Rowing Against the Wind… The Grand Canyon Series

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me as we begin our journey on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.

 

With thoughts of facing headwind gusts up to 60 MPH, we began our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I performed the ritual of asking a boatman if we could ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.

Most boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are few Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.

We push-off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah. For awhile, my brother and I thought some of our ancestors had been involved, had ended up dead. But it wasn’t so.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

Navajo Bridge by Don Green

A view of the Navajo Bridge. The first is the old one and is now used as a walkway. The second is used by cars and other vehicles. (Photo by Don Green.)

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. Its geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea— before the divorce, before plate tectonics demanded that the continents go their own way.

During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.

The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.

The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.

An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as does Tom). Don is also quite generous in sharing his photos, which was particularly helpful on our first day since neither Peggy nor I took many.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Creek Rapids. In boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous. It’s labeled a 4-6 out of 10 in the method used in the Grand Canyon for determining difficulty. Ten is reserved for only the most dangerous. Badger involves a 15 foot drop from the top to bottom.

Badger Creek Rapids by Don Green

Photo of Badger Creek Rapids by Don Green.

There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.

Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Creek Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.

Badger Creek Rapids Google photo

The view from above using a Google photo. Our camp would be on the right (river left)  at the bottom of the photo, in the shade here. Our raft came out on the left (river right) side of the river.

“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.

Jackass campsite on Colorado River by Don Green

Not the world’s most attractive campsite. We scatter out to find places for our tents after emptying the boats. (Photo by Don Green.)

Jackass Camp Area by Don Green

Boats tethered at Jackass Camp. (Photo by Don Green.)

View from Jackass camp on Colorado River by Don Green

View from camp. (Photo by Don Green.)

Grand Canyon evening primrose by Don Green

I liked this primrose captured by Don the next morning…

Grand Canyon floers and tracks by Don Green

And found the tracks under it even more interesting. It’s like the lizard was sidestepping. Its tracks and tail trail can be seen coming down from the right. The hole on the right was made by an ant lion that uses the hole as a trap for insects. They fall in, can’t get out, and become lunch. Next Monday, we will continue our journey down the river.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: I begin my series on the Alaska Highway. We make our way to the start of the highway in Dawson Creek by traveling through British Columbia. Great wood carvings and dog agility trials entertain us along the way.

FRIDAY’S MisAdventures POST: I graduate from playing in the Graveyard to playing on a pond and discover a magical world.

MONDAY’S Grand Canyon Series POST: Beautiful waterfalls, a huge cavern, and ancient Native American ruins are featured.

Jackass campsite on Colorado River by Don GreenJackass campsite on Colorado River by Don GreenSaveSave

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I Discover I Am No Longer 30, or 40, or 50, or even 60… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon: Part 4

On a private trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon National Park, everyone pitches into help. Here we are learning to rig the rafts. Straps and more straps! The  aluminum frame provided stability for the raft and held the heavy food containers. (Photo by Don Green)

 

It was time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization were stuffed into bags and dumped into our transport van.

Plus I had to paint my toenails. It was a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true— boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true. Tom lectured me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” In addition to being obnoxious, he was serious. Peggy dutifully applied blue polish on four of my toes. Did this mean we would only half flip?

Two acres of paved boat ramp greeted us when we arrived at Lee’s Ferry, some 130 miles from Flagstaff. It is the take off point for trips down the Canyon and the only bridge across the river in some 700 miles. The Mormons originally discovered the potential for the crossing and sent John Lee to set up a ferry, which began operation in 1873. Brigham Young was also hiding Lee. He had been a key player in the Mountain Meadows Massacre where some 120 eastern emigrants had been murdered. A practicing polygamist, Lee and his wives ran the ferry up until his execution in 1877.

The transport van disgorged us as the gear truck made a quick turn around and backed down the ramp. Another private party was busy rigging boats. People, gear and boats were scattered everywhere.

From off to the right, a longhaired, 50-something man had emerged. I had thought 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggested otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangled from his lips. It was Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group had met him, but he came highly recommended.

Steve, a week or two into the trip.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admitted was his first thought when he met our green and purple haired trip leader. He also confided that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confessed, “I didn’t tell him I was on probation.” Somehow this balanced out in Steve’s mind. There was no time to become acquainted; we had work to do.

There is an unwritten 11th Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper you. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe. The truck we had loaded in Flagstaff demanded unloading. Everybody did everything. There were no assignments. Peggy and I became stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulated around the truck. There was no shade and the desert sun beat down ferociously. It was sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slathered on sun block and gulped down water.

The rafts were unloaded last. Rigging them was technical but relatively easy, assuming of course that you knew what you were doing and were mechanically inclined. I made no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) was already set up and in the water, its pirate flag was flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats were self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owned his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut after the Jeff Dunham character. The three we had rented were yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

Work also required that we get our feet wet. (Photo by Don Green)

Tom was the last to rig his boat. It was approaching dusk when he finished— the end of a very long day. I hiked down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boated down. Peggy and I struggled to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van was coming to pick us up for dinner at a nearby restaurant and we were late.

The walls of the restaurant were covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by massive rapids. I walked around and admired them with more than a little awe and trepidation. I would have preferred to see photos that emphasized the beauty of the Canyon, but this was a rafters’ hangout.

The wind storm had changed to a dust storm when we arrived back at camp. Finding our tent in the dark proved to be a challenge, and the tent provided little protection when we crawled in. I was reminded of Burning Man as the dust assailed my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pulled out a handkerchief to cover my face. Exhausted, I finally fell asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

I had underestimated the amount of work involved. We were floating down a river, weren’t we? I was out of shape and had a generous belly. Peggy and I had been traveling extensively, mainly helping our kids with their babies. I’d been over-eating and under-exercising. I might have gotten away with it at 30, or 40, or 50— and had. But now I was 67, and my body had some serious words for me. Mainly unprintable. A few years earlier I had undertaken a much more difficult task, backpacking for 360 miles between Lake Tahoe and Mt. Whitney. But I knew how tough that was and had spent a few months hiking 5-10 miles per day before hitting the trail. Now my only excuse was ignorance. And that is not a very good excuse.

We were awakened at five a.m. the next morning, as we would be on every day of our trip. There was personal gear to pack, breakfast to prepare, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river were dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.

We also had a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I would face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaved.

Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy began after the boats were packed for our first day on the river. Tom started off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we were required to wear our PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) any time we were on the boat.

Tom, with his interesting hairdo, and Ranger Peggy check their lists to see which of the many rules they have forgotten to inform us about.

What’s the first rule if you fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chanted in unison. And so it went. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him the year before as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectured. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock— stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seemed more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to a sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and the major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this: 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’d led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I lined up with the guys, I could barely dribble out of dismay.

The rules went on and on. Mainly they had to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy preached made sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And few things disturb me more than a trashy campsite in the wilderness. The least we could do was to leave our campsites sparkling clean.

Finally, we were ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon stretched out ahead. Ranger Peggy checked our IDs against her list. We were who we claimed to be. The boatmen strapped down the gear. It was time to climb aboard and Tom was anxious to get going.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped dust into our tent were threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH were predicted.

The group, ready to launch. Wife Peggy, as opposed to Ranger Peggy, is holding her and my purple PFDs. I’m second from the left, looking chunky.

 

WEDNESDAY’S POST: It’s back to the Amazon and monkey business. While Peggy gets the ‘good’ monkey, I get the ‘bad’ monkey.

FRIDAY’S POST: I learn a bit about cross cultural relations as a second grader— on a queen sized bed.

MONDAY’S POST: Fighting ferocious headwinds, we begin our journey through the Grand Canyon.

 

 

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Peggy Wins the Lottery… Rafting through the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Mule trip into Grand Canyon

I have journeyed into the Grand Canyon several times over the years. The first was in the late 60s. That’s me, second from the top on Charlie the mule. I was heavier than Charlie liked, so he kept trying to bite me. He also walked as close to the thousand foot drop off as he could. His ultimate revenge, however, was that I was sore for a week afterwards!

 

Having reported on being in Flagstaff for the beginning of our raft trip down the Colorado River on last Monday’s travel blog, I thought I should back up a step and tell you how we got there.

It started with a strange phone call.

Peggy and I were in the middle of a three-year trip around North American in our small RV when the phone rang late one night. It was 10:00 p.m., far past the time I normally accept calls. They make me grumpy. Usually they are from a Nigerian Prince who wants to make me incredibly wealthy. All I have to do is send him a thousand bucks. But this was from my old friend Tom Lovering. I’m used to him calling at weird hours. He has zero sense of what constitutes a normal day and fervently believes that no one else should either.

He wanted me to immediately stop whatever I was doing (sleeping), jump on-line, and apply for a private permit to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Permits are scarce and the number of people who apply could fill a rock concert. So the Park Service does an open lottery for interested folks. Odds of getting a permit are small— teeny tiny— and Tom wanted to increase his. He’d been scrolling through his list of friends and had already talked a number of people into applying. The clock was ticking; the lottery closed at midnight. Given the late hour, I must have been near the end of Tom’s likely candidates, which isn’t surprising. I know zilch about running rapids.

Thrill sports aren’t my thing. I have always figured that the type of outdoor things I do (like bicycling 10,000 miles around North America by myself, or disappearing into grizzly bear country alone) have enough inherent danger without my challenging raft-eating, people swallowing rapids, or climbing up the sheer face of a thousand-foot rock. Not that I have any problem with the sports. In fact, I have nothing but admiration for people who have the skill and temerity to pursue them and make a career out of flipping off the old guy in a hoodie who carries a big scythe.

My normal response would have been, “Sure, Tom, I’ll get right on it,” followed by promptly rolling over and going back to sleep. But this wasn’t accounting for the love of my life, Peggy, who actually likes water sports and enjoys jumping off cliffs. During college, she had actually attended a session of the Nantahala White Water School in North Carolina where you learn to maneuver rafts through raging rapids. She followed up on Tom’s request immediately: jumping on-line and putting in for a permit— in my name.

I was checking my E-mail the next morning when I came across the note from the National Park Service: “Congratulations you have won a permit for you and 15 other people to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon! We will be sending you a 5000-page document (slight exaggeration) that outlines your responsibilities.” Oh joy. I called Tom immediately. He was the experienced river runner. He had promised the night before that if, by some miracle I did win, he would take full responsibility for organizing and leading the event. It’s a huge job that takes considerable knowledge about white water rafting.

At first, Tom didn’t believe me. He thought I was joking. Neither he nor any of his rafting buddies had won a Canyon permit in several years. And then he was ecstatic. Yes, he would recruit experienced boat people and their boats for the trip! Yes, he would make all necessary arrangements. Yes, he would plan the menus and organize the food! Yes, he would lead the adventure!

Then the other shoe dropped. Doesn’t it always? I was, after all, “the permit holder.” It was my job to turn in paperwork. But I also had serious responsibilities. If anything went wrong; it was on my shoulders. This ranged from people pooping in the wrong places, to how we washed our dishes, to more serious things. The Park Service had a long list of safety and environmental concerns. I’d be signing on the dotted line. There would be an inspection before we left!

I admit I had concerns. But these were countered by the fact that I love the Grand Canyon. I have returned to it numerous times over the years. I have both hiked and backpacked into it. One time I rode mules into the Canyon. Another time I flew in by helicopter. And I am perfectly happy just sitting on the edge and staring out into the vast space at the incredible rock formations. I did that for Christmas one year (and many other times). Floating down the Colorado would give me a totally new perspective. I was almost as excited as Tom and Peggy. Almost.

Between three tours of duty as a Marine helicopter pilot in Iraq and then serving as a Coast Guard pilot flying rescue missions, our son Tony did a brief stint of flying tourists over the Grand Canyon and into the Havasupai Indian village in the canyon.  When he flew Peggy and me into the village, he was playing the theme song from Star Wars as he swooped down past the steep cliffs.

Waterfalls at Havusupai

This gorgeous waterfall was the main attraction at the Havasupai Village.

I am sitting on the edge of the Colorado River, red with mud.  Peggy and I had backpacked down the Tanner Trail retracing a solo trip I had made several years earlier. Our raft trip would bring us through this section of the Canyon and over the Tanner Rapids. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Occasionally, backpacking through the Canyon requires a bit of scrambling.

But you don’t have to hike or backpack into the canyon, or raft, or fly, or ride grouchy mules to enjoy the beauty of the Canyon. You can drive up, and enjoy numerous pull-offs that give you incredible views. Short walks provide many more. Be sure to include early morning and late afternoon to capture the full beauty.

Grand Canyon 38

The rocks come in a seemingly infinite number of shapes and colors.

A final view.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: We travel to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

FRIDAY’S POST: I learn that there is more to life than dead people.

MONDAY’S POST: And why is Homeland Security checking out our food containers for a bomb on the our Grand Canyon rafting adventure?