Posts Tagged ‘Outdoors’

The Petrified Forest

It’s funny how things work out. Last month, I spent the day at Petrified Forest National Park — my first visit there since the late 1990s — and my most vivid memory is of getting a lucky photo of a passing train.

Let me begin at the beginning.

Petrified Forest NP in east-central Arizona sits astraddle Interstate 40, not far from the New Mexico border. The region is classified as “native Arizona grassland,” which you can take to mean a parched, treeless, windblown desert populated by rocks, tumbleweeds, and a suitably hardy selection of plants and animals.

In the hierarchy of national parks, Petrified Forest is not a hugely-revered national jewel or a top-tier destination.

In fact, the Park is a bit of a one-trick pony; you go there to see the countless petrified logs, sprawled at random across the barren landscape — which now, ages after they were formed, ironically is treeless.

In fairness, if you count the considerable number of petroglyphs on view among the rocks, maybe the park is a two-trick pony.

Really, I don’t make these observations with malice. The Park has limited interest, but that’s okay. It is what it is, and that, in fact, is pretty remarkable.

The Park does a good job of presenting itself to visitors. It covers roughly 150 square miles and features a main north-south road 28 miles long.

The place is designed around a succession of parking lots, where one leaves one’s vehicle and sets off down paved loop trails to see the namesake logs up close. The system works fine.

Except in the rain.

Due to its desert location, the Park experiences precious few rainy days. But, as I learned last month, a rainy day there leaves you car-bound and seriously bummed out.

Let me set the scene about Petrified Forest NP and the abundance of fossilized logs it protects.

Most of the petrified trees in the Park are from the pine and fern families. They lived during the Late Triassic period, about 225 million years ago.

At the time, that region of the globe was located near the equator, on the supercontinent of Pangaea. The first dinosaurs and the earliest crocodiles were evolving. The climate was sub-tropical and humid.

The trees became petrified via a process called permineralization, which worked this way:

— When trees in the huge forests died and fell, some were carried downstream by creeks and rivers. Along the way, most of the logs were stripped of bark and branches.

— Eventually, the trees became wedged in great logjams and could go no further.

— Wood lying on the Earth’s surface will deteriorate, but some of the logs became buried in sediment, where, deprived of oxygen, the wood was preserved.

— There underground, water in the sediment percolated gently through the cells of the wood.

— Under the right conditions, minerals in the water — silica, quartz, manganese, carbon — slowly replaced the organic material of the tree, while the plant retained its original structure and appearance.

— The result was petrified wood: trees with cells of stone.

All of this, of course, took place below the surface. It took ages of uplifting and erosion to bring the petrified logs, some whole, some in chunks, some in fragments, to the surface.

The area was well-known long before it was established as a National Monument in 1906. How well-known was it? Well, the NM designation was intended to stop the systematic removal of petrified wood in large-scale commercial operations.

Petrified wood rapidly became a hot commodity, valuable enough to attract hoards of well-organized profiteers who mined it and sold it around the country.

In 1962, the NM was elevated to National Park status. By then, the commercial looting was more or less under control.

But the Park has continued to rail about the consequences of visitors illegally pocketing souvenir pieces of petrified wood. They say tourists steal about 12 tons of it per year.

Clearly, walking off with souvenirs is destructive and wrong. But is 12 tons annually all that consequential, out of a Park of 150 square miles? Remember, in the early years, countless wagonloads of petrified wood were stolen from the region daily.

Is it consequential? Maybe so, when you consider that most thefts by tourists occur from the most important, most visited sites in the facility.

Personally, I have resolved to be a good citizen who does not purloin artifacts. On this trip, I avoided the temptation of illegally taking home a piece of petrified wood by purchasing a souvenir chunk at the Visitor Center.

My prize is a nicely polished $2.00 specimen with a magnet glued to the back, which now resides on my refrigerator.

My day at Petrified Forest National Park did not begin well. It was a gloomy Wednesday morning when I left my hotel in Winslow and drove to the southern entrance to the Park.

By the time I arrived, so had a light rain.

I pulled up to the entrance station and reached for my Golden Age Passport, the lifetime National Parks entrance pass to which us old-timers are entitled, and to which the rest of you can only aspire.

The pass wasn’t there. I had left it in my hotel room.

The ranger lady at the gate listened to my sad story.

“I really do have a Golden Age Passport,” I moaned. “In fact, I have two of them. I went to Grand Canyon a few years ago, and I left my parks pass at home, so I had to buy a second one. I keep one in each car now, but I only brought one on this trip, and I left that in my room at the La Posada Hotel in Winslow. Please don’t make me buy a third one.”

The ranger lady stood with her forearm resting on the sill of the open window with practiced ease, nodding.

“Well,” she said finally, “With this rain, it ain’t much of a day for seein’ the place.”

She handed me a map of the Park. “But go ahead in.”

For the next hour-plus, I drove north through the Park, stopping at each parking lot/loop trail on the map. I peered wistfully into the gloom at the vague outlines of petrified logs dotting the distant hillsides.

Several times, I lowered the car window and took a photo, or pulled close enough to a roadside display to read it. But the drive, all in all, was hugely depressing.

However, by the time I reached the north end of the Park, the rain had stopped.

My plan had been to exit the Park at the north end, return in defeat to Winslow, and have a beer. But, hey — why not turn around and drive back south through the Park to try again?

Figuring I would get some lunch and stretch my legs first, I stopped at the North Entrance visitor center.

At the front door, I was greeted by a sign that said, PAY ENTRANCE FEE OR SHOW PREPAID PASS AT FRONT DESK.

Instead of going inside, I pretended I forgot something, went back to the car, and drove away slowly.

My second drive through the Park was as satisfying as the first had been dismal. I stopped at the same parking lots again — all of which I entered backwards, so they seemed new — and I walked the loop trails and took photos like a proper tourist.





In that last photo, the various colors are created by different minerals. Yellow, brown, and orange come from goethite, a common iron-rich oxide. White is produced by pure silica. Red is created by hematite, a form of oxidized iron that develops with minimal oxygen. (Think of iron stains in a porcelain sink.)

At the beginning of my tale, I mentioned a lucky photo of a passing train.

I took the photo from atop a bridge where the main park road, going north-south, crosses over the east-west tracks of the BNSF Railroad.

That afternoon, while returning south, I saw the train on my left, approaching from the north, still a great distance out. I was alone on the road.

Idling in my car on top of the bridge, I got out my camera (a Canon point-and-shoot that performed better than I expected on that trip) and zoomed in.

No, too far away. Not a good shot.

I hesitated to step out of the vehicle to get a photo, so I pulled the car over into the wrong lane, next to the north side of the bridge. If a car came along, I would have time to move.

The train came steadily closer. It was a diesel freight train, the kind you see regularly crossing the country, loaded with double-stacked containers bearing the names of companies — Maersk and Hanjin and such — that we don’t know beans about.

I zoomed in slightly, held my camera in the air to avoid the bridge railing, and fired off a shot.

Drat! I cut off half the engine.

The train was getting closer. I backed off on the zoom and repeated the procedure.

Dang! Out of focus.

By then, the train was looming in front of me, just short of the bridge, traveling at whatever hair-raising speed trains travel on a straightaway in the desert.

I had one last chance to get a photo, and I was rattled. I didn’t have time to think or to adjust the camera — only to fire. I raised my left arm out of the window and pointed the camera at the train.

The engineer, seeing a car paused on the bridge, gave a deafening blast of the horn. The sound buffeted the car as the train rumbled under the bridge.

As the train receded to the west, I snapped two more photos, both forgettable.

Then I checked the camera and found this photo — level, sharp, and well-framed, but owing entirely to blind luck.


Read Full Post »

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly, located in the northeast corner of Arizona, has been an important part of Navajo culture since the Navajo — the Diné, the People — arrived in the region some 500 years ago.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay), is 26 miles of sandstone canyon, in some places a thousand feet deep, where for generations, Navajo families have lived, farmed, traded, and retreated for protection from their enemies.

Various civilizations have lived in Canyon de Chelly for 5,000 years. Over 700 ruins, cliff dwellings, and petroglyph sites have been identified.

In 1931, the canyon was set aside as a National Monument in order to protect the fragile sites within it. Legally, it is owned by the Navajo, and about 40 Navajo families live in the canyon. Access to the canyon is restricted, and visitors are allowed to travel in the canyon only when accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized Navajo guide.

Technically, the Monument consists of two canyons. The southern arm is Canyon de Chelly — de Chelly being a corruption of the Navajo word tsegi, which means “rock canyon.” The northern branch is Canyon del Muerto, Spanish for “Canyon of the Dead.”

Physically, the canyon is wide and open, with a sandy floor that changes with every rainfall. Even though the canyon is subject to flooding, and the flood waters can be catastrophic, large sections of the valley floor are safe for fields and structures.

I went to Canyon de Chelly for the first time about 10 years ago. Back then, the Navajo-owned Thunderbird Lodge ran tours of the canyon. They seated the tourists is the backs of large trucks — open in the summer, enclosed in Plexiglas in the winter.


So, when I scheduled a return visit to the canyon in January 2013, I expected to sign up for a truck tour. I was ready for an interesting half day of laborious lumbering and bouncing through the water and the sand, with plenty of stops for photography.

When I arrived, however, I learned that the truck tours are history. There was an incident — a fatal incident in which a vehicle overturned and killed a couple of prominent geologists — and the trucks were retired.

But the demise of the truck tours simply opened up the market for other local outfitters. The young Navajo park ranger at the front desk handed me a sheet listing about half a dozen companies that conduct canyon tours in four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles.

“I can’t recommend one over another,” she said. “They’re all local residents, certified and authorized. Just call one and make a deal. They’ll meet you at the visitor center, and off you go.”

After a quick lunch, I called one of the numbers at random. Half an hour later, I stood in the parking lot shaking hands with Dave Wilson, a veteran Navajo guide driving an equally veteran Mercury Montero.


Dave said his family is one of the 40 still living and working in the canyon. He told me he was born in Canyon del Muerto and has farmland and horses there.

All true. When I got back to Georgia, I couldn’t resist Googling Dave Wilson, and there he was. He is one of Canyon de Chelly’s original certified guides and founder of the Tsegi Guide Association. He also conducts tours for the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

His online bio says he was born in Canyon del Muerto, where his ancestors settled after returning from the Long Walk of 1864.

(I will address that sorry episode, in which the Navajos were deported from their tribal land at gunpoint and forced to march to Eastern New Mexico, sometime soon.)

“Up there, that’s First Ruin,” Dave told me as we started into the canyon, pointing to a small ruin in a natural alcove. “It’s called First Ruin because it’s the first ruin you see when you enter the canyon. It’s an Anasazi ruin — Ancestral Puebloan people.”


Dave was the stoic sort, as most Navajo are, but he delivered jokes and one-liners with relish. I resolved to be a good straight man. It was the polite thing to do.

When we passed a hogan, a traditional eight-sided Navajo structure, Dave said, “Did you ever wonder why Navajo men build the hogans round?”

“Why is that?” I asked dutifully.

“So their wives can’t pin them in a corner.”

For the next couple of hours, we swerved and bounced through Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, stopping often at petroglyph sites and cliff dwellings. Dave pointed out the key features and the relative ages of everything.

“Up there is a mix of old and new petroglyphs,” he explained at one point. “The geometric patterns are Anasazi, going back to about 300 AD. The rest are more recent.

“Whenever you see a horse petroglyph, it was done after the 1700s. Weren’t any horses here until the Spanish came.”


I said I had noticed a horse drawing that was in full color and had a more modern look.

“Yeah, one of my neighbors probably did that one last night.”

We passed beneath a large rock cliff that jutted above the roadway precipitously.

“We call this Martini Rock,” Dave said.

I asked why.

“Because of the tremendous hangover.”


“See that stick?” he added, “Over there under the rock?” I did.

“We’re all afraid to remove it.”

During the drive, Dave stopped to identify Cat Rock.


And Alfred Hitchcock Rock.


And the dead duck.


We stopped to see ruins large and small. Several times, he dropped me off to wander around and take pictures while he waited in the car with the seat reclined, resting his eyes.

At one point, several miles into Canyon del Muerto, he pointed ahead. “Up there — that’s my son and my daughter-in-law,” he said. He stopped the Montero next to a young couple stacking firewood into the bed of an old pickup and got out.

The three of them chatted for a minute, then Dave got back behind the wheel. “They’re gathering firewood for my sister,” he told me. “She’s 80. Lives alone up on the rim.”

Around the next bend, Dave brought the Montero to a halt again. He pointed toward a cliff dwelling halfway up the canyon wall.

“That ruin up there is called Dead Cow Ruin,” he said.

I studied the wall around the ruin, looking for a petroglyph, perhaps of a cow, lying down. Nothing.

“Dead Cow Ruin?” I repeated. Dave nodded.

Then I spotted the telltale hump of an actual dead cow, sprawled in the undergrowth below the ruin.

“My God!” I exclaimed. “How long has that poor cow been there?”

“Couple of days. They’ll probably dig a hole and bury it today or tomorrow. Good thing it’s winter.”

“Too bad about the cow,” he said. “But, we all gotta go sometime.”

The time had come to turn around and head home. As we bounced down-canyon, I looked out at cliff dwellings that Dave had identified a short time earlier, but whose names (with the exception of Dead Cow Ruin) were quickly escaping me.

Several minutes later, he gestured up through the windshield again.

“Up there, that’s Last Ruin,” he said. “We call it Last Ruin because it’s the last one you see when you leave the canyon.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you said that was First –”


Dave should have paid me that day.

When we reached the mouth of the canyon and emerged onto the pavement again, I noticed the office of one of Dave’s competitors, Changing Woman Tours.

I pointed to the place and said, “I almost called her this morning. I’ve heard the name Changing Woman before. She’s someone important in Diné culture, isn’t she?”

“Changing Woman gave birth to the Diné,” he explained. “She brought us into the world. She symbolizes the power of women, and the earth, to create and sustain life. She is called Changing Woman because her youth is renewed as the seasons progress.”

“But,” he continued, “That isn’t why the lady who runs the tours uses the name Changing Woman.”

I took the bait. Why does she use that name?

“She just got divorced.”

The dramatic wall of desert varnish above White House Ruin.

The dramatic wall of desert varnish above White House Ruin.

The slender double spire of Spider Rock, 800 feet tall, is the home of Spider Woman, who taught the Diné the art of weaving.

The slender double spire of Spider Rock, 800 feet tall, is the home of Spider Woman, who taught the Diné the art of weaving.

Read Full Post »

Shortly after I wrote a post last month about author Edward Abbey, I went on vacation for two weeks to the Desert Southwest — Abbey Country.

Thus, it seemed appropriate to take along a copy of Abbey’s rambling masterpiece “Desert Solitaire” to read on the airplane. I hadn’t read the book in at least a dozen years. I was overdue.

As always, “Desert Solitaire” was delightful and enlightening. And, on this trip, half of which I spent in the Navajo Nation, I was especially struck by Abbey’s chapter on the plight of the Navajo in modern times.

The picture he painted in 1968 was sad, depressing, and dishearteningly accurate. 45 years later, nothing much has changed. Prepare to be bummed out.


Today, outside the canyon country and particularly in Arizona and New Mexico, the Indians are making a great numerical comeback, outbreeding the white man by a ratio of three to two. The population of the Navajo tribe to take the most startling example has increased from approximately 9500 in 1865 to about 90,000 a century later — a multiplication almost tenfold in only three generations.

The increase is the indirect result of the white man’s medical science as introduced on the Navajo reservation, which greatly reduced the infant mortality rate and thereby made possible such formidable fecundity. This happened despite the fact that infant mortality rates among the Indians are still much higher than among the American population as a whole.

Are the Navajos grateful? They are not. To be poor is bad enough; to be poor and multiplying is worse.

In the case of the Navajo the effects of uncontrolled population growth are vividly apparent. The population, though ten times greater than a century ago, must still exist on a reservation no bigger now than it was then. In a pastoral economy based on sheep, goats and horses the inevitable result, as any child could have foreseen, was severe overgrazing and the transformation of the range — poor enough to start with — from a semiarid grassland to an eroded waste of blowsand and nettles.

In other words the land available to the Navajos not only failed to expand in proportion to their growing numbers; it has actually diminished in productive capacity.

In order to survive, more and more of the Navajos, or The People as they used to call themselves, are forced off the reservation and into rural slums along the major highways and into the urban slums of the white man’s towns which surround the reservation. Here we find them today doing the best they can as laborers, gas station attendants, motel maids and dependents of the public welfare system.


They are the Negroes of the Southwest — red black men. Like their cousins in the big cities they turn for solace, quite naturally, to alcohol and drugs; the peyote cult in particular grows in popularity under the name of The Native American Church.

Unequipped to hold their own in the ferociously competitive world of White America, in which even the language is foreign to them, the Navajos sink ever deeper into the culture of poverty, exhibiting all of the usual and well-known symptoms: squalor, unemployment or irregular and ill-paid employment, broken families, disease, prostitution, crime, alcoholism, lack of education, too many children, apathy and demoralization, and various forms of mental illness, including evangelical Protestantism.

Whether in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the barrios of Caracas, the ghettos of Newark, the mining towns of West Virginia or the tarpaper villages of Gallup, Flagstaff and Shiprock, it’s the same the world over — one big wretched family sequestered in sullen desperation, pawed over by social workers, kicked around by the cops and prayed over by the missionaries.

There are interesting differences, of course, both in kind and degree between the plight of the Navajo Indians and that of their brothers-in-poverty around the world. For one thing the Navajos have the B.I.A. looking after them — the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The B.I.A. like everything else is a mixture of good and bad, with policies that change and budgets that fluctuate with every power shift in Washington, but its general aim over the long run has been to change Indians into white men, a process called “assimilation.”

In pursuit of this end the little Indians are herded into schools on and off the reservation where, under the tutelage of teachers recruited by the B.I.A. from Negro colleges deep in the Bible Belt, the Navajo children learn to speak American with a Southern accent. The B.I.A., together with medical missions set up by various churches, also supplies the Navajos with basic medical services, inadequate by national standards but sufficient nevertheless to encourage the extravagant population growth which is the chief cause, though not the only cause, of the Navajos’ troubles.


A second important difference in the situation of the Navajo Indians from that of others sunk in poverty is that the Navajos still have a home of their own — the reservation, collective property of the tribe as a whole. The land is worn out, barren, eroded, hopelessly unsuited to support a heavy human population but even so, however poor in economic terms, it provides the Navajo people with a firm base on earth, the possibility of a better future and for the individual Navajo in exile a place where, when he has to go back there, they have to take him in. Where they would not think of doing otherwise.

Poor as the land is it still attracts the avarice of certain whites in neighboring areas who can see in it the opportunity for profit if only the present occupants are removed. Since the land belongs to the tribe no individual within the tribe is legally empowered to sell any portion of it. Periodic attempts are made, therefore, by false friends of the Navajos, to have the reservation broken up under the guise of granting the Indians “property rights” so that they will be “free” to sell their only tangible possession — the land — to outsiders.

So far the tribe has been wise enough to resist this pressure and so long as it continues to do so The People will never be completely separated from their homeland.

Retaining ownership of their land, the Navajos have been able to take maximum advantage through their fairly coherent and democratic tribal organization of the modest mineral resources which have been found within the reservation. The royalties from the sale of oil, uranium, coal and natural gas, while hardly enough to relieve the Indians’ general poverty, have enabled them to develop a tribal timber business, to provide a few college scholarships for the brainiest (not necessarily the best) of their young people, to build community centers and finance an annual tribal fair (a source of much enjoyment to The People), and to drill a useful number of water wells for the benefit of the old sheep and goat raising families still hanging on in the backlands.

The money is also used to support the small middle class of officials and functionaries which tribal organization has created, and to pay the costs of a tribal police force complete with uniforms, guns, patrol cars and two-way radios. These unnecessary evils reflect the influence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the desire on the part of the more ambitious Navajos to imitate as closely as they can the pattern of the white man’s culture which surrounds them, a typical and understandable reaction.

Despite such minor failures the Navajos as a tribe have made good use of what little monetary income they have. It is not entirely their fault if the need remains far greater than tribal resources can satisfy.

Meanwhile the tribal population continues to grow in geometric progression: 2… 4… 8… 16… 32… 64, etc., onward and upward, as the majority of The People settle more deeply into the second-class way of life, American style, to which they are fairly accustomed, with all of its advantages and disadvantages: the visiting caseworker from the welfare department, the relief check, the derelict automobiles upside down on the front yard, the tarpaper shack next to the hogan and ramada, the repossessed TV set, the confused adolescents, and the wine bottles in the kitchen midden.

Various solutions are proposed: industrialization; tourism; massive federal aid; better education for the Navajo children; relocation; birth control; child subsidies; guaranteed annual income; four lane highways; moral rearmament. None of these proposals are entirely devoid of merit and at least one of them — birth control — is obviously essential though not in itself sufficient if poverty is to be alleviated among the Navajo Indians.

As for the remainder, they are simply the usual banal, unimaginative if well-intentioned proposals made everywhere, over and over again, in reply to the demand for a solution to the national and international miseries of mankind. As such they fail to take into account what is unique and valuable in the Navajo’s traditional way of life and ignore altogether the possibility that the Navajo may have as much to teach the white man as the white man has to teach the Navajo.

Industrialization, for example. Even if the reservation could attract and sustain large-scale industry heavy or light, which it cannot, what have the Navajos to gain by becoming factory hands, lab technicians and office clerks? The Navajos are people, not personnel; nothing in their nature or tradition has prepared them to adapt to the regimentation of application forms and time clock.

To force them into the machine would require a Procrustean mutilation of their basic humanity. Consciously or unconsciously the typical Navajo senses this unfortunate truth, resists the compulsory miseducation offered by the Bureau, hangs on to his malnourished horses and cannibalized automobiles, works when he feels like it and quits when he has enough money for a party or the down payment on a new pickup.

He fulfills other obligations by getting his wife and kids installed securely on the public welfare rolls. Are we to condemn him for this? Caught in a no-man’s-land between two worlds the Navajo takes what advantage he can of the white man’s system — the radio, the pickup truck, the welfare — while clinging to the liberty and dignity of his old way of life.

Such a man would rather lie drunk in the gutters of Gallup, New Mexico, a disgrace to his tribe and his race, than button on a clean white shirt and spend the best part of his life inside an air-conditioned office building with windows that cannot be opened.


Even if he wanted to join the American middle class (and some Indians do wish to join and have done so) the average Navajo suffers from a handicap more severe than skin color, the language barrier or insufficient education: his acquisitive instinct is poorly developed. He lacks the drive to get ahead of his fellows or to figure out ways and means of profiting from other people’s labor.

Coming from a tradition which honors sharing and mutual aid above private interest, the Navajo thinks it somehow immoral for one man to prosper while his neighbors go without.

If a member of the tribe does break from this pattern, through luck, talent or special training, and finds a niche in the affluent society, he can also expect to find his family and clansmen camping on his patio, hunting in his kitchen, borrowing his car and occupying his bedrooms at any hour of the day or night. Among these people a liberal hospitality is taken for granted and selfishness regarded with horror. Shackled by such primitive attitudes, is it any wonder that the Navajos have not yet been able to get in step with the rest of us?

If industrialism per se seems an unlikely answer to the problems of the Navajo (and most of the other tribes) there still remains industrial tourism to be considered. This looks a little more promising, and with the construction of new highways, motels and gas stations the tribe has taken steps to lure tourists into the reservation and relieve them of their dollars. The chief beneficiaries will be the oil and automotive combines far away, but part of the take will remain on the reservation in the form of wages paid to those who change the sheets, do the laundry, pump the gas, serve the meals, wash the dishes, clean the washrooms and pump out the septic tanks — simple tasks for which the Navajos are available and qualified.

How much the tourist industry can add to the tribal economy, how many Indians it may eventually employ, are questions not answerable at this time. At best it provides only seasonal work and this on a marginal scale — ask any chambermaid. And whether good or bad in strictly pecuniary terms, industrial tourism exacts a spiritual price from those dependent upon it for their livelihood.


The natives must learn to accustom themselves to the spectacle of hordes of wealthy, outlandishly dressed strangers invading their land and their homes. They must learn the automatic smile. They must expect to be gaped at and photographed. They must learn to be quaint, picturesque and photogenic. They must learn that courtesy and hospitality are not simply the customs of any decent society but are rather a special kind of commodity which can be peddled for money.

I am not sure that the Navajos can learn these things. For example, the last time I was in Kayenta I witnessed the following incident:

One of the old men, one of the old Longhairs with a Mongolian mustache and tall black hat, is standing in the dust and sunlight in front of the Holiday Inn, talking with two of his wives. A big car rolls up — a Buick Behemoth I believe it was, or it may have been a Cadillac Crocodile, a Dodge Dinosaur or a Mercury Mastodon, I’m not sure which — and this lady climbs out of it. She’s wearing golden stretch pants, green eyelids and a hiveshaped head of hair that looks both in color and texture exactly like 25¢ worth of candy cotton. She has a camera in her hands and is aiming it straight at the old Navajo.

“Hey!” she says. “Look this way.” He looks, sees the woman, spits softly on the ground and turns his back. Naturally offended, the lady departs without buying even a postcard.

But he was an old one. The young are more adaptable and under the pressure to survive may learn to turn tricks for the tourist trade. That, and a few coal mines here and there, and jobs away from the reservation, and more welfare, will enable the Navajos to carry on through the near future. In the long run their economic difficulties can only be solved when and if our society as a whole is willing to make an honest effort to eliminate poverty.

By honest effort, as opposed to the current dishonest effort with its emphasis on phony social services which benefit no one but the professional social workers, I mean a direct confrontation with the two actual basic causes of poverty: (1) too many children and — (here I reveal the secret, the elusive and mysterious key to the whole problem) — (2) too little money. Though simple in formula, the solution will seem drastic and painful in practice.

To solve the first part of the problem we may soon have to make birth control compulsory; to solve the second part we will have to borrow from Navajo tradition and begin a more equitable sharing of national income. Politically unpalatable? No doubt. Social justice in this country means social surgery — carving some of the fat off the wide bottom of the American middle class.

Navajo poverty can be cured and in one way or the other — through justice or war — it will be cured. It is doubtful, however, that the Navajo way of life, as distinguished from Navajos, can survive. Outnumbered, surrounded and overwhelmed, the Navajos will probably be forced in self-defense to malform themselves into the shape required by industrial econometrics. Red-skinned black men at present, they must learn to become dark-brown white men with credit cards and crew-cut sensibilities.


It will not be easy. It will not be easy for the Navajos to forget that once upon a time, only a generation ago, they were horsemen, nomads, keepers of flocks, painters in sand, weavers of wool, artists in silver, dancers, singers of the Yei-bei-chei. But they will have to forget, or at least learn to be ashamed of these old things and to bring them out only for the amusement of tourists.

A difficult transitional period. Tough on people. For instance, consider an unfortunate accident which took place only a week ago here in the Arches country. Parallel to the highway north of Moab is a railway, a spur line to the potash mines. At one point close to the road this railway cuts through a hill. The cut is about three hundred feet deep, blasted through solid rock with sides that are as perpendicular as the walls of a building.

One afternoon two young Indians — Navajos? Apaches? beardless Utes? — in an old perverted Plymouth came hurtling down the highway, veered suddenly to the right, whizzed through a fence and plunged straight down like helldivers into the Big Cut.

Investigating the wreckage we found only the broken bodies, the broken bottles, the stain and smell of Tokay, and a couple of cardboard suitcases exploded open and revealing their former owners’ worldly goods — dirty socks, some underwear, a copy of True West magazine, a comb, three new cowboy shirts from J.C. Penney’s, a carton of Marlboro cigarettes.

But nowhere did we see any eagle feathers, any conchos of silver, any buffalo robes, any bows, arrows, medicine pouch or drums.


Read Full Post »

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is an awe-inspiring slot canyon located on Navajo land just outside the city of Page in northeast Arizona. The canyon was formed by erosion — flood waters cutting down through the Navajo Sandstone, one monsoon season after another. The process is ongoing.

Antelope Canyon is not a “grand” type of canyon, but a narrow defile that at times can be claustrophobic. Often, you can reach out and touch both walls with your hands, and you may need to turn sideways to get through.

Meanwhile, way, way up above your head, the sky is occasionally visible.

Photographers and tourists adore Antelope Canyon for its spectacular colors and shapes. The Navajo Nation adores the visitors and no doubt takes in a goodly sum from entrance fees and guided tours.

Actually, there are two Antelope Canyons — upper and lower. The upper canyon is a short distance away via four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the canyon floor is more or less flat. Most tourists sign up for that tour.

Lower Antelope Canyon is steeper, narrower, and a bit more challenging. It begins within sight of the parking lot.

I saw both canyons for the first time about 10 years ago. The experience was thrilling, but my photos were lacking. It isn’t an easy place to photograph.

So last month, when I scheduled a two-week trip to Arizona, I put a return trip to the canyon on my itinerary.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Ten years ago, I paid the entrance fee and ventured down into Lower Antelope Canyon alone. But nowadays, under the current rules, casual visitors must have a guide. I was turned over to a friendly, 30-ish young man names Victor.

While Victor was getting ready, the dude who takes the money motioned me over.

“Look,” he said, “These guides are experts on photographing Antelope Canyon — real experts.

“They’ve seen every model of every brand of camera. They know which settings to use in the different seasons and lighting conditions.

“If you’re cooperative and pleasant, Victor will ask to see your camera. Give it to him. Some people don’t want anyone messing with their gear, but trust him. He knows what he’s doing.”

I gave the dude a thumbs up and thanked him. Victor soon appeared, and the two of us set off toward the entrance to the canyon.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon. The day was overcast. I didn't know what that would do to my photography.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon. The day was overcast. I didn’t know what that would do to my photography.

Descending into the canyon. In the old days, they used rope ladders.

Descending into the canyon. In the old days, they used rope ladders.

Victor was an affable sort, and we got along well. I snapped a few photos. In the viewfinder, they looked… okay. But clearly, the camera wasn’t capturing the gorgeous signature orange of the sandstone.

But then, I was using a new camera, a modest Canon PowerShot SX260, purchased only days before the trip. The thing had capabilities I knew nothing about. I wasn’t able to drift very far from auto mode.

This shot is typical of what I was getting:


Then, Victor spoke up.

“Rocky, can I take a look at your camera?”

Like a world champion manipulating a Rubik’s Cube, Victor quickly drilled down into the menus of my Canon. Twenty seconds later, he handed it back.

“Try this,” he said casually.

I looked at the settings. The camera was set in the “underwater” shooting mode.

What the –?

Oh, well, I thought. Might as well see what happens. I turned and took this photo.



Babbling and ooh-aahing happily, I commenced to taking shots in every direction.




The photo fest went on for another hour. I went home with a solid bunch of photos that, even though taken with a pocket-size Canon, are vastly superior to those I took on my first trip with a big honking Nikon SLR. (May the Nikon gods forgive me.)

And no question, I owe it all to Victor.

They say the photography in Antelope Canyon is best in the summer months. Between March and October, beams of direct sunlight reach down to the canyon floor in some spots. That gets the shutterbugs salivating.

You should see the place. I recommend it highly. And please, ask for Victor.

Victor leads the way.

Victor leads the way.

Read Full Post »

Money Shot

In September 2011, on a lake near the small town of Inlet, New York, the Central Adirondack Paddlers Society sponsored an attempt to break the Guinness record for the “World’s Largest Floating Raft.”

“Largest Floating Raft” in this case was a gathering of canoes and kayaks, held together only by hands, floating freely for at least 30 seconds.

At the time, the world record was 1,619 boats, set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010. The New York team easily set a new record with 1,902 boats.

The Inlet event was known as One Square Mile of Hope, and it raised $80,000 for the Komen foundation for breast cancer research.

So — 2,000 paddlers had a memorable day, and a chunk of money was raised for medical research.

Also notable about the event was the awesome photography.

At ground level, the largest floating raft looked like this:

The most eye-popping photos were taken by Lake Placid photographer Nancie Battaglia. Her amazing aerial shots earned two-page spreads in Sports Illustrated, Canoe & Kayak, and National Geographic.

Here is a bird’s-eye view.

And here is the money shot, a beautiful mosaic.

The population of Inlet, New York, is about 400. They like to point out that they bested mighty Pittsburgh, population 350,000.

It was, in addition, a revenge thing. Inlet had won the championship in 2008 (1,104 boats), only to lose to Pittsburgh in 2010. I assume Pittsburgh has plans to retaliate.

Meanwhile, to celebrate Inlet’s victory, you can go to OneSquareMileofHope.com and choose your memento:

— A 16″ x 20″, 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of Nancie Battaglia’s money shot, $25.00

— A 22″ x 28″ poster of the same photo, $15.00

— A nifty pink One Square Mile of Hope commemorative cap, $15.00

All profits will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

All in all, it’s a pleasant, uplifting story that has no bad guys.

Not counting Pittsburgh, of course.


Read Full Post »

My two youngest grandchildren — Maddie, who will be eight in a few weeks, and Sarah, who just turned five — enjoy the outdoors, albeit in moderation.

Accordingly, my ex Deanna and I took them to a nearby state park recently for a modest stroll and a picnic.

The park has many miles of hiking and biking trails, but we stuck to a short paved section along the lake near the all-important playground.

Around here, poison ivy grows aggressively in the spring. The stuff was alarmingly lush that day and way too close on both sides of the trail.

“Guys,” I said, kneeling down at the side of the walkway, “Come here and take a look at this.” The girls approached.

I pointed to a robust specimen of poison ivy and said, “This is poison ivy. Do you know about poison ivy?”

“I do,” said Maddie.

“Well, if the oil of the plant gets on your skin, it will cause a nasty rash,” I said. “Blisters, itching, and all that. Be very careful not to brush against it.”

They peered silently at the plant, contemplating the awfulness it represented.

“Remember what it looks like,” I told them. “Poison ivy has clusters of three pointy leaves. There’s an old rhyme that will help you remember: ‘Leaves of three, let it be.'”

Maddie, the skeptic, replied, “Anything with three leaves is bad?”

“No, but this plant has three leaves, and it’s bad.”

The lesson being over, we continued our walk, menaced on both sides by the noxious plant, now identifiable with the old refrain, Leaves of three, let it be.

About an hour later, during a lull in the activity at the playground, I said to them, “Do you guys remember the rhyme I taught you, the one about poison ivy?”

Sarah gave me a curious look and didn’t reply.

“Leaves of three, let it be,” said Maddie.

“That’s my girl.”

A week later, we all got together again at the home of the Joneses, the girls’ other grandparents, to celebrate a couple of May birthdays.

It was the usual informal birthday gathering. Food was in abundance. In addition to a table full of snacks, we had brats and burgers on the grill, a giant vat of pasta salad, a birthday cake, and homemade ice cream.

During the course of things, Sarah got a guitar lesson from her uncle Bobby. Sarah’s parents helped Bobby’s daughter Shelby tackle a math assignment. (Being a Journalism major, I was powerless to help.)

Bobby also found a baby snake in a flowerbed. His mother declared that she would not spend another night in that house unless someone got a firearm and sent the snake to glory. Her demand was satisfied.

For most of the afternoon, people drifted around in groups of various sizes, coming together as necessary for eating, gift-giving, snake-killing, and the like.

At one point, Sarah and I ended up alone in the front yard, sitting on an old Marker Tree created in olden times by an indigenous tribe.

Marker Trees were made by bending a young sapling and forcing the trunk to grow horizontally. The tree then was allowed to grow a new vertical trunk, leaving a distinctive horizontal section in the middle.

Marker Trees were used extensively by Native American tribes. They were used to mark trails, point to water sources, indicate the location of important minerals, etc.

The Joneses call their Marker Tree “Bruno.” Maddie and Sarah like to sit on Bruno’s long, bench-like trunk and take turns riding the swing suspended from his upper branches.

For a while, Sarah sat on Bruno, tunelessly strumming her guitar.

Finally she stopped and looked up. “Rocky,” she said, “That thing you told us about poison ivy, and the way to remember it. I don’t understand the rhyme.”

“What don’t you understand about it?”

“You said, ‘Three leaves, letter B.’ What does the letter B have to do with it?”


“Oh, Sarah,” I said, “I am so sorry I wasn’t clear. Let me try again.

“The rhyme is ‘Leaves of three, let it be’ — not ‘letter B.’  ‘Let it be,’ as in ’leave it alone.'”

She paused to think about it.

“Okay, I get it,” she said. “What it means is, ‘if it has three leaves, you better be leavin’ it alone!'”

That’s my girl.

Sarah and Bruno.

Read Full Post »

Return of the Coots

The Flamingo Visitor Center at Everglades National Park is at the end of the main Park road, 38 miles from the entrance gate, on the shore of Florida Bay. That’s where I went on the second day of my visit to the Park.

Boating and fishing are the major activities there. Serious visitors bring their own boats. Itinerant tourists (like me) can rent a boat, or (like me) sign up for a boat tour.

Two tours are available. One goes south, into the open water of Florida Bay. The other goes north into the Everglades. I chose the latter, the backcountry tour.

From the Flamingo marina, the tour boat travels three miles up the Buttonwood Canal to Coot Bay, continues north into Whitewater Bay, and returns by the same route to Flamingo. A couple of hours round-trip.

The Buttonwood Canal is manmade. Before it was constructed, the interior waters of the Everglades could be reached only through the mouth of Whitewater Bay, many miles around to the northwest.

On this map, Whitewater Bay is the large body of water due north of Flamingo.

This is the Flamingo area.

During the tour, the guide kept up a lengthy and informative monologue about the natural and human history of the region. Much of it centered on the Buttonwood Canal.

The canal was dug in 1922, a joint state and federal project. The purpose was to provide “a safe and convenient boating route from Florida Bay to the backwaters of Everglades National Park.”

Consider, for a moment, how the natural systems work.

Plant and animal species of every kind have adapted to, and are dependent upon, the unique ecosystems of the Everglades.

Coot Bay is named for a dopey-looking little water bird that thrived there for thousands of years. The coots fed on the abundant freshwater grasses — abundant thanks to the flow of fresh water down through the Everglades, into the east side of Whitewater Bay, and south into Coot Bay.

At the same time, Whitewater Bay is open to the Gulf of Mexico on its west side.

As a result, the water of the inland bays ranges from fresh to highly saline and everything in between. Those waters are nursery grounds for a wide variety of land and marine animals.

The nurseries function in subtle and complicated ways. For example, the eggs and larvae of some species of fish and shrimp, after being spawned in the Gulf, drift on the tide into the inland bays.

In the bays, they are safe from many predators that cannot follow them into the brackish water. As the youngsters grow, they are attracted back toward the higher salinity and eventually return to the Gulf.

Under natural conditions, the inland bays are home to numerous species of game fish — snook, redfish, seatrout, tarpon, and more. Their presence attracts fisherman, for whose benefit the Buttonwood Canal was built in the 1920s.

But as we prove time and again, we humans are our own worst enemy. The canal turned out to be a disaster. When it opened, it caused significant damage to the natural systems and brought ruin to the local fishing.

It happened because the canal exposed the inland bays to salt water, driven by the tides of the Gulf of Mexico.

Each time the tide went in, salt water was pushed up the canal and into the interior waterways. Each time the tide went out, fresh water from the interior was flushed out into Florida Bay.

In a few short years, most of the game fish had abandoned Whitewater Bay. The sawgrass along the shore retreated.

In Coot Bay, most freshwater vegetation disappeared. So did the coots. For decades after, not a single coot was seen in Coot Bay.

Today, we look back on the folly of the Buttonwood Canal — nay, the boneheaded stupidity of it — with a 2012 perspective. Maybe we should be generous; maybe the authorities in the 1920s truly didn’t foresee the damage the canal would cause.

And it’s true that eventually, steps were taken to correct the problem. A small concrete dam was built at the mouth of the canal to block out the sea water and keep the fresh water in. A simple, straightforward solution that would occur to any schoolchild.

What’s difficult to fathom is why it took the state and federal governments until 1968 — 44 years after the canal was opened — to decide to construct a dam.

And it’s equally hard to grasp why the dam wasn’t completed until 1982 — 14 years later.

It isn’t even a very big dam.

The Buttonwood Canal Dam, known at Flamingo as "the plug."

In spite of 60 years of continuous damage, the Everglades ecosystems have recovered well.

And, as a bonus, the Buttonwood Canal is still there, still providing “a safe and convenient boating route” to the interior. The difference is, the canal is now fed by water from Coot Bay and points north, not from the Gulf.

Over time, sports fishing in the interior bays has returned to normal. Some say the fishing is better than ever.

The freshwater grasses slowly reappeared, too. And the coots returned to Coot Bay.

I learned another other interesting fact during that trip. In addition to having an abundance of alligators, Everglades National Park is home to a population of American Crocodiles.

The crocs are more saltwater-tolerant than gators, but less cold-tolerant. They require consistent warm temperatures and thus range only as far north as Miami.

The guide told us that crocs and gators coexist nicely in the Park, mostly because the gators are less territorial and wisely give ground.

At the end of the tour, as the boat approached the Flamingo marina, the guide informed us that an especially large male crocodile has claimed one out-of-the-way corner of the marina as his territory. The croc is usually found in a small inlet at the base of the dam.

“We usually see him on the bank of the inlet, basking in the sun,“ the guide said. “Walk across the top of the dam, look down on the inland side, and you’ll probably see him. Take your cameras.”

Someone asked the obvious question: does the croc pose a danger to visitors?

“No, he ignores the boats. Even the canoes,” the guide replied.

“But we don’t recommend swimming in that particular vicinity.”

The view south -- Florida Bay from Flamingo.

The view north -- the Buttonwood Canal.

Coot Bay.

Whitewater Bay.

Dolphins in Whitewater Bay.

The resident crocodile at the Flamingo marina.

Read Full Post »

A Taste for Rubber

If you need further proof that mankind is its own worst enemy, consider what I learned last month at Everglades National Park.

I was in Florida for two weeks. I drove south along the Gulf coast, went all the way down to Key West, and followed the Atlantic coast back to Georgia.

A lot of the trip was abysmal and depressing. The weather was great, but much of the Gulf coast from Tampa south, and most of the Atlantic coast from Palm Beach south, is so densely-populated and over-developed that only rarely can a humble tourist get a glimpse of either beach or ocean.

In Key West, in order to see open water, you must leave your car in a city parking lot and take a bus to a designated shore location.

And, no, that isn’t the own worst enemy part. Not yet.

In my mind, most of South Florida is simply a vexation to the spirit. However, in spite of the rampant tackiness and growing seediness of the region, places in Florida still exist that are clean, pristine, beautiful, and uplifting.

One of them is the central Florida town of Crystal River, which I wrote about in two earlier posts. Another is the Everglades.

The Everglades is a giant wetland wilderness — a complex, fragile system of marshland, prairie, swamp, ponds, tropical hammocks, and pine forest, maintained by natural forces in a delicate equilibrium.

The land is mostly flat and very near sea level. It is a combination of wet and dry ground, fresh and salt water, and brackish transition zones where countless species of marine and land animals flourish.

The main water source of the Everglades is a slow, steady flow of fresh water spilling out of Lake Okeechobee and flowing south in a wide sheet. Okeechobee itself is fed from the north primarily by the Kissimmee River.

At the southern end of this giant wetland region is Everglades National Park. The Park protects the surviving 25 percent of the original Everglades wetland.

In 1947, the year Everglades National Park opened, author Marjory Stoneman Douglas dubbed the region the river of grass.

Over the last century-plus, the development of South Florida has included various projects to drain or alter the Everglades to meet the needs of the growing population. In 1904, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward promised to “drain that abominable, pestilence-ridden swamp.”

He tried, but didn’t succeed.

The long history of environmental and water management in South Florida includes modest successes and spectacular failures. It is a story as complex as the Everglades ecosystem itself.

That isn’t the own worst enemy thing, either. I’ll get to that.

Everglades National Park is best explored by boat. Canoe trails are everywhere. I didn’t bring a boat, so I was at a disadvantage, but I made good use of my two days there.

On the first day, I drove along the main Park road, stopped at all the visitor areas, and hiked several of the trails. My first stop, a few miles inside the east entrance gate, was the Royal Palm visitor area. The literature said two highly-regarded short trails are there, so I pulled into the parking lot.

Which was crazy crowded — teeming with people dressed in period garb.

There were women in old-fashioned dresses, men with beards and hats, and Seminoles wearing moccasins and shell necklaces. Except for the Seminoles, the place looked like Charleston or Savannah in the 1800s. Or a scene from Gone With the Wind.

From a stack of flyers on a nearby table, I learned that I had chosen “Vintage Everglades Day” to visit Royal Palm.

So, Royal Palm had been taken over by historical reenactors — Marjory Stoneman Douglas probably among them. Fine. I could visit booths, collect limited edition trading cards, and attend an ice cream social.

Then this sign caught my attention.

That would explain why half the cars in the parking lot were covered with blue plastic tarps.

I stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what kind of damage a vulture can do to your car, and why it would want to. Nothing came to mind.

Not far away, surveying the scene from the shade of an oak tree, was a park ranger. I approached.

“Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the sign. “What in the world is that all about?”

“The black vultures in the park have developed a taste for rubber,” he explained. “They like to eat windshield wiper blades. They also like the gasketing around the windows and doors of the vehicles.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No kidding. They can mangle a wiper arm to get at the blade. They can shatter a window while pecking at the gaskets.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

The ranger smiled.

“What about the tarps on the cars?” I asked. “Do people bring their own tarps?”

“No, we keep a supply here.” He pointed to a huge lidded metal container at the end of the building. “Tarps are in there. Help yourself.”

At that moment, a re-enactor waved to get the ranger’s attention, and he excused himself. I walked over to the storage container, lifted the lid, and beheld… empty air.

It was Vintage Everglades Day. All the tarps were in use.

I looked up into the trees and slowly turned in a circle. Not a vulture in sight. I looked around the parking lot. Plenty of cars were covered, plenty were not.

I had three choices: appropriate someone’s tarp, drive back to civilization and buy one, or forget about it.

I decided to take my chances and forget about it. After all, what were the odds the vultures would target my car? And anyway, car insurance surely covers vulture damage. Surely.

The first trail at Royal Palm was a beauty, meandering through a secluded and dense tangle of swampy undergrowth. The mosquitoes were worse than I expected. If they were bothersome in March, I shuddered to contemplate August.

The second trail was in the open, mostly along a boardwalk over the sawgrass and along the shore of a pond. Fewer mosquitoes, but plenty of alligators, and birds of every description.

Including vultures. Lots of them. Vultures so fearless and comfortable around people, you could almost reach out and pat them on their ugly little heads.

Black Vulture.

For the next hour, I stayed busy taking wildlife photos. When I returned to the parking lot, my car was undamaged. The vultures had taken their bizarre appetites elsewhere.

I spent the rest of the day checking out the other visitor stops and nature walks, and then drove back to my motel in Homestead.

More about my trip to the Everglades, and that thing about humanity being its own worst enemy, in my next post.

Great Blue Heron.

Snowy Egrets.

Purple Gallinule.

North American Osprey.

Anhinga drying its feathers.

Bull Alligator, master of his domain.

Read Full Post »

In my last post, I wrote about my trip to Crystal River, a little town on the Gulf coast of Florida where large herds of manatees spend the winter.

Crystal River is on King’s Bay, which is fed by a series of freshwater springs bubbling up at a constant 72 degrees. In winter, the manatees gather there because the spring water is warmer than the Gulf.

In Part 1, I described a day of snorkeling at Three Sisters Springs. This post is about Day Two, when I went back to the springs in a kayak.

I went back to the same spot to compare the below-water and above-water experiences. I also wanted to take more photos. The day before, I had used a small underwater film camera, and I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the pictures.

Kayaks rentals are everywhere in Crystal River. I found an outfitter on the south side of town that has a dock in its back yard. From there, it was a short, easy paddle through the residential canals to Three Sisters Springs.

The weather was perfect: sunny, calm, 75 degrees. I arrived to the same scene as the day before: a cluster of tour boats, a swarm of swimmers and kayakers, and a small herd of manatees, the latter staying just out of reach in the roped-off safe zone.

When I planned a day of kayaking, I intended to bring along a swim mask and fins, so I could stop and get in the water when the spirit moved me.

But it wasn’t to be. Local regulations don’t allow kayakers to tie off to a tree or the shoreline. In other words, most of your swimming would be in pursuit of your own kayak.

That was the bad news. The good news: sitting atop a kayak is an excellent vantage point from which to watch the manatees. For the next several hours, that’s what I did.

Initially, I stayed close to the safe zone, watching manatees come and go. I also had a good view as the swimmers and kayakers interacted with them. Seeing the animals from a kayak isn’t as dramatic as seeing them underwater, but the view still is surprisingly good.

Eventually, it was time to paddle into the spectacular lagoon that is the source of the Three Sisters Springs.

The mouth to the lagoon is protected by iron pilings that prevent boats larger than kayaks from entering. That seems unnecessary, considering that the entrance is already plenty narrow and restrictive.

On the other hand, it would only take one person with an outboard motor, fueled by too many beers, to wreak havoc in the lagoon and demonstrate that the pilings are needed. Maybe it already happened.

By any measure, the lagoon is a stunning place — beautiful and pristine. I could have floated there all day, grooving on the peace and serenity.

FYI, the lagoon at Three Sisters Springs is spectacular not only because of the water, but also because of the land around it: a vacant 58-acre tract in the heart of Crystal River.

For years, that tract was in private hands, always at risk of development. It escaped the bulldozers because its owners, who wanted to sell the property, preferred that it be preserved in its natural state, not developed as homes or apartments.

In 2010, Citrus County and the City of Crystal River reached an agreement with the owners and purchased the property. It is now protected as a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The tract will open to the public soon. A boardwalk already has been built around the lagoon.

In the end, I drifted around the lagoon and listened to the silence for about half an hour. Only occasionally was I interrupted by other kayakers or swimmers.

Later, when I emerged from the lagoon, I decided to paddle west toward the open bay, to see what I could see. The day was still sunny and calm, the temp still under 80 degrees.

Several times, I paused to watch groups of snorkelers or kayakers clustered around a manatee, or a mother and baby, or a small group en route to somewhere else.

You have to sympathize with the poor beasts. Under ordinary conditions, they are minding their own business, either eating, sleeping, or migrating.

Then, for reasons they can’t fathom, their space is invaded by humans in wetsuits, legs flailing, or by oblong pieces of colored plastic, floating on the surface and following them as if by magnetic attraction.

The local outfitters preach to the tourists diligently about the rules of manatee encounters. They counsel us to keep our distance, move slowly, and avoid hassling the creatures in any way.

But in practice, some people get excited and over-eager. They pursue the manatees too closely or block their passage. I’m sure the manatees find these people as irritating as the rest of us do.

But fortunately, most of the tourists are restrained and respectful. Consider the tour boat full of young teen boys that I came across.

The group consisted of about a dozen boys and two tour guides, a man on the boat and a woman in the water. The boat had paused at the mouth of a residential canal that, at the time, was a manatee safe zone.

(The authorities usually don’t create a safe zone and wait for the manatees to find it. They identify places where the manatees congregate and rope them off.)

The canal being a safe zone, manatees were steadily arriving and departing, and the boat had dropped anchor where the action was.

I paddled up to the boat slowly. Several of the boys were in the water. The rest were leaning over the side, stroking the back of a lone manatee.

“Easy does it,” the male tour guide told the boys in a calm voice. “This one is young and curious. Don’t spook him.”

The boys on the boat jockeyed for position, but stayed quiet. The boys in the water peered at the circling manatee through their swim masks.

“Let him come to you,” said the female guide in the same calm voice.

The manatee swam in a tight circle next to the boat. He didn’t seem to mind being touched. Sometimes, his nostrils broke the surface, and he breathed deeply and went under again. The boys on the boat whispered excitedly among themselves.

For several more minutes, the manatee swam slowly around the boys, appearing, as the guide said, quite curious.

But then the manatee turned and began to swim away in the direction of the safe zone. The boys let out a collective yelp of disappointment.

“Don’t follow him,” said the male guide. “He’s playing with you. If you swim after him, he’ll keep going. Stay put. He’ll come back.”

He was right. Hardly a minute later, the manatee reappeared. He swam through the group in the water, rolling on his back as he passed.

Several times, the manatee passed next to the boys, circled around, and passed them again. Each time, the boys patted and scratched his back and sides.

Then, very slowly, and for the first time, the manatee propelled himself directly toward one of the boys. Instead of swimming in lazy circles, he approached the boy head first.

The boy never moved an inch. He floated motionless, head down, watching through his mask as the manatee drifted up to him.

Ultimately, the two of them were less than six inches apart, nose to nose. For several seconds, neither of them moved. The only sound was the clicking of cameras.

I watched, fascinated, as the young boy and the young manatee looked at each other at close range. Long seconds passed. Then the manatee veered away and swam off into the safe zone, this time for good.

What the two of them shared at that moment, I can only guess. But there’s no doubt that the boy will remember the encounter vividly for the rest of his life.

I saw plenty of manatees at Crystal River, and I got plenty of photos. Most of the shots are interesting, but forgettable.

The photo I really wanted, which the boy in the water saw so memorably in person, was a shot of a manatee head-on and close up.

Although that photo eluded me at Crystal River, I got it the following week at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the other side of Florida.

It happened at Mosquito Lagoon, a remote spot on the Intracoastal Waterway where manatees stop to feed while migrating. From a viewing deck overlooking the site, armed with my big Nikon and my best zoom lens, I patiently took photo after photo.

This is my favorite.

Read Full Post »

The manatee, sometimes called the sea cow, is a large, aquatic, herbivorous mammal that has the overstuffed look of a walrus.

Mama and baby manatee.

Manatees are air-breathers, yet they live entirely under water. While awake, they come up for a gulp of air every few minutes. During sleep periods, they surface as infrequently as every 20 minutes.

They are friendly, peaceful, intelligent creatures that live in warm, shallow water, feeding on algae and aquatic plants. Adults can be 12 feet long and weigh 1,200-pounds. Babies are about 40 pounds at birth.

Sea cow may describe their docile nature, but they very much resemble, and in fact are related to, the elephant.

In February, a friend of mine mentioned that her family was going to Florida to swim with the manatees.

Huh? What? Swimming with manatees?

Every year, she said, they drive down to the little town of Crystal River on the Gulf coast of Florida, where hundreds of manatees congregate for the winter.

The town is on King’s Bay, which is fed by freshwater springs — leaks from the Floridan aquifer. The spring water is a constant 72 degrees year-round, which in the winter months is warmer than the Gulf. Manatees can’t tolerate water colder than 65 degrees. Hence, great numbers of them go to King’s Bay for the winter.

So do tourists like my friend, who descend on Crystal River between November and March to interact with the portly beasties via tour boats, dive trips, snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking.

To me, the concept was completely new and totally out of left field. I was so intrigued and fascinated that a week later, I put Paco in the kennel, packed my swim gear, and drove south.

The town of Crystal River is north of Tampa and west of Ocala, on a small bay a few miles inland from the Gulf. Manatee tourism is the local economy’s bread and butter.

Google Earth view of Crystal River.

In Crystal River, the lodging, eateries, and tourist operations are pleasant mom-and-pop outfits. The only corporate behemoths in town are Walmart, Walgreen’s, Family Dollar, and Publix.

The town seems to have all the amenities you need, but with the casual vibe of 30 years ago.

On Day One, I signed up for a half-day guided dive trip. Most of the tour outfitters in town seemed interchangeable, but I went with Manatee Tour & Dive, the company my friend in Jefferson uses. That morning, I found myself part of a group of 10 swimmers.

After we watched a video about the rules of manatee encounters, we were fitted with wetsuits, given swim fins, masks, and snorkels, and herded onto a tour boat.

Next was a five-minute boat ride to the centerpiece of King’s Bay, Three Sisters Springs. The water there is chest-deep, crystal clear, and a beautiful aqua.

Beautiful, but not secluded by any means. The springs are located on one of the town’s numerous residential canals. Overlooking the spot — and lining the web of canals in all directions — are the waterfront homes of the locals.

An amazing place to live, if you can put up with the constant presence of waterborne tourists in your back yard.

At the mouth of spring, we and four or five other tour boats anchored next to a manatee safe zone, which is off limits to people.

The manatees know that, and they congregate behind the ropes, just out of reach of the hovering boats and kayaks and the hoards of swimmers.

When I was there, a dozen or so manatees were resting and grazing on vegetation inside the safe zone. Sometimes, however, the zone will be overflowing.

For the next two hours, we were free to swim and explore as far as stamina permitted.

Once in the water — decked out in my wetsuit and swim gear and clutching a cheap underwater camera — I swam over to the safe zone. Naturally, I wanted to photograph a manatee, preferably head-on from two feet away.

It didn’t happen. Adult manatees prefer to keep their distance. Babies stay close to their mothers. Adolescents sometimes can be curious enough to approach you — but the best I got was a few shots of manatees just out of arm’s reach, ignoring me.

The manatees seem to understand that we mean no harm, but still consider us an unwelcome nuisance.

Now and then, a manatee would arrive or depart the safe zone. This would cause a furor as the tourists, including me, jockeyed to get close.

It was during one of these arrivals that I got my first chance to touch a manatee.

Someone yelled, “Incoming!” and 30 yards up the canal, kayakers and swimmers marked the location by parting to make way for the new arrival. A few seconds later, two nostrils and a massive back appeared at the surface of the water and then disappeared.

It was a big adult, moving slowly along, one yard below the surface, headed toward the safe zone.

When he got to within 10 yards of me, I dove down. (My underwater camera wasn’t ready; I hadn’t gone through the laborious process of winding the film forward and cocking the shutter. By then, it was too late to do it.)

I bobbed quietly in the water and watched through my swim mask as the manatee drifted past. It was huge. Graceful. Serene. I placed one hand on its back, and it passed lightly beneath my fingers.

It feels like an elephant, I thought. A wet elephant.

I’ve never touched an elephant in my life, but that’s what I thought.

For the first half hour, my attention was on the manatees. But soon, I wanted to explore the lagoon where three large springs, the namesake three sisters, emerge from the aquifer.

The three springs are inside a secluded pond connected to King’s Bay by a long, narrow channel. The outflow of water through the channel has a surprisingly strong current.

The swim fins made all the difference. I flippered my way through the channel and emerged inside the lagoon.

The channel leading from King’s Bay to Three Sisters Springs.

The lagoon is completely isolated and natural. On average, the pool is about chest deep. At the point of each spring, the depth is about 15 feet.

I spent most of the next 30 minutes with my head down, breathing through the snorkel, criss-crossing the lagoon and taking in the experience. My most unexpected discovery: hundreds of tiny “sand boils” created by spring water percolating up in random spots through the sandy floor of the lagoon.

Part of the time, I had the lagoon to myself; sometimes, other swimmers and kayakers were there with me.

But everyone felt compelled to remain silent. It’s that kind of place.

Eventually, I swam back out to King’s Bay and climbed aboard the tour boat to rest. The scene was the same: boats and swimmers lined up around the safe zone, watching the manatees, hoping for an encounter.

After a drink and a snack, I got back in the water and explored the canal a short distance in both directions. I didn’t go far. After being at it for three hours, I was exhausted.

Swimming with the manatees had been an amazing experience. Being at and below water level is a unique perspective.

But in some ways, it’s a limited perspective. I already knew I would be back the next day in a kayak, to see it all again from a fresh vantage point.

More about that in my next post.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »