North Rim's Winter Caretaker
In a place where heights reach as high as 8,800 feet in elevation, the North Rim can be similar to “The Shining” during its winter season with the vast accumulation of snow. That is, if you’re one of the few people who have the opportunity to live there from October to April, lacking the finer things in life, like shopping centers, grocery stores, movie theaters and transportation other than a snowmobile.
Someone has to stay on the North Rim and take care of the property while it is closed for the winter.
So one might ask, how does anyone live at the North Rim during the winter time? As the snow piles up, leaving much of the rim impassable, so do the responsibilities. Gary Keysar and his wife Edie have now spent two winters at the North Rim as employees of Grand Canyon North Rim LLC Forever Resorts and the concessionaire of the North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge.
His main job during the winter is to maintain the sprinkler systems, fire alarms and monitor the accumulation of snow on the roofs of the buildings.
In short, much of Gary’s time is spent responding to false fire alarms (not much of a hazard during the winter), making sure the sprinkler systems remain operable for summer months and shoveling snow off of the roofs to ensure no risk of collapsed buildings. Maintaining a presence at the North Rim is the crucial aspect of Gary’s job during the winter.
Of course Gary’s “winter maintenance” responsibilities as a caretaker leave him with time to work on other necessary tasks in order to operate the canyon during the tourism season that the North Rim is open. Many of these projects are done during the winter as to not intervene with the operation of the concessions during the summer months.
Projects like renovations on the saloon (my older stomping grounds) and the replacement of LED lights throughout the property are accomplished by the few people who remain at the rim during the winter months. But in order for Gary to tackle these projects during the winter, planning and preparation has to be done months in advance, before the snow falls.
“These projects bring on a different challenge here on the North Rim in [the] winter. First of all, we need to identify and plan what we will do far enough in advance so we must have all required tools and materials prepared before [the] snow falls on the Kaibab plateau. Once the snow is on the ground, there’s no running out to Home Depot to pick up a box of widgets.”
Aside from maintaining the property and accomplishing off-season tasks as a caretaker, Gary’s time off is usually spent on the North Rim unless he dares to brave the weather and leave the mountain, which is no easy feat.
Traveling to Town in Winter Takes Days of Prep
He has the capability to leave the rim and venture into town; however, the planning and preparation for such a travel sometimes requires days. Gary says that packing is done the night before and in the morning, a sled filled with luggage, is hooked to the snowmobile. “While the snowmobile is warming up you finish dressing in warm snowmobile clothing, helmet and gloves and don’t forget the survival pack. You let at least one other person know that you are leaving, and then you head out on the 48-mile ride to Jacob Lake. This is just to get to your car,” Gary said.
Calling the person you’ve informed of your whereabouts is the first order of business once you’ve reached your car said Gary because if you don’t, search and rescue will be dispatched within three hours of your departure from the North Rim. After reaching your car, digging it out from yes, more snow, than you can head into town.
“Did I mention the nearest town is Fredonia ? 34 miles north of Jacob Lake,” Gary said.
Hauling items like food and supplies back to the mountain take more careful planning. “No, there is not any room to carry 10 sheets of plywood and 35 [two-by-fours] back in with you,? and no, fresh eggs will not survive the trip,” Gary said.
Going to town for groceries is a four-day-long excursion, so trips are minimal and like everything else, careful planning for groceries and other items is involved.
Aside from the less frequent trips into town, Gary finds himself watching old westerns and relaxing during the evening when he is not shoveling snow and performing upkeep on the rustic lodge, employee housing and guest cabins. For many, it’s a relief to know he is not spending his free time typing endlessly,
“All work and no play makes Gary a dull boy.” He says he enjoys his solitude and exclusion from the rest of the world.
Edie, Gary’s wife, spends much of her free time online researching her family trees and keeping herself connected to the outside world. Since there are about nine Forever Resorts employees as well as park employees at any given time on the mountain, each person has different hobbies like skiing and snowshoeing to occupy their free time.
Even determined hikers find themselves hiking to and from the North Rim in order to see the canyon during the winter. “Just [the other day] there was a gentleman here that had done a rim-to-rim and was on his way out to Jacob Lake to meet a friend,” Gary said.
The North Rim Gets Lots of Snow in Winter
There is no access to the North Rim in the winter, aside from hiking, due to the excessive snow that accumulates on the Kaibab Plateau. As of Feb. 17 and with anticipation of much more snow to come soon, the North Rim has received over 12 feet since December. After the snow has settled and melted away, the rim is still left with areas up to seven feet of hard-packed snow (imagine trying to drive a car or ride a back through such terrain). On average, the temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 21 degrees during the night with temperatures getting as cold as nine degrees and as warm as 40 at times. Regardless of how cold it and how much snow is on the ground, the job of the caretaker must go on throughout the winter months at the North Rim.
“I would have to say that winter on the North Rim is hard work and both physically and mentally demanding but comfortable. After two winters here I think I can honestly say that I would not trade the dark, quiet solitude of this life for any other occupation anywhere. There are no crowds, the only neighbors that make noise at night are the coyotes and when you feel like looking at lots of stars all you have to do is step outside. From where I sit life is great,” Gary said.
By LeeDa Miller/Northern Arizona University