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Walk Through Time, in Blacktail Canyon

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I was in Blacktail Canyon, 120 miles below Lee’s Ferry in Grand Canyon when I first heard the “Walk Through Time”. I was on a river trip with legendary senior guide Matt Herman, as he put things into perspective for our guests. Blacktail Canyon is an extraordinary place to witness the depth of geologic time, along with the processes that create these most impressive canyons. Matt started at a big rock in the channel, not too far from the mouth, and started pacing out each step of Earth’s development from the beginning to now. The most impressing thing was walking through the rock layers of the Grand and ending with human existence as just a infinitesimal part of Earth’s journey. I told Walker Mackay about the “Walk Through Time”, and it reminded him of a book he read by William H. Calvin called “The River That Flows Uphill”. There, I found what sounded similar to what Matt had presented to us that day. Here is a summery;

Very few places exposed on Earth’s crust reveal the depth of the geologic record revealed in Grand Canyon. If you were to pace out Earth’s existence in its entirety (with each step representing 100 million years) it would take you 46 steps to bring us to today. It would take 6 steps to represent the time it took for the atmosphere to accumulate and 3 more steps for the surface to cool enough for the oldest rocks to form from the original crust. At 11 steps from our starting point, the very first cells develop. Over the next 5 steps, stromatolites emerge, and the foundation of the continents formed through lava flows. Now at 16 steps, the crust is able to support deposition of sedimentary and igneous flows and land mass grows while mountain building begins. Bacteria evolves to photosynthesize at 21 steps, and 3 steps later the Earth enters the first ice age. Two steps further the ice age ends and fungi shows up, and 2 steps again represents the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere and we reach an important place on our timeline.

Two thirds of the way into our journey and the schist which is seen in the walls of the Grand Canyon first forms. (This is the black rock at the bottom of Blacktail Canyon, and which through, at river level, we ran the Inner Gorge). In 5 more steps the supercell evolves and sedimentary layers of rock get bucked up to form the Appalachian Mountains. Boom! 36 steps in and our world gets rocked upside down. Sex is discovered and cells are able to replicate. Colonies of cells explode and life takes off. 3 steps to jellyfish. 1 more for the Cambrian Explosion. In a single step, vertebrates. (And this is where the Tapeats Sea bordered this area, and deposited the sands of this stone now above us, also called Tapeats.) Another step, land plants and spiders. Half a step for reptiles and a hiccup for the Permian Extinction. Then birds emerge and dinosaurs rule. At 45 steps in (while the leg is swinging into the final step), dinosaurs go extinct, mammals take over, apes evolve and ice ages oscillate. When that foot plants and comes to a stop, human existence would be represented by the portion of the toe nail you could clip off. Ancient civilizations. John Wesley Powell. The Bureau of Reclamation. Edward Abbey. Hayuke..


Matt’s presentation was on point, and people were impressed. By this time on our trip, we had gone nearly half-way through the canyon. We had watched as the walls rose up, layer after layer and oscillated up and down as the river cut through. Seeing the rock go from several hundred million years old and jumping to almost 2 billion years old as it does in Blacktail makes it hard to put into perspective how this relates to our personal sense of time. The first few day of a river trip seem to go in slow motion. Then, something strange happens. The days just fly by and what happened yesterday seems to blend into what happened the day before. To fully grasp what one is feeling and experiencing on a river trip is really difficult to explain in words. To understand how our lives compare to the deep geological time represented here is nearly as difficult as understanding our place in the cosmos. Very few places but the Colorado River can provide this perspective. Beyond the rapids, the waterfalls and beaches, sometimes it is the intangible discoveries that make a river trip a life-changing event.


Lineage of Grand Canyon Boatman

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It is easy to see why working for Colorado River and Trail Expeditions is an ideal place to work. We are a family, where past and present crew members are all a part of that legacy. As current guides, we hear stories about the first generation boatman, the second generation and the third. We know these guides like brothers and sisters even if we have never met them in person. Most of our guides are related to someone who worked for CRATE in the early years, Mother, Uncle, Cousin, or fell into the family through close family friendship. What Dave and Vicki Mackay have created is a lineage of people connected through their love and passion of the rivers we run.

To lay out the family tree of each boatman would be an entire book in itself. Here I would like to highlight two different 3 generation boating families, the Quayles and the Reeders.

Amil Quayle started working for Western River Expeditions in the 1960’s and soon found himself working side by side with Dave Mackay. My Grandpa Grant Reeder signed up as a passenger on some of these early Western trips with Jack Curry, Amil and Dave, and soon became a regular. After a few trips, Grant accepted the opportunity to row the second set of oars on the 33 foot-long double-oar rigs. The video link above is a 8mm film of two different river trips, 1965 and 1966 in Grand Canyon, trips that included Dave, Amil and Grant. It was in Lava Falls on one of these trips that another boatman flipped. A passenger on the flipped boat was dealt a bleeding head laceration and the trip stopped at Tequila Beach to figure out what to do. More than 40 years later, on a Desolation Canyon river trip, Amil recalls that day. He said that as a Doctor, Grant decided that stitching up the man’s head was the best solution. “I was so mad!” recalls Amil. “It should never take 3 hours to give someone stitches! We still had miles to make that day”. I laughed when hearing this story. Grant was an Anesthesiologist, and probably didn’t have much practice at stitching someone up. I could just picture him, being overly paranoid while trying to keep the wound sterile in that environment.

In the early 70’s Dave and Amil split off to start their own companies, Colorado River and Trail Expeditions and Quayle Expeditions, respectively. Amil’s sons Bruce and Manx fell in love with the river and started guiding when they were old enough. Grant’s sons Stuart and Mark guided for Dave’s company. While Quayle Expeditions lasted only a few seasons before Amil chose to go work the land, farming in Nebraska, his sons where drawn to spend as much time in the canyons as possible. Bruce Quayle and Stuart Reeder have continued to run trips all these years.

Manx told me about a trip he was on with my uncle Mark. It was 1983 and nobody had seen that much water running down the Canyon since Glen Canyon dam was completed in 1963. Manx said that it was Mark’s first trip with clients on his boat and Lava was cranking. “Mark had a wild ride, down the left side”, he said. “But he managed to get through staying upright”.

My uncles Bruce and Russell had short stints on the river. Russell met Holly- who was Vicki’s niece- on a Grand Canyon river trip. At 17 years old, the two fell instantly in love and got married. My cousin Zak was soon born to the young husband and wife, and began guiding for CRATE while still a teenager. Zak became a senior guide in the ‘90’s and early 2000’s, dedicating 17 years to Colorado River and Trail. At the end of the 2007 river season it was Zak who convinced me to leave my job guiding in Moab to join the CRATE family.

In 2008 Manx’s daughter Kyndl Quayle started guiding for Colorado River and Trail Expeditions. Same year as me. She had been down the river before, and found a natural knack for reading water, rowing boats, and motoring S-rigs. Don’t know where she got it…but she continues the legacy, building her own stories to tell. Leading trips, rowing, paddling and motoring she has been a key part of the CRATE crew.

One of my favorite parts of taking people down the river is telling stories about the ancestors. Because nobody has a knack for words as Amil does, I like to read from his book of poetry, Grand Canyon and Other Selected Poems. People love to hear his poems about Shorty Burton, Tater- the Invincible Dachshund, and about Shawn from poetry class. When I read the poem Grand Canyon, many people tell me that Amil puts to words what they feel in the Canyon, but cannot describe. I love to tell people about a trip my dad, uncle Stuart and Grandpa did in 1969. They were at Lee’s Ferry on the 4th of July and Grant threw a string of firecrackers into the fire to celebrate. They where quickly reprimanded by park rangers, who informed them that launching the next day was Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall and Superintendents of the major National Parks to celebrate John Wesley Powell in a century memorial trip. Grant felt bad and apologized to a park ranger on the water a few days later. The ranger just laughed, and said, “I didn’t care, I thought it was funnier than hell!” Turned out to be Edward Abbey, who came from Arches to join the trip.

I feel very lucky to be a part of this crew, this family. Together our own stories grow. And even though the facts become blurred from one season to the next, the stories season, and get better and better. If you haven’t joined us to share your story around the chair circle at night, there’s no time like the 2015 season.

The best part is that anyone who has been down the river with us- is part of that family. Especially those Friends of CRATE who have been down on multiple trips with us. What a pleasure it is to see old friends and return to the conversations we left from the last time we went downstream together. For those who are not part of the family yet, you have an open invitation.

indian creek falls

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.

Flash flood at Redbud.

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IMG_2067The desert air darkened with thick clouds that moments before could not be seen through the walls of a canyon a mile deep. The August heat suddenly gone, shifting as fast as the moods of the people as fast as blackened pillows blocking the sun. In what normally is a peaceful part of the canyon began to feel threatening. The monsoon that would open up would last about 35 minutes, thoroughly soaking through every piece of clothing- rain jacket or not- where five miles upstream and downstream was as dry as the desert ever was.

Two distinct images remain poignant to me. The first when the people huddling under the draping drenched rain fly peeled their dripping heads away from the canvas and saw the thousand foot waterfalls pouring red mud off the rim and realized this might not be so bad.IMG_2070

As they emerged from their wounded tent pile they saw the unnaturally green river swirl red like blood taken from hundreds of sources along the vein, the Colorado River.IMG_2071
The second was when I walked away from the small beach camp called “Brower’s Bower”, named for David Brower who’s efforts in part prevented the Marble Canyon Dam that would have inundated this part of Grand Canyon, and walked into Red Bud Alcove. I had been here before when it looked like it usually does, an overhanging dry fall.IMG_1901

I crossed the stream and entered the short box canyon into a froth of thick moisture. The falls fell furiously, in some sort of hurry, and upon hitting the streambed pushed and rolled boulders toward the main artery. IMG_2066I could see that this was how rapids form. Inside the alcove the noise of the water intensified as the volume of water increased. Feeling the power of that place in that moment taught me the extremes of this canyon. IMG_2069Where thirty minutes prior the 115-degree temperature was sucking moisture out of my skin, now the water pounding my body felt like the verge of implosion.IMG_2068

And then it stopped. The rain first, the Arizona monsoon clouds empty. Then the water running together collecting the red sand down the slopes above and over the rim to the river, it slowed and stopped. All that red mud, changing the river to blood, went downstream like it has for six million years. Downstream. Back to green, the color of the water of the bottom of the reservoir named Powell. Time to cook burgers beans and brats for the hungry wet people.

Water Education 101 – Grand Canyon Seeps and Springs

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Did you ever stop to think, really think, about the relationship of people to water? In the beginnings of human history, people searched for water and migrated to it. They probably respected seeps and springs as sacred places, because they were life-giving and life-saving. Once we learned to harness water and bring it to us, instead of the other way around, most of the magic was lost. Today, in America, we take it for granted that good, cold, fresh, clean water will pour forth from our taps. We give little thought or regard to where this water really comes from, and we wouldn’t know if the source was overflowing or becoming depleted. It’s definitely something to think about – water as sacred, water as life, water as endangered.

This short video about Grand Canyon seeps and springs is beautiful. The amazing scenery, the whitewater excitement, and lovely grottoes and waterfalls, will make you want to visit, or maybe even take a river trip! If and when you go, you will have a better understanding of the importance of seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon.

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: 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.


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(  In addition to running Cataract Canyon they also operate commercial rafting trips


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Rafting by definition is “the sport or pastime of traveling down a river on a raft.”  Rafting to us is much more.  It is the thrill and excitement of rapids.  It is the great bonds you make with fellow river rats.  It is the journey to discover nature and get back to your roots of wildness.  It is the beauty of side canyons and the sounds of wildlife.  It is more than one could ever put into words.

A multi-day rafting trip is the ultimate getaway.  Not only do you have a chance to disconnect from the strains of modern technology, but you also get to relax and bond with friends, family, strangers, and yourself.  If you have been thinking about doing a rafting trip this is the year.  Colorado River & Trail Expeditions has some great trips planned in 2014 including an archaeological based rafting trip through Desolation Canyon.  We are also planning on heading north to Alaska to run the Alsek and Tatshenshini rivers.

River trips are nice because once you arrive at the meeting point for a trip you don’t have to worry about anything until the trip ends.  All of your food, and sleeping accomodations are taken care of.  Your only requirement is to sit back and enjoy the place.


2013 High Flow Experiment Scheduled For November 11-16 in the Grand Canyon

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The Department of the interior will conduct a high flow experimental release next week from Glen Canyon Dam.  This is consistent with the High-Flow Protocol and is related to the sediment input that has occurred below Glen Canyon Dam.  Those on our “Epic” September rowing trip through the Grand Canyon know the area received an incredible amount of precipitation with the Paria River and Little Colorado River bringing over 5000 cfs each into the system at one time during September.  Supposedly there is about three times  more sediment in the system this time compared to the last high flow experiment in 2012.

Water released for high flow experiment in 2012 from the Bureau of Reclamation

Water released for high flow experiment in 2012 from the Bureau of Reclamation

This management of the Dam is done to restore the beaches and habitat in the Grand Canyon.  The idea is to bring sediment up from the bottom of the river and deposit it on the sides in the form of beaches.  Before Glen Canyon Dam the Colorado River would flood every spring and leave behind huge amounts of sand as the water receded into summer and fall.  This would clear off the vegetation below the high water line and clean the sand on the beaches.  The hope of these high flow experiments is to recreate these conditions.  These conditions still happen naturally above Glen Canyon Dam in Canyonlands National Park and Cataract Canyon.

The real difference between the historic floods and these man made floods is the volume of water and length of time of the flood.  A natural spring flow in the Grand Canyon would regularly bring 80,000 to 125,000 cfs while the scheduled man made flood this time around is expected to peak at 37,200 cfs and last about 96 hours.  Another thing that puts a big damper on beach building is the loss of sediment in the Colorado River due to Glen Canyon Dam.  As Lake Powell slows the water of the Colorado River the sediment all drops out.  This is why below Glen Canyon Dam the water comes out clear and cold..,,

Our experience on the river has been incredibly beautiful beaches immediately after one of these flooding events.  Unfortunately as the season goes on the beaches tend to return to their original size or even smaller due to the fluctuating dam flows, monsoons, and natural weather conditions.  This loss of sediment is a huge problem and we commend those who have worked so hard to get this adaptive management in place.  As the population continues to rise in the southwest the demand on the water is increased every year we hope new solutions will continue to arise and the Grand Canyon as a resource will always be protected.



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