This is the second in a three-part series. Read Part 1 HERE.
by Sara Moses
There isn’t any music on the river, unless you make it yourself just to hear your voice echo off the vast walls; but after a few days, you begin to feel the rhythm of the routine. Wake up, get coffee, chow down on a richer breakfast than you ever eat at home, clean out the tent and pack it up without getting too much sand in there. Spend the day on the river, cold and wet, then hot and dry: rinse and repeat. Rest quietly on deck, floating on the glassy green water, then sit up straight and yell “bring it on!” to the fierce and implacable rapids. Hold on to the boat straps so hard that your knuckles are white. Pitch a tent at dusk, eat and have a beer with your friends, and gradually realize how much “stuff” you could do without.
It was on this day that my pre-trip anxiety came true when I couldn’t find any sunblock. I berated myself for a bit, but then I just asked someone to share. It was that easy. By the end of the trip, we had all shared something we’d brought, whether tangible things like camp soap and contact lens solution, or valuable knowledge of the constellations and local geology, or skills like setting up a tent quickly and providing a strong, steady handhold for a fellow hiker.
After I borrowed some sunblock we hiked to Nankoweep, site of an ancient Puebloan settlement. Two women made the steep uphill trek to the granary and the rest of us took a shorter hike to the site where the Native Americans who long-ago inhabited these canyons lived out their domestic lives. We sat and pondered human history and I noticed that life thrives in every shady crack in the desert.
Back on the river, the rapids were becoming bigger and more thrilling. Our boatman Dustin shouted the name of each before we hit them. Sometimes the river looked wild, but the water was just splashing about in “riffles”, just wee things, not even worthy to be named a rapid. However, even these riffles could send cold rivulets down the insides of our shirts. Today I discovered that my rain jacket’s hood had ties, and that was the happiest moment of my life.
Today we came to the place where the Little Colorado River empties into the Colorado, and it was roiling and tangled with branches and logs and boulders from recent rain. Late summer is “monsoon season” in the region, causing rain more often than one might expect in this arid landscape, and 2012 saw much more rain than a typical monsoon season. After we met the Little Colorado River, we said goodbye to clear green water and hello to the red runoff that would color the river (and our clothes and skin) for the rest of the trip.
Ominous grey clouds were on the horizon, and we rode hard for camp.
The rain evaporated before it got down to us, and we set up camp in a warm mist. Then we ate our tasty grilled pork chops on the river shore.
Dinner each night consisted of a delicious meat (or something else yummy for vegetarians), fresh green salad, side dishes, and a coal-cooked, dutch-oven dessert. We enjoyed red or white wine or a beer with dinner, and Builder Linda designated herself as bartender and mixed cocktails for us each night!
On this night, the tension was high, because we knew that the next day would be the longest, toughest day in terms of rapids, but also the most fun and exciting. We would have to run 37 rapids on Day 4, many of them bigger and wavier than any we’d seen so far. Many of us were nervous, but we knew there was no way to go but forward. I thought of all the early explorers who made this same journey, with no knowledge of what was ahead, and certainly no fresh spinach salad at dinner. I went to bed with butterflies in my belly, thrilled to find out what all the fuss was about.
Until this point, the Grand Canyon looked like I expected from the pictures. Gradual descent through layers of neatly deposited rocks and silt, sand and shell. We could tell when we were entering an older layer by the change in color or texture or shape. Today though, we dropped into “The Gorge,” where the Colorado River cuts through 2-billion-year-old stone: glossy black Vishnu Schist intermixed with pink Zoroaster Granite. The sedimentary rules disappear here: there are zigzags of pink and black, vertical stripes, ripples, crenellations, bursts of pink like stars in the black schist, and the tiniest scribbles of black ink in huge pink boulders. Builder Linda, as we nicknamed her to distinguish her from our other (Dr.) Linda, is a contractor specializing in stone work. She just wishes she could turn this stuff into a great-looking countertop!
The first really big rapid that I remember running that day was Grapevine. Dustin said to hold on for dear life and we did. We yelled like we were on a bar-room bucking bronco as the river pushed us up and down and side to side. We were soaked. I felt high as a kite, and the river just kept them coming! Later, when Dustin hollered the name of another big rapid, I yelled “OK, let’s see what you’ve got, Horn Creek!!” That rapid is famous for its wild ride, and we were not disappointed. Soon we came to Hermit, arguably the most fun rapid on the river. It’s nicknamed The Roller Coaster because it has 13 huge waves: some felt like they were a vertical shot up before we popped down the other side. We got through it safely, with our stomachs in our throats, whooping it up, and I was immediately sad that I’d have to wait at least a full year to ride that rapid again.
We were repeatedly drenched and thrilled and excited … and hungry. We ate a huge lunch that day, and there were still more rapids before the day was done. I don’t have pictures of the rapids from Day 4, though, because I was too busy holding on tightly with both hands!
When we finally pulled out of the gorge and onto a sandy beach for the night, we were all so tired. We pitched our tents on the warm sand, hung our wet clothes from the bushes to dry (which happens fast in the dry air), and we gathered, grinning, to relive our amazing day.
Soon, an eerie mist came up the river, the wind started to wail, and we were engulfed in a massive thunderstorm. Many campers waited inside their tents for the storm to pass, but I stayed outside, relishing the warm rain and then marveling at the brief bout of hail that stung my bare skin. A friend and I held the beach umbrella over the propane stove so that Dustin and Kinson could prepare dinner, all of us laughing and hooting throughout the invigorating experience.
Whenever it rains heavily in the region the water all flows toward the Colorado River, washing red mud over the waterfalls, raging deep and swift through slot canyons, and dumping rocks, boulders, and uprooted trees into the river. We counted 23 “rimfalls,” spontaneous waterfalls that formed as we watched, several spilling over the high ledges across the river, and one of them on the rim right behind our camp. Dustin was thrilled that we got to experience this breathtaking storm, because rimfalls are a relative rarity for visitors to witness. Even though he has been working on the river for 10 years, he had only seen them form twice before. At this point, Builder Linda was pretty sure that if a vendor set up a rainsuit cart by the side of the river, campers would pay anything for one.
The storm finally subsided and every woman defied the drizzle to eat a fantastic hot meal under the umbrella: barbeque chicken breasts, coleslaw, corn salsa, and the crowning achievement, dutch-oven carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.
Dustin had thought for sure the downpour would ruin his coals but they never went out! I bet we were the only campers on the river that night with such a perfect cake. I fell into my sleeping bag exhausted and didn’t wake up until I heard “HOT! COFFEEEEE!” the next morning.
Although the day dawned bright and blue, Dustin warned us that the heavy rains would have affected the waterfalls we were to visit up narrow side canyons. He said that the falls may still be muddy, the pools full of debris, and/or the footing on the trails trickier than usual.
Our first hike of the day led us up over some warm rocks and into a shady, sinuous canyon with a shallow reddish creek burbling gently in the gravelly floor. We snaked between the sandstone layers of the walls and at the top found a beautiful spot to rest at the Blacktail Waterfall. Linda and Jeanne lounged, lizard-like, to soak up the heat of a sunny patch of stone before we headed back to the boat.
Day 5 felt like a relaxing vacation after the thrills of the previous day. The sky was blue and clear and the river felt peaceful, even though we ran several fun rapids. We made another short hike, this time across a wide-open area in the bright sun.
We were rewarded at the top when we found Stone Creek Waterfall, a powerful downpour of clear, warm water that massaged our tired necks and backs, and rinsed our hair. We giggled with the pleasure of finding such an oasis.
Unfortunately, I lost my balance while hiking barefoot and stepped on a rock, bruising the arch of my good foot. (Others wore sneakers or water-safe sandals for the hikes, that helped them keep their footing.)
At Deer Creek Waterfall, we had a short hike (this time I put on my sneakers) through crystal clear pools and up very steep rocks to find a pure, clean spring rocketing from the canyon wall high overhead.
The water plummets with such force that the wind and spray can knock a hiker over, and attempting to get beneath it would have been folly. We found grassy spots near the pools to wait while Dustin collected enough spring water to filter and drink for the next few days. I idled away the time making rock cairns and dipping my bruised foot in the water.
Camp that night was on a warm, cozy beach with vegetation mostly hugging the canyon walls. Several of us slept peacefully outside that night under the silvery moonlight. In my dreams I can still smell the swift, cool river and warm sand from that beautiful beach.
To be continued…Read Part 3 here.
For more information on this and other Alyson Adventures trips, check out the website at www.AlysonAdventures.com