July 18, 2016
We put on the river that morning at Upper Tanner and enjoyed some nice rapids, though they were smaller. Julia Rose took the first turn at fish-eying, since Greg wanted my weight on the front of the boat for the bigger rapids that were coming up later. Before heading into a rapid, we made sure to stow our sunglasses in a secured dry bag and stuff our wide-brimmed hats into the front of our life preservers, so as not to have anything washed away by the waves. The morning was relatively cool, riding in the early morning shade of the canyon walls, and Julia Rose had a wet run filled with pure joy.
We had a quick run through Tanner rapid, a straight-forward class 2-4 with a 20 foot drop, then we stopped at a major archaeology site at Unkar Delta. According to the Grand Canyon River Guide, Ancestral Native Americans in the canyon date back over several millenia, with animal effigy figurines dating to 3000 BC. These early ancestors practices a hunting and gathering lifestyle that shifted to agriculture and a more settled life, with evidence dating to around 700 AD. Puebloan people moved into the canyon around 800 AD, at first living on or near the rim and farming close to the river. As the climate improved (increased and regular rainfall), they began to move into the canyon and develop small pit house dwellings with rock walls and roofs made out of brush supported by cottonwood poles. By around 1100 AD they had developed well-designed, multi-room, above ground pueblos, as well as underground ceremonial kivas.
The Unkar Delta, a wide flat terrace above the river, holds the ruins of over a thousand of these excavated dwellings, which can be seen along a trail maintained by the National Park Service. The Puebloan ancestors farmed corn, beans, and squash, laid out agricultural fields, built cliff granaries and rock lined roasting pits, and documented their lives with petroglyph and pictograph art. The trail is well marked with rock boundaries so visitors can’t disturb the sites. Greg reminded us of the importance of these artifacts to the contemporary American Indians, who see this site as sacred and holy. Numerous artifacts, mainly pottery shards, have been left along the rocks lining the trail for visitors to look at and photograph, but not touch or pocket. It’s an incredible view into lives lived over a thousand years ago.
We got back on the boats and ran Unkar Rapid, class 4-7 with a drop of 25 feet, with Julia Rose back in the fish-eye position. And then we stopped at Escalante Canyon and took a long hike, two miles round-trip, up Escalante canyon. The canyon opens onto the river in a wide graveled creek bed, and winds up through narrowing walls to a box canyon, where we practiced some rock climbing to get up to the next level of canyon. After a bit of exploring we sat in whatever shade we could find to listen to Greg tell us the story of his grandfather and how he got started on the Colorado, and sadly, how he died in a small plane crash (he was a pilot as well as a river-runner). It was a moving experience to hear Nevills’ story, told by a grandson who exhibited the love and pride of his generations, and a real connection to the history and physical dimensions of the land he walked on and the water he floated. Listening to Greg’s story in the canyon and later, pondering it while sitting in the boat his grandfather built and Greg tediously reconditioned, I felt a connection to the canyon and the river that I don’t think I would have gained from any other experience. It makes me happy that in this age of bottom line economic and business models, that Greg is able to tell his family’s history and share his grandfather’s boat and I admire his continuation and fulfillment of the tradition. Hearing Greg yell his grandfather’s name in the rapid named after him provided me with a true sense of historical connection. It made me feel like I had been invited into a sacred space.
Julia Rose got to fish-eye Nevills, a class 4-7 with a 16 foot drop (accented by Greg’s yelling out his grandfather’s name in memorial), but then we stopped to scout Hance, one of the bigger rapids of the trip so far, a much more technical class 7-8 with a nasty hole at the top and some big waves and a drop of 30 feet. It was my turn to fish-eye, my turn to throw my body around “like a linebacker” to keep the boat upright in the wettest ride of my white-water experience. It’s a limited view–your neck can only crane back so far when you’re kissing the deck, as the boat climbs roller coaster waves to the top, where you get a split second view of the rapid and the wave-train ahead, before plunging back down into the next trough. There’s no chance to anticipate the run, only to throw your body from side to side, sometimes extending head and shoulders beyond the perimeter of the deck and out over and into the water.
After Hance there are a couple of short ripples, and then “Sockdolager,” a well named class 5-7 with a 19 foot drop. Sockdolager is a word that can be dated back to use in the 1830s, which means “something unusually large or heavy,” or “a forceful, finishing blow,” as in finishing a fight. Below Sockdolager I switched back to the rear of the boat and let Julia Rose finish the day fish-eyeing. The last section of the day featured a good mix of rapids in a section of the canyon with close walls and some wild-looking fins protruding from the rock walls. Julia Rose ran Grapevine (class 6-7 and a 17 foot drop) in the fish-eye, and in the smaller rapids that followed, I was able to shoot video with my compact fuji camera. Greg, knowing I was filming, took us into the wave train of one of the rapids without warning Julia Rose (he tended to cheat the bigger holes in his small boat) and Julia Rose got a great ride on film. We finished out the day with some good fun rapids, including 83 Mile rapid, Zoraster, and Clear Creek, along with some good ripples.
We finished the afternoon camping at Upper Cremation campsite. Julia Rose and I pitched a tent in a small sandy patch between boulders, up on a hill overlooking the landing site. The guides grilled steaks and made garlic mashed potatoes, and Terry and Amy told us about how they met years ago (the next day was their anniversary and they would be on the Sandra). They met back in the late 70s, when Terry spotted Amy driving on the highway and fell in love and followed her to a rest stop, where they chatted away the afternoon and made plans to meet on a later trip–she was returning to college dorm after a weekend trip). The guides made a deal out of saying goodbye to those of us who were hiking out the next morning (Julia Rose and I, and Ed Zifkin and his wife Sue, and their children Elena and Ben, who had both just graduated from college that spring); 5 new boaters were hiking into the canyon to continue the rest of the trip. It was sad to be be leaving the group without being able to see the rest of the canyon and share it with these people who we had become friends with very shortly. The guides pointed out (truthfully, I belive) how much they had enjoyed rafting with us all. It was a good group with good grace and small egos–everyone was friendly and unselfish and no one thought they were more special than anyone else on the trip. The monsoon season was coming on and it sprinkled and showered off and on all night. It was really too hot to be in the tent, but too wet not to be in the tent. A private group camped at Lower Cremation campsite, about 50 yards downstream from us, and they spread tents all over the hillside above their beach, yelled at one another, and played loud music for much of the evening before finally settling down for the night, proving that even in the Grand Canyon you can’t completely get away from assholes.