Canyons – Part II: The Grand Canyon

As I wrote yesterday, the canyon is deep – one mile down from the southern rim where we were, and even deeper from the northern rim which was as much as two thousand feet higher. The canyon is wide averaging about a mile, but actually varying in width from a half mile to eighteen miles. We could have gone to the north rim, but we were assured by several people we spoke to that the views from the south rim were more exciting.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon East Entrance Station in mid-afternoon. We had to pay a park fee again as we had to in Bryce Canyon. However, if we had our receipt from Bryce Canyon (as I did), we could use it as a credit for an annual fee to get into any federal park for a year. Since the cost of the annual fee was but a little more than the cost of the entrance fees to the two parks, we quickly agreed to purchase an annual pass. The deal paid off quickly when we visited two other federal parks on our way back to Toronto.

As in Bryce Canton, there were a number of points from which to view the canyon. At Bryce Canyon we had looked at the huge gorge from Sunrise Point, Bryce lodge, Sunset Point where we had returned in the evening, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. That was it. We decided not to go to the end of the road, a further eighteen miles, to Yovimba Point or Rainbow Point. We were totally satisfied with different perspectives from different locations at what was effectively different seats at the top row of the red rock amphitheatre.  

Our first sight of the Grand Canyon was from Desert Point, which you reach very soon after you pass the eastern entrance into the park. It had the watchtower designed by Mary Colter, whose structures were inspired by the architecture of the Puebloan people who occupied the Colorado Plateau. We would encounter several of her other structures, particularly Hopi House at the Verkamp’s Visitor Center, in about the middle of the public road on the south rim of the park. (More on this later.) The tower, as did Hopi House, was designed to blend into the rock rather than stand above it. The walls were textured as the rocks used in the construction had no pattern we could discern but seemed as random as the rockscape around. The rocks used were not shaped but inserted as they were found. Menno, who is our dry rock specialist and built the wall around our front garden, would be extremely impressed by the structure.

From the tower with its high band of white decorative rock, in fact, from the rim itself, you could see the Colorado River bend and twist as it moved westward. I actually enjoyed the view from the rim itself rather than from the small windows in the tower. However, to our surprise and amazement, we were initially disappointed – no, that is not the correct word – less enthused than we had been with Bryce Canyon. The Grand Canyon lacked the combination of intimacy yet large scale, the range of colouring and shapes that we viewed in Bryce Canyon. We thought, as well, that our expectations had been too high. We were somewhat taken aback.

One could not be disappointed. The views were spectacular. What we did not know was that, for us, the view from Desert Point was the least interesting of all the various perspectives from which we viewed the canyon. And there were many, very many. Far more than at Bryce Canyon. As we stopped at one after the other, skipping only two because we wanted to check into our hotel well before dark and get a good rest. Each had its unique vista and each was far more intriguing than the initial view from Desert Point.

At Navajo Point, just about a mile further into the park, the view was much better, if only because we had better perspective and could see both east and west of the canyon. Further, we were able to view the rock formations closer at hand. At Lipan Point we walked out to what was in effect one end of the top of an amphitheatre that went back in the direction from which we had come. We had both proximate and distant depth. Below us was an abandoned old copper and silver mine.

Each time we returned to our car, we drove through juniper and pinyon pines and it looked like the park workers raked the floor of the forest presumably to prevent fires. In fact, for one stretch we observed piles of underbrush, fallen branches and twigs that had been gathered in heaps, presumably to be hauled away. The greenery of the forest stood in such stark contrast to the rock formations.

I only wished that I had visited the canyon when I was younger, when I could have climbed down – or, more importantly, climb back up – the sides of the canyon along well-worn but nevertheless treacherous paths. I was not surprised to learn that over 770 people had lost their lives since the canyon had been opened to tourists. An average of 12 lose their lives annually, but only 2-3 from falls; many more die from dehydration. Nevertheless, the dangers are not to be underestimated. And in only a few select locations are there barriers along the rim.

Even when you stand on the rim and in the few places you can watch hikers on the path below, either the Bright Angel Trail just near the Maswik Lodge where we parked on the second day, or the South Kaibab trail near Yaki Point that we also saw on the second day (hikers can even get permits to camp overnight on the lower part of the canyon), you do feel you are somehow on the rim of one world with another rim of a different world in the distance. I think, since the day was clear, we could see for about fifty miles, perhaps more. Though you face only sky and rock and empty space, I felt as if I was looking at a physical replica of current politics in America.

The colours, though not as bright and spectacular as those in Bruce Canyon, were, however, more nuanced, crimson and beige, vermillion and grey, walls with deep alcoves rather than ribs. At many points, rock formations blocked our view of the Colorado River below. And when we did see it, the river looked more like a stream. And though we were told at one point by another visitor that those were rapids in one section below, all I could discern was a shift in colour to a grey-white. The river is too far below to be imposing.

Again, I wished I were younger. I wished I could raft down the Colorado River, gripping the shaft of my paddle in my left hand and my right over the end as I tried to stay in the raft and not fall into the rapids and strike my head on a rock. I was told that those in rafts are now required to wear head safety gear. If I fell in, would I pop up next to the boat or have to get to one of the shores as the rapids pulled me downstream?

I did not trust myself. When I was at camp in the summer as a nine-year-old going off to a canoe trip, the huge backpack holding our food supplies shifted when the canoe was hit with a wave, not a huge wave, but a wave nevertheless. I did what I was told not to do and my body went in the same direction as the food pack. I caused the canoe to flip.  A very auspicious beginning for a canoe trip and my unforgiving fellow campers who teased me for the loss of their pancake flour and other valuable ingredients.

Our lake had only been one mile wide and two miles long. The Grand Canyon itself ran for over 270 miles and the river for a much greater distance. The scale is overwhelming. The road on the southern rim covers perhaps 20-30 miles or so, a very small part of the canyon. The bus trip we took on the second day covered 8 miles. The spatial magnitude of the place is overwhelming.

But so is the temporal one. I was told that the Canyon itself exposes one-third of the historical formation of our earthly planet. For although the bottom of the canyon goes back 350 million years, the sandstone layer, the bright angle shale and the limestone levels go back, respectively to 550, 540 and 530 million years ago. The other 10-11 layers stretch back 250-350 million years. The gorges form an intriguing labyrinth which we only glimpsed rather than explored.

Go if you can when you are young. The geographic formation ranges over four states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with all kinds of places far from the horde of tourists that visit the canyon like ourselves. Even the domesticated part of the canyon that we did visit was so vast that it never seemed crowded. It was a pleasure to see how respectful and sensitive the tourists were to protecting the fragility of this geological masterpiece. There were no papers or plastic bottles strewn about. Perhaps the visitors had been intimidated by the canyon itself rather than the signs.

On the second day, we parked our car outside the Maswik Lodge (there are four or five lodges on or near the south rim, but we stayed at a hotel outside the park) and took the bus to explore the western end of the road on that relatively small part of the rim open to tourists, about eight miles to Hermits Rest. The views were surprisingly even better from Trailview Overlook and Powell Point where there had even been a uranium mine below started at the height of the Cold War. Hopi Point was even better; you can see a tall mesa standing all by itself in the middle of the canyon, Mohave Point and Pima Point are must stops.

It was from Mohave Point that we had the best view of the Colorado River and even what we were told were the rapids. We stayed on the bus and did not disembark and wait for the next bus at The Abyss. By that time, it was afternoon and we had not yet had lunch. After we returned from Hermits Rest (was it there rather than in the Hopi House that I saw the enormous Colter-designed stone alcove and huge fireplace?), we had lunch at the historic lodge, the El Tovar Hotel built on the very rim. It was similar to the huge log resorts built by the Canadian National and Pacific railway companies in Canada. But the best part was Hopi House next to it. Again, it was designed by Mary Colter. The tourist trinkets and paraphernalia were, like the house itself, not your typical array of Chinese-sourced offerings.

The Grand Canyon was America on a widescreen – its enormous divisions and the rocklike hardened views of the different sides. But a little historical digging proved the Canyon was rooted even deeper in the history of America and infused with its psyche. The Grand Canyon was a product of the tension between a collective good and individualist enterprise, in particular, the rivalry between the Santa Fe Railway that still brings tourists to the Grand Canyon and the pioneering Ralph H. Cameron who eventually succumbed to the machinations of his larger corporate rival. The Canyon has a history of mining, but of failed mines, not because of the quality of the metals recovered, such as copper, which were of extremely high grade, and some high grade silver, but the large cost of mining in the area and, even more importantly, transporting the ore to the distant refineries from the depth of the gorge.

I was also offended to learn that after Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 declared the Grand Canyon a national monument, a decade or so later, the first nation that lived and farmed on a section of fields beside the Colorado River just where we were looking down below were forced by the federal government to relocate because the Parks Authority did not want year-round residents to live in the park. Yet lodges for tourists were allowed to be constructed along the south rim.   However, wildlife survives. But other than some deer and the unusual Abert grey squirrel, with its long ears and rust back, we saw very little wildlife. Perhaps if we had had a wide ride down the Colorado River itself we would have seen much more. Perhaps we were spoiled as we saw deer on a daily basis in British Columbia. Hopefully, our grandchildren will survive global warming and be able to visit one of the world’s great wonders and see more animal life.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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