Bring the Elders


Last October, I won a Grand Canyon permit for an eight-person trip on the Colorado. October is a coveted time to be in that drainage. I’ve done winter trips, where dry suits are mandatory, and I’ve heard of the oven-like heat that can blast through the canyon in the summers. October offers a real Goldilocks situation. Just right. I wore short-shorts while rowing most days during this trip.

Picking a roster was an emotional rollercoaster. Only eight people could be on the trip at a given time. We could hike people in/out as much as we wanted, but we still had to narrow the on-water list to eight. When my partner, Jess, proposed giving two of these coveted spots to my in-laws, I was dubious at first. Aside from the fact that they aren’t really whitewater people, the terrain can be pretty unforgiving for 70+-year-old knees, especially if they aren’t used to spending time in that type of rugged country.

Also, who wants to spend over two weeks locked into a canyon with their in-laws? There are horror stories of this exact situation for a reason. I have friends who have not spoken to their in-laws for over three years after getting off a canyon trip with them. Small issues can turn into warfare when you’re locked in a canyon with someone for weeks at a time. On the other hand, how often do you get the opportunity to share one of the most special places in the world with your parents? Clearly, Jess was winning in this internal debate.

In 2020, my father checked out. He lived fast, ‘smoked ‘em if he had ‘em,’ and death finally came to collect the check. In the fall of 2023, Diana Yupe, a tribal elder of the Shoshone Bannock tribe and an institution within the Middle Fork Salmon departed to the heartbreak of a massive community of boaters and river guides. I will value the dozens of times I heard her speak about the river to guides and guests at Indian Creek before setting off down the River of No Return. In early 2024, Tom Tremain, a long-time Middle Fork Guide and who had inspired me as a 16-year-old kid to become a guide myself, proudly dropped into the proverbial beyond. The passing of these friends and legends reminded me that our time here is short. Who was I to deny Jess such an experience with her parents?

I hesitated when Jess asked if we should bring her parents. But within 10 minutes of getting the permit confirmation, they were committed to the second half of the 16-day trip. They would hike seven knee-smashing miles down into one of the deepest canyons in the U.S. They would raft and hike in terrain that was otherwise alien to their 70-year-old bodies. I imagined them navigating the unforgiving ledge camps perched above the rushing current of the Colorado in the dark for a midnight pee after a couple of cocktails. It all made me more than a little edgy.

For the first half of the trip, we had a 1:1 retired-guide to Newbie ratio. Our non-rafting friends came from Albuquerque and Oregon. Everyone was fit and ready to hike, climb, trip and flip. Whatever came, this group was capable. Ron, never having been in whitewater before, even paddled a packraft through the Roaring 20s. I lost count after he swam three times. His positive attitude was relentless. We eventually had to force him into a raft when he became hypothermic. (He bought a packraft as soon as he got home.)

The whole team was resilient. Even if there was a nearly full-blown fistfight over some white-elephant gifts, I was feeling pretty optimistic about this half of the trip. The next half felt more tenuous.

Once we made it to Phantom Ranch, one-third of the way downriver, we exchanged most of our crew. We said goodbye to five of our closest friends and hello to five more, including my in-laws. Packs were loaded and folks hit the trail from either end, the two groups of five passing in the opposite direction. If ever there was a way to hit the reset button on the vibe of a trip, this was it.

Three of the new crew members got to the river nearly two hours before my in-laws. They were hardy guides, kayakers and Grand Canyon veterans. Bill and Carol had even set out hours before the others. As I wondered when I should start hiking up to find them, Jess beat me to the punch, shouldering a pack with extra water, snacks and first aid kit and started heading up. A low nervous tone was already humming inside of me. I could tell that Jess was a little more tense than previously. It wasn’t too long, to my relief, that she came frolicking down the trail with her parents in tow in what, by comparison, might be considered a lumbering shuffle. In good spirits, they asked for the nearest tequila bottle, something to soothe the aches after that long descent.

There was no way out now besides downriver, or a heli-flight out of the canyon, but we don’t mention such things until necessary. My low humming concern picked up when I saw my mother-in-law crying as she came through the bottom of Horn Rapid, the very first rapid of her trip. The line went smoothly and she sat comfortably on a padded table in front of the boat, but she was visibly shaken by the magnitude of the whitewater and perhaps what they had signed up for without truly understanding. Seeing how seriously the rest of us took scouting may have also tipped her off that this wasn’t our usual bread-and-butter backyard run that she had come along with in the past.

At this moment, I was trying to remember why we had chosen to have them come on the more whitewater-heavy part of the trip. Oh yeah, the seven-mile hike out from Phantom seemed untenable at the time. It was looking more tenable at this moment from my point of view. What had started with tears, ended with smiles and cocktails, albeit a bit stiffer than normal. The weary hikers were getting their sea legs under them.

My tension lightened as the trip went on, always there, but less so as we knocked big sections of whitewater off and managed to get through each hike without any major injuries or spills. Seeing the river through my father-in-law’s eyes was like watching a little kid experience something mystical. As a wildlife biologist, this man could appreciate this place in a way that reminded me not to take these places for granted.

At Deer Creek, Carol and I bonded while she road piggy-back over some tenuous slick spots. Our friends, “the kids,” wrapped Bill and Carol in what felt like a watchful bubble on any hike that the two wanted to partake in. They offered a hand or even an extra thigh to step up on when the terrain became a little steeper. They didn’t even mention the tarantula just next to Carol shortly after she stated how she didn’t want to run into any spiders while hiking to Elves Chasm. I watched Jess cry as her parents hugged in the pool below Deer Creek Falls, knowing that they would never have come to this magical spot if not taken there by their daughter.

After Bill gave me a nod one day when I asked if he wanted to “go big” at Walthenburg, we tail-stood an 18-foot raft that nearly sent him falling back into my lap laughing. He was unshaken. “I had total confidence!” Meanwhile, I thought we legitimately might flip end-over-end, and he was quietly giggling. Carol rode in a boat that nearly turned over after surfing a massive hole in ‘Upset,’ later saying, “I knew it was no problem. We had it the whole time.” The unwavering confidence that both of these elders had in ‘their kids,’ albeit a little ignorant, was unyielding and inspiring.

The deeper we moved into the canyon, the more comfortable we all became. The less Bill and Carol became my in-laws and the more they became my fellow rowing partners and crew members. It became easier to cut the sh#t and have real talk. Watching Carol listen to her kid singing in one of the echoing side canyons with tears in her eyes, was a validating moment along with many others throughout the trip. The group of confident guides and kayakers that now made up the second half of the trip enfolded Carol and Bill into their skillset.

We schemed Plan As, Bs, Cs on and off the water with the elders being at the center of the conversations. “If I flip, don’t worry about my raft, just stay focused on their boat.” “I suppose we can rig up a harness to get them through that slot if they really want to go up there.”  In hindsight, the level of commitment that everyone got on board to share the magic of this place with them was pretty incredible, and while the flow of the trip changed, the value had only increased.

Having the older generation with us reminded us of those that had shared these places with us in our youth and imprinted these passions in our souls. Having Bill & Carol there was a reminder that without our parents, or other elders that we have met along the way, we likely would never have found these places or cultivated these passions.

Watching a daughter row her parents with a clean line through Lava Falls will forever be one of the most spectacular moments that I will ever see. I can only hope that I might be lucky enough to share a similar experience with my kid(s) one day. There are a lot of lessons for me to unpack here, one of which was that I needed to get over myself, to let go of my preconceived notion of what I wanted this trip to be, that there is so much value in bringing the elders along. Those quiet floats through flat pools with Bill or the giggly wave trains while splashing Carol, will be something that I will always cherish.

The Legends like Tom Tremain and Diana Yupe remind us that our river heroes and family members won’t be here forever. Although they continue to teach us lessons, it’s a precious thing to get to learn from them directly. Listen to them, laugh with them, and despite what preconception you may have of them or how well you think you know them, the river—especially the Colorado—has a way of surprising you. Bring the elders.