(l-r) Tom Wimmer, Bert Loper and John Richardson at Loper’s camp in Glen Canyon, 1915. From the library of the US Geological Society in Denver, published by Colorado Plateau River Guides.
In the morning, New Shady Grove camp lives up to its name. It is on river left, with sheer cliffs on either side hundreds of feet high, so the morning sun does a long reveal down the rocks on the right side. The cliff on river right is also a super-IMAX-movie-sized presentation of The Great Uncomformity, a 520-million-year-old layer of Tapeats Sandstone that rests directly on top of 1.7 billion-year-old schist.
Where did all that time go? Please go to the entry for Day 4, where I attempt to summarize Rod’s explanation. Don’t bother me right now. It’s 6:30 am and I am sitting in a camp chair, staring at the light trickling down the rock while caffeine trickles into my bloodstream. There are thousands of fractures in that cliff. They make millions of surfaces, and the look of each surface changes slightly as the sun creeps higher. So slow down, pour yourself some of that good Peet’s coffee, and take a look. It’s unbelievable.
The water in Granite Gorge moves faster because the river is narrower. Our rafts would go eighteen miles in about four hours today, with three more hours spent splashing in two spectacular waterfalls. Yesterday we got halfway through a series of six rapids that– for some reason no one seems to know — are named after gemstones. Today, Pedro took the oars as we pushed off and quickly took us through the remaining three gems – Emerald (rated 5 out of 9), Ruby (5), and Serpentine (7).
These were not small rapids, but they weren’t among the worst, either. I don’t think we scouted them. Running rapids like these is like approaching the Lincoln Tunnel from the New Jersey side. Just buckle up, put down whatever you were playing with, keep both hands on the wheel, stop talking, and pay attention. The chances are good that you’ll be fine. Drenched, but fine.
Below Serpentine the rocks changed. The river turned to the south and started making a 25-mile loop around the Powell Plateau, which juts out between the North Rim and the river. Faults in this region brought younger rocks to the surface, so conglomerates, limestone, and shale mixed with the older schist and granite. At Mile 108, we saw an old boat beached on river left.
The Ross Wheeler is a small, tippy, heavy boat that was used by three men in an unsuccessful attempt to run the Canyon in 1915. They abandoned it, and a miner gave it a second life ferrying material across the river to his asbestos operation. As we passed the boat, Rod (in our lead raft) stood up, took his hat off, and held it over his heart.
The boat was built by a legendary river-runner named Bert Loper (1869-1949, picture above). Bert began running the Colorado and its tributaries in the 1890s. In 1920, he was in the lead boat of the expedition that decided on the location of Hoover Dam. In 1949, at the age of 79, Loper ignored his wife’s pleas and, despite his heart trouble, set off in a boat he had built to run the Grand Canyon one last time. He died in the rapid at Mile 24.5, probably of a heart attack, and went missing for 25 years until a hiker found his skeleton near the high-water mark around Mile 180.
Rod told us this story as he stood before the wreckage of Bert’s 1949 boat, the Grand Canyon, on day 4. Just downstream from Bert’s boat is Hansborough-Richards rapids, named for two men who drowned when their boat flipped there in 1889. Another member of their expedition had drowned six days earlier. There’s a camp at Mile 45 named for Willie Taylor, who had a heart attack on the spot in 1956; and somewhere nearby, we were told, is a pie plate inscribed with the name of a teenaged boy who drowned while running the river in the 1950s. Those were the days before helicopter rescues, so they had to bury the boy where they found him. The pie plate is his headstone.
Safety is paramount on river trips, but if your goal is immortality, all you need to do is die down here. They will never stop talking about you. The Grand Canyon River Guides Oral History Project is dominated by tales of near-misses, catastrophes, and fatalities. There is a fraternal reason. River guides tend to be sentimental, and looking out for fellow-travelers is part of their job description. Scary stories also serve a cautionary purpose, because the moral usually seems to be wear your life jacket and don’t take chances.
But mostly, stories about death on the river endure because they are great Western stories. My favorite old-time river-runner is Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom (1909-1949), a gas station attendant who would occasionally leave his job in Coquille, Oregon, hitch a wooden boat to his ten-dollar Dodge sedan, and run various wild Western rivers alone. He was the first person to run the entire navigable length of the Green and Colorado rivers solo. And he was so legendarily good at whitewater boating that he never flipped his boat, although he did have to climb out of Grand Canyon at one point, hitchhike to Flagstaff, and work there until he could buy more food, hitchhike back, and complete the trip.
Buzz made his big trip in 1937, a year after the gates of Hoover Dam had closed. He rowed the length of Lake Mead, bumped his boat against the concrete of the dam, climbed out, and hitchhiked back to Oregon. Ten years later, while scouting the Grande Ronde River for the US Geological Survey, he died of a gunshot wound that was probably self-inflicted. We know all this because Buzz kept a diary that was made into an excellent biography, The Doing of the Thing, by whitewater guides Vince Welch, Cort Conley, and Brad Dimock.
People still die in the Grand Canyon, but they usually do it the way Buzz did – by their own hands. According to a strange catalogue of Grand Canyon deaths called Over The Edge, the park had recorded 685 deaths as of 2012, and perhaps 90 percent of them happened because the person who died ignored simple rules. They went off the trail and fell, they dove off a cliff, they didn’t take enough water on a hike, or they went into the river without a life jacket. The book also claims that no visitor to the Grand Canyon has ever died from snakebite.
River guides are like cowboys (and a few cowgirls). They are up to their necks in Western folklore, and they often feel that it’s necessary to echo the legends that surround them. Rod Metcalf freely admits that he adopts a character when he’s working on the river. He has a white working-class Southern background, and on the river, he is a jovial redneck in a battered white Stetson, a pirate flag flying from the rear of his raft. Away from the river, he is a professor of geology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Rod likes to tell the story of a woman on a commercial trip who witnessed him switch from one persona to the other. He abruptly stopped joking and explained nearby rock strata to the group in some detail. The woman was silent for a moment and then said, “It’s like you’re two different people!”
It was around 10 am, and the heat was building to unbearable levels if you were more than a foot or two away from the water. We stopped at Shinumo Creek on river left, where a small creek between high walls kept the
temperature down, and we walked up a quarter-mile or so to a ten-foot waterfall that offered fantastic back-pounding action. It is hard to describe how good it feels, nine days into a camping trip, to be scoured by cool fresh water.
When we got back to the boat, Pedro let me take the oars for a couple of hours. I rowed through Hataki rapid (rated 4) and Walthenberg rapid which, at six out of ten, was the first drop where I really could have screwed up in a serious way. But I didn’t. And I also did not run into 113 Mile Rock, a fin of schist jutting out of calm water. Surprisingly, lots of people have flipped their rafts here. They do it the way Pete and Christie did – they run into the rock and are pinned to it by the current, which eventually sucks them under. I breezed by the rock, feeling more confident by the minute. Pedro knew better. He watched me and kept correcting errors.
We pulled over for lunch at Upper Garnet Camp, on a beach dominated by a large pink pegmatite — a quartz and feldspar boulder embedded with large crystals. Christie used a flat spot on top of the rock as a makeshift table, and handed out sandwiches of tuna salad (which we had mixed up that morning) with cheese. Christie managed the trip menu quietly and competently, starting weeks before we pushed off. It was a huge and complicated job, and I was grateful that she had left my mind untroubled by such logistical concerns. I was free to munch on my sandwich and ogle the rock, which was wondrous.
The metamorphic rocks in Granite Gorge rank between 5 and 6 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, which is about the same hardness as a steel nail. But this huge, glossy, pink boulder had a big circular pothole on top, as if a drill had bored into it. And that is exactly what happened, very slowly. Holes like these form when a rock is trapped in a small depression by water that circulates over it, causing the rock to spin for eons. At Upper Garnet, the steel-like rock had a hole bored into it that was several feet deep.
The Grand Canyon gives you constant reminders that you are infinitesimally small and your lifespan is vanishingly short. Yet it also shows you things so beautiful that once you see them, they will never leave your mind. The images are burned into your consciousness permanently, whatever that means.
A mile below our lunch spot was Royal Arch Creek, also on river left. We pulled over and hiked up the side canyon to one of the A List destinations of any Canyon river trip. Elves Chasm is a spot where a waterfall about eight feet high is surrounded by ferns and mosses. The pool of this falls is just deep enough to dive into feet-first. You can climb through a tunnel around the side, stand at the lip, and jump.
Jim Kirchner, who is also a distinguished college professor when away from the river, lost his mind at this spot. He climbed through the tunnel and catapulted off the falls over and over again, screaming “cowabunga!” every time. He did a perfect imitation of an exuberant 12-year-old. We all did. These were the most spectacular desert creeks I had ever seen, by far.
We went a few more miles through calm water to Upper Blacktail camp, which was beastly hot but had shade on the beach and a cooler side canyon where the Great
Unconformity made another appearance. Tania and I stayed behind while Rod took a group up to see it. When he returned, he seemed miffed that we had missed his lecture, so we agreed to go up with him for tutoring the next morning.
Someone made a delicious meal of fajitas and fruit salad, and Tracey turned out delicious brownies in the Dutch Oven. It was dark by the time the dishes were done, I can’t imagine how anyone stayed up late that day, but I couldn’t be sure. I was asleep before the stars came out.
Quote of the day: Rod, “Every shirt is important.”