How You Will See the Canyon with Fresh Eyes

By Mike Bezemek

A note to my younger self—and to all river runners with ambitions for running the Grand Canyon

You are a 19-year-old college misfit encamped at the foot of Hance Rapid during a college backpacking trip. It’s September 2000, and you wear a faded thrift-store tee-shirt, torn shorts, and a red bandanna, like you were headed for Burning Man but took a wrong turn outside Vegas.

You kind of think yourself a bad-ass. Who am I to disagree.

A few minutes ago, while pumping water, you watched a raft group bucking and twisting between red shale walls. Bright yellow rubber in frothing blue water. Crashing waves. What you’ll soon call oh-shit holes. You will know one thing—you want to do what they can do. In six months, you’ll be a whitewater guide.

The Younger Self: Mike Bezemek in 2000.

A thousand thanks for this choice. It’s going to change our life.

There’s so much I want to tell you. Let me say this. Right now, you’re in love with this canyon. You think you’ll come back every year. Hike rim to rim to rim. Raft and kayak the river every summer. I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. You won’t return for 15 years.

Scouting as a team.

When you do come back, it won’t be how you imagine. The dead of winter, rowing the lead raft in a seven-person team. None of you will have ever boated the canyon before. This “fresh eyes” descent will seem like a good idea when you first suggested it two years before. But by the time you reach Hance on Day 8, you won’t be so sure. Shivering from an icy wind. Toes tingling in soaked shoes. Hands cracked, scabbed, and bleeding. Body aching from rigging, lifting, hauling gear up and down beaches. Snow on the rim high above.

As you enter the rapid, you’ll glance at the ledge where we camped and see yourself as a young man. You’ll realize you’re terrified. You’ve enlarged this moment in your mind for 15 years. During that moment of distraction, you’ll botch your entry, clip a hole, and begin to spin. Hyperventilating, you’ll fall back and yank on the oars to get straight, staring down at holes bigger than you’ve ever seen. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, I want you to know you won’t be so lonely once you’re a paddler. You’ll feel like you finally belong somewhere. You’ll meet a girl, a rookie guide like you. Together you’ll captain rafts, learn to kayak—more like swim—Class III. Once the river dries up, you’ll see places only previously imagined. Explore the Pacific Northwest, backpack the high Sierras, paddle in the Sea of Cortez. As the semester approaches, you can’t imagine doing anything else. So you’ll both quit college and many part-time jobs, take your meager savings and travel through Europe.

On the summit of Stromboli—a little-known Mediterranean volcano—you’ll watch a fiery eruption and realize a possible path. Study geology, maybe become a science journalist. But on the descent, you’re going to slip and fall. This will injure an unknown weakness in your back. A disc is going to rupture and pierce your sciatic nerve. You won’t live another day without pain. Eighteen months of soft-focus goals will vanish in an instant. So much for being a professional year-round guide—circuiting the world from the Grand to Chile to New Zealand to Africa. This is not going to be an easy time for you.

River-mile 61: Soaking in the sun at the Little Colorado confluence

Some doctors will tell you that your days of adventuring are over at an exceptionally young age. Bad luck, they’ll say. Find a mellower passion. I don’t need to tell you to ignore them—you were never good at listening, anyways. It’s going to take time, but you’ll adapt. You’ll quit rowing the gear raft and instead paddle-captain technical Sierra runs. You’ll learn to get down rivers with the least guide strokes and fewest hits possible. It’s going to be five years before you can sit in a kayak without pain running down into the tip of your toe, but you’ll be kayaking again by 25.

This won’t be a surprise: your life will be filled with meanders. You’ll bounce from job to job for years, unsure what you want. Always on the move. Friends and family will think you’re crazy when you leave California and a nascent science career for the Midwest with a scholarship to a writing program. In the Ozarks—a place you don’t even know exists yet—you’ll make lifelong friends. You’ll paddle with them across the inner highlands, and from the Rockies to the Appalachians. It will be with them you enter Marble Canyon in late December.

By this point, you’ll have grown so much. For one, you’ll be able to laugh at yourself. And let’s be honest. You do some pretty silly things.

The morning before you put-on, as you wait for the ranger to come check out your trip, you’ll see what looks like toothpaste on the low-water beach and pour buckets of water until it’s gone. Later that day, you’ll see toothpaste stains on riverside rocks. Toothpaste on the beaches and the cliffs. Toothpaste dropping from the ravens circling above. That’s right, you’re gonna clean raven shit off the beach at Lee’s Ferry.

You’ll change in other ways, too. You won’t push people away so much. You’ll learn how to listen—not just to others, but to song lyrics. Plus discipline. Moderation (somewhat). How to manage your pain. You’ll stop taking things out on others. You’ll still be pretty hard on yourself, but at least now you won’t let that prevent you from pursuing your goals. Sure, you’ll never entirely outrun the sadness that follows you around, but you’ll control and channel it. You’ll learn to step back and let others lead.

River-mile 52: Downstream view from Nankoweap.

That’s why what happens on Day 1 at Badger—a 4 out of 10 on the Grand Canyon rapid-rating scale and the first rapid of note—will be a challenge for you. For years, you’ve been content to kayak at the back while Hudson and Kev and pretty much anyone else with the itch—young children, drunk grandmothers, errant ducks, random driftwood—floats past you. As your team approaches Badger, you’ll be near the back, taking photos. Hudson will ask about boat order, and you’ll casually wave him on, saying, “No big deal.”

While you’re stashing your camera, a cup will fall from Emma’s boat and float downstream. Hud’s wife Jesse will casually lean over to grab it, slip from the tube, and be swept into the rapid. Caught unprepared, her life jacket will loosely fly up over her shoulders. Wearing dry-pants with no top, she’ll take on 50 gallons of water and sink to her fingertips. Hudson will drop his oars and dive in after his wife, pushing her to shore.

Your first notice of trouble will be the whistle blasts, looking up to see Jesse on shore sobbing and screaming, “We lost the boat.” A hundred feet downstream, Hudson scrambling onto rocks, minus a boot. An empty raft floating around the corner.

After you send Hudson down in his kayak to corral the stray boat, and after Cole help Jesse cross a talus slope, you’ll recognize this as a wake-up call. You’ll circle everyone up to talk safety and boat order and spacing. You’ll drop first into every subsequent rapid. You’ll eddy brake when you need to tighten the group and thread the pools when miles are needed. You’ll stand on deck and yell things that don’t come naturally, like “Let’s tighten our spacing,” or, “Is everyone battened?” Battened is not a word you’ve ever used before. You’ll tap your head and make eddy signals and below every rapid watch until each boat is safely through. You’ll scan people’s layering and personal gear when they’re not looking. You’ll watch constantly for signs of hypothermia. This trip is going to wake you up, make you feel 19 again.

Remarkably, the team won’t have any real problems after Badger. Flopped on your back, you’ll get straight and left at Hance—and so will everyone else. Riding up front, Cole will get socked at Sockdolager. You’ll split the horns and clip the hole at Horn Creek. You’ll ride the waves at Granite, lose a contact lens from a splash, and get eddied for 5 minutes, but nothing worse. You’ll thread the 5th and 7th holes at Hermit. You’ll point and shoot center-left at Crystal. You’ll spin in Lava, but straighten just in time to come through. Each rapid will provide a shot of confidence to your arms, which will burn early, cramp on day 5, then grow stronger with each rapid.

Kev kayaked the whole river. Like a boss.

Kev will kayak the whole thing like a boss—his only two flips coming in flat water. One, when Emma’s stern-line comes loose and gets caught in a rock, stopping her raft, knocking Kev’s paddle from his hands, and flipping him underneath. After Emma cuts the rope, Kev will float out from underneath and hit his hand-roll. Kev’s second flip? Trying to save a beer.

You’ll make plenty of small mistakes—all of you.

You’ll kick yourself for missing the eddy at MatKat. So, when Emma and Tiffany give you shit, you’ll let them go first at Havasu, and they’ll miss that eddy. You’ll lose items daily, break three headlamps, mis-pack the kitchen box, forget where you put 50 limes for ten full days. Thirty craft beers will explode by Day 4, and a profound moment of silence will be held by all. Then you’ll repack every remaining beer.

You’ll have such an excess of condiments—bottles of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, vinaigrette—that they’ll randomly fall from boxes, bags, buckets, pockets. Your 18-foot raft will essentially be a grocery barge capable of producing endless quantifies of dirt-bag Thousand Island.

You will beach so many rafts, you could write a book about how to regularly beach boats just so you can practice all the ways to get them back into the water by noon.

Taking shelter under the Canyon Walls (Photo by Curtis Ahlers)

For ten days, as everyone fatigues, you’ll observe the groover moving progressively closer to camp. You’ll realize if you don’t say something, soon Kev will be putting it in the kitchen. When you raise the issue, Kev will defiantly move the groover about 1/8 mile from camp. For 16 hours, everyone will scowl at you as they scramble across a boulder bar. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Early in the trip, in absence of experience, folks will try to fill the knowledge vacuum with outlandish claims about what the canyon will bring. Moving slowly the first few days, someone will claim there will be no time for layover days—you’ll get three. Facing a headwind in Marble, someone will say there will never be time to hike—once the current picks up, you’ll hike daily. Walled in for several days, another will bid goodbye to the rim—you’ll see it plenty. When the temperature drops on Day 3, people will bury their warm weather clothes—actually, this one is warranted. You’re going to have below-average temps on your trip, but everyone will rise to the occasion.

Signs and symptoms of a winter permit: snow on the rim. 

The crew will blow you away with their positive attitudes, their strength, their kindness, their friendship. Cole and Tiffany with their enthusiasm. Emma with her bravery. Kev with his humor. Hudson with his knowledge. Jesse with her decision not to fall out of any more rafts (and resilience). There won’t be a single argument. You’re all going to bond like you can’t even imagine now.

For 21 days, the seven of you will move down river together. Peering around corners, scanning horizon lines, reading geologic strata like sentences from a book, chasing patches of sun that slip between outcrops and move away as soon as you catch them. You won’t see another boater for 12 days, then again for seven more. This will be the most removed you’ve ever felt.

You’ll all be blasted by sand until your skin is raw, yet everyone will smile about it. Sand will invade every dry bag, tent, mummy sack, drysuit, every ear and eye. You’ll say, “Hello, old friend,” when sand peppers your mouth when chewing food, when sand swirls at the bottom of your cup, when sand helps you brush your teeth before bed.

You’ll watch bald eagles soar and herons swoop and big horn sheep trot. You’ll count barrel cacti rising from the earth like fingers. You’ll look into the baby blue waters of the Little Colorado. You’ll squint through driving rain that will come sideways up river. You’ll gaze at stars, on clear nights, that could pop a raft. And after the fire has dimmed, you’ll watch the shadowy shoulders and heads of ridge-tops and buttes and mesas outlined in moonlight. They’ll look like silhouettes of Roman gods peering down on your camp. Even these gods will seem jealous. You are a lucky bunch of people.

You’ll hike to ruins, pictographs, granaries, overlooks, and waterfalls. You’ll realize that you all tend to pick places based on the sensuality of their names. Ooh-ahh Point. Elves Chasm. Mollie’s Nipple.

You’re all going to regress into kids down there. Jokes about sex and the groover will become the norm. Euphemisms for male and female genitalia will work their way into most conversations. You’ll sing songs, not just around the campfire, but on the rafts every day. You’ll take well-known favorites and inject the lyrics with—what else? The Sound of Sandiness. Sand by Me. Here Comes the Sand.

When you take out after 21 days, it will feel surreal. You’ll be so sad to go. The shuttle truck will feel foreign and stiff. The traffic lights bright and cold. The flat roadway unreal. In your mind, you’ll still be rising and falling with the waves. You’ll drive out of Flagstaff, cross the desert, quiet and pensive.

Once home, you’ll wake at night, convinced you’re in your tent on the canyon. What was that sound? Something falling off a boat? Did a raft pull loose from shore? Better run and check.

People will ask about the trip, but when you try to tell them, you’ll realize it’s almost impossible to share how profound it truly was. They won’t really want to listen, either. So, you’ll get together with your crew, feeling only they can truly understand you now. Know what you’re going through—that you feel haunted by the canyon.

After a few weeks, you’ll understand. It’s not that returning to the canyon changed your life. It already did so at 19, where you now stand on the shore at Hance. This time, the place did something different. Something you weren’t ready for the first time. Yes, you fell in love again. But this time, the canyon took a piece of you, carved it out, and kept it. You’re never getting that piece back. It belongs down there, now. All you can do is visit the part of yourself at river level.

Where you’ll forever be a 19-year-old kid, wide-eyed and waiting. Standing in the middle of the Grand Canyon. Wondering what comes next, and how long you must wait until you return.

— Read more from MIKE BEZEMEK