Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Grand Canyon (Part 6) - Mile 175 to Diamond Creek

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.
For part five, Mile 132 to Mile 175, go here.

Day 17:
Waking up at Upper Cove Camp on day 17, we were all a little excited, and a little anxious, about what lay a mere five miles downstream -- Lava Falls, the largest single rapid of our trip. The paddle leading up to Lava was very mellow, and essentially pooled-up into a lake for the last few miles above the rapid. One notable feature along the way was Vulcan's Anvil, a black volcanic plug, which rises out of the water nearly 50'. We paddled around and checked out this ominous landmark, but stayed far enough away, since it is considered a sacred site by the Hualapai tribe, and should be respected as such.

Mark paddles past the Anvil

Vulcan's Anvil

A little over a mile downstream from the anvil, the roar of the river signaled that we had reached Lava. We made sure to eddy out well upstream of the rapid, with about half the crew scouting from river-left, and the other half from river-right. Since I was planning to make my run down the main flow on the right, I had decided to scout from that side. Following a well worn path, we began to climb, until we eventually reached the scouting platform, high above the river. From our vista, there was no mistaking that Lava was big, but we all knew that it would feel even bigger once we were pits deep in the middle of it.

The hard boaters, scouting Lava

From my perspective, there were two main hazards, 1) the massive pour-over ledge at the top-center of the rapid, and 2) the "Cheesegrater" rock jumble on the bottom-right. Being in a kayak, I wasn't concerned at all about the top ledge, since the line to the right of it was generous and you'd basically have to paddle into it intentionally to have a problem there. The Cheesegrater was a different story, and looked like it could definitely pose a problem if you didn't make it through the meat of the rapid upright and in control. Basically, the plan was to head down the V-wave with left angle, to counter the laterals coming in from that side. Then, at the last minute, straighten back out and take the converging waves head-on, hoping for the best. Assuming I was still upright for the second half of the rapid, my plan was to continue down the right side, threading between the bottom "Kahuna" tail wave and the Cheesegrater rock.

Both Brian and Jeremiah opted to go first for the kayakers, and Gabe volunteered to probe for the rafters. Although I was certainly okay with watching someone else go first, I was also glad I would get to take some photos from above the rapid. Brian entered first, and took the same right side line that I was planning to run. Although he was only in a tiny playboat he ended up greasing the line, even busting through the gut of the Kahuna wave without issue. Jeremiah followed soon after, with a really nice cut to the left, about halfway down the V-wave, avoiding the maelstrom down the right.

Brian enters Lava

Punching through the tip of the V-waves

Brian collides with the Kahuna Wave

Jeremiah, with a nice move to the left, at the tip of the V-waves

It was now time for the first raft. With Gabe on the ores, the bright yellow boat lined up for another run down the right. After passing the top pour-over ledge, the raft picked up speed as it headed into the tip of the V-wave, where the chaotic laterals converged. With the precision of a surgeon, he cut through it, exiting on-line and in complete control. The only obstacle between him and a clean run was the Kahuna wave, which he blasted through, all while keeping his full brimmed hat atop his head!

Gabe and Emily lead it off for the rafts

Down the V-wave

About to meet Kahuna

Cowboy Up!

At this point I had gotten anxious to experience Lava for myself. I let the others know that I was taking my turn and quickly made my way back down to my kayak. After snapping on my skirt, I took a couple of deep breaths and paddled into the main current. The approach seemed longer than I had expected, but soon I was picking up speed on the green water that was being drawn into the rapid. I came to the realization that finding your line is much easier from high up on the rocks. I sat up as tall as I could to get a bearing on my entrance point, and I was relieved to discover that I was essentially on-line. Heading down the V-wave, things went pretty fast. I set my left angle to hit the first couple laterals head-on, before digging in my right edge to line back up for the convergence. As I blasted through, I was a little surprised with how easy it was to punch through the chaos, and so I assumed I must have caught a lucky surge or something. Now past the crux, I lined up down the right and easily threaded my way between the Cheesegrater rock and the Kahuna wave. Happy with my line, I jumped out so I could take photos from below, of the rest of the group coming through.

A couple of our rafts opted for the left line, and although it was bit more rocky/technical at this flow, all of their lines were clean. There was also some excitement from the other two kayakers; probably the most humorous came from Scott Meininger, who had his visor pulled down over his eyes after flipping in the first half of the rapid. Luckily, he was able to push it back up just before hitting the gut the tail waves!

Nancy and Justin take the more technical left line

Scott Meininger, adjusting his visor in the middle of Lava

Scott Meininger smashes into the Kahuna Wave

Scott Bridgham enters Lava

Winston pilots his crew (Jeremiah and Melissa) though the top half of Lava

Hitting the tail waves


Although we still wanted to make 20 more river miles that day, we spent a little time in the eddy below Lava, to celebrate making it through without any major issues. Just below Lava was the much smaller Little Lava, which barely registered as a blip, at least at the flow we had. After both Lavas, and almost without warning, an upstream wind started to build between the canyon walls. It eventually got so bad that it was difficult to make downstream progress. At one point, it actually flipped Brian over in his kayak! Looking at shore became completely demoralizing, as it only indicated how little movement we were actually making. The wind was quickly zapping our energy and we eventually stopped for a lunch break to refuel and try and wait out the initial front. However, the wind never died down, and even making something to eat proved to be an adventure, with gear blowing everywhere and sand covering everything.

Somewhere below Lava

You can see how Lava gets its name - there is plenty of black basalt lining the wall of the canyon in this section

This is about the time the wind really stated to kick up

More awesome canyon scenery!

Mark paddles past a cool basalt flow

Another view of the basalt flow, from our lunch spot

With some regained energy, we pushed on, with the wind never really dying down, except maybe to toy with us every now and again. Once it became clear that we would not be able to make our planned mileage for the day, we started to look for an alternate camp, especially if we could find one that had some protection from the elements. Eventually we came to Hualapai Acres Camp, which ended up being perfect for the blowing conditions. The camp consisted of a series of connected rooms, cut within a vast stand of Tamarisk, creating a natural windbreak for both the kitchen and sleeping quarters. After getting some good food in our bellies and getting a break from the wind, our moods started to lighten back up a bit -- we only hoped that we wouldn't face the same conditions the following day...

Day 18:
Waking up at Hualapai Acres, threatening clouds filled the sky, but at least the winds appeared to have died down. It was now our second to last day on the river, and one where we'd be putting down some miles, to ensure we reached Diamond Creek, for our scheduled take-out time the following day. Since we planned to camp at 220 Mile Camp, we'd need to row nearly 25 miles, so we were really hoping the wind wouldn't kick back up. After eating breakfast and loading our gear, we shoved off and started our day on the water.

Luckily, the wind was a little calmer on this day

Just 4 miles downstream, we reached Parashant Canyon, were a few of us decided to stop for a quick hike, to check out the "Book of Worms". The book is actually a piece of Bright Angel Shale, with fossilized worms embedded into its face, which date back 550 million years! The book was a bit tricky to find, but we finally discovered it on the north side of the wash, laying at the base of the cliffs. It was certainly cool to see such ancient fossils, but only worth a few minutes of time -- unless of course, you're a paleontologist or general prehistoric guru.

The Book of Worms

A close-up of the fossilized worms

Below Parashant, we made haste so that we could catch back up with the rest of our crew. This didn't take too long, since the water in the section is pretty mellow and our hard boats were much faster than the rafts. The next major attraction of the day was 205 Mile Rapid (aka Kolb). At this point I was in the lead, and although I knew we had a few bigger rapids to run, I wasn't even sure what it was rated. Since I could see the bottom, and what resembled a decent line, I dropped in without scouting. I quickly realized that it was a little bigger than I had given it credit for. Luckily, I was able to put together a fairly clean line, starting center-left and finishing center-right, through a fairly sizable hole at the bottom. I quickly got out below and waited to take photos of the others coming through, which happened soon after. The drop didn't cause any real problems for the crew, but Mark had a pretty exciting line in his open canoe, gutting the bottom right hole, sideways, and riding out a short surf session.

A cool basalt wall

205 Mile Rapid

Justin and Nancy drop into 205 Mile Rapid

Creative use of a Paco Pad...

The next sizable drop was 209 Mile Rapid, where the river wrapped around a right-hand bend and down an eight foot drop. At this flow, it was pretty benign, but it still had a hole on the right that could flip a raft, as a consequence for a missed line. Everyone in our group decided to sneak the hole, except Brian, who got a little steezy with a wave-wheel right into the gut of it!

The crew, staged above 209 Mile Rapid

Taking the easy route

Taking the hard route, with style!

By this time, everyone in the crew was getting a bit hungry, so we started to search for a nice lunch spot, preferably with some sun. Soon enough, we found a nice sandy beach to spread out on, and although the lingering storm clouds only allowed for spotty sun, the winds were much less severe than the day before, so we didn't have to deal with a sandstorm while we ate. After I had refueled, I decided to head downriver before the others, so that I'd have enough time to take photos at Pumpkin Spring, just a few miles down.

Between the lunch spot and Pumpkin Spring was one named drop, "Little Bastard Rapid". Since it was only rated as a class 3, I wasn't too worried about running it solo. Surprisingly, it ended up being a bit harder than the rating would have suggested, not that it was overly difficult, just more so than some of the drops that were rated a bit higher -- I'm sure water levels had a lot to do with this.

Eventually I did reach Pumpkin Spring, which is pretty hard to miss, since it literally looks like a giant pumpkin, growing out of the side of the rocks. Although this odd mineral formation is cool to look at and take photos of, it was certainly not a place I'd want to take a dip. The water filling the pumpkin has very high levels of arsenic, as well as concentrations of copper, zinc, and lead. Even if this wasn't the case, the water itself is not very inviting, which is both soupy green color, and has chunks of funk floating around in it - blah! Just about the time I had finished with my photo shoot, the rest of the crew came floating past. No one else decided to get out on shore to check it out, but they did paddle up close enough to reach out and touch its orange exterior.

Pumpkin Spring

Gabe and Emily row past Pumpkin Spring

The final highlight of our day's float, was 217 Mile Rapid, which would also be the last sizable rapid of our Grand Canyon trip. Although it was rated as a class 5, once again it was pretty straightforward. I did pull over to take photos of the group, but this was mainly based on it being the last rapid, as opposed to catching some whitewater action. Everyone in our group knew that this was the last hurrah, and made sure to ham it up on the way through.

Arthur and Tait, at 217 Mile Rapid

Winston and crew ham it up for the camera, on the last major rapid of our trip

Mark pilots his open boat though 217 Mile Rapid

As we closed in on our planned camp for the evening, at mile 220, it became clear that this was a very popular final camping area for people that were taking out at Diamond Creek, as we were. There were three total camps at this specific mile marker, and luckily the middle one was still open, allowing us to lay claim. From the water, it didn't look like much, but after climbing up the small beach and through a small opening in the tamarisk, we found a beautiful place to call home for the evening. That night, we ate a ridiculous amount of food and drank the remaining beer, which we had been hording. It was really a bittersweet celebration - Although I was looking forward to a warm shower and an actual bed, I was going to miss both the river, my temporary family, and all of the adventures we had shared. We had overcome so many obstacles just to get on the river, and just like that, it was coming to an end. As I turned in for the evening and laid my head on my pillow, I made sure to take in the starry sky, which would not look the same once I was back in Eugene, where the city lights and fog mute their brightness.

Docked at camp

Day 19:
Waking up on the last day of the trip brought bright sunny skies and cool temperatures, as it had been like for most of our journey. Since we were scheduled to meet PRO (our outfitter) at Diamond Creek at 10am, we didn't have much time to sit around and relax. As we packed up our gear, Mark came across a scorpion, who had climbed into his bag during the night. Of course, I had to come over to take a photo. As I squatted down to do so, I accidentally sat down on a cactus (how ironic), which embedded literally hundreds of hair sized spines into my rear-end, which sent me into the air in pain. Most people that have spent time around cactus know that you should use tape to remove the spines, and even though I lived in Arizona for most of my life, my memory is short and selective; therefore, I figured it would be a good idea to try and pull them out of my pants (now removed) with my teeth... It probably doesn't take a genius to figure out that this only transferred many of the small spines into the soft tissue inside my mouth (tongue, gums, etc.).

Mark's new buddy

After we had packed up and loaded the boats, we shoved off and headed toward the take-out, a mere five miles downstream. Although there wasn't much in the way of whitewater in this section, the scenery continued to amaze, with Diamond Peak as one of the dominant landmarks. All too soon, the boat landing at Diamond Creek came into view, with another group already docked and disassembling there floatilla. There was also a very friendly member of the Hualapai tribe, who confirmed our information to ensure we were scheduled to takeout there. Of course, everything checked out and we were okayed to start the de-rigging process. It still amazes me how much gear is required for a trip like this, as well as the effort to get everything loaded/unloaded. Since I typically do self-support kayaking, it's kind of an overwhelming experience. Before long, PRO showed up with both a massive flatbed truck and a passenger van. After exchanging pleasantries, they helped us load all the gear and people into the vehicles, before we headed up and out of the canyon.

Diamond Peak

Loading up at Diamond Creek

As we drove away from the beach, up the crude dirt road, I stared behind us to see the river, until it eventually fell out of sight. Of course we shared all of our stories with the driver, who seemed almost as excited to hear them as we were to tell them. The road was both long and rough, but eventually it led us out of the canyon and back to civilization. The first sign of human life came at the Hualapai reservation, where less than ideal living conditions presented themselves. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the people of this once great society, and a sense of guilt for the history that led to their situation. It was actually a very sobering part of the drive, which set a very somber mood within the confines of our van.

Before leaving the reservation, we stopped at a small park in town, to make lunch - PRO had brought plenty of food to make some gourmet sandwiches with. After eating, I ran over to the visitor's center to go to the bathroom, which was the first time I had seen myself in a mirror, in nearly 3 weeks. All I can say is that you want to ease into this, as I was quite shocked at my appearance... I also made sure to wash my face in the sink to get off as much of the grunge as I could, but to be honest, I was basically just shinin' turds. This was also the part of the trip where we'd separate from the first member of the group, Nancy, who had her car shuttled to the park. After bidding farewell to our sage rower, we started the drive back to Flagstaff.

A cool Monarch butterfly, at our lunch spot

The Grand Canyon Crew!

Once we had made it back to Flagstaff, PRO dropped us off at our cars, which were still parked at the hotel where we had left them. We were all super happy to see that no break-ins had occurred - another victory of our trip! Next, we drove over to PRO to collect our remaining gear, where we also thanked them for the unbelievable service they had provided us - they really went above and beyond. From there, we parted ways with a few more from the group, before Emily and I headed back to our hotel room. We planned to get cleaned up and then meet the remaining members of the crew out for a bite to eat. All I can say is that we put a serious hurtin' on the shower and towels...

That night we once again celebrated the amazing adventure that we had all shared with each other, and of course we were all a little sad that it had finally come to an end. From the stressful beginnings of waiting out the government shutdown, to biking in Flagstaff and Sedona, to finally getting on the river, we had shared lots of lasting memories -- This will truly be an adventure I will never forget.

Lessons learned:
  1. Hire an outfitter - I can not recommend PRO enough. For what you get (gear, food, shuttle service, etc.), it was a true bargain, at around $1,200 per person.
  2. Bring your camera gear, but not too much - Being a enthusiast photographer, I brought a lot of stuff, including two camera bodies and many lenses. In the end, I really only used a few of the lenses, and it was a real battle to keep sand out of all the nooks and crannies; it really took its toll on my gear. If I had to do it all over, I'd bring one camera body, a tripod, and the following three lenses:
    • A super zoom (e.g. 18-200mm) - You really don't need a super fast lens, since you'll have lots of light to work with in most situations. This is a great all around focal range to take river photos with, and you won't have to change lenses.
    • An ultra wide angle prime or zoom (e.g. 10-20mm) - This is a great lens for the side hikes, especially the more narrow canyons. It's also great for camp and star shots.
    • A fisheye lens (e.g. 8mm) - This is great for the same reason as the ultra wide lens, but gives you a little wider view and the field curvature can be used for more creative shots.  
  3. Bring lots of lotion and make sure to start using it early on - Although I had been warned, I still did not stay on top of it like I needed to. Once you start to develop cracks, it's almost impossible to heal them.
  4. If you like beer, bring plenty of it - We had set a ridiculously low limit of 2 per day / per person, assuming we would make up for it with hard alcohol. First off, I think I'm the only one who obeyed the rule (even though I'm not the one who set it), and even then, we all ran out.
  5. Do as much side hiking as you can! Each hike we did was both unique and amazing, and as it's been said many times before, "you don't go on the Grand for the whitewater".
  6. Group dynamics are very challenging, when you have this many people stuck together for this long. Try not to let the little things bother you too much, and make sure to go with a good group of people that you get along with, like we had! Even then, you're bound to have small skirmishes here and there.
  7. Don't fixate on where you want to camp or keeping an exact schedule, it can really take away from the enjoyment on the river. The reality is that there are groups in front and in back of you, and everyone seems to want to grab the most popular spots. In the end, there is plenty of good camping for everyone, and even the lesser known sites will serve you well.
  8. If you have the chance to go on the Grand, but are on the fence, make it happen, it is truly deserving of the saying, a trip of a lifetime!

    Some highlights from the trip:

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

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