Monday, October 16, 2017

Angel Arch in Canyonlands

I’ve been eager to get back to Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park since exploring Horse Canyon and the southern end of Salt Creek this spring. This trip to Angel Arch made a great overnight backpacking trip.
Rabbitbrush fills the canyon with golden blossoms.
Following the fresh bear tracks for the first two hours. Shouting "hey" around all the blind corners just like when I hiked in Montana. Even though there are "only" black bears in Utah, I still don't want to startle one.
Many people do a one-way hike of Salt Creek Canyon but I just had my two day weekend. An out and back gave me more time to explore side canyons, chase butterflies, and watch clouds.

Seeing the fresh bear tracks made me nervous since I was going solo and tend to be a quiet hiker. So I was happy to meet a friendly couple near the trailhead who were just finishing a long hike who reported they hadn't had any trouble. They also reported that there was only one place with flowing clear water but that I would have no trouble finding it. They were the only people I saw all day so I was glad for such good intel.
After ominous clouds move through all morning, finally large raindrops splash on rocks and fill the air with the scent of rain.
The burn area near the side canyon to Angel Arch.
Angel Arch really is quite spectacular especially in real life and made a satisfying turn-around point.
Trying to hide from the wind behind a juniper. I moved my bear canister far from camp before bed. Thankfully there were no critters to bother me during the night.
On my way back to the trailhead the next day, I saw arches and archaeological sites I had missed on my rush to reach Angel Arch.
How could I have missed this arch the first day?
I used to ignore all the white butterflies thinking they were all the same. But it turns out there are several different species of whites with subtle differences.  Like most everything in nature, there is pleasure in becoming engrossed (and lost) in the small details.
Becker’s white (Pontia beckerii)
Checkered white (Pontia protodice)
There are also more field crescents flying around. I love how they have such variability in coloration within the same species. Seeing how some are very bright, others more dull, some darker, some more orange made me wish I could study them to find out what accounts for all the variation.
Field crescent (Phyciodes pulchella)
More Information

Permits are required for camping in Canyonlands National Park.

Bear canisters are required for overnight trips to Salt Creek Canyon. I brought my own but you can also borrow them for free from the Needles visitor center. You also need to pack out your poop in a wag bag. 

Salt Canyon has a rich history of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples. The Salt Creek Archaeological District is on the National Register of Historic Places. I have chosen to not publish my photos of archaeological sites and pictographs that I saw in order to help protect them and to allow others to “discover” them on their own. Do your part to help protect the archaeological sites and pictographs by staying off them and not touching them.

Dates: September 23-24, 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Listening to fall in the La Sals

Another solo overnight in the La Sal Mountains of Utah. Once again on the Trans La Sal Trail, further north this time. Autumn is happening quickly in the high country. Leaves have changed dramatically in just a week.

Early in the day, I run into a herd of bikers where the Trans La Sal Trail shares tread with the Whole Enchalada Bike Trail. They laugh and chatter as I scurry quickly, leaping off the trail as they wizz by. Until I reach the next turn and am back on the empty hiking only trail. After they pass, I realize just how quiet it is up here. Except for the distant call of elk bugling.
Gently rustling aspen leaves.
Later in the afternoon, I take a detour on an old road. I see two hunters, apparently father and son. They move quietly and leave few footprints. I wonder if they heard the elk too.
Place of swirling winds.
Since moving back to Utah, I still haven't quite gotten used to the quiet here. Kentucky was a cacophony of grasshoppers, cicadas, and frogs. Loud, boisterous, surround-sound, full of life. Here in Utah, there is mostly silence, other than the elk and wind.
Silently fluttering field crescent (Phyciodes pulchella)
I'd been wondering all day where they are, but the echoing of the calls in the valleys makes them hard to locate. Looking downslope on my way to my chosen campsite reveals the answer. A big bull elk with his head tilted back, the sound emerging. Two females are in the meadow beside him. I'm pretty far away so I don't think they can they see me, but of course I don't approach. Though I wish I had my binoculars.
The strange call reminds me of whale, piercing, haunting, beautiful. What would it be like to have a voice like that that penetrates so far?

I climb as high as I can to watch the sunset. Wind gusts driving me back to the shelter of trees and my hidden hammock in the trees above the elk.
Peering into redrock country
Dancing light
Castle Valley
 In my hammock, I slip into my cozy down sleeping bag, down booties and down hat. It was risky camping this high given the forecast calls for freezing temperatures tonight. But for the sunset and the bugling all night, it is worth it.
Worth it.
Wind like a creature, like a freight train. The air is alive, wandering air. I can relate to this wind, always in motion, never managing to stay still. It gains force in the wee hours of the night. Snug, I enjoy being surround by its restless nature.
 In the morning, I find a side trail on my map and decide to check it out, following the narrow tread upwards. More bugling in the distance. Listening to myself breathing and thinking how out of shape I still feel, I round the corner and there they are: silky coats, muscles. Elk. My heart races. So close! A branch breaks under my boot and they bolt. Gone.
Trembling aspen
At the end of the side trail, there is a scree field so I continue across on rocks, listening to their hollow sounds under my feet. Trying to spot the pikas that sound their eep-alerts as I approach.
Wandering around on the rock
On my way back to the trailhead, I think about all these sounds, those of the creatures, the wind, and the human sounds. I've been reading this book called "Wild Soundscapes" (by Bernie Krause) that talks about how to study the health of an ecosystem using sounds and why it's important to study changes in soundscapes. Normally, I get preoccupied with visual things and scents, but out here, the natural sounds are just as engaging and unique. I hope they stay wild.

Date hiked: September 16-17, 2017

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Return to the La Sal Mountains

I finally made it back to the La Sal Mountains of Utah. The summer flowers have bloomed and most have already gone to seed. The leaves are starting to change. And, they hired me for the entire school year which means that even though I missed summer here, I have a chance to be in this place for a whole fall, winter and spring!
Dusty beardtongue (Penstemon comarrhensus) has woolly anthers and linear leaves, and is only found in the Colorado Plateau region.
Enough time to learn more of the plants and butterflies and see a few more places. Including more of the La Sals that I missed last winter when the snow was still covering them. Possibly enough time to fall even more deeply for this place if I'm not careful.
Western Branded Skipper (Hesperia colorado) are very widespread with highly variable wing patterns.
My backpack seems awfully heavy. Not much backpacking this summer and being at only 750 feet was the price I paid for a rewarding job. Now it’s time to pay the piper, as my friend Jan always says. I feel every breath of mountain air moving into my lungs here at 8-9000 feet.
Gazing upward.
The Trans-LaSal Trail skirts the high peaks. Into and out of valleys, across meadows still filled with butterflies. I gaze at the rocks above, imagining the gorgeous alpine possibilities and jaw-dropping views of the high country, as my trail plunges me further down into the valley.

What do you do when you become painfully aware that the path you are on is not getting you anywhere close to where you want to go?

I pull out maps again, looking for other trails. But there is nothing on this end of the range that climbs the peaks. For a while, I justify the low elevation route. Stick to the path, I tell myself. Plus I’m out of shape and not acclimatized and do I have enough water and where would I camp? It’s probably not that great up there anyway.

How many times do I talk myself out of things out of fear?

Finally I snap. A meadow opens up above me. I check maps, pull out my compass and plot a route and break off from the trail. Plotting my own course.
Breathing and taking small steps upward. At the saddle, peaking across to new views.
Self-doubt dissolves. I realize I’m stronger than I though.
Spearleaf stonecrop growing in the alpine meadow, which apparently Parnassius butterfly caterpillars eat which I’ve only seen pictures of but maybe I'll be here long enough to find.

Almost to the summit. Listening to the eeps of pikas. Curiosity, freedom, and self reliance take over.
Touching mountain tops.
Tucking my hammock in a high spot.
Where my heart sings.
And I feel at peace.

More information

Starting from the Squaw Springs Trailhead, the Squaw Springs Trail heads south to join the South Mountain Trail at La Sal Pass Road. Both are part of the Trans-LaSal Trail.

Trail descriptions in the La Sal Mountain Trail Guide.

Stop by the Forest Service Ranger Station in downtown Moab for current conditions.

This was a solo backpacking trip on Sept. 2-3, 2017.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Salt Creek

An overnight backpacking trip in the far southern corner of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park with Still Waters.
Looking down into Salt Creek Canyon from Cathedral Butte Trailhead.
After descending a thousand feet, it's smooth walking on the Salt Creek Trail
Kirk’s Cabin build by a rancher in the 1890’s
Clear flowing water near Kirk's Cabin
While Still Waters hangs out in camp, I go on a ramble. Seeing Kirk Arch on the map, it seems a worthy destination. Just a mile from the trail up a side canyon. How long could it take? Probably just gone an hour, right? (This is what happens when I don’t read the reports ahead of time that this arch is “inaccessible.”)
Our campsite, SC1, had sprawling shade trees perfect for an afternoon nap
Scouting up and down the main trail showed no evidence of a social trail to the arch. The sheer, steep banks along Salt Creek prevented a direct route. Backtracking up and around the spring and through a jungle of sagebrush, meandering around sidewashes, and finally pulling on rainpants to provide protection from thick brush. Scrambling down the bank, bellycrawling up the other side, fingers clawing the dirt to gain a purchase. Wondering what the heck am I doing this for? Tiptoeing through the cryptobiotic soil and backtracking along slickrock and washes some more to avoid large patches of the fragile desert soils.
Finally reaching a wash below the arch, which provides some easy walking.
Two hours later, I am not even close to the arch. But I get to a high spot where I can convince myself I can’t go any further with my rock climbing/ scrambling skillset. If I had a decent camera with telefoto lens, I could have gotten a better photo from the trail and lounged around camp this whole time. Instead I am scratched up, hungry, and on my way to becoming one with the sand and dirt. Happy, in other words.
Turn around spot.
 But with only an hour to get back to camp before sunset and the time I’d told Still Waters I’d return, its a bit of a push. One of the problems with leaving as few footprints as possible is that it makes following my tracks back more difficult. I race to get back to camp feeling engaged with the landscape. With senses fully awake, the duskywings crusing up and down the wash come into focus and I spot a packrat scurring along a ledge at dusk (first time I’ve ever seen that!).
Also spot a lizard with bright blue markings. Might be a plateau fence lizard. 
I return to camp 5 minutes after the agreed upon time. Exhausted but completely satisfied. There is enough time to climb above camp for sunset watching and dinner. Still Waters gives me half of an avocado she packed in and I spread it on my tortilla and it is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.
Sunset watching spot above Kirk's Cabin.
This is Still Water’s first time cowboy camping, which is sleeping out under the stars instead of in a tent. I remember being scared about critters crawling on me the first time I cowboy camped. The next morning when I ask her how it was she says “It was like we are kids sleeping out in the backyard, pretending we are camping out in the wilderness.”

Which I think captures the essence of what I love most about sleeping out under the stars, and rambling bushwhacks— it feels like playing. Like being connected with the joy of the outdoors without the barriers of the tent, without fiddling with Fancy Gear, without having to follow some predefined path to get to somewhere in particular. Without having to be anything but ourselves.

More Information
Backcountry permits are required in Canyonlands National Park. Follow all backcountry regulations required to protect this fragile and very beautiful environment. We carried our food in a bear canister and packed out our poop.
Packing out my poop in a wag-bag.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

La Sal Ramblings

Frozen ground and snow in the first stretch of trail. The air smells like the High Sierra in California or the Swan Range in Montana in late May. There’s the same crunch of my microspikes. The same grey-brown dirt still flat from the recently-retreating snow, sparse sprouts barely poking through the duff. The feel of higher altitude forcing me to slow down. At least some things are familiar.
Frozen/ thawing
Looking at the view from this high place out onto canyoncountry is like nothing I’ve seen in California or Montana, or anywhere else for that matter. The red rocks surrounding these La Sal Mountains are such a contrast. ISKY, Arches, the Needles, Hidden Valley and Moab, my familiar haunts these past three months— all spread out in clear view.
Redrock in the distance
On the side trip to Brumley Arch
Brumley Arch
The trail. It keeps disappearing under the snow. Where are you, trail? I backtrack, looking for cut logs. Above treeline, I look at the curve of the topography and imagine where the trail should go. Until I cease caring anymore and follow my own lines of curiosity.
Rambling on rocks
Down low near the springs, Milbert's tortiseshell are flitting about everywhere.
Little sprouts shooting up.  It’s frustrating, not knowing what it will all become. Back in Montana, back in Georgia, even further back in Maryland, I’d be able to recognize most plants just by the sprouts. Here, everything is a mystery that I may never solve.

Why am I’m spending so much time trying to learn the plants here anyway? I’m leaving in two weeks for my summer job.

Finally something recognizable. A blue bell! This I know from Georgia. Seeing it reminds how long it took in my previous homes to piece together an understanding of the local flora. Multiple seasons studying plants, excursions with the native plant society, hikes dedicated to finding plants at different times. Of course I can’t gain that depth of knowledge instantly. I shouldn’t feel so frustrated when the names get overwhelming and I feel like I’m lost in a sea of Latin and start to get a case of the I’m-not-smart-enoughs.
After setting up camp in the lee of a hill, low to be out of the wind, I climb up to a high spot. The La Sals glow with the fading light. I wonder what the high peaks will be like in another month, when I am far away. What if I never get up there? What if this is my last day ever in the La Sals. But maybe I will get another job here next season. I sent in my application last week. But who knows what will happen.
What will this look like when the snow melts?
Hoping this isn't my last sunset in the La Sals
Being up high provides much needed perspective. It makes me feel like I can see where I’ve come from. I see myself at 17, falling in love with the wide-open high desert starkness of Eastern Oregon during a summer field botany course at the Malheur Field Station. Visiting Arches and the La Sals in my early 20’s with my then-husband. A photo from that trip to the La Sals was the background photo on my computer all through grad school. A view of mountains when I was stuck in the lab. All these years later, being so filled with gratitude for keeping on a path that finally twisted and turned and led me here.
Photo from my first trip to the La Sals so many years ago.
The next morning before dawn, I pack up swiftly and climb high. Pulling my sleeping bag around me against the biting cold as I watch and wait. It’s not typical for me to not be on the move in the morning, but I long to stay in place here, even if just for an hour.
Watching the sunrise
In the crisp thin air, the important things are clear. I am grateful for the challenges of a new place that allow me to keep growing. Having a job that is meaningful and allows me to live in a stunningly beautiful place is such a priority for me that I can compromise on other things to make it happen. I know that I carry around within me everything I need to be happy wherever I go— the capacity to learn and to make connections. I am glad to have a heart that is open and allows me to feel so much even though it also hurts so much to leave. This is what is is to be alive— raw, intense, and vulnerable. Perched on a rock on the mesa below a snowcapped peaks pummeled by wind surrounded by fields of snow and mud. Cocconed in the warmth of my sleeping bag with belly full of instant oatmeal and peanut butter, creating enough heat to last until the sunlight touches me again.
First morning light on the La Sals
More Information
La Sal Mountains are the second highest range in Utah with 14 peaks over 12k feet. The Squaw Springs Trail #038 and Boren Mesa Trail #537 both lead from the Squaw Spring Trailhead and are part of the Trans-La Sal Trail. I explored to La Sal Pass to the south and then to Oowah Lake to the north on this solo backpacking trip.