Twice In A Lifetime

Twice In A Lifetime

Several weeks ago a travel magazine contacted me out of the blue. The senior executive editor of very graciously invited me to contribute to an upcoming issue dedicated to the theme of freedom. She was particularly interested in a story from me on the National Parks and the role that spending time in nature plays in my personal pursuit of happiness. It just so happened that I had given that topic a great deal of thought in recent months and I accepted the assignment with the intention of writing about a once in a lifetime experience I had in the summer 2016 while on a whitewater rafting voyage along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

I have something of a reputation for writing about the lack of racial diversity in outdoor recreation. So I had an idea of what she had in mind. The 226-mile journey from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek is one of the most coveted adventure travel opportunities in the world. And by extension it is also among the most exclusive. In order to protect this precious and vulnerable natural resource the National Park Service only allows 29,000 people to make the two-week trip through this incredible landscape each year and sadly only handful are people of color.  Compared to the 4.5 million visitors who will look down into the Grand Canyon from its rim, the smallest fraction of that number will see the view from the bottom and marvel at its exquisite architecture, ancient dwellings and artifacts of native people and the brilliant nighttime sky that the writer Kevin Fedarko described as the “river of shooting stars”. 

It should be said, however, that people of color are NOT prohibited from visiting the Grand Canyon, at least not deliberately. In fact, there are many organizations from church groups to motorcycle clubs that routinely travel to the rim every year. Families from every walk of life travel from across the country to see this magnificent sight as part of a National Park scenic tour. The view from the bottom though is a site reserved for those willing to put in a lot of time, effort and money into acquiring the skills necessary to make the long journey or those, like me, with just the right personal connections to be invited on an expedition. 

For many years a small cadre of my friends had applied to the Park Service for one of the few permits that would allow a private party of paddlers to venture into the Canyon. Permission is awarded through a lottery system, so like in any game of chance fortune favors the persistent. Finally in the summer of 2016 our number came up and I was asked to join a flotilla of 5 boats and 16 passengers for the privilege of visiting one of the world’s great natural wonders. 

The trip was everything that I had imagined. The Arizona desert is a vibrant ecosystem teaming with life from common lizards to great blue herons, endangered California condors and big horn sheep. The Canyon is filled with lush green pockets of foliage along limpid pools of clear blue water that flows into cool shady grottos that defy the arid weather. Thrilling rapids of churning whitewater made for periodic moments of sheer terror as talented boat captains at the oars safely piloted each sturdy raft past massive boulders through swirling currents with name like Specter, Upset and Lava Falls. On short day hikes along the paths of slot canyons and well worn hiking trails we explored the remnants of homesteads once occupied by the Hopi, Hualapai, Havasupai, Navajo, Paiute and Zuni.  It was a truly amazing experience. But it took my old friend Jim Moss, our trip leader, to point out to me what should have been obvious.

“James,” he said. “I’ve been leading trips down here for 30 years and I think you’re first African-American I’ve ever guided.”

Throughout our trip over two weeks I didn’t see a single Black person on the river. Except for myself of course and a young backpacker near the hike-in camp at Phantom Ranch, there seemed to be no other people of color anywhere in the Grand Canyon. Though this single observation is hardly evidence to suggest that no Black people ever venture down the Colorado River, it’s enough to make me wonder, as I have so often, why are there so few? And while I refuse to buy into the idea that there are nefarious powers at work to purposely keep people of color from sharing in this experience, could there be mitigating factors that limit rates of participation?

As it pertains particularly to race I would have to say no. Otherwise I never would have had the opportunity to enjoy what many people describe as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If it  were simply a question of race wouldn’t my access to the Grand Canyon be somehow prohibited. Ironically, as I was working on the article for, I was invited on another whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek.

It was another private party. The friend of an old friend with a short notice permit had an extra spot on his crew. This time we traveled with only two boats and six passengers, but the route was essentially the same. Every trip through the Grand Canyon, however, is a unique experience, now for me twice in a lifetime. It was a bit later in the year, during the monsoon season. Dark storm clouds overhead threatened rain on many days of our two-week voyage, but less sunshine made long days on the water a bit cooler in the summer heat of mid to late August. Flash floods through the slot canyons added peril to our day-hikes and sporadic downpours on the Canyon rim created a spectacular display of new waterfalls. But once again I found myself, accept for another Black backpacker at Phantom Ranch, the only person of color.

Critics of my work as a writer over the last decade ask the same questions I so often ask myself, “What difference does it make? Who cares what color a person’s skin is as long as they love the outdoors?” I suppose in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter. I should just consider myself lucky to enjoy the privilege of uninhibited access to nature and not worry about those people I don’t see in the Grand Canyon or the rest of our National Parks. Given enough time, surely the racial disparities I’ve observed throughout my career among those who spend time in nature and those who don’t may eventually correct themselves. Maybe I should just shut up and paddle.

Actually, that’s not such a bad idea. But I don’t really trust the circumstances of this moment in human history to correct themselves without at least conscientious role models to set a good example. Now that I’ve experienced two trips down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon I welcome the opportunity to do it again. The next time though I want to have the technical skills to pilot one of the boats myself over the whitewater rapids, included the infamous currents at Lava Falls at mile 180. In time I’ll enter the National Park Service permit lottery and put together an expedition of my own.

The freedom that I enjoy to experience the National Parks is dependent upon the ease of access for everyone. Though we must keep the number of visitors down to a manageable level so that these natural resources can be sustainably maintained for future generations, those who come should reflect an equitable cross section of the American people as a whole. Just as diversity among plant and animal species is a sign of strength and viability of any ecosystem, a diverse population of users and advocates for our National Parks will assure their continued success well into the future.

Organizations including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Park Foundation, The National Forest Foundation,  NOLS (The National Outdoor Leadership School) and Outward Bound have all expressed to me many, many times how important diversity is to them. Maybe we can work together to find, engage and train aspiring young paddlers from communities of color across the nation to become rafting guides. Perhaps if there are others out there who share my ambitions to protect the natural world by traveling gently through it with a spirit of adventure there will be opportunities to see greater diversity in our national parks, national forests and all expressions of public land, especially the Grand Canyon, in the near future. 

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Special thanks to the many outdoor industry companies and institutions who provided gear, food and clothing to make this Joy Trip Project possible