What am I doing here? My position is totally exposed and I haven't seen a tree since we dropped below the North Rim. Paranoia is overtaking my senses. There is no place to hide amongst the rocks and stumpy sagebrush. What am I supposed to do when I hear the “whup-whup-whup” of the black helicopters closing in?
“What black helicopters are you mumbling about?” my wife asks. “There is nobody looking for you! How would they know to find you here, anyway? We're hundreds of miles from home... and nobody is looking for you back there either.”
I flash my disarming smile before looking serious and shifty-eyed once again. “How indeed? And just because they aren't looking for me right now, doesn't mean they won't soon. I'll tell you one thing, when it does happen, I better be in pine forest in the mountains somewhere or I won't stand a chance. I might as well be on Mars,” I finish, staring up at the towering cliffs of red and gold.
I am exaggerating, of course, but the deeper our hike took us into the heart of Grand Canyon, the more I felt like a foreigner amongst the prickly foliage and barren rock. I am used to a canopy of treetops providing shelter from the watchful satellites above. I am used to thick tree trunks serving as backrests and windbreaks. I am used to crystal clear streams, creeks, and rivers flowing bountifully through the wilderness. I am used to bears and wolves. What I am not used to is a gargantuan fissure in the earth defying my sizable imagination in both scale and splendor.
So, a desert rat I am not. However, the two day descent has opened my eyes to the mesmerizing colors, shapes, and possibilities of rocks, the geological and intrinsic appeal of these seemingly lifeless wastelands. As a child, my grandfather drove us all over the washed out roads of the deserted Owyhee Desert dominating southeast Idaho. He knew that area of the Gem state as well as anyone. He called it his “backyard”. I, on the other hand, could never get past the scorching heat, coupled with the complete lack of water and shade. For all the prehistoric fossils and Native American artifacts we discovered, I still remember wishing we were someplace cooler, someplace surrounded by pine trees, and someplace I could go swimming.
Now that I am in the middle of the big ditch, and witnessing first hand, this unique world treasure, I realize my neighboring slot canyons are a poor substitute for the real thing. In an effort to get back on the “desert” horse, my wife and I spent last weekend in Big Jack's Canyon out in the lands my grandfather once loved. Despite my childhood aversion for such places, I welcomed the opportunity, mostly because it was the middle of November and neither sunburn nor unquenchable thirst would be an issue. In fact, our weekend getaway saw us struggling to stay warm after sundown. Still, it was a beautifully remote setting with big horn sheep as our only neighbors. By the end, I found myself looking forward to Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon.
The one discomfort still eating at me as we approach within a mile of the Colorado River is the fact that we will be alone in the backcountry for Thanksgiving. While the rest of our friends and family gorge themselves on turkey, potatoes, and rolls, we will settle for something dehydrated that won't be followed by pumpkin pie. Perhaps the meager meal served on the most gluttonous of holidays will serve as a reminder for why we are truly thankful.
“Let’s stop at Phantom Ranch and grab a beer on our way through. We deserve it after last night,” I suggest.
“What, you didn't enjoy our romantic dinner at the outhouse?” she asks with a crooked grin.
Due to the violent fluctuation of a blizzard that had been hammering the North Rim since our arrival, our first night in the big ditch had almost been spent trapped on the covered porch of a four stall outhouse. In fact, my first views of the Grand Canyon had been one giant anti-climax. From last night’s precarious perch at the very top of the chasm, all I could see was what looked like a dense fog spilling out over the lip of the canyon and filling the very sky. Apparently, you could see the opposite rim on a clear day, but as it was, I couldn't see fifty feet into the soupy mess.
“Are you sure there's a way down there?” I had shouted at my wife to be heard over the gusting wind.
“Apparently,” she shrugged, looking down into the fog choked abyss.
The force of the gale had the snow blowing sideways creating ghostly patterns in the air. Still, the pine trees and snow had left me feeling at home. At least until I watched a rabbit jump out of a distant tree and standup on its hind legs, its bushy tail swaying back and forth with the gusts. It took my brain a second to figure out something was amiss, but then it occurred to me I had never seen a rabbit climb a tree before, nor had I seen one with tail long enough to be swaying in the wind.
“What the hell…” I began to say when Jamie elbowed my shoulder and pointed at the creature.
“Dan, it’s a Kaibab squirrel!”
A squirrel? As if the fuzzy little animal knew it had a captivated audience, the silver creature hopped in our direction before scampering up a much closer tree. It had all the dexterity of our own fox squirrels back home, but it was much bigger, and its ears had tufts of fur sprouting straight up from the tips creating a rabbit-eared illusion. Perhaps most striking was the animal’s fluffy white tail. Easily doubling the length of the creature, and as big around as its body, the squirrel began cleaning its elegant ivory appendage while stealing glances in our direction as if to ensure we were riveted by the show.
As it turned out, Jamie and I were the last two visitors to the North Rim before the storm forced park officials to close the entrance. Over the course of the next several days, we would run into hikers who had been diverted the additional 250 miles to the South Rim due to the Northern impasse. So content to be strolling in the National Park wonderland, not a single one of them seemed overly miffed about the detour, and we were ecstatic because Jamie and I had the descent hike all to ourselves.
When we had set out on the North Kaibab trail, the fog was firmly in place and the snow was still blowing sideways. A Ranger has assured us the weather would improve once we had descended a couple miles into the canyon. It seemed odd at the time that somewhere directly below us existed a whole different desert climate. Cinching the rain gear tight and hoping our hiking boots could withstand the six inches of wet snow, my wife and I set out from the North Rim marching through the blizzard.
The Ranger was right. Two miles into the canyon the heavy snow had turned into a monsoon. No longer quite cold enough, the storm just pounded us with freezing rain instead. We had, however, managed to get below the thick fog and the grandeur that is the Big Ditch began to reveal itself through the dissipating mist. Photographs are poor substitutes for the actuality of the epic, breathtaking scenery, but my recollections of the Grand Canyon itself are so vividly real, I scarcely need reminders.
Like an impossibly long, crooked, colossal inverted pyramid had been extracted from the earth, the canyon is a stepped chasm of unimaginable proportion. The flat part of each giant stair a traversable shelf, the step risers brilliantly colored cliff walls hundreds of feet tall. As we descended deeper, the golden layer of rock topping the canyon gave way to bright pink granite, which eventually, and just as abruptly, became a stone of darker red. There is no blurring of colors, only distinct lines where one geological era stopped and another began. Between the Neapolitan rock layers and dizzying drops, the canyon revealed her inner sanctums. I felt connected to this desert landscape in a way I never imagined.
Making it easier to appreciate the scenic beauty the rain finally relented. The wind however did not and during our pass through the “eye of the needle”, a three foot wide ledge with no handrails next to a precipitous drop, Jamie and I were buffeted by fifty mile an hour gales. Mercifully most of the force was pushing us into the rock wall on one side of the trail, but random gusts would hit us square in the back shoving our already top-heavy momentum forward and our hearts into our throats.
By the time we reached the Roaring Springs break area, only six miles into the hike, the clouds were turning ugly once again. The storm unleashed with renewed fury just as we had made it to the covered and raised deck of the outhouse. Trying to ignore the intermittent odors assailing our nostrils between blasts of wind and sleet, Jamie and I ate trail mix and waited nearly two hours for the next break in weather.
Just as it began to appear we’d be trapped for the night, the storm broke apart to reveal the night’s first stars and white moonlight lit up the nearby cliffs. Donning our headlamps, we scampered the remaining couple of miles to Cottonwood campground and secured out site. After a late night meal of chicken stew we quickly fell asleep, grateful to be smelling sage instead of the reek of outhouse.
The sky had cleared by the first hint of dawn and we wasted no time getting our packs together and strapped to our back once again. Through the winding, rock corridor of one stunning site after another, my wife and I took our time appreciating the eons of erosion responsible for the rugged, beautiful canyon through which we descended. I even developed a kink in my neck from looking up and twice almost fell on my face from being too enthralled to watch the rocky trail.
Before stopping for lunch we bypassed the short detour trail to Bridal Falls, supposedly one of the grandest sites in the entire park. Our eventual exit route from the canyon would see us hiking back to the North Rim on the same trail, so we agreed to save it for later. By then both of us were craving that beer at Phantom Ranch. We were also curious to see such a watering hole in the middle of a backcountry destination. Our arrival to the resort will be the first time I have had a frosted adult beverage made available during the middle of a wilderness backpacking trip.
I am not sure what exactly I had pictured in my mind for Phantom Ranch but the reality of the small resort doesn’t match. I imagined fewer buildings and more campsites and the restaurant saloon that I craved is just a small cantina with a meager sampling of food items and equipment. The cheeseburger and frosty pint of beer we had talked about on the trail reluctantly become a six pack of lukewarm American lager and a chocolate bar.
By the time we finish our third drink, the simple rustic nature of the place has won us over. We actually find ourselves preferring the small operation over a bustling brew pub full of tourists. So much, in fact, that rather than push on to our reserved campsite, we track down the ranger office and manage to finagle one of the previously booked camps due to a last minute cancellation. Just before bed Jamie makes a trip down to the camper’s bathrooms and is breathless upon her return.
“I just saw a ring-tailed cat!” she announces.
“Dammit,” I mutter. I had truly been hoping to see one of these strange creatures and I had almost joined my wife on her trip to the bathroom. Related to raccoons, these adorable mammals are extremely intelligent, curious, and possess opposable thumbs capable of manipulating zippers and bags. They have longer bodies and shorter legs than actual felines, but they possess a similarly adorable countenance. Like the Kaibab squirrel, they are absolutely at home in the trees, which means their presence in the canyon is restricted to the very few wooded areas. Phantom Ranch is a veritable oasis in the Grand Canyon.
Any camper in Phantom Ranch who doesn’t utilize the provided ammunition boxes to stash their food, will wake up to find it gone. One of our neighboring campers saw a ring-tail, calmly and coolly, unzip the top pouch of her backpack and fish out a sack full of trail mix sitting right on top. And if the cats don’t rob you, the fearless mice will. Before setting out, we had borrowed a steel-mesh bag that is sealed shut at the top with a wide swath of hardcore Velcro. Nothing short of a bear is breaking into our food and hauling it off.
I sleep poorly hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary ringed-tail cats, but all I do is make myself tired. Also, a campground, unless deserted, always makes me feel a bit cagey; too many hairless apes wandering about the joint, disrespecting the environment, and generally pissing me off. It doesn’t take much. Not to mention the ever present threat of black helicopters as well. They could have spies all around me and I’d never now until it was too late. It is time to hide once again.
After crossing the interstate-wide river of slow churning chocolate milk more commonly known as “The Colorado”, we steel ourselves for the climb halfway to the top of the South Rim. Once again, we are instantly staggered by the views of the colorful river canyon from above. There are overhangs designed for viewing that are literally one step to the river hundreds of feet below. These natural viewing platforms have no handrails or safety features whatsoever. If a sudden blast of wind were to hit you while pressing your luck on the ledge, well, the end is certain, but I do wonder if people tend to scream, or just take a sudden intake of breath in the moment of realization that is never let out again.
At the intersection of the South Kaibab trail and our intended eastern path across the Tonto Plateau, we talk with a Ranger claiming to be the oldest employee in the park. Frankly, we aren’t about to dispute that fact. The grizzled old timer looks as though he’s seen a season or two out in the desert.
“What about our trail here?” asks Jamie, pointing east.
My wife and I exchange questioning glances when he responds, “I ain’t been out that way in twenty… twenty-five years. Ain’t much out there. Hope you brought enough water.”
Some people might interpret those words as ominous or, at least, a practical warning. Nothing he witnessed out there ever inspired a return visit. How great could it be? To us, it sounds like our chances of running into any other hikers just dropped considerably. The information leaves us beaming and ready to march on.
The ranger was right, particularly for the first stretch. The Tonto Plateau was a gently rolling half-mile wide shelf of stumpy sagebrush and a variety of cacti. I begin to think there isn’t a plant here that wouldn’t prick, lacerate, or poison you if given the opportunity; nothing like are soft green and mostly harmless foliage back home. To our south, sheer walls ascend to the skyline; to the North, a cliff followed by a direct plummet to the Colorado River. From the open vantage point, we see black clouds still raging over the North Rim where our truck is surely buried in snow.
As we hike deeper into the remote country, the storm in the northern sky is joined by an equally ugly mass of churning clouds to the south and west. The weather appears to be boxing us in. For some reason, karma, good fortune, or dumb luck tends to watch our backs in the backcountry and this time is no different. Just as we think it would be wise to get a campsite battened down, a natural shelter appears before us. At the base of a rocky outcropping, eons of wind and rain have worn the underside of a couple monstrous boulders creating a cave just large enough for our two-man tent and backpacks.
By the time we finish making camp and eating dinner, the storm activity has all shifted northward. All we experience, from the safety of our shelter, are strong blasts of wind and ominous skies that talk tougher than they actually are. As the afternoon set in, the weather settles altogether and patches of blue appear overhead.
“We need to find some more water for tomorrow,” Jamie notes as we emerge from our confined cave to stretch our muscles.
“It looks like the main trail is about to drop into that slot canyon to our east. With all the recent storm activity, we can probably find some pothole water.”
Pothole water is the precipitation left trapped in the natural cracks and eroded bowls of level rock after the storms and flashfloods have passed. Slot canyons are the best place to look for water out in the desert. There are countless of these smaller side chasms feeding the Colorado River. Tourists taking rafting trips down the Grand right after a heavy storm must be treated to breathtaking scene of countless waterfalls cascading from above.
We follow our small canyon to the South and away from the river thinking our best bet is to search the higher ground. The slot is filled with a rainbow of boulders from a variety of geological eras dropped from differing heights above, as well as the occasionally firmly rooted juniper. The very base of the chasm is filled with intermittent stretches of flat, polished stone that look promising, but eventually the walls converge in a dry dead-end rising a hundred feet above us.
After retracing our footsteps and following the slot in the opposite direction, we find our pothole water. Surrounded by the footprints of big horn sheep, Jamie and I locate several tiny pools of clear water in the naturally eroded bowls along the flat rock bottom of the drainage. After the tedious ritual of scooping spoon-sized servings into our filtering bottles, we return to camp prepared for another day of hydration in the desert.
“We might make a desert rat out of you yet,” says Jamie and we crawl into our tent for the night.
“I might be willing to consider part-time employment,” I reply.
Three days of steep hiking has taken its toll and we sleep from the moment our eyes close until a murderous cawing brings us back to the reality of a frigid dawn full of gusting winds. The raven sits just outside our cave fixing us with one menacing eye. Maybe we had crashed in his pad on accident. Who knows? In any case, we allow our surly alarm clock to get us moving until the coffee can kick in and take over. Our plan for the day is to reach a point of similar elevation, but on the opposite side of the canyon. We are as deep as we are getting on this expedition; it is time to head back to the North Rim.
On our way back to the South Kaibab trail, we notice a large family of nervous deer just uphill from our position. While we watch, a herd of big horn ewes and their calves trot past below us. All of the ungulates we have seen in Grand Canyon look fat and happy, with the exception of some scattered deer we saw in the creek bottom of Phantom Ranch. Distinct ribs were showing on about a third of that population.
Deer eat discarded trash and it clogs their bellies until they can no longer digest actual food and they slowly starve to death. At one point, in the not too distant past, park rangers had to slaughter a sizeable portion of the herd to put them out of their misery. Autopsies later revealed several pounds of plastic garbage in each animal’s stomach. Thinking about the unnecessary suffering of those deer, I get locked in a violent mental cycle wishing I could inflict similar torture on the mindless transgressors.
I am still fixated on the variety of ways in which I would gladly punish litterbugs when we cross the Colorado River for the second time and find ourselves back at the bustling resort of Phantom Ranch. We stop at the cantina one last time to purchase critical ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast, a meal that had been taking shape in our minds as we have covered mile after mile of rocky trail. Showing considerable restraint, we stay just long enough for one beer before re-shouldering our portable homes and waving goodbye to this remote outpost of pseudo-civilization. Our last act before resuming the march is to mail a couple postcards that are to be carried by pack mules all the way to the Southern Rim where they will then be turned over to the actual post office.
By dusk we have covered more ground than any other day of the trip and we are once again off the main path in the desert backcountry. We make our camp for the night on the flat rock of a drainage bottom sheltered from the wind. It is the ideal location to be creamed by a midnight flashflood that could carry us over the cliff just below our site and onto the jagged rocks far below. We agree that if either of us awakes to the sound of rain, we’ll get up and move, but the skies look like they will hold. Taking advantage of the day’s last light, we can almost see our location from the night before, halfway up the southern canyon walls and on the great Tonto Plateau. The distance seems immense, not even remotely possible to cover in one day, yet we made it… just in time for a quick dinner and another night of exhausted slumber.
“Happy Turkey Day!” my wife shouts in my ear to wake me up and cease my snoring. After my heart quits seizing from the jolt, and a couple of dirty looks, I return the blessing. It really is Thanksgiving even it doesn’t remotely feel like it out in the Big Ditch. Still, looking around at our primeval landscape, completely void of trees and human life, it is easy to list a plethora of things I am grateful for. The most surprising of which is that a mountain man could feel so content out in the desert; I suddenly realize I haven’t thought about the black helicopters in over a day.
After several miles of steep downhill, we are back on the main Kaibab Trail. With the exception of our intended detour to Bridal Falls, from here on out it is a straight climb back to the top. Wore out from the constant uphill, we almost ignore the path to the unique viewing site for a second time. Jamie finally makes a command decision to push ourselves a bit further and see what the fuss is about.
A half hour later, I’m pleased we made the hour long side visit because the falls are possibly the most stunning vision we have seen in the entire park. The water pours over an abrupt rock ledge from an unknown source above onto what looks like a small cinder cone volcano covered with bright green algae. The waterfall splashes of the rock formation scattering mist and droplets throughout the dead-end slot. Even in the cold November air, Jamie and I drop our packs and let the refreshing spray wash over us.
By the time we reach our final campsite, we are ravenous from the constant incline. Our Thanksgiving feast consists of a cubed and grilled summer sausage added to a pot of creamy, cheesy potato soup and a stale bagel slathered with cream cheese. In our famished state, it is as delicious as any holiday feast we ever consumed.
The smells even brought an army of intrepid mice from the nearby bushes that were not easily dispelled. Much to my wife’s horror, one even made it halfway up the outside of my pants before I shook him down to my boot tip and then with a gentle kick launched him back into the expanding shadows of nightfall. This is a woman who fell asleep during a grizzly bear attack in Glacier (long story), but the thought of a mouse touching her is terrifying. Go figure.
In the last light of dusk, I look up to the awaiting North Rim where I can just detect the individual outlines of separate pine trees. The snowline appears to start a couple of miles from the top. Tomorrow will see us hidden beneath the fragrant green boughs once again, carving a path through the snow and ice just like nature intended… at least for this man of the mountains. Gone will be the cacti and sagebrush and with it my heightened sense of paranoia. Soon, I will be able to hide from the helicopters once again. Still, as I look at the last hint of light grazing the tallest gold cliff miles above our campsite, I can’ help feeling like I will miss this barren landscape. Maybe I inherited some of my Grandpa’s desert rat blood after all.
6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)
Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer
Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
"Hot Spring Break "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011
Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
"Hot Spring Break "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011