Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 17, 2012

Keet Seel 1: the trek begins

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:07 am
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I feel weightless on the cusp of adventure. The pack, however, is another story.
Keet Seel Canyon, Arizona.

In the pre-dawn chill at 7300 feet, our sleeping bags held us captive as we contemplated the two-day adventure before us in Navajo National Monument. Arizona’s finest ruin had been on our radar for a month; team Tara/Margretta/Kathryn was perched at the ready. Now we had to carry full backpacks 8.5 miles (and back) to earn the privilege of exploring this ancestral site that could be visited only with a permit and a ranger. We rolled out of our bags, greeted the just-lightening skies, and got busy.

Margretta and Tara, hydrating in the desert. Strong, beautiful women. All-important permit is attached to Tara’s pack.

Contents of pack: two gallons of water per person in the summer sun (that’s sixteen pounds of slosh) plus food for three meals, sleeping bag and pad, clothing, footwear, toiletries, backpack stove and tent. To lighten my pack I elected to forego the tent and sleep on a small tarp. Still, hoisting that weight onto my back was a reminder of how much I ‘need’ in my everyday life.

Dropping a thousand feet down switchbacks, I cached two liters of water at the bottom for tomorrow’s climb out, and we began following a meandering perennial stream that would be our guide. Thirty-two times we waded through 1-3” of spring-flow that morning, glad for Gore-tex boots. Shade was absent, but camaraderie plentiful — adventurers lured by twin siren songs of exploration and long-gone cultures.

Numerous stream crossings added interest to the hike. Park Service boots kept my feet dry.

Mile by mile, the canyon gradually narrowed and became even lovelier; with the dependable water source, I had no difficulty imagining why the ancestral people chose this site for cliff-dwellings in the thirteenth century. My mind could not have conceived, however, the marvels that lay ahead.

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June 11, 2012

Mt Peale 1, Rangers 0

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:06 pm
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Ranger Chris, determined, tries to skirt the snowfield.

(Continued from previous post)

The faint trail had already led us astray once, and now we were slowly picking our way over a vast field of downed tree trunks. Not an auspicious start to our ascent of the highest peak. For encouragement I glanced up at Mt Peale, which momentarily resembled Mt Doom. (I can do this, my heart tells me.)

Verdant meadows, a flowing spring, swarming mosquitoes and gnats, aspen groves, elk and coyote tracks… this was not the desert to which we are accustomed. We’re 5000 feet above our usual elevation and can feel it. Reaching tree line, an unstable talus slope is all that remains between us and the summit 1500 vertical feet above. A pika nearby seemed perfectly comfortable; the marmot loping up the ridge wasn’t winded. (I think I can do this, my heart tells me.)

This is the couloir that stopped us. Angle of repose for granite is 35-40 degrees, and it is steep and unstable.

Up, up, always up — lungs sucking air, I had to rest every little bit to let pulse and respirations normalize. A couple of guys passed us at the bottom of a steep couloir (chute) filled with snow and we watched carefully how they navigated the route. As they kicked their boot toes into the whiteness with each step, and dug in with their trekking poles for traction, Chris and I exchanged a glance; these conditions at 11,300 feet have caught us unprepared. Exploratory attempts on the couloir leave us shaking our heads. (I really wonder about doing this, my heart tells me.)

My hiking partner’s the safety officer at work, and he takes his duty seriously. We conferred. Without ice axes, there’s no way to arrest one’s slide if footing is lost; you’d end up at the bottom of the couloir crumpled around granite boulders. The mental image of a mangled body deters us; concluding that the wisest route was down instead of up, a postponement seemed the appropriate choice.

Mt Peale, you win this round — but August is coming. We’ll be back.

June 10, 2012

Mt Peale: 12,721

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:16 am
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Mt Peale: TALL. Ranger Kathryn: SMALL.
All I could think was, “I’m headed up THERE?!?!”

The highest peak in any range beckons to be summited, and Mt Peale in the La Sal Mountains is no exception. Standing watch over Moab, currently 99 degrees hot, it holds the promise of adventure — and pleasant temperatures. Ranger Chris and I head up the winding Forest Service road to camp at 10,000 feet, where my Prius seems out of place as we pass nothing but ATVs and 4WD vehicles. The eyes on the aspens watch the hybrid car, puzzled, as she demurely navigates a shallow stream crossing.

“Medicine Lakes,” the trailhead area, is a complete misnomer to this Minnesotan. Shallow puddles of water teeming with invertebrates are not lakes. That said, it IS scenic, and the alpine-y feeling of the place envelops us. We’re in a different ecosystem, a place of fresh wonder. Every flower is new.

Chris has climbed a number of fourteeners, but I already know from summiting South Mountain (11,798’) that high altitudes are tough on my lungs. Finding myself energized by the thought of pushing myself to try something I’ve not yet done, I thoughtfully ponder the worst that could happen. It can’t be that bad. Yes, I think I can do this.

Crackling campfire and deep conversation give way to restless sleep in which I dream of not being able to catch my breath. Was it the altitude, or could it have had anything to do with someone so dashingly handsome sleeping respectfully a foot away from me?

~ to be continued ~

May 17, 2012

Desert fish = a rarity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:52 am
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Here in the southwest we mark our trails with neatly-stacked rock piles called cairns. When one follows cairns a lot, one becomes cognizant of  the countless different ways stones can be piled up: messily, artfully, crazily, larger-to-smaller-ly, monochromatically, unbalanced-ly, demurely, or with a surprise on top. I’ve photographed many beautiful cairns in the past three years, each time with a nod of appreciation to its builder whose personality shines through in the making.

Yesterday on the Alcove Spring trail I added a new adverb: FISHILY! Rounding a bend in my 11.2-mile hike, a rare desert carp occupied the trailside. Made my day. Whether an ichthyologist or an artist had a hand in this, I tip my hat to the one whose creative spark has brought many a smile along this daunting trail.

April 7, 2012

Navajo National Monument

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:26 am
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The alcoves in this deep canyon hold ancient villages. Douglas Fir and aspen populate the shaded areas -- not your typical Arizona desert trees.

Tucked away in deep canyons in the northern Arizona desert, ruined villages of ancestral Puebloans lie vacated — but not empty. After all the hubbub of our day in Antelope Canyon, Tara and I wanted to find a place to lay our heads that was quiet and restful.  Ninety minutes’ drive brought us at sunset to a small jewel of a National Monument that filled the bill. Delightedly, we found that there was no entrance fee for this lovely place.

The campground occupies a pinyoned knoll — all quiet and, much to our surprise, also free. The tent went up in minutes. Leaving the rain fly off ensured that we’d see lots of stars from our 7300-foot perch. After a cup of mint tea, we burrowed into our sleeping bags and studied all our park literature by headlamp before drifting off. I dreamed of kivas and potshards.

Friday dawned cool and clear and full of promise. The park brochure described FREE (!!!) ranger-led half-day tours to the Betatakin ruins, an exciting offer to two archaeology-oriented visitors with tons of questions. Alas… full staffing begins May 27 this year, and tours won’t be available until then. (Chapter 133 of “Budget issues create disappointment.”)

To take the sting away, we perused every incredible artifact in the visitor center’s displays and worked with the ranger to plan our return for the 17-mile overnight backpacking hike to Keet Seel. This best-preserved ruin requires permits (20/day maximum); a ranger actually lives out at the ruin site for a week straight in order to conduct guided visits. MY KIND OF TRIP.

Three short overlook hikes whetted our appetites for what will come. The ancestral people built stunning masonry villages in picturesque alcoves, which shall be thoroughly explored under our own power this summer.

March 28, 2012

Target Ruin, you move me!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:00 am
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This handsome ruin site held multiple families in the 13th century.
Its floor is a couple stories off the ground, accessible only by ladder (long gone).

Hidden in the canyons of San Juan County, Utah, lie countless ruin sites that have stolen my heart. This day Sam took me to a new one; I promptly fell in love with the neighborhood and felt that I could be very much at home here. The long ladder is missing, though; while I relish the ambience, I’d have trouble ascending. I may have to abandon my plans to move in.

These unusual incised glyphs are new to me.

Certainly it is one of the prettiest sites I’ve seen in a long time. On close inspection, what stands out to me after eight centuries is the “humanness” of the place. Painted handprints, geometric petroglyphs, ground-out ladder supports, sooty ceilings, pleasing views — all speak of the inhabitants who built it.

Fifty years ago a paragraph was written about magnificent Cliff House at Mesa Verde National Park. The author makes an emotional connection that has helped me experience all ancient sites in a new way:

“Unfortunate indeed, is he who views this ancient city and sees only the towering walls. Unfortunate because the stones are the least important part. [The ruin] is really built on the hopes and desires, the joys and the sorrows of the industrious people. It is not a cold empty city, for it’s still warm with the emotions of its builders. In each fingerprint and tool mark lies the prayers of a young couple for a home filled with children and happiness. Each storage bin is chinked with a farmer’s prayers for a bountiful harvest. In each plastered kiva wall is an ancient priest’s reverence for his gods. A pot is not just a piece of baked clay: it is an ancient potter’s molded prayer for beauty and strength. Each solid wall is a testimony of the success; each shattered human bone, each broken jar, is an admission of defeat.”

— Don Watson, The Indians of the Mesa Verde

Hopelessly captivated by the resilience and resourcefulness of ancient dwellers, I look forward to future explorations. It’s one thing to see displays in a museum; another entirely to encounter these places in the real world, where each of my senses adds further understanding, providing the ‘gestalt’ instead of isolated bits. It’s wonderful, and sweet, and rich beyond telling.

Using dendrochronology, scientists can date the cutting of these logs. The tree rings are distinctive enough that highly accurate dates can be obtained. I don't have a number for this batch yet.

March 17, 2012

A one-photo summation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:03 am
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Entrada sandstone, bare feet, Joe.

Caught between a rock (needing to do catch-up blogging) and a hard place (writing a formal interpretive talk to be delivered imminently), I will for now put up one simple picture of Thursday’s hike. We saw perhaps a thousand lithics and explored to our heart’s content.  If ever one photo captured the afternoon, this is it.

What emotions does it evoke? Leave a comment, please.

March 7, 2012

Of pistols and lithics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:52 am
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Our treasure map

 

The hastily-scrawled diagram pointed us in the general direction of Bartlett Wash, but we had no backcountry map of the dirt roads. Nor did many of these roads have signage. Out here in the west, most directions utilize features like cattle guards, fence lines, washes, rock formations, et cetera. Today: “Go to the turnoff by the group camp, go about a mile, follow the right fork, and a few miles in there will be a cattle guard with a road right after it. Park at at the turnout by the gate. Follow the fence line to some slickrock. Wander to your heart’s content.” Really. That was it.

Two friends and I were up for the challenge. It was the loveliest imaginable spring day in the desert.

Agile flocks of silvery horned larks adorned the scrublands in which we hiked, and an uncommon Bewick’s Wren sang to us from a low shrub. Dark-eyed Juncos flitted in loose groups from juniper to juniper; a dozen Mountain Bluebirds flashed azure. Atop a lone tree a handsome Loggerhead Shrike posed. Tilting low over the grasslands with its diagnostic white rump displayed, a Northern Harrier hunted for rodents. Overhead, a pair of Common Ravens croaked at us as we followed cow tracks to avoid further damage to the fragile soil crust.

Buried in the sands was this gem. Click to enlarge.

“Hey, what’s this?” Jason exclaimed. We found ourselves in the middle of a large cowboy camp, with rusted tin cans, broken dishes, tobacco tins, cookware, and even an intact glass vase. The more we looked, the more we found. A piece of odd metal was poking out of the sand and he dug up a half of a lady’s pistol — what may have been an ornament that would be stitched onto a saddle bag. I don’t think pistol barrels are built in halves, but I could be wrong.

Anne and Jason are bracketing the lithic scatter at their feet.

After a thorough exploration of this early-20th-century outpost’s remnants, we moseyed east. Within three minutes, our fearless leader stopped suddenly and let out a low whistle. “What in the world–??” He had just stumbled upon a scatter of the largest lithic pieces I’ve seen in Utah, flakes knapped from a parent stone to create tools. How these are all sitting perfectly on the soil surface after 800 years or so, I have no idea, but… there they were. To pick them up and touch them, and replace them lovingly after oohing and ahhing at their beauty, connects me with those who went before. We began discussing what made this exact place so special for bands of travelers many centuries apart: in a shallow dip, with some wind protection, nearby grasslands, perhaps a water supply, towered over by proud buttes of red sandstone. It was a good, good place.

Will you look at this unfinished tool Anne found??? Click to enlarge and see evidence of having been worked at edges.

You know, we never found the destination sketched on our crude map. Treasures, it seems, are often discovered in “wrong” places.

Who wouldn't want to camp, knap, or herd cattle around here?

March 2, 2012

Looks suspiciously like a grave

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:45 am
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A piece of fire-cracked rock (repeatedly heated, as for cooking fires) grabs my attention. I will call the Bureau of Land Management and inquire about this earthen mound.

Our eyes were sharpened by hours of looking at — and for — everything and anything. Clues of past occupation present themselves to the vigilant observer, and we had been hiking in canyons, scouring alcoves, poking around springs — anywhere where people would have hung out. The only down side was the heavily-used ATV trail nearby, and the tens of thousands of hoofprints and cowpies. Ranchers love canyons that have perennial water sources in them.

I was following a cliff wall, looking for lithic scatter on the ground to indicate a place where ancestral Puebloans would have knapped their points, when I came upon a curious mound of earth looking very different from its environs. About my size, it was covered with hand-picked and hand-placed stones of three types: smooth river cobbles, sharp angular chert, and tabular sandstone slabs. A glance over my shoulder revealed a clue.

In cursive hand on the sandstone wall was etched “Press” followed by a last name I couldn’t make out. Underneath, “3/4/33.”

Time for a little archival digging. Might Press have been an early 20th-century cowboy who met his end in this canyon?

January 29, 2012

A trek down Salt Wash

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:42 am
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Looking north up the lonely Salt Wash

I stepped onto the frozen surface tentatively, aware that the last creek crossing had four solid inches of ice to support me. Even though the water flowing underneath wasn’t deep, I sure didn’t want to break through and have miles to walk with cold wet feet. On my second step, the rather terrifying sound of loud cracks under my feet sent me lunging back to terra firma as fast as I could, to peals of laughter from my hiking buddy who had refused to go onto the ice until I did. Sometimes there’s a fine line between courageous and foolish.

Salt Wash lured me on my day off. It is part of Arches National Park’s backcountry, lacking a defined trail of any type, but able to be hiked by those undeterred by the need to bushwhack through plants and around obstacles. I was hoping to spy some mountain lion tracks, as it’s a location with running water and mule deer (the lions’ preferred meal). Alas, the only tracks we found were coyote and rodent. One common raven, one golden eagle soaring — and lots of tafoni, the honeycombed sandstone created by chemical weathering.

Still, a day in the wilderness is better than most days elsewhere.

tafoni: broken bits are fun to play with

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