August 2, 2016

Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon: Behind the Shot with Forest Woodward

Adventure photographer Forest Woodward recounts a 28-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon and how he tried to document its beauty.

Breathe whispers the soothing voice of the canyon, and I pull the dry cool air of the desert deep into my lungs. My eyes float upwards past the river and the jumble of red rock scree towards the silent watchers above.

To our left, the South Rim; to our right the North. “Whatever else changes in the next 28 days,” I think to myself, “this will not.” The towering red monoliths will be our constant companions, watching over us as we drift, November into December, through the heart of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

Forest Woodward photo of rafts on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Fifteen of us, six rafts, four kayaks, the dead of winter, 28 days. At 27 I am the youngest member of the crew. At 77, Dad is the oldest. “What could possibly go wrong?” I had asked myself time and time again in the months leading up to the trip. Every time I asked the question, a new voice of fear had chimed into the conversation. Eventually, it became such a jumble of voices that I stopped asking, preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.

Breathe, I whisper to myself as I stare downstream towards the frothing maelstrom that marks Hance rapid (class 8), the first of the big ones. Dad, unconcerned and with a grin spread wide across his face, is perched in the bow of our 16-foot oar rig, hands gripped tight to the straps that I lashed over our bags this morning, double and triple checking that they are secure in the event of a flip.

A flip seems far from Dad’s mind. 44 years ago, he stared down this rapid from the cockpit of a delicate homemade fiberglass kayak–the first craft of her type to successfully navigate the entire length of the canyon. I wondered if he had to remind himself to breathe then as well. I wondered if he was as scared then as I am now.

We enter the rapid exactly as I had hoped, high and right, only to find ourselves quickly batted left and towards the first of two frothing haystack hydraulics of which I had hoped to be well clear. Our speed carries us through the first of the hydraulics, but hammers us even further off our line.

“Hold on!!” I yell to Dad, for lack of anything better to do, watching the wave envelop him. As he disappears from view, the boat is sucked down, down, impossibly down.

Breathe, I think, yet realize I cannot as the wave crashes full against my chest.

Like a whale breaching in slow motion, we rise from the trough, and though water still clogs my mouth and nose, on the inside I am breathing a sigh of relief, watching as Dad turns -grin still intact – and gives me the thumbs up. I smile, and breathe deep again, grateful for the unconditional love of this man I get to call my father, and the unbridled wilderness of this Grandest of Canyons.

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