An empty canyon full of everything
by Seth Shteir
Lamoille Canyon doesn’t attract many tourists. It’s in Nevada’s remote northeastern corner, and that’s just fine with me. I’ve come to the Ruby Mountains for something that’s becoming rare in America: a starry sky and a generous helping of Western birds.
Even the drive to Lamoille Canyon is wonderful. Telephone poles on the deserted state highway are probably more useful to perching raptors than to chatting Nevadans. A large ferruginous hawk eyes us warily as we pull over to get a better look. Red-tailed hawks scan the surrounding buttes and sagebrush for small rodents. A prairie falcon with a chestnut mustache studies blackbirds foraging in the lush grass of a ranch below the highway.
Just over the top of a hill, my friend and I notice a large silhouette on one of the poles. It looks as big as the mini-refrigerator in the motel where we stayed last night. But refrigerators don’t have wings. The golden eagle remains almost motionless, its robust talons, massive beak and thick legs clutching its perch. Instead of fleeing as we open the car door, it challenges us to a staring match.
Several miles later, on a flat close to some abandoned heavy equipment, we notice about 20 cigar-shaped nighthawks swooping low over the sage. It’s only 10:30 a.m., yet the asphalt is already hot to the touch; flies buzz lazily and a heavy aroma of sage fills the air. The nighthawks belie their descriptive name. Their angled wings and white wing bars flash and roll as they chased down insects. Somehow they don’t collide with each other in their whirlwind pursuits.
When we arrive in Elko, I purchase a fishing license at a sporting goods store -- serious business in Nevada -- as the form requires your social security number. On the way out of the shop, my friend notices a woman wearing a T-shirt that says “W.R.A.N.G.L.E.R.” In small print below, it read: “Western Rancher Against No Good Leftist Environmental Radicals.” We’re not in Audubon Society card-carrying California anymore. Beyond Elko, the green crest of the Ruby Mountains rises over the Great Basin like an earthen tsunami about to break over the city. The mountains got their name because of their garnets, the ruby-red gems found by early explorers. Clearly, glaciers played a role in the formation of these peaks: U-shaped valleys, tarns and cirques punctuate the mountains. This terrain is perfect for the mountain goats and bighorn sheep that call the Rubies home.
Our car grinds up the mountain in low gear until we stop at a picnic area at the bottom of Lamoille Canyon. A creek wends its way through the canyon, lined by large cottonwoods, and even though it’s a scorching afternoon, the birds are singing. A crow-sized bird lands on the top of a dead cottonwood, and moments later, its rowing flight and pink head reveal it to be a Lewis woodpecker. Unlike other woodpeckers, Lewis woodpeckers -- named for the 19th century explorer Meriwether Lewis -- frequently catch insects on the wing. The woodpecker flies low over our heads, almost buzzing us, and disappears into the foliage of a large cottonwood. Suddenly, the cries of baby birds reach a pitched frenzy.
Moments later, the woodpecker emerges from behind the tree and returns to the cottonwood snag. We watch as the routine is repeated three, four and five times: We have not only spotted an unusual woodpecker, but a nest full of babies as well. Stunned by our good fortune, we hunker down to observe. Farther up the creek, another woodpecker, ferrying lunch to its young, disappears into a small hole in the crotch of a cottonwood. A raven, looking for an easy meal, watches from the parking lot near the cottonwoods. Does it know the location of the nest?
That night, a thrush’s fluted melody coaxes the sun below the canyon rim. The big dipper rises, its ladle gesturing toward the North Star. Now, each hour brings a different shade of darkness: gunmetal gray, violet and at long last, charcoal. The darker it gets, the more the stars seem to pop out of the sky -- white grains of sugar sprinkled on a black tablecloth. Thirty minutes later, I’m tucked in my sleeping bag, gazing at the stars tangled up in the branches of aspen. As I drift off to sleep, I know I’ll be back this way again.
Seth Shteir is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Los Angeles where he works as a teacher. © High Country News