Ten days on the Colorado River! Who could say “No”? So what if March weather is unpredictable? We were thrilled by the opportunity to go through the Grand Canyon again and to share the adventure with interesting companions. The bargain price helped, too.
Eleven of us met at Gary Ladd’s home in Page, Arizona. We managed to transport all our gear and ourselves to Lee’s Ferry in three vehicles by 9:30 A.M. on Sunday, March 21. Our Diamond River Adventures guides—Les, Dave, John and Colin—distributed dry bags for our gear and life vests for us to wear whenever we were on the water. Diamond provided a 35-foot raft with “torpedo” side tubes and a 22-foot snout boat (another kind of raft.) The weather was sunny and warm, and the river water was crystal clear. As we motored out into the current at Lee’s Ferry, we shared the excitement of first-timers but also felt confidence from knowing we had been there before and enjoyed (survived) the rapids. In September 2000 the river level stayed constant at 8,000 cfs; this time the levels would vary between 5,000 and 20,000 cfs. We wondered how this would affect our passage.
When we encountered muddy water at the Paria Riffles at Mile 1, the river water changed to a lovely green color and stayed that way until we reached the Little Colorado River at Mile 61.5. At this point, muddy brown water from storms upstream on the Little Colorado mixed with the Colorado River, swirling a brown color throughout. Further along, other side streams, such as Clear Creek and Shinumo, added their load of red mud to the water. Generally the river was more yellow-brown than red, but it was easy to understand why the river was named Colorado for its red color.
Although our guides knew when to expect high or low water, the changing river levels were fascinating. We learned that the water from Glen Canyon Dam travels at about four miles per hour. For every ninety miles on the river, we were 24 hours behind in receiving water released by the dam. The lowest levels of discharge were at night and on Sundays, but we received the lows at various times, depending on how far from the dam we were. At our Granite Rapid campsite, the low level of water left our rafts high and dry in the morning. John, one of the guides, predicted we would be off in an hour. He was right; the water came up rapidly and we were soon underway.
When we had high water, the waves in some of the rapids were very high. This was especially true at Hermit Rapid, which Gary said was the biggest he had ever seen it. The 35-foot raft seemed to plow through the waves, splashing water up on its passengers, while the 22-foot raft tended to point high and ride over the waves, sometimes avoiding splashes and sometimes not. When possible, Les guided the big raft away from the greatest turbulence, since he felt that people, especially photographers, generally want to stay dry in March. When everyone got wet in some of the rapids, however, we all found it exciting. If we stopped for lunch afterwards, it was possible to dry out clothing that got wet in spite of the rain jackets we wore. Warm sunshine and dry air accompanied us along most of the 226 miles, which was very surprising for the month of March but very comfortable for us. Les commented that we could come for ten days in March for the next twenty years and probably never have such good weather again.
We kept our camera gear in ammo cans and dry bags, readily available at any time and safely stowed during rapids. While we were traveling on the river and exploring beautiful side canyons, we watched and frequently photographed the changing geologic formations. Some of us used a mnemonic to recall the order of layers: Know the canyon’s history, study rocks made by time (Kaibab Formation, Toroweap, Coconino Sandstone, Hermit Shale, Supai Group, Redwall Limestone, Muav Limestone, Bright Angel Shale and Tapeats Sandstone.) However, just as we thought we could identify a formation, there would be variations and a few new names, such as Dox or Bass Limestone. Finally, near the end of our trip, we all found it easy to recognize lava. Our leaders impressed us with their knowledge of both the geology and the river features. They patiently answered our many questions.
There were memorable experiences related to the various rock structures. At each stop we found something different. For example, we ate lunch in Redwall Cavern at Mile 33, saw convoluted sandstone in 75 Mile Creek canyon and climbed on very dark rock in the Vishnu group in the Upper Granite Gorge. We saw glistening salt straws leaching out beneath layers of Tapeats at the Sacred Hopi Salt Mines and again further down the river. We peered over the edge of the high red rock cliff at the Unkar Rapid overlook and hiked up a steep rock and gravel trail to the granaries at Nankoweap. We walked on Tapeats ledges at Deer Creek and Matkatamiba and examined Muav shelves along the walls in National Canyon. We photographed picturesque boulders piled along the shore, marveling at how they all differed in texture, pattern and color. While some were grooved and sharply fluted by water, others were smooth and rounded. We found sandy beaches at most of our campsites, but we had to climb over rocky ridges to access the canyons at Clear Creek, Elves’ Chasm and Matkatamiba.
On our last night in camp, Joy emceed an awards ceremony, and Nancy and Connie sang a special recognition song in lovely harmony. Each person was awarded a title based upon characteristics that had surfaced during our ten days together. Joy named our group the Gary Ladd Unconformity Expedition, or GLUE. Whether this was because of the Great Unconformity in geologic terms, where there are missing layers or a gap of time in the rocks of the Grand Canyon, or because we were a bunch of nonconformists is unknown. However, our nightly seminars conducted by GLUE members demonstrated that we were an interesting group. Gary presented information on Grand Canyon geology. Burt and Wendy explained what digital camera manufacturers don’t tell us. Dave told us about working in Russia and some of the attitudes that were encountered. John played his backpack guitar and discussed music. Nancy explained what she has learned about shaman healing. Jim and Barbara enlightened us about photo, art and text publishing in their respective magazines, Cerca and Arizona Highways. Joy shared some of her drama directing experiences and then led us in a group activity similar to those she uses to help a cast begin to work together. It was hilarious fun as we portrayed three tribes from ancient Grand Canyon time: the Nikons, the Diamonds and the Kohlers. Any resemblance to reality was strictly coincidental.
The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River are so complex that it is impossible to absorb everything in one or two trips. At first there is an impression of permanence because the rocks are massive and seem so solid. However, people who are familiar with the canyon know that it is dynamic, constantly changing. Sand is eroded and deposited elsewhere. Rocks may be physically moved and are molded by wind and water. Streams have fluctuating flow rates and the clarity of the water is affected by distant storms. Vegetation varies seasonally and is also affected by drought or frequent downpours. We noticed changes at campsites and canyons we had visited only three-and-a-half years ago. Rocks were in different locations, mud and sand had been shifted and pools were altered. We saw springtime vegetation, highlighted by lovely redbud trees in bloom. The sunlight that reflected on the walls arrived at a different time and angle than in the fall.
In spite of the apparent changes, some things and sensations in the canyon remain constant. The beautiful colors and shapes of the smallest pebbles to the highest cliffs are fascinating. Weather produces interesting effects. A cloud layer may mute the colors and then suddenly they glow as the sun shines through. Sunrise and sunset are even more spectacular as they highlight spires and cast gold upon the water. Magnificent reflections of towering cliffs can be seen on the calm river and in pools of water here and there on beaches and in side canyons. Peace, serenity and silence are abundant. On the river, as we approach rapids, the tension of expectation is followed by the reality of turbulence as smooth water suddenly churns with waves, bouncing our raft and thrilling us. The shocking chill of splashing water contrasts with the warmth of sunshine on the skin. Unforgettable sounds include the roar of rapids lulling us to sleep and the crystalline song of the canyon wren. Time slides by unnoticed while we wander in side canyons, admiring textures, patterns and colors. We take pictures hoping to capture some of the awe and appreciation that we feel. Our photos assure us that similar sights, sounds and impressions are waiting in the canyon for when we return.
Shared experiences on the river established a bond of friendship within the rafting group. Even if we are never together again, all of us will remember the brief ten days that were filled with so many moments to treasure.
Reported by Darlene Ward