Monday, September 16, 2013

Into the Great Unknown: The Last Day...An Elegy for a Journey, and for a River

Elegy (from the Greek word for "lament") is a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead.

How many ways can I describe the last day of our trip? The word "elegy" came to mind. It was the end of a long but incredible rafting trip down the Colorado River, and I was feeling sad. Sure, I was anxious to hear the news from the family and the outside world, but it was also the ending of one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was the ending of a personal journey, which ventured sometimes into terrifying darkness, but mostly it was a world of sublime beauty, even glory. And... the story was about the abuse and destruction of a river.
We packed at a leisurely pace. We only had a few miles to go, and the Hualapai Nation requested that no take-outs happen before 10 AM.
We set out down the river. We turned a corner and I saw something I hadn't seen in more than a week: a familiar sight. I've been down Diamond Creek several times, and Diamond Peak has an unmistakeable shape, even from the opposite side. To offer a sense of scale, Diamond Peak is only about 200 feet higher than the beach at the beginning of our trip in Lee's Ferry. It stands out in part because it is a fault block that has risen between two fault zones. Erosion along these faults has led to the trick of the topography that allowed a road to be constructed down to the river.
At mile 224 we passed the final rapid, a little riffle that didn't even merit a name. But it was the last one...
And then we entered the last mile or so of river, and it nearly broke my heart. It was perfect. In that moment I wanted to simply float on and on into eternity. Pete stopped rowing and we simply drifted. The river was quiet. A swallowtail butterfly landed briefly on my hand, confused by the bright colors of our clothing and luggage. Pete pulled out his harmonica and played a few tunes.
I wrote in my journal...

I was suddenly wistful, wishing to float down a serene river, at peace, but knowing that it is never truly serene. There are those perfect moments that make everything worthwhile but around the bend there can be excitement, action, and even terror. But peace returns, and we recover our sense of well being.

Such beauty in such a savage land. Without the river, life would be barely possible for a person. Too far between water sources when it is so god-awful hot. The hike yesterday across the Tapeats ledges could have been unbearable without soaking in the cold water first.

But along the string of life-giving water, the beauty is overwhelming. Every side canyon would be worthy of a national park all its own. I found myself thinking 30 Yosemite Valleys strung in a line would equal the Grand Canyon.

I don't know that I will be back. I faced the big waters twice and made it through, one time in terror, and the other less so. But I enjoyed the rapids a bit less afterwards...

...but nothing can take the place of drifting down the placid parts of the river; seeing the herons and bighorns, and I'll never forget the sounds of the canyon wrens. I would do it for that...those parts will always live on in my memories.

The cliffs would glow red in the pre-morning hours after the stars disappear. The red fades into shadow, and then the sun lights up the cliffs in blazing orange. The river was always brown but in the shadows of evening and morning, it reflected the lights of the cliffs above...wonderful moments.

I took one last video as we drifted...


And then, a strange sight, a big orange ball and a cable strung across the river. It was the gaging station at Diamond Creek. It was a reminder that this was a heavily utilized river that had to be measured and controlled. There was a feeling on the entire trip that the river we were traveling on was not "right". It was far too cold for a desert summer, and it ran too high for any snow-fed river in August. The disappearing beaches demonstrated that the river rarely flooded anymore.

It's hard to imagine the difference between this river and the river that was experienced by John Wesley Powell and his courageous men. And it was almost entirely due to the construction in 1963 of the monstrosity that flooded a precious gorge called Glen Canyon. And the sewage lagoon that formed behind the dam was named for Powell. I don't think he would have been pleased. He recognized sooner than most the problems that would lie ahead for the millions who would come to depend on an inherently undependable river. The lake that bears Powell's name may never again fill if the predictions of the climate scientists come to pass.

The river will return. And it probably won't take as long as it did when lava flows temporarily stopped the flows of the river. The dam is built in unstable porous rock, and it almost failed catastrophically in 1983, due in part to the arrogance of the dam engineers. It ultimately must fail, probably within a few years of being abandoned by the society that maintains it. Ultimately the river will return to something of its former self. Time is all it needs.

The gaging station also meant that our time was almost up...

A beach came into view, with trucks and giant pontoon boats. We waited until the other boats left on their journey to Lake Mead and pulled off the river for the last time.

Rigging the boats at the beginning of our trip took parts of two days. The de-rigging took an hour or less. No one wanted to hang out on the river in the growing heat of the day.

All of the material we began the trip with came off the river, although some of it had been, um, "transformed". A few items, most notably my hat, gloves and a guidebook were still in the river somewhere. Oh and a tent that blew away several days earlier.

I finally had a look at the unadorned raft that had been my home for the last two weeks. We developed a luggage line and got all our gear onto the truck; we would unscramble it in much more comfortable weather in Flagstaff at an elevation of 7,000 feet. We piled into the truck and a van and set out on the bumpy 20 mile drive to Peach Springs where we would rediscover ice cream and flush toilets. A 90 mile drive to Flagstaff followed...
...our trip was over.

I hope you have enjoyed following our journey. Thanks to all those who traveled with me, and especially my brother and his family who invited me to come along. Thanks to Pete, who was a wonderful boatman and traveling companion. They were wonderful people to travel with! Thanks to Barry, Bev and Jeff, who pulled me from the river, sometimes more than once.  And thanks to all the river runners who have clearly worked to keep the river clean and wild.

Look for one more post in this series, a compilation of all the posts on the journey, and maybe a few final thoughts.


Barry Weissenborn said...

It’s been enjoyable reading the account of an eyes-wide-open geologist on his first raft trip through the Grand Canyon. It has helped delay the transition to reality and extend my enthusiasm long enough to get some much-needed work done on my equipment. And now, much like the trip itself, I hate to see the written journey wind down. I wish to compliment Garry, not only on this wonderful recap, but also for his contribution to our trip. Anyone who has done a non-commercial Grand Canyon raft trip knows that they are a lot of work. Ours was no exception. Garry was always around and willing to help when there was work to be done. He also enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the Canyon’s geology. And Garry’s skill at playing the guitar and singing—including a full rendition of Alice’s Restaurant—proved to be a most enjoyable surprise. Thanks Garry

entropy said...

It's hard for me to imagine even taking such a journey. I will stick with being vicariously amazed by yours.

And it *was* amazing.

Hollis said...

Enjoyed your GC series of posts very much, Garry!

Gaelyn said...

I've so enjoyed sharing your journey and the memories it evoked of my one time, so far, trip on the CO. I also remember the sadness felt at Diamond Creek, barely believing it was over. And the equal excitement of ice cream and flush toilets. You've told the story well. Thanks.

Celia Lewis said...

It's been a wonderful experience of the river through your thoughtful eyes, Garry. I'm reading them over again, studying the gorgeous photos as well. Thank you for allowing us along on the journey.

Dads said...

I'm about to embark on another trip down the Colorado, my first since accompanying you and your brother's family, in a few weeks. I'll be rowing my own boat, but alas without Lisa and the kids. Your blog was a tremendous reminder of the beauty of the canyon and the camaraderie of a private river trip. I only wished you had included a video of your own guitar playing and singing, which was second only to your vast knowledge of the geology of the canyon. I can also only hope that my upcoming trip will be as enjoyable as this one was. Thanks for posting all this, Garry!