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Monthly Archives: August 2013

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We were paddling steadily, racing darkness. Five miles yet to go, one hour until sunset; it would be close but our chances of making a daylight take-out looked good. Lisa was just ahead of me bouncing down a shallow boulder pile when she queried, “Did we take the wrong channel or something?” The river did seem rather low, suddenly. We both looked downstream to a riverbed of dry rocks and sand, and the realization struck us: We’re paddling past the water!
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I jumped out to take pictures. Nick Smotek drifted past riding the toe of the flood. Brown water filled the cracks between rocks and rolled across sandy bottoms in a shallow sheet of moisture. All seven of us pulled out to watch the phenomenon, and wait. We’d paddled as far as we could for now. Ten minutes later the water stopped rising. We speculated on the speed of the flood; two-miles-per-hour? three? Any way we sliced it, darkness before take-out seemed imminent.
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I suppose it was par for the Agua Fria, a river noted for producing epic whitewater days, and nights. What were we thinking anyway, when we stood at the put-in waiting for the water to arrive after 11 am? As I say in Paddling Arizona, “A noon put-in on the Agua Fria is likely to get you be-nighted.” But this was August. The days were long. My boat hit the water at 12:04. Yet that wasn’t all, our main man John Govi was still en-route. Nick would wait for him and they would move fast, catching the main group somewhere downstream. Questionable decisions were mounting. But this was the Agua Fria! Off we went.
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Pete Traylor, Matt Spahle, “Chevelon Bill” Langhofer, Lisa, and I methodically proceeded through cascades of watered granite, hoping our compadres would soon arrive. The water was its typical chocolate color. The level, however, was higher than usual. At Dugald’s Mystery Ledge, eddies were scarce, leading Matt to nearly drop into the unknown, backwards. He stopped desperately on a mid-stream willow at the lip, and Pete jumped out to assist. We all portaged. At Rail Slide, I took a new high water route. It was an ugly rock careening line, but at least I made the bottom in my boat. Lisa only emerged from the bottom hole once she was detached from her boat, paddle, and booties. She always preferred to paddle barefoot anyway.
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Following these unimpressive lines, nobody gave the falls a try, including Nick and John, who caught us shortly thereafter, at Double Boof. Despite a couple more portages and two swims at the last big rapid—Low Blood Sugar—we were all in one piece and on pace for a twilight take-out when we paddled off the nose of the flood, and were forced to take a break. Fifteen minutes later we set off, only to out-pace the water again in another ten minutes, this time amidst a jungle of cattail, willow, and cottonwood.
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A laborious extrication from the swamp led to a beach where we dropped the boats. Out came the map. Off Pete went, striding into the desert to seek the jeep trail that supposedly existed there. Minutes later he returned with good news. The road was an affirmative. Four of us left our kayaks tied to a mesquite tree. The other three dragged theirs. Dusk crept over the desert. We marched into the night.

An hour into the walk we spotted a light in a ranch house. I called out until a stout Mexican-American man emerged. He understood my plight relatively quickly, mumbled something about a key, and disappeared back inside. Unsure if our rescue was at hand or not, I shuffled in the dark while the crew waited at the far end of the pasture. The man re-emerged, wearing his cowboy hat. This was a very good sign.

Before long we were piled deep in the back of C.D.’s pickup, headed for Black Canyon City. Several minutes of small talk passed before he told us a story of another band of kayakers he once met. It was during winter, he said, and after dark, like this. Those paddlers demanded the use of a truck. C.D. answered them with the pump of his shotgun. Relations slowly improved from there. He ended up giving them a ride, just like us. I grinned. The incident of which he spoke was an adventure of the late Jim McComb. His wife Jodi called me that night, probably about the same time they were getting the ride from C.D. It doesn’t seem long ago but it must have been before cell phones. It probably doesn’t seem long ago to C.D. either. Back in Bill’s truck, I shared C.D.’s story to a jocular reception. We missed Jim McComb on this Agua Fria epic, but one way or another, he was still there.

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The hole was hardly a supreme surf spot, but it was the best feature we’d seen in 100 miles. All nineteen kayakers pulled into line, awaiting their chance to surf, or should I say, be surfed. The next twenty minutes featured several entertaining rides of the “I’m ready for this to be over but I can’t seem to get out of here” variety—a good ol’ boat rolling, hole buckin’ whitewater rodeo. Teacher and ex-pro freestyler Peter Benedict might have had the most styling session, but student Nicole was the top crowd pleaser. Was that six window-shades in one ride?
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We didn’t want our kayak fun to be over, but just downstream from the surf spot, the Colorado River was subdued within the silt of Lake Mead. Undesirable as it was, this was an important aspect to the trip, which featured an exchange between Chilean teenagers from Club Nautico Escualo, and American youths from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. Back in March, the North Americans traveled to the Patagonia region of Chile for a trip on the threatened Rio Baker. Now it was time to see another world treasure—Grand Canyon—and learn of the impacts that come with hydroelectric development. The Colorado River in Grand Canyon is hemmed between dams. The Rio Baker locals are hoping to avoid a similar fate.
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For twelve days the students traveled downstream with Hatch River Expeditions. We paddled every day, hiked to ancient ruins, frolicked in swimming holes, and teamed up for mega fire-lines required to unload a fully outfitted camp each night. Evenings brought out the acordians and guitars, sharing in Chilean and American tunes alike. The schedule was jam-packed, and nobody had more on their plate than Weston Boyles, who is making a documentary film about the Rios to Rivers project, and the plight of Patagonia’s rivers.
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For Patagonia sin represas, the fight to save Chile’s world-class rivers is now. Should that debate rage on into the decades ahead, the Baker will owe its fate to energetic and passionate younger river guardians, some of whom might recall a Grand Canyon trip, and a certain hydraulic that roared with life, and then fell quiet behind the next dam.

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ImageWind whirled erratically, tossing scatter-bombs of coarse sand with each unpredictable gust. An ominous stew of clouds seethed overhead, conjuring lonely droplets of rain. It was all somewhat distracting, yet the tempest remained squarely in the background due to the imperative of a three-hundred-foot abyss below us. Down there, the river roared, undercutting our cliff through its timeless work.

The two Youth whom my fellow guide Kate and I led here sat cautiously, a few feet back from the edge. Their silent gazes spoke volumes, but it wasn’t until we descended past Puebloan ruins toward the boats when I saw the wondrous glow of discovery in their faces. Later, I overhead one of them—a seventeen year old on the brink of womanhood—as she regaled the experience to her friends. Clearly, that simple walk was her nature epiphany.
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To me, these are the most rewarding shared moments of a Grand Canyon Youth trip. But sometimes those moments manifest in less dramatic ways. Take the kid from Chicago who joined us for the lower half of the Canyon. He had never walked off pavement before, an incomprehensible fact to someone like myself, who walks barefoot into his naturalized backyard each morning just to get balanced for the day ahead. I began to wrap my head around our disparate experiences as I watched the Chicagoan creep with utmost care across river cobbles on day one. A few days later, my amazement was complete as I watched him hike to the Deer Creek Patio, traversing a bedrock footpath along the edge of an attention-grabbing cleft.

I suppose Grand Canyon Youth trips are a little different for everybody. For some it is simply a fun time. For others, it is a life-changer. For me, it’s a little of both, bit by bit, every time.

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Image“That looks like current ahead, we should pull over and see if we’re on an incoming tide.” Unfortunately, I was right. It was 2 pm. If the flood tide had just started, we’d have to wait until 8 pm before having a downstream current to ride. To think it over, we stopped for lunch in a gully, hunkering just slightly out of a chill wind that blew in off the sea. After thirty minutes of watching the water move opposite our goal, Govi said, “Well, I’m not going to wait until 8 o’clock.”
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Paddling against the tide was a mental exercise. I forced myself to look at river right, where distant scenery visibly moved past, providing a measuring stick for my progress. If I happened to look left, at the near shoreline, our 1 mile per hour pace was evident, and it was damn depressing. We pushed on, slow and steady into a cold breeze, the bows of our boats slapping against little waves. Our destination—a bank of dark fog that hovered over the sea—seemed so close, yet untouchable.
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We stopped for a break. Fresh grizzly tracks ran through the mud along the waterline. Below here, the tidal channel turned directly into the wind, and the incoming tide. There was no doubt, we wouldn’t be paddling against the elements through here. I walked up onto the tundra for a scout. Royal blue lakes partially covered in ice dotted a flat prairie. Wisps of fog blew across the land. The view offered hope, and a desire to head directly west toward our destination. It was time, again, to walk.
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Before us, tundra stretched to infinity. Geese and gulls squawked and circled. We aimed for two cookie shaped humps in the distance, put our heads down, and marched. Our path was a circuitous route of S-turns in order to avoid swampy ponds. Occasionally, we’d make straight-line bog crossings where there was no practical detour, where we lost patience with the back and forth, and slogged through ankle-deep wetlands one gloppy step at a time. Bunch grass tussocks kept us always looking down and planning the next step. The inlet was out there somewhere, but all we saw was tundra, seemingly endless.
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We looked at the map for answers, and found none. “We must be in here somewhere,” I said, pointing at a featureless swamp on the map. March on. At the base of a low monocline, a deep blue pond offered good water, and a chance to stop and fill empty drybags, hopeful that we’d be camping on saltwater soon. In a mantra-like trance, we moved forward, keeping a steady pace that we might have to sustain for forever.
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A vague, ethereal light shone to my right. I crept closer, squinting, trying to separate cloud from sky from water. Water, indeed! Dark waves lapped in the mist, crashing onto a gravel shoreline. I raised my arms in resigned triumph, and let out a throaty “Waaauuugh!” This was the sea.
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The following morning we hit a road. “Whoah,” said Govi, “a road.” A pickup truck slowed and offered a ride into  town. We accepted. It was Ed and Mike from the Pt. Hope water plant. Their kind company occupied the rest of the morning until they dropped us at the airstrip on the far side of town, where we crawled into a twin engine plane with seven others bound for the outside world. From the air, everything looked so simple; the hills, the tundra, the rivers, all one big playground. But I knew better. Now, I knew better.

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The Lisburne Traverse was supported by Kokatat. Thank you Kokatat!