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...