Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Colorado 4 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison

(Continued after Part 3)

The hard metamorphic rocks that make up the Black Canyon of the Gunnison were formed 1.7 billion years ago. Then, sometime between 70 and 40 million years ago, the whole area was lifted up. After that, around 30 million years ago, volcanic activity covered the area under several thousand feet of lava and ash. It was this volcanic rock that the Gunnison River first started carving, 15 million years ago. As the river cut a canyon through this soft rock, it got trapped and couldn’t change its course even when it reached the hard metamorphic rock below.

And in a battle between rock and water, water is always the winner.

So in the next 15 million years, the Gunnison River slowly but inevitably gnawed through pretty much the hardest kind of rock and formed one of the deepest canyons in the US. The name not only refers to the dark coloured walls of the canyon, but also to the fact that the canyon is so deep and narrow at some places that hardly any sunlight reaches the bottom.

I enter this story about a year ago. After our wonderful star-gazing experience in Arches National Park last year, I was eager to find out more about parks that offer a clear, dark sky. I found there is an organization that maintains a list of parks that offer the most dark skies in the world. I found the name of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison on this list and was mildly intrigued by its name. When I came across that name again while planing our Colorado trip, I had to include it.

The drive from Hanging Lake to Black Canyon of the Gunnison wasn't too long, but the traffic jam that we encountered while entering the park took up an hour of our time. That jam, as we later discovered, was not indicative of the park's popularity but of an accident on the single-lane road. By the time we reached the campsite, the sun was already getting low in the sky. We promptly set up our tent and went to explore the visitor center and look into the canyon itself.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a very small and barely maintained national park. The visitor center was tiny, with a small store selling fridge magnets and the like. There was a small toilet just outside. Poulami went in. When she came out, she was visibly upset. "It's a pit toilet!" she said lividly.

A pit toilet is a toilet seat over a hole in the ground, and a tank underneath where all the you-know-what accumulates. There's no water of any kind in the toilet, and the summer heat and the enclosed space doesn’t help matters. All the toilets in the park were like this, and even the rangers were using them. We somehow finished our business and went to see the canyon itself.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the Grand Canyon were both carved by rivers, but the two couldn’t have been more different. While the first word that the Grand Canyon conjures up in my mind is “vast”, the first word for this one is “steep”. If the Grand Canyon is like a dried up sea, the Black Canyon is like a storm drain. But that storm drain is 2,250 feet deep at its deepest point, and only 40 feet wide at its narrowest.

There are walls of rock hundreds of feet tall in the canyon where the river decided to fork millions of years ago, and rejoin downstream. The turbulent water flowed white and the constant murmuring sound that reached our ears from that abyss was a reminder how deafeningly loud that sound must be at the bottom. The Gunnison River drops an average of 34 feet per mile in the entire canyon. By comparison, the Colorado River drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon.

The movie told us the story of the first explorers who went down into the canyon. One particularly terrifying and yet inspiring story was of the time they built an irrigation canal (or rather, a tunnel) through the rocky wall of the canyon and turned desert into farmland. Terrifying, because the men who started the work had to climb down the sheer cliff using ropes, with bottles of nitroglycerin in their backpacks. One missed foothold, one tiny jolt, and they would be history of a different kind. They succeeded without any such mishap.

After we came back to the tent, Poulami went to take a nap inside. I was strolling outside when an elderly gentleman, who was the campground admin, walked up to me.

“That campsite is reserved, you know?” he said in an accusing tone.

“Of course I know.” I answered in my most annoying know-it-all tone. “It is I who has reserved it.” As the admin gave me a baffled look, I pointed to the piece of paper with BANERJI scrawled on it attached to the post with the site number. “That’s me,” I added helpfully.

“That may be you,” he said, “but that number is not for this campsite. It is for the next one.”

To be honest the number was kind of in the middle, but there was no point arguing with him on that point now. I apologized profusely and said it was an honest mistake. He initially told us to move our tent to the next site, but then changed his mind and said we could stay. So we lit a fire and Poulami made tea and then some instant noodles. It was a good thing that we were carrying the firewood and everything else from Rocky Mountains, because nothing was available here other than the water for cooking.

That evening we walked to a little amphitheater in the woods and attended a small ranger program. The evening was slightly cloudy and my heart sank. Still, we went to bed early because we had asked a ranger when the Milky Way would rise above the Canyon, and she had informed us that midnight would be a good time as the moon would set around that time. Going to the bathroom was an adventure by itself because not only were the toilets at the campground waterless pit toilets similar to those at the visitors’ center, but they were completely devoid of any light, presumably to preserve the “Dark Sky” status of the park. The headlamp that we had bought before this trip was very useful here, though I’ll admit I did not enjoy this one aspect of this national park.

We woke up around midnight and poked our heads out of the tent. The world was deadly silent and pitch dark, and we were both shivering from the chill in the air. What’s worse, we could see there were still some clouds in the sky. Nevertheless, we got up, grumbling about ourselves, and drove to a viewpoint on the rim about a mile away. A car parked there informed us of another crazy photographer like me. He greeted me cheerfully and showed me some of his photos once I stepped out of the car. Then he drove away, probably to a warm bed somewhere, leaving the two of us alone beside the Black Canyon in one of the darkest places on the planet.

Although there were clouds (bottom right), the Milky Way was bright enough.

And oh boy, was it dark! I literally couldn’t see my hands unless I switched on one of the flashlights or used the light from my camera or cellphone screen. But then, the darkness seemed even worse after switching off that light. The two of us could sense each other, but the rest of the world seemed dead. We knew there were wild animals in the area, and every rustle that punctuated the deathly silence conjured up images of approaching bears. Every step I took could very well be into the canyon for all I could see, although I knew there was a railing around the edge. When we finally left, we had spent about half an hour on the rim, and we were glad to go. While the prospect of filming the Milky Way is tempting, both Poulami and I are essentially creatures of urban upbringing and this exposure to darkness and silence was extremely unnerving. We had spent a dark night at Arches National Park last year, but there we had been accompanied by at least 50 other people whose voices we could hear and flashlights we could see. Besides, Arches doesn’t have bears.

Morning tea at the campground

The rest of the night was uneventful. The next morning we left our campground early and drove to the various viewpoints on the canyon rim to take photos, before turning back and setting out for our next destination, the city of Colorado Springs 233 miles away.

Our trip was drawing to a close, but there was still one activity that we were both eagerly looking forward to.

(To be continued…)