Friday, August 16, 2013

Into the Great Unknown: Rafting the Colorado River

We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown...We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth...We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.

John Wesley Powell, on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, August 13, 1869

The Great Unknown. In 1869, all of the contiguous United States had been mapped and explored, except for one huge area centered around what is now Utah, western Colorado and northern Arizona. All that was really known was that a few major desert rivers entered the region, especially the Green River, and the Grand, and that there was a place called the Grand Canyon and Grand Wash Cliffs where the river emerged. A few Native Americans lived within the region, of course, but they often didn't count in history, and their knowledge of the landscape was more local than regional. John Wesley Powell and his team of explorers made an epic journey down the river in 1869 and put the Colorado River and its canyons on the map. It was a seminal event in American geological research as well, serving as a springboard for a new understanding of geological processes and history. It was one of the last great geographical adventures in the lower 48.

When I was a young man, I was enthralled by the writings of Edward Abbey and others who knew and loved this mostly desert landscape. I was especially influenced by a wonderful book called On the Loose by Terry and Renny Russell, who in beautiful script distilled the essence of the land they loved into short paragraphs punctuated by what they thought were substandard photographs (they were wrong). I wanted, more than almost anything else, to explore the Colorado Plateau.

I walked the Paria River as a Boy Scout in 1974, and we emerged after a week at Lees Ferry, where rafting parties begin their Grand Canyon adventures. Two years later, as a community college student seeking a career direction, I participated in a week-long geology field trip into the Grand Canyon. We hiked down the New Hance Trail, spent a few days at Hance Rapids, and then climbed out along the Grandview Trail. The experience turned me into a geologist, and determined the eventual trajectory of my life and career.

Over the years I hiked down the main tourist corridors to Phantom Ranch a few times, and last year I drove down the Diamond Creek Road to the Colorado River, the main take-out point for river rafting parties. By age 56, despite dozens of visits to Grand Canyon National Park, I had witnessed only four points along the Colorado River: the take-in, a rapid, Phantom Ranch, and the take-out. And I was quickly reaching the point in life where a grand adventure like a rugged rafting trip might become physically impossible (I may have many years left of good health, of course, but one can never know).

And then, metaphorical lightning struck. On a whim (and at the suggestion of a rafting acquaintance) my brother Mark had applied for a highly coveted permit to conduct a private raft trip on the Colorado River. Many people wait for years to get one, so it was a great surprise when he got a letter saying he was the permit holder for a 16 day trip with 16 travelers. The problem was that he knew little about river rafting, so his friend set out to gather a team of rafters who could accommodate my brother's family and organize the complicated logistics. When all was said and done, there was one space left on the rafts. And my dear brother offered it me. I said yes.

So three weeks ago I found myself standing on the riverbank at Lee's Ferry, watching the rafters preparing their rigs, and anxiously wondering what lay ahead. Most of the oarsmen had been down the river many times, but I was facing my very own Great Unknown. As I've mentioned before, I am no adrenaline junkie, so I wasn't there for a joyride down the famous and infamous rapids (though I learned to of them). I was there to learn about the river and landscape it flowed through, and even though it has become a cliche of sorts, I was there to discover something about myself. I was stepping way outside of my comfort zone, something I haven't done much over the last few decades.

There I was, standing on the muddy bank of the Colorado River, ready to embark on the grand journey. It was a mess of feelings: apprehension, trepidation, anxiety, but most of all, excitement and anticipation. Just imagine what it is like to be just minutes away from starting a journey you've waited 40 years to undertake!

I now have two stories/blog series in process, the Great Unknown, and America's Never Never. They belong together, the later being the exploration of the land eroded by the Colorado River, and the former the journey on the river itself. I will jump back and forth between the two. Some blogging may be spotty, as school is starting up very soon, but I'm looking forward to sharing the story!


BJ Nicholls said...

Enjoy your trip!

Lockwood said...

So envious. Like you, this trip is something I've pined for since my teens. Unlike you, I think it's unlikely I'll ever have the opportunity. I look forward to indirectly experiencing this.

Hollis said...

I look forward to you sharing your story too :)