by Mike Huckaby
People’s Guide correspondent Mike Huckaby is an avid hiker who runs a guiding service in the Copper Canyon. This is the second installment in a three part series on Mike’s most recent canyon adventure.
Next morning, the trail continued down more steep, rocky switchbacks; and then we were at the Rio Urique, lifeblood of the Copper Canyon. The river was about 40 to 50 feet wide, with alternating areas of boulders with deep water pockets, and shallow gravel bars, and sandy beaches. Upstream and downstream, canyon walls soared up to the deep blue sky and the rim–over a vertical mile above us. Octopus agave and pithaya cactus grew on boulders as big as houses. Pale yellow-white roots of strangler figs split fissures in the rock faces. We had our walking sticks to make the river crossing easier, but the slippery rocks still managed to pull us off balance–a couple of us anyway. Then it was just uphill. All Day! Steep, and dry, and the sun sapping our strength. We got up to this rim with a couple of hours of daylight. High 5’s and photos marked our accomplishment.
Just below, we made camp in a secluded valley on a barely flowing creek. Safe and secluded, except for the family of Tarahumarans high above us, who were delighted to be able to watch us set up tents and do all the exciting things backpacking entails. Thankfully, they weren’t there the following morning, but it’s really no big deal. As strangers in a strange land, the locals just like to keep an eye us. I think it’s their inability to understand that we have all this free time to do nothing but hike around. We’re not logging, or mining, or stealing crops or women; we’re just walking around really slow. They could probably do our hike in 2 days, but we’re taking six.
We slowly broke camp and headed up and over a hill to the opposite side of a bucolic valley. Little mud-daubed rock shacks with thick flat dirt roofs had smoke curling out of little chimney stacks. Cows, horses, chickens and goats grazed and pecked.
We started on a relatively flat trail as the gentle valley turned into a rocky overgrown canyon and got deeper and deeper. This arroyo becomes a major tributary to the Rio Urique. As we’d learned in past years, the entire river is lost at the confluence under a miles-long boulder field, so it was crucial to get on the far side. The trail meandered nonchalantly high above the gaping chasm below, and abruptly swung away. Suddenly, the distinct trail petered out and we had to bushwhack down a myriad of multiple traces to the arroyo below. It was a shame it wasn’t sunset, because this harrowing descent delivered us to a little creek cutting through a picturesque section of large flat sunny rocks. It was such an idyllic destination it would have made a great comp. There were large cedars protecting sunny glens, sparkling clear water gurgling over rocks, and no evidence of use or abuse. We splashed around a while, but there was work to be done, and it was a long way to the town of Guaguachique.
Climbing up on opposite hill, we found a faint game trail that slowly grew stronger, and soon become a double track, and then became a road junction. Confusion was compounded by the proliferation of logging roads. It’s easy enough to take and follow a compass bearing, and to aim for known trials, but the network of logging roads along every ridge and down every arroyo obscured generations-old trails. We spied two roads side by side on a far hillside. It turns out they were ascending opposite sides of a steep drainage; and when they finally joined, their directions gave no indication of which way they might really be heading. We sat down for a snack, and along came a Tarahumaran driving a burro loaded with a sheaf of long beargrass leaves. “Gracias a Dios” he was headed to town and we could tag along; if only we could keep up with his pace. He said he was coming from the next village of Guaguevo, and he was on his way to the tienda to sell has wares.
The only store in town didn’t have a signpost, but it did have a cow head nailed on the posts on either side of the driveway. It looked like the cow heads had been peeled of the skull and wrapped around the posts. It was a bit disconcerting, but it was a sure way to remember which place was the store. We bought him a soda, and we all took a break drinking refreshing lukewarm toronjas. A truck backed in and a family got out. The guy asked the woman if she was interested in buying what he had on his burro, and she said, “Sure, I’ll buy it all”. Just how much he got for the bundle of grass, or how far he had come to sell it, or how long it had taken him to gather it is just one of those things you have to see for yourself as day to day life unfolds in the Copper Canyon.
It was getting late as we finished our sodas and headed out of town to plush accommodations under the stars, by a fresh water spring. Apparently there weren’t many water reliable sources in this part of town, as people kept showing up with containers to full up. On young girl filled up a 5-gallon bucket, and expertly balanced it on her head as she scampered up the trail and on to her house. A 5 gallon bucket of water weighs 40 pounds! I saw it slosh once, just as she got it balanced, and then she didn’t spill another drop.