A Freedom Story: Reflections of the Colorado River
by Dyana Hesson
An Eight Day River Trip on the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek
May 26 – June 2, 2022 Jump to What to Pack
The frigid water washed over me like a second baptism. My right hand clenched my camera tightly over my head. Randy was sitting next to me on the floor of the boat, our feet dangling over the “people catcher” net. He was urging me to put down the camera and hold on. I heard someone chant “Lava, Lava!” Just then, the boat dipped, and the second wave engulfed me.
I could feel my body separate from the boat. For a moment I was floating. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my life vest from behind. I learned later that a guide had grabbed ahold of me. I felt my body come to a rest on the hard steel, gravity was restored, and I was exhilarated.
This story is about the river, the boatmen, and us; the bobbing bodies on the boat. The newbies, the first-time campers, the adventurers and the timid. We would learn day by day what we were made of, what we were capable of, how friendships are created when daily life is spent in close quarters and new adventures are experienced in tandem.
But truthfully, this story may be more about me. Selfishly, I want to write about my experience. All the other stuff is important too. I love Arizona history, geography, interesting facts. Lord knows, writing about a Grand Canyon River trip would give me oodles of opportunities to share those things. I mean, good grief; the Powell expedition, the missing layer thing, excerpts of “Death in the Grand Canyon’, the Sierra Club’s fight, the fastest run in a Dory. . . But other people have written those stories and they are good stories. But this was my trip.
The way I see it, a trip has three impactful phases: before (anticipation), during (adrenaline), and after (reflection). These are my reflections. They are deep and wide, like the river that inspired them.
Why The Colorado River?
Randy and I booked this trip about a year earlier. Originally, we wanted to travel with friends, but by one by one their plans changed, or an injury ensued and so that was that. We would learn later that the river does not care about who you bring, but what you bring. If you bring your courage, your willingness, your talents, your patience, and your energy; and share those things freely, that will do. There will be things to learn, new friends to make, challenges taken, and tears shed all around the river bend.
We were attracted to this trip as a way to connect the dots of so many places we love in Arizona. The Little Colorado River in the White Mountains, Havasupai, Phantom Ranch on Bright Angel Creek, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Lee’s Ferry and Page, are all places where we’ve spent significant time exploring and recreating. The Colorado River is the long sweeping line on the map that connects all those special places. It is the common thread, and the lifeblood of our great state of Arizona. It is wild and unspoiled and a little overwhelming. And so it was time, while we were able-bodied and upright.
The Adventure Begins
We arrived at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff on a Wednesday afternoon. Orientation was at 7:00pm. Slowly, 24 strangers tricked into the room and found a seat. We received our dry bags, map, personal groover, and some simple instructions. And I do believe the “simple” part is a strategy used by our rafting outfitter, AZRA. Give a bunch of newbies too much info too fast and our heads would explode.
We all had an opportunity to introduce ourselves. Nice folks, mostly 55 or older, from all over the US. A very special group in the making.
We had a reasonable night’s sleep and met first thing in the morning to board our bus to Lee’s Ferry. For better or worse, our two dry bags were packed and loaded, and we climbed aboard. We passed the time chitchatting with our fellow travelers as the bus traversed a landscape of hogans and dry washes. Connections were beginning to form as we attempted to learn more about our group members. I glanced up and around at what looked the opening scene of a summer camp movie; windows open, bus bouncing down the road, anticipations high. I had never been to summer camp as a kid, maybe this was my initiation.
After a pit stop and a few more miles we stopped briefly at Navajo Bridge, which spans Marble Canyon, and is a favorite place of mine. I have stood here many times marveling at the contrast of the green Colorado River with the red walls of the canyon. Some days you can see condors roosting below the bridge or riding the contrails in the blue sky above. I have always thought this view was beautiful and symbolic; so much so that several years ago, I painted a small painting of the bridge and river called “The Adventure Begins.” And now here we were about to begin our own river adventure.
The bus dropped us at Lee’s Ferry, a place steeped with Arizona history, and the launching point of hundreds of rafters each year. We used the flushing toilet one more time, put on our life vests, chose a boat, and loaded our gear. There were two boats. They were bigger than I thought they would be, and that was comforting to me.
And just like that, we were bouncing through Pariah Riffle, and I was looking UP at Navajo Bridge. The first dot connected. My sister-in-law, Candice, did a fun thing for us. She drove up from Mesa with her dog Indy and positioned herself on the bridge as we floated underneath. She snapped photos of us, we took photos of her.
We had five guides; Wes and Harlen who drove the boats, and three helpers or “swampers” Marcus, Julie and Rene. A past guide, Nancy also helped. Their combined experience on the river was invaluable. I don’t know if all river guides possess the same traits, but I noticed that our guides had an easy way about them. Relaxed, confident and patient. Their demeaners bred assurance, and their encouragement during various activities made my shoulders relax.
Ah yes, my shoulders. All scrunched up to my ears after a serious year of activity in the studio. All squeezed together in anxiety about whether I had what it took to do this trip well. I pride myself on being a competent, athletic gal of 56 years, but truth be told I have had periods of anxiety in recent years. That’s when being with the right people comes in. Randy is my people. And tonight, as I hyperventilated in our sweltering tent after day one, he would whisper to me, “You can do this, God made you for this.” But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
One of my anxieties about the trip was my swimming ability. I’m an ok swimmer, but not a champion by any means. In preparation for this trip, I had read some amazing books and seen some wonderful documentaries, and so “swimming” around in my head were all the scenarios that had gone wrong. In recent months, several women my age had died on their rafting trips. In the end, I knew that I was responsible for my own safety. I don’t assume a guide or even my husband of 36 years has the ability to save me from some unfortunate circumstance. This adventure was a risk, but the reward always outweighs the risk. And I’m not a quitter.
The agenda on the river is fluid. You do not receive an itinerary of scheduled stops. If it is lunchtime and a beach is available, then the guides make that choice. I thought I would write down the details of our trip as we went, and we were given this awesome map book in which to do so, but where did I pack that thing? And where did I put that lip balm? It was day one and I was discombobulated. And now, it was time for our first lunch and pee stop.
For some of us newbies, the whole pee-in-the-river thing had a learning curve. Friends told me it would work out, and I would get the hang of it, and I did. If you are thinking about this trip and that is a concern of yours, let it go. It’s going to be ok.
A little table that doubled as a gurney, got set up for lunch. Lunch was always some sort or wrap or sandwich, pringles (they don’t crush on the river and the sodium tastes great!) and cookies or little candies like Starburst. You wash your hands and get in line and construct your sandwich. No utensils or napkins, and you eat standing in the water or sitting on a rock or the boat. Easy peasy.
When this activity takes place in the upper world, there are always little bits of trash left behind. That is simply not tolerated on the river. It is a pristine, wild place, and so like visitors to an ancient castle, looking over the ropes to see where the king sat, we had the desire to leave it like it was. Not a scrap of food or a tiny tear of wrapper get left behind. It all gets safely stowed away or, if it qualifies, deposited in the river. The saying down here “The solution to pollution is dilution,” is a weird concept to get used to. The idea of dumping your pee in the same water where you wash up and brush your teeth is odd at first, but we were assured that it works in such a massive amount of moving water.
After successfully riding several more rapids, which all have interesting names and are recorded in that great map book I put somewhere, it was time for camp. It was later in the afternoon, and we encountered another rafting party, non-motorized, I think.
“Is that Harlan?”
“Yeah man, how’s your trip?”
“Where are you headed?”
“Thinking 139 mile.”
“Okay, we won’t go there.”
“Thanks man, have a great trip!”
This is the Colorado River text message; a simple exchange that we would hear often on our eight days on the river. Its simplicity and good will enable multiple rafting parties to make their plans for a safe night on shore. But we would see as the days went by that these boatmen and women are not only caretakers of their passengers, but also stewards of the mighty Colorado River.
I think it was 3:30 or 4:00PM when we pulled into camp. That was about the time we pulled in each afternoon, usually just before the sun sank over a ridge and gave us the sweet relief of shade.
Our guides were diligent to announce the name of camp each night, but I couldn’t keep track. If it hadn’t been for a group of ladies lead by Brooke from Idaho, I would not even have had the details of each day for this story. They simply escaped my mind on the river and floated south. And really, what does it matter if you are safe on shore and dinner is cooking?
Brooke tells me camp on day one was at North Canyon. After creating a human chain to unload the boat, an interesting activity took place, the campsite scurry. This is where Randy and I failed. Not that we didn’t find a decent place to pitch our tent each night, we always did, but the speed and grace of that activity was lost on us. That is a personality thing. We are frustrated perfectionists. We are refiners. We butt heads sometimes, like Colorado River big horn sheep. Not until the eighth day of our eight-day trip did we find a groove. Not to be confused with a groover.
Although we have camping experience, that first night we failed. We put our tent on a level rock, which was fine, the pads they give you to sleep on are soft. However, the heat of the day released from the earth at night, and with no breeze, well, this menopausal woman had a crisis. If a helicopter had landed, I would have hopped on and whizzed away; at least I fantasized about that. But remember, I’m not a quitter.
Randy likes to tell the story of the time we cycled around Mormon Lake. We had been camping there to watch a friend compete in a dog trial and had brought our bikes. The ride was lovely, a clockwise loop from the little town and back. Near the end or our ride, there was a long sloping hill to ascend. As I approached, I attempted to shift, and my gears stuck. I could not adjust them into an easier gear for climbing. I could see Randy getting smaller and smaller in front of me and my heart was racing. I stood up on my petals and powered through in high gear. Randy was waiting for me at the top as I came huffing and puffing up the hill, tears streaming down my face. “What’s going on?” he said. I hopped off my bike and collapsed in his arms, bawling. “My bike was stuck in high gear,” I gasped. “Why didn’t you just hop off and walk it up?” he asked.
Why, indeed? I don’t know. Maybe the same reason why failing college algebra three times didn’t stop me from graduating with honors at Arizona State University. It’s the will. And there’s always a way. But sometimes it’s not pretty.
On night one on the Colorado River at about midnight, I was fighting a panic. I could not cool down. I could not turn on a fan. Randy handed me his water bottle and said, “soak your sarong and lay it on top of you, you can do this.” I soaked the pretty sarong I had bought years ago at a farmers market in Hawaii while vacationing with friends. Where were those friends? Probably sleeping well in air conditioning. I laid it over my body and stared at the sky. Even without my glasses (dagnabit, where did I pack those glasses?) I could see a shower of meteorites just above the rim. Spectacular, I thought. And then I mumbled something to God like, “Nice one, trying to comfort me with your profoundly beautiful light show thingy, keep it up God, I dare you.”
Just after 12:30AM or so, a cool breeze picked up and I drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow would be a new day, guaranteed.
A New Day, and Another, and Another
Just now, while writing from my high-top table at happy hour, I overheard the headlines from the 5:00 newscast. “Restrictions in place this weekend for all urban hiking trails. They will be closed from 8AM to 6PM because of excessive heat.” This is life back on top; restrictions, no trespassing signs, etc. You might get hurt, pass out, fall. I grew up at a time when kids my age were flying down hills on skateboards without helmets, jumping off bridges into the American river, and driving fast down narrow country roads. Yes, all risky behaviors. And yes, some kids got hurt, and when they did our parents let us know. That’s why I never did the bridge jumping thing, (it didn’t seem wise to me) but I did do the skateboarding thing. And I have the scars to prove it. I got to choose.
Day two was mildly risky, but it was challenging in other ways. We saw beautiful sights as we bounced up and down in our boat. We explored a pueblo ruin, saw numerous mountain sheep, and our lunch stop was at Redwall Cavern, a giant cave-like structure with a sandy beach. Picture perfect. There were many sacred datura plants glowing along the shore that gave me painting ideas. Most had already bloomed and wilted for the day, but I did spy a few that were open in the shade. That was a gift. We had a yummy lunch on the cavern beach and were off again. Our guide stopped for a moment against the red wall to point out a small cavity, maybe eight feet across, encrusted with giant fist-sized quartz crystals. I thought my head would explode.
In a few more miles there was an opportunity to cliff jump, a risk we were invited to explore. I took a moment to think. It was only day two. Would there be other cliff jumping opportunities? I asked our guide. Yes, there would. I watched from the boat and filmed two young men, one middled aged man, and our guide all jump. It looked fun, and it was fun to celebrate another’s accomplishment. They swam back to the boat’s safety, and we were on our way again.
As the day went on, the wind became quite strong. We pulled into camp at Nanokoweap Creek. Again, we did the camp site shuffle and got everything set up. I was pooped, but then our guide announced an optional hike to the granaries built into the canyon wall, high above our camp.
I had seen and read about these ancient pueblo storage structures in photos and had wanted to see them, but dang, I was pooped. Then Randy said, “Maybe you should just rest.” That did it. I dunked myself in the water, struggled to get my socks and boots on wet feet, and joined the expedition. I can rest when I’m dead. About half of us went. It was a vigorous hike, and I’m glad I did it.
We circled our camp chairs and enjoyed a fajita dinner on the beach. More connections were made, it truly is a small world. By now, time and its concerns began to slip away. I should write that in my journal, where did I put that journal?
Sleep came easier that night.
Day Three, I Think
Today we would get to see and play in the Little Colorado River. I had been really looking forward to connecting this dot.
For the last several summers, we have been enjoying the hospitality of the X Diamond Ranch on the South Fork of the Little Colorado River in the White Mountains. It is a special place to rest and be inspired. Running water is such a precious treasure in Arizona. To soak your feet the headwaters of such an important tributary is a privilege. It is a rare place where my shoulders relax and I can breathe deeply. Many paintings have been inspired by those moments. The water here eventually travels northwest past Holbrook, Winslow and Cameron, sometimes sinking deep under the earth. But just before its rendezvous with the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, it collides with the aqua blue water of a travertine spring. The clash of color here is profound.
It was midmorning when our guides secured our boats near the confluence. It was an easy walk up the canyon. The first sight of the blue water took my breath away. Thankfully there were only a few other boating parties there when we arrived. There was plenty of room for everyone to enjoy the water. Some boaters had brought blow-up alligators or water toys to play on. I have to say, the sight of something so artificial was a jar to my system.
I’ve had a commitment to conservation since I was a little kid. When I was in grade school, I published a newsletter for the neighborhood kids. My dad would take it to work and run off the copies for me. He was an encouraging dad. It was called Kid News and had a crossword puzzle, and articles about not polluting the environment. The Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute ad campaign was big back then, as well as the crying Indian commercial. It worked on me. Trash made me sad. It still makes me sad. Just this week I followed a work truck out of my neighborhood, and as the driver turned a corner, I saw a silver burrito wrapper fly out the window. It took everything in me not to race up beside him and express my displeasure.
Reflecting on this trip has enhanced those feelings. I want to make good choices in whatever small ways I can. So that day on the pristine river, all I saw when I looked at those blow-up toys was a heap of green plastic in a landfill someday.
We did not need floaties to have fun in the blue water. Our guides taught us how to wear our life vests like diapers to keep our butts from scraping bottom as we floated down the rapids. One by one we each took a turn. I had a little bit of camera battery left so I held my camera in my right hand, pointed my feet downstream, and launched on my first float down the Little Colorado. With the other hand, I high fived our guide Wes, who was waiting on a rock by a rapid. Just then the current took me under. I’m sure I swallowed some blue water. A privilege, I think.
There were several places on this trip where I could have spent the whole day, places I would really enjoy exploring more. But on a trip like this you just get a sample that leaves you longing for the whole enchilada. (Please put your enchilada wrapper in the trash) A few of us hiked up the river a bit farther. That’s when I saw the most beautiful, giant, colorful lizard I had ever seen. By now my camera battery was dead, but fellow boater Bill from California snapped a photo. We asked our guide for help in identifying the exotic lizard, and he said a collared lizard. I have never seen a collared lizard so large and so colorful. Perhaps he swallowed some of the blue water too.
Later that afternoon, another dot was connected. We looked up and to the right at a small arch on the North Rim. Harland told us it was Angel’s Window at Cape Royal. Randy and I had stood there in the autumn of 2020, and we knew it was not small. It was massive. We had spent our 35th wedding anniversary hiking and exploring the North Rim. A friend from Hawaii could not use her reserved cabin because of travel restrictions. It was October, the height of fall color, and we enjoyed four-wheeling and ample wildlife, including American Bison. In the evenings we sat on the lodge patio with a bottle of wine, distanced from other COVID travelers, and had amazing conversations. I remember looking down at the river on that trip and contemplating it. Later in the studio, I had painted that scene, and now I was smack dab in the middle of it.
We had lunch at Carbon Creek and made camp near Hance Rapid that night. Very windy.
While dinner was cooking (hamburgers, I think) we sat in a circle and played a game, initiated by me. I hope that did not annoy my fellow travelers. I just longed to know them better, they were all so very interesting. I walked behind the circle Duck, Duck, Goose style and asked the group to tell me what they had learned so far about the featured rafter. This exercise revealed that I am terrible at remembering specific facts about people, compared to others. Some had taken the time to really know each other. How precious! I love hearing people’s stories, and everyone has one to tell. Listening is such a discipline, and I need to continue to hone that skill. But I tend to learn about people through observation. Maybe that is an artist thing. I notice how someone is patient, how someone is encouraging, how someone lacks confidence or is generous.
Slowly the light faded, and it was time to say goodnight. The wind never died that night, it never even reached old age, it just kept blowing. The tent made a racket. Where were those earplugs I packed? Ugh, oh well.
Day four made me nervous. In all that reading I had done before our trip, I had become familiar with some names that caused me concern. Horn, Granite, Hermit and Crystal were not members of a punk band, but rapids with some grit that at the very least would make me wet and cold. But first, there was another dot to connect on the river.
The first time I hiked to Phantom Ranch from the South Kaibab trail was in 2006. My sister-in-law, Candice, had a special affection for the canyon that she wanted to share with Randy and I. She made the plans and prepared us for our first hike, including gifting us backpacks the Christmas before. The feelings I had on that trip were very much like those I am having now. Anxiety before, trepidation during, and fondness afterward. I would hike it again and again in the coming years, but there had to be a first time.
That inaugural trip magic. We had no reservations for the bottom. But, when we checked in at Bright Angel Lodge the night before, the attendant told us to be first in line in the morning, as there could be a cancellation for one of the cabins. The stars aligned. We got the cabin! I remember on the hike down watching my boots change color as we passed through the geologic layers, alternating between red, buff and green trail dirt. We crossed the black bridge and followed the trail to Phantom Ranch; a conglomerate of dorms, cabins, and a canteen. There were wild turkey and deer grazing alongside the little irrigation creek that runs through the camp. It felt like Shangri-la to me. We ate a steak dinner at long tables with people from all over the world that night. As darkness fell, we gazed towards the rim and thought of the thousands of people up there, standing near the edge for photos, glancing over the precipice. They would never see what we were seeing. It felt very special.
I remember hiking out the next day in the front of my group, and then waiting at the top. I was dirty, tired and exhilarated; my backpack was my crown. A tourist approached me and asked if I would take a photo of her and her friend.
“No,” I said, “I’m sorry, I’m having a moment, I just hiked out of that abyss.” The juxtaposition hit me hard. People walking around with ice cream cones in flip flops while I was standing there with all I needed on my back. It was a learning moment for me; maybe not so much for the tourist. But that’s the canyon. Contrasts, and challenge.
I was sharing some of these hiking stories with my fellow rafters as our boats approached the black bridge. I was so excited to see my old friend from the river. And look, hikers traveling overhead! Candice had given me some cash to get her a t-shirt that is only available from the ranch. But we would not be stopping here. Our guides had shared this information earlier that day. Phantom Ranch was not really open. They were making repairs, bla bla bla. That made me sad. The toll high populations take on natural places is real. In my heart it feels like opportunities to have wild experiences could slowly vanish. Perhaps that is just my perception. Perhaps it’s a post pandemic panic.
The National Park’s website lists all the ways visiting Phantom Ranch will be limited in the near future due to infrastructure repairs. Lotteries and ranch bookings are suspended from January until May 1, 2023, and portions of Bright Angel trail will be closed. And now there is literature saying that Mary Jane Colter did NOT design and name the cabins at the ranch? I hate change.
I breathed a deep sigh as we floated past Boat Beach, and waved.
A few weeks after we returned from our rafting trip, we would learn a rafter from Tennessee had died near this beach after entering the water to cool off. She would be starting her rafting adventure here and had just arrived from the hike down. Another reminder that the Canyon is a risky place.
We floated under the Bright Angel Silver Bridge and said goodbye to the most populated area on the river thus far. It was time for some wet rapids. For several of these technical rapids Harlan had us sit on the floor of the boat and lock arms. It was safer for us here and he needed to be able to see the rapids to navigate through areas of concern. As the river levels rise and fall as dictated by the dam, things change, and there is never time to be complacent.
For Horn Creek Rapid I sat at the front of the boat on the floor. When the boat dipped into the rapid most of us were soaked, more so if you were up front. It was still morning with cooler air temps, and so recovering from that soaking took quite a while for me. My jaw chattered. But Rene and Julie helped me get out of my wet clothes and the sun began to warm me. We got through Crystal just fine too. There would be another large rapid on day seven, and I would be ready. By the time we landed at Shinumo Creek for lunch I was ready to sit on a warm rock, and I did.
There was a wonderful waterfall and little fish and polliwogs in the creek. I could have stayed here all day too. But it was time to find camp.
Happy hour was at mile 119 that night. Chuck and Cynthia helped us batten down our tent in anticipation of the W word. We learned that the wind has less power if you do not speak its name. I hope I have not cursed anyone on the river by writing it just now. Sorry. Speaking of writing, I thought maybe tonight I’d write in my journal. Take some time to think. No, not tonight. I thought there would be more time for solitude on this trip. Quiet time alone to think. I had to let that go. I treasure the conversation I had with some amazing ladies that night. That was more important than my journal.
At some point in the trip, it felt like we should be singing river songs, or at least songs about rivers. I could not conjure one up. And for the first time in years, I did not have access to Google to help in the recall. I couldn’t text my Junior High friend about the Olivia Newton John album we listened to. What about the song we would sing with the windows rolled down in high school? Those friends were not around to ask either. The only person on the trip that knew anything about my likes or history was Randy, and he didn’t remember a river song either.
That is another beautiful thing about a river trip. Unless you organize a group to go, you are traveling with strangers. The only thing you know you have in common, is your desire to take this trip: #coloradoriver #grandcanyon
Then, as the days roll by, other affinities arise. But then again, maybe not. No one goes down the river to talk about work. Everyone had interesting professions and such, but the trip was not about that. In fact, I would argue the trip was about anything BUT our professions or roles back home. Shelly from Tucson said it best: “I like to be incognito sometimes.” I think most of my river-mates were natural leaders; folks who could take the reins at any given moment but were taking a break from that role.
But what about that river song? Some of the lyrics for “The River’s Too Wide” came to me and I sang it aloud on the river, and I invited my river mates to sing along too. Still can’t believe I did that, but I felt compelled. And free.
Beeping Cars and Jumping Ship
Randy has one of those hybrid cars that you can put on cruise control, and it basically keeps you in your lane and from hitting the car in front of you. But then you aren’t really driving, the car is. I hate it. It beeps at me when I’m pulling it out of the garage, and I’m not even close to hitting anything. I become accustomed to features like the backup camera, and then, when I drive my Jeep (which literally has no bells or whistles) I forget that I have to look over my shoulder.
The river demands you not turn your attention off. No cruise control, no car beeping at you to stay in your lane. You must be present; you should be present.
It was day five, Memorial Day. There was a small boat regatta of one on the river that day; one rower, with an American flag waving in the wind on the back of his boat.
“Happy Memorial Day!”
“Happy Memorial Day!”
We made a quiet stop at Black Tail Canyon. When I say quiet, that is because, our guides asked us to quietly enter the slot canyon, explore the spring at the terminus, and then settle in the natural amphitheater to enjoy some rest. (Which, ironically, is my word for 2022) Later our guide Harlen played his guitar and Wes read a story. It was nice to sit and listen. No beeping car noises.
I sat and stacked rocks one on another, cairn style. I do not sit still well, and that’s ok. To me, creating piles was restful. When the outing was finished, I took a photo of my rock creations and then knocked the little towers over. The rocks would be there for the next hiker wanting some meditative time alone.
Back on the river again, there was another opportunity for risk. Jump off a perfectly good boat and swim through the rapids, with life vests on of course. On our boat, the family from New Hampshire and Bill from California took the leap. On the other boat I think Greg and Garry from Illinois jumped ship. It was fun to watch. That risk was not for me. Maybe next time. Would there be a next time? I watched in admiration as the boaters were pulled from the water drenched and cold. There were no beeps warning them to swim this way or that way. It was a learn as you go activity, and they had succeeded.
This day was bursting with beauty. We stopped for lunch at Tapeats Creek, which most certainly will inspire a painting, and later we visited Deer Creek Falls. How I love a loud, powerful waterfall. I jumped in the cold water and enjoyed the noise-cancelling roar of the water obeying gravity as it rushed downward and then gently flowed to the Colorado.
That night was my favorite camping spot; a big, flat, wide beach affectionately called Football Beach at mile 138. No spousal arguing here. Along with some other couples from the trip, we made a row with our tents and affectionately called our subdivision “The Villages.” No association fee, and a coffee shop just down the beach. We put our burlap beverage sack in the cold shallow water in front of camp and waited for it to chill. Soon, we noticed that big horn sheep were visible across the river. Mike from Ohio used his deep voice to make a convincing sheep noise that lured them closer. Suddenly, we heard the loud, undeniable sound of horns clashing as two rams challenged the dominance of one another. At the end of our own beach, three rams were grazing and clashing as members of our party were bathing and swimming. It was a surreal juxtaposition and is burned in my memory.
Solitude and Seeing
This was the first night I had time to find my sketchbook and watercolors and paint a quick scene. I had planned on doing this every night. I had hoped for contemplative moments and solitude; I thought I would journal deep thoughts, but that was not to be. The business of camping and arranging for one’s comfort and happiness took precedent over such frivolity.
But tonight, the W word was calm, there was still plenty of light and some time before dinner, so I fetched a small bowl of river water and sat in my camp chair. I fixed my gaze on the horizon. I created a rough sketch, quickly dipped my brush in the water and painted. Without over thinking it, drew what I saw. Garry wanted to watch. He was interested in art. But I knew I would be uneasy about my results. I am not a sketch or watercolor artist. Contrary or popular opinion, artists aren’t great at every artistic endeavor, but we love to try new things. We have ideas that lead us this way and that way. I make my living as a painter, but this exercise was not for the buying public, it was for me.
On the three nights that I had the privilege of partaking in this activity, I realize I can remember those camping spots the best. The simple act of really looking and seeing made the landscape stick in my mind. And such is art; a record of what was seen, experienced, considered, contemplated, and recorded. Sometimes for public consumption, and sometimes for personal reflection.
That night as the light faded, we celebrated three ladies and their 70th birthdays. A cake was baked and adorned with candles. We made noise so the canyon knew there was a celebration, and of course we sang the birthday song. No need to Google the lyrics on that one. A cake and a song in a beautiful place, do we really need anything more? In the canyon, simplicity rules.
As I drifted to sleep that night, I wondered if those sheep would come near our subdivision. In the morning, their fresh tracks revealed that they had.
From a botanical perspective, there is not a huge amount of diversity in the canyon. You see the same flourishing cactus, shrubs, and trees over and over, varying only slightly as the miles lead to Diamond Point. But I have trained my eyes to search for new discoveries. Like a hunter with her bow, I glass the landscape ahead and at my feet, all the while wishing. On day six, my wish came true.
After successfully running Doris and Fishtail Rapids, we made a nice lengthy stop at Matkatamiba (Supai family name) Canyon. There were three options for us here. Hang out at the entrance to the canyon along the creek, hike the high trail around the slot canyon into the amphitheater, or free climb through the slot canyon. The last option required some core strength to “stem” the canyon walls to our destination. About a third of us chose each option. Randy and I chose to navigate the slot canyon. I was looking forward to the challenge.
At the mouth of the narrows while waiting my turn, I looked toward the base of the eroded canyon wall and saw something that appeared to glow. A singular, five petaled, pale green-white flower was blooming in the dark shade. My heart leapt. I snapped some photos quicky, hoping I would see more as the adventure continued and if not, I would visit this beauty again on the way out. I wondered what this flower was called. The foliage looked familiar.
As the walls narrowed, our movements became slower. Sometimes the only way to proceed was to straddle, either with your hands on one side and feet on the other like a bridge or wedge yourself with your butt and feet firmly suspending you above the crack. I listened to Harlan’s advice for navigating a particular formation, watched as each hiker made their move, and then planned for my own navigation. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I didn’t. I slid into the drink once, but recovered and went on. It was a process of problem solving for each person based on their body size and ability. An in-the-moment, focused activity, like mountain biking or painting.
An activity like this reveals who the encouragers are. If you are timid in your abilities, all it takes is a hand on your shoulder or a “you’ve got this” spoken in your ear to get you through. This group was full of encouragers and helpers. Whether the task was hiking or setting up camp, there was friendly help.
I remember a canyoneering trip I took with friends in Zion through a canyon called the Subway. On that trip, we wore dry suits and heavy packs and had to repel and swim through deep, dark water several times. That trip began before dawn, and we crawled out at 10:00pm or so. It was hard, but there were several encouragers on that trip that got me through. I felt like the abominable snowman in all that gear.
On this short trek I was happy to be in Teva’s with a small pack on my back. I felt light on my feet. “Atta a girl Cynthia, you got this!” I hollered.
One by one the slot hikers emerged from the narrows and reunited with the trail hikers who were waiting and watching. The canyon generously opened up into the most beautiful arena, with red canyon walls and a blue sky canopy. The creek was teeming with life. The creek was life. Plants, insects, and aquatic life were thriving here. The air was thick with birdsong.
Harland played the flute and many hikers rested in the amphitheater, but a few of us wanted to see more and continued upstream. There were new discoveries around every corner. Most of the hikers walked right by them. People get focused on the going, and they don’t notice the small, amazing things. But different strokes for different folks. Personally, I did not want to miss a thing, so I lagged behind with my camera.
My efforts to slow down a look were rewarded. I spotted a Texas Dobsonfly on a rock and marveled at his size and shape. He was probably four inches long with lacey wings and formidable pincers (mandibles).
As I rounded a corner, I spotted a whole garden of the white-green flowers! They were thriving in the canyon light and air. Some were in the shade and some in the sun. I tried to manipulate a bloom so I could get a better angel for her portrait, but the flower would not let me touch it. I would learn later that I was looking at Desert Rock Nettle, sometimes called a Velcro plant; sticky from top to bottom and a favorite food to big horn sheep, despite it being covered with tiny needles. I had seen the plant before, but never the blooms. When I returned home, I found a YouTube video entitled “Desert Rock Nettle, The Nightmare of Hikers and Canyoneers.” A simple walk through the plant can result in being encrusted with foliage; not a pleasant experience. Beauty has a price.
My camera battery was draining, and I knew the others might be waiting. I returned to the amphitheater, where my river mates were attempting to dam the little creek by sitting butt to butt on the flat part of the rock. The water was creating a little lake at their backs. I snapped a quick photo of the group from behind before my camera was totally dead and joined the brigade.
The water was released, and cheers rose. I wondered what would happen to hikers in the slot should there be any? I guess it really wasn’t that much water. We hiked out on the high trail and had a nice lunch by the boats. I had two lunches. It was BLT day, a favorite. I had earned it.
Later that day, our boats drifted past Havasu Creek, a very beautiful dot connected. But we would not be stopping, again. Since COVID, the tribe had suspended tourism of any kind to the magical blue-green pools and waterfalls. Like Phantom Ranch, the closure was an opportunity to make repairs and enhancements.
I was sad my boatmates would not be seeing this place. I longed to hike to Beaver Falls, at the confluence of Beaver Canyon and Havasu Creek, about three miles from the Colorado. In all my trips to Havasupai, there had never been enough daylight to see Beaver Falls. The last time I had been to the village was in December of 2016. I had wanted to share the experience with Randy and Sydney before they went off to college. It was cold in the canyon, and daylight was limited, but we did swim. We had a romance with a certain reservation dog on the trip, but that is a story for another day.
As the sun sank behind the canyon walls, we made camp near Red Slide at mile 176 that night. By this point in the trip, I was sleeping as well as could be expected. I knew where my stuff was, the important stuff being all near the top of my bag where I could find it. I knew that I was comfortable just sleeping in my camp dress, I knew how to get out of tent in the middle of the night and pee in a cup without falling. I knew better than to turn a light on in the tent to keep the bugs out. I drifted off to sleep, no sound machine needed. I tried to really hear and appreciate the sound of the river’s rapids churning and talking all night. I knew I would long for that sound once I was home. And now, home was only a few days away.
Hot Java, Cold Lava
As dawn broke, I heard the now familiar sounds of the guides hollering that coffee was ready. They do this in the slow, sing-song way that does not jar the system, using just enough gusto to nudge one gently from a river dream.
Speaking of dreams, for several years leading up to this trip, sleep has been elusive. I fall asleep just fine, but then usually about 3:00 AM, I wake and cannot fall back asleep. I cannot turn off my brain. When this happens, I have taken to listening to Audible stories that aren’t too stimulating. Young adult classics are great for this. The Little House series, Wind in the Willows, and even books like the Secret Knowledge of Water, by Craig Childs are interesting and relaxing.
But since being home from this trip, I have not had any sleeping problems. I sleep straight through the night, and most nights my dreams involve the river. It was as if my brain got a hard reboot on the shores of the mighty Colorado, like I left some worries there in the sand and they were washed way. I cannot explain it, and I don’t know if the effects will last, but I hope they do.
I stumbled to the huge vat of coffee and ladled myself a cup. I hiked up a small sandy dune and noticed some desert primroses were blooming, a far more forgiving plant than the nettle of the previous day. The soft white petals swayed in the breeze. Soon they would wither in the harsh summer sunlight, and their crunchy remains would fall to the ground, where they would decompose into the earth.
I gazed at the red sandstone across the river. The sun was kissing the rim and an orange glow began to pierce the soft blue morning sky. I marveled at the perfect contrast of the red canyon walls with green of the evermoving water. An artist herself could mix no more perfect colors to complement each other. My rafting buddies were stirring, and throughout camp there was the telltale movement of people preparing for their day; drinking coffee, rolling up tents, smashing belongings into drybags. I wondered who else was walking up in the canyon that morning? Maybe Mr. Toad or Ratty lived nearby.
After breakfast and a short geography lesson from Guide Wes, we were packed up and loaded the boats for our last full day. Today we would enjoy our last level 10 rapid, Lava Falls Rapid.
“What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here! Just imagine a river of molten rock running down into a river of melted snow. What is seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens!”
-John Wesley Powell 1875
Our boats entered into the marvelous geology Wes had just described. We motored by Vulcan Anvil and prepared for the exciting rapid. No one was volunteering to sit on the floor in the front of the boat. Randy said he would, and looked towards me to join him. I declined. I felt safe seated in the back. Then Rene said, “You should join your husband up there, go on!”
It was a split-second decision. Timely. I took my seat next to Randy and fixed my gaze on the horizon. The green water was glassy, slippery and seductive as it morphed into a foamy white torrent. And just like that, we were in the rapids, and the landscape disappeared from my sight. I was underwater.
The frigid water washed over me like a second baptism. My right hand clenched my camera tightly over my head. Randy was next to me, our feet dangling over the “people catcher” net. He was urging me to put down the camera and hold on. I heard someone chant “Lava, Lava!” Just then, the boat dipped, and the second wave engulfed me.
I could feel my body separate from the boat. For a moment I was floating. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my life vest from behind. I learned later that a guide had grabbed ahold of me. I felt my body come to a rest on the hard steel, gravity was restored, and I was exhilarated.
Drenched to the bone, Randy and I made our way back of the boat to watch Wes and his crew come through the rapids. We could hear our new friends cheering in excitement as the boat popped up out of the white froth into calmer green waters. They were lifting their hands in victory, and all was well.
I was kind of quiet after that. I just wanted to take some moments to reflect and be proud of myself for my adventure accomplishments so far. On launch day I was so nervous about the rapids, and now I had just ridden the best one and enjoyed it. I thanked Rene for the encouragement.
Lunch time had a small cliff-jumping opportunity that would warm us up for the next big jump at Pumpkin Springs, (a geothermal hot spring nestled between tall red rock walls.) I jumped a few times and felt ready.
Leap of Faith
When we approached Pumpkin Springs Beach, there was another boating party on shore. The trip leader hollered that they had had a COVID case who had helicoptered out the day before, and the remaining rafters had been exposed. Ugh, the real-world rushing in. I was so sad for the poor camper who had to leave, and I was so thankful that we were all in good shape. The worse injury or illness our party had suffered was sunburned feet.
We waited for the boating party to finish their visit, then safely made our way to the beach to unload the two boats and enjoy the last bit of daylight. The walk to the cliffs was pretty rocky, so some rafters were content being spectators. The guides took turns showing us the best way to jump, and how to get back up around the travertine warm spring to jump again. Their relaxed, helpful demeanor laid the foundation for success.
One by one, our new friends made their approach to the precipice. And then, either with a simple step or a running leap, they launched into the air. Our cheers rose to meet them as their feet left earth. It was such a beautiful picture of freedom and light and sun and joy. I remember my jump well, the feeling of weightlessness and flight.
I have not had a flying dream for quite some time. I used to dream often of leaping, and pushing myself up with my arms, as if in water, to move through the air. In these dreams the landscape would drift just below me comparable to drone footage, long before drones were popular. But on this day along the Colorado, it was not a dream; it was real.
I pierced the smooth green waters and felt the cold envelope me. And then, like a tug from a rescuer, my life jacket pulled me back to the surface. The water was cold, but it did not seem as cold as the water on the first day. There was a strong current just ahead of me, but where I landed was calm and peaceful. These moments are burned into my memory, and I hope my leap is the subject of my dreams for years to come.
It was steak night on the beach. There was ice for our drinks, plenty of adult beverages to trade with each other, and another get-to-know-you game (two truths and a lie).
Randy and I camped up on the bluff away from the “crowds”; it was our last night in a tent. This time tomorrow we would be standing in a hot shower back in Flagstaff. That would be nice, but also sad.
The dawn came right on time. A somber mood fell over camp as we rolled up our gear for the last time. Thoughts of life on top drifted into my mind, and I fought them off. They could wait. As I rummaged through my belongings, I took note of all the things I had brought and didn’t use or didn’t need. I looked around at tanned faces of folks who, only eight days ago, were strangers. I could feel feelings coming. The trip had gone so fast and been so busy, I hadn’t even had time to anticipate this moment. I looked across the canyon at the daylight slowly creeping down the canyon wall, consuming the shadows and exposing detail and color.
“Nice one God, I did dare you to impress me.”
I sucked in the emotion; I was not ready. So, I just did the next thing, which was load the boat. Activity has always been my friend. Give me a task or a hill to climb and I am better, even in high gear.
We boarded the boats, and mile 226 (Diamond Creek) pulled like a magnet towards the end of our journey. There was one last jumping opportunity, “Diving Board Rock”, I think it was called. It was a doozy. We had only three takers. Mom Lynda and her sons Jake and Nate from New Hampshire. Harland climbed the rock with them and encouraged and instructed. It was a beautiful thing to watch. The boys went first, perfect form. Lynda took some time, but there was no question she would do it, and she did. Her pretty blond hair streamed behind her like a tail on a soaring kite. Splash. Harlan went last, and flipped backwards off the rock backwards in an elegant dive. It was the perfect finale.
The last challenge came a few miles before take out. We put the boats together, stopped the motors, and had some quiet time to drift. I think Wes might have read something, I’m not sure. I bowed my head in reverence. I used this time to thank God for the trip; for giving me the ability to come, for all the hardships, for the things I learned and for Randy at my side. I also thanked God for each soul that came, their safety and joy.
And now, it was time to go back to the top. We went through the motions of take out. Emptying our drybags, loading the bus, waving goodbye to our guides. We would have a pit stop in Peach Springs, an ice cream break, and then back to the hotel in Flagstaff. They gave us yummy sack lunches for the ride back. We found our seats and started down the bumpy dirt road.
Let me just say here that I am not a weirdo, but from time to time I have premonitions that come true. Maybe they are coincidence, whatever. But as I watched the gang board the bus, I just knew we would have a flat tire before we made it off the dirt road.
About a third of the way to the main road, the bus dipped into a dry rocky wash and I heard a noise. “Did you hear that, Randy? Sounds like a flat.” We alerted the bus driver who stopped the bus and went outside to look. Yup, it was flat.
I was not worried. We were a bus full of leaders, and sure enough, plans were quickly made to fix the problem. I sat quietly in the coolish bus and consumed my sandwich and chips. A few guys helped our driver get the satellite phone working, and communication with headquarters were made. Before you knew it, our guides came rolling up. They had just finished the loading of the boats and gear, and were probably spent. Once again, their hard work and competence saved the day. I stuck my head out the window to see Harlan and Wes were changing the tire. We cheered our thanks, and off we went.
The Last Supper
As we bounced back to Flagstaff, a plan was made for a celebratory meal back at Little America Hotel. The bus rolled up and we shuffled in, retrieved our luggage, and found our rooms. They were pristine and clean and had soft beds and showers. What luxury. The shower felt like a waste of water, but it felt great. I watched the dirt of the canyon swirl down the drain, and I was a little sad. I wrapped myself in a clean fluffy towel and rested on the bed before dinner. But before my head hit the pillow, I remembered that I had left my phone off and in my luggage. I wanted to know if all was well back home, but I really did not want to turn that thing back on. I did. It pinged as messages loaded and just like that, I was back on the grid.
Slowly the gang trickled onto the patio at the restaurant. We kept the bartender busy mixing our favorite drinks, some with ice. I had a bourbon drink. I took my sketchbook and passed it around to collect names and addresses. I allowed myself to be in charge of that task because I knew it would bring me joy. Connecting dots on a map is fun, but connecting people is even better.
I also took everyone aside and interviewed them on camera asking, “What did you learn on this trip?” If you watch that video, you will see that the short answers to that question clearly reveal the beautiful personalities of our group. I love that.
Laughter rose, conversations rolled, and goodbyes were said. And just like that, adult summer camp was over.
I was quiet when we got home, and I tried to minimize the noise around me. I felt like external or internal noise would blur my experience and cause it to slip my memory. And that proved to be true. Two days later, I was trying to imagine myself sitting on the raft with the scenery going by. It was already starting to fade, and that initial feeling of “oh boy, never gonna do that again,” morphed into “Well, maybe I’ll go back.”
As I began to talk to other people about the trip and my experiences, I found myself encouraging my audience to give it a try too. Maybe we should go together? Now that the unknowns where known, I could picture what a future trip would like.
These were similar thoughts I had after hiking the Grand Canyon the first time. That was truly life changing. I didn’t think I had that in me either, yet I went on to do it five more times. So if you asked me if I’d do it again, I’d have to say yes, and I would consider myself very privileged.
The activities we experienced in the Grand Canyon were risky. In day-to-day life they would not be allowed. There would be a chain link fence around the adventure, so to speak. But in the canyon, you take your own calculated risks. The guides are there to encourage you, but the choice is yours. Truly, it feels like the best kind of freedom ever; freedom to push yourself, freedom to try things you’ve never done, freedom to fail.
The beauty of the canyon is undeniable, pristine, and a treasure. It is big, bigger than anything you know in your life on the top. People who say things like “the Grand Canyon is just a big hole” are dead to me. Well, not really, but we are living in an age where people are truly suffering from nature deficit disorder. The cure is time outdoors, plain and simple. Maybe the canyon is the medicine that could cure you?
Experiences like rafting and camping in the Grand Canyon feel endangered, vanishing. I find myself craving and wanting to consume these trips like drinking water in the desert. Because what if someday I can’t? What could I learn? Who will I meet? What will my creator show me, if I dare Him?
Exploration fuels inspiration. I know that to be true, at least for me. And freedom to explore is a God-given right we should not take for granted. The wild places were created for us are to be cared for by us, shared with others.
When people ask me why I paint what I paint, it’s always a simple answer. I do not grow tired of the inspiration in God’s creation. I truly see something new every day, whether in the Grand Canyon or my own back yard. And these things beg to be explored, understood. I will run out of life before I have painted all the marvelous things that have inspired me. I hope the work I leave behind offers a measure of beauty to counteract some human suffering, because there is plenty of that.
The river washed away some of my pain, left my dots connected, and filled me with inspiration. I can hear the emerald waters calling.
July 16, 2022, Mesa, Arizona