Peak Experiences (Blog)
Welcome to our blog, which recounts personal, insightful stories of encounters with wild nature. If you have a story you’d like to tell, please contact Dave Reed. Photos are welcome too!
Posted April 18, 2013
Last fall I hiked into Dark Canyon and spent four days there, going up Lean-To and coming down Young’s Canyon. On a day hike I walked down the canyon, getting very close to the lake. The hour was growing dark, but I stripped down and swam in a big pool, then got dressed and started back to camp. I felt alive and invigorated.
At about this same spot there’s a huge house-sized rock, a giant piece of sandstone stuck in the narrows. It had been 40 years, but I’m fairly confident that the rock I saw was the same one that some others and I clambered over during my Prescott College freshman orientation trip in 1970 or 1971. Some of our instructors were Brits, including Mike Goff, a tiny, wiry imp; this was just after Outward Bound got started, and qualified Americans were relatively few and far between. We’d thrown a rope over the top of the boulder and belayed from one side as others took turns trying difficult problems the Brits had made look easy.
My god, what a trip. Earlier, Goff had put us out on solo in Lake Powell, and taught us how to cadge cigarettes from the house boats.
On the same trip, we were north of Navaho Mountain in a side canyon. It was a slippery narrows we were trying to ascend. We came to a slimy pour over and were struggling to get over it. This was one of those deals where you are in water to your waist, your sneakers are mud-covered, there’s a boulder above you and no obvious purchase for hands or feet.
Goff stemmed up into the slot somehow, and then we shoved him over the top. By now I think he was down to his skivvies, whatever passed for underwear back then. Someone handed him a belt, and leaning over, with water cascading down his back and an impish grin on his face, he hauled the rest of us up. He was laughing, we were laughing, the canyon was peeling with laughter.
I recall the feeling of this moment as something new for me, new and important, new and life-changing. I think it might have been the first time in my life, or perhaps just the first time since my parents’ divorce, that I had felt joy.
I never got a degree from the school, but my experiences in the wilderness gave me a sense of possibility, of beauty, of rapture, of joy.
One Step Beyond
Bruce Berger – bruceberger.net
Simply by being assigned a date and a theme, our national holidays are more focused than the days that surround them. Three of us – Karen Chamberlain, the caretaker, Remo Lavagnino and I, the guests – converged for Thanksgiving at a ranch amid the swirling sandstone of southeastern Utah, twenty miles from any neighbors. When Karen bought a turkey of wild stock in the nearest town, she also learned the route into a canyon none of us had explored. The day before Thanksgiving we defeathered the bird and scouted the route, preparing our scenario: first the canyon, then the feast. Thanksgiving would be pale and brief, but full.
Despite our preparations, we squandered Thanksgiving morning on extracting the last pinfeathers and stuffing and trussing the turkey so that it could cook while we were off exploring. We had five hours of daylight left by the time we bundled ourselves and Karen’s mixed shepherd, Koa, into her battered station wagon and bounced to the canyon rim. Gazing from a prominence near our descent, we marveled that a formation as dense as stacked plates allowed human passage. Koa, sweet-faced and stoic, rode in Remo’s arms as we scrambled down a break in the top layers. When we reached the crucial traverse, Karen said, “Koa, pay attention.” We crawled along an indentation two feet high and just wide enough to cradle our pounding hearts. A boulder plugged its exit. To make ourselves thin, we held our daypacks in outstretched hands and rolled over the rock’s top, inches from the ceiling. Koa crawled after us, graceful and self-possessed. Soon we were down a talus slope and into the main drainage.
After such serious preliminaries, we felt liberated from common sense as soon as we reached the bottom. We lingered by an Anasazi petroglyph, joking that the bent comet shape next to the schematic man would encourage speculation that the Ancient Ones were contacted by visitors from space. We crawled into free-standing perforated rocks that wrapped themselves around us like wishbones and femurs from O’Keeffe. Adult enough to lecture a dog, we were like children in Grimm, frolicking as darkness encroached.
Given scant time and a prankish descent, we should have gone back the way we came. Karen’s informant in town, however, had mentioned that we could climb out on a cow trail in a side canyon two miles downstream. We would certainly see more by making a loop, and the two miles to retrace would be on top, after all, on the flat. As we forged foolishly downstream, the sun was nearing the canyon rim. We had a single flashlight and no sleeping bags. Thanksgiving was a month from the winter solstice. In return for bilking this American holiday, I saw us missing the cow trail, divining our tracks back in the lone beam, fumbling for the rock that stoppered the crawl between stacked plates, or, more likely, cuddling with Koa to pass a polar night. We were courting what is known, in the West, as a situation.
The side canyon appeared on cue, sheer, gently curving out of sight. We saw no break in its walls, bovine or otherwise, but it kept veering, withholding its end. Remo thought he saw a way out and scrambled toward what looked like a barricade near the rim. Karen and I continued to the end of the canyon. At its last recess, a spill of rubble climbed partway up. Through the binoculars I traced an improbable line of brush that crossed rockface, rubble to rim – nothing I would call a cow trail but perhaps the way out. As dusk thickened, we waited for three whoops from Remo, a signal that meant, “Come, I’ve found something.” Eventually Remo appeared in person, panting, saying his route wouldn’t make it. We stood while he caught his breath.
It is unusual to hear any erosion in that land of stone, so slowly does it crumble by human standards, but suddenly, across our side canyon, rock exploded. In that grasp of threat that is quicker than thought, we knew we were personally out of harm, but the next split second burned itself through our eyes and into permanent consciousness. In the midst of a spray of stone from a three-hundred-foot cliff hung a stag deer, its antlers outspread, its legs moving faintly, suspended for a fleet, interminable second. With an echoless whomp it was on the ground, a shadowy, formless heap across the drainage.
We stood in stupefaction. The bulk was twitching, then still, with a back leg distended at an irrational angle. Karen burst into tears. Koa stared blankly. I raised the binoculars. We stood mesmerized, then each of us repeated what we saw, to make sure we saw the same thing. We gazed at the cliff for an explanation. It gazed impenetrably back, so sheer that the deer could only have fallen from the rim. Karen remarked that it was too bad we couldn’t pack out the meat. Now we wanted daylight to piece the event together – to reach the animal, count antler points, and learn its age; to determine the cause. As it was, we would be lucky simply to get out of the canyon and find the car.
A path switchbacked through the piled rubble, then reached the line of brush. The vegetation turned out to be dried sticks woven at the brim of a natural ledge, mere psychological fortification that was propped, at the scrawniest point, by a tree trunk poised on a rock. It was inconceivable that anyone had maneuvered a cow this way for years, and the vision of the plunging stag made all mammals newly vulnerable. Oddly, we were less concerned for ourselves than for Koa: how could we still trust surefooted nature? Koa took the purported cow trail with aplomb, scampering above and below as fragrance called, and we all reached the rim intact in the last light. Remo’s reckoning and flashlight and Karen’s knack for picking her way by starlight had us back to the car in little over an hour. A Thanksgiving we thought was going to reward our foolishness with chilled marrows offered, instead, the most riddling moment any of us had known in the wild.
Seated, at last, in front of our overcooked turkey, we asked each other what the day had meant. It is always unsettling to catch nature making a mistake, and it seemed doubly suspicious, in that unvisited country, to arrive at just the instant when a huge, precision creature, honed by the millenia, made a fatal misstep. We ruled out coincidence. We were, we decided, unwittingly to blame: the deer heard voices below, stole to the edge to look, and its weight sheered off an unstable formation.
We had set up this day – first the canyon, then the feast – as an empty frame to step into, and now the frame held something inscrutable. We had remarked that Thanksgiving was a favorite holiday because it celebrated gratitude rather than, say, patiotism or theology. But what did a deer falling from the sky say about gratitude? It showed, if anything, its compromising nature. A stag’s demise was Thanksgiving for the coyotes; a spectacle of mortality had strangely exhilarated us. Eating our ceremonial meal beyond reach of electricity, sipping wine by candlelight removed from others of our kind, we were graced by irreducible experience. Reasons to give thanks are traditionally one step beyond comprehension.
My Alaska Wilderness Adventure
I was appointed to the Secretary of Interior’s Advisory Board on National Parks and Monuments under President Carter. This was the time when the Alaska National Parks came into the system. I knew that the board would have to comment on issues concerning these new parks and as the new chair I felt that it would be beneficial to actually be on the ground to learn about this great wilderness. So by myself and on my own nickel, I went to Alaska for the summer to visit the new parks.
One of the new parks that I visited was Gates of the Arctic. I got a ride from Anchorage to the park with the superintendent in his float plane. Upon landing at Bethel, I met the remaining park staff: a Native American intern ranger and Mr. Bain, a biologist. There were basically no facilities, so I wandered and met a guy who offered to fly me out to shoot a caribou without having a license, out of season, and in the park; all of which violated state and federal laws. But there was not much law in that part of Alaska.
I bunked with the Native American, who was very sad as his best friend had just drowned. From this experience I learned that the major cause of death among Alaskan Native Americans and Eskimos is drowning, as they never learn to swim because the water is too cold. This made me understand why the State of Alaska had built so many indoor swimming pools in the little native villages.
That evening, the superintendent told me about a project that Ranger Bain was working on. He was going to take his seaplane and fly out to set up a base camp at Lake (name withheld). From there he was going to fly north and pick up an 80-year-old Eskimo, bring him back to the base camp, and each day they would fly out to a different drainage and the old man would tell him about the game that had inhabited each area as he remembered it from his childhood. This was to help to establish traditional patterns to use in developing management ideas.
They had been waiting for weeks for the weather to clear and were scheduled to leave the next day. I was invited to help, by flying out with Bain in his seaplane to be followed by a twin-engine seaplane carrying the tents, food and 55-gallon drums of aviation gas. My role was, after being dropped at the lake, would be to wait for the other plane, handle the ropes and help the pilot unload. I was told that the other plane should be there in about 20 minutes. The area was very barren, with the tallest thing being about four inches high.
As we were flying into the lake to land, we spotted a big blond grizzly sow with a cub just over the low hill from the lake. The surrounding area was very barren, with the tallest thing being about four inches high.
I got out of the plane and watched it depart. I had my 44 Magnum with six shells on my right hip, my homemade survival pack on my left hip. In the survival pack I had two large plastic garbage bags that I could get into for shelter, a compressed space blanket, a knife, a roll of dental floss (which is very strong), 10 feet of nylon chord, a compass, a handheld flare, a signal mirror, some aluminum foil for cooking, a piece of rubber tubing for sucking water out of cracks in rocks, eye wash, a lighter, two fire tablets, waterproof/windproof matches a little flashlight, bright red surveyor’s tape, and first aid stuff and a condom (which made a wonderful water bottle, slingshot, or tourniquet). In addition, I was wearing a good hooded raincoat with a down vest under it and a pair of hip boots. I had my 10x binoculars around my neck, and carried my spinning rod with several lures as I planned to do twenty minutes of fishing in this remote lake.
After catching and releasing several nice lake trout I noticed that it had been 30 minutes and the plane had not come in. This didn’t bother me much, as I was having a good time. However when it started to snow, I thought about the fact that the closest human was about 200 miles away? I didn’t know why the plane wasn’t there or what I was supposed to do. I was getting nervous because of the weather change and the bear. One of the options was to wait a day and then try to walk out, following the river down stream. That would have been foolish if I had I not left a note. Subsequent to this encounter I added pencil and paper to my survival kit.
Once I realized the situation, I decided to make the most of it and enjoy it. I started catching fish and stringing them on my 10-foot piece of nylon cord. Between each cast I would look around 360 degrees to make sure that I didn’t have a furry visitor. Once, when I turned around, about 20 feet away there was a caribou calf standing there staring at me with its legs spread apart, peeing on the ground. Very slowly I immediately laid down and watched him – but I continued my 360-degree surveillance. With my naked eye I saw movement of small white spots across the lake. My first thought was polar bear or Dall’s sheep but I was fairly sure there were none in this part of the world. I put the glasses on the spot and discovered that it was a very light-colored caribou, and as far as I could see, on both sides of this animal along the opposite shore were thousands of caribou. I noticed four big bulls swimming the lake toward me. So I crawled up onto a mound that was about five feet high by fifteen feet across and lay down to observe (continuing my 360-degree surveillance). At this point I noticed that I was lying on disturbed earth, like a backhoe had been working there. Almost immediately I knew what it was – a grizzly had killed a caribou and buried part of it to keep it away from the wolves and have a place to come back for dinner. Obviously, I concluded that this was not a very good place to be lying down, so I crawled back to where I had been.
For several hours I watched the migrating caribou herd on the other side of the lake, with a few on my side. At the end of the herd were the “old men,” gray and with the biggest racks I have ever seen. Just about dark, Bain returned in his plane and told me that the twin had engine trouble and had to turn back. As I was awkwardly climbing into the plane, I knocked Bain’s aluminum-covered notebook out the door and into the lake. We fished it out.
After returning to headquarters, I learned that I had witnessed the Porcupine Herd migrating through the wilderness.
This was a wilderness adventure that I will never forget and am thankful that places like this are forever protected for future generations to experience. Even if you never go there, it is nice to know that it is protected for others to enjoy.