Packing for a Grand Canyon Art Trek

Pastel artist Aaron Shuerr combined his love of nature, art and adventure in an amazing six-day solo art trek, rim to rim, across the Grand Canyon. Here he shares, in his own words, what inspired him to make the trip, how he prepared and what he packed. Learn more about his Grand Canyon traverse, read his poetic insights and see some of his canyon paintings in the June 2016 issue of Pastel Artist, available in print or as a download, and on newsstands May 10.

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pastel-trek-prep-Aaron-Schuerr | artistsnetwork.com

I carefully curated my hiking and art pack, as I’d be carrying all 60 pounds of it on my back through the Grand Canyon.

For three years, I’ve participated in the Grand Canyon Association Celebration of Art. Twenty-five (or so) artists gather in September for a week of plein air painting at the Grand Canyon, with a show at Kolb Studio to finish the week. When invited to participate in 2015, I eagerly accepted, as I felt I needed a rematch with that crazy visual jigsaw puzzle. In the past, painting the Grand Canyon had, quite literally, sickened me. In 2010, I had the chance to paint along the south rim. For an entire day, I tried to get something to work, scraping attempt after attempt. While I drank plenty of water, I didn’t eat a thing. I was too focused on painting. Finally, as the sun set, I managed to eke out a not-so-terrible-painting. With a sigh of relief, I turned in for the night.

I woke in the predawn glow eager to paint the first light, climbed out of the tent and promptly threw up. The headache and nausea was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was sudden and severe.  Fortunately, my wife had read the park paper and honed in on one word: hyponatremia. This is a condition of low sodium levels in the blood. It feels like the worst hangover ever. The remedy? Pringles and Gatorade.

Suffice to say, I take the Grand Canyon seriously because, it had quite literally brought me to my knees.

While at both north and south rims, I’ve found myself wondering what it’s like down below. I’ve hiked a mile or two down to paint, but that wasn’t enough to satiate my curiosity. I learned that people hike rim to rim, a distance of 23 miles, with a ridiculous amount of elevation lost and regained. Could I backpack my easel across the canyon, I wondered?

Though I tried to put the idea out of my mind, it kept returning to pester me, so I finally emailed Kathy Duley, head of the Grand Canyon Association Celebration of Art, to see what she thought of the idea. I really expected a “you want to do what?” response, but to my surprise, she enthusiastically agreed with the proposal.

So the planning began. My biggest concern was putting together a trek that gave me ample painting time. To this end, I decided on a six-day trek. On Duley’s advice, I’d start from the North Rim, a starting elevation of about 8,200 ft. Descending the North Kiabab trail, I’d lose about a mile in elevation, bottoming out at about 2,200 ft. at the Colorado River. I’d then start the long climb back out, ascending the Bright Angel Trail to emerge at an elevation of 6,860 ft. at the South Rim on day six. In preparation, I took a three-day solo backpacking/painting trip to a mountain lake near my home in Montana. I just needed to know that I could cover a lot of miles AND get enough painting done to make the trip worthwhile. Despite some inclement weather, I came home with a pack full of paintings and a determination to hike the Grand Canyon.

Next, I had to determine the length of the trip and request permits. Here are the specifics:

  1. North Kaibab to Cottonwood Camp: 6.7 miles. 8,241 ft. to 4,080 ft. Two nights at Cottonwood.
  2. Cottonwood to Bright Angel Campground: 7.2 miles. 4,080 ft. to 2,480 ft. Two nights at Bright Angel.
  3. Bright Angel to Indian Garden: 6.3 miles. 2,480 ft. to 3,800 feet. One night at Indian Garden.
  4. Indian Garden to South Rim: 4.8 miles. 3,800 ft. to 6,860 ft.

Two nights at South Cottonwood and two at Bright Angel would, I hoped, give me more time to paint, as I’d only have to move camp every other day.

Once I received my permits, I began to make a packing list. Straight off, my art gear weighed 15 pounds, so I had to plan the rest of the gear carefully if I was going to carry a reasonable load.  Here’s the list:

Camping Gear:

  1. Sleeping bag.
  2. MSR Windboiler Stove (This proved to be the most amazing backpacking stove I’ve ever used, as it boils water in about 2 minutes, is impervious to the wind, and has a pot and bowl built in.  In six days, I used less than half a small canister of fuel!)
  3. Solo tent.
  4. Lightweight backpacking air mattress.
  5. One change of clothes, three pairs of socks, a fleece sweatshirt, a shell, a wool hat, a sunhat, a pack towel, biodegradable soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
  6. A basic first-aid kit and sunscreen.
  7. I hike in trail running shoes. I find that they are far more comfortable than any hiking boot, even with a heavy pack (and that is with my arthritic ankles!) I also brought sandals for camp.
  8. A 1.5 liter hydration pack, along with two water bottles. I find it nice to have a hose to sip on as I hike. I also brought Gatorade Powder.
  9. A water filter. Turns out, I didn’t need it, as each camp had water taps. It was, however, a good backup, as the pipes were broken when I started the trip.

Food (which equaled 15 pounds):

  1. For dinners, I use instant Indian Food that comes in foil bags. Though it adds a little weight, it is much tastier and cheaper than the dehydrated backpacking meals. You can just pop it in boiling water for five minutes and it’s ready to go. I added tuna, and dinner was ready! Tuna now comes in foil packs, so you no longer have to deal with cans.
  2. Lunch was sausage, peanuts, raisins, and energy bars. I usually make my own energy bars, but I ran out of time. I also had one Gu pack per day. Again, I don’t want to get hyponatremia!
  3. Breakfast was low-sugar instant oatmeal.

Art Gear:

  1. Sketch book, technical pen and grayscale markers.
  2. Strada Easel modified for pastel. (The pastels are sandwiched between foam)
  3. Mofrotto BeFree tripod–lightweight and compact.
  4. Pastelmat card. This is a wonderful pastel paper made in France.
  5. I sandwich the paper between two sheets of gator foam secured by bulldog clips. Individual sheets are protected by glassine. One of the boards acts as a drawing board. When I finish a pastel, I simply tape the glassine over it, put it in the stack and clip it to gator foam.
  6. Camera with two batteries.

Here’s what it all looks like up close:

pastel-trek-Grand-Canyon-Aaron-Schuerr | artistsnetwork.com

My gear for my Grand Canyon six-day trek. (Not pictured are lunch and breakfast food.)

Added up, my pack weighed nearly 60 pounds. While that’s a heavy load, it’s no more than what I carry on mountaineering trips. I should note that I never once took a venture like this lightly. My biggest worry was the heat. At Bright Angel Campground, for example, the temps regularly top out at over 100 degrees. Also, I’d be spending a lot of time out on the trail, as I’d be painting my way from camp to camp. And, six days is a long time to be self-sustained. I mention this as a caution. I work out a lot and spend an enormous amount of time in the wild. This is a trip that I worked up to, and really, I took the planning as seriously as I would any technical mountaineering trip.

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