Did you know that there is a home at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Although the family no longer lives there, the house remains. I was fortunate to have spent a night at this very house. Here, the story of the house and my experience there follows…
The waterfall at the bottom of the above photo is Roaring Springs. This is a natural spring located approximately 5.5 miles down the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Millions of visitors tour the Grand Canyon every year, and despite being a desert environment, no one wonders where the water comes from. In fact, the water comes from Roaring Springs.
Years ago, park authorities built a pump house and a long series of water pipes that not only provide water for the North rim, but they also cross the canyon, the Colorado River, and then make their way up to the South Rim. In order to maintain this vital water pump, a single family house was built some 4,000 vertical feet below the rim to house a park employee. It was this one employee who maintained the water pipes, checked the quality of the water, and kept this pump operating.
In 1972, artist Bruce Aiken earned the coveted job of caretaker of the pump. He and his wife Mary moved into this desolate location where Bruce worked and painted, and together they thrived. They raised their three children, Mercy, Shirley, and Silas, here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They had no television, only hikers as neighbors, and groceries came in via helicopter. The children were homeschooled until they were older, when Mary and the children lived for 9 months out of the year on the South rim and attended school. Bruce joined them December through March when the pump was closed down.
After living there for more than 30 years, the artist and his wife moved out in late 2005. Contrary to popular belief, Aiken’s job was not replaced by technology. In his own words Aiken wrote, “The automation (of the water pump) did not come until a year after I decided to retire. So in effect, the job was not “replaced” and “eliminated” ahead of time but only as a result of my leaving and the NPS decided then that it was best to try and modernize. If I wanted to still be there I could still be there running the old system.” (pobonline.com)
Their old home is now a ranger station. Rangers hiking through the canyon use this facility as a place to sleep, eat, get supplies, or helicopter out injured hikers. This is where my story comes in.
In October of 2012, I hiked the Grand Canyon from the North rim to the South rim with my husband, father-in-law, and two family friends. Read about the rest of the story here, in a previous post (I purposely left out this part of the story so I could tell it in its entirety later.) About two miles into the hike, just after the Supai Tunnel, one of the family friends stopped for a break and passed out. We could not wake him. As a registered nurse, I jumped up to help him but his daughter came to his aid with smelling salts. Apparently, this was an occurrence that happened to him before. He awoke after a minute, and we were fortunate enough that a park ranger came upon us a few minutes later. The timing couldn’t have been better.
The ranger had supplies on him to take vital signs, contact emergency services, and talk us through our options. We decided that since it was likely our friend would have to end his hike, he needed a way out of the canyon. The ranger said he would have to hike down about a mile until we could get to a place a helicopter could land. We divvied up the injured hiker’s backpacking gear and continued down the trail.
While hiking, we learned our ranger was Silas Aiken, son of artist Bruce Aiken! Surprisingly, we all knew who he was. Before our big hike, we all read the same Grand Canyon book that featured the Aikens story about living in the canyon. We were in awe of our luck, amazed that the boy who had grown up deep in the canyon, was now a park ranger here and coming to our aid.
Once we reached the flat ground where the helicopter could land, our friend, feeling better, said he could continue down another mile to the ranger station at Roaring Springs where there was a helipad. Here, he would decide, with Silas, his best course of action. Most hikers would have walked behind the house and hardly noticed it was even there. Off from the main path, we breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at the ranger station. The ranger station was the Aiken’s old home. Silas welcomed us in and attended to the possible evacuation. Fortunate to be comfortable after a harrowing day of uncertainty, we were able to take a breath and take in the scenery at the old Aiken home.
Due to the improved condition of our fellow hiker, he decided that evening to finish the rim to rim hike with us and not be transported out of the canyon. We would hike the next day to Phantom Ranch carrying his backpack and supplies, and pay for a mule to carry up his items from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim. (When you hike from the North rim to the South rim, you carry gear for the colder North rim. Since we were already down in the warm canyon, he no longer needed his heavier, cold weather clothes and could have those items and any other unessential items carried up.)
Instead of spending our night at Cottonwood Campground, Silas allowed us to stay at the ranger residence and hike out the next morning. He stayed there with us and kept an eye on our friend’s condition.
Silas was incredibly hospitable. He and another ranger who joined us made us pasta for dinner and shared some wine. Obviously this was a much better dinner than the dehydrated food we had planned on eating! While most of the group chose to sleep in the bunk beds inside, my father-in-law and I opted for the helipad. Silas had explained to us that it was common practice for he and family members to sleep out there on summer evenings. Although it was not a warm summer night (it was October!), I knew I would never have another chance like this again – to sleep on a helipad in the Grand Canyon. Although it was very windy and a bit chilly, the night sky was absolutely amazing. My photo below doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the canyon at night.
Despite the disappointment in a possible shortened hike and the heartbreak of an unwell hiker, our experience with Silas Aiken and staying at the residence was a fun one. Silas shared his family photos with us (there were photo albums still in the house!), shared stories of his youth, and allowed us to experience the beauty of his childhood environment. We were so very fortunate that he bumped into us when he did and that he was able to assist us when we were certain a helicopter rescue would be necessary. He eased our worries, assisted us, and allowed us to experience what living in the canyon was like. (And we all made it out of the canyon just fine!)
If you’re interested, check out Seth Muller’s book Canyon Crossing: Experiencing Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim. This was the book we all read before the hike. There’s an entire chapter on the Aiken family and their Grand Canyon home.
Many thanks to Silas and the wonderful park rangers of the Grand Canyon for their help. I may not have the incredible story of growing up in the amazing canyon, but at least I can say that I’ve experienced a glimpse of what that life must have been like. And let me tell you, what am amazing glimpse it was!