Ribbon Falls Rejuvenation – Part 2

For a little more background information, please consider reading my last blog post: Ribbon Falls Rejuvenation – Part 1.


Early morning coffee placed behind the Phantom Ranch dining area, Grand Canyon National Park.

Early morning coffee placed behind the Phantom Ranch dining area, Grand Canyon National Park.

The day of our planned return to Ribbon Falls, Diane and I were up before the sun. We strolled through the Bright Angel Campground and stopped for coffee at the Phantom Ranch kitchen window. We knew there were already hikers on the trail but in camp this coffee was the only indication that others were awake. Diane’s husband was among those on the trail. He was running rim-to-rim today, on his way to pick up the truck we’d left at the North Rim. Diane was waiting to have breakfast with him as he passed through camp but I was going ahead to take pictures of Ribbon Falls in the early morning light.

“Now you do have enough snacks to make it until I get there with lunch, right?” Diane asked.

An amused smile broke across my face, “Diane, you packed me a breakfast so large that I probably won’t even need lunch!”

Diane and I had met nearly 20 years prior. She was married with two small children while I was still a kid myself in many ways, just starting graduate school and truly living on my own for the first time. She had mothered me in subtle ways then and probably always would, my neatly packed breakfast being just one example.

Diane laughed, “Oh, you’ll want lunch though! It’s the Asian noodles with edamame, and I made it extra spicy just for you.”

She was right, I would want some. It would be several hours until lunchtime though. We turned in our opposite directions and headed off.

I was nearing Ribbon Falls’ alternate turn-off when I spotted a familiar figure jogging up the trail.

“Hi!” I greeted cheerily as Diane’s husband approached.

We chatted briefly and as he trotted off he reassured me that Diane was on her way, maybe an hour or so behind.

This second trail to Ribbon Falls was no better marked than the one on the Cottonwood side, possibly worse. There was no bridge and the trail unclearly wove back and forth across a small stream that occupied a wide riverbed. Vegetation concentrated along the water’s route indicated the water’s usual flow, but the fact that the outer banks were so defined suggested that flooding was not uncommon. I tried to imagine a rainstorm intense enough to fill this basin. It would have to be an impressive storm. Fortunately, there were no clouds in the sky today.

American Dipper foraging for insects in moss alongside Ribbon Falls.

American Dipper foraging for insects in moss alongside Ribbon Falls.

As I approached Ribbon Falls, I was once again enraptured by my first view of the silvery cascade shimmering down on its emerald dome, and once again disappointed to find an audience already present when I arrived at its base. They seemed to be one group, a few of the party down with me at the dome’s base and a few more in the protected cove that ran behind and around the top of the moss-covered hill. I felt robbed. I had hoped to have this contemplative place to myself for a while. It was exactly the type of wilderness setting that could leave me bursting in euphoric wonder, marveling at my connections with the planet and universe beyond. Maybe there was still time. I planned to be here all day and in my experience, average visitors rarely paused more than a few minutes to enjoy even the most spectacular scenes around the world. The resident American Dipper caught my eye, foraging for insects in the moss alongside the waterfall, and I busied myself taking its picture.

I’d become absorbed in my task and was startled when one of the men from the party addressed me, “Excuse me. I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be releasing some ashes on the other side of the falls. The wind might carry them in your direction.”

Not quite comprehending the meaning of his statement, I automatically replied “Ok. Thanks for the heads up.”

Columbines growing beside Ribbon Falls.

Columbines growing beside Ribbon Falls.

I turned back, but the dipper was gone. I tried photographing columbines instead but my rhythm was broken and I was distracted by his words. Releasing ash? What ash? Whose ash? It donned on me that it was I who had intruded upon their contemplative place. Should I leave to let them mourn in privacy? A loud splash behind me suggested it was too late for that.

I turned to see a cloud of gray masking the rosy cliff the group stood upon and more gray snaking through the water in the pool below. It seemed too turbulent and tragic for this formerly tranquil scene. Even as the air cleared, the scattered cliff-side vegetation maintained a ghostly sheen and the ashes in the water congealed. I wondered how the dipper would feel about this addition to its pond. Then I realized I was staring.

Self-conscious, I shifted my gaze back into my lens, wishing that I’d left when the man had given me that chance. I wanted to leave now, but I was precariously perched partway up the side falls and departing from here would certainly be disruptive. I decided it would be more respectful to stay put. I stared unproductively at the scene through my lens, noting that the sun was disappearing. I heard a low rumble and then felt a rain drop.

I glanced up and saw darkness engulfing the blue sky, racing in our direction. How could this be? There had been no signs of rain. Had the dumping of ashes displeased the local gods? The mourners too were watching the disgruntled sky. They congregated for one last picture, paid their final respects and began gathering their bags. I struggled from my post in the light rain, trying to shield my equipment with my body as I haphazardly collected my own gear. I clamored up the trail to the cove as the rain became heavier. I hadn’t actually been up this trail before and was relieved to discover that the overhanging rock behind the falls provided ample protection. I tucked my gear onto a dry ledge within the cave and began wondering about Diane. Surely it had been more than an hour since I’d encountered her husband. Shouldn’t she have arrived by now? Lightening tore across the increasingly angry sky and thunder accompanied split seconds later. It was close. I hoped Diane had a safe place to hide. More importantly, I hoped she wasn’t working her way up the flood-prone section of trail just before the Falls.

Overlooking the storm from behind the top of Ribbon Falls.

Overlooking the storm from behind the top of Ribbon Falls.

From my position within the cave I could no longer see the top of the Falls, but it’s sparkling flow provided a barrier against the gloom that consumed the valley. The emerald dome, appearing rather basin-like from this perspective, glowed extra lush and soft in the filtered light. It was a beacon of serenity among the rumbling grays. Buffered from the storm, I set my tripod before the dramatic scene and began taking pictures. When marble-sized hail infiltrated the green moss on my palette, I initially thrilled at the opportunity to capture it on film and then began worrying again about Diane.

I walked along the protected ledge to beyond the Falls and peered below. A pair of hikers huddled miserably under a slightly too small rock overhang along the trail to the Falls. I strained to see if Diane was beyond them, but sheets of rain masked the view. I folded my arms against the chilly air and returned to my sanctuary. I paced back and forth. Should I go look for my friend? I stopped atop the trail I’d come up and decided against a rescue mission; the trail was a veritable slip-n-slide. Heading into the elements now would be foolish, dangerous even. Diane was smart and she did live in the Grand Canyon now, she would know what to do. A new roaring sound caught my attention and I turned back to the waterfall.

My aquatic veil sputtered as a deluge of chocolate milk-looking water shot out above the Fall’s original trickle. I watched in amazement as the brown water gained momentum and in one final burst, eliminated all clear waters. I repositioned my tripod to capture the storm’s latest mood.

When the sheets of rain lessened to a mere trickle, I returned to my viewing platform beyond the Falls. I gasped in astonishment. The huddled hikers were gone, and so was Ribbon Falls. The Falls had been transformed into a raging river whose fury all but concealed the mossy dome and claimed the pool and streams below as it surged down the valley. I had to get a picture. I rushed back for my camera.

Upon return, I was dismayed that the full waterfall, and its essential context, failed to fit into my frame. I took a few more steps and tried again. Still too close. The ledge narrowed as I continued and my fear of heights began to kick in. My heart pounded as I held up my camera again. Still not good enough. The ledge was now too skinny for my tripod and I was too wobbly to take a steady picture without it. I could see a fold in the rock ahead where the ledge looked wider and I’d be able to support myself. I pressed my back against the cliff and inched toward it.

Just before the fold, I panicked. I had to step around it and although it was wider on the other side, it required a large step at an awkward angle to get there. I evaluated my options, then grabbed the wall with one hand and grasped at a branch growing up from below with the other. It was hardly ideal, but there was nothing else to hold onto. I held my breath and swung myself around the rock. I hugged the wall tightly and took a moment to calm my breathing once on the other side. I carefully readjusted to face forward and noticed a person down river.

It was Diane! She was standing on a boulder, roughly at the site of our squirrel episode the other day, evaluating the torrents before her. She appeared to look in my direction and I waved, but got no response. A couple more people emerged from the vegetation and the group engaged in what looked like a grave discussion. They disappeared from view, heading away from Ribbon Falls and I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Maybe that wasn’t Diane. The people had been too far away to know for sure.

Brown waters flooding Ribbon Falls and its pool below.

Brown waters flooding Ribbon Falls and its pool below.

The rain suddenly got heavier again. It was relatively dry where I was, but this was not a place I wanted to hang out and I worried that the rain might shift and make my ledge pathway slicker. It was time to take my picture and head back to safety.

I’d barely hit the shutter when a crack of thunder and simultaneous lightening gave me the sensation of jumping out of my skin. Shaking all over, I forced my jello legs to round the rocky bend. I struggled to moderate my intense desire to flee quickly with my equally strong desire to make it there alive. If this ledge felt perilous to begin with, it now felt downright dangerous and my whole being protested as I shuffled as quickly and carefully as I could manage.

Once back to my alcove behind the Falls, I found myself unsteadily pacing again. The water flow was even heavier than it had been, the thunder was back to rumbling, Diane may or may not be just across the water, the other hikers had bailed, and flash flooding was underway. I was dry and out of flood range for the moment, but how high could the water rise? How long might it stay high? And what about Diane? Lenny Kravitz’s “Should I stay or should I go now? If I stay there will be trouble, if I go it will be double,” looped through my head.

I hadn’t seen any lightening for a while and when one ray of sun peeked through the clouds, I chose to interpret it as a sign that I should go. I hurriedly stowed and rainproofed my equipment. The storm seemed to be ending here, but the flash flood threat was far from over as the rain moved upstream and provided even more ammunition. I wanted to find Diane and get out of river range before the angry waters now filling Ribbon Falls had a chance to gather more momentum. At the very least I wanted to assess my crossing options from below. I threw on my poncho as a finishing touch and tenuously braved the slippery trail down.

As I rounded the boulders past where the hikers had been, I ran into a young man coming from the opposite direction. He too was covered in poncho and spoke slowly and airily, as if high, “Pretty incredible storm, huh? Totally caught me off guard!”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “Did you just cross the river?”

He nodded.

“Did you happen to pass a woman with short brown, curly hair? She would’ve been coming up from Phantom Ranch and was wearing…”

He cut me off, “Nah, I wouldn’t know. I’ve seen so many people this morning, y’know.”

“Sure,” I acknowledged, “Thanks anyway.”

Crestfallen, I took a step past him to continue picking my way across the rocks. I heard my name and looked up.

A waterlogged Diane burst through the vegetation before me and pulled me into a hug, “I was so worried about you! I saw you inching along the cliff up there and thought you’d been flooded out. I thought you were going for higher ground.”

Diane was shivering. Her words tumbled out as she relayed trying to cross the river after she’d seen me, but thinking better of it after encountering the hikers who I’d seen from above. They were young men, tall and fit, but had barely made it across. The water was up to their waists and the one seemed to be in shock, mumbling incessantly about how the current had nearly swept him away. Having already been caught in the open during the worst of the storm and its hail, Diane had chosen to shelter under a boulder just beyond the river this time, waiting for the rain to pass and the stream to recede.

“The guy you were just talking to was with me,” Diane concluded.

“Really? He claimed to have seen too many people to identify anyone. Funny that he had literally just been hiding from the storm next to you,” I snorted, both annoyed and entertained by his obliviousness.

“That’s odd. I kept saying how worried I was about my friend who was stuck up at the waterfall. I can’t imagine that didn’t trigger a response.” Diane shook her head, “Ah, well. We’d best get across the stream while we can, the flooding may get worse again.”

Not wanting to risk the riverbed trail, we took the longer but presumably safer route toward Cottonwood. The water blasted mere inches below the suspension bridge where it had been a meandering rivulet several feet below at our last crossing. We gratefully left the bridge and waterfall behind. Ribbon Falls was certainly a spectacular place but between the squirrels, ashes and storm, we needed a slightly different type of haven. We sought the largest, flattest and most shade-free boulder we could find away from the water, and claimed it. We fanned our wet clothes and gear around us and laid back on our rock to enjoy our bag of homemade noodles. It seemed ironic that this one rock, in a landscape full of rocks, had become our oasis. Maybe rejuvenation wasn’t so much about the physical location as mental state, and company. I took a bite of the noodles Diane had prepared, extra spicy just the way I liked it, and grinned appreciatively at my friend.

Diane and I rejuvenating on a boulder, still water logged (as was the waterproof point-and-shoot) but far from the Falls and happy.

Diane and I rejuvenating on a boulder, still water logged (as was the waterproof point-and-shoot) but far from the Falls and happy.

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