"I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." — Teddy Roosevelt, May 6, 1903
With a depth of 6,000 feet, an average width of 10 miles and millions of years of geological, natural and architectural history, the Grand Canyon has enchanted the world ever since it was established as a national park in February 1919. But the textures of the landscape and the vastness of its natural beauty are changing. As we approach the national park's centennial, the canyon faces numerous threats to its environment including industrial tourism and energy extraction.
In his new book, “The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim,” Colorado native and National Geographic photographer Pete McBride showcases the immense beauty of the Grand Canyon while reminding us of its challenges and its changing landscape.
Of course, to get to that beauty was a challenge of its own.
Three years ago, McBride, along with Flagstaff author Kevin Fedarko (“The Emerald Mile”) set out on a 750-mile journey through the entire length of the Grand Canyon. Without a trail, the immense vertical elevation changes proved taxing, even for the seasoned adventurers. McBride and Fedarko experience rapid and unpredictable temperature changes, ranging from 115 degrees during the day to below zero at night. Add lots of hiking and minimal amounts of food and water, and problems start to arise.
“It almost killed me,” said McBride.
Shortly into the journey, McBride suffered from hyponatremia, which occurs when there is a significantly low level of sodium in a person’s blood. At its mildest, the condition causes headaches and nausea. At its most severe — seizures, coma and even death. McBride had to call in a friend to help him out of the canyon, but once he recovered, the photographer was back with Fedarko on a journey only a handful of people have ever taken. More people have stood on the moon than have complete a continuous through hike of the Grand Canyon.
“It was an honor, there’s a great community of people in Flagstaff who helped us,” said McBride. “It was really magical to experience the beauty of a place that few see. Most look over the rim or go through the river, and there’s this amazing secret wilderness that’s accessible to everybody in America. It’s just physically challenging to get there.”
McBride and Fedarko, who wrote the introduction to “The Grand Canyon,” share a passion for both the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Fedarko called it an "obsession." Spending time as a river guide opened his world to stories from other guides and travelers. After writing his New York Times Best Seller, “The Emerald Mile,” his passion for the Colorado Plateau blossomed.
“You cannot engage with and write about that world, I believe, without becoming a conservationist, without developing a proprietary connection to the land, of feeling that you are a part of it. And, in the process, it becomes part of you,” said Fedarko. “Out of that arises a sense of responsibility and stewardship toward it and a need and a desire to protect it.”
McBride also experienced a similar catharsis. He spent his early career writing for High Country News. After writing a story about cattle ranching, for which he also took photographs, he said, “It just turned on a light bulb in my head that you can tell stories visually as you can verbally.”
After a decade of working on adventure stories, he was assigned to follow a friend down the length of the Colorado River. McBride said when he saw how the river no longer reaches the sea, he realized the disregard for it as a "much more powerful, much more important" story.
“At that point, I think I decided I was willing for a change. Travel and adventure are great, but we need to document the changing world around us.”
He said after that assignment, conservation became a large part of his work.
“Most people don’t know where their food comes from or where their water comes from,” he said. “They know more about what Justin Bieber is doing than the natural systems that sustain us.”
A century after Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1903 dictum on the canyon, asking us to “leave it as it is,” his words seem to have lost their meaning among the noise, literally. On any given day, there are as many as 500 flights into and out of the canyon, bringing more than a million visitors a year. The Hualapai tribe also commissioned and owns the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which averages a staggering 2,000 visitors a day. Add in the river expeditions, and there’s not much to hear but the constant rattle of human activity.
But deep in the canyon, away from the helicopters and the boats and the people, the silence is profound, underscoring how much of our lives are surrounded and defined by noise, “both literal and metaphysical,” said Fedarko. “Noise that we make, noise by social media and the feeling of being bombarded with information at all time. I think one of the things that the canyon offers is the opportunity to step outside of that noise and experience its opposite, to experience silence and the manner in which silence opens up the opportunity for contemplation, introspection, sustained thought and a level of tranquility that flows from and alongside all of those things, and out of all of that, at the risk of sounding kind of melodramatic, a sense of peacefulness.”
The Grand Canyon Escalade, a proposed gondola and entertainment complex at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, poses a particular problem for the future of the canyon. McBride said of the so-called “Disneyfication” of the Grand Canyon, “We have over 400 amusement parks in the United States and only one Grand Canyon on the planet. So why not keep our amusement parks elsewhere and keep the Grand Canyon as is.”
Although Navajo activists and their supporters were successful in putting a stop to the plan last year, some fear the idea for a tram or shuttle to take tourists to the bottom of the canyon is not dead.
McBride repeated Roosevelt’s words: “Leave it as it is.” He couldn’t remember the full quote, but he remembered what was important.