California Condors

We spent four wondrous days sitting on cliffs above the Colorado River, the pink Vermillion Cliffs behind, watching California condors.

Now, if you don’t know how amazing this is, let me explain.

In the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors left in the wild.

Twenty-two.

That’s it.

People have been fighting to bring them back from the edge of extinction and now approximately 300 exist in the wild. 100 of them are found in the Colorado River corridor.

These birds are magnificent, with 9.5 foot wingspans, a lifespan of 60 years. Their bald heads and necks allow them to feast away on carcasses without messing feathers. I could go on.

They’re existence is still very tenuous. I am so grateful to those who have fought and worked for these birds. It would be a sad, lonely place without condors in the sky.

I am delighted beyond expressing having had the opportunity to spend so many days watching 22 individuals go about their lives – including some mating displays.

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A Titmouse And The Grand Canyon

While John and I were walking along the Grand Canyon rim we noticed so many people will jump out of their vehicles, snap a few photos (almost always of themselves), then jump back into their vehicles and speed off to the next lookout. They seem barely to pause and look beyond the phone screen.

We were stopped near the parking lot of one lookout peering up into a juniper tree when a couple passing by asked, “What do you see?”

“Titmouse,” was John’s reply.

They gave us a perplexed, tinged with horror, look then jumped in their luxury SUV and sped off. Perhaps they hoped for something grander, a bald eagle perhaps?

We, however, were absolutely delighted by a friendly little juniper titmouse singing the loveliest of songs.

This is why we spend so much time outside, to meet the wild feathered and furred. Sure, Grand Canyon is grand and all but so are all the critters trying to make a home there, amid the hordes of speed-loving tourists.

Those long moments John and I stood admiring this wee little plain looking bird was exquisite in its simplicity. But no one seemed to notice or care about him.

And that speaks volumes about what we value and the state of our natural world.

John Lennon sang about giving peace a chance. Let’s give wilderness a chance too.

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The Place I Left My Heart: The Gila Wilderness

I fell instantly in love with the Gila Wilderness, the first designated Wilderness Area in the US on my very first hike. And every day of the weeks we spent here, I fell harder and more completely in love with this place.

It is a wild beauty, the Gila.

Sitting in the woods watching a pair of red-naped sapsuckers tapping away on a juniper tree, catching glimpses of elk and mule deer and black bear (and the occasional errant cow) is all I need for heart filled with happiness. Leaned against an alligator juniper with a mug full of wine listening to nuthatches and wrens or delighting in the crunching noise of fallen leaves beneath my feet makes me smile. Canyon wrens and white-breasted nuthatches sing from the pines, Javalinas roam the hillsides, coyotes yip by moonlight. Knowing that the Mexican wolf roams these woods fills my soul with awe.

This is the stuff of dreams for this girl.

On our final day in the Gila Wilderness, John was feeling unwell and so I set off on a 18-kilometre hike along an undulating mountain ridge.

To John’s surprise I returned to camp many hours early. He asked why.

“Because I was nearly gored by a javalina boar.”

John’s response to this news? “Did you get a picture?”

“No John,” I say incredulously. “I was busy deciding whether to climb the flimsy juniper tree I was hiding behind or jump five feet down a cliff into a canyon.”

My final day of hiking in the Gila Wilderness will forever by my most memorable day in New Mexico. I don’t think anyone forgets the day they were nearly gored by a javalina boar.

Any place where I am made small and insignificant, amid a great big grand and wild world, where wild things like tarantulas, javalinas and endangered Mexican wolves roam, where people come second is where I yearn to be.

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now, we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” Aldo Leopold

New Mexico’s National Wildlife Refuges (Part 2)

Below is a list of birds we saw in the 2 wildlife refuges we visited in New Mexico. I realize few others than birders will be interested in this list and this post isn’t exactly the kind that gets likes or reposted about. But that’s not why I’m posting. I’m not writing this for the likes. I’m writing this for the birds.

There were a couple of birds we saw that made our visit a little bit more special, birds we had never seen before. These I’ve put an asterisk beside.

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge:

Ross goose     White-crowned sparrow     Snow gooseSpotted towhee     Sandhill crane                      Red-naped sapsucker     Mallard     American avocet *     Northern pintail                    Killdeer     American wigeon     Western meadowlark     Northern shoveler                   Greater roadrunner     Common goldeneye     Common raven     American coot                        American kestrel     Ruddy duck    Northern harrier     Green-winged teal     red-winged blackbird     Great horned owl     Willet     Red-tailed hawk

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge:

Mallard     American Bittern *     Northern pintail     Northern harrier     Northern shoveler     Pomeraine jaeger     American coot     Snowy egret     Sandhill crane                         Greater egret     Snow goose     Western meadowlark     Ross’ goose     Pied grebe California quail     Red-winged blackbird     Bufflehead.    Loggerhead shrike

Unfortunately, these are partial lists. We focused less on taking notes and more on just being in the moment. These lists were compiled by memory as we were driving out of the refuges after sunset.

I am not someone who tells people, “You have to go.” Where a person “should” go depends on their interests, which are not always the same as mine. I will, however, proclaim, if you are an avid birder, GO to Bosque Del Apache and Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuges.

I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

 

New Mexico’s National Wildlife Refuges (Part 1)

In December John and I visited two national wildlife refuges that are a must visit for any avid birder. The power and beauty and wildness we stood on the fringes of cannot be captured in photos or words. It is a powerful sight to see, a thunderous place to listen.

During sunrise in Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge we watched hundreds of snow geese and ross’ geese descend into a lake and upon four sleeping sandhill cranes.

The sound of their wingbeats I won’t soon forget.

I don’t cry easily but observing thousands of ross’ and snow geese and sandhill cranes flying overhead as the sun rises over the horizon caused tears to fall hard.

I am so grateful to be able to visit the wintering grounds of these birds, whose return to the Canadian North, their breeding grounds, my home, I anticipate with such eagerness each spring.

While the natural world continues to lose ground and bird populations fall at staggering rates, knowing this Refuge exists provides a touch of reassurance these birds will continue to exist and, dare I hope, thrive.

Visiting these refuges in December requires puffy jackets. Layers of puffy jackets. And toques and mittens and a mug of hot coffee. Camping is not allowed in the refuge so we spent the night before dispersed camping in the Apache National Forest about a half hour to the south. This meant waking up at 4am to reach the refuge for the 5am sunrise but such an early rise was not without its reward. As we packed up camp shooting stars streaked across the moonless sky.

And the sunrise over Bosque Del Apache is beautiful all on its own. Add a few thousand geese and it becomes as awe inspiring event only nature can conjure up. For me it also only helped me recommit myself to raise my voice louder than ever before to speak up for the natural world, to advocate for wild places and to show that a simple life can make people happy (and less stressful).

Rarely Is It About The Summit

One of our first hikes in New Mexico was unexpected. We intended only to hike the four miles to an alpine lake but once we realized the trail continued to the summit of New Mexico’s tallest peak, well, there was no question whether we would continue. I had packed a ridiculous amount of food and water for our hike anyhow so we were, happily, unexpectedly, well prepared. We had parked at the ski valley and walked the steep road to the lake trailhead so it allowed up to hike, from the summit, the long way down the alpine ridge. What had begun as a eight-mile hike, by the end of the day was closer to 16 miles with almost 4000 feet in elevation gain to 13,000+feet.

Reaching the summit, however, was only a blip in a lovely, full of adventure day.

Picas ran around in the rocky hillside and we caught a weasel, already in his white winter plumage, hunting near a frozen alpine lake.

And on the rocky alpine slopes near the summit large flocks of grey-crowned rosy finches and ravens were hopping about, gobbling up moths. So many moths. The birds flitted all around us, so fixated on their prey.

And then there were all the bighorn sheep, females with young as well as a bachelor band. One one hillside we came across two full-curl rams standing together, starring down two other full-curl rams. We hoped we might see some rutting action, always a remarkable sight and sound. They stood starring at one another for quite some time then one male stepped forward. The opposing male advanced. We thought, “This is it. Shit’s gonna go down.”

The two groups approached. And then began licking each other’s muzzles. And after a few moments of that, they trotted off together down the ridge. And that was that.

We only inadvertently ended up on the summit. It wasn’t our destination. We only intended to go wandering for the day, to let whatever happen propel us forward or back. It was seeing the finches above us that had us climbing upwards. We hoped to spot some buntings or horned larks. That was when we spotted the first group of sheep.

From what locals told us after this hike is normally ridiculously busy in the summer. Apparently, us seeing only six other people the entire day is a rare lucky day. I suppose it helped that we went hiking during the first winter cold snap and the winds were fierce and cold. Extra puffy jackets, mittens and toques were definitely necessary.

As much as we love canyon country, mountains are where we are happiest, even if the altitude starts to kick our ass. The high altitude only means our frolicking about in glee is at a bit slower a pace.

Southern Utah In Late October

Oh, Utah, you always exceed expectations.

This was our four visit to Utah and still she amazes us.

Below is a brief recap of some of the wonder and joys and discomfort we experienced during the three weeks we traveled in southern Utah.

  • Sleeping in late when camping at temperatures falling as low as 9F/-15C
  • Squirmed our way through a few slot canyons and scrambled through many other canyons
  • Watched a couple of female desert bighorn sheep trot across the P-J forest
  • Skirted around a sun-bathing on slick rock rattlesnake
  • Spooked a jackrabbit in rabbitbrush
  • Hiked past a herd of female mule deer and startled one great big buck
  • Watched the sun rise and set almost every day
  • Was serenaded by canyon wrens and nuthatches
  • Found Ancestral Puebloan ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs
  • Read books by headlamp
  • Ate a lot of oatmeal breakfasts, Luna bars and trail mix for lunch and dinners of rice and beans
  • Wished upon a shooting star; marvelled at many more
  • Found free showers
  • Ate lots of cookies while sitting on rocks
  • Drank litres of tea
  • Found frozen waterfalls
  • And we met a dog that purrs. And no. That is not a typo. A dog that purrs!

All in all it’s been a good few weeks.

#thesimplelife

A Typical Day For These Two Dirtbags

John and I have been running off with our backpacks and our Toyota 4Runner for quite a few winters now, traveling around western US and once down into Baja, Mexico. (We’ve been backpackers for more than 20 years as well in Canada). We enjoy the simplicity of living outside, out of our truck, without WI-FI or cell service, just books and each other for company. But there is a question we hear so often from our parents and family and some of our friends.

“What exactly do you do out there?”

This post is for them.

We wake with the sun, no matter how early or cold. Sunrise over a southern Utah canyon should not be missed. It’s best to find a lovely lookout for breakfast, to enjoy the views while shivering from the cold late October mornings.

With bellies full and caffeine fuelled, we head off hiking, scrambling, crawling and clambering down into the belly of a canyon in search of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, pictographs and petroglyphs, sites 800+ years old.

Our day of hiking and scrambling is broken by long pauses on slabs of rocks, drinking in the sun’s heat and the canyon views, the sandstone cliffs, listening to the song of canyon wrens. Some days we come across mule deer grazing, or spot a few desert bighorn sheep on a cliff. Maybe a rattlesnake will force us to detour into the willow thickets.

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And after a full sunrise to sunset hike we settle down for a quick rice and beans dinner, followed by peppermint tea and a good book, enjoying the stars and Milky Way, wishing upon shooting stars, though what more could we hope from life?

With bellies full of good food, hearts full of awe and wonder, good books, cozy sleeping bags and one another, this simple life is all we truly need or want.

Sleep comes early after a full day’s adventure so we are well-rested by the time the next day’s sun reappears.

And so we rise and repeat.

And it is really as simple and quiet as that.

Weather And Moods

I hate to admit the weather affects my mood.

I can endure the rain and cold for some time but these past few weeks of traveling the Oregon Coast have been particularly cold and wet. While I have enjoyed trail runs and beach strolls the cold rains have knocked my enthusiasm from traveling a little.

The hiking has been less frequent but we have thoroughly enjoyed hopping from one tiny coastal town to another, going from coffee shop to junkyard to another coffee shop, then the thrift store, junkyard, bakery, coffee shop, gear store, coffee shop… you get the idea. I love any place that advertises, “Espresso, gear and beer.” If it was sunny outside I’d feel guilty being so idle but with all this rain I can enjoy my fourth cup of coffee and read another hundred pages before noon, then stroll around the corner to another eclectic café and feel not an ounce of guilt.

Along with the winter storms a lupus flare is threatening to kick up again. Learning to “take it easy” has been a difficult to accept as necessary. I feel like a restricted husky unable to run free. The rain knocking down my enthusiasm for trail runs and hiking helps keep me from overdoing it, reminds me to just chill, take things easy, to relax. Which is what a lupus flare requires.

We’ve looked at the weather forecasts and sunny skies are in our future. Hopefully my mild flare will subside and I can enjoy a few more some beach runs and forest scrambles before the long drive home back to the Yukon.

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