December, 2009 Archive

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 4)

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

The preceding night’s long sleep, the day’s light exertion and even the nap didn’t prevent us from hitting the sack soon after early nightfall.  Not only did  our creaky bodies crave extra rest since the big descent, living outdoors increased synchronization between the anatomical clock and the seasonal one.  Drifting off to sleep felt like hibernating–to conserve and store energy, and also to continue a winter journey into the underworld.

Two days earlier the permit-checking ranger had said that we’d be in for a change in the weather Saturday, and the morning sky seemed to confirm her warning.  Our itinerary called only for a five mile hike today, mostly on a good trail, with no great altitude changes, so we dallied at the river, adding stewed dried fruit to our outmeal, brewing an extra pot of coffee, further exploring the little oasis and gawking at dancing patterns of light and shadow projected on the canyon’s  walls  by thick fast moving clouds.




Relieved of unnecessary weight and the straps better adjusted, on the way  up through Hermit Canyon the pack felt more like a strong hug than a troublesome burden, and the effort to escape gravity while ascending was easier on the joints than resisting it on the way down.


Once back on the Tonto trail heading eastward on the Platform, it was possible for the first time to enter the springy rhythm of forward motion propelled by the momentum of extra weight that for me makes hiking a real sport.  Cruising this wide plateau–continuous across both banks of the inner canyon, which usually hides, but then suddenly gapes at one’s feet with a fifteen hundred foot drop either to the flowing Colorado or the tributary gullies the trail must circumvent by leading back to the base of walls and buttresses and towers that stretch higher overhead with every step–under a sky that transforms momentarily from a limitless expanse of light to a dampening ceiling of fog made walking feel like flight.





Like the canyon itself the trail’s track through space performed tricks with time.  It led a leisurely traverse around the base of Cope Butte, the harshest section of the descent two days ago,  and above the river it provided a retrospect of yesterday’s idyll at Hermit Rapids.



As the afternoon shadows deepened we passed along the edge of Monument Creek’s side canyon eager to find the campsite at its head before dark.  The trail twisted off the Platform down into a tight gully through which we could hear water flowing toward the river.


After debating which of the many surrounding formations above us could be the named Monument, the answer was suddenly obvious looming from below. The top two thirds of the column consisted of brownish fractured sandstone layers, the bottom third of rounded pink lobes.


As the trail dropped into the basement level of rock formation, the colors on the wall beside it became even more unearthly than those in Hermit Canyon.



This campsite offered the succor of perennial creek water that could be purified and harvested to fill our drinking bladders, coffeepot and dehydrated dinner envelops. In addition it provided a toilet conspicuously absent from last night’s where we had to search fruitlessly for a satisfactory place among the rocks for our leavings and make unpleasant acquaintance with the deposits of others.  Like in many other recreational wilderness situations, this is more of a problem than might be expected, and we felt grateful for the stinky and prominent facility here provided.


A large party of backpackers had occupied the marked campsites and so tight was the gully that the sound of their amiable voices boomed around us, so we relocated to a more solitary spot, again unauthorized but well used, to pitch the tent and cook supper in the light of a brilliant sunset and haunting moonrise.



The pole stretching the fly on my two-person tent had become deeply bowed over years of use, and Steve exerted his design skills to straighten it, to great advantage, since in the middle of the night the wind blew and the rain pelted down but inside we stayed cozy and dry.


Urban Farm

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

A few ideas for the future of San Luis Obispo City Agricultural Development at Calle Joaquin

A.    This project has many potential benefits

  1. It can produce healthy nourishing food for local consumption with minimal energy and water consumption.  The soil is excellent, the water is on site, the market is nearby.
  2. It can provide both a learning experience and employment for farmers, a valuable profession in decline for 50 years but now beginning to revive.
  3. It can serve as site for education about local history and sustainable food systems and for recreation.
  4. It can serve as a wildlife preserve for butterflies, birds and beneficial soil organisms.
  5. It can contribute to the worldwide movement for sustainable agriculture, healthy eating, and stronger local communities.
  6. It can bring fame, fortune and foundation support to the City of San Luis Obispo.
  7. It can provide retraining and employment for people who need it as agricultural and hospitality service workers.

B.    The site has many advantages:

  1. Proximity to commercial and residential areas and a huge volume of freeway traffic that will allow for easy publicity of successful development, assuming that poisons are not used.
  2. Proximity to Laguna Lake Park, which already attracts recreational uses which could be linked”e.g. hiking and equestrian trails, wildlife habitat, views of mountains and valley
  3. A varied set of present uses and resources that fit well together for potential development, e.g.
  4. Historic barn and farmhouse”for education center and livestock facilities to be used by public and 4H, Cal Poly Ag Education program, local schools
  5. Creek and tributary riparian areas”for pleasant landscape and riparian uses
  6. Heritage Eucalpytus grove for wildlife habitat and park
  7. Enough class one soil for a variety of sustainable agriculture uses, including leasing to local farmers or coops, e.g. New Frontiers, Cal Poly Organic Farm, Central Coast Ag Coop, community allotment gardens, Non-profits like Growing Grounds

C.    Priorities

  1. I believe making a significant portion of this land financially viable as source of local food production is highest priority. Potential for longer term leasing, easy access to water and distribution outlets and a history of successful cultivation could allow for both profitability and a pricing structure making access to organic produce, including perhaps poultry, dairy and eggs, available to lower income customers.  Linkage with local Food Stamp and Food Bank and School Lunch programs could be encouraged.
  2. Education is a second priority.  The present existence of Ag Education programs in County schools and at Cal Poly promises extensive use of this potential.
  3. Recreation and tourism.  Places like Fairview Farms, Avila Barn, the original Knott’s Berry Farm, demonstrate the potential in this area.

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 3)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

After 12 hours of rest, we awakened in the predawn and packed up quickly to vacate the unauthorized spot.  I wished we’d had coffee.  Before starting out we dutifully stretched,

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and as the light came up we descended into a tight curvy canyon gouged out of the shale strata of the Platform that reminded me of the hike through Zion canyon I’d taken with Joe and Amy in 1995, during which he went off into a side canyon with her and proposed.


The sound of flowing water echoed as we approached Hermit Creek graced with little cascades and rich vegetation.


The old trail, originally constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad as part of a luxury resort serviced by a cable tramway from the rim, wound under rock overhangs down to a place where the neat horizontal layers through which we’d descended since yesterday were replaced by swirling shapes of hardened basalt laced with multicolored and multitextured stone.  We were entering the “basement” of the canyon, the deepest portion carved by the river and its tributaries that exposed rocks estimated as two billion years old.  The shale layers directly above them were supposed to be 500 million years younger, making for the “Great Unconformity,” in which the geological record had disappeared.  To mark the change, large clumps of overlying strata had fallen into the canyon on the opposite side of the creek. On the trail side we stopped to marvel at granite embedded with huge flakes of mica interspersed with quartz in bright shades of red, white and black.



As the canyon straightened near the bottom, we suddenly saw the pillar of Ra flaming above us and heard the roar of the river ahead.


Then the walls on our side opened to reveal sky and brilliantly colored cliffs upstream and down.  We were at the Hermit Rapids and didn’t have to leave until the following morning!


We had a choice of empty campsites and picked one in soft, warm sand right on the riverbank surrounded by tamarisks and willows .

Before unpacking and lighting the stove for coffee, we clambered over some large rocks for a look at the rapids themselves and  were joined by a young woman, Ingrid, one of a group of kayakers and rafters on a 27 day journey on the river.


She was soon surrounded by a crowd of men young and old who charted a course through the fast flowing turbulence.


They had camped here last night after swamping in Granite Rapids upstream and were just ready to take off.  Regretting the delayed coffee but excited to watch and take pictures of their daredevilry,  we waited beside the clean, green racing river that had carved the masterpiece engulfing us.


The spectacle was worth the delay.  First came Ingrid and another kayaker in their tiny solo boats.


Then the rafters, some in twos, some by themselves.


This was no guided tour; they were all highly experienced River Rats who owned their equipment and lived for the sport, according to Mike P., the grizzled rower who left his email address. Once they had all run the rapids, they assembled in the eddy below and then disappeared around the blind curve ahead.


We set up our gear, boiled water for coffee and oatmeal, and luxuriated in the prospect of a day of rest and relaxation.  Despite the long sleep the night before and the stimulant, we all napped for a couple of hours, Peter after taking a dip in the icy water that flowed from the bottom of the dam upstream at Glen Canyon.


In the afternoon we went exploring the creek and beaches and rock formations of this wondrous oasis in the midst of vertical walls that otherwise made the river unapproachable from land.



I started reading Powell’s enthralling account of his 1869 trip down the river.  He was the one-armed leader of a small expedition of wooden boats, which by the time they had reached here had lost most of their tools and provisions and still had they knew not how far to go and what awaited them ahead.

As I stood munching our lunch of salami and cheese, I looked up at the cliff behind the campsite and saw moving shapes.  Two of the canyon’s legendary mountain sheep were browsing on the low ridge line no more than 200 feet away.  “Get your cameras,” I whispered, pulling mine from its holster.  Eager as any hunter to shoot, we captured the quarry.



Click last two images for full-size versions

Backpacking in Grand Canyon (Day 2)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Next morning after early breakfast we drove into the National Park, passing elk wandering the roads. We left the car at the Backcountry Information Center where we had to wait over an hour to buy a map and receive advice to head down the Boucher Trail, which my earlier research alerted me was dangerously erroneous.


fullsize map and itinerary

Then we took the red bus along the rim road to Hermit’s Rest, where I purchased a copy of John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado and its Canyons,  and followed the Hermit Trail over the edge.



The hike was ecstatic at first, the canyon more Grand and awe inspiring than any landscape I’ve seen, including Yosemite and Zion: the light and colors of the rock more dramatic, the succession of views on the trail”ahead, behind, across, up, down”more varying, the eye continually arrested by unfamiliarity of shape, texture, and scale.




The trail was quite busy with hiker traffic in both directions.  Three hours down we came across an attractive young woman sitting on a rock in the sunshine.  She asked to see our permit and then stopped a large party passing by to see theirs.  She told them they were too late to make it all the way to the site at the river where they were registered and signed a change order on the permit allowing them to stay at a closer one.  Then she warned them not to make noise that could disturb others at the campsite.  I told her that Steve was a half mile behind us carrying our permit and asked the penalty for camping somewhere without one.  Two hundred eighty seven dollars she replied without smiling.

I was having extra fun playing with the new camera I had bought for the trip–a two hundred dollar 10x telephoto 10 megapixel hand-sized Canon, which replaced both the point-and-shoot I handed down to my grandson and the bigger but less powerful SLR I’d purchased just two years ago.  At a turn in the trail that brought us for the first time within sight of the inner canyon, I wondered if a little blue dot in the middle of the view was some kind of gondola, and only after I took the picture could I recognize on the screen that it was actually the river.


fullsize picture

After four hours of carrying my overloaded pack–from excess caution I’d brought along five liters of water in addition to the heavy food, tent and stove”on a trail that got steadily steeper, more fractured and more littered with stones, the fun ended. The splendor of scenery, the invigoration of exercise, the stimulation of good company gave way to pain, fatigue and anxiety.  I ached in the shoulders from the pack straps, in the upper arms from bearing weight with the trekking poles, in the knuckles from gripping them, in the spine from the packs’ rubbing, in the stomach and side and thigh and calf muscles from tensing against the weight, in the hip and knee and ankle and big toe joints from internal friction at every step, in the thickened toenails crushed by my boots, and in the ears jarred by the clank  of poles against rocks.

This was predicted by the well-written Park Service Bulletin about the trail:

The Hermit Trail is unmaintained, the ruins of a pathway that hasnt seen a trail crew in 80 years….The trail runs across an angle of repose slope, crossing high gradient drainages at roughly perpendicular intersections.  ¦the trail has been badly damaged by the same erosional forces that shaped the larger canyon. Hikers must scramble across chaotic jumbles of rocks washed down or fallen from above every time the trail crosses a gully.  It is possible to lose the trail entirely where breakdown has covered the original route¦The uncertain footing as well as the impression of exposure presented here has caused inexperienced canyon walkers to conclude that they are engaged in a truly hazardous enterprise.

The descent becomes unrelenting at Cathedral Stairs.  An endless series of rocky switchbacks eventually leads hikers through the Redwall cliff and down the talus below Cope Butte….

As we made our way down that cirque of Cope Butte toward the more level Tonto Platform, I resorted to the emergency tactic I’d used while hiking with grandkids and Jan: talk distraction.


I asked Steve his worst hiking experience and he told me of the forty mile walk he took from Gold River to Tahsis and of his hair-raising climb up Bear Tooth, and I told him of my 1962 hike up the mountain in Yellowstone to the fire lookout I was stranded in for three days out of exhaustion.

After a rest stop at the trail junction, some gorp and two more Aleves, I got a second wind, and could again enjoy the sunset light on the buttes across the river. Miraculously, Steve’s wounded knee, a concern for all of us, showed no signs of further injury.


We ambled on to a solid rock campsite several miles short of the one where we were permitted to stay, but safe from the citation-dispensing rangers at this time of night.


We prepared an easy Thanksgiving meal”two cups of boiling water poured into envelops of dehydrated Turkey Tetrazzini–more than good enough to merit gratitude.  As the sun set, I blew up my Thermarest, crawled into the sleeping bag, rested my head on the unpitched tent and reveled in the sensation of relaxing muscles.


The stars were clear and the air mild”twenty degrees above the chilly rim four thousand feet overhead. I woke up several times without having to get out of the sleeping bag, following Steve’s suggestion to pee in a water bottle which remained comfortably warm beside me.  The waxing moon flooded the cliffs with light and then disappeared behind them. Three shooting stars flared.