Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day 3, RM 23-35: Roaring 20s, South Canyon, Redwall, Nautiloid

100_4712 Entrance to Redwall Cavern

At six am, while quietly caffeinating, Christy came up with the quote of the day: “Souls are like cleavage. Some of us just don’t get one.” Sorry, I can’t go further. According to Tim’s rules, no context is allowed.

3CampsiteLone Cedar Camp is a beach on the left side of the river. The canyon walls on both sides are high and sheer here, and the left side is the east side, so we enjoyed a long slow reveal as the morning sun crept down the western cliff. The air was so clear that I could see an uncountable number of shadows and bright planes on the rock face, and every time I looked, it had changed.

3UpriverFromCampsiteWe pushed off around 9:30 am to finish the series of rapids called the Roaring 20s. In the first two hours of the day, we quickly went through stretches of whitewater called Georgie, 24½ Mile, Hansbrough-RIchards, Cave Springs, and 27 Mile. The current was fast and the drops were big. Sitting in the bow, with Pedro at the oars, Tania and I were drenched by waves every 20 minutes or so. The air temperature in the shade was still fairly cool. Some folks wore wet suits. That seemed excessive to me. And sure enough, as soon as the sun’s rays started to cover the water, some time between 10 and 11 am, we quickly went back into dehydration mode.

Pedro was a flawless river guide — thoughtful, observant, and meticulous. After we were done with the last of the big rapids, he handed me the oars for five miles of relatively flat water. As a student, I frustrated him. It took me days to learn how to coil the bowline properly, so it could be untied and thrown quickly and safely. And a few miles downriver that day, I rowed too hard at a bend in the river, the raft drifted in the current to the far right, and we scraped a rock. It was embarrassing, and also the sort of thing that could have flipped the raft if the hydraulic forces had been stronger.

Avoiding trouble spots in the river is like lining up a pool shot – or would be, if the surface of the pool table were constantly shifting underneath you. The boats weigh a half-ton and the oars aren’t that powerful, so the main thing you have control over is how you enter the rapid. Where should you put yourself in the channel? How much momentum should you have when you enter? Should you try switch direction in the whitewater, and if so, when? Scouting a rapid means figuring out how the river current moves through the rocks; then ranking the danger of various waves, rocks, and hydraulic “holes” below the rocks; and then choosing a strategy. When the rapid is complicated, there’s lots of room for interpretation.

I tried to do whatever Pedro told me to do, or whatever Rod Metcalf was doing in the lead raft, because Rod had much more experience on the Colorado River than any of the other boatmen did. But Rod’s experience was not entirely trustworthy, either, because conditions change with the water level and other things. Rod told me that commercial boatmen, who do this for a living, sometimes throw oranges into the water and then try to follow them through the rapid to figure out the currents and eddies. The right strategy often seems counterintuitive, because you must stop rowing and let the current take over when it seems, visually, that you might still be in danger of hitting a rock. And on top of that, you have to develop the ability to make the right moves quickly and intuitively once you’re in the fray.

Practice is the only way to get there. So Pedro generously sat in the back of the boat, scanned the cliffs for birds, and corrected my lapses as constructively as he could. And I did get the hang of things, sort of, eventually.

vaseys_paradiseAt midday we pulled over at South Canyon and had lunch at one of the canyon’s scenic wonders – the bend at Mile 32 where the river flows between two enormous red sandstone cliffs, and the cliffs are far enough apart to make a sweeping view. The west face contains Stanton’s Cave, the waterfall known as Vasey’s Paradise, and other crevasses and nooks begging to be explored. Stanton’s Cave has an iron screen at the entrance and the greenery around Vasey’s includes lots of P1010142poison ivy, so we enjoyed them from a distance. Instead, we hiked a short distance up the canyon to see Native American house sites and pictographs, and to get some altitude.

There are thousands of archaeological sites in Grand Canyon, and the earliest evidence of human habitation corresponds with the retreat of the glaciers over 10,000 years ago. The canyon was wetter then, so it had plentiful water, wild game, and tillable 3Pictographland. Most of the sites that have been discovered so far are from the Anasazi period, which evolved into an elaborate culture before a major drought ended things in the 13th Century. Other sites were the camps of Paiutes or others who came after. Below mile 165, the left (south) side of the river becomes the Hualapai tribal reservation; Havasu Canyon, at mile 157, is part of the Havasupai Reservation. The truth, the original inhabitants never abandoned the Canyon. We kicked them out.

3.1PictographLimestone is water-soluble, and in this stretch of the Canyon there are a lot of springs gushing out of fissures in the stone. This is how caves are created, and some of the caves in the Redwall Limestone go back for miles. We were able to see just one of them, but it was a mind-blower. A mile below South Canyon we stopped again at Redwall Cavern.

George Bradley, whose diary is the best record of the 1869 3RedwallCavExteriorexpedition lead by John Wesley Powell, describes it: “The water sweeps rapidly in this elbow of river, and has cut its way under the rock, excavating a vast half circular chamber which, if utilized for a theater, would give sitting to fifty thousand people. Objections might be raised against it, from the fact, at high water, the floor is covered with a raging flood.” I can’t add much, except to say that Bradley was not exaggerating the cavern’s size.

100_4728When you are dwarfed by something this large, you tend to speak quietly. The low water had put perhaps 20 yards of hot sand between our rafts and the shade. The sand was clean and soft, so I didn’t wear shoes, and by the time I reached the shade my feet were burning.   Rod, who teaches geology at the University of Nevada and moonlights as a river guide, was explaining things while leaning against one wall with most of the party listening, but I wandered away to give the place its due in silence. I walked the perimeter of the cavern, where the sand meets the cliff wall; walking steadily and slowly, the journey took about 10 minutes. At the far end, I could still hear Rod’s voice clearly.

Back at the rafts, Tim jumped into the river and swam perhaps 40 yards upstream to his raft, braving the shock of the cold water to get his core temperature down. I was tempted. The water does get slightly warmer as it gets further from the dam. When there are rainstorms in the watershed, the Colorado can become red with mud; but on our trip, with no rain, the water was clear enough to show large fish swimming several meters down. The cliffs were getting higher, and in the distance I could occasionally see a second line of cliffs in the distance. We were in an Inner Gorge, and we were separated from the rim by a plateau and another canyon. In the few places where there were trails, it would take most of a day to hike out.

After the cave it was a short hop to Nautiloid Creek, our campside for the night. The canyon is named for 100_4730fossil mollusks from the Cretaceous era (90 to 166 million years ago) that are embedded in a side canyon. Creationists have made a lot of these particular fossils. They say that the mudflow containing these fossils, which is within the older sandstone, is evidence of the global flood described in the Book of Genesis – a flood that happened, they say, just a few thousand years ago. What boggles my mind is the human capacity to hold on to beliefs even after the evidence to the contrary has become overwhelming, and to grasp at whatever allows those beliefs to continue. The “creation science” folks say these fossils prove the literal truth of the Bible. Amazing.

Back at camp, the work assignments had formed into a routine. My main value to the group was carrying heavy things, so I would jump out of the raft as soon as we landed and help lug the four metal tables, the propane stove, the two large boxes of kitchen implements, and other paraphernalia up the beach to wherever the kitchen was being set up. Tonight I also pitched in with food preparation, sautéing spicy chicken while a pot of rice boiled away on a second burner and Tania (river nickname: The Chopper) worked on a green salad at the side table. Dessert was pound cake with berries.

We were gaining weight. But there was also a more pressing health and beauty issue: our skin, as it went through cycles of wet, dry, and sun, was turning into parchment. The answer was Hoofmaker. This is hand lotion that was originally developed for horses to moisturize dry, cracked, brittle hooves. It’s good to use on the river because it soaks into your skin quickly, so you don’t pick up sand. And it also stops skin cracks that can become painful if you let them go. It’s another river essential, along with twice-daily applications of sunblock and lip balm with an SPF value of at least 30.

Every night, as we lay on our adjoining Roll-A-Cots, Tania and I would pass the Hoofmaker back and forth and coat our hands and feet for the night. Then we would talk, mostly about what we had seen and how amazing it all was. But sleep came quickly, and when I woke during the night, I never stayed awake long. Being amazed all the time really tires you out.

By bradedmondson

Writing about social change and how it happens.

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