It had been 105 degrees in the sun, but luckily I was in the shade when the rocks rolled and I tumbled downslope with my right foot firmly wedged between a large boulder and a 50-pound stone. My body upside down, my hat off, my left arm bleeding, I was getting a new perspective on silence in the lower Grand Canyon.
Earlier in the hike up Whitmore Wash, I’d thought of the blasted, boulder-strewn landscape and the walls of lava dikes. I’d thought of Edward Abbey and his admonition that the desert “is a dangerous and terrible place. Enter at your own risk.”
I’d done just that. Now, I was upside down, my foot firmly wedged and impossible to move. Sweat running down my face. Blood trickling down my arm. And yet I must admit to a certain clarity. Earlier in the river-running trip, the scariest part had been seeing my unshaven and unwashed face in the bathroom mirror at Phantom Ranch – hair askew, lips cracked, having a great time. Now, I was stuck in the silence of Grand Canyon without so much as a raven’s throaty croak to offer condolences.
We had launched 12 days earlier. Though some of our party had left at Pipe Creek for the eight-mile climb to the South Rim, six of us stayed on. Other passengers hiked down for what is known as “The Exchange.” Six of us were in it not for the tacos, not for the rice and beans, but for the whole enchilada – all 226 river miles between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek. We’d learned a lot.
In Granite Rapids, I became airborne off the paddle boat’s right front. With the Colorado River running 20,000 cubic feet per second because of recent rains, large waves and cross waves broke in all directions with lateral waves smashing into the rapids and rooster tails spewing water like Las Vegas fountains. In Granite, a wave clobbered me, and I became airborne, my sandals gone from the safety of the rubber footholds in the boat.
I flew sideways as in a dream, casually wondering why the T-grip of the paddle was in my teeth. As I started to eject, my paddleboat teammate grabbed me by the shoulder and slammed me down into the raft’s bottom. I was on my way to having an “out-of-boat experience,” but instead, I crumpled back into the boat hugging the safety of the large tube and pondering the absence of gravity in Grand Canyon rapids.
The first night in the Lower Canyon, we learned how scorpions love to nestle under the dry bag with your clothes in it. We also watched spiny lizards doing their best push-ups.
The second night, as thunder boomed from two directions and lightning flashed in the middle, the wind gods, working in tandem with the river gods, stole my new cap with the scorpion stitched on it. I’d had the cap near my bedroll as a talisman to keep scorpions away. Instead, the whole cap disappeared in a blast of wind and sand.
But what the river gods taketh, the river gods giveth. The next night at National Beach, I found an even better hat with a full neck shade floating lazily in an eddy.
The lower canyons are replete with some of the best hikes and waterfalls on the Colorado Plateau, including pools at National Canyon, Shinumo Creek, Black Tail Creek, Elves Chasm and Tapeats Creek, which leads up to Thunder River and one of the most amazing sites in the desert – white water pounding out of dry, redwall limestone, cascading down in a roar with thousands of rivulets, iridescent green moss and watercress only a few feet from barrel cacti.
At Stone Creek, recent flooding had exposed an ancient Anasazi agave roasting pit built in the creek bottom 900 years earlier. Our group had split up for that day’s hike, and though privacy is hard to find on a Grand Canyon raft trip, I had learned the secret – walk slower than the fast group and faster than the slow group. As one team of hikers turned back because of black clouds in the canyon and the high probability of an afternoon thunderstorm in the monsoon season, the other team charged on. I stayed alone savoring the smell of impending rain and vibrant canyon colors after the sun’s glare had been replaced by overcast.
Thunder booming in Grand Canyon is one of Earth’s primal sounds. The noise rockets in all directions even before large, wet drops splatter dust at one’s feet. Then the few drops become a light rain, which intensifies until there are sheets of falling water and limited visibility. I reveled in the sounds and earthy smells and sought shelter under a rock ledge just the right size for one person to sit in, knees clasped to chest.
I had not been in the bottom of Grand Canyon in a thunderstorm since I’d hiked down Hermit’s Trail 40 years ago with two girlfriends on a college spring break. That had been a mistake, and I had learned a thing or two. The canyon is a great teacher. It teaches life lessons about humility, simplicity and a person’s core values, especially on a raft trip when you’re living 14 days out of two dry bags with no chairs or doors and only the stars for a celestial ceiling.
The trip was sponsored by Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting, or PBS. The outfitter was AzRA, or Arizona Raft Adventures, and we were having a ball. More than 4 million people visit Grand Canyon annually, but only 10 percent go below the rim, and only 1 percent make it to the bottom. Only 26,000 people raft the river for an adventure of a lifetime.
We became a floating community. Strangers became friends and helped with camp cooking and cleaning chores. I gave river talks once or twice a day about local characters and canyon history.
Barefoot in the sand, a red ant stung the bottom of my foot. The sting was initially painful and then just annoying. But by the next morning the foot still felt odd, and I realized I’d earned my stripes as a river runner. Constant immersion in water and wet sand can lead to an irritating type of athlete’s foot. A dozen days in the canyon and I now had the toe fungus nicknamed “tolio,” endemic with Grand Canyon river guides. A lesson to learn – floss your toes at night.
Our trip leader, Kevin Greif, provided valuable eco-lessons for our group, including cautionary tales about low water in Lake Powell and impending water shortages in the entire Colorado River system. Sobered, we looked with even greater appreciation at the river.
If Glen Canyon Dam traps water for the Upper Basin states, I was equally trapped by a rock wedging me to a boulder. Luckily, a river guide heard the clatter of stones and called back, “Are you all right?” The silence broken, I responded, “I could use a little help,” and she returned to roll back the rock and stanch the bleeding on my arm.
For a person who likes to hike alone, my tumble was a serious wake-up call. I know the saying, “Three is for caution, two are for safety, one is for fools,” but of course, I never thought I’d be trapped by rolling rocks. That only happens to someone else. Now, I know better. One more lesson learned below the rim.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. In June 2014, he will provide lectures during an eight-day PBS motor-raft trip in the Grand Canyon with AzRA.