Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 31, 2009

Short hiatus

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:11 am

I’m in an exceedingly busy stretch and will be doing other things than posting for a few days.  Tonight at 7:11 pm is my Potluck Pasta Party that I am throwing, and tomorrow I get ready for my children’s arrival here.  And then — who knows when I will get time for internet again?!?!

July 30, 2009

Somewhat Nibbled

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:55 pm

From Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

” ‘In nature,’ wrote Huston Smith, ‘the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be.’  I learn this lesson in a new way every day.  It must be, I think tonight, that in a certain sense only the newborn in this world are whole, that as adults we are expected to be, and necessarily, somewhat nibbled.”

Yes.  Yes, yes, and yes.  We ARE somewhat nibbled, and those nibble marks are visible and palpable and discernable.  They make us US.  I love getting to know nibbled people, really, being one myself.  I find the small missing bits endearing.

Mending is another ongoing process.  Some of our nibbles seem too big to patch, but they fill in over time, with enough love and patience and determination and care.  Although I still have some ragged edges, this has been a marvelous summer of mending for me.  And, in the meantime, I don’t mind the nibbled margins.

“Memory Card Full”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:26 am

Yesterday I was assigned to drive the 40 minutes up to Canyonlands NP to work there for something completely different.  Canyonlands is a complete and utter wonderland, so I planned to leave 2.5 hours early and meet a friend for a hike I wanted to do.  I put the freshly-charged camera batteries in my pocket, grabbed my Spam stainless steel water bottle, threw my ranger uniform in the back of the car, and headed up to 6000 feet.

As we climbed up Aztec Butte to find a couple of Ancestral Puebloan granaries (chinked stone structures in which they secured their harvested crops 800 yrs ago), the breeze was blowing, the temperature was lovely, and a few puffy cumulus clouds dotted the blueness above.  Shortly we arrived at the location — a beautiful alcove, almost organic in its shapeliness, high above the mesa.  It was a Wow setting, and I pulled out my camera, focused it, and clicked.  Nothing.  “Memory Card Full.” 


I didn’t want to take time to ditch any duplicates or rotten photos, so I put my camera into my bag and decided that I am bringing my children up here next week for this hike anyhow; we’ll get photos then.

I proceeded to work for eight hours in the exquisite Canyonlands location.  The “agoraphobical distances” (Ed Abbey’s quote) out the visitor center windows riveted me as I watched their ever-changingness through the day.  My brain would have to be my memory card.

Several of my co-workers and I had made plans for hiking to an ARCH II site (that means very archeologically sensitive, so we can’t tell visitors about them unless they come in asking for them by name or description) after work.  I was SO excited!  And then, about 3:00, thunderclouds started gathering in the north and oozing on all sides of us.  Lightning.   Wind that blew the fine sand grains into our eyes and teeth. And, finally, pelting rain.  In fits and starts, this continued for several hours.  We knew our precious ARCH II site visit would have to wait, since wet slickrock is (as I now knew from personal experience) downright dangerous.

A co-worker invited me over for salad and chili and lemonade to ease the disappointment.  After an hour visiting with her, people started knocking on her door.  They had heard we were to go to “X” and wanted to tag along, but agreed that it was now too late for that long trek as the sun would set in an hour.  Bobby offered to take us all in his 4WD to nearby Whitbeck Butte to watch the sunset, and in unison we all jumped up to go.

Whitbeck looks to me like a huge plop of Navajo sandstone that resembles a giant cowpie.  Maybe 125 feet tall, very rounded, plenty of ledges and cracks and places to set your feet — in between the steep parts.  It was a bit of a challenge for those in our little group of five who had not yet learned to trust their feet on tilted rock.

We topped it just minutes before the sun was to set behind a bank of golden-rimmed clouds on the western horizon.  The entire eastern horizon was dominated by the black LaSal mountains, but at their base an entire pink cliff lay illuminated for a moment, like an ancient stone city ablaze in alpenglow.  Someone suggested that this butte would be the coolest place to sleep out, and there was unanimous assent.  I took one last longing gaze 360 degrees around me before my descent.  

I lay in bed for an hour (57 minutes longer than usual) so full of joy at my day in Canyonlands — or was it simply joy at new discoveries with fun people in a place that words can’t describe?  Canyonlands will have an opening for a Teacher-Ranger next summer. 

My heart was as full as my memory card.

July 29, 2009

Winnie the Pooh calls them “Explores”

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:02 am

I love going up into places that expand my horizons — even if I can’t see out of the canyon.  A friend and I walked up Mill Creek Canyon, the local swimming hole, and then went beyond that to Left Hand Canyon to explore.  Nobody there but the black-tailed jackrabbits.  There were plenty of old trails around, so we took some high ones, some low ones near the creek, and found high sitting places to contemplate the mind-stretching majesty of the place.  There is a renewing that takes place in my spirit when I go where other humans aren’t.  I suppose, across the centuries, people who tend to be more comtemplative have found that to be true.  The ancient mystics, the “desert fathers,” all found that removing themselves from the buzz of the world definitely fed their souls.  So it is for me.

I feel so very alive.  I am crazy about this place called Grand County, Utah!  As I walked to the Vis Ctr this morning, seeing the sunrise set the mesa top afire, I swallowed the lump in my throat that came as I remembered that a mere two weeks from now I will be in Mower County, MN…

July 27, 2009

How NPS folks do up a birthday

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:09 pm

Half hour before my shift was done today, one of the rangers found out it was my birthday.  He immediately went to the microphone, announced to the entire visitor center, and had its population sing to me.  He then arranged an impromptu come-if-you-can bday dinner at the local Thai restaurant downtown for staff this evening.  Right now I am going to hike Park Avenue, one of my favorite hikes, and soak it all in.  I have had many wonderful birthdays in my life — I remember the one in the Galapagos Islands, and the one at Cascade River State Park, in recent years.  This one is also very special, thanks to my NPS comrades and many dozen email and Facebook birthday wishes that have come rolling in!  I have enjoyed 53 adventurous years!

July 26, 2009

Thunder on the Mesa

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:35 pm
Top of the mesa

Top of the mesa

Daybreak brought mottled clouds, with the smell of potential precipitation. Ed was picking me up at 0900 to retrieve the boulder-snagged rope, and the forecast was for possible rain, but we all know that in the desert the R-word is pretty iffy. We parked at Park Avenue and began our ascent up the 45-degree boulder field, grateful for any cloud cover we could muster since it was south-facing. Sun and clouds kept chasing one another here at the south end of the park.

As soon as we topped the mesa, the wind picked up and we could see for several miles in three directions. Rain!!! Off to the north, heavy curtains of rain were falling at The Windows and Balanced Rock. To the south, Moab was still in sun. We trekked across the mesa top to the location of the stuck line, keeping our wits about us. Ed found a large boulder around which he could thread some webbing and attach himself to a 150-foot rope to assist him down one level to where the problem lay. Just as he was knotting the webbing, a thunderclap shook the landscape. We looked at each other knowingly; exposed hikers on a mesa-top, in a thunderstorm?? You’ve got to be kidding. Well — we had a job to do. No rain yet. Let’s hope it stays away long enough to retrieve the line.

As Ed lowered himself down to the next tier, I sat comfortably watching from atop. Then the pitter-pats of small drops began pelting us, gently at first, and then fairly heavily. He got the rope unstuck, coiled it into its mesh bag, and headed up. He would use the rope to pull himself up. Except for one thing.

The rain. This Entrada sandstone has three layers, or ‘members,’ and all our arches are in the “Slickrock Member” of the stone. It didn’t get that name for nothing. When wet, it is unbelievably slippery. So, when Ed came back for the bottom of the rope dangling on the angle above him, he could not reach it because his normally-grippy shoes kept slipping on the slickrock. I could not see, but I could hear, each attempt, and each slide downward. And some muttering of obscenities.

The tiny dot is Ed, retrieving a stuck rope.  See the sloping walls?

The tiny dot in the very center is Ed, retrieving a stuck rope. See the sloping bowl walls?

Finally, “Kathryn, I need your assistance. Can you slide yourself down to the next level and wait for instructions?” More rain. More thunder. I will do whatever he tells me to do. Try to imagine a series of stacked bowls, unevenly splaying out to all sides, smoothed and sanded by millenia of run-off. This is what we are descending — without harnesses or other protection. I realize that if I miscalculate and slide too fast or too far, the bowl will lead downward to the next and the next levels. My boots are not acting too grippy on the wet rock, but what am I to do?

Holding my breath, I decided to try the Butt Slide. Not a graceful move, but a safer one, and I made it down (still holding my breath) and eased myself to the overhang where I could see Ed. “Grab the rope. Flick it outward and to the left where I can maybe reach it.” I snapped it three times, with no advance toward Ed’s hands. “Okay, Plan B. Coil all the rope up and try throwing it to me.” That didn’t work well. “Okay, Plan C. Grab the rope, lean into it with all your body weight, and pull it toward me. Try to stretch it as far as you possibly can.”

I gave it everything I had, realizing that if the anchor above were to let go, we’d both be goners. On my third try, the tail came just within his reach, and Ed grabbed and got it. He somehow managed to scramble up, even with wet rock under his feet. “Thanks for the rescue,” he sincerely offered. We high-fived at the top — our first misadventure, but it came out fine.

The rain stopped. The sun poked out. We decided to head northward to see if we could find a hidden non-technical (needing no ropes) return route, so we wouldn’t have to back-track. Ed had heard from some ranger that there was allegedly another way down, so we went in search of it.

stunningly beautiful mesa-top view

stunningly beautiful mesa-top view

From atop the 250-foot mesa, vehicles looked like Matchbox cars, and people were little ants. We scouted around and stood perilously close to some rounded edges. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking, especially with the clouds altering the usual desert landscape and temperature. It was downright pleasant — maybe 85 instead of 95.

Ed found a descent he felt fairly confident about, and we headed down. It was a little tricky in places, but we were picking our way carefully to see what the prognosis would be. And then the rain came again. And the thunder. We found ourselves on the slope of an ancient petrified sand dune, perhaps about 40 degree tilt to our feet, and this lump began to form in my gut. It would have been dicey in dry weather, but now it was REALLY dicey. He went ahead to scope out any alternate routes and was stopped by a 20-foot slab of sandstone that did not allow him to pass. “We’ll have to head back up,” he decided.

Yeah, right. It was a 40-foot tumble/slide down to a boulder field if I misstepped, and a 40-foot climb up very slippery rock if we were to get out. The words of Dr Suess rang in my ears: “I do not like it, Sam I Am…” There was, however, no third choice. So we attempted to head up, in the rain, on the slickrock.

Ed has decades of experience and trusts his feet. There were only three places that I needed a hand, where I was utterly lacking rock handholds. Let us just say that when we finally reached the top, and found a protected alcove under which to sit for a moment and eat the clementines I had in my pack, it was the most pleasant relief imaginable. Our second misadventure ended well.

Barbie did not fare so well on this climb

Barbie did not fare so well on this climb

And then the thunder returned. He looked at me seriously: “Do you know CPR?” “Yeah.” “Good. So do I. Lightning strikes have the highest percentage of survival if someone does CPR.” “Yeah, but shouldn’t I be hiking 50 feet back of you so it doesn’t take out both of us?” “Yeah. Do you know the squat position, on your backpack if possible?” “Yes.” “Okay. Let’s get the hell out of here.” And off we went, dodging raindrops, counting the lightning-thunder interval, and realizing how extrmely vulnerable we were.

Counted seven seconds. Feet walking quickly. Eight seconds. “Good, it’s getting farther away.” Five seconds. “Sh–,” said Ed. We had to get off the mesa, but the only way down was across. Maybe a half mile. Third misadventure.

sunlight cracks through the rainclouds at a distance

sunlight cracks through the rainclouds at a distance

Well, when your time’s up, your time’s up. I guess ours wasn’t. We made it to the descent route, carefully picked our way down the wet rocks, and across the wash leading to the parking area.

Misadventures definitely make for good adventures.

Nefirtiti (background) and KCB (foreground)

Nefirtiti (background) and KCB (foreground)

Another day on the rocks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:52 am

The canyoneering guide was taking another group out yesterday, so I tagged along to assist with rope-coiling and pack-carrying.  Unfortunately, the very thin rope used to retrieve the thick ones from their anchors got stuck on a boulder after the second of three rappels, and there is no way to get it but to climb back up the original ascent, rappel down the first tier, get it, climb back out, and then — oh, what the heck, explore for other good routes while up there.  We finished last night’s rappels without it, but since it is my weekend off I’ll head up with Ed and his friend this morning to get the gear before someone else does.  [And, since one or two of you are wondering, NO, I’m not interested in Ed…]

I look at these red rocks and can hardly imagine NOT seeing them every day.  Reality is sinking in.  Two months goes by like lightning.

July 24, 2009

Watch as Ranger Kathryn opens the Visitor Center

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:34 pm

[Please forgive formatting glitches.  I tried to edit it four times, to no avail.]

Hey, follow behind me as I do my morning duties on the opening shift! You can see what I do regularly. First thing: Get to work on time, which in this case means 0715 as we open at 0730. Check my watch to see how I am doing.

Looks like I am on time

Looks like I am on time

I enter the long hallway of “back offices” in which we all work.

The hallway of back offices

The hallway of back offices

I get the weather report and put the latest forecast up on the whiteboard, along with yesterday’s high and low. Some days I get tired of writing “hot and sunny, 101 degrees” so I just write “same old same old.”

Yeah, it'll be another hot one...

Yeah, it'll be another hot one...

I wipe the eight touch-screens clean.

use water only!  no windex!

use water only! no windex!

I grab my ranger hat off the hat-holding-rack assigned to me.

I raise the flag at precisely 0730.



I put my hat back in the rack, as it is for outside wear only, and wait for visitors with questions. I answer them patiently, kindly, with a big smile and a lot of enthusiasm. I joke with them. I sell them tickets to the Fiery Furnace ranger-led tour.

If there is a lull in the action, I take a spray bottle outside and clean our statues. Nice desert bighorn sheep! (Haven’t seen a live one yet.)



I customize my instructions and itinerary for every individual, based on their time limit, their physical activity level, and their interests. If they walk up to me and say, “Ihave only two hours to see your park; what do you suggest?” (which happens more than you can believe), I may say “Drive two miles to the very first viewpoint, Park Avenue, and park your car. Get out. Walk to the overlook. Take a picture. Cry because you will miss a ton of cool things. Come back when you can!”

But mostly, I have fun. I try to find new ways to say the same old thing over and over again. I say it with conviction, since I am 100% certain that this is one of the coolest national parks I know. It would be wonderful if each of you reading this could come some day.

creating a custom visit plan

creating a custom visit plan

July 23, 2009

A-birding I have gone

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:08 pm

Three birds.  That’s all we caught in our nets in the first three hours.  Kind of like fishing… good days and bad days.  VERY educational, however, as I watched them untangle a Spotted Towhee, a Blue Grosbeak, and a female warbler we could not identify to save our lives, even with the finest bird books and birders all around.  I watched just long enough to know that I would not have the patience to untangle the nets, nor the birds from the nets.  Christmas tree lights tangle easily for me and that drives me bonkers.

One bird, the female Blue Grosbeak, came to us with a broken leg.  Somehow she survived that, but in the process of struggling in or detangling her from the mist net, her left wing seems to have been broken.  We gave her droppers full of water when we realized that she could not fly upon release, and the birders talked of taking her to a bird rehab place — 116 miles away — because she could not survive in the wild.

I am off to dog sit now.  It has been a while since I walked a dog!

A-birding I will go

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:32 am

It’s 5 a.m. and I am sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Wicked Brew, using their Wi-Fi.  I am to meet some birders at 0545 at The Wetlands for a new experience:  mist nets and bird-banding.  I’ll take my chances with lots of DEET in exchange for protection from the West-Nile-bearing mosquitoes, and I hope to get my hands on a chickadee or gnatcatcher.

I am still basking in the perfection of yesterday, and the deep satisfaction found in interpreting my park for our visitors.  The worst day I’ve had as a park ranger is still better than most days I’ve had as a teacher.  Seriously, shouldn’t that tell me something??  Truth rarely resounds that clearly.

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