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.”

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.”

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.

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?’”