Flight of the Condor

4 05 2012

The ladies advised me against going down to the river, whether they knew it or not.

“If you don’t mind hiking in the dark, go for it,” one of them said, in an exhaustive sort of way.

That was all I needed to hear. I did not bring a flashlight and wasn’t about to hike in the pitch black. So I decided to take the trail to Plateau Point instead. After all, I did have all summer to make it to the river.

The hike from Indian Garden to Plateau Point does not involve steep inclines or switchbacks, but is completely exposed to the elements and on this day, the sun was shining bright with sparse clouds in the sky. Again, I probably should have gotten an earlier start. Had I left at dawn I would be soaking my feet in the river by now.

There was hardly a soul on this trail and the only signs of life came from the sprouting yuccas and flowering cacti. Every once and a while, a spiny lizard would scurry across the rocks and puff up at me. Like the squirrels before, these little lizards have ample amount of moxie.

As I approached Plateau Point, a figure emerged from the rocky ledge. As they got closer I discovered it was a park ranger, her head and face completely covered with bandanas and sunglasses. If this were a Star Wars movie, she would be a perfect Sandperson. The ranger informed me there was a baby California condor nearby and then asked me for a favor.

“Sure thing,” I said, always willing to help out a woman in uniform, even if she looked like a Tusken Raider.

“If the condor comes at you, I want you to chase him away — wave your arms, yell and scream and do whatever it takes to scare him away, OK?,” she said.

“Got it,” I replied.

I then asked the ranger if she would snap some pictures of me for evidence of my excursion. She gladly complied and even remarked that the last one was, “beautiful.” Then she hiked away. It was just after three o’clock. I guess it was time for her to clock out. I was all alone at what seemed like the end of the world. As I took the final steps toward the edge, I was not prepared for what I would see next. I don’t think anyone ever is.

From Plateau Point, the Colorado River is a sight to behold. With a blue-greenish tint — from all the minerals — the river flows between towering gorges of rock. Looking down, I could see rafters making their way through a gauntlet of rapids as their cries echoed off the rock walls. I took my backpack off and found a shady spot under one of the overhanging rocks. Then I had my victory meal: a bag of raisins, peanuts and chocolate balls. As I munched on my trail mix, I stared down into the gorge. It was mesmorizing.

And dangerous.

The wind had begun to pick up and my backpack had attracted a lone raven. Ravens are very smart birds and this one was intent on pecking its way into my backpack, hoping to score some more trail mix. This forced me to abandon my shady perch and chase the raven away. And just as I did, I came across the condor the ranger had told me about. Much larger than the raven and just as black, the condor was indeed an infant and he didn’t know what to think of me.

Whereas the raven beat a quick retreat, sqawking as I chased it away from my backpack; the condor never flinched. The sight of this endangered bird stopped me in my tracks with the ranger’s request still fresh on my mind.

“We want him to be scared of humans,” she said. “Or else he’s going to die.”

There are roughly 400 California condors remaining in the wild and around 80 of them call the Grand Canyon home. At full maturity, condors can reach a 9-foot wingspan, making these scavengers easily the largest bird in North America.

So I screamed and yelled at the top of my lungs, jumped up and down and waved my arms like I just didn’t care. And the condor never moved. He just stared at me from his perch a few feet below from where I had enjoyed my victory meal.

Then I pulled out my trusty i-phone and snapped some pictures and only then as I lowered myself for that perfect shot, did he flap those big black wings and take flight, catching a burst of wind and soaring along the top of the gorge.

Farewell, young fella. May you survive and thrive.

The wind was so strong that it convinced me to get off the rocky cliffs and start my journey back to the rim. I had accomplished so much on this hike already and now was not the time to get greedy — or to be blown into the gorge.

The last thing I needed was to meet the rest of the condor’s family.

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2 responses

5 05 2012
Don Harris

Interesting about the condor. It never would have occurred to me that they would have them in Arizona. Funny, too, about how some things don’t seem to be scared of people. The whitetail deer here will let you ski or bike really close — then you cross some invisible line, and they take off. BTW, just got back from Florida — Frank & I had dinner with Dave one night. That was nice.

6 05 2012
David Altermatt

Great work John. I love to read your nature posts.

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