Witness Post: Tom McNamara on Anthony Ipsaro’s Grand Canyon Trip
From Sublime to Ridiculous
Dear Meg & Tom,
Asking for a “PG Rated” version of stories about Tommy Mac and various adventures is like asking for a perfumed version of a groover. But I will do my best.
The scenes and stories of this letter go back to May and June of 1995, when Tom Mac, Tom Bagli, John Nagle and I (the four intrepid brothers-in-law) joined Anthony Ipsaro on a trip through the Grand Canyon in Arizona. After a brief stop at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where we had to fore-go a Yanni concert, we boarded a plane and then a bus to arrive in Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, which is the starting point for many trips down the Colorado River, ending just past Lava Falls. We were on a trip with Western River Expeditions and it was fantastic.
I will pick up the story near the end of my journal on the last two days of the trip. Not that the first few days were less memorable, but so I can save those special stories and re-tell them at a future Tommy roast.
June 3, 1995
I will always remember today as Havasu Day, though only a few of us on the trip actually made it to see Havasu Canyon and Beaver Falls. During the trip one of our guides, Trevor, had gotten sick with a 24-48 hour bug that had slowly begun to sicken the rest of us on the expedition. By that morning 10 people were already quite ill, unable to come to meals, due to severe nausea and diarrhea. The boatmen recommended that everyone who felt sick to “lay low” that day and they agreed to softly take the trip further down river, lest those with stomach problems had dire consequences.
We drifted carefully past Doris and Fishtail Rapids and for the most part avoided the main channel, but five miles further we hit Upset Rapid (an 8 on the 10 point whitewater charts) and it was a doozie. Those of us on the front pontoons held fast as we felt lots of turbulence, white water drenchings, and bouncing around. Those on the back bench, known as the Chicken Coop, who were praying for placid water, were disappointed. Our boat guide, Ken, could not avoid the hits at Upset and those in the Chicken Coop groaned. Just past Upset John Nagle started to feel sick and by the next pit stop, he was fully losing his breakfast. He poetically described the experience as “communing with the universal light.”
Seven miles later we hit mile 157, which corresponds with Havasu Creek. All four of the boats in our expedition carefully maneuvered to the mouth of the Creek which was a clear aquamarine color as it hit the muddy Colorado River. Those who were up to it took our packed lunches and hiked seven miles, with an incline of 1,000 feet to Beaver Falls on Havasu Creek. John Nagle, Tom Bagli, Anthony, Tom Mac and I started out at a fast pace, but John and Tom Bagli slowed at the first pale blue pools and decided not to go all the way, preferring to relax and enjoy the travertine rock formations. Anthony volunteered to stay behind with the pool sitters, and we are glad he did, because it took them many times longer to get back to the boat and they were feeling terrible on the trail and could easily have lost their way.
Tommy Mac decided that since it was not a race to the finish, he would “smell the roses” along the trip, besides with the rising heat of the canyon (80+ degrees) and the coolness of the Creek (60 degrees), an occasional dunking was both appropriate and exhilarating. Tom and I followed the streambed for a few miles and it was quite slow going. Tom spotted a trail further up the slope, which we scrambled to, finding the path much easier to follow. We hit the trail just before it dropped down about 100 feet to a cliff’s edge. When we got there we stood at the precipice and gawked: we were staring at a Blue Paradise! Ahead of us was a 30’ waterfall that fell noisily into an azure pool with a lip of travertine around its edge. People were jumping from a spot above the falls and into the depths. Without hesitation Tom turned, handed me his camera and said, take a picture of this! I thought he was going to “moon me,” but instead he dropped his day pack and dashed over to the edge to jump in. I caught a picture of him in mid-flight. Tom came back and took a picture of me and we then swam in the pools, lazily ate lunch, sunned on the rocks, and chatted with our fellow Beaver Falls trekkers. The bottom of the pools was sandy and the sandwiches tasted good as we took in the beauty of this sublime oasis in the wilderness.
Tom Mac followed our guide, Jed, hiking back to the boats at a very fast clip and “burning up the sandstone.” I was not feeling all that well, so I took a more leisurely pace. Crossing the last part of the creek, I started to feel ill and got sick by the edge of the trail, as the boats came into view. Our campsite was nine miles further down river, so I held it together, barely, by concentrated breathing, like Tracy did in child birth preparation classes. It did not help and I got sick again at the campsite. Anthony and Tom Mac made a tent for me and I went immediately to bed, skipping dinner, which was too bad. Tonight was “Captain’s Choice Night,” and our captain Ken chose two themes for the evening: black tie or toga. He loudly blew the conch shell calling guests to supper. The meal started with peeled shrimp, cocktail sauce and champagne. Corks were popping and the singing of the boaters was wonderful, even for those of us who felt wretched. The crew was very chipper and announced at supper that despite the illnesses, they would carry forward with the campfire, featuring skits and an amateur hour.
John Nagle and Tom Bagli performed an air guitar version of “Dueling Banjo’s” made famous in the movie, Deliverance, which proved brilliant! They brought the house down with their visual and verbal skills, and the sick ones hoped we were not going to be asked to bend over like Ned Beatty. Tommy Mac’s skit, which kept with the Toga theme, was hilarious. He was quickly transformed before our eyes into Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live (SNL). Before we knew it, he was dancing Egyptian style across the campfire stage and singing “King Tut!” It was especially fun, because Tom insisted on audience participation and after a little coaching, everyone came in on time to sing the chorus that started with “moved from Arizona…” perfectly.
After the campfire amateur hour, there were some impromptu awards. Tom Mac gave one award to our Captain, Ken. It was a piece of drift wood in the shape of the letter “L”. In his iconoclastic style, Ken took the award and shoved it down his shorts, with the bottom of the letter sticking out of his zipper fly. It was impossible to listen to his next announcements without cracking up, but Ken kept right on talking as if nothing had changed. The announcements were important, since he talked about the next day when we hit the second #10 rapid on the Colorado, infamously known simply as Lava.
We found out the next day that Tom Mac had gotten sick in the middle of the night and he had not slept a wink, experiencing his own communion with the “universal light.”
June 4, 1995
We awoke pretty early the next day and most of us felt better, and Anthony and Tom Bagli were in the best shape, having avoided the sickness all together. Tommy Mac, however, was in the thick of it and felt terrible. Anthony prepped us on what we should pack and how we should prepare our bags, since this was our last day on river. After putting all of the gear in the boats, we started down river toward Lava. We skirted Fern Glen and Gateway Rapids and the next seven miles were placid and peaceful. Tommy Mac sat on the back part of the boat with others in the Chicken Coop, sunglasses on and hat pulled tight, just hoping not to get sick again.
The walls of the Canyon were widening from the River and outcroppings of Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite began to appear everywhere: signs of volcanic activity from millions of years ago. We also saw lots of barrel cactus, which were Anthony’s favorites. Tom Bagli said they reminded him of “Cone Heads” also from SNL.
As we drifted further Ken told us to keep our eyes out for a large volcanic plug, known as Vulcan’s Anvil in the middle of the river. Legend has it that if all of the women in the boat kiss the rock, then the boat will have a safe journey through Lava Falls. Not to tempt the Fates, we too pulled up alongside the rock and each of the women in our boat placed a lip-lock on the lava. Ken turned off the motor after that and we floated in the narrowing Canyon, listening to the ever-increasing sound of thunder ahead. With each quarter mile the sounds got louder and louder. Ken told us the geology and history of the approaching falls and we were filled with anticipation. He turned the motor back on after about a mile and powered over to the north edge of the falls so that we could get out and take a look at other rafters going through the Falls if we wanted. Tommy Mac stayed in the boat, dousing his head with water to cool his fever.
From the top of the bank we saw torrents of brown water that were totally turning white as the water entered what is called the tongue of the rapids. Ken mentioned that in some rapids little boats can skirt the big hits and not get upset, however with Lava, there is no easy route: rocks and rapids hit all boats from every possible angle, so there is no unscathed route through the Falls. The guidebook shows that the water drops over 30 feet from start to finish, and quotes John Wesley Powell as saying, “Great quantities of lava are seen on either side and then we come to an abrupt cataract. Just over the fall a cinder cone, or extinct volcano stands on the very brink of the canyon. What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here! Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into the river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of waters; what clouds of steam rolling into the heavens!” Jed led the first Western River Expedition boat and we watched his boat took 4 huge hits, as he skirted a huge rock and then his boat entered a huge hole and we lost it for a moment, only to see it emerge about 50 yards further down river. “Wow, the river is running BIG!” said Ken.
We walked back to our boat, with our hearts racing, and took our positions on the raft as Jed started to ease us away from the bank. John Nagle, Tom Bagli and I secured our hands under the pontoon ropes and waited. We were suddenly surprised to see Tommy Mac jump up from his seat. He bounded our way and took a position right behind me on the pontoon. He must have been feeling better, because he blurted out: “I didn’t come all this way to ride LAVA IN NO CHICHEN COOP!” And he screamed a cheer as we drifted into fast water. So off we went, the intrepid four running BIG on the front of the boat while Anthony watched from his usual perch on the bulkhead in the back.
We took the same water route that Jed had taken and some good white water crashed over us. We also had some wild side-to-side boat movements. We were careful not to knock heads in the rapids when suddenly we were swallowed up in a huge hole. Our boat seemed to nearly bend in half, as we hit the bottom and then came shooting up over the top. The adrenaline was pumping even harder as we powered through the water and avoided boulders and plowed through huge white caps. It was thrilling! We did not lose anyone, which is a blessing, and immediately went to assessing the run: Tom Bagli said, “Not as good as Hermit and just as good as Crystal!” John Nagle shouted, “Let’s do it again!” Tommy Mac shouted, “If you’ve got to groove, better move … OH SHIT!” We all ducked our heads and were thankful he was joking.
A few more miles of lazy drifting … and we laughed, told stories, and relaxed before Whitmore Wash. That spot was the exit point for our trip and the helicopter pad for our ride back to civilization. We had travelled 188 miles on the Colorado, what a wonderful trip. We gave a tip to our guides, said good-bye to our fellow boaters and hiked to the helicopter pad. It is going to be hard to get back into “real life!”
Tommy Mac, Happy Birthday! And thanks to our dear Anthony we have these stories to tell. We are always grateful for the trip, without which we would not have such fond memories. As our guides would urge, “Be sure to suck rubber and RIDE BIG!”
— Henry Hooper