Tuesday, July 3, 2007

White Water Rafting Down the Grand Canyon

Colorado River Rafting Trip

Arizona River Runners

June 26 – July 3, 2007

By Libby Sproat & Becky McNiven

Day 1:

We woke up at 4:00 am and piled onto a coach bus at 5:30. Destination: Grand Canyon. Becky napped a little, but a Grand Canyon documentary was playing, and it was just loud enough and just interesting enough to keep us marginally attentive. We learned all about General John Wesley Powell, the first man to navigate the entire Grand Canyon ... at least the first man we know about. We stopped at 8 for a bathroom break and again at 10:15. This time you could buy beer, too, to put in mesh bags that they would hang over the side of the raft so the water could keep it cold. About 10:45 we were at Lee’s Ferry (the official beginning of the Grand Canyon), about 20 miles south of Lake Powell. We packed our personal items into dry bags and used a flush toilet one last time. After a brief orientation from Erica, our lead guide, we were off: 24 travelers, 4 guides, 2 big blue rafts.

These are the 12 people that were in our group: Sandy & Becky McNiven; son, Scott; his girlfriend, Libby Sproat; Betsy & David Mullins, Anne & Norm Vexler, Tom & Kay Mahoney (the Vexlers met them in Peru – they’re from Boulder, CO), Dana & Terry Tarr (friends of the Mullins). The others we met along the way: Rich (dad) & Glen (firefighter) from Sliver Spring & DC; Lindsay (daughter of owner), Adriana (going to student teach in Germany); Kyle (friend of Lindsay’s and Adriana’s); Terry (dad) , Derrick (lawyer) & Phil (policeman) from Dancaster, England; Jackie & Shannon from Morristown, NJ; The Foxes from outside Detroit: ? name, 78 years old, and his son (or daughter, Lorie) and family of 2 teenage boys and a teenage boy cousin.

We started seeing beautiful canyon walls immediately (
Marble Canyon). They were sedimentary rock. The walls at the beginning and the end of the canyon are lower than they are in the middle, where the earth has been pushed up higher. We also started getting wet immediately. The rocks had black on them called canyon varnish. It was manganese leeching out of the rock.

There were tons of swallows and swifts swooping down to catch insects near the top of the river. You could see the bird’s homes on the side of the canyon.

We stopped for lunch in a small area where the guides made us taco chicken salad in pita bread. It was excellent. We were starved since we’d had breakfast at the motel at 5:15.

There weren't any big rapids, but enough "riffles" and splashing to wake us up. The water was a chilly 48°F. We got soaked. Becky had worn her bathing suit with a shirt on top. She got cold so took the shirt off to dry and warm up. We were happy to find our campsite and change into dry clothes. We had an excellent salmon dinner, read for a few minutes, and fell asleep, exhausted, as night fell. It was probably around 8:30.

We chose to sleep out under the stars rather than in a tent. It meant that more sand blew in your face, but it was also much cooler. We'd forgotten what it's like to be in a place where you can see all the stars in the sky and just how dense they are. The milky way was glowing. Absolutely incredible.

The only downside of the day was Scott's ant bite. He was walking around barefoot and got stung on the toe. He spent the rest of the evening sitting next to the river, numbing the pain, and ended up sleeping on the beach with his foot in the water as well. Pretty powerful ant. Or maybe it was a small scorpion.

Camp was at North Canyon, mile 20.5.

Day 2:

We started to settle into the routine that would structure our lives for the next seven days:

  • Wake up as it gets light out, around 5:30. Often accompanied by Travis, one of our guides, letting off a long, Tarzan-esque "cofffff-eeeee!"
  • Pack up your sheets, sleeping bags & mats, and tarps.
  • Wash your hands, rinse off a plate, eat breakfast and drink coffee. Make a sandwich for lunch.
  • Wash your plate, brush your teeth, pack up your stuff and bring your bags down to the beach.
  • Form a fire line and pass bags from the beach to the rafts. Spend a few minutes hanging out while the guides pack up the portable toilet (a new one for each day).
  • Hop onto the rafts and enjoy the adventures in store for us that day.
  • Towards the end of the afternoon, pull into a campsite. Leap off the raft, explore the lay of the land, and stake out a good spot to sleep, preferably near the river, since the canyon walls have been soaking up heat from the sun all day long and radiate it well after you're ready to go to sleep. Leave your life jacket to claim your territory.
  • Form a fire line to unload everyone's bags and all of the kitchen items and to pass buckets of dish water up to the kitchen.
  • Hors d'oeuvres, alcohol, chatting, reading, bathing.
  • Dinner, which was consistently excellent. We ate only local, organic meat and dairy products, which would have been good even if we weren't hungry from a day in the sun and water.
  • More chatting, maybe some singing (with any of the 3 guitars that were along on the trip).
  • Becky used a head lamp to read. Sandy used a flashlight. The sun went down about 8:45. We were asleep by 9:15 or so.
  • Fall asleep under the stars and the rising moon.

It was a wonderful routine. I loved waking up naturally, as it got light out, and falling asleep under the stars.

Enough about routine though. Here's what was special about Day 2. We started the day with a hike up the canyon where we were camped. It ended at a beautiful little pool. Then we hopped on the rafts and started our day on the river with the Roaring Twenties -- miles 20 through 30 on the
Colorado are interspersed with whitewater every half mile. There were some big rapids, mostly little ones, but everyone got a good dousing.

We ate lunch under this big beautiful natural band shell that covered the beach (Red Wall Canyon). Scott and Travis practiced climbing up the wall, and Libby tossed a Frisbee around with some of the college students who were on the trip. Scott and Libby saw some neat lizard and bird and insect tracks.

We took another hike in the afternoon, and saw some Hopi artifacts: the stone foundations of a shelter and some petroglyphs. There was also a huge rock with tons of beautiful marine fossils.

Farther on down the river, we passed a group that was stopped on a beach eating lunch, and there was a full string quartet serenading them. Erica, our leader, said they were professionals who get to go on the trip for free in exchange for providing entertainment to high-paying customers. I can't imagine bringing a violin down the river and exposing it to such extreme heat... but they seemed to be doing pretty well! They sounded great. What a neat summer job.

Camped at Pres. Harding Rapids, mile 43.5

Day 3:

We had another short day mileage-wise. So far we've been averaging about 20 miles per day, even though we have to cover about 240 total. The logic is that it's cooler at this end of the canyon, so it's better to spend more time here, and then move more quickly through the hottest parts.

In the morning, we hiked up into
Saddle Canyon, which glows red and orange, to gorgeous waterfall. The light on the walls was almost entirely reflected light, so it enhances the colors of the walls. At one point, we felt like we were breathing red air. Incredible.

We saw mule deer drinking at the river and also a blue heron.

We set up camp early, right across the river from where the Little Colorado River joins the Colorado. (Mile 61) We spent the rest of the afternoon playing and relaxing in the Little Colorado. It was as turquoise-blue as Saddle Canyon was red-orange. We felt like we were suddenly in the Caribbean. The water temperature was luxuriously warm compared to the big river, so we spent lots of time just idly paddling around. Following our guides lead, we flipped our life jackets upside-down and wore them like diapers in order to slide down the shallow, gentle rapids. Before we could get bored with that, our guides hiked us a few hundred yards upstream to where we could jump off a big rock. It was fantastic to see the 50-year-olds as enthusiastic about it as the 15-year-old.

We headed back to our campsite when the sun had dipped below the canyon walls and shrouded our beach in shadow. As we were getting ready for dinner, our guides spotted some humpback chubs in the water - a special sight, as there are very few remaining native fish in the
Colorado. They nibbled on scraps getting rinsed out of bean cans, as well as on Scott's finger.

We used the Mullins solar shower. They had put water in it earlier and laid it out in the sun. Sandy and David held it up and Betsy and Becky washed their hair. It worked out great. It felt good to have warm water. Becky’s Dr. Bronner’s soap didn’t work great for shampoo though in this mineral-laden water.

Saw our first butterfly on the river, a yellow swallowtail.

After dinner, we got to watch the rising moon slowly light up the canyon walls around us - sort of a reverse of the shadow shrouding that had happened earlier. Just as we were going to sleep, the moon itself rose above the walls.

Day 4:

Today was our first day of really big water. (We entered the official beginning of the Grand Canyon. At this point you could see the north rim and the south rim.) Most of us put on our rain jacket and pants in anticipation of getting soaked. The rapids in the Grand Canyon are rated on a 1-10 scale (whereas the rest of the world uses a 1-6 scale). Today we ran some 10s and, we kid you not, one 11. Straight out of Spinal Tap. They were definitely fun, and not as scary as we expected. The reason for all the rapids is that we dropped into a harder layer of rock. We went from nice soft shales to much harder schist. Less erosion = narrower, deeper, more violent water. The big waves are fun, but my favorite part of the rapids is right on top - the water is as smooth as glass as it's getting pulled, hard, down into the chute. You can see all the turbulence ahead, but for a moment it's very smooth and peaceful. Hermit Rapid used to be smaller but some time ago a big rock moved and caused the rating of the rapid to grow to an 11.

Sometime today Becky started riding the front of the pontoon and Norm kidded her about being a “new Becky”, version 2.5. He called her a “wild woman”. Hardly, but definitely more of a risk taker than before the trip.

The rock was beautiful. The formations on the bottom were granite. Then they were uplifted so at some spots the granite runs vertical in the cliffs. And some looked like
Clark bars, very ragged and pointed. Some were black and smooth. Some were very worn away like they were bowls carved out by the water, way before the Glen Canyon dam was built in 1963. There were many little pockets of sand, deposited by the river. We saw a red tailed hawk.

Our only hike this morning was a short, flat one to Phantom Ranch, which is only accessible by boat and by mule. There are cabins and campsites and, nicest of all, a canteen where some people bought ice-cold lemonade and mailed postcards. Right near the river on the way to Phantom Ranch was a wonderfully cool stream that some of us sat in. It was 120 degrees at Phantom Ranch so the guides guessed it was 115 on the river. We were shocked. We knew it was hot but didn’t guess it was that hot. The breeze was really hot though, like an oven door opening.

Snacks were freely given out morning and afternoon: Snickers, peanut M&Ms, trail mix, mixed nuts. We were told to eat more sweet and salty foods for energy and to make us drink more since it’s so hot and dry.

We arrived at our campsite around
3 pm, right along a thundering rapids. Our noisiest campsite yet, but in the best possible way. We got set up under the blazing sun, and then washed up and did some laundry. (We hung things to dry on bushes and rocks.)

It was Glen’s 31st birthday and Travis baked him a surprise cake in the dutch oven. It was delicious. About the time we finished we noticed a ring-tailed cat that had come down to the kitchen area. It definitely had the moves of a cat. It finally left with a plastic bag someone had left.

After dinner, Norm got out his guitar, and we all sang songs together.

We camped at mile 96.5.

Day 5:

Libby woke up last night and saw the stars. The big dipper had fallen out of sight behind the canyon wall, but Cassiopia and Signus had risen. The moon was shining too brightly to see much else. Sunset, moonrise and nighttime are favorite times here - the first two for their effect on the walls. It's amazing to watch the slow creep of sunlight and moonlight and their respective shadows on these rock surfaces.

Today was another day of big rapids, which was great. The first big rapid was Crystal Rapid. First we stopped to scope it out. Then we hiked to a waterfall that came down with a lot of force. You could swim around behind the falling water, and then get pushed out through all the turbulence. A second waterfall we hiked to (Elves Chasm at mile 116) was even better, because you could swim around behind, climb up through a tangle of dark rocks, emerge at the top of the waterfall, and jump down into the pool below. Besides them being cool and fun, the fern near them added to their beauty.

At mile 129 was Specter Rapid. Sandy sat at the front and the water pushed his cap off. Tom was sitting the cooler. Becky was sitting on a seat next to Tom. Tom was thrown up as the pontoon was pushed up by the water and we bumped heads. Fortunately no headache!

We saw a family of big horn sheep near the side of the river. We switched boats from Erica as our guide to Travis. We soon found out that Travis takes a different route through the rapids, a little more adventurous, therefore a little more bumpy.

We saw a velvet spider: big, orange, and furry. Very cool!

We put in a long day on the river and made it to mile 131.

Day 6:

Today was the first day we really had any clouds, a few wispy one and then a light cloud cover which felt great!

We emerged from the bedrock, the hard schist, and returned to sedimentary layers - a pity, as the schist was really pretty.

We were all tired this morning. We've been out for long enough that we're starting to feel worn down. For the first time, we felt ready for the trip to be over. We were tired and had a heat-rash all over.
Sandy had swollen ankles. Our skin was really dry. We tried to drink more which definitely helped Becky be less tired.

We went on a really neat hike along the upper rim of a slot canyon called
Deer Creek Canyon. It involved some slightly frightening shimmying along a narrow ledge before the whole canyon opened up into a beautiful creek and waterfall. There were lots of big trees, which you don't see very often here. The hike had gorgeous views down into the slot canyon - lots of graceful, striated curves - and out across the Colorado River and the whole Grand Canyon. There were lots of fern by the waterfall. There were impressions of big birds or small dinosaurs. On a ledge opposite to where we were walking we saw handprints about 10 feet up. They were made by putting calcium dust on the wall, wetting hands, and placing them on the dusty rock. Who knows how old these were. The ledge didn’t look like it could have been climbed recently.

We saw lots of Bright Angel Shale, a dark green rock that’s very crumbly but beautiful when worn smooth.

We camped at
Fern Glen Canyon, at mile 168, and after we set up camp and did our afternoon reading, we hiked back into the canyon. It involved some rock climbing to get back to the big, rounded out amphitheater, which was of course filled with ferns. The route back there made Libby nervous - she's always afraid of falling off rocks - but she's getting braver about following Scott's lead, and it's almost always worth it, both for the sights and for the feeling of accomplishment. We took our time back in the canyon, exploring different parts of it, and were happy for our evening baths when we got back to camp. The after dinner entertainment was trading jokes. Good times.

Day 7:

Today was our last full day on the river - certainly bittersweet. I love the pace here, the rhythm dictated by the light and the water level rather than by work. But our bodies are ready to get back to more shade and less hot, dry wind. The river is much warmer now than when we began - its temperature rises 1°F every 20 miles, so today's water was around 58°F, rather than the 48° of Day 1.

Lava Falls was the big rapids today. It was so big everyone had to sit on the sides. The waves went right over the heads of the people in the front. Anne and Becky sat in the back. At one point Becky was pushed toward the front of the raft. Anne thought she might fall down between the raft and the pontoon so pulled her back. Robin caught this on the video of her digital camera. Hopefully we’ll get to see it.

We didn't go on any hikes today, because we had to cover a lot of ground. Our only stop was at Pumpkin Spring, named for the bright orange arsenic and selenium deposits. It was right at the river's edge, and the river was wide and safe enough that we could climb up onto some high rocks and jump off into the river. It stayed hot for a long time once we got to camp.

We saw lots of basalt rock. Some of the black rock was smooth and some rough.

We also saw groups of big horn sheep.

We had a very good dinner of rib eye steaks, and then sat around together for closing remarks - good-byes, thank-yous, promises to exchange e-mail addresses and photos. All week our guides have been telling us what a great group we are, and we've been telling them what great guides they are, but it was nice to do it one last time, altogether, under a starry sky.

When we had said what we wanted to say, Scott, Libby, David and others went scorpion hunting. Ani had a black light along, so they followed her back along a path, peering under bushes and behind rocks. And they found some! They really do glow in the dark! Bright neon yellow. They even found one hunting - we watched it sting an insect with its tail, grab it in its left claw and eat it. It's a scary insect but beauiful, and amazing to watch. Very graceful.

Day 8:

We woke up and got moving earlier than usual, since we were on a tight schedule. We ate cereal rather than our usual full meal, loaded up the rafts, headed downriver 15 more miles, to mile 240. There we changed into our going home clothes. We took our duffles out of the waterproof bags and combined our duffles and day packs. The guides and some of the group helped deflated the side pontoons which were then rolled up and packed on the rafts. The rafts were lashed together and we down in tandem for another 5 miles. A speedboat was waiting for us there, so we loaded our duffles, said good-bye to our guides and cruised for 2 hours to get to Lake Mead.

The boat slowed down to show us the Skywalk, the semi-circle clear bottom overhang over a side of the Colorado River, built by an Indian tribe.

Our guides would spend about 7 hours making the same trip on the rafts. Flat water, low dirty yellow walls... an anticlimactic finale. At Lake Mead, our bus was waiting for us, and we rode 2 hours back to Las Vegas. We ate the sandwiches we had packed this morning, as well as Snickers and Pringles.

A fantastic trip. It was fun for us to have done it with Scott and Libby and friends. We hope the
Grand Canyon is preserved and not dammed up in years to come so we can go back again. Here are some more pictures.

1 comment:

Scott said...

The trip wouldn't have been complete without a blog entry referencing Spinal Tap.