By Pamela Domash, ’05
I pause, current rushing around me in the nearly waist deep river, watching the water pour down, around, and over a large bounder in the middle of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. There’s really no choice.
To the right is white turbulence as the water gets tossed around by rocks. The river stretches wall to wall in the narrow canyon corridor. I can try to go in the narrow outlet next to the wall, through which the water seems to gush out impossibly fast, or just push over the rock. I settle for a compromise, one hand on the canyon wall, the other forcing my hiking stick down against the current. I’m scrambling over the rock… and I’ve made it. I move to step down and suddenly I’m slipping and am now sitting on the boulder. Well, shoot.
“Are you okay?” a nameless hiker asks, stretching out a hand – we’re all friends here in the river. I’m fine. I take it and stand up, laughing. Oh well.
When I plan a hike I think of trails along meadows and up mountainsides, through forests, down canyons and across endless slick rock. Not in water. But I’m in Zion National Park, hiking the Narrows, the slot canyon that emerges when Zion Canyon closes around the Virgin River. It is a hike like no other I’ve done before; a hike that is almost entirely in the river.
Late May seems like the perfect time to visit Zion. I beat most of the summer heat, and the crowds are relatively light. But it’s not the optimal time of year for the adventure I most wanted to seize in Zion- the Narrows. The water is cold, just 48 degrees, and deep with the river flowing well over 100 cfs (cubic feet per second). Optimal flow, they told me, is around 70 cfs and permits for the thru-hike aren’t issued if the river flows above 120. The river alternates from below my knees to well above my waist, and all the while I am pushing my way upstream in an endless struggle.
I’m lucky to be doing the Narrows at all. I talked my family into it; we rented dry suits and took the short route; up the river from Riverside Walk, the trail that leads from the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the Narrows. We are heading upriver for three miles, hoping to reach Orderville Canyon, a side canyon which we’ve been told is the destination for those who do the up and back route. Then it’s just all downstream, back to Riverside Walk. The alternative would have been a sixteen mile thru-hike, from Chamberlain Ranch down the entirety of the Narrows. This, honestly, was what I wanted to do. But the thru-hike had only opened the day before. With a high and somewhat swift current on top of no canyoneering experience, there was no way I was going to attempt that route.
I turn back and watch my brother head over the same rock I just fell on. He takes two steps to the right and what was a struggle for me is easy for him. That’s the challenge with the river; you never know what the best route is. One step to either side can change anything from easy to impossibly hard. But that’s part of what’s making this trek so fun. I walk a bit further, and when I put my hiking stick down in front of me, it doesn’t hit the ground. At all. A step left and I’ve avoided the mysterious hole and continue. It’s amazing how much easier walking in the river gets. The first hundred feet, leaving the Riverside Walk, was almost terrifying. Rocks were slick under my boots, the river wide and uncertain, the water rushing over rocks everywhere I turned. Crossings felt treacherous, threatening to push me off balance. Now I barely notice the push of the water, and no longer do we pause to agonize over the smoothest area of the river to walk. It is all routine.
Pushing against the stream for three miles is hurting my knees, but it’s worth every step. The canyon walls rise above, impossibly sheer and narrow. I constantly pause and gaze up at the twists and crevices the river has carved. The sunlight warms us, then with a turn we are cast in shadow. We are continuously crossing the river, then trekking on dry land; sometimes for a few steps, sometimes a few minutes. The hike is over 60% in the river, however, and so we always head back into the water, twisting around corners and marveling when there is nothing in sight but two immense walls and the river, a brilliant shade of green, flowing between them.
We make it to Orderville Canyon and rejoice to have finished our push against the current. This side trip is supposed to be beautiful and we explore for a bit. The dry suits, with their charms of keeping us warm, have a flaw, and I discover it cautiously making my way through a chest deep pool. The air in the suits pushes upward and pulls me up as I try to walk forward. I know I look ridiculous, as though I’ve doubled in size, and my only consolation is that the rest of my family will look the same when they go through.
We head back downriver after too short a time; we’ve been in the river for hours and we still have three miles to go. As we walk back I marvel at the people we see; where did they all come from? We didn’t see more than ten heading up, including ourselves. I pause at a bend, canyon walls high above, the river roaring around the corner over a bed of rocks. We pause for photos and take our time. The river is pushing us along, and in seemingly no time, we are nearing the end of our journey.
The solitude ends and people are everywhere. A few minutes later we are back to the trail. I sit down to begin extracting myself from the confines of the dry suit. People look at me curiously; I can’t blame them, as I’m wearing a large bright yellow suit that makes me feel like some sort of astronaut. The occasional person will walk up and ask “did you walk in the river?,” just as, before I left, they asked, “Are you going to walk in the river? How far?” Their curiosity is different from the pointed questions I myself asked a group of similarly brightly colored hikers a few days before; they don’t want to know details, just what exactly I’m doing in this strange get-up. I’m pretty sure I saw a few people taking pictures as we headed in. It’s not that amazing, I want to point out.
But I’d be lying. It was amazing. The dark walls of the Narrows surrounding me as I walked, thinking of nothing but my next step, the gentle noise of the water, the deep emerald of the still pools and the light green of the shallows. Being away from the crowds, the noise, the packed trails and alone in the canyon.
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