Blog

January 22, 2015 / By Kaitlyn Millen

Deep in the Grand Canyon, A Profound Understanding

It’s twilight and the moon reflects on the river.

Massive canyon walls surround us and echo the more than 10,000 cubic feet of water moving past us each second. I sit up on my Paco Pad, brush sand away and look across the 20 students still asleep in a cluster on the beach.

It’s the 4th of July. Although we came on this Leading the Way expedition as complete strangers, thousands of miles away from our homes and relatives, we have become a No Barriers family.

As the students —a mixture of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students— stir, our lead raft guide, Kelly McGrath, walks over. She’s wearing red, white, and blue spandex pants, knee-high white furry boots, huge sunglasses, and red, white, blue, and glitter face paint.

A large bag is slung over her shoulder. She starts to pass out wigs and crazy clothes, which the students eagerly don while Kelly paints patriotic designs on faces. The sound of the river is forgotten among the roaring laughter as everyone hugs and poses for goofy photos.

After six days of cooking together, conducting scientific research, supporting each other through an arduous 100-degree hike from the canyon rim to the river, and exhilarating white water rapids, walls have come down.

Voices that are typically quiet and timid have become strong and confident. Cochlear implant processors that are often intentionally concealed by long hair are fully exposed with hair pulled back.

Donning our showy apparel, we snarf down eggs, bacon, fruit, and English muffins before packing our gear. Making a fire line, we toss our gear and dry bags into a large pile next to the boats. While our guides rig the boats with our gear, we collectively decide it’s time to line up, holding hands, and spiral the group tightly into a jelly-roll hug.

Climbing onto the boats, the swoosh of the paddles takes us down-river while the sounds of a guitar waft above us. Soon boisterous laughter becomes quiet reflection — a meditation on feeling the immense profoundness of Grand Canyon.


After an hour, our guides push our boats to a rocky beach, where we decide to silently hike through an incredible slot canyon. In a shared sense of awe, we feel its the history and power.

As we find a spot for reflection, one of our raft guides, Kate, fills the space between the canyon walls with the sounds of her guitar and melodious voice.


Through this time of quiet reflection, I can see this deep connection with the canyon in the eyes of every student. It’s this look of contentment, calmness, and wonder that flows with the water and fills the canyon with hope and appreciation.

In that moment, the profound feeling can’t quite be articulated — words do it no justice, so no one tries.

But months later — after our family is scattered back across the nation — that feeling remains intact and intimately understood by my new family.

Kaitlyn Millen is the specialty programs coordinator for No Barriers Youth, for more information on Leading the Way and this summer’s trek to Peru, click here.