I’d like to be able to say, for the gravitas of this essay, that as I drifted into Deubendorff Rapid in the Grand Canyon last April, I was thinking deep thoughts about Mountains Without Handrails, Joseph Sax’s treatise on allowing visitors to risk unfettered nature in national parks.
But evidence from the GoPro camera strapped to my forehead suggests otherwise. As John Metcalfe (at the oars of his Grand Canyon dory) and I (crouched in the bow ready to high-side against waves) start into the rapid, you can hear me shouting weighty things like “Dooby-dooby-doobendorff!” and my friend responding, profoundly, “Big waaaa-ter, baby!” About midway, there is a slapping liquid sound and a frothy brown view of the boat’s underside. Then you can hear me talking to the fishes.
Without handrails, indeed.
Other boaters in our group waited at the bottom of the rapid for us, which was a good thing, because the water flowing out of the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam is COLD — less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit — and even the adrenaline released by a swim in the rapids can’t rebuff hypothermia for long. Anders Johnson pulled me aboard the 14-foot cat raft he manned with Jerry Longabardi; another boat picked up John; and another dragged the overturned dory to a beach, where a small group of picnicking commercial rafters applauded our little drama. It was the dory, not our flailing, that drew the audience: a reminder of the primitive wooden boats Maj. John Wesley Powell skippered on his pioneering expedition in 1869. The rubber rafters can’t resist pausing to watch the little buckaroo ride the big bull.
John has rowed his handmade dory for over two decades, and he’s a skilled boatman. Over countless miles of dangerous water, he’s never had a swim — never before, I should say. He let me row some of the gentler water, but mostly I was ballast in the bow. That turned out to be a real job. A dory is a Poohstick on the river, cupping its passengers like an edge-curled leaf, and while the boatman carves a route through chaos, the passenger up front crouches and grips the gunwales, throwing weight right and left, forward and back, tilting the boat into the swells like a motorcycle in a cyclorama. Whitewater can transform in an instant, though, and we never saw the lateral wave that blindsided us.
Just over a year earlier, I had hiked off the North Rim with my daughter, Rosaleen, my first trip into the canyon. We took a weary dip in the Colorado, and as I felt the muscle of its current, I regretted that I would likely never float it. People wait years for a permit for a private trip down the canyon. I’d be an old gimp — well, an older gimp — before I got the chance. And I refused to pay big bucks to sit in a crowd on one of those big commercial boats.
Then Mark Bruscino, a retired Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist, called and said he had a private permit. Would I like to go? He gently asked about my health — evacuation is a big deal, involving helicopters — my experience — if big water intimidates you, your anxiety affects the whole crew — and my banjo — if you bring yours, I’ll bring mine. Seventeen days in seven boats on 225 miles of sometimes-whitewater, cut off from the world outside the canyon, with 14 other people I mostly didn’t know.
Count me in: I would show up at Lees Ferry with my personal flotation device, a new cot for my aging bones, and some water bottles filled with gin. Oh, and a banjo.
The sight of a dory evokes thoughts of earlier expeditions, but the river looks nothing like it did when Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran, strapped himself to a chair and floated through. Glen Canyon Dam, erected in the 1950s, provides clear, cold water rather than the silty opaque runoff of Powell’s time.
Nor were we as isolated as earlier explorers. Today, about 23,000 people go down the river each year, about 6,000 of us in private, non-motorized crafts. Our group featured six inflatable rafts and catarafts, including a couple of rented 18-footers to carry the kitchen (our moveable feast) and the “groover” (our moveable waste), as well as the dory.
At almost any stop, there is a hike worth taking. Anasazi granaries hide in the cliffs high above the river. Steep ridges reach thousands of feet skyward, on some afternoons pointing their peaks at lightning-laced clouds. Tight, beautiful side canyons like Havasu run with water the color of frozen sky.
Cliff swallows swooped down at the water, and condors wheeled unhurriedly high above; a rattlesnake reposed in the rocks, while some bighorn sheep tiptoed to the water’s edge. The compressed tilt of billions of years of earth history lay exposed: limestones, shales, sandstones, lava flows and granite, a -Georgia O’Keeffe color wheel. Columbine and cacti bloomed, lizards darted, and scorpions looked for a comfy bed. Reputedly, there are fish — though our lone angler, Anders, argued otherwise.
Too many parks are infested with hotels, video screens, soft ice cream and crowds — automobiles circulate in the heart of the Yellowstone Plateau. The Grand Canyon is not immune, but the crowds and ice cream are on the South Rim, where 5.5 million people stop annually for a glimpse over the edge. A mile below, on the river, there are no modern amenities. No trail signs or posted warnings of danger; no recycling bins. After a ranger briefed us before we launched at Lees Ferry, we never saw a uniform. Except for Phantom Ranch, a historic facility about 88 miles down the river serviced by mule strings, there are no stores or beds or restaurants for 225 miles. And no handrails, Mr. Sax, on the narrow, exposed trails that climb the side canyons and cliffs.
As for the rangers, they are absent in part because the so-called River Unit — five rangers who regularly rafted the canyon to monitor use, handle emergencies, and ferry scientists and politicians — has been suspended after a sexual harassment investigation. An “operational review” will determine whether its removal will be permanent.
Permanent seems like a good idea, and not just to curtail inappropriate touching. The less we see of the Park Service in the canyon, the better the agency is doing its job.
The less we see of industrial tourism, too, the better. About 185 miles in, you’ll hear the whomp-whomp of a helicopter, swooping into the canyon to the Whitmore Helipad to pick up and drop off passengers from big, engine-driven pontoon boats. Fitfully, since 1980, the Grand Canyon has tried to phase out motors, then lost its nerve. The commercial rigs quiet their engines when they pass folks like us, but nevertheless bathe us in the modern world’s mechanical hum. There’s a proposal, too, to construct a tramway into the canyon where the Little Colorado flows into the big river, on Navajo Nation lands.
No, thanks. Rather, we should enlarge the canyon’s solitude, make it easier to believe, lying on a granite ledge above that whispering river, that it’s just you, the lizards, and the Milky Way. “Nature, taken on its own terms, has something to say that you will be glad to hear.” Which may sound preachy and selfish to those who feel excluded without mechanized horsepower — the disabled, the elderly, the time-constrained — but at least it proves that I’ve been reading Joseph Sax.
Our intimate experience last April testifies to the exemplary job boatmen and -women are doing to minimize their footprints in the canyon. They have guidance from Park Service regulations, but this community of strangers takes it further. The only litterer I encountered there was me — I misplaced a water bottle during a solar shower — and at the end of our journey, we learned that another group retrieved it.
I don’t find it ironic that in this discussion of wildness and how much we must “manage” to experience it today, we end up talking about civilized behavior. It seems the small cadre of canyon boaters has internalized rules that keep the river experience wild and unlittered and revelatory — without supervision, or handrails.
Edward Abbey, reflecting on his own days floating the Colorado, put it simply: A wild river is “a necessity of the human spirit.” He didn’t mean a world of comforts and safety — he meant rock, heat, silt and water that can spill and pound you.
Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming.