Running the Rapids ... the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon - in a Wooden Dory

A gift to myself on my 70th birthday.

Lacking experience in 'white water,' I was scared to death ... however my life-long curiosity was in charge. I wanted 'down there' to see it up close and to paint what I saw. I conquered those fears--and that river. It was an experience of a lifetime.

I had a journal for writing and soon I also began to sketch. This is the first one . . .
The Old & the New Navajo Bridges over Colorado River, from my River Journal sketch, pen & ink, 3 x 2
"Only a few miles down river from Lee's Ferry we began to see the Navajo bridges as they span the canyon. My Grandfather Meyers was chief engineer of Kansas Structural Steel Co. when the original Navajo bridge was build in the late 1920s--the first bridge to span the Colorado River. We found a nice sand bar upstream from the bridges and stopped to have lunch. Lonnie, our guide, asked me to tell about the bridge. In recent years the new Navajo bridge was built right next to the old, mirroring the same design and thus providing an awesome sight as we rowed beneath the two. The new has four lanes; my Grandfather Meyers' bridge is now a pedestrian walkway."
Photo by EleanorI took this photo from my river dory. I had a small camera, running on batteries--hopefully with enough to last the three weeks!
"Only a few miles down river we stopped to study the rapid" just ahead. Once the rowers had decided how to 'run' (approach) the rapid, they asked us to put on all our 'splash' gear, we loaded up and ran the first BIG rapid. Wow. You can see our three little dories pulled up on the river bank. The entire day was stunning.I lost any fear I still had about the rapids. It's just water. Yes, it is very cold but the day was hot and we got wet and dried out and got wet and dried out all day long."
Supai Gorge, Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 3.5 x 6
"From the first day I was awed by the reflections of canyon walls onto the water: "When the sun shines on one side of the gorge the reflected light is magical. The Cobalt (and Cerulean in the green places) and the red-orange of the cliffs take turns reflecting in the river currents."
Two dories at Lee's Ferry, making ready for a long 3 week run of the rapids, with the 14 of us in tow.
"I had thought we all would take turns rowing in calm waters. Not so. For one--there are few 'calm' waters. But importantly these dories are fine-tuned to each rower, who even sleep in them overnight. Every day individual dories require precise weight distribution to run the tall rapids. On this day, the final dory, having learned by observing what the river was up to at that moment, came through without great difficulties. These rowers work hard and in life-threatening settings."
View from Nankoweap, Mile 53, watercolor, 4 x 6
"With all the big rapids ahead of us, before we broke camp the first morning, we had a lesson on how the 2 (or 3) of us plus the rower, formed a team for riding the rapids safely ... especially to lean into the 'high' side because if you lean into the 'low' side the dory tips (over)! 'You are never to even step into a dory (even if it is secured on the beach) without your life jackets securely fastened.' Before we left the staging area at Lees Ferry, each one of us had been carefully fit with the correct type and size of life jacket.By the time we had reached Nankoweap I was comfortable in my life-jacket and fully adept at peeing in the river, plus locating the latrine (for other waste) before darkness fell! Many skills are required for running this river!"
Desert View Watch Tower, on the South RimMile 65, watercolor, 4 x 6
"Every time we stopped--here at Mile 65 as we were waiting for a raft delivering ice blocks for refrigeration--I would find a place to sit and sketch. It was fun to look up and see the Watch Tower on the South Rim where I had looked down and seen the river and knew I had to figure out how to get down there to see it and to paint--like sketching the stormy afternoon sky and colorful gorge wall across the river."
Afternoon Storm, Carbon Canyon Creek, Mile 65watercolor, 6 x 4
A HUGE Cavern Photo by Eleanor taken from my dory as we departed
"Yesterday we stopped briefly to walk into this cavern, carved by the mighty river, but now swallowing us up instantly as we walked into it. We wandered around inside, trying to take in the enormity of it all." Look closely at the photo and you will see there are people walking on the sand bar from our group's dories, yet to depart. "This place would hold several thousand people. However with just we few, the silence was deafening...when into it came the soft sound of Pete's recorder, a hymn to the Beauty of the Earth. So appropriate.Pete, one of the rowers, first played a few days ago as we entered into a long stretch of vertical canyon walls where the river was slow and wide. The sound of the music floated upstream--bouncing between the canyon walls to where I was in the rear dory--filling every nook of that amazing theater stage. All the dory rowers stopped and into all that silence, Pete played, simple melodies, on and on. No one spoke. Soft tears ran down my face at the beauty of it all."
Photo by EleanorOur dories, on sand bar in front of the cavern. Chris in his dory, cleaning up for the rapids ahead.
Campsite Imminence/Immanence (you choose) Journal Sketch, Pen & ink, 6 x 3"This campsite provided middle of the night entertainment. We experienced a huge rock fall-- it hit the floor of the canyon far too close for comfort to our tents under the canyon wall. We all bolted from our tents to see what had happened. A near miss but the BOOM was excruciating in its power to frighten we mere mortals dosing within its reach. While 'Imminence' refers to 'a fact of being about to happen,' the word 'immanence' refers to 'divine presence.' Both seemed to be operating that night."
View Upriver to Unkar Rapid, Mile 73watercolor, 6 x 4
"Our 'Baby J', a small rubber raft with an outboard motor, carries the 'kitchen' and 2 or 3 staff members. When facing Unkar Rapid, the rowers hiked over rocks down river to get a view of the rapid. Dave, in Baby J, was to take the first run while the rowers watched (this was the standard practice), finding a path through, and Baby J, being on the other side of the rapids, would be in a position to assist if a dory was in trouble. While waiting, Dave motored Baby J up toward the lip of the fall & rapid, studied it himself, then motored back upriver, holding for the signal."When the signal came, those of us standing on a sand bar above the fall and unable to see the rapids, now watched Dave drop over the falls and out of sight. The rowers came rushing back. Something was wrong; Baby J was stranded beneath that great red wall. We had to go, taking the rapid one at a time, too busy with our own effort to get through, we couldn't grasp the situation as we ran the rapids. Then as each of the dories came ashore, the rowers all dashed as fast as possible up river to help. "Elena, one of the rowers, soon came back the 1/2 mile hike to tell us about the dilemma and say we should make lunch with whatever was stowed in our dories. While we waited I made the little watercolor of the red wall above Unkar, and wrote in my journal. It took several hours to get the raft freed with the help of a motorized raft with 15 people on it that just happened by and assisted. We were all back together again, everyone had eaten, and we pushed off for a couple of really big rapids--the largest to date."
The Play of Evening Light, Colorado River, Grand Canyon30 x 40, oil on canvasPainted at home across weeks following trip.
"I'm having 'waves of emotion,' again today, as we were working our way toward the next whatever ... or just floating quietly along ... suddenly my eyes tear-up. I am overwhelmed with joy at this amazing experience ... this precious time ... need to think about how I'll say farewell to the river ... then go home and take some time for myself (in solitude)--and paint. I've got to get a large canvas (30 x 40--I may have one under the bed) and put something on it of this."Running down with this river through eons--billions of years of this planet earth--as represented by these rocks is an awe-filling experience. Talk about putting things in perspective. Maybe spiritual or emotional work is perspectival at its core.""I've never been so much in the heart of the world ... so I'm doing just great 'doing the world' via this magical, mystical river."
Day 8, House Rapid Survey, Mile 75.5 Journal Sketch, pen & Ink, 9 x 7"Rowers and some others have gone over the rocks ahead to assess the rapid below--our biggest yet. They are considering if we all will have to hike around it. I'm riding with Chris again. He exudes a sense of confidence which I spreads out in this little dory. When we came down to the river this morning, he had raised a new flag--a black one with skull and crossbones. Cute."I have my first touch of fear--Yesterday Hance Rapid was strong but Horn Creek (the one below these rocks) gave me a real 'wake up' call!"
Grand Canyon River Sunset20 x 16, oil on canvas painted back home in my studio from one of my digital images of the 'Meta-Basalt'
Meta-Basalt across river, Ross Wheeler camp, Mile 108.5 Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 10 x 7
"We've made it to Mile 108.5 and I have survived--even thrived--during two long days of constant rapids, each one harder, stronger, bigger drops than the last it seemed. But today we actually ran bigger ones, including one the rowers, again, considered having us walk around. Every run was perfect; an awesome experience.
"However, Horn Creek rapid was the most stunning. Riding in front I took the full force of a huge breaking wave, straight on, way above my head. I did NOT lose my hand holds but my body was pushed back and up out of the boat, into the air, riding the crashing water. But I didn't have time to think about it when I got my feet back down, as the dory was dangerously full of water--fortunately the three of us were fast balers.
"In the one brief quiet moment today between two horrendous rapids, our flute player brought out his soprano recorder and played a haunting melody. The music notes wafted across the river, the canyon walls playing music for themselves, as the reverberations filled and refilled this deep, beautiful Granite Gorge.
"Across the afternoon we did a long rapid series named the "Jewels' beginning with Crystal Creek Rapid--one of the most challenging--rated a 7-10 (10 being the most challenging white water anywhere and the range means it is always at least a 7 but can range up to a 10. The river is different every day ... so one never really knows what lies ahead). After we got all the way through, Chris (the rower) sang, "Of isn't it a lovely day, an ABC day!" An ABC day? we asked. "Yes--Alive Below Crystal!" However I believe it was on Crystal that one of the other rowers was thrown from his dory...catching hold of the end of one oar and riding through the rest of the rapid before he could climb aboard. A real scare.
"I felt a tinge of that old fear this morning--waiting for departure on Day 2 of this specially challenging Gorge and its rapids. But tonight I feel fearless . . . even knowing bigger ones lie ahead."
View Of Tapeats Sandstone, Mile 116.5, watercolor, 6 x 4"In camp I painted another of my small watercolors this one of the 'T-peets' sandstone--I'm loving their linear structure. And I read for a while until the hikers returned. O.E. Rolvaag's "Giants of the Earth" about Norwegian pioneers in the Dakotas. I'm captivated by it and now "suffer" for lack of reading time, but at nightfall I'm ready for sleep after our full days!"I don't put up the 'fly' over top of my tent--and tonight the night sky was so delicious and clear. So many *stars.* We are almost out of the upper granite gorge and the sky has opened up again. Sometime in the night it started to sprinkle...decided not to bother with the 'fly', laid back down--sprinkles on my face...and then I heard"rain drops keep falling on my head." Pete and his soprano recorder. What a jewel he is on this trip."
Just Below Mile 122 Camp, Bed Rock Rapids, Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 7 x 5
Bedrock (upper) Rapid, Photo by EleanorElena headed for that big boulder in the middle of the river ... pulling hard for the right side on it. When in the dory we were too busy dealing with rapids to take any photos. This was a rare opportunity because we had to hike around the top part of this rapid.

"As we left Mile 122 campsite this morning I hadn't checked about the river ahead--and the night had been a rather quiet one without the night-long crashing rapids behind and before us we'd had for so many nights. But when we rounded the first corner that engine ROAR came racing upriver. Rapids!"We ran three huge rapids that took all morning--as each had to be surveyed by the rowers. After the rower's survey, at the famous shallow 'Bed Rock' rapid all of us were asked to walk around (over the rocks). The river there is technically challenging--walls everywhere and (and a huge standing rock)--with strong rapid currents rushing directly at it all--face on. "So we got to watch the rowers come through one by one alone, which was terrifying. We were re-boarded quickly and pushed off toward the rest (lower portion) of this infamous rapid. Again, a huge wall on the right--a wall that could not be walked around."At about noon we arrived, exhausted, at Stone Creek campsite after a day of huge rapids...and they had decided we would layover for a day of rest."
Waterfall, Stone Creek, Mile 132watercolor, 4 x 6
"It was HOT on the sandy beach so after lunch many of us went up into small, nearby Stone Creek Canyon, where there is a marvelous waterfall. Fresh, warm water--a nice back massage and bathing (without soap which we do not use other than when in the river). Got all the sand out of my ears and other bodily cracks!"
Photo of Eleanor taken by another shower-taker
Sunset at Stone Creek, Mile 132watercolor, 6 x 4
Thursday Evening, Sept. 24, Day 14"Last night everyone was exhausted; we ran out of steam in all the rapids. But today with many excellent rapids and amazing beauty at Havasu Creek and all along the deep gorge--it seems like we all bounded back."Our morning had a good plan; up early, packed lunch sacks as we had breakfast, pushed off ahead of schedule, and arriving safe at Havasu after running the dreaded 'Upset' rapid--"t's a 'violent' wave ride" Pete told us as he prepared us--just the moment before he turned the dory downriver and we slid over the falls and into the heart of the rapid." Whew!

Havasu Falls, Mile 157watercolor, 4 x 6
"Havasu Falls are spectacular. The water blue green in a series of pools below a series of waterfalls and caverns. The mineral-laden waters are 'out of this world.' With assistance I made my way up to the 1st set of falls and pools--then painted and read there as others hiked further up the canyon. "That evening, after a terrific bath in the clear waters of the river, we had another wonderf dinner--linguine with garlic & clam sauce, cooked carrots and big salad--plus baked brownies hot out of the Dutch oven, That evening around our circle the boatmen all told their horror stories about 'upsets' in "Upset" rapid! Great, scary stories & riotous laughter."
Camping below Havasu"I'm tired, but loved Havasu Falls today. Now I'm going to sketch these wonderful 'horizon' lines created by the moonlight and shadows. We have not been able to see very much of the moon due to the extreme height (up to a mile high canyon walls) and these narrow canyons we are running through. I want to get this down on paper -- unless I grow too weary."
Moonlight on the Mesa, Mile 157Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 10 x 7.5
"The moonlight shadows we are seeing while down in these canyons is thrilling me. This drawing has the four layers, from the top, 1. moonlit sky, 2. moonlight shining on the canyon walls ahead3. shadow of canyon walls behind me 4. trees at our camp on the river in a narrow gorgeYou can see I did that sketch!"
Morning Shadows & Light At Promontory Point Mile 166, Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 5.5 x 4.5
Mile 166, setting up camp"'Lava' is in the air. Folks are talking rather quietly about it with each other. Now, tomorrow we will run it. This is the BIG one--rated a 8-10 (remember Crystal was 'only' 7-10). On my way back to my tent, I asked Chris if I could ride with him tomorrow. He said, 'Great.' I feel such confidence with him at the oars--but each of these boat-persons would be fine to ride with. Maybe riding with Chris makes me feel the fullest joy because he is free and easy about it all--in every moment--the less and the most challenging ones."
Running Lava Rapids"We are now 3 miles below Lava Rapids. Wow. Chris put me in the rear, facing back up river. It was stunning--like I was living in a cave full of angry, torrential water. At one moment I realized I was not breathing--holding my breath--ducked my head,took a couple of breaths through my sightly open mouth and just kept trying to focus on the magic all around me as huge wave after wave crashed over me."All of us soaked to our underwear, regardless of the splash gear...but the problem was the boat almost swamped. Lava is a double set of rapids; the minute we were not being pounded, knowing what was ahead, I started bailing furiously...and when Chris could drop the oars briefly, he jumped back behind his seat and with a bucket helped bail then handed me the bucket and jumped back to grab the oars as Lower Lava was almost upon us and he needed to heed his approach to the extent possible."We all made it through both upper and lower Lava and lived to tell the story! We stopped almost immediately at a sandy beach, to cheer and have lunch; we couldn't talk fast enough about our experiences running Lava!"Back in our dories, we meandered down this river I have come to cherish--both in such quiet moments as this as well as in the hair-raising ones!"
Experiencing Lava Rapids! Mile 169-171 Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 7 x 7
Photo by EleanorMile 183. Camp site three miles below Lava.
"At Embarkment Camp, we set up tents, took turns taking baths, readying ourselves for a real celebration...soon were popping champagne to accompany our steak dinners."It was a lovely lingering evening around our camp circle (the 'living room' we called it). Lonnie, our guide, led the group in telling stories, mostly about Lava, then more champagne."When I went to my tent, got myself organized for the night and had a lovely reading time...but when I turned off my light, suddenly I was WIDE AWAKE. I think adrenaline from the day was catching up with me. This was the first night I've not slept, however the stars are pretty good company for an awake-full night."

Whitmore Wash (just above Whitmore Rapid) View Up River, Mile 188, watercolor, 6 x 4"We made a brief stop here for a mid-day break. While I painted, several hiked up to the canyon rim. We will camp just below here a few miles. The rowers are working harder in a different way today as there is little current to help push the dories along."These last two days on the river were wonderful yet also filled with some melancholy, as we approach the end of this. But we had work to do---rapids to keep us focused on our work to the very end...even a really BIG one the afternoon we left Whitmore Wash."
Morning Shadows on Elena's Basalt Wall, Mile 202Journal Sketch, pen & ink, 9 x 4"We camped beside this well-known landmark along the river. It is a beautiful sight and I gloried in a wonderful night's rest beneath it ... and made this sketch quickly before breakfast."
Photo by Eleanor of the stunning Basalt Wall
Sunset at Our Final Camp, Mile 220
Photo by Eleanor, final camp living room (with Baby J parked next to the kitchen setup)
"Our final camp was lovely...the food delicious on a beautiful early fall evening. Sitting around our camp circle we told stories, shared memories, those of us who had been painting, by request, laid our work out on the sand for others to view ... and then we all began to get ready psychically to re-enter the World we left 3 weeks ago."At one point Lonnie (our guide) suggested we all put a hand full of sand in our Ammo Cans (small waterproof cans we were each given to hold precious items)--so when we get to the hotel we could sprinkle some between the sheets of the bed so we would feel 'at home'! Giggles all around."I have mixed feelings on leaving the river. I have loved this--definitely a high light of my life. It's been so wonderful to be down here soaking up all this beauty. I'm also itching to get to my easel in my studio."
Photo by EleanorPete Playing His Recorder at Mile 225, with the river hardly moving
"These last two days on the river--all day yesterday and the couple of hours this AM--were wonderful and filled with some melancholy. Rapids still this morning, 3 or 4 'very respectable ones ("hang on!" Lonnie shouted).""As we entered the final deep canyon Pete pulled out his recorder and played several of our favorite melodies. Tears."
Photo by Eleanor(in the second dory)
Diamond Creek, Take Out Point, Mile 225.9Just around the bend in the photo.
Diamond Creek, Mile 225.9"Rapids right to the last mile! And it was big. We were only on the river about 2 hours when we reached the Take Out Point. We helped pull the dories on to the sand. They will be rowed down into Lake Mead where they will be picked up. Baby J was deflated and bundled, the last of the food removed, put out on a surface of some kind and we stood around it to have some lunch ... until the old school bus (with huge tires) arrived and the Native American woman driver drove us straight up the old, dry, creek bed to the rim. Now that was another experience!"So this is sort of it ...."Later, "but lots of work reorganizing stuff at the hotel and then a SHOWER (in *hot water*) and an evening party--at a pizza restaurant nearby the hotel in Flagstaff, where we had a private room and ordered lots of pizza--the 14 of us treating the 8 member of the staff. Glorious storytelling and tearful farewells."