Walking the Narrows Path

by Dale Van Atta

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    Paul, 11, was exhausted. He was almost too tired to look up from the river in which he was wading to the cliffs that surrounded him.

    The red sandstone walls loomed high over the riverbed, spanning it like a pair of giant legs, 2,400 feet straight up, or twice the height of the Empire State Building. They seemed so close to each other that Paul felt like Jason about to steer the Argonauts between the monolithic Cyanean rocks, which crashed together and squashed ships that dared to pass through.

    Moving his 80 pounds against the swift current while he looked, Paul suddenly slipped, but an older, bony hand grabbed his and held him up.

    “Once when I was walking through here with some other fellows, I fell right in,” Paul’s 74-year-old grandfather, Otto Fife, said to him. “That was the first time I knew you could hear sounds underwater; I could hear all the other birds laughing at me!”

    Paul giggled, and the two continued to ford the Virgin River, now hand-in-hand.

    It was one of many experiences during an exhilarating two-day hike through the Narrows of Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. The trip, a family get-together in one of nature’s most supreme wonders, was one that Otto and his seven grandchildren would always remember.

    For Otto, too, it was historic.

    Years ago, when only a few men had tried the tramp through the huge, long defile in the Markagunt Plateau known as the Zion Narrows, he had ventured down its course. It had a lure that pulled him into its depths as surely as a cactus plant sucks up moisture in desert sand. “There’s something about the Narrows I can’t get away from,” Otto tells his grandchildren. He has hiked the Alps, the Matterhorn, the Sierra Nevadas, across the Grand Canyon, and “all over America,” but nothing compares to Zion Canyon, with its awe-inspiring combination of narrowness and depth.

    Otto has hiked it 49 times—far more than any other man—and planned his 50th trip as a gala event. He invited his two daughters’ families to join him. From Beaverton, Oregon, came his son-in-law, Don Woodlief, and the Woodlief children—Donna, 15; Bruce, 13; and Graydon, 12. The Jones family arrived from Tustin, California, including Nadine, 22; Chris, 18; Richard, 14; and Paul. Only Nadine and Chris had been through the Narrows before.

    On a sunny Saturday morning, early, Otto and 16 others met on a private ranch at the top of the Virgin River’s North Fork to begin the rugged, 15-mile hike. Grassy meadows and sandy flats greeted the adventurers’ first steps as they followed the meandering stream.

    Paul announced enthusiastically that he would carry anyone’s pack if they got tired, but he soon relinquished his own load to his father.

    The panoramic backdrop that unfolded as Otto’s companions on his 50th trip rounded the first of a thousand bends and twists in the river was stunning. “It is impossible to describe adequately the grandeur,” wrote Grove K. Gilbert in his 1873 diary of the first recorded trek down the Narrows.

    Only ten years before, young Joseph Black, a Mormon pioneer, had sung the canyon’s poetic beauty from its clifftops and been laughed at by his friends. They called the place, deridingly, “Joseph’s Glory,” just as those who heard John Colter’s eulogy of Yellowstone named that park “Colter’s Hell.”

    Nadine, a self-described artist, was awed by Joseph’s rainbow canyon of color through which she was walking—even though she’d been through it before. “I wonder if it could be painted,” she paused once and mused.

    Not even Van Gogh, though, might have attempted to capture Zion’s picture … of brilliant-colored rocks in shades of chocolate, vermilion, lilac, maroon, blue and yellow … of white alpine fir trees, maple hardwood, ponderosa pines, or golf-course green Aspen trees, shimmering in the breeze … of the canyon’s traffic: wrens, chattering squirrels, orange and black butterflies, and water ouzels …

    “Gosh!” That’s all 12-year-old Graydon could say about it, and maybe that said it all.

    After about two hours out, the whole group halted in a grove of pines as the younger members began calling for lunch. The perspiring hikers made a rite of the midday meal—salami, oranges, crackers, fruit punch, and sandwiches of all sizes and fillings. Richard finished early and poked his walking stick in the riverbank mud. “Anyone for golf?” he shouted, as he took a swing at the water and doused Donna. She hastened back to the safety of more peaceful picnickers, and Richard went off by himself to drill in the mud for oil.

    “How many more miles do we have to go?” Paul asked, a little tuckered-out.

    Grandfather Fife looked at him, and winked. “About 100 miles!”

    With a second wind, the group pushed out again, this time wading in the water. Marching through the Narrows is one excursion where everybody gets their feet wet. There’s no way to avoid baptizing those walking appendages—eventually. In places the water is knee-high, and waist-high in others. To wee-er ones, that translates to neck-high, and a little swimming or piggyback is required.

    Once, when Otto was leading a San Fernando, California, LDS Boy Scout Troop, he gave a small, laughed-at lad the important task of notching his stick with a nail each time they crossed the river. Faithful to the task, the boy scratched 252 marks on the stick by the trip’s end. (Brother Fife, now choir president of the Cedar City [Utah] 5th Ward, has led 1,060 LDS Scouts through the Narrows in all.)

    “My feet feel like squeegees,” Paul piped, as he sloshed along a riverbank and up on a little pine-cone strewn plateau.

    Many obstacles appeared before the hikers along the path—upturned redwood trees spanning the canyon and huge, wedgelike rocks, some so square they looked like massive beef bullion cubes. Potholes and brief caves offered extra enticement to those with spunk and spirit. Bruce was off into a series of caves that burrowed through one sandstone wall like an anthill before anyone could call him back.

    About mid-afternoon the 17 hikers found an obstacle that stymied them—a 20-foot rocky waterfall. When it appeared there was no other way down, Otto asked for a volunteer, while veteran Nadine quietly smiled over this trick she’d seen on her last Narrows trek. Graydon stepped forward and, imitating the beginning of a leap, was held back by the all-knowing Otto: “There’s another way.”

    He took the group through some trees and bushes on the left bank to a small crack in the rock, barely three feet wide. As they descended the hidden, natural cleft staircase, Otto was laughing with his arm around Graydon. “I did have to jump that the first time I went through,” he explained. “But the next trip I saw deer tracks leading up here. I followed them, and found this crevice.”

    By this time it was late afternoon, and the distance between the weary hikers, whose packs had grown heavier and heavier, began to widen. Bruce, deacon’s quorum president in his home ward, surged in the lead. “This is what they mean by getting away from it all,” he told Richard, when the hikers reassembled. “I like to be where no one else is—to see everything before everyone else.”

    The hikers had gathered at the Y-shaped confluence of the North Fork and Deep Creek—known locally as Crystal Creek because of its sparkling-clear water, as compared to the muddy Virgin. The area was a natural, red-and-white temple set off by emerald-green cottonwood and the bright, yellow beams of the sun, which were slanting on the tall walls. From this waterstop on, it was a race to the campsite for the night. Caution was always required, as the marchers felt around on the riverbottom with their walking staffs for safe footing or took care to avoid soggy sand along the bank.

    At one point, Graydon and Donna, who had been bringing up the rear with their father, stepped into some quicksand—more accurately, water-saturated sand. Graydon quickly leaped free, but Donna struggled too hard and was soon in the bog up to her waist. Graydon and his father couldn’t pull her out, and the others were too far ahead. But Chris Jones, who had arrived later in the day and started the hike with a friend, caught up to them from behind like the Cavalry. Between the four men, a branch, and stepping stones that kept sinking in the mud, she was extricated, a little shaken after the half-hour ordeal. “Guess I don’t have to find those scissors to cut your legs off,” Chris laughed, trying to cheer her up.

    Fires were lit and sleeping bags set up at the Grotto, a sandy, flat alcove in the canyon wall. Boots and sneakers were propped up on sticks next to the fires, wet clothes tossed over tree branches, and some of the cousins took off to find some drinking water—after a change into dryer clothes.

    Following a meal of hot dogs roasted over the flames, the group sat on logs and viewed the hasty Zion Canyon sunset, too tired to move. Walls turned the shades of sunset, becoming ghostly cliffs of greenish-white sandstone as the moon shone on them, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” Thoughts like the 19th psalm came easily there.

    Donna was whispering to her cousin, “It’s so beautiful, all of it. It makes me appreciate what God has given us.”

    A spoonful of fruit cocktail in his mouth, Otto overheard.

    Women had spoken this way in this place before. An adventurous group of University of Utah coeds in 1920 had made international headlines by exploring the entire Zion Park in pants-and-boots fashion. One of their group had noted in her diary: “Zion Park is a beautiful world of its own, a good world. For when one looks upon the gigantic grandeur of it all, it makes one wonder if anything vile or criminal could ever happen in its surroundings. One can only think beautiful thoughts amid such splendor.”

    None of these latter-day adventurers could disagree as they bedded down for the night, tucked in by the rush of the river, the whispering leaves. A blaze of stars shining down into the canyon insured peaceful dreams.

    Richard was the fastest riser the next day. Others tumbled out, sleepily, behind him.

    None but Otto seemed to look forward to a plunge in the cold stream again, since sunrise doesn’t warm the Virgin River until after 10 A.M. when the sun is more directly overhead and can get into the canyon. Breakfast quickly vanished, though, and packs were donned to begin the tramp again, this time more quietly.

    The Narrows hike can be made in a day—only weeks before, Otto had done just that. But it’s an arduous hike and should be taken slowly, unless expediency requires it. One early pioneer reported that he was out of the canyon by sunset “after spotting fresh cougar and bear tracks along the way. I didn’t want any of them critters for sleeping companions.”

    It wasn’t long before the hikers entered one of several sets of Narrows. The defile was more than 2,000 feet high and demanded the walkers stare up at the faraway clifftops nearly straight above the base of the river. “To all the aches and pains that must be endured on this walk, you have to add a kinked neck from looking up,” Otto said.

    At one spot, Otto encouraged his family to toss rocks into a pothole scooped out of the sheer wall, about 12 feet above and across the river. Only a few could keep the stones inside the hole. That accomplished, they continued to amble along the winding walls that are the hallmark of the park—and as impressive as vaulted Medieval cathedrals like London’s Westminster Abbey.

    When the dark, narrow canyon opened out again, Otto’s family was again stunned by an array of colors and sheer beauty that make even adjectives about it sit up and take notice. Even though Otto has been through the Narrows far more than any other person in the world, it is always new to him, he said. “It always surprises me. Something different about it every time.”

    The real Narrows were reached by noon. Because of potential flash floods, those who attempt these must check weather reports and go after the cloudburst season is over, in September or October. Inside the Narrows, which extend several hundred winding yards, the tall walls stand shoulder to shoulder. In places they are only 20 feet apart and give an Alice-in-Wonderland sensation—something like a flea would feel on the scrimmage line between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.

    Paul clasped his grandfather’s reassuring hand tighter as the group unconsciously sped faster into the dim and echoing corridor.

    Throughout the Narrows, it was wall-to-wall water they hiked in, except for a few gravel beds. The powerful Virgin River has alone cut this deep, knife-gash gorge into the park. For ages the grit-bearing water has eaten its way like acid through the sandstone. Even now it carries out millions of tons of silt a year, at the rate of 80 railroad boxcar-loads a day.

    Once past the Narrows, the family who came on Otto’s Golden Anniversary trek began to meet packless hikers walking upstream on short outings. Yet even toward the end of this trip, Otto’s grandchildren still saw sights that were new. They saw the “hanging gardens” of Zion—bright, green moss growing out of the water seepage that wetted and blackened the river’s awesome perpendicular partitions.

    A closer look revealed Rhysa Zionis, little pinhead-size, freshwater snails, peculiar to this canyon only, that cling to their vertical homes and look like so many black dots.

    As they sloshed out of the water for the last time at the beginning of a paved tourist trail leading to the parking lot (CARS! No more walking!), the hikers heaved their soggy packs onto the wet sand. Both mothers were there to meet, and hail, their hardy children, soon to whisk them back to comfortable homes and beds in California and Oregon.

    Otto set his pack down somewhat reluctantly.

    He wondered if his tired grandchildren had learned what there was to learn in this land of Zion he could not leave. Like Antaeus, the mythological giant who drew his strength by touching the earth, Otto somehow pulls philosophy and poetry from that canyon.

    Had they understood what one pioneer felt in his very veins? He was a Mormon who had written about his turn-of-the-century trek:

    “I was now thankful for every condition which had combined to bring me into this mighty thought-inspiring solitude, this place called Zion, where the stars shine by day and brighter by night. Where earthly achievements and thoughtless, indefinite desires appear as things not worth while, if they are to be charged to our eternal account; where simple, silent thought comes to be regarded as the highest and most perfect expression of prayer; where man learns to fear God, to pray to God, to rely on God. Where man can stand without the support of his fellow men when he feels that he is right; where hope and faith in the universal scheme of things is inspired; where man is made to feel that if he is anything, he is the humble servant of God.”

    Perhaps it was too much to understand, Otto thought, and said his goodbyes. But in later letters came the verdict: “When can we go back again? When can we?”

    “Zion Canyon is a great symphony I want to hear over and over again,” Otto had said. “When I can’t go down it anymore, I’d better be six feet underground!”

    And the family was with him.

    Photos by Stephen Marin

    Grassy meadows and sandy flats greeted the adventurers’ first steps

    “Nothing compares to Zion Canyon,” says Otto Fife

    When it appeared there was no other way down, Otto asked for a volunteer

    “Its elements are mine,” said Otto Fife. “There is water, sand, and a little rock in me, too”

    From the waterstop on, it was a race to the campsite

    The canyon walls are laced with potholes and shallow caves

    The “hanging gardens” of Zion

    The river carries out millions of tons of silt a year

    “I like to be where no one else is—to see everything before everyone else,” said Bruce