Desert Snow: Spring Break in the Grand Canyon

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by Teresa Shipley
What’s red, green and white all over? The Grand Canyon under 5 inches of snow.

Fifty degrees and above had been the normal daytime temperature at the Canyon for several weeks, until, that is, 25 SCA Alternative Spring Break participants showed up.

On their first morning as a team, SCA participants woke to a dusting of fresh snow and leaden skies. The white stuff kept falling throughout the next day and into Monday morning, giving new meaning to the word “alternative” in Alternative Spring Break. Somehow, everybody’s still smiling.

This crew is psyched to be here. After a five-hour, late night slog from the Vegas airport and a frigid, gray morning, members gamely saddled up for a brief orientation with Kassy Theobald, a member of the vegetation staff at the Park and several-time SCA alumna. At the rim, Kassy led a “native plant tour” to get everyone familiarized with the work environment.

“But where’s the Canyon?” participant Rose Dattler asked. The rim could have been the absolute end of the earth, just a horizon that dropped off into roiling gray clouds. We couldn’t see its depths or plateaus; we could only focus on the icy trail under our feet.

Then, suddenly, as we were walking out to the edge of a jutting rock peninsula, the swirling clouds parted in front of us and framed the North Rim of the Canyon like a postcard. Millions of years of history dropped away, right down to the murky brown Colorado River - the architect of all this beauty.

Half these students have never traveled to the southwest U.S. before, let alone a Park as hugely magnificent and ecologically diverse as the Grand Canyon. Watching them experience its grandeur for the first time has been one of the week’s best moments.

After the plant tour, participants got warm and muddy while completing important restoration work in the Park. Some shoveled out exotic species, some attacked the roots with pick axes and others replanted natives in the disturbed ground. It was just a taste of the work to follow. And all the while, the white stuff fell.

As a special treat, we got a private tour at the National Park Service Helipad base. We stood within spitting distance of the Park’s giant yellow and black striped helicopter - nicknamed the “Queen Bee” of the Canyon. We heard about the machine’s myriad of uses, from fighting wildland fires to emergency rescue missions within the Canyon, and about its super sleek, lightweight design. By the end of the presentation, at least a couple participants were dreaming of new post-college careers.

Our first dinner was an “SCA-style” hearty tortilla soup, meaning it was homemade and served with ten different toppings, from shredded cheese to minced garlic and chopped cilantro. The hot liquid warmed everyone long enough to play a quick ice-breaker (an ironic term in this weather). After dinner, we immediately burrowed into our bags and slept the sleep of the Deserving. The snow kept blanketing the campground, but no one seemed worried. When life sends you snow, you make snowballs!