Safety experts say that every big accident is bracketed by lots of near-misses. You stomp on the brakes, your pulse spikes, and everything seems to slow down as you prepare for impact. The adrenaline in your bloodstream leaves a strange metallic aftertaste. You realize how quickly everything could change, and that your perch on the planet is really quite fragile. Then it wears off.
We pulled in around 5pm on Day 15 to make the last camp of the trip. It was still unreasonably hot, so everyone but the cooks headed for the river after hauling the gear onto the beach. Tania took her bathing suit out of her dry bag and when she slipped it on, she felt a sharp pain on her thigh. She swatted the spot, felt a second pain, and then saw something translucent and brown fall onto the sand.
Another thing safety experts say is that when something ominous happens, the most important thing is not to panic. So she didn’t: she called me over and said, with excessive calm, “I think I’ve been bitten by a scorpion.” I took a look at the critter, trapped it with a plastic cup, and called for the medic. Christie checked her book and confirmed that it was an Arizona Bark Scorpion, the dangerous kind, and that it had stung Tania twice. Then everything slowed down.
There wasn’t much to do except watch. The sting of a bark scorpion is a neurotoxin that causes pain, numbness and swelling which is worst at the puncture, but which can also escalate into whole-body symptoms like tingling, blurred vision, muscle twitching, drooling, sweating, vomiting, and dramatic swings in blood pressure and heart rate. We would know how bad it would be in a few minutes.
We were only five miles from a road, and there was only a small chance that this would become a life-threatening situation. Rod, Peter, Christie and I decided that if Tania’s symptoms escalated, someone would row her down to Diamond Creek—a trip that would take about an hour and 15 minutes—while Peter called for an ambulance on the satellite phone. The EMTs would arrive with the antivenom about the same time we pulled in. That was the best we could do.
Everyone else got back to making dinner. Christie, Tania and I went to the river; Christie applied a suction cup to the punctures and told Tania to soak her ass in cold water. Evening was coming on. Tania and I couldn’t find much to talk about, so we watched the afternoon light play on the rocks one last time. We stayed close to each other, and we waited. After twenty minutes or so, Tania said that the feeling on her thigh was like a wasp sting. She also felt tingling in her lips, toes, scalp, and fingertips, which was annoying but not disorienting. She was fortunate that the creature had been wrapped up in her bathing suit for a couple of days. He was probably weak and dizzy, and he didn’t get a good shot at her before she brushed him off.
We ate with the group and went to bed as soon as we could, skipping the final celebration. They were within striking distance of finishing all the beer, and several crew members were determined to achieve that goal. We drifted off listening to their happy voices. As the night crept along, I would wake up every hour or so to check on Tania; she was sleeping more or less normally, and each time I saw her regular breathing and touched her cool forehead, I felt relief and gratitude. The stars were so brilliant and the sky was so deep. I didn’t know when I would see a sky like that again.
We had spent more than two weeks in an environment that was incredibly beautiful but also incredibly hostile and many hours away from a hospital. We were in dangerous spots several times a day, and were constantly on guard against a long list of perils, from heat stroke to medical-grade sunburn, snakes, falls, a virus that would give you several days of violent diarrhea and vomiting, drowning, and of course, scorpions. Tania’s sting was the closest our group came to calling for a helicopter, but we had taken thousands of chances. I felt awe and gratitude for everything I had seen, but I also had an undeniable eagerness to get back to a place where mayhem didn’t seem so close.
The truck and van that would take us back to Flagstaff was scheduled to arrive at 11am. Unlike Tim, Pedro, and several others, I did not battle a hangover. Tania woke up basically OK, although her tingling sensations remained uncomfortable for almost a week. Still, we cooked and ate our last meal together, washed, and packed efficiently, then paused for the day’s instructions before pushing off. Peter started by thanking Tania for surviving, and then he thanked all of us for making the trip so successful, enormously so, he said, and then he started to choke up, so we cut him off by giving him three cheers, like the experienced expedition team we had become. Then we were off to enjoy our last hour on the river.
Leading the trip was a stretch for Peter. He has superior wilderness skills, but he is also an introverted, detail-oriented person, and it wasn’t easy for him to let things go. I think he saw all the risks we were taking, and those worries weighed on him. He was fortunate to have five other experienced boatmen, but managing them was another burden: they all had their own opinions about how things should run, and this was especially true of Jim. The friction between Peter and his older brother was difficult to watch at times, and I can only imagine how it must have felt for them.
Despite everything, Peter did a fabulous job of planning the trip, with a lot of help from Christie. And every day, on the river, Peter kept things from veering off course in dozens of ways that most of us never noticed, and Christie did the same for Peter. They were both completely unselfish about it. They picked the group, and they were also the biggest reason why we worked together so well.
We stopped for a short hike on river left, where a few rock paintings waited patiently under a rock overhang. We walked up the side trail in a line, past shiny black schist, and I paused to notice my new friends: their patina of suntans and grime, the interesting patterns of male facial hair, and the many stains and rips on their clothes, each one carrying its own story. Next to a drawing of a stick man, a hummingbird had built a small, perfect nest in a tangle of vines.
Soon after we pushed off, Diamond Peak floated into view, and soon after that we pulled into the mouth of Diamond Creek. Tania was doing fine, but she was not up to the hot, hard job that faced us. I insisted that she stay in the shade with our few remaining morsels of perishable food, and I gave her the camera. She took pictures while we tore everything apart.
Like so much of the trip, de-rigging wasn’t easy. We emptied the rafts, including five ammo boxes, each packed with 50 pounds of our shit; five enormous Yeti coolers, some of which still had ice enough to keep cheese, meat, and a few soggy vegetables cold; the heavy steel frames that kept the rafts rigid; the kitchen; a dozen 12-foot oars, plus two spares; all our personal gear; and the rafts themselves, which had to be deflated, which involved lying on top of each section to force the air out, then rolling the vinyl up,
I have always enjoyed demolition. It was interesting to destroy the world we had depended on and throw it all into the back of a truck. But in the heat, there was no way to keep going unless you paused every few minutes to wade into the river. Once near the end, I looked downstream. We were skipping Travertine Canyon (RM 229), the site of yet another memorable waterfall; 232-mile Rapid, which has a feature the book calls “Killer Fang Falls;” Bridge Canyon (235), the site of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a tourist attraction on the rim that locals refer to as “the toilet seat;” and Separation Canyon (240), where three members of John Wesley Powell’s crew abandoned their boats in 1869. They were never seen again. And just two days after they bailed, Powell’s expedition completed its 99-day journey. Today, Separation Canyon is a few miles above the beginning of Lake Mead.
I’m writing this several months after the end of the trip. Shortly after we got home, Tania finally decided to retire. She says that the river permanently changed the way she looks at life.
I’m a self-employed writer, so retirement is a meaningless concept to me. But the trip also reminded me of several important things. First, there’s no substitute for uninterrupted, face-to-face conversation. Over two weeks, I spent upwards of twelve hours a day having direct interactions with 15 people, ten of whom had been total strangers. Tania and I did not know when we would see them again after we went our separate ways. But the canyon had been a crucible for us, and I knew these friendships would last.
It’s ironic to be saying this in a blog, but the most valuable thing I remembered was the value of getting radically, completely unplugged and staying that way. Smartphones and computers are only one part of the problem. Electricity is what really needs to go. It takes several days to retreat deeply into nature, and the rhythms and silences you find there are far more satisfying than anything you might find on a screen. The pictures are better, too.
Quotes of the day:
Tim: “This morning when I threw up into the river, I forgot the strainer.”
Jia: “A girl can only eat so much salami.”
Rod: “Christ died for my sins. If he went to all that trouble, it would be impolite of me not to sin.”
Postscript: I asked my companions to write down their favorite memory of the trip, and got these three replies:
Christie Kroll: “The best moment was the part between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek. But there were two honorable mention moments.
“Second runner-up: at the motel the night before we left for Lee’s Ferry, when dinner plans fell through, everyone jumped in to order pizza. It gave me faith that we had the right people for the trip. If you pick good people, the rest will take care of itself.
“First runner-up: On the little shade beach on day 15, we were waiting out the sun before making camp. Our campsite was only about 100 yards away, but we hadn’t claimed it. Peter looked up and said, “ Here come the commercial rafts,” and everyone panicked before realizing he had played a practical joke. It was hilarious and so out of character for Peter, whom I have lived with for thirty years. You think you know someone…
“And the winner is: river mile 109.5, sitting in a sunny spot along Shinumo Creek.
There’s a picture. We were halfway through the canyon. I had quit thinking about home, I wasn’t thinking about going back. Whatever concerns I had about putting the trip together were gone. Leaning back against the rock in the sun, I was clean and feeling chilled from swimming, the warmth of the sun, sublime. The patter of the waterfall echoed off the walls, punctuated with bits of happy voices.
Life felt so peaceful and so perfect. In that moment everything fell away, or I let it go. Color, sound, sensation, feeling, emotion. It felt very close to enlightenment.”
Jia Carroll: “With the snow falling outside my window and the full return to ‘normal’ life, I just want to say ALL of it was memorable. But here is a more specific memory. By day 8, Gary and I had by this point become the dearest of river companions. We were an unorthodox duo, but a joyful pairing regardless. Gary had navigated the swimming rapid (Grapevine) and the flipper (Horn) with confidence and a read-and-run smile. For the first time in the trip, however, he seemed tense.
“We were heading for Crystal Rapid, the last big one of the day. The last time Gary had been on the river, he had gotten stuck in the rock garden at the bottom of Crystal. He was alone and his fellow boats left him behind, so his only option was risky: he had to get out of the boat and push it off the rock. He succeeded, but for a man who doesn’t like swimming very much, it was an unpleasant memory.
“I told Gary that I had total confidence in him. After all, I have seen him maneuver through tight groves of trees while schussing down a mountain on skis. I had seen him fishtail his way out of a rapid before, too. But the best part of the river is that it doesn’t give you a choice — you have to run all the rapids. So I tied down the water bottles, lashed every loose item to the boat, and held on for adventure.
“It ended up that Crystal was a breeze — Gary ran it perfectly. But what makes this one of my favorite memories is turning around near the end of the rapid and seeing Gary, his wild hair blowing in the wind, oars perfectly positioned, with the BIGGEST grin on his face. He had conquered his fear and here he was, reveling in the joy of sweet success. All I could do was celebrate with him (and snap a quick picture, which you can see here).
“So what did I learn? That you might have more than one chance at a rapid; that you should face your fears; and that you only have one chance at it today, so why not grab the oars and smile the whole way through? There’s always a chance that you will end right side up in the pool at the bottom, more joyful than you ever thought possible. It was Gary’s overwhelming exhilaration and glee that I remember most.”
Tracey Metcalf: “So many ways to answer, so many moments. Was it when I realized I had left my new water shoes at Coal Creek (I’m still kicking myself over that), or when I saved the Monarch butterfly and watched it fly away? Or when I topped Little Bastard rapid in my inflatable kayak and saw that there was nowhere to go? I still wonder how Jim made it through.
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will ever get the canyon out of your system. You have to settle for dreaming and scheming and asking yourself ‘when can I go back?’”