Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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