Monday, February 24, 2014

The Grand Canyon (Part 5) - Mile 132 to Mile 175

For part one, the Prologue, go here.  
For part two, Lees Ferry to Mile 44, go here.
For part three, Mile 44 to Mile 92, go here.
For part four, Mile 92 to Mile 132, go here.

Day 13:
Waking up at Stone Creek on day 13, I was still a bit tired from helping to wrestle the 18'er off the rocks in Deubendorff. There was still work to be done to render the raft seaworthy, specifically, the floor needed to be re-stitched to the side tubes. Since a crew of more experienced raft repair folks had already volunteered to do the dirty work, I decided to hike up Stone Creek, to take some photos of the waterfall, just upstream. The hike was very pleasant, crossing back and forth over the small stream as it made its way toward the base of the falls. It was also much more open than the slot canyons, which had made up a majority of the hikes we'd done thus far.

Heading up the trail toward Stone Creek

Desert bloom

The falls, just up from camp

By the time I returned back to camp, the repair crew had finished sewing up the raft, so I headed over to help re-rig it. Getting all the gear back in the boat went pretty quickly, and before long we were on the water and heading downstream once again -- we were all pretty happy to still have all five rafts in the floatilla! After a couple of miles we reached Tapeats Creek, the start of the Thunder River hike. We pulled over at Racetrack and discussed whether or not we wanted to do it. After some deliberation, we decided to keep going and forgo the hike, which I was okay with, but still little bummed about. My plan had been to hike up with my kayak and boat Tapeats Creek on the way back down; unfortunately, the raft debacle we dealt with the day before had put a strain on our schedule.

As we continued downstream, we soon reached the Granite Narrows, where the Vishnu schist walls closed down to a mere 76' wide. The rapid leading into the narrows can pose a hazard, as Helicopter Eddy (on river-left) has been known to snatch up those who drop in apathetically. Just below the narrows lies the Christmas Tree Cave, which is well worth the stop. Although it's not as large as Redwall Cavern, it's special in its own way, with cool stalagmite/stalactite formations at the back of the cave. The highlight of this attraction is, of course, the Christmas Tree -- if you can find it...

Granite Narrows

Climbing up toward the Christmas Tree Cave

The entrance

Looking for the Christmas Tree

Found it!

Our next stop occurred at one of the most popular of any trip down the Grand Canyon, Deer Creek. From its iconic waterfall near the mouth, to the narrows and patio above, this place has something for everyone! We decided to eat lunch before the hike and setup the kitchen on the small landing beach near the mouth of the canyon. I was planning to take it all in, starting with a short photo session at the Deer Creek Falls. Although it would be difficult to take a horrible picture of the falls, it is not the easiest assignment for a landscape photographer, due to the continuous flow of people that have also come to enjoy its splendor. After taking it in for a bit and snapping off a few shots, I started the climb up toward the entrance to the narrows.

Deer Creek Falls

Another view of the falls

At the top of the climb I met up with some of the others from our group, who were taking in the amazing upstream view of the Colorado River. From the overlook, the trail entered the narrows along a benched-in shelf, carved into the Tapeats sandstone. The narrows is a truly impressive chasm of layered sandstone, but unfortunately, you are not allowed to enter into the bottom of them, like you once could. Therefore I could only dream of the photographic opportunities it would have provided, and had to settle for shooting down on them from above.

Looking upstream, just before heading into the narrows

Following the benched-in path

Hiking along the rim of the narrows

Before long I reached the Patio, where Deer Creek entered the narrows though a series of small cascading waterfalls. There were plenty of folks atop the patio, enjoying both the waterfalls and the cottonwoods that lined the bank. Beyond there, the walls peeled back, allowing the sun to bake down on the folks sunbathing along the rocks.

A cool little waterfall just above the narrows

A narrow section you could hike into, at the patio

I knew that I wanted to make it all the way to Deer Creek Springs and the Throne Room, but figured it probably wasn't going to be a destination for others in our group. With that, I let some in my crew know where I was headed, and that if nothing else I would find them at camp somewhere downstream. Hiking up the trail toward the springs, I ran into Mark, Scott, and Nancy, who decided to join me. After about a half mile we crossed over Deer Creek and started heading up toward Surprise Valley. Within another 1/4 mile, we caught a glimpse of a waterspout shooting out of the canyon wall. Taking a short spur trail, we quickly found ourselves walking behind Deer Creek Springs. At this point I was extremely parched, due to my poor decision not to bring water on the hike. Figuring that the water from the spring had been sufficiently filtered through its rock encasement above, I cupped my hands and guzzled the water as it pooled up between them.

The last pitch up to Deer Creek Springs / the Throne Room

Deer Creek Springs, which comes out where all the vegetation is climbing up the wall

Hangin' behind the springs

Now that I was sufficiently rehydrated, I headed down from the springs to the Throne Room. This room is an impressive one, with thrones that were built from nearby rocks by previous visitors. Of course we had to try each of them out to find our favorite one! Heading back toward the river, the cottonwood trees were illuminated by sun rays that had broken through the storm clouds, which seemed to be moving in -- what a beautiful desert landscape!

Nancy, Scott, and Mark, trying out the thrones

Checking the trail just above the spring, toward Surprise Valley

Looking back toward the Colorado - What a view!

On the way back through the narrows, I couldn't help but take a few more photos of the impressive rock formations. As I was hiking back down the cliffs to the river, I could see that our rafts had left the beach and were headed downstream. Since I knew we were planning to camp in one of the spots just below Deer Creek, I wasn't too concerned about catching back up. Back on the river, I ended up finding them about a mile down at Football Field Camp, a proper name given its massive beachfront.

The top of the narrows

Waterfalls dropping down from the patio into the narrows

Looking down into the narrows

Leaving the narrows

That evening in camp, a storm began to brew on the horizon, which put on a spectacular color display against the setting sun. All too soon, and of course while the kitchen crew was in the middle of cooking, the winds picked up, eventually hitting near hurricane forces. Since we knew the rains would be following soon after, we attempted to erect a shelter over the kitchen. This ended up being a futile attempt, resulting in a chaotic scene and a wind-shredded tarp. Eventually the rains did come, but surprisingly, it only came down for about 5 minutes before it stopped and the calm returned. Of course we weren't done feeling the lingering effects, including sand in every piece of gear, as well as our dinner.

Football Field Camp

Storm's a brewin'

Fire in the sky

Day 14
The morning of day 14 started much earlier than anyone in the group could have imagined. At around 4:45am, I awoke to my tent being shaken and a loud voice telling us it was time to get up. Half dazed, I sat up and asked Emily, "What the hell time is it?!". When we both discovered how early it was, I figured something must be going on, so got up to investigate. Come to find out, what had happened was that we agreed to get an early start, but Arthur's watch was off by an hour... Since, at this point, everyone was already awake, we decided we may as well go with it. By the time we had all grooved, eaten breakfast, and packed up camp, the sun was just coming over the horizon -- Well, we should be one of the first groups out of the gate!

Early start

The reason we had wanted to get an earlier start was that our first destination of the day was to Matkatamiba Canyon, which has difficult approach into the service eddy and not much room for multiple groups. The group decided that the best plan for ensuring that all of our rafts made it into the eddy was to have all the hard boaters get there first and set up with ropes, just in case we needed to help pull the rafts in. One-by-one, our rafts made the move and slipped in, at which point we helped push them onto the shallow gravel bar to make room for the next. With only one close call, we were able to squeeze everyone in, which was a big relief!

Arthur helps Nancy park her boat toward the back of the eddy, to make room for others.

Matkat was actually one of the side hikes I was most looking forward to. With its Muav limestone narrows, I couldn't wait to fit my fisheye lens onto my camera and head up for a photo shoot. There were actually a couple of ways to enter the slot canyon, either swim across the pool at the mouth or climb up the cliff on creek-left and enter further up. Since I had a drysuit, I opted for the swim. Once on the other side of the pool, I ditched the dry gear and started my hike up the canyon. The first section was fairly open as it made a few turns, heading upstream. Very quickly, the sculpted canyon started to pinch down, until eventually the corridor was only a few feet wide. Although there was water flowing between the walls, it wasn't deep enough to require a swim.

Near the start of the hike

The stairs into Makat narrows

Another small step-up

Standard scenery in Matkat narrows

Some S-turns

One of the narrowest spots in Matkat

After taking more than a few photos I made my way up to the patio area, where I caught up with some of our crew, who were on their way back to the river. As they dropped down into the narrows, they worked on their stemming technique -- although it wasn't required to navigate back down, it sure provided plenty of entertainment! As I was leaving the narrows, I noticed a dark spot on the right canyon wall, which turned out to be a small bat, who appeared to be in the middle of a nap.

Tait, Sandra, and Emily heading back into the narrows

Stemming at its finest

Nap time

Leaving Matkat

Just a half-mile below Matkat, we pulled into Matkat Hotel, which would be providing our accommodations for the night. Although it was still early afternoon when we arrived, the direction and height of the canyon walls prevented the sun from shining on our camp. There was a small illuminated beach just downstream, which could be reached from shore, so I grabbed my towel and soap and headed down for a much needed bath. After I was all cleaned up, I hung out for a few minutes until the sun dropped below the canyon rim. On the way back to camp, we ran into a rattler, who was climbing up a rock. It was really cool to just sit back and watch as it moved ever so slowly up toward the cliffs -- truly amazing creatures!

Our camp, at Matkat Hotel

Headed toward the light

Desert critter

The head

Nice rattle!


The end of a great day!

Day 15
Waking up at Matkat Hotel, we once again tried to get an early start so we could find a spot in the eddy to our day's attraction, Havasu Canyon. Although we didn't get on the water at the crack of dawn like the day before, we did make it on with plenty of daylight ahead of us. Before our hike we needed to get past one obstacle, Upset Rapid, rated as a class 6 (of 10). Walking down the river-right shore, we scouted the length of the rapid. At our lowish Fall flows, this was certainly one of the bigger rapids on The Grand. It was actually quite similar to Granite, only mirrored, with reactionary waves coming off the cliff wall on the left and a hole at the bottom, waiting to gobble up unsuspecting boaters. There were two possible lines to avoid the hole, a left line requiring you to thread the needle between it and the canyon wall, or a right sneak requiring a hard pull (at least for a raft).

The top half of Upset

Brian launches himself into the largest hole in Upset

Jeremiah battles down the left line -- still big over there!

Mark, wisely taking the happy line, in his open boat.

After watching half our crew run their lines (all clean and solid), I headed back for my turn. It wasn't until I was sitting in my boat above the drop that I decided to saddle up and take the hole head-on. Dropping in center, I set left angle to counter the reactionary waves on the way down to my target. About halfway through the drop, I noted that I was further left than I wanted to be and had accidently lined up on the wrong hole. Crashing into my unintended target, my forward momentum was greatly reduced as I reemerged on the downstream side. Without much time to react I hit the left corner of the main hole and completely stalled out on the top of the pile. I quickly dug in my right blade, hoping to grab enough green to pull myself out. After an uncomfortable amount of time, I finally broke free of its grasp and floated downstream toward the cheers of my fellow boaters.

The author, making contact with the first hole
(photo by Brian Ward)

The author gets a little sideways, above the beast
(photo by Brian Ward)

Diggin' out
(photo by Brian Ward)

Winston, who had yet to take his turn, sat above the rapid with his passengers, Melissa and Scott. As he made his way through the top half of the rapid, it appeared that he was headed straight for the belly of the beast. Sure enough, he shot down the tongue and buried the 18'er into the pile. Amazingly he kept it upright as he spun it around and out of the hole!

Winston says "Let'er Buck!"


Pulling into the eddy at Havasu wasn't nearly as difficult for the rafts as Matkat, and without issue we had the entire fleet docked in the calm water at the mouth of the creek. Unlike Matkat, the eddy was not vacant, and squeezing in while also allowing space for the next visitors proved to be tight. Once we had all the rafts properly secured, we changed into our hiking gear and started our trek into the canyon. The main draw to Havasu has to be its turquoise-colored water, which just like the Little Colorado, comes from dissolved limestone and the buildup of calcium carbonate. Unfortunately, the travertine, which is also formed by the two, had mostly been blown out of the canyon by recent floods. The color of the water contrasted nicely against the bright red canyon walls, creating an amazing desert oasis setting.

Near the start of the Havasu hike

Desert Oasis

Havasu provides some great contrasting colors!

Standard scenery along Havasu Creek

We had planned to spend a few hours at the creek, and I spent most of my time just relaxing and taking photos of this amazing side creek. Memories of Emily's and my hike down from the rim to the Havasupi village, during our one of our early dating years, came flooding back. It was on that trip where we got to experience the upper canyon, with Havasu Falls, Navajo Falls, and Mooney Falls -- that destination should be on the list of anyone who enjoys the outdoors, words simply cannot describe its grandeur.

Havasu Falls
(photo taken many years before, when Emily and I hiked down from the rim)

Mooney Falls
(photo taken many years before, when Emily and I hiked down from the rim)

Mooney Falls, from downstream
(photo taken many years before, when Emily and I hiked down from the rim)

Once we had gotten our fill of Havasu Creek, we headed back downstream towards our awaiting boats. It was super cool to stand on the cliff while looking down at the confluence of Havasu and the Colorado, where the blue and brown water converge. The short narrows stretch, just up from the mouth, is also one of the most stunning sections on Havasu Canyon, and worth paddling into as both Mark and I did before heading downstream towards camp.

The confluence of Havasu and the Colorado

Mark paddles up into the narrows, just above the mouth of the creek

Another view from the mouth of Havasu Creek

Just a mile and a half downstream of Havasu, we pulled over at what would be the must unique camp of our trip, at 158.7 Mile Camp. The site was situated on stepped limestone ledges, with nice flat spots for both the kitchen and tents scattered throughout its large footprint.

Brian finds a great place to bed down for the night

Another view of the camp

And a pano of it, because I could...

Day 16:
We had planned to do three side hikes on the sixteenth day of our trip, which I was pretty excited about. Just out of camp and on our way downstream, we came across a herd of bighorn sheep, drinking from the river and hanging out in the sun. All of a sudden, a crack of thunder echoed off the canyon walls. Almost as if they were showing off, two rams had just locked heads in front of us! Looking a little dazed from the hit, they both stood their ground and stared each other down. After a few moments, they turned away and started nibbling the grass around their feet. My hope was that they would tangle a few more times, so I hung back and waited with my camera while the others continued downriver. Amazingly, they went at it three or four more times -- it was so cool to see in person what I assumed I would only get to see on a nature show!

Checking out the herd

But they look so peaceful...

"Let's get it on!"


Since I had spent so much time watching the bighorn sheep, I had some ground to make up to catch up to the crew. Eventually I did catch up to them, just upstream of our first hike, at Tuckup Canyon. Tuckup started out fairly open, but after navigating around and through a large boulder spill, the walls began to close in. After winding up the canyon for about a quarter mile, we reached a deep/narrow pool with a set of chokestones on the other side. It was here that we ran into the group who had helped out during our raft pin at Deubendorff, which we couldn't thank them enough for! Members of both our crews had swum across the pool and climbed up and over the chokestones, heading a little further up. Since we still had two more side hikes and we would need to head back fairly soon, I opted out of heading beyond the obstacles. With that, we bid farewell to our fellow river runners and headed back to the boats.

Hiking into Tuckup Canyon

Getting tighter

Lots of rock debris from recent floods 

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

Heading back out of Tuckup

A few miles downstream we came to the next side hike that I was planning to do, at National Canyon. Most of our crew weren't super interested in this hike, leaving only Mark, Scott and me to explore its confines. As with Tuckup, the first part of the canyon was relatively open, with large red walls flanking either side of us. At about a half mile up, we reached the Muav Narrows, which were nothing short of spectacular. Unfortunately, a chokestone hampered our progress just a short distance from the start of the narrows. I'm sure it would have been possible to navigate around with a little bit of effort, but once again we were a little pressed for time, especially since the rest of our group was still making downriver progress. We did spend a little time taking photos and practicing our stemming techniques before heading back to our boats, but I really wish we would have spent more time in this side canyon.

Mark and Scott, starting the hike into National Canyon

A little bit of route finding, to avoid getting wet

The narrows

Mark, doing his best not to get wet

Our turnaround point

Mark and Scott stemming the narrows


Scott shows off his advanced stemming skills...

Not too far downriver from National was Fern Glen, where the rest of our team had stopped to get out and hike up the small canyon. Fern Glen is another short hike, which leads you up and over a couple of boulder scrambles and past fern-covered walls, before reaching a rock-walled amphitheater, which wasn't passable beyond its back wall. A trickle of water poured down from the canyon above the room, creating a very calming space to just sit back and relax in. It was amazing how quiet it was, completely muting the sounds of the river, less than a half-mile down the side canyon from us.

Following some prints into Fern Glen

Mark and Scott head into Fern Glen Canyon

A minor obstacle

Hangin' out in the back room

Headed out of Fern Glen

We would make another 6 miles on the river, before pulling over at Upper Cove Camp, where we'd be spending the night. The camp provided two benefits, 1) it still had plenty of sun, and 2) it was 5 miles upstream of Lava Falls -- far enough away to not have to listen to it all night, and a perfect amount of miles to wake up on before reaching it the following morning. We certainly took advantage of the remaining light, hanging our clothes out to dry, gathering power with my solar charger, and lounging around like lizards until the sun finally fell below the canyon walls. That night we ate dinner and talked about what lay just downstream, the biggest rapid of the run...

The boats gets some rest before Lava


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.