Ranger Kathryn's Arches

November 13, 2011

Cataract Canyon 6: Big Drops

Famous last words: "Oh, this doesn't look so bad." Water-covered rock across river in left center is enlarged below.

(Continued from Cataract Canyon 5: Rapids)  

“On starting we come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decide to name this Cataract Canyon.”

Explorer John Wesley Powell’s journal entry on July 23, 1869, barely hints at the severe trepidation that beset all nine of them upon seeing Cataract. His intrepid party had been warned by Indians that a boating attempt would be suicidal. A crux point was the Big Drops, where the gradient for this interval is a whopping 30 feet/mile; these rapids at high water rival the biggest in the Grand Canyon for danger and power. Twenty-two years later the Best party pecked an inscription: “Camp #7, Hell to Pay, No. 1 Sunk & Down.” And here I was.

I'm not a fan of jutting rocks. Big Drops is full of them.

Trusting Kyler implicitly, I sat as low as possible on the exposed decking, swathed in rain gear. I had one meager strap end to grasp. Our vessel was tailor-made for the task, but anything can happen — a submerged obstacle, damage to the boat, a quick miscalculation in our angle — and, potentially, in an instant, up is down and down is up.

‘Opportunistic’ is the word that came to mind for the agitated and cloudy water, rather than ‘menacing’ or ‘ominous.’ In a few blinks of the eye, we were through Big Drop 1. Big Drops 2 and 3 sucked us in and spit us out, happily upright, Kathryn still clasping rodeo-style the blue strap wrapped around her hand. No concept of time — was it even a minute per rapid? Even at only 9000 cfs, exhilaration blurs reality. I wanted to re-wind the clock and do it again, and then again.

I can’t imagine it in 1984 roaring at 114,900 cfs — or the 1884 spectacle of 225,000 cfs scientists infer from dating driftwood piles.

Leave a comment about emotions you experienced while running whitewater. 

(Continued in Cataract Canyon 7: Concord)

July 5, 2010

Powell patio talk, take 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:35 am
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The view from the visitor center patio. My audience gets to look at this!

I did it! I brought John Wesley Powell to life for folks who had never heard of him before. I am a happy ranger.

My first “patio talk” on the front porch of the visitor center last week was stressful. I had too much information and not enough structure, and the WOW transition I had planned was a complete failure as I had forgotten that there is no wireless signal there. Other than that, it went okay, but I knew what I had to do for the second time.

My boss would dress in disguise and take coaching notes this time around. I had prepared my outline in vibrant color-coded marker, and it was by my side all morning as I memorized my prompts for the 1:30 talk. At 1:28 I am still having trouble rounding up an audience. Everyone is either in a hurry, disinterested in a man with an unfamiliar name, or worried about the bad weather to the west. My boss sidles up and takes a seat on the benches… and, magically, others begin to fill in. I will have an audience.

Disaster Falls -- boat wrecked on rock, man in water

Taking a deep breath, and with only a sidelong glance at my clipboard, I launch out. My theme statement, “The thrill of discovery compels courageous men and women to take incalculable risks,” infuses my talk with structure and purpose. I present the opening question and aim for the introduction of a man few people knew. Painting a colorful picture is easy with Powell; the audience willingly follows me into my first element, and then the second and third, as I spin tales of discovery, daring, and disaster.

I am careful to err on the side of whetting their appetites rather than overwhelming them with an avalanche of facts, and I purposely leave out some details to pique their curiosity. I want them to start asking themselves questions — and if they come up to me to inquire afterward, I’ll know I succeeded. The all-important sound bite of the Apollo 11 lift-off is my critical transition to current-day exploration, and when I reach that point, my listeners are riveted. Looming black clouds set a somber backdrop as the countdown proceeds.

Fifteen people are now (as Karen later described) putty in my hands. I have successfully made intellectual and emotional connections for them, linking 19th-century feats with 20th-century exploration. I have built a bridge for them between what happened in Canyonlands 141 years ago and what they are experiencing today in the park. The resource now has expanded meaning, attachments with history that they can grasp.

We are told that our conclusion must be powerful enough to stand on its own, ringing like a large bell, obviating the need to end with a lame “thank you for coming.” The wind starts to pick up as I build to the emotional peak. I reiterate my theme in the form of their final charge: Go forth. Take risks. Explore. My words hang in the air for three beats, and the audience does what audiences have been doing since the first ranger program was given. And then the mother of all sandstorms arrives with a vengeance, driving us all to take shelter.

And I am pleased. Very pleased.

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…

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