I recall the day my wife and I moved to Grand Canyon National Park six years ago. As we approached the entrance station a pair of low-flying ravens joined us for the final leg of our urban exodus. The winged duo bobbed playfully just ahead of our overburdened vehicle as if providing escort to our new home. I’ve since learned that these birds were more likely scouting for freshly flattened squirrels than serving as a welcoming party. As with all things Grand Canyon my naïve relationship with these scavenging songbirds has achieved an equilibrium through familiarity.
Similar mixed feelings confronted me as I sat gaping at Powell Plateau during a recent Bass-to-Boucher backpack sponsored by Grand Canyon Field Institute. As director of the program, one of the perks I enjoy is spending quality time with our expert instructors and the diverse clientele entrusted to their care. Ecologist Dave Wegner was our leader in this case.
Dinner theater for our party of six featured mildly threatening clouds whose underbellies were bathed with the late-afternoon sun, swirling around table-topped Powell. Experience reminded me that this “island in the sky” is home to one of the region’s few pristine stands of trees left to a natural fire cycle, in contrast to the “managed” forest on the North Rim proper. Only the towering ponderosa pines crowding the edge were visible from our vantage, and I took heart knowing they have been unfazed by man’s meddling over the decades. The natural balance in the animal community, on the other hand, hasn’t survived unscathed. Early in the twentieth century a robust mountain lion population fell victim to hunting and capture administered by sportsmen and adventurers, among them novelist Zane Grey. Unable to ignore the dramatic cloud play around Powell Plateau for even a minute, I took heart knowing that my appreciation wasn’t sullied by being privy to its darker chapters.
After a night observing the constellations cartwheel overhead, I found myself at dawn visually retracing our descent from a perch above lower Bass Canyon. My eyes rose from the jubilant whitewater of the Colorado River, through the milky blue haze of the Inner Gorge, and came to rest on the sun-splashed horizon overhead dominated by a blazing Mt. Huethewali. The trail was first used by prehistoric Puebloan peoples and was enhanced by miner, entrepreneur, and namesake Bill Bass in the 1890s. Bass was a tireless individualist who came to the Arizona territory from the Midwest in the hopes of restoring his failing health. Judging by his many achievements-building mines, gardens, a cable system across the Colorado River, and a flourishing tourist camp-the change apparently did him good.
Bass’s boundless energy was nowhere to be found this morning, however, as my fellow hikers and I tried to stretch stiff joints and muscles after the first of four nights on the bulletproof Bright Angel Shale. Dave provided a series of mental calisthenics as well, with an overview of the Grand Canyon’s river ecosystem and the battle to preserve it. As the scientist who has spearheaded a number of the park’s studies, surveys, and conservation initiatives, his words were both sobering and inspiring.
With some apprehension I muscled my fifty-pound backpack onto stiff shoulders and gave a nod up canyon to the terrain we would soon traverse. Pleasantries exchanged, I felt the canyon embrace our troupe as we took our first of many eastbound steps on the Tonto Trail.
The visual feast began immediately as unfamiliar stone giants mingled to provide a fresh orientation on old acquaintances. Viewing new angles of long-admired temples and buttes has always provided a thrill for me-like discovering that your favorite storytelling uncle could juggle, to boot. Of particular note was Holy Grail Temple, a sandstone-capped spire upon which Bass’s ashes were dropped from an airplane in 1933. As our vantage changed, the blond fin atop the Holy Grail appeared as a gloved hand turning on a regal wrist from a motorcade of royal monoliths.
The blooming cacti, abundant agave, and occasional wildflower afforded many an interpretive moment in Dave’s capable hands. Of particular note were a number of juniper trees in Sapphire Canyon, thousands of feet below their typical habitat, exploiting the unique climatic conditions found on a shady bench beside the intermittent creek. Like the junipers, we humans were equally ill equipped for such environs and spent the bulk of our time looking for more shade and water than our desert surroundings would normally afford.
The major drainages in this stretch of canyon are referred to as the Jewels-Sapphire, Turquoise, and Ruby. Though named for their aesthetic beauty rather than the presence of gems, we were nonetheless looking for shimmering treasure in each-pools of reliable water in our case. The region’s ongoing drought raised the stakes as we gambled on finding a flow, a trickle, or standing water. The wager in our case was how much water at eight pounds a gallon we were willing and able to carry from the previous source. Inevitably the nervous croaks of the neighborhood amphibians signaled a jackpot as we neared seemingly bone-dry creek beds. This cat-and-mouse game with life-giving water was a small price to pay for the incredible solitude that enveloped us.
We eased into a familiar rhythm. Days were spent in discovery as we wended through a pristine desert landscape. Moonless nights were punctuated with the faint pulse of the river playing accompaniment to gently rustling shrubs.
Rounding Marsh Butte on the day before our ascent we paused at an overlook high above Crystal Rapids. This stretch of whitewater was created in 1966 when a winter storm dumped fourteen inches of rain on melting North Rim snow. This infusion of precipitation, half the North Rim’s annual bounty, fueled a flash flood that delivered tons of rock and debris into the main river channel. Dave, whose respect for Crystal has flowered over sixty-plus runs, greeted his old nemesis with a warm “hello.” Watching his eyes scout the rapid, even from this bird’s eye vantage, was the next best thing to taking on the boat-eating current firsthand.
The familiar overlooks of the South Rim came into view as we converged on Boucher Canyon. Named after Bass’s counterpart Louis Boucher, the canyon boasts abundant water that has given birth to a riparian oasis. Brilliant green cottonwood trees and tamarisk shimmered with a palette of green hues we hadn’t seen in days. After negotiating rubble-strewn cliffs we set up camp along a gurgling creek, our first “wet” camp since we began our journey.
I caught a third wind and pressed on alone to the top of the Redwall cliff, watching my companions slowly shrink beneath me as I gained seventeen hundred feet in elevation. I reached my campsite at White’s Butte saddle as the entire canyon was cast in an auburn hue. The hypnotic display of color and elongating shadows lasted throughout a hastily prepared meal. I couldn’t decide if the lump in my throat was the result of this stunning spectacle or the lukewarm fettuccini. Sleep came easily as I gauged the progress of an invisible cloud by the stars disappearing in its path and reappearing in its wake.
I was on the move before first light, but my chess-like strategy for an efficient ascent was put in check as I rounded Yuma Point. The first rays of a blazing sun conspired with a brief stumble near the edge of a sheer cliff to land me nearly on my crown. A slower pace with greater attention delivered me safely to the top of the Hermit Trail several hours later.
Once on the rim I trained binoculars on the ground I had covered below. I made the mistake of asking a passing visitor what had been going on in the world. As he told me about the stock market crash, another school shooting, and the ongoing saga of young Elián Gonzalez, I thought I spotted Dave and company rounding Yuma Point. Though my weary legs would have mutinied with a single step towards the canyon, my mind was already back with Dave—in lockstep.