Aaron Schuerr offered to share his preparations for a solo backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon. Here are the details and the issues he considered when packing.
Lead Image: One of Aaron Schuerr’s efforts from his recent backpacking trip
Schuerr says his overall goal was to carry as little weight as possible. His plan was to hike 23 miles total — a hike down 5,850 feet from the North Rim to Cottonwood Camp and on to Bright Angel and Indian Garden, with an eventual elevation gain of 4,460 feet. Schuerr was going to paint along the way, between hikes and camp setups, and hand in his plein air work at the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, which opened on September 20.
“I recognize that this is not the most efficient way to make paintings, but for two years I’ve wondered what it is like down there amongst all of those iconic formations,” says Schuerr. “I believe the experience of creating art, the adventure of it, is every bit as important as the skill of painting. Hopefully the experience of trekking across the canyon will give me a new perspective on the canyon — an immersive, on-the-ground perspective rather than a bird’s-eye perspective.”
In terms of art materials, Schuerr modified a Strada easel, which is already lightweight aluminum, so he could paint with pastels on his trek. A pastelist would like to have hundreds of colors at his or her disposal, but plein air pastel painting does not allow that, and backpacking makes paring down sticks even more crucial. “I spent a better part of a day before beginning the trek doing quick pastel sketches from my photo references of the Grand Canyon — looking at front-lit, back-lit, midday, morning, and evening scenes to get the range of colors for the widest array of light conditions — in order to put together a palette specific for the trip,” explains Schuerr. “As I can’t bring every color under the sun, I had to choose colors carefully. I also break the pastels in half so that I can bring the maximum number of colors.”
The artist found he had to walk a line between sturdy and light. This meant foam, on top and bottom, inside the Strada easel, and a particular brand of substrate. “For paper, I am using Pastelmat, an amazing pastel card made in France,” Schuerr says. “It feels smooth but layers up like a sanded paper. It comes in colors —I have a variety, from cornmeal to gray. I like having a colored ground to react to. Also, I don’t feel the need to cover every square inch as I do with white paper. I have the paper sandwiched between two sheets of gator board and secured with bulldog clips. Individual sheets are protected by sheets of glassine. When I am ready, I use a gator board as a drawing board and tape the paper to it. When I am finished I will tape the glassine to the paper and then put it back in the stack. As it will be very hot in the canyon, I will not bring any fixative with me. I find that storing the pastel paintings in this way protects them reasonably well. I might have to touch up pastels after the trek, but this is usually a minimal amount of work. I’m bringing about 14 or 15 sheets of paper.”
In terms of other supplies, the Montana artist says he has a lightweight solo tent, backpacking stove, water filter, light sleeping bag, raincoat, backpacking air mattress, and “just enough clothes to get me through” — meaning one change of clothes. “For food I’m bringing instant Indian food — it comes in foil pouches and is nutritious and has enough fat,” says Schuerr. “Often what makes hikers sick in the Grand Canyon is electrolyte depletion; to that end I have Gatorade powder and salty peanuts. I also have granola bars and energy bars. On a trip like this, it’s all about calories and convenience. I don’t want to waste fuel spending too much time cooking, and I can’t have much in the way of packaging.”
He budgeted one full day to touch up his paintings, mount them to foamcore, and frame them in time for the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art. Schuerr shared with us some numbers: art materials total weight (including tripod): 15 pounds. Food for six days: 15 pounds. Total weight going in is 55 pounds, with an estimated 40 pounds on his back for the hike out.
Schuerr reports that there’s one common question those unfamiliar with the Grand Canyon keep posing. “People keep asking me how I get across the Colorado River,” says Schuerr. “There is a sturdy footbridge!”