From Virtuoso Life Nov/Dec 2009. Photographs by Justin Bailie.
LIFE IS SHORT, and the Grand Canyon is long, which makes it ideal for family bonding. But five minutes into our 12-day trip through the canyon, my husband, Jeff, is worried. “Are you sure we need to be down here for two weeks?”
We’ve just pushed off down the Colorado River in a 17-foot dory with our two sons: 18-year-old Sam and his brother, James, 16. Our superfit guide, Kerstin, manning the oars, is explaining how dories differ from rafts: As passengers, we’ll need to shift our weight with
a quick high-side “punch,” willing the boats up and over each big wave. For now, though, we’re bobbing over mud-brown riffles, and it’s hot – 104 degrees.
We are here because I’ve been casually plotting for about 33 years to transport my clan to the ancientness of the Grand Canyon. My outdoorsy parents took my sister and me down the river in the 1970s, and the experience evidently made such a lasting impression I’ve wanted to bring my own family ever since. We’ve waited so long for this reunion, in fact, we’ve decided to splurge and do it the way one-armed Civil War vet John Wesley Powell did – not in rubber rafts, but in these beautiful, graceful dory boats.
To make the trip even more epic, I’ve invited my 71-year-old father to come along (Mom’s adventure style these days leans more toward Oberoi and Aman).
Soon we hear our first rapid, Badger, rated 4 to 6 on the canyon’s scale of 1 to 10, rumbling downstream. Staring, we see the river come to an edge and – whoosh! – apparently vanish. Kerstin, whom every-body calls KJ, stands for a good look, and I give a wave to my dad, up ahead. He looks pumped. He grins just as his dory is seized by the current and abruptly disappears over Badger’s lip.
Our turn. “Sit straight!” KJ commands. We slide neatly down the rapid’s middle, while holes and haystacks explode all around. A wave rises up like a hand and hits me flat in the chest. Cold!
“This is sick!” the boys yell, officially baptized and actually impressed. Thank god, I breathe to myself. They’re in for the trip of a lifetime and just beginning to get it.
IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN WHAT’S SO AWE-INSPIRING about a Grand Canyon river trip, but after a day or so you realize it’s not all about the rapids. You’ve got kids scrambling like lizards up billion-year-old rocks, grown-ups leaping into enchanted pools. There’s the desert heat that seeps into your skin. The heady smell of rain coming in the distance. Sleeping mere feet from the silt-laden river while it carves 277 miles between towering cliffs. Each dawn, the canyon has a way of drawing you deeper into it.
Even more than that, though, the trip is about time. It’s a meditation most people don’t get to have in their lives. Floating through the Grand Canyon in a small boat is the perfect antidote to twenty-first-century overload – lives besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many decibels. Even Jeff starts to perk up once he realizes no one can track him down here. How will total detachment affect the Facebook crowd? Luckily, we’ve got 12 days to find out.
Our trip is being led by Ote (short for “Coyote”) – Sue Dale of the legendary “Dale dynasty,” the most illustrious family in Grand Canyon guiding. Ote is here with her husband, Regan (who guesses he’s rowed the river 250 times by now, the equivalent of one-and-a-half times around the world); their son, Duffy; and KJ, who is Duffy’s wife. The Dales are all seriously cool, in large part because they’re so capable at what they do, but also because they live life on their own terms. Ote, 62, is long and lean, with a high-pitched voice and an impish sense of humor that belie decades of dory-handling skill. The boys are crazy about her. “This is so badass riding with Ote,” James boasts one day after a wild spin.
Regan, who could double for John Muir, started boating the canyon when he was 21. He’s guided David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Bruce Babbitt and has stories about them all, and about his original boss, 92-year-old legend and conservationist Martin Litton, the first outfitter to run the river in these fragile boats.
“When was the last time you shaved, Regan?” the boys ask.
It’s day 4 or 5, and beards are starting to sprout. We’ve been descending through layers of rock and millions of years, and settling into a river routine. Dinner (steaks, grilled salmon, fresh salads, even a Dutch-oven chocolate cake for my dad’s birthday) is served family style out of big pots. We eat breakfast, make our miles, stop at side canyons for hikes and lunch, unpack, sleep beneath the stars, and repeat. There is the stripping away of things, the pleasing realization that you really don’t need much. Each morning we wake to blue skies and strong coffee. There’s the sound of the river, the snap of tent poles, the whisking of sand. We stand on white beaches and watch the sun climb up 500-foot red-wall cliffs, while overhead, cirrus clouds drift like boats.
Soon the canyon walls narrow, and we enter the Inner Gorge. Here, black Vishnu Schist, rock that has existed for so vast a time our short, human frame of reference can’t even fathom it, rises alongside the current. “It seems straight out of Lord of the Rings,” Sam says in the hush. It’s at this moment that I recall what it was I loved so much about this place as a teen. It was the sensation that no matter how old you were, or how essential you thought your life was, you were minuscule by comparison. It’s both comforting and humbling, like being wrapped in a warm Navajo blanket.
“Tomorrow we’ll run Granite,” says Regan one night. “This is the biggest water in North America, and these are the smallest boats that run it.” Drifting toward Granite’s deceptively smooth tongue the next morning, the only sounds are the buzz of cicadas and the loud thump-thump of my heart. We drop into a churning maelstrom of froth the color of a Frappuccino and are immediately hit by a lateral wave. My father and Sam punch through it, the boat dives into a monster hole, and we find ourselves staring into the face of a tower-ing wall of water.
“Grip tight!” KJ yells. “Don’t bail till I tell you!” The boat crests over the top, and the next wave hits me right in the side of the head. “That was HUGE!” the boys bellow. Our stern is so full of water, James and I sit waist deep. We bail like maniacs, our most exciting day yet on the river by far. No sooner have we bailed ourselves out than we’re flying through Vishnu again, headed for Hermit, which turns out to be even wilder.
“This is as close to the edge as you can come without crossing the line,” says Regan later. What he doesn’t say is that the dories also happen to be drop-dead gorgeous – not only the boats themselves, but the way they pivot and slice through the waves, instead of just sploshing, like rafts.
A few times each day the sound of motors intrudes, and a huge silvery-gray “baloney boat” comes charging around the bend, swarming with passengers. They’ll make it to Lake Mead in just six days with a buckaroo kind of ride. I watch my six-foot-two son and his six-foot-two grandfather throw their tandem string-bean weight into each wave and feel smug. How lucky we are. What day is it? I haven’t a clue. It’s the kind of day when you can hear your heart beat. That’s more than enough.
BY WEEK TWO, THE WEATHER TURNS WACKY. It's August monsoon season, and we’ve got weather in the extreme: sandstorms, thunder, lightning, rain. And the weather isn’t the only thing that’s changing; it’s as if the wind and sand start to peel back layers of people’s personalities. Sam has given in to the shocking relaxation of his no- electronics diet. “I love it here; everything’s so simple,” he says, settling down with a drink and a book. My dad tries Hula-hooping, hilarious. I try rowing, even more hilarious.
The group – which consists of several additional father-daughter and father-son pairs, as well as two best friends from Barcelona, Ramon and Rafael, who have flown all the way from Spain to float the Grand Canyon, having seen it on vacation with their wives and kids years ago – begins melding into an extended family linked by the simple act of being together in this marvelous, wild place. One night the wind picks up, lightning flashes, and thunder as loud as a freight train echoes off the rim. Jeff and I are fine inside our tent during the violent storm that ensues, but we have to laugh when we hear our boxer-clad boys struggling to attach their tent’s rain-fly in the dark. And we all fall for Ramon and Rafael, who speak excellent English but have the humorous misfortune of not knowing one crucial word.
“Bil? Bil? What is bil?” Rafael jokes, relating how on the first day Ote kept yelling at them, “BAIL!!! BAIL!!!” while he and Ramon just sat there, their boat filling up with water.
“MAN, WE’RE GOING TO GET POUNDED,” Duffy observes to the four of us riding in his boat one afternoon. He pulls on Gore-Tex for the first time in ten days. This looks serious. A mass of clouds has moved in downstream, the wind gusts hard upriver, and although it’s been raining steadily, the rain turns, bizarrely, to hail. We joke about the hammering precipitation.
Then comes the crack of thunder, and there isn’t much joking. We enter the Muav Gorge section of the canyon, a sinister place to be in a storm. Limestone walls rise nearly 2,500 feet over the river here, and it’s narrow.
“There’s no way we’ll be going to Havasu tomorrow,” Ote predicts as we beach the boats. From the small camp where we stand, drenched and shivering, we can see two waterfalls rocketing off the rim in front of us. We stare, in awe, as they morph from picturesque cascades into six, then sixty, then hundreds of mud-spewing pounders thrumming off the canyon rim. Across the river the same drama unfolds. Within 15 minutes the Grand Canyon has turned from a stone cathedral to a violent spectacle. Everywhere is rushing water, rock, and mud.
Each of us is suddenly acutely aware that we are standing at the bottom of the deepest drainage in North America. Erosion, typically more of a concept than a run-for-your-life drama, is happening, real time, all around us. It’s as if the canyon has literally sprung to life – water cascading off the cliffs, beaches breaking up. That’s right, the Grand Canyon wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for extreme erosion, I finally remember, agape.
“You could be here 50 years and not see this,” Regan says, eyeing the situation like a hawk. That is when Ote announces we’ll set up camp – right here in the wet sand. And we do.
By morning the waterfalls have utterly vanished, and the sun is shining. The only sign that anything ever happened is Park Service helicopters buzzing overhead. Downstream at Havasu, which has a history of flooding, we’d later learn, water has swept away rafts, tents, and supplies.
I step into Ote’s boat, buckle my life vest, and we all push off again. The canyon holds the pleasing smell of minerals, dirt, and tamarisk. Ote sends her 11-foot oars planing through the water with smooth, even strokes. As the blades emerge from each stroke, droplets flicker off the ends, flashing in the morning light. Everything looks refreshed and cleansed.
I’d wanted to take an epic trip, to share an ultimate Grand Canyon adventure with my family. I’d wanted the boys to know the enormity of nature, to feel humbled by this place. And somehow, we’d hit the jackpot. “You live your life for these moments,” Jeff says, feet up, dragging a hand in the water.
No kidding, I thought, in the enormous stillness that filled the canyon. I looked around at the other contented faces of the group and felt that we had all been through something together. Then I watched the river carry us away in our flotilla of small boats, thoroughly rinsed, wind-dried, and as alive as we’d ever be.
By Kim Brown Seely. All rights reserved.