Part 6: The Lower Canyon, Days 8-9
“When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving water, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.” – August Fruge
The sound of an irritated rattlesnake is distinct, unnerving, and humbling. In the silence of the early morning of camp, the rattle seemed louder in my mind than it probably was. Either way, it was loud enough! Sarah does not do snakes. Of any kind. I think they are horrifying critters, mostly because I have a good amount of respect for their ability to take me down. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here with a medical evacuation from the canyon – that would have sucked! I saw it from the corner of my eye, and lept like a trained Olympian over the area of doom, while my heart momentarily stopped and then began to slowly recover. The always-alert Henry, rather than check on his daughter’s well-being and new heart condition, immediately rummages around for his camera in order to get a picture of the rattlesnake. Heaven forbid we don’t document this wildlife sighting. Our apparent new family motto: Pictures first, safety and well-being second. Thanks for checking, Dad, I’m fine! It was a relatively small snake – although from my perspective at the time it may as well have been a massive anaconda – and was just trying to make his way under a nice big shady rock for the day when I got in his way. At this point, I was doen with this camp and was seriously considering packing everyone’s stuff up for them and saying screw breakfast – let’s get the hell out of here!
On the first day at camp there is always a part of the trip leaders ‘camp orientation’ chat that includes the dangers at camp, including critters and wildlife that you should be mindful of in camp. For this trip, that particular list included red ants (there were a ton of these guys, but they go to sleep when we do, so no huge issue there), two types of scorpions, and rattlesnakes. Clare very well may have mentioned others, but I stopped listening after hearing the key word, “snake.” Have I mentioned that I hate snakes? So in summary – I have to close out the snake story before I get to the point where I never see a night’s rest again – rattlesnakes live in the Grand Canyon, and you will more than likely see one, so plan ahead and keep your ears peeled for that terrifying rattle sound. Lesson learned – don’t fabricate snake wrangling stories with your trip leader unless you are prepared for a little snake karma. Snake karma is a real b*&^# and is nothing to mess around with!
After the horrifying start to the morning, my dad and I jumped on Colin’s boat for the day. I mean someone had to do it, even now knowing about his previous jail time that came as a result of climbing up the wrong balcony in an apartment complex and getting arrested the night before his first AZRA trip! Someone had to take one for the team and ride with the criminal mastermind. (By the way – all the charges were dropped, as it was just a misunderstanding, but pretty dang funny nonetheless). After a short trip down the river, we stopped at Garnet Canyon for an early morning hike. I took this opportunity to enjoy the shady morning and catch up on my seven nights of little sleep by doing what I do best – nap. I may be a horrible sleeper, but I’m a hell of a good napper. The hikers came back eventually (someone said there was a snake sighting) and we loaded back up onto the rafts for another quick trip down the river to Elves Chasm around mile 118.
Enter one of those famous and amusing Clare hike descriptions of, “It’s just a short, easy, wet-shoe hike up to the waterfall.” Perhaps my newfound snake paranoia made this hike/climb seem like a bit more than an easy, wet-shoe hike! But the end result was a pretty awesome sight. Elves Chasm is a beautiful and serene waterfall that’s tucked up and away from the river, surrounded by green hanging gardens and red monkey flowers. It was an incredibly peaceful setting, the sight of Lynn’s wedding I believe, and just a great reminder of the beauty of the ever changing canyon. You really never know what you are going to see around the next corner – that’s why this place is so darned addicting. We waited at the top for everyone to get up there and get pictures before some of the group took to some swimming and jumping off the fall. It was a fun morning – highlighted by Colin’s attempt at a little peer pressure to try to get me to jump, followed by Rosie’s firm, “stand your ground Sarah!” and immediately followed by Rosie climbing up to the top of the waterfall and jumping off herself! Rosie the Jumper, you are truly amazing!
After Elves Chasm, we stopped downriver for lunch and the clouds began to get a little darker, with the occasional and distant sound of some thunder. No rain though, but it would be a shady day on the river (not necessarily a bad thing)! My dad took a turn on the oars, timing his efforts poorly with a strong upriver wind (the kind that is warm and powerful and makes you feel like your eyeballs are on the cusp of drying out while slowly melting at the same time – it was a canyon-esque sensation for sure), while Colin and I joked around with him, asking “why are all the other boats moving so much faster than we are?!” He eventually let Colin take over through the wind, and when the wind died down I hopped on the oars. For my first time on the oars, I don’t think I did that bad! Colin let me row through three average sized rapids, including Forster rapid, which was a major rush, and I navigated through them fairly well, and of course ultimately found myself getting pulled into an eddy after the third rapid. Damn eddy!! Those things are a pain in the neck! After my dad and Colin rightfully gave me a hard time about why we weren’t moving downriver anymore, I gave up my spot on the oars to Colin and he took us through Fossil rapid before pulling off with the other boats so folks could get out and walk around to warm up. I absolutely loved being on the oars – and I had even more respect for the job our river guides do on the water. It is hard work, which they make look easy, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun! We spotted a couple of bighorn sheep, and made our way through 128 mile rapid, Spector, and the challenging Bedrock – a fun rapid that has a massive boulder in the center that you have to get fairly close to in order to have a successful run just to the right of the boulder. Everyone had a great run through Bedrock and we pulled off for camp on river right, mile 131.5, at Below Bedrock camp.
It was still pretty cloudy, so I set up my tent (rainfly included) and loaded it down with my gear and some heavy rocks just in case. Mike and I hopped in the kitchen with Colin and Clare and we whipped up a pretty dang delicious chicken stir-fry with rice and an asian cabbage salad. It’s amazing we got dinner accomplished because we were having a pretty entertaining time in the kitchen harassing Colin, all in good fun, of course! Dinner was great and after dessert and a story, darkness fell, and everyone retired to their camps for the night. It rained for a short while and my dad hung out in my tent until it stopped – always determined to sleep outside! He was sound asleep outside – I was wide awake as usual – and it started pouring. I mean pouring! This was probably around maybe 2:30 or 3 in the morning (I know this because I do typically wear a watch on my river trips so I can check the progress of time while I am not sleeping). I had left one side of the tent open to keep it cool; the wind was blowing in the other direction so the rain wasn’t getting into the tent at all. I wondered how long my dad was going to sleep in the pouring rain, thought momentarily about waking him up, but then thought – Sarah, he’s a 68 year old adult, he can make his own decisions! He eventually found his way to the tent, soaking wet in his rain suit, and suddenly half of my nice, dry tent was now soaked as well. Kind of amusing, but also a slight strain to my OCD tendencies which enjoy a nice, organized tent.
Day 9 started with my having successfully kept all of my gear completely dry. Go me. We made brown bag lunches after breakfast since today was a planned hiking day, meaning we would not be stopping along the river for lunch as we normally do. The lower canyon is a hikers paradise, so there were more hiking options for the latter half of the trip. The big hike option for the day was a 10-mile hike up to and across Suprise Valley, ultimately meeting up with the rest of the group at the Patio and hiking down from there back to the boats. My dad and I did not sign up for the 10-miler. Ultimately five from the group went on the long hike with three of our guides after tackling Dubendorff, Tapeats, and a few other smaller rapids. Two of the boats were left behind, including Lynn’s which we had been on, so we hopped on Clare’s boat and made our way down river. We eventually found ourselves floating through the narrowest part of the canyon, at 76 feet, surrounded by the towering 1.6 billion year old canyon walls. This was a picture-perfect section of the canyon and you can’t help but be humbled the geology of it. Not too far past the narrows, we pulled off and tied up the boats at the base of Deer Creek Falls at mile 137.
“We need time to dream, time to remember, and time to reach the infinite. Time to be.” – Gladys Taber
It was time for another one of those “easier” hikes, this time wet-shoes were optional. I threw my boots on after crossing the creek and followed Alan and Tyler and several others as part of the first wave of victims hiking up to the Patio. I found myself mildly amused as I followed the others, scaling rock faces and crawling up along the narrowest “trail” I have ever seen, the entire time thinking – how on earth are we going to get back down mixed in with ‘Clare’s definition of easy is just a tad different than mine!’ The upriver view at one point of the “trail” was totally worth the death-defying climb up. Absolutely amazing view. But the death-defying trek wasn’t quite done yet! We next found ourselves walking along some incredibly narrow ledges on our way to the Patio. Fortunately heights don’t bother me and I just carefully made my way across the ledges, although I will admit it was still slightly terrifying! My dad – he has a slight fear of heights – made it across with some help from Tyler (who was on a lower and even smaller ledge below the one we were walking on – which I thnk only made my dad more nervous!) . After that point, it was an easy walk up to the Patio.
The Patio is a sacred and incredible oasis of a place tucked high up and back from the river. It is a visually appealing area of flat rocks, ledges, cottonwood trees, with a crystal clear creek cutting through it, making its way to the huge Deer Creek Falls. We kicked back at the patio for the better part of the day, enjoying the shade and warm flat rocks and the coolness of the creek running by us. I napped (shocker), read, and relaxed the day away, while a few others went for a short hike. We watched the dark rain clouds come in and migrated to some wonderful canyon-made shelter to keep dry during the momentary rain storm. Up on the Patio, we seemed far away from life on the river. It was nice to have a day to relax and a change of pace. Although I love being on the river, sometimes in a place like this, the body and mind need time to rest, absorb, and reflect on the adventure thus far and the incredible experience of being in such a grand location.
It was a great afternoon at the Patio, and of course it started to rain again as we were making our way back down to the river to wait for the hikers to wrap up their 10-miler (Alan and Tyler hiked the 10 mile trek in reverse to go get the two safety boats that were left up the river). Going back down was now that much more terrifying thanks to the now slick rocks that we’d have to traverse and, at times, slide down! Any time the guides stop to instruct you on the best way to make your way down a massive boulder (pointing out foot and hand holds that look to be about an eighth of an inch wide), you should be sure to listen. Their instructions may seem a little crazy and/or impossible, but somehow you end up on mostly solid ground every time. This is why they do what they do for a living! At this point on the trip, I would just laugh anytime I came to a place where the guides were stopped to help with literal next-steps – always thankful they were there, but finding it comical at the same time. After all, we are in the Grand Canyon, and to expect to see nicely defined and well-packed trails all over the perimeter of the river is just a tad absurd! So while we gave our guides and trip leader a hard time about the trail descriptions, we fully understood that more often than not, the hike would have some challenging elements, exposure, or a combination of the two.
Back on the boats, we made the short trip down the river to mile 137.5 or so to camp at the Football Field after being treated to a bright rainbow as we looked back up the river. Mother Nature at its finest. The Football Field was a huge two-level beach with pockets of tamarisk trees, and would be the scene of June’s birthday celebration for the evening! As the skies were still grey, and rain threatened, my dad and I set up our tents along with most everyone else. The guides had very kindly set up two drying lines for folks whose stuff was still soaked from the rainy night before. I threw my rain pants on the line, figuring if they got rained on that they wouldn’t be any wetter than they already were. Howie and Lynn were starting things up in the kitchen and I made my way down to help. As I was walking down towards the kitchen there was a huge crack of thunder, and I heard a couple of the guides say here comes the rain. I looked up, saw the wall of rain just off in the distance, and promptly dove into my tent! And just in time – it poured! I sat in my tent, thoroughly enjoying the loud rain and cracks of thunder and lightning!
I threw my rain jacket on and hopped out the tent once the rain let up, and made my way down to the kitchen, where I helped out Howie, Lynn, and Kim with the meal for the night while the largest game of bocci ball I have ever seen took place on the beach. I think Kim asked me at one point if I was sure I didn’t want to jump in on the game, and while I do enjoy a good game of bocci ball, I said, “I can play bocci ball anywhere, but I can only cook with Howie on the river!” Being in the kitchen was so much fun, and tonight Howie was making what should be coined as the best spaghetti sauce ever, even sharing with me his secret ingredient. Out of the blue, we all were treated to witnessing the start of a waterfall way up on the canyon wall. Pretty damn cool. I was poorly chopping olives in the can with a butter knife per instruction, when Kim laughed and took the can and promptly finished chopping the olives with the sharp chef’s knife without blowing my cover! There’s something about a well-executed spaghetti and garlic bread dinner on a cooler than normal evening on the river that just tastes so dang good. Dinner was wonderful, June’s birthday dessert was great, and the party ended without our normal story-time. Why no story-time? Well at some point earlier in the evening, and post rainstorm, Alan had grabbed some of his family pictures from his dry-box (an old army ammo box) to show us. On his way back to his boat, we just heard the distinct sound of a human falling in the river, looked over, and there was Alan and his open ammo box, in the river. So no story-time given the book was soaked!
We would have to wait for the book to dry before learning what the boys were up to as they swam down the river. After June’s birthday party, we all retreated to our camps, and I grabbed my headlamp and read my book while surrounded by snoring river trippers. And so far, no further snake encounters, even though everything had started to look like prime snake habitats.