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September 12, 2006 > A view from down below

A view from down below

by Linda Stone

Visiting the Grand Canyon may just be one of the most thrilling things you can do.

Up, up, and away we went as the little 12-passenger plane putted over plateaus of grassland and rocky cliffs, to a massive crack in the earth. We landed at the Bar Ten ranch, a working ranch high on the rim of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World...the Grand Canyon. From there we stood in line for the helicopter that would ferry us down 7,000 feet to meet our crew. The spectacular ride was like no other. The steep walls of exposed ancient rock layers accented with pink and gold hues, the inviting deep blue of the cold water, along with lush foliage at the bottom of the surrounding desert, certainly did not disappoint.

We landed a whisper away from the walls on a small flat area atop a rock eager for what awaited us. Climbing out of a helicopter atop a rock was no easy task. First of all we had to step out and share the precious space with our ride. Secondly, we had to climb off the rock and do a bit of a half-pipe slide to the bottom. No problem, we had figured that this would be no ordinary trip so a little difficulty departing a helicopter from a rock was no big deal.

At the shoreline our carriages awaited. They looked like big, blue, bananas tied together. Our briefing on river safety concluded, we boarded the craft, put our life jackets on, and began to drift.

"Okay, you people up front, get ready to suck rubber," our guide Tom said as we approached what looked like a veritable tumultuous outpouring of a swirling, churning, foaming, merry-go-round kind of vortex, simply known as "The Bastard." (Sucking rubber is the term used to alert passengers in the front of the raft aka the "whitewater gusto seating" to lean forward as much as possible, and hold on.) As class IV rapid, its waves can shoot up over 4 feet. It is long, has narrow passages, with turbulent water requiring precise maneuvering and it sends hearts racing. We reached the beginning of what was going to be not only a momentous feat, but something that we would never forget. And that was just the beginning of our three-day trek.

We made it though "The Bastard" with mostly minor injuries- one person had a bruised rib, a few foot pinches and some hoarse throats from screaming. There was something different in the air after we had conquered this powerful force of nature. I think it was a sense of mastering a colossal groundswell. After all, we were exploring 100 miles of the Grand Canyon on a J-rig raft and the "thrill seeking" gene was our common denominator.

As we rode along in the lazy spring sun, we knew that many others before us had traveled down the Colorado River. The oldest human artifacts found in the canyon are nearly 12,000 years old, dating back to the Paleo-Indian period. Remains from other cultural groups such as Basketmaker, Zuni, Hopi, and other tribes are widely found throughout the region.

Our first stop was to view pictographs, or pictures representing words or ideas, by climbing high up the rock canyon wall to a cave. The drawings depicted animals and people and were applied with a crude sort of paint made of minerals mixed with plant juice or animal oils. Our group was impressed at having the chance to feast their eyes on these representations of what life was like so long ago and how harsh it must have been. Harsh was almost synonymous with the Colorado River as there are many stories of early explorers trying to master the wild and dangerous surroundings without knowing what was around the next bend in the snake-like river.

One early notable explorer was Major John Wesley Powell, a one-arm Civil War hero who later founded the United States Geological Service (U.S.G.S.) and the National Geographic Society. In 1869 Powell and 10 men set out to explore 1,000 miles of uncharted canyon. Only five came out at the mouth of the Virgen River. Powell had an avid interest in local Indian tribes and even learned to speak their languages. He is considered to have "changed the West" forever with his geological pursuits.

As we settled in to camp that evening, we sat together and got to know each other. People had come from around the world to take this trip. There were many professionals including a doctor, pilot, meteorologist, lawyer, accountants and a couple families, and they all had all stories to tell under the everlasting "bling" of the stars.

That night's briefing from the crew included a statement of not to worry about animals as they are small and to just ignore the giant red ants. "They will go to sleep just as you will and won't bother you," said our guide Tom. Most people accepted this as part of the experience but one woman seemed a bit concerned because she had recently watched a documentary on ants and she never saw them sleep. That's when the rancher from Texas chirped in and said, "Heck, you think these are big ants, you should see what I found under the tractor the other day- a nest of bigger and redder ants than these and they don't bother the cattle at all! So, don't worry sugar."

I left for my cot as the pilot and meteorologist were debating over exactly where the Little Dipper was in the slice of view presented by the surrounding cliffs. Falling asleep to the sounds of the man from Texas snoring loudly from his tent down by the river, I learned what "echoing down the canyon walls" really meant.

The next day we were woke up to the sounds of a conch shell being played by one of the guides. We packed up, boarded our rig and headed to Lower Granite Gorge to ride a series of moderate rapids. We stopped to hike and explore Travertine Grotto with its hidden waterfalls and pools. The Grotto can be quite dangerous as it is subject to flash floods. Tom warned us that if we saw a shift in the flow to get out as fast as possible.

The geological story of the canyon is remarkable-it owes its shape to the different rock layers caused by erosion. Vivid colors on the rock layers are due to various minerals, mostly iron from the Paleozoic Era (550 - 250 million years ago).

Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead affects the water flow through the canyon, maintaining a steady flow unlike when Powell explored the river with extreme swells. Today's water is far different.

As we finished our trip through the Grand Canyon, our group felt close and promised to keep in touch. As we bid farewell to fellow explorers/thrill seekers and returned to our non-canyon lives, we knew that a bit of the canyon would always remain with us.

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