A Trip of a Lifetime: Day 5

Leaving Espejo Beach the next day I found myself restless, I was looking forward to getting to Phantom Ranch in two days. In my heart, Phantom Ranch was a way for me to go home, a way for me to leave this trip and I was set on hiking out. I wanted to go home, I didn’t want to be in the Grand anymore and for those who know me well, the fact I wanted out of Grand Canyon meant I was not in a good place. I can’t remember a time ever on any trip when I truly wanted to leave the Grand, but, I did then. I didn’t like or enjoy the big group dynamic, or the production each day of packing up and setting up camp. I did not fit in, I did not connect with anyone. I was so very different than everyone. I missed simplicity and peace in the backcountry and that was not being found on this trip. As we made our way down the River, I started remembering all of the trips, summits and routes I had done out there.

We passed Tanner, which was the start of my very first packrafting trip not even a year prior. There in Tanner Rapid, I had flipped my boat, which was completely expected seeing as I had never been in a packraft before and that was the first rapid I had ever run. I remembered being terrified and intimidated by the force of the water. Passing Tanner and continuing down the River helped me work through that fear. I knew that I was more capable now and that the water and I were developing a pretty amazing relationship. I knew that the water’s power would always scare me, but, I was starting to let some of that fear go. My trip from Tanner to New Hance last year had sparked a new love for me and there I was on a full Grand Canyon river trip and despite all of the wonderful feelings, I still felt like I wanted to go home. It is hard to be out there with a group of strangers who you feel are so different than you, it is hard to put your idea of what a trip is supposed to be aside and adapt to a group dynamic that you feel is not good, not right. I was homesick and also walking through my grief, which of course did not help with feeling lonely. I felt stuck in a group that I did not connect with and it was a pretty overwhelming feeling.

Once we arrived at Rattlesnake, where we were camping, I hiked up towards Tabernacle, I had to get some breathing room. I had to just be there, in my favorite place, without anyone else, without all of the stuff at camp. I needed the Grand and me to have some time together. The ridge up to Tabernacle is awesome, slightly exposed, views every which way it is hard to chose where to look and what to take in. But, I needed that!! I needed the Canyon to overwhelm me with it’s beauty and peace, it’s magic. So I hiked until I wanted to just sit and watch the Grand. Watch the River turn, watch the birds play in the sky, and be still among it’s grandeur. There was no influence from the outside world, the music blaring from camp was not able to be heard, the quietness and peace was wonderful. Me and the Canyon and that was it, just the way I like it. Nothing else was needed, nothing. Time stood still and for those moments I was able to in a way recharge. I cried when my mind drifted to Martha and all that she was missing, all that we were missing without her here. I smiled when I imagined her sitting next to me and then laughed when I thought about Martha ever doing an adventure like this. Yeah right, Martha, she would have never ever done that, but, for some reason, I felt her there next to me, like a good friend, sitting there with me in total silence, soaking up the moment. Then, I cried again when I realized I had to go back to camp and was again reminded Martha was gone. I wiped the tears from my face and headed back to camp. To be continued….

A Trip Of A Lifetime: Day 4

I laid awake all night, my mind spinning with thoughts, ideas, worries and anxieties- sleep deprivation is a pretty consistent reality in my life. I often spend nights laying awake, pondering, reflecting, planning things or struggling with my own thoughts. This reality makes daily life a challenge and it wears on me, especially, during the times in my life where I am out adventuring and consistently pushing myself physically and mentally for extended periods of time. It never matters how tired I am, most nights my brain refuses to turn off, despite anything I try or have tried, it is in the late hours of the night, the hours where the world sleeps and becomes quiet, that my creativity and inspiration comes alive. In the dark of night, my tired thoughts create my best writing. My best photographic ideas. My greatest adventure ideas. Under the stars, quiet, and with everything else at rest, my creativity lives. It is both a gift and curse. I have learned to live with it and to stop trying to fight it. It is just how I am. Who I am. The morning light came through my tent and it was time to get up and start the new day.

Day 4 on the Colorado River had begun. After breakfast, a group of us hiked up to the Nankoweap granaries. These amazing sites were once used as storage for foods such as corn and pumpkin seeds for the ancestral Puebloan people; about eleven hundred years ago it was a thriving agriculture community. Can you believe that? These historic people once stood there and looked out at the very River I was paddling, the very place I loved more than any other place on earth. They saw the River and the Canyon in its purest state, in its best state. Not like it was now, controlled by government and overrun with people. Overrun with the modern world. Long ago among those very cliffs; people, families and communities lived an extraordinarily difficult and wondrous life. Their stories still hung around there. Their struggles still surround that area and their artistic talent for building dwellings and such lives on forever. Sitting there looking down at the River is a special experience, you can feel the time lost and imagine time to come. Imagine your wildest dreams, for, the Grand Canyon is the keeper of all dreams.

After about an hour it was time to hike back to the beach and go down River. I could have stayed there forever, but, the River was calling. I got into my packraft and paddled away from Nanko. I was struggling with fatigue and grief all day. I was finally allowing my body to feel the pain associated with losing my sister. I was leaning into it for the first time. I was no longer pushing it away. This was the day I began the true journey through my grief and everything it encompassed. I was finally allowing myself to physically feel it. It was worse than anytime I can remember of being sick. But, it was my journey and I couldn’t exactly blurt it out to everyone. It didn’t matter how physically sick it made me feel, I had to walk through it or at least start the walk. And, there at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is where I would stop being scared of my grief and instead, no matter how painful it was, I would start to welcome it. Throughout the day, I ran Kwanguant rapid, 60 mile rapid and Lava Camp rapid and I stayed in my boat all day; I was proud of that. The eddies were terrible the entire day, they were exhausting. We finally ended our day at Espejo, a camp that sat below Espejo Butte, which was a fun and memorable climb for me. I remember climbing Espejo Butte in early 2019, as my partner and I made our way back to the Rim a rainbow shot across the rock, it was one of the most magical moments I have ever had in the Grand. I was happy to camp there, knowing that memory hung above me at camp. To be continued…

A Trip Of A Lifetime: Day 2-3

We stayed at Hot Na Na beach our first evening, it was there that I came to dislike the production of raft trips. It is normal for rafters to carry so much crap, so many things that just seem so opposite of why I enjoy and crave the backcountry. We had tables, chairs, more dishes and cookware than I owned back home, coolers full of meals that required a lot of preparation and time. We had an excessive amount of stuff and unloading it at the end of the day and reloading it every morning and then dealing with it all at camp in so many ways I felt robbed us of just being there in the moment, of just taking it all in. I am a very simple person and I was not used to bringing modern day comforts into the backcountry. I was not used to having more than a backpack in the backcountry. I knew the very first evening that this trip was not my style and it bothered me. I remember feeling like, “can’t we just be here on this beach and enjoy it, enjoy the simplicity of where we are.” Why do we need all this crap? Why do we need constant music? “Isn’t the Grand enough by itself, why do these people feel like they need to add their own noise to it”?

After dinner and setting up camp, I remember lying in my tent realizing that this was going to be an extremely different experience for me, one that would test me in ways I never thought would occur in the backcountry. I would be tested in a social way- Could I deal with all of these strangers, with all of their personalities that were so far from mine. Could I deal with the daily and nightly music and chores that ripped me away from the actual experience of the Grand? Could I find a place in this group and on this trip? Could I make it to the end? I wasn’t sure!! Feeling all of this and then letting the idea of what I thought this trip would be die off made me feel lonely, like I did not fit in and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t fit in.

Day two started early, just as the new light appeared. It was cold out and I was not feeling like paddling my packraft. I rode in one of the bigger raft as we made our way down River from Hot Na Na to Nautiloid Beach. I felt so out of place all day. I was so out of my comfort zone being in a big group, until this trip I used to think 4 people in a group with me in the backcountry was a huge group. I preferred being alone or being with one other person. I started to feel the urge to plan on hiking out at Phantom Ranch. I knew Phantom Ranch was coming up and that it was a way out. A way home. I was so unsettled inside and I felt so lonely. I felt like, this is freaking GRAND CANYON, don’t you guys get it, don’t you see what I see, feel how I feel? It was so foreign to me to be in the Canyon with such a big group and have such a different manner of camping, setting up camp, etc.

The next day (Day 3) we were headed to Nankoweap, one of the coolest places in all of Grand Canyon. I knew that area well and I was excited to get back there. A few miles from Nautiloid Camp was a beach called, Martha’s Beach, this pulled at my heart strings and I felt that I had to stop there, even if just for a few minutes. This is when my grief started to creep into the trip. I remembered how my sister, Martha, was always my biggest fan and then I thought about how I really hadn’t processed her death. Logically, I knew she was gone. But, I had yet to allow myself to work through it, to truly feel it. I had written about the pain of losing her a million times, I had talked about it to those I loved, but, I had not walked through it. I had not felt it. So I did not care what the condition of Martha’s Beach was, I had to stop there.

I got in my packraft and headed down the River, trying to stay close to Matt one of the kayakers because he knew where Martha’s Beach was and I did not want to pass it. The first rapid of the day came- 36 mile rapid and I successfully ran it. I continued to try and stay close to Matt because I knew Martha’s Beach was coming up, after a few more miles of easy paddling Matt pointed it out to me, it was a small beach on River left, mostly washed away and not very welcoming. I did not care. I wanted to get out of my boat and stand on that beach. Allison who was in her ducky boat pulled over with me and kindly took my picture. Not because it was a stunning beach or a Grand Canyon must see, but, because it meant something to me. I wanted to stay there for awhile, but, I knew I only had a few minutes. I tried to think of what the right thing was for me to do there, but, I didn’t really know, so I just stood there, looking up at the Canyon walls that seemed to go up forever and I pictured Martha. I pictured her smile, I pictured all of the encouraging and supportive things she had told me and for a split second she was there right next to me on the Beach. I then smiled and got back into my boat.

The next handful of miles were pretty uneventful, until we got near President Harding rapid and I got a rundown about how to run it, I was told to make sure that I avoided the rock and the hole. I went for it, scared and still knowing absolutely nothing about water or how to read it. I had a successful run; I was relieved I stayed in my boat. Actually I was surprised I had stayed in my boat. As the day continued and River miles came and left, I began to get tired. Nanko rapid was to be our final rapid of the day, and it is a long rapid, not crazy big, but, long. Approaching Nanko rapid I began to feel really wiped out, we had paddled 18 miles and I was tired. I was also fighting back my grief. I setup for Nanko rapid, paddled into the first set of waves. I kept my boat up and fought through the water, until a little over half way in it and I gave in to my fatigue and flipped. My boat went one way and I went another. I then got into a bigger boat and stayed in it for the last few minutes of the day, until we arrived at Nankoweap Beach, where we were camping for the night. When we arrived, the sun was still shining and we all took solace in the remaining afternoon sun. Three days in now and we were at RM 54. To be continued…

A Trip Of A Lifetime: Day 1

It is early in the morning of January 12th, 2022, maybe 5:45 am. I am in my cold dew covered tent a few hundred feet from the Colorado River at Lees Ferry. As I crawl out of my tent, all I can see with my dull headlamp is my breath that is creating circles in the early light of the day. I struggle to stand up and leave my sleeping bag. But, the day has started and I must get up. I am filled with anticipation, excitement and anxiety about the next 21 days. Today, in just a few hours I will paddle away in my packraft from Lees Ferry and head into the Grand Canyon to run the length of the most magnificent and magical place on earth.

I am with a group of total strangers and I am already feeling homesick. I try to stuff my homesickness inside and prepare for the day ahead. The big rafts are rigged, my packraft is ready, the kayakers are ready, but, for some reason I do not feel ready. I feel scared. I feel lonely and yet, despite all of that, I also feel strong and consumed with my never ending desire for adventure. After our NPS ranger talk and packing up the final things from Lees Ferry I put my pretty little hot pink Alpacka packraft in the River and started to paddle. Matt, Zac and Ed were all kayaking and they had decades of experience. As for me, I had only ever run a single rapid in my packraft and I had flipped in it. Water terrified me, absolutely terrified me, especially, in the Grand and after flipping in Tanner during my first packrafting trip in 2021. I was happy to run flat water all day and when I decided to bring my packraft on this trip I assumed I would paddle it a few times, but, I had zero idea of what was to come and how over the next three weeks that little boat and I would really get to know one another. I had no idea how I would change along the miles on the River.

The first set of rapids are – Badger and Soap. In my mind I could hear my friends telling me how running Badger and Soap rapids would be scary, especially, if I flipped and swam. Matt and Zac tried hard to give me advice about how to read the water and what the best lines would be through the riffles and rapids. Approaching Badger was hard for me, you could hear the roar of it. My heart sank, I was frozen with fear and anxiety. I wanted to get in a big raft, but, there I was in my packraft with these crazy experienced kayakers and the big rafts were a good distance behind us. I followed Matt into Badger rapid, it was a wild ride, I was so scared, but, I managed to stay in my boat. It was a real rush and I couldn’t believe that I had a successful run in it. Badger was the second rapid I had ever run and I stayed in my boat 🙂 I felt pretty proud of that. A few miles later the raging sounds of Soap rapid echoed up the Canyon. I ran Soap and ended up flipping and swimming it. I was instantly reminded why I was terrified of whitewater. Why I preferred flat water. Being bucked out of a small packraft and into a freezing powerful swarm of whitewater is intense- water forcing itself into your mouth, up your nose and swimming/floating through big waves is intimidating. It disorients you and it terrified me. However, at the very same time, another part of me was learning to love the power and rush of whitewater, I just didn’t know it then. I wasn’t able to self rescue during Soap, but, Matt and Zac assisted me in getting back in my boat. My drysuit was not sealed and I was now completely wet and cold. The adrenaline rush was exhausting and draining. I was again becoming homesick and just wanted to get to camp. We paddled on to Hot Na Na beach and setup camp for the night. What a hell of a first day it had been!