To look into the Grand Canyon--with its extraordinary mesas and buttes and age-old layers of rock--is to believe almost anything. If a river can do that, anything is possible.
That said, I was pretty sure I was hallucinating when I saw a buffalo on the North Rim. In Yellowstone, sure, you see buffalo, but not at the Grand Canyon. My brother and I had just climbed off Powell Plateau, a chunk of canyon country about half the size of Manhattan that cracked off the North Rim. Just a tenth of the people who visit the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon make the 4.5-hour trip around the Big Ditch to see it from the north, which is only open from mid-May to mid-October. Fewer still know about Powell Plateau, reached by a maze of dirt roads west of the North Rim Lodge and visitor center.
We’d left our car at the end of one of them, Swamp Road, and hiked across a saddle leading to Powell Plateau where we camped, explored and spent a blissful afternoon on a rock ledge with a 180 degree view of the canyon and river 8,000 feet below. But when the weather turned ugly we knew we needed to get off the exposed plateau fast which is why were both sweaty, tired and light-headed by the time we made it back to the car. Thunder cracked, daytime darkness descended and the rain was coming down in sheets, turning Swamp Road into a quagmire mined by mud traps and running water.
That’s when I saw it--a buffalo standing in the middle of the road as if he owned it, unfazed by the storm, without the least inclination to give way, about as out-of-place as a camel. Amazed, we stopped, looked and wondered, then carefully went around, knowing that only fools mess with buffalo.
Of course, the first thing we asked when we finally reached the national park visitor center was what it was doing on the North Rim. A story in itself. Turns out that a hundred years ago a rancher named Charles “Buffalo” Jones crossed a bison with a cow, hoping to produce a meatier creature he called a cattelo. The experiment failed, but a herd of the cross-breeds persisted in the House Rock Valley east of the national park, managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department which tries to limit their numbers by selling fall hunt permits for $1,000 and up. It’s big game. We‘re talking 1,400 to 2,500 pounds for a bull. But they‘re no sitting ducks, hard to track, fast, nimble and intolerant, with no predators on the North Rim, except for sportsmen.
Hunting worked for a while, but lately the beasts have strayed into the national park where they wallow in clearings and trample sensitive areas around seeps and springs. Officials wouldn’t mind rounding them up--the way they did with burros in the Grand Canyon--and herding them back to House Rock, but have not been able to reach an agreement with Arizona Game and Fish which considers them free-roaming wildlife like bighorn sheep and mule deer.
So for the meanwhile you might run into a buffalo on North Rim back roads, and I mean that literally.