Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Day Six

Mixing of waters between the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers

The clouds of yesterday's late afternoon shower cleared out during the night and it dawned a beautiful day. However, it was a bit chilly when I woke up and for the first time since the start of the trip, I had to put on my jacket before packing up and walking down to the kitchen. Cooks Mary and Heidi were already heating up water so by the time I arrived, a steaming mug of hot cocoa was waiting for me. Life just doesn't get any better. Unless perhaps you have a few slices of perfectly ripened melons to munch on before a breakfast of French toast and sausage, which I did.

We struck camp and I rode in Elaina's boat for the day. We made good time even stopping once to scout out the massive Kwagunt Rapids before pulling in at the junction of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River. The Colorado River is a beautiful emerald green in color and the Little Colorado laden with potassium carbonate is an extremely brilliant blue. Where they joined was a myriad of colors and breathtakingly beautiful. As we hiked up the Little Colorado to a little rapids about three fourths of a mile away, I had to scramble to keep up while stopping to take several rolls of pictures.

The day was warming up considerably so we put on our life jackets diaper like to protect our tailbones from rocks and floated through the rapids in train style where the person in front held onto your ankles and you held onto the ankles of the person behind you. It helped ensure that nobody got caught in a recirculating eddy at the bottom of the several small falls we went over. It was a lot of fun and we went over in various train combinations until we were all exhausted.

Back at the confluence of both rivers, we ate a lunch of tuna salad sandwiches, potato chips and pecan cookies. During meals, I usually single out somebody to get to know them better and learn about them. Today I talked with assistant cook Mary who turns out is the same age as I am. She lives up in Haines, Alaska which sounds beautiful but not someplace I could ever live. Living with several months of twilight and conversely several months of no darkness just doesn't sound appealing, especially the former.

Anasazi ruins overlooking the Colorado River
After lunch, we hit the river and a couple big rapids, namely Lava Canyon Rapids and Tanner Canyon Rapids. Rapids in the Grand Canyon are very easy to locate with any topo map. All you have to do is look for where a side canyon enters the canyon proper and there is bound to be rapids. This is because rocks washed down from the side canyon during torrential flooding accumulate in the main canyon constricting the river and thus forming a rapid. Sometimes two side canyons on opposite sides of the canyon proper meet at the same place and usually that signals even bigger rapids than normal.

We pulled in early at mile 71 near Cardenas Creek. It is a nice camp with tons of individual camping among the tamarisk but was very hot. Today we passed a big fault and the constricting confines of Marble Canyon are now behind us and the wider more open canyon that many people associate with the name Grand Canyon have begun. If the fault weren't indication enough of this, the sudden appearance of hikers along the shore is another indication. We saw quite a few during today's float, another animal I can add to my "spotted" list.

After camp was set up, we set out on a short hike up to some Anasazi ruins. These ruins are theorized to be part of a lookout system of towers set up as an early warning device for unexpected visitors. From these ruins, you can see up to both sides of the canyon and ruins located there including the famous Desert View ruins on the South Rim. I think the Tartan Trail from there to the river was the one that I hiked down so many years ago.

The rest of the group seemed content to just sit up by the ruins so Jorge and I hiked further up the nose about two or three miles to an incredibly exposed and beautiful lookout further up the canyon walls. I took quite a few pictures of flowers on the way back and we took several "imminent death" pictures of us sitting on an exposed overhanging ledge. When we got back to the saddle where the first ruins were situated, we ran into Bronco and Elaina who stayed behind when everyone else headed back to camp. We stayed and talked for a while before heading back to camp with them.

There waiting for us was some cheese and crackers that I enjoyed on the beach while watching the sun go down. I still can't get used to watching the sun go down so early due to the high horizon line of cliffs and having so much time to kill before it is even close to bedtime. For supper, we had grilled chicken quarters, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and cornbread. Because it was Don's birthday, we also had a carrot cake for dessert. After supper, everyone but Bronco, Nick and I went right to bed. The three of us sat up for a while talking about how they got started in the boating business and various hikes they had done in central Idaho. I likewise filled them in on the Wind River Mountains and Ozark Mountains, which I was familiar with. Their lifestyle is so appealing to me that I would love to give it a try sometime if only for a few months. Right now, my life back in Minnesota seems so distant and in the past.

View upriver looking back along cliff face Jorge and I hiked along.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Day Five

Dory boats with rain gear on
Another spectacular night here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I know I have written that several times already in my journals but I haven't lied yet. I woke up once during the night because the clouds of yesterday evening had cleared off and the moon felt like a spotlight shining down on me. I would have been annoyed but the stars were just so beautifully bright unlike any that I have seen before. It was only with willpower that I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

In the gray of false dawn, I packed up and went down to the kitchen area where Mary was beginning to heat up some water. A loud shriek startled me and seemed very loud down in the close confines of the canyon. A mouse had found its way into one of the kitchen buckets last night and drowned. I helped out by sending the mouse to his final resting place in the river gently floating downstream. For breakfast we had eggs with a chili sauce and bacon.

As breakfast was winding down, Bronco cornered me away from the group and gave me the information I had wanted to know since yesterday evening. Lee, Nick, Duffy and him have been wanting to hike up to a high mesa and would like me to come along but couldn't allow me without opening it up to the older and less physically able clients. It was going to be a fast and hard hike to do it within the time they had and asked that I not push the issue. I understood and agreed. As a concession, he allowed Jorge and I to hike up to Nankoweap Butte, which was a high point on the map closer than the mesa. Disappointed but understanding, I asked permission to start early and promised to meet the rest of the group at a fault line that we would be using to climb up to the Butte.

It was a nice hike but a lot of boulder scrambling to reach the fault line and my bum knee was already starting to give me grief. I wasn't sure that I would be able to make the climb after all but decided that I would do the best I could. I took some Advil and lay under the shade of a lone shrub like tree to wait for the others to arrive. The others did show up about an hour later and turned out to be Jorge, his father Jurgen and crew member Elaina.

After a few minutes of rest, we all set up for the saddle above. It was a real scramble in places with little solid footing and lots of a tightly woven bush like weed that made you force your way through. We did stop and see some rocks that were over one billion years old and twice as old as any seen from the river. By the time we got to the saddle, the sunshine had disappeared and Jurgen needed a breather. Elaina stayed behind to keep him company and Jorge and I set up for the top of peak of the butte.

The last half-mile and 400 vertical feet to Nankoweap Butte elevation 5430 feet, was brutal. (Camp was at approximately 2800 feet.) In the loose pebble sized stones, it was like the stair climber from hell. You would take one step forward and put your weight on that foot only to slide three-fourths of the step back. Several times I had to stop to suck air or risk breaking ribs from gasping so much. But finally we made the top.

Jorge ontop of Nankoweap Butte
The wind immediately started picking up and big fat raindrops began to hit us as we hurriedly snapped some photos of each other and the surrounding area. Lightening off in the distance made us realize that we needed to get back down in a hurry. A slow controlled descent was not an option so throwing our fates to the winds, we literally jumped off the peak into the loose pebble sized stones. When we hit, we would slide twenty or thirty feet as if on skis with a shower of stones tumbling on down the mountain. Before we would come to that halt, we would jump again landing further down the slope on a different foot skiing through the rocks. What took 45 minutes to climb took us all of about a minute to descend but left us high on adrenaline.

We hunkered down in the rain underneath a large rock on the saddle and ate our sack lunch. (Sadly no mention in my journal of what that lunch consisted.) The hike back down the fault line was as always harder on the joints than the ascent. My knee was really starting to scream even with another dose of Advil and I knew I would pay for it later. We met Lee, Nick and Duffy on the way back down and learned that they had gotten lost and hadn't made the mesa. They were more than a little envious to learn that Jorge and I had made the top of Nankoweap Butte. We talked with them for a few minutes and then continued on our way down.

When we reached the creek below the beginning of the fault line, we parted ways. Jorge headed upstream to do some photography, Elaina stopped to do some drawing so I set off downstream to find a nice soaking hole. My knee was swollen and throbbing and screamed with delight as I lowered myself into the ice-cold water. The failed mesa crew passed by and I stayed on until I felt I would endanger myself to hypothermia by staying longer. I got my shoes back on and hiked back into camp, limping but happy.

Because of the few sprinkles, some fellow clients had taken upon themselves to set up my tent and throw my two waterproof bags and waterproof ammo can inside so that they wouldn't get wet. They were just being nice but now I have to wait for my tent to dry so I can pack it up again because I don't plan on sleeping inside tonight when I have a mosquito free bed of fine sand and starlight outside. I took a bath down by the river and put on my first set of truly clean clothes for the trip!

We had a lecture on the geology of the Grand Canyon before supper of lasagna, French bread and a green salad. I joined Jurgen down on the beach for a while sipping some of his cognac and staying upwind of his huge fat cigar that he was smoking. From his broken English, I can tell he had done quite well for himself at whatever occupation he did and was now for the most part retired. He and his son Jurgen, probably 40 years in age himself, now just travel the world doing things like this. This is their second trip down the Grand Canyon. They are one of those that had just done the third segment the first time and realized that it was a terrible mistake to not do the rest.

I could tell after awhile that Jurgen wanted to be alone and since I know that feeling, I big him good night and joined the others up by the fire. We sat around talking until it was just I and my journal left. Tomorrow it is back on the river and hopefully a light day of hiking to give my knee a chance to recover. Of course if there is a big hike planned, I know I will just take more Advil and hike anyway. I figure there will be time enough to heal when the trip is done.

View from on top of Nankoweap Butte. Jurgen and Elaina are sitting under one of the specs in the very bottom right corner of the photo. The rock was the size of a school bus to give you a sense of scale.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Day Four

Saddle Canyon
It is an amazing thing to lay awake stargazing and counting shooting stars after so many years of living away from the farm in big cities. You take those things for granted until nights like the last one when the shear beauty of it almost reduced me to tears. It was only with effort that I finally closed my eyes to sleep. Once I set my mind to it, sleep comes easily. My beds thus far, have consisted of powdery white sand that lets you sink 3 or 4 inches when walking across it. I usually lay out my ground cloth to prevent the sand from infiltrating everything completely and then spread my sleeping bag on top of it. It has been warm enough that I have been starting off the night on top of it and only end up inside it sometime during the early morning hours. Sand always finds its way inside no matter how careful I am but with nylon, it is fairly easy to shake the large majority out again in the morning.

One of the observations I have seen on this trip that I wasn't expecting was the exceptionally clean state of the beaches. They are immaculate and absent of fire rings, charred wood and scraps of trash that you come to expect at other heavily used campsites. With 25,000 people going through here annually, it is an amazing feat. Every morning as we pack up, we are all encouraged to do a sweep through camp picking up any stray debris that we might spy and pack it in bags that go on the baggage rafts and are hauled out. Since we are the first trip of the year, I have yet to find anything that wasn't probably dropped by someone in our own group earlier. The lack of fire rings and charred wood is most doubted attributed to the lack of firewood in the bottom of the gorge. The only wood that we find is stuff washed down the side canyons by floods and pissweed which we don't burn for obvious reasons since it is named after the odor given off when burning. The few fires we had during the trip were all from scavenged wood in side canyons and built on a metallic tarp so not to scar the land. Great care was made to completely burn everything to ashes and then they were packed out. The occasional unburnt knot of wood was tossed into the river for removal downstream. All the effort shows.

Ancient Anasazi grainery
I have to take back my harsh thoughts towards the group that camped on the upstream side of our sandbar and took away my initial bathing spot. Not a peep was ever heard from them and except for one flashlight beam a few seconds long up on the cliffs last night while I was stargazing, not a sight either. I guess if you wait for so long to go on a trip like this and you have the patience to do so, then you also probably cognizant of others around you and how your actions could affect them.

The cooks and I were the first ones up again and Chester, one of the early rising retirees was almost the last one down today. The hike he went on yesterday up to the break must have tuckered him out. Although I don't have a watch, I am guessing we are often on the river by 7:30 or earlier, earlier than normal for most groups judging by the tired looks on some of the crews’ faces in the morning. Bronco had told me before that sometimes they get groups that are lucky to pull out by 10:00, which makes for shorter hikes in the evening. So I guess I'm lucky for a bunch of early rising geriatrics that accompany me on this trip because it gives me lots of extra hiking time.

Breakfast was steak strips, eggs, potatoes, English muffins and two different types of melon slices. Meals just keep getting better which means I am in trouble. We loaded up the rafts and today I rode in the Lava Cliff that was manned by Ote's son Duffy. Barely out of his teens, I sense a wild streak in him a mile wide. On days with big water, I'm guessing a ride with him will be well worth the entertainment. I will also keep my belonging in waterproof containers below decks at all times as the likelihood for tipping will also be greater.

We went just a few miles downriver before pulling off at Saddle Canyon for a hike. About a mile up the canyon, it narrowed down to the point where you had to either stop or get your shoes wet wading through pools of unknown depth. I opted for the latter but because I had left my waterproof camera at the boats and only had my non-waterproof 35mm, I left it behind with my other stuff. We waded through 50 yards of water sometimes over our heads to a waterfall, which we climbed up the middle of it about 12 feet to another bench. There was another large pool and an even larger waterfall of spectacular beauty. You have to take my word for it. I soaked it all in until lunchtime before heading back down, stopping frequently to photograph wildflowers. I never tire of seeing the bright red monkey flowers.

Mary and Chester on hike up steep cliff to see the grainery
For lunch we had sandwiches made from hummus and tabbouleh, the latter, which is made of Bulgar wheat. Both were something not found in my normal diet back home but both extremely delicious especially with some spicy mustard, sprouts and shredded lettuce. After lunch we set out through a couple of riffles followed by several long pools to our camp for the evening at the base of Nankoweap Rapids at mile 53. It was a beautiful camp and definitely the finest so far. The hot afternoon sun was already behind the cliffs so we will get early morning sun tomorrow, always a treat when waking up down in the confines of a cold and damp canyon.

I lounged around camp until the others had pitched their tents and then we set off for a hike up to see some old Anasazi graineries built into the cliffs. Elaina gave us a long talk on their history as well as that on Stanton's Cave above Vasey's Paradise. The leading theory is that a cliff across the river from camp sheared off and damned up the river some 50,000 years ago causing it to back all the way up to Stanton's Cave where logs have been found but no mud. On the way back Jorge and I hiked out onto the site of the former dam and poked around a bit finding the remains of another Anasazi building.

Halfway back, still a long ways from camp, we heard the suppertime conch blow. With a long hike and a bunch of ravenous retirees, we weren't expecting much left for supper. There wasn't much left but we were each able to get one cold chicken fajita with all the works. That will teach us to dally around suppertime. Being that we are still driftwood rich at the moment, we started a fire at sundown and sat around enjoying the evening. I spent a long time talking with Mary the assistant cook who hails from Haines, Alaska. We swapped stories of trips that we had been on and books that we had read for a long while. These seem to be the two most common topics of conversation on trips like these. After she left, Bronco and I were the last two survivors at the fire. We talked about the big day tomorrow, which was going to be an all day hike. Some of the crew is going on a hike by themselves up a nearby peak and I though I asked to go along, I sense that I may not be wanted. Broncosaid he will make a decision tomorrow morning.

The view back towards camp (bottom center) from ancient dam site

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Day Three

Buck Farm Canyon
The sky began to soften up the starlit night and soon, the canyon wrens were serenading me with their songs. Life just couldn't get any better. I took my gear down to the beach and enjoyed the morning. After a while Jim, a retired mechanical engineer for Lockheed, came down and as the only other mechanical (or otherwise) engineer on the trip, I guess I could appreciate the many stories Jim told. I would have listened all day but pancakes, sausage and fresh fruit for breakfast seemed to interrupt us.

We set off down the river at an easy pace but didn't go far before stopping at Buck Farm Canyon. There we hiked up to the Hermit layer, a harder layer less prone to erosion forces, and where people like myself hiking in the side canyons always seem to get rim rocked. There in a shady bowl of rock, we lounged around before heading back to the river for a lunch of sandwiches and last night's leftovers. On the way back I saw scat from either a bobcat or a coyote but didn't know which. I'm not sure which species or both live in the canyon bottom and will have to research that later.

The Dark Canyon powered by Ote, was my ride for the day and I enjoyed talking with her. As we passed mile 40 and the site of a proposed dam that never got built, our talk shifted to decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam. The scars from several exploratory shafts at the Mile 40 site show how close we came to losing even more.

There weren't any big rapids today and we stopped at around mile 45 for an early afternoon. After unpacking the boats, a half dozen of us, namely me and some of the crew members, hiked up to the Eminence Break trail to above the hermit rock layer via a fault line. It was a real huff and a puff climbing up out of the canyon but the view was a feast for the eyes. We sat around for a while enjoying the afternoon until Heidi the cook needed to start back to begin supper and requested an escort. With lots of good bathing spots back around camp requesting my presence, I volunteered and we set off.

View from Eminence Break trail
On the way down, a private party of six that we had passed yesterday pulled in at the far end of the sandbar, the very spot that I had picked out as my potential bathtub. Quick flashes of anger swam through my head that off all places to camp in this huge isolated canyon that we had to share our sandbar with others. But also as quick, I realized how much the isolation that we have enjoyed over the past few days had already begun to take hold of me and put down roots. I quickly suppressed my anger searched downstream among the multitudes of house sized rocks for a bathing spot and was rewarded with a small sand beach at the foot of a nice flat rock to set everything on.

Bathing in the canyon is an experience to say the least. First, privacy is hard to come by with an occasional boat drifting by (more so during the regular season and not the two week dory/private party season I was in) and the forced close proximity to camp. Several times during the trip we would surprise people on private trips, especially when we started out in the morning, doing various personal hygiene activities. The unwritten rule of the water was to politely look away if you were in the boat and if you were the one being seen, to realize that they didn't know you from Adam and hopefully thus minimize the embarrassment. Though I certainly didn't set out too, by the time the trip had ended, I had seen most people without their clothes on and most had seen me. It just couldn't be avoided.

But this afternoon, I had a secluded spot to myself for my bath and it went uninterrupted. Because the canyon is an arid climate that receives very little rain, it is recommended that you bathe directly in the river and allow your biodegradable soaps and shampoos to flush downstream. Because of limited spots and little rain to cleanse things, residues like shampoos can quickly accumulate on shore and provide an odorous and unsanitary condition. Generally, I would wade in to my knees, splash water to wet down my skin, quickly soap and shampoo, and then by quickly rinse by submersion. All told, this took about one minute, perhaps two at the tops but by then, my legs and most of my exposed skin would be thoroughly numb in the 46-degree water. That is why the sun kissed flat rock to rest upon while toweling dry was such a nice surprise and I was quickly warmed back up.

Back in camp, I went down to the kitchen area and watched the sunlight chase itself up the cliffs of the next bend down river. I reflected on one of the stories Ote had told me today was of Bert Loper, who in his time was known as the King of the River. In July of 1849 while celebrating his 80th birthday and running 24-1/2 mile Rapid, he had a heart attach, flipped his boat and drowned. Later they would find his boat washed up near Spook's Canyon downstream and to the right of Buck Farm Canyon. Many years after that in the 1975, his bones were found downstream and were removed for reburial with his wife who had died two months earlier. Though most of the boat had been destroyed, the remains were still chained to a tree there and offered up a chilling reminder that the river never sleeps.

Supper consisted of steak, spinach and mushroom salad, mashed potatoes, green beans and from what I saw coming off the stove, fried potatoes. As usual, I let all the other clients rush through the line first and by the time I went through ahead of the crew at their insistence, the latter item was all gone. Afterwards, we burnt some mesquite that we found on one of our hikes in the barbecue grill and sat around swapping stories until late in the night.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Nearing the Sunset of Life

My grandfather is 87 years old and his health has been steadily deteriorating these last few years. He is to the point where my grandmother is not going to be able to take care of him anymore. I would suggest she is already past that point because she can't do the things she loves anymore due to her full time job of taking care of my grandfather. But grandfather comes from a long line of stubborn people and he stubbornly refuses to move back to Iowa where family can help out.

Fortunately, my mom's brain cancer and prognosis perhaps spurred him to change his tune and he has said he is ready to move back. Last fall I did some legwork to find some full service facilities in the town where I live where they can transition from independent living to assisted living to nursing home as the need arises. During this last trip down, my wife and I spent quite a bit of time reviewing the information with my grandfather. My grandfather won't talk to my mom (his daughter) or uncle (his son) about these sort of things but he opens up to my wife because he trusts her clinical opinions I guess. So we have become the open channel of communication these last couple years.

This trip, we worked through some of the logistics of them making such a move. Foolishly I volunteered to fly down this spring and drive back a moving truck of their possessions while my uncle drives them back in their car. I'm certainly dreading the thought of that trip but will be happy when they get moved in. Fortunately, with the stuff I brought back this trip and previous cleanings, they don't have much left of sentimental value anymore, so there shouldn't be a whole lot that needs to be brought back.

Due to my grandfather's health and other logistics, this is the first time in three years I have seen him. He now hobbles only short distances with a cane and doesn't talk much anymore due to a difficulty in breathing. Still it was nice to see that old spark in him is still burning strong and his mental functions are still intact. If his body wasn't just worn out, he would be the same man I've always known. But his body is worn out and I think that depresses him some and angers him some. However this past week with his descendants all around him cheered him up and perhaps reinforced his decision to move back to where he could live among them. I'm hoping that if he survives long enough to make the move, perhaps the psychological aspects of living in a worn out body will be lessened by living among family to the point where his remaining years are a bit happier.