I can tell what time it is by where Orion is at in the early dawn sky. I knew it was time to get up soon. Riffles of clouds began to glow in the east above Lone Mountain. A luminous pink blaze spread and smeared until all the stars were gone. Soon, orange spackled the clouds, some even showed long shadows of a steel grey, even porous in some spots like a coral reef. The sky turned into a shallow and colorful sea.
The night before I was wrought with concern about our route into the Parashant. I felt 70/30 about it. I read about in a Buschart book, read another blog in detail about it, and scoured satellite imagery. I felt okay with what was plotted but felt I just didn’t have enough information. I kept thinking we would work hard all the way down only to find an impassable pour off. In a place like this, you cannot hope there is a way through; you must know whether or not it goes.
The sunrise tempered my worries a bit, and then we hit the turn off. A chunky descent filled with ledges and gullies went, and I knew my satellite investigations paid off so far. Down a wash we went, easy grade. Then, a game trail, a couple cairns, and the further the trail went I figured we were on to something. I found animal track. Coyote, deer, maybe even a burro. Buschart had said the exit through the slot canyon that even a burro could walk through. I began thinking we were in a corridor all can travel through. I mean, a well placed cairn is truly something simple and effective. Finding cairns that matter, that mean something, that are genuinely communicating with the traveler, can assist that traveler with crucial decisions. We even had a cairn assist with a bypass route. Clearly we were on the right track. We entered the narrows. Smooth and polished limestone suddenly funneled into a narrow slot. We picked our way down and hit a very deep pool, at least deeper than my trekking pole. We opted to turn back and look for a bypass. We were about a tenth of a mile from the Parashant canyon floor. We ascended some ledges and gazed over the rim. We had our answer: an impassable 100ft pour off.
When shit hits the fan or when you don’t truly know what to expect, that’s when the real adventure begins. So, we took off our packs and developed a plan. We reread some notes and went towards another spring hoping to find the slot from above that is Buschart’s. After a couple hundred foot ascent up to the top of some limestone bluffs we stopped. We feared we were going to have to go higher up onto another bench. I offered to scout around the corner of the ravine to see if the way up went through. As I was doing this I looked down at the mouth of the ravine. It looked like the gully reached the canyon floor. The shrubs and small trees grew as if stacked on each other on a slope. I threw off my pack and went down the 200ft. Once in the gully I found a game track. I went just a bit further and could see that the gully went to the canyon floor. Definitely not a slot, however, no doubt a ravine that a burro could get through. I hurriedly scrambled back up the slope to tell Katie. Just as I signaled ‘it’s a go!’ with my hands in the air signaling a successful field goal, she got a message from her canyon buddy confirming what I had just found. There I was for a split second thinking our day had just gotten longer. But, a little scouring, some positive thinking, some toiling away, and we had it. Find a way through…that’s what we were born to do.
The Parashant narrows oozed along a funnel with the Redwall sprouting hundreds of feet high on both sides of the canyon. The canyon is an awesome spectacle. The wash is filled with rubble and boulders all scattered about from the warpath of water. We took our time and at one point, for what seemed like a couple of hours, I fell into a trance with our steps crunching in the sand and pebbles, just hypnotized by the silence within the narrow canyon and our rhythmic steps. I was soothed to the core, incredibly relaxed.
Then, Katie heard a voice and asked me if I said something. Baffled, I looked at her quizzically. But, sure enough, a man sat on a boulder in the narrows just ahead. We were all kind of shell shocked at seeing another human being. He was the first one we had seen in two weeks since the North Rim. We chatted and got to know each other briefly. Turns out he is the lone rafter I had heard about while trying to find a cache drop with a rafting company. He said he was alone and he looked at me funny when I asked him if he was from Colorado.
‘Hey, I’ve heard of you.’
‘You have?’ He squinched is brow and looked at me curiously. He had been out for 19 days.
He offered us some food down at the beach. He would wait for us. And, a few hours later I was eating a tuna sandwich with mustard and cheddar cheese. We slugged a couple of seltzers, ate some apples and oranges, some almond butter too. We sat on his raft in a cove and spoke of the wonders of the canyon, what makes this place so special. The biggest difference between our trips, besides the obvious one of him being on water and us on foot, was that he constantly marveled of always looking up. I felt the opposite. I was constantly marveled of always looking down, for the most part. Either way, our vision spanned eons of time and thousands of feet of rock. After an hour we left and he shoved off.
Down towards the end of Parashant I could hear the roar of the river, the melodic thunder of moving water. Every time we get to the river, especially after not seeing it for some time, we feel the energy of the mother source, the movement and core of life of everything in this canyon, the splendor and magic of this entire region. The language of the Grand Canyon is borne of the river. I gazed upon the river trembling in amazement, my wonderment about to beat out of my chest and flow out of my tear ducts. I stood there trembling from the power of the river.
I could see the canyon walls outlined by the bright moonlight. Shadows revealed the contours of the canyon walls. The rims of the cliffs were so high the moonlight made the cliffs look like they were directly over head. What a beautiful sight. I was up early and looked up for the remnants of the Orion meteor shower. I saw a couple meteors zip across the sky. The wind continued to pick up, so I tucked my head under my quilt and gave my effort for stargazing up. I went to sleep the night before a tad hard on myself. I forced our way to camp rather than taking the sensible choice. I saw camp from afar and just wanted to get there. We ended up thrashing through mesquite and catclaw that really scratched us up. I went to bed thinking I need to relearn the river corridor travel again. Travel moves so slow down in these parts of the canyon. The surface changes constantly and you need to constantly pay attention to what level you are on. Most importantly, thick brush can make your experience a nightmare. We mastered the Esplanade, but we now need to understand the nuances of the river corridor, exercise patience, and look for sheep shit. Where there’s sheep shit, there’s a path.
We climbed up a series of bluffs this morning and walked along a platform a couple hundred feet above the river. Sometimes the footing was sketchy, other times we had flat and clear hiking above the lava bluffs. The closer we got to the river, however, the harder the hiking was due to the overgrowth of mesquite. We had managed along okay by the time we had arrived at Spring Canyon. We were aware of the bushwhack through the canyon and tried to strategize from a point above the canyon. Willows, mesquite, catclaw, acacia, and so many other shrubbery lined the flowing creek. We picked our way down the slope and went in the tangle. In hindsight, we should’ve stayed up canyon a bit and crossed where the thickets were less dense, then ascend a talus slope and follow the game trail atop the bluffs. Nonetheless, we settled on getting in early since we saw a way in, and figured we could climb the bluff nearest to us. I began to stomp my way atop the willows trying to clear a path. Katie stayed close behind me so we could give each other some extra support in pushing the branches around. Finally, I got to the creek with some considerable effort. While in the creek I filled our water bottles and realized I couldn’t cross as the overstory hung too low. Once back up on the dirt shelf we waged on.
We were basically trapped in the thicket. So, we walked directly down the middle of the creek in hopes of finding a game trail. We eventually did and we had to take off our packs to slither between some mesquite branches. Once free we stood at the base of the bluffs. We kept near the base and hiked around the bluffs that led to the river side. Again, we were stuck. We had so many cuts and scratches, we just needed to stay away from the mesquite. It felt impassable. Finally, I spotted a dihedral within the bluffs that we could scale up. We hoisted our packs up and made it atop the bluffs. A little bit more scrambling above and we found the game trail. Ugh, we felt so beat up and defeated. The shortest way between two points is not always a straight line, especially out here in the canyon. After a quick and dreary lunch, we sauntered on with our tails between our legs.
We gained some momentum back later in the day. We swore to not tangle with the mesquite if we had a choice about it. We found game trail here and there and made some progress. The stormy sky brought in some dramatic light that lit up the canyon in a spectacular display. We made it to the camp at 209 Mile Canyon right at dusk. Tired, beat up, scratched up, a bit deflated, we set up our shelters as a rafters camp across the river whooped it up. The sang Cyndi Lauper. We are getting rain tonight. Makes sense why we saw so many tarantulas today, even one the size of the palm of my hand. The wind is blowing dust into my tarp and onto everything. The river is roaring and the rapids are churning. Our gear is getting spent and ravaged. We are hanging on by a thread here. The rain is beginning to fall.
The storm took my tarp last night. Not very far, but enough to scare the shit out of me. I hurriedly adjusted the poles and buried the stakes in the sand deeply. I fell asleep perched on my elbows as the storm drifted on. I woke up hours later in a dead calm. The storm had passed. The rapids sounded like an industrial machine. The waves and churning of the whitewater made sounds ruffle and whistle and roar at various moments. The rapids developed their own wind. It was a wind tunnel down there and it soothed me to sleep. I woke up a couple hours later near dawn. A bullfrog sat on my forearm and startled me in my groggy state. I shook him off and he slowly hopped away in the sand. A couple of lights flickered from the other side of the river. Some of the rafters were up early, probably the older folk. I went down to the river to wash the sand off my visor and sunglasses. The rapids were right there engulfing me.
We had some decent travel ahead of us. We are feeling the pressure of how much more we have left, how much food do we have left, and how swiftly can we travel in this terrain. We were again along the river and travel was slow. We continuously hopped over boulders, but at least we weren’t battling the mesquite. The worst part of the day were the deep ravines gouging out the talus slopes that made for tricky maneuvering. And then, the Tapeats level appeared right at water level. We climbed atop and the afternoon went by smoother. We filled our bladders at the river before ascending to the Tonto at our last break. We would not be sure where our next water source would be unless we found a side canyon to the river that went with no major obstacles.
Back up on the Tapeats and even a bit higher we found game trail on flat terrain that made us happy. We made up for lost time and cruised. We passed huge canyons on the south side, our necks craned up gawking into the giant chasms. We could see all the Grand Canyon layers from the top to the bottom from our platform. We could even see snow on top of the highest plateau. The day had been chilly and gloomy. A drizzle there and drop here, nothing major. Eventually all that weather activity up high caught up with us. The skies opened up and started to pour a cold shower on our heads. We donned our rain jackets and hiked on feeling thankful we were on the Tonto and not the river level. After about 45 minutes we both began to get really cold. The rain persisted and we set up a soggy camp.
I am here now. I am here. I can hear me from here. The rain stopped and some sun rays shined on the temples and towers and cliffs above us. Just majestic. Maybe this shower filled some potholes for us. We hope so. We are hunkered in for a cold night. But, sunny days are ahead of us. I am here. I can hear me.
The long night ended. The air was warmer than anticipated. The storm had past. We were eager to get our feet cranking. The sun rose behind the cliffs on the south side of the river. But, from the Tonto we could see the first sun rays touching and illuminating the upper walls. We had views from our platform stretching up and down canyon along the river corridor. We took frequent photos. This is the prettiest place I have ever seen. No question. So dramatic and breathtaking, simply unbelievable. The canyon just stretches forever in every direction.
We needed to find water. I was hoping the potholes would have filled. They did; just not full enough. Along the way to our side canyon that would descend to the river, we began to encounter cholla. The buckthorn cholla resembles a monstrous hydra, or better yet a stony yet vibrant gorgon, Medusa herself. Then came the teddy bear cholla. Fields upon fields of the furry menace all growing close together. The bulbs and barbs illuminated brightly from sunlight, almost fields of glowing green and yellow orbs. Katie said: ladies and gentlemen, put your hands and feet in the vehicle. It was like entering a field of land mines. The desert landscape here has shifted back to Sonoran. Gone, for the moment I suspect, are the creosote. Ocotillo sprout with their octopus tentacles way up in the air as far as the eye can see. The prettiest of ones are the ocotillo that still have their tiny leaves in them. If they do, no matter the size, the leaves have succumbed to Autumn with a yellowish-orange color rather than the usual vibrant green.
We went down for water 600ft below us. The brief visit felt holy, a return to church. We filled up and splashed our faces. We then returned up the boulder filled wash. We continued contouring on the Tonto, the side ravines being the most challenging. A trail would show up or persist along a contour that benefited us. Thank god for sheep, I said. But, the more I thought about it, especially with all the agave roasting pits we have been seeing lately, all within the side drainage areas; I began to think these paths have been here for eons and were used by the natives of the area. The sheep, quite frankly, will go anywhere they can. If people lived up on this platform, hunted and roamed, and had huge agave roasting pits clearly they would have developed a hiking network of foot paths. This brought a special feeling into my insides, a primordial connection with a human past. We are simply traveling through by foot, but utilizing something as simple as a foot path that has innocuously been there for eons felt really special.
We had one last major side canyon to traverse, the one prior to Diamond Creek. This one took time. We were high enough to scuttle and tip toe across the sketchy slopes of the Bright Angel Shale. We also had to deal with massive limestone blocks that choked a gully on a very steep slope. We putt-putted along and finally after some considerable effort attained the Tonto above the west arm of the side canyon.
The hardest shit seems impossible, just feels utterly impossible. Our shoes are ravaged. We are behind a day, maybe two, which means we are short on food. My logic is to take things as they come, compartmentalize the overwhelming difficulty out here and try to make small attainable goals. Can we get to the next river access from the point we are at now? If so, let’s get to there and re-access. Two days away? Do we have enough food? Will our shoes make it? If yes, continue onward. If not, hitch out to Pearce Ferry on a rafting trip. That’s all we can do. Work our butts off in the meantime and try and muster some positivity. As long as there’s river access at some reasonable point, we have an out. We just have to give it everything we got.
I woke up after the moon had set. A cold wind had moved in and I sheltered deeper into my quilt. Of course, I still woke up early. Orion was up high in southwestern sky. I gazed at him for a bit. I was eager to start the day. We had a photogenic morning…again. Every night is the perfect campsite. Every evening has the perfect sunset. Every morning has the perfect sunrise. It’s just that good out here. We marveled at the the upper reaches of the canyon. The temples, the buttes, the pinnacles, towers, sheer cliffs, everything so stupendous. The Redwall formation caps it all off to me. Smack dab in the middle of all the layers, the Redwall is so imposing, so incredible formidable, and seemingly and utterly impassable. The Redwall lined our highest line of eyesight. The feature makes you feel like there’s no way out. The Redwall is inescapable.
In the ravines you have to keep working the line you are on. You can drift, but you must stay disciplined and stay with the indiscernible sheep track. Katie and I are getting a good eye for this miss-able and scant pathway. But, we see it intricately weaving within the limestone and talus slopes. When we break off it’s usually for a reason. We scrambled down through the Tapeats and in the middle of a ravine. Katie found a decomposed rams horn. I got barbed by the teddy bear cholla right above my sock line in the lower front of my shin. It was a bear to take out. After a few minutes I was free of the furry and spiny hug. Then, we found some narrow yet deep potholes, lined like tinajas in some granite chutes. After a slurp of water and refilling our bottles we climbed out again through the Tapeats layer. Katie spotted a break in the upper walls and we put away our trekking poles to climb proper.
We were moving right along when we heard a burro braying loudly from the other side of the canyon. The bray chortled and echoed laughingly in all directions. It gave us a chuckle after a short flash of feeling dumbstruck. We do not hear very many different noises other than the wind, our crunchy footsteps, the roar of the river rapids, and airplanes. Hearing a burro bray took us by surprise, certainly did. We even heard another one down river a little bit later. I found a large pothole later on. That rainstorm from the other day did in fact full up some potholes. Very fortunate for us. The end of the day we realized we were nearing Gneiss Canyon, an ambitious goal we didn’t think was a reality the night before. Nevertheless, before we could descend into the canyon we had some treacherous side hilling with some precarious footing and huge sheer drops. One misstep could lead to death, no question. These obstacles took some time and we settled for camp on a flat spot on a ridge line over looking Gneiss Canyon.
As we arrived at the ridge the sky turned an array of pastel colors, just light and soft, even partly fluorescent. The walls all around us glowed an even brighter red and orange. All the cactuses glowed too because of the sunset. The sunset was fantastically brief. More like the magic minute than the magic hour this time of year. Then the moon rose so bright she lit up the canyon like it was daylight. The moon is almost full. I can remember when the moon was in the new cycle and how dark the sky was then and all those illuminated stars twinkling so clearly. And now, the canyon is so lit up I can see the red color of the cliffs.
I have been enjoying the past couple days navigating with Katie. She is usually a short distance behind and looking at the bigger picture, like the next water source or the way we should contour into the next side canyon. I’m usually focused and zeroed in on the route directly ahead of us, just constantly reading the landscape. At any given second out here we are so preoccupied with so many many things. Pole placement, taking care with each and every step, our balance on a treacherous slope, our water needs, rattlesnakes, all the types of cactuses at our feet and at our shoulders, trying to keep that indiscernible sheep path, among so many other things. Our multitasking is constant, there is no break for there is no ‘real’ trail. This is all cross country. I know what we could do more or less the morning we take off, but I get bogged down in the task of constantly navigating. When Katie mentions the water source up ahead I file it away to recall in a bit and feel rest assured she’s on top of it. She’s the dogged copilot.