Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

There is something otherworldly and un-nerving about the Black Canyon. It is so named because the bottom of the narrow chasm gets so little light. Black Canyon is not as deep as the Grand Canyon, nor as wide but it makes just as deep an impression. The rocks are hard and so the Gunnison River snakes around in the depths of the canyon, surrounded by sheer walls of black Proterozoic metamorphic rocks and wiggling stripes of igneous rock.

Our field trip vans pulled into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park on a hot but windy afternoon in early summer. We piled out (inside the vans was even hotter) and listened to our professor’s lecture before being released to visit the restrooms and gift shop, take pictures and explore a little. The black canyon walls shimmered in the heat and we were warned to stay well back from the edge.

Scattering off in clumps, my group ended up standing at a fenced overlook, trying to get the courage to take a picture over the cliff edge. From our canyon rim, the cliff face fell straight down to the river almost 2000 feet below. As the hot wind tangled the hair that had strayed from my braid, I could visualize accidentally letting go of my camera and watching it fall, fall, fall to the river below. The river was the only color: a thin gray green line in the gloom of the canyon, not even grass or ferns grew in the jagged walls. I felt like the canyon was trying to suck everything, trees, people and sky into its depths. I had already taken off my hat, put it in the van in my backpack and tied my backpack to my seatbelt in a fit of sudden paranoia. I not only had my camera strap around my neck but tied to my shirt. I was steeling my nerves up to another photo attempt when the park ranger walked up.

He was an old man, still fit but grizzled gray. He looked a little as if he had been standing out here in the clifftop sunshine for years, much like the straggly juniper trees at the overlook. Someone asked if people had died at the park? (It had become a source of fascination since seeing a book about why people die in the Grand Canyon while visiting that park the week before.)

He responded that of course they had, and proceeded to tell us:

There were the people who had simply walked out of campgrounds, past the rail fence and off the cliff while trying to visit the restrooms in the dark.

There were people who had decided to take the steep trail down to the river and died of heat and dehydration. Or miss-stepped and fallen off the trail. Or, stepped into the raging river at the bottom and were swept away.

There was the drunken man who had decided taking a photo while jumping up and down on the extreme edge was a good plan.

And the couple that had run through the dark shrieking at one another. An argument? A game? The woman fell, and the man followed screaming….

He was in the middle of explaining the retrieval of a person after a fairly gruesome climbing accident when he stopped mid word and said, “What is that man doing?”

We all turned to look.

About 50 yards away on an overhanging lip of the canyon, lying flat with his head over the edge, was our professor. He wasn’t holding his camera and his beloved field hat was nowhere to be seen. We stared in stunned silence.

And then discussion started, “Where is his hat? He didn’t drop it, did he?”

“I think he’s taking pictures.”

“If he’s taking pictures where’s his camera?”

“Maybe he dropped it?”

“Maybe he took pictures and is now admiring the view?” A reasonable suggestion; this was the professor who had sat in a packrat’s nest of cholla thorns earlier in the trip in order to get the perfect photo of a pictograph. We continued staring and after a minute or so more he belly scooted back from the edge, stood up, untied his hat from a juniper and wandered away hat in hand.

“Who was that? Doesn’t he know that the lip of the canyon is dangerous?” The park ranger looked a little baffled.

“Our professor….” Did we really want to claim definite knowledge of the crazy man? “And he told us to stay back from the edge….”

“Um, well, I guess his hat was safe….I bet he got great pictures.” The park ranger either had a sudden face spasm or was doing his best not to laugh at our expressions.

With that, we decided we were done with pictures at the overlook and walked back to the gift shop and bathrooms. This way we could beat the line and we weren’t going to top those photos anyways; we could ask our professor to share his.

The irony came that night when someone asked him about his photos - he hadn’t taken any.

For more information about visiting, see the National Park Service


#stories #geology #geologist