I stared down at the dusty path before me and willed my back foot forward to take the lead. My feet were sore. My shoulders sagged painfully under the weight of a backpack that I had known from the start was too heavy. I had refused to weigh it, avoiding any potential excuse to leave camera equipment behind. I was pretty sure it was in the 40-50 pound range when I’d hoisted it onto my back at the North Kaibab Trailhead in the morning. Now, several hours into the canyon, it felt more like a ton. My body punished my packing bravado with sensations of my arms pulling from their sockets and the pins and needles of too little blood flow piercing my fingers. I tried to numb these persistent annoyances by focusing on my body’s newer reprimands, stomach cramps and light-headedness that told me we really should have stopped and eaten something at Cottonwood Campground.
My friend Diane and I had been plotting our Grand Canyon hike for years. Admittedly, we’d originally planned on a loop from the South Rim and had nearly abandoned that idea after repeated permit rejections, but Diane now lived in Grand Canyon Village and our dream was not only revived but embellished. We were on day one of an extended rim-to-rim trek and Ribbon Falls was a highlight on the first day’s agenda. Given our exuberance, 1.6 more miles to this destination hadn’t sounded that bad when we’d decided to push past Cottonwood Campground. We’d already hiked 6.8 sweaty miles tantalized by visions of a relaxed lunch while soaking our cramped toes in the cool waters at Ribbon Falls. We yearned to properly rejuvenate before hiking the final 7 or so miles to Phantom Ranch at the Canyon’s bottom. The allure had been so strong that we passed by Cottonwood’s shady picnic tables without so much as a water break. A rumbling from my empty stomach suggested that skipping that break had been a mistake.
I stared at the monotony of boulders, rocky ground, and scraggly vegetation that defined the landscape around me. I missed North Rim’s lush and variable landscape. I had barely noticed any backpack pain when grand vistas had greeted me at every switchback. Or was it just that I hadn’t been carrying this beastly pack for so long at that point? I forced my other foot forward. Either way, the current desolate scenery wasn’t helping. Even the hardy desert lizards had abandoned our path. What kind of place offered no shade at all? I squinted up at the searing mid-day sun as we trudged around another corner. Relief washed over me as I glimpsed the turn-off sign for Ribbon Falls.
Reinvigorated, we chattered down the indicated stairs and bound across the suspension bridge. We groaned as another apparently long, definitely dusty trail met us on the other side. We charged forward but our exhilaration diminished to frustration as this new route petered to an undefined maze of pseudo-trails. Diane followed one lead around the base of a boulder as I explored its high-ground counterpart. I struggled up a steep, rocky path that required both hands and feet. When I reached the top, I teetered. Gravity flirted with the weight of my pack as I stared down a jagged cliff. I stepped back to the safety of my original, now seemingly tame, pathway.
“Don’t come this way!” I yelled, “It’s treacherous and leads nowhere.”
From somewhere behind the boulder I heard Diane respond, “Not here either. I’m done with this pack though! I’m stashing this baby in the bushes.”
I squeezed between the boulder and a wall of reeds growing in the adjacent stream, heading toward Diane’s voice. I could hear the waterfall, I could even see people perched on a rock ledge above us, but there were no signs of a trail.
“I see no reason to carry this thing any further,” Diane said as she pulled our future lunch from her pack, “We’ll have to come back this way anyway.”
Knowing I was over-packing, Diane had insisted on carrying most of the communal supplies, our lunch, snacks, cooking utensils, and my tripod that she was now jokingly calling her own. In solidarity, she too had refused to weigh her bag and it was probably as heavy as mine. I knew she must be similarly suffering. I dumped my pack on a nearby, free-standing rock. I felt my body levitate a few inches once freed from the pack’s burden. I shook the tingles from my fingers and rubbed my shoulders before gathering my camera equipment and water into a day pack. We secured the bags we were abandoning and sloshed into the jungle of reeds before us. It took us a while to decipher the series of half-developed paths on the other side, but Diane finally took the lead on what we deemed to be the main trail.
As sounds of the waterfall became louder, I remembered encountering an American Dipper at a canyon falls I’d visited while rafting the Colorado River the year before. I hadn’t expected the bird then and had missed the photo opportunity. I wasn’t going to let that happen again!
“Would you mind if I take the lead?” I asked Diane. “There’s a small bird that sometimes hangs out at the base of waterfalls here. It’s pretty shy, so I’ll need to sneak in and act quickly if I’m going to get any pictures.”
Diane laughed and shook her head as she fell back, “Oh, I love it! I’m thinking about getting out of these boots and you’re still looking for critters. A bird that hangs out at the base of waterfalls, huh? Well, I hope we see one.”
A few more steps and I glimpsed the top of the waterfall. I gasped involuntarily at its beauty.
This was no standard waterfall. A shower sparkled down from a curve in the uppermost reddish cliff past a tunneling cave to land on a rock dome covered in emerald green moss. Visions of a secret fairytale pool and gardens at the base of this splendor hurried me forward. I burst past one final vegetative screen and stopped in my tracks. Where I had envisioned silvery trumpet flowers and Alice-in-Wonderland-style toad stools was a row of camp chairs filled with ordinary human adults. And where fairies were to be flitting across the surface of a sun-kissed pool, children were in the midst of a splashing war. There could be no dippers here, I thought.
We picked our way around the loungers, judging by their light loads they were campers from nearby Cottonwood, and claimed a spot on the opposite shoreline. So maybe it wasn’t so secret a garden, but from our vantage it was still idyllic. From the top of the dome, the falls cascaded through the sloped moss, draping across a cave at the bottom and pooling at the base before bubbling into several small streams that faded from view into a community of water plants. A secondary waterfall trickled down a vegetated slope beside the dome, pink and yellow columbines growing in tufts alongside with their delicate flowers leaning gently across the flow. I sighed in contentment as I eased my toes into the chilly water and accepted a bowl of Diane’s homemade curried mango couscous salad; backpacking food at its finest.
I was about to relish my first bite when Diane tapped my shoulder and pointed, “Is that the bird you were looking for?”
There, clinging to the moss at the edge of the waterfall, was my American Dipper. I dropped my spork and scrambled for my camera. The bird plucked a few insects from the greenery, then flew directly past the children and landed on a rock mere feet from me. Before I could focus my lens, the bird dove underwater and disappeared into the veil of greenery.
“Don’t worry!” One of the children called over, “It’ll be back. It has a nest under the cave. It has eggs. We went and looked.” Apparently this dipper was not so shy.
True to their word, the dipper returned time and again, darting to and from its water cloaked cave. After the picnickers left, the bird fully claimed the pool. It swam in circles, bobbing above and below the surface as it bathed, sometimes disappearing for extended periods as it walked along the bottom hunting for insects. It finally settled among the rocks beside us, a silhouette against the canyon’s gold and rose reflections on the water’s surface. My secluded fairytale garden had come alive and Diane and I were seduced by its enchantment.
Three hours passed before reality infiltrated our Ribbon Falls bliss. We were only halfway to Phantom Ranch. Reluctantly, and only after agreeing to return on a day hike from the Ranch, we forced our boots back on and left the dipper to its seclusion.
A high-pitched whistle caught my attention as we approached the spot where we’d dropped our bags. I searched the sky instinctively for some raptor but there was none. The sound came again. The sky was still empty.
“What’s that call?” I asked Diane.
“What call?” she asked.
The whistle came again.
“That call,” I said.
Diane shrugged. We’d reached the confusing part of the trail and our previous make-shift stream crossing point wasn’t obvious. Diane studied the reed barrier before us, too intent on finding our way to pay attention to the nuances of some wildlife call. Fair enough; I pushed a clump of vegetation out of my way and peered at the stream within. It didn’t look right. This was probably passable, but I didn’t see our packs on the other side. I glanced downstream at Diane. She was similarly peering past the reeds, shaking her head.
The whistling calls became louder. It sounded like whatever was calling was just on the other side of this stream, somewhere between Diane and me. Curiosity got the better of me and I picked my way across heading toward the sound. By the time I parted the reeds on the other side, the calls were piercing and persistent. My ears rang as I stepped into the clearing. A small mammal darted towards me. Startled, I jumped back and another small mammal, a squirrel, raced in my direction. I scanned the area. Was there some large predator here? My eyes settled on Diane’s pack and all my muscles tensed.
“No! Off, get off!” I lunged forward swinging my arms and shouting, “Diane, they’re all over your pack!”
Five plump squirrels glared at me defiantly from the frayed entry to their booty. As if on cue, two charged me while another sat up and whistled the now familiar alert call as if to summon a squadron of furry soldiers. Another squirrel rapidly stuffed raisins into its expanding cheeks while the last continued gorging as if there were no disruption, lackadaisically licking chocolate from its sticky little paws.
Diane emerged from the reeds on the other side of her pillaged bag, “What’s all over my pack?”
Diane’s appearance gave us humans the upper hand and all but the lackadaisical squirrel dashed out of view. This last squirrel, clearly a nursing mother, stuffed a few more raisins into her cheeks, grabbed a couple of handfuls for the road and waddled to a nearby rock where she plopped down and proceeded with her dining.
I pointed, “Squirrels.”
“I DO know better than to leave food in my pack!” Diane self-chided as she inspected her gnawed bag.
Dried watermelon, homemade fruit roll-ups, nuts, apricots, chocolate covered raisins and even the paper our lunch recipe had been printed on were no more. Shreds of paper and plastic were all that remained of our snacks.
“Health-conscious critters,” Diane laughed, “They went for the fruit first.”
We agreed this wasn’t the ideal ending to our rejuvenation session but knowing the mules had delivered a bag of food to camp for us, we were able to laugh. Our next visit to Ribbon Falls, we reassured ourselves, would be nothing but sheer enjoyment.
Don’t miss our dramatic and not exactly relaxing return to Ribbon Falls in my next blog post: Ribbon Falls Rejuvenation – Part 2.