Death of a Flycatcher, Part III

The story so far: U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent Angela Dimato is out of her element as she accompanies a group of volunteers on a habitat restoration project via raft in remote western Colorado. Their objective: remove invasive, exotic tamarisk trees and reintroduce native plants, with the goal of improving habitat for native wildlife, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The group of 14 volunteers and staff is diverse, and includes two at-risk juveniles, Peter and Damon, performing court-ordered community service after setting fire to public land. A grandfather/grandson duo, Bobo and Maxwell, are birders. Danimal and his brother, Greg, own the rafting company.

With one bend in the river, the sandstone walls rose high up into the air on both sides of the raft. Angela marveled at the work of Mother Nature. Some 10 million years ago, when the uplifting of the San Juan and La Sal mountain ranges began, the Colorado Plateau was lifted as a single unit in between, with only some minor twisting and turning. The rapid flow of the water cut the riverbed swiftly, maintaining the twist and turns in the river, creating deep canyons and meanders, places where the cliffs overhung the river.

“For the next 30 miles we’ll be in the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area,” Kate said. “Leave no trace.”

“That means, don’t take a dump,” Peter said to Damon. The boys broke into loud laughter.

Kate ignored them. “If you look up at the cliffs, you might see some petroglyphs.”

Peter cupped his hands above his eyes and looked up, but he had the attention span of a gnat. “So where are we camping? There’s no shore here.”

“We’ll stop just below the confluence of Bull Canyon for the night. It’s where a stream comes down from its headwaters in the San Juans and joins with the Dolores. There’s a perfect sandy alluvial fan for setting up tents just below the Bull Canyon rapid.”

Damon rubbed his head. “I don’t want to sound stupid, but…”

“Too late,” Angela interjected.

Damon shot her a dirty look. “What’s a ‘sandy alluvial fan?’”

“It’s an area where sediment deposits have widened the shore,” Kate explained. “They’re created during periods of high runoff.”

Angela could see it was going right over his head. “It’s a river beach.”

“Why didn’t she just say so?” Peter said.

Kate ignored them. “We’re only going to camp there overnight. The spot where we want to clear tamarisk is still a ways down river. But, just so you know, we’ll need to watch out for a few things.”

“Like what?” Damon asked.

“Poison ivy, scorpions, and snakes.”

Peter perked up. “What kind of snakes?”

“Rattlesnakes.”

“Awesome,” the boys said in unison.

“Not so awesome if you get bitten,” Kate said. “The canyon is a remote area. Now that we’re in, we’re committed. There are no good exits until we reach Bedrock.”

“What happens if someone gets hurt?” Julia asked.

Angela had almost forgotten she was there.

“We have a satellite phone for emergencies.” Kate pointed to a dry bag tied into the front of the raft.

Angela smiled. “Good to know.”


After shooting the Bull Canyon rapid, a Class II, Kate steered them to shore, where the other two rafts joined them. Angela set up her tent, then helped some of the others before hiking upstream to see the Indian art. Danimal and Greg made campfire lasagna, then they all went to bed early—except for the boys, who stayed up talking until Angela told them to cease and desist.

The next morning, the crew broke camp, shot the Sleeping Rock Rapid, another Class II, then traveled a quick drop known as Le Luge, and rode the rapid water until Kate pulled the raft up at the mouth of Spring Canyon for lunch.

“Danimal will take the lead from here,” Kate said. “This is a Class III rapid. The water runs deepest against the overhanging left-side wall, so we need to stay on the left side.” Kate took her place in the front of the raft, positioned Bobo to her left and Angela to her right. The boys were split up, with Peter behind Angela. Maxwell and Julia were positioned one in front of the other down the center of the inflatable.

Danimal’s raft caught the current and disappeared. In a matter of minutes, he and his crew popped back into view, clearing the rapid with no problem. Greg followed in the supply raft, and then it was their turn.

“Just do what I tell you,” Kate said. “We’ve got this.”

Things started out okay. Kate issued an “all forward” command as they plunged into the rapid. Then, with the raft making a straight line for the rock wall, she shouted, “Right back, left forward.”

Angela switched paddling directions. Peter didn’t. Between them, they accomplished nothing. Angela could see Kate trying her best to correct their course, but the raft pitched forward and hit the wall. It spun sideways in the river. Water poured in over the right-side tube.

“Right back, right back. Left forward.”

Angela turned and shouted to Peter. “Paddle backwards.”

She demonstrated, and he caught on quickly. The two of them paddled backwards with all their might. Finally, with a little buck, the raft swiveled back into line. The rest was easy.

“All rest,” Kate shouted when they cleared the whitewater.

Angela stowed her paddle and brushed the beading water off her wetsuit. She was dripping wet, but the suit wicked the moisture away from her body and kept it near the surface where the afternoon sun worked on drying her off. Peter wasn’t as lucky. He shivered in a soaked T-shirt and jeans, looking every bit like a wet sheepdog wanting to shake himself off.

Angela grinned at the boy. “Guess you didn’t get the memo about what you might want to bring.”

“I guess we didn’t have the money to buy me anything.”

Ouch. The kid had scored a direct hit. She had no knowledge of his home and financial situation. It was likely the judge had ordered the boys to pay restitution in addition to their community service. Next time she’d think before opening her mouth.

“Look, I’ve got an extra wetsuit jacket in my bag. If it fits, I’ll let you borrow it tomorrow.”

Peter brightened. “Really?”

“Really.”

They pushed the afternoon sun, floating past the Muleshoe and Bip Rock, stopping somewhere just past mile marker ninety-one. It was a nice spot, set off from the river by a hedgerow of tamarisk, with three towering box elder trees on the edge of a large, grassy rise.

“This will be our permanent home for the next two weeks,” Kate said, once they landed. “Let’s get the rafts unloaded.”

Working together, the crew set up tents and a kitchen area, and built fire pits and two latrine areas—one male and one female. Since everything had to be packed out, each person was given a container to use for human waste. That evening, Kate showed them a topographical map of the work area.

“Essentially it’s a two-mile stretch from where we are here to La Sal Creek.” She pointed. “We’ll start clearing the right bank down to One-Holer Rapid. Then, depending on how we do, we’ll start back upstream on the left side. Danimal, Greg, and a few of the men will operate the chainsaws. The rest of us will clear debris.”

“I’ll run a chainsaw,” Peter said.

“No,” said Kate. “You won’t.”

He started to protest, but she raised her hand to silence him. “Angela Dimato is a special agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. She’s here to ensure that we don’t disturb any nesting birds, specifically the southwestern willow flycatchers. This is some of their prime habitat. Angela, do you want to tell everyone what they’re looking for?”

Angela stood and looked at the faces around the campfire. “It’s a hard bird to spot. It’s small.”

“You’ll probably hear it before you see it,” Peter interrupted. “It sounds like this.” He gave an impressive rendition of Bob Bochenek’s earlier imitation. Angela was impressed.

“Not bad,” she said. “But what everyone really needs to watch for is the nest. They choose riparian areas within 20 yards of water. The nest is a cup in the fork of a tree, anywhere from near ground to several meters high. They like cottonwoods, willows, and even tamarisk, though it’s not their natural habitat.”

“How many eggs?” Damon asked. “Enough to make an omelet?”

Peter laughed.

Bobo turned on the boys. “Not unless you want to spend time in federal prison. The southwestern willow flycatcher is an endangered species.”

“Joke,” Damon said, making a face.

Angela brushed the conflict aside. “They usually lay a clutch of four eggs. The eggs are tan to buffy in color, with a few brown spots on the end. You spot the bird, you spot the nest, you stop whatever you’re doing and come find me.”

Read the next installment of “Death of a Flycatcher” »

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