Fear and loafing in the desert
September 26, 2007
Dawn breaks to a roar like a jet engine as the “blaster,” a powerful gas stove, heats life-giving coffee for our mobile village of 16 people on a 16-day, 225-mile journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.In the morning, camp is an anthill; the breakfast crew scrambles eggs and sets out lunch fixings, the others pack tents and cots or rifle through the mountains of gear. Still others brush teeth and wash like reverent sadhus at the Ganges.I prop on an elbow and stare through tent mesh as sunlight blushes the canyon walls a deep red, promising an inferno by afternoon and another languid day floating the chocolate water of the canyon.I can’t believe I’m here.
I got the nod for the last spot on the Aug. 25 permit, and didn’t hesitate to drop everything and dash across the deserts of Utah and Arizona for the chance to float the world-famous ditch and paddle big water.The trip leader, Steve Ponder, is a veteran of many trips down the canyon, but waited 13 years to get his own permit. The retired professor chose his crew carefully, mostly from former expeditions, and we’re an eclectic bunch of the working and retired, from journalists and professors to a recent Iraq War veteran and his wife on their honeymoon, a plumber, a dentist and a software wizard, all from different parts of the country – from Massachusetts to Alaska – and connected by lifelong river-running friendships.We each have our roles on the expedition – running the drinking water pump, cooking, managing the camp “groovers” where we carry out all solid waste (all pee must go down the river).I haul water pails and do dishes.Sure, some control issues cropped up from the start (one oarsman won’t let anyone even touch his boat), but our group errs on the side of safety and getting things right, and everyone has a good sense of humor about it all.
There are only a few things to fear in the Grand Canyon, according to the deadpan drone of the park ranger orientation: drowning, lack of water, too much water, dirty food, the heat, the frigid river water, dangerously hallucinogenic flowers, getting lost on hikes, slipping, falling and the attendant compound fractures and lacerations, disease, and snakes, not to mention nuisances like biting red ants, scorpions and scavenging ringtail cats and clever ravens eager to pilfer our food.We have a line-of-site radio to signal passing jets and muster a helicopter evacuation in case of emergency, but otherwise we’re on our own, the ranger said.My connection to the trip is my friend and fellow kayaker Mark Stevens, who stuck his hands in my mouth the first time I met him (he was my dentist). I’ve followed Mark down rivers over the last few years and upped my whitewater kayaking game to class IV rivers.Our other kayaker, E.J., is a former world cup downriver racer, and the five boat captains of our rubber flotilla are seasoned experts.Mark is the only one who knows my secret, though: I’m scared out of my mind.The rapids in the Grand Canyon aren’t technical, and only a few rate above class IV – well within my league – but the high volume of the Colorado turns every riffle into a monster.”You’ll be fine,” Mark says with a grin.I was invited along as the third safety kayaker, and even brought a tow rope to uphold the ruse.Part-court jesters and part-parasites, safety kayakers – otherwise known as “river maggots” – paddle alongside the inflatable barges that carry all the food and gear.And like remoras that clean a shark’s gills, it is a mutually beneficial relationship: Rafts provide food and carry our gear; we wait at the runout of the rapids and pick up swimmers in the event of catastrophe and, Mark especially, we are usually good for a few bad punch lines along the way.
Pushing off from Lee’s Ferry is an “aha” moment for me, as the frenetic planning of the last few weeks gives way to reality.We’re in, and there’s no going back.First we hit Badger rapid, which rates pretty easy for the canyon but is my first taste of the big stuff. Dropping in is like following a small ocean launched down a wide city avenue. What have I gotten myself into?But I follow Mark’s advice and stay loose, and simply lean and paddle into “the meat” of each standing wave – something like hitting an NFL defensive line – and I’m hooting like a fool after my first roller-coaster ride and can’t wait for the next.We camp above the roaring Soap Creek rapid that night. And after hefting our gear onshore to set up, the kayakers take a run on the rapid, hitting a big standing wave like nothing I’ve seen.Exhilarated, we line the beach for a sunset dinner and the tall river tales start to flow.August is the tail end of the summer monsoons in the canyon, and on our first night a downpour drenches us and pyrotechnic cracks of lightning and thunder roar through the canyon.
The rain turns the river to a dark, silty mix that will coat our skin, boats and gear for the rest of the trip.House Rock is the next big rapid, and the oarsmen are edgy as we scout, studying the right-turning curve of chaos and the churning holes we’ll try to avoid.I follow Mark to catch an eddy at the top of the rapid, and then drop down the big tongue of water into a melee that tosses my boat like a rubber duck in a bubbling Jacuzzi.I stay upright, missing the biggest regurgitating holes, but look back just in time to see Mark’s boat going vertical, flipping, then rolling up.Executing an Eskimo roll is like trying to meditate during a car accident.When upside down in the chaos you have to pause, set up and calmly sweep the paddle and snap hips to get up; I’ve practiced it thousands of times but it’s difficult in a “combat” situation. I’ll have plenty of chances to try it.
As we descend the layers of rock to the inner canyon, every turn in the river is another jaw-dropping view of more high cliff walls.That first afternoon we stop at North Canyon, the first of a succession of scrambling day hikes up the tributaries of the canyon.
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E.J. Is a graduate student in geology and picks over bits of schist and granite, spotting fossils and faults and eagerly telling the billions-of-years tale of how the canyon formed.Our brief trespass here, not to mention the exigencies of life outside the canyon walls, requires a new perspective. All of human existence doesn’t even measure a pinkie-width of sandstone.We stop at Nankoweap, a scenic turn in the river with a trail to historic Indian granaries carved high in the canyon wall, and a few of us explore a side creek and hike late into the afternoon.One evening I hike up a hardscrabble trail to a high ridge, getting a glimpse of the canyon’s full 3,000-foot height and looking down on rapids that look like a trickle from on high; our camp looks like a colorful pile of children’s toys.We pass in sight of the south rim and spy the stone tower and viewing platforms for the tourist hoards. On another day we swim in the warm waters of the Little Colorado River, camping that night above Unkar rapid we’ll tackle the next day.We measure days in river miles, as many as 25 miles paddling and pulling oars. It’s hard work, and after battling the afternoon winds and hurrying to good camp sites, I usually drop like a rock in my tent each night.The nights are hot and the wind, if any, is like a warm furnace blast spreading sand.Sometimes I sit at riverside waiting for the moon that eventually peeps over the canyon rim like a curious deity with a giant searchlight.And we’re not alone on the river. We see other self-guided trips, flashy commercial groups and hoards of tourists who pass us on G-rigs – oversized torpedo-rafts powered by gas engines. We trade waves with a group of 22 crack German kayakers on a G-rig-supported trip (some people just shouldn’t wear Speedos) and meet a group of scientists tinkering with high-tech weather equipment.At night, we share some campsites with clever ringtail cats, a wily desert relative of the raccoon, with giant glassy eyes and a talent for getting into our food.We get a brief glimpse of “civilization” on Day 7 at Phantom Ranch, the popular canyon-bottom lodge. I power down an oversized Snickers and send a few postcards but I’m happy when we pull away from the hiking masses to the deep inner canyon and the big rapids.
The veteran canyon runners speak names like Granite, Hermit and Crystal rapid with a hushed reverence, and Day 9 takes us into the meat.The rafters squeal with joy as they burst over the crests of waves. We kayakers find routes through the biggies, and I have plenty of chances to practice my “combat roll.”I miss my line on Crystal, a long, technical rapid, and the current sucks me past the eddy I planned to catch toward a massive hole. But I shoot out the bottom of the rapid after a few shaky moments paddling like a hummingbird.On one rapid I go right into the mouth of a big, sucking river hole. My boat stays underwater for what feels an eternity, then slowly emerges far downriver and I roll up.A hole in Upset rapid tosses one rafter into a furious swim, and on another day an unlucky oarsman and two passengers take a rollicking ride on a massive pour-over, down a chute on the “less desirable” side of a boulder in Bedrock rapid.Between the moments of chaos, however, there are hours of flat water and time to soak in the scenery.Day stops include the sweeping granite chutes formed by trickling water at Matkatamiba or the high gushing falls at Deer Creek. At most camps I hike up dry washes or find good free climbs, trying to push through layers of scree toward the rim.Evenings are about eating, lounging and laughing.
After Dubendorf rapid, the last biggie, we have two days with few challenges and plenty of time to ponder the canyon’s toughest: Lava Falls, an impressive drop formed by an ancient flow of black basalt.One experienced oarsman says he’s batting about .500 on keeping his boat upright in the massive rapid, and the camp is hushed the night before the run.We watch a Canadian group that morning pioneer the lines we would follow, but I can’t see anything that doesn’t lead into chaos.My strategy is to follow a gurgling bubble line on river right that led to a foaming V intersection of two giant, lateral waves. I plan to punch through them, and I set up as planned, but the river has other ideas. I pencil right into the maw, flipping and – they told me later – simply disappearing into the foam.I set up to right myself, but all I feel with my paddle is frothing water – not the kind of purchase I need to roll up. My first roll fails, giving me just another gulp of air, but I roll up on my second attempt just in time to plow into a house-sized wave, then grate the bottom of my boat against a rock. I drop upside down into a whirlpool eddy behind the rock, only to roll up, look around and howl like only a survivor can.
The time after Lava is at once a celebration and a letdown.Having survived the hardest stretch drained the urgency from the last few days, and I feel myself deflating along with the rafts when we de-rig at the Diamond Creek takeout.Among new friends and with a new perspective, we bounce in a van back to Flagstaff for hot showers, beverages with ice and a farewell dinner.The slow march back to sleeping under a roof, working for a living and being on time has not been easy. But, like the silt I’m still picking out of my gear in my one-bedroom Aspen apartment, the canyon has gotten under my skin.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.