Saturday, April 18, 2015

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Coastal Geogia

           For those of you who think of the east coast of the United States as filled with golf courses and condos, as over-developed and over-crowded, well, think again.  Behold a different type of crowd while traveling the Georgia coastline—thousands of shore birds, countless marine organisms, numerous alligators, otters, deer and bobcats.  

          Georgia’s natural shoreline is home to productive fresh and saltwater marshes, barrier islands and wildlife refuges.   I recently visited Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, less than an hour's drive south of Savannah but centuries removed from the city’s traffic and tourists.

          A cool, gray, drizzly day silenced much of the bird life and kept us from more extensive exploration of this refuge.  The following photos taken at Woody Pond, the first stop along the four-mile wildlife drive, offer a sampling of this gem of a refuge's treasures.

I visited this refuge in March with my sister and my parents—aged in their
mid 80s.  I was about to walk this grassy path along Woody Pond when
I noticed these "logs" on the grass.  I took a few steps toward them and realized that
the logs were a family of alligators!  My parents had never seen alligators
in the wild and, to their credit, they didn't bolt for our vehicle but hung around
to watch this relaxing group of gators (about 25 yards away) through our binoculars.


Seconds after reading this sign an alligator hiding in the grass below plopped
into the water.  We heard the loud splash and saw the tail of
a large gator slip into the murky water.  This one was close!


This Great Blue Heron caught a nice catfish for lunch.
We watched the heron struggle to orient the fish for swallowing.
(You can see the mouth and eye facing the heron's beak.)
The heron tossed its head up and back, opened wide, and finished off
this fish with one big gulp.


After a salty fish dinner, it's time for a long drink.
We watched the heron as it flew back to the pond
and took several sips.
Two small gators (on the rock in front) also watch the
big bird quench its thirst.




         Visit coastal Georgia and view the east coast as it may have appeared when the first settlers arrived on its shores.  Learn more by visiting this website:  http://www.fws.gov/refuge/harris_neck/

Monday, March 16, 2015

Havasu Falls, Nature's Mutable Masterpiece

           Water.  It shapes our world, sustains our lives and is capable of inspiring both wonder and terror.  In my last post I described the delightful experience of discovering Upper Calf Creek Falls in the Utah desert.  
           Grand Canyon’s Havasu Falls is delightful, yes, but it also elicits these emotions:   Disbelief, awe, reverence.  After a ten mile hike in blistering June heat I rounded the corner on a rocky downhill path and, with a deafening roar, Havasu Falls burst into view.
            I looked down to my aching feet; real.  Glanced to the left and right at my hiking companions; real.  I had to conclude that the plunging double columns of whitewater before me also were real.  I stood—wide eyed—afraid to even blink should this sensational vision of paradise disappear like a desert mirage.   How silly.  This canyon and these falls have been here since time began; something so lovely and enduring couldn’t change in an instant.  Could it?


My first view of Havasu Falls. Breathtaking.
Havasu Falls view from the beach near the campground entrance.
My site in the campground along Havasu Creek.

            Yes it can.  And it did, when a flash flood raged through the canyon several years after my visit, altering the course of the creek and the falls.  Instead of adoration and amazement hikers and campers in Havasu Canyon during the event expressed alarm, fear and dread. 
            Thankfully no one perished in the 2008 flood but, for those of us who spend time in the natural world, this event reminds us of things beyond our control—of the wonder and terror of water.


New Havasu Falls.  The flood collapsed a rock ledge
at the top of the falls, channeling the water
into a single column.
(Photo from Wikipedia.)



Old Navajo Falls.  On our hike to the hilltop, the group stopped
to cool off at Navajo Falls—a short side trip from the main trail.
(That's me, enjoying the blissfully frigid water.)



New Navajo "Falls".  As you can see, they no longer exist.
The flood rearranged this part of the canyon,
diverting water from Navajo Falls and creating two new
falls downstream.
(Wikipedia photo.)

            I’ve traveled to many places in this country and others.  And I’ve seen my share of “picturesque and scenic” vistas.  Havasu Canyon and Falls is in a class by itself—literally breathtakingly beautiful.  
            I highly recommend a visit to Havasu Falls but, be prepared.  This is not a walk in the park but a grueling 10 mile hike through the desert, especially during the summer months.  The area is heavily visited but access and visitation are controlled by the Havasupai Indian Tribe.  The Havasupai—people of the blue-green water—have lived here for 800 years so please be respectful of the people and their customs.  Find out more by visiting this website:  http://www.americansouthwest.net/arizona/grand_canyon/havasu_canyon.html


A permit is required for camping along Havasu Creek.  The campground
was destroyed in the 2008 flood but has been rebuilt.
With prior arrangement, mules—shown above—will carry most of your gear the 10
miles to the campground.

Ready for the hike out of the canyon.  One thing I learned on this
long desert hike?  This is not the time to break in new boots!

Starting the hike back to the hilltop in the early
evening.  You can see the reflective patch
on my backpack (lower right).
We hiked out in the evening shade to avoid the
116 degree heat of the day.


Mooney Falls, downstream from Havasu Falls
and the campground.  These falls appear much
as they did before the flood. However, the travertine
pools at the base of the falls are gone.





Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Upper Calf Creek Falls in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah

         Waterfalls posses the power to captivate and mesmerize.  Whether a small cascade or the legendary Niagara Falls, falling water stimulates our senses and refreshes our spirits. Think about the last time you visited a waterfall.  Weren't you transfixed by the rhythm of sight and sound as the water danced over rocks and plunged into the pool below?

         Now imagine the delightful surprise of finding a waterfall in the desert.  Calf Creek Recreation Area, part of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah, boasts two of these watery wonders.  Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls were formed as tiny Calf Creek cut through Navajo Sandstone on its way from the Boulder Mountains to the Escalante River.   While both falls offer a great reward for your effort, the lower falls see swarms of people all lured by easy access from the nearby campground along a well-worn trail.  The upper falls, by contrast, is not as easily accessed and thus not as heavily visited.

Looking across this terrain you'd never guess what lays
below.  Following this trail to find Upper Calf Creek Falls
is like following a treasure map to find hidden jewels.


Found it!  One of the desert's hidden jewels—
Upper Calf Creek Falls.


Indian Paintbrush provides a splash of color
in the sun-bleached landscape.


Several pools above the falls offer places to take a swim,
or soak your tired feet.

           It's been several years since we hiked the trail to Upper Calf Creek Falls.  As travel to southern Utah has increased exponentially in recent years, I can't guarantee that these falls are as lightly explored.  However, hidden wonders that are difficult to access are still less likely to host visitors.  For adventure, splendor, and solitude, visit this hidden desert treasure if you're traveling through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  For more information, click on this link:  http://www.utah.com/hike/calf-creek-falls,-upper-trail

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Winter Footprints in the Rockies


       
          Nature is a great teacher, an endless source of learning for those willing to pay attention and observe their surroundings.  Footprints in the snow reveal a winter world alive with action, and by studying them we can determine not only the types of animals inhabiting this Rocky Mountain forest, but also the details of their daily lives.
         
          Here's a little quiz, using the natural world as our outdoor classroom.  Scenes A through H represent the comings and goings of various forest dwellers.  Can you match the tracks with the animal who made them?  The eight animals:  Coyote, Mouse, Elk, Weasel, Human, Squirrel, Snowshoe Hare, Mule Deer.

A.  The swish of a large tail between paw prints yields a clue
as to this animal's identity.


B.  This long, straight trail is made by a heavier animal which
makes more of an imprint on the snow.

         
C.  Known as a "perfect stepper" this animal carefully
places its hind paws in the tracks made by its forepaws.


D.  Anything but a perfect stepper, this animal doesn't use
stealth to attack its prey but rather uses frantic, quick,
unpredictable movements.


E.  Another track made by a large and heavy animal.
You can see how this animal lumbers through the snow,
dragging its hind legs along behind
the front ones.


F.  These small tracks show the imprint of a tail swiping the snow
between them.  This creature's prints abruptly disappear at the base of a tree
where it dives beneath the snowpack to its home in the
Subnivean Zone—the space between the ground and the snow pack
where the temperature is always 32 degrees and the animal
is protected from predators.


G.  This animal's large hind feet make a deep impression in the
snow when it hops from place to place.  The hind feet land first, followed
by the front paws.


H.  This animal is mostly a visitor to the forest, often
for recreational purposes.  During winter this creature
often attaches aids to its feet which make it easier
to walk and glide through the snow.

          Key to the quiz:

          A.  Squirrel
          B.  Mule Deer
          C. Coyote
          D.  Weasel
          E.  Elk
          F.  Mouse
          G.  Snowshoe Hare
          H.  Human  (Cross-country skis and poles made these tracks.)
       
         How did you do on the exam?  If you're lucky enough to have snow on the ground this weekend, take a winter hike and practice your observational skills to determine which animals share the outdoor classroom where you live.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snowshoeing the Castle Creek Valley near Aspen, Colorado

           January in Aspen Colorado—the perfect venue for avid skiers, snowboarders and X-games fanatics.  But, what if going downhill—fast—is not your style?  What if you prefer winter recreation at a more relaxed pace?  What else is there to do?  Plenty, thanks to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, (ACES), which offers guided cross-country ski and snowshoe tours.

         After our husbands left for a day on the slopes, friend Terry and I went searching for some winter fun of our own.  We found it eleven miles from Aspen in the ghost town of Ashcroft.  


All that's left of the once-bustling mining town of Ashcroft.

          Had you arrived in Ashcroft in 1880 you would have discovered a thriving town full of men giddy with the prospect of striking it rich in the silver mines.  But, as mining towns are wont to do, the booming area went bust by 1885 and, by the early 1900s, only a handful of aging men still lived in Ashcroft.  Interest in the town was restored in the 1930s with plans for a ski resort, but those plans were derailed by World War II.  
         Today, thankfully, both the town of Ashcroft and the Castle Creek Valley surrounding it are managed by the US Forest Service and are protected from further development.  The ghost town now resides in a Spruce/Fir/Aspen forest rich with a diversity of plants and animals, surrounded by 13,000-14,000 foot peaks.  The region provides countless opportunities for quiet recreation, and ACES turns those opportunities into reality by partnering with the Ashcroft Ski Touring Company, the Pine Creek Cookhouse and the White River National Forest.


The King Cabin Nordic Center—home base for winter
adventure in the Castle Creek Valley.

          We meet our ACES guide at the King Cabin Nordic Center.  Tawny is a recent graduate of Colorado College with a degree in Environmental Studies; she’s full of enthusiasm and ready to share her knowledge.  On our hike we observe numerous animal tracks and learn how to identify them.  We also gather information about the Castle Valley’s geology and ecology.


Tawny describes the tracks and movement of a snowshoe hare.



The trail crosses Castle Creek which offers reportedly good trout
fishing.  Worth a return visit during summer?



A shining example of a healthy Blue Spruce in
this Spruce/Fir/Aspen forest.


         A special treat on this tour is our lunch stop at Pine Creek Cookhouse.  During winter this restaurant is accessible only via a horse-drawn sleigh or a pair of hiking boots, snowshoes or cross-country skis.  The food is gourmet—I enjoy a salad with cheese and nuts, topped with tender, flaky Red Trout.   
        After lunch we return to the Nordic Center, thrilled with today’s choice of a naturalist-led snowshoe tour.  Our outing included: 
Exercise—a four and a half mile hike. 
Education—new-found knowledge about winter in the sub-alpine zone. 
Eating—a cozy interior and great food at the Pine Creek Cookhouse.
Extraordinary scenery—the snow-filled Castle Creek Valley and the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
Yes, we experienced all of that, and all without going downhill—fast. 


A welcome rest stop on a winter day.
The Pine Creek Cookhouse.



Our hillside trail in the Ashcroft Ski Touring area.


ACES offers educational programs as well as outdoor adventures.  Find out more by visiting their website:  https://www.aspennature.org

Plant your poles here, and relish the alpine ambience
of the Castle Creek Valley near Aspen.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Monument Valley Tribal Park—The Navajo Nation's Geologic Wonderland

         “Seventy-five years ago we camped here, drove right in and set up our tent.”
We look across the aisle of our touring jeep and have a question for the elderly couple speaking those words:  
         “Has this place changed?”
         “No”, is the answer, “but we sure have.”
Over the course of 75 years the changes here—blowing sand deposits; occasional rock falls—are barely perceptible, while those to human lives are profound.


Monument Valley Icons: Left Mitten, Right Mitten and Merrick Butte.

         We're in Monument Valley, first christened "Valley of the Rocks" by the Navajos who have inhabited this valley for centuries.  To protect this one-of-a-kind landscape, camping is now prohibited and vehicle travel is restricted.  
         The best way to experience Monument Valley is by taking a Navajo-led tour.  As he drives our group through the valley our guide, Gary, points to famous rock formations.  Several resemble animals and have been named, appropriately, Eagle Rock, Elephant Butte and The Setting Hen.  Other mesas and buttes are named for human activity which occurred there, such as Rain God Mesa—a platform where medicine men prayed for rain, and Cly Butte—named for the Navajo chieftan who’s buried there with all his worldly possessions including cattle, sheep, goats, and his horse with its saddle and bridle.


The Three Sisters formation, next to Mitchell Mesa.
Mitchell Mesa and Merrick Butte, (in the photo above), are
named for two of Kit Carson's soldiers who stayed in the area
in the 1860s to mine silver.  They were killed by the Utes and
Paiutes near the rocks which bear their names. 



Gary tosses a tumbleweed in front of Camel Butte
in Monument Valley's backcountry.

          My favorite part of the tour?  A drive into the backcountry to view “Ear of the Wind”—an arch carved by the scouring spring gales, and  “Sun’s Eye”—an opening in the dome of a rocky alcove.  

I'm walking the sand dune to listen for
sighing breezes through Ear of the Wind's portal.

Gary stands in the alcove below Sun's Eye (top photo)
and plays his drum while singing a song taught him
by his grandfather.  The haunting melody and soulful
Navajo lyrics echo off the walls while a raven squawks overhead.

          The two natural areas (above) are free of the commercialization which plagues other scenic vistas such as John Ford Point.  Vendors selling jewelry and trinkets line the point; you’re free to shop if you like, or to wander and gaze at the scenery made famous by the acclaimed Hollywood director.  



And… "It's a wrap!"  People and horses congregate on John Ford Point,
the perfect location for director Ford's famous long shots, which framed his
characters against the vast,harsh and rugged natural terrain of
Monument Valley.

          John Wayne’s first western, “Stagecoach” was filmed in Monument Valley in 1938, one year before our touring companions camped here.  An image forms in my mind of the couple then—vigorous, sun-tanned, supple and lithe.  Now they rise slowly from their seats, steady themselves as they walk down the aisle, need assistance descending the steps behind our vehicle.  Time accentuates our human frailties and steals our vitality, but some things actually do improve with age.   See for yourself by discovering the timeless beauty that is Monument Valley.


Our open-air touring vehicle.
Goulding's Lodge conducts a variety of daily tours of the valley.



Monument Valley straddles the Utah/Arizona border.
This view is the approach from the north on U.S. Rte. 163 in Utah.








Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter's Treasures

          In celebration of winter's arrival please enjoy the following photos—a treasury of five year's worth of winter fun.



This is Tim's favorite winter activity photo.
Lone Mountain Ranch, Montana.

Horseback riding at Home Ranch in Clark, Colorado.

View of Capitol Reef National Park from the
Boulder Mountains, Utah.

View from the roadside in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

A bison forages in the snow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Tim enjoys downhill skiing at Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah.

Winter is the best time to visit Bryce Canyon National Park.

A Christmas Eve cross country ski outing (2010) at
Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah.

Rita, Tim and "Annie" wish you a Merry Christmas and
a Happy and Healthy New Year!
Photo taken near Lake City, Colorado.