InTrans / May 05, 2016

Great American Adventures: A week at the Grand Canyon

Go! Magazine

People in the Grand Canyonposted on May 5, 2016

“It’s so nice to be down at the bottom of the canyon on the river, because then you really feel like you’re completely away. The stars were magnificent,” said Jane Dawson, reflecting on her time spent at Grand Canyon National Park.

Jane has been teaching geology in the Department of Geological & Atmospheric Sciences at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, for the past 20 years. She has been to many National Parks, but her trip to the Grand Canyon—where she spent a week rafting down the Colorado River—sticks out in her mind as a special experience.

Jane took a guided raft trip just like the ones we talked about in Great American Adventures: The Grand Canyon.

What brought you to the Grand Canyon?

It was a Department-sponsored spring break trip that lasted about a week or so. Our Department commonly takes big field trips every year. We flew down there, and then we rented vans and drove where we needed to go.

We were just passengers on the raft. Actually, the plan was for a buddy of mine (through graduate school) to focus primarily on the geology; he has a company that takes tourists on educational, guided raft trips through the Grand Canyon. His graduate school research was on the Precambrian geology and structure of the Grand Canyon, so he is an expert.

What was the trip like?

We camped in the Grand Canyon when we were there. The raft trip was through the lower part of the Grand Canyon, so we came out at Lake Mead. We had all our camping gear stored in wet bags and in the rafts. And then we had all our food in coolers and also in wet bags.

Every day was planned in terms of where the stops were going to be, where we were going to hike, and what we were going to see. And—of course—all the meal planning had to be done ahead of time too.

There were some things that were scheduled, but we were flexible in terms of the time we dedicated to different stops. We would make lots of stops. We would pull off on sandbars and things like that, and then take hikes up side canyons that came down into the main Colorado River Canyon.

We camped every night on big sandbars or side canyons that had enough space for the tents. It was so fun. Some parts of it were scary, too, like having to go through some of the rapids and things like that. I was a little frightened.

We were mainly looking at the Precambrian geology; those are the rocks that are exposed in the Grand Canyon—the rocks at the bottom. They’re about 1.4 to 1.7 billion years old. We also talked about John Wesley Powell—who first explored the Grand Canyon. It was a little bit of history, geology, and ecology.

Loading up the rafts
Loading up the rafts. Photo courtesy of Jane Dawson.

Walk me through an average day on the trip.

When you get up in the morning you first have to pack up your gear. We would have breakfast—which was always really good—and then load the rafts, and then shove the rafts into the river and head off.

We would travel only for a couple hours at a time. I remember when it would be lunch time, we would pull over to a sandbar and get out the boxes of lunch stuff: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, oranges. That’s all we really needed.

In the evening, I would find a spot to get my tent up and get all that set up. Then I would help around camp—whatever was needed. Often I helped the cook get ready to make supper.

We had a cook along with us—Rhonda—and she was absolutely fantastic. I remember how she would have things laid out: she had brought a lot of fresh fruit with her and had that sliced up nice and pretty and displayed on trays.

We would just stand there and say: ‘Wow, I cannot believe we’re rafting and camping and there’s this beautiful breakfast display that you would expect to see at a brunch at a hotel or something.’

After supper we would sit around and talk geology, or about Grand Canyon history, or just about life, until the stars came out. The skies were so unbelievably crystal clear. There’s no light pollution and the Milky Way was so distinct and bright.

There were so many stars that it was almost overwhelming, and it made you realize that you’re only seeing a fraction of the sky at home. But there, it was beautiful. I think we all felt pretty lucky—that we were doing something kind of special.

Lunch stop
Lunch stop. Photo courtesy of Jane Dawson.

What was the vast, natural environment like?

When we got to the end of the trip, the river changed so much. Truthfully, it was upsetting. The whole time we’d been going along these flowing Colorado River rapids, but in getting closer and closer to Lake Mead the current starts to stop because it’s just pouring into a ‘bathtub’ behind the big dam. So for miles upriver from Lake Mead, there’s basically no current.

So we had to put motors on the back of the rafts. The water becomes like glass, because it gets so backed up. We didn’t like that at all—the river completely changed character—you didn’t feel like you were in the same environment anymore.

As we got closer and closer to Lake Mead, we started to see a lot more boats and other people. And then we started to see trash too. It was a shock to be thrust back into the so-called ‘civilized’ world after having spent a week immersed in such a wonderful natural environment.

Low waters
Low waters. Photo courtesy of Jane Dawson.

What did this experience mean to you, as someone who loves and appreciates geology?

It was heaven on earth. Everyone was very happy. It’s almost stimulation-overload, because it’s just one amazing thing after another. I had studied maps of it, read about its geologic history, but actually being in the Grand Canyon had the ‘awesome-meter’ running pretty high.

I would recommend this trip to anyone. And if you can find the right guide—who knows what they’re doing and is really knowledgeable—it makes for the right trip. It was really enjoyable and we all learned a lot.

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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