Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Seven dayhikes in Arches

For the first seven days of the government shutdown, the park remains open thanks to funding from the state of Utah.

I’m still glowing from accepting my first “permanent” position with the NPS after being a seasonal for so long. Even though the shutdown has halted my paperwork from going through and I’m in that weird in-between place of having accepted their offer letter but not officially hired back yet. I still feel a deep peace at finally having some stability. And deep joy at having work that is meaningful and feels valuable.

I’m not supposed to start working for a few more weeks anyway. Once the students are back in school from the winter holiday.

So I celebrate. Seven days of dayhiking in "my" park. Venturing into the familiar but overlooked. Finding the surprising and the new-to-me.

Most people don’t think of Arches when they go looking for solitude and wildness. Most visitors concentrate on the instagram-worthy iconic sites. I know I did when I first started volunteering here three years ago.

Before I learned how to follow washes and slickrock. How to travel without leaving any lasting footprints.
Just following the slickrock.
Along the washes.
I go in search of perspectives I’ve never had before.
Though I've driven that road down below countless times.
Relics of the past that are tucked away.

Stumbling upon water in unlikely places.
Perched up high.

I find the delightful contrast between the expansiveness of seeing miles in all directions and the narrowness where you can’t even turn your head as you squeeze between the fins.
I love squeezing through and not knowing what will be on the other side.
Listening to the sounds of ravens. Not seeing anyone else.

I stumble on an arch that’s not on my maps. Get a taste of discovery. (Even though it’s just re-discovery.)
Another not-so-famous arch.
One day, Mags’ friends come to town. He has to work but I enjoy a wonderful morning exploring the Fiery Furnace with them. One of my favorite field trips that I do for my job is our 3rd grade field trip to the Fiery Furnace. And their youngest son happens to be in 3rd grade! Perfect! It makes me so happy to share it with them!
Going with some new friends to the Fiery Furnace.
A wonderful week.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Looking back at 2018

I took a break in writing this fall.  It's definitely time for a New Year's update.

2018 was about doing everything I could towards becoming a permanent NPS park ranger. And then finally reaching that goal!
Taking the fourth graders on a field trip to Delicate Arch. This is what I love to do, and what I now get to do "permanently."
It has become really important to me to have a life where the work I do feels meaningful. What I love about being a park ranger is that I feel like I’m being of service to others. I believe in the importance of teaching science to kids and making sure they have fun experiences in our public lands. The vast majority of the people I get to work with (especially the volunteers) are dedicated, committed, and (most importantly) totally fun.
One of the incredible, young volunteers I had the privilege of working with this year. You can tell from my smile just how much fun we had.
But until now, I didn’t know if I could literally afford to do this job. Being seasonal has meant the high cost of moving every few months and of being unemployed between seasons. Not to mention no employee retirement. Granted, my permanent position has a long furlough and is still only part-time hours. But it offers stability and is a major step.

This year I worked at several parks— Arches (spring), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (summer), Canyonlands and Natural Bridges (fall).  These parks served as base camp for incredible weekend trips.
A highlight of the year was doing field trips for students at the Needles.
"Just" a little weekend backpacking trip. The trailhead is a quick drive from home.
A little further away... Peakbagging with Holly in the Tushars (photo by PMags)
Finally getting up into the Henry Mountains with Jan.
While living in Georgia, I visited park ranger friends I’d made last year while working at Mammoth Cave.
2018 had a rough start. Getting surgery (to repair a inguinal hernia) in January was a reminder of how tenuous health can be.  Recovery was painfully slow but I was lucky beyond words that S. drove up to help me through it.

One new thing I did this year was take online classes towards a certificate in environmental education. It’s been years since I’ve had to do homework assignments or write a term paper. What fun to be a student again!

iNaturalizing has become a common verb in my vocabulary. This fall I made my 1000th observations using iNaturalist. I love using this app both to identify and learn more about plants and animals and also as a way to contribute data for other scientists.
Hold on, I need to iNaturalize this tiny alpine plant! (photo by PMags)
This fall I spent a lot of time with this guy. It’s pretty neat to share my life with someone who loves being outdoors as much as I do.
Backpacking in the Needles.
In 2019, I will obviously be spending a lot of time hiking and backpacking around Moab. And for my two month furlough during June and July? There is a certain trail that still calls to me.

Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The La Sals without a plan

A solo overnight trip to the La Sals without any plan. I spend the night before this trip reading scientific articles about butterfly phylogenetics and alpine plants instead of looking at maps. At the trailhead, I still don’t know where to go.
Chasing the crescents for a while.
Then I just start climbing.

At the pass, the hikers coming down tell me its really cold and windy up there. “It might be too late to summit.”
Hold onto your hat!
As I climb it gets colder and the gusts more fierce. Maybe it is too late. But my legs and lungs are finally feeling strong. So I put on my jacket and gloves and keep climbing.
View from Manns Peak (12,273 feet)
On top of Manns Peak, the wind is doing its knock-you-over gale strength gusts. I start my way down the talus traverse over towards Pilot Mountain, but then get scared and turn around.  Too late for me for this exposed traverse. Maybe instead of being late, I'm just early. Maybe I will come back tomorrow, or later on.
It looks like a simple enough traverse from this perspective. At home with no wind.
I want to climb all these peaks. But frankly, up here, I often find myself turning around instead of going forward. I try not to let it make me feel like I'm not brave enough. I try to pretend turning around means that I am pushing myself past my comfort zone. If I was able to do everything easily, wouldn't that mean I wasn't challenging myself?

Or maybe it doesn't mean anything. Maybe this just is what it is.

This is a Graylocks four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris grandiflora).  I have the perfect timing to see them.
I text Jan from the summit and tell her my new plan. She is off-trail healing from a fractured wrist. LTHAD (Live to hike another day)! she says encouragingly. Jan is the best.

I head over to a favorite spot to watch sunset. The clouds are a bit thick so the colors are more muted. But it works.

I can even see the Colorado River on the other side of Castle Valley where I rafted with my new coworkers and old friends last weekend.

Hammock tucked out of the wind.
 The next morning there is time for a side trip. Though I suppose all of this is a side trip, really.

The elk are so hard to see up here. I walk quietly in the early hours. And get just a glimpse.
Up in the talus, I sit and watch clouds and listen to the elk making quiet calls. Maybe its still too early to hear them bugling.
Not too late to visit a little patch of these arnica.
I end up heading back a little earlier than I'd like. But I have a feeling I'll be back soon.

I like this rock.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Just another dayhike

A few days after my first hike in the La Sals, I go for yet another dayhike. Checking out some places. Trying to understand the landscape and learn more.

After daydreaming about those peaks, I study my maps again and look at old notes.

This time, I finally figure out a way to get to one place I've longed to go. A peak probably no one else would care about. From a direction that wouldn't matter to other people.
Finding the way up there from down here.
First, up a cow trail. Not the first cow trail (that one didn’t get me anywhere last time) but the third one on the right.

Then up the old mining road. Not the one that goes up the south-facing slope past the old cabins. That led me into the the other valley last spring. But the old mining road with all the blowdowns over it.
This one.
Then up. They say the journey is the reward. But in the moment of the journey when all your cells are screaming for oxygen because acclimatization takes more than a week when you come from sea level, that just seems idiotic.

Wildflowers make a better reward. Mountain coyote mint. The aptly named Monardella odoratissima. A sweet minty odor, -atissima indeed!
Breathe it in. Slowly.

Commas flying around too. Two species! I stop and look at every single one. Trying to get better at distinguishing the satyr comma (P. gracilis) from the zephyr anglewing (P. satyrus). Which has to do with an extra spot you can see from the top if their wings are open. Or if they are in their elusive mode with closed wings, one is brown and tan and the other is light and darker gray. So subtle. To me anyway. But I like subtle.
From the guide written by my friend Robb.

A few zigs and zags up the side of the mountain. As circuitous a route up as the wing-margins of the commas. Especially with all the stopping and breathing and watching.

At the ridge.

Then, up and over the ridge. The wind blasting. Turning my fingers into icicles. I'd forgotten that 12,000 feet is cold even when it is 90 degrees down at my home in the valley.

Crouching down on my belly to look at teeny tiny alpine wildflowers.
Moss campion
Down on the ground, the wind doesn’t feel as cold. Moss campion hugs the ground too for the same reason. Rich purple. In places they carpet the ground with their purpleatissimness. But if you stand up and look out, the mountains are mostly tan speckled with green. Doesn’t look like much, actually.
Not all that much. Subtle.
The thing about the La Sals is they are not the most gorgeous place. A few minutes on instagram can reveal all the beautiful mountains you’ll want to go. Steeper peaks, more epic-er.

What makes me love these mountains, then?  It's hard to explain.

I am not a confident rock scrambler. I’m scared of heights. But enough places in these mountains are gentle enough for me to explore on my own without getting too sketched out. So that’s part of it.

Plus, I can be the only one at the trailhead. I can hike all day and not see anyone else. Or I can see someone else and we can stop and have a conversation because there aren't that many of us up here. Uncrowdedness.

Maybe most of all, I love how deeply I can know these mountains. I can be up in them in half and hour, so I go again and again. This proximity permits a depth of understanding, through all their various moods and seasons. I love how in living here, I’ve met enough people to share their knowledge of these mountains with me- the botanists, the butterfly expert, geologists, locals. I pick up little pieces of history here and there. Each little tidbit makes me want to learn even more. There are plenty of places far away. But I want to know my backyard place, a small place, with depth and richness.
So I keep coming back.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Back, Once More, to Utah

Up into the mountains my first full day back in Utah.

I think I might manage not to cry. But then the scent of southeastern Utah hits me. Oh this place!

There is nowhere on earth I’d rather be.

A friend tells me I’m lucky to be back. No, I think, this is not luck. I had to make this happen.

The peace is disrupted. Loud whooping in the distance. Then fast whooshing of bikes racing by as I leap up out of the way. Did they notice the tears on my cheeks?  How can there be so many people? There never used to be this many people.
Cow friends.
Further up I wait for cows to get off the trail. They stand and stare at me. Can I please just go that way and you go this way?

Bending over again. Oh the lightheadedness.
When I stoop over to greet the wildflowers I get dizzy when I stand up again. My body spent 3 months at 1-3k feet. And today I’m climbing from below 9k feet up above 11k feet. Because I have to be up here. Right now.

Watching a satyr comma doing its thing.
So I breathe and keep going at my molasses pace until enough time in solitude passes and I remember I’m merely hiking at the speed of botany. I greet all the plants that I have missed all summer. Hello buckwheats, hello gentians, hello showy goldeneye.

My legs do this weird cramping thing which is the same as an IT band problem I had many years ago ("runners knee" my PT called it). It started three weeks ago and I thought it was all healed up. But four days of driving across the country has made it worse again. I do some stretches and keep going.

Even being exactly the place I’ve been longing for, back to this job that feels like my life’s passion, and yet, it's not all flowers and sunshine. Darn legs. I can’t take anything for granted. Certainly not the ability to hike. Of all people, I know that lesson deep in my core.

But also being typically myself, do I turn around? Ha!

As I leave the trail and head up towards the saddle, I text Jan to tell her where I am. I’m not going to climb the peak, I tell her.

Instead, I start making my way up the other shoulder cross-country. Following the call of the pika up onto the talus. The rocks jingle jangle (oh how I love that sound!).
Should I be dancing on the talus? Yes of course!
I make it up to where I can peek into the next basin. And it is the most beautiful sight of all the places I’ve been and long to go. Will go. Terrifying but somehow I know I’ll find a way up there. Beyond where I’ve been before.
For next time.

Maybe I am filled with more joy than I have ever felt in my entire life.  Or maybe I’m just lightheaded from the altitude. All I know is that I have a better feeling than ever that I'm on the right track for me.

Hello gentian

Friday, August 10, 2018

Standing Indian, A Goodbye

Standing Indian in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness of North Carolina was the obvious choice for my last backpacking trip for a while in the southeast. (News flash: I’m moving back to Utah next week!)

A focused, clear path from here to there.
I've been yearning for views since moving back east. Not partial views through the trees, but 360 views of open sky.  And hoped to find a particular wildflower that grow in this botanically rich area.

Mostly though, Standing Indian holds many memories. I've been told I have a lousy memory for certain things. I call it being good at forgetting unnecessary stuff. But being in a place can help me to recall and reflect. Something that helps in a time of transition.

On the way up to North Carolina, I stop at a friend's cabin in the mountains for the night. A relaxing evening listening to the chorus of cicadas, talking about the joys and challenges of being a seasonal park ranger, and saying goodbye-for-nows.

I wake up to pancakes with blueberries from the garden! Life doesn't get much better!

Before I know it, I'm up at the Standing Indian Campground/ Backcountry Information trailhead. The Kimsey Creek Trail, the blue-blazed trail leading to the Appalachian Trail, never fails to delight. Sounds of the cascades filling the coves in stereo. A profusion of summer wildflowers-- the hot pinks of beebalm, joe-pye weed, and whispy delicate cranefly orchids, among other treasures. Maybe this is my favorite trail in the southeast. (Ya'all know I say that about whatever trail I'm on though...)

A sunbeam illuminates a rattlesnake plantain orchid.
When I pass a particular swimming hole, a memory of a trip with dear friends many (edit: 7!) years ago comes to me. I've only reconnected with a few of my friends from back then in these few months I've been here. Did I make enough of an effort or are diverging paths just a natural part of life?

The refreshingly cool waters of Kimsey Creek.

Up on the Appalachian Trail, wildfires that swept through in 2016 opened up the canopy completely changing the scenery from what I remember before I left in 2014. So much change! Blackened tree trunks and glimmering white rocks sparkling in the sunlight. (The rocks so white because the lichen got burned off, the sunlight so bright because the canopy is no more). The understory is now a riot of blooming wildflowers teeming with butterflies.

At first I am shocked by how much has changed, but then I meet some locals who say that fire is a natural part of this ecosystem. Native plants are thriving after the fire came through. It is good to be able to see all the change as a positive, necessary force for ecosystem health.

Seeing things with a new perspective.

The Appalachian Trail circles along the ridge for many miles, gentle and rolling and I glide along. Grades that were kind to me when I was first starting out backpacking. Now perfect for simply being present. Watching butterflies and delighting in the wildflowers. The joy that comes when you realize that you are exactly where you most need to be in the world.

If you stop chasing them and be still, they will just come to you.
Dancing along with joe-pie weed nodding to the beat.
A mother and daughter team are already set up under the Albert Mountain firetower when I arrive.  I feel bad about invading their space... and I really want to watch sunset from the tower.  So I go over to chat. They are new to backpacking, are surprised I'm solo, find out I've hiked in one day what they have covered in two, and start asking about gear and for advice.

I am flooded with memories of my early backpacking trips right here. All the things I didn't know and all the things I used to think were scary and thought were important that turned out not to be.

"You are doing it exactly right," I say, "in simply being out here. You picked a great place. The most important thing is to get out as much as you can!"

Finally, I get around to asking would they mind if I set up out of sight and returned for sunset?

Of course not!

By the time I tucked my hammock into a little spot and return, they are already in their tent for the night. I am relieved that I won't be invading their space as I tiptoe up the firetower and for the 360-degree evening show.

Watching the clouds do their swirling thing as the light changes and thunderclouds build.

Gazing in wonder.
As the colors deepen and get pinker, the lightning gets closer and I decided the fire tower may not be the best place to be.
 Owls hoot back and forth. A gentle wind blows but the storm passes somewhere else. My hammock provides me with deepest, most satisfying sleep.

Sunrise at the tower.
The next morning, a side trip to see the Wasilik Poplar. Which used to be the largest tree east of the Mississippi. Though now it is dead, the towering trunk is still breathtaking.

What remains
In the 1930's there used to be two huge poplars here but the other one got cut down by loggers. Legend has it that the only reason this one wasn’t cut down is because the team of oxen was too exhausted to come back for it after hauling the other one up the hill. The rich cove where it is found is still home to diverse wildflowers and makes a peaceful spot for contemplaing change.

I don't know when I'll be back. But I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for this place and to the people that taught me so much here.

More Information

Go see the Wasilik Poplar

Protect the Southern Nantahala Wilderness