Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)
The River Jumps Over the Mountain
LIFE IS SHORT and the Grand Canyon is long, especially when you paddle your way down it in a kayak. From the put-in at Lees Ferry, not far below Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River winds 226 miles between walls of primordial rock to a take-out at Diamond Creek, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, dropping through dozens of major rapids along the way. Beyond that is slightly more river, more canyon, but the urgency, the majestic ferocity, and the sense of otherworldly containment dissipate down there, as the canyon walls tilt back into rubble slopes of Sonoran desert vegetation and the water’s awesome momentum dribbles out anticlimactically into flat, inert Lake Mead. The deep magic and adamantine power that make this particular canyon grander than all others on Earth lie in those upper 226 miles, between the launch point and Diamond Creek. My own little kayak, of stiff yellow plastic, is nine foot two.
Simple arithmetic tells me that I’ll need to travel 130,271 boat-lengths from start to finish. It’s a ratio conducive to humility.
On water like this, each boat-length of headway involves two paddle strokes and, through the more serious rapids, maybe a quick tactical brace to prevent being flipped upside down. The lovely thing about a whitewater kayak is that, far beyond any other sort of water craft, it offers maneuverability in exchange for vulnerability, a tradeoff that intensifies the boater’s sense of intimate interaction with a river. Climbing into a snugly fitted kayak, wedging your butt between the hip pads, arching your knees up into the thigh braces, is more like buckling on skis than like boarding a vessel. This is a sporting tool, not just a mode of conveyance. Stability is achieved, not given. A whitewater kayak even differs drastically from a sea kayak—roughly to the degree, say, that riding a unicycle in the circus differs from pedaling a ten-speed across Nebraska. Offering so little inherent equilibrium, so many dimensions of surprise, it’s therefore the perfect boat in which to explore the chaotic border zones between equilibria and disequilibria of a personal nature—which is what, for me anyway, this trip is about. I’ve recently been set wobbling by the end of what I’d thought was a very good, very permanent marriage. A descent of the Grand Canyon by kayak should be more robust and less piteous, I figure, than a midlife crisis.
We launch on a Tuesday in early September, with the days growing shorter but the sun still high enough at midafternoon to make the deepest canyon rocks radiate, into evening, like oven-fresh bread. There are sixteen of us, seven in kayaks, the rest as oarsmen or passengers on inflatable rafts, a motley assemblage of old friends and new acquaintances all centered on the trip’s organizational leaders, Cyndi and Bob Crayton of Bozeman, Montana.
Bob Crayton ran the Grand Canyon twenty years ago, as a young oil-field roughneck with a full head of hair, in a clumsy old fiber-glass kayak that he paddled without undue concern about what lurked around the next bend, either on the river or in life. It was a larkish, bachelor getaway with a gang of male pals, yet he was so lingeringly affected by the experience that when he met Cyndi she took it to be something worth sharing. After the birth of their second child, she applied for a Grand Canyon permit herself. The responsible officials at Grand Canyon National Park allow only eight private-party launches per week, and the waiting list is lengthy. Eleven years later, Cyndi’s name has come up, and her family—now including a lanky, handsome sixteen-year-old son, Chase, and a vivaciously feisty twelve-year-old daughter, Kinsey—forms the nucleus of our expeditionary party. Because the Park Service paperwork designates the permitee as “Trip Leader,” and because she has borne so much of the organizational burden, we have all stopped calling Cyndi by her name and switched to the honorific title TL. Where are we camping tonight? Ask TL. Which box, on which raft, has the Pringles? Ask TL. Hey, TL, thanks for the margaritas! Rising to this burdensome challenge, Cyndi will eventually take to wearing a rhinestone tiara (belonging to Kinsey, who packed it for Mom as a surprise) on select occasions, when asserting her authority.
By terms of the permit, we have eighteen days to cover our 226 miles. Life is short and eighteen days still shorter—even if you’re living out of boats, sleeping on the ground among scorpions and rattlesnakes, defecating into metal boxes, and bathing in a cold, silty river or not at all—but for an exercise in detachment from doleful confusions and mortal regrets, which is what I want, it should be sufficient.
An hour after launching, four miles downstream, we pass under Navajo Bridge, far above, and get our last glimpse for weeks of a vehicle that travels on wheels.
The river is slatey green and cold, having just emerged through dam gates from the bottom of Lake Powell. We paddle the flatwater stretches and bob through several warmup riffles, ogling the stone, elated that we’re finally under way. The current slides along at about four miles per hour, and if we rode it passively, we could make a good day’s distance between late morning and midafternoon, with no shortage of scenic amusements. Several bends downstream, we fall silent at the sight of several bighorn ewes grazing placidly on a sand flat along river right. They ignore us. A great blue heron roosts, with the cold dignity of a pterodactyl, on a high cliff. A belted kingfisher flies along one bank, making those trapeze-artist kingfisher swoops. The rock layers continue rising, revealing themselves as distinct strata and groups of strata by their differing colors and textures, and I’ve done just enough homework to try to identify them.
Let’s see, from the top: That must be the Kaibab formation, then the Toroweap, then the Coconino sandstone just below. I can recite the cardinal sequence thanks to a mnemonic offered by a scientist friend before I left Montana: Kissing Takes Concentration, However, Sex Requires More Breath And Tongue. It codes for Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit shale, Supai group, Redwall limestone, Muav limestone, Bright Angel shale, and finally Tapeats sandstone. After a few dozen miles, I notice what seems to be a distinct formation—crumbly, rounded off, as red as dried blood—just emerging at river level. Rick Alexander, one of my kayaker pals, with a half-dozen previous Grand Canyon trips on his résumé and an appreciation for the place that goes beyond whitewater hydrology, confirms that we’re now seeing the Hermit shale. I’m mesmerized by geologic spectacle, it’s better than watching a lava lamp—but then Kayaking Takes Concentration too, and we climb out of our boats to scout Badger rapid.
My map booklet rates Badger’s difficulty as 7 (on a scale of 10) at this water level, but it looks to be nothing more than a stairway of large, breaking waves, with a tongue of smooth green water marking the obvious line of entry. (Converted to the more standard scale of whitewater rating, Class I through Class V, the major Grand Canyon rapids could all be described as “Class IV, but big.”) Rick’s considered wisdom, after a glance, is “Hey diddle diddle, straight down the middle.” And that’s where we go.
Just below Badger, TL has decreed, is our camp spot for the night. We haven’t covered much mileage, but never mind, we’ve consummated our escape from the realm of the dry. That we’re just eight miles from the put-in is less relevant, suddenly, than that we’re 218 miles from the take-out.
The moon appears late, as a waning gibbous shape over the south rim. The canyon walls occlude most of the sky, like big black shoulders, but along the linear gap between them stretches the Milky Way. So there’s sky enough, stars enough, world enough and time, to lull even a full, busy, vexed mind to sleep. My own mind is weary and, as I’ve been hoping, empty.
The river is a pathway through rock. The rock is a pathway through time. The span of time manifest in the exposed rock of the Grand Canyon is vast almost behind comprehension, reflecting more than a third of the total age of our planet. The Vishnu schist, a steely gray metamorphic formation lining the innermost canyon gorge with polished cliffs that rise sheer from the water, dates back1.7 billion years. The sedimentary layers lying on top are much younger, including that vertical stack of Paleozoic strata memorialized by my little mnemonic, all of which were laid down between 570 and 245 million years ago. That point bears emphasizing: that the youngest stratum atop the Grand Canyon rim derives from the end of the Paleozoic era, more than a quarter billion years ago. The Mesozoic era, with its giant reptiles, scarcely exists in this petrological record—too evanescent, too young. The Cenozoic, covering the past 65 million years, shows only as latter-day scuffs and scratches, such as the river canyon itself, or the spills of extruded lava that temporarily clogged it as recently as a mere million years ago. Among the more striking facts about this geological wonder—though not the single most mystifying one, which I’ll come to in its turn—is that though the rock layers are extremely old, the canyon itself is quite recent. The river’s channel (or at least the western half) seems to have been carved to nearly its present depth within just a few million years, and beginning only 6 million years ago. The river cut through like a silver knife slicing cake, though the cake itself had taken eons to assemble and bake.
My own age is fifty-three. That’s risibly old on the kayaker scale and immeasurably young on the geologic one. Time is relative, Einstein taught us, and such relativity is another factor in my secret agenda of recuperation. Hey, Dave, we’ve got a Grand permit, Bob Crayton told me more than a year ago, want to come? Not possible, I thought—too many deadlines, too many commitments, it takes too much time, my kayak skills are in disrepair, I stand at the threshold of geezerhood, quack quack quack. And then, in a moment of sublime, reckless clarity, I said: Yes! No matter how old you are, I had realized, if you set yourself down within the ancientness of the Grand Canyon, your elapsed years will seem like nothing. Your life itself may seem like nothing. Your woes and your moans, your disappointments and sorrows and grievances and guilts, may therefore seem inconsiderable also. Rinse yourself in the river, measure yourself against the rock; find yourself to be a tiny, wet creature, insignificant within the larger and longer scope. That’s the notion that put me on the trip roster. My shoulders are still in fairly good shape (always an issue, since dislocation is a common kayak injury) and, as far as diagnostic medicine can determine, so is my heart. I’ll never know how old is too old, or not, unless I find out.
Among the seven of us paddling little boats, four are essentially professional kayakers, having grounded their lives in the sport either as instructors (Al Borrego, a quietly affable fellow who shifts to ski-patrolling in winter) or as sales reps (John Kudrna, Rob Lesser, and my geology consultant, Rick Alexander) within the whitewater world. Alexander, aka “Rick the Stick” for his paddling prowess, is a big burly guy roughly the size of a doorway, who looks like he might enjoy punishing people on a rugby field; his pale blue eyes and glinty smirk conceal—then sometimes reveal—a fundamental sweetness of character and a keen knowledge of natural history, gained during an earlier career directing outdoor-education programs in the Southwest. Kudrna is a compact whitewater athlete whose shoulders have been rebuilt more times than the engine in a ’64 Volkswagen. Lesser, with more than thirty years’ paddling experience, is a legendary maker of first descents on harrowing Alaskan river canyons such as the Stikine. In addition, there’s Mark Gamba, the photographer on assignment as my partner, whose long legs barely fit into a kayak. Mark’s role obliges him to ballast the back of his boat with a case full of heavy photo gear and to wear a camera-encasing waterproof apparatus the size of a small television (he calls it a “surf housing”) around his neck like a millstone. They’re all younger and better paddlers than I—all except Lesser, who is older (God bless him) and (damn him) much better. Once again, as on previous kayak assignments, not all of which went off without ugly moments of drama, I find myself running in fast company.
The raft oarsmen include Brian Zimmer, a wry schoolteacher who consents cheerily to carry the army-surplus rocket boxes that will serve as receptacles for what is delicately known as our “groover” (the portable toilet) and accordingly christens his eighteen-foot yellow boat Winnie da Pooh; Jason Dzikowski, known as “Diz,” a steady and earnest young carpenter from North Carolina, whose white raft is a twin to Brian’s and therefore becomes Piglet; Mike Jaenish, a criminal defense attorney from Salt Lake City, soon to be a grandfather, who clears his court schedule and goes AWOL to run rivers at any reasonable offer, bringing his own raft (parakeet blue, with a banana-yellow sun canopy), his kitchen setup, his flask of Knob Creek bourbon, his aluminum cot, and his guitar; and Steve Jones, another lawyer by education but a contractor and a river rat by choice, whose renunciation of legal practice has allowed him, in the past three decades, to make fourteen previous Grand Canyon trips. These generous raft jockeys carry the freight that allows us kayakers, as well as themselves, to river-camp in comfort bordering on decadence: tents, lawn chairs, tables, beer, coolers full of fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen meat, many loaves of bread, many pounds of cheese, beer, rice, pasta, coffee, tortillas, canned beans, beer, dutch ovens, cookies, eight kinds of salsa, marshmallows, dozens of eggs, I think I’ve said beer, dry clothes, boccie balls, hiking shoes, two-burner propane stoves, a pancake griddle, a fire pan, charcoal briquets, battery-powered lanterns, some Budweiser for when the beer is all gone, and (I swear to God) a croquet set. Steve Jones has even thought to bring four pink plastic flamingos, with stab-in metal legs, for decorating the river frontage at each evening’s camp.
Compared to an eighteen-foot raft loaded with such paraphernalia, a kayak has only the most modest capacity for cargo. It can carry a few items, but they had better be small and precious. As we launch on the morning of day two, and for every day thereafter, my own boat contains the following: an extra paddle, in two conjoinable pieces; air bags, to save the boat if I abandon ship and resort to swimming for my life; a pair of river sandals, for hiking side canyons; a water bottle; a rescue rope coiled in a throw bag; a baseball cap; a little waterproof pouch (which rides in a handy bungee-cord shelf under the front deck, just above my knees) containing my river map, a pencil, and a Rite in the Rain notebook; and a roll-top waterproof bag, holding certain important sundries. The sundries are my wallet, my watch, one energy bar, a container of sunscreen, and two books. The books are Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, by a Scottish mathematician named John Playfair, and Selected Poems, by W. H. Auden. I’ve chosen those two as my intellectual and emotional sustenance for the trip. Like the energy bar, they’re small packets but densely nutritious.
I’ll have no time to read except during stolen moments in camp, evening and morning, so the books could just as well be in my dry bag of other stuff (sleeping bag, pad, headlamp, etc.) lashed aboard Piglet. But I prefer keeping them close to me, like survival gear.
Playfair’s Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth is not just a classic of science explication but also a famous act of personal loyalty. James Hutton, another Scotsman, sometimes considered the founder of modern geology, conceived a revolutionary and percipient vision of how Earth’s surface has been shaped and reshaped by geological processes. But the grand opus in which Hutton presented his ideas (Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations, two volumes, 1795) was so turgid, so repetitious, and so poorly received, that his good friend Playfair undertook, after Hutton’s death, to revivify the theory by describing it in concise, readable form. The essence of Hutton’s theory centers on three points, all of which seemed outlandishly heterodox in his time: 1) Earth’s surface is constantly being eroded by water, ice, and wind, which grind old rock into chunks, pebbles, and fine sediments that are carried downstream by rivers for eventual deposition on the sea bottoms; 2) sea-bottom sediments, transmogrified slowly by pressure and heat, become stratified layers of new rock; 3) further heat from below (what is its source?—that remained puzzling long after Hutton’s time) also causes the slow uplift of those strata, and of the magmas of molten rock beneath them, eventually forming jagged mountains, domed plateaus, granitic knobs, great rifts and warpings, exposures and juxtapositions of variously tilted strata—all of which are subject to further erosion. In short, mountains become silt which becomes sedimentary rock which becomes mountains, with erosion driving the process from above and subterranean heat driving it from below, in a repeating cycle that seems to go on indefinitely, showing “no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”
Hutton wasn’t an impious man, but his theory provoked accusations of impiety. Among its corollaries and saucy implications were that 4) marine fossils at high elevations were not put there by Noah’s flood; 5) the processes affecting topography nowadays—erosion, deposition, barely detectable uplift, and an occasional volcanic burp—are the same and the only processes that shaped the world from its beginning; and therefore 6) planet Earth is much, much older than the figure of six-thousand-some years that had been calculated by biblical literalists. “Time,” Hutton wrote, “which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing.” Most of Hutton’s prose wasn’t so piquant, and his friend Playfair did a breezier job of arguing the Huttonian case, describing great cycles of “decay and renovation” to account for the world as we see it. Everything that rises will be torn down, Playfair explained; everything torn down will be remade into something else, equally stony, equally grand, and rise again. My copy of Playfair’s book is a facsimile of the first edition, published in 1802.
The Auden volume, by contrast, is a work of consummate twentieth-century modernity. Published in 1979, it samples the best of a long, vibrant poetic lifetime. Although a few of Auden’s later poems are even more opaque than an eighteenth-century disquisition on geology, I find deep pleasure and consolation in his grim, mordant, yet bravely humane work from the 1930s. Some of it is political, some intimately personal. Certain of these poems are written in a deceptively simple style that flows like light verse. One that I’ve read often, and will read again on the river, begins this way:
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.
“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.”
Both books fit easily into the back of my boat, their waterproof bag clipped in with a carabiner, beside the rescue rope.
For most of its length in the canyon—say, 90 percent of those 226 miles—the Colorado River is like a giant sleeping snake, its latent power barely intimated by a gentle reptilian snore. The current glides slowly along, with only an occasional swell or whirlpool on an eddy line reflecting the vast, merciless energy held contained. But the river’s elevation drops almost 2,000 feet between Lees Ferry and Lake Mead, and about half that total occurs in short, abrupt plunges—that is, rapids. During the next couple days, we get our first real taste of the river’s wild side.
Soap Creek rapid is another frothy chain of waves, with no holes lurking to swallow and hold a boat, so Mark takes it as an opportunity for action close-ups. He runs Soap Creek backward, bracing himself with one hand, deploying his surf-housing camera with the other, clicking off motor-drive shots of Rob amid the churning jiggle-jaggle of the waves. Halfway through, Mark flips upside down. I watch his boat bottom from not far away, awaiting a recovery. Underwater, he drops the camera and gets both hands on his paddle, then rolls briskly up, to discover that one of his surf-housing straps has failed and the apparatus—all $3,400 of it, with a Nikon F-100 inside—seems to be gone. Bad moment, bad setback, to lose such a crucial piece of equipment so early in the trip. Then he notices the thing trailing behind him, on one strap, like a drag-bag of beer left in the water for chilling. He reels it in.
House Rock is more serious, a right-bending rapid in which the heavy chop pushes into a rock wall on the left and, near the bottom, a pair of tall waves guard the exit line, one of them not just breaking but recirculating. For the kayakers this doesn’t present much trouble. Each of us enters on the flat green tongue, angling right, and with a few strokes amid the heavy water we’re able to stay off the wall, ferry rightward, and punch through the wave-hole along its right corner. We catch eddies at the bottom and hold position, ready if needed to help with a rescue. For the rafts, so heavily loaded, so lumbering, it’s a different matter. In fact, this particular rapid proves a good reminder of a truth we already know well: Some stretches of water that are easily run by a competent kayaker can be wickedly problematic for a raft oarsman, and vice versa. In their strengths and their foibles, a big raft and a little kayak are as different as a locomotive and a horse.
Brian’s locomotive runs next. With the unsavory groover boxes strapped firmly to its frame, with Chase Crayton and his high-school buddy Cole Arpin whooping in the bow, Pooh edges barely away from the wall, drops straight into the wave-hole, and goes nearly vertical, eighteen feet of fat yellow sausage standing on end. Diz follows the same line in Piglet, with young Kinsey Crayton and Margie Penney (a nurse from Colorado, old friend of Cyndi’s) dangling forward, clutching handholds, to get thrillingly drenched in the breakers. Later, Bob will confide to me that he found himself quite flustered as he sculled in that eddy, watching his twelve-year-old daughter ride through the rapid. It was a new sort of whitewater excitement, jangling and unexpectedly disagreeable, for the old man. This time on the big river, he realized, he had given hostages to fortune.
And then comes Mike, his yellow canopy lowered for stormy running, a straw cowboy hat on his head. His raft being the lightest and the shortest, it’s the most mobile but also the least stable, and he has no passengers to help with high-siding or bailing. He begins with an angle to the right, but then somehow his boat gets swung leftward, way leftward, and slides toward the paired waves like a van skidding on ice. When he hits the waves broadside, there’s an alley-oop motion and Mike is suddenly in the air—then in the water, gone. He bobs up beside the raft, minus his hat, and catches hold of an oar. By the time kayaks converge on him, he has already hoisted himself back in and brought the boat under control, a nice recovery by any measure.
Mike has made five earlier Grand Canyon trips. Experienced and provident, he appears next day with a different hat.
By the end of a week we’ve followed the river downward through more than a billion years of time, descending past all nine major formations of Paleozoic sedimentary rock and into the Vishnu schist, dark and Precambrian. The cliff sides are suddenly closer, steeper, more stern and chilling, like melodramatic pinnacles in a woodcut by Rockwell Kent. The gunmetal-gray schist is shot through with sinuous veins of pinkish, mica-flecked intrusion, known as the Zoroaster granite. In their physical presence as well as their mythic evocations, the Vishnu and the Zoroaster provide a somber, eerie sense of embrace. Rick says: “Welcome to the inner canyon gorge.”
I’m still wondering how the river carved its way down here so quickly. The question is made even more baffling by the geologic conundrum I alluded to earlier, which involves a mysterious surmounting of certain obstacles. “The Colorado River has cut through several major upwarps, including the Kaibab Plateau, seemingly in defiance of the laws of gravity,” according to an expert named Larry Stevens. “Controversy over how and when the Grand Canyon formed has raged for a century, but every new theory seems to be missing a critical piece of evidence.” One enigma any such theory must explain is that the early Colorado River, flowing at what seems to have been a middling elevation across an area known as the Marble Platform, managed to carve its way over—and then down into—a big, elongated dome of elevated rock known as the Kaibab Uplift. From the surface of the Marble Platform to the crest of the Kaibab Uplift, as they stand today, there’s a rise of several thousand feet. Did the water run uphill? Certainly not. Then how did the river get over that mountainous mound?
Nobody knows. But three different hypotheses have been offered during the past century and a half, each bidding to explain it without recourse to miracles.
John Wesley Powell, after his explorations of the canyon in 1869 and 1872, guessed that the river had etched its path first, along what was a natural declivity, and that the Kaibab Uplift had risen afterward, raising the land surface against the river’s flow like a loaf of bread being pushed into a band saw. Later research has discredited that guess by establishing that the river channel is more recent than the vaulting.
A second hypothesis, which held sway in the 1960s, was that the river essentially backed its way through the high ground of the canyon’s middle reaches, by what geologists call “headward erosion.” When a lump of rock is dislodged from the brink of, say, Niagara Falls, dropping into the gorge below, the brink itself recedes upstream by an increment equal to the size of the lost lump. That’s headward erosion. The Canadian half of Niagara Falls, known as Horseshoe, is eroding headward at the speedy rate of about five feet per year. Moving just a fraction that fast, the Colorado might have eaten backward through the Kaibab Uplift in not many millions of years.
A third hypothesis, articulated by a geologist named Ivo Lucchitta, suggests that the lower half of the Grand Canyon might well have been cut by headward erosion within only the past few million years, but that the upper half is much older. That upper half must have been carved (or at least begun) during a time when the Marble Platform itself was overlain with thick layers of Mesozoic rock, from which the river could find a downhill angle across the Kaibab Uplift. In this view, the river jumped over the mountain by way of a ramp, but the ramp has since disappeared. The upper layers of rock were stripped away (by some form of surface erosion) from the Marble Platform, leaving that area overshadowed by the Kaibab Uplift. But the uplift by then had a canyon sawn through it.
On the afternoon of Day 8 we beach our boats at Phantom Ranch, one of very few sites within the canyon that connects by steep foot trails with the outside world. The little compound at Phantom includes a campground for hikers from the rims, a set of restrooms, a corral of horses, and a small store. It’s the only place where river travelers can buy a glass of cold lemonade, reexperience a flush toilet, and use a pay telephone. The date happens to be September 11, 2001. Mike makes the first call, to his wife, and returns with the day’s scarcely believable news.
After a few more calls to loved ones on the outside, we drink our lemonades in silence and then return to the riverbank. We compare what we’ve heard and pool what we think we know: the World Trade Center leveled, the Pentagon hit, another plane downed near Pittsburgh (or was it Camp David?), perhaps two more hijacked airliners still unaccounted for, 30,000 to 50,000 people dead in Manhattan, which is being evacuated; the country is shut down, the military are on highest alert, and George Bush is aboard Air Force One, somewhere, headed for Nebraska. Nebraska, I say, that’s the underground nuclear command center, Cheyenne Mountain. Cheyenne Mountain is in Colorado, says Margie, who comes from Boulder. You’re right, I say. Wait, no, Nebraska is the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. What’s going on? we all wonder. I’ve spoken only with my frail, cheerful, octogenarian parents in Minneapolis, mostly to confirm that they’re all right. They are—distraught at the news, like everyone, but not personally assailed by terrorists or sudden turns of ill health. You won’t see anything in the sky, says my mother, the planes are all grounded.
We climb into our boats. The rafts pull out, surrendering swoon-like to the current, heading downstream for another ten days in the canyon under conditions of near-total isolation. The other kayakers peel away too, and I find myself alone on the beach. I hesitate. Is there any conceivable reason, I consider, why I should abort this journey and walk out of here? Is there anything useful I can do? Is there anywhere else, right now, I should be? Anywhere else I want to be?
No. I signed on to this trip because I craved an exercise in detachment—from my own life as it has unfolded in recent years, and from the world. So here we are, I think, with an exercise in detachment far more dolorous than I’d foreseen. My sympathies to you, dead and grieving people; good luck, America. I paddle into the heavy current and let it swing me downstream.
We have rapids to run: Horn, Crystal, Serpentine, Bedrock, Upset, and other frivolous challenges to mortality. On the water, we think about the water. In camp, especially when the darkening sky fills with stars and remains peculiarly empty of airplanes, it’s different. We think about New York and beyond. We ponder the fact that we’re missing a slice of American history, never to be regained, synthesized, or duplicated. We relish unabashedly the simple joys of being together in this marvelous, wild, ancient place.
Me, I’m glad also for the company of Auden. That evening I reread his poem titled “September 1, 1939.” With “clever hopes” expiring at the end of “a low dishonest decade,” says the poet,
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
It was written, of course, to mark the day Hitler invaded Poland. But the poem is wise beyond old news.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
We’ve camped just above a formidable rapid called Hermit, rated 8. All night, in wakeful moments, we hear its roar. We’re now on the threshold of the canyon’s more serious water—beginning with Hermit, then Crystal, then a string of other rapids, culminating next week in Lava Falls. At dawn on the morning after our stop at Phantom Ranch, the sky is red. I think: Sailors, take warning.
Several days later, with Crystal safely behind us, we stop to hike up a side canyon called Matkatamiba, a tranquil afternoon’s interlude for stretching our legs and gawking at a different sort of scenery. Digressing to explore such byways—with their slots, waterfalls, secret chambers, and polished walls—is an important part of the Grand Canyon experience, a felicity that complements the big-river rush. We’ve already probed a nice selection: Shinumo Wash, Nautiloid Canyon, Elves Chasm, and the Tapeats Creek trail, which leads to a dramatic waterspout called Thunder River, blasting out of its hole midway down a great Redwall cliff. Matkatamiba Canyon is more graceful than any of them.
We catch a blind eddy at its mouth, leave the boats, and ascend between walls of smoothly curvaceous blue-green limestone, our feet sloshing in clear, warmish water. In some spots the channel, buffed smooth, is only as wide as one human foot. We wade, clamber, and walk several hundred yards before the little canyon bends sharply and, there at its crook, opens out into a natural rotunda. Walls of red rock, hundreds of feet high and undercut with galleries, rise above; the little creek tumbles along its delicate path, across a floor that resembles artfully terraced slate; California red-buds and catclaw acacias, elegantly gnarled like bonsai, stand in patches of rocky soil, and across one spring-moistened slope drapes a profusion of wild grapevines, grasses, and maidenhair ferns, offering a counterpoint texture—cool and green—to all the warm, dry stone. At the center of this extraordinary space is an island of large boulders, like a dais. The whole layout seems to have been designed, perhaps by a subtle Japanese architect, for human ceremony.
Someone says: This would be a great place to hear a concert. Someone else says: This would be a great place to get married. Alluding to a pair of our other kayaking chums, back in Montana, Rick says: “Ron and Carla did get married here.”
Married here? It strikes me as an innocent, weird thought from a race of beings to which I don’t presently belong. I keep my mouth shut, remembering a December day eighteen years ago, when I myself and a wonderful, serious, joyous woman got married in a beautiful place—on the side of Kitt Peak, with a view of Baboquivari, sacred mountain of the Papago. Ultimately it didn’t help.
At the bottom of Upset rapid, stretching wide across the main flow, is a menacing hole. At the top, just beyond the tongue, is a seemingly innocuous diagonal wave, curling off the left wall. The tongue itself isn’t glassy and green, not today. Distant rainstorms somewhere upstream have brought a deluge of mocha silt, and the whole river has done a chameleon shift from olive to sullen brown. Even the whitecaps are no longer white. They look like fresh adobe.
After we’ve scouted the rapid and picked routes for avoiding the hole, Mike takes a leftish line of entry and then, to his shock and ours, finds his raft lifted sideways by the upper wave, which tips him, flips him, as smoothly as a single-blade plow turning dirt. He and Margie, his passenger today, tumble through the air in what seems like choreographed, Hollywood-stunt slow motion. Then they endure the full rapid, dunked through the hole and swept along, trying to catch breaths and get hold of the overturned boat. By the time we reach them, they’re in calmer water but still fighting current and cold. Margie, swimming and gasping, grabs hold of my stern handle for a tow to the bank and then, as she climbs out into a jumble of boulders, nearly steps on a rattlesnake, which she hears rattling but can barely see, since her contacts have been splashed ajar. I return to help Rick and John, who are bulldozing the raft toward shore with their kayaks. We get it secured and then, twenty minutes later, with ten pairs of arms lifting and pushing, flipped back upright. The only loss is a lawn chair that wasn’t strapped down. Frustrated, embarrassed, Mike says: “I’m gonna take up bowling when I get back to Salt Lake.”
The upset at Upset feels like a foreboding prelude. That night over dinner our talk turns with titillating grimness to Lava Falls, which we’ll face tomorrow. Bob recalls it vividly from twenty years ago. Steve mentions that the right-side line is difficult at low water, and low water is what we’ll have. The right side, Rick says, is always a gnarly run. Mike says: My boat needs more ballast; I’ll fill the empty carboys with river water. None of the rest of us has ever seen this storied drop. It’s a sinister place, with all that lava rock, says Rick. Chase, the thrill-hungry teenager, wants to make multiple runs, riding through on each raft and then running back up to jump aboard the next. Bob asks whether anybody’s got a pair of navy-surplus water wings that Chase can use to swim the rapid. Don’t put that idea in his head, says Cyndi, in her role not as TL but as Mom. You can talk about running Lava this way or that, Steve adds, but you don’t really know what you’re gonna do until you get there.
Bedding down on the warm sand, I embrace a few resolute thoughts. No point wasting time or energy worrying about things in advance—especially not a mere rapid on a lovely river. If I happen to drown in Lava, which is highly unlikely but possible, it’s not important. If I embarrass myself, floundering, swimming for dear life and being rescued, that’s even less important. If I manage to slide through with aplomb, less important still. What’s important is not to have done Lava Falls but to do it. What matters is to enter the rapid and live its ten or twenty seconds of magisterial chaos as acutely as possible.
I’m just not sensitive enough, I suppose, to be an angst-ridden person. I sleep soundly, and dream of pretty women and skiing.
We hear it before we see it. Then there’s a horizon line, like beveled marble, where the whole river drops away invisibly. Just upstream of the suck, we pull in to scout.
A high cliff of coal-dark basalt looms on the right, a cut-away section of what once was an igneous dam, showing fudgy swirls, puckers, and long rows of columnar basaltic crystals like grinning teeth. We climb. From above on a rocky trail, just the sort of perspective that always makes rapids look deceptively small, Lava looks big. It’s not so much a waterfall—despite the name, despite thirty-seven feet of sudden descent—as a raging cascade. Impassable rocks on the left, a hole on the right, a curling wave, another hole, hectic zones of disorderly froth, a big sloping rock at bottom right against which a person would not want to be pinned, and just beside that, another roiling hole, in front of which is a high, tumbling wave. “Busy” is the whitewater term. The right line does, as Rick warned, look uninviting. The left line doesn’t exit. There’s no sneak route. But there is an imaginable path, from upper right to lower left, nudging past the curlers, crossing a hurricane’s eye of relatively calm water, ferrying wide of the lower hole, that each of us commits to mind like a mantra. Then it’s back to the boats.
Rick disappears over the horizon line. Bob follows. John signals me from shore: Okay, DQ, your turn. I can see almost nothing as I paddle down the approach tongue. My brain is vacant of any thought more profoundly speculative than Well, here I go. As the first waves hit, I hit back, with an aggressive right brace that seems to have been a bit too aggressive, because I find myself in midrapid with my head underwater on the right side. Not wanting to drop entirely upside down (and set up to roll, which would take time), I hold that position for a second or three, hoping that a random upswell might lift me; then, either with such a lift or without it (who knows, who remembers?), I manage to wiggle upright off my very deep brace, finding balance, finding air. I take a few strokes, gather a little momentum, in time to punch my head sideways through the lower wave and miss the hole. As easy as that, I’m in an eddy below, my body aflush with a wave of elated relief.
Rob comments later that I had “an exciting run,” which is polite but not complimentary, and that he captured it all on video. TL herself will find irony in the fact that “the most conservative boater had the most exciting run,” with which I can’t argue. I’m content to know that, perhaps for the first time ever, W. H. Auden (or at least one of his books) has taken a kayak ride through Lava Falls.
Meanwhile we wait vigilantly, Rick and Bob and I, bobbing like flotsam in the left lower eddy, for the others. As Mike’s blue raft slides neatly between the lower hole and the sloped rock, he pumps his fist with the joy of redemption. Diz, earnest Diz, forced to run last so that Mark can shoot him in action from Piglet’s bow, finds a nifty line, bringing all our remaining Pringles through safely.
On the last evening, our seventeenth on the river, we celebrate with rum punch and begin regretting that the trip has passed so quickly. Like a blink. We’re in no great hurry to rejoin the world, however such as the world may now be. We’ve had almost no news, but within the past few days we’ve noticed planes reappearing in the sky, evidently on a route between Phoenix and Los Angeles. We can scarcely imagine, or care, what the men and women who sit behind television anchor desks have been saying. Our detachment from the events and aftermath of September 11 has been decreed by circumstance, enforced by isolation, bizarre, cold, not without deep sympathy, and salubrious. The loudest noise down here is the roar of water. Ravens, not newsmen, hover nearby like undertakers. The strata of rock and the silt in the river serve as reminders, thanks to James Hutton, that everything built will be ground down, and that all grinding provides new material for building. At least some of us feel that with enough food, enough river, we could continue indefinitely this mode of travel and life amid this amiable company. But there isn’t enough. Size is relative, like time, and in some ways the Grand Canyon is too small. The journey through it is nearly over, already.
As for my personal supplies, I’ve finished Playfair’s Huttonian Theory, but there’s still plenty of unread Auden, partly because I’ve been revisiting favorites. I’ve joined him repeatedly, for instance, on that evening walk down Bristol Street, past the railway arch, from beneath which comes the voice, claiming:
“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.”
After listening through further such promises of eternal devotion, the eavesdropping poet detects a counterpoint:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.”
My hands ache in the night, pleasantly, from seventeen days of hard use. My shoulders are no worse than when I started. My body has found the river regimen agreeable and my brain has been drawn outside itself. I feel rinsed, peaceful, and whole. I know the end of the poem almost by heart:
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on.
Next day, our last, we cover six miles of flat water. From the take-out beach at Diamond Creek, as we load our boats into a truck, I can hear the gentle growl of another rapid, just below, waiting to be run.