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Four Days a River Rat

In September of 2014 I paddled a kayak solo down 52 miles of the Green River through Utah’s Cayonlands National Park.  With no rapids it is said to be America’s finest flatwater river trip.  It is a typically safe journey of calming serenity, quiet, and beauty.  It is light on worries and heavy on relaxation.  And, it almost took my life.  This story is a testament to the old adage that bad things can happen when we least expect it.

Summer 2014 127

There is no terror like the realization that you are about to die.

I have made the classic fatal sequence of those who drown:  panic then exhaustion.  The current has me pinned to the middle of the broad river.  My futile attempts to swim to shore against swirling waters have expended my aerobic capacity, rendering me unable to continue treading water.  My legs and arms are becoming dead weights.  Gasping for air, heart thumping wildly, the muddy water splashes against my chin.  If I could stand I would collapse in complete exhaustion.  But, there is nothing to stand on, nothing to grab hold of, nobody there to throw me a life line.  I’m about to go under.  Just like that, I’m finished.

Day One on the River

The Green River.  It is a river of Western American history and legends.  It was a life artery for the Ancients.  It was the main trunk of a vast matrix of territory for fur trapping mountain men.  It was the legendary route of crazy one-armed explorer John Wesley Powel.  It ran central through the philosophical minds of Everett Ruess and Edward Abby.  Today, I push my sit-on-top kayak into the muddy river at Mineral Bottom, the last put-in upriver from Canyonlands National Park.  From here the river twists quietly and smoothly for its final 52 miles to its confluence with the Colorado.  This lowest stretch of the big Green River is said to be America’s greatest flatwater river trip.

Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom

Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom

The late morning sun feels hard on my shoulders.  It is near 100 degrees this early September day.  But, the river water cools as I dangle my hands into the liquid mud and use the paddle to splash my back.  I’m gliding on a wide tan-colored flatwater. The lazy current is only perceptible by glancing at slowly passing willows on the shore.  I float at walking speed.  Red and tan banded cliffs rise a few hundred feet on both sides in brilliant clarity and texture under a perfect dome of blue.  No clouds and no wind.  Leisurely paddle strokes here and there serve only to keep my kayak pointed downriver.  I find I’m smiling a lot as I head into the Canyonlands.

I establish a rhythm of slow steady paddling over the next few hours as the river wanders its way towards and then into Canyonlands National Park.  The air remains still and hot with no shade.  The water is flat, cool and muddy.  While paddling close to a willow-lined shore a beaver slips into the water and circles my kayak.  It doesn’t seem pleased with my presence and as I drift away from it, it gives the water a solid slap with its tail.

After a long easterly stretch the river takes a swing towards the south and I enter an area where low sandstone cliffs drop straight into the water.  The sun is now low enough to cast some shade over the edges of the river beneath these walls.  I seek out the shade and drift close enough to the rocks to reach out and touch them, at times floating under stone overhangs a foot over my head.   The landscape feels immense.  This is the big West of canyon and cloud, rock and sun, river and big sky.  I feel euphoric.

Serenity on the big desert river, just a few miles into Canyonlands

Serenity on the big desert river, just a few miles into Canyonlands

Drifting quietly under a world of rock

Drifting quietly under a world of rock

Before the trip I was told about the sudden gusts in Canyonlads that tend to scatter tents and canoes without warning, and, sure enough, the dead calm is broken by a wind out of nowhere.  In a matter of minutes my hypnotic drift down a glossy river becomes a struggle against wind and wave.  I start looking for a campsite.

As luck would have it, the obvious campsites around Bonita Bend are already occupied and I have to keep pushing forward, battling headwinds and side winds depending on the direction of the river.  I push down a long stretch where one cannot easily stop much less camp, with impenetrable willow on the left and impenetrable tamarisk on the right.  Finally, with the sun below the west canyon rim and with tired shoulders, I spot a low sandbar island.  The canyon seems to reward me for my hard work, for just as abruptly as it roared to life the wind stops.  I pull the kayak completely up onto the sandbar, look around, and know that I have finally found my campsite for the night, 22 miles from my starting point and deep in the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park.

Sandbar campsite at Valentine Bottom, 22 miiles from put-in, 30 miles from confluence

Sandbar campsite at Valentine Bottom, 22 miiles from put-in, 30 miles from confluence

The Sandbar and a Cat

It turns out to be a great campsite in the middle of the river–my own desert island.  As I’m getting unloaded I keep hearing disturbances on the river surface.  I remember that I packed a spool of fishing line and some hooks.  Curious, I tie on a hook and a hunk of smelly salami, tie off about 30 feet of line to the boat and heave the salami out into the river.  Thinking it unlikely that I’ll catch anything I quickly forget about it and get back to my camp chores.

Minutes later I hear a slight ping and look up to see a taught line being pulled slowly this way and that.  I jump over, grab the line and start pulling it in, hand over hand.  Flopping onto my island is a 14-inch catfish, whiskers, spines and everything.  I briefly consider keeping it for dinner.  But, compared to the ground beef I brought for burgers, this slimy cat doesn’t seem all that appetizing.  I manage to de-hook it without getting stung and toss it back into its muddy domain.  I soon dine on two scrumptious cheeseburgers cooked on a cast iron pan over my stove complemented by some fresh diced watermelon and a cold beer—yes you can take “stuff” on a river trip.

Catfish may be tasty, but they don't look tasty.  I set this one free.

Catfish may be tasty, but they don’t look tasty. I set this one free.

I decide not to use the tent tonight opting instead for a starry ceiling.  By the time I crawl into my bag, the moon is up, the stars are out, and the desert crickets are making sweet music.  I clap my hands and hear two echoes, left then right, in the canyon.  The river is quiet except for those catfish.

Day Two on the River

The morning is exquisite:  perfect air, perfect scenery, perfect solitude.  A heron is feeding at the head of my island as I cook a breakfast of eggs and pancakes.  The upper canyon rim is illuminated to a glowing red in a band of sunshine making its way slowly down the rock face to the river.  Knowing how far downriver I made it yesterday I feel no pressure to move fast today.

I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river

I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river

But, move I must, so I finally debark from my wonderful sandbar island and begin day two on the river.  The canyon country tightens up a bit more to the river today.  Rock walls become closer and taller and yet the river maintains its slow hypnotic pace.  I paddle less this morning and drift more.

By midday the calm is broken and that headwind kicks up again, earlier than yesterday.  Before I know it I’m facing down two foot rollers.  The flow of the river seems to be almost stopped by the wind and I’m forced to paddle fairly rigorously to keep moving.  I come to a sandbar on river left and stop for some lunch and rest.

The wind is relentless and kicks up plumes of sand into my cheese and salami.  Desk-sized blocks of sand break from the bank and crash into the water like calving ice burgs.  A party of five, two canoes and three kayaks, drift into view like ghosts.  They battle the wind with stubborn nonchalance, content to kick back and simply bob in the waves when the wind is especially stiff.

I decide to push back into the river to make a run for the next bend and hopefully calmer conditions.  I’m not as patient as the party of five and I have a lighter craft, so I paddle hard and cut through the gusts.  Finally, I round a 90-degree bend to the left.  The orientation of the canyon changes and the wind dwindles to a few blustery breezes.  I stop again on a nice rock to rest in some afternoon shade provided by sandstone cliffs to river right.

By mid-afternoon I’ve found my campsite. It’s a big beautiful beach on the outside of a long left bend in the river.  The western canyon wall is close, draping a nice early shade over the beach to cut the hard sun.  It’s a great spot, but large enough to accommodate quite a few people.  I realize that river etiquette requires me to offer the use of this place to any later parties coming down the river.  As I wander up and down my beach like a contented Robinson Crusoe I hope I will not have to share it.

Beach campsite, night 2, about 38 miles from put-in and 12 miles from the cofluence

Beach campsite, night 2, about 38 miles from put-in and 12 miles from the cofluence

The Beach and Padre

My hopes of solitude are in doubt when a group of four men come around the bend.  They are paddling a contraption of two canoes with a platform fastened between them.  On the platform is an enormous pile of camping gear.  Shirtless, burley, and gruff-voiced, these look to be the saltiest group of guys on the Green.  I can see that they are scouting my beach with envy.

Reluctantly I wave and call out to them with welcoming words.  I’ve done my part, now the decision is theirs.  They decide to stay.  As they climb ashore, one-by-one, the last man off the boat catches my attention.  He looks ancient as he waddles up to shake my hand.  He’s tall, well over six feet, but somewhat hunched.  Shirtless with a good sized sagging spare tire around the middle, he has leathery skin the red-brown color of the Wingate sandstone of the canyon.  His hair is a close-cropped helmet of thick blond-gray like the Navaho Sandstone that caps the Wingate.  He looks like the canyon itself as he walks forward like a giant teetering weeble wobble.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” he says, and then offers to share their liquor which is apparently of great abundance.  I don’t quite know what to think of this odd bunch.  At the moment I’m not thrilled that they are here.  What was a quiet canyon is now filled with profanity-infused banter and I lament the loss of solitude.  But, as I cook and eat my dinner, they start to seem less like prison escapees and a bit more like regular folks.  I finish my dinner, grab my can of beer and saunter over.  I’m welcomed into the crew with great enthusiasm.

My improvised river rock and fire pan cooking system.  Only beach driftwood can be burned and fire pans are required.

My improvised river rock and fire pan cooking system. Only beach driftwood can be burned and fire pans are required.

“So, where are you all from?” I break the ice.

“Albuquerque and Phoenix,” they say in unison. “How ‘bout you?”

“Denver.”

Nods all around.

“You guys been down this river before?” I ask, genuinely curious.

“Well,” starts the second oldest guy in the group. “This would be my sixth trip down personally.  Padre here’s been down a few times.” He motions over to the old red guy. “Padre, how many times does this make for you?” he asks with a smirk.

Padre stares at me for a moment, his large rugged head cocked a bit to the side, then says, “well, this would be number eighty for me,” he says, matter of fact.

I believe he must be joking. “Eighty?!” I say this as I look around to the other guys in the group for confirmation.  They all nod with reverence.

“Yeah, well,” says Padre. “That’s over a span of about 40 years.”

I’m amazed.  Here must be a true river legend of the Canyonlands.  Fascinated I lay into old Padre with question after question.  He’s a retired math teacher originally from Detroit.  In the 1950’s his family took a six-week car camping trip out West when the American past time of car camping was not yet a past time.  They car camped right up underneath one of the big arches in what was then seldom-visited Arches National Monument.  It was there that they were greeted by park ranger Edward Abbey himself when Desert Solitaire was but a few passing thoughts in that brilliant man’s mind.

Like many young men from the East who see the West for the first time, he was hooked.  It was so expansive and bright, so beautiful and invigorating.  It was during that trip that he stood on the rim in what would later become Canyonlands National Park, looked down into the chasms and envisioned himself floating right down that winding canyon river.

He didn’t do it on that trip, but he made it back out West permanently fifteen or so years later, bought a seven dollar inflatable raft from K-Mart and floated himself right into the Green River.  There were no jet boat pick-ups at the confluence in those days, and very few other people on the river.  When he reached the confluence several days later, he deflated his raft, packed it up and hiked right out of the canyons many miles to the nearest ranger station.  From there he hitchhiked back up to the town of Green River.

He loved the experience so much that he kept coming back and started bringing people with him.  One time after completing the 52 miles down the river from Mineral Bottom, he turned his canoe around and paddled the 52 miles all the way back up the river.  He has explored and knows intimately just about every side canyon and every bend in the river.  His tales are conveyed with understatement and nostalgia, like a great adventurer who knows he can never capture in words the experiences he holds in his heart: “See that next little side canyon down there?” he says, pointing down the river. “I call that one the ‘candylands’ because of the bright colors and texture of the rocks.  Hard to get to.  I’ve only ever seen one other set of boot prints in there.” His voice trails a bit as he stares down river toward his candylands.

As the night settles in and the stars appear I now feel fortunate to have shared my beautiful river beach with these humble and friendly legends of the Green River.  Padre invites me back for coffee in the morning as I say goodnight and I shuffle happily up to my end of the beach.  I lay awake for hours that night watching the moon traverse across the sky between the canyon rims, and the stars twinkle brightly.  Something about Padre’s story makes me especially proud of my country this night.  What a beautiful life!  What a beautiful place this is!  What a beautiful country I live in!  This is freedom.  This is the America that I love.

Day 3 on the River

“Padre, you couldn’t wait for Doug to get downriver before doing that?”

I hear this as I paddle on from the beach and see Padre sitting on the “gruber” (portable toilet) with some reading material.  I hold in my laughter as Padre mumbles something to feign surprise.  I wave goodbye to my friends and point my kayak down the river.

In four miles I come to a sweeping left curve in the river where Jasper Canyon comes in from the right.  Just as Padre described last night, on the downstream side of the mouth of Jasper are some large rocks to tie up to.  I hop out and get situated, swapping my water shoes for my hiking boots, and head up into the side canyon.

I never see the ancient Anasazi granary that is supposed to be near the mouth of the canyon as I continue on an intermittent hikers trail into a tightening dry gorge.  Nearly a mile up, I finally clamber over some ledges, around some freshwater pools and into an astounding amphitheater.  The bottom of the amphitheater contains a small clear pool of water with a sandy beach. Above me is a 500-foot circular overhang cliff with water drops drifting down from the lip.  I scamper up ledges and get underneath the overhang and behind the drip-waterfall.  Looking straight up I’m entertained by watching single drops of water on seven-second free falls.

The head of Jasper Canyon, looking straight up at the circular amphitheater

The head of Jasper Canyon, looking straight up at the circular amphitheater

Back on the river now the remainder of the afternoon is calm with glassy water and sublime canyon scenery.  I play leapfrog with the five person crew I saw yesterday in the wind and, for a while, enjoy the bluegrass tunes I hear coming from one of their kayaks.

The river makes big turns here, first to the left, then to the right and then to the left again.  But, it’s always quiet and calm with that gentle drift through the canyon walls.  The days have become progressively more enjoyable and I have a hard time believing it when I realize I’m within three or four miles of the confluence and I’ve put nearly 50 river miles behind me.

Today, my campsite reveals itself easily.  On the inside edge of a sharp right bend in the river a great big sandy beach and raised dune sparkles in the sunlight.  This is the place for my third and what I expect to be a final glorious night on the river in Canyonlands.

My third and final campsite was a magnificent beach... But, I would not get to enjoy a night on this one.

My third and final campsite was a magnificent beach… But, I would not get to enjoy a night on this one.

The Dune and Calamity

I walk aimlessly for a while along the broad white-sand beach and up onto the sand dune.  The canyon is especially tight here as the river makes a near 180-degree doubling back and the close canyon walls curve with the river that formed them.  I notice next to my beach there is a broad and shallow eddie swirling around.  Although the sky has gotten somewhat cloudy, it’s still mid-afternoon and warm.  I decide then to do something I’ve been contemplating for most of the day—get in that water and cool off.

With no shirt or shoes, and my life vest sitting on my boat, I wade into the eddie finding knee deep water out 20 feet from the bank.  I’m not here to swim.  I simply want to get down into that cool shallow water and drift on my back in that giant shallow whirlpool.  I lower myself into the eddie.  The cool water on the back of my head is sublimely refreshing.  I relax immediately as I float on my back, looking up to those reddish canyon rims.  I let my arms hang and my fingers find the sandy riverbed.  Drifting.  Slowly drifting, I feel the current pulling me back to shore.  The bottom drops away from the reach of my fingers, yet I linger in my float like a log adrift by the bank.  Or so I think.  I finally turn upwards to stand, but that sandy bottom isn’t there.  Suddenly, I’m treading deep water and drifting away from my beach in the main river current.

Within minutes I’m in a fight for my life.  I’m heaving for air after foolishly panicking and repeatedly trying to swim up-current towards the beach only to be dragged farther into the middle of the river.  The slow current is like a giant’s thumb casually pushing me away the more I try to push back.  I used to have a recurring dream as a child—just when I needed to get away from some monstrous threat, my legs would turn to jelly and I couldn’t move.  It’s remarkable how similar it felt as the fatigue turned my legs and arms into nearly useless branches of heavy flesh.  My nightmare is real now and my tormenting monster is the big muddy river who’s got me in a death grip.  I’m a hundred feet from either bank and the river feels a hundred feet deep.  The terror is profound as I realize that I’m about to die.

When facing death one inevitably also faces family.  My smiling three-year-old daughter appears vividly in my mind, and I hear the sweetest words in that sweetest little voice: “I love you Daddy.” A flood of emotions engulfs me like the river I’m trapped in… Extreme guilt… Crushing sadness… Anger at myself for doing this to my family.  How could I do this to them?!  I can’t do this to them.

I hear another voice, my voice.  “Stop fighting it.” The fight or flight instinct is powerful, but usually counter-productive in drowning situations.  Overcoming the natural urge to fight or flee is difficult.  I’ve often wondered if I could stand my ground when facing a charging grizzly.  It requires the slow moving logical mind to overpower the rapid instinct to simply react to whatever is about to kill you.  But, turning this table is often the difference between life and death.  “Relax…  get on your back.” I say this aloud, but my voice seems detached from my body.

I listen to that voice and just lean back and belly up.  I extend my arms out wide and arch my back… and just float.  My chest is heaving as I struggle to catch my breath.  I focus on the sky, the canyon rim.  I recover, just enough.  Just in time.

My mind continues to grasp onto logic and beat back the instinctive urge to panic.  This allows me to reason and I predict that the current will drift me over to the far bank.  If I just float the river will discard me gently on that opposite shoreline.

Perhaps a minute or two go by and I finally turn my head towards the bank (opposite my beach) expecting it to be just a few feet away.  Instead, I see something devastating:  I’m still pinned into the middle of the big river.  Panic returns as I realize the current alone will not get me to the side.  I turn and try to do a side-stroke.  But, this quickly brings me back to full exhaustion.

A second wave of terror thunders over me.  The river seems immense and I’m an insignificant piece of waterlogged flotsam about to drift silently under the surface to eternal darkness.  I see a vision of bleached white bones like driftwood on a winter sandbar—my bones, picked clean by ravens.  But, I snap out of this defeatism again.  My mind returns to my little girl and my beautiful wife.  I can’t leave them.  I float again on my back, heaving for air, concentrating on staying afloat.  Once again, I begin to find calm.  The fear is there, lurking.  But, I keep that beast at bay.  I begin to say aloud, over and over, “I’m gonna make it… I’m gonna make it.” I force myself to believe it.  I visualize reaching solid ground again.  Anger returns, not at myself this time, but an anger of defiance and determination and a refusal to quit.  I call the river a bastard. “Fuck you, river!” Somehow this helps.  With renewed energy, I commence an angled backstroke, but I pace myself this time with slow steady strokes, letting the current work with me, angling toward the bank.

It feels like an eternity, reaching that bank.  But, every time I look I’m just a little closer, and each time, I gain confidence that I will make it out of this.  When the bank is finally within a few feet I turn from my backstroke and jolt into a spasm of a side stroke, and with one last exertion of energy I strike the rising river bed with my left hand.  Salvation.

I claw my way up onto a steep muddy bank, and only then do I realize how extraordinarily exhausted I still am.  I do nothing for ten minutes but lay there on that bank, my legs still in the water and my torso draped along the slope like an evolutionary fish emerging from the sea onto land for the first time.

Finally, my breath and heart rate slow.  I don’t know what to think of this ordeal.  I’m extremely relieved, a little bit proud of the fight in me, and a little bit angry with myself.  Soul searching begins. “Why do I go into the backcountry alone?” I ask myself. “How could I be so selfish?” I make an immediate life decision right there on that bank.  I will no longer go solo on big trips into the backcountry.

A Creature of the Night

It’s about 4:00 in the afternoon.  I sit on my steep muddy bank of salvation looking across and up the river to my kayak and all my stuff.  Attempting to swim back across is unthinkable.  I find myself boxed in by two cliffs, one upriver and one down, that drop straight into the water.  Between these cliffs, where I am, is a steep slope covered in a nasty tangle of thorny bushes, loose rocks and quite possibly home to a rattlesnake or two and a few scorpions.  At the top of this slope, about 30 feet above the river and behind me, the sheer face of the canyon rises hundreds of feet straight up.  My only way out will have to be by boat rescue.  The question is: will that rescue come this afternoon, or tomorrow morning?

I begin to assess my situation.  I have no shirt.  No shoes.  No supplies.  Nothing.  The sky is still cloudy and looks to be darkening.  If it starts to rain at night, life-threatening hypothermia is a high probability without clothing or shelter.  I begin very carefully making my way up the bank, upriver.  I come to a sandstone ledge about eight feet above the river, 30 feet long and about two to three feet wide.  I walk along this bench and consider it to be a possible site for a bivouac.  It is flat and dry with relatively easy access to the river should I become severely dehydrated.

But, my immediate need is to find a sheltered place in case it rains.  My best chance of finding natural shelter would be up along the base of the cliff behind me.  I climb the steep slope in my bare feet dangerously clawing and pulling my way up through spikey vegetation on loose dirt.  One slip could make my dilemma infinitely more serious.  I manage to make my way up to the base of the cliff.  There is a level shelf at the base, about two feet wide.  I see a dead tamarisk growing from the edge of the shelf with a thick tangle of branches that reach the canyon wall.  This forms a dense tunnel about five feet long and five feet high with a level bottom.  Straight above, maybe 30 feet, is a six-foot rock overhang.  This place looks like it would stay fairly dry in a rainstorm, and I consider this to be a lucky break given the limitations of my current habitat.

Having found my emergency shelter I pass through the tunnel where, on the other side, I find a nice flat sitting rock next to a large prickly pear cactus.  This gives me a great view upriver.  I estimate it’s about 5:00 pm now.  No boaters have come and my confidence in seeing another party before dark is waning.  Still, I wait there, expectantly, on that rock.  My attitude is stoic as I mentally prepare for a long and chilly night.  But, I wish I had a shirt at least.

The thick clouds are dissipating and the late afternoon sun bursts through, just above the high canyon labyrinth.  I now believe that I’m likely in for a clear night, a positive development.  My biggest survival concern turns now from the possibility of rain to dehydration as I’m already terribly thirsty.  I find that I’m constantly assessing risk and probabilities.  Once it is dark it will be nearly impossible to make it back down the slope to the river without a fall and likely injury.  I feel I must eliminate that risk and allow myself safe emergency access to river water.  So, with reluctance, I decide that I must return to the sandstone ledge that is not sheltered, but nearer to the river.  Drinking the river water, sediment and all, is a last resort, but I want the option.

Before I make my treacherous descent back down the slippery slope, I take a closer look at that healthy prickly pear cactus growing to my right.  They are edible if you can defeat the layers of spikey armor.  Of course, I have no knife.  But, all around me are rocks that have been cleaved off the canyon wall into sharp edges.  Carefully and very slowly I manage to peal off the skin, spines, and stickers from one whole side of a plump lobe and scoop out the watery inside.  It’s lime green on the inside and looks rather appetizing, but is almost tasteless. I eat as much of the juicy inside as I can reasonably scoop away, receiving valuable, if little, hydration.  It’s a gift from the desert that lifts my spirits as I prepare for the night.

Now back down on my ledge, as dusk deepens, I am oddly calm and unworried.  There is little fear, but some loneliness, and some sadness.  I want to be at home with my family, but I know it will do me no good to feel sorry for myself, so I push those feelings away.  Mostly, though, I’m happy to be alive.  I know I will make it through this night.

Finally, as the stars begin to appear, I take a seat on my ledge.  The canyon, in this sharp river bend, is like a colossal auditorium and I pretend I’m in the best seat in the house as the lights turn down for the show.  I stare across the river over to my kayak where I can still make out the outline of my cooler.  In that cooler are cold water, sparkling juice and beer.  I feel like the Greek mythological king Tantalus whose punishment in Hades was to stand in cool waste deep water beneath a glorious fruit tree.  For eternity every time he bends to have a drink the water drains away.  Every time he reaches up to pick fruit the branches rise up, just out of grasp.  That tantalizing cooler is so close, yet a world away.

Just as night falls, a waxing gibbous moon appears over the rock wall behind me and illuminates the canyon.  Reflecting off of the canyon rocks, the moonlight is amazingly lucid.  I feel I can see nearly as well as I could during the daytime.  Still warm, I find I’m actually enjoying the peace and beauty of the canyon in the moonlight.  I look up at that moon and recall something I often tell my daughter:  The moon is made of cheese and there’s a man up there in that moon.  He smiles down at us and makes the night peaceful.  There is wisdom in folklore like this.  It gives me comfort this night.

The chills start earlier than I expect.  The moon is now well up over the canyon and the bottom star of the Big Dipper has disappeared behind the north rim.  I estimate it’s only 11:00 pm and I’m concerned that I’m already getting cold.  I have no clothes to put on, no shelter to crawl into, nor tools to build fire.  The only thing I can do is exercise, but it’s too dangerous to move my feet from my ledge.

I stand up and begin doing upper body calisthenics with my feet planted firmly.  It’s a cruel dilemma:  I must move to keep warm, but the more I exercise the more my body craves hydration.  I would give anything for a blended iced peach smoothie or a hot chai latte.

The calisthenics keep me warm, but I also use them to calculate the passage of time.  I swing my arms in estimated one-second intervals—five sets of 60 for five minutes and then switch to a different movement for variety.  After 15 or 20 minutes, my body is warm enough for 5 to 10 minutes of rest before shivers return and I start the process all over again.

My mind remains remarkably strong and positive.  At times I even enjoy the experience.  It’s fantastically elemental–just me and the big night wilderness.  I feel strange.  The moonlit canyon is otherworldly and I feel as if I’m a grotesque alien creature perched on a ledge on some other planet.  I imagine that a night canoeist would be terrified upon spotting a moonlit beast on this ledge moving in bizarre ritualistic motions.

Three more hours and the moon is now nearing the opposite rim.  The Big Dipper has long since disappeared and I now have a new constellation to track, the Teapot, which has made a grand entrance over the east wall directly above me.  I’ve told myself throughout the night that the early morning hours will be the real test.  They will be the darkest, coldest and weariest hours.  But, it’s through those cold and dark hours that daylight and warmth will come again.

As expected, the canyon gradually darkens.  A broad glow from the moon behind the canyon rim persists for a while, but by about 3:00 am the canyon turns inky black.  With the departure of the moon comes the full splendor of the galaxy.  The Milky Way is a silk tapestry spread between the cliffs, and I’m sure there is a star visible in that awesome sky for every living soul on Earth.  I’ve never seen a starry night as brilliant as this one.

I must be especially careful now.  When I sit or awkwardly lay down on my ledge I begin to doze off.  But, I can’t allow this.  It would be too easy to slumber and fall forward or roll sideways right off the ledge, break a bone on the way down, and find myself immersed in that river, putting my life in danger.  I must stay awake and stay warm, so my un-ending calisthenics routine continues.  In the darkness I sometimes get a sense of vertigo.  Without the moonlight the sky and the canyon walls are equally black, the rock discernible only by the absence of stars.  Below me, no distinction can be made between black land and black water and the river seems a bottomless abyss, its presence betrayed only by the occasional catfish in the night.  I feel suspended in space on this ledge and often must sit down just to avoid dizziness and the risk of staggering off the ledge into the river.

The sand dune on the other side near my kayak begins to come alive.  Huge chunks of sand begin to break from the dune and crash into the water.  This new event must have something to do with air temperature change and it often startles me.  The random “ker-PLAAAASSSHHHH!”  in the darkness is unnerving, and it happens with such frequency that I begin to wonder if my kayak and all my stuff have been cleaved away from the land and lost into the river.

The amount of time I can rest between exercising is shortening as the shivers start in more quickly.  Worse, though, is the sleepiness.  After 4:00 a.m. I am desperately tired.  Each time I sit or lay on my back on that cold rock I immediately start to drift away but I force myself awake.  The calisthenics have become as much about staying awake as they are about staying warm.  I start to hallucinate.  A startling fluorescent green hummingbird appears and floats around my vision, its wings flapping in slow motion.  He comes and goes.  Stars begin to move–the teakettle shape-shifts into a weird spinning carnival top.  Feint flashes of light flicker over the west canyon wall.

Wait.  The flashes of light are real.  Lightning.  It’s very distant, but it must be lightning.  The cloud bank that rolled over in the afternoon must have built up over the La Sals to the east or perhaps even the San Juans in Colorado a hundred miles away.  I’m not worried about rain, but I am amazed at what this world can reveal when we see it without the filter of modern life.

I finally estimate the time at 5:45 am and I know the dawn is near.  The dawn is, psychologically, the most important milestone of this ordeal and I gaze across the sky expectantly for that first sign of light.

Minutes go by and I look up to see my teakettle, but I notice that I can no longer see the Milky Way.  And is that a bluish hue over the canyon to the south?  More minutes, I estimate the time at just a bit after 6:00 am.  Yes, the blue is getting bluer.  Stars are fewer.  It’s dawn at last!  I have estimated the arrival of dawn almost to the minute.

I feel great relief that day is at hand.  Yet it’s the coldest part of the day and I’m now constantly shivering.  Through the night I kept my focus relentlessly on the present.  Now I can sense my ordeal is nearing its end and yet it’s still so far away.  Extreme thirst finally makes its arrival.  Surprisingly, it did not bother me much during the night, but suddenly the need for water becomes intense.  I try to suppress the thirst and focus on the brightening canyon.

After another half hour or so I determine it’s now light enough to safely move from my three foot wide perch that I’ve been on for more than ten hours.  The half-light and my weariness play tricks on me.  I keep hearing a woman’s voice upriver around the bend, but it’s not real.  At one point I’m sure I spot a canoe with two people in it rounding that bend close to the cliff wall.  It even moves like a canoe, but then it melts into the folds of the rock and I realize there’s nobody there.  But, as the canyon gradually enlightens, the familiarity of my amphitheater begins to return.  I see the first rays of sunshine alight the highest pinnacles to the west—rock turning from gray to flaming red.

Safe Again

A man’s voice.  Is it real this time?  There it is again.  Yes, someone is finally coming.  Moments later the sight I’ve been waiting over 16 hours for comes drifting around the bend.

I wait for the single canoe with two men to get a little closer before calmly alerting them for help.  I feel as though I’m acting in a Monte Python comedy skit.  I calmly wave both arms above my head and oddly say “hello!” They wave back and then I say, “could you please swing by here and give me a lift?”  They turn towards my bank just downstream from me and paddle easily up the back-current along the shore until I can reach the edge of their boat.

“Did you spend all night over here?” asks the younger man incredulously.

“I sure did,” I say. “I’m so glad to see you guys.  I just need a quick lift back to the other side.”

The older guy in back hands me a cold bottle of water and says, “hop on the cooler here.” I hop on awkwardly, open the bottle and take a sublime taste of that beautiful life-giving fluid.  We cross the swirl in the river where I nearly drowned and the canoe spins and dips. “Wow, that’s a strange current,” says the man in back. “No kidding,” I think to myself.

At the other side, I hop out onto that wonderful beach and shake the hands of my rescuers, thanking them two more times before they’re on their way again.  I look back to that far bank and that ledge 300 feet or so across the river where I had spent more than 16 hours stranded.  There is no crazy jubilation or mental collapse, just a calm sense of relief.  I’m no longer Tantalus as I reach into that cooler, ice all melted now, but the water inside ice cold, and bring out my last carbonated juice.  I’ve never tasted anything so beautifully refreshing in my life.

After rescue, looking back across the river to the area where I spent the night.

After rescue, looking back across the river to the area where I spent the night.

I don’t have too much time.  It’s pick up day and I still have to paddle to the confluence by 10:00 am to be ready for Tex’s Riverways and their jet boat to take me up the Colorado River to Moab.  I quickly pack up my gear and eat two cliff bars.

Once on the water, I make a point to relax and enjoy the final stretch.  The brilliant blue color of the sky seems a bit more brilliant today, and the red in the canyon rock a little more special.  Before long I see it.  The river curves right and across that broad bend is a huge sand bar with a bunch of people straight ahead.  Another river, about equal in size to the Green and just as muddy, gently merges from the left.  The great Colorado.  I paddle out into what is now the Colorado River below the confluence and straight over to the lower end of the big sand bar.  I tie up next to a pair of canoeists who are sitting on camp chairs waiting for the pick-up.

“How was your trip?” they ask.

“Well… I made it,” I say with a great big smile.

It’s time for that last beer as I sit on the grassy bank with my new friends waiting for our boat.  I look across the Colorado straight up the Green.  The river curves and disappears into the ancient walls of the canyon.  I know I left a piece of my soul there in that labyrinth.  Those calm waters will run deep.

We shared many trails, Dozer and me.

We shared many trails, Dozer and me.

To the east a thin group of clouds just above the Indian Peaks turn from pale gray to soft pastel shades of pink and orange. The sunrise is subtle for the moment with no direct sunshine, just colors. To the west a nearly full moon is sinking down towards the ridgeline of the Gore Range—a sharply serrated outline of dark rock against an indigo western sky. I stand in the middle, right on the crest of the Continental Divide in the Vasquez Peaks.

Alone, I walk north along the Divide, high above the trees, as the sky lightens. A burst of sunshine finally washes over the east facing slopes to my right. The light at this hour and at this elevation is magic. Colors seem to glow and textures take on extraordinary dimension. Everything is crisp. Each blade of grass, flower pedal and grain of earth seem to have their own sunbeams dedicated to their individual illumination.

It is indeed an exhilarating place on Earth to stand at this moment in time. From the apex of the continent and at the very moment when the day bursts through, all becomes light and beauty and brilliance. I feel privileged to be here.

The thrill of this moment is subdued by an element of sadness. Dozer is not here with me this morning. I was here yesterday with him at almost the same hour. As I was just about to take the final few steps to reach the Divide, I turned to check on him, to make sure he was right there at my heels as always. When I saw him far down slope I knew immediately, he had finally explored his last trail. At sixteen years, ancient for a dog of his size, he could do it no more. He was just sitting there, facing away from me, staring back east toward home. He held his head low and still.

I didn’t try to coax him on. I scrambled my way back down the steep slope, and when I reached my friend I took a seat next to him and we watched the sunrise together. After a few minutes he told me he was ready to go with one gentle lick on the back of my hand. His eyes said, “Take me home now.” “Yeah,” I said aloud. “Let’s go home now.”

The very next morning I’m back again, on the Divide. Something is on the trail—a big gleaming pile of scat. A very big cat has been here this morning, is perhaps still here just around some rock or just out of my view a bit down the hill, crouching, watching.  Somehow I feel very much at ease.

Soon I spot some movement down the steep west slope. It’s not the lion but a small group of large brown animals. Bighorns, I think, but they are too distant to be sure. I take a picture on full zoom and then zoom in on the digital image. Deer! Four of them high above the trees. Perhaps the lion was stalking this group. Perhaps hours ago there were five of them and one sacrificed to the lion.

I’m walking a section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and it is one of the most delightful walks imaginable. The gentle, rounded ridgeline guides me on a two mile pathway through a paradise of color, sunshine and mountain vistas. Wildflowers of pink, white, blue, red, purple, and yellow shine in the early morning sun on a background of green grass. Speckled white granite rocks poke through here and there. The whole scene is framed by brilliant snowfields corniced on the east slope just off the crest of the ridge, all beneath a pale blue sky getting bluer as the day brightens.

Vasquez Peak Wilderness 1

I soon reach an unnamed high point I decide to call “rocky knob” for the cluster of boulders at the top. Here, the Continental Divide sweeps 90-degrees to the east towards Berthoud Pass. Another ridge runs from here towards the Northwest into the Vasquez Peak Wilderness and on to the summit of Mount Nystrom, just another mile or so away. I find this spot to be a sort of focal point for the wilderness complex I’m standing in. The three wilderness areas of Vasquez Peak, Byers Peak and Ptarmigan Peak are, individually, all small slices of mountains, ridges and forests. But, they form the outside edges of a much larger wild land. In the middle of the three wilderness areas the roadless basin of the Williams Fork Headwaters and the Frazer Experimental Forest form the core of the area. Taken all together, this is a 100,000 acre expanse all managed as wilderness if not all officially designated. It represents a beautiful “void” between much more well-known wild lands like the Indian Peaks to the east and the Eagles Nest to the west. Not as classically rugged as those areas, one gets a sweeping view of them from these gentle alpine ridges and peaks. It’s all two hours or so from the Denver area, and by the end of the day on this Saturday in July I will have only seen one other person on these high ridge trails.

I break from the Continental Divide Trail and head northwest on the ridge to Mount Nystrom. The name “Mount Nystrom” can evoke imagined images of a pinnacled and sinister peak, perpetually swirled by black storms and inhabited by horrible spirits–the tortured souls of many a lost climber. That it is not. Mount Nystrom, like most of the peaks of this area, is but another rounded summit graced by gentle grassy slopes.

The trail to Nystrom is intermittent, but no matter, the route is obvious. I soon traverse through a delightful grotto garden. Low rock walls border a passageway paved in green grass and wildflowers. A little bunch of alpine forget-me-nots is tucked next to a protective rock. Each tiny petal is so blue as to almost glow, so perfectly shaped as to seem unreal.

A pika chirps and then I see it. Elusive creatures of extreme cuteness, they are often heard and much less often actually seen. This one stays in view, perched on a rock, and I take the time to enjoy its company. I move on along the ridge. Over 1,500 feet down the steep slope to the south lay the dark surface of a small lake at the head of a trailless valley. Above the lake in alpine meadow is a scattershot of brown boulders that look out of place in the greens and grays and blues of this environment. One of the boulders moves and I realize I’m looking at a herd of elk, at least 60 of them, just at tree line far below.

Pika

Pika

Vasquez Peak Wilderness 4

There is a wooden post but no register at the 12,600 foot summit of Mount Nystrum. From here I spot notable peaks in all directions: Longs, Holy Cross, Torreys. Full mountain ranges unfold. Way in the distance is the Park Range and the northern Sawatch. Closer are the rugged peaks of the Gore Range, the Never Summers, and the Indian Peaks. And in the foreground are the summits of Vasquez, Byers and Bills Peaks.

In the basin to the north there sits a small pond, Vasquez Lake. I plan to hike down to it, so I continue down the north slope of Mount Nystrum to a high saddle then drop down a very steep hundred feet onto a flat basin at timberline. I cross a small creek, slalom through some krumholz trees and reach the serene shallow water of the lake, fringed by a forest of stunted evergreens. Mount Nystrum now stands stately 1,000 feet above. It’s a peaceful spot, but I have the strange feeling of being in the presence of a grouchy bear. It’s funny how, when I knew a mountain lion was close, I was unworried, but here I feel uneasy about a bear of which there is no actual sign of.

Vasquez Lake, Mt. Nystrom behind

Vasquez Lake, Mt. Nystrom behind

I don’t stay too long, not because of the imagined angry bear, but because the cumulous clouds are building. I must climb back to the ridge and then return the way I came, exposed above timberline for several more hours. I get going, hucking across the basin and then up a very steep flank. I take 50 steps then rest, 50 steps then rest, until finally climbing the 800 feet back to the crest of the ridge just on the Mt. Nystrum side of “rocky knob.” Back through the grotto and then on the Continental Divide Trail again, I watch the weather closely, hoping it holds out just long enough for me to get down off the Divide.

The weather does hold as I make my final steps below a snow-blocked Jones Pass to my car. The Henderson mine hums below in the valley and beyond that is Highway 40, Interstate-70 and then the 3 million or so residents of the Denver metropolis. This dichotomy is always striking to me. As I rumble down the highway into the city, surrounded by humanity, cars, houses and people, I remember how just hours ago I had the Continental Divide and a whole glistening wilderness to myself.

 

Wilderness turns 50 this year!  Actually, to be more specific, the Wilderness Act of 1964 turns 50 this year, in 2014. 

A group of wilderness minded organizations and individuals have formed a group called The 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Planning Team.  The team’s purpose, as stated on their website, www.wilderness50th.org, is to plan and implement events and projects specifically to “elevate the profile of wilderness during the 50th anniversary celebration.”

And, judging from the website, many great events have been planned all over the country.

I’ve added www.wilderness50th.org to my link list to the right of the blog.

Coincidentally, it is also the 90th anniversary of the designation of the Gila Wilderness as our first officially designated wilderness.  The Gila was established in June 1924 and remains one of our iconic wilderness units.

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord - Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord – Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Alaska contains our two largest National Forests.  The Tongass is the largest and covers the ancient forests of Alaska’s Southeast.  The Chugach is the second largest, located in South Central Alaska, in and around the Kenai Peninsula.  There is an oddity about the Chugach in terms of our wilderness preservation system:  it is the only national forest in the entire United States without a single acre of designated federal wilderness!  That seems odd considering it is in the state of Alaska, the land of true wilderness.

It makes a bit more sense if we consider how different Alaska is than the rest of the country in terms of its land and size.  First of all, there are enormous national parks all around the Chugach National Forest, all of which are largely wilderness and managed as such.  You have Lake Clark and Katmai to the west.  You have Glacier Bay and the immense Wrangell-St. Elias to the East.  And, on the Kenai Peninsula itself, you have the Kenai Fjords National Park, the half-million acre Chugach State Park and the nearly as large Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.  Altogether, these areas total about 20 million acres of protected wilderness in the form of national or state parks.  There is less need for federal wilderness areas in an area with such enormous national parklands managed as wilderness outside of the juristiction of the national forest.

Second, wilderness in Alaska should be considered with a completely different perspective than wilderness in the Contiguous U.S.  In the lower 48 states wilderness areas are typically sanctuaries of wild surrounded by civilization and development.  That green blob on the map indicating a wilderness area depicts a zone of “untrammeled” land typically bordered on all sides by roads, farms, towns and cities.  To put it another way, the lower 48 States have pockets of wilderness within a sea of civilization.  In Alaska we need to reverse our perspective 180 degrees.  A designated wilderness in Alaska may be surrounded by an even larger area of true wilderness without specific designation.  Alaska, in other words IS wilderness.  In Alaska there are pockets of civilization in a sea of wilderness.  When you consider, for example, at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, you have to understand that, enormous as it is with its 8 million acres, it is but a relatively small piece of a wilderness mega-region that is Northern Alaska.  Sure there are a handful of native villages and a couple of dirt roads.  But, these are the pockets of civilization that dip into this immense wilderness that is Alaska.

A designated wilderness area in the Chugach National Forest would certainly add value to our wilderness heritage.  But, in an area with such substantial wilderness already, whether officially designated or not, to me this designation would be more important symbolically.  We should not have a national forest without a designated wilderness area. 

So what is this Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area?  The Fjord and surrounding wildland is on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula and on the western shorelines of Prince William Sound.  The Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is 2.1 million acres large, the size of Yellowstone.  The WSA was established in 1980 with the intention of congressional action to make it a full wilderness area, but for some reason it has languished in limbo.

It is a sea-to-sky wilderness with extensive sea-level shoreline and the steep mountains of the Chugach Range rising to great heights above the sound.  Glaciers fill some valleys, and verdent old forests grace others.  Here we find the northernmost temperate rainforest in the world.  Life in the sound and on land is abundant. 

The map below illustrates where this is.  It’s amazing that a 2 million acre area seems so insignificant on the scale of Alaska, but this really is just a relatively small chunk of the Prince William Sound area of Alaska.  This would be a fantastic real and symbolic addition to our wilderness preservation system.

For more information on this and other Alaskan wilderness efforts, visit The Alaska Wilderness League at  http://www.alaskawild.org/, also linked on the right side of the Home Page of this blog.

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost.  Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost. Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

President Obama has, once again, leveraged the executive power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate another National Monument in New Mexico, and it’s a big one.  It’s a half-million acre (496,000 to be exact) designation for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Southern New Mexico.  It appears that the monument will be managed like wilderness (although that’s less clear with National Monuments than with Congressionally-designated Wilderness areas).

This area had a long road of advocacy to this point and the designation appears to be supported by the majority of the local residents.  We see more of these designations being justified in economic terms and this one is no different.  The new National Monument is calculated to bring in over $7 million in tourism dollars to the area.  While that may sound impressive initially, it’s really a pretty meager number.  But, whatever works to garner local support…

The real benefit is priceless and immesurable.  And, that is precicely why I believe we need the independent executive authority to designate national monuments.  When Congress will not act in due time to protect certain areas from future exploitation and degradation, we need the executive authority available to do the job. Because once wilderness is developed and/or exploited it is rarely, if ever, recovered.  The executive authority provides a national long-term interest to counter the typically local short-term interests of exploitation.  Some think of it as a “land grab” but these lands are already under federal administration to begin with (usually BLM or National Forest).  I typically do not favor independent executive authority in government in matters not related to national security or foreign policy.  But, land conservation must have an independent executive path because of the generational and usually permanent and irreversable consequences of inaction.

I, for one, believe in balance.  I don’t believe that every single acre of remaining public land should be restricted as wilderness.  We need some of our public lands to be available for other uses including energy independence (including clean energy–you can’t put windfarms and solar arrays in wilderness either).  But, I also believe that the current mix of public lands designation still favors exploitation too heavily and wilderness preservation too little.  We need more wilderness designation to establish corridor linkages between wilderness hubs and to increase the diversity of wilderness ecosystems.

Back to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks–The area represents rugged mountainous Sonoran desert near Las Cruces, NM.  Aside from its stark beauty and wilderness recreational benefits, it harbors significant biodiversity including some plant species found nowhere else in the world.  It has significant archeological significance with hundreds of sites including petroglyphs and evidence of past dwellings dating back hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.  It has historical significance as the hideouts of Billy the Kid and Geronimo.  It has cultural significance as the backdrop for Western movies.  And, above all, it has natural significance as a large desert wilderness in need of permanent protection.

Here is a short production from Pew Environmental on this area and its recent National Monument designation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bG4FISiRlvE

And here is a beautiful video from Amazing Places on our Planet demonstrating some of the outstanding scenery of the new National Monument:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwSx6UpIUZA

 

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Fear and Contemplation

Trillions of vapor droplets drift across Colorado’s great southern valley.  They meet the uplift of the Blood of  Christ Mountains.  Heat rises.  Energy builds.  Light dances across the sky.  The Heavens roar.  The life force of Earth falls to the ground and the Wilderness rejoices.

I’m in my tent high in Southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains counting the seconds between the flashes and the booms.  At least ten wicked bolts strike within a mile.  I fear the lightning.  I haven’t always, but a few high country electrical storms have heightened my sense to the danger. “When I hear anyone say he does not fear lightning, I still remark inwardly:  he has never ridden The Mountain in July,” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Awareness of my own mortality is further enhanced by the passing of my Father not three months ago.  As the rain pecks at the tent I think back to two days before he left this world, with his family there by his side.  He looked pleasantly amused about something, and with bright eyes and a clear voice he said, “I can see everything from the top side now and I’m okay with it.” It was a profound thing to say in my Dad’s typically understated way.  He was okay with it… It gives me great comfort to know that he was “okay” with dying.  We all are dying.  The question is:  how are we living?  But, I still fear the lightning.

My Dad taught me how to live much the same way he taught me how to build a proper campfire when I was little.  There are many methods to building a campfire, he said.  The method chosen matters little as long as the fundamentals are adhered to.  The first thing a campfire needs to thrive is good fuel.  Education is our fuel and my Dad taught me by example the value of a lifelong commitment to learning.  A campfire will quickly extinguish itself unless given plenty of space to breathe–too little oxygen and the fire is smothered.  This is personal freedom.  My Dad taught me the importance of being my own person and charting my own course in life.  To keep a campfire burning brightly it needs tending.  Not too much or too little.  A campfire needs a patient and watchful tender who knows when to help it along and when to just sit back and enjoy its beauty and warmth.  My Dad showed me how genuinely receiving and giving guidance with our loved ones provides our lives with greater meaning and purpose, making us brighter, warmer people.

My Dad also instilled in me my love for simple, unpretentious, travel.  By the time I was fourteen I had visited 40 U.S. states but had yet to fly in an airplane.  Our way of travel was the open road by day and sleeping under the stars by night.  It was bologna sandwiches, chips and a Coke for lunch.  It was searching for the best campsite and burning marshmallows over the fire.  I loved it all.  My Dad never ventured from the road or the campground.  That my Mom did.  She brought me my love for the wilderness–casting lines in creeks and climbing peaks.

This is all reflection and contemplation which one tends to do much of after losing a family member.  One of the many reasons we need wilderness is because it is a place for contemplation.  Contemplation without noise.  We go to the wild to get back to basics.  To reflect.  To contemplate.  It makes many of us better people.  It helps many of us heal.

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A Valley High

My campsite in wilderness solitude is on the edge of a high little valley a few hundred vertical feet below North Crestone Lake.  It is a wonderful place bordered on each side by rugged peaks.  Open meadows are perfectly complimented with stands of spruce.  A little stream flows quietly through the middle, clothed in yellowing willow.  At the head of this little valley a two hundred foot waterfall provides its calming melodies.  The falls commence with a straight drop over a rock ledge.  Then braids of white dance among boulders and shoot over slabs.  At bottom the falls is swallowed up by the green valley floor.  I sit here in this valley after the storm with the soft rush of the falls to my right and the retreating rumbles of thunder down valley to my left.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 034

A Wise Old Fish

A big trout cruises the lakeshore casting distance from the rock on which I sit.  The water is so clear and still that it almost looks as if the fish is suspended in air, gliding along like a colorful miniature blimp.  It’s a cutthroat–I can see the crimson cheeks and heavily spotted tail.  It’s about sixteen inches and shaped like a football.  I cast to a point about six feet in front of it, couching to stay below the trout’s line of vision.  It seems to turn its head ever so slightly in acknowledgement of the enticing meal ahead.  But, it continues along, slowly, wisely.  I try again and again until I nearly drop my lure right onto its head.  The cumulous clouds are building and it’s time to head back to camp a mile down valley.  I decide to give it one more go, but by this time I’m rooting for the fish to win.  He’s earned my respect.  Once again the wise one passes on my offering.  I give my friend a salute and silently wish him well.  I can still see him swimming peacefully along as I look back down to the lake from 100 feet above.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 042

A School of Foolish Fish

Back from my walk to beautiful North Crestone Lake, I still have my heart set on trout for dinner.  The little stream in the valley is filled with multitudes of brookies.  But, it’s difficult to fish because of the willows.  On the trail to the lake I noticed a very large pool near the bottom of the falls about a quarter mile up from my campsite.  Dozer and I make our way over.  As I creep up behind some willows Dozer tromps to the tail end of the pool for a drink and spooks a half-dozen trout.  I follow the fish with my eyes as they dart to the head of the pool seemingly in military formation.  More fish come into view.  As my eyes adjust I see no fewer than 30 trout.  I figure this pool must be the last good spot for a trout before the 200 foot barrier of the falls. It’s the end of the line for them so they just congregate and vie with each other for food.  With every cast I catch an eight or ten inch brookie.  I let them all go until one finally swallows the hook.  Dinner.

My Wild Neighbors

My campsite seems to be a crossroads for many of the valley’s residents.  Turning from my gaze upon alpenglow on the high peaks, I see a snowshoe hare, still clothed in brown, sitting and staring at me ten feet way.  It stares for a few more seconds and then bounds away daintily under the boughs of a small spruce tree near the campsite.  There is an unusually dark colored marmot who makes its home under a rock slab near camp.  It suns itself on the rock most of the day, occasionally sending its shrill whistle sound across the valley.  Under my “kitchen table” rock where I choose to eat lives a chipmunk who likes to poke its tiny head up over the edge of the rock to see what I’m up to before scurrying away.  A family of six grouse pay us a visit each afternoon.  I discover them when Dozer unknowingly wanders into their personal space.  Grouse will let you (or your dog) get very close to them before erupting into a racket of beating wings and chirps.  Dozer, startled, jumps straight up like a spring then gives a huff (the poor dog is mostly deaf and half blind with a broken sniffer… but his joints and muscles still work like a puppy).  The next afternoon I see the grouse again on the ground.  Six of them, silently blending in to the grass before they finally take flight to roost in the nearby pines.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 024

Aspen

My Dad was always curious about trees and he was particularly fond of the aspen which makes its most glorious displays in the state of Colorado.  Every fall photographers and sightseers head to the Colorado high country to see the brilliant gold of the turning aspen.  The Elk Mountains, Northern San Juans, and parts of the Front Range are particularly well known for aspen viewing.  The Sangre de Cristos are not.  So, I was surprised to be hiking through one of the biggest and densest aspen forests I’ve ever seen on the western flank of the Sangres.  From the trailhead near the “new age hippy” town of Crestone all the way up to about 10,000 feet was almost entirely aspen.  It was still a green forest in late August with just a few leaves here and there on the higher trees just beginning to turn.  Hiking back down through this forest of aspen I looked for the appreciation that my Dad saw in these trees.  Perhaps it is because they are an anomaly–a high country deciduous tree in a world of dark green conifer.  The leaves are light green (or bright gold in fall), the bark is a delicate and smooth white.  They grow faster and live shorter than pines.  They grow from root, not seed.  They are an anomaly and yet what would Colorado be without its aspen?  They are an anomaly, a bit like my own Dad… And, what would I be without my Dad.

Thank you Dad.  I love you. 

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 021

The largest as yet unprotected contiguous roadless land in America (outside of Alaska) is the Boulder White Cloud Mountains in South Central Idaho.  For several decades now, efforts and legislation to protect much of this half-million acre wonderland has languished in state and congressional debate, but the effort continues.  The addition of a 300,000 + acre wilderness to our preservation system would be one of the most substantial additions to our wilderness system since the 1980’s, and it should be done. 

The Boulder-White Cloud mountains are a bright and vivid Rocky Mountain environment.  It’s home to the headwaters of four rivers that run sparkling clear in this area.  Some of these waterways see salmon migration all the way from the Pacific, some of the longest salmon migrations on Earth.  Elk, deer, bighorns, bears, wolves, mountain lions, lots of trout, lots of trees, and soaring mountains.  It’s all there now and needs official protection forever.  However, the details of current proposals may be going too far to try to accommodate all interests.  Many wilderness advocacy groups are against CIEDRA (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act) because it seems to be folding a more limited form of wilderness protection into a larger complex of increases in non-wilderness-like recreational and use designations.  But, this is the nature of wilderness preservation efforts in the 21st century.  It’s complicated.  More inclusive of different interests, more creative, more collaborative.  And, perhaps slower and more diluted from the original intention of wilderness preservation.  Can there be degrees of wilderness protection within the wilderness preservation system?  I tend to think the opportunity for that is limited before we begin to compromise what it means to call an area “wilderness.” 

But, some form of official protection for this area is needed.  The link below is a quality production by PEW Environmental on the efforts to protect this beautiful area:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAN1Qe6Xhd4

Location of proposed Boulder White Clouds Wilderness - Courtesy of Boulder White Clouds Council

Location of proposed Boulder White Clouds Wilderness – Courtesy of Boulder White Clouds Council

Boulder White Cloud environment - Courtesy of Idaho Conservation League

Boulder White Cloud environment – Courtesy of Idaho Conservation League

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