Part 2: The Upper Canyon, Day 1
“Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.” – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
Great book by the way, if you haven’t read it.
There are some images I simply cannot erase from my memory. Many of them are from seeing for the first time the beauty of some of our National Parks around the US that I have been fortunate enough to visit. I remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time from both the North and South Rims roughly 18 years ago on a family vacation.
At the time, my sister and I were less than thrilled to have been trapped in a minivan for days while we drove out west. I mean what were my parents thinking. I’m sure we were model children of society for my parents as we clearly defined whose territory was whose in the van, identified the severe consequences for crossing said territorial boundaries, and fussed back and forth over sharing the Walkman (it’s funny to even type that) and cassette tapes (yes, I am old enough to have co-owned quite a collection of cassettes – Counting Crows, Sublime, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, The Cranberries to name a few – and yes, you can be impressed with our music choices). After what seemed like an eternity in middle-schooler time, we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon. When we stopped to get our first glance of the famed canyon, all the alleged bickering and loving sisterly banter came to a stop. It was an incredible thing to see – it was huge, never-ending, beautiful, and colorful. Although I remember it well, there is no way I fully appreciated what I was seeing for the first time as a sarcastic (some things haven’t changed), moody middle-schooler. I have always had the desire to return to see it again, especially now that my appreciation for our National Parks has continued to grow exponentially over the years.
Back to the river.
As we floated away from Lee’s Ferry, and under the Navajo Bridge, we listened to Howie passionately explain the geology, water flow, mileage, and some early history of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Among his lengthy list of impressive accolades, Howie has a Master’s in Biology and was a teacher up until he retired recently. He talked us through his thesis (skillfully and kindly translating it into layman’s terms), which had to do with the Colorado River – it was quite interesting, and even though I only understood some of what he was saying (I have a business degree…so science can be confusing), I grasped a good amount of it. I’m always amazed by how quickly you can be pleasantly surprised by a river guide. When you first see and meet them, as really you would with anyone, you have no idea what their background is. It takes almost no time at all once you are on their boat to have your mind blown by their varied experiences, backgrounds, hobbies, and knack for story-telling. This being his 150th trip down the Colorado, I could only imagine the stories that this kind soul and river guide would have to share with us over the course of the next 14 days. For sure, it was something to look forward to.
Now officially in the Grand Canyon again, and from a much different perspective, my mind was once again completely blown away by its out-of-this-world beauty. It really does take your breath away, and quite frankly, all you can do sometimes is just admire it in silence to soak it all in. 14 days of being immersed in this canyon? Yep, I could definitely get used to this! And if there is anything that can top the day-time grandness of this canyon and river, it is the overwhelming sight of stars, satellites, shooting stars, and the milky way in the canyon at night. 13 starry nights in the canyon? Yep, I’m down for that. (Although it would turn out there’d be a couple of not so starry nights, but impressive just the same).
The first day on the river and the first camp is always an adjustment. So bear (again, not beer in this case…those dern Southern accents can get real confusing) with me while I focus this post on Day 1!
We hit a couple of fun rapids on the first day, getting our first taste of how cold that water really is (48 degrees or so at the beginning of the trip) as we went through Badger Creek and Soap Creek Rapids. Folks, I’m here to tell you that 48 degrees is take-your-breath-away-chilly! But, you are warm and dry within minutes from the relentless, blazing sun. That is unless you creep into the shade or the sun sneaks behind the clouds immediately after a rapid, then it’s a tad chilly! Why on earth is the water so dang cold on the river in the middle of the desert? Glad you asked. When the water from Lake Powell is released from the Glen Canyon Dam, it is released from the bottom of the lake, which doesn’t see the sun and is cold. Thus it remains a relatively constant, cold temperature down the river, ‘warming’ up into the low 50s as it gets closer to where we would take out around mile 226.
Around mile 13, we made our way to our first camp. “Adjustment” to camp life in this case was a slight understatement! If our trip leader, Clare, and her crew had a super secret plan to test our ability to shock our systems and adapt to our surroundings, they sure picked the right camp for it. It was mildly entertaining pulling up to 13 Mile Ledge Camp, where we would literally be sleeping on rock ledges. An aptly named campsite for sure! Looking back, it was actually one of my favorite camps of the trip. The pictures don’t really do it justice.
After organizing (sort of) the fire-line to get the gear off the boats and then actually getting the gear off the boats, finding our bags and selecting our sleep kits for the trip, it was time for a little potty talk. Enter the famed groover. Regardless of your age, this is always an amusing aspect of a river trip. If you can’t even crack a smile during this conversation, your sense of humor needs some work! If you have no clue what I am talking about, the groover is the solid-waste portion of the in-camp toilet ‘situation’ located adjacent to the yellow pee bucket in a private spot with a spectacular river view. Tactful enough for you? Folks, it’s the crapper. It’s where you go #2 when the spirits move you to do so. For those that are cringing, trust me, it’s not that bad and you quickly adapt – heck, I’ve seen and used far worse at Dave Matthews Band concerts! After all, everyone pees and everyone poops – it’s just how it is; yes, I just said poop in my blog – you’ll work past it. Two important things to remember here – don’t mix and match (I mean the pee and the poo) and the toilet paper is your entry-key to the groover! And no, I don’t have a picture of the groover. It’s likely perceived as strange and disturbing behavior to take a camera with you to the in-camp bathroom facilities.
Before I lose my readers because of too much poop talk (there I go again…so sorry…!), I will move on to the all-important hand-washing demo. Wash your hands! Wash your hands! Wash your hands! This is important to limit the spread of germs and such, and to dry your skin as much as humanly possible (the latter is really a joke, but it is a side effect from all the hand washing – that’s what lotion is for). I’m sure on average I likely washed my hands roughly a dozen times a day minimum. After checking the boxes on the couple of must-have camp talks, and with a grey and cloudy sky hovering over camp and some lightning out in the distance, most of us selected our campsites (hoping they would be high enough to accommodate the rising water level) and threw up tents with the rainfly secured. Perfect timing on that because there was a brief moment where it rained, so I snuck into it until I could dig out my rain jacket from my dry bag. The rain didn’t last long at all – we are at the tail end of monsoon season in the canyon, so some rain on the trip wasn’t a complete surprise. The ledges dried out quickly since the rock retains so much heat from the sun during the day. No harm, no foul at all.
One of my favorite parts of being in camp on this river trip was being able to help the guides with dinner in the kitchen. This sort of activity has never really been offered and/or even encouraged on past river trips. But my less than stellar social skills and me were happy to hear that help in the kitchen was always welcomed. I like being in a kitchen and prepping food in general, so this was a huge and unexpected bonus of the trip. The first night, my fellow adventurer, Rosie, and I helped make the salad (Spinach salad with goat cheese – be still my heart), while the guides on dinner duty whipped up just a simple meal of grilled salmon, chicken, quinoa, and dessert. Yep, that’s right, there is no snacking on Vienna sausages, jerky, dried fruit, and beans straight from cans on this trip. The food is delicious all the way down the river and dinner was served at the sound of the conch shell. I never eat this well out of my own kitchen!
It was looking to be a seemingly uneventful night at the ledge camp. I was, as usual, wide awake under the stars, not sleeping, and confident that the rocks we tossed in the tent would be plenty of weight to withstand the slight breeze (the rain fly creates a bit of a sail on the tent, so always a good idea to weigh it down). Not so much. Those rocks came real close to becoming the anchor that would sink that tent to the bottom of the river when a gust of wind flipped the tent over in the water with ease. A few thoughts running through my head here:
- Dammit – my dry rain gear is in the tent. I’m pretty sure she suggested wearing that for tomorrow morning. Priority 1, be selfish and rescue dry rain gear.
- This will be a riot to explain to Clare in the morning if I am unsuccessful at getting out of this little pickle. “So, Clare, about that tent…”
- Those rocks we threw into the tent pretty much suck right now.
- I’m currently breaking the wear-shoes-in-camp rule.
- I wonder if the tent would float or sink? Clearly not important, but it crossed my mind.
- What if it got caught up against one of the boats while the hard-working guides were sleeping? Commence slightly nervous chuckle.
- If I were asleep and never heard the wind pick up the tent, how would this have gone down?
- I swear the water level is higher than it was a couple of hours ago. Hm. I will ponder that after tent rescue.
- It would be freakin super great to have some help right about now.
Well I managed to rescue the tent and pulled it back on the ledges as far back as humanly possible, threw several more large boulders in it to weigh it down, and hoped for the best as I went back to successfully not sleeping under the sky full of stars. And yes, the water level rose to almost the level as my little pako pad and stargazing quarters. Fun evening to say the least! And in case you were wondering, my dad had no idea any of this happened, however there was one eyewitness other than myself to the tent episode that I am aware of.
So how do you describe the indescribable Grand Canyon? After day 1, my best attempt is the following: The stunning Grand Canyon is powerful, humbling, and fluid. Forever changing, it somehow manages to quietly find a place in your soul, settles in, and takes over. It is possibly one of the best addictions a person can have.