Last Stand For The Last Of The Old-Growth Forest

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Pete Aleshire photos

The socketed end of the bone jutted from the snow, adding an ominous note to the brooding silence of the looming pines and firs.

I stopped in the powdery snow and brushed away the white mantling. It was a big bone, perhaps an elk which had found death along this snowed in logging road near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I’d followed a set of rabbit tracks into this small clearing, hedged by a thick mixture of conifers. A regal, yellow-belly ponderosa pine stood its ground, beset by the thick, dark encroachment of corkbark and Douglas firs. Only a scattered few ponderosa pines intruded here, probably survivors who had temporarily colonized a burned out-patch of forest before the return of the shadowy firs, which are better adapted to this high, wet slope.

I’d noticed the rabbit tracks cutting across the snow-covered logging road. The bounding imprints of the rabbit appeared shadowed by the loping pursuit of some predator, perhaps a bobcat. I hoped to witness the mute evidence of some wildlife drama, a space of crushed snow and imagined death. Instead, I found these bones protruding from the snow, a portent of loss and change.

I stood a while in the snow. The silence ached. Nearby, the snow-laden branch of a 300-year-old Douglas fir gave way with a great, spilled flurry of snow. The silence reasserted itself, but only for a moment. I heard the hammering of a hairy woodpecker. Scanning the surrounding trees, I spotted his dark shape, jerkily moving up the creviced bark of the huge ponderosa. The woodpecker assiduously patrolled the bark, tapping and listening for the hollow sound, which indicated he’d found hidden galleries harboring the slumbering larva of some insect, like pine bark beetles. The woodpeckers are one of the few birds that spend the entire winter in the depths of the forest, finding refuge in holes carved from dead snags, and harvesting a bounty of quiescent insects to the great benefit of their tree hosts.

The north rim of the Grand Canyon provides one of the few places where a large expanse of old-growth ponderosa pine forest has survived, thanks to the establishment of the national park. The loggers never made it to this remote North Rim Country to lay claim to the centuries old giant pines — and the cattle never ate up all the grass that once carried periodic, low-intensity ground fires. As a result, the the area has retained a more natural succession of fires, which have prevented the dense, overcrowding that has afflicted millions of acres of grazed and logged forest.

So the trek to Fire Point on the north rim provides a glimpse of the restored forest that experts hope lies at the end of efforts like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.

Along the snow-covered road, deer, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits and turkeys had all left their tracks in the snow, each offering small dramas in the snow. Turkey tracks, marked the movement of the wary birds from one thicket of cover to another. The baffling, bounding traces of tiny rodents emerged briefly from beneath snow-mantled logs and meandered erratically through the snow. Several of the tracks appeared to do distinctly odd things, like cartoon ski tracks that pass on both sides of an intact tree. The reconstructive detective work provided a wonderful excuse to crouch in the snow, memorizing the details. Overhead, shredded pine branches indicated the presence of an Abert’s squirrel, stripping the eatable tips of the branches.

The forest echoed with the drumming of woodpeckers, the distant screech of hawks, and the cheerful chirp of birds like the remarkable pygmy nuthatch. These bits of fluff spend the entire winter in the deep forest, huddling in a great, feathered mass in cavities in dead snags for protection against the frigid night. During the day, they work enthusiastically to keep insect populations at bay.

I saw no one else in the course of a long day. The whine of the snowmobiles dominated. But whenever I cut the engine, the silence seemed elemental. Often, I walked just off the road, floundering through the unbroken snow, and stood listening to the forest. The stillness struck me as a balm and a benediction.

The most magical moment came after passing through the gate in the fence that marked the boundary between the frequently logged national forest land and the untouched Grand Canyon National Park. Passing into the park was like stepping through the portals of another world, where wood elves weave spells that sound just like the sighing of the wind through the leaves. All of this stood poised at the brink of the Grand Canyon, a fantasy of another sort where eons lie in multi-colored layers and vanished seas have been transformed into a wonderful geometry of time.

The canyon filled me with its emptiness. The forest soothed my ruffled, hurried spirit.

Much later, back beside the fire, with all the conveniences of modern life, I found myself drifting back to that timeless moment on the north rim — surrounded by that old-growth forest, in that seamless silence where bones sometimes break through the snow.

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