Ten Tips to Pack Like a Pro for Your Next Desert River Expedition

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Choosing what to bring on a commercial river trip can be a daunting task. With all the variables to consider – weather, hiking, camp routine, hygiene, photography – it’s easy for your dry bag to become a back-breaking, black hole of, as Edward Abbey put it, “all that bloody gear!” If you’re planning a river trip in the desert this summer, here are ten tips to help simplify your stuff, streamline your dry bag and leave you with exactly what you’ll need.

 #1 Leave Half at Home

Keep in mind that you may have to schlep all your gear up a sandy dune or across a beach. You are going to have to dig through it to find what you need (which is inevitably at the bottom) and pack it all up everyday. Having less in the first place simplifies your routine and allows you more freedom to leisurely sip your morning coffee, quietly listen to the sound of a rapid or chat around the campfire at night.

Before ever leaving your house, lay out all you think you’ll need and cull it by half. This principal applies especially to clothing, but is useful for electronics, books, magazines and anything else you can live without while in the canyons. Fabrics that are lightweight, versatile and dry quickly should make the cut, providing you with a clean outfit every other day or so. Transfer toiletries into smaller bottles, pick just one book or make photocopies of articles you’d like to read.

And don’t worry; everyone else is going to be dirty, sweaty and smiling in their twice-worn t-shirts too!

#2 Know When to Splurge

It can be tough to decide what to buy new and what to make do with when packing for the wilderness. Outdoor gear is expensive and its hard to know what you will end up using the most once you’re on the trip. If you’re going to splurge on one new piece of gear for a desert river trip, think about investing in high quality, durable, comfortable water shoes or sandals. You will be wearing them all day everyday. If your footwear is good and comfortable, you won’t think twice about jumping on and off the boat and taking a short water hike. If they’re uncomfortable or low quality, your shoes might last a day or two before we inevitably have to dig out the duct tape and super glue to limp them through the rest of the trip. Nothing is more annoying than staggering along a trail with the partially-attached sole of your shoe flopping against the ground with each step, threatening to blow out all together at any second.

Check with your local outdoor store, read reviews and contact our office for recommendations about quality footwear.

#3 Plan for the Sun

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You will likely be in the sun from the time it rises until the time it sets each day. We recommend covering up us as much as possible in addition to wearing high SPF sunscreen. Even if you love the sun, never wear a hat or don’t own a pair of sunglasses in your regular life, bring the tools you’ll need to escape the sun on your river trip. We suspect there will be a time when you’ll use them. You will see your guides wearing long-sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, ample sunblock and using pants or a piece of fabric to cover their legs and feet. We even have a guide who wears socks on especially sunny days!

The desert sun is wonderfully warm and life giving at the same time it is unrelenting and intense. As much as you can, be prepared.

#4 Consider Items that Have Multiple Uses

Can your fleece jacket be used as a pillow? Can your towel double a sun protection? Can you share a piece of gear with your spouse? As mentioned earlier, you are going to be happier with less, so how about pants that zip into shorts, skirts that double as a dress, and, never to be underestimated, a light top-sheet/sarong/ piece of fabric that can be used for just about anything.

I’ve seen sarongs worn as clothing, used as a towel, sunshade, wind block, dressing room, picnic blanket, nap station, head cover, backpack and lightweight bedding on a hot desert night filled with stars.

#5 Remember Lotions and Potions

I can’t tell you how many people underestimate how dry the desert Southwest is. It is really dry! And you will be too. During the day, employ the benefits of a high SPF sunscreen as mentioned above. River guides don’t splurge on much but we get the good stuff when it comes to sunscreen. Anything less than SPF 30 is not going be much help to you. In addition, bring a small container of thick moisturizing cream or lotion for the inevitable drying out of lips, heels, chin – yes chin! – backs of hands and other exposed places. You’ll certainly notice the desert’s toll after a long day on the river and you’ll wish for some relief.

Sunscreen and plenty of water are your best friends to combat dryness during the day. Reparative cream and more water are your arsenal at camp.

#6 Be Prepared for Wet Weather

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There’s no need to bring your ski coat, but when culling your gear make sure a rain jacket and one warm layer make the final cut. Packing for the weather depends a lot on when you’ll be river tripping, but it’s always a good idea to have basic protection with you. After all, we are heading into wild country here! I have seen snow in Desolation Canyon in June, worn my raincoat against blowing sand in the Grand Canyon in July and been caught in many-a-drenching monsoon. The good news is that most of this crazy weather does not last long, but it does come up, so please bring the gear needed to combat it.

Even in July, a raincoat can be a much-appreciated splashguard for running early-morning rapids.

#7 Nothing Sacred

It is a good idea to leave your brand new smart phone – the one that holds all of your business contacts and photos of your children, that you’ve really been meaning to back up for months but haven’t quite gotten around to – at home or safely locked up at your hotel. We can tell you from experience that a lot can possibly happen to your expensive electronics and irreplaceables on a river tip: like sand, just to mention just one nuisance. Try not to wear your grandmother’s antique diamond stud earrings. It is a real downer to find one missing after a blissful afternoon of play in the Little Colorado River.

It happens, and it’s sad when it does.

#8 How Long is your Battery Life?

Almost universally we hear our guests lament the life of their camera batteries, saying they don’t last nearly as long as they’d expected, likely because they didn’t anticipate taking SO MANY photographs. This might be one area of packing where overestimation is slightly, and only slightly, encouraged. How much storage space do you have for photos? How many fresh batteries are you planning to bring?

There is no recharging once we’re off and floating, so make sure you plan accordingly. Batteries and memory cards are small and pack easily into the bottom of your dry bag. If you are a passionate shutterbug and would be devastated not to capture the canyons through your lens each day, bring ample power and storage to do so.

At the same time, don’t forget how relaxing it can be to put your camera down and solidify the memories of your trip the old fashioned way.

#9 Treat Yourself

Bring one set of clothing to keep clean-ish. Maybe you put your special clean shirt on at camp at night or just before you’re headed back to civilization at the end of the trip? If you’ve packed sparingly, a clean set of clothing feels like a real luxury. I wear my sweaty clothes all day and change into something cool and clean just before dinner each night. Some guides I know clean up just before they hop into their sleeping bag. Many of our guests reserve one t-shirt for the shuttle ride back to Las Vegas or Moab. It feels, good – really good – and is a simple treat you’ll want to give yourself at some point during your trip.

#10 Don’t Forget the Flare!

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River runners, guides and guests alike, are a jovial bunch. We’re not sure if it is our nature or a mild form of heatstroke, but we like to dress up and goof around. And, as always, all are welcome to join us. If that sounds like something you might be interested in, stash something small that denotes celebration or makes you feel good – a piece of flare – in your dry bag. When you waltz into the chair circle wearing a tuxedo t-shirt or a feather boa, the echoing sound of camp-wide applause will make you glad you did.

CRATE passengers receive an itemized packing list specific to their trip, with details about exactly what they’ll need to bring. Use our list, call our office and keep these ten tips in mind while gathering your gear, and you’re sure to get the most out of your desert river expedition!

We want to hear from you! In the comments below, tell us what gear you wish you’d had on your river trip? What didn’t you need? What tips do you have for those taking a trip in the future?

Long Term Environmental Monitoring Plan for Grand Canyon

 

 

 

Public Meeting February 26th, Salt Lake City Utah
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Ever been on a river trip down the Grand Canyon and noticed “the tides” of the Colorado River nearly doubling, and then cut by almost half each day? The Long Term Environmental Monitoring Plan (LTEMP) is well underway and will open for public input in April-May of 2015. From February 25-27th, the Adaptive Management Work Group (AMWG) will meet to discuss the alternatives for the next flow regime. The meeting will be held at the Red Lion in downtown Salt Lake City, and is open to the public. Thursday the 26th will be dedicated to the LTEMP, from 9:00-3:00. Click here for the schedule. Read on to learn why it is important to attend.

Water is the lifeblood of the Grand Canyon. It is the Colorado River and its awesome downcutting power that has revealed 1.8 billion years of geologic record below and between the rims, and transported all that material out to sea. While the Colorado has been at work for the last 6 million years, all natural processes in the riparian zone of the canyon were altered in 1963 when the gates of Glen Canyon Dam were shut. In the blink of an eye –of geologic time- the flow of nutrients and sediment changed, and seasonal fluctuations of water were released each 24-hour period and stripped the canyon of beaches and habitat. A young scientist named David Wegner began to study the effects of the post dam ecosystem. It was his work that led to the Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992 that stated that Glen Canyon Dam operation could not adversely affect downstream resources. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was conducted, and in 1996 the Record of Decision (ROD) was signed that implemented the Modified Low Fluctuating Flow (MLFF), which continues to dictate canyon flows today.

While the MLFF was a huge improvement to protecting and improving the ecology of the river system, today’s fluctuating flows still swing water levels by up to 80% daily. High Flow Experiments (HFE) were implemented and effectively redistribute and rebuild beaches, but the daily fluctuations continue to erode the sand. After the last 3 HFE’s, I have witnessed the river swirl brown when fluctuations spike for peak power on June 1st, with new beaches washed downstream. Two steps forward, 1 ½ steps back.. Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) who distributes hydropower from Glen Canyon Dam ramps up in peak winter and summer months to meet the power demands of heating and cooling in the desert Southwest. Over the last 3 years, the flow regime has been reevaluated, and today we have an opportunity to improve the environment of Grand Canyon over the next 20 years.

Over $120 million has been spent on science down there so far, but the decision on how to release the water between stakeholders is still unclear. Out of 6 alternatives listed, the Hybrid alternative has emerged as a combination of alternatives supported by the National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, basin states and WAPA.

As a board member for Grand Canyon River Guides, I got the opportunity to sit down and meet with Lynn Jenka, an accountant for WAPA and the manager of the Colorado River Storage Project, and Shane Caprone, a Wildlife Biologist with WAPA. Here are some key points I learned in the meeting about the Hybrid alternative, water flows, sediment transportation, and WAPA’s internal workings:

  • The Hybrid alternative currently has 24 HFEs scheduled over a 20-year period to help rebuild and maintain beaches for camping and habitat for native fish. These yearly floods are conducted when there has been a heavy sediment input from the Paria River, usually at the end of the monsoon season. The HFEs are also good for the native plants in the riparian zone, as the water can wash out non-native species. The potential length of these floods has been expanded from 96 hours of high flow- to 250 hours- given that conditions are ripe for longer high flows to most effectively distribute the sand.
  • WAPA claims that the carbon cost of allowing water through the bypass tunnels during the HFE’s over the 20-year period will be 1.7 billion pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere. This figure was calculated by a member of the Salt River Project and assumes that the water not moving through the turbines will necessitate the equal amount of power generated through coal burning power plants. This raised a lot of questions among board members at the meeting, who felt that this calculation didn’t account for opportunities to offset potential hydropower with renewable energies- and the decreasing costs of solar power production. It also doesn’t consider conservation, where power users could use less energy.
  • Within the Hybrid, fluctuations will continue to rise and fall by 8,000 cfs. But Shane Caprone explained to us that it isn’t the fluctuations that are eroding the beaches, it is the total monthly volume of water released that is devastating to the beaches. While flows below 12,000 c.f.s are found to have minimal erosional capabilities, flows above 12,000 erode sand at an exponential rate, to the 3rd The Hybrid as currently discussed, evens out the monthly spikes of water flow throughout the year. This plan will retain 70 metric tons of sediment more than the existing MLFF.                               Discussion/ questions for the upcoming meeting:
  • HFEs are crucial to rebuild beaches and maintain habitat in Grand Canyon. Will the biased/skewed statistic relating to carbon emissions lead to less HFEs? Turbines could be built in the bypass tunnels for a cost between $20-30 million. How long would it take to pay off this cost?
  • Do we really need to continue fluctuating flows by up to 80%? In our meeting, WAPA representatives told us that the price paid for power generated by Glen Canyon Dam is the same for peak and off-peak production. How much more sediment could we retain if fluctuations were maxed at 4,000 c.f.s? Foreshadowing a last-minute move to increase fluctuations even more, Shane told us that fluctuation swings of 10,000 or 12,000 wouldn’t erode much more sand. What are the ecological impacts of fluctuating the Colorado by 120%? Certainly it would have negative impacts on river trips, with boats getting beached at camp, and lower flows at the bottom end of fluctuations to navigate the river.

So what can we do to ensure the right decision is made? Come to the meeting at the Red Lion, Thursday February 26th starting at 8:00 AM. Make a public comment by emailing Glen Knowles at least 5 days before the meeting at gknowles@usbr.gov, and state that HFEs should be priority, and fluctuations should be kept to a minimum. Sign up for email notifications for when the draft EIS opens for public input in April/May. Power production was only a secondary thought after Glen Canyon Dam was built. There is only one Grand Canyon. We need to do what we can to protect the natural wonders of the world.

-Ben

Lineage of Grand Canyon Boatman

 

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.

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Congratulations to our Photography Contest Winners

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With gratitude to all the friends and guests who entered, we are proud to announce that Anton Foltin of Phoenix, AZ is the grand prize winner of the second annual Colorado River and Trail Expeditions photo contest! In addition, Libeth Saenger of Aachen, Germany swept all three people’s choice categories.

Anton’s winning image of Havasu Creek was taken during our 10-day photography workshop trip in the Grand Canyon in May of last year. Libeth captured her popular shots in August on our 12-day Alsek River expedition in Canada and Alaska. For their efforts, Anton will receive a complimentary 8-day Grand Canyon river trip this summer and Libeth will have her choice of our Utah trips. Cheers to our winners and their keen eye for photography!

Havasu Creek, 2015 Photo Contest Winner

Anton Foltin‘s 2015 grand prize-winning photograph. Late afternoon light plays on the blue water of Havasu Creek. Grand Canyon NP, AZ.

Next year, the winner could be YOU!

CRATE’s photo contest begins with our rafting seasons each April and is ongoing throughout the summer. Participants on our trips are encouraged to upload a total of ten of their favorite images to share at www.crateinc.com, and can specify six to be entered into our contest. We offer three categories in which our guests can showcase their talents – “Scenery”, “Guides and Guests”, and “The River” – as well as two ways to win.

The people’s choice winners are the most popular photos in each category. We track the ones that are shared the most and receive the greatest number of “likes” on social media. This year Libeth swept all three categories, but we have room for three photos and three winners here.

 Libeth Saenger’s winning photo in the “scenery” category. Sweeping vista of Lowell Glacier and Lowell Lake, with peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias Range beyond, taken from the top of Goatherd Mountain. Alsek River, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Libeth Saenger’s winning photo in the “scenery” category. Sweeping vista of Lowell Glacier and Lowell Lake, with peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias Range beyond, taken from the top of Goatherd Mountain. Alsek River, Yukon Territory, Canada.

The grand prize image is chosen from the total pool of entries by an expert in the realms of river running and photography. This year’s judge was landscape photographer Tom Till, who – in the name of full disclosure – is also my dad. As a professional photographer, he has spent the last 40 years photographing around the world but concentrating on the Southwestern US. During that time he has logged many hours on the river, both as a boatman and a photographer. His gallery in downtown Moab, UT and his website, http://www.tomtill.com, showcase his iconic images of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands, as well as images from around the globe. I can say, with only a hint of bias, that he really knows his stuff.

When asked why he chose Anton’s image, Tom said,

“Picking this photo was a tough decision. There were five or six in my final running and any of them could have won. I chose Anton’s for the emotional response it evokes. Many of the photos were very technically sound, so I tend to go with photos that are something I haven’t seen before or take new twist on the landscape. Also, very few pictures capture the true color of the water in Havasu as closely as this one does. The composition is nicely balanced, with a beautiful waterfall and the afternoon reflective light on the walls and in the creek. It’s very close to how I know Havasu to look in reality.”

We are currently finalizing the entry process and prizes for our 2015 photo contest so look for more information here, as well as on our website, about how you can participate this summer.

We want to see the canyon through the diverse and talented eyes of our guests, and share the images of the places we love with fellow river runners. Any and all photos that showcase the beauty, excitement, camaraderie, serenity and awe of a river trip are welcome. The more participants and images the better!

To see the remainder of Libeth’s winning photos along with the rest of the incredible entries we received in 2014, visit www.crateinc.com and click on the “photos” tab at the top of the page.

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.

Cathedral in the Desert

Cathedral of the Desert The following is an excerpt from my thesis written for the Environmental Humanities graduate program at the University of Utah, where I graduated in 2012.

Finding Grandpa’s picture in that place was my first clue that he had been there before me. But at the time I floated within the walls of the drowned Cathedral in the Desert, and took my own picture, Grandpa’s ghost was just 4 years old and 40 feet underwater. “Cathedral in the Desert, 17 September 1965, Clear Creek- Escalante Canyon before Lake Powell got to it. But the Reeder boys got there before Lake Powell did,” read the caption written in cursive ballpoint pen. In the picture was my dad and one of his brothers running around an alcove rimmed with maidenhair ferns fed with falling water. The towering, curving walls looked as if they would close out sunlight, except for the few minutes of noonday sun. While most of Grandpa’s pictures I found were black and white, this was an exception, revealing shades of green rarely seen in the desert. My photo in color film looked monochromatic, taken 42 years later.Cathedral of the Desert 2007

In my picture, the Cathedral was half buried up to the lip of the waterfall, even with a reservoir stricken with a decade of drought. An 80-foot thick, dull-white bleach zone marked the high point of the reservoir and dissected the contrast of red rock with streaking tapestries of desert varnish in blacks and browns. This was an important event on my journey, one that revealed currents in the river to follow. To see these canyons, these tributaries leading to the main stem of the Colorado River as my grandpa did, would be to witness a world of balance between humanity and the world that sustains us. I would learn that the question I was pursuing was not what I am willing to die for, but what I am willing to live for….

In April 2012, I drove the Hayduke to the Cathedral in the Desert to see how the high water of 2011 had reburied this reemerging icon. As I motored into the Cathedral, I barely recognized the canyon from just 5 years before. The elevation of the reservoir had risen 35 feet from when I was here in 2007, to 3,636 feet above sea level. Where I motored, the paradise Grant captured in 1965 lay 80 feet below me. I motored around the bend and around the next, and tied off to a chock rock exposed at the top of the second waterfall all but buried.

IMG_4955 I camped that night up-canyon of the Cathedral, and did what Grant would have done– I marveled at the beauty of what was left. Beyond the black waters of the stagnant canyon, restoration is thriving in shades of green moss, maidenhair fern, and electric cottonwoods. The bleached zone on the canyon wall was dissected with fresh desert varnish, streaking down in vibrant contrast. 3,557. This is the elevation at which the Cathedral stands in full glory.

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Through these drought years I think about what’s happening in Glen Canyon. It seems that since 2002 the water levels have fluctuated around 50% capacity. I go to www.lakepowell.water-data.com to see how far the Cathedral lies underwater, waiting for the day it dries out. Today the reservoir is just over 100 feet below capacity, 48% full. This means that the water covering the bottom of the Cathedral is 41 feet thick. I feel very ambivalent about high water years. While a thick snowpack means big water in Cataract, I know all that water going downstream stops in Lake Powell and reburies places that have reemerged. Over the last decade I have returned to the Cathedral in the Desert to see the progress of restoration, of the natural processes that carved these canyon walls reclaimed. And what I see is the dead zone of the reservoir ebb and flow between these arcing walls. With our changing climate I know that it is inevitable that this place will return. The Cathedral in the Desert remains an icon that represents the beauty of a special place lost, but also the fragility of providing water in the arid west that so many people depend on. To witness this reemergence is to realize a world where we as humans find balance between growth, progress, and the beauty of the natural world that also sustains us. This is the world I hope to share with my children.

-Ben

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Remembering Martin Litton

DSCN0156   From the Green River to the Redwood Forest to the Grand Canyon, Martin Litton was unapologetically dedicated to the defense of wilderness in the American West. As a journalist and a boatman he was openly passionate and sometimes downright angry, critically weighing in on some of the region’s most contested environmental battles. Litton’s efforts achieved lasting results, not only setting him apart as one of the most respected and effective conservationists to date, but propelling the environmental movement into mainstream consciousness as well. He was an accomplished outdoorsman, river running legend, Grand Canyon outfitter and an integral protector of the wild places he loved. Litton died Sunday at his home in Palo Alto, CA, at the age of 97.

Litton fell in love with wilderness as a teenager when he and a friend rented burros and spent 12 days climbing Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was a pilot in World War II before tackling environmental issues as a journalist for the Los Angels Times, Sunset Magazine and as board member of the Sierra Club. His work eventually landed him on a Grand Canyon river trip and he was immediately hooked. He founded a river company called Grand Canyon Dories and ran commercial river trips in the small wooden boats until the mid 1980’s, all the while continuing the outspoken activism that he had become know for.

Though he spearheaded campaigns that turned the tables in numerous environmental battles, one of Litton’s most recognized accomplishments is his contribution to the defeat of two proposed dams on the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon. By publicizing the government’s plans for the dams, scrutinizing their research and writing about their process, he helped bring the nation’s focus to the Grand Canyon like never before. He nearly single-handedly convinced the budding Sierra Club to take on the cause of the Grand Canyon and he used his own boats and skills as a boatman to row the dam’s most powerful proponent through the corridor of the canyon itself. Ultimately, Litton was instrumental in convincing politicians and the public alike of the Grand Canyon’s intrinsic value as an untouched wonder and irreplaceable national treasure. The Sierra Club’s anti-dam campaign eventually led to the defeat of both Grand Canyon dams in the critical months just before the project would have been finalized, eventually flooding parts of the Grand Canyon and changing it forever.

Here is author Kevin Fedarko’s telling description of Litton addressing a board meeting of the Sierra Club in 1963 at the Jack London Hotel in Oakland, CA. In this excerpt form Fedarko’s book, The Emerald Mile, Litton implores the club to take up the fight against the Marble and Bridge Canyon dams.

 “He began by declaring that it didn’t make a hoot of difference that the canyon might not look any different from the top if the dams were put in. The river was the essence of the place, its heart—the thing that had not only carved and shaped the rock but also sustained the unique and fragile ecosystem at the bottom. If the river were dammed, the spirit of that place would vanish, and what replaced it would be a poor substitute: a pair of stagnant reservoirs whose surfaces would endlessly and noisily be crisscrossed by powerboats and houseboats and water-skiers.

What this amounted to, Litton continued, was the annulment of a space whose value resided not in the fact that it was accessible, but rather in that it was isolated and untrammeled. Indeed, access to the masses was the very thing that would destroy what made the place so precious by canceling out those elements that the canyon now possessed in abundance—the silence, the solitude, and the fact that it was so implacably cut off from the rest of the world. Those qualities were as fragile as a little wooden boat, and as Roosevelt’s words clearly implied, the willingness to nurture and protect such treasures amounted to a national test of character, as well as a covenant with future generations of Americans. A test that the Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation had demonstrably failed. Inside the canyon, Litton thundered, Interior and Reclamation are interlopers, and we don’t have to surrender to their scheme because the place doesn’t belong to them. It’s our canyon. It’s our national park.

As for the idea that the government was too big and powerful to confront head-on, Litton’s contempt was scathing. Of course it will be an uphill battle, he said. Of course our resources are limited and our numbers are few. But in God’s name, how can anyone in this room look themselves in the mirror if we don’t resolve to go after this with everything we’ve got?

 Historians often minimize or discount the impact that any one individual can have on human destiny—and for good reason. Given the broad tides in the affairs of men, and the complexity of the forces that shape and change history, it is almost always a mistake to ascribe too much significance to the actions of a single person. But even the most jaded observer can concede that, every now and then, a man or woman steps up to the plate and takes a mighty swing that clears the bases and fundamentally changes the game. In the Jack London Hotel that morning, this is what Litton achieved.”

 To read more about Litton’s life, his work and his lasting impact on the conservation movement and river running, check out the links below.

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-martin-litton-20141202-story.html#page=1

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141202-grand-canyon-dams-colorado-river-martin-litton-conservation/

Giving Thanks

On Thanksgiving Day, when it comes time to truly tally all that fills my world with joy, it is impossible not to include my life as a river guide. Though I’m grateful each time I look over my shoulder at a rapid safely navigated or emerge from a hike into a hidden side canyon oasis, this time of year I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the unmistakable elements of my life outdoors that make it so darn full. Here are just a few:

Today I am thankful for wild places; any wild place, all wild places, untouched as they can be by the long reach of our industrial human hand. A place where it is possible to find solitude, to sit in silence or to observe the natural processes of this incredible Earth, is a place to be grateful for in my book.

I feel this gratitude when I’m hiking by myself, but not completely alone, listening to the playful chatter of a family of Ravens. When I lie down at the end of a long day beneath an infinitely dark sky filled with the crisp glitter of stars beyond stars, I cherish places removed from floodlights, stoplights, even my own porch light. After I’ve happened upon a herd of Desert Bighorn sheep, a dozen of them huddled atop one crumbling boulder, or a rattlesnake barely decipherable from the cactus its tangled among, I am a gracious visitor in their habitats. I am thankful for the a lone Gray Wolf who recently made her way 450 miles to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, sparking the possibility that her species could return there someday after a 70-year absence.

Today I’ll toast the rugged, remote, untouched, undiscovered corners of the Earth and the need for them among all of our modern distractions.

I am also thankful for the organizations and individuals who fight for protection of wilderness and how we use get to use it. It seems I read about a new assault on a sacred place almost daily and am disheartened to think about it being irreversibly or unnecessarily altered. Still, it is also often that I meet and hear inspiring stories about people who persist in the fight to protect open spaces.

Currently, the dedicated activists at The Grand Canyon Trust and Save the Confluence are working to dismantle a development proposal that would place a tramway and snack bar at confluence of the Little Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The Canyonlands Watershed Council and the Sierra Club are fighting fracking and natural gas drilling operations that are already underway on the borders of Canyonlands National Park. The Grand Canyon, the Book Cliffs, Utah’s Canyon Country and Alaska, the spectacular landscapes in which we work and play, in are constantly threatened by encroaching civilization. Thankfully there have been and continue to be explorers, writers, artists, activists, politicians and every-day people who take on the well-being of wilderness as their own. It is not easy and not often gratifying. I praise their energy and dedication.

Finally, I am eternally appreciative of the CRATE family and my place in it. I’m talking owners, guides, guests, friends, guests-turned-friends, drivers, allies, pioneers, legends, cronies, everyone. This company is tight-knit and we are all better for it. Along with being fortunate to wake up at the bottom of a canyon most mornings, I am lucky to spend my days exploring with folks who have become my closest friends. On each trip I am supported by the curiosity, kindness and team spirit of the CRATE crew. Laughing and living with them and having the opportunity to do the work we do as guides is a privilege.

Our crew is as diverse and talented as our clients, who are an exemplary bunch as well. Every day on the river offers me something new to learn. Whether I’m getting details about being a tugboat captain on the Mississippi River or spending the afternoon listening to a 14-year-old’s perspective on life in the Netherlands, I am able to show people a special part of the world and they are able to show a special part of it to me.

I am thankful for the relationships and the set of skills I have acquired over course of thirteen seasons that allow me to spend time with such vibrant people and have a part in this exchange.

So today, as much as ever, I am grateful that I get to be a river guide and that I am able to spend time in spectacular remote places with genuine people with which to share them. Happy Thanksgiving to river runners and wilderness enthusiasts everywhere. We are quite a lucky bunch. Cheers! – Mikenna

Yucca bloom in the Maze, Canyonlands, NP.

Yucca bloom in the Maze, Canyonlands, NP.

Going Down Big- Cataract 2011

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The snowpack in the mountains of Utah in June, 2011 were 420% of average. The guides at Colorado River and Trail Expeditions knew that they were about to witness the Colorado River in flood stages that nobody had seen in nearly 30 years. In fact, the boatmen that were running the river in 1983 and 1984 were still talking about how big the water was in Cataract Canyon. The stories were told over and over again to the point where newer guides would reenact these legendary boatman by putting their hands on their hips, puffing their chest out just a bit and stare off into the imaginary distance with a voice full of reverence say, “back in ’83…” The truth was that we all just wanted our own stories to tell, to know just what it felt like to be confronted by waves like the Red Wall, standing a boat up vertically.

So when we saw the snowpack data, and how it just continued to stack up in the spring instead of melt down into the rivers, we knew that there was potential for the water to get even bigger than anyone had ever seen before. We started to get ready, with newly acquired aluminum frames to run in our 35 foot long Leyland S-Rigs, fired up the motors and packed out the first trip. It was the beginning of June, and Cataract hadn’t yet reached its average peak flow of 50,000 cubic feet of water per second. When the big flows would boil down between the big canyon walls was anyone’s guess, but it was known that the cycle would begin just 3 days after the first sun-burn days of summer. Rigging the boats at the ramp we felt the first trails of sweat dripping down our backs and we knew the Rockies were melting.IMG_4042We were on a four-day motor trip, so we had plenty of time to hike side canyons to waterfalls and ancient Native American cultural sites. At Little Bridge Canyon we camped at my favorite high- water campsite, with Prince’s Plume, nodding off at the end of its bloom. 4 feet-high candlesticks, these members of the mustard family found root in the soils of this ledgy camp.

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By the time we pushed off, the water had risen past the top of the main ledge and we knew the rapids were getting bigger down below. At Brown Betty Beach, the sand was buried, up past the base of the Tamarisk at the very top of the beach. We stopped for lunch. And while our group was eating Mexican salad wraps, we called out on the satellite phone to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center to find out what kind of flow we were looking at. 67,000 cfs. None of the boatman here had quiet seen this much water before and the intensity of the situation seemed to escalate. We cleaned up lunch, not eating much ourselves, and pushed off. Brown Betty Rapid seemed monstrous- if this is what class III looked like- we were in for a big day. When we got to rapid 7, the North Seas, and the haystacks stacked up, feeling like Hermit Rapid on steroids!

Capsize and Mile Long Rapids made us feel like we were running a completely different river. Our normal rock-monolith markers were now buried deep, and creating ferocious hydraulics. Our big boats flexed in the troughs, absorbed breaking waves and extended through the maelstrom up into the desert sky. It felt like a wild roller coaster, yet the boats felt surprisingly stable. At Big Drop II we stopped to scout and decided to go right down the middle.IMG_4107

At this water level there was no gap between where the Ledge Wave lies, and the chaos from Little Niagara- today they met and formed the Red Wall. We motored in at full cob, and I’ll never forget the sensation of climbing, climbing, climbing, and the pure exhilaration of cresting the wave, and falling back down the backside. Repeat customer and friend of CRATE Lina Berman filmed the following video from the front of the boat, and when she saw the Red Wall Wave approaching, she dropped her camera to hold on with both hands.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3g2UKLLdv8

This crux of the canyon lasted but a few seconds, and while we knew there were more big waves to run below, the biggest were now behind us. The excitement and thrill from this day left an impression in my mind over the last few years. We saw nearly 80,000 cfs that summer, with the river peaking at 89,000 cfs. It did not get bigger than the high water seasons of 1983 and 1984 where it got over 100,000 cfs, but it was high water for much longer. The slower winter run-off related to above average peak flows of 50,000 cfs for over 60 days. That’s 2 months of high water compared to the average peak day of high flow. And the next generation of boatmen did have stories to tell, enough to have rookie boatmen rolling their eyes now when we talk about 2011.

Of course, not everyone is looking for the craziest ride of their life. When the water drops, as it usually does in late June, July and August, the beaches we camp on can stretch on for nearly a mile. The way that high water flows deposit fresh sand on the banks gives you the feeling that nobody has ever been there before. And with just 5,000 people traveling down Cataract Canyon a season, (compared to 25,000 in Grand Canyon) you just might not see anyone else at all. Cataract Canyon always holds some sort of mystic in my mind. As the winter approaches I watch the snowpack to see what kind or runoff next spring will bring. Whether its big water or big beaches, wild flowers or slot canyons, the river running through Canyonlands has something amazing to share.DSC_0436