Tag: rafting

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

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. 

Rafting the Grand Canyon, April 2013, Day 2
Scout’s-Eye View from House Rock Overlook

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.

Wide river, mostly smooth, ruffled by wave, below steep cliffs of red and grey rock
Approaching Soap Creek 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.

A bright yellow river raft dips down into a rapid from a smooth pool. Beyond another raft emerges from the rapids and the river ahead curves to the right as it meets a vertical rock wall of mottled red-and brown rock.
Sheer Wall Rapid (courtesy of Clark)

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.

A set of thumbnail views showing the rocky shapes within Tanner wash--steep canyon walls, rippled surfaces, all in grey rock.
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.

A group of rafters look out on the river, some taking photographs. Everyone wears hats and long sleeves and long pants.
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, below you can see how  one of the beaches I didn’t see this morning has changed.

A collection of images of Salt Water Wash, over time, showing differences in silting and water levels
The thumbnail view of GCRG’s Adopt-A-Beach page for Salt Water Wash (2013)

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?

A Google Earth map view of the Colorado River snaking through the Grand Canyon
Touring the Colorado River on 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.

A Google Earth map view showing the river curving through the canyon, with 20 Mile Camp pinpointed.
Zooming in on 20 Mile Camp

Day One, From Paria River to Soap CreekDay One, From Paria River to Soap Creek

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!





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)

Secrets & AdventuresSecrets & Adventures

No, it's not a compass.
No, it’s not a compass.

Sometimes, you need a compass.  Sometimes, you need a more specialized instruction set.

This section of Cometary Tales follows the path of adventure, in search of the secrets and mysteries out there in the natural world.

I’ll begin by co-opting the blog page for an in-depth retelling of how I took two cameras down the Colorado River on an inflatable raft and managed not to drop either of them in the river.

Not to say my loyal retainers didn’t suffer.  The TS-4 served its duty of riding lens-first into rapids, secure only in the assurance that between a wrist strap, a neck lanyard, and a sweet orange floaty it was not likely to end up in Lake Mead.   The non-rugged ZS-7 struggled mightily with the ubiquitous sand, but soldiered on, recovering temporarily from a sand-jam to deliver a final sequence of aerial shots when the TS-4 exhausted its last milliamp-hour on the way out of the canyon.

To follow along on this journey, track Secrets of the Grand Canyon.

(Updated January 2021.)

Secrets and Mysteries of Rafting the Grand CanyonSecrets and Mysteries of Rafting the Grand Canyon

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