I recently had the chance to spend 10 days on the Little Colorado River near the Colorado River confluence. I had applied for a US Fish and Wildlife volunteer trip which was full. The US Fish and Wildlife person forwarded my info to Arizona Game and Fish which had a similar research trip. The trip lasted 10 days and we were sent in and extracted via helicopter.
There are three research camps on the Little Colorado River (LCR). I stayed in the Boulders Camp, the furthest downstream, only a mile from the confluence of the Colorado River. With three to five people in each camp, and several sling loads of scientific equipment and food and water, the helicopter had to make many trips. When carrying gear the helecopter used a long line to lift slings, which are large cargo nets. The pilot had us limit loads to no more than 500 pounds. When he was carrying the sling he took on no passengers and actually removed the side door in order to stick his head out and have a good visual with the sling load.
The flight is quite short and the scenery is stunning. The flight is classified as a special use and I had to don a flight suit and complete an online training before the flight. It’s an extremely low elevation flight into the LCR canyon. Commercial flights and general aviation flights are not permitted to enter the canyon. The helicopter landing site is very small and is located outside Grand Canyon National Park jurisdiction on tribal land. The landing site is situated next to the LCR bank and a large boulder; it’s a very tight space. If the helicopter landed at the wrong angle the tail rotor would impact a large rock. As I learned in my pre-flight training module, even a small impact to the main rotor or tail rotor will cause the helicopter to vibrate into pieces and turn over on its side.
The purpose of the trip was to continue a long term monitoring project of the humpback chub, an endangered native fish. The humpback chub monitoring and research is carried out by the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC). The GCMRC is a partnership that provides science for the Glen Canyon Dam adaptive management program. The US Geological Survey, US Fish and Wildlife and Arizona Game and Fish all get logistical and other support from the GCMRC.
Each day Brian, a field biologist from AZGF, and I would haul in the nets and work up any fish caught. Then we would place the nets to be checked again the following day. While working up the fish, we would scan the fish for radio frequency ID tags. If there was a tag I would record it in the log. If the fish was new with no tag, Brian would use the tagging gun to inject a tag into the fish. The tag is about the size of a grain of rice and gets injected into the fish’s belly (the specifics vary depending on the species). I also recorded the lengths and characteristics of each fish. The RFID tag is like an easy pass toll transponder for fish. There is a permanent array of antennas from USGS that act like toll booths and read the tags as the fish swim by. We also installed temporary antennas underwater for the spawning season.
I did have a decent amount of free time on the days when the nets were mostly empty. I got to hike down to the Colorado River confluence. I also hiked upstream and saw Spider Cave, Redbud Canyon and the Sipapu. According to Hopi legend the Sipapu is their place of origin. It’s a very spiritually important location to the Hopi and I observed from a respectful distance on the opposite side of the river as the tribe requests. I will not be posting any photos of the Sipapu or its location. I did feel honored and privileged to see it.