May you walk gently through the world, and know it’s beauty, all the days of your life-
“It would start right there,” Matt said pointing to an outcropping near the rim of the Grand Canyon “Then it would angle down to that point there, and eventually to the floor of the Canyon.”
We were standing on the Beamer trail a few hundred feet above the Colorado River, squinting into the sun reflecting off the glowing Canyon walls, on our way to the Confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado, hoping to catch it on one those days where the minerals in the Little gave it that blue/green coloring.
This was my second attempt to reach the Confluence, an adventure Matt had put in my head two years prior, but one that he had been planning for since 2010, having two previous attempts thwarted.
Matt was a Canyon addict, he knew everything there was to know about this giant hole in the ground. He knew all the trails on both the South and North sides, the history of those trails, the stories of the people those trails were named after & could name all the landmark buttes, bluffs and explain the difference between the type of rock in the Red Wall to the Tonoto level. He was the perfect guide, historian, and adventure buddy.
Together we had made four other hikes into the Canyon, and spent the time between those journey’s plotting and scheming the next one.
Until 2014 I had never been to the Grand Canyon, but when I was in Patagonia, Chile for an Ultra Marathon in September of 2013 I got to chat with a lot of folks from other countries and the conversation usually turned to them asking me if I had been there. I said no, and they were shocked, they had all traveled from Australia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and beyond and been there, why had I not? I lived there and didn’t check out the beauty in my own backyard?
After returning from that trip I began to really dig in to the Canyon, I planted to seeds of a Rim To Rim To Rim attempt (running from the south rim to the north rim and back via the corridor trails) with two of my buddies Greg and Mitch and then reached out to Matt who lived in PHX and who I knew spent a lot of time in the Canyon.
Matt and I had worked together in Minneapolis for a short time, and while we had a lot in common had never really had an opportunity to get to know each other before he and his wife moved to PHX for a new job.
I shot him an email, did he have any advice about the Canyon, thoughts on the R2R2R…what came back was a detailed, mile by mile breakdown not only of the trails we would cover but what he brought on his attempts with his brother. That kicked off a correspondence that has not stopped since.
We tried to rendezvous that Spring during our R2R2R attempt but despite all the information Matt provided, this was a lot bigger of a journey than we thought. Our attempt started & finished in the dark that day while Matt drove up from PHX and went rim to river and out, making it back home before we climbed out.
That summer I was in PHX for work and we connected, talking of the Canyon and began to plan a backpacking trip that fall, I was hooked, couldn’t get the Canyon out of my mind.
In the fall of 2014, my technically 3rd trip into the Canyon (after our R2R2R Ali had flown in and met us, she and I did a tour of Sedona, Zion & then did the Canyon rim to river over the course of a week) Matt, his brother Ben & I were planning a long weekend loop down the Tanner trail on the East end of the Canyon along the Escalante and back out.
When we reached the river that day, Matt & I posted up under some trees right on the shore playing Uno and cooling off in the river while waiting out the worst of the heat. It was there Matt told me about the Confluence, this magical place where the water flows blue/green and you can see the complete contrast with the green of the main Colorado. It sounded amazing, we had driven along the Little on our way into the Park from the East end and you could see where it cut through the ground before joining up with the Colorado.
After returning to MN from that trip, we began to shoot emails back and forth again, adventures we wanted to try, environmental issues that were threatening some of our favorite spots (development along the south rim of the Grand Canyon being a big one at the time) we signed petitions to make our voices heard and then Matt brought up the Confluence.
Since that last trip, I had researched it and seen the pictures, read what it meant to the Navajo people and the mining ruins along the trail.
Matt secured a permit and that fall we gave it a shot. I arrived in PHX on a Sunday morning, originally, we had planned to head straight to the Canyon but it was getting blasted by rain so we spent the day at Matt’s house with his wife and two sons, heading out around 4am the following day.
That backed our itinerary up meaning things were going to have to go perfect for us to complete this ’37-mile knee-buckling’ (according to backpacker magazine) journey.
The first day was great, sun was shining, the journey down Tanner was smooth (smooth as could be expected) we had to do some route-finding along the bluffs above the river and through the tamarisk we eventually made it to our campsite, tired, hot and dusty but no worse for wear.
From there, things didn’t go as planned, the river was running brown, full of sediment making filtering an issue, not to mention problems with our stove and dark clouds in the distance we never made it beyond Palisade Rapid.
It was raining when we woke up and while we waited for it to taper off we realized we were not gonna make it out to the Confluence. The trail is a few hundred, if not thousand feet above the river, offering no chance at water (and with our filtering issues we wouldn’t have been able to get drinkable water anyway) the rain just wouldn’t stop plus our weather report showed worse storms still to come.
So, we packed up and headed back out, one day busting tail all the way down only to turn and head back out the next, reaching the car just as the storm arrived.
We would be back, we just didn’t know when…. during the winter, Matt sent me a link about more development threatening the Grand Canyon & the Confluence specifically. There was a group who wanted to build a tram from the top of the Canyon down to the bottom, ending right at the Confluence. This threat had been made before but suddenly it had legs under it and was moving swiftly.
We signed petitions, made our voices heard in online forums opposing the development, urged our friends and family to do the same.
As winter turned to Spring, my brother, buddies Mitch & Cano meet Matt at the Canyon for another R2R2R adventure and he again spoke of the threats to this amazing area.
A few weeks after returning I got an email from him, it was a forward from the National Park Service approving his permit request back to the Confluence…there was no note from Matt just the permit.
I sat at my desk, looking at the dates wondering if I could pull it off. I responded ‘Is there room on that bus for me?’ Come hell or high water (or no water in the case of the desert) we were gonna make it to the Confluence.
Over the next few months we traded emails plotting the trip, and talking about how important it was to get there before it became developed. I remember one text from Matt that really stood out ‘I can’t wait to be standing at the Confluence watching that blue-green water flow, but more so I can’t wait to be standing there with my boys someday telling them about the first time I made it out there and how it looks the exact same”
Just as the journey to the Confluence shouldn’t be as simple as stepping into an air conditioned tram, getting there for me wouldn’t be easy either. Originally, I had planned to fly out Thursday night, we would head to the Canyon camp on the rim, then hike to the river & Palisade Rapid the following day, get to the Confluence the next, head back to Tanner to camp & then climb out.
Instead the WNBA Finals went to game 5 and I had to change my flight to Friday morning, we left the airport around 11am arriving at the Canyon in the afternoon with a few hours of daylight remaining.
Packed up quick and hit the trail, slowly making our way down the now familiar Tanner Trail.
We made it through the Red Wall before the sunset and hit the long, slow, grinding Tonto layer as darkness fell. Headlamps out, we just continued to grind, hitting the river around 6pm in total darkness.
From there we navigated the bluffs at the start of the Beamer trail, and eventually settled on a campsite around 745 in the sandy area just beyond them.
The next morning, we rose around 6am, a solid breakfast of eggs and hash browns to fuel up for a long day, 2.5 miles to our next campsite where we would drop our packs, then another 6+ out to the Confluence and back.
The weather was perfect, chilly in the shade as we headed toward Palisades, right at river level, the mighty Colorado flowing fast and smooth to our left, red rock to our right. This time there was a lot less route finding, with no rain for the past few weeks the trail was a lot easier to spot than last year.
We found our site (dubbed ‘The Secret Garden’ after the Springsteen song) dropped our big packs and pulled out day packs loaded with water and snacks.
We headed out knowing there would be a big climb at the start then just following a relatively level trail in and out of the slot canyons down to the Confluence.
The initial climb didn’t mess around, we scrambled through the loose rocks, leaning heavily into our trekking poles, stopping to catch our breath, partly from the climb and partly to soak in the beauty of the sun rising, hitting the canyon walls across the river making them glow.
We were fortunate to be on the east side of the river so we were in the shade for most of our hike out but we knew coming back we would be heading directly into the sun.
We fell into a rhythm on the trail, making good time through the flat sections, getting slowed as we navigated the ups and downs of each slot canyon (there are something like 20 of them, some dropping a couple hundred feet only to climb back up that on the other side to regain the trail.)
After a few hours, the left side of the river was totally in the sun and we were starting to get some on our side, Matt walking ahead of me slowed to a stop. We knew we were getting close, we could see where the canyon split off to the right of Chuar Butte.
“Look, you can see it coming in!” He said. I looked at the river, there was a sand bar in the middle of the river, the Colorado was flowing green but along that sand bar there was a little streak of the blue-green color that the Little Colorado flowed. We were close and with so little rain recently both rivers were free of the usual sediment that causes them to flow brown.
We rounded a bend and were stopped in our tracks, the contrast of colors, the rivers together but separate like oil and water for a few hundred yards before the main Colorado swallowed up the Little.
Hiking down to the shore we pulled our shoes off, sinking our feet in to the freezing cold water, wading up to our knees through the clay-like sand, laughing like children that we had finally made it to this sacred spot.
The sky was such a rich, deep blue color, the side walls of the canyon a rich gold, the Little Colorado aqua-blue, the main Colorado green, so much depth and definition to the landscape. We sat on rocks, in silence, soaking it all in.
Eventually we found some shade and settled in, listening to the flow of the water, leaning back against rocks that made up nature’s easy chair, relaxing after the effort of the past two days to get here. Life slowed to the essentials, water, food, shelter. Matt talked of the mining ruins along this trail, I drifted off momentarily letting the whirlwind of the past few months go, feeling light, connected to the landscape, simple.
After a few hours, we packed up wanting to get back to our camp while there was still some daylight so we could filter water and cook up a big meal.
The journey back was challenging as we went into the sun, taking caution to duck out of it and rest from time to time, eventually making it to our campsite with plenty of daylight left. We filtered water at the rapid, cooked dinner down there and settled onto some rocks watching the sun set on an amazing adventure.
The Confluence is a sacred spot to the Navajo, and having been there I can see why. Not knowing that it was minerals that caused the color of the water to change, one would believe there was something mystical about it. Sitting at its shore and watching it flow, even now knowing about the mineral deposits, it still feels mystical. The Canyon ecosystem is held together so finely that any sort of disruption to it would have far reaching effects. It reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns is told he has every disease ever discovered but they are all balancing each other out which is why he hasn’t died. But, the doctor warned, ‘one common cold could kill you’. To which Mr. Burns replied ‘So you’re saying I’m invincible…’
That is how I feel the Canyon is, and how people think of it. It’s an environmental marvel, but it’s very fragile and we’ve already seen the impact that the dams have had on it and other developments. You need to work with the Canyon, in unison, not think ‘It’s invincible’ because it’s not.
A development like the Escalade project would not just impact and possibly soil the Confluence, but it would have an even greater impact long term throughout the entire Canyon.
I would encourage everyone to oppose this project and other developments within the Grand Canyon, sometimes it’s okay for things to be hard to get to, sometimes things are better left alone, left wild, we need to think of the long-term impact not a short-sighted benefit.