Ruth Bass: Grand Canyon: Hikers' endurance test, miners' temptation

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RICHMOND — Apart from the insistent yipping of a dog or the frantic wailing of an infant, I gave up predawn risings once I moved on from the teenage excitement of Easter sunrise services. But at the Grand Canyon last year, my friend and I set our alarms. It was early May, and we emerged into a bone-chilling wind and temperatures far below what we'd enjoyed along the South Rim the previous, sunny afternoon. It looked a little cloudy in the east, so we wondered if this venture would turn out to be only an early route to breakfast. But the clouds vanished, and the sun appeared properly. We faced a stretch of canyon that had been nothing brighter than tan the day before, and spontaneous oohs and aahs erupted around us as the rocks turned orange. Totally worth getting up for.

The mental image of that glow came out of the brain's filing cabinets twice this past week. One was the story of two men walking the length of the canyon, 750 miles, a hike that ended in the high that goes with an enormous achievement but included thirst, tests of strength, moments of deciding to quit, heat and physical danger. It was, they said, excruciating. For 71 days.

So, why did they do it? Human beings apparently possess a gene that compels their feet to seek the impossible. They want to climb Mount Everest, kick their way across the English Channel, get to the top of Denali and walk the crust of the Antarctic. Certainly, photographer Pete McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko hiked the canyon because it was there. But they were also worried about the future of the spectacular canyon, what they call "the crown jewel" of the National Park System.

Now that they've managed the hike, they'll get on with the second part of their plan: a comprehensive book and documentary highlighting the challenges of this natural wonder. Their worries about the future include proposals to build a tram to the bottom of the canyon. Helicopters already fly in and out daily. And mining companies have their eyes on the canyon's natural resources.

Mining near the canyon was the second story that triggered my memory of standing at the South Rim of an abyss that is 250 million years old at the top and, Fedarko marveled, 1.8 billion years at the bottom. (It's only 100 years old, this year, as a National Park.) Proposals to mine for uranium near the canyon are alive and well in Washington, and the present administration is, no surprise, amenable.

Predictably, McBride sees a tug-of-war between access to the canyon and conservation, the traditional fight between environmentalists and industry. Amber Reimondo, energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, said, "It's not a secret that uranium mining companies have pined after the Grand Canyon for a long time." Today, mining interests say the country should produce its own uranium, essential to nuclear weapons, and not be dependent on other nations. It turns out that most purchases of uranium are from Australia and Canada, probably not much of a problem in terms of national security.

The president, however, has declared uranium a critical mineral for national security. And his Commerce Department is right with him. As Arizona becomes a battleground for 2020, Democrats are siding with environmentalists on this issue, and the Republicans, inevitably, talk about job creation. In the meantime, some 6 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, Republicans and Democrats and tourists from other countries. An estimated 5 percent actually hike into the canyon at some point. A minuscule number have walked the 750 miles.

"It's a hostile place," McBride said when he completed the journey. "I underestimated the physicality of it." He also noted that in a world of commotion and stress, it's places like the Grand Canyon that link people to silence and a chance to "see the sky" again. And I remember sunrise and, on an earlier trip, two endangered California condors zooming out of the canyon into that sky. No mining, please.

Ruth Bass lives in Richmond. Her website is ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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