Day 6 – Kwagunt Creek (56.3) to Carbon Canyon (65.1)
River Miles: 8.8
Hiking Miles: 3
March 23, 2012
Jeremy McCumber in action!
We were packed and ready at dawn from our camp along the butte fault route, set to descend to Kwagunt Creek to the River and rejoin our rafting party at 10am.
It was a chilly morning, yet cool and comfortable for hiking.
We came upon this huge rock face just before reaching the creek. Doug called it the “Great Wall of China.” Shannon, Jeremy, and Chris were especially impressed its rock climbing potential.
Kwagunt was nice and scenic, with flowing water too.
It was simply a silent, subdued morning as we enjoyed the Canyon.
We stopped for a rest here at this ledge to strip some layers and get a little hydrated after last night’s dry camp. It was clear that everyone was really enjoying themselves, happy to have done this hike.
The tapered Muav Limestone is one of my favorite geological features of Grand Canyon.
We reached the River early for our rendezvous with the boats, and discovered that our rafts had not arrived yet. Chris Atwood went to explore below Kwagunt Rapid, out of sight around a corner, just in case our group had pulled in there.
With eyes peeled upstream, we caught sight of what could be a single raft, and then what was surely multiple rafts floating downstream. Our group! What perfect timing!
Wait… as they drew closer, we realized that this was another party… but, hang on… if so, then it was a very large party. In fact, it turned out that our group was floating immediately behind a different group.
The other group runs Kwagunt Rapid.
Chris Atwood rejoined us, and we forged upstream through thick brush to reach a location that would be an easy pull-in for the rafts. Chris Forsyth’s boat traveled farther downstream than the others, so Atwood lucked out as far as fighting the brush was concerned. The rest of the group parked at the bottom of a steep slope that fell directly into the water. It was extremely choked with brush, but we managed to find a way down to them.
Doug reclaimed our boat, and Jackie and I climbed on board and began to get re-situated. We gathered that the group had experienced an intensely windy and sand-blown evening at Nankoweap last night.
All of our hiking group was fresh off the trail and had a significant amount of reorganizing to do – especially considering that somebody else had rigged our boat this morning and rowed it to this point. We were rushed by the repeated statement that we were only floating a mile or so downstream to stop for lunch, so we could get completely re-packed at that time.
I scrambled to secure my camera and important items like my wallet as I usually would, consciously thinking to myself that it would be prudent to ignore comments such as “We’re only going a mile.” Still, the great majority of gear that we took backpacking was left outside of our dry-bags when we released our boat from the shore.
In the mix of shuffled passengers and boatmen, our boat gained Steve Nelson as a passenger for the float down to lunch. Apparently he had inadvertently gone for a quick swim a short while ago while trying to dislodge his raft from a rock. He was not wearing a drysuit or wetsuit at the time, and was now shivering heavily and uncontrollably. I made a point of seating him between me and Jackie – quite literally cuddling up to him – and being talkative. His speech had its normal animated character, so he seemed to be in decent overall condition.
We went into Kwagunt Rapid, rated as a five. It had some average sized waves. We were getting used to this sort of thing, and it was an enjoyable run. After we were through the biggest of the waves, Steve said:
“Whooooooo! That was fun!”
After a brief pause, his tone completely changed – “Oh shit,” as a large rock appeared somewhat in front of us.
Jackie and I couldn’t help but laugh – the timing of the phrasing was just so perfect and funny. Steve had an eloquent way of telling stories with dramatic one liners. This was no different, as we were feeling lighthearted and joyous back on the whitewater.
But then the current continued to take us directly toward the rock. I may or may not have said “Oh shit” as well, while still remaining cautiously optimistic. Doug was trying to pull away, but it was too late in the strong current. We bounced into it sideways.
I hoped we would bounce right off of it, and out and around it… same as we had with a couple of rocks in days past. The current was too strong for that, so it started pushing us up the rock.
And up and up.
I started high-siding like hell, climbing high on the raft in an effort to use my body weight… so its gravity would counteract the force of the water pushing us up the rock.
The raft was determined to continue its journey upward.
I found myself way up above the surface of the water, nearly on the side of the raft’s outer tube. This was not happening. My overriding thought was “Really??? Are we going to flip??? Now??? Really???”
I heard large splashes behind and below me. The others were falling into the water.
My balance and equilibrium sensed a sudden shift. It was time to let go.
Next thing I knew, something bumped into my head as I came up out of the water. I saw a broad paddle next to my face, and the side of the raft coming toward me quite forcefully. My first instinct was to move away from the raft to prevent myself from winding up underneath it (Incorrect protocol – I should have tried to grab the raft).
Next more confusion as a wave washed over my face. My eyeglasses were pinned underneath my nostrils so I pulled them up. Another choppy wave or two went over my face, and then I was floating in calm water.
Getting my bearings, I had a first opportunity to look around and see that Jackie was okay. She was close to the now docile upside-down boat, calmly maneuvering toward it. I was now a more considerable distance from the raft, and surprised at how comfortable I felt floating in the water. I gave the hand signal that means “I’m okay,” and repeated it consistently to assure everyone that I was fine.
I saw Doug, and that he and Jackie now had a hold of the raft. I began to notice a considerable amount of random items floating in the water. Not good.
I saw Bo rowing his cataraft toward me around the same time that I figured out how to maneuver with a backstroke in my PFD. Doug’s camp chair floated close to me and I managed to grab it. Bo came up right along side me in no time.
“Can you climb on?!” he yelled.
Looking at the relatively small dual tubes of his cataraft, I hesitated, thinking illogically in the excitement that my weight would upset the integrity of his raft. I began to voice my concern, but was interrupted.
“Just get on the damn boat!”
So I did.
Now on board a raft again, I could truly take stock of things as Bo and I considered the next move. Jackie and Doug had eddied out with the boat, and had it close to shore. The rest of the party was closing in on it.
Suddenly I remembered Steve, and my heart sank like a rock.
Where was Steve? I hadn’t seen him. Bo wasn’t sure of him either.
Steve was shivering uncontrollably to begin with.
Steve was not wearing a drysuit or a wetsuit.
Steve was sixty-seven years old.
Bo pulled up on the right bank of the river, about thirty yards downstream of where the majority of the group was converging on the overturned raft. One or two people “thought” that “maybe” Stephanie and Brooke Nally were with Steve farther downstream. I was really concerned and encouraged Bo in hustling down the shore to make sure he was okay (Bo is a veteran in search and rescue).
Later I learned that Brooke and Stephanie were the heroes of the day. Neither of them a day older than 22, they did everything by the book – yanking Steve out of the water despite their small stature, getting him onto the shore and into the sun, and immediately removing his wet clothes.
So now we had to do something about this upside-down raft.
photo by Chris Atwood
Some of the guys tied a few of the throw-ropes onto the far grab-line of the raft. Then it was all hands on deck as we tried to pull the raft back over.
The thing was outrageously heavy. It only came a few inches off the water.
On the next pull it came up a few feet, but we still gave in to the boat’s mass as it smacked back down on the river.
Some of us shuffled around to establish better leverage and mechanics for optimum strength, and commenced the third pull. This time it started coming… coming… and stalled.
For those of you that have ever lifted weights in a gym, this was the moment where you’re in the middle of your last rep, and things just stop. You have the weight halfway up, but it stalls and you have to summon everything in you to break on through and get that bar up.
We had the raft suspended in the air, pulling and pulling without progress. Their were groans and strains and veins popping left and right.
At this moment something came over me, and I just started yelling:
The raft came over that 45-degree plane and came crashing down, right-side-up.
It was a mess.
The front hatch was hanging open. The cooler was still sitting there in the shallow water. It proved to be a task of its own to lift its full weight back onto the raft.
We lost all of the group’s bananas and potatoes. Doug lost all of his beer. As for Jackie and I, all of our personal items seemed to be intact, but deluged with water. Doug did a noble thing in taking full responsibility as boatman for the loose straps, even though we weren’t there to rig the boat in the morning or given time to check every last strap on the boat after the hike.
The loss of these items was mostly overlooked in the post-flip excitement as everyone swapped stories. After things were reasonably back in order, we went an extremely short distance downriver and stopped for lunch. All the action was over so the group continued to share stories. Meanwhile
I stayed with the boat and began to take stock of things. Literally all of our belongings were wet, with the exception of what we had in the ammo boxes. I went into our backpacks and pulled things out one-by-one to lay out on the rocks in the direct sunlight, beginning immediately with our soaked down-feather sleeping bags. There was so much to do that I stayed with boat for the entirety of our lunch stop.
The zipper on Jackie’s drysuit wasn’t fully closed when we went into the water (Only about an inch or less was open). A significant amount of water had gotten into her suit, so she was still quite cold and uncomfortable, and just beginning to feel good again. She was considerate to grab a few things from the lunch table for me while I laid out our gear, or else I wouldn’t have had anything for lunch at all.
Soon they were breaking down the lunch setup, so I re-packed our things and we continued down the River. The calm water was uneventful for a few miles toward the Little Colorado River confluence. I began to feel the groove of being on the water again, as though nothing had happened.
I knew we’d have a lot of work to do tonight in drying out our things, and it would be our turn for cook duty as well. Considering our experience at diving into cooking on Day One, I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with it tonight. Given our situation, I voiced that maybe we could find a way out of it… the McCumbers with Chris Forsyth were due to cook tomorrow night, so maybe they’d consider switching the rotation with us.
With so much focus on the practical matters at hand, it was great to round a corner and be presented with the confluence of the Little Colorado River. Common conjecture at the start of the trip was that the clear water of the River would turn to a frothy and muddy brown beyond the confluence.
This proved to be true. The Little Colorado was so filled with silt that it browned the River. We stopped here briefly to regroup, choosing not to hike or explore because of the relatively unattractive look of the LCR.
The LCR is the largest tributary of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, and serves as significant landmark. I was especially familiar with the surrounding terrain of the Canyon beyond this point, having hiked much of it in the past.
John Wesley Powell had the following to say when passing the LCR during his legendary expedition down the Colorado River in 1869:
We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown… We have but a month’s rations remaining… the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled… The sugar has all but melted and gone on its way down the river…
We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies…
We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.
The rest of the afternoon was enjoyable, as familiar sites of the Canyon stole my attention. It was exciting to catch a first glimpse of the Desert View Watchtower, and it was interesting to inspect the location of the sacred Hopi Salt Mines from the water.
It was also fun to look up the left side of the River, knowing that the Beamer Trail was above and out of sight. Most of all, the gorge was exceedingly beautiful as the Tapeats Sandstone rose above the water – the Tapeats is one of my favorite rock layers in the Canyon.
The mood lifted on our boat, and we came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to just suck it up and fulfill our cook duties tonight as though nothing had happened. It would be nice to just get it over with. I also must admit that I privately began to see it as an opportunity to prove to the group what we were made of.
Jackie and I had a plan in place by the time our raft hit the sand on the beach at Carbon Camp. She and Doug attended to the preliminary setup for dinner while I attempted to dry out the rest of our belongings. We found a camp that still had some sunlight, but it didn’t last for long.
The situation was worse than I imagined – gallons of water were pouring out of our drybags. Water had gotten into everything, as our boat was overturned for quite some time. For example, our hiking snacks were packed into ziploc bags – the ziplocs were packed into a bear canister, the bear canister was inside a drybag. The ziplocs had at least a full inch of water inside of them. Some toiletries and other items were ruined, but nothing too detrimental.
I went through and started to unpack literally every single individual item that we’d brought on the trip, scattering everything around our tent in the open air to dry. I got as much done as I could before it was time to work on dinner.
The meal was Halibut Steaks on the charcoal grill with wild rice and salad, with a no-bake cheesecake for dessert. The cheesecake was a little sloppy but everything came out well. I grilled the Halibut and took care of the cheesecake, as Doug and Jackie prepared most everything else while I was drying out our gear. Chris Atwood and the McCumbers volunteered a helping hand, and were a significant help.
During the course of the evening, every single member of our party privately reached out and asked if we needed any of their warm clothes to get through the chilly night. Fortunately our sleeping bags had almost completely dried during lunch – all things considered, Jackie and I were pretty squared away.
With a few moments to relax at the end of the night, it was suddenly clear that Carbon was a really beautiful camp. When Jackie and I returned to our tent, we couldn’t help but laugh a little at the yard sale of our possessions that surrounded it.
It didn’t rain today.