Before the Canyon - Double Alcove Arch, Horseshoe Bend, Paria Ghost Town and Upper Antelope Canyon
After signing up, I was nervous about the rapids. I had never done white water rafting before and the Grand Canyon has the biggest, roughest whitewater in all of North America. I had thought about this trip decades earlier and thought that I should get some experience on the American River or some other river with rapids rated 2-3 instead of 5, but I didn’t want to delay another year. My good friend and fellow photographer Gary said I was “Out of my mind” to go down the Colorado without prior experience. After all, once you get on the boat, there is no turning back or getting off.
Rocks on the river bottom create peaks or standing waves as high as 12 feet tall, with corresponding drops. I mentioned to my friend Anna that I had butterflies in my stomach thinking about the trip. She said, ”Isn’t it wonderful that you have something that gives you butterflies in your stomach at this stage of life.” Thanks, Anna. That put it in perspective.
The usual Western River trips down the canyon are 6 or 7 days. Willie Holdman had arranged for Western River Expeditions to allow 8 days so we would have more time for side trips and photography. I didn’t know Willie before this trip, but I soon learned of his reputation as one of the best nature photographers in Utah. http://www.willieholdman.com/ He has led trips down the Grand Canyon for many years. For those of us driving, the plan was to meet at the Marble Canyon Lodge the night before the trip. Western River Expeditions was flying half the group from Las Vegas the following morning.
Since I was making a 7 hour drive out from Los Angeles, I decided to spend one night in Zion and one in Kanab before continuing to Marble Canyon. I thought it would be nice to explore some red rock country to acclimate for the raft trip.
I made it to Springdale in time for dinner at Three Amigos (excellent Mexican food) and checked in to the Bumbleberry Inn. For those who don’t know, Springdale is at the Western mouth of Zion canyon. It’s a great little town, complete with a number of good restaurants and a good health food store, Sol Foods. It was raining when I awoke the next morning, so I drove back towards St George and then North on the 15 to the Kolob Canyon turnout. There I hiked the Taylor Creek trail to Double Alcove Arch. The trail is 2.2 miles each way, but follows (and frequently crosses) a creek, so the elevation change is minimal.
Double Alcove Arch
Leaving Zion the next morning, I passed through Mt Carmel Junction, Kanab UT and Page AZ. Just South of Page, I pulled off, parked and took the half mile hike to Horseshoe Bend. The weather could not have been better. Beautiful puffy clouds in a blue sky to complement the red rock and river below.
On the way back towards Kanab, I stopped at the dirt road leading to an old ghost town called Pahreah. It had been raining the night before, so the road was really muddy. I saw some tracks about six inches deep in the mud and decided to try it, driving in the previous tracks. I was concerned because the red mud was really slick and the sun was already touching the horizon. I had heard it was approximately 5 miles out to the ghost town. If I became stuck, I figured I could walk back out to the highway. The only remains that I could find of the old Mormon settlement of Pahreah was a graveyard. There was also a modern outhouse and a few picnic benches installed by the Park Service. I think the old ghost town buildings and the movie set may have been washed away in floods of the Paria river.
Soft mud on the road
Striped rock reflections
Leaving Kanab the next morning, I stopped at Upper Antelope Canyon and signed up for the next tour. I had timed my arrival to get a late morning tour, hoping for shafts of light coming down through the canyon. I was not disappointed.
Antelope Canyon (both Upper and Lower) are on Navajo land. No one can enter these canyons without a Navajo guide. The upper canyon is about a mile from the visitor parking lot, necessitating a rough ride up a soft sand canyon in an open pick up truck.
Fortunately for me, my guide was a young Navajo woman who really had the shafts of light dialed in. The canyon is short, extremely crowded with tourists and choking with dust because the photo guides throw dust in the air to illuminate the shafts of light. Knowing this, I had completely wrapped my camera and lens up to the lens cap in a zip lock bag and duct tape (I have since switched to a rubber band to seal the lens end of the camera instead of duct tape). I also wore a buff to cover my mouth and nose.
My guide had me (and two others) running up and back to various spots in this short canyon, just in time to set up my tripod and camera and get ready for the shaft of light. This is harder than it seems because the light shafts appear at different times of day throughout the year. Even she was pleased at the number of times she succeeded in timing it right. For more on Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, see my blog post here.
Leaving Page I proceeded down Hwy 89 off the plateau and then right on 89A at Bitter Springs. It was early April and the wildflowers along the road (mostly Apricot Mallow and Phacelia) were lovely, as were the Vermillion Cliffs in the background.
Road to Marble Canyon
Nelson's Globe Mallow
After checking in at Marble Canyon Lodge, a few of us met for dinner in the hotel restaurant (there are no other choices). Willie said we should gather before dawn if we wanted to shoot some beautiful rock formations in the early light.
Hoodoo in the morning before trip
After breakfast, we gathered and met our guides, Newty and Ben. They said that we were delayed because the group coming out of Las Vegas was delayed. Turns out the tiny airfield next to the parking lot across the street from our hotel had been restricted by the FAA for a few hours, I think because the airfield had upgraded something the day before. No matter, Wille said to follow him and we piled into a few cars and drove a short distance downstream to 3 Mile Wash to do a little more photography. While there, we saw a snake catch and eat a Gila Monster.
Willie above 3 Mile Wash
Vermillion Cliffs in the morning
Snake catching a Gila Monster
When the Las Vegas group arrived, we headed upriver to get oriented, load and board our raft. The place we put in is called “Lee’s Ferry”. Before Navajo Bridge was built, it was the only place to cross the Colorado for hundreds of miles. Newtie gave each of us a duffle size “dry bag” to load with all our clothes, toiletries, camera bags with lenses, etc and a small dry bag to store things we want to access while the raft is moving. Every one was also given their own plate and silverware for the duration of the trip and a plastic Western River water cup to use and take home. Water and lemonade were always available on the raft. For our duffle bags we were given a sleeping bag for the duration of the trip. Tents and cots were also available each night. When I booked the trip, I had asked for an extra long cot as I am 6’3”. I was glad I did.
Newt explained how riding on the front tubes of the raft give a rougher ride than sitting on or behind the bench in the middle. There are five big blue rubber tubes that make up the raft. Three people could straddle each of the middle three tubes (9 people total). The person farthest to the front gets bounced the highest as we go over the waves. He gave each of us a life vest and made sure that we were each wearing ours properly snug. He made sure each of us had a glove for at least one hand to hold on to the ropes that lash the raft together when we are actually running the rapids. He said that no one had ever gone overboard on a Western River raft but he didn’t want any of us to be first.
Newty and Ben by the way, turned out to be excellent guides, cooks and river men. They seemed to know every rock in the river by name. They knew how to approach each rapid and get through it safely. The made amazing meals. When we were hiking, one of them might help carry a tripod over a difficult section or offer a food bar just when you needed one. It was kind of like having Daniel Boone as a butler.
Lee's Ferry - Ready to load and go
Day 1 On The River
The first feature we passed that day was Navajo Bridge, where highway 89A crosses over the Colorado river near the Marble Canyon Lodge. We could see condors flying by the bridge but they were too high to get a good shot. The rapids that day were relatively small. I found them fun. I actually stood on the tubes in front of my bench seat and used my legs to steady the camera as I shot video. On the larger rapids, Newtie told me to sit down as I might get my foot pinched between the bench and the tubes. Throughout the trip, Newt told us about the geology, what to expect at the next rapid, etc. while Ben held the tiller in the back. Ben guided us masterfully through the rapids, at one point entering a rapid backwards so we could spin in just the right way to get around a large rock. Both the men taught high school when they weren’t working as river guides.
We spent our first night on a sand bar beside the river. It didn’t look like a campsite to me but I soon learned that all campsites looked like that – just a little patch of sand or rock beside the river. The first thing we did at every landing was to form a “fire line” - to pass everything off the raft and onto the land. All of our duffles, tents, bag of cots, propane tanks, water, stoves and tables – everything was passed from one person to another off the raft and up the beach. I quickly found that I was one of just a couple of people who could balance on the rubber tubes while catching, turning and passing heavy bags to the next person. I thank Pilates for giving me control of my abdominals. At one point Willie (who is quite athletic) said to me, “I would feel better if you’d balance on two tubes instead of just one.”
While Newtie and Ben set up the kitchen and began making dinner, we were given our cots and tents so we could each set up our sleeping area while it was still light.
Once the food was cooking, our guides would also set up a “bathroom” up a short trail through the bushes or behind a rock. The bathroom was a portable toilet seat and tank, with a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer. An oar was set up at the start of the trail to the bathroom. The protocol is that when you go to the bathroom, you take the oar with you and return it when you are done. If the oar is at the trailhead, the toilet is available. If you forget to return the oar to the trailhead, you can make make a lot of people uncomfortable. The toilet was only to be used for solid waste. To urinate, we were instructed to pee directly into the river. Men and women were instructed to use pee upstream or downstream of camp depending on gender. The women’s side was always hidden from view of camp. Before eating, everyone was instruced to wash their hands using a foot-pump faucet and soap. At the end of each meal, everyone was responsible for washing and drying their own dishes. Thorough as always, Newtie made sure everyone knew how to properly clean themselves and their dishes. He said he didn’t want to deal with anyone having diahrrea on the trip.
Toilet with a view
While tents were available, I only used one the night it rained. The rest of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the night sky. Grand Canyon is one of the darkest places in the United States. The Milky Way was easily visible every night. I later learned to leave my camera focused, set on it’s tripod and ready to go beside my cot. Whenever I awoke in the night, I would just lean over, take off the lens cap and press the shutter. That was glorious.
Day 2 Vassey’s Paradise, Redwall Cavern, Saddle Creek Falls and Nankoweep Grainary
The next morning, we rode past a cliff that was spouting water from several seeps and supporting an abundance of vegetation. John Wesley Powell had named this Vassey’s Paradise after his botanist friend, George Vassey.
Just a little further down, we saw a huge alcove in the cliff ahead. Most of the trip we didn’t see anyone else, but at this location there were three rafts pulled up to the alcove and as we approached, we heard a man with an operatic voice sing the Star Spangled Banner. His voice echoed off the cliffs. It was breathtaking. Everyone on our raft and the other rafts applauded.
Redwall Canyon from the back - it could fit 2,000 people
After leaving Redwall Cavern, we rode a number of rapids which were now feeling fun rather than scary. At one point, Willie came to me and said he didn’t think we would have time to see both Saddle Creek Falls and the Nankoweep Granary. I told him that the granary was one of the main shots I hoped to get this trip. He said he’d try to figure out how to get both. When we stopped for lunch at the Saddle Creek Falls trailhead. Willie said, “Anyone willing to skip lunch to get a shot of Saddle Creek Falls, follow me.” I figured I could have lunch another day, so I followed him up the trail with three other guys from our group, including Newtie.
I should point out that Willie lives at altitude, skiis, mountain bikes and can climb up a rock face like a mountain goat. He took off and I tried my best to catch him. He was waiting for me at a small (about 10 foot tall) waterfall. I was pleased to get there about 20 minutes before the next in our party. Climbing the waterfall though was something I had never done in my life. In fact, I had never done any rock climbing at all. Willie went up to the top and gave me step by step instructions - “Reach your right hand up, there is a little shelf. Now wedge your left foot into that crack. Good. Reach your left hand up behind that overhanging rock and pull" and so on until I reached the top. I was thrilled. I had never done anything like that before.
Willie on top of small waterfall
I couldn't have climbed it without help
We then walked the short way remaining to Saddle Creek Falls. Unfortunately, bright sun was on one half, while deep shade was on the other. We would have to wait. No sense in wondering if we could have had lunch. The other guys arrived. Wille and Newtie helped them up and they joined us in waiting. Finally the light was right and we got our shots.
Saddle Creek Falls
On the way down, Newtie took my tripod and guided my feet to the best wet but secure footholds. I was so elated that I made it down safely, I lengthened my stride slightly as I walked down the slick wet granite below the falls. Before I knew what had happened, I was hitting hard on my right hip with my full weight including my backpack. I figured that the granite was a lot harder than my hip bone, so I probably did a telescoping fracture of the neck of the femur. I lay there for a moment assessing my pain and thinking about how Newtie had said we were so deep in the canyon that even satellite phones don’t work. It’s about a mile and a half to the river. I’d better start. To my surprise, when I stood I was able to bear my weight. I tested my range of motion and found I could bear my full weight on that leg! I was delighted and gave thanks for the Vitamin D and K2 that I had been taking.
Place I fell on the way back
Trail back down to the raft
When we got back to the raft, everyone was packed and ready to go. We went through several other rapids and pulled up to a broad beach at wide spot in the river. Willie pointed up across a rocky slope to the high cliffs above and said, “That’s the Nankoweep Granary”. After unloading the raft, I picked up my pack and began hiking up the trail to the granary. I hustled to get up quickly as the sun had gone over the cliffs but when I got there, Willie pointed out the the best light was yet to come. I had my tripod set up on the trail next to the cliff where the granary is set when Willie clambered up the cliff face and showed me a better vantage. I handed up my tripod to him and climbed up as well.
Starting up towards Nankoweep Granary
Switchbacks leading to the granary
When I say cliff, I was only about six feet above the trail and it wasn’t completely vertical. I had toe holds about an inch wide for each of my feet and I could lean into the cliff with the rest of my body. I managed to get my tripod set into cracks in the rock and my camera settings ready. I then waited in that position for about 45 minutes as the light from the setting sun reflected off the left walls of the canyon and illuminated the river below. I set the aperature at f 16 so I could get sharp detail on the stonework a few feet away and reasonable sharpness on the cliffs a mile away. While I was waiting, I could see the raft below and imagine the meal that everyone else was having. I learned a lot from Willie on that trip about waiting for the light. I also learned to keep a powerbar in my pocket.
Raft (and dinner) at the tiny blue dot by the river far below
Nankoweep printable shot
Day 3 Little Colorado and Lava Chuar
When I awoke the next morning, I felt like I had slept in a barrel of rocks. I was exhausted, sore all over and thoroughly alive. I walked into the river, threw some water in my face and whooped, “I feel good!” in my best James Brown imitation. I said to one of the other guys, ”If I die today, tell my wife I have no regrets. I feel younger, stronger, more powerful and alive than at any time in my life.”
Our first stop that morning was the confluence of the Colorado with the Little Colorado river. The Colorado river is red (Spanish for Color Rojo or Color Red). The Little Colorado is a beautiful pale blue because the high Calcium content of the water precipitates out on the bottom to form a thick white coating that reflects the sky like a white bottomed swimming pool.
The mouth of the Little Colorado is a spring that three native tribes regard as the place where humans emerged from the underworld. It is a sacred place. Developers want to put hotels there with an escalator to the confluence at the bottom. !@#$%^&*!
A treat of that stop was that we hiked a little way upriver with our life jackets on and jumped into the water to ride a small rapid. It was utterly delightful, especially since we hadn’t bathed in a few days.
Chuckwalla beside the Little Colorado
Underwater tub in the Little Colorado
That afternoon, we stopped for lunch and made camp for the night at Lava Chuar Creek. After lunch, we all took naps, then hiked up the canyon to do a little photography before dinner.
After dinner, several of us went downstream a short way to photograph the river at dusk and full dark. One of my favorite shots is from this spot while the setting moon is illuminating the far side of the canyon. The clear, dry air with no light pollution allows us to see Jupiter and a lot of stars despite the moonlight.
Lava Chuar night
Camp at night
Day 4 All Rapids
On this day, I decided to pack my camera and ride the front of a blue tube. I thought, “I’ll likely never be here again. I might as well get the full experience.” For that reason, I don’t have any photos of this section, but I do have a lot of memories.
The rating system on the Grand Canyon is different from other river rapids. The Grand Canyon section of the Colorado rapids are described using a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 roughly equating to 5 on the traditional scale. Since this is the only rapids I have ridden, I think of them in the scale that was introduced to me on that trip. The day I rode the front tube had a number of 7’s, 8’s, 9’s and 10’s.
It was a wild day but I found I could stabilize myself using my abdominals and pelvic muscles to stay level through most (not all) of the rapids. Most of the other passengers were flopping like fish, front, back side to side, whipped violently one way and another. One other guy was staying level like me. He was a rancher from Oklahoma. Between rapids I commented to him that he seemed to be using his abs to stabilize his ride. He said, “It’s just like riding a bull. You know a horse only bucks front to back. A bull kicks and twists, lunges sideways and bucks any which way.”
I said, “Have you ridden a bull?”
“Hell yeah! Many times. It’s just like this.” The big ones that day included Unkar, Hance, Sockdolager, Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, Crystal and the Gems.
Day 5 Elves Chasm and Blacktail Canyon
Elves Chasm is a beautiful oasis in the red rock desert. A series of waterfalls and pools are lined with wildflowers in stunning contrast to the surrounding red rock. At one point, Willie and the youngest member of our group jumped off a ledge beside the waterfall into the pool.
Elves' Chasm printable
I didn’t have any dry clothes handy, so I skipped that adventure.
We next floated down to Blacktail Canyon. The creek that formed it was dry but there were a few pools we could use for reflections. There were also a few cactus in bloom, so I stayed behind and photographed them. By the time I got back to the raft, lunch was nearly over. I grabbed a sandwich but didn’t put on my water repellent over-pants and coat as the bags had already been stowed. Shortly after we got underway, a storm came up the canyon, pelting us with rain and wind-driven 40 degree water from the river. I was quickly soaked and shivering. The Oklahoma rancher was in a similar fix. For the next hour and a half we both turned blue and shook. I just hunkered down and tried to survive. I later told Newtie, "I was fixing to die". When we reached a spot we could land, I lurched off the raft and, flopped down and burried my arms and legs in the warm sand before joining joining the fireline. One of the other photographers and I set up a tent, cots and sleeping bags. Even though it was early afternoon, I changed into dry clothes, got in my bag and fell asleep. When I awoke, the rain had stopped and it was dinner time. Newtie and Ben had cooked up salmon, asparagus and mashed potatoes. I ate two full plates. Afterrwards, I did a timelapse of the canyon from just above the campground.
Cactus by Blacktail Canyon
Campsite after the storm
Day 6 Deer Creek Falls and Havasu Creek
Our first stop the next morning was Deer Creek Falls. It is a splendid 200 foot waterfall very close to the river. Next to it is a trail that Newtie warned “Has a very steep vertical we call Hell’s Stairmaster. There is also a section with a little exposure.”
"What does that mean?" Somone asked. Newt said, “The trail is about a foot wide and there is an 80 foot drop into a slot canyon. If you fell into the creek at the bottom of the slot, you’d be flushed over these falls."
Well, I thought. I’ve come this far. I will at least hike up to the top.
Deer Creek Falls
Top of "Hell's Stair Master"
At first, the trail along the edge didn’t look that bad. When I got to the narrow section, I looked ahead and saw Willie and two other guys at the waterfall. I decided if they could do it, I could. Willie called the area “Deer Creek Patio”. It was absolutely beautiful. The creek cut through a flat shelf of sandstone above a little waterfall. The creek was narrow enough to jump over. Before I did, I took off my pack, kneeled and put my face in the creek. The icy water felt incredibly refreshing.
Path to Deer Creek "Patio"
Don't look down!
Finally, Deer Creek "Patio"
Deer Creek Patio
On the way back out, I paused to take a photo of handprints on the ledge by the skinny section of trail. A little further on, the trail became more narrow and I realized that my point of balance was very narrow as the canyon wall projected slightly out over the drop. I dug my fingernails into the sandstone and just told myself to keep moving and not look down. I have since had nightmares about that spot.
View back down to the raft
Later that afternoon, after running a few more rapids, we tied up just below the confluence of Havasu Creek with the Colorado. The creek joins at a rapids, so Newtie and Ben tied the raft to the rocks and instructed all of us to keep our life vests on when going ashore. This was to ensure our survival if we fell off the raft or the trail above Havasu Creek.
The trail above the creek was narrow but beautiful. After hiking up the creek a short distance, we crossed over to the other side and continued about a mile. Like the Little Colorado, Havasu Creek has a lot of Calcium in the water which coats the bottom making a lovely sky blue reflection in the creek. We camped that night on a ledge in a narrow section of the canyon.
Raft tied at Havasu Creek confluence
Climb onto the rocks
On the trail above Havasu Creek
Trail above Havasu Creek
Day 7 National Canyon
The next morning, we stopped for lunch at National Canyon, one of the many named side canyons within the Grand Canyon. We hiked up the creek that carved it and looked for reflections in the pools. After lunch and more rapids, we camped at a beach with a wide section of flat water near the shore. We were instructed to clean ourselves up and wear our best clothes for dinner. During the afternoon, I gathered tips from the other guests and presented them to Newtie and Ben. I recall thinking I wished that I had brought more money than the 5% tip that Western River recommended. Those guys not only got us downriver safely, they made the trip fun and and the food delicious. That night was a feast. Newtie played tunes on a small guitar and we sang songs into the late evening.
The day started relaxed
Deep, narrow and old - the Great Unconformity
As the canyon cuts deeper into the rock, it takes us back in geologic time until it eventually exposes the Vishnu Schist. At nearly two billion years old, this is some of the deepest, oldest exposed rock on the planet. Oddly, the layers of sedimentary rock immediately on top of the Vishnu Schist are "only" hundreds of thousands of years old. Over a billion years of geologic history is missing. John Wesley Powell called this "The Great Unconformity".
Scientists now believe that the Vishnu Schist was part of a massive upwelling of magma that lifted the ancient supercontinent of Pangea five or six kilometers above sea level. The resulting weather changes led to massive amounts of carbon getting trapped in the ocean, leading to global cooling (the exact reverse of the rising CO2 levels leading to global warming today). This produced a billion years of "snowball Earth", where the entire planet was frozen to the point that the equatorial ocean was under six feet of ice.
During the warming period that melted all that ice, mountains of rock eroded and washed out to sea, exposing the Vishnu Schist. This allowed much more recent layers of sedimentary rock to be deposited on the Vischu Schist, leaving over a billion years of rock layers missing. This is the current understanding of the Great Unconformity. All of these layers of stratified rock are on display as you float down the canyon.
Last night on the river
Day 8 Lava Falls and Whitmore Wash
An interesting geological feature of this part of the canyon is the alternating bands of black feldspar and pink marble. This formed when volcanic eruptions on the North side of the canyon filled the canyon with lava, blocking the flow of water and creating a lake all the way back to near where Moab Utah is now. The cooling lava stratified to form the crystalline bands of pink marble. I was amazed to learn that this happened only 900,000 years ago. Compared to the billions of years of rock visible in the canyon, that was a blink of the eye.
That morning was our last on the river. I hated to leave the timeless flow of life on the water but we were scheduled to meet a helicopter at Whitmore Wash, or as Ben called it, “Whitmore International Airport”. First though, we had one more rapid to run – the biggest of them all – Lava Falls. By this point, I was looking forward to rapids. I loved the feeling of engaging my abdominals to balance myself against the movement of the raft. I imagine that’s part of the pleasure of horseback riding, merging with the movement of the horse. While Lava Falls had huge standing waves and big drops, Ben managed the raft so masterfully, we were through it in a few moments and not completely soaked.
A little ways farther, we pulled over to the South Side of the river at a place that looked no different than hundreds of similar places before it. Newtie announced, "This is where we unload all our gear." About 50 feet above the waterline was a flat round area in the sand, perhaps 20 feet across. Within a half hour, a helicopter came into view over the ciffs on the far side of the canyon. We stood back and covered our faces as dust flew up during the landing. The rotors kept turning as a group of remarkably clean people hurried out of the chopper with their duffle bags. Eight of us ducked and ran into the helicopter, carrying our gear. The whole transfer took under three minutes. Our group of 15 went out in two flights, while the new group of rafters came in to take our places. Before the other group disembarked, Newtie said, “Don’t tell them anything about the trip. Let it all be new for them.” I think that was the right call. Their cleanliness and our experience made us foreign to each other. The helicopter took us to a small airport and ranch on the North rim, where we had a chance to shower and have sandwiches before boarding a small plane back to Marble Canyon. The ranch, helicopter and plane all belong to Western River Expeditions and are part of the fee for rafting down the river. Western River does a first rate job from beginning to end. Once back at Marble Canyon, I got in my car and drove to Page where I picked up my wife at the airport. Together we drove on to Zion for a few relaxing days together. What an experience! I can’t recommend a Western River Expeditions Grand Canyon Adventure highly enough. Travel brochures frequently use the phrase “trip of a lifetime.” This really was.
"Whitmore International Airport"
Looking down from the helicopter
Below is a short compilation of video footage I shot on the river, set to my original music. I hope you enjoy it.