God's Pocket and the Woolly Mammoth

by Michael Groh

Our group of seven sees the Grand Wash Cliffs miles and hours before we get close to them. Such are the dynamics of light, air quality, and grandeur supporting our boat trip. Western light reflects tan and pink on the gray-green-white cliffs and highlights their two-tiered structure. As the easterly movement of our boats creates new visual angles, the colorful images of the cliffs are mirrored on the water's surface.

About 1000 feet below the cliffs is our first boat base camp destination: God's Pocket (the name always jumps up off the map for me). Our small boats make steady headway against the current of the Colorado River, made easier by the slowing effect of Upper Lake Mead. In late January, in Northwestern Arizona, the light is slanted, the air is cool, and our group has the wilderness to ourselves. Our quest is to pilot our boats upstream on the Colorado into the Grand Canyon itself and see what happens.

When John Wesley Powell led the first known boat expedition down the wild Colorado River through the Grand Canyon just after the Civil War, he defined the Grand Wash Cliffs as the geological end of the wild rapids and as the physical sign that the members of his party would survive. We define the cliffs as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon: beauty, adventure, and the mystery of Native American spirit.

Signs, symbols, and spirits of the Southern Paiute and earlier Native Americans draw us. We are especially looking for the Wooly Mammoth, considered extinct for about 10,000 years. Mammoth bones have recently been discovered downriver, confirming that this once was mammoth country. Ancient hunters pursued them and used all of their parts 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. Someone etched a rock art image of a Woolly Mammoth on a boulder. This image, or petroglyph, created hundreds or thousands of years ago, is somewhere up the Colorado in an unnamed side canyon.

After several days of boating upriver and exploring the area, we are able to find a place to tie up our boats in the general area where the mammoth is supposed to be. We are now about ten miles up from God's Pocket, in unfamiliar territory and traveling light (out of "pocket"?). Finally, on the second day of our hiking search, we start finding pottery fragments, petroglyphs, mescal pits, and ... the Woolly Mammoth. In a narrow side canyon, about a mile up from the river, stands the mammoth. Small, actually (we all had big images in our heads), the Mammoth is finely etched on the flat side of a rock with the typical dark desert varnish being scratched through to illuminate the lighter colored rock beneath.

But how did the artist know, whoever he or she was? The petroglyph cannot be 10,000 years old - the estimated extinction date of mammoths. The Southern Paiute are thought to have come into the area only 400 to 600 years ago. Anasazi people go back a couple of thousand. Did the artist or others have a mammoth vision? Were ancient Woolly Mammoth stories handed down? Did a mammoth escape extinction? Did the petroglyph replace a much earlier rock art image which was fading away? Was it really a representation of a mammoth at all? Could we be reading into the art our "Woolly Mammoth" constructs? All of the above could be true, and other ways of looking at it as well. Such is the mystery of mystery.

When one boats into and out of God's Pocket such delightful experiences are to be expected. It is why we go. The side canyon of the mammoth has no name, at least on the map. I like it unnamed. The silence, symbols, and spirituality of the ancients are present and powerful; no words are needed.

See all articles by Michael Groh