We treated ourselves to a last trip through the canyon on the river. It is a spectacular trip, constantly changing, ancient, and a geological puzzle. We learned much more about the canyon from observing and from reading Wayne Ranney's recent book Carving the Grand Canyon which brought life to a review of the historical and current theories of the Canyon's formation. Also read House of Rain about the 'Anazazi' or ancient Puebloans. Although pretty wild, this is not wilderness; people have been here for a long time.
As most trips, we took off from Flagstaff. Finally took the time to tour the Museum of Northern Arizona which has the best collection of area artifacts and nice grounds to walk through. The museum is in the Ponderosa Pine area at elevation.
Our shuttle across lower scrubland southeast of the canyon to Lee's Ferry, our push-off point, gave us the opportunity to get to know our trip mates. This was a mature group, only two of fifteen under forty and the average pushing sixty, many of them returning to the river. The eight boatmen (male and female) and other staff were likely the best group on the river in terms of experience, consideration, and dedication. Actually for many of them, taking passengers is just a way to support their river habit. Dories are 20', double-ended boats with two passengers front and back and a boatman high in the center. Karen and I rode the first day with Pete Gross, our favorite boatman, whose skill, wit, and muscical ability are a joy to experience.
The entry point is near the beginnings of Marble Canyon and the cliffs during first miles rise up at an angle, giving the impression of going down faster than the 8 feet per mile average. Actually most of the drop is in the two hundred plus rapids. The river was flowing at 11,000 cfm--fairly low--and we heard that it would stay that way for the duration of our trip. The water is controlled by Glen Canyon dam eleven miles upstream from Lee's Ferry and is about 50 degrees F and glass green.
We didn't go far the first day and camped at Badger Creek. Most of the places horizontal enough for camping are at the mouths of canyons and creeks, some with great hikes, fossils, or petroglyphs. Food prepared by the boatmen and staff was generally very good and plentiful. As there are 15,000 people who go down the river each year, the boatmen and the Park have done a fantastic job keeping them spaced out and campsites clean. A 'sleep kit' is a tarp, vinyl-covered pad, sheet and sleeping bag. Tents are available, but cooler without and not necessary as bugs are few and it seldom rains. Sleeping under the stars is nice, albeit with a limited horizon. We had a waxing moon, very bright by the end of the trip.
Most days on the river were watching the change in scenery and geological layers, talking, learning from the boatmen. We had mile-by-mile river maps which helped make sense of what we were seeing. Lunch stops along the way are often at places with interesting hikes, this one with petroglyphs and near Stanton's Cave. We scrambled up to see petroglyphs, a cliff dwelling, and view the cave farther down the river.
By day 3, the Redwall limestone forms high, vertical cliffs. Even so, we saw lots of bighorn sheep, coyotes, beaver, and hawks. No condors or snakes this trip. Once we were ahead of the others and stopped to watch the beaver and a coyote yipped then walked by. Another time, we followed a coyote running ahead of us on the river bank for nearly a mile; we think it might have been anxious to get back to its den. They are wonderful to watch.
This was September and sometimes the mornings were hazy. Mostly this was a thin fog, but later we went by a a small forest fire on the South Rim, out of view. Otherwise, weather was mostly clear, somtimes cloudy. We were deep in Marble Canyon now and other layers were beginning to show. In some places, travertine deposited by seeps high up began to show. It's a place where it is easy to run out of superlatives.
We rose with the sun, which was easy. Coffee was on and people would quietly congregate. This wasn't a close group, but a friendly and social one. Gene found some of the 'rah, rah, go, go' activities irritating, but could walk away from them. Seems silly to program for teenagers with such a group. That is how it is done. And this company is better than most. Karen thinks that the boatmen and crew had to work a little harder this trip at generating enthusiasm at the end of a long hot day because the temperatures in September were the highest they've ever been, and it didn't start cooling down until after dinner. Gene thinks they should give it up.
At Buck Farm, we stayed the morning and took a hike up the canyon; some scrambling but fairly easy. A couple from St Paul we met on the trip were probably the youngest and were very athletic.
We soon began to see great views of the South Rim with the Redwall, Supai, Kaibab, and Cocinino groups laid out for us. The North Rim is too far back to see from in the canyon. We stayed near Lava Canyon two nights so that on the layover day groups could hike to a valley over the first ridge.
In addition to one of the boatmen who gave a running commentary on the geology, a passenger was a professional geologist and was very helpful. There were plenty of other topics, but there is just so much to see and learn about the geology that it can occupy the trip. For instance, the Temple Butte formation only exists in this part of the canyon as fossil river beds high on the walls; now how did that happen?
We passed the Little Colorado, actually stopped for lunch there, and the river turned 'red' with silt. The rocks on the south are covered with travertine from seeps, perhaps before the Little Colorado formed. We also wanted to relax in a little shade as the temps were very high for September and wanted to let our presumed campsite cool down before we got there. Napping under a ledge is nice. We could also take that couple hours in the shade to read; somehow, it was always hard to find time to read because there was so much to do. We reached the Upper Gorge where metamorphic rock lines the river level and granite intrusions make interesting patterns. Our camp that night was at a fault that shifted the schist up to the level of the sedimentary rock; interesting. The campsites also get narrower here as the rock is much harder and does not erode as easily. Still adequate.
You may have noticed that this commentary is not full of action-packed rapids running. The reality had a good deal of that, with lots of wild, cold water and high-siding. IMHO it gets over emphasized. It is not a carnival ride and much of the 'rah, rah' centers around that. It is a joy to be excited in the moment and work together to make a passage; it doesn't need to be dramatized. The rapids running is different when water levels are, and the boatmen psych themselves up for a good run without hitting rocks or flipping the boat. They get boat and passengers safely through each of the over 100 rapids. Some runs are more difficult at low water.
Due to the low water, everyone but the boatmen walked around Bedrock rapid. Karen had an apparent sprained ankle and rode along. The crux of the run is to stay to the right of the large rock to avoid the rockier left channel. Boats would get there and pause on the pillow of water, with the boatmen pulling like crazy, then drift into the right channel. Fun to watch.
Our second layover day was at Stone Creek which has a lovely waterfall a short walk from camp. Good thing as the temps were numbing in camp; we spent most of the day in the shade by the waterfall while the stalwart were hiking in the hinterlands. The next day brought us to another, much larger waterfall at Deer Creek. The more popular attraction is a hike up the cliff--not so hard, but a grunt--to where the creek has cut a beautiful channel through the Tapeats. In a former trip, Gene hiked up the previous canyon, Tapeats to Thunder River which comes right out of the limestone, then over the top through Surprise Valley to Deer Creek; not an option on this trip. The valley is in the 'no fly' zone, so one can experience silence like very few other places.
At this point we were out of the upper gorge in the sedimentary rock again, but soon headed for the Middle Gorge and the Muav Gorge, cooler places with more vertical walls that provide more shade. This was punctuated by some large rapids and some serene passages with Pete playing his recorder.
On our first trip to the canyon, Gene hiked a ways up Havasu creek and later down to that point from Supai, the village in Havasu canyon. This time, we sat out the visit in the mouth of the creek in the shade. Which was pleasant to talk to boatmen and staff from several companies tied up there. The water can sometimes be turquoise blue; close to that, but a bit siltly; depends on recent rainfall. Farther up the creek, there are nice travertine dams and formations. A well visited area.
Usually on a trip, the camp after getting through Lava is celebratory, and this one was no different. Doug Thayer who we have been with on several trips dressed up like a god with his scepter and acted the part well; he and Katherine had recently been to see an operatic Ring series and the Wagner shined through.
The canyon begins to open up here because the lower layers are more erosion prone. There is lots of canyon left, but we will take out at Diamond Creek, as the trip to Lake Mead is no longer possible due to the low water.
After eighteen days and a bit less than 200 river miles, we helped the staff derig at Diamond Creek. The Hualipai who own that land have made it a major concession with trips of their own down river and to the skywalk. We got a little more time in Peach Springs than planned as the transport was not there. But we made it back, safe, sound and happy. Karen wants to go again.....