Monday, January 30, 2017

Day Ten

[I'm back from my trip and will be catching up on all your blogs. For those that asked questions or left comments last week, I have answered those if you go back and have a look. It's good to be home!]

Lower Falls Elves Chasm
I woke this morning to a sky filled with clouds but rapidly clearing out. By mid-morning, they were gone. After a breakfast of grapefruit, eggs, bacon and English muffins, we struck camp and shoved off for a day of mild whitewater, comparatively speaking of course. The hard black schist and granite are behind and we are now in the softer Topeats layer that tends to smooth out the rapids. Around mid-morning, we pulled in near the mouth of Elves Chasm and after switching into footgear, set off up the canyon. The mouth of the canyon is arid desert and has been painted in colors of gray and brown. Inside the canyon proper, much brighter colors were used and it was a lush green dotted with lots of wildflowers like yellow columbine (the yellow version of my personal favorite flower that I love in blue), globe mallow, scarlet monkey and red orchids.

Perhaps 95% of the people who visit Elves Chasm only visit the main falls and don't go any higher. Most likely that figure is even higher and that is just fine with me. A thing of such beauty should only be seen by those who can physically make it because in my experience, they are the ones who are likely to leave it the way they found it and not those who simply ride in on horse back or drive up it in their vehicle. Getting up and around the main falls requires sure-footed legs and no fear of big exposures. At times, my legs trembled at the prospect of only being six inches away from a huge drop onto rocks below but with patience, I was always able to persuade them to take another step. Further up it required a belly crawl on an overhung ledge giving one a real sense of what it is like to be a snake. I remembered Edward Abbey writing about doing this very same belly crawl at this point and I was honored to have been in the same spot, perhaps choking on the very same dust that was being kicked up during the slither.

Eventually, the few of us that made it this far, came to what appeared to be a dead end in a hollowed out section of rock with a huge boulder leaning against it. But where that boulder meets the cliff some eight feet in the air, there is a narrow opening of sorts. By standing on my tiptoes and reaching up through the opening, I was able to get a good handhold and pull myself up by brute strength alone. Only five of us, three of them crew members made it past this obstacle. Further up the canyon, I was forced to blindly reach around a boulder perched on the top of a thirty-foot drop off to find another handhold. With my arm essentially belaying the rest of my body, I leaned back to get enough pressure on my feet to friction walk the shear face around a corner and to the safety of another ledge. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Had it not been for the crew members who had been here before and could talk us through where the "holds" were, I wouldn't have made it this far.

The last obstacle, which wasn't really an obstacle, was a "doorway" formed by huge boulders obscuring everything beyond. Bronco paused briefly to say that it is tradition that no words be spoken beyond this passageway and once inside in what has been called the "green room" or "weeping wall," I could see why. There, your route is once again rimmed in by a half bowl ledge of red rock over which the water spreads out some fifty feet and seeps over the lip to fall and trickle down thirty feet of moss and wildflowers to the green pool below. Yellow columbine and red monkey flowers were everywhere. Magical is the only word to describe a place of such beauty. For twenty minutes, I sat completely entranced watching the hummingbirds flitting around sipping nectar from the scarlet monkey flowers. I sat in silence, never blinking, never moving, never enjoying myself so much as I was then. As if on cue, we sensed that our time in this sacred place had run out and we silently made our way back to where we had left the group. Only later after we found them did I realize that I hadn't taken one single photograph of the weeping wall. Its beauty had been so great, it had lulled to sleep my photographic instincts.

Back down at the mouth of the canyon, we munched some lunch of pita bread sandwiches and assorted vegetables and cheeses in what shade we could fine and pushed on downriver to the mouth of Blacktail Canyon at mile 120. After pitching camp, the entire group hiked up the canyon a couple hundred yards to a nice waterfall and a pool where the river rim rocked us in. There, while crew member Elena gave a geology lecture, I searched for a comfortable spot on a rock shelf and laid down letting the coolness of the rock remove the day's heat from my body. The next thing I can remember is waking up an hour later as people were starting to file away from the now ended lecture. I offered a sheepish apology to Elena and she fully understood. It happens to the best now and then.

Now fully refreshed, I hiked with a couple of the crew who were my age up to the top of the Topeats layer where we had a nice view of camp below and the river. Sitting there sipping a river cooled beer, we were kings on a throne over looking our kingdom and what a magnificent one at that. We watched another private group eddy out where our boats were evidently intent on camping right where we were. After much confusion and looking at maps, they pulled out and headed on downstream to destinations unknown. When I had finished my beer, I hiked down wanting to clean the grime from the last couple days and little did I know that I would take part in the great nude bathing incident which I will blog about next.

Cleaned (and now fully clothed), I found a big flat rock on the water's edge and watched the sun sink behind the downstream rim in brilliant oranges and pinks. After a supper of fish fajitas and pineapple upside down cake, everyone retired as usual except for the crew and myself. We remained behind to swap tales and to admire the stars and the nearly full moon. The shadows cast off the cliffs by the moonlight is absolutely stunning and later is felt like trying to sleep with a car light shining in your face. But the gurgle of the river passing by my patch of sand among some rocks out on a point in the river finally lured me to sleep. The trip is exactly half over.

Blacktail Canyon

Friday, January 27, 2017

Day Nine

[I'm off this week on an adventure but my series on the Grand Canyon river trip will continue on.]

The sky was completely socked in when I woke up this morning. I wasn't in any particular hurry to get up but my farm boy biological clock wouldn't stop even at the bottom of the Grand Canyon so I joined the cooks for the early morning preparations. Today is going to be another layover day so everyone else slept in allowing me to get caught up on my journal writing and gawking. I was in awe as wave after wave of clouds disappeared over the rim line, turning a flaming red from the rising sun. I might have just gone hungry had it been going on by the time breakfast was served but it finally ended in a cloudless sky so that I could enjoy my fresh melon, pancakes and sausage.

The longest hike option for today was a long ways and because I had excellent map reading skills, trip captain Bronco let me set off early with the promise to wait by the head of a particular canyon that some crew members and myself wanted to see. So as soon as I had my lunch packed, I did just that heading up a hill and crossing over a pass down into Shinumo Wash. We had been told that today would be a "foot dry" hike so I had left my river shoes back at camp but when I got to Shinumo Creek, it was swollen and muddy though not very deep or broad. From my maps, I could see my first destination for the day was on the same side of the creek that I was on so rather than crossing it twice, I bushwhacked to the remains of W.W. Bass's camp.

W.W. Bass is a well-known name in Grand Canyon history. Although a native of Indiana, he settled in Arizona in 1880 and eventually in the depth of the Grand Canyons searching for the mythical mother lode of gold that supposed to be there. When that dream didn't pan out (pun intended), he became a guide and through a series of old Indian trails, created one of the first cross canyon routes. The old cable setup remains that we had looked at the day before were his creation and linked the trails on both sides of the river. Now, the only remains of his camp besides the cable car setup were a bunch of pots, pans and tools.

I set off again along the trail now once again on my side of swollen Shinumo Creek but was soon rim rocked. With a long hike ahead, I opted to take off my hiking boots and with difficulty, slipped and slid across to the other side. After thoroughly drying my feet and getting reshod, I started off again only to get rim rocked once again. I repeated my process for three more times before deciding that my only real choice was to wade through boots and all, which I did. My hiking time improved and soon I found myself at the head of Bass Creek where the hiking was much easier. I also met up with one of the baggage raft rowers, Lee Hall who had also made the decision to just wade through after a few crossings, just as I had promised Bronco.

After about two miles up White Canyon, we were up in the Tapeats stone layer and the canyon narrowed in so much that you could reach out and touch both sides at once in areas. The stream disappeared and we were dramatically stopped by what would have been a spectacular waterfall in wetter weather. Lee and I ate lunch on a ledge at the base of the dry falls while waiting for anyone else who decided to come up here to reach us. Only two other people, both crew members showed up.

In the cool shade of the slot canyon, I could have stayed forever especially knowing how hot it was out in the "rest" of the world but my water supplies were dangerously low due to the especially hard hike up here and it was a long, long ways back. I kept a steady pace and though tried not too, still rationed my water out to sips as I made my way back. In my dehydrated haze, I did notice that Shinumo stream was an emerald green on the way back and not a muddy brown but that only made the thirst worse. Parched, sore, my bad knee swollen like a grapefruit and utterly exhausted, I staggered back into camp after twelve rugged miles and over a dozen strenuous stream crossings. I was a happy camper as I downed almost a gallon of fluids and regaled the other older clients about my adventure. Everyone was still jubilant and very much ABC (Alive Below Crystal).

When the crew made it back, we celebrated with some scotch and cigars. I didn't smoke so I celebrated with some scotch on the upwind side. Dinner was a hearty pasta with shrimp, a green salad and French bread and never tasted so good. Afterwards we sat around the campfire a bit, the non-hiking clients being well-rested and able to stay up past eight. Growing bored of their retirement stories, I hobbled down to the beach where I found Bronco, Lee and Nick telling stories mostly of their past. Realizing the delicate balance in their lives between being themselves and being hosts for a group of paying clients, I sat on the very edge of the group and just listened. Nick has told me that the crew feels comfortable around me and I'm welcome to join them anytime but I still try not to push it. The star gazing tonight was put on hold as the clouds of this morning returned and socked us completely in. In the narrows of the canyons with a low blanket of clouds hovering right above, our camp feels eerily like a coffin.

Lee Hall getting ready to climb up to waterfall ledge

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Day Eight: Alive Below Crystal

[I'm off this week on an adventure but my series on the Grand Canyon river trip will continue on.]

Ote & Bob just above THE HOLE in Crystal Rapids
Crystal Rapid is a fairly new one as far as the Grand Canyon goes. In Powell's days, it wasn't even noteworthy among inner gorge rapids. Then in 1969, a flood of Crystal Creek dislodged boulders out of the side canyon into the main channel and creating a demon of a rapid. Another flood in 1983 swept some huge boulders from the top of the rapid down stream which created a severe challenge to boats especially in lower water conditions that we found upon reaching Crystal in our dories. No one in their right mind would now purposely go through the top center of THE HOLE in the right middle of the rapid and you couldn't go left of THE HOLE if you wanted to avoid the massive rock garden below that would be guaranteed to smash you and your boat to pieces. The only option was to avoid THE HOLE on the right, which was easy in high water but extremely difficult in low water due to a rock shelf upstream of the hole that projected halfway out into the river. The only run that was doable was to just miss the rock shelf in the middle of the river at the top of the rapids and pull for all you were worth towards the shore on river right avoiding THE MANEATING HOLE and not slam into shore.

We got out and scouted the rapid but this time instead of searching for the most likely spot were my body would wash up if ever, I found myself looking down the gullet of THE MONSTER HOLE. As far as holes go, it wasn't as particularly deadly as it looked. It would definitely flip over most boats with ease but it would flush you out fairly quickly. What was deadly and where most people have been killed in this rapid was the rock garden down below where the river wanted to sweep you. The guides were pointing fingers and scowling again but this time I saw a look of worry on their faces. The called a group meeting and confirmed my suspicions. The water was too low to safely allow all the clients to ride the boats through. They needed at least half of the clients to walk around the rapids to decrease the weight and give them a fighting chance to get around the rock shelf to the right of THE HOLE. They asked for volunteers. Nobody raised his or her hands. They said that all rules were off on this rapid and if our boat were to turn over, it was every person for themselves and that we had to swim for the right shore for all we were worth. Nobody raised hands. If they didn't get any volunteers, we all would have to walk around. Nobody raised his or her hands.

About this time, I noticed that most of the clients were now looking at me. Surprised at the attention, I looked at our trip captain Bronco and immediately knew what had to be done. Bronco knew it and I could see it in his eyes. I raised my hand and said that I would volunteer because I wanted to get some action water shots anyway. Immediately about three quarters of the rest of the clients volunteered to walk around too. It was only later in camp that Bronco would pull me privately aside and thank me for volunteering. What he realized and what I realized when everyone was looking at me was that my youth compared to the other clients gave other clients courage. When I volunteered to walk around, they suddenly remembered their mortality and decided that if I was afraid to go through Crystal than perhaps they should be terrified.

My suspicions were proven correct when many people asked me later why I had elected to walk. I carried out my bravado with the picture story but in truth, I had been terrified. But I was also young and naive and would have ran it anyway had enough people volunteered before me. In the end, I sat on a rock directly across from THE HOLE and took pictures as the crew and a few clients successfully ran the rapid without any mishaps. Our group mantra became ABC or Alive Below Crystal.

After lunch, we oared through a series of rapids called the Gems of the Canyon. After all the adrenaline of the morning, it felt good to drift to Bass Camp at mile 108.5. It is a gorgeous camp nestled among the black schist and pink granite with thousands of brittlebush blooming throughout. After setting up camp, we did a short hike upstream to check out the ruins of an old cable car crossing. Jorge and I per usual, hiked on further and found some old Anasazi ruins. Back at camp when I told our expert crew person Lee Hall about the ruins, he hadn't known about them so I took him back up to where they were. We poked around a bit and found a park service identification tag and lots of pottery shards. It was a beautiful place to build a home with all the brittlebush, prickly pear and hedgehog cactus blooming around the hill.

Supper was ready when Lee and I got back and consisted of spikers, hamburgers, baked beans, mashed potatoes and all the fixings. Spikers are a foot long and similar to spicy Polish sausages but much tastier. After supper we sat around the campfire and listened to stories from the crew about previous Crystal encounters. I'm glad they told us these after we were alive and below the rapid. The assistant cook Mary and myself talked everyone off to sleep with a conversation on books and my journals until we too headed our separate ways. Clouds started moving in and the sand was blowing through the air but I slept outside under the stars anyway and was quickly oblivious to it all thanks to the adrenaline high I had been on most of the day.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Day Eight: Alive Above Crystal

[I'm off this week on an adventure but my series on the Grand Canyon river trip will continue on.]

Lee Hall muscling the baggage raft through Hermit Rapid
Dawn was taking hold and it was looking like a beautiful day but my stomach was full of butterflies when I awoke with the realization that today we would hit our first seriously big rapids. I kept Heidi company while she cooked breakfast alternating between conversation and reading Edward Abbey's "The Hidden Canyon" that is about his trip down the Colorado in a wooden dory boat. Now that I was rereading it after having visited some of the very same places and camped on the same spots, it made it all the more special.

Breakfast was melon slices, eggs, bacon and English muffins. We packed up camp and shoved off into the unknown for Powell and for me many years later. Salt Creek Rapid had big waves and we all got wet and all too soon we were at the head of Granite Rapid. We got out and scouted it but all I could see was a frothy white roar over a hundred yards that looked like it would just as soon split up our dory for toothpicks rather than allow us through. The crew pointed here and there, occasionally shaking their heads in disagreement and perhaps saying words like "surefire watery grave" etc. It seemed like forever before they agreed on a route and way too soon at the same time. Reluctantly because I still had not made a will, I stepped into the boat and we drifted down the tongue at the head of the rapid and right into the roaring mouth full of watery teeth.

I believe the brain is an incredibly complex piece of living tissue and capable of doing amazing things. I think one of these amazing things is to turn off the video and go into occasional snapshot mode to protect the mind of the individual from getting overloaded. I know this because now that I am writing this, I only remember snapshots of our run through Granite Rapid.

Snapshot One: A huge wall of water is coming in from our left. I sitting on the right immediately highsided (lurch towards the wave to shift our center of gravity) so far over the edge that I am actually looking over Jurgon's head and into the green water on the left side of the boat.

Snapshot Two: I am completely underwater and I am fully aware that we have capsized. I have the distinct feeling that this is what it would feel like in a washing machine in the heavy wash cycle.

Snapshot Three: Sweet Jesus, I am breathing air! I'm alive! Elaina says, "Nice". A bigger wall of water than the first obscures the light and almost makes me loose control of my bowels.

Snapshot Four: Lots of bubbles as the currents pound my submerged body this way and that.

Snapshot Five: More air! A third wall of water!

Snapshot Six: More bubbles. I counted until I was sure we were capsized and never coming back up. Not sure which way was up or even what to do so I hang onto the gunnels and await for death to take my memories away.

My brain's video mode suddenly comes back online. We lurch out into air gunnel full of water and screaming like raving lunatics. I'm not sure I was screaming for any reason other than as an outlet for all the adrenaline but if felt nice to be alive enough to scream and so we all did. The boat tipped sickenly one way and then another as we frantically began to bail while going over tiny ten foot waves in a train at the bottom of the rapid. Eventually we stabilize, our voices grow hoarse of screaming and grow quit as we eddy out to watch the other boats. We hadn't beaten the river because no one beats the river. The river just let us loose to live for one more day and another rapid. That rapid soon arrived in the form of Hermit Rapid.

Hermit Rapid was always a nerve-wracking run according to the crew but thanks to a flash flood in 1997, it was a genuine terror now. It is a series of five waves each bigger than the previous one with the fifth being a monster easily 20 feet high and capable of flipping the largest raft. Prior to 1997 there had been a "cheat route" on the left side of the waves but not anymore. Now the full force of the Colorado water load gets narrowed down and funneled through this rapid. These forces that form the rapid also cause stomachs to churn and spines to shrivel, especially at the sight of the fifth wave that is taller than most houses. It is not a smooth, glistening wave, although sometimes it rises cleanly only to unpredictably collapse at the top of its surge, falling back upstream with enough force to stop even a large raft. The crew say it is like driving up a hill and having the highway collapse beneath your car. So far according to word of mouth from the private groups ahead of us, Hermit had been flipping three of every four boats so far this season.

We again got out and scouted for what seemed like forever and yet not long enough before the first half of our party was sent through. We hit the first three waves squarely but somehow on the fourth got spun around completely sideways to the fifth and granddaddy of all the waves. I felt as if I were swimming in glue as I reacted so slowly to get into my highsiding position. In my attempt to highside, I actually stood on my gunnel to lean over Jurgen's gunnel (why we always hit the waves with his side of the boat I'll never know) in an attempt to get as much weight towards the wave. The monster wave played nicely and didn't collapse upon us as we submerged into its upstream face and came back up miraculously still upright on its downstream side. All the crew, including Elaina our oarsperson, expressed surprise that we hadn't flipped. I think the river was just toying with us like a cat does with an injured mouse.

We came upon Boucher Rapid and made it through without any problems and then before I wanted, we were at the grand mother of all rapids, the most dangerous rapid, the one rapid where the crew told us all rules previously pounded into our heads were now to be disregarded. We were staring down the face of Crystal Rapid.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Day Seven

Dogweed on Black Schist
As I walked down the path to Phantom Ranch, which is actually set up a side canyon a little ways from the river, I was mulling over the things I wanted to do. I wanted to get a bottle of sunscreen to protect my feet which had already been sun burnt badly the previous day when I ran out of the little I had brought (I would carry white strips where my sandal straps crossed my feet for almost a year before they matched the rest of my skin.) and send off a few postcards which were taken out of the canyon by mule train. But the well-worn paths smelling of donkey piss were distracting my thoughts and not helping the foul mood that I would be experiencing later.

Phantom Ranch was originally a Native American trading site that was later used by prospectors of the river canyons. Theodore Roosevelt visited it while hunting and loved it so much that he worked to get it included in the national park system during his tenure in office. It has since been made into a resort of sorts that is mostly fully booked for two years in advance. There is a little cafeteria that serves only meals that has been scheduled in advance and a little shop that sells things to tourists. After seven days of being disconnected from society in almost every way, I entered the latter with high thoughts.

Almost instantly I was overwhelmed. The frigid air from an air conditioner smelled terrible stale and put my body into shock. Shivering, I bought a small tube of sunscreen for the princely sum of almost $15 because I didn't have a choice and a few postcards. I sat down at a table to write some words of humor to friends and family but couldn't shake the dry, canned, almost sterile feeling of the environment. Some piped in music over the speaker system seemed garishly loud and obnoxious as if boring through my head with a dull drill bit. Reality started slipping and everyone, everywhere were laughing and screaming like circus clowns in a horror movie with a bad plot. Suddenly I felt sick and claustrophobic, so much so that my head started reeling making me feel very dizzy and light-headed. I quickly wrote a few words, jammed the postcards into the mailbox and staggered out of the building, down the foul smelling trail now making me gag, and back to the boats along the river. There I sat in the shade of a tamarisk bush allowing the cold sweats to dissipate and my reeling senses to stabilize as I spent the rest of the morning hiding from civilization and drawing in my journal. (I never took a photo of Phantom Ranch.)

It has only been seven days on the river and it now felt like seven years. Suddenly I didn't want to go back from the world I had come from. It was a world full of artificial and unnatural things and this week, I had my eyes opened to what life was truly like and should be. As I sat there doodling a drawing of Bronco's boat, The Phantom Ranch, I realized just how appropriately it had been named. It wasn't a geographical feature now buried under miles of water like the names of the other boats but it had been destroyed just the same. For me, Phantom Ranch was something evil and foul and a place that I hope never to visit ever again. As I sat eating my lunch a little later, Bronco came by and sensed that I was not well. He asked if I was okay and I told him some of what I was feeling. I could see the understanding in his eyes and knew he felt it as well. He said it never gets any easier, got his lunch and wandered off down the beach to eat his lunch alone and away from Phantom Ranch.

Eventually the other passengers wandered down to the boats and the four new people who hiked down from the south rim this morning also showed up. They were given a brief lecture on the dos and don'ts of dories and promised a longer session in tonight’s camp. We said goodbye to the three who were to spend the night here and hike out the next morning and went on our way.

The three who had left were all people who had been on other segments of the dory trip and had come back to finish what they had started. I knew this and couldn't blame them. However I couldn't help but think vile thoughts towards them and the four newcomers. I felt the leaving three were breaking a bond that had grown to such strength in seven days one that only intense close proximity experiences that few share could create. They were leaving a huge void, one that necessarily had to be filled for financial reasons and some safety as a heavy dory deals with huge waves better than a light one. They felt almost like traitors in my mind for putting us in this position.

As we "met" the four new people, I could tell by the morose attitudes of clients and crew alike (though the latter handled it much more privately and professionally), I wasn't the only one thinking vile thoughts. These newcomers felt like intruding strangers into a world that we had created and grown close over the course of seven days. They were here for only the middle segment and then would be gone very much like a corporate raider after acquisition of some new company. They were rookies. They got into Bronco's boat and we set off downstream.

This trip has changed me in such a drastic way in only seven days and would do so to such an extent by the end of the trip that it would take a few years before I realized the full extent of my emotional turmoil. I've heard of survivors who were forced to survive great lengths of time alone have problems re-entering society and for the first time in my life, I knew exactly how they felt. Looking back, I know we were pretty hard on the newcomers those first few days after Phantom Ranch and undeservedly so. We somewhat ignored them treating them like the outsiders they were and they for the most part sensing our foul moods, rode together in a boat together so that we only had to be around them while in camp. Reading back through my journal entries of over eight years ago (now sixteen), I understand this now though at the time I blamed them in various ways throughout my journal entries for the remainder of the trip. Perhaps you will pick that up in some of my entries that I will post later. Gradually however, they earned their way into our group and by the time they left at the end of the second segment, I knew I would miss them. But an emotional knot in my stomach kept growing that peaked at the end of the trip and has never gone away.

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.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Polk Salad Annie, Gators' Got Your Grannie

Every year, we try to do one activity as a large group. A couple years we went deep sea fishing, a couple more we did trips to nearby scenic areas and another couple years we all just went to see a movie and eat out at a nice restaurant. This year, since we were in a different area of Florida, we opted to try something local to that area, an air boat ride. We drove north to the Kissimmee River Basin at the head of the Everglades where we charted a couple air boats to take us out through the swamps and marshes to see what we might see. We were hoping to see some alligators and we did, the biggest one a 12 footer seen above. We saw lots of flora and fauna that was exotic to us as well. It was a good trip though a bit on the chilly side since it was only in the low 40's there. Don't worry, we had our light jackets on while the pilots of the air boats were bundled up in heavy down parkas!

Shrimp Boil
Another of our traditions has always been to have a shrimp boil for one meal. In the past, we've always had it towards the end of the trip but there always seemed to be leftovers that had to be tossed before the long drives back home. This year, we did it on the second night there so we could eat leftovers the rest of the week. There were only 13 of us eating, (my grandfather wasn't feeling up to coming over for supper) and we still had enough food to last us several meals.

Path through the preserve
Our rental was just down the road a mile from an preserve where they are trying to establish oak scrub for the scrub jay bird. We did a walk there one afternoon on the only trail which was a vehicle access road that also doubled as a fire break. There was no need for maps because you really couldn't get off trail due to impenetrable scrub growth. I saw one gopher tortoise burrow though it appeared to be inactive. That was the first one of those I've ever seen in my life. We also saw long long leaf pines, a species of trees I don't run into very often either. My southern living brother spends a fair amount of time trying to propagate the species of tree at his job so it was neat listening to him talk about them.

Long Leaf Pine Adorned with Spanish Moss