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Tanner Rapid, Grand Canyon National Park Backpacking Adventure

November 6, 2005

Leaders: Karl and Ginger Buckendahl

Trip Participants: Karen Grace, Kathleen Gruetzmacher, Micheline Devaurs, Shelly Cross, Jan Studebaker, Noor Khalsa,  Dima Feldbaum, Bill Priedhorsky

Author:  Bill Priedhorsky (bill@priedhorsky.net) for the Los Alamos Mountaineers

Photo Gallery: Jan Studebaker, click here.

November 6, 2005, 8:30 PM

Mars is bright in the high eastern sky. It is just three hours from its opposition, in a half cloudy, contrailed, fat crescent Moon sky. So late in the season dark night outnumbers desert day. Night falls at about 6 PM, and we can move again at about 6:30 AM. Our days change dramatically when we give up artificial light. Our party is tired on their first night in the wilderness, and most have settled to sleep, happy to have 10 hours before day. It seems to me a long time to sleep, so I write.

Today was a day to overcome adversity. We did our best to overcome short hours of daylight by starting early, after overnighting at the lodge overlooking the dry Little Colorado at the Cameron Trading Post. The lodge gave us an amazing deal – something like $25 per room – for our group rate. We breakfasted at 6:00, drove off at 7:00, and were on the trail from Lipan Point by 8:00. Our route was down the Tanner Trail, under the Desert View watchtower the whole day. The hugeness of the canyon was upon us from the start, and never went away. The fastest of our party reached the river at 4:00 PM, and the last at 5:15, even though we were all delayed by two and a half hours at lunch to resolve a health problem.

Our party included ten Los Alamos Mountaineers from New Mexico and Flagstaff, mostly 50-somethings and pushing 50-somethings, but with 30 year-old Dima Feldbaum an exception. The rest of the party included Karl and Ginger Buckendahl, Karen Grace, Kathleen Gruetzmacher, Micheline Devaurs, Shelly Cross, Jan Studebaker, Noor Khalsa, and myself, Bill Priedhorsky. As the trip began, I thought that I was the big medical problem for the trip, hiking in on an ankle still swollen from a sprain on a training hike the previous weekend. I walked gingerly and in a brace, not from pain,, but for fear of reinjury. Other participants had some tender knees and bad backs (as I said, we are mostly 50-somethings), but the most significant issue was a brief bout of violent illness that necessitated several stops and even an hour-long nap. The victim recovered quickly, and was eventually one of the first into camp, perhaps helped by the same healing power that I was tapping all the way down, on Jan’s advice – breathing to focus intentional healing on the ill spot, inhaling Earth energy up through my ankle, then collecting sky energy and exhaling it down to the ankle. An hour from camp another person suffered an injury, perhaps a muscle tear, above the knee, and hobbled into camp prognosis uncertain.

We helped each other. One of the reasons that I like to camp in large numbers, even though dear friends want the wilderness solitude better found with two or three, is the strength of numbers. Eight or ten people bring a wealth of expertise, and whatever is needed, it seems that someone is carrying it. Karl carried the ill lady’s backpack for a mile when she needed it, then, recovered, she hiked back from the river to carry my pack the last quarter mile, taking a load off my tired ankle.

Our food was freeze dried, because weight was a premium for this six-night trip. Pack weights at the start ranged from 41 to 50 pounds, with the lightest being Jan’s, who chose cold food, and some of the heaviest loads carried by the smallest women.

Tomorrow the day will bring light, and we will move upriver.

A couple miles upstream, November 7, 2005, 8:30 PM

November in the out of doors is a good time for good sleepers. All have retreated to their tents by now, except Jan and me, who saved weight by camping without a tent. Dinner started at 5 PM, then turned to conversation around the dinner place and a couple of readings – a chapter from Abbey’s “Hayduke Lives” then Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. The latter struck home to this middle-aged writer, who found inspiration in Tennyson’s heros, older than us but “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will – to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Perhaps there is hope for us yet!

Noor, Bill, Kathleen, Karen, and Shelly at Tanner camp,
stretching out the kinks from yesterday’s hike into the canyon.

We had a slow start from Tanner camp and were on the trail by 10:30 after breakfast and yogic stretching. Our knee victim recovered well enough to hobble onward. Mice were everywhere around our camp, running over Jan as he slept, and eating more than half his trail mix. The trick according to Shelly is to hang food bags with fishing monofilament, say 30-pound test. In the morning, Jan wanted to show us something in the water bucket. He said it wasn’t a mouse. It was not – it was 3 mice. We buried them at sea, in the Colorado.

The hike took 3 1/2 hours including lunch, up and down the riverside bluffs, from which we saw the dark primitive rock walls and buttes marching upriver. In the afternoon we washed, snoozed, yogaed, and I fished with no success. Our camp lies just downstream from the dry bed of Palisades Creek.

Near the Little Colorado River confluence, November 8, 2005, 7:55 PM

It is hard for folks to stay awake in the darkness that falls so early, on nights without a campfire. It is not cold, but most everyone is in bed by now. Shades of Wee Willie Winkie – “Are all the children in their beds, for now it’s 8 o’clock?”. But it was a lovely day.

Karen and Bill on the day hike up the Little Colorado,
crawling up the shelves before wading the river.

We are in camp near the confluence of the Little Colorado, as far upstream as it is legal to camp. The site feels like a Greek seaside village, as we are set out on the sandy terraces between boulders, rising tier on tier from the river.

Up at early light, at 6:30 AM, we left Palisades camp by 8:30 and followed the upcanyon trail. It climbed up onto the high bench, then wound challengingly in and out of side canyons, lengthening the distance by at least a factor of two. We had terrific views of the river below us and the monuments reaching up canyon. The hike took 4 1/2 hours including lunch for the fastest, and about 45 minutes more for the slowest. In the afternoon we bathed in the river – cold as always – and I fished with a total lack of success. I wonder if the trout have been purged from this part of the river. I moved upstream and met Mich and Karl above the Little Colorado confluence, to which they had hiked for the view.

Same camp, November 9, 2005, 8:30 PM

Noor in a moment of perfect relaxation on the banks of the Little Colorado.

We are still at our confluence camp. Today we day hiked along the incredibly blue Little Colorado. The color is a mix of sky and a mineral yellow, yielding a unique aqua. I have never seen such a color before. The closest, but not very close, was a polluted tinge in the Red River of New Mexico below the Questa molybdenum mine. We argued as to whether the color came from mineral pigments or from scattering by particles smaller than light, like the sky (Rayleigh scattering). Back home, the web says “The minerals that color the water are calcium carbonate and copper sulfate from Blue Springs”, so perhaps the pigment hypothesis is correct. Our parties reached various distances up canyon. Two of us swam and washed. The water had a nice tang on the skin.

We haven’t had a clear sky this trip, while it has not really threatened to rain either. We live under a thin cap of November cloud, through which I can see stars, but not clearly.

Tanner camp, November 11, 9:30 AM

The fellowship has been broken. Mich and Dima have headed out from camp on their way to the rim, put off by bad weather. The rest of us plan to camp halfway up, at a cliff edge with stunning views atop the Red Wall. I have taken Karl’s tent from Dima, who has used it so far, in case of rain.


Karen and Ginger passing a scary place.
Looking upstream, with our Little Colorado camp around the corner.

Yesterday was a big hike, returning from the Little Colorado camp to Tanner Rapids. The same distance took us two days traveling upstream. The fastest left camp at 7:30 AM and finished at 2:00 PM, while the slow end got out at 7:45 and finished at 4:00. Karl dropped his pack midway and jogged back, to carry Karen’s pack for an hour. Freed of her pack, she set out half again as fast as previously, and the rest of us were puffing. The views down into the canyon were enormous, and the trail at times precarious, just a few steps above the sheer drop. To cover the first couple of river miles, we hiked 4+ hours, in and out thru 7 major and at least two dozen minor side drainages.

The weather was a high overcast all day, but a patch of blue opened to the west just before sunset, filling the whole canyon with a golden light. Shelly, Karen, and I photographed furiously.

The fish still weren’t there when I tried one last time – a bust for the whole trip. We had a social hour that for once extended well into the evening, breaking up at about 9 PM. The mice returned in droves. Noor had nine visit him in his tent. He threw the first eight out the hole through which they had entered, then – half by accident – squashed the ninth. He put the shattered corpse near the hole and no more entered the tent. By morning, the dead mouse had been eaten, I presume by his cannibal compadres.

Mich and Dima were inspired to leave early by a squall and rainstorm that roared in at breakfast time. It was only a line of clouds on the horizon at 7:15, but blowing our gear over, and spitting a few raindrops, a half hour later. We scrambled to pull camp together, throwing gear into packs in a disordered way. Karen and Shelly’s tent ripped out of the group, and it was amazing how fast the two could run after it. It was the fastest Karen moved the whole trip. We hurried through breakfast and left camp at 9:00.

Cardenas Butte, November 11, 2005, 9:00 PM

Our camp at the end of Cardenas Butte overlooks the river from Cardenas Rapid almost to the Little Colorado , and has a sheer drop to an enormous chasm to the north. We have climbed to 5600 feet, 2900 feet above our river camp and 1700 feet below the rim. The fastest of our remaining eight reached camp by 12:15, and the slowest about 2:30. We have a new illness that slowed us down. One woman has been struggling with a bad cold for the last two days, and was absolutely drained today. Halfway up, Karen talked her into giving up a large fraction of her load, which Karl and I split. She spent the afternoon in her tent in her sleeping bag, sipping ginger tea, while the rest of us did domestic duties (due to a severe shortage of man slaves and wenches) and enjoyed the view. Karl, Ginger, and friends had cached 14 gallons of water in the previous month, which was more than enough for our overnight. Some of it leaked, but we dumped at least 3 gallons. Noor and Jan made up some righteous stove boxes from flat stones, making it possible to cook in the wind.

We tied down our tents with heavy rocks, to hold them against the wind. If they blow away, they might land a thousand feet below. Of course it is cold nearly 3000 feet above the river – it is the middle of November. The threatening rain has broken into scattered clouds, moving fast. When darkness fell, we could see Venus setting and Mars rising, opposing each other across the sky. The Desert View tower was lit, and later we could see a reddish light (a lamp? an illegal campfire?) at a camp along the river below.  We warmed ourselves by huddling like penguins, then six of us crowded into a 2-person tent for story time – Hayduke again. It was too cold, and the rocky ground too hard, to sit outside. The story kept us up until about 8 ­– that is, for those who didn’t sleep through it. Once everyone else was in bed, I walked around under the gibbous Moon, bright enough to light all the buttes and the depths of the Colorado gorge below.

Trip leaders Karl and Ginger at our windswept camp, overlooking a lot of air.

Flagstaff, Arizona, November 13

Our hike out went well. We relieved the lady with the cold of a good part of her gear, and she move out smartly. Many of the party were short on sleep, because the tents flapped in the strong wind all night. Only Jan tried to sleep under the open sky, and seemed to have slept very little. We left camp by about 8:45, and our fastest reached the rim by 11:45, with the rest not far behind, perhaps 45 minutes. It was a shock to see tourists driving in a steady stream in and out of the parking lot. We returned to Flagstaff, checked into the lovely Inn at 410 bed and breakfast, and had steak dinner at the Buckendahls, with a cake and candles celebrating Karen and Kathleen’s upcoming birthdays. Another wonderful adventure is nearly at an end.

Copyright Bill Priedhorsky 2005


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