Friday, December 16, 2016

Day One

North Canyon

Day one began at Lee's Ferry with the temperatures in the high nineties though it was still late morning. My oar person for the day was a woman by the name of Elena who had been running the rapids of the Grand Canyon for eighteen years. Since she didn't look a day older than me, I would say the occupation had been very kind to her. Her boat was named the Hidden Canyon which is now buried under the stagnate waters of Lake Powell Sewage Lagoon. I would find out that all the dory boats are named for some natural feature that was destroyed by the hands of man. I shared the stern of the boat with Don, a retired roofer from California and in the bow were brother's-in-law Don and Larry both also retired and living in Boulder.

Elena oared us through some small ripples and large pools as we talked and got to know one another. Soon we passed under Navajo Bridge, which would be the last road we would see for several hundred miles. As per custom, lunch was lowered down to the boats from the deck of the bridge via a long rope. I'm sure we could have packed it on the boats with us but it certainly wouldn't have had the show factor lowering it from the bridge did. We pulled in at a sandbar just downstream and dug into a lunch of deli sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, fresh tomato, sprouts, all the condiments, fresh fruit, crackers, potato chips and cookies. I was surprised with all the food, they hadn't used a steel cable to insure the line wouldn't snap when lowered.

Already my body was trying to adapt to the hard desert climate. I downed two quarts of water with my lunch and still felt thirsty but held back to prevent from foundering when we started back down the river. The harshness of the sun and dry air that drove us to eat in our lunch in the cool shade of a cliff, robbed my body of moisture at an unbelievable rate. Because the literature had said that a water filter would be available all during the trip, I had only brought one quart Nalgene bottle with me which turned out to be a huge mistake. Fortunately Bronco loaned me one of his spare ones that I used for the rest of the trip. One quart would have been okay along the river but for the hikes, two quarts was never enough. Replacing fluids was only one side effect of transplanting myself from lush green Iowa to the arid canyon floor. During the course of the trip I shed several layers of skin, was constantly pampering my lips, which cracked and chapped and even had bleeding gums a few times early on until my body adapted. I always had a few open wounds from barking my bare shins on rocks or other pointy objects and those would never heal until I had gotten back to Iowa and then only after a few weeks of being in a more moderate climate. Yes, my body rebelled during my trip but I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

After lunch we hit 6-Mile Rapids and then shortly afterwards, Badger Creek Rapids which was running a 7 on the Grand Canyon scale. The Grand Canyon scale is different than the conventional rating system of western rivers where they are ranked from Class I to VI. On the Grand Canyon, the rapids are scaled 1 to 10 with 1 being flat water and 10 being the most difficult rapids that is actually runnable. Badger Creek Rapids is in an area termed Marble Canyon which is narrow at the top, a feature that gives it some of its difficulty and is full of standing waves over ten feet high. But they paled when I saw Soap Creek Rapids a couple miles further. In John Wesley Powell's day, this rapids was unrunnable but subsequent flooding has reduced it to the runable status. As I stood there looking at it from shore, I could only think that it was only barely runable. It sounded like a freight train screaming by only feet away and as we sat in our tiny dory at the edge of the brink, it was all consuming. As the boat tipped forward slightly and slid down towards the first wave, I became unaware of any sound at all. The dory climbed up and rode over, through and around the huge waves slapping me with water for the first time. The water minutes old from the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam was an icy 46 degrees and took my breath away. Without breath nor sound and now with a few hundred gallons of extra water on board, it took me what felt like an eternity to grab my bailing bucket and getting my brief boating experience back to some resemblance of order. It all happened in about a dozen seconds. Before our adrenaline could return to only semi-elevated levels, Shear Wall Rapids loomed on the horizon and doused us again with big waves. Somewhere around mile 15 for the day, we pulled into a sand beach and home for the night never looked so good… or solid.

The clients all grabbed their bags and raced off into the sand to set up tents with the exception of myself who stayed down with the crew and help get the boats unloaded completely. I was planning to sleep under the stars so didn't need to set up a tent anyway. Later as I snacked on some crab meat dip and crackers, I tallied up the living creatures calling the canyon home that I had seen during the day. I came up with four American Condors, three Mountain Sheep, numerous herons and one Peregrine Falcon, the first one I had ever seen in my life. The floral species were pretty diverse but at this point in the trip, all I recognized by name were the Century Plant and the Tamarisk or pissweed as it is called by the crew for its distinctive aroma when tossed on a campfire. Due to the lack of floods now controlled by concrete dams, the tamarisk grows unchecked along the riverbanks and is very invasive on what would have been beautiful campsites.

We had a fire and everyone was still new to each other and full of stories so it was a pretty jolly affair until the two cooks served supper. Everyone got dead serious as they attacked the chicken cordon blue, Spanish rice, steamed asparagus with some sort of sauce and a dessert of strawberry shortcake made with fresh strawberries. It was just past eight when the last dishes were done but due to the age and the plenitude of excitement earlier in the day, pretty much everyone went to bed. It was a warm night and the steep canyon walls focused light so that even the stars seemed like neon lights. I stayed up a bit enjoying the fire and the stars before finally heading out away from the crowd. I found a small clearing between some rocks, spread a tarp out and let the waters whisper me to sleep.


Kelly said...

One minute it sounds like something I would love to do, the next I'm thinking "no way!".

Even in humid south Arkansas, I'm a heavy water drinker, so I know I would have been concerned about having enough on me all the time. I think of what just a week in arid Las Vegas does to my nasal passages, so I can only imagine what something like this would be like!

I never sleep well away from home - I'd have to hope sheer exhaustion kicked in.

Ed said...

Kelly - I was really surprised about the harshness of the environment at the bottom of the canyon. Living in the lush midwest really made me a softy!

Vince said...

Wow that was a pretty good trip.

Ed said...

Vince - I always refer to it as a trip of a lifetime. It was certainly the best trip I've ever done and I'm not sure if I will ever get back despite how much I want too these days.