A Tale of a Tail… Backpacking into the Grand Canyon

Looking down from Lipan Point at the start of the Tanner Trail. The sharp bend in the Colorado River… far away, is where I am heading. (The photos of the trail down I actually took several years later when I backpacked in with Peggy.)

The steep trail seemed to disappear under my feet as I began my journey and descended through millions of years of earth history. About a half of mile down it disappeared for real, having been washed away by winter rains. “I told you so,” my body whispered loudly as I mentally hugged the side of the canyon and tentatively made my way around the washout.

Steep drop offs are a common factor in all trails leading into the Grand Canyon. The first trails were created by Native Americans. Later miners, rustlers, and entrepreneurs interested in promoting tourism would enhance the original trails and create new ones.

I am not sure when my legs started shaking. Given the stair-step nature of the trail and the extra weight of the pack, my downhill muscles weren’t having a lot of fun. Fortunately, Mother Nature provided a reprieve.

The erosive forces of wind and water that have sculpted the mesas and canyon lands of the Southwest are more challenged by some types of rocks than others.  Somewhere between two and three miles down I came upon the gentle lower slopes of the Escalante and Cardenas Buttes, which allowed me to lollygag along and enjoy the scenery.

I escaped from the sun beneath the shadow of a large rock to drink some of my precious water, nibble on trail food and take a brief nap. It would have made a good place to camp, others had obviously taken advantage of shade and flat surface, but the Colorado River was calling.

In this photo, on my later trip, Peggy takes advantage of the shade on the Cardenas Butte.

Ignoring the ever-increasing screams of my disgruntled body parts, I headed on. At mile five or so my idyllic stroll came to a dramatic halt as the trail dropped out of sight down what is known as the Red Wall. (It received this imaginative name because it is red and looks like a wall. The red comes from iron dissolved in water that runs down from the rocks above. Think rust.) Some fifty million years, or 625,000 Curtis life spans, of shallow seas had patiently worked to deposit the lime that makes up its 500-foot sheer cliff.  It is one of the most distinctive features of the Grand Canyon.

The Red Wall, seen here snaking off to the right, is one of the most distinctive features of Grand Canyon National Park.

My trail guide recommended I store water before heading down so I could retrieve it when I was dying of thirst on the way out. I could see where people had scratched out exposed campsites as a place to stop for the night. The accommodations weren’t much but the view was spectacular.

The rest of the five-mile/five month journey was something of a blur. (It was closer to five hours but time was moving very slowly.) I do remember a blooming prickly pear cactus. I grumbled at it for looking so cheerful.

I was too tired to fully appreciate the beauty of the inner Canyon.

My lack of appreciation included a cheerful cactus flower.

Looking back up the trail provided a perspective on how far I had come. The small, needle-like structure on the rim is Desert View Tower.

I also remember a long, gravelly slope toward the bottom. My downhill muscles had totally given out and the only way I could get down was to sidestep. I cackled insanely when I finally reached the bottom. I was ever so glad the Sierra Club guy wasn’t around to see me.

Setting up camp that night was simple. I threw out my ground cloth, Thermarest mattress, and sleeping bag on a sandy beach. Then I stumbled down to the river’s edge and retrieved a bucket of reddish-brown Colorado River water, which appeared to be two parts liquid and one part mud. I should have waited for the mud to settle. Instead I used up a year of my water filter’s life to provide a quart of potable water.

Sitting beside the muddy Colorado River.

My old yellow bucket, a veteran of dozens of backpacking adventures.

All I had left to do was take care of my food. Since people camped here frequently, the local critters would see me as a huge neon billboard that blinked ‘Eat at Curt’s.’ Not seeing a convenient limb within three feet, I buried my food bag in the sand next to me. Theoretically, anything digging it up would wake me. Just the top was peeking out so I could find it in the morning.

As the sun went down, so did I. Faster than I could fall asleep, I heard myself snoring. I was brought back to full consciousness by the pitter-patter of tiny feet crossing over the top of me. A mouse was worrying the top of my food bag and going for the peanuts I had placed there to cover my more serious food.

“Hey Mousy,” I yelled, “Get away from my food!”  My small companion of the night dashed back over me as if I were no more than a noisy obstacle between dinner and home. I was drifting off again when I once more felt the little feet. “The heck with it,” I thought in my semi-comatose state. How many peanuts could the mouse eat anyway?

The river water I had consumed the night before pulled me from my sleep. Predawn light bathed the Canyon in a gentle glow. I lay in my sleeping bag for several minutes and admired the vastness and beauty of my temporary home.  The Canyon rim, my truck and the hordes of tourists were far away, existing in another world.

My thoughts turned to my visitor of the previous evening. Out of curiosity, I reached over for my food and extracted the bag of peanuts. A neat little hole had been chewed through the plastic but it appeared that most of my peanuts were present and accounted for. The small contribution had been well worth my solid sleep.

I then looked over to the right to see if I could spot where the mouse had carried its treasure. Something on the edge of my ground cloth caught my eye. It was three inches long, grey, round and fuzzy.

It was Mousy’s tail!

Something had sat on the edge of my sleeping bag during the night and dined on peanut stuffed mouse. Thoughts of a coyote, or worse, using my ground cloth as a dinner table jolted the primitive parts of my brain. Had I had hackles, they would have been standing at attention ready for action.

I ate a peanut in honor of Mousy’s memory and tossed a few over near his house in case he had left behind a family to feed. I also figured that the peanuts would serve as an offering to whatever Canyon spirits had sent the night predator on its way.

Next blog: I recover and then explore the Canyon. A large, pink rattlesnake and I tangle.

The view from camp looking across the Colorado River and up.

5 comments on “A Tale of a Tail… Backpacking into the Grand Canyon

  1. Another great post but I have to admit, the mouse on my sleeping bag would have terrified me. I don’t do well with animals crawling around my sleeping space.. The view must have been gorgeous, even if your legs were near death 🙂

  2. I remember that I could barely move my legs when we reached the bottom! It was quite a steep downhill. I also remember a ranger flying by us who then slipped quite a distance down the trail…..on his rear! When we reached the bottom, we had decided to find a camping spot further down the river….it involved climbing a wall if a I recall, “rear” support from Curt (Big Push!), and a sigh of relief once up and over. Oh, yes, then we had to haul the backpacks up and over.

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