Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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!

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!

May 29, 2016

Secret fear from a rainy tent

Filed under: protecting wilderness — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:41 am
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Not cougar, not rattlesnake, not venomous spider. Nothing physical.

In this social-media-saturated age, the fear that keeps me awake at night is that we have lost the ability to protect fragile places.

I have seen the carnage that comes from over-sharing. I have seen places of beauty advertised so heavily that they are loved to death, exceeding their carrying capacity and creating problems that have no answer.

And in this blog I face a similar dilemma. I go to stunning places and want to share them with you, but… I have seen irresponsible people posting GPS coordinates of classified locations [i.e., too fragile for public visitation; in need of highest protection] such as pristine archaeological sites. To what end, I don’t know. “I went here, and you can, too” may be their Facebook legacy.

I recently hiked to a remote Class 3 (i.e., classified) pictograph panel that was painted several thousand years ago. For 99.996% of its existence, only a small group of people knew its location, and those who did respected and revered it. Then someone posted directions and waypoints on a website, and in short order this formerly-perfect Barrier Canyon Style panel received its first graffiti. This is heartbreaking. It isn’t possible to reverse the impacts of human visitation.  You can’t put the genie back in the lamp.

I love the Maze. I can’t get enough of its beauty/ruggedness/wildness/un-impactedness. But if I write about secrets of this place, or wax eloquent about its magic, or even simply post lovely photos that light a spark… I fear that I am contributing to the problems that are inevitable in our over-crowded, harried, adventure-seeking, post-it-on-the-interwebs-or-it-didn’t-happen society.

I can’t think of a solution. What are we to do??? The Comments section below awaits your input.

 

May 3, 2016

Contrast: it makes life richer

Filed under: wilderness life — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:18 am
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The seventh wave of storms approaches our campsite at Doll House in the Maze

I lead a double life, of sorts. In Minnesota where home and family are, I live comfortably. That adverb did not apply on our five-day Jeep patrol, battered by Pacific storms that left us wet and shivering, with ice caking our tent several mornings. Contrast is a good thing. Contrast makes us grateful.

Today I might have eaten smoked salmon on non-GMO crackers. Instead, the can of Bush’s Best Baked Beans heated on the cookstove paired nicely with the can of Spam.

Today I might have slept in my 2000-square-foot home. Instead, my 35 square feet of tent kept me dry and snug despite the wind, rain, and just-above-freezing temperatures.

Today I might have stayed dry by foregoing hiking. Instead, I got repeatedly pelted by rain and ice pellets — and got to see a full rainbow spanning the Colorado River, miles from anyone, after taking refuge in a shallow alcove near ancient ruins.

Today, I might have encountered angry short-tempered people stressed by perceived inconveniences of life. Instead, we met tired backpackers carrying all that they needed, humbly grateful for a current weather forecast and a fill of their water bottles.

Today, I might have heard cars, barking dogs, radio. Instead, a peregrine falcon’s unsettled cry alerted us to its presence, our only neighbor for miles and miles.

Today, I might have been looking in my (too-large) closet and wondering what to wear. Instead, I took off the rain-soaked work pants and laid them in the Jeep hoping they’d be dry in the morning. Woolen long johns, a tad damp, kept me warm as I slept. You can have the rest of the closet.

Today, in my other life, I might have used a flush toilet like most Americans. Instead, I dug a 6” cathole under a juniper, left a little organic fertilizer, and packed out the toilet paper to ‘leave no trace.’ Easy.

Today, I might have used a thermostat to regulate ambient temperature. Instead, I took off and put on four different layers to ensure my comfort in rapidly-changing conditions.

Today, I might have been connecting with my friends via email and Facebook. Instead, I hiked nine glorious miles with my beloved, through places that expand our souls.

Tonight, I might be falling asleep on my custom-made queen-sized mattress with Egyptian cotton sheets. Instead, I’m floating an inch above the earth on my Therma-rest, tucked into a down sleeping bag, listening to a canyon wren bidding mortals goodnight.

And life is very, very good.

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Doll House — in a window of good weather

April 13, 2016

Not for the faint of heart

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:59 pm
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Piñon, Rain, Sandstone

 

 


 

Looking north from my back porch, canyon vistas gouge the landscape for a hundred miles. From a nearby point, five mountain ranges can be spied. In my wilderness hamlet at this moment, exactly six neighbors are within hollering distance.

The Maze District is not for wimps. Tomorrow, four of us head into the backcountry (where no fires are allowed) for a five-day Jeep patrol…just as a storm system rolls in and brings rain and near-freezing temperatures.

A memo in the Ranger Station states unequivocally that Canyonlands National Park was created with the intention “to manage the Maze District as a rugged, wild area with remoteness and self-reliance the principal elements of the visitor experience.”  Which means: unlike other parks, in which geysers or 19th-century forts or mangrove swamps are the centerpiece of the visitor’s stay, the raison d’etre of the Maze is to allow intrepid travelers to experience isolation and to rely on their own resourcefulness to get in, recreate, and get out in one piece. There is no Ahwahnee Hotel here.

Some national park visitors relish the chance to get far away from everyone and everything, and the Maze was established for that small subset. Let’s make sure we’re clear: unless you plan well in advance, obtain a camping permit, own or rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle, carry extra gallons of gas, at least one spare tire (if not two), a high lift jack, topographic maps/GPS, and water and food to last you days beyond when you think you’ll exit… you should find a different park to visit.

Does the prospect of self-reliance and self-rescue invigorate you, or trouble you? Leave a comment, please ~

April 1, 2016

Season the eighth

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:22 am
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Beginning today, I am going deeper into the wilderness than I have been before. The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park beckons — one of the most remote locations in the West.

The challenge of isolation will take getting used to; it is hours of 4WD to anywhere, including grocery store, post office, and health care. The internet is grimace-worthy and cell service spotty on good days. We will be OUT THERE, figuratively and literally.

This adventure drips with newness and beauty, two things that stir excitement in my soul. I will not be able to blog often (see previous paragraph) but I will use my occasional returns to civilization to post glimpses of the harsh desert wilds that have captured my heart.

Let the season begin!

 

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

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?

 

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.

April 17, 2013

The bighorn and I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:04 pm
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[Note: this encounter occurred just hours before the Boston Marathon carnage. Draw your own conclusions about the importance of preserving wilderness in this increasingly violent world.]

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The last ten feet of a steep slickrock ramp beckoned me upward, and I dug my boots in for the final push. Breaths were coming quickly as I hit the top, where flying pebbles and a furious clatter of hooves announced a startled ungulate. I froze in place.

A magnificent desert bighorn ram with fully curled horns bolted to a sandstone knoll twenty yards distant and turned to study me. Heart pounding, I lowered myself to a crouch.

He sniffed the air, locating molecules of my scent.* His solid muscular body remained tense, ready to scramble, as I attempted to appear even less threatening. I recalled being told that herbivores can be put at ease if you act herbivore-ish yourself, so I lowered my head in a quasi-grazing stance and avoided eye contact.

A good five minutes passed. We were breathing easier now; he seemed more relaxed and less jumpy. He sniffed again, licked his nose, and did something I never would have predicted: began walking haltingly toward me. Not for a second did he take his eyes off this curious green-clad flat-hatted creature as his curiosity drew him in for a closer look. In disbelief, I quickly scoped out an escape route should the need arise.

He and I soon came to a wordless understanding that we weren’t a threat to each other. Finding a small rock overhang twelve yards distant, he parked himself, still eyeing me, unperturbed by my camera work. I snapped photos and admired the physicality of this six- to eight-year-old ram.

A front hoof lifted, scraped the sandstone twice. Repeating with the other hoof, he folded his legs beneath himself and bedded down for a long stay. My senses, atrophied from living in a too-easy world, strained to catch details about him on this spring morning. Silence was interrupted only by the tic-ticking of falling graupel (snow beads) as the minutes slowly passed.

Tingly legs told me it was time to unbend, and bid him farewell; I had more miles to hike, more cairns to build, more trails to patrol. But now this day’s tasks would be colored by a vivid overlay of my chance encounter with a wild, elegant, handsome beast. All was well in my world.

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*(Immediate regret: the single spritz of Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue that I had applied hours earlier. What an affront to his senses.)

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