Ranger Kathryn's Arches

January 2, 2012

There is reason to hope

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:36 am
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"Birthday Cake." Island in the Sky district, Canyonlands NP, Utah.

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.”    — Lyndon Banes Johnson

I heave a sigh, wondering what legacy is being left to my children. As I hike, and read, and experience a life away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and find my soul nourished by solitude, I fear for the generations to come. I see children unaccustomed to the wilderness, needing to bring their soccer ball into the visitor center to kick around while their parents get a map. I beg visitors to turn off their cell phones while hiking. I talk with vast numbers of folks who see nothing wrong with feeding wildlife. I shrug apologetically and say, “That’s a lot to expect from a wilderness park!” when they ask why there isn’t a coffee shop on site.

And then… then my hope is re-ignited. Children come in sporting a collection of Junior Ranger badges from all over the country. Visitors stamp their park passport books with delight, proud of having traveled to so many places. Backpackers brave the elements, carrying a pared-down version of their earthly necessities to a place where they can be surrounded by loveliness. Older folks endure a bit of chilly weather and an extra mile or two on their feet in order to see startling beauty.

All in a day in the life of a ranger in an obscure desert park somewhere in southeastern Utah.

Hope springs eternal.

July 2, 2011

Ogling the datura

This google image shows an even larger plant than mine. Caution: Do Not Ingest. Every part of the plant is hallucinogenic, in an extreme ‘bad-trip’ sort of way.

After a potluck with fellow park rangers up at Canyonlands NP, I had casually mentioned that watching the local Sacred Datura plant open its blooms after sunset was a treat they shouldn’t miss. Some eyed me skeptically and held back; others trustingly followed me to the front yard where dozens of 6″ trumpet-shaped white buds awaited their nighttime opening. I had promised a good show.

My credibility began slipping slowly away as the minutes passed. We had gathered around the six-foot-wide plant, sprayed ourselves down with insect repellant, and were waiting patiently… but nothing was happening. Some co-workers eyed me with suspicion. The sun had dropped below the horizon twenty minutes earlier.

Then I saw it. The first of the closed blooms began gently trembling in the still night air. These barely-perceptible vibrations had to come from within the plant, but I have not a clue how. Soon, the arrival of nighttime pollinators — large black bees and hummingbird-sized sphinx moths — indicated that The Grand Opening was near.

Sphinx moth with its amazing proboscis. Google image.

The insects flitted about with a certain frenzy, poised like Wal-Mart shoppers early on Black Friday. The sphinx moths’ wings made a breeze when they got close enough to us, dangling a 5″-long proboscis like a tiny straw; they maneuvered like ace helicopter pilots, positioning themselves directly above the tight blossoms, inserting their mouthparts and drinking with abandon.

Nature geeks all, we each selected our own bud to bet on as the First Opener. The insect activity increased to a fever pitch, and any observer could tell you that something big was imminent. And then — one unlatched. That’s the only word I can use, because the tight pinwheel bud just… let go. It opened in a matter of less than 30 seconds, releasing a rush of intoxicating fragrance akin to that of Easter lilies. Instantly an insect traffic jam ensued, with two bees and two huge sphinx moths jockeying for a position in the bell of the flower.

We high-fived the ranger whose flower won, and proceeded to watch a dozen more tremble for a few minutes and then unlatch. Each opening sent the pollinators into great agitation, and my heart into great delight.

Thirty miles from the nearest town, on a remote mesa in eastern Utah, we make our own fun. The best part? Nobody looks at me as if I’m weird when I stand around and watch flowers open.

May 22, 2011

Desert precipitation

Sunset from our campsite in The Needles

Getting poured on by a spring storm is something everybody should have the privilege of experiencing. I remember as a young girl skipping down the pot-holed dirt road during rainstorms, making sure I planted my feet in every possible puddle to make the greatest splash. Simple pleasures are the best.

Tara wants to taste fresh pothole rainwater. I pass. She says it is delicious.

The 50% chance of rain was clearly about to become 100% as Tara and I hiked the Slickrock Trail in the Needles district of Canyonlands NP. No matter. Raincoats are our friends. Storms not only cleared the trails of riff-raff other hikers, but they gave us the opportunity to watch a tongue of water creeping its gravity-led way on sandstone toward every pothole and pour-off in its path. Gathering tributary rivulets as it flowed, it begged to be dammed or diverted by hasty human efforts.

Chef Kathryn makes sure the supper doesn't burn. Leftovers provide a filling breakfast.

And then comes the gorgeous after-rain experience. West winds swept the sky clean in the evening, and the freshly-scrubbed atmosphere yielded a clear and memorable view of our near-wilderness surroundings. Our bellies were comfortably filled with a delicious concoction of sauteed garlic, onion, potato, zucchini, egg and cheese on tortillas.

Sage releases its aroma when wet; my world looked, smelled, and felt exhilarating. The campfire only added to the wonderfulness as we stared wordlessly into the flames with thankful hearts before crawling into the tent.

I slept the longest, deepest, most satisfying sleep in months.


To see ten additional photos, click on this Facebook album. Yikes, I can’t make the link work, no matter what I do. Will come back later to attempt a fix.

April 11, 2011

Personal Locator Beacons

Fishing for a signal with the PLB receiver

We climbed the only high sand hill nearby and held the signal receiver up, hoping desperately to catch even the faintest audible or LED input as to where our lost person might be. Its antennae were silent. Was it a battery issue in the transmitter? Was the high wind and cubic tons of sand in the air distorting the signal? Or were we just too far away?

18 Search & Rescue trainees from the park service and the local county were practicing finding someone using a PLB — Personal Locator Beacon. The increasing popularity of these devices requires that we know how to conduct a search if a distress call comes. Instructions on my government-issued PLB say that it is my last resort only… not if night is falling and I’m scared, but if life or limb are threatened.

Not a bank robbery. Needed kerchiefs to keep sand out of nose/mouth.

Last year in Canyonlands NP one of these PLBs had 52 activations (!!!) in a short time span — surely suggesting a major emergency requiring heroic rescue efforts. It was nightfall and the location was down on the White Rim, 1000 steep feet and many 4WD miles below the mesa, where jeepers and mountain bikers can get away from it all. A helicopter was summoned and night vision technology was used to locate the man. His life-threatening “emergency”? Burned-out clutch on his motorcycle.

PLBs have become the “yuppie 911.” Rescuers who risk their lives and limbs are not amused.

Found a dinosaur bone at training! Click to enlarge.

Nothing tops the party hiking in the Grand Canyon who activated their beacon three (3) separate times in three days for such emergencies as “drinking water tasted funny,” “running low on water,” “heard a scary sound.” They were physically removed from the Canyon after the third abuse. Unnecessarily mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues should disqualify you from ever being allowed to own or carry a PLB.

Grand County, UT, charges $500 to rescue people. Arches National Park currently charges nothing. Do you think PLB abusers should be charged for their rescue, in any location? Should legitimate victims be charged? What deterrent can you think of to keep people from pushing the panic button for idiotic reasons?

March 26, 2011

The purpose of solitude

Definitely solitudinous. Canyonlands NP, Needles district, three minutes before sunset

I get back to my trailer before 5 pm daily — kick my boots off, fix a bite of supper, read a little, get comfortable… and know that I have five or six hours until bedtime. This is when all my practice living alone comes in handy. I do NOT need to be entertained… but these evenings can get long. It’s an invitation to welcome solitude and look for the gifts it can bring.

“In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me — naked, vulnerable, weak, broken — nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness…”  (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart)

Sunrise at Arches NP -- just me and this gorgeous pinnacle.

Out here in the stillness, looking inward comes much more readily. Soberingly, I find myself face to face with a person I don’t always enjoy being with. She can be selfish, lazy, judgmental, and egotistical… for starters. It is far easier to look at her positives — joyful, passionate, curious, ebullient. Solitude helps me come to a more balanced and accurate understanding of who I am… and then look toward who I want to become.

Nouwen describes “the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition.” Daily, restlessly, I try to convince myself that I’m much more ______ [insert any positive adjective here: wise, virtuous, kind, etc] than I really am. Gratefully, piece by piece, solitude dismantles that illusion.

Do you embrace, or avoid, solitude? Why?

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.

April 14, 2010

Lost Canyon and Squaw Canyon, The Needles

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:15 pm
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Walking along the sandstone rim on the Squaw Valley trail

Some places are purely refreshing. Especially after working in a heavy-use park like Arches, with its nearly one million visitors per year, getting away to a neighboring park with fewer people around is extra wonderful.

Needles is full of colorful formations

Yesterday a friend and I went to The Needles, the southern district of Canyonlands NP, about an hour and a half away. Its views are quite different from Arches’ views — buttress-y, fortress-y, rock-climb-y, with a variety of habitats. On a flawless spring day, we had the perfect 7.6-mile hike.

I realized 3/4 of the way through it that I NEED to be active in order to feel my best. I noticed that very strongly upon my return to MN last August, and I did all manner of active things to keep myself in that groove. Minnesota, however, is a far cry from Utah; one must be ever so much more creative and resourceful to find things to do. I thought again of how exquisite it is to have a pool of Very Active Friends who will not shy away from adventure in our off hours.

I’d be interested to hear what you have discovered about your ideal activity levels. What does your body tell you? Have you learned to heed its messages? Do your friends’ activity levels influence you more, or do you influence them?

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