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.]


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.


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

February 13, 2012

Non-conforming artists

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:00 am
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Throughout time, artists who flaunt traditional approaches have been both reviled and praised. I wonder if that has always been the case? Would a millennium have changed human behavior?

On a recent hike in search of petroglyphs in the Moab area, my findings led me to ask such questions. The first panel shows a classic rendering of an abundant animal in Utah rock art, the bighorn sheep. Notice their short thick necks, graceful parenthesis-shaped horns, solid pecked bodies and characteristic single-file arrangement. I especially like the cloven-hoof detail, which can be seen better if you click to enlarge.

 Utah petroglyphs showing bighorns

Only a few feet away, on another part of the boulder, stood this artwork. Based on its deeply curved horns, it’s obviously a bighorn ram, but how many differences can you pick out from the previous glyphs? Whose neck is that? What is the shape inside its torso? Is it supposed to have feet? Was this artist having fun, expressing his uniqueness, or faithfully recording his observations?

Please leave your comments. Have fun with this. It’s okay to speculate…

Does this artist march to the beat of a different drummer?

December 30, 2011

Wilhite Trail, Canyonlands NP

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:25 am
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Destination: Down There

We didn’t mind the 1200-foot descent on snow-covered switchbacks; our goal was to banish our winter lethargy and serve notice to our sluggishness. A sunny late-December day with highs around 40 degrees seemed to be a perfect invitation to a long hike.

Traipsing over the mesa-top through pinyon-juniper forest, Julia and I marveled. At everything. When you are a nature geek, you can’t help that. Shapes of pinyons, cloud formations, animal tracks in the snow, changes in rock layers, oddities of winter cacti — it’s what makes hiking better than, say, a StairMaster workout. Or just about anything.

4-yr-old ram, 6-8 yr old ram, 1.5-yr-old ewe

A couple of hours into the jaunt we reached a good turning-around place, but I wanted to see over the next crest before we headed back. My “Let’s just walk to the ridge” ushered in an unexpected surprise as we rounded a knoll and startled three desert bighorn sheep. Hoofs went flying, but as we had frozen in place and were not a threat to them, they stopped, turned, watched us with eagle eyes, and eventually returned to their grazing.

There is something indescribable about watching wildlife on their own turf. I feel honored to be allowed to share their place with them, to peer into their world, to study their behaviors and interactions. I learn to ask good questions about what they are eating, how old they are, what is their general state of health, where do they bed down to avoid being eaten by a mountain lion, etc. But mostly, I just bask in the delight of seeing these mysteries for myself instead of in the pages of a magazine or on a PBS special. It’s one of the consummate rewards of being a wilderness woman.

October 8, 2010

Badlands National Park — a geography of hope


The Badlands are made of congealed ash heaps.


The silly critter had dug his burrow entrance in the middle of the dirt road, but fortunately the sun’s low rays illuminated the prairie dog just before I almost ran over him. As I continued to the next pull-out to walk closer to the prairie dog town for photographs, a herd of bison blocked the road. Most stared hard at me (the horns seem to grow larger when they’re staring, you know?) and then ambled genially off to the side as I inched closer, but a couple of them stood their ground and would not let me pass. Far be it from me to honk at an animal that could probably destroy Olive, and maim me, with one angry charge. I would let them take whatever time they needed. Only a matador should be that close to a large ungulate.


Wish I knew what he was thinking when he was eyeing me.


As I arrived at the dog town and grabbed my camera, I looked down the road a little to see a massive bull ambling toward me. I quickly calculated the distance to the overlook, my top running speed, the lack of any protective cover, and the mph of a charging bison; I’m a risk-taker, but… no photos today. Today I planned to get home. Intact.

Utter desolation surrounded me. It made me happy that it was wilderness, but it was the kind of wilderness that did not feel very welcoming. Gray volcanic ash heaps lithified into the stony hills millions of years ago; their surfaces crumbled under foot. Erosion proceeds rapidly here, perhaps an inch a year — and every drop of rain that falls carries pieces away. Cairns aren’t useful when they weather so quickly, so iron stakes marked trails. Signs warning BEWARE RATTLESNAKES! were pounded in the ground at every overlook and trailhead, prompting me to wonder how many visitor/snake interactions happen yearly. The harsh beauty that is Badlands felt rather inhospitable to me.

A handsome non-venomous snake called a ‘racer,’ sub-species unknown, lay across my path on the hike to the Notch. Up close and personal — exciting! I got close enough to see the yellow under his throat and then gave him his space. Bighorn sheep (re-introduced after extirpation) clogged the road further ahead, and prairie dogs seemed too numerous to count. On the Fossil Trail are casts of some of the interesting remains found in the park of ancient Oligocene mammals, which were plentiful here.


Tell me how 'hope' fits in here.


The early explorers of this barren wilderness predicted it would never be good for anything at all; the same things were said about southern Utah’s barrenness. I beg to differ with this opinion! Wallace Stegner, environmentalist and writer, summed it up poignantly when he said:

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

I thought about that odd juxtaposition, “a geography of hope,” for the rest of the day. How can landforms supply hope? How can what is on a map rekindle a sense of promise, of expectation? I have my ideas; I’d like to hear yours.

August 19, 2010

This time, a ram

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:41 am
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Radio-collared Sheep #410, our quarry for the day. Pushed the zoom to 40x and look what I got!

#410, a six-year-old ram, was eluding us. There were beeps coming across the receiver on Tuesday as we spent the day criss-crossing the mesa tops looking for signals on Bill’s radio-collared bighorn sheep, but he couldn’t pin this one down. It gave confusing location clues, and if it were across the canyon we had no choice but to drive many miles on rocky ledgy roads AROUND the head of the canyon to try to get to the other side and pinpoint it. Then it would fall silent. No sheep sightings on Tuesday; we’d look again Wednesday.

Tracking bighorns isn’t easy, and it is time-intensive. They are excellent at hiding out, tucking under ledges where the line-of-sight signal won’t be picked up, meandering into another drainage. Ultimately, they’ll all get found, sometimes later rather than sooner.

We started Wednesday gazing through binoculars at a pictograph panel that Bill had found only because one of his sheep had bedded down right below it. While waiting for the collars to turn on (only eight hours per day of signal, to save battery power) we drove to another that my Prius would never be able to access — both of these from centuries or millennia B.C.  Rock art moves my soul; I sense a connection with whomever painted or pecked it. It is found everywhere down here.

The monsoons are excellent this year. Green is everywhere!

As we went from canyon rim to canyon rim, holding up the antenna and receiver and hoping to hear beeps, Bill spied a new arch in a remote section of BLM land. It was hardly taller than me, and maybe ten feet wide; we took pics and left it Unnamed.

Storm clouds were thickening to the south and west. Lightning is not your friend on any mesa, but least of all when carrying a lightning rod, so we hurried to find this ram. Bill finally homed in on it in a side drainage off of Spring Canyon, just as the electrical storm began in earnest. Back to the truck we hastened; at least we knew where he was. Wind, dust, and rain swirled all around us for the next hour.

The ultimate "Where's Waldo" is spotting a sheep in this habitat

As the remaining gruff rumbles of thunder moved off to the northeast, we took up positions on the cliff top with our binocs. It was now time to locate the needle in the haystack. Check this photograph of the boulder field. Now imagine it is your job to find a perfectly-camouflaged animal, sitting statue-like, not wanting to be sighted. Bill can do it — sometimes from just a horn poking out from behind a rock. I sure can’t. You can guess who sighted ram #410.

Good day, a good day. Ancient artwork, monsoon, subsequent waterfalls, a ram… and wilderness. A very good day.

I made it easy for you. I centered the ram. 10x zoom.

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