By Eilene Lyon
My inbox had an unexpected surprise in the spring of 2014.
“Only 4 slots left!”
I hurriedly forwarded the email to The Putterer – “What do think? Should we go?”
He just as rapidly fired back – “Hell yes!”
I placed a call to the rafting company, only to be told that they had just fully-booked the trip. Did I want to be wait-listed for a cancellation? You bet!
Three days later, we were solidly reserved for the July rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, along with an intimate group of geology professors and alumni from my alma mater, Fort Lewis College.
Traveling through the canyon with geologists — who can point out the Vishnu schist, the Bright Angel shale, the Red Wall limestone, the Tapeats sandstone — enriches your understanding of the incredible age of the earth, exposed here to human eyes like no where else on earth. Though the rocks are billions of years old, the canyon itself was carved in just six million years.
The Putterer and I agree it was THE trip of a lifetime. There were 27 of us plus 4 guides on two large motor rafts. You might think these behemoths wouldn’t be as exciting as an 18-foot oar-raft, but I assure you there was plenty of adrenaline flowing when we went through the big rapids.
One benefit to the motorized rafts is that you get through the flat water a little quicker, giving you more time to take extended hikes. The river is a miniscule part of the canyon universe. To fully appreciate the landscape, you have to venture into the rock itself.
Near the Lee Ferry put in. A shadow flickers across your face as an iconic condor soars from cliff to cliff.
Even though we were traveling in July, when the bottom of the canyon can get incredibly hot, we were lucky to have overcast, keeping temperatures relatively mild. Besides, if you get too hot, refreshing cool water is a just a splash away.
The first rapid. Just a hint of plunges to come.
Because of the association with the college, I knew some people already. One of my biology profs is married to one of the geology profs. The other geology professor I met when I took a one-credit “enrichment course” to fill out my schedule. The subject was the legendary Katie Lee and her book, Glen Canyon Betrayed.
I don’t buy into the destruction narrative about the Glen. The canyon is still there, after all, it’s just under water and filling with silt, because of the dam – off limits to terrestrial beings (plant and animal). But the dam, like all dams, is not permanent. For now, only the fish get to appreciate its depths.
We glimpse a native, puzzling over the bobbing PVC bubbles zipping by.
I made friends on the trip with a former campus librarian. I met her previously when I had to sheepishly confess that my dog, Kyra, had chewed up a couple books. (I had to pay for new bindings.)
Oddly, I even knew one of the professional guides on the trip. We’d been on a private float down the San Juan River a number of years before. Realizing that these guides spend their lives down in the canyon – getting paid! – tinged me river-green with envy.
John Wesley Powell estimated that 50,000 people could fit inside Red Wall Cavern. Perhaps a tad overstated, but it is an immense opening in base of the canyon.
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.” – John Wesley Powell
We ventured into several slot canyons, where hidden oases dazzle hikers as they exit the narrows.
What makes this image of interest is that on the left, we have just come over a rocky pass from one drainage and on the right, we are heading down a different drainage back to the river.
The mysteriously turquoise spring water of the Little Colorado makes for a favorite playground on a sunny afternoon.
“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” ― Ann Zwinger, Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon
At day’s end, we recline on our paco-pads as the light disappears and shooting stars paint silver trails on the night sky, beckoning us into the forever beyond.
The seeming miracle of Thunder River Falls, spouting directly from between sandstone layers. An overview of the falls below.
Deer Creek Falls. The picture is a little funky in the center, because I merged two images to show the entire waterfall, top to bottom.
What really made this the outstanding trip of a lifetime was not just the beauty of the setting, but how truly immersed you are in nature – there is NO cell service in the canyon. Leave your phone at the hotel…along with schedules, work, and whatever cares and worries trouble you in the “real” world.
“If there is a point to being in the canyon, it is not to rush but to linger, suspended in a blue-and-amber haze of in-between-ness, for as long as one possibly can. To float, to drift, savoring the pulse of the river on its odyssey through the canyon, and above all, to postpone the unwelcome and distinctly unpleasant moment when one is forced to reemerge and reenter the world beyond the rim-that is the paramount goal.” ― Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon