Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Way We Die - Kaitlin Kenney

Mile 33 Colorado River - approaching Redwall Cavern

Deep in the Grand Canyon, search and rescue teams have scaled 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, 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 Wesley Powell estimated 50,000 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.

Mile 33 Redwall Cavern

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 1/16/13


  1. beautifully written and maybe a little comfort for the family.

  2. Wow, beautiful, so tragic. My son is friends with Kaitlin. He is devasted. I don't know if the family has seen this, but I'm going to try and get this to them, or someone who may know if they may be ready. Thank you for sharing this. Your own personal experience is something my son shared with me also, an odd sense of peace, that moment when you accept what is to come.

  3. I know Kaitlin and her family. I've been unable to find words for what has happened, other than Nature took her. You have said it so eloquently. I find comfort in your writing. Thank you.


  5. Thank you for your moving reflections on the Grand Canyon, Kaitlin Kenney, beauty and sorrow. The loss of this beautiful young woman is almost too much to bear. All who knew her are the richer for her music and lust for life.

  6. What a gifted writer you are, Naseem! I didn't know Kaitlin, but I'm friends with a member of her family. This tragedy has touched many people. Your words are lovely, and the cairn you built as a tribute is a generous gift for someone you didn't know. Thank you for this.

  7. Why would they not have camped in a safer place.Why camp near a place where, when you go out to urinate at night you can fall off a boulder.It makes no sense at all. Maybe she was a sleep walker.But it sounds so off.If it were my child,Id just wonder why if getting up in the middle of the night one could lose one's life. Something is amiss.

    1. You are probably asking questions others, who have never been in the canyon, wonder. Why camp in such a dangerous location?

      The simple fact is the entire canyon is dangerous, and the people who enter it know this—at least the Park Service, and private guides do their level best to make sure people know.

      The other fact is, that a journey into the canyon is made more significant because of its challenges. Modern life is often an exercise in buffering - keeping us from just the kinds of experiences and elements that would push us beyond our limits. A trip into the canyon says the hell with those limits. I am here to live and learn and face what comes.

      Finally, no one has any idea how Kaitlin ended up in the river that night, or what time it happened, or what she was doing when it happened, and to speculate about it, though natural, is of no use. There is no one to blame here. There is only the sorrow that comes from loss and the peace that comes from knowing Kaitlin was doing what she wanted in one of the most magnificent settings on earth.

  8. That’s a great introduction to the Grand Canyon. Kaitlin’s death makes it real. Take care, travelers...

  9. I love the amazing way you view life. I did not know Kaitlin I just got cought up in a girls beautiful smile. I found myself looking her up even after they called off the search ever hopeful they would find her. I prayed for her family everyday. What I love about your article is that maybe you gave Kaitlin's family hope in that her life did not end but that she just went in a different direction with her travels. I wish you and your family well........

  10. Naseem - this is lovely - especially the last paragraph. we held my nephew's memorial while i was just in dallas - and your description of grief is powerful and penetrating and evocative - i did not think we'd reach this spot where we are 2 years later - able to gather in joy of him.

    It was good to be with you last night.