“If anybody is not blown away by the Grand Canyon, they won’t be blown away by Judgement Day, either. To spend the night on rocks that have been warmed to 120 degrees by the sun, to feel the incredibly insistent and very dangerous Colorado River rush by you, to be down in the depths of the Grand Canyon with no one around you but your own party, you begin to feel your own insignificance. At the same time, you are made larger by that realization.”
– filmmaker Ken Burns, to Arizona Highways Magazine
I recently confirmed our spots for our second Colorado River rafting trip, set to embark next summer. Since doing so, I often find myself staring off into space, my mind wandering back to our pre-baby (and virgin) trip. Images flash through my mind of sun-seared red sandstone cliffs — the roiling rush of the river, like a writhing beast, beneath me during the day and beside me at night — and slowly I get drawn back down, down, down into the Grand Canyon. It has a way of doing that.
Like it was yesterday, I can feel the hot, industrial-thick rubber of “The Rail” (what we newbie river runners dubbed the side pontoons of the raft) under my sunburned legs and the soft spray kissing my face…the rhythmic rise and fall of our craft as the river swelled beneath it. Like some living thing, the Canyon is already calling to me, pulling me back in.
When we signed up for our first river trip with Hatch River Expeditions, one of our main goals was to check a “big one” off of our Bucket List. I mean, what adventurous soul does NOT yearn to raft the mighty Colorado at least once in their lifetime?
Little did we know that the allure of the Canyon was not something easily escaped once whisked top-side via helicopter. Nor did I expect, even weeks later, to start from a sound sleep, feeling the roll and sway of the raft beneath me as if I were still being carried down the river.
There is something haunting about the Grand Canyon — and something absolutely visceral about experiencing it while riding on the back of the mightiest river in America; spending a whole week sleeping exposed to sheer, sunbaked rock faces under the craziest, thickest expanse of stars imaginable. The Canyon gets into your blood somehow.
For all the intensity of experience and mysteries unveiled to us during that memorable first trip, for me, one spot stands out above all the rest: Nankoweap.
Nankoweap. I had seen that word dozens of times, nearly always gracing the caption of a stunning photograph of ancient ruins nestled high above the water, back-lit by an impossibly beautiful straight-shot downriver view.
Nankoweap. The humongous delta — the largest on the river in fact — named for Nankoweap Creek, which drains into the Colorado River at this spot where Nankoweap Canyon and Marble Canyon meet.
To me, the name Nankoweap had become so synonymous with the ruins perched high above the river, which were actually not dwellings but granaries where the ancient inhabitants stored their food, that I had no idea this place held so much more.
I had read about Nankoweap in countless captions, but never did I imagine I would see it for myself and be able to view the remnants of its ancient civilization up close — let alone bed down in the Nankoweap Delta, where Ancient Puebloan people made their home nearly 1000 years ago in what had been one of the largest settlements inside the Grand Canyon.
It was day two of our trip, and we had spent the preceding night at Indian Dick; a popular camping spot lewdly named after a prominent rock feature that overlooks it. After an intoxicating second day on the river, I consulted my trusty waterproof mile-by-mile Colorado River guidebook (which sadly ended up in its namesake when I rode The Rail on Hermit Rapid days later) and learned that we were approaching Nankoweap, located approximately 52 river miles below Lee’s Ferry.
I excitedly anticipated getting a glimpse of the fabled granaries from afar, as the raft whisked us around the curve of the delta and on our way. As I braced myself and my waterproof camera so as not to miss them as we rounded the curve, my excitement went through the roof when I overheard the guides discussing whether we should pull in for the night; a possibility as long as no other river runners had beaten us to the few good campsites on the delta.
As we rounded the bend, I sucked in my breath; pleasepleaseplease…yes! There was nobody there! It only felt real when our guides carefully guided our boat and our sister boat to shore. I would actually be spending the night at Nankoweap!
Technically inside Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, Nankoweap’s expansive delta was officially studied back in the 60s by an archaeologist named Douglas W. Schwartz. Not only did Schwartz thoroughly investigate the famous granaries in the cliffs, but also a number of petroglyph sites and ruins on the canyon floor along the river — in all, thirty pueblo structures.
Ultimately, he concluded that the Nankoweap Delta may have been home to as many as 900 people at one time, most likely between AD 1050 and 1150. He also surmised that the people farmed the delta, based on remnants of ancient corncobs and pumpkin seeds that he found in the granaries.
The boats drifted to shore, as crafts of millennia past must have done, and we commenced our nightly ritual of unloading supplies and setting up individual campsites. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting shadows onto the canyon walls, our guides beckoned and a good number of us gathered at the foot of the salmon-hued cliffs to begin the ascent to the granaries.
As we started along the sandy trail, I couldn’t help but notice our guides wore flip-flops…a modern testament (in my mind) to the woven sandals the ancient ones surely wore to make this very same trek.
We navigated silently among the mesquite, tamarisk and other brush, the trail often choked with obstacles, forcing us to scramble over toppled rocks and exposed roots. Soon the trail began to get steeper, seemingly chiseled through the exposed rock, and the granaries came into view over 600 feet above the river.
After a bit of huffing and puffing, we finally made it up the last stretch to where the granaries sat as they had for nearly ten centuries; tucked away tightly in the cliffside, accessible only by a narrow walkway. In ones and twos, we carefully navigated the precarious zig-zag path up, and I finally stood on the threshold and beheld that coveted view.
I looked off down the river, relishing the moment, then let my gaze wander over to the granaries themselves. So small really; humble storage caches for a people that lived and breathed and walked here a thousand years ago. A people who, after all, were only trying to survive.
I reverently approached the caches and peered inside, trying to imagine the need, the urgency, that drove people to store the seeds that would ensure their survival in such a high and inaccessible place. Was it a fear that the river would rise? Was it to keep them out of enemy hands?
Archaeologists dance around the truth, seemingly getting closer and closer to The Answer; but I am convinced there are some things we may just never know.
I let my gaze linger inside one of the small structures, and a faint shimmer of blue caught my eye. Turquoise. The revered symbol of water, sky and life itself.
Like the archaeologists trying to decipher the clues left behind by the ancient people of Nankoweap Delta, I will never know for sure who left this hopeful offering or why — but to me it was the perfect embodiment of the People whose essence and spirit will always live on within the Canyon.