Backpacking into the Grand Canyon: Part III… My Muscles Go on Strike!

I am sitting on the edge of the Colorado, red with mud. (Peggy took this and the following photos when I returned down the Tanner Trail into the Grand Canyon several years later. I didn't have a camera on my first trip.)

I am sitting on the edge of the Colorado River, red with mud. (Peggy took this photo when I returned with her down the Tanner Trail into the Grand Canyon several years after my first trip. I didn’t have a camera the first time.)

 

At the end of my last blog on my backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, I was getting ready to hike up the Canyon to the Little Colorado River. The day before I had made a strenuous descent from the rim to the Colorado River that had left my downhill muscles screaming for mercy.

I hoisted my backpack and mentally prepared for the day’s journey. On the edge of my campsite was a 20-foot section of small boulders I needed to negotiate to rejoin the trail. Normally I would sail through such an obstacle course, stepping on or between rocks as the situation called for. Not this time. I wobbled uncontrollably when I stepped on top of my first rock; I had absolutely zero balance. My muscles were refusing to function. They had gone on strike! While I didn’t reach the insane-cackle level brought on by exhaustion the night before, I did find myself giggling. Dorothy’s Scarecrow was a paragon of grace in comparison to me. I actually made it a whole hundred yards before declaring that my backpacking day was over.

An overhanging rock provided shade and a scenic view of the Tanner Canyon Rapids. I spent the day napping, reading a book on the Grand Canyon by Joseph Wood Krutch, snacking, and watching rafters maneuver through the rapids. The most energy I expended was to go to the river and retrieve a bucket of water. There was plenty of time to let the mud settle.

I made it as far as an overhanging rock a hundred yards from my campsite. Thirteen years later I pointed out my hideaway to Peggy. It may hold the record for the shortest backpacking trip in history.

I made it as far as an overhanging rock a hundred yards from my campsite. Thirteen years later I pointed out my hideaway to Peggy. It may hold the record for the shortest backpacking trip in history. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy tried out my seat where I sat and read all day and watched bats come though in the evening.

Peggy tried out my seat where I sat and read all day and watched bats come through in the evening.

The view I had of the Tanner Rapids from my 'cave.'

The view I had of the Tanner Rapids from my ‘cave.’ Eventually I rafted down the Colorado River and would pass through these rapids.

That evening I sipped a cup of tea laced with 151-proof rum and watched bats flit around my ‘cave’ as they gobbled down mosquitoes. They were close enough I could have touched them. It was like I was invisible, as I had apparently been to the Mousy and his stalker the night before. Strange, unsettling thoughts of nonexistence went zipping through my mind. Being alone in the wilderness is conducive to such thinking. The Canyon adds another layer.

Day three arrived and it was time to explore my surroundings and whip my protesting muscles into shape. I still wasn’t ready for primetime backpacking, so I took a day hike up Tanner Creek Canyon. Whatever creek had existed was waiting for future rain, but the erosive power of water was plainly evident. This was flash flood country where a dry wash can turn into a raging torrent in minutes. Dark clouds demand a hasty retreat to higher ground. I had nothing but blue skies, however, so I hiked up as far as I could go. The canyon narrowed down to a few feet and traveling any further called for rock climbing skills I didn’t possess. I sat for a while enjoying the silence— and the thousands of feet of soaring walls. The isolation seemed so complete it was palpable. I was alone but not lonely. Nature was my companion. Reluctantly, I turned back toward my camp.

I spent the next two days hiking along the River. I backpacked up the Colorado following the Beamer Trail to Lava Canyon Rapids the first day and then worked my way back down past Tanner Creek to Unkar Creek the second. My general rule was that if the trail appeared ready to make a major climb up the canyon, it was going without me.

At one point where Peggy and I were backpacking up the Beamer Trail we came to a fork in the trail and went left. (Yes, we did find the fork in the trail.)

At one point when Peggy and I were backpacking up the Beamer Trail we came to a fork in the trail and went left. (Yes, we did find the fork that someone had humorously placed in the trail. I was reminded of the Muppet Movie where Kermit came on a similar fork.)

I am not sure the fork provided good advise. (grin) We had to scramble.

I am not sure the fork provided good advice. (grin) We had to scramble.

The only real excitement came toward the end of the second day when I discovered my left foot poised a few inches above a pinkish Grand Canyon Rattlesnake that lay stretched across the trail, hidden in the shadows. He was a granddaddy of a fellow, both long and thick. My right leg performed an unbidden, prodigious hop that placed me several feet down the trail. There is a very primitive part of the brain that screams snake. No thinking is required. As soon as I could get my heart under control, I picked up a long stick and gently urged the miscreant reptile to get off the trail. He wasn’t into urging. Instead, he coiled up, rattled his multitude of rattles and stuck out his long, forked tongue at me. He was lucky I didn’t pummel him. I did prod more enthusiastically, however, and he got the point, crawling off the trail rather quickly. I memorized the location so he wouldn’t surprise me on the return journey.

My leg’s miraculous leap suggested that my body was beginning to tune up. There would be no more malingering and feeling sorry for itself. The next day I camped at Tanner Creek again and the following day out I hiked out. The trip up took me three hours less than it had taken to hike in. I was tempted to go find the Sierra Club fellow who had demanded that I use a more civilized trail, but opted out for a well-earned hamburger and cold beer instead. My body was demanding compensation for its forced march.

I’ll return to my Grand Canyon adventure next week when a friend joins me to hike back into the Canyon a few days after I returned to the rim. Hostile spirits from another realm join us. Or at least she believes they do.

NEXT BLOG: I start my series on my recent trip up the North Coast of California. First up— Olompali State Park. Located just north of San Francisco, it has a fascinating history stretching from the Miwok Indians to the Grateful Dead to a hippie commune.

Backpacking into the Grand Canyon… Part II

Looking down from Lipan Point at the start of the Tanner Trail. Then sharp bend in the Colorado River... far away, is where I am heading. (The photos of the trail down I actually took several years later when I backpacked down with Peggy.)

Looking down into the Grand Canyon at the start of the Tanner Trail.  By the end of the day I would be near the sharp bend in the river. At the beginning, my body was having serious doubts about whether it wanted to go there. It wasn’t the distance. It was the drop of several thousand feet which can be tough on both knees and downhill brakes.

You may (or may not) recall that I left you hanging on the edge of the Grand Canyon when I took my summer break from blogging starting in July. I had hoisted my 60-pound pack and was preparing to drop off the edge of the world following one of the Canyon’s toughest and least traveled trails several thousand feet down to the Colorado River. My body was having a serious discussion with my mind over the wisdom of the decision. You may want to go back and read Part I of the Grand Canyon Odyssey to refresh your memory.

Tanner trail dropped away under my feet as I began my journey and descended through millions of years of earth history. About a half of mile down it disappeared, having been washed away by winter rains. “I told you so,” my body whispered loudly as I mentally and physically hugged the side of the Canyon and tentatively made my way around the washout.

Although this photo is a little blurry and from another Grand Canyon trail, I included it because it provides a perspective on the trails into the Canyon that receive minimal attention from the Park service. Main tourist trails are like freeways in comparison.

Although this photo is a little blurry and from another non-maintained Grand Canyon trail, I included it because it provides a perspective on the trails into the Canyon that receive minimal attention from the Park Service. Main tourist trails are like freeways in comparison.

Steep drop offs are a common factor in all trails leading into the Grand Canyon. The first trails were created by Native Americans. Later miners, rustlers, and companies interested in promoting tourism would enhance the original trails and create new ones.

Steep drop offs are a common factor in all trails leading into the Grand Canyon. The first trails were created by Native Americans. Later miners, rustlers, and companies interested in promoting tourism would enhance the original trails and create new ones. The top of the photo reflects the different rates of erosion that create bluffs.

I am not sure when my legs started shaking. Given the stair-step nature of the trail and the weight on my back, not to mention an extra 20 pounds of winter fat, my downhill muscles were not having a lot of fun. Fortunately, Mother Nature provided a reprieve. The erosive forces of wind and water that have sculpted the mesas and canyon lands of the Southwest are less challenged by some types of rocks than others.

Somewhere between two and three miles down I came upon the gentle lower slopes of the Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, which allowed me to lollygag along and enjoy the scenery. I escaped from the sun beneath the shadow of a large rock, drank some of my precious water, nibbled on trail food, and took a brief nap. It would have made a good place to camp. Others had obviously taken advantage of the shade and flat surface, but the Colorado River was calling.

Ignoring the screams of my disgruntled body parts, I headed on. At mile five or so my idyllic stroll came to a dramatic halt as the trail dropped out of sight down what is known as the Red Wall. (It received this imaginative name because it is red and looks like a wall.) Some fifty million years, or 625,000 Curtis life spans, of shallow seas had patiently worked to deposit the lime that makes up its 500-foot sheer cliff. It is one of the most distinctive features of the Grand Canyon.

My trail guide recommended I store water before heading down so I could retrieve it when I was dying of thirst on the way out. I could see where people had scratched out exposed campsites here as an excuse to stop for the night. The accommodations weren’t much but the view was spectacular.

The rest of the five-mile/five month journey was something of a blur. (It was closer to five hours but time was moving very slowly.) I do remember a blooming prickly pear cactus. I grumbled at it for looking so cheerful. I also remember a long, gravelly slope toward the bottom. My downhill muscles had totally given out and the only way I could get down was to sidestep. I cackled insanely when I finally reached the bottom. I was ever so glad the Sierra Club guy (see Part I) wasn’t around to see me.

As tired as I was, I enjoyed the beauty of the inner Canyon.

I was so tired, I could hardly enjoy the beauty of the inner Canyon. (These photos are from a later trip I took down with Peggy. I waited until after she said “I do” before introducing her to the Tanner Trail. Otherwise she might have said “I don’t.”)

I smiled at the Prickly Pear Flowers on my way out of the Canyon that I had growled at coming in.

I growled at a prickly pear for looking so cheerful.

Looking back up the trail provided a perspective on how far I had come. The small, needle-like structure is Desert View Tower.

Looking back up the trail provided a perspective on how far I had come. The small, needle-like structure is Desert View Tower, about a mile away from the Tanner trailhead.

Setting up camp that night was simple. I threw out my ground cloth, Thermarest mattress, and sleeping bag on a sandy beach. Then I stumbled down to the river’s edge and retrieved a bucket of brown Colorado River water that appeared to be two parts liquid and one part mud. I could have waited for the mud to settle but used up a year of my water filter’s life to provide an instant two quarts of potable water.

My old yellow bucket, a veteran of dozens of backpacking adventures, holding Colorado River water. It retired after my second trip

My old yellow bucket, a veteran of dozens of backpacking adventures, holding Colorado River water. It retired after my second trip down the Tanner Trail.

All I had left to do was take care of my food. Since people camped here frequently, four-legged critters looked on backpackers as a major source of food. I could almost here them yelling, “Dinnertime!” when I stumbled into sight. Not seeing a convenient limb to hang my food from, i.e. something I wouldn’t have to move more than 10 feet to find, I buried my food bag in the sand next to me. Theoretically, anything digging it up would wake me. Just the top was peeking out so I could find it in the morning.

As the sun went down, so did I. Faster than I could fall asleep, I heard myself snoring. I was brought back to full consciousness by the pitter-patter of tiny feet crossing over the top of me. A mouse was worrying the top of my food bag and going for the peanuts I had placed there to cover my more serious food.

“Hey Mousy,” I yelled, “Get away from my food!” My small companion of the night dashed back over me as if I were no more than a noisy obstacle between dinner and home. I was drifting off again when I once more felt the little feet. “The hell with it,” I thought in my semi-comatose state. How many peanuts could the mouse eat anyway?

The river water I had consumed the night before pulled me from my sleep. Predawn light bathed the Canyon in a gentle glow. I lay in my sleeping bag for several minutes and admired the vastness and beauty of my temporary home. The Canyon rim, my truck and the hoards of tourists were far away, existing in another world. My thoughts turned to my visitor of the previous evening.

I finished my last blog with a picture of the view across the Colorado River from my camp near Tanner Rapids. This and the photo below demonstrate how much colors change depending on the time of day.

The early morning view from my camp site near Tanner Rapids on the Colorado River.

Out of curiosity, I reached over for my food and extracted the bag of peanuts. A neat little hole had been chewed through the plastic but it appeared that most of my peanuts were present and accounted for. My small contribution had been well worth my solid sleep. I then looked over to the right to see if I could spot where the mouse had carried its treasure. Something on the edge of my ground cloth caught my eye. It was three inches long, grey, round and fuzzy.

It was Mousy’s tail!

Something had sat on the edge of my sleeping bag during the night and dined on peanut stuffed mouse. Thoughts of a coyote, or worse, using my ground cloth as a dinner table sent a shiver down my spine. I ate a peanut in honor of Mousy’s memory and threw a few over near his house in case he had left behind a family to feed. I also figured that the peanuts would serve as an offering to whatever Canyon spirits had sent the night predator on its way.

I visited a bush to meet the demands of my bladder, fired up my MSR white gas stove, and soon had a cup of coffee in my hand and hot morning gruel (oatmeal) in my tummy. I dutifully downed my daily ration of five dried apricots. (This may be more than you need to know, but they help keep you regular, an important consideration in wilderness travel.)

With breakfast out of the way and a second cup of coffee to enjoy, it was time to get out my topographic map and contemplate the adventure of the day. My intention was to work my way up the Colorado River following the Beamer Trail to where it was joined by the Little Colorado. The odds were I would have it to myself. The trail was named after a prospector who had searched the area for gold in the 1800s but it also incorporated ancient sections of trail the Hopi Indians had used to reach their sacred salt mines.

Hopi legend claims that their ancestors emerged into this world from a cave in the bottom of the Little Colorado River Canyon. I found the combination of history, mythology, isolation and scenery quite attractive and was eager to get underway. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. It was going on strike.

NEXT BLOG: I declare a layover day where I hardly move and then begin to explore the beauty of the inner Canyon.

Floating with My Head Underwater… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Beautiful views like this along the Colorado River would have been lost if efforts in the 50s and 60s to dam the Grand Canyon had succeeded.

I will feature two major sites in our journey down the Colorado River on my post today: the Anasazi Granaries at Nankoweap and the Little Colorado River. Then, unfortunately, I will have to put the trip through the Grand Canyon on hold.

Peggy and I leave our home in Southern Oregon on Sunday for a 32-day repositioning cruise on the Mediterranean plus visits with various family members. We won’t be back until January. My already organized wife tells me I have to get ready. That translates into, “You’ve run out of time, Curt.”

On Friday I plan to post photos featuring our property on the Applegate River. (It’s beautiful this time of the year.) On Sunday I will begin a series on another adventure: my two years of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. The Africa posts are already written and scheduled to go up every other day for the time I am gone. When I return my intention is to publish them as a digital book.

Meanwhile I will be gathering materials for numerous posts on the Mediterranean. But back to the Grand Canyon…

Steve Van Dore and Jamie Wilson serve as our boatmen for the two days we are on the river travelling from our camp at Redbud Alcove (mile 39) to our camp at Upper Rattlesnake (mile 74).

Steve, I’ve already introduced. Like Tom, he is an experienced Colorado River Boatman and loves the Canyon. He is also a specialist. His catamaran is outfitted with groovers: large ammo cans that have been modified to serve as portable potties.  Before toilet seats were added as a convenience, you sat on the rim of the can. It left grooves in your butt… hence the name.

We are all given training in setting up, taking down, and using the groovers. One of the first chores in arriving camp is to find the perfect place for the port-a-pot: a secluded location with a view. One time I found myself sitting on the pot and waving at rafters as they went by. The site received an A for the view and a C for the seclusion.

Steve is very knowledgeable about the Grand Canyon and readily shares his knowledge. Almost immediately he points out a site that was once proposed for a dam that would have covered much of the upper Canyon’s beautiful scenery, geological wonders and archeological treasures with water.

A similar effort was planned for downstream. Fortunately, the Sierra Club was able to stop the dams from being built. Otherwise, one of the World’s greatest natural wonders would have been lost.

A view of the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River between Redbud Alcove and Nankoweap.

When we arrive at Nankoweap (mile 53), Steve points out the granaries used by the Anasazi Indians somewhere between 1000 and 1150 CE (Common Era) or AD, if you prefer. The granaries are located high up on the cliff for protection from animals and insects. I think they are well protected from me as well. Tom has scheduled a hike up, however; I willingly go along.  I am curious about the granaries and think there will be spectacular views.

The granary is interesting and the views great. The climb is definitely worth it.

Our intrepid group hikes up the steep trail to the Granaries at Nankoweap in the Grand Canyon.

The Nankoweap Granaries built by the Anasazi Indians between 1000 and 1150 CE.

A view looking down the Colorado River from the Nankoweap Granaries in Grand Canyon National Park.

Jamie Wilson is our Boatman on the fifth day. He’s a delight. First of all he is funny and positive. Second, whenever a chore needs to be done, he is first in line. Finally, he is incredibly strong, which is a valuable asset when you get in a tight spot on the river. Jamie has his own business as a contractor in the Woodland/Davis area of California.

When we arrive at the Little Colorado River, it is time to play. The Little Colorado has two colors. First is a muddy reddish-brown. The River drains over 25,000 square miles. When it rains upriver, it carries tons of red topsoil.  The second color is a beautiful turquoise blue. When it doesn’t rain, much of the water comes from springs and is loaded with minerals that provide the turquoise color and very interesting deposits.

Looking up the Little Colorado River just above where if flows into the Colorado River. Note the unique water color and mineral deposits.

Another view along the Little Colorado River.

We hike upriver and don our life vests upside down over our legs.  It looks like we have put on huge diapers. We are going to float down the river. At first I carry out my photographer responsibilities but then I too don my diaper and jump in. Just as I go over a small waterfall my life vest slips down to my feet. My feet float fine but my head bobs along under the water.

Peggy models the life vest diaper look.

Hanging on to each other, our group forms a Conga Line Little Colorado River style and makes its way through the rapids.

As my life vest slipped up around my feet, my head dipped under the water.

I will close this post with an appropriate view of the sun setting on the Colorado River as I temporarily leave the Grand Canyon for my trip to Europe. I will return to finish writing about the journey in 2013. (Photo by Don Green)

 

Rowing House Rock Rapid… with One Oar: Rafting through the Grand Canyon

We started with an icy cold rapid. Peggy and I are in the first boat with Tom Lovering rowing. (Photo by Don Green)

Day two starts as day one did: early.

Even the birds are sound asleep. Tom argues it’s six AM, not the five my watch is showing. “Arizona does not honor Daylight Savings Time,” he primly informs us. He’s right. Adjusting my watch adjusts my attitude… a little.

Adding injury to insult, something akin to Folgers has been sewn up in burlap, thrown in boiling water, and called coffee.  Oh well, it’s a hot, it’s brown, and we have a beautiful day of floating down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon ahead.

For those of you who like facts, here are a few about the river. At its widest point it reaches 750 feet from one bank to the other; at its deepest, it plunges down 90 feet. It flows along at a decent 3-4 mile clip but can speed up to 15 miles per hour in rapids. Since the water comes out of the base of Glen Canyon Dam, it is cold: somewhere around a frigid 46 degrees Fahrenheit during the upper part of our trip. Over the course of our adventure the river will drop 1700 feet in altitude, which is an average 8 feet per mile… 25 times that of the Mississippi River.

Our boatman for the day, Tom Lovering, with his wild, Canyon hairdo.

Tom is our boatman of the day. He checks to make sure our toenails are painted and then lets us board. The wind is still blowing but it has lost its ferocious bite. A mile down the river we pass Ten Mile Rock, a prominent landmark that has fallen from the cliffs above and now juts up out of the river. Made of Toroweap Sandstone, it was laid down in shallow seas that covered the area some 250 million years ago.

Ten Mile Rock on the Colorado River. I thought it should have a more impressive name.

Shortly afterwards we hear our first rapid of the day, Soap Creek. You always hear rapids before you see them; it builds anticipation. Soap Creek roars like a teenage lion. Tom maneuvers through it like the excellent boatman he is but makes sure we get suitably wet. It’s like taking a cold shower outside on a frosty morning with a 15 mile per hour wind blowing.

“I love rowing,” Tom tells us– and it is obvious he does. It is more than the heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping moments of major rapids where the boatman’s knowledge and skill is matched against the tremendous power of the river with its dangerous rocks and grasping holes. And it is more than the opportunity to enjoy incredible beauty of the Grand Canyon that rowing provides. Tom enjoys the rhythm and the hard work. He even liked the backbreaking challenge of rowing against the wind.

At mile 17 we come on our first, and only, major challenge of the day, House Rock Rapid, where we learn another fact about rafting through the Canyon: water levels depend on electricity needs in the West. Peak demands require large releases of water from Glen Canyon Dam to run its huge generators. Eventually, these releases catch up with rafters. The fluctuations in water levels have significant impacts.

House Rock Rapid demonstrates one of the more serious. The river is at its low point. More rocks are exposed and a massive hole lurks downstream from the largest rock. Even the most skilled boatman will be challenged to avoid it. We all land and climb off our boats to scout the rapid. Tom is eager to move on. Steve is adamant about waiting for more water. After a long discussion between the boatmen, a decision is made to take the more cautious approach.

Our group worriedly scouts House Rock Rapid. Peggy shows more enthusiasm than may be called for.

We have lunch, take naps, go for walks and watch as three large boats of commercial rafters chug through the rapids with their large engines. It is mid afternoon when the boatmen finally decide that enough water is flowing to reduce the hazard to a barely acceptable risk.

Tom’s fist bonks me on the head when we are halfway through. One of his oars has popped out. I look left and all I can see is churning, raft-eating water. We are poised on the edge of the hole… about to be sucked in. Tom becomes a virtuoso of one-armed madness.  Ever so slowly, like about a thousand years, the boat decides to go where he wants. We land, and for one of the few times in his life, my ever-talkative friend is silent.

We looked to the left and saw we were poised on the edge of a massive hole.

The next day, Megan Stalheim, Dave’s niece, is our boat woman. This is Megan’s first time rowing a raft and her first time rowing through the Grand Canyon. It would seem insane except Megan is a world-class kayaker. She is an expert at reading water. The problem is that our large, fully loaded rafts do not move like feather light kayaks… picture driving an 18-wheel Mack Truck with a Ferrari 458 attitude. We have some adventures.

This shot of Jamie’s raft provides a perspective on what our fully loaded rafts looked like.

Megan keeps the messy side up, however, as rafters say. (The non-messy side is the smooth bottom of the raft.) So it’s all good. Megan, like me, has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. When she gets off the river she is heading for Tanzania where she will work with a women’s craft co-op.

Beyond our “kayaking” experience with Megan, the big news on day three is that we began our side-trips. Almost all journeys down the Canyon include stopping off to see the sights. Some are quite beautiful and others provide unique challenges, as if our daily challenges of negotiating rapids aren’t enough.

Our first stop at mile 29 is the Silver Grotto, which includes both beauty and challenge. Wanting a little downtime and solitude, I opt out and take photos. Peggy tells me, “We climbed an 8 foot wall, repelled down a rock face, slogged through a murky, cold pool and slid down a 20 foot rock slide.” The rock slide was more like free-fall.

As the group disappeared into the Silver grotto, I took some much needed Curt-time.

A raven stopped by to visit and checked out the “Captain’s Chair” on Steve Van Dore’s boat. These large birds are one of the primary reasons food needs to be carefully stowed.

I didn’t get a photo of our group members leaping but this is what they leapt off of into the muddy water below. Water was splashed on the rock slide from a pool behind the lip to make the slide more smooth. Or so they said.

Next we stopped off at Paradise, as in Vasey’s Paradise. A beautiful waterfall shoots out of a Redwall cliff and creates a Garden of Eden at it base. It is worthy of the name.

The waterfall shooting out of the Red Wall at Vasey’s Paradise, Mile 32.

Dave Stalheim and his niece Megan perched on a rock at Vasey’s Paradise in the Grand Canyon.

Our final stop of the day is at Red Wall Cavern. Major John Wesley Powell was the first non Native American to admire the Cavern’s unique beauty. Powell was a Civil War Veteran who had lost his right arm at Shiloh. His exploratory expedition through the Grand Canyon took place in 1869. Powell thought Redwall Cavern could accommodate up to 50,000 people. Modern estimates are closer to 5000, but it is still big…

Coming around a bend in the Colorado River, we saw our first view of Redwall Cavern.

This photo provides a perspective on the sheer size and beauty of Redwall Cavern.

A view of the Grand Canyon looking upriver from the Redwall Cavern.

In my next post we visit an ancient Anasazi storage facility high on the cliffs above the river and play in the beautiful Little Colorado River.

Rowing Hard and Going No Where… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me before we hit the river. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.

With thoughts of facing wind gusts up to 60 MPH, we begin our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are no Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.

We push off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

A view of Navajo Bridge and its newer sister looking downstream. The first bridge was built in 1929 and is now used as a walking bridge. The second bridge was built in 1995 to handle modern road traffic.

A second view of the bridges; this time looking upstream. The newer bridge is in the foreground.

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. It’s geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea.

During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.

The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.

The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.

An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as do Tom and Beth). Don is also quite generous in sharing his excellent photos.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Rapids. In Boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous.

There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.

Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.

“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.

Our horrendous day of rowing complete, we have time to enjoy beautiful evening views of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon from camp. (Photo by Don Green)

Painted Toe Nails and Other River Rules… Rafting the Grand Canyon

On a private trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon National Park, everyone pitches into help. Here we are rigging the rafts. Straps and more straps! (Photo by Don Green)

It is time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization are stuffed into bags and dumped into the van.

Plus I have to paint my toenails. It’s a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true; boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true.

We were required to paint our toenails so our rafts wouldn’t flip. We didn’t. Maybe it worked. I don’t think, however, that it made our feet prettier.

Tom lectures me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” He’s serious. Peggy dutifully applies blue polish on four of my toes. Does this mean we will only half flip?

Two acres of paved boat ramp greet us when we arrive at Lee’s Fairy. The transport van disgorges us as the gear truck makes a quick turn and backs down the ramp. Another private party is busy rigging boats.

From off to the right a longhaired, 50-something man emerges. I think 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggests otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangles from his lips. It’s Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group has met him but he comes highly recommended.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admits is his first thought when he meets our green and purple haired trip leader.

He also confides that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confesses, “I didn’t tell him I am on probation.” Somehow this balances out in Steve’s mind. There is no time to become acquainted; we have work to do.

The dreaded pirate Steve threatens our mascot Bone with a knife and demands to know where he has buried his treasure.

There is an unwritten Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper us. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe.

The truck we loaded in Flagstaff demands unloading. Everybody does everything. There are no assignments. Peggy and I become stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulate around the truck.

There is no shade and the desert sun beats down ferociously. It is sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slather on sun block and gulp down water.

The rafts are unloaded last. Rigging our five rafts is technical but relatively easy, assuming of course one is mechanically oriented. I make no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) is already set up and in the water, its pirate flag flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats are self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owns his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut. The three we have rented are yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

Work also requires that we get our feet wet. (Photo by Don Green)

Tom is the last to rig his boat and it is approaching dusk. I hike down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boat down. Peggy and I are totally exhausted. We struggle to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van is coming to pick us up for dinner and we are late.

The walls of the restaurant are covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by rapids.

The windstorm has changed to a dust storm as we crawl into out tents. It covers everything and gets into my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pull out a handkerchief to cover my face. I finally fall asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

We are awakened at five AM the next morning, as we will be every day of our trip. There is personal gear to pack, breakfast to eat, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river are dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.

We also have a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I will face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaves. Dang, why hadn’t I read the fine print?

Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy begins after the boats are packed. Tom starts off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we are required to wear our safety vests any time we are on the boat.

Tom, with his interesting hairdo, and Ranger Peggy check their lists to see which of the many rules they have forgotten to inform us about.

What’s the first rule if we fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chant in unison. And so it goes. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him last year as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectures. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock, stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seems more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to the sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this… 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’ve led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I line up with the guys I can barely dribble out of dismay.

The rules go on and on. Mainly they have to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy is preaching makes sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And I enjoy the fact our campsites are surprisingly clean. The least we can do is leave them in the same condition we find them, if not better. The rules work.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Next blog: Our first three days on the river.

The group, ready to launch. Wife Peggy, as opposed to Ranger Peggy, is holding her and my purple life vests.

A Ton of Food and Homeland Security… Rafting the Grand Canyon

Preparation for our 18-day raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon quickly taught me that eating was going to be a central part of our adventure. This is the back of my 22-foot travel van after a trip to Safeway in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Great adventures start with the mundane. For example, did you cancel the paper? Common sense (and probably your mother) admonish that devious burglars have nothing better to do than to cruise the streets looking for rolled newspapers in front of your home.

More importantly, what about the cat?

Once upon a time Peggy and I had a cat named Effie. Vacations meant I would carefully measure out twice as much food and water as she could possibly eat or drink and four times the kitty litter she might use. The likelihood of her pooping all over the house was much greater that the likelihood of her starving. As a reward for my thoughtfulness, she would shed enough fur in our absence to fill a dump truck.

Now we have food to worry about. Lots of it. Tom Lovering, the trip leader, his wife Beth and their friend Jamie Wilson arrived in Flagstaff three days in advance of our Colorado River trip. Their car was packed to the brim with empty ammo cans and other watertight boxes waiting to be filled with food and the miscellaneous paraphernalia of river trips.

The Department of Homeland Security delayed their journey at Hoover Dam. The Agency is paranoid about mad bombers. Its normally low sense of humor dropped to zero when the agents saw all the ammo cans. The whole car had to be unpacked.

Tom Lovering, our trip leader, has been running rivers since the 70s. I first met him in 1974 when I persuaded him that his outdoor/wilderness store, Alpine West, should sponsor a hundred mile backpack trip I was organizing for the American Lung Association in Sacramento.

Tom is even more paranoid about food than DHS is about terrorists. In addition to being a highly experienced rafter and trip leader, he’s an old restaurateur who had spent months planning the menu.  Each dish has been tested several times and quantities have been measured down to the teaspoon. Recipes are spelled out in minute detail. We will eat gourmet on the trip… or die. The options are clear.

Beth, Peggy and I are dispatched to Sam’s Club with marching orders. We fill seven large shopping carts with food. Think of it this way. There are 16 people going on an 18-day trip and eating three meals a day. This equals 864 individual meals.

When we arrive back at the motel, Tom and Jamie have set up a staging area. Food needs to be organized by meal and day and then stuffed in the appropriate containers. The containers will then be assigned to rafts. It’s important that we know where to find the beer.

We have yet to shop for perishables and more food is coming from Sacramento. Our room, we discover, is to be the recipient of most food. There is barely space to sleep.

Food purchase and storage for an 18-day river adventure depends upon numerous lists. First you have to plan out menus and quantities. Next the food needs to be purchased. Finally it has to be carefully stored so you will find the right food on the right day. Tom’s wife, Beth, was in charge of the lists. (Photo by Don Green)

One of our participants obviously felt that tequila and oranges needed to be stored together.

Our bedroom was packed with food. Personal gear is on the bed.

Food organization took place outside of our motel rooms.

The next day is more relaxed. Other trip members begin to arrive and Peggy and I assume airport shuttle duty. Tom takes time for a makeover into something resembling an English Punk Rocker from the 70s with green and purple hair. Homeland Security was right to be suspicious.

Tom is 50% businessman, 30% adventurer, and 20% character. Or maybe I have the percentages reversed. Here he is having his hair bleached for the trip. You will see the results in future posts.

Next blog: Three days and 39 miles: The Journey Begins.

The morning of the adventure has arrived. Everything we have packed… our food, personal gear and rafts are stuffed into this truck in preparation for our drive to the takeoff point, Lee’s Ferry.

Flagstaff, Arizona: Countdown to Exploring the Grand Canyon by Raft

I have often wondered what part, if any, the strange rock formations in the Grand Canyon played in the development of the Hopi belief about Kachina deities.

Five squirrels with long tufted ears just went charging past our van… in a row. I think it must be love and Peggy agrees. We speculate a female is leading the boys on a glorious romp. “Catch me if you can!” she giggles. The Albert Squirrels are excited to make babies and perpetuate the race, or species, if you want to be biologically correct. Lust is in their hearts. Or maybe it’s just the guys working out territorial differences.

We are located at a KOA in Flagstaff, Arizona as we prepare for our raft trip down the Colorado River. It’s a big campground. Everywhere we look men and women wearing yellow shirts are busily preparing for the onslaught of summer tourists. It feels like a beehive, or squirrel’s nest. The camp cook tells us 28 people work here. Jobs are highly specialized. The man who straightens out misplaced rocks stopped by to chat with us this morning.

Yesterday we watched two employees struggle for an hour on laying out the base of Teepee. It had all the flavor of an old Laurel and Hardy film. They kept measuring and remeasuring the angles, first one way and then the other. I expected one to leap up and start chasing the other around camp with a 2×4.

We wonder what the Kachina deities who live in the San Francisco Mountains overlooking our campground think about the squirrelly activity taking place beneath them. There are bunches of them up there, over 300 according to Hopi lore, and each one has a lesson to teach, wisdom to disperse. They come down from their perch in the winter to share their knowledge. I suspect they would have made quick work of the Teepee project.

Peggy and I hike up the mountain following Fat Man’s trail. Of course there is no irony here as we desperately try to beat our bodies into shape for the Canyon trip. The trail’s name suggests this is a gentle start. Instead it takes us straight up into a snowstorm. The Kachinas are rumored to mislead people under such circumstances.

Once they had the mountain to themselves but now they have competition. Technology has arrived. Tower after tower bristling with arrays of tracking, listening and sending devices look out over the sacred lands of the Hopi, Navaho and other Native Americans.

It’s hard not to think Big Brother is watching. Or not be disturbed by the towers’ visual intrusion. But their presence means we can get cell phone coverage and climb on the Internet. We are addicted to these modern forms of communication so it is hypocritical to whine, at least too much.

But back to the squirrel theme, Peggy and I are a little squirrely ourselves as we go through our gear and get ready for our grand adventure. I am nervous. This is my first multi-day river trip. What have we gotten ourselves into? Do we have the equipment we need? Will we survive the rapids? What will the people who are joining us be like? What challenges will we face that we are ill prepared for? There are many questions and few answers.

Would pirates and bones wearing life vests be part of our trip? Would my every move be recorded on camera?

Would people who should not be let near knives suddenly be wielding them?

Would we be stalked by threatening spirits of the Canyon?

And, horror of horrors, would I be required to paint my toenails to keep rafts from flipping in the canyon? The answer to one of these four questions will be revealed in my next post.

Surreal Bats and Pink Rattlers… Backpacking the Grand Canyon

I finished my last blog with a picture of this view across the Colorado River from my camp near Tanner Rapids. This and the photo below demonstrate how much color depends on the time of day.

Close to the same shot midday, and the reason why you want to visit the Grand Canyon early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

After my close encounter with the Mouse’s tail, I was ready for breakfast. (See my last post below.)

I visited a bush, fired up my MSR white gas stove and soon had a cup of coffee in my hand and hot morning gruel (oatmeal) in my tummy. I dutifully downed my daily ration of five dried apricots. With breakfast out of the way and a second cup of coffee to enjoy, it was time to get out my topographic map and contemplate the adventure of the day.

My intention was to work my way up the Colorado River following the Beamer Trail to where it was joined by the Little Colorado. It was one of the least traveled trails in the Canyon and chances were I would have it to myself.

The trail was named after a prospector who had searched the area for gold in the 1800s, but it also incorporated ancient sections of trail the Hopi Indians had used to reach their sacred salt mines. Hopi legend claims their ancestors emerged into this world from a cave in the bottom of the Little Colorado River Canyon.

I found the combination of history, mythology, isolation and scenery quite attractive and was eager to get underway. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. It was going on strike.

On the edge of my campsite was a 20-foot section of small boulders I needed to negotiate to rejoin the trail. Normally I would sail through such an obstacle, stepping on and between rocks as the situation called for. My first step on top of a rock sent me crashing down.

I had absolutely zero balance. My muscles were refusing to function. While I didn’t reach the insane cackle level of the day before, I did find myself giggling. Dorothy’s Scarecrow was a paragon of grace in comparison to me. I made it a whole hundred yards before declaring that the day was over.

An overhanging rock provided shade, protection from the elements, and a view of the Tanner Canyon Rapids. I spent the day napping, snacking and watching rafters maneuver through the rapids. I also read a book on the Grand Canyon by Joseph Wood Krutch. The most energy I expended was to go to the river and retrieve a bucket of water. There was plenty of time to let the mud settle.

I made it as far as an overhanging rock a hundred yards from my campsite. Thirteen years later I pointed out my hideaway to Peggy. It may hold the record for the shortest backpacking trip in history.

I could watch and hear the Tanner Rapids from my hideaway. It was not a bad way to spend the day.

That evening I sipped a cup tea laced with 151-proof rum and watched bats fly through my ‘cave’ picking off mosquitoes. They were close enough I could have touched them. It was like I was invisible, as I had apparently been to the mouse and the night stalker. Strange, unsettling thoughts of nonexistence went zipping through my mind. Being alone in the wilderness is conducive to such thinking. The Canyon adds another layer.

Peggy tried out my seat where I sat and read all day and watched bats come though in the evening.

Day three arrived and it was time to explore my surroundings and whip my protesting muscles into shape. I still wasn’t ready for backpacking so I took a day hike back up Tanner Creek Canyon. Whatever creek had existed was waiting for future rain but the erosive power of water was plainly evident. This was flash flood country where a dry wash can turn into a raging torrent in minutes. Dark clouds demand a hasty retreat to higher ground.

I had nothing but blue skies, however, so I hiked up as far as I could go. The canyon narrowed down to a few feet and traveling any further called for rock climbing skills I didn’t possess. I sat for a while enjoying the silence and soaring walls. The isolation seemed so complete it was palpable. I was alone but not lonely. Nature was my companion. Reluctantly, I turned back toward my camp.

I spent the next two days hiking along the River. I backpacked up toward Lava Canyon the first day and then worked my way back down past Tanner Creek to Unkar Creek the second. My general rule was that if the trail appeared ready to make a major climb up the canyon walls, it was going without me.

Here I am hiking up river toward the Little Colorado following a route that ancient Hopi Indians may have used.

At one point when Peggy and I were backpacking up the Beamer Trail, we came to a fork in the trail and went left. (Yes, we did find the fork.)

This was the result. (grin)

The only real excitement came toward the end of the second day when I discovered my left foot poised five inches above a Grand Canyon Rattle Snake that lay stretched across the trail, hidden in the shadows. He was a granddaddy of a fellow, both long and thick. And pink. My right leg performed an unbidden hop that placed me several feet down the trail. There is a part of the brain that screams snake. No thinking is required.

As soon as I could get my heart under control, I picked up a long stick and gently urged Mr. Pink off the trail. He wasn’t into urging. Instead, he coiled up, rattled his multitude of rattles and stuck out his long, forked tongue at me. He really did want to sink his fangs into my leg. I prodded more enthusiastically and he crawled off, albeit reluctantly. I memorized the location so he wouldn’t surprise me on the return journey.

My leg’s miraculous leap did suggest that my body was beginning to tune up. There would be no more malingering and feeling sorry for itself. The next day I camped at Tanner Creek again and the following day out I hiked out. The trip took me three hours less than it had taken to hike in.  I was tempted to go find the Sierra Club fellow but opted out for a well-earned hamburger and cold beer instead. My post-pudgy body demanded compensation.

I smiled at the Prickly Pear Flowers on my way out of the Canyon that I had growled at coming in.

A final view of where I had backpacked. You can see the Tanner Trail winds down the ridge on the left.

A Tale of a Tail… Backpacking into the Grand Canyon

Looking down from Lipan Point at the start of the Tanner Trail. The sharp bend in the Colorado River… far away, is where I am heading. (The photos of the trail down I actually took several years later when I backpacked in with Peggy.)

The steep trail seemed to disappear under my feet as I began my journey and descended through millions of years of earth history. About a half of mile down it disappeared for real, having been washed away by winter rains. “I told you so,” my body whispered loudly as I mentally hugged the side of the canyon and tentatively made my way around the washout.

Steep drop offs are a common factor in all trails leading into the Grand Canyon. The first trails were created by Native Americans. Later miners, rustlers, and entrepreneurs interested in promoting tourism would enhance the original trails and create new ones.

I am not sure when my legs started shaking. Given the stair-step nature of the trail and the extra weight of the pack, my downhill muscles weren’t having a lot of fun. Fortunately, Mother Nature provided a reprieve.

The erosive forces of wind and water that have sculpted the mesas and canyon lands of the Southwest are more challenged by some types of rocks than others.  Somewhere between two and three miles down I came upon the gentle lower slopes of the Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, which allowed me to lollygag along and enjoy the scenery.

I escaped from the sun beneath the shadow of a large rock to drink some of my precious water, nibble on trail food and take a brief nap. It would have made a good place to camp, others had obviously taken advantage of shade and flat surface, but the Colorado River was calling.

In this photo, on my later trip, Peggy takes advantage of the shade on the Cardenas Butte.

Ignoring the ever-increasing screams of my disgruntled body parts, I headed on. At mile five or so my idyllic stroll came to a dramatic halt as the trail dropped out of sight down what is known as the Red Wall. (It received this imaginative name because it is red and looks like a wall. The red comes from iron dissolved in water that runs down from the rocks above. Think rust.) Some fifty million years, or 625,000 Curtis life spans, of shallow seas had patiently worked to deposit the lime that makes up its 500-foot sheer cliff.  It is one of the most distinctive features of the Grand Canyon.

The Red Wall, seen here snaking off to the right, is one of the most distinctive features of Grand Canyon National Park.

My trail guide recommended I store water before heading down so I could retrieve it when I was dying of thirst on the way out. I could see where people had scratched out exposed campsites as a place to stop for the night. The accommodations weren’t much but the view was spectacular.

The rest of the five-mile/five month journey was something of a blur. (It was closer to five hours but time was moving very slowly.) I do remember a blooming prickly pear cactus. I grumbled at it for looking so cheerful.

I was too tired to fully appreciate the beauty of the inner Canyon.

My lack of appreciation included a cheerful cactus flower.

Looking back up the trail provided a perspective on how far I had come. The small, needle-like structure on the rim is Desert View Tower.

I also remember a long, gravelly slope toward the bottom. My downhill muscles had totally given out and the only way I could get down was to sidestep. I cackled insanely when I finally reached the bottom. I was ever so glad the Sierra Club guy wasn’t around to see me.

Setting up camp that night was simple. I threw out my ground cloth, Thermarest mattress, and sleeping bag on a sandy beach. Then I stumbled down to the river’s edge and retrieved a bucket of reddish-brown Colorado River water, which appeared to be two parts liquid and one part mud. I should have waited for the mud to settle. Instead I used up a year of my water filter’s life to provide a quart of potable water.

Sitting beside the muddy Colorado River.

My old yellow bucket, a veteran of dozens of backpacking adventures.

All I had left to do was take care of my food. Since people camped here frequently, the local critters would see me as a huge neon billboard that blinked ‘Eat at Curt’s.’ Not seeing a convenient limb within three feet, I buried my food bag in the sand next to me. Theoretically, anything digging it up would wake me. Just the top was peeking out so I could find it in the morning.

As the sun went down, so did I. Faster than I could fall asleep, I heard myself snoring. I was brought back to full consciousness by the pitter-patter of tiny feet crossing over the top of me. A mouse was worrying the top of my food bag and going for the peanuts I had placed there to cover my more serious food.

“Hey Mousy,” I yelled, “Get away from my food!”  My small companion of the night dashed back over me as if I were no more than a noisy obstacle between dinner and home. I was drifting off again when I once more felt the little feet. “The heck with it,” I thought in my semi-comatose state. How many peanuts could the mouse eat anyway?

The river water I had consumed the night before pulled me from my sleep. Predawn light bathed the Canyon in a gentle glow. I lay in my sleeping bag for several minutes and admired the vastness and beauty of my temporary home.  The Canyon rim, my truck and the hordes of tourists were far away, existing in another world.

My thoughts turned to my visitor of the previous evening. Out of curiosity, I reached over for my food and extracted the bag of peanuts. A neat little hole had been chewed through the plastic but it appeared that most of my peanuts were present and accounted for. The small contribution had been well worth my solid sleep.

I then looked over to the right to see if I could spot where the mouse had carried its treasure. Something on the edge of my ground cloth caught my eye. It was three inches long, grey, round and fuzzy.

It was Mousy’s tail!

Something had sat on the edge of my sleeping bag during the night and dined on peanut stuffed mouse. Thoughts of a coyote, or worse, using my ground cloth as a dinner table jolted the primitive parts of my brain. Had I had hackles, they would have been standing at attention ready for action.

I ate a peanut in honor of Mousy’s memory and tossed a few over near his house in case he had left behind a family to feed. I also figured that the peanuts would serve as an offering to whatever Canyon spirits had sent the night predator on its way.

Next blog: I recover and then explore the Canyon. A large, pink rattlesnake and I tangle.

The view from camp looking across the Colorado River and up.