Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
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Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

Here at Rustic Pathways, adventure comes in all shapes in sizes. Whether your adventure is teaching English in India, learning to surf in Costa Rica, or building a new school in the Fijian Highlands, the common thread that ties each of us together is our pursuit of the unknown. During the summer of 2015, while excited Rustic Pathways students were packing their bags to write their own adventure, I headed off in a different direction, to meet the place where the earth meets the sky. My destination—Lee’s Ferry. The date—August 9th, 2015. My goal—to paddle the Colorado River through the heart of the Grand Canyon.

From the trickling headwaters in the Never Summer Wilderness in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River begins its meandering journey at 14,000 ft. above sea level before crashing down onto Colorado’s Western Slope, through the red-rock country of Utah, between the sun-scorched banks of Lake Powell, into Lake Mead and onwards toward the Gulf of California. Draining a land area of enormous proportions, the Colorado River is the heart of the American West, providing water to millions and life to a region that would not be able to support it otherwise.

Although spectacular from beginning to end, the highlight of this River’s journey are the 286 miles between the towering walls of the Glen Canyon Dam and the Grand Wash Cliffs that collectively make up one of the seven Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon. From the first descent of the Canyon by John Wesley Powell in 1869, this section of the Colorado River has taken its rightful place as the world’s hegemonic whitewater experience. To paddle the Grand Canyon is the equivalent of summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania or spending three weeks in the wilderness of rural Laos—a challenge for mind, body, and heart.

Upon arrival to Lee’s Ferry, you know you are someplace special. This is the only spot below Lake Powell where you can access the Colorado River by road for the next 220 miles. Cottonwood trees line the banks, the river runs clear and cold, and depending on the time of year, the horizon is spotted with clouds ready to burst forth with life-bringing rain. Walking upstream 100 yards will take you to the boat beach, the famed put-in for the Grand Canyon. Depending on the time of day, you will find dozens of boats and adventures laboring tirelessly in the Arizona sunshine working to find the perfect en-fleek rig for their gear. For all intents and purposes, a river runner could stay here for a lifetime and be content.

For a river person though, this is not where the journey begins. A trip down the Colorado River does not happen overnight. Instead, to pull off a trip through the cathedral of giants, it takes calculated planning and the work of an entire team of people to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. The joy and enthusiasm of my team was infectious. 

In the long-standing tradition of Grand Canyon river runners, it is assumed that before starting off into the Grand Canyon you share a meal together as a team at the famed Marble Canyon Lodge. The lodge, on the hill above the Ferry, is a legend in itself. The walls of the café are lined with photos of adventurers past and present. Similar to the Eco-Lodge in Fiji or the Volcano Rainforest Service Base in Costa Rica, the Marble Canyon Lodge is bursting at the seams with the memories and stories of those who have had the opportunity to spend time pursuing their own personal adventure. For the Grand Canyon novice, these photos invoke feelings of fear and joy; the famous boat flip in Crystal Rapid that landed on the cover of Time Magazine, epic river runners tackling the largest of the canyon waves in wooden dories, boats caught on rocks so large it takes a complete surge of the river to break your craft free. The common thread found beneath each frame is that the Colorado River is the real legend here. Carving the Grand Canyon, she is the one force that is constant and here to stay.

After a satisfying dinner and a welcome summer rainstorm, our team headed back down to Lee’s Ferry where we settled in for the night. The familiar sound of laughter gave way to the cathartic whisper of the river as she rocked my team and me to sleep in preparation for the next day’s launch and the collective fulfillment of thousands of hours of dreaming and preparation. As I drifted into my dreams, I kept reminding myself that this is my journey. The river is my adventure and where I belong.

For me, this summer’s journey was found in the current of the river and Lee’s Ferry represents an important place amongst those who fear to tread down the Colorado. For any adventurer, a journey of self is sustained by a melodious dance between the realities of everyday existence and challenged by the possibilities of what life can be.

In the words of Lynn Noel, “the first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.” Whether your adventure is service, cultural understanding, learning a new language, or in my case tackling one of the largest rivers in the world, our awareness creates an inclusive community woven together by our stories and collective mission of setting sail into the unknown to find knowledge through experience. As we all continue to develop, grow, and sustain our place in the world, never forget the joy is in the journey and adventure is always at your fingertips. All you have to do is reach out and grab it.


About the Author

Dustin Aschenbeck