Day Seven: Phantom Ranch, Arizona. I wake to rain. It’s January 29th, cold, and wet. Phantom is deserted save for a few staff and adventuresome hikers from the Grand Canyon’s snowy southern rim.
Me, I didn’t come from the canyon’s rim. I came by way of the river. The Colorado River. In six days I’ve navigated 90 miles and countless rapids to get here. I have nearly 200 miles yet to travel.
One week ago today, it’s a crisp, sunny morning when I call my mom from the boat ramp at Lee’s Ferry. It’s her birthday. I wish her well, and once again try to assure her that my trip is a good idea, and that I’ll be safe.
My mom asks about the missing girl. The ranger says, given the timing and the lack of other parties on the river, I’m likely to find her body. I don’t tell my mom this. Still missing, I tell her, then, “I’ll call you in two weeks. I love you.” I turn off my phone and tuck it into its dry bag to be loaded next.
My boat—an 11’ rented kayak with a leaky stern and broken skeg—is already loaded heavy with the food and equipment that will support me on my two week solo journey through the Grand Canyon. I finish packing, settle in, push off, and paddle out to meet the Colorado River for the very first time.
The missing girl in question is a 21-year-old, also from Denver. She disappeared at night two weeks ago, on a private river trip with friends. That evening, she was with in camp, at their fire. The next morning, she was gone. The ensuing search found no footprints leading away from camp—only their mingled tracks to and from the river.
The strong, green current carries me downstream. I put these thoughts aside. I paddle lazily and take in the cool winter sun and rising canyon walls. I’m delighted and thrilled to be on the water, and feel eager for the adventure ahead.
The next morning I wake to frozen water bottles but clear sky. The sun works its way down the canyon wall opposite, and I’m soon on my way.
I’m feeling confident and decide not to scout when I arrive at House Rock Rapid late that afternoon. I successfully avoid its eponymous house-sized rock, but am caught and crushed in the heaving tumult below.
One minute I’m fine. The next, I’m out of my kayak and disoriented. I’m tossed about and pushed beneath the frigid water. I briefly surface and gasp for breath. Then the water grabs me, whorls me around, and stuffs me under. I struggle punily, lost in a vast, churning sea of water, itself a mere thin ribbon in the heart of the canyon, incised deeply through a yawning, harsh, and uninhabited wilderness.
In such a moment, the mind transcends terror. As I resurface, the waves disappear and the deafening roar of the water goes quiet. I find a strange peace in the midst of the maelstrom. I’m conscious only of my strong flutter kicks and the closing distance between me and my boat. I catch my kayak and kick hard for river left. I reach an eddy and escape the crashing waves and current. Then the tranquil eye of the storm breaks. I cling to the bow of my boat and quake with adrenaline. My breathing is ragged and shallow, and my eyes sting with tears. The suppressed terror opens upon me, washing over like a powerful wave of its own.
Two days later, I swim again. At dusk that evening, light rain begins to fall as I pitch my tent. It rains heavily through the night. The next day, I wait for a break in the weather before packing and launching.
I sit in my tent and stew in my thoughts. I’m humbled, scared, and desperately lonely. I find myself wishing that there was a way to bail on this ill-conceived adventure—that I could just call it quits, come back some other day with friends, the right skillset, better preparation. I wish I’d brought a satellite phone. I think that I should have just listened to my mom and never come here by myself in the first place.
But it’s not possible to bail, now. I’m in and committed, and there’s only one way out—down the river.
I listen to the rain all day and through the night. Finally, a few hours after sunrise, the rain relents. I pack, paddle hard, and by mid-day float under the black suspension bridge spanning the river at Phantom Ranch.
Which brings us back to the present. I breakfast on hearty bread, hard cheese, and bitter instant coffee. I pack into my three slender drybags and pull on my drysuit. At the beach, I gather my scattered gear, force my bags into my boat, and install the stern-hatch cover. I run through my mental rigging checklist—helmet, skirt, groover, PFD, paddle, pogies—then drag all 150 lbs of boat and gear to the water’s edge. I, pause, recheck my checklist, then push off into the swift current.
I paddle for a minute or so, each stroke considered and careful. I gradually find my center of gravity as I bounce through Bright Angle Rapid.
It’s big water. At these flows, an observer from shore would see a volume of water equal to a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools pass every sixty seconds. In my 140 liter boat, I feel like a rubber duckie at sea.
By the time I pull over to scout Horn Creek Rapid, the sky is spitting sleet. Dark and foreboding clouds swirl amongst the cliffs and pinnacles towering above. Failing to find a line likely to deliver me through upright, I opt to portage. It takes three trips through the sleeting gray to walk my gear and boat past the worst of the rapid.
I repack and push off toward the massive haystack waves below. I focus on my balance, trying (in vain) to read the waves, the boils of water, the contradictory currents. I pull hard upstream, slap desperately across the eddy line, and slide into the bouncing waves beyond which carry me down.
Day Eight: The river is a thick reddish brown, loaded with sediment from the rains. The water is opaque, like chocolate milk. It seems higher and swifter this morning. It’s raining again—the fourth consecutive day. I’m tired, cold, lonely, and scared.
I’m unmatched for the river. I can count my previous paddling experience on two hands (with fingers to spare). I’ve never seen water this big. Nor have I ever been without the possibility of unassisted escape. The one thing I didn’t bother to consider before embarking now consumes my thoughts: what happens if something goes wrong?
There’s a sticker on the bow of my boat. It reads: “Lean Forward / Paddle Hard.” These words pinball through my head at night. They focus me each time I’m enveloped in another upheaval of crashing water. They impel me forward in defiance of strong headwinds, across long, weary stretches of flatwater. They’re all I know to do, and all I can.
A few miles down, I enter an easy rapid. An unexpected wave crashes over me, covers me whole, bowls me over into a disorienting world of tug-o-war. I tuck forward, set my paddle, and sweep—praying for daylight and air. I get half a gasp and then fall back under. My skirt implodes from the weight and pressure of the water. I reset my paddle, sweep, and this time re-emerge into the realm of precious oxygen just as I drop over a ledge into the gut of a roiling hole. Somehow I stay in my boat and we’re carried over and out.
I awkwardly paddle my swamped kayak toward the rocks on river right. The shoreline of black, broken cliffs seems shallow enough for me to stand. I fall out of my boat and find footing. Relief washes over me. Cold water sheets off, and I pant for breath from exertion.
After a few minutes, with trebling hands, I heave over the boat and pour the river from it, as much as possible. I clumsily get back in and paddle back into the current.
From time to time, I consciously attempt to appreciate the beauty of the canyon. Sadly, it’s largely lost on me. I’m like a man, naked in the Alaskan bush, trying to appreciate the beauty of a stalking wolf. The subtle appreciation of grandeur and the sublime is lost below fear and will to survive.
I’ve seen no one since Phantom Ranch. For company, I have the sticker on my boat, and a missing girl’s ghost. It is still thirty miles until I’ll reach the camp where she disappeared, and yet I already begin to expect her. Around every bend, my eyes strain to distinguish rocks from sticks from apparitions. I find myself paddling to some unknown object on the horizon, to find with relief that it’s only a chunk of driftwood this time, or a protruding boulder another.
Day Nine: The sun is shining as when I reach Tapeats camp, where she disappeared. Signs of a search are obvious—the usual eddy detritus has all been dragged from the river to the beach. Footsteps comb both banks. I get out, make a brief search of my own, then paddle on.
Day Eleven: Yesterday I paddled through Lava Falls—the most notorious rapid on the river—without incident. I skipped past Tequila Beach, below it, having neither tequila nor the inclination to let loose.
I’m now past the worst of the whitewater. This evening, for the first time, I find myself able to relax and appreciate my surroundings. I hike to a black, volcanic promontory, seeming to follow a trail long since fallen into disuse. Back in camp, I build a fire, the first of the trip.
As the sun sinks below the western horizon, the sky darkens to a midnight blue as pure and palpable as an electric shock. I found myself feeling expansive, delighted. I revel in the shapes and hues of the darkening rounded slopes and sharp ridges of the surrounding canyon walls. In the night sky, Juniper appears, then Venus, and then the whole host of celestial bodies. I retire to bed, content.
Day Fourteen: Ill-conceived and underprepared, I’ve nevertheless travelled approximately two-thirds of the width of Arizona by boat. Through ill-preparation, however, I’ve largely robbed myself of the rest, renewal, and inspiration that should be the rich reward of such a trip.
I rise early to paddle the last 18 miles of Lake Mead’s silt-laden flat-water remaining between me and the conclusion of my journey. I fix my eyes downriver, lean forward, and paddle hard.
(Post Script: Kaitlin Kenney’s body was recovered by the National Park Service in late February, approximately 30 miles downstream from the campsite where she disappeared.)