They Say that Tom Operates with One Oar… Rafting through the Grand Canyon: Part 6

We started with an icy cold rapid. Peggy and I are in the first boat with Tom Lovering rowing— just before he lost his oar. (Photo by Don Green)

Day two starts as day one did: early.

Even the birds are sound asleep. Tom argues it’s six a.m., not the five my watch is showing. “Arizona does not honor Daylight Savings Time,” he primly informs us. He’s right. Adjusting my watch adjusts my attitude— a little.

Adding injury to insult, something akin to Folgers has been sewn up in burlap, thrown in boiling water, and called coffee.  Oh well, it’s hot, it’s brown, and we have a beautiful day of floating down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon ahead.

For those of you who like facts, here are a few about the river. At its widest point it reaches 750 feet from one bank to the other; at its deepest, it plunges down 90 feet. It flows along at a decent 3-4 mile clip but can speed up to 15 miles per hour in rapids. Since the water comes out of the base of Glen Canyon Dam, it is cold: somewhere around a frigid 46 degrees Fahrenheit during the upper part of our trip. Over the course of our adventure the river will drop 1700 feet in altitude, which is an average 8 feet per mile… 25 times that of the Mississippi River.

Our boatman for the day, Tom Lovering, with his wild, Canyon hairdo.

Bone on edge of Sotar Raft in Grand Canyon

Bone decides that it is time for a photo-op on the Sotar raft in the Grand Canyon. Having learned from his experience on the Amazon River, he quickly moved away from the edge…

Tom Lovering and Bone

And snuggled up with Tom.

Tom is our boatman for the day. He checks to make sure our toenails are painted and then lets us board. The wind is still blowing but it has lost its ferocious bite. A mile down the river we pass Ten Mile Rock, a prominent landmark that has fallen from the cliffs above and now juts up out of the river. Made of Toroweap Sandstone, it was laid down in shallow seas that covered the area some 250 million years ago.

Rafters pass Ten Mile Rock on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Floating by Ten Mile Rock. You wouldn’t have wanted to be near here when this massive chunk of sandstone broke off from the Grand Canyon walls high above the river.

Shortly afterwards we hear our first rapid of the day, Soap Creek. You always hear rapids before you see them; it builds anticipation. Soap Creek roars like a teenage lion. Tom maneuvers through it like the excellent boatman he is but makes sure we get suitably wet. It’s like taking a cold shower outside on a frosty morning with a 15 mile per hour wind blowing.

“I love rowing,” Tom tells us— and it is obvious he does. It is more than the heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping moments of major rapids where the boatman’s knowledge and skill is matched against the tremendous power of the river with its dangerous rocks and grasping holes. And it is more than the opportunity to enjoy incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon that rowing provides. Tom enjoys the rhythm and the hard work. He even liked the backbreaking challenge of rowing against the wind the day before.

Don Greens ducks along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Nature, like this family of ducks, also adds to the experience of rafting through the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Don Green.)

Century Plant in Grand Canyon

As do plants and flowers. This is a century plant. (Photo by Don Green.)

Grand Canyon canyon

Keeping a sharp eye out will reward you with views of canyons within the Canyon. Don’t you want to go exploring?

Beauty of Grand Canyon

And almost any view up or down the river is a treat.

At mile 17 we come on our first, and only, major challenge of the day, House Rock Rapid, where we learn another fact about rafting through the Canyon: water levels depend on electricity needs in the West. Peak demands require large releases of water from Glen Canyon Dam to run its huge generators. Eventually, these releases catch up with rafters. The fluctuations in water levels have significant impacts.

House Rock Rapid demonstrates one of the more serious. The river is at its low point. More rocks are exposed and a massive hole lurks downstream from the largest rock. Even the most skilled boatman will be challenged to avoid it. We all land and climb off our boats to scout the rapid. Tom is eager to move on. Steve is adamant about waiting for more water. After a long discussion between the boatmen, a decision is made to take the more cautious approach. All of our boatmen are experienced, and Steve and Tom have been down the river many times. They respect each others opinions. As with most aspects of dealing with natural forces, it is best to error on the side of caution when you have the opportunity. There are plenty of times when you don’t.

Our group worriedly scouts House Rock Rapid. Peggy shows more enthusiasm than may be called for.

We have lunch, take naps, go for walks and watch as three large boats of commercial rafters chug through the rapids with their large engines. It is mid afternoon when the boatmen finally decide that enough water is flowing to reduce the hazard to a barely acceptable risk.

Tom’s fist knocks me on the head when we are halfway through. One of his oars has popped out. I look left and all I can see is churning, raft-eating hole. We are poised on the edge— about to be sucked in! Tom becomes a virtuoso of one-armed madness.  Ever so slowly, like about a thousand years, the boat decides to go where he wants. We land, and for one of the few times in his life, my ever-talkative friend is silent.

We looked to the left and saw that we were poised on the edge of a massive hole with a rock in the middle.

The next day, Eggin Stalheim, Dave’s niece, is our boat woman. This is Eggin’s first time rowing a raft and her first time rowing through the Grand Canyon. It would seem insane except Eggin is a world-class kayaker. She is an expert at reading water. The problem is that our large, fully loaded rafts do not move like feather-light kayaks—picture driving an 18-wheel Mack Truck with a Ferrari 458 attitude. We have some adventures.

This shot of Jamie’s raft provides a perspective on what our fully loaded rafts looked like.

Eggin keeps the messy side up, however, as rafters say. (The non-messy side is the smooth bottom of the raft.) So it’s all good. Eggin, like me, has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. When she gets off the river she is heading for Tanzania where she will work with a women’s craft co-op.

Beyond our “kayaking” experience with Eggin, the big news on day three is that we began our side-trips. Almost all journeys down the Canyon include stopping off to see the sights. Some are quite beautiful and others provide unique challenges, as if our daily challenges of negotiating rapids aren’t enough.

Our first stop at mile 29 is the Silver Grotto, which includes both beauty and challenge. Wanting a little downtime and solitude, I opt out and take photos. Peggy tells me, “We climbed an 8 foot wall, repelled down a rock face, slogged through a murky, cold pool and slid down a 20 foot rock slide.” The rock slide was more like free-fall.

As the group disappeared into the Silver grotto, I took some much needed Curt-time.

Raven arrives on raft in Colorado

One of the Grand Canyon’s large ravens stopped by for a chat. Note how the ammunition cans were arranged on the side of the boat. This is so we could have ready access to things we might need during the day: cameras, sun block, snacks, etc.

Raven visits on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon

Having determined that I was harmless, the raven settled in on the captain’s chair. I’m sure it would have preferred that I not be there and that we had left some food unprotected.

I didn’t get a photo of our group members leaping but this is what they slid off of into the muddy water below. Water was splashed on the rock slide from a pool behind the lip to make the slide more smooth. Or so they said.

Next we stopped off at Paradise, as in Vasey’s Paradise. A beautiful waterfall shot out of a redwall cliff and created a Garden of Eden at its base. It was worthy of the name.

The waterfall shooting out of the redwall at Vasey’s Paradise, Mile 32. It’s named after a botanist that was part of John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon.  The water for the falls is made up of ground water that seeps down from above and shoots out of holes in the canyon’s wall.

Dave Stalheim and his niece Eggin perched on a rock at Vasey’s Paradise.

Peggy Mekemson at Vasey's Paradise in the Grand Canyon

Peggy enjoys our rest stop at the falls…

Retrieving water on the Colorado

And Jamie retrieves some of the icy fresh water. Whatever work needed to be done, Jamie was always in the middle of it— a good man.

Our final stop of the day is at Redwall Cavern. Major John Wesley Powell was the first non Native American to admire the Cavern’s unique beauty. Powell was a Civil War Veteran who had lost his right arm at Shiloh. His exploratory expedition through the Grand Canyon took place in 1869. Powell thought Redwall Cavern could accommodate up to 50,000 people. Modern estimates are closer to 5000, but it is still big…

Coming around a bend in the Colorado River, we saw our first view of Redwall Cavern.

This photo provides a perspective on the sheer size and beauty of Redwall Cavern.

Redwall Cavern on Colorado River with rafters

As does this photo.

Cool dip in Colorado River

Several folks, including Eggin, took advantage of the river here for a cool dip.

A view of the Grand Canyon looking upriver from the Redwall Cavern for my last photo today. (A note on photos: all pictures are taken by either Peggy or me unless attributed to Don.)

Next Monday in my Grand Canyon series we will visit an ancient Anasazi storage facility high on the cliffs above the river and play in the beautiful Little Colorado River.

Wednesday’s Photo Essay POST: We begin our journey up the Alaska Highway with beautiful views and abundant wildlife.

FRIDAY’S Blog-A-Book POST: The Woods, a ten minute walk from my childhood home, teach me a love of the wilderness that exists up until today.

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27 comments on “They Say that Tom Operates with One Oar… Rafting through the Grand Canyon: Part 6

  1. Those hikes on vertical cliffs scare me just to look at the still photos. Funny how that fear of heights came and grew as I got older. Peggy always looks so relaxed and cheerful. Though it seemed as though she might have been telling the photographer (you?) to go jump in that hole? Not likely, I know! 😀

  2. I swear, by the time I get done reading these posts, I’m exhausted. I’m going to have to start reading them in the morning, not at the end of a work day. On the other hand, there is a teeny-tiny part of me that says, “Bring it on!”

    Your mention of the kayaker brought to mind a video that uses one of my favorite Cale/Clapton songs as the track for a little river running of a different sort. Watch this a couple of times and you’ll be booking another trip.

    • I just watched the video again. At about 1:43, notice the hand signals when the guy in the red kayak gets stuck. It looks to me as though they have a “ground crew” tracking their progress through there. That would be a very good idea.

      • Normally, there isn’t time for any directions, Linda. Split second timing and decision making are called for. The time when the guy was hung up on the rock could have been an exception. Quite a lot of time is spent studying the rapids before entering them. When we were on rafts mere seconds were required to get through rapids… but they seemed to go on and on and on. –Curt

    • If that doesn’t make your stomach churn a bit, I’m not sure anything would, Linda. We had a world class kayaker along that pointed some of the types of chutes she had been down with streams flowing into the Colorado. No way! 🙂 –Curt

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