by Thomas Cleary
Living beneath a narrow slice of sky for 16 days and nights is a magical experience not to be missed and never to be forgotten.
Our group of 14 pushed off from Lee’s Ferry, AZ in 4 rubber rafts and one cataraft, plus 2 inflatable kayaks, heading 225 river miles to Diamond Creek. We knew that the Grand Canyon is 90% flat water (with current) and, at most, 10% rapids, but it was that 10% that occupied our minds. The 90% occupied our days which we spent floating or rowing downstream, fishing off the boats, chatting, reading, and having waterfights to cool us off during the 100 degree days.
We would stop somewhere for a riverside lunch and side hikes whenever the time felt right. When the river map showed a big rapid ahead we would stop and scout it before running the rapid. Swimming was a bold undertaking as the river water comes out from deep under Glen Canyon Dam at 50 degrees; too cold to hang out in even during the heat of the day. We were not alone on the river: we saw 1-3 other boating groups a day and half a dozen big horn sheep groups throughout the trip.
The side hikes were a huge part of what made this journey magical. We would often float around a corner and see a spring pouring water out of a cliff face, or a non-descript crevice forming a break in the cliff wall. These always merited explorations, revealing a narrow, shady, cool canyon, sometimes with clear water flowing in it, full of tadpoles and other aquatic creatures, other times with evidence of Anasazi Indians, such as granaries, or pictographs. Regularly we would see driftwood perched 20 to 30 feet high up on the walls of these canyons, a testament to the flash floods that rage through the defiles when it rains hard enough upstream. WOW.
Excerpt from the journal of John Wesley Powell, August 19, 1869: “In running a rapid the pioneer [lead] boat is upset [flipped] by a wave. The river is rough and swift and we are unable to land, but cling to the boat and are carried down over another rapid.”
The rapids on the Grand are rated on a scale of 1-10, and each rapid’s difficulty varies based on water flows. Other American rivers are rated on a scale of technical difficulty from I to VI, but due to the high volume of water on the Grand, even a 10 such as Lava Falls or Crystal Rapid, may only be a III on the standard scale.
Several of the rapids required maneuvering around rocks or avoiding hydraulic recirculating holes. Other rapids had giant waves that dwarfed our 16 foot boats and left us wondering whether the current would carry us up and out of the wave’s trough and to the next peak, or if gravity would pull us back down for the wave to flip us over! We did have one boat flip in lower Crystal. The swimmers were able to push the overturned boat to shore, and with the aid of ropes and pulleys we were able to right the 1500 pound boat.
Each afternoon we chose a camp alongside the river. The camps are established from years of use but cannot be reserved in any way, so when we found one we liked we would take it. There would follow a rush of unloading the boats of kitchen and personal gear, then cooks would come around with their shopping list for the dinner: “Who has the pasta?” “I need 3 heads of lettuce.” “Where’s the French bread?” We had a kitchen crew rotation, otherwise we were free to lounge in camp, go for a hike, play music, or set up sleeping areas.
About half the group slept on their boats, rigging some sort of a platform large enough to lay out a sleeping bag; this was much cooler than camping on the hot sand because it was over the cool water and in the breezes. The morning meant breakfast, then packing everything up again, loading the boat and tying everything down —rigged to flip—we prepared for the worst every day. The boat that did flip in Crystal didn’t lose anything.
We camped in some amazing places and reveled in watching the sunlight fade up the canyon walls tier by tier, hearing the roar of a nearby rapid, fishing in the bankside eddies, and discovering stars, constellations, and Milky Way as they appeared and swirled above.
The Grand Canyon as we see it now was formed when the Colorado River began cutting into the sediments of a flat plain, the Colorado Plateau, about 1 million years ago following a period of uplift from near sea level to its current height over 8000’. The river first incised into flat-lying sediments laid down between 245 million years ago (mya) and 570 mya. These sandstones, limestones, and shales were deposited under, and in the nearshore environment of, a vast inland sea long pre-dating the age of the dinosaurs (ending 65 mya).
As the Colorado continued to downcut, it encountered rocks laid down from 900 mya to 1200 mya. The gap in the rock record (between 570 and 900 mya) represents a period of non-deposition or erosion. These older sedimentary rocks are similar in composition and depositional environment to the younger sedimentary rocks above, but additionally are faulted, tilted, and injected with basalt (lava) dikes. The first two sedimentary groups form the cliff and slope‚ profile of the upper canyon.
Below yet another unconformity, or gap in the rock record, are rocks from 1,800 mya and older that had been metamorphosed, banded, twisted, and folded by heat and pressure, and also intruded by pegmatite veins and granite. These metamorphic rocks form the narrow inner gorge of the canyon.
I was inspired as a young man to get a Bachelors of Science in geology because of boating trips throughout the southwest where rocks are laid bare and history unfolds before a boater. But only in the Grand Canyon are the Precambrian basement rocks exposed for viewing; black Vishnu schist and gneiss with eye-popping red Zoroaster granite and pegmatite, metamorphosed when the planet was one third younger and laid down as sediment sometime before that! Awesome!
I was able to go on this trip as a member on my sister’s private permit. She had been on the waiting list for over 13 years before her permit was granted! The Park Service has recently changed the private permit system to a straight lottery, but permits will continue to be extremely competitive. Most people without boating experience and equipment can still go down the Grand with a commercial outfitter listed on the park service website, www.nps.gov/grca/. For our trip we paid a company to plan, buy, and pack our meals, supply our boats and all group gear, and shuttle our vehicles from put in to take out for a total cost, including park service and tribal fees, of $1100 per person for the 16 days. Commercial trips will charge between $150 to $300 per day depending on length of trip and amenities. Either way this trip of a lifetime is well worth it; GO!