No Greater Reward
Guiding a Grand Canyon backpack
It’s something you’ve always wanted to do but the idea is daunting, hiking across the Grand Canyon. Camping down in the bottom. Watching the mighty Colorado River flow beneath the footbridge you are walking on. It seemed impossible to me once, too, but it isn’t.
Way back when my age could still be represented by a single digit number, my dad took me to a Junior Ranger program at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, now the Indiana Dunes National Park. The ranger told us many stories, but I remember only one: It highlighted his backpacking trek across the Grand Canyon. THE GRAND CANYON.
I learned that a hiker can carry everything she needs for several days right in her backpack: Food, clothing, shelter, everything! And the Grand Canyon is so vast, it takes more than a single day (for most) to walk down to the bottom and back up. Also, the canyon is so deep there is actually different weather, plants and animals at the bottom than the top. Hiking to another climate seemed about as possible as digging a hole to China to a kid like me. I did try to dig that hole to China but it was the Grand Canyon trip I succeeded at first.
Fundraising for my big goal began at once. I went up and down the street and begged neighbors to let me wash their cars. I had a lemonade stand (the UPS driver drank the whole pitcher on a hot day and generously gave us $2). My dad threw all his change into the glove compartment of our family’s 1978 GMC conversion van. This van would get us all the way to the Grand Canyon in 1989 he assured me, that gave us two whole years to raise the money.
Well, the long-anticipated 1989 trip never happened. Instead, my car mechanic dad won a trip in a nationwide drawing through CarQuest auto parts. He and my mom chose Hawaii, not the Grand Canyon as the destination.
Fast forward 20 years, I was now living in Hawaii as a result of that silly drawing that changed our family’s path, and I was several years into a career at a daily newspaper. A career with benefits. Like paid time off. Paid time off that could be used while I was in the Grand Canyon. Internet resources for travel planning were scarce back then but I found a topo map of the Grand Canyon at a local bookstore and spent hours studying it. I decided my trip of a lifetime would be to the remote Deer Creek and Thunder River area and I booked a guided trip there. All trained and geared up with plane tickets in hand, the tour was canceled by the company that realized their guide did not have the WFR certification the park service had recently started requiring. (I now am Wilderness First Responder certified myself.)
Devastated but undeterred, I found another tour company and booked a four-night rim-to-rim hike through the Grand Canyon that commenced Oct. 2, 2006. It’s hard to put into words what that trip did for me. Despite all my anticipation and the fact it wasn’t my first choice in itineraries, the trip actually exceeded expectations. But it wasn’t just about the scenery or conquering the physical demands of the canyon. The trip gave me a sense of confidence and independence. I realized I could set a goal, work hard and make an amazing thing happen.
When I returned from the trip, I wrote in my personal blog, “It was a 4.5-mile hike from our camp at Indian Gardens to the top of the South Rim, a 4,500 foot ascent. The rim looked so far away, it seemed impossible to get to. But before long, I was disappointed by how close it looked. Every step forward was one step less I had left in the Grand Canyon.”
Fast forward to January of 2024, I am now a backcountry guide living in Kanab, Utah, which is pretty much the closest town to the north rim. But at this very second, I am in the car with two other guides, slip-sliding our way along snowy roads through Flagstaff, Arizona, hoping to make it to the South Rim for another Grand Canyon winter backpacking trip (the highway to the north rim is closed in the winter). This is basically a repeat of last winter’s snowy spectacle and just as I was thinking it, Maddi remarked how odd it was that hiking the Grand Canyon felt so routine. It would be my fourth trip to the bottom of the canyon since our adventure last winter took us down the South Kaibab trail in thigh-deep snow. I had come along for the good company and the hope of experiencing some more winter magic in the Grand Canyon.
The snow was spectacular alright, but the most memorable Grand Canyon trip from last year was shared with fellow guide Nathalie Bowman and nine enthusiastic women who trusted us to lead them across the canyon safely. My first trip as a Grand Canyon backpacking guide. I don’t know how to top that. During the trek, I thought back to my first, long-anticipated hike through the Grand Canyon, what that trip meant to me and what a thrill it was to now be sharing the canyon with others. I stole a page right out of my original guide’s playbook and served breakfast at the base of Ribbon Falls while our guests enjoyed this majestic waterfall where the Zuni people trace their origins. Nathalie knelt on the rocks in the rain and cooked up some fresh eggs for breakfast (you need to try her backcountry eggs) and she even found a moment to help me recreate a selfie at the waterfall I had taken on my first trip in 2006. They didn’t call them selfies back then. Hearing the women’s joy, seeing their faces as the water shimmered and cascaded, that was my unforgettable Grand Canyon experience and I know it meant just as much to Nathalie.
The trip Nathalie and I guided was in partnership with AWExpeditions, a company founded by Dreamland co-owner Sunny Stroeer, which organizes mountaineering and remote adventures to encourage women to get out into the backcountry. Of course, Dreamland also runs co-ed and private rim-to-rim and even rim-to-rim-to-rim trips.
It’s one thing to walk across the Grand Canyon on your own and another thing entirely to co-guide a backpack and be responsible for nine trusting customers who are hiking with you. Logistics of organizing shuttles and gear checks and making sure everyone has every piece of gear then need, explaining the itinerary and giving important instructions, cooking meals, filtering water, taking photos, doctoring up blisters, making sure folks stay warm and dry in the rain, adjusting packs so they fit correctly, most importantly making it fun and meaningful. I am not sure if I’ve ever worked harder, or found a job more rewarding.
The group presented cards to me and Nathalie at the end of the trip, which we both treasure. Handwritten notes in my card said:
- “This hiking trip was an adventure I’ve been waiting for for some time. I had high expectations of what it would be like and thanks to your expertise and guidance it surpassed all of them!”
- “These last few days in the canyon were amazing – a gift of a lifetime!”
- “Thanks for making a dream come true for me!”
- “Thank you for an EPIC adventure!”
Later that fall, I would also guide a trip to the incredible Deer Springs and Thunder River waterfalls, the remote, north rim adventure that didn’t happen in 2006. It was worth waiting for.
When I started working for Dreamland Safari Tours, we didn’t guide at the Grand Canyon or offer backpacking trips, so I can’t say my journey to becoming a Grand Canyon backpacking guide was intentional. But I can say the shoe fits. At the end of my very first trip in 2006, our guide, Dave, told me I would be “a repeat offender.” He was right. That Grand Canyon trip which seemed so impossible was certainly not my last. But if you haven’t hiked the Grand Canyon yet, our next trip could very well be your first.