Eventually it comes time to do the thing. After all the meeting, planning, posing and posturing, fear, anticipation and worry and before all the success story telling and bragging, you need to do the thing. Rim to River, nine days backpacking in the Grand Canyon, fifty miles, down five thousand feet and back.
Lifting a 55 pound pack off the tailgate of the truck and walking up the first hill makes it all too real, actually doing the thing. Five middle aged men - Johnny D, Wild Bill, Jack Attack and Schmidty and me - type A and B, age 60-70 with a combined 200 years of backpacking experience, this is not our first rodeo. We settle in under the load.
Hauling water and food up to the rim for an entry and exit cache camp emphasizes the challenge ahead despite all the efforts to keep it light. The perfectly measured minimalist pursuit of taking only what you really want, what you really need, explodes when loaded with more than a week of provisions and three days of water for desert wilderness camping. We groan under the load like a bunch of old Army mules. Cruelly ironic we have to go up to go down and up again 1200 feet and make a base camp in the Ponderosa forest high on the rim overlooking The Canyon. We stash water and food here for our trip home.
After a cold and windy night at the cache camp on the rim we drop quickly 500 feet into the canyon the next day into the new climate and ecosystem of the canyon. We peal layers immediately as we warm to the task and follow a thin ledge around five miles in and out of side canyons and viewpoints to the next opportunity to drop down deeper into the canyon. Then with quads screaming, hips and knees throbbing and blackening toes jammed into our worn boots, we bottom out into Nankoweap Creek, our oasis base for the next week. It is time to do the thing. We settle into the routine, the rhythm and the rhyme of the trip and The Canyon
Nankoweep Creek flows a couple of hundred gallons per minute, our lifeblood for the week. It's all about water down here. Water and food, fuel and Advil, those are our priorities, pumped and parceled out in minimal daily quantities. We run a daily food deficit, consuming 1500 - 2000 calories daily on 3000 - 4000 calorie of use but we cannot afford a water deficit for that long so we pump and drink, stock up and carry water several times a day whenever it is available.
The next day we break camp and make our push down the creek into the inner gorge and the Colorado River. The last time I was through here was fifteen years ago when it was 120 degrees on our 'Please do not touch me' honeymoon with my wife Tracey. The Canyon looks the same but its 80 degrees cooler. Vermilion Cliffs stretching thousands of feet to the sky, the inner gorge has all the post card drama and beauty, punctuated by the River, the main artery and sustainability metaphor of the American West.
This is a place, a river so wild, yet so contrived, manipulated and mechanized for our modern needs and far reaching demands for water, food, power and money. This is a proud River maintaining its multi-dimensional rage despite being tamed and abused and turned into a political plumbing project.
As the weather builds I walk an empty beach and shoreline throwing sticks into to The River to gage the flow; ten feet deep, one hundred feet wide, flowing at ten feet per second. Eight to ten thousand cubic feet per second I estimate and I model the rapids in my head, in three visible dimensions but notice the fourth – Time - as waves and holes surge and disappear and move laterally, randomly, almost at will.
We are alone in this spectacular wilderness, except for the people looking down from the viewpoints on the rim, from the obnoxious and omnipresent planes and helicopters overhead (every hour on the half hour), or the occasional raft hurrying through. We are not spectators looking down or rapid travelers passing thru, we are in the canyon, smelling it, tasting it, feeling it, living it, doing it, we are part of the canyon.
Camping on an exposed beach we are subject to the full force of the storm and winds that build at dusk and crescendo at midnight but we are cozy in our individual nylon cocoons, reading and sleeping, sensing and feeling the wilderness and wildness that surrounds us. Cold, clear spring sunshine awaits us the next morning and we pack slowly for a leisurely stroll down river to our next water source. We are hesitant to leave our camp and the river, the inner gorge and the focus of The Canyon and our trip.
The faint trail soon disappears and we flail and separate, aimlessly bushwhacking thru overgrown foreign exotic river vegetation or up steep alluvial facets and rocky side channels. The group splinters with everyone finding their own way. Four miles feels like eight and we finally drop into Kwagunt Canyon after lunch and find it dry as a bone.
‘Uh-Oh’ we think as we try not to panic, since pumping the main river would clog our filters and we all need water. We are old school travelers without GPS or phones, only a map and our faith and hope in our trip leader who promises there is water in Kwagunt. We slog up canyon and after a mile or two, find 1 gpm flowing at the top of the alluvial and 50 gpm by the time we get to the ledge rock above the Nankoweap fault. Just as we expected!
We make an uneasy camp in a cactus flower garden and commit to the spot for 2 days. It sprinkles the first night but I leave the tent fly off to watch the full moon and the stars, the red cliffs and the bright sky. It feels like autumn, the autumn of our lives.
We sleep in on our off day, an interval day to rest and recuperate, and we have a leisurely breakfast and splurge on an extra cup of coffee in the morning and a shot of whiskey at night. Some of the group goes for a day hike but I read my second book, cherishing the limited pages and write some of my thoughts down, before they are lost. Perspective fades.
I love the off day and the time to appreciate the macro and the micro details of the canyon and a chance to just be in it. I take a short hike and stare down a 3 foot white snake, spook several sleeping frogs and tadpoles and a find a huge rock that looks like a cheeseburger. I nap in the sun and read in the shade. I enjoy the passage of time, in a timeless place.
After a day off we bushwhack up a draw to the north and then, following the fault, up a steep ridge to a saddle, heading back to Nankoweap. The group splinters again but we all navigate by creek or by ridge, sandy slope or contour elevation, towards the proper canyon and have lunch together near the top in the shade of a large rock outcrop. We break up into groups for the descent and we find a grassy field of cactus flowers, daisies and pink buttercups punctuated by Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse silhouette cactus. Despite our lack of synchronicity and group continuity, we all arrive in the Nankoweap camp at exactly the same time.
We discuss a bushwhacking shortcut option for our exit strategy but agree that the risk of getting lost or hurt without proper water or food would be catastrophic and decide to take the known path home when the time comes. Despite our individual rout finding preferences, the team does well in decision making and reaching consensus. We have become a tight unit.
After another relaxing and indulgent day off we rise at first light and start the climb out of the canyon, before it gets too hot. Marching up the miles, like a well-oiled military machine, we climb the first 3000 feet in 3 hours to the ridge where on the rest day before, the strongest member of the team had graciously stashed 2 gallons of extra water. Fully hydrated we traverse the remaining 5 miles of rim, resting often in the shade and scaling the last 500 feet to the rim without incident or accident, blister or blemish.
At the rim camp we find our remaining water, whiskey and food and have a successful recovery camp before the last joyous push down to the cars the following day. At the cars, feeling light as a feather with a 35 pound pack, we have a celebratory warm shower and a tepid beer, soft chocolate and an ice cold Coke-Cola. On the way home we stop at Jacobs Lake for a big cowboy breakfast and in Provo for Cheeseburger. They taste great but not as great as we dreamt, however, when we finally get home it is as good as we had hoped. The story of the trip has already grown to epic proportions as we feel proud and satisfied for finally and successfully, doing the thing.