Night in the Canyon by Greg Hatten

Guest Post from Greg Hatten

Enjoy this, out third and last guest post from Greg–for this trip, anyway.

Nighttime in the Grand Canyon adds another dimension to darkness for me.

1_Nate_Pickens A tent, lit from within, with Pendleton blankets.

Photo by Nate Pickens

Towering walls rise up almost a mile above the Colorado River to touch the night sky, soft sand wraps around our sleeping bags in a warm embrace, and the river of darkness between the canyon cliffs overhead is filled with so many bright stars that most nights, the ground is visible without the aid of a flashlight.  Darkness in the Grand Canyon is filled with light, and my favorite light comes from the campfire after dinner.

2_Nate_Pickens Photo of camping on the banks of the Colorado River

Photo by Nate Pickens

We throw another log onto the bed of half-spent coals in the fire pan, sink deep into our camp chairs…and take a long breath.  No rapids to scout, no river to run, no boats to wrangle.

The banter is lively as we replay the day – the heroic runs, the botched lines, and the close calls.  Laughter and teasing settles into quiet conversation and reflection as we enjoy the flames of the fire and each other’s presence.  Together, we unwind from the challenges of the day.  Sometimes the only sound in our circle of camp chairs comes from the flickering fire and the river (and occasionally, snoring from Tony).  We listen to the river every second of every waking hour and we hear it in our sleep.  Darkness in the canyon is filled with the sounds of the river and laughter from the circle.

When we’re talked out, we fold our chairs, and one by one, leave the warmth of the fire. Sometimes two or three of us take the campfire conversation deeper into the night.  The smoke from the fire follows us to our sleeping bags and tucks us in. Our best and our worst is on display in the stressful situations of the canyon and in the solitude of my bedroll each night, I sort through which of those “won the day” – and then I sleep.

Darkness in the canyon is filled with the smoky smell of a campfire and self reflection.

3_Izzy_Collett The starry night sky at the campsite

Photo by Izzy Collett

Brightly colored tents sit below the steep rock walls of the canyon.  Some are scattered between boulders and sagebrush or even clustered in bunches on the sand banks of the river.  They glow with a dreamy light.

Some nights there is a special sound to the darkness as Izzy plays a Native American wood flute while she sits on her boat.  The rich low sounds are from a different time and place.  Authentic music mingles with the smoke trails and travels up the canyon on its way to the stars.

It adds a richness to the experience that I will never forget.

The darkness in the canyon is filled with the haunting sounds of the Anasazi flute.

When Morning Comes

4_Dave_Mortenson Another photo of the tent and blankets, this one at morning

Photo by Dave Mortenson

In the daylight, my canvas tent blends with the light tan color of the sand.  It’s the same material they used for tents and bags on the 1964 trip we are replicating.  I use the tent when there is a threat of rain or I want a break from the strong winds and blowing sand.

When we’re not in tents, we sleep on the open ground with nothing overhead except the stars in the night-sky.  The distance we hike away from the river to throw our bags down on shore is in direct proportion to the energy we have left at the end of a day spent rowing heavy boats through heavy rapids.  Most of the bags are within 100 feet of the boats on the sand banks above the river.  Some mornings we wake up as part of a sand dune and have to shake our way out of our bags.

5_Greg_Hatten Wooden boats wait for their rowers.

Photo by Greg Hatten

Many nights we sleep on the boats.  It’s my favorite place to spend the night.  Down here boats are life… they’re everything.  We row them through the valley of death and they deliver us from evil… repeatedly.  They carry everything we own and faithfully get us to our next campsite at the end of our rowing day.  They “connect” us to the river with a bond that’s hard to explain.  We love our boats.

Greg Hatten looks ready to go.

Photo by John Schroeder

All covered up in our warm blankets, we peek out in the dark and occasionally see a falling star in the night sky as the water gently slaps the sides of the boat and the river rocks us to sleep.  On “two-blanket” nights it’s cold enough to see our breath – which makes the blankets feel even warmer and the boats seem even cozier.

The darkness in the canyon is filled with cold cheeks, cold noses and gently rocking boats.

7_Robb_Grubb Marble Canyon Tunnel

Marble Canyon Tunnel – Photo by Robb Grubb

The darkest dark I found in the canyon wasn’t on the boats at night.  It was in an exploratory tunnel drilled deep in the side of Marble Canyon where construction had begun in the 1950s on one of the last proposed dam projects in the west.

A couple of us tied off our boats on river left and scrambled up the loose shale to the mouth of the tunnel – a hundred feet above the river.  From that elevated vantage point, the canyon looked spectacular.  I tried to imagine a dam in this special spot and couldn’t.  We turned from the river, climbed over the railroad ties and boulders guarding the entrance, and crawled through a portal into the heart of the Marble Canyon wall.

8_Robb_Grubb Marble Canyon Entry

Marble Canyon Entry – Photo by Robb Grubb

Twenty feet in and we were covered in darkness.  Real deep dark heavy darkness…. an eerie black quiet darkness… and I thought of orcs, and goblins, and the Lord of the Rings.  We turned on a laser light, splashed our way through the puddles on the packed-dirt floor and tripped over loose rocks that had fallen in the narrow passageway.  Walking with an awkward stoop, we finally reached the end of the tunnel several hundred feet from the entrance.  For a moment we turned off the light and just stood there listening to “drip…drip…drip” coming from the dank ceiling and falling to the floor somewhere in the blackness.  For the first time in days we couldn’t hear the river – it was silenced by the tunnel and it was deafening.

We shimmied back out the portal, slid down the shale pile back to our boats and spent a quiet afternoon rowing through the beautiful rose colored walls of Marble Canyon.

9_John-Schroeder Greg hatten rowing

Marble Canyon – Photo by John Schroeder

That night, I reflected again about what the trip in 1964 meant to river runners like us.  That trip and those guys made a huge impact by shining a bright light on the beauty of the canyon.  Their pictures, their videos, and their words inspired millions of people to take a closer look at the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and for the first time, many of them saw this place as much more than just a source for water.

The darkness in the canyon is filled with passion.

2_Nate_Pickens Night camping in the canyon

Last of the Three Part Series by Greg Hatten

Made in USA label with eagle for Pendleton

8 thoughts on “Night in the Canyon by Greg Hatten

  1. Not only are you a wonderful craftsman of wooden boats you are a masterful wordsmith. Having just returned from a trip down the Grand canyon myself I can deeply associate with your words and pictures. It is a place like no other, filled with danger, excitement, pleasure, wonder and more. Reflections abound, not all are from the sun on the water. while behind the oars for eight hours a day you can much quiet time reflecting on the place, the people you are with and how everything fits together while in the canyon. while looking at rocks that are billions and millions of years old I had to often ponder what had been happening in our world while the rocks were being formed, while erosion took place, how this special place was formed and what being there meant to me.

    Greg, you have once again captured the nuances of life in a most remarkable fashion. It is both a pleasure and an honor to call you my friend and that most special appelation, “My brother.”

    Thanks again, keep of your most special look at life and people.

    Your brother in all things wood and water,

    Rick Newman

  2. Greg, not only are you a masterful boatbuilder you are also a wonderful wordsmith and journalist. Your thoughts on rowing down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon bring back so many memories and thoughts that I just experienced. While our trip was not a historic trip like yours it was still very meaningful to me and the others on our trip. A month later than yours water levels and conditions were similar. Bony rapids because of low levels of water released from the dam and both cool days and hot days. The canyon that changes yet never changes. When the ranger at the put in reminded us that we would be visiting a living museum I didn’t totally believe him. Now I do.

    You write of challenges and address the issue very succinctly. I faced my own challenges in that most wonderful place. Thirty years ago I turned down opportunities to row a raft down the Canyon. For thirty years I had regretted that decision. Lack of money and a fear that I wasn’t a good enough rafter to face the rapids of the Grand Canyon. When I was invited late last year by the same person whom I had turned down thirty years ago I was elated. I said yes and nothing was going to stop me, not money nor the fact that I hadn’t rowed a heavily laden raft in almost 25 years.

    Loading up the rafts at Lee’s Ferry brought back many memories of trips past, while not the Grand Canyon, Idaho’s whitewater adventures of years past shared many similarities. The anticipation of what was to come. How will this disparate group of individuals that I have never met work together, will I still be able to row a ton of hypalon, food, metal and personal gear down these rapids that I have thought about for so long. While I row my wooden drift boat down a variety of rivers in the Northwest it is lightly loaded and maneuvers like a Porsche or Corvette not like a fully loaded 1-ton truck.

    I soon found that I could rise or row to the occasion and most of my fears were reduced. Not all however, as the big rapids were yet to come, especially Lava, a rapid that the stories precede in every Grand Canyon boaters mind. Thanks to this amazing medium we share I had read about the swim that you and Dave Mortenson had experienced in Grapevine. Boy was I careful there. Like you I also had an experience in Upset. One second I was rowing down the left side and the next I was swimming for my life down the remainder of it. The next day as you know is Lava. Thirty plus years of reading and hearing stories of it had painted stories of destruction and mayhem, of fear and loathing so near to Las Vegas. We did the obligatory scouting and further expansion of our fears and concerns. When JT our trip leader offered to row Lava and hike back up ride with me I was calmed down. Now this took a fair amount of courage for JT, as three years ago he had taken his wife and passenger into the big hole where they were Maytaged and held under the raft for way too long. Not only was he offering to revisit his own fears, he was going to take his wife and the same passenger through a rapid which I am sure he had his owns fears and concerns for. I down his passengers had issues with the rapid as we had been discussing them for days.

    Well JT made a very clean run down the right side and busted through the converging laterals at the bottom in fine style. He pulled to shore and headed up to my raft. When he offered to row my raft I hesitated for a minute or so. Then I said yes, go ahead. Thirty years of worrying about that rapid combined with a memory of the swim the day before made up my mind. The anticipation was enormous. Riding in the bow of the raft was an unusual place for me and brought me face to face with my nemisis, Lava Rapid. What would happen?

    I almost wish I could say that JT fought and struggled with mighty waves just avoided the maw of the enormous hole just to left of our path like a knight fighting a dragon but I can’t. He had the route wired and did a masterful job of placing the raft exactly where it belonged. I was both elated and deflated as our 20 second ride ended. Perhaps the same feeling that a bull rider has after a successful eight second ride! Many thanks to JT, his skills and courage. Not only did he have to face his fears once, he had to immediately do it again. Wow.

    Now one of my life’s worst fears was conquered. Now I knew I could come back and do the Grand Canyon again. Even at 63 I could control a hypalon barge and live to tell about it.

    While the rapids consume many of your thoughts both day and night on the river there is a great amount of time to consider the many other aspects of this wonderful place. I found it to be the living museum the ranger mentioned. The only thing that past visitors had left was footprints and footpaths. Many footsteps lead the way to amazing waterfalls, silent canyon with just a small slice of sky and to lookouts on upcoming rapids. Everyday the incredible rock walls hint of the history of their making, yet never reveal their secrets. How do all those huge rocks cling to the side walls looking like a child has thrown his blocks aside in a fit of temper? The rocks appearing to mysteriously balance in place, held in place by unknown forces. The colors of the sky, the amazing colors and textures of the rock, the far off vistas of rock temples, castles in the sky, and just the shear beauty of the canyon.

    There are many opportunities for reflection in the canyon. Not all are from the interface of sky, rock and water. The mental reflections on life, on the beauty of the place, on how the canyon was formed and my favorite. What was occurring in our world as this canyon was formed, as these rocks that are billions and millions of years old? Were the dinosaurs here now, were galaxies forming, was life just starting on far off islands? What would it have been like to observe all these events and more? Will the rocks ever be able to tell these stories? Where did the missing layers of rock go to?

    Greg, your articles have inspired me and I will be forever grateful that wooden boats brought us together. while our time together has been limited I think that the friendship and love of similar places will bind us forever. Taking a pile of lumber and putting our hearts and souls into boats builds things other than the boats we have both built. Being able to share the rivers on which we find so much meaning in is incredible. Being able to share river experiences with all the other folks in our lives that enjoy these places is priceless.

    When you first called me brother I was pleased to feel accepted by you. Know I now that there is much more than pure acceptance, but a sharing of special places and activities, of stars and sun, of waves and wood, of fish and bits of feathers tied to hooks, to campfires and beaches. This year we need to make the time to row down a river together and add to our shared experiences. I am forever thankful that we met and that we share so many things.

    Your brother in all things wood and water;

    Rick Newman

    • Well said Rick. Can’t add a thing to that post – we need to get together for a “river adventure” this summer. Steelhead are coming in and I’m getting the “itch”.
      I too, am thankful we met and glad that the wood boats brought us together.
      Your brother in whiskey, wood, and water.

      • I too agree, we need to share some whiskey, waves and fish. How about the Grande Ronde or the Rogue?

        Your finally found brother,

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