June 3, 2008

Where to now Mr. Spotted Owl? To the depths of Behunin Canyon. A new chapter of skills opens up to me. Canyoneering. Similar to mountaineering, just invert the mountains. The approach is long and hot, especially when done at midday. From Grotto trailhead, up Refrigerator Canyon, Walter's Wiggles, and north onto the West Rim Trail. Steph is a fast hiker, and I push myself to keep pace, letting the two NPS biologists, who are leading us down the canyon, stroll along behind us. Steph is a great girl. I really enjoy how she likes to talk to me (sometimes only me) and she appears to be very comfortable around me. Enough. So the 'head' biologist (the one with the canyoneering experience), Alan, forces the 'visiting researchers' to be the trip leaders, pointing at a topo map, saying "take us there." Ok I say and I do. He stops us at a small canyon..."this is it!" so we trod up it (we are, however, supposed to be going down a canyon, not up). Steph notices that we are paralleling the trail still, and Alan finally realizes he has taken the wrong canyon. Seems obvious to me and Steph, but we shrug our shoulders, knowing we all make silly mistakes. Finally down the right canyon. A fairly large canyon, joined by one small drainage (where the owls are) and dumping out of a wall about 175 feet from the ground, near Emerald Pools. Rappel ('rap') after rappel after hike, we slowly descend the canyon. Four people on one rope takes forever. It will be much faster with just Steph and me, when the time comes, if the biologists approve of our canyoneering abilities. Most raps required dangling our overnight backpacks between the legs from a daisy chain so as not to lose balance on overhangs. Rope management. Safety a priority. After 4 or 5 raps, we drop right into our campsite, where the small drainage enters the main canyon. An hour before our survey begins, we make camp (which basically includes throwing a tarp, pad, and sleeping bag on the sandy ground) and eat dinner (peanut butter and honey bagel for me). Alan was confident that owls would be seen, and if not seen, then heard. Our presearch resulted in nothing. I went north, requiring a waist-deep wade through rotten, mucky water, while Steph went south. I began calling (hooting) at 9:15Pm...and I didn't stop till 1 AM. No reply from the owls. Very frustrating. Especially since everyone else in our crew has gotten immediate responses. Mike +2, Steph +1, Me +0. And I even think my hoot sounds good! After a wonderful sleep (not so for Steph, who was freezing all night), we packed up and headed down. The first rap of the day sits above a bowl of black soup. Only requiring one rope, the other was being carried by Steph. And wouldn't you know it, there goes the second rope, releasing itself from Steph's backpack. A thump, a sliding, scraping noise of rope against rock, and a splash. Into the depths it went. We rerigged the rappel to drop into the soup, because we needed the second rope to get out of the canyon. Someone would have to swim for it. Steph volunteers. Brave girl. She raps in, undresses on a ledge by the soup bowl and slided into the water. From Alan and my perspective (because we rapped first into a lower position), we couldn't see a thing. We could only hear the gasping for air as she plunged in. The water is ice cold, taking the breath from you immediately. Alan coaxes her to dive, which she does, twice, with no luck. It's much too cold and too deep. The bottom can't even be found. Shivering uncontrollably she gives up. Erin (the other NPS biologist) takes a turn. Diving twice. No luck again. Two mild hypothermia patients and only one rope, not long enough to rappel out. Our only option is to fix the rope for the last rappel...leaving another rope behind. But like an angel appearing from the clouds, a figure pops out over the edge above us. "How's it goin?" "um, not so good" replies Alan. Turns out Alan is already good friends with our saviors and we rap safely out with their ropes. It took quite a while for both the girls to stop shivering and warm up. How dangerous it can be in those canyons. Hypothermia and heat stroke in the same day. We rapped out the mouth of the canyon, a beautiful drop into the Emerald Pool area. No owls, lost rope, unhappy campers, we went our ways. Even through it all, Steph enjoyed canyoneering and I am excited to be out exploring canyons with her in this fashion. I trust her climbing skills, but am not sure about her 'eating enough calories' skills. I had a blast. I loved rappelling into a seldomly visited canyon. Seeing new terrain, getting familiar with the backcountry and the art of canyoneering.
Back to work that night, up Hidden Canyon. Hooter Mike agitates a female owl, shrieking sounds we had not heard from an owl before. Mike +3.


  1. incredible writing, great adventure, I love the verbalage I can't imagine the canyons you canyoneered into. but you described it well. Photos?


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