A Chance Encounter
I was three months away from ending my 33 year career as a park ranger. I drove my patrol car lazily along the south rim drive at Black Canyon National Park and pulled into the parking area at the end of the road. It is a place called High Point and serves as the trailhead for the Warner Nature Trail. I grabbed my canteen and a small pack that held a first aid kit and a pair of binoculars.
It was a warm sunny Colorado spring morning, as I began my walk down the trail toward Warner Point, a mile away. The fragrance of pine and sage scented the air. The Warner Trail, serpentines up and down and from one side to the other, along a narrow ridge. To the south lies the Uncompaghre Valley and on the horizon the broken, jagged, snow capped profile of the San Juan and Uncompagre Mountains. To the north the dark cliffs of the Black Canyon were bathed in the morning light.
As I walked along, I thought of how the rocky ridge had protected the Pinyon Pines and Junipers from centuries of fire. Some of the gnarled trees, that shaded me, had been anchored among the rocks for over six hundred years. The jingle of the keys on my duty belt and the occasional crackle of the park radio, reminded me of the paperwork blizzard, which awaited me when I return to my office at the other end of the road. I decided to put that out of my mind and to enjoy these few quiet moments, after all this was ranger work too.
I continued along the trail stopping to briefly chat with morning hikers that were heading back toward the parking area. They clutched trail brochures but were still full of questions. “Are those sand dunes below?” “How deep is the canyon?” “Why do you wear a gun?” “Is that a mountain lion track I saw in the dried mud?” “How far it is to the next gas station?” I enjoyed most of the questions, and remained patient with those that I’d answered a thousand times before.
As I started up the last hill, before the end of the trail and Warner Point, I encountered a father and his young son. The boy appeared to be about ten. He was bubbling with energy and anxious to get to the end of the trail. The mountain air appeared to be taking its toll on his dad, who kept encouraging his son to slow down, as the boy bounced on ahead. I fell in behind the two and soon we were all at the end of the trail.
Warner Point is relatively flat and the reddish earth is worn from the feet of many visitors. A few junipers jutting from the shallow rocky soil offer shade. The view is dramatic; mountains, plateaus, forests, with the highlight being the canyon. The Painted Wall, a 2300 foot cliff, is prominent. The Gunnison River can be seen and heard as it falls rapidly in its wild pursuit of a spot to rest. Both the father and son stopped to look at the scene before them. I answered several questions by the father. Then questions about the river, the canyon, and the local animals flooded from the boy’s mouth. His father decided he needed to come to my rescue. He told his son that the ranger probably had important things to do in the area. He told his son, that he’d managed to pick my brain clean.
After answering one last question, I excused myself and walked the short distance to the head of a near vertical ravine at the far side of the viewing area. I casually surveyed the area along the rim and to my surprise, less then fifty feet away, stood a large Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. He was a beautiful specimen, with the classic three quarter curl. He paid me little mind, and continued to move gracefully among the rocks and brush, foraging for the tasty spring foliage.
I walked back to where the father was still catching his breath and his son was fidgeting in the dirt. The young boy was now getting a little anxious, having been in one place for what he had decided, was a long time. He begged his dad to get going back down the trail. I interrupted his conversation and asked, “Would you like to see something neat?” “What?” he said. “You’ll see”, I told him. The boy and his father followed me to the top of the nearby ravine. I pointed to the ram and said, “Look over there!” The boy looked and looked, but saw nothing. As God intended, the bighorn blended perfectly into the natural background. There was a great deal of pointing and explaining by me and then his father. After what must have been a frustratingly long time for the boy, he said, “OH, WOW!”
We all watched and marveled at the beauty and majesty of the ram. Finally the father decided it was time to head back to the car. The boy, who’d previously been so anxious to go, now wanted to stay. He reluctantly agreed to leave and they both headed out, the boy constantly looking back for one last glimpse of the spectacular animal. I followed a short distance behind the pair. A ways down the trail, I heard the young boy tell his father, “I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life!”
I thought, as I heard his excited words; that’s what the national parks are all about! I wondered if I had made a difference in his life, similar to the way a park naturalist had made in mine, so long ago. My dad and I had joined in a nature hike near El Capitan in Yosemite, lead by a park naturalist. I was only nine when I had marveled at the meadows, forest, waterfalls and wildlife that had been introduced to me. It was that guided hike, which had sparked a desire within me to someday work for the National Park Service. I knew I would soon end that park service career. Maybe, I was helping pass the torch, through a chance encounter, that I arranged between a young boy and a bighorn sheep.
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