Grand Canyon




May 2008

1. Yellow, brown and red

The bright yellow triangle of the bow high above me, the brown darkness and the intense cold of the water surrounding me, Tonny who floats by in her red lifejacket as a stately corpse. Three shocking images, as the three hooks in my memory that hold the story of the assault of the treacherous waters.

Nota bene, we flipped at the very first rapid of the Colorado River. Not even a real dangerous one, no more than a modest little five. Later, we would pass them without noticing. That morning we had selected Matthew as our oarsman for the first day. A bold type, unpolished, built like an American football player. Retired, that is, with a bulging belly, that betrayed a lack of restraint in his lifestyle. Always wearing his pear-shaped felt hat. Foreshadowing the pear-shaped body underneath. Later he surprised us by being strong like a bear and smooth as a deer, unheedingly climbing the rocky slopes of the Canyon, casual as a goat. ‘You move remarkably fast and easy for a man your size’, I later remarked to him and he reacted with a dark grin to this perverse compliment. We had departed very quietly that morning, we had smoothly passed some riffles and popcorn in the water and in all detachment lost contact with the group. Strong Matthew rowed us through a long, straight section, sun-drenched but with powerful headwind, and every now and then he took a break, leaning backward against the luggage stacked up high up behind him.

We floated around a bend and we saw the rest of the group waiting for us, at a little beach on river left, the red of their lifejackets clearly visible in the late afternoon. Between them and us was a rapid, I had no idea what lay waiting, it was our first rapid ever. We drifted in without paying any attention, the water was seething and the waves were dancing. All of a sudden a massive wave hit us, the boat stood straight up and that bright yellow bow was way above me, like a forlorn crow’s nest without a mast. Things happened in a flash, I was in the dark brown water before I knew what happened, it rushed along my glasses like a hunting stream behind a porthole. How deep I went, I have no idea, but I bounced up in my lifejacket and I was up before I knew it. No time for fear or panic, only for fright. I remembered bright and clear what oarsman Tom had told us that morning at the drill. Your jacket pushes you up, you float on the current, legs straight forward, toes up. In case you come up under the boat, take a deep breath and dive away from the boat. A boat will come and fetch you. I had come up in the furious foam of the rapid, so I was right on track. But where the hell was my beloved vulnerable little Tonny, who had not wanted to come to the damn Canyon in the first place? Had she also bounced up in her jacket? Caught under the boat and drowned in panic? Where the hell? I wrestled with the waves, the water was icy cold, between wild waves I had to take my breaths, wave after wave rolled over me, I was gasping for air and was searching for my little To. In an icy cold blanket.

At last there was a rest, an end to wave after wave, I had floated out of the rapid and could start to look around. My glasses were still somewhere on my nose, thanks to the nice cord that Tonny had bought for me, like al our equipment. On the shore I saw the boats embark, they all rushed to the river. But where on earth was Tonny? Between the dancing waves I saw some red life jackets going up and down. But who was in it, how many were floating around? I could find only two, but there should be three, Matthew, Sue and Tonny.

And then, stiff and straight as the stem of a dead tree, Tonny came floating by in her red jacket. Like a plank in the water, feet forward, toes up, her little topknot at the rudder. Nothing moved, stiff as a corps she floated by. Goddamn, what happened? A dead tree does not bring you relief. But nothing of what I feared came to pass. A boat came, she perfectly applied lesson five: turn with your back towards the boat, they will lift you at your jacket into the boat. My god, what a relief. Another boat came to fish me out of the water too, three attempts and I was at the bottom of the boat. Sue had been rescued. I saw Matthew walk in the water right below shore. Later it turned out that the fishing fleet had been unable to find him and he had swam ashore himself, ended up in a weird corner and had entered the water again to be within easy reach through an eddy. But because the fishermen did not see Matthew right away they kept going for a while and I became icy icy cold. The sun had set, there was a strong breeze and my teeth started to clatter.

After everybody had been taken in, we rowed ashore. And there, finally, Tonny was sitting. The meeting was more emotional than after two months of solitude in Japan. Seldom I had sensed so intensely how much I love her. Indeed, love deeper than the Canyon. Both deeply moved to hold each other again. Both more concerned about the other than about oneself. No wonder they found us a good couple.

And then the worst cold came, the shaking, the clattering of teeth. Undress, do away with wet clothes, everybody came to bring us warm pieces of clothing. Tonny could not stop shaking, with my body I warmed her. Her tension and the stress she had gone through and the release were at least as large as mine: “I was so worried about you, and I was so worried that you would be worried about me”.

After the chaos had been cleared, the boat turned upside up again, dinner prepared, tents put up and talking it all over at a good glass of wine, it was, literally, heartwarming to lie next to each other again. But I barely slept that night. Over and over the same images returned, the yellow bow high up in the air completely out of place, the muddy brown water rushing along my porthole, Tonny bobbing along like a stiff corps in her red jacket. The fear for what was still to come. What for god sake were we doing here? If I would drown I would rob my children of a father that was still useful to them. If Tonny would drown and I would not, I could not face my children. Why did I have to go into that Canyon at all, shouldn’t I have paid more attention to the dangers that were involved? Shouldn’t we stop, at Phantom Ranch you could still get out, after 6 days on the water. Fear reigned in that night, my pulse pumped at rapid beats.

During the next days the story unfolded. As a start, Matthew had blundered by floating too careless, without preparation, into Badger, exactly on the wrong spot: right in the middle where the hole was. At the beach they saw it happen, with astonishment. They also saw how Matthew was launched from his boat. The second fault was with the other boats. The gap with the last boat had grown irresponsibly high. That’s how Matthew had been unable to see how the others took the rapid: either right or left, but certainly not in the center. That’s why the other boats lay ashore while they should have been waiting behind the rapid, to pick us up much faster. Now we had been longer in the ice cold water than necessary. You should not stay long in water at 50 Celsius. Not the 8 to 10 minutes we had been in it.


And yet the faulty start brought a few benefits. From now on every oarsman was sharp and attentive. Matthew made no more errors, he felt guilty towards us and he turned out to be an excellent oarsman. The group surrounded us with care and attention and Tonny was permanently supported and cherished. We briefly brought up the possibility of giving up halfway, but that was effectively ruled out. If only because it required a climb up a steep mule trail that I would not be able to handle with my fear of height. I had lost my fear and anxiety. I knew now that just obeying the instructions would bring you back to a boat, wet and cold but safe. A flip was part of the game, there were very few accidents on the river itself, most happened ashore. Only at Lava, the very last rapid, the real tension would return, but even then no fear. Only Tonny remained fearful. Every time she heard a new rapid coming, like a train pounding nearer and nearer, she had her heart in her throat, for the “roar of the dragon”, as Dan called it. For her it was and remained a faulty start.

2 The routine of camp and boat

You get up in the bleakness of dawn. The first sunlight starts to descend along the high rocks of the Canyon and here and there colours warmly light up. Massive ruggedness, one row giving way to another, hundreds of feet high.

Surrounded by the unyielding walls, you wiggle out of your little tent, you go to the river for your morning pee and swift wake- up splash, you walk to the kitchen (three tables and a lot of cooking equipment). Coffee, tea, the kitchen crew on duty is already preparing breakfast. The first jokes are served, there is laughter, always laughter; at 5 in the morning the fun was just as excited as at 5 in the afternoon. Straight to work. Take down the tent, wrap it up, eat breakfast, load the boats. The tents, personal belongings, the kitchen, food, everything at its well determined position, sheltered from the water in plastic bags and metal boxes.

“Last call for the groover!” The last object to be packed and stowed is the vault with our most intimate left-overs. Between 8 and 9 we leave. The passengers divide themselves between the five boats, in ever new combinations, the boats are pushed afloat and off we go. The peacefulness of the morning is incredibly beautiful. Five small bright yellow rafts in a majestic canyon that rises way upward and dwindles the little rafts to innocent dots on the water, five happy notes among the untouchable rocks, morning light that still hangs high on the walls or dances over the water. The oarsman gets his oars, the passengers find a comfortable spot, and refreshed we go, into a new day.

Slowly we drift downwards, talking, discussing, joking, silent, in a mixture determined by the composition of the gang in the boat. At lunchtime the sun is high and it is hot. We search for a camp, a sandy edge along the shore, delicate drift-sand, sometimes held together by low bushes, always mingled with rough pieces of rock. Every beach requires its own manoeuvring to land. Sometimes you simply float ashore, sometimes we land with an elegant curve against the current. At a low and flat beach the boat anchors itself, at a steep high beach someone has to jump into the water and rush to tie up the boat to prevent if from sailing away on the strong current.

The set routine of the maritime ants starts immediately: carry the tables ashore, set up kitchen, unload food and drink, prepare lunch. After lunch and dishwashing the entire exercise in reverse. And at four o’clock the original sequence, but now more extensive with tents and personal luggage. And the next morning the whole operation is carried out in reverse. Like a military operation, with fixed drills and iron rules.

During landing the bar opens and we merrily drink beer, usually with cheerful evaluation of the last (or hardest) rapid of the day. The infantry starts its job. Quickly set up kitchen, gas burner, water, hygiene (wash hands, all the time wash, wash, wash, an infection would cripple the entire crew), make sure the cooks on duty can start right away and that dishes are drying in the wind before darkness wraps us up. Everyone searches a good spot for his tent, preferably on soft soil, and if needed sheltered against the all pervading drift sands.

The groover is our treasure in the military operation. There is a separate turn of duty for the precious box. Never, except perhaps in Sri Lanka, where a twin throne was placed in front of the glass façade overlooking the railroad and the ocean, I enjoyed the terminus of my digestion at more majestic places. The shitty crew always managed to find fantastic locations. Seated on a steel box 70 cm high and 30 cm wide, saddled with a real toilet seat, you could in full contemplation return to nature what was hers and in the meantime enjoy that same nature most intensively. Enjoy a river that is always moving, like a whirling sequence of centrifuges: current and counter-current, eddy and boil, riffle and rapid. Overpowering canyon walls, high above you, in most surprising formations that always trigger your imagination, enriched by the sun in timbres of colour from shining deep black basalt, to dull and crude lava, grey clay, red, brown, reddish brown, green, greenish brown and everything in between. I will never shit more beautifully, in a full double meaning of the term: the poor remnants of my digestion will sail with me to the end of the trip. Nothing, truly nothing, will remain in the canyon. Only our footprint in the sand and our pee in the water.


Once the evening dinner was on the fire and the tents had been set (or the sleeping bags had been laid out: sometimes we slept in the open air, some slept on the boat, bathing in shining white moonlight), we came together for an appetizer in the make-shift bar with folding chairs and Matthew’s kiddy seat and enjoyed our meal. Surprisingly varied meals, very tasty, often typically American (a cookie or a chocolate for desert). We made fun, exchanged experiences of the day, sometimes set up a serious discussion. And when night really fell, between 8 and 9: to bed.

3. The rapids

The rapids are the treat of the trip, that’s what it’s all about. Bobbing in the current for 229 miles, no matter how peaceful, would get very boring, a meal without spices. We must have passed some hundred rapids. They are classified 1-10, with 10 barely encountered and 1 barely noticed, popcorn in the water, a riffle. They all have names: dull (152 Mile Rapid), born from metaphor or analogy (Hermit, Granite, Lava, Roaring Twenties’) or linked to a historic event (Upset, where a geological expedition flipped right after their photograph had been taken). Below 5 it doesn’t mean anything, 5, 6, 7 have an entertaining thrill or are unexpectedly mean and powerful (Bedrock, just 6, but o boy), 8 and 9 really count. We crossed a few 8’s and two 9’s, Crystal and Lava. Crystal was overrated, even I could see at scouting that you could just squeeze along on the right. But Lava made everyone nervous during the entire trip. Lava is the last of the real great rapids, in some guides indexed as 9-10. Complicated by large masses of water, an enormous hole right up front, curves and roaring waves across. All great rapids are seriously and intensely scouted, the small ones are taken as they come after reading the guide book: read-and-run. Lava, from long before, was anticipated with nervous respect.

The smaller rapids take you through a sort of standard routine. Some 40, 50 meters before the rapid the water is flat and smooth without a pattern: a floating mirror. A silence before the storm. Behind the threshold is a characteristic V, two lines of waves that converge from the shores and then jointly continue in a wave train. Between the V is the tongue, flat dark water between the white foam at the edge. Majestic like a swan you glide on the flat, black water, sideways on the current, in a gentle dance you slide down across the threshold. You touch the rims of the V, the seething current twists the boat around and the oarsman holds your bow in the waves. Dancing in the dobbing mountains of water you ride out the rapid. Splashing and splattering, high waves or low waves, you may end up wet or dry but without failure you have lots of fun, like a child on a swing, a boy in a water ballet.

The most beautiful and the most exciting, the real thing, that’s the big rapids, 6 or 7 on the Colorado scale. In the serious rapids there is always scouting first: inspection from the trail along the shore, worn out by all the scouts that were ahead of you. You may have made the trip 15 times or more: always scout, every time the rapid will be different. The waters are assessed and memorized in detail: the holes, the waves that come across, the rocks, the currents, the hydraulics. The run is decided: safely along the edge, challenging through the center, crossing over the tongue. Or a simple straight run. Most times there are choices, between dry and wet, between safe and risky, sometimes there is no choice at all. Just one viable option. After passage the oarsmen can still describe in detail what the rapid is like, where the obstacles are, the problems and the challenges, the currents and the eddy, the best opportunity to pass unscratched.

After scouting you return to the boats. Who starts? Tension mounts, number one is pushed ahead and floats towards the current. Like a cruiser streaming up to the war zone, a boxer that slowly walks up towards the ring for the decisive fight. Carefully the take-off position is taken, if you enter correctly, you will run it right, with a faulty start the oarsman has to work like mad to save the run.

The start of a big rapid is the same as the start of a small one. Gracious as a swan you glide over the smooth black water to the middle of the tongue. Softly rocking you surge over the edge. And then, suddenly, you’re right in the middle of it. Mighty turbulence, splashing foamy waters, your boat is thrown to all sides, lifted, twisted around, the oarsman tugs his oars to hold steady, the waters are poured over you from all sides. And then, just as sudden, you have left the wild whirlpool, you’re embraced by the wave train, a row of high waves that you mount and dismount, that you ride like a kid on a swing. And it’s over. You drift into an eddy and you look how the others perform, 20, no more than 30 seconds and you’re through. A rapid never takes longer than a minute.

After all boats have passed, there is the release. Excited evaluation. “I was way too far left, my oar smashed on the rocks.” “That wave had so much power, I lost my oar.” “I was way too close to the hole, I just made it.” “Did you see that, Steve jumped his chair”. Merriment and relief, pride and pleasure that all went well, schoolboys’ fun for old men.

Low rated rapids may turn out unexpectedly mean. Perhaps Horn was the toughest for us. Or Upset. Tom jumped chair and almost landed on my back. I was almost launched from the bow, Tonny barely managed to stay in the boat. I got horrendous waves straight in my face. And these rapids were only 6 or 7. Every rapid has its own story, every rapid is different, on every run.

4. Reading the water.

The craft and skill of the oarsmen, I found it fascinating. An oarsman permanently reads the water, in the rapids but also in between. Power and understanding are the essential ingredients of his craftsmanship. Power is needed on occasions, understanding is indispensable. The Colorado is like a permanently wiggling and twisting squid, always the water moves in shapes and counter shapes, in current and countercurrent, upper- and undercurrent. The river presents itself in permanent twisting and shaving of moving black surfaces bordered by the dotted lies of bubbles and bouncing water. The entire floating machinery is dominated by the downward stream, the permanent flow of the water downwards, hundreds of miles. Down, but far removed from a straight line, not even concentrated in the middle of its bed. No, like a dark drunken worm it wringles sometimes along one shore and then along the other, crosses the bed without plan, neglecting everything, averse of any counsel or advice.

The current draws a trace of whirlpools on the side, like wheels to keep it running. Somewhere in the depths below it hits a rock and it surfaces as if a huge pan of water starts to boil. If the rock is not too deep it cooks up a pour-over, a hole in the river where the river flows over the rock one floor below. Visible even for a layman’s eye like mine. If the rock is deeper you have the meanest weapon of the river, the real hole that everyone fears. The frustrated stream draws a vacuum behind the rock and creates a forceful countercurrent behind the hole, a maelstrom of bouncing and bumping forces, swallowing and smashing tiny rafts. It’s the worst enemy of the oarsman.

In the rapids all attention is drawn to the water. But even outside the rapids there is never some simple relaxed rowing. The current curls unpredictably in its bed, the boils detract you to a side track and the eddies unexpectedly send you in the wrong direction or park you below the bank.

Reading all these signs, that’s the true skill of the oarsman. It takes attentive scouting at the grand rapids. It’s routinely done in between, barely looking up. But craftsmanship it remains, all along, on every stretch, in all conditions.

5. The oarsmen.

We made the trip with a fabulous group of people. Each one of them a fascinating character, all very different, strong personalities, colorful in creating their life. All individuals in search of the adventure of the great outdoors. We were 12 men and 4 women. Next to Tonny, professor Sue, shuffling without fear to the highest mountain tops and never without her sketchbook, exuberant Beth, owner of a bike shop, charming Julia, with an estate of 160 acres including two lama’s and an airplane. Next to me, my dear friend Jules, introvert but very sporty intellectual Bob, joint with Sue the organizer of the trip, comic and caring Marc, Sue’s brother, Seth, gentle intellectual, just graduated from Stanford, Jame the bear, with golden hands, instant practical insight and the jumpiness of a young dolphin, and timid Bob, who could not cope and gave up after six days. And the oarsmen.

The oarsmen, they are king, czar and emperor, they reign in the rapids. And in fact, outside the rapids as well. In a single straight downfloat even I can row, and with proper advice I can pass a riffle or a mini-rapid. But complicated water and strong wind, that’s for the experienced craftsman. In our daily existence the boatsmen were prominent, they determined how you got through the rapids, in the morning you selected your boat and your boatsman and that set the colour of your day. They were interesting characters, these six oarsmen. Matthew, Marc, Spencer, Dan, Tom and Steve. All different and yet all similar. Unconstrained, free, adventurous. “Never pass up the opportunity of an adventure”. True heirs to the pioneers. Instantly prepared to survive in the wilderness.

Matthew was our man of the mishap. It bothered him the entire week, he felt guilty towards us. We had precisely selected him that first morning, because he seemed so robust and reliable. And he was, except for that one silly moment. Laconic, sloppy, never really groomed, with a voice permeated by a deep laugh. The entire week he wore a green operation room jacket. Did not comb his hair a single time during the week he was with us, his crest always looked like a frozen rapid. An engineer, who had sold his company when he was 30, and now made his money by advising on investments. Because of his jocular indifference he looked sullen, but he was much more intelligent than you would think and he could explain more about the geology of the canyon than you would have guessed. Seemed like a slow shuffler because of his massive body, but when he left us halfway, he walked up against the canyon side without hesitation or even paying attention. Jumped smoothly and swiftly across his boat and was strong as a grizzly. And after the blunder that woke him up he proved himself a first-rate oarsman.


Marc was his perfect antipode. As Marc could not do the entire trip, Matthew had taken his place during the first days. He came to us on foot in Phantom Ranch, after departing in the early morning snow and descending 12 kms on a mule trail. A muscled man, lean and slender, with a straw hat, a gray moustache, and beige-grey clothing which seemed to dress him permanently in a grey haze. He smiled like a bleak moon, somewhat scornful and never abundantly. Dan later called him one of the best oarsmen he had ever met on the rivers. He stuck out immediately by his firmness and accuracy. Because of his modesty, you barely noticed him. Into the smallest details you recognized his experience. Jobs you normally shared he did easily on his own. Scouted every rapid precisely, yet had flipped once with his daughters on the Colorado. When on the river he did not drink a drop of alcohol and he was the only one to have a helmet with him. Probably also the only one to have some edifying hymns among his readings. His precisely measured personality was sharpened by his southern wit. A Texan accent, melodious and with clear pause in every sentence, amplifier for his dry humour and his endless inclination to calmly and undisturbingly fool you. And to let Tonny row where she did not want that at all. In a riffle. Marc was almost 60, and worked some 6 months a year. Fixed disruptions in power stations all over the world. The rest of his time he spent at the rivers, to fish and hunt, he shot his meat for the winter time himself. And every now and then he drove to his kids at the other end of America. But apparently he scouted his women less carefully than his rapids, because he now was married for the fourth time.

Spencer in his way was again a perfect contrast to Marc. Exuberant, with his clownish explosions he absolutely could have made a career as a comedian. But he had put his verbal skills at the service of journalism, and had steamed up to Vice-President Communication and External Relation for a manufacturer of cancer radiotherapy equipment. He had the communicative explosiveness of a street vendor. Spotting a situation or statement with comic potential, he would jump up and from his boat hawk about a cartoonesque exaggeration. Expressive in word and gesture, with his lean muscular body and the face of a comedian, he captivated his audience at a single stroke. With his milling arms, his tawny head with grey little beard and his odd straw hat he was the Don Quichote of the Canyon. That same body contained more than enough power to boss over the treacherous holes of the rapids. Or suddenly launch an acceleration and leave everyone behind. He conducted me with beautiful gestures across a modest rapid, he comfortably leaning backwards in the boat, me trying to show the best effort I had. A director of the minimal movement: one hand sharply folded at the wrist to point the way, two hands jauntily pushing forward or equally jauntily pulling backwards to indicate that I should push or pull the oars. And who only used his voice when indeed I almost struck a rock. At home he got up at 4 every morning to go rowing for an hour and only then would serve Communication and External Relations.

Dan, the biologist, was the neurotic among the oarsmen. With an excited giggle he would admit that he was afraid of each rapid of any substance. Just as Tonny, after the act of the “Joint Dutch-American Swimming Team”, would hear the sound of the next rapid with fear and anxiety, so Dan would be frightened time and again when he heard the roar of the dragon coming. High and stately he sat on the barge, with a sun cap from the desert, as if he were riding the Colorado on a camel. Nervous, but always with a broad smile, jubilant and joking. And at night satisfying his need to relax with a good gin and if necessary with a tasty joint. He lived in a big house near Seattle when he enjoyed the company of his many friends. Had been rowing many tines but never on the Colorado and found that very thrilling. A good rower, who cold come away from his battle with the dragon in excited chatter and laughter during the collective evaluation.

Tom was the one who most prominently presented himself as the adventurer. Bob had engaged him as the leading oarsman, and he sometimes took that role. But the differences in craftsmanship were too small for the need of a dominant leader. Incessantly he sought the debate about economic issues and he loved to tell the stories of his life. He had rejected parental support for his education when his father tried to use him as a subordinate and at 25 had decided to explore the adventurous opportunities of life. Had sailed large boats across the ocean and explained in detail how, what and with which tycoon this took place. Had developed a small chain of sport shops and then ran a popular restaurant. Was now restyling a big house to rent out, and was married to Beth who was compelled to leave the navy when she was pregnant, who left her child to be educated by the father ‘as he was better at that’ and who now operated a bicycle shop. On the last day in his boat he happily gave me the motto of his life: “never pass up the opportunity for an adventure!”

Steve had the undiluted romantic aura of the undisturbed adventurer. Like the others, he was not the type for a quiet bourgeois existence. Halfway in his 60’s, tanned head, some remaining black hair fluttering at the edges. Radiating the tranquility that is recognized as the residual of a wild life. He had been wandering through Europe and imprisoned in Spain after a fight with the Guardia Civil (who arrested his mate). A man of little money, not focused on material success. Rather set in motion by humanitarian motives. Had worked as a paramedic, studied at Stanford, wanted to study law later but had to push hard to be admitted at his age. Returned to nursing after 15 years of legal practice because he preferred to care for people. Wanted to prove, also to himself, that he was still powerful and during our last camp swam downstream to a little island in the river and came back half upstream, just a few hundred yards above the rapid. And yes, he had enough power to do it.

Steve is the hero in one of my finest images of the Canyon. The river is shining in exuberant harsh light. There is a gusting hot headwind. Steve is rowing across the current, characteristically standing upright. With his left hand, in fact with his entire body he pushes the oar with all his force. In his right hand he holds the other oar, waiting for the next turn to push. He is sharply penciled in the radiant sunshine and the galing wind. He is the only one to wear a bright yellow jacket with black straps, and with his straw hat and short gloves he looks like an Italian gondolier. Slow and obstinately he pushes the raft, stroke by stroke. Irresistibly moving towards his goal, master of wind and water and what not. My ultimate image of rowing in the Canyon: a man against the elements, in splashing sunlight. I wish I could paint it.

6. So what’s so fascinating about the Grand Canyon?

The Grand Canyon is not pretty, the Grand Canyon is merciless, untouchable, inaccessible. Hard, sharp and rough are its rocks. Its campsites are poor edges of sharp sand along mean ridges. The bushes are sturdy and thorny. High and unapproachable the wall of rocks rises around you, your view is restrained on all sides, you’re imprisoned, locked up in a narrow gutter, with only two exits: one after six days, one after sixteen. The Canyon is deprived of all tenderness.

The playful life, that’s the river. Like a slippery eel the Colorado glides through its gully. Always moving, always twisting and turning. Not for once the water runs in a straight line, meandering it dances from shore to shore, it rolls along on the wheels of its own maelstrom and whirlpools and it bounces, splutters and splashes across the rocks in its rapids. White foam on deep shining black. The Canyon is a layered cake of millennium after millennium, the Colorado is eternal youth.

The river is the only one that measures up to the rocks. Millions of years of twisting and shaving have carved a line of hundreds of miles through that unyielding rock. And exposed a cross-section of eternity. Indeed, the deadness of the Canyon is a deceitful deadness. The Canyon, it’s an endless silent movie of an infinitely slow life. And that’s precisely why you should experience the Canyon at the slow pace of a rubber raft. Slowly the images float by, weathered and crumbling remnants of an era so long that I cannot grasp it. A hundred thousand years, five hundred thousand, a million? All absorbed in one category: giant. And giant is exactly what the Canyon is. High as a giant, massive as a giant, imposing as a giant.

In the morning, in the fresh light that bold Canyon is very charming. Some peaks catch the first rays of sunshine, lighting up against the dark-grey backdrop of the rest. Slowly the sun removes the shades of black and grey and brings back the colours: soft red, soft brown, grey yellowish, greenish, everything layered in geological chronology, eroded by wind and water, craggily formed and reformed by millions of years of peeling to the most fantastic shapes. You detect cathedrals, medieval castles, walled cities, clay fortresses from the Middle East, Gaudi constructs, friable lonesome pillars, loose rocks you expect any moment to come thundering down. What lights up tenderly and fresh in the early morning sun will be hot without mercy in the afternoon, and in the evening will touch you with its warm afterglow. And at night, lit up by a bright moon, will have a completely different attraction, like a romantic nineteenth century etching, in a perfect contrast of light and dark.

There is even life in the Canyon. Condors draw circles high above. Lizards flash across the rocks, grayish brown like the sands, or shining bright green. There are ravens to inspect your camp as soon as you arrive and to start searching for the crumbs that should not be there when you leave. Some goats on the slopes. There are flowers. The Century Plant, a tall straight spear filled with bright yellow flowers, up to three meter high. Blossoming cactuses, tall and tiny, with purple and red flowers or intense red projections. Bushes with edgy lilac bunches at the end. And a few fish in the water, some trout and a lost carp. Even a river otter. And black hummingbirds.

The fascination of the Canyon stems from the merciless roughness of its rocks, the lively frivolity of its river and the challenge they jointly put up. You leave with an overwhelming sense of success and accomplishment if you demolish your boat at Diamond Creek, even if you were only a passenger. A solidarity has grown because you depended on each other and it worked out well, and because you got interested in each other. To each and everyone you say goodbye at least three times, whereas three weeks before you did not even know each other. You have been impressed and fascinated by the unique adventure around you.

And as we say in Dutch: “Je hebt je niet laten kisten!”, you have lived up to the challenge.

See videos on You Tube for the sense of experience, in particular Grand Canyon rafting Lava Falls.