The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 4

July 17, 2016

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Packing up for the day

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Sunrise at Lower Saddle Campsite

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Don Schumm, Ira Wagner, Amy Burks, Terry Burks

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Terry Burks, Glenn Sherratt, Sue Feldman, Elena Zifkin

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Ed Zifkin, Chris Adakai, Erin Brugler

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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.

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Omar Martinez, Julia Rose, Greg Reiff

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Evening at Tanner

 

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The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 1 continued

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Lunch stop below Navajo Bridges

The Rhythms of the River

We eat lunch in the shade of Navajo bridges (one is pedestrian and the other the highway). The guides break out aluminum tables and set out a spread of breads, cold cuts, cheeses, lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions, pickles, and bean sprouts. 

The river is the bathroom–guys go downstream to urinate and women up, but the guides are pretty informal and usually only step a few feet away, and it doesn’t take long for the guys on the trip to open their flies in sight of the group, and everyone learns how to avert their eyes at the proper moment.

After lunch we hit the first named rapid, Badger Creek, with a drop of 15 feet. (The River itself averages an 8 foot per mile drop over the course of the Grand Canyon, but the drops are concentrated in the rapids, short bursts separated by long stretches of flat water with swirling eddies and strong currents. The waves are big and the splashes feel good, but it’s a pretty straightforward run.

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Scouting: Erin, Omar, Dave, Jason, Ethan

At mile 11.5 we come to Soap Creek Rapid, with a drop of 16 feet. The guides pull over to scout this one, since it has some big waves and a strong current that pushes boats hard toward a ledge on river left toward the bottom of the rapid. Dave is a strong boater and we run it just fine.

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The trip leader, Ethan, leads us about a quarter mile on river left to a petroglyph unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Even for Ethan, it’s unique. Etched on a big slab of rock on the ground, is the shape of a man, or a god, or, to be honest, what would appear to most of us raised on science fiction and The X Files, an alien. The figure is over three feet tall, with a bulbous round head, a solid rectangular torso, arms extending out and down, almost akimbo, skinny legs, and what makes it really rare, besides the size, is the fact that the artist etched in a ground line extending several feet for the figure to stand on.

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We camp on a rock ledge at Sheer Wall, so named because the rapid below the campsite was the first one Powell ran, since the walls were too shere to line the boats through the rapid. Despite the relatively small space, we each stake out a little territory and roll out our sleeping pads on our tarps. It’s too hot to set up a tent–the temperature won’t drop into anything like comfortable until well after midnight, so Julia Rose and I are glad for the sheets we bought at WalMart the night before. The guides sit on their rafts after getting the basics of the camp kitchen and the “Duke” set up, drinking Coors beer and relaxing after the long day of paddling.

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Sheer Wall Campsite

The duke is what we call the toilet, a sturdy sealable stainless steel looking container with handholds and an attachable seat and lid. A duke will hold the solid waist of a party our size for two days, so for the entire trip there are 7 “dukes” riding on one of the equipment boats. According to one of the guides, the Duke is named after John Wayne, who went down the river at some point and objected to the toilet being called the “John.” (It sounds plausible enough, though it could also be a bit of guide “lore” needed to satisfy the tourists.

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The “Duke”

Later in the evening, the guides begin to cook supper, taking turns each evening. Everyone in the group relaxes, some with their drinks of choice, and chat about the day or read or just sit and look at the lights and sounds and colors of the rocks and water. I sketch the upstream canyon and color it in with my colored pencils–not a great work of art, but something I want to try and do more of. At dark, it just seems natural to quiet down and get ready for bed. It’s the beginning of a pattern we will follow on the river, waking at daylight and settling down for the night shortly after dark. I try to read, but it’s been a long day, beginning before 5 a.m. back at the hotel in Flagstaff. The moon comes out shortly after dark, nearly full and lighting the walls and river. I’m afraid it may be too bright to sleep, but it dips below the walls of the rim around midnight. At the same time, the evening finally becomes cool and we are glad for the sleeping bags resting in the bottom of our dry bags.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 1

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Orientation and River People

The night before the trip begins, we meet at the Holiday Inn Express in Flagstaff. Erin, a slightly built enthusiastic woman who looks more like a college freshman than a 26 year old river guide, orients the group and passes out our gear. She will be our hiking guide on day 6, the day Julia Rose and I, along with the Zifkin family, hike up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, while 5 more passengers hike down and continue the canyon trip with our group. Erin is a swamper, an apprentice raft guide, not yet qualified with oar boats, especially with passengers–she tells us later she will probably pilot a motorized raft before an oar raft). We meet the other 13 members of the group–3 couples; a family of four, the son and daughter freshly graduated from college; and 3 men traveling solo–receive our dry bags for our camping gear and our ammo cans for our personal gear, and watch a video and ask questions. Erin reassures us about the hike out, which has worried me for a year, given the shape of my knees. “It’ll be fun,” she says, alluding to the temperatures, which are expected to be 110 or higher. “We’ll take our time and ‘shade-hop.’ It’s just another part of the canyon, something you don’t want to miss.”

Afterward, we go to WalMart for last minute supplies and to  Cracker Barrel for supper, then spend the evening sorting gear into the army surplus ammo cans–waterproof and easily opened, for personal items on the raft–and the larger dry bags, for sleeping bags, clothing, everything else.

We awake the next morning, not having slept a lot, to eat breakfast and catch the Canyoneers bus to Lee’s Ferry and the put in. There, we slather on sunscreen, receive our life jackets and adjust them for the trip, and meet our guides: There are three passenger boats and guides–Ethan, the trip leader, Omar, and Captain Dave; two guides to row the equipment boats–Jason and Leo; and two swampers–Erin, also the hike-out guide, and a friend of Leo’s who is taking the trip as a work-along, essentially paying for the trip by doing all the grunt work. In addition to the rafts, our trip features an original 1939 wooden “cataract boat,” built by the first commercial river runner through the canyon–Norman Nevills–and paddled by his grandson, Gregg Grieff.

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The passengers divide up into the three boats. Not quite sure of the etiquette, I ask Captain Dave is Julia Rose and I can ride on his boat for the day. “I’d love to have you on my boat,” he says, and I know that I instinctively made a good choice. Raft guides take great pride in their boats, how they are rigged, keeping them clean, and how they feel comfortable interacting with their passengers. Each guide instructs his passengers how to sit during a rapid, because each rower has a feel for the way weight is distributed and how the boat handles in the waves.

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Captain Dave–Photo by Ken Herman

Dave is not a particularly big guy, but once he starts rowing it’s clear that he is powerful. Thirty-one years old, he eventually tells us, with a dark complexion, he rarely applies sunscreen even though he wears shorts and muscle shirts and a white sailing captain’s hat. He’s serious about his guide duties, and as we drift down the entrance to the canyon he entertains us with lessons on the geology that we see on the canyon walls, and stories about the early river runners who named–or had the rapids named for–the rapids and other features, as well as pointing out sites that played a major role in the history of river running. We see a condor soaring beyond Navajo bridges, briefly, before it veers out of sight, and Dave recounts the story of their near extinction and ongoing recovery, point out that there is a release point near the put in.

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Riding in the bow with Julia Rose and me is Glen, a quiet 70 year old science teacher from Connecticutt, not yet retired. Later on the trip we discover that we both hung out around the Nantahala River in North Carolina in the 1970s, doing whitewater, though he beat me there by a few years. Still, it’s quite possible we could have been there at the same time at some point. Glen reminds me of the actor who played the old Norman Maclean in the movie A River Runs Through It, in that final scene where he is fishing the Big Blackfoot river alone. Glen proves an inspiration, going on all the hikes, experiencing the canyon with a quiet serenity, the way I like to imagine myself at 70.  Like us, this is his first trip to the canyon.

In the back, riding behind Dave and the drybags which give him a backrest, are Ira and Delana from Kansas City, one of the 3 couples. Ira’s retired military, mid-forties, and still does consulting work to supplement his retirement after putting in his career years. Delana is a special education teacher. Together they are quiet though friendly.

As he rows, Dave slowly reveals his story. He grew up in southern Arizona, and he tells of making an exploratory trip to the canyon about seven years earlier, spending a few days backpacking and being thunderstruck by the country. He quickly realized that in only making a couple of trips a year he could never see it all or even begin to have some sense of a relationship with the canyon. He sold everything he had and committed to the canyon, moving north and working whatever jobs he could in order to live there. He spent a lot of time working as a backpacking guide and eventually moved into river work, advancing from swamper to guide. We would find out later that he and Erin are together, living frugally, with no electricity or running water and not much space, but lots of books. I end up talking books quite a bit with Dave–he reads us a passage from a Loren Eisley essay one night around camp, a passage talking about the appeal of the desert and rivers. We discuss Ed Abbey, and I tell him about Brown’s Four Corners, a book that describes the geography, geology, history, biology, and anthropology of the Colorado Plateau uplift.

As we begin our trip the Paria River enters river right at mile 1. Today there is virtually no flow coming out of the Paria, so the Colorado, flowing aqua green and cool (46-47 degrees) out of Glen Canyon dam, about 15 miles upstream, is unmuddied and will remain so for the remainder of our trip. As the days go on and we get further from the dam, the water will cloud a little, but it still looks pure and drinkable by day six. Last summer when we stopped by the put in on our way home from the North Rim, the Paria was running a low volume, but the incredibly concentrated silt content transformed the Colorado into a muddy brown for the length that we could see, the first five miles of the river, well past the Navajo Bridges spanning the canyon. When the Paria is running, I am told, the Colorado is muddy.

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Paria River muddying the Colorado, Paria Riffle, just below Lees’s Ferry,  August 2015

The Paria River also marks the beginning of Marble Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell because he thought the name sounded more majestic–there is no marble in the canyon. Powell describe it this way: “The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. The rocks are of many colors–white, gray, pink, and purple, with saffron tints.” Technically, it is part of the Grand Canyon.

The day is warm and clear, well over 100 degrees, possibly 110 or higher–intense, but with a low humidity, and not as overwhelming as might be imagined by a non-westerner. As we float the sun strikes our legs at the thigh, the most vulnerable part of the body because it’s horizontal, and we dip our bandannas into the cool water and cover the exposed skin, which keeps us cool and prevents any burning on the first day. Our Outdoor Research Sombriolet sun hats keep our faces and neck in deep shade, but sunscreen helps us with the reflections.

Cadillac Ranch, Blue Hole, Roadrunners, and Petroglyphs National Monument–Day 2 of My Grand Canyon Adventure

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Cross

Keeping on with the theme that getting there is half the fun, we pushed on from Oklahoma through Texas, continuing to break up the trip with short stops. For years, the trip across the Texas Panhandle east of Amarillo has always been marked by the 190 foot tall cross, visible from 20 miles, outside of Groom, Texas. Now it’s much harder to pick out the cross from any distance because of the abundance of giant windmills generating energy across the panhandle.

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On the west side of Amarillo, we stopped for a few minutes at Cadillac Ranch, created by a “group of art-hippies imported from San Francisco. They called themselves The Ant Farm, and their silent partner was Amarillo billionaire Stanley Marsh 3. He wanted a piece of public art that would baffle the locals, and the hippies came up with a tribute to the evolution of the Cadillac tail fin. Ten Caddies were driven into one of Stanley Marsh 3’s fields, then half-buried, nose-down, in the dirt (supposedly at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza). They faced west in a line, from the 1949 Club Sedan to the 1963 Sedan de Ville, their tail fins held high for all to see on the empty Texas panhandle.” (Roadside America.com)

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Cadillac Ranch

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The ranch is set in the middle of corn fields, a couple of hundred yards off of the interstate. It was a scorching hot day and the abundance of spray paint fumes made it possible to get a good contact high for the next hundred miles of the trip.

We stopped for the evening in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, checked into our motel, then grabbed our swim suits and headed for the Blue Hole, a bell shaped artesian well, 81 feet deep, 80 feet in diameter at the surface and flaring out to 130 feet in diameter at the bottom, with a constant temperature of 64 degrees and flow of 3,000 gallons per minute. It was a popular afternoon spot given the 100 degree weather.

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Blue Hole, Santa Rosa, NM

On our second day we stopped at Petroglyphs National Monument on the west side of Albequerque. Just a few miles off the interstate, the monument, according to the NPS website, “protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.”

We scrambled up the Mesa Point trail in Boca Negra Canyon, pausing to look at many of the over 100 petroglyphs. As we hiked up the mesa, we were accompanied by a friendly and curious roadrunner, my spirit animal, signaling good fortune for that day and for the rest of the trip. My interpretations are strictly interpretations.

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Mesa Point Trail

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Handprint

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Man/lizard

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Antelope

According to the website Native American Roadrunner Mythology, “The Hopi and other Pueblo tribes believed that roadrunners were medicine birds and could protect against evil spirits. Their unusual X-shaped footprints are used as sacred symbols to ward off evil in many Pueblo tribes– partially because they invoke the protective power of the roadrunners themselves, and partially because the X shape of the tracks conceals which direction the bird is headed (thus throwing malignant spirits off-track.) Stylized roadrunner tracks have been found in the rock art of ancestral Southwestern tribes like the Anasazi and Mogollon cultures, as well. Roadrunner feathers were traditionally used to decorate Pueblo cradleboards as spiritual protection for the baby.”

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For me, the roadrunner has a special significance. I see them regularly near my home, and on several occasions, roadrunners have acted in such an unexpected manner that I can’t help but attach spritual significance to the animal. Following the death of more than one beloved pet dog, roadrunners have been seen on the same day. Roadruners have lingered around the house following death of a pet by illness and euthenasia, perching on my garage roof, pecking at the glass of the storm door on my front porch, and even responding with a perked head and lingering look when I’ve called them by the names of my dogs. Believe what you will, but who is to say how God chooses to manifest Himself in our lives?

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Roadrunner

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Dragonflies

 

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Anthropomorphic Figure–Perhaps a masked dancer

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Washita Battlefield and a Memorial for White Police Officers Slain in Dallas–Day 1 of my Grand Canyon Adventure

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It’s a two day drive to go from Arkansas to Flagstaff, AZ, along the big empty of Interstate 40 through Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona, but having endured long vacation drives as a child through the wonder of reading and landscape gazing and daydreaming, and having matured into adulthood on road trips with music and frequent stops for anything that might prove interesting, I was game, and so I led my family west before daylight and watched the day build into 100 plus degree weather and clear cloudless skies.

In western Oklahoma we turned off the interstate to visit the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site near Cheyenne. This is the site of George Armstrong Custer’s first significant battle against the nomadic American Indians, a pre-dawn attack on Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful  winter camp in an area where he had promised his people would be safe. It was November of 1868 on the tail of a bitter cold blizzard. General Sheridan and the U.S. army planned the campaign in the winter because the Cheyenne were so difficult to locate and pin down in the summers. The purpose of the attack was to drive the Cheyenne onto their reservations through force, and by intentionally shooting the horse herd that the Indians depended upon to follow the buffalo (bison).

Black Kettle had survived the Sand Creek Massacre in Eastern Colorado in 1864, another winter attack on an unsuspecting camp where 675 militamen massacred and mutilated the bodies of mostly women and children. Estimates vary widely, but the number of Indians killed range from 100 – 200.

I had visited the site many years ago, on a 1987 drive from Mississippi to Arizona, where I camped out along the way and looked for historical markers on my Rand-McNally road atlas to break up the trip. Back then, the site was pretty much a mark on the map, difficult to find, and really only one of thse metal historical markers beside the highway. Now, the National Park Service (America’s “Best Idea,” in my opinion) has created a very nice visitor center and provides historical interpretaion to over 10,000 visitors a year on not only the “battle” but early settler life and the effects of the Dust Bowl.

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Mural of the atttack in the Visitor’s Center

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Site of the village along the tree line in the background, marking the river course. Custer surrounded the camp and attacked from several sides.

According to the NPS website, “Black Kettle’s village had a population of 250 to 300 people. Lt. Col. Custer commanded 689 soldiers during the fight along the Washita. Custer claimed to have killed 103 and later 140, but according to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Nation, only 60 people were killed. Fifty-three women and children were captured by Custer and sent to Fort Hayes, Kansas. It is estimated somewhere between 192 to 262 people survived the fight.” This did not include Black Kettle or his wife. The Cheyenne who survived were able to escape down the river, where they fled toward a much larger village of Cheyenne. The web site adds that “875 horses were captured, and of those, 650 were killed. The soldiers, scouts, and women captives put to use 225 horses for their journey back to Camp Supply. As for why they were killed; it was part of the total war policy. Killing the ponies kept the warriors from raiding into Kansas, it also kept them from hunting buffalo. The death of these horses forced many Cheyenne onto the reservation.”

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Among the casualties for the army was Major Joel Elliott and 20 of his men, who chased after fleeing Cheyenne–apparently without Custer’s permission–and were then cut off and killed by warriors from the larger camp downstream.

For a fictional treatment of the battle, I recommend the novel Little Big Man, a 1960s postmodern tale narrated by Jack Crabb, a character adopted by the Cheyenne as a boy and who spends his adult life jumping back and forth between living with the Indians and whites, never fitting into either camp. He happens to be with the Cheyenne at the battle of the Washita, and on the early morning following the birth of his son, finds himself belonging, if only for a moment. Jack Crabb’s character tells us:

“There could be no doubt that I had once and for all turned 100 percent Cheyenne insofar as that was possible by the actions of the body. I might have planted a new human being or two by that night’s work, [he had slept with his wife and several of her sisters, whose men had been killed by whites] and I never thougth about how they would be little breeds, growing up into a world fast turning uncongenial even to the fullbloods. No, all seemed right to me at that moment. It was one of the few times I felt: this is the way things are and should be. I had medicine then, that’s the only word for it. I knew where the center of the world was. A remarkable feeling, in which time turns in a circle, and he who stands at the core has power over everything that takes the form of line and angle and square.”

Of course, the point of the novel is that it is extremely difficult for people to accept other people who are vastly different from them. It seemed surreal then, to me, as we left the battle field and angled back to the interstate over two lane west Oklahoma highway, that we were listening to the memorial service for five Dallas police officers murdered by a black man while they were helping to provide a peaceful setting for a rally protesting the recent deaths of several black men at the hands of police officers, in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. President Obama outlined the problem this way. He said:

Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs can ever understand each other’s experience.

He went on to hit at the difficulty of the problem: “We ask police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves,” and “We wonder if an African American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”

Text of Obama’s speech

As I drove toward the promise of a peaceful river experience, where I wouldn’t have access to the outside world or be able to hear about terrorist attacks in France or genocide in Syria or racial discord in the United States, I thought about the profound paradox of my morning and afternoon, a near 150 year old battlefield and a fresh raw wound that suggests little has really changed in the intervening years, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deep sadness and hopelessness, as well as the knowlege that that isn’t enough.

 

Day 19: Countdown to Colorado River/Grand Canyon Rafting

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BEGINNINGS–Mississippi and the Buffalo River, Tennessee

I have been in love with whitewater since I was a teenager. Growing up in Mississippi with long hot summers and slow dark rivers and streams, the allure of fast flowing water over rocks was powerful. Occasionally my family would find our way into the very northeast corner of Mississippi, where the foothills of the Appalachians dwindled into the black prairie land of north Mississippi, or over into Alabama and central Tennessee, where the land was formed by sharp hollows and bluffs and the streams flowed a bit faster and clearer. Those rivers were usually a deep green, as opposed to the brown water of my home state, and often they flowed over shoals and ripples, and it was there I began to appreciate the possibilities that fast flowing water promised.

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The Buffalo River in central Tennessee was a favorite destination for float trips, and I began going there with a high school friend. The river flowed between bluffs and through bottoms where farmers raised corn and cows waded into the river to drink. The water was deep green and cool, falling toward the ocean in long slow pools linked by short winding ripples and gravel shoals and sometimes a one or two foot ledge that extended a waterfall the width of the river. My friend, Mark Hollis, and I, paddling clunky old 18 foot Grumman aluminum canoes, lived for the rush of those short “rips.” We would drop off the seats and kneel on the deck and paddle feverishly through the water, working twice as hard as we needed to. On one trip Mark’s father, paddling a shorter canoe solo and carrying most of the camping gear, showed us the science behind the J-stroke, and put us to shame as he angled the shoals with delicate sweeps and prying strokes that looked like an artist working a canvas compared to our broad-brushed slapping paint on a barn.