Ranger Kathryn's Arches

February 25, 2012

Geology rocks!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:39 am
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Airport Tower reigns over the canyon landscape of Island in the Sky district. Two thousand feet of elevation separate the mesa top from the Colorado River, which carved the basin in this photo.

Repeatedly, visitors to Canyonlands National Park make exclamations like “This is an amazing place!” or “There is nothing like it!” or “It has captured my heart!” I say the very same things, and I work/live here for that reason. People’s descriptions tend toward the hyperbolic because words are inadequate; “I’ve never seen anything like it” is the closest many can come to truth.

Visitors are captivated by our remarkable fauna, like the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) or the collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris). Visitors appreciate the resilient plants, adapted to harsh conditions that would wipe out most species; the fragility of the ecosystem boggles the mind. But what really strikes people with unspeakable awe — what really steals their heart — are the canyons, cliffs, and cake-layers of rock, with a backdrop of snow-capped laccolithic mountain ranges.

In a word, the geology.

Forget what you may have experienced in GEOL 101 in college, where a boring lecturer showed Ektachrome slides of lumpy things that all looked vaguely similar, accompanied by black-and-white stratigraphic columns with many zeroes down the timeline on the side. No. Just come and stand at Grand View Point for fifteen minutes. Let your eyes trace the intricate carvings through seven — SEVEN! — different sedimentary layers. Geology is storytelling at its best. Geology wows. Geology is what brings travelers back, over and over and over.

I’m just beginning to prepare my 30-minute formal geology talk, to be given at aforementioned Grand View Point, and I think it will dare to offer a comparison between rock layers and movements in a symphony. Stay tuned.

October 10, 2011

Picking up poop pellets

— Continued from previous post –

Oh, see how shiny and dark and plump these are? Still tacky enough to have sand stick to them? That means they are fresh. (Ovis canadensis)

Lots of things leave small dark pellets in the desert; rabbits and mule deer come to mind. Bill’s search, however, was for the leavings of Ovis canadensis — desert bighorn sheep. One could walk purposefully around in places they hang out and look for droppings, or one could find an individual and trail it until it defecated and then go pick up the necessary pellets. The latter is more reliable.

We had followed the radio-collared beeps as far as we could, and were in a canyon with semi-circular walls; the only place she could go is straight up. Pulling out our binocs, we settled onto the rock for some good elbows-on-knees scanning. “How high up should I be looking?” “Probably pretty low.” We each started on one edge.

Eight pellets go into the envelope.

I must say, it feels like looking for needles in haystacks. The sheep are the same color as their surroundings and it is only movement that gives them away to beginners. Bill could probably find them by their nostrils if they’re bedded down, but I need the whole animal, in motion. Which is what appeared in my field of vision after only five minutes of searching. NINE of them! Six ewes (led by Mrs Radio Collar) and three amusing lambs decorated the cliff.

No guardrails. No shoulders. Hundreds of feet straight down. (Shafer Trail, Canyonlands NP)

Our mission almost accomplished, Bill found and collected the necessary specimens and we made it back to the truck just as a cloudburst dampened everything, including the scary switchbacks ascending to the canyon rim.

Next time you are asked if you want to come along, try answering in the affirmative. I’m so glad I did.

Red-Spotted Toad (Bufo punctatus) found in a wash

Dinosaur bone! Embedded in sandstone on Shafer Trail.

October 8, 2011

Four words that precede adventures

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:21 pm
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Descending into Shafer Canyon, a rainbow remnant illuminates the midground butte. We're following that 'road' down, down, down.

I wasn’t feeling like unpacking boxes; they were all in my bedroom and I could do it during the long dark evenings. One day remained before starting work in Canyonlands. As I was at the visitor center pondering what to do, colleague Bill walked in to start his day in the field. Have you any idea how many adventures begin with the words, “Want to come along?”

We spent the day tracking radio-collared bighorn sheep, trying to find fresh poop to pick up for DNA analysis. This current study is trying to determine connectivity among various populations of bighorns in the West, and collecting pellets that are newish and not yet rained on is the means to accomplish that.

Patience, grasshopper. The desert bighorn sheep is difficult to spot.

Soon we were following the short beeps on Bill’s receiver that indicated the presence of a collared animal nearby. Descending the hair-raising dramatic 4WD Shafer Trail switchbacks to get closer to the ewe — and then hiking up washes, across rocky ledges, through damp streambeds on foot — we tracked the beeps. Eventually it was narrowed down to one canyon, where we sat with binoculars. Spotting her was no longer optional, after all that effort.

…To Be Continued… (jump to next post)

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

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