Day 22 – Separation Canyon(239.8) to Pearce Ferry(280.5)
River Miles: 40.7
Hiking Miles: 0
April 8, 2013
The sun sets on our 21st day in the Grand Canyon, and it’s time to suit up for the group’s last float down the Colorado River. Never again will this group of remarkable individuals be together on the River. This trip has been the best of the stuff that life is made of… no more, no less.
21 days ago… photo by Chris Atwood
There was an electricity in the air as we packed up the kitchen for the last time. The idea of floating through the night was new and exciting, and it was here. It was all over, but not yet… not just yet.
It occurred to me in these waning moments that I was missing a photo of something that was very, very important. This was my very last opportunity to get that photo, for soon it would be put away and the chance would not come again.
Each individual in our party needed it almost every day.
A team of two or three people was dedicated to its maintenance, every morning and every evening.
Precious cargo that needed to be handled with the utmost of care…
(Pictured complete with riser for optimum filling capcity)
All of our rafts got lighter and less burdened as the days passed, but there was only one that had the honor of getting heavier each and every day.
Nightfloat time… I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat. We had in total six 18-foot Maravia rafts. We tied them together, side by side in two rows of 3. These two row of 3 were then attached from bow to stern. The cataraft was tied sideways along the center of sterns, and now we had a great big party barge!
The great flotilla!
photo by Doug Nering
The first hour of darkness was fresh with endless chatter, silliness, and electricity. It was a great big slumber party, a sleepover party like we were kids again with sleeping bags and glowsticks… but in big rubber rafts on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon!
It was incredibly fitting to be floating together as a single entity, a tribe united. We’d all been in this together, after all.
Soon the reality of the long night ahead settled into the group. The barge could not just effortlessly guide itself down the River. There would be obstacles, and some could be especially problematic for our large assembly. The Hualapai day-tour operations had some docks that we’d definitely need to look out for.
There would also be tall, vertical sand banks along the edge of the River. Not exactly trusted for their stability, hitting one in the night could trigger a sort of avalanche of dirt and sand. It was an awfully frightening thought… imagine being rudely awakened by thousands of pounds of dirt pouring onto you, burying you. Yeah.
So we needed watchmen – nightfloat watchmen – at least two at all times to man the oars and keep us away from the shores. Shifts were assigned to switch on the hour, like people would have someone “on watch” through the night in the movies. Dave and Doug took first watch. Jackie and I wouldn’t be on until something like two in the morning, so we did our best to get comfortable and try to get some sleep.
I was sure that I didn’t get a minute of sleep throughout the following hours, but Jackie later said that she heard me snoring. She also said that she didn’t sleep at all, but I’m sure that I heard her snoring. So it goes.
It seemed that nobody really slept. Soon it was evident that just two oarsmen would not be enough, so we kept hands on all four of the oars. The regimented watchmen shifts were abandoned.
The cataraft was also doing funny things to the integrity of our steering, so we essentially de-rigged it in the night and loaded it on board the greater barge.
It was a dark night, far from ideal conditions for a night float. We couldn’t see a thing through the inky darkness. There was no moon. Even the stars were veiled.
All of our brightest headlamps were put to use, but we still couldn’t see much. It was difficult to even discern if we were on the right side of the River, on the left side, or in the middle. At times I couldn’t even say with certainty which end of our craft pointed downstream. We used GPS to try and determine our miles per hour, and how soon we’d come upon the Hualapai docks and other obstacles.
Things got really interesting when we encountered the crowns of a few old, dead trees sticking out above the surface of the water. We hadn’t been expecting these specific obstacles, so now the dark night took on its more common, primal fear of the unknown. There were long, strained hours of peering desperately through the dim beams of our headlamps at the vague shapes and outlines that surrounded us. Everything was a potential hazard.
There was stress in most everyone’s voices. Constantly peering into the inky darkness for hours upon hours was hard work after a long day, and now a long night.
We passed the famed and infamous “Skywalk” up there somewhere. Supposedly it looks like a big old toilet seat from down here.
Finally we safely cleared the last of the Hualapai docks, and there was some space to relax for the last hour or two before dawn… but at this point some of us just kept up the vigilance for the rest of the night.
At least once in your life you’ve probably stayed up all night long, so I need not describe the hazy renewal of sunrise. We were greeted by the mythic “Grand Wash Cliffs,” typically known for little more than bringing closure to the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau.
The water was smooth and wide – this was not the Colorado River that we’d known. It was over.
Everyone began to stir under the new light of day. We disassembled the flotilla, separating into our individual boats for the few miles that remained.
photo by Doug Nering
Dawn on April 8th carried a fierce west wind. It was a headwind, and the worst we’d experienced for the entire duration of the trip.
It wanted to blow us all the way back to Lee’s Ferry.
Maybe it would have, if we’d let it. But alas, we had friends and families and jobs waiting for us… and hot showers… and a big truck at Pearce Ferry to haul everything back to Flagstaff.
The disassembly of our night-float barge had created a significant separation between the rafts. In the howling lakewater wind there was the sensation of being adrift in a great open sea.
The wind was literally pushing us upstream. The hikes and rapids and routine and even the night-float were all behind us, but the Grand Canyon wasn’t going to let us go so easily. Like all else on the River, we were going to have to work for it. It was only right.
I took the oars, spun the boat around, and began a long, deliberate pull. I got into a steady rhythm of pulling on the oars with my whole body, with every inch and nerve-ending of my being.
It was a final, glorious sprint for the finish. I truly enjoyed myself in this moment. The endorphins of a runner’s high kicked in, and all my senses withdrew into its cadence. All else was drowned by the sound of the wind. All the oarsmen seemed to have submitted themselves in begrudging solitude to the climactic task at hand.
We closed in on Pearce Ferry. I felt a strange, homely sort of reassurance at the sight of my car parked there in the distant desert, at the end of the Grand Canyon.
Doug brought his boat into shore.
We stepped onto the beach. The wind still howled.
A truck with two representatives from our outfitter were there to meet us. It wasn’t so much their cleanliness as their concentrated, focused demeanor that shocked me. Their faces held the look of the everyday world, the 9-5, forty hours a week world. They were there to get us de-rigged… the sooner, the better, and on to the next item on the to-do list.
photo by Doug Nering
So there was the flurry of dismantling the rafts and loading the truck. Then Jackie and I loaded our personal gear into the car, and it was done.
We made our rounds of goodbyes, and there was nothing left but to go.
It was a long night, after all, and I feel as though I wasn’t the only one at this time to be looking forward. There had been all the sunny, sandy, free days on the water to imagine all I wanted to do next. I was ready.
We were driving for less than thirty minutes when a steady rain began to hit the windshield.
~ The End ~
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