Courage in the Canyon

by Joanne Glass Keith '63

Courage in the Canyon

Among my least favorite things in the world are roller coaster rides, bungee jumping, and white water rapids. So when my husband signed me up to go down the Colorado River in a dory for 22 days in the spring of 2005, “reluctant” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt.

He was sure he had me hooked, though, because our three kids and their significant others all had been included, and Dennis knew I would go just about anywhere to be with them. They, of course, were ecstatically excited. Their enthusiasm was hardly contagious, however, and for months I dreaded the upcoming river trip, had nightmares about white water, not to mention apprehension about more than three weeks of camping.

My parents had gone down the Colorado River in 1972, and my mom often told me it was one of the best trips they’d ever taken. However, their trip was only half as long as our planned one and was in the heat of the summer, not early spring when it can be cold and rainy and windy.

It didn’t help that I kept hearing stories people had learned from notorious river guides about boats turning over or getting caught in whirl pools, about people drowning, and of course, about the honeymoon couple, Glen and Bessie Hyde, who took a sweep skow down the Colorado in 1928. Their empty wooden boat was found, but they were never seen again.

As the countdown relentlessly rolled on toward the appointed meeting date with our kids at Marble Canyon, just below Glen Canyon Dam, going forward took more courage than I thought I could muster. I tried to concentrate on packing, on figuring out what I would need, on being grateful for a friend who loaned me her four-inch thick Paco pad (an extra-thick camping mattress popular with river guides), and thankful for the super-warm sleeping bag one of our sons loaned me, all the while hanging on to the ongoing encouragement and reassurance offered by our kids.

The night before our departure, at the Marble Canyon Motel, my trepidation continued even as we met our river guides and the rest of the group and then did the final reorganizing and packing of our waterproof bags. This motel seemed to me to be about as near to camping as I wanted to go. After a nearly sleepless night, day dawned, and the dories, looking like toy boats, were loaded with gear, food, our belongings, and, finally, ourselves.

That first night, not too many miles downriver, we camped, and after a delectable dinner, settled in for the night—a night which brought with it a ferocious windstorm that blew red dust finer than face powder through the mesh of our tent, coating everything. Not an auspicious beginning.

Throughout the fall, my mom had been cheering me on, before she died unexpectedly. Now, here I was, four months later, still grieving, and trying hard to take my cues from her. She had always been a trouper, a really good sport, a positive and upbeat woman who set the bar high, while giving me the confidence that I could follow in her footsteps. So, of course, I hung in there.

It didn’t help, though, that the first days on the river not only continued to be windy, but were cold and rainy as well. To add to my terror, on day three, one of the dories capsized in what was considered a tame rapid. It was righted, and everyone was safe and sound; even the supply of eggs packed in the bow of the boat survived unscathed! I must admit, I found little comfort in this. That afternoon, I went with a group on foot to scout a rapid ahead; the site of the roiling, churning, treacherous-looking white water rapids took my breath away. When my daughter saw the horror-struck look on my face, she gently took me by the arm, and said, “Mom, you’re not doing any more scouting.” And I didn’t.

Day by day, we lost altitude going downriver, while at the same time the calendar moved inexorably into spring, so the days naturally grew warmer, the weather more halcyon, and on our daily hikes into the side canyons we saw redbush trees blooming and monkey flowers and columbine appearing in the nooks and crannies of the canyon walls. Swaths of ocotillo burst into flower on high ledges. One day, I looked up from the river and saw an entire plateau blanketed with yellow encelia. It took my breath away—in a good way.

I don’t think there was one specific moment when I found myself thinking, “This is exactly where I want to be.” It was a slow process of adjusting, of accepting the white-knuckle rides down white water rapids. I knew that rapids would never be on my list of favorite things, but being able to share this trip with my husband and kids and a group of interesting people and amazing guides, began to trump everything. Whether it was running rapids, or climbing what for me felt like sheer rock walls on some of our hikes in the spectacular side canyons, it helped that everyone was supportive and encouraging.

To travel 287 miles down the river that carved the Grand Canyon, to learn about the geology of those ancient rocks, and to follow the path of John Wesley Powell, is a journey like no other in the world.

About half way through this expedition, my family was thrilled—if shocked—to hear me say, “I’m making a list of what I’m bringing next time.” Maybe it was at that point I realized I had met a huge personal challenge. I had overcome my fears, with courage I didn’t know I had, with confidence in my own tenacity, and at the end, with hope that I might come this way again.


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