S: Grand Canyon September 2010
BC: Back Row (L-R): Brett Johnson, Dan Schoenblum, Dad, Paula and Dave Del Carlo, Chris Beemer, Michael Orchard, Ulli Kalbitzer Middle Row (L-R:) Nate Klema, Me, Michelle, John Posner, Hal Klopper, Leslie Johnson, Peter Orchard Front Row (L-R): Eugene Zuckoff, Louise Finlayson, Marshall Farr
FC: Grand Canyon September 2010
1: Perhaps it's just me, but I find for most memorable experiences, there is almost always a moment when the realization hits you and you think to yourself "This really IS happening." In this case, there were several. The first time, realization struck like ice. Literally. Nothing like plunging your feet into the clear but unexpectedly freezing Colorado River to get one's adrenaline pumping about a once-in-a-lifetime adventure down the magnificent Grand Canyon. Count: 4 oar boats, 1 paddle boat, 30+lbs of cheese, 40 pieces of steak, lots of fresh produce, assortment of cookies, numerous loaves of bread, other paraphernalia for river survival, 4 experienced AZRA guides, 1 lucky assistant and 15 adventurers who probably had little idea what an amazing experience awaited them. | Onward, intrepid explorers!
2: Flying across Arizona, it's hard to fathom the mass of water that lies deep between the Earth's crevices, and the beauty that surrounds it. We begin our journey at Lee's Ferry, following the water trails of John Wesley Powell, the cool water below glistens and each splash provides temporary relief from the blistering heat radiating from above. The water surface appears velvety smooth but hazards abound in the form of eddys, unseen boulders and of course, rapids, which in Grand Canyon have a class of their own, ranked 1 through 10.
3: Day 1 goes by quickly as we try to adapt to the river as well as the desert - having to deal with lifejackets, sand, scorpions, more sand and getting the hang of life on the river. To quote Dan, "We're river folk now". No trace is left behind. Minor lifestyle changes are made to minimize our footprint whilst maintaining some decent level of hygiene - cans are crushed, "thrones" are situated in discreet nooks with magnificent views and the guides impose strict handwashing rules. For a change, we embrace each day according to the rise and setting of the sun, and at night, the roaring river soothes us to a restful sleep.
4: Day 2 brings on the Roaring 20's - a succession of rapids - the perfect day for a first-timer in the paddle boat! A hike into the narrows of North Canyon reveals a plunge pool - some of us take a dip while others choose to nap against the cool, smooth, richly colored layers of rock. Further down the river lies Redwall Cavern, a big cave filled with deep, soft sand, ideal for playing frisbee or Nate's Redwall Challenge -- hold, stare and spin at a paddle until the count of 10 then dropping the paddle on the ground and jumping over it --- not as easy as it sounds. Michelle can testify to that.
7: As our journey continued, we hiked through Saddle Canyon and Nautiloid Canyon, where we saw fossils visibly encased in rock - yet another testament to the marvels and age of the Grand Canyon. At Upper Nankoweap, we cracked and gave in to a very cool and brief wash in the river. The morning after, we tackled Nankoweap Trail, which is considered to be the hardest of the trails into the Canyon. Though challenging, the view from and leading up to the Nankoweap Granaries is well worth it. With the sun's rays casting beautiful light against the Canyon's rich hues, the color contrast and winding river make for a scene one doesn't tire of easily. When we return to camp, Dave has already caught and released a number of sizeable fish. We break down camp (something we're really starting to get a hang of) and continue on our merry way. At some point, Dan, Michelle and I try our hand rowing the oar boats - a feat much harder than meets the eye and makes us all the more appreciative of our guides' efforts. Not only does it require a lot of back and shoulder strength but a good boatman/woman must know how to read the water and be aware of eddy's that could suck boats in.
9: Life on the river is something we all took to pretty quickly and easily, I think. Throughout the trip, we rotated boats in order to get to know our capable and gregarious guides, each of them a character in his/her own right. Neal, the leader of our motley crew, is an easygoing fellow who debriefs us on what each day will bring and coordinates with the other parties to provide us a trip that is as exciting and uncrowded as possible. Laura is a sweet, well-traveled ESL teacher who compensates for fewer river trips by being careful and eager to learn from the other guides. Also to be credited with teaching us Bananagrams! John Palmer - lovingly known as JP - always talks up how intense upcoming rapids are, only to run them textbook-style and make it look like cakewalk. An immensely funny guy and to this day, his infamous "Well YEAH!" never ceases to crack us up. In addition to being a fabulous cook who bakes sinfully delicious sweets despite literally being in the middle of nowhere, he's also Co-CEO of Flyco, Inc. If you asked me to paint a picture of the ideal grandfather, you couldn't come any closer than Bill Mobley. Countless one-liners delivered with impeccable timing and a deadpan face to match, when he and JP riff off each other, we lose our marbles. Tell you what - he's a mighty fine good ol' fashioned Texan man who is just as experienced on the river as he is hilarious.
10: Our journey down the Grand Canyon wouldn't be half as fun without Nate as the high-energy, entertaining paddle captain. Known as a child prodigy in the river-running universe, Nate regales paddlers with tales and possesses the unique ability to motivate his crew, even if it means resorting to running through rapids via Death Spin (spinning through rapids) or the Ray Charles Tribute (running the rapids with shut eyes). To quote, "It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you look good." When you encounter so many laid-back and idiosyncratically charming characters on the river, it's hard not to fall in love with the entire experience. With the exception of cold showers and sand getting into everything, we easily settle into the 'routine' of sleeping underneath a blanket of stars, waking to a calming conch alarm, taking in yet more gorgeous scenery while basking in the sun, feasting... None of us ceased to be amazed by the freshness, variety and deliciousness of food. Clearly AZRA had thought out these trips very well and fully exploited nature's freezer system to our benefit. Steaks, salads, Mexican fare, baked treats (brilliant use of a Dutch Oven), endless supply of snacks and of course, Gorp -- needless to say, we ate well.
11: The days easily blur together with few dull moments in between. When the guides proposed we could swim an upcoming rapid named Lava Chuar, I leaped, quite literally, at the opportunity. When we saw them jump off a waterfall, we thought to ourselves "Why not?" When we saw that they intended for us to climb a very steep rockfall at Carbon Creek, we scrambled up to prove to ourselves what we were capable of. Where the guides carefully lead us, we eagerly tread, proof of our faith in their capabilities and judgment. And on the day when the unintentional Swim Team was developed, our guides did not falter. Day 6 was when we bid goodbye to those who would hike out via Bright Angel Trail and hung out at the idyllic Phantom Ranch before welcoming the new group accompanying us for the latter portion of the trip. After a long hike down, some newcomers gamely entered the paddle boat. At Horn Creek (7-9 on the GC rapids scale), we were accosted by big waves which flung Dan and Chris Beemer out of the paddle boat. For a good few seconds, trepidation filled the boat but Nate quickly fished them back in no time. According to him, it was, in his experience, the closest a boat can come to flipping without actually flipping. Dining privileges were bestowed upon the Swim Team captains that night, swigs of Nate's personal whiskey stash included.
12: We continued to brave the rapids, some of which have interesting names, such as a series of rapids named 'the Gems'. Despite this being the first exposure to whitewater rafting for many of us, it's something we take to quite quickly. The most important takeaway, which is to lean into the water with the paddle for balance, seems counterintuitive at first, but after experiencing some major waves, we get the hang of it. Although splashing through the river leaves us a little chilly, we usually dry off quickly in the blazing sun, unless we are paddling in the canyon's shade. Despite having run quite a few rapids at this point, excitement still swells each time we approach a new rapid. Anticipation fills the boats each time we ride a new crest of deceptively velvet smooth water. And each time we plunge into the waves and are safely whisked deeper into the canyon, we heave a sigh of relief. For the intrepid paddlers, the successful run of a large rapid is celebrated by Nate declaring "We BARELY made it!" followed by a triumphant paddle salute. Whoever thinks life on the river is boring need only experience the adventures that await him/her in the Grand Canyon.
13: And as if our magnificent adventure wasn't activity-filled already, we were also treated to lessons in geography and history. We were exposed to the culture of Native Indians who lived in the area, educated on the various use of cacti and other flora & fauna, etc. To anyone observing Grand Canyon from the rim, it's hard to fathom the diversity and pockets of lush that lie within its numerous canyons. Among our many memorable excursions was a lush paradise rightfully named Elves Chasm as it easily conjures imagery of a magical realm. In Blacktail Canyon, Nate serenaded us on his guitar as we took the time to enjoy and reflect on the lovely moment of calm that had unfortunately become all to rare for most of us in our daily lives. One Day 9, we ventured to Deer Creek Falls - a pleasant oasis resembling a patio platform. For those of us that wanted to explore further, we hiked to the "Throne Room" where we sat like kings and enjoyed the view in front of and behind several waterfalls & springs. After we had settled in to our campsite for the night at Doris, we were feeling particularly communal and shared many good laughs as we played chor tai ti and told jokes all around. At Matkatamiba Canyon the next day, more adventure awaited as some of us opted to take a harder route involving shimmying up rock walls using all fours limbs.
14: At Havasu Creek, most of us chose to take it easy as we napped by the milky blue water while Peter and Nate peeled away for a fast-paced hike. About two-thirds through the trip, the "12 balls" puzzle was introduced and for a very long time, was the go-to conversation topic for the mathematically-inclined members of the group. However, it didn't keep our minds from lingering on the biggest rapid yet to come - Lava Falls. In order to safely run Lava Falls, the guides had to first scout it out but we pulled through like river veterans, but as always, a guardian angel boat lingered to ensure the other boats ran through safely. Perhaps it was because we knew our journey was nearing its end or maybe it was the continuous adrenaline rush we'd been experiencing thus far... either way, we optimized our last days in the canyon meditating under the Birthing Canal, leaping from Pumpkin Springs and landing with resounding splashes into the Colorado River and capturing images both physically and mentally, in hopes of being able to forever preserve this wonderful collection of moments and memories.
15: Our Phenomenal Guides: Bill Mobley, John Palmer (JP), Nate Klema, Laura Bechdel, Neal McAdam | 226 miles later, we emerged knowing that our exploration of the Grand Canyon with our exceptional AZRA guides and each other was a privilege and experience of a lifetime. As a group, we were incredibly fortunate to have complemented each other well. Self-professed geology geeks, ESL teachers, ski patrols in the off-seasons, the Grand Canyon's irresistible appeal attracts people of all sorts, all emerging as nature lovers if they weren't already, all looking for an extraordinary experience, all passionate for adventure and wielding a renewed zest for life...We embraced, experienced and survived - emerging with vivid stories, images and memories from which we relive our journey, again and again. "The glories and the beauties of form, color and sound unite in the Grand Canyon. It has infinite variety and no part is ever duplicated. You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths. It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, by a year's toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise." - John Wesley Powell