Two Dudes, One Canyon: A New Hope

Bright Angel Creek, running through Phantom Ranch

Day 3:

Breaking camp this morning was a somber endeavor, all the thoughts and worries of the night still swirling around in my mind. Once the boats were packed and ready to go, I told Dan to go ahead of me, I needed to stay back and send Charlotte some messages. The inReach Explorer I took with me uses satellites to relay the messages, sometimes you have to just be still and wait a few minutes for them to align themselves. The truth was also that I needed a moment to myself, I was going to tell Charlotte to just go hike and enjoy the Canyon, but not try to come down and camp with us that evening.

Needless to say, Charlotte was not happy about the idea of missing out on the experience of staying down at the bottom with us. She told me to wait until noon to make the final call, to just see how the day played out. This seemed reasonable, so I proceeded with that plan, a good bit relieved that defeat wasn’t set into stone like the walls rising around me. Let’s just see what these Stringers and two guys from Southern Illinois could pull off when the need arose.

I quickly got in my boat and then dropped the skeg and then the hammer. I caught up with Dan somewhere around Kwagnut rapid and told him the plan. If we could make it to mile 70 by noon, I’d tell Charlotte it was game on to come down. Otherwise, he and I would be continuing the boys club camping for the rest of the trip. With our 9 am start that morning, we could do this, I sure had the motivation, time would tell.

The miles were flying by and we reached the Little Colorado River after just a few hours. The Little Colorado River, or LCR, is a sacred place among several of the native tribes in the area. According to their lore, this is the place from which their people emerged from the Earth, the male LCR meeting the female Colorado and joining to create and give life to their people. There is a plan to develop this part of the Canyon and build an escalade capable of taking 10,000 people a day down to river level along with a restaurant and “boardwalk”. As you can imagine, most everyone who enjoys this place, hopes this will not come to fruition. Since the Navajo own the left side of Marble Canyon, which is where you are from Lee’s Ferry until this confluence, the only thing stopping this is them. Please help the “Save the Confluence” movement if you feel so inclined.

The author taking a rare moment to relax

Up to this point, the river had been clean and clear, much like the Nantahala is when they are releasing from the dam. The LCR was running a very muddy brown during our stint in the canyon, most likely due to some snow runoff at the higher elevations. For the rest of the trip, we would have some chocolatey water, not the real “too thick to drink, too thin to plow” kind, but the clarity was gone. Without the brilliant aqua blues to peer at in the LCR, we floated on by, wondering what it might look like upon our next journey.

We stopped a few miles further downstream for our first break. I was trying to keep us on a tight schedule today, breaks would be strategic and timed, not purely leisurely like they had been until now. It was around 11:15 and we made it 15 miles, things were looking good. We got back in our boats after 15 minutes and kept the pace going.

When we hit mile 70 at noon, I was ecstatic, this was working. I stopped alongside the shore in this very wide open part of the canyon. It was a nice break from the sheer vertical and imposing walls of Marble canyon. You didn’t feel like you were in the Grand Canyon anymore when standing here, more like a river valley in the Rockies. The walls were still very much present, but more terraced and in the distance, not in your face.

I told Dan once again to go on down Canyon without me, it might take me a while to get these messages out and I could just crush the miles out sprinting to catch back up. Just keep going until you come to a rapid you don’t feel comfortable with is basically what I said. I sent Charlotte the message that we were making great time and we should be at Phantom Ranch by 5 PM. We would probably be there even earlier, but I wasn’t sure what it would be like with the bigger rapids towards the end, so I was a bit conservative with time as to not worry her.

Dan being patient while I pour over the maps

With the messages sent and her replies of a mutual “We got this!” I got back in my boat, let out a little war cry, then pulled on that Twister for all she was worth. Times like this, when fully committed to the task at hand, when failure isn’t an option, fill me with the greatest feeling of power and resolve. They are one of those intangible gifts that kayaking has brought me, what inspire and keep me motivated when little else would.

I keep cranking out the strokes, knocking off the miles and enjoying the new scenery this part of the canyon brings. The floor of the Canyon is now lush green, with rolling hills and the sweet scent of the grasses filling the air, conjuring up thoughts of Ireland inside me. My mind and heart have lifted and it seems that the very environment I’m traveling through has changed to reflect that, I love it.

Eventually I get to Unkar Rapid, a sizeable 5-6 on the Grand Canyon scale, and no Dan to be had or seen. I route on down the rapid, looking at the banks on the way and trying to listen for a whistle, just in case he ran it and things went south. Nothing. I keep on cranking down to the next bigger piece of whitewater, Nevills, same ritual, still no Daniel. I crack a smile a little bit, I like what is happening here, my boy got his Mojo back!

Finally somewhere above Hance, Dan appears in sight again. After exchanging a few smiles and high fives, we make it down to Hance and scout. This one is definitely in the category of harder to run in an oar rig than hard boat. I think the most dangerous part of it was the scout down to the rapid, the trail was covered in thorny vegetation and cacti. These things just beg to put pinholes all over your gear, be careful!

After uneventful runs through Hance, we begin to approach the Upper Granite Gorge, the heart of the Grand Canyon. I was really taken back by the way the Vishnu Schist, the metamorphic remains of a 1.7 billion year old mountain chain, emerges from the Earth. The wide valley and green rolling hills I had seen begin to elevate, or rather you begin to dive down, and their underbelly is that beautiful black rock. Plunging into this gorge gave me chills, this is where the magic would be the strongest, the whitewater too.

Entering the Upper Granite Gorge was different than entering Marble Canyon for me, gone was the feeling of claustrophobia, here was the feeling of wonder and excitement. Within just a few miles we came to Sockdolager, a long chaotic rapid that you can’t scout because the walls are shooting up straight from river level on both sides. I quickly gave Dan the beta to just stay left and we enjoyed the roller coaster waves down to the bottom. Grapevine was the next rapid on the menu for the day.

Grapevine would probably go down as my favorite rapid of the trip, for a few reasons. Firstly, it is just a really, really long rapid full of standing waves and laterals, big water at its best. Secondly, I enjoyed it for the way I was able to “scout”.

There was a small bunch of rafts parked on the river left side above the horizon line, their occupants were perched some 30 feet up on the rocks, surveying the inevitable fate that lay before them. It looked like a good deal of hassle to climb out of a kayak there and crawl up the rocks, so I did what made the most sense to me.

I yelled up there at them as I floated along, “What’s the line?!” They looked confused for a bit, but realized some silly kayaker really was going to let them determine his fate. They yelled back “Right of center!” I looked back up at them, a group of young men maybe 5-10 years my junior and jokingly replied “You’re not f@#king with me are you?!” They all laughed while one of them replied, “Not that you know!” I smiled, gave a little nod to infer “Good enough for me!” and lined that boat up right of center and peered down her. Far right looked bigger than I should tackle with everyone standing on the rocks, so it would be a right to left charge down that frothy goodness.

I eddied out at the bottom and saw them give a few fist pumps in the air to match mine. I waited in a turbulent patch of water while they and Dan, one by one, had great lines. It was 2:30, we were at mile 81 and nothing that should give us trouble waited between here and Phantom Ranch, we did it!

An hour or so later, we landed our boats at the Phantom Ranch beach and strolled down to see what this place was like. Quickly we found the bathrooms, which were downright luxurious feeling at this point. The next item on the docket was to figure out the camping situation, which was looking to be more difficult than I originally thought.

Stashing gear in our “secret” spot at Phantom Ranch

The plan was we would find a somewhat hidden/secluded section of the river through here to camp at, since we technically weren’t allowed to camp in this corridor being boaters. The search was proving futile when we finally came up with the only real solution, I was hoping that Charlotte was able to get the Bright Angel Campground camping permit and we could camp under the authorization of that. Technically we would be covered and not camping on the beaches, but I wasn’t sure if boaters were allowed to use this “loophole”. Time would tell and there was still the matter of Charlotte showing up.

It got to be 5 in the evening and still she hadn’t shown up. I got tired of just staring at the South Kaibab bridge, I told Dan, “I’m going up until I find her”….



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