in the Chiricahua Mountains
by Matt Griffiths
The summer of 1995 was magical. I spent it hiking and camping, catching lizards, holding hummingbirds, wading cold creeks in search of insect larva and meeting many interesting people. I was in Portal, Arizona, a cluster of buildings only slightly resembling a town. The South Western Research Station (SWRS) is located there at the "gate" of the Chiricahua mountains, and I was a volunteer eager for knowledge and adventure.
Between making beds and assisting scientists, the mountains, desert and all their inhabitants were mine to explore. This spirit of discovery led to one of the more memorable events of that summer.
I can easily blame Merlin Tuttle for providing me the seed from which this harebrained adventure germinated. The founder of Bat Conservation International, Dr. Tuttle runs field workshops in the Chiricahuas every year. I had the opportunity to assist the researchers one night as they caught and examined several different species.
Seeing wild bats up close and watching them (using night vision scopes) swoop down on the creek to take a quick sip of water was out of this world. I was instantly hooked.
Earlier, at sunset, Dr. Tuttle had pointed out the cave from which the bats emerged every evening. Wouldn't it be amazing, I thought, to be up there, thousands of feet from the valley floor, when the bats took flight in search of their nightly insect dinner?
I could only talk one fellow volunteer into making the journey with me. Pawel is a truly fun and insane Polish scientist with a fancy for rooting out angry rattlesnakes. Of course, his pestering them was the source of their anger. Pawel's penchant for risk taking should have alerted me to the danger of this undertaking, but it didn't.
We hatched a plan. A mountain separated the Station from the other mountain that was home to the bats. We would hike up this 6500 ft. peak and find a perch to watch the emergence directly across the valley from us. View the route
We left around noon armed with cameras, food and flashlights. We bushwacked through spiny shrubs and yuccas until we reached the upper talus. Completely underestimating the amount of work required so far, we slowly scrambled over the large boulders in the blazing sun. Running into blacktailed and mojave rattlesnakes along the way (thoroughly exciting Pawel), we finally made the ridgeline. We now had to hike along the ridge and down the other side a bit, and the sun was starting to wane.
Before I knew it, Pawel had forged a path to his own viewpoint and was way out in front. I figured he would stay close and we'd hike down together after seeing the bats. Keeping in contact by whistling, he seemed to be hiking all the way down -- now! He wasn't going to ruin my fun. So, I staked out a perfect viewing spot, directly across from the cave, and waited for the bats.
Needless to say, the sun went down, it got very dark and I never saw a single bat. Maybe they took the night off. So, I was on my way down, slowly picking through vegetation and rock outcrops. Now I was really finding out how dense the terrain was -- this would take me forever! Forever then got a little longer as not one, but both of my flashlights went dead. I could still hear Pawel for a while, he was almost down on the valley floor at this point. I would have to do this myself.
There was no moon, I was stumbling around in the pitch-black night. I would turn the light on and get as far as I could before it faded away again. This method worked until I found myself perched on a cliff looking into the darkness at what might have been a huge dropoff. I had already taken about a ten foot fall and I was too tired to backtrack. I was lucky to not have any serious wounds from the lance-like yuccas that surrounded me.
Now the risks were clear to me; spending the night up here wouldn't be that bad. There might have been bears and mountain lions, but I was willing to take my chances.
My rocky bed was just starting to feel comfortable when I heard a vehicle coming up the valley. Soon Pawel and another volunteer were yelling to me, trying to determine my location. I told them my lights were out and to leave because I was spending the night up here. I soon realized with complete amazement that they were on their way up to get me!
I should have expected as much from my rescuer, the Polish snake-juggler. He would take on any challenge, especially if it was a friend in need. In no time at all, they made it up and easily guided me back to the valley floor.
I was tired, sore and cactus-pricked, but I managed
to make it back to join everyone at a campfire party. Of course, my
now amusing ordeal was the story of the night. I was happy to be around
good people but couldn't help but wonder, what were the bears and
mountain lions up to that night?