Connecting to Grand Canyon in a whole new way: digging and planting at the North Rim

Here I am proudly posing with my handiwork: a rockfree basin newly planted with native plants and sprinkled with wood chips to help conserve moisture.

Here I am proudly posing with my handiwork: a rock free basin newly planted with native plants and sprinkled with wood chips to help conserve moisture.

by Thea Gavin

The North Rim has been one of my favorite places ever since I first visited there in June 2011 for three weeks as National Park Service Artist in Residence. There’s something about spending significant hours, days, even weeks in one place rhythms are established, and these in turn create connections that last long past the final glance back in the rear view
mirror.

From May 29 – June 4, 2016, I was fortunate to be able to return to the North Rim and spend almost a week there in a new capacity as a Grand Canyon Association volunteer, swinging a pick axe and wielding weed tools with a wonderful group of like-minded folks as we all worked toward the same goal: enhancing the native vegetation at Grand Canyon. In just a few days we were able to transform bare and eroding dirt between historic tourist cabins into terraced mini landscapes of forest shrubs and wildflowers, currants, elderberry, wild rose, yarrow, and so many more along with perennial grasses and sedges.

And . . . it was extra satisfying to know that all of the plants we were carefully tucking into
the ground had been grown from locally collected seed and cuttings and cultivated at Grand
Canyon’s Native Plant Nursery (on the South Rim).

Here we are admiring the new plantings (and taking a muchneeded break).

Here we are admiring the new plantings (and taking a much needed break).

Since I enjoy working in my yard at home (and also spend a lot of time running up and down the trails of my Orange County, CA, hills), I thought I’d be ready for the revegetation workdescribed
in the publicity materials as a “challenging program [that] requires volunteers to perform physically demanding work outdoors.”

“Been there, done that,” I thought . . . both in my own native plant garden at home as well
as at various Orange County habitat restoration projects.

The informational flyer also stated that “You should be able to lift up to 50 lbs, bend and kneel . . . The North Rim is over 8,000 feet in elevation. . . You should be prepared for symptoms associated with high altitude.” Hmmm . . . Lifting 50 pounds? Bending and kneeling? At 56 years young, my bending and kneeling prime was quite a few decades ago. As far as elevation goes, well, the older I get it seems the more sensitive my headache gauge is to altitude above my hometown sea level.

So, yes, it was “challenging,” but our GCA and NPS group leaders (Megan, Abbey, and Mike) made sure we worked at our own pace and kept it fun.

My favorite North Rim viewing spot along the Transept Trail (which meanders for 1.5 miles along the Transept Canyon from the campground to the lodge).

My favorite North Rim viewing spot along the Transept Trail (which meanders for 1.5 miles along the Transept Canyon from the campground to the lodge).

It seems I was not the only one with an elevation related headache the first day, but all nine of us volunteers jumped right in, taking turns pickaxing basins in the rocky soil and then hauling away bucketloads of rough white limestone chunks marblesize to fistsized to footsized. Then we raked some more rocks up and filled more buckets. When it finally seemed like there was more soil than rocks (remember: the Kaibab Plateau is made of Kaibab limestone) we filled the planting basins with water, let them drain, added soil amendment, placed and planted the native plants, sprinkled some wildflower seeds throughout, spread a light layer of wood chip mulch, and watered again.

Whew!

Just to mix things up a bit, sometimes we’d pull weeds in nearby revegetation
areas that had been planted in the last few years. Since all this work was taking place in the vicinity of
the historic North Rim Lodge tourist cabins, we had the additional responsibility of making
sure we kept the walkways clear of tools and supplies . . . not an easy task when you consider
all the shovels and rakes and pickaxes and rock hammers and bags of soil amendment and
wood chips and scores of native plants patiently waiting their release from black plastic
nursery pots.

To the folks staying in nearby cabins, we must have looked like a motley bunch: nine dusty

Orobanche fasciculata , a member of the fascinating Orobanchaceae family (all are partially or fully parasitic, getting nutrients from nearby plants such as the neighboring sagebrush).

Orobanche fasciculata , a member of the fascinating Orobanchaceae family (all are partially or fully parasitic, getting nutrients from nearby plants such as the neighboring sagebrush).

(and sometimes muddy) women and men, plus our official GCA volunteer photographer,
Max, who made us feel like celebrities as he documented all our shovelandrake
work. It definitely felt good when one of the passersby would stop to ask what we were up to . . .
besides the fact that it gave me an excuse to unkneel and stretch my back, it was also
rewarding to verbalize the significance of what we were doing: “We’re planting locally grown
native plants to reduce erosion and provide habitat for local pollinators and other
creatures.”

Of course, those weren’t the only breaks we got; our crew chief Mike Wolcott (who heads the National Park Service’s North Rim Vegetation Program) made sure we had regular breaks as well as nice hour-long lunches to enjoy our sandwiches on the veranda of the North Rim Lodge, where the view stretched from Vishnu Temple . . . to the South Rim . . . all the way to Mt. Humphreys on the hazy horizon.

Speaking of breaks . . . after two productive days of freeing rocks from the planting basins as we hacked out holes for the native plants, we were more than ready for the promised Wednesday off for exploring the North Rim. Some of my fellow volunteers headed various
distances down the North Kaibab trail, but I was eager to revisit the wildflower wonderland along the Cape Final trail that I remembered from my ArtistinResidence stay in 2011. The path winds two miles through a postcard perfect ponderosa pine forest full of dappled sunlight where heavenly scented lupine bloom in wide swaths of purple. Interspersed among the “lupine rivers” are patches of larkspur and daisies, and if your timing is just right, and you look closely, you might find leopard lilies hanging in spectacular speckled clusters.

A lupine river along the Cape Final trail.

A lupine river along the Cape Final trail.

The scent of lupines and ponderosa it was a heady mixture of indescribable sweetness that
whispered “sit and stay and sigh here a while.”

Was I experiencing shinrinyoku? “Shinrinyoku is a term that means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing.’ It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South
Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of
spending time under the canopy of a living forest.”

And the leopard lilies!

Leopard lily (Fritillaria atropurpuria)

Leopard lily (Fritillaria atropurpuria)

(We interrupt this reverie to bring you an important announcement:“But wait! There’s more!”) Just before the trail ends at the jagged prow of Kaibab limestone rimrock known as Cape Final, the path narrows as it passes through a “meadow” of cactus . . . and in early June the pale pink pincushion and deep red claret cup blossoms play a visual melody that had rung in my imagination ever since my last visit.

This time, though, I also noticed a very odd flower poking out of the gravely soil.

Actually, a cluster of flowers.

Flowers, but no greenery no leaves, nothing but a tight clump of reddish stems topped by floral trumpets of delicately shaded rose and cream that faded into yellow. Later research revealed this to be Orobanche fasciculata , a member of the fascinating Orobanchaceae family (all are partially or fully parasitic, getting nutrients from nearby plants such as the neighboring sagebrush). Stunning!

GCAblogpostfromNRvolunteerweek_Page_10_Image_0001One of the particular delights of hiking along any of the North Rim trails is the element of surprise . . . one moment you are meandering through ponderosa forest, inhaling the piney perfume, and all of a sudden the big trees are behind you and your breath is taken away by.

The. View.

At Cape Final on the North Rim: cool view, cool plants, cool companions (also revegetation volunteers).

At Cape Final on the North Rim: cool view, cool plants, cool companions (also revegetation volunteers).

 

Then Thursday dawned, bright and blue and much, much cooler up at 8,300 feet than the surrounding sweltering desert . . . another good reason to volunteer here in June! We got back to our rewarding revegetation work: more digging, more rock collecting, more planting, more weeding. And more delicious meals provided by our GCA volunteer cooks: Debbie and Leanne. And then more lovely campfire time in the evening . . . our group members laughed just about as hard as they worked.

Saturday morning was bittersweet; we were proud of the work we had accomplished, but sad to break the bonds we had formed over all those hours of . . . one more time: digging, rockhauling, planting, and weeding.

It was a stellar week, connecting with this amazing place as well as each other, and we all agreed that we couldn’t wait to return to visit the work site and follow how “our plants” were doing in the years to come.

To read more about Grand Canyon Association Volunteer Week click here.

To donate to the volunteer program click here.