This continuation of the narrative reflecting my long hike through the Canyon of Samaria follows the post “Canyon and Portal (1)” If you didn’t catch the introduction to the mountains of western Crete, you might want to visit that first installment of the series. Thanks for joining in.
This place of stone and water bears the mark of human struggle and desire. According to historian Pausanias, the early Greeks once paid divine honors not to statues but to stones. Was stone ever worshipped in the Canyon of Samaria? I’m not sure, but for ages since the tales of Zeus first became popular, local legends have evolved with stories about fairies, demons, and lost shepherds, in addition to the king of gods. With that in mind, the worship of stone seems perfectly reasonable for some point in the chronology.
Hiking through this gash of inaccessible cliffs, I was aware of only a smattering of canyon life and geographical form. I had learned that there were roughly 140 species of floral life endemic to Crete. The Cretan “dittany” is a rare herb allegedly sought by an ill or injured chamois, the renowned Cretan goat often referred to as the “kri-kri.” Whenever I found some strange new flower like the calla lily I tried to link it to the larger biotic community, but walking on I had to leave it to an all-pervading sense of mystery.
The purplish calla lily has a two-foot spadix that is strikingly phallic in structure. Its five white petals support orange stamens and remind me of inverted candlelabras. In the lower canyon I would find the pinkish oleander growing lushly in open spaces along with the omnipresent thyme. Their blossoms and blended aroma were a knock-out to the senses.
The canyon is the last wild refuge of Crete’s iconic goat, the chamois, or the kri-kri, as it’s known locally. A million years ago this animal with the bow-shaped horns was isolated on Crete when seismic upheavals separated the region from the mainland. The chamois, formerly found throughout the island, was hunted relentlessly and now numbers well below the thousand mark. After studying the pine and cedar slopes, I was no more fortunate in seeing one of those creatures than most hikers are.
The chamois no longer exists outside of the canyon except in a few small Cretan sanctuaries. A few days earlier I had watched several of the goats in parks at Chania and Rethmenon. The animals were silver-grey with dark lines on the back and belly and legs. Their great horns were slender with a three-quarter circular length. One male goat lowered its head and then repeatedly rammed it against the wire walls. I saw many sets of chamois horns in the big windows of Chania’s market district. The horn was often shaped into handles for massive knives with curved blades.
I approached the canyon’s most dramatic feature, the Portal, or “Iron Gates,” that led to the mouth and the open sea. The canyon walls had already started to close on each other. The wind grew more intense. I looked at the canyon’s narrowest point where the sides, nearly 2000 feet high, approached each other and left the river and the hiker with a passageway only nine feet wide.
The wind pushed me toward the bottleneck. The wind was a composite of all the canyon’s aerial disturbances, from the floor of the Pharanga to the snowy summits. It was suddenly at my backside as I tried to squeeze between the riverbank and the eastern wall. Failing that attempt, I stone-hopped to the west wall. The sheer rock overhead loomed skyward. Ten feet of rushing river separated me from the opposite wall. Without a path, I clung to the stone and got my feet wet. I felt airborne, bird-like, but I landed easily, with a long view of the gorge and the distant sea.
After the Iron Gates the canyon walls gradually separated and diminished in height. I felt stunned, however, uncertain of my whereabouts. I had come from a North American home to Europe, the continent of my birth. But here in Crete it seemed like I had reached a personal frontier. Knowing that most of the canyon was now behind me, I began to wander a short distance from the trail. I came to an old stone hut where a woman worked at a homemade loom. This was Crete, I said to myself– the oldest damn island in the Western world, and here I felt blissfully small.
[to be continued]