Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 5)

full photoset and slideshow

Come rain or  shine this day’s destination was eleven miles along the Tonto trail, so we broke camp early and dressed for rough weather, leaving behind a woman in the large group of hikers whom Steve had provided with  prescription painkillers he had brought just in case.  The night before she was in severe distress because of an injury to her knee, and we expected that she’d either have to be carried the distance by her friends or helicoptered out.  An hour down the  trail, carrying a full pack, Diana passed us with a smile that was still on her face when we met again at the end of our full day’s trek.


The  skies this morning were moody and unstable, reminding me of Powell’s admirable description:

Clouds are playing in the canyon today.  Sometimes they roll in great masses, filling the gorge with gloom; sometimes they hang aloft from wall to wall and cover the canyon with a roof of impending storm, and we can peer long distances up and down this canyon corridor, with its cloud-roof overhead, its walls of black granite, and its river bright with the sheen of broken waters.  Then a gust of wind sweeps down a side gulch and, making a rift in the clouds, reveals the blue heavens, and a stream of sunlight pours in.  Then the clouds drift away into the distance, and hang around the crags and peaks and pinnacles and towers and walls, and cover them with a mantle that lifts from time to time and sets them all into sharp relief.  Then baby clouds creep out of side canyons, glide around points, and creep back again into more distant gorges.  Then clouds arrange in strata across the canyon with intervening vista views to cliffs and rocks beyond.  The clouds are children of the heavens, and when they play among the rocks they lift them to the region above. (p. 256)

Rather than just depicting the landscape, his description recreates it for me. So do the photos  I snapped and later processed, which I see now complemented and enhanced by Powell’s account:





Sitting at my computer two weeks after the trip, reviewing his words to stimulate my own, I feel connected with that heroic voyager in 1870 transcribing and embellishing his watersoaked journal to prepare it for publication.

In the late morning as the trail skirted the inner canyon and rounded a turn into the drainage of Salt Creek the sky went threateningly dark. I understood why this section was named on the map as “The Inferno.”  The assemblage of fractured, knife-sharp points and ridges lining the great gash in the earth seemed to drink up light like a black hole, recalling Milton’s description of hell as “darkness visible” or Dante’s prospect of the lowest section of the underworld: “We came to the edge of an enormous sink/Rimmed by a circle of great broken boulders” (Canto XI)


It started to rain hard, but just as I unpacked my waterproof pants, to the south the clouds parted  to produce another metaphysical sign.  It emerged from the depths of the abyss below


and arched from one bank to another of  the side canyon



perfectly framing the Isis Temple on the north side of the river.


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As the sun achieved dominance and its rays illuminated the inner walls, their colorless obscurity took on a rosy-veined glow.


mirroring the pink spines clustered at the center of a barrel cactus.


In the clear afternoon, it felt like The Great Outdoors was beaming on us as we sauntered along, brimming with joy and awe.


But the blessing was also human: my old Lund companions who got these excursions going, and the gear I wore and carried, which allowed me to range comfortably and safe:

  • my Dana Designs packsack that Joe had picked out for me in Moab fourteen years ago
  • my Danner boots from Takkens that I’d just had resoled
  • my Leki trekking poles that saved my knees on the way down and now, as my wrists swiveled in the straps, advanced me from  a two to a four legged creature
  • my pretty REI tent that took five minutes to pitch and had kept the wind and rain out last night
  • my Camelback bladder that taught me the  difference between drinking and hydrating
  • my ancient REI down sleeping bag, now patched with duct tape
  • my Thermarest mattress, easily patched after having been penetrated by a sharp stick while serving as a river raft for grandsons
  • my new Brunton stove, weighing no more than a pound and able to boil a litre and a half of water in three minutes
  • my tiny headlamp that never wore out its cheap batteries but provided enough light to work and read in the dark
  • my Sierra Designs rainshell bought in Powell river in August which had already protected me in four storms
  • my two layers of well used First Lite merino wool underwear that Kenton had sent  last summer
  • my weightless cashmere scarf that Amy made me for Christmas, soft as her voice, warm as her smile

The Platform flattened and widened as we passed the last four-thousand foot buttress between us and our destination of Indian Gardens.  The panorama unfolded: a long reach of the river lined with dozens of brilliantly colored monuments intersected by Bright Angel Canyon, a fifteen-mile perpendicular corridor leading back to the snow-bedecked north rim.

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It was a moment I didn’t want to let pass.  I walked off the trail and sat in the newly washed desert gravel, stared, meditated and played my recorder.

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Then it felt time to go on.  A grove of golden cottonwood trees, incongruous but inviting, beckoned from the creek bed ahead.  The poles of an old telephone line appeared at intervals at the cliff base.  The trail broadened and showed signs of heavy travel and regular maintenance.


We trudged into Indian Gardens campground, admired the stonework of old buildings and walls and the varied assortment of large trees planted a hundred years ago by early tourism developers. We chatted with the voluble ranger who lived here in a house with TV and  power, filled our pots with potable water directly from the tap and ate dinner at a picnic table under a steel-roofed shelter.  Even though on a gentle grade and a good trail, ten hours of hiking left us ready for our sleeping bags before nine p.m.

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