In December 2014, RootsRated editor Brian Bates set out with his crew on a 22-day paddling expedition down the Colorado River. Here are his inspired reflections upon reaching camp each night.
We shatter the stillness. Lee’s Ferry, December 12, 2014. We unhitch ourselves from an ingrained daily routine of existence and, with the simple stroke out of an eddy, we enter another world. The rigging is feverish; impatient boaters on no sleep, check-in rangers with no urgency. We leave late. Walls tower above within a mile of leaving the put-in, and we slip beneath Navajo Bridge with only the soft slapping whisper of our oars.
There is very little time for acclimatization to our boats and, more importantly, the river, before we are tested. Only 6 miles of rowing last night after our late-afternoon departure, so today we push hard through the ‘roaring twenties’ and finish at mile 30. Seven hours all said and done. Throughout it all–roughly 16 rapids–we stop to scout just two rapids: House Rock (mile 17) and 24.5 (mile 24.5). The rest, we read and run like groundhogs, periodically popping up from our seats and onto our toes, craning our necks to spot holes and rocks and the line to run as we slip into each rapid’s tongue.
Flat water creeps through a steep crimson hallway. Yesterday’s furious pace is abandoned in today’s relaxed tempo. We may be moving much slower, but our muscles have not forgotten: they ache, they scream, they stiffen. Tonight, we eat steak and potatoes and gulp down only the finest boxed wine. For dessert: stars soaked in undisturbed darkness. No city lights. Tonight is our first without a cloud’s promise of a midnight rain, and so–unwilling to ditch the rainfly of our tents–we rig them at half-mast, leaving the portion over our heads undefended to the wide night yonder.
We round a bend and come face to face with both the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the inevitable: the loss of the slate-blue hue of the main Colorado to a murky, brown, gloom. This is the Colorado we know. The Colorado we came to expect. Her little sister tributary shuttles in enough sediment to refashion the larger river’s waters the color of sludge for at least the remainder of the canyon. Tomorrow, we layover (at last) for two days.
We’ve set up at Cardenas Camp, sprawling our tents and gear out among the groves and pockets of tamarisk trees in the sand bank knolls. Mini hotel rooms: no wifi, no HBO, no king mattresses. But sauna? Absolutely. Come dusk, we blast a pail of smooth rocks until they are scorching scarlet red and pull out an old tent with a hole cut in the footprint. When the rocks are nice and roasted, we place the pail in a small hole in the sand, set the tent over the pail so it sticks up through the hole, and crowd inside. Ten minutes of pouring cool water on the rocks and we emerge, thoroughly pruned and covered in sweat, from the sweetest backcountry sauna one can imagine. Minutes later, we dissolve into our sleeping bags and sleep.
A day spent dodging light rain. How fat do the raindrops need to splash on books before you retreat to the tent? This brings us to reading: is there a more wander-some, romantic way to dive into a book while on the river bank. I finished David James Duncan’s novel The River Why, and have set my sights on Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Another book floating among the group is Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile, the story of the greatest and fastest attempt down the Grand Canyon waters, and so much more. Most of us have read this book already, but the moment one reader sets it down it is swallowed up by another.
There’s no escape. The thunder of Granite rapid doesn’t sneak but rather smashes into our camp. A river that has been pleasant white noise in the night is now booming as we camp a mere hundred yards from one of the toughest rapids found between these canyon walls. Impossible to slip into sleep. Today we ran Hance rapid, nice and rowdy, slipping between a pour over and a rock to negotiate the lesser of the big waves. A nice test, a welcomed warm-up for tomorrow, but we shall see. Reaching mile 88, we took an hour off to walk up to Phantom Ranch and send postcards. What a wonderful place, to both work and visit–though the beer, while refreshing, is not cheap. They know our type. They have us in their hands. We push on, reading and running Horn and Soap Creek rapids, and find ourselves at Mile 94, possessed by Granite and the even bigger water that awaits us.
Day Eight, pt. I
Granite, Hermit, Crystal. All upright.
Day Eight, pt. II
Is there a tougher five mile stretch on these waters? Surely, not. No need for coffee: the strong hydraulic rush on river right in Granite, mere seconds after stepping off the shore and into the boat, wake us up. What I thought were big waves were then dwarfed ten minutes later. Hermit rapid, easily the largest and strongest waves of the full 280 miles. Grip it and rip it. Just get out of the wave train before the cannon of a crashing hole gets you at the bottom. Steal by in the slack water. Then, Crystal. The Crystal Rapid, of legendary holes and unforgiving waters and an Alcatraz-esque rock island dead center current. Oh Crystal, you conniving swindler, your glossy tongue escorts boaters to their ambush. You almost got me, Crystal. You should have flipped and ripped us apart… but this river gypsy lived another day, suffering nothing more than a briefly lost oar. Some of us (the more surprised of boaters) indulged in shooters of Fireball between strokes to celebrate our survival. Never will we run three rapids like that again unless… oh, yes… we will be back.
A well deserved layover. More importantly, we’ve found the sun, and can dry out all of our wet gear. Our tents double as clotheslines, with socks and shirts and pants draped around the poles, and dew-smothered sleeping bags slung on top. We’ve sprawled out our camp, laying claim to the majority of the large Bass Campground–with so few groups on the water in the winter, space is less of a conflict and we take it for granted. Excluding a short jaunt up into the rocks above, we rarely stray from the main camp: books, cribbage, and chess consume us. The loser slugs whiskey–winner sips wine and consequently suffers a turn of fortune. We’ve begun to realize our beer needs better rationing. Uh oh.
Up and over the hill, Shinumo Creek meanders along the canyon floor. From the Bass Campground, we follow a lightly worn path as it takes us along the stream waters until coming across an old miners campground from the early 1900s. A ranger has obviously arranged it as if it was a staged museum display case, but we appreciate the effort. The tools, the broken bottles, and the tea kettle: they are all figments of a dream past. Tragedy strikes: a mouse chews threw our boxed wine, as we lose half of our supply and simultaneously color the sand beneath the table a purple hue of Franzia. We share camp with a larger group tonight. They sip their homemade moonshine by our fire and we trade stories along the bank as the Colorado steadily slips downstream into the night, unwavering and silent.
The juniper driftwood in our fire illuminated our camp along the walls, but the walls themselves, the hills, the night sky: they’re all ablaze as well. The water’s gurgle is close and comforting. How can just a handful of days seem the same as a childhood? It is possible to float through such a cathedral and not be wide-eyed with the gaze of youth and discovery. Everything is new, nothing is processed. The walls always still, the river always moving. Always. What was that book of our childhood, The Wind in the Willows? “Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!” It is impossible to stay stagnant on the river.
A short day of rowing interrupted only by the brief scout of Bedrock rapid. It is not a particularly tricky rapid, but one does not want to find themselves between the rock island and the full force of river hydraulics: not only is a flip certain, but damage and lost gear is far from out of the question. We reach camp by midday, and for the first time this winter we are shirtless and swimming in the eddy. We romp around the campground with as bare as decently possible, and I’m taken back to my days on the northern California coast. Suddenly, the sun drops out of sight, and we rush to bundle in puffy down jackets and heavy Carhart pants. It was nice while it lasted. The rocks, in gloating fashion, emanate heat long after the sun has moved on.
Christmas Eve in the Canyon. The clouds threaten rain but hold off as we hike all afternoon further and further away from the Colorado and closer and closer to the roar of a waterfall. Eventually, after the trail climbs up and down and then back up again, we glance up and find ourselves staring at Thunder Creek Falls. We are soon snacking in a grove, close enough for the spray of the water to cool us down on the hot day. The water spouting from this spring follows the trail all the way back down to the muddy force that is the American Nile. We return to camp to find Smartwool stockings hung on a tree, full of chapstick, hand lotion, chocolate, and other nonnegotiable needs. We celebrate Christmas tonight, as tomorrow’s looming mileage is long, and play a small white elephant gift exchange. The flask and buttered rum fixings don’t last long, and are sipped by all.
Enchiladas, s’mores, and slot canyons! That’s how we like our Christmases. The long day of rowing through heavy wind tunnels is rewarded with three incredible stops. First, we tie our boats into the cliffside shore and scramble up into Christams Tree Cave, tracking down the fragile rock formation shaped exactly like, you guessed it, a Christmas tree. We then spend a few hours filtering water at Deer Creek waterfall–with the battery-powered filter on the fritz, we resort to filling 20 liter jugs with my two liter Platypus gravity filter. At least it meant more time on such a gorgeous section of the river. Then, a mere 300 yards before camp, we poke our noses down a slot canyon and wander back. The walls come together, the water rises, and soon we are inching further, hands on one wall, feet on the other, too deep of water to walk further. It will be tough to top this holiday as the years come, and we take more than a few moments to express our gratitude for being able to spend Christmas in this natural wonder, unrivaled throughout the world.
I have made a new discovery, and it is quite unwelcome: this dry suit is more of a damp suit. But the experiment was worth it. As we rowed down to our camp at Fern Grove, we pulled over at the Havasu Creek slot canyon. The Gatorade, Easter-blue waters don’t mix with the brown Colorado but rather form a distinct line. The lack of blend in the colors is beautiful. We tie into the rocks and hike back towards the falls–we don’t go the full three miles, but instead gape at the beautiful cascading pools of a blue we haven’t seen in weeks. There, it is decided, and the experiment begins: fellow rafter Peter and I jump in and swim the distance back to the boats, leaping from pool to pool and floating between the narrow walls. Though the clothes beneath my dry suit are soaked, we left with only one regret: not doing it twice. But looming ahead, as heavy as ever, is the infamous Lava Falls Rapid.
Day Sixteen, pt. I
The pour over is silent–the waves are not. They boom, they bounce off the walls, they rumble the quiet canyon. I follow Peter down the bubble line, down the uncertain, down the rabbit hole. Down Lava.
Day Sixteen, pt. II
Let me back up. We rise early, and the group has an antsy atmosphere as we rush to pack. This rapid will do that to you. But first, we have to let it stir in our heads and unsettle our nerves for 10 miles as we row through flat water. Slowly, the bellow of a rapid draws nearer around each turn. After forever, Lava is in sight. We pull over and scout, and scout, and scout. An act of preparation that usually gives me confidence is only making things worse: it seems as if there is no way to run this. Then, when I am picking out all the wrong lines, I am shown the bubbles. Stemming from an eddy above, small bubbles float down to the rapid and kiss the edge of a nasty pour over. Follow this line, this line precisely, nick the sides of some big holes, square up to crashing waves, hit the left side of the V wave, and skip left of the Cheesegrater rock: you can survive.
When the time finally comes, when our fingers are fidgeting with adrenaline, we run it. One by one we drift down the bubbles, occasionally stroking, nit picking with our line, nervous to stay on point. I follow Peter. He drops from sight as he passes the pour over, and I stand up to watch him punch through a crashing wave. Next thing I know, the dance is mine. As the front of my raft nicks the edge of the pour over, I can only stare at the immensity of the hydraulics in the infamous ledge hole. And then, before I realize it, the rapid is over. They say a good run in Lava takes only 20 seconds. All my moves; the swivels, the last second strokes, the punches, the upstream ferry move to slow my boat down as I approach the rocks… they were nothing but instinctual. I do not remember a single conscious thought, save for the finale: in the eddy beneath the uproar, 180 miles beyond Day One, I rip open my cooler and grab a bottle covered in duct tape. Yelling only expletive-filled congratulations, Peter and I toss the bottle of Jameson between our boats and wait–wait and swig, swig and wait–buzzed and shocked and amazingly dry.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline still lingering from Lava, but we couldn’t waste the day. Spotting a mesa towering up level with rim of the canyon, we enjoyed the rest day by hiking up high into the rocks. To our surprise, we popped out of what was once the lava that plugged the canyon 100-20,000 years ago and found a sign positioned amongst beaten down wire fence. “Welcome to Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument.” We had found the border. Seventeen days through the canyon, and we had just now stumbled into the northern tip of the actual National Park Boundaries. A long, solitary, dirt road wound its way over the green (green!) hills and into the horizon. How old are these tire tracks?
In our few hours of rowing today, we talked of recent development proposals for the Grand Canyon: a restaurant, a tramway, the usual tourist attractions. Maybe it was because we realized our time here was nearing the end, and we were beginning to feel nostalgic. Or maybe the immensity of Martin Litton’s recent death was hitting us hard. Litton was personally responsible for the salvation of the Grand Canyon, he was the champion of the undisturbed paradise. The country had not only lost one of the staunchest environmentalists it had ever seen, but the Grand Canyon had lost what it needs the most in times like these: its voice. In his words: “ ‘Be reasonable!’ they say. But I never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation, because what you give away will never come back—ever. When it comes to saving wilderness, we can’t be extreme enough. To compromise is to lose.”
The only things piercing this dense cold front are the canyon walls, and even they are shivering in the shadows. The sun is out, but the sun can only do so much. There is nothing more deceiving than a clear, winter day in the desert. Despite the cold temperatures, Peter and I spend the morning at camp building the courage to swim through the crashing hole at mile 209. The rapid may not be considered a threat to boaters (the sneak to the side is easy), but damn is that hole mean. Come afternoon, we layer ourselves in warm clothing beneath our drysuits, jump on Paco Pads, and paddle out of the eddy and into the current. You don’t appreciate the power of such a high volume river until you have to swim. We work hard to swim into the main current before we are swept too far downstream to miss the hole. Once we make it, we position ourselves comfortably on our pads and hold tight over the wave train as the hole approaches: Peter on his back, feet first, while on my pad, I am face-down on my stomach. I do not know how Peter’s ride went–all I can tell you is that, in the handful of seconds I was stuffed and pounded under the wave, I am sure I was bent so awkwardly my heels touched the back of my head. Escaping the current was the real battle, however, as it took us more than a few hundred yards to swim out of the swift water and make it to shore. There, battered and exhausted, we celebrated our ride and stumbled back to the eddy at camp, collapsing in the calm water to attempt a nap on the very floating pads that had just gone through the blender with us.
Snow. Snow everywhere. Snow, soft and untiring and pitter-pattering on my tent through the early morning. Is that a mouse in the bushes? Or light rain? Maybe a flash flood? I probably should get out of the sleeping bag. No. I poke my head out into the brisk dawn and see nothing. Socked-in clouds.
It is December 31, and we spend the last day of 2014 playing cribbage and dominos in a tent by a river in a hole in the ground. In the afternoon, when the storm has subsided and the sun begins to poke through, we hike up into the hills in search of a suitable place to toast the year with cheap beer–until it’s dark enough for us to feel appropriate to pop the champagne. Tomorrow is both the first day of the new year and our last day in this wonderful canyon.
Day Twenty One
Right around day five or six, we found and fished-out a partially deflated basketball from the flat-water reeds (trash abandoned from some summer trip). That night, I drew a handprint/face on the ball, Tom Hanks and Cast Away style, only I named him “Charlie” in honor of my dog back home. I’ve had “Charlie” strapped to my boat ever since, right next to my seat. He’s run all the big stuff with me, surviving every rapid—I even poured him a drop of whiskey during the Lava celebrations. He’s become as much of my boat as my oars are. You develop a sense of ownership and intimacy with your boat: you know the purpose and effect of every piece of gear, how the strapped-down weight will react to every wave. As outdoors enthusiasts, we all have an appreciation for the gear we love, even the small and seemingly unimportant equipment. A large part of that is because, more than their actual use, our gear represents our memories. My puffy down jacket, tattered and patched with duct tape; my books, ripped and stained and full of sand; my gloves, weathered and eroded. All from these breathtaking three weeks. As I row out our last day, beneath a rim capped with snow and peaks reminiscent of a far-off land, I look over at “Charlie,” strapped in and nestled alongside me. There is too much to ever forget this place.
Day Twenty Two
Well, more like Night Twenty One. Or Morning Twenty Two. It all bled together. Yesterday, we rowed a thirty miles to Separation Point, where the original Grand Canyon explorers split up and three of Powell’s men eventually died. Here, as the sun set, we paused momentarily before changing into comfortable clothes and pushing out into the slow, steady, current. We then rigged the four boats together and rearranged gear to create flat sleeping spaces. We boiled hot water on the blaster and dropped in cans of soup, drinking the last of our perfectly rationed beer and playing cribbage until we curled up in our sleeping bags. Of the 40 miles left before the take-out, there was nothing more than an occasional tame ripple: we slept throughout the night on our rigs, waking only to paddle out of an eddy, or off of a wall, or away from the threatening (yet harmless) splash of a beaver tail booming between the canyon walls in the dark. Around 5:00am we crawled from our bags, covered in dew, and navigated our way to our take-out in silence, following each other only by headlamp. The walls we fell asleep under were gone. Just like that, in the dawn of our 22nd day, we stepped onto shore, through the mist, and out of the abyss.
Of timely note: Each February, a lottery is held to award launch dates for river trips like this one that will be scheduled for the following year. Lottery applications are accepted during the first three weeks of February, and results are emailed to applicants by the end of the month.