Lava or Bust

Grand Canyon, Rafting, South West

We’re running out of big rapids. We run Upset (well, some people do. Thankfully there is a walk around.) and then it is comparatively smooth until Lava Falls. But before Lava, we have the most beautiful part of the canyon to experience- Havasu Falls. Havasu is so perfect it doesn’t look real. It reminds me of the waterfalls we saw outside of some of the hotels in Vegas- each rock is perfectly placed and the milky blue water spills between them like someone has engineered the whole thing. It’s real though. The side canyon is cool and quiet and we walk a long way before we have to turn around. Jerami and I promise ourselves we will come back one day, hike back from the top of the canyon and down, and explore properly.

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Then we have an easy, flat water day between Upset and Lava. We hike twice- at National Canyon and again at Cove. Both are side canyons with waterfalls, but they are polar opposites. National is smooth, polished stone, winding up into a slot canyon. Cove is a scramble- up over massive boulders to a flat, shady canyon dead ending in a fern lined waterfall. Both are beautiful, but they are both so different.

Then it’s the day that’s loomed large in our minds the entire trip. Lava Falls! We reach Lava early in the morning and everyone scouts. Some of us have already made up our minds to walk around and take pictures of the rafts going through. Some look at the rapid and decide to join us. It looks like there is no way through. Boulders block the left hand side, leading directly to the ledge hole- a massive hole that fills half of the river. If you dodge the ledge hole on the right side, a line of smaller, but still gigantic holes greets you. Below that, the current pushes you towards a rock, but if you pull left, an enormous breaking wave blocks the path. It looks like there is no way through the rapid without flipping a raft.

Another group on the river goes first. They choose to sneak the rapid- threading through the boulders to the left, avoiding all of the holes. There are a few dicey moments when it looks like they will bounce the wrong way off of a rock and fall into the ledge hole, but all make it through fine. Then it is our turn.

There is no sneaking for us. Tyndall’s boat runs first. I can barely watch. But he floats through the right hand line like there are no obstacles in his path. The holes do not even slow him down and the giant breaking wave is no problem. Everything is fine. The other boats follow him through with no mishaps.

Now the big rapids are over. There are still a few medium sized ones, including one we’ll have a problem with, but for the most part, they are over. I breathe a sigh of relief. Now we can relax a little more.

After Lava, it’s flat water until we reach Whitmore Wash, where we’ll lay over. We spend the flatwater basking in the sun, looking at the cooled lava flows on the bank. The dark rock shines in the sun, it’s menace diminished.

Whitmore wash is beautiful in the sun, and with a white sand beach, we could easily be beside the ocean in a tropical location. We spend our layover day hiking towards the rim, scrambling over boulders to get as high as we can. When we return to camp, it’s to find a swarm of bees in our staples box, trying to get to our honey bottle. They are persuaded to leave with the help of some long sticks to close the box, and some rubbing alcohol to make the honey less appealing. Of all the pests we were warned about in our orientations, bees were not mentioned once.

We burn another layover day at Parashant canyon, just a few miles down river. A weather system moves in soon after we set up camp. Thunder crashes in the evening, and flashes light up the inside of the tent. We’re not camped in a wash, but we’re very close to it. We half keep an ear open for rushing water, but no flash floods appear. In the morning, dark red water flows in the wash.

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The weather clears before we leave camp and the sun shines as we head down to Pumpkin Springs. Pumpkin is cool- a spring has spilled over a rock lip and left deposits, and it looks exactly like a pumpkin. We hope the spring will be warm, but thankfully it is not- the water contains arsenic, and it would be much harder to resist.

We move further down the canyon, and then it is Killer Fangs Rapid. Two schist fangs wait at the bottom of the rapid, with all of the current pushing towards them. We scout, and then we ride the wave train down, pulling left, to easily miss the rocks. Mike’s boat is not so lucky. We watch it happen in almost slow motion- he’s too far right, and the waves won’t let him pull left. And then he hits. There’s a second when we’re afraid he’ll wrap, but the current pushes him right. And then he’s trapped between the shore and the fangs. Finally, he wiggles free, passing to the right of the rocks. We cheer, and move on down river.

There are a few more wave trains, and then we hit Gniess. It’s the last rapid in the canyon. The waters and silt of Lake Mead have drowned the others, turning once mighty rapids into ripples. I’m grateful we do not have to run them, but when we reach Separation rapid, I’m a little sad. Here was a rapid so terrifying that it caused three men to leave Powell’s expedition and hike out to their deaths. And now it is just a ripple.

We camp at Spencer Canyon, right above Lava Rapid, which used to be one of the worst in the canyon. Now it is another ripple, and a gravel bar once the water drops low enough.

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From here on, since there are no more rapids, and the falling lake levels have left behind massive silt cliffs, making campsites unreachable, we’ll have problems if we want to camp. Instead we will tie the rafts together and night float to the Grand Wash cliffs. I wear all of my layers. Winter is definitely coming. The moon lights our way for the first few hours, and we watch the giant cliffs slowly drift past. I sleep fitfully until dawn. It’s light when we reach the Grand Wash Cliffs, which signal the end of the Grand Canyon.

The landscape changes almost immediately. The horizon opens up. For weeks, the only horizon line that we saw heralded an approaching rapid. Now, we can see so much blue sky. We pull up at Pearce Ferry, to derig our rafts and use our first flush toilet in 24 days.

There is one last rapid for us to see though. Below the take out, the river runs straight at a bedrock wall, creating a rapid we’ve heard is unrunnable. We hike down the bluff to see for ourselves. A furious maelstrom greets us. A keeper hole so massive it is practically a waterfall meets a gigantic boil, recirculating against the cliff on one end and into a cave on the other. Once I see this, I’m glad to say goodbye to the river and head back to Flagstaff.

The river doesn’t really leave us though. As we travel through the South West over the next few days, we’ll return to it over and over again, picking out tributaries on the map
and visiting when we’re close to them. We’ll see it’s wild middles near Arches National Park, and then it’s dam controlled tameness at Lake Havasu. We’ll miss the quiet of the canyon, and the lack of people. The biggest culture shock for us will not be the big cities and the stores, although those will be hard to adjust to. It will be standing at Horseshoe Bend, looking down at the river that we became so intimately connected to and sharing that view with hundreds of other people.

You can see more of our photos at http://www.tagadventure.com/albums/

 

 

The Room of Doom

Grand Canyon, Rafting, South West, Uncategorized

Bass camp is sunny and there are great hikes from the camp. We head up Shimuno wash, looking for waterfalls. We see the most impressive ones from above, and then we’re in the wash itself, heading towards old Bass camp, where we find old camping paraphernalia- a coffee pot, a stove door, a pick. Then it’s back down to camp. I try to patch my drysuit, using almost an entire tube of aquaseal in the process. It’s hard to keep it clean- sand is everywhere on the Grand Canyon, and despite my best efforts, there’s some on the patch.

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Grover view at Bass.

Layover day over, it’s back on the river. There’s a small rapid, just down from camp. Normally I wouldn’t even bother holding on, but I’m terrified. Ruby really knocked my confidence- not in Jerami’s rowing, but in the ability of the boats to handle the big water. I have a death grip on the straps, and I’m constantly scanning the water for hidden holes.

I’ve relaxed a little by the time we reach Elves Chasm- a hike up to a pretty waterfall. Jerami jumps from the falls into the pool below. Then it’s back on the rafts until we reach Blacktail narrows. Blacktail Narrows is one of my favourite side canyons on the entire trip- rivaled only by Havasu. The rock formations are incredible, and so are the acoustics. The more musically talented members of our party whistle and sing and it sounds fantastic.

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We camp at Fossil campground and don’t bother setting up our tent. It’s a dewy night, but sleeping under the stars is beautiful. This starts a streak of sleeping out without a tent of over a week. Every night, we see so many shooting stars that we lose count.

The next day is a big rapid day. We run Specter, Bedrock and Dubendorf. Specter and Dubendorf are both fine, but the middle rapid, Bedrock, is one of the three we were warned about at low water. A massive rock splits the river in two, with a nasty hole in the middle and a current strong enough to wrap you around the rock. Almost all of the current goes left, into a mysterious channel that we call the room of doom. We’ve heard various things about it- a huge eddy that recirculates you endlessly, bashing you against rock walls. There’s no way out- you have to be lined out. There’s no way to verify what we’ve heard. The left channel is entirely hidden from the scout. It’s imperative that everyone runs right.

This is one of the few rapids with a walk around and I sit on the shore. The first two boats barely make the right hand run, the captains pulling as hard as they can. Then it’s Jerami’s turn. I can’t watch. Liz stands next to me, giving me the play by play. Then she goes silent. “They’ve gone behind the rock.”

It seems like an eternity passes. We can’t see anything from shore. The only clue we have to what is happening is Helen, perched on top of the rock that she snuck around in her kayak. After a minute she shrugs nonchalantly. “They’re fine.” She yells over the rush of the river. I’m not reassured, but a second later, I see a head in the split in the bottom of the rock. A few minutes later and they are out. Jerami is as poker faced as ever, but on the shore, we cheer and scream.

After that, Dubendorf seems easy. We camp under cloudy skies, and it spits rain before dawn. I pull the tent fly around us like a blanket, too lazy to set up the tent.

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Once it’s light, the skies open. We pass through the narrowest part of the canyon, where the granite walls close in around us, dark and menacing. Hail bounces off our helmets, and the wind blows so strongly it actually pushes up river. We are lucky to find a camp with overhanging rock to sleep under, across the river from beautiful Deer Creek Falls.

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J-Holed

Grand Canyon, Rafting, South West, Uncategorized

The hole reaches up with an icy fist and grabs me. I resist, holding onto the raft for one second, for two seconds, but then it sucks me down so hard I’m sure the raft has flipped. As I’m dragged down towards the bottom of the river, I have no idea if the hole will release its grip on me, or if I’ll be recirculated forever.

The first rapid we run that day is Granite, an 8. Granite is a huge adrenaline rush- the current shoots you towards the rock wall, but holds you just out of reach, rocketing you along close enough to almost touch. As we come out of the tail waves, I feel something wet on the inside of my leg.

Uh oh. That is not something that’s supposed to happen when you’re wearing a dry suit. I look down to see two jagged tears on the inside of my knees. Ok. We’re stopping to scout Hermit, the next rapid of the day. I can patch it then. How typical that my drysuit would fail on the day of the trip with the biggest water. More than ever, I do not want to swim.

We stop above Hermit, and Liz creates duct tape patches for me, winding tape around my legs until it looks like I’m wearing knee pads. It’ll keep off the splashes, but I’ll be in trouble if I end up in the water.

Hermit is one of my favourite large rapids of the trip. A giant wave train, it is problematic at high water, but just loads of fun at our water level. I’m finally starting to be more comfortable with the massive water of the Colorado.

Crystal is next. Anyone who has read the Emerald Mile will have a picture in their head of the giant boat eating hole, capable of ripping apart a 40 foot raft. Then there is a rock garden, and tailwaves that hide nasty hydraulics. I’m anxious.

There’s no reason to be. Crystal is easier than many of the 5s and 6s we’re already run. The monster hole slumbers, just big enough for us to notice how nasty it looks, but small enough to be easy to avoid. There’s a sharp hole in the tailwaves that we hit, and it rocks our boat, but we bust through without a problem.

We are jubilant. We cruise down the river, excited for how well the big rapids have gone. Now, we’re on to a series of smaller rapids known as the gems- all named things like Emerald and Agate. They’re like the Roaring Twenties, but many of them hide more sinister hazards.

It’s Ruby that gets us. A fun wave train along a left hand turn has a flat hole hidden at the bottom. Jerami has turned, pulling away from the wall. We don’t see the hole until we’re almost in it. I have just enough time to ask Kevin if that’s a hole before we’re sideways.

It’s instantaneous. The raft is suddenly stood up on it’s side, the floor becoming a wall. I hold on tight to the straps on my seat, and try to make a grab for the line around the boat, a pathetic attempt to high side. My seat is slick, and the it’s a matter of seconds before the water breaking over the hole washes me off of the raft.

I’m swept under the raft. Everything is dark for a few seconds, the only noise is the water churning in my ears. I feel the hole grab at my feet and I kick out, hoping to break its grip. Then there is light- rushing towards my face as my life jacket shoots me towards air. I surface in the tail waves. Traverse throws me a rope and pulls me in towards a raft.

Only when I have a hand on the raft do I remember to ask about the other people on the boat. I turn back, suddenly panicked all over again, to ask if Jerami’s been spat out or if he’s still stuck in the hole. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him. He’s on top of our raft, upright, poker faced, as if nothing has happened. He’d high sided the boat for long enough that the current had released him. Apart from my swim, the only casualties were a spare oar and one of our river guide books.

We have one more rapid to run before camp. Serpentine is described as a bigger version of Ruby, but there’s no time to be nervous. We’re swept along on the current, through before I can even blink. Then we’re at Bass Camp. Fluted shist frames our kitchen and it’s warm from the day’s sun. I’m soaked from the waist down, and so cold. I change quickly, thankful for tomorrow’s layover day.

A Grand Adventure – Rafting the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, Rafting, South West, Uncategorized

Twenty four days is a long time to spend in one place. But when each bend of the river reveals a new vista- towering limestone, menacing shist, gentle green slopes – it is hard to be sick of anything. The canyon is full of small, magical moments. The silhouette of a big horn sheep on a ridge line. The spicy-sweet smell of mormon tea. The perfect beauty of Havasu – so wonderful that it looks fake, as surely something that perfect can’t exist. The stars winking out one by one as first dawn paints the canyon. Time unspools like an eddy line and a minute, an hour, a day; none of it is long enough to truly get to know the canyon.

It’s a long drive to Lee’s Ferry, where we’ll start our 24 day, 280 mile trip through the Grand Canyon. I’m nervous, perhaps more nervous than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and it makes me nauseous. Once you’re in the Canyon, you’re committed. There’s only a few places to hike out. There’s no changing your mind. And between Lee’s Ferry and the take out, there lies bigger white water than anything I’ve seen before in my life.

We rig our blue, 18 foot rafts, piling on food and water jugs, tables, stoves and everything else that 12 people could possibly need for three and a half weeks. We float just a few hundred feet down stream in the gathering dusk and set up our tents for the night.

In the morning, after our ranger orientation, we re-rig our boats and start to head down stream. A few miles down stream is an unnamed ripple. It’s not even big enough to be counted as a rapid. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever hit before in a raft.

A few more miles and we pass under the Navajo bridge. A condor sits on the girders underneath it, hidden from view from the tourists above. It’s the last time we’ll see cars for a very long time.

We camp just below Badger Rapid. It’s a confusing jumble of giant waves, loud as a jet engine, but as I lie in my tent, it fades to soft white noise.

We hit Soap Creek Rapid early the next day, and it’s a mess. Three people swim- tossed from our giant rafts and tiny watercraft by the power of the giant waves. My anxiety about the rapids increases, even though our boat had a smooth line. Next up is our first massive rapid- House Rock. Before we left Flagstaff, the outfitter warned us about three rapids that are especially tricky at low water. House Rock, Bedrock and Upset all increase significantly in difficulty, making what are normally 7 and 8 rated rapids on a scale of 10 closer to 9 and 10s. We scout House Rock as a group, and I feel a cactus spike through my drysuit as we walk to the overlook.

House Rock is terrifying. We follow the lead boat down, even though he skirts far too close to a massive hole. We look down into the hole as we glide past- it looks like it could eat our boat whole.

I’m starting to regret my decision to come, but then we hit the Roaring Twenties and it’s fun. The twenties are a series of short, sometimes sharp, rapids. There’s a few rapids that hide something nasty- one boat gets hit pretty hard at a rapid named Indian Dick, but for the most part, they are easy and we start to hit our stride. I no longer have a death grip on the raft’s straps. Instead, I start to relax and enjoy myself.

We reach Redwall Cavern at lunch time. It’s the first spot we’ve been to that features more than just the sheer cliffs of the canyon and it’s beautiful. I sit towards the back and stare out at the canyon, perfectly framed by the walls of the cavern. This is why I’m here- white water does not interest me, but spots like this make everything else worth while.

We take our first layover day at Nankoweap. It’s nice to relax for a day- we do laundry, bathe in the river, and hike up to some old granaries high on the canyon wall. The river looks breathtaking from so high up.

We leave Nankoweap on the edge of a storm. The wind kicks up, so powerful that we have to row just to keep moving. We float past the confluence with the Little Colorado, but it’s too windy and rainy to stop for more than a few seconds.

Massive eddies fill the river after the confluence. The river seems to have gone mad- at times the whole thing looks like it flows up stream. Finding the current is almost impossible- boats circle up and down stream, powerless to do more than hope that they can break free from the eddies on the next rotation.

The canyon opens up as we near camp at Cardenas. The storm pauses for a short stretch and rays of golden light filter between the clouds. This is a wild place- so different from the tight walls of Marble Canyon, but so coldly beautiful.

The storm blows itself out overnight. We run Hance in the sun. It’s the first 8 that we have done, and my fear comes rushing back. We go over the pour over at the top sideways, setting us up to hit almost the entire wave train at exactly the wrong angle. We look down into troughs deeper than I am tall, and then up at giant standing waves towering over us. Somehow we make it through. This is only an 8. What will the 10s be like?

We camp above Grapevine rapid. We’re in the upper Granite gorge now, and even the rocks are terrifying. Dark, jagged shist juts above the camp, blocking the sun. Even though the rocks are menacing, the camp is still one of the most beautiful we’ve seen so far. It will remain one of my favourites for the entire trip.

Grapevine is the first rapid we hit in the morning. The boat captains scouted in the night before, but the water level has dropped, exposing new hazards. We see the boat in front hit a hole and Jerami pulls hard to avoid it. The boat behind is not so lucky, and are surfed hard enough that one person is knocked from the boat. She easily self rescues, but it’s a reminder of the power of the river.

We stop at Phantom Ranch long enough to mail a few postcards. Their water is shut off, dashing our hopes of a flush toilet. Some people buy beer, but the next rapid is looming large in our minds and it’s not long before we hit the river again.

Of all the rapids we run, Horn Creek looks the most menacing. Many others have bigger water, but Horn just looks evil. One of our guide books says the rapid is not recommended at water levels below 10,000 cfs. We’re pretty sure the river is at 7,000. We glide down the smooth tongue into the maelstrom below. The water rockets us towards the canyon wall. Jerami loses his grip on the oars for a split second, but he pulls hard, and we are through. We camp a few miles downstream, above Granite rapid.

Tomorrow will be a big day. Two of the rapids we will hit are rated 8, and then there is Crystal, a 9 or 10 depending on the water. Unbeknown to us though, it will be a much smaller rapid downstream from all of those that will give us the most trouble.

Still trying to figure out how to get my pictures on my ipad- until then, have some photos from Horshoe Overlook, a few miles upstream from Lee’s Ferry.

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Vegas

Grand Canyon, Rafting, South West, Travel, Uncategorized

I love big cities when I’m in the right mood, but Vegas is the weirdest place I’ve ever been. We arrive at the hotel at 9pm on a Saturday night and immediately set out to explore. Even before we leave the hotel, it is chaos- lights and people and spinning slot machines. The strip is lit up like Christmas and very disorienting for two people just off the plane from Alaska. People walk past clutching huge boozy slushies in cups the shape of the Eiffel tower, and there are massive fountains everywhere. We buy a cider in an attempt to blend in a little more, but it isn’t long before we slink back to the hotel, already ready to leave the city.

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The next day, we meet Jerami’s mom for lunch.It doesn’t take much persuading on her and her husband’s part for us to leave the city. A few hours later, we’re at Valley of Fire state park and it is a different world. Honeycomb red rocks are everywhere and big horn sheep line the road, keeping a watchful eye on the tourists with their cameras. We park and hike back to the wave, a swirl of red and white rock. It’s warm for us, but cloudy- perfect hiking weather after Alaska’s cold and rain over the past month.

Today, we drive towards Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. In just a few days well be floating down the Colorado.

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