Picture perfect views abound on the Colorado
River through Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon pictographs
Seconds before intrepid rafters take a swim in
the mighty Colorado River
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.
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
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.
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.