From the North Rim Lodge, our hike traversed the roads across the Kaibab Plateau. After spending 12 days in the depths of the canyon, it was a relief to walk in cooler temperatures beneath towering Ponderosas once again. The closed canopy of the living forest was stark contrast to the open vistas and naked stone of the inner gorge; I felt almost claustrophobic. We caught glimpses of endemic Kaibab squirrels scurrying amongst the duff and porcupines climbing the branches of trees.
|Saddle Canyon bushwhack|
From Swamp Point, we descended four of the most difficult miles of the Hayduke Trail, a bushwhacking adventure into Saddle Canyon. Following the drainage down and aided by gravity, we beat through dense thickets of thorny locust and formidable oak, as we leaped over boulders and fallen logs. Wild rose ripped at my face, tearing our shirts like tissue paper. We soon came to the head of George Steck’s Slip-n-Slides, a 1.5 mile obstacle course of limestone pour-offs and steep chutes. Floods had gouged out an endless series of deep marble pools. We crawled, groped, and friction-slid our way down the slippery chutes, landing in pools of slimy pothole water. The route cut down deep into the Redwall, the canyon swallowed us up as we descended. We found ourselves standing at the brink of a 150-ft pour off. With only 100-ft of webbing on hand, a pack lower was out of the question. Our only option was to traverse a narrow shelf along the wall to a talus slide 100-ft away. Hugging the wall, we ignored the expansive abyss pulling at our off-centered packs, and made our way to safety.
|Sphincter puckering ledge|
We continued on down canyon, boulder-hopping through the dry Tapeats wash. Water began flowing out of the ground, supporting leafy cottonwoods and shallow pools. I found dozens of little tree froglets lined up at the waters edge, exploring terra firma for the first time. The small stream was soon obliterated at the junction with Tapeats Creek, where a river came crashing out of a side canyon boiling and seething its way down to the Colorado. Feeling for footing among the polished stones, we carefully hiked the riverbed, the knee-deep flow threatening to sweep us off our feet. The torrent raged through a marble gorge where it soon met up with the Thunder River.
We followed the trail out of Tapeats to where the mighty Thunder River exploded forth from a fissure in the wall. Rooster tails of spray shot out from the falls, splintering into rainbows in the morning sun. Water ran over the stone face in ribbons of silver, braiding their way down the moss-covered ledges. The crash of water was deafening. The river seemed to pulse from the cliff face in a rhythmic flow, as if flowing from the beating heart of the canyon itself. Deep within the walls is an untamed aquifer, an entire network of branching arteries pumping subterranean water through limestone walls, feeding countless seeps and springs. An oasis in the desert.
|Thunder River & Tapeats Creek|
The trail climbed above the falls to the arid Surprise Valley. Looking back down, the white veil of the Thunder River appeared suddenly from the wall, sustaining a verdant grove of trees on the otherwise barren cliff side. Away from the river, we were once again subjected to the driving heat and blistering sun, crossing the dry bench of cactus flats and fins of prickly pear. We soon dropped down into Deer Creek Canyon where we were overwhelmed by people, this time by commercial river traffic. Boats were tied up on shore in a mad jam, off-loading throngs of passengers at the scenic Deer Creek Falls. Avoiding the crowds, we explored the limestone narrows, where centuries of water had cut down the strata, polishing the walls into scalloped crescents, smooth as eggshells. Hidden in shadowy recesses from the sun, we sprawled out across lavender hued stone, our voices drowned out by the rush of cascading water. Along the catwalk, we found scores upon scores of blow prints, faint but visible in the shadows. Slender outlines of fingers and hands decorated the walls, silent markers of an ancient culture frozen in time. Dozens of passengers squeezed passed us as we inspected the rock art, oblivious to what they were missing.
Early the next morning, we got an early start and ventured along the north side of the river. We passed by camp upon camp getting ready for their day – all situated on the other side of the near impassable Colorado River. It was torturous beating through willows and deep sandbars as the smell of frying bacon and simmering coffee wafted across the river. A few parties waved at us, sipping on their mugs, and one party even gave us a hearty “Good Morning!” cheer. Just when we thought it couldn’t any worse, one party invited us over for breakfast.
“Sure,” we replied, “if we could only get across… Maybe next time”
“Stay right there,” someone shouted. “I’ll come get you.”
Was he for real? He fired up the gear boat and motored across the river right to our sand bar. A breakfast taxi! It was one of the guides we had met at the base of Deer Creek Falls on a private trip with family and friends. They treated us to delicious coffee, scrambled eggs, bacon and English muffins – breakfast of champions. And we were the guests of honor. We fielded questions as we downed quarts of steaming java and stuffed our faces with grease. It turns out that their permit had been grandfathered in, and had been on the waiting list since 1993. Most of their party had been river guides at some point. They had waited 15 years to do the trip, well before several of their kids had been born. It was an incredible morning of storytelling and sharing, serenity and shared time by the river.
|Colorado boulder hop|
We thanked them for their hospitality, and they motored us back to the far bank, but not before giving us parting beers for the trail. From there, we had a heinous stretch ahead of us – an eight-hour boulder hop. The day grew progressively hotter with each passing hour. We scrambled over piano-sized boulders, the rocks scalding hot beneath the desert sun. The boulders were menacingly sharp; centuries of rain had eroded the rock into serrated shark teeth, the surface of a cheese grater. The traverse required careful hand placement and footing – or you would likely lose a chunk of flesh to the carnivorous limestone. The collapsed Muav layer had transformed the scree slopes into an obstacle course from hell; it was like Japanese game show, Takeshi’s Castle, on acid. We trudged on through the heat of the day. Temperatures skyrocketed to 125F, and I could feel my brain literally cooking in my skull. It would have been impossible passage if not for the river, where a quick plunge in the cold waters would instantly cool my core temperature. Delirious from the heat, we discussed the effectiveness of hiking with IVs strapped to arms.
We had been following the sign of bighorn sheep along the river – fresh scat and puddles of piss. The river folks were surprised we hadn’t seen any, for they had seen several bands from the river. Just when I suggested the possibility that we were flushing them ahead of us, Ben spotted one watching us behind a fallen boulder. It was a female. She turned up the slope, where suddenly seven more appeared among the rocks – five adults and two lambs. Dun-colored, they blended in perfectly with their stone surrounding, nearly impossible to spot them unless they moved. Their gaunt muscular bodies took on angled shapes as they grazed the slope, flashing their brilliant white rumps towards us. Suddenly, one of them spooked, catapulting her frame of muscle and bone straight up the rock face, leaping from invisible holds. The lambs followed their mother’s acrobatics on tiny delicate hooves, bounding up the wall oblivious to the hazards of falling. The rest of the group followed suit, casually moving through their vertical world of stone.
Our boulder hopping brought us to the mouth of Kanab Creek. We dropped our packs and sprawled out on the cool damp sand of the sand bar, completely spent and exhausted. I sat mesmerized by the rush of the rapids. The rippling waves, fixed in place, caught the golden glow of the cliffs above, melting into a dancing array of liquid light. The river surged between wet rocks, pulsing with the rhythm of the current. This was the last time we were to see the Colorado River, after roughly following its course for 750 miles across the plateau, from the first crossing in Moab to the depths of the Canyon. The river is the arterial flow of the intermountain West, draining mountains and deserts, mesas and streams. We bade it farewell, and began our ascent out of the canyon.
We crossed the creek dozens of times, fording the tepid waters. High walls of rosy-pink limestone kept us in the shade, as we followed slick marble ledges and passed through idyllic little grottoes. We were soon wading through waist deep pools, slipping on algae covered rocks, bashing toes, bruising ankles. Ben stabbed himself with a trekking pole, nearly impaling his toe. Broken chunks of Muav Limestone choked the drainage, forcing climbs over sharp boulders and fallen slabs. The river stones tended to roll underfoot, throwing me off balance, poles flailing wildly. I felt like a rag doll, incapable of walking without staggering drunkenly. This place was taking its toll.
A blind bend brought us to Showerbath Springs, one of the features J.W. Powell had aptly named during his exploration of the Canyon. I stripped down and stood beneath the dripping springs. Limestone deposits had built an overhung shelf completely covered in moss; water ran out along the tips of delicate ferns, and poured down like a running showerhead. Water is a powerful force in the desert; it sustains life, carves geologic wonders, flushes out death and decay. The stark paradox of the desert makes water’s presence more noticeable in its absence. Reflected in its medium, water sculpts canyons and polishes stone in its image; it transforms solid rock into scalloped lines, fluted walls, frozen waves. I felt rejuvenated in the radiating heat.
Above Showerbath Springs, the creek slowly became a trickling stream, then intermittent, until it ultimately disappeared into the sand. Crap. This was a real pickle. We had hoped the creek would be flowing further up canyon, which meant less water to carry to the Arizona Strip. It is always a gamble with desert streams when to top off your containers to reach the next water source. From my experience, streams tend to disappear and reappear a few times before they dry up for good. However, if my hunch was wrong and it was dry further up, it would mean double-backing several miles in the heat of the day to the last reliable source. Our snack rations were low, and any extra exertion, however necessary, was less than appealing. The prudent thing to do would be to fill up to maximum capacity, a full 3 days of water. I found myself drinking almost 6 L a day just being in the heat. We deliberated for nearly 45 minutes, trying to come up with a course of action. Maps were consulted; we scouted ahead. Dry. In the end, we decided to risk it and pushed on empty.
We continued on bend after bend, looking in every recess, every hole – the creek bed was dry as a bone. The canyon floor was covered in plates of cracked mud, as if taunting us of water past. After several miles, we came to a cleft in the wall, a literal fissure in the rock, a passage nearly invisible from the main canyon. We followed the promising tracks of desert bighorn to the back of the crack. Around the corner, the cleft boxed out, ending in an empty basin of damp sand. My heart sank. I looked up above the basin and noticed a boulder-choked pour off at the base of a 50-ft plunge. Ben chimneyed up over the rock and gave out a whooping cry of joy. We found water! Behind the stone was a deep tank of pothole water collected from winter storms. Set deep within the crack, it never saw direct sunlight. The pool was clear, cool, and our salvation – more than we could ever drink.
We loaded up with water and followed Kanab for our gradual ascent out of the Canyon. The Redwall grew lower and lower until it sank completely beneath the sand. Hiking upwards through the formations, we were back in the Supai sandstone. Prickly pear cactus grew dense on the sandy benches among drooping groves of mesquite and gnarled cottonwood trees. We passed beneath standing hoodoos and balanced rocks, stone sentinels on the rim. Rolling thunderheads formed in the distance, and I felt a little uneasy when I found flood debris lodged 20ft in the walls. Kanab Creek drains a massive area, all the way from to Bryce to the Canyon. Flash floods can originate over 50 miles away and come ripping through the drainage without a cloud in the sky. We were verging on the start of the summer monsoons, and rain made me nervous.
Our route took us up Hack Canyon, where we crossed sandy benches and an old uranium mine. Passing through the crust of limestone, we caught the sun sinking low on the horizon behind an armada of gathering clouds. The setting light caught whispering veils of falling rain, illuminating sheets of purple verga. We successfully climbed out of the Grand Canyon, and now stood at the edge of the desolate Arizona Strip. From our cache, we could see the wide expanse of rolling hills, low drainages, and miles upon miles of open space. Solice and solitude.
We march on to Zion.
Section mileage: ~100 miles