"We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we are BUT[T] PYGMIES, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not." J.W. Powell (emphasis added)
I had the great pleasure to go down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for my second time in 2014. There were several of us that put in together through the lottery system early in 2013; the way it works is that trips are selected for the next year and one can put in for up to five dates. We called ourselves the "Run-the-Canyon-While-We-Can-Still-Walk Bunch", since average age was somewhere in our 40-50s, with knees, etc., starting to give out. All of us had been down the River at least once before, and a few had done it quite a number of times. My good buddy Richard Bryant was the instigator of the whole thing, and amazingly enough he actually won a launch date! And not just any date, but the absolute best date: September 18. Commercial power boats come off the river starting the 15th, and quiet returns to the river wilderness (see River Runners for Wilderness for some needed perspective on that whole NPS mess; it is amazing that motors are still allowed in such a special landscape). Plus the weather is absolutely perfect that time of year: not too hot, not too cold, and days are still fairly long. Once we had the date and our core group set, we started asking other friends to come, and at launch ended up with 15 people on both the top and bottom halves (one person left at Phantom and one came in). And even though this was only my second time down the River, in fact only my second time ever on a river trip, I decided I was going to row a boat.
North Canyon; we camped at Upper North Canyon camp on the River and I hiked up early in the morning.
We arrived at Lees from Flagstaff around noon on September 17th, then spent the rest of the afternoon loading boats and packing gear (and beer). We used Pro in Flagstaff for our outfitter. They supplied five 18' Sotar boats and much of the communal gear we would be using for the three weeks of the trip, plus packed and organized all the food. Planning food for 15 people for 21 days is quite the chore, and using an outfitter is really the only way to go; they have incredible meal plans and do this all the time. And for those of us that only do this once in a great while it is terrific to just pay someone else for the use of their boats and equipment. Each of us had our personal camp gear (tent, sleeping bag and pad, etc), with Pro supplying a lot of the kitchen gear, the groover, water filters, fire pan, etc. In addition to the five boats, we also had three kayakers and one other who ran almost everything in a rubber ducky supplied by Pro.
Panorama from Staunton's Cave, above South Canyon Camp on the left side and Vassey's Paradise on the right.
After packing boats, we then moved them down a few yards to the boatsman's beach to set up camp. Dinner tradition for the evening before launch is to go up to one of the hotels up on Highway 89. We all piled into the Pro van for the short ride up to Cliff Dwellers Lodge, had a very nice dinner, and then back to the beach for our first night on the river (even if we were also right next to a giant parking lot and paved road). Next morning involved final packing of the boats, a talk by the River ranger, and then we're off by 10.
Our lower Canyon group in Matkatamiba, an absolutely lovely hike through the Muav limestone. This is a wonderful side hike, everyone made it up to the Matkat Patio through the pools and slides.
Once on the River, a river rhythm quickly establishes itself. I have found on both trips I've done that it takes only a day or two, in fact by the first lunch stop on day one, to be completely immersed in the Canyon. I have the feeling that various people make the trip for the rapids, or the company, or the beer, or mainly for the chance to just get away from the normal. I go entirely for the Canyon. I'm sure I speak for many people, but it is such an incredible place. There are the tiniest of details: rocks, leaves, reflections, the way stream waters sound through slot canyons. And then contrast those with the immensity of the place! I backpacked some in the Canyon when I was younger, and the only real way to experience it is to spend some time wandering around in it. But I've always been lazy at heart; it's a lot of work hiking in the Canyon, hot stinking desert that it is. People die of heat stroke and dehydration out there. So a River trip is just perfect for us old lazy people; we get to experience all the grandness the Canyon has to offer, all while floating lazily down the River, staring at Canyon walls, listening to Canyon wrens, smelling Canyon waters, with the occasional rapid to keep one paying attention. And, of course, I do not in any way mean to slight to the necessity of having good company; we had a terrific group of people, many with some sort of NPS experience (currently employed or recently retired), all with lots of outdoor experience, and two of us in tree-ring research (my good buddy Tom Swetnam and me)!
View acoss the River from our camp at Little Nankoweep.
My biggest complaint about a River trip is there never is enough time. One would think that on a 21 day trip there would be plenty of time for really getting to know the place. But, first of all, it is an incredibly huge landscape, and second, more prosaically, chores call in the evening and morning while in camp. Cooking, cleaning, setting up camp all have to be done. Much time in the mornings is devoted to packing up to get to the next spot. Stuffing sleeping bags, rolling up pads, shaking out sand and scorpions gets old after awhile. How can we be in such a timeless place and be forced to keep to a damn schedule??! Someday I'd like to do the trip by myself; I'll move when I want to, have no responsibilities to anyone or any thing else. Of course, I'd run out of food by the time I get to Phantom, never would reach the end of the trip...
There is very small sign at the very back of Redwall Cavern - hardly anyone ever sees it, but everyone knows what it says - that states that it is illegal for any River trip to pass the Cavern without an obligatory photograph of everyone in the trip doing something weird. Little known fact.
Everyone has to pitch in to make the trip work. The first trip I was on we divided the group into three shifts: one group cooking, one cleaning dishes and on groover, trash, and water duty, and one group off for the night. This trip we also had three groups alternating cooking, dishes, and off, but then in addition we had two people the whole trip responsible for groover, trash, and water: one of them was me! I loved it! Most evenings all I had to do was get the groover set first thing once we arrived at camp, and then I was off hiking, taking photos, sitting on a rock watching the world go by. Plus it worked well in that my boat was the honey wagon; all the full groover cans, trash, recycle, went on my boat. I have to admit the boat did have a whiff to it by the end of the trip, but overall I'd do that arrangement again anytime; that was the best way to go for us generally irresponsible people!
Ripples and reflections, Canyon walls and sky, in the creek on the Matkatamiba Canyon patio.
There are two strong rhythms to a River trip, that of the day and that of camp. Most days are spent on the move, watching the Canyon go by, listening to Canyon wrens, trying to stay out of the eddies, having a blast getting wet and hoping to stay in the boat in the rapids. Stops are only made for side hikes, scouting rapids, and lunch. We scouted all of the big rapids. We had four very experienced rowers on the other boats, plus four very competent kayakers; as the virgin rower I just took it all in and listened. Also I had had the privilege and pleasure during my first River trip in 2009-10 (launch was December 20) of going with my old Tucson buddy Tom Martin, who quite literally wrote the (a) guide book on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I remembered a lot of what Tom had told us about each rapid, but of course it was still highly useful to stop and stare and listen to the others. We would pick the line through the waves - the big part of running rapids is the setup at the top - think about exactly when to pull or push, when to pull like a son-of-a-bitch, when to know when you're really screwed and just hang on. And it all worked pretty darn well: we only had one swimmer for the entire three weeks! I think that's a pretty good record. I felt especially pleased with myself; I never worried about any of the rapids, even some of the biggest. Didn't lose a bit of sleep thinking about the next day's rapids (even before Lava). I'd row again in a heartbeat; what a blast!
We had a very nice layover day at the Little Nankoweep Camp just north of the main Nankoweep area. I hiked up to the granaries in the early morning before everyone else got moving; was lovely to have the place to myself. The granaries themselves are not much as far as ruins go, mainly a lovely spot way above the River. They would have been for storage, a place to keep corn and other crops undoubtedly grown right below on the flats along the River. I imagine there's some evidence of occupation on the flats, but I didn't see much more than some lithic scatters while hiking around.
Camp on the other hand, as I mentioned before, is much more involved, many more things to do. On the River is uncomplicated; camp is complicated. On the River is only one direction; camp is many directions, often all at once. A mad dash to unload the boats; find the spot for the groover and set it up; set up the kitchen and get dinner started; unpack and unfurl camp chairs; grab your gear and find a spot for yourself. After the first day everyone gets into the rhythm pretty well, actually quite well synchronized. As I say, I had the best job of all; once the groover was set and kitchen going, I could take off hiking, wandering, taking photos. For those unfortunates on cook duty that particular evening, they were slaved to the kitchen until all the rest of us were happy! And then the next morning it all gets reversed: take down your camp, roll up the pad and stuff the sleeping bag; pack up the dry bag; take down the kitchen (after breakfast of course); clean up the camp; pump-up and pack-up boats; smash beer cans and pack up all recyclables (my job); and final act, clean and pack up the groover (again, my job). Layover days were absolutely golden, because all those complications were delayed by a day. Layover days were sleep in (or for me up before dawn to be sure to get the golden light), take a nice hike or two, swim, clean up, and then come back to an already made up bed-roll in the evening. That's another thing I would like to do different on my next trip: push harder on the rowing days to have twice as many layovers.
Side hikes are the true essence of a River trip: 260+ miles of glorious Canyon and all its myriad intricacies. This is why there is never enough time! Too much, too overwhelming. Short stops during the day for short hikes, some longer ones, some classic stops everyone has to make (Nautilus, Matkat, Havasupai, Elves). Hikes in the evenings and mornings around camp. Then there are the layover days, with a chance to do some longer hikes. The absolute best layover we did this trip was at Opposite Deer Creek camp. First of all the camp is just terrific. Lovely spot, nice sand, rocks, and views. I picked a little bowl in the rocks up high to the west of the main camp; views up and down river and of the falls. Then there was the exhilaration of just being here again. I've done the Thunder River-Deer Creek backpack three times, but the last time was over 30 years ago (1983 I think). This trip we had the whole layover day for hiking. I caught a ride with one of the kayakers early in the morning, my first actual swim across the Colorado, holding onto the back of the kayak and kicking. Others came over later in the day on a raft and I caught a ride back with them. The crossing wasn't too bad either direction. In the morning, we played at the base of the falls for a bit - cold water! - and then I headed up the trail. My plan was to head over Surprise Valley to Thunder River, then back down Tapeats to the River to do the loop. But Deer Creek is such a lovely spot and I decided instead to try and find all the springs that make up the creek. I first went to Dutton Springs and the Throne Room, took a series of self-timer photos of myself sitting in all the thrones to put together into a movie; got over 30 shots. Lot of work running from the camera to the next throne and back again! After Dutton went back down to the main creek and wandered up to the two other springs that make up Deer Creek. Both are choked with Phragmites and willows, hard to crash through to actually reach the point where the water comes out (have to admit I didn't reach that point with the center spring; much too difficult to bash through the vegetation). Such amazing clear water! Nothing like it.
A note on rapids: Yes, they are a blast! Watch the myriad YouTube videos of Canyon trips and about every one of them is focused on running rapids; Gopro is making a fortune. Drones are illegal in National Parks or there would be a whole new genre of videos flying over every rapid every time a boat goes through. But still... the rapids are only a small part of the entire trip. Never, ever lose sight of the Canyon. Even the vast majority of rowing involves just staying out of eddies, or trying to get out once you're caught in one. The rapids are, of course, a lot of fun: riding the v-waves, falling in the troughs, pulling or pushing in panic, getting splashed, and trying to keep a line. But at the end of each are the "swirlies", that spin the boat and send it off the main current the second you're not paying attention. I found these the real challenge. Although this is not to say that I did not have fun with the big rapids! I took some Gopro videos of my own, including one through Crystal that was the only time we had a swimmer (not from my boat). (Note, that video is completely unedited and fairly long; one of these days I'll sit and learn how to make a good video.)
Just above Lava Canyon camp.
We had one day of rain with everyone thoroughly wet. It started out warm rain but after getting soaked all were cold; it was great to finally set up camp and get into some dry clothes. Of course by the time we set up a kitchen tarp and tents the rain quit and the sky cleared; the way it always works. I set my tent up for only three nights the entire trip (we had sprinkles a few others), slept out the rest; even that evening after the day of rain I didn't put up the tent because there was a very nice overhang in back of camp to role out my bed. A tent is just one more thing for us lazy people to have to pack away the next morning; try to avoid it as often as possible. And yes, it does happen: one night I came back after dark to see a scorpion crawling across my pillow. There are a lot around but one can't let little things like that ruin sleeping under the stars.
The Great Unconformity in Blacktail Canyon.
A note on Deep Time: One of my absolute favorite spots in the Canyon is the Great Unconformity, where the Cambrian Tapeats Sandstone overlies the Vishnu Basement Rocks of schists and granites in the Inner Gorge (and other areas in the Canyon). The Unconformity represents erosion of over a billion years of Earth's history, with the oldest Tapeats dating to around 525mya and the youngest of the Vishnu rocks dating to around 1.7bya. Ever since I first hiked in the Canyon, this location - this contact between Vishnu and Tapeats - has always been incredibly moving to me; where else in the world can one's arms - even a hand - span roughly a quarter of the entire history of the Earth?! Plus the rocks themselves are so spectacular. Especially the Vishnu Schist along the River; until I floated it I never realized the incredible beauty of the fluting caused by the River. One of our camps was called Schist, and I spent the evening mainly staring at rocks. (River reflections and rocks took up a lot of my attention.)
Granite Park; our camp is down below just above the bay on the River
Finally, about that "Butt Pygmy" highlight in Powell's quote above: That is, of course, one of the most cited and famous quotes from the very famous and often-quotable J.W., but as Renee pointed out to us all near the start of the trip, that also can be taken to mean that we (i.e., River Runners) are, actually, Butt Pygmies (whatever those are). Which is what our group came to call ourselves as we traversed the unknown River. And it sure was a great group of folks, a great trip, a Grand Canyon. Let's do it again real soon.
The final group shot, last morning in Upper 220 Camp just before heading down to Diamond Creek take-out.
One more reflection...