A stormy flight of the Wasatch ridgelines.
by M.L. Harrison
After work that Saturday, I decided to take the long way home, forgoing the convenient, speedy freeway for the scenic gravel road over Guardsman's Pass to old Brighton ski resort and down the long creek's canyon to the valley. It had been a hot and tedious week. I was behind at work, and the kids were starting school, adding an extra element of stress and new demands to the schedule.
The recent, disturbing news of the of the nearby Crandall Canyon mine collapse which had trapped six miners 1,500 feet below earth's surface was on everyone's mind. Families and the community remained hopeful despite there being no word about the buried miners' location or condition. One could never have imagined the situation getting worse, but then three rescue workers were killed in the attempts to find the lost miners. Governor Huntsman, while visiting the coal mine area near Price accurately assessed the situation: "What was a tragedy is now a catastrophe."
My drive home took me higher and higher into the mountains past the scrub oaks and sagebrush, through aspens, beyond the tall pines to barren, wind- and weather-battered steep slopes. The temperature lowered 25 degrees as I rose toward an afternoon mountain thunderstorm working itself up.
Over the highest ridge, something caught my eye – several large dark birds. Ravens? I did not think ravens flew this high. It seemed unusual. I stopped the car and got out with my binoculars. I stood in the middle of the dirt road to get a clearer view. The birds were not ravens but hawks, big ones! There were four of them. When one flew directly over me, I could see it was not black at all but had a mottled underside of whites, grays and browns. Northern Goshawks, perhaps? I knew that there had been a nest of them years back near the alpine lake at Brighton.
Wind gusts from the storm were quickly whipping up, and the sky was a mood ring of curly, charcoal, circles moving in all directions. I watched the hawks hover, stock still in the powerful updrafts, the wind blowing so hard against them that their leg feathers parted and blew straight out behind under their tails. They appeared as tetherless kites holding their place against huge forces with subtle adjustments to wing angle. Their silhouettes took on the menacing image of the Batman logo from the movies.
I wished I could see what they were seeing. Were rodents being startled from their burrows by the loud thunder? Were they teaching their young to hunt?
At first it seemed they were playing but then the real show of aerial acrobatics began. They glided close to the ground along the ridgeline, skimming the slope at high speed, pulling up to hover, set their sights on prey, take aim and dive, talons extended, toward their target. I kept the glasses on the spot to see if they caught anything. Most times not, and they would rise to repeat the maneuver. Their eerie keeeeaa calls echoed all around.
Suddenly, five more black birds appeared from around the point of the ridge. My heart raced with excitement as I determined that each was another large hawk.
It was as if they all knew each other; they shared the sky and trajectory toward their food supply playing, sparring, shrieking and near-missing one another. Though I was getting pelted by huge splatters of rain and lightning was striking on the other side of the ridge, I could not stop watching them. My front row seat at my own hawkwatch show, combined with the supercharged atmosphere of fresh ozone and chilly moisture, lifted my spirits greatly. The weather got so bad I had to retreat to the shelter of the car and head down the mountain on the creekside road where I sped along next to the rising, frothy water.
Once home, I lay down to rest after the long day and replayed in my mind what I had seen. Nine hawks hunting. Nine large hawks, black against the dark, roiling, slate-colored sky. The threatening atmosphere of barometric turmoil with stabs of lightning and earth shaking thunderous vibrations. Wild forces had conjured a show of fearsome, awesome power that thrilled, delighted and awed me. Exhilarating, yes, but frightening, too. Had one of those sky-diving hawks taken aim at my head, the force of the impact would have done more than just knock me down. If the lightning had come a bit closer to where I was standing, exposed, trying to take it all in, I could have been killed. Yet I could not resist putting myself as far into the experience as I could go. It was a formidable display, the kind that makes you feel small and at risk, humbled. You feel grateful that you have witnessed and survived it.
As I lay recollecting and resting, the nine miners came to mind. I thought about the mine, the mountain, the earth and the coal that we all use to power necessary and not so necessary conveniences. I thought about the men and their families continuing their vigils of hope for miracles. Nine lives is too dear a price for that coal. I got up and turned off all the lights in my house. Nine powerful hawks – nine strong, experienced and dedicated miners. I envisioned these men's spirits flying free together out of harm's way over the mountaintops.
Merry is an herbalist, owner of Millcreek Herbs, LLC, and longtime, creekside resident on Millcreek. This story is dedicated to our miners, heroes all.