The Dunn Party


This is a guest blog from Mike Mitchell. Mike Mitchell is a retired aerospace company executive who currently leads his own consulting firm. He is an active outdoorsman and lives with his family in Potomac, MD.


Rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon | © Mike Mitchell

Rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon | © Mike Mitchell

Crystal clear blue-sky overhead, arid desert surrounding us, parched dry air with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees. We were on the boat ramp at Lee’s Ferry just below Glen Canyon about to put in on the Colorado River for our Grand Canyon rafting adventure. The blue green water of the river looked so incredibly inviting in the desert heat, though it was moving alarmingly fast, rushing forward to the entrance to Marble Canyon just downstream.

We were the 27 members of the intrepid Dunn Party, named after our spirited and big-hearted trip organizer, Joe Dunn. Our expedition crew consisted of two boatmen, two swampers and a photographer that the company had sent along to get some marketing photos on our trip, bringing our happy band to a total of 32. We were putting into the river on our two big “J” rig motorized rafts on a Tuesday and the following Monday would pull off the river below Lava Falls rapid, with 186 miles of river, over a hundred rapids, six or so side canyon hikes and a world of adventure and beauty to take in and enjoy in the interim.

Final instructions from our crew leader, Stephen Wiley, one of the premier boatmen on the Colorado, a final chance to opt out of the trip if this really was not the outdoor adventure for you – no takers on that offer – and we were off. Smooth cruising for the first ten minutes or so and then we all were christened with the first shockingly cold wall of Colorado River water as we crashed through the first big rapid of the trip. What an exhilarating rush and my goodness was that water cold. But as we soon learned this was not really an especially big rapid. Sure seemed big at the time. The real excitement was yet to come.

That day and the days to follow quickly settled into a comfortable routine of trying to comprehend the scale and beauty of the Canyon rising ever higher around us, enjoying the placid stretches of river, and then hunkering down for the ever more violent rapids as we made our way downstream. Suck rubber!!!

There was much wildlife to observe for the sharp of eye. We saw big horned sheep that seemed velcroed to the Canyon ledges, mule deer with their big pointed ears, a host of colorful little lizards in camp and on side canyon hikes, assorted toad, frogs and tadpoles in the side streams, a canyon squirrel or two, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, turkey vultures, great blue herons, cliff swallows and wrens, and the crafty ravens that operated in teams and would make off with any bit of food or small pieces of gear left unintended. No scorpion or rattler sightings but we knew that they were out there.

The food prepared by the two boatmen and the swampers was plentiful and delicious – there were three solid meals each day and every day. So tempting to go back for seconds or thirds. And if you liked pork, you were in hog heaven, it was the meat of choice for the week. At night after dinner each evening there was a crew talent show featuring guitar and singing with many of the who crew participating. Great fun. And then as we settled in for the night the myriad of stars and handful of meteorites blasting across the night sky provided a magical view as each of us drifted off to sleep.

But the main attractions of every day were the River and the Canyon. The River with its undulating path through the Canyon walls, its whirling eddies, its peaceful stretches for observing the grandeur of it all, then the adrenaline pumping, take your breath away excitement of the ever more intense rapids as we proceeded down river. Hermit, Upset, Crystal and Lava Falls are names that have new and special meaning to me now!

The Canyon itself was unimaginably beautiful with the hue and colors of the rocks changing with the changing light through the course of the day. The nature of the rock formations changed as well as we moved downstream. The Canyon walls became higher as we moved from Marble Canyon into the Grand Canyon proper and the gorge would narrow at times. Igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock variants were all represented as passed through formations dating back as much as half the earth’s existence.

The petroglyphs and ancient granaries that we observed were reminders of the early Native American civilizations that had preceded us in the Canyon and had lived in these very places thousands of years ago. Anasazi, ancient Pueblo, Havasupai and Hualapai peoples all lived in this austere place, fashioning their agrarian cultures on the flood plains and in the slot canyons that we hike today. They lived their lives on and beside the River, leaving only tantalizing evidence of their existence to peak our imagination about who they were, and what their lives here in the Canyon must have been like.

The waters of the Little Colorado River and Havasu Creek are crystal clear | © Mike Mitchell

The waters of the Little Colorado River and Havasu Creek are crystal clear | © Mike Mitchell

On the Little Colorado River and up the Havasu Creek Canyon we witnessed the perfect balance of water temperature, Ph level, and the very healthy dose of calcium carbonate washed out of deposits upstream of the side canyon flows producing the most stunning crystal clear aquamarine water that one can imagine, flowing over a white limestone bed. It really was like seeing a Caribbean getaway right in the middle of the Grand Canyon. The effect was as breathtakingly beautiful as it was surprising.

But as the natural beauty and geologic wonder of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River came in wave after wave, it was good to remember that the future of this national treasure is not assured. The Colorado River in fact is endangered, at risk, and because they are so linked so too is the Canyon. The 22,000 people who raft the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon every year must be stewards not just consumers practicing the “leave not trace” approach developed by scouting.

With one stroke in 1963, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam altered the River and the Canyon in harmful ways. The vegetation that lines the River was changed, possibly forever, natural fish species were destroyed, and the seasonal floods that cleanse the Canyon on an annual basis, much the way that natural fires maintain a healthy balance in a forest, were ended. Misguided public policy in the future could put the River and the Canyon at further risk.

The threat of development could harm both habitat and the natural beauty of the Park. The voracious consumption of water by the communities that use the Colorado River as their source of water present a very clear and present threat to the near and long term future of the River.

Each member of our group came off the river this past June with a sense that we had experienced something very special and unique; some said life changing. We spent seven days in a place that is pristine and powerful, yet at the same time fragile. It is important that each of us in some way proactively engage as stewards of this National Park in order to protect and preserve this very special place, to ensure that both the River and the Canyon are here for future generations to enjoy, embrace and fully experience.