Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 30, 2016

It rattles me

Filed under: Hikes,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 3:41 pm
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Lexington Arch, Great Basin National Park — and Kathryn

My last blog post described the realization that I live pretty close to sometimes-dangerous animals out here in the wilderness. It’s not something I give much thought to; it just is the way life works. I’m in the territory of wild creatures and I need to be aware.

On our days off, Chris and I recently headed to Nevada to visit a place new to us: Great Basin National Park. It has mountains and ancient bristlecone pines and a higher elevation (read: cooler during heat wave). With only 120,000 visitors annually, this out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere park seemed just right for us.

That is, until we decided to hike to Lexington Arch.

No one told us that three years ago a large wildfire burnt that trail area. Subsequently, a particularly violent flash flood re-arranged the road to the trailhead, washing it out in several places, leaving gullies and ravines behind instead of pleasant walking trails. The trailhead kiosk was burned to bits, too.

Large cairns had been built, however, to help us get to the start, and we felt confident. It was warm, but we had plenty of water and snacks and were protected from the sun. Up we headed, winding our way between blackened trees.

Chris stepped into one of the washed-out gullies and headed toward the other side. I stepped down, right where he had, and a menacing buzz burst on my ears. Let me just say that, when I heard it, my feet did that cartoon-like thing where they are spinning in mid-air trying to gain traction. A loud sound (possibly a shriek) escaped from my mouth as I sought to put great distance between me and the source of that rattling buzz. I nearly knocked Chris over in my startle-ment.

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Great Basin Rattlesnake. Head on right — moving away from us.

The 42-inch-long Great Basin Rattlesnake had been silent as he passed by. Chris calmly took my iPhone and snapped its photo while I went far, far away. Now, normally I love snakes. They are beautiful creatures and occupy an important niche in ecosystems. But the concept of sharing a gully with a venomous friend had me slightly undone.

Snake retired to another ravine without any fuss, but something changed as we continued walking. Every clatter of grasshopper wings sounded to me like my next appointment with slithering venom. Every cicada buzz brought elevated heart rate. My sympathetic nervous system has fight-or-flight dialed in. Vigilance plus.

We made it to Lexington Arch and back without any further ado. No other reptiles appeared, all gully crossings were uneventful, and peanut M&Ms awaited us at the car.

To all my concerned friends: I do not live on the brink of death most days. I have encountered two rattlesnakes in two weeks, but these brushes with exotic creatures actually enrich my existence.

Have you had close encounters with wild creatures? Comment below, please!

June 10, 2014

Respect: optional?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:40 am
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IMG_3116With a warm smile and friendly greeting, I welcomed the vehicle full of young people to Canyonlands. As I leaned out the kiosk window to collect their $10 entrance fee, the acrimonious diatribe began. Abbreviated version: “You mean I have to pay to get into public land? Doesn’t it belong to all of us? I already paid at Arches, you mean I have to pay AGAIN? Is there free camping? What service are you providing? You don’t NEED services in a national park; just let people in to enjoy the land.” I listened and acknowledged their concerns, then began to calmly explain, but they did not want to hear it; their minds were made up. “This is ridiculous — we’re turning around.”

The splenetic young man in the next truck, same party, fairly spat out his words at me: “Standing here collecting $10 is NOT  a service.” He squealed his tires as he drove off to follow his buddies.

The 20-somethings’ selfishness and rancor threw me. Something tells me they didn’t grow up seeing gratitude modeled, or respect, and it isn’t easy to learn these character qualities as adults.

Who provides clean toilets and toilet paper, prints maps, empties trash, plows roads, erases graffiti, installs water faucets for their safety? Who rescues them when they get lost or their car runs out of gas? Who maintains the trails they want to walk on, erects radio repeaters for communications, or takes their mounds of empty bottles to the recycling center 35 miles away? Who creates and installs signs so they can find their way in this wilderness? Who drives the 6,000-gallon water trucks up from Moab? Next time they need any of these things, perhaps the national park entrance fee would seem a reasonable exchange.

Yesterday a man let his two dogs out of his car just as I arrived at an overlook, and they took off running. “Sir? Your dogs are welcome here, but they must be on leashes.” “ANTI-ANIMAL,” he vented, as he whistled for his pets to return. When they got to his side, he loudly told the canines, “NOT YOUR FRIEND.” I took a deep breath to say something but chose to walk the other direction instead of getting tangled up in this miasma of emotion and strong opinion.

Most of my conversations with visitors are delightful, but ones like these drain my joy. I’m a Minnesotan, for crying out loud, and just want people to get along, be happy, and play by the rules. Four cars after the one that opened this post, an elderly Georgia gentleman with a long soft drawl showed me his senior pass, then said, “Do me a favor?” “Sure.” “You have a real wonderful day.” And off he drove.

And I did, by choice.

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Leave a comment about some brief interaction you’ve had that startled you.

 

 

May 22, 2014

Just another 1440 minutes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:45 pm
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MUST. GET. INTO. WILDERNESS.

Come along with me for a recent 24-hour period, and see how I “do” a day off of work… and, as always, click on any photo to enlarge it.

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Having found our BLM camp spot on the canyon rim away from it all, Chris builds a fire to chase away the evening chill. In spite of the calendar page saying May, evening temps often dip into the 40s or 30s here in the high desert. Our humble spaghetti supper warms us, and we forgive a mouse intruder who runs across the stove seeking leftovers.

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At precisely the time indicated by NOAA, the Full Flower Moon rises just south of the snow-capped La Sal Mountains. I wordlessly press my hand into Chris’s as I am again overcome by a sense of my own smallness in this crushingly beautiful universe.

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We roll out our sleeping bags on the sandstone and burrow deeply into them; the Flower Moon will shine on us all night long as it arcs from east to west. A single cricket is the only sound in all the bright darkness.

Pre-dawn brings first birdsong, and we settle for oatmeal with cranberries and walnuts since I forgot the tea and coffee. Shafer Canyon glows with low-angle spears of light; White-throated Swifts take to the skies. A beautiful spring day is in store.

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We follow directions in an 18-year-old guidebook to a remote location north of Arches NP and bushwhack into a deep wash, finally dropping into a narrow canyon where we’re mesmerized by the abundant wildflowers — Silvery Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Penstemmon, Pale Evening Primrose.

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Biological Soil Crust (aka “Cryptobiotic Soil”), its top 3 mm filled with living organisms, has stabilized and nourished this area for centuries. (Please do not walk on it. Ever.)

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Further upcanyon, big rains five days earlier have created the inevitable patch of jiggly quicksand. My guy’s foot is swallowed up to his ankle. We make a run for firmer sand, laughing.

As the towering canyon walls close in, allowing just a body’s width to pass through, Chris freezes and motions me to halt. To our left, on a boulder in a side crack, a downy youngster rests in the noon sun. Her ear tufts are a species give-away: Great Horned Owl, probably around eight weeks old, probably told by her parents to stay put while they nap. She is surprisingly non-plussed by our presence. We shoot pics and sneak away, not wanting to encounter the talons of a watchful adult.

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The canyon dead-ends in a dramatic slot.

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When we pass Miss Owlet (I surmise female due to her large size) on our return trip, she is napping. The fifteen feet between us seems immaterial; a very wild animal is sharing the same spot as I am, and the moment is powerful.

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Extricating ourselves from the wash, we’re led by the map to Boca Arch a few miles away…

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…and then on to Caves Spring, where ancestral Puebloans sheltered nine centuries ago.

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To close our day in the backcountry, we come upon a century-old miner’s cabin made of railroad ties still standing in the desert.

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I LOVE EXPLORING. My heart is utterly joyful when I’m discovering new things, savoring each revelation, as present as I can possibly be, using every sense to learn more about this soul-stretching world in which we live.

Now I want to know: where is an exhilarating place YOU have explored?

 

May 2, 2014

In this treacherous terrain

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:50 pm
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Upheaval Dome area is full of cliffs, as seen from this overflight photo I took last week.

Upheaval Dome area is full of cliffs, as seen from this overflight photo I took last week.

Walking two by two in the pitch-black, by starlight and headlamp, we repeatedly called the name of someone we’d never met. An elderly man had wandered away from his RV two hours before sunset without jacket, water, or food. Temperatures are still getting down below freezing each night; he wouldn’t survive until morning if we failed to find him.

Our three “hasty teams” of park rangers got to the trailhead first and began searching in the most likely places — along the steep, cliff-edged Syncline trail — while awaiting search-and-rescue personnel from over an hour away. I’d walked this perilous stretch many times, always in daylight. The new moon afforded no luxury of shadows, and our thin arc of headlamp light gave barely a hint of the chasm a few yards away. Our radios worked only intermittently in these canyons. My imaginative hiking partner presumed a hungry mountain lion lurked nearby, while I was more concerned about our nocturnal rattlesnakes.

I had returned from a long run just before the knock on my door requesting searchers, and was tired, but someone’s life was on the line. As I sat down on a rock ledge to dig in my pack for a chocolate soy milk box, the thup-thup of the arriving helicopter brought encouragement: sixty thousand lumens of light! The K-9 unit, 34 searchers from two counties, and an ambulance crew were already on scene. It was now a race against the clock.

Finding a solo male boot track in a wet sandy wash, we radioed it in. They already had found excellent prints and were on the man’s trail, so we went to the highest exposed point of rock to relieve the very chilled radio relay team. Our job was now to monitor radio traffic and pass messages to and from those without coverage in lower canyons.

High on Upheaval Dome, Emma and I turned off our headlamps and watched the helicopter make pass after pass along the ridge line, shining its spotlight in an area of interest. The pilot’s impressive skills awed us as he hovered over one spot, searching, searching. The radio crackled with news that a person was hunkered down on all fours, not moving; ground rescuers plotted the pilot’s GPS coordinates and soon reached a very cold and disoriented subject. Six hours in, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. It would be several more hours before all personnel were cleared from the scene.

Sleep was fitful. An hour after sunrise, I was opening the visitor center and welcoming our first guests. “Your park seems rather quiet,” one said. With a heart overflowing with gratitude, I could only murmur, “We prefer it that way.”

 

 

 

 

April 19, 2014

Back in the (blog) saddle again

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:05 am
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Mesa and clouds

Faithful readers: please forgive my lapse. I’ve been silent for nearly six months, causing some to wonder if I’m still blogging, or even alive. Today I begin composing anew — SEASON SIX! — while continuing my search for adventures to fuel my writing and banish writer’s block.

It becomes more challenging to have a ‘beginner’s mind’ (shoshin*) in a place that’s become so familiar and so known. Sharing with all of you helps me accomplish that. My intent, as always, is to invite you along as I encounter Great and Marvelous Things as a seasonal ranger in Canyonlands National Park.

The high desert of the southwest is my playground and work station, and I love to pique your curiosity and whet your interest. Backlogged winter adventures and off-duty exploits are fair game for blog posts, and I delight in answering questions from my readers about national parks, deserts, wilderness, my job, why I perpetually have bad hair days, anything at all. I’ve enjoyed meeting some of you here at the park and I appreciate every person who takes time to read my thoughts.

While it is still painfully slow to load photos with wilderness internet speeds, I hope to add albums from time to time. Let me know in the comments what you’d like to see in this blog, and I will incorporate those into upcoming posts. How many of you are on Instagram? I believe I can get that going, too.

The photo above was taken from the base of our Shafer Trail, the old mining switchbacks that took uranium hunters down into our canyons in the ’40s and ’50s.

Thank you for your patience, my friends. Glad to be back!

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*having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

October 31, 2013

Link to mammoth photos

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:08 pm
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I’m sorry that some of you had difficulty linking to the scholarly article to which I referred in my last post. Try this blog instead. (If you want to access the article, search “Sand Island Mammoth Petroglyph”  and the authors, “Malotki-Wallace.”) The writer uses the original author’s photos with his permission. While standing at the panel I found it immensely helpful to have a drawing in my hand of the pecked-out portions so I could know what I was looking for, and those very exact maps are here. If these aren’t mammoths, I’d love to hear what else they might represent!

Mammoth #2 on far left of panel.

#1: Newer bison superimposed over older mammoth glyph.

October 27, 2013

Seen any Pleistocene mammoths lately?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:59 am
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Golden leaves in October glory along Cottonwood Wash, home of unparalleled rock art .

Golden leaves in October glory along Cottonwood Wash, home of unparalleled rock art .

Rock art in the American southwest is plentiful. Painted on or pecked into sandstone cliff walls are countless anthropomorphs, spirals, kokopellis, handprints, animals — notably bighorn sheep and snakes — and geometric shapes. It fascinates; the powerful connection across the centuries is what keeps me searching for rock art. I want to ‘meet’ new artists in each location.

The small town of Bluff, Utah, boasts an impressive panel along the San Juan River at Sand Island, which Chris and I carefully explored last week. The weak October sunlight bounced off hundreds of deep yellow cottonwood trees in the floodplain as we worked our way along the wall of Navajo sandstone, perusing image after image. Some we could relate to; others were mysterious. It was splendid.

Our rock art lives were about to change, however.

Acting on a tip from a local, we proceeded upriver to a location previously overgrown by thick stands of invasive tamarisk, recently cut down. There it was: the image of a bison. It evoked the long linear bison images in the French caves — stylistically ancient, powerful. We could tell only that it was OLD.

And then, just to its left, a mammoth outline started to come into focus. Mammoth with tusks, mammoth that last roamed the area 10,800 years ago. Paleolithic art. Binoculars up, the panel unfolded before us. Far different from everything else we had seen in that location, or any location. 11,000 to 13,000 years old.

We’ve seen large mammals in rock art before — elk, cougar, bear — but mammoths are altogether rare, with forgeries among them. This one, apparently, is the real McCoy. My camera couldn’t capture much of the deeply weathered images, but click on this link to the scientific paper about this panel. Skim the text; study the excellent photos. Judge for yourself whether this is truly a mammoth.

Flickers swooped from tree to tree, leading us back to the car. I walked in silence, thinking of the other puzzling petroglyph I’ve seen: the one that looks exactly like a long-necked dinosaur with wings at Natural Bridges National Monument. If ancient humans documented local mammoths, couldn’t they also document local dragons?

July 18, 2012

Feeding the wildlife?!? Really?!?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:42 pm
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This BRONZE raven pair is getting “fed” a macadamia nut — a spoof by Ranger Kathryn.

There are some things that really irk park rangers — typically encompassing behaviors that everyone knows are inappropriate, yet which continue to happen. Graffiti comes to mind as an intentional destructive act that disrupts natural beauty and creates extra work for the rangers who must remove it. Its perpetrators do not stop to think of the lasting damage as they carve their initials (or, for lunacy bonus points, their full name) into a tree trunk or rock face. Graffiti bothers me on a visceral level because it so rudely invades my wilderness experience.

Today, however, we’re going for something more subtle — more excusable, according to its practitioners. It involves human food given to vertebrate recipients. Guilt-assuaging deceptive thoughts like “It won’t hurt a thing,” “I hate wasting food,” “Just this once,” “He looks hungry,” “It’s only a photo op,” or “It’s the kind of food he’d eat in nature” pave the way down this slippery slope.

I doubt I’ll talk any readers out of feeding wildlife. It seems that many people feel entitled to give a squirrel a nut, or toss a french fry to a seagull. PLEASE DON’T. Here’s why:

1. It’s illegal in many places (and all national parks/monuments) to feed wildlife.

2. Wild animals have specialized diets and can die from the wrong foods.

3. Feeding causes wildlife to lose their natural fear of humans. (Rangers at the Grand Canyon say the constantly-fed squirrels are their most dangerous wildlife.)

4. Providing an artificial food source can cause adults to produce large families which the natural food supply can’t support.

5. You always risk injury when you do not keep a respectful distance from animals who may misinterpret your actions.

6. Feeding changes behavior patterns. (Opportunists become lazy.)

I’ve an idea what you can do instead: create natural habitat that invites animals to live closer to you. Plant trees or shrubs for cover. Set out a birdbath. Add butterfly- or hummingbird-attracting flowers to your garden. And keep a pair of binoculars near the window; wildlife is best observed on their own terms.

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[Note: outside the Arches NP visitor center you can photograph yourself with lifelike bronze bighorn sheep ram/ewe/lamb, bronze ravens, and bronze lizards. Fun for the entire family!]

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Thanks to ‘Wildlife Care of Ventura County’ for some of the ideas listed above.

July 11, 2012

Keet Seel 6: the walk out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:48 pm
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Early morning light reflects my hiking partners in Tsegi Canyon.
Our steady gait will get us to the finish of our Keet Seel adventure by noon.

Pre-dawn rustlings in camp signaled everyone’s eagerness to hit the trail before the sun warmed things up. Feet wiggled into boots. Bagels with peanut butter satisfied stomachs, fueling another 8.5 mile hike before climbing the switchbacks out of the canyon. We’re traveling lighter now: less food, less water, more joy. (Joy, you must know, subtracts weight from backpacks.) Tired hips and shoulders and feet from yesterday were doing fine after a night of so-called ‘rest.’ We set out southward.

As each mile marker came into sight and faded behind us, our packs became simply an extension of ourselves, tightly strapped to our able bodies; at some point I ceased noticing mine. Several waterfalls burbled, singing to us of the millennium of habitation here. Two ravens overhead, mated for life, reminded me of the power of relationship. Algae-covered rocks spoke of the perennial stream’s life-giving presence. Before we knew it, the base of the switchbacks and my two liters of cached water appeared. We forced ourselves to drink, knowing what lay ahead.

Like rabbits scurrying from shrub to shrub, we hastened from one spot of shade to the next during our thousand-foot ascent. And then we were out. Done. Celebrating the completion of a much-dreamed-of adventure to explore a long-absent culture in another state. Learning, in the process, what we’re made of, and why we undertake such crazy things: for the sheer delight of discovery, connection, exploration.

Good-bye, Keet Seel. Your walls, streets, pottery, and art will always resound in my soul.

June 19, 2012

Keet Seel 2: arrival at the ruin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:08 pm
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The ruin is so intact that I have no difficulty imagining its occupants in their daily lives. Just look at that beautiful street!

(continued from Keet Seel 1: the trek begins)

The ability to sense when you’re getting close to your destination helps when you’re bone-weary, which we three were. Ascending the final hill to the primitive campground, we found an open site and dropped our packs. Ground-cloths were spread and late lunch happened. The lure of horizontality couldn’t be overcome; we rested under the oaks in sight of our prize — Keet Seel Ruin.

If you’ve never seen a huge sandstone alcove, it’s difficult to comprehend the feel of the space. Organic, protective, curvaceous, smooth, empty, inviting — the ancestral people felt its attraction. When one of these magnificent spaces is filled from end to end with a village, my heart and mind are electrified with connection.

Polychrome pottery fragments — such lovely colors are mixed in among more common black-on-white shards.

Approaching the ruin with quietness and respect, we met Bill, a park ranger of Navajo descent. He guides only five people at a time through the 13th-century cliff dwelling, after the approach past thousands of breathtaking pottery shards and a climb up a five-story ladder. “Broken pottery scattered around” is Keet Seel’s rough translation in Navajo. I gasped at the quantity and size of the pieces and scrambled up to enter the ruin.

The ladder is not for the faint of heart. Ancestral people used less sturdy ladders, and sometimes moki steps (footholds and handholds) carved into the rock.

A masonry retaining wall running the length of the alcove presents a strong visual boundary; behind and upon it the people laid out three streets. Streets! Places of commerce, greeting, gathering, moving about, exchanging conversations — I’d never seen such streets in a ruin before. This, however, is no ordinary ruin.

~~ to be continued ~~

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