Driving back into Ashland on Friday evening was surreal – it felt like the two weeks we were gone were much longer than that. Walking back into my house almost felt like walking into a home I’d never seen. The weather in Wisconsin was unseasonably warm for the first week we were gone, but then very cold the week before we returned, so the grass and leaves had flushed and then sort of stalled. We’ve got snow/rain in the forecast this week, but hopefully the plants aren’t stunted by it too much.
It’s great to be home, but I’m not done thinking about or talking about or writing about the trip. Continuing from where I left off, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon.
Before I get to the birding part, allow me a moment to cajole you all into visiting the Grand Canyon, if you’ve never been. There are truly no words to describe the beauty of this place. It is both humbling and awe-inspiring. I’ve been countless times, and it never fails to take my breath away. It is one of my favorite places on earth. Everyone needs to go at least once, so even though it isn’t the most bird-diverse place in Arizona, there was no way that I could leave it off the itinerary.
We met up with another class from Northland that was in the middle of their Southwestern geology tour, so we had a huge group campsite reserved for three nights. They also had all of our tents and sleeping gear, which would never have fit into our carry-on luggage. We arrived a little later than our meet-up time, due to the unplanned mist-netting that afternoon, so we got our tents up quickly but still had to cook and eat dinner in the dark.
Still, I managed to wake up before anyone else. In fact, I woke up first every day (that’s the birder in me) and got to enjoy the early morning tranquility for at least a half an hour, usually finishing at least a full mug of coffee before the others stirred.
Because of the late arrival, I hadn’t had time to figure out the logistics for our long hike to Plateau Point (photo above), so we decided to save that for the next day. Instead, we went to the South Rim paved trail for a shortish morning hike. Our goal: The California Condor!
The South rim trail is paved and flat, which may have given the students the wrong impression about the hiking conditions. More on that later though.
We meandered our way along the trail, not seeing very many birds at all, and we were all getting a little a little impatient. We weren’t used to having to work for the birds, since we’d been visiting so many places with so many birds. Nearing lunchtime, hungry and tired, I had thrown in the towel and was telling them that we still had all afternoon and the next day to see our condor when we started hearing whooping from just behind us on the trail.
One of the students had met a man that showed her exactly where one, a 12 YO female with a nest, was perched on a cliff very close to the edge of the trail!
In a situation almost identical to the Trogon hunt, I was incredibly relieved, because I’d been talking this bird up so much. Also like the Trogon hunt, we didn’t find our goal bird until we’d given up. There’s probably a lesson there somewhere.
Seeing the Condor made the trek back to camp much easier to make and lunch was delicious, though I couldn’t tell you what it was.
After running some errands in the village (yes, there is a market there) I gave the class a few options – a couple different hikes or a a drive to the east end of the park to see the Grandview lookout tower. The overwhelming sentiment, driven apparently by tired legs, was the drive. Because the canyon opens up on that end, you can actually see the river from the tower, not to mention that you can take the stairs to the top of the tower.
After another early night, I was up early and packed for the hike to Plateau Point before everyone was awake. I have mentioned that I love the Canyon, but I especially LOVE the hike to Plateau Point. It’s not a hike for everyone. It’s steep, long, hot, and the hardest part comes during the last 3 miles of the 12 mile round trip. But I felt like I did a good job of explaining the gravity of the hike and seriousness of it. I gave everyone a packet of Gu for emergencies, made sure everyone was carrying enough food and water, and gave everyone ziplock of gatorade powder.
There are water stops every 1.5 miles, and I made everyone promise to drink and eat at each stop.
We headed to the bus stop at 8 am, eager and excited.
And then, we hiked.
All 20 of us started at the same time, but quickly separated. With that many of us, I didn’t expect us to stick together. There were a few smaller groups that splintered off right away, and a few that ran to the front of the pack.
Stopping at the three-mile water stop, a few students were ready to turn back, and I’d passed a large group earlier. I commended them for being smart and knowing their limits. It isn’t always easy to do, and they’d been hiking and waking early for days, so there’s no need to push it.
By the time I got to the 4.5 mile stop, Indian Gardens, there were several students there already. Drinking and eating as they’d promised!
In total, 8 of us made it to the point, and most made it at least half way. I didn’t see another Condor, but another group did. I was trying to not be jealous when I got back to the top and heard.
Remembering these views helped with that.
Everyone made it back safely, if a little sore and a lot tired. Back at camp, we showered and ate a hearty dinner, and even stayed up late enough to surprise a student for his birthday, Arizona style, with a piñata filled with Mexican candy.
Knowing we had only three more nights left, the last night in the canyon (which was the warmest of the three, the other two being near freezing temperatures) I slept like a queen and woke to the sounds of birds – chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, and the ever-present ravens.
We parted with the geology class, who were heading up to Moab and more rocks next, and we drove south towards Flagstaff and more birds.