Navigating Muddy Waters for Bathing, Safety, and Drinking Water on a Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure
by Sharon Hester
The History of the Muddy Colorado River Through Grand Canyon
The Colorado River through Grand Canyon got its name because of its famous red colored muddy waters. Muddy was the natural state of the river historically, but today, post Glen Canyon Dam, the river runs clear and sediment free for about half the year on average. This is because the dam creates a blockage which traps sediment upstream of it in Lake Powell. Nowadays the river runs clear, cold and sediment free much of the time downstream of the dam, but the river can turn muddy at any time. The months most likely for the river to be muddy are during the Arizona monsoon season July into September and during the spring snowmelt of February, March or April. But at times the river can run clear during those months as well. Also, the river is more likely to be clear in the first 62 miles of your rafting adventure, because at mile 62, the Little Colorado River (LCR) joins the main stem Colorado. The LCR carries the highest sediment load for the longest duration of any Grand Canyon side canyon. Sometimes the Paria River, which enters the main stem at the start of the river trip is muddy, but it is a smaller drainage and run off does not last long or put in the same volume as the LCR. Still, it might add a noticeable amount of mud to the Colorado River on average 1-3 months of a year.
The degree of mud in the river can vary a lot, from a light pea soup green, low silt load to a “too thin to plow but too thick to drink” heavy, silty mess. A light muddy river is not much of an issue, but if the river has a heavy silt load it does complicate how one deals with bathing, drinking water and safety. Fortunately, a super heavy silty river is not common and usually does not stay that way for too long either, but when it does it can make some simple things more of a chore or even more dangerous.
How to Deal with Bathing in a Muddy River
If the river is extremely muddy, it will leave a fine film of silt on your skin. It is not often that the river is that silty, but when it is, it is not fun to bathe, and you do not feel exceptionally clean. To increase your bathing success, start by jumping in the river to get wet or using your groovette (or your mug) to collect river water to wet down the areas where you will use soap. Next, suds up with your biodegradable soap and/or shampoo. After getting the important bits, jump in again to rinse off. If you are not using conditioner, use a small amount of your filtered drinking water to rinse your hair. If using a conditioner, add that to hair and jump in again to rinse it out. Then do the clear water water hair rinse. Or better yet, use a leave-in conditioner. No need to jump in the cold muddy river again! Lastly use your sarong or a shammy type towel with some clear drinking water soaked in to wipe down your skin. Handy wipes work too but are a bit wasteful when a sarong/small shammy does the trick. You might find Handywipes/Wetwipes more useful to wipe down with once up at your campsite to feel refreshed before bed or upon awakening.
Make sure you have some older clothes to use if the river turns muddy, as sometimes the muddy river waters can leave a stain on clothing, even after washing at home. Or don’t worry about it and let the red mud stains bring back fond memories!
Safety Precautions When the River is Muddy
Slick mud along the shore on rocks or boats can create a serious safety concern. This is especially treacherous when a muddy river is dropping as it tends to leave a bathtub ring of slippery mud along the shore. If the river is leaving behind a film of mud on rocks, shore or rafts, take extra precautions when moving about. Go slowly and consider asking for assistance from your rafting companions or guides when getting on and off rafts, moving around the rafts or up/down the shore to/from dry sand to/from the rafts. Make sure your sandals/shoes are extra tight as the mud can suck them off. If going back on rafts in camp to retrieve gear or beverages, consider having only one person in the group go onto the raft and bring back beverages for all. Or if someone else is on the raft already, ask them nicely if they can toss your beverage or items from raft to you. Dumping bucket-loads of dry sand on the mud can crate a path to the rafts can make a more secure route, but it must be thick layer of sand, as a thin layer of sand just scrapes off back to the mud.
If the river is muddy, we recommend keeping your groovette (a pee pail provided by AzRA, usually used at nighttime, so urine can be disposed of in the river in the morning where it is required to be) in your white day bag during the day. The during the day if you have to pee, go to a secluded location use the groovette, instead of wading into the river. Dump into river with out getting into any mud. This reduces the chances of slipping or getting stuck in the muddy shore.
Purifying Muddy River Water on Grand Canyon River Trips
This is something guest participants do not really need to concern themselves with as the guides filter the river water and then chlorinate it to NPS standards, providing purified water for the trip. Read more details on our purifying water process in Filtering, Purifying and Consuming Potable Water on Grand Canyon River Trips, by guide Will Spaziani. If the river is muddy, getting the sediment out of the river water is an extra step before the filtering and chlorinating process.
Buckets of river water, which will be used for drinking water, are collected every evening upon arriving in camp. If the river is muddy, the water must settle before pumping. This usually takes the entire night to be settled enough to filter, but the process can be sped up by adding a flocculating agent. Typically, alum (this product is used by most city water municipalities), or a commercial product called Water Wizard are the agents used to increase the settling rate. A flocculating agent is usually used if the river is exceptionally muddy or if drinking water is needed immediately. After the silt has settled, the buckets are carefully decanted, so that the now clear water at the top of the bucket is poured off into empty buckets to be filtered/purified. The muddy remains at the bottom of the bucket are then tossed.
If you do end up being on a trip with very muddy water, keep in mind that that is the original way the river ran much of the year and is what made the beaches that raft trips now camp on. Enjoy being a kid again playing in the mud!