DAY 5: THURSDAY, MAY 27
It was apparent by now that most of us had brought way too much stuff on this trip. Not knowing exactly what to expect, Brian and I had trimmed down our equipment list to what we felt was the bare minimum we were comfortable taking out into the wilderness for a week. Nonetheless, I found myself shuffling through lots of unused clothing in my dry bag to find the things I actually needed. Even if the weather had been cloudy or rainy, I still probably could have only justified carrying about 60% of what I actually brought.
But we did have one packing coup that was the envy of the entire group, thanks again to Wes Boyd, whose extensive online travelog of his Colorado River trip in 2003 (www.kayakplace.com) had mentioned that he'd liked to have had a portable chair on his trip. I could relate to this as, having done a fair amount of backpacking in the past, something besides a rock, stump or the cold hard ground to sit on after a long day in the wilderness is nice to have. And I'm quickly getting to the age that it's approaching necessity. Apparently on Wes' trip last year, chairs of no kind were available. And even though the 2004 literature from ARR indicated that "small stadium chairs" were provided, I was skeptical. I emailed ARR and asked just exactly what the definition of a small stadium chair was, also mentioning that several in our group were pretty big people. They not only emailed me back, telling me to bring my comfortable portable Cabelas arm chair, but they also followed up with a phone call to assure me that it would be OK to bring. While the non-Georgians on the trip squatted in smaller, armless kiddie chairs, the four of us rested our aching bones in comfort. Just Southern rednecks indeed!
Thursday started out with the now-common, gritty coffee and orange juice with the main entrée being French toast and bacon. Simply another typically delicious breakfast on the Colorado River. We got a late start getting on the river but nobody complained. The reason could have been that the groover line was a bit longer this morning, perhaps due to the burritos from last night. We were to have a short river day but the 18 miles we covered were littered with great scenery and rapids. "Good" days on this trip, however, cannot be measured by any simple, single thing like only rapids, only scenery, only wildlife spotted, etc. All were good days. But the enjoyment of the landscape in its many forms and the company we kept formed the cumulative appreciation by which it all was measured.
We rode in Gretchen's boat today and looked forward to her many observations of the river and geology. Marty spotted even more bighorn sheep this morning as we entered the "lower gorge." Other than a lunch of taco salad on pita bread (a perfect followup to the Mexican dish last night), an on-boat rest stop at Christmas Tree Cave and an extended stop at Deer Creek, we didn't make any other stops all day. After a couple of hard-charging days of hikes and monumental white-water, the day was perfect.
Looking back now, I'm not sure our late start wasn't part of the guides' overall plan to slow down the pace somewhat as we were approaching the last leg of our trip. These guys seemed to have a sixth sense on what the group needed, whether it was sun or shade, excitement or rest. I have no clue what kind of money they make but it can't be nearly enough, based on the huge responsibility they carry. Theirs is a job not unlike an airline pilot's, but it seems to require even more. They must know extensive geologic, animal and human history about the canyon and be prepared to answer a multitude of questions. They must be superb mechanics - able to repair any problems that may come up with the boat and motor. They must be excellent medics, because in the case of an accident, they are the only medical help available. The National Park Service will not do evacuation operations into the canyon except in the case of a life-threatening illness or injury. They must be excellent chefs, able to cook anything and everything three times a day for 30 people. Most of the main cooking is done in dutch ovens. They must be able to get along with just about anybody and occasionally act as mediators in disputes which invariably come up when that many people are put together without much privacy for a week. They must be able to do physically challenging work, literally nonstop from 5 am to 11 pm or later every single day of the trip in sometimes very adverse weather conditions. They must be adept hikers, able to help people maneuver narrow foot trails up high ridges, slippery rocks or ledges where there is zero room for error. Oh, and in addition to all that, they must be able to drive the boat flawlessly for 200 miles through world-class rapids on the mighty Colorado River without flipping it, busting an engine, dinging a prop or losing anybody in the process. And most of the guides do about a dozen trips a year. No college I'm aware of prepares for this job description.
Just after lunch, we got to Mile 135 1/2 in the middle of a deep, narrow passage where the depth of the river had been measured at 180 feet. No rapids here. Since everybody had full stomachs and were hot and tired, the guides did something that they hadn't done the entire trip: After circling a bend, they turned the boats and pulled them parallel against the sheer walls on the south side of the river. There was no beach here at all, just a wall going straight up for hundreds of feet. But, the spot was in the shade and a nice breeze was drifting upstream. John announced that we would just "rest and hang out" here for a while. The boats were attached to the rock with "rock anchor" type holds that held the rafts steady.
Just across the river on the north side was Christmas Tree Cave, so named because of the stalactites contained within that closely resemble a Christmas tree. Gretchen told me that some years ago, somebody climbed up to the mouth of the cave and planted a palm tree in the mouth. The tree not only stayed there for several years, but thrived and grew pretty large. It became an attraction for hikers and river runners alike. Eventually, the Park Service ripped out the tree as it was a non-native species. Knowing how government operates, I'm certain there were good reasons for this decision.
We only stayed anchored in this spot for about 45 minutes, but within 5 minutes of the boat motors being stopped, a chorus of snoring could be heard throughout the narrows. At least I heard others snoring prior to feeling Gretchen kicking me to wake up and tighten my life jacket. This was the most relaxed moment I'd had in months - maybe years. And seemingly all too soon, it was time to get moving again.
But we didn't go far at all before beaching on the north shore at Mile 136 - a mere half-mile from where we'd napped. Deer Creek Falls, the biggest waterfall we'd seen on the trip, just an eighth of a mile off the river, was a major attraction for every river company going down the Colorado. When I refer to the total number of people here, I'm not talking about hundreds, but maybe 30 maximum at one time. Although there are many companies offering these trips through the canyon, relatively speaking, we saw few others on the river.
This waterfall was powerful. The wind and mist coming off the falling water was high-powered, even 30 feet away from the actual water. It was a LOT of water coming over the cliff. Standing under the water was a ticket to being pounded under water into the pool beneath. I tried to get a picture of this cascade but couldn't get back far enough to get the whole thing in one shot. There was a permanent rainbow outlining the pool and to say it was cool and refreshing is an understatement of the greatest sort. It was simply awesome in every respect. I may have seen larger waterfalls at some point in the past, but I've never been this close to this much power in one.
John called our group together and announced that he would be leading a hike up Deer Creek Canyon and that interested parties should prepare to leave. I asked Marty if he wanted to go and he said he'd just rather swim in the pool by the waterfall. Plus, my knee was not functioning as well as it should after slipping on the last hike so he and I decided to sit this one out. Many of the others in our group decided the same thing and found a shady spot near the falls for another afternoon nap. Brian and Chase decided to do the hike, which was about a mile and a half up the canyon. After about an hour, they all returned with tales of an upper falls and panoramic views of the river from above. The hike was not without peril,they said, as one section was along a narrow ledge about a foot wide. No room for error but all who went made the trek back safely.
We reboarded the rafts and went about two miles on downstream to Mile 138 at what I think was the best campsite of the entire trip. This was a very large beach with plenty of room for all to spread out along the abundant, flat sand. We got there early and had about an hour more than usual to unload and set up camp. Both boys launched into heavy fishing and were approaching a total of 45 total fish caught for the whole trip. Chase was the more patient and persistent, casting for long periods, while Marty had to intersperse his fishing time with his socializing time. We all went to bed early, as had become the norm for the trip and I slept better than any other night so far. This sleeping out under the stars is growing on me.