Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River

25 days
300 miles
a couple thousand feet of elevation drop
1.6 billion years of preserved rock record.
The Grand Canyon. Most boaters regard this as the ultimate rafting trip in the world. I've been hearing about the canyon for over ten years now from friends, family, and co-workers. Most of what I hear about is the whitewater. There are plenty of stories about different hikes, side canyons, overlooks, campsites, caverns, wildlife, and geology, but mostly the rapids. Just before I left, someone gave me the best advice yet: This is not a whitewater trip. Sure, the rapids are huge and powerful and exhilarating, but there just aren't that many of them. It's really about being one of the only places in the country where you can float the river in one of the most spectacular places in the world for such a long period of time. For us, it was just that.

First off, here's a quick run-down of the crew:
Keith and D Bond and their two children: Eric (15) and Laura (17). Keith was the permit holder and the kind gentleman who invited all us strangers to join him. Dee was a blast to be around and had great positive energy. The kids skipped 10 days of school for the trip and had homework to catch up on. Laura will be a guide in Idaho soon, I just know it.

Randy, a.k.a. The Crippler, is a retired Marine vet who's sole purpose seemed to get us young men f***ed up every night, day and morning. He did well.

Keith A. had run the canyon once before and flipped four times. We all learned that second part on day 3.

Ryan and Danielle have been married about a year and are super fun! We'll see more of these two on the river for sure. Both are avid photographers.

Dan and Sherri have never been rafting before and bought a 16' cataraft for this trip. Dan (Danielle's father) was learning how to row, or at least how to run big holes sideways.

Scott just got married to the owner of Galice Resort a month ago, then bought a brand new raft and took off to Arizona for the month with us. He likes things that are red and likes to talk (smack).

Alan is a solo traveler of about 50 paddling an old-school kayak with an old-school helmet and PFD. But don't be misled, he's a bad-ass.

Andrew and Kyle are students in Moscow, ID. Andrew guides on the Main Salmon and Middle Fork. Kyle guides on the Kern and is learning to kayak.

Will is one of my best friends and roommate of two years. He's my connection to the trip and probably the best oarsman I know.

And then me, a worthless piece of kayak scum who just gets in the way.

The people were great, weather was fabulous (60's in the sun), hiking conditions were ideal, we had a white (day after) Christmas and were never short of beer or liquor (or Kettle Chips, but I rationed those big time). I was bracing myself for a fair helping of misery and it never came. On top of everything else, the whitewater turned out to be pretty damn fun, especially after I dropped my expectations.

In the early to mid 1900's, the recreational value of the canyon was not fully appreciated. Explorers of the time were more interested in fully utilizing natural resources instead of just enjoying their splendor. But the Grand Canyon doesn't have much to offer in that respect. The rocks have very little economic value and the cost of extraction far outweighs the potential revenue. Damming the river appeared to be the only way to get anything out of it, particularly since it's about the only major water source in the Southwest, where everyone seems to want to live. Fortunately, environmentalists of the day were able to save the Grand Canyon from damnation. It has come to the attention of everyone that the beauty of the Grand Canyon is not in how we can change it, but in how it can change us.

Everyone has been asking me about the trip. I don't know how to describe it. Spending 25 days on a river trip is a pretty surreal experience. After about day four, I hit a whole new level of "river time:" I forgot the day of the week, the day of the month, and even the day of the trip most of the time. I quit looking forward to any of the sites and was simply pleasantly surprised when I'd wake up to learn that we were running Crystal that day, exploring the Matkatamiba Narrows, or having a lay-over at Bass Camp near Shinomu Creek. I quickly fell behind in my river journal and forgot what we did on what days, but a few highlights still stand out for me. So, in no particular order:

Clear Creek was a fun hike, wading up through a sinuous slot canyon cut through the Vishnu Schist to a lush waterfall.

Poor old Keith A. with his heavy boat got tossed out and nearly flipped in House Rock. Fortunately we got video footage of it from two angles. Oh, and he was OK. That's good too.

The Chicken and dumplings meal was delicious. We had a great cook crew and I got too drunk to remember anything after I finished eating.

Tapeats Creek is definitely not runnable with the flows we saw. More water might make it doable, but there would be no eddies.

Smitty and I had pretty good elf impressions when we excitedly returned to our chasm.

I went big in Horn and plugged through the folding wave train down the right side. It was outrageously huge and I went from underwater to airborne several times.

Below Redwall Cavern, we strapped three rafts together and slowly barged our way to camp with music playing, cocktails circling, and the best of company.

Scotty spent an hour around the campfire asking everyone to describe Hance and was trying to plan out his run even before he saw the damn rapid. Then the next day, he was so focused on the big one downstream that he flipped in an innocent little class 2.

Our enormous 9-person, 160-square foot tent held up well and was kind of a pain in the ass to set up, but great living space once we had it.

Something unknown compelled me to surf the hole at Crystal. I dropped into the world-famous boat muncher and had about two seconds of an amazing surf followed by a severe beatdown.

The canyon is really big.

The wall behind camp at Grapevine offered great bouldering. It would be fun to come back down here with the intention of doing some rock climbing.

Alan is the shit. He is one of the most impressive people I've ever met. He lives simply but well, stays fit, works hard, packs light, helps everyone, demands nothing, has wisdom few will ever match, and all with the utmost humility. He's my hero.

Somewhere in the roaring twenties I found a couple of caves at river level that went way back. I kayaked back into one and got far enough from the river that I needed a headlamp. There was a nice little private beach at the back and the cave kept going.

For the first time ever, I saw preserved dune stratification in the Coconino Sandstone. On the hike up North Canyon, I gleefully traipsed about on the dune slip faces as little critters had done 300 million years ago.
Cacti are neat and make it feel warmer than it is.

I almost drowned when we encountered an major unexpected rapid on the motor out. We narrowly avoided a disastrous wrap only to run a huge lateral sideways with all the rafts strapped together.

After hours of hiking, scrambling, creek crossing and route finding, I spent Christmas Day with Alan squeezing leftover enchiladas out of a ziplock deep in a cave at the headwaters of Tapeats Creek.

Saddle may have been my favorite hike, where we had a mile on the trail and then a quick technical scramble in the slot canyon to reach a gorgeous waterfall

I picked up a star guide before the trip and managed to learn 15 new stars, clusters, and constellations along with a little bit of the mythology behind them.

Smitty learned to shred on this trip. He swam every rapid on the first couple days and then rafted for a while, but got back in for the gems and was nailing tough combat rolls in Emerald, Bedrock, Serpentine, and Upset, then he aced Deubendorf and fired up Lava Falls with a big grin.

Speaking of Lava, I got a pretty good workout there. I ran it once, got stuffed and Smitty swam. I finally towed him into an eddy halfway through lower Lava. Then we both shouldered our boats and hiked a quarter mile back upstream through a jungle of reeds to run it again. Smitty rowed a raft for round two and I got another spanking.

Here are a few more pictures I might as well share:

I'll be coming back for sure!


Chedder Beer said...

I am glade that you had a great trip, and I am even happier that you are back home safe and ready to eat kettle chips. Long live Team Kettle!!!

Let's go rafting! said...

glade /gle…™d/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[gleyd] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
an open space in a forest.
[Origin: 1520–30; akin to glad1, in obs. sense “bright”]

—Related forms
gladelike, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.