This Grand Canyon run was a practice run for our 2019 1000-mile journey. We scheduled this launch to be on the same exact day we will be entering the canyon in 2019. After many days of travel, rigging and orientations we pushed off in the rain from Lees Ferry on July 15th. The water under our orange 16-foot raft was cold, green, and crystal clear… for about a half mile when the silty Paria River slides in alongside the Colorado and in another half mile tumbles over rocks and mixes the clear water to the color of coffee with cream. Our raft was one in a fleet of 5. The other boats were 18 footers and carried our crew of 14-16 people. Later that morning, passing under Navajo bridge it occurred to me that the bridge was a gateway, a last marker and a last motorized access point for the general public. The Grand Canyon is still a remote location but in no way is the “Great Unknown.” We were well prepared with river maps providing us exact mileage, numbered ratings (and advise) for running rapids, and designated camp sites. I felt about as prepared as I could be. After all this was my 4thriver trip in about 3 years, my bedside table back in Laramie was overflowing with Colorado River books and I had my brother Shane with me for the first 7 days. I was confident in our oarsman Tom and had my art supplies safely rigged for the trip. Plenty of food, beer was iced and cold in our new age coolers. As Arizona folks know, Arizona is no place for anything but the best coolers.
As we entered Marble Canyon, I was curious (and cautious) in my approach to the famous Grand Canyon rapids. I was thrilled in anticipation of exploring side canyons, visiting rock art sites, tuning into the everchanging night sky and doing my job of producing field drawings for forthcoming SCREE exhibits. Shortly into Marble Canyon my intention to keep a written journal intention fell by the wayside. A major problem for me was attempting to spell out many of the locations. In that kind of heat, attempting to spell Vishnu Schist and Matkatamiba turned out to be a deal breaker for this writer.
There were many factors that made it difficult for me to find the time and place to focus, draw, and write even the simplest travel log. Occasional “half days” were scheduled so Bailey Russel, photographer, and I could be on shore and attempt to compose and produce. What made working in the Grand Canyon so tough for me was predictable. Not surprising, it was the combination of the overwhelming scale and intense heat that made it such challenge for me to concentrate let along approach mark making and rendering in in an engaged way. After hiking to a place to set up to draw, sweat would continue to drip off my brow into my burning eyes, onto my sweat stained glasses and then quickly evaporate after hitting my sketchbook paper. Working with watercolors in the Canyon was different. A challenge was actually mixing wet pigments in 110-degree heat with 30 mph wind gusts coming river from the Mojave. Watercolor would actually dry out on my brush before I could apply the paint. So, I mostly focused on graphite line drawings and limited my use of watercolors. I made color notes and finished the work in Santa Fe.
Also, a difficulty was the majestic Grand Canyon itself. I have spent many years avoiding working in unspoiled landscapes. My preference has been working from the side of the road and in the parking lots behind truck stops and motels… places where I can observe our encroaching culture sprawling out onto the surrounding deserts and prairies. Along the river, the banks, beaches, and canyon walls are clean and mostly free of visual cultural clutter. The river and Canyon look much like it has for millions of years thanks to the “leave no trace” policy and the diligence of the Park Service and river runners. For the past 30 years I have sidestepped these pristine landscapes as I feel like artists like Thomas Moran, and, Albert Bierstadt have successfully depicted these scenes as they romanticized the West and played their part in manifest destiny. That job has been done (although I am well aware that there are many artists still working with these attractive subjects). With this in mind, I approached this assignment like a student. I was simply intending to improve my ability to quickly compose, render the scale, and capture the patinas on the canyon walls along the way. I found it difficult to find spots that were both comfortable in the heat and provided an interesting composition. There were a few drawings that turned out well and I would like to translate into oil paintings, but I feel like they don’t capture the intensity of emotions that I felt in the canyon.
My experience in the Grand Canyon was overwhelming, mixed up and paradoxical. There were many contrasting elements: dry heat and hypothermal cold water, claustrophobia and expansive spaces, highly interactive social arrangements and loneliness, patience and restlessness, the physical work that goes into the set up and break down camps and being absolutely still with nothing to do but look for hours as we float. These are hard things to capture in photographs, drawings and paintings. I came away from that trip realizing a few important things that will help me as I prepare for 2019. I will not be bringing oil paints and surfaces on the river and will stick to graphite and water media. I must continue my river research and plan on taking tours of both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams this January. Also, I need to better prepare myself to handle the physical and psychological rigors of a 1000-mile river trip. This semester, I am practicing in a sunrise yoga class and reading about Buddha. I plan to continue my practice and continue to educate myself in ways to best mentally prepare for our forthcoming trip.