Ranger Kathryn's Arches

April 17, 2013

The bighorn and I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:04 pm
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[Note: this encounter occurred just hours before the Boston Marathon carnage. Draw your own conclusions about the importance of preserving wilderness in this increasingly violent world.]

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The last ten feet of a steep slickrock ramp beckoned me upward, and I dug my boots in for the final push. Breaths were coming quickly as I hit the top, where flying pebbles and a furious clatter of hooves announced a startled ungulate. I froze in place.

A magnificent desert bighorn ram with fully curled horns bolted to a sandstone knoll twenty yards distant and turned to study me. Heart pounding, I lowered myself to a crouch.

He sniffed the air, locating molecules of my scent.* His solid muscular body remained tense, ready to scramble, as I attempted to appear even less threatening. I recalled being told that herbivores can be put at ease if you act herbivore-ish yourself, so I lowered my head in a quasi-grazing stance and avoided eye contact.

A good five minutes passed. We were breathing easier now; he seemed more relaxed and less jumpy. He sniffed again, licked his nose, and did something I never would have predicted: began walking haltingly toward me. Not for a second did he take his eyes off this curious green-clad flat-hatted creature as his curiosity drew him in for a closer look. In disbelief, I quickly scoped out an escape route should the need arise.

He and I soon came to a wordless understanding that we weren’t a threat to each other. Finding a small rock overhang twelve yards distant, he parked himself, still eyeing me, unperturbed by my camera work. I snapped photos and admired the physicality of this six- to eight-year-old ram.

A front hoof lifted, scraped the sandstone twice. Repeating with the other hoof, he folded his legs beneath himself and bedded down for a long stay. My senses, atrophied from living in a too-easy world, strained to catch details about him on this spring morning. Silence was interrupted only by the tic-ticking of falling graupel (snow beads) as the minutes slowly passed.

Tingly legs told me it was time to unbend, and bid him farewell; I had more miles to hike, more cairns to build, more trails to patrol. But now this day’s tasks would be colored by a vivid overlay of my chance encounter with a wild, elegant, handsome beast. All was well in my world.

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*(Immediate regret: the single spritz of Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue that I had applied hours earlier. What an affront to his senses.)

January 29, 2012

A trek down Salt Wash

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:42 am
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Looking north up the lonely Salt Wash

I stepped onto the frozen surface tentatively, aware that the last creek crossing had four solid inches of ice to support me. Even though the water flowing underneath wasn’t deep, I sure didn’t want to break through and have miles to walk with cold wet feet. On my second step, the rather terrifying sound of loud cracks under my feet sent me lunging back to terra firma as fast as I could, to peals of laughter from my hiking buddy who had refused to go onto the ice until I did. Sometimes there’s a fine line between courageous and foolish.

Salt Wash lured me on my day off. It is part of Arches National Park’s backcountry, lacking a defined trail of any type, but able to be hiked by those undeterred by the need to bushwhack through plants and around obstacles. I was hoping to spy some mountain lion tracks, as it’s a location with running water and mule deer (the lions’ preferred meal). Alas, the only tracks we found were coyote and rodent. One common raven, one golden eagle soaring — and lots of tafoni, the honeycombed sandstone created by chemical weathering.

Still, a day in the wilderness is better than most days elsewhere.

tafoni: broken bits are fun to play with

August 1, 2010

Odds, Ends

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:19 am
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Ant lion on stucco, with my fingertip for size

1. This Ant Lion is an odd creature; the female will mate with the male and then decapitate and eat him… supposedly all for the good of their future babies. (Does the male not know what’s coming? Don’t the guys talk to one another?)

2. James, the injured boy in the last post, was helicoptered to a distant hospital in Colorado. When I called there today to check on him 24 hours after the rescue, he had been released, which was very good news. He’s going to be fine.

3. I’ll be gone for the next three days in the backcountry, tracking radio-collared desert bighorn sheep in The Needles with our resident wildlife biologist. It was decided to skip the monitoring of peregrine falcon nests this time around as the two main falcon canyons are currently laden with quicksand.

I'm happy to help search for large elusive mammals in Canyonlands NP

April 20, 2010

BTR, Day 1: Knots, rappelling, situational awareness

This poor pack was loaded by a complete amateur, who can barely heft it. That is going to change.

I felt like I was trying out for “Survivor.” Heck, my pack weighs more than 1/3 of what I do! Glancing around to size up the other trainees, who were hefting their huge packs with a grace and ease that made me marvel, I resolved that I would NOT be the first one booted from this island.

Every last one of them was Law Enforcement, wilderness fire fighters, Search & Rescue, back-country or river rangers. Only one was Interpretation, and that was me, and that raised eyebrows from some others who asked “How did you pull that off?” Interpretation is historically its own division and gets involved in rescues only after all other avenues have been exhausted. A few folks asked me if I thought my supervisor would support me in getting out there for rescues, to which I responded that I hoped so and would look forward to talking with her about my desires to do just that.

After introductions and a serious safety talk, we were broken into our four training groups for the week. Each has nine students and four instructors. The much-anticipated Knots Test took place right away, and I PASSED with ease. (Many thanks, Ed.) I have a little work to do on my Munter Hitch, but that will be easy to master.

Hitches must be tied to something, so we gather around the litter to practice

Most of us have rappelled before, but some hadn’t, so we set up for that. We had to learn to tie ourselves off in mid-rappel so our hands would be free for rescue tasks.

I was watching the clouds build up as each hour passed; it was a glorious 72-and-sunny day, but in Canyonlands that can change in a flash. As our day wound down, the final hour was to be a lecture on Situational Awareness and factors that can diminish our attention to our environment. The teacher moved the class from clifftop to parking lot because of the threat of weather, and the wind still blasted sand into our eyes and ears and teeth, but it was a great illustration of the importance of not allowing distraction to deter us from our task.

Brandon, our highly capable instructor -- from Grand Canyon

At the close of the day I looked around with satisfaction and gratitude. One down, four to go. The leader had promised us that the first day would start off easy, but as the week progressed we would be increasingly challenged. I know I have to take things one day at a time, and have my nose in the manual every evening. Final test Friday is open book, so I don’t have to memorize kiloNewtons and breaking strengths, but I sure do have to work hard to know what I am doing.

(Continued in next post)

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