Sunday, April 26, 2009


In the summer of 1967, between 5th and 6th grades, my family took a vacation to Lake Powell. We were camped somewhere just off the lake, with our boat, and Layne and Scott Sorensen had a metal canoe. One morning I discovered several huge lizards in the crevice of some sandstone, right near our camp. I grabbed one of the big lizards near the base of its tail and tried to pull it out, but I couldn't. It inflated its stomach with air and I felt like I couldn't pull any harder without either pulling off the tail or killing the lizard. The lizards had rough, sandpaper like skin, were gray, and had very thick tails, particularly at the base. I had my brother, Chris, fetch me an axe, and I started to hammer the sandstone with the back, flat end, of the axe head, using my one free hand. After three hours, I was finally able to pull the lizards free of the rock.

Upon getting home, I discovered they were chuckwallas. I took them to school at the beginning of 6th grade and kept them at school the entire year. Following 6th grade, I let them go behind Shawn Schow's home on North Hills Drive in Salt Lake, near some large boulders. I heard reports from Shawn that he saw them the next summer, but in looking back, it was not the right kind of habitat and I'm sure they did not have a long-term survival.

Several years later, in the June/July 1970 issue of Instructor Magazine, a magazine for teachers, Howard Rogers, my teacher was featured, and discussed some of the outdoor adventures we had in his classes. The article was titled, "They caught a rattlesnake," and focused on a summer school class we had during that summer of 1967. A closer look at the picture in the magazine reveals Howard Rogers holding one of my chuckwallas. I am in the middle, and Steven Gould holds a leopard lizard that I also caught at Lake Powell on the same trip.

I have loved chuckwallas since then, but have not had any luck getting a good look at them in the wild. One spring I caught a glimpse of one at Joshua Tree National Park, deep in a crack, and I got a good look at one at the Living Desert, and got some photos, but that's not really in the wild.

However, this past March, on my hike to Carey's Castle, near Eagle Mountain, I spotted a chuckwalla on a ledge above the trail. I was able to get a relatively good photo, below.
I climbed up the rocks to see if I could catch the chuckwalla, but it darted in a crack and I was not able to get to it, although I had a good look at it. The hike was wonderful, but if I had done nothing else but see the chuckwalla, it would have been worth it.

On May 30, 2009, driving home from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I saw 2 large desert iguanas run across the I-10 freeway within about a half mile of the Corn Springs exit. Because I've never had a good close-up look at a desert iquana and based on my recent experience of seeing lizards in the desert in the heat that I don't normally see in the spring, I decided to take the exit and drive to Corn Springs. It was about 95 degrees. About 100 yards below the palm tree oasis, I spotted what I thought might be a chuckwalla from the car. I took out my telephoto lense - and it was!

I got out of the car for a closer look at the chuckwalla and it moved up a little on the rock so I had a better view.

However, as I got closer, the chuckwalla scurried on the other side of the rocks. When I investigated, I found it wedged in a crack between the rocks.

As I reached my hand in the crack to try and grab its tail, it whipped its tail at my hand, similar to what I've seen green iguanas do, then it curled its tail to the side, making it so that I could not touch it. So I went to my car, pulled a hanger off a shirt in my suitcase, and used the hook end of the hanger to coax the tail down to where I could grab it. With some effort, I was able to get more and more of the tail, until almost to the base, and was then able to pull the chuckwalla out of the crack. He was a big, beautiful lizard, with black and rust colors that matched perfectly the rocks he was in.

The sandpaper rough skin gives them more friction as they brace themselves from being pulled out of the rock crevices.

I took photos of it in my hand, as I was not sure how I was going to get any more photos of it when I put it back down.

It is a good thing, because when I put it in the middle of the dirt road, hoping that I would have a chance to take photos of it when I put it down, I was shocked to see the chuckwalla beeline back to the rocks in a shockingly quick run. I was fast on its tail, but not fast enough. The chuckwalla made it back into the rocks and wedged himself quickly into another crevice. Lesson learned: chuckwallas are very fast, despite their big bulky appearance. After many trips to Corn Springs, in the Chuckwalla Mountainas, I finally had seen my first chuckwalla there. Another lesson learned. They like heat and I need to go back in the heat in order to see more of them!

On April 3, 2010, I took Andrew and Lauren to Carey's Castle. On our way back, hiking through a wash, I saw another chuckwalla,
this one walking across a large rock ready to go into a crevice.
I watched it for several minutes, taking quite a few pictures, until it went into the crevice so far that we had no chance of touching it, let alone catching it. The head was lighter and the blotched body matched the color of the rock very well.
The appearance is very different from the one in the Chuckwalla Mountains and even from the one I saw last year in the same vicinity. The powerful hind legs and tail.
The tail itself.

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