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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: Facing Crystal & My Best Moment in the Gems

Day Seven (July 21st)

Before we get into the day, let’s talk about what happened overnight. As the sole woman of the group, I valued my scarce moments of alone time. It is well known that privacy is given by others on the river and is not a guaranteed commodity. If the weather gets bad or someone needs shelter, of course we all will share space/tents/etc. However, as I snuggled into my liner (it was way too hot for anything close to a sleeping bag at night and often it was just me and my clothes in the open air at bedtime), I did not anticipate any company for the night. Imagine my surprise in the middle of the night when I awoke to the presence of another living being in my tent.

Surprise may not be the right word for the experience—borderline horror sounds more accurate.

Apparently, a bat had chased down some insects into the sanctuary of my tent and became confused and trapped against the tent walls. The poor thing flew from wall to wall in panic, its wings beating against the taunt fabric as it searched for the way out. For an instant, I thought about helping it get free, but visions of bites and evacuation for rabies shots filled my mind. I knew the best course of action was inaction. I had to lay still and wait for the bat to find its way out.

Luckily, because of the heat, I had only put up my rain fly; the beauty of the Half Dome Tent that I use is that it is designed so that the rainfly can be set up first and then you can assemble your tent in a dry environment. I took it one step backwards and set up the rainfly and footprint as a final setup, leaving the tent itself safely stowed away. This made packing up in the morning much faster and reduced the extra layer of fabric so it was cooler to sleep in at night. It also meant that none of the walls went all the way to the ground, and the small gap between the rainfly and the ground cover is what finally brought the bat to safety. I don’t know what miracle showed the bat to fly lower and lower in the tent to find the exit, but I am so grateful that it occurred. I know the poor thing would not have intended to harm me, but any wild animal in a trap will lash out to protect itself, and I was not interested in being on the receiving end of a mad hand wing (factoid: the scientific name for bats is chiroptera which is Greek for “hand wing”).

Now that we’ve covered that, back to the stories of the day…

We moved slowly and deliberately this morning. The scare of John’s swim likely having more to do with this than the amount of alcohol consumed in camp afterwards, of course ;-) In all seriousness, the reality of swimming rapids hit us hard, and we all spent extra time checking gear placement and sprucing up the rigging and lines to be as perfect as possible. Energy levels seemed low, and it wasn’t until we paused for a group prayer that there seemed to be anything in our mental and emotional fuel tanks to face the day.

We finally left camp around 9:30 AM (one of the few times I was aware of time). The day included some big water and we knew we were fast approaching Crystal Rapid, the second largest whitewater rapid of the trip (topped only by Lava Falls). Crystal is a 10 with a 17 foot drop, which translates to a Class V rapid in general river terms and has some nasty consequences if you lose control or come out of your boat. I had seen several YouTube videos of Crystal and read sobering accounts of the early attempts to run it in The Emerald Mile. I think some of our group’s low energy stemmed from nerves about facing this giant the morning after John’s swim. Suddenly the potential consequences were very clear and the reality that we could be hurt or worse on this river became much more obvious.

We got to Crystal and I was relieved to see that the line was fairly obvious for a run down the right side. Crystal is not a rapid to be taken lightly by any means: historic events are said to have reduced the width of the river in this section to a quarter of its original size and increased the flow of the water that squeezes through, and rockslides and fallen boulders have created the infamous “rock garden” that will pin, flip, and destroy boats that get too close. If that isn’t enough, submerged stone behemoths have produced some of the largest holes on the river in Crystal Rapid (check out this link for some good definitions of river running jargon, including a hole which is “where water flowing over a rock or other obstacle flows down, then back onto itself in an eruption of whitewater”). So, when I say that I was relieved, it was only in the sense that I could see the tongues of water that would lead us through the obstacles safely, assuming we could reach them and stay on course.

My stomach was in knots as I studied the other parts of the rapid and tried not to think about how wrong things could go if I lost sight of the landmarks I needed to see to give Steve cues at the right times, or misdirected us too close to the churning hole that looked ready to swallow The Swan. To quiet my mind, I took a quick excursion around the scouting area and centered myself by looking at the beautiful scenery and admiring some of the amazing desert plants.

John wanted to walk down closer to the rapid to get a better eye on the rock garden (a huge hazard to a dory as a collision with rocks can splinter a wooden boat to oblivion) and after some quick pictures, Steve and Max went with him.

Logan and I hid out in the little shade we could find and had a wonderful talk about being afraid and how we handle our fears. We talked about how some people hid from their fears, some covered them up with anger, etc. Then we talked about how we could use fear as a warning to pay attention and a reminder to be careful and started debating on which song to use for Crystal.

One of my (by this time, well-known to the group) coping mechanisms for facing big whitewater is to sing out loud going into the rapid. There’s actually some science to this as singing song lyrics requires memory/recall and activates brain function in the “thinking” parts of the brain, whereas emotions and fear are products of the “reactive” parts. When I mentor/teach people in other outdoor activities like scrambling, I encourage them to make a plan and study and prepare for tough situations, but when they get into them, try singing if the anxiety and stress levels are high. It seems to help almost every time.

By the time the three men returned and we were ready to go, Logan and I had our songs picked out and had made a pact that neither of us raft-riders would swim in this rapid. Everyone took a moment to empty their bladders (better than bringing a fully loaded one with you into a high stakes situation) and we shared our second group prayer of the day. As we pushed away from shore, I told Steve the usual “you got this” and began singing my Crystal Rapid song, When You Believe ( I love The Prince of Egypt, and a song about my ancestors’ miraculous delivery from turmoil and suffering seemed amazingly fitting). I think Logan went with some Green Day.

All three boats made it safely through Crystal Rapid. I had a death grip with one hand as I held our course with the other. I don’t think I shouted instructions to Steve—the roar of the river was too loud to be heard, and he knew I would point us in the right direction just as I knew he would give everything he had to the oars to execute the maneuvers necessary to bring us through safely. We had a clean run and came out the other side beaming, a little breathless, and cheering and whistling with whatever we had left in our lungs to spare. One monster down, one to go (Lava Falls).

What happened next in the gemstone rapids may not have been ideal, but it became a highlight of the trip for me as I was finally able to put my own preparation and experiences to work and take on the Colorado River one-on-one (some foreshadowing that I had no way of knowing at the time was that this accidental chance for me to prove myself and build confidence would prepare me for the terrors of day nine when I once again found myself alone in the raft but in very different circumstances).

From the journal:

We entered the gems after Crystal and had some experiences. Granite was a roller wave series and pulled Max’s oarlock out of the frame. We had to emergency nudge him to shore using our boat to get repairs done so we could continue. Then Max came out of his boat [he tripped while assisting Logan] and could not get himself back in. Steve and I flew down to them and Steve jumped onto Max’s boat for the assist and then stayed to help them row a few miles while Max recovered [the cold water in the river will drain your energy and quickly cramp your muscles, making even brief swims very dangerous if you aren’t prepared for them].
This meant I rowed our boat alone for two rapids-the one below Emerald Camp, and Ruby! I loved it so much! I enjoyed it, was alert and on my game and not afraid, and the rest of the group seemed to really respect me for the runs I did. I feel so good knowing that “I got this” and can hold my own in a group of men where I haven’t yet felt like much more than an extra work horse for loading and unloading boats.

Our lunch stop included some fun follow-up to Crystal Rapid; while the guys took it easy on the boats, Logan and I braved the sweltering heat to visit the abandoned boat, The Ross Wheeler. This website has a thorough story of how and why the boat was abandoned in 1915. The quick version though: Charles Russell got his butt kicked by Crystal Rapid and after not one but two collisions with rocks in Crystal that trapped his boat, the poor man gave up on the Grand Canyon. He rowed the few miles down to the South Bass Trail, tied up the boat, and hiked out. Over 100 years later, his boat, the Ross Wheeler, remains secured to the rocks above the high water line.

We pushed down to Shimuno Creek to swim in the canyon and enjoy an amazing waterfall (see the separate entry on this excursion for pictures). It was awesome! Then… our friendly neighborhood afternoon storm caught up with us and made reaching 110 Mile Camp a nightmare. I jumped out of the boat to haul us to shore and in my haste I smashed my shins into a submerged boulder, resulting in a small gash and two monster goose-eggs that left me wincing for days. Shock from my injuries and the sudden temperature drop from the biggest storm we had yet encountered sent me into the most dangerous condition one can experience on the river: cold. I recognized the onset of hypothermia symptoms and dug into my emergency stash of warm clothes: wool socks, fleece jacket, hat, gloves. The guys created a sheltered space under the beach umbrellas with the chairs packed in close, we wrapped a tarp over our shoulders to block the wind, and as soon as they could, Max and Steve turned the charcoal grill into a roaring campfire (a no-go during regular summer season trips but an absolute yes-go in winter or when someone in the party is in trouble or close to being so).

Oh, lest I forget, this particular storm was so bad that the river turned angry, churning a deep red hue into the brown silt and practically exploding with debris and floating islands of driftwood from what must have been horrendous flash floods upstream. We watched a cascade of muddy flood water jettison down a formerly dry section of cliff above our camp (don’t worry, it was evident that we were in a safe area and the floods that had come before took a distinct route from cliffs to river. We knew we were safe, but it was sure unnerving to watch all the same).

In true biblical fashion (Genesis 9:12-16), the storm eventually cleared and we were treated to the sight of the most spectacular rainbow across the canyon walls.

Never in my life (that I can remember) have I experienced the truth of God’s word so clearly:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

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