Feature

A Grand Adventure
Excerpts from Steve Sonnenberg's travel log

(More photos.)

A trip down the Grand Canyon offers exhilarating adventure, solitude, awe-inspiring natural beauty and a distant retreat from modern life. When you take this trip with Mines geology professor Steve Sonnenberg PhD ’81, it is all these, plus a guided journey back in time through a long chapter of the Earth’s history; the Grand Canyon is one of the most complete sequences of rock to be found anywhere, spanning a period from about 200 million years ago, to close to 2 billion. This year marked the eighth time Steve has led this trip for the Colorado School of Mines Alumni Association, and the 13th time he has gone down the Grand Canyon. Not surprisingly, the guided trip is extremely popular and always has a long waiting list; a group of 28 were lucky enough to go this year.

The following is an abbreviated and edited account of this year’s adventure based on Steve’s travel log. Read the unabbreviated version and see many more photos in Web Extras.

John Wesley Powell made the first boating journey down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon in 1869. After exploring about a 1,000 miles of river upstream from the canyon, he wrote, “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. We have but a month’s rations remaining. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgivings, we enter the canyon below and are carried by the swift water.”

Today we know much more about where we are going, but this trip is still a long and exciting adventure through isolated country, and some very large and potentially dangerous rapids. Thankfully, we are in good hands. Hatch River Expeditions, our outfitter, has been guiding trips for over 70 years, and our three boatman/boatwomen, Ray Pope, his wife Joni, and Sarah Clinger, have over 50 years of combined river experience. Our rafts are 33 feet long and 10 feet wide, each equipped with a 35-horsepower engine. While Powell had to carry his wooden skiffs and gear around most of the whitewater to avoid wrecking on the rocks, we run every rapid in the canyon.

Day 1
I was relieved last night when we gathered to find all accounted for. We are a diverse group, with alumni from the ’50s, the ’90s and every decade in between. This morning, we are picked up early at our motels by Hatch. Since we are now on Grand Canyon time, most have put their watches away and left their Blackberries behind—we’ll have no cell phone coverage and no communication with the “Rim World” for 7 days. At Lee’s Ferry we meet Ray, Joni and Sarah. The boats are loaded with food and supplies, so all that is left is to stow our personal gear and cover it with tarps. Drinks for the day are kept cool in drag sacks draped over the stern. After a general orientation and safety discussion, we cast off.

During the first few days we will be heading south, but after the confluence of the Little Colorado, the river swings west. We begin our journey in the Triassic Moenkopi Formation (famous for reptile footprints), formed about 240 million years ago when this area was an arid to semi-arid coastal plain.

After we run our first rapid, Badger Creek, we stop to look at some 245 million-year-old footprints in the Coconino Sandstone, probably reptile and millipede tracks. Our first Grand Canyon lunch is a big spread of meats, salad, pickles and cookies—it is clear we will not be loosing any weight on this trip. After lunch we run several small rapids before arriving at our campsite at river mile 20.5. Here most of us enjoy a scrambling hike up North Canyon, returning to a dinner of steaks, potato salad and cauliflower, followed by a Dutch oven cake—Powell would be jealous.

Day 2
The day starts at sunrise, around 4:45 a.m. (It is a good idea not to have a watch on.) Coffee is on and we are treated to eggs-to-order, bacon, muffins, fruits and juices, after which we pack the boats by forming a long “duffel line,” along which all the equipment and gear is passed. We are on the river by about 8:00 a.m. This morning we go through the Roaring Twenties—a series of rapids between river mile 20 and 30—before stopping to look at fossils in the Mississippian Redwall limestone (brachiopods, corals and crinoids).

Later, we hike to see some Anasazi petroglyphs and small granaries used for storing corn. Populating the area from about 900 to 1100 A.D., the Anasazi cultivated corn, beans and squash. The corn was their staple, and they went to great lengths to store it safely, building dry, varmint-proof structures in hard-to-find locations. Later in the day we spot an ancient footbridge high up on the canyon walls—one of the Anasazi’s several routes in and out of the canyon area. Further downstream, there’s a huge spring in the Redwall limestone that Powell named Vasey’s paradise. It’s an oasis lush with ferns surrounded by bone dry, sunbaked rock—a striking contrast.

We lunch at Redwall Cavern, which Powell estimated could seat 50,000 people. The children on the trip, Jackie and Zach Foss, and Kai Benedict, have become great friends, and after lunch they enjoy a swim and then play in the sand and mud together. Climbing up a side-canyon a little further downstream, we see yard-long nautiloid fossils—relatives of present-day squid and octopus that swam the deep ocean here over 300 million years ago.

That evening after dinner, Dean Carlson ’93 reads from his great uncle’s diary, Willis Johnson, who traveled through the Grand Canyon in 1938 with Buzz Holstrom, a famous river runner—it sounds as though little has changed.

Day 3
Downstream from our campsite we encounter the Cambrian Tapeats Sandstone that was deposited in a coastal beach and shallow sea environment. Evidence of marine life abounds with numerous burrows in the Tapeats. Looking up at the canyon walls, the colors are breathtaking: intense shades of brown and red superimposed on a blue sky. We enjoy lunch, shaded by slabs of sandstone jutting out from the cliff. The shade feels good, although the weather has actually been relatively cool for this time of year, with highs in the mid-90s.

Later that day we reach the confluence of the Little Colorado River, which is flowing red from recent rains. Unperturbed by the muddy water, many of us enjoy a swim, floating through some small rapids with life jackets as pads.

The evening is spent dining on salmon, enjoying another cake from the Dutch oven to celebrate the birthday of Fritz Foss ’85, smoking some prize Cuban cigars he brought for the occasion and sharing our collective knowledge of the night sky with the help of a pocket laser.

Day 4
From this campground, the river meanders in a wide loop, allowing us to hike across land to Lava Canyon where the boats meet us later in the day. On the two-hour walk, we come across some Precambrian stromatolites—finely layered limestones deposited by some of the earliest life forms on Earth. Over the course of about 2 billion years, starting about 2.7 billion years ago, stromatolites are thought to have gradually ratcheted down concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through photosynthesis, simultaneously raising concentrations of the oxygen-rich gas most organisms depend on today.

While mulling over these events from our planet’s distant past, we run across some much more recent artifacts of life on Earth: a site where about 40 Anasazi families once lived. Remains of dwellings are easily distinguished and pottery shards are abundant.

Back on the river we see a fair amount of whitewater. Unkar (rated 6) is the first really big rapid we’ve run. As the river accelerates, a sheer cliff forces it to the right and massive standing waves curl and crash on their upstream face.

The only brush river runners have with the outside world during the 188-mile journey down the Grand Canyon is Phantom Ranch. Later this afternoon we pass this outpost without stopping—no one needed to contact the “Rim World.” That night we camp at Upper Trinity Creek (river mile 91), where we feast on fajitas and guacamole.

Day 5
We run several rapids during the course of the morning, the most memorable being Hermit. The rapid is a rollercoaster ride through huge standing waves, at the top of which one feels practically weightless. It wasn’t clear whether he was lifted by his own momentum or swept off by a wave, but Chris Benedict ’83 parted company with his raft briefly in Hermit. Acting with impressive speed, the boatman cut the engine and raced to the bow where Chris was clutching a rope. Dripping though he was after being hauled back in, he didn’t look much wetter than the rest of us—Hermit had given us all a thorough soaking.

Later that day we hike up to Elves Chasm, a beautiful waterfall with a deep pool at its base where several of us enjoy some cliff jumping and a refreshing swim. In Blacktail side-canyon we examine the 1.7 billion-year-old Precambrian Vishnu metamorphics, overlaid by the relatively young Tapeats Sandstone (550 million years old). Known as the Great Unconformity, the 1.2 billion-year time gap we were looking at corresponds to a quarter of the Earth’s history. To varying degrees, this phenomenon is found almost everywhere around the globe and it’s a source of endless debate among geologists: what combination of conditions could have worn away at the Earth so universally over such a long period of time? And what brought these conditions to an end? It’s an alluring question, and we enjoyed some speculation of our own on our walk back to the boats.

Day 7
The end of the trip is getting closer, but there’s some anticipation in the air: today we run Lava Falls, the biggest of all the rapids in the canyon. Formed by several eruptions that took place over the last 1.5 million years (yesterday in geologic time), the area caught Powell’s imagination: “What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here! Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into a river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens.”

We approach Lava Falls with some trepidation—it is rated at about 9 with current flows. I am in the lead boat with the head boatman, Ray. In all, the river drops about 13 feet through the falls and there is a sharp turn toward the bottom. We don’t stop to scout, but the other boat does. As the tranquil waters accelerate and constrict, the river is transformed into some huge standing waves and one notorious hydraulic that flips 20 foot rafts as if they were toy boats. Ray enters the rapid close to the right bank and we hit some big waves that soak everyone. He then accelerates with full power toward the left bank to avoid a huge boulder at the bottom of the rapid. In the midst of the swirling current, with 14 people and well over 1,000 pounds of cargo to shunt, a 35 h.p. motor has limitations; we push across the current agonizingly slowly. I watch the rock approach, assessing our progress instant by instant, and share a collective sigh of relief with others when we clear it by less than two feet—literally. From the eddy on river left, we watch Sarah bring her boat safely down, giving the rock a rather wider berth. A shout of excitement goes up from both rafts as they join us in the eddy.

For a few minutes we remain there, watching the powerful water coursing down the drop. Then, as Ray swings our bows downstream once more and we begin the last eight miles of our journey, there’s a shift in the mood—I don’t think any of us want this trip to end. Our final campsite is right next to the helicopter pad at river mile 188. We enjoy another sumptuous supper together and share highlights of the trip. The helicopter will arrive by 7:00 a.m. and several of us resist going to our tents as it signals the end of a fun and magical journey. As stars begin to light up the sky we ponder the vastness of the universe and its age. We have traveled through about 2 billion years of Earth’s history on this trip. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old and about 93 billion light years across. Light from far distant stars can take billions of years to reach Earth. We ponder many things. It is time to return to “Rim World.”


More photos of this year's trip click here. To sign up for next year’s trip, click here.