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Hidden Perils of the Grand Canyon

Friday, July 5, 2019

Taking each meticulously timed paddle stroke, I pivot and launch my boat over waves crashing on me from each direction. I stay strong, lean in, and hope the Canyon would not win again. I have been waiting seven years to paddle the Grand Canyon and declared that I would not see it until it was from the river within. The precarious Colorado River. The hardest water that some would ever paddle. It was my time.  

 I could not do the entire three weeks due to work restrictions, so I was to hike in to Phantom Ranch via the South Kaibab Trail to meet my group. Nine miles of sloped meandering trails and I made it. My legs were on fire. My calves in particular. The weeks prior, thinking of my trip, I had worked out heavily on my thighs thinking this would be the part of my body that I would have the most trouble during my hike in. I neglected the calves. I should not have neglected the calves. 

 Finally making it to the floor of the Canyon, I hiked over to Lower Cremation Camp, ecstatic to see my group on the other side of the river. They ferried over a kayak to get me to the other side. Greetings, hugs and introductions welcomed me as I heard stories of the six days prior that I missed. It was great seeing everyone old and new, but it was time to sort my gear and get into river mode. 

 Doing many multi-day trips, I had a system and particular way of gear organizing. My days ahead were going to be tough and enjoyable and I needed to be prepared. I sorted through my clothes separating paddling from camp. I fiddled with my boat, adjusting and preparing it to fit me the way I needed. My best friend, Sandy, lounged on a pad beside me talking about the carnage so far, and the rapids we had ahead. I was in my paradise and my time of greatest concentration. The dichotomy of expeditions. Times of greatest enjoyment and greatest fear. 

 The next morning we woke to see off the people that were leaving the trip and hiking out. Breakfast was made, gear packed and we were off. We stopped shortly at Phantom Ranch to send off postcards, but had several rapids to conquer that day. I was still feeling a little tired and very sore from my three days of travel and hike into the Canyon. My muscles felt weak, and my calves were still screaming. My walk was a wobble as my legs could not bear normal use. The piercing cold water of the river did not make it any better. I was not ready for what was ahead. 

 The Grand Canyon Rating system is 0-10 in difficulty. The first two rapids of the day, were twos, fun little ripples that I floated through without as much as a paddle stroke.  Then we came to Horn Rapid. A solid eight on the scale. Filled with exuberance, I was ready to conquer my first big-water rapid of the Colorado. We pulled off to the right side to scout the rapid and choose our lines. I struggled to stand up out of my boat, and painfully teetered up and down the rocks of the bank to look at the tumultuous water. The right side of the rapid had huge crashing waves that could suck a bus down into its depths. I decided I would hit a little right of center to miss the big right rapids and avoid the larger diagonal curlers coming from the left side. I was fired up and ready to go. I scurried back to my boat to adjust and readjust my seat until it felt the perfect amount of snug. I did the traditional kayaker splashing of water on my face and clenched my paddle in my hands. 

As I peeled out of the eddy the current takes me with much swifter force than I anticipated. Placing each stroke deep into the water and trying with all my might to lever myself across the river, I found I was heading right into the crashing waves on the right, farther over than I had wanted. I made it through the first two waves stabbing my paddle blade into the water with fervor. I was paddling the strongest I could as the walls of water surrounding me hovered well above my tiny kayak. Reaching with each stroke, I felt like a rocket launching straight into the sky.  As I came over the crest of a wave, I burrowed down into the troth of the next, waiting to be skyrocketed upright again. As my boat launched up, the wave crashed down on top of me like a large ocean wave devouring shells on a shoreline, subsequentially tossing my boat and flipping me over. My boat thrashed around as I tried to roll. One attempt, two. The frigid water went screaming through my head causing the most horrific ice cream headache. It condensed my lungs squeezing the breath out of me. I pulled my skirt and fought to the surface for air. Coming up my boat and paddle were beside me and all was ok. Out of breath and the energy sucked out of me, I was floating my way toward the side of the river to recollect my gear and my pride. My paddling crew came up to make sure I was ok. I grabbed onto one friends stern as we drifted into the Canyon wall. A towering sun kissed orange cliff with boils and whirl pools creeped upon us. My friend Brian told me to let go of his stern and I knew the potential for me ahead was grim. I also knew Brian’s safety was at risk if I continued to hold on. Just as I let go,

I got sucked down into a whirlpool that formed. Already exhausted and out of breath from my swim, I got sucked deeper underwater. Fighting to get to the surface, I felt like a ball and chain were preventing me from making any progress. I could see light coming through the water, the small bubbles and glistening of the surface that I couldn’t reach. I was stopping at nothing to get my head near where there was air, but nothing was working. I suddenly realized that my body was about to do what it innately does. I kept telling myself don’t breathe! Don’t breathe! But bodies are designed to take a breath when it needs air. Knowing the breath would fill my lungs up with ice cold river water I tried to stop it. I tried gulping the water instead of breathing it in, but I knew, If I didn’t get air the inevitable would happen. I was at the breaking point. Water was about to enter my lungs, my mouth opened, my body started to take a breath and as the water began to creep in, the river spit me out to the surface just as abruptly as it took me under. I coughed up a bit of the water that I took in and grasped onto anything I could on the vertical wall in front of me. Fearful of letting go and getting sucked back under I clenched onto the wall trying to catch my breath as my friends were yelling if I was ok. They thought they lost me. They were preparing for a lifeless body to emerge from the depths of the Colorado River; The Canyon that within these walls mother nature rears its powerful head. 

            The lesson of never taking nature for granted, and never underestimating the power that it holds is something that every adventurer needs to remember. Our sports take diligence, practice and respect. They take determination and understanding, and sometimes they require just a little bit of luck. 

Amie Begg with pink kayak over shoulder and green werner kayak paddle

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