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Drama along the Grand Canyon North Rim

A brother-sister trip to a remote part of the Grand Canyon comes with its own rewards: incredible scenery and peace. There's also a sobering encounter with Mother Nature.

July 02, 2008|By Susan Spano | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

At the Kaibab National Forest ranger station in Fredonia, Ariz., we got directions to the Powell Plateau trail head. To get there, we took a turnoff on Arizona 67 about 20 miles short of the North Rim lodge. Then we picked our way over a network of unpaved forest roads that led west to secluded canyon overlooks on the ragged southern edge of the Kaibab Plateau.

At Swamp Point, we parked the Hummer and started hiking.

To see us together, you wouldn't necessarily know that my brother and I are actually quite fond of each other. I talk too much, which annoys him. He treats me like a galley slave. But on our little adventures in the great outdoors, we usually rediscover that we appreciate some of the same things, including peak experiences provided by Mother Nature.

She was generous that October afternoon. The aspens on the road to the North Rim had turned a bright, blazing canary yellow. Suddenly, we realized why the lodge was full. Fall comes to the North Rim in a geologic nanosecond, quickly whipped away by high winds and early snowfall. But if you're lucky enough to be here at exactly the right moment, as we were, you will see an autumn display that blows the red maples of New England out of the water.

Along the way, John and I also saw evidence of man's efforts to control the fires that regularly gut big tracts of ponderosa pine in the area. The national park and adjacent national forest used to suppress them vigorously.

But about 20 years ago, forest managers realized that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, clearing out flammable undergrowth and thinning the trees, leaving only the hardiest ponderosas to grow into goliaths.

The authorities still battle conflagrations that threaten development and irreplaceable sites, but some are allowed to burn, although they're carefully monitored. They even set prescribed fires to keep the forest healthy.

The trouble is, you can't predict fire. Some North Rim road shoulders were seared on June 25, 2006, when sudden high winds turned a closely watched, lightning-ignited fire into an inferno, setting the crown of the forest alight. About 40,000 acres of Kaibab ponderosas burned in a single night.

After a fire like that, a new crop of brush and trees claims squatters' rights in the cleared spaces, including beautiful intruders like the aspen.

At first, we overshot the Swamp Ridge Road turnoff, ending up at Fire Point, where we met a couple in a camper who said it had rained the day before. That was important information. The Powell Plateau is a lightning trap. People die in canyon electrical storms, and even experts can't agree about how best to take cover from possible strikes.

Back on the right track, we saw pond-size puddles in the road. But the sun was out, and the H3 plowed right through them, although we had to stop when we saw what we took for a bison slurping from a pothole. (Later, we learned that part of a bison herd imported to Arizona around 1900 and cross-bred with cattle -- cattalo, they call them -- had escaped onto the Kaibab, degrading trails and water sources. Some years ago, the national park tried unsuccessfully to eradicate them. Travelers on Kaibab forest roads sometimes still encounter the creatures.)

Swamp Point turned out to be an exposed, 7,565-foot shelf of rock that would make a good place to shoot a Jeep commercial. It looks over White Creek and the North Bass Trail on their way to the basement of the Grand Canyon. I couldn't see the Colorado River from here, but John pointed to a saddle of land below the point, where you can see an old cabin, and the land mass on the far side. "That's the Powell Plateau," he said.

By then, it was already 5 p.m. We figured we could make it 800 feet down to the Muav Saddle, cross the canyon and climb 900 more feet on a clearly visible trail that switchbacks over the terraced northeastern flank of the plateau, about 2 1/2 miles, all told.

We did it in a little more than an hour, pitched our tents in the twilight and had freeze-dried chili mac for dinner.

We had been hiking in shirt sleeves, but John said I had better bundle up for the night. It was going to get cold. It could even snow.

At 7:30, I went to bed in three pairs of long johns, a hooded sweat shirt, jacket, gloves, socks and my sleeping bag. Even then, I felt as though I were sleeping on ice.


No matter how well-prepared you are, you take a calculated risk going into the wilderness. John is an experienced backpacker with a high risk threshold. Mine is so low that a falling pine cone can make me panic. Plus, I'd been reading "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales, which uses neuroscience and true stories of disasters to explain who dies in the wilderness and why.

But the next morning, I felt safe and cozy. The birds were singing, and the sun was rising in a cloudless sky. Once we packed, John and I followed the teasing Dutton Point trail through golden meadows where asters and daisies lingered.

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