Rafting The Grand Canyon Part III

Day 7 – Blacktail Canyon to Deer Creek Falls

In the morning, I see lots of tracks all over the campground. I can see that they are fresh because they are sharply overlaid on my wind-obscured tracks from last night.

"What are these tracks?" I ask Kyle.

"Ringtail cats. They were all over the camp last night."

"Didn't seem to bother anything," I say.

We are barely underway when we pull over to river right. “This is Blacktail Canyon,” says Adam. “Bring your wide angle lens and tripod. It’s a very narrow slot with just a few good spots. I’ll lead a fast group to the back. We will start there and work our way back to the front, crossing the rest of you somewhere in the middle. It’s only about a half mile long.”

“Something I want you to notice,” says Bugs “is that the Tapeats Sandstone lies directly on top of Vishnu Schist. You can actually span 1.2 to 1.6 billion years of missing geologic history with your hand. The Vishnu Schist dates back 1.7 billion years ago, a third the age of the Earth, while the Tapeats sandstone dates from 515 million years ago. What happened to all those years of missing rock? Presumably the ancient mountain range that was once here eroded flat over that billion year period. Sedimentary Tapeats, other sandstones and shales of a great inland sea gradually buried the root of those mountains again. Powell called it the missing layers the “Great Unconformity””

I head back with the faster group to the back of the canyon, or at least as far as we can go. There is a small pool beneath a dribble of water on beautifully stained rock. After getting that shot, I work my way back towards the front of the cave.

As I approach the front, I hear the echoes of music off the cave walls. I can't tell what instrument or instruments are playing because of the deep reverberation. As I get closer, I recognize the sound as a violin. Kyle is playing. Music adds a lot to the mood of the canyon. 

Meanwhile, Jacob is carefully picking his way along a Tapeats ledge overhead, carrying a sleeping mat. Looks like a good idea to me. I climb up on a ledge and lay down myself. It doesn't feel much worse than the cot.

End of Blacktail Canyon

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Blacktail Canyon

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Great Unconformity - Tapeats on Vishnu Schist

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Looking Up

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Back on the river, we see a lot of yucca and barrel cactus on the slopes. After a while, Bright Angel Shale starts to appear closer to the waterline.By mid day, we pull onto a little beach towards the right, above a small rapid. On the left side of the river, the rapids is partially blocked by a large boulder. Some of the water flows on the left side. Most of it on the right.

Kyle points at the rock and says "That's Randy's Rock. He got stuck on the left side. It's not good when some feature on the river gets named after you."

The beach has some shade from overlying layers of Tapeats. Adam is taking photos of the grasses by the beach.

Grass At Lunch Spot

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After we pass 128n mile rapid, Kyle says, "John Wesley Powell and his men didn't have a way to measure distance, but they were mountain men and veterans so they knew how to estimate distance pretty well. What they would do is say to each other, "How far do you think it is from this point to that rock?" and they would take all 9 of their guesses and average them together. Fifty years later, the USGS came down and measured more accurately and found that in the whole 277 miles from Lee's Ferry to Pierce Ferry, Powell and his men were only off by a mile, using dead reckoning."


The canyon is getting wider. I see a line of whitewater ahead.

"Bedrock Rapid coming up," says Kyle. "Also known as Dread Rock. There's some big drops in there.  I'm going to spin around and go in backwards."

Somebody says, "Hold my beer."

Kyle approaches very slowly, lining the boat up just so. We pick up speed going over the tongue and head right for a big rock near the middle. I can see that if we went around the left side we would be trapped, wedged between rocks. Kyle guns the engine and turns the tiller just before the back of our boat reaches the big rock. We slide down the cataract on the right side of the rock, spin in a rock lined eddy and come nose first down the rest of the rapid. He makes it look easy.

"That my friends, is a clean run," says Kyle.I am glad to be on flat water again.

Bedrock Rapid

"Frank Galloway was a trapper from Vernal Utah," says Kyle. "He would build a boat in Vernal. Get on the river by himself, go trapping for 4 months all the way down to Yuma Arizona. This was in the 1890's. At the time, it was legal to take pelts in Utah but not in Arizona or California. He would trap all along the way but say he took the pelts in Utah. He'd sell the pelts for $600 and the boat for $10 and take a train back to Vernal.

He is credited with being the first to row down the canyon stern first, facing downriver, though Gordon Lavell was also doing it in 1896 but that wasn't known until his journal was found in the 1950's.

Anyway, Frank Galloway's son Nathaniel was also a boatman. He was in jail in Vernal and the Hatch brothers put up his bail on the condition that he teach them how to rig boats and run the river. That's how the Hatch brothers got started. His son, Parly came on a trip in 1912 with Julius Stone who was a wealthy industrialist with mining interests in the west. That was the very first sportsman's trip. Parly Galloway was the head boatman. Seymour Dubendorf was also on the trip. Dubendorf flipped in the rapid coming up, so it's named after him. Before that we have Galloway Canyon, then Stone Creek named after Julius Stone."

Adam adds, "There was a photographer on the trip named Coswell. Between here and Deer Creek is a butte named after him, Coswell Butte."

Kyle continues, "Dubendorf is a fairly big rapid, also fairly dangerous. I think I have it figured out but I will need you down so I can see my marker rocks."

Dubendorf Rapid is wide with big rocks sticking out and just a narrow tongue out over frothing whitewater. There is a big hole in the beginning which he manages to skirt but then a series of unavoidable waves and a big hole about halfway down. We all get good and wet.

A few miles later, we see what looks like a piano on a shelf of rock above and to the right. "What's the story, Kyle?" I ask.

"Just some river guides being assholes. Park Service makes them take off the keys but they put them back up."

It really looks like a piano.

The river opens up wider and with more sky.

"On the left!"

I turn to see a herd of bighorn sheep on the beach ahead. Kyle slows his motor and I scramble to get out my long lens.

Big Ram on the Beach

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Big Herd

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Here's Looking At You Kid

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After a few more miles, we pull over on the right at Deer Creek Falls. When I was here before, I didn’t spend any time photographing these beautiful, 180 foot falls. I was busy hiking up “Hell’s treadmill trail” to what’s called “Deer Creek Patio”. 

Deer Creek Patio from prior trip

We arrive at Deer Creek "Patio" - it's all worth it.

Since the falls are just a short walk from the river, we had plenty of time to relax and just enjoy the moment. Once back on the river, we soon pulled over on the left and made camp at a wide beach called Football Camp.

Deer Creek Falls From the River

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Deer Creek Falls

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Day 8 – Matkatamiba Cyn to Fern Glen 

“Good morning Graaand Canyooon!” booms Bugs in his usual wake up call. "Coffee is ready."

By now, tearing down camp and packing up has become routine. Breakfast, dishes, visit the groover, wash up, brush teeth, work the bag lines, load the boats - everything is getting easier because I don’t have to think about it so much. The complicated game of what to pack in what order and in what bag is sorted out. I got this.

“We have a lot of river miles to make up again today but Adam has asked if we can try to stop at Mat Kat Canyon,” says Kyle. “No guarantees, but we will give it a try. It has flooded in recent years and the place we usually tie up is now filled with rocks and debris.”

As we proceed, I see the canyon walls dropping lower around us. We are now next to Bright Angel Shale.

Kyle says, "The next rapid is Kanab Creek. During Powell's second expedition, he told his men to wait here while he hiked up the canyon. He was a dictator. That means he was a dick and the rest of them were just a bunch of 'taters.  He was the brains of the group. He was the one got the funding together. That's just how it was. Two or three days later he comes back and says, "OK, we're done." They leave all their gear and just hike out. This goes all the way to Kanab."

Standing in the front position on the boat, I am constantly getting soaked by the rapids and then chilled more by the wind. The boatmen call this "Icebox Canyon" because it is in shade and it's always windy. It's an appropriate name. I am really cold. The air is in the low 50's, just like the river water. The wind chill from 15-20 mile per hour wind is making it a lot colder. I am focusing on deep breathing and relaxation to try to raise my temperature rather than shivering. So far, so good but I am right on the edge.

A short while later, we pull over to the left side of the river at the head of a rapid. Kyle is gunning the motor to keep our nose on the small patch of sand and rock at the mouth of the canyon. Jacob springboards off the front tube and bounds up the Tapeats layers looking for a rock to tie off to. He doesn’t find anything. Turner brings up some pitons and a hammer. We soon are attached to the wall.

Adam says, “Mat Kat is short for a Navajo family name, Matkatamiba. It’s a short but beautiful little slot canyon. We only have about an hour and a half, so make the time count. We will unload the camera bags, take what you need and tie the rest of your gear together, including your personal flotation device. You don’t want that to blow away.”

Tying Off At Matkatamiba

We get out our gear and start up the creek. It is about four feet deep at the first choke point near the river. The sandstone overhanging the pool doesn’t have much to hold on to. Most of the group decides not to attempt it. I have finally learned to wear my gloves on the river and keep them on while hiking, so I have good hand traction. Bugs has gone ahead and he guides me where to grip and gives me support at the spot with the least traction. I make it past that point and head on up, following Adam and a couple of the others. This canyon is worth it. I haven’t photographed anything like this before.

Matkatamiba Canyon

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Matkatamiba Canyon

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Matkatamiba Canyon

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I really appreciate the boatmen humoring us by tying up non such a precarious place just for some photos.Right after we get going on the river again we approach Upset Rapid. “Upset Rapid is a 6 to an 8. It got it’s name from Emery Kolb getting flipped there. Hang on.”

Upset Rapid

After we get through, Kyle continues, “Ellsworth Kolb came out to the South Rim in 1901. A year later he persuaded his brother Emery to join him. They bought out a photography studio in Flagstaff and set up a business photographing tourists on the Bright Angel Trail. They would run down the trail, take the photos and then go back up to the studio on the rim to develop them, selling them to the tourists on their way back. Those guys didn’t have a weight problem.

The Fred Harvey Company saw them as the competition and was constantly trying to get rid of them but the Kolbs had bought the property where they built their studio from the owner of the Bright Angel Trail, so the Harvey company just tried to obscure the view of the Kolb studio and direct visitors to their own studio.

Ellsworth and Emery did a lot of exploring in the canyon, including running the river. They made the first motion picture of the river and toured around the country showing it in theaters. They did a lot to promote the Canyon.”

I notice that we are back to Redwall limestone at water level. A few miles earlier at Matkatamiba, we were still in Tapeats Sandstone. I am reminded when Bugs talked about the Colorado Plateau being pushed up like a cake under a knife. Obviously, the plateau pushed up highest at the deepest part of the canyon. The canyon walls are coming down now and we are coming back up in geologic time towards the present.

So far, we are still in the Permian Epoch.

Back To Redwall Limestone

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Ram on the Left

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Seven miles later, we float past Havasu Creek. The Havasupai tribe no longer allows rafters to park there and hike the creek. I’m glad I did that 5 years ago. Like the Little Colorado, Havasu has beautiful turquoise waters.

Havasu Creek

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Late in the afternoon, we pull over to the right at Fern Glen. After setting up camp, Adam announces a hike up the canyon.

“This is a short hike, less than a mile, but there are areas that require some serious scrambling to get over choke points. If you don’t feel up to it, there is plenty to shoot here by the river.”

The trail starts out well but soon we come to some spots that require rock climbing skills and help from Adam and Bugs. At one point, a couple of 10 to 12 foot boulders are wedged into each other, blocking the way. I can’t get enough traction with my wet sandals on the rock. Adam braces one foot from sliding while I get my hands on top of the boulders. With my feet hanging free, I use my arms to press down to push myself up and on top of the boulders. I’m glad I do pull ups and pushups at home so I can do things like that but I don’t know how I will get down.

The end of the slot canyon is immense. I hope photos can do it justice.

Fern Glen Canyon

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Hiker on Right Gives Scale

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Yes, There Are Ferns in Fern Glen

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And Yes, It Is A Canyon

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Prickly Poppy (Uecnide urens)

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After dinner, I go back to the river and set up a night scape. When every else has gone to bed and turned off their lights, I use my headlamp to illuminate the foreground. The beach makes a nice leading line to the patch of sky between the canyon walls.

Nightscape Up River

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Day 9 – Lava Falls

“Up above on the right is Toroweap Overlook,” says Adam. It's about a 55 mile drive on dirt. Park Service says every car averages at least one flat. It is one of only two 3,000 foot drops in the park. The other one is a place called The Abyss, up on the South Rim." 

I have been wanting to get up there and photograph sunset and sunrise for a couple of years now. The hard part is getting there. The last few miles requires a high-clearance vehicle. I will have to go out with a tour group as my Subaru doesn’t have the clearance. I have all wheel drive and all terrain tires but I can’t handle a bunch of foot tall rocks in the roadway. Ahead I recognize a large black rock in the middle of the river.

“That’s Vulcan’s Anvil,” says Kyle. That lets us know that Lava Falls is one mile away. Guides used to throw money on the rock for good luck. I never did that. "A" because I'm cheap and "B" because I don't believe in luck - at least in good luck.

Lava rated a 10.

You’ll notice that there is a lot of black volcanic rock on the sides of the canyon. There are dormant volcanos on the North side that poured molten lava into the canyon as recently as 900,000 years ago. The lava formed a dam that backed up the water all the way to what is now Moab, Utah. Eventually, the water forced it’s way through. What’s left of that debris is Lava Falls. I know everyone is scared of Lava Falls but I actually swam it using just my personal floatation device. I wanted to know how the current feels and what it would feel like if a guest went overboard. I encouraged all the guides I trained to try swimming at least one of the rapids until the park service forbid it.”

I remember going through Lava with Western River Expeditions. Our boatman kept close to the right wall, avoiding a big hole in the middle of the river. He said that if you went into that hole, you could circulate in the rinse cycle until you drowned because you can’t swim in foam. He said if you fall in and get trapped in a hole, dive for the bottom and the current will suck you out. We all hunker down and grab hold but Kyle handles Lava masterfully and we are through before we know it. Adam says something about being how below Lava means we have to come back and do it all again. That is very unlikely for me. Lovely as it is, I think I have gotten everything I need from my two trips here.

A few miles later, we pass Whitmore Wash, a sandy beach with a helipad on a flat spot by the cliffs. This is where I flew out when I last came down the canyon. Everything from here on down is new. Mostly what I see over the next few hours is that the water is muddier and the river is wider and flatter. There is still a lot of evidence of lava flows on the canyon walls.

When we stop for lunch, I see some beautiful cactus flowers. I try to get them in context with the red rock but the best shots seem to be close ups.

Beavertail Cactus Flower

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Glamour Shot

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We are motoring down the flat water when someone says, “What’s that?” while pointing up.

“Looks like an osprey says one of the photographers who is also a birder. It looks like it caught a fish.”

I am frantically unbuckling my bag, digging out my long lens and attaching it.

“It’s leading us downriver,” says another.

The birder says, “It’s leading us away from its nest. It will circle back soon.”

Sure enough, the osprey circles back. I get in a few quick shots. I hope they turn out.

Osprey With Fish In Claws

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A little while later Adam says, “That’s Pumpkin Springs. Were not going to stop as there really isn’t much to photograph. Plus it is really toxic, full of arsenic and lead. It’s a hot springs in a travertine bowl.”

Pumpkin Springs

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Jacob Jumping Into the River

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We stop for the night at mile 220 and set up camp for the last time. It has been a long day on the river, catching up for the time we spent getting good camp spots at Nankoweap and the Confluence.

After the bag line and setting up camp, I join the others having appetizers. There is not a lot to photograph here so we are just relaxing. The crew cooks steaks on a barbecue and everyone talks about their favorite parts of the trip. Mostly we agree, it is each other’s company. We have been a good group together, helping each other on the hikes, carrying bags or getting shots. Everyone has been very kind to one another.

Adam notes that people are already talking about their favorite foods and activities “above the rim.” Several of us are planning to stay at a hotel partway home.

One guy says, “I will stay in any hotel that advertises “No sand”.”

I could go for that. Just the same, I will miss the camaraderie, the beauty and the daily rhythms of life on the river. I can understand why the river guides do it.

Kyle says, “You know the difference between a park bench and a river guide?”


“A park bench can support a family.”

He continues, “In my life outside the canyon, I am a successful businessman but if someone asks me what I do for a living I say, I’m a Grand Canyon river guide. This is what defines me. I love it here.”

I can understand that.

At dusk I go down to the river to photograph the reflections of stars in the water. I have to wait a while for everyone to go to bed and turn their lights out. Adam joins me for a time. It is lovely.

Stars Reflected In the Water

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Later while lying in bed, the blue hour fades and the sky turns black, revealing impossible hordes of stars. When I wake during the night, I can tell how much time has passed by watching the movement of the constellations. I feel like I am inside a giant clock made of stars, sun, Earth and moon. As I lie on my cot, I feel myself turning in the cosmos, a part of the clockworks. I feel a sense of place and time that is infinite and timeless yet very particularly personal just the same. I will miss this in the city.

Milky Way Rising

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Day 10 – Takeout at Diamond Creek

Our last morning on the river, Kyle says, “You see that pointy mountain up ahead. That’s called Diamond Peak. It got it’s name because a swindler took out a mining claim and told investors in the East that you could pick up diamonds off the ground, there were so many of them. Once he got them to invest, no one heard from him again.

Interesting thing about Diamond Peak. It's the same elevation as Lee's Ferry where we started out. It gives a good representation of just how far down we've come in the last ten days.

We are going to be taking out at Diamond Creek, at the foot of that mountain. It’s on Hualapai land, so we will abide by their rules. You will be taken back to Flagstaff, probably get their before 3:00 in the afternoon. We will be continuing down farther where we will de-rig the rafts, put them on trucks and drive back to headquarters. We will be another 14 hours on the road after we leave you.”

Once off the rafts, the crew starts taking the outer pontoons off and deflating them. Bugs encourages us all to lie on the pontoons to squeeze out more air. Bugs does a belly flop on the pontoon and launches one of the other guys. Two guys then coordinate a jump onto the pontoon that sends Bugs flying. We are all laughing so hard. I will miss everybody and I will cherish the memories as long as I live.

A lot of places get called, “Trip of a lifetime.” This one really is. I feel so fortunate to have done it twice. I hope you get a chance to do it yourself.



Letting Out the Air

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