The COVID-19 Mad Dash Home

The hiking and camping in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had been chilly, rainy but sublime. That’s canyon country. Sublime, regardless of the weather. We hiked canyons, neoprene socks keeping us warm in swollen creeks. We read books by campfire. Scrambled up slickrock overlooking the desert. Sniffed the sage. Photographed the Henry Mountains. Star gazed. Fell asleep to coyotes howling. We frolicked, sauntered and skipped. Napped.

After those blissful two weeks of camping and hiking in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument we rolled into Bluff. The town was quiet. Quieter than usual. We drove to the visitor centre very much closed. I turned on my phone, a message from my sister waiting. She was wondering where we were and if we knew what was happening. She suggested we come back to Canada as the impact of COVID-19 was growing, and growing swiftly.

Southern Utah was closing and Moab and Bluff was urging travelers to stay away. We live in the Yukon, full of small, isolated communities so we understood their concerns.

Obviously, we didn’t want leave. Spring had just arrived. We were headed for Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa, to spend a few weeks camping and hiking there. It’s one of our favourite places in Utah. Temperatures were reaching +20C. How could we leave now?

We sat in the parking lot of the Bluff visitor centre, googling COVID-19 and listening to NPR. It didn’t take long to understand the situation we had just driven into. There was only one responsible option.

We filled our water jugs in Bluff and headed North, stopping in Moab only for gas.

The drive from Bluff, Utah to Tagish, Yukon is nearly 4500 kilometres. There is a lot of splendid wilderness and it was achingly difficult to drive by it all without exploring, without even stopping. We drove past a few wildlife refuges, several national forests, a couple national parks. It seemed so blasphemous not to visit. John and I don’t like to drive more than 100-200 kilometres a day when we’re traveling. Now we were driving 800km a day.

And if the mad dash back to the Canadian border with a looming pandemic wasn’t worrying enough, we were camped in a national forest just outside Salt Lake City when the 5.7 earthquake hit. We were listening to a podcast about the locusts in Africa when the truck started shuddering. Fortunately, we are somewhat accustomed to earthquakes living in the North. We laughed at the sense of an imploding world. What else could we do? Locusts, a pandemic, an earthquake. We got up, cooked up some oatmeal, made coffee and continue North.

On top of the great distances we were driving, we were traveling on Interstates since they are most direct. 130km/hr speed limits, however, seem excessive at the best of times and in times of a pandemic, seem absolutely outrageous. Now was not the time to get into an accident. But pandemic or not, earthquake or not, people were going, and going as fast as they could.

We played a lot of Neil Diamond to soothe our agitated souls. Our 4-Runner has her original tape deck so we pick up tapes in thrift stores. Neil Diamond and Brian Adams have been with us for six years and we still haven’t tired of them. A few weeks before going into GSENM I bought ABBA, Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray.

The day we returned in the Yukon we stopped at Little Atlin Lake, to stretch our legs, finally able to relax. A raven flew overhead, croaked at us. A lynx strolled by, weaving among the poplars.

We were home.

And we were happy, even if we arrived at the beginning of an unseasonal cold snap that would end up lasting the two weeks we would be self-isolating in a cabin.

Don’t Listen To ‘Influencers’

I was sitting in a coffee shop browsing the web recently, sitting out a deluge. I came across an “influencer’s” blog which rated Capitol Reef National Park as the least interesting of Utah’s 5 national parks.

She’s mad and not to be listened to. Clearly, she has not taken a deep dive into the park to unearth the magic of this place.

Too many people are blindly following others instead of discovering their own backcountry magic. So many people are going outside only to recreate the same, wrought, posed instagram pictures.

Capitol Reef is stark and magical, full of intrigue. There are a lot of great hiking trails and a lot of backcountry routes, canyons to explore, even peaks to scale. It is not boring. Don’t listen to influencers. Just because they might have a hundred thousand followers doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

While I’m ranting, I’m also tired of seeing ‘Must See’ articles in magazines and blogs. When I see them I make a point to remember not to visit them. That’s where all the people will be.

Instead of focusing on what other say are ‘must see’, seek your own adventure.

The bus outside Denali National Park where Chris McCandless died is a great example. It’s become a pilgrimage for so many and I’m perplexed as to why. I am as intrigued by his story as everyone else but I don’t know why people flock to the bus. Why not find our own adventure, following the calling of our own souls, instead of following the footsteps of someone who became famous because he died?

I have purposefully posted a generic could-be-anywhere-in-Utah photo instead of posting pictures of Capitol Reef’s wild and weird landscape because exploring and discovering is what going outside should be about.

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Sauntering In The River

It is quite delicious, the Paria River.

At times the canyon constricts so the walls are a mere one-metre apart.

Canyon walls loom 800 feet.

And the river is the trail.

In February, the Paria is cold thanks to the ice still lingering in the shadows of the canyon. We came prepared, with 3mm thick neoprene socks and two puffy jackets each. Where the sun fell down to the canyon floor we were warm. Where shadows fell we were chilled and nearly shivering. After only an hour of hiking in the river our feet fell numb but still we hiked on, deeper into the canyon. Once inside Paria Canyon, it’s hard to ever want to leave her sensual belly.

Despite February being cold it is a marvellous time to visit. For the days we spent camping and hiking in the Paria, we were alone. And the quiet solitude of the canyon was worth the toe-numbing cold.

Hypnotized By Buckskin

A 28-kilometre jaunt through the world’s longest slot canyon was almost too much beauty to bear.

There is so much shadow and light playing between the canyon walls, colours of red and orange and yellow that would make you believe you’re tripping.

But there is so much more.

There are petroglyphs of bighorn sheep.

And bits of dead animals scattered on the canyon floor, from birds of prey perching high up on the canyon walls and dropping their leftovers – jackrabbit legs, cottontail rabbit tails, the feathers of songbirds, perhaps even the wings of other raptors.

The silence inside was also delicious. Even a soft whisper echoed loud so for much of the day we hiked in silence, relishing it. That silence is missing in our everyday lives. And we need that silence to hear our inner voice.

The hoof prints and poo of a wayward cow deep in the belly of the slot canyon had us a bit perplexed. Was it lost or simply seeking out a water hole? The tracks made me uneasy. I know what to do when I meet a grizzly on the tundra but what do you do when you meet a cow in a canyon barely a metre wide?

Perhaps most remarkably, beyond the Wire Pass and Buckskin confluence, we were the only humans in the belly of Buckskin, despite its beauty and well-known status.

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.

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