Circling Back


Photos & words by Doug & Forest Woodward


When I was younger we ran rivers as a family. I would hunt for fossils, smashing open rocks at each camp in the hope of discovering the remnants of a time very long ago. The results were varied, and I am not sure which I enjoyed more— breaking open the rocks, or finding the frozen remains of the small sea creatures that lived billions of years ago. Certainly the smashing of things was easier for me to understand.

Now, some 20 years later, I am still searching for pieces of the past. Not the prehistoric past, but a more recent time.

Doug Woodward in 2013 and 1970.

A time when Dad was young. I feel under-qualified for this, despite my work with boulders in earlier years. Dad’s history is delicately layered, like loam that settles on a forest floor to be peeled back carefully in sheets, sometimes crumbling in my hands, but often revealing hidden pockets of life below the weathered surface. And in these layers, between stories of times past and chapters closed, is the life force that sustains the old oak, that gives shelter to the sapling; it is the soil in which I too am rooted.

When I was born, Dad was 50. Half a century of life well-lived, full of mistakes, triumphs, surprises, and joyous moments. Moments lived by him, but passed on through thought and action to us, his children. I am my own man, with my own moments to shape me now, but I cannot deny the extent to which my life is rooted in the soil of my father’s history. That is why I want to see more of what lies beneath the surface—to better understand him. To better understand myself.

This retired schoolbus somehow carried a group of Maryland paddlers and their boats to the Grand Canyon and back. Here it pauses between breakdowns at Zion N.P.


It’s an experience I’ll never forget. The monstrous eddy with its boils, whirlpools and a world that seems impossible to escape. The fear of falling into its interminable grip, my kayak sucked into the spinning vortex. The exhilaration of riding power beyond control. The relief of finally crossing the eddy-wall into the smooth downstream current.

I remember the eddy, the day and the feeling, but know I’ll never return. Life moves on like the river. New reaches. New challenges. Then suddenly, 43 years later, the impossible happens. There is a break in the eddy-fence, the lateral waves relax for a split second, and I’m on my way back—accepting my son Forest’s invitation to run the Grand Canyon.

I kayaked the Canyon in July of 1970, well before Forest was born and private boaters began waiting decades for a permit. This time it would be different. Twenty-eight days, November into December. Fifteen of us in four kayaks and six 18-foot rafts. Under the leadership of David Marx, a veteran of the Colorado River, the group would be long on experience and skill. At 77, I would be the oldest, easily twice the age of almost anyone else on the trip. Forest, at 27, would be the youngest.

Boatman Jack Williams rocks cutoffs and a Sierra Club cup in 1970.

This trip would be quite a contrast to my first. In the winter of 1969, when our group of teens became obsessed by the idea of running the Colorado, very few had run the river and only a handful by kayak. Our head guide, Kenton Grua, was just breaking into the business with Ted Hatch. The fiberglass kayaks we paddled on the Colorado were all products of our own basement workshops, and they made Kenton nervous until he saw that we could reliably roll them.

There were no groovers. We did our business in the sand and sealed it with a rock. Campfires were open, built wherever we chose. We drank straight from the river, silt and all. There were no self-bailing rafts. Sunscreen was unknown. Human use of the Canyon in those times was light and the continuing pristine appeal of a campsite depended entirely on our own environmental consciousness.

We mourned the loss of Glen Canyon, whose beauty and hidden places now lay under the dead waters of Lake Powell, which had reached full pool only three years earlier. We were incensed by the seemingly unstoppable plans for the Marble and Bridge Canyon dams in Grand Canyon.

But the dams were stopped. Voices such as Martin Litton, Edward Abbey and Katie Lee played a major role. Our own awareness and activism might have made a small difference too, as members of our group became guides on rivers from the New in West Virginia to California’s American. Others would return to guide Litton’s dories through the Canyon.

Trip leader David Marx prepares his raft for a high- water camp. Authorities released 37,000 cfs from Glen Canyon Dam during the group’s first five days in the canyon.


Growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina—where my folks had moved to start a wilderness education company in the early ‘80s—all of us kids learned to kayak in old fiberglass boats around the same time we could walk. Some of my earliest memories are of kayaking. My parents are skilled whitewater boaters, and the fact that we were raised within an hour’s drive of some of the best rivers in the country (the Nantahala, Ocoee, Chattooga, and Tallulah to name a few) was no coincidence. As I grew older, I moved away from the rivers and the mountains, spending progressively more time in cities or abroad pursuing a career in photography.

In June of 2012, unbeknownst to me, my river hiatus was nearing an end. I got a phone call from my friend David Marx asking me to fill a spot on his crew for a 28-day winter trip down the Grand Canyon. I said yes, asked if my dad could come too, and a year and some months later I found myself in the bow of a raft watching, with a big grin shared between us, as Dad rowed a perfect line through Hermit, one of the major rapids on the river. Dad and I captained one of the rafts, and together grew stronger and closer. Getting to see him back in the Canyon in his element, at 77 years of age, on a river that was so transformative for him in 1970, and that still had the power to revitalize him now … well, that was incredible.

Inside the bus, 1970.

We found out a week before our trip that on the day we launched, the NPS would be releasing a flow of 37,000 cfs from Glen Canyon Dam. This is quite a jump from the usual winter release of 5,000-8,000 cfs. As we camped at Lee’s Ferry, the water began to rise quickly, and an already powerful and intimidating river morphed from a slow green serpent into a brown thundering bull. We set camp early that evening, pitching tents as high above the rising water as we could. Through the night we watched as the water rose some eight feet, taking turns pulling the boats up and dragging them higher into the brush so as not to find them tied to a submerged tree out in the main channel by morning. The adventure had started.


One moment Kenton was in complete control of the huge motor rig as it plunged into Horn Creek Rapid. In the blink of an eye—and flash of an exploding wave—he was gone. Then, in what seemed an interminable moment from our scouting rock, we saw him crawl back to the stern, blood streaming down his face, regain control and turn the huge raft into the last eddy.

Frank, Carl and I quickly climbed into our kayaks and took the left line through Horn without incident. Kenton lay on the steering platform of his raft while Eunice, our nurse, worked to repair his injuries. He was diagnosed with a concussion and badly bruised arm. Eunice bandaged a gash on his forehead. After being watched carefully all night, Kenton was given the green light to continue.

(Kenton Grua was our head guide on the Colorado River in 1970, working for Hatch River Expeditions. He would soon switch to dories, guiding for Martin Litton and becoming one of the best dory pilots in the Canyon, where he was known as “The Factor.” In 1983, rowing his custom-made dory, The Emerald Mile, with two other guides and the Colorado roaring at more than 70,000 cfs, Kenton set a new speed record for a Grand Canyon descent.)



Scrambling high above the river, polished schist slick beneath my wet feet, I pause, pressed close against the canyon wall. The sound does not come again. But I am no less certain of what I heard. Guttural and lonely, primal air forced in distress from human lungs, the sound cuts through the thundering roar of Horn Creek Rapid below. Either the demon spirits that the Hopi believe rule the canyon have awoken, or Spanky and Dr. Al are in trouble. Maybe both.

A futile effort to dry laundry between rain showers at Racetrack Campsite.

Moments earlier, as I scrambled along a low cliffband above the rapid, I had paused to watch as Spanky set his oars to churning, bending them like flimsy vaulter’s poles against the tremendous force of the accelerating current. Then the powerful green tongue funneling from behind the horns hit them, a cold indifferent current pushing their raft toward
the two exploding holes that would surely flip the raft should they hit them broadside. Then they were gone, disappearing out of my line of sight in a frothing tangle of watery haymakers.

“You’ll cruise through the upper section with the high water, but if you don’t make it to Horn with the bubble … well she’s gonna be full of piss and vinegar at low water,” veteran Grand Canyon outfitter Donnie Dove had warned us 10 days ago, well before most of us could really comprehend what piss and vinegar would look like on this river. “I’ve seen the bottom hole snap a dory in half at that level,” Donnie had said back in Flagstaff. Now we were beginning to understand.

Scrambling back to the bottom of the rapid I was amazed to see all six of the boats right side up. The Horn and Hopi spirits had left Spanky nursing a dislocated shoulder (which he had reduced immediately), but otherwise he was fine.



The anticipation of the unknown—Lava Falls—has us all on edge, particularly the three of us in kayaks. The morning of flatwater leading up to the rapid demands no concentration and lets our imagination run wild, creating an uneasiness in the gut. Then we’re there. Over an hour of scouting, from both river-left and river-right, does nothing to relieve the queasy feeling.

I’ll take the first run. There is no road map, not even a word of experience to draw from. The several kayakers that I know have come this way before have either carried around or bumped down the rocky, shallow left side.

Damn! The entry point should have been more precise in my mind! I can’t really scout from the cockpit, I realize, as I glide toward the lip of Lava. Quickly I’m in it, punching one hole, then being eaten by the next, which pops my skirt and pulls my butt out of the boat. I jam my legs back into place and roll up next to the huge abrasive rock, the kayak filled with water. It’s an exhausting effort, but I finally paddle the submarine across the eddyline to safety.

Carl decides to carry his kayak around. Frank, who has carefully watched my run, adjusts his line a foot to the right of mine and makes a perfect run, completely disappearing at times. The rafts, with the help of oars and lines, scrape over the rocks near the left shore, passengers walking.

There is much sadness among our group tonight, as we realize it is our last night on the river. We form a back-rubbing circle around the fire and join voices in “Mariah,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Bonnie & Clyde” and other wistful songs.

(Five days after our 1970 trip ended, Walt Blackadar, the river-running surgeon from Salmon, Idaho would arrive for his first run of the Canyon. He too, was game for the heavy right side of Lava – rolling on each attempt – but as far as we know, we were the first.)

RIVER LIFE: A sunset leap with Diamond Peak in the background.



We push off from Upper Cove sometime around noon, rowing in silence, admiring the shafts of light that have found their way through the ragged cliff to the river below. At Vulcan’s Anvil, Dad places our offering to Vulcan, a brilliant red and black striped rock, asking for safe passage through Lava Falls.

Forest’s journal from the trip.

Then we are there, all of us, perched on a giant hunk of basalt overlooking a chaos of surging waves, twisting currents and frothing pour-over holes and ledges. It is the most intimidating stretch of whitewater I have ever seen, heard, felt and feared. Hands tucked stoically in life jackets or shading eyes for a better view, we exchange doubts and hopes from our high vantage point. Dad walks, slowly, carefully, quietly to sit alone at the end of the rapid on a boulder as near to the great crashing currents as he can get. He wants so badly to run Lava with me, yet he also wants this opportunity to photograph each of the runs as they pass.

As the winter sun dips below the canyon rim, we re-enter our kayaks and rafts, paddles and oars clenched in death grips as we charge the drop, one by one. Following a near perfect run by the kayakers, trip leader David enters in the first raft, gliding down the tongue, straight and fast. Plunging into the second surging V-hole, he disappears for a moment. Then, as if launched by some volcanic geyser, the bow explodes upwards, a cascade of brown water surging off the blue tubes and tightly lashed piles of gear, plowing downriver to meet the standing wave-hole. With a boxer’s ominous grace the wave coils back, loaded like a spring from hell, groomed high and sleek by a downstream wind. Its muddy fist crashes with sudden fury into the oncoming raft, pushing back and down, denying passage for a split second before laughing, shrugging its dark frothing shoulders and sending David and his craft gliding down his back. Another foaming trough, a few strong pulls, and he is safe in the eddy below. The next five rafts, mine included, ride the falls in similar fashion, accompanied by our cheers of growing excitement.

All of this Dad watches, often smiling, from his riverside perch. Later, around camp, it’s rumored that he was waving a magic wand up there above the rapid, making the Falls have the size she had appeared from above, and granting us safe passage. Dad just chuckles, and nods as he gazes into the crackling driftwood fire, his thoughts swirling back upstream through the eddies of time.


Granite for breakfast, Hermit for lunch, and a big gulp of Crystal to wash it all down. Today was our biggest day so far as we ran the Crazy 8s in rapid succession. Granite was a rollercoaster—pure fun. So was Hermit. I asked Dad, as we stood scouting above Hermit, if he wanted to row this one for old times’ sake. His eyes lit up behind his bifocals as he answered, “Yes. Yes indeed!”

Twenty-one years ago, shortly after my sixth birthday, Dad asked me a similar question as we stood above Nantahala Falls. Do you want to kayak it? “Yes,” I answered. It seemed the logical conclusion to our father-son day on the Nantahala River, and in my 6-year- old mind the prospect of running the rapid was more appealing than that of carrying my heavy boat around.

Dad answered me with caution, “You know, the Falls is bigger than it looks from up here.”

I contemplated the rapid a moment longer with that in mind, unclear of what it meant. Later, after I ran it and capsized, experiencing the terrifying muted roar of the river from within, and swam to shore, I understood better.

In the years to come, I paddled a number of the big rivers in the East—the Gauley, Overflow Creek, Tallulah Gorge—and though, surprisingly, I never again swam on those rivers. I also never fully left behind the fear that poured in through my ears, nose and mouth that day on the Nantahala.

When I asked Dad today if he wanted to run Hermit, and if he knew it would be bigger and faster once we were in it, I let go of more than just the oars. I let go of that fear I had carried with me these last 21 years. I put my trust back in Dad, in the river, and opened a door to trusting in myself and my whitewater skills.

I sat in the bow, facing Dad as he maneuvered the raft gracefully onto the green tongue, accelerating with the current. I watched his eyes dart left and right, then lock in dead ahead as he took two last strokes, committing us to the center line over the peaks and valleys of surging water. Waves washed over the left tube, then the right, obscuring Dad for a moment before he emerged, rowing hard. Determination in the clench of his jaw, and the measured push of his palms against the handles of the oars.

“One more!” he calls out to me.

I turn my eyes in time to watch a sheet of glassy green explode over the bow, and then it is over, the roar of the rapid fading behind us. I look at Dad. He grins at me, water still dripping from his face and glasses, beading on his nose.

I grin back, proud that he is my dad. We talk for the next half-hour as we float along. About that day on the Nantahala, about his kayak run of this river year 43 years ago, about today, and about fear and the river.

As clouds roll in and the low rumble of thunder follows us through the Canyon, we stop to scout Crystal. The rain brings a wave of smells, sweet and pungent as the desert rehydrates and exhales. We decide to run the right side—sneaking well clear of the large hole that has given Crystal her reputation as a bully. I feel calm as we row toward the horizon line. I thought I had come to the Canyon for Dad—a trip down memory lane, a rekindling of his old flame and passion. I didn’t realize until today, that I am here as much for myself as I am for him.

As we float through the end of Crystal without mishap, I feel the part of me that carried a fear of the river all these years begin to be replaced with respect. Respect for Dad and all he has taught me. Respect for the river and all she has taught me. I have much yet to learn, but I am listening—to the roar of the rapids, the whisper of the eddies, and to Dad.

This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

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