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Stories of the Grand Canyon

A national park, a university and a century: Trail tales and river reports from across ASU

Grand Canyon
February 25, 2019

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

“For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon.” 
— poet Carl Sandburg.

Feb. 26 marks the centennial of Grand Canyon National Park and the sesquicentennial of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River. Literally and figuratively, it’s Arizona’s biggest attraction. Naturally, it draws the attention of artists, faculty, and scientists from Arizona State University, the state’s biggest university.

“Oh my gosh! We are so fortunate,” said geologist Steve Semken. “We are the Grand Canyon State. What we like to say is, ‘There are bigger canyons than the Grand Canyon, and there are deeper canyons than the Grand Canyon, but none are as grand as Grand Canyon.’ It’s an iconic landscape. It exposes 2 billion years of Earth’s history. It is absolutely spectacular. It also incorporates tremendous amounts of human cultural history.”

When you’re in the world below the rims, you realize that it’s not one world; it’s a million worlds in one. Tiny grottos lined with ferns and moss and monkey flowers tinkle with water. Vast slickrock benches bake in the sun. There are broad sandy beaches; twisting, convoluted slot canyons; silent, towering stone hallways; glittering creeks and waterfalls; and yawning chasms. 

“The Grand Canyon is not just a natural environment,” said ASU history Professor Paul Hirt. “It’s an environment that takes your breath away. It’s an environment that hits you over the head with the profundity of the evolution of the planet. Looking into that incomprehensibly huge hole in the earth and thinking about the forces of erosion that shaped that, and how long it took, gives you an ability to think about things way beyond the human timescale and the human perspective.”

The best way to tell the story of the canyon and the draw it has had on the university community is that way, by examining one small world at a time. You will hear the experiences of a disparate group of people. Some of them have only gazed into its depths from the edge. Some have vanished into the place for months at a time. Their stories join to tell a single story, in the way hundreds of side canyons snake together to form one Grand Canyon.

The canyon’s story is a story of love and death and loss, fascination and obsession, of the passions of humankind and how a place reflects them.

“Every time I go I’m like, ‘My God, why don’t I go here more often?’” said geology Professor Ramon Arrowsmith.

A yellow full moon just above the horizon of a canyon rim. On the left a pointed peak of orange and white stone layers. The view is from Powell Memorial on the South Rim of the park. Photo by Michael Quinn/National Park Service

The university president

It’s 1962. A carsick 7-year-old Michael Crow and his three siblings are in the back of a 1956 Pontiac Star Chief, driving from San Diego to Iowa. They ate ham — from a can you opened with a key — with saltines and drank Pepsi. His father was the type of driver who usually stopped only for gas. On this trip, he also stopped at the Grand Canyon. Crow’s father liked to frighten his kids, so he pretended he was mad and gunned the car toward a rim overlook.

“I remember seeing it and being inspired by not just its size, but what somebody told me: that most of the erosion was not the water, it was the wind,” Crow said. “Even as a kid I was like, ‘How is that possible? How can the wind do that?’ And I had no concept of time and what the wind could do over millions and millions of years, or water and the wind. I just remember being awe-inspired by the thing.”

The family got back in the car and went to the Painted Desert, where Crow got in a fight with his brother, dirtied his clothes and had to spend the rest of the trip in his underwear.

His subsequent Grand Canyon adventures have been no less memorable. He has hiked down to the river and back in a day seven times, and he has done two rim-to-rim hikes.

One of those two rim-to-rims was a contest hosted by former Arizona Regent Greg Patterson. Two months before the hike, Patterson ran into Crow. “You don’t look like you’re training,” he said. “You look fat.”

“I’m training,” Crow said, tapping his temple. “Right here.”

“Well, I hope that works out well for you,” said Patterson.

Crow decided to make the hike a mental challenge, inspired by natural beauty and the challenge itself. His objective was to hike the whole thing nonstop. No breaks at all.

The group started on the North Rim before dawn on a beautiful October day. Crow and a 17-year-old lacrosse player took off at the same time.

“He was like a rabbit to me,” Crow said, referring to the fakes that racing greyhounds chase. “I’m going to do my best, whatever it takes to keep up with that kid as if everything depends on that. I kept up with him until Indian Gardens.”

At that point it’s another four and a half miles to the South Rim, but it’s very steep, with about 3,800 feet of elevation gain. Crow discovered the big toenail on his right foot was no longer attached.

“It’s causing me a little bit of pain, so I decided to pull it off. My wife is always thrilled when my toenails fall off in my hiking boots. For whatever reason, I was probably going too fast, didn’t have my toenail trimmed to perfection. That was the one time I stopped. … After that I’ll say I was much less effective.”

The last mile and a half was the hardest part for him, but he went through the canyon in eight hours and 45 minutes, finishing in the top five.

Patterson took 16 hours, finishing 34th out of the group of 34. “I was back in Phoenix before he got out of the canyon,” Crow said with a laugh.

Four years ago, Crow almost drowned in the Colorado River.

“That was the second-closest I’ve ever come to drowning,” he said.

He was on a six-day August paddle boat trip from Lees Ferry to the Bright Angel trail when the guide told everyone they could ride through a small rapid in their life jackets. The river is bitter cold because it comes out of Glen Canyon Dam from the bottom of Lake Powell. It doesn’t heat up, even in summer.

Crow watched his teenage daughter and a few other people plunge in and shoot through the rapids without incident. So he jumped out of the boat.

“I had not checked my life jacket carefully enough. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but my life jacket didn’t fit, so it shot up over my head.”

He was underwater, with the life jacket pinning him down and the 40-degree water sending him plunging into hypothermia.

“It’s not allowing me to get any air. I thought to myself, ‘Really? You? Eagle Scout? Trained lifeguard? A person that knows how to hike and swim and all that? You’re going to drown from some stupid little life jacket problem with your kids down there waiting for you?’ I guess the only thing I could think to do was try to pull it down and hold it, and then kick with my legs.”

Meanwhile, his son and another passenger were in the boat, laughing their heads off.

“They thought this was the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen. They dragged me in. I had a few superlatives to say about my life jacket. They throw me in the raft, which had about this much water in it, and my head is underwater. They let me drown in that for a little bit and pulled me out and said, ‘Are you relaxed?’”

Other than almost drowning, it was a great trip. They hiked to waterfalls and Anasazi granaries high above the river and lay on warm sand at night gazing at the stars. Would Crow float the river again?


Boaters running Lava Falls Rapid on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Mark Lellouch/National Park Service

The floating professor

Paul Knauth is a professor emeritus of geology who retired in 2016. While at the university, he led 32 geology rafting trips sponsored by the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Knauth also led 70 student field trips to the South Rim. “With the student trips, we’d do some 'death marches' down the Kaibab Trail, have them work on the rocks, and then have them come out — (we'd) do that two days in a row,” he said.

Back in camp, his students would work on describing and interpreting the stories in each layer of rock. What was it? What did it look like the day that unit was made and deposited? What caused it?

“That night, sitting around the campfire in Mather Campground, which is my second home, was the most satisfying thing to me in teaching,” Knauth said. “Those people were on a high. They had confidence. They felt like they were geologists. Not only that, they felt they owned the Grand Canyon because they had not just stood at the rim and looked, they’d gone down there and interacted with it in the deepest way possible. To be around a group of people like that, with that kind of feeling … it was a wonderful experience for me as a teacher. If they didn’t have that, I would have been very disappointed. You let the canyon do that to them. I just got out of the way.”

ASU's first float trip was in 1962. A PhD candidate named Everett Gibson decided the university needed to do a geology rafting trip. He contacted Hatch River Expeditions and set the idea in motion. They did three day trips from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch, then hiked out.

Knauth went for the first time in 1984. The next year he led the trip.

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Mark Lellouch/National Park Service

The ASU geology trip is open to the public and costs $3,000. It’s not advertised, but it sells out every year. People come from all over the world for it. For many years it was 36 people on three boats. Eight years ago the park service cut them down to two boats.

“Now it’s even harder to get on this trip,” said Knauth, who will be going again this year. 

While at ASU, Knauth taught sedimentology, geology of the Grand Canyon and astrobiology, among other courses.

“Where else in the country can you teach a class, go up on a Friday, do a day and a half in the canyon, and be home for supper on Sunday night?” he said. “I took full advantage of it when I taught geology. … It’s the greatest teaching resource you can have. … That’s recreation and tomfoolery and research. I’ve done it all at the canyon.”

The geomorphologist

Kelin Whipple is a geomorphologist at ASU. He studies how wind, water, climate and tectonics shape the Earth.

How the canyon was formed is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Before 6 million years ago, there was no river running along that path.

“It’s a young river, geologically speaking,” Whipple said. “The canyon was cut quite young, cut quite quickly sometime soon after 6 million (years). After that, everything is debated. How much is uplift of the plateau playing a role, and how much is just a river cutting back into a preexisting uplifted plateau? It’s very much a topic of debate.”

How was the canyon cut, and when did the Colorado River appear in that formation? It’s tough to study, because the canyon is a net erosional environment. Simply put, most of the evidence is gone. The river is silty and the plateau is windy.

“It’s been studied a lot, and it’s been debated the whole time, for the 100 years (of the park's existence) and before that, since Powell 150 years ago,” he said. “Today, it’s about the age and timing of the Colorado and other rivers, the San Juan and the Goosenecks. It’s been debated constantly.”

View from Mather Point on the South Rim. Cloud inversions are formed through the interaction of warm and cold air masses. Photo by Erin Whittaker/National Park Service

A controversial 2012 University of Colorado study made quite a splash when the authors put the canyon at 70 million years old.

“But the main, young, canyon is less than 6 (million), we think,”” Whipple said. “In my view, that thermochronology data — clever as it is — there must be something incomplete in our understanding of how to interpret that data to allow it to look like it’s that old when it’s not. That’s an unresolved debate that’s going on. There’s more scientists that believe in the Younger Canyon side than the Older Canyon side.”

Whipple looks at erosion rates outside the canyon vs. inside the canyon. Erosion rates are faster in the canyon, and the rates are about right to carve that deep of a canyon in about 6 million years.

Most of Whipple’s work has either been remote or done on rafting trips. He’s gone on a two-week raft trip where they stopped everywhere they could get access to a new rock unit.

“Pile out of the raft real quick, pull out all the seismic gear, run out a line of geophones, do the rock hammering thing on a steel plate, record the signals that give you the velocity that the acoustic waves go through the rock, and that is correlated with the rock strength and its density and all that stuff,” he said, describing a typical day. “You gather the stuff back together, you get it in the raft, fight for your life to survive the next rapid, and get out and do it again. We’ve done a couple of trips doing that.”

If scientists want to float the river for research, they need a research permit and they have to apply in the lottery as well. On Whipple’s trip, the crew of about 20 all entered the lottery. (He got the permit, earning him the enviable position of trip leader. The trip leader sets the rules — they usually don’t cook, for instance. “TL does nothing,” Whipple said with a laugh.) “There’s a great community sense on those trips, when you’re all cooking and cleaning together and you’re pretty isolated. It’s pretty fun.”

And, of course, he goes to the canyon for recreation.

“It’s still astounding to me,” he said. “I feel like every time we approach that canyon it’s like a religious experience. You just drive across this low-relief plain. There’s no indication a canyon is coming, then all of a sudden, WHOOSH! There it is — this incredible hole in the ground, with really spectacular scenery with all the colors and different ledges. It’s mind-blowing to me every time.” 

The volcanologist and the ecosystem scientist

Heather Throop is an ecosystem scientist in the School of Life Sciences and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. She studies drylands across the globe. Christy Till is a volcanologist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Both run trails for fun, often together. Last fall they decided to do a rim-to-rim run.

“I like having goals, and planning for trips, and this seemed like a really good goal to have,” Throop said.

ASU faculty Heather Throop (left) and Christy Till did a rim-to-rim trail run last fall, just for fun.

They ran from the South Rim to the North Rim, down the Bright Angel Trail and up the North Kaibab Trail, “to torture ourselves with more uphill,” Throop said. “I think most people go the other way, but we very intently went the other way.”

They enjoyed the geology during the run. Till has hiked the canyon before, spending more time staring at rocks than she did during the run.

“But it’s also nice to see it all in one go,” she said. “You’re always impressed with the scale of it, but you’re moving very quickly through units, so you get a little bit more of a story. ‘Oh, now we’re in a marine unit; we’re underwater. Now we’re in a shallow, beach-like environment’ — things like that. You kind of get that story as you move through everything, which is fun.”

They checked out every major rock layer. They brought a cheat sheet, but Till amused herself by looking at it with a scientist’s eye.

“Part of the fun as a geologist is trying to see if you can reason your way through it rather than memorize it; ‘Oh, yeah, I can see these ripple marks or these cross-beds that tell me they were sandstone dunes in the past,’” she said.

They stopped at the Great Unconformity for pictures. An unconformity is a surface in the rock record representing a time from which no rocks are preserved. It could represent a time when no rocks were formed, or a time when rocks were formed but then eroded away. In the Grand Canyon the length of time varies along its length, anywhere from 175 million years to 1.6 billion years, depending on where you are.

“We were going quickly, but we were stopping a lot,” Throop said. “That was way more satisfying to me than someone who just wanted to run it for a goal of the time.”

At the river they stopped on the bridge, then for a lemonade break at Phantom Ranch.

“It’s kind of fun to be down there,” Till said. “There are people who are on a river trip or whatever. There are people who are staying at Phantom Ranch, and everyone is having a different experience. ... Everyone is very nice and sort of courteous, and there’s sort of a trail culture where everyone says hello to each other.

“I hadn’t been up on the north side since I was a child, and getting to experience how different the South and the North Rim are from each other, you see slightly different rocks going up and down both sides,” Till said. “It was a wonderful way to take it in as a whole. ... That was really cool.”

Throop was stunned by the contrast in vegetation between elevations.

“You’ll go around a corner in the canyon and the vegetation changes completely,” she said. “That was pretty neat to see at the speed of running.”

Rafts at Lees Ferry prepare for a trip through the Grand Canyon. Additional side floats will be attached for the downriver trip. Essential supplies await loading. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The resource management expert

Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon, the crowning glory of the '70s trend of slow-boating — making a trip last as long as possible. Called the Hundred Days Trip, it has not been repeated. 

Dave White came close, though. A professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU, White was a grad student in the summer of 1998 when he spent 60 days on the river for a social science research project studying how visitors experience it, to inform the National Park Service's Colorado River Management Plan. 

“What struck me the most was the quirkiness of the people who recreate and work down there,” White said.

For the research, White was randomly assigned to travel with commercial and private trips where he conducted observational research and administered survey questionnaires to rafters and guides. On commercial trips, he contributed to the chores as part of the crew and blended in. Private trips, where everyone usually knows each other well, were another story. Imagine going to a stranger’s house for Thanksgiving — and Thanksgiving lasts up to 18 days. He floated with Christians who sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” through the rapids and with partiers who enjoyed various substances throughout the trip.

After two months of sleeping under the stars and listening to the trill of canyon wrens and the gurgle of water, White got off his last trip and flew from a dirt airstrip to Las Vegas. Ninety minutes later he was in a busy casino restaurant, gobsmacked by the noise and bustle and lights.

That summer on the river inspired White’s work as director of the Decision Center for a Desert City, where he carries out climate, water and decision research for cities dependent on Colorado River water. The river reaches far beyond its banks. It is in our food, the cotton on our backs, our yards and in every aspect of life in the Southwest. Twenty million people directly depend on the river, and White works to ensure that it will be sustainable into the future.

Prehistoric granaries along the Colorado River above Nankoweap in Marble Canyon. The oldest human artifacts found within the park are nearly 12,000 years old and date to the Paleo-Indian period. There has been continuous use and occupation of the park since that time. Photo by Mark Lellouch/National Park Service

The education researcher

Sports like baseball and basketball are taught in schools, but outdoorsmanship is not. Like hunting and fishing, it’s usually passed down from generation to generation. This is a story of three generations at the Grand Canyon.

It was 1973 and Scott Marley was 2 years old. The Marley family visited Havasupai Falls in the canyon. They carried him down there, but on the way out they let him do the final mile, a steep climb up a switchbacking cliff trail.

Marley now is an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Each year he spends about 50 to 60 days backpacking the canyon. He’s working on finishing up his sectional hike of the canyon’s full length.

“It’s one of those things where if I took two weeks off I could probably go finish it,” Marley said. “You’re kind of just plunking along at whatever you feel like. Eventually you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll go sew the line up.’ It’s not as dedicated as ‘I’m going to do this piece, this piece and this piece.’”

His father is one of the few people who have hiked the length of the canyon. Robert Marley did it with a partner in 55 days on the south side in 1980.

“We spent our summers up there, bouncing around the rim on the dirt roads, camping out for weeks,” Marley said. “He was always poking around, trying to find some line or something. That was a pretty lucky childhood, I’d say. We thrived off of it.”

Before his epic hike, Robert Marley was involved with a Phoenix Boy Scout troop in the 1970s, along with a lot of fathers who were hiking fanatics.

“They did a lot of lines that break the norms,” Marley said. “I don’t think anyone else has really done it since. Everyone’s Boy Scout troop has been down to Grandview. Everyone’s troop has been down to Bright Angel campground. But whose troop has hiked the Walter Powell Route? (A 2.4-mile beast with 3,200 feet of elevation gain.) Whose Boy Scout troop has done the Freefall Route in Marble Canyon? The fact that parents would let their kids go on some of these hikes, it has to be because they just didn’t know.”

By the time Scott Marley came of age to tackle those envelope-pushing trips, the Boy Scouts hit the brakes on them. His father went off to do his own thing, eventually culminating in his epic 1980 hike. Then he became obsessed with rafting. The Marleys rafted the Colorado and rivers across the West.

Marley has a 3-year-old son. “I took him down to Havasupai to re-enact it, and he had a blast down there, playing around the waterfalls, that kind of thing. It was good stuff. I hope he buys into it the way my brother and I have. I just think it’s good for kids, a good thing for them to do.”

Oceanographer Hilairy Hartnett's field geometry class at Horseshoe Bend. As part of Hartnett's project to study carbon cycling in the Colorado River, the students took samples at 12 sites along the river, from Yuma to Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Hilairy Hartnet.

The oceanographer

Hilairy Hartnett, an oceanographer in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences, won a National Science Foundation award to study carbon cycling in the Colorado River. The study ran from 2009 to 2014, and the last papers are being written up now.

The work was to understand the types of carbon that get put into the river from the land, from bacteria and algae in the river that create organic matter, from human-influenced material and from other sources. How does that carbon change as it moves downstream? Is it broken down by sunlight in the reservoirs? Does it get buried in sediments in reservoirs? What happens to it?

The award has a strong education component to it, and this one was to develop opportunities for undergrads to do field research associated with the main research project. As a local project with large-scale scope and impacts, it was a great opportunity. 

“It’s great for Arizona students because it’s place-based,” Hartnett said. “They know the Colorado River. It’s familiar because we live here.”

The project took samples at places like Lees Ferry, where the Grand Canyon begins; at Willow Beach below Hoover Dam; on the river at Blythe; down at Yuma; as far north as Green River, Wyoming, and other places — 12 sites along the river in all. 

Even if those students didn’t go into science as a career, they learned about a vital resource and are more informed and concerned citizens as a result. Twenty million people depend on the river.

In the summer of 2016, Hartnett and her husband went on Paul Knauth’s geology raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Despite years of experience as an oceanographer and studying deep-sea sediments and teaching about geology and inland seas, she wasn’t prepared for the experience.

Associate Professor Hilairy Hartnett and her husband, Stan Klonowski, on Paul Knauth’s geology raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Klonowski, a lab manager in the Fulton Schools, had previously been Knauth’s lab technician for almost 15 years. Photo courtesy of Hilairy Hartnett

“I think of it as I know the Colorado,” she said. “It’s my river. I study it. I’ve taken students to it. I teach about it. And until I’d gone down the river in a boat, I didn’t know anything about the river. ... Until you’re at the bottom of the Colorado, looking up at essentially a mile of sedimentary rock, imagining oceans over your head depositing sediment very slowly over billions of years, you don’t ever internalize the idea that you’re sitting in a place that was a lot of the ocean once. It was amazing — amazing!

“Then you realize this river has carved down through billions of years of time. Those rocks are ancient. It was pretty spectacular. It was astounding to me as a geoscientist and earth scientist. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful, even to someone who studies rocks. ... If you haven’t been to the bottom, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like.”

Hartnett loves the fact that through science, she has a strong connection to a quintessential piece of Arizona.

“I’m not from Arizona, but when I moved here I wanted something regional with real science attached to it that I don’t know much about,” she said. “The biogeochemical study of the river surprisingly hadn’t been done much before I started that project. That was cool.”

She and her husband are planning a kayaking trip on the river.

The historian

Paul Hirt is an ASU history professor who specializes in environmental history and sustainability. His first trip to the canyon was in 1976. That summer he was hanging out with some friends in Flagstaff, camping out in City Park. A German tourist stopped by, looking for someone to backpack into the canyon with.

“I said, ‘I’ll come,’ because I had my backpack and I had nothing better to do,” Hirt said.

They got a ride to the South Rim and picked up a permit to enter the canyon, but all the campgrounds were full.

“The only campground that had a space left in it was all the way down to the river and all the way up Bright Angel Creek to Cottonwood Campground, so it was like 13 miles,” Hirt said. “It was my first hike into the Grand Canyon, with inappropriate equipment, a crappy old backpack from Boy Scout days … I had more blisters on my feet that day than I’ve ever had in my life.”

Hirt directed a multimedia educational project, “Nature, Culture and History at the Grand Canyon,” that includes a digital audio tour of Grand Canyon Village, a walking tour brochure and Travelin’ Trunks for K-20 teachers.

“First I researched the Grand Canyon because I loved it, rather than loving the Grand Canyon because I researched it,” he said. “I was going to the Grand Canyon long before I turned it into a scholarly project, and I will go to the Grand Canyon long after I retire from my scholarly career.”

Hirt may be inspired by the creative things found in cities, like great restaurants and art exhibits and craft beer and performances, but not fulfilled.

“There’s so much to do in the city, but the city doesn’t bring me equanimity,” he said. “I get perspective and inspiration that lasts when I go to nature, when I’m quiet, when the noise around me is silenced and I’m filled with the environment around me, rather than hundreds of details of things competing for my attention in the city: honking cars, traffic lights changing, neon signs and stuff like that. The universe has been here for 12 billion years. The planet has been here for 5 billion years. The Grand Canyon has been here for 5 or 6 million years. Our lifetime, this year, this presidential administration, this career that I have, is such a small, tiny piece of the larger world. When you go to a place like the Grand Canyon you really gain the kind of perspective that lets you put your own life in perspective when you get back from it.”

The geographic Trail of Time is set up at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The geoscience educator

Steve Semken was part of a project at the canyon that helps visitors put things in perspective.

A team from different universities created an interpretive project to explain the canyon’s geology to visitors, helping them make an “intellectual and emotional connection” to the park, as officials say.

“It was the most fun project I’ve ever been a part of,” said Semken, a geoscience educator in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The Trail of Time is a 2.83-mile interpretive walking timeline focusing on Grand Canyon geology. It helps visitors to explore and understand the geologic time of Grand Canyon rock layers and landscapes.

The exhibit follows the paved rim trail on the South Rim of Grand Canyon between Yavapai Observation Station and Grand Canyon Village and is marked by brass markers every meter, representing 1 million years of time.

“Basically one long step represents a million years, which is an amount of time in itself almost incomprehensible. … You actually walk out the history,” Semken said.

The team spent four years at the canyon working on the Trail of Time, visiting at least once a month. Almost 50 rock samples were brought up from the canyon by raft and helicopter. They brought parts of the canyon that are usually very difficult to get to up to the rim. Mockups of the design were built and tested at ASU. The trail was completed in 2010.

“We think the Trail of Time is one of the most rigorously evaluated exhibits in the whole National Park system,” Semken said. “Our evidence suggests it is.”

Semken leads an ASU field trip to the canyon at least once a semester. He has three river trips under his belt. He enjoys hiking up side canyons on his own, where it’s just him and the wildlife.

“As big as the canyon seems from the rim — and it does seem very big — when you’re down in the bottom of it it seems endlessly bigger,” Semken said. “Your entire reality is down there. We talk about the rim world, which is everything outside of the canyon. When you’re down there, you’re usually down there for two weeks. You start at Lees Ferry and you end at Pearce Ferry. It’s 277 river miles, and very little interaction with civilization. You stop at Phantom Ranch perhaps and provision yourself and get water and maybe make a phone call and have an ice cream cone, and then you’re back on the river again. The only other people you see are fellow river travelers. … Communication is spotty. We take a satellite phone, which works most of the time but not always. … So you’re really isolated for two weeks. You’re just there with your companions and the wildlife and the river.”

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, 2008 photograph: "At the canyon's edge: From the foot of the Toroweap to the 'Devil's Anvil' overhang with an upstream view of the Colorado River" contains pictures from William Bell taken in 1872. Bell's photos are courtesy of the National Archives.

The fine art photographer

Family hops out of car, runs to rim, stands in a row in front of viewpoint, has picture taken. It happens thousands of times a day at the canyon, and it has been happening since 1883, when organized tourism began. Canyon photos through the decades show women wearing Victorian high-collar blouses in the 1890s, cloche hats in the 1920s and bouffants and miniskirts in the 1960s.

Canyon photos have been made for all different reasons. Photographing the canyon began during the 19th-century surveys, when the government was trying to figure out what was there. Ansel Adams and others made fine art photos. High modernist photos were made in the 20th century. Commercial photos were taken to sell to tourists. The railroads and park service made promotional photos.

“People don’t really know the visual history of the canyon — seeing all the relationships that were occurring there between different kinds of photographers making different images of the same spot,” said fine art photographer Mark Klett, a Regents' Professor in the ASU School of Art.

Klett and partner Byron Wolfe, a former MFA student, have collaborated on projects for more than 20 years. They did a project in Yosemite where they overlaid contemporary photos with vintage illustrations and photos. They began thinking about the history of photography in national parks. Klett suggested they work on Grand Canyon.

“We realized there was just thousands and thousands of pictures made there in the 19th and 20th centuries that we could start to mine,” Klett said. “There’s this really broad range of all these different kinds of pictures of the same subjects. You never see them put together in a way that’s meant to show the contrasting ways of seeing the canyon, made by different people with different purposes. ... Now, with tourist images, since the advent of digital and smartphones and so on, social media is just packed.”

They began in 2007. Digital cameras had just gotten good, and the duo could do research online, onsite.

“We could go to the El Tovar and sit in the lobby and get on their wifi and look at the images in the National Archives or the USGS or any number of places where we could tap into and start downloading pictures, then we could just get out there and check them out. It was pretty cool, having all the resources right there,” Klett said. “Everything was incredibly convenient, working at the canyon. We loved it there.”

"Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe" was published in 2012 after five years of work.

Point Imperial was photographed by Ansel Adams in 1941 and Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe in 2008. Adams' photo courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

“We had a really good response to it,” Klett said. “I think people really like that idea of linking history to their present experience.”

Technically the project was challenging. It wasn’t as simple as holding up an image to a view and going, “That’s it; here’s the spot.”

Klett explained: “Once you get to that spot, and you know where that picture was made, then you have to think about things like the lens, focal length, time of day and stuff like that. The time of day and time of year can matter.”

Almost all survey photographs in the 19th century were done in the summer, because that's when the crews were there. But Klett found one photo from the North Rim that couldn't have been done in summer because the light was too low.

“I went back every month for like a year until I finally figured out it was done in late December or early January,” he said. “It was totally unexpected. … Sometimes you just have to keep going back.”

He still keeps going back. He first went to the canyon in 1983, and he has grown fond of a few particular spots over the years: the North Rim in general, Point Sublime, the remote stretches around Kanab Creek where he has had to lower bags of camera gear down 50-foot pour-overs and Toroweap.

“That’s maybe the best spot where you can get literally right over the river and there’s a big drop and you can look both upstream and downstream. You’re sort of right above Lava Falls, and it’s just a gorgeous part of the canyon.”

The geologist

Ramon Arrowsmith, a geology professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, has published a couple of papers on active faults in the western part of the Grand Canyon. This summer he is doing interpretation on a weeklong float down the river sponsored by the Institute of Human Origins. He and another ASU faculty member will tell stories during cocktail hour on the beach.

“It’s a chance for us to talk about our work,” Arrowsmith said. “Our idea is to share our enthusiasm for the history of the Earth and the history of life on Earth by this really amazing field experience.”

Arrowsmith has floated the river six times. His first time was on a private trip, when he was in grad school.

Two rafts float on the Colorado River. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

“We were down there for 18 days,” he said. “Talk about an attitude adjustment. It was amazing. We were in oar boats and we took our time. … I was kind of an inefficient rower, and we’d get caught in those late afternoon up-canyon winds, and if we weren’t careful we’d be pulling ourselves down the canyon. That was hard work. They gave me that job because I was the drone, you know?”

At the bottom the canyon is 1.8 billion years old. There are trilobite trails and nautiloid fossils.

“It’s so cool,” Arrowsmith said. “We always talk about the rim world and the river world. As you go down, your sense of time changes because you tell time by sunlight rather than by your clock.

“The idea is to get up early and get on the river and get going, and pull over to some side canyons and do some hikes and see some spectacular features both kind of the modern flora and fauna and geomorphology of the river — but also it’s an amazing opportunity to look back in time. When you talk about Earth science and geology as a sort of time machine, that’s the place you really feel it.”

"River Mile 202, melancholy about the end, buoyed by star- and firelight." Photo by Phillip Engle, courtesy of Ceiba Adventures River Outfitting Services

The unbearable lightness of insignificance

Being deep within the bones of the Earth, surrounded by silence and towering cliffs that blot out much of the sky, can bring on the realization that we are nothing but tiny specks and our whole lives are an eyeblink.

Hirt finds that stimulating rather than depressing.

“Some people, when they’re made to feel small, it’s really oppressive,” he said. “I think that the way the Grand Canyon makes you feel small is expansive. … Most people, you stand on the rim and look down: It’s really, really hard not to be silent and awestruck. We use that word ‘awesome’ all the time. It’s kind of overused, but there is a deep cultural meaning to the word ‘awe’ and ‘awesome.’ I’d say the Grand Canyon is one of those places — if you’re not sure what ‘awesome’ is, in the most literal sense, go to the Grand Canyon and stand on the rim and you will understand for the first time.”

Klett feels the solitude and sense of feeling insignificant is substantial and important.

“Everything focuses on the here-and-now when you’re there," he said. "You realize that you’re, in some ways, less significant in that situation. You wouldn’t think about that sort of thing when you’re not there. You think about your daily routine and how much you have to do and stuff like that. It puts you in a different place. … It’s liberating, and I think it’s wonderful. It’s a little humbling. … You look all around you and realize this is a place that took a long time to form. Not only are you this little speck down there, but the time that you’re spending there is just this blink of time.”

Andrew Holycross is a herpetologist and an adjunct professor in the School of Life Sciences. He is the ninth person of 10 to thru-hike (to walk without leaving) the length of Grand Canyon and only the third person to walk the length on both north and south sides. There is a yin and yang to his view of the sensation.

“I feel that in terms of the physicalness of existence, because of the scale of the canyon and the stars at night and things like that, you realize how small you are physically in the universe," Holycross said. "But from a spiritual point of view, you feel more a part of everything, so maybe bigger in a way. It’s kind of weird those two things are opposites.”

Top photo: End-of-day sun hits the tops of the canyon walls. Photo by Craig Zerbe/Getty Images/iStockphoto 
Special thanks to Ceiba Adventures, River Outfitting Services, Flagstaff, Arizona. 

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