Shared Stories: On the Edge of Danger

If you’re planning a trip down the Colorado River, or even if you’re not, Elaine Held’s account gives a good idea of what to expect.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Elaine Held

Standing on the edge of the world I was fascinated with the ribbon of water snaking around corners far below. The Grand Canyon is aptly named. Every moment changes the color and formation of the water.  

My experience with the Canyon had always been from the top but now I had a chance to experience the wonder from below with my husband. He had made the trip twelve times before and the men had decided it was time for their wives to be introduced to the magnificent beauty from below.

When we arrived at the jumping off spot the boats were waiting for us. For some reason we were made to wait a long time.  I finally made Bill tell me what was going on.  

He explained we couldn’t start until the Forest Service found the body below us. A man had stepped on his boat the night before and slipped off to his death.

Finally, we boarded the boats with our hearts in our throats. We had two rafts about 16 ft. long and one gargantuan raft that would help carry our stuff. The first day was a learning day.  
Nothing can be left behind, so a huge ammo can with a toilet seat on it sufficed for a bathroom. Second: you never go on board a boat at night. Third: Everyone helps with everything. Last: if there is an emergency, get out of the way.

It takes a while to get used to the world upside down. The walls of the canyon go straight up both sides, creating a small, narrow plantless world. At night the sky is outlined by a ribbon of stars above. 

You keep your personal things in a small ammo can so nothing gets wet. The first night we sat around in chairs and got to know each other better. In the morning our ammo can was open and some things were missing. That wasn’t possible.  

Everyone became a detective, but no one could figure it out. The cans were latched in a way they could not come open on their own. We were in the wilds so no person could have done this.  

The next night our guide, Steve, sat up all night with his camera. Sure enough, as we slept, a long, slim furry body crept from ammo can to ammo can. This animal had a long ringed tail and was named for it. A ringed tailed cat. They have thumbs as raccoons do, so they deftly opened each can and took only what they wanted.  

Two nights later, as we sat in our chairs, a mountain lion walked right between us to the water. After drinking his fill, he walked back near enough to us so that I could have touched him.

For the entire trip, Bill described to me the most terrifying rapid called Crystal. My fear grew and by the time we got there, so I was honestly thinking of walking around it. I couldn’t do that, but I expected to end up in the river.  

We got out and the men went high to observe the water. They had enough experience to read water and knew how to run the rapid by figuring the water. When I got to where I could see it, my terror exploded. As I watched, two people in kayaks ran it and both flipped and rolled until they were through, and then they righted.

Our turn. I concentrated on trusting my husband. Immediately my world was filled with water. Water in every shape roared around me. Bouncing through on rough water we exploded out of the other side. I was alive.  

The water calmed and Bill brought our boat to the side to watch the others. The other two boats both flipped. The smaller one flipped straight backwards and everyone got to the boat as soon as they could. 

One woman was caught under her boat, but Bill got a hold of the edge and she had room to get out from under. We dragged her into our boat. When everyone was accounted for Bill asked if I saw Crystal when we went through?  

Really! He was so excited because the water was a perfect whirlpool and he could see the bottom of the river.

Now I could relax the rest of the way, which I did. Laughing, Bill said there was a little rapid ahead. I wasn’t even looking at it until it ripped me off my seat into the water. Shocked, I turned toward the boat.  

Bill was frantically motioning to me to get to the boat. Not understanding, I did what he was motioning. When I got there he grabbed the bottom of my swimming suit and literally threw me over the side into the boat.  

When I turned, I saw I had been between a huge rock and the boat.  Only then did I look to see why my ankles hurt. We had been told at the beginning to tie our tennis shoes tight so if we went over we wouldn’t lose them. I had done as told but the water was so powerful it tore both my shoes off and my ankles were bleeding. I still have the scars.

Some memories are forever. The beauty we witnessed was heightened by the excitement of being on the edge of danger.