"The universe had conspired to send me back … "
Trip Report March 9-29 2009 Scott Knies
. . . better late, than never. Some of my favorite posts are other member's trip reports, so I thought I would share this time. The following is an abridged version of a more detailed account I sent to our tribe several days ago . . . but it certainly breaks the "one scroll" code, so you are forewarned.
When I received that email 13 months ago from the Grand Canyon River Permits Office saying I had won a non-commercial permit in the lottery, I knew the universe had conspired to send me back on the greatest adventure under sun and stars. Two buddies immediately signed on to kayak, but otherwise it was difficult to get my circle of friends and river rat buddies to commit to the trip. I invited many, and most deferred, demurred or declined: 21 days was too long; or the late winter launch too cold; or the odious economy too odious; or couldn't get the time off school or work . . . but given the full year notice on the trip, I figured the tribe would come together as it was supposed to.
In the end, we were eight, with one hiker in at Phantom. A vigorous crew of the unemployed, under-employed and self-employed. We even accepted a first-time boatman; and internet-dated another one off the GCPBA list serve, who brought his own 18' cataraft.
I felt comfortable with the internet approach since I was selected as primary boatman through a GCPBA query on a six-person/21 day trip in April 2005 - which turned out to be a complete blast. Two of the folks I met on that ' 05 trip joined this one -- lasting friends thru the list serve! The biggest bonus was my 22 year old son, Kyle, placing his life in Brooklyn on pause for the month of March to do the full trip.
Our flotilla was four rafts and two hard kayaks. The 18' cataraft and three 16' NRS self bailers rented, along with kitchen gear and groovers, from Canyon REO. As a long-time (since 1995) REO customer, I keep coming back for the personal attention that Donnie and Caroline Dove provide. We did our own food shop, buying the fresh stuff in Flagstaff, and Donnie drove over to the Ramada Inn with empty coolers, boxes and cans on a trailer so we could pack all the food up at our own pace in the big parking lot, then he came back over to pick up the loaded trailer and park it safely in his warehouse yard overnight. We were typical of private trips lately, he said, who are doing more picking and choosing of outfitter services in these price conscious times . . . "hybrids" I believe was the descriptor he used, but it could have been "penny pinchers." The gear we did rent and the shuttles were all good and we especially appreciated the conversation, as Donnie himself drove us up to Lee's Ferry and helped put our trip in at the ramp.
We launched March 9 after Ranger Dave briefed us and another private group - 14 from North Carolina outfitted by Ceiba on an 18-day trip. It turned out to be an ass-kicker of a first day for both our groups, as the wind cranked up in the afternoon with punishing up-canyon gusts that didn't let up until next morning. Both our groups got pinned down after the bridge and two foot rolling swells with whitecaps ran against current. The kayaks ditched the rafts, ran Badger, and waited for hours as the boats straggled in. If you stopped a single stroke to scratch your nose, the wind would corkscrew the boat and blow you 20 feet upstream. It was heads down, back into the wind, pull stroke with blisters for two and a half hours to go two miles. Both our private groups were tucked in at Jackass together waiting for respective last rafts to stagger in. It was a brutal introduction to rafting for our first time boatman, who was left (abandoned?) as sweep raft and pushed into the same eddy multiple times . . . but in a testament to his strength and determination, brought the boat down Badger before last light. We shared the windy Jackass camp with the North Carolina folks, who were incredibly friendly and warm. One of the Carolinians was quite an accomplished guitarist, and late that night a few of us were still huddled around the campfire when he sang Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer." Whew, we certainly didn't "come dancing across the water" our first day on Rio Colorado!
The next day was also more of a stumble than a dance. While the wind lied down, we jumped out early on the emerald river and scooted down to House Rock just ahead of the N. Carolina group. Our first time boatman flipped and while the kayakers got him and raft to shore in the eddy, one of the N. Carolina rafts flipped, too, and whizzed on down past us. We were chagrined to find both oar towers and oars were gone from the raft. (Note to self: double check anything a first time boatman or kayaker rigs). We replaced the gear with our spares and waited, but the oars did not reveal themselves, so we pushed on. For a while, we would sheepishly ask other groups that caught up to us if they had found an oar, but it wasn't until 13 days later that a guides training trip -- five OARS rafts in formation bearing down on us like an armada between Upset and Havasu -- and as one of their boats passed our hillbilly raft with no spare oars and a kayak tied on back, the OARS boatman asked, with deadpan perceptiveness, "You missin' an oar?" They had found one, sure enough, in the House Rock eddy. It was a classic Grand Canyon moment, the passing of a lost oar from the pros to the privates . . . kind of like the accomplished big brother bringing the bumbling little brother his mitt after he is already out in center field and the ball is hit his way. Many thanks to that OARS trip, who acted as cool as they looked.
In fact, everyone we met on the river was cool. The sign board at Lee's was not installed, so I am not sure how many trips actually launched around us, but Ranger Dave said it was two privates a day for most of the time before and after us. We saw the Russians and many other trips, and we all bunched up at Deer Creek and below. The Russians finally passed us at Havasu and we stayed the next night with another fun, competent private group at Tuckup (laying over) that reported they saw the dismal shape of the Russian's boats and gave them duct tape, rope, an exta paddle . . . that night the Russians came over to their camp and returned all the supplies, saying, "We have checked our provisions and have determined they are adequate." Then they stayed in camp and played guitar and sang songs in Russian -- and finished off the other group's Yukon Jack. In a "small world" moment we caught up to another trip at Tanner as we pulled in to visit the Cosmik Chair. This trip had launched day after us and passed us at Nanko, as they were on 18 days. Lo and behold, one of their kayakers is the notorious Rok Sribar, who had been on my 1999 Blue Moon trip, his first in Grand Canyon. We caught up to them again at Deer Creek, and since everyone was camped across the way, indulged in some camp sharing, with Rok and his nanny, Spela, hiking over to our fire after dark. Let's just say there were Slovenian polka and Abba songs, too, and our guests spent the night on a severe angle near some overturned chairs. However, Rok was just warming up. Two days later when we pull in at Havasu in the mid-afternoon, there is one raft and Rok's kayak. It is overcast and our group hikes up a ways to enjoy the surreal turquoise water, some of us swimming despite the sun off the creek. When we get back to our boats, still no sign of Rok. We put some rocks in his kayak (tradition) and head down at sunset to First Chance.
Hours later, long after dinner, we see headlamps on the river. It is Rok in his kayak leading a raft. He comes in to say hi to us but their raft can't make (see?) the eddy and sweeps on by in the pitch dark. He, Spela and a boatman had made it up to Mooney Falls and now were going eight miles after dark to catch up with their group at National (they made it). Now that is extreme Grand Canyon boating.
And pitch black is no exaggeration. We had a full moon on March 10, the day after we put on -- so bright you didn't need headlamps. But as the moon began its wane, and disappeared behind the rims, we didn't see it again for weeks, until Mile 222, our last full river day, when a sliver of wax appeared for a couple hours after dusk. The darkness is one of the canyon's most enduring gifts. It is a reminder of its remoteness, and a true measure of wilderness. The black would be draped from horizon to horizon, without a shred of light, except from the stars, in rotation towards spring's bright constellations. The shooting stars came down like contrails, numerous as the bats, who could be heard pinging their lonely sonar during the witching hours. Along with the uninterrupted dark, we fully appreciated our driftwood fires and the no-motor season. Not once did an engine vibrate on the river, and this blessing of in-the-marrow quiet made the occasional aircraft flyover zones that much more noise some, and obnoxious.
The canyon goes through its changes. My last trip was in 2006, and I could see the beaches gone at Nautiloid, Harding, and other places. Twice we watched ducks use our flotilla for evasive maneuvers from peregrine falcons, flying between our rafts (we weren't running real close, maybe 200 feet apart) and then diving underwater, while the peregrine hovered above, then leaving after 10 seconds or so, with the duck emerging after about 30 seconds, quite a distance from where it plummeted in the river, obviously having swum quite a ways underwater. The duck caught its breath, and then flew away from us, alive for another day. Trout were not to be had, although our fishermen did not make it a mission to catch them, especially after the LCR stained the river its namesake. We saw a beaver below Fossil, avocets in lower canyon, a few red ants out early in almost every camp. The biting flies were at Diamond on our take out. The weather was exceptional -- cool mornings, nights with mostly blue, sunny mid-days. One day of soft female rain. Variable winds, as you would expect around the vernal equinox, but really that first day was by far the worse. We were too early for the big spring bloom, although the grasses were velvet green on all the north slopes and the primrose at Parshant Wash were exceptional, perfuming the dunes.
A trip of this magnitude offers many peaks, but the one that stands out for me is our layover day at Tuckup Canyon. Our goal was to find the Shaman's Panel. None of us had hiked Tuckup before. We didn't have a GPS coordinate or a precise map of the panel's location. What we did have was the desire, ropes, a topo map of the side canyon and an early start. Tuckup is a gorgeous place, and as we climbed its limestone ledges, curled through its flash flood scrubbed narrows, passed under its mudstone arches and trudged over its ocean fossil gravels, we decided its diverse grandeur was reward enough whether we found the panel or not. On the way up, we must have been pushing a group of bighorn ahead of us until they cliffed out and doubled back, coming down a ledge and crossing the dry creek right in front of me, then leaping up the other side in a primeval stampede. These were top-of-the-food-chain desert beasts, ripped and sinewy, all with full horn curls. Their expressive equine faces laced with fear as they obviously didn't like getting so close to us, but they moved shockingly fast on the steep rocks and glided up a slope of truck-sized boulders and out of sight in a few, exhilarating seconds. Eventually, we made it out into the high country, and the panel revealed its location to us, a hard to describe roof top canvas of many strange and wonderful images. The pictographs are other worldly, and overwhelming in both number and scope. Several of them, indeed, appear to depict alien beings, either that, or some of the artists had eaten the good peyote. Regardless of the origins, our minds were blown and the six of us who had hiked from the river that morning stood in awe, faintly numb, feeling the power. In an odd monochromatic overcast, we did our photos in the heavy light, and then retreated down from the ledge, where somehow it didn't feel like we were being watched. It had taken five and a half hours to go from river to panel, but none of us had known the way, it could be done faster. We had waded one point in the creek, set ropes in three places, skirted the "murk pool" around a sandstone crack and wriggled through the "birthing hole" rock . . . but on the way down found that alternate routes existed for most tight/steep spots so all the ropes were not necessary. We made it back to camp with daylight to spare, elated from our epic hike, and, bone tired, you know, in needof a layover day to recover from our layover day.
Kudos to each of our tribe members for their immense good vibes. We had grown strong, fused as much by the trials we overcame early in the trip, as by lots of laughter. The canyon, mighty as ever, had commanded the moment, stripped us of the need to think of tomorrow, or dwell on yesterday. If we didn't abide absolute homage to the present, the canyon would administer its lessons on how to pay closer attention. I was surprised at how much I had remembered, but more startled by how much I forgot. It took me, and our tribe, a few days to drop into the rhythm and accept just what the canyon offered. This is not the place to try and fight the currents. The lesson, or reminder, of a GFC trip is: Go with the flow, and let the canyon have its way with you. Once the canyon drills the power of the present in you, it becomes part of your core; it is a reserve you can call upon at any time, no matter the harsh schist, sharp thorns and cold water of civilization.
Two weeks later, I'm still re-living the trip, especially how my youngest son soared, found the routes, rowed the rapids, demonstrated an uncanny ability to find the perfect groover location. In his interactions with other members of the tribe, and with the canyon itself, his natural state of bliss unfiltered and pure, lifted all our spirits along with his own. How could we all just keep getting higher? It was my everlasting honor to get to see the canyon through his eyes, and I cherished each second, and I now see it all more vividly myself. This is every parent's wish, that their children will want to spend time with them . . . and do it in the world's grandest time machine, well, that is as good as it gets, really. Let this report's last words be those sent by Kyle in an email yesterday:
"Reflecting on the trip, my awe and wonder at this whole experience does not seem to diminish, but intensify. I am grateful to you all for being very important parts of it. I have re-entered this urban world where spring is just beginning and the sounds of birds are faint behind the roars of engines and sirens. But to escape, all I need do is close my eyes and I am back on the river, or in my sleeping bag, looking for sun on the rim and hoping the coffee is already made."
Scott Knies April 9, 2009