A COLORADO RIVER RUN
By Tom Pamperin
Tuesday April 3
Day 14: Layover
Yesterday was a short day from our camp at Galloway on river right at mile 132 to OC's, a camp on river left at mile 137. The new camp, a broad sandbar at the foot of dramatically swirled cliffs of Tapeats Sandstone, will be home for two nights: today is our only scheduled layover day on the trip.
There's some debate about what to do with our time. There's some talk about hanging out at camp, doing laundry, organizing gear, all that sort of stuff. But all that sort of stuff is exactly what I came on this trip to get away from. Instead, I decide to hike the loop.
The loop is a trail that runs up the Deer Creek drainage just above mile 137, cuts over a steep ridge above the spring at the head of the creek, and runs across a hot dry valley until it hits Thunder River, a huge waterfall that pours directly from the limestone walls to feed Tapeats Creek. The loop trail then runs down beneath the Thunder River falls into the Tapeats Creek drainage, and follows it down the Colorado River at mile 134.5 or so. The final leg follows the Colorado River, first close along shore, then climbing steeply up over the cliffs that form the narrowest point in the Grand Canyon at mile 135.5. Here steep walls of schist close in on the Colorado, forcing it through a channel less than eighty feet wide--four boat lengths.
I'll have company on my hike. Richard Carrier, our French raft guide from Chile, will com along--I still haven't figured out how a Frenchman from Chile got connected with our trip, but Dave Mortenson is an instigator of the first rank so I'm not really surprised. And Cece Mortenson, Dave's daughter, will be coming, too, bringing ten-year-old Natalie.
Cece only hiked in yesterday to join us, covering twelve miles down from the rim, dropping five thousand feet or so. Sounds like a lot of hiking, but Cece just passed her certification exams to become a Canadian climbing guide, so it was probably a casual stroll for her. She'll be with us for the rest of the trip before an upcoming trip to France and then Afghanistan. Cece, apparently, is the kind of daughter whose parents have a hard time keeping track of. She spent three seasons in Antarctica running a cold-weather survival program, and has climbed in South America, North America, and who knows where else. She's convinced Natalie will be able to handle the loop hike.
Deer Creek Narrows
Richard, Cece, Natalie and I are ferried across the river from camp to the start of our hike, Deer Creek Canyon, where a dramatic waterfall pours down from the cliffs. A short steep stretch of trail leads from the beach at the mouth of Deer Creek to the amazing Deer Creek Narrows. Here the creek has carved a swirling channel through the Tapeats Sandtone, a narrow groove a hundred feet deep that runs along the trail--you could jump across it in a few places if you were foolish enough to try. The trail runs across bedrock ledges at the top of this groove, but in places it's so narrow that your heels are hanging over the edge as you creep along the ledges.
It's a magical place, Deer Creek Canyon. Above the deep slot of the Narrows the canyon opens to an idyllic grove of cottonwoods and huge boulders. It's easy to see why this is one of the most popular side trips in the Canyon. But we pass through without stopping and soon we're crossing to Deer Creek's eastern side and beginning our climb up to Deer Spring. It, too, is an amazing place: a huge waterfall that that pours directly from the limestone wall. At the base is a jungle of huge cottonwoods with gnarled roots strertched across the steep slopes, providing convenient handholds to climb up to the falls. The cool mist of the falling water ifeels good on a hot day.
I scramble to the very base of the falls to fill my water bottle, and the force of the falling water instantly tears the bottle from my hand and smacks it down into the pool. After a few minutes the bottle resurfaces and I try again--successfully this time. It's always surprising, the force of that much water falling so far, moving so fast. Makes me glad to have a lifejacket in the big rapids.
Our hike continues above Deer Spring with a gently rising climb into the hot dry Surprise Valley. Here we discover the strategies for hiking with a ten-year-old: chocolate-covered almonds and round after round of "I Spy."I spy, with my little eye, something that begins with R: Redwall. Rocks. Red T-shirt. S: sand. Sky. Sun. M: mesquite. B: butte. It's a good way to catalogue what we're seeing. There's also a dried-out shell of a hummingird impaled on the leaf of a sword yucca--the work of a shrike, maybe--and a few agave mounds. And the agave themselves, tall tender shoots that look a bit like giant asparagus. A few of them are missing bite-sized chunks where sheep have been tasting them, so I give them a try. Not bad; moist and succulent and a bit like kolrabi. I hope they're not poisonous. I don't see any dead sheep around, anyway.
And then--maybe five hot miles without a word of complain from Natalie--we're at Thunder River. Here an even bigger waterfall pours from the limestone walls above Tapeats Creek. We stop again to feel the cold spray and to fill our water bottles and then it's down the hot dusty trail to the Tapeats Creek drainage. From here we follow the creek downstream to the Colorado. It's a long hike, with lots of climbing and descending to avoid steep cliffs. By the time we're nearing the Colorado again, we're scheming about hitching a ride with some rafters beached at the mouth of Tapeats Creek instead of completing the loop.
When we get to the beach, the rafters are there. Cece and Natalie cross over to begin negotiations with several older gentlemen who are, for some reason, sans pants. No luck, though. They won't be going downstream far enough to get us to camp. And so we set off again on the last leg of our hike. Some of the steam has gone out of us by now, Still no complaints from Natalie--she is amazingly strong and cheerful--but even she is dragging a bit.
It's another few miles of mostly flat hiking along the river, but then we reach the schist narrows where we're forced to climb up above a steep ridge. Finally, at the last steep climb, I grab some chocolate almonds and trail mix.
"I'll bound up this trail like a gazelle," I tell Natalie. And I do--a very tired gazelle--dropping snacks at convenient rocks along the way. It's enough to re-energize Natalie, who chases up the trail after me gobbling snacks. And then we're at the top of the climb, just as I run out of trail mix. From there it's a downhill trail back to Deer Creek Narrows, and the steep descent back to the beach where Tom Martin is waiting with a boat to ferry us back to camp.
We stagger into camp just in time for chicken, rice, an cheesecake that the cook crew has set aside for us. Then, after a few hilarious round of rock, paper, scissors--there's a major debate over whether you throw down ON three, or one, two, three, and THEN throw down--several of us come away with brand-new Patagonia jackets that Greg Hatten convinced the company to donate to our trip. I win my round and come away with a green rain jacket.
Then it's off to bed. We'll be doing twenty river miles tomorrow, our biggest day yet.