Thursday, March 23, 2017

Horse Canyon

On an overnight backpacking trip to Canyonlands National Park with Jan, a wrong turn led us down the right path.
Jumping back and forth across Salt Creek.
The original goal was Angel Arch, largest arch in Canyonlands. Ambitious mileage, especially with the sand. But we missed our turn to Salt Creek Canyon where it splits from Horse Canyon. By the time we realized our mistake, we were already at an arch named Paul Bunyon’s Potty. Naturally, many jokes were told and hilarity ensued.
Paul Bunyon’s Potty is a large pothole arch.
A short detour took us to an Ancestral Puebloan site that invoked wonder and contemplation. Despite my initial reluctance (which took the form of my insisting we backtrack before I realized the error in my ways), finally the poorly conceived original plan was abandoned in favor of our organic and delightfully spontaneous new route down Horse Canyon. Checking of maps revealed several intriguing sites, side canyons, and arches. How could a singular ambitious goal make sense in the face of lollygaging and discovery? Especially with Jan, who is the master of lollygaging.
Built by the ancient people.
The reason that we’d not even considered Horse Canyon was that our maps showed this as a jeep route. But we couldn’t see any signs that vehicles had been this way for a long time (we’d later find out this area was still closed to jeeps this time of year). And once we passed the turnoff to Tower Ruin, there weren’t any recent human footprints either. Another win.
Jan leaves behind the first human footprints for a while.
Best of all, our backcountry camping permit was for the entire Salt/Horse Canyon zone, so we were free to camp anywhere. Perfect!
Gorgeous cottonwoods. 
Chasing mourning cloaks.
Exploring washes.
When the washes get rocky, it’s a pleasant break from the tough sand walking.
Canyon walls seem higher the further up the canyon we venture.

Climbing down is always more difficult than getting up.
Finding a suitable campsite away from trails takes some time. We roll out or sleeping bags on top of a rocky perch and wait for the sky change.
It’s early so Jan reads us a bedtime story, part of an ebook by Ken Foskett. 
Finally the sky turns subtle purple and slowly grows darker.  (photo by Jan)
I feel completely restored and happy to be surrounded by rock and spires, waiting for the full moon to rise. The night is quiet and we wake to the soft hooting of an owl in the predawn.
Castle Arch is the most stunning arch I’ve seen- so fragile-looking and so very out of the way. The canyon is choked with plants and we have had enough bushwhacking for the day so decide not to push on further for a closer view.
The next day, we visit Castle Arch and Tower Ruin, which Jan thoughtfully suggested we save to the end. Truly the icing on the cake of our fantastic trip!
Full of wonder at the people who lived at Tower Ruin and what their lives would have been like.
More Information

Permits are required for all overnight trips in Canyonlands National Park. In this area, bear canisters are required and all human waste must be pack out to protect this incredible place.

What’s so special about this canyon is that water has brought people here for the last 7,600 years, and there is a rich history of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples here. The Salt Creek Archaeological District, of which Horse Canyon is a part, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Do your part to help protect the archaeological sites and incredible pictographs by staying off them and not touching them.

Read more about Tower Ruin here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wonders on the Wilhite Trail

Turns out I was completely wrong about the monotythic redness of the rocks. They are green, blue, pink, yellow, and thousands of shades of every color of the rainbow out here in Utah’s canyon country. Add rain and the rocks transform into wild creatures of iridescence that sparkle and defy categorization.
Through the Wingate layer.
Only the rocks are categoriezed. Each layer has a name and an order, mapped out in stratographic columns. We teach the elementary school students the rock layers by relating the shapes and colors to a layered sundae. The Wilhite Trail skips along the whipcream softness of the Navajo Sandstone before plummiting strait down the stacked-on-end kit-kat candy layer of the Wingate.
Seeing the layers and ancient environments they reflect.
I am on a solo backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. As I switchback down from the top of the Island in the Sky towards the White Rim Road along the Wilhite Trail, I imagine a giant sea here and then great sand dunes, roving dinosaurs above and the scurring trilobites way under my feet.

As my mind often does as I hike, I reflect on my week. All the field trips for students in the park. All the things I've learned.

This week’s field trip was to Delicate Arch. At 3 miles round trip, it’s a long hike for students. As sweep, I hike with the students in the back of the pack, which we all know is where the magic happens.

“One thing I like about you being my friend,” a student says to me as we trail behind the rest of the group, “Is that you jump around to different topics. But you remember my questions and then come back to them.”  The field trip has been going on for two hours and we are already friend-level.

“My big wonder,” he says, “is how did the rocks get this way.”
How did these rocks at the end of the Wilhite Trail (called the Holman Slot) get this way?
The student has other “big wonders” that he wants to talk about. Some of which humanity has been grappling with for many generations (and some of which I tell him he has to ask his parent about.)

The important thing that sticks with me is this phrase “my big wonder.”  I keep thinking about this conversation as I hike. I wonder a lot but someimes I don’t have a “big wonder.” Most of my wonders are small, and involve petty insignificant details. Even out here, backpacking in the spaciousness of the canyonlands where it should be easier to remember the insignificance of our tiny concerns. Yet, for hours all I can think is, “Will the wind ever let up? How can it be so cold? Are those clouds going to dump rain? Will the wind ever let up?  Wow much longer can I keep glueing these shoes back together? Will the wind ever die down? Will the sand and sunscreen ever get out of my eyes? How can there be this much wind?” Big wonders get pushed aside, as I lean into the wind.

The wind intensifies. I worry about finding a sheltered campsite in my at-large backcountry camping zone. It should be easy enough, yet the requirements are that I have to be so far from the road and there are a lot of cliffs I can’t make it down, a lot of cryptobiotic soil that is off-limits.
Watching the rain clouds pass over.
Finally, a campsite is found and the rain starts falling just as I get the last stake of the tent in and toss my pack inside. I listen to the weather roll through, soft rain falling on my tent, and watch the sky. It’s only 5:30 PM. Plenty of time for “big wonders” tonight.
Sleeping out under the stars, there is time for Big Wonderings.
There is something about watching the sky that allows one to take a step back. To imagine the big time frames. Beyond the where do I want to backpack next weekend. Making a 5 year plan doesn’t seem so daunting. Maybe I will even contemplate our place in the universe. I wonder at communities and how they form complex webs to sustain us and make our lives meaningful. I wonder at mass extinctions and the vastness of the sky and outer space. I wonder about language, about Parks, at how our minds develop so much between 2nd grade and 3rd grade but sadly not much between 38 and 39. I wonder at how much the 3rd graders have to teach us 39 year olds.
They seem so young.
I fall asleep content, wake up with lots of energy to climb back up again, ready for another week of field trips, hopeful about the future.
Morning mist.
More Information
The Wilhite Trail in Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, is 6.1 miles and 1600 feet down to the White Rim (Jeep) Road. Going south and east on the White Rim Road to Murphy Hogback is another 10 miles, then it’s only 4.8 miles back up to the Murphy Trailhead. If you had a shuttle you could park another car here, but I didn’t so I roadwalked to the Wilhite Trailhead (no shoulder in some places so be careful!) which only took a couple hours.

Only saw one bicyclist and two dirtbikers on the White Rim Road, so plenty of solitude (hiked February 17-18, 2017).

Backcountry camping permits are required for all overnight trips. Carry all your own water and pack out your poop.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Syncline Trail, two years later

Hiking the Syncline Trail in Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park trail two years ago, I was at a turning point. After a lifetime of working in academia doing scientific research, backpacking for a season on the PCT made me realize I needed to do something different with my life. Surrounded by inspiring backpackers at the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador retreat gave me a chance to ask, “How do you find a balance between long-distance backpacking and work?”
Syncline Trail, ISKY
The answers I got all pointed one way. “Find a well-paying day-job that pays good money and allows you flexible time off to backpack.”

Not what I wanted to hear. Sitting in front of a computer all day? Dedicating my time to something that no longer fueled my passions? Been there, done that. Being on the PCT and having every day feel like “wow I’m doing exactly what I want to do and believe in” showed me I could no longer comprimise on a day job that made me feel burnt out. 
Back to this trip... I'm out here solo now. Piecing together several trails with roadwalking to create my own route. Now I live here. A few steps closer to finding my own solution to the work-backpacking balance problem. This winter, I’m an SCA at a park, though last year I was an NPS employee and hope to (update- will!) be again. The pay isn’t much but my days are spent taking children to the park on field trips, or roving park trails or talking to visitors at the front desk. And I get all the free backcountry permits I want for my days off.
Under a ledge out of the rain, I look back to where I've been, close my eyes and inhale the refreshingly rain-scented air.
Because I am curious about an Ancestral Puebloan tower called Fort Bottom, I going beyond where we hiked last time, following the Upheaval Canyon down to the Colorado River.

A pool of water is teeming with critters. With this much water, there should be birdsong and buzzing insects, the sounds of life. I wonder why I’m not having to swat away mosquitoes and noseeums or bees. It is so silent.
Whirlygig beetles whirl and the water striders stride around.
After descending to the wash, there is sweet music of dripping water. I stand on the bank trying to see where the water is flowing and a bug flies into my eye. As I try to retrieve the dead body out of my eye with my sunscreen covered fingers, my eyes start to sting and water up until I can’t see, and yet suddenly everything is right with the world and I remember where I'm coming from and where I am going.
I join the White Rim Road for a few miles along the Colorado River, as the rain intensifies.
Sometimes mud happens.
Weathering the storm.
Colorado River wanderings.

Fort Bottom Ancestral Puebloan site perched on the high point above the Colorado River.
Narrow trail out to Fort Bottom.
Climbing up to see the Tower.
From the White Rim Road, it is 11 miles back to the Alcove Spring Trailhead through Taylor Canyon. Then about a mile roadwalk to the Syncline Loop trailhead. There’s no sunset with the dark rainy skies.  So I lay in my tent and think about what if felt like two years ago to not know what I would do next. I wonder where I will be two years from now.
In the morning the moon hangs low as the rain gives way to morning glow.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

To Sky

Locals call it “ISKY” and pronounce it like it rhymes with “I fly." As if “sky” is a verb. To sky.

The paved road to Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park leads up to the top of the mesa. From this high point, the vastness of the canyons is awe-inspiring. The mesa is wedged between two great western rivers, the Green and the Colorado. Most visitors remain high on the overlooks. Yet, a half dozen trails plunge over the edge intercepting the White Rim Road, which winds 100 miles on a shelf between mesa top and canyon bottom. Popular with jeeps much of the year, one major access point to the White Rim Road is still closed due to snow. Do other hikers read “Road Closed” signs as “Welcome Hikers in Search of Quiet”? It’s my choice as a first solo overnight backpacking trip this season.
View from the rim.
Driving to the trailhead, the parking area for Mesa Arch is full of cars. Photographers stand around shoulder to shoulder to shoot the sunrise through the iconic arch scene featured on countless postcards and posters.

In contrast, only a few sets of footprints stretch out ahead of me on the Lathrop Trail. 
Snow along the mesa top amidst native grasses.
Soon enough the trail reaches the edge and appears to drop off into the abyss. Heights that make my head-spin until I look away and angle my wide-brimmed hat down low so that only the trail directly in front of me is visible. The calming mantra that I use to deal with fear of heights, “Left-right, don’t look down, left-right, don’t look down.”
Lathrop Trail pours over sheer Wingate cliff.
Time to just keep following the trail, soaring over the edge rather than contemplate falling. The trail itself is smartly constructed, steep but never sketchy.
Not as bad as it first appears.
I say my silent thanks to the NPS, trail builders and maintenance crews for keeping this trail feeling safe through such impossible terrain. Despite not having backpacked for two months, the weight of two days water and winter gear settles comfortably against my spine as the body remembers how to stay balanced and strong yet gentle on a steep descent. Perhaps the Washington PCT section K wasn’t as long ago as my head thinks it was.
Soon enough, it’s time to look back and marvel at the tops of the cliffs and the power of legs, and feel the joy of being alive and small in a place of towering sandstone.
Past the White Rim Road, the Lathrop becomes a jeep road on its path down to the Colorado River. Pools of water harbor caddisfly larvae, hidden in their self-made tubes of sand and stone.
Caddisfly larvae
A sign says cottonwood populations are in decline along the Colorado River due to invasive tamarisk and upstream dams. Apparently these gorgeous old trees aren’t being replaced by new seedlings. The NPS planted small cottonwoods protected by fencing and put up a sign to ask visitors to water them. Hopefully this will work because I can’t imagine a future without these gorgeous trees along the river corridor.
I startle a flock of birds and they fill the air with a sudden burst of energy.
Back up along the White Rim Road, the openness of this landscape invites exploration. Yet rambling is restricted by the sensitive nature of the cryptobiotic soil crust. Soil here is literally alive, the tendrils of cyanobacterial life holding the dirt in place and creating favorable conditions for moss, lichen, and plant life. So I resist the urge to tromp around freely unless sandy wash or rock present corridors through the crypto. Fortunately, continuous stretches of smooth flat White Rim outcrops form an alternative to the jeep road.
Air still and silent except for the echo of footfall on rocks, as I leap across cracks and crevices.
The cattle tank I get, but an ironing board? What use would smartly-pressed clothes have out here?
My permit for the “at-large” backpacking zone requires camping 1 mile from the road. A distance that at first seems reasonable until I reach the edge of the cliff and find I’m still only 0.7 miles as the crow flies from the road. Around the edge of the bend, my White Rim rock path meets a sandstone butte and the cliff falls away into the sky and vastness. I stop.
Looking for a camp
A raven swoops down so close that I duck. Then she circles back down below the rim between spires and jumbled boulders. I wait to see if she will come back, wondering if I should perhaps find a different place to be for the night, but she keeps circling down below me on currents. I stay.

Colors change as they do each evening. From this spot, feelings of awe wash over me. Pulling out topo maps, I can connect a few dots in the vast landscape of spires, mesas, and layers of canyon. The La Sals peek out behind taller cliffs, their warm pink snowy glow melting my heart. An overlook that I visited the previous evening with a new friend is just across the river. Anchors of familiarity providing comfort.
To connect the dots.
Colors that seem like the first time I’ve ever really seen them. Maybe it’s being alone with the expansiveness of these canyons. But maybe it’s finally not feeling lonely, because of these growing connection to these landscapes and the people I’ve me here. Maybe it’s falling for this place, as I seem to do every time I move.
To camp.
Temperatures plummit as the sun drops. By 6 PM, I am zipped up snug into sleeping bag. Watching stars come into focus, satellites traveling their arching paths, marveling at the quiet and absence of light pollution. Feeling supported by the ground and open to the sky.

The Lathrop Trail in Canyonlands National Park is 6.8 miles to the White Rim Road and 10.8 miles to the Colorado River. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight camping. Carry all your own water. Even if fresh surface water is present, leave this precious resource for the caddisfly larvae and other wildlife. January provided cool temperatures with bits of snow at higher elevations and complete solitude (no other people seen on this trip).

Monday, February 6, 2017

Moving adjustments

My eyes have trouble adapting to this new place. The verticalness of the rocks and seeing-forever views make my head spin. The palate of the landscape is shockingly red. How can there be this much red?
Where even the trees sometimes glow red
As it happens, I arrive on a snowy day and the sky is mostly grey. The dullness of the light makes the red rocks covered in snow seem less imposing, if that could be possible. I feel not so much overwhelmed by their massive size, but by the details that I don’t understand. What does each layer mean? Why are they shaped like this? Why are these ones all rounded and those ones more angular? None of this seemed important when I’ve visited here before. But now this is my new home and I have become responsible for this information.
Arriving the first day to my new home for the next few months
While the rocks appear to dominate, eyes soon learn to focus on the rustle of dead leaves quivering in the wind. If I were back in Montana or Georgia, I’d be able to recognize the plants by their bare twigs. The shriveled grey foliage would mean something and I’d be able to anticipate the rhythm of spring’s emergence. But here the unfamiliar shapes make my head spin too with the overwhelming amount of unknowns.

Trails take me to the cliffs above town, and I climb each of them one day to compare and triangulate. Map and compass reveal a geography of place, as I try to make sense of my new home. The house where I am staying is a tiny speck. The La Sals seem even more massive and give me that “I NEED to go there” feeling of longing. The formations spread out as I try to make out each one, find where it is and make sense of all the inbetween.

Then there is the news and changing political climate. At staff meeting, we are handed out copies of the Hatch Act and told not to discuss politics. Two days after I land an interview for an exciting summer job, the federal hiring freeze is announced. I walk around overwhelmed with nervousness, worried I will stay something wrong.
Sometimes the rocks turn sherbert
By the time the clouds roll out, I’ve been able to found a place of green refuge. Or at least it will become green, suggest the dried up tan, grey, and brown sticks and dried up leaves. Here lurk tiny hints of the familiar. My eyes are drawn to the humped ivory shapes of scale, a type of insect related to the aphids I used to study, clinging to twigs. Something familiar, exquisite, specks that feel like friends.
Tiny, beautiful scale (insects that looks like white blobs)
I meet someone who wants to be my friend. Those are even the words, “Let’s be friends!” So I let down my guard and confide and laugh. Only then do I realize how much energy it takes to feel such uncertainty and fear.

We drive around the morning after another fresh snowfall taking in the awe of it all. Exclaiming, “We live here!” Almost in disbelief. A hawk soars and then lands in a tree nearby. The clouds hang low in the canyons.
Animal tracks criss-cross the fresh snow, revealing life and activity that is hidden. My camera is full of photos of all the unfamiliar plants. How much of this will remain strange over the next few months, and how much will become like an old friend, familiar and well-loved?