Ranger Kathryn's Arches

April 30, 2011

Wilderness bathroom etiquette

Have you ever been upset by the sight of cigarette butts dropped or strewn in public, wondering what madness — or laziness — possessed the owners? Do they think that the butts are not litter, or that nobody will see them, or that nobody will care? Do they want to avoid the bother of disposing of them properly? Gr-r-r-r-r…

Not a pretty sight.

I saw something today that made me far more angry, that no hiker wants to find. Just off a social path in a national park lay a ridiculous pile of toilet paper strips, about fifteen feet worth, next to a large heap o’ poop. Someone had broken all the bathroom rules. Even it if was an emergency, not a single effort had been made to clean up or disguise the site.

Having nothing with which to pick it up and pack it out, I had little choice but to leave it in place to disgust the next hiker who finds it. I’ll carry a ziplok bag and rubber gloves from now on.

Let’s talk a moment about this, shall we? Pooping in wild places is a fact of life. It happens often. It takes but a minute to familiarize oneself with two simple rules of bathroom etiquette, and no hiker should be ignorant of them. Here’s what we teach for the Utah desert:

POOP. The proper disposal, if you’re not packing it out, is in a 4-6” deep cathole which you’ve just dug. (You can use your hand, boot, or a stick to dig it.) Poop in the cathole and bury it. Just like cats do. Easy.

TOILET PAPER. The only proper disposal for your toilet paper is to pack it out as garbage. While in some places you may be allowed to burn it, too many wildfires have resulted locally, and here it is forbidden. You simply place your used t.p. in a sealable bag and pack it out. It takes a long, long time to degrade in the desert, so burying is not the solution.

Follow these two rules and you can feel smug knowing that five days, hours, or minutes later the next hiker passing by will never know what you left in the backcountry.

April 29, 2011

Yes, it could!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:48 am
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(…Continued from Could it be…?!?)

One soaring eagle began to circle lower and then leveled out for a cliff landing. “She’s going to the nest! She’s headed for the hole! They’ve got a nest! FINALLYYYY!!!!!” Tricia’s binoculars never left their target as her voice got more and more excited. I abandoned my assigned eagle aloft and was desperately searching the wall for which hole she was watching, locating it just in time to see a large dark form standing on the nest edge with two small dark heads poking up. We had thought the heads were ravens, but eaglets are WAY more fun to find.

Eaglet, younger than ours (google image)

High fives were exchanged; our grins gave away the exceptional day in the field. Just an hour earlier I had gotten a “lifer,” seeing a Prairie Falcon for the first time ever. Something had flapped right over our truck; I threw it into park and hopped out with my binocs in time to see a beautiful raptor with whip-like flapping, very elastic and fast, its almost triangular wings propelling it like a bat out of hell. No sooner had we ID’d that than a Northern Harrier popped up out of the grasses, hunting for rodents as it drifted low with its flying V shape and white rump.

Without doubt it helped to have two pairs of eyes there to look for birds; in addition, being in the right place at the right time is crucial. Salt Valley was alive this day, and we were there to participate in the celebration of life. What a rich gift.

April 28, 2011

Could it be…?!?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:53 am
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Typical eagle nesting habitat

“Let’s get closer. They’ve got to be here somewhere.” Tricia had been seeing a pair of Golden Eagles here in Salt Valley for two months now, and her well-honed wildlife instinct had kicked into overdrive. She was on an eagle quest like a bulldog on a rabbit. We parked our truck on the Salt Valley Road, a dirt ribbon running the length of the collapsed anticline bisecting Arches National Park{LINK}, and grabbed our packs to hike toward the cliff face where active eagle nests had been documented in past years.

Under our feet, an old cowboy camp came to life. Rusted-out tin cans, some old enough to have solder on the bottom, dotted the sand. A handful of very cool glass bottles and jars of all types, most still with lids, lay here and there glinting in the sun. An ancient piece of automobile looked up like an alien eye. Herds of cattle, and their iconic keepers, had been through here many times in the old days, even though pickings were slim and water scarce.

Maybe a couple football fields’ distance from the rocks, a cactus-free patch of sand beckoned us to set up our spotting telescopes. Our binoculars told us there were patches of whitewash on the wall, indicating birds’ presence, but we needed detail. One old stick nest appeared to have two ravens occupying it, a pretty common occurrence. We pulled out our folders from the four known nests and systematically compared what we saw with the photos… and then watched the sky.

Right on cue, an adult Golden Eagle soared over the cliff on one of the day’s perfect thermals. Circling effortlessly, he grabbed our attention and we locked our binocs on him. Within minutes his lifelong mate appeared in the vast blueness. Two adults! And neither incubating! Our hearts jumped. “Take the one on the right, Kathryn, and don’t lose it. I’ve got the one on the left,” Tricia instructed with urgency. “We’ve got to watch them until they land.”

… to be continued tomorrow…

April 26, 2011

Backcountry deliciousness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:05 pm
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I’m hungry right now so I’ll write a quick post about backpacking food. You already know that WHATEVER you make when you’re camping automatically tastes 3.7 times better than the same food at home, so why settle for anything less than “delicious”?

Breakfast oatmeal (with infamous saucy fork from two nights before)

Breakfast: Best oatmeal possible. Boil your filtered spring water over a Pocket Rocket stove, throwing in a handful of date pieces to sweeten the pot. Add the oats and cook for a minute. When ready to eat out of the pot, decorate with chopped walnuts and dried cranberries. Mm-m-m!! What a way to start a day!

Lunch tortilla

Lunch: Rip open a single-serve packet of tuna and squish it onto a tortilla. Add a fast-food packet of mayo and half an avocado. Cheese it up, roll it, and eat joyfully.

Supper: You may splurge here on freeze-dried entrees to save weight. Boil 2 cups spring water on your Pocket Rocket, dump it directly into the foil package, stir, wait nine minutes, stir again, eat. We both ate out of the same bag; it’s called sharing. No dirty dish!

Choose your weapon

I fear that the lasagna cheesy sauce may never come off my fork. I know this may gross some of you out, but I tried cleaning it by stabbing it into the sand twenty times. And then I used it, still congealed-saucy, for two more days. Using the same utensil for every meal is a must, so Tara’s SPORK earns honors here.

As always, you may click on any photo to enlarge it.

Comment: What camping foods are your favorite, either for convenience or tradition or taste?

April 25, 2011

The ruin that keeps its secrets

A well-preserved ruin in Grand Gulch Primitive Area

Turning sideways and ducking, I wormed my way through the T-shaped masonry opening on the cliff ledge. This quasi-doorway was a defensive piece of construction, intended to ensure that only one person at a time could gain access to this habitation site. Brilliant. It also told me that the people who lived here were short and small. I sat and studied it for some time, impressed by their ingenuity. The odd shape may have allowed load-bearers to pass through more easily.

Backcountry etiquette discourages revealing the names of the more fragile ruin sites, so I will say only that I stumbled upon this one in a side canyon in the Grand Gulch Primitive Area. It sat fifty feet or so up a cliff wall, daring me to find a route up to it, beckoning me to get close enough to study its features from arm’s length. I picked my way far past it until a hump of sandstone created just enough ramp for my boots to grip. Ascending carefully along the exposed edge, the thrill of having made it here made me smile in disbelief. I had overshot this canyon on my way downstream and despaired of even finding it before the threat of darkness ruined my plans. Eleven miles of solo hiking brought me to my reward.

Its food storage granaries were almost intact, complete with stone slab doors. The wattle-and-daub walls still stood, and I dug in my pack for my headlamp to see the interior construction. The lashings used to hold the sticks in place were still doing the job every bit as well as they were eight centuries earlier, to my utter astonishment. Skillful craftsmanship was evident everywhere. Unusual green pigment was painted on exterior walls with much artistry.

I sat and ate a smashed Snickers bar to celebrate my find; the bottom-of-the-pack treats are always the best. Meanwhile, hiking partner Tara was at another alcove site, marveling at her find of the day: a well-worn but complete human molar. Everywhere we turned, evidence of ancient dwellers was waiting to be discovered, and we were the designated explorers. What a supreme treat.

Just now when I went to retrieve a photograph of this spectacular place, every shot of that ruin is gone from my photo library. Tara saw ALL of them on my camera three days ago and I find that mystifying; no other photos are missing. I wonder if the place wants its privacy? Enjoy this photo of a nearby ruin.

April 24, 2011

Up side / Down side

Find our yellow tent hiding in this photo.

Just for fun I’ve tried to summarize my backpacking trip into two lists. Here they are:

UP SIDE: Being in the fresh air 24/7. Stunning scenery. The smell of sage. Finding artifacts everywhere. Sleeping on the ground. Pushing my body nearer to its limits. Climbing down a ladder into an ancient kiva. Sound slumber. Relying on maps because there are no trail signs anywhere. The fine taste of camping food, no matter how humble it is. Learning about ancestral people from a millennium ago, solely via what they left behind. Silence. Getting along fine without a toilet or outhouse. A Mountain Bluebird that made us do a double-take, it was so blue.  Lavender-scented sunscreen. No cell service. Drinking our tea out of the pot because we had no mugs. Seeing few humans. Watching what the sun does to the rocks at day’s beginning and end. Being okay with physical discomfort. Claret Cup Cactus with many scarlet buds. Finding out how strong women really are. Stumbling upon a Peregrine Falcon pair. Training my eye to see likely places where we’d locate ruins. The fine taste of filtered spring water. Lizards. Studying a strand of black hair mortared into an ancient granary. Never having to go inside. Holding pottery shards. Attending to the sun and the sky. A cozy sleeping bag. Rock scrambling. Feeling a strong sense of connection with everything around me. Hiking twenty miles.

Does tree-climbing increase happiness? Or do happy people climb trees?

DOWN SIDE: None. Except possibly the pricklypear glochids that lodged in my left thumb when I reached out to stabilize myself. But I got ‘em out. Mostly.

Put those two lists on your scales and weigh them. And then borrow a backpack and go into the wild! Take a child, a parent or grandparent, a sibling or a friend with you. If you have limitations that prevent you from going, rent a wonderful documentary about backpacking a major trail, pop some popcorn, and enjoy it vicariously.

April 23, 2011

Exultation & Exhaustion

Rookie job of packing, but it worked! Kathryn treks in Bullet Canyon, Utah.

The verdict is in for my first backpacking trip: Marvelous Success. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. You know that combination of “I love this so much” plus “it hurts so good” — ?? That delightful satisfaction that comes when you push your limits and find that nothing terrible happens?

Filtering your own water from a spring, or finding centuries-old pottery shards to admire at a ruin, or climbing 60 feet up a steep cliff to photograph an archeological site —  these kinds of “firsts” open up a whole new world of possibilities. I found myself thinking outside the box the entire time. “What’s stopping me from (X)?” began to supplant “I don’t think I can (X).”

Truth be told, I’m spent… especially legs and hips. My body is resilient, however, and I’ll get that spring back in my step by tomorrow. The pure joy of being in a wild land and being able to decide where to put our tent and how many miles to hike and what alcoves to explore, without having to bump into more than a handful of others, was what caused my heart to sing. The nights were cool, the days perfect, the experience magnificent. Details to come.

April 21, 2011

Heading into the (farther) wilderness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:48 am

Do you love doing things you’ve never done before? Or are you a creature who finds comfort in familiarity?

I’m on the cusp of a brand new type of adventure. Somehow I’ve made it to middle age without ever going on a backpacking trip — what a deficit in my outdoor repertoire. Oh, I car-camp and love it… but that doesn’t get me away from people and into wilder places. In a few moments I’ll be leaving for a place I’ve wanted to visit for three years: Grand Gulch Primitive Area. I’m carrying everything I need, including 16 lbs of water, on my back. Yes, I’m going with a friend, and she’s got some experience (sort of) doing this. Yes, I’ve left my itinerary with my housemates. Yes, I have toilet paper and extra batteries for my headlamp. Yes, it should make for some entertaining blog posts, especially when I find out what imperative item I left behind, or what ridiculously unnecessary item I lugged around. I’m considering this a learning event.

Even more, its purpose is to explore. This area is filled to overflowing with two of my favorite things: ruins and rock art. The people who lived there a thousand years ago, or several thousand, left many indications of their presence. I’m going to find them. Back in a few!

April 19, 2011

Joyfully ruined

I'm being changed.

Living and working on the stunning Colorado Plateau has changed me. I don’t mean that I’m darker-skinned, or in better shape, or leaning toward vegetarian, although I’m all those things too. No; this place has worked its way into the fiber of my being and will not let go. It has shaped my thinking and affected how I view my world. Perhaps it has even ruined me for any semblance of a “normal life” in the future.

Whose definition of “normal” have I been using? And… why? Is it finally time to define my own ‘normal,’ since it is well documented that I don’t seem to fit others’ ‘normal’?

I’m discovering what I love to do, and where I love to be, and finding a way to bring it to fruition. I’m not on some hedonistic pursuit of happiness. The older I get, the more wilderness ministers to my soul. Time becomes more precious, and wasted opportunities more disappointing. Every single day is a blessing as I wander purposefully through Arches National Park on a mission to locate raptor nests. Each sunrise is pure joy.

I am more content than I have ever been in my entire life.

April 17, 2011

Olive branch? Heron stick!

Great Blue Heron offering stick for nest (google image)

He, larger and bluer than she, flew in from upriver with a stick in his beak. No doubt it had been carefully selected from among many along the Colorado River, as he wanted only the best for his lady and for their nest. Landing his 4-foot frame in an ungainly fashion and flapping his wings for balance, he presented her the smooth dead branch. She accepted it and began tucking it into the nest beneath her.

That’s how it begins, my friends… with one stick. Herons’ sticks are my new metaphor for relationship-building, friendship-strengthening, peace-making. Great Blue Herons are my teachers. Pick a relationship today — it can be any relationship. Pick a suitable stick. Offer that small stick humbly, and see how it is accepted. It takes only one to start.

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