It was yet another in a string of sunny, breezy, summer mornings. I followed the hundreds of rock cairns down the steep descent to canyon bottom, along the wash, past tadpole pools and oriole haunts. A peregrine falcon’s cry jerked my eyes up toward its eyrie just in time to see a parent bringing food to its young eyasses (EYE-ess-ez). It was then that I spied something out of place in my familiar canyon.
A mule deer carcass lay alongside the edge of the wash. It was not the slightest bit bloated in the 90-degree heat, nor was there obvious blood or odor. The doe’s abdomen had very recently been opened up. Her viscera protruded, but no other harm was apparent besides a broken neck. A tiny fawn was crumpled between her legs, also lifeless. Large powerful claw-scrapes surrounded the pair like the rays of a fingerpainted sun, with dirt and plant debris scantly dusting the bodies. A heavy drag mark extended 30 feet to the east, culminating in a sandy imprint of two bodies colliding.
I looked around, suddenly aware that this formerly benign canyon held secrets too dear for me. The mountain lion’s tracks were everywhere. He or she held territory here — where humans daily intruded. Questions barreled through my mind: Where was it? When did it ambush? Why didn’t it eat more of this pair? When would it return? How have I walked this route scores and scores of times without seeing more evidence of large predators? Should I be singing right now?
I thought about all these things, and much more. And I sang. In a minor key.
Next day, Ranger Chris posted a sign at the trailhead: “MOUNTAIN LION ACTIVITY. Do not approach deer kill. Do not hike alone.” Hiking down a couple miles, he warily dragged the still-not-eaten bodies out of the main trail area onto a reedy bank under some cottonwoods — not to spare visitors the agony of seeing Real Life, but to minimize the chance of any potential conflicts between them and Felis concolor.
Maybe the cat won’t come back; coyotes and ravens will feast. Maybe human intrusion was too much for the hunter. Sad as it is, the deaths were not in vain; we have plenty of deer, and the circle of life continues. One thing is certain: I won’t hike with the same airy abandon to which I’m accustomed. I am not at the top of the food chain.
What an agonizing death. Its left antler pinned between two aspen trees, the mule deer pulled and pushed and rubbed and yanked… until it died of thirst or was ravaged by a mountain lion. The skull of this ten-point buck told the horrifying story in minute detail.
Perhaps it had been trying to rub the velvet off its antlers; somehow it wedged that multi-spiked antler between the large aspen and the medium one and, no matter its strength or wits, could not extricate itself. Large rub marks on the big tree suggest a monumental effort. The vertebrae and ribs scattered downslope tell the outcome.
For the full photo documentary, go to this Facebook album.
A huge piece of Navajo sandstone
It’s not often that a polygamists’ enclave morphs into a national park, but somewhere between the historic Mormon fruit orchards and the thousand feet of Navajo sandstone and the geologically famous Waterpocket Fold, legislators found Capitol Reef worthy of protection. I am so glad they did, as I went on an Explore on my days off with two co-workers. Risking life and limb on a rainy afternoon in a flash-flood-prone canyon, roasting marshmallows over a camp stove, and facing off against a marauding raccoon in the campsite made it all the more memorable.
Climbed about 1700 feet to Rim Overlook; orchards below
Always when I go to a place new to me, I am struck by the differences-that-are-similar. Most of the rock layers in Capitol Reef are also present in either Arches or Canyonlands or both, but they are of different colors and thicknesses farther west. The green oasis that is Moab is watered by the Colorado River, and fruit trees of many types thrive in the Moab Valley; the Fremont River runs right through Capitol Reef, prompting the ancestral people to dig irrigation ditches for their gardens. The early Mormon settlers found these ditches and planted numerous fruit orchards in this oasis.
This is the only national park I know of in which visitors can walk through the orchards and pick any fruit that is in season and eat it on the spot. (If you remove fruit from the orchard, you weigh and pay for it on the honor system.) Apples, peaches, pears, plums… whatever your heart desires is yours for the picking, if you can get it before the mule deer do.
"The Castle." Wingate sandstone is far more pink-and-salmon in Capitol Reef than in Canyonlands.
Majestic sandstone monoliths are indescribably beautiful, especially when thunderclouds frame them. Our 1.5 days in the park were woefully inadequate to explore much; the National Weather Service phoned the park to notify them of the high risk of flash floods, which kept us out of some of the exceptionally scenic low areas.
We’ll save those for next time. There will be a next time. Those Mormons sure know how to make hot-from-the-oven pies worth driving hours to get.
3:53 pm, a few miles east of Cortez, Colorado, I see this sign:
A pretty common sign in the west
3:55 pm, a mule deer forgot to look for traffic.
Olive (my Prius) is painfully injured. More so is the deer, which cartwheeled off my right quarter panel and into the ditch, and tried twice to get up but couldn’t.
Olive's injuries. Passenger door won't open.
I was blessed to have a maroon pick-up pull up right behind me as I put my flashers on and pulled over. A young couple got out and helped me pull my fender off the tire. The extremely helpful guy checked under the hood for internal damage, had me turn my wheels, examined the rims, and felt confident that I could make it back to Moab fine as it appeared to be all cosmetic damage. Both of them told me they were so very sorry that this happened, and that this stretch of highway was like running a deer gauntlet.
Hold your values tightly, and your possessions loosely.
Leave a comment if you have ever hit (or been hit by) a deer, and state the repair cost.