As I write this our politicians are holding the Grand Canyon and all federally controlled recreation lands, as well as many people’s jobs and livelihoods hostage while they play a game of chicken with our national budget. Anyone who has either signed on for a commercial trip or whose long awaited start for a private permit is scheduled during this time is being blocked from launching. Ironic that the very places that many of us go to get away from it all are affected even as we try to escape.
If all you did was look at a map each time you went to run the Grand Canyon or any other river for that matter, it would look the same each time you came back. You put in at point A and take out at point B. That is where the similarities end. Each time you put on, the river is going to be a little different, it might be clear or muddy, a little higher or a little lower, the weather might be cloudy or sunny, cool or hot, but what really sets it all apart from the rest of the trips you may have done are the people. It’s a key element in all trips.
To paddle the Colorado is one thing, to experience as much of the Grand Canyon as you can is another. For many this truly is a once in a lifetime trip, the only time they’ll get to do it. Others will fall under its spell and find ways to return again and again. What if this is your only trip? Wouldn’t you want to see as much as you possibly can? We agree! So on the mellow water days we might load everyone onto the rafts (along with their kayaks) so we can focus on exploring the many side canyons and doing as many loops hikes as possible.
We truly look forward to the actual running of our trips. We’d been corresponding with many of our guests for close to a year and finally being on the river together is what it’s all about. On this trip we had folks from Germany, Switzerland and all across the US, plus our good friends Jaime and Gisela from Ecuador. We also had a great crew of guides from Tour West, our Grand Canyon outfitter. Four trip leaders! With over 500 combined trips down the Colorado between them, let’s just say that Dave, Kyle, Tom and Cameron knew their way around.
The southwest had been experiencing later-than-usual rainfall. We knew we weren’t going to have a clear water trip. Just as a splash of milk will change the color of a cup of coffee, it doesn’t take much silt from a tributary to turn the main river some shade of “colorado”. Just downstream of the put-in with an “average” flow of 35 cfs, the Paria mixes with the green water of the dam-controlled Grand. Three day after we put-in, the Paria peaked at over 7,000 cfs! Our flows for the 15 days fluctuated between 9,000 – 19,000 cfs, 2,000 – 6000 cfs more than the dam released. This silt laden run-off negated the term “whitewater” and made our paddles slippery to hold. THIS is the Colorado!!
For the first three days we lived with clouds and occasional rainfall (never at mealtime). We retreated to our tents each night to be sure we got a good nights sleep. By the forth night tents gave way to cots. From then on we slept under clear, starry skies. During those early days we hiked into the Esplanade Sandstone of North Canyon, took on the rapids of the Roaring Twenties and settled into the mellow stretch of river below Silver Grotto. We threw frisbees at Redwall Cavern, marveled at Nautaloid fossils, climbed high at Eminance Break to see this mighty river oxbow around Point Hansburough, we swam in the clear water at the end of the of Saddle Canyon hike and gazed from the granaries of Nankoweap at the iconic downstream view.
In spite of the rain, most of the side streams were flowing clear so we made stops at places like Shinumo, Elve’s, Clear Creek, Makatamiba, Havasu and Three Springs. We were also fortunate to camp at Stone Creek, Ledge’s and Fern Glen, also with clean water.
The Canyon itself was verdant! While hiking to the overlook at Unkar, normally a sun-parched wasteland, someone commented that it looked as if grass seed had been spread and a lush lawn was coming in.
We were a merry band of kayakers and rafters, all keen for adventure. The hiking trio of Jean “the machine”, Rimma and Michele were a force to be reckoned with, often heading up the pack during the longer hikes at Carbon-Lava Chuar, Tabernacle and the Surprise Valley up-and-over from Tapeat’s to Deer Creek. Michele would often stop to catalog her most recent find in the form of a plant, critter or rock. It had been a long talked about dream to share the Canyon with Todd and Becky, as it sits in their backyard. It wasn’t until this year they were able to make it happen. Mary F. gets the “Vishnu Schist” award for having undergone the greatest metamorphosis, with true grace, from neophyte camper to Canyon veteran. Amazing, Mary.
This was Jaime’s second trip down the Colorado, perhaps giving him the most runs in a kayak by an Ecuadorian (how’s that for looking for a first). Gisela, from the tropical town of Tena, Ecuador was soaking up the desert and game for anything (as long as she got a clean-water solar shower each day).
Patrick, Jerry and Steve usually led the kayak charge, going BIG by hitting both holes in Crystal, venturing right at Hance, repeatedly plugging the hole in Upset and taking the crasher at 209 head on! Carry back up to do it again? You bet! Tom, at 72, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 trips down the Colorado, was the man to watch for smooth lines with minimal effort. Eike, the nicest guy around, had never seen such big flows! An example of efficiency, he’d see his line and quickly run it clean. (A version of “they’re at the top, I’m at the bottom. I win!”) He found an outlet for his surplus energy in crushing cans in camp each night perfecting the technique of minimum blows. It was fun to watch his confidence in the bigger water began to match his solid skills.
Maren boated the Grand with us before. Right off the bat she looked like a different paddler by styling Badger on day one (it had knocked her flat three years earlier). She never looked back as she gracefully aced the big rapids. (I think she might have flipped only once the whole trip!) Thomas took the realistic approach, chose his paddling days wisely and put great effort into working on his roll and technique for negotiating the swirlies. Mark with his calm expression had a paddling style to match, never too much or too little, just steady. He survived the most dramatic collapse of Lava’s infamous Kahuna wave I have ever seen! Jim was back for more and paddled better than any of his previous times down. Todd and George consumed the most oxygen through the big rapids with heart rates exceeding their max! Each rose to the occasion and scored successes that left them confident and elated (and perhaps humbled in a couple of the biggest rapids). But who cares! It’s only water! And with the hikes, geology, flora and fauna, solitude and camaraderie, the Grand Canyon put everything into perspective.
For 15 days we had molded into a supportive, motley extended family.
And then, it was over.
It’s a weird transition, going from a place where the perspective of time doesn’t mean the same as it does back home. Where life is bared down and decisions simple. Where the eyes see differently, and the spontaneity of the moment reminds us of life on the playground. It took three days to wash most of the silt from our gear when we got back. I don’t think that it’s possible to ever wash away the memories of those 15 incredible days together. Why would anyone want to?
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