The Journey Essay: Take Me To The River

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Essay and Photos by Raechel Running
Just below the south rim, Arizona River Runner guide, Amber looks downstream from the Unkar Overlook toward the Inner Gorge of Grand Canyon.

Just below the south rim, Arizona River Runner guide, Amber looks downstream from the Unkar Overlook toward the Inner Gorge of Grand Canyon.

The canyon ascends and recedes in layers of azure blue shadows. The reflections of towering red wall breaks apart in dancing patterns on the river and blue sky — golden lines merge, disappear, then turn silver — a dark line splintering against soft white foam. Like the changing seasons of our lives, the river changes colors from clear emerald green, then red, then brown as iced mocha, then clear again. The river constantly changes and we never experience the same river twice.

Exploring the river can be done in a day, a week or three weeks. If you add all the rapids in the Grand Canyon’s 280 mile length, all the excitement of white water would be less than 15 minutes long. Some see the Grand Canyon as a natural wonder, others as a religious experience, and some, like me, the canyon as our home. My first trip was the summer I turned 12 when I spent three weeks on a youth outing. My parents were separating, I was entering awkward teenage years, and change was inevitable just around the bend. Since that first trip over 35 years ago I have been listening to the river. Over the years I’ve met many people who have traveled through the canyon. They shared their passions and read us philosophy, geology journals, cowboy poems; played guitars; cooked great food; knew how to row downstream in an upstream wind. From these river jockeys we youngsters learned how to read the water at the different stages of life.

It’s not an uncommon question from passengers to the seasoned guide, “Have you ever flipped a boat?” With a dip of an oar and a coyote like sly glance downstream, the answer is humble and they remain in the grace of the river Gods. Like life, a flip is a given, it’s not if but when. I listen to the wind, “Face your danger. Keep it straight. Keep your angle. Should you find yourself in the water, actively participate in your own rescue… And don’t give up… get it right!”

When faced with adversity, spontaneous singing and hoots have occurred from the boatman. Upon entering Lava Falls one looks up for the eye of Oden for good luck. I grip the oars and squint into the blinding sun. I search for the bubble line — an almost indiscernible line that is the key to threading the needle in the midst of chaos below. I am gliding into chaos. I line up and hit it straight with feeling.

Our natural wonder is our neighborhood of good will. Trips begin and end. A fellow traveler told me, “Relationships are like campsites, we should leave them better than we found them.” People come and go but their presence remains. I have witnessed the silhouettes of our human family through the ages along the river’s shores. For many retired visitors it’s their first time sleeping under the stars. Moments like memories come in waves, overlapping and braid in the currents of the life stream. People don’t expect the effects of the long quiet stretches on either side of the rapids until they return home. All and all, running the canyon is about helping people, these newly formed tribes, find their place in the world like stones washed upon the shore. In this grand place we live, the idea of stewardship for each other and to discover the true legacies inspired by the wild places in nature and within ourselves. No matter their age or status in life, the river teaches humility and understanding that the journey is the destination. Some people know it will be their first and only trip on their Bucket List. Others will come back again, for one more run or a hundred more. I still think of a woman cancer survivor I met years ago. She quietly asked if she could have a moment to be alone and stand naked under the waterfall. When she rejoined us she was radiant with tears of joy. Those who knew her story also smiled with tears in their eyes. In a few days people celebrate, dance, share life stories, explore and experience a new vision of the world. Together they have overcome their fears of water, heights, and death. They explore the depths of their own lives and join the conversations of the river flowing by.

Thousands have camped along these shores but the only signs are their footprints in the sand. No trash, not even a cigarette butt or plastic bag. People learn stewardship and kinship in this extreme landscape. Trust is given, the guiding presence of hands reaching out to help one another across a cliff face; an older man offers a steady arm fording a rushing stream; people heave ho and right a capsized boat in winter cold. People’s faces become weather worn, sun kissed. With each day, week, the light in their eyes grows brighter. I have seen people break down from dehydration; and from their fear of the unknown and the sheer profound beauty of it all.

A river trip of volunteers work together to right a flipped boat  after a unexpected swim at Crystal Rapid on a winter's day.

A river trip of volunteers work together to right a flipped boat
after a unexpected swim at Crystal Rapid on a winter’s day.

Like the river, life doesn’t move linearly but rather cyclically. More years go by and I find myself cycling back to the touchstones along the way. Again I am on a familiar shore, looking down steam. People and boats are small insignificant dots bathed in golden light; with a circle of chairs a community is being made. Dinner is simmering, aromas rising and strangers-now-friends visit, helping one another with camp chores. They pause and look upstream. It is enough to just sit on a rock, and contemplate the symphony of nature, the crescendo of a canyon wren and human laughter echoing across the water. A low moan of a saxophone note catches the air and lingers just like a raven’s line of flight. Don’t wait too long before you sleep under the stars.



Raechel Running has run close to a hundred trips through the canyon as a river support cook. Running has been documenting visual stories of the Southwest and the US/Mexico borderlands of Chihuahua and Sonora Mexico since 2007. Recently transplanted to Barrio Viejo, she looks forward to watching her new garden grow and calling Tucson home.

Posted in Tailwinds