A tule reed boat runs the Grand Canyon

Tom Martin, Volunteer

Editor’s Note: Staff from the BLM’s Yuma Field Office worked with Tom Martin and his wife Hazel Clark who wanted to harvest native tule reed along the Colorado River. These reeds went on to become a raft that successfully floated through the Grand Canyon in January 2021. BLM staff worked to make sure Martin and Clark harvested only from native habitat. Many of the current marsh species are introduced or heavily used for endangered species nesting. This species of tule is used for foraging and regrows within a few months if the root mass remains. Tom submitted this story describing his inspiration for the project and an account of the river trip.


A Tule Reed Boat Runs the Grand Canyon

By Tom Martin, January 29, 2021

After studying Grand Canyon river running history for over three decades, it occurred to me that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the First Nation mariners of the Colorado River. 
Over the last few years, I have focused on Tule Reed, Schoenoplectus acutus, commonly called hardstem tule or just common tule. It’s a very buoyant plant native to the Colorado River basin. Tule reed was used for thousands of years by the First Nations people of the lower Colorado River, including the Mohave or Cocopah. They were excellent swimmers, fisherfolk and boaters. That study took on new meaning when I won a Grand Canyon river trip in the 2019 main lottery for late December 2020.

a person stands among tall tule reeds growing on a river shore
Harvesting tule reeds from BLM lands along the Colorado River near Blythe, California. Photo courtesy Tom Martin

After contacting Grand Canyon National Park and the Bureau of Land Management, this fall my wife Hazel and I harvested some tule along the Colorado River near Blythe, California. We dried the 10-foot-long reeds in the sun for a few weeks and then with our friend Stacey, bundled them together using lots and lots of sixteenth inch diameter nylon cord. We affectionately called the craft Lotsaknots.
The tule raft joined a fleet of five 18-foot rubber rafts, one 16-foot rubber raft, a dory, two hard-shell and one inflatable kayak for a 30-day Grand Canyon run. Our launch date of December 30, 2020, soon approached. After inspecting all our river gear and providing our group with a river orientation, National Park Service Ranger Peggy Kolar allowed us to launch Lotsaknots. It helped that Ranger Kolar observed the tule raft as it floated and performed well at the put in. 
My longtime friend Peter Brown, a dendrochronologist from Fort Collins, Colorado, offered to row the tule. Peter had never kayaked before. He brought along a cheap $50 kayak paddle and a not-so-cheap dry suit and lifejacket. Peter was convinced the raft would make it. I gave it odds to Soap Creek, just 11 miles downstream and assumed it wouldn’t be long before Lotsaknots would be draped over the back of one of the big rafts, next to one of the kayaks. That never happened.  

a man with a kayak paddle rides the tule raft in the river
Peter Brown guides the tule raft on the Colorado River. Photo courtesy Tom Martin

A quarter mile after we launched the trip, Lotsaknots kicked Pete off in the Paria Riffle, but he hung on to the raft and his paddle, scrambled right back on, and was paddling again in the tail waves. Since the Grand Canyon “Old Timers” called a run through a rapid a “good run” if one was able to paddle the tail waves, Pete was optimistic. He swam a lot in the next 30 days, like when he spent too much time futzing with his GoPro and ended up running the far right side of Hance Rapid. 
Every evening we pulled Lotsaknots out of the water and stood her on her stern, just like the fishers in Peru do. We also put three wooden dowels through her, port to starboard, as traditional tule raft builders do. We added a backrest out of the inflatable kayak for comfort. 

a tule raft stands upright on a beach near other rubber rafts on the shore
The tule raft standing upright on shore. Photo courtesy Tom Martin

When we got to the Kaibab Suspension Bridge at Phantom Ranch, I found a National Park Service ranger and suggested they might want to go to Boat Beach to see a boat made of reeds. They did just that and Lotsaknots made it into the NPS daily briefing. 
While all this was going on, our trip was enjoying the cold winter weather, hiking at layovers, and making 20-mile days when on the water. Peter had no problems keeping Lotsaknots in the middle of the pack of boats as we rowed those long days, something I thought might be difficult to do. I was also concerned that beavers might like to eat the tule, but they didn’t mess with Lotsaknots
Day after day Pete and Lotsaknots carried on, through rain, freezing nighttime temps, pounding waves and rough rocks. Every few days I’d do a five- to ten-minute interview with Peter. Those are available online

During the interviews, Pete would try to convince me Lotsaknots was going to make it. I was still not so sure. When we got to Separation Rapid after traveling 240 miles, I knew Peter was right. The runout was uneventful and after traveling 278 miles, Peter Brown riding Lotsaknots cruised out of the Grand Canyon on January 27, 2021. Pete noted “It was an intimate ride.”
While this was the first “documented” tule raft to float through Grand Canyon, Peter and I are confident that a traditionally built tule raft made by the indigenous peoples of the Colorado River could certainly have made a run through Grand Canyon in the last 10,000 years, possibly, more than once. 
My thanks to Grand Canyon National Park, the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, Lotsaknots, Peter Brown and the amazing crew of our 2020 Grand Canyon river trip. 
Tom Martin lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and volunteers for River Runners For Wilderness, a project of the non-profit Living Rivers.