June 17, 2015
Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s views are mind-blowing. I found myself thinking about great depths, wide expanses and deep time as I gazed across the many overlooks of the South Rim Road to the cliff on the other side. The road runs close to the edge of the canyon and short hikes with distances measured in yards, not miles, allow easy access to a powerful experience. In a few hours, it is possible to drive along this rim, walk all the overlook trails, gaze at the views, and then turn around to head back to civilization. But this kind of rushed experience doesn’t allow you to immerse yourself in this place and sink into the pensive, observatory head space that this type of wild environment fosters. The four days that Morgan and I spent at this park allowed us ample time to sit at the overlooks to watch the sun move across the sky while swifts whisked past our heads on the wind, and snapped up the cicadas buzzing between bushes full of clicking mates.
The complete feel of this place is impossible to convey in pictures, though I’ll try my best, even watching a video can’t let you feel the wind blowing up the canyon into your face from the river thousands of feet down. (Though you can imagine that sensation while watching, if you click here). To fully experience it you must smell the forest and listen for wild sounds, including the faint roar of the Gunnison River, thousands of feet down. Standing on the edge is uplifting, and awakening, you become fully present in the space and with all senses open to take in the world around you. These type of experiences have mental health benefits, including staving off depression, according to recent psychology studies. Our well-being is deeply rooted in our sense of connection with the world around us, and this sense of connection comes from our personal experiences. Experiences like standing on the edge of a canyon and listening to birds, winds and rivers are irreplaceable and rejuvenating. The Black Canyon provides an especially wild and stunning outdoor experience that cannot be replicated at just another canyon or river. The Painted Wall (first picture in this post), with it’s pegmatite lightning bolts on a 2,250 foot cliff face (almost double the height of the Empire State Building), is unlike anywhere else in the world. This canyon and the river that still carves it centimeter-by-centimeter, year after year is unique and powerful in a way that touched me spiritually. I hold this place as sacred and especially deserving of our attention and admiration.
As we drove back from Sunset Overlook (above) at twilight one evening, we saw a wild turkey hen (Meleagris gallopovis) crossing the road with chicks by her side. We stopped to let her and the chicks cross, and I got out my camera.
As I focused on the turkey, I noticed her chicks pressing themselves close to the ground, and then saw the low-flying, fast approaching shadow. The hen crouched low over the chicks, shielding them with her large body, and the hunting hawk veered toward the trees and soared away, still hungry. Morgan and I were stunned by the live and death scenario that just played out in front of us. The hawk had rocketed across the ground, probably faster than a car, and definitely more quietly. If you look carefully in the photo above, you can see the hunter in the upper right and just to the left of the double yellow line. The turkey and her chicks knew what was happening before we did and tried to hide as best they could in the wide-open stretch of road. As soon as the hawk had flown by, the hen and her chicks scampered into the scrub on the left side of the road. To our surprise, three more chicks burst from their hiding places to our right and ran as fast as their little feet could carry them to follow the hen. Unlike the domestic turkeys, these birds clearly have street-smarts. Wild wit and wariness is still absolutely essential for their day-to-day survival.
For people in the USA, areas like Black Canyon are national treasures that we think of like resources to be used at our leisure, for the purpose of our pleasure. We pass through, experience awe at (what we think of as) natural wonder, remote and isolated from our daily lives, and then continue down the road, back home or back to civilized life. We view this area of immense beauty as a commodity, and as entertainment, but for the creatures who live out here, this is home. Everything in their life is here; all their food and water and shelter, the bare necessities, must come from here, all their experiences, all the challenges of survival, and all the joy of living is contained in this one place (and perhaps another seasonal place far away, for those animals that migrate, like the Swainson’s hawk and the peregrine falcon). What happens to this place also happens to the animals who live here. Without clean water, without habitat and food, the wild life of this place would suffer and die off. Therefore it is essential to regard this place as something shared with those who live here, not something that we own. Our species has the capacity to drastically alter entire ecosystems (so much so that the current geological time period, the Anthropocene, is named for our influence on the environment globally) and therefore we also have the ability and responsibility to be good stewards or guardians to the ecosystems around us, especially breath-taking, life-giving places like Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the Grand Canyon, and the Animas River.
I feel the need to mention the Grand Canyon, not because I want to compare it to the dimensions of Black Canyon with measures of width and depth. I bring up the Animas River, not because I want to compare it to the Gunnison River’s intensity and quality. But instead, I want to highlight both as places that are currently, in trouble, places that are also as beneficent to the human mind and spirit as the Black Canyon. The Grand Canyon, which is one of the most coveted natural places in the USA, is about to have a new uranium mine just 6 miles away. Conservationists have tried warning Judge Campbell, who just ruled in favor of mining interests, that the new mine would threaten the famous canyon’s aquifers, but unless action is taken by President Obama to declare the Grand Canyon’s watershed a National Monument, the mine will happen, and devastating heavy metals and toxins would be likely to contaminate the Grand Canyon’s ecosystem. The recent spill of 3 millions gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River should be a warning to us about the threat this sort of activity poses to our public waterways and natural resources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that is supposed to ensure the preservation of our natural treasures, actually triggered the Animas River spill while trying to clean up after the mining operation at Gold King, which took immense wealth out of the ground and then left the EPA to clean up using our tax dollars.
Collectively, as a people, we need to demand better from our government than careless destruction of a resource that countless people rely on as their water supply. The Grand Canyon should not be put at added risk for a disaster like what has happened to the Animas River. Reader, please raise your voice, tell your friends what has been left out of the evening news and call on our government to act as a good steward to these sacred places that are held in trust for all of us. The experience of standing on the edge of a canyon and the necessity of clean drinking water are too precious to sell out on.
All life depends on water, and I cannot imagine the Black Canyon if the river below ran golden-brown with toxic waste and the birds who raise their young here lost their chicks and their own lives from ingesting toxins that we allowed to be dredged up from the earth here, in our most precious and sacred places. We can’t really say we love this land, if we allow greed to spoil our waterways.
Want to see more wild views?
See the secluded North side of Black Canyon by
reading the next full story of our hike to Exclamation Point