Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – Sigma

A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very Earth itself.

Laura Gilpin

Not all our time was spent on the River.  We spent time exploring the many creations the River had made; amazing hikes into the side canyons at various stops along the way.  Slot canyons, hidden waterfalls, miniature green oases sprouting from red granite, and magical turquoise and morenci blue tributaries . . .

Places like Redwall Canyon (MM 33-34; Day 2), which is a gigantic amphitheater carved into the limestone walls by high river flows, where a regulation team could easily enjoy our national pastime. 

We’d pass by the Puebloan Granaries (MM 52-53; Day 2) nestled in the stratum of rock formations called the Nankoweap Formation.  These 1100-year-old granaries were constructed and used by the Puebloans to store pumpkin seeds and corn farmed on the river delta below. 

Note: I found this pic on the Internet in the Public Domain. I could find no other attribution for it. Since we did not climb up to the ruins, this provides a much better image than I was able to capture.

The name for these archeological ruins is derived from the Southern Paiute “Ninkuipi,” meaning, quite appropriately, “Place of Echoes.”  Our hoots and hollers from the boats’ staggered positions harmonized in the resulting reverberations throughout the steep canyon walls. 

We also had the unbelievable surprise of a special swim in the Little Colorado River (MM 62; Day 2)   A spring-fed, turquoise, powder blue ribbon streaking across the desert floor. 

It’s truly a form of magic, of visible spectrum trickery. 

If you filled a glass with this water and looked at it through the side of the glass, it would appear chalky white as it’s full of calcium carbonate particles from the erosion of travertine and limestone.  But if you look at the surface of the River tributary, it’s that brilliant, milky blue.  The calcium carbonate causes the light from above to refract into an entirely different wave length.*

By Day 3, we were at the deepest depths of Ongtupqa, passing under that foot bridge leading from the end of the South Rim’s Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch (MM 88-89) on the North side of the River.  The historic, rustic ranch, nestled in the scrub oak by the Bright Angel Creek, is the only lodging below the rim.  It lies at the junction of the Bright Angel Trail originating on the South Rim and the North Kiabab Trail that leads you to the North Rim. 

A rim to rim hike clocks in at about 24 miles.  It’s not for the faint of heart or for those unprepared.  I’ve read that 250 people are rescued each year from these trails – those who could not endure the extremes of what amounts to mountain climbing in reverse in a desert sauna.  The Paiute Indians appropriately called the canyon “Kaibab,” meaning “Mountain turned upside down.” So, for every hour you hike down into the Canyon, plan on two for the hike out.  Yet, another reason I was enjoying the River so much.  😊

Day four was momentous for a whole slew of happenings.

For starters, our boats would beach where we could merge onto a part of the strenuous Royal Arch Loop Trail that diverts to Elves Chasm (MM 117-118), a beautiful grotto and waterfall draining into an emerald green pool.  The rock walls appear to drip with their covering of green mosses and ferns.  It took a bit of scrambling along slick boulders to reach this scarcely traveled route, but well worth its lasting imprint of green serenity.

An oasis wrapped in a granite cathedral.

It was on the return hike to our boat, from this little paradise, that I took that treacherous fall.   Or is “fall” even the right word? 

All of my preparation and conditioning didn’t save me from these injuries.  Yes, we were walking on slickrock.  Navigating centuries of polished granite boulders. And yes, I was wearing wet water sandals, with wet neoprene socks that were sliding a bit with each step.  But no, I don’t remember actually stumbling. 

And usually, if I fall, I’ve been able to control those falls – which direction I go and how I land.  I usually pull myself backward or to the side to avoid injury or falling the wrong way off of a switchback – a drop off to the one below.  But here I was “falling” forward.  And rolling, spinning, whirling, out of control, and repetitively impacting on those antediluvian rocks. 

Was I pushed?  Did I feel a thrust on the back of my left shoulder?  Or was that my imagination?

It all happened too fast to know, but something was amiss. 

After my new Tribal friend had caught me, it was time to assess the damage.   The immediate need was to bandage my left elbow and wrist – places that were abraded and bleeding.  No big deal there.  My left shoulder hurt, probably my rotator cuff that already had two tendon tears. And my left shin was swelling to the size of a billiard ball.  We wrapped it and iced it down.  I’m lucky I have a high tolerance to pain.

But the worst part of the fall was my ribs crashing against that impenetrable granite.  The granite won easily.  Five bruises, about a half-dollar size in diameter each, began forming equally spaced along my left side.  Painful to touch and painful to take a deep breath.  The pain even radiated to each rib insertion point on my sternum. 

Cracked or badly bruised – didn’t really matter.  (And I knew that docs don’t do anything for cracked ribs anyway.)  I was still breathing good enough, and pain or no pain, I decided these injuries weren’t going to hold me back from finishing our run.  After all, we had Lava Falls, that wild Class X, to look forward to in just two days. 

And kudos to the crew who were prepared to handle any emergency in this most remote of all places. They informed me of the times they had to helicopter people out with other injuries. Not me. My stubbornness wasn’t going to let that happen. My only chopper ride would be two days later at the conclusion of this adventure.

Now, were the Spirits trying to give me a lesson – literally in “grounding?”  To focus my attention on the here and now?  Or was it a reminder of just who had control, and a matter of showing proper respect to the Ancestors? 

Well, I’ll pick that discussion up in a different blog post. 😊 There was plenty more to do on this day.

We headed down the river and made our next stop at Blacktail Canyon (MM 120-121; Day 4).

It’s said this canyon was named after the Blacktail Deer, a subspecies of Mule Deer, inhabiting the area that, no surprise, sport blacktails.  This shimmering golden-brown slot canyon is carved into the ledges of Tapeat Sandstone (some 545 million years old), and this sandstone evidences a layer upon what is known as the “Great Unconformity.”  This mysterious geological feature reveals an erosional plain, where a huge amount of rock below the sandstone appears to be gone – representing a missing 1.2 billion years of time!  That’s a quarter of the Earth’s history, recorded by the Stone People in other parts of the Canyon, that’s simply not there.

It’s also said that Ancestral Native American Spirits inhabit this canyon and have chased off many river rats attempting to spend the night there.  Is that coincidental to my mysterious fall just 2 miles up River? 

I don’t believe in coincidences and I do believe in the Ancestors.

With perfect acoustics, this sublime hideaway provided the perfect backdrop for one of our guides who gifted us with music – a singer, song-writer straight from the folk-acoustic tradition.  It was wonderful listening to the music reverberating among those rock walls as our Tribe bonded with song.

Photo Credit to Todd Neal, a member of our newborn River Tribe.

Back on the River, more beauty lay ahead as we survived the maelstrom of Deubendorff Rapid (MM 132-133; Day 4).  A class VIII with a drop of 15 feet!  Rapids are often named for the person or group that flipped or had met with some other not-so-pleasant fate in the turbulent waters. 

In 1915 a river party abandoned this metal boat, called the Ross Wheeler, which still lies on the shore of the River.

Here we’d pass by Stone Creek Falls, and just three miles down River we’d stop for a short hike to Deer Creek Falls (MM 136-137; Day 4). This 180-foot cascade astounds as its roar, extending far beyond its visual presence, increasingly draws you into its vortex.  It’s fervent beauty of transcendence.

There is no rushing a river. When you go there, you go at the pace of the water and that pace ties you into a flow that is older than life on this planet. Acceptance of that pace, even for a day, changes us, reminds us of other rhythms beyond the sound of our own heartbeats.

Jeff Rennicke, River Days: Travels on Western Rivers

You can definitely tie into the pace of a River, let it flow in you and through you. Carry your Spirit to a new destination . . .



To be continued . . .

Photos: The feature photo, which I posted above because WP cuts it off in the opening position, is from about the half-trip zone. It gives you a little perspective of the Canyon and it’s creational forces, as compared to us tiny humans. And it shows those beautiful emerald green waters. 🙂

*The calcium carbonate – white – is not a color at all and contains all light wavelengths in the human visible spectrum from about 390 to 700 nanometers. But as Sunlight bounces off the surface of this chalky white water, it refracts blue, a much shorter wavelength between 450 and 495 nanometers.

** A note about referring to our group as a “Tribe.” I am in no way meaning any disrespect to the First Nations People. I am not trying to engage in any cultural appropriation with the use of this term. Definitionally speaking, a tribe is “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” I find this term useful in describing how a group of diverse people have come together and bonded through shared experiences.

Prior Posts in this Series Include:

Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – The Alpha.

Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – Zeta

Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – The Mu*

29 thoughts on “Returning to the Spirits: Ongtupqa – Sigma”

  1. Wow that water is stunningly beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It sounds like you had yourself an interesting encounter with the rocks. Good thing you made the rest of the hike. Do you replay that fall in your mind ever?

    Liked by 1 person

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