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BULLETpeople archive
People Archive Photo
© Suzanne Mathia

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Counting His Blessings
Sjors (no last name) spent a good chunk of his life exploring the planet — Indonesia, Australia, Africa. Then he got a job counting whales. It was good work, but then he got a job counting condors in the Grand Canyon. For the 55-year-old vagabond, it doesn't get any better than that.

By Kathy Montgomery

Grand Canyon Sjors stands on a point high above the Colorado River, sweeping something that looks like a TV antenna from side to side. A connected radio hisses static.

On this spring day, Sjors wears a National Park Service shirt, Guess jeans and regulation fleece. A wiry ponytail pokes from the back of his ball cap.

At 55, Sjors' olive skin shows the effects of years spent outdoors. Creases at the corners of his eyes deepen as he squints at the radio, his fingers twirling through frequencies as if scanning for a favorite radio station.

"I got one," he says, finally. "Real faint. Two ninety-seven, a female. I'm checking other frequencies to see if anyone else is around."

Beeping noises, steady as a heartbeat, emerge from the static.

"Four twenty-three," Sjors says, raising a large pair of binoculars. "I've never had this bird before."

The beeping grows louder, then fades.

"They're flying," Sjors says. "Probably together."

After what feels like a long time, he says: "I've got something. See them?"

The condors look tiny, two specks circling in the sky, barely identifiable by their flat wingspan and fingered wingtips.

It's a familiar sight for Sjors, who knows as much about the Grand Canyon's California condors as anyone. He keeps track of them using radio telemetry and records their activities for the Park Service. He speaks of them like friends, recalling which had babies, fledged or died. What he knows he learned from watching, which is also how he knows about whales and redbud trees and, for that matter, people who hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

For 23 years, Sjors has volunteered at Phantom Ranch Ranger Station, where he's become an institution. People he doesn't recognize call him by name. Not just at Phantom, but while whale-watching in the San Juan Islands or hiking in Costa Rica. People stop him and say, "Hey! You're Sjors!"

Born in the Netherlands, Sjors immigrated to the United States when he was 4, and grew up in the tough Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood.

For most of his life, people called him by his last name because they didn't know how to pronounce Sjors. So he stopped using the surname. When people ask, he tells them his name is "Sjors, like ocean shores," slightly modifying the pronunciation.

Growing up, Sjors' parents took him camping every weekend and on longer trips in summer, visiting all the national parks in the Western U.S. and Canada. He laughs as he recalls his first glimpse of the Grand Canyon.

"I remember exactly what I thought," he says. "It was summertime, it was hot and I looked down and thought, 'Only an idiot would go down there.' "

In those days, Sjors didn't think much about what work he'd do. He dreamed of where he'd go. He wanted to visit a jungle and a desert. He wanted to see Africa.

After graduation, Sjors repaired TVs in people's homes. "I'm not quite sure how that happened, because I have absolutely no interest in it," he says. "It's like I was on an assembly line, only I was the one moving."

Then he started traveling. Sjors backpacked in Tahiti, then took a year off to drive around the U.S. and Canada, returning to work when funds got low. He took another year to travel around the Pacific, visiting Indonesia, where his mother was born, and Thailand, Singapore and Nepal. He toured Australia, New Zealand and Europe. He made it to Africa.

"I made money, but I didn't spend much," he says. "I lived in the back of somebody's house and paid very little. When I traveled, I never ate at restaurants. I never stayed at hotels. I camped in national forests."

Then he went to Hawaii. Sjors saw a volcano erupt and his world stopped.

"It was spectacular," he recalls. "And it slapped me in the face. You need to get off this track."

Sjors realized he'd been moving too fast. He wanted to slow down, get to know a single place. Life was too short to fix people's TVs, he thought. So he returned to California and watched whales.

"It was just an interest," he explains. "I used to go to Palos Verdes and watch whales. While I was watching the whales, I decided to count the whales. This woman came by. She goes, 'What are you doing?'

"I said, 'I'm counting whales.'

"She goes, 'How many whales have you counted?'

"I said, 'Thirty so far today.'

"It turns out she was part of a census and they had counted 30 whales that day. So she talked me into joining."

Sjors quit his job to count whales, sleeping in his truck at night. Then he heard about a study on the Colorado River. Seeing it as a way to raft the river for free, Sjors signed on, and spent 18 days at Hance Rapids.

"What I didn't realize was I would fall in love with [the Canyon]."

The next spring, Sjors volunteered as North Rim campground host, then continued on, doing maintenance. He helped out at Roaring Springs, then landed at Phantom Ranch, where he could stay year-round.

At Phantom, he became an extra hand for the rangers and got involved with a revegetation project that started in 1981.

By his own count, between November 1988 and October 1994, Sjors planted more than 200 trees, including mesquites, ashes and Goodding's willows. He stopped counting, but guesses he's planted at least 100 more. He's proudest of the redbuds.

"I had to experiment," he says. "I boiled the seeds for one minute exactly, then put the seeds under water for 12 hours. Then I put them under a wet towel for four days. I got egg cartons and put dirt in there, and put it in the sun for so many hours and kept it wet. That's where these guys are from. So they're my babies."

Then the condors arrived.

"I remember the first condor," Sjors says. "It was flying along the rim, a little speck. It must have been somewhere around '96. And I thought, OK, there's no whales here, I'll watch condors."

But more than trees or condors, Sjors got to know people.

A few stand out: the circus performer from Sweden who hiked down on stilts, the cross-country cyclists who carried the wheels of their bikes, a pair of overweight women who had never hiked in their lives and arrived with their legs rubbed raw.

"They laughed at themselves for getting into this predicament," Sjors recalls. "They wanted to continue to the North Rim, and I assumed they're not coming back. They'd take the shuttle. No. They came right back. They said they couldn't believe the shuttle was 65 bucks. 'We're not paying 65 bucks!' So they went back across the Canyon."

All these experiences have rooted Sjors to this place, where he's content to sit and watch the world go by. "I can't imagine leaving," he says. "It's part of me."

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