Rod Metcalf (pointing) and others scouting House Rock Rapids
Now it’s time to pause and take questions. I already know what your question is. You’re concerned about something I wrote: “we were required to carry out every scrap of solid waste, including our poop.” You want to know, how did we do that?
The answer is not as disgusting as you might think. It’s US military ammunition boxes. When you buckle them shut, they are almost perfectly airtight and watertight. Most of our ammo boxes were about the size of large shoeboxes, and we filled them with stuff we had to keep dry. We shat into larger ammo boxes that, when full, weighed almost 50 pounds. The point of doing this was to make sure the wet, smelly feces stayed inside. We also carried wet garbage in ammo boxes, although it wasn’t mixed with the poop.
The ammo box we pooped into was called a “groover,” because in the old days you would sit directly on the can and it would leave grooves in your cheeks. The one we used had a standard toilet seat on a frame that fit on top of the box. It was all quite civilized.
I learned groover lore from Jim Kirchner, who set up and took down the outhouse every day. Jim took his responsibilities seriously. It was important to wash your hands every time you used the groover, and also before you handled food, because one slip could produce an anal-oral vector that could make everyone sick. Jim always set up handwashing stations next to the kitchen and the groover. And we were not supposed to urinate into the groover, either, because this would increase its weight and make it more likely to leak. Instead, we had to pee into an adjacent yellow five-gallon bucket.
At the end of each camp, someone would dump the bucket of pee into the river. I did this once. It was sickening and fascinating to see several quarts of yellow liquid enter the water, swirl around in the current, and lazily start to float downstream. Dilution is the solution to pollution, they say. I hoped I wasn’t poisoning any fish.
I liked the groover. Every morning we would drink our coffee and then take our turns on it, and then we would all wash our hands as carefully as kindergardeners. I looked forward to the few serene moments I had to gaze at the river and the rocks while I answered nature’s call. And just one more thing about poop: all of it got packed in the boat piloted by Gary Painter, which was co-piloted by Ji Carroll. Around Day 8, Ji reported that it did smell, a little, but she kept smiling. (Nothing ever stopped her from smiling). At the end of the trip, Ji stood on top of all of the feces we had produced in 16 days. We had filled nearly six boxes, weighing nearly 300 pounds. I wonder how many pounds of food that was?
We had big breakfasts most days, with eggs or pancakes and fruit and lots of coffee. Then we would break out sandwich materials and pack our own lunches. Then we would do the dishes by passing them through four washtubs: one to scrape, one for hot soap, one for a hot rinse, and one with bleach. Then we would pack up the kitchen and our sleeping kits, lash everything down, and set off. Peter would generally start the coffee before 5 am and we would be underway by 8:30 am on a good day. Mornings were busy.
On Day 2, we felt urgency because of the heat, because we were behind schedule, and also because of the hard wind, which was forecast to continue at least another day and was worst in the afternoon. So we pushed off shortly after 9 am and rowed steadily for four hours. Then we took an hour-long break to go through our first major rapid, and then we rowed for another two hours. The miles we covered were momentous, in geological terms. It was a huge rock show.
I don’t know much about the geology of the Grand Canyon, but I sure enjoyed looking at it. On Day 1 we had been introduced to two layers of limestone, Kaibab and Toroweap, and then a big layer of sandstone (Cononino), and finally, a big slice of shale (Hermit). These were some of the youngest rocks we would see (at 200 to 300 million years old) and they were highly erodible, which made the river below Lee’s Ferry comparatively wide and slow. Shortly after we pushed off on Day 2 we passed Tenmile Rock, a large block of sandstone that broke off the cliff, bounced down the slope, and presumably became airborne before embedding itself in the riverbed. That must have been something to see. But no one had seen it fall. That made it even more interesting.
Going down the Grand Canyon is going back in time, because the rocks get older as you go deeper into it. About an hour into our day, we rounded a curve and entered a new formation. The Supai Group are four layers of sandstone that are harder and more resistant to erosion, which means that the river suddenly becomes narrower and swifter. We entered a gorge and soon saw a distinctive projection of sandstone on river right. “If the water is a foot or more below this marker rock, running House Rock Rapid, four miles downstream, will be a little more challenging,” read our guide. Uh oh.
I was rowing at this point, and although I had a lot more experience with canoes and flatwater than with whitewater rafting, Pedro let me stay at the oars through a minor rapid. Sheer Wall Rapid was an easy run down the middle with one boulder at the bottom. It rates a 2 out of 9. What I learned was that it’s difficult to get your oar into the water when the waves are moving your raft up and down, but that you need to find a way to keep the bow of the raft headed straight into the waves as they push you around. It was a start.
And then, around 1pm, we came to House Rock Rapid. It rates a 7 out of 9. As far as I could tell, this is because of one nasty-looking rock and an enormous, sinister wave roaring away just below it. The river bends to the right as it rushes along, so that all of its force smashes against the left wall; the big rock and the bad wave are along that wall. So success at House Rock means not getting pushed over there.
A lot of good free videos of the bigger Grand Canyon rapids can be had just by searching YouTube by their names (see “House Rock Rapid”). But this was our first serious rapid, and I wasn’t in the mood to take pictures during the run. The low water made it more difficult to stay in the calmer water on the right side of the river without scraping the bottom of the raft, and Rod Metcalf spent almost an hour “scouting” the rapid with the boatmen (see top photo).
I think scouting a rapid really means staring at the waves long enough to imagine yourself getting through them safely, which gives you enough courage you to pick up the oars. And in fact, everyone did make it through House Rock Rapid just fine.Peter took this shot of Jim’s boat successfully avoiding the scary wave hole, which made Rod and Nan very happy. Mel, Lucas, and Baer are in the front of the raft.
I won’t attempt to describe what it feels like to go through big whitewater, because others have already done it far better than I ever could. Here is John McPhee, from Encounters With The Archdruid:
“There is something quite deceptive in the sense of acceleration that comes just before a rapid. The word ‘rapid’ itself is, in its way, a misnomer. It refers only to the speed of the white water relative to the speed of the smooth water that leads into and away from the rapid. The white water is faster, but it is hardly ‘rapid.’ The Colorado, smooth, flows about seven miles per hour, and, white, it goes perhaps fifteen or, at its whitest and wildest, twenty miles per hour — not very rapid by the standards of the twentieth century. Force of suggestion creates a false expectation. The mere appearance of the river going over those boulders — the smoky spray, the scissoring waves — is enough to imply a rush to fatality, and this endorses the word used to describe it. You feel as if you were about to be sucked into some sort of invisible pneumatic tube and shot like a bullet into the dim beyond. But the white water, though faster than the rest of the river, is categorically slow. Running the rapids in the Colorado is a series of brief experiences, because the rapids themselves are short. In them, with the raft folding and bending — sudden hills of water filling the immediate skyline — things happen in slow motion. The projector of your own existence slows way down, and you dive as in a dream, and gradually rise, and fall again. The raft shudders across the ridgelines of water cordilleras to crash softly into the valleys beyond. Space and time in there are something other than they are out here. Tents of water form overhead, to break apart in rags. Elapsed stopwatch time has no meaning at all.”
Running a big rapid is a singular, addictive rush. The people in our expedition who had been down the river before seemed to wait for them impatiently. Whenever we reached one they would linger at the scouting stop, discussing their potential strategies the way men talk about their golf shots at the Nineteenth Hole Lounge.
Tania and I experienced the rapids in a slightly different way. We found them exciting, but they also frustrated us because if you weren’t rowing, each major rapid meant an hour or so of waiting in intense heat during the “scout.” We were there mostly for the rocks, the plants, and the wildlife. For us, the ultimate Grand Canyon experience might have been seeing a mountain lion or even a ring-tailed cat.
A mile below House Rock we saw Boulder Narrows, the largest mid-channel rock on the trip. The river was deep enough at this point that the boulder caused hardly a ripple. Yet the water level on the Colorado during our trip was also quite low, relative to other times of the year. According to the US Geological Survey, our water levels fluctuated from between 6,000 to 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) being released from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, 15 miles above Lee’s Ferry. This made most of the rapids relatively tame, although some of them (such as House Rock) became more difficult. We read, “in 1957, a group of river runners boated past the Boulder Narrows boulder at 122,000 cfs. Their group could not see the boulder, as it was entirely under water.”
We went past North Canyon Rapid (a 5, at mile 20.7) and entered the Roaring Twenties, a set of fairly serious rapids spaced closely together. It was getting late and we needed to stop, but the wind was blowing again. We pulled into the first potential campsite during a sandstorm so severe it quickly drove us back to our boats. So we went another two miles downriver to Lone Cedar Camp (RM 23.5), a large sandy beach with better wind protection that was in full shade by the time we got to it. This made unloading and dinner preparation go quicker, and before too long we were tucking into plates of grilled salmon, rice pilaf, and sautéed zucchini.
Lone Cedar Camp is near a rapid and campsite named Indian Dick, according to our guidebook, and the scenery there includes a distinctive sandstone spire. Several of us (and you know who you are) assumed that Indian Dick was the spire’s name. With no way to access the Internet, we could not know that Indian Dick was also the name of a Paiute whose storytelling was of great value to National Park naturalists in the 1930s. And so it’s also possible that the spire is the park’s memorial to a treasured volunteer, and shame on you boys for thinking anything else.
As we made dinner, I started talking to Mel Heyer about Florida. I said, “you really can’t beat Naples in the winter.”
“That’s it!,” shouted Tim McGinnis, who was standing nearby, chopping zucchini. “That’s the quote of the day!”
I didn’t know, at first, what Tim meant, but as we kept talking, we came up with more. I remembered a funny story Jai had told, with this punchline: “On her last day, she licked her shoe.” Quote of the day.
Or this one: Rod, to Tracey and Nan Kroll: “Now row, wenches!”
Or me: “That’s it for trains.”
Tim immediately became the official who chose Quotes of the Day. I would bring him nominees and, if he approved them, I would write them down in my ever-present Rite In The Rain Notebook. Years from now, we won’t have any idea what the conversations were that prompted these lines. But we might wonder about them, and that, I suppose, is Tim’s goal.
In the morning we would float out of the Supai gorge and into Redwall Sandstone, a rock layer that includes iconic features like Redwall Cavern and Vasey’s Paradise. The canyon was getting deeper and conversations getting longer, but when the light faded and the dishes were done, there was really only one place to go. I think we all slept like rocks.