Rafting the Grand Canyon

Soap Creek area of the Colorado River

Soap Creek area of the Colorado River

“Are we going to get wet?”

My boatman stopped tightening my life jacket strap and gazed at me a moment before breaking into an amused grin, “Hey, Larry. She wants to know if she’s going to get wet!”

The neighboring boatman chuckled and mine looked back at me, “You’re on the wrong trip if you don’t want to get wet!”

Fair enough. My question probably did sound ridiculous standing on the river bank about to launch on a two week rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. What I really wanted to know was whether we’d be on flat water a while or whether I already needed to bundle for the rapids. Getting wet wasn’t really my concern, it was the fact that the water was a fairly constant 46ºF thanks to the Glen Canyon Dam upriver – frigid by my standards. The water temperature naturally fluctuated between 80ºF in summer and just above freezing in winter, but now it was released from the insulated depths of Lake Powell and was cold year-round. I wondered how many other environmental changes the dam had caused but for now, cold water was my concern.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Reassured that there would be no big rapids before lunch, I risked going raincoat-free and leaned against my backrest of gear. The water was calm as glass here and Violet-green Swallows criss-crossed around us, plucking insects from the water’s surface. Men in waders and herons fished along the river’s edges, against a backdrop of towering red rock – Kaibab Limestone according to our boatman. He described the features that classified these rocks as the Kaibab Formation. I thought this lesson was lost on me and that I’d never notice changes in the canyon walls, but as we floated downriver I became adept at noting the geologic transitions before being told. I’d already hiked the rim and flown over the canyon just prior to this rafting trip, and while those offered important perspectives, it was clear that this would be much more intimate. With nothing more to do than watch the scenery slowly pass as we rafted down river with the current, it was hard not to notice subtle changes.

“Your only real shot at seeing a Condor is up ahead at Navajo Bridge,” our boatman pointed to a structure just coming into view, “The older one was built in 1929. It was the highest steel arch bridge in the world at the time, and the only way across the canyon for nearly 800 miles.”

We had, in fact, driven across this bridge on our way to the boats and were rewarded with a pair of California Condors then. I stared up at the sky nonetheless. With only a couple hundred in the wild, any sighting of North America’s largest bird was a treat. Their numbers dipped to 22 because of declines in populations of their large ungulate prey, and poisoning from hunter’s lead shot. All 22 were taken into captivity in 1987 to avoid extinction. Breeding and reintroduction programs have successfully released over 200 birds back into the wild, all bearing individual tags. Unfortunately, these magnificent birds, as well as other eagles, continue to be threatened in the wild by ongoing lead poisoning from ammunition. Educational campaigns and legislation are encouraging large game hunters to switch to lead-free ammunition and maybe one day their scavenging culinary habits will no longer threaten their very existence.

24-½ Mile Rapid

24-½ Mile Rapid

My first real taste of rapids came when we hit the “roaring 20’s” on day two. The river is measured and referred to in miles from the Lees Ferry put in and while there had been several rapids already, the size and frequency of rapids increased exponentially between mile markers 20 and 30. Our boats unexpectedly flowed steadily and smoothly across the turbid waters, our vessels being the only semblance of calm in these lashing rapids. But loosening one’s grip for a moment was a quick reminder that this calm was merely a mirage in contrast to the surrounding churning. One wall of water after another found chinks in my armor of rain gear. And when I’d barricade one gap, the next wave would find another. It was a relief to wring out when we stopped for lunch and a warming session at Redwall Cavern.

Redwall’s broad beach provided sprawling space; its boulder field, protection from winds; and for those who wanted respite from the sun, the cavern itself provided cooling shade and a flat sandy surface ample for a small village. Despite the vastness of this space, the only resident was a Say’s Phoebe on its nest.

Redwall Cavern

Redwall Cavern

Say's Phoebe nest

Say’s Phoebe nest

Side-blotched Lizards

Side-blotched Lizards

My May trip coincided with the season of new life. On two different occasions my nearest neighbor at the campground was a bird on its nest – a Black-chinned Hummingbird once and a Lucy’s Warbler the other time. By the end of the trip, fledgling birds seemed to be everywhere. There were baby mammals as well. Every herd of Mule Deer or Desert Bighorn Sheep seemed to have at least one miniature in its midst. For other species, Side-blotched Lizards, Canyon Treefrogs, and Red-spotted Toads, it was still the season of love. No babies were visible but mating lizards were not an unusual sighting, and at least one pond was writhing with amplexing frogs. So intent were they on finding a mate, that I had to fend several over-eager individuals from my boots and tripod.

It was also wildflower season. Magenta, red, orange and yellow cactus blooms could be seen even from the water. More delicate flowers, like the Golden Columbine, were the rewards of careful searching on hikes. Blooming Catclaw trees attracted hordes of pollinators, and Yellow-backed Spiny Lizards intent on making a meal of the insect visitors. The most pervasive flower were the lavender sprays of Tamarisk, beautiful but they did not belong.

Tamarisk

Tamarisk

Tamarisk, also known as Salt Cedar, was introduced to the U.S. in the 1800’s. It was planted widely in the west as an ornamental and for stabilizing river banks, including along the lower Colorado River. Once introduced, the shrub spread rapidly and by the late 1920’s, it made its first appearance in the Grand Canyon. By the 1960’s, it was the principal riparian species, even infesting areas that had previously been unvegetated. It additionally dominates the water table to the detriment of native plants and animals. Despite heroic management efforts, the species still remains one of, if not the, most abundant plants along the river and its presence has affected campground space, though it’s not alone in this endeavor.

I was rafting the canyon prior to peak season and while there was a fair amount of cooperation between different groups, there was still competition for campsites. The river’s silt delivery and the vegetative scouring of spring floods prior to the dam provided ample camping beaches. But the dam now holds the main channel’s silt, flooding is controlled and plants like Tamarisk have covered areas that used to be sandy, for a net loss of beach. The situation had gotten dire enough that in 2012, the dam was opened for a massive flood that replenished the sand. But as I learned the painful way, not all sand is equal.

Our guides wanted a specific campsite at Nankoweap Canyon, so we got an early start and planned to stop for the night at lunchtime – a scheduling oddity that happened only this once. Despite our well-laid out plan, the coveted sites were already claimed and we found ourselves unloading on an unprotected sandy flat amidst a windstorm. Sand swirled everywhere, pummeling bare flesh and turning my contact lenses into sand paper torture devices. I squinted enviously upon the sand goggles worn by the guides and wondered why this apparent necessity hadn’t appeared on the recommended gear list. Tents tumbled across the terrain even with heavy bags inside and our entire lunch buffet, table and all, ended up face down in the sand. The Common Ravens, self-appointed campground cleaners, would at least be pleased with this last turn of events as there were sure to be tasty morsels buried within the sand.

This was by far the most miserable storm we’d encountered and as we all cursed the elements, our most wizened guide confessed that sand storms were the biggest change he’d seen on the river in his 30+ years of guiding. Spring windstorms were nothing new, but the sand blasting was. The beaches used to be a gradual accumulation of silt – a heavy, mucky version of sand that formed solid land. The sand from renourishment flooding was loose, unstable and readily stolen by the wind – a temporary fix rather than an ecological solution, and a painful one at that.

Nankoweap Granaries

Nankoweap Granaries

When the sand barrage finally ceased, it didn’t take long to see why there was so much competition to camp in the Nankoweap Canyon area. A beautiful side canyon trail wound steeply up to an impressive overview of the Colorado River below. The view alone would have been worth the hike, but this could be said of many hiking trails along the river. What made this site special was its archaeologic component – the Nankoweap Granaries. Appearing as windows in the cliffside, these clay food storage rooms were constructed by the Anasazi Indians during their occupation of the region between 700-1150 AD. There was something magical about watching the sunset reflected in the Colorado River far below while perched beside these ancient structures.

The next day proved equally magic in its own right as we reached the confluence of the Little Colorado River. A finger of powdery blue water stretched alongside a red sand spit and infiltrated the main river’s greenish flow, creating a triangle of contrasting colors where the two waters met at the sandy convergence point. And the view only became more stunning the further one hiked up the Little Colorado as its baby blue waters meandered through red rock and cascaded down travertine plateaus. The limestone ridges were formed by the water’s high calcium carbonate content and high levels of magnesium were responsible for the spectacular blue coloration. Amongst this elegant beauty were unsightly but important fish traps, crucial for monitoring the Humpback Chub. This spring-fed river, maintaining a fairly constant 70ºF, provides refuge for the uniquely-shaped, endangered fish. Equally breathtaking Havasu Creek further down the river, also boasting stunning baby blue water, is another refuge for the Humpback Chub and is, in fact, where I saw their impressive silhouettes in the waters below on my journey.

Confluence of the Little Colorado River

Confluence of the Little Colorado River

Fish trap at Little Colorado River

Fish trap at Little Colorado River

Historically, eight species of fish were native to the lower Colorado River. Five, including the Humpback Chub and its natural predator the Colorado pikeminnow, were endemic. Adapted to the river’s naturally warmer waters, fluctuating flow patterns and silt-filled murkiness, the native fish responded poorly to the impacts of dam construction. Only four native fish remain and all are of conservation concern. The Colorado pikeminnow, the largest minnow in North America, no longer occurs in the lower river. It has been replaced by non-native predators, such as trout. These sight hunters thrive in the now clear waters, while the natives are no longer shrouded by the murky waters they were adapted to.

I finally tried my own hand at paddling in these no longer murky waters on a cold and rainy day. Cheer had gradually been draining from me since the first frigid splash that morning. With no sun to counteract, and cold rain to boot, I’d been on a downward spiral with my hopes pinned on our pending Elves Chasm hike, a slot canyon being touted as particularly impressive. The skies were dry when we pulled up on the beach, but we’d barely completed the cumbersome process of unloading and transitioning from wet resistance mode to dry hike mode when a few drizzles escaped from the gray clouds.

“Back in the boat!” our trip leader barked, “The chances of flash flooding are too great. We’re skipping this hike.”

Safety first, of course, but I brooded nonetheless. Did that temporary sprinkle of rain really change the situation so drastically? The skies were dry again long before I finished juggling my gear and moodily resigned myself back into my seat.

My boatman had been eyeing me suspiciously and no sooner had we pushed off the beach, than he announced that I was in the “dangerously cold” zone and he had a remedy for that. He pulled me out of my seat, placed me behind his oars and settled down to instruct from my former spot.

I consider myself a solid paddler, counting among my accomplishments a multi-week canoeing trip in wilderness so isolated that I encountered none other than my party. Yet, panic filled me as I could barely even lift the oars from the unrelenting current. And mere feet ahead was a small rapids with a very pronounced boulder protruding from the middle.

“Uh,” I stammered as I awkwardly flailed the oars into the air, “Is this a good idea? Maybe I should take over after the rapids.”

“You’ll be fine!” my oarsman promised, “Less is often more on the river. Just avoid the rock.”

I felt all my muscles tense as the raft eased into the white water, aimed straight at the treacherous boulder. Rowing was out of the question. I thrust first one oar and then the other into the current, trying to rudder out of harm’s way without letting the water rip the oars from my hands. I held my breath as the boulder rushed forward. This was it. I was going to flip the first boat of the season.

But I didn’t.

The current neatly swept the raft around the impediment, not even caressing the rock on our way by.

“See?” my coach beamed, “I probably would’ve over-steered, but you nailed it! Sometimes it’s best to just let the river take you.”

I knew he was being generous, but I was elated. Maybe this wasn’t so hard after all.

But it was.

I spent the next several minutes getting trapped in one eddy after another, even going backwards sometimes. We dropped so far behind the rest of the group that we lost sight of our party entirely. And I wasn’t so lucky on the next rapid. Our boatman had to spring into action as the river took control of my oar and we slammed into the canyon wall. I kept trying over the next few days and never really mastered it, though the initial goal was achieved. I was sweaty by the time I handed back the reigns. I’d regained my cheer and a whole new perspective on the rush the guides must feel successfully navigating through big rapids.

So I’d missed Elves Chasm, but the reality is that there were innumerable amazing sites along the way. There were stunning vistas and prehistoric Pueblo ruins at Cardenas Creek. We saw the “great unconformity” at Blacktail Canyon where billions of years worth of rock were simply missing from the wall. Matkatamiba Canyon, better known locally as Matkat, was a prized destination often missed because of limited boat parking space and inaccessibility at high water levels. We scored the coveted parking moments before another group arrived and had to move on dejectedly. Our treasure was a winding rock corridor paved with gold- and bronze- reflecting water. And a short climb above was a luscious garden oasis surrounded by a maidenhair fern decorated amphitheater. We camped under an impressive rock ledge at Randy’s Rock, explored spectacular waterfalls around our Stone Creek camping area, and discovered a cottonwood garden at Deer Creek where a pair of American Dippers squawked in protest at our arrival. This shady grove was secreted beyond a narrow ledge pathway high above a steep chasm, a treacherous walkway but one where Indian children had practiced hand painting long before this was park land.

Great unconformity at Blacktail Canyon

Great unconformity at Blacktail Canyon

Camping at Randy's Rock

Camping at Randy’s Rock

Waterfalls at Deer Creek

Waterfalls at Deer Creek

Painted hand print at Deer Creek

Painted hand print at Deer Creek

As we neared the end of our adventure, we closed in on one of the most famously scary rapids in the west – Lava Falls. One has to wonder when a rapids has earned the name “falls” and in fact, many members of our group had been fretting about the day we’d challenge this section of river from day one. We hadn’t had any serious boat issues so far, although there had been a few moments that had taught us to respect the river. Most notably, an oar had been broken against someone’s back in a raft against raft collision on a relatively minor rapid. And a raft had been sucked into a churning whirpool on the wrong side of a boulder – specifically where we’d been warned that boats needed to avoid. That raft was tossed in circles and near vertical up against the canyon wall, coming dangerously close to flipping and unable to escape the ensnaring vortex. My boat was in the process of landing on the opposite side of the boulder to stage a rescue when the trapped boatman finally burst through the only channel out of the punishing pool. No one was hurt, but both incidents left an impression.

The morning of Lava Falls, there was a tension in camp. One of the boatmen wore a flame emblazoned cowboy shirt in honor of the occasion, securing lines were given an extra tug and we had a reminder safety talk. There was a nervous energy as we set off from camp. The red limestone canyon walls turned to black basalt as we entered the Toroweap Valley area. Volcanic activity had begun here eight million years ago, before the canyon was even formed. Columns, dimples, stripes and fractures were just some of the varied patterns left by the cooling lava, some looking like the inspiration for Mayan temple carvings. Lava flows continued after canyon formation with at least 13 different lava dams blocking the Colorado River over the last 750,000 years, all of which the river eroded, exploded or diverted around. Lava Falls, the largest and  one of the fiercest rapids in the Grand Canyon, formed as a result of accumulated debris from these wrecked dams.

There was a pile of rafts already stopped above Lava Falls when we arrived. The mix of nerves, adrenaline, and excitement here was infectious. Boats came. Boats went. Guests chattered and guides cheered on those steeling themselves for the rapids. We jostled onto the beach and poured up the cliff to watch the next contenders run. It was indeed a massive rapids. White water sprayed high and wide, swallowing rafts whole for seconds at a time before spitting them out at its base. Newly arrived guides crossed their arms and somberly assessed conditions, conferring seriously amongst themselves while newly arrived guests gawked at the spectacle below. Another pile of rafts was at the end of the rapids, watching alertly to rescue any dumped passengers or overturned boats. This was a measure not normally orchestrated with such precision and it was somewhat unnerving despite its precautionary intentions. It was thrilling to watch, but as we trudged back to our rafts for our turn, it was clear I wasn’t the only one with butterflies in my stomach.

Lava Falls from above

Lava Falls from above

Coming out of Lava Falls

Coming out of Lava Falls

I rechecked all my bags and secured my rain gear as we pushed off from shore. My boat, run by the flame master himself, was going first for our group. As I saw the wall of whitewater appear on the horizon before us, I braced my feet and clutched my security lines. I was sure my knuckles were as white as the water within my neoprene gloves. Rumbling filled my ears as we dropped into the waves. There was nothing smooth about this. Over the din, I heard our guide crash to the floor behind me. I too was thrown to the floor, my head hitting something hard. Was it a bag? Or was it just the wall of water? It was loud, hard, rocky, wet and cold. It was exhilarating! Almost as quickly as it had begun, it was over. I found myself whooping and hollering every bit as loudly as my boatman!

Scorpion under UV light at night

Scorpion under UV light at night

This was the climax. You could see for the boatmen, the trip had already ended after Lava Falls. They were already envisioning the vacation they were going to take when we got back to Flagstaff, or all they needed to accomplish in their quick turn around for those scheduled on the next trip out. There were more beautiful venues, a full moonrise and a quest for Day-Glo scorpions at one of the campgrounds. But it was mostly a couple of solid rowing days on flat water, just making up the miles to get to the pull-out spot at Diamond Creek upstream from Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead. It left plenty of time to think.

It was ironic that this wilderness adventure had taken place between two of the largest artificial reservoirs in the United States. Even more ironic that Glen Canyon Dam was named after a series of spectacular gorges now buried under tons of water and accumulated silt. This area went from being the so-called “biological heart” of the river to being a “death zone for native fish”. As with dams elsewhere, Glen Canyon Dam has resulted in incredible ecological changes. Yet it also supplies water and power in an area where water is indeed a valuable resource. And even if you could solve the water and power supply issue, there’d be another slough of environmental issues by undoing the dam now – flooding, released silt, temperature changes again in a system that has maybe begun adjusting to the new regimen…

As with many environmental issues, there’s no clear and clean solution. But maybe one will emerge as our technologies evolve. The largest dam removal project was, after all, just completed on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State to restore an important salmon run and spawning area. The removal project appears successful so far; the salmon are spawning. Maybe someday, the Colorado River will be returned to its natural flow as well. In the meantime, California condors and Humpback Chub are on the recovery, while Tamarisk is being diminished. There’s certainly hope for the future and in the meantime, the Grand Canyon with its Colorado River running through is still one of the most spectacular places in the world!

Heading into the wall of water at Lava Falls

Heading into the wall of water at Lava Falls

Learn more about the logistics of a Grand Canyon rafting trip in my Life on the Colorado River blog post.

And watch for more photos in the gallery shortly.

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