Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 5, 2010

Desert Bighorn telemetry

Bill Sloan with his ever-present antenna

“There she is.” The yellow receiver spat out different types of static, but a regular beep now punctuated the fuzziness. Radio-collared bighorn sheep #538 was nearby; her VHF frequency was being picked up and she had to be within a line of sight. Walking intently across the rocky slopes, stopping on high points from time to time to hold up his antenna and listen, Bill related to me from memory her past movements, preferred territory, and reproductive history. Within the hour he had tracked her to a ledgy outcropping where our binoculars revealed she was with her lamb and five other animals — a healthy group for Canyonlands NP. Making ourselves comfortable on the rock, we spent another hour watching and documenting behaviors and interactions.

Desert bighorn ram (courtesy Google images)

Grateful to be in the remotest areas of the park, I was even more grateful to be there with a guide who has roamed these canyons and drainages for so many decades that he could do it blindfolded. Bill Sloan, wildlife biologist, designed this telemetry system nearly thirty years ago and has been refining and improving it ever since. He calls himself “the most blessed man on earth,” and rightly so; his work takes him to inarguably the most beautiful, rugged, wild places in the west. From Arizona to Montana, California to Colorado, he is THE bighorn sheep expert.

Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard -- my second-favorite lizard. Beautiful!

A solitary man, Bill spends his days following sheep and peregrine falcons through tracts of land that few other humans have experienced. He walks lightly, intentionally, respectfully across the desert, aware of every nuance of the natural world. Each plant I asked about, he knew by name. The mysteries of rock layers were explained to me as he traced the meanderings of whichever creek lay beneath us. When a Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard appeared, he froze, as did I; we earned ten precious minutes with this skittish creature, and as Bill described leopard lizards’ ways to me he earned my unflagging respect as one who knows his world and its occupants.

There are wonderful benefits to his lifestyle. Never having had a TV or a cell phone, Bill reads voraciously, quotes Thoreau passionately. Eschewing a bed in favor of sleeping on the ground, he favors a minimalist’s existence and the finer delicacies of canned tuna, yesterday’s brown rice, or a fresh cabbage. He can tell you what the weather is going to do, how to locate the nearest waterfall, and where to find a collection of planets in tonight’s sky. The cohesiveness of his lifestyle is endearing, and I get the feeling that he and John Muir, were John alive, would be inseparable friends.

Half the adventure is just getting to the sheep habitat

We observe the sheep, watching the ewes nurse their lambs; the group finds a shady spot and settles down for an afternoon nap. I lie back on the sandstone, thinking that sheep are very smart. Seven minutes later, refreshed, I’m back on binocular duty.

Large clouds are beginning to gather over the Abajo Mountains to the south, as the earth’s surface heats up. The National Weather Service issued an unusual multi-day flash flood watch instead of an afternoon-only one, so we stay alert. Occasional rumbles of thunder remind us of our vulnerability. We hop in the truck and follow the remnants of uranium mining roads from the early 50s across the canyon country.

Bill’s sense of direction is uncanny, and he needs no map to navigate the hundreds of miles of unmarked backcountry two-tracks. He’d like a visual on another ewe, so we head toward where she was last seen in March. At each high point, Bill holds his antenna up and scans the frequencies for a signal. Nothing. She could be down behind a ridge, or even just below us, but we can’t pick her up unless her collar is in a line of sight.

The sun is sinking as we walk out to a point and plop down to watch the sky color itself yellow, gold, bronze, orange, bittersweet, and finally the deep red of a smithy’s furnace. Canyon bats erratically swoop, rise, and dip, scooping insects into their mouths from their wing or tail membranes. A lone cricket begins to chirp.

I’m caked with sweat and sunscreen, hungry, tired, stinky… and deliriously happy. I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be. Wilderness feels like home to me.

Too beautiful for words

August 4, 2010

Indian Creek flash flood

See human for scale. Try to hear the roar.

Thundering beyond its banks in The Needles, Indian Creek plummeted over the waterfall beyond Hamburger Rock Campground. Chocolate water, by the tens of thousands of gallons, reminded me of liquid mud as it raced toward its inevitable meeting with the Colorado River downstream. Logs and branches floated past; the roar drowned out all other noise. I had just stepped away from a bank further upstream as an arc of sandy soil was undercut, slumping with a thick WHUMP into the churning waters. It had been raining much of the day, and the power of rapidly moving water made me feel very, very small.

Our roadway was cut off by a flash flood; there would be no camping in the backcountry tonight. Monsoons have been heavy and concentrated of late, and low-lying areas are inundated with little warning in this country, in this season.

I had come to The Needles district with Bill Sloan, wildlife biologist with the NPS, to track his radio-collared bighorn sheep. In his thirty years of intimate acquaintance with this district, he has not seen Indian Creek at this stage — ever. We would have to sleep in park housing instead of in our tents in the middle of absolute wilderness. Rats.

Looking upstream from Hwy 211 bridge over Indian Creek

Looking downstream from Hwy 211 bridge over Indian Creek

Sunset after the storm. The Needles district, Canyonlands NP.

Blog at WordPress.com.