The trek to the bottom

If you've never hiked the Grand Canyon, now's the time

By Cindy Yurth

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz., November 29, 2012

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T acheeni Scott thinks of the Grand Canyon as a sort of giant science lab. Also, a church.

As a scientist, the retired microbiologist appreciates the stromatolyte fossils that can be found in some of the canyon's rock layers. As well he might; stromatolytes made his career when he discovered that they were not, as the rest of the world thought, blue-green algae but rather a symbiosis between an alga and a bacteria.

But also, "as a practitioner of sa'ah naghei bik'eh hoozhoo, I consider the canyon a cathedral," the Flagstaff resident said Monday after hiking out of the Grand Canyon with his wife, Deb — his 26th hike to the bottom in the past 10 months. "You have to make a rim-to-rim hike during the full moon sometime. It's a religious experience."

Scott was the only Navajo my husband and I met hiking the canyon on our recent in-and-out trip earlier this month, although we encountered plenty working the gift shop counters and restaurants of the South Rim.

"Ahehee," my husband called experimentally to a brown-skinned mule-driver who stopped to let him pass on the South Kaibab Trail.

"Aoo', ya'aat'eeh, shikis," came the reply.

So if so many Diné are working the canyon, why aren't more out enjoying it?

"They think they can't afford it," ventured Scott.

Backcountry permits at the Park — which you need any time you plan to stay overnight — are a bargain at $10 for the permit and $5 per night to camp. But Native Americans get an even better deal. Show your census card or tribal ID, and it's free for you — and that goes for any of our country's fabulous national parks.

"It's the government's wimpy way of saying, 'We took your land, so go enjoy it for free,'" Scott explained.

The deal is not widely advertised, however…Scott himself had paid for several trips before a Park employee at the backcountry office informed him he should be enjoying the Park gratis. Oh, and they'll waive the entrance fee for you too.

If this motivates you to make a trip to the Park, and it should, this is quite possibly the best time of year to hike the canyon. Temperatures at Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River, which soar to 115 degrees in the summer, are in the 70s — perfect hiking weather. The tourists have thinned out, and the wildlife viewing is prime.

My husband, the music teacher at Chinle High, takes five or six of his best students to the Native American Composers Apprentice Project performances at the canyon every year, but we had never gone just to enjoy it ourselves. We applied for a backcountry permit on a wild hair two months ago, and one actually came through for Nov. 15 and 16.

We had wanted to do a rim-to-rim, but the logistics of busing it back to the North Rim to get our car seemed prohibitive, and it's a good thing we decided against it…it was already snowing on the North Rim when we set out from the South.

Since we're old and fat and not in the best of shape, we decided to take three days to hike into the canyon and back: a day descending the Kaibab Trail, a day to enjoy the bottom, and a day up on the Bright Angel Trail. It wasn't quite enough for me; we should have cut the uphill journey in two and stayed another night at the gorgeous campground at Indian Garden.

One advantage of hiking in cooler weather is you don't need nearly as much water. I consumed only half a liter on the six-hour trek to the river. (Be sure to pack enough, however; unlike the Bright Angel, the Kaibab has no water sources along the way.)

We arrived at Phantom Ranch, the beautiful camp at the bottom of the canyon where the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails converge, well before dark, boiled water for a dehydrated dinner, and had a beer at the canteen. If you don't mind your camping being a bit civilized, the canteen is a huge perk of camping at Phantom, offering meals with advance reservations and then, after 8, transforming into a convivial bar.

I counted at least five languages being spoken at the canteen. We met Australians, Europeans, Mexicans, Asians and of course Scott, the lone Navajo.

If you want to be by yourself, Phantom is not the place; even this time of year, it fills up. The Park limits visitors to 100 in the campground and 100 in the gorgeous little cabins designed by Mary Jane Colter, one of America's first prominent female architects.

A cabin sleeps four and costs just $119 a night, but reservations fill up two years in advance.

This time of year, however, cancellations are high, and we met several people who had managed to get in on a cancellation just a week or two in advance.

If the private cabins are steep for your budget, there are larger "dormitories" that sleep 10 in close-set bunk beds — but you're at the mercy of your bunkmates.

A sleepy 20-something reported no one in his dorm had gotten much shut-eye after the arduous trek in; one man, disturbed by the snoring of the man in the bunk above him, kept violently shaking the poles of the bunk bed and yelling, "If I can't sleep, dammit, neither will you!" And neither did anybody in the bunkhouse, apparently.

My husband and I chose to brave the weather and camp, and were glad we did. There at 2,400 feet above sea level, the nights got down only to the mid-40s; I was plenty comfy in my summer bag.

We did have dinner at the canteen one night, and discovered that it's not something we want to do if we stay a week. The meals alternate between stew and steak every other night, the only exception being Thanksgiving Day, when guests are treated to turkey.

The food was delicious and plentiful, however, and beat dehydrated backpacking dinners, although I'm here to say those taste just fine after a six-hour hike.

We had planned to do some hiking on the canyon floor the next day, but my legs staged a violent mutiny. My husband started up the North Kaibab just to see what it was like; I mostly sat and enjoyed our campsite and the curious pair of mule deer that frequented it.

Speaking of wildlife, the opportunities for viewing seldom-seen critters abound at Phantom. Everything has learned that humans, careful though they may be, leave crumbs around, and your best bet is to forego the wild life in the canteen and hang around your camp at dusk.

Those who did reported sightings of ringtail cats, grey fox and even a bobcat in addition to the ubiquitous mule deer. We shared the trail with a desert bighorn ewe on the way down.

I was still stiff when we started the hike out. Some young Iraq War vets shared their Icy Hot, and a tip: apply it prophylactically BEFORE a hike. It was too late for me, but I'll remember that next time.

Even in delightful late fall weather, the hike out on Bright Angel was a slog. I thought I was in decent shape from my little daily runs with the dogs, but I was a hurting buckaroo. Scott and his wife were an inspiration; just when I was thinking I was way too old for this trip, I remembered the Scotts were still doing it at 10 years my senior.

I panicked when the sun went down with a mile and half to go, straight up, but our headlamps served us well, and we were far from the only people who got caught in the canyon after dark. Watching the color gradually fade from the cliffs was an awesome experience — yes, religious.

My legs are still sore, but I can't wait to do it again.

I asked Scott, who has been all over the world, why he keeps coming back to this one place.

"It's the Grand Canyon," he shrugged. "There's nothing like it in the world. They tell you there is, but there's not."


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