Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Summer's Grand Finale

I must say...this summer ended with a bang. And quite the bang it was, as you shall soon see.
I will first rewind to catch you up where I last left off in my blog. Following my brother's visitation, I worked through another typical work week which was longer than normal and I was soon very burned out.  My thoughts slowly turned from "wow, this is an awesome job" to "ok, this is a pretty nice job" to "sheesh, I'm ready to go home."  The latter is how I felt that work week.  And then my parents visited, bless their hearts.  I had been waiting for this for some time, for as any child of loving parents knows, having your parents around means getting food stuffed down your throat and other random comforts and pleasures.  It is strange how very much like the juvenile owls I become when my parents come around....expecting to get fed and taken care of all the time.  It was as I had imagined and hoped.  I enjoyed several fine restaurant meals (Zion Lodge breakfast buffet is excellent, Oscar's Cafe is great as well), slept in a very fine hotel room, and was treated to the finest parental care one could ask for (which included a loaf of chocolate banana bread).  Oh, and of course, I must mention the amazing brownies baked for me by the Youderians!  Thanks!
Steph took advantage of this as well, and joined us on most of our excursions.  We were not lazy though, for if you know my mother, you know that if there is a place to hike, she is hiking.  We hiked the Watchman Trail, Refrigerator Canyon, Hidden Canyon, Twin Canyon, and half of the main Zion canyon along the road at night.  In payment for such tremendous parental care, I hooted some spotted owls for them.  My pa got to see one fairly up close, which was a real treat for him.  I also showed them the California Condors which have been taking up residence up the Kolob Terrace Road for the past several years.  My parents were delighted to be in Zion, and, as I found out after they left, I felt completely refreshed and ready to tackle another work week.
And so I did.  The next day following my parents visit, Steph and I headed out for a three day backpacking venture to knock out two survey sites.  I parked my car under the only available shade at Lee Pass Trailhead on the Kolob side of the park, and headed out, worried that we would get in trouble with the permit people or park rangers again.  I worried so because, even though I called in my intentions to the permit office, I did not stop at the Kolob visitor center and tell them my car would be there, and thought that maybe they wouldn't be happy about that.  But, I hiked on anyways, and Steph told me to forget about it, so I did.  We hiked up La Verkin Creek to the Beartrap Canyon survey site.  The massive thunderstorms that had unloaded unabashedly several days before had created a very large flash flood through the area.  All along the creek the banks were plastered with thick, muddy silty clay.  In some areas it was apparent that the muck flood had been up to six feet deep.  Most of the material had washed downstream, but much remained on the banks, making travel very difficult in some places.  If you stepped into the mud, you would sink 6 inches and have a shoe twice the size and four times the weight after you pulled it out.  We picked our way around the muck, sometimes forced to walk through it or throw down sticks and rocks to walk on.  Steph had a good long laugh after I had attempted to step into the middle of the stream, where it looked stable to walk on the rocks, but soon found myself sixteen inches deep in the muck.  We were quite beat that night, but the owl show had to go on, and so we hooted into the canyon that night.  To our great joy, an owl responded half an hour after we started calling, and we immediately went to bed.  I wish I could say that I felt some odd feeling looming over me that night, some dark foreboding, but it was not so.  In fact, I slept very soundly.  As did Steph.
The next morning we shot on over to the next site, Currant Creek.  This was to be the fourth time I had visited this site, and was the first time I had actually gone to the right place (atleast where the NPS Biotechs claim is the right place), but we still did not find the owls that night.  We had been hiking seemingly nonstop while we were in the backcountry, and it was wearing on us...the only thing that kept us going was the thought of getting back to the car, heading to Cedar City and spoiling ourselves with a night at a hotel and eating out.  Instead of camping near Currant creek, we decided to hike as far out  as we could (back to the blessed car), and made camp at about one in the morning.  Awake at seven, we packed up and cleared out, all the while dreaming of getting to stay in a hotel and eating greasy food.  The landscape very slowly unraveled as we tramped along; past the first prow of sandstone cliff, along the large amphitheater, finally up the long, steep ridge through pinyon and juniper.
Somewhere along the trail, I had suddenly thought that I should pray to God.  The feeling came from nowhere, but, as my legs trudged along, I prayed to God.  I wanted to ask for His forgiveness for not being obedient to Him.  If He truly was God and King, and He had layed down His life for a peasant like me, why do I not give my life to Him...why do I not give Him everything of mine...why am I not serving Him like someone should be who is truly grateful of being saved from eternal condemnation?  I asked for Him to reveal my sins to show me what was distracting my attention from Him.  I asked Him to humble me.  And then my mind shifted, as it always seems to do after my prayers, and I went back into mental hiking mode, where thoughts of the mind just stumbled and jumbled around until I finally became conscious that our destination was near.
Up the final few steps to the parking lot...I glance over to the parking lot to see my car.  "That's funny," I think to myself, "my car doesn't look like its must be behind another car."  Walking closer, I say it out loud to Steph; "My car is not here..."  She doesn't believe me, but looking up and scanning around, she sees that it is true.  Walking still closer, I enter a state of bewilderment as my eyes locate the tree I had parked under.  No car.  My heart sinks.  My first thought is that the Park Rangers got sick and tired of those derned owl researchers and towed it off.  But then I see the blackened asphalt and the tree that is now scorched and no longer green.  In place of my car, a black burn spot.  A sign on the tree:  "Jessie Devo, Call Dispatch or the Kolob Visitor Center."  I am in disbelief.  I know not what to think.  I rationalize it like everyone does when disasters happen, like "my car was towed away, and somehow there is a burnt spot in its place, but my car is fine."  But of course, reality sets in, and I know that my car has been scorched.  Shock and disbelief is all I felt.  My entire life was contained in that vehicle.  Not only was my Subaru an awesome car, perfect for my lifestyle, but I also was living out of it for the summer.  This means I had in my car: my wallet, cell phone, computer, two cameras and all their accessories, external harddrive, Ipod, a library of books, chacos and two pairs of approach shoes, backpack, binoculars, a whole suit of other gadgets and gear, and, most importantly, my left over chocolate banana bread.  With fear in my voice, I said to a Boy Scout troop leader at the trailhead, "so it looks like my car burnt down...can I borrow a phone?"  He offered to drive Steph and me to the visitor center instead.
At the visitor center, the ranger, who did a wonderful job of being truly concerned and understanding, asked me questions like "do you know anyone who would do this to your car?" and "did you have anything explosive in the vehicle?"  She showed me pictures of my vehicle before they removed it.  Only the skeleton of the frame remained...everything else was incinerated and completely reduced to ash.  Nothing was salvageable.  The license plate was the only object that wasn't completely burned, which was used to determine the owner (being my parents who found out first).  She told me the investigation could find no cause to how it started.  Apparently, it flared up around midnight two nights before (while we were peacefully sleeping in Beartrap) and had burned until seven in the morning when someone finally reported it.  The car had undergone several explosions, blowing the hatch open.  Even the glass windows had been incinerated.
  To make me feel better about the situation, my good German amigo, Flo, says, "sometimes you're the windshield, and sometimes you're the bug....and sometimes, there is no windshield."

The ranger (as well as my boss) hypothesized mice building a nest and chewing wires.  My mother thinks my binoculars were at just the right angle to magnify the suns rays on flammable material.  Others claim foul play..."those derned owler researchers..."  Steph humorously believes it was her fault; several days before, she had gone to Walmart to buy a $7 item.  After putting a $10 bill in the self-check-out machine, it gave her $42 in change.  Against her conscious and better judgement, she kept the money instead of returning it.  And it sat in my car while we were backpacking.  It was probably the money itself that flared up...
But no...I think I know better...
   All told, I lost about $5,400 in gear and $6,000 in vehicle.  My reaction to this has surprised some.  I was not sad, not depressed, not freaking out.  I was accepting of the circumstance, seemingly unaffected, almost happy about it... and for one reason... I knew God had answered my prayer...I had prayed to be humbled, to be shown my sin.  I look at the list of items I lost in the car and the price tag associated with them, and I am disgusted.  The materialistic world had been swallowing me ever so slowly, and I had not noticed it.  I had been utterly consumed, and thus blinded to my sin.  I had begun worshiping my camera, my computer, my pictures, my gear.  All my attention was focused on stuff...and very little focused on God.  I said before that my entire life was contained in my Subaru, but I found this to be wrong...everything contained in my car was my sin, and God had swallowed it up, leaving nothing.
An act of God then...?

But what is most fortunate about this unfortunate occurrence is that no one was hurt or killed.  No nearby cars were affected (there was only one car in the parking lot that was several spaces away).  No wildfires were started.  Nobody's life was ruined.  It is odd that such a thing has happened to me, but in all reality, it is such a small thing.  I have a story and adventure to tell, but no real damage has been done.  There are others who are going through much more trying and hard times.  I am thinking of Peter Brightbill and his family, and what they are going through.
My insurance covers all my personal belongings inside that were lost, but not the vehicle.  And this is where the challenge really begins--avoiding becoming so materialistic as I was before and making better choices regarding the things I buy.  I do not want to live with so much accumulated, insignificant, and unimportant things.  I am also avoiding buying a car right now.  It would be great to go without one for as long as possible.  Same with a computer.  A camera would be nice (since I was really getting in to photography while in Zion and took some photos that amazed me [all lost in the fire!]), but I'm going to wait until the "right" camera for me hits the market.

But maybe its too late...I can feel the slimy fingers of materialism creeping through the "need" and "want" isles of my brain.  I've already purchased brand new Chacos!
*My uncle lovingly questioned my perspective regarding the sin of materialism, and after rereading this post, it is not as clear as it should be.  Here is what I replied to him to clear this issue:

"I do not think that having lots of "stuff" is necessarily sinful.  It boils down to what you are worshiping.  If you are worshiping your gear and stuff, then = sinful.  If you have a lot of stuff with a God-worshiping attitude, then not so.  When the event in Zion occurred, I realized how much of my attention had been on my gear all my life, and not on God.  I was looking at gear to make me happy and fulfill my needs.  This was the basis of what I meant to get across in my blog, and now that I read it again, it is not clear.  It does sound like I am just attacking materialism, but I meant to be attacking my own wrongful focus on gear and not God.  I love my gear, but I also know that it all comes from God and for that I am thankful.

So with that basis, my blog probably should have read something more like, or had a theme of, avoiding becoming a gear worshiper, not just avoiding becoming materialistic.  I guess that is how I subconsciously defined materialism:  the amassment of stuff without regard to the Provider."

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Zion Poem: Written by Stephanie Maurer

By Stephanie Maurer

The sun before me, coat behind me, coffee within me
I am warmed in all directions in a dusty, desert morning.
The birds beginning, crickets ending, creek always flowing

There exists every shade of green out here: sage, emerald, forest, and
Within each space between leaves and thistles is
Purity and silence.

The towering cliffs create a space of peace, and their frailty reminds me
How frail the peace can be.
I feel contentment as well as loneliness, all wrapped up in
Dust, cacti, and wildlife.

In the road I walk each day are footprints, scattered.
Ringtail, frog, lizard, beetle and now human,
All traversing the same dirt path to different places
For different reasons.

The diversity of life this place sustains is shocking and sometimes humorous.
The predator/prey standards of the wild have everyone afraid of everyone else.
Everyone jumps, scurries, slithers and bolts away.

When I look at the sky at cliff-line I realize I even sometimes take for granted the color blue.
Toward the rising sun it is a robin’s egg
Distanced from the light it is a dark blue ocean.

With time one realizes this is more than just beauty.
Behind the sage that’s highlighted with orange flowers
Behind the buzz of passing hummingbirds, and
Behind the warmth of the rising sun
Lies struggle, starvation, dehydration and death.

I think that’s what creates the loneliness.
The vastness of the area makes me wish I could
Spread out my arms from atop a cliff and
Envelop all the space, or
Yell something unimportant into the canyons below.

The desert symphony is tranquilizing.
The towhee is digging in the leaf litter
The chickadee whistles about his territory
The bees buzz about their business, and
The wind creates soft background percussion with
The circular cymbals of aspen leaves.

Sunlight illuminates the webs of spiders in trees
They are soft, silk nests cradled between dried, rough and gnarled branches.
I find new life in shallow waters; tadpoles growing into
The next generation of frogs.
Even on slickrock something has decided to live-lichen.

In all the bitterness of heat, dryness, vastness and roughness
There is to be discovered the sweetness of
Soft silk, clear-flowing water, and new life.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lightning Part 2: purveyor of fright and flight in the field

Such a cool day for Zion...we had to take advantage of it. A storm system was on its way, pushing thin layers of clouds through the sky. We decided on Coalpits Wash...a site that has been avoided for some time due to its location deep in the bowels of Zion. It is said to be a hot, long hike, filled with marauding deer flies and energy-sucking sand the entirety of the way. We began our hike around 4PM, and to the satisfaction of our souls (at least the satisfaction seems to go that deep), we hiked in coolness the whole way. We knew that thunderstorms were in the forecast for later days, not today, and headed out without rain coats or tents. Having just got out of Currant Creek and running on four hours of sleep, my legs were slow to respond, but I forced them along. We wound our way down into a sandy wash through burnt skeletons of juniper and pinyon pine, eventually, after hiking through remnants of a petrified forest and then an old lava flow, dropped into Coalpits Wash, another much larger sandy wash. Burnt cottonwood trees line the banks. Occasionally a cottonwood giant looms overhead, its main trunk and primary branches bleached ivory white in the sun, while its smaller branches remain scorched-black, appearing as oil-dipped fingers on a pale hand. We pass the edge of the fire. Cottonwoods rattled their green leaves at us as we passed. Not only cool out, but slightly windy too. So perfect for hiking in this country! And no deer flies whatsoever either. Somehow, our GPS takes us off-course, up a large tributary to Coal pits wash. A minor set back...we cross over a small hill to get back on course, only losing 45 minutes. Coalpits "Wash" now turns into a small, narrow stream overgrown with horsetail and other riparian species. Tadpoles swarm every pocket of water...more tadpoles than could be imagined to even exist in the world at any one time...and along with the tadpoles, the metamorphosed toads and frogs are hopping everywhere (nearly every step caused multiple toads/frogs to jump out of the way), most the size of the tip of your pinky finger, many with remnants of tails dragging behind. It is getting late by now, about 8:30, and we still haven't reached our destination, the so-called "amphitheater." The wind picks up in gusts. A crack of thunder shatters the air. The clouds are building behind us. In most canyons in Zion, thunderstorms can be extremely dangerous. Rain that falls on the bare sandstone rock immediately runs off and collects in the canyons. Most of the canyons are narrow, locked between vertical cliffs. The result: flash floods. With vertical cliffs on each side, attempts at escaping the oncoming rush of water, rocks, mud, trees, and other debris is futile, and many lives have been lost in such situations. However, (and this is where you can relax mother), we had wisely chosen Coalpits Wash to venture into because it happens to be a broad valley, with ample escape routes along the entire stretch. Flash floods were not the issue; getting completely soaked, including our sleeping bags, sleeping in the rain (since we did not have tents), and risking getting hypothermia was our primary concern. Our feet quickened pace. Our objective was to find a cliff overhang large enough to sleep under for the night, but as we progressed upstream, no overhangs presented themselves. The eve of darkness had fallen upon us and raindrops had begun to fall. We had to make a decision. Either we keep winding our way up stream and hope to reach the amphitheater where overhangs are likely or we strike perpendicular to the stream and head up the steep, scrub- and rock-infested slopes that lead to the edge of the canyon cliffs where overhangs are possible, but not guaranteed. I voted for the former, the others for the latter. Me being outvoted, we struck up the slope, tearing through scrub and stumbling up sand and rock. The cliff was farther than it appeared, and many times I muttered out loud "well...we're screwed!" To make our tidings worse, somebody realized that we should have filtered water before we had clambered up the slope. Steph was out, Mike had a very minuscule amount, and I had a liter and a half. It was too late to turn back, so we trudged on. A large vertical rock face stopped us from preceding, and I muttered again. A route up a corner slot allowed us to pass, and above that, a praiseworthy site: a cliff overhang. We carefully scrambled up to the overhang and found a four-foot wide ledge, with only room for three people and no more. Perfect. The rain began to fall lightly, and continued through half the night. From our perch high above the stream, we watched terrific blasts of lightning pierce the cloudy sky, lighting up the entire canyon. A thunderous thundering thunder would follow each strike, as well as a "wow" from the cliff dwelling spectators. We had come all this way for an owl, and we weren't about to leave without performing our survey. Mike immediately let out some hoots, and not five minutes later, a retort from the canyon adjacent to our spot revealed the owls presence. We all rejoiced aloud, and spent the remaining time enjoying the lightning show accompanied by a spotted owl calling in the distance. We had just enough room for our stove on the ledge and cooked a meal of Spanish rice and canned chicken. Our sleep consisted of tossings and turnings and grunts (for the rock ledge was not adequately comfortable for such awkwardly shaped creatures as us) and pleads for water (Steph woke me early in the morning, direly thirsty, for I had the only water). Awake at 5:30 the next morning, we packed up and descended down a scree field, filtered water at the bottom, and trudged the long hike out. Upon reaching the car, we rejoiced once again. We were all completely exhausted, but very happy that we had gotten the owl and stayed dry. Mike celebrated his return by treating himself to a hotel and pizza. Steph and I paid a visit to a movie theater and purchased some blessed ice cream.
Today (the day after our return), we relax, waiting out the thunderstorms that are to ensue for the next few days...

Lightning Part 1: purveyor of NPS conspiracies

Our purpose this week was to visit Camp, Spring, and Currant Creek to find some owls...just another typical work week. I had gone into Currant, while Steph, as I thought, had gone into Camp. The next day, after marching like a single-minded ant out of Currant, I received a voicemail from the park biologist, Claire. She was not too happy. We had, out of forgetfulness or belligerence, neglected to report to the permit office regarding our whereabouts and activities, as we are required to do. The park rangers had seen some of our vehicles at the trailheads and had actually started an investigation as to who we were and what we were doing. Thus, the permit office immediately was contacted, and discontent ensued against us from the park service because of our negligence. But this was not all... Rumor had it that the owl crew started a wild fire up Camp Creek. How this rumor gained such credibility as to convince the head ranger is anyone's guess. Regardless, the head ranger was furious. Everyone was furious in fact. The night I was in Currant, Steph had attempted to go into Camp. She had stopped at the Visitor Center to let them know her car was going to be parked there, and they immediately 'detained' her. Claims of "someone on the owl crew had started a fire up Camp Creek" and "someone on the owl crew had crossed the fire line" were presented to her in the interrogation. The fire had indeed been started the night before, before any of "the owl crew" had gone in to survey there. Steph apparently effectively convinced them of their foolishness in jumping to conclusions, and assured them that we were not the culprits or cronies affiliated with any bitterness against the park service. The park service later found out, after aerial views, that the fire had been started by lightning.
While this was going on, Mike had been informed of our permit issues, and instead of going in to survey Spring Creek, attended a meeting with head ranger, head permit office, head biologist, head etc. Mike, bless his heart, cleared the air...he resolved the permit issue and also confirmed our pyromaniacal innocence. I am sure some bitterness remains. It is odd the way we are treated by the park service. It's as if they assume that anyone not working for the park service is not to be trusted (we work for Montana State Uni, not the park service). This thought is based on other minor events in the past that have hinted at their mistrust.
Good to go, we are now clear to venture into Coalpits Wash for our next survey site, the story of which will be told next blog...

Monday, July 7, 2008

The peregrine

A rainbow appears, bridging the cliffs of Oak Creek canyon. A noisy thunderstorm had rolled through, pouring life blood into the dry canyon. The monsoons appear to be arriving early this year. They call them monsoons here, but they are probably not one typically imagines as a monsoon. In Zion, the monsoons come in the form of afternoon thunderstorms, and they typically arrive in late July, rolling through nearly everyday. They are a blessing, providing much relief from the heat and dryness. The mornings after are cool due to high humidity, instead of stiflingly hot as the sun rears its flaming head above the canyon walls. I had just returned to camp from a quick trip up the canyon on the buses for some photography. From the sky above, I hear a familiar sound and know at once that the local Peregrine falcon pair is on the move. But this time is different. The swooshing and slicing sound of the Peregrines ripping through the air sounds much more active this time. I look up and spy both falcons. But between the falcons, is a single white-throated swift. Dinner time for the peregrine pair. The pair, while I was not looking, had singled out a single swift from dozens of others zipping through the air high above. The swift was zigging and zagging, trying every maneuver it knew. One falcon, in a headlong dive, descended upon the swift. The swift narrowly escaped. But the falcons are not flustered by the miss. While the falcon had attacked the swift, the other falcon was gaining altitude. After the swift escaped, the other falcon began his dive at the swift. While this occured, the first falcon gained altitude for another attack. On and on they went, constantly shifting positions in the sky, one attacking, one preparing to attack. I was awestruck. I stared at the sky for several minutes after they had disappeared behind the horizon. There are few things that impress upon me this feeling of power. I have felt the same thing after pushing a huge boulder off the top of a mountain and watching it bounce and pound down the slope and shatter at the bottom (naughty, naughty, naughty...I know! And I will never do it again...along with the risk of injuring/killing people below me, the power that I felt from the rock tumbling down was too much for is too frightening to feel such power). I have felt the same after standing too close to a train as it blows by at top speeds. The peregrine pair, however small in size, emanated this same feeling. I said "wow" several times afterwards. I never saw if they caught the swift. But I would not be surprised if they had.

Hermano visitation

Finally time to write...
The past few weeks have felt like an extended vacation here in Zion. The work week between my Bryce Canyon/Cedar Breaks trip was very easy; we only visited the local canyons that are easily accessed and are done in one night. On the final work day, Steph, her sister (who was visiting), and I rappelled into Pine Creek, where I had heard a juvenile from the rim above the canyon on earlier visits. Pine Creek is a beautiful canyon. Very tight in places (extending your arm out to both sides will touch both canyon walls) and eroded smoothly, 'fluted' as they call it. The core area was easy to find; whitewash, feathers, and pellets everywhere. We immediately heard a juvenile calling. I retorted with contact whistles. We patiently listened and whistled for about 20 minutes, all the while the juveniles were calling. One juvenile popped his head over a ledge and peered down at us. Eventually, another juvenile flew in. They think our whistling is the adult owls calling to them because they have dinner for them. And it makes them screech excitedly for food. They are cloaked in white down feathers with two black marble eyes in the center. Rolling and shifting their heads, they focus on us, wondering where their parents are. After 10 minutes of observation, we decide to quit bothering them and continue down the canyon.
My brother then drove down from Pocatello to visit for my fourth of july break. After getting out of Pine Creek at about midnight, I met Luke back at basecamp, who had been patiently waiting for me (actually sleeping). We said our brotherly hullo's and talked into the night, making plans for the next day. We had a splendid time together over the next few days. We dropped back into Pine Creek, finding both adult owls (one very close up; it let us get within 5 feet of it, and probably would have let us pet it if we had tried!). Then hiked up the Narrows. And Angel's Landing. Found some more owls in Refrigerator Canyon and Hidden Canyon. Drove up the Kolob Terace Road and got to see a few California Condors just as they were leaving the roost for the day (I had heard there were condors in the park, but didn't know where...and you can get up very close to them). Luke was stoked. His first condors!! Seeing them is humbling...they are so huge and powerful. Their appearance seems to reflect some ancient wisdom that will never be revealed to us humans. Luke fed and pampered me, bless his little heart. His stay was all too short. He returned to Pocatello so he could get back to his hospital work, giving out medications and flipping pages, and getting sore knees.
And as for me...back to work tomorrow. We are headed out with the Park service biotechs to some technical canyons. I am still enjoying my daily adventures...but am also ready for this summer to start winding down! I only have 20 more days of work left...

Monday, June 30, 2008

I visited my old friend up Echo Canyon again last night. I heard him call immediately, and found him shortly thereafter on a tree branch. He stared at me with those dark, intense eyes...eyes that seem to contain the whole universe. "Where's your kiddos?" I ask him (since I am looking for juveniles on this trip). He answers me with silence and a stare. I am overcome by a sudden, saddening thought. I think he is alone in this canyon...I have never heard or seen his mate (for the past four times I have visited). It's almost like I could see the loneliness in his eyes. Every time I visit, I always see or hear him immediately...almost like he is waiting and calling for a companion...but she never shows. Is he sad about this? Is he emotional distraught over the absence of his mate? Spotted Owls tend to have the same partner, occupying the same canyon year after year. Has she died? I wonder if I am his only visitor.
Ok...enough anthropomorphism. I could be wrong anyways...maybe she never leaves the nest, or maybe she is just a silent owl (some pairs are very vocal, some you only hear occasionally).

It is fun to watch the owls wake. It was still early in the evening (around 8:30pm) when I found him. Other owls we have observed typically start their night after 930. He yawned, stretched his wings, both at the same time and then individually, scratched his face madly with his foot...just like I do when I wake up in the morning. He then went about cleaning himself...puffing up and ruffling about...twisting his head in all sorts of awkward directions to preen his feathers with his beak. For each of his primaries and tail feathers, he would draw each feather individually through his beak, realigning the bristles. After a good, assertive hoot, he flew away to begin his night of hunting.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mumbles from the woods

With my coworkers Mike and Steph gone homeward for the break, I was left to adventure solo. To Bryce Canyon first. A photographers could spend an entire month taking photos there. I was so struck by the fins, hoodoos, and crumbling monuments and statues that I extended my stay to three days, hiking all the dayhikable trails. The best time for photos is early morning or late afternoon, so, each day, I would kick myself out of my warm sleeping bag at 5:30am to catch the sunrise in the canyon.

Although taking photos and hiking amidst the pinnacles and gargoyles was enthralling, it was the tourists that fascinated me the most. So many different people, from so many different places, speaking so many different languages...and all in one little place. You've got the huffers and puffers...mostly larger americans working there way, step by step, up the steep trail. You've got the stylin...the group of teenagers from an Asian source wearing the fanciest, most stylish clothing, including the tightly fitting clothing, enormous sunglasses, and outrageous shoes (if you can even call them that) that should not be worn for hiking, but are (those of this breed usually do not make it far down the trail). You have the skinny, in shape europeans, confidently striding up and down the trail, exclaiming in German, French, and Spanish all sorts of exciting things which makes me excited, but cannot understand. All, of course, are snapping photos like mad (one of the best inventions for conserving places like these...the camera: people can take all they want without having an ounce of effect on the landscape). Another thing I noticed are the families. The parents traveling with young kids. It seemed to me that the moms more than the dads were much more easily annoyed and impatient with their kids. Due to their being stay-at-home moms, always around the kids? The fathers were typically more pleasant, and more excited to show their kids the wonders of the place, even though, most of the time, the kids never seem to even notice the place they were in...they go about picking up rocks and looking at ants. I remember one mother with three children, trying to fill up her water bottles in the lobby of the lodge. Nothing the children said or did was right, but always annoying and frustrating. It saddens me, as I know that these children will grow up, most likely, the same way with their kids, and the cycle is endlessly repeated. They weren't having any fun, it was obvious. But this was not always the case...some families glowed with excitedness and fun. The children truly enjoying the trip, and the parents constantly encouraged such enjoyment.
Once I had my fill of Bryce, I drove on to Cedar Breaks national monument...basically a mini-Bryce, with the same pinnacles and hoodoos, but much less accessibility to them. The wildflowers were just beginning to bloom. At 10500 feet, Cedar Breaks is much cooler and spring is much later.
Here, I met a traveling photographer from Quebec, in the middle of a 6 month sojourn through the western states. Retired and alone, he had much to say. And I, as usual, just listened. Which made him talk more. But that was all fine to me. His english was not very good and he not only had trouble understanding english, but he had poor hearing. At one point, he asked me what I was doing here. "Well, I'm on break from my job in Zion." He then went on a 10 minute discussion of how much he loved Zion. "What are you doing in Zion?" he asks. "I'm researching spotted owls." Blank stare. "Researching owls," I say again, thinking maybe he didn't hear me. Blank stare. "Owls!" I say louder. Nothing. "Birds!" Still a blank stare. "I don't understand," he finally admits. So I say it slower and louder..."I'M RESEARCHING OWLS, you know, BIRDS." I don't think he ever understood what I was doing in Zion.

But he did tell me the four most important things, as he sees it, to taking good photos: Form, texture, framing, and color. Form, texture, and color being the object you are shooting. Color is the least important of the four. If you have something with good form and texture to photo, as long as you get the framing right, the color doesn't matter. Anyways...
That night I spent off of a dirt road somewhere in national forest land just south of Cedar Breaks. Around five in the morning, I was awakened by some humming in the forest adjacent to the meadow I was sleeping in. Not humming as in a mechanical noise, but humming as in someone singing a song to themselves. Except it definitely wasn't a human. I was wide awake at this point...and sleeping without a tent doesn't help to calm nerves. It was a hum of relaxed enjoyment. Like a perfectly content old lady knitting. I ran a list through my head of all the potential animals that would hum like this: bear, deer, elk, porcupine? I imagined a bear, sitting on his rump, peeling up fallen logs searching for bugs and roots, happily humming away. A deer or elk? Seems unlikely. A porcupine? Good ole Bill Staines speaks of a personal experience of a talking porcupine (thanks for the CD Vicky!). I agree on the porcupine for logical reasons...I want to sleep...

(Sorry for the anticlimax, but that's all there is! I never figured out what the creature was, but I was happy to wake up in one piece.)
All of my photos can be viewed on my Picasa albums (see link in header of blog)...none of them do justice to the amazingness of Bryce. I tried putting pictures in within this post but had technical difficulties...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pine Creek

First juvenile of the year for me! And as far as I know, its the only one in Zion that has been observed this year! I had heard this little guy on an earlier visit about a week ago, but was really unsure if it just an adult or not. But I went back last night and heard both adults call, as well as the juvenile, who "whistled" repetitively for at least two hours. The whistle is an ascending screech that sounds airy and raspy, and is their begging call, or "FEED ME!!" call. I also watched one adult flying from perch to perch in the canyon. He seemed to be completely ignoring his chick. I probably would too with all that incessant screaming.
I am now on my four day break and am planning to visit Bryce Canyon and possibly the Wave for some photography practice. I will get more photos on here soon!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Zion Backcountry

This past week has been a hard one for our crew. Finished with the local canyons (those located in the main canyon of Zion, which are typically a short dayhike), we moved on to the backcountry sites (those requiring long hikes and overnight gear, and sometimes rappelling gear). I have been in the backcountry for five nights, visiting five different sites. The backcountry is not a friendly place. It is the true heart of Zion, the center of uncompromising ruggedness. Trailless and remote, if anything goes wrong (a twisted ankle, snakebite, dehydration, etc), it is a long ways to help. And we rarely see other people. But be comforted dear mother! We do carry radios, first aid kits, snakebite kits, water pumps, extra food, GPS, compasses, and maps. And extra socks (it is a glorious feeling to put clean socks on!).
It is easy to get burned out doing sites like these...Steph has exclaimed that she would rather quit than do any more...Mike left three days early for his break (without telling our boss!!). As for me, my parents have done a wonderful job of raising me for this type of stuff. Although I am exhausted and need an extra day of recovery (which is why I am blogging right now), I enjoy the challenge. I know that I will burn out eventually, but I feel I can last the summer.
Although the backcountry has been cruel to us, the owls have been very kind. At all but two survey sites, the owls presented themselves to me before I even started the hooting protocol. If we see the owls, our survey is done because we are only determining site occupancy (whether or not they are present in a canyon). This means we don't have to stay up til the early morning hours hooting...we can just go to bed, which is awesome after the long hikes.
In Currant Creek (which I have visited before...the dehydration episode for those who was much easier this time now that I know my way), the owl flew right above me onto a cliff ledge. I hooted at him. He looked at me. I hooted at him. He flew to another perch on a tree. I hooted again. This kind of routine went on for a while. He flew several times from rim to rim and from tree to tree. Eventually, he just flew away for good, I suppose to go hunting on top of the rim. And then I went to bed.
In Spring Canyon, the lady owl popped her head out of a small cave in the canyon wall. I just happened to look up at the right place. I sat and watched her. She sat and watched me. Eventually she started down canyon, landing from perch to perch. I followed. A big, clumsy, slow biped she must think of me, as I clamber over rocks to catch up to her. She began barking like a chihuahua and "yeoow"ing. I have no idea what she is telling me. Probably something really philosophical and meaningful that humans will never understand. And then I went to bed.
Right Fork is the royal beast of all beastful canyons in Zion. There are worse canyons, but I like to think that this is the worst. From the outset to the end, pushing through dense vegetation (getting whipped in the face and legs), crossing over and under logs, and walking over unstable, ankle-biter and -twister rocks, is the easy part. The sun throws its relentless rays of heat upon your body. Your skin bakes, you sweat like a horse, your brain begins to swell, your backpack becomes heavier with every stride. You begin to really wonder what madness has brought you to this seemingly God-forsaken place. Having a poor route-description and getting lost doesn't make you feel any better about the situation. We (Mike and I) made many minor route-finding mistakes that cost us more time and energy than was necessary. I had to monitor Mike's route-finding abilities...he would sometimes make assumptions about the route-description and the terrain, which would potentially get us into trouble. (Thanks, again, to my parents for my ability to understand topographical maps!). The route takes us down into a broad canyon, which we have to get out of to access the canyon with the owls. It's a long and torturous hike up and over the ridge. And a long and torturous hike down into Right Fork. A nine hour day of hiking and one rappel dropped us down into the spotted owl's core area. We searched the area finding many feathers and whitewash. We decided to go down canyon to find a sandy place to make camp. At one point in the canyon (actually there are several similar places), huge boulders about the size of five elephants lie wedged into the bottom of the canyon. At this particular place, we attempt to go up and over one of the boulders. At the top of the boulder, I hear Mike start freaking out. He sees the owl. I race over to see. Sure enough, there's the owl...sitting there looking at us, just like all the other owls always do. The same thing goes through both of our heads: "we get to go to bed now!"
We worked our way under the giant boulder (since there was no way above it) which required getting our feet wet. The canyon became narrower, and eventually we arrived at the Black Pool. The name says it all. A deep, black pool of water extending 25 meters down the slot canyon. Only one thing to do. Flip-flops on our feet, all important gear in dry bags, stripped of our clothes, we plunge into the freezing water. The water is the temperature that only allows one-syllable words to be uttered in half syllables. For example: "th--this i--is s--so co--cold." Shivering, we found a very large sandy area, made camp and dinner. And went to bed.
The next day brought multiple rappels through some gorgeous canyons. You can imagine being in the bottom of a giant bowl with edges that are 200 feet from the floor. Cut the bowl in half and add seeps of water pouring from a crack running horizontal on the walls. Above the crack is red-orange striated sandstone, in the crack are ferns reaching out, below the crack is dark green and black from moss and water-stain. At the bottom of the bowl is a flowing spring-fed creek which has scoured the bedrock perfectly smooth. The last rappel at the end of this bowl marked the end of the slot canyon (and shade) and the beginning of the slog back to the car. Excruciating and exhausting are the only descriptive terms I can think of. And endless. We got back to the car around 6PM, making it another 9 hour day. I over-stuffed myself with a super burrito in Springdale...and went to bed.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A quick note to the readers of my blog...

I realized after multiple blog postings that I should not be disclosing locational information of Mexican Spotted Owls. This is due to the owl's listing as a Threatened Species. My blog is now not searchable from search engines, and I would appreciate it if locational information is not shared. This blog is now for family and close friends only!

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I saw, for the first time in my life, a mexican spotted owl poop. But before the reader gets overly excited about that, there is much more to tell! Echo Canyon. Located up a grunt of a trail from Weeping Rock trailhead, Echo is nearly a picture-perfect slot canyon, with the sandstone sidewalls swooping inward, spiraling down and forming small pools on the canyon floor, where many frogs bleat out their existence to whoever will listen. At its upper end, three canyons converge; the "crow's foot" as it was aptly named by Dave, my professor. In the center of the foot, evidence of the presence of owls abounds. Whitewash along stones and sticks indicate areas where owls have perched above. Feathers are found amongst the rocks. Previous surveys have found owls calling from this very spot. So this is where I decide to plunk down, and look and listen. I wait patiently until the sun slowly faded away to dusk. A yellow warbler sings his goodbye to the sun. A poorwill sings his hello to the night. Bats begin to swirl and swish above my head. An hour passes until he finally shows himself; "he" being the owl. I hear a rush of wings from down canyon, and in the waning light, a white ghost alights on a ledge of the canyon wall. I shine my dying headlamp on him to see. He looks at me. Red reflective eyes magnify his otherwise drab appearance. I wanted to test him. I wiggled my finger. His head snaps around and moves back and forth, focusing on my finger. "Sweet!" I think to myself. The sweetness turns sour as I watch him leap from his precipice and swoop straight towards my face. In fear I raise up my hands and do that blink-your-eyes-really-fast thing. He veers to the left, scratching his talons on a cliff face and roosts within 10 feet of me. However, he wasn't after me at all. I deduced from his outstretched foot while he perched that he had actually swooped on a prey item on the canyon wall, hence the scraping of talon on rock. Whatever the prey was, he decided it was worthless, and dropped it. From his perch, he hoots. His characteristic 5-note hoot echoes through the canyon. We have heard him before, and seen him. Typically the owls hoot a 4-note call, but not him. This distinguishing trait makes me feel welcome, like seeing an old friend. Throughout the night, as we grow more accustomed to each other (or at least me to him), he calls about 40 times, approximately at a rate of one call per 30 seconds to one minute.
He enthralls my attention. I begin to ignore mosquitoes. I ignore the cold (I forgot my coat, and yes, the desert gets cold at night, especially in these canyons). He appears to completely ignore me, continuing his business catching breakfast (for at this time of night, it is his morning) like I'm not even there. I fear that my presence disturbs him, but he continues to hunt, and it feels good to be invisible, to observe so closely without changing the behavior of the owl.
Down he swoops again, to the sandy floor. Pausing momentarily to look around, prey in grip, he flies to another perch, with outstretched foot again. This time he eats. I hear munching and crunching as he apparently downs a very large, crispy insect. After a moment, in between calls, he pounces again, flying to yet another perch with a small meal. Crunch and crackle. And again, a silent, floating swoop down, but he appears to have missed this time. Six minutes later, he pounces yet again, this time successful. Munch, munch, crunch. I see one last attempt for prey before flying out of sight. Success rate of 60%.
I had always assumed that the flight of the owl was always silent. I discovered that they are silent when they need to be...when swooping and pouncing on prey. Otherwise, the owl was quite noisy flying from perch to perch, with a rush of air against his wings.
I hear the wings return to a viewable perch. I take my final look, red eyes aglow. While my head is down, madly taking field notes, he flies off without me ever noticing until he called moments later from much farther down canyon. His hoots continued at their regular interval for some time. Until I began sneezing wildly. I called it quits for the night to make it to the bottom of the trail at our appointed meeting time of 11:30PM. As I depart, I hear the owl hoot out several times more into the night, in my mind, saying his goodbyes.
I would like to meet the female sometime, but she is currently a stay-at-home mom, incubating her eggs. We will see her later, and with her, several small, fluffy, ewok look-alikes screaming to be fed. Can't wait!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

el Narrows

The infamous hike of Zion: the Narrows. Postcards crowd the display cases with images of this deep canyon framed by walls of sandstone and floored by flowing water. I could not resist the temptation. I obtained a permit from the backcountry office, waiting in a small line at 6:30 in the morning. Of course everyone in line was excited, for each person had his/her own new, exciting adventure planned, trekking to one of the many delectable canyons of Zion. Some to Orderville Canyon, others to the Subway (a canyon as well, not a transportation). Two members of the Grand Canyon owl crew were coming to visit, and I took the opportunity to do something worthwhile with our time instead of dawdling idly at camp, bound to the movement of shade for hours on end. We (Kerri, Heather, Mike, and I) drove the hour long ride up out of the depths of Zion's canyons and up onto the pinyon-juniper laden plateau. The dirt road winds its way along rolling "hills" and drainages, finally purposing on one drainage, the North Fork of the Virgin River, to descend. At the trailhead, and for much of the hike, the scene is much different from the postcards. A wide, broad valley funnels water from the pinyon-juniper and oak hills, centralizing it into the North Fork, which is lined by water-loving trees such as Fremont's cottonwood, boxelder, maple, and willows. Occasional patches of open grass, planted, no doubt, by the former occupants of the valley for cattle feed. We follow a road (which we are not allowed to drive down), recently graded, with brand new fire hydrants every 200 meters. Looks to me to be a housing development planned here soon, but can't tell for sure. The graded road ends, turning into a smaller, rougher dirt road. Old, rusted, tireless tractors are seen along the way, sunk several inches into the sandy soil. A more recent cabin two miles downtrail with a dilapidated roof, maybe 1960's even. The land is privately owned in this area, and we are thankful that the owners allow such heavy backpacker use. We pass by a drifter's camp. It is a sad camp, making us wonder about those that it belonged to, for they had only been gone for a few days...still bags of unopened Dorritos bags and granola bar boxes, a cooler with chicken floating in water from melted ice, children's shoes, bottles, and diapers. A weathered note left at the camp reads "This is private property. Pick up your stuff and leave. Will be back at 6PM." Where did they go and will they return? A mother with a child? In the middle of nowhere? What lives they must lead... We move past, partly in wonder about the circumstances of those that ate and slept there for a time, and partly in disgust that someone would leave such a mess, risking access to the land being shut down for others who respectfully walk through.
The canyon narrows, but doesn't 'narrows' narrow. The dirt road turns to a trail, the trail eventually, to water, for we soon are required to wade the calf-deep water for short stretches. We hike downhill, following the river as winds its way along the path of least resistance. We try to do the same. Most of the 'trail' is hiked along the sides of the rivers, along rocks and boulders, or sometimes veering up and around prominent obstacles on the river bank. The rest of the 'trail' is in the water. The water is warm and murky, but further down canyon, Deep Creek enters into the funnel, and the water becomes colder, clearer, and deeper. But we are prepared for this...water shoes, trekking poles (very much required for constant wading through the rocky river), dry bags (everything in our backpacks is watersealed), and wet suits, just in case. The wading is tough and straining. In the beginning, one steps with confidence, settling his foot securely on the bed of the river with the help and guidance of the trekking poles; later, each step becomes weary, no longer searching as intently for the secure placement, but expecting each step to slide and slip to a new, sometimes awkward position. Fortunately, no one loses footing and falls sprawling into the water. Lots of close calls though. Ankle spraining is definitely a risk. I wouldn't suggest ankle support and super-bad rubbage (not trash, but rubbing of the straps on the tender skin of the ankles); the river contains some of my blood and DNA now. Someday it will make it to the ocean, which would be sweet.
Route-finding to avoid deep spots and obstacles is a constant. Mike and I lead much of the way, the girls following behind, happy to not be leading. In and out of the river all day long. Plunging into areas chest deep and probably deeper, although we can't know for sure since our backpacks kept us very much afloat. We finally enter the first of the narrows, where the steep, vertical-walled sandstone canyons box in the river. It is rejoicable. And we rejoice. And are content. We arrive at our campsite (number 10) after about seven hours of hiking, and we are spent. Everyone whips out their chef hats and makes dinner amongst sighs of relief and contentment. I brought the library of books and distribute them to their owners. We read, lying on our comfy pads and sleeping bags, under the towering cliffs of sandstone which limits our view of the starry sky to a shape similar to that of the winding river. The sound of the river eternally roars, hypnotizing us to sleep. And sleep we do. We sleep in till 10am, planning on hiking when the ambient temperature is much warmer. And I am glad we did. The rest of the day was spent in the actual 'narrows' of the narrows, where sunlight only momentarily peaks its flaming eyeball into. It is chilly in the shadows, and I refuse to stop hiking until I reach the blessed warmth of the sunshine where it filters its way down. Pushing through the water becomes part of you. When you aren't pushing through water, it feels as if there is something wrong. The narrows are beautiful, which we ruefully did not catch on busy pushing water I guess. Eventually, we started running into herds of people. Tourists, family reunions, boyscout groups, all of humanity, making their way up the river. We had reached the upper limits of the dayhiking area accessible by bus from the main canyon of Zion. The hoards got bigger the farther down we hiked. People ogled our backpacks. Some asked "did you spend the night up there?". We desperately wanted to say something sarcastic. Why else would we be wearing such massive packs? But it's probably just a conversation we courteously say "yes, we did spend the night up there."
Finally, we start running into very small children. We are weary of this water-pushing at this point. And every step is painful for me. Small children mean the end is near. We reach the paved Riverside Walk, hike another mile, and we gleefully board the buses of Zion. We ride the bus to the Museum, where the road to our base camp is located, laughing at comments from the bus driver and talking to a tourist from Pennsylvania. More hiking back to our base camp. Finally at camp, I collapse into my chair with an iced Barg's Red Creme Soda, and my fellow hikers follow suit. Just another day in Zion.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Deja hoot

June 10, 2008
Listening quietly from the bottom of Walter's Wiggles, and slapping at mosquitoes, a 'young' lady descends from above. I turn on my head lamp so as not to surprise her. Seeing me there and wondering what I am doing, she takes a seat next to me. She immediately appears lonely...and she is. Forty-five years old, a birthday tomorrow, she has traveled to Zion alone to celebrate by herself. She acts and looks much younger, even my age, but she tells me all about her life, and I listen, as I am naturally good at and inclined to do. She is unmarried. After making plenty of money as an engineer, she is basically retired and at a loss of what to do in life. She had expected to be married and have kides. She says her life was guided along not only by her goals, but also her fears. The fear of being unmarried at 45 drove her to be unmarried at 45. All her perspectives are interesting. She is fascinated with the spiritual realm and tells me that Zion is a spiritual vortex. I would hesitate to believe such talk if it wasn't for my own experiences here. Deja vu, real deja vu, has occurred here in Zion with me more than it has at anytime in my life. Typically as I'm walking a trail, I flash a memory of the past. I have been here and done this exact thing before it seems. And then in a flash it is gone. It is a feeling, but more than that, it is very real. I had never been here before or doing this before, but I have a flash recollection of being there and doing that. It's like sometime in the past I viewed what I was doing in the future, and when the future became present, I view what has happened in the past. This defies my ability to comprehend, and indeed I think no human can, for such things are beyond the realm of human understanding. I do believe we are dealing with another dimension, one that is outside the confines of time. Just as God is.
The woman tells me that when lots of deja vu occurs, you are where you are supposed to be in life. "Oh good" I think, "i'm supposed to be in Zion doing owl research!" But aren't we where we are supposed to be anywhere we are? By the will of God, we are all where we ought to be...?
She tells me that native americans hold owls as sacred, for owls can see into dark places. She also speaks of witnessing large congregations of owls near her house in Farmington, Utah. She says that I emanate light; the light referring to some kind of spiritual glow of goodness, she says. What kind of woman is this, I think to myself. Is she real? Is she an owl herself in human form? I would have only passed her off as an aberration...maybe I'm getting delusional out here? But Steph saw and talked to her too. It's hard for me to believe people like this, but it all seems so interconnected in my mind. Me researching owls, hooting for owls, her spiritual insight into owls, her strange owl experiences, her seeing into the dark places of my soul? If indeed she does see a light in me, I know where that light comes from, and its not from me, for there is no light within me without God.
And then we hear the owl calling from the canyon below.
We drove her to her campsite, and she disappeared into the night. Steph and I ponder the woman over a meal of pasta and hot cocoa. Steph thinks she's crazy...I still wonder...

June 8, 2008, #2

Toads permeate our camp. We have to watch our step at night. A toad visits me as I write. I place him on the table to examine his curious shape. He sits like he knows I'm not out to hurt him. Definately looks like a toad. Big jutting black eyes. Tan colored with brown raised speckles. He lets me pet him, I let him jump around, doing what he wants, and then let him go before he jumps off the table. Which he does out of my hand landing head first into the dirt. I've seen the canyon tree frogs do the same into a slab of solid rock. Walking up water-eroded and shaped canyons, you approach seasonal ponds which are alive with mad croaking sounds (similar to the sound of goats), an suddenly, from out of no where, a kamikazi frog, leaping from six feet away from the water, flies through the air in front of you, in an attempt to evade you. He's aiming for the safety of the water. Splat. Headfirst onto a rock slab...and then sploosh, as he drops into the water below...where he swims away unabashed. I think the toad will be fine too.

June 8, 2008

Finally, the realities of the field job! It's actually the realities of being in the wilderness. After our night in the big, comfy beds at the hotel (which I didn't sleep so well used to a tiny thermarest I am), Steph and I headed up the seldom visited Camp Crk, while Mike went up Spring Crk on his own. Both our visits faired well, revealing the owls to us. Steph and I listened very contentedly to a spotted owl respond to a calling great horned owl. After letting out a few hoots of our own, a curious spotted owl flew to within five feet of me (it didn't see me lying there, until I moved to shine my light on him). He hooted a few times and escorted us on down the canyon to our campsite, seeming to say "follow me!" all the way back. We left the night at that. So happy we both were, amazed at how awesome and fun and easy our job was. But this is a field job, and all know that field jobs are not static, like cubical, desk jobs. Anything can happen out here. Well, I guess coffee could spill on your keyboard occasionally, which would be really annoying. But this is nothing like being in no-man's land with no water, frustrated company (and self), and failing at what you set out to do. And this was us the next 24 hours. Our next canyon was Currant Creek. The four mile hike to La Verkin Creek via Lee's Pass trailhead was straightforward. And we were still riding along on our owl high from the night before. The task before us was to get to Currant Creek, only three miles away, following a route given to us by Alan (the NPS biotech). And we followed his directions to a T, and immediately got into trouble. Shirts and backpacks tearing, we pushed and shoved our way through thicket after thicket of stiff branches and pokey things. My arms and legs are scraped. I'm exhausted, but I keep pushing on, prodding Steph along as she cries "Why are we doing this?" over and over. It quickly becomes obvious that by following Alan's route we had gone well out of our way. Instead of taking a relatively shrubless route up a ridge, our path took us up a two-hour detour. Steph was not very happy. Whether at me or Alan or the just the circumstances I do not know, but I keep pushing her on, hoping the route becomes easier. And it finally does once we reach the correct ridge. We arrive at our campsite in a sandy wash after endless juniper and pinyon avoidance maneuvers, up flat, friendly, sandy washes, past a small, natural bridge, ending four hours longer than expected. We were beat. And out of water. Steph's nalgene bottle was empty and I ony had a small amount of water left. Water is our priority as we head out in search of it, which should be below us in Currant Canyon. We walk to the edge of the plateau we are on, along the wash, and immediately come to a horizon line. Horizon lines are freaky, as I've experienced kayaking. The was there, we could hear it and see it down below. But between us and it was a sheer dropoff. No way down. While Steph laid down in weariness, bitterness, and probably dehydration, I took it upon myself to go as far as I needed to to determine if we could obtain water and how critical our situation was. I knew we had a backup plan; I carried one of NPS's massive, old radios along, just in case. Up and down ravines, peering over the rim occasionally, I determined that there was no way down, but I kept trekking to the source of the flow of water in the canyon below. Which I found, to my great relief. I wanted to soak my entire body in the life-giving stream and inhale the entire foot-wide trickle, but I knew I needed to get Steph there, not just to rehydrate, but to lighten her spirits. She had been worried about me, yelling my name after I had left her, to nap I had hoped. I apologized, knowing I should have told her what I was doing. She gracefully forgave and we both trudged across the pinyon-juniper helliishly dry ridge and down to the trickle. It was glorious. The water sang its sweet song as it lept off the edge of the rim into the canyon below. Our feet and bodies were singing triumphantly too, as we napped in the shade of cottonwoods. We were refreshed, but still had no way to descend into the canyon to properly perform our owl survey. We set up calling stations on the ridge, but they were useless. We couldn't hear anything over the sounds of water, wind, and frogs, and the distance was too great. The owls probably heard us. We gave up, tired, frustrated and crawled in bed. A screech owl called into the night. I cupped my hands and called back. We enjoyed a latenight serenade, if you can call it that. My calling drew it in close, about 10 feet away in a juniper, but we could not see it. The owl just hooted away until it figured out that he had been duped by a human. It probably didn't really figure this out...who knows what the owls think when they hear another fellow owl in their territory. Either...'ooo, a mate!' or 'that derned neighbor is in our backyard again!' We slept. Much better than in the hotel room. Tomorrow, Steph would be happier, and she was, but I struggled to be so as well. We cruised out of there at 8:20AM, following the best route, staggered mindlessly up the sweet trail, and high-fived each other for our successful failures. We were finally happy and celebrated with some fresh fruit I had waiting in my car. After it all, Steph still will talk to me, the prodder and route-finder. We can now, as we are back in Oak Creek campsite (our homebase), laugh about the experience.
That night, my mission was to survey Pine Creek. It was fantastic. I sat perfectly content on the edge of a huge cliff overlooking Canyon Junction below. The sun slowly set behind the cliffs across the way, casting a cool shadow on my evening dwelling place where I lie sprawled on the rock. A dozen vultures appear from who knows where, riding the last of the thermal upheavals of warm air. What were they doing? Whiling away time until roosting? They seem to just be enjoying life. And the swifts, like rockets or jets. From for off they are just small daggers with sharply pointed wings zig-zagging and darting after their prey of flying insects. But when they plow through the air near your head, the wind drag on their little bodies and wings is like a jet engine, and can be quite frightening if you are not aware. Peregrine falcon prey on the swifts. Imagining a falcon descending on and snatching a swift from the air excites me. The accuracy and precision required to do so seems impossible. But that is the way of the falcon.
I hoot off the edge into Pine Creek, which is one of the most popular canyoneering sites in the park. I hear a strange call from an unexpected location above the canyon (the owls are typically in the canyons). It does sound like one of the owls many calls. Walking to another call station I hear the typical 4-note hoot of an owl near the road bridge at the top of the canyon, where traffic crosses through a tunnel built in the cliffside of the Navajo sandstone. Completed in the 1940's, it was the longest in the nation at that time and greatly increased tourist traffic. Anyhoot, I listened for some time as the owl made its way down canyon, probably headed toward where it heard me last. I hooted some more, and hearing nothing, called it a night. My first time on my own. Finally...Jesse +1.

June 6, 2008

A reprieve from the heat of summer; thunderstorms rolled in on low lying clouds, dropping the temperatures enough to solidify liquid rain. We are still in the midst of our 10 day work week when we decide to hotel it for the night. We planned to survey four canyons in two nights; Mike to Spring and Beaty, Steph and me to Camp and Currant Creeks. To Cedar City instead, the Abbey Inn. An $80 room split between me and Mike reimbursed by our job. And of course, the inevitable...what to do in Cedar City? I take a walk to Southern Utah University, a very new campus with manicured lawns, while Mike and Steph lounge in the room, letting the TV devour them. I join them later, and love it. Look what we've been missing this whole time! Sheesh! Why would anyone leave the confines of the hotel room with the beautiful, glowing box there! A little Andy Griffith and I'm content. The next morning we enjoy our breakfast provided by the hotel...after being caught with an extra person who didn't pay for the room (Steph). Only charged $7 for her breakfast. And now we sit in a lonely coffee shop on Main street, waiting. Waiting to return to hooting. I love my job. So far I haven't found anything that I hate about it. I love getting out, working my body enough for a perfect sleep in my shaded tent. Hearing the desert wake up, while the rest of diurnal humanity gets into their shiny trailers and soft beds. Hooting madly into the darkness, listening intently for the slightest of sounds. A shriek from a Towhee, a poorwill, canyon tree flogs bleating through the night. This is where I was meant to be. In God's creation. In the midst of the wilderness doing what it does best. Existing. Simple existence. Away from the concrete and asphalt jungles, where society vainly struggles on...all trying to master their own lives. The wilderness teaches us that we are not the masters of ourselves. We are not in control. The power of man becomes nothing. Futile to the power of the earth. Another reflection of God I think. When will people hear? When will they see? What is so hard about believing in a God? It's silliness to think that the universe resulted from a purely natural, scientific "big bang." And life does not appear in a pile of amino acid muck. People choose against a god. It saddens me. And all the idols that draw away man from God. Worshipping cars, money, talents, alcohol, ourselves. The devil's grip is firm for sure. This is why I love the wilderness. Away from the stupidity of mankind. But I claim a part of it as well, for I cannot break my ties fully from society. And I am sinful too. Thank God for his reassurance, faithfulness, and promise to those who hear and believe.
Mike doesn't believe in god, claiming that 'religion is a misunderstanding of basic science.' Understandable. But I think science has become a misunderstanding of God. Dave (my professor) thinks god is a female, and she lives 'up there' as he points up a canyon towards the heart of the Zion wilderness. Interesting. Chad (one of the Grand Canyon crew) is an atheist.
All these different perspectives...but there is only one truth...which truth is it?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

June 3, 2008

Where to now Mr. Spotted Owl? To the depths of Behunin Canyon. A new chapter of skills opens up to me. Canyoneering. Similar to mountaineering, just invert the mountains. The approach is long and hot, especially when done at midday. From Grotto trailhead, up Refrigerator Canyon, Walter's Wiggles, and north onto the West Rim Trail. Steph is a fast hiker, and I push myself to keep pace, letting the two NPS biologists, who are leading us down the canyon, stroll along behind us. Steph is a great girl. I really enjoy how she likes to talk to me (sometimes only me) and she appears to be very comfortable around me. Enough. So the 'head' biologist (the one with the canyoneering experience), Alan, forces the 'visiting researchers' to be the trip leaders, pointing at a topo map, saying "take us there." Ok I say and I do. He stops us at a small canyon..."this is it!" so we trod up it (we are, however, supposed to be going down a canyon, not up). Steph notices that we are paralleling the trail still, and Alan finally realizes he has taken the wrong canyon. Seems obvious to me and Steph, but we shrug our shoulders, knowing we all make silly mistakes. Finally down the right canyon. A fairly large canyon, joined by one small drainage (where the owls are) and dumping out of a wall about 175 feet from the ground, near Emerald Pools. Rappel ('rap') after rappel after hike, we slowly descend the canyon. Four people on one rope takes forever. It will be much faster with just Steph and me, when the time comes, if the biologists approve of our canyoneering abilities. Most raps required dangling our overnight backpacks between the legs from a daisy chain so as not to lose balance on overhangs. Rope management. Safety a priority. After 4 or 5 raps, we drop right into our campsite, where the small drainage enters the main canyon. An hour before our survey begins, we make camp (which basically includes throwing a tarp, pad, and sleeping bag on the sandy ground) and eat dinner (peanut butter and honey bagel for me). Alan was confident that owls would be seen, and if not seen, then heard. Our presearch resulted in nothing. I went north, requiring a waist-deep wade through rotten, mucky water, while Steph went south. I began calling (hooting) at 9:15Pm...and I didn't stop till 1 AM. No reply from the owls. Very frustrating. Especially since everyone else in our crew has gotten immediate responses. Mike +2, Steph +1, Me +0. And I even think my hoot sounds good! After a wonderful sleep (not so for Steph, who was freezing all night), we packed up and headed down. The first rap of the day sits above a bowl of black soup. Only requiring one rope, the other was being carried by Steph. And wouldn't you know it, there goes the second rope, releasing itself from Steph's backpack. A thump, a sliding, scraping noise of rope against rock, and a splash. Into the depths it went. We rerigged the rappel to drop into the soup, because we needed the second rope to get out of the canyon. Someone would have to swim for it. Steph volunteers. Brave girl. She raps in, undresses on a ledge by the soup bowl and slided into the water. From Alan and my perspective (because we rapped first into a lower position), we couldn't see a thing. We could only hear the gasping for air as she plunged in. The water is ice cold, taking the breath from you immediately. Alan coaxes her to dive, which she does, twice, with no luck. It's much too cold and too deep. The bottom can't even be found. Shivering uncontrollably she gives up. Erin (the other NPS biologist) takes a turn. Diving twice. No luck again. Two mild hypothermia patients and only one rope, not long enough to rappel out. Our only option is to fix the rope for the last rappel...leaving another rope behind. But like an angel appearing from the clouds, a figure pops out over the edge above us. "How's it goin?" "um, not so good" replies Alan. Turns out Alan is already good friends with our saviors and we rap safely out with their ropes. It took quite a while for both the girls to stop shivering and warm up. How dangerous it can be in those canyons. Hypothermia and heat stroke in the same day. We rapped out the mouth of the canyon, a beautiful drop into the Emerald Pool area. No owls, lost rope, unhappy campers, we went our ways. Even through it all, Steph enjoyed canyoneering and I am excited to be out exploring canyons with her in this fashion. I trust her climbing skills, but am not sure about her 'eating enough calories' skills. I had a blast. I loved rappelling into a seldomly visited canyon. Seeing new terrain, getting familiar with the backcountry and the art of canyoneering.
Back to work that night, up Hidden Canyon. Hooter Mike agitates a female owl, shrieking sounds we had not heard from an owl before. Mike +3.

el Condors

"Those might be some condors," says my professor during the semesters and boss for this summer, as he continues driving the white minivan down the Zion canyon road. Eyes and necks straining to gain a better view of the large birds soaring nearly directly above the van, there is not even a hint of brake calipers being squeezed. On we drive with no idea if they were truly the great condors, leaving me in bewilderment. I hate missed opportunities like that, and it feels even worse that it might be the condor that were are nonchalantly driving past. I know I will eventually see one, but when? Not sure my bird nerves can take it. Somehow I am always in the back of the van where visibility is 10% or less out the flat window to my side when someone yells something like "ROADRUNNER!" I never saw the roadrunner, and never saw it each successive time someone yelled it, again, without the slightest suggestion of stopping for a view. (I eventually saw the roadrunner with my brother and Andrew Youderian in Baja, Mexico. My brother jams the breaks for anything. What a great brother).
Traveling to the Grand Canyon for some further spotted owl training was another chance for condors. Several visits to the North Rim Lodge revealed nothing. A descent down to the Colorado River down the North Kaibab trail also turned up nothing. For the remainder of my break, I decide to try Marble Canyon, where Kerri, my coworker and classmate, saw them years ago, claiming, "oh yeah, they just fly right beneath the bridge and hang out in the parking lot." To get to Marble Canyon, the road leads east out of Grand Canyon NP, through the ponderosa pine forests with the tassel-eared Kaibab squirrel, down through pinyon-juniper, and out into a playa. The Vermillion cliffs greet me with reddish-orange intensity, towering straight up from the low lying playa. Around to the east of the cliffs toward the massive Navajo indian reservation, I find Marble Canyon and the famous condor bridge. An old gentlemen greets me, the type of old guy that you know is chock-full of experiences and loves to talk about them. And he did. Telling me the time he flew a plane under the old bridge during a search and rescue mission for a head on passenger plane collision in the 60's. Of the world-class trout fishing just below the dam, and how the environmentalists want the trout to be all but eliminated due to resource competition with the dwindling humpback chub. Just wait till they are 40 and they will have forgotten about it, he says. Seems like a reasonable way to deal with environmentalists to me. At the visitor center I ask two clueless 'rangers' (regardless of occupation, they all were the same outfits, not really being rangers, but appearing so) about where to find condors, because obviously at this point I still hadn't seen them. They mention the release site on the west side of the Vermillion Cliffs, where they feed them every three days at midnight. Seems like an odd way to make them a naturally successful breeding population. But I'm sure they have reasons. The ladies say that they haven't been seen in a while, but the feeding is supposed to occur tonight or tomorrow night. I take my chances, not really expecting much. I arrive at the viewpoint of the release site, which is far away on the rim of the cliffs. Scoping the cliffs, I see nothing and prepare to hang out for a while, just in case. Size is difficult to tell from this far, but I see a large bird appear above the rim skyline. And then another. The first I lose in the blueness of the sky to the west. The other lands near the release site. It looks as big as the fences are. I have only size to tell me what it is (which doesn't tell me anything), until a couple from Colorado join me with a spotting scope. We find another bird on a knob pecking at something, dead I'm sure, with a nearby raven. It is huge comparatively. The scope and the scoper, obviously experienced, finds one or two others along the cliff face. Time rolls by and one by one more condors soar in, settling into the whitewashed roosting sites along the cliff face. We count a total of ten after celebrating with a beer. "Cheers to the condors!" White armpits, red heads. Juveniles as well, with a little white in the armpits and black heads. Most are tagged, forever marked for the purpose of man's peace of mind. How wild they really are is an interesting question, especially with many hand-raised condors and being fed all the time. The sun is about an hour from being set and I suddenly realize I need to make camp...and what a better place than right below the condors. BLM to love it. I jam all the essentials into my backpack: sleeping bag, tarp, pad, pizza for dinner, camera and tripod, stool, stove; and scurry towards the cliffs, winding through cacti, russian thistle, and wh0-knows-what-else who's sole purpose seems to be to jab you with a prickly part and make you dance around on one foot to get it out. Shouldn't have warm chacos. At camp I watch the condors, all settled in their spot on the cliffs, waiting for night to descend. Some shift to another ledge with a loud muffled scrape of air against feather. Even the sound of their flapping winds exemplifies their hugeness. Under the stars, as always, my bed is nicely situated beneath a juniper. I am only slightly fearful of scorpions, snakes, spiders, etc, crawling into my warm sleeping bag with me. Until I look over from my eating spot and see a huge spider scratching at my tarp. That was the end of my fearlessness. I moved my bedding, after discovering that Mr. Spider was just freaking out because I had covered the entrance to his home, to a nearly level flat rock that perfectly fit my size, raising me up off the desert floor, away from all the critters that freak humans out. And I sleep as soundly as one can that is sleeping on a rock and trying not to fall of the edge into more prickly foliage. The condors slept just as good. Probably better. And they slept in. I sense they are lazy birds. The sun had been shining for some time before the first decided to move. From their perches in the shade (the sun rising behind the cliffs), they took off with an airy explosion of sound with each flap and soared to a spot on the rim, letting the sun warm their black feathers. Wings held out in worship position, whether worshipping God or the sun, they were statues, gargoyles on a castle wall, gazing out across their empire. After an hour of such radiation absorption, the slothful beasts finally decide to leap from the precipice and start their day searching for the dead and rotten. A juvenile, meanwhile, still remained in his sleeping roost getting the most shut-eye as possible. Much like my brother would. As the sun warmed the earth, and winds began to form thermal upheavals, the birds set out. This is probably the true reasoning for their morning laziness; they must wait for the thermals to carry them long distances in search of food that could be many miles away. The less flapping, the less energy used, the less food needed, the longer they can travel in search. Eventually, I retire from my observation seat, pack up and head back to the car a mile away. I see what I will call "tourists" stopping at the ramada. I see them get out, take some pictures of the life-size picture of a condor, look around, and leave. From a distance I long to tell them that there are condors in the cliffs. Fourteen of them, as I counted. I want to share my excitement, for they probably had never seen condors before. I wanted to tell them that what they thought wasn't there really was there. I wanted to see the excitement in their faces when they saw the behemoths sitting on the cliff faces or soaring high above. But the tourists were gone. Maybe never to see them.
God is there. He really is. People don't see Him, and so assume He isn't there. If only I had gotten to them in time. I could have told them that the invisible is visible. Look a little harder. There, on the cliffs. There, in God's word. See the silhouette? See the creation, the handiwork of God? You must scan the cliffs. Scrutinize the dark blobs. Is it a tree or a condor? Is it the truth or a deception?
Disappointed, I watch them drive away. I continue to plod back to my car in the ever-increasing heat. At the ramada, I watch the last condors take flight from the cliffs and head off in various directions. A woman, Claire, volunteering for the Peregrine Fund (in charge of the condor recovery program), arrives and switches on radio telemetry gear to track a few of the 300 birds (the total world population). The size of the population is very good, but far from 'safe.' Losses to lead poisoning still threatens the population, and continued feeding of nonlethal carcasses is important until hunters change from lead to copper bullets. She is very hopeful, crossing her fingers and knocking on wood (several times). The cost of such excitement for me? A flat tire.

Grand Canyon---more training

May 23, 2008
The backpacking trip went well and finding the owls was all too easy. We basically set up camp a few hundred meters below where the owls were roosting, and of course, Dave found them immediately. We all huddled in a group, peering up at the very tolerant owls, a male and a female chillin in some tall box elder trees. Our occupancy data collected, we went back to camp, cooked up some dinners, saw a ringtail cat, and slept under the stars. The canyon begins as a tight slot canyon similar to those in the rest of Zion, but eventually broadens out and empties into the desert. Definitely worth returning to for continued exploration.
In the morning, I awoke well before the sun even hit the tops of the canyon walls and set our for a little exploration. Hiking up and down some side canyons, I was greeted by many birds. Black-headed grosbeaks, western tanagers, Lazuli bunting, Wilson's warblers, Mcgilavray's warblers, Virginia's warbler, black-tailed gnatcatchers, and many more I can't recall. Such a wonderful habitat in these canyons. Full of maple, box elder, white pine, douglas fir, and oak.
Quickly hiking out, we then set off for the Grand Canyon. I headed north through Cedar City, while everyone else went south, the quicker route. I had a wonderful drive...beautiful scenery, wild weather (it snowed!). Arriving in the Grand Canyon North Rim was extremely exciting. My first time, and I was not disappointed. The view is spectacular. I took quite a lot of time taking photos. Later that nigh, after being shown our seclusive camping area, Dave treated us all ($240) to a meal in the lodge. Everyone but me and Kerri drank quite a bit, which makes things interesting/uncomfortable/ok for me. Sometimes I feel cool about it, sometimes I am disgusted. But now we are all in our tents which we pitched over an inch of snow, with an inch accumulated since and more falling. I am thoroughly enjoying it all.

May 22, 2008

A cold front has swooped down over us and appears to have settled here for a few days. It has only rained a bit, but the forecast calls for some. Hope it doesn't call too loudly. Tonight we are backpacking to the mouth of Camp Creek canyon. I am now sitting in my warm car at Kolob visitor center waiting for people to get packed. It seems I am one of the only ones with backpacking experience, so it will be interesting to see how the others do.
Two nights ago we trotted up to Refrigerator Canyon, but saw and heard nothing. Steph and I got a chance to go up to Angel's Landing before the sun set, so we booked it up there. We seem to be connecting well. There is a confidence in her eyes when she looks at me.
The next night we were treated to some good owl action. Down in a slot canyon of Echo Canyon, the owl hooted from a small slit above Dave as he was passing by. We all gathered below the slit and waited for him to show himself. After some time, and the darkness filled the canyons, the owl popped out. Awesome view. He hooted his five-note call to us several times. As he flew up canyon, we followed and got several more good views. Eventually, Dave decided to let him be, so we snuck past the owl and headed out. But the owl wasn't done with us. He followed us as we climbed straight up and out of the canyon. I flashed my light on him to get his red eyes one last time, and left him behind. We will return later to do offspring surveys.
So far so good with emotional status. It's hard not to be happy with a job like this. But when training is over, it could be different, since I enjoy when the entire crew is together.

May 19, 2008

Tonight was a glorious night. It was pure joy for me. And for the others in the crew. Hidden Canyon revealed some spotted owls to us, and we were actually able to observe one for some time. Much smaller than I imagined, but still capable of producing a loud, resonating hoot. They are really very much ghosts in these canyons. Barely visible in the trees, only a flash of white barely seen as they take flight and swoop to another perch in the waning evening light. We were all stoked. Dave was pleased that his 'students' get to experience owls. Steph joyously proclaimed her amazement..."i'm getting paid to do this." Etc., etc.
The canyons at night are surreal. Working your way down through the zigs and zags and boulder and wall is awesome, like a totally different world from when it was hiked during the day. And we are the only ones out there. Every day we see new critters. Whiptail lizard caught in my tent. Bull snake under a rock. Kit fox on the road near Zion lodge at night. And of course, a visual on the spotted owl!

To Zion we go!

May 18, 2008
This is truly the job I have always dreamed of doing, even as a little kid. Studying wildlife in an amazing place. I always imagined myself studying large mammals in places like Yellowstone or Glacier. But I think this is far. Today is the third day in Zion. Adjusting myself to the daily routine of taking it easy during the day, sleeping in, staying out of the sun, etc., in preparation for our crepuscular study. Hard work! Last night we went out with all our crew, composed of Kyla, Heather, Steph, Mike, Chad, Kerri, Dave, and myself, to Twin Canyon. A couple of hours before sunset we hiked to the top of the canyon to observe roosting spots or high activity centers. We descended and stopped at a calling station (an arbitrary station set up by the field worker to call/hoot for the owls) to listen. Once the sun set, Dave (our professor and boss) started hooting. He called multiple times with no response. Same result with the next station up canyon. At this point we are feeling hopeless for finding an owl, but Dave's patience pays off. A female owl responded with an agitated contact call, thinking that another owl had invaded her territory. It was awesome being in the canyon at night, scrambling and leaping from rock to rock, hearing the owls hooting. This is going to be a fascinating summer. I will be stationed here in Zion for the whole summer with Mike and Steph, after some training in Grand Canyon and Capitol Reef.
Getting here over the past few days, I took it easy, stopping for the night at Luke's in Pocatello and then in Salt Lake City with Andrew, which was all really great. The first night here we just set up camp and relaxed. The next day we all set out up the canyon on the shuttle system and had a great hike up Hidden Canyon, which we will be visiting tonight to determine owl occupancy. I am very pleased with the crew...I feel relaxed around everyone, which gives me a lot of confidence. Dave is really cool, but he likes to talk a lot and is full of energy. All the other guys like to drink, but they are respectful about far. It has been interesting adjusting to the desert. I definitely do not drink enough water and I have to tone down the adventurer in me so as not to over-exhaust myself during the day with night work still to do until early in the morning.
The desert is in bloom now, with an array of colors, familiar and unfamiliar. Even many yucca are throwing up their last bit of energy into flowering. The birds at our site go nuts every morning. So far I haven't been able to get up to do some hardcore birding yet, and probably won't until my days off. I am very pleased to be stationed at Zion (instead of the Grand Canyon), and very excited to make this place feel like home. There is so much to explore. But the heat is a killer. Nothing can really be done during midday. But that will take adjusting to. My goal this summer is to have fun, not get injured, avoid getting drunk, and enhance my photography skills!