Walking Train Tracks on Superbowl Sunday

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February 4, 2017

It was a warm day for February, mid fifties with a mild wind and overcast skies but no rain. Mid-afternoon, I had an afternoon to kill, waiting for the Superbowl to come on tv, waiting on my daughter, who was dancing at the ballet studio all afternoon and into the evening, (halftime to be exact, before she finished and we could make the hour drive home; she wanted to watch Lady Gaga, so we sat in the lobby of the studio for another fifteen minutes and watched the spectacle).

A couple of miles from the studio Two Rivers Park sits at the junction of the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River. There’s a big parking area, a boat ramp, and a bicycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the mouth of the Little Maumelle and connects the Two Rivers trail to the Arkansas River Trail, which runs all the way downtown on the south side of the river and splits to cross the Big Dam Bridge and run into North Little Rock on the north side of the Arkansas. It being Sunday afternoon the parking lot was full and the Two Rivers trail, paved for bicycles, was busy. Railroad tracks ran west, toward cone-shaped Pinnacle Mountain in the distance, the tracks squeezed between a steep bluff and the Little Maumelle River. Opting for time away from crowds, I followed the tracks and soon found myself alone, following the curve of the rails as it paralleled the curves of the river.

I’ve got a history with railroad tracks dating back to my early teenage years, when a friend and I used the tracks near his house to get out of the neighborhood he lived in and into what passed for near-country despite being in the middle of a mid-sized Mississippi town. We’d lay our ears on the rails and try to detect approaching trains, like American Indians or train robbers in the movies, but never really heard anything even when we could see the big diesel engines a quarter mile down the track. We’d lay coins on the rails and wait for the train to flatten them into silver and copper pancakes. We’d collect rusted railroad spikes and look for blue-glass insulators at the base of utility poles that often ran beside the tracks. The benefit of railroad tracks is that they usually go cross-country, where highways and streets seldom seem to go. Unlike cars, trains don’t need to stop, or turn off or lead to houses or businesses, so in just a few minutes of walking, it can feel like you’re miles from nowhere. Traffic noises dissipate, trees crowd up close to the right of way, and the gentle curves provide an incentive to find out what’s around the next bend. Walking the rails, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s young hero Nick Adams, walking the rails and riding the trains to get away from something, or to get somewhere new and promising.

In college I rented a room in a house that sat on the edge of town. Behind the house railroad tracks led off into the country, and beside the tracks for a long way was a nice creek with steep banks and wonderful hardwoods. Across the creek stretched the experimental farmland of Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture, several hundred acres. Afternoons I would gather my books and head off down the tracks and walk as far as I wanted until I found a nice place to study in the woods that sheltered the creek.

Despite the peaceful setting, passing trains never failed to excite the little boy inside of me. The deep throb of the diesel engines, the wave of the engineer, the screeching metal-on-metal of the wheels, remind me of the excitement Walt Whitman felt in his poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter”:

. . . .
Fierce-throated beauty!	 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,	  
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,	 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)	 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,	
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide,across the lakes,	 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Although there were no trains running today, it was pleasant to be outdoors. The Little Maumelle, about 40 yards wide at the mouth, narrowing to twenty by the time I had hiked two miles, barely registered a flow as it was backed up behind Big Dam Bridge. But the tracks were covered in fallen leaves, oak and hickory, and fat acorns had dropped between the ties. I tossed a few tie spikes and some rusted bolts into the river to hear the deep splash. The bluff towered above me on the left, a couple of hundred feet in places, and at the end of my walk I came upon a small marina on the far bank, with a tiny houseboat built on a small barge, and I watched a fat dog waddle down the gangplank onto the boat. In the marina a pontoon boat sported a confederate flag. I turned back toward the park where my car was, and as I walked back a few squirrels scampered across the tracks and up on the ridge a deer walked through the trees, silhouetted against the sky behind him.

 

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Colorado River through the Grand Canyon: A Photo Essay

I’m still working on my reflections of the summer trip through the Grand Canyon. Here are a few random pictures that I haven’t shared yet. More detailed journals of the trip will follow soon.

 

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Julia Rose scouting the rapids on day 1.

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Collared lizard

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Early morning shade.

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Lunch stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 3, Part 2

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July 16, 2016

The stretch between Sandpile campsite and Saddle Canyon is relatively flat, with few rapids and none of any real consequence. What keeps our attention at lunch and during the afternoon is the growing cloud of smoke coming off of the North rim Fuller Fire, which started from lightning a few days before our trip began and which closed some areas at the North Rim park where Lisa and Stella are staying. (They will tell us later that there was a heavy firefighter presence in the park, with choppers coming and going, and some road blockages.) The fire was initially located 3 miles west southwest of Point Imperial, and July 7 was only 1 acre. The NPS elected to let it burn in order to clear out accumulated fuel and prevent a larger scale fire in the future. As of July 29 the fire had affected 14.5 thousand acres, with the NPS letting it burn because there had not been a “natural ignition” in over 200 years.

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Smoke from the Fuller Fire begins to dominate the sky above the rim at the lunch stop.

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Under the canyon rim at lunch.

The fire is only been a few miles away from where we are boating, but up on the rim, and the constant change of direction caused by river bends keest us close to the downwind smoke. The smoke builds all day long so that at lunch the sun barely shines through the haze, turning it bright orange, and big pieces of soot fall on us as we floated. At times a thick pall of smoke hangs above the river, bringing up many allusions to the surreal scenes in Apocalypse Now where a thick smoke haze covers the river, making it almost impossible to steer. If it had been an actively fought fire, though, chances were high that we would have seen choppers coming to the river to scoop water to fight it.

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Although the smoke never gets so bad for us that finding our way down the river is an issue, we did have a good time conjecturing where the fire was and how big it was, and tossing out Apocalypse Now quotes: “Never get off the boat!” “Got to be some mangos around here somewhere”; “Do you want to raft or fight?” and, “Grand Canyon: Shit” (the last one I thought, rather than said, since my daughter was sitting next to me on the raft). As always, when Julia Rose finds me in the rare company of movie-literate people who get my quotes, she is always surprised, suddenly seeing me in a different light.

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In addition to the smoke, we begin to see a few clouds, where before there had been pristine blue sky. According to Ethan, it might be the signal of monsoon season coming on, a July/August phenomenon where moisture gets funneled up from the gulf of Mexico and brings rain.

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Ethan fights the wind a good bit of the day. At times he has to point the back of the raft downstream and just flat out row to make any progress at all. We camp for the evening around mile 48, at Saddle Canyon in a big eddy that separates the upper and lower campsites. A motorized raft group has the Upper Saddle Beach, and we take Lower Saddle.

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After setting up camp Omar leads the group on a long hike up Saddle Canyon. It’s 4.5 miles round trip, and we climb pretty steadily and gain a few hundred feet in elevation quickly. It is a good test for my knee.

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dscf1361dscf1364At first we walk beside the creek, then cross it several times, and in sections have to wade upstream. The temperature cools (if you want to call high 90s or low 100s cool) as we are in the shade of the canyon walls and the canyon itself sprouts lots of vegetation, including trees and shrubs like Western Redbuds, Coyote Willow, Mesquite, Cat’s Claw (the “wait-a-minute” bush, because the thorns snag clothing and force walkers to stop and disentangle themselves), and Netleaf Hackberry, adding to the deepness of the shade.

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The smoke dissipates as we climb higher, and we pass through desert scrub into a slot canyon that narrows as we climb higher.

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We end up in a beautiful slot roughly 6 to 8 feet wide and blocked off by a high cliff. We dip in the waist deep pool and relax on the rocks for a while, before beginning the long walk back, where we get to camp just before supper: Beef and chicken tamales, quesadillas, and rice.

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It’s a tiring day–the combination of sun and smoke and long slow floating with few rapids to break up the slow pace leave us tired. I’m too tired to journal and almost too tired to read. I can usually manage a few pages of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, appropriate for Canyon country, before getting sleepy, so I switch to Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang, a memoir of the Canadian forces invasion of  Sicily and Italy during WWII. It’s a change of pace from the canyon and I hope it will keep me interested enough to stay up a little later and wait for the heat to lift. I know Desert Solitaire by heart, so I don’t feel cheated. I’m not the only one with an Abbey book on the trip. Elana, the girl who’s just graduated college and has befriended Julia Rose, is reading The Monkey Wrench Gang, though she has just started and we never really get a chance to discuss Abbey. The raft guide Dave says it’s an unusual trip when no one brings Abbey to read.

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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.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 1 continued

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Lunch stop below Navajo Bridges

The Rhythms of the River

We eat lunch in the shade of Navajo bridges (one is pedestrian and the other the highway). The guides break out aluminum tables and set out a spread of breads, cold cuts, cheeses, lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions, pickles, and bean sprouts. 

The river is the bathroom–guys go downstream to urinate and women up, but the guides are pretty informal and usually only step a few feet away, and it doesn’t take long for the guys on the trip to open their flies in sight of the group, and everyone learns how to avert their eyes at the proper moment.

After lunch we hit the first named rapid, Badger Creek, with a drop of 15 feet. (The River itself averages an 8 foot per mile drop over the course of the Grand Canyon, but the drops are concentrated in the rapids, short bursts separated by long stretches of flat water with swirling eddies and strong currents. The waves are big and the splashes feel good, but it’s a pretty straightforward run.

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Scouting: Erin, Omar, Dave, Jason, Ethan

At mile 11.5 we come to Soap Creek Rapid, with a drop of 16 feet. The guides pull over to scout this one, since it has some big waves and a strong current that pushes boats hard toward a ledge on river left toward the bottom of the rapid. Dave is a strong boater and we run it just fine.

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The trip leader, Ethan, leads us about a quarter mile on river left to a petroglyph unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Even for Ethan, it’s unique. Etched on a big slab of rock on the ground, is the shape of a man, or a god, or, to be honest, what would appear to most of us raised on science fiction and The X Files, an alien. The figure is over three feet tall, with a bulbous round head, a solid rectangular torso, arms extending out and down, almost akimbo, skinny legs, and what makes it really rare, besides the size, is the fact that the artist etched in a ground line extending several feet for the figure to stand on.

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We camp on a rock ledge at Sheer Wall, so named because the rapid below the campsite was the first one Powell ran, since the walls were too shere to line the boats through the rapid. Despite the relatively small space, we each stake out a little territory and roll out our sleeping pads on our tarps. It’s too hot to set up a tent–the temperature won’t drop into anything like comfortable until well after midnight, so Julia Rose and I are glad for the sheets we bought at WalMart the night before. The guides sit on their rafts after getting the basics of the camp kitchen and the “Duke” set up, drinking Coors beer and relaxing after the long day of paddling.

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Sheer Wall Campsite

The duke is what we call the toilet, a sturdy sealable stainless steel looking container with handholds and an attachable seat and lid. A duke will hold the solid waist of a party our size for two days, so for the entire trip there are 7 “dukes” riding on one of the equipment boats. According to one of the guides, the Duke is named after John Wayne, who went down the river at some point and objected to the toilet being called the “John.” (It sounds plausible enough, though it could also be a bit of guide “lore” needed to satisfy the tourists.

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The “Duke”

Later in the evening, the guides begin to cook supper, taking turns each evening. Everyone in the group relaxes, some with their drinks of choice, and chat about the day or read or just sit and look at the lights and sounds and colors of the rocks and water. I sketch the upstream canyon and color it in with my colored pencils–not a great work of art, but something I want to try and do more of. At dark, it just seems natural to quiet down and get ready for bed. It’s the beginning of a pattern we will follow on the river, waking at daylight and settling down for the night shortly after dark. I try to read, but it’s been a long day, beginning before 5 a.m. back at the hotel in Flagstaff. The moon comes out shortly after dark, nearly full and lighting the walls and river. I’m afraid it may be too bright to sleep, but it dips below the walls of the rim around midnight. At the same time, the evening finally becomes cool and we are glad for the sleeping bags resting in the bottom of our dry bags.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 1

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Orientation and River People

The night before the trip begins, we meet at the Holiday Inn Express in Flagstaff. Erin, a slightly built enthusiastic woman who looks more like a college freshman than a 26 year old river guide, orients the group and passes out our gear. She will be our hiking guide on day 6, the day Julia Rose and I, along with the Zifkin family, hike up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, while 5 more passengers hike down and continue the canyon trip with our group. Erin is a swamper, an apprentice raft guide, not yet qualified with oar boats, especially with passengers–she tells us later she will probably pilot a motorized raft before an oar raft). We meet the other 13 members of the group–3 couples; a family of four, the son and daughter freshly graduated from college; and 3 men traveling solo–receive our dry bags for our camping gear and our ammo cans for our personal gear, and watch a video and ask questions. Erin reassures us about the hike out, which has worried me for a year, given the shape of my knees. “It’ll be fun,” she says, alluding to the temperatures, which are expected to be 110 or higher. “We’ll take our time and ‘shade-hop.’ It’s just another part of the canyon, something you don’t want to miss.”

Afterward, we go to WalMart for last minute supplies and to  Cracker Barrel for supper, then spend the evening sorting gear into the army surplus ammo cans–waterproof and easily opened, for personal items on the raft–and the larger dry bags, for sleeping bags, clothing, everything else.

We awake the next morning, not having slept a lot, to eat breakfast and catch the Canyoneers bus to Lee’s Ferry and the put in. There, we slather on sunscreen, receive our life jackets and adjust them for the trip, and meet our guides: There are three passenger boats and guides–Ethan, the trip leader, Omar, and Captain Dave; two guides to row the equipment boats–Jason and Leo; and two swampers–Erin, also the hike-out guide, and a friend of Leo’s who is taking the trip as a work-along, essentially paying for the trip by doing all the grunt work. In addition to the rafts, our trip features an original 1939 wooden “cataract boat,” built by the first commercial river runner through the canyon–Norman Nevills–and paddled by his grandson, Gregg Grieff.

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The passengers divide up into the three boats. Not quite sure of the etiquette, I ask Captain Dave is Julia Rose and I can ride on his boat for the day. “I’d love to have you on my boat,” he says, and I know that I instinctively made a good choice. Raft guides take great pride in their boats, how they are rigged, keeping them clean, and how they feel comfortable interacting with their passengers. Each guide instructs his passengers how to sit during a rapid, because each rower has a feel for the way weight is distributed and how the boat handles in the waves.

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Captain Dave–Photo by Ken Herman

Dave is not a particularly big guy, but once he starts rowing it’s clear that he is powerful. Thirty-one years old, he eventually tells us, with a dark complexion, he rarely applies sunscreen even though he wears shorts and muscle shirts and a white sailing captain’s hat. He’s serious about his guide duties, and as we drift down the entrance to the canyon he entertains us with lessons on the geology that we see on the canyon walls, and stories about the early river runners who named–or had the rapids named for–the rapids and other features, as well as pointing out sites that played a major role in the history of river running. We see a condor soaring beyond Navajo bridges, briefly, before it veers out of sight, and Dave recounts the story of their near extinction and ongoing recovery, point out that there is a release point near the put in.

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Riding in the bow with Julia Rose and me is Glen, a quiet 70 year old science teacher from Connecticutt, not yet retired. Later on the trip we discover that we both hung out around the Nantahala River in North Carolina in the 1970s, doing whitewater, though he beat me there by a few years. Still, it’s quite possible we could have been there at the same time at some point. Glen reminds me of the actor who played the old Norman Maclean in the movie A River Runs Through It, in that final scene where he is fishing the Big Blackfoot river alone. Glen proves an inspiration, going on all the hikes, experiencing the canyon with a quiet serenity, the way I like to imagine myself at 70.  Like us, this is his first trip to the canyon.

In the back, riding behind Dave and the drybags which give him a backrest, are Ira and Delana from Kansas City, one of the 3 couples. Ira’s retired military, mid-forties, and still does consulting work to supplement his retirement after putting in his career years. Delana is a special education teacher. Together they are quiet though friendly.

As he rows, Dave slowly reveals his story. He grew up in southern Arizona, and he tells of making an exploratory trip to the canyon about seven years earlier, spending a few days backpacking and being thunderstruck by the country. He quickly realized that in only making a couple of trips a year he could never see it all or even begin to have some sense of a relationship with the canyon. He sold everything he had and committed to the canyon, moving north and working whatever jobs he could in order to live there. He spent a lot of time working as a backpacking guide and eventually moved into river work, advancing from swamper to guide. We would find out later that he and Erin are together, living frugally, with no electricity or running water and not much space, but lots of books. I end up talking books quite a bit with Dave–he reads us a passage from a Loren Eisley essay one night around camp, a passage talking about the appeal of the desert and rivers. We discuss Ed Abbey, and I tell him about Brown’s Four Corners, a book that describes the geography, geology, history, biology, and anthropology of the Colorado Plateau uplift.

As we begin our trip the Paria River enters river right at mile 1. Today there is virtually no flow coming out of the Paria, so the Colorado, flowing aqua green and cool (46-47 degrees) out of Glen Canyon dam, about 15 miles upstream, is unmuddied and will remain so for the remainder of our trip. As the days go on and we get further from the dam, the water will cloud a little, but it still looks pure and drinkable by day six. Last summer when we stopped by the put in on our way home from the North Rim, the Paria was running a low volume, but the incredibly concentrated silt content transformed the Colorado into a muddy brown for the length that we could see, the first five miles of the river, well past the Navajo Bridges spanning the canyon. When the Paria is running, I am told, the Colorado is muddy.

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Paria River muddying the Colorado, Paria Riffle, just below Lees’s Ferry,  August 2015

The Paria River also marks the beginning of Marble Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell because he thought the name sounded more majestic–there is no marble in the canyon. Powell describe it this way: “The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. The rocks are of many colors–white, gray, pink, and purple, with saffron tints.” Technically, it is part of the Grand Canyon.

The day is warm and clear, well over 100 degrees, possibly 110 or higher–intense, but with a low humidity, and not as overwhelming as might be imagined by a non-westerner. As we float the sun strikes our legs at the thigh, the most vulnerable part of the body because it’s horizontal, and we dip our bandannas into the cool water and cover the exposed skin, which keeps us cool and prevents any burning on the first day. Our Outdoor Research Sombriolet sun hats keep our faces and neck in deep shade, but sunscreen helps us with the reflections.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River “Put-In”: Lee’s Ferry and Navajo Bridges

The Put-in

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The Sandra, a “cataract boat” built by Norm Nevills, the first commercial river runner on the Grand Canyon, c1939, oared by his grandson, Greg Greiff

I’ve always loved the simplicity of that term, the put-in, literally the location where river runners put their boats into the water. Obviously, the end of the river trip comes at the “take-out,” but the essence of what is involved in those two places packs so much more weight.

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Photo by Ken Herman

For river-runners, and here I mean the boaters, or guides, in our case, the guys and gals at the oars and their swampers (as opposed to the passengers), the put-in is more than the simple task of passing out life jackets and telling passengers to point their feet downstream if they fall out of the boat in a rapid. There is a science involved in rigging out a boat, balancing necessity versus luxary, packing a seemingly infininte array of gear and equipment, food and beverages into a fininte space that must be perfectly balanced against the power of massive hydraulic holes and ten and twelve foot standing waves. The boaters make it look easy, orgainzing their dry bins, strapping down dry bags, tying boaters’ knots, bantering with customers and other boaters. It’s a science learned over thousands of hours, reinforced through multiple bad experiences–an essential piece of gear forgotten or lost–passed down over generations of boaters.

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Photo by Ken Herman

In addition to all the work that goes into the offseason–gear repair, inventory, training, studying of history and geology and nature, the sometimes tedium of off-river jobs, there is the dreaming, the dreaming of the river and the canyons and the camaraderie of the boaters’ life and the feeling and sound of the way water moves and the way a boat moves over water and the joy of hitting a rapid just right and feeling the rhythm of a perfect run and the frustration over a bad decision or a poorly executed move or the simple powerlessness that must surely be felt over attempting to maneufer a boat weighing several thousand pounds against the force of twenty-thousand cubic feet of water running downhill.

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Captain Dave, “putting-in” (photo by Ken Herman)

 

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There’s the infininte tinkering: adjusting the depth of the floor of the oar-frame, adjusting the collar on the oars where they fit into the oarlock, inspecing weakened or damaged parts, balancing and rebalancing. It’s a dance that has been going on for days, if not months, so that by the end of a boating season the process if fine tuned. But the passengers don’t see the hours that go into raft repair and inspection, blowing up air chambers, applying duct tape, tightening connections, running over gear lists and packing coolers and planning meals and shopping for groceries for twenty or more people over thirteen days.

And the passengers, filled with their own emotions, whether trepidation, anticipation, excitement, confusion, or doubt–“did I pack everything I need?” “Did I pack too much?” “Who are these people I’m going to be camping and boating with for six to thirteen days, and will I like them, and will they like me?”

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Despite all the planning and wrestling with emotions, there comes the time to put the boats into the river, clamber aboard, clip in water bottles and find handholds and make introductions to other passengers and the guide. As you glide down the Paria Riffle you pass under a cable with an orange aircraft warning bubble and pass the point of no return (unless you decide, like other boaters over the years, beginning with some of Major John Wesley Powell’s boatmen, to hike out to the canyon rim–two of Powell’s men did this and were never heard from again), you’re in the Grand Canyon, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and nothing you should want to do about it other than embrace the experience.

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