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Barefoot Backpacking at Havasu Canyon

October 12, 2014

The big week has come and gone . . . and my fabulous five days of experiencing Havasu Canyon have now morphed into memories (and words, and photos).

Toes above Havasu Falls

My pack weighed 36 pounds (including five liters of water) the night before the 10-mile trek (down 2,000 feet) to the campground along Havasu Creek; after an illuminating pre-hike meeting with our (friendly, competent, knowledgeable, fabulous) Grand Canyon Field Institute guides, during which one pulled everything out of her pack, bit by bit, and explained why this and not that and do you really need more than one pair of pants all week, I returned to my (clean and comfortable) room at the Hualupai Lodge and divested myself of extra clothes and other superfluous gear.

I did not have a chance to weigh my backpack again until I returned home, but with all my food eaten, and only one liter of water left, it had diminished to 25.5 pounds . . . which felt feather-light on the hike up and out Friday.

My feet being always on my mind, I had lots of pre-trip trepidation about how to balance needing to stay up with a group of strangers (the other members of the GCFI expedition), and letting my soles do what they do best: feel their fabulous way along rocky and dusty trails.

Shoeless backpacking

Since I had successfully hiked for six days last year over a very challenging Grand Canyon route (Thunder River/Tapeats Creek/River Route/Deer Creek) with my Merrell Pipidae Wrap sandals (of course they have discontinued them), I brought those as a back-up. But–what I was eager to test: my new Sockwa X-8’s.

Sockwa X-8's on the Havasu Canyon trail

So, for the rocky and moderately steep first mile descent, followed by five more miles of meandering in/through/along a gravelly stream bed, I chugged along in the Sockwa’s. I doubt I could have made so many steps through the relentless swishy gravel without them, and the thin soles allowed for a fair amount of trail sensation, but that darn layer between me and the ground was moderately annoying. Without socks on, my feet felt sweaty, and after a couple of hours I realized I was getting a hot spot between my big toe and second toe on my left foot. Since it had been so long since I had experienced a burgeoning blister, I forgot that this sensation needed immediate attention when hiking. Long story short: I ended up with a small blister, which caused a bit more moderate annoyance the rest of the week.

Oh happy place where the trail meets the lovely creek, and the gravel is replaced by a silken dusty path that meanders along under cottonwood, willow, and other water-loving trees. The Sockwa’s came off immediately, to be worn for only a few minutes later in the week while descending the Mooney Falls ladder-and-cave trail.

Look closely; there are people at the bottom of the cliff, getting reading to climb up it on a ladder.

Look closely; there are people at the bottom of the cliff, getting reading to climb up it via ladder and cave, with chains to hang onto. Yikes . . .

That’s right: from Monday afternoon to Friday morning (when we hit the gravel wash again on our way up and out of the canyon,) I lived and loved the barefoot life. The last four miles of trail were no problem, even with the pack–and the daily excursions of 3-4 miles, up and down side canyons, in and out of Havasu Creek, were all the more enjoyable without shoes. It was amazing to watch all the work it took some of my hiking mates to change from ankle-high boots, to athletic shoes, to camp sandals, all week long. All I had to do was hike up my shorts and remember to take my camera out of my pocket when the creek crossings were above my knees.

Crossing Havasu Creek

I did suffer toe trauma one morning, though; I had strolled to the spring to fill up my water bottles for the day, and was greeted kindly by a couple who were camped near the path to the spring. They wanted to talk barefooting, so we did, but as I walked around their picnic table to leave, I stubbed my right big toe on one of the (many many many) limestone “icebergs” that lurked everywhere in the canyon dust.

After letting out a loud, “shizzle!”, I examined the damage–a flap torn off the tip of the toe. My new friends supplied me with wash water and a bandage, and I was on my way.

Having that “owie” on my toe did dictate a new choice of footwear for the hike back to the trailhead; I could not bear the thought of having the Sockwa pushing on the sore spot, so when first four miles of pleasant riparian path turned back to gravel stream bed,  I plucked my Merrell sandals and Smartwool socks from my pack and spent the next five miles constantly flicking and flipping away the tiny rocks that these sandals somehow suck into the foot bed. I was so happy to reach the bottom of the canyon wall ascent; the trail was rocky, but not constant gravel, so there were plenty of spots to place my happy and free toes.

Strap marks from my sandals; toes are wrapped with kinesio tape for protection: blister on left toe, torn skin on right.

Strap marks from my sandals; toes are wrapped with kinesio tape to protect “owies”: blister on left toe, torn skin on right.

And the lightness! What a pleasure to step lively up the rock ledges with no weight on my feet . . . and with “only” 25 pounds on my back! I felt like I could have busted into a gallop, or at least a trot, like one of the pack horses that made their homes in the canyon, and seemed so at home, so smooth, as they paced off the rocky miles.

Besides being barefoot all week (well, except for lunch at the Supai village cafe on Thursday . . . I was a visitor, and not about to question their “Shoes and shirts required” sign in my quest for a fry-bread taco), the highlight of the trip was: water.

Spectacular waterfalls that churned white where they dropped into brilliant blue pools.

Whispering gray-blue streams a few feet from my tent where dipper birds swam and preened.

Lovely swimming holes created by curved travertine ledges, where the water was always refreshing, never cold.

The dark plunge pool way back in Carbonate Canyon where tadpoles and dragonfly larvae darted.

The curtain of drips that graced the opening of a small swim-up cave below Beaver Falls.

The delicious spring water miraculously flowing straight from the rock at the campground spring.

My feet felt honored all week to experience so many glorious washings in Havasu Creek on the Havasupai Reservation; I thank the Havasupai for allowing visitors like me to come here and be refreshed.

Even the horses had to wear shoes on the gravel stream bed.

Even the horses had to wear shoes on the gravel stream bed.

The last of three little bridges that led to our camp site

The last of three little bridges that led to our camp site

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs” (Five Man Electrical Band, 1970)

Here's a final foot selfie at the trailhead: so many barefoot miles, such happy bare feet.

Here’s a final foot selfie at the Hualupai Hilltop trailhead: so many barefoot miles, such happy bare feet.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 13, 2014 9:43 pm

    great pictures!

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