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The Itch

I look out my window to a foot of snow still on the ground from a series of late February snowstorms.  I absolutely love snow.  When it snows good and heavy, I turn into a little kid on Christmas morning, darting from window to window to watch the flakes fall and the ground whiten up.  To me, a good raging blizzard ranks very high in life’s pure joys.

But, it’s this time of year, at the tale end of the dead of winter and heading into the first green buds of Spring, that I get the “wilderness itch.” I like all seasons, but it’s the summertime that really hits my soul when it comes to wilderness in the West.  It’s when meadows are green, mountain streams run clear and the aspens shimmer.  When you can wear shorts and a t-shirt sitting on a boulder at 10,000 feet and be perfectly comfortable.  When trout rise in the evening on a creek riffle.  When sunbeams through the forest on clear mountain mornings bring pure happiness.

What new wilderness paradise will I discover this year?  In what cool mountain waters will I dip my feet come July?  Through which forests will I wander, up which valleys will I venture, over which passes will I crest, atop which mountains will I stand?  And, as my daughter turns four and begins to come into the ages where she can start to explore further afield with me, where will I take her to discover her own wonders of the wild?

So, my planning begins.  What Colorado wilderness areas have I yet to walk in?  Spanish Peaks?  Hunter Fryingpan?  Maroon Bells?  La Garita?  What about other states?  Utah’s High Uinta Wilderness is high on my wish list.  So is Cloud Peak in Wyoming’s Big Horns?  Then there’s the Gila down in New Mexico… One of these years I will get there.  Maybe it’s this year.

Water drips from icicles off my gutters.  The Indian Peaks are pure white with late winter snow.  But, the tulip buds are appearing, and I can sense the change of the seasons coming.  Soon.

Four Days a River Rat

In September of 2014 I paddled a kayak alone down 52 miles of the Green River through Utah’s Cayonlands National Park.  It is said to be America’s finest flatwater river trip.  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 facing impending death.  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. If I could stand I would collapse in exhaustion. But, there is nothing to stand on and nobody there to throw me a life line. I’m about to go under.

The prospect of facing down death was far from my mind when I giddily drifted my kayak into the Green three days ago.

The legendary Green River of the American West begins as a trickle of glacier melt high in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. It first runs north as a rippling mountain stream before doubling back and finding its true southerly course. In Western Wyoming it builds volume and sediment before flowing into Utah, then Colorado and back into Utah. Through Desolation Canyon it is a big river with crashing, brown rapids. Downstream from the town of Green River, Utah, the Green’s last 120 miles are calm and placid, twisting between the layered cliffs of Canyonlands National Park, before finally merging with the Colorado. From the Indians to the fur trappers to one-armed explorers to crusty desert roving nature writers and leathery river rats, the Green River runs through our Western identity like few others.

Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom

Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom

Day One on the River

Today, I joined the ranks of the Green River Rats and I pushed my sit-on-top kayak into the muddy river at Mineral Bottom, the last put-in upriver from Canyonlands National Park. This lowest 52 mile stretch of the big Green River that I’m about to drift down is said to be America’s greatest flatwater river trip.

It’s already near 100 degrees this early September day. But, the river water cools as I dangle my hands into the liquid mud. I’m gliding on a wide tan-colored expanse of flat water that seems completely still. Only by glancing at the willows on the riverbanks do I detect any drift, which is walking speed at best. Red and tan banded cliffs rise a few hundred feet on both sides under a perfect dome of blue sky.

I establish a rhythm of slow steady paddling over the next few hours as the river wanders its way into Canyonlands National Park. The air remains still and hot with no shade. The water is flat and the color of chai latte. After a long easterly stretch the river takes a swing towards the south where low sandstone cliffs drop straight into the water. I seek out the narrow bits of shade tight to the rock, 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.

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 Canyonlands that tend to scatter tents and canoes without warning, and, sure enough, the 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 waves. It’s a good time to get off the river for the day, but campsites suddenly become hard to come by. Both banks are choked with willow and tamarisk as I battle head winds and side winds depending on the direction of the river.

Finally, with the sun behind the 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 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.

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

As I’m getting unloaded I hear disturbances in the river, like the rising crescendo of released underwater bubbles. Curious, I tie on a hook and a hunk of smelly salami to some fishing line I brought, secure 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 pull it in, hand over hand. A 14-inch catfish flops onto the sandbar, whiskers and all. I briefly consider keeping it for dinner, but the slimy creature can’t compete with the dinner I have planned. I toss it back into its muddy domain and soon dine on exquisite cheeseburgers cooked on a cast iron pan over my stove complemented by fresh diced watermelon and a cold beer—yes you can take “stuff” on a river trip.

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

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.

Day Two on the River

Morning in the West: perfect air, perfect scenery, and perfect solitude. A heron is feeding at the head of my island as I cook a breakfast of eggs and pancakes. Upriver to the west a growing band of red sunshine is making its way slowly down a rock face.

I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river

I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river

I finally debark from my wonderful sandbar 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 lazy 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 hard to keep moving. I come to a beach 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 shove back into the river to make a run for the next bend and hopefully calmer conditions. Eventually I round a 90-degree bend to the left. The orientation of the canyon changes and the wind dwindles to a few blustery breezes.
In mid-afternoon I’ve found my campsite. It’s a big 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 sun. It’s a great spot, but large enough to accommodate many more people. I realize that river etiquette requires me to offer the use of this place to any later parties. 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

A group of four men come around the bend. They are paddling a contraption of two canoes with a platform fastened between them stacked with 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’s a tall ancient man. Shirtless with a good sized sagging spare tire around the middle, his leathery skin is 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.

“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 curiously ask.

“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 to the ancient one. “Padre, how many times does this make for you?”

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.”

I believe he must be joking. “Eighty?!” I gasp.

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

Fascinated I lay into old Padre with question after question. In the 1950’s his family took a six-week car camping trip out West from Detroit 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, guided to their spot by Edward Abbey himself when Desert Solitaire was but a few passing thoughts in that young park ranger’s mind.

Like many young men from the East who see it for the first time he was allured by the distances and vividness of the Western landscape. It was during that trip that he stood on the rim in what would later become Canyonlands National Park, looked down into those river canyons and envisioned floating right down that winding Green 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 then, and very few other people on the river. In those days you hiked out.

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.” His voice trails a bit as he stares down his canyon.

I lay awake for hours that night watching the moon traverse across the sky between the canyon rims. 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

In four miles I come to a sweeping left curve in the river where Jasper Canyon comes in from the right. I find a place to tie up, hop out of the kayak, swap my water shoes for my hiking boots, and head up into the side canyon.

I never see the 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. 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 to watch single drops of water on seven-second free falls to the red rocks by my feet.

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. 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, 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 point of a sharp right bend in the river a great big beach and raised dune sparkles in the sunlight. This is the place for my third and final 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 white-sand beach. The canyon is especially tight here as the river makes a near doubling back and the close canyon walls curve with the river that formed them. I notice next to my beach there is a big shallow eddie swirling around. 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 kayak, 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 float on my back. 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, as expected. 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 pulled 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’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.

Silent fear grips me as I oddly fixate my eyes on the rim of the canyon in pure exhaustion, river water lapping at my upturned chin. Then 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: extreme guilt… Crushing sadness… Anger at myself for being so foolish. 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. It requires the slow moving logical mind to overpower the rapid instinct to simply react to whatever is about to kill you. “Relax (gasping breath). Get on your back.” I say this aloud, but my voice seems detached from my body.

But, I listen to the voice’s reason. I lean back, extend my arms wide, and just float. I focus on the sky, the canyon rim. As I gradually recover my wind I beat back the 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.

A second wave of terror thunders over me when I finally turn to look for that opposite bank and find that I am no closer than before. 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, my mind returns, once again, to my little girl and my beautiful wife. I can’t leave them. I concentrate on staying afloat. I find calm again. The fear is there, lurking just under the surface. Over and over, I begin to say aloud, “I’m going to make it.” I force myself to believe it. With renewed energy, I commence an angled backstroke, but I pace myself this time, slow and steady, letting the current work with me, angling toward the far bank.

It feels like an eternity, but it works. When the bank is finally close I turn from my backstroke and jolt into a spasm of a side stroke. 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.

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 sitting on that beach. The river is two football fields wide and I drifted a good quarter mile down. 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 rising from the riverbank that is covered in a nasty tangle of thorny bushes, loose rocks and quite possibly home to rattlesnakes and scorpions. At the top of this slope, about 30 feet above the river and behind me, the vertical rock of the canyon rises hundreds of feet straight up. My only way out will have to be by boat rescue. Will that rescue come this afternoon, or tomorrow morning?

Assessing my situation I am all too aware that I have no shirt, no shoes, and no supplies. The sky has turned cloudy and looks to be darkening. If it starts to rain at night, life-threatening hypothermia is a high probability. I begin very carefully making my way up the bank. At a point directly across from my kayak there is a sandstone ledge about eight feet above the river which I consider to be a possible site for a bivouac. It is not large, but it’s flat and dry with relatively easy access to the river water.

The sky is still cloudy and threatening rain, so I must find some kind of shelter. My best chance of finding it is up along the base of the cliff behind me. So, 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 cliff base. There is a level shelf extending about two feet from the base. I see a dead tamarisk growing from the edge of the shelf, its tangled branches forming a dense tunnel about five feet high and five feet long. Straight above, maybe 30 feet up, is a six-foot rock overhang. This place looks like it would stay dry in a rainstorm, and I consider this to be a lucky break.

The glow of sun behind the clouds creeps towards the canyon rim. No boaters have come and my confidence in seeing another party before dark is waning. My attitude is stoic as I mentally prepare for a long and chilly night. But, I wish I had a shirt at least.  The clouds dissipate and low angle sunbeams burst through. With the chance of rain diminishing my biggest survival concern becomes dehydration. I realize that once it is dark it will be nearly impossible to make it back down the treacherous slope to the river without a fall and likely injury. I feel I must allow myself safe emergency access to river water. So, with reluctance, I leave my shelter and return to the sandstone ledge nearer to the river. Drinking the river water, sediment and all, is a last resort, but I want the option.

Before I make my way back down the slippery slope, I notice a healthy prickly pear cactus growing to my right. They are edible if you can defeat the layers of spikey armor. I find a couple of sharp edged rocks and carefully and slowly manage to peel off the skin, spines, and stickers from one side of a plump lobe and scoop out the watery inside. It’s lime green 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.

Now back down on my ledge, the day finally starts to give way to the night as the first stars appear. 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 to my kayak and cooler where there is cold water, sparkling juice and beer. I feel like the Greek mythological king Tantalus, standing in cool water under a glorious fruit tree but forever banished from sipping the water or biting into the juicy fruit just beyond his reach. That tantalizing cooler is so close, yet a universe away.

Just as night falls, a waxing gibbous moon appears over the rim behind me and illuminates the canyon. 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.

Within a couple hours from dusk the chills start earlier than expected. The moon is now well up over the canyon and the Big Dipper is slowly disappearing behind the north rim. I’m concerned about the fact that I’m already getting cold with at least seven more hours of night to endure. With no clothes to put on nor tools to build fire, the only thing I can do is exercise.

I stand up and begin doing upper body calisthenics with my feet planted firmly. 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.

Three more hours of calisthenics and the moon is now nearing the opposite rim. With the Big Dipper gone I now have a new constellation to track, the Teapot, which has made a grand entrance over the east wall directly above me. I know the early morning hours will be the darkest, coldest and weariest hours, but the daylight, warmth and rescue are on the other side.

As expected, the canyon gradually 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.

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 the black river seems a bottomless abyss, its presence betrayed only by the occasional catfish in the night. Every few minutes a chunk of sand breaks from the dune across the river and an unnerving ker-PLAAAASSSHHH reverberates in the darkness.

Hallucinations. 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. Distant 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.

The dawn is near. Continuing my unending calisthenics routine I gaze across the sky expectantly for that first sign of light. I look up to see my teakettle, but I notice that I can no longer see the Milky Way. Soon a bluish hue emerges over the canyon to the south. Dawn is here!

My ordeal is nearing its end and yet it’s still so far away. It is the coldest time of day and I’m constantly shivering now. My mouth is like the sand of the desert and my throat burns with thirst. But, I know salvation is near and I resist the urge to gulp down liquid mud from the river.

The half-light and my weariness play tricks on me. I keep hearing a haunting woman’s voice upriver around the bend. But, as the canyon gradually enlightens, the familiarity of my amphitheater begins to return. I see the first rays of sunshine ignite the highest pinnacles to the west—rock turning from gray to flaming red.

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.

Safe Again

Sixteen hours after my near drowning the canoe drifts into view seconds after I hear the voices. Two men. I make my way as far as I can up river and wait for them to get near before I wave them over. I feel as if I’m acting in an awkward Monte Python comedy skit. The men 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 hop clumsily on their cooler and they paddle hard cross-current towards my kayak. 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.

At the other side, I hop out onto that wonderful beach and shake the hands of my rescuers, thanking them again before they’re on their way. 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 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.

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 the jet boat pick-up to take me back to Moab. Once on the water I make a point to relax and enjoy the final stretch. Before long the river curves right and I see across that broad bend a huge beach with a bunch of people straight ahead. Left of the beach another river comes into view, about equal in size to the Green and just as muddy. It’s the Colorado. I paddle out into what is now the Colorado River below the confluence and straight over to the lower end of the beach.

As I sit on a grassy bank waiting for the 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. I believe that those still 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.

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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.

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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. 

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