Swirling Through Canyon Rapids

I LEANED waterward until my little boat rolled effortlessly upside down and I sat hanging from my seat underwater. My instructor's words just before I tipped stayed with me. ``Relax. Hang on for a bit.'' Relax I didn't. But I made myself go through the series of three thumps and three sweeps we were to do with our hands above water on the bottom of the boat before we began our exit. The thumps were a signal to the others that a boatmate was under. The sweeps were to practice feeling for the bow nose of another kayaker.

Later we would learn how to brace against this nose and right ourselves with a quick hip snap. And eventually, our instructors promised, we would learn to roll right side up on our own.

But first we had to learn the less glamorous ``wet exit.'' After a hurried final two sweeps, I pulled the strap that released my spray skirt, pushed my palms against the rim of the boat's opening to allow my legs to shimmy out, and poked my head above water. With this, I was allowed to move on down the river.

The thrill of learning how to ride the rapids and to read the river was what lured me to a six-day kayaking trip down 72 miles of the Green River in eastern Utah.

But I soon found that the less exciting, gentler moments of simply floating down the lazy stretches of this river meant more to me. I had time to contemplate the questions that traveling through canyons inspired.

Why did this canyon called Desolation evoke so much peace inside me? Why did I relish a place that nourishes only those forms of life that adapt to the bareness of rock and sand; a place where man can take nothing for granted, not even a basic form of sustenance such as pure water?

Occasionally as I traveled downriver, I let my boat swirl around sideways so that I could gaze back at the canyon walls encasing me. The solid, wide bases rose up starkly from water that glistened silver on silty brown in the sun.

The sandstone gradually sloped away from the river and upward, sometimes in stair-step fashion, with sedimentary bands of vanilla, peach, and rust announcing each step, and sometimes in steep cliffs, like castle walls, varnished with purple and amber mineral streaks. On top the rims flattened into high plateaus or else they pinnacled into knobby buttes, arches, balancing rocks, or clusters of spires that jutted up into the sky.

I eventually stopped longing for a camera and reveled in the moment. Trying to capture the expanse of arid beauty that enveloped me seemed useless, like trying to fit a monument in a paper bag.

Way up in the distance, I could see Slater and Mike, our instructors. Their paddles bobbed up and down like tiny red and white seesaws, and their boat tails swayed gently with the rhythm of their hips as they stroked to one side and then to the other. We humans seemed an almost insignificant presence among such commanding bodies of rock and water.

During our first morning on the river we saw two great blue herons standing lank-legged on an island. As we came closer, one lifted gracefully off. After the herons, I felt on edge, poised to catch the slightest whisper of wildlife around me. Throughout the day, I was rewarded.

A golden eagle soared above the canyon rim, its wings dark underneath and spanning wide. Catfish whiskers broke the water beside me. The fish feasted on the flies that floated in circles on a quiet spot of river.

Mule deer ventured out where they blended with the ash gray of the boulders along the shore. Chukar partridge pecked gravel under the cottonwoods that lined the bank. A canyon wren called from somewhere above, its lovely descending notes sounding as if they were falling, gently as feathers, from the cliff tops.

Dusk and dawn found me on the beach. In the evening I watched the darkening bowl above me fill with thousands of intense, scattered specks of light, and in the morning I saw the first pearl pink glow seep through the jagged breaks in the rimrock. Those sunrises always spurred new insights.

HOW many times, I wondered as I dumped silty water and mice from my kayak one morning, do I allow myself during a year to get out to a place where I am encouraged to forget about daily chores and deadlines; where time is measured not by hours in the day, but by the geologic eons I see as colored bands of layered rock; where I am reminded that outside of my own very limited view of the world that revolves around offices and grocery stores, next week's appointments and tonight's dinner, is a very different place with its own hierarchy, texture, and pace?

I felt exuberant, truly alive, in Desolation Canyon. Maybe this was because I was forced to face the desert environment's extremes, to taste its glory and take its tests, just like any other creature who wanders within its borders.

One afternoon as hefty breezes began to funnel through the canyon, we saw storm clouds edge over the cliff tops. A head wind slowed us to a stop and then nearly blew us back upstream despite our vigorous paddling.

We finally pulled up to a bank as wind-chilled drops of rain fell. We stripped off the wettest of our gear and shivered inside grottos while we waited for our raft to appear with dry pants and sweaters.

On another day the heat made us want to wilt away from the burning sand. We sought tiny bits of shade under the scanty tamarisk trees and watched lizards scramble on deadwood.

Astounding things happen in places like Desolation Canyon and man is rarely there to witness them. Once we passed driftwood scattered on a boulder that towered eight feet above us. The wood had been deposited by a river much higher than the one we paddled on. Below we splashed through a rapid that had formed the year before when a flash flood in a side canyon carried great boulders into the main torrent.

As we were paddling lazily downstream on our final day, we felt a slight rumble beneath our kayaks and glimpsed a heavy cloud of dust floating downward from a high wall in a side canyon. In the few seconds that it took us to round a bend so that we could see clearly into the canyon, the rock that had caused the rumble and dust was down.

Mike was elated. He had traveled through many a canyon and had never even partly witnessed a boulder falling of its own volition. I wondered if the others, like me, were asking silent questions that we would never know the answers to: How many years had that great fallen rock been part of the canyon wall? What transformations had it undergone? What made it fall just now?

How I wished for an extra day in the desert as we paddled our last mile! But I'll be back. I've now mastered a calm wet exit, and I've begun to learn to roll. Next summer I'll slither again into a kayak to build new river skills and I'll return to the canyons to ponder fresh questions.

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