There was a foreshadowing of today's mystery in the previous post. On our continuing journey into the Great Unknown, rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, we had passed through three geological formations, the Kaibab, the Toroweap, and Coconino. The first two formed in a coastal environment, while the Coconino developed in a sand dune dominated desert. But we ended our first day on the river in the midst of the Hermit Formation, a striking red-brown layer composed of siltstone and mudstone. The bright red color in such rocks (and the presence of sedimentary structures like ripplemarks) is strongly indicative of deposition in a river floodplain environment.
As we drew deeper into the canyon, we encountered successively older rocks, and they revealed more and more redbeds. Now there were ledges and cliffs of sandstone and other coarser sediments, indicative of a higher energy environment, such as the river channels of large floodplains and desert sand dunes. Clearly a major geologic event had taken place, one that produced a vast volume of sediments over a wide region. For a region of the Earth's crust that had remained remarkably stable for nearly a billion years, this event stood out.
We had entered the Supai Gorge, named for the four formations of the Pennsylvanian-Permian aged Supai Group. Their names are tongue-twisters: the Watahomigi, Manakacha, and Wescogame formations and the Esplanade Sandstone. Where did all these sediments come from, and how do we know? The sediments had to come from a mountain range, but any such mountain ranges no longer exist, having been eroded to rubble many millions of years ago.
Ripplemarks and crossbedding in the sediments show that the rivers were flowing in a general southwest (today's southwest, anyway) direction, meaning the mountains lay to the east or northeast. In southwest Colorado, there are younger rocks, similar to the Mesozoic rocks found around Zion and Capitol Reef in southern Utah. But beneath them where the Paleozoic rocks should be found, there are only ancient Proterozoic metamorphic rocks and intruded granites. These ancient rocks are the roots of the Uncompahgre Uplift, otherwise known as the Ancestral Rocky Mountains.
The origin of the Ancestral Rockies remains somewhat of an enigma to geologists. They coincide in time with the collision of South America and Africa with the southeastern part of North America, an event that ultimately produced the supercontinent Pangea. But the Ancestral Rockies are hundreds of miles removed from the collision zone, so geologists infer a sort of chain reaction in the crust along ancient fault systems. In any case, the rise and destruction of a mountain range in Pennsylvanian and Permian time has provided us today with one of the most scenic and colorful layers in the Grand Canyon.
I came to love two bird species who make their home in the canyon. One of them was the blue heron. We would see them all through the canyon, gracefully soaring over the water, or stepping carefully in the shallows, looking for fish and other prey.
We continued to descend deeper into the canyon. Today's route would take us through a part of the canyon called the "Roaring Twenties", a series of rapids spaced on average only a half mile apart. After the relative paucity of rapids on the previous day, it was a real roller coaster. Remembering the scale of 1 to 10 for rapids in the Grand Canyon, we faced House Rock Rapid (7), North Canyon Rapid (5), Twentyone Mile Rapid (5), Twentythree Mile Rapid (4), Twentythree and One-Half Rapid (4), Georgie Rapid (6), Twentyfour and One-Half Rapid (6), Twentyfive Mile Rapid (6), Cave Springs Rapid (5), Tiger Wash Rapid (5), and Twentynine Mile Rapid (2).
All the boats made it through the rapids without incident, until (I think) Tiger Wash. As we slipped over the tongue of the rapid, I thought I saw one of the boats go vertical, and someone tumbled out. I thought it was my nephew at first, but soon found that it was the boat with my brother and his wife. Somehow they had stayed in the boat, but unbeknownst to them, their oarsman was missing. They heard him say something along the lines of "your oarsman is NOT in the boat". They looked behind in surprise as he clawed his way back onto the raft just in time to get hung up on a boulder. Our raft was closest, so Pete rowed back into the eddy, and we started to climb up the rocks to see if we could assist, but they managed to back off the rock, and we were able to continue on.
The Redwall Limestone is a true cliff-forming rock, and in places the rock hung over the river.
In the next post: the incredible Redwall Limestone of Marble Canyon.