Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Fourteen of us, members of the Grand Canyon Hiking and Backpacking Association (GCHBA), volunteered for a week last October at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (GC), giving back to this piece of public land that we love.

This work project was organized by Chris Forsyth and Doug Nering of GCHBA. Mule packing was by packers of the National Park Service. Site-based planning was by Sjors, permanent volunteer at Bright Angel Camp.

We begin loosely organized and heading into the canyon, each of us weaving our way to the bottom on our own schedule, to Bright Angel Camp (BA). The air is clear and the canyon is as gorgeous as ever. One experience is sufficient to understand the "Grand" in the name. Each time I return, it feels just as grand, inspiring and awesome.

Even without food and some equipment weight, my pack weighs about 40 pounds -- or so says the scale in the GC Backcountry Information Office. Because of conflicts in scheduling the bunkhouse, several of us volunteers are staying in BA camp, so backpack equipment is required, except for cooking items.

The river throbs and resonates below as Steve and I eat lunch in the shade of a muffin rock at The Tipoff on the Tonto Platform level. Far below, the lush green sinuous swath of BA Creek alongside the North Kaibab Trail, and dotted with the roofs of the ranger house, et al., contrasts with the radiant red of basement rocks. After lunch, we continue down into the realm of basement rocks and slither across the black bridge and into the community of the BA.

Before dinner, several of us volunteers haul boxes and cooler bags of food from the corral storage to the bunk house (BH) and sort veggies, eggs and other delectables soon to be enjoyed, under the supervising eye of Pat, our project master cook.

It's nearly dark when we get things organized and take a break, thinking fondly of dinner. Outside in the twilight a prim chestnut and gray fox stands quietly in the brush near the BH, apparently waiting for rodents to move through the dry grass and leaves, thus revealing their location for dinner.


"Snick-snick; grub-grub," it's early the next morning, and we are cleaning the BA campground irrigation ditches of grass, rocks, excess dirt, sticks and other stuff. The GCHBA team cleans all the camp ditches in time for an early lunch break. Following cleanup and lunch, there's not enough time to test water our work, so this will wait until tomorrow.

"How come an irrigation system in the park?" you might ask. Well, without the system, there would be limited trees to provide shade in BA campground. I believe Sjors is largely responsible for developing and keeping the modern irrigation system operational. The huge Cottonwoods are being phased out in preference for Ash, which have a lower tendency to drop massive limbs on campers' heads. The irrigation system helps the trees get established and to thrive.

Sjors is certainly not the first gardener at BA. David Rust operated a tourist camp near what is now the mule corral in 1903. He planted many of the huge Cottonwood trees in this part of the BA complex. The corral, however, and several of the older structures were built through the federal works program in the 1930s, known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The current BA campground was the Winter home of CCC Camp 818.

During a cookie break, catered by Pat, Lynn tells how a inquisitive ringtail cat woke him last night by hanging on the screen of the BH porch and demanding to come in for a snack. Insistent rascal.


Day three and we're going with the flow. "Hustle!" urges Sjors, the permanent BA volunteer, as we ditch riders precede and follow the flow -- the virgin run of the newly restored irrigation system. "Move quickly or obstructions will cause No. 9 to flood!" Hoes and hands in action, Randy, Mike, Tim, Sjors, Kathy, Becky and I work the channels removing grass, leaves, mud, a few items of trash. Because of good work yesterday, it's a trouble-free task.

Later, Janie, Becky, Wendy and I finish applying linseed oil to the ranger house fence, while Tim, Randy, Mason and Melvin remove hiker-created dams and fallen trees from BA Creek, and Steve and Wendy lop Mesquite and other trees in the CG.

The reflection of basement rocks in The River is bisected by the black bridge when viewed from the boater beach. Local sunset has arrived and we GCHBA'ers are thinking "shower; dinner; Ahh."

Now, I'm sitting by the BH hitching rail and gazing at more than 4,000 feet of rocks made by time, eating a salmon burger of great delight and discussing with Wendy the staying out, the "need" to stay out to round off the sharp, uncomfortable corners of so-called civilization and to be mindfully in the moment in the Canyon. Yahoo.


It's now day four, and Wendy and I are hiking the river trail to Pipe Springs scenic outhouse, lugging brushes, linseed oil, rags. We are bound to paint (oil) the signs -- working back toward the ranger station. It's amazing that the CCC built this trail edged into solid basement rock. Built in the 1930s, the Colorado River Trail is considered the most difficult to build trail in the park.

The Canyon colors are magnificent and magical and the jittery Colorado roils along, fidgeting frigidly as it attempts to escape the cold confines of controlled flow (because of Glen Canyon Dam). Not a good thing for the river. Certainly, extinction for the native fish.

Working back through the CG, Kurt joins in, oiling from the boat beach.

After a delightful lunch break, we repair access walkways into CG sites, mixing an aggregate adobe of sand, gravel, grass, water and packing it between rock edges. Mike hauls rocks, Tim and Randy scoop and lug sand, Melvin tamps the adobe with the medieval-looking McLeod

Our work has earned a "free day," and now I'm looking down the slippery slope fall line of the lower Utah Flats route. My mind wanders over our day's exploration and I wonder "where's the flat portion?" I realize I'm holding my breath in concentration. It was OK and fun coming up, yet not so fun coming down this lowest section. Through Piano Alley, formed by big chunks of Tapeats sandstone that have fallen into the cleft, giving access to the sections above, it's slow yet goes just fine. Today's a "free day, day five," and I'm wondering, "is it a free-fall day?"

Returning to the canyon, we venture to Phantom Ranch for lemonade and beer, postcard writing (mail transported by mule), and then to the upper ranger circle for some GC jeopardy with Ranger Emily. It's good to be using another set of muscles today. Phantom Ranch, designed by Mary Jane Colter and built in 1922, is still looking good today.


Today -- day six -- the first task is wiring down, with a rancher's approach, the loose grids forming the walkway surface of the silver bridge over the Colorado. Green swirls of frigid Colorado disorient if watched too closely through the grillwork. Our working view is straight down, into the river. Later, Lynn cleans the beach below the bridge, while Kurt, Sjors, Mason and I wrestle an old sign post for the Clear Creek Trail out of the ground and replace the post.

The gloves are returned to Sjors, the hoes are stacked in the shed, wheel barrows are back at the corral, oil is in the cabinet. The unused food is bundled for others to use or to be packed out by those adorable stalwart mules. Pat and others have cleaned the BH kitchen, laundered the fluffy towels (so much nicer than those pack towels), and we have generally prepared for Canyon departure, ready or not.

Day seven begins early and I and most others are on the trail, passing oiled signs, a revamped irrigation system, renewed CG entrance ramps, a more natural BA Creek channel, a quieter silver bridge crossing, around 7 a.m., and get to the BIC just after they close for lunch. The rise to the rim has been more pleasant without the unnatural noise of canyon runners, who clogged the trails over the weekend. Natural quiet? Another of those rare natural resources

Rob Jones posts a variety of trip reports on his website, located at

If you go...

Volunteering in the Grand Canyon

The 2011 Bright Angel Camp project was sponsored by the GCHBA (Grand Canyon Hiker and Backpacker Association), and took place October 18 - 24, 2011. The GCHBA provided the food, the NPS provided the Bunkhouse and mule packing the food from the rim to the camp, and Sjors provided the daily tasks. There was no cost to volunteers, beyond transportation to and from the trailhead. Volunteers were members of the GCHBA, and learned about the project through posts on the Group's yahoo site. Typically a yearly effort, volunteer projects are scheduled when facilities and supervision are available. Scheduling of the project is uncertain - although it's typically in late October. Readers may wish to peruse the Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association site, which may be found at:


Load comments