Twig Adventures

GC Day 5: Big Water

Friday, February 23rd 2024
Tanner Camp mile 68.7 to Lower Cremation Camp mile 87.7
19 miles, elevation 2450′

It was very cold overnight and I had frosty condensation on my tent in the morning. My thermometer recorded a low of 33F…the coldest night of our whole trip. This had everything to do with our exposed camp in the wide valley, not a change in the weather. We had a big day planned, with out first class 8 rapids coming up. I was nervous about this, so I rode with Charlie, who had a lot of confidence when it came to most things, especially rafting. He rowed a raft down the Yampa with Rob the previous year, so he had some good experience. His preferred strategy was to approach the rapids with a strong and committed line, driving hard through them by first attacking with a downstream ferry (rowing backwards towards the rapids and turning to face them as needed). This appealed to me somehow and also made for a fun ride. We warmed up with 4 class 6 rapids: Tanner, Basalt, Unkar, and Neville’s. Everyone made it through fine except one raft got pushed up against the left wall on Unkar and lost an oar. Instead of breaking, it popped out of the oar lock and flew up into the air, becoming wedged on a ledge.

Hance rapid…land of the giants

We stopped to scout Class 8 Hance Rapid. I got a good look at this one the year before and even as a hiker it scared me. Sky and I had watched several commercial J-rigs run the rapid, along with a private party. Back then, the river had been running 20,000 cfs and the rapid looked pretty terrifying from the nearby shore. We had water levels around 10,000 cfs this time around, so the rapids didn’t looks as big but I noticed a lot more rocks sticking out. Our goal was to enter near the right and drive hard left behind a large rock which created an eddy called the Duck pond. From there, it was possible to stay more to the left, avoiding a series of giant holes on the right appropriately termed “the land of the giants.” Charlie opted to go first, showing how it’s done. I gulped down the lump in my throat but was glad to just be getting it over with as soon as possible. He downstream ferried a perfect line into the Duck Pond, spun and teed up to the remainder of waves. We easily missed the giants with our textbook run. We all cheered then it got really quiet as we nervously waited for the rest of the rafts. Everyone did a similar run but one raft got too close to a large rock and snapped an oar in half. The raft struggled through the remainder and almost flipped on the edge of one of the giants. Yikes! It was only Day 5 and we were already down 3 oars.

Thankfully that was the worst all day, but we still had Sockdolager, a class 7, to deal with. It packed a very heavy blow with its giant wave train but given Charlie’s confident strategy, it was just heaps of fun. We punched through while it punched back, dousing us with lots of water but not seriously threatening to wreak us. Having momentum made a big difference, I realized. Thank goodness I was wearing my drysuit all day. So was everyone else. Another raft came kind of close to flipping but all others made it through unscathed. We stopped at a much need rest and lunch break at Grapevine Camp. It had been a hard day but we’d already made it to our target campsite and had plenty of time remaining to go about 5 miles further. For good reason, Rob was reluctant to run large rapids late in the day…say past 3 or 4 pm. This was because in the event of a flip, we needed lots of daylight to deal with the problem. We only had one more Class 7, Grapevine rapid to defeat, then we could celebrate. It was to be Laura’s last night on the river and we wanted to give her a good send-off.

Grapevine was pretty straightforward and finally we could relax a little…but not too much! There were several more 4’s and 5’s to negotiate. 83 Mile Rapid seemed to surprise one of the rafts, which took a big hole sideways and again almost flipped. The river seemed to enjoy giving people a ride whenever they let their guard down. We all reached camp upright and with no one even taking a swim. This stretch of the river was where we entered the land of Zoroaster granite and Vishnu schist, the basement rock gorge of the Grand Canyon. It’s a very narrow section with limited views above these deep layers. It can feel like the walls are always closing in and there is limited sunlight. But I still enjoyed the scenery. Camp was on a small terraced ledge, which I thought was pretty cool. Again the moon rising over the canyon wall put on an incredible show and we howled in tune with it. This was one of our rowdiest nights of singing…I wondered if they could hear us a mile down at Phantom Ranch, just around the corner. It was a fun time and another exceptional day. Maybe I could handle this rafting thing after all.

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