Sometimes, just hanging out with your dogs is not enough. Sometimes, you want to get a little closer to the wilder side of the animal kingdom. Not mountain lions or bears, nothing that extreme, but maybe commune with some elegant, grazing quadrupeds and gaze at birds in flight.
And, yeah, perhaps spy a reptile or two.
So, naturally, you hit the trail.
But, as any experienced trail runner or hiker knows, animal encounters are highly hit and miss. Flagstaff’s trails are not a zoo, after all; you can’t order up some mule deer or beaver to entertain you.
You can, though, enhance your chances of running into (figuratively, of course) wildlife by consulting the array of online accounts that lurk on the internet, the caveat being that you need to remain a little skeptical about some random blog post.
More trusted sources include the Forest Service and an edifying website called the Arizona Watchable Wildlife Experience (www.azwatchwildlife.com). It was at the latter where you learn all about the species that hang out in the area around Marshall Lake, 12 miles southeast of Flagstaff off Lake Mary Road.
Conveniently, it's is one of the prettier (and flatter) segments of the sprawling Arizona Trail spanning both north and south of Marshall Lake along Anderson Mesa -- purported to be a busy interstate for mammals and avian species alike.
The biggest draw for animals: water. Marshall Lake is more wetlands than a true body of water, but everything from osprey to elk are said to belly up to the shore to hydrate and nibble appetizers.
The wildlife experience website provides an audio catalogue of critters, including examples of the “piercing screams” of elk bulls in rut, the “chirps and mews” of elk calves and the Amber Alert-like “single sharp bark” of elk cows sensing distress. The narrator also promised sightings of pinyon jays along the trail, designated a National Audubon Society “Globally Important Bird Area,” and all manner of waterfowl along Marshall Lake, even during parched periods when the “lake” is reduced to puddles.
It’s exceedingly hard to run with binoculars around your neck, but even just traversing this segment of the Arizona Trail by foot figured to produce some sightings.
Park at the Sandys Canyon Trailhead (only a 1-mile prelude to the junction for Marshall Lake) and proceed through the meadows dotted with ponderosa and pinyon pines for another 6 miles until you hit the trailhead at Marshall Lake. Unless you employ the dual-car-dropoff plan at the two trailheads, it’s a 14-mile out-and-back that’s challenging yet not unduly taxing.
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Sure, you can start the trip at Marshall Lake, thus giving you immediate access to gawking, but it’s better to employ delayed gratification and give yourself motivation to do the entire out-and-back by getting to Marshall Lake at the turnaround.
For a trek that bills itself as a peaceful plunge into wildlife, the first couple of miles (down Sandys Canyon and up the red-rock ridge on the Arizona Trail) are dominated by the faint but audible traffic noise coming from Lake Mary Road, which runs parallel. Here’s a way to deal with that petty annoyance: Just tell yourself that the distant drone of tires on asphalt is wind rushing through the trees.
Soon enough, you are deep enough into the trees that the noise is no longer an issue. What is an issue is the effort you must put in to reach the mostly flat, tree-lined secluded section. You gain nearly half the total elevation gain (1,225) in miles 2 and 3 -- and it’s rocky footing on switchbacks for part of it.
Once you’re able to settle into a groove, you start searching for signs of wildlife. The Arizona Watchable Wildlife experience instructs that the best way to look for the pinyon jays — described as being “dull blue all over with a largest pointed bill" — is to look down, not up, because they are often busy collecting pinyon pine seeds. Other birds apparently use the hollows of dead trees (of which the trail has a fair amount) as their personal Airbnb.
So you find yourself pausing at points along the winding dirt path to peer into the cavity of downed trees, including a massive, ripped-out root system about 3 miles in. You see, well, nothing. No birds, dull blue or any other hue. Only slightly daunted, you move on. At last, while rounding a bend on a slight downhill section, you notice a fluttering about shin high. Three birds — were they pinyon jays?; hard to tell, they move so swiftly — take off. You feel sort of bad, disturbing their nut gathering.
As the run proceeds among blissful shade two hours after sunrise, you encounter a stillness that’s both soothing and a bit disappointing. You are, remember, seeking to commune with wildlife. Heading down into a meadow lush with pale, tall grass, you are startled by a rustling up ahead.
Look up, and there are four elk grazing. Before you have time even to whip out your smart phone, let alone snap photos, they take off, single-file, bounding with long, gliding, impressive strides up a rise and out of sight. These elk, they were huge, almost moose-sized. You are awed, but somewhat disappointed that they made not a peep as they ran off -- no chirps, bellows or Amber-Alert-like bleats.
Satisfied, the final 2-plus miles to Marshall Lake, and the anticipated parade of waterfowl activity, goes by quickly. The trail ends at a dirt pullout maybe a quarter-mile from the marshiness. You make the effort and add a half-mile to get a closer look at the "lake." Alas, still no obvious activity.
You turn back for the return trip.
So, to recap, a few birds, scant waterfowl and the sounds, if not the sighting of other birds.
But there was the elk. You embrace the brief encounter with the elk. It will have to do.