Down the Great Unknown

By Emma Wharton

“We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders.

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channels, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.”

–John Wesley Powell


Onward we go! GCY is planning to run expeditions in 2021.


There have been many times in the last year when these words rang through my head. I’ve read or heard this passage on many a river trip, where the intention has been to conjure up what it might have been like to see the challenges of the Grand Canyon for the first time. When 2020 began, I felt as though I had been down my fair share of rapids during my nearly 20 years as Grand Canyon Youth’s Executive Director. Last January, GCY was thriving. Our busiest season ever was about to begin, and we had just purchased our office & warehouse building. We were having some good runs. And then, just like that, we were all plunged three-quarters of a mile into the depths of COVID-19, and I found myself doing a lot of running and being lost among the proverbial boulders.


And yet, at the beginning of this new year, I feel a sense of hope and possibility. We definitely have an unknown distance yet to run, and all the obstacles most likely have not shown themselves. But I am grateful for the advances in science and technology since the time of Powell, ranging from vaccines to Zoom. I am excited that the incredible board and staff at GCY have been planning, running scenarios, and asking challenging questions about how we will proceed. And I am incredibly grateful for our many supporters who have shown up for GCY in countless ways over the past year with donations, words of encouragement, and affirmation that what we do matters.


As of now, we plan to run expeditions in 2021. The exact type and number of expeditions and youth served remains to be seen. As always, we will proceed with care and intention. We are so looking forward to getting youth re-connected to the rivers and canyons of the Southwest. In many ways, I imagine that I feel a little like some of the youth who participate in our expeditions: a bit out of my comfort zone, nervous about the unknown, but ready to take on the challenge with courage, humility, and excitement for the adventure.

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