Day 21 – 220 Mile to Separation Canyon(239.8)
River Miles: 19.8
Hiking Miles: 1
April 7, 2013
“Coffee! Come and get your coffee!”
The final day begins.
The river’s edge is familiar as ever in the early morning – the Canyon walls, the sand, the squeaky rubber rafts… the kitchen, the wash buckets, and the circle of camp chairs.
Breakfast is eggs, cheese, Canadian bacon, and anything else that’s left over. We stuff the sleeping bags, shake out the tents, stuff the tents… load up the drybags, and haul the drybags to the water.
Gather up the beer cans, fold up the chairs, break down the kitchen, carry everything to shore. We load up the boats, weave the straps through it all, and cinch it all in.
Buckle up the lifejacket, look over the rafts, take in the scene.
Dave recites a poem along the quiet shore.
The bow lines are untied, one by one, and we’re cut loose into the current. Sand stakes are pulled and we’re off, leaving nothing but marks in the sand, soon to be erased by the wind without a trace.
Diamond Peak slides into view.
I’d seen pictures of it before, and regarded it as an exotic western landmark of the Grand Canyon. The peak was always mentioned in the context of bringing closure to a river trip. With three weeks behind us, I now fully understood it – Diamond Peak meant that the end was near.
Soon a strange sight materialized on the left side of the River. It was a pickup truck, parked along the shore – the first vehicle we’d seen in three weeks.
There it was, marking the bottom of a dirt road, Diamond Creek Road, the first road to reach the bottom of the Grand since we began at Lee’s Ferry, two hundred and twenty-six miles and twenty-one days ago. Despite all the luxuries of hot meals and cold beer that we’d had, the vehicle was still a shockingly foreign object of civilization above the rim.
One of the great things that sets the Grand Canyon apart from other wilderness areas is that you go “in” to the Canyon – it can seem more separated from the world than even the highest of mountains. Trucks do not go “in” to the Canyon, and for there to be a road here meant that the Grand Canyon was beginning to lose its dominion over the Colorado River.
Three more miles downriver, I was pleasantly surprised that we were going for a hike. We scrambled among hot boulders along the shore until we accessed a short, shady, and narrow stream called Travertine Canyon.
The Hualapai Tribe runs day-tours through this area below Diamond Creek, so they’d built a fun and interesting series of ladders to help people to access the canyon.
Everyone in our group did the full hike to an upper waterfall.
There was this narrow little slot near the top, with the waterfall just around the corner.
Everybody got in to the water.
Yesterday there was the birthing rock, and today there’s Travertine Falls.
The River grinds you up and rinses you through the rapids, again and again and again. One by one we took our turns for what seemed to be a final glorious rinse, with uninhibited laughs and chills and shrieks that were amplified within the intimate grotto.
Time to go.
Back at the boats, we raided the last of our lunch supplies – cookies and Pringles and cold cuts that didn’t stand a chance.
It was a hot day, and we felt sharp and refreshed, like the sandy River creatures that we were. There was one more rapid, waiting three miles down the River. Some called it “Killer Fang Falls.”
Scouting Killer Fang – this may have been the moment that Dave shared a crucial piece of information with Josh.
photo by Doug Nering
Less dramatically known as 232-Mile Rapid, the Killer Fang was aptly named for the sharp rock that waits at the bottom of the rapid. The current wants to take you right into it. The fang is seen toward the top right of this picture, at the bottom of the rapid.
The trouble is that there’s a large pourover on the top left side, meaning that it’s necessary to flirt dangerously with the current toward the fang before pulling hard to the left. The rapid is technically only rated as a “5” but it often proves to be difficult.
Mike Burkley returns to the boats after scouting the rapid.
Dave Nally led the way, traditionally followed by Steph and then Doug’s boat with me and Jackie. Nic elected to take the ducky, and Bo was somewhere early in the mix. I don’t remember their exact order.
Doug’s entry was perfect! He sneaked through the left side of the troublesome current, completely bypassing all the danger. It was actually quite a boring run, but such a relief! We eddied out on river-left with Bo to watch the others come through the rapid…
Josh and Amy were behind us, and ohhhh boy it looked like he was headed straight for the fangs. There was no way he’d make it to the left. This wasn’t good at all. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach like I was about to see a trainwreck.
The boat spun around. He cleared the fangs to the right, out of sight. Nothing good could happen next. We were in a decent rescue position. So was Bo, right alongside us. I reached for the throw-rope, ready to pull Josh and Amy out of the water.
But then they popped out on the right, topside-up! Indeed, while scouting the rapid, Dave had mentioned that it may be possible to sneak through the right side of the fangs as a sort of Hail Mary move, and Josh had done it! We later joked that he must have jinxed himself with all of that “It’s not if, but when” stuff a few days ago.
The McCumbers slid past while Josh was momentarily stuck on the right. For a moment it looked like they were headed for the fangs too, but pulled safely to the left in time.
The McCumber video
Finally Chris Forsyth was the last to enter the rapid, with Steve Nelson as the passenger. It looked like Chris was pulling hard, but still on a collision course with the fangs.
Steve sat upright on the left side of the boat, staring down the sharp rocks as they appeared closer and closer in front of his nose. It was truly a scary sight to behold. I was sure they were going to hit the fangs! I had that sinking feeling again and almost wanted to shield my eyes away from the ensuing carnage. Throw-rope in hand, but I can’t look!
It was at the very, very, very last minute that the raft dropped safely to the left. Chris later said that his oar strokes were repeatedly hitting thin air until the end, and joked that he just wanted Steve to have a close-up opportunity to inspect the mossy-bacterial growth on the fangs.
Chris has a great video that can only be seen on Vimeo, but it has a great close-up view toward the end that really drives home the fear of the fangs.
Dave said that a cataraft on one of his previous trips hit the fangs. The boatman’s raft was stuck on the rocks. He rowed furiously for a few moments to try and dislodge it, only to realize that it was just the boat’s frame sitting on the rocks – the rest of the cataraft had been torn away!
So we were through the last big rapid in the Grand Canyon.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a slow and uneventful manner. Though we were still forty river-miles upstream of Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam had its effect on the River by burying the remaining rapids under silt and sediments.
Eventually we reached the famous Separation Canyon. It was at this place that three members of John Wesley Powell’s landmark expedition had come to their last straw. They chose to leave the party and attempt to hike out of the Canyon to the North Rim. They were never seen again.
All night long I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach, along by the river. Is it wise to go on? I go to the boats again to look at our rations. I feel satisfied that we can get over the danger immediately before us; what there may be below I know not. From our outlook yesterday on the cliffs, the canyon seemed to make another great bend to the south, and this, from our experience heretofore, means more and higher granite walls. I am not sure that we can climb out of the canyon here, and, if at the top of the wall, I know enough of the country to be certain that it is a desert of rock and sand between this and the nearest Mormon town, which, on the most direct line, must be 75 miles away. True, the late rains have been favorable to us, should we go out, for the probabilities are that we shall find water still standing in holes; and at one time I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the explorations unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.
After breakfast I ask the three men if they still think it is best to leave us. The elder Howland thinks it is, and Dunn agrees with him. The younger Howland tries to persuade them to go on with the party; failing in which, he decides to go with his brother…
The last thing before leaving, I write a letter to my wife and give it to Howland. Sumner gives him his watch, directing that it be sent to his sister should he not be heard from again. The records of the expedition have been kept in duplicate. One set of these is given to Howland; and now we are ready. For the last time they entreat us not to go on, and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place; that we can never get safely through it; and, further, that the river turns again to the south into the granite, and a few miles of such rapids and falls will exhaust our entire stock of rations, and then it will be too late to climb out. Some tears are shed; it is a rather solemn parting; each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.
Our time at Separation Canyon wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but there was a serious note in the air with our ensuing plans.
Normally we would have camped here after a full day on the River. But on this, our last day, we planned to float all through the night (An all-nighter!) to arrive at our take-out at Pearce Ferry in the morning. Through the calm water we could tie all seven of our rafts together into a sort of barge, but the night wouldn’t be without its obstacles and perils.
There was some time to kill before preparing our final dinner (A simple meal of boil-in-bag pot roast with rice), so most of the guys wandered and hiked up to the commemorative Powell plaque.
The ladies had a nice time lounging on the ducky.
photo by Doug Nering
“You can imagine how Powell’s men must have thought that the Inner Gorge was beginning all over again.”
There were some questions in the wisdom of doing this so-called night float, but it was too late for any of that now. We had to do almost forty river-miles before 10am tomorrow in order to meet the Moenkopi truck on time at Pearce Ferry. At least it would add some excitement to an otherwise tedious stretch of River that had been tamed by Lake Mead.
It didn’t rain today.