Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rafting the Grand Canyon

Sorry for the long delay in posting here. Turns out they don't have Wi-Fi at Phantom Ranch.

After my time in Zion (did Angels Landing and a few other small hikes while there), I scooted down to Las Vegas, Nevada, to pick up my father and two brothers. They had flown in there, and after one day were already tired of the city. I was ready to leave five minutes after I got there, which is always how I feel about Vegas. Somehow, circumstances keep conspiring to bring me back there, though...

We drove out of the Basin & Range and up onto the Colorado Plateau, and spent the night at Cliff Dwellers, a lodge near Marble Canyon. I was really impressed with their food and drink. We had an amazing meal, washed down with several pitchers of Newcastle Brown Ale! In the morning, we gathered up our gear and put onto the river. Our trip consisted of two rafts outfitted with side tubes and motors and guides. One raft was entirely made up of a family from Charlotte, North Carolina, including the glass artist Wayland Cato, III. The Bentley's raft was augmented by a family from Littleton, Colorado, two oil men from Oklahoma, and a couple of veteran river rafters from northern California. It was a motley crew, but we started having fun immediately.

We launched at Lees Ferry, in the Kaibab Limestone, and then descended in both elevation and geologic time. At our first lunch stop, in the Coconino Formation, I was astonished at several synapsid reptile trackways protruding from the underside of the paleo-dune slipfaces overhead. I took some photos, but because of the aforementioned software issue, I won't be able to share them until I get back to DC in August. As the first couple of days went by, we just went deeper and deeper into the Paleozoic stratigraphy of the Colorado Plateau. Of all the formations, my favorite was the Bright Angel Shale, which has many beautiful colors in thin layers throughout (not to mention oodles of trace fossils). I was particularly pleased to play frisbee in a "cave" in the Redwall Limestone, a place that I have shown photographs of to my students, but never actually seen before. It's a HUGE cliff of the Redwall, and then this seemingly small cave etched into its base (and filled with sand), but the cave could easily swallow my building at NOVA: it's big!

At some point, we crossed a major fault, and were instantly dropped down about a billion years in geologic time. Once we got into the Grand Canyon Supergroup and the metamorphic and igneous basement rocks, my geologic interest really went wah-wah. The Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite make a stunning contrast: really beautiful pink cutting across dark grey. I introduced my raft-mates to the idea of the Mazatzal Orogeny, and we discussed how boudinage forms. There were faults and folds galore: structural paradise. I loved it.

Did I mention the rapids? There were rapids. The water was COLD, thanks to Glen Canyon Dam(n). But the sun was hot, and we dried out quickly. Meals were gourmet, though the campsites were spartan (you had to poop in a box that got packed onto the raft each morning: leave no trace!). We slept out under the stars every night, sometimes dealing with blowing sand.

We took several hikes up side canyons to see waterfalls and go swimming. Several of these were good and physically challenging, which is what I wanted. I enjoyed swimming and playing "three-dimensional frisbee" in Havasu Creek, and doing cannonball jumps in the weird blue of the Little Colorado River.

The final day on the river, we came to the western section of the Canyon where recent lava flows (basalt) have cascaded over the rim and down into the canyon. This is famous for producing one of the toughest rapids in the whole Grand Canyon: Lava Falls. But it was awesome to float by and see umpteen gazillion columnar joints, and whole feeder canyons plugged up by basalt. Pretty cool!

Our final morning, we were helicoptered out of the Canyon to a ranch on the rim. This was my first time in a helicopter, and it was giddy and amazing. I want to fly! From the ranch, we transferred to small fixed-wing planes, and I said goodbye to my family. They went back to Vegas, and I flew back to Cliff Dwellers, where my Prius (and a shower!) awaited.

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