Rafting Off the Grid
There is something ominous about a swift river and something thrilling about a river of any kind. – Wallace Stegner (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian)
Tomorrow my wife Susan and I begin rafting the Grand Canyon. We’ll be two weeks off the grid, travel over two-hundred miles, have no cell phones, no email, no DVRs. We’ll ride rubber rafts and river dories. We’ll brave rapids and rattlesnakes and prickly-pear cacti. We’ll sleep under the stars. It’s been fifty years since we’ve slept under the stars; thirty since we’ve been two weeks off the grid. Do we really want to be here, the patio bar, Marble Canyon Lodge, a mile north of the last highway bridge over the Grand Canyon? How will we cope?
I’m worried about my mother, ninety-four years old, in ill health and certainly in the last days of her life. I’m worried about our son John who is driving one of our cars from Seattle to his college in California, girlfriend onboard, his first long-distance drive without parental oversight. I agreed to this trip because Susan has just retired. A dramatic event necessary, she insists, to mark her sea change. Who am I to deny her? But on my own I might not have opted for the Canyon. It’s not the rapids or rattlesnakes or cacti that most worry me. It’s time that most worries me.
Time without a mattress. Time with no escape. Time where two weeks might seem an eternity.
And also this: what can be received here, in the Canyon, that can’t be received elsewhere?
Time this year preoccupies me. The hours and minutes and afternoons I spend with my mother pass so slowly when I’m at her bedside, so quickly (and guiltily) when I’m not. But also the “early” and unexpected deaths of college and high school classmates, the speed with which each week rockets by, the sagging sixty-four-year-old face that peers back at me from my bathroom mirror.
Before we left Seattle, on hearing of our Canyon adventure, a friend suggested I read The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher–Fletcher was the first modern to hike the length of the Canyon, west to east (although surely, at some point, a Native American quest-seeker must have done the same).1 Within a few days of beginning his trek, Fletcher decided his story of the Canyon would have to be a story of time. Not that the Canyon itself is particularly old, not by geological standards anyway; at six to twelve million years old, it’s a relatively youthful feature on the four-billion-year-old face of the planet. But the Canyon unveils time. It cuts so deeply into the earth, through so many layers of rock, that it is one of the few places where you can visualize Deep Time, which, given the short term of human mortality, requires a mental dualism–one time for us, another for the planet.
But the day before we begin rafting the river, here at Marble Canyon Lodge, I’m not thinking about Deep Time. I’m fretting about where John is on his drive to California and did he remember to lock our condominium door before he left and will my mother hang on long enough so that I’ll be able to see her when we return home and how will I survive two weeks without a good night’s sleep?
The Marble Canyon Lodge, Trading Post, Restaurant, and Bar, is more like a 1950s motor court than a lodge. Its architecture is Hollywood western–spindly tree trunk beams and wood-plank-and-adobe walls like you might find on a movie set or in the frontier village of a Disney amusement park–cowboy quaint. But the landscape surrounding the Lodge is far from quaint–the landscape is Cinemascope. Behind the lodge, the Vermillion Cliffs rise a thousand feet. In this afternoon’s mauve, monsoonal light the cliffs really do look vermillion, their stone a dusty red known as Navajo Sandstone.2 We can’t see over the cliff top. What’s up there? The Seven Lost Cities of Cibola? A fountain of youth?
A two-lane highway, U.S. 89A, runs between the lodge and the pocked airstrip where, an hour ago, we arrived on a Vision Airlines twin-engine turboprop from Las Vegas, a windswept and wobbly landing that made us grateful to be grounded. The weather is still breezy, still overcast, and still threatens rain – has the Arizona monsoon lingered late this year?3 But it’s cooler than we expect. Last night, at midnight in Vegas, it was a hundred degrees.
The group with whom we’ll raft slowly gathers in the patio bar. A few we know: Josh Hoyt and Diane Fraiman, married to each other and our friends for many years; Elizabeth Horner, whom we’ve previously met through Josh and Diane, and who, along with her husband Skip, organized this trip through their company Skip Horner Outdoors; Greg,the brother of my brother-in-law; and Greg’s friend Karen–Karen we just met at the Las Vegas Airport. Everyone else is a stranger. They include, Elizabeth tells us, an emergency-room doc from Illinois, an internist from Pittsburgh, an orthopedic surgeon from Sacramento, a psychiatrist from Montana, and two dentists–my brother-in-law’s brother, Greg, plus Steve (aka “Doc”) one of the boatmen. I suppose I should find this surfeit of medical personnel comforting. I don’t.
We paying customers are six women and nine men, middle-to-upper-middle class, middle-to-upper-middle-aged, all North American. We include a woman who ran a candy-bar factory, the manager of a food co-op in Montana, a photographer and her spouse from New Jersey, an organizer of cycling races from Sacramento, and a retired wildlife biologist from Minnesota.
An insect scrabbles across the tiles under my feet. It’s the size of a silver dollar and has bright orange wings. What is it?
Our waitress, balancing a platter of gin and tonics, glances down at the bug. “Tarantula hawk,” she says. “It won’t kill you. But if it stings you, you’ll never forget it.”
The tarantula hawk confirms my desert fears: stings, spines, poisons.
I lose sight of the bug. Where the hell is it? In my sandals? In my shorts?4
After dinner, the guides brief us. They are, like us, middle-aged, maybe even late-middle-aged. Skip (who was a full-time Grand Canyon guide in the 1970s) has contracted with Tours West, which has in turn hired the guides, several of whom used to run the river with Skip–older guides, Skip will later confide, bond better with older customers.5 Skip will row one of the rafts–he’s still Grand-Canyon-guide certified. Skip is my age, sixty-four, though he looks fifteen years younger; what’s more, he has been working out to prepare for the trip by lifting weights and by biking several thousand feet up the mountain behind his Montana home–he is also a world-class mountaineer. But on the river our leader will be Bruce Keller. Bruce is a solid, genial, bear-like guy, who leads heliskiing excursions in winter, river expeditions in summer, and spends what time he has left in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“On the river,” Bruce instructs, “we use River Time. Leave your watches behind.”
River Time, he explains, is variable, moderated by factors like how hot it is and how far away the next camp is and whether we’re feeling a need for lunch or for an extra round of pre-dinner gin and tonics. River Time is measured in River Time Units.
“Stay hydrated,” Bruce tells us. “Keep your life jackets on. If you’re thrown from a boat, point your feet downriver so that your feet, not your head, will hit the boulders.”
After the briefing I tiptoe back to our Marble Canyon Lodge room, wary of tarantula hawks and other denizens of the desert night.
“At least,” I tell Susan as we turn down our motel-room bed, “tonight we still have a mattress.”
The first expedition to boat the Grand Canyon was led by a one-armed Civil War hero, a retired Union Army major named John Wesley Powell. Powell’s team consisted of ten men, most of whom were also veterans. They transited the canyon in the summer of 1869 – a considerably wilder canyon then (no hydroelectric dams to regulate and reduce the river flow) and a considerably longer voyage than ours (Powell began his trip in Utah, up near what is now Canyonlands National Park) and in a region of the United States that was at the time virtually unexplored. Powell’s run took two months. One man, a Brit, opted out early. The rest painstakingly portaged the most severe rapids. Of the three boats that began the trip, only one survived. Near the end of their trip three more men decided to hike out rather than risk continuing downriver. When Powell and the rest of the team finally exited the Canyon, they had run out of food, (only coffee was left) and they had been presumed dead. Brigham Young, the head of the Mormon Church at the time, had already sent men downstream of the Canyon to recover whatever flotsam or bodies the river might surrender. Later, as Powell made his way to Salt Lake City, he learned that the three who had hiked out had been massacred by Shivwit Indians, mistaken, it seems, for white miners who had raped a woman from a neighboring tribe.
From Powell’s voyage in 1869 until 1949, no more than a hundred more people ran the Canyon – a number that bespeaks the relatively recent nascence of wilderness tourism. In the 1950s, however, Georgie White Clark, a woman and a boatperson, became the Canyon’s first commercial raft-tour operator. Her boats were war-surplus bridge pontoons, lashed into rafts, and strapped with outboard motors. Georgie’s catering epitomized simplicity: for each meal each traveler was issued a single can of food. Some got vegetables. Some got meat. “Trade what you’ve got,” Georgie instructed, “and balance what you eat.” She also led her expeditions wearing a leopard-print swimsuit.
Nowadays, some 27,000 people run the Canyon each year, a large number, but still only a fraction of the four-and-a-half-million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park. As with many of our National Parks, the Park Service struggles to keep us from loving the Canyon into ruin. The Service regulates the number of groups on the river, qualifies the contractors who serve as canyon guides, designates the campsites where river runners may camp, and even establishes detailed regulations concerning how many times a day you are to wash your hands and that what you pack into the Canyon, you pack out. Private parties, unlike ours, which is a commercial trip, must compete by lottery for a permit. The average wait is eight years.
A few miles downstream from where we’ll begin our trip, Major Powell made this observation:
“With some feeling of anxiety we enter a new canyon this morning. We have learned to observe closely the texture of the rock. In softer strata we have a quieter river, in harder we find rapids and falls. Below us are the limestones and hard sandstones which we found in Cataract Canyon. This bodes toil and danger.” (Powell Report)
“Rise early,” Bruce told us at our Marble Canyon Lodge briefing, “and we’ll beat the Lee’s Ferry boat-launch rush.”
And here we are, the next morning, at Lee’s Ferry, thin clouds overhead, red canyon walls, a sedate, blue-green Colorado River, a large parking lot for raft trailers, a ranger station to validate river permits, a beach with boats. Two other groups are launching. A private party of four or five rafts–we saw one of its members spinning angry, alcohol-fueled truck wheelies in the lodge parking lot last night–and a commercial power-raft trip with two large, baby-blue, outboard-powered, pontoon inflatables, each about forty feet long.
Our boats are already in the water, pulled up on the gravel beach. We’re a mix: three dories and three inflatables, all eighteen feet in length. The inflatables are rubber, yellow, their snouts and sterns snubbed, their bows slightly upturned. The boatman sits in the center on an aluminum frame that is lashed to the rubber tubes. From here the boatman rows with two oars like in a conventional rowboat, but, unlike a conventional rowboat, he faces forward. We passengers ride in the bow or stern, bow passengers sitting on the frame platform or crouching behind the bow tube, stern passengers sitting on the raft tubes or standing behind red and blue vinyl “dry” bags. The dry bags contain our clothing, sleeping bags, and ground cloths. Each is stenciled with a number that corresponds to one of us. (My number is “4,” which in Chinese numerology signifies “death.”) The bags sit behind the boatman in a triple-row stack like canisters. Forward of the boatman and at his feet are aluminum boxes and other dry bags filled with food, tents, camp chairs, cooking utensils, cook tables, and portable toilets. One raft is reserved exclusively for gear.
But it’s the dories I love. The dories are beautiful. They are rowboats with high, narrow bows and a graceful sheer that dips in the center and rises fore and aft. They’re constructed of wood, fiberglass, or wood-epoxy, with wells at the bow and stern for passengers, the boatman sitting amidships on a raised deck. The dory boatman also rows facing forward. The dories have a surprising amount of storage, but they are floating low today because, as Bruce confides, they’re loaded “with so much beer.”6
The river is clear and cold, about forty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, although it will warm ten degrees by the end of the trip. It wasn’t always so. Before the Glen Canyon Dam, which is just upstream of our boat-launch site, the river was a brownish-red, filled with silt and sand, and its water was ten degrees warmer. Temperature and clarity aren’t the only changes wrought by the dam. How the dams have damaged the river will be a refrain on our trip: boatmen are not fond of dams.
We don our lifejackets, each identified by a Canyon milestone. Mine is “Fern Gully.” Susan’s is “Anasazi.”
“Let’s go boating,” Bruce calls out.
Josh and I pick Bruce’s dory. Susan and Diane opt for Skip’s raft. We scramble into the boats.
Susan snaps a picture of me in the dory’s bow. Outside I’m smiling; inside I’m not.
The Colorado River is 1,450 miles long. It begins in the Rocky Mountains and terminates in the Pacific Ocean’s Sea of Cortez, which lies between Baja California and the Mexican mainland. Because the river has been plundered for irrigation, hydro-power, and drinking water, nowadays barely a drop of the Colorado reaches the ocean. Of its length, only 278 miles go through the Grand Canyon. The elevation descent from Lee’s Ferry, where the Canyon begins, to Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam where the Canyon ends, is over 2,000 feet. This gradient works out to about 8 feet per mile, in rapids steeper. The average width of the river is 300 feet, its minimum seventy-six. The average depth is 35 feet, the maximum 110. The highest elevation of the canyon rim is over 8,000 feet, this on the North Rim–the South Rim, where most tourists visit, is over 6,000 feet. The Canyon’s depth, rim to river, ranges from less than 500 feet to over 3,000 feet. The Canyon’s age is probably about 5.3 million years, although geologists dispute this because there are significant blanks in the geological record. The oldest rocks in the Canyon date from 1.6 to 1.8 billion years old, and they are among the oldest rocks you can see on the planet.
None of this, of course, describes the Canyon at all.
Though we haven’t gotten underway, there’s already been much talk of the rapids. Last night in the patio bar, this morning on the Lee’s Ferry beach. Rapids provide the frisson in rafting; for many rafters, they are the principal attraction. Rapids have been likened to riding a rollercoaster, although they are much less predictable–and much wetter. Rapids form where there’s an obstruction to the river’s flow–in the Grand Canyon this occurs most often at the mouth of a side canyon or a creek outwash. In these places flash floods have rolled boulders and gravel into the main channel. On occasion the obstruction is due to something else – a rock slab fallen from the canyon rim above; an ancient lava flow that spilled into the river’s channel. Where the stone is harder, rapids are more likely because the river cuts more slowly through harder stone, thus narrowing the channel, making its depth shallower, speeding the water’s flow. The drop in elevation is the other factor in a rapid’s size – greater drop means faster current and more violent waves. On our trip we’ll run seventy-four rapids, not counting “riffles,” which are a milder version of rapids. Each is rated by a numerical system that measures difficulty – one is the least severe, ten the most. Because rapids vary in difficulty as flow varies – some rapids are more difficult at higher flows, others at lower flows – a rapid’s difficulty is stated as a range. Lava Falls, the most severe rapid on our trip, which we won’t run until the day before our penultimate day, is an eight to ten.7
“If a rapid has ‘falls’ in its name,” Erik, the most understated of the boatman tells us, “you know it’s going to be big.”
Today, our first day, we’ll run four rapids: Badger Creek, Soap Creek, Sheer Wall, and House Rock. Of these the most severe is House Rock, which can rate as high as a seven. Bruce announces we’ll “scout” House Rock before we run it. “Scout” means we’ll land our rafts and dories upstream, the boatmen will go ashore, study how the rapid looks, examine the entrance tongue, look for holes and boils and laterals and eddies, and identify the best “line” through the rapid. In some cases, especially if any of the boatmen are unfamiliar with a particular rapid, the least knowledgeable remain ashore while the others run it. In any case, the first boat through “sets safety” for the others.
We shove off from Lee’s Ferry. Bruce, suntanned, sun-visored, broad-shouldered, oars in hand, flip-flops on his feet, begins a running commentary on geology, botany, birds, beasts, boats, archeology, history, poetry, and other Grand Canyon lore, part of his trove of stories and minutia that will over the next two weeks amuse and amaze us. The other boats drift behind. Except for a riffle or two the river is calm. We move at a sedate pace, about the speed of a fast walk or a slow jog.
At this point, the canyon walls rise less than five-hundred feet. Sometimes the walls drop directly into the river. Sometimes the bank is low and boulder-strewn. In places, bars of white sand border the river. Low flow builds these sandbars; high flow destroys them; we’re in a period of relatively high flow following a recent period of low flow. Thus many new sandbars have appeared since midsummer when Bruce last ran the river, and now, a week into “high flow,” he says, some of these have already begun to wash away.8
A band of green, brushy vegetation grows behind the sandbars or anywhere the bank is low. The dominant shrub is tamarisk, a gray-green, thin-leaved, airy tree.9 At this elevation the banks are devoid of the cacti, agave, creosote, and ocotillo–low desert plants–that will dominate the river’s downstream reaches.
The stone here is called the Kaibab Formation, a pinkish-orange rock consisting of sandstone, siltstone, limestone, gypsum, and chert that forms sheer cliffs with sloping feet. Its genesis lies in the Triassic period, 270 million years ago, and it is some of the youngest rock we’ll see. This means that a lot of much younger rock must have vanished, eroded away during the orogeny that formed (and is still forming) the Rocky Mountains. Here as elsewhere the color, texture, type, and appearance of the rock tell a unique creation story. The Kaibab formed in a shallow, warm sea with drying tidal flats.10
Despite Bruce’s commentary, despite the beauty of the canyon walls, despite our pleasant easygoing morning, I’m not relaxing.
I’m fretting about rapids.
Last night and again this morning Bruce briefed us on our rapid responsibilities. In the rapids, we have two jobs: bail the boat when it fills with water (neither the dories nor the rafts are self-bailing) and (this applies only to the dories) help the boatman level the boat. In a big rapid, waves may hit the boat from any direction. When waves strike either side, the boat tips right or left and the boatman will call “high-side left” or “high-side right”–then we are to grab the gunwale and slam our bodies to the “high” side of the boat, thus helping keep the boat level.
We pass under the dual Navajo Bridges. The “new” bridge is for cars–it’s the same highway we observed last night from the patio bar at Marble Canyon Lodge and it’s the last highway bridge over the Canyon until Hoover Dam; the old bridge is for pedestrians. I spot a pedestrian waving down at us from five-hundred feet above. It seems so peaceful: the spans leaping rim-to-rim, the salmon-pink rock, the blue-green river. In two-and-a-half miles, however, we’ll hit our first rapid.
And it will be over before we know it.
Time is not as absolute as we usually think.
And rapids, it seems to me, illustrate one of its paradoxes.
We calculate the river’s flow in cubic feet per second. We measure our speed in miles per hour. We run most rapids in a minute or less. Seconds. Minute. Hours. How unlike they are to the years, centuries, and millennia by which we measure the course of human history. How infinitesimal they are compared to the eons, eras, and epochs by which we mark the Canyon’s geologic history. It’s almost as if each measures a different thing.
Perhaps, for practical purposes, each does.
And River Time, according to Bruce, can’t even be measured by a clock.
We hear Badger Creek Rapid before we see it. I tighten the safety strap of my sunglasses, clamp my hat strap to my collar, clip my water bottle to my belt loop, and grip the dory gunwale with my left hand and a “fiddle” forward with my right (a fiddle is a wooden handle fixed to the dory’s deck). Bruce maneuvers the boat sideways so that he can row cross current and position us quickly for the best line. A series of breaking waves mounds the center of the channel, one after another, up and down, a tumult of green and white. Unlike at sea or on a lake where waves move relative to a fixed point, in a rapid the waves are “standing” – they stay in place and it’s the river that moves. At the last second, Bruce spins us so that we face downstream. We enter the smooth tongue that precedes the upstream side of the rapid. The current quickens. The channel narrows. The dory accelerates. Laterals, waves rebounding from the side of the channel, meet and break in our path. To our left a smooth pillow of water – a “sleeper”– hides a covered rock. Bruce pulls on the oars and we move away from the sleeper. The dory rises, falls, and crashes through a wave – it is like a rollercoaster! Josh and I are drenched. “High side left!” Bruce shouts. We lean left. A waves breaks over my head. I force myself not to recoil. We are waist deep in water. Ice water. Then – it’s over. We glide onto a silent pool, back eddies on either side of us flowing upriver. Josh and I begin to bail. (The bailers are plastic Clorox bottles with the bottoms cut out.) We bail until there’s less than an inch of water lapping our feet. We are shivering. We’re in a desert. It’s midday. We’re shivering!
For lunch we stop at a side canyon upstream of Soap Creek Rapid. The other two dories and the three rafts slip ashore beside us. The sun is warm. The sand is warm. We men slip off wet shirts and lay them on rocks to dry. All of us lounge on the sand. “Skirts up, pants down!” Bruce calls out to remind us that women are to pee upriver, men down. This is one of several rafting practices to maintain a degree of decorum between the sexes, although, as Bruce says, our concern for such niceties will fade as the trip progresses. The Park Service allows us to pee in the river – “Dilution is the solution,” Bruce told us last night – but defecation is another story: we must pack our poop out. The crew, the boatmen plus Elizabeth, set up tables for a lunch. Today it’s peanut butter, jam, Oreos, cold cuts, and sandwich bread. We’ll eat well on this trip and our meals, unlike Captain Georgie’s, will be camp gourmet. Lunch, however, will always be simple.
In the afternoon we run three more rapids. At one moment, in the largest rapid, House Rock, the dory veers right. I high side left. We buck up over a wave just as I throw myself left. My butt lifts. I’m almost bucked out of the dory. I’m so intent on not getting pitched out that I haven’t a clue what’s going on. I’m cargo. I’m unable to see or appreciate Bruce’s technique or Bruce’s skill.11 I’m eying each wave with fear. I’m holding onto the dory as if my life depends on it. Perhaps it does.
Tonight, our first night on the river, we take an hour or more to set up camp – later we’ll knock it off in thirty minutes. “One river time unit,” Bruce says, regardless of how long it takes. We camp on the South-Rim shore at 19.4 Mile Camp. The river here is slow moving. The camp sits on a narrow, tamarisk-covered bank below pinkish-orange cliffs, fronted by a sandbar. We help the boatmen unload the rafts. First the red and blue vinyl “dry bags,” then our sleeping pads, followed by tents and camp chairs, aluminum camp tables, and the aluminum boxes of food and utensils. The boatmen set up two outdoor toilets, one each at each end of the camp. We select our personal campsites. Susan and I choose the end of the sandbar on the theory that insects and snakes will eschew sandbars – we have no idea if this is true. Others of our group chose sites further ashore, among the tamarisk. A few set up dome tents. Susan and I opt to sleep under the stars. We lay out our ground cloth tarps, our vinyl covered mattress pads, but we defer spreading out our sleeping bags – open bags make ideal nooks for wandering bugs and snakes; better to wait until we’re ready to sleep. The nearest other camper is Jill, the former chocolate factory manager, whose pad and ground cloth are perhaps twenty feet distant. The boatmen sit in the dories, sip beers, renew acquaintances, and begin telling each other river tales. We guests break out our gin and tonics and begin to get acquainted. During the night we hear plop-splash-kerplunks as chunks of the sandbar fall into the river. In time – hopefully not tonight – the river will carry our sandbar away.
A month before our trip, Skip Horner sent an email. “It’s time to get in shape,” he wrote. “We’re on the river in less than four weeks.” I wondered on reading this. Why in shape? Aren’t we riding in rafts? As it turns out, we did need to get in shape. We’re hiking a side canyon almost every day. And because we’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, each of these hikes will be up.
Our first side-canyon hike takes place on our second morning at a place called North Canyon. We climb up through a narrow, high-walled defile. As we near the end, the bottommost rock strata twist into foliated layers like cake icing squeezed from a tube. We expected the strata – the photos of the canyon, layer upon layer, are iconic of the Grand Canyon. But we didn’t expect the fallen rock – the limestone and sandstone and schist, the big boulders, the sharp, spiky rock that we must scramble over, around, and sometimes even under, an obstacle course of rocks – purple rocks, red rocks, white rocks, rocks the size of pickup trucks, rock that forms fields of slippery gravel, rocks so sharp they cut our hiking shoes, rocks smooth and slick as glass.
And each rock tells a unique geologic tale.
Since Lee’s Ferry, we’ve traveled twenty miles, but we’ve traveled at least 15 million years back in time. We have descended through the Toroweap Formation– limestone, sandstone, siltstone, gypsum chert, formed in a warm, shallow Triassic sea, 272 million years ago; through Coconino Sandstone, formed in a vast, Permian Sahara-like desert that existed 275 million years past; through the Hermit Formation, siltstone and sandstone laid down in an early Permian river floodplain 280 million years ago; and through the Supai Group of mixed shale and limestone formed variously in Pennsylvanian tide flats, desert dunes, a shallow warm sea, a coastal tidal flat, river floodplains, and coastal mudflats over a period 280 to 310 million years prior to the present. The Supai Group is the bottom layer here, the oldest stone that at this point we can see.
How easily these millions of years slip off our tongues.
How many different things have been happening on this patch of planet!
But, if Deep Time is vast and if River Time is variable, the time by which Bruce guides us is solar time, that most ancient of time metrics.12 Sunset and nightfall determine our landfalls. We must be off the river before darkness. There are only so many campsites. Three other “human-propelled” parties share the river with us.13 During the course of our fifteen days, we will pass or be passed by these parties several times. Each time Bruce will hail the others and ask their intended campsite destination. His questioning is more than neighborliness: it is also a negotiation. If a party cites a particular campsite as their goal, Bruce will eliminate it as ours. But Bruce also expects the other party to not change its mind. In the course of our trip, on at least two occasions, another party will change its mind. The consequence will be a late campsite arrival and an after-dark dinner cooked by the crew.
Is the Arizona Monsoon late? It is.
On our third day, it rains. On our fourth a violent storm falls upon us as we descend a steep trail from an Ancient Puebloan ruin. On the fifth, at the junction of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, the Little Colorado has turned muddy red, not its usual clear turquoise.14 On the sixth, we stop briefly at Phantom Ranch.15 Shortly thereafter, back on the river, it hails, thunders, and blows. Sheets of water cascade the canyon walls. Flashfloods rip dry creek beds. The banks on either side of us gleam black, and glassy, an ancient formation called Vishnu schist that looks as if it was forged in the furnaces of hell–which, in a way, it was.16 The river has turned red, just like the Little Colorado was red. “A ten year event,” Bruce intones. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
Except, of course, we’re wet and our gear is wet too and everything will remain wet for several more days.
On the ninth day there’s a break. Bruce and Skip declare a “lay day” to “dry us out.” We hike up Stone Creek Canyon. When we stop to view more Indian ruins, a scorpion, chartreuse and yellow and seven-inches long, scrambles across Josh Hoyt’s sandal-clad foot. Josh–the epitome of hiker cool–kicks it off. “The big ones won’t kill you,” the guides reassure us. As we return to camp, it begins to rain. We scramble to retrieve the clothes we’ve set out to dry. By mid-afternoon, thunder rolls and ricochets above us. Lightning flashes rim to rim. Even the barrel cacti that stud the lower canyon walls appear to swell in the rain. (As it turns out, the barrel cacti do swell when it rains.)
But despite this calamitous weather, if you ask us what day it is, we hesitate. If you ask us what hour it is, we don’t know. Nine days on the river and we don’t count the days. Our time has become River Time.
We will in the next three days ford fast-flowing streams, lunch in the shadow of a waterfall falling full-force from a canyon wall, traverse a mesa-top desert valley where mesquite, creosote, and cacti will bloody our skin, shower under another waterfall one hundred feet above its plunge pool, traverse a box canyon on a ledge so narrow some of us will drop to our knees and crawl, wade through waist-deep water up a narrow slot while bracing ourselves against its slick-rock sides, swim in the calcium-carbonate, turquoise-blue water of Havasu Creek, run ten more rapids, end up in a riverside nook called Sinyala Love Nest eating dinner by tiki-torch light because a party of European rafters have taken our target campsite. On the twelfth day, another party of American rafters – the same who did alcohol-laced wheelies at Marble Canyon Lodge parking lot–will, at Havasu Creek, angrily accuse us of “parking in” their boats.
Since Marble Canyon, in twelve days, we have floated in the shadow of terraces, plateaus, and temples and buttes, have spotted great blue herons, ferruginous hawks, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, canyon wrens, and road runners, have gazed at California condors as they soar thousands of feet above us, have watched bats dart over us at breakfast as if they were black, palm-sized butterflies; have watched lizards the color of rainbows scramble from under our boots; have observed big horn rams with harems of ewes ignore us with disdain as we float by. We have observed the moon rise and set, watched it wax and wane, viewed shooting stars streak the night sky. We have seen more species of cacti than we knew populated the planet: barrel cactus; teddy-bear and buckhorn cholla cactus; grizzly-bear and beavertail and pincushion cactus; fishhook and claret-cup and hedgehog cactus.
We have listened to the Colorado River roar but also listened to it lull us asleep. We have felt its frigidity in our faces and its sand in our teeth. We have savored the pleasure of a dry shirt after a wet day.
Is this how the Canyon speaks to us – by buttes and sand and moonlight, by birds and bats and rain?
Or does it speak in some other way?
No Walden-esque profundities heard, at least not by me, not in just two weeks.
And grandeur, continuously observed, can become repetitious.
And the names of the rock formations, Muav limestone, Bright Angel Shale, Tapeats Sandstone, which we labored to remember only a few days ago have become difficult to hold in our minds.
So, if we’re hearing no profundities, then what?
Maybe time passing at a slower beat. The routines of the day – breaking camp, loading boats, running rapids, hiking, setting up camp – manifesting physicality over intellect, muscle over musings.
Is this what the Canyon offers us – time lived less quantified than how we usually live it?
Although not, as it turns out, totally off the grid.
Bruce has a satellite phone. On the next day, he’ll have call to use it.
We are standing on the south shore of Lava Falls Rapid – the biggest rapid we’ll run. Behind us rise black, blasted, cliffs. Across from us are black, blasted cliffs. At our feet the river rages: chocolate-brown, breaking in filigree fingers, roaring like a jumbo-jet on takeoff. If a rapid has falls in its name, Eric said, you know it’s going to be big. Our boatmen gather riverside to view the rapid; they discuss its holes and sleepers, decide the safest route, which, at this flow, will be river left, meaning that our boats will hug the leftmost shore of the river as we shoot downstream. As fate would have it, two of the parties we’ve been leapfrogging are also here: the Europeans, who took our campsite, and the alcohol-wheelie Americans. The Europeans stand near our professional boatmen listening and asking questions. The Americans scout the rapids from the opposite shore. A first raft goes through – one of the Americans. It’s small, a double-pontoon raft, rowed by a single oarsman. The oarsman runs river left and vanishes under a brown wave. We hold our breaths. He reappears on the flat-but-fast-moving rapid exit. He beaches his raft on the left-bank. He sets safety.
“ABL,” one of our boatmen murmurs.
ABL? What’s this?
“Let’s go boating!” Bruce calls out.
We’ll go through in two groups. First the dories. Bruce leading. Eric following Bruce. Doc following Eric. When the dories are through, they’ll be followed by the rafts. Susan and I have opted to ride with Eric.
Bruce lines up center left. His dory drops out of sight, heaves up, looks as if it’s standing on its tail, vanishes.
Then we enter. Waves explode around us. Eric needn’t call “high side.” We’re veterans now. We throw our weight port and starboard as waves slam us. We dive into a wave, feel like we’re going to stop. We buck up and down. Waves crash in from both sides. We exit. Twenty-eight seconds have elapsed. We aren’t even that wet. Eric has chosen an elegant line.
Eric and I idle in a back eddy while Susan and our two other crew go ashore to better watch (and photograph) the rafts. The three dories are “setting safety.” If any “swimmers” tumble out of our rafts – “swimmers” being the term for crew thrown from the boats – we’ll pull them in. But before our rafts enter Lava, three other rafts from the American party push off. They enter Lava river right.
The first dory slips through. The second, in a movement so quick we hardly see it, flips up and over in a wave as big as a house. Swimmers! The first American boatman has set safety; he tosses a line into the river; one swimmer grabs the line. But the other swimmer has remained with his upturned raft. That’s what he’s supposed to do. If you can’t get ashore, stay with your raft. Then, in almost the same place, the third American raft flips. Two more swimmers! One clings to the raft. The other paddles ashore. Two blue rafts are now upside down, one following the other. They are about to enter the second, lesser rapid below Lava. The person in the second upturned boat seems to be struggling on the downstream side of his raft.
“Stay with the raft!” Bruce shouts. “Board from the upstream side!”
At this point, our own rafts begin to run Lava – all three enter river left. Each bobs up, down, vanishes, reappears, exits.
All three are through. We exult: “ABL!” Alive below Lava.
Later, after lunch, we pass the American party. Bruce rows over to speak with their leader. They don’t look happy.
Hualapai Acres will be our camp on this next-to-last night. We stop earlier than usual. We have planned a celebration, a surprise birthday party for Skip. As we beach, Bruce greets each boat. “Stay with the boats,” he says, “I need to speak with my crew.” The boatmen and Elizabeth follow Bruce to the far end of the beach. The rest of us stand around happily high-fiving each other and sharing the glory of running Lava Falls. When Bruce returns, he signals us to gather around his boat.
“There’s been a tragedy,” he says. “A crew member in one of the rafts that flipped has drowned.” Bruce will call Tours West by his satellite phone to assure them that the deceased is not a member of our crew. The Park Service will evacuate the body.
As we set up camp, we speak in hushed voices. Diane and Elizabeth pass the word – no party tonight. But, later, as we dine on enchiladas and sip margaritas, our spirits rise and so do our voices. We’re too buzzed to stay silent and, though no one says it, the presence of death has made our lives all the more vivid.
Alive below Lava.
The next day, our last full day on the river, at 209-Mile Rapid, a modest 3-rated run, Bruce flips his dory. One crewmember, Karen, is initially trapped under the dory but manages to dive down and swim free, a second, Steve, is sucked down into an eddy and pops up near the riverbank where he is able to wade ashore, a third, Greg, is still running his video-camera when he’s tossed from the boat. We count heads. Four sighted. All safe. Greg and Bruce right the dory. They haul Karen back onboard. Steve hobbles down the riverbank to where Bruce is beaching his waterlogged dory. The rest of us land next to Bruce. Bruce hasn’t flipped a boat in twelve years. Bruce stands before us on the beach, stick in hand, and draws his postmortem in the sand. Where the wave broke, how the boat turned, the unexpected flip. The other boatmen nod and commiserate. Karen’s sandals and Bruce’s visor are the only gear lost. (The next day we’ll find the visor and one sandal in Six-Pack Eddy, famous, Bruce tells us, for catching the detritus of overturned boats.) But the flip has dampened spirits, vanquished what post-Lava Falls hubris was left, what the death of a fellow rafter had not already dampened. The Colorado has reminded us. You may beat me any one day, it seems to say, but surely not the next.
What is fifteen days? Half a month? A twenty-fourth of a year? Less than one percent of humanity’s three score and ten? Can time so brief change us?
We like to think it can.
But in less than a couple of hours, as soon as our bus to Las Vegas is within cell-phone range, the bus gabbles with calls. Flights changed. Hotels booked. Business partners reacquainted. Surgeries rescheduled. Only Susan and I have followed Skip’s instruction to leave our cell phones behind. Will I hear unwelcome news from somebody else? About my mother? From our son? Is there any way to ignore the cacophony that overwhelms us, to spend a few more hours off the grid? Time it seems, the time by which most of us lead our lives, has, with shocking speed, reasserted itself.
Colin Fletcher asserted that the story of the Grand Canyon was the story of time. He meant time on the scale of hundreds of millions of years. But on our run through the Canyon, another time has spoken more loudly. The time during which we live our lives, begun with our births, ended with our deaths.
Have the past fifteen days changed us? Skip and the boatmen insist they have.
I’m not so certain.
What is certain is this: the Canyon, like us, will perish; in several million years, not all that long by Deep Time reckoning, it too will vanish, worn away by wind and rain, as if it never existed. As if we never existed.
And how does that matter?
The Canyon raises the question. It doesn’t answer it. It’s left to each one of us to answer.
1In my youth, as an aspiring backpacker, Fletcher was a hero of mine, the author of The Complete Walker, the hiker’s bible in the early seventies. Fletcher was an Englishman, a World War II commando, who migrated to California and began venturing out into the desert on extended walkabouts (sometimes wearing nothing but his backpack and his boots). His books on the subject happily coincided with the backpacking and outdoor adventure boom of the 1970s.↩
2We’ll hear a lot about stone in the next two weeks – stone is the leitmotif of the Canyon; through its strata, one can behold antiquity; and, in a desert canyon bereft of vegetation and beneath towering walls, stone walls out the world.↩
3As with the better known Asian Monsoon, the Arizona Monsoon is seasonal. In mid-summer the low-pressure system created by desert heat draws in the moist sea air from the Gulf of California and, sometimes, even the Gulf of Mexico and this creates moist, unstable conditions that generate thunderstorms and most of Arizona’s annual rainfall. The monsoon usually ends by late August – but not always.↩
4Later I’ll read that tarantula hawks are the largest of wasps, that they feed on tarantulas, and that their sting is the second most painful insect sting in the world. According to one researcher, quoted in Wikipedia, the tarantula wasp sting causes “immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.” Am I really surprised? This thing eats tarantulas!↩
5Four guides, Bruce, Eric, “Doc,” and Casey, are licensed to row passengers; two, Red Tail and Bernd, will only crew a cargo raft.↩
6Skip will later tell me that because the boatmen so love their dories he agreed to three rather than two dories on this trip although dories carry less gear and “are temperamental.”↩
7The Grand Canyon rating system is unique, different from the numerical system used everywhere, different because it was one of the first rivers to be rated.↩
8Glen Canyon Dam controls the flow. The process of learning how to control the flow without trashing the riparian environment has been a long and difficult one. In the beginning, flow varied as the electrical demand on the dam varied, a challenge for boatmen trying to gauge the magnitude of the rapids, and which also eliminated the ecologically important sandbars. Now the dam and river managers set steady rates that vary by season and are partly determined by what the river environment “needs.”↩
9Tamarisk is an invasive species, a middle-eastern shrub, imported to stabilize railroad banks in California, which spread up the Colorado River. Tamarisk is also a thirsty tree. In an attempt to save the river’s water for irrigation, drinking water, and power, river managers introduced a beetle that feeds on tamarisk so as to deplete the invader. The beetle was introduced upstream of Grand Canyon National Park, and was not expected to travel downriver, at least not as far as the Grand Canyon. The experts were wrong. The beetle is now depleting the Grand Canyon tamarisk too and thus depleting shade and shore-stabilizing tree roots. Biologists hope that in the void created by the beetles, native species like cottonwood will return to the riverbank.↩
10The youngest rock is the highest elevation rock, thus the canyon rim is younger than lower layers and the rock immediately adjacent to the river is the oldest. There are some exceptions to this, where faulting has tipped the rock and where volcanism has extruded younger rock over older.↩
11This sense of being “cargo” will persist, even as I grow more comfortable in the dories, quite unlike the experience of chartering a sailboat or cycling through Spain where I feel as if I have more control over my fate.↩
12Solar time is highly local, extremely simple, and exquisitely serviceable: when the sun is directly overhead, it’s noon; when it gets dark, it’s night. Only the advent of railways and the need to determine longitude at sea spelled the end of solar time’s universality. But in certain cases, on the river or on a wilderness trek or scaling a mountain peak, the arc of the sun retains its utility.↩
13There are also commercial motorized parties, able to travel much faster than we, and therefore not so limited by the scarcity of campsites since they are able to move downriver quickly should a target site not be available.↩
14The turquoise color of the Little Colorado is due to the calcium carbonate that leaches from the limestone riverbed. The muddy red is from downpours upstream in the Little Colorado’s drainage.↩
15The only accommodations at the bottom of the Canyon: cabins, a cafeteria, and a backpacker’s campground, the destination for the mule trips that descend into the Canyon, and, which, six days into our trip, seem tainted by civilization.↩
16The granite and schist are metamorphic rocks that have been subjected to intense heat and pressure deep in the earth’s crust, deep as medievalists and evangelicals might imagine hell.↩