Day 11: Forster Canyon
Today we run from Hotauta at river mile to 108 Upper Forster, a wide sandy beach tucked in at river left below Forster Canyon at river mile 123.5 or so. The Colorado runs generally westward here, except for a giant U-bend southward from mile 114 to mile 119. By the way, I’m taking all references to river miles, names and ratings of rapids, and campsite locations from Tom Martin and Duwain Whitis’s Rivermaps book: Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon (Fourth Edition, 2008). This is an excellent book, with 1:24,000-scale topographical maps of the Canyon in 11″ x 17″ size. Instead of the typical “north at the top” map, the book’s river maps are laid out so upstream is always at the bottom of the page. Facing each map is a page of text explaining the geology, historical sites, and sane rapid runs through the rapids on the current map–and like the map, the text reads from the bottom up. It sounds like an odd layout, but it works well. So well that I’ve been keeping my map book tucked safely away in my bottom dry bag, pulling it out each night at camp to see where I’ve been that day. This is my only chance to run Grand Canyon for the first time; I don’t want to know too much about it ahead of time. It’s a far cry from the uncertainty Powell and the other earlier explorers would have faced, but it’s all I’ve got, and it’s worth preserving.
But even with Glen Canyon Dam in place, it’s still a big river, draining a huge watershed and running at flows eight to ten times higher than the big whitewater rivers of the Northwest (the MacKenzie, the Rogue), even at today’s lower water levels. And while we started the trip with the river running green and cold–evidence of its origins deep in the bottom of Lake Powell–for the last few days the Colorado has been living up to its name. Snow melt above the Little Colorado, or a localized storm above one of the tributary streams that has washed silt and debris into the main channel, maybe; but whatever it is, the Colorado River has been running brown–the exact color of chocolate milk. Still way too cold to swim, though.
Generator trouble. There’s a lot of talk about the ifference between voltage and current, and cross-wiring, and meters showing power that somehow isn’t reaching the battery. The short version: our power system may be on its last legs. Don’t be surprised if the blog grinds to a halt in the next day or so. I have no idea how long our batteries will last, or if they can, in fact, be recharged.
Today there’s a traffic jam on the river: our group of ten boats have been joined by three other rafting groups, putting a total of about forty boats on the water together. I’m in the middle of the pack, and as far as I can see, upstream or down, are boats: white rafts, purple rafts, yellow rafts, our own red-white-and-blue dories and cataract boats. It’s what I imagine the summer high season must be like, with a commercial trip around every bend. Makes me glad we’re running in March and April. We’ve had perfect weather so far, sunny skies and warm enough that the inevitable splashing of the rapids feels refreshing rather than unpleasant.
We pull in for lunch just above a tiny side canyon called Elves’ Chasm. Here a short hike up a rocky trail leads to a tiny waterfall pouring into a chest-deep pool. A cold pool. Cold enough to stop me, but Ian McCluskey and David Perez are brave (foolish?) enough to swim it. David even climbs up behind the waterfall and leaps in, the classic Elves’ Chasm move.
There’s another group there ahead of us, Southerners in yellow boats. They’re the same ones we watched run Horn Creek Rapid without scouting. Now one of them has lost his glasses–he made the waterfall jump with them, and came out without them. He stands disconsolate at the edge of the pool while the rest of his group makes dive after dive into the cold water searching. Finally they give up and lie in the sun. He’ll be doing the rest of the trip without Forster.
It’s a long day on the river if you go by mileage, but we’re helped along by the first tailwind of the trip–a wind strong enough to take my Widmer Brothers cap off my head and drop it in the river. It’s the second hat I’ve lost; my floppy-brimmed cotton hat ended up in the water at the top of Unkar Rapid. While Yoshie rowed us through the big waves, I spent my time staring at my hat floating a parllel line just left of us. But we parted ways near the bottom of the rapid and I’ve never seen my hat again. I still get hopeful every time I see a blob of foam that looks like it could be a hat, but chances are good it’s gone forever. I do at least manage to regain my Widmer Brothers hat. It’s hot enough that putting the soaking wet hat on my head feels good.
“I did that on purpose,” I tell the rest of the group as I pull my hat out of the muiddy water. They know me too well to believe me.
At camp it’s my night off. I unload my boat, set up my tent at the top of the beach and throw my dry bags in to weight it down against the wind, and shamelessly take off on a hike up Forster Canyon while all the work is still going on: setting up the kitchen, the camp chairs, the hydro generator, all the incredibly heavy and cumbersome gear that goes with river camping. I ignore it all–I admit to a few pangs of conscience, but only a few–and set off up the dry wash that runs through Forster Canyon.
It’s easy going at first, a gravelly roadbed that looks like the track of a D-9 cat dragging its blade through the desert. About a mile upstream, though, I come to obstacle number one: a dead-end ampitheater where a trickle of water pours off an overhanging wall forty feet up. I’m able to backtrack down the canyon a hundred yards and scramble up a steep scree slope on the left canyon wall, through a curtain of thick thorny trees. Once on top, though, I’m in a wide grassy valley criss-crossed by sheep tracks–desert bighorns.
Above the first pourover the canyon floor is bedrock, smooth slabs of gray limestone as flat as a floor. A ways further and I hit the next obstacle–three huge boulders fallen into the canyon that block further progress. The bottom boulder is an easy slab, and then I’m fored to layback up the side of the top boulder. It’s not too difficult, even in Tevas, but I’m twenty-five feet above the bedrock floor and it’s plenty spooky. And once I’m up I immediately have doubts about being able to layback back DOWN the boulder. There’s no alternative, though; it’s the only way. I decide to burn that bridge when I come to it, and press on.
Above the boulders there’s an incredible din; it sounds like a sheep pen, bleating and baa-ing. Turns out it’s dozens and dozens of spotted frogs splashing around in pockets of water. This section of the canyon is so narrow that I stem through with one foot and one hand on each wall, traversing above waist-deep pools of water. At the upper end of the narrows is another obstacle: a steep rounded water groove cut into the gray rock above a knee-deep pool. There are no handholds; I resort to pressing hard with hands and feet, chimneying my way up. Again, once I’m up I wonder what down will be like. But keep going anyway. A little further up the canyon a desert bighorn–a ewe–scampers off at my approach. I’m definitely in sheep country here.
I’m nearing the base of the Redwall Limestone now, over a thousand feet above camp. There’s a final obstacle–or it looks like it MIGHT be the final one: another steep water groove, this one maybe forty feet high. The first ten feet go easily, with flat ledges for feet. Then I’m smearing and frictioning my way up. Just above is a huge rock ampitheater cut into the canyon walls. If I get up this I’ll be there.
But thirty feet up–just a few moves from the top–I start wondering again about getting down. It’s getting late, too. And I’m here alone, facing a long cold night if I get stuck somewhere. Not to mention that I’m chicken. I start downclimbing instead. It takes me fifteen minutes to work my way down the polished water groove that I scrambled up in two minutes.
The return downcanyon is interesting. Every hundred yards or so I come to a tricky downclimb and have to pause to figure it out. “How the hell did I get up this?” I ask myself over and over. Getting darker. I’ve probably missed supper by now. The big downclimbs–the smooth water grooves, the layback boulder–are bad, but not as bad as they might have been. Even the thorny scree slope isn’t too bad; it’s much easier to go through the brush from above. I’m able to step on the worst thorny branches and mash them out of my way. Then I’m on the canyon floor’s bulldozed gravel track again. The sun is long down, but there’s enough light to see by if I don’t look too hard at anything. I start running down the track. A half mile later I hear the roar of Forster Rapid. I’m back at camp.
When I get back, the dishes crew is washing up after supper. It’s fully dark, and they’ve got their two propane lanterns burning. The rest of the group has been wondering when–or maybe if–I’d find my way back. It’s nice to have people watching out for you.
They’ve even set aside a bowl of food for me. I eat it in the dark. Whatever it is, it’s tasty: rice and something-or-other. A perfect canyon day.