A Grand Canyon Winter Solstice


“So, wait. There might be days we never see the sun?” I asked, horrified. My partner and I were pouring over sun charts at the kitchen table, and my stomach was starting to sink. Campsite after campsite listed read, “December: no direct light.” 

When I said yes to a December trip, the Grand Canyon was the hottest place I’d ever been. During the day, temps ranged around 110℉. Before bed, I dragged the single cotton sheet that had replaced my sleeping bag into the river with me. Then, dripping wet, I’d lay down on my paco pad, which never left my boat because land was total and absolute lava. We would race to leave the beach before the sun touched it.

Once, on Thanksgiving, it was 22℉ where we camped on the rim, but when we hiked down to Phantom Ranch, it was a balmy 68! I never imagined the Grand Canyon could be a place where I would have to hunt for sun and warmth. My foolishness began to sink in: this adventure was going to be dark and cold. Thankfully, I had seven weeks to adjust my expectations.

I did what I could. I bought thicker neoprene socks and packed down pants, down booties, and my puffiest puffy. My partner made an emergency warming kit, stocking a Pelican case with an MSR Reactor stove, a mug, lots of hot drink packets, and reusable hand warmers. I imagined shivering all day, coupled with early sunsets. I imagined never feeling warm. Each time I told someone I was about to spend thirty days on the Grand Canyon in winter, I was met with incredulity. This both confirmed my worries and excited me. 

Despite my trepidation about the lack of sunlight, I was genuinely looking forward to spending a month outside. This trip would be my longest expedition yet, and I was craving a respite from the front country. I’d recently turned my life upside down, and the scramble toward reorientation had left me breathless. The tumultuous decision to leave my job had me reckoning with my identity outside of the career I’d left.

Some days, I half-heartedly doom-scrolled job postings online, the other half of my heart thinking about the Tabernacle and Blacktail Canyon and wondering what Lava Falls would look like at low water. Others, I spun out of control as I desperately tried to regain my sense of purpose. I hoped the time away from the computer screen might equate to time away from worries or lead to revelations about my path forward. It wouldn’t be the first time a river trip offered me clarity about my life.

On November 28th at Lee’s Ferry, the sun set at 5:11 pm. The temperature hovered around what I can only imagine was an Arctic norm. I put on every piece of down I brought and was still shivering when I climbed into bed (at what I thought was a respectable bedtime based on the night sky, but was, in fact, a venerable 7:42 pm). I did crunches in my sleeping bag and fell asleep in the fetal position, desperate for warmth.

The morning held frosty sleeping bags, frozen hand wash hoses, and solid blocks of ice in our chicky pails. But the canyon is a place of extremes, and two hours later, I was dripping sweat while rigging the final bags to my boat. My fleece onesie, now tied around my waist, was suddenly overkill. Ten minutes later, in the shade, I was grateful I hadn’t de-layered before shoving off. Five hours later, dusk arrived, and with it, an intense chill. 

At Badger Camp, we gathered driftwood and started a fire, something we hadn’t done the previous night. We huddled close and started to connect, casting bets about when the full moon’s face would finally peek out from behind the cliff across the river. There was no point to this activity, no stakes, just the simple pleasure of being right—or comically wrong. It was 7:30, and we’d been sitting by the fire for two hours already. We had many more hours to pass, and watching the moon change felt like a fine way to do it.

The days passed, and I began to feel grateful for the pace of winter trips. There was no anxious energy in the morning, desperate to get off the beach before it became intolerably hot. There was no jockeying for campsites. We rarely had to negotiate with other groups and sometimes went days without seeing other people. We camped where we wanted, we hiked where we wanted, and we went to bed when we wanted. We had Deer Creek Falls and Elves Chasm to ourselves.

I noticed a distinct lack of urgency. My front country life is crippled by an (often false) sense of urgency. There’s never enough time to get what I need to done, nor to do it as well as I want. My brain is noisy, and I struggle to focus on a single task because I’m thinking about all the other things I need to add to my to-do list. I feel rushed all the time. The river isn’t always an escape from this type of thinking for me. 

As a professional river guide, legitimate urgency exists; there are schedules to maintain and chores that need doing. I don’t always succeed at turning off that part of my brain when I private boat. I like schedules and consistency; I like meeting expectations. I want to create smooth experiences; it’s just that doing so requires the opposite energy inside my head. Frazzled is my baseline. I’m working on that, though.

Long corridors of stunning scenery helped, but the darkness did, too. As we crept closer and closer to the winter solstice, we spent more and more time huddled around the light we made. Setting up our kitchen involved extendable poles, numerous string lights, and Velcro. We used a solar-powered battery to charge our lights and constantly scanned eddies for driftwood to collect. Drawn like moths, we congregated in the kitchen and around the fire, engaging in both pointless and pointed discussions, all the while deepening our connection with each other. 

These strangers I met at Lee’s were silly people. Perhaps the sheer amount of downtime to be silly magnified their innate silliness. We spent three and a half hours building boats out of only natural materials to race in a regatta. Then, we ferried across the river to the racing grounds, where we hosted two heats. Four teams of four exhibited focus, determination, and commitment to an entirely inconsequential activity that took us a full layover day to complete. And it was fun.

We laughed, we roared; we raced down the banks of the Little Colorado cheering like parents at a high school track meet. Later, we threw a surprise wedding for Adam and Rosie on their 11th anniversary. We built an altar and wrote a ceremony script complete with river-themed vows. Claire made actual rings with heart-shaped rocks she had found.

We danced past everyone’s bedtime. We had 12 layover days; we made backcountry espresso drinks; we gave each other haircuts. We spent half a day competing in River Olympics. We had not one, but two White Elephant gift exchanges complete with a special set of rules for stealing gifts (You wanna steal? You better be ready to win at Butt Darts, Rats on a Can, Screaming Seagulls, a throw bag challenge, or a haiku-off). We danced in slot canyons. We hiked all day. We laughed all night. 

Silliness, it turns out, is a wonderful antidote to urgency. 

On the shortest day of the year, we built a circle of solar and battery lights around the fire. Then, we each sat with an unlit candle in hand. One by one, we shared something we wanted to bring from this trip with us into the front country and the new year. After we shared, the person to our left lit our candle until a single flame became a circle of light. 

I was so grateful for the people around me. They built, they innovated, they designed. They created games, looped jokes and had me feeling carefree in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. This wonderful, eclectic group of people whom I did not know 23 days prior had brought a lightness to my life. I wanted to bring their energy back to the front country, to emulate the lightness and invigoration I felt when I had unstructured free time. 

Back at the kitchen table, when I realized sunlight would be in short supply, I thought my winter Canyon trip would be cold and miserable. I thought I’d spend my days doing squats in my cockpit. I thought I’d never feel my toes.

Some days, the squats were necessary, but even then, this trip was full of light and joy. It was 30 days of slowing down. Of lazily floating past epic walls of ancient rock, wandering up inviting side canyons, going to bed early, and waking up rested. It was 30 days of sharing my camp couch with a rotating roster of new friends. It was 30 days of embracing the dark along with the light. 

With daylight in short supply, we had ample time to rest and recharge. Perhaps that’s what winter is meant to be: the time and the space to take honest stock of our lives. My life leading up to this trip was filled with anxiety, urgency, and self-doubt. Spending the winter solstice in the backcountry, without instant distraction at my fingertips, invited a deeper investigation of this discomfort and forced me to be more present with myself. Confronting this personal winter meant acknowledging my sadness and my growing pains. Wonderfully, with time and rest, the confrontation inched towards acceptance. I needed that.

It was a dichotomous trip: I sat with my rawest shadows but also caught glimpses of my most joyful self. I meditated on the harbingers of light in my life. I certainly didn’t solve my identity crisis, nor did I eliminate urgency or anxiety from my front-country life. But embracing the darkest days illuminated what’s important to me, what makes me feel grounded and full and like I’m truly living. There will always be darkness; there will be new winters to stumble through. But whatever happens, I know I’ll be okay if I just find my way downstream. Downstream, there is light.

Photography courtesy of David Chan, Courtney Ngai, Casey Pagels, Derek Young, Claire Keeler and Erik Carlson.