Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Grand outing

In the purple light of predawn, my dad and his friend, Tom, rushed to pull on every piece of clothing in their packs before the chill set in. I tilted my travel thermometer beneath the dim light of the South Rim bus station. It was 37, maybe 38 degrees. I was already wearing all of my clothing. Three years of Alaska outings have taught me to leave the house as pessimistic as possible and shed my way toward optimism.

The shuttle bus pulled up at 6:08 a.m. Arizona time (what time is that in Alaska? What time is that in Utah? In a state that does not observe daylight savings, the real time was a constant source of debate.) The bus was packed to the brim with people - other hikers bundled in their Arctic best for the long descent down the South Kaibab Trail. It was a swift dose of reality that the Grand Canyon is not the place to seek solitude. But more than that, we were astonished at the sheer number of people undertaking what just a few years ago to us was a bewildering idea - hiking from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other in a day.

But since those uneasy years, I had dropped off the rim three times. By the fourth, the edge had worn off a bit. I had become more accustomed to day-long physical exertion, and rarely on paths as well-built and luxurious as the Grand Canyon's main trails. But where the physical challenge dulled a bit, the wonder only sharpened.

In the warm light of sunrise, a huge chasm spread out around us. Serrated rock and soft sand is a kind of scenery so different from that which I see in my day-to-day adventures. I appreciate its beauty so much more now that I'm so far away.

My dad looked out over the trail snaking into the gorge and said, "this is one of those 'wow' moments, isn't it?" I smiled, because a love of sweeping spaces is something my dad and I both identify with. It reminded me that my dad and I share things that run so much deeper than bloodlines.

After just a little more than an hour of hiking, we were already watching the blue-gray ribbons of the Colorado River flow toward the oasis of Phantom Ranch. I felt like we were moving at the speed of light. Tom, who had been up Mount Rainier but never down the Grand Canyon, said "Wow, I feel like we've walked a long way downhill, and we still have a long way to go."

We skirted a narrow bridge across the Colorado River, elevation 2,400, at about 9 a.m. On the banks was Phantom Ranch, a little National Park resort with flush toilets and bunk houses and cold lemonade. We were still wearing half of our warm layers. My thermometer still hovered well below 60, in Arizona, in mid-October. I have visited that place at the same time of year when the temperature was in the 100s, and I have suckled the Phantom Ranch lemonade like it was the elixir of life. "You know," my dad said, "I don't really feel like a cold lemonade right now." And I realized with no small disappointment that I did not, either.

As we continued up the surprisingly un-oven-like box canyon on the lower north side, we saw our only member of the large wildlife community that we met during the trip, a bighorn sheep. We also saw, to our disappointment, dozens of other hikers.

We stopped for lunch at Ribbon Falls. I pulled out my assortment of Clif Bars and candy bars and tried to ascertain a good combination for lunch. My dad offered me a cheese bagel, with honey, and part of a can of Pringles - just like in the old days, when I was a grumpy teenager and my dad carried all of the food. The idea that he would still think of me when shopping for his hiking expedition made me feel warm and secure, and I relished in a lunch that still tasted as rich and nourishing as it did when I was 16.

Ribbon Falls was just spectacular in the noon sunlight. We finished lunch and climbed up behind the waterfall, trying to dodge the mist that on any other October day in the Grand Canyon would probably feel wonderful.

Ribbon Falls is about a perfect halfway point between the South and North rims. I think it should be a destination in and of itself. Crystal clear water over a ribbon of moss and vegetation as rich and green as anything in Juneau, contrasted against the red rocks. I would hike 24 miles out and back to see it.

I couldn't decide which picture to post, so I posted four. Yup, still Ribbon Falls.

A cold wind that had been blowing all day really picked up force as we ascended the North Rim. Gusts of 40 and sometimes even 50 mph blew away my hat and pounded us with chilling force. Luckily, the wind was almost always at our backs. Even on slow-moving feet, the push helps.

I ticked off the elevation on my GPS, announcing the numbers to my dad and Tom as we marched upward. Fall began to return to the landscape. The thermometer dropped back toward 40. The climb is long, more than 6,500 feet over the course of the day, and the mileage - about 22 - is not a short stroll either. Even so, near the top, a part of me felt like we were just getting started, and GPS confirmed it. We had spent just a little more than nine hours in the canyon, with only about six to seven of that hiking (GPS accuracy is hard to pin down on moving time.) For the first time in four rim-to-rim treks, I could understand why people would turn around and walk back into the abyss.

Still, there was enough good tired to go around. I have difficulty with the impact of running and walking for more than a few hours. Saturday was no exception, with some IT band tightness that subsided pretty quickly. Tom was pretty happy with the experience. This picture is our crew: Tom, his wife, Jill; my dad, Jed; my mom, Sheri, and me. (Jill and my mom drove around to shuttle us out. And yes, it really was that cold on the North Rim.)

Clouds started to move in shortly after we crested the rim. By 5 p.m., it was snowing. But, all in all, we had an ideal trip. The weather was just about perfect - for my Alaska blood, that is. I was half disappointed I didn't get to see the snow while we were hiking. I imagine the canyon is beautiful dusted in white.

So that's my fourth time down the Grand. Would I do it again? Most definitely.


  1. Wonderful pictures. Thank you very much to share with us.

    Best regards

  2. Awe inspiring. My wife and I have been discussing the Grand Canyon for the past few months.

    Now, we just need to find the time to get there.

    Once again, thanks for sharing another adventure with us.

  3. Oh great - thanks for the motivation. I am heading to Phoenix in 2 weeks and was contemplating a trip to the Canyon - Now it is set in stone and I guess I have a 22 mile hike ahead of me :)

    Great story once again - you guys look cold in that last picture :)

  4. Those were some stunning pictures. Thanks for sharing them with us.



  5. NICE! Thanks for the story. What Olympus camera model do you have?

  6. Three years of Alaska outings have taught me to leave the house as pessimistic as possible and shed my way toward optimism.

    Now there is a life philosophy I can support!

    Your dad is a good dad.

  7. Great pictures, Jill. I'm still surprised how quickly the weather changed on the North side from two weeks ago. We sat out on the North Rim lodge patio in shorts and t-shirts and watched the sunset the night before our hike. You guys had snow. Go figure.

  8. Beautiful pictures Jill! I'm not ready to see snow though :-)

  9. Wow! With pictures like that I may consider going with you guys one day... maybe. At least I could drive around with Mom.

    And Dad is a GREAT Dad!!

  10. Your pictures are so amazing I can't even stand it.

  11. Now you make me ache, not only for northern landscapes, but also for those of the Grand Canyon. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been - in spite of all the other hikers. Have you ever hiked the Havasupai area, west of the GC but still in the same river valley? If not, I highly recommend it.

  12. great post. your blog is a how-to for living life well.

  13. You are the coolest chick I have never met. Great writing, great photos, perfect sentiment.

  14. Thanks for the incredible photos. For a first timer, which direction to you recommend?

  15. I gotta do that hike soon!

    Lovely stuff Jill

    Sorry I missed yah

  16. Of course its already been said but.... wow, great photos. Its come to the point that when I visit your blog I expect great photos.

    Thanks for sharing them. Perhaps you should post some crappy ones once in a while so that our expectations don't get too high.


  17. I am REALLY impressed by your pics! I simply love them. And lloking at them it's like you have made my dreams come true once more. (The fisrt time when my dreams did come true was when i visited Alaska (http://www.odyssei.com/travel-gallery/88111.html). i hope to see ya more often in the blogosphere!

  18. Looks like an awesome outing, even if it was probably a wee chilly. But hey, you are already used to that on two wheels.

    BTW, big plans are afoot. May have some questions for you. Now, if I could only figure out your email address...



  19. awesome pictures .... makes me wish to fly to the US to visit those places.

    Greetings from Italy!!

  20. I came from a family of campers, but never hikers. Thanks for allowing me to live vicariously through your family.

  21. Ahhh, the good old days...sleeping at cottonwood, waking up and running down to the springs for a spray. Getting into the falls...
    Thanks for the flashback:)

  22. Dinglearm ... My camera is an Olympus Stylus 770 SW.

    Jenn ... I've never been down that way, but the guy we were hiking with talked about it quite a lot. I have to admit, I'm a little uneasy about it after reading a long Backpacker Magazine article about a murder down there. Not that I really believe that makes it a more dangerous place - it just gives me kind of a creepy feeling.

    K. Koski ... the best route for a first timer is probably North to South, down the North Kaibab and up Bright Angel. You gain about 1,000 less feet that way, there's water the whole distance, and better amenities for the people that are waiting for you on the other (south) side. But the South Kaibab is my favorite section of trail, hands down. (No water there, though.)

    Tom ... expect to see more crappy pictures now that I'm back in Juneau and it's deep into fall. Lots of wet brown and gray this time of year.

    Jack ... good luck with all of it! Let me know if your big plans bring you near Alaska.

    Thanks again to everyone, and especially to my dad for being a good dad.


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