Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spring! Part II

Downhill hiking on a steep trail with a heavy pack (and for some reason my pack is always heavy, in defiance of repeated attempts to lighten it) has never been a favorite activity of mine. So when I finally reach my goal for the day, the very first thing that happens after unceremoniously dropping my burden is to remove my boots, and stick my feet in the cool and soothing waters of Hance Creek.

Soon hot, tired feet cease their complaining, although I notice that black half moon circles are starting to form under the nails of my big toes, confirming that I just spent the last 3 hours jamming both of my feet into the front of my boots.

There are several suitable camp sites located up and down the narrow canyon near the trail junction, however only one has the welcoming shade of a mature cottonwood tree. I noticed as I approached the creek that no one was around, so I quickly staked my claim to this idyllic and sheltered spot. To say I was pleased with myself for having the good fortune to arrive before anyone else is an understatement.

Hance Creek is a small, shallow rivulet of year-round water that provides liquid sustenance for countless plants and animals in an otherwise dry and austere desert setting. For folks from places where running water is abundant and often taken for granted, it may come as a surprise how revered and sacred such a small, apparently insignificant stream is to me or anyone else who has experienced how utterly lacking the Grand Canyon is in moisture.

To illustrate how vital this corridor of life support is, one only has to look up a few feet, beyond where the influence of water subsides. Down in the stream bed, willows, cottonwoods, insects, and other myriad forms of plant and animals thrive in a perpetually wet zone no more than 20 feet across. Outside this narrow envelope life exists, but not in any abundance and only to the extent that nature has developed mechanisms for coping with water deprivation.

Without the certainty of water, life here would surpass being merely difficult and transgress into nearly impossible - unless you're a cactus or other desert adapted plant or animal. For me, it would almost certainly mean a less enjoyable experience, as well as a much more challenging hike. Fortunately, such is not the case, and content with my lot I set up camp and begin to unwind.

After a warm, drowsy afternoon spent alternating between gazing spellbound at my surroundings and dozing in my camp chair, evening descends on the canyon. With it comes the croaking of amorous frogs, a few at first, then a swelling chorus, finally culminating in a soaring crescendo. The sound reverberates off nearby canyon walls, multiplying and echoing the lusty enticements until all other sound is drowned out in a cacophony of desire.

Fortunately I am tired, and the drone of love stricken amphibians soon becomes white noise with which to drift off to sleep.... until the moon rises and wakes me with lambent illumination. Unaware as I usually am regarding the phases of the moon, I was somewhat surprised when the nearly full lunar orb rose over the canyon wall, bathing the surroundings with pearlescent light bright enough to cast strong shadows.

I tried my best to capture the enchantment of the scene using a compact point-and-shoot camera in my possession, however the limited settings available did not allow for adjustment, so you'll just have to believe me when I tell you how I sat on a rock for over an hour marveling at the clarity afforded by the ghostly light. I certainly did not resent the interruption of my slumber, however when I did finally retire to my tent sleep came quickly.

I stayed in my sleeping bag late the following morning, later than I've ever slept on a canyon trip. When I finally rose around 8 o'clock, the day was well under way, although the frogs were silent, apparently exhausted from romantic endeavors during the night. With a full day to lounge around Hance Creek in idle slothfulness, I decided that a simple hike down canyon would help stretch tight muscles and loosen stiff joints.

Before any other considerations however I took time to have breakfast, then made a cup of coffee. I poured boiling water through a filter of ground coffee into my mug, then found a nice flat rock to perch on while sipping the stimulating brew. There are many simple pleasures in life but few compare to a good cup of java, a glorious tapestry of natural beauty, and a day unplanned as yet to unfold. All is right with my world.

Except, as I finish the last of the coffee, I notice there appears to be something semi-solid in my mug. Puzzled, I remove the lid and "pour" the unidentified object onto a nearby rock. It takes a moment, but my eyes soon recognize the amorphous lump lying in a heap as a.... frog. Yikes. My initial reaction isn't disgust or revulsion, but simply curiosity. I realize that at some point during the night the frog jumped in the mug, probably seeking refuge from unwanted suitors. Unfortunately for the frog, the end result was meeting doom in a scalding immersion of strong coffee. Incidentally, the frog did not improve the taste of my coffee, but it didn't hurt it either.

Well, the show must go on, so I rinse out my cup and prepare for the hike downstream. There is somewhat of a trail, but for the most part the walk involves following the creek. At first the canyon is shallow and open, but soon the walls of Tapeats sandstone rise overhead, limiting the view of sky to a narrow strip.

At random intervals stately cottonwood trees (populus fremontii) provide oases of shade, their leaves rustling gently in down canyon breezes. The only other sound is the burble of the creek as it makes a ceaseless pilgrimage to the Colorado River along the stony channel.

As the cleft grows deeper, the upper edge of the oldest layer in Grand Canyon emerges above the creek bed and below the ever rising Tapeats formation. The Vishnu Schist is metamorphic rock, long buried stone from the ever recycled crust of the planet. Enormous pressure and heat warped and twisted the submerged earth, fusing the past into dense, erosion resistant granite. This super hard layer is the bedrock on which the Canyon is built, and presents a dark, forbidding appearance to the Inner Gorge.

The day grows warm, and the exposed black rock of the schist absorbs and re-radiates the heat back outwards. Even with water and shade, this would be no place to be in the middle of summer. I've gone about as far as I desire today, and decide to head back to camp for lunch and probably a nap in the shadow of the giant cottonwood. I am after all on vacation.

Next: A Perambulation on the Tonto

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