Thursday, September 22, 2016

Treasures of the Grand Canyon: Little Colorado

Two years ago, my crazy family went on yet another fantastic adventure.  When I was a kid, we rode to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and back out) on mules.  This time, we went from top to bottom in length rather than depth, floating from near Lake Powell all the way past Havasu Creek heading towards Lake Meade.  I haven't written about the trip at all yet (we've already discussed how I'm a failure, so I won't get into that again), but I did decide long ago how I want to break it out, because it's too much amazingness to cram into a single post.

I had planned to write one piece dedicated solely to the Little Colorado.  Apparently there's no time like the present!  This pristine, sacred place is currently the focus of a controversial debate about a development plan to build two hotels and a railway that would permanently alter the very heart of the canyon and the rivers, and would increase the number of annual visitors to the tens of thousands.

Full disclosure: I do not support this development plan.  I signed the petition against it.  But I'm not an environmental activist, and I'm not writing this to try to drum up hundreds more signatures advocating on behalf of the canyon.  (Although feel free to sign if you want!)  As ever and always, I want to introduce you to a beautiful natural place, share my memories, and perhaps inspire you to undertake your own adventure to visit!

Visitors to the Little Colorado can get there two ways: by land or by river.  I am not familiar with the details of the hiking routes, but I believe there are a couple different options.  By boat, there is one way: float downstream on the Colorado River from the put-in point at Lee's Ferry, which is several days river-ride to the north.

The Colorado River, architect of the Grand Canyon, is a deep, fast, cold, darkly hued force of nature.  The Little Colorado, one of its many tributaries, is exactly the opposite.  It's smaller and shallower, and therefore a bit warmer, but the most noticeable difference of all is its shocking aquamarine color.  We knew when we were near the confluence of the two rivers because a cloud of brilliant blue mushroomed out into the murky waters of the main river.  The currents intertwine such that the waters of the Little Colorado blossom upstream a bit before spinning out into the center of the river and progressively blending into darkness.

We tied up the rafts, grabbed our life vests, and piled out of the boats for a short hike away from the main river and up the Little Colorado.  We waded across the mouth of the confluence, stepping carefully through the opaque neon water, to a dirt path following the bank of the tributary upstream.  Although most of us made it across with water only up to our knees, one friend stepped straight into a sink hole and received a nice dunk in the brisk waters of the little river.  Although warmer than the big river, the Little Colorado was still chilly enough to be very refreshing on a hot summer canyon day.  The steep rock cliffs of the main canyon relaxed, stretching a little wider and flatter to host green shrubs and grass, brights slashes of color among the varied reds of the rocks, dirt, and clay.  There were actually some cabin remnants visible on the bank opposite from the trail we followed.

A half mile or so upstream from the confluence, the Little Colorado runs through a series of minor rapids that are super fun to float with a life vest.  We jumped straight into the cloudy blue water and let our vests support us as we sailed past a few boulders, through some eddies, and out into a wider, still, smooth section of the river.  We made human chains, linking our ankles around the waist of the person in front of us to bounce through the small rapids together.

I loved floating on my back in that open water, letting the life vest cushion me in water that was just as blue as the sky arching high over my head.  The rushing of river water around boulders filled the air, and was the only sound in the canyon.

We learned the hard way that we did need to be cautious with our initial entry into the water.  It's opaque, so it's difficult to gauge the depth simply by peering at it from the bank.  One of our friends sustained a pretty nasty sprained ankle because she energetically leaped into the river, expecting to land in the main channel where she would sink into water over her head.  Instead, she rammed into thick mud that was less than a foot below the water!  Fortunately, she didn't have to hike back to the rafts on her sprained ankle; instead, she strapped on her life vest, carefully limped into the river, and floated all the way back to the confluence while we hustled along the path on the bank to keep pace.  (She was a champ and made it through the rest of the trip, soaking her leg in the river at every chance she got and using a big stick to help her get around camp.)

After a few floats down the rapids, I hiked further upstream until I reached a section where the river flowed over terraces, looking like it was sculpted for a royal garden.  Mud walls, turquoise water, scrub brush, and blue skies.  With the rest of my rafting crew out of site and sound range, there was absolutely nothing around to remind me that there's this busy, crowded world full of people and things outside of the pristine canyon.

Red (rock).  Blue (sky).  Turquoise (water).  Basic colors (basic elements), and a remote, peaceful afternoon to just breathe, float, and absorb as much as my mind and heart could handle.


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