Saturday, July 11, 2015

Rafting the Grand Canyon

Like so many others, my first trip to the Grand Canyon in 1981 was just a visit to the South Rim and an opportunity to marvel at the views from all the overlooks, but this taste of the canyon gnawed at me and demanded more. So in 1985, my family backpacked down South Kaibab to Phantom Ranch, spent a night or two, and hiked out via Bright Angel Trail, a fabulous trip!  But that brought dreams of making the complete round trip, South Rim to North Rim and back to South Rim, which we accomplished in 1989. Still not sated, we returned in 1999 to raft all 260+ miles of the canyon, and below are photos of that adventure.

Here we are at the start after leaving Lee's Ferry and passing beneath the old and new Navajo Bridges at mile 4.5. Highway 89A is the only road crossing the Colorado River for 200 miles. The old historic bridge opened in 1929 and was the highest steel arch bridge in the world at that time. Before it was built, people had to cross at Lees Ferry (water conditions allowing) or travel 800 miles to reach the other side of the river. But it was only 18 feet wide and had a weight limit of 40 tons, and after 66 years was outdated.  Pedestrians were not allowed on the narrow bridge, but the temptation to get photos of the river was too great and 72 pedestrians were hit in 13 years, 8 fatally. In 1995 the new Navajo Bridge opened (909 feet in length, 44 feet wide, 470 feet above the river) and the historic bridge became a safe pedestrian-only viewing bridge.

If you are unable to commit the time or cash to undertake a lengthy 14 or 21 day raft trip through the Grand Canyon, or if you wish to reduce the risk associated with running 160+ rapids in the smaller rafts, then a motorized launch trip might be for you. The photo below looks down at our Canyoneers raft from atop the Vishnu schist we climbed to reach Clear Creek Canyon. The raft is 39 feet long, hinged in two places to flex in the big rapids, and equipped with a 40 horsepower outboard motor to help negotiate the rapids and speed us across part of Lake Mead at the end of the canyon where there is no more current.

Our fantastic crew consisted of Mike and his wife Josie, and Dallas. They provided us with the trip of a lifetime. Their expertise, humor, informative lectures, entertaining stories, emphasis on safety, willingness to stop for side canyon hikes, exceptional food preparation, and overall concern and friendliness provided all 20 passengers with an excellent experience. For those concerned that the larger raft might not be any fun, the next three photos should demonstrate that we still enjoyed numerous drenchings in the bigger rapids. In the first picture, a wave from Hermit Rapid is just starting to hit the raft. Since we are seated on the upper level seats, this was a medium size rapid in terms of difficulty, but obviously a rapid high on the "splash factor" scale. And just being on a large raft is not a guarantee of safety, for these craft can also be flipped or even destroyed in the huge rapids.


More difficult and dangerous rapids required us to sit on the floor in the center of the raft and interlock arms with our neighbors, as in the next photo where we are seated on the floor and are drenched by the waves at House Rock Rapid, certainly a "10" on the splash scale.

And yet another drenching later in the trip at Lava Falls Rapid...

The life jackets are required apparel for everyone whenever you are on the raft. Our trip leader, Mike, joked that we had better have them on tightly because he was required to account for all life jackets at the end of the trip, but not all passengers. So he always grabs the jacket when someone falls overboard. If the jacket is on tightly, there is a real good chance the passenger will come back into the raft with the jacket. If not, oh well!

At mile 29 we hiked up Shinumo Wash.  Actually, we hiked, then swam a pool of water, hiked, swam a pool, and several times had to climb ropes until we reached Silver Grotto. The guides called this the "Slime climb." Here Scott is climbing to the next level of the slot canyon.

At mile 33 you reach Redwall Cavern, an immense chamber carved out by the Colorado River. John Wesley Powell wrote that he believed the chamber would seat 50,000 people! I'm not sure about that number, but the acoustics were superb and I saw a video once of a classical quartet playing in the cavern.

At mile 61, the Little Colorado River joins the Colorado. The Little Colorado is generally a beautiful Robin's egg blue color,  but unfortunately we did not get to see its usual color.  A storm upriver had turned it red with dirt. Here I am, in the center of the next photo with my feet above water to bounce off any rocks I encounter, as I body-surf through a rapid in the Little Colorado River. I did gain a healthy respect for the power of rampaging water from this body-surfing experience. It was absolutely impossible to release yourself from the grasp of the current until the rapid played out a hundred yards downriver, at which point you could finally swim to shore.  I then walked back upriver for another run -- three or four times in total!  It was great fun!  

By the way: Not seeing the Little Colorado in its usual color was one of only two disappointments I encountered on the trip. The other was not stopping to hike at Havasu Canyon, but that was remedied two years later when we backpacked down into Havasu.

At mile 84 we hiked up Clear Creek Canyon. The waterfall provided a welcome cool-down on a 105 degree day. Len enjoys the refreshingly cold water as he lets out a yell to the entertainment of the rest of us. We hiked several times each day, always astounded by the beauty we discovered up the side canyons. Our seven day trip is the quickest trip through the canyon. Longer trips allow for more side canyon hikes, of course, but are quite a bit more expensive, and we were satisfied with the amount of hiking we were able to squeeze into each day, despite having to average 40 river-miles daily. Our trip guides got us up around 5 every morning in order to get in our miles and still have hiking opportunities. My family hiked part of Clear Creek Trail back in 1989 when we backpacked rim-to-rim-to-rim.

A few miles later at 87.5 marker we passed beneath the Black Bridge which takes the South Kaibab Trail over to Phantom Ranch.  We hiked over the bridge on our 1985 backpack trip down to Phantom. Scott the architect seems to be looking up in amazement.

At mile 135 we entered Granite Gorge, the narrowest part of the Grand Canyon at a mere 76 feet across. Our raft is 39 feet long, so two of our rafts could not fit end to end here.

A mile later we see the amazing Deer Creek Falls, a lovely sight and a nice place to stretch our legs... we hike up Deer Creek Canyon, where Anasazi pictographs and ancient worm burrow markings were evident.

...and then we reached additional smaller falls and cascades, where I availed myself of the opportunity to cool off in the falls...

At mile 158 we had a smaller campsite available, so we were crammed together more than usual.  Five of the six nights we slept under the stars.  Tents were available but we only used them the sixth night when it rained.  There are no bugs to worry about down here. The guides told us the scorpions, if any were around, would remain under the blue tarps and not bother us. I'm not sure if that was true or just more "guide speak," but at any rate no one had any scorpion encounters. (How do you know when a guide is lying? His lips are moving!) We didn't undo our sleeping bags until we were ready to use them, and we did check our shoes and sandals each morning before putting them on.

This is the slot canyon at the upper end of National Canyon at Mile 166. Hiking these canyons was one of the best activities on the trip. As much fun as the rapids were, it was good to get on land and hike and climb and marvel at the power of water as it rushes through and carves these magnificent canyons.

Shimano Creek Falls was yet another place to cool off after a hike up a slot canyon...

Travertine Falls at mile 230.5 was formed gradually as mineral-rich water evaporated, depositing calcium carbonate.

Len, Marlene, and Mark, our traveling companions, enjoying the trip along with Mike, the head guide.

It was a wonderful trip, and I recommend it highly!

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