Saturday, April 15, 2006

Photo Essay: Seven Falls


I left the house this morning as the first light was coming over the horizon. After four years in Tucson, I decided last night that today would be the day I finally get up to see Seven Falls in Bear Creek Canyon, before what little snow melt we have is gone.

I'm glad I decided to do it this weekend. Bear Creek was very low after the dry winter we had. I expected more water, but was grateful for the little that there was. Plant life around the trickle that made it as far as the entrance to valley was lush, and the birds were enjoying the gnats floating in small bunches above the water.

Today's hike has a ulterior motive. I want to get up to the falls early, before the other hikers get up there, to do a little meditation sitting on the rocks. I have always found it easier to get centered when I am in nature, and even more so when I am beside a creek or river. The sound of moving water soothes me in a way few things can.

When I was in college, following the end of a relationship, I spent many hours sitting beside Lithia Creek in Ashland, OR, getting lost in the water's engulfing voice. That was my first real experience with meditation it seems, looking back at it now, although then I would not have called it that.

So this morning I was up at my usual early hour and on the trail. I took my camera with me so that I could get some pictures to use on my blog, and just to get some practice with using it. I find that photography gets me out of my head, as well. And when I am alone, I have a tendency to keep going further and further from the trail in search of the perfect shot.

I am easily fascinated by the way water changes the desert. In a few months, much of the foliage now greening the valley will be dried and brown. The rich scent of water flowing over and through desert rock will be reduced to a stagnant stench. But not today. Today the scents of water, vegetation, wild flowers, and wet earth swirl into an intoxicating mix.

One of the other reasons I enjoy hiking in these canyons (Sabino Canyon is more accessible and more used, but still a good hike) is that the sheer size of the canyon walls reduce me to a sense of triviality. In this desert, among these rocks and canyon walls, I am tiny and insignificant. I love that feeling. I love that my sometimes-raging ego feels so small and fragile in this place.

And there is a definite sense of fragility out here, although I really don't dwell on it much. I tend to violate most of the basic rules of hiking, such as letting someone know where I am, taking a cell phone, leaving a projected itinerary in my car or at the trail head. Anything can happen out here. Mountain lions roam these valleys, some bobcats, coyotes, and maybe a few Mexican grey wolves. But there are also rattlesnakes. That's the one thing that can scare me a bit.

But none of it stays in my mind for long. I'm not pushing to get to the falls too quickly, but I do want to get up there before other people make their way up the canyon on this fine morning.

The farther in I get, the more amazing the cliffs become. The rock is jagged in places, and much of the cliff face is banded in various colors of sediment.

Aside from various small birds I can't identify, and the occasional cardinal, the only wildlife I've seen is an enormous raven who circles over me from time to time to check up on what I'm doing. He caws a couple of times, then soars back up onto the wind currents generated by sunlight heating the cool air in the canyon.

Ravens have always intrigued me. Such smart, huge birds. Yet they love nothing more than playing -- with each other, by themselves, or with other creatures who aren't generally pleased about being the subject of raven games. Ravens are, by most accounts, the smartest non-mammal on the planet, and have usually scored much higher than most primates on intelligence tests.

When I see a raven in an area where I am hiking, in some strangely prerational sense I feel safe. I feel as though I am being watched over by a God who cares nothing for what species I am, only that I am. Raven is the creator god for many Northwest Coast tribes, and also for most Alaskan tribes. And not without good reason.

After a relatively easy early section of the trail, the last mile or so gets steeper and higher, winding along the ridge far above Bear Creek below. The trail is wide enough and feels safe, but my fear of heights surges and recedes a couple of times.

After about two hours, I reach the falls and there is no one else around. For that I am grateful. I had actually passed a couple of people coming out on my way up, so I wasn't sure I'd be alone.

The falls aren't very big. I guess most of what I'd heard about them was from people who had been up here when there was much more water. Last winter was very wet and the falls were said to be spectacular.

The next chance to see them in all their glory will be in monsoon season this summer. I'll to try to make it back then to get the full experience.

The best part, though, is that there is no one around. The only sound is the water and the birds. Even in my native Southern Oregon Cascades and Siskiyous, there is seldom complete silence. I was often disturbed by the sounds of jets flying over. But there is nothing here but the water and the natural sounds of the canyon.

I sit for a few minutes to relax. Being in good shape as far as weight training goes is not the same thing as being in shape for a long hike. My calves and knees are sore. I'm glad that I brought a lot of water.

After getting settled for a bit, I sit. Back against the rock, at the base of the third falls. The pool of water looks inviting enough to swim. But the water is far colder than I would like for swimming.

It's so easy to clear my brain up here. My whole life back in the valley is gone. As I breathe out the stress, I feel my body relax, my shoulders loosen, my brain stop working so hard. I relax my vision and stare into the movement of the water in front of me. Reflected colors from the rocks above swirl and mix in a way that totally undoes my orientation.

For at least thirty minutes, I allow myself to be absent from my life. There are no problems to solve, no bills to pay, no chores to run. There is only water, rock, and sound. I become expansive, ego relaxed and willing to be set aside.

As I type this, thinking about the feeling I had, I am reminded of Walt Whitman, that old hippie from the 19th century:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
___

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
~ From "Song of Myself," Section 52

For a short time, I ceased to be anything more than the elements of nature. The perfect morning.
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