Part 4: The Upper Canyon, Days 5-6
“The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon – forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.” – John Wesley Powell
Major John Wesley Powell was a veteran of the Civil War (some people I know like to refer to this “Late Unpleasantness” as the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States – whatever strikes your fancy, I suppose), in which he lost his right arm. He was also a geologist and an explorer and is most famous for his expedition in 1869 down the Green River and then the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. For roughly three months, he (with one arm) and his crew navigated through the Grand Canyon on a journey into “the Great Unknown,” which would become the first recorded passage of Europeans through the Grand Canyon. He kept a journal during his expedition and would ultimately publish his accounts and findings of the previously unexplored canyon.
A few others would follow in his footsteps to explore the Grand Canyon from the Colorado River including: Robert Stanton, who in some bizarre alternate reality thought he could build a railroad through the Grand Canyon…right; Buzz Holmstrom made the trip alone from Green River, WY on a boat he built himself, becoming the first person to make the trek solo (Lynn would tell us a condensed version of this story on one of our last days on the river); and Norman Nevills, who led the trip carrying to the first two women to ever float the Colorado and would eventually lead commercial trips down the river. What I found most interesting is how few people came through the Colorado River and Grand Canyon after Powell (I guess I would have thought that might spur on a flurry of activity in the region). Although now I think the statistic is that roughly 25,000, give or take, float the Colorado River each year through the Grand Canyon. So still, in the grand scheme of the estimated 4.5 million people that visit the Grand Canyon each year, it’s a relatively small number that see it from the river.
It’s certainly hard to imagine anyone taking on the Colorado River in wooden boats and limited to no knowledge of the river, carrying tons of heavy supplies, hauling boats around rapids, and surviving the harsh elements of the canyon. At times, it must have been terrifying and at others it must have been breathtaking. It certainly makes our self-bailing rafts and fancy fare seem quite luxurious! But even with the luxuries of 2015 river rafting, it was incredibly humbling to be able to travel into this “Great Unknown,” and to be at the mercy of the river and canyon, while disconnected from the rest of the world and living the simplified river life that I always find myself envying by the end of any river trip. To even get some tiny sense of what these early explorers experienced on the Colorado River, is truly a rewarding experience.
Back to the river.
Day 5 kicked off with the traditional conch shell bellow, followed by coffee, breakfast, and the sweet sweet smell of delicious, crispy bacon. These guides were really tugging at my heart strings – I mean two days of bacon in a row?! Well, if ever there was a cruel trick to play on a Southern, chubby, bacon-loving gal, it would be cooking up a large batch of bacon to perfection and then not having it appear in the breakfast line. Like seriously? I’m not a big breakfast person, but I will make an appearance when I smell bacon cooking. That’s what Southern people are trained to do at a young age. Eat bacon. Come to think of it – It is this very line of thinking that is likely the result of my ridiculous weight fluctuation issues. Maybe one day it will click. Now where the hell was that damn bacon?! I can’t recall who was cooking the bacon. Regardless, I was quietly and internally blaming Kim for its mysterious disappearance since she was the head cook on the trip. Annoyed, heartbroken, and confused, I had some cantaloupe for breakfast less the bacon. The horrors.
My dad and I hopped on Colin’s boat, looking forward to an entertaining day on the river. The first rapid – Tanner Rapid – was just below camp, and was one of those rapids where you had the option to swim it (I think the guides call such an event a “training” rapid – I never quite knew if that was a serious term or an amusing one…likely a mix of both). I was enjoying the warmth of my rain gear in the absence of the sun at the early morning hour, so I did not opt to swim the rapid and neither did Henry/Hank. Several others did – bless their hearts – including Jay (of Eva and Jay from Maryland), who we would soon realize was a little obsessed with swimming in the cold water. You go, Jay!
Colin, Colin, Colin. The heir-apparent to Clare’s trip leader throne (until I was somehow chosen for that role…I’m still not clear on how that went down, but I’m all for it) and the guy I affectionately referred to as “My HR challenge.” I don’t really know where to start, but I will say that in the group of guides for our trip, Colin was the wild card – and I don’t mean this in a bad way. You just really never quite knew what to expect with Colin! The guy seriously knows his canyon history and geology (he started guiding in the Grand Canyon in 1997, and now only does a few trips a year) and would talk with you about it with the utmost passion all day if you let him. He’s a dedicated family man from Moab, UT, with a degree in Psychology, and is a stay-at-home dad with his two boys when not out on the river. His respect for his wife and her career as a therapist working mainly with troubled kids was unwavering. Colin is also quite the character – and when he’s not engaged in a serious conversation about life or the canyon, he’s causing some sort of ruckus or trouble while ‘managing the kitchen’ or giving Howie a hard time about some alleged missing orange Pelligrinos, among countless other examples. On more than one occasion, HR said to Colin, “you’ve completely lost control” or “pull yourself together” (all in good fun, of course)! He knows how to have a blast on the river, is super savvy about the river and canyon, and is just down-right hilarious – and like Alan, he also had a wonderful knack of making my dad just a little uncomfortable (more on this later)!
We survived Unkar rapids and stopped briefly to hike up to some petroglyphs. The view of the river from the petroglyphs was amazing, so great little hike to start the day. Just before lunch, and after retrieving Dave (also reigning from England) from his fall out of the paddle boat somewhere between Unkar and lunch, the eager hikers and lovers of heights and narrow ledges (my dad included on this one – ha) were dropped off just around the bend from where we would stop for lunch. They hiked up, over, and down through 75 mile creek (I’m pretty certain) and met the rest of us at Upper Nevills where lunch was set up. Along with Rosie and Eva, I walked up 75 mile creek, through the wash (going the other direction), and ultimately met up with the rest of the hikers and made my way back to the shady lunch spot.
I was beyond thrilled to discover that the bacon had been found!! Thank the lord. Lunch today – best lunch of the trip – was BLTs. For those of you who know me fairly well, you know the classic BLT is my default, go-to option if nothing else strikes my fancy on a lunch menu. Hold the mayonnaise, of course. Add some avocado to the mix and you have another glimpse of heaven on the river. This place really is magical. At this point, I was no longer internally upset with Kim for the cruelty of cooking bacon in the morning and not serving it. In fact, I would have given her a hug had I not felt it may make her uncomfortable – hugging over bacon, you just never know where people draw the line. Kim was now my favorite person on the trip for bringing back the bacon. My sincerest thank you, Kim!
Next up was Hance rapid right around mile 77, a super soaker with some good size waves that promptly filled up our self-bailing raft with water. Awesome rapid! After passing through Hance, we were officially at the start of Granite Gorge and the landscape changed significantly. We were surrounded by steep, shear cliffs, traveling through the narrowing canyon and catching our first sight of the Vishnu schist and granite – both part of the basement rock group that is around 1.6 billion years old I so feebly tried to outline in Part 3. The narrowing of the canyon brought more rapids, and next up was what would become one of my favorites of the trip, Sockdolager Rapid around mile 79 – super fun rapid that packed a heck of a punch at the end – hence it’s name – hello adrenaline rush. We were soaked, and I was loving it. A couple of miles down the river we hit Grapevine rapid for another soaking and ultimately found our way to Zoroaster Camp on river left – a beautiful beach that would be setting for the last camp for the group that would hike out Bright Angel Trail in the morning. To celebrate our new friends last night on the river, a batch of cocktails were made (thanks Bill) and some games came out for some friendly competition. Sadly, Kelsey’s yellow canteen containing the vodka rolled off a raft and found it’s way into the current of the river. Alan made a brave attempt to swim out and save it using a pako pad (I still am not positive if this helped or not), but was unable to rescue the bottle – so it is enjoying life somewhere down the river, having a grand old time I’m sure.
At camp, the group hiking out in the morning got their packs and the run-down for the next day, and the group remaining for the full trip got the scoop of what the next day was going to look like, hiking options, and some general information. Alan wrapped up the evening, after dinner and dessert, with his nightly story-time about Bill and John swimming the Colorado.
Day 6 was an interesting day logistically. Five of our fellow river-trippers and new friends were leaving us after the upper section of the canyon to hike out via the Bright Angel Trail. This is also as far as my dad went about eight years ago when he took his first trip down the Colorado. So beyond the exchange point, it would be new territory for both of us. I personally thought that was pretty dang cool – there’s nothing better than experiencing something so great for the first time with your dad. For those hiking out, we would not see them after departing camp as they would be going a mile farther down river, to mile 89, at Pipe Creek Beach to make their way up the strenuous, 9 mile trail to the rim. The rest of us were headed to Phantom Ranch for a day of optional hiking, relaxation, and some ice cold tea or lemonade.
I chose the medium hike, along with my dad and several others, which was lead by Alan. After hopping off Howie’s boat, I threw my hiking boots on and hiked up with the others across the Kaibab Suspension bridge (built in 1928), up and down the trail (I’m still not sure if we were on part of the Kaibab trail or the Bright angel trail, or both), and back across the river via the Bright Angel Suspension bridge (built in 1970). I preferred the stability of the 1928 bridge, personally – the other one was a tad wobbly, although I’m sure it was just a safe as riding public transportation in a third world country. Right. We eventually made our way up to Phantom Ranch, in mostly shade thank goodness (the sun was out and proud that day), and met up with Rosie and Eva who had gone up right from the boats. We spent a few hours at Phantom, hanging out, sending postcards to family that would be carried out by mules (I don’t care who you are, that’s pretty cool), and enjoying tea and lemonade (with ice). I don’t know what I enjoyed more, the lemonade or the ice. The ice was pretty spectacular!
The folks that continued on the hike with Alan (Henry/Hank included), had not returned when Howie said we needed to head back to the boats in a few minutes. He asked me what time I had, I told him (I think it was like 11:20am and we were supposed to meet the others a mile down the river by noon), and he changed his tone quickly and said – we need to go now! We made our way back down the trail and back to the boats (easily like a 10-15 minute hike), waited for Alan and the rest of the hikers, and eventually pushed off from the beach and headed down the river with Howie at about 11:45 or so saying, “Mom’s gonna be mad!” Howie gave me strict instructions to let him know exactly what time it was when we made it down to Pipe Creek Beach where the rest of the crew and new river trippers were waiting! I didn’t realize he meant he wanted the time exactly when we got there, but after remembering my responsibilities, I let him know it was 12:02pm. So we weren’t that late! Phew.
At Pipe Creek, we met our new friends who had just completed the 9 mile hike down Bright Angel Trail (I did not envy them at all, but we were all excited to meet them!) and tried to remain cool in the blistering hot sun while the crew set up lunch and the new group had their safety talk with Clare. A few of us found our way into a delightful little creek, with cool (but not river temp cool) and clear water that helped us stayed cool until we were called for lunch. Trip tip – a sarong is your best friend on a river trip in the desert. Seriously.