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number one
Lee’s Ferry
River Mile 0

The Beginning of Our Journey

Lee’s Ferry marks the beginning of our journey.

For the next eight days, my group will raft the 90 miles from Lee’s Ferry to the Bright Angel Trail, where we will hike up to the rim of the Grand Canyon. The second group will hike down Bright Angel Trail and raft to the next road access at Diamond Creek, 135 miles downriver.

What happens between those points, I’m told, can be life-changing.

This spot is in Marble Canyon. It’s surrounded by vermillion cliffs and is directly downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. It offers the only road access to the Colorado River for hundreds of miles.

“This is like a giant ecological boat ramp,” says graduate student Evan Wolf, taking in the land’s natural slope to the river.

Once we get on the river, we won’t see another road for 225 miles downstream. 

We arrive in vans and a truck carrying a long trailer full of gear. Our guides from UC Davis Campus Recreation and Unions’ Outdoor Adventures move into a flurry of activity. There are boats to fill with air; dry sacks, food, kitchen gear, groover buckets and jugs of water to load; life jackets to arrange; hundreds of knots to tie. This takes the better part of the day.

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Controlled chaos and science in the Grand Canyon

Part of the group will row a bit downstream to camp tonight, while the rest of us will camp here at Lee’s Ferry. Amid the controlled chaos of the boat launch, geology professor and flood expert Nicholas Pinter is anxious to introduce students to the science of the Grand Canyon.

Nicholas holds the Roy J. Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences, which partially funds the trip. He’s the primary faculty instructor for the class, yet he’s also a student himself on this trip: This is his first time exploring the Grand Canyon, and he’s thrilled to be here.

His excitement is subdued, as is his nature. A quiet, compact man, he usually has a glint in his eye — the kind of expression one wears when recalling a good memory, or thinking through an idea. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, it tends to be succinct, instructive and to the point.

Jeffrey Mount, a gregarious California water expert and professor emeritus at UC Davis, is the class’ founding instructor. This is the first year Jeffrey couldn’t come on the trip, marking a baton-passing of sorts for Jeffrey and Nicholas.

Joining Nicholas in leading the trip’s first half is Center for Watershed Sciences’ project scientist Sarah Yarnell, plant sciences professor Truman Young, and geology professor Dave Osleger.

A group of team members launches a gear-filled raft onto the Colorado River
Avi Patil, a UC Davis alum and guide with UC Davis’ Outdoor Adventures gets help pushing a gear-laden raft into the Colorado River. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Colorado River a contentious water system

“No introduction can give justice to this,” Nicholas tells the group, gesturing to the water and cliffs towering above. “Here we are on the aorta. This is the Colorado River, for god’s sake. This is one of the most contentious water systems in the West, if not the world.”

Nicholas points to a nondescript, beige cylindrical structure looming from one side of the river. A cable strung with two orange balls is connected to it, stretching across the river.

“It doesn’t look like much, but everything hinges on that and the amount of water it measures, drop per drop,” Nicholas says.

It’s a U.S. Geological Survey stream gage, which measures the water flowing through the river. Installed in 1921, its results have determined major treaties and compacts concerning water diversions. A great deal of conflict over water in the West stems from that unassuming structure. 

“Every single drop of that is spoken for,” Nicholas says. “If one drop too many is taken by Arizona, then California screams. And if one drop too many is taken by California, everyone else screams. This is an incredibly important spot for hydrology.”

The moment is an opportune time to remind the group what this trip is about — the fusion of hydrology, geology and ecology.

“This trip is about water in a desert and what that means,” Truman says.

Park ranger rescue

In the late afternoon, a park ranger’s truck speeds into the launch area parking lot and stops abruptly. The rangers ready a motorized rescue boat, run aboard, and rush down the river. We hear a helicopter overhead. No one says much of anything, almost as if it’s bad luck to acknowledge misfortune on the river. We later see the rangers return.

Apparently, a man tried to canoe by himself up the Paria River, a tributary to the Colorado, and got tossed from his boat. He swam for about a half hour in the river, which hovers around 48 degrees year round, before being rescued. He’s expected to be fine. Still, it’s an instructive reminder on this first day not to mess around when heading down the Colorado River.

Nicholas Pinter talks about rafting down the Colorado River with the ecogeomorphology class at UC Davis.
“This is one of the most contentious water systems in the West, if not the world.” –Nicholas Pinter, geology professor

First night in the Grand Canyon

My first night sleeping in the Grand Canyon is perfectly warm, leaning toward cool. Crickets chirp in the background. Above is a sky I forgot contained so many stars. I was beginning to think, in my suburban life, that Orion and the Big Dipper were the only constellations left. Here, there are millions of stars, sparkling bright and clear, as if saying, “Remember us? We’ve been here the whole time.”

A timelapse shot of the starry sky above the colorado river
Stars fill the sky and a headlamp creates a trace of light as UC Davis graduate students sit in a circle and close out the day. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Toby Maxwell, a long, lean, and good-natured soil biogeochemistry student, spreads out his sleeping bag and sleeps under these stars, a practice he’ll do the rest of our trip. I’m tempted to do the same if not for the specter of scorpions surprising me mid-slumber.

The night is easy. Nothing to do after dinner that’s needed except unpack my dry sack, set up my tent, curl up in my sleeping bag. Read, write. Oh, and it’s all of 8 p.m. I can’t remember such a simple time.

No email, no telephone

We’re thrown out of our worlds here. There’s no email, no telephone. Life is stripped to the essentials — eat, sleep, talk, listen, hike, raft.

There is a satellite phone in case of emergency, but it’s mostly pointless to call home. Whatever is happening there can’t be changed from here.

Awaiting this group back home are sick dogs that might need to be put down, pregnant wives in their third trimester, an ailing grandmother, children big and small, deadlines, work, Trump vs. Clinton vs. Bernie …

All of that has to wait. For the next eight days, there’s no getting out unless by helicopter. Tomorrow, we’ll be on the river, for better or worse. Best to just settle in and enjoy it.

- Kat Kerlin

grey arrow Continue the journey at Stop 2, North Canyon

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Next Stop...North Canyon