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PaseoWILD 2015: Into Thick Thorns

This is the third installment in a three-part series about the second PaseoWILD expedition in September 2015.

“Though I knew I should watch the ground before each step, for thorny plants and rocks, I let my eyes and mind wander up the lofty cliffs—until a stabbing pain in my shin stopped me.”

Day 5

Habitat remained safe for a roaming cougar, as we advanced up Shinumo Creek, though prey was not abundantly evident. We saw no clear cougar tracks but a perfect cast of a bobcat track in dried mud enhanced the feline atmosphere, along with the occasional sign of bighorn sheep, rodents, and a ring-tailed “cat” (really, raccoon family) or two. Ironically, the aridity and topography (largely vertical!) of the Southwest probably mean its habitats cannot support as many cougars as would wild places in the East, like the Adirondacks or Smokies, were the great cats welcomed back to former eastern homes. Cougars thrive in the Grand Canyon more because of its wildness and inaccessibility to people and their machines than prey density. Grand Canyon’s biological richness is great, but for us more in insects and plants than in big meaty animals.

Thanks to the good work of the NPS veg crew and Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, Shinumo Creek has been kept almost free of the shrubby exotic trees tamarisk and Russian olive, which have taken over riparian areas on many streams in the Southwest. These alien plants displace natives, diminish biodiversity, and make traveling (for bushwhackers wild and human) miserable. Much of the native brush along Shinumo Creek had been cleared by the big floods of last year, so we were able to wear cooler, truncated clothes, rather than the long burly ones needed later in our bushwhack.

We cat followers continued scaling boulders, wading pools, and gawking at sublime scenes. The first big waterfall nearly knocked our shirts off. Shinumu Creek narrowed to a small V in the Muav Limestone carved into a chock-block by the surging water, which then shot out and plunged past fern-clad walls down thirty feet to a pool below. Danny and I both attempted standing under the torrent, nearly lost our shirts to the bruising water, and backed out, duly humbled—showers only in the side-spray!

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The many debris flows and log jams and even a few boulder dams along the creek spoke to us of the power of flowing water and how perilous could be a hike here if hard rain fell above. Apparently, a massive monsoon-season flood last year caused much of this commotion (similar to the debris flows and downed trees we saw in Bryce Canyon National Park on TrekWest and PaseoWild I). Rock and water live out a tumultuous marriage in Grand Canyon, where each shapes the other over this immensity of space and time.

Water again enthralled us as we followed a tributary of Shinumo Creek to its source. Even Grand Canyon veterans Danny and Kristen were dazzled by the deep cave in the Muav out of which gushed the creek, into a pool so clear-blue we could have read the Park Service’s backcountry camping permit several feet down. We were further enthralled by the lush riparian vegetation—from tiny ferns to hefty cottonwoods—all around. When Danny found a second cave, higher and drier, the place felt positively charmed. We could easily see why many people find many springs sacred. This and other springs along our way, Kristen and Danny were photographing, georeferencing, and measuring for the Spring Stewardship Institute’s springs survey, also led by Larry Stevens. We wished that Larry were with us now, but looked forward to telling him of our find in a few days. Larry, a brilliant ecologist, could have told us all the plants and insects in that verdant grove and explained the mystery of cliffs birthing rivers.

Our exploring Abyss River Cave consumed much of the afternoon and distracted us from our route. Enchanted by abyssal waters, we went too far up Modred Abyss, missing a smaller canyon on the left with a safer route up. At the next canyon junction, Danny and Kristen went left, Sarah and I went right, and we all soon returned saying the routes looked difficult and dangerous without technical climbing gear. We studied our maps and finally realized we’d missed the safe way. Back down we rushed, hopping boulders in the setting sun. After some discomfiting wading through shrubs too prickly to enjoy, we found our needed side canyon just before dusk, then found a nice little camp on Muav Limestone. Our moonlit view of the amphitheater formed by the converging canyons was as grand a sight and site as mortal eyes can expect to behold.

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Day 6

Our final day of following a cougar’s rough route across the Canyon was a doozy! All of us are experienced wilderness explorers, comfortable with long hard days. This one knackered us. Because of our slower, more exploratory pace earlier, as we began this last day, we were less than half way, vertically, up the huge North Rim canyon walls and ravines. We still had to climb 4000 feet on loose substrates through thick brush in blazing hot sun—when the terrain wasn’t too sheer to afford plants a purchase; then we just had to climb, ledge to ledge, hoping no one would slip and no big rocks would break loose. By now, I’d figured out how to lean on my left hand-wrist splint and get a partial grip on holds with that wounded limb, while keeping most of my weight on my feet and right hand; but I was nervous of my hand re-fracturing or simply failing to hold me.

My left hand never quite failed, thankfully, but I did suffer our trip’s first real mishap, and I blame it on the awesome scenery. Though I knew I should watch the ground before each step, for thorny plants and rocks, I let my eyes and mind wander up the lofty cliffs—until a stabbing pain in my shin stopped me. I yelped, and others yelled back from above to see if I was ok. I hit a cactus, but I think I can pull out all the thorns, I shakenly responded. I pulled out four, and felt proud of my grit, till I started walking again and pain increased. Dr Giovale sensed I’d not solved the problem and asked to look at my shin. There’s a divet here. I think that’s a spine, deeply imbedded, Danny warned. Danny and Sarah then proceeded to gingerly remove what proved to be an inch-long spine, with the flat blade of a knife and needle-nose pliers as I looked away and grimaced.

I like to think I’d have been walking more carefully if alone (oddly this was worse than any wound I suffered on 5000-mile long TrekWest two years ago), but I’m humbled by the thought I could not have removed that spine on my own and could have suffered pain and infection if I’d kept walking as it worked its way deeper into my leg. Grand Canyon humbles people in countless ways, from the unthinkably tall walls to scorching sun and plants you don’t notice till you impale yourself on them.

Other mishaps were smaller, excepting one that almost turned disastrous. We all got scrapes and punctures and were dehydrated by late afternoon. The near mishap that scared the other three of us most, though, was watching ever-agile Danny trotting back from scouting a way up the next cliff, when suddenly the steep ground beneath his feet gave way. Just in time, Danny scampered back up and gained the safety of a bush. My jaw dropped silently; Kristen breathed a deep sigh of relief. Sarah and I later asked him, Danny, do you know how close you were to a big fall? Not privy to our foreshortened perspective, Danny had just concentrated on finding a safe route for all of us. Thus, another humbling realization for me was that even so skilled and experienced a climber as Danny Giovale may have come within inches of sliding too far to stop, and then beginning a series of drops that could have been fatal. I was glad it was deft Danny on that loose substrate; lesser men might have slid to their end.

Kristen ably led us up and up, through millions of years of geologic history. Kristen’s navigation abilities and toughness in the face of adversity are already legend. In heat that had me thirstily dreaming of Adirondack lakes, she just kept trudging on, tirelessly pulling us toward the top.

That heavy webbing I’d been carrying for days proved itself again on a small cliff we all felt we could free climb but not safely in heavy packs, given the much bigger cliffs below. Danny and Kristen scaled it first (Kristen, back to the wall, so she could admire the heights!), while Sarah and I prepared the packs to be hauled up. When my turn came to climb, I struggled to suppress a paradoxical fear of heights. Shouting down, Danny offered me the line, but no one else had needed it…. The climbing was not difficult, just frightfully exposed. With gentle encouragement from friends above, I got my three solid limbs on good holds and pulled up to safety, silently apologizing for these dares to doc and family back home.

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As we were ascending this long rough thorny hot obscure route, we occasionally saw small cairns. These had probably been placed by “fish people\”, Kristen said. Apparently, the aquatic biologists and assistants who conduct monitor the endangered fish conservation projects on Shinumo Creek occasionally descend to the creek this relatively safe but arduous way, rather than the farther North Bass trail. We were no longer seeing the bobcat tracks we’d been following earlier, though the habitat all around looked safe, if sparse, for wild cats and their prey. Few if any human hunters or trappers would venture onto this largely vertical terrain.

After much more thrashing and scrambling, we saw big Ponderosa Pine trees and gained the rim. We celebrated by eating candy and gulping our remaining water, but Kristen warned us the challenges were not over. Again, she was so right. Small sections of the last five miles of walking, along the North Rim east of Lancelot Point, were open park-like stands of towering old yellowed pines  underlain by bunchgrasses and dotted with golden aspens. In one of these old-growth stands, we saw a Kaibab squirrel, an endemic subspecies of tassel-eared squirrel, vulnerable to guns, roads and climate chaos. Much more often, frustratingly, we were in a band of younger pine and aspen stands with a painfully thick understory of New Mexico Locust that wraps the Kaibab Plateau on three aspects in defiance of the ascending hiker, a bushwhacker’s thorny nightmare.

I won’t repeat our curses or groans, bursts of anger and ninja strikes with hiking poles. Suffice to say, we were badly scratched and dehydrated by the time we jumped for joy at the sight of Captain Kim Crumbo and a gallon of cold water. Kim had been patiently waiting for hours past our intended pick up time on a dirt road at the head of the side canyon, and was prepared to head into the thicket with lights and food and water if we did not appear by dusk. After we all guzzled water and exchanged fond thanks, Kim drove us to a group of conservation friends at Kaibab Lodge, where we were warmly embraced in a merry feast, before heading back out (in temperatures 15 degrees cooler than at our last camp) to a group campsite in Kaibab National Forest. Here Kelly and Kim can pick up the story of our PaseoWild weekend with fellow proponents of the Grand Canyon Wildlife Corridor and kids from Flagstaff’s Alpine Leadership Academy.

I’ll end with this note of wonder: We four two-leggeds were happy and gratified, but also weary and scratched and bruised, after taking five days to traverse rim to rim. Yes, we were mostly off-trail and often on side-trips; but still, we took days to approximate what one brave female cougar can do as part of her hunting route in half a day. Go cougars!

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2 thoughts on “PaseoWILD 2015: Into Thick Thorns

  1. Please make some more youtube video’s of these adventures with nature sounds in the background, explain the many benefits of being in nature (ecotherapy, shin rin yoku,etc), how all animals (including us) need biodiverse wildlands big and small.

    How Predators affect ecosytems, and how a float down a river can make a life worth living!

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