The River Will Tell You
A large monolith loomed ahead on the River. Two canyons cut away left and right, but from our vantage in the “bathtub” of the raft we couldn’t tell which one the River followed. One of the newbies sitting beside me asked, “Which way do we go?” I shrugged lazily. “The River will tell you.”
Back in 2012, Mary Jo and I first took a 8-day raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. It was a life-altering experience and we wanted to do it again, but slower with more time to explore. So we found ourselves on a 12-day hiking intensive trip, Hatch River Expeditions’ first trip of 2014.
The trip began with the Linda and Jim meeting at our place and driving up to Cliff Dwellers to spend the night before launching at Lee’s Ferry the next morning. Melinda joined us there and we became the “Phoenix Five”.
On the way to the Cliff Dwellers, we stopped in Flagstaff to visit the OARS (formerly the Grand Canyon Dories) warehouse in hopes of seeing the small dory “Emerald Mile.” The Emerald Mile was rowed by Kenton Grua and two others in 1983 in the fastest boat trip ever down the length of the Grand Canyon. If you haven’t read the book, Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko, I highly suggest it. Tightly written, it is a wonderful adventure story and a fantastic overview of the Colorado, the Canyon, and the forces both natural and human that have shaped the Grand Canyon as we now know it.
While at OARS, we met Duffy Dale, a boatman whose entire family works the River. His father still rows. Duffy took his first trip down River and through the Canyon when his mother rowed a trip pregnant with him. He was rebuilding a dory when we arrived, but took time to patiently and with a humble pride show us around and answer our questions. River guides are just like that.
At Cliff Dwellers we rendezvoued with the 16 others that would accompany us on the first half of the journey. Thirteen of them were a hiking group mostly from Kansas and Arizona that does a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. The remaining three were Casey and Jenn, a married couple with a lot of River experience, and her 70ish father, Morry. Her bucket-list wish was to take Dad on a River trip. Casey and Jenn had built and rowed a Powell replica boat down the River a few years earlier. They would prove to be an incredible asset to our trip and I never saw Morry without a smile a mile wide. All three were simply inspirational.
As I am prone to do, I offered a favorite toast to begin our adventure:
This sphere upon which mortals come and go,
Has no end nor beginning that we know;
And none there is to tell us in plain truth:
Whence do we come and whither do we go?
Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus
For surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!
Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped
No King’s pleasure could with ours compare.
Drink for you know not whence you came, nor why.
Drink for you know not why you go, nor where.
So here’s to you and I and that River over there
And a GRAND adventure
Steve Hatch loaded us and our gear into vans and hauled us to Lee’s Ferry where our crew and boats waited. We met JP, our lead boatman and a living River legend in his own right; Scott, the gentle profane hilarious giant who ran the second boat; and Kelly, the beautiful, patient, and indefatigable, always laughing swamper for the trip. All three were qualified as trip leaders, so we pretty much had an All-Star crew.
After instructions and safety briefings and few thousand questions we finally got underway. It was an easy day allowing everyone to get used to the flow of life on the River. We hiked up Rider Canyon and camped at 20 Mile Camp. The wind came up and our tents had to be moved up into the shelter of the few available trees. Sand blew hard and it was the most miserable night of the trip.
Somewhat bedraggled, we rousted ourselves and had a hardy breakfast. Took everyone a while to break camp and pack up. We’d get faster as we went along.
The boats took us across the River and slightly downstream to North Canyon for a great hike to what I call the Georgia O’Keefe waterfall. We hit the splashy rapids of the Roaring 20s after that, much to the delight of the newbies on the trip. Lunch was at South Canyon and afterwards we hiked it.
We made a stop at Red Wall Cavern where some tossed frisbees and others lounged. Afterward we glided past Vassey’s Paradise and stopped at the inside out waterfall on River right for a drink of pure spring water.
We camped at Nautiloid, mile 35, and had steaks for dinner. JP set out a fire pit after dinner and hung out with us. Jocelyn from the R2R2R group gave us drunken owl impressions perched up in her camp chair while we all tried to keep her from falling into the fire pit. That is entertainment you just can’t buy.
Nature provided alternate entertainment that night with a full lunar eclipse. Imagine seeing it from inside the Grand Canyon. Simply amazing!
Drifted down to Saddle Canyon, mile 32, for a hike to nice waterfall.
We made an early camp at Nankoweep, mile 53, and some of us hiked to Anasazi ruins on the delta there. It was getting to be laundry time so we all appreciated the extra time in camp. Dinner was salmon and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce.
Jim was late to dinner and plopped into a chair to eat. The chair was set on a small incline and he very very slowly toppled over backwards to wear his dinner instead of eat it. During his slow motion fall, Mary Jo laughed instead of catching him and Linda got a few photos in lieu of helping. Jim was about ready to opt out of the Phoenix Five, but he got over it (eventually).
After dinner the crew got into a food fight while cleaning up the camp kitchen and all of them wound up wearing the half gallon of left-over Hollandaise sauce. Humor on the River is pretty basic sometimes, but you can’t help but love it.
Linda and Mary Jo treated the crew and a few others of us to hand and foot massages with body butter.
We’d settled into a good routine by now, so breaking camp was going smoothly. We loaded the boats and then hiked up to the 2,000 year old Anasazi granaries at Nankoweep before heading out. It’s short but steep. The views are great and everyone was in high spirits.
After Nankoweep we drifted down to the confluence with the Little Colorado River (LCR). It is one of the most beautiful stops on the River. The day was cool but still several newbies floated down the gentle aqua blue rapids with their life jackets protecting their delicate rears from the travertine. Others hiked along the LCR on the Beamer Trail.
Kelly, our swamper, took a float down the LCR but scraped up her knee. She arrived back at the boats in a bikini top, cutoffs, and a bloody bandage on her knee. I mentioned to the ones around me that if I had run across her when I was 27 that the bloody bandage would have sealed the deal for me. About that time Kelly’s boyfriend, who was supporting a biological survey team a few miles down River, made a dramatic arrival running a speed boat up a rapid to see his girl. “See,” I told them. “Guys will swim upstream for a girl like that.” All the girls loved the whole thing and we enjoyed having Dom, the bf, in our camp that night. When I told Kelly a few days later about the conversation at the LCR, she giggled, blushed and loved it.
We hiked Crash Canyon at mile 63 that afternoon and made camp at Carbon Canyon, mile 65. A few of us hiked Carbon while others opted for more lazy time at camp. I’d hiked Carbon before but went again. It’s a classic inner Canyon hike to Precambrian rocks that are 2 billion years old.
That night was chicken and rice and I was falling behind on my Bombay Sapphire Gin rations, so I caught up. Eventually Mary Jo came and got me while I was explaining the origins of all things to anyone who would listen.
Tanner, mile 69, was our first stop. We hiked to the petroglyphs and ruins. The view from there is great. It was group photo time as everyone but the Phoenix Five would be hiking out the next day. They were getting sad that the end was in sight for them.
Hance and Sockdolager are the biggest named rapids on the upper half of the trip. I talked Beth and Kris from the R2R2R group into riding in the bathtub with me for those. You have to go home and sort of casually rattle off that you did this I told them. Trust me, it will impress people. They had a blast.
We stopped near mile 85 and tied off to a Vishnu Schist formation. We climbed carefully over and dropped into Clear Creek and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for some much needed chance to shower with most of our clothes on.
We made camp at Pipe Creek Beach, mile 89.5. The crew had planned to camp at Cremation, which is traditionally utilized by trips swapping out passengers at Phantom. But a private trip beat us there and took the camp, oblivious to tradition apparently. The wind picked up and blew sand around. It was the hottest evening of the trip so far.
Goodbyes were said and the Phoenix Five collected leftover supplies from our 16 new best friends. It was sad to know they were leaving us. We’d met only a week before, shared a wonderful adventure and made friendships. In the morning they’d hike up and out of our wonderful Below-The-Rim world back to jobs and families and obligations.
We fed the outbound group a hardy breakfast and gave them sack lunches for the hike. A few last hugs and goodbyes and they were headed up Bright Angel with Kelly and Scott who would lead the six new passengers back down to join us.
The Phoenix Five headed over to Phantom for some Lemmy Lemonade and to mail some postcards. This was my first visit to Phantom, but I’ll be back. We killed time admiring things we hadn’t seen in a week, like flush toilets and tables to put your food on while you ate. The mule train came in with supplies. Trail runners came through in small quick bunches. Deer browsed. After nearly overdosing on Lemmy, dang that is good lemonade, we headed back to Pipe Creek and the boats to await the Lower Six and hang with JP.
Other trips were also swapping out passengers at Pipe Creek. One rowing outfit had one of the prettiest rowers any of us had ever seen; young, dark hair, big smile, angelic face. She was hanging on our boats for a while and I tried to impress everyone with a joke. She came back with a decidedly better, and completely more profane, one which was made even funnier coming from such an innocent looking thing. She knew she had bested me and I happily acknowledged her victory. Such is life with these river runners. They are all amazing people.
Eventually the Lower Six hobbled into Pipe Creek and we got them geared up and onto Scott’s boat. Kelly stayed on Scott’s boat while the Phoenix Five took JP’s boat so as not to have to listen to all the safety briefs and hear the same dumb questions we asked all over again.
We ran Crystal Rapid, mile 99, which is my favorite because it can be hellacious. But JP had a great run and it is pretty tame at 8,000 cfs. But still it was good to be ABC (Alive Below Crystal).
We camped at Ross Wheeler, mile 108.5. This is the lower end of South Bass Trail and the site of the Ross Wheeler boat on River left. I took the time to hike a ways up the South Bass trail and admire the abandoned boat.
Later three backpackers dropped down into our camp and made themselves at home with us. Didn’t much care for them; academics with communist leanings and entitled attitudes. We had over-done tuna for dinner and I was coming down with the chest cold Linda had been fighting for the entire trip. In a sour mood, I turned in early, sleeping outside as had become my custom on the trip. A small rain shower blew past, but I stayed put. I’d been pretty wet for 7 days so a few drops on me at night wasn’t going to change much of anything important.
We crossed to River right after breakfast, the three communists hitching a free ride after free eggs. Our objective was to hike North Bass Trail up to and maybe above the old Billy Bass Tourist Camp. The chest cold was kicking in, but the hike felt good and I made a lot of side trips since the Lower Six were fairly slow hikers with the exception of the youngest of their group. Below I could see Bass Camp on River right. It was our best camp back in 2012. I remember it as where we really met Linda and also where we learned to celebrate.
Billy Bass had installed a cable way across the River back in the day and people paid to hike down the South Bass, take the cable way across and then hike up to his camp. Mrs. Bass was less than enthusiastic about his enterprise since laundry took her three days; one to hike to the River with the laundry, one to do the laundry, and another to hike back up. Or so the story goes anyway.
On the way back down, JP and I were leading the way and well out front. We had to double back twice, once when one of the Lower Six took a nasty fall and the second time when we were telling each other jokes and tall tales and overshot the turn down to where the boats were moored. I think he was explaining his invention of titanium weightlifting sets, the idea being they weighed less. I covered for him by saying I wanted to see the anchor point for the old cable way. He just grinned like JP always grins.
We stopped off at Elves Chasm, mile 117, for a short hike and cool dip. A couple of backpackers were at the waterfall enjoying it au natural when we arrived. They covered up and filtered water while some of the group, Melinda included, climbed up and dove from the top of the waterfall.
We made camp at Opposite Blacktail, mile 120.5. The Lower Six were in rare form using their headlamps to make finger puppet shadows on the rock wall behind camp. I turned in early having lost my voice during the day. Linda tried to bait a ring tail cat by putting a piece of the cinnamon rolls we had for dessert on her feet. The idea was she’d feel the elusive ring tail and get a quick photo before he dashed away. She just has this thing about ringtails, but she gave up around 2 a.m. and went to sleep. The bait was gone in the morning.
On Easter morning, as we sat in our circle of camp chairs eating breakfast, two airplanes silently flew high above. Their contrails merged to form a perfect cross in the sky. It was a Canyon Easter sunrise service like no other, held in a place no earthly power could have either imagined or created.
We loaded up and motored straight to our next camp, Stone Creek, mile 132.5. We’d have lunch there and then hike up Stone Creek, Kelly’s favorite hike.
The camp was just below Dubendorff Rapid. Dubendorff is not a huge rapid, but it is rocky and technical, especially at low water like we had for this trip. JP made a prefect run, but what’s new about that? Scott’s run was, hmmm, creative, but successful.
About an hour later a Western big rig was coming through Dubendorff bouncing between one rock and another swapping ends every few seconds. They’d lost their motor right at the start of the rapid and were helpless. The boatman was yanking on the starter rope like a mad man. JP, Scott, and I were sipping cold beers from the drag bags and swapping tall tales on JP’s boat which was now carrying most all the duffle for the 11 of us passengers and had gear scattered all over it. JP knew how much trouble the Western boat was in and he asked Scott if his boat was ready to go. Scott just sailed into his boat and fired up the motor. JP jumped in with Scott and I dashed for the bowline to get them free. They launched in seconds and chased the Western boat eventually pushing it into an eddy. The electronics on the motor had picked a bad time to go haywire. The Western had a spare motor, so with help they were soon underway again.
Later a rowing trip we’d seen a few times already came into view. They scouted Dubendorff from the far side below us. The lead boat was a cute dory named Toroweap and she made a fantastic run as did the next 4 rubber boats. The last boat took a bad line and wound up on a rock on River right. Their group put in on our beach to head back to help. Our crew all grabbed life jackets and throw ropes and headed up as well. The stuck boat was in water too fast for anyone to get to her, but eventually we got a line on her stern and got her off the rock and back into the water. Dubendorff was in a foul mood that day, but it was sure interesting to watch.
We eventually started the hike up Stone Creek. It was long and technical in some places. Most turned back before the waterfall at the end and thus missed the little Anasazi granary up on a side cliff. The waterfall was refreshing.
After dinner I turned in early having totally lost my voice at this point. My camp was shared by a chuckwalla who made for a quiet companion only emerging from his little safe rock crevice out of idle curiosity or to check my cot and MJ’s tent for possible food offerings.
Today was a big hike, so we did a quick cold breakfast and drifted down to Tapeats Creek, mile 134.5. Four of the Phoenix Five and the youngest of the Lower Six headed out with Kelly. We were doing a big horseshoe hike up the Tapeats to Thunder River, across Surprise Valley and then drop down into Deer Creek at the Throne Room and then down the creek to Deer Falls, mile 137, to rendezvous with the boats there. Everyone else just explored the mouths of Tapeats and Deer Creek up as far as they were comfortable.
This hike was the highpoint of the trip for me. It’s a butt-kicker and I was operating on about 70% lung capacity by this time, but seeing Thunder River gushing out of the Redwall is something I will never forget. Kelly really impressed me too. She humped her water, plus an extra gallon for those slackers who took too little for themselves, plus a full up medical kit, plus a full head raven mask to pull a trick on JP later. She is one tough little girl. Mary Jo showed me something too. She’d been training for this trip and she did fantastic on this hike. Nah, she did fantastic on the whole trip. I’m a lucky guy in so many ways.
JP met us above the Throne Room and sort of casually asked if I wanted a beer. He’d humped a couple of brews up for us to share. He had extra water to wet us down because it was pretty hot. We hung at the Throne Room a while with some other hikers and Kelly got to surprise JP with the raven mask. Have I mentioned that I like river runners?
JP told me a pilot was waiting at the bottom of the trail to talk to me. Turns out the guy was a retired USAF fighter pilot like me and had retired from my airline a few years ago. I fought through the laryngitis to try to talk to him. We had lots of friends in common, but we had to come to Deer Creek to meet. The world is a small place sometimes.
We camped at Football Field, mile 137.5 and had a turkey dinner. I was beat and hit my cot early.
Woke up to pancakes, eggs and bacon. My body was crying for calories, so I obliged.
We floated down to Matkatamiba Canyon, mile 148.5, for a short hike. It was an interesting approach to pull the boats in, but as usual JP made it look easy in the fast, shallow, rocky water. We used our posteriors to make a butt dam across the small creek and then created a mini flash flood when we jumped up.
After lunch we headed to Havasu, mile 157, always a high point of any trip. It is also a very challenging approach to get the boats up against the rock ledges near the stream’s mouth in the middle of a rapid. Again JP made it with no problems but he wasn’t smiling until after we got the lines secured and everyone off the boats. The turquoise waters of Havasu were running low, but a large school of Flannel Mouth Suckers were spawning in the shallow mouth of the creek. Made for an interesting sight.
There’s just not another location on the planet like Havasu. I spent my time photographing, knowing it was an impossible to capture the beauty of the place. Mary Jo jumped from a room-sized boulder into an aqua pool holding hands with Scott. Later she picked a fist full of gravel out of her underwear. It wasn’t a deep pool!
After almost two hours in paradise at Havasu we motored to camp at Tuckup, mile 164. It was Mexican night and Mary Jo had packed margarita mix and tequila for everyone, our little gift to the trip. Tuckup is a small beach and there isn’t much privacy. But it didn’t really matter the later the night went. We will just leave it there.
We were kinda slow getting out of camp. Wonder why? We stopped off at National Canyon, mile 167, for a short hike, a little technical at the end. Once there was a large camp at the mouth of the canyon. A few years ago a flash flood spewed huge boulders out of the canyon and washed away the beach. Now it is all boulders and rocks. Water and stone; don’t they interact down here!
We did lunch at Fern Glen, mile 168. A few of us hiked up the Canyon, well more like boulder scrambled.
We passed Vulcan’s Throne and stopped above Lava Falls Rapid to scout, the only rapid we scouted the whole trip. Lava has a big drop and was to be our last big rapid of the trip. It didn’t look as terrifying from up above as it did when were in it later. With only 11 of us now as passengers, we opted to run us all down in one boat, then hike up and run again in the other boat. Getting to run Lava twice!!!! Now that is a treat. Melinda decided once was enough and watched the first run from up at the scout point.
Scott ran down first in his boat. I sat far left in the bathtub with the girls that were brave enough to be up front. Well, I sort of sat in the bathtub. Sometimes I wasn’t sitting anywhere, just airborne and holding onto the ropes. Sometimes I was sitting on the side tube, but not by choice. But I was still with the boat at the bottom. Later I found out Scott and Kelly mooned JP and Melinda right in the middle of Lava. Have I mentioned I love river running boatmen?
Kelly hiked us up and we loaded into JP’s boat. Again I was in the bathtub but on the opposite side with the boys that were brave enough to get up there. JP made a good run and I was only airborne for several short stretches but I was just as wet. The waves crash over you with an amazing force.
We eddied out below Lava and JP drove back upstream in the eddy and shot out into the lower section again for sort of a half run. I couldn’t scream like everyone else, but I was having a blast.
Below Lava is a small rapid named Lower Lava. These people that name rapids are quite creative. Anyway, it is just a wet ride, nothing too exciting. We are all still on JP’s boat and he says riding the side tubes is OK on this rapid. We get partly into Lower Lava and suddenly I hear the motor noise change and Kelly is coming forward and left as fast as she can. I don’t know what’s going on but whatever is happening is on the other side of the boat from me. I flip over the duffle stack in the middle and meet Kelly. One of the Lower Six is in the water, apparently having forgotten the instructions on how to hold on when you are on the side tubes. His family is taking photos and laughing. We got rocks and fast water all around the 38-foot boat. Kelly gets one side of his life jacket and I get a hand in along with another guy and we finally get him pulled back on the boat.
We stopped after a while and transferred the Lower Six back to Scott’s boat. We motored to our final camp at Whitmore Wash, mile 188. Then the same guy from Lower Lava falls off and under the boat when we beach for camp. I don’t know if anyone before ever fell out of two boats in a single day, but I saw it happen once. Geesh!
It was pork chop night in camp. We all rearranged our gear for the flights out the next morning while the crew grilled tasty chops. I was in total larynx arrest by now, but getting good at sign language. It was totally inadequate to tell our three crewmembers how much I admired, respected and loved them.
I’ll never forget how JP’s smile and the way he arched his eyebrows could tell you everything you needed to know. He didn’t laugh much but he was always happy. He is clever and quick and genuine. JP is as much of the River and Canyon as a human can be. The fact that I had earned a modicum of his respect is a treasure I will always keep in my heart.
Scott is a gentle giant with great laugh and a big heart. That boy is tough and strong and never quits. He was our protector. Scott uses every gift he has to make those around him feel better. He comes from a River family and that tells me something. I’d trust Scott with my life any day and anywhere.
If I had a daughter and she was like Kelly I’d be the proudest father in the world. We loved her little laugh. We admired her strength. She is diminutive in size only. She carried a pack almost as big as she was on every hike just in case we needed anything. One newbie asked her once on a hike when she pointed out our destination ahead and above us just how far it was. She smiled a little and said she didn’t rightly know, but when it looked closer we’d be nearer. After a full day of hiking she’d set up the camp kitchen and take care of us into the night and start all over the next day with a huge smile.
I remember waking almost every morning to a Canyon Wren warble, then Kelly’s tittering little laugh followed by Scott’s delayed deep rumble of a laugh. Even in the predawn, I could visualize JP standing there with them with his huge self-deprecating grin as they made coffee for us and got the breakfast going before we climbed out of our sleeping bags. It was early, but never too early to tell a joke or a story. Never too early to be happy. Can many of us say that?
We woke early, had coffee and a cold breakfast. We loaded the boats for the last time with whatever gear was continuing down River. The crew had pulled the side tubes off and were rigged for speed. They’d run almost 100 more miles today to take out and truck back to the warehouse at Cliff Dwellers. It would be 2 in the morning before they made it back.
The helicopters were coming for us early. We’d lift out with them to Bar 10 Ranch and then take small planes back to where we began our trip, Marble Canyon for the Phoenix Five. We said quick goodbyes again, or at least everyone but me did. Mary Jo talked for me.
At Bar 10 we got showers, while waiting for the plane. Imagine! An actual hot water shower. It was delicious. I bought a couple of tee shirts because I buy tee shirts at places like this.
The plane ride back is 45 minutes or so and a scenic view of the North Rim and Vermillion Cliffs. The headsets play soft music. Mary Jo and I held hands across the aisle.
I thought back to what the trip meant to me. The beauty here is beyond comprehension. The scale of space and time here is measured in numbers we cannot grasp.
Our new friends were amazing. I had so enjoyed Casey, Jenn and Morry. They were life and love embodied, what we all want to be. Jean and Patrick had led their merry band of R2R2R hikers on yet another life affirming experience. Getting to know Beth and Jocelyn and Sarah and Barb and Deb and Sal and Teresa and Kris and Natalie and Zena was such an unexpected blessing of this trip. They were all beautiful and fun and wonderful, each in their very own unique way.
Mary Jo had come into her own on this trip. On our first trip down the River two years ago she had never camped for more than two consecutive nights and she did well enough on that one. In the intervening two years she has accompanied me on increasingly more demanding adventures. She has begun to understand and appreciate the wild world I love, to see in it what I see. And that knowledge has changed her. She became more and more confident of herself on this trip, less and less dependent on me to help or make decisions. Instead she helped me through being ill in the midst of a long 12 days. In every photo she is smiling and happy. She admitted that for days she never thought of her house (always her biggest concern) or the world Above-The-Rim and she did not miss it. There is a favorite quote of mine that says, “It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.” She gets happiness now. For that I will be forever indebted to the River and its Canyon.
I read a lot about the Canyon and River for this trip. A passage by Teresa Jordan in Writing Down the River captures part of it for me. “For twelve days and 280 miles on the River, I was filled with awe--so struck by it, in fact, that if I have any courage at all, I shall never be the same.” I kept seeing airplanes flying high over us and soon I’ll be back up there, so very much back Above-The-Rim in a loud and confused world. But a part of me will always remain down in the Canyon and on the River. Or is it that the Canyon and River will forever be in me? Doesn’t matter really. I do know that if I am lost or confused that “the River will tell you.”
Video from the trip: https://www.youtube.com/embed/P1DervydxKI&feature=youtu.be