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


On Wilderness: An Introduction to Edward Abbey’s Black Sun and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Part II


Part II: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (Pulitzer Prize, 1972)

Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose best captures the struggle Americans have experienced, especially over the past 150 years, regarding our attitude toward Nature and civilization. The novel covers two time periods: the last quarter of the 19th century, focusing on Oliver and Susan Burling Ward’s courtship and early marriage; and the 1960s, as their grandson Lyman Ward, nearing the end of his own life ponders their lives, realizing that the past “is the only direction we can learn from.” Oliver and Susan Ward help to illustrate the paradoxical attitude toward Nature and Wilderness. There is no denying nature holds the power to influence our thoughts and actions. An Easterner, Susan falls in love after a picnic at “Big Pond, eight miles back in the woods, a wild and romantic place where a waterfall poured into a marble pool.” Susan is apologetic about the inadequacy of Eastern nature, because Oliver has traveled the West and has “seen the Yosemite and ridden the length of the San Joaquin Valley through square miles of wildflowers.” The two experience nature as “poets and philosophers did outdoors in the early years of the picturesque—strolling, picking early autumn leaves.”  Susan, who “had always responded strongly to storms, rain in the face, wild winds, wild waters . . . . hung her face over the cliff to see down the waterfall” with Oliver securing her by the ankles to prevent accident. Lyman Ward, the narrator,  points out that “at about the same time, and for similar reasons, John Muir was hanging over the brink of Yosemite Falls dizzying himself with the thunder of hundreds of tons of foam and green glass going by him.” The moment at the falls seals Susan’s fate. Influenced by the transcendent power of nature, she agrees to give up the art world of New York City and its society for what turns out to be a nomadic Western excursion through the West’s wildest country and roughest mining towns.

snake river falls Idaho

Oliver Ward, an engineer, though reticent by nature, favors the vibrant life of the mine camps and works incessantly through grueling conditions imposed by weather, terrain, the limitations imposed by investors seeking to make a profit off of natural resources, and the fickleness of the economy. He and his attitudes toward Wilderness and Nature is perhaps best characterized early in the novel through objective correlation, objects that symbolize the “freedom dream” that drove so many people to the open spaces of the West. Among these symbols are Oliver’s most personal possessions, which Susan kept hanging on the wall even after his death, even after their marriage had been destroyed. These possessions include “a broad leather belt, a wooden-handled cavalry revolver of the Civil War period, a bowie knife, and a pair of Mexican spurs with 4-inch rowels.” Likewise, when Susan returns to the East with their son for a visit, Oliver sends unwanted and, to her mind, useless gifts of beaver skins and a mounted elk head to “keep before her some aspect of himself that he did not want her to forget.” She uses the elk head to “impress on [her son] the idea of his father.” As she looks at the elk head mounted in the barn, she thinks that it “did not acknowledge the tame-animal smells of the barn; it had an air of scorning the hay on which such animals fed.”


Common 19th Century attitudes toward Nature are even better revealed through Oliver’s occupation as a mining engineer. Lyman describes his grandfather’s “inventiveness . . . his genius for having big ideas twenty years ahead of their time . . . his struggle to do something grand and humanly productive and to be one of the builders of the West.” Attitudes toward land and its value have always revolved around the paradoxes of preservation vs. utilization, conservation vs. development, and primitivism vs. progress. Oliver’s plan to build a canal system and dam to irrigate a high elevation sage plain in Idaho, to engineer the natural environment into irrigated farmland, leads to the family’s financial and spiritual disaster. Ironically, Oliver’s failed plan foreshadows the boom of federal dam building and irrigation projects that will begin to transform the West a few years later, projects that will lead to the loss of natural wonders such as Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, and the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite, as well as contribute to urban sprawl, pollution, and loss of species habitat. The fiction here serves to express the spiritual loss that comes with failing to adapt to Nature, rather than engineer it.

Gold hill Nevada

Ironically, it is Susan Ward, “. . . who came West not to join a new society but to endure it, not to build anything but to enjoy a temporary experience and make it yield whatever instruction it contained,” who illustrates Stegner’s ideas about adaptation. Over the course of the novel, Susan views her sojourn West as first “an adventurous picnic,” then “with a solemn intention of making a home in her husband’s chosen country,” and finally “into exile.” But at times, she is buoyed by restorative nature, as when the rainy season comes to California and “the sun that had been inescapable for months was now out of sight for sometimes a week on end,” and “wild gusts of rain beat against her house . . . and the mountain was lost and revealed and lost again in stormy roils of cloud, the hills emerged under the slashes of reasserted sun a magical fresh green.” Or when she shows the elk head to her son and tries to paint an idyllic scene of riding in the high country and hearing an elk bugle. In the lantern light the elk’s “varnished muzzle, coated with eighteen months of dust, shown as if wet in the light. A phantasmal fire glinted it the eyeballs. It might have bugled at any moment.” Later, she tells her sister, “It simply gleamed at us, as if the talk about going to the mountains had wakened it from its       sleep. . . . Oh, now I feel myself coming to life, too! I can hardly wait to get back there and make a home in that wild beautiful place.” Once in Idaho she expresses concerns about the cultural limitations of the West in one breath, and in the next describes her arrival in the canyon: “. . . that dry magical wind from the west blew across us, until at last we came out on a long bench above a river valley, with mountains close behind patched with snow and forest. To our right, the stream broke out of a canyon cut through the sagebrush foothills.” She brags to her Eastern friends, “Have you ever built a house with your own hands, out of the materials that Nature left lying around? . . . . It is the most satisfying experience I know” (390).


The struggle to reconcile these disparate points of view about Nature still dominates conversations in the U.S., and the world: Who owns the land? How do we manage it? Who profits from it? How do we protect it? How does it shape our identity?