Grand Canyon by Raft 2022

Loading up at Lee's Ferry

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It’s hard not to feel a little nervous getting ready to board a raft and set off on a 226 mile journey down one of the most remote wilderness areas in the contiguous United States. After all, the Colorado river boasts the biggest whitewater in North America. Add to that, there is not only no cell service, even satellite service is sketchy in parts of the canyon owing to the fact that the canyon is over a mile deep. Unless the satellite is directly overhead, your distress call might not reach anyone. If you do need a medical evacuation, the boatmen would have to get you to a place where a helicopter can drop a basket to lift you out. In short, once I step on that raft, I am committed to the journey.

I have been down the river five years ago with Western River Expeditions. Their boat design is different, featuring more room in the middle and back of the raft to sit up high, away from much of the violent pitching and heaving in the front of the craft. Reading the names of the rapids – Hance, House Rock, Sockdolager, Horn Creek, Granite Falls, Hermit and of course, the infamous Crystal and Lava Falls – brought back memories of some wild rides. Just two weeks ago, a woman drowned at Hance rapids on a private oar-powered trip. So while going on a motorized trip with a reputable company is much safer - and Tour West is a very good company, there are still risks. Not to mention falls from cliffs and other hazards. I still shudder to think of the narrow ledge I walked to Deer Creek Patio on my last trip. Over a hundred feet in length on a foot-wide ledge next to an 80 foot drop into a slot canyon whose rushing water leads to 180 foot Deer Creek falls. Not survivable. Fortunately we will not be hiking that trail on this trip as the ledge has continued to erode and someone had a fatal fall there recently. I’m glad I got the photos I did 5 years ago.

Trail to Deer Creek Patio

After climbing "Hell's stair master", we hike ahead along this cliff

We are at Lee’s Ferry, the place where all boats enter the river. We will be getting out at Diamond Creek, 226 miles later as it is the next place a road reaches the water. Lee’s Ferry was named for John D. Lee, who on behalf of the Mormon church, established a ferry service in 1873. The LDS church wanted a way to get settlers from Utah into Arizona and this spot is the only place for hundreds of miles where the river is not bounded by high cliffs.

Lee was an interesting character. He had 19 wives and 56 children. He was a successful farmer and a leader in the Mormon church. In 1857, he was a leader in a group that murdered 120 settlers camped at Mountain Meadows, Utah, reportedly on the orders of the church. In 1870, Lee came to this ford with the intent to establish a ferry and to hide out from the law for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. His ferry was in operation three years later. One year after that, Lee was executed by firing squad at the age of 65. Some of his descendants include Senator Mike Lee of Utah and the political dynasty of the Udall family.

Ready To Go!

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I am confident in the judgement of trip organizer and photographer guide, Adam Schallau. He leads a 10 day motorized trip and an 18 day oar trip every year. His hand picked crew includes John (AKA “Bugs”) Buggenhaben and Kyle Hooker ( who says he’s “the only hooker who makes more money the older he gets”) driving the boats, with the help of Turner Sessions (an engineer and raft builder) and Kyle’s son Jacob.

Kyle is one of the most experienced boatmen and trainers of boatmen in the canyon. He has been leading raft trips for 37 years and has an excellent safety record. As an added bonus, Bugs is a geologist and Kyle is very knowledgable on botany and herpetology. One of my goals for this trip is learning more about the geology of the canyon.

I always have questions about the fauna and flora. My wife and I love native and drought tolerant plants as you can see from this photo of our front yard.

Front Yard Wildflowers

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I take a few shots as the crew is loading our dry bags onto the main raft. They make a pile in the center, cover it with a waterproof white tarp and then tie it down with black racket straps.

“Everyone grab a personal floatation device or PFD – also known as a life preserver – and clip it on. There is a name of a bird on the back. Remember that name as this will be your PFD for the rest of the trip. We will help you tighten the straps for a good fit.”

I grab a yellow vest with the name “Magpie” on the back and start getting it on. Bugs comes over to help me tighten the straps. “Exhale” he says as he pulls to cinch it tighter. You don’t want this coming off in the water."

As we load onto the boat, everyone on my side gets on ahead of me to secure a spot in the back, away from the waves. I figure the first day’s rapids aren’t the biggest ones, so I take the front spot. Once on board, my nerves quiet. I am excited to be going.

“Everybody clip your day bags and small camera bags to the straps holding down the baggage,” says Kyle.

“Of course the native Americans were here for at least 10,000 years but the first Europeans to come to the canyon were Spanish led by Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in September of 1540. Looking down from the top of the canyon, Cardenas thought the Colorado was a small stream they could reach in a few hours and then easily cross. The Hopi’s they had captured and forced into service as guides tried to tell him no, the river is much bigger and farther away but Cardenas would have none of that. He was looking for the mythical seven cities of gold so he ordered the guides and some of his men to hike down to the river. The Hopi’s probably knew how to get down to the river but they had no reason to cooperate with the Spaniards. So after a couple of days hiking and not reaching the river, the Spaniards came back up to the rim and reported that what looks like pebbles from the rim are boulders bigger than the biggest cathedral in Spain.

It was 200 years later that the next Europeans saw the canyon. Two Spanish priests crossed at a place that is now under lake Powell. It is called Father’s Crossing. With the drought and water level dropping in Lake Powell, maybe we’ll be able see it again.”

As Kyle talks, I get a quick shot of a Great Blue Heron sitting beside the river.

As Adam had instructed us, we have all purchased heavy duty, screw type carabiners which we have clipped on our bags and water bottles. Now we need to attach our gear to the ratchet straps. Not being familiar with these carabiners, I unscrew mine and squeeze the wrong end to get it to open. Of course, I think to my self, squeeze the wide end. I'll get it.

As we start down the river, Kyle gives us some history of Lee’s Ferry and the early explorers. Kyle points to the side of the canyon and says, “You can see traces of the old road to the ferry. I have hiked it and seen etchings on the rocks made by people waiting for the ferry.”

I can indeed see an old road carved into the rocky cliffs leading down to the river.

Great Blue Heron

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Kyle's comment reminds me how low the water level is in Lake Powell. It is down by two thirds from normal. It is only 30 feet above the intake tubes for power generation. There is concern that by late summer, the dam won’t be able to produce power for Phoenix and Tuscon. I would hate to be in either city in the summer without air conditioning, let alone without refrigeration for food and power for hospitals. It may well be totally unlivable. The future of climate change is on us already.

At the other end of the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead supplies 90% of the water and most of the power to Las Vegas. Lake Mead is down to 10% capacity. It is so low, engineers are drilling a new hole in the bottom of the dam to get out the last water. They call it the “third straw”, having already built a “second straw” to draw out water from below the dam outlets. At some point, engineers fear Lake Mead and Lake Powell will become “dead pools” with no outlet.

Oddly, Phoenix remains the fastest growing city in the United States with over 20,000 new residents added per month. What are they thinking? When will society as a whole accept the reality of climate change?

This drought is in stark contrast to the winter of 1983, when record snowfall and early melt produced near catastrophic flooding at Lake Powell. As described in the wonderful book “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko, waters in Lake Powell rose to the top of Glen Canyon Dam. Rather than have a catastrophic failure of the dam from it being overtopped, engineers opened the side tunnels to let out extra water. Engineers at the dam then heard large booms and felt the dam shaking as that water rushed out. Chunks of rock the size of refrigerators or cars were flying out of the water outlets as the limestone rapidly eroded. The engineers shut those spillways and found cavitation (bubbles in the water) was tearing the limestone cliffs apart. The engineers then raised the height of the dam with plywood and metal scaffolding and allowed a smaller amount of water out the side channels. That combination ultimately prevented the dam from being torn to bits as the water flowed over the top.

The result of letting water out of the dam as fast as possible was that the river raged through the canyon with a force unseen since the building of the dam. Three guys, led by Kenton Grua illegally ran the river in an oar boat called the Emerald Mile to set a speed record that has never been broken and likely never will. Our motorized raft trip will take 10 days to travel 226 miles. Kenton and his crew rowed 277 miles in a little over 36 hours! They ran rapids bigger than any seen today, and ran many of them by feel and moonlight. Among river guides, the Emerald Mile is a legend. Before joining up with the group yesterday for our ride to Marble Canyon, I went to the OARS boathouse to take pictures of the Emerald Mile.

Emerald Mile Hanging on Wall

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Inscription

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When I booked this trip, I thought to myself that trips like these may not be possible in a few years if the drought continues to get worse as predicted.

Kyle also talks about Major John Wesley Powell. “In 1869, John Wesley Powell led the first expedition by boat down the length of the Colorado,” says Kyle. “He was a Major in the Civil War. His right arm was blown off by a mini ball (which is a small canon ball) when he raised his hand to lead his men in a charge.

During his trip down the canyon, he sat on a chair strapped to the top of his boat so he could see the river ahead and direct his men. The expedition was funded by the National Geographic Society and was intended to map the canyon and report back on the geology. Powell was a geologist by that time. They came down in heavy oak boats but didn’t actually run any rapids. They carried their boats around the rapids or when that wasn’t possible, let the boats go through the rapids while the men held on to them with ropes from the shore. They nearly starved, drowned, froze or died of exposure but made it down after three months. The only members of his expedition who did not survive left the group at a place called “Separation Canyon”. They were killed by indigenous people who mistook them for white men who had killed native people.”

I read the account of Powells expedition and was amazed by what they endured and by the raw courage they displayed. Powell would often climb the cliff walls by himself with one hand to see where he was in the canyon and take barometric measurements. He did science and mapmaking under the most adverse and dangerous conditions. Plus, they were literally going into the unknown. There were rumors that there was an 100 foot waterfall in the narrow gorge. Powell and his men were made of stronger stuff than me, that’s for sure.

Before long, we approach Navajo Bridge.

Navajo Bridge

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I had stood on that bridge yesterday afternoon and taken photos of the rare and endangered California condors. With a 9 foot wingspan, they are the largest birds in the world. They once ranged across much of North America, feeding on mastodon and other mega fauna. Their population decreased as the supply of large game declined and then declined further with the spread of civilization. The nearly became extinct and they remain endangered. Condors mate for life and females produce just one egg every other year. Many die due to lead poisoning from eating game killed by lead shot or from eating plastics or other trash.

At one time their numbers were down to 22 individuals. They were all captured by 1987 and bred in the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos. In 1997, condors were released in the Vermillion Cliffs area (adjacent to Marble Canyon). Though they have increased in numbers since that time, they remain one of the most rare and endangered bird species on Earth. I felt lucky to see them.

California Condor

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Condor in front of Vermillion Cliffs

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Condors

Last night, we had all stayed at the Marble Canyon Lodge. We had been driven there as a group from Flagstaff. In ten days, we will be picked up at our takeout point on Hualapai land at Diamond Creek and be driven back to Flagstaff. Marble Canyon Lodge is a basic hotel (Kyle referred to it as a “half star”) but has a restaurant, post office, laundry, gift shop and it’s own airstrip. It think it's pretty good considering how remote it is.  It is the only lodging anywhere near Lee’s Ferry. It is possible to camp near the beach at Lee’s Ferry but that’s your only alternative to the lodge.

Marble Canyon Lodge

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Navajo Bridge was completed in 1929. At the time it was heralded as the "biggest news in Southwest history" by a Flagstaff newspaper. It was far more efficient than the ferry it replaced and it was the only way to cross the Colorado for hundreds of miles. By 1995, the bridge was replaced with a newer one just downstream. The old bridge is now a pedestrian bridge.

Kyle says, "You’ll notice that the bridge is several hundred feet above us even though we have only traveled less than 5 miles. The river drops about 8 feet per mile, most of that in rapids. At that rate of drop, the bridge should only be about 40 feet above the river but it is actually over 460 feet above the river. The reason the bridge and canyon walls are so much higher is because the Colorado plateau thrusts up where it forms the Grand Canyon. Geologists call this an "Anticline".

The canyon walls will rise over a mile above us in the deepest parts of the canyon."

At mile 8, we are approaching a line of whitewater.

“We’re coming up on Badger Creek Rapid,” I hear Kyle announce from the back of the boat. It’s rated a 5-6 and has a drop of about 15 feet.”

The Grand Canyon has it’s own 10 point rating system for rapids that pre dates the international standard of 1-5. So a rapid rated at 5-6 would be a 3 on any other river. The rating system has to do with the degree of difficulty for a non-motorized craft to navigate. A rating of 6 (or 11 in the Grand Canyon system) isn’t navigable – it’s a waterfall.

I get into a surf stance, my left foot forward and knees bent. I hold onto a strap wrapped over the baggage pile in the center of the raft. If I get pitched toward the pile, that’s okay. Holding a strap on the boat side prevents me from going overboard. Kyle steers us to the center of the rapid, a long green tongue of water that leads out past the initial rocks on either side towards a series of white caps forming a curving line ahead. The green water drops into a hole, pitching us forward. My legs straighten as the boat drops out from under my feet, then bend again into a crouch as we climb up the standing wave on the other side. I feel my pelvis rock and scoop as our craft points down, then up. I feel my right knee bend as we get hit from the right by a wave, my lower abdominal muscles contracting  to keep my pelvis level as a gyroscope. This is fun!

I had forgotten the pure physical pleasure of riding the waves. It is a lot like surfing, skiing or riding a horse. What our bodies do to smooth out the forces trying to pitch us over feels great. I am the only one standing anywhere near the front of the boat, so I assume not everyone feels this way. I am thankful for the years of Pilates I have done, particularly in that our instructor Jennifer Wilson put her Reformers up on rollers so that they are unstable in several planes at once. Then she would have us get on a ball on top of that or use just one leg strap to control our position. It felt at the time like I was training for the Cirque du Soleil but having good balance comes in handy.

Badger Creek Rapid

The next rapid, Soap Creek feels just as good. As we come though the end of the rapid, Kyle says, “Soap Creek got its name when Jacob Hamblin boiled a badger in the alkali water of Soap Creek during the 1870’s. When he looked in his cook pot in the morning, the combination of alkali and animal fat made soap.”

Soon thereafter, Kyle pulls us over to the left bank near an overhanging rock and says, “Frank Brown was the President of a railroad. He wanted to build a railroad down the length of the Grand Canyon so he led a scouting expedition. Obviously, he had no idea what he was up against. He was also too cheap to buy life preservers. He drowned here in 1889 right across from this rock.”

Also on that trip was chief engineer, Robert Stanton and photographer Franklin Nims"

"Nims was the first photographer come to the canyon, not that he had a chance to take many photos," added Adam.

"In addition to Brown, two other men drowned in a five day period causing Stanton to abandon the survey," Kyle continued. "That was in May. By December, Stanton had outfitted another expedition, this time with life preservers. They returned to the canyon.

Franklin Nims came along on that trip as well. Near where we are now, he lost his footing and fell 22 feet. He broke his leg, had internal injuries and was unconscious from a fractured skull. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears. At first they thought he was dead but they put him on a stretcher and carried him up Ryder canyon, ahead on river right. They got him up to Warren Johnson's place at Lee's Ferry. Warren ran the ferry with his two wives after Lee was executed. Nims was unconscious for 12 days, then he was taken to Flagstaff for medical attention. He was unable to work for about six months. 

By the way, he was off the payroll as soon as he fell and they didn't help with his medical bills. They didn't have work comp in those days."

Frank Brown Drowning Site

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Before long, we see a line of whitewater ahead.

“Next up is House Rock Rapid. It’s a 7 to 8," says Kyle. "It’s named for the large rock partway down. David, I’m going to need you to crouch down in front so I can see the entry.”

I crouch and grab hold of a strap with either hand. I am on the corrugated metal floor between the baggage pile and the big white outer tube. We slide over the green water tongue and drop into the first hole. It’s definitely bigger than what we have been through so far. After over a couple quick waves, I see a bigger hole slightly to the side of the main wave train. I assume we are going to pass it but we drop right into it. I get slammed with a wall of water and knocked off my feet, hanging on with both hands as I am pushed backwards, then pulled forward as we drop into another trough. A few waves later and we are back to flat water. That didn’t feel right. As I stand back up, I hear one of the other passengers saying that the handle to the motor/tiller came off in Kyle’s hand and he nearly fell off into the water - and would have if his son Jacob hadn’t grabbed him by the life jacket.

“Well,” says Kyle, “You either get a clean run or a good story.” I guess this was in the later category.

House Rock Rapid

Before long we pass a nanny and kid bighorn sheep on our left. I brought a 200 to 600 mm lens for just this occasion. I unbuckle, unroll and pull open the waterproof seal on my camera bag and start fumbling with changing lenses. Kyle says, "We have been seeing a lot of them down near the river this past year or two. I think because of the drought, they can't get what they need higher up."

Bighorn Sheep

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The Canyon Walls Rise Quickly

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Love the Reflections

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Red Wall Flakes Off in Sheets

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Textured Rock Green Water

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A few miles later, we pull in to a beach on the right. Kyle says, “This is North Canyon. We are going to be staying here tonight so get off, find yourself a campsite, drop your day bag there and come back to form a line so we can unload.”

Getting off the raft requires stepping on a strap hung between the tube and the front platform. It’s a little tricky to balance on that and jump onto the shore, so after I get off I give a hand to the next few people coming off.

I head up the sandy hill, looking for a spot with a little shade to set up my camp when I see a spot under a tamarisk tree with a view roughly to the South downriver between the canyon walls. Maybe I can get a Milky Way shot there early next morning. I drop my day bag and small camera bag and head back down to join the line that is already beginning to form. I take a place next to the boat because I am tall and can reach up easily to take bags from the boatmen and pass them up the beach.

“Form a line facing each other just a few feet apart. Ideally, two people will have their hands on a bag at any given time. Some of them are pretty heavy.” says Kyle, “We don’t want you to get hurt.”

We space out appropriately and begin passing the duffle bags. Then we move the line over to the smaller boat and begin passing camera bags. Some of these are especially heavy, probably because of extra power banks to charge camera batteries. I thought my bag was heavy but now I don’t feel so bad. Some of these feel like 40 or 50 pounds.

“I need you to reform the line back at the main boat and help us unload the kitchen, cots, chairs and the rest,” says Bugs.

So we form one last line to bring up the last of the gear. We will be repeating this in reverse in the morning and continuing at every campsite along the way.

“Okay,” says Kyle. “Everyone gather back here after you carry your bags to your campsite. We’ll show you how to use the toilet.”

Hauling the bags up the sandbank in the heat is taxing but quick. Soon we are all gathering again near the boats. 

I see a commotion over by the raft. Jacob is holding something in his hand. I quick grab a photo. He says it is a red spotted toad.

Red Spotted Toad

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My Campsite

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Kyle says, ”Over here is a little plastic box with toilet paper. It will always be at the start of a trail. This is how it will be at every campsite. Next to the toilet paper is a bucket with a foot pump and a couple bottles of soap. This is your hand washing station. There is also hand sanitizer. Always wash your hands after visiting the toilet. Now follow me,” he says, heading up the trail.

After about 30 feet of sandy trail through the tamarisk trees along the river, we come to an opening. There, set back from the trail is a toilet seat on a can, a yellow bucket and a narrow grey, rectangular can about the same height as the toilet seat. By the look of it, the can was probably an old Army surplus ammo can.

"The protocol for peeing is to go directly into the river. Men pee downstream, women upstream. The way you can remember is men drop their pants and women raise their skirts. Do not pee on the dry sand or rock. There isn’t enough rain here to wash it out and the smell will accumulate at these campsites and stay for years.

Women, face the river when you pee. We don’t want you falling backwards in the water. Women may also use the yellow bucket if you have to, but it is preferable to just pee into the river.

For number two, we have this bucket here with the nice toilet seat. Try not to pee into it. We have to carry it all out of the canyon on the raft and don’t have any extra room.

This metal can has spare toilet paper in it. It used to be what we used before we had a toilet with a seat. Sitting on this can left grooves in your butt so it’s called “The Groover.” We still call the toilet the groover even though we use this improved version. When you are done, be sure to return the box with the toilet paper or a lot of people will be mad at you. When you wash your hands, they will dry in seconds because the air here is so dry.”

After the demo, I notice a cluster of beavertail cactus flowers on the hillside above camp. I put on my 14 mm f1.8 lens to try band get the blossoms with enough depth of field for the context of the canyon beyond.

Beavertail Cactus

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There is another group or groups who were having lunch at this spot when we arrived. They are now getting ready to run the rapid right below camp. A couple of us hike out onto the rocks by the rapid and photograph them going down. I would be scared to try running the rapids in an oar boat, let alone in a kayak. That seems insane.

Boats Sharing Our Beach

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Kayaker Going Down

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When we get back to the beach, Adam calls out, “Grab your hiking photography gear. We are going up the canyon to a reflecting pool.”

How far is it?” someone asks.

Bugs replies, “It’s about a mile, but it’s a Grand Canyon mile, so it’s longer than you think.”

I see what he means as we scramble up a rocky trail. It’s steep in places, with some exposure to falling. The trail is part dirt path part boulder hopping and scrambling up loose rocks and sand. I’m glad I have pared down my hiking photo kit to a waist pack with my Sony A7r4, 24-240 mm f4.5-5.6 lens, a 20 mm f1.8 lens and a quart canteen instead of a big backpack. I carry a small tripod on my back. While everyone else is wearing a backpack and carrying their good tripod, I’m just carrying a lightweight, MeFoto travel tripod. I wear the GoPro on my head so my hands are free. The weight is minimal and balanced on my hips. I figure the 24-240 lens allows me to zoom to frame a variety of shots. The 20 mm prime is super sharp and wide angle for slot canyons. The GoPro allows me to do video and document as I go.

It is hot by the river. I am glad to get into the shade of the canyon and start the climb. After about a half hour, we get to a narrow part of the canyon. The red limestone here has flaked off in big angular chunks. There is a single tree in the midst of that red rock. I stop for a shot of that while the others go on ahead.

Single Tree in North Canyon

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I see Adam and the others setting up just a little way further. There is an interesting reflecting pool. The erosional pattern in the rock reflects in a shallow pool with a bit of green algae at the close end. The luminance difference between the shaded pool and the crack of daylight upstream behind it is about 5-6 stops of light. I set up my tripod and take a bracketed shot. Even as I do, I think it will probably be a better shot to just exclude the sky.

North Canyon Reflecting Pool

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Bugs points out a white line in red limestone and says, “That fissure had it’s red limestone washed out and replaced with sand or other minerals that didn’t contain so much iron. You know the red wall limestone is actually tan colored. It looks red because the iron in it oxidizes on exposure to air. If you see where a chunk of the cliff has fallen, you’ll see that more recently exposed rock is lighter colored.”

“What about those dark streaks running down the face of the rock?” someone asks.

“The darker streaks are called Desert Varnish. It is caused by oxidation of iron and manganese that has leached out of the rock.”

One of the guests then asks how the canyon was formed. Bugs replies, “Well, there are a couple of theories but the most compelling one is that there was a large lake that overflowed and that formed the river. Then the river started cutting its way back through the rock in a series of waterfalls, rapidly forming the canyon. You know the canyon only about 6 million years old. In geologic time, it was formed very quickly. There are a couple of other theories about stream capture and such but the evidence is strongest for the lake overflow theory.

Problem is that this idea was proposed by a community college professor. All the bigwig geologists at universities don’t like that this "nobody" came up it."

I guess every profession has its petty jealousies, I think to myself.

"The other thing to picture is that the Colorado plateau was thrust up through a series of earthquakes called the Laramide Orogeny. That word orogeny refers to the buckling up of a continental mass from tectonic plates colliding. When the Pacific Plate met the Farralon plate, the crust buckled, creating the California coastal ranges, the Sierras, the Colorado plateau and finally pushing up the Rockies.

The river didn’t so much cut down through the rock as the river was flowing more or less level while the plateau pushed up. Picture holding a knife steady as someone pushes a cake up from below. That’s a more accurate way to visualize how the river cut downward.”

After about 20 minutes of taking a few different angles, we head back down.

On the way, Kyle points out a few plants and names them.

Lobed Fleabane

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Mormon tea

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Scorpionweed

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When we get back down to camp, a few of us head over to the rocks by the rapids and take slow exposure shots of the rushing water. Now that evening is coming on, it’s easier to leave the shutter open longer without needing to use a ND filter.

Maelstrom

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Upstream with Slow Shutter

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It is past sunset when I hear the call for dinner. I head to my bed and start looking for my headlamp and a long sleeve shirt. Note to self. Lay that stuff out in the daylight next time. While I am at my cot, I set up my tripod and camera with a 14mm, f1.8 lens in the direction I expect the Milky Way to rise early next morning. I take a blue hour shot of that view, hoping I can make a blended exposure of the canyon walls at dusk that I just took with a Milky Way shot I will take early next morning.

After using the foot pump and soap to wash up, I grab a plate and get in line for dinner. A big pot of barbecued chicken, another of rice and another of green beans await. It smells delicious. If all the meals are as good as this, it’s going to be a great trip.

We sit in a large circle near the kitchen and eat together. I see that there was an appetizer table set out earlier while I was down by the river. As we eat, we talk over the day’s events and get to know each other. All the people are so interesting and kind to one another. It’s a good group.

After dinner, we each take our dishes to a table with four big metal buckets. The first is to rinse off any food scraps (not any on my plate). The second is filled with soapy water and a couple of brushes. The third is hot or at least formerly hot water and the last is cool water with bleach in it. After washing my dishes, I put them in an open weave sack hanging from the cook table to air dry.

As I fall asleep, I see the blue hour is over. The sky is fully black and studded with literally millions of stars. I feel deeply connected and at peace as I look at the cosmos slowly turning overhead. It’s still hot, so I have the sleeping bag fully unzipped. I lay my sandy feet in the bottom of the bag and lay my head on my pillow. It too has sand on it from a light wind in the afternoon.

Sand... Get used to it.

I awake several times in the night, mostly because the saggy cot is uncomfortable and I am at first too hot, then later too cold as a little breeze comes up. I try to scrunch under the sleeping bag but I am pretty tall and the bag only comes to the top of my chest. I’m also only wearing underwear and a tank top t-shirt so my shoulders are exposed. I don’t feel like getting up and unclipping my bag to start looking for another shirt in the dark. Note to self – wear a full t-shirt to bed and stuff a cap and neck gaitor in my pillowcase.

I bend my knees enough to get my head inside the bag but then my legs are lying on the metal bars of the cot. Oh well, the stars are amazing. About 4:00 AM, I wake up and see that the Milky Way is rising down the canyon. I can see it is hazy but the galactic center is coming into view. I remove the lens cap, use the manual focus to get the stars sharp and take several 30 second exposures at f2, ISO 3200. The shots look great. I put the lens cap back on and try to get a little more sleep before we wake at 5:00 for sunrise, breakfast and packing up to go.

North Canyon Milky Way Composite

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Rivers of Water and Stars

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Day 2 – Redwall Cavern to Eminence Camp

“Today we are just going about 10 miles down the river,” says Kyle once we have boarded.

“Normally, we would have gone farther yesterday and also today but Adam wants us to get to Nankoweep camp tomorrow, early enough to be sure we have a spot for the night.”

I am happy to hear that. One of my favorite photos is a shot I took at Nankoweep 5 years ago.

“To get to Nankoweep early, we are going to camp tonight just upstream at Eminence Camp. Between here and there are a series of rapids called the Roaring Twenties because they are closely spaced on miles 20 to 29, starting right now with 20 mile rapid.”

Just as he finishes saying that, we turn to see we are going over the rapids just below camp. Again, I feel my body engage to balance and absorb the motion. What a good way to focus and start the day. Moments later, I am doused in 53 degree water. I really feel awake now. The rapids we are running this morning are all relatively moderate, 4-5 or 5-6 so other participants have claimed the front spots. Standing on the deck in the second position, I practice holding a strap just lightly in one hand and doing all the balance with my legs and lower body. As I get more confident with that, I try closing my eyes while going through several of the rapids. Amazingly, my body knows what to do to stay balanced without the advance warning provided by my eyes.

Between the rapids, the calm waters are beautiful. I love this part of the canyon. Red walls rise steeply on both sides and the water is a deep green except for the reflections of red rock and sky.

Smooth Water in the Morning

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The canyon walls are now high above us. I had quizzed Bugs last night to be sure that what I had read about the geology layers matched what I was seeing with my eyes. He confirmed the white layer on top is called Kaibab limestone. It was laid down during the Triassic period, 270 million years ago. That was a time of amphibians and sail back lizards. The time of the dinosaurs is not even represented. That came later and was eroded off the Colorado plateau. It would have been on top of the Kaibab Limestone.

Below that is a darker band called Toroweap formation, remnants of shallow seas 275 million years ago. Being softer, it has more of a slope than the vertical Kaibab cliffs.

Coming down the cliff further is the white Coconino sandstone. That represents a time when sand dunes like the Sahara desert covered all of what would later become Arizona to Canada. There are lizard tracks preserved in the Coconino but no fossilized bones. Each layer of stone was laid down over millions of years, one atop the other. As we go further down the canyon, we cut through deeper layers of rock and move further back in time.

The red wall limestone we are in now was laid down 340 million years ago. That was during the Permian period. Life at that time was in warm, shallow seas. There were trilobites, sea ferns and ammonites. Before long we will be back to a time when life consisted of sponges and bacteria.

It's So Peaceful

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The peaceful sections are punctuated by rapids. Even though I am in the second spot on the raft, I am still getting pretty wet. I recall yesterday one of the guests asking when we were going to get a shower. I had replied that we can get as wet as we want on the raft, or bathe in the river when we get to camp. There is no provision for a hot shower on a trip like this. Fortunately for me, I am accustomed to cold water showers so I don’t think it will bother me.

"By the way," Kyle says, That rapid we just came through, 25 mile rapid, is where the other two members of the Brown expedition died, including the first African American to come down the canyon."

“Up around the next bend is Redwall Cavern,” says Kyle.

“Vassey’s Paradise should be just before on the right,” I say.

Kyle replies, “Vassey’s is dry this year. I haven’t seen any water coming out of the springs.”

Sure enough, the profusion of flowering plants I had seen there 5 years ago is gone. Just some tamarisk trees and stained rock. That’s not good. Vassey’s paradise was named by John Wesley Powell in honor of his botanist friend, George Vassey. It is a microclimate built on abundant fresh water seeping out of the porous red wall limestone.

On our left is an alcove near water level. It is impossible to gauge how large it is from this distance, but as we get closer, we can see those tiny specks on the sand are people and the dots at water level are boats. The closer we get, the bigger the cavern seems to grow.

As we approach the beach in front of the cavern, someone says, “Ramming speed” just before we hit the sand. Jacob bounds off the boat carrying a rope tied to the bow. He normally runs up the beach to find a rock or tree to tie off the rope or failing that, drives a large stake into the sand and ties the boat to that. At this stop, it is a sand stake.

We grab our photo gear as we get off the raft and head towards the back of the cavern. Even the cavern seems to get bigger the farther back I walk. You could easily fit a few thousand people in here plus an orchestra. Or a football game with plenty of room for spectators. It’s enormous.

Redwall Cavern from the Water

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Looking Back from the Cavern Entrance

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Further Inside

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From the Back

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Back near the front of the cavern, Bugs is talking about geology. “All of this red rock you see is from the Permian period. There was abundant life in shallow seas for millions of years until the planet underwent a period of increased vulcanism. The resulting carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere wiped out 98% of all life on Earth. That line at the top of the red wall,” he says pointing up the cliff, “represents the greatest mass extinction event in the history of the planet. And yes, just like today’s threat, it was caused by climate change. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and resulting acidification of the oceans killed off nearly all life on earth.

Follow me over to this rock and I will show show you some fossils.” Bugs leads us to a nearby chunk of red wall limestone and points. “These are primitive sponges, and over here is a crinoid with an impression of its sessile portion. That’s like fronds waving in the water until a predator comes close. Then it pulls the fronds inside the shell for safety.”

Fossiilized Crinoid

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Fossilized Sponge

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Adam says, “Hey everybody. Take some shots of the reflections in the water here. You can make some really beautiful abstracts.”

Reflections Outside Redwall Cavern

A Floatilla Paddles By

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Before coming on this trip, I read an article that said when Kenton Grua (leader of the Emerald Mile crew) died in 2002, his ashes were spread here in the water in front of Redwall Cavern.  In addition to the famous speed run, Grua was founder of Grand Canyon River Guides, an environmental advocacy foundation. He was also the first person known to walk the entire length of the Grand Canyon.

The Water is so Clear

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Back on the river, Kyle points out, “See those holes and fissures in the rock. That’s because the red wall limestone is really porous. Water seeps through it and causes it to collapse.”

"What makes the black and white lines?"

The black is oxidized iron and manganese. The white is salt. Remember, this all used to be under the ocean.

Redwall Seep

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More Redwall Erosion

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Bugs boat is ahead of ours. We see him pull off to the side and wait for us. “You see that hole in the rock,” he says. “That’s one of a series of test holes drilled by the Army Corp of Engineers to test the feasibility of putting in a dam here. It was to have been called the Marble Canyon dam. Eisenhower was hell bent on creating a series of dams all the way down the Colorado. Beats me why anyone with half a brain could have conceived of building a dam in a limestone canyon in a dry environment with acidic rainwater. The canyon walls would just crumble and collapse but that’s what they wanted to do.

Test Hole for Marble Canyon Dam

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This dam that didn’t happen was part of the birth of the environmental movement. The Sierra Club at the time was mostly a hiking group out of San Francisco. Under the leadership of David Brower, the Sierra Club fought to stop the Army Corp or Engineers from building a dam upriver in Dinosaur National Park.

Martin Litton was a journalist from Los Angeles and a passionate outdoorsman. He founded OARS rafting company in the fifties and led rowing trips down the Grand Canyon. He joined the fight to stop the dam at Dinosaur and began working with David Brower to stop the dams proposed for the Grand Canyon. Together, they created the modern environmental movement, Martin’s searing editorials and Brower’s organizational and strategic brilliance were a potent combination.

Martin Litton helped Brower and others raft down the canyon to document it’s beauty, geology and cultural significance. They used their findings to raise public awareness, lobby congress and successfully defeat the Grand Canyon dams. They were unsuccessful in blocking Glen Canyon dam. The government was so mad, the IRS retaliated by stripping the Sierra Club of its non-profit status. We owe a lot to those two men.”

I’m thinking also that Martin Litton was Kenton Grua’s boss. Kenton disobeyed Martin and the Park Superintendent when he did his speed run in 1983.

Martin Litton was a wild character in his own right. Having been a paraglider in World War Two, he would fly his Cessna low over the river and drop cases of beer to his rafting groups.

In 2014, Martin Litton died at the age of 97, having rowed the Grand Canyon in a dory at the age of 90. He was still very active in the environmental movement to the end of his life, helping to create Redwood State Park in California and stopping logging in the sequoia’s.

One rapid later and we are pulling into camp. It is a called Eminence Camp because it is located on the Eminence Fault. We are here in the early afternoon, so we have plenty of time to find a campsite, work the bag lines and set up our cots. This time I put my headlamp in my pillow case so I will know where to find it when it gets dark. In the late afternoon, the air is a little hazy and a shaft of light at the West end of the canyon makes a beautiful scene.

Shaft of Light from Camp

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Zoomed In Close

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Wind comes up after dinner, knocking my pillow on the sand. Oh well, I think. It will match the sand in my bed.

At the start of the trip, Adam and Sally gave each of us a container of Mom’s Stuff All Purpose Pinion Salve. My heels are cracked from wearing sandals in the sand and water shoes on the boat. Since it is cool enough to now put on socks, this is a perfect time to rub some of the salve on my feet. I locate out my can of Mom's Stuff, open it and set it on the cot next to me. When I reach over to open my duffle and get out some socks, my sleeping bag comes with me and the can of salve falls on to the sand.

Face down.

 “That wasn’t in the brochure,” I think to myself. Nothing like rubbing sandy lotion into your raw skin.

Now that I have pinyon scented beeswax rubbed into my feet and hands, I don’t want to close up all my bags for the night and get grease on everything.

“Ah” I think, “put on the wet gloves to do it”.

You wold think I could just leave the bags open for awhile but I can't. Bugs told us we have to seal our bags to keep out mice, crows and insects while we are in camp. Since we each have four bags and each bag has multiple buckles and seals, it’s a constant struggle to open and close all the bags every time I am looking for my toothbrush, headlamp or spare pair of underwear. If I ever do this again, I will bring a lot less stuff and be better organized.

We were also told to keep our shoes in a little bag that hangs by velcro from our cot. That prevents scorpions from climbing into our shoes. My shoes were too heavy for the velcro, so I just look inside them the morning. He noted that scorpions can’t climb the metal poles of our cots, so they won’t join us in bed (I guess I shouldn't let my sleeping bag hang down onto the sand). That’s nice to know, but I am not worried about it. I camped here before without incident.

Day 3 – Nankoweap

The next morning we are up at 5:00, aroused when the boatmen fire up the propane stove to begin heating water for coffee. I roll out of bed, grab my camera and get a few shots of the canyon in the pre dawn light.


Morning at Eminence Camp

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Lovely

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Today I decide to ride with Bugs and Turner in the smaller J-rig. There are virtually no rapids on the short trip down the canyon to Nankoweap Camp.

Back on the Peaceful River

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Main Raft from the J-Rig

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The Nankoweap camp itself is broad and the beach where we tie up has a shallow backwater. It’s oppressively hot walking up the sand. The temperature is probably only about 85 degrees but with all the direct sun and the reflected light off the sand, it feels hotter. Walking up the short, sandy hill carrying my gear, I feel a little light-headed.

After the boats are unloaded, camp is set up and we have all had lunch, I walk down to the water with some soap, a razor and a small mirror. I wear my swim trunks into the water, wade out to waist deep and then drop under. Wow is that refreshing! The water is shockingly cold I quickly soap myself and plunge in again. This time it doesn’t feel so cold. Walking back to the sand, I pick up my razor and mirror and begin to shave. The water on my face dries quickly so I have to throw more water on to have any semblance of comfort as I scrape the blade across my face. I feel good being less scruffy and especially good from being in the cold water.

Around 3 in the afternoon, Adam calls out, “Okay everybody, grab your gear. We’re heading up to the granary in five minutes.”

The granary Adam refers to is a structure built into the cliff above us that was believed to be used to store grain or other food. It was built by the Ancient Puebloans around 1100 AD. These people farmed the delta near the river in the cooler months and hunted on the North Rim during the summertime. It is a privilege to be in contact with remains of that ancient culture. Everyone assembles with their gear and we start hiking up the trail.

At first we are on sand between tamarisk trees. Then we start to climb and the trail becomes rockier. The higher we go, the steeper it gets. I pause a couple times to shoot back towards the river.

View Back Towards Camp from the Trail

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Further Up the Trail

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Going Up the Switchbacks

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Five years ago, I practically ran up this trail trying to keep up with Willie Holdman. Now I move more cautiously, using handholds on the steepest sections. The rough rock makes fine cuts in my hands. I really need to start wearing those garden gloves I bought for this trip. Adam had said they would help. He and Sally also gave each of us a container of Mom’s Stuff All Purpose Pinion Salve. I put it on my heels last night and the rough, cracked skin was smooth by morning. I should put that on my hands.

Finally, we get up to the switchback portion near the top. This is a lot easier. I take a shot of the granary from the last switchback before climbing up close on the cliff just beneath.

I take a number of shots but the light isn’t as good as when I waited with Willie until sunset was bouncing off the canyon walls onto the river. So I filmed walking along the ledge with my GoPro and also climbing up to where I could see into the granaries. Of course, I am careful not to touch any of the bricks or reach inside the structures. They are protected cultural artifacts.

Last Section of the Switchbacks

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Getting Close to the Granary

Up On the Cliff

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Close Enough to See Inside

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Light's Getting Better

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After we get our sunset shots and the group starts to head down, I ask Adam if he will help me get a shot I saw of his that showed what appeared to be lights inside the granaries.

He says, “Sure, but I don’t want to wait until it is dark. Let’s see if my flashlight is strong enough to be lighter than the ambient light so you can expose to the left and make it look dark.”

“That’s fine with me,” I say, thinking we won’t have to delay dinner so long that way.

The way Adam did his shot, he crept along the cliff face in the dark, shining his flashlight into each of the granary windows in turn, using a long exposure to blur his own body. He said it took him about an hour of experimenting to get all the windows lit and him invisible.

I climbed up the cliff and leaning into the steep face, positioned my tripod with its legs in little ledges in the rock. I set my focus and exposure. Adam handed me his flashlight. I say, “Adam, I promised my wife to come back in one piece. I’m afraid that climbing around on that cliff face would risk breaking my promise. Can’t do it.”

Adam says, “Okay, I’ll shine the light. You make the exposures.”

“Thank you. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Since it is still pretty light out, I will take the shots one window at a time and make a composite, including one without you in the frame at all.”

“Thats fine. Just let me know when you’ve got your shots,” Adam says as he climbs up on the cliff face. As he shines his flashlight into the window, being careful not to actually let the flashlight enter the window, I take my first shot. I realize that he is blocking part of the window frame with his hand and the flashlight.

“That’s good. Now shine one down from the top of the window,” I say. We repeat this procedure for all four windows. By the time we are done, it’s getting pretty dark even though it only took about 15 minutes. I am glad to have both of us off the face of that cliff. Now all we have to do is get back down in the dark. Fortunately, Bugs also waited for us. We each have headlamps but theirs are much brighter than mine. After I slip on a sandy section of granite (fortunately, I hang on to a rock ledge with my hands as my feet skate out from under me), Bugs goes down in front and Adam follows me. I really appreciate them going out of their way just to help me get one shot. I better do well in post processing.

That night from Camp, I take a night sky shot shortly before dawn in the same direction as would be seen from my earlier vantage under the granary. I hope to add that to. my composite.

Totally Worth It!

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During the night, the wind blows into my sleeping bag from the top and chills my neck and shoulders. This time, I reach in my pillowcase and pull out a buff for my neck and a cap for my head. Tomorrow, I think I should put my lightweight hoodie in my pillowcase as well.

Looking up, I can see the Milky Way so I take my shots now. From now on I will place my cot at right angles to the river. If there is going to be a wind, it will follow the river. That way, it won’t be blowing down my neck. I will also keep that hoodie in my pillow case.

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