Of Bridges and Bears Ears

Water, wind, rock and sand – carving, looping, curving, intertwining, sculpting bridges and canyons.

We move over, under and through – through narrow or gaping openings, though rock doorways, and through time.

Our friends Cornelia and Steffen, and their camping gear, traveled many miles from Germany to meet us.

We camp and explore in the greater area of the Bears Ears National Monument – an ancient timeless place, thought protected but now threatened.

Our friends are natural desert rats, leaping into the adventure with curiosity and zest. Soon they can discern constructed stone walls from natural rock faces. And spot hidden ancestral puebloan markings among cracks on shadowy cliffs.

Another day, we descend to the base of enormous Sipapu Bridge – 220 feet high and spanning 268 feet.

From the canyon rim, we watch turkey vultures’ distant swirls. As they draw closer, black specks take form. Above us, it seems the swoosh of their wings is the sound of the setting sun.

Wearing backpacks, on foot under sun and stars, Dave and I move deeper through the desert canyons. We want to know these places seemingly so far from home, yet once home to people of the past.

We linger days among canyon and cliffs, sweating in midday heat, and slumbering in night’s coolth.

Our discoveries of secret hidden ruins seemed like the world’s first. We ponder riddles of how they were built so high on precipitous cliffs.

There are memories of the past in hand and footprints marking walls, rocks touched till they wore smooth, broken sherds and flakes from tools.

We admire detail and craftsmanship – openings that may be door or window each adorned in a different way.

We revel in simplicity of landscape and our daily life. Away from bothersome beeps, only birdsong, insect buzzes or owl hoots call our attention, though we itch from no-see-ums, bothersome biters.

There is realness and presence in the heat of the day. It is bright, harsh, and unremitting, until a tall rock or tree lends its welcome cooling shadow.

When in rare places, water seeps or springs from canyon walls, we rejoice in moist magical greenness. Precious jewels nestled within dry desert red.

We celebrate scarce desert pools. Singular in their unlikeliness, they bring life, bees and butterflies.

Desert creatures – snakes and lizards move lazily still waking from their winter spell.

Spring has so many meanings in the desert – a spring of water, spring bringing new growth, spring in our steps and that of the deer, mormon tea in flower and bright yellow holly in bloom.

As comb approaches canyon, life giving water becomes more plentiful, and wall art abounds. Our walking with daypacks is easier too.

When its time to turn for home, we pause at the iconic Fisher Towers. We watch the ever changing light and the passing of day to night.

Of Comb and Canyon

Two years passed since our last desert encounter, yet our fourth meeting in this land of comb and canyon feels fresh as the first. Here boundaries between natural and manmade blur. Cut by water, worn by wind, canyon corridors provide for people movement too. Sand solidified, crumbled, muddied, hardened, cracked, returns to sand, leaving fanciful formations. Side canyons beckon scrambles over freshly fallen rock. We sense geologic motion, gain grand perspectives. From our camp beneath tall ponderosa pines, sunrise dawns beyond rock spires, coloring sky. Another form of sun, etched on rock wall. We try to understand on our terms, but what were theirs, mysterious people past, people of the ground, and of the place. Beyond the canyons, stretch expansive sagebrush meadows with moody, moving spring skies of gray greens and blues. Evidence of ancestors draw us back into the folds and wrinkles of these part solid sand dunes. We look in at impossibly perched places looking out over centuries. Weathered and worn, stone becomes shelter, protects from wind and rain. Where have we been, where are we going? We look, and know we go where others went so many years before. Through trough and over crest, they traveled then, we travel now. From high, we follow spreads of wrinkles and waves, a land map of rock, to be read like ancient patterns inscribed on cave walls.

Dark Canyon Wilderness

Dark Canyon Wilderness stretches expansively. It drops you deep. Twisting and turning, the canyons peel away layers of human hecticness. They open and reveal that primal place where a single note resounds like a symphony.img_1387
Moving through space, this is a journey in time. Descending from the mesa tops, footsteps touch rock shelves holding memories of their ages. From high on Cedar Mesa sandstone down to layered limestone of the canyon floor, colors of compacted grains of sand or frenetic forms of frozen corral beds speak to me in different tongues.img_1432
Remote and seldom visited by people, this canyon wilderness offers close company to me. It is alive with other creatures. Tracks criss-cross the sandy trail; big hoof prints, tiny paw prints, delicate claws. I smell a deep musky animal scent among the aromatic sage. In the quiet, a distant rockfall booms, perhaps bighorn sheep on the cliff walls. Later I hear a gentle shudder of hoofs pushing off from the ground – a few deer pronging across the landscape.img_1492
Home to the animals, it is still a different environment to me. I seek water and shelter along my walk. And in this desert, any certainty I have about the presence of water is its uncertainty. In upper Woodenshoe Canyon, a wide sand and cobble creek bed flows dry, though intermittent thickets of willow, reed and grasses tell of water just below. Further downcanyon, in the layered shale and limestone bedding, small still pools appear. Though seemingly dry, the desert rock can be a reservoir for water. I watch the cliff walls carefully until a string of verdant green leaves and dark streaks speak of a flowing seep. I share it with a tiny brown and red spotty frog. Drips from ledges and mosses trickle into my collecting vessels placed below.img_1449
Making camp is a ritual of place finding and place making. The first night, a mounded cedar mesa sandstone formation beckons. With rolling rocks flat enough to perch on, it offers broad vistas to the ridges and mesas of my canyon home. I choose a sandy bed next to a protective warm rock face below, and run up and down the rock to welcome first the stars and then the morning light, watching colors change in the sky.img_1433
My second night, I camp at the confluence in a stand of Juniper where others have stayed before. As my fire turns to embers, I feel the first wet drops of the night. Not long after, rain is pounding down on my tent, the sky alive with loud thunder and vivid lightening. I think it rains all night. When I climb out my tent by first light there is no longer water falling from the sky, but it glistens brightly on the spiny needles, shiny rocks and mud red earth around me.img_1406
I wander out and up. As I climb higher, the sound of gurgling, trickling, running water seems to surround me. I search for the source and see the once dry river bed alive with flowing red liquid. I witness the miracle of water in the desert. img_1407
I linger to allow my tent to dry and engage in the changes in life on this land. And then I resume my journey. For the moment, the landscape of large ponderosa pines with their red brown striated bark, bushy green needles and big beautiful presence is above me. My landscape is that of juniper and pinyon flats, to me remniscent of the African savannah with its low acacia trees. The yellow-white puffy blooms of rabbitbrush and sagebrush taller than my head, illuminate the deep green leafed, brown-earthed landscape.img_1484
At first in Dark Canyon, my landscape was bordered by bold red topped mesas with slopes clad in evergreen. As I move upcanyon, the more arid landscape emerges in raw forms of rock castles, bold buttresses, slender spires, towers, arches, and alcoves. They are not only myriads of forms, but rainbows of colors including purple, maroon, crimson, orange, cream, ochre, yellow, buff and peach. The rock landscape is undulating and punctuated. I see exclamation points, deep holes of periods, and laughing commas in the landscape.img_1456
I am becoming more at one with my surrounds. I feel leaves fluttering as they cling and let go of their branch hold, dancing to the canyon floor, playing with the wind. They crackle as I step on them. I pick up a faded yellow-brown sprig and tuck it into my pack straps, I want to be part of this leafy place too. A bird nonchalantly flies by and settles on a small tree just in front of me. At night, red bunny eyes look at me curiously in the dark, as I at him.img_1436
It’s the season of falling leaves when days and nights are equal. Aware that the earth wears shades of gray, I thrill as my body’s senses engage anew. This shimmering sky of wonder is like a fireworks display suspended in time, and a path to see beyond. Stars cycling describe earth turning. I see lit cliffs from a rising moon and dark hillsides in its shadow. And somehow, where edge of earth meets sky, it always seems a little brighter. Animals greet night too, for some it’s time to go out. Coyote calls as the first star twinkles in the just dark enough sky. Later deep in the night there are more howls and calls, and I think I hear a delicate elk cry.

A shooting star on an impossible mission blazes by, and then another and another light the sky. One comes so close I hear the whoosh. Where are they going so quickly? And how many more fly silently by, unseen?img_1437
An owl hoots just before the morning light. And the sun rises to birdsong. I read changing light magic on the mesas.img_1440
Water is a gift. Camping close to a quiet spring, I feel at home with the birds, crickets and frogs who also choose this place. The water is clear and cool nestled against a stepped limestone edge on one side and waving willows on the other. It feels good to rest in the present moment.

With pack on back, I’m on the move again. As I approach the intersection of Dark and Peavine canyons, a sturdy arch catches my eye. Beyond, more exotic forms sculpted in red-colored rock lure me to continue further up Dark Canyon. While the trail was a double track here, filled with water from recent rains it appeared as a creek.img_1457
This place holds human-made history, an old cabin, barn, a broken cart. But I prefer the solitude of nearby Horse Pasture Canyon. The intimate space is edged with brilliantly painted rock walls defining a grassy meadow. I set up camp on the cusp of the flats, at the base of a bent oak covered hillside. img_1475
It’s a pretty scene with the fascinating rock formations and subtle hues of browns, rusts and golds in the brush. I enjoyed the play among curvaceous branches, delicate leaves and firm rock.img_1506
Morning explorations yield the discovery of a narrow rock bridge followed by a climb into a large high alcove. Nestled way back is a tiny granary. As I gaze over the landscape from the ledge, I realize that the granary is fully in view from my tent – only I’d considered it a small rounded rock! How much more there is than we ever know.img_1509
In time, this eager outward exploration turns inward. I feel urging home. I return to the intersection and start up Peavine Canyon. Walking on a double track doesn’t have the sense of adventure of the narrow trail, nor as close connectedness to nature around me. I am glad when I regain the winding trail upcanyon. img_1508
Stands of stark white barked aspen trees stand out among dark green firs, punctuated with pinkish sandstone monoliths. The grassy pastures look inviting but are eaten short by cows(ugh). Light is fading. My last night’s camp has a perfect table rock. It is rectangular, attractively patterned with a flattish top, and located next to a friendly aspen tree with branches inviting hanging gear. My headlamp no longer working, I eat dinner by tea-candle light, then use my different senses to locate things and pack away. How well our bodies manage when allowed.img_1515On the sixth day of my trek, I thank the canyons for their expansiveness, diversity, peace and companionship. I pass the wilderness boundary sign and return to my car, hiking the last few miles on a dirt road where an elegant flock of turkeys seemingly greets me.
Perhaps I came a little closer to being a beast.

Lucky Chance Circuit, Sitka AK

img_6a Backpacking the Lucky Chance Circuit was lucky for us in so many ways – we were blessed with sunny Sitka weather, and helped by skippers and their boats transporting us over water to the trailhead.
img_1 A great group of friends was keen to go exploring, and fortunate to be successful in route finding through the wild SE Alaskan landscape (with the help of technology)!
img_2 At times making our way through the leafy forest felt more like gymnastics (with a backpack) than hiking, as we twisted and turned over and under stumps, and dodged fiesty devils club thorns.
img_4 We emerged out of the spruce/hemlock/cedar forest, onto an open muskeg populated with artfully sculpted trees with views of our dynamic destination ahead.
img_5 After pausing at Pinto Lake, a tantalizing ridge urged us to continue up.
img_6 Nearing the high point, we clambered over rocky outcrops.
img_8 Our reward was the perfect ridge-top campsite. Looking east over Silver Bay we saw twinkling Sitka lights in the distance.
img_8 Views to the east encompassed epic mountain masses, bearing reminders of glacial times passed.
img_9 Awed by ever changing light, our cameras were barely put away, before again being pulled out. A paradox of Lucky Chance is its troubled gold-mining history. Yet we experienced great richness, awed by brilliant sunset light, and later the yellow-green glow of a northern aurora.
img_11 In the morning we awoke to be floating above a white puffy blanket, with protruding peaks like baby birds’ beaks.
img_12 A curious early mountain goat peered at us from above, we’d also sighted bear and deer.
img_13 Gently the mist lifted. The mountain lakes were bathed in morning light.
img_16 The highest peak on Baranof Island is 5390, named for its elevation in feet.
img_17 Dipping and rising summits extended as far as we could see. At our feet, tiny alpine plants formed delicate tapestries of similar intricacy.
img_14 Our adventuresome group glowed in this alpine setting, a lucky chance to be in this place at this time, together.
img_15 Colors of the water-land-scape were astounding: brilliant blues and verdant greens.
img_18 Continuing our cirque, we wished to prolong our time up high, transcending present and past.
img_19 The sun rose strongly in the sky as we gazed towards our descent, including remnants from the mining era of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
img_0723 Next day back home, I woke to a misty morning. The veiled mountains held many more mysteries to be unfurled.
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Of Passes and Mountain Headwaters

There could be interesting names for this trek, perhaps “The Other Four Pass Loop”, or “The Williams Mountains Circuit”. But truly, this trip evolved from my desire to touch those remote parts of the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness nestled in distant basins between the two drainages.
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I traversed four passes, though only half of those are named. Trails existed at the beginning and the end of the route, but in the middle, boulder hopping, elk tracks and trickles of streams shaped the way. There were people only within the first and last half-hours of travel, the other 47 and a half hours were solo, except for all the extraordinary life. IMG_0156
I started high, and climbed higher. Mountains extended in all directions with only nature visible in the foreground and beyond. The Williams Range formed the backbone of my journey, and while I would encircle the long ridge with its craggy peaks, I would also descend and ascend a diversity of deep valleys.
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Where water sprang from the ground or seeped from melting snow, slopes were alive with seductive fresh flowers, as though summer was just starting.
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Exposed higher meadows still held their fading glory, tinged with early fall golds and reds.
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After cresting the second pass, I dropped into a fork of upper Hunter Creek. Water flowed, fell and frolicked among pink flecked granite boulders, graced with verdant flowers and foliage. Almost dancing my way downvalley, I paused at a broad meadow edged by spruce trees, through which a calm creek meandered.
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The sky was growing darker and as moisture started to fall, I sheltered in the embrace of the nearby forest while snowflakes fluttered. It was as though I had stepped into a magical kingdom. As I resumed my wandering, I sensed vibrations, and on turning, watched a magnificent herd of deep brown elk with young, bound almost silently through the woodland. A path upslope beckoned and I followed keenly. It released me on a perfect knoll, at the head of the second river fork and upper basin.
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Here I would become immersed in the changing colors of evening playing on the mountain spine, highlighting its pinnacles and spires.
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Then later turning to a moonlit night sky.
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Crisp morning light articulated the third pass and its family of peaks that drew me on.
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From over 13,000 feet I soaked in views of mountain ranges from new perspectives.
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And met new friends who seemed a little shy.
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Too soon, I was as far away as I could be in this wilderness landscape. That signaled time to turn, to drop two thousand feet, then turn again and climb, through a stately Colorado mountain valley.
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Grateful for the expansiveness of this terrain that held me till the sun was low above the ridgelines, I stretched out on my sleeping pad and again observed the changing light.
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I marveled how this sweet blush of color turned each day, yet how seldom we pause to recognize such luminescence. At that moment, I was thankful to be so alive outside where rare shooting stars burst brightly across an inky sky.
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Seven Sisters Lakes

Over the past several years, a stepped cluster of lakes, the Seven Sisters, have captured my imagination and longing to explore.IMG_9928

Previous explorations had taken me up and over the gorges of tumbling creeks feeding the Frying Pan River. I rested at their lakes and scaled summits, looking across to the mysterious ridge that bounded the lake family comprising my missing puzzle piece.IMG_9858

The lakes are nestled in a remote mountain cirque within the Holy Cross Wilderness, just beyond the watershed of the Frying Pan River, and are perched at 11,000 to over 12,000 feet in elevation.IMG_9872

Others arrived at the trailhead access eager to summit 14,005 foot high Mount of the Holy Cross, or hike to a large lake at the head of the deep Fall Creek valley. IMG_9792

My goal was to go further and to spend a few days wandering the lakes and ridges of this other rugged basin hidden over passes and between larger valleys.IMG_9800

A well worn track led through Rocky Mountain Spruce forest with a lush groundcover floor. Soon I emerged to the beginning of a subalpine ecosystem.IMG_9789

The scenery was immediately exquisite, including rocky ledges, cascading falls and brilliant blooms.IMG_9841

Gaining the top of the Pass, I had views of the Gore Range to the east, and a glimpse of my destination to the west. IMG_9831

Keen to see more, I gained a slope south of the Pass and summitted Mt Whitney. Expansive mountain panoramas extended endlessly. Too soon, it was time to descend and seek a home for the night.IMG_9867

… With water; a delightful garden;IMG_9861

and friendly neighbors. IMG_9903

Morning light powerfully illuminated my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to adventure further.IMG_9850

My hope was to reach the uppermost of the Seven Sisters Lakes, then climb to the ridge above, although a snow cornice seemed to guard the final step.IMG_9930

The route was along firm granite rock interspersed with bright alpine flowers. It led towards the summit until I reached the snowy rim. Being highly respectful of white slippery slopes, I sat on a warm rock and ate lunch. Refreshed, I resumed my quest and discovered a way to the top. At last the puzzle was complete as looked back upon the lakes and ridges where my desire was born.IMG_9880

Happily, my rambling continued. I felt wonder and joy as I encountered grand vistas to delicate details of this wild landscape.IMG_9960 IMG_9946

I experienced another sunset with fiery clouds, a sickle moon rose as comets sped across the dark night sky, and the cycle completed in the pink dawn of another day.IMG_9927

Cedar Mesa 2016

At the start, I was unsure of the exact nature of this excursion. Later, having experienced it, I realized that my solo backpacking trip was all that I desired, and more.
IMG_8430 Based on a framework plan to hike deep into a Cedar Mesa canyon and its tributaries, I had freedom to explore and to immerse myself in the sensual nature of the diverse desert landscape.
IMG_8421 A solo trip into the backcountry is a rare experience of both dispossession, and at the same time, the most wonderful self-indulgence and richness. Everyday comforts and conveniences are cast away, connections with family and friends are on hold, and the internet is (hopefully) inaccessible. Taking the minimum essential for survival, it’s necessary to work hard at simple tasks like preparing a place to sleep or finding clean water to drink.
IMG_8486 This opens a doorway to such treasure; that of the natural world around us. Senses awaken – vision infuses with color and light, nostrils sniff the damp of a pool, ears attune to animal song. Existing solo, but never alone; intimately alive and connected with mother earth.
IMG_8542 Amongst a myriad of felt sensations are the sun’s warm caress and the canyon’s deeply cooling shadows; a light breeze fluttering leaves or a strong wind calling loudly; a watery pool attracting a toad, a snake and a lizard; evening song of frogs, crickets and bats; smells of dry sage and damp mossy springs, and the glow of golden evening light or soft pink moonshine on rock. IMG_8427 I sensed the timelessness of this place, where people of the past ran across the slick rock I walked on, and where they communed with spirits through spirals and ghost hands on stone.
IMG_8428 At night, I pitched my tent in a place that felt just right; in the morning, I discovered age-old art, and I knew that others had felt at home here too. Eagles soared and stars cycled above in the sky, as they had done centuries before in this mystical life-giving place.
IMG_8448 I learnt that survival is not about “what’s out there to get me”, but about how I manage myself. At the end of a long day of exploring, I was looking forward to camp. Upon arriving, I took off my wet shoes and set down my backpack. Then I noticed something missing – my tent! Reluctant to don my soggy sand-soaked sneakers, wearing flip flops, I set off through the scrub and river landscape to find my missing shelter. Short-cutting across the creek, I felt the sudden, eager grab of quicksand. My leg jerked back up, but my flip flop remained trapped below! Dropping to hands and knees, I dug frantically in the watery mud, imagining laughter resonating from the looming canyon walls. Eventually, without the flip flop, I returned to camp, wincing across prickly ground. But, still determined, I put on the soggy sneakers, and went again in search of my tent. I think the canyon spirits pitied me, for not long after, in the middle of a clearing, I found my blue tent bag. Beneath a darkening sky, I returned humbly to camp.
IMG_8419 I learnt life lessons in the canyons including to be open to surprises; to be persistent; step back to gain clarity, and consider from many angles.
IMG_8424 Be patient. Inhabit a place and it will grow. The longer you stay, the more will be revealed. Where you saw only a rock with a shady overhang, there will be a small dark door to a hidden granary. A craggy rock face will soften to hold a smooth panel marked with a red man, green hands or a white antelope.
IMG_8496 Release expectations, hold anticipation
IMG_8492 I followed the meandering river, walking in huge arcs, looping back upon myself. I ran up the slick rock canyon sides and circled down again. I stood atop a narrow promontory between two river bends, trying to understand the form, feeling the shape, the way that water moved in an intricate dance with rock; water carving rock, rock guiding water.
IMG_8512 I understood better the timeless spirals etched in ancient rock and knew that the desert winds would propel me back to this mystical mesa again.
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