Showing posts with label river rafting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label river rafting. Show all posts

Friday, August 16, 2013

Into the Great Unknown: Rafting the Colorado River

We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown...We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth...We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.

John Wesley Powell, on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, August 13, 1869

The Great Unknown. In 1869, all of the contiguous United States had been mapped and explored, except for one huge area centered around what is now Utah, western Colorado and northern Arizona. All that was really known was that a few major desert rivers entered the region, especially the Green River, and the Grand, and that there was a place called the Grand Canyon and Grand Wash Cliffs where the river emerged. A few Native Americans lived within the region, of course, but they often didn't count in history, and their knowledge of the landscape was more local than regional. John Wesley Powell and his team of explorers made an epic journey down the river in 1869 and put the Colorado River and its canyons on the map. It was a seminal event in American geological research as well, serving as a springboard for a new understanding of geological processes and history. It was one of the last great geographical adventures in the lower 48.

When I was a young man, I was enthralled by the writings of Edward Abbey and others who knew and loved this mostly desert landscape. I was especially influenced by a wonderful book called On the Loose by Terry and Renny Russell, who in beautiful script distilled the essence of the land they loved into short paragraphs punctuated by what they thought were substandard photographs (they were wrong). I wanted, more than almost anything else, to explore the Colorado Plateau.

I walked the Paria River as a Boy Scout in 1974, and we emerged after a week at Lees Ferry, where rafting parties begin their Grand Canyon adventures. Two years later, as a community college student seeking a career direction, I participated in a week-long geology field trip into the Grand Canyon. We hiked down the New Hance Trail, spent a few days at Hance Rapids, and then climbed out along the Grandview Trail. The experience turned me into a geologist, and determined the eventual trajectory of my life and career.

Over the years I hiked down the main tourist corridors to Phantom Ranch a few times, and last year I drove down the Diamond Creek Road to the Colorado River, the main take-out point for river rafting parties. By age 56, despite dozens of visits to Grand Canyon National Park, I had witnessed only four points along the Colorado River: the take-in, a rapid, Phantom Ranch, and the take-out. And I was quickly reaching the point in life where a grand adventure like a rugged rafting trip might become physically impossible (I may have many years left of good health, of course, but one can never know).

And then, metaphorical lightning struck. On a whim (and at the suggestion of a rafting acquaintance) my brother Mark had applied for a highly coveted permit to conduct a private raft trip on the Colorado River. Many people wait for years to get one, so it was a great surprise when he got a letter saying he was the permit holder for a 16 day trip with 16 travelers. The problem was that he knew little about river rafting, so his friend set out to gather a team of rafters who could accommodate my brother's family and organize the complicated logistics. When all was said and done, there was one space left on the rafts. And my dear brother offered it me. I said yes.

So three weeks ago I found myself standing on the riverbank at Lee's Ferry, watching the rafters preparing their rigs, and anxiously wondering what lay ahead. Most of the oarsmen had been down the river many times, but I was facing my very own Great Unknown. As I've mentioned before, I am no adrenaline junkie, so I wasn't there for a joyride down the famous and infamous rapids (though I learned to of them). I was there to learn about the river and landscape it flowed through, and even though it has become a cliche of sorts, I was there to discover something about myself. I was stepping way outside of my comfort zone, something I haven't done much over the last few decades.

There I was, standing on the muddy bank of the Colorado River, ready to embark on the grand journey. It was a mess of feelings: apprehension, trepidation, anxiety, but most of all, excitement and anticipation. Just imagine what it is like to be just minutes away from starting a journey you've waited 40 years to undertake!

I now have two stories/blog series in process, the Great Unknown, and America's Never Never. They belong together, the later being the exploration of the land eroded by the Colorado River, and the former the journey on the river itself. I will jump back and forth between the two. Some blogging may be spotty, as school is starting up very soon, but I'm looking forward to sharing the story!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Down the River: Geotripper Goes Geo-Rafting

I'm on the verge of one of my great life adventures. Sunday morning, I'll be rolling over the Paria Riffles (below) on the first day of a 226 mile journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I've never done it, and I've always wanted to, and after 40 years of waiting, it's happening. I'm excited to have the chance to explore the depths of the canyon pretty much for the first time. I've hiked to the river on three or four occasions, at Hance Creek and Bright Angel Creek, but those trips were decades ago, and had little to do with the river itself.

Of course, there is no communicating with the outside world, so Geotripper will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks. If you are new to this blog, this is a great chance to catch up on some of the past Geotripper series on the Colorado Plateau, the Sierra Nevada, and other wonderful parts of the world. They're listed below...

See you all in a few weeks! With pictures, I hope, assuming I don't drop the camera in the river!

The Other California: what to see when you've seen all the really famous places in the Golden State (in progress).

Vagabonding Across the 39th Parallel: A journey through the geological wonderland in central Nevada, Utah and Colorado in 2011.

A Convergence of Wonders, a compilation of posts on our journey through the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.

The Abandoned Lands, a compilation of posts on our journey around the margins of the Colorado Plateau in 2012.

Time Beyond Imagining: A "Brief" History of the Colorado Plateau - this was an extended exploration of the geology of one of the great geological showplaces on planet Earth

Under the Volcano and Into the Abyss: Yosemite National Park - Exploring a few of the lesser known corners of Yosemite Valley, from below and from above

The Airliner Chronicles: My First Blog Series - Seeing geology from the perspective of seven miles above.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Is it the Journey or the Destination? Part 2: I now know how my students feel...

I've seen the beginning...
I'm no adrenaline junkie. When I've been at Disneyland, Splash Mountain and the Pirates of the Caribbean is about my limit. I was dragged kicking and screaming into Space Mountain, and came out also screaming, with rubbery legs. Roller coasters unhinge me. So what the hell am I doing, and why?
A few weeks ago I wrote about whether it is the journey or the destination that is important. And it is indeed the journey that is important. I've been to the starting point...
And I've been to the ending point...twice (below). But in-between those two points are 220 miles of wild river. I'm about to go down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life, spending 16 days to get from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek. It's both a life-long dream, and just a bit mysterious and scary. The rapids are legendary. There are rumors of stunning beauty and spiritual discovery. There are groovers (don't ask). And I've come to realize that I am (re)learning just what it is like to be one of my students going on a long field studies trip for the first time, being shaken out of the every-day grind and opening up to the possibility of new and incredible experiences.

I am a rank amateur at rafting, so I've been trying to learn everything I can about trips down the Grand Canyon. I have the questions. Am I in good enough shape? Am I going to embarrass myself on the first rapid? What's it like to get dumped into the river? One thing I do know, though. I'm going to live every moment on the river. The sights, the smells, the sounds. So many of my travels have been wrapped up in organizing the logistics, dealing with student problems, keeping schedules and appointments, and making sure that everything goes somehow smoothly for everyone. On Sunday, I become a student once again, both in learning, and in responsibility. I won't be the one leading, I'll be the follower (and the chore-doer; no more of that managerial supervising crap!).

Like I said, I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm not too sure how I feel about running the legendary rapids like Crystal, Hance or Lava Falls. But it's the only way to see the heart of the Grand Canyon. I've been all over the rims, and I've been down (and up) four different trails to the river. But I've never been able to explore the river itself, or any of the side canyons that make such river trips so memorable. I'm looking forward to exploring as much as I can.
I am, I admit, an internet junkie, and tech addict. I'm wondering how I will survive 16 days out of contact with the cyber-world. Without my smartphone. Without my laptop. Then again, I hear there is this stuff called paper, and things called pencils and chalk. I'm told I can preserve memories and experiences on beaten wood pulp, so I may give that a try. When I return, I'll see about transferring the paper data to a digital format, and let you know how things turned out.

I won't be totally bereft of technology. I've got two nearly worn-out digital cameras that I'll be taking along. I figure at least one might survive the journey.
It's all the in-between I don't know so much about...

But maybe most of all, I'm looking forward to the time I'm going to have with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two nephews. Their hard effort navigating the whole permit and organizational maze made this adventure possible, and they invited me along to share in it. I don't know if I can ever repay the kindness. It's going to be a grand adventure!

I might get a few more posts up before I leave, but then Geotripper goes dark for three weeks.