A Trifle Overweight? Backpacking into the Grand Canyon Part I

Early morning and late evening sun add an interesting contrast between light and shadow… not to mention color. When I arrived late at the Grand Canyon for my backpacking trip, I hurried over to the Rim to enjoy the sun’s last rays.

This is the second part of my series on a celebration of the Grand Canyon National Park, which will eventually focus on Peggy and my 18-day raft trip down the Colorado River. Over the next three blogs I will describe a backpack trip into the Canyon where I was… let’s say, a trifle overweight.

In 1986 when I left Alaska I decided to take six-months and backpack into some of the more remote corners of the West. I stopped by for a brief visit with friends and family in California and then headed out for my first stop: the Grand Canyon.

I followed Highway 50 east out of Sacramento, cut off at Pollock Pines and picked up the Mormon Emigrant Trail. Soon I was on Highway 88 climbing up and over Carson Pass. Newly dressed aspens, snow-covered mountains and frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

Frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

By evening I had driven down the east side of the Sierras and made my way into Death Valley. I was setting up my tent under a convenient Mesquite tree when the sun sank behind the Panamint Range. Coyotes howling in the distance lulled me to sleep.

Every trip I made to the Grand Canyon from California included a visit to Death Valley National Park.

By ten thirty the next morning I was in another world, investing quarters in a video poker machine at Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip. Luck was with me. Two hours later found me crossing over Hoover Dam with an extra hundred dollars in my wallet. It represented two weeks of backpacking food. I zipped across the desert, picked up Interstate 40 at Kingman and cut off toward the Grand Canyon at Williams.

I wasted little time checking in at Mather Campground. The Canyon was waiting. An unoccupied rock off the trail near Yavapai Point provided a convenient spot for dangling my legs over the edge. Nothing but vacant space existed beneath my hiking shoes.

My musings were interrupted when a fat Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel poked his furry head up next to me and demanded payment for my front row seat. I recited the Park’s rule on feeding animals and told him to go eat grass. He flipped his tail at me and squeaked an obscenity as he scrambled off in search of more gullible victims.

Twilight was painting the Canyon with a purplish tinge but I could still make out the distinctive colors and shapes of the rocks. While my right-brain admired the beauty, my left-brain was busy considering eons upon eons of earth history. The dark, tortured walls of the inner canyon, now obscured by evening shadows, reached back over a billion years to the very beginnings of life on earth when our ancient ancestors had frolicked in even more ancient seas.

Erosion had given these Precambrian rocks a flat top, shaving off some 500 million years of earth’s history and creating what is known as the Great Unconformity.  Since then vast seas, Saharan size deserts, lakes and rivers had patiently supplanted one another as they marched through Paleozoic time depositing layer upon layer of the canyons walls.

My present perch was made of Kaibab limestone created by an inland sea some 250 million years ago. Dusk slipped into dark and my thoughts turned to my impending backpack trip.

I had backpacked into the Canyon several times. My objective this time was to explore the Tanner Trail on the eastern end of the South Rim road.

The next day was devoted to careful preparation. Seventeen years of backpacking in all kinds of terrain and climate had taught me that there was no such thing as being too careful. I approach compulsive when it comes to backpacking alone. Had I resupplied my first aid kit? Was my stove still working? Did I have adequate fuel? Did I have my flashlight, signaling mirror, whistle, compass and maps? Did I have enough but not too much food, water, reading material, etc. etc. etc?

Safety, comfort and even entertainment are important but weight is always an issue.

Having satisfied myself that I could survive seven to nine days in the Canyon, I headed off to the backcountry permit office. The more environmentally inclined within the Park Service are seriously into minimizing impact and promoting safety. Requiring wilderness use permits is their primary tool in achieving these goals.

I patiently waited behind six other would-be canyon explorers and had memorized the minimum impact lecture by the time my turn was up. The ranger frowned when I mentioned the Tanner Trail.

“The trail is poorly maintained, rarely used, 10-12 miles long and arduous,” she cautioned strongly.

“And that,” I replied, “is exactly what I want.”  I was especially enamored with the ‘rarely used’ part.  I had no desire to share my experience with dozens of other people, much less armies of cantankerous mules that leave lakes of fowl smelling pee on the trail. If I had to face a particularly tough physical challenge and be extra careful to avoid a tumble into the Canyon, it was a price I was happily willing to pay.

I was leaving the office when a skinny guy wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt, blue shorts and hiking boots stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he announced, “I am with the Sierra Club and I couldn’t help but hear you are headed down the Tanner Trail. Given your condition, I would strongly advise against it. You should hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It’s a lot easier and there are lots of other people hiking it in case you get in trouble.”

Now I confess that having just emerged from nine months of hibernating in Alaska I was pasty white and pudgy. I will also allow that the guy was operating under good intentions.

But his arrogance, especially in announcing his Sierra Club membership as somehow making him a wilderness expert, irritated me. Over the years I had known and worked with lots of Sierra Club folks. I am a strong supporter of their efforts to protect the wilderness. I have even run into some who have had more wilderness experience than I. John Muir, the Sierra Club founder, is one of my all time heroes.

Had my unofficial advisor started off with something like, “I have been up and down the Tanner Trail several times, would you like some suggestions?” I would have been quite willing, even eager, to hear what he had to say. But his uneducated assumptions about my lack of knowledge absolutely turned me off. It was everything I could do to maintain a civil tone of voice as I thanked him for his advice and politely told him to screw off.

At 8:30 the next morning my pasty white pudgy body was having an animated discussion with my mind over why I hadn’t listened more carefully to the Sierra Club ‘expert’ the day before. I had started my day by splurging for breakfast at the elegant El Tovar Hotel and then driven out to Lipan Point.

I was now poised to begin my descent into the Canyon. It looked like a long way down. I gritted my teeth and banned any insidious second thoughts.

They came rushing back as I struggled to hoist my 60 plus pound pack. It was filled with seven days of food, extra water and all of my equipment. I had cursed the day before as I struggled to find room for everything. Now I was cursing I hadn’t left half of it behind.

Next up: The journey down.

The prominent landmark at the eastern end of the South Rim road at the Grand Canyon is the Desert View Watch Tower. It is near where I started my hike down into the Canyon and provided a view of where I would be traveling. It also provided a  landmark as I descended into the depths.

A Grand Adventure… Exploring the Grand Canyon by Raft

With Steve at the oars, Peggy and I enter the infamous Lava Rapids on the Colorado River, a perfect ten… that’s 10 as in rapids don’t get any more serious. A few seconds later we disappear under the water. (Photo by Don Green)

Today I begin my series on rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Since it happened a couple of years ago, I am traveling back in time. In fact I kicked off this blog with the trip, some 181 posts ago.

I never finished the series. Other things happened: like having grandbabies born, going to Burning Man, looking for long dead people (otherwise known as ancestors), etc. So I will start with reposting my early stories so everyone can begin, so to speak, on the same page. (Grin)

This series will encompass more than my trip down the river, however. It is meant to be a celebration of the Grand Canyon, possibly the greatest natural wonder in the world. I have been back to the Canyon repeatedly in a time span that dates back over forty years.

Peggy takes a photo looking down into the Grand Canyon. Three feet forward and she will have a thousand feet to learn to fly.

I have wandered the South and North Rim, camped in all of the Rim campgrounds, and stayed at the magnificent El Tovar Hotel. Once I spent Christmas week at Bright Angel Lodge with a view overlooking the Canyon. I’ve been into the Canyon by mule, on foot and helicopter… as well as raft.

Several times I have explored the inner Canyon on weeklong backpack trips. I will feature one in this series.

Our Grand Canyon river adventure started with a phone call. Tom Lovering left an urgent message. I had to immediately stop whatever I was doing (Peggy and my three-year road trip around North America) and climb on-line to sign up for the Grand Canyon Colorado River permit lottery.

Apparently the permits are hard to obtain, somewhat harder than walking out of a casino with a million dollars.

I am immune to Tom’s last minute schemes but the charming Peggy who loves water, loves rivers, and loves sunshine immediately jumped on-line and did the necessary clicking. Early the next morning we received an Email from the National Park Service saying we had won. It took me a lot longer to persuade Tom than it did for the NPS people to inform us.

I am not, by nature, a white water man. I put running rapids right up there with dangling on rock cliffs, playing Kamikaze on ski slopes, and riding the latest death-defying roller coaster at Four Flags.  My approach to outdoor adventure is more in the nature of planned risk taking than thrill seeking. Consequently, I had only been on two real white water rafting trips.

The first was with Tom on the Mokelumne River in California in the 70s. Within five minutes he had dumped us into something known as Dead Man’s Hole. “Paddle!” he screamed. River rats love to give their favorite rapids scary names such as Satan’s Pool and Suicide Bend. They can wax eloquently for hours over the qualities of these death-dealing anomalies. Our detour “was a learning experience,” Tom explained as we emptied the water out of the raft and lungs. “Next time you’ll paddle harder.” Yeah, yeah.

My second white water trip was on the Middle Fork of the American River. This time I was travelling with Mark Dubois, his wife Sharon Negri and a friend, Bonnie Holmes.

Mark, sometimes known as the Gentle Giant, once chained himself to a rock in the bottom of the Stanislaus River to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from flooding the canyon with water. He also co-founded Friends of the River, an organization dedicated to saving the wild rivers of the west.

Our trip was rather mellow up until we came to a large rapid. Mark was having us do such things as close our eyes and lean backwards out of the raft with our hair touching the water so we could ‘listen’ to the river. He’s a spiritual type guy, one with nature. Apparently Nature had rejected me.

“Now, Curt,” he directed as we approached the rapid known as Guaranteed to Drown or some other similar name, “I want you to climb out of the raft and float down it.”

“I know, I know,” I groused as I rolled out of the raft into the icy waters. “It’s a learning experience.”

And that’s how I classify our trip down the Colorado, a learning experience. But I know it will be more. Every time I have visited the Grand Canyon over the years, I have come away with a feeling of awe and reverence. How could a trip through the Canyon’s inner core be any different?

So please join my friends and me over the next few weeks. I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

Here I am. They actually let me row. It had something to do with the lack of any nearby rapids.

This is how Jamie, one of our experienced boatmen, handled that section of the river.

Here are some of the folks that travelled with us on our 18 day trip down the Canyon. In this photo they have reversed their life preservers to look like giant diapers and are floating down the beautiful little Colorado River, one of many scenic stops along the way. They are about ten feet away from going over a waterfall.

You will meet some interesting characters on the trip, such as Steve…

And our fearless leader Tom Lovering. Are you brave enough to spend 21 days on the river with this man?

Even this Grand Canyon fish was amazed by our choice of leader.

We had 21 days on the Colorado River and 21 days of incredible scenery. Views such as…

Scenes along the River…

Magnificent cliffs…

Plunging waterfalls…

And beautiful wild flowers.

You will learn how to poop in the woods…

Dance in a line with too much wine…

Take refreshing baths…

And leap from high places.

Join us.

Where the Colorado and Green Rivers Meet… Canyonlands National Park

A gargoyle-type rock perches above the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park.

I have a weakness for gargoyles. Their grotesque features appeal to my sense of humor. Or is that warped sense of humor? Whether I am touring a medieval cathedral or visiting Gotham City, they leap out and capture my imagination. Thus I was delighted when I came across a gargoyle-type rock hanging out above Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands is where the Green and Colorado Rivers meet. The down-cutting erosive power of these two rivers combined with the uplift of the Colorado Plateau and six million years of time are responsible for the breathtaking multitude of canyons and rock formations found in the Park.

A trip out the park road to Island in the Sky provides views of both basins and other prominent park features. A detour to Dead Horse Point State Park off of the main road shows the Colorado River doubling back and almost meeting itself in a major meander known as the Gooseneck.

The Colorado River winds around and almost meets itself at Gooseneck. This photo is taken from Dead Horse State Park and is looking down into Canyonlands.

Flowers, twisted juniper trees, wildlife and distant mountains add to the scenery.

Both Canyonlands and Arches National Park are easy day trips out of Moab in southeastern Utah. Sego Canyon with its fascinating examples of Indian rock art that I blogged about recently is also within easy driving distance.

One of the Southwest’s best known Indian rock art sites, Newspaper Rock, is located on the southern road into Canyonlands National Park. I will feature the site in my next blog.

Finger like canyons working downward to the Colorado River gradually cut away at the harder rock of White Mesa. This picture is taken from Grand View Point at the end of Island in the Sky Mesa. The maze-like canyons that disappear into the distance provide multiple reasons for the Parks name.

Flowers, like this Indian Paintbrush, add a dash of color to Canyonlands.

Junipers, even young ones, tend to look old, but this guy has obviously been around for a while.

Raven has a special place in Native American lore. His tricky ways, croaky voice, and ability to survive in extreme conditions give him a special position in the bird kingdom.

Spring is sprung but this young buck is still wearing his winter coat. While it may not be the height of fashion, it’s warm.

Distant snow-covered mountains, multi-colored rock cliffs, deep canyons and picturesque trees are all part of the Canyonlands National Park scenery.

Stark tree.

It is easy to lose yourself in the vast open spaces of the Southwest. My wife Peggy and Cloud prove the point.

The semi-arid climate, erosive forces of nature, and geology of Canyonlands National Park and the Southwest combine to create unique natural sculptures.

If my memory serves me correctly, these two sculptures are called the Beehives.

This massive monument of sandstone greets visitors at the north entrance to Canyonlands National Park.

Desert Big Horn Sheep… On the Road

The Desert Bighorn Sheep of the southern Nevada desert calmly eyed me.

He stood there with his magnificent rack of horns, eyeing me and idly chewing on grass. Normally this shy creature of the Southwest deserts would have been hunkering down in the shade on a remote cliff, hiding out from the intense summer sun of southern Nevada and avoiding people and other likely predators.

The greenery of a small park had seduced him and his companions, however. Each day they made a pilgrimage down from their hidden mountain retreat to graze on the tender foliage and contemplate the good life. Unfortunately, two-legged animals came with the territory. We had to be tolerated.

He did not have to tolerate the large Bighorn Sheep that waited for him on the edge of the park, challenging his right to the green grass and threatening to steal his lovely ewes. In a ritual dating back to ancient times, he reared up and charged full speed ahead, smashing into his enemy’s horns time and time again until the intruder was driven from the path. But the rival was as tough as he was stubborn. The next morning, he was there again, waiting…

It was a beautiful location for a new home. A green park placed just below the house provided relief from the parched desert. Surrounding mountains offered glorious picture window views. The man and his wife felt they had found heaven on earth. The loud crash that jarred them out of their bed changed their perspective. Their insurance agent refused to believe their story.

To get their money they had to have photos of the Bighorn ram that challenged his reflection on their metal garage door each morning. (A neighbor of the homeowner related the above story to us.)

It was easy to understand how the Bighorn could do serious damage.  An adult male weighs over 200 pounds and sports 30-pound horns. Plus he can clock out at 30 mph on level ground. Big Bang. Big Dent. His head is specially designed to absorb the shock. Rams have been known to crash horns for up to 24 hours to win a ewe.

Prior to my visit to the small park near Lake Meade I had only seen Desert Bighorn Sheep as small specks on high cliffs or along side canyons of the Colorado River. They are ideally suited for their mountainous, desert environment. Their hooves allow them to perch on two-inch ledges. They are capable of making prodigious leaps of up to 20 feet to land on another ledge, scrambling over difficult terrain at 15 mph. They can also go several days without drinking water, living off of the water they process from plants.

I spent a pleasant morning photographing the sheep doing what sheep do.

The Desert Bighorn Sheep totally ignored a jack-rabbit hopping by.

It would be hard to sneak up on these Bighorn Sheep. Note how each one is checking out a different direction. Predators include mountain lions, golden eagles and man. At one point, they were almost hunted to extinction.

I thought mowing machine when I watched these three rams munch their way across the park.

Both male and female Bighorn Sheep grow horns but the horns of the males curve all of the way around and can weigh up to 30 pounds. I was amused by this guy sticking his tongue out.

Who gets the girl? During mating season the two large rams would be charging each other from 20 feet away and crashing their horns together to determine who wins the lovely ewe. Battles have been known to go on for 24 hours.

I liked this photo because of the perspective it provided on the different size horns.

Regal is how I would describe this impressive pose by a Bighorn Sheep ram.