A COLORADO RIVER RUN
By Tom Pamperin
Thursday April 5
Day 16: The River Giveth, and the River Taketh Away
A short blog--maybe the last--on the final twenty minutes of laptop battery remaining.
First, the river taketh away: this was the morning Leif Mortenson woke to discover a crucial part of his generator unit had been washed away in the night. He and I climbed into the knee-deep rushing water (in drysuits) to wrangle the remaining components out of the water, but no luck finding the entire system. What there is left--the blue motor unit, the twelve-foot steel support bar, a few cables--all this has been driven deep under some boulders. Leif and I wear PFDs and expect to get pulled off our feet and swept downstream at any moment, but we drag the whole works out without incident.
However, there will be very little chance to recharge anything until after Diamond Creek at Day 21, where our next replacements may--MAY--be bringing in a back-up battery for the final few days.
An Easy Day
Our day starts at Last Chance Camp at river mile 156 or so. We're hoping to be the first boats down to Havasu Canyon, river mile 157, where we'll spend the day. The plan is to take the 1950s replica boats--the Susie R, the Flavell, and the Gem--and pull them up Havasu Creek as far as we can to duplicate historic photos from earlier Moulty Fulmer and Pat Reilly trips. Those three boats leave early so they can get into the narrow creek before the other boats block it.
An early start, too, for the rest of us, and we're out of camp before 9:00 a.m. to run the mile down to Havasu Canyon.
This is a tough pull-in on river left--miss it and you'll be swept downstream into some shallow boulders where it might take a Chinook helicopter to free a loaded raft. But we all make it in (ten boats), followed by a group of Southerners in five yellow rafts, and then two white rafts and a bevy of kayaks from a British/French groups--and one of their French river runners is a woman who met our own Frenchman, Richard, in Chile a few years ago. A huge canyon, a small world.
Havasu Creek is an amazing turquoise stream that flows through a slot canyon at the bottom, too narrow to fit a raft through. Tom Martin, Craig Wolfson, and Leif Mortenson have already taken the 1950s boats as far up the creek as they can, where a small waterfall blocks further progress. Havasu Canyon, through this bottom section, is barely a boat-width wide; a trail paralells the creek atop the cliffs above. From here we can look down on the brightly-painted red-white-and-blue boats.
Tom Martin has me stand in for Moulty Fulmer to re-stage a 1950s photo. I borrow Pam Mortenson's floppy hat and stand on a ledge ten feet above the water. There are several pauses to adjust my posture--arms folded, head turned toward the creek, head down--and the work is done. In the original photo, Moulty Fulmer is standing on the same ledge, at the same exact spot, but the water is nearly lapping at his toes, and there's a boat tied in the creek at his feet--a boat that would be hanging in empty space ten feet above the water if it were in the same place today.
After my Moulty Fulmer role is over--Tom Martin is pleased with the photo re-creation, says it's one of the best he's staged--I'm free to spend the day wandering up Havasu Canyon with Greg Hatten, Pam Mortenson, and Natalie, my ten-year-old hiking partner from the Deer Creek loop hike. The trail crosses and recrosses Havasu Creek, whose water is so bright and blue that you cannot even see the bottom of the creek, though the water is rarely higher than knee-deep.
Just like the Little Colorado Canyon, Havasu Creek is thick with calcium carbonate--chalk--which coats the mud and rocks of the creek bottom with white, reflecting the blue of the sky. The brightly colored water is also much warmer than the main Colorado, a good thing with all the wading we're doing.
Greg and I continue up the canyon for a couple of hours after Pam and Natalie turn back, but eventually we reach a stunning set of falls perhaps ten or fifteen feet high. Here the Southerners are hanging out in the pools beneath, but it's time for us to turn back--the plan is to leave Havasu Canyon by 4:00 p.m. and we have several miles to go back to the boats. It's a perfect day walking the canyon trails beside (and in) the bright blue tropical waters of the creek, and our timing is perfect; we get back to the boats at 3:30.
The River Taketh Away--Again
It was a tough pull-in to get into Havasu Creek this morning, and it's an even tougher one to get out. We have to row out from the creek mouth at river left, all the way to the main channel at river left. Just below is the area of rocky shallows that was so hard to avoid this morning. The wooden boats leave first, and they all make it. Some of the Southerners leave next and also make it. Then Hazel, our first rafter, makes it--but not by much. There's a stiff wind blowing from river right to river left, and she has to fight not only the current sweeping downstream, but also the wind blowing directly against her. But she fights through and makes it into the main channel.
Another Southerner unties and shoves off, only to discover that one of his oars is still lashed down to his boat.
There's a moment of epic panic aboard his raft--he might have been able to leap into the knee-deep water of the creek and pull his boat back in until his oar was freed--but then he's into the main Colorado heading directly toward the rocks. He has only one chance; if he slides down the extreme left side of the river he can pass between the cliffs along shore and the rocky shallows in the center. He makes it.
Then, Yoshie and Natalie set out. The wind gusts fiercely as she rows out, a long sustained blow directly into Yoshie's face. She doesn't make it. Worse, she keeps trying, and makes it just far enough to be swept directly down onto the rocky shallows, where her raft is stuck fast. And there they are, in the middle of the river, stuck.
A fully loaded eighteen-foot raft can easily weigh a couple of thousand pounds.
It's a nightmare scenario, potentially. Not dangerous, but incredibly tedious. Visions of unloading Yoshie's raft, removing the frames, deflating it, all this hassle is running through my head. For me, getting stuck has been my biggest fear. A flip? You're done quickly. Swimming a rapid? No big deal. But getting stuck? It's the worst. I don't even see a way to get out to Yoshie's raft without getting more boats stuck.
The Brits, though, leap into action. One of them throws a heaving line from the cliffs on shore, and now there's a line from shore to Yoshie's boat. Meanwhile, two of their kayakers paddle out the the stuck raft and help Yoshie rig for a strong pull. And then a half dozen people grab the shore end of the line on top of the cliffs. A few pulls and the raft slides free. The ordeal is over. No helicopters or tedious unloading needed.
The River Giveth
I consider just meekly sliding down the far left channel after watching Yoshie's rescue--I really don't want to get stuck by missing the channel on river right--but instead I just row HARD and keep rowing until I'm well past of the rocks. Luckily the wind has died down and I make it, as do David Perez and Norm Takasugawa behind me. We slide through a minor rapid just below Havasu Creek and then it's just an easy mile and a half to our camp at 158.7-Mile Camp on a set of rocky ledges at river right. And here, in the flat water, the river giveth back:
Just ahead of me, on an intercept course, is a light-colored almost tan something floating low in the water. It's about the size of a hat. About the size of the Tilley hat I lost earlier in the trip, actually, the one that floated down Unkar Rapid without me. My raft floats nearer. I lean casually over the side of the boat and scoop it from the water. It's a hat.
A Tilley hat, well seasoned and beat-up, a floppy-brimmed bucket hat with a blue braid around the crown and fancy snaps so you can fasten the sides of the brim to the top of the hat. A river hat to be sure. Not mine, but when I try it on, it fits perfectly.
A mile later I'm in camp.
Note: remember, battery power is extremely limited; the blog could grind to a halt at any moment. If that happens, it probably doesn't mean that the much-anticipated biggest-rapid-in-the-Canyon Lava Falls, which we'll be running day after tomorrow, has gotten us all. Arnie Richards sent in his Solar Panel with Cece Mortenson when she hiked in, and we are giving that a try to stay in power. Keep your fingers crossed.