Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 3)

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After 12 hours of rest, we awakened in the predawn and packed up quickly to vacate the unauthorized spot.  I wished we’d had coffee.  Before starting out we dutifully stretched,

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and as the light came up we descended into a tight curvy canyon gouged out of the shale strata of the Platform that reminded me of the hike through Zion canyon I’d taken with Joe and Amy in 1995, during which he went off into a side canyon with her and proposed.


The sound of flowing water echoed as we approached Hermit Creek graced with little cascades and rich vegetation.


The old trail, originally constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad as part of a luxury resort serviced by a cable tramway from the rim, wound under rock overhangs down to a place where the neat horizontal layers through which we’d descended since yesterday were replaced by swirling shapes of hardened basalt laced with multicolored and multitextured stone.  We were entering the “basement” of the canyon, the deepest portion carved by the river and its tributaries that exposed rocks estimated as two billion years old.  The shale layers directly above them were supposed to be 500 million years younger, making for the “Great Unconformity,” in which the geological record had disappeared.  To mark the change, large clumps of overlying strata had fallen into the canyon on the opposite side of the creek. On the trail side we stopped to marvel at granite embedded with huge flakes of mica interspersed with quartz in bright shades of red, white and black.



As the canyon straightened near the bottom, we suddenly saw the pillar of Ra flaming above us and heard the roar of the river ahead.


Then the walls on our side opened to reveal sky and brilliantly colored cliffs upstream and down.  We were at the Hermit Rapids and didn’t have to leave until the following morning!


We had a choice of empty campsites and picked one in soft, warm sand right on the riverbank surrounded by tamarisks and willows .

Before unpacking and lighting the stove for coffee, we clambered over some large rocks for a look at the rapids themselves and  were joined by a young woman, Ingrid, one of a group of kayakers and rafters on a 27 day journey on the river.


She was soon surrounded by a crowd of men young and old who charted a course through the fast flowing turbulence.


They had camped here last night after swamping in Granite Rapids upstream and were just ready to take off.  Regretting the delayed coffee but excited to watch and take pictures of their daredevilry,  we waited beside the clean, green racing river that had carved the masterpiece engulfing us.


The spectacle was worth the delay.  First came Ingrid and another kayaker in their tiny solo boats.


Then the rafters, some in twos, some by themselves.


This was no guided tour; they were all highly experienced River Rats who owned their equipment and lived for the sport, according to Mike P., the grizzled rower who left his email address. Once they had all run the rapids, they assembled in the eddy below and then disappeared around the blind curve ahead.


We set up our gear, boiled water for coffee and oatmeal, and luxuriated in the prospect of a day of rest and relaxation.  Despite the long sleep the night before and the stimulant, we all napped for a couple of hours, Peter after taking a dip in the icy water that flowed from the bottom of the dam upstream at Glen Canyon.


In the afternoon we went exploring the creek and beaches and rock formations of this wondrous oasis in the midst of vertical walls that otherwise made the river unapproachable from land.



I started reading Powell’s enthralling account of his 1869 trip down the river.  He was the one-armed leader of a small expedition of wooden boats, which by the time they had reached here had lost most of their tools and provisions and still had they knew not how far to go and what awaited them ahead.

As I stood munching our lunch of salami and cheese, I looked up at the cliff behind the campsite and saw moving shapes.  Two of the canyon’s legendary mountain sheep were browsing on the low ridge line no more than 200 feet away.  “Get your cameras,” I whispered, pulling mine from its holster.  Eager as any hunter to shoot, we captured the quarry.



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