Rowing the Grand Canyon

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.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

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.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

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:


Rowing the Grand Canyon

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?”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Thirteen, RM 167-192: Basalt-A-Palooza, Lava Falls, Fat City

We broke camp like a well-tuned sixteen-cog machine. I paused for a moment to watch everyone moving together, doing a complex job smoothly and quickly. The expedition had been together for almost two weeks. We had just three more mornings to go. An aphorism came to mind: when we work together, we are more than the sum of our parts. It doesn’t D13Flotillamean much when you read that on a poster, but it is impressive when you see it happening.

We were off by 8:20 am, with 13 miles of quiet water separating us from Lava Falls. With a swift current and no headwind, the miles went by quickly. We passed Gateway and Mohawk Canyons, which sit across from each other and were begging to be explored, but not this time. We would go D13Mohawk CanyonPinnacle25 miles today. We were like tired horses that sprint when they get close to the barn.

Pedro pulled so far ahead of the other rafts that we could no longer see them. He intentionally left the current and went into an eddy, where we spiraled around for a few minutes while the others caught up. I made a short movie of the “eddy line,” the area of turbulence where the main current of the river ends and the slower, upstream flow begins:

It was a hypnotic view. Most of what I know about subatomic physics comes from Marvel Comics, but I have heard of wave-particle duality, the theory that every elementary particle exhibits the properties of not only particles, but also of waves. Maybe this is why looking at waves is such an effective way to relax. Our little human brains are getting in sync with a fundamental mystery of the universe.

I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no. No one brought any marijuana on this trip.

D13PedroPedro started rowing again; we turned a corner, and the canyon widened dramatically. We floated past a huge rockfall on river right known as “The Red Slide,” where a cliff of Supai sandstone slumped onto a beach (click here to see it in 3-D!). Shortly afterward, our world changed again when the Uinkaret volcanic field appeared. Suddenly the rocks at river level changed to basalt – they were black and jagged like congealed floor adhesive, looking as hot and nasty as a rusty D13Basalt1old iron skillet. Barrel cactuses were growing in the black cliffs, despite the apparent absence of any soil, and I wondered how long their tap roots had to be.

The geologic story of this part of the canyon would make a great sequence in a Hollywood superhero movie. Beginning about 750,000 years ago, when the Grand Canyon already existed in something like its present form, a series of lava D13Basalt2flows along the Toroweap fault oozed into the canyon. The cooled lava formed dams that backed the river up for hundreds of miles. When the river overtopped that barrier, it cut through the porous volcanic rock relatively quickly and made the channel we were passing through. In geologic terms, the basalt cliffs we were seeing were babies.

Just think of the steam, noise, and general mayhem that D13Basalt3must have ensued when, as John Wesley Powell wrote, “a river of molten rock ran down into a river of melted snow.” Basalt cools into columnar and crystalline shapes, and the faster it cools, the bigger the shpes. We floated through fantastic, almost floral patterns in the cliffs. It was an unbelievable rock show.

Around noon we came upon a column of basalt in the middle D13VulcansAnvilof the river. This was an important landmark called Vulcan’s Anvil, which (I am told) is the neck of one of those basalt flows. Because it is slightly harder than the surrounding rock, this rock column is eroding slower.

The rock wasn’t always named after Vulcan: early prospectors called it “niggerhead.” Racism in 19th-century place names wasn’t unusual.

Racist ideas are buried D13TimChuckdeeply in our language. A century ago lots of things in America were named “niggerhead,” including a common species of cactus that looks a lot like this rock.

Vulcan’s Anvil is one-and-a-half miles upstream from Lava Falls, the roughest, most famous rapid in the Grand Canyon. As we approached it, the water pooled and became unusually quiet, making it possible to discern a low roar in the distance. The moment had arrived.

Several months before we set out on this trip, Tania and I had lunch with Pete and Christie. We didn’t know what we were getting into. They kept talking about Lava Falls. They said it was The Big One, the one to watch out for, the one to worry about. Our experience with whitewater was limited and mostly on Eastern rivers, where the rapids are usually gentler and shorter. So we stayed up nights thinking about the Colorado rapids and watched YouTube videos of Lava Falls and had lots of anxious, inconclusive conversations about what was going to happen and how we should prepare for it.

Our worry and anticipation was kind of silly, given the number of people who go through this rapid safely every year, but there you go – fear can make you act silly. Now it was time to face it. We started, of course, with the mother of all scouts. It took ninety minutes for us to scout Lava Falls, which is ranked 9 on a scale of 10, and Lower Lava, just downstream, which is ranked 4. It took another fifteen minutes for the six rafts to run the rapids safely, and a half hour more to regroup in an eddy just below.

Luckily for those of us not rowing, Lava Falls is a beautiful, fascinating place to sit and look around. Prospect Canyon, the source of the boulders that created the rapid, is a visual tour of volcanic landforms. A spring bursts out of the basalt on river left; in this low water, it emerged right above the river, like an outfall from a storm sewer, except you could (probably) drink it. We even watched two other parties navigate the rapids safely. I stood on a rock and made a movie of this raft going through:

At the bottom of the big rapid, just after Pedro had once again flawlessly led us through the madness, I made a short movie of Tim McGinnis bombing through the base of the falls (see top of this post). We all turned downriver and ran Lower Lava, which seemed like a koi pond now, and then pulled over on river left for the traditional post-Lava celebration.  A lot of high-fiving, smiling, and exclaiming.  We might have passed a bottle around.  And then, a nice surprise. Bridget Tincher and Susan Sharp — the women in the video above — pulled over to join us briefly and trade e-mail addresses.

I’m not going to try to describe what it felt like to run Lava Falls, except to say that I did not find it the scariest or roughest ride of the trip. It felt like being inside of a washing machine for 15 seconds. Rod, who has been down the river nine or ten times, said that we hit it on a relatively quiet day. And looking at videos of other runs, I’d say he was right.

D13SteamboatersWe started rowing again around 1pm and headed back into basalt-a-palooza. Pedro was still rowing, but he was also chanting and laughing at silly jokes; we were all intensely relieved, and before long we started getting punchy.  This was when Jai stepped up.  She became the chief instigator for water fights that spread from raft to raft.  Pedro generally stuck to splashing with oars, but at times our raft was provoked enough to use a white plastic bucket.  As usual, though, Rod had the right equipment close at hand.  He busted out a large syringe-style water gun, easy to build and quite effective at distances of 25 feet or less, and blasted away at us.  It was so hot that we begged for it.

We passed the Whitmore Helipad, where about 11,000 commercial rafters get picked up or dropped off every year. I’m glad I wasn’t doing it that way. Imagine that you have been on the river for a week or more. You run Lava Falls, and an hour later you get on a helicopter. A few minutes after that, you land at a private airport. A few minutes after that, you get into a small plane. A few minutes after that, you are dropped off at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Sometimes rafters get on their commercial flight home without even taking a shower. Tim did that the last time he was in the canyon, as an 11-year-old boy.

I think taking a chopper out of the canyon would be like skipping the last act of a play, and leaving just after the dramatic climax. If you packed this experience it into a shorter amount of time, I don’t think it would sink in as deep.

D13GlyphsWe pulled over on river right to see the Whitmore Canyon petroglyphs, which Rod said were relatively recent except for a few older, cruder figures scratched into the rock. It felt good to walk. Then Pedro gave me the oars for the last three miles. By 4pm we were in camp.

We had just 26 river miles left in the trip, no rapids ranked above six, and two full days left to do it. Our camp was also OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin full shade when we pulled into it. No wonder it was called Fat City. We continued to celebrate, and the Dinner Dream Team (Mel assisted by Jai and Tim, with Baer leading the dish crew) put together some delicious chicken and sausage gumbo. It’s amazing how good canned meat can taste after a long day outdoors and a couple of beers.

Quote of the Day

Nan: “I need some of that Hoofmaker [lotion]. Or I guess I could just cut off my hands after I get home.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Fourteen (RM 192-207): 205 Rapid, Sheep, Dress-Up Night

D14GroupshotD14MorningCotSiteIf you’re sleeping outside in the Mojave Desert in the summer, you should go to bed as soon as it’s dark and cool enough to relax. Chances are good that you’ll be up again by 7am, whether you like it or not. The dawn light is so clear that the sky wakes you even when you’re still in darkness. If you’re smart, and you have to move around outdoors at all that day, you will get up and get moving. If you’re tired, and you roll over and go back to sleep, and the sounds and smells of breakfast don’t wake you, the heat will drive you out of your cot as soon as the sun hits it. This happens at different times at different days, but today it got hot early, and then it got hotter.

D14LoadOutWe loaded out looking upriver. We were at one of several spots where the Hurricane Fault crosses the river – our camp was on river right, the west side, where the rocks had slumped over 1,000 feet, exposing older rocks on river left. It was easy to see the fault line in some places, but in others, to an untrained eye, it looked like a jumbled mess. Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite would show up in spots, like stars returning for their curtain calls. But today mostly what we saw was Bright Angel Shale and younger rocks. We were out of the inner canyon. The walls were getting lower, and the river was getting wider. There were also spectacular D14LavaBurgerbasalt flows scattered about, but the going was noticeably slower today, with more hard rowing for the oarsmen and more messing around for the passengers.

Tania and I jumped ship today. We split up in the morning and I rode in Pete’s boat, to give Pedro a break. Tania went with Tim. As we floated away from camp, Jai spoke up from Gary’s boat and asked a question to the group: “If you could have brought one extra thing, what would it be?”

–Tim: A different brand of skin lotion.

–Jai: River beads for everyone (one of Jai’s friends had given her a bead necklace for her trip down the river, and she loved to move her fingers up and down the beads like a rosary).

–Tania: A hand-cranked blender (for drinks), OR Starbucks Doubleshots.

–Brad: A small, collapsible tripod stool, OR more polypropylene t-shirts (they wick better than cotton).

D14LukasMel–Gary: Something to kill the pain.

–Pete: Antifungal medicine (several of us were getting spots on our hands and toes, a mysterious kind of fungus that wasn’t painful and cleared up as soon as we got off the river; according to Christie, the spots are unique to western rivers, and no one knows what they are or how to prevent them).

–Christie: John Burlow, a paramedic friend of ours who was invited but couldn’t make it, OR a rubber rattlesnake.

–Pete: More carabiners.

–Chuck: Another case of beer. A second Jai.

D14WormCnynCongolmerateAfter a couple of hours on the river – maybe at 11am, just when the thing Pete called “the incinerator” was at its hottest – we pulled over to Parashant Canyon and went on a short hike, over cobbles and through blasted stones, to a spot called the Book of Worms. The book is a block of Bright Angel Shale that has fallen from the side of the canyon wall, exposing worm burrows that are 550 million years old. Tania and I wanted to see it because we are both fascinated by D14WormRockfossils of all types. There had not been many fossils on this trip – the rocks in Grand Canyon are mostly older than the “Cambran Explosion” of 542 million years ago, when multicellular life forms of all types appeared and began to evolve. The worms showed up for the party a few million years early.

The worm burrows were interesting enough, but it was way D14Tim&Rodtoo hot to go any further, so we stumbled back to the boats. Tim and Rod, the smart ones, had stayed behind and were smiling under Rod’s big beach umbrella.

That’s another thing I would bring. A big beach umbrella.

As long as you’re no more than a foot or two away from the cold waters of the Colorado, it doesn’t really matter how hot the air temperature is. We spent several pleasant hours watching the rocks while Pete Kirchner rowed for Christie and I. Pete was mostly silent but always alert, and at one point I asked him why he thought the current in the river was marked by bubbles. “I think it’s because they are lighter,” he said. “Flotsam, oil, detergent, and air should collect at the points where flows converge, because the churning will drive lighter material to the surface. That’s why you should follow the confused water.”

It was hot enough to make me dopey enough to think that “follow the confused water” was a really deep turn of phrase, kind of like a Grateful Dead lyric. Looking back on it, in a much cooler room, it still holds up pretty well as a teaching tool. That Pete has an interesting brain.

At some point we ate lunch, I don’t remember where, and around 2pm we came upon the only big rapid of the day. Mile 205 Rapid, also known as Kolb, is rated 6 out of 10 and was looking perky today. Pete was in the lead boat and he wanted to scout it. I didn’t look forward to another half-hour waiting, and there wasn’t a convenient place to beach the boats, so I persuaded him to pull onto the shore and let me out – I would run ahead and look things over while the rest of the crew caught up, and then signal whether or not they should all stop to look.

As expected, there wasn’t any reason to stop. There was a moderately big pour-over and hole at the top of the rapid on river left, and some rocks sticking up on river right, but the channel down the middle was clear and the waves at the bottom, while big enough to get you good and wet, weren’t going to flip a 1,000-pound boat. I tried to communicate all of this to Pete and the other rafts through shouting and hand gestures, and they believed me well enough to go on in. This gave me a chance to stand on a rock on river left and make a movie of all six rafts going through. Apologies for the shaky camera. Watch for Rod losing his oar at 0:57 after he goes sideways into the hole, and for Tania waving to me at 1:57:

I ran down to rejoin the boats, which had beached on river left just below the rapid. We hiked up Mile 205 Canyon for about a half-hour – the reason, Rod told us, was to look for Hurricane Fault, but it was too hot to look very hard. Mostly we went from one pool of shade to the next and tried to make jokes.

After the hike I got into Tim’s boat with Tania. D14TaniaBelow205She had beckoned to me, and I was powerless to resist. Also, Tim didn’t want to row any more that day, so I got in one mile, at least, before the end of this light day. Tim has an interesting brain, too. Earlier, he had asked me this question: “Would you rather have a third nipple that roamed freely all over your body, or a movie-grade spotlight that projected outward from your groin at all times?”

D14CampsiteThat’s easy, I thought at first. I’ll take the nipple. But then I thought, how handy would it be to have a bright light shining in front of you at all times? But then I thought, when could you actually uncover that light, and how hot would it be when you had to cover it up? Yes, I concluded, I’ll stick with the roaming nipple. Thanks, Tim. You’ve given us all something to think about.

D14SwimmersIn a few minutes the rafts pulled in at Indian Gardens Camp. It was 3:30 pm. Directly in front of our small beach was a 20-foot stone wall that threw enough shade for all the camp chairs , if you set them up in a line facing river left. So there we sat (see photo at top), drinking beer and yukking it up and jumping in the water to cool off and telling stories. We drank enough that I don’t remember most of the stories, and I can’t tell you the ones I do remember.  This is a family show.

D14GoatShowOne of the nicest things about the afternoon, as shadows extended outward from the cliff toward the water, was a family of sheep that came down to the river to drink directly across from us. They knew we were there but did not seem bothered in the least, and they spent at least a half-hour grazing and daintily picking their way down to the shore to drink, then leaping back up to small patches of grass to eat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMel and Tania directed a kitchen crew that made green chile chili, salad, and blueberry cake from the Dutch oven. And it was “dress up night” – we had been told via e-mail, months in advance, that we should pack costumes to wear at some point, and tonight was it. Christie took top honors with an elaborate improvised “lizard queen” costume, topped by some amazing glasses she had found in Flagstaff. Rod and Tracey got in touch with their inner pirates. Tania and I put on OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtie-dye t-shirts with the awful, menacing face of a kitty cat on them — gag gifts from our dear friend Donna, to be worn never before or again.

Nan put on a fright wig and a stick-on mustache. I have a photo of that, but I won’t post it out of consideration for her dignity. And I think I would give a special style award to Gary in his sarong and Jai in her 1980s disco dress. As TIm Gunn D14Rod&Traceywould say, they made it work.

It was a long, boozy evening, and it was surprising how quickly we all got used to the ridiculous things we were wearing. At one point near the end, Rod got serious and read us this poem by Amil Quayle, which Quayle wrote during his years as a river guide:

Go There

Anything you have read about the Grand Canyon is a lie

Language falters and dies before the fact

The experience is inexpressible in words

The Grand Canyon is its own language

Written across space, causality and time

See how puny these words are

Do not believe them

Go there

Time was running out. We had just two more nights and two more mornings. So we went away from the chairs to a natural stone patio a few feet away, where we laid out our cots and looked up at the sky and the river and marveled until everything went dark. Go there, indeed.

Quotes of the Day:

Peter: “You have to straddle the zone of confusion.”

Rod: “Jesus died for my sins. And since he went to all that trouble, it would be impolite of me not to sin.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Fifteen, RM 207-221: Miner Style, Poison Pumpkin, 3 Springs

Pumpkin Springs

By Christie Kroll

D15CampUpstreamThe canyon is opening up.   We have floated past a number of geologic faults where there has been a great upwelling and subsiding that has caused an infinite number of fractures. Along the cracks the rock has eroded to gravel and that gravel fills side canyons that have worn down with debris in great angles of repose. The sheer walls of Marble Canyon and the barren fortress of the Inner Gorge have been replaced by curious pointy peaks with stair step edges. Side canyons are wider, flatter. Behind Indian Canyon camp is a short scramble up the limestone wall at river edge to the canyon.

D15MinerBottlesIndian Canyon feels open, no crazy cut rock slits, no wondering what to do if a flood flashed. The gravel bed makes a rough trail that looks like it could go on for miles. Up here are the Bundy jars, proof that this canyon does go somewhere. Miners came down here to camp, and legend has it left the jars. Whether the jars are old or more recent is open to question. It makes for a good short hike on a day that is getting too hot for comfort already.

D15BreakfastWe have precisely 14 miles to go today. It feels odd to have a schedule after two weeks of getting up and doing [almost] as we pleased, but this is the last full day we spend on the water. Camp tonight needs to be at mile 221 so that with a quick morning departure we can row the last 5 miles to Peach Springs, arrive at the take out at the assigned hour, unload our gear and get our old lives back. Two weeks living in the canyon is enough start loving it in a way that cannot be D15Grooverdescribed. It’s also enough time to know that it is too harsh a place for humans to call home. Camp breaks down and packs quickly this morning. Either we are getting good at it or we are ready to go back, maybe a little of both. Peter looks tired, or relieved, can’t tell which.

The kayaks come out; it is a great day to play in the water. There will be riffles and small rapids, enough to stay cool but D15JimKayaknothing that needs scouting. Mile 209 rapid has a reputation for a boat eater of a hole. Oarsmen who let down their attention end up on YouTube under headings of carnage and disaster. Today the hole was easy to skirt, but Pedro lined up and took it with momentum, popping gracefully out the other side, white spray everywhere.

Our old friend Vishnu Schist pops up at riverside for a few D15PumpkinSpringsminutes then slides beneath the surface. We pull into Pumpkin Springs. From the river it looks JUST like a gigantic wet pumpkin. The spring sits in a single travertine bowl over which the water spills in a glossy sheet. The spring comes up through enough rocks that were once lava that in addition to the travertine, the water picks up a brew of truly toxic elements that stain the edge in shades of orange with streaks of brown. Today there is not enough water flowing over the edge to keep the top of the spring clean. Patches of ripe algae cover it. Little bubbles of gas dance to the surface, it smells of sulfur. This feels like a side trip to a sewage treatment plant.

D15GraniteParkTracey has other ideas. Beyond the spring is a long terrace that skirts the river heading back upstream. It forms a ledge 30 feet above the river. As the river bends around the ledge the water boils along the base in a way that does not invite swimming. Before Glen Canyon Dam, the terrace was scoured by seasonal flooding. Loose rocks that found purchase wore down bowls, carving ever deeper producing swiss cheese holes of human size. Some of the holes are 10 feet deep and lead out the face of the ledge. At one place it is possible for the agile and daring to slither down one hole, go across the face and back up a second hole. 15 days out and the canyon can still surprise us with special moments. Thank you Tracey for sharing.

D15ThreeSpringsJumpA few miles farther downstream Three Springs Canyon entertains us for the rest of the afternoon. The cliff face guarding the canyon on the upstream side is undercut by the current, making a shady basin under a 50 foot overhang used for long jumps into the river.   Thanks to Jim’s super spiffy camera this is captured in high speed splendor. The year round spring on the other side of the overhang finds its way to the river in a gentle notch lined with vegetation. A D15Tania3SpringsBathtubribbon of clear water curls and glides over polished rock until at one point a choke stone backs up the stream forming a perfect bath tub with a miniature jacuzzi water fall. It is lush down here, completely unlike the arid cactus garden along the top. The stream bed is only navigable for another 100 feet where the water disappears into a wall of reeds. An expedition picks its way as far as it can before turning around single file and heading back. We work our way out, until D15Rattlesnakesomeone notices that we have all stepped right past a basking rattlesnake not once, but twice.

By mid afternoon we return to the rafts. Much like floating above Phantom Ranch, a little planning is necessary to get a nice camp in the right spot before take out. At 221 Mile Camp there is good news: it is open. We can make this our last stand, but the beach is egg frying hot with no shade in D15ThreeSpringsNapsight. At Rod’s suggestion we pull into a sweet strip of sand a few hundred feet upstream. It is no larger than the 6 rafts and it hugs the rocks giving us excellent views up and downstream. We have a lot of beer and a large bag of jerky we’d forgotten about, so the time is not wasted. The group grew quiet. It was a serene moment.

To my knowledge Peter has never engaged in a practical joke. Things are what they are. He has organized the trip with honesty, hard work and a sense of duty. He has inspired trust. So when Peter looked upstream into an empty, peaceful river yelling “Here come the commercials,” utter panic erupted. Several people so believed in Peter that I think they actually saw boats in the river. There were none. We all fell over with laughter. The camp is in shade now so it is time to move. Dinner is stir fry out of cans and excellent. We still have carrots, onions and celery, we still have ice. Appetizers are a smorgasbord of tinned fish, grape leaves and cheese.

100_5671The beach is broad with plenty of room for everything. We set the chairs up in a great circle and stay awake as long as we can. Two weeks ago a full moon drew shadows across the desert. Tonight, in a moonless sky, the dazzle of stars stretches to infinity. Fifteen days ago, 226 miles ago, 33 dozen eggs ago, 13,824,000,000 cubic feet of water ago [seriously, do the math] we spent our first night along the Colorado river, grateful for being here. Tonight, listening to the happy voices in the darkness, thinking on all that this trip has been…..the river, the people. I am again overwhelmed with gratitude.

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Sixteen, RM 221-225: Scorpion, Derigging, Takeaways

D15BarkScorpionSafety experts say that every big accident is bracketed by lots of near-misses. You stomp on the brakes, your pulse spikes, and everything seems to slow down as you prepare for impact. The adrenaline in your bloodstream leaves a strange metallic aftertaste. You realize how quickly everything could change, and that your perch on the planet is really quite fragile. Then it wears off.

D16PedrpoUpstreamWe pulled in around 5pm on Day 15 to make the last camp of the trip.   It was still unreasonably hot, so everyone but the cooks headed for the river after hauling the gear onto the beach. Tania took her bathing suit out of her dry bag and when she slipped it on, she felt a sharp pain on her thigh. She swatted the spot, felt a second pain, and then saw something translucent and brown fall onto the sand.

Another thing safety experts say is that when something ominous happens, the most important thing is not to panic. So she didn’t: she called me over and said, with excessive calm, “I think I’ve been bitten by a scorpion.” I took a look at the critter, trapped it with a plastic cup, and called for the medic. Christie checked her book and confirmed that it was an Arizona Bark Scorpion, the dangerous kind, and that it had stung Tania twice. Then everything slowed down.

There wasn’t much to do except watch. The sting of a bark scorpion is a neurotoxin that causes pain, numbness and swelling which is worst at the puncture, but which can also escalate into whole-body symptoms like tingling, blurred vision, muscle twitching, drooling, sweating, vomiting, and dramatic swings in blood pressure and heart rate. We would know how bad it would be in a few minutes.

We were only five miles from a road, and there was only a small chance that this would become a life-threatening situation. Rod, Peter, Christie and I decided that if Tania’s symptoms escalated, someone would row her down to Diamond Creek—a trip that would take about an hour and 15 minutes—while Peter called for an ambulance on the satellite phone. The EMTs would arrive with the antivenom about the same time we pulled in. That was the best we could do.

Everyone else got back to making dinner. Christie, Tania and I went to the river; Christie applied a suction cup to the punctures and told Tania to soak her ass in cold water. Evening was coming on. Tania and I couldn’t find much to talk about, so we watched the afternoon light play on the rocks one last time. We stayed close to each other, and we waited. After twenty minutes or so, Tania said that the feeling on her thigh was like a wasp sting. She also felt tingling in her lips, toes, scalp, and fingertips, which was annoying but not disorienting. She was fortunate that the creature had been wrapped up in her bathing suit for a couple of days. He was probably weak and dizzy, and he didn’t get a good shot at her before she brushed him off.

We ate with the group and went to bed as soon as we could, skipping the final celebration. They were within striking distance of finishing all the beer, and several crew members were determined to achieve that goal. We drifted off listening to their happy voices. As the night crept along, I would wake up every hour or so to check on Tania; she was sleeping more or less normally, and each time I saw her regular breathing and touched her cool forehead, I felt relief and gratitude. The stars were so brilliant and the sky was so deep. I didn’t know when I would see a sky like that again.

We had spent more than two weeks in an environment that was incredibly beautiful but also incredibly hostile and many hours away from a hospital. We were in dangerous spots several times a day, and were constantly on guard against a long list of perils, from heat stroke to medical-grade sunburn, snakes, falls, a virus that would give you several days of violent diarrhea and vomiting, drowning, and of course, scorpions. Tania’s sting was the closest our group came to calling for a helicopter, but we had taken thousands of chances. I felt awe and gratitude for everything I had seen, but I also had an undeniable eagerness to get back to a place where mayhem didn’t seem so close.

The truck and van that would take us back to Flagstaff was scheduled to arrive at 11am. Unlike Tim, Pedro, and several others, I did not battle a hangover. Tania woke up basically OK, although her tingling sensations remained uncomfortable for almost a week. Still, we D16BaerBreakfastcooked and ate our last meal together, washed, and packed efficiently, then paused for the day’s instructions before pushing off. Peter started by thanking Tania for surviving, and then he thanked all of us for making the trip so successful, enormously so, he said, and then he started to choke up, so we cut him off by giving him three cheers, like the experienced expedition team we had become. Then we were off to enjoy our last hour on the river.

Leading the trip was a stretch for Peter. He has superior wilderness skills, but he is also an introverted, detail-oriented person, and it wasn’t easy for him to let things go. I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthink he saw all the risks we were taking, and those worries weighed on him. He was fortunate to have five other experienced boatmen, but managing them was another burden: they all had their own opinions about how things should run, and this was especially true of Jim. The friction between Peter and his older brother was difficult to watch at times, and I can only imagine how it must have felt for them.

Despite everything, Peter did a fabulous job of planning the trip, with a lot of help from Christie. And every day, on the river, Peter kept things from veering off course in dozens of ways that most of us never noticed, and Christie did the same for Peter. They were both completely unselfish about it. They picked the group, and they were also the biggest reason why we worked together so well.

D16HummingbirdNestWe stopped for a short hike on river left, where a few rock paintings waited patiently under a rock overhang. We walked up the side trail in a line, past shiny black schist, and I paused to notice my new friends: their patina of suntans and grime, the interesting patterns of male facial hair, and the many stains and rips on their clothes, each one carrying its own story. Next to a drawing of a stick man, a hummingbird had built a small, perfect nest in a tangle of vines.

100_5711Soon after we pushed off, Diamond Peak floated into view, and soon after that we pulled into the mouth of Diamond Creek. Tania was doing fine, but she was not up to the hot, hard job that faced us. I insisted that she stay in the shade with our few remaining morsels of perishable food, and I gave her the camera. She took pictures while we tore everything apart.

Like so much of the trip, de-rigging wasn’t easy. We emptied D16TimPoopthe rafts, including five ammo boxes, each packed with 50 pounds of our shit; five enormous Yeti coolers, some of which still had ice enough to keep cheese, meat, and a few soggy vegetables cold; the heavy steel frames that kept the rafts rigid; the kitchen; a dozen 12-foot oars, plus two spares; all our personal gear; and the rafts themselves, which had to be deflated, which involved lying on top of each section to force the air out, then rolling the vinyl up,

a three-D16LoadOutperson job.

I have always enjoyed demolition. It was interesting to destroy the world we had depended on and throw it all into the back of a truck. But in the heat, there was no way to keep going unless you paused every few minutes to wade into the river. Once near the end, I looked downstream. We were skipping Travertine Canyon (RM 229), the site of yet D16RollingUpRaftsanother memorable waterfall; 232-mile Rapid, which has a feature the book calls “Killer Fang Falls;” Bridge Canyon (235), the site of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a tourist attraction on the rim that locals refer to as “the toilet seat;” and Separation Canyon (240), where three members of John Wesley Powell’s crew abandoned their boats in 1869. They were never seen again. And just two days after they bailed, Powell’s expedition completed its 99-day journey. Today, Separation Canyon is a few miles above the beginning of Lake Mead.

I’m writing this several months after the end of the trip. Shortly after we got home, Tania finally decided to retire. She says that the river permanently changed the way she looks at life.

D16MotelShowerI’m a self-employed writer, so retirement is a meaningless concept to me. But the trip also reminded me of several important things. First, there’s no substitute for uninterrupted, face-to-face conversation. Over two weeks, I spent upwards of twelve hours a day having direct interactions with 15 people, ten of whom had been total strangers. Tania and I did not know when we would see them again after we went our separate ways. But the canyon had been a crucible for us, and I knew these friendships would last.

It’s ironic to be saying this in a blog, but the most valuable thing I remembered was the value of getting radically, completely unplugged and staying that way. Smartphones and computers are only one part of the problem. Electricity is what really needs to go. It takes several days to retreat deeply into nature, and the rhythms and silences you find there are far more satisfying than anything you might find on a screen. The pictures are better, too.

Quotes of the day:

Tim: “This morning when I threw up into the river, I forgot the strainer.”

 Jia: “A girl can only eat so much salami.”

 Rod: “Christ died for my sins. If he went to all that trouble, it would be impolite of me not to sin.”

Postscript: I asked my companions to write down their favorite memory of the trip, and got these three replies:

Christie Kroll: “The best moment was the part between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek. But there were two honorable mention moments.

“Second runner-up: at the motel the night before we left for Lee’s Ferry, when dinner plans fell through, everyone jumped in to order pizza. It gave me faith that we had the right people for the trip. If you pick good people, the rest will take care of itself.

“First runner-up: On the little shade beach on day 15, we were waiting out the sun before making camp. Our campsite was only about 100 yards away, but we hadn’t claimed it. Peter looked up and said, “ Here come the commercial rafts,” and everyone panicked before realizing he had played a practical joke. It was hilarious and so out of character for Peter, whom I have lived with for thirty years. You think you know someone…

“And the winner is: river mile 109.5, sitting in a sunny spot along Shinumo Creek.

100_5152 copyThere’s a picture. We were halfway through the canyon. I had quit thinking about home, I wasn’t thinking about going back. Whatever concerns I had about putting the trip together were gone. Leaning back against the rock in the sun, I was clean and feeling chilled from swimming, the warmth of the sun, sublime. The patter of the waterfall echoed off the walls, punctuated with bits of happy voices.

Life felt so peaceful and so perfect. In that moment everything fell away, or I let it go. Color, sound, sensation, feeling, emotion. It felt very close to enlightenment.”

D16JaiPoopJia Carroll: “With the snow falling outside my window and the full return to ‘normal’ life, I just want to say ALL of it was memorable. But here is a more specific memory. By day 8, Gary and I had by this point become the dearest of river companions. We were an unorthodox duo, but a joyful pairing regardless. Gary had navigated the swimming rapid (Grapevine) and the flipper (Horn) with confidence and a read-and-run smile. For the first time in the trip, however, he seemed tense.

“We were heading for Crystal Rapid, the last big one of the day. The last time Gary had been on the river, he had gotten stuck in the rock garden at the bottom of Crystal. He was alone and his fellow boats left him behind, so his only option was risky: he had to get out of the boat and push it off the rock. He succeeded, but for a man who doesn’t like swimming very much, it was an unpleasant memory.

“I told Gary that I had total confidence in him. After all, I have seen him maneuver through tight groves of trees while schussing down a mountain on skis. I had seen him fishtail his way out of a rapid before, too. But the best part of the river is that it doesn’t give you a choice — you have to run all the rapids. So I tied down the water bottles, lashed every loose item to the boat, and held on for adventure.

“It ended up that Crystal was a breeze — Gary ran it perfectly. But what makes this one of my favorite memories is turning around near the end of the rapid and seeing Gary, his wild hair blowing in the wind, oars perfectly positioned, with the BIGGEST GaryPaintergrin on his face. He had conquered his fear and here he was, reveling in the joy of sweet success. All I could do was celebrate with him (and snap a quick picture, which you can see here).

“So what did I learn? That you might have more than one chance at a rapid; that you should face your fears; and that you only have one chance at it today, so why not grab the oars and smile the whole way through? There’s always a chance that you will end right side up in the pool at the bottom, more joyful than you ever thought possible. It was Gary’s overwhelming exhilaration and glee that I remember most.”

P1020554Tracey Metcalf: “So many ways to answer, so many moments. Was it when I realized I had left my new water shoes at Coal Creek (I’m still kicking myself over that), or when I saved the Monarch butterfly and watched it fly away? Or when I topped Little Bastard rapid in my inflatable kayak and saw that there was nowhere to go? I still wonder how Jim made it through.

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will ever get the canyon out of your system. You have to settle for dreaming and scheming and asking yourself ‘when can I go back?’”