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Colorado River - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip

Report Type: Destination Report
Trip Dates: June 1996
Nearest City: Lees Ferry - Lake Mead
Difficulty: Difficult

Description:

MORE THAN JUST A RIVER TRIP......
RAFTING THE COLORADO THROUGH THE GRAND CANYON.....by Sig

Army Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives on December 3l, l857 started an upriver expedition from the mouth of the Colorado, reaching the confluence with Diamond Creek on April 3 and observed "the region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed".

On June l4, l996, Alan and I feasted on cold turkey and roast beef, avocados, cheddar and other cheeses, fresh baked bread and sparkling fruit. We had reached the same location - Diamond Creek - having just concluded our l3-day trip with O.A.R.S., a California-based outfitter with whom we travelled the 226 miles downriver on the Colorado River starting at Lees Ferry.

Our group numbered four l8-foot oar powered rafts with four passengers and a guide each, plus a training/supply raft, with two more guides, or more correctly, Boatmen, as Colorado river guides like to be called. They offered us generously their significant experience of a combined 350 trips through the Canyon which greatly enhanced our appreciation for the human and natural history of the area. We quickly recognized their skill as oarsmen as they maneuvered the 2.5 ton rafts through the huge rapids, or made the boats dance along boiling eddy lines to give us a 360 degree view of the scenery - or to avoid getting shoved into huge eddies - whatever the case may have been!

So much has been written about the Grand Canyon: videos, films, books and pictures and paddler reports abound. Yet nothing compares to the actual experience - like pleasure or pain, it is a personal sensation, intense as anything I ever felt and difficult to describe.

There are the rocks - the Canyon certainly is most known for its grandiose display of geological history: the Vishnu schist, l.7 billion years old, yet still eroding by the waters of the Colorado into shiny, polished flutes; the detritus of hundreds of feet of canyon walls, so loose and unconsolidated, I was afraid any loud sound would set off a rock slide; the nautiloid fossils embedded in the rock more than 300 million years ago now exposed for anyone willing to make the climb to see them......I became acutely aware of the insignificance of my own self against the eons of eternity!

Thinking about how even rock more than a billion years old can be worn away, I asked our guide about the future of Glen Canyon Dam. Built l5 miles upstream from Lees Ferry, the put in for most trips through the Canyon, its original purpose is to prolong the life of Hoover Dam downstream by retaining the large amount of silt carried by the river. Lake Powell still has a few hundred years worth of silting capacity.....then the river will again reclaim what is hers. This was very visible in the area below Lava Falls, where the Colorado eroded its way around the naturally formed, harder lava dams which had blocked its flow - the last one only a million years ago...a twinkle of time, geologically speaking!

There is the fauna and flora - Alan and I had previously hiked the Canyon, but this only provided us a small sectional view. I was surprised by the many birds: thousands of violet-green swallows in the upper section, a few great blue herons, mergansers and hawks. Even hummingbirds hovered above our rafts.

The area experienced a significant drought, so bighorn sheep and mule deer families, many with little ones, were seen along the water's edge looking for the sparse growth of edible grasses. The year was good for lizards displaying their territorial possessiveness in a show of colors and postures! Although there are rattle snakes and scorpions, I saw neither, and was surprised by the absence of any biting insects. Catch and release fishing in the upper section of the river displayed the abundance of trout which are non-native to this river.

We saw the result of the spike flood which lifted sand from the bottom of the river, and redeposited it on shore to create larger and new beaches. Claimed a success, the relatively high flows of 20,000 cfs during our trip also eroded these new sand deposits quickly again. Some of our boatmen had participated in the scientific studies during the spike flood - 40,000 cfs for seven days. They now have "adopted" certain beaches and regularly fill out questionnaires to record any subsequent changes - whether natural or man-created to assist in future releases to try and undo some of the environmental damage caused by Glen Canyon Dam.

There are the people of the Grand Canyon - anyone interested in the human story of the Colorado River can get a video called "River Runners of the Grand Canyon" (Box 788, Sausalito, CA 94966). It is filled with historic footage of heroes and heroines, scoundrels, opportunists, explorers, engineers and eccentrics and a few more characters who have tried to exploit the canyon for a variety of personal, government or corporate uses (including a suggestion to build a railroad along the river!). But being on the river, there are only a very few visible remnants of their past.

The Boatmen of the Colorado are the river's greatest asset, her friends and protectors. They are also the means which allow us mere mortals to have an experience not otherwise possible. There are, of course, arguments for and against decreasing the number of professional permits to allow a greater number of private trips. Yet, the presence of the professional boatmen gives the environment a greater level of protection, because of their much deeper understanding of the fragility of the setting. The Grand Canyon environment is a desert: delicate and easily destroyed. 20,000 visitors annually is not much compared to attendance at a professional ball game; yet, a few people, ignorant not because of ill-will but lack of understanding, can cause lasting damage to the vegetation, the cleanliness of the beaches and water.

There also is a general belief among the boatmen that as more and more people have the personal experience of being in the canyon, the greater the potential for protecting it (according to our boatmen, there are still occasional efforts to resurrect the Bridge Canyon Dam, which would back up water to Kanab Creek, inundating Matkatamiba, lower Havasu, National Canyon and Lava Falls!)

We greatly enjoyed listening and learning from our boatmen friends: our trip leader was Mike Fabrey who started river running in l978 and was on the first commercial trip of the Zambezi in Africa. He suggests that anyone planning a trip through the Grand Canyon educate him/herself to this area. He noted that more books have been written during the last 20 years on the canyon than in the decades before. He also asked that all visitors consider the canyon the Boatsmen's home - and to treat it accordingly. Use established trails, carry out all you bring in, and if you are part of a private boating group, talk to the commercial boaters - they like being asked questions and talk about the biggest love in their lives!

Boating with Robert Pitagora - with more than l00 trips through the Colorado - I learned that he started boating in l980. He has a degree in humanities and political sciences, and professionally works with the Environmental Defense Fund. Robert helped establish a foundation to assist retired boatmen in adjusting to life after their river running career has ended. He has been on all the big rivers in the world too, but considers the Colorado the greatest river trip of them all: he asked me to share with you that there is a Grand Canyon River Guide Association which has an open membership to anyone who is interested in the river and issues surrounding it. For a membership brochure write to GCRG, P.O.Box l934, Flagstaff, A 86002, tel 520-773-l075. Membership is $25/year, and comes with four issues of their magazine, filled with historic and contemporary issues. One such issue is a proposal to pump more groundwater for use in Canyon Forest Village - and the possible effects the removal of this water would have on the springs feeding Indian Garden, Havasu and other areas.

Alistair Bleifuss estimates that he has probably oared more miles than anyone else in the group - about 35,000 give or take a few thousand more. With l8 years experience, l35 trips through the Canyon, he has paddled or oared just about anywhere in the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. His oar handling skills were a symphony in motion - he could selectively get anyone splashed in the boat no matter where we sat to assure we would not overheat. A quiet personality and excellent chef, he hopes that anyone going through the canyon, especially coming from the paddling community, will consider their experience much more than just a river trip.

Talking with Mike Pratt who works full time for Mountain Travel Sobek, he confided that the reason he is a professional river guide is he enjoys seeing the impact such a river trip has on peoples' lives; helping the clientele become more comfortable being in the outdoors; overcoming apprehension and fears. Watching Mike in action with fellow rafters, a group of three young men, l6, l8 and 20, he at times acted (and looks) more like a teacher than a raft guide; thus is the boatman's true profession! Mike recounted one of his favorites: sea kayaking in the Johnston Straits northeast of Vancouver Island with the greatest pod of killer whales in existence!

Boatmen work hard, and no-one works harder than the raft trainees: Snappy was on his last training trip having oared the canyon ten times - his next trip, the day after our departure, would be his first commercial one (with pay, all the trainees volunteer!) He was accompanied by Seth, young and a former kayaker, (until his friend drowned on the Chattooga).... our six boatmen provided for our physical and mental safety; kept us fed better than we do at home; and entertained.

Now don't think that the trip was all somber environmentalism and education: boatmen have a way of livening things up a bit for their unsuspecting guest: we explored the tunnel dug for the proposed Marble Canyon Dam near mile 39 (which was defeated, in large part due to the fierce opposition by the Sierra Club). After asking us to turn off the flashlights, Mike Fabrey pulled a wiggly rubber snake out of a puddle...which made us jump a little or a lot, depending on how close we stood!

Of course, we also learned that Boatmen like to tell stories, and sometimes it was hard to differentiate between a serious or a joking answer. One thing they were serious about, however, was our safety: they kept a more than watchful eye on everyone to make sure we drank enough water to stay hydrated in the l00+ degree heat, especially during the many interesting, and a few strenuous hikes we took. In the words of Alistair "Safety is no Accident" a fact confirmed when we heard about the death of a young Boy Scout who had hiked with a group and died of dehydration during the time we were on the river. We also watched preparations for an emergency helicopter rescue by another river group. The Grand Canyon demands respect as a wilderness, and personal knowledge and preparation, or the accompaniment of trained guides, is essential for a safe trip.

Our trip was not one of the most physically comfortable I ever took: it was hot, really hot, especially in late afternoon when we pulled into our campsites. Temperature inversions brought blast furnace like winds at high speeds, ricocheting from the hot canyon walls, often mixed with quite a lot of sand. Sand got into everything, including your teeth, so I learned not to grind them at night. We slept under the stars each night, never in a tent, and the mini-Thermarests we bought are a lot thinner than their original cousins! We washed and bathed in the river, which at 50 degrees, made for some quick shampoo rinses.

Setting up camp each night involved lugging the black bags to a site, not always flat and horizontal, so there were some mornings I found myself mostly sleeping in sand.

The Canyon does not give up its secrets easily, its beauty has to be earned. In our case, this took quite a few dollars, and a some personal effort, but mostly the effort was on part of our Boatmen. I kept wondering why they all wanted to take total strangers down this river.....year after year....until I understood how this river and its surrounding keeps wanting one to go back. It is us, the tourist, which enables the Boatmen to pursue their passion: to be on the river, and to be her guardian.

Yes, I know that I'm writing this for a paddler's newsletter and when will I get to the rapids for which the Colorado is so famous? There are 42 rapids rated 5 or higher on the trip between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek. Whitewater in the Canyon has its own rating scale going from l-l0. Many rapids become less technical at the higher water flows we enjoyed but definitely wetter! We developed our own rating scale based on the number of 5-gallon buckets it took to bail the raft: Lava Falls is always a l0 on the official scale and we stopped counting somewhere around emptying bucket number 45!

The river drops about l900 feet in elevation between Lees Ferry and Lake Mead - and half of the drop occurs in the rapids which total l60. Most of the rapids are formed by debris fans which have washed into the river from side canyons during heavy rain storms and form huge compression-type wave trains - scary to look at, but relatively safe.

On the international scale of whitewater rivers, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon rates only about a three, i.e. moderate in terms of water volume and difficulty, and relatively benign concerning hazards to limb and life.

I wasn't so sure about that looking at the hole formed in the center of Lava Falls - big enough to keep the raft and anyone in it for days. I don't know how much of it was genuine concern on part of the raft guides, respectively, a show for us tourists, when they all stood at the lava outcrop above the river and studied the rapid for l5 minutes with binoculars and discussed the options - not on where to run it, there was only one choice on the left side, the right one being a series of house-size waves but on what to do should they miss their line. This was the only time I had doubts about my sanity in doing this - thinking about the possibility of not seeing our grandson grow up.

All our Boatmen negotiated Lava Falls just fine, as well as (almost) all the other rapids. Of course, there were times when I wished I was in my kayak, lots of times, to be honest. There are rapids equaling those on the Wolf running at 20 that have no name because they are riffles only; there are eddies with waves lapping the shore like on Lake Michigan - gentle sounds, mixing with the roar of the rapid in the background - where can you hear both at the same time!

The rapids of the Colorado are swift - even Lava Falls, the river's biggest dropping 37 feet in elevation, is negotiated in less than 30 seconds. No doubt, they are awe inspiring in their size and power, a 24 foot wave at Hermit flipped one of our rafts in a split second; the rapids cause class two waves in eddies going upstream; there are boils raising the river level two feet in the center or whirlpools sucking the edge of our raft under; there are river-wide entry tongues, smooth as glass, the v-lines culminating into a wave breaking l5-feet above our heads....the current at this water volume is swift, even in the flat water section at about 5 miles per hour.

I couldn't help thinking about all this water....and that none of it reaches its destination any more, doesn't deposit its silt and nutrients into the waters of the gulf to nourish its environment, but being diverted for flushing toilets in Los Angeles, growing vegetables in the desert, and allowing for the billions of cubic feet lost to evaporation from the two big lakes we created to help run the neon lights and air conditioners in Las Vegas and elsewhere...!

Alistair is right: a trip on the Colorado is more than a river trip....and I haven't even told you about our hikes. You'll just have to do these yourself to find out what it's like to scramble up boulders, walk along ledges, get hot, (I mean, really hot), and find yourself ultimately in God's paradise: the lace of a waterfall, surrounded by maidenhair ferns, orchids, mosses that seem illuminated from within.....the sheer turquoise of the Little Colorado and Havasu Creek....sleeping under the stars for nearly two weeks.....listening to Indian flute music while consciousness slowly drifts away with the waves.

In the words of Major John Wesley Powell, the first explorer to traverse the whole of the river "The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic arts fail..... The elements that unite to make the Grand Canyon the most sublime spectacle in nature are multifarious....But form and color do not exhaust all the divine qualitiy.....The Grand Canyon is a land of song....is the music of waters......You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view....it is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, by a year's toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise."

I'd like to thank our Boatmen for this extraordinary experience!

Submitted by: Sigrid Pilgrim


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