Day 09: Phantom Ranch
Today’s run takes us from Clear Creek Camp, on river right at mile 84.5 to Schist Camp at river left, mile 96.5.
Along the way we’ll stop at Phanton Ranch. Until this trip I’ve always thought of Phantom Ranch as the “real”
Grand Canyon. Tucked along Phantom Creek at the bottom of Bright Angel Trail, Phantom Ranch had the allure of
the hard-to-reach. It seemed more authentic than the South Rim visitor center–at least when I last visited
Grand Canyon. But that was when I was six years old, and riding a mule train to the bottom of the Canyon seemed
like an adventure.
The Kaibab suspension bridge above Phantom Ranch in 1957. Fulmer and Reilly found this rapid here, at about
105,000 cubic feet per second. When we paddled through at around 10,000 cfs, this stretch was flat water.
The Boat Beach at Phantom Ranch lies about 88 miles downstream from Lee’s Ferry, and it’s our first return to
civilization in the past eight days. We land there at about 10:30, refill all the boats’ water jugs, and then
I have some time to visit the canteen, where I buy a couple of ice-cold lemonades and some postcards
(“delivered by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” the stamp at the bottom reads, and it’s true). But
of course I’ve left my address book in the bottom of my very bottom dry bag, strapped to the floor of my raft
under three other bags and a contraption of plastic boat fenders intended to float the hydro generator that
Dave and Leif Mortenson have brought along.
I fill out the cards whose addresses I remember–nieces an nephews, parents, wife–and then it’s back to the
boats for lunch.
The contraption of linked plastic boat fenders rides on my raft, lashed down on a heap of ry bags. You’d
never guess what it’s for, but I had the chance to help Dave and Leif set up the whole hydro generator system
a couple of nights ago, at our camp above Hance Rapid. The generator itself is a bright blue motor with a
propellor about the size of one you’d find on an outboard motor. The idea is to face the propellor into the
current, where its water-driven spinning will generate somewhere between one and four amps. The idea is a good one; the execution problematic. First, all this stuff is heavy, and has to be hauled a
good distance downstream for the set-up. There, while Leif gets the motor ready, Dave bolts together three
sections of steel shelving support. This makes a cross-arm twelve feet long. A vertical PVC shaft from the
motor gets hose-clamped to this bar, which will then–somehow–get lodeged between two boulders to hold the
entire assembly in place, with the plastic fenders lashed on to float the motor off the bottom. And the motor
itself is housed inside a steel cage.
Norm, who carries this cage aboard his raft, has lashed a set of what looks like some sort of pelvic bones
to it. The bones hang there all day long, looking remarkably like a bird that someone has forgotten to feed
for a very long time. Norm calls it his condor cage.
Now the motor unit is ready, and complications ensue. First, the motor itself is heavy. So is the twelve-foot steel beam it’s lashed to. And the float system–four
plastic fenders held together on threaded steel rods–is bulky. And the whole ungainly thing has to be placed
into the current between two rocks, just above Hance Rapid. Somehow Leif, still in his waterproof paddling
clothes, manages to manhandle it into place so that each end of the steel cross-arm is lodged against the
upstream side of a boulder. Immediatedly the current catches the upstream side of the floats, shoving them
underwater with tremendous force. The steel crossarm’s outer segments bend upward like wings, and the whole
thing is on the verge of collapse. After messing around with reinforcing cables to hold it in place and reduce
the strain, Leif and Dave decide adjustments are needed. It’s working, though; about 1.5 to 2 amps.
Next they decide to re-bolt the cross-arm together, this time using shorter sections of steel shelving supports
to overlap the joints and prevent the bending. And Leif decides the floats are causing most of the drag, so
he removes them. But the hose clamps are no match for the Colorado River, so Dave goes back to the boats to
fetch some c-clamps, which they use to clamp the condor cage to the motor unit. Then they decide to try another
spot just downstream instead. This time it works much better–but the meter reads only 3/4 of an amp. Back to
the first spot, manhandling the whole collection upstream and lodging it between the first two boulders again.
Finally the unit is in place, generating two to four amps. Leif has been wading around in 47-degree water above
a major rapid for at least two hours, but the unit is working well. It’ll recharge the marine batteries that are
powering our camera gear and laptops. The generator system is necessary–this blog wouldn’t exist without it–but,
at least now, while Dave and Leif are still working out the system–incredibly cumbersome. More work than I’d be
inclined to do if left on my own. Seeing the whole thing go together makes me grateful there are people on this
trip willing to do what it takes to make it work.
Leaving Phantom Ranch
Finally we’re ready to leave Phantom Ranch. There one minor rapid–Pipe Creek–about a mile below the Boat Beach.
Nothing to worry about, except for a fierce eddy that’s supposed to be hard to get out of. We’re warned to stay
well away from the right side. Whatever you do, you don’t want to get caught in the eddy below Pipe Creek Rapid.
“That’s a strong, strong eddy,” Norm tells me later. But not the strongest. Below Bedrock Rapid, he says, a big
snout boat (twp bridge pontoons with a metal frame between, over twenty feet long) got caught in an eddy and had
to go around twenty-two times–and that was with four strong river guides at the oars.
The eddy below Pipe Creek is nowhere near as strong as that. I break free after only three laps.
Horn Creek Rapid
After escaping Pipeline’s eddy, we’ve got an afternoon of big rapids: Horn Creek (8), Granite (8), and Hermit (8).
We pull in at river right to scout Horn Creek from a rocky ledge. The “horns” are two boulders, on at about the center of the river, and the other a couple of boatlengths to the
left of it. One run would be to thread the needle between the horns, an eight-foot drop. Another possibility is
to start right of the horns, and pull HARD across the current as you leave the V, which will be doing everything
it can to suck you into a big hole at river right, and smash you into a wall of rock.
As we’re scouting, a group in five yellow rafts runs Horn Creek without scouting. The first boat slides down
the V, the boatman barely pushing, and gets sucked into the hole and tossed aound like an epileptic rhinocreous,
smashing into the rock wall at river right before spinning free. After the next four boats make the same
run–some of them smashing a wall at river right, some hitting lower at river left–the route between the
horns looks better. Tom Martin runs it first to make sure there’s enough water, and most of us follow.
As I return from the scouting ledge, Dave Mortenson is waiting by my boat.
“I’m going to ride with you,” he tells me. He’s a brave man.
I line up between the horns and turn the raft downstream. Then there’s just time for a quick “Hangen sie onnen sie”
to Dave and the bow is dropping into the rapid. Dropping WAAAAY down, where it hits the first wave and is lifted
up. Dave–hanging onto the lid of my bow compartment–is thrown head over heels backward when he discovers I’ve
neglected to lash the lid closed. Meanwhile I’m thrown off my seat and only a tight grip on the oars keeps me
A couple more big waves and we’re through the worst of it, but the rock wall at the bottom left is coming up fast.
I’m pulling hard at the oars, but I’m not going to make it. “We’re going to hit,” I tell Dave, who is back upright
in his seat. “Hang on.”
Then, just as our bow is about to bounce off the rocks, a wave lifts the bow over the foot of the cliff. We clear
the wall by a few inches, and we’re done.
Granite Rapid is a non-event for me, a ride down a train of big waves. Randy Dersham’s ride is a little more
“I joined the Colorado Swim Club,” he says. “That sounds so much better, it’s better for my pride.”
What Randy means is that, like Hazel, he has managed to swim a big Grand Canyon rapid.
“I came down through the top part of the rapid and got up on the line, and was feeling like I was really in
the right spot,” Randy explains. Then the Susie Too feinted right, then hard left, and Randy was thrown over
the port side of the boat. And he had a camera mounted on the back of the boat, recording it all.
“Man, that was a major face plant into the water,” Greg Hatten says, watching the video footage later in camp;
we’re all crowded around Randy’s laptop watching the dramatic clip, and there’s a chorus of exclamations as
Randy is thrown from the boat. “Face plant” is a good way to describe it–Randy enters the water headfirst,
almost as if he’s diving in on purpose. He did manage to keep hold of the port gunwale, and rode the rest of
Granite Rapid clinging to the side of the boat. He managed to throw one leg over the side but couldn’t climb
aboard. At the bottom David Perez pulled him from the water, no harm done.
Well, almost no harm: for the second time in two days, Randy has lost his hat. It’s quite a hat–a camoflage
ball cap brim with a wildly spiked shock of grey-white hair standing up above. The fake hair of the hat
matches Randy’s own hair so perfectly that it took me three days to realize he was wearing a hat instead
of a visor.
But the hat is gone, for the second time. And the river gives few second chances.
Unlike Horn Creek and Granite, we don’t even pause to scout Hermit. Which, to tell the truth, is a bit
unnerving, because I’m the second boat in line. And when I see Hazel turn her raft down the tongue without
stopping, I realize I’ll be running my next big rapid soon. Very soon. insert photo 58-2-28
Brick Mortenson (foreground left), Duane Norton (right) and Pat Reilly (background) scouting Hermit Rapid
on their 1958 run. They had left their boats on the Boat Beach in 1957, pulling out because of the extreme
high water, and returned to finish the journey the next year.
It doesn’t look like much from above, but Hermit Rapid, it turns out, is a huge series of waves. I’m
skeptical of guesses at wave heights, but these are BIG. At the top of each wave, the bow of my raft shoots
way up into the sky, overhanging the crest while the stern is only halfway up the wave face. It’s
ridiculous–I feel like my raft is climbing up a series of vertical faces. There’s nothing to do but
laugh maniacally as I go over wave after wave after wave after wave, each one bigger than the last, each one
big enough to seem impossible.
Nothing to do but hit ’em straight. A mile downstream we’re in camp on river left–where 10-year-old Natalie Mortenson (a fourth generation
river runner: Brick Mortenson, his son Dave, Dave’s son Leif, and now Natalie have all made Canyon trips
before) returns his hat.
A second chance after all.