The River Rat Life

There’s a timeless, eternal rhythm to existence at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It takes a few days, but once you’re caught in it, whatever trepidation you might have had about escaping into the wilderness fade. As does the clutter and noise of life above rim. Things are simpler here. Harsher, yes, but also purer—from the air we breathe to the emotion we feel.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Chilling through the smaller rapids.

By day four, we are fully immersed. Navigating churning rapids, making and breaking camps, avoiding rattlesnakes, climbing slippery pontoons, finding the best camp sites—it comes easy now. We’re native creatures. We belong. (Or at least we think we do.)


Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

These walls will dwarf anything.

We’re even okay with the water now. It has warmed to a whopping fifty degrees, maybe fifty-one. Most of us dive right in or have discovered ways to acclimate quickly. And while we’re not running around a la Garden of Eden, nobody is shy anymore about bathing in public. It’s just us, after all. The only people left on Earth, laughing in the sun at the base of ancient cliffs, not a care in the world. It’s all good.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Enjoying a peaceful moment.

Life for us consists of lazy lounging and hard work, scrumptious food and vigorous hikes. There is boisterous group camaraderie and deep private conversations, families bonding and new friends discovering similarities. The only tech in sight is cameras trying to capture what will not be caught. In a word, paradise.

But paradise is not without challenges.

One of our many side excursions takes us to Elves Chasm, a shady grotto at the end of a small climbing expedition. An enchanted pool awaits us, fed by a curtain of silver water and surrounded by blankets of moss. It takes no effort at all to imagine magical portals and mystical creatures here. You can almost see them in the shimmering mists.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Contemplating the leap.

Our guides lead the way, swimming into the cave at the fall’s base and clambering through the slippery rocks to the lip of the fall. It looks so much higher from up here than it did down there, and I regret having come up here. But slip-sliding my way back down past a line of far more courageous people coming up, is not an option.

I leap into the void and…

…whomp into the deep, warm pool. I land the way I jump: flailing and without grace. My sinuses flood. My ears pop. I’m not having fun. But I slog out, knowing that I managed to swallow my fears and meet the challenge. The canyon is pushing me places I never thought I could go.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Bouncing down the Little Colorado

A much happier experience is the Little Colorado River. We pull up to its mouth and march along the shore to where the water flows between worn rocks like a mint green, velvet ribbon and feels just as soft and warm. Wearing our life jackets, we splash in, giddy, and hold on to each others’ legs. We’re a string of human pearls riffling down the current, shrieking, giggling and gurgling as we go. We do it again, try it solo, and with a tube our guides have brought. When it’s time to return to the rafts, we let the current carry us there, drifting in the cool green beneath a sapphire blue sky.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Silence wrapped in rocks.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Another party of rafts enjoying a rest by a spring.

Then there is Blackhorn Canyon. This narrow chasm is Navajo sacred ground, and the striated walls look like a flowing liquid that has been suspended in time. On account of its structure, no sound from the outside world can penetrate here. The silence is absolute and mythical. We sit, completely still, looking, feeling, sensing the spirit of the place seep into our minds, our skin, our bones.


Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Exploring a side canyon.

At one point, the other raft comes down with a failed engine after one of the more violent rapids. We hover nearby as they spin in an eddy, the captain and his swamper struggling to coax it back to life. They manage to get it working long enough to get to the next campsite. While we set up our camps, the crews get busy replacing the obstinate machine. We carry 6 engines and 6 toilets—covered for every emergency.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

Enjoying a rest during a hike.

I’m a bit banged up myself from all the unaccustomed exertion and reach for the ibuprofen. While I wait for the pills to kick in, I lounge on my cot and listen to the camp kitchen clattering with prep for a Spaghetti dinner. A largish lizard approaches my discarded sandals, curious, and the air is alive with tiny, flitting ghosts—bats. I think of them as bug patrol. All the pesky stinging things have disappeared.

To my right a pair of ladies from Texas relaxes with books—poetry for one, a political memoir for the other. Just beyond their camp are a woman and her teenage son. This trip is his high school graduation present from mom, and they are bonding beautifully on this wilderness adventure.

Grand Canyon - SK Ryder

This will work up a sweat!

To my left, clothes dry in the sage, and beyond those a grandmother discusses the meaning of life with her grandson in a thoughtful, unhurried conversation I can’t imagine happening anywhere but here.

Our resident celebrity gossip columnist, who has been dishing the sort of dirt that even he will never print, is busy cleaning out his day pack. The creature that has decided to use it as a toilet was most likely a ring-tailed cat. Someone else’s brush with wildlife involves a crow that pulled open the zipper on his duffel and helped itself to a granola bar tucked away inside.

Guitar notes and singing drift from somewhere, fading sometimes before being followed by laughter. Far above, and even farther in the distance, the canyon cliffs are still a-glow in the sun’s last heat. We are surrounded. We are at peace.

And the lizard has moved into my shoe.

Categories: Adventure Travel and Travel.