Grand Canyon – The Colorado

IT seems rather odd that looking over the lip one cannot see the inside of the cup, that standing on the Rim one cannot see into the Inner Canyon. From certain outstanding points one hears the River’s voice and knows that it is cutting and grinding down deeper and deeper into its Archaean bed, and from other points it appears in spots and flashes; but it is at best an evanescent, a hidden, river. From El Tovar it is not seen at all.

Down at the Turtlehead, or elsewhere along the Tapeats cliffs, one gets moving-picture views of it in elongated sections. It is just below you some twelve hundred feet, runs fast, and flashes much. Its roughened surface and its rumbling shock say that it is a river of might, but even now you do not comprehend the force of it. You should go down and stand beside it at the mouth of Hermit Creek. That is the most accessible place for the visitor and also one of the most impressive in the Canyon so far as the display of power in the water is concerned.

The trail down from Hermit Camp follows through deep gorges of Tapeats sandstone much eaten into by wind, rain, and flood. It is not long before you meet with a change to walls of Archaean rock, with strata twisted and bent at every angle. The creek has cut through these rocks on its way to the River, but just now it is a mere babbling brook. You soon lose the babble in a hum that keeps increasing as you descend. Presently you debouch at grade rather unexpectedly. The tossing River is before you, and the shock of it in that narrow canyon is almost like that of Niagara.

It is not very wide and apparently not very deep, but how it does pitch and leap and surge and swing ! The downward sweep of it is not greater perhaps than you have seen in other rivers, but somehow there is a feeling of weight to the water here. You may be a strong swimmer but you would not like to trust yourself in that current. Even in a strong boat there would be distinct perils. Why is that? What is it that suggests abnormal push, fierce unrestrained power in the water?

The local color of the stream in the month of June is a precise cafe-au-lait. The foam tips and the spread of white froth along the shores even give the effect of whipped cream on the coffee. ‘What makes this color? Surely the sand and silt carried in the water. It is both sand-colored and sand laden. And that not only gives it the appearance of having weight but is weight in itself. Liquefy the layers of the Coconino sandstone and set them in motion and you would have an approach to the Colorado. It moves with a force out of all proportion to that of the Mississippi or the Columbia or the Yukon. The great power of it, especially when swollen with rains, is appalling, startling, even frightening.

At the mouth of Hermit Creek, where you come out, there is swift water. The creek has thrown huge boulders into the River just here, has cut a deep trough in the channel, and lodged some of the largest of the boulders amid-stream. Above the rapid the water appears quite calm, but it moves in volume with a slipping slide that makes you just a little giddy if you watch it for a few minutes. In places it has a whirling spiral movement that is just as bewildering. It runs for no great distance before it begins to twist and writhe. And you may notice that, even when quite smooth upon the surface, the stream is higher in the middle than at the sides. As it moves down the heap-up of it in the middle increases. Before meeting the uneven boulder-bed at the creek mouth it has a trend and a tendency toward the right. It swings over to the shore opposite the creek entrance to get around the boulder-bed. Some of the water passes down that way in a rapid swirl but other portions of it begin to plunge over the boulders.

If you study water rushing over a boulder you will notice that it plunges down with a swift curve. The heavy under-water moves so fast that the lighter top-water cannot keep up with it. The footing is cut out from beneath it by the under-water and it falls, or seems to leap back up-stream, as a crest of foam. If the oncoming water meets a boulder broadside or collides with another body of water, there is a sudden push up of dancing points or jets. These crests and jets are sometimes flung ten or fifteen feet in air and then collapse with a great splash. The splash, in turn, sets waves in motion that swash up against the walls and along the boulder-lined shores.

The waves of a rapid have forms that apparently stand still in the stream. The water itself moves, but in such perpetual flow that the waves are never allowed to subside or disappear. A boat going over the waves follows the rush of waters, rising over ridges and sinking into hollows. When the boat meets a wave so high that its crest seems to leap back up-stream then there is danger, especially if the boat moves broadside instead of bow on to the wave. The craft may wash full of water or capsize. This is one of the dangers that has always confronted the River navigators. Dellenbaugh states that the Sockdolger Rapid has waves from twenty to thirty feet high. Imagine plunging at such a water-ridge with a sixteen-foot boat !

The water that rushes over and down the back of boulders into sunken pits in the bed comes to the surface again farther on in boiling geysers—circles from a few inches to ten feet in diameter that surge up from below as from the depths of a caldron. They flatten down and push out waves that, again, beat and sound on the rocky shores. Their bubble and their boil with their swish and swath add to the great roar. All of them mingle with a vast undertone that seems to come from beneath the River’s bed-a sound like that of rolling stones over an iron floor. At times it is hollow and rumbles with a suggestion of the volcanic—a suggestion enhanced perhaps by the enclosing walls of fire-rock.

How far removed is this River roar from

” a noise like a hidden brook In the leafy month of June That to the sleepy woods all night Singeth a quiet tune!”

As you stand there by the shore the jar of it makes the rock you are standing upon respond with a half-shiver. The thunder goes on and is echoed and re-echoed from the upright walls of the gorge until the whole depth becomes choked with sound that cannot get out save by rising straight overhead.

Why should it cause one fear ? What is there in mere sound to make one tremble? You laugh at the idea, and yet after a few minutes it comes back at you like a gadfly. The roar produces entirely too much bombardment to please either the senses or the nerves. The rapid water is fascinating to watch for a time, but the hurly-burly of it will disturb the poise of all but the most phlegmatic. Powell and others who went through the canyons by boat grew very weary of it notwithstanding many rests in the quiet reaches of the stream.

The shock of sound seems to grow more intense after dark. Perhaps you have gone down to Hermit or elsewhere on the recommendation of some enthusiast to see the River by starlight, and think to sleep in a warm sand-pocket under the Archaean wall. But you can no more sleep there than in a steel-mill. The clash of waters becomes a hideous din. In the middle of the night the stars go out and a thunder-storm comes up. You make a shift for shelter, clambering in the dark along the wall seeking some overhanging ledge. By accident perhaps you find a shallow cave, strike a match, and have a look around for snakes and scorpions. A few bats flutter into your retreat and cling to the ceiling. You settle down and so does the rain. Blinding flashes of pale-violet lightning explode be-fore you and illumine the gorge. The crack of the explosion follows instantly. Was there ever such a furor of sound ! The echo of it does not die out but seems to mingle with the roar of the River; or, to put it differently, the persistent roar of the River seems punctuated by crashes of thunder. One can imagine nothing in Nature’s sounds more shattering to mental aplomb.

The Hermit Creek rapid is not an unusual or exceptional illustration. Wherever a creek or a dry bed of any size comes out and joins the Colorado, there you will find the swift current. The creek flings its carry into the River and a dam of boulders results, with its consequent collision of water. There are scores of these creek entrances in the Grand Canyon and hence scores of rapids. An additional one occasionally appears owing to the presence of some cross strata of crystalline rock in the bed. No wonder the explorers met with many disasters in trying to descend the stream. The River is still unnavigable. It still holds men back.

In the stages of high water the fury of the torrent is greatly increased. The Colorado cannot expand and overrun its banks like the ordinary stream. It is held within iron walls that are in places twelve hundred feet high. All that the water can do is to rise on the walls and in effect deepen its volume. The marks of it show plainly enough that it some-times reaches a stage sixty feet above normal. The rush of it then is almost unbelievable.

At its lowest stage in October or November the water often clears up in color and becomes, as Captain Dutton describes it, “a pistachio green.” The rapids then subside somewhat, and in places, such as that opposite Desert View (Plate 33), the River smooths its wrinkled front and slips along with measured calmness. But this summer face is only a temporary appearance. Usually there is a mad rush of waters through a trough of fire-rock, and nothing can greatly modify either its madness or its might.

It is a splintered waterway where the Colorado runs, and perhaps some of its sharpness is due to its geological newness. As already suggested, the Canyon is of comparatively recent origin. It was probably started in the Iast period of Tertiary times —that is, the Pliocene—or perhaps even as late as Quaternary times. It lacks the smoothness that comes with age. Erosion and corrasion–the mechanical wear by friction and the chemical wear through solution have flattened the bed of the Hudson and washed down its walls into rolling slopes, but the Colorado is still canyon bound, hanging in the rock, cutting down to sea level. And its water is still running red with oxides of iron and copper, keeping pace with those torrential streams

” Whose foam is amber and their gravel gold.”

It is this newness, with its sharpness of tooth and claw, that adds greatly to the River’s savage mien.

And to its loneliness. From its rise in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming to its debouchment in the Gulf of California it is a lonely River. There is no city at its source, nor at its mouth, nor yet again along its length. Yuma and its kind, perched on a bench in the desert, seem as much out of place as might a town in the depths of the Canyon itself. The River knows no cities. For seven hundred miles it is not bridged nor navigated nor mill-streamed nor utilized by mankind. It goes its lonely way.

The utilitarians look at it and perhaps wonder how they can harness it, make it turn wheels, generate electricity, or irrigate the earth. It now serves no “purpose” and is quite “useless”—useless to man, who still cherishes the idea that the world was made exclusively for him. But Nature works alike for the animate and the inanimate. The Colorado is one of her best cutting instruments. She is using the River to grind and carry away the rock of the Plateau Country. She is laying it down in beds of sand and silt in the Gulf of California, and in the fulness of time she will heave it up into a new plateau for use in a new world era. Is that not more important than being a present trunk sewer for foul cities, a fetch and carry for mere man?

The River is only one of the many agencies of the great law of change—change whereby the world is renewed and kept virile and living. It is an elemental force and perhaps too remote from human endeavor to be rightly comprehended. We test it by intellectual or economic standards and find it a great unconformity, an anomaly, an extravagance —something incomprehensible. We try to utilize it but it defies us. We think to make application of it in art and literature, but it does not respond. It is not classic, romantic, realistic, or cubistic. We can do little with it.

All the poems and purple patches of prose written about it are but so many elongated exclamations. The only poem that, in measure, suggests the spirit of it was written a hundred years ago by one who probably never so much as heard of the Canyon:

” In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.

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And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced, Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail; And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever It flung up momently the sacred river.”

Something of the power, the remoteness, the weirdness of the Colorado are unconsciously hinted at in Coleridge’s poem, but no more. It is not realization—not the final truth. In spite of every suggestion, explanation, and representation we still grope along the twisted rocks of the Inner Gorge in amazement. Smaller things may distract our attention for the moment—a barrel-shaped bisnaga growing out of a crack in the rose granite, the powdered sands in a cove water-waved in astonishing curves, a lone kingfisher sitting on a rock surveying the thick stream where he could not see a fish if one were there—but we keep coming back from the incidental to the fundamental. The purple walls draw us, the racing . River keeps roaring a fanfare in our ears. Just a little of the fear and the impulse that we first experienced at the Rim are with us. We are not accustomed to this clash of elements. Wind and storm and lightning are an old story, but the mad plunge of a canyoned river is something unique.

Everything here in this strange river-valley is novel in experience and, as a result, stimulating to the imagination. One is continually with nerves on edge, with sensibilities stirred by sensations. It is not a restful place, for all that Nature’s repose is so supreme. Least restful of all places is this Inner Canyon where the River runs and the Plutonic walls rise into sharp edges and needles. In vain the eye seeks the long, flowing line that rests it. In its place you have the broken and the angle line, the teeth of the rip-saw, the ragged spine.

Presently you leave them and go back to the slopes under the Red Wall. It is a relief to get away from the shock of sound and the giddy slip of the water. Even one’s amazement must have a rest.