Friday, February 24, 2017

Day Nineteen: Mourning

There was only about an hour of light left when we shoved off and much of that was spent adjusting ropes and rigging as we floated along. We puttered along as the light faded mostly lost in our thoughts. I tried to feel some regret of having ditched my fellow clients now probably in their tents back in camp but couldn't. I was leaving in my own way to mourn the end of the trip and what had become a life changing experience. For that I couldn't apologize. When darkness enshrouded us and we could no longer safely travel even with the light of a flashlight, we anchored on a sandbar, I crawled into my sleeping bag and dozed off to the gentle rocking of the boat.

A nearly full moon arose and all too soon, a voice said, "it's time." I crawled out of my warm cocoon, untied the rope and pushed us once again into the current. We had made good time so we drifted for a while and sipped some warming whiskey. The canyon walls were getting lower to the surface of the water the nearer we approached the lake proper and as any group when around the dead, in this case a once free running Colorado River, we talked in hushed tones. There were long periods of comfortable silence and that was all right because we were all men of the same cloth. Words need not be spoken to be understood. After an hour, we started the motor again, retreated back into our minds for silent meditation and motored through the night watching the canyon walls recede into the murky depths.

The moon shining on the walls of a canyon is perhaps one of the most beautiful sights to behold. The canyon then gathers it, molds it, and shines it down upon me, an insignificant being passing through, blinding me. Twenty days ago, I had set upon a vacation of adventure and for a few days on the river, even believed it. But something inside me changed and I knew it had done so in a fundamental way where there was no going back. I first realized it at Phantom Ranch, then again at the helicopter pad along the river and at Separation Canyon. I didn't want to go back. I wanted nothing more than to be frozen in this place and spend my life running this river over and over. Eternity would never seem so sweet.

As the moon set over the rim and false dawn soon began to take over, I was chilled to the bone partly because the effects of the whiskey were wearing off. I was saddened at the thought of what was now behind me. I wanted to just roll over the side and let what was left of the Colorado river consume me. But dawn's light brightened and chased away my demons and the chills that had entered our bodies like a thief in the night. Soon the world was illuminated and I was feeling more at peace with my fate though I still was visually appalled. The cliffs that had been thousands of feet high were now no more than one hundred feet. Their walls were stained with a bathtub like ring of scum deposited by the lake during one of its higher cycles. The emerald green water we had floated on all week was a stagnate dark blue covered in a slimy scum of motor oil, Styrofoam floated everywhere along with other assorted trash that people had thoughtfully left behind for us to enjoy. I fervently wished I could collect it all, track them down and dump it on their lawn among other things that bordered into the land of the illegal.

We crossed the remainder of the lake in silence, like driving through the scene of a major battle only minutes completed and casualties strewn. When we arrived at the takeout, I carried my gear off to one side out of the way and began helping them unlash the raft flotilla of boats and carry the gear ashore. As the last boat was being stowed onto a waiting trailer, a loud nasally whine from somewhere out on the lake snuck into hearing range and soon into the visual range. A sleek jet boat pulled up and disgorged the rest of the passengers on the shore excitedly babbling about how fast the trip across the lake was. They asked me if anything had happened during the night as we slowly motored across and I told them what they would have perceived, that nothing had. The truth was that yes something had happened during the night. I had said goodbye to the canyon that I had fallen in love with and then left her behind.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Day Eighteen: My Betrayal

Baggage raft handler Nick Grimes in Travertine Grotto
I woke up to clear skies and by now knew that it meant it was going to be a scorcher of a day. We had a miniature Easter egg hunt when we woke up for some plastic eggs filled with candy. For breakfast, we had some eggs of the real kind along with some fried potatoes and French bread. With fewer people, everything was quickly loaded and we floated down the river for a few miles before stopping at Travertine Grotto.

Travertine is a type of colorful rock that takes on many different hues but seems predominantly emerald green in my colorblind perspective. The grotto a few miles up a side canyon consisted of a series of waterfalls that we could climb up. The largest and uppermost falls required a rope to scramble up. We walked around but didn't linger as already it was hot when not in the shade and there was very little of it in the grotto. We floated downstream to another place called Travertine Falls where we had lunch and did another short hike. This falls was in the shade so we sat up there for quite awhile watching the water obey gravity and soaking in the coolness. I knew exactly what a lizard feels.

Reluctantly, we walked back to the boats and pushed through a series of very good rapids before finally reaching the foul smelling stagnate waters of Lake Mead Sewage Lagoon. There were piles of Styrofoam, plastics and other discarded refuse tucked away in coves and niches and a skim coat of oil on the surface that coated the rock walls like a bathtub ring. If was disgusting that all this was done in the name of a few watts of electricity and recreation. The electricity I could understand but who would want to spend time on these foul waters when pristine water lay just a mile upstream?

We oared our way through the slime to Separation Canyon where three of Powell's men began their journey (beneath the surface of the water now) to the outside world that had slaughtered them. Now that our journey and my dream were ending, their ending seemed like a good way to go compared to the alternative of going back to my engineering job. After unloading the boats, I helped the crew rearrange them into a rig of sorts. Both rafts were tied side by side with two dories tied off in the front and the third off to one side. One of the motors was hung off the back and everything that could be was loaded back on.

Last night, I had decided that I didn't want to see more of Lake Mead than I had too and I would rather spend my remaining time with people of like mind and not with the clients, all but two of whom had only piecemealed the trip and hadn't gone the distance. They were strangers to me and I didn't think I could enjoy the last night on the shores of the sewage lagoon. So I committed an act of betrayal myself and secretly asked Bronco if there was anyway I could come with him and the other crew who were going to boat the rig and gear out through the canyons and across the lagoon proper during the night. He looked me in the eyes for a long while and I knew he could see more inside of me than I really cared. I squirmed a bit and looked down at my toes and mumbled about how I didn't think I could enjoy a night in camp when I would rather spend it with his crew who had been so nice to me. I started to assure him at how I would do anything wanted of me and stay out of the way when he interrupted and told me to keep my gear packed close by and wait for his word.

We ate a supper of steaks, salad, asparagus, mashed potatoes and cheesecake, a meal about as fine as could be had anywhere but better. It was our least meal together. Bronco told a story of Powell's journey and what had occurred at Separation Canyon to those who knew nothing about it and then walked out to the raft. Looking back, he said he needed one more person to help out and then looking at me and asked that since my gear was still all packed, if I would consider coming with him. Without a goodbye to the other two people who had gone the distance or the rest of the clients and the two remaining cooks, I threw my gear into the boat and we shoved off. I never looked back. My betrayal was done.

Water speckled lens photo of Travertine Falls. Note people climbing.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Day Seventeen: Emergency Offloading

It was clear when I woke in the morning at the bottom of the large oven that is the Grand Canyon in summer time and so it was no surprise that the day would become quite hot. A slight breeze kicked up during the night that literally sucked all available moisture out of me and it continued throughout the day making drinking water a lifesaving event. During breakfast of peach pancakes and fruit, I sensed something was up due to the crew continually whispering to each other off to the side of camp. As we started packing, they told us that Bill, the father of the family of four that arrived yesterday by helicopter, had some sort of heart problem during the night and is cutting his trip short to go to the hospital. Unfortunately, cuttings ones trip short at the bottom of a remote stretch of canyon isn't easy. The crew had called someone who was going to drive forty miles in a four wheel drive truck with a low granny gear down some canyon some miles downstream, the nearest access point of any kind, pick up the family and then drive back up with family riding shotgun in the back. Not very pleasant but the only choice.

We separated their bags out and I helped take down their tent before we pushed off. After Lava falls, the waters just seem tame and even medium sized rapids just felt like ripples. The end of the trip was a burden that was only getting heavier on my mind. We stopped at mile 220 for lunch and did a quick hike up the beach to the high water mark during the 1983 flood of 92,000 cfs. A few of us then walked about a mile up the canyon to explore and kill time before walking back to the boat. It seems wrong to be leisurely taking someone having heart problems to a destination point but we would be waiting on a truck to arrive there so we might as well be waiting here where some scenery was available as there where there wasn't much to see. When we got back to the river from our hike, I was so hot, that I rashly decided to jump in the river. Bad mistake. All heart and breathing functions immediately stopped when I hit the ice cold water that had warmed up to a balmy 50 degrees at this point 220 miles below the dam upstream. I defied all laws of physics as I merely slapped the water and then defied gravity back to shore. Once there, breathing resumed but we would be a couple miles down the river before my heart rate would assume some sort of normal rhythm.

We made it to Diamond Creek around mid afternoon and got the family of four and their gear into the back of the truck. Since they were still strangers to us, there were no tears shed or sense of betrayal but instead cordial handshakes and wishes of good luck. We also took the time to offload a lot of trash and unneeded supplies and picked up some fresh food for the last two nights, our first fresh food since the beginning of the trip. We also picked up some motors for getting across the sewage lagoon called Lake Mead and loaded up one of the dories since it was unneeded now. As a result, we also had to say goodbye to Ote whose husband and owner of the dory company had driven the truck trip down the canyon. It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check as I hugged the lady who expertly oared me through Lava Falls and may or may not have painted me in the nude, goodbye. I would truly miss her.

We pushed off and went around below Diamond Creek Rapid at mile 226 to camp for the night. It was a rocky shore and we had difficulty getting everything tied up so that things wouldn't get beat up on the rocks. After getting camp set up, I had a few beers with the crew until time for a supper of barbecue chicken, broccoli and rice casserole, garlic bread and a fresh salad. After the dishes were done, we sat around the fire telling stores late into the night. Although we have two days left, tomorrow will be the last day in the dories for the clients. As I lay down among the rocks in my sleeping bag, I wished I were dreaming so that when I woke up, we would be just beginning the trip instead of winding down to the end. The crew has started dropping details of how the end will be and as I began to drift off to sleep, I decided how I would like to say goodbye to the river at the end of the trip.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Day Sixteen: Betrayal.... Again

The sky was completely socked in when I woke in the morning but had cleared off by the time we shoved off. We had breakfast burritos and fruit in the morning and got the nine people who were leaving today sent off ahead in two dories while the rest of us struck camp. The remaining seven of us, only three of us who had gone the entire distance, got camp packed up and pushed off an hour later. We floated down to Whitmore Wash in time to see the last helicopter arrive and take the last three remaining people away and drop off a second family consisting of a single mother and her young daughter. The other family already waiting was a mother, a father and two kids.

Once again my emotions were similar to those I experienced at Phantom Ranch. Those that had been on the trip since the beginning and had left, had betrayed us in a way. They were deserters complete with guilty eyes. The six people joining us were infiltrators trying get to know those of us who had been experiencing the trip for over two weeks now through some of the biggest rapids in the world that are considered runnable by boat. Because three of the new people were children under the age of twelve, the entire dynamics of the trip would instantly change. Instead of grown adults with kids already off on their own or still single adults, we now had children around. It was like some guy who had brought his wife to a guy's night out party at a bar. It just wasn't the same anymore. All this sat as a bitter pill in my stomach and only reminded me that my trip of a lift time was going to end soon.

When the new people had been briefed on boating procedures, we shoved off and floated down to mile 195.5 for lunch. We had sandwiches and assorted munchies mostly eaten in silence. Soon after we pushed off, the wind picked up and began howling upstream at us. Elaina, my oars person for the day fought it all the way to mile 205 where we had a pretty decent rapid to relieve the tedium. At mile 206, we gave up and pulled in for the night.

I found a rock ledge to pitch my gear for the night further away from the rest of the people than normal. The wind was still whipping sand everywhere, getting into everything, which seemed to fit the mood of camp. I retreated to the raft to escape the blowing sand and where I drank a few of the beers that had been donated to me with a couple of the boatmen. Almost all the people who had left earlier in the day had donated their leftover alcohol to me since they couldn't take it with them. In all, I was fairly beer rich with well more than I could ever drink consisting of several cases of various beers and even a couple bottles of wine. This was the only positive to those that had betrayed us with their early departure. But even that had its downside because the two Germans had been some of those that had left and Jurgen hadn't left behind any of that excellent brandy of his, damn him. When I sensed that the boatmen had their own emotions to deal with and needed some time off, I slinked up the canyon behind camp to be alone until supper.

For supper we had chili, cornbread and a carrot salad. Afterwards, the skies cleared again as the wind died down and we built a small fire on the beach. As the people disappeared and the stars came out, their beauty seemed to bring back the mood of the three crew members still awake and myself. We talked about music, favorite songs, favorite album covers and favorite lyrics until late in the night. Tomorrow would be a new day with the crew, the old timers as the three of us who had gone the entire distance referred to ourselves, the older new guys and the newer new guys.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Day Fifteen: Alive Below Lava

Mid rapids photo with waterproof camera
Sitting in the front of the dory boat along with Jurgen, the elder German, we silently drifted downstream towards the lip of Lava Falls. Beyond the lip all that I could see was leaping white froth that seemed to be waving us towards our doom like sailors to a siren. My hands were locked onto the gunnel railing and for a second, I looked at them fascinated by the how white and insignificant they looked. The boat started picking up speed as we edged over the lip and slip down the tongue towards the first wave that wickedly towered above us. The boat climbed half way up the wave before the weight of the German and myself combined drove it into the interior of the wave.

The icy cold water took my breath away and the loud roar was abruptly dampened as I hung on and waited for the boat to punch out the backside of the wave. The water continued tossing me around like I was inside a washing machine but I continued to hang on for what seemed like an eternity. I was just about to let go and swim for freedom, certain that we had flipped over when we suddenly emerged into daylight. I gasped for breath as the boat with another half ton of water added to its weight, groaned and slid down the backside of the wave into a water trough so deep that the gates of Hades had to be nearby. With all the additional weight, the boat didn't even pretend to go over the second and much bigger wave and just dove into the immense face. Again I hung on and contemplated life inside a washing machine but once again we punched out into daylight and slid down into the trough heading for yet a third wave. Once more into the wash cycle and once more we lurched into daylight.

The wave train ahead started getting smaller and the boat full of water, passengers and gear were now able to lurch over them like a drunk on a roadside curb. We were through! I wasn't going to die after all! I had survived the mother of all rapids! Wait. Through my euphoria-laced brain, I heard this scream piercing my mind that sounded almost primeval and not of this world. I looked around searching for the source when I realized that it was coming from the German. No wait, it was also coming from the couple in back. Wait, I was yelling too! Then it hit me, we were all yelling in euphoria at having cheated death. We were alive below Lava!

Yet another primeval scream of "Bail!" pierced my other scream already in progress and once again I started searching for a source to this new sound and saw Ote straining at the oars trying to eddy us out as the boat lurched full of water over waves still six feet tall. It still took a few seconds for my brain to process that it wasn't over yet and that we still could tip over if we didn't get some more freeboard by lightening the load and once it did register, I grabbed the bailer and started bailing the water like a man on a sinking ship who didn't know how to swim. The other passengers quickly caught on, and helped with the bailing. Soon our boat was riding much higher and we were pulling into shore.

Ote told us to get out while she oared back ready to help if any of the three other dories or two rafts behind us flipped over. I grabbed my camera and scrambled upstream stumbling over the sharp lava rocks that cut my legs like razors in an attempt to get some pictures of the remaining boats coming through the rapids. After all the boats had safely made it through Lava and were pulling towards shore, I walked back downstream to the beach where everyone was gathering. The euphoric high was starting to wear off and I finally noticed blood dripping down from a half dozen wounds on my legs. I still had enough of that high not to care so I took an offered beer, popped the top and held it up as we toasted our survival in the dory boat tradition. We were ABL, Alive Below Lava.

When the celebrations died down, we floated on down the river to mile 185-1/2 where we made camp for the night on a huge sand bar. After the initial flurry of setting up camp or tossing my gear in a pile, as was my case, we all kept talking about Lava and the nine people who would be leaving us tomorrow. Because of my journal writing, I was designated group address note taker, so I walked around getting everyone's personal information so that I could send it out after everyone went back to their regular lives.

The crew mixed up some cocktails and an avocado dip to munch on while we waited for the preparation of a beef and chicken enchilada dinner complete with rice and a cake to celebrate Jorge's birthday. After supper, the traditional Lava Follies, or skit show put on by crew and clients alike, began around a roaring fire. There were poems, songs, jokes and stories told by all. Ote read a speech given by Chief Seattle that was absolutely beautiful and since everyone was curious about what I wrote in my journals, I read today's excerpt about Lava. The crew then handed out awards (chucks of lava rock), commemorating the identifiable trait of each client. I received the Harvey Butchart award for hiking every mile of every hike and then some.

After the follies, I stayed up late into the night with some of the crew swapping jokes and reveling in the day. Clouds started moving in but we were all full of sunny cheer at having cheated the river one more time and more importantly, surviving to tell about it.

Alive Below Lava Celebration!