Part 3: The Upper Canyon, Days 2-4
“I do not believe that any man can adequately appreciate the world of to-day unless he has some knowledge of — a little more than a slight knowledge, some feeling for and of — the history of the world of the past.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Warning, this one is a tad long, but riveting nonetheless.
There is some pretty incredible geological history that one will witness during any Grand Canyon experience. I think, perhaps, it is more in-your-face when your perspective is that from the river versus the rim. On the river, you are in the best kind of classroom.
Now, I certainly won’t claim to have a full (or even partial) grasp on it, even after so much knowledge was shared by our guides – who could literally head Geology departments at our finest colleges and universities with the amount of knowledge they have on the subject (whereas I would likely fail Geology 101 with great ease). Seriously. But it is worthy of some commentary – and, if you read any of the road trip blog, you know I’m a huge nerd when it comes to any sort of history. River guides – feel free to correct me when (not if) I go off the rails. Because it will happen!
Here’s my very basic, high-level, attempt to provide an overview of the rock layers and groups seen in the canyon:
The history of the rock layers that you see in the Grand Canyon date back to billions of years ago. Yes, billions. If I remember correctly, the oldest is around 1.6 billion years young. Even harder to imagine, (for me anyways; again, I blame the business degree), during a significant part of this time the Grand Canyon was at or around sea level. The Colorado River actually only represents a small piece of the history of the Grand Canyon. But we’ll get to that later, for now, it’s about the rocks.
In the Grand Canyon, you very quickly take notice of the different layers of rock. Of the layers or formations, there are three distinct groups that can all be seen from the river: the flat-lying strata layers, the supergroup, and the basement rock. The majority of what you see in the Grand Canyon is of the first group (in your traditional cliff/slope/cliff kind of sequence), which represents the youngest. Below that is the supergroup, which you are generally seeing at an incline, and much farther below the supergroup is the basement layer (the oldies but goodies). What’s cool about the layers is that each is really a historical record of the varied environments that once existed and are now preserved in the form of rock. The groups (I really hope I am not butchering this) are distinct because of how they were formed, so by way of some major geologic event. So. For my simple mind, the layers are the “what” and the groups represent the “how”.
As we would make our way down the river, we would be seeing these various formations and layers exposed and surrounding us at varying heights, learning what environments they once were and how they were created. It still blows my mind to think that the formations we saw just on day 1 at water level, would ultimately be soaring high above us at lord knows how many feet as we made our way deeper into the canyon. The first layers we witnessed were the Kaibab formation, Toroweap formation, and Coconino Sandstone (you can see them in the picture where we crossed under the Navajo Bridge, which is not but maybe 4 miles or so from Lee’s Ferry).
Geology enthusiasts around the world just shed a large tear at that OVERLY simplified explanation. Side note – our guides were far more specific and detailed about the layers and history – Sarah is just not smart enough to have retained all of that information!
Back to the river.
On the morning of day 2, the conch shell sounded for coffee and then breakfast, and I enjoyed a belly-filling breakfast of what I am fairly certain were melt-in-your-mouth banana pancakes with all the appropriate sides and trimmings. Disclaimer – my brain is not on in the mornings, so trying to recall what we had for breakfast everyday, other than the fact that it was certainly worth gloating and bragging about, is a bit of a challenge.
After helping loading the boats with the other river trippers, we got the run-down for the day from our trip leader (silent fist pump to myself for rescuing my rain gear), who closed out her morning talk with what would ultimately become a daily river tradition on this trip – a Grand Canyon inspired poem and/or reading. Not a bad way to kick off a day on the river. My dad and I hopped on Lynn’s boat for the day. Lynn is a quiet and reserved master of the river, and the ease with which he rowed his raft through the rapids was just down right awesome. Lynn is also an excellent kayaker (this is a massive understatement based on what I heard from the other guides) and an incredible photographer. My eye caught his snazzy Canon in his red dry bag early on, and I cannot wait to see some of the pictures he took of us going through two of the big rapids later on in the trip. His knowledge of the river and canyon is second to none, and it was truly a pleasure to be on his raft and to have him on the trip.
After passing through a few smaller rapids, we made our way through House Rock Rapid (which, if I recall correctly, is the rapid Tyler – the Assistant – chose to take the middle route on – ha) and stopped quickly after for a day hike in Rider Canyon. I sat this one out because I have a sucky left knee that’s been giving me a hard time the past year or so. While the group was on the hike, I hung out with Eva and Rosie (two wonderful and entertaining ladies of Alaska and Maryland, respectively) on the sandy, drift-wood covered beach reading a couple of pages of my book, flipping through the river map book, and walking around to take some pictures. As I recall, this hike was my dad’s first introduction to the narrow-ledged canyon features – his favorite (he’s not a fan of heights) – where at least one guide reassures you (or not) with advice on how to not fall off the steep cliff/ledge to your untimely death as you try to pass across it. More on this in a later post…it was a recurring theme!
A little ways down the river, we stopped for lunch before hopping back into the rafts to take on the roaring 20s – a pretty dang fun section of back-to-back rapids, some having some sizable waves. I vividly recall getting soaked at North Canyon Rapid and remaining that way until we got to camp at South Canyon. This was a great campsite along a narrow, sandy beach on the river. I think several were relieved to see there were no ledges! Fellow traveler, Dean, his sarong, and I helped with dinner, making the salad after trying our hand at figuring out the most effective way to wash the lettuce. Yes, lettuce challenges. The struggle was real. After dinner and dessert, Alan kicked off the first night of story-time, where he read an entertaining story of two dudes that wanted to swim the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (We Swam the Grand Canyon: The True Story of a Cheap Vacation That Got a Little out of Hand by Bill Beer). Yes, swim. Crazy. Story time would become a trip favorite, as the entertaining readings followed along with where we were on the river, so were could literally visualize what the guys were swimming through. Again, crazy.
No tent rescues or bizarre happenings on night 2.
After breakfast, loading the boats, and our morning readings from Clare, we loaded up on the rafts – my dad, Chris, and I rode on Kim’s boat for day 3 – and moseyed down to the very cool Redwall Cavern for a little fun and games, and even an impromptu yoga class (thank you Elissa!). Redwall is the huge cavern carved out by the river on river left around mile 33 that John Wesley Powell – who led the first voyage to explore the Grand Canyon (his famed journey into “the Great Unknown”) in 1869 – was said to have thought could seat 50,000 people. Really cool spot – not sure on the 50,000 people although it was huge – and a great way to start an easy day on the river.
Now, I enjoy a river day packed with action and rapids. But there is something to be said about a leisurely day of floating down the river, taking in the canyon and occasional wildlife, with your feet kicked up and hearing stories from your guide. We happened to be on the wildlife boat today – seeing quite a few deer, big horn sheep, ducks, and blue herons – thanks to the keen eyes of Paulette the Hunter aka Kim the River Guide. Kim was a lot of fun and she had by far one of the most interesting backgrounds of any river guide I’ve ever met, including about 13 years on the river. She grew up amongst a family of talented kayakers, has multiple degrees, is an ICU nurse when not on the river, and has rafted the Zambezi River in Africa…with alligators. She had spent time in Rwanda teaching nursing, and was recently in Sierra Leone supporting the Ebola epidemic as a nurse. I mean she’s a total badass (pardon my French) and her knowledge of the river was on-point, her energy infectious, and her sense of humor entertaining.
We stopped around mile 40 for lunch at one of the proposed sites for the Marble Canyon Dam (those damned Dams) and “hiked” into what felt like a 12 mile long, pitch-black-dark mine shaft that was used to assess the strength of the rock for a structure as large as a dam. I was moving at a glacial pace (sorry Elissa), unable to curb my sarcastic banter (again, sorry Elissa), having no clue where I was going, and continuing only with the extensive direction of our trip leader to keep one hand on the wall and one in the air in front of you so you don’t smack your head on an old cable or sharp object. It was bizarre, and a little gross when you found yourself trekking through what we could only hope was water, but overall a pretty cool experience (literally). After arriving at the “end” of the seemingly endless shaft in what felt like record-time of under an hour, we stopped, enjoyed a brief discussion about what on earth we were doing in there and walked out (this time with the assistance of lights) in about 3 minutes. Amazing what a little light can do.
Back on the river after a nice lunch, we continued down a nice stretch of flat water, and my dad hopped on the oars for a bit, going through a couple of smaller riffles/rapids, as Kim continued to point out more wildlife, including a nice sized buck that at the time looked like a rock to me – her eyesight was so sharp it was almost scary! He didn’t do half bad on the oars and we were thrilled that he didn’t damage Kim’s custom oars! Fret not, I would show him up on the oars later in the trip with my skilled navigation through some ‘bigger’ rapids (and very quickly into an eddy…ha). Our big rapid of the day was President Harding Rapid around mile 44 (also a key rapid in the story from our nightly readings), and after getting soaked by that guy we pulled up to our campsite at Upper Saddle Canyon around mile 47.5 for another evening of hiking, Ben’s guitar playing, dinner prep with Howie and Lynn, dinner, dessert (a creatively made layered dessert by Howie – which was delicious), and story-time. It was on this day I used, for first and what would be the only time, my groovette to dump frigid water on my head in an attempt to wash my hair using what would be our last sight of the beautiful, clear, emerald green water of the Colorado River at camp.
Day 4 began about the same as any other morning with one significant exception. Bacon. The combination of bacon and cantaloupe is borderline culinary perfection. Be still my Southern, chubby, bacon-loving heart. Heaven on a river; this was going to be a great day! After my breakfast of bacon, cantaloupe, and a side of French toast – yes, this really happened – we helped load up the boats with all the gear, had our daily scoop and readings by Clare, and loaded up on the boats in our life jackets. Today, my dad and I hopped on the paddleboat under the sound tutelage of Alan. Alan gave his brief paddleboat guidance, and we were off with our fellow paddlers, Dean, Bill, Pete (joining the trip all the way from England), and Chris. It was an easy-going float up to Nankoweap Rapid – a fun, lengthy rapid with an elevation drop of about 25 feet. Super fun to paddle through that rapid and loosen up the paddling muscles. We stopped just after the rapid for a couple of hike options, I chose hike option three which consisted of walking my chair up to a nice shady spot and settling down with my book with my new river pals Eva and Rosie. My dad chose the shorter hike of the two offered up to some ruins, likely to avoid additional exposure to more narrow ledges that were part of the hike up to the granaries (these are ancient structures that protected and preserved food for the Pueblo Indians).
After some hiking and lunch (and book reading), we continued our way down the river in the paddle boat through easy water, paddling with Alan one at a time before passing our turn off to the next in line. Alan is about 8 years my dad’s junior and has been guiding on the river since before he was 20. In addition to his extensive river experience, he also worked for the Pentagon living in both Germany and Japan, and even somehow found the time to teach middle school science. You could quickly tell he lives for the river and loves every single second of being in the outdoors. He’s sharp as a tack and knows an incredible amount of river and music history, among other things. Alan is also an energetic and gifted story-teller (I personally enjoyed his story of how he met his wife…she took great notes), with a hilarious sense of humor, and a knack for making my dad a little uncomfortable (in a fun way) as evidenced in his renaming my dad, Hank, because he felt that Henry was a little too proper on the river! Thank you Alan for that trip memory! So funny!
Enjoying our last bit of clear water, we approached the confluence of the Little Colorado and main Colorado Rivers around mile 62. This was, visually, an awesome spot of the river. The Little Colorado, during certain times of the year, runs a distinct turquoise blue. However, as we were at the tail end of monsoon season in the canyon, it was running the more traditional light brown color as it carries quite a bit of silt into the main Colorado from rain etc. So we said goodbye to our clear, green hued water and said hello to the Yoohoo-esque waters of the Colorado. Very cool to see the two ‘blend’ at the confluence. As we paddled by the confluence of the two rivers, we made our way past about 4 miles or so of the Hopi Salt Mines along river left. This is a sacred site for the Hopi and is off limits to visitors. Off on river right was the location of the airliner crash that claimed over 100 lives back in the mid 50s.
We made a brief stop at Carbon Creek to offload some eager hikers, who would ultimately hike over to the campsite for the evening. I stayed with the boats and helped, along with Kelsey and Dean, Alan paddle the boat over to camp at Lava Canyon (roughly around mile 66). While at camp, I snagged a couple of campsites for myself and my dad, grabbed his bags and gear and set him up for camp, assuming he’d be good and exhausted from the longer afternoon hike. Kelsey and I helped Alan and Tyler (Tyler is Alan’s nephew and was on our trip as an Assistant) with dinner, realizing at one point I cut the carrots, assuming it was for the salad, rather than shredding them for the cake – whoops – hey, at least we could all laugh about it! It turned out that the cake was already in the dutch oven less the carrots and another ingredient, so no harm no foul there. New river rule…what doesn’t make it into the cake goes in the salad. You’d be surprised how well that works! Once Kelsey and I sifted a copious amount of lemon seeds from the lemon juice and zest (which we artfully accomplished with a cheese grater…hehe) with the help of her yellow canteen, our kitchen duties were complete and we joined the rest of the gang just outside the kitchen for some good laughs and conversations, dinner, and story-time.
After an awesome couple of days on the river, we were all settling into the river routine, enjoying what the canyon had to offer, and getting to know the folks who had signed up for the adventure. The group for the upper canyon leg of the trip was really wonderful – 3 father/daughter teams, which was really very cool to see – and it made for a great time on the river. We would be sad to see some of them hike out in a couple of days!