Monday, February 27, 2017

Catching Mr. Ringtail

A story that I neglected to tell during my Grand Canyon blog posts because it happened gradually over a couple weeks and didn't fit the daily format was the story of my attempt to spot a ring tailed cat.

For being at the bottom of a huge canyon not accessible except for only a handful of points during its 250 mile journey, I was immediately surprised by the variety of fauna to be found. I remember early on in the trip after all the other clients had gone to bed, one of the baggage raft guys produced a black light from his raft and shined it around camp. Scorpions have some iridescent component of their exoskeleton and it shows up well under a black light. My breath was taken away at the thousands of scorpions that were crawling around everywhere, even on some of the clients tents. Since I spent the entire trip sleeping outside of a tent, I always made sure to unroll my sleeping bag only when I was going to immediately get inside it and always checked my shoes before putting them on in the morning. I spent many a lunch break poking around with a stick but never saw one in the daylight.

I saw lots of lizards, a rattlesnake, condors, a coyote, mountain sheep and many more but one inhabitant continued to elude me, the ring tail cat. I noticed his presence a few days into the trip when I woke up in the morning to find some cat like tracks in the sand only feet from where I had slept. I asked Bronco what had left those tracks and he had told a ring tail cat. Many nights would pass and I religiously would sweep the sand whenever I slept upon it to look for more signs of the ring tail in the morning. Most mornings would reveal nothing or perhaps a little scratch like mark that I assumed was one of the thousands of scorpions but once in awhile I would get another visit by the Mr. Ring tail.

Several nights when I woke up to answer the call of nature or just plain stare at the moonlight on the canyon walls, I would look for Mr. Ring tail. Once, I stayed up for the better part of an hour looking for him but to no avail. My studies were eventually noticed by Bronco who one evening as I headed off to bed told me that the best way to catch sight of a ring tail cat was to smear some chocolate over my face. I presumed that meant that I would wake up to a cat licking my face and thus see him but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I've seen too many cats gnawing on small rodents and crunching through the bones to allow myself to do such a stunt. However, the thought stayed in my mind and one lunch when some candy bars were handed out, I pocketed mine.

A few days would pass before I would camp in an ideal place. It would be the camp with a huge sandy beach and an overhanging cliff that I would go to bed alone under but wake up with half the crew and the two Germans who had sought shelter due to a deluging rainstorm in the night. Before I had gone to bed, I had swept the area clean. My sleeping bag ended up only a foot from the wall of the cliff under the overhang and after unrolling it and getting in, I laid there contemplating the candy bar. Finally I decided that I had nothing to lose and unwrapped the candy bar carefully laying it up against the wall less than a foot away from my face. Sleep was a long time coming.

I woke up to the face of Elena inches from mine on one side and the face of Jorge on the other. It was only with great difficulty that I could maneuver myself so that I could see the candy bar, or more specifically the place where it had been. Instead there was the track of Mr. Ring tail who had evidently snatched the candy bar, wrapper and all and kept on trotting. His track came within inches of a half dozen people and yet not one had seen him. As I later sat sipping a cup of hot cocoa with Elena and Jorge, I couldn't help but admire the bravery of Mr. Ring tail for going into the enemies camp full of literal giants, walking by so many of them as they lay sleeping and steeling their chocolate. He had my respect.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Day Nineteen: Mourning

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Day Eighteen: My Betrayal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

Day Seventeen: Emergency Offloading

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

Day Sixteen: Betrayal.... Again

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Day Fifteen: Alive Below Lava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alive Below Lava Celebration!

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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Day Thirteen: Finding My Inner Little Boy

Ledges Camp
Last night I had pitched my sleeping bag on the fine white sand underneath the overhanging rock next to the cliff face. I decided to camp there for the novelty of sleeping under several hundred feet of rock and not because of the passing clouds that I had seen during sunset of the previous evening. All the crew were sleeping on their boats and the clients were scattered out among the pissweed behind camp in their tents so I had the place all to myself. At least for a while. In the early morning hours, a rainsquall must have hit. I found this out when I opened my eyes and looked right into Elaina's sleeping face right next to me. Surprised, I sat up only to find Nick on the other side of me and most of the other crew and Jorge the German sardined into what had been a roomy place for one but now quite cozy for the eight of us now sharing it. The other hint that a squall had hit was the dusting of sand that was now on and inside my sleeping bag.

It was overcast and windy when I woke up with my new bed companions beside me but today was a leisure start day so I was in no hurry to get out of the bag. One of the cooks brought up some coffee and cocoa and Elaina, Jorge and I sat under the overhang sipping our drinks and watching camp life unfold for quite awhile. It was only the lure of pancakes and bacon that lured us out from our sandy cocoons. We loaded up the boats and held a geology lecture but in the end, despite our leisure, we all stood around and waited for over an hour on Roy and Joanna to get their stuff packed.

We picked up Roy and Joanna at Phantom Ranch and they are certainly the most disorganized pair of people I have ever seen in my life. Their brains are apparently unable to multitask or think more than a single step in advance as they spend most of their time walking to and fro with glazed looks in their eyes. They will get down to the boats and then remember that they forgot to bring their bags so they will go back and get them only to realize they forgot their shoes so they will go back and get those only to remember they forgot their sunglasses…. so on and so forth. It takes them ten trips what takes the rest of us one. They also missed out on the common sense whenever it was handed out. At one of our previous campsites, I had found a nice secluded site for my sleeping bag on a sandy ledge across a little rivulet of water flowing over some mossy rocks. With my long legs, I could easily hop over but Joanna, who has trouble walking on flat pavement, came up and was eying it with her tent bag in her arms. I really didn't want the company on the small ledge but told her that it was very slick and that if she wanted to come over, she should not attempt to step on the sloped and very slippery mossy rock but to go down below and cross where it was sandy and she had some grip. She instead chose to step right in the middle and promptly fall down on her back in the middle of the rivulet thoroughly wetting herself and her tent. I helped her get up and after drying her hands she said that I had been right and wandered off in another direction with that glazed look in her eyes.

When Roy and Johanna finally got all their gear down and in the boats, we pushed off into a now very stout upstream wind and the coldest weather we have seen so far. We paddled through Fishtail and Kanab Rapids, both of which got us soaking wet. I was very cold and shivering by the time we pulled over for lunch. We all hunkered on the lee side of some clumps of pissweed and soaked up a brief appearance by the sun. When we finally got warmed up again, we pushed off and by the time we got to Upset Rapid, the wind had died off and it had warmed up a bit.

We paddled around the bend to a camp at mile 151-3/4 named Ledges Camp. There was no sand at this camp only a series of ledges hewn into the rock by centuries of river water. As I was hiking up a ways behind camp to find my secluded camping spot, I came across a family of bighorn sheep not twenty feet away. Counting tents, at least 4 groups of clients had walked right by this spot and were so engrossed in getting their camp set up, never noticed the sheep. By the time I got my camera and telephoto lens out, they were already well up the ledges behind camp. It is amazing how well they blend into their surroundings and if it weren't for their movement, they would be impossible to spot.

After camp was set up, Bronco, Jorge and I set out on a little walk across the ledges upstream from camp. We were joined by others and idly began tossing rocks into the river. This soon degenerated into a contest to see who could throw a rock clear across the river in which only Jorge and I were successful. Ote started tossing big rocks into the river and soon we were trundling boulders off the edge into the river the size of small beanbags. Nick, Lee, and Duffy, hearing the noise from camp, joined us and then we found it, the perfectly shaped Volkswagen Beetle sized rock perched near the edge of the cliff and chocked in place by a few small basketball sized rocks. We cleared those out and with some sweat and leverage, we heaved the behemoth over the edge and to the river 50 feet below. In made a cannonball splash shooting a plume of water 30 feet over our heads. We stood their lost in our childhood when a hooting and hollering roar greeted us from the direction of camp. Jubilantly, we decided that was probably enough and we scampered back to camp like little boys who had just pulled a great prank.

Lee was reading the book "Grand Canyon: A Century of Change" by Robert Webb and occasionally read some excerpts out loud to me and the assistant cook Mary who was nearby. It is an interesting book and one that I will have to read sometime. I am developing pretty good friendships with the crew mainly because I think a lot like them on many subjects. I find myself hanging around and hiking with them more than I do the other passengers. I don't want to wear out my welcome as I know they need time away from the clients but every indication has shown that they think of me as one of the crew. I often help out with the crew duties not to garner their favor but because that was the way my parents raised me on our backpacking trips. Everyone helps out with general camp duties.

Supper was broccoli cheese soup, scalloped potatoes, coleslaw and pork chops. Everyone but the usual crowd went to bed right after the dishes had been done. It was still cool but a bottle of Lee's Wild Turkey and a bottle of Jurgen's Cognac were being passed around so I was plenty warm inside. There is a full moon tonight and it is lighting up both the upstream and downstream side of camp but due to the cliffs directly across the river that tower over us, not camp itself. I feel like I am sitting on the dark side of the moon with bright light on all sides. Finally Mary and I were the last two standing. With a belly full of warm spirits, I made my way towards bed and a sleep sure to come quickly.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Day Twelve: Thunder River/Deer Creek Traverse

Source of Thunder River
Morning dawned with a crystal clearness not seen outside of the arid western lands. We ate breakfast burritos with eggs and hash browns, packed a sack lunch and did a quick splash in the dories to Tapeats Creek where six of us and some of the crew were dropped off for a hike downstream via several rivers and a couple passes. The rest would take the dories and meet with us downstream later.

We hiked up Tapeats Creek and were forced to cross it twice and only with great difficulty. Once involved us forming a human chain to give the weaker members of us something to hold onto as they crossed the waist deep water roaring downstream. We made it to the junction of Tapeats Creek and Thunder River and from there, it was almost straight up. Thunder River was one continuous maelstrom of white froth as its fall was equal to or greater than its run. After 500 feet of altitude gain, we finally came upon the source of Thunder River, a mammoth spring pouring out of the red wall cliff and crashing down 50 or 60 feet below.

After eating our lunch, we climbed another 1000 or so feet up and over a pass to a big valley aptly named Surprise Valley since it runs parallel to the river and is thus surprising to find. The hike through the valley was a very hot, dry march and full of prickly desert rose bushes. By the time we climbed over the second small pass and began to descend, everyone was either bleeding or were picking cactus spines out of their flesh. I was doing both.

We dropped down into Deer Creek, which began life as another spring pouring out of the red rock into the valley below. Like dusty forgotten mops, we all fell into the water and absorbed way more than I thought I ever could. I climbed up behind the waterfall where it was hollowed out a bit and sat in the shade absorbing even more through the misting spray. As we continued down, the water carved a beautiful and deep slot canyon. As we hiked the rim of this slot canyon on a very narrow trail, too narrow to pass each other safely, it was slow going for every corner we stopped to take a picture of it that we deemed more beautiful than the last corner.

Deer Creek slot canyon
In places, there were Anasazi hand prints on the rock due to their belief that this was the seventh and final place where you were tested after death before you were allowed to reach the afterlife. They had to leap across the canyon and the hands were there to help you. Lee told the story of his younger days after having too much to drink perhaps, deciding to jump across for himself. He ran for all he was worth and jumped in the air at the perfect point at the very edge of the canyon, instantly knowing that there would be no way in hell that he would even come close to making the jump. He said midway as he hurtled downwards certain broken bones and possible death were near, he felt something grab him and pull him across. He said nothing ever sobered him up quicker than that feeling and he swears that those hand prints hold some sort of power. The sincerity in his voice as he told me this was hard not to believe.

We hiked on down to the river where we were the dories were waiting and floated a 1/2 mile downstream to a camp at mile 136.5 on a beach near some overhanging cliffs. Mary gave me an "extra" beer and I decided to enjoy it while taking a bath. I found a nice private sand beach upstream and did just that. Our camp tonight is a beautiful sand beach with an overhanging cliff on the downstream side. After everyone settles down and if the spot is still not taken, I aim to camp underneath the overhang tonight just for the novelty of it.

As supper was being prepared, I sat in a chair and watched a beautiful sunset on the cliffs upstream and a natural arch downstream near Cranberry Canyon. For supper we had noodles and stir-fry that was excellent as usual. Per our habit, we built a little fire after supper and sat around swapping stories until late in the evening. The overhang was vacant and I update my journal from there now.

Deer Creek Falls on Colorado River

Friday, February 3, 2017

Day Eleven

Heidi our cook navigating a slot canyon
I woke up in the middle of the night for the first time and watched the moon set over a downstream rim. The sky was clear and shone brilliantly with starlight even with the absence of the torch-like moon. When I woke up a second time, clouds had moved in enshrouding the inner canyon and would stay with us until mid-morning before dissolving away. As a treat for the cook and her assistant, Bronco cooked breakfast this morning to let them sleep in and for a half hour, it was just the two of us. With the heavy clouding, people slept in and after they finally gathered in the kitchen area, we ate a breakfast of French toast served with an apple/raisin sauce and bacon.

After we got packed up and shoved off, I almost immediately saw a coyote scrambling for cover in the rocks overhead. They are definitely a hardy animal to be found way down here at the bottom of the canyon. We pushed through Forster, Fossil, Specter and Bedrock Rapids, all of which had large waves. We did hop out and quickly scout Bedrock but ran it without difficulty. The last rapid of the half-day on the river was Duebendorf Rapid and it was a dandy. We pulled into the eddy below at Stone Creek and after a lunch of pita sandwiches, hiked up the creek.

Although it had obviously been scoured clean in a flash flood several years ago, there were many waterfalls and Anasazi ruins left behind. At one point, there is an old Anasazi ruin with a door still sealed, something that may not exist anywhere else. Whether it is a forgotten grainery or perhaps a burial chamber, our guides didn't know and forbade us from walking up to it. Although it is visible with the naked eye, unless you knew what you were looking at and where, it can only be seen by binoculars. It is that well disguised and I was content to see it through the binoculars and use my imagination as to its contents.

At the very end of Stone Creek was a beautiful slot canyon with a thirty feet tall waterfall. Nick, Lee and I hunkered down in the icebox coolness of the shade and just waited out the heat of the day. We were wonderfully successful and by the time I got back to camp, supper was underway. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, dressing and a salad. Eleven days out with no supplies brought in and we are still eating like kings. I'm glad I've been doing a lot of hiking or I surely would have put on several pounds by now.

I must say that the pre-dinner entertainment before supper was particularly good today. Our campsite was fairly open and little in the way of hiding behind for those who decided to bathe tonight which seemed to be a few of the younger women among the crew. For privacy sake, I kept my eyes averted as much as possible but I wouldn't be a red-blooded man if I didn't sneak a few long peeks now and then. In a land full of sharp rocks, prickly cactus and stinging scorpions, their well toned, tanned and now wet bodies certainly fell softly on the eyes.

Just as dinner was finishing up, the moon rose from behind the upstream rim of Stone Creek. The usual crowd sat around a fire and told stories well into the night while passing around some of the German's apparently bottomless supply of brandy. Why would anyone else want to do anything else with their life but repeat this day over and over?

Rock wedged near top of slot canyon

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Day Ten: Bath Time

Sitting there on a shelf of rock in the cliffs behind camp, I sipped the beer given to me by Nick who was one of the baggage wranglers and watched people scurrying around like ants below. The conversation came easily and the pauses were comfortable as we overlooked the canyon like kings from a throne. Jurgen the German hiked up and joined us after awhile smoking on one of his big cigars that he always lit up in camp. I hate being around the smell of cigar smoke especially when enjoying all the clean, dry air here in the Grand Canyon, but he was always polite and sits downwind. Besides, he often passes around his bottles of very fine brandy in the evenings around the campfire that he brought along with him on the trip.

During one long pause in the conversation, Jurgen reached into his small pack and brought out a pair of binoculars. He glassed the horizon for a few minutes before coming to rest on one particular point. I stared intently at the little peninsula of rocks that stuck out into the river downstream of camp that Jurgen appeared to be looking at but couldn't see anything of interest. After about then minutes of silent looking, he handed me the binoculars and pointed in that direction. I raised them to my eyes and immediately saw what he had been staring at so intently. One of the women in our group, had taken a bath in the river and was air drying nude out on a nice flat rock beside a tiny sand beach nestled between alongside a large boulder that blocked the view from camp. Although she had a nice body for being thirty years older than me, I wasn't exactly interested in voyeurishly looking at her so I handed the binoculars back to the German who went back to watching her. But I did make a mental note of the location so that I could take a bath there later on in the evening.

Several hours later and back in camp, I noted that the German had made it back into camp with his binoculars and headed over land through the cacti and rocks towards the peninsula and the bath location that I had spotted earlier. I came out a little further downstream than I had anticipated and started heading back upstream towards the direction of camp. Soon I came to what I thought was the spot and disrobed. I waded thigh deep into the river which was an icy cold 48 degrees at this point having warmed up two degrees from where it emerged upstream from the bowels of the Glen Canyon dam. I dunked myself under the surface briefly before coming up for air. The extreme cold made only shallow breaths possible and the nether regions crawled up into my belly as my skin went numb. I quickly took advantage of my numbed senses in my extremities and finished the rest of my bath before the aching cold would set into my legs.

I climbed out of the water and walked across the small beach, which way maybe five feet wide, to a large flat rock in the sun and climbed on top. The warm rock, instantly drained the cold out of my feet and lower legs as I dried myself with a towel. I dropped the wet towel on the rocks and stared out over the river while letting the sun warm the rest of my body. I stood there for a couple minutes in silence admiring the beauty when I heard a soft sound coming from upstream to my right. I turned and saw to my horror, the same nude woman I had seen earlier only this time about ten feet away on another almost identical flat rock beside another almost identical sand beach. She had been lying asleep on her stomach and was in the process of turning over onto her back. I froze in my tracks wishing and hoping that my white skin would blend into the red rock but it turned out to not be necessary. She didn't even open her eyes and fell right back into the slumber that she had evidently been in.

Relieved, I turned around towards a downstream rock where I had left my clothes and froze yet again. There, sitting on a rock not twenty feet away painting a picture was Ote, the wife of the owner of the dory company that was providing me the opportunity to join them on this trip. I again tried to melt into the rocks but this time I wasn't as lucky. She looked up from her painting, waved at me and went back to painting. I couldn't think of what else to do so I waved back, quickly walked back to my clothes and got dressed. As I started to make my way back to camp, I turned towards her and said that if she included me in the painting, she had better make me look good. She just laughed as I scurried back to camp.

As the month long trip progressed, I became more comfortable with the whole nudity thing and didn't worry about it so much. The cliffs would keep us fenced in around our camps most of the time and getting out of sight of camp wasn't always possible. You either got used to bathing in front of others or you stayed dirty. I chose bathing and trying to keep my eyes focused towards the river.