The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 4

July 17, 2016


Packing up for the day


Sunrise at Lower Saddle Campsite


Daylight at Lower Saddle

Julia Rose and I had originally scheduled with Greg Reiff to passenger on the Sandra, today, the short, wooden cataract boat built by Greg’s grandfather, Norman Nevills, one of the first commercial boaters in the canyon. It only takes two passengers, and Greg likes to get as many people on the boat as possible on a trip so that they can have a real historical perspective on boating in wooden boats. However, the day before, Ethan had warned us that Day 4 was much like Day 3 in terms of lack of big water and excitement. One of the reasons to ride on the Sandra is the excitement afforded by lying face down on the front deck, face just above the water level, holding on with two hand straps, and crashing through the rapids–Nevilles and Greg call it “fish-eyeing.” So the night before, I asked Greg if it would be okay to delay our time on the Sandra a day, since Day 5 promised lots of big rapids. Greg accommodated and let a more timid couple ride that day, and we teamed up with Terry and Amy and Don on Ethan’s raft.


River guides’ solution to the wear and tear of the desert on sandaled feet

Terry and Amy are Arizona natives making their third trip down the canyon, and they will be celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary on the river (by design, actually riding the Sandra). Terry is a retired engineer for the state and Amy a second or third grade school teacher. They’ve left Arizona and moved to Oregon, near Bend, and they’re a very cool couple. Terry likes to hike and we chatted a good bit on various hikes. Amy is gregarious and funny, easy to tease and teases back. It was a relaxing day on the boat because there was time to talk and observe the canyon while Ethan rowed. They will celebrate their anniversary on Day 6, the day we climb out of the canyon, and that is the day they’ve reserved for the Sandra. Terry and I had hiked together for a while going up Saddle canyon the day before.

We’re surprised to learn that Ethan is younger than he looks, though he looks fairly young. I would have put him in his late 20s, but turns out he’s still in his early 20s and has been working the river since he was 17. The guides on the equipment boats are apprentice boaters, working for tips and experience. Ethan worked his way up pretty quickly, due to his skill with the boat, which is obvious, and his easy-going personality. He’s a good leader. He tells us that when gets off a long river trip he always takes in an afternoon movie to soak up the air conditioning and the dark of the theatre.

The morning broke clearer than day 3, with little trace of smoke. We weren’t sure if the fire had burned itself out or if the wind had shifted or if we had just paddled out of the downwind stream. It turned out to be the latter of the two, since the fire was still burning weeks after the trip ended. Not long after we got on the river we passed Nankoweap Canyon and one of the bigger rapids of the day, Nankoweap Rapid which drops 25 feet through a long, sweeping left hand curve–lots of splash and quite long, but not very technical. High above the river under an overhang of the cliff the ancients built pueblo style granaries that dates back to 1100. The overhang had been walled off with tightly fitted adobe bricks, which formed rooms that held grain and seeds and protected them from rodents and decay. From the river four rectangular windows are clearly visible.

As we floated Terry and Amy told stories about their kids and each other. A motorized oar rig passed us and Amy knew someone on the other raft, someone she had taught with before, so it prompted a shouted exchange and kept Amy telling stories about her friend for a few miles.


lunch stop

The highlight of the day was an afternoon stop at the confluence of the Little Colorado River. Because of the high alkaline content and other minerals the water is eye-hurting turquoise blue. We hiked up the upstream bank of the Little about a quarter mile where a nice fast chute of water poured through a narrows. We took turns floating the chute in our life jackets, and in between swimming we rested under the shade of an overhang. Some of the rafters hung out beside some big boulders and made handprint designs by dipping their hands in the mud and laying them on the rock.


Confluence of Little Colorado River and the Colorado


20160717_121931We camp at Upper Tanner, which is a wide delta where the cliffs draw back from the river and we get the sense of wide desert, the feel of being hemmed in by the canyon forgotten for the evening. Julia Rose and I pick out a campsite below a short cliff  near the boat landing, but decide to move further away from the rocks  after watching a long thin snake cross our campsite and disappear into some brush on the other side. Clearly his territory, and while non-poisonous, unsettling enough to encourage us to move.


Looking across the valley from Tanner

Greg Reiff leads a group on a half mile hike to get a close up look at “Newspaper Rock,” a cluster of rocks on a hill that have dozens of petroglyphs carved into them. The site suggests that the area was heavily visited, most likely farmed hundreds of years ago, and important for whatever ceremonial, spiritual, or communal reasons that can be inferred. A teacher by trade, Greg establishes rules about not touching anything, but then leads the group in thinking about the importance of respect for cultural artifacts, comparing the site to the churches, temples, and synagogues of the Western and near-Eastern worlds. Sitting on the rocks near “Newspaper Rock,” we have a nice view of the river and a wide valley within the canyon.







Ed Zifkin, Greg Reiff (Sandra cataract boat), Erin Brugler (hike guide)


Don Schumm, Ira Wagner, Amy Burks, Terry Burks



Terry Burks, Glenn Sherratt, Sue Feldman, Elena Zifkin


Ed Zifkin, Chris Adakai, Erin Brugler


The evening is windy, blowing sand, and after a supper of spaghetti and meatballs, Omar and Greg stop by our campsite for a little while. For some reason we end up talking about Racism and the deep South, which Omar can appreciate since he grew up in Virginia with a Nicaraguan mother. Greg was flabbergasted by the stories Julia Rose and I told about the pickup truck parades flying Confederate battle flags in reaction to the black church shooting in South Carolina and talks about taking the rebel flags off of Southern capitols and state flags. That such a thing is still an issue is a concept that Greg, a true Westerner, can’t seem to wrap his head around. Chris, a friend of Leo’s  sets up a dome tent, fearing rain, and while we talk, the canyon walls in the distance color and darken with the setting sun. Sure enough, during the night we get a heavy sprinkle and a few people break out the rafting company’s dome tents and set them up by headlamp. Julia Rose and I debate setting one up, but decide it’s too much trouble and the rain blows over before we could have gotten it set up anyway.


Omar Martinez, Julia Rose, Greg Reiff


Evening at Tanner



Jim Harrison: Novelist, Poet, Essayist (1938 – 2016)–A Love Story, Part I


I found out today that one of my all time favorite authors, Jim Harrison, died yesterday. I discovered him at a time when I was beginning to develop a taste for literary fiction, sometime in college. I had grown up on comic books, whatever passed for young adult fiction at my school library, and a ton of mass market paperbacks, which I shopped for from spinning book racks in grocery and drugstores, where the choices were limited. My tastes ran to action, particularly anything to do with the west or WWII.  There were a few lucky finds (Catch 22, Mountain ManSerpico, M*A*S*H, Das Boot, When the Legends Die, and of course, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, among others) and a lot of crap. This was in the 1970s, when paperbacks sold for two or three dollars, manageable on paper route and Burger King money.

Even in college, I had a rule where I only read for recreation between semesters or on summer break, but I was lucky enough to have a good friend who was an English major, who turned me on to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway. As I got a taste of these authors, I grew hungry for more substantial reading, and so I turned to Trade Paperbacks, a significant investment since it more than doubled and most often tripled the cost of books, but publishers like Dell and Bantam were introducing new, cutting edge authors, and by then I was working factory jobs in the summers and then moved on to a salary when I graduated. I began to haunt the  bookstores like B.Dalton, focusing on the Trades.

I remember finding Legends of the Fall in a shoe box sized bookstore in a tiny mall in Tupelo, Mississippi, one summer while I was working a second shift on an assembly line making light fixtures. At the time I did my reading late at night, or in the late mornings and early afternoons before going in to the plant to sweat over the line.  The book is a collection of 3 novellas. The first, Revenge, told the story of a retired air force pilot who befriends a Mexican gang lord, falls in love with his wife and has an affair, and when discovered, is beaten and left for dead in the Mexican desert. Discovered by a peasant who delivers him to a missionary who is also a doctor, the novella traces the path for revenge on the drug lord, as well as the quest to reunite with the woman he fell in love with. The story is gritty and violent, and beautifully written. Among other things, it opened my eyes to Mexico and fueled a burgeoning love (first ignited by Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire) for Southwestern deserts.

The title piece of the collection, Legends of the Fall, opens memorably:

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of the silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Often described at Hemingwayesque, mistakenly, in reviews, Harrison’s writing was lyrical in style and mythical in scope. I fell in love, and I’ve been reading him ever since. Harrison is one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer. After Legends of the Fall, I went back and picked up Wolf, A Good Day to Die, and Farmer, and I’ve been collecting and reading him ever since. With over 21 volumes of fiction and a half dozen or more collections of poetry, there was a lot to read. Over the next few weeks I hope to share some of the better pieces I’ve found, and hope others will find him as well.