Ranger Kathryn's Arches

September 16, 2016

Stairway to heaven

Filed under: Hikes — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:46 pm
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Only the first step or two were tentative.

 

We stared at the steps before us, Melanie and I did, a bit unsure of our next move. Shot Canyon is steep-walled Cedar Mesa sandstone; there is no other entry. Basque herdsmen in the 1890s constructed a way for their sheep to access water in the canyon bottom, and these (*cough*) stairs are still in use.

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Above Shot Canyon on a perfect September day

120 years ago some guy stacked a base layer of rocks on slanty sandstone, and then layered step after step upward. Hikers gingerly (not knowing the lifespan of a sheep stairway) descend the narrow steps, cross the bare area, land on the slab rocks atop the log, and descend further to the second, less-sketchy, stairway below. All this while five hours’ difficult drive from the nearest human being, should anything go wrong.

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Ranger Kathryn in her beloved Maze District of Canyonlands Nat’l Park

Can you see the happy park ranger* smiling to be out in the wilderness? She is happy because at 0124 that morning, under a nearly-full moon, a rare Spotted Owl hooted her awake. And she is happy because she’s ready to go down some clever steps and explore a place she’s never seen before. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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Where was the last dangerous staircase you used? How did you feel? Leave a comment, please!

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*Disguised as a volunteer this season, as you can see by my hat.

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September 1, 2016

The demise of spontaneity?

Filed under: camping,photo albums,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:24 am
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The dashboard clock read 0423 as we rolled up to the entrance of the Many Glacier campground and its 109 sites. In the inky pre-dawn of mid-August, we waited sleepily for rangers to show up several hours later to assign the available first-come-first-served sites, of which there are typically 15-20 daily. We were not the first car there.

It has come to this because demand far exceeds supply. Reservable campgrounds exist, but spontaneous souls who long to snag a last-minute campsite in the heart of Glacier must forfeit part of a night’s sleep to occupy a place in line. (I might add that this arrangement is far superior to the more typical “Campground Combat” method of circling for hours, pouncing on folks as they emerge from their tent, and hovering nearby the site until it’s free.)

We heard some vociferous complainers in line, demanding to know why they couldn’t ‘just get a site’ as they did in other places, forgetting that our national parks were created in an era of far fewer visitors. The answer is not as simple as building more campgrounds; you then need even more parking, toilets, grocery stores, gas stations, ice, showers, laundry, employees, etc. No easy solutions exist but I’d love to hear your thoughtful suggestions in the Comments section.

Truth be told — with a grizzly encounter, iceberg-strewn lake, thimbleberries galore, with smell of boreal forest, with bright starlit nights over alpine lakes… it was worth losing a few hours of sleep. Many Glacier will always be a brilliant gem in “The Crown of the Continent.”

August 1, 2016

Your GPS may kill you

Filed under: wilderness life — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:31 pm
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You can’t get there from here!

The caller’s words were succinct: “We don’t know where we are, but our car is scraping bottom and it’s getting dark and we need help.”

Two 20-something women from a faraway state, driving a woefully inadequate Honda Pilot, were deeply embedded in our wilderness and knew only that they had gotten there “because that’s the way our GPS told us to go.” It wasn’t possible to assist them until morning. “You mean…” the caller faltered, “…we have to be out here all night by ourselves?”

Yes. You do. And it will earn you bragging rights back in Iowa.

These two women were in good health, and had water and food. About to taste their first back-country ‘camping,’ they slept in their car; coordinates from their iPhone provided the only way to find them, because they didn’t have a map. They were fortunate to have been able to climb up a high knoll to get a shred of cell signal.

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Where outlaws hid successfully. It’s called “The Maze” for very good reason.

 

The next visitors led astray by blindly following their GPS were driving a low-clearance rental mini-van and spoke no English. The group of seven intended to drive 45 minutes to visit the gentlest district of Canyonlands, but their device brought them a half-day’s drive to the wild and remote Maze district. We got them turned around just before a huge thunderstorm would have trapped them and their 2WD vehicle.

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My friends Cowboy Steve and Diablo  say: “Always carry a suitable map.”

The latest episode was the most dangerous. A lone visitor typed in “Canyonlands” and the GPS took her, in a small Ford Fiesta, deep into the interior. She was stuck in sand with no shovel, no food. It was our hottest month and she ended up walking 20 miles back to the ranger station for help; with little water, she was compelled to drink her own urine to survive the trek. She could have died trusting her GPS.

Incidents like this are rapidly increasing in frequency; our large warning signs saying ‘GPS ALERT’ go unread. The common thread is that paper maps are absent, and drivers assume that their GPS must be correct even when all evidence repudiates that.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having — and knowing how to read — good maps. DO NOT rely on devices. Too much is at stake in wilderness navigation.

Has your GPS has ever led you into trouble? Leave a comment!

February 3, 2015

Twelve-geyser day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:43 pm
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Beehive Geyser, west wind, rainbow

Beehive Geyser, west wind, rainbow

A typical Yellowstone visitor might see one, two, or even three geysers erupt during their visit; this was to be an epic day for me. It began with a humble goal of observing Grand Geyser in action, a spectacular fountain-style spouter that erupts every 5.5 to 7 hours. I knew its approximate eruption time from the previous day, so I skied out in what I thought might be its window of opportunity.

And there is where I had the extreme good fortune to run into some folks from GOSA — Geyser Observation and Study Association. These amateur geothermal junkies hang around the park with two-way radios, documenting every possible detail about each eruption they see. They update a website in real time, as well as calling the visitor center. And they love to share their passion with bystanders.

If I had known I’d be waiting 85 chilly minutes for Grand, I might have changed my mind. But in those 85 minutes I learned a lot from the GOSA geyser-gazers.

Old Faithful, sunrise

Old Faithful, sunrise

Penta Geyser (#1) and Tardy Geyser (#2) were erupting nearby when I arrived, and soon they were reporting others. “Churn Geyser, 10:22, one-zero-two-two, Churn Geyser.” I hadn’t even been aware of what was behind me, but there was Churn (#3), bursting forth. Sound and steam tip them off to eruptions. “Bulger Geyser, 10:40, major eruption.” (#4.) Now I’m skiing back and forth among the spouters, standing at each for a few minutes to watch the show. In between the other events, I get a lesson on reading the subtle signals that Grand is getting ready. “You see that pool at its base? It needs to fill up another inch or two. And Grand goes only when Turban is erupting behind it, which happens in 20-minute cycles.”

Soon I hear him radio in: “Grand pool is full. Grand pool is full.” The other observer climbs up on a bench and announces, “Waves on Grand. I see waves.” Their excitement is palpable. It’s about to happen. Well, Turban had a delay, and the pool level dropped, and GOSA-guy explained that when that happens, Grand is usually reluctant 20 minutes later so perhaps we should hope for the 40-minute-away cycle. I made a mental note that geysers are complicated.

A huge steam cloud rose from across the Firehole River. “Castle Geyser, start, 10:55,” he radioed. I skied over to Castle (#5) and got there in time to see the end of its minor eruption. Glorious stuff. Skied back to Grand. “West Triplet, 11:14.” (#6.) This bubbler is on the same mound as Grand so I asked whether it might be an indicator. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no; depends…” came the reply. Geysers are complicated, I thought, as I watched hot water flow beneath the boardwalk.

And then, at the 40-minute mark, everything started happening at once. Percolator Geyser (#7) started percolating right in front of me, waves became visible on the very full pool, and then one vigorous introductory BLOOP released the pressure-valve and Grand (#8) flung boiling water 125 feet into the air with furious intent. Turban (#9) went off behind it, and Vent (#10) started shooting sideways next to it. It was geyser overload, five at once, a ten-minute show like no other.

Even the cappuccino depicts erupting geysers.

Even my cappuccino inadvertently depicts an erupting geyser.

I will admit that I squealed involuntarily with delight.

As I skied back to the visitor center wondering how my day could have been so exquisite, Beehive Geyser (#11) sent up its huge noisy once-a-day jet, and Old Faithful (#12) burst into the sky one more time for me. I felt a tear of gratitude roll down my cheek, fall to the ground. A lovely thought came: in about five centuries, that teardrop may be recycled as geyser water. I wonder who will be at Yellowstone then?

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Geyser photo credits: Ranger Chris Dyas

January 18, 2015

Wishing I had more than five senses…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:58 am
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Morning steam rises from Crested Pool in the Upper Geyser Basin.

Morning steam rises from Crested Pool in the Upper Geyser Basin.

My eyes scan the geyser basin, pondering the vapors being belched from somewhere deep below. In winter the steam is abundant, clinging to trees and boardwalks, coating animals and plants in ice, making trails slippery. The mists move down-valley on the back of invisible currents, obscuring and revealing. A billowing plume rises over every thermal feature.

Grotte Geyser, belching dragon's breath.

Grotto Geyser, belching… dragon’s breath?

My ears sharpen, picking up odd sounds that seem out of context. The small geyser bubbling between eruptions sounds just like a pot of eggs boiling rapidly on the stove. I hear Beehive, a dramatic cone geyser, before I see her, roaring like a firehose at full blast, sending spray 175 feet in the air for minutes at a time. I ski pass Grotto Geyser, with multiple cave-like openings, Middle-Earth-like; some frightful leviathan occupies its depths, whump-whumping as it thrashes. Ga-WHOOMP goes its tail, which is probably not a tail but a reservoir of super-heated water remaining under great pressure. At least that’s what my brain tells me; my neck hairs know differently.

My nose, accustomed to the pure clear air here, catches whiffs of “rotten egg” smell at some pools. Underground deposits of sulfur are plentiful, acidifying some thermal features, helping create mudpots.

Ski right by the famous Morning Glory Pool if you like.

Ski to the famous Morning Glory Pool if you like.

My face tingles in the crisp air as I ski, and when a steam cloud envelops me on the boardwalk I can feel the temperature jump for a few seconds. It is no wonder the bison hang around these warm spots in winter.

Taste? A tiny feast — fresh snowflakes on my tongue!

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If you could add a sixth sense to enhance your enjoyment of the natural world, what would it be? 

January 14, 2015

Dazzled indeed

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 2:12 pm
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“Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing

to be dazzled —

to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even

to float a little

above this difficult world.”

— Mary Oliver

 

It’s the dead of winter. My newly-waxed skis slip rhythmically across the shining snow; out-of-practice muscles welcome the exertion.

A coyote ambles past, making its circuit, following its nose, and a lone bison munches on green grasses it exposed using its massive head as a snowplow. Two trumpeter swans ply the Firehole River. Plumes of steam, rising like “the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,” confirm that I am in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone is a geothermal hotspot atop an active super-volcano, its immense magma chamber roiling just a few miles below the surface. Here, geysers expel super-heated water; hot springs burble and boil, fumaroles hiss, mudpots blurp. The ground feels quite alive under me, sounds and smells and sights emanating from a mysterious subterranean labyrinth.

Dazzled I am; few places can astound the senses like wintry Yellowstone can. I have the extreme privilege of being at Old Faithful, deep in the interior, visiting my beloved who is a winter seasonal park ranger. Fewer than 100,000 visitors — not even 3% of annual visitation — brave the obstacles to experience Yellowstone in winter. This is the solitude season, surely the most stunning of them all.

Leave a comment: What stops you from considering a winter visit?

August 17, 2014

Paddle in hand, joy in heart

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 2:20 pm
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Yes, readers, I’ve been away from Utah’s red rock, back in the Land of Green. Seven weeks at home in Minnesota were brought to a pleasing conclusion with a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where loons and bald eagles were always within sight or hearing, where the pace of life slows to just the cadence of your paddle: slip it in the water, pull back, lift, repeat. This is how people have lived for thousands of years, and it just feels right.

What did I learn about myself in those four days on Seagull Lake? (1) All food tastes good when camping. (2) Glacial lakes dotted with small islands confuse me on a map. (3) Thunderstorms are unusually exciting on an exposed dome of granite in a lake. (You can almost feel the rock tingle with electricity.) (4) I do best in a place where man-made intrusions are absent. (5) Discovering wild blueberries in abundance is a giddy experience; harvesting them is a treasure. (6) A freshly-molted eagle feather is incredibly photogenic.

IMG_0997I’m ready to embrace the desert grandeur once again, but here’s why I went home: to celebrate the marriage of a daughter and the acquisition of a wonderful son-in-law. Life’s singular moments are precious, and I savor them, turning them over and over, grateful for every day because tomorrow is never guaranteed.

Readers, what is one thing you have learned about YOURSELF lately? I want to know.

May 6, 2014

A moment’s beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:42 am
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Spring rainstorm, Candlestick Tower

Spring rains, Candlestick Tower

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”     – John Muir

October 16, 2012

Four anthropomorphs and Siamese twins

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:35 am
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Classic Fremont petroglyphs: trapezoidal figures with necklaces, ear bobs and headdresses. These also have shields and a spear.

From our vantage point in a high alcove across the canyon, the large trapezoidal figure seemed to watch us. We watched back — first through binoculars, and then a scramble down and up to approach it. Only then were his three companions discovered, all appearing to hold shields. This is the absolute beauty of rock art: the continual unfolding of images. Meanings, though, usually lay hidden across centuries.

Staring at petroglyphs is warmly satisfying. As one’s eyes adjust and scan toward the periphery, more bits come into view. Questions arise like bubbling springs: Was that large spear for hunting, or for defense? Hmm: you don’t carry shields for hunting. Who was threatening them? Why did some artist add ear-bobs to the lowest guy, much later? Is the little man in the right center holding a sparkling timer? What were their necklaces made of? What about those headdresses? Why is only one weapon on display?

Current-century questions also arise. What kind of person would use priceless rock art for target practice? As much as the bullet holes detract from the aesthetic, they can’t mar the inherent beauty of these powerful figures.

Conjoined twins pecked into rock?

Meanwhile, in another part of the county, girlfriend Tara found this petroglyph that looks for all the world like men who are Siamese twins. Never in all my thousands of glyphs have I seen anything like this one, and it piques my curiosity. Many cultures would put the babies out to die if they were born connected, or in some way different from normal. My midwife mind wonders whether a woman eight centuries ago could even successfully birth conjoined twins, when they are always born by Cesarean nowadays. Perhaps this image was something a shaman ‘saw’ in a trance, instead.

 

September 28, 2012

Impressions from ancient days

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 2:36 pm
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Eight toes in one picture.

Antiquity is a tantalizing thing; Jurassic antiquity is one of the more alluring, especially if you’re standing on a spot where dinosaurs once patrolled the land.

High in the La Sal Mountains, above 8200 feet, lies a trackway of these old creatures. Past a jerry-rigged stick-and-wire gate keeping cows out, the path meanders through oak scrubland to an open area of flat rock. The instant I set foot upon it, my brain shouted YOU HAVE SEEN ROCK LIKE THIS BEFORE AND IT CONTAINED DINO TRACKS. And, sure enough, a minute more brought me to the impressions.

They were large. VERY large. Bearing water from recent rains, the tracks crossed each other, great beast-feet striding in various directions. Putting my shoe next to one of them, I couldn’t help but speculate about its height… two or three Kathryns tall? What color was its skin? Did it make a snuffling noise as it walked? How did it hold its tail? Did others scatter ahead of it? Were there bigger ones than these? Were babies unutterably cute? What plants surrounded the Jurassic travelers in this locale? What kind of dinosaurs made the prints???

My hand span is 8 inches, pinky to thumb.

Not having any answers for my set of curious questions, I pressed my nose against the trunk of a stately Ponderosa pine, inhaled its unmistakable vanilla scent, and recalled how much I love the West. Every new day of this wondrous life brims with things to explore and discover; I am blessed, so very blessed.

 

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