Crossing the state from the Mexican border driving North, I traversed a number of different biomes. Ecological zones spanning lower desert and high desert, thornscrub, chaparral, grassland, woodland forest, riparian, and even alpine tundra at the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff. As I neared what would be our departure point on the Colorado, I came upon the Vermilion Cliffs at Marble Canyon, near Lee’s Ferry.
The Stone People
They carry the history of the Earth. These cliffs record the changing environment during the Mesozoic Era – some 248 to 65 million years ago.
Amazing hues of reds, oranges, pinks, salmon, yellows, golds, and whites, are spawned by deposits of red iron oxides, such as Hematite, Goethite, Magnetite, and Limonite, as well as bluish manganese. The products of ancient starbursts. Intergalactic cosmic dust coalescing into spherical bodies, spinning and orbiting, undergoing volcanic metamorphism, then massive upheaval followed by differential erosion.
Just which of the Ourea, the primordial mountain Gods, was embedded in these majestic cliffs is unknown to me. But such beauty is clearly solidified by the touch of something far beyond that of humankind.
Hard to say just how many of the Ancestors lived here and witnessed some of these geological changes. What we have established is that Pedro de Cardenas did not “discover” these cliffs or the Canyon in 1540. We’ve proof of the Ancestors living here for over 10,000 years.
Just how far back? Unsure. Nobody knows, but it is primeval.
Evidence points to the Ancestral Puebloans, the Anasazi, as being the first inhabitants. The Cohonina lived to the West of the Canyon and their descendants include the Yuman, Havasupai and Hualapai. To the Southeast were the Sinagua, who may have been the Ancestors of the Hopi. The Paiutes and Navaho have occupied the areas to the North and East, and the Navahos may have descended from the Athabaskan peoples.
While the descendants of these Tribes still live in the area, I was joining another transient Tribe for our excursion. All of us from foreign lineage. All of us strangers. All from different backgrounds and from different places. But we would bond as we made our descent into the Canyon; traveling 188 miles of the Canyon’s 277 over six days by J-Boat.
The deepest depths of Ongtupqa, around 6000 feet down from the rim near a foot bridge crossing the River to Phantom Ranch, reveal layers of rock some 1.8 billion years old. Forty different rock layers in total. From the rim, bearing names like the Moenkopi, Kiabab and Toroweap Formations, then Coconino Sandstone, and on down to the Hakatai Shale and Vishnu Schist.*
We’d be gliding through time.
Twenty-five of us travelers, four crew, and two boats.
The J-Boats are a strapping together of air-filled pontoons, with gear packed centrally in stainless steel bins, powered by four-stroke motors. Riding the pontoons through the rapids was like a water-world rodeo. Saddled in on a pontoon of your choice, hands gripping ropes fore and aft, the turbulent downwash mimicked the action of the bucking broncos. Only no flank strap is required to spur these rapids to “kick out!” Or roll over your head as the front of the pontoons would submerge below the waves.
A familiar call we’d hear at the bigger rapids – “DUCK RUBBER!” Which meant putting you head as low as it would go onto the pontoon so those waves of water didn’t wrench you from the boat. Or snap the tendons in your arms in the struggle to hang on.
We had unplanned advantages.
The silver linings of the COVID outbreak, drought, and the Magnum Wildfire. All three tragic events that culminated with the River’s closure and an absence of people. The River was re-opened for travel only 3 days before our scheduled departure.
The “normal” continuous River travel, varying levels of discharge from the Dam, and rapid flow from its tributaries like the Paria River, stir up the muck from below. Churning the River into a chocolate milk-shake color. The sediments of gravel, sand, and silt thoroughly blended.
Leading up to the re-opening, much of the human activity had ceased. And the current drought resulted in a much steadier release from the Dam and the River’s tributaries. The true beauty of this mighty River was revealed.
The water was a beautiful clear, emerald green.
But even with less over-all water flow, with an average gradient of eight feet of descent per mile, the rapids still remained super-charged for our adventure.
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. [The All Mighty itself] is not secure, having given [humankind] dominion over [its] works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” **
To be continued . . .
Photos: The feature photo, and three of the others are clearly at Lee’s Ferry – our departure point. While I don’t normally endorse businesses, I wanted to show you the boats we were on, and I would recommend Western Rivers, who are amazing professional outfitters, any day of the week. These guys are just amazing. The second photo above is the Vermilion Cliffs nearing sunset, the base of which I camped at the day before our excursion. The fourth picture shows you what happened when the winds had shifted and blew in the smoke from the Magnum Fire, which was not that far away. An eerie haze for sure, perhaps setting the tone a bit for our “daring adventure” us “Free Spirits” were about to undertake.
* In Belknap’s Grand Canyon River Guide, I count some 25 named rock layers, but the Park Service reports that forty layers have been discovered. I wondered how these layers were named and discovered that many of the Canyon’s features were named by the geologist Clarence Dutton. Dutton believed the Canyon’s many important features should bear the names from all of the world’s cultures so he chose names from belief systems, mythologies, and legends from all around the world.
** If you are wondering about the words in brackets in the quote, brackets indicate that words have been added or replaced. That is the etiquette in the legal world anyway. In this case, I replaced the male personal pronouns being used. The sexist bias of the past is often present in such writings, and while the writings may be incredibly eloquent and beautiful, there is no need to stick with such traditions. I’ve done this before in other posts (See Gray Days.). I’ve simply added terms that are gender neutral to eliminate the male personal pronouns.
BTW, I’ve tried to break this story up in “manageable” portions, and have labeled them in a progression borrowing a numerical sequence from the Greek Alphabet 1-6-12-18-24. I realize that we all read fast in the cyber-world, and it can actually be burdensome to expect the reader to wade through an overly long story all at once – even if it’s a wondrous story. So I hope these portions keep you reading and having you waiting with baited breath to read on. 🙂
You can find the first post in this series here: Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – The Alpha.