4 vignettes: Earth, power and beauty

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

January 17, 2013

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A cross the canyon, arranged in a V formation, they trotted toward us. On a bright fall morning, their shapes emerged from the trees, dry grass, brush and rock. Even from a half mile away, their light-colored faces made them look like Huskies.

We watched from the west at the edge of a mesa, looking down on the narrow valley below, one of several that flow north and south between Ft. Wingate and Continental Divide. It was deer hunting season back in the 60s. I was old enough to follow my dad on his hunting trips. He carried the rifle and I helped him look for deer.

We were only a few miles south of Interstate 40. These were days when there was a lot of deer in the area. Today the whole region is closed to deer hunting after the population was decimated due to heavy hunting pressure.

The V formation drew nearer and its apex pointed right at us. The land was silent, the air was still and even the birds that had occasionally sounded among the trees fell silent, perhaps also stunned at the sight of a wolf pack crossing the open space.

There were seven, maybe eight, led by one at the point, maybe a male or female. They approached, oblivious to our presence, their sides a tawny color that blended into the landscape. As they got closer, their coloring was almost exactly like Huskies except their fur was shorter and pale, tan and gray.

Dad and I stood still, more due to amazement than being seasoned hunters, and grew more nervous by the second. Soon the wolves were 400 yards away, trotting calmly as if they were engaged in a regular routine.

Then they were below us, nearing the scrubby trees and the rocky escarpment that marked our side of the canyon. Dad finally whispered, "Shall I shoot?" I could only wag my head indecisively as I stood, open mouthed.

The boom of his .308 blasted the stillness, a large puff of dust kicked up to the right of the pack, and the wolves broke formation and ran towards the trees to our right, flashing shapes flowing through sun and shadow like spirits instead of animals.

They started howling and seemed to be running in clockwise circles around us and just out of sight except for quick movements behind the tangled limbs of trees. Then they melted away. Then they were gone and it was silent again.

This experience raised my appreciation of wildlife and the beauty that exists around us. I learned about the collision between Mexican Wolves and civilization, the encroachment of modern society into their homelands. Hunters and ranchers tried to wipe them out and others today are trying to save them.

Like old warriors preparing for a final battle, they seemed doomed to extinction. As I grew older, I viewed the sight of them that day as a blessing. More than anything else, I felt sorrow that we may never see such a sight again.

The power of life

Another bright morning, alone this time, with a thick blanket of snow covering the mountains and tall pines northeast of the point where Whiskey Creek flows under Navajo Route 12.

Carrying a 30-30 lever-action Marlin, open sight, I planned to hike straight up the side of one of the tall, volcanic, flat-topped mountains. But it was a big mountain and the slope was steep. Soon I was sweating and wheezing. The snow reflected the sunlight creating an icy world of clarity and muted color.

The sun began to melt the snow. Small rivulets formed and gurgled down the slope. I could see the distant glint of the pickup and the winding string of Whiskey Creek.

Halfway up I stopped again to catch my breath. The thin rivulets of water grew stronger and louder. Small veins of water joined and formed ropes gushing down to the creek, on a winding trek to Canyon de Chelly.

The world was encased in white, no clouds marred the blue sky and the earth fell away towards the Red Lake valley and Defiance Plateau.

In the gushing water rushing by my hiking boots, I perceived a small, dark movement. I bent closer and watched a feeble, wiggling form struggling against the flow of water, gradually moving uphill. It was a small fish, maybe an inch long, following instinct and some primeval urging.

Finally reaching the top of the mountain, I prayed in my way. I shouldered my rifle and continued with the hunt but the rest of the day was anticlimactic because I had found whatever it was I was I had been looking for.

Lost but not lost

In the same mountains except on the northern slopes, I left the pickup and entered a gray world of indistinct trees and large black forms of volcanic rock, covered with fresh snow and shrouded in thick fog, a silent early morning with all life asleep.

I climbed through a thicket up the mountain and when I reached the summit the day had lightened but the fog remained thick and heavy like wool. I could see only about a 100 yards in any direction.

Limbs and branches crashed somewhere ahead. I found two sets of large deer tracks. They led across a flat area, down a hill, up again, then into what seemed to be a canyon. I followed their tracks and every 20 minutes or so I heard them break again, crashing through the timber. Through the fog I glimpsed them occasionally, their antlers swiveling as they turned to run, two of them, both mature bucks.

The fog did not dissipate and we continued this dance all day but I could not get close enough to see them clearly. Finally, my watch indicated 3 p.m. and I thought, well, they win this time. Now that the chase was over, I suddenly realized I didn't know where I was and which direction was north, south, east or west.

The sun was hidden in the heavy fog and I felt a flutter of fear. I better find the truck, I thought, because it gets really cold at night. So I picked a direction and began walking. Now there were many tracks in the snow that I had not noticed during my pursuit of the deer.

Hungry now, I stood on a black, rocky edge surrounded by a gray world. I thought of a simple prayer, something like, "Oh Great Spirit, protect me."

I felt a breeze as if beyond the fog was a great distance. As I watched, the fog finally parted and revealed patches of blue sky and in the distance the flat expanse of Wheatfields Lake. I thanked the Great Spirit and headed home.

A spirit appears

Ben and I headed out to Chuska Lake to fish a few years ago. We stopped on the long, broad mesa east of the lake to take in the view. Dez Ah loomed on the northwest horizon.

We love the mountains and feel a kinship with animals. A great joy is to drive up to the mountains to gather wood and see the forest and valleys and sometimes wildlife.

Ben said there's a story about a bald eagle that lives at Dzilnaodithli and flies all over the region in its quest for food. "They can travel a long ways," he said.

Just then a large bird appeared high above the lake and swooped down. We could see its white head clearly and as it glided down to the lake with its large wings flared out. As it neared the lake, ducks and other birds scattered before it, squawking with fear.

The eagle skimmed above the lake for a moment, then effortlessly rose into the sky, hardly flapping its wings as it got smaller and smaller. Soon we could not see it, even with binoculars and it drifted away on the wind currents.

Today Chuska Lake is dry. Maybe sometime in the future we can fish there again. But on one morning, we were blessed with the sight of the Great Spirit's messenger.

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