Big Place Holds Small Wonders and Shared Stories
Enigmatic micro-flora and fauna are themes of Day 1 of our hike across Grand Canyon. Two weeks ago on the GTS (Grand Canyon River Guides, Guides Training Seminar) raft trip down part of the Colorado River, we’d been thrilled with sights of some of the Canyon’s charismatic megafauna; but this bright spring day, little things run our world. Butterflies, moths, scarab beetles, ground-nesting bees, robber flies, and diminutive flowers sprinkled between rocks are among the wild things who meet our inquisitive, start-and-stop pace down the Tanner Trail.
Our trek began with a first-rate team: Larry Stevens, brilliant ecologist, entomologist , and expert on all matters of Grand Canyon natural history; Kristen Caldon, rising star in the Canyon photographer and guiding world, likely soon to become the youngest woman ever (now 28) to traverse the whole of both the north and south sides of the river corridor; Danny Giovale, mountaineer, Camp Colton board member, and founder of Kahtoola (maker of Microspikes, which traction services are indispensable on increasingly icy trails back home in the Adirondacks, where our winters are getting messier); Derek Shroeder, freelance journalist/writer and food grower; Ed George, TrekWest filmographer; and weather-beaten old me, now for the first hike tipping the scales at 50. All these friends are so full of Canyon experiences that I never stop asking questions and they never stop telling stories—all strengthening the case for expanding protection of the Grand Canyon wildlands complex with designation of a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.
One small part of a much larger story for now: every few minutes, Larry would deftly swing his butterfly net and capture some tiny member of the Colorado Plateau biotic community. Mysteries and surprises were nearly as frequent in the nets as were expected winged insects. Larry saw a beetle make a low fast flight and cumbersome landing. Quick as a cat, he nabbed it; and before I could even figure out its Order (Coleoptera), he had it parsed down to the species level and declared it the 6th record of a scarab beetle whose family includes at least a hundred species in this region. This beetle, Larry explained as we all admired the little fellow, is an inquiline (essentially an animal that lives in the home of another as a dinner guest). The beetle lives in ant ground nests, eating the larvae, under constant attack from the ant adults, but armored so well as to withstand the attacks and make a good living.
Larry reminded us, every one of these little creatures has a complex story interwoven with the stories of countless other species. Moreover, the little creatures who intrigue us and the big ones—cougar, wolf, bear—who inspire us are interconnected in ways we are just beginning to understand.
We ramble upriver now, wondering what new stories may be disclosed to us and how we might better keep the story-telling going. Sharing these stories widely is surely part of the answer, and Larry’s revised guide, The Colorado River in Grand Canyon, to be published by Wildlands Media Group and available through and benefiting the conservation work of Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, will enhance that outreach.
TrekWest Action: Take time to observe the wilderness that ants and beetles roam. Encourage inventory and assessment of invertebrate diversity, tasks that are often underfunded or overlooked entirely. We will work hardest to protect what we know and love. Get to know the smallest of wild things and you will discover a world of exquisite beauty and adaptation exceeding your imagination.
For the Wild,
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