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nothing but the water a grand canyon adventure by stefani hite

A Grand Canyon Adventure U September 2010

9/11 … Strange to be traveling on this day … but even at 6AM, the Philly airport was hopping, very little sign that the day has another meaning (except for some extra vigilant TSA folks at security). So there I was … flying west on my own to meet a group of women I’d never met, and to attempt something I never thought I’d do. It was a quiet and relaxed flight. I listened to music and watched the cities below become rolling green mountains and mist-wreathed valleys. I dozed and when I awoke, the landscape had become flat, brown, and alien. And then, startlingly, mountains. I thought back to a month earlier when my sister proposed the idea of joining her group of friends for a Grand Canyon river trip. Sure ... it seemed like a good idea at the time. Meeting up with the other travelers was easy and we shuttled by bus to Flagstaff. The landscape shifted from flat desert spotted with saguaro cactus to mountains covered with fir trees, the ground carpeted with beautiful golden flowers. At the Radisson, we spent our last night indoors. Please understand that up until this moment, my idea of camping was settling for a 3-star hotel. We were prepping for four nights on the Colorado River … just about as remote as it gets. We ate dinner and then attended a meeting to prepare for the journey. Our trip leader, Michael, came across as pretty hard core and read us the riot act about not having the proper gear. “Of all the items on the packing list, waterproof gear is the most essential. Get it tonight.” Thus, ensued a frantic trip to the local Walmart and $50 later, I had enough gear to survive nuclear winter and somehow I managed to shove it all in my waterproof bag.

We loaded up our rafts, donned life jackets and set off down the river. Before long, we stopped on a small beach and were introduced to eating lunch, river-style. A sanitizing handwashing station was the first stop, then sandwiches munched with no plates or napkins in order to minimize waste. The first “pee in the river” episode did not run so smoothly – unused to the steep banks of the Colorado, I went in almost up to my neck. If my sister, Sam, hadn’t been there to help me out, I’d probably still be floating downstream. We continued down the river after lunch … the ride was idyllic and serene. Morgan was our guide and he treated us to stories of the rock formations and the reasons for the varied colors. We spotted big-horned sheep, ospreys, and condors. It was lazy, warm, and lovely. We finally hit some bigger rapids – great fun, and thoroughly drenching. We landed at our campsite and began the process of learning how to use the toileting system (an efficient but unpleasant affair due to the national park requirement that everything – and I mean everything – be packed out after the trip; the smell alone was enough to make you constipated), how to set up tents, how to arrange sleeping bags. Fortunately, very few in our group had any experience, so we muddled through – hysterically – together. A few of our guides took pity on us and assisted with the tents so that we could finally break for cocktails!

Sleeping under the stars was a new experience and although I was filled with trepidation, I finally relaxed enough to doze. The sky was brilliant – more stars than I’d ever seen, and through the center of the Canyon sky, the Milky Way ran as if to mirror the Colorado River below. I slept and woke periodically through the night, each time to a new sky as the earth turned. I woke to silver gray dawn and marveled as the stars flickered off and the sky lightened. Gradually, the true desert sun hit the top of the Canyon rim and I watched as daylight threw the walls into sharp relief. Monday breakfast consisted of banana pancakes and bacon. We ate greedily in the cold morning light and then struggled to get our tent down and packed up our belongings. Michael had warned us to dress warmly, so we triple layered with long underwear under our rain gear. The first rapid was amazing, so tough we were required to wear helmets. It was thrilling and soaking, so we were relieved to have dressed properly (thank you Michael, for insisting on that last minute Walmart trip). The stretch we followed next is the Roaring 20’s because of the frequency of the rapids (and because the mile markers are all in the 20’s, go figure). We alternated between thrilling speed and lazy floating. I was riding with Morgan again, and he kept us entertained with stories and teased us when we made silly requests – such as when we asked to stop to visit a lonely goat who, we were convinced, needed some human companionship.

We hiked a side canyon before lunch and it was quite a challenge – a few tricky spots scrambling over rocks. We ended at a miraculous reflecting pool, serene and lovely. After a 2-hour hike, we ravenously descended on lunch and continued on our way. The rapids got more intense, but we had faith in our guides and laughed our way through the big waves. We were giggling so uproariously that we actually missed Morgan calling a “high side” (a safety move designed to correct a boat’s position when it hits a rock or large wave). I don’t think we were ever really in danger, but Morgan made the story much more dramatic when he told it at dinner. We set up camp for night two, still struggling to erect our tent (seriously, it took us two nights to figure out that the poles are color coded – how many college degrees does it take). When we had finally gotten organized, Michael surprised us by announcing another hike promising it was “short, but worth it.” It was short, but challenging – and so worth it. We hiked up the side of the Canyon to an ancient Hopi dwelling alongside a huge boulder covered with carvings. Michael explained the religious and cultural significance of the site. It was beautiful and meaningful and we listened to his stories as the light in the canon dimmed and the moon rose in the darkening sky. We returned to camp and enjoyed dinner followed by a special hot-from-the-fire brownie dessert to celebrate Paula’s 60th birthday. We sat and talked and drank wine until I was so tired I couldn’t even pull my sleeping bag out of the tent and ended up sleeping in there all night. No worries, I could still see the stars through the mesh and they kept me company all night long.

Tuesday morning dawned bright with a quick pack up. We still struggled with the tent but did a little better than previously. I stowed my gear in Michael’s boat. The rapids were interesting, but not as exciting as the day before. Sharon and Allison were cold, so Michael had them row. At one point we got stuck on a rock and Michael jumped into the river to push us off. He regaled us with history of the canyon, tales about the travel companies that run trips, and general commentary on subjects ranging from current TV shows to the psychology of relationships. It was a beautiful morning, and I wondered if the marvels and majesty ever got old. The canyon is constantly shifting in shape, color and structure, and each bend in the river brings new vistas. I loved the shift from lazy ride in the sun, to gentle drift in the shade, punctuated by rushes through the rapids. At one point I apologized for constantly saying, “Wow!” and Michael asked why I apologized. “It must get old hearing people marvel,” I explained. “Not at all,” he responded. “There is always something marvelous to see in the Canyon.” At one point, we drifted slowly through a narrow area of the canyon and Bill began playing his flute. We all hushed our conversations and the guides stopped rowing. We drifted while the ethereal music floated over the river. Truly magical. We landed for lunch and surprisingly, encountered a major traffic jam. We met up with six different groups traveling down the river. It became apparent that we were all battling for the same choice camp sites, so the evening was going to prove interesting. Guides swapped their projected camp destinations and brows furrowed. Due to the jam on the river, Michael decided not to move us on after hiking – and we scrambled to set up camp in a spot we had considered temporary.

Day three ... we packed up – definitely getting better at the whole tent business. Soon we clambered into John’s raft. The ride was smooth with only a few minor rapids, though we still moved fast. Michael was clearly unhappy with our progress the previous day and he was intent on racing to prime camp sites ahead of the other groups. We reached a classic canyon hike spot that was already crowded, so we passed it by and continued downstream. The high and narrow canyon walls gave way to wide open spaces – a little more like the iconic Grand Canyon imagery that I had expected. The color of the stone changed as did its formation and John quietly explained the geologic history. Then we stopped on a narrow strip of sand for a hasty lunch, sinking into the muddy shore. We passed a major junction with the Little Colorado River, hoping for clear water so we could hike a ways upstream. Alas, it was brown … the color of Yoo Hoo … and we passed it by. To our chagrin, the emerald green Colorado River turned from the beautiful clear water we had come to love – to something resembling milky tea. So disappointing! We also began running across quite a few motorized boats – some to support kayakers, but others to transport large groups quickly down the river. Along with the brown water, this became disconcerting and the canyon – OUR serene and private canyon – became a busy amusement park with guides high-fiving each other while competing for campsites. We moved slowly to a nearby beach and found “parking spaces” along a crowded shore. Michael described the upcoming hike as having some “oh my god” scary moments – and I declined. Better to enjoy the quieter shore than the crowded trail.

The group left, and I settled in for some writing and reflecting – but soon there were planes and helicopters overhead, a “Tour West” motorized raft on my right, and a giant contingent of Arizona Raft Adventures on my left. The large number of people combined with the noise and smell of the motorized rafts was really “bumming on my wa” as Tracy so eloquently put it. And it truly was a bummer: noise pollution, crowds, and a muddy river ending the glorious reflections of the canyon walls on the water. But we would soon be hiking out, and although I desperately wanted to wash my hair properly and get the sand out of my teeth, I knew how much I would really miss the grandeur, the laughter, and the new experiences (but maybe not the groover – I can live without that, I think). We floated from the hike point to Michael’s pre-determined campsite. The guides were rowing hard, clearly racing the light. The sun was setting and throwing the canyon rim into sharp relief. Tracy had been dying to row all day but because we were rushing, it wasn’t an option. When John announced, “Great! Our camp is up ahead,” Tracy immediately asked, “Can I row now?” To our surprise, John agreed, and Tracy rowed the final few yards.

It was a beautiful beach with an amazing view. By now, we were pros, and our gear was unloaded and tents up, lickety-split. The guides were frantically trying to set up the kitchen in the waning light so we all pitched in, chopping vegetables, cooking onions and mushrooms, scrubbing potatoes. The result was a delicious steak dinner and we ate every morsel. As it was our final night on the river, the beer and wine were flowing and no one wanted to sleep. Morgan gave a star talk in our own incredible private planetarium. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and as I lay down, Bill softly played his flute. I relaxed into my final night on the river watching stars shoot across the blue black sky while Bill’s melancholy playing lulled me to sleep. I woke as the soft light crept along the canyon walls and the stars dimmed. We packed up efficiently and sadly, knowing our trip would change completely in a few hours. We took a few farewell group photos and then Michael gathered us around. “We’re running white water today. These are tough rapids and everyone has to pay attention.” He gave us some final instructions and as we waited for a few last items to be loaded, Katrina began to sing Nothing but the Water. There was utter stillness in the canyon and her strong, clear voice echoed while we listened, transfixed. Tears came to my eyes – I was overwhelmed by the experience and the adventure these guides had shared with us.

Then came time to load up and move out. We hit a big rapid right away, then another. These were definitely fiercer than our previous experiences and we were soaked through and thrilled. When we came to Hance rapids, we pulled into shore and hiked up the canyon wall to scout. Michael and the guides discussed the water level (apparently the rapid was “bony”) and made a plan for going down. We watched a science expedition run their motorized boats through – it was clearly difficult. Then it was our turn, and what an experience! The anticipation at the top, the drops, the spins – so exhilarating! I had full confidence that we’d be okay … why? I hate roller coasters, so why would I enjoy this? We continued on and the canyon changed yet again. The walls narrowed and the rock changed color, shape, and form. The entire experience was breathtaking. We struggled with a few more rapids, almost getting caught on a wall at one point …

And then, suddenly, it was over. We ate lunch on a small beach near Phantom Ranch. It was a hasty and somber affair and then we said our goodbyes to Morgan, Katrina, and John. One more brief ride with Michael, Bill and Big John – and we landed on the shore at Phantom Ranch. We then had to carry ALL of our belongings to the ranch and I enjoyed the added benefit of lugging 4,000 ML of leftover wine (we figured we would need a drink or two that evening). We straggled in and then located our cabin to find our first toilet since Sunday! Air-conditioning and beds … and showers! We spent some time reflecting and chatting at the Bright Angel Creek and then in a bittersweet moment, washed away the river water. We toasted our journey with the wine I had rescued and ate dinner at the canteen with our hiking guide, Jason. Then off to try and sleep … but it did not come easily, and then not much at all. Where were our stars? Our soft river lapping at the shore?

The hike day started too early. I was up at 2AM, but I think we all were. The room was a challenge – tiny and close, cooped up in bunk beds – especially difficult as we tried to adjust from the openness of life on the river. About 4:30AM we gave up all efforts at sleep and frantically packed up our belongings and lugged our duffels to the weigh station. We all made it under the 30lb limit, marked up our bags, and left them for the mule train. We headed to the canteen for breakfast and forced down some food. I tried my best to gulp some eggs and coffee. We nervously gathered outside and received a briefing from Jason. The main point: go slow! And then we set off in the dark. We marched silently, single file, back to the Colorado River and crossed it at the silver suspension bridge, the official beginning of the Bright Angel Trail. It was a terrifying crossing for me since I suffer from vertigo – it was a preview of things to come. The first two miles were quick, following the river. Then we turned inward to follow the trail and the going got a bit more challenging. Still, no dizzying heights yet, and I began to think that this wouldn’t be quite as hard as I had imagined. I tried hard to follow Michael’s advice to take it slow and enjoy the experience – no rush to the top. Then came a few tense moments as the trail steepened and the heights began to take my breath away. With a struggle, I made it to Indian Gardens at 5.2 miles … and over halfway to the top. Then it got really rough. The trail wasn’t just steep – it was narrow and the drop was sheer. Vertigo drained my energy and made my heart race – not good when you’re trying to hike 10 miles and ascend 4,300 feet. Jason found me and gave me some strategies; he acted as my outside buffer on the really steep trails.

Finally we made it to the rest area 3 miles from the top. Surely I can go 3 more miles, I thought. But those last 3 miles represented over 2,000 feet of elevation and it became the most difficult physical and mental challenge I’ve ever dealt with. The heights were dizzying and made my heart pound – even when standing still. Jason talked me through the tough parts and distracted me with information about the geology, coaching me to slow down whenever I tried to walk faster. Periodically, he stopped me and showed me how I had just moved from one Canyon rock layer to the next. We progressed through the muav limestone to the redwall, the supai, and the cocino. The end was the steepest part of the climb with the sheerest drops – and what made it worse, we were frequently passed by the day “hikers” strolling the top mile of the trail. They were energetic and freshly washed. However, they had no idea what the Canyon looks like at the bottom. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Canyon each year – but less than 1% go to the bottom. I was smug as I finished my climbed. Eventually … like a miracle … I stepped over the rim. It was complete culture shock: tourists with cameras, children with ice ream. Jason asked if I was okay, vertigo-wise and when I said yes, we kicked it into high gear and raced for the hotel (inconveniently located at the top of a hill. Really? I just walked 10 miles up over 4,000 feet – where’s the shuttle?) Jason and I reached the lawns of El Tovar to see a few members of our group lounging on the grass. Sam ran up to give me a hug. “You did it!” Yes we did!

Fresh and clean at the airport the next day, we talked and laughed and reflected while waiting for our flights to take us back home, back to reality. Ingrid asked me what I would be taking away from the whole experience. Two things really … The first is about self-reliance. Clearly, I can do more than I thought I could and I feel stronger and healthier for knowing that. The second, however, is about dependence. This trip would have been almost impossible (and not nearly as fun) without this incredible group of strong women willing to support each other so we could all accomplish tasks, overcome obstacles, and realize our potential. In the end – both self-reliance and dependance are critically important. It’s good to be strong and independent, but it’s also important to ask for help and work together. So … where will we go and what will we do next? Ah ... that’s a story for another day …

Dr. Stefani Hite is an educator, traveler, and digital storyteller. You can follow her wanderings on Connections Blog: September 2010

Nothing But The Water  

A Grand Canyon Adventure

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