Words and photography by Mary McIntyre.
Gingerly, I lift my dew-laden sleeping bag and wriggle off my pad without waking my friend Meredith, still wrapped in a cocoon of sleep beside me. The sun illuminates ochre canyon walls high above as I slip on running shoes and leap ashore, crossing a sandy beach to the mouth of a narrow canyon. The darkness beckons – promising a sweet sliver of solitude. It seems that solitude should be everywhere in this canyon, one of the deepest on earth: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. But rafting 225 miles with 16 people for 16 days means days full of action and activity, leaving little chance for alone time and solo explorations.
For many, it’s the trip of a lifetime. Sixteen days away from society: phones, emails, politicians, obligations. It’s enough time to sink slowly and deliberately into the present while past and future fade, living in the now, submersed in the redrock desert, buoyed along on a silt-laden current cutting through layers of history laid bare by the river’s eons of erosion. Creamy white petrified dunes of Coconino sandstone, deep scarlet caverns of Redwall Limestone, and polished black flutings of Vishnu Schist are stacked upon one another, colorfully striped cliffs jutting skywards.
As darkness creeps down the canyon walls above camp and sunset paints the clouds with an orangey glow, sandstone cliff skirting the beach comes alive with scorpions. First one sighting, on Elliot’s tent, then three more on the rock face, then another on the boulders in the middle of camp. Their small opaque bodies move jerkily, tails and stingers suspended, ready to attack. It’s no longer the barefoot, carefree beach it was when we landed and everyone hurries off to make sure tents are zipped and dry bags are strapped closed. A few of the boys catch the poisonous crawlers in Pringles cans – and the snakebite statistic the ranger told us at put-in resurfaces – young men are most likely to get bit by snakes and scorpions because they mess with them. And here we are, day 1, with a scorpion boxing ring made out of firewood. Unfortunately, the scorpions don’t want to fight each other and instead slowly wander off – in the middle of the kitchen – when no one’s looking. The result is four missing scorpions right where we’re all eating dinner. No one gets stung, but I dream of them climbing into my sleeping bag and narrowly miss grabbing one by the tail as I reach into my dry bag the next morning.
The Grand travels through some of the most unique, stunning wilderness on earth. But it’s not easy. It has its own rating system for rapids: 1-10, and 160 of them trouble the waters of the inner gorge. The trip requires extensive planning, experience, and skill. Even knowledgeable boaters get caught off guard: flipping, wrapping, or puncturing rafts is a common occurrence. Rowing requires focus and finesse, there’s never a dull day on the water. On top of all that are the never-ending chores of moving camp - kitchen, bathroom, and homes for sixteen people - downstream, making group decisions and cooking huge meals, packing and storing food for over 2 weeks in temperatures that often reach over 100˚F. It’s unbelievably fun, rewarding, and unparalleled, but far from relaxing – with snakes, scorpions, and whitewater to look out for – a few days into our trip, my mind is begging for silence and solitude.
A cool rush of morning air seeps down the canyon and bedrock rears out of its pebbly bottom, smooth expanses of granite polished by centuries, or millennia of flash floods. The walls squeeze closer forming a sluice-like slot where a shallow skim of water flows. Widening again, the wash is strewn with house-sized boulders, the water buried beneath a swath of gravel and sand, down where the bedrock runs deep, waiting to bubble back up into the light. As I step around the next corner, a figure flies towards me and I’m just fast enough to raise my hand and meet a high-five from Forest as he runs by, a fellow morning explorer off to cook breakfast for our snoozing crew.
After crossing a debris fan piled high with fresh mud and sticks carried down by the floods of last night’s thunderstorm, the canyon’s silence deepens. Another narrowing, where whispering trickles link pools of crystal clear water, rising out of the gravelly ground and flowing down a surface of swirling buffed schist. I turn a corner where the walls come so close they appear to end, but the passageway continues into the shadows, towering walls smoothed by centuries of wind and water. A rounded chamber, its floor covered with fine sand, is the terminus. I face a 50-foot vertical wall with water cascading down from some unknown source high above, sliding down the rosy silver façade of Zoroaster Granite. I lean my forehead into the stream and imagine the water’s origins, faraway from this hot, heavy desert air. After reveling in the silence, I turn down-canyon and each step brings me closer to the bustling camp, cowboy coffee and bacon, and another busy day of rowing big rapids with some of my best friends deep in the Grand Canyon.