Ranger Kathryn's Arches

January 9, 2012

Early exploration of southeast Utah

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:40 pm
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Rainstorm, Needles District, Canyonlands NP, Utah. May 20, 2011. "Worthless and impracticable region."

It was 1859 — two years before the Civil War. The official maps of the United States were utterly blank in much of Utah, with the word ‘UNKNOWN’ penned largely across these latitudes. An expedition led by Captain John Macomb was scouting the region for a wagon route from New Mexico, looking earnestly for the supposed confluence of two great rivers. “I cannot conceive of a more worthless and impracticable region than the one we now found ourselves in,” he noted, thwarted in his attempt to find that critical map point.

Oh, John.

This “worthless and impracticable region” is now Canyonlands National Park. It holds me prisoner with its myriad delights.

I suspect Captain Macomb was discouraged, and morale among his men at a new low. Trying to imagine the 19th-century challenges of exploring this unforgiving land is difficult for me. In the 21st century, we have everything to make such journeys safer and easier: accurate maps, down sleeping bags, coolers, Vibram-soled boots, 4WD vehicles, satellite radios, freeze-dried foods, synthetic fibers, sunscreen, GPS, water filtration, helicopters for rescues.

I bet that expedition 153 years ago would have given anything for cold beer at the end of the day. The desert has a way of sucking the life out of everything that breathes; it is merciless and pitiless in its opposition to comfort and complacency. My highest respect and admiration go to its early explorers.

January 6, 2012

archeological sites and why they fascinate

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:04 am
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Relishing being at an ancestral Puebloan archeological site

It’s as if you’re there, or they’re here — whoever ‘they’ are. You see their finger smears and prints in the construction mortar. You can superimpose your hand over their painted handprints, invoking wonder. You find things they left behind that were important to them — tools, foodstuffs, art, clothing, structures. Last year: a molar on an alcove floor, a scrap of yucca sandal, a black human hair in the ancient doorway mud, a dessicated squash stem, a metate (grinding stone), a stone tool found in the wash. These were the people, the families, the predecessors, who walked the Colorado Plateau eight or ten centuries ago. How can I help but feel that their lives are inextricably entwined with mine? Archeological sites are my favorite places.

June 25, 2010

Down the Great Unknown


J. W. Powell, circa 1869

One of an interpretive ranger’s tasks is to bring the park, and its history, into clear focus for visitors. Here in Canyonlands, John Wesley Powell’s post-Civil-War expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers is a gripping story, begging to be told. The 20-minute talk I am preparing has me VERY excited; my entire being resonates with the relevancy of this 141-year-old journey. This talk is gonna be FUN.

In a nutshell, this bold, strong-willed, single-minded, one-armed 35-year-0ld recruited nine mountain men to accompany him down a previously-unexplored river system. Any with knowledge of the area felt it was a suicidal mission. He funded the trip out of his own pocket, getting only a little assistance from friends in government positions. Not one of the boatmen had any whitewater experience. Only one life jacket existed for ten men. They took provisions for ten months, just in case they had to over-winter, but due to a river accident lost 1/3 of it near the beginning of the trip. Having no maps of the area, they battled constant anxiety over whether the river would drop out from under them, like Niagara Falls, or whether a more gradual descent would take them to their final destination. Their flour turned moldy (too many times getting wet) and their bacon went rancid. No game was to be found by the hunters among them. Malnutrition and exhaustion added to the relentless anxiety. One of the nine dropped out abruptly after five weeks, stating that he had “already had enough adventure to last a lifetime.” A thousand river miles lay before them, and there was not one white settlement within 100 miles of their boats. Nobody even knew where the confluence of the two rivers lay for sure, as regional maps simply read, “UNEXPLORED.” Disaster after disaster befell the crew over their 99 days afloat.

That was the summer of 1869. As I have reflected on the relevancy of this trip, and how to assist visitors in connecting to it, I began to ponder the universality of Discovery. It seems every culture is driven to explore and to push beyond the edges of what is known and what is safe. There are always individuals who have a more expansive vision that takes them beyond their own provincial neighborhood. And then… I thought of 1969.

Exactly one hundred years TO THE DAY of Major Powell’s arrival at the confluence of these two great rivers that meet in our park, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The nearly quarter-million miles that that mission had to travel was no more amazing than Powell’s thousand miles. It was all a Great Unknown, even if Apollo 8 and 10 had traveled around the moon for data collection and reconnaissance. In both expeditions, there were more questions than answers. There were incalculable risks. The Eagle had less than 30 seconds of fuel left by the time it touched the lunar surface; Powell’s emaciated group was barely recognizable when they passed through the Grand Canyon and finally arrived at an outpost. It will be my challenge to bring home the dangers and the successes of these parallel expeditions into the unknown, and then to charge each visitor with undertaking their own mission of discovery and exploration in our national parks.

My boss got goosebumps when I told her my interpretive plot twist. I think that’s a good sign. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only a few days to string this all together…


Leave a comment if you have suggestions or ideas to help me…

March 17, 2010

Fringe Benefits

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:37 am
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"The Three Penguins" -- Out my front door in Arches National Park

Edward Abbey, a curmudgeonly park ranger here in the 1950s, was assigned to watch over the entire national monument. In the long stints between visitors he jotted the thoughts that would become Desert Solitaire, the book that is responsible for my love of all things desert. He said:

“I like my job. The pay is generous; I might even say munificent: $1.95 per hour, earned or not, backed solidly by the world’s most powerful Air Force, biggest national debt, and grossest national product. The fringe benefits are priceless: clean air to breathe (after the spring sandstorms); stillness, solitude and space; an unobstructed view every day and every night of sun, sky, stars, clouds, mountains, moon, cliffrock and canyons; a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back; the discovery of something intimate — though impossible to name — in the remote.”

Amen to that.

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