“When staying alive is a full time job, there isn’t time for much else.” Truthfully, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to hear from someone who soloed the Grand Canyon of the Colorado for 22 days – in an inflatable kayak (IK), no less. It’s inspiring to talk to people like Winslow Burleson, an associate professor at NYU, who manage to balance demanding jobs in the academic world with a respectable dose of outdoor adventure. After seeing a couple photos of Win paddling a fully loaded IK into the Canyon, I decided I needed to learn more about how the journey went. I also recently posted about pursuing your personal goals before it’s too late, and this journey exemplifies this perfectly. I gave Win a call, and asked a few questions about the trip.
First off, I was interested in Win’s professional life & how that fit with the outdoors. He’s currently an associate professor at NYU, and is an inventor of sorts who specializes in Artificial Intelligence with an impressive list of accomplishments. I asked how he balances his profession with the solo Grand trip, sailing, skiing, and other sports.
Win: Well, that’s one of the advantages of my profession. You’re your own boss, and you control how much you get done and when. There’s lots of flexibility, and in terms of the academic calendar, I scheduled the trip when I wouldn’t be teaching so I could work from anywhere. The other side to it is I had a grant due right before launching, and another due right when I got off. So there was a huge intensity of professional work on both ends. From an everyday perspective I enjoy doing sports like swimming, kayaking, and sailing as much as possible. You could just work all the time, but that wouldn’t be as interesting.
JN: What were your prior experiences with boating and the Grand Canyon?
Win: I started C1 slalom racing when I was 14 or 15, and did some of the classic rivers in Western Pennsylvania. After that I did fewer rivers, but went through the Grand Canyon on a commercial trip in 1989 as a teenager.
In February 2015 Win won the lottery - a winter permit, and reached out to Tom Martin for some planning advice. Here’s what Tom had to say: “The Grand Canyon is very doable. If you can swim, have a good life jacket, and a dry suit, you have everything you need.” This advice was pretty spot-on in Win’s experience. Tom also suggested getting on a group trip to “re-water” (refresh his river skills).
Win: This past August (2015) I was the oarsman for an 18-foot raft. I learned to row as we went along, and ended up not having any flips. That’s when I started thinking about a solo trip. Also, at the take-out for the summer trip I met a solo paddler in an AIRE Lynx I. His trip was originally two people, but one paddler had a shoulder injury and had to leave, so it was really a solo endeavor. That solidified the idea that a solo IK trip would be possible.
JN: What was your experience like with the IK? Were there swims?
Win: I swam a lot, 10 or 12 times, maybe more. I didn’t swim the first day, but did on the next three days. I would make it through the top of a rapid fine, but took on water as I went through. I was already top heavy with the way the IK was rigged, so it was pretty easy to be flipped by an eddy or wave at the bottom of a rapid when I was swamped with water. I’d float a little and then hop back in. Eventually I stopped counting the number of flips. Swimming wasn’t an issue though, and a quality dry suit was crucial for this.
I was definitely nervous at first. At the top of a rapid, I would think - if I ended up swimming and don’t have my boat at the end of the rapid, do I swim left or right? Where could a helicopter land? I got much more comfortable as I went on.
JN: Swimming in a hardshell is a big fear when you’re alone on a multiday, but what’s it like in an IK?
Win: The main difference is that an IK is still buoyant if you swim, so it’s a good rescue device. A hardshell full of water is much harder to deal with, and you have to empty it out. If I flipped I’d hang on next to the IK and as soon as it was calm enough to recover I’d hop back in and keep on paddling!
JN: What was your most memorable experience while on the water?
Win: Making it through Lava. On my first trip (August 2015) I got swept off the oar rig by a big wave in Lava. I was a novice at the oars, and didn’t have my feet anchored in the raft. The wave hit me and pulled me over. Lava is interesting and intimidating. Going into it with the IK there wasn’t any guaranteed line that looked doable. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in the rapid, but I was a couple days ahead of other people, and just did it. The amazing part was I did exactly what I wanted to do...I made it through the first V-Wave, plowing through a wall of water, but was still upright through the waves that got me in the summer. I was spun by the next, and heading backwards toward the cheese greater, which launched me sideways. I spun back around, incredibly still upright, to ride out the wave train!
Sockdolager was also a turning point in the trip for me. I was comfortable on the water, but was relying closely on the guidebooks for information on the lines. Here I was not seeing the routes they described, so, I had to be confident enough to make my own decisions - I followed my own line and it worked perfectly.
JN: Your time in the Canyon was bookended by two large grants. Did you stress about them on your trip or did you let it go?
Win: I still needed to do some trip organizing once I was on the water, so that helped take my mind off the stress. It rained and snowed the first two days, so I spent much of that time in my tent, organizing food, rationing, re-reading safety procedures, and testing the GPS.
It took a couple days to move past the stresses that I brought with me, and close to a week to get comfortable with all the logistics of the trip. I also learned how time consuming it was to break camp and get on the water. I ended up doing two longer days on the water followed by a lay-over day to reduce the packing/un-packing time. Early in the trip, one or two days before midway point, I had a couple of very relaxed days just reading and sleeping, settling in, hiking, and chilling out.
Then there was the Canyon. It certainly helped balance me to be in something so impressive and captivating. Once I blurred into a phase of being in it, a lot of the worldly stresses faded away. Then, towards the end of the trip the real world thoughts started to filter back in.
JN: Being alone for 22 days allows for a lot of thinking. Were there any memorable moments of being alone?
Win: One morning, as I floated along shortly after launching, I burst out laughing - encountering the paradox of feeling safe knowing that in 60 to 70 miles there was a hot breakfast waiting for me at Phantom.
At times it was also hard to understand how alone you might be in the Canyon, since, at any point, a river party could float on by. It’s different than the tundra in Alaska, where you might know there’s no one else around. It’s a weird balance of knowing vs. not knowing. At one point I was alone for 10 days, but it can be hard to get past that sense that someone might be right around the bend. Later in the day, this became easier. Amazing moments turned into hours of silence as water, rock, and sky evolved... their colors merged... and light faded... into a shooting star streaking, far, across the crisp canyon sky.
Thanks to Win for giving a little insight into the trip! Always treat rivers with respect, but it was great to get a perspective from a boater who calmly and confidently handled an IK through the Grand. There’s been a huge explosion in self supports (kayaks & packrafts) recently, and it’s good to know that we can add IKs to that list too.
It’s also inspiring to see the variety of professional backgrounds present on Grand Canyon trips. Despite these differences, nearly everyone falls under its spell. With that said, I hope you had luck in the lottery and won a 2017 permit!
Any questions or opinions? I'd love to hear from you, just leave a comment below.
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