on big rapid days) as the water of the Grand Canyon is always cold, coming from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam. It’s not uncommon for boats to flip in the giant hydraulics of the Grand Canyon and if one were to unintentionally “swim,” a drysuit is an important article, especially for a young rafter. Luckily, throughout the 18-day journey, all rafts remained upright and all kayak sprayskirts remained intact. Morgan, who clearly grew up adventuring on whitewater trips, happily read descriptions of rapids to me from the guidebook and spotted the colorful bright angel shale layer, when it came into view. 

“Can I row now?” the intrepid eight-year-old often asked.

In the words of ten-year-old Axel Anderson, “The best part about multi-day river trips is waking up on the river and getting to do it all over again.”

Sister and brother Vida Dillard and Tommy Hilleke cooking dinner.

THE RHYTHM OF THE RIVER

By the end of the trip the daily rhythm of loading and unloading boats, setting up camp, and breaking it down again, becomes second nature.  On multi-day trips, you often predetermine your cook crews. Polly assigned me to join her, Ian, and Juniper cooking every third day; reading menus and finding food among coolers for dinner and breakfast. Others in the group worked in threesomes and we all rotated through the cycle, taking our turns cheffing. After dinner, the cooks retired to the campfire as the dish crew came on board to clean up.  When all camp chores were complete, we’d often break out a bag of costumes, one of my favorite traditions on a river trip, bringing giddy laughter to the campfire at the close of another epic day.

The camaraderie of working as a team and looking out for one another on the river builds a bond that I often refer to as becoming a “river family.” I knew I’d miss waking up to the sound of the propane “blaster” early in the morning heating water for coffee, groggily peering from a warm sleeping bag to witness the first light emerge on a canyon wall. Most of all, I knew I’d miss working with a bonded group, daily pursuing a common goal.

Denise Hilleke sporting LED wings in camp on costume night.


The presence of kids served to deepen my appreciation for a new stage of life running rivers – watching, in admiration, younger generations learn the culture of river life, cherishing the natural beauty around them, far from electronic devices and close to dirt, stars, and the melodic symphony of whitewater.”
– Aimee Cullwick


ONE FOR THE RECORD BOOKS

When you ask Bodie Hilleke how it feels to break a world record, he responds, “The world record is cool, but we just wanted to kayak the Grand Canyon with our family.” These words characterize this smiley, adventurous boy.  It’s easy to forget that Bodie Hilleke is only ten years old, he’s so focused, determined, and calm in rapids. Then, around the campfire at night, he would climb into his mother’s lap, often nodding to sleep in Polly’s arms as we all recanted stories of the day.  

The only time I ever witnessed Bodie becoming emotional was when he lost a small wooden kayak he had been whittling. The miniature boat was thrown to the top of a side hike waterfall, with the goal of a miniature first descent, and it became stuck in a bush at the top.  This occurred one of the last days of the 18-day adventure, and Bodie became teary. The event served as a perfect metaphor for the entire Grand Canyon trip as everyone became determined to free the tiny kayak, throwing rocks into the bush above for nearly 15 minutes. 

When the kayak was freed and floated to the pool of water below, we all cheered and laughed. Mission accomplished … once again.  As the adventure came to a close, it was clear Bodie Hilleke had not only broken a world record but the entire crew, now a river family, had supported the endeavor with joy, solidarity, and wonder. 

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About Aimee Cullwick

Aimee lives in Carbondale and is a mother to three daughters. She’s also a raft guide and kayaker, the founder of Downriver Divas, a retreat business leading multi-day river trips for women. After earning a master’s degree in education, Aimee gypsied the globe seeking river tribes throughout North, Central, South America, and New Zealand (her husband’s native country). She is also the proud owner of one of the most coveted costume closets in the world!!