What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?
The river flowed milky and strong, rippling smoothly over here a blanket of sand, there a sheet of pebbles, then further on the bed littered with great boulders, creating riffles and rapids in the stream. On either side vast sandstone cliffs reared above our heads, first red then layers of orange, white, pink, grey and green, solid rock stretching up on either side a thousand feet and more, with barely a break in the solid surface before revealing the narrow slit of deep, dark blue sky far distant above. Occasional bands of sunlight bounced off the ledges of rock above, reflecting light down into the canyon depths, where brightness lingers only fleetingly as the sun runs its course across the heavens. The only vegetation in sight was the small stunted trees and bushes that clung precariously to tiny ledges, mere bumps and scars in the face of the rock, where sufficient water seeps down to succour these tough desert survivors; and high, high above, on the topmost surface of rock, the plateau was covered with a high-level forest, the habitat of truly wild creatures, including bears and possibly even puma.
Down in the depths of the canyon, the sound of the stream reverberated against the rock, splashing gently as it slipped swiftly on. Our senses were filled with its sound and its earthy odour, and as we moved into the water, we felt its force pushing against our legs, knees, thighs. The water’s bed, little more than 20 metres wide, followed the straight fault lines in the rock, bending sharply at right-angles every few hundred yards or so, before taking another line. As the water was funnelled through the narrow passage, it created its own gentle breeze, cool against warm skin, but tempered by the heat filtering down from the sun-warmed rocks above.
At the start, our passage was busy with people, whole families with children, the smallest carried on a parent’s back, others held tightly as they waded against the force of the stream, fumbling against the pebbles underfoot. But in a short while, as we followed our leader confidently zigzagging from side to side across the stream, seeking out the easier route, we left the crowds behind and the way grew quieter, only the rush of the stream continuing to echo in our ears. We were well armed with stout sticks, and wore special socks and boots that both protected our feet and kept them warm even in these cool waters – vital equipment for comfort in this alien environment. The sticks helped us to feel our way and gave extra support when we stumbled among the boulders. Gradually we learned to recognise where the water was shallow, where deep; where there was sand and where boulders; where there were rough rapids and where it was calm. In places we could reach out to touch the rock on either side for extra support: cool, smooth, water-worn, ancient.
As we progressed upstream, the canyon walls pressed in on either side, narrowing and reducing sight of the sky still more. The sound of other people faded, and the rock all around brought us face to face with the most basic elements of our world: for many millions of years ago, these great masses of rock – sand, then, and tiny marine creatures – were laid down under an ancient sea, and later moulded by wind and water to create the greatest sand dunes on earth. Every minute that we walked we could mark the changes in the rock, view the curling striations where those ancient winds blew across the land in different directions, and new layers pressed down from above.
Today, though, there is always potential danger. This stream begins far away, high up on the rocky plateau. If a far-distant storm should drop rain into its remote headwaters, that stormwater will speed rapidly down the stream’s rocky course, filling the canyon to a great depth; anyone in its way is likely to be swept away, pummelled by debris carried before the fast-flowing flood. The rocky cliffs on either side offer no safe shelter and few secure handholds. That day, though, we were confident that the chance of such a flood was slim: our leader had checked and double-checked forecasts for the region, and all was set fair.
At one sharp bend in the river’s course, a huge overhanging arch was created when, at some long time past, a great slab of deep red sandstone had peeled away from its parent rock. We watched as a park ranger moved steadily down a rope that hung from hundreds of feet above, rappelling gently down over the arch onto the stream bed. He shouted encouragement to another man, unseen, perched on a ledge high up somewhere on the rock face above. We stood and gazed for a while as the second man followed the first, legs braced against the solid rock, then spreadeagled in air as he moved across the overhang. Finally he reached the relative safety of the canyon floor, and began to gather up the loops of fragile-seeming rope.
Our wading path was measured in time, not distance. We had just one and a half hours to travel as far as we could. We wandered and waded on, and saw the canyon beyond, narrowing still more. This stream, we were told, continues for many miles, the way often barred by cliffs of rock, rapids and waterfalls. For us, we’d reached our limit, and soon must turn back, this time working with the flow and with our new-found awareness of the river’s signs, so the going was easier. Before we turned to retrace our steps, one of our party launched himself, fully clothed, into a deep pool, revelling in the full immersion in this most basic of all the elements. Can there be any human experience closer to the earth than this: just the distant view of sky above, walls of ancient rock on either side, the gentle support of water below?
In the UK, of course we can follow a stream, trace its course across the landscape, but nothing, nothing like this. We have no true canyons, no depth of rock that can match the age of those found here. Oh… how many more discoveries could be made here, in America, had we more time?