Archive for the ‘National Park Odyssey’ Category


November 13, 2011

I never knew Jamalee Fenimore or Stephne Staples.  Nobody who reads this knew them, either.  Both of them loved the Sandhill Cranes, as do I.  Both have a viewing blind named for them at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska, at the southern bend of the Platte River.

Every spring, the Sandhill and the Whooping Cranes, the most and least common of the 15 worldwide crane species, begin their 5000-7000 mile migration to the subarctic in North America and Siberia.  Their final staging area is on the Platte River.  They go to the Platte because there is food nearby–formerly small animals, but now mostly corn–and because of the safety that one of the largest braided rivers in North America affords.  They feed in the adjacent fields by day and roost in the river at night, where the shallow water allows them to hear predators approach.  Before the Platte was dammed and water used for irrigation, recreation and drinking, it was a mile wide and an inch deep, “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

Now, the Platte in many areas contains less water, has invasive species and many trees nearby, limiting the suitable habitat to 50 miles from the former 200.  Rowe Sanctuary manages 4 miles of river and owns 1900 adjacent acres, preserved as habitat.  Every night, for 6 weeks in March and April, up to 600,000 Sandhill cranes, 90% of the world’s population, roost in the river.  Every morning, they leave.  It is a spectacle that Jane Goodall has called one of the world’s best.  I’ve been fortunate to have seen many great sights in nature.  This one is in my top three; seeing a solar eclipse and a wolf in the wild are the other two.  I love the cranes so much that I volunteer at the Sanctuary, along with dozens of others, helping the full time staff of four–that’s right, four–show visitors the cranes from viewing blinds, for cranes are shy birds and will not let people near them.

Many talk about the cranes that migrate to Arizona.  I simply reply, “You don’t understand.”  And you can’t, until you witness the a flock of fifty thousand cranes, darkening the sky.

Stevie Staples mentored one of the Rowe Staff and lived 74 years, dying in 2006 from cancer.  She was a former canoe racer and a real character.  I once raced canoes, and I would have loved to have discussed racing with her.  She touched the staff at Rowe.  She knew it, for she did live to see a beautiful picture of a Sandhill Crane in flight with her volunteer tag with “9 years of service” on it.  The picture hangs on the wall in the hallway of Rowe.  A picture of Stevie’s receiving the picture from the Rowe staff hangs in Keanna Leonard’s office.  Keanna is the dynamic educational director at Rowe.

Jamalee Fenimore grew up in Nebraska and practiced veterinary surgery in Washington State.  She died of cancer far too young at 49, donating her estate to Rowe.  Nobody at Rowe knew or remembered her being there.  But obviously, she was touched by the river, the cranes and the sanctuary.  We volunteers learn that we may touch visitors in ways we never know at the time.

When I volunteer at Rowe, I work 17 hour days, sleeping on the floor in the sanctuary so I can hear the cranes on the river in the middle of the night.  I guide people to the viewing blinds, and I teach them everything I know about cranes.  Mostly, however, I let people look at the sight, staying silent, so they can hear the birds.  I clean toilets, paint, greet people, make a noonmark, build a sundial, do whatever needs to be done.

On one tour, I took a disabled person to Stevie’s blind in an electric golf cart.  Had he been able to walk, all of the group would have gone to Strawbale blind, which had better views at that time.  But we still saw many cranes, American white pelicans, and unusual crane behavior.  My rider loved the view and tried to tip me, which I of course refused, asking him to put the money in the container at the sanctuary.  I planned to talk to other clients, because as the lead guide, I hadn’t spent time with them.  But I spent time with this man.  He was originally from Singapore; when I told him I had been there twice, his first comment was “Thank you for saving my country.”  I’ve never heard that before, and it did me good.  I hope I and Rowe did him good.

We touch each other in ways we may never know.  Good people spread kindness throughout their world.  The lucky ones receive that kindness or are those who live long enough to discover that their kindness was deeply appreciated and honored.  But all who spread kindness are fortunate that they have the ability to do so.  Stevie knew in her final days that her kindness was appreciated.  I hope Jamalee Fenimore did, too.  But if not, I know she knew she was doing the right thing.  I deeply appreciate what she did.  And every time I guide people to either of the two blinds, I tell them the story. Both women deserve to be remembered.  To have a viewing blind named for you on a river where a half million cranes visit every March is a wonderful honor.  I really can’t imagine a better one, frankly.


January 24, 2011

I had planned on going over to see the Channel Islands  to camp for a couple of days.  Like a lot of things in my life, that didn’t work out as planned.  My niece was getting married in Malibu, so my wife and I went over a day early to Ventura.  We went through Island Packers and took the boat out to Santa Cruz Island, about an hour and a little more away.  We landed, got the briefing, and walked uphill towards Smuggler’s Cove.  We had lunch, looped back and had a delightful, if brief, and non-camping trip.

On the way back by boat, we saw whales and dolphins as well.  I might go back again, but I would fly to Burbank and try to avoid as much of LA as possible.  There are several islands, and it is easy to take camping gear out there.  One can also rent sea kayaks.  Like all national parks, this is a real gem!


October 21, 2009

Acadia (1971)

Great Smokies (walked through it on Appalachian Trail 1998-99)

Shenandoah (1965)

Voyageurs (1991)

Glacier (1970)

Grand Teton (1969)

Yellowstone (1969)

Rocky Mountain (1968)

Great Sand Dunes (1969)

Mesa Verde (1975)

Petrified Forest (1975)

Grand Canyon (Multiple, multi-day backpack trips 1975-85)

Saguaro (right next door)

Zion (Multiple, multi-day backpack trips 1978-80)

Bryce Canyon (1978)

Mount Rainier (1970)

Olympic (One multi-day backpack trip 1987)

Crater Lake (Multiple trips 1970-71)

Death Valley (1984)

Denali (1982)

Glacier Bay (Multiple trips 1982, 1990)


October 11, 2009

I puffed my way up the last of the steep climb to the Petrified Forest Plateau, the forest itself several miles and several millennia behind me.  It must have been quite a sight, given the size of the stony logs and stumps, still so realistic, they needed to be touched to prove their composition was inorganic. 

The plateau was a sea of short-grass prairie, a small remnant of the original.  I walked south on the Maah Daah Hay trail, 13 miles from Medora, North Dakota and 86 miles from its northern terminus along the Little Missouri River.  This was Roughrider Country, and I was in wilderness that bore the name of the 26th president. 

The hiking itself was easy for one who is used to mountains.  The pool-table flat prairie afforded views into the eroded hills with juniper trees on their north facing slopes and sparse grass on the warmer, drier southern facing ones.  Trail markers were visible a mile away, allowing me to easily detour when I encountered bison.BISON IN THEODORE ROOSEVELT NP 

I had long wanted to see this area, which was on “The List,” affording it special status in my life.  “The List” currently contains 29 items, places to see or things to do in my life.  It is dynamic.  Each year, an item or two gets put on it.  Each year, if all goes well, a few items are checked off.  This year was particularly good — I saw Isle Royale and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, and a wolf in the wild, the last having been at the top of “The List” for many years.  “The List” is the most deeply personal thought I publicize.  Because it is so personal, I don’t believe in the “1000 places to see before you die” concept.  That is somebody else’s list.  Mine is mine.  If you have one, which I hope you do, yours is yours. 

“The List” began as a figure of speech many years ago.  In my forties, I wrote it down, becoming more aware of life’s lack of guarantees.  A neurologist, I saw too many people disabled or dead before they did or saw what they wanted to.  When I reached my fifties, the realization hit me that much of “The List” contained wilderness areas that required good health and good physical condition.  I almost put off the trip to Dakota for another year, but I knew if I went now I wouldn’t be kicking myself next year if something came up.  Indeed, a bicycle accident in July left me with a broken scapula and three broken ribs, all of which healed but were a stark reminder of what can happen. 

Occasionally, I delete an item, but only if I am really no longer interested.  Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and Etosha Park remain, but it’s a long trip, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled twice to South Africa.  I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail I haven’t hiked.  Nevertheless, finishing the AT is on the list.  Some items are easier — I want to show my wife Hawaii, and I want to spend a night camped out in the Rincons.  Right now, the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic are at the top.  I’m going next summer, while I still can. 

“The List” is not completely rational.  North Cascades is on it; the Everglades are not, although I do want to see them.  “The List” is a written reminder not to squander good years.  We have to make a living, but we ought not forget things outside of work that are important to us.  I’m not a city person, but seeing London is one of the items. 

I day hiked in North Dakota.  I had never done a trip like that before and found it rewarding.  I covered serious mileage each day because I carried less.  Water is an issue there, and bison are dangerous, both good reasons not to camp in the backcountry.  It was also nice to sleep in a bed when the temperature was in the low 20s.  In addition to bison, I saw pronghorn, wild horses, deer as well as hearing and seeing bugling elk, a real treat.  But time in wilderness usually gives me more than visual memories.  I generally come out of the area looking at the world differently.  I left Billings County with a surprising sense of optimism, given the current state of the world.  Theodore Roosevelt came to the area in 1882 as a young man.  An avid hunter, he realized the uniqueness of that particular era and envisioned a time when the bison were gone and the prairie no more.  He said, “What makes our country great is not what we have but how we use it.”  Three days after another September 11, ’01 – 1901 – he became president, the first interested in conservation.  It’s difficult to travel in Roughrider Country without encountering:  “I never would have become president had it not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”  I think he would be pleased to know the bison are still around, and the area he loved became first a memorial to him and then a national park.  He worked to save what he could, and it changed America.  Those of us who do our part can change America as well. 

And while you change America, don’t forget your list.


October 6, 2009

This is an urban/suburban park around and in Hot Springs, AR.  It made for my being in all 50 states, never having found much reason to go to Arkansas.  The Park itself has surprisingly good hiking on a ridge that is several miles long with some climbing.  Much of the hike goes through hardwood forest before coming out on a road.

There is plenty of sulfur-smelling water that people bring jugs to fill up with.  I dispensed with the baths, but the hiking was a pleasant surprise and there were very few people present in the “backcountry”!


October 5, 2009

OK, so I cheated.  But I was on my way up to Fairbanks and from there to ANWR, so I was pressed a bit for time.  I flew into Anchorage, rented a car, and drove down to the Kenai Peninsula.  I was able to enter Kenai Fjords NP and walk part way up the snowy, watery, dangerous hill toward Exit Glacier.  I figured that my exiting was a good idea, and I spent the rest of the morning at the moraine and seeing where the glacier had once been.

I thought about taking one of the boat tours, but 40 degree weather and rain didn’t really appeal to me.  Maybe it should have.  We didn’t get much rain up in ANWR, and what we did was at night.  It would be a different story in 2009.

That afternoon, I day hiked to Crescent Lake, outside of the Park.  I think I was too cavalier about the idea of running into bears.  I didn’t, but it is easy to forget when one is in boreal forest.


October 5, 2009

Jan and I went through Badlands after we were married in 1971.  At the time, it was a monument.  I went up to see Wind Cave and decided to pay another visit to Badlands.  This entailed a flight to Rapid City, SD and driving down through Wind Cave NP, where I saw the cave, small, but very interesting.  There are a lot more caves in the national parks than Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave!

I stayed in Hot Springs, fortunately having missed by one day a group of desperadoes who drove through here on their way to shutting down nearby Chadron, NE!   They were fortunately caught.

The next morning, I day hiked about 15 miles through the park east of the cave.  There were lovely views of the plains from the Black Hills.  I saw and heard numerous elk and even had one bound right out in front of me! 

The following morning, I went over to Badlands and hiked about 10 miles in the backcountry, seeing Big Horn sheep and getting to the car about five minutes before it really dumped!

One animal note:  I am a cat person.  I didn’t start out that way, but cats seemed to have their own ideas.  We have several.  My wife saves them, and they adopt me.  Well, there were two kittens at the hotel I was staying at who were obviously feral.  I bought some food for them and the next day paid a visit to the vet/animal control.  They were trapped, which brought the cops to the hotel to question me.  The kittens were taken to the local humane society/shelter, which I supported with a check.  I try to do that in every nearby town where there is a national park I visit.  I can’t save the world, but maybe I can help part of it!

Wind Cave NP pictures:

The cave itself and surrounding trails/views:





Badlands pictures:


September 19, 2009

It had been a source of some personal shame than I had never been to Yosemite until I was 60.  A bad infection that had sidelined me for several months was finally getting under some control, and my wife was attending a conference at the Tenaya Lodge, which is about 4 miles from the south Park entrance.  I went in the first day and hike Chilhuana Falls, which as my wife noted, made me just blossom.  It was a great day hike, and I added on some more stuff to make it about 17 miles.

The next day, we did the Yosemite Village stuff, which was on a Sunday, a week before Memorial Day, hot and crowded.  It was nice, but we had enough and left.

The day after, I did a hike out Glacier Point to a view, and then walked 6 miles along the road rather than doubling back.  Bad idea. 

The following day, we went over and did Kings Canyon and Sequoia.  We got great views from Moro Rock and the Generals Sherman and Grants tree.  While I got into Kings Canyon, I need to go back and camp there some time.

I did two more day hikes in Yosemite, one into a backcountry lake and another out to the rim overlooking the valley.  No question that the Glacier Point road is the best way to see the park.  I suppose sometime I need to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, but I was satisfied with what I did.


September 18, 2009

This was my third October park trip in a row.  I flew to Las VEgas, rented a car, and drove through snow a good share of the way up the Great Basin Highway to Baker.  I stayed at the Silverjack Lodge in Baker run by Terry Marasco.  This is a great place, with good food and a most interesting owner.  I highly recommend it.

Great Basin Park  has Lehman caves, which I saw the first day, then I hiked up towards Baker Lake, getting up around 10,500 feet in a couple of feet of snow.  The lakes were frozen, but the cirque covered in snow was really pretty.  Only downside was that the road up to Wheeler Peak was closed.  I walked part of it, then took a day hike most of the way between the lower and upper road.  I need to go back there and see the bristlecone pines.  Also would like to see the night sky from there.  I am told that the camping outside the park to the north is very remote.  Definitely worth considering!


September 18, 2009

Congaree is about 14 miles outside of Columbia, SC, in a cypress swamp with a river running through it.  I was flying to Philadelphia for a high school reunion and thought I would go by way of Charlotte.  From there, it is a couple of hours to Columbia, and a short hop to the park.  When flooded, the boardwalks are the only way around, and some of them are flooded as well.  I was there in late November, and everything was dry.  There are a nice set of trails, and I spent the morning and early afternoon hiking.  Saw some wild boar and some really large cypress trees.  It’s a nice place, near a city but still wild.