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).

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.

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.

Those Magical Places

When John and I need to sit in the woods alone, to flee from the crowds, to contemplate our life, to make a big decision, this is where we come.

The small lake is a joy to paddle early in the morning and evening, when the beavers are busy working on their lodge, repairing a dam, chopping down trees.

The mountains in the distance are a long hike but are home to caribou and grizzly.

Our campsite is tucked beneath pine trees with a family of grey jays and kingfishers to keep us company.

This place has such a feeling of calm and peace. Even when it’s storming or snowing this place makes us happy.

Books! Books! And More Books!

For our next road trip – winter 2019-2020 – we have been debating whether we should travel with our 4-Runner or to change things and get a motorcycle (or two). I prefer the 4-Runner though I do have my motorcycle license. For me, it is more than the comfort and warmth of a 4-runner. It is the space, mainly the space available for all the books I inevitably hoard. A motorcycle does not accommodate book hoarding.

Sure I could just get an e-Reader but I am quite the Luddite and do not enjoy staring at screens. I enjoy feel and scent of a book. Stories and words feel more tangible and alive in paper form.

Though we have been back home for two weeks from our four-month road trip I am just getting around to emptying the last of the stuff from our 4-Runner. It’s been -30C and colder since we got home and the books stashed in the nooks and hollows of the 4-Runner are not at risk of freezing (can’t say the same for an e-Reader) so they’ve sat there until this afternoon.

It is amazing how many books I can tuck away in the 4-Runner. It helps that my partner, also an avid book reader, was willing to rip out the heater that is for the back seats. The heater, which sits under the passenger seat, is bulky and heavy and completely unnecessary since there are no back seats and therefore no passengers. Instead of driving an unused heater around, more than a dozen books are now stashed here.

The photo above is one of three piles that I hauled out of the 4-Runner today, books that we didn’t get around to reading, books we would like to re-read or books we couldn’t bear to give away just yet.

Sailing Days

We have been wandering around Vancouver Island for two weeks now and it is hard not to look back on the days we sailed here. Ten years ago John and I spent a year and a half sailing around the Gulf Islands and Desolation Sound on a 26-foot sailboat (and living on).

We were, and still are, impetuous. Reckless.

That’s how we ended up in Victoria, BC in early June, purchasing a sailboat when our plans had been to spend the month backpacking in Kluane National Park. Instead of wandering mountains we quite suddenly were the proud owners of a 1975 Contessa 26.

It was an enormous learning curve. Living and adventuring in the Yukon we are at ease in the backcountry hiking, paddling, skiing. We are confident and capable there.

But sailing?

It was difficult to see beyond the basic fact that I’m terrified of the water and John can’t swim.

Oh, and yes, we didn’t really know how to sail. Continue reading “Sailing Days”

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.

The Randomness Of Travel

After leaving the Grand Canyon we took random roads to Mojave National Preserve. We do not travel with good road maps so we often travel by suggestions from locals. We have not yet been led astray. We enjoyed a couple of days in Flagstaff, Arizona, which has great coffee shops and an eclectic used bookstore to get lost in for an afternoon. Driving historic Route 66 brought us a few surprises, most adorably the wild burros and the cutsy but touristy town of Oatman.

The randomness of travel is addictive.

We definitely like to keep our plans to a minimum and let curiosity pull us.

Life Lived Out Of A Vehicle

Life lived out of a vehicle is pretty ideal until you get sick. At midnight I bolted awake, drenched in sweat. I had to leap out of the 4-Runner and dig a pit beneath a juniper in which to puke into. The Milky Way was twinkling, the near-to-full moon casting shadows in the forest but gripped with a stomach flu I was fixated only on the red dirt in my pit. For five hours back and forth I ran between the 4-Runner to sleep and my pit to get sick – first to throw up dinner, then lunch, then bile once there was nothing left remaining. My fever would ebb while I was outside in temerpatures well below freezing, in little more than long johns and wool shirt. How I wished that evening for four solid walls, a couch and a flush toilet. Instead, I toughed it out and slept away the following day on various benches along the rim of Bryce Canyon.

Imagining Parks Without Roads

After a 26-kilometre trail run across the east end of Zion I spent the following day wandering Zion Canyon. From the campground I hiked the trails and the road, foregoing the shuttle bus to the trailhead of the Narrows. It is quite a fantastic way to experience Zion Canyon and other than the shuttle buses the roads and trails running alongside it are quiet. There is plenty of wildlife and birds to see. Wild turkeys and mule deer wandered in the shade by the river. Great blue herons fished the pools.

What a shame there is a road at all crawling up Zion Canyon. Imagine if it all traffic was cut from Zion Canyon, including the buses and the only way in was to walk or bicycle. The same could be said for Arches National Park, the Island In The Sky in Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and the South Rim of Grand Canyon.

Ambling canyon country never gets tiring. Life slows when we are outside. Thoughts clarify. Life is simplified. The calm we find outside we cannot replicate elsewhere. And the longer we linger out-of-doors the more of it we yearn for. The harder it becomes to go back to the confines of four walls. The paved roads of the national parks would make excellent hiking trails.

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