by Kate Dernocoeur Guest Blogger
We’re on River Day #13, at the bottom of Grand Canyon, floating the waters of the Colorado River. From my journal: “Thru some riffles to Fishtail Rapid (drop 10′) at Mile 140, past Kanab Creek to Kanab Rapid (drop 12′) at Mile 144. Past Olo Canyon, thru Matkatamiba Rapid, then lunch.” We are so small here, and so young; nearby is billion-plus-year-old rock.
My adventure travel buddy, Margaret, and I lingered on the waiting list with Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI) for three years, determined to take this particular trip which includes guides who have been on this river, some of them, for decades. Not only are they boatmen, but also educators and great chefs and easy to be around and, oh, so capable in every way.
It is worth the wait. For eighteen days, we are immersed in the natural world, absolutely unplugged from everything beyond the walls and water. With our four oar boats, paddle boat, and baggage boat, our delightful temporary tribe makes its way from Lee’s Ferry (near Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell) to Diamond Creek. It’s 225 miles of building irreplaceable memories. Along the way, we have lessons in geology, botany, archeology, water rights history, and much more, all focused upon this world-class treasure of a landscape.
The complexity of Grand Canyon is deceptive; it isn’t a mere matter of aiming downstream and letting the water take you. Some days, we in the six-person paddle boat have to dig in and nudge our little craft forward foot by determined foot into sustained 30-40 mph springtime winds. We dub ourselves “Blazing Paddles.” Bad moments don’t have the fluid resolution of places that enjoy access to 911; one member of the party has to self-evacuate at the one relatively easy exit point at Phantom Ranch (Mile 88), and slog up the 5,000+ feet to the rim despite his bronchitis.
Then there are the hydrodynamics. Even in the “low” water of April 2014, with flow at a paltry 6,000 cubic feet/second, the rapids are sincere. Certain rapids always command the boatmen’s attention, and so we stop, walk the shore to a vantage point, scout the situation, plan our route. Little or big, rapids are inescapable punctuation to the trip, and we come through them breathless, and celebrate safe passage by raising our paddles high in the air with joyous whoops.
But there are many gifts. The river is a constant source of wonder. Sometimes, too, we hike the side canyons that offer up unexpected delights, displaying rock that has been rounded or swirled, or crushed, subsumed, wrinkled, folded, or otherwise mashed by the eons. The ocotillo and prickly pear cactus and tamarisk are in bloom. We see turquoise water at some of the tributaries, watch it mingle with the green of the larger river. Gorgeous. And we witness several phases of the moon. For part of the trip, there is topnotch star-gazing despite the high canyon walls. You know the night skies are happy when the Big Dipper is so surrounded by stars that it is hard to discern! When the full moon arrives, we are treated to the surreal and mystical bonus of a complete lunar eclipse. Down here at the bottom, it moves beyond the canyon rim before the eclipse ends. You can imagine how the ancients thought the world was coming to an end.
Our own trip ends at Diamond Creek, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. We de-rig the boats, load up all our gear, climb aboard the bus that will deliver us out to Peach Springs, Arizona, the pavement, and the wider world. Which is the more “real” place—the canyon or the everyday world—I leave up to you.
Author Bio: Kate Dernocoeur prefers to be dry, but is willing to risk being drenched if it means she can be at the front of the paddle boat. One of her top-five favorite things in life is sleeping in a tent. She was really happy on this journey!