Observing & Imagining in Picture Canyon

On November 18, 2019, 19 fifth graders from Mr. Ross’s class at Flagstaff Junior Academy Middle School explored Picture Canyon via a three mile loop, encompassing part of the Arizona Trail’s Elden Mountain Passage 32. Our goal was to infer why and how the Sinagua People lived in Picture Canyon approximately 1,000 years ago. We would accomplish this goal by asking questions, making hypotheses, observing the landscape, learning about the area’s plants and animals, and discovering evidence of human habitation.

We began our day by playing The Big Wind Blows, an icebreaker/name game. After talking about safety, Leave No Trace, and our intentions for the hike, we were ready to hit the trail. 

The trail gently climbs alongside Picture Canyon’s western edge, featuring side trails that give access to views of a scenic waterfall, a petroglyph panel, the canyon floor, and a Sinaguan pit house. As we hiked, we stopped to note adaptations and anthropological uses of several plants, including Gambel’s oak, juniper, rabbitbrush, banana yucca, and ponderosa pine.

We paused at the pit house, a dug-in stone foundation, to make observations and inferences. We discussed what this pit house may have looked like 1,000 years ago and what it was used for. Students began spotting pieces of pottery, and the closer they looked, the more pieces of pottery materialized. Sherds of varying brown, orange, and red hues abounded; students, therefore, hypothesized that this pit house served as storage for food or water.

Before continuing our trek, we discussed how to ethically visit cultural sites. Students came up with various reasons why we leave items where we found them, including so that archaeologists could accurately study them, so that other people could observe them, and, ultimately, so that we would be respectful of the Sinagua and their descendants. We discussed how the Sinagua are ancestral to Tribes today, including the Hopi, Zuni, Pima, Tohono O’odham, and Yavapai. The sites we were visiting, therefore, were not remnants of a lost people–they are connections to the ancestors of Peoples still living in the region today.

Resuming northeast, we switchbacked down into the canyon and admired two red tailed hawks as we found a shady spot to enjoy lunch by the Rio de Flag.

After lunch, students had free exploration time near the Rio de Flag. Uninhibited imaginations transformed the landscape into a place of wonder and play. Boats were constructed from grass. A log on the riverbank became a canoe, reeds became paddles. A fallen tree became an epic passage. Curiosity was the limelight. Students laid across a bridge, peering their faces over the edge, waiting for aquatic passerbys. Sticks were used to retrieve interesting rocks from the cold water for further inspection. A search for crayfish ensued. Hands and feet got wet. 

We continued hiking down the canyon to a notable petroglyph panel, encompassing numerous human figures, a lightning bolt, a sun, spirals, snakes, and a waterbird. Students pondered how the panel may act as a storyboard, and if it did contain stories, how would they interpret them?

By the conclusion of our outing, students gained a deeper appreciation for how the Sinagua lived: close to nature. For survival the people needed a deep understanding of the seasons, flora, and fauna. And they needed to adapt and practice intention in choosing where to live. Students discovered that Picture Canyon was an optimal, but not easy, place to live because of the presence of water, diverse plant life, quality habitat for animals, and natural features for shelter.

With this enriched understanding of Picture Canyon, students are excited to return here after it snows to see it in different conditions. We are all looking forward to finding animal tracks in the snow and seeing this beautiful basalt canyon accented by white!