Tracey Metcalf (l) holding a worked stone chip at Unkar Pueblo.
The sun was in the sky for more than 15 hours a day during our trip, and Saturday, June 21 was the longest day of them all. But we took it easy, because we weren’t allowed to camp between Mile 78 and Mile 90. The reason was Phantom Ranch, at Mile 88, where the Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails cross the river. Other expeditions pick up hikers and drop off rafters there, and these “transfers” who only float through the upper or lower halves of the Canyon are assigned specific times to rendezvous on the Ranch’s small beach. The Park Service gives these folks first dibs on campsites closest to the transfer point.
It was just as well. We getting tired of the push, and an afternoon siesta sounded like just the thing. At 6:15 am, I asked Tim how he had slept. “OK , he said, “except I had a dream that six river adders had attached themselves to my side, and I could only pull five of them off.” I reminded him that we had six rafts, and one of them was his.
I took another stroll up Carbon Canyon. It had no running water, but it did have cobbled stones, dry waterfalls, and pockmark-like indentations in the cliff walls. I have never witnessed a flash flood, but it must take hundreds of them to accomplish what I was seeing. The strangest thing I saw wasn’t water-related, though. It was a mosaic of loose rock pieces on top of a flat boulder. It looked like the rock face was disintegrating but had never been disturbed, so the loose pieces still fit together like a puzzle.
A Park Service Ranger once told me a rule of thumb that usually works. It doesn’t matter how crowded the parking lot is, she said. If you walk 500 yards past the wilderness boundary, you’ll be alone. As the years have gone by and the population has increased, that distance might also have increased, but you still don’t have to walk far. The rule held on the river, too. The campsites were clean but heavily used, and so were the popular trails. Whenever I got a chance to go more than a few yards off the herd path, I got the feeling that there hadn’t been anyone else around in years.
We pushed off at 9:45 am. Soon afterward, we crossed Butte Fault and entered Furnace Flat, an area where the flood plain of the Colorado is unusually wide and open to the sun. Butte Fault is one of the major geologic markers in the canyon, and it’s easy to spot. I won’t pretend to explain its importance, except to say that it moved thousands of feet down in one geologic era, then back up in another era. As far as I can tell, it is the Upper Grand Canyon’s hinge.
We were lucky today. The sky was overcast, which brought the temperature down a few degrees. Innumerable side canyons extended for miles away from the river on both sides. It would be so easy for hikers to get lost here, so easy to hit dead ends, and so hard to find water. Sticking to the river makes things simple.
Around 11:30 we pulled over on the right bank to visit the ruins of a large pueblo at the delta of Unkar Creek. The delta is large and could easily be irrigated. It wasn’t hard to spot signs of deer, mountain goats, and sheep. And the main thing, of course, is there’s always plenty of water. The pueblo is one of the largest in the Canyon, with 52 sites identified; several were excavated in the late 1960s. Archaeologists believe that the pueblo might have been home to several hundred people during the cooler months. Other sites on the North Rim have been linked to Unkar, and were used in the summer.
The rules enjoining us to stay on the trail were quite strict, because the archaeologists aren’t done yet. We walked for a little less than a mile through stones arranged in rectangular patterns. Some of the structures had seven rooms, and one had been laid out like an exterior-corridor motel. Quite against the rules, people had moved pottery sherds into piles, and since they had already been disturbed, we were allowed to pick them up. Some were fragments of pots that had been elaborately decorated (like the specimen shown here). It’s always a shock when the aesthetic statement of someone who lived thousands of years ago nevertheless manages to reach you.
Like any good side canyon, the Unkar throws a big load of boulders and debris into the river, and just south of the pueblo we were drenched by an enthusiastic rapid where the river dropped 20 feet. It was rated a 6 out of 9, but Jai, who was at the oars of Gary’s raft, said she “made it into an 8.” She didn’t look so bad to me.
Each boatman had his or her own style. Tim had a light, graceful touch and often found ways to get through rough water without even getting wet. Jim agonized the most before plunging in, Rod had confidence borne from experience but was often caught in eddies, Pete had the alertness that comes from an abundance of caution, Gary was a straight get ‘er done guy, and Pedro was meticulous and, as far as I could tell, never made a mistake. This made him a fine teacher, but he was almost impossible to please.
A few more miles downriver, the canyon narrowed abruptly as a new rock layer broke the surface. Shinumo Quartzite is older (1.2 billion years) metamorphic rock that is much more resistant to erosion than the earlier sandstone and quartz layers had been. This was the beginning of the true Inner Canyon, where the rock walls are smoother, higher, and thousands of feet below the rim. It was easy to see why John Wesley Powell’s expedition had been so unnerved at this point. We had maps and experienced guides, and I was rattled anyway.
We pulled in at a small camp just above Nevills rapid, another swift 16-foot drop that was a taste of things to come. It was about 2pm, and the heat was broiling, but the camp had a rock ledge and lots of brush that threw welcome shade. We set the kitchen up next to the rocks, arranged camp chairs around the trees, and jumped into the river fully clothed. A group walked up nearby 75 Mile Creek Canyon – another way to find shade – but I stayed back to catch up on my notes, and before too long Pete Kirchner brought up his cot, lay down on it, and fell fast asleep with his shoes on.
Pete’s shoes were wet from jumping in and out of the raft, and the wetness had coated them with river sand. The shoes looked like they had been rolled in cornmeal. All our shoes looked like this. Anytime you picked up anything and shook it, sand came out.
After a while, I set up a solar shower Pedro had brought so Tania could wash her hair. Enough was left over for me to wash, too. The shower had an amazing effect. Somehow, all the comforts we took for granted in our normal lives had been forgotten, and suddenly remembering them again was delicious. It’s amazing that something as simple as soap can produce such intense feelings of well-being.
I wandered down to the river, where Rod was sitting in his boat, working on a beer. Just then a group of wooden dories came by and plunged into Nevills Rapid. Rod was rapt and went on for a while about the greatness of these boats. They are easier to tip, you have to bail them, and they are much harder to repair than neoprene rafts are, but their beauty, he says, more than makes up for the inconveniences. He added that these folks were cheating, though. A motorized raft had gone on ahead of them and was carrying most of their gear.
Rod is a river romantic. He knew a great deal about the men (and a few women) who had run this river since Powell, and I think he would have given a great deal to have run the river with them, back before all the rules came in. I felt that, too.
Later that afternoon Tania and I hiked up the canyon, which was dry but had enough of a seep to support trees. We saw lots of lizards, including female collared lizards whose “collars” were bright orange – a sign, according to our book, that they are ready for mating. That seems like a helpful feature.
Dinner was chicken masala, rice, sautéed zuchinni,and apple crisp. It was prepared by Mel, who had an expert’s knowledge of spices; Tania, the chopper; and Tracey, whose facility with the Dutch oven seemingly knowed no bounds. Tania later said this was her favorite camp of the trip. Those two extra hours meant a lot.
Quotes of the day:
Gary: “Old men bleed easy.”
Rod: “A monkey could do this. Running rapids ain’t rocket surgery.”