The beginning of any adventure is the only time I find I am eager, excited, and terrified all at the same time. As we were rigging our boats for the first time at Lee’s Ferry, the put in for the Grand Canyon, I thought of my tried-and-true routines back home. Ethan and I recently bought our own home, and settling in came easy. Leaving those creature comforts behind, along with my trusty canine sidekick, Hazel, it was hard to see myself disconnecting from it all for nearly a month. I had done it many times before and succeeded, but every time it feels harder to make that first dismount into the unknown. I definitely felt physically prepared for this trip. I knew I brought everything I needed, and I trusted the people in my group. I had been down the Canyon before. I knew the rapids, the campsites, and the general “Canyon lifestyle.” What I did not know was how the group was going to work together, the weather, and how I would respond to it all, both physically and mentally. You never know these things going into a trip, and you never know what will wreck you, but I guess that is why it’s called adventure. The Merriam-Webster definition of adventure is: “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.” So we headed off from Lee’s Ferry into the unknown.
This is the second time that Ethan and I have had the privilege to go to the Grand Canyon. I do not use the term privilege flippantly. To paddle down the entirety of the Grand Canyon is a difficult trip to secure. There are only a few options to make that happen. The first is to apply for a permit yourself. Without the boring, nitty gritty details of it all, you basically pay a twenty-five dollar fee and put your name in a lottery system on the National Parks Service website two years in advance for the dates that you are hoping for. About five thousand permit applications are submitted to a lottery each year and very few are given out. Odds are, you will not get chosen. The second option is to go with a commercial outfitter. It is a simple process of calling and booking a trip. It is expensive, however, and with good reason. Your guides on a commercially outfitted trip will work incredibly hard to prepare your steak dinners and set up your tents for you; I imagine it is a great vacation. This is also a good option if you do not have the skills and experience on rivers needed for such an expedition. The third option is to have connections and lucky friends. This is how Ethan and I were granted the opportunity to go twice! There are two types of permits: eight and sixteen person permits. Most people opt for the larger of the two…the more people, the more stuff you get to bring! Therefore, you need to fill those permits. So when your friend gets a permit, they actually NEED you to go with them. What are friends for, right? I go into all of this to say that the Colorado River in the depths of the Grand Canyon is not only physically difficult to get to, it is also logistically and legally difficult to gain access.
When paddling down the Grand Canyon there are so many things to focus on including campsite location, group dynamics, food preparation, energy levels, and weather. As an outdoor professional, it is hard to mentally step away from tripping logistics to truly look around at my surroundings. But when I finally do, it leaves me speechless. The vastness of the landscape and the intricacy of the varying desert colors are mind-blowing. I almost feel as though words are not adequate to define what I see. Kevin Fedarko states it best in his opening quote of The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by saying, “… there comes a moment just after the sun has disappeared behind the rimrock, and just before the darkness has tumbled down the walls, when the bottom of the Grand Canyon gives itself over to a moment of muted grace that feels something like an act of atonement for the sins of the world. This is the fleeting interregnum between the blast-furnace heat of the day and the star-draped immensity of the night, and when it arrives, the bedrock bathes in a special kind of light, the pink-and-orange blush of a freshly opened nectarine. This is also the canyon’s loveliest hour, when there is nothing sweeter, nothing more calming to the soul, than standing along the shallows at the edge of the Colorado River and breathing in the wonder of the place. The ramparts rising nakedly for more than a vertical mile above. The locomotive-size slabs that have peeled away from the terraced cliffs and shattered to pieces far below. And most bewitching of all, the muscular, sluicing, glimmer-gilded surface of the great river itself.” Those fleeting moments of golden glory took my breath away.
Between those moments of beauty, there is the day to day duty of paddling downstream, navigating various classes of difficult whitewater. After having now been down the Grand Canyon twice, it became quite obvious to me that one of the things that really brings us together in there (literally down in the canyon away from the rest of our families and friends) are the rapids. There are some pretty challenging rapids for a three thousand pound, eighteen foot oar rig. Making the necessary maneuvers is not always easy, and not all of us have come on the trip with a lot of prior experience. So, when we got to the big rapids we got out and scouted. My fellow kayakers and I would quickly see our line and were ready to go in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile the rowers could be scouting up to an hour or so discussing which line to take, whether to push or pull on the oars, where to go if things went wrong, etc. It was a process not to be taken lightly when you are rowing the next two weeks’ worth of food or three other people’s sleeping bags. The reality is, if things are rigged well, you shouldn’t lose much. When you have heard story after story, however, of things going awry, you must consider every possibility during this process. Whether things do not go quite as planned and you figure it out as a team, or everyone has beautiful lines, we get to the bottom of the rapid having overcome something TOGETHER. Our hardest day on the river came when one of our rafts flipped in a rapid. In that moment everything fell silent as we were waiting to see our friend swim safely downstream. Actions were being taken, but it seemed as though all sounds had stopped. When we finally saw her, it was a sigh of relief, but it was not over yet; we still needed to get the heaviest boat on our trip flipped right side up. Once we got our oarswoman and the boat to a beach, it was time to assemble a plan. Everyone in the group had a job to do to execute a complicated maneuver. Some of us stood on the raft pulling a rope toward the water. Others were positioned on the shore with ropes, pulling towards the beach, hoping to flip the massive raft over like a pancake. After many attempts, we finally got the raft righted. The success of that experience as a team is nearly indescribable and can only be felt there in the moment. Sure, I have felt the feeling of river comradery before, but there is something about the great gamble, while in true wilderness, that raises the stakes just high enough to feel the immense energy of a great team accomplishment. I dare say it is one of the best feelings in the world.
While navigating the whitewater is an integral and beautiful piece of paddling the Grand Canyon, there are greater rewards to be found. The whitewater alone is not why people spend all of their savings to go eat sand and watch their hands deteriorate to no avail for three weeks out of a busy year. It is also about the escape; at least it is for me. It is the only place, in my experience, where no one cares and you can feel it. No one cares in the best way possible. It does not matter what you do for a living back home, if you have kids or how many, what routines fill your daily life…it just simply does not matter. Sure, those things help to shape who you are and how you got there, but for three weeks the only things that matter are rigging to flip, setting up camp, and how much salve you have left for your hands. Does the group have everything they need for the day? Should we scout the class seven rapid (the Grand Canyon operates on a class 1-10 grading scale)? Life becomes much simpler. To someone who has not spent much time on expeditions these things may seem stressful. They are not. It comes down to life’s basic necessities: food, water, and shelter. Meanwhile, imminent happiness is the result. I am making this sound like a vacation you should all sign up for immediately. My apologies. Might I go back to frigid, windy nights where you are huddled together in your tent, face to face, simply to keep the sand blowing on your back and not in your mouth, only to wake up in the morning with a small sand castle built over night by the wind fairies? By day three or four you quickly realize every attempt to shake out sand from your belongings is a pointless effort. By day ten you are in full acceptance that your morning coffee will come with a crunch. Might I also mention bathing in the fifty degree river water on a sunny fifty-five degree afternoon? You’ve been waiting on warmer weather, but your body reeks in a way that not even the local animals would be comfortable with, so you grin and bear the plunge. Honestly, those river baths left me feeling more like a new person than any shower I take at home.
Paddling down the Grand Canyon was something that I knew I had to do. I also thought that once I did it, I would be able to check it off my bucket list and never go back. My first time down in 2018, and just a few days in, I knew that was not the case…this was an “important place.” Doug Woodward, paddling pioneer and poet, wrote the following poem titled “The Important Places” for his son:
“Child of Mine, come
as you grow in youth
you will learn
the secret places
the cave behind the waterfall
the arms of the oak
that hold you high
the stars so near on a desert ledge
…the important places.
And, as with age, you choose
your own way
among the many faces
of a busy world
may you always remember
the path that leads back
…back to the important places.”
An important place for me is somewhere that I go back to again and again and continue to learn. In the Grand Canyon you learn about history, time, geology, hydrology, and weather. But most of all, my important places are where I continue learning about myself, life, and love. I have been there and back again, and I trust that someday my path will lead me back to this important place that is The Grand Canyon.