Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Adventures

In the Great Basin Desert

Friday, December 4, 2009

It was eight o’clock in the evening and as the air cooled, the four of us had found our home for the night, a flat spot on a ledge overlooking Spring Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park. tenting imageThe clay-pot colored sand was speckled with waxy blue juniper berries from thousand year old trees that framed our quiet, hidden vantage point. We were hoping for a glimpse of some of the creatures that make their home in the Great Basin Desert. Canyon wrens had finished their lullabies and Charlie spotted a bat swoop down and drink from the stream that appeared and disappeared as it found its way along the ancient oceanic crust of the canyon floor. The bright greens of the fremont cottonwoods and the coyote willows intensified as the setting sun gave way to the first stars that appeared in what would become the impossibly dark desert night. We envisioned deer, jackrabbit, coyote or song dog as it is known here, and even a mountain lion moving down the fertile canyon. After spreading our mats on the ground, we fell asleep quickly with the delightful scents of sagebrush and locust gently waltzing on the arroyo breeze. We planned to hike back to our base camp and rejoin our four friends at first light.

The next morning, as we followed a riverbed back to our friends, it was hard to imagine the trickling stream that will disappear as early summer’s heat evaporates the last of its life-giving waters, was once the force that created the eight hundred foot walls that tower above us. The evidence of water and its power to shape, scour and erode geological features is everywhere in the shape of goosenecks, hoodoos and natural bridges. The explosion of wildflowers is testament to water’s other role in the desert as the lifeblood for everything from the Gambel’s quail to rock daisies.rock formation

The eight of us had converged at the campground a few days before, Don and Louise, Don’s sister Linda and her husband Mike, Charlie and Anne, and Ra and I had planned mostly day hikes in and around Capitol Reef. Mike and Linda had driven across country and were kind enough to pack most of our camping gear in their truck. They had arrived the day before and had found the nicest site in the campground with two shade trees and a fantastic view adjacent to the fruit orchards populated by deer. With so many great trails and experience throughout the group, it was easy to pick options for each day. Flexibility is one of the best qualities a traveling buddy can have and this group excelled in it.

Our hikes would take on multiple personalities on any given day, sometimes we would follow natural bridge imageDon’s instincts for insects and crawl on all fours watching ground hornets and ants duke it out, on other sections, we would scramble up steep, exposed trails watching Mike scout ahead. We could always find the finest picnic spots with shade from the cottonwoods and views of the pallet of reds that dominate the landscapes. On all accounts we were rewarded with desert gifts like wondrous vistas, waterfall spray, slot canyons and fantastic weather.

Out here in the most remote parts of the lower forty-eight, it is hard to believe humans have left a significant impact, but we have. Overgrazing by cattle and domesticated sheep on surrounding Bureau of Land Management lands have reduced the food supply for deer, elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep. The bounty on brown bear and wolves have wiped them out. waterfall imageThe manipulation of water resources for farming and urban development put immeasurable strains on one of this country’s most spectacular places. As water and open land diminish in the Great Basin Desert, there has been progress on some fronts, the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established in 1996 and protects nearly two million acres of land. It provides true wilderness for extensive multi- day hikes through rugged unspoiled terrain. We drove through and stopped for a couple of short hikes but, had a chance to visit this area a number of years ago and will share some more of our adventures next image