Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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.”

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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?

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.

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