We probably should not have been surprised at the strange circumstances which occurred when we were camped on Grand Canyon's North Rim, one of the most remote spots in America.
Unusual circumstances had played a large role in the methods by which we were able to reach that spot. One of the finest achievements of our professional motion picture filming career unfolded while we were camped there.
But none of these circumstances prepared us for what was to follow.
The spot was Cape Royal, reached by an interesting and narrow winding road through the Kaibab Forest 20 miles southeast of the deserted lodge on Grand Canyon's North Rim.
The time was August, in the war year of 1945.
Cape Royal was not only 20 miles from the empty lodge, it was 60 miles from the nearest base of accessible supplies at the equally remote crossroads of Jacob Lake to the north. It was many hundreds of miles from any major city.
The view from Cape Royal — one of the choice vistas which can be had of Grand Canyon — was worth all the trials which we had encountered to get there.
Traveling by automobile in the gas-starved war years of 1944 and 1945 was an experience in ingenuity and patience. One day I burst into the living room of our home which straddled the Pasadena-Eagle Rock city limits in Southern California.
"Helen," I announced excitedly to her. "I've just been over talking with the Buffs. They drove to the North Rim country and they said they coasted a quarter of the way, to save gas. If they can do it, so can we."
From that minute on, we started hoarding our gas ration coupons and in the early summer of 1944, accompanied by our seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Adrienne, we started out for Mt. Carmel, Utah, which would be the base for our film work in the North Rim Grand Canyon area. We would share artist Maynard Dixon's rustic home.
By actual odometer measurement, we coasted 156 miles of the total 500 mile distance — with only one critical episode.
Before exiting from California, Helen had taken the wheel as we started down the long grade toward Stateline, on the Nevada border, heading toward the (at that time) small gambling town of Las Vegas. Our car, in neutral, with the motor off, picked up enormous speed. Faster. Then even faster. Luckily we were the only vehicle traveling in either direction; gas rationing had turned the wartime highways almost into ghost lanes.
Helen, clutching the wheel, attempted to brake the car, but without results.
In the distance, with no notice at all, appeared a major turn in the highway, where our route veered leftward toward Vegas. The road straight ahead — where that went we did not know.
"I can't make it," cried Helen. "What shall I do?"
"Don't try it." My voice was choked as I yelled to her. "Keep going straight."
That coast was the longest of our trip. There were no other side roads in that isolated desert. Without benefit of gas, when the car finally came to a stop, we were well on our way to Searchlight, Nevada, a semi-ghost town, which made a suitable spot for camping out over night.
We still had a gas coupon or so in our ration book when we pulled into Maynard Dixon's place in the hamlet of Mt. Cannel, close to the Arizona-Utah border. Now we could give our car a long rest, as we would use other means, for a while, to get where we needed to go.
Several times we rode with Tom Blackburn, who had a roadside gem shop behind his house in Mt. Carmel, and who made distant forays into remote areas above Grand Canyon, seeking rare specimens of rocks. We often received lifts from the kind Mormon cowboys and ranchers. And occasionally we rode in Maynard Dixon's station wagon as he sought out scenes, that only an artist would know about, to put on canvas. He had his own gas supply; in tagging along with him we not only filmed scenic wonders on our own, but made a reel or so of film catching this man at his painting — a man who, after his death two years later, would rank among the greatest of western artists. His canvases are now rare treasures. If we had had a big supply of gas coupons, we might possibly have traded him for one or two of those paintings which he made as we filmed.
On several occasions we journeyed with two government trappers — a husband-and-wife team — as they inspected their trap lines in remote regions of the Kaibab National Forest above North Rim. The only space available for us and our camera equipment was in the back of their pickup truck, filled with coyote traps and manure. But on that journey we received an introduction to the Kaibab country that could have been obtained in no other way.
I had first traveled to the Grand Canyon's North Rim, and this Kaibab Forest country, twenty years before, on Independence Day — July 4 —1925. With my parents and brother, we had been roughing it by car through the West, and were headed to Bryce Canyon from Zion National Park. The great highway tunnel which today affords easy access between these parks did not exist then.
We backtracked toward Hurricane, then made an enormous swing through an isolated area in the Arizona "strip" (the region north of the Grand Canyon) to Fredonia, before heading north to Bryce.
The climb from the Zion area up to the highlands had been wicked, and it dumped us onto a narrow dirt road which carried us through wild country until darkness took over, and we made camp in the junipers with a roaring fire. Next day, at Pipe Spring, had come the first chance to fill up with water, and at Fredonia, population 50, the first chance for gas.
Bryce lay to the north, but the Grand Canyon's North Rim had lured us southward. More bad roads. Rain. Then the Kaibab Forest, and fine open meadows. Deer! My brother and I had started counting. By the time we were ready to pitch camp near the Canyon's Rim we had counted 146 Kaibab deer. Next day we counted 298 more. A ranger told us that the Kaibab deer were becoming so numerous that they were destroying the forest growth, which was their natural food. A Flagstaff cowboy, George McCormick, aided by Zane Grey, with many Indians and cowboys, had tried to drive some of the deer down the trails and over to the South Rim. The effort was a failure.
Rain had been falling, so the ranger told us,' for five days. But the moment of sunset on that first visit of mine had brought clearing skies. A curtain of haze lifted, the golden sun became a great spotlight, and I had my first perfect view of the Canyon from the North Rim. There was no North Rim Lodge in those days; few visitors besides ourselves were there. We and the deer shared the Rim and the Kaibab Forest almost all to ourselves.
I thought about that first visit of mine to this area — and recounted details of it to Helen — as she and I rode in the back of the government trappers' truck along the trails and through the trees and meadows of the Kaibab Forest. These trappers were being paid by the government to destroy the predators in the region, yet this was the very thing that had resulted in the forest's overpopulation of deer in the year of my first visit here — 1925. The deer population had grown from 4000 in the early 1900s, to an estimated 100,000 in 1924-25 — the critical years. Nature, in the form of coyotes and mountain lions, had once maintained a proper balance.
With predators gone, the abnormal populations of deer, in search of sustenance to avoid starvation, began to destroy the forests. The living inner bark of the pine tree is their food. Government policy encouraged hunting to thin the herds but, contrary to the natural process, hunters usually shoot the finest, healthiest deer, while the predators nearly always caught and ate the weaker ones. Thus the quality of the herds was lowered. It was a long time before government policy changed, and nature was allowed to take command again.
Much as Helen and I hated to see the coyotes trapped, we none-the-less took every advantage of our rides with the trappers.
There were a dozen opportunities a day to film the deer —in herds, in pairs, or singly, grazing in unconcern, or watching us intently, or bouncing with the grace of ballet dancers through the trees.
We became acquainted with — and made many motion picture studies of — the Kaibab squirrels as well, which are delightful residents there.
This Kaibab Forest and Plateau are cut off, by the Canyon, from its surroundings. The Kaibab squirrel on the North Rim, and its cousin, the Abert squirrel on the South, are doubtless descended from common ancestors. But the Canyon has separated them for such a long time that they have developed independently. The North Rim's Kaibab creature is white-tailed and black-bellied; its South Rim cousin is grey-tailed and white-bellied. Both have tufted ears in winter. The Kaibab squirrel is found nowhere else in the world except Grand Canyon's North Rim.
This beautiful creature had one characteristic common to other squirrels we've known — it liked peaches. As we were camping deep in the forest, one of them pilfered a peach out of the trappers' food supply. It started for a tree and we started for our movie camera. That squirrel actually made it up to the middle branches of a ponderosa pine, carrying the peach in its mouth. We have proof of it on film. Twice it dropped the prize, but did not give up. In haughty grandeur it consumed the peach — as we watched and filmed.
In this North Rim country, we were enticed once by the lure of Point Sublime, where our camping spot had an immensity of Canyon view which swept around much of the horizon.
Once we went beyond the Kaibab Forest, down to House Rock Valley to film the buffalo that were there, enclosed in an enormous grazing region by the natural barriers of the Colorado River, the Vermillion Cliffs, and the Kaibab Plateau. Hunting up the game warden, Slim Latham, we bumped for 15 miles out over wild "buffalo" land, twice hanging up briefly on rocks. The reward was a herd of nearly 200 buffalo.
The North Rim area and its Kaibab Forest, in its natural isolation, became a favorite region for us.