Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

President Obama, the Taylor Fire and solo in James Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 22, 2009

President Obama, the Taylor Fire and solo in James Canyon

James Canyon, 3BIII
5.75 miles
Coconino National Forest


Air Force One, the enormous Boeing 747-200B jet that transports the President of the United States landed on the runway of the Grand Canyon National Park Airport. President Obama, the First Lady and their two daughters walked down the retractable stairway and into their Black SUV. From a riser 50 yards from where Air Force One came to a stop I took as many photographs as possible from the instant Air Force One came into view in the horizon to when the Presidential motorcade went out of view on it’s way to the Grand Canyon. After the motorcade was out of sight, a secret service agent and press liaison informed us that the President would be leaving the Grand Canyon to return to Phoenix several hours before the scheduled 4 pm departure. One reporter said he had heard Sasha Obama, 7, and Malia Obama, 10, were tired and just wanted to hang out by the pool at their hotel in Phoenix. I have no idea if this is in fact the reason, but I do know that none of the members of the press were going to complain.

By 2 pm Air Force One was gone, all of my photographs had been filed and sent back to the Arizona Republic photo desk. “Interesting, I have some time to myself,” I thought. “Maybe I can squeeze in a solo descent of James Canyon, which is just south of Flagstaff.” As I headed down to Flagstaff a giant plume of smoke rose vertically southwest of Flagstaff high into the air and turned horizontal in a northeasterly direction. The plume from the wildfire was visible as far north as the town of Valle. After communicating with another Arizona Republic photographer who was already covering the wildfire, I decided to continue with my plan to descend James. By 4pm I was hiking into the canyon.

This was my first solo descent of a technical canyon. Solo canyoneering can be dangerous. Many have heard the story of Aron Ralston’s daring tale of survival in Bluejohn Canyon after a boulder pinned down his arm.

Though somewhat risky I felt well within my range of comfort and safety; I had previously descended James Canyon, the rappels are straightforward, it has no difficult water or pothole obstacles, there are a number of places where escape from the canyon appears possible and my wife was aware of what I was doing. I do have to admit that the solitude and the eerie light from a combination of the late day and smoke from the wildfire many miles away, added a spicy intensity as I rigged my rope for the first rappel.

I flew through the canyon out of necessity and ability. I reached the confluence with Kelly Canyon and Pumphouse Wash in two hours. Opting to climb up to the rim from the confluence as opposed to ascending Kelly Canyon I returned to my vehicle in just over an hour. I had 20 minutes of light to spare.

The following morning I spoke with an employee of the Coconino National Forrest. The fire dubbed, “The Taylor Fire” originated near Turkey Butte in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area on the east rim of Sycamore Canyon. My thoughts immediately turned to the many wonderful canyons that exist in this area. As I publish this blog post (08/22/09) the Taylor Fire is 90% contained but unfortunately has burned over 3500 acres.


2 Responses

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  1. Mike said, on August 28, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Lets see some horsetank wash photos! Hope you got my email of ones I took.

  2. Mr. Erwin said, on September 1, 2009 at 7:53 am

    Sounds like a big improvement from the Lower Pumphouse/Kelley Canyon exits popularly used. Cheers to you and canyoneering haste!

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