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Down through the Grand Canyon

Wading little waterfalls
Photo credit: —Photos by David Holcomb

Hiking the Grand Canyon

—Evan Belknap

Four: I rise out of my dew-soaked sleeping bag in darkness to a million stars. I dreamily pack up. Through the Flagstaff woods, there is a mass of flashlights that I’m in no hurry to get close to. I follow the sound of one hundred high school seniors talking at one another, and take my time getting there. I listen to the crunch of frost under my feet and watch the clouds of my breath in the freezing air.

Winter is coming, and I like it; that crisp cold is somehow delicious.

We get them on the bus by five, and I follow along in a Toyota truck with a coworker, trying to make the rim of the Grand Canyon by sunrise. And we do: these kids from all over the world watch the outline of that abyss come alive and then ignite. I remember the first time I saw the Canyon from the rim. How I didn’t quite get it; it was as if someone had stuck a postcard in front of my eyes.

Since then, having rafted the Colorado River twice, explored many of the side canyons, and gone from the rim to the river a few times, the sunrise means something entirely different. With it comes the excitement of a raging river, all the time and smells and colors, and the feeling of rowing a boat with everything you have into a cold, powerful headwind. That sunrise is now the dawn of an adventure, and it means much more.

My coworker and I get our ten kids together in a circle, and I hear myself talking about expedition mentality, how, for the next four days, we were to be like a little family, living together, supporting one another, putting the needs of the group above our individual needs, etc. How, the canyon is not a multicolored pit of plastic balls but a perilous, wild, chasm of death. It is, therefore, not the place to do anything super dumb.

It’s always interesting to hear this stuff coming out of my mouth, remembering my childhood of sliding down dirt cliffs in Placitas, out-of-control, occasionally plunging my whole arm into prickly pears. I remember pitching off my bike along Cedar Creek Road, my constantly scabbed knees. And I remember all the WWF fights I had with my brothers on the trampoline, backflip windmill kicks sending us off the edge and onto the rocks below. I remember all of the trees I shouldn’t have climbed, and animals I shouldn’t have picked up, and things I shouldn’t have eaten, or gotten so close to, or lit on fire.

Anyway, we begin our hike down Hermit Trail. Having hiked down the same trail back in April to meet my dad and his friends on the river, it’s all very familiar to me. Even individual plants stand out—some that had vibrant pink flowers are now brown and dry.

My kids are from Spain, Oman, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Nepal, Nigeria, the Bahamas, and Texas. To them, it is so new and, from time to time, I try to imagine what it looks like to each of them—the difference in perspective between someone who lives in a city like Hong Kong to someone whose house borders the Arabian Desert. There is a kid on one of the other treks who has spent his whole life—up until a few months ago—in a refugee camp in Somalia. He studied every night in hopes of getting out. Then someone offered him a scholarship to this school and he left for the first time, flew across the world, and is now hiking in the Grand Canyon—for fun. What it must look like through his eyes.

Down at our first camp above Hermit Rapid, about nine hours later, the kids sprawl out on rocks, exhausted, or cool their blistered feet in the creek below. There’s a honey-colored Bark Scorpion lurking in the composting toilet by the toilet paper roll, and they go in in groups to look at it. I tell them not to get stung, that it isn’t as fun as it sounds. I’d already tried it.

The next day, we hike up to Monument Creek with a light rain keeping us safe from the sun. We set up camp again, the sun comes out, and we set off on a mini-hike down a slot canyon, stemming our legs over the little pools of water, and the kids, inevitably, falling in. I try my best to play the role of Captain Safety, but even so, we have lots of fun. When it starts to rain harder, we return to camp, away from the stream, and hide under an overhang.

That night, a storm threatens to tear my tent into the night, and I hold onto the fabric above my head, and the tent pole to my side, as streams of water run under my co-instructor and me. The kids had chosen to try to pack all ten of themselves under a single tarp, and, to say the least, it is a groggy and wet morning at the office.

Once we’re all awake and warm and dry, it’s about noon, and we make our way down to the river, to the sandy beach above Granite Rapid. The sun comes out and we swim and lie about. The kids slather themselves in mud and exclaim how cold the water is over and over again. We watch boats careen down the monster waves. It’s a nice place to be.

The next day we hike the twelve miles back up to the rim. It’s not the easiest thing that any of us have ever done. In fact, about half of them struggle pretty hard. The last couple miles of steep climbing in the sun before lunch are brutal. From the top, back in rim land, surrounded by hoards of tourists, they can’t believe that they’d been able to push so hard and go so far. They are proud and know that they got something so much more potent than a picture from the rim. They carry it around like a secret, but I can see it in their smiles.

Volunteers needed at Sandia snow play area

Recreation managers from Cibola National Forest and National Grassland’s Sandia Ranger District are planning to open the Capulin Snow Play Area for several weekends this winter. Volunteers are needed to help prepare the popular winter recreation site before it opens and to assist the many visitors that are expected on the proposed dates.

Snowfall in recent years has been minimal, but the El Niño pattern predicted for this winter is expected to bring above average snowfall to the Sandia Mountains. “We are anticipating a lot of visitors with all of the fun winter activities that snow brings,” said Sandia Recreation Staff Officer Bob Heiar. “Limited staffing makes it difficult for us to provide recreational opportunities on our own, so we rely on volunteers to assist us,” he added.

The Capulin Snow Play Area is tentatively scheduled to open on December 19 and 20, January 9, 10, 16, and 17. Interested volunteers will be required to attend one of two training sessions which will take place from 1:00 until 4:00 p.m. on November 4 and December 5 at the Sandia Ranger Station. Those interested in volunteering should sign up at least two weeks prior to the scheduled opening dates.

For more information, or to sign up, contact Antonio Garcia at, 281-3304 Ext. 128, or Bob Heiar at, 281-3304 Ext. 115. Follow the conversation at

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