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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
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Good Going
by Elisa Freeling

Black Canyon of the Gunnison"We entered a gorge, remote from the sun, where the rocks were two thousand feet sheer, and where a rock-splintered river roared and howled ten feet below...We seemed to be running into the bowels of the earth at the invitation of an irresponsible stream."

— Rudyard Kipling, on an 1889 train trip through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The birth of the precipitous Black Canyon was long-drawn and labor-intensive. A mysterious geological uplift sent the Gunnison River cascading some 10 million years ago, and the stream has been grooving this gulch in western Colorado ever since. At first the going was easy: For ages the Gunnison sliced through soft sandstone and volcanic ash from nearby mountains. But 2 million years ago, it hit hard rock. Trapped in a chasm of its own creation, the river sawed away about an inch every hundred years, giving rise to sharp cliffs as tall as 2,250 feet–the highest in the state–and exposing 2 billion years of geologic history.

This 48-mile gash in the earth tapers at its tightest to 40 feet across, but the shadowy canyon is not as dour as its name suggests. While gray-black schist and gneiss dominate, the walls are streaked with silvery sheets of mica and pink pegmatite embedded with cow-sized crystals of white quartz and orangish feldspar. In places, even glittering garnet and moonstone decorate the rock. Recently protected as a national park, the wild heart of the canyon is so stirring that a symphony has been composed in its name.

Upstream, volcanic spires intermingle with marvels of more recent vintage, like dinosaur fossils, traces of 6,000-year-old dwellings, and remnants of the 19th-century railway Kipling traveled. One of the most rousing sights is a species discovered just a few years ago: the Gunnison sage grouse. As with its cousins, the two-foot-tall bird is remarkable for its extravagant mating ritual.

But at its annual spring dance-off, this grouse issues more frequent pops of its yellow air sacs and a bassier mating-call burble, audible a mile away. The bird further embellishes its come-hither boogie with flips of its neck feathers and, at the finale, a vigorous shake of its tail.

Photo courtesy NPS.

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