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House Rock Valley to Vasey's Paradise:
A Grand Canyon backpack

Day Three: October 7

We woke up this morning to a beautiful day. Though the wind storm had shaken us up a bit the night before, all of us survived the night well, and were just a little better for the experience. Even Dave, with all the time he spent hiking this canyon and rowing the Colorado River within it, said he had never seen a storm quite like that one before. But today's perfect weather left no recollection of the wicked night before. The sky was blue, the air was fresh, and the temperature was comfortable.

When I saw Charlene crawl out of her tent to taste the morning air, I quickly wished her a happy birthday. It was going to be a much easier day for us than my birthday had been, that was for certain. Today we would spend near the camp, doing a little local hiking, resting, and simply enjoying this little corner of the Grand Canyon that we had worked so hard to get into. After breakfast, and after a bit of chatting and enjoying the morning sun, we re-grouped for a short hike downriver to visit Stanton's Cave. The cave was located near the bend of the river, just upstream from Vasey's Paradise. The walk to it took us past the many tent sites of our rafting companions, who like us would be spending the whole day here before moving on, and then along a narrow stretch of sand beach before coming to the rocks below the cave. It was an easy climb up to the cave itself, and once inside its opening, Dave gave us a little more of its history. When Stanton came here over a century ago to survey for the railroad, he and his team used this cave to store their equipment when they left for the season so it would be there when they returned. The cave is actually what is known to geologists as a "solution cave", meaning that it was formed by the waters that flowed through the many layers of rock to ultimately pour into the river just below. Today the cave is dry, as it was during Stanton's time. But once, long ago, water poured forth from its mouth much as it does from Vasey's Paradise now. Vasey's is also a solution cave, and someday could rival Stanton's Cave in width and depth. The opening to Stanton's is very large, and it's easy to see how he could have used it as his storage depot. Today there is a large iron gate that has been erected about fifty feet or so into the cave, used to prevent people from damaging the cave and using it for trash. There is evidence inside the gate that fires have been burned in here by thoughtless campers as well. The gate, while unsightly, does protect the cave while still allowing the bats and other animals that use it for shelter to come and go freely.

While in the cave, we also talked about the river flowing below us. Before the dam was built, the river flowed thick and muddy. The waters were warmer, and many species of aquatic life that once thrived under those conditions are now gone. Today, the water is clear and green. The green tint is due to the algae growing there, which is now able to take hold because of the clarity of the water, allowing sunshine to penetrate its depths. The cold temperatures and crystal-clear water are caused by the dam upstream. The Glen Canyon Dam releases its water at the bottom of the reservoir rather than from the top. Thus, the coldest water is released, having temperatures as low as forty degrees Fahrenheit. The dam also traps the rich sediments that once were carried downstream, and gave the river its characteristic thick, muddy appearance. These sediments were important in maintaining the many sand beaches along the river such as the one we were now camped on. Now, without the constant replacement of these sedimentary deposits, the beaches are slowly eroding away. Many, in fact, are now completely gone, and ones like the one here near Vasey's Paradise will probably disappear within the next ten years. Fish are still plentiful in the river, but not the same species that were here when Powell rafted these waters. Today, the Colorado River is known for its trout. Trout love cold, clear waters. But so many other forms of both plant and animal life in the river are gone because of these changes.

For all its compromises to the ecosystem, the Glen Canyon Dam only produces about three percent of all the electricity for the southwest region. It is by the mistakes of the past that we should be able to learn to do better in the present. Dams such as this one that filled the once spectacular Glen Canyon with water are now showing us some of these mistakes. Hopefully we will act more wisely in the future.

After leaving the cave, we went back to camp for more R & R, followed by a leisurely lunch. After lunch, Dave took us for another walk, this time upstream to visit some Indian ruins that we had spotted the day before on our climb down the final cliffs leading to the beach. We had the rest of the day to ourselves, to do whatever we pleased. I opted to head back downstream and visit that narrow stretch of beach beyond all the campers, with book in hand, to do some serious sun-worshipping. Feeling close to the natural world all around me, I couldn't see the point of keeping any bit of my clothes on, so off they came, and I laid down on the sand to enjoy the canyon the way nature intended. I noticed that off in the distance, on some rocks in the river, some of the rafters had the same idea as I did, bathing in the cold Colorado waters, and letting the sun dry every inch of their bodies. This is the way the Grand Canyon makes you feel. Colin Fletcher felt it many years ago when he hiked the canyon's entire length, much of it wearing nothing but his boots. Now we had the chance to feel it too. This is truly a wonderful place.

As the day drew to a close, we ate our dinners, and prepared for the next day's big hike up from whence we came. Dave wanted us to get a very early start, and judging from the time it took us to get down here, none of us could disagree. I packed up what I could that night, filled my water bottles, and went down early for my last night's rest in the canyon. There was much apprehension about the day to come, but it didn't keep my sleep away. It was all uphill from here.

Day Four: October 8

We were on the trail by 7:00 in the morning. Most of us were awake before dawn, and prepared our breakfasts in the dark, before packing up and getting ready to head out. Knowing that it would take us most of that day's offering of sunlight to reach the rim, we had to get an early start.

In the Grand Canyon's inner gorge, as well as in most of the side canyons, the walls are so high and the space between them so narrow that there are only about 4 hours of direct sunlight to be had during most days of the year. What this meant to us hiking out that morning was that we had a great advantage in not having to walk under the sun's scorching rays for a big part of the day. By starting out at 7:00, we stretched this advantage even further. Climbing up the steep cliffs above our camp was much more bearable in the shade that in the sun. It made the scenery more invigorating as well, being able to watch the sun's rays tickle the highest cliffs above us, and emphasizing their colors and texture. It seemed that in no time at all, we were at the point where we first laid eyes on Vasey's Paradise and the river below. After a loud good-bye shout down to our river-bound friends, we were quickly rounding the next bend and walking along the narrow path that would take us to our goal. Nancy took the lead that morning, with me close behind her. We were careful not to get so far ahead of the rest of the group that we would not be in shouting range, but for some reason, Nancy and I had fast legs that morning, and for some time we seemed to be setting the pace for the rest of the group.

The morning wore on, but still we were hiking in the shade. An occasional breeze and the mild temperature that day made the going fairly easy well into the lunch hour. After we stopped to eat, and were once again on our way, the sun began to peek out over the rims above us, and though it still wasn't a hot day, the added heat made things a bit slower for all of us. After an hour or so of hopping boulders and slowly gaining elevation, Charlene began to feel a little ill. Her stomach was queasy, and she wisely reported this to Dave. We had her drink some water, and Nancy, noticing that she was the only one in the group without a hat, quickly asked me to dampen a bandanna and let Charlene wrap it around her head. Since we were fast approaching the point where we had cached our water on the first day, Dave told her that we would take a nice break when we got there to cool off.

We got to the cache, and found it just as we had left it. The whole gallon that Dave had originally brought down, plus the liter I had left were not only there waiting for us, but had been in the shade the whole day, and so were nice and cool. We rested in between some large boulders and under some trees, which made this a very cool stopover point as well. Bernie was a bit low on water, so I shared some of mine with him, since I now had more than I needed. It wasn't long at all before Charlene was feeling her old self once again.

Now all that remained for us to do was to climb back up the wall. From where we now stood, we could see the rim, and thus, the end of our journey. But it would not be easy to get there. Just as it had been a long climb down to this point on the first day, it would be a long and almost as difficult climb back up as well. I add the "almost" because despite the vertical climb, it was actually easier to go up these steep cliffs than down them. Dave told us this from the start of the hike, and it was being proven now. Following his lead, up we went. Just as on the way down, we had to occasionally remove our packs for Dave to carry up at certain points, but not as often as we did coming down. We were slow in our ascent, but steady, and as the afternoon wore on, the end our trek came ever closer. At one rest point, Dave pointed out the chute we had come down the first day, right below the rim where we had camped. With that in sight, we headed on tirelessly, and by 4:00 in the afternoon, we had reached the top.

At The Top

What a sight it was standing at the end of our hike, looking down the canyon at what we had accomplished. After a few pictures and lots of smiles, we went to our vehicles, changed a few clothes, and headed down that long road to meet again in an eatery at Vermillion Cliffs, just a short way from Marble. It was good to have "real" food again, and even better to eat in each other's company. What was once a group of strangers was now a group of people with a great undertaking in common. None of us would ever be quite the same. No one is ever the same after spending time hiking the Grand Canyon.

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Here are some links to related sites that may be of interest:

The Glen Canyon Institute

The Grand Canyon Field Institute

EMI, the ecosystem management company run by Dave and Nancy

The official web site of the National Park Service

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