Outdoor column: Grand Canyon and small humans

From time to time something happens that puts into perspective not just my own life and achievements, but the scale of human accomplishment in general. Usually the thing that “happens” is nature.
 This past week my wife, Deborah, and I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. It is difficult to describe that first impression, walking down toward the edge and seeing the breathtaking vista begin to open up before us.
It took some effort to get there, so our anticipation had plenty of time to build. We were in Tucson for a week to watch the first nine games of the Middlebury College baseball season. But while that put us within the borders of the “Grand Canyon State,” the nearest entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park is still about five and a half hours’ drive north of Tucson, across swaths of desert dotted with giant sequoia cacti, through the cities of Phoenix and Flagstaff, and up and over mountain passes where the elevation climbs from about 3,000 feet to over 7,000 feet.
Still, that’s a whole lot closer than it would have been to drive from Vermont. And visiting the Grand Canyon was the top item on Deborah’s bucket list. She has been expressing a longing to visit there since we got married 27 years ago. It was one of the main attractions (along with watching our son play baseball, and a chance to experience March temperatures in the 80s) that drew us to Arizona. So the anticipation of standing on the edge of the canyon had been growing for decades, not just a few hours. When the Tuesday afternoon game ended, we hopped in the car, turned onto the interstate, and headed north. After dinner, gas and rest breaks, we pulled into a little motel in Marble Canyon at the very head of the Grand Canyon around 11 p.m. — too tired and too late to see much of anything.
In the morning we drove five miles from the motel to Lee’s Ferry, the only road access to the Colorado River within several hundred miles, where rafts put in to begin the two-week float through the canyon. There we sat and watched the sun rise over the Vermilion Cliffs of Marble Canyon, and Deborah graciously allowed me two hours to stand in the water and cast my fly rod while she took photos and read. I then packed up my rod and we moved a few miles downriver and stood on the Navajo Bridge looking down to the canyon bottom already nearly 500 feet below.
The blue-green water at the bottom of sheer cliffs dropping below a flat desert landscape was spectacular. It got even better when a pair of California condors — the largest land birds in North America — appeared. Just a few decades ago, the species was extinct in the wild, and only survived thanks to captive breading and reintroduction. Their numbers have climbed, but only slowly. Though they can live to be 60, they breed only every other year starting at the age of six. With still fewer than 500, each bears a wing tag so every individual can be accounted for.
We watched as they soared along the rim, showing off their 10-foot wingspans before taking up perches on the undergirding of the bridge. But while the scene dwarfed even these tremendous birds, it was still only the barest hint of what we would see that afternoon when we stood on the south rim. After snapping some photos, we hopped back into the car and drove another hour and a half to the National Park. That was where the fullness of the view finally opened up to us, and left us speechless for several minutes, our faces wet with tears of awe and delight.
The canyon’s name is not an exaggeration. The scale is mind-boggling. The average depth is one mile; Mount Mansfield could be dropped down into the middle of the canyon, and it would not reach the top. And it averages 10 miles wide. But the scale only magnifies the beauty of the sharp angles and jagged edges of rock pinnacles, varied textures and colors of rock and dirt, sparse but tenacious trees, patches of snow in the shadows, and occasional glimpses of a mighty river that was so far down it looked like a mere trickle.
Three elk wandered out of the trees near the parking lot. We got a close-up view of two more condors perched on trees by the edge of the gorge: birds tagged as E3 and J1.
We spent the afternoon just wandering from lookout point to lookout point, with only one short walk down below the canyon rim. Every turn of the corner, every new angle, opened up another breathtaking view. We took the time to read many of the plaques sharing some of the history, geology and other facts about the place. One stood out to me in particular. Each year more than 200 people have to be rescued from the canyon. Most of these folks are young and healthy, and presumably feeling confident in their hiking, backpacking and planning skills. The story is generally the same. They set out on an adventure — often an attempt to get to the bottom and back in one day. And either they overestimate themselves, or they underestimate the grandness of the canyon and the extremes of the heat and dryness. Was it a lesson in human hubris?
Though I dreamed of one day rafting the length of the canyon, we felt no need to get down inside that day. Seeing the view from the top was enough. At least for a time, I think I will have a more appropriate sense of both human space and the greatness and beauty of creation.
THE COLORADO RIVER snakes blue at the head of the Grand Canyon as seen from Navajo Bridge shortly after sunrise. Photo by Matthew Dickerson

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