Grand Canyon: An Expedition

Grand Canyon National Park

by Samantha Adler

If you want a reminder that you are just a small, little speck in a huge, titanic, wondrous earth, go stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

I had expected it to be beautiful (it is one of the natural wonders of the world after all), but wasn’t quite prepared for its mind-altering majesty. We pulled through the park entrance and barely parked before I leapt out of the car, ran to the edge, and leaned over the metal railing in complete awe.

It’s easy to get lost in the Canyon’s beauty and forget that it’s an awesome force of nature. You’re advised only to hike in the wee hours of the morning and evening, as the sun is too powerful during the day. Fliers are stapled every five feet, with photos of 25 year old marathon runners who expired because they refused to drink the recommended amount of water and take breaks. This Canyon is not to be taken lightly, even for the most fit of us mere mortals.

So I woke up at 5AM, hopped on the GC bus (yes, the park is so big they have a fully functioning bus system), and stumbled onto South Kaibab trail. The dusty orange path switched back and forth on the cliff face, inching slowly towards the bottom of the Canyon. With every turn my perspective of the Canyon would shift, but it never got old and it never got less intimidating.

Taking a break on a jut out, I sat beneath the one tree (and single source of shade for miles) and admired the view. Growing up I had seen this place in photos, in National Geographic, and all over geography textbooks. But, imagine tracking the southwest American wilderness in the late 1800’s and stumbling across this huge crack in the earth? I would have pooped myself (and they probably did due to dysentery).

Joseph Christmas Ives (cool name) set out to explore the Canyon via the Colorado River (what shaped this crazy structure and runs through the middle of Canyon) in 1857 on an expedition funded by the US government.

The area at the time was uncharted,  just a huge blank space on US maps, so the government paid Ives to chart this area. He gathered a crew and set sail on his steamboat the Explorer (very practical, Christmas). Unfortunately, they didn’t make it far; his boat crashed at a smaller canyon right outside and they continued on foot for thirty miles, reaching an overland view of the Canyon. He wrote:

"The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below."

It’s hard not to think in poetic prose when starring out on this vast maze of canyons.

Next up was Jon Weselly Powell, a one armed curious geologist and Civil War vet. Set out to conquer the wild Colorado (this river’s rapids are so powerful I could hear them from the overlook) with four man made wooden boats, an extensive knowledge about Ives’ journey, and ragtag team of civil war vets and trappers. The team made it further than Ives, crashing at the Lodore Canyon.

They then spent three months explore the upper canyons, eventually entering the belly of the Grand Canyon. However, by then the team had run out of food. Out of the original nine crew members, only six completed the journey. Powell named several important landmarks including the Lodore Canyon, Disaster Falls, and the Flaming Gorge.

Not to be deterred by his previous hardships on his initial journey, he returned again in 1871 with a group of scientists, set out to study the geology of the Canyon. The majesty of the Canyon changed him, and he dedicated his life to uncovering its mysteries one rock at a time. Afterwards he became the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, taking a keen interest on the geology of the American southwest.

If you’re a fit and brave soul, you can still trek to the base of the Canyon and ride the rapids of the Colorado (under the supervision of an guide and in a floaty raft). Sipping my water under the shade of a tree, I looked around at the deep and wide crevices all around me. I had walked for hours on groomed trails and I felt like an explorer. It’s not not to, despite having a path leveled for you, a hike still means braving an aggressive heat, steep inclines, and a new mind-altering view on every switch-back.

While I had set off to see a pretty sight once pictured in my text books, Powell and Ives went to study rocks in an area the government was too lazy to explore. And we had all stumbled on something that shook our foundation and reminded us we hold very little power next to a beast like the Grand Canyon.

* To learn more about the Grand Canyon explorers visit the Grand Canyon site here.