Days of wonder in the canyon

Published 11:14 am Friday, August 19, 2016

by James D. Howell

Steep polished-looking limestone and sandstone walls gave John W. Powell the impetus to name it Marble Canyon. There’s no marble here. The steep walls prevent casual exploration by the outside world. If you want to see it, you have to ride the river.

The canyon starts at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, and stretches to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. It has a varied history of exploration. Indians have used the canyon lands for centuries. Spanish explorers came to the canyon edge, but did not descend to the river. White hunters and mountain men visited various parts of the canyon, but did not record their trips in writing.

The earliest and best recorded explorations were by a former Union major, John Wesley Powell, starting with a well-financed and provisioned party in four boats. In May, 1869, they put in at Green River, Wyoming, planning to travel as far as they could. Most of their provisions were lost about a month into the planned 10-month venture. They lived off the land for the rest of their journey.

Powell’s exploration was well documented; his notes gave English names to many of the formations that we know today — even naming the Grand Canyon itself.

Other expeditions came to the canyon. One was plotting a possible railroad route, one made test excavations to build a dam. Many dreams came; most did not flourish. Only recently did Marble Canyon become a part of the Grand Canyon National Park.

We follow the river with its riffles and rapids. We stop and hike the North Canyon, looking for a series of descending pools. The pools are dry, but the slot canyon is beautiful. Somewhere on the way back, my tripod head becomes detached. I discover the loss when I remove the backpack at the raft. I immediately panic a little. The adventure has barely begun and my tripod head is missing.

I do a little backtracking, but there is not time to redo the whole distance. One of my fellow rafters, arriving after me, asks in a loud voice, “Did anyone lose a tripod head?” My spirits lift. No, they fly. I thank my fellow traveler profusely, and return the head to my tripod. I give it a little extra tightening.

Mornings in the canyon are quiet. Each day I get up a little early and check out sunrise. Morning light is difficult to capture down here. The canyon is narrow and the sun’s rays do not penetrate to river level until late morning. I do my best, looking for scenes that have the least contrast for color.

We stop by Vasey’s Paradise. High on the south wall a large spring gushes from an opening cut by ancient erosive forces. The spring spreads out in a triangular pattern on the cliff face. Powell named the place for a friend, who never actually saw it. Today, the spring is very active and we spend enough time for everyone to hike and investigate the lush, beautiful oasis on the river.

We beach the raft at Redwall Cavern, just a short distance beyond Vasey’s. Here the power of floods and rushing water has carved a very large cave into soft sandstone on the south side. The name comes from sunlight reflected off the opposite wall. In late evening it turns bright red. It’s a fun place and most of us play as children in the light, fluffy beach sand.

The days are filled with hikes, riffles and rapids. Sometimes we turn around and enter them in reverse. Our guide has done this many times and we leave the driving to him. We get used to moving easily about the raft, from the outriggers to the “tea house,” where the water jugs are stored. Each of us takes a turn doing the work of the adventure. We set up and break camp; we help each other with camp chores. Nothing is taken for granted in this wilderness.

I note some personal spiritual growth as days pass. I become a little more centered with my idea of my place in the world. It’s comforting, this time on the river. I have a greater awareness, a greater connection with this beautiful place. Its moods become my moods; its awe inspiring beauty is, for the most part, not possible to capture on film. My efforts will be enough to rekindle memories, but the real beauty will be left behind when I leave.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at