Monday, October 24, 2011

Grand Canyon, Details

I have a hard time knowing where to begin talking about the Grand Canyon trip; the days are hard to separate, and I've already forgotten the names of the campsites, side canyons, and rapids we traversed (it's easy to lose track when you aren't in charge). A day-to-day diary isn't really possible, but it does serve some good to start at the beginning.

The Gang
Canyon Explorations orientation was at a Radisson in Flagstaff, AZ, where I met my traveling companions. It turned out that all but four of the fifteen guests were connected through one woman, Belinda. She convinced several of her friends and her son, Ian, to join her on the trip, and Ian and his wife in turn invited some of their friends. Though not everyone in the group knew each other directly, they all had some connection with either Belinda or Ian. The non-Belinders included me, a Danish father and son (who looked exactly like Rob Pennington, but Danish, i.e. 6 feet tall and blonde), and Elysha, a Grand Canyon park ranger who joined us as part of a work project involving conservation and managing river visitors.

Coming from pure solitude, I was wary about traveling with a group. I presumed that at least one person out of fifteen was going to get on my nerves. But somehow, we pulled off a minor miracle; through sixteen days with no privacy and a lot of required teamwork, I didn't see any rivalries, any arguments, any gossip, or even any pre-coffee snippishness. Everyone had a great sense of humor and a huge dose of enthusiasm. After getting to know Belinda, I shouldn't be surprised; she's who I want to be when I grow up, provided I could suddenly  become consistently good-natured.

Belinda, the heart of the whole trip
 She's an enthusiastic but egoless adventurer, warm and caring and interested in everyone. Her friends were all easygoing and experienced outdoors-people; Ian, his wife Suzi, and their friends Kim and Steve were all a blast, too. Another part of this social miracle must be credited to our guides, especially the trip leader, Ari (even if she pronounces it Jewish-boy style). I think Can-X trains their guides to be very conscious of striking a balance between approachable and professional, and teaches them how to get people talking. Though I noticed a couple of little calculated things, like repetitive conversation-opener questions, I have to admit that they turned us all into fast friends.

Daily Life
Getting ahead of myself. Day 1 did not, in fact, start out promising. During the night, rain and wind pounded the windows of the hotel, and at dawn, it briefly turned to snow. Though it cleared as we rode our bus to the put-in point, Lee's Ferry, it remained blustery and chilly. We were all bundled up in stiff and bulky paddle-gear, with neoprene gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankles all velcroed strangulation-tight. The water of the Colorado River remains a chilly 49 degrees F year-round because it's released from far under the surface of man-made Lake Powell, and no matter where you sit in a raft, you're bound to get doused with it.

There were six boats total. Four were oar boats, each rowed by a guide, with room for two or three guests. A fifth oar boat, rowed by Josh, a guide-in-training (and Ari's boyfriend), served as a baggage barge.

The sixth boat was a paddle boat, which guests would power, six at a time. I started off in the paddle boat on the first day and ended up on kind of a paddle team throughout the trip--only about half of the guests were interested in paddling, and even fewer wanted to paddle through big rapids, so those who did got a lot of paddle time. Our sternswoman and guide was Alexis, a 6' 1" former basketball player with an unbelievable memory for every bend and splash river, and our mascot was Wilson, the volleyball-sized pumpkin who we named after Tom Hanks's raft companion from Cast Away. Our Wilson stayed securely on our raft through the very end of the trip, only to be tragically gutted and mutilated into a so-called "Jack-o-lantern" by Alexis on the last day. Wiiiillllssoooooooonn!!!

Our rafts parked in a narrow side canyon for a hike.
From far above, on a hike
After Day 1, my memory starts to fall apart as far as specifics. On a typical day, we would travel downriver, either relaxing in an oar boat or paddling, for a couple of hours. Sometime in the middle of the day, we pulled over, peeled off our paddle gear, changed into land-shoes, and went on a hike up a side-canyon, usually taking two or three hours. When we returned to the edge of the river, we often had lunch, which was either a sandwich bar or a selection of tortilla-wrap salads. Then we floated for a few more hours until arriving at camp at one of the broad beaches the Colorado deposits here and there in the canyon. At camp, we would form a bucket brigade to unload all the boats, including the kitchen and everyone's camping gear, and then set up our own tents, either along the single beach (if camp was small) or in tree- or boulder-shaded nooks if it was large. We whiled away the early evenings reading, socializing, or playing what became a rather competitive multi-day horseshoe tournament.

Striking one of our more intimate camps in the morning. The blue bags are rubber-coated "dry bags."
Another cozy camp. The camps where our tents were separated didn't make good photos.
Alexis, our paddle-boat captain, and Josh, in the horseshoe pitch. Alexis was, unsurprisingly, a crack shot.
Martin, the father of the Danish pair, studies a very important shot.
Ari, the trip leader
Peter, Martin's son, aka "Danish Rob Pennington"
Ian, throwing, and the peanut gallery: Ron, Robin (a guide), Kim, Belinda, Suzi (Ian's wife) and Steve
The guides prepared dinner, always with appetizers, a main course, and dessert, and always remarkably delicious, especially given the fact that we hauled all the ingredients and equipment in with us. Because it's late in the year (and AZ doesn't do daylight savings time), it was usually dark by dinnertime, so we would eat by headlamp around a small fire. Unless one of the guides had an "interpretive" program, such as guided stargazing or storytelling, we crashed by about 8. Mornings, a low blast on a conch shell announced that coffee, fruit, and cold cereal were ready, and a second blast sometime later called us to the official breakfast, which was anything to huevos rancheros to blueberry pancakes (with REAL maple syrup). Then we'd pack up our camps, help load the boats, and set off on the river again.

The Food
You notice there's a lot of lines in there about food. There was so much, and it was so good, that it was borderline obscene. As the younger Danish guest, Peter, put it, "I am not hungry, but it tastes good, and it is there, so I am still eating!" (and as I put it, "Welcome to America!") One of our favorite topics of conversation was "What was your favorite dinner?" (I can't pick a favorite, but I do especially remember the appetizer of endive leaves stuffed with chicken, walnuts, grapes, and tangy dressing.) Unfortunately, due to sanitation regulations, guests weren't allowed to help out in the kitchen, so some mealtimes I felt like an overstuffed Brahmin. As much as we seemed to do each day, I definitely gained weight.

The Whitewater
Unlike other parks, I didn't do much research on the Grand Canyon, figuring I was being taken care of. So the size and intensity of the whitewater surprised me. It turns out that the Colorado River through Grand Canyon is considered one of the toughest whitewater runs in the lower 48, not that I was ever responsible for actually "running" it.

I never expected to feel gravity disappear as the boat topped a wave and caught air before crashing into the trough, or trying to stab a paddle into a 7-foot wall of opaque water while it slammed over my head, or dipping my paddle into the river only to pull on nothing but air as the water simply vanished under us, but by the end of the trip, it became routine. Whitewater is big, dumb fun, like a flume ride at an amusement park, especially as the days warmed up and splashes didn't leave you shivering. The Colorado is tailor-made for excitement, starting out small and getting progressively bigger as you go along, culminating in Lava Falls, the biggest and most notorious, on about the third-to-last day.

In both the oar boats and the paddle boat, you sit on the "tube," or the outer inflatable portion of the raft, rather than in the center or in the floor. This means you take big waves right in the face, and sometimes feel like you're about to tumble off the edge and into the river. In the oar boats, you hang on to straps, the frame, or strapped-down gear, but in the paddle boat, where I spent most of my time, you obviously have your hands on a paddle, so to stay in (or more accurately, on) while you toss around the rapids, you have to wedge your feet under a cross-tube or strapped-down bags. This led to a couple of near-overboard moments for some people, especially in Lava Falls.

One final boat option was the "duckies," or single-person kayaks (inflatable and open, rather than rollable hard-shelled). I rode in a duckie a couple of times, through a few bigger rapids. It was fun, if kind of scary. Even though the boat is maneuverable, you quickly get the sense that in a big rapid, you don't really get to decide which way you end up going--not at my level of skill and experience, anyway. "Going swimming," or being tossed out of the duckie, is considered par for the course.

After making it through a relatively big whitewater morning and stopping for lunch, Elysha convinced me to run the biggest rapid of the day with her in the duckies. I should have taken note that Elysha once rafted the Zambezi, and that the rapid is named after an old-fashioned boxing term for a one-two-punch knockout.

So I flipped the kayak, ended up under it, found my way out, and managed to grab onto the thing as it and I spun downstream. Once the big waves calmed down, I was able to turn the kayak over and get back on it, only to have to navigate the "-two" part of the "one-two punch" without a paddle. The boat was maneuverable enough to keep myself pointed downstream using my hands, and an oar boat recovered my paddle once the water flattened out. That wasn't the biggest "swim" of the trip, though.

Both of the Danes found that they loved whitewater, and the father, Martin, spent a lot of days in the duckie, at least until he flipped in in a rapid nicknamed "Willie's Necktie." After turning the boat over and losing it, he was thrown underwater by a big wave. The water was, as always, totally opaque. He stayed down for a few seconds, then reappeared. Then another undercurrent sucked him down. And he stayed down. And stayed down. And stayed down. I was on the paddleboat team, furiously paddling toward where we last saw him, when suddenly his helmet appeared above the water almost underneath us, and another guest, Terri, managed to grab him. We hauled him on board, bloodless and exhausted, all of us so shaken we barely remembered to keep paddling to get ourselves through the rest of the rapid.

It turns out that Martin had duct-taped his waterproof camera to his helmet to record the run; Terri held him above water only by the thin wrist strap dangling off the camera. I cannot wait to see that video (we didn't do much on-camera reviewing, since battery life was at a premium), and I'm sure I'll post it here.

Overall, we made it through everything intact; no boats flipped (other than the duckies), no one fell out, no one got stuck. It almost seemed easy; we were only reminded of the danger when we chatted with a research trip we'd been leapfrogging all the way down the river. They'd not only flipped one boat in Lava Falls, but a second boat then flipped on top of the first. Kudos to our guides for getting us through with minimal incident.

The Hikes
This trip was a "hiker's special," a few days longer than your typical rafting trip, with time to stop and explore side canyons, caves, and sites of interest along the way. The type and quality of the hikes was another surprise. I've hiked in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson and around Sedona, AZ, and I expected a similar experience--hot, dry, open, sunny trails, usually leading up a mesa or through an open canyon. 

Instead, our guides took us on amazing trips up obscure little side canyons, sometimes nothing more than slot canyons. There was often water at the bottom, which meant either wading, scrambling above the water, or both. It was more bouldering or beginner free-climbing than your usual walk. I soon hope to have far better pictures (and maybe some of me) once we share photos.

Igor scuttling up a chimney, using back and feet.
Ari guiding Kim to the top of the chimney.
Belinda, Ari, and Ian crossing a narrow stream in a slot canyon

Martin avoiding a slot-canyon pool. The pools were deceptively deep. Steve, who's about 6' 3", dropped his waterproof camera in one and ended up wading to his chest to retrieve it.
Alexis (top) and Steve help Kim (climbing) and Suzi over a tight spot.
Suzi scooting up a slot canon with our guides Ari and Gibby
The hikes were short, but delightfully tricky. The guides helped everyone navigate each tough spot, pointing out hand- and foot-holds, offering an arm or a foot platform if necessary. There were a couple of people who the guides left to find their own way, or to explore walls and canyons on their own--Ian, who has over a decade of climbing experience, and me. Rock climbing is one of those things I keep meaning to get into, but never find the time. This was the first guided climbing I've ever done, and I found it intuitive and tons of fun. Whitewater was cool and everything, but it was really on the rock walls where my body knew what it was doing without much instruction or experience. At some point, in either California or Utah, I want to pick up a real climbing lesson, maybe start a new (and ...sigh... equipment-heavy) hobby.

Anyway: the hikes often led to beautiful little hideaways, either waterfalls, amphitheaters, slot canyons, or all three. We spent hours in glowing little chambers of indirect light, red rock, and trickling water. One of the guests, Terri, turned out to be an opera singer. In a couple of spots where the acoustics were right, she opened up with a warm, beautiful, powerful voice that echoed up and down the canyon. It was breathtaking. Again, my photography is scant and not that great; I also have a video of Terri singing, but blogspot doesn't seem to want to cooperate with posting videos.

Suzi passing through a slot canyon

Suzi and the waterfall at the end of the canyon.
Elysha photographing the waterfall

Josh in a limestone cave
Me traversing the edge of a wet passage using a climbing move the experts refer to as "backdatassup."

One of our guides, Robin, relaxing on "the patio" in Deer Creek Canyon

Spot the hiker, bottom center.

Robin in Nautiloid Canyon, which is full of fossils

A spring jutting out of a red wall, forming a cavern behind it you could climb into.
Some of our group in the "Throne Room," an area near the spring where people have assembled chairs from fallen stone. L to R: Ron, Josh, Steve, Kim, Elysha.
Ari, Ian, and Suzi after swimming in the pool under the spring.
A small waterfall near our camp in a side canyon

Crossing chilly Havasu Creek. Front to back: Suzanne, Terri (the singer), Suzanne's husband Igor, Kim.
Squinting during a sunny swim in Deer Creek

I should probably quit for now--there's still more to talk about, including our costume party at appropriately-named "Tequila Beach," where I woke up the next morning to find pictures like this on my camera:

More to follow!

1 comment:

  1. Man, I am really enjoying reading about your adventures. It looks like you had a great time :)