You should take a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with an outfitting company that sends along a string quartet, a fellow U.S. Census worker told me in 2010. That went on the to-do list immediately, but it took several years for the trip to actually happen.
First, we had to find time for it. Kathy retired in 2014. I retired, went back to work, retired again, work again, retire again and so on until 2022. But during my 2018 retirement, we thought we had time for the Grand Canyon trip. We called Canyon Explorations/Expeditions in Flagstaff, AZ, and they said they’d put us on the waiting list.
So we got on the list. No go in 2018. Not in 2019. And then COVID came around in 2020 and 2021. No go those years.
But it was on for August 16, 2022, with four friends from Montana, until I came down with COVID the week before. I spread the disease to six other family members, including Kathy, within a week. No one wanted us on a 15-day rafting trip, and I was too addled to paddle. The Montana friends went, and Canyon Explorations/Expeditions found us a spot in 2023.
And we went. I loved every minute of it, even getting dumped out of the paddle boat in the Horn Creek Rapids. Kathy does not like sleeping on the ground but braved the rapids, a rattlesnake she discovered on the way to the “Groover” (the ammunition box with a toilet seat that served as the carry-away poop spot) and bugs, scorpions and my snoring.
The guides were informative, helpful and cheerful. The food they cooked was hearty and tasty. And the string quartet . . . outstanding. Led by Steve Bryant, who plays violin in the Seattle Symphony, the quartet played for us in side canyons, and once, even as we floated down the river, our rafts tied together.
Now, we are back in Seattle, thinking about what the next trip will be.
And attending Seattle Symphony concerts.
I’ve got at least one more post on Japan that I want to get up on this blog before I return to our trip to Egypt. But here is a very good read from a blog I follow. John Wreford raises some of the same issues on water, the Nile and Egypt that I have made. But he is on a cycle, visiting farmers and quoting Herodotus.
Every article or book I have read about Egypt includes this quote from Herodotus (circa 490 — 425 BC): “Egypt is a gift of the Nile.”
So there. I have included it, too.
But I wonder if the Nile River might some day take back that gift or stop giving. Especially as Egypt and the 10 other countries that the Nile runs through “mistreat” the river.
Earliest traces of humans in Egypt go back 250,000 years, but the Nile’s gift started long after that when the climate changed and most of Egypt became a desert. Only place left to live was along the Nile. Today, 99 percent of 109 million Egyptians live on five percent of the land — along the Nile, according to a talk given to our tour group by Hany Hamroush. He has a doctorate in geochemistry from the University of Virginia, and returned to Egypt to teach at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo (AUC). His main research is on the impacts of the Nile River and the environmental changes in Egypt now and in the past.
The Nile gave Egypt river currents that flow south to north to float ships down the river and predominant winds that blow north to south to sail up the river. Trade, communications and finally a nation, a civilization. The Nile in Egypt comes from the White Nile, which starts in Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the Blue Nile, beginning in Ethiopia. Eighty-five percent of the runoff in Egypt comes from the Blue Nile, which brings with it lots of mud. Every year around June, the Nile floods in Egypt, bringing rich soil to plant crops in, water to irrigate them.
Until Jan. 15, 1971, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser opened the High Dam at Aswan.
The dam rises 366 feet above the river, is two and a quarter miles long, a half mile wide at its base with a road on top. No more silt from the Blue Nile, but many more megawatts of hydro power. As Toby Wilkinson puts it in his book “The Nile: A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present”:
“The High Dam has regulated the flow of the Nile, consigning the annual inundation — the natural phenomenon that built Egypt — to the history books.”
I could find no one who thought the High Dam was all good or all bad — and I admit I did very few man-on-the-street interviews while in Arabic-speaking Egypt. But in the reading I have done and the few people I talked to in Egypt, the consensus was “some good and some bad.”
Good because the dam brought about “medium floods,” as Hamroush put it. No more famines with low inundations. No more catastrophic floods like the one in 1927. The flood in 2021 was worse than the one in 1927 but not felt in Egypt because of the High Dam, said Hamroush. The dam produces about half of the electricity used in Egypt. Lake Nasser, the 300-mile-long waterway behind the High Dam, now has a productive fishery. The High Dam opened more land with year-round irrigation for agriculture.
Bad because the rich silt stops behind the High Dam. So chemical fertilizers must be used so that the country’s agriculture can feed the nation.
With the higher dam, more land cultivated, chemical fertilizers and more irrigation (think of the Nile as the only water source in Egypt — no rain, no snow pack inside the country), it sounds like agribusiness in the making. However, I looked for but only saw two tractors while in Egypt. Lots of donkeys, horses and manual labor. If Egypt can grow enough food by hand, more power to them.
More bad: Hamroush also pointed out that while silt is stuck behind the High Dam, there is less flow in the Nile so that any silt that reaches the Nile Delta doesn’t completely wash into the Mediterranean Sea. So the delta is sinking, and because of climate change, the sea is rising. The natural geological subsidence of the delta is 6.6 millimeters per year; the global sea rise is 3.3 millimeters per year. Doesn’t sound like much, but in 50 years it could affect four to eight million people, says Hamroush.
With more constant irrigation (mostly for sugar cane) there is more water damage to the foundations of ancient structures. Archeologist Kent Weeks discusses that in this video.
As Wilkerson puts it in his book: “The confident assertions of the High Dam’s cheerleaders, back in the late 1950s, now have a hollow ring. As one son of Aswan laconically put it, the High Dam ‘is slowly killing Egypt.’ “
And that’s not all. The Egyptians may now be paying more attention to how the Nile is treated, especially since someone else is doing the treating. Ethiopia has built and has filled the lake behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. The concrete dam rises 475 feet above the river. The lake behind it covers 724 square miles (about the size of Houston, Texas). It will double Ethiopia’s output of electricity. Sounds good for Ethiopia, bad for Egypt.
For Egyptians, this could lead to ontological security—or the preservation of state identity. As this Carnegie article says:
“Ontological insecurity may arise when internal and external developments disrupt the continuity of established identities and worldviews. It could be argued, then, that the GERD project threatens the continuity of Egypt’s enacted world that sees the Nile as a living being inseparable from Egypt’s history, culture, and civilizational identity. Thus, developments related to the project could force Egypt to redefine its national identity that is centered on the Nile River.”
(Here’s another good article from the Brookings Institute.)
So the Nile could be caught between two huge dams, the High Dam in Egypt and the GERD in Ethiopia, sort of like the Colorado River in the United States, caught between Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams among others. Recently, the U.S. federal government came out with three options for how to use the water from the dwindling Colorado River, which could mean cutting off water to 10 million Americans or plugging the irrigation canals that support a “$4 billion industry that employs tens of thousands of people and puts vegetables in supermarkets across the country during the winter.”
Maybe the question more germane to the United States should be: What if the Colorado River stopped giving?
Trying hard, with little success, not to think of the timing of this COVID attack. Kathy and I went two and one half years into this pandemic without a whiff of COVID. Then a week before our rafting trip through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, I come down with COVID and spread it to seven of 10 family members. The only ones spared are two who have already had it and a 21-year-old who has a cold but refuses to test positive.
I also think about what would have happened if my first symptoms were a week later in Flagstaff.
Night 1: Feeling tired but it had been a long day with the orientation for the rafting trip.
2. Next morning: Some sniffles but nothing so serious that I could not get on the raft with the other 15 or so people who would be sailing down the Colorado.
Day 3 and Day 4: I would have spent these days sleeping, coughing and gulping down anything to sooth my sore throat. Muddy Colorado River water? Not a problem. Can I hang over the edge of the raft with my mouth open like whales sucking krill through their baleen?
Day 5: Guides would have pushed me overboard. If not. . .
Day 6: All guides, clients, orchestra sick in quarters. Section of river roped off to incoming rafters, who have to walk out of the canyon while the rest of us are left on our own to suffer.
I also thought about whether we canceled our trip too early. What if we had kept pushing on to Flagstaff? No travel on Days 3 and 4 (see above) when I was the sickest and Kathy came down with her first symptoms. Then it would be Friday. We’d still have time to stretch our two-day trip to Flagstaff into four driving days. We’d arrive tired and coughing, but with enough cough syrup we might get on the trip. If the company asked us to show a negative COVID test, we were sunk – probably by the other clients who saw the worst coming their way.
I’ve been over this a couple hundred times, and eventually we did what was right: Canceled, infected our family (who took wonderful care of us), then started a slow trip back home. I’m testing negative, Kathy still positive. Mostly holed up in the truck, masked when not, eating outside or in our rooms like bums under a culvert.
Also hard not to dial through everyone I met leading up to getting infected. Was it the person who sat behind us in the theater Friday night and coughed all through “Hamilton”? On the bus and light rail to my doctor’s appointment Friday morning? The clerks in the camera store where I bought three new memory cards and multiple batteries for the hundreds of pictures I was going to take in the canyon? The U-Haul clerks? Some wisp of air that had lost connection with whoever put it out there to travel up my nose. To them I say: May a bird of paradise fly up your nose, may an elephant caress you with his hose. Remember that song? Long-term memory is still intact. And I did fix my own car key (see post two back). I can read instructions. Wait. That’s new. My behavior has changed. A new COVID symptom?
Canyon Explorations found a spot for Kathy and I on the 2023 trip. Maybe they read this piece in the Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2022/07/21/colorado-river-drought-water-crisis-west/
Here’s a scary line for river rafters: “If the reservoirs drop even lower — to a point called ‘deadpools’ — officials at the dams will no longer be able to send water downstream at all . . .”
So much for future river rafting. Hoping we make it through 2023 and our once again scheduled trip.
And so much for the 40 million people who depend on the river for food and water.
We are looking forward to a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in 2022, and probably should not have read this. However, it is a reminder that there are heroes out there, that we should follow our guides (both on the river and off) and that nature is a very powerful thing.
This is a story about rafting a river with a Spotter who is scared spitless.
Wait, I misspelled that last word.
The spotter is supposed to look out for rocks and snags in the river, telling the rower to move around the hazards.
So the Spotter and Rower started out fine the first day on the Smith River in Montana. The flows were high but not so high to cancel the trip as we did a year ago. After four years of trying to get a permit, one of our six applicants (all put in for same date, whoever wins takes us all), finally got one. Last year we tried to go on a permit that had been canceled by someone who backed out, as we did when the floods came.
On our first day at Camp Baker, the put-in spot, we got the briefing from Laura our Leader. Face the danger. Back away from it. Go sideways down the river. Follow the bubbles that indicate current.
A rough landing at our first camp, Lower Scotty Allen campsite, after 12 miles and three hours rowing, but we didn’t overshoot it and go downstream. Fresh vegetables that night for dinner. Weather chilly but clear; the expected rain never showed up.
Next morning: snow. On the 8th of June. So we waited it out, got things mostly dry, packed up and pushed off into something called the “Rock Garden.”
There were rocks – so many that the Spotter went panicky. “There’s a rock. Go back. Back. Back, back, back. BACK, I say!”
So we backed into the bank behind us, spun around, got oars tangled in brush, hit rocks any way. More rocks, more backing. Trying to row forward to avoid hitting the back bank. Final indignity was getting hung up on a rock, trying to get off it before current toppled us. Finally pulled an oar from the oarlock and pushed us off the rock protruding in the middle of our raft. We went to the garden alone while the waves were still on the rocks until we came spinning around a corner and there was Laura, standing hands crossed across her chest before grabbing our bow line.
“I’m scared to death watching you two. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. What are you doing?”
The briefing at Camp Baker now delivered as a lecture:
“Face the danger. Back away from it. Turn the boat and row backwards. Trying to row forward gets you little. You’re working too hard at rowing. Let the river do the work. Stay in the center of the river, not bouncing off the sides. Miss rocks by 20 inches, not 20 feet. I don’t want to see my friends die.”
Which was never my intention, although the Spotter may have had some doubts.
We got back in our boats, a bit chagrined. But we had listened and tried to do better on spotting, rowing and communicating, which we did. Miss the rocks, do better on two-oared turns to face the danger. Watch my back side so that I don’t plow into something worst that what we were trying to avoid up front. No yelling at each other either out of fear or anger. Miss the rocks by 20 inches and settle in for the nice parts of the ride.
That did not include hail while on the river that day before we landed (better but not perfect) at Lower Sunset Cliffs 14 miles downstream and three and a half hours rowing.
Then the weather got better, and we got better at controlling the raft and could turn our attention to . . .
The birds we saw: the Great Horned Owl (staring from a cave on the side of the river – the best sighting of the trip), red hawk, dippers, yellowtails, tanagers, Canada geese (plenty of them), mergansers, catbirds, crows, magpie, red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, Swainson thrush, chickadees, Sand hill crane, bluebirds, eagles, mallard ducks and, heard but not seen, wild turkeys.
The animals: Deer, beaver, one quick sighting of a bear by one member.
The great campsites Laura had picked out: From Lower Scotty Allen to Lower Sunset Cliffs to Upper Parker Flats to Ridgetop. With all the accommodations of home (see above).
To great food: The fresh vegetables the first night (always a treat on a camping trip in the wilds), the Spotter’s Everything but the Kitchen Sink Turkey Dish, Chris’ pasta with fresh asparagus and the smorgasbord the last night of ham, Madras lentils and leftover pasta (Indian spaghetti).
To an interesting incident on the last day that would have sent our Spotter crazy if it had happened to us (me, too) but seemed to be taken in stride by the party experiencing it: We spent our last night at Ridgetop, which was more crowded than our other camps. We got there early after two hours of rowing to cover eight miles on the river. Things went along peacefully until late afternoon when other campers showed up for the sites nearby us. It was the only campsite where we could even see other campers. In the middle of cooking our dinner, I started to hear music playing – not out here, please. As Chris said, “There goes the neighborhood.” He was down at the river and realized “Free Falling” by Tom Petty was coming from an orange raft floating down the middle of the river – and there was no one in the raft, Tom Petty or otherwise.
Then people came racing along the bank and just before the curve downstream, a man jumped in the river and tried to swim for the raft. Cold river, strong current and a runaway raft with the campers’ gear heading rapidly downstream. Not a good combination. The swimmer almost got a hold of the raft before it rounded the bend, went into the strong current on the far side of the turn (following the bubbles) and went sailing away. Fortunately, the swimmer made it to the other side of the river and climbed out.
A raft was rowed across the river to pick up the swimmer who would have to figure out how to get through the night with no gear. Another raft went by and asked what was going on. A loose raft. “The beer boat?” he asked. Yep. “That happens a lot.”
Amazed by the others in the party who didn’t seem too upset by all this. “Never leave your boat untied,” said Laura, another good piece of advice.
We found out at the take-out the next day that campers downstream heard the music, ran out to investigate and pulled the delinquent raft ashore. Thanks for the warning, Tom Petty.
We talked about the incident that night, and how terrified our Spotter would have been if that had happened to us. But through the talk, we came to the agreement that we could do this thing together again, no questions asked.
Well, maybe one: Why, Ms. Terrified Spotter, did you agree to go on this trip?
“This,” she said,” is the last thing I would chose to do if I were not married to this idiot.”
Buffalo River III, Third day — When sleeping in a tent, there’s nothing like a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning to get you up in the morning – especially when it is 1:30 a.m and still dark outside.
That’s what woke us up on our third day on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. The nice thing about the lightning flashes is that you can see how much it is raining. In this case it was one of those big-drop rainfalls that spent the next five hours forming puddles around and then under my tent. So far my MSR one-man tent has always kept me dry without a ground cloth underneath it. I’ve heard too many stories about wet campers from the under liner sticking out from under the tent and collecting pools that come inside. But having now experienced what can happened when water pools under your no-ground-cloth-for-me tent, I can say that a custom cut tarp goes with me the next time.
I had planned to stay snuggled in my sleeping bag and tent until the rain stopped (sometime in August?). But when Ian was outside asking, “Are you awake in there” at 6 a.m., my dry spot in the tent had dwindled to an area almost big enough for me in a fetal position – almost. Foot of the sleeping bag sopping wet. Starting to leak around my head. Time to get up.
We bundled up wet tents, sleeping bags (for me), clothes and were on the water in rain gear by 7:30 a.m. We had planned the trip to have only a few miles left to paddle on the last day. Which worked out even better in the pouring rain.
Riley’s Dock, our take-out spot, was across the White River from where the Buffalo River empties into it. We chose this as our end spot at the suggestion of Dirst Canoe Rental, which shuttled my truck from Buffalo Point to here. It avoided a half-mile upstream paddle on the White, which could be flowing big time if the Bull Shoals Dam 10 miles up the river was open. Or, we could have paddled downstream on the White five miles or so.
But to get to Riley’s Dock, all you had to do was turn left as you came into the White, paddle 200 yards or so upstream and then drift across the river onto the far side of Smith Island. The dock would be nestled behind a smaller island on the other side. My left turn did not work and I ended more out in the White than I wanted to be. But I remembered Jack, our canoe pod leader on the Willamette River trip in Oregon, telling us about making your kayak into an airplane wing: Angled upstream across the river and with water pushing against your kayak on one side but not on the other, you’ve created a vacuum that keeps planes up in the air and your kayak pushing upstream against the current. And it worked. Still had to paddle, but I rounded Smith Island and headed for home.
Ian made the left turn, got high enough upstream to turn right and dash across on a downstream slant, arriving at the dock just before me.
Great people at Riley’s Dock. Five bucks to back the truck down the boat ramp to unload kayaks, and they offered a warm, dry cabin for us to change out of wet clothing.
Ian had set out tidewater stakes at our campsite the night before to see how far the river might come up. No noticeable change when we got up this morning, but the folks at Riley’s Dock said the rise in the river was now in Ponca, 130 miles or so up the river.
“It will be here this afternoon,” they said.
And boy did it. I dropped Ian in Springfield, MO, for his flight back to Seattle, and he messaged me later that the river had gone up 12 feet that day. With or without ground cloth, my tent would not have had a dry spot big enough for the toads that jumped out from under it this morning.
We hit it just right. We started on April 29, when the river was dropping below six feet of gage height – above that and rangers recommend only experienced paddlers on the river. It kept dropping on April 30, but then look at the line shooting up on May 1, almost to 18 feet by the end of the day. We’d have been in New Orleans by the end of the week.
Second day on Buffalo River, Arkansas, Part III — We were up early – around 6 a.m. – but spent a long time at breakfast, getting our gear in order, loading the boats and finally launching around 8:45. We had pored over our maps and figured out that we had paddled up Big Creek on the first day while searching for the Cold Springs schoolhouse, which we never found. The paddle upstream was a hard one, probably because Big Creek is the second largest tributary to the Buffalo River adding nine percent of the full load. Still, it was nice to figure out where we were.
Some wind today but the current kept us going whether we paddled or not. A couple of ripples that kept us on our toes but nothing like at Clabber Creek Shoal on the first day.
We used Elephant Head rock as a place we would know exactly where we were on the map. How could anyone miss a 210-foot high rock shaped like an elephant? We paddled another mile or two and stopped in front of Grayface Bluff. Ian suggested we set up the tents first, and it was a good thing we did as we retired to them as some big-drop rains fell on us.
Once outside in the evening, Ian put his book away and watched the buzzard and occasional eagles overhead. “I can read anytime, but when can I watch buzzard playing in the thermals on a bluff over the river” We wondered if they were scouting for carrion to make a group meal or if they were drifting back and forth over the bluff for fun, which is what we agreed we’d be doing.