June 19, 2010

Bryce Canyon

"If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it"
--Lyndon B. Johnson

These seemed appropriate words to consider while standing at Yovimpa Point: the southernmost tip, and highest point (over 9100 feet) of Bryce Canyon National Park. The view from here is utterly breathtaking. While buffeted by a strong chilly wind, my dad and I gazed out over the vast panorama, and though few words were exchanged, there was no doubt we both felt humbled and blessed by the fact that this land had been set aside expressly for the preservation of the Earth's beauty and profound wildness. The view carries the eye over a sequence of descending rock layers called the Grand Staircase. The Pink Cliffs, out of which the striking formations at Bryce have evolved, are the topmost step and way off in the hazy distance are the rolling hills of the Kaibab Plateau: the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

This past Thursday I had invited my dad to come down to Bryce with me for one of the summer astronomy programs I volunteer for. After a late night of excellent stargazing with a large crowd of interested park visitors, "Dark Ranger" Kevin Poe generously allowed us to overnight at a volunteer-house inside the park and we spent the following day touring the canyon and seeing the daytime sights. Though I'd come to the park several times for the astronomy program, it had been years since I'd been able to venture out past the lodge and visitor's center to experience one of the most beautiful (and fascinatingly bizarre) landscapes in the world.

We arrived in the early evening and met Patrick and Ranger Poe for dinner and chatting (actually the only one who had dinner was Patrick) at the Subway across from the Bryce Canyon airport. Poe is fascinating to listen to. He regaled us with stories about the area including the worst plane crash in Utah history (which took place near the Bryce airport), current efforts in Bryce to improve its already nationally-known public astronomy program, and his ongoing campaign to promote the use of sustainable energy.

After dinner we drove into the park where Poe set us up in the volunteer house. It had 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a sizable living room and kitchen. I've been having fantasies ever since about volunteering over a longer period--maybe a week or 2--and being able to live in the park. As I'm a complete nut for nature, working in a national park has held an ongoing interest for me. I'll likely never be able to be anything more than a volunteer, but I love the idea of checking out of the "real world" for a while and somehow contributing to the park service's mission to preserve these vestiges of wild America and enhance people's ability to see and experience them.

Once we had settled in, my dad and I drove over to the lodge where we walked up to the canyon rim to watch the last bits of sunlight illuminating the landscape and get our first glimpse of the canyon.

With early-evening twilight setting in, the brilliant hues of the cliffs and Hoodoos (the unique sandstone formations that dominate at Bryce) were softened and as the breeze died down, the atmosphere at the canyon rim was hushed and reverent. Park visitors strolled quietly along the rim, which drops off steeply from the trail, and we all marveled at the changing colors of the landscape as daylight drifted away.

I had to get back to the visitor's center to set up my telescope, so I left my dad at the lodge to watch Patrick's NASA presentation, which is as funny as it is fascinating.

Though the moon was just shy of 1st quarter, it still promised to be an excellent night for viewing. 7 scopes were set up by rangers and volunteers (as usual, all of them MUCH bigger than mine) and as dark fell, we planned a strategy for viewing that would give the public ample opportunity to take in various views of Venus, Mars, Saturn, the moon, and anything else we could think of.

I had spent the previous day scouring books and the internet for interesting things to talk about. I was prepared with fascinating little tidbits about the planets, the moon, Albireo (a colorful double--actually a triple--star in Cygnus) , Mizar and Alcor (a lovely triple--actually a sextuple--system in the Big Dipper), M13 (the good ol' Hercules Cluster), m4 (another cool globular in Scorpius), and various stars and asterisms that would be visible that night. Though I always feel outgunned at these events, this time I was confident I could at least keep up with the other scope operators when it came to show-and-tell. We had an excellent crowd and as the night wore on I was able to sneak away for a couple of my own glimpses through the other giant scopes...and you ain't seen M13 till you've glimpsed it through a giant dobsonian!

After a late night, my dad and I "slept in" (when you're used to getting up at 4:00, 7:30 feels absolutely luxurious!). We missed the famous Bryce sunrise, but made it over to the Sunset Point in enough time to catch some of its late-morning radiance.

Bryce's terrain is so striking I don't know how to begin to describe it. A sign along the rim trail reads:

"Before there were any Indians, the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. There were many of them. They were of many kinds--birds, animals, lizards and such things--but they looked like people...For some reason, the Legend People in that place were bad. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now, all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding on to others. You can see their faces. with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks..."

--Paiute Indian Legend

After breakfast, we took the Navajo Loop Trail,"World's greatest 3 mile hike", and ventured down among these petrified animal people.

The descent is incredible. Every few feet I'd look up and the view had changed completely. I was stopping constantly to take pictures. I would tell my dad "ok, I'm going to quit with the photos now", but then 2 minutes later the view would be impossible to resist and I'd pull out my camera once again. Eventually I stopped feeling guilty and just made sure that I also took the time to catch the sights using my eyes alone.

In one area it looked like the walls had been sloppily painted with a wash of mud...

There were cascades of "sandcicles" (not a technical term, just one my dad suggested)...

Candy-cane trees...

Eerie daliesque dreamscapes (featuring relatively young bristlecones)...

And crowds of towering sentinels hovering curiously over the trail.

It is truly a wonderland! Any further description I might offer would just be annoyingly full of almost religious superlatives...so I'll just leave you with the pictures and trust the old adage that just one "is worth 1000 words".

As the day progressed, the landscape seemed to lose all clear indications of dimension. Earlier, patterns of light and shadow would allow the eye to make sense of the canyon's contours: you could see where fins and hoodoos would separate from one another and thereby somewhat easily comprehend the scale and distance of what you were viewing. With the mid-day sun however, all became a baffling mesh of texture. This harsh lighting didn't make for great photos, but what an interesting large-scale illusion! Here is a scene at Inspiration Point...

We returned to our house mid afternoon, collected our things and, after having lunch at the lodge, hit the road for home.

After the 5 hour drive back to Salt Lake, I was too tired for much further activity, but I have since been fantasizing almost non-stop about going back for another Bryce Canyon adventure. I'm a little intimidated to ask Ranger Poe if I'd be useful as a longer term astronomy volunteer, (I'm still such a beginner!) but maybe if I do some practicing over the next month, I could pull some time together for such an excursion in August before I take off for Chicago...we'll see.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most interesting place for me, fantastic pictures as well.

    Photos of Bryce Canyon