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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last of the Three Part Series by Greg Hatten