“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is…I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.
-Theodore Roosevelt, May 6, 1903
When President Roosevelt spoke those words over one hundred years ago there were few laws protecting the wilderness of the west. Back then, just as today, opportunistic developers and speculators had big ideas for the Grand Canyon. Despite the fact that much of the canyon is now protected as a national park, some of it lies within the Navajo Nation, where United States laws do not apply. And just as the Hualapai tribe saw an opportunity for economic prosperity with the Skywalk built on their land 3,000 feet above the canyon, some of the Navajo now see a similar chance with the Grand Canyon Escalade. Conceived by a Scottsdale based developer, the Escalade would be a mega tourist destination at the rim of the canyon with hotels, resorts and a gondola that would transport hordes of tourists from the rim down to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers inside the canyon.
The construction of the Escalade was slated to begin in 2016 according to some articles I read, and I knew that if I wanted to raft down the river through the canyon before those hordes of tourists descend upon it, I’d better do it this year. So on August 31st, Debbie and I boarded a bus in Flagstaff with 12 other soon to be river rafters and headed towards Lee’s Ferry where we would meet our guides and begin the 225 mile journey through the canyon.
Our first two trips through the canyon eight and ten years ago were shorter. We hiked out the Bright Angel Trail at river mile 89 on our first trip, and two years later picked up where we left off and hiked back down and rafted miles 89 through 225. This would be our first, and probably only time rafting the entire 225 miles.
I had been itching to get back on the river for years. To once more experience the quiet, the beauty, the awe of being surrounded by the towering rock walls carved out billions of years ago by the very river that would carry me from Lee’s Ferry down to Diamond Creek. The anticipation had been building for months and as we headed north on Route 89 I was thinking about how it sometimes felt like this day would never come. But sure enough the day had arrived and we were off on a truly epic journey. Below are just some of the many highlights of our Grand Canyon expedition.
River Mile 0
We arrived at Lee’s Ferry mid-morning and after selecting our life vests, using flush toilets and running water one last time, and a briefing from our lead guide Kevin, we were on the river. Our trip began with threatening skies and clear water, neither of which lasted long. We hadn’t gone a mile downstream when the clear water gave way to a cloudy brown that would last the entire trip.
River Mile 4
The clouds were still with us as we approached the Navajo Bridge past river mile 4. Also with us was a group of rafters, kayakers and paddleboarders slowly making their own way down the river. Note the difference in the water color here as compared to the photograph at Lee’s Ferry. This is what the water would look like for the rest of the trip.
Life on the River – Guides
The guides are the backbone of the trip. They piloted us through rapids that could easily flip a raft in the hands of less experienced river runners, they helped us find our way up steep slot canyons with non-existent trails, they prepared our meals, provided medical assistance when needed, happily answered questions that they had been asked hundreds of times before and looked out for our safety and well being.
Betsy, Derik, Kevin, Liam, Neil and Stinny all worked long days that started before dawn preparing breakfast, packing up the rafts, rowing us down the river, hiking in blazing heat, preparing lunch, unpacking the rafts, setting up the kitchen and groover, cooking and cleaning up dinner. Guiding is not a job for just anyone. These are all people who love being on the river and tirelessly share that love with those of us fortunate enough to be on a trip with them.
Trip captain Kevin was an avid storyteller, sharing tales of the canyon at night before we went off to sleep and enlightening us with history and geology lessons during his morning briefings. Kevin also designed and built the water filter that is used by AZRA and several other outfitters to purify the water from the river for drinking. Before he built this system, water was filtered manually with a pump. Kevin’s system eliminated the need for that. He also made sure I had plenty of opportunities to photograph on my own whenever possible. He would join me or send another guide with me to get a head start so I could have time before the rest of the group arrived.
All of the guides know their way around the side canyons, so even when it appeared that we reached a dead end on the trail, they knew where the handholds and footholds were so we could scale vertical walls that would otherwise be impossible to ascend. They pushed or pulled us up when necessary and got us back down on the way back. When someone says “I can’t do it,” the guides say “sure you can.”
In addition to the regular guides, Liam’s friend Nick was also with us. Nick was like Visa – he was everywhere you want him to be. Someone needed help in the kitchen? Nick was there to lend a hand. We were short one person in the paddle raft? Nick was ready to paddle. We even got to hear him sing one night when the river guitar came out of it’s case.
River Mile 20
We only went a few miles on the river the next morning and loaded our backpacks for a hike up North Canyon. I stopped when we arrived at a pool that gave a stunning reflection of the striated canyon walls. The rest of the group plowed through the chest deep water and continued a little further up the canyon while I stayed behind to shoot.
When they returned a while later I began packing up my camera gear, but quickly pulled it back out when I saw Derik demonstrate the way to get back down to the pool by sliding down the wet rock. Nature’s water park beats anything that Six Flags might come up with.
River Mile 33
While most of the group played or relaxed in the gaping Redwall Cavern, I was taken with the view downstream and spent most of the time shooting where a shadow cast on the canyon wall seemed to be pointing the way downstream. As would be the case in many locations along the river, I could have easily spent another hour there, but it was time to get back in the rafts and make our way to Buck Farm Canyon for a short hike.
Life on the River – Side Hikes
One of the great advantages of a river trip is getting to hike the side canyons that are extremely difficult, if not impossible to access otherwise. Most days we got to enjoy at least one hike which could be a short stroll up a slot canyon or a long excursion that involved wading through deep water, scrambling up cliffs and long stretches walking under the sun in triple digit heat.
Hiking in the canyon is not like the hikes I’m used to back home. A mile in the sweltering heat walking up a trail that’s barely there is tougher than four miles on the well-maintained trails of the Bay Area. But the scenery is unbeatable. Some of the hikes took us to ancient ruins left by the Native Americans who once called the canyon their home. There were the spectacular views that would open up as we climbed up from the river, encompassing more of the canyon as we scrambled higher. Many of the hikes ended at waterfalls or crystal clear pools that were perfect for cooling off or just laying back and resting our tired feet.
River Mile 47
While in camp at Lower Saddle Canyon we were fortunate to see the most colorful sunset of the entire trip. The sky put on a show that lasted long enough for me to put down my dinner, run and get my gear, get to a good spot and set up. Make no mistake, if I was a true photographer, the gear would have already been out and ready to go so I wouldn’t miss moments like this.
The next morning, Kevin and I got an early start and hiked up Saddle Canyon before the rest of the group so we could do some shooting. As usual, even with the head start there wasn’t enough time, but I was very happy with the results. When the others arrived, they all piled into the pool at the end of the trail for a wet photo op.
River Mile 62
We spent most of an afternoon at the Little Colorado River, or in the Little Colorado River in many cases. Recent rains meant that the river was running brown and muddy instead of the usual vibrant turquoise. That didn’t stop most of the group from body surfing the rapids and getting very muddy. Pictures? I’d have some, but when I opened up my camera bag and saw an empty hole where the camera should have been, I realized that I left it back on the raft.
I tried to imagine what this area might be like years from now if the Grand Canyon Escalade is eventually built. Probably overrun with tourists, signs everywhere, concessions, and of course the unsightly gondola that would be bringing the masses to this currently secluded spot. One of the things that makes this place so special is that it isn’t easily accessible. Change that so thousands of people can go down there daily, and you’ve lost yet another one of nature’s beautiful quiet spaces.
River Mile 85
Now in the upper gorge, the rapids were getting bigger. After a day of running some of the biggest rapids so far, including Tanner, Hance, Sockdolager and Grapevine, we settled into Zoroaster Camp. While helping with dinner preparations, Debbie stepped on a large thorn in her bare feet. Fortunately we were with two highly skilled medical professionals who performed minor surgery and successfully extracted the deeply lodged piece that broke off inside her foot. We can’t thank you enough Dr. Cheri and Dr. Kevin!
Life on the River – Weather
If there’s one thing you can’t escape in the Grand Canyon, it’s the weather. Sure, you can set up a tent that will probably keep you dry if it’s raining at night, but if it rains during the day there’s usually no shelter. And that tent? Not much help in a sandstorm or windstorm. Before dinner on our last night, the wind started whipping and tents and clothes that weren’t weighed down went flying. Five minutes after I shot this, two of the three tents pictured were airborne. By the time the heavy winds subsided, some tents were filled with sand.
The one constant nearly every day of our trip was the heat. Often getting above 100 degrees, it was hard to escape. The most effective way was covering all skin and getting wet. Pass a stream or a waterfall during a hike and you do a full body plunge for relief. On the few cloudy days the heat was a little more tolerable, but in direct sunlight it was brutal. It can be avoided by going very early or late in the season like we did on our previous trips.
River Mile 89
This was the morning that we said goodbye to Bob, Jillian, Jeff, Kevin and Mandy. As they hiked up the Bright Angel Trail to the south rim, we welcomed Caroline, Gaye, Georgette, Harlan, Jan, John, Kathy, Lloyd, Paul, Richard, Terri and Wayne to our group of river rafters. Debbie and I spent the morning at Pipe Creek where we just relaxed and I did some shooting. We saw more people on this day than any other as a fairly steady flow of hikers made their way to or from the south rim. Hiking was not an option for us as Debbie’s injury from the night before made walking difficult.
River Mile 96
We spent the night at Schist camp where the new members of the group got acquainted with the groover while I shot the view downstream.
River Mile 108
This was another big day of rapids and after running “the gems” including Crystal, we stopped for lunch near the Ross Wheeler, a rowboat abandoned by Charles Russell during an ill fated trip in 1915.
River Mile 117
After lunch, Neil and I got a head start to Elves Chasm so I could do some shooting before the rest of the group arrived. A group of about 15 women were already there, but started leaving by the time I finished setting up. I got a few shots and soon the rest of the group started trickling in. It started raining soon after that so we didn’t spend much time there.
Life on the River – The Groover
The land along the river sees lots of use from all of the trips that pass through, so there are certain do’s and don’ts regarding what you are allowed to do both on and off the river. One of those don’ts is do not pee or poop on or in the ground like you would if you were camping in most other National Parks and wilderness areas. Imagine if everyone peed on the ground at one of the campsites that hosts a different group every single night of the season. Within a very short time it would give off a stench that would make a New York City subway station smell like roses in comparison.
To prevent this, all pee goes in the river where it will make it’s way to Lake Mead or the water bottle of whoever is camping downstream from you. Solid waste goes in the groover, a metal box with a large round opening on top and a plastic ring around it that somewhat resembles a toilet seat.
When we arrive at camp at the end of the day, one of the first things the guides do is set up the groover. Conversely, when we depart camp in the morning, one of the last things the guides do is seal the opening and pack the groover back onto the rafts. A pee bucket is also provided because mixing solid and and liquid in the same container is strictly forbidden. As you might have guessed, the pee bucket is dumped in the river before we leave camp, probably the only exception to the pack it in/pack it out rule.
Near the groover is a hand wash station that allows you to pump the water with your foot as you wash your hands in some semblance of good hygiene.
River Mile 137
While most of the group hiked up Deer Creek, I stayed behind with Debbie to shoot the falls since it was early enough to avoid direct sunlight.
River Mile 157
Despite the recent rains, the waters of Havasu Creek weren’t the muddy brown we were used to seeing, although they were far from the usual vivid turquoise color. I hiked up the creek on my own and where I could enjoy the quiet and find a few spots to shoot. I spent nearly an hour shooting in one spot where my feet were in the water, only to find out that it resulted in a case of the dreaded foot rot that persisted for the rest of the trip.
Further downstream, most of the group was playing in the water and plunging down a small waterfall with inner tubes and inflatable plastic fish.
River Mile 195
After running Lava Falls it was party time. People were suddenly wearing outfits that I didn’t recall seeing on the rafters suggested packing list, brightly colored wigs and other headwear was suddenly in fashion. This may or may not have been fueled by margaritas or other alcoholic beverages.
River Mile 205
I didn’t get a chance to shoot Lava Falls, so as a consolation, I got to shoot some of the action at the imaginatively named Mile 205 Rapid. Liam went the extra mile and mugged for the camera mid-rapid. Thanks, Liam.
River Mile 215
A bighorn sheep made its way up a cliff as we approached our camp on the last day.
On our last morning we floated 10 miles to our take out at Diamond Creek where we abruptly re-entered civilization. Once we got out of the rafts, we began the whirlwind process of sorting the gear, breaking down and deflating the rafts and loading everything onto the truck that would take it all back to Flagstaff where it would be readied for the next group of rafters.
After lunch at Diamond Creek we boarded the bus for the long ride back to our hotel where we enjoyed our first shower in two weeks and then met at a restaurant for one last meal together.
Life After the River
The Grand Canyon is many things to many people. It’s not just about running rapids, hiking through beautiful scenery, listening to the silence, disconnecting from everyday life (whatever that means), or connecting with nature. For some it is a sacred spot with spiritual significance. For others it is a resource, or many resources, to be exploited for profit. And for much of the West it is a channel for the water that flows through and makes life possible in the otherwise uninhabitable desert.
Even after just a couple of days on the river, it becomes clear that the Grand Canyon and Colorado River are not just the result of billions of years of natural forces at work. Nature, politics, religion, technology and history all converged here to make it what it is today. These forces continue to shape the future of the canyon and the flow of the river and will continue to do so.
For now, the Grand Canyon Escalade is on hold. Earlier this year the Navajo Nation elected a new president who is firmly opposed to the project, saying that “it is not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people.” It remains to be seen if his opposition is enough to permanently shelve this potential disaster. But other threats to the canyon and the Colorado River ecosystem remain. Mining operations contaminate the river and it’s tributaries and developments at other points along the river threaten to deplete the already overdrawn water supply.
On my first trip down the Colorado ten years ago, a rafter in the group asked one of the guides what he thought the canyon would look like in 100 years. The answer was chilling: “It will be dry.” In ten years I could already see that this prediction might not be a stretch. Looking at the diminishing water levels in Lake Powell upstream from the canyon and Lake Mead downstream, it seems like that prediction could come true in far less than 100 years.
It’s easy to believe that places that have existed for thousands of years will continue to endure, but very few things stand the test of time. Whether it’s through natural forces or human activity, there’s no guarantee that anything standing today, will still be standing tomorrow. Life is short – get on a raft, paddle through some heart pounding whitewater, get wet, hike a slot canyon, shower under a waterfall, sleep under the star filled sky, explore, wander and discover before it’s too late.
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© 2015 Rob Dweck | All Rights Reserved