Adventures from Back of Beyond

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Amazing Encounter at Crystal Rapids

Crystal Rapids is nasty. We spent four unplanned nervous days at the head of those rapids during a month long winter river trip through the Grand Canyon in December of 1984.

Formerly a nondescript rapid, Crystal was transformed after a huge spring flood in the late 1960s. Enormous boulders were washed by flash-flooding Crystal Creek, a major tributary from the North Rim, into the Colorado River. There these big rocks basically remain today, clogging and constricting the river into a giant nasty rapid with big waves and dangerous boat-eating holes. Unfortunately today, the Colorado River, now harnessed by Glen Canyon Dam 100 or so miles upstream, no longer has the irresistible force of spring floods to move these big immovable rocks through and out of the way.

We were stuck there, unable to proceed. One of our boats, a 12-foot fiberglass dory rowed by Brad Jones, had sprung a leak. We had to try to patch it, right at the head of Crystal Rapids.

We discovered the leak a bit upstream, near Hermit Rapids. Brad's boat, a tipsy 2-person craft, was questionable to begin with. And on this cold-weather expedition, now with this leak to contend with ... well let's just say there were more than a few of us who wanted to scuttle her right then and there.

We didn't. Larry Kane came up with a plan to try to patch her, using a fiberglass repair kit we had brought. Turns out applying the patch was easy, but properly curing the fiberglass at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the cold gloom of December would take days of applied heat. We turned the little boat upside down on the beach, and set a lit Coleman lantern inside the hull. The lantern, besides giving off light, gives off a lot of heat. We left it burning continuously for several days to try and cure the patch.

As a result, we had this depressing little unplanned layover for several days at the head of nasty Crystal Rapids.

Because Crystal is one of those rapids you worry about from the beginning of the trip, most of us wanted to just run it and be on our way. Instead, we were allowed the time and luxury of what turned out to be basically a 4-day scout. We could take our time observing every nook and cranny of that rapid, analyzing every wave, every hole, every obstacle. We could do this multiple times, if we wanted, playing over and over how we'd run it.

That little exercise got boring. We wanted to move on, but couldn't. We had to wait for Brad's boat.

To pass the time, I would take little hikes, excursions from our base camp on the north side of the river. I'd walk a ways up Crystal Creek. I'd check out the banks of the Colorado River, both up and downstream.

Something amazing happened, something I'll never forget, on one of those hikes just downstream of the rapid.

I was by myself just watching the river flow, pondering the big beauty of the Grand Canyon, when I happened to notice a group of 3 hikers on the other side of the river, the South Rim side. This was a major event, to see other people, in that we would encounter basically no one else on this month long trip. Plus in this spot we were in a very remote part of the Canyon.

These 3 were backpackers, apparently out for an extended trip. In December, the North Rim is snowbound and closed; it would be highly unlikely to encounter anyone on the side of the river we were on. But roads on the South Rim remain open and provides access to a number of trailheads. These 3 backpackers must've been very experienced and on some sort of long loop, because they were very far removed from any established trailhead.

I watched them, fascinated. What a break from our normal routine. In this group there were two women and one man. They began to set up camp as I watched from my spot on the other side of the 300 foot wide river. The roar of the rapids was so loud there was absolutely no way we could hear each other, even shouting at the top of our lungs.

As I watched, the two women walked down to the river, directly opposite from me. They noticed me watching them.

I waved.

They waved back.

That was exciting. These were the first other persons I'd seen in several weeks now in the Canyon, other than those in our group. They were a welcome sight.

What happened next was completely unexpected. The women, to my complete and utter surprise, began taking their clothes off. My jaw dropped in disbelief. They had to have known they were putting on quite a show in front of me.

The girls bathed in the river. Stark naked of course. It was quick because the water was cold, but they didn't seem to care. And they didn't care that it was in full view of me, and only me.

So near, yet so far. These two naked ladies might as well have been on the moon, as far as I was concerned, because they were so unreachable to me on the other side of the river.

Still, this was an amazing distraction to an otherwise boring layover.

On the end of the third day, Brad's boat repair was done, and we finally launched the following morning.

Every boat but one made it through mighty Crystal Rapids unscathed with no problem whatsoever. No wonder -- we had every inch of that rapid scouted and knew exactly how to cheat it (run to the right) for the easiest ride.

The one that didn't? Brad's tipsy dory.

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