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Friday, March 20, 2009

A Spring Equinox Tribute to My Father, Loren E. Dunton

Note: This essay first appeared in Kathleen Jo Ryan's photographic essay collection WRITING DOWN THE RIVER: INTO THE HEART OF THE GRAND CANYON (winner of the Willa Award, Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ, 1997; foreward by Gretel Ehrlich).

“In the Canyon, you will hear the voices of our ancestors,” whispered my only sister from her home on the Big Island of Hawaii. “The River will be a good place to grieve.” Together we mourned our father’s death. Together, we cried.

Our father had died at high noon on the spring equinox – when the sun was at its highest directly overhead, and day and night were everywhere the same – a time of earthly balance. Then comet Hale-Bopp streaked across the sky, the earth moved between the moon and the sun, and our eclipsed world became a shadowed place.

Weeks later, I left my Wyoming ranch to be a crew assistant on a 13-day, 226-mile raft trip down the Colorado River. Envisioning hours of welcome solitude in which to grieve, I prepared myself to meet the twenty-three strangers with whom I would take this journey. My sister’s words echoed in my mind: You will hear the voices of our ancestors. How far back must one go, I wondered, before a father becomes an ancestor? Eagerly, I ventured into this elemental place of earth, air, fire – and water.

Our four rafts and one paddleboat eased into the water at Lees Ferry. The Canyon introduced herself to us slowly, layer by layer, as her walls eased themselves higher into the blue sky. But the River came at us all at once, with Badger and Soap Creek Rapids, then harrowing House Rock and the Roaring Twenties.

We hiked the North Canyon, which led to a quiet pool surrounded by feminine swirls of curvaceous rock. The guides, as at home in this environment as the canyon tree frogs living within splashing-distance, crawled the womb-like walls spread-eagled, their grips sure and strong. At Stone Creek, Sue, the other assistant, and I braved the arduous hike and were rewarded with waterfalls, tropical greenery, and black collared lizards.

With each rapid, the River batted her paws at us playfully, showing us just enough of her white-tipped claws to earn our respect. Those in the paddleboat raised their paddles overhead in celebratory salutes, then slapped the River affectionately – teasing her, tempting her. The guides eased their oars through the water, moving toward the Great Unknown, while Sue stretched out her long, lean muscled legs and smiled quietly.

Like the River, the days and nights rolled on. Sue and I searched Marble Canyon for California condors. Bighorn sheep dotted the lower cliffs. Mule deer watched us from shore by day, and at night slid silently through the exotic tamarisk. We went to sleep watching Yuma bats swoop through the air, their silhouettes dark against the sun-warmed cliffs. The bellow of a conch shell roused us at dawn, while the canyon wrens eased us into the morning.

One day two passengers, a brother and sister, along with family and friends, held a Yizkor ceremony in honor of their father, who had also just passed away. In a quiet circle, they said the Jewish Kaddish prayer. I stared up at the towering cliff faces and wished I could join the intimate service.

Instead, the words of the Lakota holy man, Black Elk, came to me. “You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One face is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see.” [1] Would I now, after the despair of my father’s death, finally see the face of laughter?

The River beckoned. Unable to resist her passionate nature, dangerous though it was, I turned away from the circle of prayer and eagerly began helping Sue and the men load the rafts.

Each ripple of white water brought a new adventure. Sockdolager Rapid bent Howie’s boat in half and delivered a one-two punch to bloody his nose. Sue and I held hands while leaping twenty feet into the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado. Blue herons greeted us from the waters of Bright Angel Creek, while the big River, stalking the shores, flirted shamelessly – lapping her tongue at our ankles, batting at the bows of our boats, rocking us to sleep at night.

Wilderness, I began to realize, belonged not only to the landscape of the earth, but to the landscape of the mind as well.

We hiked silently up into the ribs of Blacktail Canyon and saw the Great Unconformity where the Tapeats Sandstone and the Vishnu Schist joined – a geological wonder of one billion years of missing rock. I traced my fingers over the layers, transcending the centuries, and thought of how, as my father lay dying, I had tried to smooth the lines of pain from his anguished face. Nature made it seem so easy – this going from one generation to the next. Perhaps this barrier of death separating father and daughter was not carved in stone as I had imagined.

The River, eyeing Howie at Specter, tossed him from his raft into the swirling rapids, then impishly stole one of his flip-flops. The mishap broke a small bone in his shoulder, disabling him. He tied the remaining sandal to the bow of his boat and, one-armed like Major Powell, tipped his straw hat, acknowledging the River’s prowess.

Sue, who had rowed and paddled before but lacked Howie’s years of experience, took over for him at Deubendorff. He and I became her only riders and, with 95 miles left to go, she became the boatman.

Sue’s rowing was capable, in control, and remarkably calm. When the hot, dry winds blew in her face, I poured buckets of cold water over her head. We laughed, enjoying the camaraderie of the Canyon. She avoided most of the energy-sucking eddies, and faced the rapids of Tepeats, Fishtail, and Upset with skill and enthusiasm. I envied her proficiency – felt proud to be a new friend. Yet the question paramount in Sue’s mind, and everyone else’s, spurred us on like a tailwind. “With the River running at nearly 28,000 cubic feet per second, will Sue row Lava Falls?”

Her husband, one of the guides, knew the dangers intimately; he had seen the first woman die at Lava twenty years ago. Here, at one of the most difficult stretches of runnable whitewater in North America, the River bares her fangs. They say there are two kinds of boatmen: those who have flipped, and those who will. Many have been humbled by Lava’s ledge hole – a deep abyss of ravenous black water with waves bold enough to bury the burliest of boatmen.

After scouting the rapid from the hot, rocky shore, and quietly listening to the well-intentioned advice of the other guides, Sue made her decision. She would run it. A motorboat from another outfitter ran the rapid ahead of us, then took up a rescue position downstream.

Our raft was the last to go. The wind picked up, hotter than ever. The strong current carried us quickly out into the middle of the River, too far to the right. Sue rowed valiantly, pushing hard, every muscle straining as she tried to go left, where the smooth tongue could ease us past the gaping mouth and huge waves.

But the River had something else in mind. She dropped us into her ledge hole, folded the raft over the top of us, then snatched us to her – spitting the boat back into the air like a piece of gristle. She sucked us beneath the surface and, alone, I tumbled through the wet darkness, not knowing up from down. The water churned and frothed, as if salivating in anticipation. “Take a deep breath before you do Lava,” I had been warned.

Then, perhaps accidentally, the River brought Sue and me together. Our heads collided and we clutched at one another’s arms, all the while in the water’s dangerous embrace. Like a young lioness unaware of her own strength, Lava toyed with us. We surfaced, coughing and sputtering, only to be thrust under the waves again and again. We clung to each other, not daring to let go. Finally, the River turned us loose. Rising to the surface – amazed, elated, and grateful – we looked at each other, and grinned.

Lava’s own white-capped grin eased into a contented Cheshire cat smile of smooth water. Only then did we notice Howie safely upstream clinging to the bottom of the raft, and the motor boat downstream screaming toward us, lifeline dragging through the water.

By that night we were laughing, drinking Margaritas, eating steak, and Sue was, in everyone’s mind but her own, a heroine.

The last evening on the River a radiant moon shone down, the wind eased up, and the air turned balmy – a bare skin night full of promise. It was the eve of the summer solstice, when the sun sets in the northernmost corner of the sky, far from the celestial equator – when the night was as endless as the Canyon was grand.

I had expected the Canyon to be a hard and rocky place – abrupt, massive, and imposing. And so she was. I had not expected her to share with me her inner beauty: curvaceous streams, slick stone and green fern, waterfalls whispering in the shadows, pools glistening in quiet corners. The Canyon invited me into these places like a lover beckoning from afar. “Come,” she enticed, “swim in the passionate river currents of my lifeblood. Lift the callused skin of my ancient body and glimpse the tender places of my soul.”

This ancestral land of earth, air, fire, and water raised the twentieth century from my back and exposed layers of time, stacked one upon the other – Kaibab upon Toroweap upon Coconino. Yet her Great Unconformity freed me from the illusion of vertical time and space. My fingers caressed the ancient rock of the Vishnu Schist, and once again I touched my father’s face. And then, as I was taken back into the watery womb and thrust from it reborn, I heard my father’s voice, joyous now, urging me on.

[1] Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt; Pocket Books, Nov.1973 edition, p.159-160; New York, NY.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cataract Canyon and Roxanne Swentzell - Earthly Treasures

Last year’s Westwater Canyon River Writing & Sculpting Journey for Women with guest Pueblo artist Roxanne Swentzell and her daughter, esteemed artist Rose B. Simpson, inspired poetry and sculpture. This year, some of the same women are returning. Others, new to the adventure, will experience it for the first time. This time, we'll spend six days in ancient Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

What did we do each day? We journaled. We talked about story spirals. We sculpted with river clay. We sang in grottos and swam in whirlpools. We watched Big Horn sheep scatter across red rock. We watched Rose stomp a Flamenco dance in the sand to the impossibly horrible clapping rhythm of Page and Roxanne. We ate way too much delicious food cooked by amazing women guides.

This year, we get to do it all again. Amazing! Go to to find out more. The following poem is formed of bits and pieces from all of us....

We hang onto little moments of our trip.
Touchstones that bring it back.
Water, sun, rock, sun, rock, water, and sand.
That afternoon at Black Rocks
when some of us played with our clay
and others of us swam nearby…
Warm emotional embraces felt
from every woman on the journey …
The river beckons…
It soothes my soul and makes me whole…
Rocks and twigs, already placed in my office…
Little clay pieces
I pick them up…
Eagle, shadow, red rock wall, soft chirps…
We Laugh at elephant jokes…
The ram, the eagle, the otter…
The canyon walls, the river, the clay, the shared words…
Black rocks fold into themselves…
Morning shadows play with the curves and hollows
of the long sinewy bones of rock…
Breath spirals down, gentlyfloating with the rhythm of the river.

© Westwater River Women, 2008

Watch Roxanne sculpting in the video "Living Portraits: New Mexico Artists & Writers"

Read Rose B. Simpson's poems and see her paintings.

Visit the "Mothers and Daughters: Stories in Clay" Heard Museum Exhibit with Rose Simpson and Roxanne Swentzell

Sign Up or Get Details on the 2009 River Writing & Sculpting Journey for Women