This is the first installment in a three-part series about the second PaseoWILD expedition in September 2015.
“This time we were again celebrating animals’ power and need to roam, by roughly shadowing routes not too far distant upriver from ours, those traveled by collared female cougars (mountain lions, as they are officially known in Arizona) and others unseen who periodically brave the cold swift waters of the Colorado River…”
Paseo Wild II began safely enough for us but nervously for wildlife. Kahtoola founder Danny Giovale drove carefully, so we were fortunate to see—but not hit—many mule deer, a coyote, bluebirds, jays, and a northern harrier hawk, as we made the early morning three-hour trip from Flagstaff to the juniper/pinyon forests on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Each crossing animal—several of which a less nimble, speedier driver might have run over—reminded us our work and our trek had only just begun. For we were out again moving like animals, to make the world a little safer for animals on the move.
Native officials on the Havasupai Reservation lands we crossed to reach the South Bass Trailhead were helpful in telling us of road conditions (rough!) and weather ahead, especially after we mentioned that we work with Kim Crumbo. Part Native American himself and former Navy SEAL, “Crumbo,” as he is reverentially known, was a river ranger and wilderness coordinator in Grand Canyon before co-founding Grand Canyon Wildlands Council with Kelly Burke and Larry Stevens, in 1996.
Grand Canyon Wildlands Council helped win protection of more than a million acres in the Grand Canyon region in the early 2000s, in Grand Canyon – Parashant National Monument west of the Kaibab Plateau, and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, which lies east of the Kaibab Monocline. Now, Kim, Kelly, Larry and team are working also with Wildlands Network, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and other groups to complete protection of America’s crown jewel. Together they are lending support to Tribal Nations in their call for making a temporary administrative uranium mining withdrawal permanent, to save sacred sites and natural waters, as well as connectivity for wildlife facing climate change, and to protect and restore the remainder of an old-growth ponderosa forest and much more of value to the wild heart of Grand Canyon. While PaseoWild 2014 emphasized the Paunsaugunt Wildlife Corridor and the Kaibab mule deer herd that traverses it twice yearly and the predators that depend on those deer, PaseoWild 2015 is also proclaiming the opportunity for President Obama to take an historic step to establish the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument. In doing so, President Obama can make whole the Grand Canyon wildlife corridor and its watershed and add protection here to 1.7 million acres, largely of Forest Service land still vulnerable to uranium mining and commercial logging of big ancient trees.
This time we were again celebrating animals’ power and need to roam, by roughly shadowing routes not too far distant upriver from ours, those traveled by collared female cougars (mountain lions, as they are officially known in Arizona) and others unseen who periodically brave the cold swift waters of the Colorado River. P05 is one female who descended the South Rim, swam across the river, and ascended the North Rim in a mere eight hours. Maybe she hunts mule deer on the North Rim, Bighorn Sheep in the canyons and mule deer and elk on the South Rim.
After PaseoWild conductor Kelly Burke and cinematographer Ed George saw us off, we trekkers enjoyed gorgeous, if hot, sun and bright blue skies as we hiked the long winding South Bass Trail, down through eons of geologic history, toward the Colorado River. While celebrated wilderness photographer and explorer Kristen Caldon explained the complex lithic strata, I was distracted by the plants, which change dramatically as you walk deeper in. On the South Rim, at nearly 7000 feet above sea level, we started in juniper/pinyon woodland; by river’s edge, we were in riparian shrubs surrounded by desert.
Sarah Ponticello was the one member of our party who had not yet hiked across the Canyon. A Sierra Club organizer, Sarah was on a mission to get on first name terms with the area for which she was campaigning. If we other three, veteran hikers had any doubts about her joining us, Sarah quickly overcame them. Despite having an old pair of ill-fitting boots that blistered her feet, Sarah never complained and never asked us to stop. Danny had seen enough wounded feet on climbers and hikers, however, to know that Sarah was quietly suffering. He called a halt and asked Sarah to remove her boots. We nearly gasped at the sight of turgid blisters and hot red spots all over her feet. Danny quickly became Dr. Giovale for us, as he skillfully applied some mysterious potion to her sores and then gently bandaged them—Sarah now refurbished, beautiful and tough as her surroundings.
Many animals, as well as plants, were kind enough to let us see or hear them. Swallows and white-throated swifts acrobatically swooped for insects along the towering Coconino Sandstone cliffs. A Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake slowly slithered off the trail, coiled defensively but not threateningly beneath a blooming Rabbitbrush, and allowed us to take pictures. An owl, whose call Kristen recognized as a Mexican spotted!, hooted from hidden alcoves in a broken canyon wall. A Virginia’s warbler, charmingly hued in rusty cap, white throat, and yellow wing coverts, flitted about the shrubs, giving us a beautiful alternative when we finally gave up trying to find the mysterious hooting owl. Pools filled by Arizona’s summer monsoon-season rains wriggled with aquatic beetles and tadpoles. An adult canyon tree frog perched cryptically on scoured rock above a small pool. Sarah, advanced student of acro-yoga, tried to upstage the nonchalant amphibian climber by doing a perfect headstand next to a 30-foot drop into a shallow pool At a clearer pool just above the river where we camped, bats flitted about, deftly dodging cattails and nabbing insects. A red-spotted toad hopped by, and desert rats sneaked out of rocks to nibble our briefly-unwatched food bags. We fell asleep beneath a sky so starry, we found tomorrow’s forecast of rain as improbable as a dry crossing of the Colorado.
The brilliant stars and many flashing meteors were slowly replaced by a subtler sun and wispy clouds, foreshadowing an approaching storm-front. We waited on the beach for a raft party to ferry us across. We waited, and waited and napped and waited and frizbeed and waited… and wished we’d brought a pack-raft. By dusk, I could pronounce Day 2 of PaseoWild II the idlest day I’ve spent since being grounded in New York’s Champlain Valley by Lyme disease six years ago. Just one boat party had come downriver, and they’d stopped at the camp above us, out of earshot on the opposite side! So we’d been forced to rest away a day in paradise, watching butterflies, toads and other small wildlife hurried hikers usually overlook.