Compared with the number of adventurers who find themselves compelled to stand on a mountain's summit, those drawn to the floor of a canyon are few. Even the Grand Canyon is most often viewed from above, and with trepidation. A glimpse, a shudder, and it's off to buy postcards.
Rick Fisher is one of the few. Fisher, a 36-year-old photographer who has lived all his life in Tucson, must go down to be uplifted. Although he has solo-climbed such mountains as Mexico's 18,700-foot Orizaba and Argentina's 22,800-foot Aconcagua, he says these ascents were merely "for the resume, so that when someone asks what you've done, you can point to the climbs and people will know that you're pretty much an expert. If you tell them you've conquered such-and-such canyon, they just say, 'Oh, really?' "
Fisher needs a resume to attract customers to his Wilderness Expeditions Ltd., a not-for-profit concern that he started in 1977 to provide outdoor experiences for kids from Arizona juvenile correctional facilities. After a decade, the assets of Wilderness Expeditions are mainly Fisher and his answering machine, but the business has expanded to the extent that Fisher now runs expeditions for students at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and the Blind, for emotionally handicapped children, and for the general public. "I'll take in anyone who's in pretty fair shape and has the right attitude," he says. "Attitude's a key thing, because it can get unpleasant in there."
"There" means the canyons. Still, canyoneering, as the sport is called, should appeal to anyone who likes the great outdoors. "Canyoneering is the combination of a variety of wilderness pursuits," says Fisher. "I've taught people rock climbing, mountaineering and rafting, and I found I used all these things in canyoneering. Plus swimming and different kinds of hiking, particularly hiking in the water."
May 15, 1988
"Isn't anyone who rafts down the Colorado River a canyoneer?" I asked as I talked to him by phone from New York City. To my way of thinking—a New England way of thinking—the skiers in Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine qualified as canyoneers, as did anyone who paid a fee and thudded over the wooden walkways of the Flume, another popular attraction in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
"I guess I'm talking about extreme canyoneering," said Fisher.
The word "extreme" didn't bother me as much as the spin he put on the word. But I decided to give canyoneering a shot anyway.
Fisher met me at Tucson International Airport. He's a compact man with a thick mustache who, in his wide-brimmed hat and his aviator sunglasses, looks as Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live fame might after Jack LaLanne got through with him. Three of Fisher's followers were relaxing on the floor of his Tucson house when we arrived. R.J., Scott and Mike, all from the flatlands of Kansas, had come southwest for their annual dose of Arizona exploring. We spent a busy hour buying provisions and packing gear, and then were joined by Sue, a nurse from Tucson, and the lot of us piled into Fisher's van and headed north.
The Mogollon Rim is a 200-mile-long escarpment that runs across eastern Arizona. The area, drained by the Salt and Verde rivers, has 14 major canyons and 16 lesser ones, many of them on federally owned land and several on Apache reservations. "Everything's available," Fisher said, "the deep and the steep."
As we were establishing our camp at the mouth of the canyon we would explore the next morning, Fisher walked over and helped me unfurl my sleeping bag. "One thing," he said, and I sensed a certain nervousness on his part. "We'll be doing some canyons that I'd say are...intermediate. I'd appreciate it if you don't mention the specific names, because beginners could get hurt if they just throw themselves into this."
I greeted this with mixed emotions. I could understand and agree to take Fisher's request for a vow of silence to protect the canyoneering innocents...but what was I? I had never even been rock climbing.
At dawn I discovered that our party had grown. Jack, a Tucson dermatologist, was now with us, along with Chris, his teenage son. And Betsie, Robert and Jed from Phoenix had also arrived sometime in the night. Betsie and Jed, a nurse and a golden retriever, would hike with us. Robert, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was counting bald eagles in the mountains, said he might join us from time to time.
We said goodbye to Robert and set off. Canyons are entered from the top or bottom, and we hiked up into this one. The first mile was about as arduous as taking the dog for a morning walk, and with Jed ranging alongside us that's what it looked like. Then, abruptly, the canyon walls seemed to grow taller by the footstep. And they moved closer to one another. The stream that ran between them grew louder, its banks narrower.
Suddenly, Fisher stepped from the vanishing lefthand shore and waded across the stream to the other, now more expansive, bank. I was to learn that in canyoneering one is continually forced to traverse waterways as the route is absorbed first by one cliffside, then the other. A walking stick, often no more than a hiker's affectation, is required when canyoneering. In addition to helping you up steep inclines, the stick allows you to gauge the depth of muddy waters and the stability of the footing ahead.
The stream had been recently roiled by rainstorms and was virtually opaque in spots. On my first few crossings that morning I proceeded cautiously, constantly probing muddy water with my stick. But once I got my hand-eye-foot coordination going, stream-walking became a joy as I sloshed through the water in my boots. Much of the time I neglected the banks and walked right down the center of the creek, just for the challenge and fun of it.
We zigzagged up the deepening canyon for two hours. Then, quite suddenly, we found ourselves boxed in. Ahead of us was an 80-foot-high waterfall, which emptied furiously into a perfectly round plunge pool. On our left and on our right we were hemmed in by rock cliffs. Surely Fisher would show us the secret way out.
He did, only it wasn't so secret: The wall to our right was our escape route. The more experienced rock climbers scrambled up it and established a belay to give the inexperienced climbers a confidence-boosting rope as we hugged our way along the wall, while Jed, along with our packs, was handed up from person to person.
"How high was that climb?" I asked Fisher.
"Forty, forty-five feet maybe."
"You told me on the phone that the highest rock climb would be 15 feet."
"Ah, I did?" he said in his most mellowed-out tones. "Well, it was no problem, really, eh? You did fine."
My legs stopped shaking during lunch, and we pressed on. At first it appeared that we had climbed halfway out of the ravine on that cliff, but soon the canyon reasserted itself. The canyon, like its stream, descended in stages—a series of steep, narrow gorges followed by level plains followed by precipitous drop-offs followed by narrow gorges. We walked easily for an hour before the walls on either side started to grow higher again.
At a tabletop plateau of granite that overlooked a bend in the streambed, Fisher announced that we had reached our first night's campsite.
This certainly is a pleasant place, I thought as I removed my pack. An accommodating fire and dining area were found on the rocks, and a women's beach and pool were designated to the north of the plateau, the men's to the south. Sleeping areas were wherever one could find a sandy spot. I was in the mood for solitude, so I chose a remote place a hundred yards from camp.
After a dinner replete with roasted marshmallows, I retired to my beachfront property below the plateau, determined to get an early start on an evening alone. The sky above was jaggedly framed by the looming walls of the canyon. While gazing up at this spectacle, I fell asleep more quickly than I had wanted. Soon I was awakened by rocks skidding down the cliff behind my head. I listened awhile. Another bunch of rocks came sliding and bouncing down. Ten minutes later, more rocks.
An avalanche? More likely an animal on the rim of the canyon. Perhaps we had camped in the path of its nightly rounds and it was annoyed. Maybe it was testing us, curious to see what would happen. Just then, I remembered that this area has a high concentration of black bears. Oh hell, this nocturnal visitor couldn't be a bear...more likely a deer or, at worst, a wild pig.
Whatever it was, it was right above my head. (Strange sensation: When camping, you usually hear noises "out there." When canyoneering, the sounds come from above.) After a fourth series of rock slides, this bold adventurer rolled up his tarp and bag and moved close to the camp.
Morning in a canyon can be special and mercifully gentle. You awake in deep shadow to a vivid blue sky above. Then, as you wash your face and slowly sip coffee, the sunlight descends one wall of the canyon, moves across the floor and climbs the other. Finally, the canyon is fully illuminated, ready for the day. You and your environment come alive at the same gentle pace.
Just after breakfast we were joined by Barbara, a Tucsonian who has hiked with Fisher for a decade. Having already climbed from the road to our camp, she had a full head of steam and wanted to push on to a distant waterfall she had visited before. R.J. and I said we would accompany her. The others decided to loiter awhile, taking photographs, poking around the slopes and generally enjoying the place.
Barbara took the lead and was easily able to pick out negotiable routes through the intimidating terrain, including the remains of an avalanche that struck me as a stop sign when I first caught sight of it. As in the sport of rock climbing, a good bit of canyoneering is puzzle-solving.
After a while the terrain opened up, and we enjoyed a mile-long stroll through Eden. The stream had become wide and flat, the canyon was now faintly defined by gradually sloping, grassy hillsides. Fisher had told me that, of the Mogollon Rim's 14 major canyons, this one had the most variety; still, I hadn't expected such dramatically different environments.
Suddenly, we were back in geologic turmoil. "Hey," said Barbara, "this is a new slide." We walked carefully over the debris, much of which hadn't yet stabilized. The pinks and blues of quartz and granite, newly shattered in the avalanche, were garishly vibrant. Once past the rockslide, we climbed over a series of boulders. And there was the waterfall.
It was a rolling, sequential fall, different from the dramatic plummet of water we had seen the day before. It was fun to ease into the cold water whirlpooling in potholes at the head of the falls and then carom down to the lip of the final drop, a 30-foot plunge that none of us cared to take. The air was warm as Barbara, R.J. and I played in the small cirques.
Refreshed, we headed back, traveling south, pausing for lunch in a cavern that had a small stream of water trickling down one of its walls. We found our companions just below where we had camped, and the group traveled together back to the first falls. As the canyon's premature dusk set in, we pushed on to the stream's confluence with the Salt River, where we camped.
After dinner, Fisher announced: "I'd like to propose a tough hike for whoever wants to go. There's a canyon I haven't explored fully, and we could go there and then meet up with the others at a point on the river that's easy for them to reach." I enlisted for the mystery tour, along with Barbara, Mike, Jack and Chris. Jed, tiring fast, opted for the riverside, as did Betsie, R.J., Scott and Sue.
The next morning, at dawn, I heard Fisher say, "We go there." Where? I could see no trail through the thicket.
I was right, there was no through trail, and our descent in the thornbush chaparral was a nasty, uncomfortable business. Our arms were sliced by branches, our legs stung by cactus. We occasionally lost our footing on the steep, shale-covered slope. After an hour of ultrabushwhacking, we emerged on a rocky promontory halfway down the wall of a new canyon. It was impossible to go any farther without considerable experience in rappeling, so we doubled back through the brush and looked for another route. We found one, and after two hours of heavy labor, we stood on the canyon floor.
That was hiking. Now we could begin canyoneering.
We made our way slowly up a small, narrow ravine. I asked Fisher, "How many people have been up here?"
"Well," he said, "to get here you have to do what we just did, and that's not happy work. Perhaps nobody in the last year. The waterfall you reached yesterday, even a spot as relatively easy as that, gets no more than a hundred visitors a year. It adds to the mystery. I like mystery. A mountain is all right in front of you, and then you just climb up it. But in a canyon, you never know what's next. Could be hell. Could be paradise."
Fisher had called it: First hell, then paradise. A steep waterfall halted our progress, and we scrambled around it by bulling through some cactus and brush. A half mile later, we found an even higher waterfall, its water dropping gently into a crystalline pool. Everything in the cul-de-sac shimmered: the water, the leaves, our senses. We spent an hour skipping stones and breathing deeply in this private place.
We didn't attempt to get around these falls; again, the climb was too dangerous for a party of our mixed abilities.
On our way back down the canyon, we chanced upon a freshly dug den. The scat nearby told us that the habitant was a fairly young bear. "Probably his day-bed," said Fisher.
We had gone no more than a half mile farther when Fisher and I, casually leading the pack in tandem, pulled up short.
"Something big, on the right," he said.
I saw the cream-colored haunches protruding from behind a cactus about 25 yards away. I thought it was an elk or a big deer. Then the animal tensed and hopped once. It was a bear. Black bears range in color from blond to midnight black, and we had chanced upon a golden, 200-pound two-year-old.
The next 40 minutes were spent in a slow, long-distance waltz with the bear. He had spotted us, of course, and he climbed another 10 feet up the hill. He turned and chuffed once but didn't seem perturbed. I wondered if he'd ever seen a human being. We sidled along the streambed, careful not to spook him. At the closest, we were only 20 yards apart. He moved down the hillside and drank from the stream. I found a vantage point on a boulder and was enchanted as, quite quickly, humans and bear adapted to one another's presence.
He was a pretty animal, with Pooh's face and a smooth, healthy coat. He browsed on acorns, and every now and then issued a throaty but non-threatening bark, just to let us know that he was aware of us. The bear eventually tired of us and wandered up into the canyon.
The thrill of the close encounter was still with us a half hour later when we stopped for lunch on an overlook above the stream. "These canyons are good places for seeing wildlife because they are so little visited," said Fisher as we snacked on smoked oysters, apples, cheese and crackers. "Cows have never grazed in these places and the Apaches' horses rarely roam in here, so nothing disturbs the bears and other animals."
A little farther on, the canyon narrowed. We had to clamber over boulders, which really took a toll on my knees. But we were in the homestretch.
We reached the Salt, which was high with the spring runoff. We had to shout to one another to be heard as we stood on the shore near a section of rapids. Then we climbed the large, dark cliffs that lined the river. The hard basalt afforded good footing, which was vital to our progress because at a couple of points—and a hundred feet above the riverbed—we had to hug the wall and shimmy along.
Eventually we climbed into high-country fields of stone, brush, thorn, cactus and...snakes. "People think Arizona is infested. It's just not so," said Fisher as we walked. "But a hillside like this is just where you might find a few."
A half hour after Fisher's caution, we came across the rattler. It reared back into its hole and lifted the front third of its thick body into the air. The serpent's flat head was shockingly large to one who had never seen a free-range rattler. Its hiss was about as expected, but the rattle was duller in tone, softer, more hollow and, therefore, more menacing than the happy maraca sound that accompanies cinema snakes. Barbara, Mike and I were in the lead, and we froze as one. From behind, Fisher urged a slow, uphill retreat.
Five minutes later, heart still pounding, I said, "Now the others won't buy this for sure. Seeing a bear is one thing, but a bear and a rattler! No way."
We spotted the others in our party stretched out on a flat boulder by the river's edge. We hopped excitedly through the field and over the last boulders of the cliff. Those who had chosen the lazier day trip were gratifyingly envious upon hearing our wilderness tales.
But it was time to leave. As we walked up and up, the sunlight became ever brighter, although the day was growing old. We were departing the shadow world of the canyon. Walking together, neither Fisher nor I spoke much; I was drinking in the last bit of this last mile. A pair of red-tailed hawks wheeled overhead, their white bellies floating above us. Suddenly the birds banked and dived. Now we looked down on them and saw their dun top feathers. They too were headed home—down, to their nest in the canyon beneath us.