Over the Waves and Through the Canyons (Part 1)

Grand Canyon River Trip: Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch - Sept 2011

Bridge to the Canyon
After a long drive from Flagstaff, we set off from the boat launch at Lee's Ferry for our two week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. A few miles downstream, we passed under the old and new Marble Canyon bridges - our last view of civilization.

Getting into the Groove of Camp
Our Canyon Expeditions group had five 18-foot oar boats, a passenger-powered 14-foot paddle boat and (later on) two inflatable kayaks. It took a few days to get into the swing of the daily routine. Here guide Gibby gives us an overview of the care and feeding of the 'groover'. Legend says it got its name from the old days when they did not have a seat and you sat directly on the rim of the ammo box - an experience that often left a deep impression (or two) on users. One groover box would last for two days. You do NOT want to be the last user on Day Two. Note the fine open view of the river and visa-versa.

First Night in Camp
Each evening, we would find an open beach (some large, some small), unload the boats, and find a nice sandy camp spot among the rocks and tamarisk. Liquid body waste (ie: 'Number One') is done directly in the river (the groover being for solid waste only) and we quickly learned that spots nearest the water are prime locations least you need to take a midnight stroll. This is one reason why you never want to invite somebody just off a river trip to your pool party.

Muddy Rider
Our first hike was up Rider Canyon (where the Stanton expedition hauled out their injured photographer in 1890).

Shady Break
Looking out at the boats from Cave Spring. This small cave on river left had a hole in the ceiling where you could climb up into a series of tunnels and come down on the other side of the room.

Hole in the Redwall
This giant alcove at a bend in the river - known as the Redwall Cavern - has been a landmark since historic times. John W. Powell famously contended that it could hold 50,000 people. While that is doubtful, we conclusively proved that it can hold at least one whiffle-ball game.

Bert's Boats
River legend Bert Loper had a long history of disappointment in the canyon. He missed being one of the earliest river runners in 1908 when partners Charles Russell and Edwin Monett left him behind at Lee's Ferry. A few years later, Russell made it up to him by stealing his metal boat, the 'Ross Wheeler' (left), for another run without him and then abandoned it at the Bass Trail. Bert finally made his first run of the canyon in 1939. In 1949, he tried to run it again at age 80, but died of a heart attack at Mile 24.5 Rapid - his companions dragged the remains of his boat above the waterline and there it still sits (right - inspected by Todd and Steph). Look to your oars, Bert, wherever you are.

Smooth Floating
While the canyon is famous for rapids, some of the prettiest sections are the stretches of calm water where the river reflects the surrounding canyon walls like a mirror.

Paddling to Paradise
Vasey's Paradise (rhymes with 'Macys') is a scenic seep spring that supports a small Eden of plants, wildflowers, and rare snails.

Back in the Saddle
Saddle Canyon is one of the larger side canyons that we visited during our trip. The open lower half of the canyon supports lush gardens of trees and flowers while the upper half is a winding labyrinth of carved stone and small waterfalls.

Ancient Views
One of the canyon's most iconic views is that of the famous prehistoric granaries tucked into a cliff face near Nankoweap Canyon. A thousand years ago, the Ancestral Puebloan people (aka: Anasazi) lived and farmed the flood plains below and stored their food and grain here to protect it from rain and rodents. One can't help but think they chose the spot for the amazing view as well.

River Sunset
Our camps varied from large to small, rocky to sandy, large wide beaches to steep muddy banks. But they all had amazing canyon views in all directions that would change perpetually through the evening as the light shifted with the setting sun. Our guides did a fantastic job with food. Each night we had appetizers, followed by dinners such as Dutch-oven lasagna, steak, ravioli, and tacos.

The Whale Train
We did a short hike up the Little Colorado River - the largest tributary of the canyon. Recent storms had turned its famous blue-green water to a chocolate brown (which consequently dyed the Colorado the same color). A popular activity here is to sit on your life-vest and form a human chain in a short float down the stream. From left to right: Todd, Cary, Nick, Laura, Leslie, Rodger, Chris, Meghan, Matt, and Tracy the inflatable Orca whale. Uri and Aya watch in disbelief.

Crashing at Crash Canyon
Lunch time would consist of a well-stocked sandwich or wrap making buffet. Sometimes we would take a prolonged break for a nap in the shade. Crash Canyon is near the location where two airlines collided in mid-air over the canyon in the 1950s.

On the morning before reaching Phantom Ranch, we had a pre-dawn hike half-way out of the canyon to the top of Tabernacle Butte. Due to a late start for the hike ('Always groove, before you move', is what I say) and an even later start physically preparing for the overall trip, I did not quite make it to the top, but still got some nice sunrise views.

Apollo Dawn
Apollo Temple seen from the Tabernacle Trail. Like many sub-cultures, the river guide community has evolved its own terms and lingo that we slowly decoded as the days went by. For example, 'Faffing' is short for 'Farting Around Forever', an 'OBE' is an 'Out of Boat Experience' (ie: getting flipped in a rapid) and 'This is a fine hike. Everyone can do it, everyone should do it.' means 'This route is not intended for humans - many of you will likely die here.'

Clear Creek Bliss
A somewhat more relaxing hike was the short one up Clear Creek Canyon to a pleasant little waterfall where we rinsed the sand from our hair and the ache from our muscles. It was a bitter-sweet stop though, as the next morning, half our party would be departing as we swapped out guests for the second half of the trip. Working together through rapids, hikes, camp setup and sandstorms can quickly turn a group of strangers into what the guides called 'our little tribe'.

CLICK HERE to continue to the second half of the trip: Phantom Ranch to Diamond Creek (Sept 8 to Sept 16).

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