What happens when you take 16 old dudes- mostly, 15 long kayaks (plus one short raft), and 12 days to traverse 225 miles through one of the planet’s seven wonders in January? Solidarity, belly laughs, recharging of pandemic weary batteries, and the sore and bruised muscles and egos that go with the feat.
It was a Facebook post that hooked me into the trip: “Still have spots on the annual Grand Canyon self-support kayak trip”, read the message from my old friend and paddling partner, Woody. I’d always wanted to join one of these adventures over the past 15 or so years they’d been happening. Work, family, and a reluctance to commit to the forty-degree water and long shadows of a winter Grand trip kept me from pursuing a spot. Now, with my kid recently off to college, retirement from one of several jobs (a requirement for survival in a Colorado mountain town), along with the Wim Hoff Polar Bear Plunge training I’d been doing, made the timing seem right. “Love to go if you’ll have me”, I posted back. “You’re in”, was the quick response. Yeah!
I identified a proper craft and began the process of ciphering the right combo of gear, food, and waste disposal system (everything you carry in, even that once inside the body, must be carried out) to wedge into a skinny, 12.5’ kayak. While no stranger to Grand trips- this making an even dozen, 3 of which were self-support-kayak, spread over 40 years- one forgets what not to bring. My wife was only mildly amused when I parked a boat in our den and began packing and unpacking, searching for the right combo of gear needed and suited to the boat’s contours: one set of paddling cloths, one for shore; required National Park Service items (first-aid kit, poop-tube, signal panels, break-down paddle); tent, pad and sleeping bag suited for below freezing temps and potential snow, rain, wind and hail, which can hit anytime on a winter trip; food, compact yet tasty, to keep fueled for twelve days of long miles and low temps; and high impact, small footprint spirits for warming around evening fires.
Loaded and rolling, I had the luxury of a short five-hour drive unlike the bulk of the group coming from Southeast US locations. First to arrive, Lee’s Ferry launch site was mine alone in the morning. Feet up on a packed kayak I sipped coffee and contemplated the next 12 days of paddling through layers of geology and time and the new folks I’d get to know in that special expedition/ brotherhood way. The group ranged from 17 to 72, skewed to the 50+ end of the age scale. Old, by most adventure standards, but paddlers, especially those who have stuck with it over the decades, are a particular animal with testosterone and other fear controlling chemical pumps hearty and thick from years of use and abuse. Like aging endurance athletes with oversized hearts “keeping with it” becomes an addiction of sorts. All those hours of conditioning are subject to FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) when use it or lose it is reality. Harnessing the primal fear anxiety of being trapped underwater where no breathing is allowed and staying calm in the white room of big rapids requires practice. Chucking old guys down some of America’s biggest whitewater in 150-pound kayaks is akin to asking Scott Hamilton to step out of the announcer’s box and show us his Triple Salchow! Falling (swimming) is bound to happen when coming directly out of the booth.
As the group assembled, with quick introductions made between those who were strangers, the beach exploded with boats, paddles, life jackets, food, and a hive of activity, as the never-ending process of stuffing, rolling, clipping, fiddling and packing of gear- prelude of mornings to come- commenced. Two Park Service Rangers made an appearance instructing us to pile the mandatory stuff- PFD’s, first-aid, camp toilets, spare paddles- for inspection. Every zipper, clip and seam were scrutinized to ensure meeting government (and individual Ranger a-retentiveness) standards. Serious stuff taken extremely seriously by well armed bureaucrats. An often thankless job for which we should thankful. They help keep Grand Canyon safe and tidy. Inspections complete, we were instructed to meet Ranger J Jackson 9am sharp next morning, launch beach, for pre-trip talk and strip-search cavity inspection.
With boats loaded heavy that first day, we made our way to the Ranger Jackson’s deadpan sermon. Identities were confirmed with his holding a drivers license up in left hand, right resting casually on holstered Sig Saur .45, eyes scanning above black American Flag bandana between ID and the dirtbag facing him. As he gave my old mug the full assessment all I could think was that he could be the “Ax-Murderer” in a Hillman novel. He held a clipboard with a full 4” thick stack of disheveled, dog-eared, worn out sheets. “Gonna go through these 228 pages of regulations in detail before I let you go, so listen up”. It wasn’t until about 2/3’s through his dissertation that I understood he was doing a stand-up routine. These were jokes! He was waiting for the laughs. His delivery was so crispy-dry it left us cotton-mouthed and confused. As time polishes the script we may see a future JJ at a Flagstaff open mic night. “It’s all in the delivery” I counseled as we headed to our boats for that first morning of cold water, overweight kayaks, and hefty swell.
The first strokes down the unnaturally green clear water spit from turbines near the bottom of Lake Powell feels ungainly on self-support trips when your boat is stuffed with maximum food and full beers wedged in in-between spaces. Especially when one hasn’t paddled moving water in months. I always feel a bit of trepidation in those initial miles. Can I move this barge around, keep loose, stay upright, miss that hole in the first real rapid, Badger Creek? Per usual each mile brought more familiarity and confidence. As the horizon line at mile 8 appeared I felt sure about avoiding the hole if not still a bit edgy bracing through the ten-foot waves on the center-left line. I eddied out near the bottom to watch and play safety as the group came through. “Swimmer!”, someone called, as I saw an upside-down kayak coming my way. Dang! Early but not unexpected. Those initial miles are tricky for everyone. You hope for the group confidence that comes with running the first rapids successfully. Two more swims on day one had me a little concerned. Swimming in that cold water, even with a tight drysuit, is exhausting for the individual and time consuming for the group. When one guy swam twice in the first ten miles I questioned our 25 mile a day schedule and recalibrated for potentially longer harder days of cleaning up yard sales. The upside was efficiency of rescues and the doggedness of swimmers. Right back in the boat, determined, if a bit shaky, they bounced back impressively.
Swimming: the kayak roll- righting an overturned boat- is what makes running hard whitewater possible. The first half, flipping over, is the easy part. The second is another story. You are dealing with primal fear. Being “trapped” in a small space without air kick starts some absolutely animal instincts, all of which are the exact opposite needed. First, one must remain firmly in the boat and calm while the reptilian medulla is screaming “abort!”; second, one needs to wrap around the boat and bring the paddle parallel to the water’s surface as the hands are itching to “pull the rip cord” (the grab loop of the sprayskirt which keeps you in and water out) to bail from an oxygen free zone; third, one must gently sweep the paddle while driving head down and snapping the boat flat with hips while the brain stem is instructing to find air by pushing head up with brute force and pulling paddle down. It takes a lot of practice and kinesthetic repetition to overcome the bad cerebellum beta. It ain’t easy! Especially with waning flexibility of senior hips. When we can’t excecute the three stages of failure follow: carping- stretching lips to the surface while boat remains upside down; bailing- twisting painfully from the boat with thigh bruises and skinned shins; and finally, the humiliating Michael Phelps stage.
All kayakers feel that it’s no big deal when your buddy swims; “it happens to all of us; we are all in between swims; it can happen to anybody”. When we do it ourselves, whole different story. Shame, chagrin, embarrassment, and self-reproach seem standard for us ego sensitive bootie and skirt clad creatures. As much as we fear the idea of side-stroking through Lava Falls you’d think we’d spend a minute or two practicing before heading into the wild. No, we’ll risk a swim of shame to avoid the cold head and possible confidence-draining stigma of a missed practice attempt in a calm pool with a friend at the ready to assist. Go figure! We humans are a quagmire of contradictions, complacency. Besides, the truth is, other than an assault on the Id swimming in the Grand is not really that dangerous. Usually!
We regrouped below Badger, navigated a few riffles, successfully ran the mid-level difficulty Soap Creek and camped below stout House Rock rapid on that first day. Seventeen miles, a little bruised, but feeling like a solid and united crew. It only takes one sideways personality to skew good group dynamics, especially when conditions are a bit harsh with mind and bodies a tad fatigued. This was a good headfirst Posse. Camp was noisy beside the rapid but wood was plentiful in an eddy below. In winter, campfires are allowed in the Canyon, unlike other seasons, and House Rock had an abundance of fuel to pile in our firepan. Coupled with ample beers of the first days that we were anxious to lighten from boats to brains made for a good evening. By 9 pm we were all friends of the highest magnitude ready to take a bullet for a brother. A good start. A fine day one.
We were still finding the rhythm that next morning. Up with the early pink light, coffee, breakfast, shaking off frost and stuffing of tents and bags, mastering nature’s call and the management and stowage of results. Then, re-packing gear and the inevitable forgotten item that must go into a bag already stowed deep; unpack, unclip, re-roll, re-stuff. And so the cycle continues as we figure out individual “systems”. Next comes the careful dressing in layers and finding the perfect balance of warmth through the flats without too much sweating when terrain requires hard paddling; the zipping into drysuits, PFD’s, helmets and hand warming pogies. Eventually we wiggle stiff bodies into kayaks and launch to deep shadows and forty-degree water of the Big Ditch. Buck Farm Camp (Buck Horn?) was the goal, 24 miles downstream. Cold waves in faces had us fully awake by the time we hit the Roaring Twenties Rapids- 21, Indian Dick, 23.5, Georgie, 24.5, Hansbourough, 27. We paddled past summer hike side canyon Silver Grotto and Vasey’s Paradise and took lunch at the deep alcove and giant beach of Redwall Cavern. Short days and cool shadows keep a group moving on winter trips. Opposite of summer when you might search for a long nap on wet shady sand, winter means soaking up frugal sun spots when offered and a steady pace toward camp before old Sol sets. We made Buck Farm (Buck Horn?) on schedule.
Before launch, back at Lee’s Ferry, like any good group of aging athletes, we took bets against our greatest fear- “how many swims?”. Money was pooled. The line was: 3 or Under; Even 4; Over. My previous group confidence, betting on Under, was shaken on day one. We still sat at 3 pushing off that third morning. Maybe the swims were done. Tough old birds and skilled young bucks were getting in the groove. I held onto my belief that our platoon would keep the hairy side up, hands off rip cords. The gang was looking good as everyone adjusted to heavy boats and big water. Each solid rapid run boosts the spirit. As you come through the last exploding wave of a “big-one” it’s easy to let your guard down when entering sudden boils and whirlpools endemic to high volume H2O in tight canyons. Swim 4 came in just this way. As a bow was spun deep in a toilet like swirl a bubble of wet came from deep, collided with oncoming current with watery hands reaching up to pull a soldier over in the resulting explosion. We were Even.
A lot of miles were covered that third day. Muscles were getting used to the repetition but not yet feeling fatigue of miles piled on days. It was fun getting to know the group and seeing the dynamics. At one bookend we had two under twenties who had grown up paddling the surgy but safe U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC. This man-made river offers tough paddling, complete with its own mini boils and whirlpools, warm water, and safe runouts, plus, a bonus conveyer-belt that shuttles boat and paddler back to the top for hours of action. A great training ground as evidenced by this first generation weened on these waters. Our young bucks were more than solid. Seeking out the biggest holes and waves and styling every rapid with impressive surfs and bold lines. On the other end we had seventy-two-year-old Jim, who hand-paddled (small blades strapped to the hands instead of a traditional paddle). Now, I must admit, when I heard we had a post Medicare age hand-paddler on the trip I had reservations. How could this old dog possibly keep up? I soon learned. First on the water every morning; steady all-day pace; relaxed and loose technique. Jim crushed it! Watching him inadvertently drop into a big hole at the top of beefy Hance Rapid, keeping his cool as he and boat cartwheeled out then calmly running the remainder, I knew Jim was an asset. The rest of us filled the age spectrum between. Many hundreds of years experience was evidenced in this shaggy crew by grey beards seen surfing glassy, 15-foot-high waves in long load laden boats not necessarily designed for shredding big surf. Impressive Hippies! Day three had us feeling our oats. We made camp around mile 66 Even and on pace.
We fell into a good schedule the following days. Exact camps and mileage are blended and lost in the many river miles over the decades but we kept on a mostly 20-30 mile a day pace, hit the water around 10a each morning and worked hard to stay awake and tend the evening fires much past 8p. As with most winter trips ten+ hours of sleep and a sunrise to sunset circadian rhythm took over. Darkness of a new moon made for all-night star shows of the highest order. Each waking or midnight nature call was rewarded with spectacular views into eons past with the universe rotating familiar old Orion, the Dogs, Taurus, and Ursa, overhead. The bottom of the Grand on a moonless night must be among the best stargazing places left on this lit planet. The Milky Way appeared as clouds floating over camp with inky black starless borders created by towering walls leaning in overhead, as if the distant points of billion-year-old light were wiped away framing a river of heaven. Warm and dozy in my goose feathered bag, waking periodically to check on celestial progress, eyes and nose only braving cold, is a highlight for me- right up there with a long surf on a glassy-green wave. East makes itself known as the sky begins to wake and I’m treated to the slow color wheel going from black to purple, purple to deep red, red to pink, when morning says hello. Next comes the daily challenge of wiggling deeper into my warm cocoon fighting the need to brave the day and dance into frost covered cloths. Simple. These trips distill life’s tasks. The full inbox, the land mines of bosses and employees, the idiot driving too slow in front and the jerk passing too fast, melt away as unzipping the sleeping bag becomes a pressing issue. This is the soul kiss time in the wild offers. More of us need more of that, I think.
Our crew was in sync. The Rubik’s cube of boat packing was spinning to like colors more quickly, forgotten items remembered more readily, loads getting lighter as beer cans were crushed and calories burned. Our lone raft, suspect as an anchor slowing progress initially, was proving fast and worthy as its pilot proved his skill. Captain Jared had a big cooler that offered each of us three fresh hot dinners spread evenly across our twelve-day trip. Getting this break from freeze dried cuisine every few days was indeed a treat and any reservations of artificial rubber tainting our organic plastic kayaks was swallowed willingly in spoonfuls of tasty food. Jared was fast and on-line down the river and in the kitchen. It’s tougher to stay warm in an exposed raft than an enclosed kayak. Appreciation of the Canyon’s layers, textures, colors- enormity! - come with chin tucked between hard breaths as the rower keeps oars in the current and the rubber always moving to stay warm and match miles of quicker kayak companions. Paddle strokes in a kayak cover more ground than a sluggish raft. This allows for the same sightseeing when paddling but more time to become the drifting leaf in current, reclining against your back-band, blades dripping water with shaft resting on cockpit rim, slowly spinning with the whims of current and treated to “best view ever” with each rotation of boat. I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places on this planet. None more so than a winter-light day in the Grand. Low January sun tumbles down side canyons to hit opposite walls in the main reach, detonating them into an explosion of complexity and hue, rough and smooth, light and shade from the greys of Kaibab Limestone, reds of Supai, purples, yellows, and greens of the Supergroup, down to the shiny, black translucence, of the basement ancient Schist injected with punk streaks of pink Zoroaster Granite. Every hour is magic hour deep in the winter’s Earth. Jared worked hard for his views.
By day six, halfway through our miles, my old frame was beginning to feel the journey. Fingertips were taking on their own canyon topography with deep cracks from the cold and dry, the never-ending opening and stuffing of dry bags clips and zippers. Arms were a little heavier and slower to loosen with first strokes of morning. It was that in-between time on an extended trip where you want it to never end but look forward to the comforts of home. I was feeling relaxed and confident in my boat, no longer stiff and anxious in the big drops, enjoying the exploding waves and deep whirlpools with a cavalier attitude. The previous days had taken us past the sole civilization outpost, Phantom Ranch, where Woody enjoyed the wrong brownie for lunch: “I ate what?!”, leaving him to fly solo on Altered State Airlines through the big drops of Horn, Granite, and Hermit. We were through the Gems and attention grabbing Crystal Rapid; we had camped near the “must-hike” Blacktail Canyon with its perfect acoustics for impromptu concerts; our morning warm-up paddle was along “ Conquistador Aisle”, where Esplanade terraces above the river are named for 16th century Spanish explorers; we were Up, winners announced with new bets placed on how many out-of-boat experiences we’d see from our new time zero to trip’s end; we were approaching Bedrock Rapid.
Bedrock is formed by a large building size island that cleaves the river in half. The standard line is right. While it can be a challenging pull in a raft it’s pretty easy in a kayak. The guidebook says, “The left run is not recommended.” I went left. Now, going left in a kayak shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s squirrely over there but has a good line. I didn’t have any grand plans about going left, it was just an on-the-fly decision to see that side of the rock, which I’d seen only once in my eleven previous trips down the Canyon. My first miscalculation was to catch the strong recirculating eddy above the island to have a peek at the route. The bottom of this eddy is guarded by a big flat rock that sticks just above water’s surface. It creates impressive boils, is the source of the “recirculation”, and pinches and directs this half of the current violently back into the wall of the island. Looking at the tight corridor and confused water had me rethinking my decision in that long heavy boat. I wasn’t feeling the love. No big deal. Charging up the eddy, which extended well above the island, and ferrying to the river right side became my Plan B.
With a full head of steam I was approaching the top of the eddy just as one of our group’s young (more suited to a left run) bucks came into view transecting my route. I hesitated but didn’t stop (2nd miscalculation). Again, no big deal a 61-year-old brain said to what it mistook for a 30-year-old body. I charged on across the eddy line into strong current deflecting off a corner of canyon wall. I reached into the oncoming water with young guy confidence for a hard pull with left arm and a planned gliding rudder across the current. Reality set in as my old guy sweep and 150 lb. boat instantly lost the ferry angle and was sideways to the flow, accelerating toward the autobús cushion of agua climbing the head of island. Still in denial my mind thought, “no worries”, I’ll brace up on the pillow, keep pulling, and wash around the right. The River God’s Plan C commenced! I rode up high on the cushion eyes fixed on a river right goal. The kayak accelerated backwards. “This isn’t good”, flashed, as I looked over my left shoulder at the Colorado River plunging down an eight-foot drop disappearing into the deep seam created in a corner cauldron of Bedrock. My boat went vertical as it dropped over, pitchpoled backwards, and approximately 5000 cubic feet of water per second found my hull and pressed my tucked forward body against the riverbed. Ten or more slow motion seconds in this position gave me time to understand there was no fighting. With wisdom of a full six decades I was aware of the kayak being stripped from legs (wasn’t doing me any good anyway) and a new washing machine effect taking over. Still pinned to the bottom I could feel my body starting to move. I was rag-dolling around in the violent kettle. My mind went into a calm “dealing with it” state. I was at the mercy with the mighty life-blood-of-the west in control. I was slammed into and rolled along the upper, underwater portion, of the Bedrock massif. My right side and helmet banged against rock. I hoped a deep undercut or pothole wouldn’t find me as I spun along schist. I looked up through twenty feet of green bubbles twisting with algae in the maelstrom. My head popped just above the surface after 30 seconds or more. In a one breath moment of sunlight I pinned my position in the eddy guard rock boil a third of the way down the island. The “one-in-control” grabbed my booties and pulled me deep again, slamming helplessness against unyielding rock. For the second time I hoped luck would keep me out of caves and crevasses. I had time to think about how cold water and breath-hold training of the past twelve months was coming in handy. I wondered when my life jacket would start doing its job. I pondered what a bummer it would be for my buddies to deal with a soul departed me. Still under the deep green I was cognizant of no longer being sanded along rock; the water was calming as I bubbled slowly to the surface in the long slack downstream side of Bedrock. I’d spent well over a minute under water.
Floating in the calm run-out I had a moment of complete relaxation as adrenaline drained and systems oxygenated. I inventoried immediate damage and could see blood flowing from a three-pronged puncture on my right hand. Already it looked quite swollen. In a detached way I wondered if it was broken. It seemed a small price. Part of the crew just downstream spotted and started sprinting my direction. Looking lifeless bobbing in the eddy a few hard freestyle strokes let them know I wasn’t mortally wounded. I climbed onto the back of a kayak, one that I had helped rescue twice on day one- fitting- and was delivered to a sunny quite eddy on river right, swarmed by the experienced team and helped onto warm rocks. I saw that my left knee-high bootie was gone (impressive! -those things are hard to get off when I try); my drysuit was filled with water up to thighs, leading me to think it was torn. Others had rescued my kayak and had it to shore just below. Jason, one of our strongest paddlers- and best party organizer- a fifty-something guy wound tight with boundless energy, took charge of getting me into dry cloths and triaged damage. When I slid my sprayskirt off I saw the drysuit relief zipper (fly) was open. That anchor of water certainly contributed to downtime - big rookie-like mistake!
The “risk” in high-risk activities/ sports comes in several phases: First, in the learning stage, where lack of skill is the obvious culprit. This is when less exposure is key to staying safe- Class I/II instead of IV/V kayaking; simple launch and land and easy evening ridge soaring, opposed to thermal or mid-day flights paragliding; top-roped 5.6 rather than leading 5.11 climbing- allowing skills and credentials to build before accepting more exposure. Second is what I think of as the “Jonesing” stage. This is when base skills are in place, you are steep in the seductive learning curve but not yet wise to many reflexes or dangers. You can’t get enough, “Jonesing”, for the next adrenaline fix. Solid Class III skills delude one into tackling Class V; decent ground handling and intermediate soaring acumen lure one into a mid-day summer mountain launch in a building sky; when the sharp end of a rope paralyzes a climber 100 feet up with sewing machine legs. Likely the most dangerous stage in consequential sports. But not far behind is the last, expert, stage. Here is when you might be well above 10,000 hours in your sport, reactions automatic, fears dismissed as skills inevitably keep one out of danger. This is where the 40-year-old rock climber trusts a sketchy cam placed in a too big crack, because, hell, she’s not going to fall; the 50 year old paraglider launches too close to rotor coming over the hill, because, well, he always finds a thermal; or the 60 year old kayaker…….I think we know the rest of that story. Failure to double check the knot, neglecting to have a reserve chute serviced for years, or a dismissive attitude toward the checklist of cinched PFD, closed zippers, and “easy ferry”, are all symptoms of a master’s laissez-faire mind. Each time we get away from a close-call, one we might not even realize was close, confidence builds and caution wanes. It’s a trap that has led to more than one accident.
I learned that Jason was a Critical Care Nurse. He was on it. Accessing my batterdness, checking wounds with competence and (just a little bit surprising) compassion. With drysuit off we found my right arm just below the elbow had a huge contusion- I mean literally swollen the size of a grapefruit. It too looked broken. A sullen buzz was moving through the crew and I could see the wheels turning as evacuation scenarios were bouncing in heads. Talk was turning to how to get my kayak downstream, how to get me situated on the raft, where we could stage an evac., while Jason and I were quietly figuring out the extent of injury. Superglue in the deep punctures, likely caused by my carbon paddle shaft snapping and spearing me (half my paddle was retrieved) had the blood stopped. I could wiggle all my swollen fingers without pain- apparently not broken with tendons intact. The scary looking tropical fruit on my forearm presented as only soft tissue damage as well. A spot was being cleared for me on the raft. I was thinking I might be able to paddle. The team was skeptical. “Let’s duct-tape my hand up, get my gear back on, and see how it goes. Dubendorff Rapid is a half mile downstream. If I’m not feeling it by the time we get there, I’ll let you know; I’ll get in the raft; I promise.”
I could paddle. While not willing to pull hard with right arm, and avoiding big hits or braces on that side, I could limp through the rapids, stroke across flat water at a steady, slower pace, and manage boils and whirlpools by letting the river have its way. Setting up camp, stuffing gear bags, loading the boat, were done with grimaces and gritted teeth, and sore ribs and shoulder made themselves known in the following days along with a full sleeve tattoo of black, purple and yellow decorating my arm- but I could paddle. I had put us on a new line in our “swim” wager but was happy to still be in the pool. Boneheaded as my ordeal was and knowing that I’d likely have made that hard ferry 20 or 30 years earlier, I was at least pleased it wasn’t as big an ego hit had it happened in earlier decades. Yes, I was embarrassed, but not devastated. When I was 20, I worried what everyone thought of me; at 40, I tried to not care what people thought of me; at 60, I realize, nobody is thinking of me in the first place! Skills wane wisdom waxes.
Shook and tail-tucked I gimped ahead passing through the narrowest point on the river- 76’- to iconic Pancho’s Kitchen camp ahead of the group to soak my wounds, while they hiked Deer Creek with it’s wall hugging exposure high above the creek to the “Patio”. Here, access to the deep serpentine gorge is possible but no longer allowed. On earlier trips I have hiked down the series of drops until they become too big and severe to climb back up. Once, we came prepared with ropes and ascenders that allowed for a full exploration of the waterfalls hidden deep in the cleft. The drops get progressively bigger as you approach the final 180-foot plunge of Deer Creek into the main canyon and Colorado River. I remember the buzz of standing in that doorway with the creek rushing between legs and eighteen stories of air between me and the pool below. On two of the bigger repels we had left ropes fixed in waterfalls for our escape. This required puzzling out the ascender technique while hypothermic water from deep springs originating on the north rim poured on my head- shivering fingers and brain fully focused. The very special place; the adrenaline; standing in a spot many have seen and few ventured keeps Deer Creek a totem for me. Rules and lost exposure tolerance assures I’ll never stand there again. The day’s thrashing an exclamation point on that!
Morning had me moving slow, sucking air between clenched teeth with each step of the routine: unzip sleeping bag with a wince; roll onto stomach and push to an upright position with a groan; brew coffee, make breakfast, load gear, with a grimace. Once in the boat and paddling my bruised and beat right side began to warm and loosen allowing a rhythm for the the day’s 25 miles. Fortunately, the whitewater was mild with only Upset Rapid (rated an 8 on the 1 thru 10 desert scale) requiring catlike quickness from my old-dog bones to miss a wide hole near the bottom.
At mile 157 we eddied-out in the turquoise waters of Havasu Canyon, home of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters”. Supai Village is a 10 mile hike up Havasu Creek from the confluence where our boats were eddied and 8 miles down from the nearest car access at top. While the village is isolated it gets plenty of visitors. Two-hundred-foot Mooney Falls, one-hundred-foot Havasupai Falls, along with numerous smaller drops, limestone formed clamshell pools, and trippy aqua colored water lined with greens of big sagebrush, snakeweed, Mormon tea, Utah agave, banana and narrowleaf yucca, snakeweed, winterfat, Indian ricegrass, dropseed, and needlegrass, framed by towering blood red walls, ensures a steady stream of tourists. If ever one could imagine what paradise looks like, this is it. On early trips I would spend a full day hiking and swimming the 20-mile round trip. “The Green Room” was a secret alcove behind Beaver Falls. It was accessed by wading into the loud water at the fall’s base, diving 15 feet below the surface to a black hole entrance of an underwater cave, swimming 20 feet into a blind grotto, and coming up in a small cavern about the size of pickup truck bed with low camper shell. Once in, green light filtering through water gave form to limestone stalactites hanging and dripping in the quiet space. The contrast of chaos and nervous fear treading water in the pool outside to the serene beauty and hushed drip, drip, drip, inside, was surreal. Going from the magical canyon into the even more magical Green Room, was extraordinary. Diving deep and committing to that blind swim became harder with each subsequent trip as my fearlessness diluted with age. Another attraction is the “Hurricane Traverse”. This entails hiking on narrow ledges behind the base of Havasu Falls until you run out of footholds. Here you leap through the falling water. The violence of jet-like noise, water-filled typhoon-force wind and a thrashing received diving through the curtain of water was the antithesis of a tranquil Green Room. These attractions, along with cliff dives, climbs through limestone caverns high up on walls next to plunging falls, swims and trail jogging, would all fill a day of adventure in Havasu, a day of extremes. Havasu, like much of the Grand, is a study of contrasts: the heat of sun and the cold of water; the dry of desert and the lush of side canyons; the beauty of vistas and the physical toll in getting there. Floods and human impact have degraded this large tributary over the years. With each hike into this Garden of Eden I’ve noticed the impact. The Green Room has filled with silt and disappeared; many clamshells have broken in flash floods; the trail is more worn and the water more degraded and murkier. While still a special place within this most special of drainages, like much of our planet- it ain’t what it used to be. On this day we only probed the first mile of Havasu as our winter trip discouraged water hikes and short days and long miles kept us on the move.
At this point most of our bodies were aware of past injuries, compressed discs, and narrowed joint spaces wrought by the years. Complaints generally decreased with age with the young guns still charging like day one. Keeping to our 8pm campfire curfew- that is, making it to at least 8 before crawling into sleeping bags- was an increasing challenge. Camp games made this easier. Especially entertaining we’re the cage match wrestling sessions. Jason, my nurse and incorrigible energy bomb, was especially notable in organizing and taking center ring in these battles. At a sinewy 145 lbs. wet he would set down a rolled cigarette to taunt a competitor into the cage. Most knew better but our younger crew members were willing marks. The show got good when Nate, a quiet twenty-year-old with a good 30 muscled pounds on Jason, took the challenge. Jason was pretty wiley. He darted around and stayed clear of Nate’s thick arms for a good 30 seconds or more. When Nate finally got hold of his skinny opponent it was an easy clean and jerk. Seeing Jason arc into the air over Nate’s head then accelerate toward the sand with Nate above was a cringe-worthy spectacle. The whoomph of air rushing from Jason’s lungs echoed off walls. I’m not sure if the sand was indented with Jason’s form or if Jason was indented with the sands but I was impressed that he got up- slowly. He figured it was a good time to go finish that cigarette. More pedestrian entertainment was found in campfire stories. These centered mostly on river tales about how good we used to be. Craig, one of our seniors who stepped directly off the couch into his kayak, teased with hints of a tale of Conifer, Colorado and Highway 285. Much as we tried to pry the story out him, he just wouldn’t give us the details. Looks as if we’ll have to wait on a future trip- with longer aged scotch- to get the goods! He was a good sport but held his cards close. The fact that he jumped into this trip with likely the least number of paddling hours- certainly in recent years- was worthy. And other than the formidable Ducky Eater/ Baby Boil rapid he styled it. The belly laughs bouncing between canyon walls made for good fun and bonding. At this point we were a band of brothers. And like brothers we were ready to either take a punch for, or give a punch to, any in the band! Lava Falls was the only big rapid- the biggest, in fact- that lay ahead. On the water this brotherhood had each other’s backs.
Lava is the obstacle that looms over every Grand trip- the grand-daddy rapid that comes late in the voyage at mile 180. Dropping 37 feet in a hundred yards and accelerating to nearly 20 mph, the rapid is designated a 10 on the Grand Canyon 1-10 scale. Most in our group have tackled far harder whitewater than Lava. The history hype and stats, however, coupled with the several days of relatively easy paddling leading to this rapid’s ominous horizon line, makes anticipation butterflies common in the most seasoned paddlers’ gut. When we pass the 50-foot-tall vertical volcanic plug rising from calm water and known as “Vulcan’s Anvil”, the butterflies reach overdrive; you know you’re close. The rock is considered sacred by Native tribes who prefer that visitors refrain touching or leaving artifacts in it’s cracks but trinkets can be seen and more than one river runner’s lips have kissed this rock with superstitious tenderness in hopes of a clean run through Lava. I was first to pass the rock and took my chances by heeding the local’s wishes. In camp that morning, eight or so miles above Lava, consensus had been that we would pull over and have a look- scout the rapid before running. Being first to the scout trail I jogged up to the river right overlook that gave a clear view of the maelstrom. Guarded by a bus-eating ledge hole at the top (a large, recirculating hole that could swallow a bus- I’ve seen it eat multiple rafts as hor d’ oeuvres- there are left and right lines around this sentry and through the rapid. Right is considered the action line while left is generally better at higher flows. Today it looked as if either left or right was passable. As I watched the river plunging into Lava, I saw our crew of colorful boats strung in a single file line and looking small relative to the landscape and rapid, bob past the scout trail. Obviously, a new planned had formed and they were going for it- no scout! And I had a box seat.
You really get a feel for just how big the Grand Canyon and its waters are when watching from 100-feet above. The brightly colored kayaks, and even the raft, scaled to mites on a dog’s fur as they dropped right of the Ledge Hole and around, over, and through the massive waves and diagonals below. Every variation of technique and line played out before me, and every one was a success. I watched and heard the arms rise with hoops and hollers of victory from the tiny boats bobbing in an eddy a quarter mile below. As Woody can attest, it’s a lonely feeling walking back to your kayak, last, above a big rapid, whether it be “The Hole That Ate the Donner Party” (another story) or what Guinness once described as “the fastest whitewater in North America”. I was headed to the later, with nerves hyped by foibles of previous days. Running right, and still protecting bruised muscles, I joined the crew in the eddy below, upright and unmolested.
The subtle tension of big-water-below always lifts in the tail waves of Lava Falls. Even seasoned river runners feel the faint lightening as cocooned butterflies leave the gut. A trove of geocached beers- buried in cool sand, photographed with a pinned GPS location one of our crew had stashed on a previous trip a season or two earlier was unearthed. Putting Lava, once again, downstream in life (a mindset revealing another trip lay in the future) allowed for midday beers and tequila shots. An indulgence discouraged in any but this spot, on this river. With looser hips and easy laughs, we made our way downstream in the easy water to Fat City Camp where we made short work of the remaining cans and bottles from the stash. Getting such an early start on the party meant that dinner was consumed more as a sponge than energy source and sleeping bags were calling out their owners earlier than usual. The melancholy mood of a trip nearing the end is always balanced in these last canyon days and miles by the anticipation of clean sheets, comfy beds, and full refrigerators. Living close to the ground for a few weeks amplifies the reality of what pampered creatures we have become. I think myself a badass, standing by a river in the wilderness, tackling challenges in my fossil-fueled derived toys and clothes. But I’ve never launched into unexplored waters in inadequate boats more suited to whaling than rapids or crawled from a rotting reindeer sleeping bag to stand knee deep in slush with a moldy pemmican wedge in hand, marveling at the beauty of the World, as did Powell and Shackleton. Those were hard men. We are cheap imitations of these real-deal predecessors. But I think the same instincts are at play. Some are genetically wired to seek out a little discomfort, to scare ourselves a tad, to explore the secret corners of the planet. Today we may explore surrounded by soft cushions of technology and not the hard wooden planks of past. But the act of putting ourselves out there, of forming bonds with like-minded folk outside of our everyday accelerating lives, is likely sprung from the same place in our lizard brain.
Fatigue fertilizes future energy and creativity. It’s good for the soul to live outside for a few weeks; to get tired and grumpy; to have cracked fingertips and sore muscles; to hang with a crew that has your back and knows that you have theirs’. That’s what 12 days, long boats, and 16 old dudes can get you.
It’s good to have Lava Falls below me again!