May 16, 2010

Guest story: An Exploration of the Little Colorado River Gorge

[Front matter: Here's another piece from my Dad. Stories like this make me wonder what the hell I'm doing with my life.]

Sitting in a courtroom on a hard chair is not my idea of how to spend a pleasant day in March. Particularly when it's the first day in what seems like months that it hasn't snowed or rained. Particularly when the courthouse is located only a few hundred yards from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Out there, with snow dusting the walls of the canyon and the air as clear as nothing—well, it looked pretty nice.

This morning in the newly-remodeled interior of the courthouse a federal magistrate is arraigning two haggard-looking young men from Flagstaff, Arizona, charged with violation of Federal Regulatory Code 7.4H(3). It's 10:00 a.m. The two men have already hiked up from the bottom of the mile-deep gorge in the slush this morning. They are dirty and worn out. They face a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a 500-dollar fine. Considering the circumstances, the two fellows seem to be in pretty good spirits. They are, in fact, happy to be breathing at all.

With the plodding precision of American justice, the magistrate reads the two men their descriptions, then asks for confirmation. Brad Dimock, male, twenty-five, blond hair, blue eyes, six feet, three inches, born in Albany, New York, professional river guide. "Is that correct, Mr. Dimock?" It is. Tim Cooper, male, twenty-five, brown hair, brown eyes, five feet, ten inches, born in Sacramento, California, professional river guide. That's me, I tell him.

Then, in terms that cannot be misunderstood, he reads us our rights, pausing occasionally to ask if we comprehend what's going on. We reply that we do, but truthfully I don't think that either one of us is paying much attention. We are undeniably guilty of running the Colorado River without a permit. If the judge ever stops talking, that's what we're going to tell him. How and why we found ourselves sixty-one miles and 3000 vertical feet into the Grand Canyon with little choice but to run the Colorado is something of a long story and of no concern to the law.

I check out the magistrate's enormous turquoise bolo tie for a while. Then I try to appraise the cost of the inlaid mahogany desk my elbows are on. Maximum fine might buy half of it.

It's a nice day for a walk. Down in the canyon it would be cool and bright. The Colorado River would be running muddy like it should, a rich, red brown that its name suggests. Most of the time anymore it flows clear green due to the 750-foot concrete plug upstream that made an immense settling pond out of Glen Canyon.

The red silt in the river that day was being contributed by a flooding tributary downstream of the dam. Called the Little Colorado River, it's the largest tributary to meet the main Colorado within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. Normally, the upper reaches of the Little Colorado River are dry as a bone. Normally, you'd have to walk forty-five rugged, twisting miles to get from Blue Springs to the Standard Oil outpost at Cameron, Arizona. You'd be walking through a canyon that few people have seen from the bottom, a narrow defile that snakes through the flatlands of the Navajo Reservation at depths up to three thousand feet. Normally, it would be a long, dry hike.

The winter of ‘77/’78 wasn't a normal one, however. During most of the month of March, there rolled through the Little Colorado Gorge a torrent of snowmelt and rain that stained the mighty Colorado red. It became, for a while, an honest to goodness river: steep, muddy, littered with boulders and congested with driftwood and flotsam. With the naturally erratic flow of a desert river, it was prone to tremendous fluctuations in volume and likely as not to disappear overnight. The Little Colorado runs through one of the most spectacular gorges in the canyon country, every bit as deep as the Colorado's canyon at their confluence, but more than three times narrower. Sheer walls drop hundreds of feet into the river, making the prospect of walking the bank through the gorge a very dim one. If you wanted to get through the Little Colorado Gorge while the river was there, you'd have to do it in a boat.

There are a number of difficulties that immediately present themselves to anyone anticipating a boat trip down the gorge. First off, there is seldom any water in it. Secondly, when the river is there, it is fifty-six miles long and choked with rapids whose difficulty cannot be determined until you are down there. At those few places along the rim where the river is visible, narrow rocky rapids bend out of sight in either direction. Rumors are heard of fifty-foot vertical falls that cannot be avoided. Thirdly, though the entire section of river that we wanted to run was on the Navajo Indian Reservation, the mouth of the river marked the beginning of Grand Canyon National Park. Travel in the park is illegal without a permit. Private boating permits are handed out once a year in a lottery with little better odds than the Irish Sweepstakes.

These are problems that warrant careful consideration. For several weeks while the snow and rain poured down on Arizona, Brad and I studied topographic maps and talked about the gorge. We drove into the desert and peered over the rim. We compiled a list of needed gear. We consulted the Bureau of Reclamation, which maintains a gauging station on the river, about water levels. They were no help. Meanwhile we talked and studied and thought while the rain poured down.

Someone had been down there before. A river guide named Jim Norton and a partner started down the gorge during the last big flood in 1972. They had inflatable open kayaks and three days worth of food. Norton watched his friend almost drown on the first day. They repeatedly punctured their boats and ran out of patch material. They ran out of food. The fickle river dried up beneath them. In nine days they reached the confluence carrying their boats.

They had made it though. It wasn't impossible. Most of Norton's problems, we thought, could be avoided by using highly maneuverable slalom kayaks.

Our route plan was full of holes: nobody knew how long the water would last; nobody could say how long it would take us. We had a good prospect of having our boats removed from the park by a large motorized raft on a commercial trip, but we didn't know when. It didn't seem as if further study of these matters was going to clear them up, and every day we pondered was another day's water under the bridge.

So, early one morning, we loaded two kayaks and ninety pounds of gear into the truck. It had snowed the night before, and the sky still threatened. Driving against a brisk wind to Cameron, we slid our boats into the water and started into the gorge.

The water of the Little Colorado is absolutely opaque. During its journey across the soft shales and mudstones of the Painted Desert, it picks up as much sand and silt as moving water can hold. The locals say it is too thick to drink and too thin to plow. When it splashes on my glasses, it leaves the lenses looking as if they were ground out of adobe. This is going to be a major headache for the next few days.

If the geologic work of the upper Little Colorado is moving the desert grain by grain into the sea, at Cameron the little river takes on a task that might stymie the most stalwart general in the Corps of Engineers. Uplifting of the earth's crust over a period of millions of years has interposed a rock barrier three-fifths of a mile thick between the sources of the Little Colorado and where it wants to go. The river's response to this obstacle has been to entrench its course, established when it meandered across ancient lowlands, deep into the earth. It hasn't been easy work. The rocks are the same sequence of resistant sandstones, limestones and shales that form the upper walls of the Grand Canyon. To keep pace with uplifting, the Little Colorado has had to maintain a gradient more than three times as steep as the river into which it flows.

The gorge starts slowly, cutting through the top limestone layers without developing any major rapids. The walls rise steadily around us, and the wind continues to blow upstream.

We travel in patchy sunlight and easy water for about five miles before we encounter the third rock stratum called the Coconino Sandstone. It funnels the river into a passageway so narrow that it will not fit my four-meter kayak through sideways. Soon there are sheer sandstone walls on both sides a couple hundred feet high. From this point on, there is no way out but downstream.

Still there are no rapids of consequence, and we paddle cheerily along commenting about the increasing beauty of the canyon and the on setting numbness in our fingers. My hands are freezing but this isn't so tough. I ask Brad how his boat handles when laden with forty-five pounds of food and contingency gear. “Like paddling a dish rag," he says.

Seven miles into the gorge, the rapids suddenly start in earnest. Rounding a corner, the river can be seen to drop steeply into a forest of angular sandstone blacks. Like most of the rapids we are going to encounter, this ones bends around a corner out of sight. The rumble of what would usually be whitewater is deafening. Here the rumble is of brown foam.

Brad leads in, picking his way among the rocks and holes. I catch up to him a short distance down river sitting in an eddy behind a boulder. There is a huge block below him directly athwart the current. I can't see around it. Brad shouts something I don't catch as I go left around the boulder. A second and third house-sized rock confronts me in quick succession. The rapid continues, careening off one wall, then the other, dividing into channels, foaming and gnashing over more boulders than there is time to count. I can't stop to consider which way to turn or what channel to take. For perhaps half a mile there is only time to stroke and turn, paddle and draw. I finally arrive in calm water with my heart pounding like someone is beating on my sternum with a mallet. Brad paddles up and looks me straight in the eye. He says the first dead serious thing I've heard him say in several years:

"We could drown."


There's another rapid just downstream, not much different from the first. Then a third and a fourth until they begin to run together in my mind as a continuous stretch of rocks, walls and rushing mud. By mid-afternoon we are exhausted and stiff with cold. Camp.

In a dry wash we build a fire and warm up our hands enough so that we can get the top off the brandy. It's stowed in a plastic bottle and tastes like polyvinyl chloride. Brad christens the brew Xylene. Because of its probable toxicity, we drink only half.

What a camp! The wall at our backs climbs unbroken a thousand feet to the rim. The sun hasn't shone down here since the late Pleistocene. It's cold and windy, remote, magnificent and pristine. There's not a single Vibram track on the beach, no pop-tops or cigarette butts to grumble about and stuff into pockets. We're delightfully alone under the murk of the sky, the sole occupants of this particularly neglected piece of useless territory. If I've had to sprint through the Devil's entrails to get here, well the trip has kept the riffraff out and put a little iron in my blood. The brooding walls seem to be recharging us a little. Them and the brandy. The fire goes out. So do we.

By morning the river has dropped six inches. We can't stand for much of that. Hurriedly, we cook up some cereal and mix instant coffee with hot mud. The first rapid is a hundred yards from camp.

Unlike rapids in the Grand Canyon, caused by outwash from flash flooding tributaries, these hummers are the result of landslides and rockfall. There is no pattern to them, just confused jumbles of rock and water. We go as slowly as we can, feeling our way.

It's begun to rain and the wind has a new force. In spite of my wetsuit and paddling jacket, mittens and helmet, I'm getting cold. My fingers have lost all feeling. How long can it keep up like this?

After a short breather, the river slides into Hell Hole Bend. That's what it says on the map. Hell Hole Bend. I watch Brad paddling furiously against the current to avoid something I can't see. Then he's gone. I go into Hell right behind him. For an indeterminate amount of time my boat and I are pummeled on all sides by dark water. We're thrashed with unprecedented violence. I use up my adrenaline ration well into the 1990's getting around the Bend.

We clamor out of the boats and build a fire on the bank where the next flood will wash away the ashes. There's a powerful curiosity and apprehension about what waits around the corner, but we're too cold to continue. There may be a dozen more Hell Holes. There may be nothing. Uncertainty thrills the heart and broadens the parameter of fear. We've put ourselves here purposely, somewhere in the wilderness out of touch.

Downstream on the Colorado the crush of people, 17,000 of them running the river each year, has forced the Park Service to become an agency of regulation and control. The Grand Canyon is a "managed resource" in which the Little Colorado is an "attraction site." My mind balks at these designations. There's no room for the absurdities of bureaucracy in the wilderness; it has retreated further and further into the seldom-traveled places. The very seldom-traveled places. The well-nigh inaccessible places where the mass of humanity cannot or will not go, where the bighorn sheep watch their step and the contrived laws of men are as useless as a garbage compactor. There's a big piece of wilderness breathing quietly in the perpetual twilight of the Little Colorado Gorge. Its only rules are the inflexible requirements of the canyon.

Once we're thawed out a little, we slide our boats back into the water and bounce through a few more rapids bound for Blue Springs, the next topographic feature we should recognize. The water relaxes for a moment in a hallway of limestone riddled with caverns. Small springs of clear water pour out of the walls. We must be close to the big spring, but it is hidden under muddy water.

When there is no water in the upper canyon, Blue Springs transforms the last thirteen miles of the gorge in to a series of azure pools and cascades. The color is due, at least in part, to the heavy solution load of calcium carbonate the water picks up on its long journey through the Redwall Limestone. When it flows out into the hot desert sun, water begins to evaporate, super-saturating the solution and causing the precipitation of calcite crystals. The result is a rock called travertine that commonly builds up from the bottom of the river. The walls grow higher as more travertine is deposited on top until a dam is formed. A hundred miles away at Havasu Canyon these dams reach heights of well over a hundred feet. We've heard that this stream too forms dams, and we have spent considerable time worrying about their existence.

Soon after Blue Springs we come to one. It stretches across the entire river and is all of sixteen inches high. Big deal. Just downstream is another one with two tiers of one and three feet. Brad hangs up in some rocks at the top and I flip over at the bottom. We both recover.

Another dam. This one is multi-tiered with a total drop of about fifteen feet. Brad hits the pool at the bottom with such velocity that he does a submarine reverse end-for-end flip and surfaces upside down. I hit the same place so hard I feel like I've been dropped from the rim. Slightly flabbergasted we push on.

The next one is awesome. A steep slope leads to a vertical falls of perhaps eight feet. Water tumbles over into a cauldron of boiling mud that seems to go nowhere. There is no current; if a kayaker didn't develop enough momentum to blast through the mess, he'd be trapped below the cascade and hammered by tons of falling water.

We stare at it for a long time, so cold we are both shivering like a dog passing peach pits. The wind is draining the last ergs of strength from our bodies. Brad decides to try it before he freezes to death. I crouch on the bank with a camera in the faint hope that I'll be able to capture him going through the rapid at thirty miles an hour on a dark day while shaking like a leaf.

Brad is an excellent boater. He hits everything perfectly, paddling ferociously until the water gives way to air and he drops like a stone into the roiling pool. But this time, it's not going to work. He braces in the froth with his paddle, trying to move downstream but the current has him. He's slowly sucked sideways under the falls. It flips him over and the boat disappears. Horrified, I can only watch. His paddle and arm reach into the air, and he tries to roll up. No good. Again. No good. Oh God Brad, get out of there. Swim for it. Another attempt to right himself, then he vanishes for a long time.

Under the water Brad has pushed out of his kayak and is searching the rumbling depths for a current that is moving downstream. There must be one or the river would stop at this point. No air or light to see by. Panic is leaning on the doorbell. He's smacked into the jagged travertine bottom and thrashed about like a cat in a Maytag. Several thousand heartbeats later he surfaces thirty yards downstream of the falls and hollers with his first breath, "Don't try it!"

I don't. Blue with cold, Brad helps me carry my boat around the rapid. We've had enough. Brad's intro to drowning erased the last traces of bravado. I'm ready to take a hot shower and climb into bed, but the river will have none of it. Continuing downstream we find another and another falls to descend. We crash through them bracing and turning by instinct. This has to stop soon.

Just before dark it finally does. Like two survivors of a shipwreck, we drag ourselves up on the bank and grope around in the gloom for the remaining Xylene. That night I become convinced that Hell is cold.

Brad's gear was thoroughly soaked in the falls and mine is soon in like condition from the pouring rain. Rocks crash down from the cliffs around us and land in the river. We huddle together in the inky blackness waiting for dawn.

When it comes, we pack hurriedly and get on the water. It can't be much farther to the confluence. On the right bank a mile from camp is a carbonate dome twenty feet high. A pit in the center of the dome is filled within a few feet of the top with bubbling pale green water.

This is the Sipapu, a place sacred to the Hopi Indians. According to their mythology, the Sipapu is the entrance to the underworld from which their ancestors emerged and to which the dead return. Feathers dangle from twigs lodged in the side of the pit. The translucent water seems to glow with its own light. It's an eerie spot, as likely a place for man to have birthed as some electrified Precambrian sea. We stare into the pit. It wouldn't surprise us to see the Father of all Hopis loom up from the depths of the pit, long black hair streaming behind him. It wouldn't surprise us but it might scare us to death. We hustle back to the boats.

The rapids are difficult but not deadly, and we are soon in familiar territory. On the left bank, built on the site of an Anasazi Indian ruin, is the cabin of Ben Beamer, a would-be prospector and farmer who scratched a living from this area around the turn of the century. It's a regular stop on Grand Canyon tours. Nailed to Ben's door is a yellow sign, telling anyone interested that the cabin and litter of nineteenth century cans and broken glass around it are protected by the American Antiquities Act, and fines, imprisonment or both are available to those that might feel compelled to mess with them. Familiar ground.

With a whoop and a holler, we paddle the last few strokes to the Colorado. How exhilarating! It's over and we survived. I'm so happy I almost stop shivering.

Now to get out of here. Standing on the bank just inside the perimeter of the park we examine our options. There's the possibility of burning our kayaks and hiking, taking the ashes, out the Salt Trail, a rugged path that rims out in the middle of nowhere. "Nix," says Brad. "Fires are prohibited.” Okay, we could stash our boats here, walk to the Tanner Trail by sometime tomorrow and be on the rim in another day. "We don't have a hiking permit," Brad reminds me. Well, we could paddle down the Colorado for 26 miles to the bottom of the Kaibab Trail and be out of here by sometime tonight. "That's illegal," says Brad. "In fact, it's illegal to be standing here. Shall we walk over there where standing is legitimate?"

The choice is easy. I'd trade my watch, car and boat for a warm place to sleep; throw in my Bachelor's degree for a pair of dry socks. We run down the river and afoul of the law.

At the head of Hance Rapid there are boats tied to the bank. A couple of them have "Park Ranger" written in large green letters on the side. My heart sinks. Mr. Ranger, you cannot possibly want me to not be in your park half so bad as I wish I weren't. Shall we wait until they leave? Should we paddle up to them, crawl up on the bank and insist that we are near death, which is not far from the truth? Shall we wave legally and paddle into Hance, one of the worst rapids on the Colorado, blind?

We wave. They wave back. Someone shouts for us to pull in. "This is a big one," they say. You're telling me. It soon becomes apparent that we're not going to stop. Someone in a green hat and shirt scrambles for a camera and points a lens at us as long as my arm.

Hance is a comparative piece of cake. There are several big water rapids between the trail and us, but they don't hold a candle to Hell Hole Bend. We bomb through them without missing a stroke and reach the trailhead long before dark. It's raining hard, and there's a lot of snow on the rim. Shivering our teeth loose, we bury our boats in the sand and try to get some clothes on. "Let's give ourselves up," Brad suggests. "I bet it's warm in jail." A voice from the rocks above us makes the choice for us. "That's it. You're busted." Paddling as fast as we can is nothing compared to the speed of radio waves.

In the morning I find myself pondering the expensive new woodwork in the federal magistrate's place of business. These are serious charges against us. The laws were designed by good men to preserve and protect the canyon. These people aren't kidding, but somehow today my mind is still clouded with the roar of the river and the beating of my heart. I'm having difficulty just paying attention to the decision of my fate. All the rivers still run into the sea, and we're in one piece. What more could anyone ask? Though we violated the law, we didn't violate the canyons and that, at bottom, is what matters. Isn't it? If I risked my fool neck, well it's my neck and it was worth it.

I feel like a man who's gotten a speeding ticket after just being passed by a Cadillac doing 109. The federal government, the magistrate's employer, destroyed the riparian environment along the Colorado in 1963 by constructing Glen Canyon Dam. With one clumsy blow they killed the native fish, drastically altered the riverside vegetation and eliminated the periodic scouring action of spring floods. That ill-conceived hunk of concrete has done more damage to the canyon than an army of renegade boaters bent on destruction could do in a lifetime. I have a pang of righteous indignation.

We enter a plea of guilty. The fine is 100 dollars apiece plus fees for helicopter evacuation of the boats. Could have been worse.

In need of a shower and two days sleep, I've already got my hat on when a man dressed all in green stops me. "We'd like to ask you a few more questions, Mr. C--,” he says. It seems I look a lot like a man wanted in Florida for parole violations. I can't believe it. Standing beside the green man is a junior ranger I've been acquainted with for years. We started out with the same river outfitter way back when. This is ridiculous and he knows it. Still, Ranger Kojak is serious as cholera, and he wants me to roll up my sleeves to prove I'm not the Tampa Terror who has tattoos all the way up to his shoulders.

Lucky there were no tattoos. I'd still be in jail.

Copyright 1994, all rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author. Picture credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

2 comments:

  1. What an incredibly told and exciting story! Thanks for sharing! I was spellbound.

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  2. Yeah, the old man tells a pretty damn good story. What's more, he's lived a pretty damn good life. I hope I have stories like that to tell my kids.

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