June 8, 2008

Finally, the realities of the field job! It's actually the realities of being in the wilderness. After our night in the big, comfy beds at the hotel (which I didn't sleep so well on...so used to a tiny thermarest I am), Steph and I headed up the seldom visited Camp Crk, while Mike went up Spring Crk on his own. Both our visits faired well, revealing the owls to us. Steph and I listened very contentedly to a spotted owl respond to a calling great horned owl. After letting out a few hoots of our own, a curious spotted owl flew to within five feet of me (it didn't see me lying there, until I moved to shine my light on him). He hooted a few times and escorted us on down the canyon to our campsite, seeming to say "follow me!" all the way back. We left the night at that. So happy we both were, amazed at how awesome and fun and easy our job was. But this is a field job, and all know that field jobs are not static, like cubical, desk jobs. Anything can happen out here. Well, I guess coffee could spill on your keyboard occasionally, which would be really annoying. But this is nothing like being in no-man's land with no water, frustrated company (and self), and failing at what you set out to do. And this was us the next 24 hours. Our next canyon was Currant Creek. The four mile hike to La Verkin Creek via Lee's Pass trailhead was straightforward. And we were still riding along on our owl high from the night before. The task before us was to get to Currant Creek, only three miles away, following a route given to us by Alan (the NPS biotech). And we followed his directions to a T, and immediately got into trouble. Shirts and backpacks tearing, we pushed and shoved our way through thicket after thicket of stiff branches and pokey things. My arms and legs are scraped. I'm exhausted, but I keep pushing on, prodding Steph along as she cries "Why are we doing this?" over and over. It quickly becomes obvious that by following Alan's route we had gone well out of our way. Instead of taking a relatively shrubless route up a ridge, our path took us up a two-hour detour. Steph was not very happy. Whether at me or Alan or the just the circumstances I do not know, but I keep pushing her on, hoping the route becomes easier. And it finally does once we reach the correct ridge. We arrive at our campsite in a sandy wash after endless juniper and pinyon avoidance maneuvers, up flat, friendly, sandy washes, past a small, natural bridge, ending four hours longer than expected. We were beat. And out of water. Steph's nalgene bottle was empty and I ony had a small amount of water left. Water is our priority as we head out in search of it, which should be below us in Currant Canyon. We walk to the edge of the plateau we are on, along the wash, and immediately come to a horizon line. Horizon lines are freaky, as I've experienced kayaking. The was there, we could hear it and see it down below. But between us and it was a sheer dropoff. No way down. While Steph laid down in weariness, bitterness, and probably dehydration, I took it upon myself to go as far as I needed to to determine if we could obtain water and how critical our situation was. I knew we had a backup plan; I carried one of NPS's massive, old radios along, just in case. Up and down ravines, peering over the rim occasionally, I determined that there was no way down, but I kept trekking to the source of the flow of water in the canyon below. Which I found, to my great relief. I wanted to soak my entire body in the life-giving stream and inhale the entire foot-wide trickle, but I knew I needed to get Steph there, not just to rehydrate, but to lighten her spirits. She had been worried about me, yelling my name after I had left her, to nap I had hoped. I apologized, knowing I should have told her what I was doing. She gracefully forgave and we both trudged across the pinyon-juniper helliishly dry ridge and down to the trickle. It was glorious. The water sang its sweet song as it lept off the edge of the rim into the canyon below. Our feet and bodies were singing triumphantly too, as we napped in the shade of cottonwoods. We were refreshed, but still had no way to descend into the canyon to properly perform our owl survey. We set up calling stations on the ridge, but they were useless. We couldn't hear anything over the sounds of water, wind, and frogs, and the distance was too great. The owls probably heard us. We gave up, tired, frustrated and crawled in bed. A screech owl called into the night. I cupped my hands and called back. We enjoyed a latenight serenade, if you can call it that. My calling drew it in close, about 10 feet away in a juniper, but we could not see it. The owl just hooted away until it figured out that he had been duped by a human. It probably didn't really figure this out...who knows what the owls think when they hear another fellow owl in their territory. Either...'ooo, a mate!' or 'that derned neighbor is in our backyard again!' We slept. Much better than in the hotel room. Tomorrow, Steph would be happier, and she was, but I struggled to be so as well. We cruised out of there at 8:20AM, following the best route, staggered mindlessly up the sweet trail, and high-fived each other for our successful failures. We were finally happy and celebrated with some fresh fruit I had waiting in my car. After it all, Steph still will talk to me, the prodder and route-finder. We can now, as we are back in Oak Creek campsite (our homebase), laugh about the experience.
That night, my mission was to survey Pine Creek. It was fantastic. I sat perfectly content on the edge of a huge cliff overlooking Canyon Junction below. The sun slowly set behind the cliffs across the way, casting a cool shadow on my evening dwelling place where I lie sprawled on the rock. A dozen vultures appear from who knows where, riding the last of the thermal upheavals of warm air. What were they doing? Whiling away time until roosting? They seem to just be enjoying life. And the swifts, like rockets or jets. From for off they are just small daggers with sharply pointed wings zig-zagging and darting after their prey of flying insects. But when they plow through the air near your head, the wind drag on their little bodies and wings is like a jet engine, and can be quite frightening if you are not aware. Peregrine falcon prey on the swifts. Imagining a falcon descending on and snatching a swift from the air excites me. The accuracy and precision required to do so seems impossible. But that is the way of the falcon.
I hoot off the edge into Pine Creek, which is one of the most popular canyoneering sites in the park. I hear a strange call from an unexpected location above the canyon (the owls are typically in the canyons). It does sound like one of the owls many calls. Walking to another call station I hear the typical 4-note hoot of an owl near the road bridge at the top of the canyon, where traffic crosses through a tunnel built in the cliffside of the Navajo sandstone. Completed in the 1940's, it was the longest in the nation at that time and greatly increased tourist traffic. Anyhoot, I listened for some time as the owl made its way down canyon, probably headed toward where it heard me last. I hooted some more, and hearing nothing, called it a night. My first time on my own. Finally...Jesse +1.