As October begins to turn towards November and the air in Flagstaff gets crisp and cold my thoughts begin to turn towards the canyon. With temperatures in the mid 70’s and the low angle sun protecting hikes, this is the time to scramble down into the canyon and see what can be seen. I was finally able to get a permit to one of the more popular spots in the upper canyon after the area was full last spring. You have to keep in mind that popular is a very relative term in Marble Canyon. This path is seldom taken by more than one or two groups a week during the peak season and big horn sheep tracks far outnumber the human prints we saw in the canyon bottom. This is one of my favorite reasons to do Marble Canyon trips, the area is relatively undeveloped and most ways into the canyon are little more than cairns leading the way down jumbled piles of rock.
Even the approach to Marble Canyon is something of a journey. A drive to Lees Ferry is followed by a night time trek along the Vermillion Cliffs looking for the proper dirt road to turn on to. This is followed by the inevitable u-turn in the middle of the highway and back tracking to hopefully the right road. Eventually we turned on to the correct BLM road and began driving into the empty landscape of sagebrush and scattered grasses. The road is covered in jack rabbits who dart in and out of the lights of the car and into the brush, it was a small miracle none were hit! As we hit mile 10 or so we begin looking for the appropriate two track road and are startled when we spook a Great Horned Owl out of the sage brush next to the road! Turning on to the two track feels almost an act of faith at night as we have no land marks to guide us and we begin heading towards our next turn, allegedly marked by a tank. The area around the tank sends jack rabbits flying in all directions and we make our turn. The road becomes more up and down and the hills get taller, we must be close. We know we have made it when the headlights no longer hit any ground ahead of us and a black void opens up out of the grass land. We have found the canyon! After a few beers the group bundles into sleeping bags for a cold and windy night.
Dawn comes clear and calm the next morning, beneath where we slept the canyon opens up. The sun accentuates the the multicolored hues of the canyon layers I can never quite get the names of straight. Behind us the conifer forest of the north rim sit in contrast to the red, desert canyon laid out before us.
After a little searching around for the cairn marking the trail (more of a route) into the canyon we begin to descend. The first section of trail dives off near vertically into the canyon. More of a scramble than a trail, we get through the first cliff band and have over a thousand feet of scree separating us from the canyon bottom. Picking our way slowly through the graveyard of rock we find ourselves at the bottom. The canyon bottom offers far easier walking and we make good time walking around pour offs and over the chock stones of the lower narrows. We are finally only a few hundred feet above the river. Below us a river trip enjoys lunch on the beach and the water tumbles by emerald-blue and cold. We arrive on the beach and exchange a quick greeting with the river trip (and a shameless ask for cold beers, but so early for a river trip it is a little bit of a long shot). After a quick and refreshing dip in the river some of the group starts rigging up rods while others head out to explore the area.
Lance ties on a huge articulated streamer and gets a few promising follows. I try the opposite and tie on a size 18 midge and begin nymphing a deep eddy. Before too long I see a flash of silver under my line and lift my rod. Fish on! This first fish was small and flopped up onto the shore and managed to release itself during its brief time on land. I continued moving up to the head of the rapid and cast into a strong eddy. I saw silver flashing but had too much slack out.. Luckily four of the next five cast resulted in a tug and run on the line. The fish were healthy and even the small ones were fat, apparently a lot of food comes through these eddies! The next fish hit hard on the tiny midge and began jumping, this fish was larger than the others and proving to be quite a wily fighter! Four consecutive jumps took him over a foot clear of the water and he followed this up by running up the strong eddy. The line was zipping out of my reel before I got a lucky break and the fish decided to come back at me. After a few more small jumps in close to shore Tanner was able to grab a hold of the fish. The large fish (around 15″-16″, he wasn’t around long to measure) was missing a gill plate on its right side but still had brilliant silver, pink and green coloration. Before we could get a camera though the fish managed to muscle its way out of our hands and in to the river. No photo but the memory will stick with me for some time.
How hard the fish in this area fought seemed only right, the canyon they lived in is a harsh landscape. Vertical walls leading right into the river and topped by scree and more cliffs in series. Visually it is stunning, to see 150 feet of redwall limestone rise vertically out of the blue, green waters of the Colorado River. The harshness of the landscape was highlighted by a dead Big Horn ram laying in the waters below the cliff walls downstream of our camp. The large sheep did not look sick, did it die falling off a cliff? Fighting another ram? The answer eludes us but a wild sight to see before the waters carried the ram further downstream.
Lance hooked the fish of the trip which gave him a good run downstream in the main current and then back up in the eddy! When he finally got the fish to hand it was a strong and fat 16 inch fish with a silver and green coloration.
A break from fishing gave us the chance to check out some of the surrounding area. We hiked up to a cave that is barred off by the park service as bat habitat.The cave was impressive and it appeared as though long ago miners had tried to burrow into the redwall using dynamite and drills in search of some unknown mineral. The level of effort to try to mine here was staggering and the park services gate was no joke either! We saw a few bats clinging to the ceiling of the cave and they paid us no mind.
Sun began to leave the canyon floor and the light show of fading light began to play out as a sunset for each layer of rock as the sun moved below the horizon. We started fishing again (to hopefully catch some dinner) as the sunlight left the river.
Midges were no longer the ticket, but small streamers or dark woolly buggers allowed to swing and then stripped against the current seemed to be the ticket. Catching fish on the swing or the strip is always a blast and they were smacking the fly as hard as they were able! A few rises later and I had switch to a royal wulff and after a few hits on it the dry fly action seemed to die down. Fortunately the buggers and streamers were still producing! Upriver in the slower water our buddy Mark pulled in his first Grand Canyon trout on the spin rod using Tanners secret canyon combo for spin fishing!
The light began fading and we set up camp on the sand with old Anasazi stone structures on the cliffs above us. The trout was my best cooked to date and with only foil! A few lemon slices and some pepper definitely helped it out though. The milky way was on full display and a good nights sleep was in order after a long day in the sun. Unfortunately for those that slept on the downstream side of the camp, sleep would be often interrupted, even if hilariously. A group of 3 or 4 Ring Tailed Cats decided it would become their mission to disrupt our sleep no matter where you kept you bag or how well the food was sealed. Crawling across ropes to suspended food bags and under peoples legs or head to try and pull food from the bags! If they weren’t so entertaining it would definitely have made you angry (at 2 in the morning some people were a little unhappy though).
The next day began with a short time fishing in which only one fish was caught by Tanner. And before the sun became too intense we began our route out of the canyon and back to the cars.
Steep seems to be an understatement for the last few hundred vertical feet of this trail, the vertical distance covered is far greater than the horizontal. As we climbed to broken cliff out of the canyon a group of 8 migrating hawks circled over our heads, riding the thermals out of the canyon we were leaving. A golden eagle circled off in the distance, it was a pretty incredible display from the raptors as we left the canyon!
Topping out of the canyon and reaching the cars was a definite relief. Looking forward to ice cream from Marble Canyon we packed up and headed down the twisting dirt roads.