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


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.”

Day Ten, RM 121-135: Rapids, Dollhouse, Demon Alcohol

GaryPainterGary Painter (photo:  Jia Carroll)

We left Blacktail Camp at 8:45 am for another big day of rapids. Fossil, Specter, Bedrock, and Deubendorf were just names to me, but I wouldn’t be rowing them. To the ten crew members who weren’t boatmen, big rapids meant waiting in the heat, sometimes for over an hour, while the rowers made up their minds about how they planned to get through.

D10AMCampI got the oars first thing that morning and moved into the swift current, calmly manouvering the raft through small rapids in ways that would have seemed impossible to me a week ago. I went through Forster rapid, which had a rating of five – which means a moderate drop and waves high enough to turn a boat if you aren’t correcting course with the oars, but a line that is straight. In rapids like these, if you enter at the right place, the main thing is point and shoot.

I turned the oars over to Pedro just above Fossil, another 5, and shortly afterward we pulled over at a place Rod knew about that most guidebooks don’t mention. D10SaltSeepIt was a cliff face where salt oozed out of the rock, forming crazily detailed columns and stalactites that were often several feet long. Tania said that it looked like a movie set designed by Tim Burton. Rod explained that the layer of sandstone that contained the salt was formed underwater, so it was immersed in brine. Tectonic forces gradually lifted the rock layer out of the water, and when the river sliced through the rock, the trapped brine started leaking out of the cliff face.

D10Brad&TimSalt seeps were important places to Indians and other early Canyon travelers. When it’s hot, your body also becomes a salt seep as sodium-laced sweat constantly leaks out of your pores. Salt is an electrolyte, and if you don’t replace it you will eventually crash, like a marathon runner who isn’t drinking enough Gatorade. Several “salt mines” in the canyon are important archaeological sites, but this one was so remote that early canyon-dwellers never used it. It was

definitely a D10RockLayersdo-not-touch zone. The salt straws that had broken off were hollow and quite thin, so a casual tap could undo something that took many years to build.

We got back in the boat and Pedro pulled through a stretch of calm water. It was hot and still, and we were bored and punchy. Tania and Pedro and I made up a song.

Our descent into Specter rapid (6) was a wake-up call. Specter starts with a projecting rock that limits your point of entry; the current runs into a wall on river right and bounces off it, creating chaotic wave patterns; and a boat-eating hole in the middle of the river means that it’s important for the boatman to split the difference between the wall and the hole. The drops were hard, the waves were big, and the hole would have definitely taken us for a swim. We all made it through Specter, but we also stopped singing funny songs.

600px-Birds_eye_view_of_Bedrock_RapidA bigger, more complicated challenge was looming a mile downstream. Bedrock rapid (7) is located at a spot where the river bends to the right. It’s complicated because a big fin of schist juts up in the middle of the turn and bisects the channel. The rock is perhaps 150 feet long, and our guidebook advised that we avoid running the rapid on the far side of the rock. It told us to stay close to river right until we cleared the point of rocks and the river started to turn, then row hard to stay on the right side of the big projecting schist fin while not running into it. What would happen if you didn’t make the turn and ended up running it on the left side? Nobody knew, because we couldn’t see past the big rock.

Scouting Bedrock took forever, mostly because of Jim. He was attracted to rapids as an engineer would be to a complicated problem in fluid dynamics. Gazing at the water, he would go through every rock, wave, and eddy in sequence. He would try to add them all up, in hopes of finding an answer. When information was missing (as at was at Bedrock), he would consider every possibility and vigorously debate anyone else’s opinion if he could come up with a plausible alternative. The result was like a field seminar that Rod moderated as Jim, Pete, and (sometimes) Pedro went around and around — while those of us who weren’t enrolled in the seminar D10NanTaniaCutesweated and waited.

Not all the boatmen required that much time. Tim McGinnis wouldn’t say much. He might ask a question or two, and then he would listen and wait with the rest of us. Gary Painter was also a quick decider. He described his rapids philosophy as, “let it come and let it go.” This was Gary’s fourth time down the Colorado. He was definitely interested in getting out and taking a look before going through a big drop, and he would do what he could do, but he also knew that the river determines most of what happens in there.

“I had a lot of faith in our rafts,” said Gary. “They were so stable and heavy.” Gary’s previous Colorado River runs had been in his own raft, which has catamaran-style tubes and is much lighter and smaller. “It’s more fun,” he says. “It’s bouncier. It’s like driving a sports car. The rafts we were using were more like minivans.”

Gary and Jia were the delegation from Steamboat Springs, and they usually traveled in the same boat.  It looked to me like they were having a lot of fun, even though it was their job to carry the ammo cans after we had filled them with our poop — and by day ten, this amounted to about 200 pounds of smelly cargo. Jia reported that the sealed cans didn’t smell — much.  But she kept smiling and having a good time.  Nothing ever kept her from smiling.

Gary is in his late 60s and retired from a career in fine carpentry. He exudes a laid-back coolness, and the younger crew (Jia, Tim, Lukas, and Baer) were drawn to him. He had a deep, horsey laugh and his mouth was usually set in a smile. I joked that Gary had some special quality, like a rock star, and one afternoon I suggested that he was the lead singer of a band I called the Anal Vectors (see day two for an explanation of this term). He dug that. He grabbed a paddle and struck a pose like James Brown at the microphone, while Jia and Tim posed like back-up singers.

D10Dollhouse1The long wait at Bedrock gave us a lot of time to explore another strange rock formation called the Dollhouse. This was a cluster of pink pegmatite perhaps twenty feet tall and fifty feet in circumference, with pinkish-white crystals that looked like fat marbling a hunk of raw beef.   Eons of high water had eroded circular chambers in it and made holes big enough to walk through. It was a naturally occurring three-room house. I found a shady nook near the entrance Tracey and crouched there, listening to the silence. When the scouting party finally returned, they had to pass through a rock gateway one by one. As they did, I took their pictures.

We all got through Bedrock rapid without incident. We aimed for the near side and rowed like hell to keep from getting pushed up against the fin, just as the book advised, and it worked. Pedro gave me the oars when we got back to calm Baerwater and I rowed a mile to Deubendorf rapid (7), where we had lunch and endured another long scout. Pedro then took the oars back and it was a good thing he did, because this one was especially rough.

Low water meant that the only way through Deubendorf was on the left side, which featured several big holes, and we had no choice but to go through them. The drops were hard enough to lift us off of our seats, and the waves were destabilizing enough to tip the raft twenty or thirty degrees. When things tip more than forty-five degrees, you often swim. Deubendorf was the first time I saw Pedro get rattled. After it was over, we were all shot through with adrenaline, as if we had gotten through a close call in heavy traffic.

We pulled in at Above Owl Eyes Camp around 3:30 pm. It was a large, flat, exposed beach with no shade to speak of, and the sun was unbearable. The Kirchner brothers, who have four engineering degrees between them, took a tarp and paddles and rigged up D10Tarpa sun shelter. The design was not simple and the erection was not without controversy. As the minutes ticked by, the non-laborers drank beers and became a fine peanut gallery. When the tarp was finally raised, everyone cheered. Then Jia broke out a set of bocci balls, and most of the crew went to a level sandy spot to play and drink some more.

The afternoon slipped away. Christie had injured her knee in D10TarpWitnessesDeubendorf, so she iced it down and took a nap. The scouting, the heat, and the tarp proved too much for Jim and Pete, who got into an argument and then retreated to separate corners. Around 5:30, I noticed that no one had started dinner. So I asked Jai, Tim, Nan, Gary, and Tania to step into the breach and they performed brilliantly, producing paella and a green salad. With Tracey’s help, Tim even made cornbread in the Dutch oven.

It was my favorite meal of the trip, but by the time Jia, Tim, and Baer put away the dishes, it was pitch dark outside. There’s a good reason why ship captains keep the alcohol under lock and key until all the chores are done.

Quotes of the day:

Peter: “Vacation? This is more like a death march with appetizers.”

Jai: “We’re all full of poop, so we’re out of that loop.”

Nan: “He organizes, I scatter.”

Day Eleven, RM 135-148: Deer Creek, Muav Gorge, Matkatamiba

throne room on the trail to dutton springs Day11SleepBeachEvery morning, about an hour before there was enough light to get up, something would wake me – maybe an early-rising bird, a breeze, or the first glow of dawn – and I would not know where I was. I was just ears and eyes. I would hear running water and see stars in a deep desert sky, and a half-second later it would register that I was lying next to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Those were delicious moments. It was blessedly cool, and so quiet. I would sink back into a light sleep, and the rocks and the river would mix into my dreams.

We pushed off around 8:30am. Pete and Rod told us that we would not face any serious rapids today, which was good, because several of us had over-indulged the night before and were not feeling particularly sharp. It was another case of meekness conferring advantage. After a day on the river, two drinks would make Tania and I so sleepy that we started counting the minutes before we could crawl off to bed. When it came to pleasure-seeking, we usually chose falling asleep.

Day11OwlEyesOur camp was named for a rock formation called Owl Eyes, and there they were — two caves high in the cliff face on river left. We cruised past them and entered the Granite Narrows, where at one point the river is only 76 feet from one side to the other, and more than 100 feet deep. Although the surface of the water is smooth, the currents here are strong and unpredictable. One raft would spin into an eddy while another, perhaps just a few feet away, would catch the current and sail right through. The better the person at the oars read the river, the less work they did. But nobody got it right every time.

D11MonsoonAftCloudsWe pulled over just two miles downstream to go on our longest hike of the trip, up Deer Creek Canyon. As the sun crept down the cliff face, it became clear that we had caught a break. The sky was covered with mackerel clouds. Rod said that we could be witnessing the start of the “monsoon season” in Arizona, when summer heat draws in moisture from the Gulf of California and releases it as thunderstorms. We had been away from the media for 11 days, so we had no idea what kind of weather was in store. But the clouds cut the sun and dropped the temperature a few welcome degrees.

D11DeerCreekFallsBradDeer Creek ends in a 200-foot sheer waterfall that is visible from the river. At high water it drops directly into the river, but today there was an ample beach. We walked downstream and then clambered ant-like up the cliff face, rapidly adding elevation so the view expanded with every switchback, until we topped the layer of sandstone that contains the falls. The creek had eroded through this sandstone until it hit a much harder layer of schist and

stopped, which explained the the hike into the canyon200-foot drop at river’s edge. At the top of the sandstone, perhaps 500 feet above the river, we tiptoed past a vertigo-inducing cliff, then followed Deer Creek along the top of a slot canyon that was about ten feet across and hundreds of feet deep. The trail was so narrow and close to the edge of this trench that Mel turned back, and I could understand why.

The rest of us kept going because it looked like something D11AboveDeerCreekgood might happen at the top of the slot canyon. And it did. When the water reached the top of the sandstone layer, it widened into a broad, flat expanse Peter called “The Patio.” Watercress grew at the edge of the stream and there were pools to lounge in, but unfortunately, a commercial tour was already lounging. So we kept moving upstream. Our destination was the source of the perennial Deer Creek — a spring in the western cliff face, about two miles away.

D11SlotCanyon2The Deer Creek basin is a full-blown oasis. A quarter-mile away from the water is too arid to grow anything but cactus and mesquite. But when you add water, the desert plants crowd in, insects buzz, animal signs are abundant, and there is enough shade and cool humidity to make a summer midday feel almost pleasant. Desert creeks are restful, secret places. Thousands of of hikers probably pass through Deer Creek every year, but it looked to me that the flora and fauna D11Rusheshere were thriving.

Just below the spring was another, smaller waterfall that had a small room behind it and a plunge pool below big enough to stand in. The main attraction here was the Throne Room, a rockfall where playful hikers had arranged sandstone slabs to make tables and chairs Rod said that the National Parks rangers initially dismantled the thrones whenever they found D11ButlerSppringsFallsthem, but that they gave up after a while. So we sat together, enjoyed the view (see photo at top), and posed for regal portraits.

The hike made me eager to return as a backpacker. A multi-day walking trip in Grand Canyon would require an unusual amount of care and planning – mainly because of the lack of water, but also because of heat, and because

getting D11RockFernslost can send you over a cliff. You need to block out your itinerary in advance, and on the most popular routes you need to stick to it or face the wrath of a ranger. But even so, it sounds like a lot less planning and scheduling than a private raft trip. As we started back down to the rafts, I fought off the urge to turn around and keep going. The urge to see what’s next.  It’s what Merle Haggard calls “white line fever, a sickness that’s down deep within my soul.”

We returned to the rafts at 12:30 pm and rowed hard for the next stop, Matkatamiba Canyon. It was eleven miles downstream and, according to Pete, a can’t-miss stop. Pedro let me take the oars, and about three miles downriver the rocks changed – we left the Middle Granite gorge and went into the Muav Gorge, where the dominant layers are redwall limestone (back for an encore appearance) and whitish dolomites. The river channel continued narrow and swift-flowing, so the miles went by quickly. Tania and I entertained ourselves by making up names for what we were seeing – I wrote down the best ones she came up with, such as “melty camel face ice cream rock” – while Pedro dozed in the back of the raft. When the conversation lapsed, I entertained myself by looking ahead and trying to figure out where the current was. I was right most of the time. When I was wrong, the penalty was a few hard strokes on the oars.

Two hours after Deer Creek we passed Kanab Creek, a large drainage on river right that was an important point of entry and exit in the days before the park. This is where John Wesley Powell ended his second, more successful trip through Grand Canyon. The first time, his party endured several capsized boats and lost much of their food and surveying equipment. The second time, he managed to make photographs and survey the river. At Kanab Canyon, they left their boats, packed the most essential equipment and enough supplies for a 100-mile march, and walked back to their base at Kanab, Utah.

Kanab Creek is prone to flash floods, and over the years the debris from those floods has created one of the longest rapids in Grand Canyon. It is an eighteen-foot drop that unfolds steadily over several hundred yards of white water, with no serious holes or chutes to get in the way of the fun.

D11MatKatAnother hour and we pulled into Matkatamiba, a side canyon on river left that offered less water, but also less climbing. I asked my fellow travelers what the word meant, and no one knew. So when I was writing this post I asked the internet, and received more confirmation that river guides are entertaining but unreliable sources.

“One tale that circulated for years was that ‘Matkatamiba’ was the Havasupai word for ‘girl with a face like a bat,’” writes Don Lago on the website of Grand Canyon River Guides. One day a guide repeated this folklore to a Havasupai Indian, who was quite amazed by this news, and disclosed that ‘Matkatamiba’ was a Havasupai family name. An inquest into the origin of this lore turned up a guide who confessed he had simply invented it. In the meantime, Paul Simon had gone down the river, heard this lore, and put a line about a bat-faced girl into a hit song. At least, this is the version of events I heard; maybe you heard another.”

Mat-Kat was indeed beautiful, broad and flat-bottomed and scoured by periodic flash floods. But I think Pete, Christie, Jim, and Mel wanted to come back here because their expedition had faced a crisis here three years ago. Their trip leader had slipped on the rock and gone down hard on his ankle, breaking it and instantly throwing the rest of the journey into question. He had been injured above the section of trail in the photograph above, which requires clambering up a shale slope and wouldn’t be at all advisable with a broken ankle. To get him down, the Kirchners rigged a “pick-off rescue” that, to me, seemed impossibly complicated.

Things can go wrong in a hurry down here, and when they do, you want to be with people who know how to recover. The Kirchners got their trip leader back into his raft and floated him to a beach big enough for a helicopter to land on the next morning. They gave him a splint and painkillers to get him through the night, and the next morning, after the chopper lifted off, they talked the other expedition members back into their rafts and prepared to run more rapids. I was lucky to be here with these people.

D11MatKatHotelWe stopped for the night at “Mat Kat Hotel,” an exceptionally beautiful camp at the rapids just below Matkatamiba Canyon, with enough time after setting up the kitchen to enjoy the afternoon light from the luxury of full shade. Dinner was beef stroganoff, jicama salad, and Black Forest cake from the Dutch oven. It was a great, full, fun day.

Quotes of the day:

Brad:  “I think it depends on the size of the hole.”

Christy:  “Books are like hairballs.  If you have one in you, you just have to cough it up.”

Portraits from the Throne Room:


Day Twelve, RM 149-167: Upset, Havasu, National Canyon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe talk at breakfast dwelled upon a guest who was waiting for us one mile downstream. “Mile 150.2: Upset Rapid (8 of 10 difficulty rating) has a wide hole at the bottom of the rapid,” read our guidebook. “There is a dry but tight right hand run, a fast and wet left hand run along the wall, and a down the middle through-the-hole run that is not recommended.”

The guidebook omits a crucial detail. A big, sharp rock sticks out of the water just below and left of the hole. When the water level is low, the only viable way through is to go between the hole and the rock. As the water gets lower, this route gets narrower. And the water was very low on Friday, June 27.

Whatever Shorty Burton did at Upset, it wasn’t recommended. He was piloting a commercial motor rig in June 1967, and his raft got hung up on the rock and flipped. All the tourists escaped, but Shorty’s life jacket got caught in the raft’s rigging and pinned him underwater. You can read all about it on a memorial plaque his mourners made out of a pie pan and fastened to a rock at the base of the falls. Thousands and thousands of people have successfully navigated Upset since Shorty died there, but he’s the one we all think about.

John McPhee ran this rapid two years after Shorty did. “The drop-off is so precipitous where Upset begins that all we can see of it, from two hundred yards upstream, is what appears to be an agglomeration of snapping jaws; the leaping peaks of white water,” he wrote in Encounters with the Archdruid (1971). “We all got off the raft and walked to the edge of the rapid. What we saw there tended to erase the thought that men in shirtsleeves were controlling the Colorado inside a dam that was a hundred and sixty-five river miles away. They were there, and this rapid was here, thundering.

“The problem was elemental. On the near right was an enormous hole, fifteen feet deep and many yards wide, into which poured a scaled-down Canadian Niagara –tons upon tons of water per second. On the far left, just beyond the hole, a very large boulder was fixed in the white torrent. High water would clearly fill up the hole and reduce the boulder, but that was not the situation today . . .”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe launched shortly before 9am and were soon beached above the rapid, looking at some version of the scary mess described above. We were nearly at the end of the big rapids; we had to get through this one, and Lava Falls tomorrow, so we had just two more chances to get our own pie pans. The oarsmen looked at Upset for a long time. While they were looking, a big blue commercial raft went through it without a mishap. Still, it wasn’t pretty.

After the better part of an hour of hemming and hawing, we finally launched. McPhee continues: “Upset Rapid drew us in. With a deep shudder, we dropped into a percentage of the hole, and the raft folded almost in two. The bow and the stern became the high points of a deep V. Water smashed down on us. And down it smashed again, all in that other world of slow and disparate motion. It was not speed but weight that we were experiencing: the great, almost imponderable, weight of water, enough to crush a thousand people, but not hurting us at all because we were part of it — part of the weight, the raft, the river. Then, surfacing over the far edge of the hole, we bobbed past the incisor rock and through the foaming outwash.”

That’s a fair description of what it felt like. An inflatable, self-bailing raft flexes when stressed. If a wave crashes over it, the water pours out the bottom. It turns out that the best way to manage the risk of throwing yourself through one of these huge hydraulic nightmares is to compromise with it. We all got through Upset fine – wet and shot through with adrenaline, but fine.

As we pulled away, I saw something black floating up ahead. I tried to snag it with a canoe paddle, but it sank before I could get to it. I did see that it was someone’s bra from the commercial raft. It headed into the depths to be discovered again, but who knows where or when.

D12FlotillaThe rest of the day was quiet. It was late morning when we finished the rapid and we had to make 16 more miles, so we rowed hard and steady. The Muav Gorge Limestone was gray near the waterline, where floods scoured it, and red farther up, where nothing stopped the oxides from making a stain.

We passed Mount Sinyella on river left, on the reservation of the Havasupai Indian Nation. Sinyella is a sandstone pinnacle P1010400that sticks up 1,200 feet above the Matkatamiba Mesa. The Supai legends say that it is the center of the universe. We didn’t get the best view of the mountain from the river, but photos taken from the mesa make it easier to understand why they would reach that conclusion. It dominates everything.

D12HavasauCanyonHavasau Canyon is one of the A-list tourist attractions in Grand Canyon, but Pete and Rod advised us to skip it. In the middle of the day, it was likely to be crowded by commercial rafters. It was an eight-mile hike from the river to the biggest waterfall, and in the lower parts of the canyon, flooding had destroyed many of the travertine dams and large vegetation that had given the place its famous otherworldly character. Also, Rod informed us, residents of the village of Supai pour their treated sewage into the creek – which might or might not be a problem, depending on how well their sewage plant was working that day.

I made another mental note to come back. Those notes were piling up.

Ithaca lets it hang out.We pulled over for lunch on river left, in a sandy alcove just big enough to throw the boats into shade. The group sat on the sand and ate and chatted happily. Feeling crowded, I picked my way a few yards downstream to another sandbank and looked out, thinking about nothing really. Then a hummingbird came up to check out my bright red shirt. She hovered two feet away from me, did a slow 360-degree scan of my torso and, finding no nectar, buzzed away.

Pedro gave me the oars after lunch and I slogged along, rowing steadily in the heat. The water was flat except for two small rapids, so we had lots of time to look out and see what had changed. The plants were different: for the first time, I saw spiny Ocotillo and the always-forlorn looking creosote bush, a sure sign that we were moving deeper into low desert. Today we also saw the first sign of basalt, a black volcanic rock deposited as lava flows. As the afternoon wore on, we saw more and more of it.

We pulled into National Canyon around 3pm. Our campsite was a massive debris fan at the base of the canyon. The afternoon wind was strong enough to kick up lots of sand, and it took us a while to find a place to camp on this big, flat beach because the high-water mark was a fair distance away from the shore. The river rises and falls as the operators of Glen Canyon Dam release more or less water for the electrical turbines; but Glen Canyon is 175 miles upstream from National, so a big water release at 9am on Monday might reach this spot 36 hours later and, of course, no one had any way to predict how big the surge will be, except to inspect all the wet spots.

D12NationalCampsiteWe ended up lugging the camp about 30 yards up from the shore, then re-tying the rafts in a cove of deeper water downstream so they wouldn’t be stranded if the water rose and fell. It was a lot of work, and it was very hot, and I tried to be a good soldier and do as I was told – but by the time the work was done, I badly needed a break.


National Canyon is spectacular, in a blasted-out kind of way. D12NatlCanyonA huge flash flood tore through here in July 2012, ripping out all the trees and scouring the cliff walls, and the debris layer at the mouth of the canyon might be 15 feet thick. Tania and I stumbled up it until we found some shade, then tried to disappear into the rocks. We hadn’t had much time alone together in the last few weeks, and we were both homesick, although the relentless jaw-dropping picture show usually crowded out most thoughts of domestic comforts. It was OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgood to rest together for a few minutes in the quiet.

I learned later that more energetic hikers (such as Lukas, in the top photo) continued up the canyon until they found running water and pools big enough to bathe in. The photos of Lukas, and of the algae at left, were taken by Jim Kirchner.  Tania and I chose to go back to camp and bathe in the river – the water was still bracing, but also several degrees warmer than it had been at the beginning of the trip. Then it was time to help Chuck D12NatlCampsitepurify another day’s worth of water. We made 15 gallons today, compared with 20 yesterday. By the time we were done, shade from the cliffs on river right had covered the beach, and it was a lot easier to move around.

The younger folks (Jai, Tim, Lukas, Baer, and Pedro) broke out the bocci balls and had a long session on the beach as the light faded. I attacked my notebook, and the others sat D12Bocciaround eating kippers and drinking while Rod slowly made delicious lasagna in the Dutch ovens. Everyone was thinking about tomorrow, when we had to run Lava Falls.

Quote of the Day

Tania: “Brad, are these your legs?”