With Today’s Information Tools
by Dave Mills
I have been an information professional for most of my adult life. In particular, I have been involved in two professions that have dealt with the creation, revision, research, and even the destruction of information: journalism and librarianship. Information serves as the underpinnings to what journalists and librarians do, telling stories. If the information is good, the story is fascinating, memorable, and perhaps passed on from one generation to the next. If the information is incomplete, the consumer would perhaps go on to a different story to enjoy.
This blog post is a response to the wonderful blog post produced by Kansas City, Kansas Public Library associate and longtime park ranger Steve Oakes, who details his hiking experience in the Grand Canyon. In June 1983, I had my own adventure in the Grand Canyon. But unlike Steve, I rafted the Colorado River. And, to add a little more information to that last sentence, I rafted a FLOODED Colorado River, with river levels thirty to forty feet higher than normal.
Fourteen years ago, I wrote about my Colorado River experience in my personal blog. But I discovered the information from that post was too simple and lacking in some details. By thumbing through some books and doing a couple of Internet searches, I decided to research two critical elements that turned the Grand Canyon float trip into an exhilarating adventure. First, in the late winter and early spring of 1983, the El Nino weather effect produced a high accumulation of snow in the Rocky Mountains. The snowmelt there drains into the Colorado River basin. Second, when that drainage combines with the snowmelt that comes from Utah’s Green River basin, the receiving body of water, Lake Powell, fills quickly. That can put a lot of pressure upon the Glen Canyon Dam reservoir, which separates the lake from the canyon.
The 1982-83 El Nino was the strongest recorded, having pronounced and various effects on countries throughout the world. As the phenomenon carried the moisture from Pacific, equatorial Islands, it pelted Hawaii with hurricane-force winds and rains. As the warm, moist air collided with the jet stream, El Nino pounded the California coast with torrential storms, causing deadly mudslides. Eventually, the jet stream pushed the moisture to the Rocky Mountains, where it produced unprecedented snowfall. Some weather databases reported the snowfall was 210 percent of normal accumulations.
Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam began in 1956 and was completed in 1964. Engineers designed the dam to provide electricity and to be a part of a series of dams along the Colorado River to help regulate the flow of the Colorado River from the Rocky Mountains to its ending point at the Gulf of California. The dam comes with diversion tunnels, in addition to its spillways, to help with events like the high levels of lake water.
Despite the design of the reservoir, the snowmelt quickly filled the lake in the late spring of 1983. Even though dam engineers opened up the bypass tunnels, the water almost flowed over the top of the dam. Engineers installed large plywood flashboards to hold the water. The flashboards seemed to work. However, the dam engineers were still looking for ways to safely transfer the water from the lake into the Grand Canyon while, at the same time, not compromising the structure of the dam. When our 10-day rafting adventure started in late June 1983, the Glen Canyon Dam was releasing 70,000 cubic feet per second of water into the canyon.
Riding a Flooded Colorado River from Beginning to End
On a hot June night, my uncle and his three sons picked me up at the Flagstaff, Arizona airport. My flight was a four-stop flight from my hometown of Topeka, Kansas. Meanwhile, my uncle and cousins drove down from Washington State. It was dusk when they crossed the Utah-Arizona state line, so they had enough daylight to drive by the Glen Canyon Dam on U.S. Highway 89. When they picked me up about an hour and a half later, we exchanged pleasantries, and then the conversation turned to how stunned, bewildered, and overwhelmed they were when they saw the discharge of water coming out of the Glen Canyon Dam. This was the first indicator that our 10-day rafting trip was going to be memorable. We spent the night at a Flagstaff KOA campground.
The next morning, we gathered with the rest of our rafting party, about 60 people, at a Flagstaff motel. A tour bus was waiting for us there. After we loaded our duffel bags onto the bus, we climbed aboard to ride the approximately 120 miles from Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, and the put-in point on the Colorado River. Our head guide was a geology professor from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. The professor made several previous rafting trips down the Colorado and, thus, was an expert on the Grand Canyon and its geologic treasures. Being a Wooster alumnus himself, my uncle knew the professor and used his connections to help plan our passage on this trip.
During our ride to Lee’s Ferry, the professor presented a preview of what to expect as we rafted. He also repeated some advice he included in his introductory letter, including the liberal use of sunscreen to protect our skin and the plentiful consumption of bottled water to stay hydrated. His presentation turned to the Colorado River itself, and he told us about the various degrees of rapids we would experience in the river, ranging from the calm class one rapid to the violent, active class six rapid. Suddenly, our bus hit a bump in the road, and all passengers experienced a moment of airtime in their individual seats.
“That was a class six,” the professor said. Everyone chuckled at his quick wit. The professor continued his lecture with a quick discussion of the geological makeup of the Grand Canyon. We arrived at the put-in point at Lee’s Ferry in mid-morning. Six members of the Hatch River Expedition Company greeted us. These people were to drive our three rafting boats on our trip.
Lee’s Ferry: the put-in point to the Colorado River. Posted signs alerted us to the high volumes of water being released by the Glen Canyon Dam.
Before we even loaded our duffel bags onto the rafts, we received yet another lecture. This time, the head boatman of the Hatch Company told us that he and his crew were expecting the river to ride differently because of the high water levels and that some of the landmarks and rock formations along the river might be underwater. He also included talking points as to where to sleep at night when we are not rafting and to know the difference between wet sand versus dry sand as it related to our bathroom routine. He spoke with a southern, high-tenor drawl. He appeared to be very friendly, humorous, and approachable.
With lectures delivered, we proceeded to load our belongings onto the boats. At the same time, the Hatch crew loaded the food and drinks we were to consume during the trip. Each boat was thirty feet long and about eight feet wide, with hard rubber pontoons on the port and starboard sides. We called these boats “baloney boats.” Two members of the Hatch Company operated each boat: one person steered the boat, sitting next to the outboard motor that propelled the boat, and the second person was the spotter, pointing out rocks and debris for the driver. All members of the Hatch Company were happy to answer questions from us when we traveled through calm water.
We began our rafting at high noon. My cousins and I rode one boat while my uncle rode a different boat. We did not encounter any major rapids on this first day. Perhaps some of the rapids at the beginning of our float trip were smoothed out because of the high water. Whatever the case, the Colorado’s current still moved us swiftly downstream.
We had time in the late afternoon for a hike in a side canyon. Despite the Colorado’s swift current, our boat drivers were very adept at steering the boats to the banks of the Colorado. As such, we could look forward to taking many side canyon hikes on this trip.
After four hours of rafting, we arrived at our first campsite along the river. All members of the rafting party staked out areas on the sandy bank to claim as their own sleeping area as we were to sleep under the stars. Meanwhile, the Hatch crew prepared our dinner.
The canyon walls had started to rise on both sides of the river and would continue to rise as we progressed down the river. I remember that first night in the canyon. The moon had yet to breach the edge of the canyon wall, and, as such, the stars were the most vivid, brilliant that I have ever seen….even to the present day. This would serve as my first memory of being in the Grand Canyon. We would experience more canyon beauty on our second day.
In the morning, the crew prepared our breakfast as we disassembled our sleeping areas and packed our duffel bags. After we loaded the boats, we proceeded down the Colorado, but we would not be doing much rafting this day. Our goal was to make the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River.
After ninety minutes of rafting, our boatmen shouted, “We’re almost there!” He directed us to look along the left bank of the river. As we approached the junction, we heard one of the Hatch crew whispering.
“C’mon baby, c’mon baby,” she said as she folded her hands together in anticipation.
The Little Colorado finally came into view, and we were stunned to see its beautiful, bright blue waters. The Hatch crewmember jumped up and down in delight. We motored a half-mile up the Little Colorado. We spent the next three or four hours swimming, exploring the area, having lunch, and getting better acquainted with other members of our rafting party.
The Little Colorado is one of two major tributaries to the Colorado. Its bright, blue waters are partially caused by the dissolved travertine and limestone deposits coming from the sedimentary rocks of the Little Colorado Canyon. In comparison, the Colorado River was a dirty brown. The professor explained that the large discharge of water coming from the Glen Canyon Dam caused the brownish color. But, in calm waters and normal levels, the Colorado River is a darkish green color due to the large amount of algae.
This second day turned out to be a wonderful, relaxing day. In the late afternoon, we said goodbye to the blue water Paradise of the Little Colorado River and made our way back to the brown, churning waters of the main Colorado. And, much like the change of color and turbulence of our waters, we would find that our float trip would become more challenging.
After five miles of rafting on our return on the Colorado, a helicopter came over a canyon wall and hovered over our lead boat. A small object dropped out of the helicopter. One of the members of our party thought it looked like a large Ziploc bag. The crewmember from the lead boat retrieved the baggie and shared its contents with the boatman.
The Hatch crew shared the message of the Ziploc bag during dinner that night. The message had two parts. First, a person had died at Crystal Rapids two days prior to our arrival at the Little Colorado. As a result, the National Park Service declared the Rapids closed. Any boating parties that arrived at Crystal Rapids were to have their passengers portage (or walk) around the rapids, and the drivers would drive their boats through the rapids and pick up the passengers on the other side.
Crystal Rapids is located about thirty miles downstream from the Little Colorado River. With the initial rise of the river, the rapids became almost impossible to navigate. The Park Service received reports that several commercial baloney boats had flipped or had collided at Crystal Rapids, ejecting about 90 riders and crew into the Colorado River. Officials dispatched six helicopters to retrieve the unfortunate riders from the water. Unfortunately, a 62-year-old man drowned after the Colorado’s current dragged him underwater for two miles.
The second part of the Ziploc message was also unnerving. The inflow of snowmelt into Lake Powell was exceeding the expulsion of water from the Glen Canyon Dam into the canyon. Officials from the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service had no choice but to increase the rate of outflow from the dam from 70,000 cubic feet per second to over 95,000 cfs. Colorado River levels in the Grand Canyon were going to rise.
We went to bed that night, not knowing what to expect the next day.
The lead boatman announced at breakfast the next morning that we would continue with the trip. We would follow the Park Services advisory and walk around the rapids. The three boat drivers would motor through Crystal Rapids without us.
After an hour and a half of rafting, we arrived at Crystal Rapids. Even though the river level rose overnight, we were happy to see a large sand bar we could walk on. Looking out at the river, we saw that Crystal Rapids was a swirling torrent of activity. And it looked violent.
After the crew made sure our luggage and food were secured on the boats, we started our walk across the sand bar while, at the same time, keeping an eye on the baloney boats as they approached the rapids. Several people in our party had their cameras ready, wanting to capture the moment when a baloney boat would encounter the rapids. A large wave of water dwarfed each boat as it motored closer to the rapids. Also, there was an eddy near the wave that created a hole by which a boat could get stuck. It was easy to understand why previous baloney boats were having difficulty.
All three boats made it through safely. We rendezvoused with the boats at the end of the rapids and had lunch before getting back on the boats to continue the float trip.
For the next few days, we were able to relax and enjoy our scheduled trip. The Colorado’s currents were still swift. And just like the first day, we encountered some challenging rapids while other rapids were diminished because of the high water. With Crystal Rapids behind us, we could relax and explore some of the side trails and canyons along the river. One adventure included a hike up Havasu Creek Canyon, close to the home of the Havasupai Indians. Another hike took us to a swimming hole with a natural rock ledge eight feet above the pool for jumping, diving, and, in my case, doing cannonballs. And yet another side excursion took us to a natural amphitheater formed by the smooth canyon walls, with perfect acoustics for singing. When our group got there, we sang campfire songs. One lady in our party studied opera in her college days and treated the entire group by singing a couple of lines from the opera “Carmen.”
As much as we enjoyed these excursions, the Hatch crewmembers were thinking about the Colorado River and, in particular, they were thinking about what was ahead of us: Lava Falls, the most challenging rapids in the Grand Canyon.
Like most rapids in the canyon, there are many factors involved in the formation of the Lava Fall rapids. First, Lava Falls is located in the narrowest part of the canyon floor, and, as such, the river channel is narrow. This restricts the water flow and increases the velocity of the current. Second, the riverbed is very uneven, which makes for very turbulent waters. And third, Lava Falls is a waterfall. In a span of about 150 yards, Lava Falls drops about 80 to 100 feet from beginning to end. Toss in hidden rocks, boulders, and debris in the river, and Lava Falls becomes a river runner’s dream or nightmare.
On the morning of the Lava Falls run, the head boatman gathered us by the boats to instruct us about our upcoming encounter. Instead of sitting on the hard rubber pontoons as we did for the entire trip, we would be sitting on top of our duffel bags in the center of the boat. As part of the boarding routine each morning, the Hatch crew loaded our luggage, food, and equipment at the center of each boat, throwing a heavy tarp on top and securing the load with bungee cord and heavy rope. We could hold on to the rope when we engaged the rapids. The boatman also repeated instructions from his initial lecture as to what to do if we found ourselves in the water: Don’t panic, let the flotation jacket do its job, keep both feet together and point them downstream, and let the current carry you to calm waters. After going through the rapids, the three boats would rendezvous at a sand bar for lunch. With instructions delivered, we got on our boats.
We started with only the current of the Colorado, calm waters before the maelstrom of Lava Falls. As we rode the current, the boat drivers decided to space out the three boats so that each boat could go through the rapids individually. I rode on the second boat. We watched from one hundred yards away as the first boat approached the falls. The passengers on that boat responded to the boatman’s instructions to shift to the center of the boat. From our view, they looked like ants scurrying around an anthill. Then, Poof! The boat disappeared as if it had dropped off a table. The first boat was in the middle of the rapids. My heart was beginning to race. It was racing not only because of my anticipation of the falls but of my hope that everyone would be okay after this ordeal.
Then, our driver delivered the order for us to shift to the center of the boat. We quickly responded, and I found my left hand gripping the nearest rope firmly. The initial drop in Lava Falls is exactly like the first drop in a big roller coaster. I could hear some screams and “Yahoos” as we dropped. The baloney boat twisted and gyrated as we hit a couple of waves. A wall of water hit us from the starboard side as if a giant had just tossed a large barrel of water in our faces. I noticed that our boatman kept his eye on the boat’s bow, quickly steering left or right to avoid any submerged boulders.
After a minute, we were out of Lava Falls. Everyone on our boat made the ride safely. We continued downriver to find that the first boat had already found a sand bar on the left bank for our lunch rendezvous. We discovered that everyone on the first boat survived the ride, as well. We jumped off the boat and found a place on the sand where we could enjoy our sandwiches. We were concerned, though, that boat number three had not arrived yet.
The third boat finally came to the sand bar ten to fifteen minutes later. They were not as lucky in their ride through Lava Falls as the first two boats were. Three riders were bucked into the river. The boat crew easily retrieved two of the riders. The third rider had difficulty. He was a man in his early 30s, and his distinguishing feature to the rest of us was his sunglasses. He wore them for the entire float trip. We learned that the current grabbed hold of him, and then the undertow pulled him underwater for two to three minutes. When the boat crew pulled him from the water, he had water lodged in his lungs. Fortunately, two women in our group were fully qualified nurses and were able to render proper first aid to him. Although I remember this gentleman for his adventure in the water, I will also remember him for a quality: his resolve. As the crew pulled him from the water, he was still clutching onto his beloved sunglasses.
We stayed on the sand bar for two hours, not only to eat but also to decompress from the Lava Falls adventure. The challenging part of the Colorado River was now behind us. We had two days of floating and side excursions left in our trip. As the time passed, we noticed the canyon walls were lower, and the waters of the Colorado River were more tranquil. The Grand Canyon was ending. We were approaching Lake Mead and the Grand Wash Cliffs.
After a while, the boat crew tied the three boats together, turned off the outboard motors, and sparingly used the paddles to propel us. We were lazily drifting in the calm waters. There was no sense of urgency here. We used this time for sunbathing, swimming around the boats, reading, and reviewing the Colorado River adventure with each other….it was time to relax.
We arrived at our final camping site in the early evening, a sandy expanse of beach on Lake Mead. The crew helped us retrieve our duffel bags. Then, it was time for the crew to play. A couple of crewmembers grabbed a couple of paddles while the other crew grabbed some of the unused oranges, apples, and heads of lettuce. A makeshift game of produce baseball broke out. I think everyone in our party realizes the crew had to release their tensions after a challenging trip through the Grand Canyon. It was fun to see an orange disintegrate or to see a head of lettuce smashed to smithereens. Our hosts deserved this moment.
The next morning we helped the Hatch crew prepare the three boats to be loaded onto the trailers. They were taking the boats back to Lee’s Ferry for their next float trip. A bus arrived at the beach mid-morning. We loaded our gear and traveled back to Flagstaff via Interstate 40. There, we said our goodbyes to our fellow Colorado River adventurists.
I continued my travels with my uncle and my cousins. We drove back to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to view the river and the canyon from above and to take some pictures.
The next day we traveled to Hoover Dam, where the high water was still in play. Water was pouring into the intake tunnels that bypassed the dam. Occasionally, a wayward fish would swim too close and tumble into the intake tubes.
About a few months later, each member of our rafting party received through the mail t-shirts commemorating our experience.
Thirty-seven years have passed since our Grand Canyon experience. I am grateful that I can still remember the details of riding the Colorado River. And, I always will have a topic of conversation whenever I see my uncle or cousins at family reunions.
What has changed dramatically over time is the delivery of the story. In 1983, there was no Internet, no digital cameras, no smartphones, and cable television was in its infancy. Some of the research and news stories that covered the Great Colorado River Flood of 1983 were not immediately available. My uncle typed copies of a family letter depicting our float trip using carbon paper.
With the evolution of the Internet and other digital technologies, the acquisition and the sharing of information have become instantaneous today. I can use the Google search engine to find stories about adventures in the Grand Canyon, I can use the Internet to learn about the geological makeup of Lava Falls, and I can share videos via YouTube showing boaters on the Colorado River. And my uncle now uses email to share stories of vacations with friends and family.
The evolution of information technology has allowed me to gain a clearer perspective on my Grand Canyon adventure.
For example, I found new information on the Glen Canyon Dam’s structural integrity in 1983 by doing a Google search. As the dam released over 95,000 cfs of water into the canyon, the outflow tunnels endured nearly catastrophic damage. When the dam engineers inspected the dam in the fall, they discovered holes at the bottom of the tunnels that were the size of houses. The engineers determined that through a process called “cavitation,” the high pressure of the water ripped away at the concrete, producing the holes.
Also, the Glen Canyon Dam itself was anchored in sandstone. A couple of articles I found through Internet searching seemed to speculate that if the sandstone had weakened or dissolved because of the pressure of the water in the reservoir, the dam could have failed, causing a chain reaction of failures down the Colorado River. And, I would not be writing about my rafting trip adventure.
Fortunately, the dam survived the onslaught of water. The engineers repaired the damaged tunnels in the fall of 1983 and would later create holes in the tunnels that would lessen the pressure if the tunnels were to endure future dispersals of high volumes of water.
In 1984, the Lake Powell reservoir again filled with snowmelt. But, the dam engineers’ preemptive treatment of the tunnels worked. And it became a simple transfer of water from Lake Powell to the Grand Canyon.
As a librarian, I look forward to researching the 1983 Colorado River flood five, ten, fifteen years from now. It will be interesting to see how the information and the delivery of the information to this story will change.
One Final Thought
The El Nino of 1983 was an aberration. The region never experienced the same amounts of precipitation like it did during the Colorado River flood. In the summer of 1987, the Lake Powell area began to experience drought-like conditions. As of 2018, the lake was only 43 percent filled. Meanwhile, scientists from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation continuously scrutinize the flow of water along the Colorado River so that the ecosystem in the Grand Canyon can be maintained.
Read More About It
- The Kansas City, Kansas Public Library has several books in the nonfiction collection about traveling to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Our most recent acquisition is
- The Kansas City, Kansas Public Library also has the following books discussing the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River:
- The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Keven Fedarko, 2013, 432 pages.
- The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West by John F. Ross, 2018, 400 pages.
- The Grand Canyon: Unseen Beauty: Running the Colorado River by Tom Blagden, 2019, 224 pages.
- Saving Grand Canyon: Dams, Deals, and a Noble Myth by Byron Pearson, 2019, 368 pages.
- The next two titles are not immediately available from the library’s collection, but they can be ordered through Interlibrary Loan. They are:
- The Grand Canyon and the Southwest by Ansel Adams, 2019, 112 pages.
- Down the Colorado: Diary of the First Trip Through the Grand Canyon by John Wesley Powell, photography and epilogue by Eliot Porter, 1994, 168 pages.
Other Grand Canyon Sources Found on the Internet
- 1983 High Water Trip Report by Chuck Zemach
- The author chronicles his rafting party’s journey through the Grand Canyon during June 1983, relatively the same time as my float trip.
- The Year the Dam (Almost) Broke by Philip L. Fradkin, Originally Published October 29, 1995, Los Angeles Times.
- The author discusses the prospect of the Glen Canyon Dam failing in 1983, which would have catastrophic effects on all who depended on the Colorado River water for their existence.
- 3 to 18 Day River Trips: River Concessioners
- National Park Service web page providing listings of companies that provide rafting trips through the Grand Canyon.
- For a while in 1983, sheets of plywood were all that kept the mighty Glen Canyon Dam from Overflowing by John D’Anna, Originally Published July 18, 2019, The Republic, and published to azcentral.com.
- Risks to the Glen Canyon Dam—Wikipedia article.