The following Grand Canyon blog is something of a hybrid. The original text was written in 1997 after a trip wherein I piloted my own raft for the first time. I am republishing this blog from its original source at majorproduction.net. I am adding some text, using photos from my more recent 2012 raft trip (better photos) and including a few new stories. The original illustrations remain embedded in the original text. Some of the new images are linked directly to full-resolution images and are denoted by “(photo link)” in the caption. In a few cases, the links go to slightly different photos of the same thing.
Discovering the Grand Canyon
I first traveled across America’s broad reach in 1976 to discover what wonders our country might hold and to make my home in California. On the journey I made a point to gaze into the abyss we know as the Grand Canyon. Its splendor called me into its depths, where I discovered the sublime beauty that has captured the hearts and imagination of poets, artists, and geologists for over 100 years. I found myself returning regularly on pilgrimages, exploring its reaches in an attempt to digest the unfathomable. These trips always entailed backpacking into the interior of the Grand Canyon where the true magic is to be found.
Discovering the Colorado River instead
Having covered many miles of the Grand Canyon on foot, I retired my backpack in 1980 when I discovered the wonder of rafting the Colorado River. I was quite fortunate that a friend of mine saw a small classified in the back of the Mother Earth News magazine advertising a 10-day float trip through the Grand Canyon with the Paul Winter Consort. Paul Winter led a jazz ensemble back in the 70’s and he hoped to make an album from his trip. Both the Grand Canyon and the Consort were favorites of mine, and I determined that even during this less than stellar fiscal time in my life, I would find a way to manage the passage. Turns out the trip happened, and while the album did not happen at this time, my new found preference for rafting did happen at this time. To that date it was the best ten days of my life. Rafting affords the lucky traveler access to regions not normally accessible by foot. You also eat a lot better! This last May (1997) I found myself heading down the river for my fifth time, and on this occasion in command of my own “ship.” It was the fulfillment of a life ambition.
Our adventure through the Grand Canyon begins
A little background: The Grand Canyon is carved by the Colorado River in northern Arizona. This section of the country was Terra incognito until 1869 when John Wesley Powell first explored the region by boat. His journey of 1000 miles began in Green River, Wyoming and ended below the Grand Wash Cliffs of Nevada. Since his time the river has been “civilized” and punctuated with dams to control water flow for a variety of purposes. Our journey would start at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona below the Glen Canyon Dam and continue for approximately 280 miles to Pierce Ferry on Lake Mead above the Hoover Dam. Over this stretch the river drops over 2000 feet and crosses 70 major rapids. Powell’s original journey took three months. Ours would last three weeks.
The journey through the Grand Canyon begins with the rigging of boats. Powell used wooden boats with holds for provisions such as surveying equipment and food. My boat is a 19′ Zodiac Mark V. This is an inflatable Hypalon boat, equipped with a rowing frame, an aluminum deck and inflatable keel. Rigged with gear this boat weighs approximately 3000 lbs. Add water (which is known to happen in rapids) and it starts weighing considerably more. While I will row the boat the majority of the distance, under oar power it has all the maneuverability of the ironclad Monitor. Strictly a matter of point and shoot. As such it is also equipped with a 25 HP Mercury motor to facilitate maneuverability in some of the bigger rapids. While Powell suffered with provisions such as coffee, flour (often moldy), dried apples and bacon (often rancid), we will enjoy the luxury of beer, wine, shrimp scampi, tri-tip beef, eggs Benedict and other assorted delicacies.
After a full day of inflating the rafts, rigging , stowing and strapping down gear, we enter the river’s current at 4:00 PM on May 13. The river is running clear and cold. (The water at this end of the canyon is released from the bottom of Lake Powell at 50º F. through the Glen Canyon Dam, or enters the river through a tributary called Paria Creek just below Lee’s Ferry.) The raft rolls easily through Badger Creek rapid and we travel 11 miles, making camp above Soap Creek Rapids.
Let’s run some rapids
Rapids are the result of a river channel becoming restricted, usually by debris flows (large rocks!) deposited during flash floods from tributary creeks which enter the canyon along its length. Given that the same amount of water (an average of 21,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) during our trip) must flow through the river channel at any given time, regardless of its cross-sectional area, when the channel’s cross-sectional area is decreased, the river compensates by increasing its velocity (speed) through this restriction. Within the constriction the rocks which create the rapids are often close to the surface of the river, and during higher flows (21,000 cfs is a moderately high flow) the water flowing over the rock forms a wave that remains in place, and is refereed to as a standing wave. As with so many things in life, rapids are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, (easy to hard), depending upon the difficulty involved in navigating the rapid. Whenever I first refer to a rapid, I will indicate its rating in parenthesis, such as: Soap Creek rapid (5), which would serve to indicate the rapid has a rating of “5.”
Our first night in the canyon is spent under a waxing moon in good camaraderie: enjoying a hearty dinner and copious quantities of wine while sharing stories and lies of adventures past and anticipation’s of the weeks to come. Of our party of nine, five have been down the river before, three have previously piloted boats down the Grand Canyon, two fellows hail from Denmark (soon to be known as the Vikings!), and our ranks include an archaeologist, a wannabe geologist, and a former paleontologist. The folks who have not been in the Grand Canyon before (nothing like this in Denmark!) listen with great interest to what adventures lie ahead. The fellow (myself) who has not piloted a boat before listens with great interest to what rapids lie ahead. Both Admiral Savage (expedition leader) [photo-link] and Captain B.G. (man with beard) speak of flipping their boats in House Rock rapid 6 miles down the river on previous trips.
As such I awake the next day with a sense of exhilaration. Soap Creek rapid (5) has roared in my ear all night long, lulling me to a deep and restful sleep as white water generated white noise. While breakfast is frying towards completion I stroll down to peruse the course of the water over the rocks and play with my new video camera. One cannot help but gain a sense of proportion in the Grand Canyon, which is to say it is almost impossible not to get a sense of how small we are within the huge scales of the abyss. Standing next to the water shooting down this stretch of diminished channel I gain a new sense of smallness. Small in comparison to the roar that only a few hundred feet up river is a quietly moving body of water. Frail in comparison to the hydraulic forces that accumulate as this quiet water reaches critical velocities, causing the water to boil and churn and stand in waves that remain in place while debris that floats into its chambers shoot through and are spit out to resume the journey. I make my prayers, make my peace with the river, and walk upstream to eat my breakfast and rig my boat.
When one camps just upstream from a rapid, in the quiet water that forms the back-eddy just above the whitewater, an initial sense of urgency cannot be avoided upon launching the boat. My challenge is to row my 3000 lb. craft (which I named the Trilobite [photo-link] after Grove Carl Gilbert’s boat) with my two passengers, (first mate Carolyn and swamper Carsten) far enough out into the river to approach the rapid from a direction of my choosing (down the center) before the downstream current puts me into the rapid in a place not of my choosing (on the rocks). With a little applied effort this is accomplished, and as the current sweeps us toward the chute I sing out the cry: “hey diddle diddle, right down the middle!” The Trilobite picks up speed as it slides down the roller (a tongue of smooth water which enters the rapid with increased velocity, but lacking the critical velocity necessary to form whitewater), and into the waves that rise on each side of us. Perched upon my rowing frame my job at this point is to use the oars to keep the bow (front) of the raft pointed down river, so that I can maneuver the boat through and up the waves bow first, thereby reducing the amount of water that will need to be bailed later. It is nice to have some feeling that I am in some amount of control, even with the understanding that the river is the majority shareholder in my fate. The run goes well, and we all take enough water in the face for the experience to count as part of the river adventure. I am left wondering at this early stage how it is that my mouth can get so dry while I am getting so wet?
House Rock Rapid – SNAFU #1
It is not too much further down the river before we reach House Rock rapid (6), and pull onto shore to give the rapid some inspection prior to the run. My river professor, Admiral Savage, (also manning a Zodiac)[different photo-link] informs me that this will be a good time to use the 25 HP Mercury engines that we have hauled along. The water is HUGE. In addition to running over the debris fan issued from Rider Creek and House Rock Wash, the river bends to the right, around the fan, being pushed off the canyon wall on river left, and over a monster rock after which the rapid is named. The trick to the rapid is to approach it down the center of the tongue, then stay to the right of the breaking standing waves that have been responsible for flipping so many boats. As we are reviewing the rapid we watch a 37′ baloney boat operated by commercial outfitters make the run down, through and around, and then eddy out (pull out into the quiet water which generally lies immediately downstream and to the side of rapids) below. Sounds simple enough, and looks simple enough, so we head back to our craft to make our run. I am still tied to shore as Savage makes his run. He also makes it look simple. Captain B.G. is manning a 15 foot oar boat without motor, and though he has to work a little more furiously he accomplishes the task without incident. I give the starter cord on my motor a pull, and she fires up nicely, so I instruct my first (an hopefully final) mate Carolyn to cast us off, and we head out towards the center of the river channel.
At this point I have to give some background on how the motor is mounted. A transom (flat wooden cross-member) is located across the stern (back) of the boat between the two inflatable hypalon pontoons that form the boat’s gunwales (sides). The motor is mounted to this transom, and in the case of my boat, the transom has had a well cut into it, so the motor sits down inside the well. The motor is connected to the mounting bracket with swivels so that the motor can either be angled up out of the water when not in use, or turned from side to side to steer the boat. There is an arm that swivels off the left side of the motor that has a twist grip on the end that operates the throttle and allows for selection of forward or reverse gears. The arm is also used to swing the motor from right to left so that the boat may be steered. Pulling the arm to the left swivels the motor so the boat will turn right, and visa versa.
You may remember that I have been advised to stay to the right of the crests of the standing waves in the rapid below. Since we pulled off onto river right to inspect the rapid, as I motor into the channel my first maneuver is to turn right to face down river as I enter the rapid. It is at this point that I discover that the well has been cut so deeply into the transom that the throttle arm on the motor butts up against the side of the well when I attempt to pull it to the left, making a right turn all but impossible. At this point I am also sufficiently in the river channel that the River Board of Directors has taken full control of my shares and bought out my interest in the company. There is little to do but do what can be done and I shout to my crew to hold on as best they can. I open up the throttle (go fast!!) and keep the throttle arm pinned as left as the transom well allows, and by the time we run down the roller I have at least managed to get us facing bow first down river, as the ridge of wave peaks looms directly ahead of us. Keeping the throttle open full bore with my right hand (it is welded in place) and my left hand clutched to a rigging strap, the first wave breaks across us on our port bow (left front) with a solid wall of water that hits with such force that I loose both my hat and glasses, and I think back of the previous night’s conversation of upset rafts fully expecting that I will soon find myself under the boat. To my great surprise we are not overturned and I notice that I still have possession of my glasses which are hanging around my neck by virtue of the croakie strap I had installed earlier (proving it pays to strap everything in!) We take several more waves in similar fashion but with less force and as we run out of the rapid into the back eddy I attribute my shaking knees to the 16 inches of 50° water in which I am standing. Savage and B.G. both applaud me on what looked to be a most exciting and daring run, such runs being referred to as Hollywood rides. The rest of the day is comparatively uneventful. We run Redneck rapid (3) with oars, and make camp above North Canyon rapid at Mile 20.5.
My first order of business the following morning is to relocate the motor within the transom well so that I have the desired range of motion with the throttle arm. It will be a good day to have the motor in proper operating condition, as we will be running a series of rapids known as the Roaring 20’s. The day starts off in civilized fashion however, and we approach North Canyon rapid (5) with oars after the typical urgent dash to the center of the channel. As the boat enters the tongue of the rapid, beginning its descent down the roller, I have moment to pause and wonder why it is that the tip of my nose has a tendency to itch right before it is time to spar with the waves. The rapid turns out to be great fun and a great way to start the day. We enjoy relatively quiet water and Carsten and Carolyn both have an opportunity to try their hands at the oars, and both discover the joy and wonder of re-circulation zones, the back eddies below rapids which have a tendency to suck you in and move you back upstream towards the top of the tail-jet (run-out to lower velocity water). Avoiding these zones becomes a favorite pastime for boaters. Below Mile 24 we hit the Roaring 20’s, a series of rapid succession rapids which range from 4 to 7, but with a properly operating motor they are well behaved in comparison to House Rock rapid. Having traveled 11 miles (I’ve walked the canyon faster!) we make camp below some Anasazi (early native inhabitants of the canyon) granaries [photo-link] in view of Vasey’s Paradise. Some of our party go on an excursion to the granaries to see how the early half lived, while others with poles enjoy some of the best trout fishing on the river. B.G. and Preston and party have been fishing so successfully for the last few days the slaughter becomes affectionately referred to as “trout madness.” [photo-link] Trout: its what’s for dinner and we eat well.
Next morning its trout for breakfast (two apiece!? Yikes, this is trout madness!!) We shove off for a quick run down to Vasey’s Paradise [photo-link] : one of the jewels of the Colorado where water issues from the canyon wall and cascades to the river amidst fern and ivy and moss. Of it, Powell wrote in his journal:
“The river turns sharply to the east and seems enclosed by a wall set with a million brilliant gems. On coming nearer we find fountains bursting from the rock high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck he wall. The rocks are covered with mosses and ferns any many beautiful flowering plants. We name it Vasey’s Paradise, in honor of the botanist who traveled with us last year.”
Around a short river bend we pull off once again for a brief stopover in Redwall Cavern [photo-link]. This is a huge cave with a great sandy beach which Powell estimated could accommodate 50,000 people. He must have had a vision of the commercial boat tours that would inundate the nether regions in the years to come, but may have overestimated the cavern’s capacity by an order of magnitude nonetheless. We erect a volleyball net and challenge all comers. After eating sufficient crow to make trout sound good again, we push down river.
The next few days are filled with lazy floating leisure. The most notable attraction on this stretch of river is the Little Colorado River [photo-link]. This is one of the largest tributaries on the Colorado River between Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, and marks the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park on river left. In contrast to the cold water of the Colorado River it is like a bathtub, and when running clear is bright turquoise in color. When not running clear, (in response to storms on the plateau above), it is a major source of sediment for the Colorado River, and fine silt lines its banks, where the People of the Dirty Dicks [photo-link] come to hold their ceremonies on pilgrimages downriver.
Hance Rapids – SNAFU #2
On the morning of Day 7, Admiral Savage happens to come aboard and notices that I have failed to secure the motor mount to one of the raft’s deckstraps. He suggests that I do so, and I comment on what a surprise it was that I hadn’t thought of that myself, thanking him for his perceptive observation and snapping to. Yes Virginia, there is a God, and he is good! It was only a short distance down the river before we come to Hance rapid (8). This maelstrom of rock and wave raises the eyebrows and anticipation of every boatman by name alone. At low water it is a collision course of rock gardens. I was warned at high water it can be very disorienting as waves rise on every side, confusing even experienced boatmen as to their location in relation to obstacles that should be avoided at all cost. We stop above the rapid to inspect the situation from shore. Savage and B.G. both point out the location of the rock gardens, the duck ponds (quiet water between the maws of grinders….quiet water? where?), and two huge boulders somewhat midway down the run known as the “Sorry Sisters.” Savage gives me my instructions: “We will enter the rapid from river right, then cut left across the channel, making sure to stay downstream of that garden at the top of the rapid, and then keeping the left Sister on our right. Just follow me!”
I happily reply: “Aye-aye Sir!!” Back at the eddy I pull the start chord, always appreciating the way my little Mercury starts right up. Off we go, Savage on the point, and me in close pursuit. Okay, in from the right, cut to the left, avoid the garden on the upstream side so don’t cut too fast. Before I know it, all I see are waves dancing about, no sign of the Admiral’s craft, and as I ferry left, the river carries me downstream until before I can take stock of the magnitude of the current, the Sorry Sister looms before me in all her pissed glory. Water pours over her crown, which looks like a submerged bus, and cascades down the other side into a hydraulic hole where Heaven only knows what awaits. It looks like a watery Hell. The Trilobite rides the falls over the Sister’s crown, dragging her keel across the rock as she slides down towards the hole, and then I hear and feel the dreadful collision of the motor’s tailshaft upon the boulder. The impact torques the motor up off the transom, and I see the whirling propeller on the shaft’s end swing toward the hypalon pontoon on the starboard stern (right rear.) In the first good move I have the opportunity to make so far, I manage to hit the kill switch on the end of the throttle arm, turning the motor off, as I watch it tumble off the transom, and out the stern of the boat into the river below. “*#%$! (golly-gee) I’ve lost the motor!” I yell above the roar of the water grinding about us as I scramble for the oars and my seat on the rowing frame. I feel I better do something, even if it is futile. The hole spins us around and spits us out, and we careen from wave to trough to wave in whatever fashion suits the whims and fancies of the river, while waves alternately broadside our gunwales and water pours in through the transom well. I can see Savage below, watching our progress, and as we make our runnout down the tailjet, can only assume that he thinks we had a successful run as he spins his boat about and heads down river.
It seems there is never a backeddy when you want one. Or more to the point when a boat fills with water it becomes one with the river and tends to stay with the current. Good luck rowing a 3000 pound boat that is full of water: it is not an endeavor that should be expected to meet with much success. So I thank the Power that be, that we have a stretch of “civilized” river for some distance. My crew asks if they might maybe should bail? I reply to Carsten that I might appreciate his help first in determining if we still have a motor, and God willing this is the case, to bring it back up on the transom. Apparently this request comes as a surprise to him. “When you said you lost the motor, I thought you meant it stalled out!” he exclaims as his jaw drops toward the deck. “More like jumped out.” says I, my spirit lying next to his jaw. By Jove if that rigging strap I had installed earlier in the morning hadn’t done its assigned job, and with a combined effort we fish the casualty from the drink and set it back upon the transom. That is about all we can do for our abused friend, who is in bad need of artificial resuscitation as well as a new set of mounting bolts. Of the pair, one had been bent back at a 90° angle, and the other had exceeded this limit and sheered. We bail and limp downstream, eventually finding the Admiral pulled off in a back-eddy enjoying the peace of the day and the fruit of the vine. With tail between my legs I offer up our story, and we set about to administer the necessary first aid. The propeller is still in good shape. Savage deftly disassembles the motor and dries out the carburetor and cylinders. Before long the darling (motor) sounds like her old self. We torque down on the bent bolt, driving it into the transom, and use a folded over tin can as a shim between the transom and the sheered bolt to secure the other half of the mount.
Feeling all is well as can be, we continue down river once again, and enter the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon. Here the river cuts narrowly through ancient metamorphic rock. Black schist intruded by veins of pink granite tower in steep walls on either side of the river, evidence of the roots of a mountain range that has long since been erased from the face of the Earth. Called Vishnu Schist, it is the oldest rock exposed in the Grand Canyon, dating back some 1.6 billion years. (In fact, it is an exposure of the oldest rock on the continent – 2018). This is also the deepest portion of the canyon, where the river has cut a mile deep into the Earth’s crust. It is a daunting sight to see the river descend into the gorge, and when Powell first approached this shadowy chasm I can only imagine he was filled with a sense of dread and apprehension, as it resembles the gateway to the River Styx, leading to the Underworld described in legends in days of old. As we enter the gorge [photo-link], clouds fill the sky, removing all shadows, and thunder peals above as we hear the roar of rapids within.
Sockdologer (9) and Grapevine (8) rapids come in quick succession. At high flow they are nothing more than series of huge waves and fast water, but worthy of respect and warranting the use of the motor recently raised from the dead. I soon find the biggest challenge to be keeping the motor on the transom and out of the river again, while navigating the rapids. The shimmed bolt is not long enough to apply sufficient pressure upon the shim to hold it in place, and as throttle is applied, the motor torques in a clockwise fashion, pivoting on the remaining “best” bolt, desiring to twist itself off and resume its errant ways in the river. This requires that I essentially sit upon the motor while navigating the high-water in order to keep it on its place upon the transom. This is accomplished with all the grace possible, and we motor on down to Phantom Ranch. Here we are scheduled to lay-about, pending a rendezvous with two fellows who will join us on our trip, and I hope to effect further repairs to my motor.
Phantom Ranch is a guest ranch operated in the bottom of the Grand Canyon by the National Park Service. Here you can get a beer or bagel or whatever nicety they might have available. It is the only place in the canyon where the north and south sides of the Grand Canyon can be accessed across a pair of suspension bridges which span the river. It is the destination for most people hiking from the rim, or those who choose the less arduous burro ride. We are scheduled to pick up two fellows from Denmark who are hiking down from the rim. As I float beneath the first suspension bridge, Carston recognizes our new passengers walking across the bridge high above us, and shouts of greetings are exchanged while we remark upon our excellent sense of timing.
As we take on our new passengers I dig down into the motor box, where I have the privilege and good fortune to be carrying the extra motors for Savage and myself on the off-chance that we might need a back-up. This was fortuitous, as the concession stand further up-trail might have snacks, but the chances of them having mounting hardware are less. What I don’t have are a lot of tools, but it is absolutely amazing what can be done with the proper model Swiss Army knife when needs dictate. I accomplish the repairs, the new Vikings are loaded and strapped down amongst our flotilla, and within a short time we are on our way back down river heading towards Horn Creek rapid.
I feel just a little concerned for the new passengers. As has been pointed out, there just is nothing like the Grand Canyon to be found in Denmark, or any of the neighboring countries, short of draining a fjord, and at that I am still pretty sure you still wouldn’t get the same effect. So on top of their hiking over seven miles of trail, and descending a mile of relief into the biggest hole they have ever seen in their life, suddenly they are thrust into boats and subjected to some of the biggest rapids in the whole canyon right off the starting line. Horn Creek rapid is so named for two huge boulders that protrude on either side of the rapid allowing a narrow margin of safe passage through the grinding whitewater. No problem for (now) seasoned boatmen such as ourselves. It must have been quite an eye opener for the two newbies recently acquired.
Alive Below Crystal
Their eyes continue to widen as talk is made of the rapids to be run the following day. Granite (9), Hermit (9), and most dreaded of all, Crystal (10). Crystal scares even the most seasoned boatman. It is the result of a flash flood out of Crystal Creek back in 1966, and as such is a rapid that has yet to be properly whittled by the river. The rocks are large and plentiful, the channel choked with debris allowing little room for error on either side as it swings around the debris fan issued from the creek. Churning water foming immeadiately downsteam from a submerged rock is known as a hole. Holes come in a variety a flavors. Some like to capsize boats, and some just move you along, as the hole below the Sorry Sister of Hance did to the Trilobite. Some holes are referred to as green rooms, where if you get caught subsequent to capsizing you are held underwater for some indefinite period of time before it decides to spit you out and send you on your way. Then there is the keeper hole. Should you find yourself unlucky enough to encounter one of these bad boys the recommended procedure is to roll up in a ball and kiss your butt goodbye, because it will not let you go. Crystal has two such holes. The stories and admonitions shared by our veteran boatmen heighten the sense of anticipation that have been growing in me for weeks. My sense of unease is heightened by my earlier faux pas on Hance. I retire in the evening attempting to discriminate between the roar of the river and that of my heart.
Dawn breaks and the day of my dread arrives. Powell’s terra incognito is my terror impersona. His dread came from not knowing what lay ahead. Mine comes from knowing exactly what to expect. A big breakfast is prepared: sausage and scrambled eggs in good measure with orange juice and cowboy coffee. Last meal for the condemned men? Pack up the gear and load the boats. Strap and double check straps. My swamper Carsten is requisitioned to act as paddler on Captain Lampey’s boat. I think maybe he is nervous about the previous day. I in fact feel very calm about the upcoming day. I have had good river dreams through the night and take this as a portent of a good day to come. I am ready to believe in any signs that point toward success.
Our first run is Granite rapid. Granite, while being fun fast water and worthy of the motor on my boat presents no great difficulty. It is also one of the best photo ops on the river for videos of boats shooting rapids, so I get some good video footage of our flotilla meeting the river’s challenge. It is a good way to start the day. (I used to have a mpeg video link here. If I ever find that video clip again, Ill re-link it.)
Next comes Hermit Rapid: a roller coaster of standing waves, (a series of five), the last wave measuring about 25′ from trough to crest at this flow, and at an angle approaching perpendicular. Another party of oar boaters had run the rapid just prior to our arrival. Had I seen the 18′ Domar that had flipped on that last wave I might have ferried to the left side. However, I did not, and we take all the waves head on, Carolyn hanging onto the bow (eating lawn chairs) to give us weight in the front. It is quite a ride and we roll down the lee side of the last wave cheering like of pair of steam whistles blowing off the pressure of adrenaline. As we ferry down the tail-jet I first notice the flipped oar boat in a small cove on river right, its occupants stuck to the cliff face crouching on their haunches and scratching their heads. We spin about to watch our last boat, (Capt. Lampey’s), come through. We see the raft appear and disappear as it climbs and descends each wave in turn. As it comes through the last wave we can only see the bottom of the raft floating downstream: the wave has flipped the raft back over upon itself as it struggled to reach the top. Captain Lampey gains purchase on the top of the raft’s bottom, and rides the inverted raft while his two swampers (including my former swamper, Carsten) go bobbing downriver, paddles held high as markers. We fish Preston out, and then set about to right the raft, all other parties having been secured safely. No damage to people or property. Even Lampey’s Pelican photo case has kept his equipment dry.
On to Crystal Rapid. As stated, this is one of the two most dangerous rapids on the river, (many boatmen feeling it is the single most dangerous rapid on the river.) At this high flow it looks quite manageable. We watch the Domars, (who have recovered from their flip at Hermit) run the river. As we survey the situation and pick the best course to run, thunder peals overhead and it starts to rain, making the task ahead even more daunting. All four Domars make it through the rapids without incident, but having done so, one boater cannot make up her mind which side of the river to proceed down, and wraps her raft around a boulder in the rock garden below. Wrapping a boat means that you have run up against a boulder that is protruding out of the river, essentially broadsiding the rock. The hydraulic force of the river pushes the side of the raft up the boulder, water fills the downside of the raft, and the raft remains pinned against the upriver side of the boulder. Once this happens the raft is extremely difficult to move, and often has to be disassembled and deflated to remove it from the obstruction. When this occurs in the middle of the river the task becomes even more challenging. Some of our crew take off to render what assistance they can. All run the rapids successfully.
I make my prayers and make my peace with the river. Just as I am about to launch my raft the rain abates, the clouds break directly overhead and the sun shines down upon the Trilobite, furthering my suspicion that I have the grace of an angel upon my shoulder. The trick in high water is simply to enter the rapid from the left, then ferry across the tongue to the right, quickly enough to avoid the line of breakers that will direct your course into the canyon wall on the left. Having done that the next task is to ferry to either side and avoid the rock garden that has pinned the Domar. I have to credit my first mate, (and hopefully my last mate): my wife, who, understanding the depth of my anticipation, sat alone in the bow, resigned to her fate, as well as faith and trust in my ability to see us through the whitewater below. As I enter into the rollers above the rapid’s tongue, she looks back towards me with a look that I can’t help but realize means: ‘Don’t you think its time you ferry across now?’ I tell her not to worry, but by all means hang on! I swing the throttle arm to the left, delighting in the way the boat moves to the right, and gun the throttle, shooting us across the tongue and into the maelstrom of standing waves, whooping and hollering to silence the roar of the blood pumping through my veins while waves break across our bow and gunwales like a storm on the high seas. We break through with triumphant smiles, happy to be inflated and upright. I ferry to the left, and skirt the rock garden, then spin about to help the other party in whatever way we can.
After lending some assistance to the Domars, (ferrying members of their party upriver so that they could struggle with the situation of the wrapped raft), the decision is made to push down river. I am the first motor craft un-moored, and as I move into the river the wrapped boat breaks loose, half deflated and downside up, but with the provisions still strapped onto the rowing frame. It heads down the channel with only my boat between it and the Tuna Creek Rapids a quarter of a mile away. I am able to position myself downstream from the raft, and after two attempts at jockeying for position, successfully nudge it into a backeddy where the other party can salvage gear and deal with the remnants of their boat.
Onward downriver, running a dozen or so lesser rapids, including 104, Nixon Rock (so named because the rock is slightly right of center), Serpentine (watch out for hole in middle of rapid), Ruby (Preston claims there is a hole in this rapid as well), and Bass. We camp at Inscription Camp and celebrate with an ABC (alive below Crystal) party.
Our next eight days consist of comparatively tame river running, virtually strolling down the Colorado. For some reason known only to himself, my swamper Carsten has rejoined our crew. We have left the inner gorge, and while we are still running in the old hard rock, the canyon opens up before us, affording unparalleled views. There are many fun rapids, most accomplished once again with oars, and this peaceful approach allows time for observations and reflections. One curious aspect of many rapids is the fact that you can usually hear them before you see them. The river ponds behind the constriction which causes the rapid, and the rapids serve to essentially drop the level of the river in many cases. As such the rapid is often below the river horizon from my perspective on the oar frame, though the sound of the water beating its way through errant boulders arrives like that of a freight train pounding its way down the tracks before I can see what lies ahead. My first sight of the turbulence is usually of spray being spit above the water’s horizon as if whales were dancing just beyond my sight. It is then that I know there is happy water (oh boy!, something to do!) ahead, and I stand upon the frame to strain for a closer look so that I can discern the best course by which to run the rapid. Below the rapid, coming down the tailjet I often hear another sound. This is a sound entirely similar to a light rain striking the water’s surface. In fact it is the sound of air bubbles rising from the river’s depths and breaking the surface. As the river courses over the rocks which are responsible for the rapids, it becomes aerated, and as the water’s velocity subsides this air rises again. It is rain in reverse, in an environment that is an inverted mountain. This is indeed a strange and wondrous place. We explore myriads of side canyons containing creeks and waterfalls framed in ferns, moss and travertine such as Elves Chasm [photo-link], Tapeats Creek, Thunder River [photo-link] , Deer Creek, Havasu Creek [photo-link], and Matacatamiba [photo-link] , which is my favorite [photo-link] of all the side canyons. During this stretch the party of Domars passes us and to our surprise and delight they have effected a repair on the raft that had torn in two at Crystal rapid. With the use of dental floss stitching, glue and good old duct tape they have the craft floating down the river towards a successful run with heads held high.
Day 17 on the river arrives, and Admiral Savage congratulates me of the fine job done so far, (always good to give the newbies some encouragement!), then asks if I am ready for the final exam. Lava Falls (10) lies ahead. This is the largest of all rapids in the Grand Canyon, dropping 37 feet in a distance of a quarter mile. The rapid is so named for the basalts (volcanic rock) which flowed over the canyon’s rim some 10,000 years ago damming the river into a lake which backed up 150 miles on numerous occasions before the relentless water could carve its way through the dam after spilling over its rim. Above the falls a monolith of basalt named Vulcan’s Anvil rises approximately 30 feet out of the middle of the river. This is the remnant neck of a volcano. In a tradition established on earlier trips by our Admiral, I swing about and motor up to the Anvil to lay my hand upon it before our run down the falls below.
Our party pulls off to river right and moors the boats so that we may walk to the top of the hill overlooking the rapid, discern the best route, and watch other craft pilot the falls prior to our run. Admiral Savage has made talk of eddying out below the falls and walking back up with members of our party to paddle down in Captain Lampey’s rubber raft. There has been much support for this idea. One of the commercial boatmen makes his way to head down the hill and begin his run. He looks at me and asks: “Heart beating fast enough?” I reply with bravado: “I’m too stupid to be scared!” “Yeah,” he grins, “ain’t ignorance bliss?”
At this high water the rapid can be run on either side. Normally one must run the river on the right, punching through waves which often completely submerge boats, while maintaining enough sense of where you are to avoid the Cheese Grater: a large coarse boulder on river right that can shred a boat, and slowly dispense you from the keeper it holds. The 37′ commercial baloney boat makes a fine run down the right. I am once again grateful for the high water flow that will reduce the technical difficulty of the run to a level that increases my chances for success, and decide to run on the left. I notice a burble line, (line of burbles: look it up!), going down the tongue, and figure if I stay to the left of that line I will hit the standing water just about where I would like, and have no more than a good wet run.
Down at the boat we gear up and start up the motor. Casting off, I travel for a short distance upriver, so that I may have the opportunity to approach the rapid squarely, and hit left of the burble line. As I approach the rollers above the tongue, I look desperately for the burbles I could easily see from the hill’s vantage above. I look back up towards that vantage and spot B.G., excitedly waving his arms away from him in a fashion that clearly indicates to me that I had best start heading left and fast. I do just that. I never did see those damn burbles, but I suspect they were further down the tongue than our vantage had led me to believe. Had I waited to see them I suspect it might have been a bit late. Now that I am heading into the rapid, nothing seems as it had from the hill above. Particularly the waves, which tower on each side of us and directly in front of us as we punch through wall after wall of water. At about the third deluge the motor believes itself underwater once more and decides to take the rest of the morning off. It stalls out, waiting for its resurrection. I don’t feel quite up to arguing with it about the reality of our situation, so I make my way through the torrent to the rowing frame and grab the oars for whatever good I might accomplish, while updating the crew on our predicament, if not our whereabouts. As usual, Lava Falls is over almost as fast as it begins, and we are indeed through the majority of the rapid and out of harm’s way. However, with a boat completely full of water I am unable to eddy out at our prearranged rendezvous point, and the current drives us on toward Lower Lava Falls rapid just downstream. During the brief respite between rapids, swamper Carsten locates himself in the stern and begins bailing as fast as he can. He has often remarked that the low transom well seemed to let out as much water as it let in during dramatic runs, and as such the Trilobite acted as something of a self bailing boat, but I believe he was motivated to abandon that opinion in this instance. The river has spun us around, and as we enter Lower Lava he is acutely aware of how close our stern is to the canyon wall that wraps the river to the right. I am unaware of the particulars, but frightfully concerned about the generalities, as my back is to the wall while I futily struggle to hedge our position in the current that seems to be in full control of our destiny once again. Fortunately, the recirculation zone below Lower Lava is huge, and sucks us into the back eddy where we are able to finish bailing and convince the motor that indeed it is a sunny day outside. Carsten wants to know how it is possible that a person’s hair can stand straight on end while it is soaking wet?
Our position somewhat downriver of the rendezvous point precludes our travelling back to the top of the falls to help Captain Lampey paddle the rubber raft down, but we have a good view of the rapids above and anxiously await the sight of this event, assuming that others of our flotilla might be on their way upriver to participate in the Hiawatha fest. Meanwhile we join the boats piloted by the commercial outfitters across the river who are enjoying lunch on the ledges to the side of the tailjet of Lower Lava. Time passes, and no sign of our last (lost?) boat. Perhaps twenty minutes pass, when suddenly we can see Captain Lampey’s boat emerge through the last wave of Lava Falls. To my surprise and dismay, I can only see Captain Lampey, who is on the oars, instead of the six men I had expected to see on the gunwales with paddles. Not even Lampey’s swamper is to be seen. I am fearful he has been thrown from the boat, and will have to be fished out shortly. As the craft approaches, we can see that Captain Lampey is rowing half a boat. The boat is composed of individually inflatable chambers, and the bow is intact and inflated, but the stern is totally deflated, and there is his Viking swamper sitting behind Captain Lampey holding the deflated stern out of the water as best he can. All jaws drop on the ledge, releasing whatever lunch crumbs have been in the process of being processed, as Captain Lampey rows his half boat with a sense of urgency towards the ledges. Admiral Savage is in hot pursuit with his Zodiac, realizing Lampey will need a tug to get him out of the current and back to shore. “Unbelievable!” “All right!!” “Hollywood ride dude!” “What in the name of …. happened?”, the cries go up as Lampey and crew arrive. Apparently as Lampey had come down the hill from the overlook he found his boat losing air rapidly. The boat (being a rubber boat as opposed to a Hypalon) had been slightly overinflated that morning, and, while sitting in the sun, had blown a valve seam. Our hero, manly fellow that he is, had decided the situation wasn’t going to improve anytime soon, and as his was the last craft left atop the falls (on the assumption we would all be back to ride with him) he had figured he better get down as fast as he could while he had as much air as time might permit. My hat’s off to this fine fellow, who thereafter became known in my heart as Captain Cajones. After finishing lunch and slapping all involved on the back, we head downstream toward camp where repairs are once again effected on Lampey’s craft. No dental floss needed, nor duct tape or bailing wire, just good old toluene and rubber cement.
The following day is somewhat anticlimactic in comparison, but time is relentless and unconcerned with dramatics, and so forces me to celebrate my 45th birthday. As usual, I am sorry to be growing older, while on this occasion happy to have the opportunity to be doing just that, (i.e., to still be alive and kicking!) and happy to be growing old in a way that allows me enough grace to be still engaged in a certain amount of insane behavior. If I am starting to show some gray in my beard I should understand the reason why. We make camp [photo-link] at mile 220 the night of May 31. I sit upon the beach at the river’s edge, gazing upstream toward the silhouettes of the canyon walls rising to each side of our river road, while listening to the roar of rapids from far upriver as if the canyon is beckoning me farewell. The spirit of the raven rises from the river and carries my spirit with the song to the vault of stars above.
The next few days entail little more than the run out to Lake Mead, so it is here that I will end my tale with the reflection of John Wesley Powell:
“Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared, now the firmament is bounded only by the horizon, and what a vast expanse of constellations can be seen! The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is ecstasy. We sit till long after midnight talking of the Grand Canyon, talking of home.”
A full gallery of full-resolution files of the 2012 SNAFU escapade is over at my Smug Mug gallery at: https://timenspace.smugmug.com/Collections/Rafting-the-Grand-Canyon-2012/
Sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words. Come visit my collection of the tales behind the photography. https://timenspace.net/photography-blogs/
Wow – I was right there with you each time and realized I’d been holding my breath till you got through safely. So interesting! Thanks!
Thanks Elaine … as I was rereading this for the first time in decades, I was feeling much the same way! When we left the river Carolyn and I departed for our first trip to SE Alaska where we were going to hike the Chilkoot Trail. After the river, hiking in grizzly bear country felt easy and comfortable. That trip to Alaska eventually led to our moving here.