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How I Discovered Packrats

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

By Linda Wilson @LinWilsonauthor

Some of my most treasured moments have been spent outdoors . . . and still are! That’s why each of my stories takes place in natural settings.​

Thistletoe became a character for me after my family went on a white-water rafting trip on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. My husband, two daughters and I slept under the stars at night, never bothered by insects due to the arid conditions of the area. But we did have nightly visitors known to us only by their tiny footprints left in the sand by our sleeping bags in the mornings.

Did you know that the Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World? (Can you name the others?) Since my husband and I were pretty sure this would be a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, at least for us, we drove to the airport from our home in Westford, Mass. in style: in a limousine. Our white-water rafting trip began at Lees Ferry, Arizona, spanned 280 miles on the river, and ended up at Pearce Ferry, on Lake Mead. It lasted eight blissful days.

There were four 37-foot rafts, developed by Grand Canyon Expeditions, the company that took us on our tour. The rafts were large—each one could hold up to fourteen passengers. Our guides were experienced, professional boatmen, some with many years’ experience on the river. I don’t remember wanting for anything. Aluminum food boxes stored our food, enough for the eight-day trip, insulated ice-chests, and much more. The guides did all the work, steering the rafts, cooking our meals, building and breaking down camp each night. Chilled beverages weren’t a problem: the rafts dragged them, cooled by the 52-degrees river temperature.

Passengers simply donned life jackets and sunscreen, sat back and enjoyed the ride and the magnificent scenery. Throughout the trip we kept on the lookout for bighorn sheep that could be perched on rock precipices high above us, elk, mule deer, chuckwalla and collared lizards scuttling throughout the rocky terrain; and at night, ringtail cats, canyon bats, and our friends, the packrats. On the lookout also, were the more dangerous variety of creatures: venomous scorpions, deadly spiders, and rattlesnakes. But then anyone who lives in the Southwest knows to wear boots with high socks or pants tucked in, and be observant. In places, the canyon walls felt protective, rising up to a mile to the sky (the highest spot, Grandview Point, is 7,400 feet), sandwiching us in between them from both sides of the river. On stops for meals, we were free to take hikes, explore the mesquite, willow, and saltcedar plants, and watch for wild life.

Each night the temperature was so moderate, in the 70s, and the climate so dry, that there were no insects, that we didn’t need tents. We slept under the stars in our sleeping bags. In the mornings, tiny footprints would go every which way throughout our camp. As soon as I learned the footprints were from packrats, I knew I wanted to write about these interesting creatures right then and there.

In the Belknap’s Waterproof Grand Canyon River Guide that we carried, I looked up packrats, but didn’t find them listed under Mammals until much later. Upon our return home, I researched these industrious rodents and found that there are several names for them, such as Wood Rat and Trade Rat. Belknap’s calls them Rock Pocket Mice.

Packrats can be pests, too. They can cause damage much like mice can do, by chewing through wiring in houses, and shredding upholstered furniture and mattresses. But as you can tell, I prefer to think of the animal’s fondness for picking up shiny objects, and in Thistletoe’s case, using the shiny lids, bottle tops and foil to decorate his den to brighten Mama’s holiday.

A note on the current conditions of the Colorado River: the river has run low for the past decade due to the drought in the Southwest. Boating is still enjoyed, and the company, Grand Canyon Expeditions, is still running trips. Hopefully, these trips will flourish. Now many years later, after several trips to Europe, one to Egypt, and many across the United States, our white-water rafting trip is still the best vacation I have ever taken.

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