Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Day Two: On the River

North Canyon
I woke up in the light of false dawn and was already feeling hot. If I had to guess, the temperatures were still in the upper 70’s, which meant that today was going to be a scorcher. I would have liked to have gone back to sleep but my body said enough was enough of lying on the hard packed sand and sticking to the top of my sleeping bag. Only Heidi the cook was up getting water for coffee ready so I joined her down by the kitchen and watched the canyon walls slowly gathering color with an arriving dawn. After a time, others began to rustle and soon everything was in motion so I moved down by the beach where I could take it all in. It was a real treat just sitting there while a breakfast of honeydew melon, English muffins, eggs and bacon was prepared. After breakfast while the other clients were taking down tents, etc, I wandered up behind in the rocks and took some pictures of camp.

Today I rode with Bronco in the dory called the Phantom named after the destruction in the Phantom Ranch area. The first rapid of the day was Big House Rock Rapids, named after a big rock at the head of the rapids that is as big as a house. The rapids rushes into a boulder lined shore on the outside of a tightly radiused bend. You need to avoid the house-sized rock at the beginning but in doing so you put yourself perilously close to the boulder lined outside edge of the curve. Technically it was challenging for dories but as always, the picture makes it look like small ripples. Looks are deceiving and the first wave we hit was well over my head and engulfed me. Though it was probably 80 degrees, it was still early in the morning and it took my breath away. Unlike yesterday, I was still able to high side or throw my body weight towards the downstream gunnel to prevent the boat from being tipped over.

Bronco Scouting Big House Rock Rapids
As the trip began, everyone was left to their own devises as too where to sit in the dories and with whom. But as the trip progressed and we hit some of the bigger more difficult rapids, the crew started dictating some of this. Chief among their concerns was having the bigger guys with more weight sit up front, especially those who could high side. Their goal was to weight the boat so it punched through the waves instead of going up and over, the less stable route and for people to move their weight around whenever we were sideways to the impact, also stabilizing the boat. Because I come from a kayaking background and know these rules well, I was in great demand later in the trip, often paired with guys with mass but little to no grasp of high siding. At one point in Lava Falls, we hit a wave sideways with me on the upstream side of the boat. I had to practically stand on the gunnel and was high siding so much that I could see over the guy next to me, now underneath me, and into the eyes of the wave. That was the closest I would come to tipping over the entire trip.

We made it through Big House Rock Rapids no worse for the wear and progressed through a few small rapids before pulling out at North Canyon. We hiked up the canyon about a mile before getting rim rocked by a shear wall with a waterfall. The crew has been telling me a lot of the wildflowers aren't blooming yet due to the dry weather but that is hard to believe with all the wildflower pictures I've taken so far. We sat around in a shady limestone bowl area of the canyon for a couple hours enjoying the day before finally starting back. The way back out was a very hot hike with temperatures now well into the upper 90-degree range.

Flowering Prickly Pear Cactus
It was lunch by the time we got back to the boats so we all slithered in what little shade we could find under the tamarisk brush while it was laid out. Today was crab meat sandwich spread, leftovers from last nights supper and assorted condiments, crackers and cheeses. After lunch was over, we shoved off and were soon in a stretch of the river called the roaring 20's named for the numerous rapids that come one after another some twenty miles from our beginning at Lee's Ferry. (All river mileage is gauged in terms of miles from Lee's Ferry.)

The rapids were mostly straight shots and full of big water that quickly cooled us back down. A couple of the better rapids were Hansbrough-Richards Rapids and Cave Springs Rapids. Hansbrough and Richards were two men on the Stanton expedition who on Monday, July 15, 1889, 111 years earlier, had drowned at this very rapid and caused the abrupt end of the expedition until better boats and lifejackets could be had. Though Hansbrough's skeleton would be found downstream a year later, Richards was never found. Knowing that someone has drowned on a particular stretch of river always makes me pause and re-evaluate things that I might have taken for granted without previous knowledge.

Vasey's Paradise
Next on our journey down the river was Vasey's Paradise, named by Major John Wesley Powell after friend and noted biologist Dr. George Vasey who never got to see the springs gushing from the canyon walls or the lush flora that marks the site. I recognized tons of poison ivy and also saw squirrels, ducks, golden eyes, canyon wrens and numerous other birds I couldn't identify. Right next to Vasey's Paradise is Stanton's Cave named after the Stanton expedition, which after loosing Hansbrough and Richards to drowning, stashed their supplies in the cave and walked home. It is also a major archeology site and where the first evidence of a massive dam formed thousands of years ago was found in the form of drift wood 160 feet up from the river. This dam is a leading theory on how massive regions of the canyon were formed in a single cataclysmic event.

Somewhere around mile 33, we arrived at Red Walled Cavern that reminded me a lot of a larger Cobb's Cave on the Lost Valley trail in Ponca, Arkansas. It was a cavernous hole in the side of the cliff large enough to hold a football game in comfort on the fine white sand upon its floor. Because of our earlier lingering and the no camping allowed here to protect this natural beauty, we couldn't stay long and I barely had enough time to hike halfway to the back of the cavern and take a picture of the other boats in our group heading towards it before it was sounded that we were leaving.

Inside Red Wall Cavern


Kelly said...

Doesn't look like ripples to me - looks like very choppy water I wouldn't want to be on in one of those wooden dories!

So much of what you describe is totally foreign to me. While I spent much of my formative years on the water, it was always in connection with ski-boats, cabin cruisers, or houseboats. I've never been in a canoe, kayak, or anything like that. In fact, I only remember being on a sailboat one time. All totally different experiences, requiring different skills. And of course now I limit myself to aluminum boats on our pond where the greatest danger is hanging up on a stump or other underwater structure. Tame. Very tame in comparison to this!

Ed said...

Kelly - I don't remember how big the waves were but even the tamer rapids had six to seven foot tall waves. The biggest rapids had waves over 20 feet tall! Fortunately, I never had to swim a rapids.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

While everyone I know who has done river rapid trips have had a blast and no one got seriously injured or died, the rapids scare me. I grew up skiing as well on lakes and calm areas of the Colorado and have done some ocean/bay kayaking. The rapids though are another thing entirely. Did you ever fear for your safety or did you feel secure with each wave?
Sounds like you were an asset to the group!

Ed said...

Pumpkin Delight - There were many points where I didn't feel secure in the sense that I thought we might capsize. Most of the rapids are not dangerous to swimmers if you are wearing a life jacket and going feet first. You will get wet and swallow some water but will live. Were were taught how to stay with the boat and help right it again should that happen. However, there was one rapids where they said if we tip over, it is every person for themselves as there was a nasty rock garden below famous for mangling arms and legs. More about that story in a later post.

I personally didn't fear for my safety because I had a whitewater background and I have seen things that have killed others in the water. Thus I know what kind of situations to avoid. However, most of the other clients with me had no idea and if we capsized, I would have been worried about their safety. The crew however were highly competent and had a stellar safety record compared to some of the larger rafting trips that go down the Colorado in the summer.

sage said...

This was such a wonderful trip... I'm itching to be back in the wild

Ed said...

Sage - I certainly wish I was spending next spring there!