Relentless desert sun and stinging mega-raindrops. Stalwart rock walls and delicate cryptobiotic soil. The lilt of laughter punctuating endless desert silence. Lazy flatwater and heart-pumping rapids. Sand in everything.
Last week I spent four days on the Colorado River as it winds its way through Canyonlands National Park. I've traveled this route before, but it was not at all the same trip. Sure, the cliffs, mesas and hoodoos have been here all along. Both times the river was rust-colored with silt. Our talented and spirited Western River Expeditions girl guides followed a familiar framework for scheduling, meals and safety. But the canyon's own surprises; the stubborn indolence of technology; and the small, diverse group of powerful women who populated this particular adventure made the trip an unpredictable, soul-satisfying experience.
It was a trip of firsts. First among these was the weather, which refused to cooperate with our trip leader Kristina’s insistence that in the unlikely event of overnight rain, it would be a quick 20-minute blow-over. She assured us we could likely wait out a squall by wrapping up burrito-style in our tarps. No tent necessary. Our first night’s rain careened from a gentle patter to a percussive deluge—and it lasted all night long. Even our guides reluctantly erected a tent after a few hours. For one of them this was a first in her three-year history with the company. For the other two, it was only their second tent stay on the river.
Further, it rained each day of the trip. In most cases, a rain-filled vacation is considered ruinous. But river trips are all about water. If you prefer staying dry, it’s best you skip the trip. (This also goes for folks who don’t like to get dirty.) The river cools on hot days and provides silty-water baths that nonetheless make you feel pretty darn fresh after a day of slathering on sticky sunscreen mixed with sand and sweat. And when you’re going through Class III to Class V rapids, it’s impossible to stay dry. While the rain—and the slippery, muddy slopes that go with it—created some inconvenience (have you ever tried to put up a tent with quarter-teaspoon-sized raindrops pelting you?), it also obliterated the predicted 105- to 107-degree temperatures. The rain also produced another first: a dramatic temporary waterfall caused by a flash flood in a side canyon. Our guides, who had camped dozens of times in this place, had never seen a waterfall here. Ahhhh, rain.
Another first: multiple technology failures. Even the most stalwart, anti-motor river companies use a motor to travel the last 25 miles of the Cataract trip. These last miles are on Lake Powell, where there is no current, and there's often a headwind that makes rowing futile. Both our motors struck out on the last day. After changing out motors and fuel lines, our guides determined that while our spare motor was likely okay, neither of our two fuel lines was functioning. Motoring became a two-woman job. One guided the raft (a flotilla of all three of our 18-foot rafts lashed together) while the other fed fuel into the motor manually. It was not long before we ran out of gas, another first. With no satellite-phone service, we snailed along to the rhythm of the oars until a party of guys enjoying the canyon with Adrift Adventures motored by and lent us a functioning fuel line and a fresh can of gas. We emerged from the canyon an hour-and-a-half after our predicted time. In our normal, schedule-bound lives, this would be unacceptable. But after four days on river time, we all enjoyed the chance to continue in each other’s company and in the presence of the spectacular Glen Canyon cliffs. Temperamental technology brought another unexpected gift: Because we returned late to the takeout, I elected not to drive back to Salt Lake City that night. Instead, I met my river cohorts for a satisfying Mexican dinner in Moab.
For me there was yet another first: All the guests and guides practiced yoga. I was hired by Western River Expeditions back in 2002 to teach yoga on the river for their women's trips. I'm happy to say I've been able to do this on all but three of their trips since then—four in Desolation Canyon and two in Cataract Canyon. Small but mighty, the 2010 women's group was the most cohesive I've experienced. Everyone enjoyed getting to know everyone else. The spirit of cooperation and friendship was overwhelming, as women ranging in age from early-20s to late 50s, guides and passengers, came together as a community to enjoy conversation and laughter. And we practiced yoga as a community as well.
The yoga experience-level varied. Some had practiced for many years, and at least one woman, a guide, was practicing for the first time. With no props but Western River-supplied mats and tarps, and the soft earth and expansive sky, we relaxed muscles taut from fire lines and sleeping on cots. We breathed the rain-washed air. We settled into the welcoming sand.
But the formal yoga sessions were not the only yoga on the river trip. The poses themselves were only a small part. I observed all the passengers and guides, each in her own way, express equanimity and humor in the face of our often uncomfortable circumstances. Patanjali’s describe asana practice in these three verses: Sutras 2.46-48. They say—and I’m paraphrasing: When we have come to stability and comfort in our asana, we can let go of effort. When we let go of effort, our minds can relax into the Infinite. (This is the yogic definition of mastery of asana, not performing “perfect” or “advanced” poses.) When this happens, we are no longer upset by the play of opposites in our lives. An extraordinary and inspiring claim for a body-oriented practice.
A common river cliche espouses the philosophy of “going with the flow.” In a way, going with the flow, no matter what obstacles present themselves, is the place we come to in practice. While we can’t control things like rain, technology failures, mosquitoes and dangerous rocks on the river—or disappointments, tragedies or triumphs in our lives—we can moderate our response to them. This is what yoga asana is designed to do. It helps us tread the middle way among the many ups and downs we will inevitably experience in our lives. This is its gift in pursuit of yoga’s highest intention: the settling of the mind into silence.
I am grateful to the yogic women of the 2010 Cataract Canyon—yoga-experienced and not—for their steadiness, comfort and levity throughout the river trip of firsts. And I'm grateful for the gift of these firsts, that they remind me of the unknown jewels that reveal themselves whenever we choose to venture into uncomfortable territory.