I was fortunate enough to land a volunteer spot on a fish survey in the Grand Canyon conducted by Arizona Game and Fish. I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail on May 17th, excited about what the next 12 days would bring. At Pipe Creek, the four of us that hiked down were met by two small powerboats and we were shuttled a short distance to our camp on river right. I was surprised at the small size of the crew: four boatmen, three scientists and one other volunteer. Our campsite had a great view of Plateau Point and we watched people come out for the sunset. We also spotted a condor, still gigantic even though it was up at the Tapeats level. We rotated so that there was always one person who had the night off, and I was the first in rotation. Since I had the night off I had to help the cook prepare dinner. Dinner was quite the lavish affair- ribs with potatoes and strawberry poundcake complete with whipped cream for dessert. Much different from my usual backpacking fare of something rehydrated eaten out of a freezer bag! I was a little nervous about the next day- my first time ever on a river running rapids and we had some big ones coming up.
Well, the weather for my first big day of rapids was less than ideal- rainy and overcast. I got suited up and took my seat on the science boat with the two women scientists Pilar and Robin. I had been nervous before the trip about who was going to be driving my boat. That was, until I realized that the person driving my boat has more nights on the river in the Grand Canyon than any other boatman. Brian Dierker has been on the river for four decades and almost every boatman that we passed on the trip knew him. He provides boat support for scientific trips of all kinds in the Canyon. He also provides marine services for movies, which led to him being cast as Rainey (half of the California hippie couple) in the movie Into the Wild. A big guy with an even bigger personality, we hit it off immediately and I knew I was in good hands.
We had 20 miles of river to cover, from Pipe Creek to the South Bass area. The river was running at 23,000 cfs, quite a bit higher than usual. Horn Creek Rapid was up first- I held on as the boat bounced up and down and I got sprayed with icy Colorado River water. Our next big rapid was Hermit, and it was one of the best of the entire trip. There are five waves in succession and the fifth one was gigantic- what a ride! I am a giant fan of roller-coasters and other amusement park rides, but this beat them all! The higher levels had made even the boatmen impressed with Hermit and we all whooped and cheered with giant smiles on our faces. Nervousness about the rapids was gone, and I had a blast running Granite and Crystal, which were kind of washed out from the high flows. We floated by the mouths of all the Gems and made camp at the mouth of Hotauta Canyon. It blew my mind how fast river travel is versus backpacking. It would have taken me 60 trail miles and a week of hiking to travel by the Tonto Trail. The most fun rapid of the trip was Lava, by a long shot. What a ride that was! Even better was watching our tiny powerboats take on the massive water.
We had time in the afternoon to take a nap before having dinner and going to work in the evening. I was too excited to nap, so I hiked a little way up Hotauta Canyon. The canyon is right across from Tyndall Dome and the South Bass/Tonto trail intersection, where I’d been just 6 weeks before. I could see my favorite point camp high above, just an undercut shelf of rock hanging over the Tapeats cliffs. I returned back to camp for dinner and then changed into my raingear for my first night of fishing.
When I’d signed up for the volunteer position, I read that I was going to be night electrofishing. I’d had the process explained to me a couple of times, but it was hard to imagine- now I was going to finally see for myself. Mind you, before this trip I had never even fished with a fishing pole. I was paired with Clay, one of the scientists, and Joe, the boatman who would be driving the powerboat. At 8:30 pm, we started fishing. The boat was equipped with a generator that ran the electrical current via two large silver balls into the water. The boat swept the shoreline, and as the current hit the water, the fish would surface for just a second before sinking or swimming away. I had to catch the fish with my net before it sunk or the boat pulled away, then turn and put it in a cooler filled with water behind me. Definitely something that took a little practice- it was kind of like a game of Whack-a-Mole. It was hard not to get distracted looking at the moonlit canyon sometimes. After 5 minutes of fishing, we measured and tagged the fish before releasing them back into the river. We repeated this 15 times per night and it usually took us until 1 or 2 in the morning to finish. After we got back from fishing, we’d usually hang out talking on the boats for a while before going to bed. But no matter how late we stayed up, once the sun came over the cliffs at around 7 am, we were all awakened by the hot sun.
In the morning, we loaded up the two big boats so that they could move downstream toward our next camp. Then we drove back in the powerboats to where we fished to do habitat descriptions of our segments and mark them on the map. It was great to be able to go upstream and see the same area in the light after having fished it the night before. We had a map made of aerial photographs of when the river was running at 8,000 cfs and it was interesting to see how much of the beaches and shoreline was underwater at almost three times the flow. After habitat description, we’d catch up with the larger boats and transfer onto them to run the rest of the way to camp. (we weren’t allowed to ride in the powerboats through the larger rapids) Part of our work also included fishing with poles for catfish three times a day for 20 minutes. After we set up camp, we usually had about four hours to nap, hike, and eat before going to work in the evening and the whole cycle started over again.
To go into detail about every day would take a novel-length blog entry, so I’ll just hit on some of the highlights and point you to the full set of my pictures for more detail. One of my favorite parts of the trip was how easy it was to get to interesting hiking destinations. The boatmen would take us in the powerboats and pick us up a couple of hours later. The beautiful narrows of Blacktail and National Canyons were just a 15 minute walk away. My favorite hiking destination of the trip was definitely Havasu Canyon. I had never seen the turquoise waters and it was truly breathtaking. We hiked up until we found a good pool and I inflated my floatie and went for a fantastic float. The rest of the group hiked on, but I stayed in the pool and had the place to myself for 20 delicious minutes.
Because ours was a scientific trip, we had to use smaller and less desirable campsites and leave the nice big ones to the private and commercial trips. We also couldn’t stop at Elves Chasm or Deer Creek because there were already groups there. (Good thing I’d been to Elves recently!) The high water had also drowned a lot of the real estate on the river, but we were always able to find a spit of sand to spread out on. My favorite camp of the trip was in Olo Canyon. There was a perfect waterfall with a pool for my floatie and I got to go to sleep lulled by the sound of the cascade. I was lucky enough to be able to sleep under the stars on a comfy cot all but two nights.
I just adored the river life- it was so much fancier than backpacking! The food alone- there is a reason that river trips are called a “float and bloat”. The ever-present sound of the river was fantastic and it was so nice to have access to water that didn’t have to be carried on my back. The only unfortunate thing that I didn’t anticipate was that I felt like I was on the river, even when I was not. I had all sorts of issues with my equilibrium, which made hiking interesting. I would wake up and feel like my cot was floating on the river. Even when I came back from the trip, for several days my inner ear was convinced I was still on the boat.
I am so glad that I got to experience the river in the Grand Canyon for the first time on a small scientific trip with a very experienced crew. I saw the large commercial trips float by, packed with 16 people to a boat and considered myself very fortunate. I enjoyed everyone’s company and learning about the fish was very interesting.
I encourage you to check out my full set of pictures on my Picasa account by clicking the picture below- I’ve added captions describing my trip in greater detail:
|Grand Canyon River Trip May 2011|
In Wildlife Rehabilitation news: It is baby season at Wildife Rehabilitation Northwest Tucson and we’ve had everything from hatchling ducks to baby hawks and owls of all sizes, plus a very tiny and cute ringtail cat. There’s too much cuteness to choose from so I’ll include several pictures in this entry. Your donation goes toward feeding, housing, and providing medical care.