Part I: Birthday Wishes and Wilderness Trek
A couple of years ago my wife and I made a promise to our two daughters: For their 16th birthday, we would take them on a trip of their choosing, anywhere within the Continental United States. As our oldest daughter, Julia Rose, began to contemplate that choice–the impending urgency signaled by driving lessons and a learner’s permit–the possibilities ranged from Disneyworld to New York City to an Alaskan cruise, among others. But last summer she was inspired by our week-long backpacking trip to Colorado, Wilderness Trek, where with a group of teenage friends from our church, three other adults, and a couple of guides, we backpacked into the wilderness south of Mt. Silverheels, a 13,800 foot peak near Boreas Pass, accessible from Fairplay and South Park. It was a transformative experience for Julia Rose, one that planted the seeds for a lifetime of wilderness adventure.
In Julia Rose’s own words, she “killed” Trek. While I huffed and puffed and and wrestled my backpack and pushed my fifty-four year old knees toward surgery (and beyone the recent scoping, eventual knee replacement), she used her dance-honed leg muscles and natural athleticism to traipse up the mountain, usually alongside or a few paces behind the lead guide, setting the pace. There was nothing about the expedition that she didn’t love, from the hiking at elevation, where she more than once relieved a fellow hiker of the weight of a sleeping bag or a day pack, to bushwhacking from base camp to mountain ridge; from sitting through though thunder and hail storms in a leaky tent, to eating fried spam, pancakes, walking tacos (canned chile and Doritos), breakfast bars, and endless rice dishes. She excelled, always with a smile on her face. By the end of that trip she was making plans to return to Colorado and get a job with Wilderness Expeditions, the company that led us up the mountain. That idea made me very happy.
After Trek we met up with my wife and younger daughter and spent a couple of weeks driving across Colorado and Utah, touring national parks, hiking, and picnicking. Julia Rose got her first taste of whitewater when we paddled rafts through Glenwood Canyon on the Colorado River in Western Colorado. The class III-IV rapids and up to 1300 foot red canyon walls gave her images to go along with my stories about whitewater kayaking and canoeing the whitewater rivers of the Southeast and Southwest. Here, clearly, was another way to spend valuable time in the wilderness. We stopped at a put in for the San Juan River in Utah, in a drizzling rain that made the summer morning cool, and watched a group rig an oar raft for a multiple day trip through the desert canyon country. This river was a long-held dream, and I’m sure my envy was palpable.
We continued south on our vacation, stopping off at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where, from over a mile up and 5 miles away, I watched a group of oar-rafts slip around a curve and bob down a rapid and disappear deeper into the canyon. I thought about their perspective–a mile of canyon walls receding away and above the water, cream and black and red spires and hoodoos holding the dark green of pinyon and juniper lower on the canyon, ranging up to the dark green of ponderosa pine nearer the rim, cloud shadows playing across the canyon walls and shelfs, the cold water heavy laden with silt, the speed and bob of the raft and the sound of the next rapid growing around the bend, the river dropping off the horizon at the top of the rapid, the roller coaster climb and plunge and spray and baptism of 8 and ten foot standing waves crashing over the raft, the deep dry of 120 degree days at 20 percent humidity, the sound of birdsong and the darting swifts and kingfishers, the ducks and geese, and the wading herons.
We drove out of the national park and wound through the desert, crossing the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry, where we watched the creamy brown water of the narrow Paria River merge with the sea green Colorado River flowing out of Glen Canyon, a good forty yards wide at this point. The tiny flow of the Paria ran parallel with the Colorado for a couple hundred yards, slowing turning the larger river a silty brown as it prepared to enter Marble Canyon.
We parked at the put-in for the Grand Canyon and watched boat men and women inflating, outfitting, and rigging everything from 16 foot oar-rafts to monster dual outboard rigs, 40 feet long and Evinrude powered. I jumped out of the car and ran around like a kid let loose on a major league ballfield during batting practice, wading in the cold water and taking pictures, never wanting anything so much as to climb on a raft and go down the canyon. It’s been a bucket-list dream since 1987, on a raft supported kayak trip down the Dolores River from Colorado to Utah, when I heard river guides talking about the grail of river trips, the Colorado.
Something about that sight touched Julia Rose, and it wasn’t long before she was naming her Sweet Sixteen trip, rafting the Colorado into the Grand Canyon, accompanied by her father, of course.