Rowing Hard and Going No Where… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me before we hit the river. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.

With thoughts of facing wind gusts up to 60 MPH, we begin our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are no Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.

We push off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

A view of Navajo Bridge and its newer sister looking downstream. The first bridge was built in 1929 and is now used as a walking bridge. The second bridge was built in 1995 to handle modern road traffic.

A second view of the bridges; this time looking upstream. The newer bridge is in the foreground.

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. It’s geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea.

During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.

The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.

The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.

An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as do Tom and Beth). Don is also quite generous in sharing his excellent photos.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Rapids. In Boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous.

There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.

Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.

“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.

Our horrendous day of rowing complete, we have time to enjoy beautiful evening views of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon from camp. (Photo by Don Green)

Flagstaff, Arizona: Countdown to Exploring the Grand Canyon by Raft

I have often wondered what part, if any, the strange rock formations in the Grand Canyon played in the development of the Hopi belief about Kachina deities.

Five squirrels with long tufted ears just went charging past our van… in a row. I think it must be love and Peggy agrees. We speculate a female is leading the boys on a glorious romp. “Catch me if you can!” she giggles. The Albert Squirrels are excited to make babies and perpetuate the race, or species, if you want to be biologically correct. Lust is in their hearts. Or maybe it’s just the guys working out territorial differences.

We are located at a KOA in Flagstaff, Arizona as we prepare for our raft trip down the Colorado River. It’s a big campground. Everywhere we look men and women wearing yellow shirts are busily preparing for the onslaught of summer tourists. It feels like a beehive, or squirrel’s nest. The camp cook tells us 28 people work here. Jobs are highly specialized. The man who straightens out misplaced rocks stopped by to chat with us this morning.

Yesterday we watched two employees struggle for an hour on laying out the base of Teepee. It had all the flavor of an old Laurel and Hardy film. They kept measuring and remeasuring the angles, first one way and then the other. I expected one to leap up and start chasing the other around camp with a 2×4.

We wonder what the Kachina deities who live in the San Francisco Mountains overlooking our campground think about the squirrelly activity taking place beneath them. There are bunches of them up there, over 300 according to Hopi lore, and each one has a lesson to teach, wisdom to disperse. They come down from their perch in the winter to share their knowledge. I suspect they would have made quick work of the Teepee project.

Peggy and I hike up the mountain following Fat Man’s trail. Of course there is no irony here as we desperately try to beat our bodies into shape for the Canyon trip. The trail’s name suggests this is a gentle start. Instead it takes us straight up into a snowstorm. The Kachinas are rumored to mislead people under such circumstances.

Once they had the mountain to themselves but now they have competition. Technology has arrived. Tower after tower bristling with arrays of tracking, listening and sending devices look out over the sacred lands of the Hopi, Navaho and other Native Americans.

It’s hard not to think Big Brother is watching. Or not be disturbed by the towers’ visual intrusion. But their presence means we can get cell phone coverage and climb on the Internet. We are addicted to these modern forms of communication so it is hypocritical to whine, at least too much.

But back to the squirrel theme, Peggy and I are a little squirrely ourselves as we go through our gear and get ready for our grand adventure. I am nervous. This is my first multi-day river trip. What have we gotten ourselves into? Do we have the equipment we need? Will we survive the rapids? What will the people who are joining us be like? What challenges will we face that we are ill prepared for? There are many questions and few answers.

Would pirates and bones wearing life vests be part of our trip? Would my every move be recorded on camera?

Would people who should not be let near knives suddenly be wielding them?

Would we be stalked by threatening spirits of the Canyon?

And, horror of horrors, would I be required to paint my toenails to keep rafts from flipping in the canyon? The answer to one of these four questions will be revealed in my next post.

A Trifle Overweight? Backpacking into the Grand Canyon Part I

Early morning and late evening sun add an interesting contrast between light and shadow… not to mention color. When I arrived late at the Grand Canyon for my backpacking trip, I hurried over to the Rim to enjoy the sun’s last rays.

This is the second part of my series on a celebration of the Grand Canyon National Park, which will eventually focus on Peggy and my 18-day raft trip down the Colorado River. Over the next three blogs I will describe a backpack trip into the Canyon where I was… let’s say, a trifle overweight.

In 1986 when I left Alaska I decided to take six-months and backpack into some of the more remote corners of the West. I stopped by for a brief visit with friends and family in California and then headed out for my first stop: the Grand Canyon.

I followed Highway 50 east out of Sacramento, cut off at Pollock Pines and picked up the Mormon Emigrant Trail. Soon I was on Highway 88 climbing up and over Carson Pass. Newly dressed aspens, snow-covered mountains and frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

Frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

By evening I had driven down the east side of the Sierras and made my way into Death Valley. I was setting up my tent under a convenient Mesquite tree when the sun sank behind the Panamint Range. Coyotes howling in the distance lulled me to sleep.

Every trip I made to the Grand Canyon from California included a visit to Death Valley National Park.

By ten thirty the next morning I was in another world, investing quarters in a video poker machine at Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip. Luck was with me. Two hours later found me crossing over Hoover Dam with an extra hundred dollars in my wallet. It represented two weeks of backpacking food. I zipped across the desert, picked up Interstate 40 at Kingman and cut off toward the Grand Canyon at Williams.

I wasted little time checking in at Mather Campground. The Canyon was waiting. An unoccupied rock off the trail near Yavapai Point provided a convenient spot for dangling my legs over the edge. Nothing but vacant space existed beneath my hiking shoes.

My musings were interrupted when a fat Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel poked his furry head up next to me and demanded payment for my front row seat. I recited the Park’s rule on feeding animals and told him to go eat grass. He flipped his tail at me and squeaked an obscenity as he scrambled off in search of more gullible victims.

Twilight was painting the Canyon with a purplish tinge but I could still make out the distinctive colors and shapes of the rocks. While my right-brain admired the beauty, my left-brain was busy considering eons upon eons of earth history. The dark, tortured walls of the inner canyon, now obscured by evening shadows, reached back over a billion years to the very beginnings of life on earth when our ancient ancestors had frolicked in even more ancient seas.

Erosion had given these Precambrian rocks a flat top, shaving off some 500 million years of earth’s history and creating what is known as the Great Unconformity.  Since then vast seas, Saharan size deserts, lakes and rivers had patiently supplanted one another as they marched through Paleozoic time depositing layer upon layer of the canyons walls.

My present perch was made of Kaibab limestone created by an inland sea some 250 million years ago. Dusk slipped into dark and my thoughts turned to my impending backpack trip.

I had backpacked into the Canyon several times. My objective this time was to explore the Tanner Trail on the eastern end of the South Rim road.

The next day was devoted to careful preparation. Seventeen years of backpacking in all kinds of terrain and climate had taught me that there was no such thing as being too careful. I approach compulsive when it comes to backpacking alone. Had I resupplied my first aid kit? Was my stove still working? Did I have adequate fuel? Did I have my flashlight, signaling mirror, whistle, compass and maps? Did I have enough but not too much food, water, reading material, etc. etc. etc?

Safety, comfort and even entertainment are important but weight is always an issue.

Having satisfied myself that I could survive seven to nine days in the Canyon, I headed off to the backcountry permit office. The more environmentally inclined within the Park Service are seriously into minimizing impact and promoting safety. Requiring wilderness use permits is their primary tool in achieving these goals.

I patiently waited behind six other would-be canyon explorers and had memorized the minimum impact lecture by the time my turn was up. The ranger frowned when I mentioned the Tanner Trail.

“The trail is poorly maintained, rarely used, 10-12 miles long and arduous,” she cautioned strongly.

“And that,” I replied, “is exactly what I want.”  I was especially enamored with the ‘rarely used’ part.  I had no desire to share my experience with dozens of other people, much less armies of cantankerous mules that leave lakes of fowl smelling pee on the trail. If I had to face a particularly tough physical challenge and be extra careful to avoid a tumble into the Canyon, it was a price I was happily willing to pay.

I was leaving the office when a skinny guy wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt, blue shorts and hiking boots stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he announced, “I am with the Sierra Club and I couldn’t help but hear you are headed down the Tanner Trail. Given your condition, I would strongly advise against it. You should hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It’s a lot easier and there are lots of other people hiking it in case you get in trouble.”

Now I confess that having just emerged from nine months of hibernating in Alaska I was pasty white and pudgy. I will also allow that the guy was operating under good intentions.

But his arrogance, especially in announcing his Sierra Club membership as somehow making him a wilderness expert, irritated me. Over the years I had known and worked with lots of Sierra Club folks. I am a strong supporter of their efforts to protect the wilderness. I have even run into some who have had more wilderness experience than I. John Muir, the Sierra Club founder, is one of my all time heroes.

Had my unofficial advisor started off with something like, “I have been up and down the Tanner Trail several times, would you like some suggestions?” I would have been quite willing, even eager, to hear what he had to say. But his uneducated assumptions about my lack of knowledge absolutely turned me off. It was everything I could do to maintain a civil tone of voice as I thanked him for his advice and politely told him to screw off.

At 8:30 the next morning my pasty white pudgy body was having an animated discussion with my mind over why I hadn’t listened more carefully to the Sierra Club ‘expert’ the day before. I had started my day by splurging for breakfast at the elegant El Tovar Hotel and then driven out to Lipan Point.

I was now poised to begin my descent into the Canyon. It looked like a long way down. I gritted my teeth and banned any insidious second thoughts.

They came rushing back as I struggled to hoist my 60 plus pound pack. It was filled with seven days of food, extra water and all of my equipment. I had cursed the day before as I struggled to find room for everything. Now I was cursing I hadn’t left half of it behind.

Next up: The journey down.

The prominent landmark at the eastern end of the South Rim road at the Grand Canyon is the Desert View Watch Tower. It is near where I started my hike down into the Canyon and provided a view of where I would be traveling. It also provided a  landmark as I descended into the depths.

Dangerous Rapids of the Colorado River

Author’s note: This blog brings us back to our trip down the Colorado River, which we undertook in late spring. My computer crash interrupted the story. My goal over the next few weeks will be to intersperse Grand Canyon blogs along with current happenings.

A massive wave in Lava Rapid buries Peggy, I and Steve Vandoor. My hat represents Peggy and I. The oar, Steve. Steve's video camera is recording as we go. Photo courtesy of Don Green.

A serious discussion is taking place among our boatmen. They are nervous about the amount of water flowing through House Rock Rapid. A huge, raft-eating hole gapes at us from river left.

A hole is created by water flowing over a rock or ledge. The resulting waterfall forms the hole and sucks in water from downstream, creating a reverse wave. Once a boat gets caught, it is difficult to get out… and easy to flip.

Boatmen, passengers and gear may go for a swim. The bigger the hole; the greater the danger. The force of the water can suck you down into the murky depths.  It’s possible to surface under the raft.  More likely you’ll be spit out down stream.

There are other worries as well. Sleepers, rocks hidden just beneath the surface, can rip out the bottom of your craft. Cross currents may send you crashing into a wall. Your boat can become wrapped around an obstacle such as a rock or log.

To avoid these hazards, boatmen on private trips normally stop to scout the more dangerous rapids. Less threatening cousins receive a ‘read and run.’ The boatman stands up in the boat, takes a look, and goes for it.  Normally a smooth, tongue like section of the river and standing rapids point the way. Success means a thrilling, bumpy, wet ride that is over in seconds with the messy side up. (The messy side is the one with boatman, passengers and gear. The option is the boat’s smooth bottom!)

The ability to ‘read a river’ is an essential boatman skill. While excellent books describe the rapids and suggest routes, changing water levels create varying situations. High water may demand running one side of the river and low water the other.

Water levels are determined by the amount of water being released from Glen Canyon Dam, which in turn is determined by electrical power needs in the Southwest. Greater power needs require more water being released to run the huge turbines that generate the electricity.

The problem with House Rock Rapid is a lack of water. While this may seem counterintuitive, less water means more rocks are exposed to create hazards. Steve, who is a prudent kind of guy for a pirate, urges Tom to wait until the release from Glen Canyon catches up with us and raises the water level.

We place a small stick in the water to measure the water and wait. Peggy and I find a shady location to update our journals. Several people head for a hike up the side canyon. Others nap. I catch several photos of people sleeping. Eventually Tom and Steve determine it is time to go.

We are on Tom’s boat. He is going first and is understandably nervous. I tighten my grip on the safety lines. The more nervous the boatmen are, the more nervous I become. The boat moves slowly at first, inching forward, the calm before the storm that seems to go on and on. Then the current grabs us. The boat leaps forward, bounces, and then hurtles down. Freezing waves crash over the bow and soak us. The roar is deafening. Peggy and I struggle desperately to hold on while Tom fights for control. He yells. The right oar has slipped out of the oarlock. The boat begins to spin. The huge hole looms beside us, threatening to drag us in. But our momentum carries us forward and Tom’s skill brings us into shore.

The few seconds it takes to come through the rapid are burned into my memory.

Even bigger rapids lie ahead. House Rock is labeled a 4-7 using the Grand Canyon rating system. Crystal and Lava, the Grandmother and Grandfather of Colorado River rapids, are labeled a 7-10 and 8-10 respectively. They are considered two of the most challenging rapids in North America.

Almost all of the rapids in the Canyon are created by flash floods coming down side canyons that deposit huge rocks in the river. Because of the floods, rapids can change over the years. For example, Crystal Rapid did not exist prior to a massive flood in 1966.

Colorado River boatmen speak with awe and a tinge of fear about Crystal and Lava. The sentiment is contagious. We approach both with trepidation. We ride through each with Steve on his catamaran raft. Crystal seems to come and go but Lava is something else, almost mythological in its ferocity.

Steve, Peggy and I in Lava on the cat. Photo courtesy of Don Green.

Vulcan’s Anvil, a large chunk of lava in the middle of the river, is a signpost announcing the presence of Lava. (We have already heard its roar.) Superstitious boatmen kiss the rock to assure a safe journey. Steve, always cautious, obediently performs the ritual.  Scouting is carried out with great care; there is plenty of time to contemplate our fate.

The photos in this blog capture our experience much better than words. Lava is indeed a 10 out of 10. At one point, when I am staring into the massive hole on our left, Peggy is watching Steve almost be washed out of the boat on our right: scary stuff.

On the last night of our adventure, Peggy asks Steve what his most memorable experience was. “Turning around at the end of Lava and seeing that the two of you were still on my boat,” he replies. Ditto.

Wild Winds and a Mormon Massacre

The boats are loaded and ready to launch. Tom's wife Beth appears to be much less anxious than he is. The other passenger is Theresa Mulder.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Gusts of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16 foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?”

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump you jump.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however, good folks. There are no Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. It makes Peggy and my successful one time, ten minute effort of obtaining a permit seem grossly unfair.

Dave Stalheim and I with that pristine, fist day on the river look. Things will go downhill.

Dave quit his job as Director of County Planning in Bellingham, Washington the day he left for this trip. He will start a new job with City Planning when he returns. He is strongly committed to sound planning and community participation. I suspect he is not popular with land developers and speculators.

We push-off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between1858 and 1929. The Ferry was named after the infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, who was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.

The old road to Lee's Ferry.

The massacre took place near St. George, Utah in 1857, where a wagon train of immigrants from Missouri and Arkansas, the Fancher-Baker Party, were murdered by Mormons and Paiute Indians. Lee apparently persuaded the immigrants the Mormons would provide safe passage through the Indians if they would disarm. The Mormons then shot the disarmed men while their Indian allies killed the women and children.

For a while Lee hid out while running the Ferry which was given his name.

And for a while, I believed that Lee had killed some of my ancestors. My grandmother was a Fancher and her family came west right about the time of the massacre. Since the babies with the wagon train weren’t killed, my brother’s genealogical research suggested we might be descendants.

Turns out, it wasn’t so. Still, there may have been some distant cousins among those massacred. More research is needed.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. We are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

Lee's Ferry was replaced by the Navajo Bridge in 1929, the first bridge shown above. It has now become a walking bridge with the one behind carrying vehicle traffic.

Eating Dust

Two acres of paved boat ramp greet us when we arrive at Lee’s Fairy. The transport van disgorges us as the gear truck makes a quick turn and backs down the ramp. Another private party is busy rigging boats.

The dreaded pirate Steve threatens Bone with a knife and demands to know where he has buried his treasure.

From off to the right a long-haired 50-something man emerges. I think 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggests otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangles from his lips. It’s Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group has met him but he comes highly recommended.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admits is his first thought when he meets our green and purple haired trip leader, Tom Lovering.

He also confides that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confesses, “I didn’t tell him I am on probation.” Somehow this balances out in Steve’s mind. There is no time to become acquainted; we have work to do.

The truck we just loaded demands unloading. Everybody does everything. There are no assignments. Peggy and I become stevedores, dock workers. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulate around the truck.

There is no shade and the desert sun beats down ferociously. It is sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slather on sun block and gulp down water.

The rafts are unloaded last. Pro gives a quick lesson on rigging and then escapes. We have bought their minimum support package to keep costs down and Tom has done a good job. Our outlay for the 18 day adventure is approximately $1,000 per person. The cost for a similar commercial outing can edge up to $7,000 and beyond!

Rigging our five rafts is technical but relatively easy, assuming of course one is mechanically oriented. I make no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) is already set up and in the water, its pirate flag flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats are self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owns his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut. The three we have rented from Pro are yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

If the technical aspects about rafts and raft rigging make you drool, check the excellent PRO and Sotar websites: http://www.proriver.com    http://www.sotar.com .

Tom is the last to rig his boat and it is approaching dusk. I hike down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boat down. Peggy and I are totally exhausted. We struggle to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van is coming to pick us up for dinner and we are late, again. The walls of the restaurant are covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by rapids.

The wind storm has changed to a dust storm as we crawl into out tents. It covers everything and gets into my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pull out a handkerchief to cover my face. I am far too tired to make notes for Bone’s blog. I finally fall asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

Rafting the Colorado is a Rapid Learning Experience

What we have to look forward to: the boat eating Lava Rapids on the Colorado River.

Our Grand Canyon adventure started over a year ago. Tom Lovering called with an urgent message. I had to immediately stop whatever I was doing and climb on-line to sign up for the Grand Canyon Colorado River permit lottery. Apparently the permits are hard to obtain, somewhat harder than walking out of a casino with a million dollars.

I am somewhat immune to Tom’s last minute schemes but the charming Peggy who loves water, loves rivers, and loves sunshine immediately jumped on-line and did the necessary clicking. Early the next morning we received an Email from the National Park Service saying we had won. It took me a lot longer to persuade Tom than it did for the NPS people to inform us.

I am not, by nature, a white water man. I put running rapids right up there with dangling on rock cliffs, playing Kamikaze on ski slopes, and riding the latest death-defying roller coaster at Four Flags.  My approach to outdoor adventure is more in the nature of risk taking than thrill seeking. Consequently, I have only had two real white water rafting experiences.

The first was with Tom on the Mokelumne River in California in the 70s. Within five minutes he had dumped us into something known as Dead Man’s Hole. “Paddle!” he screamed. River rats love to give their favorite rapids scary names such as Satan’s Pool and Suicide Bend. They can wax eloquently for hours over the qualities of these death dealing anomalies. Our detour “was a learning experience,” Tom explained as we emptied the water out of the raft and lungs.

My second white water trip was on the Middle Fork of the American River. This time I was travelling with Mark Dubois, his wife Sharon Negri and a friend. Mark, sometimes known as the Gentle Giant, once chained himself to a rock in the bottom of the Stanislaus River to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from flooding the canyon with water. He also co-founded Friends of the River, an organization dedicated to saving the wild rivers of the west.

Our trip was rather mellow up until we came to the large rapid. Mark was having us do such things as close our eyes and lean backwards out of the raft with our hair touching the water so we could ‘listen’ to the river. He’s a spiritual type guy, one with nature. Apparently Nature had rejected me. “Now, Curt,” he directed as we approached the rapid known as Guaranteed to Drown or some other similar name, “I want you to climb out of the raft and float down it.”

“I know, I know,” I groused as I rolled out of the raft into the icy waters. “It’s a learning experience.

And that’s how I classify our trip down the Colorado, a learning experience. But I know it will be more. I’ve visited the Grand Canyon many times over the years and have always come away with a feeling of awe and reverence each time. How could a trip through the Canyon’s inner core be any different?

On Being Squirrelly

(Today marks the beginning a series of blogs related to an 18 day trip Peggy, Bone and I made down the Colorado River in May and June. It starts with us arriving in Flagstaff…)

Bone tries on his Grand Canyon/Colorado River life jacket.

Five squirrels with long tufted ears just went charging past our van… in a row. I think it must be love and Peggy agrees. We speculate a female is leading the boys on a glorious romp. “Catch me if you can!” she giggles. The Albert Squirrels are excited to make babies and perpetuate the race, or species, if you want to be biologically correct. Lust is in their hearts. Or maybe it’s just the guys working out territorial differences.

We are located at a KOA in Flagstaff, Arizona as we prepare for our trip down the Colorado River. It’s a big campground. Everywhere we look men and women wearing yellow shirts are busily preparing for the onslaught of summer tourists. It feels like a beehive, or squirrel’s nest. The camp cook tells us 28 people work here. Jobs are highly specialized. The man who straightens out misplaced rocks stopped by to chat with us this morning.

Yesterday we watched two employees struggle for an hour on laying out the base of Teepee. It had all the flavor of an old Laurel and Hardy film. They kept measuring and remeasuring the angles, first one way and then the other. I expected one to leap up and start chasing the other around camp with a 2×4.

We wonder what the Kachina deities who live in the San Francisco Mountains overlooking our campground think about the squirrelly activity taking place beneath them. There are bunches of them up there, over 300 according to Hopi lore, and each one has a lesson to teach, wisdom to disperse. They come down from their perch in the winter to share their knowledge. I suspect they would have made quick work of the Teepee project.

Peggy and I hike up the mountain following Fat Man’s trail. Of course there is no irony here as we desperately try to beat our bodies into shape for the Canyon trip. The trail’s name suggests this is a gentle start. Instead it takes us straight up into a snowstorm. The Kachinas are rumored to mislead people under such circumstances.

Bone celebrates having received official Coast Guard approval for his PFD (life vest) from LT Tony Lumpkin (Lumpy).

Once they had the mountain to themselves but now they have competition. Technology has arrived. Tower after tower bristling with arrays of tracking, listening and sending devices look out over the sacred lands of the Hopi, Navaho and other Native Americans. It’s hard not to think Big Brother is watching. Or to be disturbed by the towers’ visual intrusion. But their presence means we can get cell phone coverage and climb on the Internet. We are addicted to these modern forms of communication so it is hypocritical to whine, at least too much.

But back to the squirrel theme, Peggy and I are a little squirrely ourselves as we go through our gear and get ready for our grand adventure. I am nervous. This is my first multi-day river trip. What have we gotten ourselves into? Do we have the equipment we need? Will we survive the rapids? What will the people who are joining us be like? What challenges will we face that we are ill prepared for? There are many questions and few answers.

Bone too must get ready. Peggy makes him a bright red life jacket and Lieutenant Tony Lumpkin (Lumpy) of the Coast Guard certifies the life vest is approved for travel down the Colorado.

SPECIAL NOTE: Bone will be travelling at the end of August to the unique event in the remote Nevada Desert known as Burning Man. In preparation for this adventure, I have added a new tale to the story section. If you’ve ever wondered what this modern-day extravaganza is about, check out the story.