Close encounters of the not-so-wild kind at the Grand Canyon

Posted By Mike Padgett

Nov. 9, 2008

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. – On a moonless night earlier this month, I found myself in the middle of a herd of deer near the edge of the Grand Canyon’s south rim.

I was headed to the parking lot about 10 p.m. But a few feet outside the front door of the El Tovar Hotel, on the lawn surrounded by the hotel’s circular drive, I had an unexpected close encounter with the local wildlife.

The night was black as coal. But as my eyes adjusted to the dim lights posted around the hotel driveway, I could see two deer 20 feet ahead of me. They were grazing on the lawn. Nearby were a dozen more. To my left, less than 10 feet away, was a yearling. It became motionless and invisible in the night as I approached. When I stopped walking, it casually turned its head toward me, then turned away to scratch itself.

The deer surprised me, not only by their sudden presence, but that they paid little attention to me. Fifty feet away, a five-point buck quickly raised its head. He probably was the trail boss. He looked straight at me, still chewing on a mouthful of grass. He stared at me for a few seconds before returning to grazing on the lawn.

The other deer, including a couple of younger bucks, never raised their heads. They grazed mostly in twos and threes. Two deer grazing next to the hotel suddenly jumped sideways and turned their attention to the nearby hotel veranda. They were surprised by a rustling of jackets made by a passionate couple embraced on a bench.

The next day, before dawn, a solitary bull elk had the lawn to himself. I walked slowly and stopped within 30 feet of this majestic animal. At about 1,000 pounds, an elk is about twice the size of a deer. Across this elk’s shoulders was a blanket of hair thicker and darker than the rest of him. He was grazing aggressively, maybe subconsciously aware that winter is approaching and he needs to eat as much he can to prepare for days when food may be scarce.

Until two other hotel guests stepped outside, the elk and I had the world to ourselves. He never raised his head, crowned with his large antlers. I thought about returning to my room for my camera, but the darkness would have required using a flash, which might have spooked the animal. I decided against photos. The thrill of the moment was more than enough.

The deer and the elk were the four-legged lawnmowers at the historic hotel, which is part of the commercial development of the Grand Canyon National Park. The park and the adjacent Kaibab National Forest function as animal sanctuaries. The animals have lost some of their fear of humans because of the millions of visitors who stop at the Grand Canyon each year.

So when the deer and the elk make themselves at home on the hotel lawn, and on the parking lots and meandering roads of the Grand Canyon Village, one could reasonably wonder, who are the visitors – the four-legged creatures, or their two-legged onlookers with cameras?

Another morning, my Best Friend and I joined a few other hotel guests in the lobby for a sunrise walk along the South Rim. We had a little time before the start of the 93rd Arizona Town Hall meeting, so we wanted to see the sun rise over the canyon’s eastern end. She had her camera; I had mine. The natural light wasn’t the best for photos, because of the low light levels and because of dust or air pollution. But the canyon’s grandeur made up for those issues as well as the brisk 35 degrees, made colder by a light wind.

From where I stood, looking toward the bottom of the deep and wide canyon, I wondered about the thoughts of the Spanish explorers who were among the first Europeans to visit the canyon hundreds of years ago. What words did they use in describing an overpowering view unlike anything they had ever seen?

The morning sun of our hike was getting higher, just edging over the horizon. Stare hard and long enough across the canyon as the sun rises, and you can see the golden morning light creep down the sides of the ancient canyon’s red rock walls, towers and temples.

The canyon was to our left as we walked on the paved trail east from El Tovar. To our right was the forest. Movement in the woods probably was the deer retreating from the hotel area as the rising sun made them feel more vulnerable. They and the elk likely will return to the hotel lawn after sunset.

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Nov 9th, 2008

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