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In the Sandstone Office: Notes from River Guide, Jed Tarlow

Jed Tarlow is a river guide and moonlighting conservationist. He splits his time trying to protect the rivers of western China and running the ultra classics of the American West. For the past couple seasons he's been doing so in Bedrocks, like a handful of other footwear-forward river guides, testing our sandals merits in the most exacting sandal-wearin' conditions. in this guest post, Jed reflects on his season in the sandstone office, alongside his film photographs shot inside the Grand Canyon, as it comes to a close. 

Its the first morning of my last trip of the season. My 7th this year through the Grand Canyon. The grand finale of a 7 month, 2000+ mile commercial raft season. Its a trip of a lifetime for most, but for those of us who work down here, sometimes it can feel like another trip to the sandstone office. Still, this will be the last trip for at least 5 months and I want to take it all in while I can.

I’ve forged a unique connection with the wild places I work in. Most of the time I'm thrilled to make my living outside in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Other times I wake up here, looking up at towering walls of sedimentary rock and wish I was in a bed somewhere, steps away from a hot shower and Netflix. Other times I seem to forget where I am, fixating on how to fix the water filter or the best way get that cactus spine out of Jim from Indiana’s butt cheek. It can be too easy to ignore the beauty all around and focus only on the work in front of me. It is the small yet profound moments that snap me out of work mode. The best ones only seem to pay out after hunkering in for an extended stint down here.

All summer I've watched sand piling up in the eddy near the 40 mile marker. I first noticed the sand bar when my boat scraped over it pulling in to camp. In the dammed and sediment starved Colorado River, sandbars are a rarity. The dam acts like a giant coffee filter, catching all the silt and sediment and trapping it at the bottom of Lake Powell. I eyeballed that sand pile every trip, wondering if it would just flush downstream. Finally, one lazy afternoon I swam out to it. I couldn't see it through the muddy water, but I headed towards where I thought it might be. First I kicked it with an extended toe. I swam a bit further and was able to stand up. I explored a touch more and found a waste deep section. I poked around further until finally I was knee deep in the middle of the Colorado giggling to myself and enjoying the glow of the sun. I stood out there for twenty minutes or so, enjoying that sandbar and waving madly at other trips floating by. The tiny almost-island has probably flushed down into Lake Mead now, but it was a magical spot for that sunny afternoon.

The canyon caught me off guard again towards the end of a long, rainy trip. I was cold and wet trying to hype some colder and wetter passengers into walking up to Deer Creek Falls, the tallest waterfall in Grand Canyon. As soon as I'd finished my pitch about visiting the TALLEST waterfall in Grand Canyon, I looked across the way and watched a waterfall start pouring over the rim. All of us stopped and watched the waterfall navigate through layer after layer until it disappeared into a scree slope a few hundred feet above us. It was just a trickle of water, but it was 3 times as tall as Deer Creek falls. I'd never seen that falls run before and odds are I'll never see it run again.

Over time I've become familiar with Grand Canyon's grandiose beauty, but have come to revere the subtle changes of a living, breathing place. Witnessing these changes isn't as easy as driving to the rim and looking over the edge. I’ve paid the entry fee to see them in lost skin, creaky knees, troubled relationships, and the inevitable depression of November. But sticking around for the show almost always seems to be worth the ticket cost.

Stretching out in my sleeping bag, I wonder what marvels Grand Canyon might have in store for the last trip of the year. My body's sore and I’m feeling a bit crusty around the edges. My hands are cracked and bleeding. My index finger has developed an odd curve down and to the left that is starting to look a bit concerning.These hands look like they might belong to another person, some rough and tumble character who's been around many more years than I have.

My toes are starting to feel the tickle of the mysterious fungal/bacterial infection that river guides affectionately refer to as toe-lio. At least once a day, another guide passes on their tried and true cure for it. Coats of hand sanitizer or crushed aspirin in a betadyne solution or tea tree oil and campfire ash, everyone seems to have their own homebrew cure. I've been lucky this year and have managed to keep it at bay most of the season. I try to wear shoes as little as possible to maximize dry toe time. Bedrocks have become my hiking shoes, my whitewater shoes, my camp shoes and have helped keep the toe-lio at bay.

Minor afflictions aside, life is good this morning. We are camped at Lee's Ferry, the put in for the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Its an under-rated piece of red rock canyon country, but also a heavily used public boat ramp. Right now the parking lot is still mostly empty, the wide gravel boat ramp is still quiet, and I can't even smell the ever-pungent park service pit toilet. The crew are still all in bed, but awake, sipping coffee in our sleeping bags, and relishing that rare chance to sleep in and watch the desert wake up. I’m staring vacantly downstream. The sides of the canyon are low here. They slope gently upwards, a hint of the towering walls that will rise around us as we head down the river.

I work my way mentally downstream from my sleeping bag, trying to picture what the next 2 weeks have in store. There are hikes we might do, side canyons we'll probably see, and rapids we'll definitely run. There's certainly a list of Grand Canyon ultra-classics where we'll do our best to stop. The hidden oasises, powder blue side creeks, and waterfalls that our passengers have already heard about before they ever get in the boat. I've been cultivating my own list of favorite spots. They might not make the cover of National Geographic, but they're the ones that always make me appreciate being down here.

Theres a little ledge I'm fond of up above a popular waterfall. Its just big enough for a person or two. You could visit the waterfall 10 times and never notice it. It took me longer than that to pick it out. While everyone frolics in the waterfall below, sometimes I can climb up for a quick shady nap, curled against the sandstone. The sound of water covers up the voices and for a moment I can slip away deep in canyon country.

There's a tiny beach that also makes my list. Its covered by an overhang of limestone and solution springs feed ferns that hang down over the lip. Its a half mile downstream from a popular camp at the end of a giant recirculating eddy. Some nights after the dishes are done and everyones in bed, a few of the crew can untie a boat and slip away downstream to hang out on this little private beach and watch the stars swirl over the canyon. Once we've had our fill we row back into the eddy and let it zip us upstream back to camp. With any luck we'll be back in time for a few hours sleep and smiling in the morning about our secret midnight voyage.

These hidden nooks make each trip more meaningful than the last. It seems that the more time I spend down here, the more I want to keep coming back. For every hidden ledge and secret beach, there must be ten more I haven't seen yet. The desert country is vast, almost limitless for a single human to explore. Just in the American southwest, there are 500,000+ square miles of desert to wander. Yet coming back to the same place, week after week and year after year opens up a new level of meaning and a whole web of new spots. I feel like an 8 year old in my backyard again. Familiar yet unthinkably vast.

The sun has just peeped over the horizon at Lee's Ferry and its time to get out of bed, to prepare for the arrival of our 23 passengers. My coffee cup is empty and I must start foraging through my stuff for a hat and sunglasses. Soon this peaceful gravel ramp will be a sea of drybags, beer cases, and lost pale smiling faces. In most ways this trip will probably end up a lot like the last, but I'm still giddy to head downstream. Excited to discover new nap nooks, see what new springs will flow, visit my favorite spots, and revel in the changes that grand canyon will show me. Its another couple weeks in the sandstone office, but I'm ready to see what lies downstream.

All photos taken by and published with permission of Jed Tarlow.

1 Response

Diana Ellis

Diana Ellis

January 14, 2019

Terrific perspective. We palefaces are forever grateful for all the guides who make our adventures possible….and for putting up with our whining sarcasm. You make us better people- no, really.

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