Deep in the Grand Canyon, search and rescue teams are scaling back efforts to find 21-year-old Colorado woman, Kaitlin Kenney. She was half way through a month long river trip when she went missing last Saturday. The group she was with had camped at Tapeats Creek, mile 134.5 on the north side of the Colorado River. When they woke, Kaitlin was gone, and search teams have found no sign of her. It is believed Kaitlin probably fell into the river sometime in the middle of the night.
The Colorado is deep and swift and filled with boulders. But more dangerous than any of that is its temperature. The river is deadly cold. Even in the summer it is cold. The water, most of it, is flushed from the bottom of Lake Powell, and stays about 46 degrees year round, warming only a little during the monsoon when un-dammed tributaries pour in their silty cargo. But it's not summer in the Canyon. It is winter, and even at its base—more than a mile below the snow-spackled rim, it's cold. The last time people saw Kaitlin she was wearing a long coat, thick pants, a hat and scarf.
From pictures it's clear Kaitlin was a beautiful girl with long brown hair, big brown eyes, and a genuine smile. From newspaper descriptions we know she played the fiddle, and was studying Anthropology and Native American Cultures at the University of Montana. I would imagine that this trip must have been a kind of nexus for her. A coming together of dreams and passion. The canyon is America's oldest museum. The walls date back almost 2 billion years ago, and the arid climate encumbers decay. Native American foot paths, tools, baskets, even stocks of grain can still be found. There is not a single section in the 277-mile-long river trip that does not call out with story and fill a curious mind with wonder. And then there is the granddaddy of all amphitheaters. Redwall Cavern sits at mile 33. Kaitlin would have likely reached the gigantic lens-shaped cave during the first week of her journey, and because she was a musician, and because so many others have done it, I would imagine that Kaitlin Kenney would have played her music inside that stone dome. John Muir estimated 4000 people could fit in there. I'm not sure he had that right, but I do imagine that playing an instrument inside that space must feel akin to playing in one of the world's oldest and grandest cathedrals. And Kaitlin would have had that.
People die in the Grand Canyon. In 2010, twelve people died: dehydration, falls, drownings. In 2011, twenty-one more died.
I almost died there. A careless decision to "swim" Hermit Rapids. There are 10 big waves on Hermit—a few of them almost 20 feet tall. Jumping into that icy-water without a wetsuit was a fool's move, and I remember being convinced I was about to die as my lungs seized and my body was thrust beneath the heavy water. But what I also remember, strange though it seemed even then, was feeling that if it was my time, then I was okay with that. If I am about to die, I thought, then the Canyon was the best place for it to happen.
I had found my soul-spot deep in those walls. My life had found its sense. The rim-world and all its problems and indifference and caustic battles over money and time and resources, felt obsolete. I never wanted to return. And so death—if that was what I faced, was best done there—where life felt its fullest.
This, of course, is no help to the friends and family of Kaitlin Kenney. And it's not meant to be. There is no quick-release from the grip of sorrow. Loss, when it happens, becomes part of what we wear. But eventually grief's shroud softens, and the weave becomes thin, and light filters through, and we are occasionally able to set that sadness down. And maybe, in those moments, the young girl who decided to spend a winter month in a canyon, can be remembered, as she said in a postcard to her mother, of having the time of her life—right up to the moment her life was over.
Naseem Rakha is getting ready to spend a month at the Grand Canyon as an Artist in Residence. You can follow her experience at her Grand Canyon Blog.