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Photos credit: Cyrus Elias

River trippers climb to explore the Nankoweap grainery far above the Colorado river.

Bobbo Bell kayaks along

Grand Canyon March

Ty Belknap

Early in March, I found myself alone at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, pushing my inflatable raft off a rock in the Colorado River. Then I pulled over to a large camp, sat down on the beach like Robinson Crusoe, dressed only in a pair of torn-up shorts, and waited for the rest of my group to join me after their hike to Thunder River.

I started writing this article while reading the highly recommended Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko. It’s a story about the record-breaking, thirty-seven-hour dory ride through the entire 280-mile journey through the flooded canyon. My eleven-person group would do the same trip in 24 days.

Earlier that day, after running several major rapids, we left three rafts a couple of miles upstream and piled into the other four rafts. We pulled out at Deer Creek Falls and set off hiking to Thunder River, which can be seen exploding from a cliff wall after a long hike that ends back at the upstream boats, and everybody floats back down to Deer Creek. Simple. I elected to turn back to my downstream raft at the top of the lush riparian Deer Creek, having done the hike before. I wanted to spend a leisurely day in solitude, exploring crystal clear pools and waterfalls that lead into a slot canyon. There is no campground at Deer Creek, so I had to cross the river. 

Solitude is something that the Canyon can offer in abundance, if only you can find time to be alone while running a labyrinth of rapids, hiking every side canyon, cooking, eating, cleaning, loading, unloading, talking, and laughing. About the only time for solitude is when you crawl into a sleeping bag and gaze up at the stars.

Although our group was athletic, we were not as experienced as some when it came to running rapids. My 16-foot boat had spent most of the last seven years lashed to the ceiling of my garage, so I was more than a little bit rusty. Rowing a fully loaded raft through canyon rapids feels something like trying to steer a barge through an avalanche of exposed rock, canyon walls, tight turns, and waves. “Keeper holes” are formed when the river suddenly drops over a ledge or large boulder, creating a horizontal whirlpool, as much a thirty feet deep, with a haystack wave on the downstream edge that breaks back on itself. Somehow, none our rafts flipped, but nearly everyone was ejected into the river at one point or another.

The rafts are usually quite forgiving in the case of operator error, and the rapids have been run countless times since Major Powell’s expedition in 1869. A guidebook and map are most helpful. The trick is to enter the rapid in the right place, avoid the obstacles, and, when all else fails, hit the holes straight on. Most rapids drop into flat water where rescue and recovering is not too difficult. Flat water offers a chance to sit at the oars and commune with the ever-changing majesty of the Grandest Canyon in the world.

So anyway, back at the beach, I worried that my friends would have a tough time rowing the narrowest point in the canyon in the dark, but after the shadows had reached the rim above, their rafts appeared in the dusk. I ran up and down the beach with my headlamp, waving them in and catching bowlines. Soon the campfire was blazing, dinner was cooking, and the banjo was playing along to our theme song, with a chorus of “We are so effin’ lucky.”

And we were indeed lucky to be in a group where, even though some started as strangers, everyone was of like mind, pulled his own weight, and kept an eye on one another. Mild weather, cactus flowers, a full moon, the Grand Canyon… The food was good too. Much of it was caught, killed, or homemade by one of our own. Fishermen brought king salmon—fresh frozen or smoked, and halibut, including the cheeks. Hunters brought elk steak, pulled elk, elk burgers, and elk sausage. We had homemade cheeses, yogurt, and granola. There was also a large selection of microbrews from all over the West.

There are many more tales to tell about a kaleidoscope of side canyons, fierce headwinds, the country’s fastest navigable rapid at Lava Falls, and an old hippie diving overboard an instant before crashing into the Deadly Dagger rocks. All too soon, however, we passed the Grand Wash Cliffs that marked the abrupt end of our journey down Grand Canyon.

Now I’m back on the rim with a hundred things on my mind, my favorite of which is that day on the beach across from Deer Creek. With a little more luck, I might live to see it again.

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