The following is the third installment of an adventure story through the Grand Canyon by David Harrison of Kooskia. Harrison is a retired construction worker who has lived on Tahoe Ridge for about 40 years.
Twelve hours of backpacking, 17 miles, right at dusk and I arrived at my campsite, Bright Angel Campground. My tent went up in no time on top of the other-worldly red dust. I setup my tent with the mosquito net top and a nylon fly in position, in the event of rain. I was prepared. I had hoped that I could sleep under the tent netting to get a view of clear skies and brilliant stars. My thin mattress and inflated pillow beckoned me to sleep as the darkness closed in and so I crawled into my tent for some much needed rest. As it turned out, I didn’t get inside my ultralite sleeping bag at all. It was over 70 degrees all night, I am sure. I felt good and sleep overcame me quickly. But, I didn’t sleep very much.
It was a very short night. This campground was not yet full and many of the backpackers were coming into camp way after dark from the two South Rim trails. Many hikers were less than polite, shining their headlamps or flashlight at my screened-in two-person tent as they passed, which startled me from sleep each time. Loud talking as the hikers passed or set up camp was irritating, too. Later, the next day, I spoke to a couple who were camped near me and they said those impolite people were “South Rimmers” (evidently, a derogatory term). I’ll explain. The North Rim is entirely forested land of the Kaibab National Forest and Kaibab National Park. No city. Nothing but timbered land, campsites, and the Kaibab Grand Lodge and RV Park. The South Rim is where Grand Canyon Village sits. Relatively easy access from Flagstaff and Phoenix. Most of the tourists, foreign visitors, and residents of the Grand Canyon Village might be called ‘city-slickers.’ In this case, “South Rimmers.”
The next day, I made myself breakfast along with some coffee that was foil-wrapped in tea bags. I am not a connoisseur of coffee and don’t pretend to be, but this stuff tasted like rusty water. The water from the piped-in water fountains tasted great, so the coffee was lacking. The excitement of being near the Colorado River kept me from grumbling too much to myself about my dehydrated food. (Without belaboring the culinary disaster, let’s just say that I only managed to eat one small portion in one package. I tossed the rest into my garbage sack. Back home, the store clerk told me that this brand of dehydrated food was great, I should have tried some before I left home. If I had eaten any more of it, I’d have been helicopter-rescued by LifeFlight for sure.)
I had one day to check out the most visited area between both rims: The Colorado River, Phantom Ranch, and the two Colorado River Trail Bridges near my campsite. The Bright Angel Creek ran right through my campground area. The campsites were close, too close and the campground was full of backpacker’s tents. The numerous campsites was surprising for me. Think suburbs. Other than the effort of getting here, this is like many campgrounds throughout the desert Southwest wherever there is water. It was hot, there were lizards, bugs, mosquitoes, ravens galore and squirrels that were fearless. I followed all the rules, which are intended to prevent the unruly critters from making your visit truly miserable. And they will.
Case in point: On my first morning, two couples in the camp next to mine were breaking camp. They packed everything into their backpacks and, instead of placing their backpacks back onto the steel T-pole designed to keep everything off the ground, they left their backpacks on the tables provided by the Park Service for each campsite. They left to visit Phantom Ranch, less than a half mile from Bright Angel Campground. In a matter of minutes, I watched a raven unzip one of the backpacks and dig through the pack tearing open a package of trail mix. The raven was pulling nuts and raisins out as fast as he could, but the squirrels had already jumped on the table and were stealing from the raven. No honor among thieves. I chased them off several times, but it was a waste of time. I asked another backpacker, who happened to be camping on the other side of me, if he would help me put the backpacks onto the 8’ tall T-pole. He readily agreed and, in no time, we had four backpacks suspended nearly 6’ off the ground and re-zipped. The raven was not thwarted in the least. He flew right up to the backpack that he had unzipped before, unzipped it again and started pulling out the trail mix. About that time, the backpackers showed up. I began to explain what had happened. The female spokesperson was very sweet and she said, “I felt very uneasy about leaving the backpacks on the table, but it is too late now.” She thanked us for saving their other backpacks from the marauders. I reminded them of Hantavirus from rodents, since one of the braver squirrels had gotten into the backpack while the raven was chasing another rodent away. She was aware and said she would empty the rest of the trail mix into her garbage sack. All campers must carry out everything they bring in, no exceptions. All garbage must be packed out, even your permit that you must post at your campsite.
That first morning was incredibly beautiful with shades of pink and purple, and the red mountains towering above me. The babbling creek offered soothing sounds, too. It warmed up quickly and the heat pushed many campers, including myself, into wading or sitting in Bright Angel Creek. The water was cool, but not cold. Less than five minutes after getting out of the water, I was dry. Completely dry. The high temperature and low humidity at this location made for fast drying time. I went back into the creek several times that day. On one occasion, I saw a Vermillion Flycatcher, I believe. Also, I saw a raven catch a 10″ trout from the creek. I was unaware that ravens were partial to fish. There are nice running-water restrooms, which is so out of place down at the bottom of the canyon. I had little use for the restrooms, though. Trust me, when I say that drinking copious amounts of water in the bottom of Grand Canyon does not require bathroom breaks. You sweat out every ounce.
I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the numerous backpackers. Bright Angel is the most popular overnight campground because of its proximity to the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. Grand Canyon Village has a population of over 2,000 year-round residents. The added population of the tourists at the village multiplies that number many times. The Bright Angel campground sits very close to the Colorado River. It is a mighty river, indeed. Large, lumbering, and situated down almost 5,000 feet below the North Rim. The river is surrounded by cliffs that go up hundreds to thousands of feet. There was a nice sandy beach on the river near my camp, but I only saw three or four people on that beach at a time. Remoteness does have its advantages, even though there were probably 40 people at my campground. I would guess the average age was around 35 years old. I could see two bridges from my short walk to the riverbank. One bridge was on the South Rim Trail. The other bridge was on the Bright Angel Trail, my passport to the South Rim early the next morning. Time flies when you are having fun. After scouting the various sites for pictures and a visit to the Phantom Ranch for a few goodies and some orange juice, the day was gone. Reservations for meals at the Phantom Ranch must be gotten in advance. A mule string brings down the ranch’s provisions each day and returns with the ranch’s garbage (I presume). Another mule string brings riders to Phantom Ranch.
The Park Service recommends that you do NOT hike between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. due to the heat. Let me tell you, that’s good advice in the summer months. I knew by late the next day that the recommendation was not to be taken lightly. Hiking uphill in the heat with a pack is very different from hiking downhill under any circumstances.
Before I left the North Rim, one of the most consistent bits of advice given to me was to get up before daylight and get started hiking at first light, whether traveling down into the canyon or up and out. I take advice from people who know what they are talking about. I got up early on my last day, while still dark, and organized my kit with careful precision for compactness. Bright Angel Trail has drinking water along the way, but the South Rim Trail does not. I chose Bright Angel Trail just for that reason. But don’t think for a minute these drinking fountains are numerous and close by each other. You can die of dehydration between them. There are three water fountains up the Bright Angel trail and they are a long ways apart. Several experienced canyon hikers suggested to me that two quarts were plenty so as to limit my backpack weight, but I took three quarts. I probably weighed twice as much as the last woman who volunteered that advice. Orders of magnitude matters. I’m glad I took three quarts.
When it was light enough to see, I began hiking out of this majestic canyon. The Silver Bridge allowed me to cross the Colorado River. I could see the lazy movement of the water below me as I crossed the see-through grating of the bridge. The river was almost hypnotizing to watch. The bridge was very narrow. It is hard to imagine that it is wide enough for the mules to cross over. It appeared to me that it would be hard enough for two people to pass each other.
I kept taking pictures. The pictures turned out great, but they were only pictures, even when shown on my large HDTV. I am finding it hard to explain how beautiful this arid and mostly rock canyon really is. Stark. Gigantic in proportion. Colorful beyond description. Silent. At times, the trail captures the feeling of pure loneliness, magnified inside this deep chasm. I could only imagine what it was like when only one or two Westerners traversed this canyon at a time after the trail was first finished. I was alone for hours at a time at the bottom, between the campsites. More than alone. Lonely. It was very pleasant. Some people might find it scary. Perhaps. Can you get lost? Yes, it happens. Because people wander off the trail. I did not. The thought of falling off the trail was bad enough, without being lost, too.
Coming next week: The end of the trail