Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I walked down the riverside trail along the Virgin under the golden cottonwood leaves and the sunset canyon walls. I was hoping to find a path past the trail up the river and deeper into the canyon. Along the way I see people in overalls and funny looking boots; all with stickers saying “Zion Adventure Co” and a number printed in black marker. I guess they rent proper river wading gear in town.

The end of the trail is rampart built to withstand the annual floods of the Virgin River and below the rampart is a rocky beach that tapers off into the wall of the narrowing canyon. I can see the next beach across the river and then just water up to the next bend of the canyon. I stand for too long debating whether I want to walk back down the trail with wet shoes and clothes. I whittle my excuses down to a fear of falling in the river and submerging my camera because I don’t have a decent walking stick. I sit on a rock looking up the river relieved that I won’t have to get cold and wet today when I see a gnarly tree trunk of a stick propped up against the canyon wall; about 4 and a half feet tall. I grab it and wade into the river just above the knee and dig into the rocks with my stick as I push myself against the current towards the next beach.
My footing is wobbly at first but improves as I start to pick up on the cues that the river gives me; which dark spots are holes and which are dark rocks; the spaces in front of large boulders that bulge the flow are always holes. The drag of the water on my stick is more struggle than it’s worth so I keep it out of the water and pointed downstream like a spear fisher ready to plunge its bifurcated tip into the rocks if I start to lose my balance.
The level of the regular floods are indicated by the line of the grasses on the sandy banks, the major floods by the level where trees begin to appear and the historic floods by the gouges and boulder jams against the walls. The sun is low in the west and the corridors before a westward bend glow with the reddish light gathered and reflected by the deep well of the canyon ahead. The red light on red walls seems to emanate from the rocks themselves like the barely perceptible glow of iron just before it becomes white hot. The water is cold and I can’t stand to be in it for more than a few minutes; walking on the sandy banks churns the water in my shoes and it warms up from the blood flowing to my feet and I can feel my toes again. As the canyon narrows the rush of the water seems to be louder around every corner and I keep expecting to emerge under a waterfall that will bar my further progress.
The river is getting deeper and faster and I have to reach under the water to pull myself over the boulders lodged against the walls. I suddenly realize that water landing on my face isn’t from my splashing through the river but from above; it’s begun to rain. From my limited view of the sky at the bottom of the canyon I can only see a strip of gray; I can’t see if blue or black follows the gray. But if the storm is worse upstream it could mean a flood, so I decide to turn back.

As I make all the same crossings in reverse I begin to notice that small banks have vanished and thigh level water is now waist level. I try to short-cut a meander by climbing over a large boulder. I toss my stick down the far side and slide down after it. The stick lands standing straight up; I push off the rock as I slide to avoid hitting it and land hard on my left foot. A sharp pain shoots up my leg followed by an ache when I try to rotate my left ankle. Plunging back into the frigid water at the next crossing numbs the foot and I start to make fast progress. As I near the last few bends of the canyon pieces of bark and debris are starting to float by. My footing is more sure now and I walk quickly, leaning into the glassy smooth flow above the turbulent foamy water over the lines of rocks. 
I emerge from the last bend and cross to the beach below the rampart. I take out my knife and cut my initials into the stick before placing it back against the canyon wall for someone else to use. My boots are filled with lumps of wool pulled from my socks and dyed red by the sand from the river floor. The sunset light is gone from the canyon now and the walk back is cool under the still cottonwoods along the bank.

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