Echoes From A Grand Canyon Adventure

On a warm summer night in 2015, my newly 71 year old grandmother and I sat on the front porch discussing life, dreams, and all the individual adventures we’ve been on and the ones we still had left to do. It was then that I thought and quickly proposed that we should go on a grandmother/granddaughter adventure together. I know that my grandmother prefers physical activity and the outdoors and I thought hiking and rafting the Grand Canyon and Colorado River would be the perfect place to make lifelong memories. Little did I know I would come out of the experience with deep friendship with the Grandmother I love.

After that night, we returned to our homes and set out researching and planning our epic journey. Since you can’t simply walk into the Grand Canyon and camp overnight without permits, which are often snatched up years in advance, we decided to pick a tour company based on word of mouth. After asking friends and friends of friends, we landed on booking our tour with Grand Canyon White Water Adventure for a 7-9 mile hike in from the South Rim, 5 days of rafting, 4 days of camping, and a nice little drive out of the canyon.

As we approached our adventure date, we began prepping our legs and arms by going for long walks, doing daily squats and carrying around our backpacks. We were warned that most first time canyon hikers over pack, so we tried to stick to just the packing list provided. Even still, we decided to purchase a donkey to carry our bags. After all, no need make the journey more difficult for ourselves.

We decided to fly into Phoenix, drive to Flagstaff, and catch the shuttle to the South Rim. If you can find a decent flight into Flagstaff, it may be better to fly directly there to skip any hassles with flight delays. We had to be at the donkey barn by 4pm the day before our hike and we barely made it to the Flagstaff shuttle to get to the barn on time.

On the first day, we congregated at the Bright Angel Trail nice and early at 5:45am to meet the gang we’d be hiking with to the river. We were accompanied by a bunch of Canadians checking the canyon off their bucket list. The trek started at 6:10 AM walking along the walls of the canyon, down switchback after switchback. Our guides were Julie and Michael. Both were very knowledgeable about Canyon history and lore.

The trail was impressive with many, many steps and man-made side rock walls bounding the path.  To say the views were idyllic is an understatement. I feel privileged to be one of the few to rest my eyes on such beautiful and peaceful nature. We seemed to descend forever and as we descended it got hotter and hotter. The squirrels are well skilled thieves and quite aggressive – known to bite and carry the plague! There were some excellent and much needed rest stops and springs to replenish water supplies.  The agaves were in various stages of blooming and dying.  There were some wonderfully aromatic trees and flowers – and some not so much; prickly and skunky.

On the last descent, called – I believe – the Devil’s corkscrew, every switchback brought awesome views of varied colored canyon walls. By the time we made it down my grandmother had “bonked” (hike-speak for loss of blood pressure and lack of hydration and food). A very nice gentleman grabbed my grandmother’s pack and we were able to make it the last 400 feet to the river. The river was COLD but incredibly refreshing at around 50°F. It was exactly what we needed to revive our tired bodies before the rafting began.

We had to wait quite a while for the last of the group but were instructed on packing our waterproof bags and boots and on raft etiquette – basically: hold on with both hands. Each raft had about 14 passengers plus two staff.  My grandmother and I opted to sit towards the front and got delightfully soaked on the rapids.

Our starting point was mile 88 and we beached at mile 94.  A “bucket” brigade was established, where we all lined up to unload the vessels.  Chairs, cots, tents, cookware, port-a-potty (which was a bucket with a toilet seat attached), you name it.  The campsite was just above a set of rapids so there was a constant roar in the background.  The crew set out a build-your-own sandwich lunch and demonstrated hand washing and dish washing techniques.After lunch, afraid of seizing up, many of us went for a short walk up a creek bed.

Pork loin steaks with beans, applesauce, and coleslaw were prepared for supper. Everyone dug in and there was a baked brownie for dessert.  All the food was prepared over briquettes or propane in cast iron kettle pots. Not having to cook is definitely one of the perks of going with a tour company.

During dinner, the guides shared some canyon legends with our group:  Back in the 1900’s, the Kolb Brothers took photos of outgoing mule rides, ran down to Indian Garden for water to develop the images, and had them ready for the rider’s return.  Our guides suggested it was lore, after all you’d basically have to have teleportation abilities to scale the Grand Canyon that quickly. They also told us that the Navajo were the most recent in a series of Native American tribes to live in the area. They crossed the land bridge from Russia and were hunters and gatherers who held the belief that ‘What’s yours is mine.’ At the end of story time,  my grandmother led us in a ‘thankful’ chant before heading off to bed. We then took our ibuprofen and shared stories about family, love, and whatever else came to mind as the stars rotated over our heads.

On the second day, the call for coffee came at 5:45 am and it was great! Omelettes were made to order – YUM. My grandmother led a few of us in Tai Chi exercises to get the blood flowing and stretch out the ‘canyon shuffle’ legs. We packed up and were on the rafts at 8:00 am. Our guides were incredible: Trevor, Jeff (I will call him Senior) not to be confused with Jeff (I will call him Junior) and Troy. Their knowledge of native lore, river lore, and granite and rock layers was amazing.  Or they were the best B.S.ers we have come across.

Trevor, for example, started his spiel with “are any of you geologists? NO?….Okay then we have a variety of rocks:  pointy ones, round ones, big ones, small ones, red ones, and black ones.”  Essentially he taught us that there are 7 layers of rock, and  at the bottom it is the schist. It is black and, once it gets eroded and polished by the water, amazingly shiny and gorgeous. Any waterfalls in the area are from an aquifer in the red limestone layer.

We had a great lunch stop with a brief hike up a canyon to a waterfall, then a second stop at a stagnant pool where the gorge had amazing stone molding from erosion. Following that there were more, very exciting rapids.  We were passing several other tours – Oars, Hatch, Arizona and then our guides found the perfect site at Stone Creek to camp at mile 132.5.  After a short walk to a waterfall, I bathed in the freezing cold creek. My grandmother decided to go another day of not bathing (and I can’t blame her – it really was freezing!).

We pitched our tents and made ourselves comfortable while our guides prepared taco and guacamole appetizers and later chicken burritos for supper, with cheesecake, of all things to eat while camping, for dessert.  This time dessert was store bought, not camp made.

We had some interesting discussions around the makeshift campfire, a bucket overturned over a headlamp with a decorative, battery operated, candle on top. All were pretty tired from the day’s excursions and we went to bed under the stars.  It was amazing that the stars came out, since grey clouds had been threatening all day.

On the third day, I broke out my stash of Monster Energy drinks to my grandmother’s dismay – something I normally can’t live without. Wake up was way, way too early. They fed us grilled English muffins, melons, cereal, and yogurt. Heading out was a bit easier as we were learning the routine. Again a bucket brigade style of relay loaded the boat after all the kitchen equipment was loaded.

We hit some pretty vicious and exhilarating rapids on day 3. Our first stop was Deer Creek Falls, just a short jaunt over some large rocks to a high and gorgeous fall. Then we really hit walls of water.  We saw lots of other rafting groups including kayaks, rafts, and paddlers along the route.

The next stop, Havasu Falls at about mile 157, may be the most memorable stop of the trip. The Colorado River is a green color and the Havasu Falls were described alternately by members of our group as turquoise, green blue, and aqua marine contained in a punch bowl type of canyon with wonderful eroded walls and multiple falls.  Initially we had to keep our life jackets on to creep along the canyon wall, but then we were free to jump in the pools.  Most of the group stayed at the infinity pool, but I ventured off on my own to get some needed solitude. And boy, did I find it! I discovered a great little waterfall and deep pool at its base that I plunged into and swam underneath.

After getting back on the raft, Trevor was given the helm for a while and the smile on his face was like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. We saw a raven and a vulture on the shore.  The raven was dissecting a squirming king snake while the vulture looked on.  Later it was amazing to watch the vulture soaring along the cliff face.  We also saw desert “big” horns, probably 1/3 the size of traditionally pictured big horns and much greyer in color.

We set off for down the river again to camp at Fern Glen, mile 169.  We set up camp at 4:00 pm and the crew started supper.

The whole camp heard “snake, snake, SNAKE!” from my grandmother. Someone found Jeff Sr. to identify it.  Oh harmless – about a four foot long “whip” of some sort according to Jeff Sr.  It moved with lightning speed, was red tinged with a small head and constant air tasting tongue flicks.

Supper was lasagne, choice of tofu or beef sausage to my vegetarian delight.  They were really great about catering to dietary wants and needs.  Supper was eaten in the semi-dark with a carrot cake dessert, again store bought. Lots of wine and beer consumed and eventually one of the rowdy Canadians brought a long curved stick into the circle and demonstrated pole dancing. We were getting a little punchy from the day’s festivities.

On the fourth day, the smell of bacon wafted through the canyon.  We had a distance to go before our next level 10 rapids.  It was a really warm start to the day. The geography started to change quite dramatically as lava flows were identified and the canyon seemed to open up.  We saw the Anvil, an onyx rock formation in the middle of the river, and we were told it was the throne of Odin, the Norse God of Fire.

The Lava rapids were spectacular!  Heart pounding excitement, followed by the Son of Lava rapids. More vegetation changed as the canyon opened, including saguaro cactus and eventually teddy bear cactus.  Apparently the saguaro gets its moisture from its roots but the teddy bear gets moisture from the air.  The native North Americans figured out the teddy bear’s moisture was good, but the saguaro, due to the alkalinity, would eventually kill them.

We stopped for lunch at mile 198 and it was H-O-T, hot.  Lunch was tuna salad with wonderfully refreshing nectarines and more stories including this one from Troy:

One of the tribes had built a plexi-glass walkway over the Canyon and now the Navaho want to build a tram and other commercial development.  That is why they want to designate the entire Canyon as Native Heritage to prevent further development.

We saw a heron, actually two, and more big horns and a few turkey vultures and a red tail hawk.  The geography changed dramatically with the volcanic lava flows. Troy pointed out some Hematite deposits.  This red stone was pulverized and used as a dye for painting. Jeff Sr. described how the rapids are scouted prior to entry determining where there is a ‘V wave’ – the wave either rolls or builds up or crashes.  The idea is to keep the tail of the boat down, but this Lava rapid consumed us.

After lunch we headed downstream for camp but the plan A spot was already occupied, as was plan B and C.  Finally plan D was vacant.  It was only a few miles upstream from our final destination.  The last campsite was a broad area with lots of shrubs.

Our whole group was enraptured by the mystical surroundings of the Grand Canyon and we were constantly asking for more stories. We were able to coax Troy into tell story of the 9 Nations Gathering (apparently financed in part by the movie producer of GI Joe and Transformers movies) and he didn’t disappoint.  The story goes something like this:

A prayer was led by a powerful shaman named Richard, who is half Navajo and half South Paiute.  He led a prayer in the pitch black at a sacred location. The prayer was a very soothing chant, and at the conclusion of the chant, an absolutely chilling rock-fall occurred.  The same group had a daylight ceremony at a punch bowl with the Havasupai (people of the blue-green water) and the same thing happened, another trembling rock fall.  

On the last day, it was a quick trip down the river to where we met our bus for our long journey back to our respective homes. We docked, unloaded and said our goodbyes to the crew at Diamond Creek where we had a short wait and sought shelter from the heat under a cabana with picnic tables and red ants.  We boarded a rickety white school bus for the 26 mile trek to the rim in the Hualapai Nation Land (Hualapai translates to “people of the tall pines”). We collected our gold river rat tokens, a high honor pin of survival, to commemorate the trip.

I asked my grandmother what her favorite part of the trip was and she said: “Coming up on a 10 class rapid with everyone laughing and smiling, the sheer JOY.  The snake sighting at the campsite, the walk of shame – eyes down with their pee buckets and, of course, being able to do this with someone you love.”

My favorite part was Havasu falls; it was not an easy hike on the ledge and my grandmother, having a fear of heights, took on the challenge.  Most profoundly, the cares of the world melted away for her and I and we could just be together, enjoying each other’s company, sometimes with words and sometimes in comfortable silence. I was so proud that we made it through together and now have an even deeper bond.

 

About to start our long descent from the South Rim.

Only about 1/3 of the way down and the views are breathtaking.

We made it to the bottom and were both so happy to soak our swollen feet in the crisp Colorado River.

We just got on our raft, awaiting our first rapid.

We survived our first rapid!

The peaceful views we woke up to each morning.

Me insisting that we take a photo with the waterfall.

And my grandmother just realizing the strength of the tow.

Us relaxing and catching some sunshine.

I think we could have laid on this rock and listen to the babbling brook for hours.

Don’t worry, that’s just my 72 year old G-ma conquering her fear of heights my scooting across a ledge.

This is what happens when you don’t shower for a week and share a small tent.

Just kidding! We had an amazing time together.

Note: I am forever grateful to Cindy, a spunky Canadian, that took diligent notes of our adventure to fill in the details that I overlooked.