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number three
Vaseys Paradise
River Mile 32.2

Floating to Paradise

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!” says UC Davis research scientist and sometimes river guide Sarah Yarnell, rowing out in the morning, as sunlight scatters across the Grand Canyon.

We’re headed toward Vasey’s Paradise, a natural spring and a rare mass of green in a mostly brown desert landscape.

But there’s not a lot of time to talk this morning because the Colorado River greets our group with one rapid after another on a fun stretch called the “Roaring 20s,” which takes us from mile 21 to 29.

River time

As the river calms, it strikes me how the group has relaxed by this point of our trip, too. We’re getting into our routine and rhythms, what many refer to as “river time.” It’s guide Drew Nichols’ favorite part of the trip.

Drew has served as a river guide for the Grand Canyon class three times and is a geomorphologist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. While the geologist and academic in him loves the rocks and scientific inquiry that happens here, it’s the river that keeps him coming back.

“I love the rhythm and how simple it gets,” he says as he rows. Between each slow slap of paddle on water, Drew elaborates: “I love waking up, [slap], having coffee, [slap], rigging my boat, [slap], going down the river, [slap], stopping for lunch, [slap], going for a hike, [slap], eating more food, [slap], going back down the river, [slap], getting to camp, [slap], making dinner [slap], and doing it all over again the next day.”

It’s a sentiment nearly everyone here mentions at one point or another. Science plus adventure plus escape makes for an intriguing and revitalizing combination.

“I love not knowing what day it is,” adds professor Dave Osleger, who’s also riding in Drew’s boat today. “We’re just overly connected. Here you can truly disconnect, and that’s gratifying to me.”

We collectively figure out it’s a Monday, making our morning river run all the more satisfying.

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How the Grand Canyon was made

Dave is a professor in the UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and teaches undergraduate geology classes. He’s used to offering clear, simple, geological explanations for beginners, making him a perfect companion for me on this ride.

As a blue heron flies above and the strum of a guitar comes from another boat, he tells me something startling: “We still don’t know precisely how the Grand Canyon got here. Kinda crazy, huh?”

Sure, we know the Colorado River has been carving the canyon for about 6 million years. But no one knows why a river would cut into this very hard, solid rock in the first place.

“There must be easier places for water to go,” Dave continues. “There are softer rocks and easier routes all around us. Water wants to take the path of least resistance. But for some reason, it chose to eat its way down and carve this very narrow gorge we’re now floating through.”

There are several complex suggestions out there for why this could be, but nothing anyone can confirm. “It’s kind of amazing in this world where we have all this instrumentation and technology that we still don’t know how the Grand Canyon got here,” he says.

Vasey’s Paradise

A bright patch of green sprouts from a canyon wall, with a stream of water spilling out. It’s Vasey’s Paradise, named by explorer John Wesley Powell for his friend George Vasey, a botanist who never got to see the place.

Greenery! Ferns! In the desert! This is plant sciences professor Truman Young’s moment. He doesn’t have much time, as we’re quickly filling water jugs from its natural spring and moving on. He yells above the sound of water gushing from the canyon wall.

Truman Young
Truman Young, UC Davis professor of Plant Sciences, enthusiastically admires the plants that manage to live in the Grand Canyon. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Truman talks about how this is one sliver of the canyon that is not a desert. The plant leaves here are a dark green rather than the pale green color favored by sun-savvy desert plants. He notes that the spring water could be anywhere from weeks to millions of years old. And he mentions the Kanab ambersnail, an endangered snail that thrives here at Vasey’s but lives nowhere else in the canyon.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens of species here that are found nowhere else in the canyon,” Truman says excitedly.

We’re about to hop back in the boat, but first I catch up with Toby Maxwell, a soil biogeochemistry graduate student, for his take. His boat has been interested in all of the little caves that have popped up along this stretch of limestone, which is easily eroded by the river. As for Vasey’s Paradise?

“It’s really beautiful,” he says. “Definitely an oasis. It’s cool to see places where there’s really no soil that can support the kinds of plants in here. It brings them alive just by having water to drink.”

- Kat Kerlin

Learn how the Grand Canyon reflects global, not just Arizona, history with UC Davis geology professor Dave Osleger. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis
“We still don’t know precisely how the Grand Canyon got here. Kinda crazy, huh?” – Dave Osleger, UC Davis geology professor
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