June 25, 2006

Bright Angel Canyon

Yesterday saw four of us hiking down into the Grand Canyon for the first time. Our destination was Plateau Point, an overlook 2,100 feet above the Colorado River on the rim of the Inner Gorge. Our route was the most popular day-hike trail in the park, Bright Angel Trail. Twelve miles round trip, 2,800 feet down then back up, on one of the hottest and longest days of the year....doesn't sound too difficult, right?

We left bright and early at 5 am, just after sunrise. Our goal was to make it to the overlook at Plateau Point and then back to a little oasis called Indian Garden before 10am, where we could wait out the heat of the day in the shade of centuries-old cottonwoods. Well, the hike down was magnificent. The changing colors of the rock and the play of the shadows off of the canyon walls was spectacular.

The trail was pretty steep, with 36 switchbacks to get down to Indian Garden 4.5 miles and 2,700 feet below the trailhead. Since the main waterline from the North Rim of the canyon follows this trail, and considering the popularity and general unpreparedness of the average park visitor, the park installed rest houses and water faucets every 1.5 miles. This meant it's possible to refill your water and drench yourself every hour or so...a lifesaver for many people on the hike back up.

My hiking companions included Ted, an interpretive ranger from Indepenence National Park (location of the Liberty Bell). This was Ted's first "real" hiking experience, having never done much more than a couple hours wandering the wooded parks of eastern Pennsylvania. Quite the initiation into the world of hiking. The green arrow is pointing to our destination, Plateau Point.

When we finally got there, around 10am, it was hot. Very, very hot. And there wasn't any shade to be found. This cistern made my day. I was totally not expecting it, and rather dreading the mile and a half hike back to Indian Garden.

But drenching myself and refilling my water not only lowered my body temperature back within the limits of normal human function but renewed my spirits and enabled me to enjoy the twenty minutes we spent out there enjoying the view.

Here it is, the Colorado River. Because it is pumped from the bottom of Lake Powell, the water is bright green and cold as icewater. It's sad to think how much damage that monstrous dam has inflicted to the natural cycles of the river and the canyon. It must have been amazing to be able to experience the Colorado as the muddy, warm river it was meant to be.

After another drenching, we headed back to the garden (red arrow). From here it was possible to see the trailhead at the canyon's rim, as well (yellow arrow), but even the thought of trying to hike back while the sun was high in the sky made me cringe. Because...

It was hot. Very, very hot. This is the reason why every ranger you talk to strongly recommends hanging out at Indian Gardens from 10am until at least 4pm, when the sun dips below the cliffs and plunges the steepest parts of the trail back into shadow. I have never seen a themometer show anything near this type of temperature. Even if it wasn't actually 130 degrees, it sure as hell felt like it. So we waited.

But we didn't have to wait alone. In addition to a lot of hikers, some who waited it out the entire time with us (the intelligent bunch), and others who stopped for only a few minutes to refill their water before climbing back to the trailhead during the hottest part of the day with no shade the entire hike (this is what they call "natural selection" at work), there were also lizards, mule deer, and birds. Lots and lots of birds.

My life list grew by six in the five and a half hours we rested at Indian Garden: Yellow-breasted Chat, Scott's Oriole, Summer Tanager, Bushtit, Lucy's Warbler, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We also saw others which weren't lifers for me but were still much appreciated for their presence: Western Scrub Jay, White-throated Swift, Spotted Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Common Raven, Violet-Green Swallow, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, California Condor, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

When we finally made it back to the trailhead, it was almost completely dark. It took us three and a half hours to hike up 4.5 miles and 2,700 feet. Not bad, considering how much I was dragging the last two miles. It was a really cool hike. And the extreme heat made it that much more exciting. It was even worth all the pain I'm in right now... I think.

June 23, 2006

Condor #19

One of the condors I saw this morning had a big numbered tag on its wing. In fact, most (if not all) of the wild condors in the US are marked in the same way, many with radio transmitters attached as well. According to the latest census, there are currently 60 wild condors in existence (with several hundred living in various zoos).

Normally, I prefer not to know the "life history" of tagged animals (like the Yellowstone wolves or the orcas of Resurrection Bay), rather simply enjoying the fact that they are mysterious and wild creatures. Most of the time, I think the fanatical mentality that these well-documented animals often provoke in some people only detracts from their wild character and disrespects them somehow. From my observation of some of these sorts of people it seems the driving force behind this fanaticism is an insecurity which requires them to constantly demonstrate to others how much they know about "wolf #179" or orca "AT-3." I'm not saying a little curiosity about an animals history is a bad thing, just that this type of information often leads people in the direction of becoming an annoying wildlife "groupie."

That said, this type of information, particularly when it concerns a critically endangered species, can be very ... um... informational. Fascinating, as well. Anyway, here's the picture of Condor #19.

And here's the site where you can find more information about her.

More Rocks

This time at around 5:20am this morning...

And again about an hour later...

I even got to hang out with a couple condors as they waited for the thermals to start rising...

It was a good way to start the day. There were quite a few other birds flitting around on the way back to the car (* indicates a life species): Pygmy Nuthatch, Juniper Titmouse*, Bewick's Wren*, White-throated Swift*, Common Raven, House Finch, and Mountain Chickadee.

June 22, 2006

Sunset at the Big Ditch

Sunset at the Grand Canyon is quite the social event. Particularly during the week of the annual nerd-gathering that is the Star Party. The overlook I went to was packed with people too lazy to get up at 4:30am to watch a sunrise but who still seek some type of solar event during their vacation. See, I can get away with complaining about all of them being lazy cuz I am planning on getting up at 4:30am tomorrow.

Also, I do think I need to clarify a little something from one of my previous posts. In case anyone was confused, the photo of the condor from a couple days ago was not actually taken by me. I just linked to an already existing image of the bird cuz I thought a picture of one would make that post much more cooler. Anyway, this evening I was actually able to take a photo of a condor that flew over the crowd while we waited for the sun to set:

It's easy to see how people may have gotten confused, though, considering the high quality of both the image I stole and the one I took. So don't feel bad if you were one of those people.

Yes, it IS a Grand Canyon

There it is. The Grand Canyon as it was at 7:30am this morning. Funny how I've been here since Monday and this was only the second time I've actually been able to look at the canyon. Fortunately, I've got the entire weekend to explore as many little nooks and crannies that I can find. You know, I've seen a lot of canyons before...big ones, little ones, deep ones, red ones, yellow ones...but the first time I looked at this place it literally took my breath away. It sounds cliche', I know, but I could never think of a more appropriate name for this place.

There are also some cool non-condor-type birds around, as well. In fact, right outside the door to my room last night I got to watch a Western Bluebird feeding its demanding fledglings. There seems to be a plethora of hungry little birds constantly pestering their parents for food. So far, in addition to the bluebirds I've also seen Pygmy Nuthatches and Common Grackles with young. I'll be curious to see how the bird life changes as I hike down into the canyon.

Tonight I'll be heading to the rim for sunset, which means more pictures of rocks and dirt on here tomorrow. Exciting, eh?

June 21, 2006

A Wish Granted

Ever since I've been old enough to know what a bird is there has existed one species that's remained on my list of things I must encounter in my lifetime...before it disappears forever. One bird that has, in my lifetime, been listed as officially extinct in the wild yet continues to persist when science and even nature itself seem to proclaim its doom. One bird that, more than any other, symbolizes both everything I love and everything I despise about what we humans are capable of.

And yesterday afternoon, only ten minutes after my very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, I saw one.

I caught just a glimpse of it before I heard someone behind me mention something about a big vulture. Then I found it again, soaring nearly level with me several hundred yards away. I was standing on the edge of the canyon, only inches away from a sheer drop of at least a thousand feet, refusing to look away while I waited for the bird to bank. I wasn't quite convinced of what it was, and no one behind me seemed to think it anything but a common Turkey Vulture. I knew immediately that it wasn't. It was a huge bird, mostly black but dappled with some brown on the back. It's wings were held perfectly level and unflapping. There were only two things it could possibly be, but wouldn't let myself call it a condor...not until I could see under it's wings.

For almost five minutes I kept repeating to myself, "Is it a condor? No, it's just a Golden Eagle. Well, it's primaries are really curving upward...maybe it is. But I can't see any white, yet."
Finally, it soared a little higher, and the instant it became backlit by the blazingly blue sky...it banked, and all doubt vanished. There it was. A wild, free-soaring California Condor riding the thermals over the red cliffs of the Grand Canyon. I almost peed my pants I was so excited.

Several moments later, someone behind me yelled, "Condor!" and suddenly the ledge around me was filled by curious tourists asking each other where to look. I just stood there smiling, part of me wishing I had my binoculars with me and cursing myself for leaving them in my room, while the other part thankful for being able to witness and identify my first condor with nothing by my eyes.

It was a moment I'll remember for the rest of my life.

June 19, 2006

Fahrenheit 114

Well, Arizona in mid-June is just as I expected it would be. Hot as hell. When the plane landed in Phoenix, the flight attendants ordered everyone to immediately close their window shutters to keep the passenger area within an endurable temperature range. But I didn't really notice it until I stepped out to catch the bus to the rental car place. I honestly don't remember the hottest temperature I've ever felt, but I know it wasn't this hot. Sure, people say it's not that bad cuz it's a dry heat. Dry heat my ass. It's a freaking furnace! Even the cacti looked hot.

Luckily, my training isn't taking place in Phoenix, but at an elevation of around 7,000', where the daytime temps might peak into the 90's, and where it cools off to around 40 at night. Much more tolerable. Nonetheless, I'm praying for air conditioning in the training rooms tomorrow.

June 18, 2006

Little Fuzzy Things

Ok, it's been crazy at work. That's my excuse for not posting much on here over the past couple weeks. Whether you actually believe me or not is up to you, I suppose. Hopefully people will still remember to check in once and a while, cuz, you know, how are you supposed to be able to manipulate people's thoughts if no one reads your blog?

Sonja's had a bit of excitement lately at work. She recently has been able to switch her work week to include Saturdays, when she'll actually be working in the rehab department at the Sealife Center, instead of being stuck playing with sea lion excrement all day in the lab. So this is Capers, a really cute little sea otter pup that was rescued near Homer a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, sea otter pups have a horrible survival rate after being released from rehab, so this little guy will never again experience life in the wild. The good news is that he has found a home at the Minnesota Zoo! They are currently working on a new sea otter exhibit which will feature Capers and several other rescued otter pups. So all of you Minnesotan Olligs will need to take a trip to the zoo sometime this fall/winter (or whenever they plan on opening the exhibit) and say hi to Sonja's little friend.

Sonja brought me in to see him this afternoon and I can attest to just how cute he really is. However, you'd think that something so fuzzy and cute would have a correspondingly cute vocalization. Well, that's not quite the case with sea otters (click on the image for the video):

They also have a few other little (and not so little) fuzzy things in rehab at the Sealife Center, but unfortunately, blogger chose this instant to stop uploading new images, so you're going to have to wait to see them.

I am still searching for gainful employment that doesn't involve living in Seward. A couple of leads so far, but no real bites. I'll keep you all posted here if there are any new developments.

Lastly, I'm heading to the Grand Canyon for eleven days starting tomorrow morning for a park service training at the Horace Albright Training Center. Should be lots of fun, and hopefully it won't be unbearably hot. I'll finally be able to try my hand at spitting an entire mile (cuz you can spit off the edge of the canyon, which is a mile deep...in case you couldn't quite figure that one out).

June 06, 2006

Hiking with Loons

Having our weekends off together, even though mine fall on Sunday and Monday, is definitely a plus this summer. Particularly since most hiking trails in the area seem to be much less busy on weekdays. Yesterday was a perfect example. We took the dogs for a walk to Meridian and Grayling Lakes, a short hike just north of Seward. It was a beautiful morning, and when we got to the trailhead ours was the only car. I don't know why, but whenever we get to a trailhead parking area I always get sort of stressed out wondering if anyone else is on the trail. Can't people just figure out that when we go for a walk we're the only ones allowed on the trail?

Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise to see we were the only ones there. In fact, we didn't see anyone else until we met a couple from New Zealand on our way back to the car. It was a really nice hike, with the dogs spending a good deal of time swimming around in the water.

As Sonja and I relaxed on the shore of Grayling Lake, watching Harvey act like a loon (click on the image to see the video):

Two Common Loons swam lazily by us, totally unperterbed by Harvey's weird behavior. Aside from a few very cold moments of frisbee recovery (shouldn't frisbees float?!?), it was a very pleasant day.