The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part II

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part I

 

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July 18, 2017

On day five Julia Rose and I awake eager to begin our day on the Sandra. We have an easy job of packing up for the morning, since we don’t have a tent to break down, and after breakfast and helping load the rafts, we go wait for Greg to give us our special instructions for passengering on the Sandra.

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Lee’s Ferry, AZ, August 2016–The story of the Sandra goes back over a year before this day. A few years ago my wife and I made the decision that for their 16th birthdays, our daughters could choose a trip anywhere in the continental United States. Last summer, just after Julia Rose turned 15, our family was heading home following a vacation to Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. We stopped off at Lee’s Ferry so I could finally see the legendary put-in I’d read about for so many years. There were several groups getting ready to go down the river. A couple of private boaters had oar rafts rigged and ready to float, and there were some commercial trips getting ready. I watched a woman swamper rolling out a massive raft and inflate the air chambers, and I talked to one of the guides getting ready to take a group of scientists and elected officials, along with members of an American Indian tribe with cultural connections to the canyon gear up. Since it was late in the day the guides were rigging out the boats in preparation for a morning launch.

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Rigging a large motorized passenger raft at Lee’s Ferry, 2015

As I was Geeking out over the rafts, talking to guides and crew outfitting their boats, and explaining to Julia Rose what I knew about the river and the trips that went down it, she made the decision that she wanted to raft the Grand Canyon for her sixteenth birthday. The decision made me happy, since it meant that I would get to accompany her and finally get to live one of  my dreams.

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Norm Nevills at Bright Angel Beach, 1947 (courtesy Wikipedia)

As we headed toward home across Arizona, my wife scrolled through her phone, reading descriptions of the trip options for the following summer. As a boater, and as someone who knew that this might be my one chance to see the canyon from river level, I rejected trip after trip. Most of the trips were motorized, giant passenger rafts. I didn’t want the silence of the canyon to be marred by the sound of motors, and I didn’t want to sit on a giant raft like a passenger on a tour bus.  I wanted Julia Rose to experience the river on a smaller boat, where she could feel the size of the waves and get wet, where she could come to appreciate the artistry of a guide angling the boat into the waves and holes, where she could bail and pump water after a rapid, where she could experience the potential danger of a flipped raft and a cold swim, and where she could take in the wonders of the canyon, quietly reflecting on the flat sections, and talk to a guide one-on-one, and listen to his jokes and stories and take a turn on the oars in the slow water. I reasoned, correctly, that we were much more likely to encounter a higher quality of fellow clients on an oar trip–people like us who appreciate quiet wanted to engage with the river on a more personal level. As we drove, we focused in on the oar trips (much fewer than I anticipated), weighing options.

Lisa finally read a description of the upper canyon section of the river slated for mid-July, a trip that featured oar-rafts and no motorized support for the gear. The detail that sealed the deal, the one sentence that led me to choose Canyoneers, and our particular trip, was the fact that it featured a historic cataract boat built by Norm Nevills.

I didn’t remember all the details about Nevills, about his running the first commercial trips through the canyon and taking the first women end to end, but I knew the name from having read a book, over 30 years earlier, titled River Runners of the Grand Canyon. Off and on through the years I had studied the history of river running through the canyon, beginning with Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and the explorations of John Wesley Powell,  and tracing its history all the way to the young adult fiction of Will Hobbs and his book Downriver. Over the years I have marvelled at the courage, audacity, willpower, grit, foolishness, cleverness, and pride of those first men who built wooden boats and pushed them into the river. The opportunity to touch a bit of history, to experience the rapids in a handbuilt boat, to feel the movement of the river in the same way that some of  the earliest runners had felt it, was the only way that I could imagine my (for all I know) once in a lifetime Grand Canyon run.

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We booked the trip while driving across Arizona, and I began to plan and dream. I even gave Julia Rose Riverrunners so she could read up on the history and have an appreciation for just what a trip through the canyon promised.

Throughout our early days in the canyon, Julia Rose and felt a real sense of anticipation as we watched others ride the Sandra ahead of us and waited our turn. I don’t think we could have picked a better day to ride the Sandra. It’s a small boat, probably 14 feet, made out of marine plywood and painted white with green trim. It has a regular prow and a square stern, but it’s designed to float square stern down river. Otherwise, the current would push the square stern making the boat difficult to maneuver. Like all river runners, Greg has outfitted his boat to suite his personality, so the Sandra sports a variety of animal figures–from a plastic Gila monster to a Teddy bear (to remember his son while he’s away on the river)–lashed to the deck and cockpits. Inside a waterproof hatch, there’s a picture of his grandfather and grandmother in a cataract boat, laminated and glued to the inside hatch cover.

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Cockpit for the pilot and the second passenger

In operation, the guide sits in the middle of the boat in a little cockpit, and one passenger rides in a second cockpit  immediately behind the pilot. This passenger operates a bilge pump and bail bucket and gets a bird’s eye view of the rapids over the guide’s shoulders. The second passenger rides on a mat strapped to the deck in front of the guide, and in the rapid has to lay prone on the deck of the boat, legs spread out in a V, holding on to two grab loops at the front (stern) of the boat. The front passenger’s face is just above the water level, since the boat only has a foot or two of freeboard above the water line. In the big rapids the front passenger gets an eye-level view of the waves, and a very wet ride. As Greg explained, the front passenger has to pay attention to the holes and troughs in the river and throw his or her weight on the downriver side to help prevent the boat from flipping. Nevills called this “fish-eying.”

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Day 25: Countdown to Grand Canyon/Colorado River Rafting

Logistics

25 days until we put in at Lee’s Ferry and enter Marble Canyon. Our outfitter is Canyoneers, operating out of Flagstaff, Arizona. We will be floating oar powered boats through the upper Grand, approximately 87 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Pipe Springs, near Phantom Ranch. 6 Days on the river, and the we hike out the South Rim.

One of the reasons we chose this group is because of the historical emphasis of the trip. There will be no motor powered support boat, so we won’t have to listen to outboards, just the pure sounds of the river and canyon and the slapping of waves on the bow and the creak of oars in the locks. Along with the rafts, the group will be using the “Sandra,” one of the original Nevills Expedition cataract boats. Built in 1947, the Sandra was the last of the big water cataract boats to be built by Norm Nevills. In 2000, Norm’s grandson, Greg Reiff, began having the Sandra fully restored. She is currently the only fully restored, river worthy, cataract boat originally built and run by Norm Nevills.

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NORMAN NEVILLS’ 5TH COLORADO RIVER EXPEDITION. AT BRIGHT ANGEL CREEK DURING STOPOVER ON JULY 18-21, 1947. PHOTOGRAPHER J.M. EDEN. CIRCA 1947. NPS COPYRIGHT.

Here is a link to Canyoneers explaining the history of Norm Nevills and his boats:

The Canyoneers Story — From Nevills to Nowadays

Nevills was a commercial boater, running trips mainly on the San Juan River (he took his wife down the San Juan for their honeymoon, in a boat he built out of his mother’s horse trough). In addition, he took 7 trips down the canyon between 1938 and 1949, including a 43 day, 666 mile trip escorting two botanists from the University of Michigan to catalogue the flora of the canyon from Green River to Lake Mead. They were the first two women to successfully float the Grand Canyon.

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Along the trip we will be visiting scenic areas and taking some short side hikes each day. We expect temperatures to range from 100 – 115 degeed Farenheit (they were running 110 last week).