The sun blazes down. I don’t realize it, but the pale skin on the top of my feet is turning bright red even beneath the cool water of the Green River. I don’t feel the sting yet. It’s still early in the day. I lie back and gaze up at immense canyons looming over our little caravan. I am quiet. The sound of the oars creates a rhythm that lulls me into closing my eyes.
It’s my very first rafting trip. I have been invited to spend six days and five nights away. Away from the pinging of text messaging, the traffic and noise. Away from the hustle and striving. I drift into another world. I lounge on the front of the raft, head back, eyes closed. I draw and I eat and I let my shoulders turn brown under the hot June sun.
I was invited on this trip by my friend Randy. When he found out I had never been rafting, he suggested that I join him on this adventure down the Green River. The threat of an epic mosquito hatching almost kept me away, but in the end I decided to buy a seriously unattractive but functional mosquito net hat and hope for the best. Our four-person boat consists of the two of us, Randy’s brother Craig, and his college roommate Mark. I know no one but Randy, but the closeness of living in the outdoors quickly removes the carefully constructed veneers of city life.
I am one of only two women on this trip. Jen and I are both river rookies, so it’s nice to not be the only one stumbling over rafting lingo and fumbling with cam straps (for other river rookies, these are the straps used to tie everything to the boat in case it flips). Besides sixteen-year-old Ezra, the rest of the men have varying levels of rafting experience ranging from occasional to passionate. All of them, however, are kind and inclusive and generous with their words and encouragement. I write the following in my journal the first evening on the river:
Green River… riding in Kelsey’s boat through Desolation Canyon.
Hot sun. Water washes over the Paco Pads on the front of the craft.
Craig, Mark Randy and me…luke-warm beer in our hands.
A glorious day.
It’s like we are the first people to ever float through
this majestic, Roman ruin-turreted-sci-fi wilderness.
I am a guest… privileged to be along for the ride.
Steak and biscuits and roasted potatoes.
Shiraz and …no mosquitos!
Cool breezes. It will be a lovely night.
Our party of four boats and one SUP (stand up paddle board) make our way through rock spires juxtaposed against the azure blue of the sky. Burnt orange cliffs, the green of the Cottonwood trees, and never-ending shades of brown surround us; dwarf us. To use the simple word brown robs this landscape of its artistry. Raw umber, Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Carmel are more appropriate names on this desert color palette. Everything shifts depending on the light and the position of the sun as it moves through the day. Randy propels us through waves and rapids with ease and eloquence, ever the teacher, pointing out history and geology around each turn. We unpack the boats and sit on camp chairs, waiting for the evening meal. We have been divided up into teams, each preparing a dinner and a breakfast. I look forward to the conversations around these amazing gourmet meals that have been cooked in the pop-up kitchen that magically emerges from ammunition cans and dry bags every evening. We leave our tents in their bags and sleep under the sky almost every night, our eyes awash with stars.
This trip carries with it undercurrents of deep joy and deep sorrow, flowing with us as as we curve and glide through Utah. Kelsey, Randy’s beautiful 25-year-old daughter, died tragically in a skiing accident in December of 2015 while I was traveling in Europe. I never got to meet her, but her vibrant spirit is tangible and palpable on the river. I can tell from her pictures that I would have liked her; laughed with her. Memories pour out of Randy, evoking equal amounts of delight and grief as he shares stories from the past, some distant, others as vivid as if they just occurred a few weeks ago. Randy imbued Kelsey with a love of skiing and rafting, and they shared a reverence for the beauty and sacredness of nature and of being outdoors. Yes, the raft that we float on was Kelsey’s. Now, it sports a white flag with a large purple K emblazoned on it, summoning her memory on this and every river it will travel on. Kelsey’s passion was protecting rivers and her family donated to AmericanRivers.org in her memory after she died. American Rivers’ motto is that ‘rivers connect us.’ I cannot help but feel that this is never more true than for Randy and Kelsey.
On the last night on the river, Randy invites Mark, Craig and me to hike a short distance to spread some of Kelsey’s ashes above the rapids below the camp. He tells us he will carry her ashes on every river trip he takes. He will bring a part of the daughter he loves so much to the places that she loved the best.
I am honored to be part of this ceremony.
I painted this scene to capture this moment.
I think Kelsey would have liked it.