Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
When I got up in the night to go to the river, the Milky Way was high in the sky, the stars as clear and bright as possible, with constellations like Lyra and Cygnus standing out well, but the view of the sky is very constricted by the Canyon walls, even in a relatively open place like Nanokweap, but I'm only half awake and steal back to the warmth of my sleeping bag as soon as I can do my business, and drift back off to sleep with the white-noise dull rumble of Nankoweap Rapids sounding in my ears.
Morning at Nankoweap, looking downriver to private group campsite.
Usually the day starts with the roar of the big propane burners heating water for coffee, cocoa, tea and so forth. It's still before dawn and the stars are still out, but fading with the glow of light in the east filtering down over the lip of the Canyon. The sleeping bag is warm and the air is coolish, but there isn't a lot of time. I sit up and pull my fleece jacket from the drybag that lays open to one side, and try to pull myself together. I sit there for a while, letting the peace of the place wash over me.
Pretty soon, it's time to pull off the polypro underwear I've worn as pajamas and pull on my river pants -- they were damp last night, but the dry air of the Canyon overnight had already dried them out. Being nylon, the pants, and the shirt, will be wet and dry many times over the course of the day. Biting my teeth, I stripped down to take off the polypro top, put on the shirt, then put the fleece back on for a while.
There's always some organizing to be done. Except for what I'm wearing, everything I have goes into one of the three drybags, but there's some shifting around to be done between day and night use each day, plus I have to be sure that I have taken sufficient film and cigarettes from their store deep in the night bag, covered in layers of plastic and one of my own small drybags, and put them in the daybag that will be clipped to one of the tarp straps on the raft.
Once that's been done and the night items put in their proper places, it's time to dig down to the "Paco Pad" -- the mattress, self-inflating sort of like the Thermarest air mattress I normally use camping, but thicker, and covered by a tough, thick vinyl plastic; like the drybags, it's made by Jack's Plastic Welding in Aztec, New Mexico. I throw the sleeping bag to one side, being careful to keep it on the ground cloth and out of the sand, unscrew the valve on the Paco pad, and start to roll it up. I always have to do it twice -- the first rolling gets out most of the air, but then I close the valve, unroll the pad, and roll it again tighter. About halfway through the process the pad is getting tight, so I unscrew the valve again and continue rolling the pad tight enough so that the parachute clips will snap to keep it rolled up.
The Paco pad slides into the big drybag easily, and then I stuff the sleeping bag in around it. The air pillow, provided by ARR, goes on top of both of them, and finally the ground sheet. Then I roll the big drybag closed, and strap it down so it won't get wet inside. The bag usually rides upside down on the raft, with the roll in the bottom where water can get to it in big rapids, and a loose seal means that there's a good chance that water can get in.
If I've timed it right, I'm just finishing up the process when I hear the off-key chorus of a number of raft guides yell "Coffeeeeeeeeee", but usually I'm not quite finished with the packing, so finish up. Finally, the gear is packed, and one by one I roll up the other two dry bags, squeezing out the air before strapping them down tightly. To not waste a trip, I grab the big bag and my coffee cup, and head down to the kitchen area, which is always quite close to the rafts. I drop the bag in the area where others will be stacked.
While I've been stumbling around in the early morning half light trying to wake up, I know the guides and helpers have been up for an hour or more, and are now deep in the process of making breakfast. I head for the bucket of coffee, which is made river style, grounds thrown into the large bucket and boiled. It's strong enough to grow hair on your chest -- even Parker's chest -- and filled with grounds, but the guides have been thoughtful and have provided a tea strainer, which does help take out the worst of the grounds. I sip at the strong, hot coffee and talk desultorly with some of the others hanging around awaiting breakfast.
While the light is getting better, I ask Joe how far he's thinking about running today, and pull out a river guide to get a feeling for what's coming up. There are no terribly big rapids coming up for the first leg, but it's still cool, so I decide to wear the rain suit, at least for a while. Before too long, the unseemly, discordant chorus sounds "Breakfasssssst". It's good today, pancakes and sausage, but then it's always good -- they don't stint on feeding you, although in this place I'd be happy with a continuing diet of army field rations.
The drill is to go through the handwash station -- a couple of plastic buckets, one full of water with a footpump line in it, the other with waste water, and a bottle of liquid soap. That done, I take a plate and silverwear, and go through the wash line, which consists of four buckets, one cold and soapy, one hot and soapy, then a hot rinse and finally a cold rinse. This means a wet plate when you get over to the serving line, but a few waves of the plate in the air shakes off the worst of the damp and the rest doesn't matter. I head for the chow line, trying to avoid eating more than I should, then find a place to eat -- sometimes there's a place to sit down, but more often not, so this morning I lean my butt up against the blunt bow of a raft and eat standing up.
Eating goes quickly -- not pigging out, but the less time balancing a plate like that is the less time to have to do it. We try to be careful with food scraps, lest they draw red ants, which have a painful bite. Breakfast finished, I head back through the wash line, stack the wet plate in a bucket and throw the silverware in another one.
Others are still heading down to breakfast, but I head back to my little camp spot of the night, take a few minutes for a cigarette and try to seal in the memories of the spot, then I grab the two remaining bags and my rain gear, mentally thank the camp for being a good one, and head back toward the rafts.
Breakfast is still under way, and the cooks are starting to clean up. Up on top of the little ridge above camp, the line for the groover is short, so I decide to make use of it. I leave my bags on the beach by the rafts, and head up to the toilet handwash station. The sign that the toilet is unoccupied is a boat cushion leaning up against the handwash station, but it's missing, so someone must be using the rocket box. I stand by the handwash station, light another cigarette, and just drink in the beauty of the place -- it's an admirable way to waste time. Pretty soon, someone is coming down the path from the groover, a relieved expression on their face and the boat cushion in their hand. I head down the path, meeting them halfway, and head back to where the john has been set up for the night.
I've long admired the writings of Colin Fletcher; a couple of his books, "The Man Who Walked Through Time" and "River" were among those that inspired me to come to this place, works that got reread in preparation for the trip. In his "Compleat Walker" series, in his section about sanitation in the woods, he makes the remark, "Everything else being equal, choose a john with a view", and this time, the raft helpers have done an admirable job. There's no screening for the groover, except for a couple of small tamarisk trees between the rocket box and the camp, and I can sit there, finish my cigarette and do my business while I glance downstream at the lower camp where the private party is getting their act together to get under way, or up at the Anzani granaries, where I can see a couple of our party, which I know includes Jason, who has climbed up there for a spectacular sunrise photo. It's a comfortable place to linger, but I know others will be waiting, so I try to finish up as quickly as possible.
Feeling better myself, I head back to the rafts. Usually we start loading about this time, but this morning is different, since we got in too late last night for the hike up to the granaries. About this time, Parker is organizing a hike with about a third of the party up there. I decide not to go on the hike -- it's a long way up there and I know it will include a narrow ledge, and most of the climb is up a loose talus slope. Unfortunately, I've already discovered that the water shoes that I purchased are not good on rock, and I'm scared of a major fall that might louse up the trip, or even a wrenched knee or twisted ankle, so mentally I again curse the Cabela's salesman that talked me out of felt-soled shoes, and decide to stay behind.
Another mental curse goes aimed at myself, for failing to bring along a folding chair. I was trying to be honest with the 25-pound weight limit, and the drybags turned out to be larger than I was led to believe, or I'd have brought one, like a couple others in the party did They are highly envied for their foresight. Now, I find a comfortable rock, down by the river near the rafts, and sit back to work on my notebook. It goes slowly, for I often let my gaze steal away to the rock wall on the far side of the river, with their horizontal striations broken here and there by vertical cracks. Here and there are small sidecanyons with big headwalls. Josh is doing something lazily on his raft, and I commented to him, "You know, one of the neat things about this place is that you can sit here and see places where no one, even the Anzani, have ever set foot."
"Yeah," he commented, "It's not much of a place for technical rock climbing, with all the limestone and shale."
The Anzani had pretty good access to this place, up the trail that follows Nankoweap Creek up through a side canyon to the north, but it wasn't the case elsewhere. They must have been pretty good about getting around -- and one place, elsewhere on the river, we could see the remains of a bridge far up a canyon wall to get over a tough spot on their "trail" leading to the rim. It's not much of a trail; you can pick up visually the route they must have followed, but it's hard to imagine anyone climbing it with a basket of grain on their shoulders.
The open area at Nankoweap possibly supported the farming of as many as 40 Anzani people, perhaps 800 years ago. Far up the cliff, they built a grainery, an enclosed cave with built up walls in front, with four man-sized openings visible from the camp, with a trail up a talus slope leading most of the way up to it, and when I look over my shoulder at the trail, I can see the members of our group spread out along it. I know it must be a heck of a view from up there, but it's a heck of a view from anywhere.
I continued to work on my notes lazily for an hour or more, getting caught up -- I'd gotten a bit behind -- but frequently broke off the scribbling in my waterproof notebook to talk with other members of the party about one thing or another. Eventually we could see the hikers working their way down the steep slope, and turned to buttoning things up. Even though it was still cool, and moderately overcast, they were warm when they finally returned, and there was some grabbing at the drag bags before we finally turned to loading the boats.
Upstream of the Little Colorado river junction, an oar boat approaching.
It was just getting a little warmish when we got under way, but a little breeze, aided by the "Honda breeze" from the motors and the clouds made me just as glad I had raingear on. There were only a couple little rapids this morning, hardly worth mentioning. Up to this point, there hadn't been much that I wouldn't have been willing to run in the whitewater boat that I sold to pay for part of the cost of this trip, or even in an open canoe, but I knew that far worse was to come. This proved to be one of the easier mornings, in a place that I'd flown over back on Friday and gotten the impression that there wasn't all that much whitewater -- at this place, there wasn't. The only one that was more difficult was Kwagunt, a six, and we did get a little damp there. As big as the rafts are, they do get wet, mostly when their blunt bows crash into a wave. Something has to give, and the momentum of the three-ton boat usually wins the battle, but usually it's a little rough.
Since we'd gotten a late start on account of the hike, we pulled in early for lunch at the Little Colorado River (Mile 61). Again, we weren't the only party at this popular spot -- the single boat from Diamond River was there, a private motor raft, an dory group from OARS, and the Grand Canyon Expeditions party pulled in just as we finally left.
Lynn Campbell in the "water slide" on the Little Colorado, not far upstream from the mouth.
The dories were particularly interesting -- considered the purist's delight, the only hard boats being run commercially. They have lots or rocker, are quite beamy, and have high, pointed ends, and must be able to pivot on a dime without much tracking. The ones I saw were amazingly neatly maintained, in like-new condition -- and, in this early part of the season, may well have been new, although I didn't ask. The private motor trip was also interesting -- it seems that there's an outfit that rents the motor rigs like we were on, at a reported cost of $3000 per trip -- not a bad price considering it's two weeks, and split between perhaps a dozen people. The hangup is getting the permit in the first place -- at last count, the waiting list for a permit for a private trip is sixteen years long, although the real Canyon aficionados somehow seem to manage to get in a private trip every year or two through various means, including taking advantage of cancellations and joining other people's trips.
Taking in the view along the Little Colorado River.
The Little Colorado, at least to geographers, marks the beginning of the true Grand Canyon; technically speaking, up to this point we'd been in Marble Canyon, although no one was too picky about it. This is partly due to the fact that here was where some of the most famous lines in American exploration were written by Major John Wesley Powell, leader of the first expedition through this place: "We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown . . . We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise above the river, we know not."
But we know . . . we have books, and guides that have run this river many times before -- but to those of us new to the Canyon, each bend reveals new and thrilling sights. But, to see it as the Great Unknown, as Powell saw it -- well, the chance is long gone. How lucky Powell was!
The Little Colorado flows an amazing turquoise color, from mineral deposits leached out upstream. It's considerably warmer than the main river, and thus a popular place for swimming. Most of the group worked their way up along the bank to a small natural water slide a short distance above the main river. It's mostly an easy walk, along smooth rock ledges, almost like walking on a sidewalk, except that from time to time you have to climb up or clamber down to a different level. The place is interesting and people had lots of fun, especially the swimmers; I took a number of photos of the interesting rock formations and the greenery; Jason, of course, was all over the place taking photos.
As the party drifted down from the swimming hole, the guides set up lunch. This proved to be taco salad on pita -- not my favorite, but better than expected, and filling, which is the point. Once lunch was over with, we slowly got back on the rafts. While Josh headed downstream, we took a few minutes to head a few yards up the Little Colorado to ferry Jason over to a small island for an IPIX shot, but the greenery on the island took away some of the wide view, so he wound up taking an IPIX shot from the boatman's box on the raft. That done, we headed back out into the main river.
A couple miles downstream, we could see white salt deposits plastered against the cliffs. The salt is leached out of the limestone here, and the Hopi Indians used to come down here along the Little Colorado to quarry it -- and to use it as a "rite of passage" for youth. The Hopi still come down here occasionally to collect the salt for religious reasons, and a landing here is off limits, so we contented ourself with a few photos.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty overcast, but with cumulus. The Canyon, from here to Cardenas, where we were to spend the night, is generally a lot more open than is was back up in Marble Canyon, and the views are wider. The only real rapid this afternoon was Lava Canyon, but we motored through it without comment. Not far below, we could look up on a cliff to the south and see the Desert View Watchtower on the south rim; where so many famous pictures of the Canyon have been taken. Now, if anyone were taking a panorama of the Canyon on this gray afternoon, a few pixels or photo grains might include the blue rafts and us on the green of the river.
We ran through the open Canyon through an area of what I have to call low hills, until we approached Granite Gorge. Joe had a specific spot in mind where he wanted to camp, at Cardenas, Mile 71, just above Unkar Rapid, the first of many big rapids we would face on the morrow. An oar trip, from Moki-Mac was there, but as it turned out just was hiking up to some old Anzani ruins on the top of a nearby hill; Joe asked if they were planning to leave, and they were, so we headed in for the evening.
Late afternoon at Cardenas, our third night camp.
I found a nice spot toward the end of the main part of camp, but when Kathy set her bags down next to mine I decided I'd better move -- she was quite sensitive to cigarette smoke and I tried to stay out of her way. There was a likely spot a few yards farther up the river, if a little sloped. I asked Joe what the tide situation would be, and he informed me that it would be coming up before morning, so I decided that the spot was a little too close to the river, so went exploring. Since I usually have to get up in the night, I wanted to be close to the river, so started down a little dirt path through the riverside tamarisks. Twenty or thirty yards up the path, I found a wide spot, only a few yards above the river but six or eight feet above it. Since it was something of a dead end, I decided that I'd found home for the night, so I hauled my gear up there. It looked a little misty in the early evening, with virga hanging, but it appeared that it would clear off, so I decided to sleep out again. I changed out of my wet socks and river shoes into dry socks and camp shoes, then got started with the evening organization, getting things spread out, had a cigarette, and worked on the journal a bit.
Most of the party had already headed up on the hike to the Anzani ruins, but again, I stayed behind -- I didn't like the look of the loose rock on the hill. The drag bags on the rafts did have their appeals, so I had a successful MGD hunt and watched the trout fishermen have at it, with fair success. I had conversations with several of the people left behind. One of them, Vance Breese, I had already learned was an interesting character. An older fellow, he used to be a motorcycle racer, and ran streamlined motorcycles on the Bonneville Salt Flats -- one time crashing at a speed of something like 360 mph! Gooood grief! Now, he's in the process of designing his own jet helicopter, and since one of the other members of the party was a helicopter mechanic, you could almost always hear a discussion of helicopter design and function going on somewhere around the camp in the evenings.
Hills across the river from Cardenas, from the campsite where I spent the night. Sleeping under the stars with a view like this makes a nice bedroom indeed.
There were some serious vistas from our seat on the beach, barren brown hills rising to rock walls in the distance, and we sat there drinking them in. Soon after the hiking party returned, it was time for dinner -- spaghetti, in this case, and good, too. As always, it was getting dark not long after we finished eating and cleaning up, so I headed off with my flashlight to my little wide spot in the tamarisks next to the river, got ready for the night, crawled into the sleeping bag, and let the sound of the river washing over a nearby rock lull me to sleep.