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Gods Western Canvas
Janice Rae Pariza
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This is an HDR Photograph of Tomichi Point in The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Montrose, Colorado.
Over two million years the Gunnison river has slowly cut down through the very old, very hard rock of the Gunnison uplift. And by old, I mean old, 1-2 billion years old - so old and from so deep in the crust it is called basement rock, part of the foundation rock that formed the original continental plates we all "float" around on. Because of the hardness of the rock, the Gunnison river has had a difficult time carving the canyon, cutting 2700 feet or so in 2 million years, or a slow foot per 1000 years. The hardness of the rock, schist and gneiss, accounts for the sheer cliffs of the narrow deep canyon. Compare this with the miles wide Grand Canyon, carved by the Colorado river through much softer sedimentary rock. You get your first taste of the visual treasures of this park from Tomichi Point, and it's worth a stop. There are better views to come on South Rim Road, but just gazing into the canyon from here and thinking, "Wow, and they say there are better views to come!" can whet your appetite for a truly great day.
This is one of my favorite views in the US. The canyon is absolutely breathtaking and I especially like the view from Tomichi Point.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison lies hidden from drivers cruising Highway 50 between Gunnison and Montrose on the Western Slope. The chamisa-strewn hillside on either side of the road leading to the canyon is ho-hum until you reach Tomichi Point. There the canyon unfolds in an abrupt discovery: a startling drop into the center of the earth surrounded by sheer cliffs. The canyon looks to be otherworldly, almost magical. Or so it appears.
Perch on the edge of the Painted Wall or Pulpit Rock, and the experience is akin to that of a falcon. The edge of the canyon falls away far, far below with only a thin ribbon of river glinting like liquid silver in the distance. Birds circle in the altitude of their choice: swifts flitting and swirling along canyon walls, falcons soaring and turkey vultures lolling midair. They share their airspace with the casual visitor. And while you wonít have their keen eyesight to spot a brown trout in the river below, itís as close as possible to seeing the world from the perspective of a golden eagle.
"Iíve had people who say they have driven Highway 50, but when they look up, they think it doesnít look like much. I guess itís counterintuitive to drive up a hill to see a canyon," says ranger Tammi Corchero. "Thatís because here you donít have the widening of the canyon, like you do at the Grand Canyon, which is softer sandstone and easier to erode. The rock that makes up the colors of the Black Canyon is gneiss and schist, metamorphic rock. The erosion processes are the same as the Grand Canyon but because the rock is harder here, itís more difficult for water to cut through it."
Tammi rattles off prehistoric dates when describing the Black Canyon, which was formed about two million years ago. That's not so long ago if you consider that the earth is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old.
As snow melted on the Rocky Mountains, water carved away the softer sedimentary rocks until it reached the harder rock of the metamorphic. Today much of the metamorphic gneiss and schist are black in color with striking stripes of quartz that zigzag along cliff walls.
Spires, too, of hard rock have remained--their softer surrounding rock washed away. Erosion removes only a thin layer of rock each year, about the thinness of two sheets of paper, but through time, the stripping of layer upon layer of softer rock means that the canyon deepens and the river flows in a narrower channel.
Even in the height of summer, when visitors from other states flock to national parks in Colorado, the Black Canyon promises solitary lookout points. With a rising mist from the river and fiery sunsets of silver-lined clouds the color of molten lava, the canyon is vast, quiet, almost numbing. The perfect destination for the contemplative, the Black Canyon looks primeval, nearly untouched by contemporary events or people.
Herbert Hoover set the Black Canyon apart as a national monument in 1933, but an act of Congress deemed the canyon a national park in 1999. Despite its new status, the park has changed little, other than a new visitors center. And the rangers note that the campgrounds are blissfully quiet, mosquito free, tidy and rarely filled. For the rangers who give interpretative talks, the meager audience can be discouraging, but for campers who choose solitude, the park is a welcome destination.
"Thereís not that much to do here," ranger Kyrie Thompson says wistfully, "You can camp, but to go into the wilderness, isnít easy. You take the drainage trails down, but itís only for experienced hikers. We do require that you register for that in case you donít turn up. Then weíll go looking for you." Drainage trails are long ditches of rock and gravel-strewn paths where snowmelt flows into the river. Hiking down looks treacherous. Hiking back up must be worse.
Instead, thereís a steep East Portal Road that takes campers to the river, the destination for fly fishers. Inching down in low gear is imperative on the 17 degree grade, but the twisty road brings you closer to the canyon walls. On the canyon floor, the cool water floats downstream, spilling over a small dam and pooling peacefully for early morning fly fishers. Campground chatter, abuzz with talk of the gold-medal waters, takes place as eggs sizzle on camp stoves. Rainbow trout as well as brown trout are easy catches. The fishermen catch and release their fish, noting that they are limited to two trout, anyway.
The river looks deceptively calm as the fly fishers wade into the cold water in hip boots. Farther down, the rapids are tumultuous. "The canyon is very narrow," Tammi says, "a wider river is better for kayaking or rafting because it gives you more choices if there is a big rock or a drop. Here, your only choice is to go through it or around it. The water is not navigable. And there are a lot of rocks." Outside the park, where the canyon walls become sandstone, the river widens and tourists line up for rafting.
The absence of people on the river contributes to the wilderness of the canyon. Most campers lodge on the rim. Except for the fishersí campsite, the canyon belongs to the bears, bobcats, mountain lions and deer. A few, like the bears, are discouraged. Campers are advised never to leave food in the sites, but to keep their coolers in the car. Mule deer stroll through the campsites in search of juicy serviceberries, enjoying the security that visitors provide from their intrepid predators, the mountain lions.
While there may be tooth and claw drama at the canyon floor, on the rim, the campgrounds are hushed by nine at night. Under a starry canopy, the Milky Way floats by. Stars never seen in cities, or suburbia, shine brightly. The closest town is Montrose and those few lights are too far away to obscure the night sky. Several times in the summer an amateur astronomy club arrives with scopes for campers to peer into the universe. But even without a scope, the sky is filled with more stars than can be counted.
By early morning, a loud scuffling turns out to be a fat sparrow kicking over dried gamble oak leaves. Just inches from a tent, the noise of a small bird is deafening. Tents are set up under thickets of gamble oaks. These tough trees produce acorns, which provide a critical link in the parkís food chain. Beloved by birds, bears, rodentsóthe acorns are basic fodder and mule deer feast on the leaves. The gamble oaks, halfway between tree and shrub, thrive in the thin soil on the canyon rim, giving cover to animals as well as campers.
A few campers chance upon a great basin gopher snake, but no poisonous snakes live on the rim. And while most of the wildlife is typical of other Western Slope destinations, a few are unusual. A blue grouse ambles across the road looking somewhat like a pheasant. Black, white and gray-speckled, the blue grouse refuses to budge in mid-road. "That happened to me, too," Tammi says, "And then I noticed a bunch of baby chicks. The mom was waiting in the road for them to cross."
At an altitude of 8,100 feet, the Black Canyon is home to the highest cliff in Colorado. Big sagebrush, chamisa (rabbitbrush) and the gamble oaks line the rim, while a few pinyon pines hug the rim edges and Douglas firs provide a wooded forest along the north side. Colder, wetter conditions indicate one side of the canyon provides a vastly contrasting environment from its opposite side. Kyrie points out that seasons at the canyon may be subtle, but the wildflowers indicate the passing of every month.
In the spring, she describes the mariposa lily with its brilliant purple markings against white petals. The early spring bulbs are followed by lupine, harebells and wild roses. The Indian paintbrush rustles in a summer breeze and by the end of summer, the bright yellow of the chamisa, takes over.
The pinyon trees are scattered, but like the gamble oaks, they provide an important food--pinyon nuts. Besides bears and rodents that feast on the nuts, the pinyon jay is a fan, too. "The pinyon jay can figure out, without opening the nut, whether itís a good nut, or one that is diseased," Kyrie says, "and although they do eat the healthy nuts, they also dig a hole in the ground to bury them for future food stores. Quite often, theyíll forget where they have buried them and that helps the survival of the pinyon tree."
Above our heads, turkey vultures float in the air. "Natureís laziest bird," Kyrie says with some disgust. "Theyíre too lazy to fly, they just catch a burst of wind. Theyíre even too lazy to kill their own food, but wait for someone else to do it for them. Look at how they flyóall wobbly."
Turkey vultures, sporting their ungainly flap, contrast sharply with the stately golden eagle or deft falcons. Swifts, tiny mighty birds with gracefully arching wings, always flock together for protection from falcons and eagles, their predators.
The animals at the Black Canyon depend upon two other adjoining natural areas that extend food and habitat to support all the creatures that call the canyon home.
The Black Canyon lies between the Blue Mesa Reservoir upstream and the Gunnison Gorge downstream. The Blue Mesa, or Curecanti National Recreation Area, was built because of the dams upstream. Itís a stunning body of water with 96 miles of shoreline. The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area was formed to protect the river downstream. Each area has a distinct purpose that balances water protection and recreation since the Gunnison River is essential to water in several states. All three are managed by agencies within the United States Department of the Interior.
Although winter brings a stark beauty of its own, not many visitors frequent the park. Scant snowfall caused by an ongoing drought usually brings a dusting of snow rather than the deluge of past years. But the visitors center is staffed and the road is closed for skiing and snowshoeing on occasion. The views, of course, remain spectacular year around, with Tomichi Point still providing the first gasp for those who take some time off the highway and make their way up the hill.
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August 9th, 2014
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