The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 3, Part 1

July 16, 2016

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Ethan, the trip leader, at rest.

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Guides at rest after a day of rowing; the kitchen area is unloaded, but not set up yet.

For Day 3 we follow the established wake up and breakfast routine, then pack and load the boats. Today we ride on Ethan’s boat. Ethan is the trip leader, and since we haven’t been on his boat yet, it’s been a bit hard to get a good read on him. He’s young, and later on the trip I’ll be surprised to find out he’s only 24. He’s been working on the river for the past 7 years, starting as a swamper and working his way up to trip leader. He is quiet in camp, though not on the boat, good natured, calm, and extremely competent on the oars. He tells some good stories about the various trips he’s been on, including a trip with Jane Fonda’s daughter, and another trip with an honest-to-god crazy woman in full-blown crazy. He’s got a good sense of humor.

Riding with us, we get Ken for a second day, keeping busy snapping photos and telling stories about the Everglades and other places he’s visited. In the back of the raft ride Cory and Laura, a heatlthy-middle-aged couple who have only been married for a year or so. They are an easy going couple, fairly athletic, and good camping companions. Laura straps on a  whitewater helmet with a Go-Pro camera strapped to the top for filming the rapids.

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Climbing up to the Puebloan dwelling site.

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The best part about riding in Ethan’s boat is that we are first on the river, and first at whatever stops we make. We push off a bit early while the swampers finish loading the Duke and the rest of the kitchen gear and float a short distance to an ancient American Indian site. We beach the rafts and climb steep trail up a short cliff to a bench of land a couple hundred feet above the river, where Ethan leads us to the outlines of a couple of small structures, rock wall foundations laid out in rectangles, along with some petroglyphs and small flakes of turquoise, which was apparently traded from Mexico and other faraway locations. The structures themselves are smaller than 10 x 10 feet, and there are no higher than a couple of levels of rock. Ethan tells me that there are some more dwellings in the cliffs above us, but it would be a good hike. He had worked here before, for several days, helping a group of archaeologists from the National Park Service catalogue the sites in the area. The NPS used to run their own boats and employee their own “boatmen” on the river, but they’ve taken to using commercial companies because of problems with the boatmen (more to come on that topic).

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On the bench, looking at the ruins.

Ethan fills us in on what the archaeologists know about the people who built these structures. The sites we’re looking at date to around 1100 AD, but the ancestral Puebloan people probably came to the area around 800 AD, according to the Grand Canyon River Guide. Good weather allowed for a fairly heavy population to farm the interior of the canyon, and the sites we are seeing are evidence of a shift from living in shallow pit houses. But these remains were probably above ground pueblos. According to the guide, “the pueblo people constructed hundreds of living sites containing single-to-many room dwellings, religious structures, rock-terraced agricultural fields, cliff graneries, rock-lined roasting pits, petroglyphs, and pictographs.” The sites we are seeing allowed the puebloan people to cultivate larger fields on the benchlands and avoid the spring floods of the river.

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Ethan shows us a rock the size of a compact car, where the surface is etched with petroglyphs. The rock itself is pretty exposed, so the pictures are weathered.

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One of the guides tells us about a spiny plant called Mormon tea, which contains the chemical ephedra. Apparently, you can get a bit of a boost chewing on it, which Ben (who will try about anything) tries. We are also shown the difference between the century plant, a spiny agave with a tall flower spike which blooms creamy white flowers once every 20 – 40 years and the Soaptree yucca. These plants occur in the desert scrub zone, but along the river bank in the riparian zone we are seeing the invasive species tamarisk, which looks similar to the mesquite, along with western redbud and various willow, and right on the beaches the cane-like horsetail, or scouring rush, which the Ancestral Puebloans used to blow pigment against rock faces to paint pictograhs.

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Mormon Tea

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Century Plant (on right)

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Soaptree Yucca

Back on the rafts, we float a bit further and pass Vasey’s Paradise, an Eden of plant life clinging to the wall of the canyon, fed by a spring emerging from a hole in the wall and fanning down the rock. John Wesley Powell named it in August, 1869, writing, “The river turns sharply to the east and seems inclosed by a wall set with a million brilliant gems. On coming nearer we find fountains bursting from the rock high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall. The rocks are covered with mosses and ferns and many beautiful flowering plants. We name it Vasey’s Paradise, in honor of the botanist who traveled with us last year.”

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Vasey’s Paradise

A mile later we come to Redwall Cavern, a football field sized overhang cavern, deep, sandy, with a ceiling close to a hundred feet at the opening and sloping down to  six or eight feet at the back. There are a couple of motorized raft trips (massive rafts holding around 20 passengers and a couple of guides) already tied up, and a group of people playing Frisbee.  I throw Ethan’s frisbee with Cory and Laura, then we just hang out and watch the guides try to climb the horizontal ceiling of the cavern where it sloped down to the back wall. Gregg, the guide who rowed the Sandra, showed us some fossils in rock.

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Redwall Cavern

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Omar in action in Redwall Cavern

A bit further down the river, at mile 40, we see the remnants of plans to build another dam in Marble canyon in the form of drill marks to test the strength of the rock in a narrow part of the canyon. There was little mention that they planned to flood the Grand Canyon, preferring instead to call it the Marble Canyon dam to avoid rousing public sentiment, but luckily the dam was never approved.

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