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PaseoWILD 2015: Up Shinumo Creek

This is the second installment in a three-part series about the second PaseoWILD expedition in September 2015.

“There really is something special about being in the Grand Canyon. All wild areas are beautiful, but somehow, the Grand Canyon stands out, for reasons that transcend even its stunningly topography.”

Day 3

As we resumed waiting on the beach, Kristen espied sheep. Through binoculars, we watched four bighorn sheep, a big ram leading three ewes to water then back up into the safety (for these agile beasts!) of steep rocks.

The boat party above us soon after kindly rafted us and our heavy packs exactly where we wanted to go, below Bass rapids and to the trail that would take us to Shinumo Creek. This lovely clear creek is carefully studied and monitored for a translocated population of endangered humpback chub, which here are protected from aggressive exotic species, like brown trout, by a small waterfall capped by a big chockstone (the ‘barrier falls’), past which fish in the river cannot swim. We did not see large fish as we crisscrossed upstream, but they likely saw us, particularly when we dunked in deep pools to cool down from the hot sun.

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Frequently along Shinumu Creek, we saw tiny young red-spotted toads; and almost as often, adult canyon tree frogs.  The tree frogs reminded us of skilled but carefree climbers, as they casually hopped up sheer canyon walls then flung themselves akimbo when we surprised them from behind. Sarah, possessed of a young scientist’s powers of observation and curiosity (or, as Rachel Carson might have said, still blessed with a child’s sense of wonder) kept finding strange insects, colorful rocks, hidden nests and tempting pools. A storm was brewing high above, so on a side hike up White Creek Canyon, Kristen brought caution to the fore and delayed till after the rain any further natural history lessons. Right after Sarah found a tiny banded snake (which I later looked up and decided may have been a young kingsnake), Kristen yelled, the stream is rising and turning red; back down we go! So we bolted back to camp at the junction of White and Shinumo Creeks, then looked down from a safe perch as water volumes grew and colors of water and sky darkened.

The skies cleared after the setting sun lit afire, it seemed, the upper Redwall. A waxing two-thirds Moon softened the stars but brightened the bats.

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There really is something special about being in the Grand Canyon. All wild areas are beautiful, but somehow, the Grand Canyon stands out, for reasons that transcend even its stunningly topography. The Colorado River watershed has countless special things, ecologically and geologically, of course; and those give reasons aplenty to save the whole Grand Canyon region. For people also, though, the Canyon offers experiences too great to describe. The Grand Canyon has created special communities, human and wild, which a fortunate few (including several of my favorite people) get a lifetime to explore. Everyone who cares about Nature in North America ought to have the opportunity, whether or no she or he takes it, of sitting by the Colorado River or one of its many tributaries, beneath those massive walls, feeling tiny and lucky.

Day 4

We felt especially tiny and lucky as we ventured farther up Shinumo Creek.  Always the views were grand, but especially when the narrow canyon opened a bit to reveal distant towering buttes and towers, like King Arthur’s Castle and the Holy Grail. Soon after bearing left at the junction with Flint Creek, we reached our second serious obstacle. The first and biggest, the river, was apparently not enough to stop a cougar or bighorn sheep from crossing, but did stop us for a day.  This second, a deceptively tricky five-foot waterfall and six-foot deep plunge-pool, might send a deft four-legged climber up the sides of the hard but sheer and slick Vishnu Schist. We could not safely traverse that with our heavy packs (and my only half-healed broken left hand, a month after a bicycle axle failure catapulted me). So, Danny, a skilled climber, shed his pack, tied a 40-foot length of webbing around his waist, swam the pool, and lunged for a branch wedged in the torrent, which branch allowed him to scale the slick rock. We other three then walked the packs out, one by one, over our heads, till we could clip them to the line and Danny haul them up. Scaling the falls ourselves was not too difficult now, with the knotted line to grab. I went last, as I usually do (in hopes a cougar will approach from behind); and after a few more wet crossings deep in canyon shade, I was shivering. We broke out into sunlight, where the canyon was aligned with the high mid-day sun, just in time to save me from deep chills and to satiate our wetted appetites with hearty trail fare.

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I predicted over lunch we’d face many more such falls and pools and maybe we should pick up the pace; but Kristen, who knows the Canyon and its geology intimately, said not till the Redwall Limestone are we likely to find more such precipitous slots. We were about to ascend above the clean hard schist, which often guides water in narrow clear passages, and enter Tapeats Sandstone, which is softer and more erosive and generally affords water wider passage.

Kristen proved right, of course (whether or not my interpretation of her geology is sound).  For the next few miles, we splashed through shallow pools and thrashed through streamside shrubs and flood debris, but faced no big obstacles. At wide points of the canyon, cottonwood groves invited us to ignore the building storm clouds and soak in the scenery. Junipers and oaks were appearing more as we gained elevation and a broader canyon.  Thrice, American Dippers charmed us with their bobbing on rocks above the strong current, then flying downstream as we passed. Sarah found a big voluptuous green caterpillar, and Kristen wondered if it might become a luna moth. In an especially idyllic cottonwood grove midway through the Tapeats layer, an owl silently flew past us. I looked up the sizable, pale, spotted raptor to confirm that we’d seen a Mexican spotted owl, an endangered subspecies whose presence suggests healthy habitat.

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