Just above mile 21 we come to North Canyon (extending into the North rim of the Grand Canyon) and pull over at one of the campsites. The guides rig beach umbrellas to shade the ice coolers that they sit on, a regular practice whenever the boats are going to be exposed to the sun for any length of time.
Since we are on a self-supported trip, we’re carrying everything the group will need for 13 days and the guides filter river water for drinking and cooking. Other trip options include a motorized raft for gear and freshwater, but our gear rafts are being rowed by a couple of apprentices, Jason and Leo, who are training on oars before they can carry passengers, and working for tips rather than a salary. The coolers are actually packed over a period of time, in a freezer, so that that layers of ice are frozen between layers of food, and as the trip goes on, layers of food are exposed, sort of like peeling back the successive layers of rock that form the canyon walls themselves.
Ethan leads the group on a hike up North Canyon, which starts off about fifty yards wide, but steadily narrows and climbs up a series of short ledges. Often we go to the sides of the canyon to climb the walls to circumvent the higher ledges. It feels good to scramble on rock and make the short climbs necessary to get to the next level. (I’m reminded of the story Edward Abbey tells in Desert Solitaire, where he followed a canyon down from a rim, dropping off successively higher ledges polished smooth by flash flood, planning to hit the canyon floor and walk down to another trail that would lead him back to the rim. Eventually, he came to a drop off below a ledge that was too high to drop off, and the ledges above him were too high and too smooth to climb back out. He lived to write the story, so I won’t give away more here.)
The hike up canyon is a good test for my recently operated upon knee, which I’ve been worried about since January, wondering if I would be able to make the climb out to the rim on Day 6; however, Julia Rose and I keep near the front of the group. As we get deeper into the canyon the walls rise higher and draw closer together, and the terrain slowly transforms from a rocky desert wash to smoothly polished walls, worn into graceful curves by the sudden torrents of water flushed down the narrow canyon in flash floods over thousands of years.
We climb a last little cliff, about twenty feet high and find a pool of tepid water, about the size of a suburban backyard swimming pool, waste deep, shallow at the downstream end and deepening to a narrow rock slide that drops off a pour-over into the pool. We sit in the shade and drink our water and eat snacks provided by the guides, and then one by one about half the group begins to enter the pool. One of the younger customers, Ben, a recent college graduate, tries to rock climb the edge of the pool without getting wet, only to find the handhold cracks are the home of tiny canyon frogs, which depend on the pools of the side canyons and the river to breed and house their egg-masses and the hatching tadpoles. Julia Rose and a few other climb the slide at the end of the pool and go a bit deeper into the canyon, but progress is eventually walled off by a boulder strainer that completely shuts off further exploration.
Julia Rose and Elana, Ben’s sister, also a recent college grad, slide down the rock and drop off into the pool, which is waist deep and refreshingly cool on a 110 degree day.
We hang out at the pool for the better part of an hour, until the sun finally clears the walls and drives us back to the boats for lunch–Dagwood style sandwiches (piled high with meat and vegetables). The guides teach Julia Rose and Ben and Elana a game called ”Pick three,” where someone creates a three ingredient gross out challenge. Julia Rose tries a combo of white onion, raspberry, and pickled carrot.
After lunch we enter the “Roaring 20s,” marked right away by North Canyon Rapid and 21 Mile Rapid, both rated 4-5 with drops of 12 feet. The rest of the afternoon is filled with fun rapids, mostly “mile rapids,” including 23 Mile Rapid, 23 ½ Mile Rapid, Georgia Rapid, 24 ½ Mile Rapid, 25 Mile Rapid, Cave Springs Rapid, 27 Mile Rapid, and finally 29 Mile Rapid. In between 27 and 29 we get a stiff upstream wind, a usual afternoon phenomenon as the canyon warms up and the hot air convects upstream. There’s a term for it, called an anabatic wind. Whatever you call it, it’s hell on the guides trying to oar a high-profile, heavily loaded raft against a very stiff wind, but they do it with grace and good humor.
In the evening we camp out at Sandpile, a huge beach which allows us to spread out a bit more than we had at the narrow rock shelf at Sheer Wall the night before. There’s a large eddy and a good sized sand bar in the river, and a lot of people take advantage to wash clothes and body. For supper we have Grilled Salmon, rice pilaf, and blackberry cobbler. Near twilight, some of the guides, their duties done for the day, take a raft out to float around the eddy and goof off and I suppose drink more beer. Julia Rose and I settle down on our tarps and sleeping pads for the evening. We get a good early moon and I get some fuzzy pictures of the moon over the canyon walls. Another warm night, but eventually, it cools off and sleep comes.