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Posts Tagged ‘Outdoors’

Martin Litton, environmental activist and Grand Canyon river runner, died late last year at 97. He was a fierce and effective advocate for conservation in the American west for 80 years.

Litton was a staunch opponent of roads in wilderness areas and dams on the Colorado River. He was the spark behind the Sierra Club’s celebrated activism in the 1960s and 70s.

At a time when river-runners were switching to inflatable rubber rafts, he founded Grand Canyon Dories, which carried passengers in traditional wooden boats. In 2004, at age 87, he became the oldest person to row the length of Grand Canyon.

Litton has been lauded profusely, and I won’t list the battles he fought or recap all the posthumous praise here. For that, go online.

But I do want to pass along some statements he made over the years that are revealing of his character and influence.

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People always tell me not to be extreme. “Be reasonable,” they say. But I never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation. Because what you give away will never come back — ever.

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There are reasons why the river should be natural. One is the joy of running on a natural river, knowing you’re as close to nature as you can be. And the other is — whether we run it or not — nature has its right. It has a right to be here, untrammeled, unfettered.

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My feeling has always been, you can’t always win, but you can always try. And that we’re not as poor for the battles we’ve lost as for the ones we never fought. Win or lose, there’s a measure of victory in the endeavor.

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Man doesn’t have to screw everything up, and yet we go out of our way to do so. Greed is the motive, and it’s important to frustrate greed. We’re all greedy for one thing or another, but some of our desires are on a higher plane.

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We have no right to change this place. Do we have a right even to interrupt nature, even for a short time? To exterminate species? To kill the last fly? That’s not really our right. We’re the aberration on earth — humans are what’s wrong with the world.

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It was once said in a Sierra Club publication that the only way we’d ever accomplished anything was through compromise and accommodation. That’s exactly the opposite of the truth. The only way the Sierra Club ever won anything was by refusing to compromise. Grand Canyon dams, Redwood National Park — you can go right back through the whole list. When we compromised, we lost.

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We created something more beautiful by not defiling it. Saving it is an act of creation. We kept it undesecrated. We had made the case that the Grand Canyon was worth saving. The Grand Canyon is holy, you know. In the public’s eye, the Grand Canyon should not be fooled around with.

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The best way for people to understand how important it is to have the bottom of the Grand Canyon preserved, and have its aquatic life saved, and its riparian zone, with the beauty that’s there, kept, is perhaps to have them on that river and let them feel the way it stirs and rumbles and moves you along at its own pace, and to sense the kind of “life” the river has. It has a tremendous force and appeal that I can’t describe.

And the memory of the majesty of the Grand Canyon — what it does to their lives to be away from their routines for a while — even a short while. They begin to realize there’s something more in the world than their tiny little bit of it. The experience has somehow opened their eyes to something bigger and greater in life. They understand the whole universe better because of having been in the Grand Canyon and isolated from other things and having time to think.

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You’ve still got to try to save the earth, even though we know it’s hopeless — it’s too late. But that’s when great, heroic things are done — when you’re going down with the ship.

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Litton and a small group of contemporaries created the environmentalist movement from scratch. They made it effective because they didn’t pull their punches.

We can thank them for the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and many other important protections to our national parks and wildlands.

I’m a true believer. It’s clear to me that our survival depends on the preservation of the world we have left. But the reality is, I’m just a follower. I’m not cut out to be a take-charge activist.

Over the years, I’ve tried to pay attention, made my feelings known, and donated more than my share to a range of environmental organizations — Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, and others that were passionate and effective, but stopped short of spiking trees.

A few years ago, I stopped donating.

Today’s environmental groups are bigger and richer than ever, but they lack the passion and dedication of Litton and his contemporaries. Greenpeace acts up on occasion. But for the most part, the organizations are preoccupied with fund-raising and deal-making. The fire has gone out.

In the 1960s, the Disney Corporation wanted to build a resort in Mineral King Valley in the Sierra wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service was on board. Litton opposed the plan (which was abandoned because of much vocal opposition) at a Sierra Club board meeting.

When board member Ansel Adams expressed surprise that the Mineral King project would involve constructing a highway through Sequoia National Park, Litton barked, “Look at a map! Pay some attention!”

Litton had a long and consequential life, and now he’s gone. He was a voice and a conscience that we really couldn’t afford to lose.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

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Before I get to the post, a brief note…

I started Mr. Write’s Page on February 3, 2009, nearly six years ago. My first post was a story about pet goats wreaking havoc in my neighborhood.

Back then, I had no idea how long I would keep the blog going, or would want to. But so far, I still feel compelled to speak up about stuff, and I have no problem finding material. Plus, I enjoy the hell out of it.

Okay, fine. But, why, in December 2014, do I harken back to the beginning of this blog? Because the nice folks at WordPress keep precise statistics, and you are reading my 1,000th post on Mr. Write’s Page.

Pretty cool.

And now, on with the blog story.

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A few weeks ago, the polar vortex discharged an arctic blast in this direction, and the weather forecast for where I live was grim: lows in the 20s, highs about 40.

Okay, that isn’t horribly terrible, but I wasn’t ready for it. In Georgia, winter isn’t supposed to arrive for real until the first of the year. I was still in the frame of mind for shorts and sandals. I wanted none of it.

So, I packed a bag, checked Paco into the doggie spa, strapped my kayak to the roof of the car, and drove to Florida.

I had been thinking about going south for a kayak trip anyway. North and Central Florida are loaded with rivers and springs that are great places to paddle, at any time of the year.

Last March, for example, I went kayaking at Crystal River, where the manatee herds congregate. The weather was perfect, the trip sublime.

So anyhoo, with the arctic blast on my heels, I drove south on I-75 with a goal of outrunning the cold weather and enjoying a couple of balmy days on the water.

As it happened, I didn’t outrun it. The cold front followed me deep into Florida. When I stopped for the night in Ocala, the news media and the citrus industry were freaking out about the cold.

The next morning, I was pretty alarmed, too. I walked outside to find overcast skies, a brisk wind, and a temp of 28 degrees. That, plus the car and the kayak were covered with a thin, but very real layer of ice.

Suwannee-1

At that moment, a day of paddling didn’t sound too appealing.

But it was okay. The cold spell was spent. Afternoon highs would be back in the 60s. All I had to do was wait.

By mid-morning, I arrived at my destination, Manatee Springs State Park, ready to do my thing.

The park is located in north-central Florida, where the Panhandle meets the Peninsula, not far inland from the Gulf of Mexico. That region, where the coast curves and turns south, is sometimes called “the armpit of Florida.” You can draw your own conclusion about that.

Manatee Springs is a “first-magnitude” (high-flow) spring. The water emerges at a constant 72 degrees and flows into the Suwanee River, which passes a few hundred yards from the spring. 30 miles downstream, the river meets the Gulf at Cedar Key.

The park gets its name from the manatees that, in the colder months, swim upriver to bask in the warm water flowing from the spring.

In the warmer months, Manatee Springs is a teeming mass of humanity. Hoards of tourists gather there to swim and paddle in the crystal clear water. Frequently, the parking lots fill up and the gates are closed. When someone leaves, the next carload of visitors is allowed to enter.

But in the off-season, such as November after a spell of cold weather, you can count the tourists in the park on one hand. The day I was there, I was the only kayaker.

That was fine with me. When it comes to non-whitewater kayaking, silence and solitude are the big attractions. That day, it was just me, the shorebirds, and the manatees.

And I’m here to tell ya, the place is incredibly clean, serene, and beautiful.

From the put-in at the spring, I slowly paddled down the run to the Suwannee River. For the next few hours, I explored both sides of the river, upstream and down.

Along the banks were a scattering of homes, some new and opulent, some old and modest, and several boat docks, but I saw not a single soul.

The only other vessel on the river was a small motorboat with two local fishermen, trying their luck along the east bank.

As predicted, the day was sunny, calm, and 65-plus degrees. I drifted, paddled, and drifted some more. I tied the kayak to a cypress knee while I ate a ham sandwich for lunch. It was idyllic. Blissful. Restorative.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

At the mouth of the spring run was a group of manatees — two large adults, two juveniles, and two four-foot babies. As long as I drifted quietly, they tolerated me just fine.

This video tells the story.

I was, of course, taking photos constantly, using my camera and my cell phone, both of which I kept in easy reach.

The cell phone was in front of me inside the open deck bag. The camera (a small Canon Powershot) was at my feet, on the floor of the kayak, on a folded golf towel.

On the water, kayaks drift in unwanted directions as soon as you stop paddling. So, I would pick up the camera, take a photo or video, and quickly drop the camera onto the towel so I could get back to paddling.

Although I didn’t know it until I got home and reviewed the photos and videos, it appears that on two occasions, I dropped the camera onto the towel from too great a height, causing the shutter release to fire accidentally.

The first time, the camera took a photo straight up from the floor of the kayak, with me as the subject:

Suwannee-8

Remarkably, the shot is in focus and relatively well composed. The ivory-colored curly thing is my paddle leash.

Wait. There’s more.

A few minutes later, as I was paddling back toward the take-out point near the spring, I dropped the camera onto the towel — and again accidentally triggered the shutter release. And this time, the camera was in video mode.

The accidental video shows me paddling for a few seconds, then reaching down for the camera, then holding it in up and composing a shot of the spring, then pressing the shutter release — which, of course, stopped the recording.

Wait. There’s more.

Back at the take-out, I beached the kayak and secured my gear. I put the paddle in its holder on the side of the deck, zipped up the deck bag, and prepared to get out.

Then — oops — I remembered the camera on the floor of the boat. I picked it up, placed it in the left pocket of my paddling jacket, and proceeded to disembark.

As I leaned over to do that, I felt the camera slip from my pocket. I heard the kerplunk as it hit the water.

Wide-eyed, I looked over the left side of the boat, down through eight inches of crystal-clear spring water, and saw the camera at rest on the sandy bottom. Tiny bubbles of air were rising from the housing.

Then my left hand flashed down, seized the camera, and brought it dripping to the surface.

That night at my motel, upon further inspection, I sadly concluded that the camera was, in fact, officially kaput. Toast. History.

The battery, being a sealed unit, was fine. So was the SD card. I may have lost a perfectly good camera, but at least the day’s photos and videos survived unscathed.

And, optimist that I am, I chose to look on the bright side: I was free to go out and buy a replacement camera (the latest and most advanced Powershot) with a clear conscience.

 

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When I get the urge to go hiking, I have plenty of options close to home. The Chattahoochee National Forest, which takes up a big chunk of North Georgia, is loaded with great trails.

Notable among them is the mighty Appalachian Trail. The AT begins at Springer Mountain, 60 miles from my doorstep, and proceeds northeast up the spine of the Appalachian chain for 2,200 miles.

The Georgia section of the AT is 79 miles long, and over that stretch, five roads intersect it. That breaks the trail into convenient segments that are easily accessible. Very nice for a day-hiker.

At one of those five crossings, U.S. Highway 129 at Neels Gap, stands the famous Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center. It was first built of wood 100 years ago by a logging company, then, in the 1930s, rebuilt of stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Boots-1

For a long time, the building was an inn and restaurant. It was abandoned in 1965, and, by the mid-1970s, was scheduled for demolition.

But a group of local conservationists protested, and began lobbying, and in 1977, the building was given the protection of the National Register of Historic Places.

The word “Walasi-Yi” is a serious mouthful. It’s pronounced Wa La See Yee, which in Cherokee means “place of the great frog.”

There are other froggy tie-ins. Frogtown Creek flows nearby, and Neels Gap itself originally was known as Frogtown Gap.

So, the Walasi-Yi Center is a certified historic place. It’s famous for three reasons.

First, a few years after the building was saved, it was reborn as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, a full-service, high-quality outdoor gear retailer that is still in operation today. The store (which includes a hiker hostel) provides clothing, packs, boots, stoves, food, maps, souvenirs, and expert advice.

The store is especially important for hikers making the long journey north to Maine. Located 30 trail miles from Springer Mountain, it’s the first chance for through-hikers to make adjustments to their gear and supplies. All the staff members at Mountain Crossings are seasoned backpackers and experts on all things AT.

The second reason Walasi-Yi is famous: the AT itself passes through a breezeway on the side of the building, making it the only place on the entire trail where hikers pass under a roof. Bridges and railroad trestles don’t count.

Boots-2

Third, there are the boots. All those dangling boots.

When you walk into the store and look up, this is what you see:

Boots-3

Hanging from the rafters throughout the store are hundreds of pairs of used hiking boots, proudly donated over the years by veteran hikers who have walked at least 500 miles of the AT.

Usually, the boots arrive by mail. A note will identify the owner and the dates of the hike and will ask that the boots be added to the lofty collection. Many hikers describe their experience at length and express great pride in the achievement.

But wait, there’s more. Another collection of boots dangles from the trees outside the building.

Boots-4

Whereas the boots inside the store are celebratory, the boots in the trees tell tales of disillusionment, disappointment, and blisters.

Looking up, you can see that the boots range from well-worn to brand new.

Some of them didn’t fit properly. Some blew out due to a manufacturing defect. Some belonged to hikers who, a few days into the journey, decided that hiking the AT was not their thing after all.

Sometimes, the hikers purchased new boots and continued northward. Sometimes, they went home. Either way, the collection of boots in the trees is growing steadily.

As for the boots inside the store, the 500-mile rule is arbitrary. And, when a pair of boots arrives in the mail, the staff admits they have no way to determine the veracity of the hiker’s claim.

But they don’t question it. There is no erring on the side of caution. The boots are hung from the rafters anyway.

Boots-5

 

 

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In the eyes of family and friends, I am that fellow who is obsessed with going hiking. The one who, for years, has spent most of his weekends and vacations on a trail somewhere, either locally or on the other side of the country. The guy who has been to Grand Canyon 23 times, for Pete’s sake.

To them, I am an eccentric — slightly unbalanced, but in a harmless way. The family reputation is in no real jeopardy.

That’s how they think of me. What they probably don’t think about is how I came to be the fanatic that I am — how the obsession started.

I know exactly how and when it started.

In the summer of 1979, frustrated by boss problems at work, I quit my job in Fort Lauderdale. We sold the house, packed up the family, and moved back to Georgia. I was 36, married with two kids.

For two months, the four of us lived in my parents’ basement in the little town of Suwanee, population 400, located 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. As happens in a decent economy, things quickly fell into place. I found a job, and we bought a house, and life settled into a routine again.

One Saturday morning during that two months in the basement, I woke up with an urge I didn’t experience often: the desire to go for a solitary walk in the woods. The woods, in that place and time, went for miles in every direction.

The morning was sunny and pleasant, and job-hunting wasn’t done on Saturdays, so I announced to the household my intentions to disappear for a while and go for a stroll. I would follow one of the old dirt roads that meandered through the piney woods, just to see where it went.

No one seemed to care one way or the other. I got comments like, “Well, that’s nice” and “You have fun” and “Be careful” and stuff like that.

Fortunately, nobody wanted to go with me. That meant I could get away alone and have time to think my own thoughts.

The towns in that part of Georgia — Norcross, Duluth, Suwanee, Buford — grew up along the Seaboard Coast Line railroad, which runs through Atlanta and northeast into South Carolina and points beyond.

(Each town had a small railway station, but the trains rarely stopped. They did, however, deliver the U.S. Mail. That was accomplished when the stationmaster put out “the hook” each day to snag the mail pouch as the train zoomed through. I know this because my grandfather was the Suwanee Postmaster. As a kid, I never tired of watching that ritual.)

The main road in those parts was, and still is, Buford Highway, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks. The few other roads in the area were small county roads, some paved and some dirt, dotted with occasional houses like Mom and Dad’s.

For the most part, it was blips of civilization surrounded by undeveloped woods. Between Mom and Dad’s house, on the edge of Suwanee, and Duluth, five miles south, there was little but oak and pine forest and a few small creeks.

That changed in a hurry. Starting in the 1980s, land developers descended on Gwinnett County. All that territory was turned into housing subdivisions, industrial parks, and shopping centers. Here is a Google Earth map of the area today:

Suwanee to Duluth

The red dot at the top shows where Mom and Dad lived on the outskirts of Suwanee, on a bluff near the Chattahoochee River (the green line). The north edge of Duluth is at lower left. The black line is the railroad, and the single yellow line on the right side is Buford Highway.

In 1979, nothing was between the river and the railroad tracks except forest. No divided four-lane highway, no subdivisions, no nothing.

Where I intended to go that morning, I didn’t know. I took a bottle of water, a package of cheese crackers, my shades, and a bandana. I wore a baseball cap and ordinary tennis shoes. Back then, I didn’t own hiking boots.

For a time, I walked south, following an abandoned dirt road that was cut off from civilization and probably hadn’t seen a vehicle since the horse and buggy days.

The area was former farmland. I passed the ruins of a few old homesteads that had collapsed into piles of rotted boards. In most cases, the pine trees, undergrowth, and kudzu had grown up and swallowed them, covering everything except the chimneys.

Sometimes, the road disappeared, and I had to make my way across a field. But progress was easy. I kept going in the same southerly direction with no destination in mind.

I encountered a lot of wildlife that morning. Deer, rabbits, and quail were everywhere. They weren’t accustomed to seeing people in so remote a spot.

The deer and rabbits were startled to see me, but the quail always gave ME a scare. They have a way of waiting until you’re within three feet of their hiding place, then taking flight in a mad frenzy.

Eventually, the old road intersected the right-of-way of a row of mammoth electrical power lines and disappeared for good. I continued south, following the power lines.

Then I reached the edge of a large swamp formed by Brushy Creek, which flows west into the Chattahoochee River. I faced an impassable bog from horizon to horizon.

Well, not completely impassable. Crossing the swamp near the transmission lines was a pipeline — carrying water, natural gas, or whatever — elevated on six-foot pilings.

The pipe was huge, about three or four feet in diameter, painted an unpleasant shade of milky turquoise green. The pipe emerged from the ground, crossed the swamp on the pilings, and went back underground again.

I hopped onto the pipe, walked across the swamp, and resumed my journey.

A short time later, I spotted the railroad tracks in the distance and abandoned the power lines. I began walking south along the tracks. For the first time, I had a goal: going all the way to Duluth.

At that point, I figured I was about halfway there. I had progressed a couple of miles in a couple of hours. Shortly before noon, I sat down on a crosstie and ate the cheese crackers for lunch.

I also picked up and placed in my back pocket a memento of the hike: a rusty railroad spike that I found discarded next to the tracks.

Walking along the tracks was easy. I crossed Suwanee Creek, a fairly large stream, via railroad trestle. I crossed a second creek by trestle, and then I was back in civilization again — houses and traffic at the edge of Duluth.

Almost immediately, I attracted the attention of some local dogs. It was time to turn around and go home.

Late that afternoon, having retraced my steps and arrived back at Mom and Dad’s house at last, I walked into a hornet’s nest.

My lovely wife was furious.

How could you just disappear like that and leave us wondering whether you were alive or dead?

Do you realize we were on the verge of calling the police? Nobody knew what happened to you! Do you understand how worried we all were, how inconsiderate it was to do that to us?

My dad was indignant.

Son, your mother was worried sick. You were gone way too long. She thought you might be hurt or something. I’m really disappointed. You should know better.

Mom didn’t say much, which meant she was angry, too.

That was, quite literally, my first formal hike. And, yes, I did learn a valuable lesson vis-à-vis loved ones waiting back home.

However, except for the unpleasantness that ensued in the aftermath, I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I decided I would do it more often.

Since then, I have hit the trail hundreds of times. How many hundreds, I don’t know, because for years, I kept no record of my hikes. At some point, I began to document them — by date, location, distance hiked, and the dog, if any, who accompanied me.

These days, I don’t go hiking as often as before, and I don’t hike as far as I once did. But Paco and I are still at it. I still have a blast, still love the whole experience.

It’s true, I’m a fanatic. Obsessed, even.

Eccentric, but in a harmless way.

Spike

 

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Web of Life

This is my second post in two weeks about wolves and the balance of nature. Go figure.

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“Sustainable Man” is an online movement that promotes peace, empathy, equity, justice, and environmental protection — as opposed to, you know, fear, greed, and consumption. The goal is to leave future generations a sustainable planet.

The idea originated with brothers Chris and Steve Agnos, who produce videos for their website to get their messages across. The brothers are environmentalists of particular intelligence and compassion; they probably don’t vote Republican.

If you have a scintilla of respect for Planet Earth, and if, like me, you despair about our future, then you may be encouraged by one especially excellent Sustainable Man video, “How Wolves Change Rivers.”

A link to the video and a transcript of the narration are below.

Please note that when the British narrator refers to the “deer” of Yellowstone National Park, he means, in fact, American elk. In Europe, “deer” often is an umbrella term for deer, reindeer, elk, and moose.

Wolves howlng

How Wolves Change Rivers

A video by Sustainable Man, narrated by George Monbiot

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom.

And the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995.

Wolf stalking

Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals. But perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others.

Before the wolves turned up -– they’d been absent for 70 years -– the numbers of deer (because there had been nothing to hunt them) had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park, and despite efforts by humans to control them, they’d managed to reduce much the vegetation there to almost nothing. They had just grazed it away.

But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects.

First, of course, they killed some of the deer. But that wasn’t the major thing.

Much more significantly, they radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park -– the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges.

And immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood.

And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds and migratory birds started to increase greatly.

The number of beavers started to increase, because beavers like to eat the trees. And beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers. They create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.

Wolves

The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise — which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers.

Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left.

Bears fed on it, too. And their population began to rise, as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs. And the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.

But here’s where it gets really interesting.

The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed. More riffle sections. All of which were great for wildlife habitats.

The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often. So the rivers became more fixed in their course.

Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places, and the vegetation recovering on the valley side, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that, as well.

So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park -– this huge area of land — but also its physical geography.

Wolf howling

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Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Don’t sell out.

— Christopher Reeve

 

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In March 2007, I hiked the dusty eight-mile trail to the village of Supai, Arizona, located in western Grand Canyon, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Supai is the home of the Havasupai tribe. The village is located in Havasu Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River and is famous for the spectacular waterfalls along Havasu Creek.

It’s also famous for being isolated and  remote. No roads lead to Supai. You get there by foot, mule, or helicopter. You visit by reservation only.

The trailhead and the helipad are at Hualapai Hilltop, a desolate parking area 60 miles from the nearest town. No services are at the trailhead — only a few trailers and a couple of tribal officials who check permits.

For a fee of $85, you can helicopter down to Supai. For another $85, you can helicopter back out. Otherwise, you hit the trail, which winds down to the village on the floor of the canyon. Park Service campgrounds are located two miles beyond Supai along Havasu Creek.

For my trip in 2007, in order to avoid the weight of camping gear, I made reservations at the tribal motel in the village. The motel is a small, bare-bones place, but clean and adequate.

The trip was a blast. The weather was ideal, the scenery astounding. I got plenty of good photos — although I discovered that the season was wrong for photography; in the spring, when you face the waterfalls, you’re facing the sun.

In 2009, I twice wrote about that trip on this blog.

One story was about the tribe’s long struggle to maintain its homeland and identity.

The other focused on something I didn’t expect to find down there: a healthy population of mongrel dogs living at large in the village.

But neither story got around to documenting one of the most indelible memories of that trip: the harrowing finale, when a sobering realization brought everything to a proverbial screeching halt.

Let me begin at the beginning.

After flying into Las Vegas, I picked up my rental car at the Budget office, drove east into Arizona, and stopped for the night in Kingman. The next morning, I got up early and drove the 100-odd miles to Hualapai Hilltop.

Bird's-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

Bird’s-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

On arrival, I parked, got out my gear, locked the car, obtained my entry permit from the tribal guy, and set off down the trail.

For the next two days, I explored the village and the waterfalls at my leisure. Meals were at the Supai Cafe, the only place in town that serves hot food.

How was the food? Expensive and awful. The cheeseburgers were served on sandwich bread. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes overripe. Tater tots came with everything. The breakfast burritos were frozen.

Some of the tourists were unhappy and vocal about it. My attitude: you shouldn’t go to a place like Supai expecting an Outback Steakhouse.

On the third morning, in a heartbeat, my trip unraveled.

I awoke, showered, and dressed. My plan was to grab a bad breakfast and hike down to the waterfalls for more photos.

Then, as I puttered around the motel room, a strange sensation came over me. A voice inside my head spoke to me.

It asked if I had seen the keys to my rental car lately.

Hmmm… Let me think… After I locked the car, I undoubtedly put the keys in my waist pack. Actually, I haven’t seen the keys lately, but what of it?

Well, you carry all your personal stuff in the waist pack — wallet, loose change, penknife. You empty the contents onto the dresser every night. Where are the keys?

Where, indeed. After calmly checking the waist pack, I calmly searched the motel room. Then I calmly went through all my clothes and possessions thoroughly. Twice. The keys were not there.

My blood ran cold as I realized the implications of that turn of events.

The keys could be anywhere. I could have dropped them during the initial hike. Or at the waterfalls. Or somewhere in the village. At that very moment, one of the town mutts could be gnawing on the transponder.

Fighting back the panic, I methodically covered all the appropriate bases. I asked the motel manager if anyone had turned in a set of car keys. I did the same at the restaurant, the general store, the post office, and the tribal office. No luck.

Back at the motel, I made the decision to call the car rental office in Las Vegas. Surely, they would know what to do about lost car keys.

Supai had no cell phone service then, and probably still doesn’t. But several places had land-line phones. They’re for official use, of course, but the motel manager graciously allowed me to call the Budget office in Las Vegas.

The Budget lady seemed a bit surprised about my situation, but was quite sympathetic. She gave me the phone number of a locksmith in Kingman and said to call him. He could meet me at Hualapai Hilltop and set me up with a duplicate key.

I asked what sort of spectacular bill his service call might incur. She couldn’t say.

I sat there for a few minutes, weighing my options and bemoaning my situation. Just as I was concluding that calling the locksmith was my only solution, the motel manager spoke up.

“Did anyone call Hualapai Hilltop?” she asked. “Somebody could have turned in the keys up there.”

I was incredulous. Call Hualapai Hilltop? Hualapai Hilltop has phone service?

Well, sort of. As the manager explained, the people on duty at Hualapai Hilltop carry two-way radios.

The manager called the tribal office. Minutes later, the tribal office called back. Yes, my keys had been turned in at Hualapai Hilltop.

I was so delirious with joy, I nearly swooned.

To celebrate, and to get my hands on those keys as soon as possible, I promptly checked out of the motel, gave the manager a lavish tip, and treated myself to an $85 helicopter ride out of Supai.

When I climbed out of the helicopter at the trailhead, a Havasupai man was standing nearby, smiling and dangling my keys.

Two hikers, a man and a woman, had turned in the keys earlier that morning. They found them on the ground next to my locked car. Apparently, when I dropped the keys into the zipper pocket of my waist pack, I missed.

“You were lucky those two were honest,” the man told me. “They could have taken your car. Some folks would do that.”

So, my trip ended happily, not in utter disaster. I drove back to civilization and spent the next week at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, slowly calming down from the experience.

How sweet it is to dodge a bullet thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

 

The village of Supai.

The village of Supai.

 

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

 

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

 

Havasupai Lodge.

Havasupai Lodge.

Supai-8

Supai-9

 

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The two best American nature writers in my lifetime are Craig Childs and David Quammen.

Both men write as passionately as Edward Abbey, but are more articulate. More insightful. More willing to edit their stuff.

The website of Craig Childs describes him thusly:

“Childs is an Arizona native, and he grew up back and forth between there and Colorado, son of a mother hooked on outdoor adventure, and a dad who liked whiskey, guns, and Thoreau. He has worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician, and a beer bottler, though now he is primarily a writer. He lives off the grid with his wife and two young sons at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado.”

You would expect such a man to hike into Grand Canyon in January, during a storm, to experience and reflect upon “the full weight of winter.”

Those reflections became a superb essay in the January issue of Arizona Highways Magazine. Here is a small excerpt.

—————

The winds this morning are of a different nature. They are winter-storm winds, built of turbulence from a large system dragging itself over the Canyon. Vortices are set up behind cliff faces, great swirling eddies inscribed in the clouds. I stop at one of the long points of land under the Coconino. I’ve seen ravens here in better weather. I’ve sat on this point in the fall and watched them play in the rising air, banking and swimming around one another. Now, I stop and look into the bottomless Canyon, wondering where ravens go. This peninsula of Hermit formation just hangs here. I feel as if I’m being held out for sacrifice and that the Grand Canyon is this gulping infinity beneath my feet. No sign of solid ground anywhere. Occasionally, I will see something, some tip of land suspended out there. Then it is gone.

Now I see the ravens. They rise out of the abyss, taking form where there should be nothing. Two of them look like black shreds of fabric hurled against the storm. They spin up, pausing over my head to take account of this figure standing in the clouds. This close, I can see the curve of their armored toes, tucked under as if holding a marble or a stone. (Damn ravens, coming here without parkas or backpacks or extra food. Swirling through this storm as if it were a playground.) I have to protect my eyes with a hand. The wind takes snow down my neck, against my skin. Once the ravens get a good look at me, they continue up and are absorbed. And I’m standing here alone.

I turn back down the trail. Within a couple of minutes, I see someone coming up. He moves slowly, working his boots through the snow. Head down. Shoulders humped forward. He must have started walking from the desert during the night, or slept in the snow, which is not too uncomfortable if a person has the right gear and the proper mind-set. As he approaches, I can see he looks like he’s just been rolled from a Dumpster. Plastic garbage bags cover his body. He’s torn a hole in the bottom of one in order to breathe and see ahead. The clothes underneath are insufficient. Maybe he’s got a sweater and a coat. In both hands are walking sticks, their tops splintered as if they were hastily broken for this purpose.

He doesn’t notice me until I am about 4 feet away. When he sees my legs in the snow, he inches his head up a notch. His face looks like the result of a trying night. Dull, vacant eyes. He can’t hold eye contact. Late 20s, maybe 30s. “Be careful down there,” he says, with more of a groan than an actual voice.

Down there. As if he had just climbed out of a monster’s stomach — the empty space that gave birth to the ravens. I ask whether he needs help. In the same ponderous tone, with a touch of anger, he says, “That Canyon almost killed me.”

As he passes, I turn and ask again, offering food or water. He does not stop, does not ask how far to the rim. In fact, his pace has not altered at all. “I’ll make it,” he says. I look for a limp or some sign of injury. There seems to be nothing but fatigue. He’s close enough to the top that he’ll be out within an hour. Like the ravens, he is taken in by the storm above me. Is he delirious? Has he fallen? I imagine him sledding down, arms flailing, and catching a piñon trunk just at the edge of a chasm, snow spraying all around him. His comment about the Canyon made it sound as if it were malevolent down there, as if he had narrowly escaped and the Canyon still had his hair in its teeth.

So I follow his tracks. They keep to the trail down to Cedar Ridge, a clearing of hitching posts for mules and three outhouses. The outhouses are sturdy structures with a deck and solid wood doors. His tracks begin here. I open the middle door and am confronted with a nest. My first thought is that some large animal burrowed here. It look like a mouse nest on a huge scale. Wood chips, used for the composting toilets, are a foot deep all over the floor. Food wrappers lie unfolded. A bag of bread. A candy bar. A flashlight is propped on the toilet-paper dispenser. He slept here, using the chips as insulation. A locked storage closet joins the back of one of the toilets. Its door hangs off its hinges, ripped from the wall. He had found the plastic bags and wood chips in there, as well as the broom handle he’d busted for walking sticks. A box of screws and various small tools he had examined and rejected.

I would later discover that he had hiked to Phantom Ranch, down at the river, with the intention of returning to the rim that night. It was a day hike. Backpackers had tried to talk him into staying. He had refused, mentioning that he needed to catch  a plane. He accepted their offerings of a flashlight, bread and candy, setting off for the South Rim in the late afternoon. When he reached the only emergency phone on the trail — at some outhouses 2,000 feet below here — he was desperate. Night had come. A storm has set in, bringing rain and wind. He had no idea that it would turn to snow above him. He made a call to the Ranger at Phantom Ranch, and he sounded panicked. He wasn’t asking for anything, just wanted to hear a human voice, said he had to catch a plane. The ranger patched him through to someone closer, but in the transfer, he dropped the phone and continued up the Canyon. The phone dangled off the hook, draining its solar battery.

He arrived at Cedar Ridge in a blizzard. Ice had formed on his clothing, and he probably was suffering from hypothermia. When he found these outhouses, he found plastic bags and wood chips, enough to keep him alive. If he had not reached Cedar Ridge, I probably would have come across his body below O’Neill Butte, curled in the mud in one of the sheltered alcoves. No one at the Canyon knew his name or ever saw him again. There are only a few trails with outhouses and emergency phones. He was lucky.

The Grand Canyon is not the thing that almost killed him, as he had said. The Canyon is here, with its winds and sunshine at random intervals. There is no pretense. The rocks do not bear ill will, nor will they offer to save you. The personalities of storms deal with updrafts, moisture content and temperature, not with grudges or malice. A person must learn how to move inside of this place. Like the ravens. I close the door and continue into the Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Refuge -- the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Refuge — the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Ravens

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