Monday, June 8, 2015

Gems of the National Park Service, Part 2: Glen and Bryce Canyons

Many a John Ford western featured this view of Monument Valley

I really didn't want to leave The Grand Canyon.  The weather that morning was brilliant - cool, clear and cloudless.  Yet the bus was loading so there was nothing to do but get on board.  Joe, our tour director, had promised more spectacular scenery later in the week, but topping The Grand Canyon was impossible.  Wasn't it?

Capt. Brittles's Office in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Our first stop was a "trading post" in Cameron on the Navajo Reservation, and I was determined not to blow my money on cheap trinkets!  Of course, I was picturing a tourist trap with lots of cheap souvenirs.  I was only partially correct.  It certainly was a glorified souvenir stand.  It had its cheap stuff like key chains, coffee mugs and touristy t-shirts.  I really liked the shirt with the photo of the rifle-toting Navajo warriors and the caption:  "Homeland Security - Fighting Terrorism Since 1492."  On the other hand, the Navajo pottery, Kachina dolls, sand sculptures, blankets, leather, artwork and clothing ran the gamut from nice to exquisite.  I was particularly impressed with the etched pottery by (and I really hope I'm remembering this name correctly) Renisha Etsitty.  Her pottery was so delicate, the etchings so intricate, and the earth tones so beautiful, that I returned to that table over and over.  In the end, I had to buy a piece.  I had to.

Our goal for that morning was to reach Monument Valley in Utah, site of John Ford westerns like Stagecoach, The Searchers, and of course She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Goulding's Trading Post and restaurant are built adjacent to the movie set made famous by Ford and John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  The tiny office used by Wayne as Capt. Nathan Brittles is still here as is another building used in several scenes.  I remember Joanne Dru looking lovely while standing on its balcony and watching the troops below.  After a tasty lunch, most of the group piled into jeeps for a tour of the scenic valley.  I had had issues with a bad back for weeks before the trip, and heeding the cautions of the tour director, I chose to stay behind.  Instead, I walked through the surrounding desert a bit, chased an occasional House Finch, found a House Sparrow coated red by the desert dust, and marveled at the gorgeous desert flowers.  I also visited Goulding's trading post, but unlike the one in Cameron, they had higher prices and fewer customers.

Looking Across Lake Powell.
Eventually we arrived at Lake Powell late in the afternoon.  We had a short time to check into our rooms and then find some place to eat.  The main restaurant was packed, and I wasn't very hungry, so I settled for a salad and a slice of pizza at the Wahweap Grill on the edge of the property.  Actually, it was quite good.  The evening then turned cold, windy and rainy - not the best conditions for strolling around, so I headed to my room and caught up on some much-needed rest.

The next day was advertised as a relaxing, full day at the resort.  Well, yes and no.  After a wonderful breakfast in the Rainbow Room, I went outside and strolled the grounds for a while.  The rain had mostly cleared away, and I had a good time chasing Brown-crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers around the gardens, stalking a Yellow Warbler that refused to come out of hiding, and trying desperately to get a photo of the many Violet-green Swallows that dashed frantically above the lake looking for their own breakfasts of yummy bugs.

Antelope Canyon. The high water mark is over 120 feet up!
Next we took a tour boat ride around a small portion of Lake Powell.  The lake is located within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and it's huge.  It has more shoreline than the west coast of the United States.  Skeptical?  Go ahead and Google it ... I'll wait.

See? Over 2000 miles of shoreline make this one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.  Unfortunately, it has problems.  After reaching its full capacity, the lake's depth has been steadily receding for well over 20 years.  In the photo on the right, you can see the high water mark where the canyon walls turn from white to dark red.  This "bathtub ring" circles the lake and is a constant reminder that we need to address our water needs before the crisis becomes a catastrophe.

None of that made the tour any less spectacular.  After sauntering up to the Glen Canyon Dam we turned into Antelope Canyon.  This is a "Slot Canyon" - high-walled and very narrow.  The cliffs rose out of the water right next to the boat and towered above us.  I kept wondering if we would have to back out because there was no room for turning around.  Yet at the end of the canyon was a small pool that was just big enough for a u-turn.

A Violet-green Swallow feeding above Lake Powell
After the boat ride we had just enough time for a quick lunch before hopping on the bus for a short ride over to the dam museum.  We spent a little time there and then headed for our next touristy site - Walmart!!  Yep, that's right.  Walmart.  If you've ever done a bus tour, you know that by mid-week, some supplies start running low and many people need a stop at the old Supercenter.  We had a secondary reason.  The next day's lunch was going to be picnic-style in Bryce Canyon.  We needed to buy food for lunch that would keep for a few hours on the bus.  I settled for a large ham, turkey, lettuce and cheese sandwich that had some mayo on the side in little packets.  Turned out to be perfect!

Back at the resort, the evening turned cold and the skies threatened rain again.  I stopped at the Wahweap Grill, got some more pizza, and took it back to my room.  I read a little, looked at my photos, and fell asleep.

After yet another great breakfast, the sixth day of the tour turned its back on Lake Powell and headed for Zion National Park - but with a memorable stop in Kenab, the town known as "Little Hollywood."  Over 100 western movies and television shows have been filmed here including some of my favorites - Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and The Lone Ranger.  We pulled into Denny's Trading Post for a bathroom break and a visit to their back yard.  It was a somewhat small-scale replica of an old western town.  I had loads of fun looking at the artifacts of the cowboy era.  I still watch westerns every chance I get, so I soaked this up for as long as I could. 

Soon we reached Bryce Canyon National Park where we pulled into the parking lot at the lodge.  In the lobby I wolfed down my sandwich and then headed out to see what the big deal was about this place.  A short walk brought me to the canyon's edge:

Holy Lord on His Throne!  If this isn't evidence of the Divine Artist at work, I don't know what is.  I was utterly unprepared for this.  I had never even heard of Bryce Canyon before, and yet here was one of the world's most extraordinarily beautiful vistas.  Why isn't this mentioned in the same breath as Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon?  I listened to the legend of the hoodoos - those tall stone pillars - as the petrified souls of bad people, but I listened with only a small part of my brain.  The rest of me tried to memorize every rock, crevice and snow-capped peak.  I wanted to remember this for the rest of my life.

After a bit, a small sound from the world around me brought me back to reality.  I was hearing something that I didn't recognize.  I looked up just a few feet above my head.  There perched for the world to see - while the hundreds of people around him were completely absorbed in looking at the canyon - was another rare beauty.  A spectacular Western Tanager (right) posed against a perfect sky would have sent birders from all over the world into a frenzy, but in this crowd and in this site, he was ignored except by me.  Fortunately, I snapped a few photos before he flew away.

I hiked along the canyon rim and climbed to one of the higher points for an even more impressive view.  I saw a Stellar's Jay in the pines along the rim and a small flock of Western Bluebirds feeding in a small grassy area near the cabins.  But all too soon we had to get back on the bus and head toward Zion.  For my money, I could have skipped Lake Powell - as wonderful as it was - and spent more time exploring Bryce and surrounding forests.  As it is, I thanked God for the opportunity to be there that day.

Old Mining Town behind Denny's Trading Post, Kenab, Utah - a.k.a., "Little Hollywood"

A House Sparrow coated by the red desert sand in Monument Valley

Western Bluebird at Bryce Canyon National Park

Wildflowers in the desert at Monument Valley

The trail down Bryce Canyon

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gems of the National Park Service: Part 1, The Grand Canyon

The view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a hazy July evening, 2015.

Montezuma Castle
Birding trips and vacations are not alike.  Certainly, there may be great sites to see on a birding trip, but the focus is on the birds.  And certainly birds can be found on a sightseeing vacation, but the trip is about the destinations, and the birds are a happy accident.

Such was the case recently when I embarked on a long-discussed, long-desired vacation.  It was billed as a trip to the Grand Canyon by Caravan Tours, but according to the tour literature, most of the time was to be spent in other places.  Furthermore, the Grand Canyon was listed as the first destination and a two-night stopover.  Odd, I thought.  Why did they plan such a big trip and put the crown jewel up front?  But when I asked the tour director why they hadn't saved the best for last, he smiled and said, "We did."  As it turned out, that extraordinary treasure of the American southwest came in third on the list of my favorite places.

A gorgeous view toward the town of Sedona, AZ.
The first day of the trip was spent in Phoenix on organizational details.  I was early enough to get some birding in, and a walk around the area surrounding the Doubletree Hotel proved to be productive.  I watched White-winged Doves race about courtyards and a Gila Woodpecker scurry from one palm to another.  Great-tailed Grackles busily chased late afternoon snacks while House Sparrows did what they always do ... chat noisily while eating everything in sight.  My reverie was suddenly broken by a fluttering above me.  I looked up and was startled to see a Prairie Falcon looking back at me from not fifteen feet away!  While I stood there with my mouth agape, a car stopped.  "You a birdwatcher?"  I nodded that indeed was what I was doing.  "That's our local hawk right there.  I watch it every day from my fourth floor office window right up there."  Again I nodded, "Well, actually it's a falcon ..."  He wasn't interested.  "Yeah, well, it's pretty cool whatever it is.  I hope it hangs around for a long time."

The next morning dawned cool, crisp and clear, with none of Florida's humidity.  We hopped on our bus, met our driver (Bob, and he was terrific) and tour guide (Joe, equally terrific), and started out on the road.  By mid-morning we reached our first destination, Montezuma Castle National Monument, a relic of Sinagua communities that thrived south of Flagstaff between six and nine hundred years ago.  While snapping photos of the Castle, I noticed basket-like nests affixed the the cliff walls.  Cliff Swallows!  Sure enough, a flock of them danced crazily above us for fifteen minutes before moving on the their next feeding site.  Down below us at the river's edge, a Black Phoebe found some tasty morsels for a late breakfast.

My first lifer of the trip, a Mountain Bluebird in Valle, AZ
Back on the bus we turned toward Sedona and what was for me the least appealing stop on the tour.  Yes, the scenery around the town was spectacular, but what was billed as an artists' community turned out to be nothing more than a tourist trap with a couple of blocks of non-stop souvenir and confection shops and restaurants.  Still, the Bell Butte and the view across the valley to the real Sedona were beautiful sights, and a Western Scrub Jay added to the day's pleasures.  Then later at a rest stop near Valle I got my first life bird of the trip - a Mountain Bluebird - one of my Ten Most Wanted!

Finally, we turned toward the Grand Canyon, arriving there after 5:00 PM.  The day was hazy and photos weren't as clear as I wanted, but there is no denying the extraordinary beauty and indescribable scope of this treasure of the American southwest.  In truth, it lives up to its Grand name.  It's a vast, intricate, colorful and unending maze of painted canyons nestled between towering buttes and mesas. I kept thinking, how can this be real?  Surely it was a Hollywood blue-screen set for some fantasy-world movie.  But there it was - just inches from my shoe tips, gaping wide into a chasm that dropped for thousands of feet.  It was overwhelmingly, stunningly beautiful.  Soon I was to beg the question, can one take too many pictures of the Grand Canyon?  Around every corner, at every dip in the trail, there was another breath-taking view.  Whether from the narrow ledge of the Bright Angel Trail, from the Watchtower at Desert View, or right outside our hotel window, every glance screamed for a photo opp.  I snapped away and have since enjoyed looking at every one of them over and again. 

Navajo Spear Dancer with eagle feather adornments

This dancer used extremely intricate footwork!
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Navajo dancers.  Wrapped in their native clothing and feathered adornments, the dancers were a brilliant whirl of colors, shapes, motion and energy.  I was glad to learn that the ancient Navajo ways have become a source of pride and interest for today's youth, and that the Navajo language is once again being taught in their schools.  The rest of us need always remember that this was the language of the famous code-talkers of World War II whose exploits saved thousands of American lives and directly contributed to American victories on some the war's bloodiest battlefields of the Pacific theater.  Then they went home and kept their heroic role a secret - even from their own families - obeying the final order from their officers.  These same code-talkers were the children and grandchildren of the Navajo who had their land taken from them by the American army and eventually were confined to the least valuable and least productive portions of that land.  If it weren't so tragic, the irony would almost be laughable.  I wonder how many of today's "patriots" would have served had they been confined in poverty to a reservation before being asked to volunteer for service to "their country."  Yet they did so - by the hundreds - and made a very tangible difference in the outcome of the war. 

Looking toward the Colorado River from Desert View
We spent two nights and the intervening day in the Grand Canyon.  I can attest that the sight never got old.  But the people-watching was also a constant source of thrills - and not always in a good way.  There was a large contingent of Japanese youth in red jackets throughout the park.  Like teens everywhere, they were exuberant, filled with energy and life, and apparently believed themselves to be invincible.  This led to some shockingly unsettling sights for this old school teacher/field trip leader!  The scariest was a group that crawled its way out to the edge of a rocky point thousands of feet above the canyon floor, only to stand in the gusting wind then shout and wave with gigantic smiles while taking dozens of photos of each other with their tablets and selfie-sticks.  Every teacher instinct in me wanted to jerk them up and send them scurrying back onto the trail where they belonged!

The funniest sight was a trio of these same red-jacketed tourists, two young men and a lovely girl.  The boys surrounded her, seemingly vying for her attention while she laughed and scampered just ahead of them.  A storm was brewing and the gusting wind suddenly lifted her newly-purchased Grand Canyon hat and tossed it over the cliff's edge.  It hung up on a tree top about thirty feet below us.  Shocked and dismayed, she called to the two boys and pointed down the extremely steep slope to her cap.  They walked to the edge, glanced down, looked at each other then at her.  Slowly, they both shook their heads.  I didn't need to understand Japanese to know that discretion is in fact the better part of valor regardless of the language, culture or attractiveness of the young lady.

Brown-crested Flycatcher - Beautiful in Its Own Right.

That green ribbon, way below, is the bottom of Bright Angel Trail.  I didn't walk down because I couldn't have walked back.

This Brewer's Blackbird and I shared a view of the Canyon (below) before we both turned away from the edge.
Nightfall approaching the Grand Canyon, South Rim