Two Sisters, One Ducky vs. The Grand Canyon
My sister and I fight. It’s a practice we’ve developed over the years the way other people practice yoga or piano, and I have to say we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Eighteen days together, deep in the Grand Canyon, sitting two feet from each other in our double ducky was a master class in cooperation.
Horn Creek Rapid (Mile 90, Class 8)
Our paddles waved wildly in the air as we navigated the slick, green tongue, preparing to drop into the rapid. We were completely silent, biting our lips and scanning the water. From our vantage point the river was a sea of whitecaps and the only clear lane was to the left, punching through giant lateral waves. Tunnel vision set in and I was hyper-focused on the first wave and the back of my sister’s head. As we entered the rapid I took one hard stroke to straighten us out and was promptly sucked out of the boat by a sneaky lateral. The water was so cold I could hardly catch a breath when I finally surfaced. The ducky was just to my right and my sister continued paddling unaware that her only sibling was flailing and spluttering just behind her. Wave after wave crashed over my head and I tried to focus on timing my breaths with the troughs and holding it at the crest. Finally, the waves subsided and I swam toward our tiny craft as my sister began looking around, a bit bewildered. As I heaved myself back into the boat, shaking and drenched she said, “Oh! I thought it felt a little light back there,” and we continued on.
The Gem Series (Miles 101-105, Class 3-6)
Between talking about pain-in-the-butt college roommates, the effects of eating carrots and pop-tarts for most meals and arguing about which line we should take, we swam…a lot. Agate Rapid flipped us, as did Sapphire, Turquoise, Emerald and Ruby. Sometimes it was an unseen pour-over, other times it was an ill-timed wave hitting at just the right angle to eject one or both of us, or sometimes a giant wave simply landed in our boat and displaced us with little effort. After each flip we’d grasp for the ducky, flip it into its rightful position and prepare for the next rapid, blowing water out of our nostrils and laughing harder after each mishap. By the end of the series, we were completely drained of fear, energy and pride, yet, we gained an unwavering trust in each other. Maneuvers that previously warranted a heated discussion were now executed seamlessly and without contest.
Lava Falls (Mile 179, Class 10)
At this point, everyone was taking bets on whether or not we’d swim Lava Falls, one of the most treacherous rapids in the Canyon. Given our track record, the prognosis was not good; we had swallowed a whole lot of Colorado River and there was no reason to believe this Class 10 rapid would treat us any differently. Our paddle strokes were perfectly in sync and as we neared the falls we knelt upright, knees dug into the floor of the inflatable kayak, tensing and leaning as if riding a finicky mare. The kayak felt uncharacteristically soft, but I disregarded it as we watched one, then two rafts hit their lines perfectly. We barely skirted the Ledge Hole to the right and the first set of lateral waves taco’d our now very deflated ducky in half. My knees were sunk so far beneath the tubes, there was no way I was getting sucked out so we held on and kept paddling, eyes squinted against the next onslaught of silty water. Mid-rapid I picked my head up as we furiously paddled and noticed we were facing upstream. The kayak was so soft it was almost impossible to turn, but it was also much harder to flip. After a few more attempts to buck us, we were spit out, ass-backwards amid cheers and shouts into the pool below.
My sister and I can’t reverse the effects of 18 days spent together in the Grand Canyon. We tested the boundaries of our relationship and found them stable and unmovable. Come hell or high water, I know my sister will be there for me, and I for her when we swim life’s more challenging rapids.
Photos: Steve Markle, Kate Dolan, Caitlin Kauffman