Once upon a time a journey to Grand Canyon took more effort than stopping one’s sport utility vehicle short of the guardrail. In days past those hardy souls that made the journey to the fabled chasm did so on foot or horseback. Some would argue that even the dramatic views offered by the Grand Canyon could be enhanced by such an effort. I found this to be the case in a recent visit to a remote stretch of the North Rim (though I’ll grant you that forty bumpy miles in an Isuzu Rodeo smarts less than a week in the saddle). Arriving at Swamp Point for the beginning of a Grand Canyon Field Institute backpack down the North Bass Trail, I found myself once again dumbfounded by a fresh look at an old friend.
Of immediate interest was Powell Plateau, a table-topped mesa several miles in length, which so impressed explorer John Wesley Powell that he named it after himself. This “island in the sky,” connected to the North Rim by a forested ridge called Muav Saddle, cleaved the foreground into east and west. Intriguing and unfamiliar buttes and temples basked in the setting sun to my left; to the right lay Steamboat Mountain, and Bridgers Knoll, two monoliths whose opposite facades I had spied during past treks to Thunder River. Below us lay gaping Muav Canyon. Carved by White Creek, this drainage is the first in a network that covers 14 miles to the Colorado River. White Creek was named after a mysterious miner who predated pioneer Bill Bass in this corner of the canyon. Nobody seems to know his first name, and it was only after a peaceful night’s sleep that our group of seven found out why: he didn’t want anyone looking him up to complain about the upper reaches of his trail.
The North Bass Trail, as it now called, swaggers off the Muav Saddle with authority. The views are a dramatic though risky indulgence on a trail with such a steep downward grade and perennially tricky footing. A gauntlet of resistant manzanita twigs shouldered the trail like an unending series of knee-high turnstiles collecting skin for toll. Powell Plateau, bathed in the morning sunlight, rose above us during our hasty descent, which brought us in short order to the Supai Formation, over one thousand vertical feet from where we had begun.
We crisscrossed the waiting creek bed that was unexpectedly submerged in ankle-deep spring-fed water. The flow caught us by surprise, as evidenced by the two heavy gallons of water we were each carrying. I joked about the potential of falling face-first into the stream and drowning beneath the weight of our extra water. Even before the cackling had stopped the creek disappeared beneath the gravel as quickly as it had appeared. “Never bemoan the abundance of water in the desert,” a voice beneath my moist brow chastised.
Reaching the elusive break in the Redwall Limestone, we dropped another five hundred feet to a waiting boulder field. A few map-and-compass exercises later we entered a broad valley and resumed our game of cat and mouse with White Creek’s occasional pools. We meandered several more miles until we reached the head of the Tapeats narrows, a sinuous slot canyon with vertical sandstone walls just over an arm’s width apart. The brewing storm clouds, heretofore welcomed for their relief from the burning sun, now left us with a true dilemma: proceed through the twisting narrow chamber and chance being swept away by a rain-inspired flash flood, or take to the cliffs and pick our way across the crumbling terraces above? Either route would eventually lead us to our destination in Shinumo Creek and Bill Bass’ historic camp. Instructor and veteran canyoneer Ken Walters assured us the narrows would be the easier route but wanted to know if we were willing to bet our lives on it. Off to the terraces. Our first taste of trail-less hiking was bittersweet as we encountered several false routes. The wetter-than-normal monsoon season had wreaked havoc throughout the basin. Fresh rock slides and washed-out paths were the norm. The full fury of the recent torrent was even more evident when we finally reached Shinumo Creek as the fading sunlight gave up the last of the far walls. The high-water mark bore witness to a respectable torrent in the area.
The next day we followed Shinumo Creek to the river, negotiating a delightful twenty-foot pour off en route. After an unsuccessful attempt to procure a cold one from a stingy boatman, we found a Vishnu Schist overhang and took in another of Ken’s geology talks. This talk was appropriately on river dynamics and rapid formation—a modest visual aid in Shinumo Rapids thundered past only a stone’s throw away.
The group split up the following day. The more ambitious among us day hiked to the asbestos mines in nearby Hakatai Canyon, and the rest of us remained at Bass Camp, lounging in the sparkling creek, putzing around Bass’ now-defunct watermelon patch, and riding out the occasional sun-shower. The big storms rolled in mid-afternoon and we rode them out under the very ledges which Bass and his men likely used for shelter. I could feel their presence as we listened breathlessly to raindrops striking their abandoned pots and pans, and watched as sweeps of spray and impromptu waterfalls soaked the nearby cliffs. A double rainbow signaled the end of the deluge, only to succumb to a canopy of stars shortly thereafter.
The following morning we returned to the narrows we had avoided during our descent days earlier. Though the flash flood had never materialized, the precarious nature of the drainage was increasingly evident. We dallied beneath an impressive boulder lodged over one hundred feet above in the ten-foot sliver of sky separating the walls of our chamber. We watered up, then it was off-trail for the remainder of the hike. Our final nights were spent at the junction of Merlin and Modred Abyss, and in the Modred basin. An afternoon spent slogging up Shinumo Creek was a truly unique experience in a park where long waterless stretches are standard fare. The pure, spring-fed water shimmered with a turquoise hue and formed pools and pour offs that greeted us at every turn. The mounting beauty culminated in an unexpected waterfall. The cascading triple-veil of sparkling rivulets partially concealed a shallow mossy cave. To my knowledge the falls are unnamed, just another oasis riding out the years, content to exist in this seldom-visited corner of the canyon. We conjectured that only a handful of humans had ever laid eyes on the tumbling falls, until Ken found a prehistoric chipping site replete with potsherds and an earthen pot handle. The final day’s hike out was slow and methodical. Contour, scramble, contort, squeeze, contour. After nearly a week in the backcountry, life’s decisions were reduced to a handful of repetitive motions, repeated like a broken record, eventually leading us to our micro-goal in the Elaine Castle saddle. This sandstone-capped butte, which represented the halfway mark, hovered above us the entire morning, calling like a siren on the far shore. Above Elaine lay a formidable obstacle in the Coconino Sandstone. An exposed outcropping of rock represented the only possible route through an otherwise sheer wall of stone. Using the teamwork honed over days of cooperation and hard work, we belayed up the would-be barrier and soon found ourselves celebrating at Lancelot Point on the canyon rim. The back slaps were a bit premature, as it turned out, for several miles of darkening forest stood between our ragged band and the waiting vehicles. Employing night vision and the occasional deer trail, we finally came full circle. Our collective heavy breath was visible in our chilly pine-clad surrounding, and it was hard to imagine that the day had begun along a desert stream.
The sun found me the following morning a bit more composed than when we had parted. With clean duds and a café mocha, I kicked back on the patio at the North Rim Lodge and studied our route on the topo map, relieved to be united with my creature comforts. I caught myself wincing several times as I retraced the rugged terrain we had traversed, wondering why anyone in their right mind would undergo such hardships voluntarily. I vowed to take a few months off. With binoculars I studied Kolb Studio on the far rim, and even picked out my office window on its lower level. Though too distant to make out my “in” basket (thank goodness), rising thoughts of deadlines and reports nevertheless sent me right back to the map. “Hmmm, I haven’t been down the Boucher Trail in awhile,” I thought to myself. “Maybe next weekend?”