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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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...