My sister-in-law sat on the floor of the canoe, giggling, as my brother and I took the stern and bow, navigating the shallow muddy channels of the North Fork of the Zumbro River in southeastern Minnesota. I was back visiting my family from my new home in Colorado. I lived a thousand miles away, and like any sibling pair, sometimes butted heads with my brother, Tony. But through it all, we’ve always had rivers.
It was the Zumbro River that bonded us as children. We spent many humid summer afternoons jumping from rock to rock, throwing sticks into the lazy water for our black lab puppy to fetch, laughing as she shook and covered us with mud. Our mom would lead us on “caterpillar hunts” along a dirt path that bordered the river, which inevitably ended in us swinging off crooked vines into the water.
When I was a teen and my brother was in college, he got into whitewater rafting and kayaking. He found a summer job guiding on the cold, rocky St. Louis River in northern Minnesota that meanders its way into Lake Superior. I made frequent sojourns from our hometown three hours away to visit. On many weekends, I was a junior guide, in which I was in charge of a blue raft full of laughing customers while the “real guides” were in brightly-colored kayaks. During these trips north, my brother taught me to kayak and saved me on more than one occasion from swimming Class III and IV rapids after a botched roll.
In 2015, I was lucky enough to pull a permit for a private Grand Canyon rafting trip down the Colorado River. My brother had been a guide for four summers on the White Salmon River in Washington, and thus had a posse of river enthusiasts eager to pilot the rafts. I invited four friends along. We were to partake in the Holy Grail of river trips.
We spent 24 days on the Colorado, my brother and his friends rowing the huge rapids like Hance, Granite, Crystal, Lava Falls. All of these rapids stick in my memory clearly. Huge waves reminiscent of the ocean; boat-eating holes; technical maneuvers around boulders the size of semis. I was reckless enough to even chance some of the big rapids in a double inflatable kayak. My brother allowed this only if his friend, a cocky Class V kayaker, was in charge at the stern.
My brother also taught me how to row, mostly on the flatwater days when there were merely minor rapids. He would gesture in the direction he wanted me to go, pointing more ardently when I needed to make a bigger move. He explained how to ship the oars and how to feather them through the water, the sound of the oars entering and leaving the water echoing off of huge red canyon walls.
The side hikes throughout the trip were just as impressive as the whitewater. We jumped from a waterfall in a place aptly named Elves Chasm; we waded through vibrant turquoise water to navigate Havasu Creek until we could go no further; we held a rubber ducky race down the fast winding stream of Matkatamiba Canyon.
After our Grand Canyon trip, I knew I wanted to pursue a life on the river. I moved to Colorado to be a ski bum in the winter and raft guide in the summer on the Arkansas River. I would call my brother to tell him about the high-water run we’d done down Royal Gorge or share a story about a particularly interesting group of passengers I’d taken down Browns Canyon.
Four years later, I received an invitation to go down the Colorado River again, this time as a boat captain. I accepted with no hesitation.
I couldn’t wait to tell my brother. He sounded both nervous and excited for me, knowing full well what I was in for as a person in charge of a heavy 18-foot raft stacked high with a month’s worth of gear and food.
My friends and I spent 28 days in Grand Canyon. Through it all, I thought of my brother often and reminisced about the first time I’d been there. This time I was coming down the Colorado with years of river experience under my belt, whereas the first time I was a relative novice. I shook my head at the hubris of my past self.
I couldn’t wait to tell Tony how I’d hit the huge hole in Crystal, how I’d run Lava Falls perfectly. He was the first person I called when I got off the river and the person who was most excited to hear trip details.
I’m now a guide in Grand Canyon while my brother has moved back home. He prefers fishing on the muddy Mississippi or canoeing down the Zumbro with his wife and their dog. Yet he remains the person I call first whenever I finish a multi-day trip, the person who understands the call of the river the most.
When I’m guiding in Grand Canyon or on the Arkansas, I always think of those summer days back home on the Zumbro. While I’m halfway across the country in a landscape as different as it gets from Minnesota, I imagine Tony paddling through murky water just a couple of left turns up the Mississippi. And in those moments, we are both home.
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Photos: Monica Nigon; James Kaiser