Leave No Trace

When traveling in the West, you’ll often see that phrase stuck to the back of Subarus and campervans, as well as printed on many of the brochures and maps handed out at national parks, national grasslands and other hiking and camping destinations. While on the road in New Mexico back in May, I was revisiting an old book that I had brought along and I found a new appreciation for the following passage, which takes the concept of “Leave No Trace” to a higher level. The book is God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote by Webster Kitchell…

   After breakfast we snooped around the ruins, and then we climbed
to the mesa top. We looked down on Pueblo Bonito. We were silent.
Then I spoke what I was feeling.
   “It’s sort of sad and sort of moving to see the ruins people leave.
They worked so hard, and all that’s left are ruins. But because they
worked so hard and left ruins, we remember them. We know at least
they existed. They weren’t completely swept away by the sands of
the desert and the sands of time.”
   “We don’t leave ruins.”
   “And people don’t remember you a thousand years later.”
   “So what? Who wants to be remembered?”
   “We humans can’t imagine not existing. We want to exist at least in
someone’s memory. Or leave a monument that someone will find a
thousand years later and say, ‘Some clever folks lived here.’ ”
   “So what? If you’re not alive to appreciate their wonder at the
monument you left for them, what good does the monument do?”
   “It’s psychological, Coyote, an emotional thing. I admit it isn’t
reasonable. People want to be remembered, so they build monuments.
They have to make their mark on the earth, even if it’s only carving an
aspen. It’s part of being human; the persistence of being.”
   “The point of being alive is to be alive! Why do people waste their
lives constructing a monument so people will remember them when
they’re dead? They could have put that energy into having a good time
or making life better for the human race. Or for coyotes, for that matter,
like you do.”
   “It’s called ego, Coyote. I have been reading some heavy sociology
about the stages people go through. When they’re little, they are child-
like. They don’t have all this ego. They take life as it comes, as you say
they should. Then they get to a stage when they have to differentiate
between self and parents. They start to develop an ego. Which is fun!
It means I am I. I do not exist just as an extension of my mother or my
clan; I exist! And so I want to leave my mark on the earth; maybe on
the Universe.”
   “Maybe ego is what is wrong with humans. Maybe that’s why you
were evicted from the garden way back there.”
   “You could be right. Which may be why in later life, people become
aware that life and goodness and beauty transcend the human ego. In
later years, they get some child-likeness back, but at a more sophisti-
cated level. They see the whole thing and appreciate it and understand
it and don’t have the emotional need to carve their initials in it anymore.
They can just accept it as a wondrous happening, a gift.”
   “Well said!”

~ ~ ~

Quoted text © 1991 by Webster Kitchell

Comanche

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

One of my favorite quiet and beautiful corners of the West—a corner that, I’m happy to say, seems to be underexplored by the majority of the traveling public—is the mesa country of northeastern New Mexico and the farthest western reaches of Oklahoma.

My autumn journey brought me into this wonderland once again, and I enjoyed my third and final night of grassland camping in 2020 with a return to southeastern Colorado’s Comanche National Grassland; my campsite less than two miles north of the Oklahoma line…

If you’re a fan of Level III Ecoregions, this location lies on the boundary between the Western High Plains and the Southwestern Tablelands. More simply put, the area doesn’t appear very “grassy” as compared to nearby grasslands, such as Cimarron to the east and Rita Blanca to the south. (These three national grasslands sit right in the bullseye of the Dust Bowl.) This part of Comanche certainly has a desert feel about it—plenty of pale sun-baked soil and exposed rock, plus cactus, yucca and other such plants common to arid regions…

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

I rolled into Colorado by driving north from the Black Mesa area on a scenic dirt road that passes through Cañon Gallinas, home to a dry creek that feeds the Cimarron River. Winding through the narrow, peaceful valley, I took a few moments for lunch in the shade of a creekside tree and enjoyed looking at the rocky wall of the low canyon just across the road. Moving on, the road soon made a short climb and I was back on the high plains. The whole area was nicely absent of other travelers as well as any sound of human activity. Finally entering national grassland property, I started scouting for the perfect place to set up camp.

With the help of the official grassland folding map, I found a Forest Service “road” leading to some high ground that looked promising. I slowly nosed the car up this fairly steep and rocky two-wheel track, which was well beyond the Pontiac’s skill level. After several squeaks, scrapes and clunks from below, we arrived at the top without any damage the oil pan or other vital underside components.

I stopped the car and walked ahead, verifying that the road becomes even more harrowing beyond this point. Happily, there was no reason to go any further. The pullout of bare packed soil was the perfect place to leave the car for the night. And pitching my tent here would not only offer maximum silence and solitude, but also the opportunity to explore two playgrounds of beautifully eroded sandstone. A stone castle to the north of camp (seen in the second photo above, beyond the car) stood about 30′ tall. South of camp was a maze of unusual rocky features, all under 20′ in height. It was like looking at southern Utah in miniature…a collection of little chimneys and buttes and canyons. Seemed to be the kind of place where some outlaw might have attempted to dry-gulch Jim Hardie

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)

 

Once camp had been established, there was enough daylight remaining to explore the nearby rock formations for a couple of hours. While I was hiking and climbing over the stone shapes, I noticed that many of the rocks were hosting lichens in neon lemon-lime…

Someone (perhaps a mantid?) tucked her eggs into these cases for the winter…

Last year’s road trip set a record for clear skies; apart from one rainy day in South Dakota, a big blue empty ceiling was the norm for more than three weeks. This October day was no exception, and as I was at the southern apex of my journey up to that point, the temperature had reached the low 90s by the time I made camp. Not a problem, though, as the bone-dry Sonoran air was exquisitely comfortable. Hot or cold, summer or winter, I’ve never been a fan of humidity or precipitation; I hope to add much more desert hiking and camping to my future western adventures.

With a clear sky and a warm, still night on tap, there’s was no doubt that the next several hours would be devoted to skywatching. Here in one of the darkest areas of the country, many miles from the nearest tiny town, a great show was guaranteed.

And the nearby rocks provided the perfect place to enjoy the show; a small natural amphitheater, just a short walk from the tent, was centered by this convenient pedestal of flat stone, about waist high and probably 8′ in diameter. Wouldn’t be surprised if this slab had occasionally seen use as a dining table by those who camped here in centuries past…

So I had a quick dinner, gathered the few supplies I’d need for the evening and walked over to the rock garden. I took my seat in time for yet another sunset colored by the wildfire smoke that had been hanging over the country for several weeks…

As usual, the coyotes were on schedule with their post-sunset serenade, then fell silent.  This was going to be a comfortable night; along with the warm rocks, the warm air and the absence of wind, I was happy that there were no biting bugs around to spoil the party. I never saw or felt any flying insects during my entire stay here. Plenty of crickets, though, and I was glad of their company; they provided a superb and gentle soundtrack for the show. And a soloist showed up to further enhance the mood: a solitary bird hiding in a nearby shrub, who kept hooting the same triplet of low, lonely tones throughout the night.

Each evening’s progression through the three stages of twilight is typically a 90-minute affair. It’s my favorite time of the day, but I always catch it in segments of varying length while driving or hiking or capturing photos or talking with friends or otherwise partially occupied.

Here, I was totally alone and focused on nothing but the sky for the full duration of the evening—the first time I’ve ever done so. And in this setting, my sense of time was completely distorted. That 90-minute transition felt as though it passed in a matter of minutes. I watched as a blank canvas of graduated color was pierced by a single point of light (Jupiter?), followed by a bright star off to my right. Then a dozen more winked on, which became one hundred, rapidly accelerating to ten thousand, until, much sooner that I thought possible, I was looking into the Milky Way.

Though the moon was hours away from cracking the eastern horizon, there was so much starlight pouring down that I could easily see the rocks and plants all around me. But looking at the ground was a rarity on this night; the sky was filled with amazing stuff, so much so that I stared into it for hours without boredom intruding for a single second. I was having a wonderful time, with laughter and expletives flowing freely. I counted several meteors streaking high above, which were probably pieces of Halley’s Comet…the earliest days of the annual Orionid Meteor Shower. I rotated my position frequently so I could enjoy all 360 degrees of this spectacle. However, my eyes returned quite often to a favorite reference point—the bright “W” of Casseopeia as she whirled around Polaris.

I can’t say exactly how many hours I spent sitting on that rock, but I’m quite sure it was the longest skywatching session of my life. And there was more to be seen after turning in for the night; I watched a while longer from my sleeping bag, gazing through the tent’s screened skylight, and spotted another shooting star or two before sleep arrived.

(I have no starlight images from this evening to share with you; I did not pack a DSLR or telescope on this trip. And even if I had, I was just too engrossed in the stunning overhead scenery to have taken time out for imaging. I recall previous nights in the wilderness when fiddling with cameras and optics proved to be a distraction that prevented me from fully appreciating the experience. So, in lieu of photos from Comanche, please enjoy this starry sky that I captured in western Texas five years earlier.)

After a peaceful night’s sleep, I was up and out in time for the sunrise…

…and another opportunity to climb around the rocks as they soaked up the early sunlight…

I’m certain that I’ll return to this spot once I get my campervan; one night here is just not enough. I lingered that morning, not wanting to leave. Putting the stone table to further use, I found it to be a great place for my morning stretches and exercises.

Best night of camping ever. We’ll see if my next visit to this area is just as memorable.

 

Grand River

My second night of grassland camping this fall was spent in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland—over 150,000 acres of beautifully desolate terrain in the state’s most sparsely populated quadrant. The silence here is deafening; this was easily the most silent night of camping I have ever experienced. The only sound that came to me in the darkness was the sweet twilight music of the coyotes (I shared that audio recording with you two months ago in this post).

If the skyline in the photo above looks familiar, it’s because I had previously written about my ascent of that butte on the left back in October of 2018. I had not planned to end up in this location once again…it was a happy accident. I drove in from the northeast this year, rather than from the west, and after several hours of looping across these wide open spaces on deserted gravel roads, I crested a hill and immediately recognized these buttes. Remembering the wonderful silence and solitude I experienced here two years ago, it seemed the perfect choice for my campsite.

I pitched my tent at the base of the hill you see above—a gentle but long grassy slope, topped by a rocky summit. Naturally, there was no way I’d leave the area without hiking to the top, so after striking camp the next morning, I walked up to check out the panoramic view of my neighborhood. Turns out that the summit of this hill was much more intriguing that the view from below suggested. Just on the other side of the peak, I found a garden of large and unusual rock formations…

Just a bunch of unnamed rocks atop an unnamed hill—a hill that likely sees very few visitors in any given year. But finding and exploring this hilltop was a wonderful surprise and a memorable experience. These small and unsung pieces of wilderness are responsible for my lack of interest in the popular and obvious destinations found in National Parks that draw tourists by the thousands.

On my next trip to Grand River, I hope to spend less time driving and more time hiking. I’m sure that other satisfying discoveries await me there.

A small, solitary wildflower growing near my tent.

 

Valley Abstract

All of the digital infrared images taken during my first visit to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch have now been posted. Two years after that trip, I returned to the ranch with an assortment of long-expired rolls of 35mm film, just to see what they would do. One of those rolls—Kodak Infrared film—was as old as my car.

I wasn’t expecting much from the IR experiment, but the results were ghostly and surreal, with strange artifacts and black skies; looked as though the photos had been taken during the night. Only a few of the frames contained anything resembling a photograph. Here, you can barely make out the shadowy figure of Sarah (right below the sun) heading up the trail to the South Platte River.

South Park, Colorado
Kodak Infrared film (expired 1971)

Carl’s Library: Mary Schäffer Warren

108 years ago…

A Merry Christmas

My darling brother: If you had only not been a boy I could have thought up O so many things to have sent you. But being a boy (however I am very glad you are) you will have to put up with a book. I do not know how good this book is for I have not read it. But the notice said many fine things about it.        ~ Sister Julia

In many of the vintage books I have acquired over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover reminders of the people who owned those books long ago, such as Julia’s handwritten note found in my copy of Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies by Mary T. S. Schäffer.

Mary Schäffer’s husband, Dr. Charles Schäffer, had a passion for botany. His playground was the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, and shortly after their marriage, Mary made her first trip to western Canada with Charles, acting as his scientific assistant. She was awestruck by the magnificent scenery all around her. With her husband’s guidance, Mary quickly became a talented amateur botanist and enjoyed the work they did together. She collected and identified specimens, captured photographs, and painted beautiful watercolor illustrations of the alpine flowers. For Mary, this was the genesis of many annual transcontinental journeys via the Canadian Pacific Railway, from her home in Pennsylvania to the wild country known as Banff & Jasper National Parks.

Charles died shortly after their 1903 visit to the mountains. By that time, Mary was thoroughly in love with the Canadian wilderness, and as a tribute to her dear husband, she wished to complete the botanical guide of mountain flora that they had dreamed of writing. Mary enlisted her husband’s colleague, botanist Stewardson Brown, to co-author the project, and they set out for Alberta in the summer of 1906; the book, Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, was published the following year.

That great task now completed, Mary was eager to plan her next westward journey, with a desire to make it a grander adventure than any before…exploring new territory and spending more time in the wild. Over the winter months, Mary and her friend Mollie Adams began their preparations.

Old Indian Trails is the story of the 1907 and 1908 expeditions made by Mary and Mollie, along with guides Sid Unwin and Billy Warren.

To anyone who quizzed the group about the purpose of their travels during those two summers, they explained that they were looking for the sources of the Athabasca and Saskatchewan Rivers. In truth, they were happy just to be roaming through this beautiful wilderness, wherever the trails may lead.

But there was indeed one specific goal very much on their minds: to locate a mysterious lake which the Stoney Indians called Chaba Imne. Working from a sketch made by their local friend, a Stoney named Sampson Beaver, they finally found the lake in 1908. Its current name, Maligne Lake, was affixed by Mary, and she is credited with its “official” discovery.

From her earliest travels, Mary approached Indigenous Peoples with warmth and friendship, and showed an eagerness to understand their way of life. She had great affection for Sampson Beaver and his family; Mary looked forward to visiting them whenever she was in the area. The Stoney Indians referred to Mary as Yahe-Weha (“Mountain Woman”).

After so many years of enduring long train trips to see her beloved mountains, Mary realized there was no longer any point in maintaining the life she knew in Philadelphia. She finally made Banff her year-round home and married her long-time mountain guide, Billy Warren.

With her writing, her lectures and her lantern slide shows, Mary worked to publicize the beauty of this region. Even so, a part of her was saddened to see the peace and tranquility fade a little as more and more visitors arrived each year, and opportunities for trailblazing and discovery existed only in her memory.

Like many other titles in my library, I discovered this book due to its reference in another book (and once again, I can’t recall which one). That is one of the joys of nonfiction; I’ve enjoyed many books that I likely would never have found—and my library has grown—simply due to authors referencing earlier works on the subject at hand.

Of course, it’s hard for me to pass up any old book that happens to include a folding map…

Speaking of mountains: I know that a similar early edition of this book resides on the shelves of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, and I can’t think of a more appropriate home for it. I want to take this opportunity to mention that December is a great time to make a donation to the RMLL, as they are currently raising funds to support their 2020 workshops and restoration projects. Find out more about the Land Library and make a contribution by visiting landlibrary.wordpress.com.

Companion book: I recommend the biography No Ordinary Woman: The Story of Mary Schäffer Warren by Janice Sanford Beck, published in 2002. The book provides a great deal of illuminating information, from Mary’s Quaker upbringing in Pennsylvania to her final years with Billy Warren in their Banff home, and in between, we learn of her early travel experiences and her growing appreciation for wild beauty, her first trips to the Canadian Rockies with Charles, her fascination and fondness for the Indigenous Peoples she encountered, the botanical work with her husband and Stewardson Brown, her government-backed survey expedition of Maligne Lake in 1911, her journeys to other parts of the globe, and her environmental activism. Additionally, this book contains several of Mary’s previously unpublished articles and manuscripts, and many more photographs from her mountain adventures.

Photographs and text: Copyright 1911 by Mary T.S. Schäffer.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

Trees & Leaves

That didn’t take long. Today’s post includes the last few photographs I have to share from my recent excursion through eastern Canada. This trip generated far fewer images than past adventures of similar distance or duration. There’s a reason for that…

On most road trips, I’m winding my way across the wide-open prairies, deserts, badlands and high country of the American West. Roaming under the Big Sky is, photographically, very stimulating; each turn of the road or the trail presents a new look at the marriage of land and sky. I return from every western journey with hundreds of photos.

Driving or hiking through heavily forested regions is different; though still quite satisfying, it’s more of a relaxing, contemplative experience rather than a photo opportunity. When I’m immersed in the forest, I don’t reach for the camera nearly as often.

Am I anti-tree? Certainly not. I greatly enjoy hiking in the woods during fall and winter, as well as taking long drives through Canada’s vast boreal forest. However, to me, nothing is more enjoyable than watching the sky. When I’m boxed in by a multitude of trees (or hills or mountains, for that matter), I’m missing out on sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, moonsets, interesting clouds, soaring birds, approaching storms, the beautiful colors of twilight. Having an unobstructed view of the horizon is something that I treasure. My preference is to appreciate trees in smaller doses—a stand of aspens marking the path of a stream that snakes across a broad Colorado valley, for example. A solitary tree standing guard on the prairie is one of my favorite sights; on many occasions, I have visited this lonely old cottonwood that lives on a South Dakota ranch…

I find that spending time with a single tree, or with a small grove, is more rewarding than a journey among countless thousands of trees. Even so, the larger forests do have their charms, and I’ll keep on driving through the wilds of Canada, hiking in silent woods carpeted with freshly fallen snow, and visiting all of my favorite trees. As for day-to-day living, I hope to be doing that on the Great Plains someday…preferably, on a piece of land that has one tree within hiking distance.

Freshwater Pools of the Canadian Shield

When I left my tent for a morning hike, little did I know that I would find myself in a wilderness rock garden, featuring colorful plants and beautiful pools of cool, clear water. Such was my luck when I chose to camp on the shore of James Bay at Longue Pointe, north of Chisasibi, Quebec.

Just before the hike, I listened to the birds and watched the sunrise from my seaside campsite

Hear the birds and the waves for yourself by watching this brief video, recorded at the above location:    YouTube     Vimeo

Leaving the shore and walking uphill through the trees and brush, I arrived on the high ground of Longue Pointe—the exposed gneissic granite of the Canadian Shield

The pools are perennial fixtures of the terrain, fed only by rain and snow…

Here’s another short video, which will give you a 360° tour of this area:    YouTube    Vimeo

Fascinating microecosystems…

Algae? Pollen? Ribbons of orange floating on the still water…

I never thought it was such a bad little tree: Below, a ragged little evergreen makes its home on the hard stone…

I left the trees behind as I walked westward toward the end of the point…

Above and below, dikes of pegmatite run for long distances across the great slabs of granite…

Terminus: The western tip of Longue Pointe, where the rock dives below the calm, blue waters of James Bay…

A short but extremely satisfying hike…one that I’d like to take morning after morning. Perhaps I’ll be able to stay for several nights on my next visit.

Overland to Nunavut

I’m not that keen on being hauled to a destination by plane or by boat; I prefer to get there on my own, either by driving or by walking. As for visiting the territory of Nunavut, boats and planes are, very nearly, the only options.

Nunavut is Canada’s newest and largest territory, created April 1, 1999 from the eastern and northern portions of the Northwest Territories. It is a gigantic and sparsely populated wilderness, and there are no roads leading to Nunavut from the rest of North America.

The boundaries of Canada’s provinces and territories have undergone many changes since 1867; don’t be surprised if these adjustments continue. For reasons unclear (as noted in this article), Quebec’s territory stops at the shoreline. All of the islands in James Bay and Hudson Bay—even those within throwing distance—belong to Nunavut.

However, there are several spots along these northern shores where Nunavut and Quebec share short land borders. These exist in certain places where land sits below the high tide line…even though that land may appear to be dry and verdant. Edward Bearskin, the Tourism Coordinator in Chisasibi, informed me that there is one such area west of town, just north of the end of the James Bay Road…

I was quite happy to learn about this location, as I would no longer need to charter a boat to one of the nearby islands in order to visit Nunavut. Edward told me that there are no trails leading into this acreage, no signage marking the boundary…just raw coastal wilderness. Fine with me; it would add a little pioneering spirit to the hike as I forged my own trail.

Of course, the car would have to stay behind in Quebec. After coming so close, it seemed only fair to carry a photo of the Pontiac into Nunavut, just to complete its journey.

(Ocean in View: Below, the Pontiac’s first look at northern seawater. We reached the shore of James Bay after driving all 434 miles (699 km) of Route de la Baie-James. This is as near to Nunavut as the Pontiac will ever be, parked just above the territorial boundary of the high tide line.)

Stepping off the road and into the wild, I worked my way northward. Though not a long hike in terms of distance, it was no easy stroll; the brush was often tall, tangled and quite dense, sometimes hiding deep holes. I made several detours, and occasionally had to crawl under some of these thick shrubs. Other areas consisted of soft, wet muskeg. By the time I had reached the open air again, I had a few cuts and scrapes, and two very soggy boots.

After walking across a low, marshy area, I was standing on broad slabs of granite surrounded by shorter brush, and I could see the waters of James Bay. It appeared that I had reached my destination…

The GPS locator on my phone told me that I had indeed crossed the “border.” Welcome to Nunavut…

(Phone screenshot, captured 1309 EDT, September 16, 2019.)

From there, I continued walking northward to the shore, where I spent some time playing on the large, colorful rocks awash in the calm sea. I also enjoyed a sip of Nunavut’s cool, clear water (yeah, yeah…it was fine; so many rivers empty into James Bay that its salinity is very low).

(Give a Hoot: This card was not left on the stone; it’s back in my wallet.)

Not exactly a proper visit to Nunavut, but it will do for now. I expect to return someday, as there’s enough wild beauty up there to get me on an airplane; Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island are on my list.