November 2 – 14
We made it to the boaters beach at Phantom Ranch just in time for some of the group to run up to the canteen and send a few postcards. I was a bit slower making it up there but Theo ran ahead into what, after ten days on the canyon, felt like an absolute shit show of civilization. There were maybe 30 other people packed into the little store, mostly hikers trying to get one last beer purchased before it closed. The staff doesn’t mess around with closing time and made it clear that being in line wasn’t good enough: You better have purchased your post cards before 4:30pm on the dot or you weren’t getting them. I opted to wait outside for this one.
Given the late arrival into Phantom, we didn’t push off the beach until nearly sunset and got to enjoy the late afternoon light as we made it down to Pipe Creek, the only viable camp left for the day.
The day after Phantom Ranch has some of the biggest whitewater on the trip; the collective stress level of the group definitely increases on that day. Luckily, other than the inflatable kayak (but no injuries!), no one went swimming unintentionally. We pushed off from Pipe Creek into the most concentrated day of whitewater on the trip, running Horn, Granite, Hermit, plus Crystal and the rest of the Gems, down to Hundred-and-Ten Mile Camp. That day definitely made me feel my lack of physical preparation for the trip, getting tossed around by the currents as we bounced our way through rapid after rapid. Luckily, I was able to hit our lines (or a close enough approximation thereof) everywhere that it counted and came through right-side up. While some of the rapids were stressful, some like Hermit just put ear-to-ear smiles on our faces. Unfortunately, Theo was too busy holding on to get any pictures of the rapids… some weird self-preservation instinct or something.
For the next few days, the frequency of the rapids died down and the hikes picked up again. We found ourselves in Elves Chasm, Black Tail Canyon, Stone Creek, Tappetes and Deer Creek, Matkat, and Havasu Canyon.
Elves Chasm – Where you might expect to find fairies flying around.
Black Tail Canyon – Do you hear the drumming? (If you do…it probably means the ghosts are coming to get you!)
Tappetes to Deer Creek via Thunder River, a giant spring that just pours out of the side of the cliff.
[Theo here! A note on the awesome waterfall above: Even though the water was cold and the water powerful, some of us had a little too much fun swimming around the waterfall, getting exfoliated by the spray, enjoying the feel of sideways rain, being massaged by the waves, pretending to be weather forecasters getting blown away by the wind, performing water ballet against the current… 🙂 ]
Upset Rapid – Just run left!
Havasu Canyon – Many of the Tufa formations blew out due to a flash flood here between my first (2007) and second (2009) trip, which changed the nature of the canyon dramatically. However, on this trip the water was running blue again which is an amazing contrast to the red walls. Most of the group hiked up as far as Beaver falls. Back into the boats, we pushed down 10 more miles to National in order to set up for Lava Falls the next day.
The morning of the day that we were going to raft Lava Falls (“Lava Day”), the stress was palpable. There was much less idle banter during the rigging process and everyone was double- and triple-checking their straps. Then we had 13 miles of flatwater to allow the anticipation to build up until we got to Lava Falls. This was my third time running this rapid but as I climbed up to the scout rock, the butterflies in my stomach came back just like the first time I had been standing here a decade earlier.
When you clamber back to the boats and push off of the beach, you can’t see the rapid—just calm water. Then you round the corner and see a few ripples above the massive horizon line, time slows down. Soon, you are in the roller coaster: First, the top of the V-wave where everything goes white as the water pours over the boat; then, you have to wait and see which way it spits you out; and finally, you try to correct your position before you are into the massive waves, trying as hard as you can to miss the rocks at the bottom. The whole thing is over in a matter of seconds. As I tried to take up a safety position for the boats behind me, all I could do was laugh as I saw the giant poop emoji on the groover boat bouncing its way through the biggest rapid on the river, all with that silly and stoic cartoon grin.
After our last boat made it through, it was time to head for Tequila Beach for lunch and, well, tequila.
Lava is an interesting point in the river: It is really the last big challenge as far as whitewater goes but it also marks a point where many people start to think about their entry back to the “real world.” The canyon walls start to recede and the river picks up its pace as if it is pushing you back to civilization. The last few days on the river have some great sandy beaches and plenty of camp time to reflect on the trip.
We were reminded of just how difficult group dynamics can be in an isolated environment when someone was removed from our group via helicopter on the morning after Lava Day. Whenever someone leaves a trip early it impacts the group, and in this case it put a serious cloud over the last few days. It’s hard not to judge the whole trip by this one event and the ripple effect it had, but looking back through my journal and our pictures I know that there were far more high points than low and which made this an amazing trip.
Before we knew it, it was time for take out day: Time to reassemble all of the gear into piles on the beach, move heavy boxes of shit (literally this time), pack up the cars. Then it was back to Flagstaff for one last group dinner before an all-day drive back to California.
A few days after getting back, when we were offered spots on a spring 2018 trip Theo was ready to go right back and run the river again. However, we decided that we wanted to stick with our plan to head to Southeast Asia, only dedicating one month of our year off to this wonderful place.
See more of our photos from the second part of our Grand trip here. And stay tuned for more of our adventures in Vietnam!