Into the Canyon
Pete McBride highlights threats to Grand Canyon in new film and book project
When photojournalist Pete McBride and author Kevin Fedarko set out to transect the entire length of Grand Canyon on foot — a 750-mile hike through the unforgiving terrain that sits between river and rim — they discovered in the most humbling fashion why only a handful of humans have accomplished the feat.
“It nearly ended right after it started,” McBride said.
Underprepared for the extreme heat, dizzying exposure, perilous terrain and bushwhacks through all manner of spiky vegetation, they found their attempt cut short in the first leg when McBride nearly perished of hyponatremia.
“Sometimes I can get ahead of myself and my enthusiasm can lead me into things that I hadn’t fully thought of or planned out that well,” McBride admits. “I was really beaten down with a level of humility I hadn’t experienced.”
Defeated, they were forced to reconsider the trek. But in the end, a higher calling kept them going: a mission to document the threats that surround one of America’s most treasured national parks.
They plunged back into the canyon’s depths, and what followed was both epic adventure and sobering examination of what’s at risk to be lost to uranium mining, large-scale development projects and ever-growing helicopter traffic.
Both chronicle a remarkable trek that tested the duo’s physical and mental limits. All told, it took them 71 days of hiking stretched over 13 months to complete the feat. They burned through eight pairs of shoes, endured crippling heat, dug themselves out of a snowstorm, nearly ran out of water, slogged over demoralizing passes and received crucial route-finding help from thru-hiker friends. They interviewed members of the Havasupai tribe protesting uranium mining near the rim, photographed the swarm of helicopters buzzing over the western reaches of the river and examined plans to build a major tram project near the confluence of the Little Colorado River — a place considered sacred to three local tribes.
They experienced the silence that settles over the land, explored the hidden gems — chambers of rock and water — that exist in its great expanse and cherished the moment every night when they got to lay back under the river of stars that flows overhead.
The result is an eye-opening look at the canyon’s singular, magnetic, life-changing draw, but also at the very real threats to its wildness.
McBride said he hopes the film prompts viewers to think hard about the way they use public lands and realize just how precious they are.
“We’re lucky to have national parks, lucky to have one like this, and it’s not as protected as you may think it is,” he said. “And how you see it, how you visit it, how you interact with it, will influence the future of it. I think it’s symbolic of how we’re seeing our shared spaces, our public lands, our wild lands.”
And, by better understanding how remarkable it is, he hopes people will do more to protect it.
“The film references how remarkable the silence is, how clear and deep the night sky is, what a living classroom that mile-deep abyss is,” McBride said. “And then I think the other takeaway is how fragile it is, and how do we pass forward this notion of wilderness to a generation that is more interested in screens.”
Because, as Fedarko puts it in the film, “The prospect of monetizing beauty is almost irresistible … and wilderness cannot be its own spokesperson.”
Photos courtesy of Pete McBride