The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

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Colorado River

Picture perfect views abound on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park

Pictographs

Grand Canyon pictographs

Raft ejection

Seconds before intrepid rafters take a swim in the mighty Colorado River

Raft Snuff

A giant hole temporarily gobbles up an eighteen-foot raft (all you can see are the oars), ejecting a passenger into the drink, as the boatman attempts to miss “The Cheese Grater” (on the right) in Lava Rapid.

Holy schist!

—TY BELKNAP

I swore off long river rafting expeditions last year after we led a trip through the Grand Canyon. Readers of this column might recall my September ‘06 article entitled “A River Odyssey,” which concluded with my vows of “never again.”

It was only two months later that my wife and I were again invited to raft the canyon. Apparently surviving one trip puts an oarsman in demand—regardless of how much he complains. Maybe it’s because my wife is so delightful and a fine mandolin player. Social competence is not one of my selling points, but how many people can drop everything, row through giant rapids, and crap in a bucket for three weeks?

It also helps to have family connections. We were invited by my wife’s ex-husband’s sister’s ex-husband’s brother’s (soon-to-be) ex-wife’s (XHSXHBXW) neighbor. I reconsidered my initial refusal because this fall trip promised to eliminate many of the problems involved with the ‘06 trip—most notably the summer heat and the burden of command. Anyway, I had almost a year to back out.

The year passed quickly, and it started to look like the trip wouldn’t happen anyway. A reclusive carpenter from Pie Town backed out due to an injured shoulder, though I suspect he was more worried about the three weeks of constant physical and social proximity of fifteen people. A week later, a couple of rafters were forced to renege due to problems with the IRS. Two days before the September 26 put-in, the official trip leader (XHSXHBXW) kicked her spouse out of the house and quit the trip. This final blow was averted a day later when she, under pressure, agreed to go after all (in separate tents, and she in a raft—he in a kayak).

So, the trip was back on. The meals assigned to the people who dropped out were compensated by my Emergency Food Bucket—a supply of 275 dried meals in a five-gallon bucket purchased last year to get us through the bird flu pandemic. All that remained was to rise at dawn, pick up the Signpost at the printer in Santa Fe, mail and deliver, finish packing, buy produce, and drive eight hours to the put-in at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona.

The next day, we inflated “Big Yeller” and launched into the frigid waters, where the Colorado River is released from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, for another epic journey of 226 miles. Our raft was so heavily laden with supplies that my mightiest pull on the oars seemed to have no effect. I was a little rusty after a year off, and it took several near disasters to remember the effort required to avoid obstacles. My wife was shocked at my incompetence, especially after her head bounced off the front tube when I drove the raft straight into a large pour-over.

Whistles sounded from below Indian Dick rapid indicating that one of our group’s rafts had flipped. Then we hit a powerful lateral wave that almost flipped us as well. Indian Dick, rated only four out of ten for difficulty, was the first of the “Roaring Twenties” series of rapids that cover a five-mile stretch. While righting the unfortunate raft and pulling on our wet suits, we had a lively discussion about whether the rapid was named after an Indian named “Dick” or perhaps related to a prominent geological feature nearby.

Geology obviously played an important part in our canyon experience. After a few days into the trip, a growing appreciation of billions of years of geological time eased my sleepless nights of worrying about the immense journey that lay ahead. I started taking things a day at a time. The nearly forty identified rock layers and fourteen major unconformities (gaps in the geologic record) of the Grand Canyon form one of the most studied sequences of rock in the world.

Vishnu Schist is a dark-colored, garnet-studded layer of metamorphic rock exposed at the bottom of the canyon in the Inner Gorge. The Vishnu Sahasranama describes Vishnu as “the all-pervading essence of all beings; the master of and beyond the past, present and future; the creator and destroyer of all existence; one who supports, sustains, and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within.” As the volcanic schist cooled, it was shot through with pink Zoroaster Granite and long lines of white quartz. It appeared throughout the canyon, sometimes as giant boulders in mid-stream—thus inspiring the title of this article.

By the time we reached the first really big rapid, I was getting better at the oars. Invariably, the trick was to enter the drop at the right place, start early, and row like hell to avoid the rock, pour-over, and/or hydraulic hole at the bottom. Another Placitas couple, still a bit rusty, hit the hole sideways and was ejected when their raft stood on its side. The oarsman quickly climbed back into his raft and fished his wife out of the eddy below. Luckily, even the largest rapids on the Colorado River spill into flat water, making rescue easier.

The only time it rained very much coincided with big scary rapids. Our most experienced oarsman, who at age sixty-two had flipped his raft only once in his long career, was ejected into the hole at Hance Rapid (Difficulty: 8 out of 10). Pulled down by his rain gear and gasping for air, he was thoroughly thrashed in a swim through Son of Hance below.

Our permit-holder sat shivering in her soggy rain gear. At seventy-three years of age, she had waited a dozen years to win her permit. That night at camp, she announced that she would leave us the next day and hike out the Bright Angel Trail with her daughter-in-law—no small task at any age. We were met at Phantom Ranch by a second of her sons—a dot-com millionaire from Seattle—who had hiked in as planned. Phantom Ranch is a popular hiking destination with rooms for rent and an expensive restaurant. We had a lemonade and made some phone calls and filled water jugs before continuing down-river. Now, down to twelve members, we had two full weeks to cover the final 137 miles.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was a seven-mile hike up Tapeats Canyon to Thunder River with a loop down-river to Deer Creek Canyon. Half the boats were left at Tapeats Canyon, while the others floated several miles down to Deer Creek. We planned to meet the up-river hikers at Thunder River for lunch; then they would then continue to Tapeats and row the down-river hiker's boats to Deer Creek. Simple, huh?

A steep switchback from the river led to a side canyon with a sparkling mountain stream. Another side canyon led along Thunder River to the place of its origin where it gushed from a cliffside cave. Our trip’s legendary mountaineer led four of us up the cliff and into the cave. Perched on the ledge with my friends outside the cave was, for me, a peak experience. At our feet was a hundred-foot waterfall into a lush oasis surrounded by the Grand Canyon, whose beauty and majesty is best left to the poets.

The up-river hikers never showed up during the several hours that we down-river hikers dawdled at Thunder River. None of us wore a watch, but it looked like there was just enough time for a two-hour forced march over a ridge, across a couple miles of high desert, and down through more rocky switchbacks and slot canyons. We arrived at our rafts along with the final rays of sunlight, crossed the river by flashlight, and set up camp. (Things didn’t exactly go as planned. As it turned out, the up-river hikers took the wrong trail but still managed to retrieve the rafts from Tapeats.)

None of us had trouble with the big-named rapids like Crystal, Hermit, and Granite. Both kayakers had a lot of fun. One was masterful; the other took an occasional beating. The only other capsize came at Upset Rapid, which caught us by surprise late one afternoon, forcing a camp on rock ledges above the popular Ledge Camp, which was occupied below. After dinner in the dark, a procession of headlamps announced a visit from the group below, bearing rum and hula hoops. Our river band put on quite a show and the sultry “hula queen” left a gift of a purple hula hoop.

The monstrous presence of Lava Falls, rated nine on the difficulty scale, loomed just down-river. Walking up to scout, we watched an eighteen-foot commercial raft plow into a colossal hole, just as the hydraulic wave broke overhead, washing the oarsman overboard. The only way through Lava was to kiss the right edge of the “Ledge Hole” upon entry, punch the “V-wave,” and hope to be upright to deal with the above-mentioned hole and a giant rough boulder called “The Cheese Grater”—a feature my wife had lived in fear of since last summer.

My entry was perfect, but the V-wave knocked an oar out of my hand. I watched, as if in slow motion, as my hand reached toward the breaking wave, grabbed the oar, and pulled the raft straight through a small slot between the hole and the Cheese Grater. It was another peak moment—for both of us.

Helicopters evacuate commercial passengers just below Lava Falls because the most exciting part of the trip is essentially over, and people are ready to go home.

We still had five days left to cover forty-five miles. From this point on, I don’t remember much. Our food held out without opening the survival bucket. The purple hula hoop helped fill the infrequent gaps in conversation with comments of “Shake it, baby!” and “Giddy up!” I withdrew to the solitude of our tent to read and gaze at the stars. The final days passed in a blur of loading, unloading, and floating dreamily through the final miles to the Diamond Creek take out. Vishnu Schist gave way to Bright Angel Shale.

By the last evening, the perfect fall weather had turned to Indian summer and the river was warm enough to go swimming on purpose. Although there are plenty of things that would have to change, I have learned to never say Never again. Thanks to the Lord Vishnu for the opportunity to safely row the canyon twice.

 

 

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