Last February, I presented at the Out of Yosemite conference. I had turned down the offer to be an instructor there twice. I had only visited Yosemite once before (for a dear friend’s wedding) and had never photographed there before. I didn’t feel like I belonged. After some cajoling by the Out of Chicago staff, I finally agreed. And my life, unknowingly at the time, was forever changed.
(Let the remainder of this story be a lesson in saying YES!)
While there, I happened to meet Jeanne Falk Adams, Ansel Adams’ daughter-in-law (and later, Michael, Ansel’s son). Jeanne attended my three-hour Visualization session where we struck up a conversation about water-related topics—rafting, paddling, oceans, rivers, etc. After my gig, she invited me to participate in an upcoming exhibition she was in the process of curating called “Vital Waters” for the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, CO. It featured ocean-related works by Ansel Adams, Ernie Brooks, Scott Campbell, Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, Chuck Davis, Camille Lenore, and Robin Robinson. She had been looking for one last photographer to add to this line-up. There was only one problem: that show would feature only black & white photographs. I work almost exclusively in color…
When she asked me if I worked in black and white, I said, “I can if it means I can be a part of this show!!!”
Instead of changing who I was as an artist, my style, and my focus, we came up with a new idea. I was to have my own separate solo exhibit in the foyer leading into the “Vital Waters” hall. We called it “The Current Flows: Water in the Arid West.” It included 16 of my photographs—in color!—focused on the Colorado River watershed. In preparing for the show, I wrote captions that were too long to fit on the wall (a surprise to no one…)–and we realized not everyone would be able to get to Pueblo to see the show–so we created an exhibit catalogue for “The Current Flows” that contains the 16 photographs, expanded captions, and a Foreword by Jeanne.
Just over a week ago, I had the great honor of participating in the opening festivities for the complimentary shows “Vital Waters” and “The Current Flows.” It was a whirlwind of joy, gratitude, celebration, and new friendships. When I climbed up the last of the third story steps and saw my images on the wall for the first time, I teared up. I can’t thank everyone who played a role in making all this come together. It truly was and is the privilege and thrill of a lifetime.
To see some “happy snaps” from Friday’s opening gala and Saturday’s “Coffee Talk” with Jeanne Falk Adams, visit the exhibit website: www.thecurrentflows.com and select the Exhibition Photos tab. (For those who know the background on “cyan,” notice the wall color. That wasn’t my doing! The arts center picked that paint color out without me knowing. Gotta love the Universe!) From the website, you can get to recommended books, river guiding outfitters, and other resources for getting involved and becoming part of the flow.
Both shows run through January 2022. If you are in the Pueblo area—or need an excuse to make a road trip—check out both shows on the 3rd floor. (They take up the entire 3rd floor.) In addition, swing by the 2nd floor to see Ansel’s Polaroid Teaching Panels—which have never been on display to the public before.
Then mark your calendar for 11 am on July 31, 2021! I’ll be giving a “Coffee Talk” for my exhibit at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo, CO. It’s FREE to the public. You’re all invited!
If you can’t make it out there, grab an exhibit catalogue (available in print and eBook formats) to bring the show to you. I’m donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of this catalogue to the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center to support their programming and to American Rivers.
For the love of the River!
Michael Adams (Ansel’s son), Jacque Miniuk (my mom), Jeanne Falk Adams (exhibit curator and Michael’s wife), and Bob Miniuk (my dad) pose in front of the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center before the opening gala on June 4, 2021. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I or my parents would ever meet Ansel Adams’ family nor have my photographs in a solo exhibit on water (I used to be terrified of water where I couldn’t see my feet!). But here we are…you just never know where the river of life will take you. So long as you keep saying YES!
I had the chance to speak with Marci Nault at E2T Adventures about stand-up paddleboarding, facing fears, and living life on your own terms on our individual rivers of life.
This was one of my first podcast interviews not about photography specifically (although the topic does come up in the discussion). You’ll hear some of the backstories I write about in my forthcoming adventure travel memoir called “Going with the Flow” (Yes, I’m STILL working on it…my latest draft went to one of my editors on April 30!).
Thanks to Marci for the great exchange of ideas. Here’s hoping you gain a dose of encouragement and inspiration from our chat. Have a listen and look at the full show at https://youtu.be/szYPH-TmV6c. Then, as the slogan for E2T Adventures goes: Experience, explore, and thrive!
Thanks to many of you, I have SOLD OUT of my first edition of the guidebook “Photographing Acadia National Park: The Essential Guide to When, Where, and How.” I continue to get requests for copies (that I don’t have) and many of you sent in great suggestions for new locations and other revisions.
So I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into the updated 2nd edition! I’ve packed all I’ve learned into this 224-page book from my 450+ days in Acadia since 2009 as a three-time Artist-in-Residence, frequent workshop instructor in Acadia (and elsewhere in the United States), and visitor and lover of the park. This updated version includes:
80+ new photographs with descriptions and technical details provided
4 new locations
5 new Making the Photos stories
An expanded Photo Basics section in the front with updated instruction
GPS coordinates to the parking lot and/or trailhead added to each location’s directions
But your help is needed!
I am offering pre-order discounts on books, eBooks, image critiques, and photography workshops with me to help raise $5000 (a third of the cost to publish the book) to print this exciting new edition. I delayed publishing this book for a year due to the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the stay-at-home orders and strict travel restrictions had a significant financial impact to my business. So ordering today will make a HUGE difference in my abilities to bring this title to life.
Now through May 22, 2021, not only can you pre-order one or more books at discounted price (which won’t be available after the campaign concludes), but you can also get your name listed in the book forever, set up a private image critique session, and even reserve photography workshops with yours truly as your personal tour/photo guide in Acadia National Park! (My normal autumn in Acadia workshops are sold out for 2021 AND 2022 already so this is a great way to there with me!)
For every book/eBook sold, I will continue to donate 10% of this book’s profits to the Schoodic Education Adventure residential program, an unsurpassed educational opportunity for middle-school children to learn about art, science, and nature in Acadia National Park. So not only will your contribution today get you a helpful guide and help me bring this book to live but also together we can make a difference in inspiring our future generation of Acadia lovers!
So don’t delay–pre-order your copy today! We’ll ship you the first books hot off the truck the second it arrives (targeting in late June 2021).
Help spread the word! You can also help by sharing this blog post and/or the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign link (https://igg.me/at/photoacadia) with your family, friends, and camera clubs!
Like many young kids, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought maybe a doctor or a lawyer. Whatever it was, I intended to pick one path and stay with it until I retired, make a lot of money, and then live happily ever after…
Out of college, I landed what many would call a dream job at a dream company. One year of long hours and stress became 2, 2 became 3, 3 became almost 10—and I couldn’t sit in a windowless, grey-walled cube anymore. On February 28, 2007, I walked out of Intel to become a freelance photographer. As I wrote in my goodbye-and-thank-you letter to my friends and colleagues, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” (a quote by John A. Shedd).
Today, I celebrate my 14th Independence Day, a day I celebrate like my birthday.
Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have believed that THIS is where I’d be. That I’d prefer sleeping in tents, under the stars, and in my camper to sleeping in my own bed. That I’d be teaching workshops, including all-women’s ones, across the U.S. That I’d be sharing the joy of photography with photographers across the country through webinars and conferences. That I’d be writing guidebooks about wildflowers and Acadia and an adventure travel memoir and running a publishing company. That I’d be writing an online column called Dear Bubbles. That I’d be serving as the Treasurer for a non-profit called the Outdoor Writers Association of America. That I’d be working with amazing partners to help progress photography and protect rivers. That I’d be prepping for a solo photography exhibit curated by a member of the Ansel Adams family. That I’d fall in love with rivers and coasts and stand-up paddleboarding and rain and ballet and BUBBLES! That the girl who grew up terrified of water when she couldn’t see her feet would be on the verge of becoming a river guide on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Someone pinch me!
In those 14 years, I am so fortunate that I have found what I’m built for…and I am grateful and thrilled that none of it went according to my original plan. I am also filled with immense gratitude for all of you and your support over these years, for it’s because of you that I am able to spend each of my days doing what I love and to live a meaningful life of adventure, wonder, and helping my community.
So ring the bell! Break out the bubbly and pie! Here’s to you and to freedom, sailing and paddling into the unknown, and going with the flow!
About a week ago, I went camping with Jeanne Adams (Ansel Adams’ daughter-in-law). She came to Arizona to pick up a new camper van and my 16 prints for my “The Current Flow: Water in the Arid West” exhibit this June. Before she drove home, I offered to help her break in her new rig (while following all COVID social-distancing guidelines). We ended up spending a delightful three days in Marble Canyon along my beloved Colorado River. I photographed. She painted. I watched her. She suggested I should try watercolor painting sometime.
Growing up, I had little exposure to visual arts beyond finger painting and paper mache masks in elementary school. In eighth grade, I was so bad at drawing, I transferred out of an art class after the first day. (I elected to take Home Economics instead where I ended up burning bread during the baking assignment and sewing the legs on my shorts shut during sewing…). I had tried watercolor painting once and it almost made me cry. Runny paint, mixed colors, and unpredictable results were a perfectionist’s nightmare. Other than photography and one hilarious (but fun and enlightening!) attempt at painting Monet lily pads at a wine-and-paint shop down the street in 2015, I’ve steered clear of any artistic expression requiring significant hand-eye coordination…
Until last night…
When I returned home from my trip with Jeanne, I ordered a cheap watercolor set—paint, brushes, and a small booklet of watercolor paper. Last night, I gave it a try. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to mix colors and water and empty space. I had no idea what different brushes do. I just made up the scene as I went as I watched the paint do whatever it did on the page. I just responded to it. Now, I did tap into my growing understanding of how to depict depth in photographs to help create dimension—lines, layers, light, and even optical illusions.
Above are my results: a recovering perfectionist’s first attempt at watercolor painting.
If I could tell my younger self anything, it’s that you don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it and learn from it. (I realize one could make the argument that bread tastes better, and thus is more enjoyable, when it is not burned…). If you’re having fun keep doing it. If you aren’t having fun, stop and find something else fun to do. Why spend the time you have on this planet choosing to do things you don’t like to do?
You can bet I’ll be painting with watercolors again tonight…
Happy New Year, everyone! Here’s hoping your 2021 is off to a bright start.
I certainly don’t need to remind anyone that 2020 wasn’t the year we had all planned. Yet, as I kept in touch with people across our virtual communications lines, I’ve heard so many stories about how we each still found moments of peace, of hope and joy, of awe and wonder. Those are the memories worth packing along with us as we move into a new year of opportunities–so I offer these images of mine, none of which were expected, but all welcomed, all where I found peace, hope, joy, awe, and wonder rolled together, as a celebration of the 2020, the Year O’Change:
Just Another Speck of Dust Death Valley National Park, CA
Those Ghost Trees Yosemite National Park, CA February 2020
Losing My Marbles Acadia National Park, ME February 2020
Graceful Transitions Acadia National Park, ME February 2020
Tonto National Forest, AZ
Tonto National Forest, AZ
Sierra Ancha Wilderness Area, AZ
April 2020 (on my 45th birthday!)
Make Your Point
Sierra Ancha Wilderness Area, AZ
Past, Present, and Future
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Ode to Desert Winds and Water
Bears Ears National Monument, UT
Tartan of the Wheatgrass Devils Canyon Campground, UT
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
The Looking Glass
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Green and Red Coming Together
Canyonlands National Park, UT
Spinning in Infinity
Canyonlands National Park, UT
Where Affections Lie
Canyonlands National Park, UT
Jumping into Adventure
Kanab Creek Wilderness Area, AZ
Take Center Stage
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
The Edge of No Limits
Kanab Creek Wilderness Area, AZ
More Than Sand
Jewel of the Creek Preserve, AZ
The Desert’s Devotion Cienaga Creek Natural Preserve, AZ (it’s Davidson Creek, though) October 2020
The Trees for the Forest
Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog, AL
Sea Shell Serenade
Gulf Shores, AL
There you have it! If you wish to hear and see an in-depth review on eight of these images, swing over to Vimeo for a special presentation of “Making the Photographs: The 2020 Edition.” (Use discount code GROW2021 to get 20% off!) I cover what caught my attention, technical and creative challenges in the field, compositional decisions, and processing techniques. Hear the “what” and, more importantly, the “why” in hopes you get new ideas for your own work in 2021.
For more photographs, stories, and perhaps laughs–hey, if you cringe at your old work, you’re growing as a photographer and human, and that’s something to celebrate!–here are the links: (I apparently took a few years off after 2017…)
I hope you too take a second or longer to reflect on your year’s journey. I hope you recognize how your kindness, generosity, perseverance and inspiration has made a difference for me–and for all of us–during this tough time. As we start 2021, let’s hang on to all of that. Let’s keep making the world a brighter and better place together through our photography and unique stories. Now, more than ever, I hope our paths cross “out there” safely later this year.
Until then, be well, be wild–and be safe! Hugs, high fives, and fist bumps to all,
The confluence of the Green (left) and Colorado (right) rivers on the final morning of my paddle adventure.
This is the first October in 11 years that I’m not in Acadia National Park adoring the coast and chasing fall colors. Ongoing pandemic concerns and strict travel constraints cancelled my photography workshops there this year (one of which would have started today…). Those same reasons cancelled my appearance at this year’s Out of Acadia conference too. When I made those tough decisions, I felt sadness, disappointment, and frustration.
Requisite selfie at the start of my trip at Potash Boat Ramp
You know what wasn’t cancelled, though? Life.
I decided to use this unusual gift of time to explore another place that holds great meaning to me: the Colorado River. A couple of weeks ago, I went on a six-day solo paddle on my stand-up paddleboard through Meander Canyon, a 47-mile stretch of flatwater through Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah I’d not yet experienced—but had wanted to for years.
I launched at the Potash Boat Ramp, and after learning to faithfully follow the bubble line around sand bars to avoid getting stuck, watching big horn sheep rams climb impossible cliff walls, and listening to the river lave the shore each night, I ended at the magical confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. I even had the confluence to myself for 21 whole hours! Yes, tutus and dancing and wine were involved! Don’t worry, eagles and ravens supervised.
So while Acadia wasn’t in the cards for this year, the trip gave me the chance to not only get some fresh air and deepen my connection with the river (which did wonders to uplift my spirits), but it also helped me create new photos for an upcoming exhibition and gather words for a new book project.
As my smart mama used to tell me growing up, “If one door closes, push another one open.” You just never know what kind of meanders your life will take…
See below for some photographs from the trip:
My first camp after a 16-mile paddle, near mile 31 (distance measured from the confluence)
Foam bubbles collected against my SUP during a rest stop. How long do you think I stood there and photographed them?!
Sunrise view from my camp on Day 3 (near mile 12). I hadn’t intended on traveling so far on the second day (about 20 miles), but camps weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be per the map… I was treated to this glorious sand bar and view for my extra efforts.
The Loop refers to an S-curve in the river that travels four river miles but loops back to within a quarter-mile of itself. From this viewpoint, which required a stair-step climb for a half-mile, you can see both sides of the river at the same time…this is the beginning of the Loop looking downstream at mile 11.
The Colorado River had remarkably low sediment, so the bucket I brought to settle water using alum became an extra piece of gear to drag along…until I realized I could fill it with cool water and have it serve as my wine cooler!
View from my camp on Day 3 (mile 7). I had blue skies almost the entire trip–except for night 3 (and the last morning of my trip at the confluence). As the sun started to set, a few poofs of clouds crested the cliffs in front of me. Then a few more, then streaks. I ran to the nearest eddy, which was all of ten feet in front of my tent, to make this image. As I like to say, sometimes “we must suffer for our art.” (LOL)
The view from my SUP on day 4, about 5-6 miles from the confluence
Looking downsteam at the Colorado River (officially the start of Cataract Canyon) after the Green and Colorado merged at sunset on day 5.
Sunrise at the confluence looking towards the Green River on day 6.
Jumping for joy at the confluence where I camped for two nights until the Tex’s Riverways jetboat picked me up and returned me to Potash (a two-hour-plus boat ride UP the Colorado River).
While the trip was 47 river miles, my Garmin InReach logged 57.5 miles from start to finish. Why the 10.5 mile discrepancy? The extra distance I likely covered constantly zig-zagging across the river following the bubbles and avoiding sand bars…(which I was mostly successful at doing…)
What do you do when your photography workshops get cancelled and you can’t see your photography friends? Why, you get together remotely and make a video from home instead!
In hopes of spreading joy and laughs, a group of women from my Sheography community recently joined in from across the United States and Canada and, well, we wanted to have some fun. Here’s what we came up with: https://youtu.be/JOGylOUFzwY
Thank you to all the amazing women who contributed to this compilation video–and involved their spouses, grandkids, pets, inflatable flamingos, toilet paper, maybe even Sasquatch, and of course, bubbles! It was a blast to put together with all of them. We hope it brightens your day!
Learn more about Sheography, my all-women’s photography workshops, at www.sheography.com. We put the HER in photograpHER. And as you can see, FUN is always on the schedule! Even in quarantine!
PHOTO: A quick iPhone snap of my backyard camp. It ain’t a beach on a river, but it’s still home…
Two nights ago, I heard the hoot-hoot hoot-hoot-hoot of an owl calling through my open window in the dark. I couldn’t understand what it had to say, or if it was saying anything at all, my mind cluttered by coronavirus, uncertainty, and change. But it soothed me.
I’ve been home now for 25 days straight, an eternity for a wanderer like me. It’d be easy to feel sad, disappointed, even angry, as plans to float rivers, photograph coastlines, spend time with friends and family, and more fell apart in what feels like a blink of an eye. An understandably distraught friend wrote me yesterday, “Life has been cancelled!”
When he said that, I recalled the owl’s song. The owl knows nothing about the plight of the human race right now. It’s life isn’t cancelled. Although it may feel otherwise, and that’s ok, ours isn’t either. Life is still happening all around us. It’s ours to still live fully, albeit differently, if we so choose.
Late last night, I walked into my gear room, where my still-packed dry bags for a cancelled river trip sat stacked neatly in a line. I dug out my tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, and headlamp, maybe some dark chocolate-covered cherries too. I headed to the patch of artificial grass in my backyard to camp with the palo verde tree, Orion, and of course, the owl. If I couldn’t be on a river or on a coast, I could still be outside.
Around three, I woke again to the familiar chorus: Hoot-hoot hoot-hoot-hoot. The owls message was now clear to me: If you can’t change the rules, change the game.
The Tale of the Colorado River Croc
(or, How I’ll Never Forget the Line through Lava Falls)
I could start this story in the traditional way, with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago, in a faraway land.” But I’m a river guide in training. I’ve learned to start all river stories with “NO SHIT! This really happened!”
So: NO SHIT! This really happened!
There I was, just another speck of sand clinging to a thirty-five-foot motorized boat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t alone. The boatman, Lars, and the swamper, Josh, were in charge of the eight-day operation, both guides from Hatch River Expeditions, the commercial outfit I had hired for a private charter.
I was on board as the photography guide and instructor. I had convinced fifteen unsuspecting guests to join me on a trip called “the Grand Canyon Rafting Photography Retreat.” “It’s such a cool trip,” I had said to lure them in. When Lars motored us into our overnight camp around river mile 159—159 miles into our 188-mile trip—it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. “That is cool,” I told them. “I mean, compared to yesterday’s 113 . . .”
In the shadow of a thousand-foot cliff, Lars shooed us off his boat, and onto a series of long, narrow, stair-stepped ledges made of black and beige Tapeats Sandstone. Our camp for the night. The place didn’t have a name. It was a wide spot in the canyon just big enough to fit a kitchen, a groover, sleeping cots organized in two rows on rock shelves stacked like bleachers, and a yard-sale assortment of clothes and camera gear. After we unpacked the boat, Lars pointed out the high-water line, which doubled as the “don’t-camp-below-here-or-you’ll-die” line. Four of us took three steps back. A voice from the back suggested we name this prime riverside property “Lars’s Ledges” (which wasn’t to be confused with The Ledges, a formal camp upstream near river mile 152). We were all living like Lars now, like real river guides: living on the edge by living on the ledge.
PHOTO: Camping on Lars’s Ledges. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.
The late afternoon sun started tracing the backbones of ocotillo-lined ridgelines and spotlighting distant serrated spires. A sign from the river gods to commence the Ritual of Noctis. Change into camp clothes (a fancy term for pajamas you’ve worn for six nights straight). Set up cot. Wash hands. Eat. Clean dishes. Brush teeth. Check under cot for rattlesnakes. Pour sand out of shoes. Then, as the sliver of sky overhead sings its soothing lullaby from cobalt to navy to purple to black, fall asleep.
As I neared the end of this evening’s ceremony, I wasn’t tired. Neither were the guides. Josh invited me to join him and Lars for a rendezvous on the boat where they slept. This was my fourth trip with Lars, my second with Josh, but I still felt like I had been summoned to the popular kids’ table at a high school cafeteria.
I bounced across the unloaded S-rig, feeling my way in the dark by memory around the oblong-shaped doughnut and long, torpedo-like tubes attached on either side like outrigger pontoons. I found a perch on top of a metal food box in the back of the boat. I took my shoes off, my cyan-colored Crocs, and set them next to me. My feet dangled inside the floorless raft, where I could hear, but not see, the Colorado River rushing beneath me.
Earlier versions of these “baloney boats” had sealed floors and thus were not self-bailing. Assistant crewmembers used buckets to remove water from the boats so they wouldn’t sink in the rapids. These lucky individuals were known as “swampers.” Even though the Grand Canyon Expeditions founder Ron Smith ripped out the floor years ago—a design known now as the self-bailing “S-rig,” the “s” for Smith—the term “swamper” lives on. Before you ever think of becoming a head boatman, you have to do time as the swamper, at the beck and call of the boatman. On this trip, in addition to leading the photography activities, I was the swamper to the swamper. I was doing double time.
“Wanna beer, swamper?” Josh asked me. Lars didn’t drink.
“Is the pope Catholic?” I said, turning toward the sound of his voice.
He opened the cooler.
“What was that?” Josh asked.
I had no idea. I couldn’t see anything other than a faint V-shaped silhouette of the canyon walls and stars sparkling overhead. I turned on my headlamp.
“Where’s my shoe?” I spotted my left Croc on the food box beside me, but not my right. “I think that was my shoe.”
“Oh, that shoe is gone,” Josh said, handing me a cold one.
“If you fell in here without a life vest, you’d die,” Lars’ voice boomed in the dark from across the boat. His 280-plus trips down the river had worn him into a realist. “Maybe you’d resurface ten days later downstream like dead bodies do. Probably after Lava Falls somewhere. Or maybe you’d just stay in the river. Yeah, that shoe is gone.”
I took a long swig of beer. Josh did the same. I shrugged and said, “It could have been worse. It could have been the beer.”
“The first rule of being a river guide is to keep your shoes on your feet,” Lars said. “If you step on a stick and it goes through your foot, or you get even a simple infection, you’re getting helicoptered out. Trip’s over. What are you going to say to your clients then?”
My shoulders fell. I had passed all previous swamper training exams, which had included tying tidy taut-line hitches, grilling Texas toast without burning it, digging up band-aids in the first aid kit, discouraging clients from making oven mitts around their hands with toilet paper, and pushing wet—and hopefully clean—butts over rocky steps in narrow side canyons. I was failing this quiz, though. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a river guide after all. Or maybe I’d find my way. One thing was sure: I wasn’t about to sit and wait for the other shoe to drop. I picked up my left Croc and put it back on.
“I have Chacos with me,” I said sheepishly. I didn’t dare tell Lars that I referred to those sandals as the Death Shoes, wearing my Crocs whenever I could. The Death Shoes had caused dime-sized blisters to bubble on both of my heels and etched long abrasions across the top of my feet. I’d never feel thankful to be off a river, but I was glad I would have to suffer in the Death Shoes for only another thirty-six hours.
Several more rounds of banter and beers passed, and finally conversation tapered off. Josh gave me a piggy-back partway back to my camp on the lower ledges. I hopped on one foot the rest of the way, too independent and too damn stubborn to let a higher-up carry me any farther. While I sat cross-legged on my canvas cot, I slid my left shoe into my dry bag so I wouldn’t lose it. Although I didn’t know what I’d do with a single shoe. Be half a river guide?
Sleep came easily. Waking came sudden. In the middle of the night, a thunderous boom jolted me upright in bed. The river, twenty feet from my feet, sounded different. She no longer mumbled by. She raged and roared and thrashed. Trees snapped like toothpicks. Boulders smashed against boulders. The hardened sandstone underneath me shuddered. I flashed my headlamp toward the channel. The opaque green water had turned to blood. The river had flash-flooded, returning to her true self. This was what she looked like before 1963, when the Glen Canyon Dam upstream stripped her of sediment and changed the color of her waters. In Spanish, “colorado” means “colored red.”
I laughed aloud. I had no hope of getting my shoe back now. If it hadn’t drowned in Lava, the sudden torrent had chewed it into oblivion. I fell asleep again trusting Lars knew where the high water line was.
PHOTO: Lars cooking up breakfast in the morning after the flash flood. Note the change in the color of the water from the photo above. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.
We woke on the seventh day, yet there was no rest from all the work to be done. The river flowed gently again, as if the flood never happened, but the most violent rapid in the Grand Canyon, Lava Falls, waited downstream. Water there plummets over ancient basalt rocks scattered across the riverbed, dropping 37 feet in height in about 750 feet in distance around holes deep enough to swallow a two-story house. To the outside world, it’s a waterfall. To the rafting community, it’s a bucking class 10 rapid. Or, a test of survival. We’d face our fate in twenty-one miles.
We loaded the boat and chased reflections of cliffs and light between the narrow, near-vertical walls of the canyon for the rest of the morning. From my seat near the back of the boat, I wrapped my feet toe to ankle in athletic tape before slipping into my Death Shoes. Our guests dipped their sarongs and bandanas and hats in the fifty-one-degree water to stay cool. The river stained everything red.
The overnight flood gave us something new to do as we floated: sort through river booty. River booty is like pirates’ booty, except it’s the Colorado River that plunders the goods. The most highly-sought after treasure? An unopened beer chilled by the river herself. And also my missing shoe.
We spied a brim of a hat, half of a gnawed-up bailing sponge, even a torn-up captain’s chair, all drifting by. I pointed to another object bobbing off in the distance. “Lars, what is that? Is that a beaver or a river otter or a . . . ?”
“No. That there is the elusive Grand Canyon gator, the rarest species of alligator in all the world,” Lars said. The rounded head with a long snout swam closer to us.
“Lars! That’s a piece of wood,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“How do you know when a river guide is lying?” Josh said. He didn’t wait for a response. “His lips are moving.”
“That joke is older than Vishnu Schist,” I groaned, referring to the billion-year-old rock exposed in the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon.
“Don’t take that schist for granite, swamper,” Josh said. Zoroaster Granite, which is equally as old, criss-crosses the Vishnu Schist formation.
We stretched our legs on a short hike into National Canyon, a narrow side canyon, then continued floating downstream. We pulled into a sandy beach around river mile 168. “Lunchtime!” Lars yelled from the back. “Colleen, tie us off.”
PHOTO: Our group of river rafters at lunch at mile 168 before hitting Lava Falls. Note the tutu (while wearing the Death Shoes).
Another river guide pop quiz! I grabbed a two-foot-long sand anchor, then tiptoed along the right boat tube, careful not to fall in. I unraveled the rope at the front of the boat, then marched twenty or so feet up the beach. After pushing the metal spike into the soft sand, I tied a well-dressed knot.
I too was well-dressed, and feeling it. I was wearing my lucky blue tutu. For Lava.
Lars inspected my work, kicking the three inches protruding out of the sand. “The first rule of being a river guide is to make sure you’ve pounded the sand anchor all the way into the sand. Otherwise the boat will drift downriver. Trip’s over. Then what will you say to your clients?”
“I thought the first rule was to keep shoes on my feet,” I said, pressing down on the anchor with the ball of my foot.
“That is the first rule.”
“Then this would be the second?”
“No. It’s also the first.” Lars bounded onto the boat.
“Let me guess. All the rules for being a river guide are first?”
“You’re catching on quick there, swamper.”
“How is that even possible? If all the rules are first, then none of them are,” I said, taking an armful of food from him to set up on the beach.
“Law of the river.”
“Created by who?”
“Oh right. I forgot. Lars’s Law of the River.”
For lunch, our group smashed peanut M&M’s into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, devoured our twenty-seventh tube of Pringles, and slunk from one patch of shade to another as the sun cast shadows of willow and tamarisk across the shore. We didn’t linger. Lava loomed twelve miles ahead.
After a bouncy ride through Fern Glen Rapid, a class 2, Lars cut the motor, looked at me, and asked, “How do you approach Lava?”
I had studied many historical explanations in the Great Library of Almighty River Knowledge—the internet—of how to run Lava. Seven days of river time, withdrawn from technology, though, had turned my brain to mush. I couldn’t remember.
“Very carefully?” I said, laughing. When I saw he wasn’t joking, I straightened up.
“Follow the bubble line?” The easiest way through a rapid usually entails following the bubble line through its smooth V-shaped tongue.
“You’ll drop over the Ledge Hole and die,” Lars said. “Do you go left or right of the bubble line?”
I had a fifty-fifty chance. “Um. Left?”
I winced. I hadn’t kept count of all the ways I could have died so far, but I was starting to wonder if talking with Lars was dangerous to my health.
“Then right!” I said.
“Hug the right side to avoid the Ledge Hole,” Lars said. “But stay left so you don’t get sucked into the Pourover.”
Maneuvering a boat, especially one the size of a small barge, down the narrow navigable channel between the Ledge Hole and the Pourover requires a surgeon’s precision. The Ledge Hole, on the left, spans almost half the river. The Pourover, on the right, tumbles over a smaller, but no less dangerous, pit closer to shore. Rafters must punch through what sits between, the Hump Wave, a long, feisty lateral wave they fear—until they see what’s next.
“Then get ready for two more big hits,” Lars said. “First, the V-Wave. Don’t get turned around there, otherwise you’ll end up in the Corner Pocket on the right. Then, T up for Big Kahuna.”
First, the V-Wave. Its two lateral waves form the open jaws of a laughing hyena lying on its side. The teeth of the two waves devour boats that aren’t angled right. Then the hyena laughs and keeps frothing at the mouth. The alternative is to take a spin in Corner Pocket, where the swirling current holds rafts hostage and shreds them against Cheese-Grater Rock. It’d take a boat as long to get out of Corner Pocket as it would a dead body to resurface there. Maybe longer. And likely in worse condition.
Then it’s Big Kahuna. “Kahuna” is a Hawaiian word for sorcerer or wizard. That wave is a magician all right. It makes rafts disappear. Boats spill into a trough so deep they vanish from view. Seconds later, they crash into a ten-foot standing wave. If your boat hasn’t folded into a human taco once you hit what feels like a slab of concrete, then it stays submerged underwater as it plows through the crest. Lucky rafters resurface eventually. Smart ones bring a snorkel.
Lars revved the engine and off we went to meet our doom. From a quarter mile away, the roar of Lava echoed through the canyon. Soon after, the bubbling cauldron came into view, foaming and cackling. We made the requisite offerings to the river. Circled around Vulcan’s Throne. Looked up at the small arch on river right, the canyon’s Eye of Horus. Tightened down boat straps, life vests, and butt cheeks.
“It might get a little splashy,” Lars said, which is code for “Hang on. We might die.”
He led us into the maw to the right of the bubble line and executed the plan to perfection. In eighteen seconds, it was over: just like that, we were through Lava Falls. The Ritual of Aqua commenced. Hooting and hollering. Exaggerating the size of Big Kahuna. Cleaning fish out of our ears. Our boat had busted a tube strap in the V-Wave, but Lars blamed that on me wearing a tutu.
We spent a few minutes watching other boats take their turn down Lava, then turned to putt-putt downstream to our final camp at Whitmore Wash. After a mile or two, excitement melted into melancholy. Chatter silenced. No one wants a river trip to end.
“Hey, look over there! What is that?” someone suddenly yelled from the front of the raft, someone obviously still on river booty duty. I stood up thinking it would give me a clearer view of the sighting.
“Lars! THAT’S MY SHOE! I mean . . . ” I turned to him and changed my voice to mimic his. “That there is the elusive Colorado River croc, the rarest species of crocodile in all the world.”
Lars smiled. He circled around the eddy but couldn’t fit our boat’s big nose into the small gap between fallen boulders. He pulled into a longer eddy thirty feet downstream. Josh disembarked, then bushwhacked through tamarisk and rocks, jumping over at least two sleeping rattlesnakes, maybe three, to rescue my Croc with a fishing net. Back on board, he handed it to me and said, “Don’t lose this again.”
(VIDEO: Josh rescuing the Colorado River Croc: https://youtu.be/cw-S9p8Y0mo)
“My shoe made it through Lava all by itself!” I turned to Lars. “A successful solo run. On its first try!”
“I bet it stayed to the right of the bubble line,” Lars said, grinning.
“Of course it did. It’s my right shoe!”
My clients stood quiet on the tubes looking at me, Josh, Lars, each other, me. One eventually piped up, “So . . . yeah . . . how’d you lose your shoe?”
Before I could answer, Lars chimed in. “Did you know 87 percent of incidents in the Grand Canyon occur on shore? Of those, 96 percent involve alcohol.” He paused. “But 99 percent of statistics about river incidents are made up on the spot.”
“But, Lars, this isn’t a Croc of shit,” I said, waving my shoe in the air. “Remember, I’m a river guide in training. I have to end all river stories with ‘It’s all true.’”
This story originated from my participation in the Fishtrap Outpost writing workshop on the Snake River with Craig Childs. Much gratitude to the Outdoor Writers Association of America for granting me the prestigious 2019 John Madson Fellowship award, which provided financial support to enable me to experience the magic of Hells Canyon for the first time while honing my outdoor writing skills.