Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
April 20 - May 6, 1999
Grand Canyon Trip 1, 1999
They pulled in at North Canyon Rapids an hour or so later -- no one was wearing a watch -- and called it good enough for the day. The hike out of there proved to be pretty good, and dinner was good, too. Al had some stories to tell around a tiny campfire that evening, and Crystal spent a few minutes talking about her beautiful trip down the Inside Passage on a salmon boat called the Glacier Bay a couple years before, and how they had to cross one wide opening in very bad conditions. A rogue wave almost flipped the boat, and the captain was injured, leaving Crystal to fight it the rest of the way to safety by herself. Scooter figured that wasn't the last good story they'd hear around the campfires on this trip, and she had a few of her own to tell when the time was right.
She was not surprised in the slightest when Al told her to take the oars the next morning. The Canyon was narrower now, and even more beautiful and striking. They ran several fairly large rapids in the next few hours, called "the Roaring Twenties," and stopped for lunch at Shinumo Wash. Soon afterwards, they floated by Stanton's Cave, where a group of early river explorers had given up and cached their equipment. Right next to it was Vasey's Paradise, where a gush of water from a spring turned an area about the size of a small suburban yard into a lush green after all the red and brown they'd been seeing. A mile or so farther on, they pulled in at Redwall Cavern, a large overhanging cliff that made a huge amphitheater. They got out and stretched their legs again, exploring it a little and checking out its interesting echoes. They camped on river left a couple miles farther on.
After that, things settled into routine. Day followed day, mostly easy going at first, with a few rapids here and there, but nothing major for a couple of days. Scooter rowed the raft much of the way, and a few times Al had each of the customers on the raft give it a try, just to give her a little break; other than the few strokes up at Lee's Ferry, he hadn't touched the oars yet. She found herself enjoying it immensely, shooting the bull with Al and the other customers, listening to him tell tales of the river, and telling some of her own stories about her past.
As the days passed, the river carried them down into time. The deeper into the canyon they went, the older the rocks were and the further back into time they went -- 500 million years, a billion, almost two, back to before sediments deposited in times before dinosaurs walked the earth. The sediments came in different layers, each older than the one past, and there were names like Kaibab Limestone and Bright Angel Shale. They watched the rock layers as the river currents twisted and turned their boats, looking up at the thick rock layers and the slopes of loose rock that were sometimes deposited there. Cacti, shrubs, and tufts of grass grew where they could among the slopes and plateaus painted in greens and maroons that alternated between the broken vertical cliff faces that rose high above, painted in vibrant colors: salmons, reds, buffs, and browns.
Each bend in the river, each corridor, offered new and fresh wonders. They floated past geometrically chiseled cliffs, deep pink and stained with black, past massive red limestone walls rising straight out of the river, riddled with caves, some containing human artifacts that dated back thousands of years. Here and there, a stream burst from a wall, sparkling water tumbling down fern- and flower-lined rock. They floated past white sand beaches, had lunch on some and camped on others. Everywhere, side canyons, hundreds of them, narrow and wide, called for exploration, and they stopped and clambered up a few. Some were short, dead-end canyons choked with boulders, some wide and long, that almost promised routes up to the rim far above. Some were alive with the sound of running water, sometimes lying in small, gleaming pools; others dry, heat-choked and dusty.
They made a night stop at Nankoweap, the first place that the Canyon had really opened out very much, and took a long hike up to the Anasazi Granaries, ancient food storage buildings in a place that had a spectacular view of the river. The next day they got started early, made a long lunch stop at the Little Colorado River, where most everyone -- customers and crew -- took the opportunity to go for a swim in the warm turquoise waters of the side stream instead of the cold water of the main river, and swim down through some tiny rapids. They had lunch and got moving again, running until late in the afternoon through rapids that were nothing much, and stopped for the night near Cardenas Creek. The next two days would be the toughest on the river, Al told them, but the days that they'd remember best.
Deep within the Canyon now, several days and seventy-seven miles below Lee's Ferry, they reached Upper Granite Gorge, a place of legend. Here, in what Major Powell had called the very bowels of the earth, they came to the second string of major rapids, some of the most exciting and well known in the Canyon, with names like, Hance, Sockdolager and Grapevine. They were names that Scooter had heard legends about, legends that turned anyone who could run them successfully into some sort of superhuman. Unkar was big but straightforward, but Hance and Sockdolager proved Al right -- there were more challenging rapids in the Canyon than House Rock; these were easily the biggest and toughest that Scooter had ever run. Al let her run them, though, stopping before each to look them over and point out problems, and then head through them. There were minor problems on each of the rafts, little adventures, but mostly these were just thrilling moments before getting flushed out the bottom. Below those two they reached the dark bottom of the world, the Inner Gorge, more than a vertical mile below the rim. Grapevine Rapids, down among the black walls, was almost a relief, notably easier than the two that had preceded it. For miles, they floated between hard, shiny black schist walls a thousand feet high, and suddenly, without much warning, floated around a bend -- and under a footbridge, the first bridge they'd seen since the high steel arches of Navajo Bridge many miles upriver. Just below that there was a wide, rocky beach with a few tamarisk trees behind it, and they pulled in there for a breather.
"Phantom Ranch," Al explained. "If you was to ride a mule train down from the rim, this is where you'd come. We can't camp here, but we always stop to check our mailbox up at the ranger station. About once or twice a year there's something in it." Al had Crystal make the run up to the post office while everyone else stretched their legs and checked the contents of the drag bags to make sure they weren't getting too warm. Al pointed out a few things of interest, including Kaibab Bridge just upstream. "Kind of a neat story about how they got the cables down here, back in the thirties," he explained. They were too heavy to load on mules, so they unrolled the cables up in the parking lot, hired about 500 Navahos and WPA workers, spread them out a few feet apart, put the cable on their shoulders, and carried it down like a big snake. Woulda been neat to see. It's about seven miles up to the rim, and it's up all the way, almost a vertical mile. Nice hike though; I do it every now and then when we have to switch crew around in mid-trip. I have to admit that I prefer to do it walking down rather than walking up."
In fifteen minutes or so, Crystal was back, reporting, "Nothing there, as usual."
"Good enough," Al said. "The day's getting on, so let's get back on the water and just run to the first place we come to where we can get into a campsite. The first possibility is about two, two and a half miles down, right at another rapids we need to stop and get a look at before we run them. If possible, I'd rather stop below than above so we don't have to start out first thing in the morning without a chance to get warmed up. Besides, that's one less big one we have to run, since tomorrow we've got the biggest of them all, Crystal Rapids. Crystal, I mean our Crystal, tells me that her mother ran this river before she was born and named her after that rapids."
"I'm not too sure whether it was a favor or not," Crystal smiled. "It makes it hard to swear at and bitch about."
The camp above Horn Creek proved to have a private party in it, but when they stopped to scout the rapids they noticed that the beach below the rapids was open, so after running it -- it was one of the tougher ones with a nasty cross wave like House Rock, with some other maneuvering involved -- they pulled in for the night.
That night over dinner Al told some stories of running the river back in 1983, when the river was at record levels, and Crystal was so dangerous that the Park Service wouldn't let passengers ride through the rapids, just the boatmen. "Probably not a bad idea," Al said. "I didn't flip, anyway. That was back before we had self-bailing rafts, and I got a raft full of water, spun around a couple times, lost an oar, and didn't get it to shore for half a mile, darn near down to Tuna Creek, which was washed out pretty much. That was a bitch of a day, we had two motor rigs flip, one of 'em was Georgie White's G-rig, and that was a heckuva lot bigger than anything we see on the river today."
The next morning, Granite and Hermit Rapids didn't prove to be any easier than some of the worst of the day before, and they pulled in the first place they could get into below Hermit for a leg stretch and a light lunch. By now everyone was getting nervous, even Al was a little, so they floated right down to Crystal, and got out to take a look. They gathered on a little mound of debris, looking down at the fury of Crystal Rapids. It didn't look as steep as, say, Hance the day before, but here they were in granite, not the slanting layers of shale and sandstone that made Hance look so steep. But Crystal went on for a long, long ways, and there were some big waves out there.
"What do you think, Scooter?" Al asked.
"Might be a sneak route on the right, but it would take some real maneuvering at speed," she commented. "Looks like it's just a case of run the main current down the left, and take those big stoppers as they come and hope you've got enough speed to get through them, then just take the stuff in the lower section when you get to it."
"You can make the sneak route," Al told her. "It's just kind of a case of trying to stay out of the rocks to river right, so you got to get out in the bigger stuff a little. But we usually run the bigger stuff for the sake of the thrill ride. Your choice."
"You're sure you want me to run it?"
"You scared?" he said with a smirk.
"Yeah, I am," she said soberly, "But I'm up for it if you'll let me do it. And I'd say to take the thrill ride, just to make sure I can do it."
"Run it," Al grinned. "I don't think I'd want to hire me a boatman that ain't at least a little bit scared of this thing, but it's nice to hear one admit it."
The approach was roiling, but routine white water -- she knew she could handle that -- but then came the heart stopping drop, and heavy water, boiling cold. There wasn't much she could do but try to keep the raft heading downstream through the gaping white cauldron of the hole. At first the flow held straight, but then swung right and carried the raft with it. The waves were huge and hostile now, encompassing them as they never had before, and there seemed no clear distinction between the raging whiteness outside the raft and inside it . . . then they were dropping as the white chaos still rampaged around. The raft angled steeply downward, and Scooter felt sure there had to be boulders below that they'd crash into any second. They splashed through it on sheer momentum, the raft full of water, but most of it splashed right out again as they went up and up and over the backroller, down into the next one, out again . . . all of a sudden, it began to ease. That hadn't been as bad as she thought . . . but her heart was still pounding and the blood rushing through her head as she pulled into the eddy below to wait for the rest of the party.
"ABC," Al grinned, "Alive Below Crystal. Scooter, I was pretty sure of it upriver, but I'll say it now. I think you have the makings of a pretty good boatman."
The challenges eased after Crystal Rapids. Oh, there were still rapids, of course, perhaps one per mile, at the beginning, then easing to perhaps one every two miles, but except for Lava, several days down the river, they were easier. They got out to scout some of the bigger ones like Specter, Dubendorf, Fossil -- but they weren't in the same category as the monsters of Upper Granite Gorge.
They were still less than halfway through the trip, but by now it had fallen into a routine -- get up in the morning, get around, get on the river, run a few miles, take a break, stop at an interesting place or two, and run on for another few miles until they camped for the evening. Though the physical challenges had eased and the Canyon was in general not quite as spectacular as it had been in Marble Canyon and Upper Granite Gorge, it was still awesomely pretty countryside where there was much to see.
Scooter pretty much stayed at the oars for the rest of the trip. There'd be times, on slow or unchallenging stretches, when they'd let a customer row for a while as she and Al lolled back against the raft tube and watched the scenery go by. They passed places like Elves Chasm -- another outbreak of greenery among the browns -- Deer Creek Falls, and Havasu Creek, where they spent several hours on a spectacular hike up the narrow canyon the creek ran through.
After nearly two weeks on the river they came to the final real challenge -- Lava Falls. The Canyon had changed some, now. According to Al, several major volcanic eruptions had poured black lava down into the Canyon, very recently, geologically speaking -- a million years or so ago, when the river had cut down to very nearly its present bed. In that million years, the river had brushed aside most of the traces of the lava, but what remained changed the character of the Canyon. Unlike Crystal, which ran on for some distance in roiling white water, Lava was just one big heart stopping drop with big breaking standing waves below it.
Scooter couldn't help but be awestruck as she stood on the left bank with the other boatmen and the rest of the party. The choice of lines seemed limited, basically to either the right or left of a horrendous hole in the center of the rapids. She stood there, studied it hard, and decided that if it was her choice, she'd try the left side. With the other boatmen, she walked up and down the shore, looking at it from different angles. Yes, the left; it seemed a little better, but it would still be a hell of a rough ride, and that's what she told Al.
"That's the best choice. You can run right, but it's narrower and trickier." He pointed at an area of aerated water. "The people that run it to the right call it 'The Bubble Line Run,' since you need to use that as a marker. I don't want to tell you how to run a rapids, but you probably ought to stay away from the right side for a few trips. It is something that everyone on the river tries sooner or later though."
And sure enough, Al was sitting in the back as Scooter took the oars and headed out into the river. She picked out her marks, got set, rowed hard to get to them, then pivoted the raft to run straight down the tongue and hoped for the best. It was mild, but fast, running down to the first part of the drop, then the nose of the raft dropped as she began to run down the tongue. Somehow, it seemed longer than she expected, but all she could see now was the curl of the hole at the bottom, reaching out to eat them. She pivoted hard, pulled to the left, got a little momentum, and plunged down into the churning white chaos. Then, the raft reared up and all she could see was the tumultuous white mountainside, but somehow she managed to keep the boat straight. The raft reared up, plunged down again, one monster wave after another. Then, she was bouncing along in smaller waves, more or less under control, and they became just white swirls. Her adrenaline was going so hard that her hands were shaking as she pulled the boat into the eddy to the left to wait for the rest of the party to come through.
There were three days and more to run below Lava, but they seemed anticlimactic. The spirits of the party were down a little bit, mostly because they knew they were running out of river and the end was in sight, even though they didn't want it to end. The beauty, the simplicity of life, the routine, the excitement, all had grown on them, but there were nineteen people out of the twenty-five on that trip who were going to have to go back home, to things like work and careers and traffic jams and television -- a different world indeed from this special place. Things were going easily enough that Scooter had some time to reflect that this world of rock and water and sky was everything she'd hoped it could be.
One warm afternoon a customer happened to be rowing a boat for a while when he looked up at the sky. "Damn," he said, without elaboration.
"What?" Scooter asked -- Al was apparently taking a nap on this easy stretch.
"Three airliners out there," he sighed. "There's a world out there after all. I wonder what's happened, not that I really care."
"Probably no nuclear war if there's airliners flying," someone said from the front of the raft. "But I can't tell you how nice it is to be away from that stuff."
Finally, one evening they pulled into a campsite at Granite Springs for their last night on the river. It was a sad and touching time -- they'd been strangers two and a half weeks before, and now were pretty good friends. The crew had been a bunch of individuals, but now they'd shaken down into a smoothly working team. After steaks that weeks before had been frozen to near-cryogenic temperatures and then sealed into one of the best ice chests that Canyon Tours owned, they sat around their last campfire -- a tiny one in a fire pan -- and talked of the things they'd seen, the things they'd done.
Finally, as the fire burned down, Al quoted Powell one last time: "Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared, now the firmament is bounded only by the horizon, and what a vast expanse of constellations can be seen! The river rolls by us in silent majesty, the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is ecstasy. We sit till long after midnight, talking of the Grand Canyon, talking of home."
There just wasn't a lot to say to that; a hundred and thirty years before, the one-armed man who had been the first to see the splendor of the Canyon had said it just about as well as it could be said.
The next morning they packed up one last time, loaded the rafts, now a little lighter from the wood that had been burned, the water and canned sodas and beer that had been drunk, and drifted the last handful of miles down to Diamond Creek Wash. There, on river left, was the saddest sight of the trip: the Canyon Tours crew bus, and the pickup truck with the flatbed.
They said their final good-byes to the customers, got a few addresses, and collected some tips -- about three hundred for Scooter -- and then the customers got onto the crew bus for the ride up the narrow road to where another charter bus waited to take them back to Las Vegas and home. While they waited for the crew bus's return, they unloaded a lot of stuff from the rafts into the pickup, and set out more to be loaded on the bus. Then, they used the shear-leg crane to start loading the rafts. Soon Jeff came back with the bus, and they finished the loading, then got on the crew bus, collapsed on the seats, and followed the pickup and flatbed up out of the Canyon. "You know, Al," Scooter said, "I remember Crystal telling me that having to ride away from the river was one of the saddest moments of her life. I thought she was full of shit. That's one hell of a Canyon, and I can hardly bear to leave."
"Hell, you're the lucky one," Al snorted, "I have to stay topside next trip. You'll be back down there at Lee's again Sunday. That is, if you want to be."