The Walton brothers are back and rested from their rafting trip down the Colorado River, full of stories, memories, and the gratification one gets from completing a once-in-a-lifetime wilderness adventure. Over eleven days, they rafted 192 miles, bucking through 66 rapids, 28 of which were level IV or V (i.e., significantly formidable). Since the Colorado is open to paddlers only by permit, almost everyone on the river is with a professional outfitting group. This is good because the rapids and cold water (around 50 degrees) are dangerous even when you know what you are doing.
So the brothers joined 12 other trippers at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as 4 guides and 4 support staff from O.A.R.S. outfitters. They spent time at the start in orientation: man-overboard drills, helmet rules, and “groover” instructions (a groover is a backcountry toilet for solid waste, because we all know that everything we eat must come out, and that on the Colorado, everything solid that comes out must be packed out). At 4:00 a.m. the next day, they set off down the Bright Angel trail from the rim of the Grand Canyon hiking down (with a capital D), nearly 10 miles to Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River. They began in a frosty, pitch dark with headlamps, and 3 water bottles apiece. By the time they reached the bottom it was 95 degrees and they were footsore, more than ready to on the river. The rafts were awaiting them in the cool brown Colorado, 4 for the 16 trippers and 4 guides, and support staff with other rafts with supplies like food, drink, gear, and groover. The group all agreed that this was the most physically-challenging day of the trip, and that hiking 10 miles downhill makes everything hurt: back, hips, knees, and, most especially, toes.
When you trip with an outfitter, you have to learn that you are the patron, and the staff is there to serve you.
This is so unlike any trip you would plan and execute on your own; on this trip, carrying the gear, brewing the coffee at 5:30 a.m., cooking the food, cleaning up the camp kitchen, and steering the raft through dangerous rapids was all done for the trippers. This is fun for most people, and allows them a chance to enjoy being in the wilderness without any of the obligations of planning and paddling. But, for the two paddling Walton brothers, this was hard. They enjoy the process, and welcome hard physical challenges, where testing themselves against the beauty, danger, and mystery of the wilderness is the main thrust of why they go in the first place. This is not to say they didn’t have a terrific time on the Colorado, only that they would have enjoyed a more hands-on experience.
It begs several questions that have plagued the national parks for decades. How do we get more people in touch with what the wilderness has to teach, and accommodate the novice explorer’s lack of expertise and physical fitness, while preserving the true notion of “wilderness”? How do we make the wilderness accessible and relatable for people with disabilities? We know that hands-on experience is a master teacher. So, if we want people to advocate for wilderness preservation, how do we help them be active participants instead of passive passengers?
The world is shrinking. The national parks are experiencing record numbers of visitors, and the wildness of the lands the government preserves is in peril when accessibility/development is at loggerheads with preservation of the virgin wilderness.
Edward Abbey, John Muir, and Henry Thoreau would decry the bulldozers ripping and gnawing at the wilderness so that the auto, RV, motor boat, and trail bike can reach far corners, in faster time, than would happen if we could only get there on foot, or with mute paddle.
What’s lost is the silent stretch of time and physical challenge that births reverence and awe in the undiminished wilds, something that industrial tourism* can never authentically afford. For now, there’s the shallow surface beauty that national park visitors can enjoy in a quick stop-for-a-day.
The deeper, more mysterious, yet difficult to access “unhurried grace”* of the wilderness, is won
only by those able and willing to do the hard work to get out and away from the crowds, and it is diminishing by the year.
* Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. Chapter 4. 1968.
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