Paradise and peril in the Grand Canyon
A seven-day rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is an amazing experience, indeed. But it’s not only being on the river that makes it so. There are also several excursions into the innumerable side canyons and tributaries of the Inner Gorge that can enrich the journey even more. Yet, it’s well-advised to remember the danger continually lurking beneath the overwhelming splendor and majesty of these places.
Just one example is Havasu Creek, a veritable paradise in the desert that, on day six, usually constitutes the trip’s last major outing (it’s at mile 157 of the 188 total miles traveled on the river). Reaching the heavenly pools of Havasu requires hiking fifty to hundred feet above the creek for roughly one mile. In a few places the path is literally only a few feet wide with a vertical rock wall on the inside and a sheer drop to the creek below on the outside. If one survives a fall to the creek he or she can look forward to being swept downstream into the rapids and hypothermia-inducing waters of the Colorado. One can navigate the path pretty well by hugging the inside wall. But there is one particular spot where a large rock juts out from the wall’s face requiring a person to lean back almost over the abyss for just a moment to continue on the path. Executing this lean triggers quite a sickening feeling in the gut, which is heightened by the knowledge that the same maneuver awaits on the return hike to the rafts.
The guides on both of my rafting trips in June of 2018 and 2019 were as experienced and capable as one could hope for. But although they properly set expectations about the risks on these adventures, they had an unmistakable equanimity about them. They almost always gave their guests complete freedom to explore as they wished within the limits of the time allotted for the excursion. This held whether a person was in their early teens or late seventies. I concluded that the guides’ policy was to honor each individual’s choices and rely on a person being aware of the inner line he or she is not willing to cross. It’s also possible that, because each of the guides was part human/part mountain goat, they simply couldn’t identify with the limitations of an east coast desk jockey.
My wife Janet and I experienced a particularly gripping example of this paradise vs. peril conundrum at Deer Creek Falls (river mile 137) on day 5 of our 2019 rafting trip. Deer Creek Falls is another staple excursion on most Grand Canyon river tours. The waterfall is created by a creek shooting out of a cliff about halfway down its 300-foot face. The force of the water hitting the shallow pool below after dropping 150 feet at high velocity causes it to spray out violently in all directions. Many people gingerly approach the spray anticipating the sensation of being sandblasted. Some brave souls actually stand directly under the torrent to be pummeled mercilessly. But once subjected to this excitement, most of the rafters find that the respite from the canyon’s 110 degree June heat leads to a strong desire to lounge around gazing at the falls and maybe even take a snooze. When my son Alex and I had our Deer Creek Falls experience on our rafting trip in 2018 this is exactly what I did. As a bonus, when I woke up, I looked down to see a huge bi-plane of an insect, a color of deep orange I didn’t know a bug could have.
However, after being at the waterfall for a while, the guides usually offer to accompany those looking for more adventure on a hike to the top of the 300-foot cliff. Then they follow Deer Creek back several hundred yards to another canyon paradise known prosaically as the Patio. On the 2019 trip our trip leader, Evan, enticed Janet and me to join the group on this hike by providing the following information with the laconic detachment of an airline pilot. To paraphrase Evan: ‘The Patio is a favorite canyon spot of most river guides and is well worth the effort to see it. Once at the top we’ll be following a path right next to Deer Creek as it rushes 100 feet below us on its way to gushing out of the cliff. The path is wide enough to be comfortable most of the way, but there is one section about 30 feet long that narrows to a ledge as little as a foot or two wide. Falling off the ledge would almost certainly be fatal. Not going to sugar coat it. But not to worry. We’ll tell you what to do when we get there and if you do exactly what we say, you’ll be fine.’ Maybe I don’t remember Evan’s precise wording but I assure you this was his message. Janet and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and said we’re in.
Off we went, climbing up a steep and rugged incline downriver from the falls. The path was barely discernable as we scrambled over boulders and around barrel cacti. We closely followed Evan and his co-leader, Newtie, to whom this entire venture seemed about as taxing as strolling through a mall. Evan and Newtie stopped periodically to wait patiently for stragglers. I was one of them, but only because a woman in our group named Leana had been doggedly admonishing me to put my water bottle inside my daypack instead of hooking it to my belt.
To digress for moment, there are characters to be endured or ignored on any group tour, and this was especially true rafting and camping together in close proximity day after day through the Grand Canyon. Leana was accompanied by her partner Dave, and her mother, whom she called … Mother. Watching the three of them interact was a study in group dynamics almost as riveting as seeing the recalcitrant rapids impose their will on our boats or spotting big horn sheep butting heads on the rocks. Leana was the unquestioned alpha dog of the group, ruthlessly ordering the other two around morning, noon and night.
Dave seemed nice enough but was completely cowed by domineering Leana and had a thousand-yard-stare quality about him. Most of time Mother went around with a vacant smile on her face and allowed Leana to control what she wore, what she ate, and when she, well, never mind. But Mother, who was age 75, was also an amazing woman in that she was able to go on every hike during the trip and acquitted herself very well, I must say. All of which would have been fine, except that Leana couldn’t confine her opinions to her clan. After five days of my politely deflecting her instructions on how to take pictures, how to hold onto the raft through the rapids, how to set up our cots, and so on, I was now becoming steamed at her insistence that I carry my water bottle to her satisfaction. I might add that being steamed is not easy in the desert where the relative humidity is 5%. As a result, I redoubled my effort to reach Evan and Janet up ahead.
The view when we reached the top of the cliff was stunning. Our two 37-foot-long boats looked like postage stamps floating on the river far below. The rich green Colorado meandered into the distant multihued cliffs illuminated by the lengthening rays of afternoon sun. We took in this awesome vista for as long as we could before turning away to begin the trek toward the Patio.
Pretty soon we found ourselves in the narrows Evan had cautioned us about. Cliffs loomed high above us on either side. In the middle was a narrow hundred-foot-deep chasm at the bottom of which, Deer Creek raced to its rendezvous with thin air as it blew past the cliff face 150 feet above the river. Next to this chasm was our ever-constricting path to the Patio. Now I was about to begin the 30 foot sphincter-tightening stretch of impending doom with Janet right behind me. As we began traversing the ledge we waited to be told, as Evan had promised, “exactly what we were supposed to do.” Instead, Evan and Newtie, who had already cleared the ledge, were providing the instructions to those closest to them and directing that they be passed back along the line of hikers in “whisper-down-the-lane” fashion. By the time the instructions got to us we were each about half-way along and completely absorbed in trying to control our every muscle twitch to maintain our balance.
* I was not thinking about taking pictures on the ledge so I’m relying on the images of others here.
As I moved forward my entire existence shrunk to the few square inches of rock surface immediately in front of me. As Evan had warned, it was hard to imagine how anyone would survive falling into the chasm, let alone being swept by the creek to its exit point high above the river. Finally, I was in the homestretch nearing the finish line and … crap, a large rock protruding from the cliff wall waited menacingly just ahead. Not only that, but as the ledge narrowed it had become a multilevel affair, requiring me to step up as I navigated around the bulging wall. Somehow, I was able to ignore the fear threatening to paralyze me and make it to the other side, where the restorative beauty of the Patio opened up before me. Then, I finally turned around to take Janet’s hand so we could waltz forward together into Shangri-la.
Instead, what I saw shocked and horrified me. Blood was running from a gash in Janet’s head down her face and onto her shirt. Apparently, as she had attempted to execute the same step-up move, her head collided forcefully with an overhanging rock, which had been obscured by the brim of her hat. She, too, was so intently focused on her survival that she made nary a peep as she crowned herself.
In short order, the Patio receded in importance and tending to Janet’s wound and her physical state were paramount. It turned out that Newtie was an EMT and had his first-aid gear with him. He quickly set to work finding the wound, and disinfecting and closing it. As it become clear Janet was going to be alright, most of the hikers milled around offering their support to her. But not Leana. She turned to me and pronounced, “You need to take pictures of her wound right away.” With all the hubbub I forget exactly what her reasoning was, but it probably was to capture a record of the incident for insurance or legal purposes. Or, to be charitable, it could have been to photograph the wound in case further medical attention was necessary.
In any case, I was pretty shaken up at Janet’s brush with fate and the prospect that things could have easily turned out much worse. I responded to Leana with some levity to the effect that my wife was well on her way to a full recovery and the long-term prognosis bode well for her to continue giving me my opinions. This was probably not the best thing to say to Leana. Her eyes narrowed as she pressed her case, carrying on with withering determination and tone-deafness. Then she finally spat out these words, and I quote: “If you don’t take a picture of her gash you’re a bad husband.” Whhaaaatt??? My eyes bulged from their sockets. I immediately felt the steam rising up again from the depths within me and expanding to the point where I could have powered a small city. I wheeled around to face this, this woman, and as I was leaving my body I heard myself say in a low guttural snarl that surprised me by its ferocity: “don’t you dare LECTURE ME!!!”
As I stared her down, Leana recoiled in horror like the Wicked Witch of the West being liquidated by Dorothy. Interestingly, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I noticed Mother’s vacant smile being replaced with one of profound and abiding satisfaction. At this point, Leana stalked off in a huff ordering Dave to collect their things and follow her, Sherpa-style, to another part of the Patio. While Janet rested, and my steam slowly dissipated, I explored the area a bit taking the opportunity to absorb the aesthetic overload of a place I would very likely never visit again.
I’m pretty sure the trip back across the ledge was harrowing as well, but I don’t remember it. We eventually made it back to the boats without being killed, or killing each other, and continued down the Colorado River to the beach that would be our home for the night. As we all gathered around while the guides were preparing dinner, Evan told us about how the “evil spirits of Deer Creek Falls” can cause strife and conflict between well-meaning people at any time, and that we had to be on our guard for similar demons at other spots we had yet to visit in the canyon. I caught his drift right away. So did Leana as I saw her slink away and thought for a moment she was going to try to swim through the frigid water to the other side of the river.
Later that evening Evan pulled me aside and presented me with an honorary Western River Expeditions patch, telling me it was given to those who came back for another run on the river with them. I honestly felt like I did at ten years old when I received a letter from the astronaut Neil Armstrong in response to one I had written to him. I ran back to Janet who was setting up her cot, bursting with pride as I showed the patch to her. Soon I was laying on my cot looking up in amazement at the star-studded Grand Canyon sky. As I reflected on the day’s events, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Evan gave me that patch to say thank you — not because I was a loyal customer, but because I didn’t give Leana a little shove while we were on the ledge. I guess I’ll never know.
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