Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Canyon of Sun and Water


In preparation for my hike into the Grand Canyon, I contemplated bringing four quarts of water. Lesley, my friend and hiking companion, persuaded me that two and a half quarts was enough, that we would find more along the way.

Viewed from the rim, the canyon is awe-inspiring, but also foreboding. A gaping vista of layer upon layer, spire upon spire, chasm, within chasm, cast in oranges and reds and grays and greens. The viewer wonders how his eyes could observe such vast expanses of rock, all at once. To the acrophobic, the canyon can be a place of terror, with its cliffs and sheer drops, apparently a bottomless pit. Although I stayed cautious near the edge, my fears and concerns had more to do with heat, dehydration, and exhaustion than heights.

Every year, almost five million people stand at the precipice and view the Grand Canyon. Of those, around two hundred thousand hike the trails into the Canyon, at least for a short distance. Thousands hike to the bottom and stay overnight at a backcountry campground, while thousands more wish they could. Backcountry camping permits are in high demand, and it took a coordinated effort for Lesley and I to obtain ours. Lesley has volunteered for the park's Environmental Education program all spring. She used her connections to begin the permit process and arrange for some of our intended campsites. Next, I made visits to the permit office at eight A.M. for multiple consecutive days, exchanging one waitlist number for the next, until finally getting the prized permit for camping at Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood, at the bottom of the canyon. To get there, it's a long walk.

On a Saturday morning in late April, we began the long walk. We departed from Lesley's residence with backpacks fully loaded with water, food, clothes, sleeping bags, first aid supplies, cameras, a small sketch book, etc. We worked together to pack economically. My pack weighed around 40 pounds, the lightest it has been for any multi-night trip that I can recall. We walked through Grand Canyon Village, and onto the Bright Angel Trail.

Early on, there were multiple warning signs about the trail's difficulty and danger. From my previous Canyon hikes (10 and 14 years ago), I still remembered the cartoon graphic of a stressed hiker against the Canyon backdrop. Pictures are a near-universal language, and essential in a park like this, where visitors (and their native languages) come from all over the world.

We began the descent into the earth's gaping maw. Early on, we went through the first tunnel, a fitting gateway for our passage into another world, like a wormhole from Star Trek. Past fossil brachiopods and chrinoids from a prehistoric ocean, past shrubby sagebrush and Utah juniper. Past pictographs by the land's ancient inhabitants. A California Condor soared above us, a black airplane, a bird of prehistoric proportions. It soared unconcerned over the mile-deep pit.

With all its barren rock surfaces to reflect light, the Canyon gets hot, perhaps 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the landscape of the surrounding rim. Lesley was concerned that I still wore my standard long pants and sleeves, which protect from the sun, but also add warmth. I sweated, but remained confident that I could handle the heat. I recalled my experience last spring, of work in the blazing sun all day, watering and caring for plants, in an extensive outdoor nursery, where breaks were verboten. Although the nursery was harder, the Grand Canyon still proved trying.

Despite the general heat and drought, I was pleasantly surprised by the frequency of water in the Canyon, especially along the Bright Angel Trail. First at the mile-and-a-half rest house, then at the three-mile rest house, we passed watering stations (which were parts on an elaborately-engineered hydraulic system). Four and a half miles from the trailhead, beyond the steep cliffs of the Red Wall Limestone, we reached the famous Indian Gardens. The site of several natural springs, which fuel the growth of Cottonwoods—blessed shade. Naturally, therefore, a longtime site of human activity. Where humans and mules alike can rest their weary bones.

We took a short rest, refilled water, and walked on. One foot and one hiking pole in front of the other. It only grew hotter, but as we approached the base of the Canyon, we also walked alongside Garden Creek and Pipe Creek, which feed the Colorado River. At periodic stops, Lesley swam and I dipped my hat in the water. Even in this heat, I was reluctant to immerse myself in cold water, which I react to like a cat.

In this earthen oven, plants thrived, and used varied techniques, to gain and keep water. The cacti are the most famous desert plants, and the Canyon had them in abundance. It was spring; they were in bloom. Prickly pears and beaver tails and claret cup chola. Flowers pink and red. Beautiful blossoms above menacing spikes.

Lizards thrived as well. We encountered desert spiny lizards, collared lizards, and common-side blotched lizards. They basked in the sun and scurried among the rocks.

We saw abundant human life as well. The Bright Angel Trail is not the place to hike in solitude. As some go up the trail, others go down. Some chatter about business meetings in Seattle; others discuss the national parks of Japan; many stay quiet, and open their senses to the present moment.

By the time we reached the Devil's Corkscrew, few casual hikers remained. On the way down, the steep winds and bends caused sore calf muscles. And what was hiked down, must be hiked up.

Even at my third hike to the Canyon bottom, its depth still had the power to amaze. As deep as the Canyon appears from the rim, one still doesn't see the bottom. Along the hike, it felt like canyons within canyons within canyons. One presumes to be close to the Colorado River, then hikes more miles forward, and thousands more feet down. The walls envelop the traveler, and the trailhead is lost in the distance, like the vanished earth, in a spacecraft bound for the stars.

We took brief respite at the river resthouse, which was built by the CCC. We drank water and ate homemade “clif” bars, and hiked on. Shortly thereafter, we passed the Colorado River, nine miles from the trailhead. I breathed a welcome sigh of relief, and thanked the stars that I wasn't hiking back out of the Canyon today. In my previous two Canyon treks, I made went the distance from the rim to the river and back to the rim in a single day. If necessary, I could do it again. But this time, I was happy to take a more measured pace, and experience more of life in the Canyon.

Around the river, we encountered more walls of red (part of the “Grand Canyon Supergroup,”) and a special challenge for Lesley. She had an acrophobic reaction to the uphill beside the river, with steep drop-offs beside us. We sang Christmas songs together for distraction and reassurance. And, with determination, she overcame her trepidations, and walked across the scathing coals.

After a walk across the Silver Bridge and more walk through the Canyon, we reached Phantom Ranch. At the bottom of the canyon, under the shade of those beloved cottonwoods, a developed “full service” campground. It had not only running water and bathrooms, but a cantina where the concessionaire sold lemonade, wine, and snacks, and even served meals, for those with reservations. And Lesley and partook in that famous novelty of communication: we stamped postcards and put them into the outgoing mailbox at Phantom Ranch. The postcards were stamped with the words “carried by mule out of the Grand Canyon”. There were cabins for staff and cabins for guests with reservations, a law enforcement ranger who patrolled the campground and checked permits, and a ranger who delivered interpretive programs every afternoon and evening. All of this took place nine miles from the nearest road, with the only ways in by foot, mule, or helicopter; and the latter is reserved for emergencies or an occasional large load of needed supplies. There was something surreal about this outpost of civilization, within the vast wilderness. I was glad for the lemonade with ice.

As we wandered outside the cantina to the water spigot, a trail runner saw the first aid kit in Lesley's hand, and asked for assistance with a blister. It was like a chewing-gum bubble of skin across the woman's left big toe. Lesley gladly assisted the runner with draining and bandaging the blister. Now, our new friend had but nine miles more to go, uphill, today. But she had a diverse crew of eight other trail runners to accompany, in the last phase of their 'extreme' trek. For many decades, mule was the popular way to travel into the Canyon. In the 1960's, hiking saw a dramatic increase in popularity. In recent times, we have entered a new age of extreme physical challenges, super-marathons and ultra-marathons, impossible hikes, bikes, and swims. And so The Grand Canyon sees its fair share of those who seek to put their endurance to the test. The “rim to rim to rim” hike (50 or so miles of rough terrain and rough weather) has become a popular event, which trail runners embark on day and night. Even though all the guidebooks say not to walk all the way the Colorado river and back in one day, much less that threefold. As we chatted among the hikers and trail-runners, it came up that Lesley and I were short on iodine. A pair of backpacking men gave us some tablets. Travelers in the Canyon are quick to form a community; we all look out for each other in this challenging environment.

We ate black backs and rice and tuna on a beach by the Colorado River, where the water looks calm, but strong currents lurk beneath. That night, back at Phantom Ranch, we heard the ranger program by the campfire, and watched the western pipistrelles (tiny bats) flutter and glide, some right past our ears, others high in the sky.

I remember little of my first overnight in the Canyon, because I slept soundly. In the morning, I lingered a bit to draw the cottonwoods in the sketchbook, while Lesley slept a little late. We made the mistake of departing camp at 8:30. We saw the supply train of mules go by, and I handed Lesley the camera.

With the red cliffs of “The Box” towering above us, we hiked the North Kaibab trail. Our late departure put us hiking through the hottest part of the day. Like in the sauna, I felt the droplets of sweat form all over my body, and trickle downwards. The trail roughly followed the Bright Angel Creek, and Lesley jumped in water whenever it was available and safe—but the distance between trail and creek grew. Away from the stream, we rested in shade, which was rarely found. I even reconsidered my stance on clothing, and hiked for a stretch in my swimming trunks. Problematic for me was my hat, a warmer one of solid fabric. Without water to soak it in, I went hat-less for a bit, and nearly felt the sun burning my head. We continued to drink water and eat trail mix, and walk on our sore calves.

This stretch of trail was less populated. Periodically, a pair of young women, light travelers with camel packs and shorts, passed us, then we passed them, like leap frog. Evidently, their heat tolerance was high, as they sometimes rested in the searing sun.

Near our destination, a slight detour took us to Ribbon Falls. A true oasis from the desert oven. A cliff by pinkish-reddish rocks which, like most of the Canyon, appeared to be colored with oil pastel. From out of the cliff, a grand carved horseshoe shape. Within the horseshoe, a giant's domed hut of moss (actually a rock face covered in the spongy greenery.) From above, water crashed down upon the moss-hut, sprayed in all directions, joined the pool below, and then flowed downstream. A creature frolicked, going in and out of the moss hut and water. It was a dipper. Small gray bird. On the cliff face, on the high walls of the moss hut, she danced in the cold shower. She jumped. Fluttered her wings and slowed her descent, all the way to the ground. She entered the cold pool and explored, with a distinct bobbing up and down of the whole body, sometimes called “the dipper dance.” In her mouth, she carried moss, collected on the walls. She flew in the hole in the moss hut. Within, in a smaller hole in the rocky cliffs, her babies peeped and bounced in the nest. She added the moss to her nest. The dipper carried about her work, unperturbed by our presence. We looked into the cave to view the babies while the mother carried on with her waterfall hip hop.

At Ribbon Falls, I put aside my inhibitions, and entered the watery chill. (And Lesley took to the water like a fish, as usual.) Perhaps it wasn't only the Canyon's heat that drew me in. Perhaps, even with the untrained senses of a white man, I was drawn to spirit power. The Zuni tell stories of Ribbon Falls as their place of emergence, and of the mystic healing properties of the water. The landscape felt sacred to me as well.

The desert was still hot on the way to Cottonwood. We trekked the remaining distance. We entered the camp, found a suitable site—only to discover that our site was already occupied by a collared lizard. He scampered onto the log at site's edge, and conducted repeated “push-ups”, classic territorial display. Evidently, he needed to remind us who is boss in this Canyon. And considering his superior adaptations to the desert, I was not one to argue. We kept the site, for it had a tiny bit of shade, while other sites had none. But we respected the lizard's sovereignty by putting our tent a good ways away from his declared log.

Luckily, Cottonwood had potable water, and we didn't need the iodine. We boiled and ate orzo and lentils, as the sun set. We heard the frogs sing. That motivated us to explore the brooks, despite our sore calves. The sky was first dark blue, then black, and thousands of stars were quick to emerge. Pippistrelles, in silhouette, fluttered and dove. At the pond, many canyon tree frogs, more than I could count, with their pupils eyes round as marbles in the dim moonlight. We illuminated them with red light, and they continued their song. We filmed the performance. The rushing water was louder, but the song was elegant. The frogs hopped and swam and sang.

The next morning, we awoke at 5:30 and set off, having learned about the importance of an early start. The way back across the red and pink landscape was easier in the morning cool, and we passed other hikers rarely. We revisited Ribbon Falls when it was still the mid-morning. We retraced our route, back to the Colorado River.

Back on the Bright Angel Trail, the path was more populated, with dayhikers, backpackers, trail runners, mules, and occasional park staff and volunteers. We crossed back over the Colorado River a little after noon, and passed groups of hikers just arriving at the river. They would hike back up the trail in the heat of the day.

Not far past the River, on the way up the Canyon, Lesley caught movement from the corner of her eye. A white quadruped with narrow horns watched us from a steep slope, maybe a hundred yards away. It was a female bighorned sheep (their horns are not as big as those of the males). Simian and ungulate watched each other across the gulf of canyon, and we pointed her out to other hikers. Then the bighorn jumped its way up the canyon walls, one tiny ledge to the next, with alacrity and confidence, like a wilderness Spider-Man. 

We trekked through some heat on the way to Indian Gardens, but took the opportunity to douse ourselves in cold water again; we re-entered the shade of the cottonwoods in good form. We stayed in a staff cabin that night, equipped with running water, electricity, and even a shower; strange luxuries in the Canyon wilderness. We conversed with the backcountry rangers and a volunteer for the preventative search-and-rescue (PSAR) program. PSAR staff and volunteers make it their collective duty to stop every canyon traveller, ask their plan, inform them of risks, and help when things go awry. The “preventative” aspect of the program was launched in 1997, and the number of annual medical emergencies dropped dramatically as a result. Our new friend explained the fun and rewards of explaining to unprepared hikers, in crocs or high heels, of the trail's distance and hazards. He also expressed frustration with the rim-to-rim-to-rim trail runners, who ignore all his warnings. He also noted that he carries four quarts of water or more, to be prepared for any situation, including malfunctions in the Canyon's plumbing.

At night, the desert came to life, with more singing frogs, hopping toads, and insects abuzz. Lesley strode through the sand and mesquite, and I was close behind. She heard a rattle, and we stepped back. We re-routed the give the small pink rattlesnake a wide birth. How civilized of the reptile to warn us about our intrusion. Human and snake each departed without a scratch. Later, we saw a scorpion on patrol, with claws outstretched and tail coiled back. Thus armed, the arachnid strode with confidence, hungry for insects.

Back at the cabin, I used the shower, having forgotten that such heights of cleanliness were possible. I combined our remaining foodstuffs into a mixture of various soups and noodles, featuring beans and vegetable proteins. At first I tried to use the same pot and spoon for everything; I slowly re-adapted to the furnished kitchen. We saved a bit of the mix for the morning, having eaten virtually all of our food stocks, even the trail mix and 'cliff bars.' When I next hike the Canyon, I'll bring more. Rangers in the Canyon use a general guideline of “drink drink drink, eat eat eat.” Although this moniker applies to any challenging hike, its relevance intensifies in the extreme setting of the Grand Canyon.

In the early morning, we hiked out, up the Devil's Corkscrews, past the pictographs, back through the porthole, and back to the civilization of the Canyon rim. Where showers and ovens and computers and souvenir t-shirts are abundant. I would miss the wild world below the rim, but would be glad to return to my books and internet and rest in a bed, for a little while, before the next adventure. My next destination was only further south; the Chihuahuan desert, another hot and dry place, now gripped by drought. Most of my work would take place inside the caves of Carlsbad Caverns, but I would experience the desert as well. I resolved to drink healthy amounts of water, and hope that the wells stay fortified. And I anticipated new adventures among new friends. At Carlsbad, like at the Grand Canyon, I would join the millions who had discovered earth's wonders; created pictures, stories, and memories; and made an individual interpretation of a collective sacred place.

Image Credits:
Top two photos (of the Canyon from the rim and from the Bright Angel Trail), eighth and ninth photo (of North Kaibab Trail and Ribbon Falls) by Ross Wood Studlar.  All other photos by Lesley McClintock.  Copyright ©2013 to respective creators.

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