The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon – Crystal Rapid


Now comes Crystal, at Mile 98.8. It is one of the two most demanding rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and the most feared rapid. This is because Crystal Rapid has an upper and lower section. The upper section has waves and holes that regularly flip boats or throw passengers into the river. The lower section, a mid-stream collection of boulders (aka the Island or the Rock Garden), puts overturned rafts and swimmers at risk. Though it may be called an “island”, it does not have safe shores. Rather, the upper end of the Island consists of sleepers (partially submerged rocks) that can beat you up, and exposed boulders that form sieves, which can trap boats and people.

On my first Canyon trip, in 1971, the large raft that I was in was flipped end-over-end by an even larger wave. I didn’t hit the Island, but it was a long swim. By the time a swimmer has passed the Island (which has a rapid to either side) and into slower water, he or she may be feeling pretty ragged. I’ve rescued swimmers below Crystal, and some were extremely rattled as they crawled into my boat. No wonder guides talk about “learning your ABCs” at Crystal, an acronym, in this case, for “Alive Below Crystal”. And no wonder that people uncork the bottle at “Ego Beach” (Lower Crystal Camp), after a successful run down the right side of the rapid.

We start here with the very scenic section of river found just downstream of Schist Camp. 27 photos.

Upstream view from below Schist Camp, Mile 97.0

Upstream view from below Schist Camp, Mile 97.0

Boucher Rapid, Mile 97.1, and sand dune. This dune appears to be the product of an intentional flood release

Boucher Rapid, Mile 97.1, and sand dune. This dune appears to be the product of an intentional flood release.

Boucher Camp. upstream view, Mile 97.2. Like Schist Camp, this camp has some very nice rocks to look at, but the eddy is rocky and bouncy.

Boucher Camp. upstream view, Mile 97.2. Like Schist Camp, this camp has some very nice rocks to look at, but the eddy is both rocky and bouncy.

Upstream view from below Boucher Camp, Mile 97.5

Upstream view from below Boucher Camp, Mile 97.5

Turning the corner above Crystal Rapid, Mile 98.2

Coming around the bend above Crystal Rapid, Mile 98.2

Downstream telephoto view of a ridge of dark schist that is seamed with pink granite. This ridge is found on river right, below Crystal Rapid. Also seen is the cliff of the Tapeats Sandstone, beyond.

Downstream telephoto view of a ridge of dark schist seamed with pink granite. This ridge is found on river right, below Crystal Rapid. Beyond is a cliff of the Tapeats Sandstone.

Coming into view of Upper Crystal Camp. Scorpion Ridge is seen in the distance.

Upper Crystal Camp, Mile 98.7, comes into view. Scorpion Ridge is seen in the distance.

Crystal Creek, Mile 98.8

Crystal Creek, Mile 98.8

Reeds along the margin of Crystal Creek

Reeds along the margin of Crystal Creek

On the left side of Crystal Rapid, in a large raft rowed by two, June 1971

On the left side of Crystal Rapid, in a large raft rowed by two, June 1971

I took this photo with a borrowed Nikonos dive camera, as the wave seen here lifted our bow toward the sky. Realizing that it was going to "endo" the raft, I leaped backwards out of the boat. The over-turned boat landed a few feet in front of me.

Seated behind the oarsmen, I took this photo as the wave lifted our bow toward the sky. Realizing that it was going to “endo” the raft, I leaped backwards out of the boat. June, 1971

Shoreline view of the top of Crystal Rapid. This viewing point doesn't make evident all of the possibilities in running this upper section.

Shoreline view of the top of Crystal Rapid. This viewing point doesn’t make evident all of the possibilities in running this upper section.

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This telephoto view from the scouting bluff shows the depth of the main top hole, and also affords a view of a route to the left of that hole

The "X" marks the route of safe passage between the top holes. It's wider, and easier to spot, than the view from the right shore suggests.

The “X” marks the route of safe passage between the top holes. It’s wider, and easier to spot (on the approach), than the view from the right shore suggests.

The top hole, 2012

The top hole, 2012

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Where did those holes go? In this early morning downstream view, we are running Crystal at low water. Under normal circumstances, the tide, at Crystal, is “out” at night. But the tide starts quickly “coming in” in the early morning – so much so that when Kathy and I worked for AZRA, our trips would depart from Upper Crystal Camp BEFORE breakfast. Every minute counted! Breakfast is then prepared above Tuna Creek Rapid.

In the high water of Sept. 1983, we coincided with a film crew that was re-enacting Powell's trips of exploration. The movie they produced is now shown at the theater in Tusayan. Accompanying that trip was the well-known conservationist and dory boatman Martin Litton. We were scouting from the bluff together, and Martin was accompanied by a dory guide who I believe was his son-in-law. The guide offered Martin a hard hat, to which Martin replied: "I'm not going to wear that damn thing." The guide, seen in the back of the dory, wore his.

In the high water of Sept. 1983, we coincided with a film crew that was re-enacting John Wesley Powell’s trips of exploration. The movie they produced is now shown at the theater in Tusayan. Accompanying that trip was the highly-regarded conservationist and dory boatman Martin Litton. He was 66 then, and now holds the record for oldest person to row the entirety of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon (in 2004, at the age of 87). We were scouting from the bluff together, and Martin was accompanied by a dory guide who, I  was told, was his son-in-law. The guide offered Martin a hard hat, to which Martin replied: “I’m not going to wear that damn thing.” The guide, seen in the back of the dory, wore his.

Martin's companion high-sides, as the dory gets slammed sideways

Martin’s guide companion high-sides, as the dory gets slammed sideways

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Seen here are the Powell replica boats, being lowered onto the large pontoon rafts (out of sight below) that supported the trip. These boats were so unstable that the guides who had been hired to row them refused to take them through Crystal.

The second hole. The Slate Creek eddy is seen across the river

The second hole. The Slate Creek eddy is seen across the river

Our canoeist, Fen Sartorius, asked me for my camera, and got this great shot of Kathy in the second hole

Our canoeist, Fen Sartorius, asked me for my camera, and got this great shot of Kathy in the second hole

Molly and Maria are in a 14' Achilles, doing the classic right run. Molly is looking over her shoulder, while"powelling" (rowing forward downstream), so as to pick up speed to bust through the right margin of the tongue

Molly and Maria are in a 14′ Achilles, doing the classic right run. Molly is looking over her shoulder at the top hole, while”powelling” (rowing “backwards” downstream), to pick up momentum to better bust through the right margin of the tongue

She succeeds in getting to the right of the top hole, seen erupting behind her, and looks downstream at the second hole

Molly succeeds in getting to the right of the top hole, seen erupting behind her, and looks downstream at the second hole

She passes to the right of the second hole, which completes the right run, and can now drift down to Ego Beach

She passes to the right of the second hole, which completes the right run, and can now drift down to Ego Beach

Kathy passes to the right of the top hole

Kathy passes to the right of the top hole

Lower Crystal Rapid

Lower Crystal Rapid, the Island

Lower Crystal Rapid, Sept. 2012

Lower Crystal Rapid, the Island, Sept. 2012. Boats occasionally fetch up (like the log seen here) on the rock called “Big Red”.

Canyon Wren scouts Crystal Rapid

Canyon Wren scouts Crystal Rapid

About believesteve

I am a photographer and have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-grand/id672492447?ls=1
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