Column: I wasn't the oldest guy on the trail
Kingman resident Mike Hayes and his daughter, Maureen, are hiking the entire 800-mile Arizona Trail spread out over several weekends. This is the second part of their journey into the Grand Canyon. The first part ran on June 17.
While resting, we met a ranger and asked him about the injured hiker we'd passed. He said a helicopter would be used to transport her out of the canyon, probably using the "short haul" procedure.
The short haul method apparently involves use of a line hanging from the aircraft, at the end of which is a stretcher. Using this method, the helicopter doesn't have to land. If that method was used, the child who was with the injured woman either rode out with her or was escorted back up to the south rim by a ranger.
We left Indian Gardens around noon and proceeded along a plateau with a small stream, (Garden Creek) running about 20 feet below us. We'd cross this creek before it emptied into the Colorado. The terrain was level, yet those grand and glorious views stood out in front and above us, no matter which direction we looked.
Someone in the group commented that maybe most of the downhill walking was done. Steve replied, "We haven't gone down the Devil's Corkscrew yet." About the time Steve uttered "Corkscrew," the sound of a helicopter was heard. Looking back toward the south, its form visible and appearing the size of a gnat, it worked its way back into the canyon. I'm sure there was a feeling of anticipation among the participants and audience as the rescue took place. Additionally, a reasonable person would expect a lightening of one injured person's wallet. Not much of value in this world is free.
Shortly, we came to a turn in the trail, and we found ourselves looking out into space. This was the Devil's Corkscrew. Far across the canyon the trail could be seen hugging the mountainside as it wound its way down. Still, the walking was easy as we continued our descent. Then it got narrower, though the tread was still good.
The mountain face was on our right, so we'd hug the side of it to allow uphill hikers their passage rights. It would have been really interesting had the wall been on the left side.
Eventually, we got down to a more reasonable elevation and stopped at a saddle with no wall on either side. Clif and Andrew, who were in the lead, had stopped. They turned to talk to us, and just as they did, two enormous turkey vultures rose from behind them and flew side by side 3 feet over their heads. The vultures' wingspan seemed to extend to over 6 feet, but then everything in the Grand Canyon is big, so my estimate might be slightly exaggerated.
Around 4 p.m., we turned a corner and finally caught sight of the Colorado River. The Colorado is a large river, but wedged between canyon walls that seemed to reach to the heavens, it appeared small, another mountain stream. Adjacent to the trail stood another outhouse complete with telephone.
We'd descended about a thousand feet down the Corkscrew, and the view of the river made for a calming influence. About a mile ahead, two bridges could be seen; the further bridge serving those coming down the South Kaibab trail, while the closer bridge provided Bright Angel hikers with a way across to the campground.
It was a long mile to the bridge, but we made it, crossed the bridge and followed a path paralleling the river. Just a few yards down the trail, I was in the lead when Maureen, who was directly behind me, said, "Snake!"
Being a typical geriatric, I couldn't hear anything, but she said she heard it buzzing in a shrub just ahead of me. We couldn't spot it, so we walked off the trail and around the sheltering growth. There was no need to get into that kind of trouble at this point, even with an Eagle Scout in our company.
Andrew is one of those, and the next day during a break, I asked him what he'd do if one of us got hit by a snake. His reply was to remove jewelry (in case of swelling), keep the person in a position where his heart is above the bite, and send people in both directions on the trail to find help. I thought to myself that if I were bitten, I'd probably die of a heart attack anyway, so no trail running would be necessary.
Our first night was spent at Bright Angel campground, which consists of 31 separate campsites under the cottonwoods right beside the Bright Angel creek. The mules that provided the goop we had had on the bottoms of our shoes were in a corral directly across from us. Occasionally, a mule deer, knowing it was safe from long guns, would walk down the path between us and the mules. It was fun watching those mules perk up when one sauntered by. Their ears would stand up, and they'd stand quiet as statues, watching those deer intently.
The other hikers had hiked a quarter mile up the trail to Phantom Ranch, so I set up my bedroll and took a nap. When they returned, we cooked our suppers and the rest of the group set up camp.
Steve and Maureen had a tent, while the rest of us planned on a night under the stars. Around 8 p.m., the skies began clouding up though, and at midnight the rain started. It sprinkled at first, and my Wal-Mart poncho did a good job of keeping me dry, but soon the rain started coming down heavily. Maureen called out to Mark and I, saying there was room in the tent. Andrew and Clif had set up a tarp which was keeping them dry, but Mark had no protection. We took the Nowlands up on their generous offer, and eventually, the rain eased up, allowing us to leave Steve and Maureen's company.
The next morning dawned clear and cool, perfect (though unusual) walking weather. Temperatures in the canyon the end of May are normally in the low hundreds. The high the day before was just 80 degrees, and it appeared temps wouldn't get much higher on this day.
We'd done a little over nine miles the day before and had an 8-mile walk ahead of us, but it would be relatively level, so we looked forward to a leisurely three- to five-hour jaunt on a trail with no mule leavings. Mule trains run from the two main south rim trails to Phantom Ranch, and from the north rim to Supai tunnel.
The rest of the vast network of unmaintained trails in the canyon are free of equine waste. Heading out, we passed Phantom Ranch, where anyone contemplating a trip into the canyon should consider staying. Reservations must be made well in advance, but the hiker/mule rider will have clean sheets and a real bed to enjoy after having a good hot meal and a cold beer (or whatever) that evening.
Being Memorial Day weekend, the trail, both the day before and this day, was crowded. We were passing and being passed by rim-to-rim runners dressed in T-shirts, running shorts and running shoes, most carrying a couple bottles of water around their waists, and nothing more.
We learned later that Memorial Day weekend is one in which runners compete to do the run in the shortest amount of time. (I googled this run, and found an entry stating the record time for the 24-mile rim-to-rim run is slightly less than five hours, to travel 24 miles. I can't believe that.)
We were on the North Kaibab trail now but still down in the canyon, so I didn't know what the trail was like further on. Even so, what those runners were doing was grueling, and didn't look like a real enjoyable pasttime. We also passed a lot of backpackers, walkers of all ages.
At one point, we passed a woman who appeared to have dropped back from the rest of her party. We greeted her with the customary "Good Morning," and then noticed the red eyes, the handkerchief in hand and the big, big pack on her back. She needed a rest and some TLC.
A couple hours into our walk, the rain started again, so we took a break, broke out the tarp and ponchos, satisfied our nicotine addiction and waited it out. The rain finally ended after leaving us with more magnificent eye candy from the surrounding canyon walls. I guess rain clears the air, or maybe we just believe it does, but it doesn't matter in the Grand Canyon. Its size makes a person feel very small and insignificant.
About this time, we passed an older gentleman going the other way. He had water bottles around his waist but no pack. I said, "It's good to see another geriatric on the trail." He smiled, looked at me and said, "How old?" I replied with my age, 73. He kept smiling as he said "84."
Whoever you are, I thank you. You made me feel young.
The next landmark would be a fork in the trail where a path to the left takes the curious to Ribbon Falls. We didn't go, but having researched, I now realize we should have. The falls drop about 120 feet from a plateau higher up. The water originates from snowmelt and rain seeping into the soil to the north, races through Roaring Springs then drops to a lower level at the falls and forms Bright Angel Creek, finally emptying into the Colorado.
Back at camp
We arrived at Cottonwood campground around 2 p.m., having taken a good six hours to walk from Bright Angel campground, but the slow pace caused partly by the trail traffic also gave our bodies time to recuperate from the previous day's stroll. Everyone had sore muscles, particularly thighs and hips, caused I suppose by stress from the downhill trail.
Cottonwood campground is somewhat like Bright Angel in that it has the same amenities, an outhouse and running water. The camp's capacity though is just 40 souls, less than half that of its sister campground to the south. Like Bright Angel, reservations must be made via back-country permit four months in advance.
We'd chosen our site, set up camp and were sitting at the picnic table gabbing and waving to the many hikers passing by when we heard a long screech followed by a thunderous roar - seemed to last minutes, though it might have been as little as 10 seconds.
There was total silence. We looked at each other, the hikers stopped and cautiously looked over their shoulders - it was, we finally decided, a rock fall somewhere in the canyon.
Maureen and Steve, having kayaked in Alaska, said it sounded exactly like the sound made when a glacier sheds large amounts of ice in a phenomenon called "calving." We'd seen signs at Bright Angel campground warning hikers of falling rock, and we began taking those signs seriously at this point.
That afternoon, we filled our water jugs, then ate and sat down to a game of cards. That was followed around 8 p.m. by Taps and a comfortable bed under the cottonwoods.
To be continued...