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

Settled In

I know exactly why my grandfather changed his mind and decided to move up here closer to his daughter, grandchild (me) and great grandchildren. It wasn't because my wife and I were more convincing in our reasoning that we gave them over Christmas. It was because my mom, their daughter, has brain cancer. Although it is technically still in remission, it is still there and isn't curable. Depending on when it comes back, and it will come back, my mom may have options to prolong her life further, but ultimately it will be a terminal disease. Brain cancer is measured in the percentage of people who live five years with the disease. In my mom's case, she has a 25% chance of living that long. I'm sure all this played heavily in my grandparent's decision.

This also scares me too because if my mom becomes unable to offer my grandparents assistance during their remaining years, I'm by default, probably going to inherit the brunt of that task. After nearly 20 years of only seeing my grandparents once or twice a year due the distances involved, it will be nice for an excuse to play catch up with them. But it may also be a serious time commitment and that scares me. However, even if it turns out to be the worst of all time commitments and I'm looking back at it with 20/20 vision, I know I would still do it because we are family and that is what families do.

Onward with the rest of the story though.

We got my grandparents escorted up here via the only direct flight between our airports to make things as easy as possible.

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!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Day Fifteen: Lava Falls

Getting ahead of myself, below Lava Falls looking back upstream
Today was a beautiful day with lots of sun, by far the hottest day of the trip so far. I wondered what it was like on the outside of the canyon walls in that "other world" I once knew. Despite the long hike to Mooney Falls yesterday, I woke up early even by my standards and couldn't fall back asleep. I "inch wormed" my way over to a nearby rock in my sleeping bag and watched the sky transform itself into all shades of red, pink and yellow. I would have taken a picture if I could have reached my camera from the comfort of my sleeping bag but I couldn't and so I didn't. Eventually the cooks awoke and began rustling down in the kitchen area so I packed up my gear and moseyed on down to talk with them as a breakfast of cherry French toast with strawberry yogurt was prepared.

Perhaps it was the campsite, the air, or the knowledge of what was in store for the day but everyone seemed to get an early start today, even the wandering couple we picked up at Phantom Ranch and we were on the water in record time. For twenty-one miles, we mostly floated on the calm water with the occasional small riffle broken only by a lunch stop at National Canyon. We ate some pasta salad and other munchies and also did a short hike. Too quickly we passed the Devil's Anvil, a chunk of black lava rock notorious for what it represents and heard an almost white noise in the distance that too quickly turned into a pulsing roar. We eddied out on river left and hiked downstream to finally behold the monstrosity blocking our downstream progress.

Every single one of my internal organs ran down into the vicinity of my small toe, including my stomach which was the size and consistency of a peach pit. Twenty-foot waves churned, crashed, sucked, boiled and ground past me from one drop to another as I stood on shore watching. The roar was deafening. This was the biggest rapid on the Colorado River. This was the famous Lava Falls, site of this video where a raft twice the size of my boat is tossed around like a child's toy.

My oars person for the day was Ote, the very petite wife of the company owner in her 60's, and the muscle of the sixteen-foot fragile wooden dory that myself and three others were about to cast off into Lava's fury. She was probably one hundred pounds fully dressed and dripping wet and try as I might, I couldn't imagine her maneuvering a half-ton of boat, passengers and gear through that maelstrom of water. There just wasn't any way. So here I was looking at the white froth they were calling a rapid, thinking it looked more like a killer, and silently contemplating how quick death would come to me and whether it would come by drowning or being smashed into the rocks. The only thing that I was certain about was that my death was imminent.

When I couldn't stand it anymore and decided to walk back to where the boats were tied up river where I wouldn't have to contemplate my death. On the way I met trip leader Bronco heading back the way I had come and he asked if I was ready to go down. I put on a big smile and lied, "I can't wait!" Bronco replied, "Great, because your boat is going down first." I think my stomach squirted out from my toenail at that point.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Day Fourteen: Mooney Falls

Mooney Falls
I had wanted to wake up during the peak of the full moon but unfortunately slept through it. Apparently a full moon makes a lot of light but not much noise. I was feeling a little slow so when I did open my eyes to light of the star persuasion, I leisurely packed up my gear and headed down to the beach for the loading of the boats and thus giving my status as one of the first ones ready to others this morning. After a breakfast of toasted bagels, eggs, and potatoes, we loaded up and pushed off.

We paddled about five miles to Havasu Canyon where we were dropped off for the day. The stream was a brilliant crystal blue and held many fine swimming holes and waterfalls. The whole valley was lush with grapevines and none of the crew that I asked knew why that was other than they were in all the old pictures they had seen from the 1800's. Though there were usually three or four options with every hike, today there were only two options. Option A was to hike to Mooney Falls with Lee setting the pace so that we would make it back with adequate time to continue on our journey. Option B was to spend the day in the lush grapevines swimming in among the pools and waterfalls. I was sorely tempted to try the more relaxed option for once on this trip but the urge to explore was too strong and I opted for Option A. I was beginning to get a reputation of going the distance on every hike and deep down inside, I had to keep it intact.

Lee set off at a blistering half trot with Nick, Art, Anita, Jorge and I right behind. Anita quickly dropped off the pace and went back to enjoy Option B, but the rest of us kept up crossing six miles of some of the most rugged terrain in about two and a half hours. My bad knee was swollen when we arrived and my screaming body wasn't too much into eating but I forced myself to eat and drink quickly in the spectacular beauty of Mooney Falls. Fifteen minutes after we arrived and just as I had snapped a couple pictures of the falls following the inhalation of my sandwich, Lee said it was time to be heading back. I dry swallowed a couple Advil as I trotted towards where he had already disappeared down the trail. The pace back was just as blistering.

I made it to the boats somehow with fifteen minutes to spare, very much thanks to Lee's pace setting abilities and we pushed off downstream. Sitting on hard fiberglass benches never felt so good. We paddled only a few miles before stopping at a cozy camp called Second Chance camp at mile 158. Everyone that went to Mooney falls were tired out and there really wasn’t anyplace accessible behind camp so we stayed in camp and ate salmon spread and crackers until a supper of a shrimp and vegetable stir-fry over rice.

After supper, I limped out on Duffy’s dory and had a beer with him and Nick and shot the breeze for awhile. During dinner, Jorge had given me one of his dark German brews as well so I had plenty of libations. After a hard day’s hike, they went down just right along with another couple of Advil. Later after everyone went to bed, the few of us remaining talked about upcoming Lava Falls and the flips people have had there. It has been a trip free of any flips this far and because that isn’t the norm, I think Lava Falls, the last really huge rapid on the river, weighs heavily on the crew’s mind. I know it weighs heavily on my mind. When I went to bed, sleep was long in coming and even then, huge and heavy waves haunted my dreams. Tomorrow at Lava, we all will face our demons.