Archive for January, 2008

My techno-utopia

High technology has done us one great service:

It has retaught us the delight of performing simple

And primordial tasks – chopping wood, building

A fire, drawing water from a spring…

Edward Abbey

My vision of techno-utopia is one that allows me to be alone in a cabin in the woods somewhere, away from the rush of the city, disconnected from corporate sponsored television that tells me what i need and how to interpret the news.

It is one where solar power, batteries, and a satellite phone and internet connection are all the high technology i need. My work day will consist of a few hours of writing and sending stories to eager magazine and book editors. The rest of my day will be spent wandering ridgelines, fly fishing, tending a garden, hunting fat elk, and anticipating sunset.

My computer will give me an electric shock if i type certain keywords into the internet, such as “Britney Spears” or “Paris Hilton.” Ah yes, and i forgot about the teleport device, which will deliver friends and family to a nice spot down by the lake when i want to see them AND they want to see me. I wouldn’t want them to arrive at the cabin, and they ought to have to walk a little, anyways.


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technological determinism

Yesterday, with a light snow falling on the hills above Spring Creek, we snowshoed a few miles and found ourselves on a ridge with an open view. In the distance the dim bulk of a mountain showed itself, around to the right the ridges suggested a deep valley. I thought the far rise was the back of Mt. Emily, and the deep valley the Grande Ronde winding toward Ukiah. Amy wasn’t so sure. I’ve learned to never be too sure of my orienteering, so out came the compass.

how to use a compass

A magnetic needle set in a liquid of some sort, encased in a rotating plastic dial with 360 degrees of readings. Black lines to match the true north of a map, the declination already set to eastern Oregon. A red lanyard with a greasy feel of sweat, dirt, and rainfall embedded in its fibers. How many times had I pulled it out like this?


Nighttime in Utah, Arizona… a photocopy of a topo map in one hand, the compass in the other. Laying out the ropes for a vegetation plot, each rope in a cardinal direction. The flat pine stands of Mississipi, the same in every direction. How many times? The road must be this direction… I think I’m standing right there… I need to drift a little more to the east to hit the creek… the truck should be just over that ridge…

When the needle settled in place, the landscape rotated in my head to match the map I had studied before leaving the truck. What I was calling Mt. Emily almost due east. Yes, that made sense. And maybe that would be the Grande Ronde down there. The headwaters of a creek behind me to the northwest, the ridge pointing east-southeast, the creek drifting more to the south. The compass in my hand a lifeline out here with a few miles to walk and the determination not to simply follow our tracks back out.

not exactly our tracks, but...

The compass has been a driving force in my life. Maps couldn’t exist without a compass. Much of the work I’ve done for the last 12 years would have been nearly impossible without a map and compass. Locations needed to be marked precisely so that other people, with their own maps and compasses, could return to that exact spot. Nests, point count locations, owl detections, lynx tracks…

compass rose

In this sense, the compass has driven our ability to know where we are in the world. And how to get back. Would the early mariners have crossed the Atlantic without a compass? Would my European ancestors even be here now? Would early America have been the same place without the knowledge of a vast frontier over the horizon?

People call things they don’t understand “uncharted territory.” Throughout the history of the world, explorers have always used the sky, and the passage of the sun as a way of orienting themselves in the world. But this was an imprecise method, and susceptible to the variances of weather. According to wikipedia, the compass (at that point a magnetized needle in a bowl of water) opened up the Mediterranean to winter travel, and facilitated the expansion of trade. Early versions were the needle in a bowl of water, or the lodestone suspended on a string. This technology, along with depth soundings, opened up the world to maritime navigation. It made the world a bigger place, and within the realm of understanding. No more dragons at the edges.

gps units

Now compasses come with declination, and markings to aid with the use of maps for orienteering. GPS systems calculate a direction as you move with them, and can direct you to a specific point anywhere on the earth. We have precise property boundaries, state and nation boundaries. We know exactly where things are. The impact of this technology on the world is immeasurable. It would not be unreasonable that this simple innovation was the foundation for the rise of science in the world, and the replacement of religion and superstition with the precise knowledge of science fueled by technology.

After an hour of walking it seemed like we ought to be something that looked familiar. A hint of uneasiness crept in. I should know this lesson by heart by now – that you’ve never gone as far as you think. Patience. Stay on course… trust the compass. But just to be sure, the GPS came out. Someone had taken a waypoint at the truck.

After a short wait for the satellites to connect, the digital details came into focus. Half a mile from the truck. We were going the right direction, though drifting a little south. We were fine. Trust the technology. We knew where we were.

the truth is out there

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Google Earth rocks

I’ve rediscovered Google Earth in the last week. They’ve added a lot of features, including 3d and the ability to pan both your direction and angle of view. Pretty amazing. As an exercise in how this can work, i’ve provided a link that allows you to download a file, which, when you have GE on your computer, will let you see that place-markers and comments i left on the map. In this case they are points of interest regarding the story i’ve written about my first owling adventure in Canyonlands NP. So, if you have GE, click on the link, download the file to your desktop, and clicking the file should open GE and zoom you into my points.

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I write a column for Eastern Oregon University’s newspaper, The Voice. (they claim they will update the website soon, with archives and all…). Here’s a column. I’ll add some more when i get the time. This is what i submitted to them, so there may be minor edits in the printed version.

You don’t have to be a hiker. You don’t have to be an expert rock climber. All you need to do is to get outside, and be curious.

We live in rural Oregon. There aren’t endless shops, nightclubs, and museums to explore. You cannot lose yourself by going to a different neighborhood. Your favorite bands don’t play here. There is a university, a few restaurants, and some things to do, but if that is the scope of your adventurous spirit, you will soon be disappointed by what La Grande has to offer.

What La Grande has is open space. Rimrock. National Forest. Sage and ponderosa pines. Lingering just beyond the edges of town is an interesting world that will absorb as many hours as you wish to spend in it.

And here’s a hint… you don’t need special equipment. What you need is curiosity and a little bit of time.

For example, Morgan Lake lies just above La Grande. It is a 5 to 10 minute drive from town, or a half-hour bike for those with the legs and lungs for it. Morgan Lake is heavily used during the summer, but relatively quiet at this time of year. This is the time of year to be out; Rain has taken away the smoke and haze of summer, and yellows, reds, and oranges signal that the shrubs and trees are readying for winter sleep. The air is crisp and edges seem sharply defined.

There’s a trail that circles the lake. Don’t make a race out of it, take your time, look around. Listen, smell, feel. There are little birds moving through the pines – pygmy nuthatches that hang upside down on the trunks. There are gray jays that whistle queries from the canopy and will land right beside you out of curiosity. You don’t find these birds in La Grande.

Have you ever smelled a ponderosa? Find a furrow in the bark, especially one that is deep and red, and stick your nose into it. They smell like vanilla… really, they do.

North of the lake, in a draw, is a red-tailed hawk nest. The young are long out of the nest, but may be lingering around. If you know what to look for, you can tell the young from the adults.

In the evenings coyotes yelp and bark and elk appear at the forest edges like apparitions and move into the open. Great-horned owls prowl the edges of the lakes. Try and imitate one; they may hoot back. As night comes on, layers and layers of stars reveal themselves.

We spend too much time hurrying. The world around us is an unnoticed background to our day. It is good from time to time to step away from our cars, our classrooms, from the internet, and seek out the quiet places and explore them. It is good for the soul, it is good for peace of mind. It is good to know where we are.

La Grande is surrounded by places like this. But I will warn you that getting outside may lead to other things… you may buy a bird book, or a guide to plants and trees. You may find a favorite place and go there again and again. You may start painting, or taking pictures, or writing in a journal.

It doesn’t matter how you go, just get outside. There is a fascinating world out there waiting. You just have to take the time to notice it.

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the rest

This is a continuation of the previous post, so you may want to read that first. This ended up taking a lot more words than i thought it would. I think it is a promising start, though, which might turn into something with some careful revision. Read it if you please, though you won’t hurt my feelings by passing it over:

I’ve added place markers on Google Earth which will allow you to see some of the points of interest – click here to download the .kmz folder




About 10 hours later I found myself shivering under the shelter of an overhang. Andy and I had separated to do our routes and agreed to meet back up in the morning where the canyon diverged. I’d marked my calling points and called them in the dark without hearing anything but the quiet patter of rain and the sounds of water dripping off the canyon walls. It was cold out.

We’d received some “encouragement” from the park rangers to minimize our disturbance in the park. We were allowed to hike anywhere we wanted, whether that was on the trails or not. The rangers were concerned about two things – cryptobiotic soil and Anasazi ruins. A mix of bacteria and algae grows on the sandy surfaces in southern Utah and forms a sort of crust on the surface of the ground. In places it remains undisturbed enough to even change the color of the soil surface from orange/red to black. It takes a long time for this crust to get established, and anytime you (or cattle, or deer, etc) step on it, it ruins the crust. The rangers were quite concerned with the “crypto” and encouraged us to walk on bare rock when we had the option. I’d crunched through some soil on my way up to this little alcove. Everyone, including hooters, was also supposed to stay a set distance from any archaeological sites in the park. These were usually ruins and rock art left by the Indians that had lived in southern Utah for a few centuries and then suddenly disappeared around 1300 AD. The Anasazi. They’re the ones who drew the Kokopelli figure on rock walls… the same one that is a popular design all over. Well, almost the same one. The Anasazi liked to draw their Kokopelli with a very large penis. That part usually doesn’t get reproduced in modern designs. Anyway, not only had I forever destroyed a few footprints worth of cryptobiotic soil, but I also happened to be sharing my little alcove with a little Anasazi ruin.

It was a miserable night. Someone had told me that scorpions don’t travel more than ten feet or so from the cracks where they spend their days, so I had tried to find a spot a proper distance from all inviting cracks and crevices. With Dave’s glowing description of desert camping, I had neglected to bring a sleeping bag. I’d opted not to bring a rain jacket either, but for some reason I had decided that bringing the rain fly to my tent would be a good idea. Luckily for me, I also had a backpack that was pretty big. Picture this – me huddled in an alcove with an Anasazi ruin, my legs inside my backpack, and a rain fly wrapped around me, leaning against a rock wall trying to get some sleep. Not the best of nights. It was probably too cold for scorpions anyway.

In the late morning I met up with Andy. He’d also found an alcove with a ruin in it. He’d lit a small fire to help keep warm. I’m pretty sure that was illegal, too. Andy said that the night had taken too much out of him, and instead of the two of us calling that night, he was going to head straight out to Salt Creek Canyon and try to recover. His truck was about five miles down Salt Creek, so he would either meet me at the top in the morning, or he’d be down at the truck.

I was on my own that night with the work of two people in front of me. I got my side done and about half of Andy’s. It was another cold night, but at least the rain had stopped. And still no owls. Instead of trying to sleep in the cold, I walked the extra miles out to Salt Creek Canyon where Andy might be. The warm sun was just cresting the horizon when I got there. No sign of Andy. I found a little alcove along the canyon wall that would give me some shade late into the morning and went to sleep.

Salt Creek Canyon had a 4WD road up it that ended here at the top. There was a little parking area and a port-a-potty for people to use. When the sun wouldn’t let me sleep any more, I stumbled back down to the trailhead and checked to see if Andy might be there asleep somewhere. I looked under trees, around the parking area. I found a rattlesnake, but no sign of Andy. Then my eyes fell on the port-a-potty…

When I opened the door, Andy woke with a start and squinted into the sunlight. He scared the hell out of me. It didn’t smell so good. He’d used it as a sheltered place to sleep. I’m still not quite sure why. I didn’t ask. I suppose things make more sense when you’re sleep-deprived and exhausted.

And so we stumbled like zombies down Salt Creek Canyon that day to where Andy’s truck was parked. It’s amazing – when you are in the backcountry for a while and your legs feel like rubber, a truck can be a wonderful sight. It’s like coming home. We ate real food; we slept in its shade. We had one more night of work.

And this is where the story really begins.

Andy was tired. He’d had enough. There were two routes left. One was a hiking route up a side canyon with several forks. That one would be a full night. The other was calling points along the Salt Creek Canyon Road. You could drive between these points. Andy thought we should forget the side canyon and simply do the driving route together. We could be back to the official crew campsite that night. I could sleep in a sleeping bag, eat warm food. There was even whiskey there.

Unfortunately, I grew up in New England and the Puritans left a legacy of hard work and guilt. It’s hard for people from that part of the country to leave a job unfinished. I couldn’t do it. I told Andy I’d do the side canyon and he could do the driving route. He’d come back, pick me up, and we’d drive out. In the early afternoon I walked out to get started. My legs were sore and my head was misted with a lack of sleep. To continue was an exercise in discipline.

I’ve come to believe something about surveying for spotted owls. It might be true for other species and places, too, but I can’t speak for them. You get rewarded for effort. These canyon owls don’t live in easy places to get to. They hide in side canyons and hanging canyons off of side canyons. If you give up easily, you tend to never get to where they are. Time after time I would scale rock faces that I shouldn’t have, or gone that extra mile on a long night, and in those moments of exploring the edges of what my body could do I would hear the faintest echo of a calling owl. And at that moment, it feels like the owl has been keeping track, measuring your progress, and has only called out once she knew that you had done everything you could. Call me a mystic, but yes, I think that there is power in these birds.

I stumbled up the canyon, leaving behind pieces of reflective tape to mark my route and stations. I went up two side forks. I stopped a lot. Invisible canyon wrens sung out their waterfall songs of descending whistles. The paper-tear sound of a raven’s wings hundreds of feet up echoed loudly off the silence of the canyon walls. I stubbed my toes on rocks. I trudged on. I was too tired to think.

Have you ever heard or seen something that it took your brain a few moments to register? Someone calls your name from across a street and you take a few steps before realizing what you heard… you walk past a poster and then you stop and snap your head around to double-check what you saw.

I had only one station left to mark, and a few hours before sunset. It would be precious time to rest. I was sticking reflective tape to a branch when suddenly my mind registered something. Had I heard a whistle? Female spotted give a rising whistle called a “contact call.” I considered for a moment. It was daylight, the sun was still shining strong. There was no way an owl could have called. It was probably a wren or something. I took two steps. Jays were nearby, a couple of them. They were sounding out raucous jay calls. Two more steps. They were calling like they were harassing something. I stopped. I turned toward the jays and immediately saw a pair of deep brown eyes staring at me. A spotted owl, in daylight, was perched twenty feet away from me and looking at me curiously. Several jays flitted about around her, trying to scare her away. Had she flown in? She must have.

I could describe the owl to you. You can find a photograph, I’m sure. They’re medium-sized, with dark brown backs with spots of white and heavy dark streaking on their chests. They have round heads, with little white spots scattered on the backs of their dark heads and necks. Round facial disks hold dark eyes. It is the eyes, though, that are magical. There is a depth to them that is incredible, and they are so dark that I’ve often expected to see little constellations of stars and galaxies hidden in the darkness. You feel those eyes upon you. It feels like the owl is looking deep into you. She sat there unafraid, looking at me like I was the first human she had ever seen.

When people ask me about the years of owl work, I often tell them that I didn’t find my first spotted owl – she found me. The scientist in me will tell you that some owls are less shy about moving about in daylight, that sometimes they are curious about loud sounds like a dislodged stone. I might have made a noise that made her curious enough to fly over to check me out. She had fledglings, as it turned out, so maybe she was feeling nervous about how close I was. That’s what the scientist would say – that this was a little strange, but within the parameters of normal owl behavior. The mystic in me is less sure. I think she knew I was dead tired and exploring the limits of what my body could do. I think she sensed that my whole reason for being there, for night after night of punishment, was to find her. I was young. I didn’t really know what I was doing out there, but I was doing my best. She knew that I had done enough. And so she flew in, and gave me a quiet whistle to let me know that she was right there.

I could tell you about how Andy was pissed because that meant we had to spend another night and go back in the morning. I could tell you that there was more than one pair of owls in that canyon, and that I spent the most beautiful morning of my life within touching distance of a family of spotted owls. I could even tell you the name of the canyon, but I won’t. I am out of words for now, and those stories would only lead to other stories, other owls. They’re still out there, though, waiting for you. If you think you can find them.

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And it begins…

This site originates as an assignment for a multimedia class at Eastern Oregon University. The assignment is to write about a journey of some sort. The number of words to be used was shortened after i began, so unfortunately(or fortunately…) for you this little story is not yet finished. Stay tuned for part 2

I’ve added some place markers on Google Earth that allow you to see some points of interest – click here to download the file.


In the summer of 1995 I drove west for the first time. I was fresh out of college with a degree in biology. I had applied for at least 20 different positions working in wildlife biology, and had only received one job offer – surveying for Mexican spotted owls in the national parks of southern Utah. It involved a lot of backcountry hiking and camping, and working at night in rugged, desert terrain. There was no housing offered, but we were allowed to camp in the parks for free. It was a dream job.

I met the crew in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, just south of Moab, UT. The boss was busy with logistics in Flagstaff, so we lingered in the park and did our best to start identifying the plants and geology that would be part of the data we collected. Eventually Dave showed up and took us out on a training expedition and taught us how to hoot properly. We began to call ourselves hooters.

Southern Utah is a magical place. As you drive into Moab or descend into the canyons of the Colorado River, you are confronted with colors that are hard to find anywhere else. Rock that is orange, burnt red, tan, chocolate brown sits exposed under a peculiar deep-blue sky devoid of clouds. Canyons twist and turn, end abruptly at pouroffs or boxed canyons, diverge and reconnect. You can walk for miles without a sign of water and then find a crystal-clear pool of water nestled in a hidden grotto. Without warning you can stumble upon a wall covered in exotic rock art left a thousand years ago, tiny ruins perched up on the sides of canyon walls with only the faintest handholds left as a way to get to them. A rain storm miles away can send a wall of water down the canyons to find you. And in this alien realm live the shamans of the bird world – spotted owls.

After our brief training, we were set loose in the canyons. A typical day involved waking up when your chosen spot of shade had run out (I got better at this with experience). Then you killed time, ate, read, maybe worked on some paperwork. In the early afternoon you’d drive to somewhere near where you were calling for owls that night. Your calling route was marked on a topographic map as calling points separated by a half mile or so. So in daylight you would hike in and find these calling points and mark them with reflective tape that showed up like deer’s eyes at night. We called these pieces of tape bright-eyes, and tried to leave them on twigs or small branches so that they were hard to find in daylight, but easy to see with a headlamp at night. There were usually 12 stations or so for a typical night of work. So on the way up a canyon you would mark your stations, and if you timed it right, you would get to the farthest point just as the sun went down. Some hooters intentionally left early to have some time to relax as darkness came in.

The rest of the night was simply walking your route back out, following the bright-eyes. At calling stations you would hoot for 15 minutes and take some basic data on wind and temperature, etc. On a good night you’d be done by one in the morning or so and find your spot of shade to sleep. If you found a spotted owl, things got more complicated (and fun), and you generally didn’t get much sleep.

I did a few routes in the Needles District, never too far from pavement, and didn’t find any owls. When our crew leader asked for volunteers for a tougher series of nights, I was the first to volunteer.

We were assigned a through-hike that would involve four nights of hooting. We drove up Salt Creek Canyon in Andy’s truck and left it there. It was June and there was a fair amount of water in the creek. At times it was deeper than the tires and the truck left a wake in the creek like a boat. I was driving a Saab that year and resolved to get a truck.

Our boss, Dave, had told us some of the dangers of desert work – rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows – but had left us with the impression that camping in the desert was a wonderful experience. When it rained it rarely lasted more than an hour or so, and it was warm enough at night that you didn’t need a sleeping bag. He said that on multi-night trips he usually just brought a sleeping pad for comfort and planned on sitting out rain under overhangs.

When we left Andy’s truck it was warm and sunny. When a crew member dropped us off at our starting point, it was around forty degrees out, overcast, and drizzling rain. It was June. Maybe Dave had been talking about camping in July…

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