Photo (L>R):- front row kneeling Diana Lynn Rau, Mart Hartford, Greg Dubois, Claire Pitcher, Scott Brooks; back row – standing Jay Barakat, Charlie Rau, Steve Mikol, Paige Merriam, Phil McMurray, Chad Measner, Hunter Smith, Brian Miller, Dan McMurray – tour leader permit holder Photos and story by Diana Lynn Rau
A raft trip through the Grand Canyon is often the dream of a lifetime. For us it was escape from a world going crazy. When we put on the Colorado River at Lees Ferry March 4, 2020, the corona virus was affecting China and other parts of Asia and beginning to really hit Europe. The US President was considering the virus threat a hoax and little preparation was made by our government. By the end of our second week on the river, we were hearing stories from other raft trips passing us that the world was in chaos. What would we return to?
Mid-January there were announcements about a corona virus outbreak in Wuhan China. It quickly became evident that this was something different, something very dangerous. As the “new” virus spread and started claiming lives, concern grew for people traveling to China and adjacent areas. Since I am the official recommended travel agent for the American Cross Country Skiers Association (a nation-wide Master Nordic skiers Association recognized world-wide), I was quite concerned as the Master Nordic World Cup was scheduled for Milan Italy March 5-14 and the US contingent was numbering over 200. Milan became a hotspot of the virus in Italy as the virus spread and the end of February got closer. The US Association Director John Downing as well as other Directors world-wide pressured the World Cup organization to consider cancelling the event but the government resisted because of the effects on the economy among other reasons. The Olympic Committee organization finally succumbed, and the event was cancelled on 27 February leaving me only days to cancel the US participants I had booked.
Travel agents everywhere were dealing with similar cancellations but the main problem was that airlines, hotels and tour companies had not yet established policies to deal with this crisis. Never had this happened in recent memory. Many were not taking the threat seriously and were not accepting our clients should really not be traveling. Travel agents were in the middle trying to get refunds for clients but could not get answers – the situation changed every day. Everyone was in the same boat- losing any profits or commissions earned for much of their work over the last year and projected for the coming year.
For me the complication was other events that I volunteer for. The Grand Nordic Kids program big Finale Festival was Friday afternoon and, with record participation from Kids, great support from local businesses and a wonderful group of volunteers to teach the kids, you can’t just cancel. Saturday was the rescheduled Grand Nordic Ranch2Ranch Nordic Trek which again set a record for participants that were signed up for this, our main fundraiser for youth Nordic programs in Grand County. The weather was perfect and the Trek went off with barely a hitch, thanks mainly to the dedication of a group of people and a huge number of incredible volunteers. But I got very little of my travel cancellation work done.
Sunday, we cleaned up from the Trek and packed food, clothes and rafting gear for a 21-day private raft trip on the Grand Canyon with a mainly local group headed by permittee Dan McMurray. Monday morning 6am we met to caravan to Page, AZ, to allow for last minute shopping Tuesday morning before going to Lees Ferry to rig boats. I worked on my computer while driving whenever possible and sat in the Hotel room glued to my screen and telephone while my poor husband Charlie did our shopping and rigging alone. The others spent the night before launch at the put-in rafter camp while I worked into the night with Charlie driving back to get me in time to return for the mandatory Ranger talk 9am launch morning. A recently installed tower allowed me enough signal for email and text for the last minute confirmations before we launched Wednesday afternoon March 4. Thank you to the understanding of my fellow rafters, soon to become almost family after 21 days on the Colorado River.
Our first week was filled with beautiful sunshine and warmer than normal temperatures, allowing us great hiking time and recovery time from boating problems. This was the earliest in the year that we had rafted in the Canyon and spring was just starting. Our last contact with civilization – the Navajo Bridge which was strangely devoid of California condors and the river started to drop thru layers of time. The rim of Kaibab Limestone gave way to the cliffs of Coconino Sandstone into the Marble Canyon. Below were the slopes of red Hermit Shale and the Supai group giving way to the Redwall limestone. The last of the Paleozoic layers – the Muav, the Bright Angel Shale and the Tapeats Sandstone are up to 540 million years old. In the Marble Canyon, Vasey’s Paradise was flowing, sparkling in the sunshine, and we took a group photo in the incredible Redwall Cavern, big enough to cover several football fields. The great blue herons kept us company flying down the river with us and, as usual, a pair of ravens seemed to be assigned to each camp site. We were able to camp at Nankoweap and made the hike up to the Puebloan granaries that make this area so famous. From here, we took the classic Grand Canyon photos on sunny warm day.
The often milky-blue Little Colorado was muddy, showing that the rains had started in the areas drained by the side canyons. We started getting rain on the river which made for beautiful mornings with fog on the Canyon walls and farther peaks of the Canyon. Charlie and I usually sleep out in the open in the Grand Canyon but, due to the rain this trip, we set up our tent more than most other trips combined and we each have more than 10 trips on this river. We saw the stromatolites (some of the first primitive life forms) up Carbon Creek and the ancient Puebloan dwellings at Unkar Delta.
Unkar, Hance and Sockdolager demanded a river scout then lots of dodging rocks, holes and lateral waves. The volume of water itself demanded good boating skills, strength, ability to read water and picking the right line. But Charlie always says he would rather follow a woman through a rapid because they relied on finesse instead of muscle. Some of it is just luck and the way the wave breaks on you.
In this area the layers of the Grand Canyon Supergroup disappear in what is known as the Great Unconformity. The layers just disappear, and you find the Tapeats Sandstone sitting on the dark grey schist, gneiss and pink and grey granite. The Inner Middle and Lower Granite gorges are famous for their Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite over a billion and a half years old! Day 9, Phantom Ranch was sunny and people were still hiking in and out of the Canyon. The mule train arrived while we were getting fresh water and some of our group strolled up to the Ranch to mail postcards. The river was flowing between 10-15,000 most of the trip so we were moving right along and had lots of camp and hiking time. But it was mostly to bed soon after sunset and some people were up at the first light of dawn.
The second week, the rains started with sunny days thankfully on our planned layover days to dry out tents, sleeping bags and other gear and hiking when we could. Hermit, Granite and the group of rapids known as the Gems are some of the biggest white-water in the Canyon. Both Hermit and Crystal gave one of our boats problems and we got to successfully practice our rescue skills. Magical places like Shinumo Creek and Elves Chasm delight your playful side while massive travertine deposits form ghostlike images and flows over the other layers. Slot canyons like Blacktail or Matkatamiba offer hikes winding thru the layers for miles, like up Tapeats Creek to Thunder River, across Surprise Valley and out Deer Creek, the Patio and Deer Creek Falls. The hard Vishnu Schist forms beautiful fluted shapes like the Doll’s House above Bedrock Rapid. Until flooding in the 1990’s, Havasu Creek was one of the best examples of the beautiful travertine dams – even now it is a wonderful picturesque place to hike.
The sun came out as we passed Vulcan’s Anvil to heighten the anticipation of Lava Falls Rapid, the giant of the river. Lava Falls was raging but we celebrated at the bottom with great runs by all. Wet but happy we all had a drink together on the beach below. We then entered the flatter water below and stared at the Canyon walls, mesmerized by the lava flows that cascaded from the vents on the Esplanade, eventually flowing down the river channel. The basalt columns form incredible patterns and this is a favorite part of the canyon for me. From Parashant Camp, we hiked to the Book of Worms after relaxing in the sun for a river bath and a chance for me to wash my long hair. The rain started again when we got to the warm but putrid Pumpkin Springs and walked upstream to the manholes where the Tapeats Sandstone was carved into swirls and holes that you could actually crawl through. Our first views of Diamond Peak reminded us about entering the real world. A chance to meet Mandela from South Africa, a guide worldwide with Canyon Expeditions and friend of one of our rafting family, softened that anxiety with her stories of worldwide adventures and listening to her play the Didgeridoo, an unusual African instrument. She was leading a training trip and they, too, were not sure what we all would find.
I had a reasonable idea of what was happening to the world but most of the other 14 people had last communicated from Page on March 2. Scott Brooks had a Garmin inReach GPS Navigation system loaned by a friend to communicate for emergencies. We started getting curious at the end of week two when passing trip groups commented on rising hospitalizations, deaths, and travel restrictions and tried to reach a reliable friend. However, everything was still speculative and we tried to remain calm not knowing what was real and what was fantasy.
Fearful that their people were at risk from shuttle drivers picking up rafter groups and other rafters passing through, the Hualapai Indian Reservation that allows passage for pickup at the Diamond Creek takeout was closed. The big question was would they allow our shuttle drivers to pass through the Indian Reservation to even pick us up? Communication two days before confirmed our pickup since we were a previously scheduled trip and we could relax. We learned that the National Park had stopped future launches starting the day we got off the river so the virus could not spread down the river.
The driver of the pickup van read us a notice about the virus, its effects and our expected behavior. Stunned, we loaded our gear onto the large flatbed truck, washed our hands and loaded into the van, driving back to our vehicles at Lees Ferry after a brief stop at the Flagstaff Safeway for lunch. To stop, we had to set up a hand wash station in the middle of the parking lot to be used exiting the van to enter any stores. We had to wash again before getting back into the van. Hunter recounted wide-eyed the extended hand of the checkout clerk in Safeway as she dropped his change into his hand fearing to touch him. The few people in the store walked as though scared of coming near anyone else. The grocery store shelves were almost empty in many aisles. People had on gloves and masks over their faces. Shops, restaurants and hotels we saw were closed. It was easier to stop along the road for a pee break than find an open gas station convenience store. Some rest areas had left their rest rooms open but you couldn’t count on it. What was happening? One thing we knew was that we had been in supreme isolation – more than three weeks in quarantine.
Thank goodness the hotel we had booked back at Lee’s Ferry to sort our gear, sleep and head back to our various homes honored our reservation but provided all services from a distance. We used left-over food from the trip or got a few things at the Page grocery store since everything but the pumps at gas stations were closed and headed home early next morning.
With dropped jaws , we caught up on the recent Coronavirus developments by listening to the radio and checking our cell phones and emails. We felt the sense of panic and knew there was just a huge feeling of the unknown. En route home, we heard about the governor’s order to shelter in place or stay at home starting the next day. We needed to sort gear and get food since our refrigerators were empty. We heard about the death tolls, the hospital shortages, the lack of toilet paper, the new six-foot social distancing rule, the frequent hand washing and request to not touch your face.
After learning more about COVID19, the requests made in Colorado that you hear emphasized every day are quite reasonable from a lay persons point of view. My Public Health undergraduate degree tells me the coronavirus is similar to influenza and appears to be spread by coughing or sneezing molecules containing the virus that can continue to live outside the body on objects. Since we know schools can be the hotbed of spreading colds and other diseases, children have always been taught to cough into their sleeve at school. People coughing can spew droplets about five feet so to ask people to stay six feet apart makes sense. To ask infected people to cover their mouths with a mask or cloth also makes sense as the cover catches the droplets containing the germs or virus. How long those droplets and the virus they might contain can live on different surfaces has been a major unknown. Since the virus has an initial period of 5-7 days when the infected person is asymptomatic or does not feel ill or show other symptoms, it makes sense for everyone to use some type of mask or barrier to prevent unintentional spreading of the virus from themselves to another whether they feel sick or not. The mask keeps another person from getting sick from you!
You keep hearing certain requests repeatedly from government and health agencies everywhere – stay at home, social distancing, wear a mask, wash hands, do not touch your face. In our rural area, our hospital facilities could be easily overwhelmed and we don’t have ICU beds. Staying at home is an easy way to practice social distancing to avoid the spread of COVID19. Grand County life is naturally distancing but our area is amazing for get-togethers of all kinds which have been respectfully cancelled. Schools are closed and most churches are doing podcasts or connecting with people online. Grocery stores and other essential businesses are enforcing these government rules. The simple mask – even a bandana – is another easy preventative that, for us, is quite natural but usually as a weather deterrent. Washing hands has been the custom in homes forever so it should be easy to just do it more frequently and more seriously. Refraining from touching our face transmitting virus we could pick up anywhere is the hardest part. But these simple acts are having a real effect – the curve of rate of infection and death is flattening. I just wish our Federal government had been more prepared.
I bow to all the health care workers and those in essential businesses out there. I hope that all of us can find a few dollars or other ways to take care of these people and their families It is a hard time for businesses and their employees who expected to earn a good percent of their annual income during our peak tourist season so we need to treat each other well, be kind and help each other. Look out for your friends and neighbors and those people most at risk – older people or those with chronic lung conditions or heart disease. Try not to hoard supplies but share what you have and work with each other. Grand County is coming together in many new and beautiful ways.
We really are all in this together. But this pandemic, too, will end…