Matthew Dickerson: Desert trout and other wild things

My wife and I went to a museum last week. It was called a museum, anyway. But was more of a zoo, botanical garden, aviary and aquarium of native local plants and animals all rolled into one. And it was mostly outdoors.
We spent time watching a prowling cougar, a pair of bobcats grooming each other, and a pacing black bear. One coyote sat posing on a rock while another one prowled. There was a large riverine otter environment (though the otter was nowhere to be seen). Trout swam in the aquarium. And one of the docents had a peregrine falcon out for display. There was also a porcupine, but we didn’t bother going to see it.
Of course these are the sorts of animals one would expect in a zoo in Vermont, or up in Montreal at the BioDome. But we were at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum near the outskirts of Tucson. And while I know that cougars roam much of the west, and black bears and coyotes are also ubiquitous in North America, I don’t think of otters and trout when I think of the deserts of Arizona. This was not a land of maple trees and ponds. The nearby “forest” was a cactus forest in Saguaro National Park. Most of the flowers we enjoyed were cactus blossoms. (Late March is a fantastic time to visit Arizona if you want to see cacti in blooms.)
I first visited the museum when I spent two weeks in New Mexico and Arizona in 2014 while working on my book “Trout in the Desert.” I was staying in Tucson with former Middlebury resident John Jewett, who now teaches chemistry at the University of Arizona. He suggested I visit the museum, I did, and was I greatly taken by it. I returned each of the next two years with my wife. If I go back to Tucson again, I’ll probably visit it again.
I also learned quite a bit. Tucson sits an elevation of about 2,400 feet above sea level. It receives on average of a little over 11 inches of rain per year, which is right around the borderline in the definition of desert. But the city is surrounded by mountains. You can look out from Tucson in any direction and see gray jagged peaks cutting the sky. Just a short distance from the edge of the city, Mount Lemon rises to over 9,000 feet in elevation. When it comes to climate, moving up the slopes from Tucson to the top of this peak is comparable to driving from Mexico to Canada. Meaning that this desert actually does share some climate and creatures with northern states like Vermont.
At one time, it even had quite a bit of water — not coming from the skies in rain, but running down from the mountains in brooks and streams and rivers. One of the exhibits had a map showing the year-round waterways of Arizona a hundred years ago. It was an abundant vascular system bringing tremendous life to the desert. Arizona not only had a population of otters, but beavers as well. But the rivers were dammed in order to supply water to all the big cities, and to irrigate the desert to grow crops. Now the Gila River no longer reaches the Colorado River, and the mighty Colorado is so dammed that for most of the past several decades its waters haven’t even reached the Pacific.
In any case, these mountains are like islands of cooler damper climates — or, rather, whole successions of climates changing gradually with elevation, and often hospital to the same species we find in the north. But we also encountered quite a few species we would not see in Vermont, including some archetypal desert creatures. Arriving at 8 a.m., before most of the crowds, we walked out on the “desert loop” and first heard the snorting of, and then saw, a family of five javelinas — 60- to 70-pound, furry, cactus-eating peccaries. The museum also had a beautiful ocelot and far more species and varieties of rattlesnakes than I knew existed.
Though I have seen coyotes in Vermont, the coyote we saw on the rock that morning sat in front of a dozen huge saguaro cacti, and beyond those a wide, flat, arid expanse of the Sonoran desert. It was the iconic place to see a coyote. It looked far more elegant and in-its-element than its Vermont cousins. (It was only to be missing a roadrunner zipping past saying “beep beep.”)
There was a whole town of posing and barking prairie dogs, which really belonged in a cartoon or perhaps a Beanie Baby collection more than a zoo or museum. But the highlight was the baby bighorn sheep, less than a month old but already leaping and prancing about on the edge of a rock face that would have made most human mothers cringe with terror to see their child near. If it wasn’t for the fact that standing a few feet away were two very large adult bighorn sheep — including the lamb’s mother — with impressive curved horns I’m sure they would have been happy to put to use on me, I would have loved to hold the little fur ball.
As for the Apache trout — one of the two native Arizona trout that had inspired my imagination when I was writing “Trout in the Desert” — it wasn’t quite as colorful as one might be in the wild, or as the ones I’d seen in paintings. Two years ago, I’d managed to hike far enough up the Gila River in New Mexico to spot some Gila trout. But I’ve yet to see an Apache trout in the wild. I hope to one day. I also hope that one day otters and beavers will swim again in Arizona and that the Colorado will thunder out into the ocean. But then, I also hope cougars will one day roam the Green Mountain National Forest again. I just don’t want to be surprised by one when I’m out hiking — in Arizona or Vermont.

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