Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Grand Canyon (Part 2) - Lees Ferry to Mile 44

For part one, the Prologue, go here

Day 1 - Lees Ferry to Jackass Canyon (8 miles):
As we pulled away from Lees Ferry, I paused and looked around, just to take it all in. I still couldn't believe that we were able to get on The Grand, considering the government shutdown and the emotional rollercoaster it had created. Now that our trip had actually started, spirits were high and the weather was perfect, in the mid 70s with bright sunny skies. I had been told that we were lucky to be floating the river during the month of October, with near perfect temps for being on the water, and especially for the side hikes. The only downside was that the water levels would be on the low end of the flow range, with daily fluctuations between 5,500cfs and 10,000cfs. However, as everyone says, you don't do the Grand Canyon for the whitewater, so it didn't weigh too heavily on my mind.

Lees Ferry

Our flows for the trip

Although we were only required to make it past Navajo Bridge, a mere 4 1/2 miles downstream, we had gotten a late start and had to move pretty quick on our first day on the water. I had driven over Navajo Bridge many times as a kid, when my dad and I used to go fishing upstream of Lees Ferry, so it was cool to actually be floating underneath it this time around. As we passed below it, you could see folks looking down at us from the railing, almost 500' up. They cheered us on as we floated downstream, and we responded with some good ol' hootin' & hollerin' of our own!

Mark, starting off The Grand

Approaching Navajo Bridge

The next three miles continued with more mellow floating, and I spent most of the time just staring at the canyon walls, which at this point consisted of Kaibab Limestone and the Toroweap Formation. Before long we reached the first sizeable rapid of the run, at Badger Creek. I quickly dropped in, ran the rapid, and pulled over on river-left to take photos. It ended up being a very straightforward drop, but still provided some excitement to our first day on the river.

One of the kayakers drops into Badger Creek Rapid

Waiting for the rest of the crew

Gabe and Emily find the fun line through Badger Creek Rapid

Just below Badger Creek Rapid was our camp on river-left, at Jackass Canyon. This would be our introduction to unloading all the gear from the rafts and setting up camp. Since I was on groover duty, I met up with the rest of my team to grab the supplies and look for an appropriate place to stage our bathroom. As anyone who rafts will tell you, this is a very important part of the trip...a good view while seated atop an ammo can is essential. It quickly became clear that it was going to take a few times to get efficient at setting up camp, but we did pretty well for our first day. Once everything was setup, the kitchen crew cooked up an amazing meal, and we spent the rest of the evening celebrating around the fire.

Camp, at Jackass Canyon

Noah gets the fire going.
And yes, we packed in our own wood.

Desert stars

Day 2 - Jackass Canyon to North Canyon (13 miles):
The next morning I woke up around 7am, and found that almost everyone else was getting up at around the same time. We had chosen to do quick/light breakfasts for most of the trip, which would allow us to get out of camp a little earlier each day. I don't remember what we had on this morning, but most likely it was either cereal or bagels & cream cheese. Just like unloading the night before, we were not quite a well oiled machine (yet) with repacking the rafts, and we didn't find ourselves shipping off until around 9:30am. One lesson that was taught to us that first morning was that the water levels fluctuate coming out of the dam, and that had beached our boats pretty good and took a while to get back in the water.

After a few miles of flat water, we reached a pretty cool rock formation, aptly named "Tenmile Rock". This slab of Coconino Sandstone looked like a giant fin sticking out of the water, and made for a great photo op.

Mark poses alongside Tenmile Rock

A wide view of Tenmile Rock
After another mile downstream we reached the next landmark, Soap Creek Rapid. Dropping 17', it offered a fun read & run rollercoaster ride. I had gotten out on river-right, below the rapid, to take photos and watch the others come through. Probably the coolest thing was getting to see Mark come down in his open canoe, which he did with style. Of course this was only a class 5 (of 10), so I was sure he'd have a little more excitement as we got into the bigger stuff downstream.

Gabe and Emily in Soap Creek Rapid

Mark, open boatin'

Scott B catches some air off the wave train

Winston and Melissa sweep the rapid

The run-out to Soap Creek Rapid

Not far below Soap Creek, we pulled over on river-left to check out Brown's Inscription. This etching (in the rock wall) serves as a memorial for Frank Brown, who drowned there in 1889, after flipping in an eddy line (with no life jacket).

Brown's Inscription

The next place I pulled over was at Sheer Wall Rapid -- not for the rapid itself (which was pretty mellow), but for a small/natural grotto, where Tanner Wash entered the Colorado. For all but a highly skilled climber, it would have been impossible to get up into the wash, as the walls creating the small room were overhung. Even so, it was a cool little distraction, and only whetted my appetite for the slot canyons we'd be hiking later in our trip.

Tanner Wash

Bouldering skills required to enter this one

We soon reached the first "real" rapid on the river, House Rock (class 7), where we got out on river-left to give it a scout. Basically, the river made a right dogleg, pushing against and off the left cliff wall. The real hazard was a set of holes against the left wall, which were much tougher to avoid in a raft. For a kayak, it was pretty straightforward, and could even be snuck by driving right. I had decided to run it center, with right angle, skirting the right side off the holes. After one last peek, I hiked back up to my boat and prepared to drop in. Dropping down the tongue, I hit the line I was trying for, and it certainly felt bigger than it had looked from the scout. Now below the drop, I pulled over on the opposite shore and setup for photos of the others coming through.

In the heart of House Rock

One by one, each craft from our group entered the rapid. Everyone had good lines, although we did have some excitement from one of the 18'ers, after it was surfed in one of the holes and against the left wall. Luckily, the crew of two reacted appropriately and high sided accordingly, keeping it gear-side up. After a few tense moments, they were able to spin it out and finish up the rapid without a flip. After regrouping below House Rock, a few of the kayakers decided to hike back up and run the rapid again, while the others started heading down to establish camp. On my second attempt, I decided to run it a little closer to the holes, which certainly made it more exciting -- fun stuff indeed!

Scouting House Rock Rapid

Battling the left-hand holes

Nancy and Justin make the move

House Rock, from below

Below House Rock, we encountered more spectacular scenery within the canyon walls. At mile 19 we reached Boulder Narrows, where an impressive chunk of Supai Sandstone had fallen into the river. This is the largest mid-river rock that we would see on the run. 

Great canyon scenery never gets old

Approaching Boulder Narrows -- That's one big rock!

Mid afternoon on the river

By mid afternoon, we had reached North Canyon, where we'd be camping for the night. After getting everything unloaded and setup, we still had an hour or two before it started getting dark which allowed us to get in our first side-hike of the trip, up North Canyon. Scott Brigham, Emily, and I were the first to start the hike. As we headed up the side canyon, we picked our way through and over large boulders, where route finding proved a little tricky in a few spots. I soon spotted a crude foot trail on creek-left, which climbed up from the creek bed and headed further upstream. From high up on the trail, we could see that it had led us past a large ledge that would have been impossible to navigate from the creek level.

North Canyon Camp

Our crafts

Emily and Scott navigate a boulder pile, early on in North Canyon

The top of the detour around the ledge

Above the ledge, the walls of the canyon started to close in and transformed into some pretty wild rock formations. Eventually, our progress was halted at a pool, with a small sliding waterfall that trickled in at the far end of it. Although we probably could have swam across and climbed up the slide, none of us really wanted to get wet this late in the afternoon. Our stopping point did allow for some great photo opportunities, as well as remind us of how amazing of a place the Grand Canyon is.

Looking back towards the Colorado

The start of the North Canyon narrows

Mid canyon pool

Impressive rock formations in this section

It just kept getting more spectacular

The end of the line... at least for us

On the way back down to camp, we passed others from our group that were headed up the small canyon to take a look for themselves. Back at camp, we settled into another evening of great food, a few beers, a warm campfire, and falling asleep under starry skies.

Day 3 - North Canyon to South Canyon:
The morning brought more clear skies and cool temps. After a quick breakfast and loading the rafts, we were off once again. On this day we'd be entering the "Roaring Twenties", with no fewer than nine rapids that were rated between 4 and 6 (of 10). The first, North Canyon Rapid, started right out of the gate. I had launched before the others, so that I could get setup for some more photos. I wanted to stage from the river-left side, which required me to drive into a dynamic eddy at the entrance to the drop -- it ended up being a pretty fun move. From the eddy, I was able to get out of and drag my boat up onto the large rock shelf that led down almost the entire length of the rapid, giving me plenty of good vantage points. Although it ended up being a pretty straightforward rapid, it was a great way to wake up!

North Canyon Rapid

Sandra and Tait enter the drop

Jeremiah wakes up in North Canyon Rapid

The Roaring Twenties did not disappoint, with plenty of fun splashy rapids and even one or two that deserved a scout. One of my favorites was Georgie (aka Twentyfour Mile Rapid). This drop had a nice sized hole on the center-right, and since it looked pretty flushy, I decided to gut it! After setting my course, I dug in and tried to build up as much speed as I could before reaching the hole. Dropping down the tongue and into the trough, I realized just how big it was and braced for impact, before slamming into the pile on the other side. After busting through, still upright, I finished up the drop, before raising my arms up in celebration.

Closing in on Indian Dick Rapid. Hmm, I wonder how it got its name?

Brian blasts though the left corner of the hole at Georgie
Arthur threads the needle at Georgie

Noah drops in for his turn

The canyon wall rises right out of the water in many spots along the river

Somewhere in the Twenties

Mark does his best impression of Washington crossing the Delaware

Of course, great canyon scenery kept us entertained as we finished up the Twenties and headed toward our hike for the day -- one of the Grand Canyon classics, Silver Grotto. Although the hike is only 1/4 mile long, it's a tough one and be prepared to spend at least an hour. In fact, even getting into the slot canyon proved challenging, and we actually used a rope to make sure no one got hurt. Once in the narrows, you have to swim from pool to pool, which got pretty cold, especially since there was no sun exposure. After a small/slippery ledge, which took some effort to get up, we found ourselves at the end of the hike, at a natural rock amphitheater, which was pooled up on the far end. Heading back out to the river was definitely the best part, with a fun jump into a pool to start it off, and a long/steep butt-slide to exit the grotto. I gotta say, I really enjoyed Silver Grotto, but it's probably not a hike for everyone, since it's a little wet and has some sketchy scrambling in a few spots. I would say that our group was split down the middle regarding the fun factor of this one.

Typical obstacle in Silver Grotto

Another pool to navigate

The stopping point

The best way back down!

The crew makes its way back out of the grotto

Gotta get wet

About two miles below Silver Grotto was South Canyon, where we planned to camp for the night. Since we still had daylight after setting up camp, Scott, Mark, Emily & I went out for another hike. Unfortunately, the side canyon itself was blocked by a chokestone just a little ways up from the mouth. Luckily, there was another scenic destination, a set of Puebloan ruins and petroglyphs, situated on the bluffs above our camp. The best dwelling could be found higher up, at the base of a shallow cave. In additions to the ruins, we were treated to great views of the river, from our elevated platform.

The crew skirts an impressive slab of Redwall Limestone, across from our camp at South Canyon

Entering South Canyon

The chokestone that halted our progress up South Canyon

Puebloan dwelling

If you look closely you can see the petroglyphs in the rock 

The most impressive dwelling we found at South Canyon

A great view looking downriver

Back at camp, we relaxed and talked about our adventures over the last few days. It was starting to become apparent that dry/sandy conditions were starting to take a toll on our hands. I had cracks on all my fingers, and even some odd wear marks on the backs of my thumb. I had heard the horror stories about this on The Grand, and the need to stay on top of it before it got too bad. Luckily, we had lots of lotion to keep hands moisturized, but even that was not 100% effective at keeping the cracks under control. Not only were my hands hurting from the elements, my camera gear was feeling it as well, and it was almost impossible to keep the sand out of all the nooks & crannies.

Happy Hour

Moonrise over South Canyon

Day 4 - South Canyon to President Harding:
Day four started off just like the rest and we found ourselves on the water around 9am, ready for another day's adventure. Before heading downriver we stopped at Vasey's Paradise, a natural spring that we used to fill all of our water jugs. It's a beautiful spot, but if you're allergic to poison ivy, stay clear, since that's what all of the green plant life is that surrounds the spring.

Vasey's Paradise

Fillin' up water jugs

Generous eddy at Vasey's Paradise

Just a mile downstream of Vasey's was another iconic Grand Canyon site, Redwall Cavern. From our boats, the cave looked big, but nothing compared to how massive it is once you're actually inside of it -- neither words or photos can describe its grandeur. We actually spent quite a bit of time at the cavern, playing Wiffle Ball, Frisbee, guitar, and just hangin' out. Of course, before we left we needed to take the token, shadowed, group shot.

Redwall Cavern, from a distance.

Justin swings for the fences... Um, I mean wall.

The perfect beach

One massive cavern

More Frisbee

Token photo

Leaving Redwall Cavern

Our next stop was just a mile downstream, at Nautiloid Canyon, the site of fossilized sea creatures, embedded in the limestone floor. Nancy, our veteran Grand Canyon river runner, made sure we brought up water bottles. No, they were not used to hydrate, but instead, used to expose the Nautiloid fossils by pouring water across them. After leaving the fossilized canyon, we made our way downriver and floated past a natural bridge, up another side canyon on river-right. It's about a mile downstream of Nautiloid, and you really have to be looking to not miss it.

Hiking in Nautiloid Canyon

A Nautiloid fossil

Looking downstream from Nautiloid Canyon

Somewhere below Nautiloid Canyon

The natural bridge

Another four miles downstream, we reached the Marble Canyon Dam site. This was the location of a proposed dam, which luckily never happened, and the only sign of the project are drilled holes in the Redwall Limestone.

Remnants of the proposed Marble Canyon Dam

Impressive canyon walls

A relaxing stretch of water

The next stop we made was to check out Bert "The Grand Old Man of the River" Loper's boat, or at least the remnants of such. It is thought that he had a heart attack at 24.5 Mile Rapid, upstream; this is the location where the boat was found, and now acts has a memorial.

Bert's boat

At mile 44 we reached President Harding Rapid/Camp, which was our stopping point for the day. That night I spent quite a bit of time taking night shots, as the moon had illuminated the canyon walls. One thing about photography is that it really forces you to see the beauty in the natural world, and the Grand Canyon is about as good as it gets. I couldn't wait for the landscapes and adventures that were still out in front of us, especially since we were only a fifth of the way into the trip!

Evening reflection

Another moonrise

Moon illumination

For part three, Mile 44 to Mile 92, go here.
For part four, Mile 92 to Mile 132, go here.
For part five, Mile 132 to Mile 175, go here.
For part six, Mile 175 to Mile 226, go here.

Some highlights from the trip:

Greatest hits from The Grand - 2013 from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

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