Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day 1, RM 0-8: Birds, Lectures, Headwinds, Badger

0616HeadwindPedro Wiedemann fighting the headwind

Half-awake before 5 am, I noticed the sky lightening and the dark cliffs turning red. Bats were dancing in the sky. They followed their own logic, chasing bugs, although to me their flight patterns seemed random and hypnotic. Then I started hearing noises coming from the riverbank as Peter Kirchner set up the stove. And then I smelled coffee.

In the summer, you need to start your day on the river as early as possible. You should try to break camp around the same time you feel direct sunlight (or, as Peter calls it, the incinerator). On the first day, we learned this rule the hard way. We didn’t get onto the river until noon and only made eight miles, and they were hard ones.

Drinking coffee and standing on the riverbank in the gathering light, I could see the riffle that encompasses the mouth of the Paria River, according to the fifth edition of the Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon: Lee’s Ferry To South Cove, by Tom Martin and Duwain Whitis. This is an excellent book, with USGS topographic maps on the right side and accurate descriptions of landmarks and rapids on the left. It is also spiral-bound and printed on waterproof paper, so you can keep it out in the boat all day without ruining it.

Martin and Whitis refer to the ramp at Lee’s Ferry as River Mile (RM) Zero. But they also say that the mouth of the Paria is historically considered the beginning of the Grand Canyon, and their map indicates that the boundary of the National Park is at the point where the river goes under Navajo Bridge. So it isn’t entirely clear to me where the starting line is, but I knew we would be passing it today.

“Riffle” is the word guides use when they don’t think highly enough of a disturbance in the water to call it a “rapid.” Rapids are usually graded on a scale of one (minor) to five (most difficult), although on the Colorado, for some reason, they run one to nine. Badger Creek Rapid, eight miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry, rates a five. Lava Falls, at river mile 180, is a nine. I hadn’t seen either of them yet. But it did seem to me that Paria Riffle was making a lot of noise.

Beth Roeser showed up around 8 am, and we spent the rest of the morning listening to lectures. Beth led us through the menu book, and also explained how to use the water purifierWaterPurifier – a battery-operated gizmo about the size of a breadbox that pumps river water through two filters, one of which contains an ultraviolet light that zaps any bacteria that should get through the screen. After filling a five-gallon plastic jerry can with purified water, we were supposed to take an eyedropper full of bleach, squeeze in ten drops, and say a prayer to Christopher, the saint who protects travelers and wards off plagues. That last part is optional.

We would go through 15 to 20 gallons of water a day. The job of carrying and purifying it fell to myself and 100_4746Chuck Kroll, Christie’s cousin. Chuck is the City Attorney for Weiser, Idaho. I carried the water and Chuck ran the machine, which was a perfect distribution of labor.   A five-gallon bucket of water weighs about 40 pounds, and as I staggered around camp with one on each arm, people started calling me Mongo. Chuck was far more competent around machines than I am. He is detail-oriented, unflappable, and as far as I could tell, the perfect person to entrust with the bleach that you will drink the next day.

Beth also told us how to work the menu book and the satellite phone, which we used once (our stove malfunctioned, and a commercial raft delivered a new stove to us two days later). Satellite phone calls cost a dollar a minute. She told us that a few years ago, a group of movie people from Hollywood went down the river and used up 1,200 minutes of phone time. One of them had been responsible for the legendarily bad film Waterworld. This struck me as hilarious. She also said that on September 29, 2008, a group of bankers were stuck on the river as the world economy was cratering. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 777 points that day, so the bankers called for helicopters to take them off the river and back to work. This also struck me as funny, but in a darker way.

Around 10am, Beth turned us over to 0616ACopIsACopPeggy Kolar, the Park Ranger who would make a final check and send us on our way. Peggy started talking about garbage. We needed to be vigilant about not leaving anything behind, she said, because the cumulative impact of all the rafters will destroy the campsites, the river, and the wildlife if we’re not all extra careful. So we were required to carry out every scrap of solid waste, including our poop, and comb each campsite for “microtrash” before we left. We were to camp below the high-water line, so the annual floods would wash clean anything we had left behind. And we were also required to dump all liquid waste directly into the river. This meant peeing in the river, not on the sand or in the side canyons. Also, when we were done with our dishwater, we were supposed to pour it into the river after passing it through a sieve, so any chunks of food in the water would go into the garbage cans we took with us. Like I said, serious.

While I understood and accepted the regulations Peggy described, I also thought she took things a shade too far. For one thing, she held us captive for 90 minutes, as it grew hotter and hotter. For another, she said stuff like, “If I saw you peeing in camp, I’d shine a flashlight on you and tell everybody, ‘look what this idiot is doing.’” I think that urinating on a parched desert plant is an act of mercy.

Peggy was wearing a Kevlar vest in the heat, and on her belt she carried a pistol, mace, and a radio — the whole shebang. Enforcing the rules is a crummy job but it does have perks, and one of them is throwing your weight around. Sadly, a cop is a cop.  I wondered what another former NPS Ranger, “Cactus” Ed Abbey, might have said to her. Me, I kept my mouth shut.

The last thing Peggy did was check our official, government-issued identification cards against her manifest to make sure we all were who we said we were. This went smoothly enough until she met the two folks in our party who were citizens of Switzerland – Baryette Heyer and her boyfriend, Lukas Steiner. Baer and Lukas showed Peggy their Swiss driver’s licenses. Peggy frowned. I need to see either a passport or something that is issued by the US Government, she said. Where are your passports?

At the motel in Flagstaff, they said.

You can’t go until I see those passports, said Peggy. Cortisol and adrenaline started flowing in everybody’s veins. The trip suddenly seemed in peril. Then Beth stepped forward and said she would drive straight to Flagstaff, find the passports, and FAX them to Peggy this afternoon. Beth looked at Peggy. Peggy looked at Beth. All right, said Peggy. Needless to say, PRO gets all of our business from here on out.

Baer and Lukas joined Baer’s mother, Melissa (Mel), on the raft and put on their life preservers. Their boatman was Jim Kirchner, Peter’s brother and Mel’s partner. Jim is a geologist and outdoorsman who joined Pete on Grand Canyon trips in 2002 and 2011. Pete was also a boatman today, with Christie, Chuck, and Chuck’s wife Nan sitting in the front of their raft.

Peter Wiedemann took Tania and I downriver. He is an old friend of ours from Ithaca, and we knew him as a fine carpenter. I mentioned the trip to “Pedro” a few weeks before we pushed off, and said we were looking for experienced boatmen. He surprised me by saying that he had been a professional guide on the Salmon River and other big-time Western whitewater. Then he cleared his schedule on short notice.

The people on our expedition didn’t have much in common except a strong desire to see the Canyon. Eleven of us were friends, or friends of friends, of Pete and Christie, but two of our boatmen were recruited online.   Pete and Christie had invited Jialeah (Ji, with a long “i”) Carroll, a friend of theirs who now works for the public transit system in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Ji had found the fourth boatman, Gary Painter, a contractor and family friend who had been down the Canyon and was eager to return.

I had posted a query on a private Facebook page for alumni of Deep Springs College which yielded the fifth boatman, Tim McGinnis. Tim didn’t have any Canyon experience but had trained at the US National Whitewater Center. He was looking for an adventure that might dull the pain of checking into graduate school in August.

The sixth boatman was Rod Metcalf, a geologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who brought along his wife, Tracey (the pharmacist and Dutch oven master). Rod and Peter had met online through their shared interest in the not-for-profit group Grand Canyon River Guides and their excellent publication, Boatman’s Quarterly Review.   Rod is a part-time river guide with Arizona Raft Adventures and has rowed the canyon more than a dozen times. His knowledge of campsites and rapids proved to be invaluable, and his stories and teaching added a great deal to the trip.

We finally pushed off around noon. In addition to the heat, we soon discovered the second disadvantage of starting late: afternoon wind blowing up the canyon. A front was coming through, and the wind was steady at around 15 miles an hour, with gusts to perhaps 30 mph. It mostly canceled the downstream current of perhaps 4 mph, turning the day into a long, hard, slog. Pedro and I took turns at the oars. He turned them over to me when we approached the Navajo Bridge because it is the nesting site for California Condors. California_condor_FWS_photoWe’re fairly sure we saw one wheeling around high in the sky. Pedro took pictures (not this one), and his river nickname became “birdman.” After almost four hours of hard effort, we stopped at Badger Canyon. The wind had left us five miles short of our goal.


Most of the rapids on the Colorado River are formed when flash floods in side canyons, like Badger, dump boulders and debris into the river. The debris makes a dam, the river backs up behind the dam, and the rapids are the river finding its way through the debris.I remember 0616BadgerRapidBadger Rapids as a long stretch of smooth water followed by a quickening of the current, 15 seconds of undulating excitement, and a big, cold wave in the face.   It wasn’t so bad. At the base of the rapid, Pedro pulled hard for a small beach on the right side of the river. We set up camp for the first time in difficult conditions, with the wind blowing hard enough to raise sand and get it into everything. Jim taught me how to keep sand out of your food in a beach camp during high wind: douse the kitchen floor with buckets of water.

I pulled Tania away from the kitchen once dinner preparation was underway to see a family of Bighorn Sheep at the mouth of the canyon. Back at camp, the tired rowers were relaxing in camp chairs with beers. The water in the Colorado River at this point is steady at about 54 degrees, which also happens to be the perfect temperature for beer. We dragged aluminum cans behind the boats in mesh bags all day, pulling up the bags before heavy rapids. This left more room for meat, dairy, and vegetables in the coolers, and it also meant we didn’t have to disturb the coolers as often.  Incredibly, we still had a bit of ice left at the end of the trip.

Northern_Rough-winged_Swallow_n10-8-042_l_1While the (male) rowers relaxed, the (female) kitchen workers puzzled out the food system for the first time, ultimately emerging with a delicious meal of butternut squash ravioli, asparagus, green salad, and cake. I hung around the rowers this afternoon, but not because I’m a sexist. I don’t even remember what we talked about. I was transfixed by a ballet of birds. They were rough-winged swallows, according to Pedro. They were diving and swooping over the rapids in another avian ballet that had something to do with eating bugs. They were doing this in warm late-afternoon light, with the constant dull roar of the rapids as a soundtrack.

The day was ending as it had begun for me, with an indescribably beautiful scene of wildlife, water, and stone. After the dishes were done and the light was gone, we all went straight to bed.

By bradedmondson

Writing about social change and how it happens.

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