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



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


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.


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


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.



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.







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.


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.


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.



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.


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




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.



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.


The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 2, part 2



Desert Bighorn Sheep

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.dscf1183

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.



Elana and Julia Rose

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.


Pick three

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.


On Climbing Mountains, Part VIII


Day 2 –Hike to High Camp, Part I


We woke in the morning and broke down the camp and packed our gear into our packs and stood near the trail eating granola bars and drinking hot chocolate and coffee, waiting for the signal to move out. I felt better in the morning despite the fact I had slept little. The cure for altitude sickness, as well as the prevention, is to drink lots of water, and I had drank nearly a liter before going to bed, knowing I would have to exit the tent a few times to relieve myself, but knowing I couldn’t hike the next day with my  head in a drum. Each exit required squirming out of a mummy style sleeping bag, hard enough anyway, but squeezed in a 4 person tent with three teenage boys, it felt like I was the mummy bag being pulled out of a compression stuff bag. Several times during the night, enough to lose count, I unzipped the tent fly, trying to be as quiet as possible, crawled out the narrow opening, walked a few steps away, and relieved myself while staring at a dazzling night sky, the stars shining sharp and bright like the headlamps of a car narrowing the miles of distance on a desert highway where you can see horizon to horizon.

Imagine hundreds, perhaps thousands of those car headlights, made sharper due to a new moon, protected from the light pollution of Denver by the Continental Divide a few miles to the East. It made it worth it, but getting back into the mummy bag was like trying to dress in a coffin.

Phil and Dupree called us to “circle up,” and they took turns telling us about the day ahead—“long and hard”—in halting Net Generation voices that were sincere, but weren’t practiced in assertion. They told us again the secret was to keep moving, to get our endorphins flowing. The day before Dupree had told me, as I was straggling at the back of the line, that he had named his endorphins: “barely there” and “long gone.” Mine didn’t stick around long enough to get named, I’d told him.


The day played out much like the day before on our hike to low camp. Our group was composed of hikers with a wide range of abilities, and, to my surprise, I was not the weakest link. The guides set a fast pace, and about five or six of our 15 climbers managed to stay with the leader, Julia Rose among them. I tended toward the middle of the pack, where I played leap frog with three or four hikers moving at my pace. I would stop to catch my breath and rearrange my pack and get passed by one, two, or three people, then catch them up on the next leg, when they would stop to do the same. I liked the middle of the line in part because it kept my pride intact, but more because I didn’t have to listen to the chatter of the kids at the front who had enough oxygen to burst into spontaneous song. While I was content to endure my pain in silence, I had to remember I was surrounded by 14 and 15 year olds who were intimidated by silence. Luckily, there was not much wasted breath from the middle of the pack, middle of the packers being by nature introverts.


My strategy involved picking an object fifty yards up the trail and vowing to not stop until I reached it, and then repeating the trick, I was able to keep a buffer from the back of the group, where Pam, my elder by a year, a woman who had never even camped before but had accompanied her daughter on Trek, struggled. There were a couple of others back there, having as hard a time as Pam and me, and a couple more who could have been at the front of the line but stayed near the back to encourage the stragglers.

Iceland: Porsmork, Landmannalaugar—Land of Guides, Rainbows, Hot Springs, Hiking Huts, Lamb Steaks, and Gearheads, Part I

Part I

Sigurdur overlooking a geothermal field

Sigurdur overlooking a geothermal field

After only a few days I think of our Icelandic guide Sigurdur as more of a friend than a guide. We take our meals together at breakfast and supper in the hotels, and there we discuss everything from our families to the geology of Iceland, from hiking and camping to the social and economic history of the country, from jobs we have had in the past to childhood experiences. At one stop Sigurdur purchases a packet of dried cod. When the seal is broken the fish smell fills the bus, to some mild and mostly whispered complaints, but my daughter Stella and I tear off big chunks and enjoy the gamey flavor. He has given us wild plants to taste and taught the students to drink from running streams. One night he alerts us to the Nothern Lights that will be visible later in the evening, and comes outside to make sure we find them. Another day, he spots a sheep sorting IMG_7425in progress and leads us to watch. On Day four of our tour, Sigurdur says he is taking us to his favorite place in all of Iceland, the place where he goes to camp with his family on his days off. “To me, it is the most beautiful place in all Iceland,” he says. The sky is overcast and most of the way    we drive in a light rain that ranges from a fine mist to a heavy drizzle. The temperature is in the low fifties, maybe a little colder. The first part of the drive is over ground we’ve covered a few times over the past couple of days, so most of the students sleep or listen to music on their earbuds. I doze a few minutes at a time, but then we drive off the pavement and everyone wakes up and pays attention.

We are in a wide glacial valley, mostly rock, on a rock road that is only distinguishable from the rest of the valley because it has been shaped by a number of vehicles agreeing to follow the same path.  A good sized creek—averaging 20 – 30 feet wide—weaves down the valley, running fast with silty water the color of cement.



The mountains on either side are green with an occasional touch of color due to advancing Fall. The valley is named Porsmork, named after Thor, the Norse god of Thunder (In Icelandic, the P letter makes the th sound). It is a wild place, and the weather accentuates the atmosphere. In the seat behind me, two girls who are heavy into Comic conventions and superhero movies are beside themselves. Porsmork sits at the base of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, causing an ash plume that stalled air traffic over northern Europe for over a week. We drive in and out of rain and sun, providing several full rainbows for our pleasure.

We come to the first creek crossing, little more than a wide puddle, and Sigurdur slows and plows right through. We are still in an 18 passenger van, what we would use for a church youth group in the states, though this one is jacked up and runs on big truck tires. It is also pulling a trailer with luggage for 15 people for three months abroad. We plow on through, but as we proceed further up the valley, the creeks become wider and the current faster. At some point I anticipate having to turn back, or at least getting the chance to climb out of the van and accompany Sigurdur as he scouts the crossing, much like a white water raft guide would scout a difficult rapid. This, Sigurdur does not do.

River crossing, from behind the driver

River crossing, from behind the driver

I’ve crossed plenty of creeks in four wheel and two wheel drive before, back in the South and later in Colorado. In Mississippi, where the soil is dirt and the biggest challenge is mud, the trick is speed, because once a car bogs down the wheels just spin and dig a deeper rut. I had no experience with rocky ground until I drove a passenger truck for the Tennessee Valley Authority while building powerlines. All I knew was what I saw in the truck commercials on television—no matter the terrain, hit it fast because “our trucks are tough.” The first time I came to a creek crossing I charged across, only to be met with cursing and death threats from the back seat. My foreman, a tight-mouthed East Tennesseean named Bill Ray (first and last), after cussing me pretty good, told me “if you hit a rock in there you’ll throw us through the windshield.” The point is, if you’ve got enough truck, it will do the work, and if you do get stuck, there’s probably a bulldozer somewhere on the job site to pull you out. Also, in the South we are constantly warned against the danger of crossing flooded roads wherever there’s a low place. It’s not uncommon to hear about someone drowning while driving across a flooded road after an extraordinarily heavy thunderstorm. Needless to say, Sigurdur’s driving was impressive.


After several crossings that I would have turned back from in my four wheel drive Chevy Blazer, we came to a wide crossing with a lot of volume. The road bed actually cut at an angle across the creek, so the actual crossing was a good fifty to sixty feet or more, the current was whitewater-rapid fast and three to four feet deep, and the lips of the bank were sharp with a four foot drop to water level.  I thought for sure Sigurdur,  even if he tried it, would at least drop the trailer.  Instead, he swung wide to get the downstream angle to catch the road, put the van in low-low gear, and crept across the river and up the opposite bank to a thundering round of cheers.

Porsmork is part of a hut to hut hiking trail system maintained by the Icelandic Hiking Society. It is the southern end of a 55 kilometer hike that begins at Landmannalaugar, a four day hike with four huts and tent camping areas in between. The anchor huts offer bus service with regular summer schedules. The huts accommodate hikers in sleeping lofts where you can rent 24 square feet of a long padded sleeping space alongside your friends and strangers. There is a kitchen and

Porsmork kitchen

Porsmork kitchen

communal space for cooking and cleaning, and at least at the anchor huts, hot showers (500 krona for five minutes), and toilets. The huts are overseen by wardens. Because Sigurdur knows the warden (he camped here a few weeks ago) we were able to use the kitchen and eat out of the rain before taking our hike. After another spectacular creek crossing, Sigurdur took us into a short side canyon. It was very narrow, no more than 15 feet wide at its widest, with sixty foot walls that sometimes overhung the floor so that the sky was not visible. We crossed and recrossed the creek trying to stay dry. At one point several people turned back. We climbed a short ledge and then skirted the water by holding on to a chain bolted to the wall and leaning back while we walked the chain. We used a secured rope to pull ourselves up a second ledge. The canyon ended in a little waterfall plunging 40 feet into a shallow pool.

IMG_7542 It was a nice moment, working our way up that canyon to what felt like a very special waterfall. What made it special was that the side canyon was not part of the planned itinerary. It was something Sigurdur didn’t have to show us, especially considering he’d been on the road with us for four days and three nights, and after he dropped us off at our hotel that evening, he was heading home to his own family. The canyon wasn’t exactly a secret—there was a picnic table and an informational sign at the mouth of the canyon, and a road led right up to it—but it was definitely off the beaten path, and it was a special place for Sigurdur. To me, it meant that Sigurdur liked us, a conclusion I arrived at because he wasn’t in any hurry to get rid of us. We were more than customers. Perhaps we had shown through our enthusiasm to climb trails, endure wet and cold, ask questions, be curious, and share our meals, that we could be trusted with the experience of this small, private canyon. At least that’s what I like to think.

Sigurdur's canyon

Sigurdur’s canyon


Sigurdur drove us through the tricky river crossing again, earning our applause, and on the IMG_7568opposite bank, stopped to offer advice to a couple in a small four wheel drive who were turning back. He drove us to our hotel and dropped us off in the rain. I was sad to shake his hand and say goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see him again. Sometimes I am not happy with the way the world works.