To reduce two weeks of rafting the
Colorado River to writing is a bit daunting. What I had thought
would be mostly a description of its natural wonders has mushroomed
into a few more sizable topics, none of which are meant to diminish
the wonder of the Grand Canyon.
The big picture of the trip is indeed the natural wonder of the surroundings. In the 226 miles of the Colorado River we rafted, every corner and twist of the river presented us with another post card. Rock battles water, slow evolution complements cataclysm, visitors adapt to heat. Every single minute of our fourteen days was a reminder of the power and grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.
As meaningful as the natural beauty is, so too are the influences of people and the details of camping. In addition, a variety of events and moments, some planned, further defined our trip. All of these follow.
In 1996, when Deb and I visited the Grand Canyon, we were awed by the view from the South Rim. Every glance proved that no photo, video or description could capture the immensity of the view. However, the view five years later from the river was different - real, tangible. The cream, tawny, gray and magenta of the South Rim was still visible, but less frequently and at a distance. The layers of Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit Shale, Supai, Redwall, Muav Limestone, Bright Angel Shale, Tapeats Sandstone, Vishnu Schist, and Zoroaster Granite, generally in this order, felt neighborly, orderly. These layers, sometimes tens of feet in depth, sometimes in hundreds, would result in us craning our necks to see stacks of cliff and rock that could rise a few thousand feet over the river. The almost two thousand feet of elevation drop of the river over the course of our rafting trip would show each of these layers. Mnemonic devices, like KTCH - Know The Canyon History - helped us remember Kaibab, Toroweap, etc. As the river continued to drop, we would see the bottom layers of sedimentation that ranged in age from a few hundred thousand years to over two million years.
We would also learn, or recall, the nature of sandstone, limestone and shale. The ziggurat look of the Grand Canyon, with its banks of verticality and slope is the result of hard rock capping relatively softer rock on top of hard rock and so on. We would discover the resulting talus slopes on our hikes - sandy, rocky, footloose except for a well packed trail. In other parts of the Canyon, we would have tall cliffs butt against the water's edge, sometimes on both sides.
Water, of course, is the other basic element of the Canyon's nature. Water was the erosive force against the hard and soft rock. Water, too, is the most immediate threat of injury and death. Over ninety percent of the river's length is a placid flow, much as we have lived with on the Hudson River although the Colorado width is much narrower, averaging a couple hundred feet, with a minimum of about 75 feet in the gorge and over 700 feet at some spots before its run into Lake Powell. It is the other ten percent, the rapids, that account for fifty percent of the river's drop. Generally, every mile has a riffle (not big enough to be a rapid) or a rough section of water worthy enough to be named or noted as a rapid on a map.
It is these rapids that evoke the image that most people have of the Colorado, and generally for good reason. It is these rapids that evoke excitement, concern, fear, and terror. It is these rapids that mark the destinations of the river's map. It is these rapids that are the evidence of the role of water again. Time after time, an ancient side canyon's discharge or a current day flash flood kicks out boulders and debris into the main channel, narrowing and thinning the water's flow, and thus creating the whirl and turbulence that usually sane people like us pay to experience.
These side canyons are further evidence of the role that water
plays. Runoff water needs to go someplace and just as they do
everywhere in the world, rivulets turn into streams turn into
raging torrents turn into a small river, to be dwarfed by the
Colorado River. These side canyons contain waterfalls, jumbles
of impenetrable boulders, and maybe some flat and pleasant stream
beds. Hundreds of these tributaries and sub-tributaries map the
Colorado Plateau and present an almost endless source of hiking,
to be explained more fully later. Most of the time, these side
canyons are dry, leaving the traveler to guess what it took to
create these clefts and to what use they currently have. That
second part we would find out about.
The third and fourth part of the natural experience that cannot be ignored is summer heat and sun. The sun warms pleasantly in the morning but pre-noon dictates you protect your skin, unless you are already tanned enough. Skin block and long sleeves shirts and long pants are the major defenses. The sun starts working the thermometer to a hundred degrees or more by noon and this continues throughout the afternoon, reminding us of the importance of water and other fluids. We traveled with water, usually two quarts at a time. To not do so is to risk health once again, and all the warnings served to keep us well hydrated.
The plant that gave the most shade was the tamerus, an alien plant that has been in the canyon for decades but has dominated the landscape since the advent of Lake Powell. One of the very first topics from the guides was the controversy over this shrub/tree, and the possibility that some environmentalists would like to see the tamerus removed, especially from the Lee's Ferry area. The tamerus served us as a shady spot along the river. Other common plants were a few strains of short willow and several types of grasses. Towards the end, the ocotillo, with its dry, long, leafless, spiny branches, came into view, and where it had rained, its branches had leafed into tiny green leaves, giving the appearance of green, spiked-hair plants.
Although several birds were heard, it was the distinctive Canyon Wren that epitomizes our auditory memories of the river. With a descending whistle, this wren accompanied us the entire length, although a little less at the end. Another sound that abounded was the cicada, and the high pitch buzzing, especially during the heat of the day, was omnipresent. It would stop only at dusk or very cool, cloudy weather. A third sound was the rumble, like a waterfall, but just in front of us, at river level, indicating another rapid. As we approached, the rumble combined with a surging splashing, to be accompanied by the spits of whitecap just visible over the first drop. These three sounds, to me, evoke the Colorado River.
So, that's the nature part. A second part of the trip that
could not have been predicted accurately before the trip, but
turned out to be just as meaningful as the natural world to our
day-to-day business, were the people and personalities of the
trip. Six guides and seventeen guests were our world for fourteen
days. With a couple of exceptions, we knew each other only by
There was Mike and Kathy from PA, who were the first ones we met at the hotel. And there was Smitty and Cindy with their son Jed who had just graduated, and they were from PA also. There was Joe and Deb with his two children Justin (17?) and Caitlin (16?), accompanied by their friend Bill, all from MO. And then there were long time friends Jan and Cherie who lived in Ohio and Virginia respectively. And then there were two 24 year old friends, Rob and Chien Si, from CA. Also present was our friend Chris DeGiovine, who had put the idea of this trip in our heads a couple of years ago. And finally, Deb and I. We would talk of our life experiences, most of which could be another major chapter but not in this account. A common thread to the makeup of the rafters was the large number of educators on the trip, the number of young people, and the incidence of campers and water people. I think Deb and I were the only ones who really had not camped before.
These were the seventeen people who could make or break this trip, and as it turned out, were a group of people who were helpful, kind, sociable, polite, and interesting. I thought we were an easygoing bunch who looked after each other.
The other players in the people picture were the guides. Paul, Dan, Matt, Lucca, John, and Kent led, educated, listened, advised us what to expect, what we could and should know. Paul (Smolenyak, written on his two beach chairs) was the trip leader, and Matt was the paddle boat guide. The others had roles but they interchanged so often that I forgot who was designated what. In short, each guide added a part of their personality that meshed harmoniously for all of us.
Chris' dislike of O'Hare seemed to be justified. We were supposed to leave Albany at 6:15 AM but was delayed 15 minutes because of O'Hare. Then our route was detoured around a storm so we got into Chicago even later. Fortunately, we had 15 minutes to spare and our next gate was only three gates up. We then left Chicago an hour late, waiting on the runway because of the same storm, and landed in Phoenix, again with 15 minutes to spare to catch the Nava-Hopi bus. So, with two airline breakfasts in us, we took the 2½ hour bus ride up Route 17 to Flagstaff. We arrived about 2 PM at the Radisson, with enough time to have made the orientation meeting if it had been that day but it was razor close. We dined at the Radisson's Southwest Cafe, and seafood seemed on our mind - trout, salmon, shrimp kabob. The pool, hot tub, steam bath filled out our day, and we were ready for bed at 8:30 MST (Arizona does not do DST, I believe), feeling like 11:30 our time. It had been a long day.
The next day, we couldn't help but get up at 5 AM, had breakfast at Denny's and started walking to the Lowell Observatory. We took their two hour tour, and whisked Chris away before he made any more derogatory comments about Lowell. We walked back to the Radisson in the glare of the intense sun. The rest of the afternoon was spent reading, lounging at the pool, and taking a 10 minute stationary bike ride.
The orientation was due at 5:30, and with some nervous anticipation, we met Susan who introduced all of us, told us what to expect, and had material to buy (a hat, water bottle, beeners, a bandana). Fruit and cheese were offered, but not enough to keep us from going later to Radisson's Sakura, a Japanese restaurant with flames and all. We went back to our rooms to unpack our luggage and to repack it into a dry bag and mesh bag (the mesh bag for day use). We got to bed at 9:30, apprehensively wanting the next day to appear soon. Throughout the night, with our windows open, the trains regularly blared every half hour or so.
Day One had finally arrived, and after a company breakfast
at Southwest Café, we turned in our bags, and off in two
vans we all went. We got to Lee's Ferry about 9:30 AM, and remembered
five years previous when Deb stuck her foot in the Colorado River,
thinking she might never get back. Trip guide leader Paul introduced
himself, gave fifteen minutes of instructions, advice, and caution,
and off we set into the six rafts. Five of the eighteen foot rafts
were loaded with supplies, each powered by one guide with 10-12
foot oars, and would accommodate one or two or three rafters.
The one paddle boat held six paddlers and one guide. On the first
day, Deb and I opted to go with John's oar boat, and Chris went
with the paddlers.
I could go on day by day but they basically followed the same pattern. Thus, I'll review that pattern, and later go over highlights. Once we got on the water, typically by 8 AM, we would talk with the guide, or vice versa, about personal stories, geology (a lot of geology), some Colorado River river running history and folklore, archaeology and Indian history, and whatever came into mind. Often, there were lots of time to just sit back and look around, and ask more questions.
Along would come a rapid or two or three or four, and invariably water splashed into the boat, splashed all over us, etc. A bail boat meant that whatever water got into the boat needed to be bailed out, and the was the responsibility of the rafters. A self-bailer meant we could sit back more. Although the bail boats meant more work, sometimes it was a welcome diversion.
If one were in the paddle boat, Matt would give instructions,
and the seven in the boat had to power themselves down the river
and through the rapids. Along the way, we all would see bighorn
sheep, blue herons, ducks, ravens, and crows, as well as continue
to hear the trill of the Canyon Wren and the almost deafening
cicada buzz. Typically, at mid-late morning, the sweet or salty
gorp containers came out for a snack.
At some time around 11:30, noon, or shortly thereafter, Paul would indicate a lunch break. We would find some sandy spit of beach, the boats would tie up, one metal table would be unloaded and the crew would drag out from a few of their many boxes and containers food items for lunch. Typically, lunch was a sandwich of cold cuts, wraps, cheese, vegetables, and condiments, or one had a choice of peanut butter and jelly, any of them accompanied by fruit, usually apples and orange slices, followed by the cookie or two of the day. Water bottles were refilled, clothes might be changed, pee breaks taken, sun block re-applied, etc.
Back to the river we would go, usually until 3:30 to 4:30, before camp was called. Camp usually meant one of the several dozen spots on the river where flash floods, regular river movement, and pre-dam placement had bunched rock and sand into a beach. A good one might include a roomy sandy beach and area that could host a couple dozen people. Plants, especially the tamerus trees, might provide some shade, as well as delineating natural camp areas and some privacy.
Before camp was called, sometime during the day, we probably would have gone on a hike, usually up one of the many side canyons that the guides thought were worthwhile seeing and doing. More on the hikes later but suffice it to say for now that they were an integral part of the day, a complement to the rafting.
Continuing on with camp, the boats would get untied, the rafters would stand on the beach and form lines to pass what the guides were taking off the boats. This meant the dry bags that contained all that we had brought along, our sleeping bags, the water containers, kitchen facilities, pails, food containers, toilet facilities, etc. The routine became simple but it was one of the defining moments of the day.
Once the supplies were on the beach, people picked up their belongings and started looking for a sleeping spot. This would be a clearing on the beach that would be big enough to sleep two or three or four, sometimes as little as ten feet across, and other times, you might have fifty feet. We would probably look for a tamerus to shelter under, or to screen us from others. A spot closer to the water was probably cooler but sometimes not available. We would check to see where the kitchen was going to be located, where the toilet was sited, and what other good spots along the beach were available for washing, bathing, and peeing.
The next chores could be in any order. Bathing could mean getting the soap and shampoo out, undressing as much as you felt comfortable with, and getting yourself clean, or as clean as living on sand and river water would allow.
I need to digress to the water again but this time to water
temperature. It was COLD! Books have been written about the effect
of the Glen Canyon Dam, but, in short, the canyon changed the
ecology and nature of the river. Water is released from the dam
as power in needed downstream in Phoenix, LA, Las Vegas, etc.,
and the water is released from the lower level of the dam. The
water at Lee's Ferry is in the upper 40s! It gradually warms as
the river proceeds and tributaries add warmer water but even then
the water may be in the mid-50s at journey's end. Thus, bathing
is not comfortable, and shampooing often gives a headache. Swimming
does not last long. On a hot day, doses of cold water immersion
is one way of maintaining a body heat equilibrium.
I've mentioned peeing a couple of times, and could use addressing, as should the topic of pooping. At trip's beginning, the guides' mandate is "what goes in, must come out." Thus, all solid waste was contained throughout the trip. However, peeing was a bit in between. The short of it was that all peeing was to be done in the Colorado River, unless you did it in the pee bucket, in which case you would dump the contents into the river and rinse the bucket. Men, being men, would politely wade into the water waist high and pee. However, at 48 degrees, thoughts of peeing soon shrivel (side meanings allowed). It was more common for the men to wade up to their ankles and discharge. Even more common was standing on a rock above the water and peeing. For the women, it was tougher. It was more polite to wade into water that one could stand or crouch in, and pee. After a while, three or four of us were within twenty feet of each other, knowing we were peeing. We did try to show some courtesy by not peeing upstream from someone who was bathing or shampooing, but even that probably would not matter much with the volume of river water.
Pooping was another matter. As soon as camp was established,
a toilet spot was set, as was a metal box, with a toilet ring
attachment, along with the pee bucket, and the toilet cleaning
box. This spot was usually downstream, in a thicket of tamerus,
or behind a big rock, or just out of sight. Typically, we had
a grand river view, so another company's rafting trip might make
you want to wait until they had passed by. The entrance spot to
the toilet area was marked by a bag of toilet paper, the signal
that the toilet was unoccupied. If the toilet paper bag was not
there, you waited until the person showed up to hand off to you.
Also present was a hand cleaning arrangement of clean water, soap,
and rinsed water. I have to admit that civilization has spoiled
us with our own personal, private toilets, and many of us have
never had to use an outhouse. A community, portable outhouse is
not for the overly fastidious.
Another chore of camp was making clean water. CanX had a portable ceramic filter that might fill a five gallon pail in ten minutes if we pumped fast enough. Typically, pails of river water were brought to the filter site, and everyone was encouraged to pump until the empty containers were filled. Usually, one or two buckets per day seemed to be enough. These containers were supposed to be used only during lunch time; during the other times, one was supposed to pump one's own water containers for himself/herself. One drop of bleach per two quarts!
The kitchen consisted of four tables. One table usually was the prep table, where food was sliced, diced, cut up, etc. Next was the food delivery table from which we chose what we were going to eat. The third table held the heating elements, powered by propane. The fourth table, which could be set a little ways off, held four pails of water for washing plates, pans, etc. The first pail was the cold wash, followed by the hot wash, followed by the hot rinse, followed by the disinfectant pail. Newly washed plates, utensils, etc., were placed in a mesh bag under one of the tables to air dry.
If the weather was threatening, or if one chose to set one up just in case (Deb set up tent almost every night), we could take a tent, and with some practice have it set up in five minutes, maybe less. The tents held two sleeping bags.
The time before dinner, usually 5:30 - 6:00 PM, was spent doing all these chores. It was also spent chatting with anyone else, reading, relaxing with a soda, beer or wine. Seating depended on the beach. Sometimes the most comfortable seating was the edge of the rafts. Other times, it was a convenient rock, or a hard piece of sand, or just standing sometimes sufficed.
Dinner! Dinner was the big meal of the day, with a different entrée for 13 days. Let's see, in order: spinach ravioli, burritos, salmon, boneless chicken, jambalaya, hamburger/bratwurst, fish & shrimp salad wrap, pork chops, chicken & vegetable over rice, lasagna, steak, burrito pie, alfredo fettuccine. And the accompaniments were just as different, as were the desserts (usually done in the Dutch oven). All the dinners were tasty and balanced, although I enjoyed the lasagna the most. Meals were usually prepared by two of the guides, alternating through a cycle. And rafters could help out if we chose.
After-dinner was also our own although we tended to knot up along the rafts where the guides were staying and would sleep. Conversations, discussions about some river topic, stories of personal experiences were common events. On several nights, Paul extricated his guitar and played and sang for 30-60 minutes. A starry dusk, on the river, reflecting the fading light and cliffs, with good food, accompanied by Paul's music brought a sense you were experiencing something many people could only dream about.
Other evening activities were story tellings, John's reading of Dr. Seuss, Dan's reading from Natural Acts and his reading of Coyote, something nobody on the trip will ever forget. Eventually, a little after eight, dusk evaporated into dark, and we would settle back on the sleeping bags or liners and watch the bats swoop and dive just over our heads and the river. If the wind was right, Smitty's pipe smoke might lazily drift through camp.
On two nights, it did rain lightly. The first time it happened, sometime after midnight, a flurry of lights reflected people setting up tents. The second time, the weather threat was close enough to bedtime that many people had tents already set up. Usually, by nine, most rafters were in "bed", with the guides sleeping on the rafts.
The moon was our companion the entire time. It was full at trip's beginning, and added a feeling of magic and romance and adventure for the first few nights. The last quarter moon was rising too late for us to see unless one got up very late, or very early in the morning. One particular morning, about 3 or 4 AM, and we were surround by high cliffs, the shadow of the east cliff drifted from top to bottom as the quarter moon rose, a moon that we finally saw about 9 AM after we left camp and got away from the cliffs. By journey's end, the sliver moon was seen one last time, and on the very last day, the new moon showed nothing in the sky.
Another digression leads to the effect of the dam. Pre-dam meant that the river level was determined by the natural effect of rainfall and upstream precipitation. Post-dam means a controlled level, with a low of 6-7 thousand cubic feet per second (cfs), often about 10-12 thousand cfs, and occasionally up to 15-18 thousand cfs. That difference meant that the guides had to keep an eye on where they placed their boats at night because a lower level in the morning meant having to push their heavily laden raft off sand. A rising overnight water level was likely to steal some unwary rafter's belongs left on a beach that had disappeared by sunrise.
Also, this consistent level of cold water means the ecology
of what thrives and what is threatened has changed. Books have
been written about this, and I won't attempt to paraphrase in
such a short space.
Back to our typical day. Night has gone by. The Big Dipper, North Star, and Cassiopeia were the night time "stars" (bad pun), and light begins to break about 5, which in turn meant most of us were rousing then or soon thereafter, having slept for eight hours. One of the guides got coffee ready, and would yell, "Coffee!" just before six. A half-hour later, "Breakfast!" would ring out, and we would line up for a variety of breakfasts - pancakes, scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage, bacon, hash browns, choice of eggs, etc. Cold cereal was an option, and usually cantaloupe and honey dew melon filled a large metal bowl. Utensils got cleaned, tables were knocked apart and fitted on the rafts. Everything dragged out the afternoon before is repacked. Last call for toilet is announced and that too is brought back to the boat in its metal container. If Paul had not done so the night before, he announces the itinerary for the day, choices for shoes, requests, etc. We choose the boat we wish to be with, step over the side, hopefully with the right clothing choice in the day bags, and we set off to the next camping spot, and start another cycle.
The mileage covered would average about 15 miles but would vary quite a bit. Paul saved more mileage to be covered later in the trip where it would be hotter, thus saving the cooler weather to span more of the trip. The mile marks for each day were: 13, 30, 41, 47, 68, 92, 110, 132, 137, 151, 177, 198, 220, 226 (the end). Typically, the short days meant a hike.
And the hikes. I felt the hiking was one of the key parts of the trip. Day 1 featured a day's end hike that Deb and I did not partake in, mostly because I wanted to play it safe the first day. Day 2 saw a two part hike, with half of us finishing the first part, and the other half going the rest of the way. The second half started steeply and was in direct sun. The rest of us sat in the shade, did yoga with the other Deb, and waited for the other group to reappear. Day 2 saw another hike at day's end.
Day 3 found us stopping at Redwall Cavern, a deep amphitheater,
covered by a ledge, able to seat several hundred, or more, people.
Chris and I ran six laps, Bill and Joe did their martial arts,
and John was instructing on rock climbing. We stopped once more
to see one of the old river runner's boats. During lunch, we stopped
at the test mines that would have marked the dam at Marble Canyon,
an act that fortunately did not happen. Paul summarized the history
of that protest. At day's end, we hiked 2½ hours in Buck
Farm Canyon, a semi-strenuous hike of some tight spots that finally
dead-ended. It was the kind of hike that mentally energized our
Day 4 had us hiking before lunch at Saddle Canyon, a tough first mile talus slope climb which leveled out, crisscrossing a small stream, finishing a climb that needed help from the guides to see a picturesque and cooling waterfall. A few snacks from the guides picked up our energy levels.
(Little C.R. glide)
Day 5 started with a hike that had been proposed for the afternoon before but a threatening storm postponed it. It was a mile long, steady climb to Anasazi Gardens, a site almost 1000 feet above the river where Indians would store their food almost 1000 years ago. It was even slower going coming down, and the narrow upper ledge challenged those who have a trace of acrophobia. Just after lunch, we found ourselves at the confluence with the Little Colorado River, and this was one of the highlights of the trip. The water is a cobalt blue, fed by a spring about ten miles upstream. Paul had warned us that it might be muddy but it was near perfect. We wore our bathing suits like diapers and glided down a 100 yard long slide in water that was warmer than anything we had felt all trip (it was regular river water, not dam water). We stayed for a couple of hours before continuing. A side note was our meeting several nude bathers, thus earning their private boat trip the nickname of the "The Nude Privates."
Day 6 began with a quarter mile hike at the rear of the campsite to see Anasazi petroglyphs. After lunch, we were going to hike Cremation Creek but rain scrubbed that opportunity and instead we disembarked on the trail to Phantom Ranch where we saw civilization for first time in a week. I had a Snickers bar, some had cold lemonade (our trip had no ice), and otherwise cavorted in the creek up to the ranch.
Day 7 began with a hike up Trinity Creek, a twisting walk on fairly flat ground that began to narrow like Antelope Canyon does, ending in a sheer wall face in a slot canyon ten feet across. One other excursion just off the river was the metal boat wreck of Ross Wheeler.
On Day 8, we hiked up a half mile of Black Tail Canyon, another
semi-easy hike that rewarded us with a waterfall. We also stopped
at Royal Arches Canyon to see Elves Chasm that had a deep pool
with a waterfall which could be walked behind and above to jump
into the pool. It was one more way to cool off and to know the
quirks of the canyon more intimately. The number of springs and
waterfalls sprinkled around the canyon surprises the visitor that
observes how totally desert-like the canyon usually appears.
Day 9 was one of our longest hikes, up Stone Creek, medium toughness with a few tough spots. Just weeks before, another hiker had been seriously injured on the same trail. This trail too had a waterfall midway and at the end. A hazy cloud cover saved us from more sweating. After lunch, we hiked up one of the river's most popular spots, Deer Creek. It was a steep and steady climb that led back over a slot canyon and another waterfall. At the river edge is the 100 foot Deer Creek Falls, with a wind blast from the falling water that one can barely stand up to. We shouted and whooped, at Paul's insistence, as we tried to approach the falls face first.
On Day 10, we stopped at Kanab Creek, trudged through heavy mud for a couple hundred yards and continued for about a half-mile, finding shade and water. We had planned to stop at Matkatamiba Creek for lunch, had set up for lunch, but the threat of thunderstorms cut preparation short and we hurried away from a threat of a flash flood
On Day 11, we had plans to hike up Havasu Creek but muddy water changed Paul's mind. Instead, we rafted to National Creek, hiked up the stream bed a mile, found shade, cooled off in the pool, napped for two hours, dammed up the water to try to wash Jan from her reading spot, and otherwise cooled off from the unrelenting sun
There would be no more group hikes as the guides try to push the rafts for distance in the hot part of the canyon. Chris and I did hike for an hour or so on Day 13 up 200 Mile Creek near our camped that afternoon. The hikes, indeed, were a fulfilling, worthwhile element of our rafting trip. And although the rapids are often thought of as being dangerous, I felt the main danger of the trip was from the hiking, as worthwhile as they were. The possibility of stubbed toes and scraped shins abounded, and the chance for a fall was abundant. Fortunately, with everyone being careful, and with guides knowing where help should be given, no one could claim more than a blister or two, a small cut, or a shin scrape from the hikes.
Another element integral to the camping experience were the campsites, briefly mentioned before. I tended to prefer a 100 foot wide boat parking area and kitchen area with a gradually sloping, medium hard sand area close to the water's edge, large enough to fit everyone with no crowding and room to spare. Day 11, a few miles above Lava Falls, fit that description for me. Another camp site type I liked was on rock ledges, with room for the boats and kitchen and some sandy spots for people to set up camp. Day 1 was my second favorite site. My least favorite were medium steep, mushy sand, multi-levels separated by a lot of rocks, making access to the river and the kitchen and boats relatively tougher. Still, no matter where we camped, we had cliffs and cliffs around us, the sound of the river rapids filling our ears most of the time, and more often than not, a starry night to ponder.
What about the rapids - the very thing most people think of when they think of the Grand Canyon trip? The rapids indeed were the prime adventure consideration. The guides were both confident and respectful of the rapids. Some, they knew, they could play with and have fun. Others they knew had certain spots to avoid no matter what. And there were the handful that we all got out to scout and watch the guides decide the course to take. Our Colorado River guidebook given to us by CanX showed the map of the river, with placement of the rapids, and with a rating scale of difficulty of 1-10. We soon learned that the scale was not totally accurate and some lower rated rapids could be more challenging while some of the higher rated ones were not the difficulty promised.
Still, there was always an air of excitement upon the beginning mumble of what you knew was fast water ahead, to continue with the disappearing of the river over an edge, to be swallowed by an increasing volume of noise that at times could be called a roar, and then watch the front of the raft follow the speeding water toward the V of water that met in the rollicking waves of the rapids. Most times, the river was wide enough to accommodate play in the waves or to play it more safely on the side, as long as the guide stayed out of a hole.
The names of rapids are numerous and evocative. Badger Creek Rapid at mile 7 on Day 1 was the first real rapids, followed shortly by Soap Creek where we got drenched with the first big wave washing over the front of the boat. Other rapids that first day or two were Sheer Wall, House Rock, Redneck, and North Canyon. The list is a long one, and anyone interested can get a map and check them out, so I'll save the next few paragraphs for the sharp memories.
Day 4 will stand out in my memory because the second big wave on President Harding Rapids knocked me out of the paddle boat. I might have been not as careful as I should have, and with a little help from Joe, the second wave bent the front right of the raft up and I slide off the side. I grabbed the outer rope and two pairs of strong hands dragged me back into the raft!
Unkar Rapid (mi 72) was one of the first bigger rapids that the guides took a little more seriously. Four miles later, the first big test arose. The guides beached and scouted Hance Rapids. Having checked things out for a course, the guides got back in and, with a characteristic rapids-defying wolf bark from Paul, we entered the rapids. Once again, we all got soaked with 50 degree water. Two miles later, Sockdolager was treated carefully but soaked everyone once again. This Day 6 was the first big rapids day.
Day 7 was even bigger! Granite Rapids (mi 93) filled Kent's raft and Deb and I spent a furious five minutes bailing the boat as Kent struggled to get out of the eddy with a hard-to-maneuver raft. Hermit and Boucher followed, with the highly respected Crystal coming up. The guides scouted once again, watched a motorized trip go through, picked the right hand side, and escaped the fury of one of the highest rated rapids on the trip. It was sort of anticlimatic. Then we followed this with Tuna Creek, Lower Tuna, Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Serpentine, Bass and Shinumo. A big and long rapids day! Hermit, I thought, had the biggest waves that we rode the entire trip, with ten foot waves looking over ten foot holes, making you feel like you were twenty feet up in the air. If there was a roller coaster ride, it was this one.
Day 8 was the last big day. We started with Hakatai (mi 111),
Waltenberg (a big category 8), Rancid Tuna, Forster, Fossil, Bed
Rock, Specter, and the big one of the day was Deubendorff, a rapid
that was scouted and approached with Paul's bark.
The next big rapid, the one people associate with the Grand Canyon, was Lava. The guides scouted, watched a motorized raft go on the right side. We got back into our rafts, and prepared for the left side. The tough part of Lava is that there is no easy side, with some major rowing to be done, although the center is to be avoided at all costs. We got the obligatory drenching but we made it through in fine shape. The last few days had some big rapids but none the size of mid-trip.
What's been written is the predictable stuff. What fills out our memories of the trip are the events that can't be scripted exactly for this minute at this hour, and there are dozens of them, although I will try to capture a couple dozen or fewer in this account.
Perhaps the most exhilarating hour on the river was Day 5, just after lunch. We had heard thunder for a couple of hours, and in the distance could see a steady rain. Twenty minutes later, we rafted into a medium rain that began pounding into a heavy rain that then drummed into our faces with a 30-40 MPH wind that forced us to face backwards and backstroke. For fifteen minutes this continued. Abruptly, small puffs of dust or something began spotting the upper cliffs, and soon water and mud was cascading from the surrounding cliffs, some tens of feet, others hundreds of feet. One high water/mud fall was visible as a profile, spitting out water 20-30 feet past the upper ledge. Other falls were blown off their center course and were splashing a hundred feet over. We whooped and hollered and cheered as the rain stopped, and then gawked in awe at a spectacle that the guides said they witness only once every four or five entire trips.
A second favorite memory was sliding into the turquoise blue of the Little Colorado, with a lifebelts in diaper position. We all acted like kids let loose.
Being on the river meant, for all practical purposes, the outside world did not exist. The only world that meant anything was the 23 people on the trip and what our plans for the day or the next day was. No telephone, no TV, no newspaper, nuttin'. The only tiny exception was the side trip to Phantom Ranch, and even that felt like we were cheating. We were aware of the isolation but found it exhilarating and welcome, knowing that our Shangri-La would disappear in two weeks.
Repeating something before, but the sounds still echo in my head. The trilling of the Canyon Wren, the overpowering drone of the cicadas, the mumble and roar of the rapids, Paul's bark at the entrance of the rapids, the call of "Coffee" or "Breakfast" or "Lunch" or "Hors D'oeuvres" or "Dinner" epitomize the sounds that still ring. Also, I still hear the single snap of the can smasher ringing out.
The nervous anticipation of the big rapids by everyone cannot be understated. We'd get ourselves psyched getting out the boat, climbing above the rapid, guess where the guides were going, get back into the boat, hang on for dear life (or paddle for dear life if one was paddling the rapids, which I never did), anticipate the waves slamming you in the face or on your head, lean into the waves, yell as each wave hit, and then breathe a sigh of relief as your realized you were riding out the tail of the rapid.
The variety of reading the guides recited added history, whimsy, and folklore to our trip. Accounts of past river men reinforced what we were going through, Dan's readings of essays on the crow and condor were entertaining, Dan's reading of the Coyote stories amazed and amused, and John's reading of Dr. Seuss and Curious George added an element that tickled us, for reasons we probably don't know.
The weather was a roller coaster. We were expecting clear mornings, with afternoons usually clouding up with a possible shower or storm, clearing in the evening. It did, indeed, do that a few days. However, we had two overcast days, and more cloud cover in the first half of the trip. Then, the last three days were cloudless, with temperatures probably getting close to 110, or so it felt. It was easy to imagine what careless preparation could do to the unwitting traveler of this unforgiving environment.
And the weather affected our clothing choices. Day 2 meant near hypothermia when I left two layers of wet cotton under a rain jacket on a relatively cool day, in addition to getting wet. We soon learned after that, got out the polypro top for the cool days, and cotton only for the very warm. In the sunny days, eventually I would wear long sleeves, although Deb was close to being tan enough to survive. Our chamois towels were useful leg covers to keep some of the sun off.
The night before hitting Lava Rapid, someone starting painting
toenails as good luck, and soon almost everyone got their toenails
done. I suspect Paul's gin & tonic, or was it tonic &
gin, might have been the impetus.
The knife episode allowed for some teasing. It was too late when the guides realized we had no cutting knives for food, did manage to beg one or two from passing expeditions, and finally had one of the motorized trips drop off our knife set. In between, there were many comments about knives, and loud cheering erupted when the knives arrived.
The passage of the motorized trips were a reminder we had made the right choice. Somehow, the smell and noise of a gasoline engine did not fit the Canyon experience.
A couple of times during the trip we had periods of silence. The first came during the first Sunday, and we spent an hour listening to the sounds of the canyon. The next period was the final day to the takeout, which would have worked but we cheated when Rob fell off the boat taking a pee.
For the first nine days, we traveled on a green river, not the usual Colorado picture. We had two incidences of the water turning muddy after we had camped, and both times, the water cleared by morning. The guides had warned us the water could be muddy the entire trip but we had been lucky so far. On Day 10, we awoke to latte colored water, and it stay with us the rest of the trip. Any white clothing turned pinkish, and the washing routine seemed somewhat foolish with the water we were washing with.
I had brought two books to read. I had finished the Hobbit before we got onto the river, and started and finished The Fellowship of the Ring, both stories about a trip.
One of the guides had made a story stick, an object you had in your possession in order to tell a story. After Rob told a story of one of his traveling adventures, he slammed the stick into the sand. With a sharp crackle, the stick broke into two pieces. With a gasp from all, we thought of the symbolism, and with that, Rob ran and dove into the river, almost in penance, to be followed by Jed who jumped on top.
The 25 miles of bone jarring Hualapai road from takeout to main road was an experience of its own. And then the stop at Delgadillo's in Rt. 66's Seligman was all that our van driver claimed it would be.
The end came, and the sight of the Radisson reminded that the "real" world is not the Canyon world. Everyone had dinner at Sakura's that night, bid the guides farewell, and Chris and Deb and I set off for home the following morning in reverse route - the bus to Phoenix, and flights to Chicago and Albany, all of which went without a hitch this time, except for our car quitting halfway home from the airport. (Thanks, Chris Lochner for the late night ride home.)
Thus our Grand adventure ended, a celebration of our anniversary and Chris's birthday and of a wish to return to experience more closely what we had seen five years earlier. I think the three of us agreed that this trip will be one of the few dozen benchmarks that mark our lives. And a thank you goes to Chris for sharing this experience. For those of you who want an adventure of a lifetime, try rafting the Colorado (and CanX).