Road Trip: Exploring the Grand Canyon, part 2

[The third installment in our ongoing Road Trip series, in which Institute staff visit other amazing places around the country and bring back stories and photos to share! This article is the second of a three-part series.]
Continuing our journey down the Colorado River, our fearless group reached Hance Rapid (rated an 8 on the Grand Canyon Scale) on day six of our voyage. The entryway to Hance Rapid is marked by a basalt dyke that interrupts the perfectly placed layers of the deep red sandstone of the Grand Canyon Supergroup.  John Wesley Powell described what laid before us:

The gorge is black and narrow below, red and gray and flaring above, with crags and angular projections on the walls… Down in these grand gloomy depths we glide, ever listening, ever watching.

We took Powell’s description in stride as our boats glided down the wet, cold tongue of the Colorado River.  We passed through the entry gate at Hance Rapid and slipped into the dark walls of the Inner Gorge.
The walls of the Inner Gorge are comprised of rocks that are between 1.2 to 1.7 billion years old! The main rock types found within this geologic feature are the dark Vishnu Schist and the pink Zoroaster Granite, which splinters and streaks through the black schist without regard to conformity.
The entry way into the gorge symbolizes a departure from the calm, aligned canyon walls standing 3,000 feet above and into the depths of a canyon of frothing water that snakes deeper into the black pits of the earth.  In the winter months the sun rarely visits this section of the river. The beaches, once frequent in the upper canyon, are now replaced by sharp walls that plunge into the river.  To say that I was not scared of what lay ahead would be a lie— I was anxious to continue the voyage.  The brave words of Edward Abbey provided encouragement:

Onward, mates! Drive on, lads!  Row on and on, brave dorymen!  We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.  I’m beginning to lose track of the days and nights here, my notebook all warped and water-soaked, my pen stove in, my pencils cast to the angry gods of the river.

Zoroaster Granite slicing through Vishnu Schist in the Inner Gorge. Photo by Stephanie Bennett

Upon entering the Inner Gorge, we had a brief interlude with civilization at Phantom Ranch, located at the mouth of the Bright Angel Canyon.  Phantom Ranch was only the second time on our voyage that we had encountered other people.  A few days prior we had met a party of two.  The outpost station for park rangers and the Phantom Ranch hotel provided us with phones to call loved ones and $2.50 Snickers bars to feed the soul. We spent only a brief time at Phantom Ranch, considering we had some of the largest rapids waiting for us upon our return to the river.

The Phantom Ranch outpost.  Photo by Stephanie Bennett

On the eighth day of our journey, we covered 17 miles and experienced the most consistent and exhilarating set of white water during the entire trip.  At 9 a.m. we shoved off from camp  and were immediately met with Granite Rapid (rated 8) within the first 1.5 miles. Granite is a beast of a rapid that is located at the bend in the river, causing fierce lateral waves to rebound off of the canyon wall, pushing boats in every direction.
One of our rafts, deemed the “red raft,” missed the line through the rapid and  shifted slightly to the right, pushing the raft against the wall and immediately flipping the raft over.  Five ear-piercing whistle blasts were blown by one of the oarsmen, Chris, to notify others that people were  in the river and the boat needed to be rescued.  I was in the boat closest to the flipped raft and  began to search desperately for a throw bag, and my boyfriend who was also thrown from the raft.  Not more than 10 seconds passed when I saw him sitting atop the flipped boat, smiling as he floated down the river toward me.  I was able to throw him a line and we rowed the raft to shore in order to flip the boat upright, which contained all our gear. Thankfully flipping a raft back over to its upright position was a much easier task than previously expected.  Despite flipping the boat that contained all our gear and supplies, the only item that was lost was a baseball hat.
We continued that adventurous day by roaring through a series of white water, which included Hermit rapid (8), Boucher rapid (4), Crystal rapid (9), Tuna rapid (6), Agate rapid (3), Sapphire rapid (6), Emerald Rapid (5), Serpentine rapid (7) and finally Bass rapid (4).

Group members in the red boat enjoying their day in the river. Photo by Frankie Devlin
How to un-flip a raft. Photo by Stephanie Bennett

That evening we gathered around the fire and recounted stories from the day.  Most of our reflections involved the escapades of the red raft and the varying levels of anxiety felt by the group.  As beautiful and intoxicating as the river can be, there is always a level of excitement and anxiety for some that comes with every bend in the river.  Before you can see the approaching whitewater from your raft, you can hear the low rumble echoing down the canyon walls.  In order to perpetuate our anxiety levels, we usually scouted the rapid by pulling onto shore above and walking on various trails to see the gaping holes and frothing waves that waited before us.
By traveling through these waters and past the great canyon walls, I began to feel connected to this place.  With every stroke of the oar I could feel the pulse of the river current, as if it has a heart.

Our camp under the stars. Photo by Nels Reese

On our ninth day we reached Elves Chasm, as did Edward Abbey on his journey over 30 years ago.  Abbey writes:

We spend much of the day at Elves Chasm, a magical place with running stream, clear pools, high falls, lush and varied vegetation.  Rich does a high dive.  All swim.  We climb from ledge to ledge, from fall to fall, up pitches of some difficulty… More wonders wait beyond.  The route terminates in a kind of amphitheater deep in the cliffs, where warblers sing in the redbud trees and a whispering, shimmering, vaporous veil of crystalline water slips down and down, over moss and algae, past maidenhair fern and helleborine orchid, from the notch in the canyon far above our heads.  A breeze caresses the leaves of the willows, hackberrys, box elders.  Meditation time.

In honor of Edward Abbey, the group took to the chasm like a storm and began jumping into the beautiful pool below.  There were swan dives, shrieks of terror, back flips, front flips and cannon balls.  We left the chasm to continue our float down the river, that we all now considered home.  However, what remained ahead on the cold, silty river was still a mystery and held many surprises that we would discover over the final 10 days.

Enjoying solitude on the river. Photo by Frankie Devlin

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