Katie Lee's Grand Canyon

Katie Lee is known for many things, including her passion for the Grand Canyon. This story, which we included in our May 2016 issue, originally was published in the June 1960 issue of Arizona Highways. We hope you enjoy it.

Traveling the Canyon’s White Water Highway …

While visitors from far and wide flock by the thousands to view our natural wonders, those of us who are fortunate enough to live in this variegated state are often lax about taking advantage of our position. We have only to drive forty-five minutes from desert floor at twenty-one hundred feet above sea level to cool pine-scented mountain air at seven thousand feet or more; or take half a day scurrying to the blue Gulf of California for skin diving, a look at Mexico, sailing or deep-sea fishing, yet years will pass before we stand (and some of us never) on the rim of the Grand Canyon. 

Born in Tucson only two hundred and eighty-seven miles away, it took me eighteen years before I saw what I now consider to be nature’s greatest wonder. An eighteen-year-old is pretty much involved with subjects other than nature’s spectaculars but on that day I stood in awe at the shock I received from a vastness and beauty no one can tell about, yet all try. 

Some years later I came again to that same rim but for another purpose. One even more inspiring than the first. To run the Colorado River and its rapids ... to see what few people even know exists and fewer yet realize they can witness ... the entire Grand Canyon from the bottom up. Those with acrophobia would surely appreciate it more. Of course, the intensity of appreciation varies with the individual and depends greatly upon whether he likes water with his outdoors ... turbulent water. I must explain that my first trip through in a power boat proved to be too much too quick. We had many a wild ride down every rapid on the river but we had to go over two-hundred and eighty miles in eight days from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead and one cannot absorb such magnificence in so short a time, rather one is blinded by it. Startling impressions reveal themselves months, even years later in retrospect, to the point where you ask yourself if it really happened at all. Now after seven years spent on this river things have simmered down, taken a normal place in the scheme of events and I find I am able to describe my feelings and impressions about this gorge with greater accuracy and less emotion. 

***

It is late afternoon, July thirteenth, nineteen fifty-five, the night before my third trip on the most unpredictable of rivers. My companions and I have stopped at Desert View Lookout Tower on the south rim for a special purpose. Down in the canyon deep shadows jig-saw against the fire of the sunset. Light rays pierce through storm clouds on the far horizon and thunder rumbles in on the wind, as it does almost every evening during the summer months when the hot air from the river rises to meet that cooled by the pine-covered Kaibab Plateau. The sinking sun in a last brilliant blaze spills from under a cloud and striking the surface of the ribbon-like river a mile deep in the earth, flashes on Hance Rapid then disappears for the night. We wait for fifteen minutes before we see what we came for. Peering through binoculars, into the depths of the canyon’s twilight, I pick up a driftwood fire leaping in wind-blown dance by the river’s edge where our boating party is camped for the night. We flash the headlights of the car off and on, a signal for our simultaneous arrival at Phantom Ranch tomorrow morning at the foot of Bright Angel and Kaibab Trails, then we throw our bedrolls down in the piney-wood and sleep until four-thirty. 

Walking down the Kaibab Trail to a point seven and a half miles from the rim in the cool light of dawn, watching the sun effuse itself into the shadowy depths of this monstrous pit, is an experience open to everyone, but again, unfortunately, known to only a few. It is also a descent into time. The trail is well marked for the hiker, with signs denoting the rock formations and their ages ... Permian, Devonian, Cambrian, Algonkain ... six to seven hundred million years old ... Redwall Limestone, Coconino Sandstone, Hermit Shale, Toroweap and Supai formations ... a deep cut back into the beginning history of our planet. When the pack train passed us in a cloud of trail dust I was jogged quickly back to the present. I heard quite plainly the synesthetic music of Ferde Grofe’s Suite and realized how accurately he had depicted in music the bumping jog of a mule, especially as seen from the rear! 

After that, we saw no one and no thing but this vast inverted mountain creeping up through the dawn into the sun of morning systematically and inevitably as it has done each day for timeless eons before the biped laid tracks upon it. 

For river runners of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch is the halfway mark of their trip. Some leave the upper run here and “drag out” the Bright Angel Trail on one of Grofe’s mules to the south rim. Others come in that way or walk, as we did, down the Kaibab Trail to continue via water to Lake Mead, ten days below. At no time during those days do we see other human beings except at a supply trail near the lower part of our trip where food is again brought in to us. 

***

There are eight passengers, four boats and four boatmen, and by the end of the second day when all facades have fallen away under nature’s erosion we know each other quite well. Twelve people held together by the necessity of combating the elements and surviving through portages, truculent white water and the pernicious whims set forth by a rugged, isolated, intolerant terrain. One thing we all have in common is the spirit of adventure or we wouldn’t be here. Basically we’re interested in the mysterious yet logical way this canyon came into being. Some are geologists, some doctors, some writers, some artists, some professors or students, working people seeking release from the tensions of our daily lives. But all of us are here to see what this colossal cut in the earth can tell us and we find that time and tide wait for no man, that the human life span is equal to less than one inch of the rock strata buried in the earth ... one inch out of more than five thousand five hundred feet. After this discovery, this finding out how unnecessary we were to the creation of the tangible world we lose a good deal of our self-importance and are much easier to get along with. For this reason alone, if there were not a hundred others, the trip is worthy! 

It is pleasant to rise with the sun and go to bed shortly after it sets. This rhythmic setup would not tempt me up there in the world of people, especially since I’m a “night person,” but I find it difficult to sleep with so much candle power glowing and so much to see in that candle power. Dawn in the inner gorge is lighter than you might think. The high cliffs are of a lighter rock and as soon as the sun touches these they reflect down on us and bring with them the warming heat of the day. After a full five-course breakfast with monstrous cupfuls of camp coffee, all passengers neatly shake and remake their bedrolls, stuff them into their respective bags and carry them, plus any personal gear, down to the boat where they are loaded into the watertight compartments of the stern and bow. Two passengers to a boat make a full load because each boat carries its quota of food. In case one gets flipped we’ll still be able to eat. This Cataract or Sadiron boat (describing its shape) is a sturdy, concise, well-designed piece of equipment. Made especially for these rapids in this river by experienced boatmen, it is entirely functional and not lacking in grace. Sixteen feet long and six feet wide, rising two feet from bottom to gunnel in the widest center section, made of marine plywood and coated with a fiberglass bottom, it weighs unloaded nearly eight hundred pounds. Sealed airtight compartments keep it afloat even if it is full of water or overturned. All gear is stored in fastened, waterproof hatches. 

Leaving Phantom ranch on this trip I had a most ambivalent feeling, one of complete joy tinged with trepidation. Joy that I was to be isolated for ten days without any knowledge of or comment from the outside world ... to be isolated safely gives one a secure feeling, that is until the first rapid is heard around the bend ... then suddenly I realized if anything should happen isolation would be the last thing I’d want. The butterflies took over until we had crashed madly through the whipped up foam of agitated water safely into waiting eddy below. Once that was over I began to approve isolation again. 

***

As I said before, if you love not the water this jaunt is not for you because you are either in it or it is on you most of the way. Since the temperature is near one hundred this is only refreshing, particularly to stern passengers who “fisheye” the bigger rapids. This method was developed some years ago by one of the first cataract passengers who found himself in the water a good deal of the time. Sitting up he took the full pressure of a silt-ladened wave upon his torso and even though he would be holding with white knuckles to the safety ropes strung tightly around the top edges of the stern deck, he would invariably be whipped off the boat into the rapid. So he devised the method of lying face down with his head almost hanging over the stern, his stomach across the closed hatch and his legs spread out one on each side of the splash boards rising along the boatman’s cockpit, with toes tucked under the ropes. In this way he could use the V-shaped splash boards to hold his legs in position, while he hung to the side and front ropes, as the rapid might institute. A boat can rise on a wave that is some twenty feet from crest to trough to an almost completely vertical position. As it rises, the stern passenger, if he’s adept, can throw his weight on the rising edge and help regain the balance. I thought I had mastered this maneuver until one year through Granite Falls rapid, I headed for the high side only in time to find it was on its way down into the largest hole I’ve ever seen in moving water. I plunged headlong into this, spun completely around and nearly tore my hand off on the rope while fighting to stay with the boat. All passengers who stay with the boat seem to live longer than those who get dished out into the rapid solo. Now I’m being ostentatious like I was after my first trip. There is a rapid approximately every three miles on the Grand Run but all of these are not major rapids. I’d say one out of three, the rest are just riffles, fun to play with. Besides, the owners of these boats are so concerned with the lives of their passengers that if there is the slightest chance they may get roughed up they’re all taken out and walked around the rough water while the boatmen go through alone or the crew “lines” them down the side, sliding them over the rocks near the shore and guiding them with a rope and manpower through the swift water edging the rapid. Your life and mine depend upon the correct decisions of the leader, whose years of experience have let him know and calculate this wild kaleidoscopic river. Life jackets have saved many a life but are worn only on orders from our leader. They seem to be of little use in extremely violent water as those who have been submerged can tell you. You simply go where the current takes you and come up when it lets you. Any fighting on your part only tends to shorten your breath and exhaust your strength. It is moving too fast to hold you down for long and since both passenger and boat move at the same rate of speed downstream in approximately the same place, it’s more than likely a rope will be tossed in your direction and the jacket will keep you buoyant from there on. Having jumped into a few rapids on purpose without a jacket as have many others, I can only say it’s necessary to know which rapid ... such knowledge I gleaned from J. Frank Wright of Mexican Hat Expeditions ... “Our Leader.” He also designates where the passengers ride. Only the more experienced River Rats are allowed on the stern, those unfamiliar with the ways of white water ride in the bow behind the boatman, where it is comparatively dry and nearly impossible to fall out unless the boat turns over. The bow passengers must be as excellent a bailer as the stern passenger is a swimmer. 

***

The technique of rapid running on the Colorado has undergone several changes. Major John Wesley Powell, who took the first recorded trip through the Grand Canyon in 1869, would sit in a captain’s chair lashed to the top of his boat and direct the oarsmen with a wild waving of his one arm and shouts barely heard above the din of the rapid. That is what present day river runners call “Major Powelling it.” However, that method grew obsolete and by the time commercial running of the Colorado’s Grand Canyon was started in 1946 this expression was replaced by “Face Your Danger” or more poetically by some boatmen, “Stern first into the raging torrent!” This allowed him to see not only where he was going but to give a pull against the current away from sheer walls and gaping holes. 

The proper entrance to a rapid can mean the difference between “upset” and “upright” landings at the bottom, so before attacking a major rapid the boatman cadre convenes on the bank above its jaws to study the pattern. You and I wouldn’t see any pattern, only a mad jumble of deleterious water, roaring with deafening magnitude in our ears. But there is a pattern and the art of reading it belongs to very few. After the boat enters upon the smooth “tongue” at the head of the rapid there are often a series of lateral waves caused by the water ricocheting off a sheer wall to the right or left. These are deft at flipping boats and must be cut into with a corner of the sadiron’s stern or avoided like the plague, if possible. “Cheating a rapid” is pulling to the side of the rough water thus missing all the tail-waves which in most cases are harmless. They appear at the lower extremity of the rapid after the big holes have been navigated ... but not always. I once saw a boatman hit one of these innocent-looking places and disappear from sight. When the boat came up out of the hole he had disappeared from sight. He’d been knocked off the oars and slammed down in the cockpit with a force so great that it stunned him. We thought he’d been tossed out until a minute later in the eddy below, arms and legs began flailing up over the gunnels. He’d just run half the rapid with his head in a bailing bucket! Since we were all standing on the bank we thought this was very funny and called him bucket head the rest of the trip. Such is the life of a boatman. 

Do we spend all our time on the water? No. In order that you understand what a full day is like in this most secluded, most rapturous spot, I’ve torn out a few pages of my diary: 

Sunday, July 17: Camped above Deubendorff Rapid 

This morning as I lay there in my bedroll watching the dawn slowly reveal majestic, pink stone, cathedral spires three thousand feet in the air, I thought ... what a wonderful God was here! ... these ruddy gripping forms carved by His hands of sand ... wind ... and water, into shapes man wishes he could copy but will never. 

Old Deube rapid rumbled and shook the ground under my air mattress making me wonder if we were going to have to line it this morning or ride it. This low water is a pain in the neck. Two years ago there wasn’t a rock visible, now it’s full of them. I had a breakfast that would choke a horse. Grapefruit sections, dry cereal with preem, nine pieces of bacon, three hotcakes, a glass of milk and three cups of coffee. The funny thing is it will all be walked off by noon. 

We lined the upper half of Deube and ran the lower ... all boats through in less than two hours. Not bad since it’s about half a mile long. At Tapeats Creek we stopped to swim, bathe, wash clothes and fish ... in that order. I walked away upstream remembering that the famous Thunder River dumps a mess of trout into this tumbling blue water some distance up from the Colorado, and as I walked they scurried for cover under the rocks. There must have been millions of them! Too bad I don’t fish. Below Tapeats I slid off the stern and swam through the “granite narrows,” in some places only sixty feet wide and this year as calm as a pond. In ’53 the powerboat almost slammed into the wall here, skidded around by the boils and whirlpools of restricted water. 

We arrived at Deer Creek Falls for lunch and a look at the flowing veil of water shooting out of the wall seventy-five feet above. It lands in a deep green pool at low water and into the river during floodtide. Everyone tried to go back behind it but the spray was so thick that only the most intrepid managed to keep from coming out gasping and sputtering into the rainbow air. After lunch some of us hiked up the trail to Surprise Valley, a mile up and back off the river. Such an unexpected spot way up here in the wind-sucked rocks. We inched along a very narrow ledge about three hundred feet above the bed of Deer Creek. Walking away from the Colorado we suddenly found ourselves level with the stream bed and surrounded by a valley of great green trees, singing birds and cascading waterfalls. A Shangri-la! Grim, jagged cliffs protecting their little jewel of cottonwoods, sycamores and willows. In this dream-like place we spent the rest of the day sleeping, swimming and exploring, until the sun fell down and the mountains slipped a shadow over the whole thing. 

Back at camp the smell of burning driftwood filled the canyon and we again ate until we couldn’t move. After tea and coffee we sat around the fire with a guitar and sang songs of the river and the wild, woolly west, but soon we staggered to our feet and went off to find a nice flat spot on the sandy beach for our bedrolls. We have a wicked rapid tomorrow. Upset, it’s called. Tonight I had a treat I’ve never known before ... a showerbath under Deer Creek Falls! The wind caused by its rapid descent is quite strong and since this is not the time of the moon it seems like a deafening thunderstorm throwing a torrent of rain through the black pitch of night. I lay in my bed but couldn’t sleep. The pool of clear sweet-tasting, sweet-smelling water urged me back up the sand bank into its black wavy depths. Maybe the gang is right when they say I should have gills instead of feet. This much I know, I’m nature’s child. I love her gifts, too often taken for granted. I treasure her secrets, plundered and mistreated. I stand amazed by her balance, thrown out of kilter and defied. I wonder at her majesty and why she allows me to live and choose and think and again love her ... thus completing the cycle.

Photo: Amid churning Colorado River rapids, Katie Lee plays guitar and sings on the back of a Mexican Hat Expeditions cataract boat in the 1950s. | Northern Arizona University Cline Library