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Bring on the Snow

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I’m learning to ski this winter, and it is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. It seems like my legs are always on fire as I struggle to hook the edges of my skis into the side of the mountain. They’re on fire when I’m standing in my boots in the parking lot. They’re on fire the next morning when I limp out of bed. Everything about learning to ski is awkward. Just when I think I’ve got it, I wobble and end up spinning like a starfish on my belly. I feel one confident turn for every ten I take. It’s annoying, exciting and humbling to learn something so foreign as an adult.

But learning to ski has given this desert girl a gift I have never fully realized before. Learning to ski in the Wasatch Mountains this season has opened my mind and my heart to of the beauty and wonder of snow. As a river guide, I’ve always known conceptually that snow feeds everything else I love to do, but this winter I’m turning that concept into a connection that I appreciate more than ever.

I have been lucky enough to experience precisely two “powder days” this winter, where the expanses of bottomless new-fallen snow look almost too pristine to play in. But I am beginning to understand how nothing could keep me out of them either – not fog, not cold, not work. I am able to understand an obsession I have only observed until now. I haven’t fully cultivated my personal relationship with the snow just yet, but I know that my love lies partly in standing at the top of a sparkling slope, high above the populace in the valley. It has to do with feeling a cold breeze brush my face at the same time my warm, worked heart is beating beneath all my layers. And yes, it has to do with the one good turn in ten, which is shockingly but certainly worth the effort of all the others.

Still, I think my obsession is shaping up to be a little different from that of the die-hard powder seekers. My bond with the snow is less about adrenaline and more about appreciation. It’s about perspective. Never has it been so clear that this precious powder is the direct lifeline for the other obsessions in my life: deserts and the rivers that course through them.

The headwaters of the Colorado River lie in Northeastern Colorado in the Rocky Mountains where the entire river is a stream running through a meadow. I’ve hopped across it. The Green River’s water comes from the remote Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. I’m aware that not much of the water in either hail from the Wasatch Range where I’ve been skiing, but I feel the connection nonetheless.

When I’m falling and flailing through deep powder I know that this moisture is infinitely precious to my way of life and the places I love. With any luck the white stuff I’ve been wallowing in on skis will continue to accumulate this winter and then slowly begin to melt come spring. Then I’ll get to experience it all over again it runs from the high country to the lowlands, through my favorite rapids and past my dearest hiking spots. I’ll get to sleep on a raft gently tugged by the current as the melt rushes by, and wake up each morning to the sound of the river bouncing off the banks.

As of yesterday the National Water and Climate Center’s snow reporting sites for the Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell were reporting snowpack at 87% of average. The Green River Basin was reporting 100% of average. That may sound pretty good, but compare those numbers to the snowpack in 2011, the most recent high water year for the Green and Colorado Rivers. At this time in 2011 the Green River basin was reporting 137% of average snowfall and the Colorado basin was at 149%. Considering how low lakes Powell and Mead have become over the last decade, we can always use more of the magic white stuff.

Luckily, we still have time left in this winter – time for snow to fall and for me to fall into it. Many of the things I do and the places I love hinge on how much snow is gifted to our highlands each winter. As it continues to fall, at least here in Utah, I am thankful today but always wishing for more.

Flowers of the Canyon Country

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As the winter months bring snow and rain to the Canyon Country, the red desert sand becomes moist and fertile for the plants that find home here. With the warming spring temperatures, the landscape opens, bursting with colors to attract pollinators in hopes for reproduction. While some plants bloom consistently from year to year, others lay dormant waiting for abnormally wet seasons. Other opportunistic species bloom throughout the season, on a larger-than-seasonal cycle. Often times a strong monsoon season will find conditions prime for a fall bloom more spectacular than the spring. For those traveling downstream on a river trip, the following flowers might be spotted while drifting by on the boat or while hiking in side canyons.

Prince’s Plume

Stanleya pinnata MUSTARD FAMILY

Reaching heights of 4 feet tall, this yellow flowering plant blooms from the base up. Prince’s Plume thrives in soil rich in selenium, which gets transported by pollinating insects and can accumulate to toxic levels higher in the food chain. The Native Americans would mash up the roots to treat aches and pains.

IMG_2757One of my favorite places to see Prince’s Plume bloom is in Cataract Canyon camping at Little Bridge Canyon on high water trips. There, the top heavy blooms nod in the evening breeze on cool May nights.

Crimson Monkeyflower

Mimulus cardinalis SNAPDRAGON FAMILY

Usually found in shady side canyons next to springs or streams, the Monkeyflower blooms throughout the summer months. In Grand Canyon there are 7 different species closely related and nearly impossible to differentiate without the blooming flower.

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Some of the most spectacular places to see Crimson Monkeyflowers are found hiking to waterfalls in Grand Canyon. Hiking up Saddle Canyon and back to the narrowing V of the canyon, Monkeyflowers can be seen growing thick along the water’s edge. Thunder River falls is another place Monkeyflowers thrive, where the mist of the cascading water creates a moist environment even under the direct desert sun.

Golden Columbine

Aquilegia chrysantha BUTTERCUP FAMILY

Often found growing next to Crimson Monkeyflowers, Columbine grow in less dense populations in shady canyons next to water. Like Monkeyflowers, there are 7 similar species in Grand Canyon blooming with a variety of colors. Because the nectar is stored deep inside of the flower, its main pollinators are butterflies with long proboscises and hummingbirds. Bees with short proboscises will often bite through the flower to get to the nectar and avoid the task of pollination.

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Rounding the bend to the falls in Saddle Canyon, in the narrowest spot between canyon walls is where you can see 3 different species of Columbine bloom. In red, pink and yellow, the backward facing spurs stand tall to the sky, hoping for butterflies not bees.

Century Plant

Agave utahensis AGAVE FAMILY

Once thought to grow for a hundred years before blooming, botanists now know that the Century Plant blooms after 20-40 years before dying. Stems extending underground called rhizomes can clone the next generation next to the mother plant. The flowering stock can shoot up 15 feet into the sky, the climax after a long life in the desert.

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While hiking to the top of the Redwall layer of limestone through the Eminence Fault break from the eminence camp, Century Plants appear as candlesticks in the fading afternoon light. One Grand Canyon river trip participant informed me that the post-flowering stalk of the Century Plant makes a good walking stick because it is light in weight, rigid and strong.

Globemallow

Sphaeralcea grossulariifolia MALLOW FAMILY

Thriving after rainy seasons, Globemallow can be seen blooming both in spring and fall on talus slopes along the river. Seen in shades of reds and oranges, 10 different species of Globemallow can be seen in Grand Canyon. Because hybridization is common, differentiating between species can be difficult. Native Americans harvest the roots and make a sticky pulp in cold water to treat stomach pain and diarrhea. Globemallow can also be made into a tea that finds soothing effects.

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Driving to the put-in for Desolation Canyon in the spring feels like driving through an ocean of orange Globemallow blooms. Often opportunistic, Globemallow thrive within disturbed landscapes, lining the highways dissecting the desert Southwest. Hiking to the Doll’s House on a Cataract Canyon is a spectacular site to see globemallows bloom among other wildflowers.

Sacred Datura

Datura wrightii NIGHTSHADE FAMILY

Also called Moonflower, Sacred Datura blooms at night and tends to whither in direct sunlight. Because of heavy concentrations of toxic alkaloids found in the leaves, contact with the plant can cause fatal hallucinations. Hawk moths are the Datura’s main pollinator, and form a symbiotic relationship. Because of their extended proboscis, the Hawk moth can extract pollen from deep inside the flower. Hawk moth larvae feed on the alkaloid-rich leaves making them toxic to predators.

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One of my favorite places to see Sacred Datura is hiking through the winding narrows of 75 mile canyon above Nevills Rapid. The tall, vertical walls of Shinamu Quartzite provide enough shade to protect the flower from shriveling up throughout the day. Looking at the shapes formed by the Datura Flower, its impossible not to think about the artwork of Georgia O’Keeffe.

-Ben

Who can identify the following desert wildflowers? Feel free to post your answers in the comment section below.

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Source:

River and Desert Plants of the Grand Canyon. Kristin Huisinga, Lori Makarick, Kate Watters. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2006.

Colorado River Flows

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River Flow is an important things to know before going on a river trip.  In 2014 the Grand Canyon has seen some relatively low flows.  April and May had fluctuations between 5,500 cfs and 11,000 cfs, with the weekends, especially Sunday releases being much lower.  This is because the river is regulated by Glen Canyon Dam which backs up Lake Powell.  These lower flows make some rapids bigger, and some rapids smaller, but all of the rapids become rockier and more technical.  Above Lake Powell the Colorado and Green have gone up and down all spring.  The mountains have a nice amount of snow, but the temperatures have gotten hot and then suddenly cooled off and the flow through Cataract Canyon has taken on the appearance of a Sin wave.  For those interested in learning the flows of the river their are a few different ways.

#1.  Check out the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center River Map:  http://www.cbrfc.noaa.gov/gmap/gmapbeta.php?interface=river another nice feature about this site is you can click on the PEAK FLOW FORECAST LIST and one can see what the most recent Peak Flow forecast is for a particular section of river.  For instance on May 19, 2014 Cataract Canyon was given a 50% chance of peaking at 60,000 cfs sometime in 2014.

#2.  Call 1-801-539-1311.  This phone number goes to a recorded message which tells the river flows for a particular day.  This message is updated daily.

#3.  Buy or download one of the river flow apps on the itunes store.

#4.  For Grand Canyon, where the water is regulated, be sure to check out the Bureau of Reclamation Current Dam Flow Report for Glen Canyon Dam.

High water means a lot of excitement for rafters in Cataract Canyon.  Cataract Canyon is generally considered the biggest whitewater in North America at flows above 50,000 cfs so it looks like 2014 is going to be a big water year.

 

Canyonlands by John Wesley Powell

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A Land of Rock

A Land of Rock-Toni Kaus

As we all know JW Powell had a way with words and his descriptions of the Grand Canyon have rarely been equalled.  Having just finished a Spring rafting trip in Canyonlands National Park we had to share Powell’s diary entry from July 17, 1869.  This entry includes the last 40 miles of the Green River’s course before joining the Grand, forming the mighty Colorado River, and plunging into the perils of Cataract Canyon.  The Colorado Plateau is such a unique place and if you have never seen Canyonlands National Park it is a place to put on your list.  The below entry will inspire your imagination:

-Wayne Ranney Photo

-Wayne Ranney Photo

July 17, 1869. – The line which separates Labyrinth Canyon from the one below is but a line, and at once, this morning, we enter another canyon. The water fills the entire channel, so that nowhere is there room to land. The walls are low, but vertical, and as we proceed they gradually increase in altitude. Running a couple of miles, the river changes its course many degrees toward the east. Just here a little stream comes in on the right and the wall is broken down; so we land and go out to take a view of the surrounding country. We are now down among the buttes, and in a region the surface of which is naked, solid rock – a beautiful red sandstone, forming a smooth, undulating pavement. The Indians call this the Toom’pin Tuweap’, or “Rock Land,” and sometimes the Toom’pin wunear^1 Tuweap’, or “Land of Standing Rock.”

Off to the south we see a butte in the form of a fallen cross. It is several miles away, but it presents no inconspicuous figure on the landscape and must be many hundreds of feet high, probably more than 2,000. We note its position on our map and name it “The Butte of the Cross.”

We continue our journey. In many places the walls, which rise from the water’s edge, are overhanging on either side. The stream is still quiet, and we glide along through a strange, weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock – cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock – ten thousand strangely carved forms; rocks everywhere, and no vegetation, no soil, no sand. In long, gentle curves the river winds about these rocks.

When thinking of these rocks one must not conceive of piles of boulders or heaps of fragments, but of a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it: cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance, with vast, hollow domes and tall pinnacles and shafts set on the verge overhead; and all highly colored – buff, gray, red, brown, and chocolate – never lichened, never moss-covered, but bare, and often polished.

We pass a place where two bends of the river come together, an intervening rock having been worn away and a new channel formed across. The old channel ran in a great circle around to the right, by what was once a circular peninsula, then an island; then the water left the old channel entirely and passed through the cut, and the old bed of the river is dry. So the great circular rock stands by itself, with precipitous walls all about it, and we find but one place where it can be scaled. Looking from its summit, a long stretch of river is seen, sweeping close to the overhanging cliffs on the right, but having a little meadow between it and the wall on the left. The curve is very gentle and regular. We name this Bonita Bend.

And just here we climb out once more, to take another bearing on The Butte of the Cross. Reaching an eminence from which we can overlook the landscape, we are surprised to find that our butte, with its wonderful form, is indeed two buttes, one so standing in front of the other that from our last point of view it gave the appearance of a cross.

A few miles below Bonita Bend we go out again a mile or two among the rocks, toward the Orange Cliffs, passing over terraces paved with jasper. The cliffs are not far away and we soon reach them, and wander in some deep, painted alcoves which attracted our attention from the river; then we return to our boats.

Late in the afternoon the water becomes swift and our boats make great speed.. An hour of this rapid running brings us to the junction of the Grand and Green, the foot of Stillwater Canyon, as we have named it. These streams-unite in solemn depths, more than 1,200 feet below the general surface of the country. The walls of the lower end of Stillwater Canyon are very beautifully curved, as the river sweeps in its meandering course. The lower end of the canyon through which the Grand comes down is also regular, but much more direct, and we look up this stream and out into the country beyond and obtain glimpses of snow-clad peaks, the summits of a group of mountains known as the Sierra La Sal. Down the Colorado the canyon walls are much broken.

We row around into the Grand and camp on its northwest bank; and here we propose to stay several days, for the purpose of determining the latitude and longitude and the altitude of the walls. Much of the night is spent in making observations with the sextant.

Looking over the Green-Wayne Ranney

 

Geologist Wayne Ranney to Host Canyonlands National Park River Trip

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An incredible journey to an amazing destination.

An incredible journey to an amazing destination.

Wayne Ranney, world famous geologist, author, and interpreter will be hosting a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Canyonlands National Park.  The trip dates are May 2-11 and include a 7 day rafting trip along the Green and Colorado Rivers and through Cataract Canyon.  There will also be a ground based field trip into the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park prior to the river trip.  The land based trip will be based out of Red Cliffs Lodge on the Banks of the Colorado River and will be outfitted by licensed Canyonlands National Park Concessionaire Colorado River & Trail Expeditons.  The trip cost is $3140 per person.

Wayne Ranney is the author of “Carving Grand Canyon” and co-author of “Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau.”  This will be his second Colorado River rafting trip with Colorado River & Trail Expeditions.  In addition to his great books, Wayne’s interpretation and explanations make Geology exciting and fun.  Besides the rafting part of the trip, there will be numerous off river hikes to explore the Geology and beauty of the area.  There really is no better way to see Canyonlands National Park than by boat and having a geologist the caliber of Wayne will make the trip exceptional.

The river portion of the trip will start at Mineral Bottom on the Green River.  The first couple of days on the river will offer great opportunities to see Native American artifacts and ruins.  Once the river joins the Colorado River the rapids begin.  Colorado River rafting through Cataract Canyon is worth the trip itself.  The rapids of Cataract Canyon can dwarf those of the Grand Canyon at extremely high flows and at low flows the river challenging because it is clogged with huge boulders.  The trip ends at North Wash in the upper reaches of what once was Lake Powell Resevoir.

This trip only has a couple of spaces remaining.  To find out more information call Colorado River and Trail Expeditions at 1-800-253-7328.

Colorado River Rafting in Canyonlands National Park

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Ancient Rock art in Canyonlands National park

Rock Art in Canyonlands National Park seen on a Cataract Canyon Rafting Trip

Before the Colorado River enters Lake Powell and above the Grand Canyon is Cataract Canyon.  Cataract Canyon is located in southeastern Utah and is a part of Canyonlands National Park.  This section of Colorado River rafting is famous for its incredible rapids and stunning scenery.  The area is a landscape full of sandstone canyons, grabens, buttes, and mesas.  Cataract Canyon starts at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, with the rivers dividing Canyonlands National Park into three distinct and unique sections.  Between the two rivers is the Island in the Sky District, here one can find incredible views, arches, and slickrock.  On the west side of the Green River is the Maze district.  This area is full of winding canyons and ancient rock art.  On the East side of the Colorado River is the Needles District full of spires, grabens, and even more ancient rock art.  One could spend a lifetime in Canyonlands and just scratch the surface of the place.

Rafting Cataract Canyon is a great way to explore Canyonlands National Park.  Most trips start on the Colorado River south of Moab at the Potash Boat Ramp and are 3-5 days in length.   After hearing a safety talk and being fitted with life jackets rafters board the rafts and head down river.  After a short ride on the rafts boaters enter Canyonlands National Park.  After lunch the first day there is a great spot to explore a petrified forest.  There are numerous huge trees that have been preserved by being knocked over and covered by mud before oxygen could decompose them.  The next popular stop is Lathrop Canyon.  This is a great spot to see some Native American pictographs that were painted on the sandstone hundreds of years ago.  Most trips camp in this area the first night.

The second day of the trip rafters will get the opportunity to see multiple Native American Granaries which were built to store food in.  The next hike ones comes to on the river is Indian Creek, which in the spring offers a great opportunity to hike to a beautiful waterfall in a narrow canyon.   After a few more miles on the river there is an opportunity to hike over the Loop.  The Loop is a place where the river has made a sharp turn and almost come completely back upon itself.  This allows those who feel like hiking to hike over a saddle of sandstone and meet the boats on the other side.  After a hike over the Loop it is time to relax and enjoy the scenery.  Next the Green River joins the Colorado River and Cataract Canyon officially starts.  Trips usually camp just below the first rapid in Cataract Canyon which is called Brown Betty.   Here there is one of the most beautiful sand beaches on the entire Colorado River system.  This marks the turning point of the calm water to raging whitewater of Cataract Canyon.  This section of rapids during flows above 50,000 cfs has rapids that make the famous rapids of the Grand Canyon seem small.

The next morning offers a great opportunity to hike into the “Doll’s House” of Canyonlands National Park.  This is a very strenuous hike, but if one has the time and the weather is not too hot it is a great place to see.  The best way to describe it would be a palace made of  red stone with secret passages and rooms.  It would be something Martian royalty might have.  Besides the “Doll’s House,” the scenery is amazing and one can get a view of the skyline in all directions and see all the great geology of the area caused by salt, wind, water, and long periods of time.

After returning from the Doll’s House it is time for Colorado River rafting through Cataract Canyon.  The rapids start small, but grow quickly, and before you know it you are in Mile Long, Ben Hurt, The Big Drops, and Waterhole.  At low water these rapids require great skill to maneuver through the huge sandstone boulders, at high water the waves routinely reach 10-15 feet high trough to crest.  After Waterhole Rapid the effects of Lake Powell start to rear their head.  The rapids below this point are covered in silt.  Huge sand banks full of dead trees on each side of the river block ones view of the sandstone.  This is another place where geology is happening.  This time rapidly.  Lake Powell has only been around for about 50 years.  In this short amount of time, sand has been deposited as the current slowed, and the river entered the lake.  Currently the lake is less than 50% capacity and the outlook for filling the lake is not good.  The Western United states is in a drought and an increasing population is demanding more and more water that the Colorado River can not supply.

For more information about Colorado River rafting contact Colorado River & Trail Expeditions(www.crateinc.com).  In addition to running Cataract Canyon they also operate commercial rafting trips

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Reservations: 800-253-7328 or 801-261-1789

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