In the year 1889, engineer Robert Stanton pushed off at Lees Ferry with a crew of seven, embarking on the most dangerous leg of an odyssey that began in Green River, Utah. Their goal was to scout out a water-level train route along the Colorado River all the way to California. They entered the gateway to Grand Canyon known as Marble Canyon, and quickly met their match in the swift currents and tumbling rapids. After three men had drowned, including the president of the company for which Stanton was hired, the decision was made to abort the journey. They gambled on a precarious route out of what Stanton called “deaths’ canyon.” The abandoned Indian trail that led them through thunderstorms and landslides to safety is found in present-day South Canyon.
Despite its dubious past, this corner of the canyon has intrigued me since I spent a night on its secluded beach during a recent river trip. I had been looking for a chance to get back, and found it in the form of Grand Canyon Field Institute’s final backpack of the 1996 season.
Unofficially, I was treating my boots to a final spin at the end of a 350-mile year below the rim. My official reason for joining the trip was to serve as a backup for instructor Dr. Larry Stevens. In typical fashion, Larry had hiked out the Tanner Trail from a research river trip only days before to lead the class, and would drive six hours to Hualapai Hilltop and hike a dozen miles down Havasu Canyon to rejoin the researchers immediately following our time together. In short, he’s in high demand, and I was all ears during the bumpy ride across House Rock Valley to the South Canyon trailhead as Larry waxed poetic on topics ranging from over-flight legislation to the upcoming California condor release.
Our party of ten began the 7-mile traverse of this unmaintained trail with a near-vertical descent through a narrow break in the canyon’s rim. With only one mile behind us we had already eaten up the lion’s share of the rim-to-river elevation. Our route flattened out somewhat after reaching the dry creek bed, and we spent the next few hours negotiating numerous boulders and pour offs, the occasional display of fossilized crinoid stems and jasperized brachiopods rewarding the vigilant. Storm clouds began building overhead, and our tired troupe was not unpleased when the emerald green river and our campsite finally appeared below.
Here in the heart of Marble Canyon the Colorado River is still cutting through the Redwall Limestone, which appears midway between the rim and river throughout most of Grand Canyon. This porous layer of rock over three hundred feet thick erodes with relative ease, and its characteristic sheer cliff loomed above the swift waters opposite our eventual camp. We spent the evening swapping backcountry recipes and tall tales. The festivities climaxed with Larry’s rousing rendition of “Ode to the Humpback Chub,” an original ballad honoring one of the canyon’s most endangered native fish.
A morning stroll along the beach toward Stanton’s Cave took an unexpected turn when Larry drew our attention from the mesmerizing cliffs to the delicate, overlapping strands of debris left by the receding river. He assured us that, with a little imagination, anyone could make out the misty mountains of a Chinese landscape painting in the silty contours left by the ebbing waters. If it was not yet obvious that Dr. Stevens was truly in his element, one only had to witness his exhaustive knowledge of the plants, rocks, and lizards encountered during the remaining walk. We rode out a light rainstorm in the mouth of the cave, further access to which was blocked by a locked gate to keep visitors from disturbing the cavern’s rich archaeological record. Larry explained how driftwood found deep in the cave (located a few hundred feet above river level) evidenced a prehistoric natural dam downstream that backed up the river as far as southern Utah and submerged this neighborhood beneath a deep lake. Among the other artifacts found within were bones of long-extinct birds and goats, as well as split-twig figurines left by some of the canyon’s earliest human inhabitants thousands of years ago.
The afternoon was spent at Vaseys Paradise, a shimmering spring named by John Wesley Powell, where Larry described his ongoing research of the delicate ecosystem that thrived in this tiny oasis. Of particular interest was the extremely rare Kanab amber snail and a nasty parasite which can assume control of a given snail’s motor function, drive it into the open, and then poke multi-colored feelers through the snail’s eye sockets. All this is done to attract passing birds that might devour the feelers and thus spread the parasite through its droppings. Hmmmm, time for dinner.
Returning to camp we were greeted by a flotilla that had just arrived. Our new neighbors were whitewater-rafting instructors from North Carolina on a private river trip and they were thrilled to find that Larry was camped nearby. In fact, Larry’s river guide was serving as their bible on the voyage-in-progress. Less excited about our return to camp were the handful of ringtails, small raccoon-like bandits, that were busy dissecting my food bag with surgical precision. Facing a tough hike out, I was a bit restless when we finally called it a night. Counting shooting stars instead of sheep, I nodded off somewhere after thirty.
Retracing our steps on the final day, we scratched and clawed our way back to the trailhead under picture-perfect autumn skies. After a round of high fives at the trailhead I fondly glanced back at darkening South Canyon and followed our route until the chasm twisted out of view. I thought of how Stanton’s defeated crew must have felt as they stood in this very spot. Their relieved examination of these same features was likely tinged with bitterness rather than reverence. I thanked the canyon once again for granting us the latter.
It took two brave attempts by engineer Robert Stanton and crew to run Grand Canyon’s Colorado River. Their mission was to scout a water-level train route with which to transport coal from western Colorado to booming southern California. The initial journey in 1889 was cut short by a series of tragic drownings. The following year, overcoming hunger and misfortune, Stanton’s men made it all the way through to Grand Wash Cliffs. The story of this tireless entrepreneur and his intrepid crew can be found with those of other legendary figures in David Lavender’s book “River Runners of the Grand Canyon,” published by Grand Canyon Association.