Getting to know the Grand Canyon - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Getting to know the Grand Canyon

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012 6:57 am | Updated: 3:24 pm, Mon Apr 23, 2012.

What do you know about the Grand Canyon?

I’ve been there six times in my life, all over the last 20 years. After another visit earlier this week, I am somewhat embarrassed — yet somewhat proud, too — to say that I now know as much as my 9-year-old nephew and 15-year-old niece about the renowned World Heritage site that attracts 5 million global visitors to Arizona each year.

The out-of-state and international visitors to the Grand Canyon well outnumber local visitors, according to Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute. The institute, a nonprofit organization established 15 years ago, is the educational arm of the Grand Canyon Association which provides books about the Grand Canyon, teaches classes, conducts hikes and also seeks grants to enrich funding for the park. The association is a partner of Grand Canyon National Park, considered one of the natural wonders of the world, yet known by some as just “a big hole in the ground.”

But the canyon really is much more than that, and as National Parks Week kicks off on Saturday, visitors can find out for themselves as the National Parks Service is providing free admission.

Overall, the depth of the Grand Canyon is 6,000 feet at its deepest to the Colorado River, 277 miles long throughout Arizona and 15 miles wide and overflowing with lots of information, history, ecology and wildlife.

As part of the Grand Canyon Field Institute’s Lodging and Learning Experience on Monday and Tuesday, I, my sister and brother-in-law, Kim and Tom Corwin, niece Kate and nephew Ben from Maine joined two other couples — Christine Epps and Mark Yarboro of Alexandria, Va., and Mike and Diane Schuda of Bloomington, Minn. — for two days at the Grand Canyon. We hiked part of the steep Bright Angel Trail (7.5 miles from top to bottom) and visited the canyon’s well-known and even not-so-familiar points. Among the sites were Shoshone Point, the Desert View Watchtower, the Tusayan Museum (housing some of the oldest artifacts discovered in the canyon) and a timeline of fossils in the canyon dating back nearly two billion years. We also got to better know the history, legends and people of the Grand Canyon.

Although I came to realize that Grand Canyon National Park has numerous workers and volunteers who share their knowledge and passion about its makeup and history, I can’t imagine learning about it better from someone other than Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff — a former Chandler resident and former teacher in the Kyrene Elementary School District who was our group’s guide.

Woodruff, an independent contractor with the Grand Canyon Field Institute whose husband teaches at Grand Canyon School — the only K-12 school in a national park — has hiked the Grand Canyon for 45 years, including about 50 times from rim to rim. A resident of the Grand Canyon for six years, she is believed to be the first woman to have ever hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim in the winter (27 miles from South Rim to North Rim), which involves skiing 43 miles from Jacob Lake and then hiking across. She first accomplished the feat when she was an 18-year-old college student at Northern Arizona University and a member of NAU’s hiking club, led by legendary hiker Harvey Butchart. A Phoenix native, Woodruff’s areas of expertise include geology, edible plants in the Grand Canyon and the work of renowned architect Mary Colter.

“I guess it’s like Monet’s haystacks,” Woodruff said of her years and thousands of miles of hiking the canyon. “It’s always different. The light is always different; it sometimes looks deeper, it sometimes looks flatter. It’s always different.”

“We do the kind of stuff park rangers would love to do, but don’t get the time to do it,” Woodruff added.

Woodruff also stopped along the various points to take a few pictures herself. She said each spring she makes a special trip down to the Indian Gardens portion of the canyon to get pictures of the red buds.

Woodruff and Brian Gootee, a geology instructor at Scottsdale Community College, plan to propose classes about the geology and history of the Grand Canyon to SCC as well as to other area schools for college credit. Woodruff also is organizing information about the people buried in Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.

“I think it’s important for people to know more about who these people were and what important roles they played in the Grand Canyon,” said Woodruff as she looked through a folder chock full of her notes on the canyon.

The group also got to better know the people who lived and worked at the Grand Canyon.

Among them were sibling photography team of Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, Colter, and famed artist Gunnar Widforss (who painted numerous iconic Grand Canyon scenes).

Also included: Roy Lemons, who helped put in the trails and intercontinental phone lines at the canyon, and Fred Harvey, whose company preceded Xanterra Parks and Resorts in operating various establishments at the Grand Canyon including the historic El Tovar Hotel, home of the famed Harvey Girls waitresses.

Numerous Native American tribes also call the Grand Canyon home, including the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai and Havasupai tribes. Just 5 percent of the Grand Canyon has been excavated, but about 5,000 archaeological sites have been discovered, Woodruff said.

Although I’m not sure when I’ll go back to the Grand Canyon or if I’ll be a part of a mule ride to spend the night on the canyon floor at Phantom Ranch where it often reaches 100 degrees or hotter, I now can say I know a lot more about the Grand Canyon than I ever have and hopefully as much as my niece and nephew do — thanks in no small part to “Slim” Woodruff.

Most of the members in the group said they were seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time as Arizona is celebrating its centennial, and all said they would return to see it again.

Perhaps Christine Epps, who said she works in an office and doesn’t get outside much, summed up the experience best: “It took a lot for me to come here. ... A lot of people say the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground. It was nothing like I imagined. Without a second thought, I’d do this again — and will do it again. I think more people should come see the Grand Canyon. Words can’t describe it.”

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