Thursday, September 20, 2012

A River Runs Through It...and I Run the River Through

On New Year's day, as Sirena and I were backpacking through the Sonoran desert outside Superior, AZ, we reflected on that old saying about 'what you do on New Year's echos throughout the year to come'.  I hoped it was true, as there are few things that I love better than adventuring through magnificent environments with good friends in tow.  Now that more than half of 2012 has gone by, I can say without a doubt that the prophesy has been fulfilled - and so much more!  

In February, I hiked the Grand Canyon's Escalante Route.
In March, Angela and I conquered the Superstition Ridgeline.
April was spent largely in India exploring the Himalaya.
The summer saw me in Pinetop and the Blue Range Primitive Area

Then August...well, in August I got to fulfill yet another life goal:  I got to take a river raft ride through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.  To make it even better (in my book anyway), I had the opportunity to go as one of the boat's crew, rather than just another tourist along for the ride.  Sirena secured me a spot on one of her company's trips provided that I 'work my way' through the canyon.  Me, work?  Cooking great meals in the backcountry, loading and unloading gear, telling stories and explaining the views?  Twist my arm, I guess I'll do it if you insist!

Beginning at Lee's Ferry and ending at Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead, the journey would take me past all of the pieces of the canyon I've hiked over the years, and to many amazing spots that my shoes simply can't get me.  I knew it would be a whole different experience than anything I'd done before: 35' rafts full of fresh food and heavy gear, 28 passenger/guests to share every moment of the day with, 8 days of hard work but almost no walking.  I knew (because Sirena warned me) that I would be worked to the point of exhaustion, that I would chop tomatoes until I could chop no more, and that I'd likely end up with sore muscles that I didn't even know I had.  And I knew that I would have a truly amazing, wonderful and eye-opening experience.

What I didn't know was how well this trail rat would take to the water!
Loading up the boats in Flagstaff...for a backpacker who is used to counting ounces, it was hard to imagine how much stuff we were bringing along!

Our first little adventure
 Another old adage that seems to be in the process of verification this year is the rule of things (bad, good or otherwise) happening in 3s.  There was the Delhi Belly - Blood Clot - Broken Toe string this spring.  On the river, it began with the boat trailer doing a not so cool axle-self-destruct maneuver on the way to the ferry.  Flipping boats before you even get on the water?  Wha?  (note my use of suspense here as I don't tell you about the other 2 things) 

Floating on the clear water of the Colorado above Paria Creek. 

And as if we didn't already have enough stuff on board, we had to add the passengers lol! 
Our group was a chartered trip - a bunch of guys who'd gone to Harvard Law together and had made this once-every-20-years adventure through the Grand Canyon a tradition (72-92-12).  The big-wig of the group paid for everyone's trip (plus the extra 7 seats they didn't fill).  They brought along roughly $5k worth of good beer, wine and Scotch and their own, personal 'river guide' from Canada.  These details should tell you several things about the group demographics - I'll leave it for you to piece together.

That being said, some of them were quite nice folks and we had a quite nice time with them.    The others were...challenging.

Sirena talks about the ancient peoples of the canyon at one of the archaeology stops called South Canyon 

Boats pulled up at south canyon.  This little climb up the hill was characteristic of most of the 'hiking' we did on the trip. 
Petroglyphs in South Canyon

Vasey's Paradise - one of those places that you probably won't get to if you're just hiking... 
The first couple of days I was on the boat with Chelsea Atwater - an incredible woman of the river who's knowledge of the canyon and competence with the boats had me in awe. The first day, her motor began to struggle - switching off each time she needed to rev it up for a rapid or maneuver.  (Number 2...bad motor wiring)  So this multi-talented girl switched it out at camp the first night.  I hope I don't need to mention that these motors are heavy as...well, they're pretty freaking heavy, and it's not like there's tons of room for people to help out.  She and our lead boatman Kenny manhandled the motors around so expertly that I barely even knew that it was all going on (I was on kitchen duty).  

My own photo of the Redwall Cavern from the river was is one from the Maricopa County Geology Club.  I suppose from here it does just look like a hole at the bottom of a cliff.
As we approached Redwall Cavern on day 2, I got very excited.  As those of you who know me could predict, when I get excited it totally shows.  I'm hopping about and clapping my hands in joyous anticipation and the folks on my boat are saying 'what's so exciting?'.  Even after I explained that this was one of those spots that you can only reach by boat, and that I'd been looking at photos and reading descriptions of it for years, they were still not understanding.  From upstream, the cavern looks... well ...unimpressive at best.  Another great example of how the canyon plays with scale.

By the time we left the massive cavern, most of them had changed their minds and were properly impressed.  The rest, well, they didn't matter anyhow.

Pulling into Redwall Cavern.  John Wesley Powell boasted that the cavern could hold 40,000 people for a concert...maybe a bit of exaggeration, but an impressive place in any case!
My sense of joy at being at the Redwall made it possible to get this rather mellow group to join me in a silhouette Wendy (even if some thought it was too 'corny')  How could you not love this spot!?  

The smooth red ceiling of Redwall Cavern
Just before my trip, a friend sent me a link to this video, which was taken by a group who was lucky enough to shelter in the cavern during a massive storm and resulting flood.  You can see how the grey of the limestone gets stained deep red by the red shales and sandstones above it. 

Sirena and I on a sunnier day at the cavern
Floating beneath the towering cliffs

Storm clouds building over the rim as we float past a chunk of the Redwall Limestone that had recently collapsed.  You can see the true color of the rock beneath the red stain.  

Even at my max zoom, it's hard to pick out the tiny bridge on the cliff above... The Anasazi built the bridge 400 years ago to help them reach the Unkar Delta - probably dragging the massive log timbers down thousands of feet of crazy canyon cliffs.  These would not have been people who shied away from dangerous, difficult work like chopping onions or moving groovers.

Afternoon light on the Palisades of the Desert (cliffs on left) 
By the end of day 2, the final of the three 'things' finally struck.  Or, I suppose it's more correct to say we struck it.  Our prop met an unfriendly rock and left us floating without power downriver for almost 20 minutes.  Luckily, it was in a relatively calm area near where we'd intended to camp anyway.  Our highly competent and collected boat drivers brought us into camp and while Sirena and I put together dinner once more, they put together a 'Frankenstein' motor out of the best bits of what was working.  It took the best part of the evening and all four of us working in concert, but we managed to play tetris with 3 motors and get ourselves well situated for the rest of the trip.  

I have to say - those boaters are bad-ass.  I mostly just stood there and provided moral support (meaning I tried to stay out of the way).  Kenny, Chelsea and Sirena - they made a task that would have daunted the most experienced Nascar mechanic look like child's play (and they looked good doing it).

Comanche Point from the north bank of the river.  I'd camped beneath the Comanche before on my February Escalante trip... still an impressive bit of territory.

Sunrise on the river...not a bad place to wake up if you have to be up at dawn! 

More petroglyphs above our camp near Lava Creek

The Unkar Delta area and the aptly named (and spectacularly colored) Supergroup formation.  
After the first couple of eventful days, the trip settled into a pattern.  Up with dawn, cooking breakfast and packing up camp, then floating the river - running some rapids and maybe checking out some side canyons.  We tried to stop for lunch where we'd find some relief from the Death Orb (sun) and we kept ourselves cool and wet between the splashy rapids and waterfalls.  I can see how the rhythm of river life is so appealing, even addicting.  All day outside, moving through spectacular scenery only to be interrupted by short stops for good food and amazing side-trips.  Yup.  I liked it.

Descending into the Upper Granite Gorge

Floating below the Black Bridge on our way to refill water at Boat Beach. Such a thrill considering how many times I've stood on the bridge and watched longingly as boaters floated past!
 Sirena and I switched boats after a while - to give her some time with Chelsea learning the finer points of driving a behemoth and to give me some one-on-one time with Kenneth Gouff (who's knowledge of the canyon is simply unreal).  Kenny is not only a great boater, backpacker, hiker and chef - he's actually a sweet guy.  Don't let him know I told you that, though, it'd ruin his carefully crafted gruff-bastard image.  

Considering that Chelsea'd nick-named me Mary Poppins for the trip, we made an interesting pair... 
Classic Grand Canyon view with Zoroaster temple soaring high above the gorge. Kenny was always pointing out great photo opportunities and pointing out named places from under his low-tucked hat.  Said he hated the canyon (actually - said he hated everything), but Mary Poppins can smell bullshit a mile away!

Sirena and Chelsea above Horn Creek Rapids (a favorite of many boaters) 

A photo taken by Brian on the other boat of my group at the bottom of Hermit Rapid - one of the most thrilling rides of all time, ever and in the whole world!  Can you find yours truly?
Kenny snaps a pic of part of the group at Shinumo Falls.  There's a grotto you can explore behind the falls and it's an awesome place to get some solo time!

Shinumo Falls without the 'distracting' foreground ;) 

To paraphrase a friend: "Just another lousy day on the Colorado River..." 

Ahead is the Great Thumb Mesa and Steven's Aisle...where you don't shop for laundry soap or cooking oil, but bighorn sheep and slot canyons!

Blacktail Canyon...with some of the most amazing acoustics anywhere - including all those buildings designed by less-experienced architect.  

Shortly before the Irish Folk Tune Concert we shot the album cover... 

Granite Narrows, the narrowest point on the river.  Okay, so it doesn't look like much, but some things are all in the statistics... (for you nerds who really want to know more, here are some photos and explanation from a geologist.)

To be continued...