DAY 3: TUESDAY, MAY 25
Time was not a concern on this trip. Someone asked our guide what time it was and he explained that he only carried a watch buried somewhere in his gear for the last day of the trip. He said he looked at it then only to make sure we made the chopper pick-up when we were supposed to. Truly, time really didn't matter too much at all because there was nowhere we had to be at any given time. Nor did we have anywhere to go except down river. Not only that, but we were in Arizona - one of only a few states that don't recognize Daylight Savings Time.
Although we were slowly learning the names of the others on the trip, we noticed comments from the rest of the group that indicated they all knew Marty and Chase by name. And by reputation - mostly for the good, thank heavens. We'd noticed the boys not hanging close to us as much and they apparently had made a point to visit extensively with the other group members during breaks and in camp. They, being the youngest on the trip and more socially inclined than Brian or me, were a hit with most of the other adults. Ed and Marty, in particular, had made fast friends and surprisingly shared many of the same personality traits despite the 53 years of difference in their ages. We were back in John's boat today and he made the comment that he wasn't sure his boat was big enough for both Marty and Ed. I think he meant vocally, not physically.
We shoved off early and after drifting for a few miles hit Nankoweap Rapid, located where a side canyon by the same name enters the canyon from the north. This area was apparently populated abundantly in the past by the ancient Anasazi and was unusual in that there was some fertile soil. They farmed the relatively level slopes and even stored their harvests in granaries which can still be seen about 100 or more feet up the canyon wall. Scientists speculate these granaries are located so high up to avoid floods and to make it hard for mice to get to. It had to be tough to haul on foot bushels of corn up a sheer wall that looks like Spiderman would have a hard time navigating.
Farther down were several of what the guides called "picture windows" of vegetation on the walls of the canyon. These circular scooped out places varied in size from a few feet across to a few dozen feet and were filled with nondescript plants. They're called "picture windows" because they do look like somebody planted them with purpose but are actually where springs seep out from the porous walls, providing moisture that the plants can grasp. We enjoyed these diversions while also enjoying several sizable rapids until we docked on the left side of the river where the Little Colorado (LCR) comes in. This stop proved to be Marty's highlight of the trip.
As if the scenery of the cliffs and 1000 foot walls weren't enough, the convergence of these two rivers was a sight to behold. The LCR runs a clear but turquoise green, not unlike the water in the log flumes at Six Flags, while the Colorado is a much darker color. Where these two meet is a pronounced contrast, evidenced by a nearly straight line in the water for about 200 feet until they blend into one bigger flow. I'm sure there's some appropriately profound analogy to compare this to life, but I did too poorly in philosophy class to draw the parallel. Nonetheless, it's a nifty sight.
Several boats from other river-running companies were already tied up here but no one from them was in sight. John explained that the attraction was a quarter-mile easy hike up the LCR and he told us to bring our life vests and our cameras. We got to a broad, shallow shoal in the river and saw that several dozen people from the other boats were wearing their life vests upside down and on their legs like a big adult diaper. And then we heard screams of delight and noticed people in the river riding down the shoals and down over two small waterfalls. They were sitting on their life vests which not only gave buoyancy in the pools but also protected parts of one's lower anatomy. In no time, Marty and Chase had diapered themselves and jumped in upstream. I gathered cameras from several in our group and shot them as they descended the mini-rapid for a wild ride of about 300 yards. Maybe it's mob mentality or even situational insanity, but doing embarrassing things like peeing in a river en masse or wearing a life vest upside down on one's butt doesn't seem nearly as bad when everybody else is doing it. So in that spirit, Brian and I reworked our personal floatation devices to the new standard and joined in the fun. We rode and rested for about an hour before everyone started making their way back down to the rafts. Gretchen said Marty had to have set some kind of record as he ran the shoals nine times.
After reloading the boats, we noticed a crusty white outcropping on the south walls fairly close to the river and were told it was salt deposits oozing out of the rock. From this point on to the end of the trip, we would occasionally notice these salt deposits. What made these different was that the south shore of the river here was off limits to visitors because the area is holy to the Hopi Indians. The Hopi reservation boundary goes all the way to the river here and this area is considered sacred ground for them. The Indian legend goes that when a Hopi boy reached manhood, he had to climb down from the south rim without food and water and return with salt from these very cliffs overhanging the river. Looking at the sheer walls and boiling river here, I imagine more than a few didn't make it round trip.
We had just entered what is known as the "upper gorge" which is the deepest part of the canyon and from river to rim is nearly a mile up. For the rest of the day, we traveled over 30 miles and enjoyed the most frequent large rapids of the whole trip - over 10 big hits. We would just get over the exhilaration of having made it though one wild run and start to dry out when another would come. When approaching a rapid, it's hard to tell just how severe it's going to be until you're right up on it. Sometimes, it looks like just a little riffle until you're in it. This is due to the fall of the river - sort of like not being able to see over a steep hill while driving a car. On occasion, we would see another boat enter a rapid in front of us and when that boat completely disappeared over the falls, we knew a big drop was coming. We went through Chuar Rapid at Mile 65, Tanner at Mile 69, Unkar at Mile 73 and Nevills at Mile 76. All of these seemed bigger (on John's Whoopee Scale at least) than any we had run so far but were rated only from around 4-7 on the official rating scale.
At Mile 77, we ran Hance Rapid, one of the most famous and dangerous on the river and the most difficult for boat drivers to steer through. It's rated a "10" on the official scale which translates to a Class V or VI on the scale used on rivers in the Southeast. There were three rapids we were to run that were rated 10 and Hance was the first. The other two, Crystal and Lava Falls, would come farther downstream. For this run, everybody on the boats had to be "down and in," which meant we had to sit low against the duffle pile and wedge our feet onto the outside pontoon. This, obviously, is to avoid someone getting tossed out and sucked into one of the swirling vacuum holes prevalent here. Some of these holes are big enough to pull down entire rafts if they're not hit just perfectly. We had two ropes wrapped around the entire raft and tied to the frame to hold on to. We made sure the boys had death-grips on these ropes. John lined up the boat , and announced, "I'm gonna getcha wet on this one" just before easing into the first few wakes, which weren't too bad. Then we rode over a huge swell and the nose of the boat dropped down. A huge wall of water washed over the front of the raft as we came to a brief stop before riding up the next swell. I could hear John alternately gunning and backing off the engine to keep the raft as straight as possible and after about a half-dozen roller coaster type rises and drops, we were into somewhat calmer water. John immediately spun the boat around and pulled to the side to watch Gretchen run Hance. This is typical after running a big rapid, in case the second boat gets in trouble. Soaked thoroughly, we stood up to let the water run out from the inside of our clothing. Gretchen's boat ran smoothly and everybody cheered the great ride as well as the driver's skill.
After Hance, we ran several more large rapids rated 5 or above, including Sockdolager at Mile 79, Grapevine at Mile 82, Zoroaster at Mile 84 and 85 Mile Rapid. On some of these, John allowed us to sit out on the pontoons provided we leaned in and had a good hold on the rope. On one of these runs, he said to lean way in because "you will get knocked off the pontoon and when it happens, you want to fall into the boat instead of out of it." True to his word, those on the pontoons wound up either on their stomachs or backs in the area between the pontoons and the duffle pile after going through the swells. He takes obvious pride in running the "wettest boat on the river."
Just after passing Mile 87, the Kaibab Bridge came into view and we weren't far from the Bright Angel Bridge and Phantom Ranch - a bunkhouse type outpost run by the Park Service that's the only thing resembling civilization in the inner canyon. John announced that we would be making a brief stop here to restock our drinking water supply. We docked and several of us grabbed up the 6-gallon water containers and scrambled the 200-or-so yards up to a well to refill the jugs. While refilling, we saw a park ranger walking not far away on a trail. This was the only ranger we saw on the entire trip.
Now fully reloaded with fresh water, we pushed back out into the current and immediately ran Bright Angel Rapid and Pipe Springs Rapid - both small compared to the earlier big hits. After rounding a bend a little farther downstream, John suddenly turned the boat and steered up to four hikers, fully loaded with backpacks, wandering along the north shore. Approaching the hikers, he explained to us that in this part of the canyon, these folks had been hiking at least four days or more and he wanted to make sure they were okay. "It's several days' walk from or to anywhere from here," he explained. John has hiked extensively throughout the canyon and has a soft spot for helping hikers. Turned out that they were fine and had been hiking for five days. We chatted with them a few minutes and tossed them some cold soft drinks and energy bars. They were profusely appreciative and we wished them well.
Just after Mile 90, we saw more big horn sheep - nearly a dozen this time - then ran Horn Creek Rapid which the boys claimed was the most fun of the day and again we were absolutely soaked. Sensing that the group was getting tired after a long day, our guide beached at Mile 92 on the south side of the river and we set up a duffle line to begin unloading the boats. We'd gotten pretty good at forming these lines although there were a few in the group who were not enthused over the idea of having to unload their own gear and help with the group gear. But the vast majority of our group was always ready to help whenever and wherever needed.
It was while we were unloading that the only casualty of the trip occurred. While someone was handing down one of the big, heavy metal kitchen boxes, the box slipped and hit a man from Illinois on his wedding ring finger. It snapped and started swelling immediately. The guides had him keep it in the cold river water while they dashed to get first aid equipment. By the time they led him downstream away from the boats, it had swollen to the point where he couldn't begin to get his wedding band off and John had to cut it off. The man later said it was the first time in his 17 years of marriage that the ring had been off his finger, but he said it was worth it because of the excruciating pain. Again, I'm sure an applicable philosophical parallel could be drawn from this concerning marriage and "excruciating pain" but the guy was hurting so badly nobody was tasteless enough to opine on the situation's potential deeper meaning. In a few minutes, the guides had his finger splinted and secured and he went through the rest of the trip participating in all activities without complaint.
Prior to the trip, I'd read that on these trips 60% of all accidents happen "off river" and I found that hard to believe, with the world-class rapids we would be experiencing. And John had told us the first day that the majority of these off-river accidents happen when getting on or off the boats, which are nearly always slippery and bobbing in the river. Sure enough, most of the few bumps, scrapes, bruises and the only broken bone I saw on this trip occurred on the shore, proving the statistics correct. I knew that evacuations by the Park Service were limited to extreme, life-threatening situations and asked Gretchen what they did in the case of a serious injury. I saw no method on the boats of communicating with the outside world and a cell phone doesn't stand a chance of getting a signal out. She told me that the trip leader had a radio that is capable of reaching airliners. "But in many areas of the canyon, the walls are very close and may go up thousands of feet high, creating a small window of sky, so we wait until we see an airplane go over and call up to them. They in turn contact the FCC, who verifies our signal and contacts the Park Service rescue crews. It takes a while sometimes and sometimes we have to go to a part of the canyon where a helicopter can get down to us." That was enough to make me watch my step a little closer.
This campsite was very rocky, and flat areas on which to sleep were not easy to find but the boys picked a beautiful camping spot right on the shoreline. Soon others in the group, having failed to find a comfortable place to pitch, joined us in what was the tightest camping quarters of the trip. We enjoyed pork chops, beans and applesauce for supper and after supper, Marty helped the guides for a while before his nightly socializing session with whoever would entertain him with conversation while Chase got serious about fishing. Having not had much luck with the artificial spinners and lures, he put cheese on his hook after a suggestion by one of the guides and began reeling fish in quickly. Brian and I took advantage of the solar shower again and even washed some clothes. Totally exhausted, the entire group was either quiet or asleep by 8:30.