Ranger Kathryn's Arches

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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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.

December 30, 2011

Wilhite Trail, Canyonlands NP

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:25 am
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Destination: Down There

We didn’t mind the 1200-foot descent on snow-covered switchbacks; our goal was to banish our winter lethargy and serve notice to our sluggishness. A sunny late-December day with highs around 40 degrees seemed to be a perfect invitation to a long hike.

Traipsing over the mesa-top through pinyon-juniper forest, Julia and I marveled. At everything. When you are a nature geek, you can’t help that. Shapes of pinyons, cloud formations, animal tracks in the snow, changes in rock layers, oddities of winter cacti — it’s what makes hiking better than, say, a StairMaster workout. Or just about anything.

4-yr-old ram, 6-8 yr old ram, 1.5-yr-old ewe

A couple of hours into the jaunt we reached a good turning-around place, but I wanted to see over the next crest before we headed back. My “Let’s just walk to the ridge” ushered in an unexpected surprise as we rounded a knoll and startled three desert bighorn sheep. Hoofs went flying, but as we had frozen in place and were not a threat to them, they stopped, turned, watched us with eagle eyes, and eventually returned to their grazing.

There is something indescribable about watching wildlife on their own turf. I feel honored to be allowed to share their place with them, to peer into their world, to study their behaviors and interactions. I learn to ask good questions about what they are eating, how old they are, what is their general state of health, where do they bed down to avoid being eaten by a mountain lion, etc. But mostly, I just bask in the delight of seeing these mysteries for myself instead of in the pages of a magazine or on a PBS special. It’s one of the consummate rewards of being a wilderness woman.

May 26, 2011

The ‘wild’ in ‘wilderness’

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:53 pm
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After hiking quite a few miles Wednesday in remote Lost Spring Canyon, we three were hot and tired. Our truck was a welcome sight, with soft seats, air conditioning, and the ability to finally be off our feet. Working our way out of the wilderness on the 4WD road was our final obstacle before getting onto paved highways to home. Both of my co-workers had been on a long strenuous rescue the night before, and we were all feeling bushed. And then the magic began.

And then we came upon hundreds of these Large-Valve Dock in bloom

Just to the left of our truck a pronghorn bounded. We oohed and ahhhed at its beauty; not many large mammals get seen in Arches, so this was fun. Two minutes later we topped a rise and three (3) golden eagles flushed up from what must have been a communal feast near the road. Huge, majestic, glorious birds — we nearly fell over each other getting out of the truck fast enough to get binocs focused on them and study them for a few minutes. One eagle is great; two is “wow.” Three is awfully rare.

And then, two minutes later, the largest badger I’ve ever seen scurried for its life away from the truck as we passed. Our collective response? We hooted for joy at the plethora of wildlife. And this was after seeing Cooper’s Hawks and juvenile Red-tailed Hawks down in the canyon.

What a sweet, sweet job I have. Did I mention that I love it?

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