MY JOURNEY DOWN THE COLORADO RIVER
A Photo Essay by Christopher Mattera
Modern day river trips through Grand Canyon look a lot different from Major John Wesley Powell's day. Boats are inflatable, mainly, though one company does run the river in hand crafted dories. At the end of WWII military surplus became available to the general public, and some adventurous souls with extensive river experience began to run the Colorado through Grand Canyon in newly available neoprene inflatable military grade boats. In the late 1940's and early 1950's some of these early river runners began taking a few paying passengers here and there to defray costs, and commercial river running through Grand Canyon was born. The trip became an instant classic. Gaining popularity throughout the 1960's, river rafting through Grand Canyon became a true industry in the 1970's. Clients unskilled in the ways of whitewater boating, yet desirous to experience the mysteries the Grand Canyon of the Colorado had to offer, signed on by the droves, and ultimately the National Park's Service — whose dual mission is to both protect the resource and also to provide for the enjoyment of the resource — capped the number of annual river runners in effort to accomplish both goals.
The above photo shows Lee's Ferry, mile 0 of the 280 miles of Colorado River through Grand Canyon, where all modern day Grand Canyon river trips have embarked since the 1940s — though John D. Lee, a Mormon dispatched here by Brigham Young in the1880s, and for whom Lee's Ferry is so named, lived here with his wives, tended his garden, and yes, occasionally ferried people across the river at this only spot suitable to do so for over 200 river miles in either direction, 400 miles combined.
At mile 4.5 the rafter encounters Navajo Bridge, the only place one may cross the Colorado River by automobile for the next 300 river miles, all the way to Hoover Dam in Boulder, Nevada outside of Las Vegas. Built originally in in the 1930's and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Navajo Bridge crosses a shallow section of canyon named Marble Canyon by John Wesley Powell. Today it is not uncommon for tourists, like the author, to pull over and walk across the bridge looking down on the Colorado River, and up at the the sun baked landscape.
The Colorado is so named for its famed red brown color caused by sediment in the water — too thick to drink, too thin to plow — as the saying used to go. Historically, the river always ran reddish. Since the 1960's the river through Grand Canyon emerges upriver a few miles from below the retaining wall of the Glen Canyon Dam where it never sees daylight and remains a near constant 48 degrees throughout the year (historically the river ran warm in summer). The dam allows for the sediment to settle, and what is commonly seen on the river today is a deep green coloration… That is, unless there is rain anywhere downriver of the dam. In that case, the river fills with reddish sediment for a day or longer depending on the severity of the rains. Looking through the beams of Navajo Bridge, the river shows to be running green and clear. Environmentalists, the author included, often heap scorn on Glen Canyon Dam for multiple reasons. Future generations lost Glen Canyon, a canyon said to be as beautiful as Grand Canyon on a somewhat smaller scale and today lies hidden below Glen Canyon Dam's reservoir, ironically named Lake Powell. Additionally, the dam has changed conditions of the river in many ways. Due to the cold temperatures of the river the fish communities have changed. Additionally, the sediment trapped at the bottom of Lake Powell due to the dam, coupled with the lack of historical seasonal flooding which is now negated by the dam, have disallowed for the natural rebuilding process of the beautiful sandy beaches in the Canyon along the river. By the same regard, the lack of seasonal floods in Grand Canyon and the cold temps have allowed a proliferation of non native species to invade the riverbank, side canyons, creek beds, and grottoes.
In the Grand Canyon everyone is a photographer, including the author (here, at Mile 24, up a side canyon near Georgie's Rapid). Georgie White Clark was a true pioneer of the newly emerging sport and business of running Grand Canyon in the 1950's. A pioneer, she became the first woman to row the 280 mile run through Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon, and the first woman to run a commercial river rafting outfit. From the mid 1950's and for 45 years strong, Georgie's Royal River Rats brought thousands of clients down the river. Into her 70's Georgie would be seen on the river. Her classic look was a leopard skin swim suit, and she was well known to hoist many beers while rowing or motoring clients through the wonderland of the Colorado River. In 1991, the year I took my first multi week rafting trip through Grand Canyon, Georgie White Clark took her last trip and soon thereafter passed away, hopefully to a great canyon in the sky. Today, strict standards of safety are meticulously followed by professionals who provide the highest degree of safety possible in such a dynamic environment, while at the same time bringing the fun, clowning around antics expected on such a trip. As for guides drinking beers at the helms of the rafts...standards maintain no alcohol be consumed by guides until boats are tied off for the evening, all clients are served dinner, camp is squared away for all guests, and then and only then, on the boats where they will sleep, as far as possible from the clients who are camped on the sandy beach, one hears the cracking of beers, smells the wafting of cannabis smoke, and overhears the stories, tall tales, and fantasies only a Grand Canyon boatman could tell. (Note, there are female guides, many, but they prefer to be called boatmen. On the Colorado, and not derived from any disrespect, everyone who rows or motors a rig is known as a boatman, gender notwithstanding. And while they stay up all night drinking and smoking and telling tales, come sunup at 4 30am, they are chipper, motivated and have coffee on and breakfast started for a big day ahead.
The camp kitchen is an important part of the journey. The boatmen are your chefs, and the dinners may range from salmon and salad to mango grilled chicken and rice to steak and night. Vegetarian options are always available and tasty. Cakes and other goodies round out the experience, and the beer and wine flows liberally as the wide eyed guests share stories of their adventures and gawk at landscapes which rival anywhere on earth with respect to natural magnificence. After dinner, if you have secured an AZ angling permit before the trip, one may cast for trout which your guides will gladly grill up for you at tomorrow's dinner.
Clients use the four part system. First, scrub the plate in the first tub, then wash it thoroughly in the second, proceed to the third for a second washing, and then conclude the process in the fourth tub with a rinse off. Plates dry in the desert air overnight ready and septic for breakfast. Cutlery is handled similarly.
Hands are washed in the pink and green buckets with a foot pump faucet following the same procedure as the cutlery and plates, wash twice and rinse once. The serving table is being set. Food is starting to smoke and steam. Water dispenser is set up for drinking, a never ending activity in the desert. Everyone is hungry come this time of the evening, and one of the boatmen will be banging the gong and yelling DINNER loudly very soon, summoning the group to convene for the evening meal.
At Mile 31 we encounter Vasey's Paradise, a perennial spring bursting forth from the Redwall Limestone. Named for a botanist on the Powell Expedition the springs are beautiful and support a vibrant community of plants and animals. The water is fresh and clear, and the scene is calm and peaceful giving no indication to the rapids which lay ahead. There are nearly 150 rapids throughout the stretch of Colorado River through Grand Canyon ranging in size from riffles to monsters. The whitewater grading scale for all rivers including the Colorado — except in Grand Canyon where rapids are so big a separate scale exists — runs from class I, meaning just a strong riffle, to class V which is the most violent yet navigable water (by experts, that is). Class VI is a waterfall, non navigable. Typically most rapids on well known, classic white water runs fall into the II, III, or IV range. In Grand Canyon rapids are rated from 1-10. Hance Rapid at Mile 77.1, Crystal Rapid at Mile 98.2, and especially the dreaded Lava Falls at Mile 179.7 are rated at the highest end of that scale, ranging from 8-10 depending on conditions. Lava is so big and loud and violent and scary in part because it actually is, and in part because the guides find a way to work in into conversation at some point every other day or so on the three week trip downriver. So, for three weeks its legendary status builds in the minds of the boaters who are eventually faced with running the beast. Its only about thirty seconds, but for that time you are in for one hell of a ride. Boats typically pull over into the calm waters below Lava Falls and even non drinkers toast with a beer or a wine or stronger to having "cheated death" yet again. There are no significant rapids remaining after Lava, though many smaller and fun rapids will follow, so toasting here seems appropriate and the anxiety which had built in the minds of the passengers vanishes. A large party is generally held that evening, a fantastic meal prepared, libations. Pretty much like every preceding night, but on that night its like everyone's "Lava Falls Nerves" have taken Xanax, and people relax deeply in the remaining days of the journey.
Redwall Cavern located at Mile 33 is a vast chamber carved by the river into the Redwall Limestone. Major Powell named it like so many other features along the Colorado River. He estimated 50, 000 people could fit inside and that the acoustics would be wonderful for a symphonic concert. His estimates were close, modern technology has confirmed the cavern would fit near that number. As for acoustics, they are pretty good by all accounts. Many professional musicians have made music in Redwall Cavern and countless amateurs as well. Usually at least one boatman on your trip will be able to play something, and if you are lucky several will as well as several passengers. When this happens, there is music every night. Even a simply recorder, the type played by elementary students everywhere, will sound marvelous in Redwall Cavern when played by anyone with rudimentary skills. As for some scale, the reader may be able to pick out as many as seven boats which are tied off at the beach in front of Redwall Cavern.
The Little Colorado River is a tributary of the Colorado, and its headwaters begin 75 miles away in the Navajo lands of northern Arizona. If driving to Lee's Ferry from Flagstaff, which is commonly done, one crosses the Little Colorado, at the one horse town of Cameron. Typically the river runs seasonally in its upper stretches, however, the lower section is spring fed and the azure blue waters are the result of calcium carbonate. The contrast of color between the Little Colorado River and the surrounding red rock walls is stunning. A visit to the Little Colorado is a staple of most every river trip through Grand Canyon and most rafters enjoy swimming in its warmish waters.
The confluence of the Little Colorado River with the Colorado River, Mile 61.5, demonstrates the contrast between the calcium carbonate laden Little Colorado's blue warm water with the cold green water found in the main corridor of Colorado River. This spot is known in Grand Canyon circles simply as the Confluence. Presently, controversy surrounds the Confluence as some Navajo tribal members and outside investors have expressed interest in building a tramway from the rim on the south side of the Colorado, which is Navajo land, down to the Confluence just up the Little Colorado from where this photo was taken, which is also Navajo land. Information about the project may be found at www.savetheconfluence.com.
At the Unkar Delta, Mile 73, the archaeological relics of a once seasonal population of Pre Puebloans dating back 1,500 years may be found. Some know these prehistoric people as the Anasazi a Navajo term loosely translated to mean ancient enemies. They were not enemies, however, as both groups populated the area at different times, with the Navajo migrating into the region as early as 500 years ago. Why exactly the Navajo named these ancients the Anasazi is not known. The direct ancestors of the Anasazi are the Pueblo Indians currently settled in north west Arizona and north eastern New Mexico. Subsequently, the term Pre Puebloans is more fitting and respectful for this once thriving culture living on the rim and river bottom of the Grand Canyon and along the Colorado River corridor in some of the harshest desert conditions in the world. Today, Pueblo cultures such as the Zuni and the Acoma create pottery in the styles similar to their ancient ancestors and have historically constructed dwellings in similar rock-and-adobe fashion as the Pre Puebloans who inhabited Unkar Delta. In this image potsherds, an arrow tip, and a piece of corn cob may be seen.
Mile 88, the Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge, also known as the Black Bridge, allows hikers and mules to cross the river within the inner Grand Canyon. The South Kaibab Trail drops one vertical mile from Grand Canyon's South Rim, down seven miles of steep switchbacks, to this point where the hiker encounters Black Bridge. Once crossing the river, the hiker may then choose to hang at Boater's Beach — where our boats were currently tied off — or continue 14 miles up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim. If hiking, be advised, there is no water and little shade on the South Kaibab, but the North Kaibab offers both as well as camping. For those attempting a trans canyon traverse the author recommends descending the South Kaibab on the morning of day one, camping at Bright Angel Campground that evening, and spreading out the next two days hiking up the North Kaibab and camping at Cottonwood Campground before topping out on the North Rim the following day. There are other options, and knowledgeable canyoneers will have no problem putting together a suitable itinerary.
Enjoying placid water, late afternoon sunlight, and plenty of scenery.
Looking for a wide sandy beach for camping... but not finding one here, that's for sure.
On the beach at Mile 101, while scouting Sapphire Rapid, a Slender Deadly Scorpion is spotted.The fellow is slender, that is certain. It is not deadly, however, except in rare and mostly undocumented instances of severe allergic reaction to the venom. Typically, if one is stung, and again it is a rarity for that to occur, the typical fallout is soreness at the sting site, general malaise, and possibly mild nausea. In general, those who dislike or are afraid of spiders will not fancy scorpions. The author has great respect and admiration for these inch long arachnids and became obsessed with photographic it, following it around for twenty minutes and taking dozens of photographs. In this photo, the Slender Deadly Scorpion has had enough and is clearly poised to strike. Not an unreasonable man, the author backed off and allowed the creature the peace and quiet it deserved.
Lizard tracks passing through camp photographed in the warm early evening light.
Camp, Mile 119. Along the river folks usually do not need, nor do they use, a tent. Rather, most Grand Canyon river runners opt to sleep under the stars. Bugs are few, temperatures are high, skies are clear, and a tent gets in the way between you and the canyon you came to experience. From this birds eye view its easy to spot the blue sleeping pads of the campers, the kitchen area dotted with colorful buckets and table cloths, and the boats tied off just downstream of it all. What is not visible and is usually on everyone's mind when they first consider the prospect of a river trip on the Colorado is… the bathroom.
The park service directs all fluid wastes go directly into the main channel, so consequently everyone pees in the river. If you were a little shy about it on day one, that is far removed by day 21 by which time your group is working most likely as a friendly and efficient team of rafters, and modesty fades. As for solid wastes, that's where the "groover" comes in. Historically, river runners brought with them a can on which one would sit to relieve one's self, the result being grooves in pressed into your ass cheeks. The modern groover is actually a similar bucket, on which sits a toilet seat for familiarity and comfort, and all wastes are collected in an ultra thick plastic bag designed for the purpose. The park maintains all solid waste be removed from all river trips, so it is all packed out and disposed of by crew at trips end, when passengers have since left for other destinations (most popularly being home).
Cocktail hour in camp… Passengers enjoy a scenic spot perched above camp to take in cocktail hour before dinner. Since the river is a steady 48 degrees, beer and wine is placed into mesh bags and submerged into the cold river, connected to the boat by a carabiner. By day these libations will travel inside the boat in storage bins, and they will get warm in the desert heat, however once in the river the typical time for a 12 beer to chill to river temperature is only about 20 minutes. The author, not a particularly big drinker, must admit a 48 degree cold beer on a 90 degree evening in camp sure go down smoothly.
Deer Creek, Mile 136. Named by Powell, Deer Creek provides the hiker with an outrageous opportunity if so desired. The hike up to Deer Creek Narrows is steep, narrow, hot and dry. An abyss off the side of the trail plays with your head. But the payoffs are glimpses into Deer Creek Narrows, and down into the Colorado River from a flat area known as The Patio. This photo was taken five minutes into the hike with plenty of elevation yet to gain.
Carol Mattera at the start of the long hike up to Deer Creek Narrows.
Deer Creek Narrows.
Slot canyons abound along the Colorado River like this one somewhere near Mile 148.
Here I'm making some field notes, trying to remember the experience of a lifetime for a lifetime to come. Photographs are invaluable tools to document one's experience on a Grand Canyon river trip. Major Powell kept and extensive journal on his historic first descent through Grand Canyon in 1869, and again in 1871, and turned those notes into the most exciting adventure tale of its day, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.
At Mile 157 most boat parties prioritize a visit to Havasu Canyon. Here boats are tied off in an active river, immediately downstream from a moderate rapid, making landing at this spot tricky business. Havasu is named for the Havasupai Indians who inhabit the canyon and its upper section — ten miles by foot trail only — they have a village, Supai, with gardens, stables, another steep ten mile hike to the rim above, and above all, the magnificent blue-green waters of Havasu Creek.
High above the narrows of Havasu Creek the hiker may enjoy an intimate sculpted canyon, gorgeous blue-green water, and access to the upper portion of the canyon which broadens out, allowing for swimming in the creek and basking on a rock in the sun. The Havasupai Indians have lived in Grand Canyon for 700 hundred years and indeed the name Havasupai means "people of the blue-green waters."
The confluence of Havasu Creek with the Colorado River demonstrates their profound difference with respect water color.
Lava Falls Day: the most feared rapid on the river by most passengers, mainly due to the guides building it up over the course of a few weeks, though it is not the most technical rapid for boatmen. Hard technical rapids such as Hance at Mile 77 and Crystal at Mile 98.5 are more concerning to boatmen. Statistically, more can and does go wrong in rapids like Crystal. But the absolute huge water of Lava coupled with the multi week hype up leaves the layman and women scared absolutely shitless. The boatmen ease the rafts into the tongue of the rapid, hopefully enter the rapid at their desired point, and make every necessary adjustment of navigation necessary to exit the rapid thirty seconds later, or else they flip. To the rafters freaked out to begin with from the hype the 30 seconds feels like forever but when it is over, and safety assured, the accompanying high is soaring, yet the body and mind is calmed. This photo was taken of the author and his wife Carol and son Joshua on the morning of Lava Falls Day. Our entire party wore the paints to make peace with the Lava Gods and it must have worked, we all came through the rapid upright and unscathed.
The "We Survived Lava Falls" after party.
Pumpkin Springs is a travertine bowl which when active drips bitter, poisonous water into the Colorado River below. Throughout the history of recreational river running on the Colorado rafting parties have stopped and soaked in the warm waters of Pumpkin Spring. Several years ago the National Park Service put a stop to that when it came to light the springs contain arsenic among other poisons.
In a side canyon near Mile 231 Joshua Mattera cools down from the 100 degree heat in the clear, cold water.
One last hike, somewhere along Mile 249, our fellowship makes its way over some scree to a watering hole to relax and siesta in the shade before making our way to camp in the cooler of the late afternoon. Tomorrow will be our last day on the river, the weeks have passed as have the river miles, and the experiences we have had remain clear years after the fact. For those so inclined, a trip down the Grand Canyon, or for that matter along any stretch of the Colorado River, especially if its unhurried and spread across a couple of weeks or more, is a life changing experience for many who ultimately get hooked by the lure of the river and come back time and time again.
A lizard wonders who I'm looking at.
The end of the line, almost. Goofing around on the morning of the last day. This group will travel thirty river miles on this last day and take out at Mile 280 at Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead, the huge reservoir backed up behind the Hoover Dam.
Off of the river now, and on the road back to Flagstaff...looking back one last time at the waters of the Colorado River, backed up here at Lake Mead several miles behind the Hoover Dam.
Header art by T. Guzzio. Original photo by T. Martin via Wikimedia Commons.