Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 11, 2010

Peekaboo Springs, Needles: packed with surprises

Kathryn and shield pictographs at Peekaboo Springs

Sunflowers gone wild... tens of thousands of them

…or is it LIFE, packed with surprises? Every day is such an adventure. It’s an adventure to wake up and be breathing.

As three of us undertook a ten-mile hike in the gorgeous summer weather, we were not prepared for the audacity of the day’s gifts to us. It’s as if the Giver of all good gifts delighted to open his hand and unleash nonstop beauty and joy, just for us. Endless fields of sunflowers welcomed us to the parkland, an oddity in any other August. A Collared Lizard (my favorite reptile, remember?) startled us at the beginning of the hike, and a Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard (second fave) at the end. Cumulus clouds shadowed us, keeping the heat down and providing much-needed shade intervals as well as photographic interest. Most of the hike was high on the exposed sandstone benches, giving birds’-eye views of the canyons and washes, with stunning vistas across miles of national parkland. Vast stone walls were pierced by clefts and openings that gave sneak previews into upcoming canyons. A powerful panel of pictographs awaited us at the 5-mile far point, infusing wonder and intrigue as we pondered the inhabitants who painted them 800 and 3000 years ago. As we started back, we stumbled upon an area of ancient granaries, finding seven (7!) structures in one little neighborhood. To top it off, a majestic golden eagle posed for photographs as we drove out of the park. I could hardly take it all in; it is securely in my top five favorite hikes of all time. I must go back, in another season. I may take with me those who have eyes with which to see and savor the beauty; I may journey alone with my grateful heart.

Collared Lizard studying me

My hand... another's hand. Eight centuries apart.

Kathryn & Mariana hike the Needles.

This sentinel stands watch over the pictographs

Peek-a-boo!

A granary for crop storage -- sadly, some oaf "helped" rebuild the top

Useful 12-rung ladder, courtesy of NPS

Rocks have such beauty.

August 5, 2010

Desert Bighorn telemetry

Bill Sloan with his ever-present antenna

“There she is.” The yellow receiver spat out different types of static, but a regular beep now punctuated the fuzziness. Radio-collared bighorn sheep #538 was nearby; her VHF frequency was being picked up and she had to be within a line of sight. Walking intently across the rocky slopes, stopping on high points from time to time to hold up his antenna and listen, Bill related to me from memory her past movements, preferred territory, and reproductive history. Within the hour he had tracked her to a ledgy outcropping where our binoculars revealed she was with her lamb and five other animals — a healthy group for Canyonlands NP. Making ourselves comfortable on the rock, we spent another hour watching and documenting behaviors and interactions.

Desert bighorn ram (courtesy Google images)

Grateful to be in the remotest areas of the park, I was even more grateful to be there with a guide who has roamed these canyons and drainages for so many decades that he could do it blindfolded. Bill Sloan, wildlife biologist, designed this telemetry system nearly thirty years ago and has been refining and improving it ever since. He calls himself “the most blessed man on earth,” and rightly so; his work takes him to inarguably the most beautiful, rugged, wild places in the west. From Arizona to Montana, California to Colorado, he is THE bighorn sheep expert.

Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard -- my second-favorite lizard. Beautiful!

A solitary man, Bill spends his days following sheep and peregrine falcons through tracts of land that few other humans have experienced. He walks lightly, intentionally, respectfully across the desert, aware of every nuance of the natural world. Each plant I asked about, he knew by name. The mysteries of rock layers were explained to me as he traced the meanderings of whichever creek lay beneath us. When a Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard appeared, he froze, as did I; we earned ten precious minutes with this skittish creature, and as Bill described leopard lizards’ ways to me he earned my unflagging respect as one who knows his world and its occupants.

There are wonderful benefits to his lifestyle. Never having had a TV or a cell phone, Bill reads voraciously, quotes Thoreau passionately. Eschewing a bed in favor of sleeping on the ground, he favors a minimalist’s existence and the finer delicacies of canned tuna, yesterday’s brown rice, or a fresh cabbage. He can tell you what the weather is going to do, how to locate the nearest waterfall, and where to find a collection of planets in tonight’s sky. The cohesiveness of his lifestyle is endearing, and I get the feeling that he and John Muir, were John alive, would be inseparable friends.

Half the adventure is just getting to the sheep habitat

We observe the sheep, watching the ewes nurse their lambs; the group finds a shady spot and settles down for an afternoon nap. I lie back on the sandstone, thinking that sheep are very smart. Seven minutes later, refreshed, I’m back on binocular duty.

Large clouds are beginning to gather over the Abajo Mountains to the south, as the earth’s surface heats up. The National Weather Service issued an unusual multi-day flash flood watch instead of an afternoon-only one, so we stay alert. Occasional rumbles of thunder remind us of our vulnerability. We hop in the truck and follow the remnants of uranium mining roads from the early 50s across the canyon country.

Bill’s sense of direction is uncanny, and he needs no map to navigate the hundreds of miles of unmarked backcountry two-tracks. He’d like a visual on another ewe, so we head toward where she was last seen in March. At each high point, Bill holds his antenna up and scans the frequencies for a signal. Nothing. She could be down behind a ridge, or even just below us, but we can’t pick her up unless her collar is in a line of sight.

The sun is sinking as we walk out to a point and plop down to watch the sky color itself yellow, gold, bronze, orange, bittersweet, and finally the deep red of a smithy’s furnace. Canyon bats erratically swoop, rise, and dip, scooping insects into their mouths from their wing or tail membranes. A lone cricket begins to chirp.

I’m caked with sweat and sunscreen, hungry, tired, stinky… and deliriously happy. I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be. Wilderness feels like home to me.

Too beautiful for words

August 4, 2010

Indian Creek flash flood

See human for scale. Try to hear the roar.

Thundering beyond its banks in The Needles, Indian Creek plummeted over the waterfall beyond Hamburger Rock Campground. Chocolate water, by the tens of thousands of gallons, reminded me of liquid mud as it raced toward its inevitable meeting with the Colorado River downstream. Logs and branches floated past; the roar drowned out all other noise. I had just stepped away from a bank further upstream as an arc of sandy soil was undercut, slumping with a thick WHUMP into the churning waters. It had been raining much of the day, and the power of rapidly moving water made me feel very, very small.

Our roadway was cut off by a flash flood; there would be no camping in the backcountry tonight. Monsoons have been heavy and concentrated of late, and low-lying areas are inundated with little warning in this country, in this season.

I had come to The Needles district with Bill Sloan, wildlife biologist with the NPS, to track his radio-collared bighorn sheep. In his thirty years of intimate acquaintance with this district, he has not seen Indian Creek at this stage — ever. We would have to sleep in park housing instead of in our tents in the middle of absolute wilderness. Rats.

Looking upstream from Hwy 211 bridge over Indian Creek

Looking downstream from Hwy 211 bridge over Indian Creek

Sunset after the storm. The Needles district, Canyonlands NP.

August 1, 2010

Odds, Ends

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Ant lion on stucco, with my fingertip for size

1. This Ant Lion is an odd creature; the female will mate with the male and then decapitate and eat him… supposedly all for the good of their future babies. (Does the male not know what’s coming? Don’t the guys talk to one another?)

2. James, the injured boy in the last post, was helicoptered to a distant hospital in Colorado. When I called there today to check on him 24 hours after the rescue, he had been released, which was very good news. He’s going to be fine.

3. I’ll be gone for the next three days in the backcountry, tracking radio-collared desert bighorn sheep in The Needles with our resident wildlife biologist. It was decided to skip the monitoring of peregrine falcon nests this time around as the two main falcon canyons are currently laden with quicksand.

I'm happy to help search for large elusive mammals in Canyonlands NP

April 14, 2010

Lost Canyon and Squaw Canyon, The Needles

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:15 pm
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Walking along the sandstone rim on the Squaw Valley trail

Some places are purely refreshing. Especially after working in a heavy-use park like Arches, with its nearly one million visitors per year, getting away to a neighboring park with fewer people around is extra wonderful.

Needles is full of colorful formations

Yesterday a friend and I went to The Needles, the southern district of Canyonlands NP, about an hour and a half away. Its views are quite different from Arches’ views — buttress-y, fortress-y, rock-climb-y, with a variety of habitats. On a flawless spring day, we had the perfect 7.6-mile hike.

I realized 3/4 of the way through it that I NEED to be active in order to feel my best. I noticed that very strongly upon my return to MN last August, and I did all manner of active things to keep myself in that groove. Minnesota, however, is a far cry from Utah; one must be ever so much more creative and resourceful to find things to do. I thought again of how exquisite it is to have a pool of Very Active Friends who will not shy away from adventure in our off hours.

I’d be interested to hear what you have discovered about your ideal activity levels. What does your body tell you? Have you learned to heed its messages? Do your friends’ activity levels influence you more, or do you influence them?

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