Day 4, RM 35-48: Shoes, Dams, Buck Farm, Saddle Canyon

save-grand-canyon-getty-imagesDavid Brower (center) and other Sierra Club members putting it out there around 1960.

I was taking care of a dozen preschoolers on a beach that looked just like the one where I was sleeping. The children had to go home, but they had left things on the shore, and the water level had risen. So I walked along the bottom of the river, picking up tiny shoes and shirts. I wasn’t having any trouble breathing underwater. When I looked back at the beach, I woke up.

My dreams no longer included urban scenes, domestic life, or missed plane connections. The river had soaked through me. We were getting up before sunrise and going to bed after dark, and the canyon was all we saw or talked about. It was hard to remember the date (June 19), and our biggest concerns had not existed four days ago. One of the burners on our stove was stuck in the “on” position. Peter had called PRO on the satellite phone the day before to ask for a replacement, and we were told the new stove would leave Lee’s Ferry on a motorized commercial trip as soon as possible.

Hermit-8167-Cropped-Re-sized-copyrightWe would see two or three of these trips a day. They were usually a couple of blue rafts, maybe 30 feet long, with about two dozen people sitting on opposing benches that ran from bow to stern. The guide sat on a raised chair in the back, his/her hand on an outboard motor. The rafts would plunge into the rapids without hesitating, and from our perspective, the waves barely made them wobble. Some commercial customers do the whole canyon in as little as six days. They don’t set up or take down their camps, and they don’t row – instead, they sightsee (float) and eat (bloat). We always waved and chatted with these folks, but the main thing we wanted to know was where they were planning to camp that night, so we wouldn’t go there.

Many of the guides knew Rod, and their short conversations focused on how conditions had changed at various rapids, who was working where, and other practical matters. Their exchanges reminded me that the Canyon is a workplace — a particularly nice one. While I drifted along in a pleasant mental haze, enjoying the scenery and thinking up things to write in my notebook, the guides (and 100_4766Pete Kirchner, our trip leader, pictured here) were always one step ahead, worrying and calculating. Guides see themselves as the heirs in a line they trace back to John Wesley Powell. They call their clients “sports,” as in, “get the sports into the boat.” I was a chore or two away from being a sport.

The personal gear Tania and I had brought was working well, although we both wished we had brought our own life preservers (also known as personal flotation devices, or PFDs). When you wear these things all day for more than two weeks, it makes sense to get one that fits and has pockets. Sadly, the ones we rented from PRO did neither. Tania’s was particularly unsuited to her small frame. So if you go on a long river trip, choose your PFD with care.

We pushed off at 9am. The cliffs and mountains were still overwhelming, but this morning I focused on details. These would pop up unexpectedly and stay in view for a few seconds. P1010153A mallard sitting on a rock. A heron fishing with its beak open. Tania scanned river right for a glimpse of a natural bridge called the Bridge of Sighs, and when we passed it, the waning moon was positioned perfectly underneath the arch. It was there for just a fraction of a second before we drifted past. By the time I took the picture, it had gone out of the frame.

As a life member of The Sierra Club, I wanted to see the site of P1010165Marble Canyon Dam.   It showed up at river mile 37.9 – there were large bore holes in the rock, and the letters A through E were painted next to them. The sandstone cliffs rise hundreds of feet from the river’s edge at this spot, which has to be one of the most remote places in the park. The cliffs are so sheer that they have their own buttresses; hundreds of observers, starting with Powell, have compared them to classical architecture. Rod says that he rarely sees people trying to climb these cliffs, because they are so hard to get to. But I had to admit, it would have been a fabulous place for a hydropower generating station.

Back in the 1920s, when land was cheap and dams were considered a no-lose proposition, people started talking about building an unbroken chain of concrete plugs that would tame the Colorado River from the Rocky Mountains to the Mexican border. The talk continued until 1968, when an intensive grassroots lobbying campaign stopped all of the dams except two.

Hoover Dam opened in 1936. But plans for a ten-dam Colorado River Storage Project did not arouse opposition until the early 1950s, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that one of the proposed dams would be in Echo Park, within Dinosaur National Monument. The controversy raged for more than a decade. The Sierra Club had only a few hundred members when the protests started, and it had over 100,000 when they ended. The fight for the wild Colorado River has been called the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

David Brower. the Sierra Club’s executive director, and other environmental leaders mounted a national campaign. They raised enough money to buy full-page newspaper ads that asked, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” They criss-crossed the country and spoke to whomever would listen. Brower, who had been an editor at the University of California Press, commissioned a series of high-profile books that extolled the wilderness areas the club was trying to save.

Congress halted the Echo Park Dam fairly quickly, but the Club kept pushing. So Congress passed legislation in 1956 that prohibited all dams and reservoirs within National Parks and Monuments. Eight years later, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which now preserves more than 109 million acres of the US in a “natural” state. And in 1968 they passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects 156 river corridors.

The protests stopped all the dams on the Colorado except Glen Canyon, which closed its gates in 1963. Today, the boreholes in Marble Canyon remain as the dam builders’ high water mark. And just below the damsite is Brower’s Camp, a small, pretty cliff indentation with a sandy beach.

David Brower lived for 37 years after the Glen Canyon Dam opened. He was fired from the Sierra Club in 1969 for being reckless and shrill. He started several new organizations and kept fighting, and he always said that failing to save Glen Canyon was his biggest regret. Most folks would say that stopping nine out of ten dams isn’t a bad record — but Brower couldn’t let his losses go. He mourned them, publicly.

After he died and stopped irritating people, he gained many more admirers, and they erected heartfelt memorials to “the father of the environmental movement.” There’s a preposterous statue of Brower in Kennesaw, Georgia, along with a much classier theatre, think tank, and art gallery named for him in his hometown of Berkeley. That’s the way it goes with radicals: you beat on them until they die, and then you build statues of them because in your heart, you always knew that the bastards were right. I am pretty sure that David Brower would have liked his Camp the best.

100_4824We pulled over at Mile 41 to hike Buck Farm Canyon on river right. Just before the canyon entrance we saw a young male mule deer with a nice rack. It was such a perfect scene that I wondered whether the deer was a Park Service employee. We stopped to stretch our legs and also to see The Great Unconformity, a geological oddity that exists across the continent but can be seen easily in the Grand Canyon. It’s where rock layers from two eras that

are separated by P1030381hundreds of millions of years are nevertheless adjacent to each other. Where did all that time go?

Rod explained it all. But to understand it, you have to start thinking in geologic time, where a million years is nothing. Submerged, older layers of volcanic rock break through the surface of the earth, are eventually submerged under seawater, and then are covered with silt that turns into sedimentary rock. P1030382The age gaps vary, depending on where you see the Unconformity. In Buck Farm Canyon, we looked at Cambrian sandstone (540 million years old) directly below Mississippian shale (350 million). And just to make us all extra confused, Rod pointed out a streambed from the Devonian era (400 million) cutting through the shale.

Rod is a good teacher, but it was very hot, and everyone P1030372huddled together in the shade of a rock while he fried in the interests of science. After a while, I wandered away to look at the cute tadpoles in the shallow creek. Then we stumbled back to the boat and the 55-degree water.

We floated past the Anasazi Bridge, a remnant of an intricate cross-canyon trail system Native Americans used to get from place to place 1,000 years ago. They built the short span out Mile43AnasaziBridge_20080914_2919_resizeof timber to get past a gap in a cliff ledge. The ledge still extends a fair distance, but it is hundreds of feet in the air, and it is not at all clear how one would get to the ledge or down from it. The route looks like a set piece from The Lord Of The Rings. It’s amazing that no one has disturbed it. But why would you want to, and how would you if you did?

Later that day we bounced through President Harding Rapid, which is not a grateful nation’s tribute (that is in Marion, Ohio). Instead, the rapid is named for Warren G. Harding because a boat expedition camped near the spot on August 2, 1923, the day he died. How did they know he had died? They heard it on KHJ, an AM station in Los Angeles that has started broadcasting just one year earlier, according to Boatman’s Quarterly. I never realized that at night, the “skip” would allow you to get AM radio signals in the Canyon! Also, the radios are a lot lighter now.

IMG_1386We stopped for the day at Upper Saddle Canyon Camp, a beach that leads to another canyon hike we were too tired to try. I jumped in the river for the first time, and was shocked out of my afternoon 105-degree fahrenheit stupor enough to help set up the kitchen. A commercial trip stopped at Lower Saddle Camp, which faced us across several hundred yards of water, and our groover was barely sheltered from their view.

Christy and Rod thought this was funny. “Modesty is impossible here,” said Christy. “If somebody sees you, just wave. What else can you do?”

We had stir-fried chicken and vegetables over rice, green salad, and gingersnaps. The circle of chairs where we ate was ringing with laughter and conversation, but Tania and I were so exhausted that we went to bed before it even got dark. We slept soundly. I don’t remember what I dreamed about. But in the morning, looking out at the eddy just offshore, I noticed a flip-flop shoe circling slowly.

Quotes of the day:

Rod: “I have been called a cactus hugger.”

Tim: “That’s not the next molting of my snake.”

Day 5, RM 48-65: Nankoweap, Little Colorado, Ring-Tailed Cat

P1010215We did get tired of the heat, and occasionally we got irritated at each other. How could we not? We were in constant motion, and we sat together in inflatable bathtubs for hours on end when the air temperature was well above 100 degrees. Every day we had to hit goals, make decisions, and follow detailed rules and procedures. Of course there were glitches and disagreements. What amazes me is that there weren’t more. By the morning of Day 5, everyone knew what had to be done and we jumped on it, cooking and packing and cleaning and loading and strapping down.

We were rowing by 8:30 am. The water was smooth and the winds were calm. About a mile into the day we saw a new rock layer, P1010225Bright Angel Shale, with its distinctive brown and green colors, rising out of the riverbed. We were going back in time again.

These were the days when substitute boatmen like myself, Jia, Mel, and Chuck got more time on the oars. Pedro let me take the raft through Nankoweap rapids, where the waves were not quite big enough to slosh into the boat. It was great practice, 100_4967because this rapid went on for hundreds of yards, through a sweeping right turn in the river and a total elevation drop of 25 feet.

Rowing in rapids is challenging because when the raft and the waves go in different directions, your oars are likely to catch air instead of water. Pedro showed me that by keeping the oars low in the water and wiggling them back and forth with shorter strokes, I could do a better job of keeping the bow pointed into the waves. You don’t want to go cross-wise to the waves, if you have a choice, because it’s easier for the raft to become unstable.  The game is: 1) stay in the raft, 2) don’t flip, and 3) know what to do if either of those things happen.

By the time the rapids ended and I looked up, the Nankoweap Mesa was all around us. The canyon had widened, with a large, reasonably flat area on river right. It was easy to understand why this was a major archeological site. By digging a canal at the top of the rapid, Anasazi farmers could easily irrigate the flat area and grow a lot of corn, beans, and squash. We were going to hike up the cliff face on the far side of the field to see where they had stored their crops.

It was a climb of perhaps 400 feet to a natural indentation in the rock. The Indians had built a stone wall with window-sized holes over the indentation, creating a granary. The sun was punishing, but it rarely reached the granary. Covering the windows would keep the contents relatively cool, dry, and safe from pilfering animals. It was also hard to get to the granary, so it might also keep the food safer from pilfering humans.

The cliff face showed evidence of several granaries, but as we climbed, the prospect of a close look at Anasazi ruins paled in comparison with the view. This trail is one of the most-photographed spots in the Canyon because it gives you a 180-degree view of the river and the South Rim (see top photo).

Christy had brought a copy of Ice Cream Social, the book about Ben & Jerry’s I published recently. One reason I took the Canyon trip was to try to get my mind off the book, but Christy made sure I couldn’t do that. She and other people P1010200(like Jia) posed with the book in various beauty spots, to make the point that the story is so interesting that you can’t stop reading it.

All right, all right. You can buy the book here. And now, back to our program.

We pushed off at noon and put in another eight miles before our next stop, the confluence with the Little Colorado River. We went through fairly tame rapids at Kwagunt and Sixty Mile Canyons, and I spent most of the next two hours staring open-mouthed at the scenery. Every time I looked up, the rest of me dissolved and I turned into a giant pair of eyes. Then we got to the Little Colorado River, and everything suddenly got bluer, sillier, and even prettier.

When it rains, and mud runs off the rocks and into the river, the Colorado and its side streams quickly turned brown. But we didn’t see any rain. When the weather is dry, the depths of the Colorado have a greenish tinge – but the Little Colorado (like Havasau Creek, 95 miles downriver) is a shocking swimming-pool blue. Later, I learned that this is because calcium carbonate coats the bottom of the river with a white layer, like the paint on a swimming pool. The water absorbs certain wavelengths of light that reflect off the white surface, which makes the water appear bright blue.

Confluence_IMG_JC_2012_1-JEREMYWe pulled in just above the confluence and walked upstream for a half-mile. At the mouth of the Little Colorado, the colors change as the calcium is gradually subsumed into the darker mud of the main channel; the light blue water gradually narrows into a strand and fades away. It was beautiful, like the trailing edge of a sand dune or a contrail, except it’s underwater.

Another thing calcium carbonate does in water is precipitate as HumpbackChubtravertine, forming small dams and pools. The Little Colorado had lots of these. It also had a smooth bottom, and, unlike the regular Colorado, it is the perfect temperature for a long, cooling swim. But we weren’t allowed to swim in the mouth of the river, because it is habitat for an endangered species of fish called the Humpback Chub. The Chub was once plentiful in the Colorado before Glen Canyon Dam was built, but the colder water and predation from non-native trout have taken a 6-20-14toll.

The confluence is an area where the chub still spawn. It is also the site of a cabin built into the riverbank, Anasazi-style, in the 1890s by Ben Beamer, a prospector who developed asbestos and copper mines nearby. It is also considered sacred to the Hopi tribe and is near the spot where the Hopi believe people emerged into this world. It’s a special place.

That’s all very interesting. But it was hot, and we were eager to get in. The local custom is to slide downstream, and to protect your rear end from the rocks by putting your life vest on upside down. P1010238It looks ridiculous, but at this point, it was time for dignity to go the way of modesty.

“I’m glad there are no Indians watching,” I said to Lukas as we stood on the bank, wearing our huge puffy diapers. “I would die of embarrassment.” Then we had 45 minutes of riotous fun. Was it ever.

As we walked back to the boats, still giggling, Rod told me that there is a proposal to build an GCE-Riverwalk-Tram-Perspective-900x720aerial tramway from the rim of the canyon to a point several hundred yards upstream from the confluence – in fact, at the exact spot where we had been swimming. The Grand Canyon Escalade project is possible because the land near the confluence of the Little Colorado is not in the National Park. It is in the Navajo Reservation, and tribal leaders have partnered with outside investors to propose a massive tourist development that includes the tram. It seemed incredible when Rod told me this, but it really is true.

The Escalade has a long way to go before it can be built. A lot of people are opposed to the plan, including the National Park Service and many members of the Navajo Tribe. Still, the story reminds me of a quote attributed to David Brower: when you’re trying to protect wilderness, every victory is temporary and every loss is permanent. A few dozen swimmers wearing giant diapers? That’s nothing.

We got back in the boat and Pedro gave me the oars for the last hour. The rocks changed again; we passed another unconformity and began to see the Grand Canyon Supergroup, leading to many jokes about which rock looked the most like Eric Clapton. Then we pulled into the camp at Carbon Canyon and started P1010253the afternoon chores.

People gravitated toward different jobs. For example, I helped set up the kitchen and carried water, and Chuck Kroll filtered it (see Day 1). Women took charge of dinner. Mel was the lead cook for several days, alternating with Christy. Tania worked on vegetables and was given the river nickname “chopper.” Tracey was the master of cakes and other Dutch Oven desserts, and Nan Kroll went shopping.

Here’s how shopping worked. Nan would get a re-usable grocery bag and the binder that described our meals, and go down to the rafts. One sheet listed the boxes that contained each ingredient used to make dinner on a particular day; another diagram showed the location of that box on the rafts. On the first day, Nan and Chuck puzzled over the list for many minutes, struggling to figure it out. On Day 5, 100_4662Nan roamed over the rafts like a worker bee, hardly looking at the book. Humans are amazingly adaptable.

Like Chuck, Nan was such a positive person that she threw me off balance. I’m more ruminative, and often gravitate toward weighty or depressing topics in conversation (have you noticed yet?). But Nan’s natural tendency is to talk about happy things and laugh a lot. Jia noticed that Tania and Nan were having a good time being silly together, so she suggested a competition that Tania called a “cute-off.”  Nan said something in a high, squeaky voice.  Tania said something in an even higher voice.  Thankfully, this was as far as it got.

Tim had rafted through the Canyon as a teenager, and he remembered staying at Carbon Canyon. He told me that he thought he had scrambled up the canyon to a spot where you could see the north rim, so we decided to try. We didn’t have much time, so we moved as fast as we could. Rounding a corner, we surprised a RingtailCat_EN-GB7837783588_1366x768ring-tailed cat, who quickly ran underneath a boulder. This animal isn’t a cat – it’s a desert version of a raccoon – but it is famous for making nocturnal raids on unprotected food caches. It also has a big furry tail and deep brown eyes, and Tania thinks that all three of these qualities are adorable. I was sorry she didn’t see it.

P1010258Tim and I never got to the spot he remembered. Instead, we stopped after walking for about 15 minutes and sat without talking. Desert silence is like nourishment to me, and I wasn’t getting enough of it on this trip. It’s deeply meditative to be alert and able to see into the distance while listening to the sound of your own breathing.   L.L. Nunn, a writer Tim and I had both read, described this kind of watchfulness as listening to the voice of the desert.

100_4977Walking back to camp, I looked across the river and noticed the Desert View Watchtower in the far distance. This is a 70-foot stone tower on the South Rim, and it was perhaps 20 miles from where I stood, but I could make it out clearly. I remembered that I had also been here as a teenager – I had climbed the tower when I visited the South Rim one afternoon at age 15. I remembered feeling a painfully strong urge to go into the canyon and keep going until I saw it all.

Forty years later, looking at the tower from the river, I wanted to send a message back to my younger self and tell him that he would get his wish. I wanted to tell that anxious, lonely kid that in general, things would turn out pretty well.

Dinner was halibut steak, cous-cous salad, and devil’s food cake. It was ridiculously good, and so was the conversation while we ate. “One time, Tracey and I were kayaking down the Green River, and the water was really high,” said Rod. “There had been flooding, and all kinds of things were in the river. There was even a dead heifer. We kept seeing it. One night we wanted to camp on a beach but the cow was floating just offshore. We had to tow it back into the current so it would float away and we wouldn’t have to smell it.

100_4975“Then Tracey lost her paddle in one of the rapids. As we continued down the river, we kept looking for that paddle. A couple of days later, we found the paddle in an eddy. It was floating next to the heifer. At least she had found a friend.” And so to bed.

Quotes of the Day:

Pete Wiedemann: “That guy can’t even commit to a parking space.”

Nan: “Chuck is the thinker. I’m the grabber.”

Day 6, RM 65-76: Unkar Pueblo, Furnace Flats, 75-Mile Canyon

P1010276Tracey 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 P1010260stones, 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.

P1010256A 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 6ButteFaultButte 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.

100_5039We 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 100_5030of 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 P1010279been 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 Ancient-Puebloan-Anasazi-1oth-12thcenturysince 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 P1010297we 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 100_5065walked 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 100_5061wooden 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.

P1010322Later 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 P1010299of 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.”

Day 7, RM 78-90: Swim Club, Clear Creek, Phantom Ranch

100_5119

Above: Christie cools off in Clear Creek

After we finished breakfast and packed the boats, Pete Kirchner usually called a “huddle” to let us know the plans for the day. He would ask for volunteers and let us know what needed attention, and then Rod would talk about what the river had in store for us.

100_4982Today the huddle had a serious vibe, because we were at the beginning of Granite Gorge. We would be going through some of the river’s biggest rapids over the next couple of days: Hance is rated 8 out of 9, Sockdolager is a 7, Grapevine is a 7, there were several more on the map, and, as Pete reminded us, plenty of rafts have flipped in rapids rated 3 and 4. Other kinds of fun were on the schedule, too. But Tania and I were especially looking forward to our visit to Phantom Ranch — specifically, to its pay phone.

We pushed off at 8:15 am and immediately dropped into Nevilles rapid (rated a 6), which was bumpy but not bad. From the passenger seat, it seemed to me that navigating a big rapid was similar to driving in rush-hour traffic or skiing down a mountain. You’re in a state of heightened alertness, the chances of disaster are reduced if you follow a few rules, and there are also times where you’re screwed no matter what you do.

Hance Canyon was a mile and a half ahead. At the huddle, Rod had explained that this rapid had become more difficult two years ago when a flash flood had dumped a new load of boulders into the left side of the river. The debris made a previously safe run impossible on most days. The right-side run was possible, but there were lots of “pourovers” there, and it was unlikely that you would avoid them all.

A pourover is a rock that is just slightly submerged, so that the water pouring over it creates a standing wave just below it. Between the submerged rock and the standing wave is a depression in the water, or a “hole.” Rafts get stuck in holes when they do not have enough momentum to get over the standing wave. When that happens, the raft gets caught in the rotation of the wave and is carried up the face of it broadside, making it much easier to flip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe pulled over at Hance and the boatmen took a full 45 minutes scouting it. Then we all took a deep breath and made it through OK. You can get a sense of the experience from videos posted on Youtube. A major rapid is about a minute of high excitement, perhaps a second or two of terror if things don’t go well, and then all is quiet again. But, like most crises, the moments are magnified in memory. Our trip happened when the water levels were low, which meant that the holes and the waves were not quite as big as they could have been. Still, they seemed plenty big to me.

100_5116Upper Granite Gorge was weird, ominous, and beautiful. The dominant rock was Vishnu Schist, which was almost like obsidian – black, glossy, and smooth, with points sharp enough to tear flesh. During the day, the sun heated these black rocks so much that I had to wear gloves to touch them. They were shot through with pink streaks of Zoroaster Granite, plus other intrusions that were white or green. And the cliffs rise in nearly sheer cliffs that went up hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet. From the boats, it was impossible to tell how high the cliffs were.

I liked that these ominous landscape features had fittingly exotic names. A few hundred miles west, in Death Valley, other terror-inspiring rocks have Satanic monikers (such as The Devil’s Golf Course), while the Granite Gorge rocks are named for a Hindu God and an Persian Prophet. Perhaps this is because geologists named the Grand Canyon rocks, and they were all college boys. Miners and guides named the ones in Death Valley, and their minds went to Christian images. But these guys were all trying to find fitting words for landscapes that made them feel scared and small, and made them think about infinity and unimaginable power. That’s what I was doing, too.

When the river is narrow and deep, boulders that fall into it from side canyons make more dramatic rapids because the river can’t spread out. These conditions also produce more powerful eddies. When the fast current from a rapid hits the flat water at the base of the falls, the water has nowhere to go but up. The jet slows down and thins out, and a backwash spirals away on either side. That’s an eddy, and the border between the current and the eddy is called an “eddy fence.” When you cross the fence, your forward motion stops abruptly and you may even start heading upstream. You have to pull hard on the oars to get back into the current.

A good boatman learns to follow the current and avoid slack water, but this is not easy. Rod recalled a guide who said, as they suddenly found themselves spinning aimlessly, “Welcome to the land of ten thousand swirls.” Rod’s advice was to follow the bubbles. The faster water is less dense because waves have aerated it. As it calms down, it usually leaves a trail of bubbles on the surface. But not always. The river can be a hundred feet deep, and the current can dive and warp unpredictably. “Boils” are common, where upwelling water breaks the surface. These look exactly like a large spring, and they can also throw a boat off course.

Rod, who rowed the lead boat with steady forward strokes, would often get sidetracked. We would see him pulling hard to get out of the eddy as we glided past. But just as often, Pedro or I would cross and eddy fence and Rod would glide past us. It took skill, finesse, and luck to do it right. Raft-rowing is a sport.

A “sockdolager” is a decisive act or blow that finishes a job or settles an argument, and in Sockdolager Rapid, we caught air. Sockdolager has a large hole near the top of the rapid which, in low water, is impossible to avoid. The drop was hard enough to lift us out of our seats, and the wave was strong enough that it could have washed us overboard. Tania and I were fine, though, because we followed the two most important safety rules for passengers: 1) keep your life vest on, with the straps tight; and 2) grab cargo straps with both hands and, as Rod advised, “hold the f— on.”

When the bottom falls out, the next thing that happens is the wave, which makes the front of the boat go way up into the air while the back of it stays low. This is less dangerous when the narrower, lighter bow of the boat is the part that goes up high. When you hit a hole broadside, you are more likely to get into trouble.

100_5109Grapevine Rapid was three miles further downriver. Jim was rowing a raft behind ours, with Mel and her daughter, Baer, in the bow (see photo, left). He hit a hole and started to turn; his raft started to go “high side,” which means it was on its way to flipping, as it struggled to get over the wave. The raft didn’t flip, but Baer (who was on the side that went high) lost her grip. She crashed into Mel (on the low side), and both of them went into the water. Jim was out of the hole a fraction of a second later and headed downstream. He couldn’t get a clear view of either of them, though, because he had to keep his bow pointed into the waves.

Neither swimmer was injured, and both were quickly rescued by other rafts. Each raft had a weighted “throw rope,” which we all broke out like Boy Scouts; we had also been taught to communicate with hand signals, and if you patted your head, it meant that you were OK. Both Mel and Baer obediently patted their heads. We were back on our way in 10 minutes. Although the rapids are fearsome-looking and certainly dangerous, your chances of drowning are quite low if you’re wearing a life jacket when you’re dumped into the water. Just point your legs downstream, hold your breath when you go through a wave, and soon you will end up in the pool in the bottom of the falls, bobbing like a cork. It also helps to wear a helmet, just in case you hit a rock or something in the raft.

People who are outfitted with life vests and helmets do get injured and have even drowned a few times, usually when they are trapped beneath a flipped raft and can’t find their way to the surface. But Pedro had thought of that, too. He had a knife clipped to his life vest, so he could go under and cut away any entangling straps that might keep someone submerged. We drifted two or three miles past Grapevine to Clear Creek, our first planned stop of the day.

Wherever there is water near the surface of the desert, the ground is perfused with life. Sadly, desert riparian areas are often overrun by people, livestock, or invasive plants. Clear Creek, and the other side streams we saw in the Grand Canyon, were different. Cow manure, herd paths, and litter were nowhere to be seen. Invasive species are a problem in Grand Canyon (and also an opportunity for volunteering), but the remoteness of many places protects them from being overrun. And it seemed to me that all the rules and regulations on rafters were working.

The contrast was stark. We pulled in at a small beach just upstream from the creek, so we wouldn’t mess up the mouth of the creek, and followed a faint trail to the top of a black schist outcrop. The late-morning sun was doing its best to incinerate everything it touched. I had brought along an old pair of garden gloves, which were essential equipment on hikes like this, because touching the black rocks barehanded would give you a first or second-degree burn.

The trail was hard to follow and we went down a dead end, but eventually we crested the top and went down switchbacks into a canyon with a small stream. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe stream was clear, with tadpoles and minnows in its small pools. Watercress and succulent plants grew on the banks, and taller shrubs occasionally provided shade. A lot of desert streams are choked by tamarask, Russian olive, or other invasives, but this one was an easy stroll. The cool wetness extended upward in an invisible canopy and the canyon walls gave lots of shade. We walked upstream for a little less than a mile.

Day7TaniaBeethovenTania is a slow hiker because she takes her time and notices things. She has a habit I find intensely appealing – she strolls along with her hands clasped behind her back and her head pointed down, looking a bit like Beethoven walking through the woods. She isn’t writing a symphony, but she is immersed in the moment. Rod Metcalf is a slow walker because he has bad knees, and I am slow because I’m overweight (and also staying close to Tania), so the three of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAus lagged behind.

Our destination was a spot where the canyon was blocked by a 15-foot boulder that had a twist in just the right spot, so the water pouring over it sprayed out horizontally (also see the video at the top of the post). Places like these offer a magical combination of remoteness, comfort, and fun. We could have stayed for days. Unfortunately, we had five more 100_5136miles to go and another stop at Phantom Ranch. Rod walked straight into the waterfall, soaked himself, and started walking back. Tania and I didn’t stay much longer, but we both vowed silently to come back someday.

After lunch, back in the boat, Pedro gave me the oars and we sped through Zoroaster rapid (rated 5) and Eightyfive mile rapid (3) without incident. Shortly before 3pm we pulled into the small beach just upstream from IMG_1398Bright Angel Creek, which is slightly larger and a lot more built up than Clear Creek was. Phantom Ranch was quarter-mile up the trail.

Phantom Ranch isn’t the only place in the Grand Canyon where you can rent a room, but it is the only one where the parking spots are for mules instead of cars. It is also the only place between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek where a bridge IMG_1396crosses the river (actually two footbridges, close together, on the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails); the only place where a visitor can sit in a cool room and drink lemonade or iced tea with actual ice in it; the only place where you can mail a postcard; the only place you can fill up your water jugs without treating the water first; and the only place where you can make a phone call.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had reached the halfway point of our trip, and it was time to celebrate by doing all the things we otherwise couldn’t do. Tania and I bought cold drinks and peanut M&M’s, grabbed a stack of postcards, and wrote furiously for an hour. I think we posted 24 cards. We put them in a leather pouch, to be carried out of the canyon the next day on a mule train. Then we ran over to the pay phone and called Lydia, Tania’s mother. She was doing fine.

IMG_1393We can all thank Franklin D. Roosevelt for the phone at the bottom of Grand Canyon. In 1935, a crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps strung a line from the South Rim to the North Rim; Mountain Bell (now Qwest, Inc.) is required to maintain it. I noticed that there was a radio playing in the kitchen at Phantom Ranch, so there might be a satellite dish out there somewhere, too.   Phantom Ranch is an idyllic place (see the old postcard) and we wanted to stay there too, but time was up. 11214853266_7f3523ff8cAfter we got off the phone with Tania’s mom, I left a message for my kids and hurried back to the raft.

Before the trip, Tania and I had been concerned about leaving her frail mother in the care of others for two weeks. After a week on the river, when we finally got a chance to check in, I was surprised that I hadn’t thought about it more. I hadn’t thought about work, either, or politics, or any of the other stuff that normally takes up the bulk of my mental real estate. The river had washed all those concerns away.

We pushed off and were surprised to find that in the hour we had been off it, the river had turned brown. Rod explained that if there is a rainstorm anywhere in the watershed, a flush of sediment-laden water will run into the Colorado. The bigger the storm, the browner the river. The water quickly cleared up, though, and we didn’t see a brown river again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe went through Pipe Creek Rapid (a 3) and immediately pulled to the right bank to make camp. Mel, Tania, Pedro, Tracey, and I made pasta primavera with pesto sauce, Greek salad, and peach cobbler. At dinner, sitting in the circle of chairs, we shared the feeling of a long day full of tricky jobs where everything — even the initiation of two new members into the Grapevine Canyon Swim Club — had gone well.

Quote of the day: Mel: “Where else do you get to see so many men wearing wet pants?”

DAY 7: Christie’s Version

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?

Day 8, RM 90-103: Marquee Rapids, A Flip, New Shady Grove

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was The Big Day for rapids. We went through four major ones: Horn Creek (rated 8 out of 9), Granite (8), Hermit (8), and Crystal (9). After that came five smaller ones in succession: Tuna, Lower Tuna, Agate, Sapphire, and Turquoise. As we packed up, everyone was thinking about the swimmers we plucked out of the river on Day 7. Nan put on the green wetsuit she called her “Gumby suit,” and 100_5128Christie wriggled into a jungle-pattern dive skin under a lightweight short wetsuit. Anybody who had a helmet put one on, too. We set off around 8:45 am.

The first big rapid, Horn Creek, was one mile downstream, and we could hear it for most of that mile. From a distance, it looked like the lip of a waterfall viewed from above — except that every few seconds, a jagged white line of foam would erupt and fall back. It was not a welcoming prospect.

Each big rapid is like a problem set. Horn starts with two exposed rocks in the middle of the river at the top of the rapid. At higher water, Rod explained, rafters can run through the middle. But today the flow was lower, about 8,000 cubic feet per second, so the only possible run was entering on the right and then pulling to the left.

The guidebook describes Horn Creek as a “truly fun rapid.” For Pete Kirchner and Christie Kroll, on June 23 at least, “memorable” would have been a better word. I’ll let Christie tell us what happened:

“Peter wanted to run second behind Rod so that he could be close enough to see Rod down in the meat of it while we were still on the lip. Rod pulled away from shore, set up and dropped into the long green line, tucked under the right horn. He pulled hard and . . . popped an oar out of the lock. Afterwards we joked that Peter, having said he wanted to do what Rod did, was busy trying to free up an oar.

“In practice, watching Rod cost us a few stationary seconds we didn’t have. The raft lost momentum and just a few feet off the mark, crossed the over the green line that would have carried us left. Once in the maelstrom on the right, neither oars nor a paddle could find purchase in the foam. Things slow down before you hit. It feels as if there is still infinite time to get the paddle down, to dig in, to come up with a big stroke that pulls the nose of the raft out far enough to catch friendly current.

“The reason Horn Creek requires a hard left pull back to center is that the water going right around the right horn tumbles with determination into a piece of schist about 10 foot square that juts out from river right. It looks like polished walnut except with dozens of small, perfectly etched pockets. When viewed up close it resembles a black walnut’s shell. We hit the rock, not hard, just a bump, but unrelenting current pounded the upside tube, gluing us to the rock. I now know how a fly feels on fly paper.  

“Tim’s blue boat with Chuck up front was already in the rapid and not far behind. The importance of finding and following the clear green streak was not lost on Tim. 100_5311He had the mildly annoying habit of being able to read the water well enough to set up, and just sit there while the rapids did the work. As they passed us just a few feet farther out, Tim was leaning back against the oars hauling for his life. They wheeled past comfortably, disappearing behind the rock.

“It still seemed like with a good push we might work the raft just enough to shift the balance forward and that might spin us out. Which is when the current took hold of the upstream tube, sucked it under and started pushing the raft up the rock sideways. If the raft flipped we were going to be under it or pinned between the raft and the rock. It seemed like a great time to take a hike.

“We climbed up the now vertical outboard ammo boxes, using them for steps and latched onto the rock with our gloves like a couple of P1010422collared lizards. The raft was fully vertical against the rock now, but it was not stable. The current that carried us in started to breathe, the raft wobbled. As it wobbled out we gave it a kick, tipping it away, now bottom up into the current. Peter looked over, quite serious, and said, ‘Planwise, we’re pretty much through the alphabet.’”

The rescue was another example of Tim’s elegant style. Seeing that Pete and Christie were in trouble, he quickly maneuvered his raft into the eddy below the rock and plucked them off it. They never even got their shoes wet. Almost all of their gear stayed with the raft, too. Someone fished a daypack from the river, its straps ripped from their seams, and a white five-gallon bucket, its handle twisted, got away. We never saw it again. That was the only thing the river ate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn 18-foot raft is about 7 feet wide and, loaded, weighs upwards of 1,000 pounds. Rod, who had seen this kind of thing happen before, had packed a rope and pulley system. Peter, who always seemed to be thinking about disasters, had packed ropes too – but they were in his raft and were now underwater. So we used Rod’s rig.

This crew had an embarrassment of gear and talent. Pete OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand Jim Kirchner both have advanced engineering degrees, Pete and Christie are skilled with rope rescues, and Rod knows rafts. Still, it took an hour for them to flip the thing back over (with Mel taking pictures). They strung up a 3:1 haul system, also known as a Z-rig, which used the pulleys in such a way that hauling three feet of line lifted the boat one foot. The rest of us sat around on a tiny sand spit until the raft was right-side up again, so we could survey the damage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThankfully, there wasn’t much. An ammo box holding Pete and Christie’s camera had a bent hinge, but the hot air in the ammo box had contracted in the cold water, creating a vacuum that kept the seal tight. That miracle of physics saved many of the pictures you are enjoying in this blog. But it took us an hour and a half to recover from the flip, so there weren’t any hikes today.


Granite rapid was three miles downstream, with an equally fearsome reputation. A ridge of lateral waves comes off the wall of schist on river right, leading to a hole at the bottom. The move at the bottom requires a boatman be mindful of what he is doing.

We scouted Granite by walking through a brutally hot beach held in place by dead trees. The sand was eroding back from higher levels probably deposited during one of the high flow experiments, where up to 90,000 CFS are released from Glen Canyon Dam for a few days in order to stir things up and replenish the beaches. The experiment also aims to get rid of invasive tamarisk so native plants can come back in. The beach had native trees planted in rings or cages, and jugs were nearby for watering them. Perhaps a third of them were dead anyway. Even with help, this is a tough place to live.

Peter was quiet but determined during the Granite scout, and he got through the rapid without any problems. We all did. Hermit and Crystal rapids were similarly exciting but uneventful. I had heard that the waves in Hermit could be 30 feet high, but the low water had truncated them. They were perhaps ten feet, which is plenty high, but as long as you didn’t hit them sideways (and no one did), they were not dangerous. And Crystal is famous for a garden of rocks at the bottom that jut out into the water and snag unfortunate rafts, but we all avoided them. Pedro made it look easy, although it wasn’t.

We held a small celebration on a beach below the last big drop and chanted “ABC – Alive Below Crystal”.   Who knows whether the boatmen were paying closer attention, or if the waves had aligned correctly? And really, who cares? We were all uninjured, and the only gear that was lost that day was that white plastic bucket and three bagels too soggy to save.

Pedro gave me the oars as we headed through the smaller rapids. P1010440The view was still stunning, a tableau of polished black schist and pink granite cliffs, and we enjoyed five more miles of bumpy fun before we got to camp.

New Shady Grove is a small campsite tucked into the top of a sheltered dune on river right. It has a little bathing beach that is separated from camp by an outcrop, and the far side of the outcrop has a schist seat with niches for soap and toothbrushes. Peter and Christie unpacked the raft and dried out their gear in the broiling afternoon sun. Everyone washed their hair.

Dinner was, once again, delicious. We had an appetizer of Greek olives, dolmas, sardines, kippers, and crackers, followed by chicken with basil and thai chili, coconut rice, and fruit salad of apples and mandarin oranges. I don’t remember who made dinner. It had been a great day, but we all needed a drink.

Quote of the Day: Pete: “Planwise, we’re pretty much through the alphabet.”

Day 9, RM 103-121: Bert Loper, Shinumo Falls, Elves Chasm

GlenCanyonWimmerLoperRichardsonUSGS1914(l-r) Tom Wimmer, Bert Loper and John Richardson at Loper’s camp in Glen Canyon, 1915. From the library of the US Geological Society in Denver, published by Colorado Plateau River Guides.

AMUnconformIn the morning, New Shady Grove camp lives up to its name. It is on river left, with sheer cliffs on either side hundreds of feet high, so the morning sun does a long reveal down the rocks on the right side. The cliff on river right is also a super-IMAX-movie-sized presentation of The Great Uncomformity, a 520-million-year-old layer of Tapeats Sandstone that rests directly on top of 1.7 billion-year-old schist.

Where did all that time go? Please go to the entry for Day 4, where I attempt to summarize Rod’s explanation. Don’t bother me right now. It’s 6:30 am and I am sitting in a camp chair, staring at the light trickling down the rock while caffeine trickles into my bloodstream. There are thousands of fractures in that cliff. They make millions of surfaces, and the look of each surface changes slightly as the sun creeps higher. So slow down, pour yourself some of that good Peet’s coffee, and take a look. It’s unbelievable.

The water in Granite Gorge moves faster because the river is narrower. Our rafts would go eighteen miles in about four hours today, with three more hours spent splashing in two spectacular waterfalls. Yesterday we got halfway through a series of six rapids that– for some reason no one seems to know — are named after gemstones. Today, Pedro took the oars as we pushed off and quickly took us through the remaining three gems – Emerald (rated 5 out of 9), Ruby (5), and Serpentine (7).

These were not small rapids, but they weren’t among the worst, either. I don’t think we scouted them. Running rapids like these is like approaching the Lincoln Tunnel from the New Jersey side. Just buckle up, put down whatever you were playing with, keep both hands on the wheel, stop talking, and pay attention. The chances are good that you’ll be fine. Drenched, but fine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABelow Serpentine the rocks changed. The river turned to the south and started making a 25-mile loop around the Powell Plateau, which juts out between the North Rim and the river. Faults in this region brought younger rocks to the surface, so conglomerates, limestone, and shale mixed with the older schist and granite. At Mile 108, we saw an old boat beached on river left.

DCIM100GOPROThe Ross Wheeler is a small, tippy, heavy boat that was used by three men in an unsuccessful attempt to run the Canyon in 1915. They abandoned it, and a miner gave it a second life ferrying material across the river to his asbestos operation. As we passed the boat, Rod (in our lead raft) stood up, took his hat off, and held it over his heart.

The boat was built by a legendary river-runner named Bert Loper (1869-1949, picture above). Bert began running the Colorado and its tributaries in the 1890s. In 1920, he was in the lead boat of the expedition that decided on the location of Hoover Dam. In 1949, at the age of 79, Loper ignored his wife’s pleas and, despite his heart trouble, set off in a boat he had built to run the Grand Canyon one last time. He died in the rapid at Mile 24.5, probably of a heart attack, and went missing for 25 years until a hiker found his skeleton near the high-water mark around Mile 180.

100_4829Rod told us this story as he stood before the wreckage of Bert’s 1949 boat, the Grand Canyon, on day 4. Just downstream from Bert’s boat is Hansborough-Richards rapids, named for two men who drowned when their boat flipped there in 1889. Another member of their expedition had drowned six days earlier. There’s a camp at Mile 45 named for Willie Taylor, who had a heart attack on the spot in 1956; and somewhere nearby, we were told, is a pie plate 100_4837inscribed with the name of a teenaged boy who drowned while running the river in the 1950s. Those were the days before helicopter rescues, so they had to bury the boy where they found him. The pie plate is his headstone.

Safety is paramount on river trips, but if your goal is immortality, all you need to do is die down here. They will never stop talking about you. The Grand Canyon River Guides Oral History Project is dominated by tales of near-misses, catastrophes, and fatalities.   There is a fraternal reason. River guides tend to be sentimental, and looking out for fellow-travelers is part of their job description. Scary stories also serve a cautionary purpose, because the moral usually seems to be wear your life jacket and don’t take chances.

But mostly, stories about death on the river endure because they are great Western stories. My favorite old-time river-runner is buzzo_imgHaldane “Buzz” Holmstrom (1909-1949), a gas station attendant who would occasionally leave his job in Coquille, Oregon, hitch a wooden boat to his ten-dollar Dodge sedan, and run various wild Western rivers alone. He was the first person to run the entire navigable length of the Green and Colorado rivers solo. And he was so legendarily good at whitewater boating that he never flipped his boat, although he did have to climb out of Grand Canyon at one point, hitchhike to Flagstaff, and work there until he could buy more food, hitchhike back, and complete the trip.

Buzz made his big trip in 1937, a year after the gates of Hoover Dam had closed. He rowed the length of Lake Mead, bumped his boat against the concrete of the dam, climbed out, and hitchhiked back to Oregon. Ten years later, while scouting the Grande Ronde River for the US Geological Survey, he died of a gunshot wound that was probably self-inflicted. We know all this because Buzz kept a diary that was made into an excellent biography, The Doing of the Thing, by whitewater guides Vince Welch, Cort Conley, and Brad Dimock.

People still die in the Grand Canyon, but they usually do it the way Buzz did – by their own hands. According to a strange catalogue of Grand Canyon deaths called Over The Edge, the park had recorded 685 deaths as of 2012, and perhaps 90 percent of them happened because the person who died ignored simple rules. They went off the trail and fell, they dove off a cliff, they didn’t take enough water on a hike, or they went into the river without a life jacket. The book also claims that no visitor to the Grand Canyon has ever died from snakebite.

River guides are like cowboys (and a few cowgirls). They are up to their necks in Western folklore, and they often feel that it’s necessary to echo the legends that surround them. 100_4676Rod Metcalf freely admits that he adopts a character when he’s working on the river. He has a white working-class Southern background, and on the river, he is a jovial redneck in a battered white Stetson, a pirate flag flying from the rear of his raft. Away from the river, he is a professor of geology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Rod likes to tell the story of a woman on a commercial trip who witnessed him switch from one persona to the other. He abruptly stopped joking and 100_5155explained nearby rock strata to the group in some detail. The woman was silent for a moment and then said, “It’s like you’re two different people!”

It was around 10 am, and the heat was building to unbearable levels if you were more than a foot or two away from the water. We stopped at Shinumo Creek on river left, where a small creek between high walls kept the

100_5142temperature down, and we walked up a quarter-mile or so to a ten-foot waterfall that offered fantastic back-pounding action. It is hard to describe how good it feels, nine days into a camping trip, to be scoured by cool fresh water.

When we got back to the boat, Pedro let me take the oars for a couple of hours. I rowed through Hataki rapid (rated 4) and Walthenberg rapid which, at six out of ten, was the first OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdrop where I really could have screwed up in a serious way. But I didn’t. And I also did not run into 113 Mile Rock, a fin of schist jutting out of calm water. Surprisingly, lots of people have flipped their rafts here. They do it the way Pete and Christie did – they run into the rock and are pinned to it by the current, which eventually sucks them under. I breezed by the rock, feeling more confident by the minute.  Pedro knew better.  He watched me and kept correcting errors.

100_5163We pulled over for lunch at Upper Garnet Camp, on a beach dominated by a large pink pegmatite — a quartz and feldspar boulder embedded with large crystals. Christie used a flat spot on top of the rock as a makeshift table, and handed out sandwiches of tuna salad (which we had mixed up that morning) with cheese. Christie managed the trip menu quietly and competently, starting weeks before we pushed off. It was a huge and complicated job, and I was grateful that she had 100_5167left my mind untroubled by such logistical concerns. I was free to munch on my sandwich and ogle the rock, which was wondrous.

The metamorphic rocks in Granite Gorge rank between 5 and 6 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, which is about the same hardness as a steel nail. But this huge, glossy, pink boulder had a big circular pothole on top, as if a drill had bored into it. And that is exactly what happened, very slowly. Holes like these form when a rock is trapped in a small depression by water that circulates over it, causing the rock to spin for eons. At Upper Garnet, the steel-like rock had a hole bored into it that was several feet deep.

The Grand Canyon gives you constant reminders that you are infinitesimally small and your lifespan is vanishingly short. Yet it also shows you things so beautiful that once you see them, they will never leave your mind. The images are burned into your consciousness permanently, whatever that means.

A mile below our lunch spot was Royal Arch Creek, also on river left. We pulled over and hiked up the side canyon to one of the A List destinations of any Canyon river trip. 9ElvesChasmElves Chasm is a spot where a waterfall about eight feet high is surrounded by ferns and mosses. The pool of this falls is just deep enough to dive into feet-first. You can climb through a tunnel around the side, stand at the lip, and jump.

Jim Kirchner, who is also a distinguished college professor when away from the river, lost his mind at this spot. He climbed through the tunnel and catapulted off the falls over P1010517and over again, screaming “cowabunga!” every time. He did a perfect imitation of an exuberant 12-year-old. We all did. These were the most spectacular desert creeks I had ever seen, by far.

We went a few more miles through calm water to Upper Blacktail camp, which was beastly hot but had shade on the beach and a cooler side canyon where the Great

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnconformity made another appearance. Tania and I stayed behind while Rod took a group up to see it. When he returned, he seemed miffed that we had missed his lecture, so we agreed to go up with him for tutoring the next morning.

Someone made a delicious meal of fajitas and fruit salad, and Tracey turned out delicious brownies in the Dutch Oven. It was dark by the time the dishes were done, I can’t imagine how anyone stayed up late that day, but I couldn’t be sure. I was asleep before the stars came out.

Quote of the day: Rod, “Every shirt is important.”