Wildlife Management and Hunting, Partners?

Sport hunting and wildlife management. Sport hunting and wildlife conservation. Unlikely partners, yes. Mutually exclusive? Well, no. Before approaching this divisive and apparently inconvenient truth, perhaps we should think about the definition of ‘conservation.’ Really, what is conservation? Think about it for a minute before continuing.

Marco Polo sheep in Tajikistan attract sport hunters willing to pay large sums to participate on a hunt.  Owner / operators of hunting areas, or 'concessions,' are obliged to actively protect their resources from poachers.

Marco Polo sheep in Tajikistan attract sport hunters willing to pay large sums to participate on a hunt. Owner / operators of hunting areas, or ‘concessions,’ are obliged to actively protect their resources from poachers.

Merriam Webster defines conservation as “(1) The protection of animals, plants, and natural resources; (2) The careful use of natural resources (such as trees, oil, etc.) to prevent them from being lost or wasted.” Further, a third definition mentions the conservation of works of art – like when you visit a museum and find paintings missing because they are being worked on by conservationists, or an old Renaissance-era church with scaffolding covering half the inside. These efforts, according to Merriam Webster, are to keep the artwork in “good condition.” dictionary.com relates ‘conservation’ to the “prevention of injury, decay, waste, or loss; official supervision of … natural resources in order to preserve and protect them through prudent management.” Digging deeper, particularly for the matter at hand, conservation biology “addresses the biology of species, communities, and ecosystems that are perturbed, either directly or indirectly, by human activities or other agents…conservation biologist[s] may have to make decisions or recommendations about design and management.” (Soulé 1985) Finally, “A conservationist is someone who advocates or practices the sensible and careful use of natural resources” (Hunter and Gibbs 2007). The underlying theme present in these definitions of conservation is an element of management of natural resources. Contrarily, a “preservationist advocates allowing some places and some creatures to exist without significant interference” (Hunter and Gibbs 2007); think Wilderness (capital W Wilderness) areas.

I believe that conservation in the general public purview has become intertwined with preservation to the point that the two are indistinguishable. And that is a major barrier one might have to understanding how organized hunting is a piece of the wildlife management and conservation puzzle. Please see the November 2007 issue of National Geographic for an in-depth perspective on this topic, but to summarize: in the United States, the roughly 12.5 million hunters pay millions of dollars annually for licenses, tags, and permits; this money helps to fund state game agencies. New public game lands (which contribute to the management and conservation of animal habitat and ecosystems) are funded largely from the more than 1.8 billion dollars collected annually for hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on equipment – this total accounts for roughly 75% of state wildlife agencies’ revenue. 280 million dollars annually (and these are 2007 numbers) is contributed to organizations such as Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Quail Unlimited, and other non-profit organizations that support scientific research of animal populations and maintain important habitat. Suffice to say, hunters care about wildlife, about habitat, and about ecosystems. From my personal experiences with them, I have come to know hunters that are intimately aware of the the forest in which or the mountains in which they hunt. They know the habits of the deer, the sheep, the fowl; how quickly that one was pacing, or how far away those ones we just flushed were.

So now we come to the issue at hand. Are animals natural resources, and is hunting them an acceptable form of management? And before we go any further, I am not an expert on this topic nor have firmly come down on a position as the issue is quite complex. However, I believe that this is a very important angle from which we need to consider approaching wildlife management and conservation. Let’s look at it this way: Merriam Webster defines resource as “something that a country has and can use to increase its wealth.” We consider timber, water, and soil resources because they are used to increase wealth, or at least to facilitate industrial processes, energy production, and food production. Wild animals are used to generate wealth through hunting permits, licenses, taxes, use fees, etc. etc. Indeed many hunters seek a winter’s nourishment in taking a deer, elk, moose, or bison, among others, and thus wild animals are a vital resource for these people. Wild animals are resources for eco-tourism operators that market their fleeting appearances and the opportunity to shoot (with a camera) African lions or elephants. They are used as resources when national parks entice visitors with roadside signs and descriptions of an abundance of wildlife. Thus as resources, we must conserve them, like we must conserve all resources available to us to maintain sustainable levels of use. And in conserving wildlife species and habitat, an element of management is necessary; enter conservation biologists.

Because we humans have impacted ecosystems, wildlife habitat, and wild animal species far and wide, certain populations are thriving beyond the carrying capacities of the regions they inhabit. Conversely, species in these very regions face extirpation from dwindling resources due to the competition from those thriving. In the United States, in the absence of keystone predators throughout much of the country, whitetail deer numbers have soared and impacted ecosystems severely. In Botswana and southern Africa, elephant numbers are soaring. Because these giant pachyderms consume hundreds of pounds of vegetation every day, animals that inhabit the same ecosystems are suffering. Soaring elephant populations are a result of management practices put in place during the 20th and 21st centuries geared toward protecting the charismatic species. We might say, well why not just re-introduce those keystone predators, those top of the food chain animals that will keep the deer and elephant numbers in check? And that introduces a host of further issues with stakeholders that may be negatively impacted by the presence of keystone predators, such as grey wolves in the American West, in their backyards. The reintroduction of wolves to the west in the northern Rockies and the southwest has been successful relative to the species themselves, but in the larger context, has caused myriad issues as well with these animals causing serious problems for ranchers, this being a whole other complex topic that I won’t go further into right now. The point is, while it’s not so cut and dry to manage wildlife through hunting, it is also not so cut and dry to do it by re-introducing top predators. And in the larger context, the point is that hunting is a form of wildlife management and it does encourage the conservation of wild animals and wildlife habitat.

Stay tuned to hear what we learned about the intersection of wildlife management and sport hunting while filming on-site in Tajikistan for the documentary in-production, Crosshairs Conservation.
Hunter, Malcolm L., and Gibbs, James.  Fundamentals of Conservation Biology.  Third Edition.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Soule, M.E. 1985.  What is conservation biology?  BioScience, 35(11):727-734
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Tajikistan – Part I

When we stepped off the plane in Dushanbe, our journey to eastern Tajikistan had just barely begun.  We didn’t yet know if the small Tajik Air prop plane would fly to Khorog, an hour long trip piloted by sight.  Clear skies would cut out what could be a twelve to sixteen hour drive through the mountains.  The Panj river separates Tajikistan’s southern border with the northern border of Afghanistan.  We were told that much of the road (the Pamir Highway) that connects Dushanbe with Khorog (known as the capital of the Pamirs) is along the Panj.  Indeed our maps indicated that the road follows the river that separates the two central Asian countries much of the way.  After several hours spent sorting out our visas and enduring an unusually long wait for our baggage despite ‘VIP’ status, we transferred to the waiting area for the short flight, which we were told is ‘on.’  With nothing but blue skies overhead and to our east, we were cleared for takeoff.

We visited Tajikistan to document and learn about the connections between sport, or trophy hunting, and wildlife management.  Hunting and wildlife management are some of the earliest forms of organized human behavior (think human evolutionary theories linking the control of fire to consuming cooked meat, the consumption of which aided our development – read more here; and nomadic northern explorers tracking wooly mammoths across the Bering Strait), and thus their connections are intimately interwoven.  In the world of big horn sheep trophy hunting, there is no prize more coveted than the Marco Polo sheep.  And in the world of wildlife management, central Asia is home to some of the earlier forms of modern day techniques.  It was under Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan’s Mongol empire that wildlife protected areas were established, wild animals were surrounded and ‘herded’ into smaller areas to encourage hunting, and limits were placed on hunting animals during breeding seasons (Valdez 2013).  Today there exists an extreme divide amongst those in adamant opposition to trophy hunting (read more here), conservation organizations and wildlife managers that treat it as a means to managing wildlife populations for community and wildlife sustainability (here; and here) and those advocacy organizations in full support of hunting and / or conservation of hunting habitat (here; and here).  Indeed, money generated from hunting through licensing, permitting, tag fees, etc. contributes to wildlife management and community resilience, such as in Croatia with Brown Bear hunting (read here) and in the United States.  Eco-tourism is often touted as an alternative to sport hunting and endorsed in practice by countries such as Costa Rica (read more here) and Botswana, both of which have outlawed sport hunting.  The debate is complex and the preceding links offer only the slightest introduction to someone interested in learning more about some of the players.

 

Tajikistan interested us for a number of reasons.  While it is the smallest of the central Asian nations, Tajikistan is also the poorest; nearly half of its GDP is generated through remittances from friends and family members abroad.  Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gorno-Badakhshan region (in the Pamir mountains) suffered a near humanitarian crisis after Soviet supplies were suddenly cut off; locals turned to harvesting plants and wildlife in what became a socially, economically, and environmentally stressful time.  But Tajikistan is home to natural resources and un-fragmented wildlife habitat vast enough to support healthy populations of snow leopards, wolves, and Marco Polo sheep herds 3,000 deep.  Access to the Pamir mountains is still limited, despite efforts to assuage the hardships that befell the region following the termination of Soviet occupation.  While this contributes to the issues making life difficult for those inhabiting the arid and barren Pamir mountains, it also means that wildlife live relatively well.  As a result and not surprisingly, sport hunting is a major part of the economy in eastern Tajikistan; much of the Tajik Pamirs are divided into hunting concessions, the details of which I will explain later.  Several years ago renowned conservation biologist George Schaller published a paper proposing the ‘Pamir International Peace Park.’  Citing evidence that Marco Polo sheep herds cross international borders in the Pamirs (Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan) and recent and considerable decline in wildlife habitat, Schaller proposed that a peace park would offer these four countries avenues to collaborate on the management and sustained existence of the Marco Polo sheep and the rangelands upon which it and local peoples depend.  While the peace park proposal seems to have lost momentum, the intersection of wildlife management and sport hunting were enough to attract our attention for a documentary project based in the Pamirs. (continued below)

We flew high above valleys incised by the Panj river with Tajikistan to the north, and Afghanistan to the south, and floated over mountain passes with no more than a few feet of clearance for our small and tightly packed Tajik Air prop plane.  Small villages dotted the landscape, mainly concentrated near the river, some reaching into the foothills.  When we finally landed in Khorog, the capital of the Pamirs, we had been transported once again on our long journey.  From east coast hub to Istanbul, where ‘east meets west,’ to Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital), to Khorog.  The propellors slowed and the desolate character of the airstrip set in.  A desert-like landscape surrounded us and the distant snow-capped peaks beckoned us.  From here, all that remained on our journey was a long drive into Gorno-Badakhshan deep into the Pamir mountains.

Click here for more photos from Tajikistan

Valdez, Raul.  ”Exploring Our Ancient Roots – Genghis Khan to Aldo Leopold, The Origins of Wildlife Management.” The Wildlife Professional Summer 2013 (50-53)

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Recording an Image

Those that contemplate the beauty of the Earth

create reserves of strength to last their entire lives

- Rachel Carson

It’s early in the morning, maybe even late at night.  You don’t really know because you’re buried deep inside your dark and warm sleeping bag at sixty degrees north.  Whatever time it is, you notice the one-room cabin beginning to show its deep browns and streaking tans as the sun climbs the ridges to the south, soon to cast its light on the northward mountains, the pearly-white snow blanketing the frozen lake, and the burly pines standing strong and tall through this year’s harsh offerings and those of many past.  You imagine your body sink into the thin mattress.  You press your legs and head in your best effort to extract from the inch-thick foam every ounce of pleasure and comfort; later today you will ski into the wild.  You unzip your bag and enjoy the fresh air on your bare chest.  Your friend clambers out of his bag, buries his feet in down booties, and begins to stoke a fire in the old wood stove.  The door opens, and the screen door shuts against the frost-covered wooden frame.

You hear a faint crunching noise not different from that of a shovel hitting sun-crusted snow.  A metal bucket will soon sit atop the wood stove and melt down snow originally destined to flow down the Stikine River, one of Canada’s mightiest and greatest.  Today, near its headwaters, you will gulp down its chilling, crisp, clean offerings.  The dry pine in the stove pops and warmth creeps from the foot of your bag toward your head.  Enjoy it.  Today you walk into the wild.  Your friend piles coffee into the percolator, fires the Coleman two-burner.  It roars, and the other begin emerging from their bags, long underwear hiked up, socks rolled down.  You slowly and gingerly roll the zipper of your bag down to your feet and stand up tall, stretching your arms so high that your fingertips touch the soft splinters on the bottom side of the rafters.  Outside the morning sun sparkles atop the vast faceted snowy expanse.  Slowly the steam creeps from the melting pot of snow and condenses on the windows.  You smile at your friends and bid good morning as you begin suiting up.  You want to feel the cold morning air, but you also want to retreat from it after venturing out.  Long underwear first, then socks, then midlayers, down coat, shell.  Warm hat and gloves top off the armored suit.

 

You push the door open and feel the air – you nostrils freeze and the tips of your cheeks and nose burn.  You walk along the paths that you and your friends have packed down; take an errant step and a knee-high post-hole may await.  Your boots mildly muffle the crunch-squeak of the rubber sole-cold snow interface.  Soon though your feet feel cold.  Soon you notice the feeling in your feet dissipating, vacating the toes and retreating toward the ankle as your boots succumb to the chilling snow below.  You pause to behold the dark mountains capped in windswept snow, their peaks whispering to the sky.  You pause for a moment, just long enough to record a mental image, a snapshot that you will carry with you into the wild, then back home.  You capture that image in a way no camera could.  When you hold it out in front of you later on you will feel it, you will be able to reach down and touch the snow, drive your outstretched palm into it and feel the bitter, yet beautiful cold.  You will be able to feel the warm sun on your cold-burnt cheeks, and you will hear a sky uninterrupted by jet, only graced by wind and pine.  You hold this image in your hands, and decide you’ll keep it with you wherever you go.  You are brought back to the here and now when your friend swings open the door to the cozy cabin and announces the coffee percolation will soon be complete.  You turn to head back.  Your right foot lands outside the path and sinks down to the mid-thigh.  Your first impulse is to get right out, but you pause to feel the cold, and you record this sensory image too.  Later on when it is ninety-five degrees and you are stuck in gridlocked traffic, you’ll remember this moment; you will feel your cold leg and you will recall how calmly you remained in this position.  You push yourself out, and return back to the cabin, ready to enjoy a hot coffee and your close friends.

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Trekking the Annapurnas Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series

 

Into the Clouds – Onward to Thorung La and Beyond

 

Lower Pisang sits at the bottom of a sweeping valley surrounded by both forested and rocky mountains, steep cliffs, and terraced agricultural land.  The town stretches quite far, and venturing into the main area from our guesthouse on the outskirts we discovered cobble-stoned walkways busy with merchants and tourists bundled up in scarves and warm hats to defend against the blustery wind and quickly dropping

temperatures.  When we arrived in Lower Pisang, the penultimate rays of sun were battling dark storm clouds quickly choking up the valley.  The receding light cast its setting lumens upon the enormous convex rock face that Rakesh referred to simply as ‘Heaven’s Gate.’  Passing this magnificent sight earlier in the day we strained to take in its unique form and overwhelming size, but from the vantage of town it was clear that this was an aptly-named feature.  As the temperature continued to fall, we settled into the dining room for the evening and sipped on hot lemon tea while waiting for another dal bhat feast.

The next morning greeted us with low hanging and thick dark grey clouds pouring out a steady and strong rain shower.  The inclement weather partnered with the picturesque scenery of Lower Pisang in pleading us to extend our stay.  Indeed the cold rain was not in the least bit inviting for the long trek to Manang.  Realizing we were not on a strict schedule, we elected to spend the day in Pisang and venture to Upper Pisang where a perched Buddhist monastery offered cups of hot black tea and wider views of the rain-soaked valley.  From our lookout in the guesthouse dining room later in the afternoon we drank hot tea, read, played cards, and watched the passing storm, soaking Pisang with rain and at higher elevations producing heavy snow.

The following morning, we packed up and pushed onward to Manang, a ‘major’ town where we would rest another full day to acclimate before making the final push to Thorung La Pass.  Climbing about 1,000 feet from Pisang to Manang along the valley floor, our views were limited, so once again we diverted our attention to that which we could see – the rocks, plants, and low-flying birds. Chilled without the warmth of the

sun, we broke for freshly-baked bread and cinnamon rolls near midday, a real treat on the roadless Annapurna Circuit.  Manang had held the promise of panoramic views of 23,000 foot mountains and glaciers, but we were met with wind and cloudy skies.  Not allowing the adverse conditions to hinder our excitement, we set our packs down, took a brief rest, and headed back out for a short acclimation hike.  Climbing a sharp and exposed granite ridge just outside of town, we soon had gained several hundred feet in elevation and were looking down on Manang to one side, and up at a Himalayan-sized glacier to the other, rising into the thick clouds and beyond.  Looking down the valley and then up the sloping grassy fields and loose-rock cliffs, into the alpine meadows and beyond our views slowly disappeared into the clouds.  Towering above, peaks capped in snowfields and glaciers enjoyed sunbathing in the early evening alpenglow.  At first I didn’t think twice, I simply thought these were clouds illuminated a rich tiger orange.  Looking more closely, I was left speechless as I gazed at a small clump of the tallest mountains in the world, stretching into the clouds, touching the sky, and reaching beyond.

 

Manang is certainly a ‘major town’ by the standards of the Circuit itself, this fact clearly illustrated by the larger guesthouses, more polished restaurant-like buildings, and of course, the movie theatre, complete with yak-wool lined wooden benches.  We met a couple here that was coming from the other side of Thorung La and just passing through Manang.  Having done the Annapurna Circuit many years before, they wanted to complete it once more before the road is completed.  Having walked all the way from Kathmandu, they explained their preference for perambulation over automated locomotion, describing six-month journeys through India and Southeast Asia.  Their vivid description of the Mustang region on the other side of Thorung La and the climb up the pass invigorated us.  It would be two more nights between Manang and our morning ascent of the nearly 18,000 foot pass.

Leaving Manang we climbed steadily and quickly above the town under blue skies and clear views of the Annapurnas, Gangapurna, and Glacier Dome, all comfortably taller than 20,000 feet.  The stepped agricultural fields painted a colorful scene of varying tones that became more visible as we climbed higher.  When hiking it is often quite easy to put your head down and place one foot in front of the other.  I often fall into this trap, accompanying the pattern of footsteps with a randomly chosen song that I will play out in my head.  On the way to Leder, it behooved us to rid ourselves of this habit for nearly every step taken belied a more sweeping, panoramic, magnificent view of the Annapurna massif at our backs, or the neighboring mountain range straight ahead.  Above treeline and no longer under the shadow of dense rain clouds, it was most difficult to in fact pay any attention at all to where our feet were landing.  Prayer flag arrangements framed steep ascents of snow-laden peaks.  Stone huts and canvas tents housed goat farmers traveling along the Circuit and reminded us of the economic importance of this throughway.  Clad in thickly layered fur, wooly yaks meandered through the thick low-lying brush.  Climbing higher, Rakesh insisted he walk ahead of us.  The painfully slow pace he set would protect us from the perils of the altitude as we were now entering uncharted territory.  Leder was not really a town, more the location of a couple homes and one stone building offering a few rooms and a dining area for trekkers passing through.  Feeling the onset of the effects of altitude (now around 14,500 feet), I struggled to fall asleep only to wake up in the morning to the uninterrupted views of Gangapurna and its shoulders from my bed.  Blue sheep dotted the distant grassy slopes, and we pushed on toward Thorung Pedi and High Camp, where at 16,500 feet we would sleep and stage our final push for Thorung La. 

The Marshyangdi was now no more than a stream, a trickle compared to the lion’s roar at lower elevations.  It seemed that nearly every slow step of the way I had to turn around to admire Gangapurna and the Annapurnas, and the alpine meadows that we had passed through.  From our vantage, the ridge leading from the Marshyangdi valley to the summit of Gangapurna appeared as a dinosaur spine, sinuous and sharp, yet massive; I found that I could barely cast my gaze anywhere else.  The sun grew more intense as we climbed higher and the silence of our natural surroundings was only interrupted by the occasional helicopter overhead transporting another careless trekker down from the trail ahead.  Nearing the head of the Marshyangdi valley, a steep bowl signaled the headwaters of the tremendous river.  At Thorung Pedi we broke for lunch (dal bhat, of course), and rested before climbing a steep pitch up to High Camp.  Along the trail cut into the loose talus field we stepped aside for a team of donkeys descending the path from Muktinath on the other side of the pass.  High Camp was merely a few one-floor stone buildings erected on a site about 1,500 vertical feet from Thorung La pass.  Having been constructed by materials from the immediate area, the buildings blended in quite well.  From our room, provided for the lofty price of 2 US dollars, we had uninterrupted and panoramic views of the Annapurna massif.  Despite a pounding headache from the altitude, I couldn’t have been more blissful.  Rakesh informed us that for dinner that evening we would need to eat a healthy serving of garlic soup to counteract the effects of the altitude.  Going to sleep that evening was incredibly difficult, but the promise of the next day and the starlit mountains under clear skies made the pounding headache a manageable aftertaste of the delicious main course that was High Camp.

 

 

 

Rising at 3 A.M, we put down a warm breakfast of oats and hot tea, and hit the trail under the aid of headlamps and moonlight.  By 5:30 the sun had cast enough light to switch off our headlamps and walk by natural light.  Again, it was most important to remember to stop and turn around as nearly every step opened new doors to views of the mountain ranges at our backs.  These views were even more dramatic in the early morning as the rising sun cast new light on the ridges, gullies, and snowfields.  Turning back each time, it was as if a whole new perspective came to light, reminding me of sun rises in the Grand Canyon.  A deep blue sky soon filled the air above as we carried on, one slow step at a time.  A pile of prayer flags marked the top of Thorung La.  We celebrated and feasted on crackers, cookies, and black tea and celebrated with our fellow trekkers.  From the pass we could see Dhaulagiri, one of the world’s tallest mountains at 26,795 feet, towering above the Kaligandaki river basin and the desert-like landscape of the Mustang region.  In the rain shadow of the Annapurna massif, this area receives far less precipitation than the area that we had just passed through.  On the steep 6,000 foot descent from Thorung La to Muktinath, this aridity was quite evident as the scenery showcased a dramatic shift.  My excitement battled a worsening headache and sharp aching pains in both knees, but gazing upon this new landscape silenced the effects of these minor nuisances.  Beyond the Mustang region was the Tibetan plateau and beyond that, the Gobi Desert.  Reaching Muktinath in the late afternoon, we were exhausted, tired, and devoid of all energy.  After devouring a massive portion of dal bhat, I rested for the day’s remaining hours, hoping to recharge for the next day.

Over the next two days we traveled through the Kaligandaki river gorge to Jomsom, and beyond.  We decided that we would take a bus along the road (on this side of the pass the road construction stretched beyond Muktinath toward the summit of Thorung La) to cut out two days of trekking so that we could continue on for another week to ten days to reach the famed Annapurna sanctuary.  Passing through the river gorge amidst powerfully dust-laden winds, snow-capped peaks were still visible, paradoxically juxtaposed against the harsh arid conditions.  The abrupt shift in landscape offered stunning views of desert features, unexpected for our visit to the Himalayas, but not in the least bit unwanted.  Jomsom clearly was a town that had seen the effects of the road; the first ATM we had seen in days, an airport, and a shop with beauty and hygiene products.  Boarding the bus after a deep and restful sleep brought about bittersweet feelings only partially assuaged by the roadside stop for freshly picked apples.  We had been walking for nearly two weeks, and now were barreling along treacherous winding mountain roads, down the Kaligandaki valley at breakneck speed on terrain wholly unfit for a bus, especially one with passengers sitting atop its roof.  Nonetheless the ride was beautiful and before long we were again in the lowlands, verdant and lush with waterfalls around every corner pouring into the river below, much like the Marshyangdi valley on the other side of Thorung La.  After several hours in the tight confines of two buses carrying a few tourists and many Nepalis traveling to nearby towns, we arrived at Tatopani, meaning ‘hot water.’  This outpost along the Kaligandaki offered a guesthouse with a tropical feel and hot spring pools just down the road.  We supplanted the much needed and well deserved hot-water soak with some ‘Nepali Ice’ beer and began to look ahead to the next leg of our journey into the heart of the Annapurna massif.

 

 

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Starting Small

Dear followers, friends, family, and beyond,

Thank you so much for showing your support over the past couple of days!  For some reason, I had the jitters when I was getting ready to push the Facebook page out to everyone the other day.  The first few ‘likes’ registered, and then a few more.  And then, even a few more after that!

I began to think that all processes start small.  We often endeavor, but we must start somewhere, and that starting point at first may be so small that your goal or even the path that leads there is simply inconceivable.  When we engage we have to take that initial step; not coincidentally, it can often be the most difficult.  This got me thinking about some other things, namely rivers.  A river, like us, must start

Full moon rising high above the headwaters of the Colorado river in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Colorado river no longer reaches the ocean due to many factors including a burgeoning population in the southwest United States, but its headwater streams and snowfields will remain pristine under the protection of the National Park Service.

somewhere too.  A river cannot just appear out of thin air flowing several feet deep and another several feet wide.  Rivers start small, so small that it’s inconceivable to imagine that such a pithy trickle could eventually turn into something as wide as the Mississippi, as long as the Amazon, or as powerful as the Colorado.  They often start as snow crystals or ice fields requiring intense solar energy to melt to become the free flowing water that allows gravity to transport them on their long journey to the ocean; this is our first step, the most difficult and intensive.  These are the headwaters, where the rivers come to life, and bring life along with them.  Along the way, rivers grow as input from groundwater, the atmosphere, and other tributary streams and rivers join for the ride.  When the channel of a river narrows, the speed at which the water is flowing increases.  Sometimes this faster water runs into a boulder in the middle of the river, causing a sudden drop, also known as a rapid.  Rapids sometimes are so large and powerful that they can pin enormous rafts thirty feet long against these pesky boulders and boaters must wait until the flow of the river subsides to free their vessel.  Imagine being a boatman or a passenger on one of these rafts.  You’re pinned against a rock with water slamming against the upstream side of your boat.  You’re in a tight spot, and there’s nothing you can do to free your boat, and it’s all because there is a TON of water coming straight at you.  Can you believe that this river you’re in the middle of began as a drop of water high in the mountains hundreds of miles away?  Can you believe that it was once not deep enough to bathe in, not wide enough to even need to jump across?  Several years ago I was that boatman, pulling with all my might to free my boat and not feeling it budge an inch.  The last thing on my mind with four paying customers in my boat was how infinitesimally small the river that was holding us up (and costing me my day’s tip!) once was.

I have been lucky enough to float along the Colorado river in rafts not quite thirty feet long, but formidable foes of the waves nonetheless.  Through red rock desert canyons I’ve had the pleasure of admiring the beauty of this arid waterway, corridor of life in one of the driest regions on the planet.  The Colorado features some of the fiercest rapids known to recreational boaters through its many deep canyons, the deepest of course being the grandest of them all.  Yet the Colorado, like all rivers, begins small.  It begins high in the mountains of northern Colorado in the snowfields of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Having been close to the headwaters of the Colorado river in this gem of a park, to many of the tributary streams and rivers downstream, and to the Grand Canyon itself, I am well aware of at least pieces of the transformation that this river goes through on its journey south.  It is comforting to know that something mighty enough, powerful enough, grand enough to sculpt the grandest canyon we know, began so small.

 

Snowy egrets take flight from deep within the Grand Canyon of the Colorado river in Grand Canyon National Park. The riparian ecosystem of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon supports 250 species of birds, about 200 of which use the corridor as a migration route. Read more about birds in the Grand Canyon and other related information here

Lava falls, often touted as the Grand Canyon’s most treacherous and powerful rapid, offers a final major challenge to boaters nearing the end of the 225 mile sojourn from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek. To read more about water issues and the Colorado river system and learn about a fascinating project studying these issues, click here

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