I write these first words from a sandy spot behind a lovely spray of tamarisk trees on a beach at North Canyon Rapid. We’ve arrived at our first campsite—at Mile 21—on our route through the Grand Canyon. I can hear the roaring of the Colorado River on both sides from where I sit, to my right where the river plunges into the rapid and on my left where it resounds against the lofty walls of Marble Canyon. For a moment at least, everything is tranquil, despite the foaming tumult a mere 50 feet away. From where I sit, my traveling companions seem at ease as well. Every has selected a suitable campsite and is settling into domestic pastimes before dinner. I’m traveling with 13 W&L alumni, family members, and friends for eight days through this spectacular landscape. It’s my third trip here. I am perhaps less intimidated by the sheer immensity of the Canyon than I was on my first visit some 13 years ago. But I am nonetheless still profoundly moved by the sublime beauty of the Canyon and spellbound by the humbling depths of this richest, most vivid text on the earth’s history. The spell is, I hope, understandable, for one can quite easily be swept away by the vastness of geologic time.
This third of three raft groups on W&L’s 2004 “Grand Canyon Rafting Expedition” departed Las Vegas and the Marriott Comfort Suites Hotel at 5:00 this morning in a charter bus bound for Lees Ferry. On the previous night, we had had a short briefing by a representative from Grand Canyon Expeditions on what we might expect over the next several days. Despite its pronounced cheerfulness, the briefing had mild undertones of legality—specifically, the virtues of preparedness and the proper placement of liability in the event of disaster—along with some last minute marketing of various “useful” products that we had all been advised to pack. We shared the room with another group, most of them unrelated, who had purchased the trip through the company’s general advertisement and would use the second raft on this departure. One of the couples had come all the way from London, England, wisely choosing the Grand Canyon over Disney World for the true genius of America.
Despite the early departure, the five-hour drive to Lees Ferry was quite comfortable. The bus was commodious and the driver appropriately mum. Once out of the teeming luminosity of Las Vegas, where the action never stops, we entered the vast emptiness of the Nevada desert. At that hour and in that vacancy, it was dreaming time. We could shut our eyes against all the uncertainty that lay ahead of us and thus veil whatever apprehensions had crept into our consciousness. The long ride was broken up by a couple of pit stops, several of us taking advantage of the last flush toilets we would have for a good while.
Later at Kenab, Utah, we paused again to pick up three of the trip’s boatmen, one of them ours, Art Thevenin, whose smiling regard of the group combined good will with a quick study. Soon thereafter we arrived at Lees Ferry, where Art’s assistant, or “swamper,” Ann-Marie Dale, awaited us with our 37-foot pontoon raft, fully stocked with a week’s worth of provisions. There on the banks of the Colorado, at the only place within several hundred miles where the river is easily accessible by road, we gathered our lifejackets, secured our gear, and, with a unanimous gravity, boarded the rafts. Ready or not, we were on the clear, glittering Colorado by 11:30 a.m.
We entered the Marble Canyon shortly after launching. The dazzling crevasse, which had seemed a mere trench from the highway above on the Colorado Plateau, now stirred wonder in us all with its elevation and variegated colors. Within a few minutes, we splashed and bobbed through our first riffle, a chilling welcome that would foretell much about our raft trip. The water temperature at this release point of the Glen Canyon Dam, which gathers Lake Powell upriver, is 48º. That figure represents about half the temperature of a comfortable shower.
Soon thereafter we glided under Navaho Bridge (now two spans—the old one for pedestrians, and the new for heavy traffic). Here also we caught our first glimpses of Canyon wildlife, a California Condor gliding just above the rim and a few bighorn sheep grazing tentatively on the grasses along the rocky bank of the river. Within that first hour, we stopped for lunch on a sandy beach where we also received instruction regarding matters of hygiene: from here on, it would be women upstream, men downstream, and we always wash our hands before dining.
The Canyon continued to rise around us the farther we journeyed into it. The shadowy depths of Marble Canyon must have made the crew of the first Powell Expedition somewhat nervous, for it seems to engulf the visitor with its towering, stark, profoundly indifferent immensity. One quickly discovers ones insignificance—and that at this point there’s no way out. Local tribes had warned Major John Wesley Powell, the dauntless captain of the 1869 expedition, that no one who had paddled down into the Canyon had ever returned. His party had arrived here via the Green River from Wyoming and thence onto the Colorado in Southern Utah, navigating rapids throughout the journey. But this frontier was deeper and more formidable—and unexplored.
Our first rapid, Badger Creek, was a real jolt, the cold water deeply chilling us but then, as we dried off, leaving us refreshed. Badger Creek was followed by Soap Creek Rapids, then Sheer Wall and House Rock—all of them delivering a flood of ice cold water. But the effect of the place was deeper than that. Perched on the bow section of the raft, I could almost feel the Canyon’s ever-tightening embrace. From this perspective, the Colorado River, stretching out ahead of us into the mysteries of the Canyon, seemed to take on a life of its own. As it wound deeper and deeper into the Canyon, it seemed possessed of another kind of intelligence, a relentless force of nature that, as it plunged on headlong toward its own destiny, seemed impelled by a cognitive intent.
We arrived at this first encampment at around 5:00 p.m. We worked with brisk efficiency to offload our supplies, and then Art and Ann-Marie set about making a surprisingly delicious dinner buffet. The amount and variety of the food, which is kept fresh in iced lockers aboard the raft, was a reassuring surprise to most of our group. Over our meal, we also noticed clouds gathering and flashing to the south. In my previous trips, I had never experienced a Canyon storm, even though I had always traveled during the month of August, the “monsoon season.” This journey could well prove different from the beginning.
Last night, the winds increased after dinner. At first, we were not alarmed, for we had been joined in our casual dinner circle by Art, who seemed unconcerned. A slim 29 year-old with blue eyes, shoulder-length golden tresses, and a blonde goatee, Art bears some resemblance to romantic images of General George Armstrong Custer. A young man with slow, deliberate habits and easy lingo, Art is one of those fate-favored individuals who seems to have been cool since twelve. The Colorado and the Grand Canyon have been his life from early childhood, when he used to accompany his father, also a Canyon boatman. Our particular departure was his 136th trip downriver. Obviously, we were in good hands. Leaning back on one of our camp chairs and twiddling the wispy strands of his beard, Art gazed at the approaching storm as if it were no big deal. The clouds looked menacing, forking with lightning as they rose over the Canyon downriver. But now as the thunder boomed overhead and the winds suddenly increased, we sprang into action, Art leaping onto the raft to unpack and distribute tents, Ann-Marie offering a quick lesson on tent construction. The winds blew into a gale, stinging our faces and blinding us with blowing sand. It felt as if we were in a desert storm. Within a few minutes, most of us had taken shelter inside a tent village. Ann and Carl Geier and Joe Dean decided, however, to wait out the storm under nearby trees. “That,” according to Ann, “was Carl’s first mistake.” Actually, not much rain fell, just a few heavy-drop showers intermittently throughout the night. The weather, said Art, changes quickly in the Canyon. “If you don’t like it,” he drawled, “just wait a minute.”
We’re now well downriver at our Sunday evening campsite at 50-mile point. Tonight, we’ve taken precautions to pitch our tents early. A towering butte of Redwall Limestone vaults to a sheer height of perhaps a thousand feet directly over our heads. From this vantage point, gazing up a narrow side canyon, we can also catch a glimpse of the North Canyon rim, some 3,600 feet above us. I’m sitting on a rock under another tamarisk tree. These trees are so lovely. Wherever there is a sandbar, they line the river, making a diaphanous cloud of emerald green against the brown, red, and gray of the Canyon walls.
On the whole, we’ve had a very good day. We awoke in generally good spirits—the exception of the Geiers noted—after what was for at least a couple of us our first night of sleeping outdoors, or at least on the ground. First light crept into the Canyon at 5:15 a.m. Soon thereafter, Ann-Marie began stirring and clanging toward breakfast chores. Then, one by one, folks walked stiffly toward the water on uncertain footing to dampen their faces in the cold water. After a rousing cup of coffee, we enjoyed scrambled eggs with sausage, a savory fragrance amidst scrub, sand, and rock. Then, after a short hike up the side canyon at our site, we had one last chance to visit the notorious “room with a view,” the expedition’s portable toilet. It was also packing time, so we had ample diversion from nature’s call. The air temperature was cool when we broke camp, so we all donned our rain suits for “the roaring twenties,” the intense series of rapids that occur between miles 20 and 30 of Marble Canyon. Despite the splendors of the environment, this was a trip very much about rapids, so on this day we got our first really good dose of “whitewater.”
What is it like to run rapids? On the Colorado, it was like this: every so often, the glassy brown surface of the river would end some distance ahead of us where, just over the edge, little fountains seemed to appear from some place below, spouts of water dancing in foamy splashes as if they would catch a glimpse of us upriver. As we approached the break, we’d hear the roar of rapids increasing with the gradual increase of our speed. Art (or Ann-Marie, who was in training to qualify for a boatman position) would steer the raft toward the tongue of the rapid where the water was deepest. At the front edge of each rapid, our raft would suddenly dip down into the river’s gathering descent, then bob lazily over a series of smooth waves leading into the vortex of the rapids. Ahead, the muddy Colorado would roil and churn into butterscotch hydraulics as the river leapt and crashed back from spills over submerged boulders.
Usually the tongue leads to the largest rapids, enormous waves that shoot up and back after “holes,” the great concavities formed by swift water falling over large rocks. Entering these holes catches the heart. The river’s commotion and precipitous decline are daunting, and you wonder whether the boatman has chosen the correct route through the cascade and whether he’ll be able to keep the raft off the jagged walls of the canyon or the half-submerged hippopotamus boulders moving inexorably toward you. As the raft quickly gains momentum and drops into the first hole, you tug on ropes or straps in front and beside you, first yanked forward into the decline, then slammed back by water crashing over the bow as you drive up the hydraulic wave—sometimes at a 60° angle—at the end of the hole. Then the raft heaves over the crest and you hang on for dear life against the slingshot snap drawing you over and down again into the next hole with the same rollicking good jerk and splash. Each ride through the many rapids of the Colorado would last barely thirty seconds, and yet it seemed much longer—time seemed to expand in the intensity of the moment. As we’d reach the chattering tail of the larger rapids (finally), we’d often spin around in an eddy to gaze again at what we just passed through. A cheer would sound from the group in the bow section, now soaked, and Art would grin—he had done this thousands of times.
Despite the thrilling intervals of rapids, generally this was a day of lazy floats, Art pointing out a few geological features, though we spent most of our 30 miles this day in corridors of Redwall Limestone. The scenery at every turn was overpowering—one thousand foot cliffs towering over the meandering river. Behind these cliffs, other ranks of cliff walls reached up to 3,600 feet. At times we would see wildlife come down to hunt or graze on the Canyon’s meager grasses—bighorn sheep, mule deer, various rodents, and now and then a Great Blue Heron. We’d take a break every so often to hike a short distance for some exercise, though today’s hike up the side of the Canyon at South Canyon was invigorating—intellectually as well as physically. Here we studied some ruins of Anasazi grain storage huts, trying to imagine what life here was like a thousand years ago during wetter climates when ancient peoples could actually farm the lands near the river. Here also Art pointed out a couple of 3,000 year-old petroglyphs, whose significance remains mysterious. Shortly thereafter, we floated past the glistening rock waterfall at Vasey’s Paradise, a lush green interlude in the Canyon walls, though the recent drought has made it much less verdant this year. A short distance later, we paused for lunch at Redwall Cavern, a dauntingly immense rock overhang carved out of the limestone by the bending current of the ancient river. Here on a large boulder near the cavern’s edge, Art showed us a 300 million year-old fossil. History is very deep in the Grand Canyon.
You do feel rather small in such places. But, in another way, you feel connected to the vastness of time. A Grand Canyon raft trip is a profoundly useful withdrawal from the routines of the ordinary world. The relaxation during the day is palpable, even with the intermittent thrills of whitewater rafting. But the withdrawal is also toward something unimaginably larger than yourself. A shift of perspective from the little ticks on your desk calendar back home brings you first into the immense realm of human history and then into the mind-bending history of the earth. Thus liberated from usual preoccupations and spun into the maelstrom of geologic time, you begin to see faces in the rock, faces gazing elsewhere on something you’re drawn to but cannot see. It can be a little spooky at night. Single travelers are, perhaps, especially susceptible. A disquieting loneliness can come over you there in the dark. You crawl into your sleeping place after a festive dinner and try to shut your mind down. Easier said than done. For awhile, you study the luminous night sky, framed by the enormous black monoliths of the Canyon walls, and pick out a few dots of stars poking between clouds glowing softly in the light of a moon somewhere to the south. You listen to the occasional murmurs of your paired companions and then to the soft whispers of the Canyon winds. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you drift off.
We’re now at Mile 76, just a half mile or so above Hance Rapids, one of the rock-and-roll stretches of the Colorado. We’ve had another good day. It was tough to leave such a beautiful campsite this morning. In the early light, I watched the sun illuminate a castle-like rock formation high on the North Rim, then make its way slowly down the cliffs below, each one coming into its vivid color as it emerged from shadow. Immediately overhead, still in shadow, the bats fluttered about like moths in a final feeding frenzy before retiring for the day. For these few serene minutes of first light, I lay in my tent aware of the warmth, gazing upon the cool immensity of the Canyon with its layered narrative of the planet’s history.
After a popular breakfast of blueberry pancakes, we formed our “human conveyor belt,” loaded the raft with our gear, and shoved off at 8:00. The first few miles were placid. Art let the raft drift with the slow current through a two-mile stretch. No one said a word. It was as if we had the whole Canyon to ourselves, each one of us, and took this time to let it sink into our thoughts all over again. By now we had become a community of wayfarers, our acquaintance sufficiently established to allow us just to be silent together and contemplate at last without exclamation the beauty of nature, this grand wilderness of rock.
Over the course of this slow morning we bobbed over a few relatively gentle rapids, then paused for a little convention of river professionals, where Ann-Marie delivered some mail to a group of boatmen tied up with river scientists for a few weeks on a scientific research mission. We remained on the raft while these amiable veterans—many of them appearing to be characters from another century—did their thing: lots of “guy talk” and inside palaver about the job. Among the men were plenty of magnificent moustaches and beards, a hazard for Ann-Marie, no doubt, at each of her warm embraces. Then, after a few hearty benedictions resounding off the Canyon walls, we pushed off again for a short float to the Colorado’s convergence with the Little Colorado. The famous turquoise tributary, thick with silt from the recent rains, had now taken on the appearance of chocolate milk. So in place of a swim we took a short hike up the slope of the bank for the view. At that elevation, we had some good photo-ops, indeed, along with a welcome chance to stretch our legs.
The major event of the day was a much longer and more strenuous climb at Mile 68 above Tanner Rapid. We took an hour to climb some 500 feet above the river to see some ancient petroglyphs and then about a quarter mile farther to study another Anasazi ruin. One curiosity among the petroglyphs was an apparent depiction of a family—a long umbilical cord emerging from between the legs of one figure to connect with a tiny stick-figure depicted next to a larger adult figure. What was the story, one wondered, or were these simply rudely sketched icons of pre-historic priorities? At the Anasazi site, apparently a former homestead instead of grain storage shed, we found a fascinating collection of potshards left as a display by previous visitors. Here also we were inspired by fabulous views up and down the Canyon and took many photos.
Thereafter, we enjoyed some good rides through several sizable rapids: Tanner, Unkar, and Nevilles. I found a place in the bow section again, along with Pat and Beau Hodge, Susu Lawless (who professes to abhor cold water), and the Marion brothers Dave and Michael (the latter the most exuberant celebrant of rapid-running). We all took plenty of thorough baptisms in the chilly water. This forward position is quite different from the aft center section, which receives occasional sprays from the bow wash along with the satisfying heave of the raft but rarely any inundation.
Later, we set up camp near Papago Canyon. Most of us pitched tents after dinner, for the winds had kicked up again and sand had begun whipping through our campsite. So far on our trip, we’ve had unfortunate weather at night, a real difference from my previous trips, when I had had the great pleasure of sleeping out under the stars almost every night. Again tonight, lightning is flashing against the clouds over the Canyon walls. Perhaps a shower will come. If so, all chaos will ensue among those who have chosen to sleep out. Meanwhile, fine sand is sifting through the mesh window of my tent with every blast of wind. This could be a very long night.
It’s 5:45 a.m. People are beginning to stir from their tents and sleeping bags. In a high b-flat, Ann-Marie has just called out “Coffee!” Happily, no rains came during the night. When I awoke at 1:30, the thunderheads had rolled off and the sky was brilliant with stars. Indeed, the heavens had become such a dazzling canopy of lights that it was difficult to fall back to sleep under them. On such nights in the Grand Canyon, the sky offers a visual intensity that rivals the staggering immensity of the Canyon itself during daylight hours. The sky is so clear that you can see the bands of the Milky Way, clouds of stars woven through our galaxy. Gazing up from an uncertain bed on the sand, you seem almost loose enough in the earth’s gravity to tumble suddenly up into the zenith, like a meteor outward bound. The impulse, on these occasions, is to clutch the ground beneath your bedroll with your fingertips, to grab on, lest you fall numb and helpless into infinity.
As we took breakfast together, several were laughing about their adventure last night in chasing tents, which had become airborne as the winds increased. During sustained gusts, Susu’s tent had tumbled through the Burger’s campsite, awakening Jack, who reported to his wife Ann, “Something large and black has just flown past us.” “Try to go back to sleep, dear,” was her only reply. Apparently, one must be inside a tent to keep it close by . . . or at least anchor it with rocks.
This was our rapids day. We were on the river by 8:00, most of us wearing rain gear again. Our ride early on through Hance Rapid was a good long thrill, and then, a couple of miles later, Sockdollager packed exhilarating wallops as well. In each instance, we endured cascades of cold water washing high over the bow onto the plucky eight who had tucked themselves into the seating space at the front. For the rest, it was a rollicking good ride through bone-chilling spray, even at the rear of the raft. Along the route, the Canyon itself grew more forbidding, with sheer cliffs of fractured Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite, the oldest formations of the Canyon, now rising directly from the water’s edge. Here the Canyon again seemed to close in on us, walling us up in a whispering river during long stretches, then intermittently breaking into roars as each rapid echoed up and down the Colorado’s narrow corridors.
After Horn, Salt Creek, and Granite, we entered Hermit, one of the most formidable of the Canyon’s rapids. The stream coming down through Hermit Canyon into the Colorado was barely a trickle. But during countless flash floods occurring over the millennia, Hermit Canyon’s little creek had swollen into a torrent, bearing huge boulders rumbling and tumbling into the bed of the Colorado. Here was a clear illustration of how rapids are formed—almost always just beyond the mouth of a tributary. As we entered Hermit’s long tongue, the rapid produced a commotion like a jet engine. Midway through, we drove into a huge hole, then shot up a fierce hydraulic that poured over us with such force that those in the bow section were momentarily adrift in the wash. “Wow!” exclaimed Michael Marion, his face still streaming with water, “now this is what we came for!” Art later estimated the hydraulic at 35 feet in height from hole to crest.
A pleasant diversion to this daylong roller-coaster was a long walk up Clear Creek for the waterfall at the end of the narrow canyon. Access to the side canyon required of Art a deft feat of navigation as he steered our raft into a raft-wide slot in the main canyon wall at the mouth of the creek just above its rapid. Once on foot, we had to negotiate some large rocks and pebbly washes (tough with Tevas) for perhaps a quarter mile. But the relatively warm waterfall at the end made the rather precarious effort worthwhile. We all gratefully took showers.
Shortly thereafter, we floated past Phantom Ranch, the end point of the Bright Angel Trail, the famous 7½-mile hiking path down from the South Rim. Two foot bridges cross the Colorado at this point, one for mules. In the 95º heat of mid-day, several hikers seemed to cast envious glances in our direction—or else, proud of their pain, held us in passing contempt. Beyond Phantom Ranch, we had further leisure to study the fascinating walls of the Canyon. Every bend in the river brought new vistas, dizzying cliffs haunted by precariously balanced towers, huge mountains thrown up by the earth’s titanic forces, and occasionally a waterfall glittering in the sunlight. With the river’s frequent turbulence as it gnawed down through the Canyon, we could begin to understand how over the five million years of its flowing here the Colorado had eroded a corridor a mile deep in the desert floor, down through the Cenozoic, the Paleozoic, and finally into the Vishnu Schist of the Proterozoic, the black rock of earth’s earliest history. By this fourth day in the Canyon, the beginning of life on this planet had occurred far above our heads. The Schist at our eye level, formed two billion years ago, was the forbidding, incredibly hard crust of the earth’s dim and lifeless past. It was quite absorbing to study these strange, extremely hard rock walls. They revealed very little erosion, except in a few patches where they had taken on a kind of leathery sheen from the river’s constant scrubbing. At its fracture points, the Schist was ribboned with pink Zoraster Granite. Above that, layers upon layers of Tapeats Sandstone, above that the ancient Muave Limestone, and reaching high above that the massive cliffs of Redwall Limestone. The earth is a very old place. Here one can take its measure.
And then one adjusts back to human time. This day was Jack Burger’s 80th birthday. At dinner, we celebrated it with a toast and a birthday cake complete with candles. Eighty years, and here he is doing the whole thing in good humor and high energy with the rest of the group. He winked in response to our congratulations, “I owe it all to my child bride of my last thirty years.” His wife Ann, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, blushed and cooed.
The night sky was luminous with stars again last night, but just before dawn it began to spit rain. Thunder rolled up and down the Canyon, an echo chamber for stormy weather. Fortunately, the shower was brief, though later it was a bother to pack a damp tent.
After a miraculous breakfast of French Toast with bacon, we pushed off again, Joe Dean, the raft crew’s new apprentice, carefully coiling and wrapping the rope and strapping it to the bow. A few minutes later, now in sunlight, we pulled into Bedrock Canyon, a narrow cut through Tapeats Sandstone that affords a close-up view of the Great Unconformity, where hundreds of millions of years of sedimentary rock seem to have simply disappeared. In the great rock record of the earth’s layered history, there are some intriguing lacunae. We enjoyed a pleasant stroll up this close-walled canyon, which tapers at the end to a rock overhang. The overhang becomes a waterfall in stormy weather. Today, a thin trickle dampened the rock, then intermittently appeared along the pebbly wash. We were soon joined by another raft party—as we often were at popular stops. This group had a boatman who was toting a guitar and a banjo. Before long, the walls began to resound with an impromptu folk concert. In these tight, echoey circumstances, it sounded even better than singing in the shower. It was at least 45 minutes before I could get our group moving again.
Thereafter, we pushed off for a long, lazy float for the rest of the morning. We all sat gazing, spellbound by the stupendous scenery of the Canyon. It was like this: a deep, cerulean blue sky scudded with high cirrus, a few tufts of white cloud much lower, hanging just above the far South Rim of the Canyon, 5,600 feet up, that far horizon fringed with juniper trees so small at this distance they seemed mere dots of green above the highest cliffs, these cliffs dropping perhaps a thousand feet to a slope of broken shale gathered like a flared skirt at the angle of repose, topping another rank of cliffs dropping to another slope of talus until they edged down to the giant cliffs of Redwall Limestone, these sheering down another thousand feet or so until they broke into walls of Muave Limestone, and then another, briefer talus slope edging down to the Tapeats Sandstone layered like a pastry, and then, finally, below that the hard, dark, fractured Vishnu Schist, twisted and gnarled by the unimaginably great forces at this deep stratum of the earth’s mantle, ribboned by granite and quartz that was once magma thrust into the agonized fissures of rock splitting under the pressure of such heat and weight. I could not pull my eyes from this immense tableau of the dynamic earth. I needed all that time.
We bobbed through a few more temperate rapids along the way, none of them rowdy enough to distract us for long, then at Stone Creek Canyon we paused for lunch. Afterwards, we took advantage of the creek’s waterfall for a much-needed shower. This far along into the hammering heat of the day, we were all pretty ripe. Exhilarated by this refreshment, we arranged ourselves for a group photo. The resulting image proved once again the profound hazard of traveling without a mirror.
In the early afternoon, we floated silently through Granite Narrows, a tight squeeze at 76 feet, the Canyon’s narrowest point. Art estimated the depth of the river here at 100 feet. The river, still the color of butterscotch pudding, gurgled and swirled. A short distance beyond Granite Narrows is Deer Creek Falls, a 100-foot cataract very close to the river. It’s a popular spot for rafters, so Art needed to navigate the raft as if he were negotiating a parking spot at the supermarket. Once on shore, several of our group tried in vain to find a place under the torrent, but the rush of displaced air and water at the base frustrated all attempts to get close. It was like trying to bathe in a fire hose. A few followed Ann-Marie on a climbing hike up to the source of the waterfall. The route is steep and occasionally precarious, with a few “don’t look down” ledges along the chasm of Deer Creek on the way to the Upper Falls. Once at the Upper Falls, the reward is an opportunity to frolic under another cool torrent—a lovely spot that I had enjoyed on a previous trip.
We camped that night at Mile 136. We had not made great progress downriver on this day due to the long stopovers at Bedrock Canyon and Deer Creek Falls, but we did manage to secure a lovely beach named after Ann-Marie’s father, O.C. Joe Dean once again was first off, tying up the raft securely with the long rope from the bow. Again with efficient speed we unloaded our equipment from the raft, pitched our tents, changed from our wet clothes and hung them up on convenient tamarisk branches. A few minutes later, Ann-Marie summoned us to an hors d’oeuvres of guacamole and chips. Over the dinner that followed, we shared our limericks about the trip, too numerous to list here (Howard Martin recorded several of them). Our recreation director Susu Lawless had made the assignment that morning, though, alas, she was to spend this hour in her tent recovering from dehydration. Her good buddy Heather Martin, Vice-Chair of Diversions, oversaw the event in her absence. It was good fun, and the results were harmless enough, for example:
There once was a fellow named Joe,
Who walked as he talked real slow,
But, man, he could do ‘
Bout as much as the crew—
Whenever we stopped he went “go.”
This morning after breakfast we discovered that the raft had come to rest too high on the beach for launching. The water levels rise and fall during the day and night depending on the release schedule at Glen Falls Dam. This obviously was a low period in the cycle. We tried hard to heave the raft toward the river, but we could barely budge it. There was some irony to this. I had sat up for awhile the night before with the Hodges and the Marions while Art regaled Ann-Marie and the rest of us with tales of Stupid Boatmen, hapless individuals who had somehow let their rafts drift loose from beach moorings, thus stranding their passengers upstream. Art clearly enjoys speaking from the seasoned perspective of his abundant experience—wearing his Western hat, jawing in a slow drawl like an old ranch hand, sipping from his covered mug (who knew what was in it?), spitting every once in awhile to draw emphasis on the follies of greenhorns. Well, this morning, noting the cruelties of fate, he strode about his raft like a man defeated, a cowboy kicked by his bronco, an altogether bad hangover.
About an hour later, we tried again, this time with thin logs for leverage against a lightened load and freshly inflated pontoons. After much grunting and repeated heaves, we managed to slide the raft into the water, amidst much celebration of our teamwork. The British have a felicitous phrase for such a circumstance, “Nothing like a little disaster to lift the spirits.” Art, however, was mainly silent for the rest of the morning.
We’re now at Mile 176. We’ve made good progress today, with only one excursion stop, this time at Havasu Creek Canyon. Havasu Creek is another popular, though somewhat dicey stop for most raft trips. Because the rafts tie up in the midst of Havasu Rapid and the footing along the docking area is treacherous, disembarkation requires lifejackets, an oddly cumbersome bulk as one jumps from the raft onto the ledges. Once free of these, however, the walk upstream is quite picturesque, though ones balance at a few passages must be delicate. At Havasu, the trails and pools are constantly altered by periodic floods. The Canyon looked different from my memory of it years ago—further evidence that riverine landscapes evolve constantly. Most of the group made its careful way twenty minutes up to a large pool featuring relatively clear water and some low, Jacuzzi-like waterfalls. The swim here was wonderfully refreshing.
Once back on the raft, we just floated on down the river for the next three hours or so, baking in the hot desert sun, though now and then a few thunderheads leant us some shadows as they drifted overhead, booming up and down the Canyon. Late in the afternoon, we found a large beach campsite at Saddlehorse Canyon, tied up the raft, and pitched our tents.
So what is a day and night on a Grand Canyon Rafting Adventure really like? Ours begins with a call from Ann-Marie announcing coffee at 5:45 a.m. Most of us are usually awake at that hour, for first light creeps down into the Canyon earlier. An hour later, we have breakfast, something different every day—today it was English muffin sandwiches with fried eggs and ham. Most folks usually have their bedrolls and tents packed before breakfast. Most also have pretty much abandoned the idea of wearing clean outfits each day. We just rotate our swimsuits and tee-shirts. Soon after washing and stowing the breakfast dishes, we form a transfer line—alternating face to face for quick hand-offs—for loading the freight of our trip onto the raft: first kitchen stuff, then bedrolls, then personal duffles, and ammo cans (used for ready access items like sunscreen, sunglasses, drinking cups, and maps. The toilet is loaded last after a loud “last call” from Art. The morning ablutions are dubious, at best. The porta-john consists of a steel box with a toilet seat affixed to it. It is recommended that one not look down when preparing to sit. The whole process does take some getting used to, but, happily, it is all done with reasonable privacy. No one ventured any complaints.
After the raft is loaded, and while Joe is slowly coiling the rope, we choose between the bow section and the center aft. The bow has some regulars—the Hodges, Susu Lawless, at least one of the Geiers—while the Marion boys alternate. Hardin Marion, who spends most of his shore time reading, tended to hang back at first, restless without a text, but then discovered the bracing perspective available “front and center.” Ann Burger, arguably the best sport on the trip, made a parlor of the rear. We usually stop for lunch around noon. Art and Ann-Marie set up a tasty sandwich buffet complete with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, olives, and a variety of sandwich meats, condiments, and cookies. During the day, we have access to various canned beverages including juices. We’re frequently reminded to drink abundantly, for the dry heat quickly dehydrates river runners.
At the end of the day, the process is reversed, though we usually select our personal campsites first off. After unloading by means of the transfer line again, we unpack and change. Usually, we have a beer or a cup of wine before the fantastic evening meal that Art and Ann-Marie prepare, then sit for a spell after dinner. Usually, we’re steadily surveyed throughout this process by one or two ravens, who constitute the Canyon clean-up brigade. Those of us less vigilant to the ravens’ presence occasionally have our belongings pecked through by these impatient observers. By 8:15 p.m., it’s getting dark, so we drag ourselves back to our tents. The effort to fall asleep begins shortly thereafter. Due to the heat of the sand and the trapped air in tents, this effort can require considerable patience. Eventually, we work our way outside. If the rains come, so be it.
This was our last full day on the Colorado. We rose with a good sixty miles to run before our last camp, clear blue sky overhead, and the river the color of Indian pottery.
Today, we entered the volcanic area of the Canyon, the walls now showing thick sheets of lava flows spilling down over cliffs and plugging with massive crystallized formations various side canyons along our route. Though the formations were often fascinating in their bizarre arrangements of columnar crystals, the general effect was gloomy and somewhat menacing. Perhaps this latter mood was due also to our anticipation of Lava Falls, one of the two most difficult rapids in the Canyon. We knew, of course, that it was coming and that in this first hour of the day we would get drenched. The hardier—or fool-hardier—took their places in the bow section. Vulcan’s Anvil, a huge basalt pipe from an ancient volcano, signaled our arrival. The ominous sentinel stands in the middle of the river a mile up from the rapid. I recall this monolith from my previous trips as clearly as anything, a thing vast and apart, black as coal, and seemingly indifferent to the river’s puny current. As we approached Lava Falls, Art had us assume tight, “combat positions.” As we slipped slowly into the rolling, glassy waves of the tongue, some in the bow began to chant a defiant “Lava, Lava.” As we dipped into the first hole, the rapid heaving and churning high red foaming waves ahead of us, the chant quieted to a solitary voice, mine, then that too stilled to a sputtering murmur as we crashed through the first wave. The series grew even more intense until the last wave swept over us with a heavy sheet of cold, gritty water. It was a rollicking good ride, after all. We enjoyed it greatly, though once we stood up to resume more comfortable positions apart, the open air was thoroughly chilling.
More rapids followed, but we had done “the big one.” After a long morning of gazing at the immense panorama of the Canyon—our rapture eventually giving way to stupor—we paused for lunch in the heat of the day near Granite Spring Canyon. For the first time on the trip, Art and Ann-Marie set up a portable umbrella over the buffet table while the rest of us sought shelter from the sun under Tapeats Sandstone overhangs. The remainder of the day was spent dead-heading down the river, trying to make up as much distance as possible. Diamond Peak rose up sharply at Mile 226, holding our attention for several miles. At mid-afternoon, we paused briefly for a short hike and shower at Travertine Canyon. The shower was refreshing and cleansing to a point, but it now seems that the Canyon’s grit is permanently embedded in our bodies.
Thereafter, we bobbed and splashed through the Canyon’s final four rapids—231, 232, 234, and Bridge Canyon Rapid. And then it was over. After we had pulled into our final camp at Gneiss Canyon and set up tents (ominous thunderheads again in the distance), we got together for the rest of the wine and beer, a close circle of Canyon-bonded friends by now. I had collected the group’s tips, a tidy sum that a couple of our companions rounded off to $2,000. After setting up the grill and making early preparations for dinner, Art and Ann-Marie came over for a few final words, read by Art, from John Wesley Powell’s journal. Thereafter, I presented the gratuity on behalf of the group along with some words of appreciation, and we settled down to our final dinner. It was arguably the most delicious filet mignon I’ve ever tasted.
We finished in the dark, made our way back to our tents by flashlight, a little wobbly, perhaps, from the evening’s festivities, but ready for a final sleep under the stars.
We broke camp quite early this morning in order to catch the jet-boat transfer downriver to the take-out point on Lake Mead. We were on the raft by 7:15, packed tight and heading, we knew, for clean water eventually. The river had calmed now due to the depth of the fill from Lake Mead. The Grand Canyon was still grand, however—schist and granite underlying Tapeats strata and then, towering overhead high against the blue sky, the immense battlemented Gothic cathedrals of stone. Our rapture resumed, a long meditation on the endlessly absorbing beauty of this place. These final miles seemed almost nostalgic. Then, as Ann-Marie steered, Art came forward to chat for awhile through our dreaminess. A while later, Ann-Marie took a turn, describing life in Kenab for a 21 year-old seeking to be a boatman like her father and sister. Eventually, we caught up with several of the other rafts making the same departure on that day. Then, one by one, helicopters flying tourists in for their six-hour sojourn on the river hammered across the sky. It was not lost on us that we had returned to the margins of civilization. The women in our raft suddenly needed to tinkle more often.
We met the jet-boat at Mile 262 at 10:15. We heaved our gear aboard the strange aluminum open-air craft, joining the other raft group already situated at the front of the vessel. We made our warm farewells to Art and Anne-Marie, and then roared away with a final wave. The dash to Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead was eerie, the Canyon walls passing by with dizzying speed. An hour later, we passed through the broad exit from the Canyon at Grand Wash Cliffs. Powell had noted this landmark with understandable enthusiasm 135 years ago. After roaring on at even higher speed across Lake Mead, we arrived at the pier at Pearce Ferry for the motorcoach back to Las Vegas. Even at the breakneck speed and commotion of this final passage, we knew that Powell’s adventure would continue to linger in our imaginations, for we had seen much of its spectacular setting and sampled, if only lightly, a few of its challenges. It’s a long process coming home.
At Pearce Ferry, just above Hoover Dam, we gathered our personal effects, repacked them in clear plastic bags for security inspection, and then boarded the bus for the 3-hour ride to the Marriott. It is safe to assume that, upon arrival, everyone immediately headed for the showers. The hot spray had an instant tonic effect. As I applied shampoo to my hair, it felt like I was washing a dog.
The final dinner that evening in a private room at McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant was well received. Everyone was in a festive mood at the completion of this “once in a lifetime” trip—and happy to be clean again. We all shared fond recollections of the trip and happy acknowledgements of this and that feature of a truly wonderful experience. Everyone signed Susu Lawless’ blue camp chair, which she is donating to the Office of Special Programs. We drank all of the wine provided by W&L and made promises to meet again.
As I watched folks rise from the table one last time for their farewells, I recalled Ann-Marie’s parting embrace earlier that day: “Thanks for bringing such a nice group of people.” Again at that moment, I knew exactly what she meant.
-- Rob Fure
“Now you can think!” - Susu Lawless
“May this chair follow W&L Travels everywhere on the globe.” - Hardin Marion
“Save the Grand Canyon!” - Heather Martin
“Great river run!” - Howard Martin
“This little Auburn ‘War Eagle’ has truly adopted W&L after this great adventure.” - Ann Burger
“I’ve had 80 good ones, but this was the most unique and wonderfully memorable.” - Jack Burger
“I’ve always known that W&L trips were special, but it was an absolutely fantastic experience to participate in the Grand Canyon trip with you and my dad and brother. Thanks.” - Dave Marion
“No matter where you go there you are.” - Michael Marion
“Most spectacular trip ever.” - Beau Hodge
“Thanks to W&L for this Back to Basics experience.” - Pat Hodge
“Thanks for letting this outsider join this outstanding group.” - Joe Dean
“Baking in the sun, bathing in the mud, making friends from W&L.” - Carl Geier
“Finally! I’ve wanted to do this trip for years—and it was better than I had hoped!” - Ann Geier