By Christie Kroll:
Nevills rapid takes a long sweet tumble around a gentle bend on river right leaving a great cobbled sand bar river left. The dories were tucked into the lower beach having breakfast. The boats huddled and bobbed in the surging eddy looking like anxious ponies. We waved, and the dory people waved back. The rock strata rise at an angle that tricks the eye. Even flat water looks like it is going downhill. As the river turns right below Nevills, the canyon permits a rare view to the rim over Red Canyon. Red Canyon [river left] is wide, flat-bottomed, lush with cottonwood, its slopes smudged with red and peachy orange. This may be the Hakatai Shale. The angle of repose is long and gentle, red slopes set under a blue sky cascading into green vegetation at the river. It is one of the prettiest places in the canyon.
A side canyon this large pushes a lot of debris into the river. This is Hance rapid which is a 30 foot drop that happens over a distance. Hance rapid needs to be scouted. The menfolk walked downriver. They pointed, walked some more and pointed some more. At this water level a right run was the ticket, definitely a right run. Rod went first. He bore in on his oars, but the rapid pushed back, popping an oar out of its lock sending the raft left down what looked like astoundingly big water. Rod ‘did a Powell’ [after John Wesley, who rowed with one arm] kept the raft straight and had a really nice if unintended run. The next raft fared no better even with two oars in the water assisted by motivated paddlers. Everyone ran left and ran it well. It was a subtle message from the river about who was in charge down here.
Everything changes at Hance. The rocks, the water, the colors, the vegetation. In less than a mile the erodable slopes have climbed a hundred feet above us exposing the underlying Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster granite. This rock rises up in fierce walls that squeeze the river down to half its former width. The schists are black or burgundy, fine grained, polished by the water into curls and flutes. Each outcrop is worthy of an art museum. The granite is pink, made up of boxier grains, tortured, shot through with white seams of quartzite that look like frozen lightning. The water is faster, deeper, darker, rubbing against the rocks churning and upwelling. Even the river feels as if it is uneasy passing here. We are in the upper granite gorge now.
The guide book notes that camps are few and far between for the next 15 miles. The granite and schists may erode, but they do not make sand, or if they do, it has no place settle out. In the spare places where a seam of rock has broken down, it leaves a small shear slot with a sand spit only a few feet wide, barely enough to hold a single tamarisk. There is almost no vegetation along the water.
Hance mine sits up above the granite, dug into the tilted plane of Bass limestone far overhead. We cannot stop here. This pains the geologists. Seeing the asbestos mine holds significance. I wonder how John Hance found it in the first place and how he got the stuff out. Residue runs in chalk white streaks that occasionally come all the way down to the river. I hold my breath as we pass.
In quick succession we meet Sockdolager and Grapevine rapids. Sockdolager is a word of uncertain origin. The dictionary says it means a heavy finishing blow, possibly from sock and doxology, having to do with a sermon. A good run of a rapid is a mix of experience, planning and some luck. On the one hand, rapids have known elements; there is the tongue, a hole here and there to be avoided, a wave to be to be hit head on, a bubble line to be followed…… but at the moment of contact each of these elements has a life of its own. The water surges, the waves breathe, holes hiss. Timing matters.
Jim, Mel, and Barry were about half way down, taking a conservative run along river right when something large happened, perhaps a lateral wave of momentarily epic proportions. It was gone as quickly as it erupted, temporarily obscuring Jim’s raft which disappeared in a spray of white. As the raft came back up, Jim was still at the oars but his passengers were gone. Two black dots popped up in the waves. Mel and Barry had joined the rapid swim club.
Several rafts were eddied out after successful runs. The first people to spot swimmers go to the whistles on their life vests, blow three times to signal an emergency and ‘point positive’. Everyone swings around and the closest rafts move in to pull the swimmers up. Rafts farther downstream line up in case first contact is not successful. These things are preplanned and discussed in morning meetings. The whole episode was over in a minute or two. Mel and Barry were on other rafts. Jim finished his run, looking a little sheepish. We all eddied out for a head count.
Clear Creek comes in on river right. Following a fault in the bedrock it cuts down several hundred feet, just downstream of a complicated schist outcrop. It is not possible to pull in at the mouth of the creek, so we park on a small, steep beach upstream and hunt for the trail. The rock is hard, black, smooth and too hot to touch without gloves. A few determined cacti have wedged themselves into cracks or pockets of sand. It is a short, busy climb up and then a gravel switchback down the other side to the stream bed. The rock walls along the creek are close and polished. Rushes and wildflowers reach for meager sun while tadpoles swim endlessly in place in warm pools. About a quarter mile in there is a chokestone. Some overlarge chunk of granite or other overlying rock tumbled down, blocking the creek behind it, catching the sediment while making the water find a new path. The water has found its way about half way down before running into a pocket of granite that shoots it out sideways like a fire hose. This makes the pool into a marvelous stand up jacuzzi. The water is clean and warm with almost enough power to knock a person over, but not before handing out the best back massage on the planet. It is an opportunity to rub off a layer of patina accumulated over the last 7 days in the canyon. Unlike the main flow of the Colorado, side streams are environmentally sacred ground. No peeing, no soap, no washing is allowed in the fragile side streams. Still, a good scrub leaves us feeling much fresher.
Every side canyon is different. Each has a story to tell about the rocks it’s met, the watershed from which it comes. Most have a chokestone, that place where a long level walk is suddenly ended by a jumble of rock or a pour over that, if passable at all, requires nimbler bodies than ours and some climbing experience. It is as if the canyon sets limits. You may come but only so far. Over a season, thousands of people will walk a few hundred feet to stand in the horizontal waterfall. Probably none will find a way up and past the stone to the miles beyond it. The more we see of the canyon, it becomes clear how little of the canyon we have seen.
Three miles farther down we come to Phantom Ranch. 7 days of isolation from the world are over. We float under a foot bridge across the river, pulling into the boat beach. Everyone in our group is signed on for the full 16 days. Some groups have members coming in or going out at Phantom Ranch, which is a kind of a mid point to the canyon. The hike out is beastly hot in summer, so anyone who plans to do it needs to be on the trail well before sun up. This is why camping just above the ranch is restricted to groups who are changing people. We are here in the afternoon. The beach is empty save for a hiker or two. The cross canyon bridge connects the north and south rims. Phantom Ranch is the chance for hikers to find some shade and lemonade in the middle. There is a tidy, well used campground along a creek sheltered by massive cottonwoods. Ravens patrol the rafts, campers, and passers-by looking for any opportunity to pick pockets.
Away from the river the air is mercilessly hot. It smells of mules. A dozen or so are standing head to tail swiping flies in a corral catching a nap before they are reloaded for the trip back to the rim. They will travel in the evening or most likely first thing in the morning. In addition to the campground there are a few cabins that can be booked years in advance. Boaters are not permitted to stay overnight at Phantom Ranch and a shower cannot be purchased at any price. Potable water is precious. There is scarcely enough for the campsite, cabins, and hikers and to run the small kitchen in the lodge. Food selection is limited to a steak or stew. All supplies have to come in and trash has to go out on a mule. In addition to being expensive, food also has to be ordered days in advance. Casual visitors can buy cliff bars and lemonade, not much else. There is also a brisk trade in postcards that will be postmarked and carried out on a mule. Cell phones will not work but there is a pay phone that takes quarters or a calling card. Peter gives us his secret number to make things easier. All is well. News from home for those who called is all good. Before the trip the thought of being able to reach back to our old lives at Phantom Ranch felt like such a necessary thing. Once here, it isn’t. If there is news from the outside world no one asks, and no one tells. The afternoon is getting on. We head back to the rafts for a short float through Pipe Creek rapid to camp.
And here there is news. The river, green as glass two hours ago, is milky grey. The sun beats down from a clear blue sky, but somewhere upstream a canyon has flashed.
Pipe Creek camp sits on a long cobble bar river right below the rapid. After a sweet ride and a hard pull to shore we are home. It’s been a long day. Mel and her kitchen team treat us to pasta primavera, pesto, greek salad and Tracey delights with a peach cobbler.
And…. buffalo chicken wings.
Coming soon…. Hiking Horn Creek rapid and what is a Z rig anyway?