Taking the hard way into the sacred, threatened heart of the Grand Canyon

This is a place where distance twists. I awoke this morning only one mile from the nearest road, legs cramping as I stepped out of my sleeping bag and watched the sunlight slide its way down the canyon walls. One mile, but a tortuous, inverted mile of ledges, boulders, cliffs and rust-stained layers of millennia. One mile as the raven flies, but a mile so riddled with downdrafts and vertical gain that it seems it would be a daunting ascent even for the winged.

Anti-Escalade art graces the sides of an abandoned jewelry stand in western Navajo Nation.
Photo: Podmore

This is where measurements fall to dust. This is the Grand Canyon.

I’m taking an unusual route into the national park. Over two trips I’ve ridden flash floods nearly 60 miles down the Little Colorado River, which flows across the Navajo Nation to join the Colorado River deep in the canyon. I’m now just a few turns from the confluence. Yesterday, I paddled past a bubbling travertine-rich spring where, according to Hopi tradition, humankind first emerged into this world. For much of the year, the lower Little Colorado flows powder blue from these springs, standing in stark contrast with the red walls of the canyon and the parched desert beyond. Though heavy rains have temporarily turned the river into a muddy soup, this sheer-walled sanctuary seems a fitting setting for the birthplace of humanity.

“There’s So Much Potential Here For Economic Remuneration And Profit That The Developers Aren’t Going To Go Away. It Would Be Irrational.”
– Kevin Fedarko

Others are determined to tap its potential as a lucrative tourist attraction. Developer R. Lamar Whitmer, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is pushing to build a billion-dollar resort here. The so-called Grand Canyon Escalade development would include boutique hotels and restaurants on the canyon rim and a cable gondola capable of whisking more than 10,000 people per day to a “River Walk” development near the confluence. Tourists would be able to order corndogs and ice cream within spitting distance of this place—held as sacred in Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni traditions—which today is most commonly reached on a river trip of more than 200 miles, or a tough multi-day hike.

Like many river-runners, I’d followed the Escalade proposal closely for several years. It was on my mind when, a few months earlier, I watched a flash flood moving down the Little Colorado from the window of an airplane. As I looked down onto the ribbon of water cutting through Navajo country I began to wonder: What would it be like to paddle the Little Colorado into the heart of the Grand Canyon? Twenty-five thousand boaters float past the confluence each year on the Colorado proper. But how many—five? ten?—wait for the rain and ride its little sibling to the same place?

When the plane landed, I told a few kayaker friends that I was going be keeping an eye on the weather in northern Arizona. Then only ten days later, NOAA issued a storm warning for the area. High in the Little Colorado basin the rains hit hard, bringing the river from 10 cfs to several thousand cfs almost instantaneously. Based on past hydrographs, I estimated it would take 46 hours for the water to reach the Cameron, Ariz., put-in. I called Will Stauffer-Norris, with whom I’d paddled 1,700-miles down the Green and Colorado rivers in 2011, and 900 miles from the source of the Colorado to Lake Mead the following year. Mid-week before the Super Bowl wasn't the ideal time to drop everything, but the river wasn't going to wait.

Zak Podmore paddling the flood just downstream of Cameron, Arizona.

Two days later, after frantic packing, nine hours of driving and two hours of sleep, Will and I are standing on the bank of the Little Colorado, watching 1,000 cfs of milk-chocolate colored water swirl past. Just hauling our kayaks an eighth of a mile from parking lot to the water is an ordeal. They are almost laughably heavy, weighed down by camping gear, camera equipment, drysuits, 18 hardboiled eggs, $25 in gas-station Slim Jims. We also carry four gallons of water, meant to last us nearly 60 river miles and the 3-mile, 3,000-vertical-foot climb back to the rim.

The drinking water is a recent addition. On the way to the put-in our shuttle driver, Brady Black, shot us a boyish grin half-veiled behind a long mustache. “Did you guys pack any water?” he asked. The Little Colorado’s water was so full of silt that it couldn’t be filtered, Brady warned, even after settling overnight. We could boil it grit-and-all and face the consequences of sand-blasting our guts, or we could pack it in.

As we shove off and the highway bridge vanishes behind us, I’m gripped with a sense of apprehension. We could run out of water in two ways: Our four gallons of drinking water could be too little, or the rain-fueled pulse of river water could dry up beneath our kayaks leaving us knee deep in mud at the bottom of the canyon. Or both.

Will doesn’t seem to share my concern. He’s already slipped into his characteristic it’ll-all-be-fine mindset, which is so pronounced at times it’s become a running joke between us. The worse things get, the more vocal his optimism. I assume the role of expedition cynic, if only to even things out.

Soon enough though, Will’s ease becomes contagious. After so much last-minute preparation, it feels good to be floating. “It looks like we’re going into a mini Marble Canyon,” Will remarks as the river carves through the same layers of rock we've passed at the start of our Grand Canyon river trips—cliffs of Kaibab limestone, crumbling slopes of the Toroweap formation. When we enter the harder Coconino sandstone, the canyon becomes a twisting channel just 20 feet across. On his famous 1869 exploration of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell named the 61-mile stretch below Lee’s Ferry Marble Canyon. What was then known as the Big Canyon begins at the confluence with the Little Colorado at the proposed tram site. Powell would promote the adjective from ‘Big’ to ‘Grand’ several years later.

Artist Martin Simpson’s rendering of the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade, a tram which would carry up to 10,000 people per day to the floor of the canyon.

It seems unthinkable that 146 years after Powell made the first known descent of the Grand, 97 years after it became a national park and 50 years after conservationists succeeded in preventing a series of dams that would have flooded it, the gateway to America’s most iconic park would face the threat of an enormous development project on the canyon floor. Indeed, most people I talk to about the plans have the same question: “Seriously? Do you think the tram could really happen there?”

Footage from Day 1 on the Little Colorado River.

There’s little chance that the park service would allow such a project within their jurisdiction, but from Lee’s Ferry to the confluence only the north bank of the river is national park land. The south rim belongs to the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States. Some 200 miles downstream, the western third of the Grand Canyon is similarly divided between park and tribal jurisdictions. In 2007, outside developers partnered with the Hualapai tribe to build the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-floored steel horseshoe that extends 80 feet over the canyon rim. The Skywalk draws some 300,000 tourists a year, many on package tours from nearby Las Vegas. A steady stream of helicopters ferries visitors to the Skywalk, to the canyon floor for a 15-minute boat ride on the Colorado River and back to the Strip in time for dinner. Lamar Whitmer, the developer behind the Escalade proposal, was instrumental in lifting the FAA ban on helicopters flying below the rim in the western canyon, according to Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust. The area now sees tens of thousands of flights each year. “From Diamond Creek down it’s like the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now,” says Sinjin Eberle of the conservation group American Rivers. Boaters have taken to calling this stretch Helicopter Alley.

“The developers have very cannily perceived that there is a giant loophole in the protections that have been thrown around the park,” says writer Kevin Fedarko, an outspoken critic of the Escalade and other development schemes in the Grand Canyon region. “They’re leveraging the economic disadvantages of Native Americans who live next to the Grand Canyon in order to transform beauty into cash.”

One of many rapids.

The Escalade project would be far more invasive than the Skywalk. It wouldn’t just be a manmade anomaly on the canyon rim, but a conveyor belt of traffic right to the canyon floor. In addition to the 25,000 rafters who currently float the Grand each year, the Escalade could carry up to 10,000 people per day into the canyon—up to 2.5 million visitors per year. Every two and a half days, the confluence could see the same number of visitors it now receives in 12 months. And if the Las Vegasification of the lower canyon is any indication, once the tram is built it would open the doorway to a flood of development, not just at the confluence but all up and down the river. The developers already suggest on their website that there could be “river-excursions” from the tram. That could mean day-trips on large motor-driven rafts—impossible now because of the lack of exit points—which would light off a surge in traffic through Marble Canyon. “The tram is the beginning of a whole litany of horrendous things that would forever change the upper third of Grand Canyon National Park,” Fedarko says. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Floating down the Little Colorado, we couldn’t be further from that reality. When the river isn’t flowing, mud and quicksand deter most backpackers from hiking the route. Will and I have yet to hear of any paddler who’s floated the canyon more than once, owing to intermittent flows and the brutal hike out. When we pull over for lunch or to take pictures, we see no footprints on the ground. No fire rings. No signs of campers. It’s like having your own private Grand Canyon, I keep thinking as the sheer walls grow above us, in places stretching from river to rim in 2,000 feet of unbroken grandeur.

We do, however, see plenty of trash riding the river with us: drink bottles, oil jugs and basketballs, a mind-boggling number of basketballs circulating in eddies or caught in strainers. As we launched, one faded and partly deflated ball floated past, a Wilson of course, and it serves as a reference throughout the first day. Since letting the flood outrun us is a real concern, we find Wilson a useful companion as he roughly marks the speed of the current. We pass him in slack water and watch him bob past when we stop for breaks. The three of us are making good time despite a late start and short February days. By the time we make camp on a small beach, we’ve floated 23 miles.

Will and I have only seen each other in passing over the last several years, as I’ve settled into a full-time job and he’s traveled from Idaho to China making paddling films. Having once spent four months living out of kayaks on our Colorado source-to-sea, though, we quickly settle into a familiar rhythm: brew coffee over a twig fire at dawn, pack boats, step into drysuits and paddle. And paddle.

We hit our first Class IV rapid before noon on Day 2. From the eddy above, I can see a large hydraulic sending distinct spouts of water skyward. Normally a hole like that would churn the river frothy white. But this is no normal river. The jets of water shoot from the hole in sluggish, opaque ropes, casting shadows behind them in the sunlight.

Podmore searches for a campsite late in the day.

This mesmerizing liquid can hardly be called water at all. It’s so muddy, so viscous that it behaves like no water I’ve ever seen. As we drop into the rapid and encounter more downstream, we quickly learn the visual cues we’re accustomed to processing subconsciously when reading water—signs that indicate tongue, rock, or wave—are confused. Rocks lay invisible just beneath the surface waiting to knock us off line. Pour-overs churn in dark pockets, appearing only when we’re on top of them. A single splash to the face leaves a fine film of earth in our eyes, so that everything seems veiled in a brownish-red fog—the color of the river, the color of the canyon. When it dries in the winter sun, it paints us with a second skin that pulls and cracks when we speak.

Pausing for a lunch of nuts and meat sticks, Will jumps into one of his lectures. As an environmental science major, but also a student of Zen, he enjoys analyzing the world through theories that border on the preposterous. “My drysuit was starting to wear out and seep water a few weeks ago, but I think the LCR fixed it,” he says, using our shorthand for the Little Colorado River and trying to keep a straight face. “Now all the holes are clogged up with dirt.”

All afternoon the canyon grows deeper. We paddle through more rapids and under a wall that rises several thousand feet straight up, painted with blacks, golds and tans. Darkness is falling by the time we collapse on a brushy sandbar, but we’ve made another 25 miles. That only leaves us two miles to the Hopi Salt Trail: our exit point. There we plan to stash our boats and hike six miles to the confluence with the Colorado to see the proposed tram site. No problem.

“Think Of Your Most Holy Place, A Place That You Cherish. And Then Imagine An Outside Influence Coming In And Wanting To Change It Forever.”
– Renae Yellowhorse

But we haven’t paddled five minutes the next morning when the river disappears. A perfect horizon line crosses in front of us and a low roar is all the indication we have of what’s downstream. The river is flooding into the bushes and we have to wade and bushwhack our way to solid ground. We’ve entered the travertine zone of the canyon below the blue water springs and found the run’s crux: Atomizer Rapid. The minerals in the water have left dam-like deposits across the river that break Atomizer into a series of ledges with no single channel down the center. Running the rapid is a matter of scraping your way off the drops, trying not to get caught in the holes that lurk below, and avoiding at all costs the travertine caves on both sides. I take one look and decide to walk. Will, who has been paddling Class V several times a week, styles the line.

Downstream, half a dozen more horizon lines are stacked in a mile-long staircase. The rapids are easier, but the scouting is time-consuming. We hack our way through tamarisk, climb up sharp travertine boulders and plot our course through the drops. It takes us five hours to paddle the final two miles of our run. It’s well past noon when we explode our gear at the “takeout,” a deserted Department of Fish and Wildlife basecamp at the foot of a steep side-canyon.

Will Stauffer-Norris drops into Atomizer Rapid on the Little Colorado River. Photo: Podmore.

We change, eat, and begin half-jogging toward the confluence in an effort to pull out the 12-mile round trip hike before dark. That idea doesn’t last long. With the river high, the trail is mostly flooded out and we’re forced to dodge around, or crawl through, thicket after thicket of thorny mesquite. We cut over to the boulder fields along the cliff edge and back again to the riverside brush in a zigzag of frustration. As the light starts to soften on the canyon walls, we bow to the inevitable and turn back. Our dwindling water supply and Will’s nonrefundable ticket home keep us from extending the trip another day. Despite timing the flood perfectly, the confluence will have to wait for another trip.

Whitewater during the second day in the canyon.

That night we take stock of the hike ahead of us: three miles, 3,000 feet, one gallon of water each. “It’ll be hard,” Will admits, “but it shouldn’t take more than six hours to get to the rim.” That sounds like a reasonable pace to me. For the third time in 24 hours we vastly overestimate our own abilities.

Once, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to a gym. I got on the StairMaster, put it on the hard setting and plugged into a rerun of Seinfeld. I worked out for 10 full minutes before swearing off indoor exercise for good. Climbing out of the Grand Canyon is like being on one of those machines. The difference is each step is larger, and instead of flat plastic pedals, you’re walking up loose scree and crumbling limestone ledges covered in round pieces of gravel. That, and you’re balancing 100 pounds of kayak on one shoulder. Also unlike the stair machine, one misplaced step could mean being dragged a few hundred feet down the cliff by your overloaded boat. The biggest difference, however, is that you can’t get off.

Soon Will and I are forced to rethink our strategy. We unpack our boats and haul them a quarter-mile up the trail, then return for our gear. The climbing is easier this way, but the distance triples: nine miles, 6,000 feet up, 3,000 feet down. Three quarts of water.

It’s Like Having Your Own Private Grand Canyon, I Think As The Sheer Walls Grow Above Us, Stretching From River To Rim In 2,000 Feet Of Unbroken Grandeur.

We were traveling the same route people have used for thousands of years to reach the Sipapu on the Little Colorado and a salt seep just downstream from the confluence, both of which have religious significance to the Hopi. Local tribes and pueblos still use it to access the sacred sites in the canyon, and native activists have been on the front lines of the battle to stop the Escalade project. The opposition group Save the Confluence is run by a group of Navajo women. The governors of Zuni Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo and the Hopi Tribe have all come out against the Escalade proposal as well.

Tired and happy: Stauffer-Norris (top) and Podmore

“Think of your most holy place, a place that you cherish. And then imagine an outside influence coming in and wanting to change it forever,” says Renae Yellowhorse. An outspoken member of Save the Confluence, Yellowhorse grew up on the rim, where developers plan a 420-acre complex that would include hotels, restaurants, an RV park and a Discovery Center.

Not all Navajo oppose the project. From the beginning, Whitmer has courted influential tribal members and crafted a message of economic opportunity and sovereignty designed to appeal to rank-and-file Navajo. The company created to manage the project, Confluence Partners LLC, includes four Navajo partners, and the Navajo Nation will own the land and buildings. The revenues are a different story. According to a draft ‘master agreement’ leaked to the Navajo Times newspaper in 2014, the tribe will receive between 8 percent and 18 percent of gross revenues depending on the volume of visitors. The deal also requires the tribe to finance $65 million offsite infrastructure including a road to the site.

Still, the promise of jobs resonates strongly in Navajo Country, where unemployment stands at a staggering 44 percent and almost half of the tribe’s 300,000 enrolled members live below the poverty line. In an open letter to regional media, Confluence Partners claimed the Escalade will create 3,000 direct and indirect jobs, and generate $70 million in annual payroll and $90 million in yearly revenue to the tribe. Critics say those numbers are overly optimistic. Neither Whitmer nor Confluence Partners responded to my requests for comment.

Yellowhorse is among the unconvinced. “Who are going to be the managers? Who’s going to be making the decisions? The Navajo? No, they’re going to be minimum-wage busboys or, who knows, they may bring people from all over the world to work and not employ the local people.” The $65 million the Navajo government is being asked to put up for the new road is roughly double its entire annual budget for roads, Yellowhorse adds.

“The more the local communities look at how little the Navajo Nation might receive from the Escalade, the less people seem to be supporting it,” says Clark, of the Grand Canyon Trust.

At camp.

New Navajo President Russell Begaye is a vocal opponent of the Escalade development. When he was elected in April 2015, replacing the pro-Escalade President Ben Shelly, many saw his presidency as the final nail in the project’s coffin. Fedarko thinks that’s naïve. “There’s so much potential here for economic remuneration and profit that the developers aren’t going to go away. It would be irrational. The proposal has already made its way out there into the ether and there’s no reverse gear on the idea itself.”

As this issue went to press, Escalade proponents were lobbying Navajo Tribal Council members, attempting to gain the two-thirds majority needed to override Begaye’s veto. If they succeed—and they seem to be making progress—the fight would likely move to the courts. The Hopi have been clear that they will sue to block the development on the basis of an inter-tribal compact between the Hopi and Navajo that prevents either tribe from infringing on the other’s sacred sites. According to Yellowhorse, the Navajo who live on the canyon rim near the development site have not been consulted on the project. She says they may sue as well. “It’s ridiculous is that it’s going to be Navajo paying for lawsuits against their own people. It’s going to devour millions of dollars.”

“I wish there was a tram in here,” I say to Will as I pass my kayak up a ledge of Redwall Limestone. It's the type of thing we say in the backcountry. I wish someone would airdrop in a pint of Cherry Garcia. I wish there were a drinking fountain. It’s hot. My feet are swollen. Both shoulders are rubbed raw from carrying my kayak, and we’ve already missed our planned 2 o’clock rendezvous with Brady. We decide to stash our boats and make a break for the rim with our bags of gear. That way we have a chance of getting out before Brady calls in search and rescue at dark, as we’d agreed before we left.

The Path Less Traveled: Hiking out the Hopi Salt Trail.

At 4 p.m., the trail we’d been following disappears into a near-vertical boulder field under a towering wall of sandstone. We swallow the last of our water and check our GPS. It tells us we’re 2,200 feet—less than half a mile—from the trailhead. Looking at the climb ahead of us, we crack up with laughter. Then, out of options, we keep going.

The Confluence: Podmore floats past the proposed tram site on his second trip into the canyon. Photo: David Spiegel.

We stumble onto the two-track road at dusk, just as Brady comes ripping around the corner in his truck. He hands us each two chimichangas from the reservation gas station and tells us he’s been driving the web of unmarked roads since noon. “Sure is a bitch to get here,” he says. Wolfing down the greasy goodness, I nod agreement, though the ordeal is not over yet. At 3 a.m., Will and I mix instant coffee with cold water and hike back into the canyon by moonlight. We find our boats and haul them back over the scree and rock, cresting the rim at sunrise.

I drop Will at the Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport minutes before his flight starts boarding, then drive straight to In-N-Out Burger, limp to the counter and order two double-doubles.

Two months later I’m finally standing at the confluence. I’ve hiked back down the Hopi Salt Trail with a packraft and floated the final six miles of the Little Colorado—past where Will and I were forced to turn back, past the bubbling, sacred Sipapu spring, and down to the Colorado.

I spend all day alone at the confluence watching canyon shadows make their slow dance opposite the moving sun. The only sounds are the gurgles of the river, the occasional caw of a raven. The Colorado moves by with its steady pulse, begging to be followed.

Packrafting to the confluence.

Brady was right. It’s a bitch to get in here. The developers like to emphasize the same point; they want to make the confluence as accessible as airport terminals and burger stands. They want to open the canyon everybody. But as I sit at the confluence looking up to where the Escalade would cross the cliffs from the rim, I wonder what makes this place so unique. Is it the way it ushers a river through a dry land? The way it opens the earth, laying bare hundreds of millions of years of time? Or how it plays with light and color amidst a conspicuous absence of green? Those are certainly all factors, but after everything I’ve done to get here I find myself thinking that neither rock nor river has the final say. Instead it is inaccessibly that defines the Grand Canyon. Getting here takes time. It takes effort. But so does so much we value. Being whisked to the canyon floor on an aerial tram is like being allowed to play in the NFL because you scored a touchdown in high school. Yes, we could change the rules and make this place easy to get to. But it would lose its meaning in the process.

In a world where distances have been shrinking for centuries, where interstates and airplanes allow us to cross thousands of miles in smooth similarity, where an Internet’s worth of information is always one click away, space has been steadily losing its command over the present, almost to the point of becoming irrelevant. Now more than ever we need to be confronted with the inaccessible. We hunger for space that resists easy consumption. And nowhere better feeds that hunger than the Grand Canyon, whose rim is as accessible as Disneyland but whose borders fall away to golden depths that laugh back at all our systems of seamless, mechanized transport.

After nearly 24 hours of hiking, Stauffer-Norris and Podmore pause at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Even if all we ever do is stand on the rim and look in, this canyon shows us a place where human bodies maintain their meaning, a place that can only be accessed patiently by foot or boat. If a tram were built here and 10,000 people a day could pay to ride to the confluence in 15 minutes of cushioned comfort, discussing work or politics as they glide across previously unscalable canyon walls, they might arrive at the same coordinates where the blue waters of the Little Colorado have, for millennia, filled pilgrims of all kinds—from salt-gatherers to rafters—with wonder. But they would not be arriving in the same canyon. How could they? That place, defined by distance, realized by depth, would vanish.

Ed. Note: On Aug. 29, legislation was introduced in the Navajo Tribal Council to authorize tribal financing of a road and other infrastructure related to the Escalade project. As of Sept. 8, the bill had not yet gone to vote.

Presented by NRS