Ranger Kathryn's Arches

September 16, 2016

Stairway to heaven

Filed under: Hikes — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:46 pm
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Only the first step or two were tentative.

 

We stared at the steps before us, Melanie and I did, a bit unsure of our next move. Shot Canyon is steep-walled Cedar Mesa sandstone; there is no other entry. Basque herdsmen in the 1890s constructed a way for their sheep to access water in the canyon bottom, and these (*cough*) stairs are still in use.

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Above Shot Canyon on a perfect September day

120 years ago some guy stacked a base layer of rocks on slanty sandstone, and then layered step after step upward. Hikers gingerly (not knowing the lifespan of a sheep stairway) descend the narrow steps, cross the bare area, land on the slab rocks atop the log, and descend further to the second, less-sketchy, stairway below. All this while five hours’ difficult drive from the nearest human being, should anything go wrong.

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Ranger Kathryn in her beloved Maze District of Canyonlands Nat’l Park

Can you see the happy park ranger* smiling to be out in the wilderness? She is happy because at 0124 that morning, under a nearly-full moon, a rare Spotted Owl hooted her awake. And she is happy because she’s ready to go down some clever steps and explore a place she’s never seen before. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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Where was the last dangerous staircase you used? How did you feel? Leave a comment, please!

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*Disguised as a volunteer this season, as you can see by my hat.

September 1, 2016

The demise of spontaneity?

Filed under: camping,photo albums,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:24 am
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The dashboard clock read 0423 as we rolled up to the entrance of the Many Glacier campground and its 109 sites. In the inky pre-dawn of mid-August, we waited sleepily for rangers to show up several hours later to assign the available first-come-first-served sites, of which there are typically 15-20 daily. We were not the first car there.

It has come to this because demand far exceeds supply. Reservable campgrounds exist, but spontaneous souls who long to snag a last-minute campsite in the heart of Glacier must forfeit part of a night’s sleep to occupy a place in line. (I might add that this arrangement is far superior to the more typical “Campground Combat” method of circling for hours, pouncing on folks as they emerge from their tent, and hovering nearby the site until it’s free.)

We heard some vociferous complainers in line, demanding to know why they couldn’t ‘just get a site’ as they did in other places, forgetting that our national parks were created in an era of far fewer visitors. The answer is not as simple as building more campgrounds; you then need even more parking, toilets, grocery stores, gas stations, ice, showers, laundry, employees, etc. No easy solutions exist but I’d love to hear your thoughtful suggestions in the Comments section.

Truth be told — with a grizzly encounter, iceberg-strewn lake, thimbleberries galore, with smell of boreal forest, with bright starlit nights over alpine lakes… it was worth losing a few hours of sleep. Many Glacier will always be a brilliant gem in “The Crown of the Continent.”

August 25, 2016

In Latin: Ursus arctos horribilis

Filed under: trouble,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:12 am
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Alpine lake with glacial flour coloring it turquoise — Grinnell Glacier hike

 

“HEY-O! HIKER COMING THROUGH!” Experts ask you to use your voice — not bear bells, not whistles — to alert animals to your presence as you hike. As we trekked in the heart of Glacier National Park on a sun-splashed August morning, Chris and I concocted many variations of hey-bear-we’re-here-and-we-don’t-want-to-surprise-you. The bear spray canister was at the ready on his belt, but we had no desire to have to use it.

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This is my kind of trail!

Thirty minutes into the arduous ascent to Grinnell Glacier, we rounded a bend to find ten hikers huddled in a clump. A crashing in the near underbrush drew my eyes toward a large figure loping swiftly downslope in a characteristic ursine gait, brown fur glinting with golden highlights, sheets of muscle rippling beneath its sleek coat — five hundred pounds or so of surprised beauty. My heart rate instantly spiked.

From the huddle’s center, one woman’s voice betrayed the complete panic gripping her. “Susanna! Go down! GO DOWN NOW!!!” came a tight, compressed, choked scream/shout. A moaning whimper escaped from someone else coming face to face with risk and decidedly not liking it. I wanted to sidle over to Panic Woman and hold her by the shoulders and quietly say, “Breathe. Breathe again. You are in the wilderness, where your survival depends on your remaining calm in the face of danger.” But I couldn’t take my eyes off the fleeing grizzly, who looked hell-bent on getting far far away. And, besides, I was kind of tasting a metallic fear taste in my mouth, just a tiny bit — mixed with a large dose of healthy respect for this wild and free animal.

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Refreshing waterfall cools us on this hot August day

It was a rare and glorious moment, sixty seconds of a six-hour hike. No, no photos. Grizz got away from the humans and undoubtedly resumed gorging on berries. The woman and her group abandoned their march, undone by their wildlife encounter. Chris and I decided not to let fear rob us of seeing a stunning glacier, so we slogged vigilantly upward, shouting amusing offerings such as “We’re not tasty!” “Too many bones in us!” or, my favorite, “Let us be, let us be” sung to the tune of the Beatles song. This was more for our sake, perhaps, than for any bruin’s.

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This gorgeous trail was closed the day after our encounter. Bear rangers will re-assess in three days to see if it is safe to re-open to hiking.

Barry Lopez, in Arctic Dreams, observes that “we have irrevocably separated ourselves from the world that animals occupy.” Do you agree? What would be different — in this scenario or in countless others — if we did not cut ourselves off from the creatures with whom we share this earth?

August 1, 2016

Your GPS may kill you

Filed under: wilderness life — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:31 pm
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You can’t get there from here!

The caller’s words were succinct: “We don’t know where we are, but our car is scraping bottom and it’s getting dark and we need help.”

Two 20-something women from a faraway state, driving a woefully inadequate Honda Pilot, were deeply embedded in our wilderness and knew only that they had gotten there “because that’s the way our GPS told us to go.” It wasn’t possible to assist them until morning. “You mean…” the caller faltered, “…we have to be out here all night by ourselves?”

Yes. You do. And it will earn you bragging rights back in Iowa.

These two women were in good health, and had water and food. About to taste their first back-country ‘camping,’ they slept in their car; coordinates from their iPhone provided the only way to find them, because they didn’t have a map. They were fortunate to have been able to climb up a high knoll to get a shred of cell signal.

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Where outlaws hid successfully. It’s called “The Maze” for very good reason.

 

The next visitors led astray by blindly following their GPS were driving a low-clearance rental mini-van and spoke no English. The group of seven intended to drive 45 minutes to visit the gentlest district of Canyonlands, but their device brought them a half-day’s drive to the wild and remote Maze district. We got them turned around just before a huge thunderstorm would have trapped them and their 2WD vehicle.

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My friends Cowboy Steve and Diablo  say: “Always carry a suitable map.”

The latest episode was the most dangerous. A lone visitor typed in “Canyonlands” and the GPS took her, in a small Ford Fiesta, deep into the interior. She was stuck in sand with no shovel, no food. It was our hottest month and she ended up walking 20 miles back to the ranger station for help; with little water, she was compelled to drink her own urine to survive the trek. She could have died trusting her GPS.

Incidents like this are rapidly increasing in frequency; our large warning signs saying ‘GPS ALERT’ go unread. The common thread is that paper maps are absent, and drivers assume that their GPS must be correct even when all evidence repudiates that.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having — and knowing how to read — good maps. DO NOT rely on devices. Too much is at stake in wilderness navigation.

Has your GPS has ever led you into trouble? Leave a comment!

July 21, 2016

Dragging the roads

Filed under: wilderness life,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:05 am
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Typical sight on your last 46 miles to the Hans Flat ranger station. The road in this photo is in good shape. The cow always stands her ground.

Dirt roads are a portal to wilderness. [See: 12 reasons I prefer dirt roads.] They are not always comfortable to drive on, as maintaining them is nobody’s first priority. It doesn’t take long for major washboarding to occur; if you drive too many miles of badly corrugated roads it can truly steal your joy.

Enter the IGD — Improvised Grading Device — a shining example of Park Service resourcefulness. It’s an old cattle guard removed a decade ago during a road improvement project, tricked out with a salvaged cut-down grader blade welded on, extra weights added. We attach it at an angle with two chains to the maintenance pick-up, and pull it at <10 mph over the rough roads. With enough passes, the stutterbumps are reduced to mere ripples or deliciously smooth flat sections. It’s satisfying work, because the “before” and “after” are resoundingly different.

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Re-purposed modified cattle guard smoothes the roads — unless you catch a rock in the grate.

Added bonus: working at these slow speeds, we find and collect what folks are tossing out their windows. Latest haul was five beer cans (loser: Coors Light), a Smirnoff and a Dasani and two beer bottles, Cheetos bag, rifle shell, a rusty 1-gallon gas can (1960s) and an empty cologne bottle.

I’ll leave it to my readers to invent a story about the cheap cologne found with the rifle shell in a BLM fire ring. (Leave a comment!) What’s inarguable is that alcohol appears to be the drink of choice. Maybe it’s the washboarding… or maybe it’s the other critters that share the road with you.

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None-too-happy Midget Faded Rattlesnake on the road into the Maze.

June 30, 2016

It rattles me

Filed under: Hikes,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 3:41 pm
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Lexington Arch, Great Basin National Park — and Kathryn

My last blog post described the realization that I live pretty close to sometimes-dangerous animals out here in the wilderness. It’s not something I give much thought to; it just is the way life works. I’m in the territory of wild creatures and I need to be aware.

On our days off, Chris and I recently headed to Nevada to visit a place new to us: Great Basin National Park. It has mountains and ancient bristlecone pines and a higher elevation (read: cooler during heat wave). With only 120,000 visitors annually, this out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere park seemed just right for us.

That is, until we decided to hike to Lexington Arch.

No one told us that three years ago a large wildfire burnt that trail area. Subsequently, a particularly violent flash flood re-arranged the road to the trailhead, washing it out in several places, leaving gullies and ravines behind instead of pleasant walking trails. The trailhead kiosk was burned to bits, too.

Large cairns had been built, however, to help us get to the start, and we felt confident. It was warm, but we had plenty of water and snacks and were protected from the sun. Up we headed, winding our way between blackened trees.

Chris stepped into one of the washed-out gullies and headed toward the other side. I stepped down, right where he had, and a menacing buzz burst on my ears. Let me just say that, when I heard it, my feet did that cartoon-like thing where they are spinning in mid-air trying to gain traction. A loud sound (possibly a shriek) escaped from my mouth as I sought to put great distance between me and the source of that rattling buzz. I nearly knocked Chris over in my startle-ment.

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Great Basin Rattlesnake. Head on right — moving away from us.

The 42-inch-long Great Basin Rattlesnake had been silent as he passed by. Chris calmly took my iPhone and snapped its photo while I went far, far away. Now, normally I love snakes. They are beautiful creatures and occupy an important niche in ecosystems. But the concept of sharing a gully with a venomous friend had me slightly undone.

Snake retired to another ravine without any fuss, but something changed as we continued walking. Every clatter of grasshopper wings sounded to me like my next appointment with slithering venom. Every cicada buzz brought elevated heart rate. My sympathetic nervous system has fight-or-flight dialed in. Vigilance plus.

We made it to Lexington Arch and back without any further ado. No other reptiles appeared, all gully crossings were uneventful, and peanut M&Ms awaited us at the car.

To all my concerned friends: I do not live on the brink of death most days. I have encountered two rattlesnakes in two weeks, but these brushes with exotic creatures actually enrich my existence.

Have you had close encounters with wild creatures? Comment below, please!

June 10, 2016

The watcher among us

Filed under: wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:23 am
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It was yet another in a string of sunny, breezy, summer mornings. I followed the hundreds of rock cairns down the steep descent to canyon bottom, along the wash, past tadpole pools and oriole haunts. A peregrine falcon’s cry jerked my eyes up toward its eyrie just in time to see a parent bringing food to its young eyasses (EYE-ess-ez). It was then that I spied something out of place in my familiar canyon.

IMG_1711A mule deer carcass lay alongside the edge of the wash. It was not the slightest bit bloated in the 90-degree heat, nor was there obvious blood or odor. The doe’s abdomen had very recently been opened up. Her viscera protruded, but no other harm was apparent besides a broken neck. A tiny fawn was crumpled between her legs, also lifeless. Large powerful claw-scrapes surrounded the pair like the rays of a fingerpainted sun, with dirt and plant debris scantly dusting the bodies. A heavy drag mark extended 30 feet to the east, culminating in a sandy imprint of two bodies colliding.

I looked around, suddenly aware that this formerly benign canyon held secrets too dear for me. The mountain lion’s tracks were everywhere. He or she held territory here — where humans daily intruded. Questions barreled through my mind: Where was it? When did it ambush? Why didn’t it eat more of this pair? When would it return? How have I walked this route scores and scores of times without seeing more evidence of large predators? Should I be singing right now?

I thought about all these things, and much more. And I sang. In a minor key.

Next day, Ranger Chris posted a sign at the trailhead: “MOUNTAIN LION ACTIVITY. Do not approach deer kill. Do not hike alone.” Hiking down a couple miles, he warily dragged the still-not-eaten bodies out of the main trail area onto a reedy bank under some cottonwoods — not to spare visitors the agony of seeing Real Life, but to minimize the chance of any potential conflicts between them and Felis concolor.

Maybe the cat won’t come back; coyotes and ravens will feast. Maybe human intrusion was too much for the hunter. Sad as it is, the deaths were not in vain; we have plenty of deer, and the circle of life continues. One thing is certain: I won’t hike with the same airy abandon to which I’m accustomed. I am not at the top of the food chain.

May 29, 2016

Secret fear from a rainy tent

Filed under: protecting wilderness — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:41 am
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Not cougar, not rattlesnake, not venomous spider. Nothing physical.

In this social-media-saturated age, the fear that keeps me awake at night is that we have lost the ability to protect fragile places.

I have seen the carnage that comes from over-sharing. I have seen places of beauty advertised so heavily that they are loved to death, exceeding their carrying capacity and creating problems that have no answer.

And in this blog I face a similar dilemma. I go to stunning places and want to share them with you, but… I have seen irresponsible people posting GPS coordinates of classified locations [i.e., too fragile for public visitation; in need of highest protection] such as pristine archaeological sites. To what end, I don’t know. “I went here, and you can, too” may be their Facebook legacy.

I recently hiked to a remote Class 3 (i.e., classified) pictograph panel that was painted several thousand years ago. For 99.996% of its existence, only a small group of people knew its location, and those who did respected and revered it. Then someone posted directions and waypoints on a website, and in short order this formerly-perfect Barrier Canyon Style panel received its first graffiti. This is heartbreaking. It isn’t possible to reverse the impacts of human visitation.  You can’t put the genie back in the lamp.

I love the Maze. I can’t get enough of its beauty/ruggedness/wildness/un-impactedness. But if I write about secrets of this place, or wax eloquent about its magic, or even simply post lovely photos that light a spark… I fear that I am contributing to the problems that are inevitable in our over-crowded, harried, adventure-seeking, post-it-on-the-interwebs-or-it-didn’t-happen society.

I can’t think of a solution. What are we to do??? The Comments section below awaits your input.

 

May 8, 2016

Water = Life

Filed under: wilderness life — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:33 am
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Shallow potholes may be the only water source for backpackers — until they dry up

When I say “desert,” you may picture an arid inhospitable place with fewer than 10 inches of rain annually. That describes much of southern Utah, and shapes our daily life in ways small and large.

Water conservation measures here are pretty serious business. By the time it arrives in 6000-gallon trucks from Moab, 130 miles away, the cost is about $1200 per truckload, or 20 cents per gallon. A 30,000-gallon underground tank stores it safely while we plan how to use each valuable cupful. Every apartment is metered carefully to detect leaks, and we know where the shut-off valve is.

We let our clothes get good and dirty before laundering them. Embrace a little body odor. Shampoo hair once a week. Collect and use rainwater because it’s free, albeit rare. Don’t flush unless you must. Never wash a vehicle. When you turn on the shower for your ultra-short and infrequent ‘navy shower,’ put a bucket under the faucet to collect the not-yet-hot water, which you then use for another purpose. Dishwashing/rinsing becomes an art, equivalent to a Prius owner striving to hyper-mile. Use your soapy dishwashing water (or shower water) to flush the toilet.

If a storm knocks out our electrical system, there’s the pioneer route for back-up: a hand pump. The hand pump is also the place where all staff would meet in an emergency. Don’t miss the symbolism; in the desert, water IS life.

This is different from my Minnesota life where water is plentiful in those 10,000 lakes. How about where you live? What conservation measures do you practice?

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Every time I turn on my faucet, I give thanks for this driver

May 3, 2016

Contrast: it makes life richer

Filed under: wilderness life — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:18 am
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The seventh wave of storms approaches our campsite at Doll House in the Maze

I lead a double life, of sorts. In Minnesota where home and family are, I live comfortably. That adverb did not apply on our five-day Jeep patrol, battered by Pacific storms that left us wet and shivering, with ice caking our tent several mornings. Contrast is a good thing. Contrast makes us grateful.

Today I might have eaten smoked salmon on non-GMO crackers. Instead, the can of Bush’s Best Baked Beans heated on the cookstove paired nicely with the can of Spam.

Today I might have slept in my 2000-square-foot home. Instead, my 35 square feet of tent kept me dry and snug despite the wind, rain, and just-above-freezing temperatures.

Today I might have stayed dry by foregoing hiking. Instead, I got repeatedly pelted by rain and ice pellets — and got to see a full rainbow spanning the Colorado River, miles from anyone, after taking refuge in a shallow alcove near ancient ruins.

Today, I might have encountered angry short-tempered people stressed by perceived inconveniences of life. Instead, we met tired backpackers carrying all that they needed, humbly grateful for a current weather forecast and a fill of their water bottles.

Today, I might have heard cars, barking dogs, radio. Instead, a peregrine falcon’s unsettled cry alerted us to its presence, our only neighbor for miles and miles.

Today, I might have been looking in my (too-large) closet and wondering what to wear. Instead, I took off the rain-soaked work pants and laid them in the Jeep hoping they’d be dry in the morning. Woolen long johns, a tad damp, kept me warm as I slept. You can have the rest of the closet.

Today, in my other life, I might have used a flush toilet like most Americans. Instead, I dug a 6” cathole under a juniper, left a little organic fertilizer, and packed out the toilet paper to ‘leave no trace.’ Easy.

Today, I might have used a thermostat to regulate ambient temperature. Instead, I took off and put on four different layers to ensure my comfort in rapidly-changing conditions.

Today, I might have been connecting with my friends via email and Facebook. Instead, I hiked nine glorious miles with my beloved, through places that expand our souls.

Tonight, I might be falling asleep on my custom-made queen-sized mattress with Egyptian cotton sheets. Instead, I’m floating an inch above the earth on my Therma-rest, tucked into a down sleeping bag, listening to a canyon wren bidding mortals goodnight.

And life is very, very good.

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Doll House — in a window of good weather

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