River is Boss: Lessons from a Grand Canyon Trip Interrupted

6 Min. Read
A helicopter lands at Nevills Beach in Grand Canyon to evacuate the author
A helicopter lands at Nevills Beach in Grand Canyon to evacuate the author | Photo courtesy Amy Kober

In the past year, I’ve listened to and shared a series of stories featuring experts, advocates and river runners throughout the Colorado River Basin. Last October, I launched on a private Grand Canyon trip with my friends and got to experience the heart of this watershed for myself. 

“River is boss,” my friend Beda said as she walked into the hospital room and moved quickly in to hug me. Gently, because my left arm lay limp, tucked into my chest like a little wing and my whole body curved around to protect it. Me, still wearing a bikini top with a down coat wrapped around my shoulders like a weird cape and temporary tattoos on my cheeks from camp the night before. She sat down next to me and I looked into her eyes through my tear-soaked lashes and confirmed: “River is boss.”

Grand Canyon whitewater can humble even the most experienced boaters | Photo by Krystle Wright

About eight hours earlier, I had been reading the description in our guidebook for Nevills Rapid to our rower, Andrew: A classic read-and-run and just beyond the rapid, a perfect sunny beach for the night’s camp. 

On these cold late-season Grand Canyon trips, that sun is like gold; an unrequited love that feels so out of reach at times—and oh-so-good when it allows you to revel in it for even a moment. Already chilled from a “no name” rapid upstream that turned out to be a lot like a real one, we couldn’t wait to strip off our splash jackets and bask in the promised warmth. As we pushed our way through the first waves, our friends in front of us waved a warning, but we saw the hole open up in front of us too late. It sucked the tube of our raft in and we felt the unmistakable pull that says you’re about to flip. 

With perfect timing, we threw our collective weight to the airborne side of the raft—highsiding to avoid flipping—and kept the boat upright. But the force of the hit—my shoulder against the raft frame—left my arm completely dead, hanging by my side. Five hours later, still barely able to move my fingers without fainting, we made the call no one wanted to make.

Sun setting beneath the rim of Grand Canyon | Photo by Krstyle Wright

Flying out of the canyon in the sleek red helicopter with the Park Service rangers, the low sun casting its orange glow on the river below, I wasn’t overcome by pain or fear; it was gratitude for those friends who had held me, whom I left standing in a spray of sand on the beach. It was gratitude for the incomparable rangers who had carefully loaded me into my first helicopter flight and expertly whisked me to the rim. 

And it was complete and utter awe for this river, for this canyon. Awe at the sheer magnificence of this place, carved over millennia by a river all at once powerful and fragile—precious. A place so big, so grand, words will never do it justice. A place sculpted by water, time and forces so much greater than you and I. 

I miraculously walked out of that hospital with no broken bones, just severely damaged nerves that have almost fully recovered at the time of this writing, and the ER doctor’s approval to hike into Phantom Ranch with my friends as they joined the second half of the trip, then back out with the first-half crew. The canyon beckoned, and my legs still worked after all. So just 36 hours after I had flown out, slinged up and with only one working arm, I stood with my friends in the dark morning at the Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim, fueled with hotel coffee and donuts, the air crackling with wonder at what existed in the abyss stretching for thousands of feet below us. 

The author returns to Grand Canyon to tackle an early morning descent of the Bright Angel Trail | Photo courtesy Jim Aikman

About an hour into our hike, the winter sun started to cast light on the grandeur that sprawled before us, the glow climbing its way through layers upon layers, each telling a distinct tale, some with stories spanning billions of years.

With each step, I felt the canyon come back to me; the sandpaper feeling of that red rock in the side canyons on my fingertips, the warmth of the sun on my face and a full moon so bright I could have sworn night was day. I felt the fireside embrace of my friends each night before lying down to sleep beneath a river of stars and those same friends pouring coffee in the morning. And that river, that boss—I savored the pulse of her current as she rocked our boats, the swish of the oars as they dipped in to move us forward, the roar of the rapids that never failed to make my heart beat faster and fuller, and the chill on my skin after I found the courage for that first river bath on a quiet beach tucked away from camp. 

I listened to the sunset song of the canyon wren and the whoosh of the raven’s wings as they swept over our breakfast, the chirp of the bats overhead and the stoic bighorn sheep family that watched me on my last afternoon on the river, standing sentinel over the humans who were visiting their home.

The aquamarine waters of the Little Colorado flow into the mighty Colorado | Photo by Krystle Wright

I bore witness at the proposed Marble Canyon dam site, the blast tailings too recent for comfort. I said goodbye to lost loved ones along the otherworldly blue of the Little Colorado, and I was transfixed by the confluence of that milky water as it swirled into the deep green of the mighty Colorado River. I felt the power of this water, this so-called tamed stretch between two man-made structures so large they can be seen from space. This river, the Colorado, took her time carving her masterpiece and we, humankind, are no match for that kind of force. 

I still find myself so deeply humbled by what I and my friends managed to find ourselves in the midst of. As I walked into and back out of that canyon, I fell in love. 

A campfire warms the group on a chilly late fall Grand Canyon trip | Photo by Krystle Wright

I fell deeply in love again with the dear friends on those rafts and alongside me, and with the incredible humans who had joined the trip last-minute, strangers who had become family. And the connections that catalyzed in that canyon still shimmer. 

I became utterly enchanted with this river and this canyon that broke me open, that forced me to dance the in-between, that wrapped its magic around my bones and pierced my heart. Places like this, that humble us, spark awe and wonder, and remind us we’re part of something so much larger than ourselves—these places strike at the pure essence of what it means to be alive in this wild world, to have the great privilege to call a treasure like this home. 

As I hiked out in the last light, another sunset ascent out of the canyon, a passerby asked what happened to my arm, and I smiled as I told them, “River is boss.”

Emily Nuchols

Emily Nuchols is a writer and the founder of Under Solen, a communications consulting firm with a cause. A fierce advocate, Emily firmly believes in celebrating every win—large and small—and that it is entirely possible to change the world one party at a time. She’s been a friend and partner of OARS since 2015.

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