Stardust at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

Kathy Hrenko

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Standing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon looking upward, you feel simultaneously that you are nothing, just a tiny speck in the universe, and yet part of absolutely everything. Surrounded by these massive rock formations, built of layer upon layer of geological majesty, you know that you are in a holy place. The big open sky envelopes you, yet you gasp for air as the magnitude of the scene steals your breath away. It is in these once-in-a-lifetime moments, that one realizes—perhaps it is true that we are created with elements of stardust.

By all rights, I didn't fit the profile of someone who would or should be hiking down into the Grand Canyon for a whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River. An assessment of skills needed included: hiking experience—I had some; rock climbing and whitewater rafting experience—I had none. The trip was planned in advance by a friend who was checking off a 50th birthday bucket list item. Sure, I'd go. I love nature and this was the perfect motivation to up my fitness game. Naiveté can protect you from all sorts of anxiety.

On day one, when comparing notes with fellow travelers, I soon feared that maybe I was in over my head with this adventure. If I didn't trip and fall hiking down the steep canyon trails plunging to my death, the class 10 whitewater rapids might do the trick. What was I thinking?

Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Emerald, and Serpentine are the beautiful names of the Gem Rapids. Everything changed when we hit the water. Our whitewater rafts were paddled by experienced guides who expertly navigated us through the dangerous waters. Our jobs were simple—hold on and remain in the raft at all times. It was a roller coaster of emotions from horror, as you rapidly approach a massive rock wall, to peacefulness only moments later as you float down the lazy Colorado River. It wasn't long before I recognized that this trip was about much more than spending time in nature. It was about life.

When approaching rapids, it is very calm and everyone is quiet. The river is deep and the muddy, brown water is cold even though the strong sun shimmers and bounces playfully off the surface. You smile in comfort as you close your eyes and turn your face upward to receive the sunshine of a beautiful 80- degree day. "Gear up" is called and you don your rain suit. The guide is planning the appropriate strategy to navigate the waters safely and avoid the obstacles. Each run is unique based upon the weather, water levels, currents, and winds.

When you hit the first big, bone-chilling wave, you hold on tight, gripping the separate hand holds. Your feet are firmly planted, evenly spaced for balance. The key is to relax your knees, elbows, and spine so you can move with the wave. Never fight against it. You have to give yourself over to the strength and
power of the river. At its true peak, you are both fearful that at any moment you could be crushed against a huge boulder and jubilant to be on the best amusement park ride of your life! Sometimes you get banged around, bruised and cut up. It's painful and challenging, but you hold on tight and take your lumps because the ride is just too exhilarating to miss. Yep, it's sort of like life.

Exiting the rapids, your laughter is uncontrollable. Once you catch your breath, a moment of existential seriousness returns as you thank your guide for her expertise and thank God and the river for allowing you to travel safely on this journey. Our guides often spoke with reverence about their deep respect for nature, the river, and the mountains and cliffs. You are just a brief visitor who will leave no trace when you go. Lacking cell service and reliant on a satellite phone, you are acutely aware that any injury or health emergency could be a true crisis. Due to the wind currents in the canyon, flying a rescue helicopter puts a pilot in a dangerous position. Just as you hiked down into the canyon, so too you must climb back out.

We executed extraordinary climbing feats over those nine days and looked at millions of beautiful stars in the clear, midnight blue, Arizona sky. We survived Lava Falls which is noted to be one of the most notorious rapids in the world. What does it mean to say that we navigated the biggest rapids in the Grand Canyon, falling 37 feet over the span of several yards, avoiding first Big Black Rock and then Ledge Hole? Respect and humility come to mind. It is in nature that we learn the "stuff" with which we are made—strength, courage and definitely some stardust mixed in for good luck.


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