Archive for April, 2010

spring in the desert

I’ve seen a bit of the interior West lately. The middle of March found me finishing up wolverine work in the North Cascades of Washington state. By early April, I had performed the reverse-migration of driving south to the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico. To put it another way—I used to be 60 miles from the Canadian border, and I now find myself a hundred miles or so from Mexico.

To my surprise and chagrin, however, driving 2,000 miles southward has somehow pushed me backward into winter. Warm, sunny days in Washington and the balsamroot beginning to bloom, yet leftover snowbanks in New Mexico, sleet, and yes, yesterday morning—snow flurries.

storm, escarpment, and soaptree yucca

I suppose the elevation might have something to do with it. The Methow Valley sits at about 1800’, whereas Cloudcroft soars at 8650’. But still, it seems a little strange.

One of the pleasures of the desert southwest, though, is your ability to move. A 16 mile drive out of Cloudcroft drops one more than 4000’ into Alamogordo and the Chihuahuan Desert. Twelve miles south of Alamogordo is a quiet little piece of heaven called Oliver Lee Memorial State Park.

The park is nestled against the escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains, 12 miles south of Alamogordo, NM. There is something about the location—maybe it is the water flowing out of Dog Canyon—that seems to concentrate bird, animal, and plant life. On this day, sporadic rain scattered down on the park as heavy clouds lowered veils of rain down on the escarpment. It was beautiful and much better than sitting through the 4-6” of snow that was falling up top. And the birds were singing.

black-throated sparrow

By far the highlight of the day was wandering down the wash below the visitor center and catching two good looks at a male red-faced warbler in full breeding plumage. Not a common bird around these parts, and a striking bird.

Want a bird list? Here you go:

Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, April 23-24, 2010

Turkey vulture                                 red-tailed hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk                      white-winged dove

Mourning dove                                great-horned owl

White-throated swift                     black-chinned hummingbird

Broad-tailed hummingbird         ladder-backed woodpecker

Say’s phoebe                                     western kingbird

Violet-green swallow                    Chihuahuan raven

Verdin                                                 cactus wren

Rock wren                                          canyon wren

Ruby-crowned kinglet                  blue-gray gnatcatcher

American robin                               curve-billed thrasher

Warbling vireo                                 black-throated gray warbler

Orange crowned warbler            Virginia’s warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler              Townsend’s warbler

American redstart                         Wilson’s warbler

Red-faced warbler                          western tanager

Spotted towhee                               canyon towhee

Chipping sparrow                           black-throated sparrow

White-crowned sparrow             western meadowlark

Scott’s oriole                                    house finch

The second day at Oliver Lee was the hike up Dog Canyon, which I highly recommend. You get up into a canyon with high walls, and another watery section of canyon bottom just below where the canyon boxes out. Pretty there, with dripping water and maidenhair fern. I was hoping to find one of those places… you know, the pool-sized plunge pool below the pouroff… the place to ask a girl to marry you. But no luck. The hike is good though. You pass through several different ecological zones as you gain elevation, and get views of the desert and White Sands.

view of white sands from Dog Canyon

Oh yeah, and it is a historical spot. The visitor center is beside the ruins of a homesteader named “Frenchy” Rochas (1843-1894) who died under mysterious circumstances and did some impressive work with stone walls and irrigation. Nearby, too is the ranch house of Oliver Lee (1865-1941), a locally famous rancher and politician who even had a run-in with Pat Garrett. The book Tularosa is a good read about local history.

ruins of Frenchy's cabin

But all things must end. By the end of the weekend it was back up into winter at nearly 9000’. Someday soon the trees will leaf out, and it won’t be long until the mountain will be a pleasantly cool refuge from the blistering heat of the desert floor.


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This one keeps coming up for me again and again. Binoculars. A set or pair of binoculars, even. But here’s the thing… bi-nocular… as in a binocular (two eye) scope as opposed to a monocular (one eye). So in truth, the thing you wear around your neck birding is a binocular. A set or pair of binoculars would mean that you have two of them. Don’t think this one will ever change, but i can’t help hearing people use the words without thinking to myself…

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a peek toward Salt Creek

Peekaboo Spring is the end of the road. And I suppose I could have driven there, save for the fact that my truck was heavily loaded with belongings. Instead, I took a walk from Squaw Flat Campground and five miles later found myself at a trailhead, complete with parked trucks and loud visitors.

The biggest attraction of Peekaboo Spring is the rock art that graces a point of rock that sticks out into the drainage and forces Salt Creek to make a large U.  A line of painted dots and two white shield figures partly obscure older, faded, and more sinister figures painted in brown. People have been here a long time.

rock art at Peekaboo Spring

note the faint brown figures

A few hours later I found the perfect camp in a side drainage off of Salt Creek. Rain was predicted for the night, and I found a huge boulder with overhung space beneath it… large enough for my tent and I, and remarkably free of packrat tracks or droppings. There was a an arch high on the distant redrock horizon. My legs were tired and there was hours until sunset. I wished I’d brought a book. Life was good.

shade and rain shelter

morning view from camp

The next day was one of memories. At the top of the side canyon, I found the spot where, years ago, I found my first spotted owl. Well, in truth, she found me–whistled at me in full daylight. But that’s another story. But still, I found the tree and the exact spot where I had been standing. Fifteen years and nothing looked that different. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have found my boot prints.

And further down the canyon, another spot where I watched a mother owl feeding two fluffy owlets as morning light painted the canyon walls orange. A magical moment. I found that juniper, too. But no owls.

At one point in my wanderings, I noticed a line of white dots on a rock face… much like those at Peekaboo Spring. Further investigation yielded a couple of figures on another panel. One was a faded, white snake, and the other was a sheep or goat. This was one of my favorite finds of the trip. What does this Anasazi art mean?

a pointilist goat... sheep?

The end of my day was a reconnaissance mission to the very top of the side canyon to see if maybe, just maybe, I could find a route that would cut through back to Salt Creek Canyon. The map suggested the possibility, but I have been in this country enough to know that the contour lines can hide many a impassable wall. But it was worth a try.

Turns out there were several impassable walls. I studied the benches carefully, and saw a few places that might lead a seasoned climber/scrambler up, but in the end decided that backtracking was the better option. So much for a loop hike. I would have been doing my climbing with a fully loaded pack, and no one knew where I really was. Still, it was pretty country there–soaring red cliff faces and spires. And the attempt made me feel alive.

Day three found me hiding my big pack in Salt Creek Canyon and strolling up canyon carrying some water, food, compass, and the map. The higher parts of Salt Creek, just north of the Angel Arch side canyon, twist back and forth like a snake in the rock art (maybe there’s a connection…) and is beautiful to walk. Furthermore, the area around Angel Arch is full of Anasazi ruins and rock art. It makes for fantastic investigation. I climbed up to several rock art panels, and by glassing and re-glassing one rocky point, just caught the dark square of a doorway–this little site was amazing…little cobs of corn still in the granary, and five hand outlines above the structure.

granary and hand outlines

1200 year old (?) corn cob

On my way back down, I scrambled up to a white outline of a hand and forearm. I was a little disappointed that there weren’t any other panels or rock art near it… but then I noticed some piled, flat rocks that looked like a collapsed structure, and in among these I found some pottery shards. I’ve never found pottery shards before, and it was pretty cool. Laying in the dust, little pieces of something made by those same hands that I see outlined in white paint in secret places in these canyons. How many years old?

pottery shards

The last day is always hard. Tiredness is a factor, of course, but the brain also tends to wander. Thoughts of real food, cold drinks, and other facets of syphillization intrude on the part of you that is able to appreciate the present. You are still outside in beautiful country, the mountains still shine with snow, and red rocks reach toward and endless sky, but somehow the mind wanders. It’s inevitable. But even though it is a relief and joy to see the truck at the trailhead, it still saddened me to leave the canyon country. Good memories, good adventures. It’s funny how a place can feel like home.

Sad to part, but I’ll be back.

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Island in the Sky

view from my camp near Salt Creek

Well, I sat down over the last few days to write up a bit about my visit to the backcountry of Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, and to my surprise, what was going to be a quick write-and-post has turned into a 3000 word or more behemoth. So instead of unloading a novel on you poor innocent (ADD?) readers, I thought I would try a quick post that consisted mostly of pictures.

On a long drive from Washington to New Mexico, I set aside five days to revisit Canyonlands NP, and, in particular, to head into the backcountry of the Needles District and hike Salt Creek Canyon. I’d worked in the park in 1995, and had told myself that if they ever closed the 4WD road going up Salt Creek, I’d like to come back and hike it. Fifteen years later, the opportunity presented itself.

But first, Island in the Sky. I pulled into Moab and immediately booked two nights at the Lazy Lizard Hostel. The place had changed a little in 15 years, but is still much the same. Can’t beat a $7 tent site within walking distance of downtown. And I couldn’t get a hotel room if I wanted one. F#%^@*g  jeep safari weekend. Again. Every time I come through Moab there is an abundance of testosterone and oversized, gas-guzzling toys in town. Note to self–next time Monticello.

But anyway, I was talking about Island in the Sky. It’s a great place to barely get out of your car. Or in my case, to kill a few hours before spending the night at Eddie McStiff’s and Woody’s. It’s a big mesa with expansive views…

a view from the island

the white rim

edge of the world

After a few short walks to overlooks, and hiking from Grandview Point out toward Junction Butte (highly recommended), I turned the truck away and headed back toward Moab, and the adventure waiting for me at the Needles District…

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I’ve gotten quite a bit of interest on the site from people looking for pictures of wolverine tracks… so here is a collection of photos i took during the season. Some are better than others, and if anyone has questions or comments about wolverine tracks or tracking, i would love to see them.

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Canyonlands National Park, at the backcountry permitting desk. I mention to the rangers helping me that I worked in the park, surveying for spotted owls, 15 years ago, and was back to hike Salt Creek Canyon.  They’re interested, and curious about my work and life, so I share a few stories.  It’s nice, every once in a while, to find people that treat me like what I do is special and unusual. Sometimes I forget.

Later, after the ranger-led campfire talk at the campground, one of the rangers approaches me with a couple of friends. He wants me to give a spotted owl hoot and tell his friends about what I do. His wife is there and curious. When I mention that I am driving from Washington, where I was working with wolverines, to New Mexico, where I’ll be working with spotted owls, he turns to a friend and says, “see, he’s living the life!”

And it makes me stop. He’s there with his wife. I can’t reconcile a long-term relationship and this type of lifestyle. He is surrounded by friends. I’m traveling alone and my phone rarely rings. He has a steady job and probably benefits that include health insurance. I haven’t been to a doctor in fifteen years and live in fear of a serious injury or illness. It would bankrupt me. Quickly.

The Life. I suppose I am living it. I see beautiful places and get paid to do things that other people only wish they could do. But then again, there is a price. It is a glorious life, but not an easy one.

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