Monday, August 2, 2010

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 2 - Part 1

The snow-white cumulus clouds drifted like lazy puffballs over western Grand Canyon as Linda Joyce hiked down the dry wash of Jumpup Canyon. This region of western Grand Canyon was the part the tourists never saw because there were no paved roads. There were no houses or signs of human life. Jumpup Canyon was several hundred feet deep and comprised of white, pockmarked Kaibab Limestone, the rocky skeletons of marine creatures which called this place home millions of years before, when this entire area had been a shallow inland sea. Gambel oak, their leaves turning a bright autumn orange and yellow, dotted the brown hillsides like tangled whiskers. Buffalo grass popped out of the sand in stunted clumps, it’s sharp burrs looking like little green nuts. This was not a place where survival came easy.

It was an unseasonably warm October day and Linda was loving every minute of it. She stripped off her nylon jacket and wore only a grape-colored tee shirt emblazoned with the picture of a soaring bald eagle. Linda was careful as she navigated the boulder-strewn, dry stream bed, sometimes scanning the western sky for aerial maneuvers. She could not afford to turn an ankle in such a isolated place.

A wildlife biologist, Linda had contracted to do a migratory bird study for the Arizona Game & Fish Department. This was the fourth day of that job, which was giving her a month-long field trip in the greater Grand Canyon area. She camped out for a week at a time on the North Kaibab Plateau, a six-hundred and fifty thousand acre expanse of Ponderosa pine and sagebrush flats, comprising the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Moving from one east to west across the Kaibab Plateau, Linda watched the skies for hawk, eagle, falcon. The western Grand Canyon region was a major flyway for bald eagles during and A G & F wanted to get some sort of handle on the ancient seasonal migration. Eagles summered in the western U.S., and wintered further south. The eagles, hawks and falcons were now beginning their trip to Mexico and beyond, stopping in Grand Canyon to fuel up on tasty rodents and soar on the up-currents rising out of North America’s largest canyon

Today had been a great day: Linda had spotted thirteen bald eagles and seven peregrine falcons. Both animals were on the Endangered Species List, so it was a pretty big deal. Large birds of prey, like eagles, were extremely difficult animals to track because they covered so much ground during migration, flying hundreds of miles in a single day. Spotters like Linda were one of the only ways that scientists could measure bird numbers. After many years of such observation, bird specialists had a pretty good statistical idea of how many eagles should be seen in a given part of the flyway at this time of year. Linda was seeing more than ever before, which just might mean the birds were increasing in numbers after many years of decline.

Linda had tied her shoulder-length blond hair in a bun, and a thin trickle of perspiration ran down her forehead and off the end of her nose. She wiped the sweat out of her brown eyes and stopped to catch her breath. Her leg muscles were feeling a bit cramped so she took a swig of water and rubbed her right thigh, trying to stay loose. God, it was hard to believe it could be so hot in the high desert this late in the year! That was the desert for you, always full of surprises.

Still, Jumpup Canyon was a wonderful place to hike this time of year because the cooler evenings kept the rock from getting too warm, like in the summer, when the temperatures reached well over a hundred and the enclosed canyon became a baking oven. The surrounding Kaibab limestone walls rose steeply on both sides of the narrow stream bed. The only route into the isolated canyon was via Forest Service Trail #41, the Jumpup Trail, which hugged the boundary between the Kaibab Forest and Grand Canyon National Park. Bushy green juniper trees dotted the ledges of the brown canyon walls like bright blotches of paint and Mexican jays cried out as they flew from tree to tree. There was no wind and the heated air smelled like some exotic spice.

Linda raised her binoculars from her neck and focused in on a golden eagle soaring above the rocky terrain. Goldens were not rare for this area and were year-round inhabitants. But to watch a bird that large, gliding effortlessly on the thermals that rose out of the heated canyons, was a sight of such spectacular beauty that it never failed to fill her with deep respect. Out of habit, Linda took out a small notebook and made a notation of time, place, and species, just in case the information might prove important in the future. She had another three miles to go before she could fill her canteens at the alkaline spring near Jumpup Divide and take a break for lunch. Hiking in the rocky canyons of the arid southwest was Linda's passion and her bird work afforded her the opportunity to combine the two.

Another fifteen minutes of walking brought Linda to a tight bend in the canyon, a place where there had once been a monumental boulder slide. Limestone blocks the size of trucks were piled on top of one another, creating a loose mountain of debris. Big sagebrush and cliffrose grew atop the stupendous obstacle, which meant this avalanche had taken place many, many years ago. Searching for a way around the rocky blockade and noticed a game trail on the north side of the canyon.

Ten feet above the canyon floor was a small alcove had been cut into the south-facing limestone wall by time's erosional forces. Inside the cave, people from around 400 A.D. had erected a four-walled structure of neatly piled and mortared native stone. It was an Anasazi Indian cliff dwelling, a fairly common sight in the dry washes and canyons of Grand Canyon. The Anasazis inhabited the Colorado Plateau region from before the time of Christ until around 1400, when they mysteriously vanished, and the rock ruins that housed this ancient civilization were the silent stuff of dreams. She felt a rush of excitement as she stared up at this tiny house that had once been home to a small band of prehistoric people.

But something that didn't look quite right. A fresh pile of rock and dirt littered the canyon bottom beneath the stone dwelling. Pothunters. Somebody had recently looted this ruin for the ancient relics that lay buried beneath the surface of the structure – artifacts like pots and baskets.

The Anasazi of the Basketmaker era tended to live in easily defensible structures where they could safely store their harvested foods. Items like pinyon nuts, juniper berries, Indian rice grass and wild potato were sealed inside rock walled granaries along the interior wall of the cliff dwelling in order to keep them away from rain and rodents. An extended family of as many as ten people might have occupied the Jumpup Canyon cliff dwelling. It would have been close quarters with no privacy and very little space that wasn’t taken up with food and household items. And when someone died, they were usually buried in a fur blanket or rush mat under the floor of one of the rooms. These graves were simple and included small items that were held dear by the departed, such as their finest yucca fiber sandals, a willow wood comb, or favorite drinking mug.

Linda's face flushed with anger as she surveyed the damage to the small pueblo. The grave robbers didn't care what they destroyed while digging for the buried riches.

Linda pinpointed her location on her topographic map of the area. She circled the spot with a red pen. When she returned to town on Saturday, she would stop in at the Forest Service District Office in Fredonia and tell the Forest Archaeologist about the damage. There wasn't much anybody could do about it. If the site had already been recorded by the Forest Service, they would catalogue the subsequent destruction; but finding the culprits was pretty much a hopeless cause.

There were, of course, strict laws to prevent this type of vandalism. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 imposed stiff penalties for damaging a prehistoric site, but the authorities had to catch the thieves in the act. With only twenty archaeologists to cover the vast expanses of the Arizona Strip and Grand Canyon, some five million acres of public lands, the pothunters had the run of the place. Fewer than ten people in the entire southwest had ever been prosecuted. Out of the several hundred ruins Linda had seen, not one had escaped the shovel of the ruin raider.

Suddenly, from far off in the west, came the sound of a helicopter. Linda squinted skyward and saw nothing. She raised her field glasses and scanned the horizon in search of the intruder. It first looked like nothing more than a bird, but as it flew across Buckhorn Point, making a beeline in her direction, it quickly grew. A chill ran down Linda’s back as she lowered her binos and scurried back to the rock pile. The colossal boulders would provide cover for her. Linda chided herself for her paranoia. Choppers were common sights in western Grand Canyon, it being a main flyway to one of the nation's grandest parks; but Linda had heard rumors that some pothunters liked to use choppers to get into the isolated canyons where they hunted for lost Indian treasures. Better safe than sorry, she thought. She crawled into a gap between three massive stones and huddled breathlessly, a rabbit hiding from the eyes of the eagle.

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