Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 30, 2010

So, I took the wrong fork…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:27 am
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“I’ll catch up with you. The wash shouldn’t fork, but if it does, stay left.”

Famous last words. Bill and I were the only humans in the entire Book Cliffs universe (as far as I could tell) and I am directionally impaired as well as distractible. I prefer following a person over following a trail, but I figured that Crescent Wash was a safe place for me since it goes only two directions. No worries.

The day was hot and still. The wash bottom was not sand, but rock cobbles, boulders, and occasional cracked mud platters. My water bottle sloshed in my backpack as I picked my way “upstream,” which is a misnomer as no running water exists here except during flash floods.

Kathryn takes refuge in shady sandstone stalls. (Photo: W Sloan)

I walked for a bit and then found a shady alcove in which to rest, hydrate, and give Bill a chance to catch up. As I sat in what looked like carved sandstone choir stalls (you’ve seen them if you’ve been to cathedrals in Europe), I wondered what was taking him so long. He’s a fast hiker.

I knew I could easily find my way back the few miles to the truck, but you don’t want to be separated from your hiking companion. I sat listening to the intense silence and wondering whether to head back down-canyon or wait a few more minutes. My shady spot convinced me to wait. I wasn’t worried. Yet.

Ten minutes went by before I saw Bill coming up the wash, looking intently at the ground. He was walking more slowly than usual. I let him get within ten yards of me before I greeted him, as his concentration prevented him from even seeing me in my choir stall. He had been using his considerable tracking skills (he follows bighorn sheep a lot) to locate me, as I… had… missed… the little… tributary fork…

No, Mom, a GPS would not have helped me...

Yup. He had gone up the proper left fork and had NOT seen any of my footprints. This convinced him to turn around and go up the right fork (which, in my defense, was the main fork and significantly wider) to see what tracks he could locate on the rock and dried mud. Sometimes he relied on only a freshly-overturned pebble, or more cracks in the mud than were typical, as finding a true footprint was not possible.

I felt somewhat foolish as we hiked down to the correct turn-off, but he never chided me once. I thereafter called him Tracker Bill.

If you’re reading this, Tracker Bill, please accept my grateful thanks. I’d be lost without you.

August 28, 2010

Riparian habitat? Not here.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:27 am
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Mancos shale forms the inhospitable lower elevations of Book Cliffs, southeastern Utah

Mancos Shale forms the inhospitable lower elevations of Book Cliffs, southeastern Utah

Job description: evaluate every wash system in a half million acres of public land, looking for suitable habitat for an endangered species. Translation: get paid to hike and make notes. I tagged along this weekend with Bill, our park service wildlife biologist, as he is looking for any place that the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher might be able to breed. We started in the Book Cliffs, inhospitable-looking outcrops of Mancos Shale north of Arches National Park.

Getting paid to hike is a sweeeeeet way to spend your days… especially if it is in wilderness and you never see another human being. This day we would walk about 8 miles round trip up Crescent Wash, noting that the 1987 USGS maps mentioned springs in two or three places. Upon arriving at said “springs,” all that remained were a few scattered tamarisk trees — huge water-users, invasive species. Bone-dry sand. Not a drop of water anywhere. Tamarisks half-dead. Habitat? You’ve got to be kidding. For rattlesnakes, sure, but not flycatchers.

Crescent Wash -- representative of many local drainages. Not a single drop of water unless it has rained recently.

Hiking in hot parched washes in Utah in August might not be on top of just anyone’s list of Fun Activities, but I enjoy it. It’s just me and the natural world — without any buffer, any distractions. I sense my thirst, feel my muscles working, savor the few shady overhangs where a water break happens. I study the plants and soils around me for clues about local history; flash flood evidence is everywhere in this particular drainage. There is quite a story to tell, if only I can develop the skills to decipher it. I think I need more time in the wilderness.

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