Pockets of Blue

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Grand Canyon 2012 Part Two — Days One to Five and Some Scares

Continued from part one

After a stressful two days of preparation, we were finally floating. At this point, as a trip leader, you should really just sit back, crack open a beer, and relax, because there’s really nothing more you can do from a planning perspective. There’s no returning after you pass the “permit required past this point” line.

Day 1: Jubilation
We only floated eleven miles due to our late put in, and they were almost all flat except for a few small rapids to warm up a little bit. Beers were consumed en masse until (and after) Graham whipped up a tasty batch of steaks, and I remember having fairly civil conversation with only a couple people falling out of their chairs. Pacing oneself is an important river skill to learn.

Day 2: Tidal Surprises
We woke up on the beach to find our boats no longer in the water. Oops. We had heard about the “tides” on the Colorado below Glen Canyon Dam, and were now acutely experiencing the side effects. Each day, water is released from the dam in cyclic intervals, with the greatest flows around late afternoon to keep up with hydroelectric demand from the parched cities of the Southwest. 12 hours later, the lowest volumes are released, and this continues in a predictable 24-hour cycle. Our flows were forecast to be 10k – 18k CFS (cubic feet per second), a reasonable flow for midsummer.

So, most mornings we would wake up to the boats either totally marooned on a beach, or floating 15 feet past the waterline. It took about a week to get a feel for the tides, and after that we adjusted the boats accordingly before going to bed.

The first large rapids were right after we put in, which provided some excitement first thing in the morning. I was having a tough time controlling the boat through the first couple 6s (on a 1-10 scale) — Hitting the entry point wasn’t a problem, but I kept getting an oar stuck in the water which tended to spin the boat around uncontrollably. It was not confidence-inspiring for either passenger or rower. It was the first time I had rowed a boat with oarlocks, though, so the learning curve was understandable.

Day 3: Uh-oh
The third day started out well; we were at a spectacular camp (Shinumo Wash) with a large beach right next to a 400-foot cliff and spirits were high. There was a really cool-sounding slot canyon hike just upstream from camp, so we decided to check it out. It was semi-technical, involving fixing a rope for downclimbing a steep ramp into the central slot. Everybody fared well until we ventured up some slick waterslides farther up. Jon was ill-prepared and had to choose between climbing barefoot and with flip-flops and went with the former. This did not bode well as he slipped while climbing the uppermost slide. The ugly sound of skull meeting rock reverberated throughout the slot, and once the blood started gushing it wasn’t quite clear if things were going to be alright. Half the group went down with him to apply medical treatment while the rest of us continued up the slot, which didn’t go for much longer. We carefully climbed hand-over-hand back up the rope and descended to a bummed-out Jon holding a bloody shirt to his wound. After much discussion and waiting for a clot we had applied antiseptic to the wound and covered it in steri-strips while the rest of the group rigged the boats.

Over the next few days we consulted with numerous commercial parties for advice, which varied from immediate helicopter evacuation to staying the course. Kudos to Graham and Shawn for handling the whole situation calmly and professionally. It had stressed me out big time but I elected to step back due to my lack of medical expertise.

What made matters worse was my own medical issue that night — while eating a tasty burrito I had an especially severe esophageal cramp (a recurring condition of mine) which sidelined me for the rest of the night. I couldn’t swallow any food or water as it would just get lodged in my esophagus, and eventually be regurgitated. I suspect it was largely stress-induced, as the last few days were as anxiety-ridden as any in my life, and the condition just exacerbated it. Some good conversation with Shawn and Zac helped a bit (along with everybody’s favorite green pain reliever), and I was feeling better that night. However, it wasn’t until I swallowed a Benadryl the next morning that the dilation cleared and I could finally swallow again. What a relief.

Days 4-5: Rain and the Little Colorado
With the group’s medical problems somewhat relieved, we could focus more on enjoying ourselves. The next couple days didn’t bring any really big rapids, but enough smaller ones for me to get a better handle on controlling the boat. There weren’t any more unexpected 180-degree spins mid-rapid and I was able to keep the boat straight consistently. On the fourth night we had an unexpected rain squall roll in at three in the morning. I woke up to a few people groggily stumbling around setting up the large tent, and soon after I was struggling to erect my own, swearing the whole time. On the bright side, it cooled things off considerably and the next morning was quite pleasant.

On the fifth day we came to the Little Colorado River, an impressive cerulean blue flowing over bright-white, soft limestone deposits. We tied up the boats and hiked a half mile upstream, passing some really fun-looking overhanging conglomerate boulders that I had to play on. Everybody jumped in the refreshingly warm, tropical-feeling waters and butt-floated with our life-jackets most of the way down, shooting through small rapids and giggling like toddlers. It was an absolute blast and the most fun I had had in quite some time.

Next: Phantom Ranch and big rapid day — Hermit, Granite, Crystal!

1 Comment

  1. Hey, Alec. I finally read your 2nd blog on the Colorado River trip–good writing! Your descriptions brought me back to those western whitewater trips of 40 years ago. I’m having fun living this trip second hand.

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