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Path of Beauty: Photographic Adventures in the Grand Canyon

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From sweeping vistas to intimate details of life along the Colorado River, master printer and photographer Christopher Brown takes readers on a beautiful, powerful journey through a previously undiscovered Grand Canyon.

Christopher Brown has seen the Grand Canyon, inside and out, like no other, and his photography reveals a landscape of surprising and visually stunning delights.  A lifelong explorer, Brown first hiked across the Canyon when he was fifteen.  After high ...

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From sweeping vistas to intimate details of life along the Colorado River, master printer and photographer Christopher Brown takes readers on a beautiful, powerful journey through a previously undiscovered Grand Canyon.

Christopher Brown has seen the Grand Canyon, inside and out, like no other, and his photography reveals a landscape of surprising and visually stunning delights.  A lifelong explorer, Brown first hiked across the Canyon when he was fifteen.  After high school, an Outward Bound course inspired him to move there and spend the next forty years guiding mountaineering and river trips from Alaska to Ecuador.  He was a boatman in the Grand Canyon for about twenty of those years, and has rowed thirty-five two-week trips through the Canyon on the Colorado River.

Brown carried cameras on all of these adventures and taught himself photography.  Slowly his interest shifted from the adrenaline of the rapids to the aesthetics of the Canyon, and the quiet tranquility of remote grottoes.  He evolved as a photographer, becoming entranced by the visual experience, the beauty of being in the Canyon.  He never knows what to expect when he returns to the Canyon, just that it will be different–and that is what keeps him coming back for more!

Complimenting the seventy-four full-color photographs in the book are a series of essays that begin by exploring the geological processes that made the Canyon the natural wonder that it is today, as well as the adventure and excitement that accompany life on the river as a boatman.  Mirroring the extremes of life, the text shifts from adventure, to beauty, discussing the physical and emotional components of visual perception.  An explorer of both exterior and interior landscapes, Brown strives to reveal layers of meaning and beauty in life that are often obscured by our preconceptions and habitual ways of perceiving the world, our relationships and ourselves.

Through stunning photography and an engaging text, Path of Beauty brings together an imaginative perspective on adventure, beauty and reflection in the wilderness.  It is an evocative visual reminder of the importance of wild landscapes, where people can go to explore, discover, and grow wise.  It will resonate with anyone who has ever wanted to leave the clamor of the modern world behind and immerse himself in the fresh, restorative splendor of the wilderness.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312598358
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2010
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 12.72 (w) x 11.30 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Brown is an award-winning photographer and master printer who teaches photography and printmaking in Boulder, Colorado.  His photographs, their unique interpretation of the natural landscape, as well as their attention to detail, color and composition, have earned him the respect of many in the photography community.  His work is displayed in many private and public collections across the country, including the Denver Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Visit him online at

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Read an Excerpt




My life has been a love affair with the Earth. I love this place. It is our Garden of Eden—and it is the only one we have. If I could do one thing in this life it would be to help people see what a beautiful and delicate place this Earth is. Sometimes we love it to death other times we abuse it to death. We have it within our power to preserve or destroy it. If we continue to abuse the Earth. we will destroy ourselves along with it.

I consider myself a professional sightseer, a daydreamer, and an explorer. I have climbed distant mountains, explored secret canyons, and rafted wild rivers—places few people have ever visited. I first saw the Grand Canyon when I was fifteen, when I hiked from the North Rim to the South Rim one weekend. I didn't have a clue where I was or where I was going. On subsequent trips I would look into the Canyon and try to figure out where I had been. The more I explore the Canyon, the bigger it seems to be, and I am surprise how different it looks each time I visit.

What initially brought me back to the Canyon was the lure or the Colorado River, and the challenge and excitement of big Whitewater. I was a young river guide, and the Colorado is the big daddy of the Colorado Plateau. I spent my first dozen trips learning how to navigate the rapids and the eddies safely, and where the campsites were. Next I began to learn about the side canyons: where they went, and what treasures they contained. Each trip I went back to places I knew, and tried to find new places I didn't. Then I began to learn how to live in the Canyon, comfortably, with a small group of people. It takes two weeks to float through the Canyon, and it soon became apparent to me that river trips were not just about the adrenaline of big rapids.

Slowly my interest shifted from the rapids to the aesthetics or the Canyon, and the tranquility of side canyons and remote grottoes. As I evolved as a photographer I became entranced by the visual experience, the beauty of being in the Canyon. As a river guide I took responsibility for "Scenic Alerts!" to make sure no good view went unappreciated. Having photographed in the Canyon for almost forty years, this book is my report on what I have seen—a record of one man's sightseeing delights. My view of the Canyon, from the inside out, is distinctly not the Grand Canyon most people expect to see. I never know what to expect when I go to the Canyon, just that it will be different and this is what keeps me going back again and again.

The Grand Canyon draws people like a magnet—especially artists. For centuries it has captured the attention of explorers, philosophers, artists, writers, poets, miners, railroad barons, dam builders, scientists, backpackers, river runners, and tourists of all types—especially photographers. Artists are drawn to the Grand Canyon because of its dramatic complexity, and infinite visual resources. Some just pass through on their way to somewhere else, some stay a while, and some get stuck for years, or a lifetime. Folklore has it that some birds fly into the canyon and can never find their way out. That's how it has been for me.

Why all the fuss about the Grand Canyon? Well, it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It is a big deal, and deservedly so. Because of its geographic location in the desert, and its rugged inaccessibility, it is difficult and dangerous to get into. Most of the time the Canyon appears hot, dry, and inhospitable which it is. While it is always impressive, it is typically spectacular only for a few moments each day when the light is right and then it is sublime. As an object of our affections it is shy, secretive and elusive—sometimes hostile, often impenetrable. It is complex, difficult to get to know, and indifferent to suitors—and therefore irresistible. It is big, and it is mysterious.



The easiest way to see the Grand Canyon is to fly over it, or drive to the North or South Rim, and stop at the numerous overlooks. Better still is hiking down one of the many trails into the Canyon, and seeing how far down and back you can get with the time and wateravailable. If you have the time, get a camping permit and spend a month or two hiking all the trails you can find. You will come back stronger, wiser, tired, and exhilarated!

My favorite way to see the canyon is on a raft floating drown the Colorado River. For several thousand dollars you can go on a commercial river trip most any time you want. Or you can sign up in the lottery for a private river permit (you may actually get one before you die) and see the Canyon for a third of that. If you get a permit you have to either own or rent a raft and all its associated equipment, or make friends with someone who does, and who knows their way down the river. When you push off from Lees Ferry you must have on your boats everything you need to be self-sufficient for a two-week wilderness expedition on a desert river. Lots of lists! Of course this means that you will be camping out for two weeks.

Life on the River is very wet, very dry, extremely hot, and numbingly cold. It is always sandy—everything gets covered with sand. When the River is muddy, life is coated with a layer of fine silt. The winds can blow your boats and your stuff away, without warning. There are of course snakes and lizards and scorpions and biting harvester ants, cactus, sharp rocks, and lots of pokey things. Author Edward (Cactus Ed) Abbey was right when he said in Desert Solitaire: "Everything in the desert either sticks, stings, stinks or stabs!" Life on the River involves a lot of hard physical work. You have a ton of equipment and supplies, everything is heavy, and you spend a lot of time moving it on and off the boats every day, in 100-degree heat. It is a harsh environment and living there is a challenge. But if you can adapt to the strenuous life, the rewards are substantial, and the scenery is exquisite.

The River flows at an average of four miles per hour—a good speed for savoring the scenery. As the raft slowly spins one way and then another in the River currents, the view constantly changes. When the gorge narrows the River picks up speed—up to eight miles per hour in a rapid—which feels rushed, and one has to really pay attention, hold on to the raft, and hope it doesn't flip.

River running in the West is a subculture that comes from a long and varied tradition. The patriarch of American river running is Major John Welsey Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first river trip down the entire length of the Colorado River system, and through the Grand Canyon in 1869. During 1871-72 he repeated the trip, and synthesized both in his report to Congress: Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. Hardly a river trip goes through the Canyon without there being a reading of some of the poetic passages from Powell's journals. His second expedition is notable for producing the first photography from inside the Grand Canyon, superbly done by Jack Hillers.


When I think about the Canyon I see it as the world's biggest art gallery, a giant earth sculpture carved out of the southern Colorado Plateau, thousands of feet thick, consisting of layers of different colors and textures of rocks—deposited, baked, squished, squeezed, and warped, and then carved by wind and water. Its ceiling is the sky, so it is open-air and subject to wind and rain, snow and hail, and extremes in temperature. While the gallery is open 24/7, the lighting is very fickle. Half the time it is dark, and a third of the time it is so bright that it is impossible to see much of anything very clearly in the intense glare of the sun. Visiting the Canyon by car allows one to see large sections of the gallery at once, but like being in a spacecraft flying over a distant planet, the view is so vast and the scale so unfamiliar that the Canyon remains largely inscrutable.

The main gallery is the river gorge, a 277-mile-long corridor, in places 5,000 feet deep, with the giant kinetic sculpture of the Colorado River running along the bottom. The walls are covered with art, in every style imaginable—from primitive to postmodern, with strong showings in pictorialist, romantic, impressionist, and especially, abstract expressionist. Sculptures are everywhere. It is a lot like the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, only much longer. Like any good art gallery, one wants to return again and again to see more of the collection.

The best way to see it is by boat, which carries you on top of the Colorado River like a magic carpet. As you float down the river you pass through a vertical mile of sedimentary layers of sandstones and limestones, with their rainbow-striped appearance. Each layer has its own distinctive textures, shapes, and colors. The harder rocks form cliffs, the softer ones slopes. Each layer is older than the one above it, until you reach some of the oldest rocks exposed on the Earth's surface, the almost two-billion-year-old schist, granite, and gneiss along the floor of the Canyon. The scenery changes continuously, with an immense variety of visual compositions. Three hundred miles of sculpture, murals, and tapestries is an art lover's dream come true. But this is not all.

As the Colorado River cut the main channel through a dozen subplateaus of the Colorado Plateau, local rains eroded smaller gorges from the rim down to the river, making side canyons every mile or two along the river. As you float along, these side canyons appear as gateways into another world, inviting you into them with the promise of new sights, sounds, and secrets just around the corner. These portals lead to smaller and smaller galleries, each packed with more art. Side canyons wind many miles up from the main river corridor to the rims. Many are difficult to access, and some may have never been completely seen—so the full extent of the collection is still unknown.

Smaller and more intimate, the side canyons provide a chargefrom the intensity and drama of the main river corridor. Shade offers relief from the harsh sun that relentlessly beats down on you on the River. Many have water in them only in the early spring or after a rain. Often they are filled with the quiet sound of the slow drip, drip, drip of a small seep, that echoes softly in resonant alcoves. Tiny streams fill warm pools, slip over mossy edges, and fall through the air and down sinuous, smooth sculpted sandstone and limestone, caressing and polishing the sensuous shapes. Other streams are so quiet and delicate they invite silent reverie. A short nap in their presence, drifting in and out of consciousness to the sound of water music is always a soothing, restorative experience. Their art is highly interactive: one can swim in emerald pools, climb on the sculptures, run around the galleries, and drink from the springs. Waterfalls of all sizes, some large enough to drown out all other sounds, appear unexpectedly, gushing out of the vertical canyon walls, taking your breath away with the intensity of falling water. You can stand under a 200 foot waterfall and let the flying water pound your back, cool your body, and energize you with vast amounts of its negative ion energy.

Some side canyons are dry, flat-bottomed, gravelly washes, where the main sound is the harsh grating of footsteps. If not in shade they are like reflector ovens, and you are one hot potato. It is a dash against heat and dehydration to hike as far up them as you can before you must return to the boats for a cool dip in the Colorado River, and drink another quart of water. But, there is always the promise of the unexpected, luring you around one more bend. One never ceases wondering—perhaps there is a Shangri-La beyond the seventh meander. The lure is irresistible to anyone with the least bit of curiosity, and some surprise always awaits you. As Rudyard Kipling said so evocatively in "The Explorer": "Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you, Go!"


The Grand Canyon, carved into the southern end of the Colorado Plateau, is like a huge layer cake of sedimentary rocks deposited on top of metamorphic and igneous rocks that was formed over a period of almost two billion years. Sandstones, siltstones, and limestones are composed of sand, mud, and the shells of dead ocean critters that sank to the bottom of prehistoric swamps, lakes, rivers, and oceans over millennia. Some sandstone layers are former sand dunes, shaped by the wind. As thousands of feet of layers were deposited, the immense weight pushed them deeply into the earth. Pressure and chemical reactions solidified them into rocks.

Periods of intermittent uplifting over the past seventy million years pushed the layers ten thousand feet up into dozens of plateaus collectively known as the Colorado Plateau, now in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. About five million years ago a river flowed across the Colorado Plateau, but it's exact location and how it got there is not definitely known. It could be in the path of an ancestral river, or the result of headward erosion and stream capture that began at the Gulf of California and cut eastward into the Colorado Plateau.

In the bottom of the Canyon are the oldest rocks, the igneous and metamorphic formations. These are dense rocks, which are sharp and angular when fractured, but can be carved into fantastic sculptural forms and polished smooth by silt-laden water along the River. The limestones above this are hard but brittle, and form most of the vertical cliffs in the Canyon. Sandstones are somewhat softer rocks that can erode into rounded shapes and pinnacles when not covered by a protective cap rock. On the top of the layer cake, in the western part of the Canyon, is the frosting, the recent addition of the black and dark red basalt, or lava, from volcanoes along the rim. The general appearance of the Canyon today is the result of geologic processes over the past six million years.

While the Colorado River cut the main channel through the cake, wind and rain eroded the rims of the Canyon, carving a maze of gullies and side canyons. The Colorado River has carried down to the Sea of Cortez all the rocks, sand, and silt that once filled what is now the empty space within the Grand Canyon.

Like Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, floating through the Canyon is a two-week, real-time, three-dimensional trip through two billion years of Earth history. The rocks are captivating, and one never tires of watching them go by, constantly changing from one mile to the next.


When you look over the rim into the Canyon all you see is a maze of rocks, cliffs, and mesas, hardly a tree, with nothing to suggest that this place contains a drop of water or is the least bit hospitable. Most of the time it looks like a barren wasteland of colored rocks with the occasional prickly shrub. There is no permanent water on the north or south rims except what is piped in, and the occasional puddle from melting snow in the spring. At a few points along the rim you can see the Colorado River, a small strip of water just passing through the bottom of what boatmen affectionately call "The Big Ditch." It looks tiny and inconsequential. Mostly the River is green, but after a summer monsoon, or a flash flood in a tributory canyon it is a rich. muddy, redbrown color.

Other than the River, there is very little water here, yet the Grand Canyon is all about water. The Canyon is made of rocks and carved by water. Most of the layers in the Canyon were deposited ill water environments. The Colorado River, full of abrasive sand and rocks, cut the main river channel. The final sculpting that shaped the current topography of the Canyon was done by water—soft, gentle water, rain water, melting snow, underground springs, flash floods, with a little help from the wind, frost wedging, thermal expansion, all assisted by persistent gravity. This process continues, and the Canyon is falling apart: eroding away, slowly becoming a Hat, sandy plain with a lazy river meandering through it.

What little water there is in the Canyon supports life in its dry labyrinths. Species that survive in the desert use water very efficiently. While there is diversity, life is mostly small and far apart, with a minimal overall biomass. After the summer monsoons the landscape turns green. It is amazing how much vegetation there is, and how the animals come alive. Life exists around water, and in direct proportion to its amount. One mustn't venture too far from it. A person can die or dehydration within sight of millions of gallons flowing by. In the Canyon it is all or nothing: We are either surrounded by water, or it is nowhere to be found, and we are in the middle of a life-shriveling dry desert. In a land like this, water is magnetic. It is constantly on everyone's mind, and is always at the center of our attention.

Our access to the inner Canyon is the Colorado River. Unlike the hot, dry side canyons where we can die of heatstroke, the River is cold and wet, and can kill us with hypothermia in just a few minutes. The Colorado comes out from the bottom of Glen Canyon dam at fifty degrees, all year long. As a guide I must make sure we are never without water, but also that people don't fall into the River. I love being near to water, or on top of it—but I hate being cold and wet. Consequently I have learned to be a good boatman. In The Hidden Canyon, Ed Abbey, always the good curmudgeon, said: "Never trust a wet boatman!" I agree! We are about water; it is our body, our life, our fondest desire, and our greatest fear.

The Colorado River is like a dragon that takes us through the Canyon. Its currents and eddies dart this way and that in endless patterns, gently twirling my boat or thrashing it around like a small toy, into the air, into the rocks, and into deep, cold watery pits. It is a constant game of guessing when to be passive, and when to get busy and try to exert my will. I will never have my way with this dragon, with my two puny arms against its millions of pounds of brown, muddy power and push. I can only try to learn its ways, and let it take my small boat wherever it is going, and avoid getting wrecked along the way. This is both exhilarating, and terrifying.

Loren Eiseley thoughtfully observed that "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." Away from the river, in the quiet side canyons, the water is different. Rather than being caught in its cold, thundering clutches I am soothed by the gentle flowing of small streams, with their smooth shapes, emerald transparency, endlessly surprising reflectivity, and their warm, gentle sensuousness. Water must have a sense or humor, as it impersonates everything around it, changing its shape to imitate the ground, its texture to echo the wind, its speed to match the topography, and its colors to reflect its surroundings. In the silence of hidden grottoes, the sound of multilingual drips and gurgles brings music to the canyon, and gives voice to gravity. Sometimes water seems to be passive, but it is the ultimate changeling, and it has a will of its own. Water goes everywhere, and it has created this Canyon.

When I photograph water sometimes I see the water, sometimes I see what the water is looking at or imitating. When I am around falling water I am seduced by its music; sometimes peaceful, sometimes energetic, and I wonder: "What is the sight of the sound of water?" The camera discovers things about water that we cannot see, and it is a source of constant amazement. I am fascinated by rivers, and water. To paraphrase Li Po: "We never tire of looking at each other the river and I."


Water and its travel schedule. called the hydrologie cycle, is the reason why there is a Grand Canyon, and why it looks the way it does. Arizona has a monsoon season like the Indian Subcontinent. In mid-to-late summer moist air blows north from the Gulfs of California and Mexico. The summer sun heats up the desert and the moist ocean air expands and rises. As it continues north it bumps into the Mogollon Rim, the escarpment that defines the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, and further on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which push the air higher, cooling it, condensing the water vapor into clouds, beautiful clouds.

Morning in the Canyon begins clear and blue, but all of a sudden you look up and see the most wonderful, huge, dramatic thunderheads building high into the sky. When you look at clouds they seem to be stationary. But if you get really serious and lie down on your back and look at them for a while, you see that they are in turmoil: boiling, inflating, puffing, shrinking, stretching, constantly changing while remaining in the same place. Like a standing wave on the river where the wave stays in the same place but the water moves through it, the moist air moves through the clouds, but the clouds appear to stay the same. It's hypnotic to watch, and cloud watching should be a required activity on a regular basis, especially as we get older.

It's another lovely, peaceful sunny afternoon on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Lunch is digesting, the sun is beating downrelentlessly and there is no shade in sight. Canyon lassitude is creeping in and a siesta is in order. Intelligent life is lying low, looking for shade, conserving moisture and energy, waiting for the respite of the evening cooling. But we are floating down the River, with places to go, things to see. The people on the boats, typically quiet this time of day, are trying to find a way to lie on the raft, hats shielding their faces, to catch a quick nap, without rolling off into the River—a rude awakening.

Everything is too hot to touch. Some lizards are darting around looking for inattentive bugs, or smaller lizards to eat, or doing their pushups on the rocks for reasons only lizards know, and won't tell us. There is not a breath of a breeze. The cicadas are especially happy in this heat, and express their cicada joy, which sounds like crickets on speed. It's not a loud sound; it's almost subliminal, until you notice it. Then you realize that it is an incessant, throbbing buzz filling the air. The whole Canyon seems to pulse in unison with this sound, and it is almost deafening. Even just thinking about this sound makes me feel hot, and I look around for shade. A classic, hot summer afternoon in the Canyon.

On an afternoon like this we may not be able to see beyond the rim of the Canyon to where these gorgeous clouds are boiling up. But sooner or later we look downstream, always looking downstream, and notice that there is a black wall of clouds filling up the Canyon, moving toward us. An alert boatman will cut through his mid-afternoon, halfbaked mental fog, slowly register what he sees, and crank his brain back on, like starting a rusty old Model A. Back in the here-and-now he will spark his initiative, motivate his body into gear, and get his foul weather gear out from wherever it is stowed away. A kind boatman will advise his passengers to do likewise.

Soon, someone turns on the wind machine. "Better batten down your stuff and put on your rain gear," says the boatman, now sitting up alertly on his rowing seat. Anything loose on the boat goes flying away across the River, like nails to some invisible magnet. Passengers who don't have their raincoats under control watch them fly away. Everything starts going flipitty-flap-flap. The inte'rosity increases a notch at a time. Soon the wind becomes deafening, the excitement builds, and the adrenalin begins to flow. One never knows how ferocious it will get, so we must be ready for the worst.

Wind usually blows upstream or sideways in a canyon, and either stops the boat in the middle of the River, or blows it into rocks or the shore, never downstream where we want to go. It comes on fast and blows hard. Of course most of the time the wind starts just as we are approaching the head of a rapid, and life gets exciting in a big hurry. The wind adds one more vector to the other forces we are dealing with to navigate safely through the rapid. We correct for the wind and then it stops, but for how long? Then it starts. It blows us to the left when we want to go right, and into the shore when we want to stay in the current. And then vice versa. Next the thunder begins. At first we think the Canyon walls are tumbling down onto us, huge boulders rolling off the cliffs above. But it's only the thunder, thank goodness. Then all hell breaks loose.

When the wind really gets going it picks up water from the tops of the waves it just created, and blows it horizontally across the water and into our faces and eyes. It feels like needles in our eyes, millions of needles jabbing both eyes, and all over our face. We can't open our eyes, so we can't see a thing; we can't see downstream into the rapid; we can't see where we are going or what's coming up. Pain and frustration. Occasionally there is a grizzled, bearded old boatman who will quietly pull a diving mask out of his toy box—wind and spray be damned!

If the temperature and air currents in the clouds are just right the raindrops will go up and down a few times in the clouds and come out the bottom as hail, which really stings. This is a particularly exciting sight to behold because when the hail hits the river it throws globs of water up into the air. There are thousands of these little globs across the surface of the river, making this kerplunk, kerplink, kerplock, sound. With the hail coming down everywhere out of the sky, and the globs jumping up out of the water it becomes hard to tell if the water is falling down into the river or jumping up into the sky. Everything is moving in every which direction, and making strange noises. It is a sensory cacophony.

The passengers are huddled in the bottom of the boat, hanging on to something, each other, wishing they were somewhere else. As the boatman works to navigate the rapid, the booming thunder, the crashing waves and the shifting winds scramble the universe. He has a huge grin on his face, watching the wind sweeping the top off then water and across the river toward his boat, and hitting it with a slap. He is dancing with the wind, waves, and water trying to pick his way downstream through the rocks and hydraulics. A tango? The ripples grow into small waves, which build into rollers. The water is moving downstream; the wind is blowing upstream; the river waves are staying in the same place; the wind waves are moving upstream against the current, breaking with any excuse. The hail is kerplunking all over the place. Glorious pandemonium!

Eventually a brave soul, hunkered down against the elements, sticks her head out from under her hood, looks around, and shouts: "Everybody, check this out!" Soon everyone comes out of their cocoons and greets the storm, whooping and hollering, savoring all this intense energy swirling around them. It is a rare moment, a veritable ecstasy of converging forces. Wow. WOW! Mother Nature is performing her "Symphony for Water, Wind, Rain, and Hail," one of her best, to an appreciative audience.

While the storm ramped up slowly, it leaves in a moment. Nature has been blowing her head off like a crazy wild woman and all of a sudden she rums out of air, and at that moment, between the exhale and the inhale, an abrupt calm fills the Canyon. A couple of last kerplunks and it is quiet. The calm is precipitous; we are balanced on an edge between one miracle and the next. The whole body feels it. The windis no longer buffeting us around, threatening to blow us away; we can relax. The hail is no longer pelting us like tiny daggers; we can relax. The rain is no longer driving itself into every nook and cranny; we can relax. After one last cold dribble down the back of our necks we realize we have survived the storm. We become calm, with exhilaration. The hot blood that has been rushing around to block the cold, wet wind flows along just under our skin and envelopes our entire shell in a warm, tingling glow. We have witnessed something special. Mother Nature gets a standing ovation, and rave reviews pour in.


So there we are, floating along in the bottom of the Canyon, triumphant and ecstatic; our universe is settling back into a more quiet order. But above us and not too far beyond our happy little bubble, another huge event is underway: "Symphony No. 2 for Water, Rocks, and Gravity." Take a moment and use your mind to float off the raft, up from the River and over the Crystal Creek drainage, one of the larger side canyons, that joins the Colorado River at river mile 98 in the Inner Gorge. Float up into the upper reaches of Crystal Creek, near the North Rim, where the Canyon captures the clouds within its rims. When a cloud dumps its water in a thunderstorm it can come down in a relatively small area, in tiny little drops. How many raindrops? According to one expert, an average thunderstorm dropping one inch of rain will let loose 6,408 trillion drops of rain. The Canyon, like the Bureau of Reclamation, is collecting all this water and putting it to good use.

Near the North Rim at 9,000 feet elevation, the rain is falling on ponderosa pine forests, and a few aspen trees, and the water seeps into the loamy soil, storage for a dry day. Further down the rain falls on pinion-juniper forests. Between the trees the soil is sandy, or bare slickrock, which absorbs a little water and sends the rest on downhill. As porous as sand seems, the first water that dribbles onto it can form a seal that repels additional water. This water flows until it meets another flow, and dozens of waters combine to form a rivulet, then a rill, a runnel, a brook, branch, a creek, and streamlet. The upper end of the Crystal basin is a complex of small branches, in a dendritic pattern that mirrors river deltas. The converging water joins together, as it has over millennia in this place. Little trickles of water move a grain of sand here and there, cutting larger and larger channels. Downhill the runoff from a few acres comes together to form tiny streams. Hundreds of these small streams merge into large streams, muddy red streams, full of silt, sand, and pebbles.

As the clouds dump the last of their load of water in the Crystal basin and move on, the sounds of thunder and wind fade away in the distance, and are replaced by the sound of trickling water. It is a quiet, gentle sound, yet it is coming from everywhere. Like the cicadas, it fills the canyon. Where a few dozen streamlets come together the sound becomes that of a burbling brook. As it jumps over ledges and pours into pools, the orchestra grows, and the water music takes on a full range of sounds and rhythms. The Canyon is alive with the happy sound of moving water.

None of this would be happening without the invisible, persistent force, which never sleeps, to which the universe owes its existence: gravity. Omnipresent, omnipotent, it is what keeps everything together and organized. Not just a good idea, it's the law, and for good reason. Imagine a universe without gravity: It wouldn't stick together. It would be Chaos. Everything would be floating about bumping into everything else, not staying in their places. I think about gravity a lot, because, like my shadow, it is always with me. Sometimes it helps me out, like a good friend, while at others it makes my life more difficult. It helps me to ski, kayak, and raft down rivers. It makes mountain climbing much more difficult. It makes bicycling downhill fun, and uphill, work. It keeps water in the pot, and the pot on the stove. It keeps me in shape, and my bone mass good, but it makes it hard to fly. Overall, I think gravity is a mixed blessing.

Gravity is pulling all these drops of water downhill with its relentless persistence. It is not just happy to pull things long, it wants to keep pulling them faster and faster, accelerating falling objects by thirty-two feet per second, each second. This water started at 9,000 feet at the North Rim, and will end up 6,600 feet lower at 2,400 feet at the Colorado River, twelve miles away. It has a long way to go, a lot of elevation to loose, and gravity keeps tugging it down, us though it were in a big hurry.

The Crystal Creek drainage is about forty square miles of sandstone and limestone, and most of the rain falling there is running off the non-absorbent surfaces. With the help of gravity and the steepening slope of the canyon bottom this growing stream gains speed and becomes very pushy. The pushing power of water is about the cube of its velocity, which means that if the water is moving ten miles per hour it is one thousand times more pushy than it is at one mile per hour. How pushy is that? It is easy to stand in ankle deep water going one mile per hour. But if it is four feet deep you will get swept away. You probably cannot even stand in ankle deep water that is going ten miles per hour; it will push your feet out from under you. I've seen boulders bigger than a Volkswagen bus totally disappear from canyons where they have been sitting for decades or longer. As this water goes faster it has more pushing power, picks up more and more mud and sand and sticks and trees and boulders, becomes more dense, and the flash flood transforms into a debris flow.

A debris flow is like a river of cement. It is a highly viscous, saturatedmixture of water and unconsolidated rock debris and sediments of mud, cobbles, and boulders, that has the characteristics of both liquids and solids. Because of its dynamic and fluid nature a debris flow has reduced friction over the ground, and can achieve speeds over fifty miles per hour, and can travel over a hundred miles. It can have a viscosity up to one hundred thousand times that of water, and huge boulders seem to float along in the flow. Everything gets caught up in the world's largest rock tumbler. Moving water makes happy, splashing sounds. A debris flow, muddy and frothing, makes hissing sounds, and a grinding, thumping, rumbling, like a hundred-lane bowling alley, as rocks and boulders bump and grind their way along the wash bottom. It is dramatic and terrifying in its unstoppable power.

Rushing down Crystal Creek, accelerating as the Canyon steepens, the debris How picks up and pushes along everything in its path. As it nears the Colorado River, Crystal Creek passes through a narrows, and all the energy of the flow is concentrated by this constriction. The rain falling on thousands of acres of canyon, mixed with all the mud and boulders it is carrying, squeeze through a portal only a hundred feet wide, in a wall of muck thirty feet high. The constriction accelerates the flow to a speed of possibly fifty miles per hour. At the mouth of the canyon the flow bursts out in a jet that fans out and creates a delta of mud, rocks, and boulders. Because of its super density and momentum the debris flow dives under the river, travels along the bottom, crashes into the far shore, and reappears briefly on the other side. The new delta pushes the Colorado River up against the cliffs along its left bank for almost a half-mile. The River is dammed up and the water rises. there is a lot of energy in that debris flow, and the boulders don't just stop when they arrive at the Colorado River. The River deflects them and pushes them downstream another half mile. The debris fan of rocks along the right shore restricts the River and make it speed up through its new, narrower channel. At the downstream end of this fan the River widens and slows down. Losing its velocity and therefore pushing power, rocks settle out along the way and find new homes. Imagine one of those monster dump trucks used to build highways, full of huge boulders, driving along with rocks rumbling out the back and rolling along for a bit, then stopping. What is left behind is called the Rock Garden.

Soon the Colorado breaks through the dam and cuts a new channel, following the path of least resistance. The Colorado River may have a greater volume than the flash flood, but traveling at a leisurely four miles per hour, it can only move the smaller debris downstream, leaving an impressive trail of large boulders, some ten feet tall, all the way across the River and down the main channel for a half a mile. Smaller rocks fill in the spaces, or are stumbled farther downstream. Crystal Rapid has arrived, DOB: December 1966! Only one hour in the making, its place in history is assured.


Most of the more than 200 rapids in the canyon are a result of similar debris flows, which occur at an average rate of one to three per year, in Side canyons that join the Colorado River. When Major Powell boated the canyon in 1867, Crystal was a small riffle spread across the canyon bottom. It was mentioned only in passing in river journals for almost one hundred years. Until 1966.

The debris flow from Crystal Creek pushed several thousand tons of rocks and boulders out into the main channel, pushing the River over to the left and restricting the channel by as much as 80 percent. The River makes a long curving turn to the right, hemmed in by cliffs on the left and the curved delta or boulders along the right shore. The debris flow also dammed up the River, so that there is a lake of still water for two miles upstream, and a lip at the edge or this dam where the water accelerates as it goes downhill into the rapid. The result of the damming and constriction of the River is the increased velocity of a concentrated volume of water, which creates larger and more powerful hydraulies. The new rapid is very dramatic. and much more difficult to navigate.

The flow of water, and a boat, going around a bend in a river always moves toward the outside of the bend. This is not because the water moves in a curve, but because it goes in a straight line until it hits something. Not particularly smart, but the result is usually beautiful, sometimes treacherous, and needs to be considered when navigating a river. In the upper part of Crystal the majority of the water flows toward the cliffs on the left, past the Slate Creek Eddy (a good place to stay away from), then along more cliffs, and into "the hole."

The debris flow left a humongous boulder in the center of the River, and the water has to go up and over it, and then down, down, down the other side into what is called a hole, and then steeply back up, up, up out of the downstream side of the hole, creating a giant standing wave in the middle of the channel, which breaks upstream upon itself. In the bottom of this hole is a cauldron or foamy, bubbly, churning, crashing white water that has no density, no buoyancy, and is going nowhere, just waiting for a boat to stall out in it. The water dropping down into a hole pushes the upstream side of a boat down, and the wave going up and out of the downstream side of the hole pushes the downstream side or the boat up, flipping it end over end. A boat caught in the hole can surf around for a moment on the wave, do a pirouette, flip back into the hole, sometimes with a half or full twist, and can window shade, flipping over and over. A swimmer going into a big hole can be driven to the bottom of the river by the strong down current, and tumbled along the rocks on the bottom while being thrashed around in every which direction by the water currents trying to break her arms and legs and pound the air out of her lungs. It's dark down there, too. On a good day, which is most or the time, she will come to the surface a hundredor more feet downstream, gasp for air, and wonder for a second if she is alive or in boatman heaven, and which would be preferable. Hopefully she won't be tangled up with her boat, which usually comes out of the hole just behind her. This is one of life's longest fifteen seconds.

The prudent boatman does her level best to miss this hole, even though the majority of the current is heading into it. To do this you can enter the rapid on the right, but not too far right because the right side is peppered with rocks just under the surface of the water, called sleepers. If you hit a sleeper it will bounce you to the left, back into the main current which is heading toward the hole.

Another strategy for running Crystal is to begin out in the middle of the River and start rowing like heck back toward the right, with just the proper angle and force to stay right, but not so far that you will hit one of those sleepers along the right shore and surf back left, and not so little force that the main current will carry you left. You are rowing downstream backward, you don't have any rearview mirrors, and timing is everything. If you have a good run you can straighten out and look into the hole, get a little pucker, and thank who or whatever you thank for getting you this far in one piece. Then begins the lower half of Crystal.

About 300 feet below the hole is the Rock Garden. The Rock Garden extends all the way across the River, and is about one-third of a mile long. There are two channels through it. The goal is to get your boat into one of these channels. In this 300 feet between the hole and the Rock Garden there are currents going every which way: eddies and boils, swirling and constantly changing directions, starting and stopping. The water has been going fast down the upper rapid because of the constriction and the drop, and suddenly the river is wide and flat, with lots of kinetic energy on the loose. The water is bouncing off the cliff's to the left, the shore on the right, and boulders on the bottom, trying to equilibrate itself, but not yet sure where to go. Imagine a pile of water hoses fully pressurized and flailing about.

It is like coming across a very complex interstate interchange with the on and off ramps weaving about like the snakes of Medusa's hair, thrashing about violently. You have about five seconds to decide which current your boat is in, and where you are going. Either channel is a good run, but between them is the Rock Garden, a haphazard jungle of boulders. For an expert kayaker it's an aquatic playground, and it is great fun to find a route through this maze. But a raft going into the Rock Garden means certain trouble, as rafts are not nimble enough to dodge all the rocks, which get closer together as you go downstream. There is no way through. While Crystal is not the steepest rapid in the Grand Canyon, at certain water levels it is the most difficult to navigate. It is also a long rapid; I think of it as two rapids together, with no break in between. It has been the nemesis of many boatmen.


"He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All as a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a main who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea."

—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Much human activity is about control, in order to create a sense of power and predictability in an uncertain world. If science can't predict and we can't control something, then we often resort to myth and superstition to create the illusion of certainty, to help us relax. This is especially true on rivers, and in the Grand Canyon. The River is more powerful than any individual, and while it follows the rules of hydrodynamics and is not random, it is constantly changing—appearing unpredictable. Living with rivers is both fun and treacherous. The Canyon is so big, and we are small. This is a humbling realization, and we try to live gracefully in our relative insignificance. Powell wrote in his journal: " ... we are but pigmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders." The overwhelming power of water makes it abundantly clear just how puny we are. Playing around with such forces encourages us to be as careful, clever, and prepared as we can be, and as humble as we should (and will) be.

I think most everyone is superstitious if they think about notions of destiny, fate, the forces of nature, or even luck. If you believe in any sort of divinity, then you put yourself at the mercy of a superior force. If you are a secularist then you surrender to the laws of physics, chance, and natural selection. Goethe said: "Man supposes that he directs his life and governs his actions, when his existence is irretrievably under the control of destiny."

Even though boatmen are concrete, we have evolved some superstitions to help us cope. This is a product of living with such large, powerful, unpredictable forces. We have little sayings and stories to remind ourselves of our place in the universe, and to give us a little traction in a slippery existence. We say that that our run through a rapid is determined by when we push off from shore so you bet we are paying attention at that moment. We also say that if you see the Eyeof Odin as you enter Lava Falls, the steepest rapid in the Canyon, you will have a good run. It is considered tempting fate to brag about not flipping, if you haven't yet.

I remember one afternoon, as we were floating toward the lip of Crystal Rapid, a passenger asked the inevitable: "Have you ever flipped?" to which I replied: "Not yet." Her daughter jumped in and said: "Mom, don't ask that; don't you remember what happened the last time you asked a boatman that?" So what are the chances of something like that happening twice? I figure she was sent on a mission, and I am grateful for finally having the inevitable initiation, and living to tell the tale. It was the nicest flip I could ask for. Who was she working for? This is the sort of thing that can make one superstitious.

Most boatman have private rituals, momentary and unobtrusive. My hunch is that most are about respect and appreciation a thanks for another wonderful day in paradise. They are kept personal, so as not to draw attention and compromise their power. Perhaps their purpose is also to remind us to expect the unexpected gracefully; to take whatever comes our way with a sense of humor; not be too surprised; and to pay attention. Rituals help us to accept how out of control the human condition really is, and remind us to row like hell, just to be sure.

PATH OF BEAUTY Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Brown. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue. New York, N.Y. 10010.

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    Posted July 12, 2013

    Great photography.

    Great photography.

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