There was so much to see and so much to learn as we rafted down the Grand Canyon. It will be very difficult for me to write about everything I want to share! But Redwall Cavern deserves special mention.
Lees Ferry, where our rafting adventure began, is the “zero mile marker.” Our first night camping at Shinumo Wash was near the 29 mile marker. We were on the river on Day Two by 8 AM and at the Redwall Cavern, mile marker 33, by 8:30AM.
This is an amazing cavern carved out by the water. My first question to Dustin, our guide, was “Why didn’t we camp here last night?” “It’s illegal” was his immediate response. I could easily see why. Dustin said folks would camp and never leave! No worries about rain, or the wind blowing sand around, and super cool scenery.
J-rigs, our pontoon boats
Before I continue telling you about our specific adventures, I decided it might help you to know some general facts about the boats and the beautiful canyon. First, the boats…
The pontoon boats we rode are now called “J-rigs” and they had their origins in military pontoon boats. While they come in different sizes, ours was 37 feet long and had 5 “fingers”. There are three places for passengers to sit on Western River Expedition J-rigs. The wildest ride can be found by straddling the rubber tubes(A). Ropes are lashed in front and behind you so you have a 2-point hold when experiencing the rapids. This is the wettest seat in the boat.
The 2nd option is sitting on the row of coolers right behind the rubber tubes(B). This provides the best view all around and is the second wettest seat for passengers. (Our boat captain stays mostly dry!) Neither the tubes nor the coolers provide any back support. This becomes more critical as the week progresses and you are sleeping on cots or the ground…
The last option for passengers is affectionately called the “chicken coop” (C). All of our gear, contained within large waterproof bags, are lashed under the tarp at point D. It is nice to be able to lean up against the bags and get some back support. Additionally, this is the driest option for passengers. Unless you get a hard side wave, you stay relatively dry!
Alan and I tried all three options. We liked the coolers best but enjoyed some time on the tubes and in the chicken coop. Our 80-year-old passengers deservedly spent significant time in the chicken coop, although Richard did ride the waves in the front one day!
Our “in their own world” passengers first monopolized the coolers and then commandeered one side of the chicken coop. They refused to lift their feet for folks in the front traveling to the water coolers(E) or to their day bags secured in the back. You can see from the photo that the walkway was about 10 inches at most… with feet in the way, it was impossible to safely get by.
Basic Grand Canyon Facts
In addition to knowing some basic information about the boats, you might be interested in some interesting facts about the Colorado River itself.
- The depth of the river varies from just inches to about a hundred feet. However, the depth can change rapidly, as many ladies taking a “smile break“ will tell you…
- The width ranges from 76 feet at Granite Narrows (Mile 136) to about 750 feet a little past where we got off. The average is 200-300 feet.
- The water temperature ranges from 46 to 60 degrees during the summer months. It was cold water!
- The river speed is around 3-4 mph in calm waters and 10-15 mph in the rapids.
- The river drops a total of 1,940 feet in the 280 miles through the Grand Canyon, averaging 7 feet per mile.
- Lastly, our guides talked often about c.f.s. which stands for cubic feet per second. This is the measurement of river flow, the number of cubic feet of water passing a particular point at a given second. I’m not sure what c.f.s. we averaged during our week on the river. I do know that the scoring of rapids is related to the current c.f.s. The creation of the Glen Canyon Dam dramatically reduced the c.f.s. down river.
Fortunately, we were not houseboating down the Grand Canyon…
In the 1940s, a second dam downriver from the Glen Canyon Dam was proposed, with two sites identified between Mile Markers 30 and 40. Had this project come to fruition, our guide Dustin quipped that we would be houseboating down the Grand Canyon. The proposed dam is now referred to as the Redwall Dam or the Marble Canyon Dam.
Work actually began on this project with some exploratory drilling of holes. Before it proceeded to the next phase, one more person needed to cast the deciding vote. That individual was then Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall.
I don’t know the source of this information, as it was sent to me by our guide, Dustin. I couldn’t find this information myself on the web. But what follows is the story of how one politician decided he should gather the facts before voting on an important decision.
UDALL AND THE FIGHT OVER DAMS
A mutual friend told Udall that the key to LBJ’s support was winning over his wife, Lady Bird. “If she wants it, Lyndon will do it,” the friend said. So, in August of 1964, Udall took the first lady on a rafting trip on the Snake River in the Grand Tetons. He urged Lady Bird to encourage her husband to launch campaigns for conservation and beautification, pointing out that Washington, DC, was an ugly city that was an embarrassment to the US in the rest of the world. “Stew Udall was a wonderful salesman,” Mrs. Johnson would later write. “He convinced me; this was for me!”
LBJ proved to be fertile soil for Udall’s intellectual seeds; he had grown up close to the earth on a Texas ranch and had a deep love for nature and natural beauty. He supported Udall’s calls for other environmental measures, including the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act and for new national parks and monuments. Indeed, in a phone call after setbacks in the 1966 midterm elections, Johnson told Udall he would have to cut his budget but not trim any money for parks. Johnson suggested that Udall cut back on some of the Interior Department’s dam projects, since the GOP would always fund dams, but not parks. Udall agreed.
But he still believed in one major dam initiative—the Central Arizona Project, a series of hydro-electric projects to bring water and electricity to the southwestern deserts. As an Arizonan, he knew how important these factors were to the economic vitality of the region. The initiative culminated in a plan to build two power dams right outside Grand Canyon National Park, backing up water into the canyon itself. Massive economic and political power—and, at first, Udall’s own instincts—stood behind the dams. Against them were environmental groups, most notably the Sierra Club, led by David Brower, who later founded Earth Island Institute and Friends of the Earth.
The Sierra Club had earlier agreed to one Colorado River Dam, the Glen Canyon Dam, just above Grand Canyon. But Brower had never seen the canyon. When he did, his failure to stop it became the great regret of his life. He was determined that such a thing should not happen to the Grand Canyon. Brower and the Sierra Club published a book of photos, The Place No One Knew, about what was being lost as the waters of Lake Powell began to fill Glen Canyon.
Brower sent it to Udall. Harold Gilliam, later a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, but then a Udall aide, would later recount that Udall’s eyes glistened as he looked through the book. “I was in Congress when we voted for this dam,” Udall said sadly. “We had no idea what was there.” Soon afterward, Udall rafted through the rapidly filling canyon and then down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, having second thoughts about the dams.
Udall decided he’d seen enough and stopped the project. In the PBS documentary For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower, Udall spoke softly but with determination about how he changed his mind. “The most important thing for any public official,” he told me,” is to be open-minded. And Brower changed my mind about the Grand Canyon. He showed me I was wrong. And for that, I’m in his debt, no question about it.”
In the Grand Canyon at least, the Colorado River still runs free.
Although the menu varied slightly, lunchtime was a fairly consistent event. No plates or utensils were available. We made deli meat and cheese sandwiches, or formed cones out of tortillas which we filled with chicken or tuna salad. Chips and cookies were piled on top of your sandwich as you attempted to handle your drink as well. While paper towels were technically available, they were not readily apparent. You had to plan ahead. This no doubt reduced the trash generated.
Life jackets made for a decent place to sit. The most desirable characteristic for a place to eat lunch was whether or not there was shade. One day, we hiked really deep sand up to the high spot where the only shade was found. However, the sun was shifting and we still ran out of shade. We ate and drank quite a bit of sand that week as the wind would suddenly spray sand everywhere.
The Little Colorado meets the Colorado River
After lunch, we stopped for some playtime at the confluence of the Little Colorado River with the Colorado River. Where the two rivers meet, there is an incredibly evident color change from the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River to the green waters of the Colorado River.
I should interject here that we were incredibly fortunate in many, many ways that we experienced the best this adventure has to offer. We had temperatures 10-15 degrees cooler than expected. The Colorado River was not its usual “chocolate milk” or “chocolate milkshake” (even thicker with silt), but was instead a beautiful green color. Apparently, the Little Colorado River is a brilliant turquoise blue only about 40% of the time. Monsoon rains are the primary variable for how churned up the rivers are.
The temperature of the Little Colorado River was in the 70s. This was a sharp contrast to the 50s of the Colorado River! After a brief hike, toting our life jackets, we enjoyed a couple of hours of playtime in the river. Old and young alike enjoyed riding the rapids downriver, avoiding rocks as much as possible!
Camp and dinner
I don’t remember exactly what we had for dinner the second night in camp, but I do have a photo of our appetizer… a caprese salad.
The first two nights, we initially decided to sleep under the stars, but spitting rain forced the erection of a tent. We chose our site based on cots only. When it came time to put up our tent, the tree in the middle created issues. I hung Alan’s shirt on it so we didn’t bean ourselves every time we turned around. The tent poles cleared the tree limb, but the rain fly not-so-much. Had it really rained that night, we would have gotten wet. We slept with our heads out of the tent.
Here is a brief video highlighting some of the best parts of Day Two.
I will close this lengthy post with a poem written about the decision against a second dam in the Colorado River. Join me next week for Day Three.
Ode to the Grand Canyon, by Harry Bennett
Softly thru the rushing river,
deep within the canyon walls,
as the shadows grow and deepen,
daylight fades and twilight falls.
Dusk gives way to inky darkness,
and the river’s sheltered bed,
while the stars in mass profusion,
light the heavens overhead.
As the dusk, so comes the dawning,
slow and gentle, soft and still,
save the wren and waters murmur,
not a sound form hill to hill.
Thus the days roll into seasons,
and the seasons come and go,
and the canyon has existed,
for as long as rivers flow.
Nature, slowly through the eons,
has carved beauty out of sand,
has made majesty and glory,
by the turning of her hand.
Multicolored cliffs and canyons,
ever changing constantly,
while the rapids rush in frenzy,
to their destiny at sea.
Will man still the hand of nature?
Will man stop the rivers flow?
Will man flood the canyon secrets?
Drown this beauty that we know?
Must ten million years of sculpture,
be a sacrificial lamb,
for a year or two of progress,
and another sterile dam?
As for me,
I’ll keep the river,
rushing mile after mile,
just the way that nature made it,
and let progress wait awhile.