Category Archives: Secrets of the Grand Canyon

Discoveries made while travelling the Grand Canyon by river raft.

Day Two, Afternoon: From 20 Mile to Lone Cedar Camp

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We have been encouraged to shift about and ride with all of the guides, as each has different perspectives, stories, and expertise.  Still, Clark needed to simplify things this morning and so re-joined Christian in the sweep boat.  And it happens that Eliza and Todd also jumped back on the same boat as yesterday.   Smart move for them, as I was OK with staying in the back all day to deal with my sand-in-eye issue, so they got a full day up front.   This will set a new pattern for our partners in the Fab Five, as, with the possible exception of Lana, we’re all keen to ride up front as much as possible.  So our couples will be endeavoring to not ride too much as a foursome, as each pair wants the same seats as the other!

Today, plunging deeper into the canyon forces us to expand our minds in the geological direction as well.   As the day began, we felt ourselves all knowledgeable, having mastered the notion of a “formation”, that is, a group of rocks that is readily distinguishable from layers above and below.  Our first formation was the Kaibab Limestone so naturally we thought  a “formation” meant a layer of one type of rock. But then we had to come to terms with the Toroweap layer, sandwiched between the Kaibab Limestone and the Coconino Sandstone.  But that middle layer has three main types of rocks—and no one is calling it the “Toroweap Gypsum and Shale and Sandstone”, it’s just the “Toroweap Formation”.

Toroweap Formation first appears below the Kaibab

Toroweap Formation first appears below the Kaibab Limestone

The point is a formation has a recognizable structure that geologists use to build their maps and that even we non-geologists can spot as a distinct layer.  Its main observable characteristic is it seems more bust-up-able, so the Toroweap also introduced us to talus slopes.  Turns out the gypsum and shale are more susceptible to erosion, so the transition between Kaibab and Coconino is a sloping mess of tumbled and jumbled rock, providing footholds for vegetation and for wildlife.  The Hermit Shale, underneath the Coconino, also turns out to be a slope-forming layer.  So we are sometimes going past vertical walls but sometimes alongside rocky slopes hosting vegetation—and wildlife.

 

Big Rock Slide

One Big Rock Slide–from the Kaibab over the Toroweap talus slope to drop off the Coconino wall to the Hermit shale slope

Well, we thought we were so smart, but our comeuppance struck earlier this morning, when we descended below the Hermit Shale into something entirely new.  The Supai Group.  What the heck is a “group”???   Is this some kind of pun on “rock group”?  Are we supposed to be asking which layer plays “bass”?  Naw, it’s just that sometimes geologists find it helpful to describe an assemblage of formations as a “Group”.   There are four formations (is that another pun?) in the Supai—and we will have rolled through all of them by dinnertime.    Why “Supai”?  That’s the name of the people who live in the Grand Canyon, the members of the Havasupai Tribe.  Not coincidentally, “Coconino” is the old Hopi name for the Havasupai.  So far, the geologists seem to have been relying on the locals to come up with formation names—Kaibab and Toroweap are Southern Paiute words, which are usually translated as “mountain lying down” and “dry/barren valley”, respectively.   We’ll learn about the “Hermit” moniker later.

With all these complex rocks in the vicinity, after lunch we make a short run to a place for a hike.  We pull in at Upper North Canyon Camp…no, not to camp, instead to make the scramble up to the North Canyon pool.  It’s a try-out, Billie says, to see how the group fares on hikes involving some scrambling.  I’m having something of a relapse in my eye condition, so I (yeah, yeah, grumpily) stay behind to take care of that.  I like scrambling, but it’s not a good idea when you can’t see.  Meanwhile, Christian is also on break, left behind to keep an eye on the boats and any stay-behind passengers.  I think I’m the only one staying.  Oh, well.

When my eye is feeling better again,  I let Christian know I’m going to roam about in the area near shore, with my camera in hand.   It’s actually a relief to have a little time seemingly “on my own”.  (This has to go in quotes…there are tons of people around, no fewer than a dozen at any given time, as other groups leave and arrive from the river, or from up-canyon.)  I just ignore everyone else and find for myself some photogenic calcite lumps, fire ants, lizards, a garden of native plants (agave, prickly pear, and more), and a spot to video the rapids.

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Heart of Stone

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

White Rock & Friend

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Spray and Moss

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Grand Canyon Fire Ants with Straw

Rainfall at North Canyon

Rainfall at North Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is an effort to ignore just how popular this spot is.   I’ve already learned to be careful setting up a shot when folks are first pulling in to shore.    The very first thing guys do after shipping oars—whether they’re wriggling out of a kayak or beaching a raft– is stand up and urinate.  Another reason to roam a bit away from the beach.

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Arrivals at North Canyon

While I may have enjoyed my little wander and my personal discoveries, I did miss the adventure of the day, so here are a few of Clark’s pics from the Reason So Many People Stop Here:

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Billie leads the group up North Canyon

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Florence heads up the drainage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Tiny reflecting pool

 

 

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

The main pool, in the rain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not far to camp, but it’s a fun ride.  We’re now in the “Roaring Twenties”, a sequence of lively rapids between the 20-mile and 30-mile rivermarks.    At camp, another benefactor appears.  Trillian (of the triad Art & Trillian & Barry) has a solid familiarity with the trials of irritated eyes, as she suffers with one of those ailments that interferes with tear production, so she shares a pair of vials of her prescription Restasis.  I was a little skeptical about “borrowing” a prescription medication, but it turns out to be just the right thing.

Another lovely freshly-prepared dinner.  This time, it’s grilled chicken—with a choice of sauces.  Clark is ecstatic.  I think he goes back for seconds.  Matt works out his golf technique with the help of some driftwood.  Like Clark, he’s looking forward to the Master’s this coming weekend;  unlike Clark, he will be at home in time to watch the whole tournament.

During dessert, the portable grill becomes a firepit for our circle of chairs.  TitleThe crew breaks out some toys—horseshoes and a set of glow-in-the dark bocce balls.  Everyone is in the mood for some relaxation.  I’m in the mood for taking more pictures.

We made over close to 20 miles today (even with that annoying person whining in the back of the sweep boat).  We’re having wonderful weather.  A little drizzle during the hike just added a little variety without causing any problems for anybody.   We’ve stopped at Lone Cedar Camp, which is big enough for folks to spread out a bit.  Our tent is tucked into the lee of a large rock, and I persuade Clark to try putting up the flysheet tonight (the excuse being it might rain again).  The combined effect is to reduce somehat the quantity of sand infiltrating our tent this time.

Wishing I owned a sleep mask—or that I’d happened to pack one of my several headbands—I fashion an eye covering from a spare pair of long johns (well, let’s say “elegant thermal underlayer”) which serves to keep my head warm in the night and to keep the Restasis (and the extra tears it produces) in and to keep the sand out of my eyes.  At least no one at all can see how silly I look—Clark is already fast asleep.

 

Day Two, Morning: From Soap Creek to Lunch at 20 Mile Camp

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Well, the narrative for the morning of Day Two will be slim on personal observations.  I missed about half the day to a wrestling match with sand.   To squelch the urge to overindulge on the topic of having sand in one’s eye, I’ll attempt to fill the void with some post-trip discoveries and stolen photos from Clark’s morning shoot.  Yes, I hear you, “Big deal, I’ve had sand in my eyes!” and indeed I will have sand in my eyes plenty of times on this trip, but this Day Two Experience was like having had a disgruntled Brownie spend the night firmly packing sand into my eye socket.  That is, I woke up half-blind.  As a person who deals with hay and dust and animal hair/dander and agricultural dust regularly, I have rather a lot of tricks to deal with grit in my eyes, so it is difficult to express just how embarrassing and frustrating it was to have to seek help.

This is our first de-camping morning, and here I’m a useless cussing chump clumsily using a full-size water bottle to squirt water into one eye while both eyes fill with helpful, blinding tears, and Clark packs two people’s gear into bags and takes down the tent pretty much by himself.   Meanwhile, someone loaded plates with breakfast for Clark and me, so we’d not miss out on blueberry pancakes and bacon.  Despite my frustration and handicap, it turns out to be possible to swiftly consume a large quantity of this bacon.  Pancakes not being finger food make them problematical, though tasty.  Clark doubles up on bacon, not being a fan of pancakes contaminated with healthy antioxidant-bearing fruit.

So anyways, off we launch, all attired in our waterproof gear, for our run through Soap Creek Rapid.  I wish I had the chameleon’s skill of moving one eye while keeping the other still, so I could watch with one eye and not worry about damaging the cornea on the other.  Oh well,  I can deal with missing the visual portion of the rapids we ride—first the thrashing-wet Soap Creek, then a couple of what would be mere riffles but are actually more exciting in the uncertain dark, then the lightweight  Sheer Wall Rapid.

Approaching Soap Creek Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

Approaching Soap Creek Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day Two

Sheer Wall Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

It’s not a big drop—though my readings indicate it used to be much more problematic.  For the early explorers like Powell, who were not really equipped to run rapids, Sheer Wall was one of those that required extra effort to scout routes for portaging the boats .  Due to the “sheer” walls of rock rising from the river at that point, Powell’s crew were forced to scramble up tricky gaps in the rock and cling to uncertain ledges.

As Clark’s photo shows, the rapid at Sheer Wall is very short, and for us is more like a 2-foot weir over the debris-flow from Tanner Wash.  (Though, of course, with higher or lower water flow, it will be different—facts of life on the Colorado.)  Hikers coming down from the Rim can enjoy some fabulous experiences upstream in Tanner Wash.  While at river level, it’s an bland-looking open canyon, if one can climb up or around the dryfalls or pour-offs that form a barrier to up-creek hikers, there is a slot-canyon experience to be found, plus beautiful delicately-layered staircases as the creekbed cuts through the Coconino sandstone.  Follow the link to John Crossley’s photos—these thumbnails are just a screenshot of a single page on his site.

 

John Crossley's Tanner Wash page

John Crossley’s Tanner Wash page

And keep in mind that the hiking guides I’ve found share the opinion that these views of Tanner Wash are out-of-reach for anyone other than a technical climber or an experienced traveller on the only-slightly-marked go-arounds, if approaching from river level.  So we’re not heartbroken by missing that side-trip.

 

 

 

While there’s a certain novelty in surfing blind, my mood is in the dumps, so I’ll admit to wasting too many available conversation opportunities by whining.   It is suggested I wash out my eye by dunking my head in the river.  The river full of sandy water.  Yep, that would certainly work. Well, it would shut me up for a bit, I suppose.

Well, it does beat drowning, which is a recurring theme in the history lectures we hear on the trip.   Surprisingly, the first to make it through, John Wesley Powell, didn’t lose any men to the river.  (However, of the four who decided to hike out partway, three fell prey to old-fashioned death-by-human.)   The brilliantly tight-fisted Frank Brown, who considered it sensible to sink his cash into Robert Stanton’s project of surveying the Grand Canyon at river level for the purpose of building a railroad (in order to profit from the transport of coal from Colorado) also considered it a waste of money to invest in life preservers on a treacherous river.  He drowned just downstream of Soap Creek when his boat flipped over.  Two more of the men on that expedition drowned a couple of days later and the rest of the team hiked out South Canyon.  Stanton came back a year later—with life preservers, this time.

We pull ashore for a short break and then—cue trumpets and cymbals—Florence appears at my side and in short order she produces—from her accessible drybag, no less—a perfect, traditional blue glass eyecup, exactly like the one my family always had in our medicine cabinet.    “I always carry an eyecup,” she says.  And my trip is saved!  It’s going to take some time and more patience, but there is nothing like having the right tool for the job.

Now that I can see a bit, I learn that this “short break” is in part a chance to scout House Rock.

Barry scouts the rapid with Curtis, Jimmy, Christian, Will, Billie, Krista, and Erika

Barry scouts the rapid with Curtis, Jimmy, Christian, Will, Billie, Krista, and Erika

It’s the first rapid on our trip with any potential trickiness to it, and this will be the first time that the crew will see it this year.    Every year, things change as floodwaters shift material, rockfalls contribute to rapids, and flowrates change.  The Grand Canyon River Guides even keep a record of the changes over time, under their “Adopt a Beach” program.  For instance, here  you can see how  one of the beaches I didn’t see this morning has changed.

The thumbnail view of GCRG's Adopt-A-Beach page for Salt Water Wash

The thumbnail view of GCRG’s Adopt-A-Beach page for Salt Water Wash

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2

Scout’s-Eye view of House Rock Rapid

 

There’s a little scramble to get a sightline to House Rock.  The guides are all together discussing the best route through the obstacles they see. I take a peek at the view and snap a few photos of my own before I need to stumble back to more-level ground to give Florence’s eyecup another workout before it’s time to re-board and run this rapid.  It is definitely more fun with eyes open to see the waves coming.

 

 

Lunch is a stop at 20 Mile Camp—we are really Making Time today—for a lesson in creative use of groceries.   For those of us who love cream cheese, there are bagels and cream cheese, while salmon fans can choose cream cheese blended with grilled salmon from last night.  And there is the always-available peanut-butter & jelly option for the non-cheese-consumers, like Clark and Barry-the-vegan, or anyone who just doesn’t care for bagels.  And fruit, of course.  Did I mention our caretakers make sure we have plenty of fruit and veg in our river trip diet?

But here we are at the entrance to the “Roaring Twenties”.  No more flat water for a while.  Did you know that you can explore the canyon via Google Earth?  You can take the do-it-yourself route and just install the software and do your own scans (which should be even cooler and in more 3-D soon, according to announcements made at Google’s I/O event this spring!)   Or you can hook up with experienced Earthers like Riverbrain, who have put together stats on the river, rapids, and camps with zoomable satellite views from DigitalGlobe and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency, no less.

Touring the Colorado River on Google Earth

Touring the Colorado River on Google Earth

Eyes in the sky on 20 Mile Camp

Using Riverbrain to zoom on on 20 Mile Camp

 

 

It’s All About the Sand

OK, Time for Our First Entry in SECRETS REVEALED!!!

#1  It’s All About the Sand

Approaching a Grand Canyon rafting trip, all you think about are those thrilling rapids, the blazing sun, and the electrifying/drenching thunderstorms. Your packing list is heavy on waterproof gear, quick-drying clothing, sunblock, and hats.  But at least half of your time is spent in the Kingdom of the Sand Demon, and you will be reminded of that for weeks to come, as you find sand in yet another impermeable item.

Think of it this way:  the glistening white sand beaches along the Colorado River are formed of particles eroded from a mile of rock—much of it sandstone, no less, and almost all of it the product of eons of marine sedimentary deposition—with the grinding-down happening over five or six million years.  All those thousands of thousands of years of tumbling in the river yields sand so fine that it blows right through your tent walls.  Yes, really.  You will snuggle down to sleep in your little tent with the windows and doors zipped tight (because you did notice all that sand out there and were even sharp enough to notice that the wind tends to shift its direction and roar turbulently down the canyon every evening).  And you will wake up with a layer of dust-scale sand all over your gear, your sleeping bag, your mat, and your face.

Yes, beautiful sandy beaches!

Yes, beautiful sandy beaches!

So—once you think about it, there is no mystery.  Ultrafine sand plus forceful winds equals sand in everything.  Most of the time it is a minor annoyance, an opportunity to bond with your travelmates: “Yep, I have sand in my beer/cocoa/coffee/soda/water, too.” Sometimes, it’s just another technical chore, such as brushing the sand out of your waterproof camera housing.  But sometimes, it’s a way to mark yourself as a seasoned river-runner:  the clean, safe water supply at Phantom Ranch was “turbid” (nanoscale sand, yes?) when we stopped by—so Billie advised the crew to pump water through the team’s super-filters for refills, instead of simply using the Park Service’s ready-to-use water, in order to avoid giving the new arrivals an unpleasant surprise on their first day.  We old hands merely filled our bottles at the tap and chugged the wetness gratefully.

On occasion, it’s more than annoying (see my Day Two Morning whine-session).   To quickly recover from the more-than-annoying times, bring the following:  an eye cup and a tube of liquid tears.  If you have any dry-eye issues, make sure to bring your medication.  If your weight allowance allows, tuck in a bottle of pH-balanced eyewash.  If you don’t need these supplies, fine.  But if someone else does, you will make a friend for life!

And to save those supplies for being a hero, apply an ounce of prevention.  If you’re a side-sleeper, face away from the tent walls.   Tuck a headband in your gear—if you find yourself waking up with sand in your face, use the headband as a night-time eye covering and wash your face in the morning.  Shake the sand out of your sleeping gear before packing it away in the morning.  Try to keep your hands reasonably clean—humans are always putting their fingers in their eyes, but you sure notice it more when you rub sand into them!  And if you must sleep under the stars, tent-free, choose a less-comfortable spot out of the sand-blow.  (You’ll realize the guides don’t concern themselves with tents—but they are usually bunking down on their boats.  On the water.  Away from the sand.)

Keep in mind, this is no excuse to Avoid The Trip.  Just one of the Secrets they don’t tell in the literature.  To paraphrase one of Clark’s favorite poets, Robert W. Service, “It isn’t the river ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your eye”.

Want to read the real quote, and more?  A good place to start is Goodreads.  Yes.  Pun intended.

And remember, add $10 to your budget for:

A proper eye cup.  Bring your old glass version if you have one--this the the best out there now.

A proper eye cup. Bring your old glass version if you have one–this is the best plastic one.

adforeyewash

Kinder than water and sand-free.

liquidtears

Helpful dose for irritated eyes…not the stinging “red out” stuff.

 

This is just a gallery of photos from the first day in the Grand Canyon.  Not in any particular order, either.

To see the photos in full format (and, in the case of vertical images, the full view), double-click on any one image, then use “previous” and “next” buttons to move around.

Yes, of course, the images are copyrighted.   Says so at the bottom of the page AND in the image IFTC’s.  Trip members–read the details, though.  You got  rights!  And if you can’t figure out the who’s-who, just email me, OK?

 

Day One, From Paria River to Soap Creek

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Gulls at Water's Edge, Below Vermilion Cliffs

Gulls at Water’s Edge, Below Vermilion Cliffs

Red & White (Moenkopi & Shinurump)

Red & White (Moenkopi & Shinurump)

 At this point we are beginning our Grand Canyon geology lessons.  At the outset, back in those early times when we thought it a struggle to manage a simple footwear change, we were sitting just above the Kaibab formation—the same mostly-limestone layer that forms the tough, weathering-resistant rim of the Grand Canyon.   And for the first stretch, we glide along in the shadow of the formation that lies above the Kaibab—the Moenkopi, a formation which is recent enough to offer up dinosaur bones to patient and industrious paleontologists.   Our journey will take us much further back in time than the dinosaurs, deep into the pre-Cambrian, a thousand million years ago, when our most ancient ancestors were just beginning to try enough cooperation to form multicellular life.  Today, though, we will just take a dive into the top of the Permian period.  By the time we camp, we’ll be down in the Hermit formation, where the rocks date back 280 million years.   Just Google “Grand Canyon Layers” and you’ll find a hundred diagrams of the geology of the Canyon.  One of my favorites is this one, by Professor Charles Cowley  of the University of Michigan’s Astronomy Department, because his essay does a super job of explaining the terminology and relationships…and also links to off-Earth “geology”.

Layers of the Grand Canyon (Cowley)

Layers of the Grand Canyon (Cowley)

Shortly after we set off, the Kaibab limestone shows up at the shoreline (Kaibab).   By the time we stop for lunch, at Three Mile Camp, we’ve already dropped below the Kaibab Limestone into the Toroweap Formation (composed of mostly limestone and sandstone).

Toroweap Formation first appears below the Kaibab

Toroweap Formation first appears below the Kaibab

 

 

 

And we’re getting our first look at the variety of shapes to be seen in the rocks.   I keep seeing faces and Clark keeps seeing assemblages that look like built structures.

I see faces:  Big Giant Head

I see faces: Big Giant Head

 

Clark sees buildings:  "masonry" cliff

Clark sees buildings: “masonry” cliff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It may seem early to stop for lunch, as we pull in to shore after just under an hour on the water, but keep in mind that we started the day at 6 a.m.  and everyone is ready to practice off-boarding if it leads to serious snacking.  Remember the Guest Uniform described at days’ beginning?  Here Lois & Lana model these fabulous costumes.  Well, maybe not exactly fabulous in appearance, but just you try to find an outfit that keeps the sun from frying your skin and also keeps you from succumbing to hypothermia when it turns cold and wet.

Lois and Lana Rockin' the River Style

Lois and Lana Rockin’ the River Style

 

 

 

Check out the elegant lunch service, with the bottomless Blue Jug of Water prominently featured.  But lunch is a quick meal, and we’re back on the water in no time, heading off to see the famous Navajo bridges.   This will be our last glimpse of modern structures until we reach Phantom Ranch.  Eliza and Todd graciously take the back seats, so Clark & I get to ride up front and take photos of the rest of the group

Boats on the way to Navajo Bridges

Boats on the way to Navajo Bridges

The bridges are just a mile downstream.  I’m torn between admiring the elegant designs  (there is just nothing like a beautiful bridge) and spotting the first appearance of the Coconino Sandstone layer.

The Navajo Bridges pass overhead

The Navajo Bridges pass overhead

 

 

First appearance of the Coconino Sandstone

First appearance of the Coconino Sandstone

 

Over the next couple of hours, we’ll enjoy a whole sequence of firsts:

1)       Our first California Condor sighting!

 

Condor! Condor!

Condor! Condor!

 

 

Condor!!!

Condor!!!

2)      Our first real rapid, Badger (Sorry, no photos from me.  I was too busy hanging on. Oh, how I will laugh at myself in just a few days!)

3)      Our first bighorn sheep sighting!  Well, our first back end of a bighorn, anyhow.

Bighorn sheep in hiding

Bighorn sheep in hiding

4)      Our first bonafide landmark—Ten Mile Rock.

They call it "Ten Mile Rock"   Why?

They call it “Ten Mile Rock” Why?

Whatever is it named after, we wonder?  It’s not even close to ten miles across.  Did someone think it looks like the number ten?  Or the Roman numeral  X?   If anything, it looks like the letter Z.   So why is not not called “Zorro Rock”? But most importantly, this landmark is what our Trip Leader is looking for, as she is aiming for…

5)      Our first camp!  We pull in at Soap Creek Camp, where we receive in short order, the Lecture on How to Assemble Tents,  The Lecture on How to Use the Bathroom, and the Lecture on How to Know When to Show Up for Meals.   (The secret there is:  listen for the conch.  Yes, a blast on a conch shell.  As if we are rafting down a river on Lord of the Flies Island.  Luckily, the minimum age for this trip eliminates the risk we’ll be attacked by a tribe of feral boys.)

Soap Creek Camp is just upstream from Soap Creek Rapid, which makes Badger look like a couple of kids splashing in a wading pool.  The last of the day’s sunlight gleams across the river, making it glow golden.  Irresistible!

Clark at Soap Creek Rapid

Clark at Soap Creek Rapid

 

Big Shadows and Soap Creek

Big Shadows and Soap Creek

Standing Wave at Soap Creek

Standing Wave at Soap Creek

Clark and I ramble about for a while after tent set-up, skipping the “hors d’oeuvres”.   Dinner is a fabulous service of grilled salmon, asparagus, and salad.  (Poor Clark!  He didn’t ask for an alternative to salmon, but doesn’t care for seafood. )  And dessert is a humongous cheesecake, which disappears in short order.

Each person is responsible for washing-up his or her own dishes.  Critical item for anyone considering taking this trip—bring a pair of dishwashing gloves!  After a few days in the desert dryness, all the hand-washing and regular river-soakings will leave hands dry and cracked.  Alternative—con your travel partner into doing your dishes for you.

Night comes quickly when you’re tired.   I find myself following my flashlight beam along the trail to our elegant bathroom well after sunset.  But I need not be anxious about being in such a vulnerable situation, in the dark, on my own.  Because I’m not alone.  Peeking around the edge of the rock there  is a tiny translucent scorpion.   Hello there, little guy.  Don’t worry, I won’t tell the others you’re here.

Bark Scorpion (copyright Noah Charney, licensed under Creative Commons)

Bark Scorpion (copyright Noah Charney, licensed under Creative Commons)

Day One: Lees Ferry to Paria Rapid

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In this installment:  Secrets of Survival and Our First Grand Canyon Rapid

The process of putting-in took a long while with us rank amateurs.  We fumbled with water bottles and backpacks and struggled with the technique of squeezing warm sweaty sandy feet into neoprene booties.  Some of us rummaged in bags to find sunblock and carefully coated exposed skin and just as carefully adjusted hats and sleeves to cover as much as possible.  We waffled about whether to pull on the waterproof pants and jackets, given that no really fierce whitewater was in sight and that it was already getting rather warm.  Meanwhile, all the crew had to do was shift those little white bags with our tiny collections of supplies onto the boats and sort of arrange things and then stand around telling people to fill up their water bottles.  On top of everything,  Billie kept making us stop our preparations and listen to instructions.

For instance, there is the life vest lecture.  Vest will be worn at all times on the river.  Life vests need to be snug.  Yes, that makes them uncomfortable.  If you insist on sneaking around with a loosened life vest, you’d better snug it up tight when the guide announces whitewater ahead.   There’s some delay at this point while vests are distributed and made tight.  Like the daybags, the vests are named, so that we don’t need to repeat the adjustment process every day.  Clark draws one with two names:  “Western Fence Lizard” in faded marker and “Hot Pants” in darker ink.  Mine is “Lily”.  Actually, I drew “Oro” (named for an actual rapid) first, but the guy who is here on the trip with his teen son was standing there with “Lily”, looking awfully disappointed, so I offered a trade.

Reconvening on the topic of vests, we receive the safety-on-the-river lecture.  The most critical advice, naturally, is Listen To The Guide.  Like most Grand Canyon rafting trips these days, the passengers do not paddle;  instead, the oarsman (who is just as likely to be female as male) is in control of two large oars and the passengers are ballast which can move when told to do so.  In the ordinary course of events, the ballast may simply be asked to move from the rear to the front of the raft to improve the boat’s balance on the rapid.   The sentient ballast is expected to take care of tying itself down—by holding on with both hands—when necessary.  All of the ballast may be called upon to shift together when the raft may be getting in trouble, generally moving towards the big scary wave or the big scarier rock, as the point is to move the mass to the high side of the raft to force it back to level flight.  Ergo, the command to listen for is “High Side!”

And here is where the vests come in—should the ballast be unsuccessful in its assigned group task, the raft can flip, spilling the ballast (and the oarsman, too) into the river.  In that event, having a snug, well-fitted vest can be a true life-saver.  In the first place, a properly-fitted vest will help the person float through the rapid—whether they are conscious or not.   An alert floater can aim feet first through the flow, tuck in those arms and ride the waves like a piece of driftwood.  Not exactly relaxing, but it makes the adventure survivable.  On another day, we heard guide Christian tell of working on a film re-enactment of the Powell exploration trip where the filmmaker wanted the authenticity of having the oarsmen do their runs without vests—and the guides (and the Park Service) nixed that idea.  Bright idea #2 was to disguise life vests under wraps of burlap.  Christian tested out this kluge—a vest encased in soaking wet burlap failed to provide flotation.  So he wore two vests, a real one underneath the faked-up one.

Once through an unexpected swim of a rapid, Billie tells us, our job is to look for her (and we’ll see as the days go by that she is the first through every rapid and waits at the first eddy to make sure everyone comes through).  And at that point we’re advised to set aside “listening”, because the waves drown out any voices.  Instead, look for what she calls “positive instructions”.  That is, she won’t be signaling “no, no, don’t do that”.  Instead, she’ll signal “do this, go there”.  So all information is direct help, not useless warnings that would not mean anything to us.

And finally, once reunited with a raft, the vest has a final job to do.  It’s a handle.  A person aboard a boat can pull another person aboard using the vest as a handhold—but only if the vest is firmly snugged.  Otherwise, the person will slip down in the vest and be too hard to grasp.  It might seem this is only important if the person being rescued is unconscious and can’t help him/herself, but in fact it’s very difficult to climb onto an inflatable raft from the water level.  Even with a full-able floating person, it’s easiest to get them onboard by hauling them in from the back, using the life vest.

All of this information makes us understand the necessity of the tight vest.  It does not in any way make it comfortable.  Huff-puff, I feel I can’t breathe!

Now that we are all safety-conscious and sure that we are all on the verge of danger, it’s time to board.  We have six boats here.  Two are for gear and they are piloted by one guide-in-training, James (aka Jimmy) and one emergency backup oarsman, Will.  Guides Billie, Curtis, Christian, and Erika are stuck with passengers.  Billie’s friend Krista, who signed on as an assistant, rides with Will.  We try to sort ourselves out in groups of four passengers per boat, and end up with two groups of four, one trio, and one set of five.   Clark & I are on the “sweep” boat, with Eliza and Todd.  They hop on first and claim the front seats.  Christian’s boat is distinguished by a duck decoy tied behind it, bearing the surprising moniker of Mr. Duck.  The sweep boat is the last boat in the group, so we watch everyone else launch and then follow on down the river.

Yes!  We finally made it onto the river!

Mr. Duck follows the Sweep Boat

Mr. Duck follows the Sweep Boat

Around the first bend is Our First Rapid!  And it’s also our first lesson in how rapids are formed. Most of those we’ll encounter on this trip are the result of outflow from tributary creeks.  In this case, Paria Riffle arises at the mouth of the Paria River.  At this junction, the Paria is a sedate, open creek.  But if we travelled up that drowsy creek for a few days, we’d find ourselves in a fabulous slot canyon , one which rivals Zion for depth and beauty and also is the access to Buckskin Canyon, the longest and deepest of the slot canyons of the Southwest.   But we are ignorant of this uphill wonder and eagerly fire off our cameras at the waves and troughs formed over the rocky outwash of the Paria joining the Colorado.

Our first "rapid", Paria Riffle

Our first “rapid”, Paria Riffle

 

Day One: From Flagstaff to Lees Ferry ( Mile 0)

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Redbud at dawn, Flagstaff

Redbud at dawn, Flagstaff

Patience, patience.  It will get better.  There will be pain, terror, comic interludes, amazement, all that.  Soon enough.

So today we think we are getting up early.  How naïve we are, believing ourselves totally on-the-ball as we deposit our overstuffed drybags in the lobby at 6 a.m., first ones ready.   And first to the breakfast buffet as well.  I have a strong hankering for a lovely waffle, but we all decide on the no-waiting buffet.  So.  Well.  There is a great big pan full of sausage.  English muffins.  Hard-boiled eggs.  This could work.

The other folks filter into the dining room.  We don’t know each other yet, one meeting with the trip leader last night was not enough for bonding.  And with my personal brand of dysnomia, we’ve been together far too little even for adequate identification.  At least some people make a bit of an effort to be memorable.  Isn’t that the wise-cracking guy who made sure to poll the group to establish he’s the oldest among us?  But who are those people he’s with?  Thank goodness we are only a group of sixteen.  And I already know three of us.  Of course, that’s counting myself.

We are all in our carefully assembled river-rafting outfits, so we are now instantly recognizable to the hotel staff as Those OARS Guests.   What’s that uniform like?

Quick-drying pants—seems to me pretty much all the passengers are in long pants, and those of us with new gear are sporting the sun-protecting fabrics.

Quick-drying shirts—experienced types have layered short- and long-sleeved shirts.  Me, I’ve structured a Nerd Look, with a white long-sleeved “base layer” (ultra-comfortable, some fancy brand, UPF 50 fabric, and snagged off the REI heavily-discounted Outlet page) under the polo-style shirt I had on yesterday.  (Already counting days.  Each shirt gets 4 days.)

Everyone has a hat.  Shade is the name of the game on the water, anywhere.  Doesn’t matter if you’re revving one of those horrid Personal Watercraft across a reservoir or balancing the outrigger on your 20-foot ocean-going catamaran, the brain requires protection from Sol.   Most everyone has gone for the wide-brimmed Ranger Rick hat.  At least one has chosen the Sahara-style cap with the side-drapes to protect the neck and ears.  It looks comfy.   I debate.  Should I dig my backup cap out of my bag or stick with the wide-brimmed one?

Footgear is a mix.  Some of us are wearing our hiking boots;  others are already in their boat sandals, anxious to get their toes wet in the Colorado River.  Most of us have purchased Teva-style water shoes, some have added neoprene socks, a few have simply packed neoprene booties—a low-mass choice, but requiring a shoe change for even a short hike.  Again, I am full of myself for having found a pair of Keen sandals for 25 bucks.  There are some benefits to knowing one’s size in children’s shoes.

And, given it’s 7 a.m. in Flagstaff on the first of April, virtually everyone has layered on a fleece jacket.  A few have their rain jackets on top of that, too, serving double duty as a windbreaker.  The raingear is mostly tucked in our “day” drybags, as suggested at last night’s pre-trip meeting.  Later on, when we are all tucked into our rain-suits, it can be difficult to tell each other apart, as most have gone with basic black.

The 14-Day Five: Clark, Lois, Lana, Eliza, Todd

The five of us who will be taking the full 14-day trip: “Clark, Lois, Lana, Eliza, & Todd”

So, as we gather in the lobby, stuffing last-minute additions into our daybags and packs, the river-guide crew begins to appear.  Either that, or there’s a new robbery scheme in which people dressed in shorts, tee-shirts, and flip-flops drop by hotels and make off with fully-packed drybags.  Which brings us to the uniform of the river guide:

Pants?  Nay, shorts are the required day wear.  In the event of actual severe weather, say, a cold day with heavy rain, neoprene pants may appear.  And a very cold early morning may prompt a brief stretch with an outer layer, but not likely, no.

Shirts?  Optional for the men. (Well, keep in mind that on the river everyone, absolutely everyone, wears a life vest every minute.)  Most of the time, it’s a short-sleeved shirt or a tank top.  Our wise Team Leader previewed her clothing choices by advising us (at last night’s briefing) to choose clothing over sunblock whenever possible, will be found wearing long-sleeved shirts and fingerless gloves on sunny days, but this is the choice of a nonconformist.

Shoes?   Optional, though often sandals are chosen.  Well, not really  sandals, but flip-flops. It is rumored that the guides own hiking boots.  More on this topic later, when hiking becomes a factor.

Coats?  Well, maybe a shirt for a little while on a chilly morning.

In short, there is no chance that one would mistake a guest for a guide, or vice-versa.  In each party, we will have one person who fits in rather well with the guide class, but attire keeps them distinct no matter what.

While we are staring at one another and fiddling with our backpacks and daybags, the crew have arrived and are lightly tossing our lumpy twenty-five-pound drybags up to the top racks of a pair of white passenger vans.  One van also has a trailer with a big yellow thingy on it.  So we have our first glimpse of a raft.   We all sort of wallflower-it, clumping around the benches in front of the hotel, taking pictures of each other.  But eventually we have to wriggle into the vans.

Our van and raft, at Cameron Trading Post

Our van and raft, at Cameron Trading Post

So it’s a long drive to the put-in at Mile Zero, aka Lees Ferry, so we are promised a “rest stop” at Cameron Trading Post.  This is a wonderful combination of a tourist trap, an art gallery, a grocery store, hotel, church, and post office.  Basically, it’s a town.   Cameron’s perched on the edge of the gorge of the Little Colorado River, where the original founder of the trading post launched the business by building a bridge over the Gorge.  Now, there’s a standard highway bridge, but there’s still also an older suspension bridge (no, not the original one).  At this hour we have the place pretty much to ourselves.   I find a bracelet and a couple of T-Shirts in the shop before stopping in the grocery for a tub of Vaseline.  But first, of course, I have to run down and snag a photo of the bridge.  The older one, of course.

 

The old bridge at Cameron Trading Post

Old Cameron Bridge, over Little Colorado River Gorge

The rest of the drive is longer and affords a chance for naps.  Billie’s friend Krista is sitting in front of me.  She spends the time carefully braiding her barely shoulder-length hair and tying off the ends with colorful yarn–all without being able to see what she’s doing.

A peek at our first rapid, Paria Riffle, from the Lees Ferry Campground

A peek at our first rapid, Paria Riffle, from the Lees Ferry Campground

Finally, we pull in and stop at the campground above Lees Ferry.  We learn that a traveler with another group which had used the campsite facilities down at Lees Ferry had turned out to have rotovirus, so we’re going to avoid those places.  The Campground has a set of restrooms we can use before we go on down to the put-in spot.  While we wait for one another, we can take some photos of the the Colorado river below us and Vermilion cliffs glowing above us beneath the deep blue sky.

But we are finally rounded up and pile into the vans for the half-mile drive down to the water.  Finally, we’re at the River.  Time for more lectures!

Gearing up at Lees Ferry

Gearing up at Lees Ferry

 

Day Zero: Get Thee To Flagstaff

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There is no simple way to orchestrate the travel here.  Yes, planes fly to Flagstaff, not the same airlines as fly to the big airports but their small-scale partners.  There’s a shuttle bus from Phoenix, and if you were facing a long layover the van could even be faster.

A view of the Grand Canyon we did not see on our flights (courtesy of Google Earth)

But we arrive in Phoenix with plane tickets in hand and actually welcome a half-hour flight delay, because it allows us a chance to buy lunch.  I even have time for a stroll through the overpriced-souvenir shop, where I hand over $2 for a pair of elastic bands someone in the shop has put out to support a fundraiser for improving water supplies in Haiti.  Seems appropriate. And the chance to put up our feet for a half-hour is welcome, as we’re already tired.  We actually began yesterday, on Day “-1”, with a five-hour drive to rendezvous with Clark’s friend, who lives near Reno, so we could all travel together the whole way.  Our Day Zero expedition consisted of a drive from the pine forests of Plumas County to the desert flats of Reno’s outskirts, a freeway jaunt to the airport (chauffered by another friend), a big plane to Phoenix, a little plane to Flagstaff, then a search for the airport shuttle.  We will have a powerful case of deja vu on Day Fourteen.   You’ll see.

Flagstaff’s airport is a fabulous, small airport.  My favorite kind.  One baggage claim zone.  No trouble meeting a shuttle bus right outside.  As it happens, the other folks sharing the van are another couple going on our trip.  And they have obtained an intelligence report from the rafting company, OARS, that we five will be the only “guests” staying on the raft trip for the full fourteen days.   The rest of the group will leave halfway (and hike out), to be replaced by a new batch of folks for the second week.  So we will actually get to spend a full fifteen days with Todd and Eliza.  Oh, yeah, and until such time as the members of our trip group authorize me to use their names, I will be using fake names, just in case I goof up and say something upsetting or someone turns out to be in Witness Protection.  I won’t do the same for the crew, since I want to actually give them the props they deserve.  In fact, I’d hope this whole piece could be considered a humungous letter of reference for each and every person on the crew.  I’d initially given myself permission to use my own and my husband’s names, but he protested, so here goes.  He is herewith dubbed “Clark”.  And what to call Childhood Friend?  How about Lana?  And surely that makes me “Lois”.  The only funny thing about this, is that I actually have a friend called Lois–so, hey, Lois, you can tell people this is you.  (Fair warning, though, I’m not the heroine of this story!)

The key element of Day Zero is the evening briefing from the Trip Leader.  We gather in one of the Radisson Hotel’s conference rooms.   (The Midway guests also will have a briefing, but not by the Trip Leader , as she will be a mile downhill at the time.)  So we meet our first authentic River Guide.  This is Billie Prosser, who’s been whitewater rafting since she was a teenager, over fifteen years now, much of that time in the Grand Canyon.  These days, she chooses to do only a few of these Grand Canyon trips a year, giving herself the chance to work on other rivers and also to have time for a private trip, as time permits, to enjoy the Canyon without having to take care of people like us.

At the meeting, we also get our first glimpse of our fellow travelers all together.  We are heavily loaded with Californians and Canadians.   There are three women from Canada—their menfolk didn’t want to come.  There’s two father-son duos: one a dad and his athletic teenager, the other a Bechtel project technician taking a voluntary layoff to make the trip with his dad, a (putatively) retired actor and writer.  The Fab Five (Todd & Eliza and the three of us–Lois, Clark, and Lana) are all from California.   The actor, who takes care during the meeting to firmly establish that he’s the most-senior member of the troupe, has also brought along a childhood friend—a woman he hadn’t seen since high school.  While he keeps us entertained, I get the vague feeling he sort of expects someone to recognize him.  Then there’s another triad…a husband and wife and one of their friends.  Is that sixteen?

We get a quick summary of what to expect in the morning.  The crucial item is to have our gear packed and in the lobby by quarter to seven and be ready to leave by seven.  There’s a little last-minute advice on what to be sure to bring.  In case something’s been forgotten, there’s a WalMart in walking distance.  We’re advised to bring lots and lots of moisturizer.  I ask for a definition of “lots”, which it seems is a 16 oz bottle per person per week.  Oh, my goodness, I didn’t bring that much, so we have a trip to WalMart in the plans already.  We’re issued our “drybags”, each labeled with our own personal real names.  (Amazingly, they don’t know to use the fake names I will make up in the future for this blog.)  And Billie gives us a five-minute seminar on how to seal the drybags.  This is important, as all of our clothing and personal items go in this bag, which will then be tied onto a raft and frequently doused with water.  We’re each also issued a small drybag.  The big bag is inaccessible except in camp.  The day bag serves to keep dry what we need to keep dry but have access to during the day.  And we’re allowed to bring whatever we like in our daypacks as well, provided we understand that these will get drenched in larger rapids or if it rains.  The drybags don’t have our personal names on them.  Instead, they each have an identifying name written in Sharpie,  to individualize them.  We just each have to remember our bag’s name.  Mine is “Turpentine Broom”.  Lana’s is “Grease Bush”.  And Clark selects the distinctly memorable “#73”.  Mine is the best.  Here is all about Turpentine Broom  and Grease Bush.  I expect we’ll encounter these plants on our journey.  In the meantime, the names help, as the bags come in only a few colors.

I’m relieved to hear there will be a bag for boots, as this will make room in my kit for all that moisturizer.  Others are relieved to hear that their beer and wine orders have been filled.  Some are anxious to double-check on that after the meeting.  Billie has the checklist.  Evidently, this is a common anxiety.

Then we are off to WalMart.  Yes, our first act upon crossing the moment into our trip environment is to walk down a suburban city street, past a dark and quiet Home Depot, an active supermarket, and a Bank of America with lights glowing invitingly above its ATM, to shop in the megabehemoth of a store that was launched just a few miles from Clark and Lana’s home town.   But oh, they do indeed have It All.  More sunblock.  I must have more sunblock.  Moisturizer, per Billie’s recommendations.  Handy dry facewash cloths to get all that sunblock off.  And a tripod.  What was I thinking, leaving home without a tripod?  And a little mini flex-tripod for Clark.  Sweet.  Now all we have to do is haul this all back to the hotel and get everything crammed into our bags.

And, well, the bag-cramming takes a little while.  Maybe more than a little while.   Part of it is deciding which things are OK in the backpack (maybe in a Ziploc bag, maybe not), which need to go in the daybag, and which can be done without and stuffed in the main drybag.  I have the extra variant that I really have 2 daypacks. One is a one-shoulder sling pack that keeps my cameras and other hiking essentials from bearing down on my healing shoulder and when not in use tucks into the main pocket of my large daypack.  The main daypack takes my raingear, a dry set of fleece sealed in ziplocs, my tripod, and other handy items.  It’s big, it’s bulky, I will make Clark carry it as much as possible.  But it all fits.  And while I fancy myself adept at this sort of thing, it is Clark who is already proving to be better at sealing the big drybag.  He says it is just that he can squish it down better, being a bit heavier, but I think there is more to it than that.  I will keep insisting on doing my bag myself for about four more days.  Then I will give up and let him do it for me.

One last shower and a thorough hair washing.  It will be 2 weeks without a shampooing, at least for me.  I do not want to look at the setting on the alarm clock.  It is just too awful to contemplate.

 

Secrets and Mysteries of Rafting the Grand Canyon

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So, for the next month and more, this blog, or at least most of its available posting space, has been claimed by a fan of the Grand Canyon.  Yes, a fan of a really big hole in the ground.  It’s not as big as Valles Marinaris, but there is still a river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which greatly facilitates travel by river raft.  The goal is to take you along on a fourteen-day expedition, from Kaibab Sandstone to Vishnu Schist, through rapids, slot canyons, waterfalls, and thunderstorms, and along the way reveal a few of the deep dark secrets of these trips so few of us take.  We’ll cover over 180 miles on the river plus many miles afoot on canyon trailways.  Why use up a month to take you on a two-week trip?  Because that’s what it feels like.  You forget what day it is, how long you’ve been gone, how much time is left.  If you don’t keep a journal, you’re lost.

I kept a journal.

I also took about 3,000 photographs and an hour of video.

Yes, there will be a fair amount of “what we did”, but I also want to share the background information the guides (and other travelers) shared with us, the additional tidbits I’ve gleaned from research (the addiction of the Ph.D.), and perhaps even paint the picture well enough that if you can’t go on this trip you can claim you did and provide your friends with a verisimilitudinous description.  Just pick one of the falsified names in the diary segments & say “yeah, that’s me”.   Also, if you’re a well-heeled adventure traveler planning your own expedition, I’d hope you’ll come away with enough information to know where you should not take short-cuts—and with some clues about how to find experienced, capable guides to get you through safely.

In the meantime,  I don’t want to wear out your eyeballs with more than a few photos and a thousand words of gushing per post.  There will be directions to see more photos, but, I promise, this won’t be a session of “Watch my Vacation Slideshow”.

Time for the first installment of Secrets of Grand Canyon River Rafting.

Deep, dark secret #1.  Not everyone wants to go on this trip.  Three husbands who could have joined their wives refused the chance to walk away from work, television, and electronic connectedness for a week.  A young backbacker—who had completed the climb of Mount Whitney with his mother just a few months previously—turned down a free ticket and sent his retirement-age Mom on her own.  She said he didn’t like the idea of not being in control on the trip.  Another traveller’s wife sent him off with a (female) friend he’d recently reconnected with after a thirty-year hiatus, because the wife just can’t stand camping.  His son, a golf enthusiast, only agreed to chaperone them if they took the shorter trip, to be sure he’d be home in time to watch the Master’s.  Me? No, actually, I didn’t want to go on this trip.  The only person who couldn’t tell was my husband, he was so excited about going.  Why would this nature/science/ancient-peoples-loving photographer want to sit this out?

First of all, it’s frightfully expensive—if you want to travel the Canyon and not spend a fortune, you need to be able to work there.   I am not the correct age or physical type to start a new career as a river guide.  Nor do I have the right background or training to get hired by (or even volunteer for) the Park Service or any of the scientific research teams with feet on the water down there.  So when my husband Clark declared that it had “always” been his wish to make this trip and that he had, after all, a big landmark birthday coming up, I made him pay for it out of his IRA.  That was the only place we had enough money set by.

Second, Clark got the idea from a friend of his, a childhood friend who’s facing the same landmark birthday this year.  When these two get together, they tend to devote a significant amount of our time to recalling those good-old-days.  Days I did not share.  Oh, great, my jealous heart predicted:  two weeks of traipsing along behind while they play “remember when.”  Well,  I did end up trailing along behind, but not quite the way predicted.  You’ll see.

And the third and most sensible reason:  I broke my shoulder in January and my orthopedist’s solid opinion about my going river-rafting in April was: “I wouldn’t recommend doing that.”   The bone knitted on schedule, but shoulders are complicated messes of tendons and muscles that don’t take kindly to the whole process.  I was told it would be a year or more before I’d be back from this injury.  My physical therapist did what he could to get some of my range-of-motion restored and added a couple of exercises to build back a little strength, but I went off with one arm fully-qualified to hang on tight and one that complained bitterly about any extension beyond a basic stretch while it simply refused to raise my hand beyond about 80 degrees.   One upside was that Clark got to haul all my gearbags, because I just couldn’t handle them.

The other upside is that I would not want to have missed out on this trip.  Even though we couldn’t afford it, it was worth it.  Does that make any sense at all?  Well, it will.

So, all right already, let’s go.  For a teasing sneak-peek, here is a picture from Day 5.  Oh, aye, it’s the Grand Canyon.

Day One

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