Lost in the Canyon

15 11 2014

kb leaving mooneyAfter scaling a cliff to get down to the bottom of Mooney Falls, I was pretty sure that the worst was over, but unsure of what lie ahead. Our path out to Beaver Falls- the fourth and final of the named falls in the canyon- began by simply sloshing through the river. We had been warned that the mileage marked on the maps was way off, but we felt like we still had plenty of energy left to explore more.

Within minutes of leaving the roar of Mooney Falls, I could hear other sounds again, and realized that we were not far behind another group of adventurous hikers. Two young couples appeared to be in their twenties; the women hiking in shorts and swim tops, while the guys hiked shirtless, but wearing backpacks. They came into view as the ground heaved upward and slowed their pace, our shared path blocked by a massive drop. I heard them murmuring as they figured out how to climb over, and the guys went first, rather easily. The second guy paused when he realized that his girlfriend’s legs were too short to jump down the steep drop on the other side. He grabbed her from below and hoisted her down safely, doing the same for the second woman, and then he looked back at me, paused, and asked me if I needed help. I politely declined. I figured that if we couldn’t get down on our own, we sure as hell were not likely to get back UP without anyone else around, and I wanted to be sure that we were not making a mistake by continuing.

It took me a couple minutes to figure out my approach, after a couple of failed attempts to climb down. We were about 7 feet up on the boulder, but that wasn’t the scary part. The landing pad was a narrow ledge, just a few feet wide, and if I missed my target, I would be falling another 20 feet to the river floor below. I would have to duck under another rock outcropping as I jumped down, making it particularly awkward and difficult. There was no easy handle to grab onto, and no way to slowly climb down. I just had to lower my body as far as I could from the top, then jump. Bethany froze behind me, watching me calculate my mental math. She was terrified that I was going to fall to my death, and began stammering and questioning if we should turn back.

As I blindly poked my hiking stick below me to assist myself, my feet failed to find anything but sheer vertical wall. I craned my neck to get one last look at where I was about to jump to, and let go. My heart racing, I landed safely with a soft thud, and immediately backed away from the close edge. I tried to play it cool to calm Bethany’s nerves. She was noticeably frightened, though relieved that I was safe. Now the fear shifted to her own safety. She was realizing that she could not make the same leap, with an extra 6 inches to make up for her height. “It’s okay,” I cooed, “I’m going to grab you by your legs and lower you down slowly.” She got more agitated, and at first I was a little offended. “Trust me,” I responded to her expression. She explained that her fear was in response to a vision of me trying to help her down, losing my footing, and sliding off the perilous ledge.

After everything we had already been through to get here, I was not willing to give up. It took a few more minutes of coaxing, but we did eventually get Bethany safely down, where we paused for a minute to embrace. We were in the good reality, but these ‘adventures’ in hiking were starting to exhaust our nerves! We are both stubborn and logical. We may never come back to this remote village again, we were sure, so this was our one chance to see what most visitors do not. We trekked on.

hike mossAhead, our path was much easier. We strode through low growth along a dirt path, discovering countless tiny waterfalls, all different and unique. One was made from a ball of stone, as big as a Geo Metro, which had been sown with a vast array of colorful, delicate mosses. A stream of water poured over the ball evenly, trickling across the surface until the last curve turned under, and the water could no longer cling to the moss, falling gently below. It sparkled with  thousands of tiny droplets, in a hundred tiny, waterfalls, each a single stream wide.

We waded in and out of the river, crossing whenever the trail turned to cliff. It went on and on, through a lush green field strangely devoid of trees, and over rocky outcroppings that capped each end. There were no signs. No arrows. The skin on my achilles began to chafe as the wet-dry-wet mileage took its toll. We began to wonder if we would make it. How far had we gone? Did we miss Beaver Falls? There were so many falls, after all.

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We were grateful for the occasional hiker who passed by, so we could track our progress. I began to wonder if we should turn back, knowing the trail home meant scaling up that enormous cliff by Mooney Falls. Daylight was already starting to wane in the valley.

Finally, after what felt like hours of hiking in and around the river… we found it! The increasing roar of water was met with echoing sounds of laughter. Our bodies slumped with relief, as we approached our final descent.

b beaver fallsBeaver Falls is made of three tiers of falls, each between 10-20 feet tall. We had also been told of a secret “green room” that you can swim to if you are brave enough to swim under the rock wall at the base of the middle tier. By the time we got there, my sense of mortality was pretty ripe, and I had zero interest in testing my luck searching for underwater treasures. Bethany’s feet were throbbing, so she had no more ladders in her. She stayed at the top level, soothing her weary feet in a cold, shallow pool.

kelly beaver falls 1I couldn’t not go further. I left my bag with Bethany, and walked ahead towards the ladder. I walked across wooden rungs to the edge of the water, then climbed down another set of ladders. There was space to sit on a rock ledge alongside the center pool. It was the most lavish, decadent spa-like setting I have ever been in. I removed my shorts and set them on the rocks next to someone else’s bag. I stepped into the water. It was cold… refreshing… invigorating! It got deep quick, and I plunged my whole head under water, then swam towards the base of the falls. No matter how hard I tried, I could not reach the falls, forced back toward the edge of the lower falls.

For a split second, I feared that I would be pushed over the edge, down a 20 foot drop to the lower pool. Then I remembered the natural lip formation that protected me, creating the incredible depth to the pool. The calcium in the water had created a built-up rim, like the edge of a tub. It was many inches thick, and I watched the water flowing just over the top of it.

I sat there, arms resting on the calcium ridge, leaning over the waterfall cliff, surrounded by rushing liquid, marveling at the beauty all around me. I felt like a pearl in a clam. I was literally sitting at the precipice of Beaver Falls, with a 20 foot fall directly below me, and a 12 foot cascade behind me. The water roared with so much white noise that I could close my eyes and pretend that nobody else was there. It was just me, and the river. It was magical.

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I wished that we had another day, so that I could have stayed here and watched the moonlight glistening off the water. I didn’t want to go back. My feet were tired, and I could feel the blisters that needed attending to, but as long as I stayed in the water, nothing hurt me. However, Bethany was not there by my side, and I knew that she was waiting for me. Our hike back would surely take longer, now that we were sore and damaged.

We said goodbye to the falls, and headed up canyon. The scenery had completely changed, as midday fell to dusk. I no longer stopped to take photographs at every bend, as I began to worry about daylight. I took pictures with my mind. My tired, achy mind. We stopped only to add bandages to our feet, and to engulf chia bars for the energy to make it back. The last few miles between Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls felt like an eternity.

IMG_6374Bethany’s pace was much slower than mine, and I had to stop every 15-20 minutes so as not to lose sight of her. We tried to follow our route back, but ended up in unfamiliar areas. At one point, we had come up through the river, but went back over the cliff. I found myself at the bottom, questioning which way to go, as my feet hit water again. I looked back up, waiting for Bethany to crest the top, to see if she wanted to try another route. I thought she was just 20 feet behind me, and should be there any second. While I waited, I waded out into the water to look upstream and downstream, to assess how deep it got. I went back to the shore. Still no Bethany. I began to get worried, but it was a steep climb back up to where I had come from, and I didn’t have the strength to do it twice right now. Had I missed her? Did she keep going while I was wading in the river? I called out her name, but got no reply.

I looked up at the cliffs, which had grown a dark shade of crimson with the evening shade. I began to worry. I waded back out into the water, shouting her name, both upstream and downstream. Because of the constant sound of the river flowing, I could not hear anything. I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep going? Backtrack? What if she went a different way and was heading back without me? There was no cell phone reception in the canyon, and no way to know how to locate her. I began to panic.

I screamed Bethany’s name again, and heard a faint, distant whistle. Thank goodness her pack had a plastic safety whistle built into the clasp! I splashed through the river bed, certain that if she could see the water, this was her best chance of finding me. There she was, about 60 feet ahead, up on a cliff, with no path down. We shouted over the roaring water to figure out who should stay and who should move. When I finally got to her, I was furious, and relieved. “If she had lost me, I would have never forgiven her,” my cranky logic concluded. My fear manifested as anger, and it took me several minutes to calm myself down. “She is safe. It’s all okay. We are in the good reality,” I told myself.

We hiked on in silence. Partly due to frustration, partly due to exhaustion. The climb back up to the top of Mooney Falls was easier than the climb down. We barely stopped for anything, we were so ready to be done. I was sad that we were already at the end of our day, and she never even got to see Havasu Falls, which I had enjoyed the night before.

Despite her exhaustion and pain, I convinced Bethany to just hike down to the bottom of Havasu Falls with me for a minute, so she could at least say she was there. She watched as I swam in the pool, the water now a shadowy blue. It was chilly without the sun, but still felt amazing. Bethany said she was heading back, but told me to stay as long as I wanted. I wished she would stay with me, but I understood her needs were different than mine.
IMG_6238After she left, I was all alone. I was surprised that nobody else was here to enjoy this time with the falls. The cliffs around me were all dark, though the sky above was still a soft blue. I stared at the waterfall, mesmerized. My eyes would catch a pocket of water as it leaped over the top, following it all the way down until it plummeted into the pool below. I could have watched water falling for hours. I breathed deep, aware of the smile on my face that seemed to exist without any effort. I closed my eyes and listened. A breeze brought goosebumps to my bare skin, and I pulled my towel closer around my shoulders. A single bird flittered into my periphery, landing in a nearby tree. She sang for me. She sang with the waters. She sang with the ancestors, whose spirits rest in the rocks beyond. This, is why I am alive.

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