4 Days in the Canyon or How I Hiked the Boucher Trail in Low-Top Shoes
When I was out in Round Valley this past summer, visiting some rock art sites with Liz, she had suggested that I come along on an upcoming Grand Canyon backpack in October. I didn't commit at the time, but when Liz again suggested it to me later, I mentioned it to my wife. It turned out that she had to be in Phoenix that weekend to present at a conference, so I decided to say yes to the hike.Day One:
I drove down to the Canyon on Friday night and spent the night at my friend's place. Our meetup time was 9am at the Hermit Trailhead. I was already in the Park, but Larry, Liz, and Ray were driving up from Flagstaff. I got a garbled call from Liz at 8:45, but couldn't make out what was being said. I called back a bit later, and ciphered out that they were still outside of Tusayan, so I decided to head over with my friend to grab some breakfast. Turned out we had to go back
to my friend's house to grab green chilis, so by then it was 9:15. I got a call from Liz letting me know she was on the Hermit Road. I was on my way towards the Hermit Gate anyway, so I ended up getting to the trailhead not long after they did. In my rush to get out of my friend's place, though, I left my awesome lunch in her fridge! DOH! So I had to run up to the snack shack at Hermit's Rest and buy a prepackaged ham sandwich. Ick.
I got back to the trailhead and everyone was still making those tedious last-minute adjustments, so I joined in. We finally passed the info sign for the Hermit Trail at 10:30 - a little late! The drop down the Kaibab went swiftly, and we made a stop not too far down the trail to get out of our fleece gear. I had packed for warmer weather, so I had no long sleeved anything. The rim made me rethink that idea, but I didn't have much of a choice, and I knew we were going to get warmer as we went down. A mile (okay, 1.1 miles) below the trailhead, we encountered the reptile tracks in the Coconino. We stopped, gawked, and gabbed for a while until Larry mentioned that we might want to get a move on if we wanted to make Boucher Creek before true dark. We all knew we were late getting off the rim, so we humped our packs onto our backs again and headed downhill. The Waldron Trail junction passed quickly, then we hung a left on the Dripping Springs/Boucher - stopping first for a quick photo op at the junction. We made good time along the Dripping Springs Trail, though we were growing hungry. The group was well-matched and well rested - no one ended up miles ahead of anyone else along this portion of the trail. We passed blue spruce hiding in the shade of the towering canyon walls. When we hit the Boucher junction, it was time for lunch, according to most of us. We slipped off our packs about 20 feet down the Boucher in a very light drizzle to eat. Liz talked about some people from San Diego that her and Ray knew. Little did I suspect this would be a continuing theme for the entire hike! We needed to get moving, and the sky was still spitting rain at us, so Larry led off, followed by Liz, myself, and Ray. We discussed geology and the views until I was overcome by the need to find a bush. This was also a portent for the day. I ducked off the trail and fell behind everyone while I lightened my load. I caught back up with Ray not too far down the "trail", as it followed its broken path across the top of the Supai, overlooking Hermit Creek. Liz and Larry had stopped for a quick break, and when Ray and I caught up we admired the view for some time. The Hermit Trail was obvious on the eastern canyon wall, and Larry said, "I bet when we're coming back across there, we won't be able to see the Boucher." It was only moderately rough going - the trail was defined by wear, but went over boulder falls, in and out of small drainages, and in some cases vegetation made it harder to see where the trail went next. The group spread out some again, with Larry and Liz in front and Ray and I at the back. There weren't miles in between us, though. We were within eyesight most of the time. As the trail closed in on Yuma Point, the crew began closing up - perhaps because the trail got easier as it got closer to the point. We all took a break at Yuma Point, admiring the awe-inspiring view spread out below us, as well as the neat potholes of water at the point. We discussed how Yuma Point would make a camp site, but we all wanted to push on. We could see down into Travertine Canyon, and see where the trail crossed the saddle by White's Butte, but it was hard to see how it got to the saddle or where it went from there. I led off and we all made good time until we got to the top of The Descent at the head of Travertine Canyon. At first we joked about how it was not terribly hard, compared to other descriptions. "Lowering packs on this?" we asked - "It isn't bad at all."
Then it got bad. The trail got extremely steep and ill defined. There was one section where a washout made the trail a little less than one body-width across, wedged between an overhanging cliff on the right and a 100' drop to the left. That was followed by a 20' downclimb/scramble. That is probably where some people rope down packs, but we all were confident and made it down without any major issues. Then the switchbacks started, the first one being steep, indistinct, and half-covered by a recalcitrant tree. A water bottle popped off of my crappy carabiner and almost plummeted to its doom, save for Larry's quick action. The group quickly sorted itself into two separate groups again - Larry and Liz out front and Ray and I in the back. Ray and I talked trash about each other, the trail, etc. on our decent. We dubbed ourselves the B Team, because we obviously weren't keeping up with the other two. It was mentally and technically demanding - with lots of loose rocks, steep, short switchbacks, and many places to lose the trail. The physical aspect was secondary to the technical aspect of it - foot placement was critical, but so was route-finding. Both the A Team and the B Team lost the trail in several places and had to back-track to get back on trail. Ray and I both complained that it wasn't our muscles causing us to slow down and causing pain - it was our knees. The switchbacks were so short and so steep that ever step jarred your knees. We finally spotted a flat spot in the trail as it contoured around the west rim of Travertine Canyon, and by the time we got to it the light was starting to fade - the sun was below the rim, but true sunset wasn't for another hour. Ray and I caught up with Liz and Larry, and we took a quick break while they headed out again. About a quarter mile down the "flat" section of trail (which was only flat if you compared it to The Descent of the Boucher), my ham and cheese sandwich wanted out, so I had to take another bathroom break. Very bad.
I think they thought I died, since when I caught up with the group, Liz was sitting on a boulder with her first aid kit out, asking if I was okay. I had to explain the situation, and that I had anti-diarrheal pills. She kindly donated one of her Cliff Shots and I gulped down a couple Ibuprofin. We got back on the trail and caught up with Larry and Ray at White's Butte Saddle. Larry and Ray had briefly scouted the descent into Boucher Canyon, and said it looked steep. Liz's GPS put us at 1.5 miles from Boucher Camp. We put it to a vote, with Liz and Larry wanting to continue and Ray wanting to stay at White's Butte. My vote was obvious since I was feeling like crud. Larry said "I guess its a tie, but I think safety gets a vote too." Thanks Larry! We set up camp at a nice, broad area at White's Butte Saddle. Only problem with the site was the lack of water.
Fortunately for us, I remembered seeing some potholes with rainwater on the trail leading into camp. Feeling Liz's Cliff Shots and the Ibuprofin (and minus my pack), I took off with 2.5 liters to fill. The water was ugly but drinkable, and came back to camp with enough water for us to have hot food instead of cold Spam. I also produced two Cags - a special surprise in the Canyon. Ray professed it was the best beer he had ever drank. A good meal and a good deal of bull shooting occurred until about 7pm, when Ray retired. Liz started doing yo-yo tricks by headlamp, which worked well until her sting malfunctioned. Liz stated her desire to get an early start the next day, in order to get down to the river. Larry and I all agreed. Then we all went to bed.Day Two:
I awoke slightly stiff, but downed a couple Ibuprofin with my morning oatmeal. The sun wasn't yet up, but I was, so I putzed around and started getting my gear together. The rest of the crew was getting up with the usual whining and moaning. Ray and Liz sparred back and forth, but since I was done with breakfast I decided to head back down the trail to tank up - despite only being 1.5 miles away from Boucher, I always try to have lots of water. Ray and Larry came along, back to the little pool I used the night before, while Liz got her kit together. We quickly hiked back up trail and came to the pools. Larry was slightly incredulous that I would drink from such a pool, while Ray was suspicious that his filter might clog up once we got to pumping. Well, the water was tea-colored after being pumped, but it was certainly drinkable, although Ray's pumping left much to be desired and the filter needed to be cleaned mid-pump.
Back at camp, Liz was standing around, putatively waiting for us to return. When we hoisted our packs, though, Liz still had some last minute details to go over.
No worries, it was still early, and we hit the trail. The saddle was easy going, and then we hit the drop down into Boucher Canyon via a steep tributary. Unlike The Descent into Travertine, however, this drop was not bad. It was steep, absolutely, but the switchbacks were in much better shape and easier to follow. I think that having a night's sleep under our belts helped out as well. Once we dropped below the Redwall, it was easy cruising down relatively gentle switchbacks on a wide trail to the junction with the Tonto. Larry was screaming down ahead of everyone, but Liz, Ray, and myself were all moving at a comfortable pace. Ray quipped that we were all on the A Team today, and that Larry was on the Super A Team. The hike down was really beautiful, and when we finally dropped into Boucher Camp it felt like heaven on earth. We had different beautiful side canyons stretching in all directions, with a babbling brook, a faint waterfall from an alcove, and trees. Best of all - not a soul in sight. Liz, Larry, and myself got our campsites staked out and set up, and we threw on our daypacks to head down to the River. Ray needed more time, so he declared that he'd join us. Downcanyon.
The hike from Boucher Camp down to Boucher Rapids is beautiful. The canyon winds through Vishnu Schist as it drops rapidly. Wildflowers were still in bloom at the bottom of the canyon - quite the contrast from the changing oaks at the rim. The stream was flowing basically the entire way down to the confluence with the Colorado. At one point we could hear the mighty current pounding against the rocks of Boucher Rapids, and I got goose bumps while my heart started racing. Larry, Liz, and myself spent a good hour at the beach, waiting for rafters to appear with beer, as well as Ray to come downcanyon. No rafters ever arrived, but the beach was secluded (though it offered poor camping), but when Ray showed up we did pump some water from the creek. Not long afterward we headed back upcanyon. We found a sign for Larry - a quartz cross in the Vishnu Schist, while Ray wore the ram's horn with pride. Just before reaching camp, Liz found the old cabin at Boucher Camp, which we spent time exploring. Larry found the "prospect" marked on Liz's topo. We hiked over to see what that was all about - someone spent a lot of time making a 30' deep tunnel into the Vishnu Schist. I can't imagine why. The group then split up - I went downcanyon again to bathe, which I sorely needed. The others did the same elsewhere. By the time we got back to camp, it was time to start cooking dinner. Much bull shooting occured in Boucher Camp that night, until lamps went out and we all went to bed, lulled to sleep by the music of Boucher Creek.Day Three:
Day three dawned dismal and overcast. Larry and I shared the same thought; I don't like the look of those clouds. We tried to pack up camp quickly, but Ray and Liz got to discussing old times and it took us two hours to finally clear out of Boucher. We headed back up to the Tonto Platform and started cruising eastward.
I love the Tonto. The views were gorgeous, and the hiking was easy. I slow down significantly on the uphills, but Liz and I were moving along at a decent pace, while Larry was way out in front and Ray only about a quarter mile ahead. We caught up with Ray at the head of Travertine, which was totally dry. While Liz and I were snacking, Ray took off. Not thirty seconds later, we all heard an enormous crash and boom. Our first thought was rockslide, but nothing came tumbling down on us, fortunately. The clouds were moving in faster, so I picked up the pace. I had just caught up with Ray when the rain started coming down. We all changed into our rain gear, trying to keep ourselves as dry as possible as the squall dumped water on us. I looked across Travertine Canyon, just before hoisting my pack - sure enough, there was a fresh rockfall on the west side! I can't believe we had just heard that massive wall of rock come crashing down.
I was the first with the gear on, and since I didn't want to get caught in serious rain, I booked it. The Tonto provides some easy cruising, so I just put myself in high gear and made tracks across the platform. I shot some pictures of Hermit Rapid and recovered Larry's dropped water bottle, and was the second person from our crew to make it to Hermit Camp. We were just 15 minutes late to get the ledge camp, but it turned out alright. I staked out a spot and set up camp. Not long after I had my tent up, Liz and Ray came rolling into camp. The original plan had been to hike down to Hermit Rapid, but that plan began unraveling. Ray didn't care much about going down, Liz was tired, and I was concerned about flash flooding in the canyon. Larry decided to hit the trail anyway, and took off for the rapid. The rest of us sat down to eat lunch, when the skies opened up again. We changed venues and took our lunches in our tents. I love my Eureka! Zeus Exo II. The vestibule was perfect - I sat inside the tent but had my food outside the tent. No crumbs inside!
Liz berated us for hiding from the rain, so Ray and I emerged and decided to go for a swim - I figured it would be easier to get away from a flash flood at camp as opposed to being closed in downstream. The water at the swimming hole was chilly, and little spotted fish Ray and I labeled "nibblers" kept nibbling on our toes. Liz finally convinced us to get "all in", so we did. After a hearty cannonball and some shivering moments on the nearby rock to dry off, I felt pretty good. Good enough to take a nap, in fact. Liz and I headed up to the campsite, while Ray stayed down to practice his pumping. I laid out on the sand and took a siesta while Liz talked about her experiences in the canyon. I was paying attention, mind you, I was just also in a happy place without a care in the world.
Larry made it down and back to the rapid in 1.5 hours, and then took a dip in the swimming hole as well. Before dinner, I took a stroll up to the old resort with my Geiger counter*, but before making it back to camp, ran into Ray and Liz. We headed back up into camp and did some more exploration. We found the remains of the old tramway, a toilet, as well as some modern day left-behinds, including some Chef Boy-R-Dee and "Ranch Style Beans". I voted to eat the beans that night. The others demurred. I didn't really want to pack out another can anyway, so no beans it was. After dinner back in camp, Liz and I explained that we were hiking out early. Ray didn't believe us, but that was his issue. Larry said he'd stay with Ray. It was decided. Another early night as the stars wheeled above us.Day Four:
I awoke at 2:30 and went promptly back to sleep. I awoke again at 3:30 and figured I had better get up. I woke Liz up and made some oatmeal. After some shuffling and bumping, we had both packed our gear and hit the Tonto at 4:30 under an almost full moon, and with no headlamps. The Canyon was amazing - lit up with that pale blue-white light. We made the junction with the Hermit Trail in no time, and then began what I called The Grind. Nothing left to do but grind it out. We slowly ascended the Hermit Trail towards the Cathedral Stairs. By the time we had cleared the Redwall, the sky was beginning to grow light, but the sun hadn't risen. We trekked along the Supai, slowed by irritating rockfalls both large and small. Liz and I sang camp songs, sailor songs, and railroad songs to pass the time. Liz also kept a constant watch for the other members of our party. The going was slow, but I felt good. I wasn't hurried, and my temperature management plan was working perfectly - since I had taken off my fleece at the intersection of the Tonto and the Hermit, I had maintained a constant temperature. While the higher elevation cooled things, the advancing day warmed things, keeping me in balance. I loved it!
We took a decent break at the not-so-comfy Santa Maria Springs rocking chair, and then made our final ascent on to the top of the Supai. The end was in sight, with less than two miles to go. We slogged it out, pushing towards the top. I think that whoever designed the steps on the Hermit wasn't 5'2". My legs burned, but I kept pushing through. The end was finally in sight when I saw the glistening of car windshields. I was the first out of the canyon, and I promptly took off my pack, pulled out my camp chair, and kicked back to wait for Ray and Larry. Liz did exactly the same. We didn't have to wait long. Ray came literally running down the last stretch some half-hour after we got out. A quick round of congratulations and it was off to Maswik lodge for some overpriced but dang satisfying food. Ray, Liz, and I enjoyed a post-hike celebration in the parking lot as Ranger Friendly drove by, and then it was splitsville. This was one of the best backpacks I've done, and Larry, Ray, and Liz are all awesome to hike with. I'm looking forward to our next trip.
*I brought down my pocket Geiger counter, a Ecotest Terra-P made in Ukraine, for this trip. I was especially interested to see what sort of beta/gamma counts I could get from various locales. I tested our camp at White's Butte Saddle (.10 uSv/hr), Boucher Camp (.18 uSv/hr), Boucher Creek (.12 uSv/hr), Hermit Creek (.12 uSv/hr), Hermit Camp (.27 uSv/hr), Bright Angel Shale above Hermit Camp (.34 uSv/hr). The last location, the Bright Angel Shale, was hot enough to trigger the built-in alarm in two separate locations, preset to .3 uSv/hr. Kind of interesting. I can't wait to take it down to Horn Creek and see what kind of readings I get there!A Note on the Title
This trip was my first backpacking adventure using low-cut trail shoes, as opposed to hiking boots. Larry said to me at Boucher Camp, "I can't believe you're hiking the Canyon in those. Don't you need the ankle support?" I have strong ankles. After seeing others use hiking shoes in Grand Gulch on trips, I figured I'd give it a try myself with my Chaco Redrock Mesh shoes. Ventilated for breath-ability and lightness. I have always loved my Chaco shoes, but even moreso now; I didn't have a single hot spot to tape. Out of our whole group, I believe I was the only one who didn't need to tape anything on their feet. I also didn't need to wear sock liners. And then I strapped them on again today and wore them to work. I'm sold on them for backpacking - if they can handle to Boucher, they can handle any trail I throw at them.