Feeds:
Posts
Comments

War and Human Nature

Veterans Day has taken on a deeper and more personal meaning for many people this year,  given that many of us have been feeling battle weary following an election cycle that started over 18 months ago, if not even longer back in time. It’s a relief to be done with the relentless parade of political commercials and related advertising, and I wonder how much money was spent in total for this year’s campaign and electoral cycle. I suspect it’s in the billions altogether, and it’s too bad all that money cannot seem to be harnessed and channeled toward a greater good.

My dad, who turned 90 last Saturday, is a veteran of World War II. His brother Jack died in a German P.O.W. camp several days after the jeep he was traveling hit a land mine. This happened in Belgium, in late 1944. More than half a century later, in March 1999, my dad and I traveled together to the Allied Cemetery near Liege, Belgium to honor his brother’s memory, and it was an emotionally cathartic experience for both of us.

What really haunted me there were innumerable crosses remembering so many people who died in war. I thought of the collective energy, mindset and resources that it took to end this particular conflict  Standing there silently together at Jack’s gravesite, I palpably and deeply felt the loss that my Dad, his oldest brother and their mom must have felt when they received the news that my Uncle Jack, age 20 at the time, would never be home again.

I am thinking today, too, of how and on what we spend our individual and collective energies, mindsets and resources. I hope that with this election cycle now hopefully behind us, we’ll also choose to invest in healing and rebuilding divisions, rather than throwing white gas on and igniting them. I hope we will move forward by choosing to see the good and the potential in all people, and invite and include everyone at the table. We all have some room to grow and heal in these respects.

As Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address,

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Nature is one of the best places in which we all grow and heal and come home.

Let’s all take a collective deep breath, exhale, and dive in to experience nature where we live, work, play and create community.

It’s one of the best ways to bring more peace, healing, calm and lightheartedness into a world that has been hungering for it for far too long.

Count your blessings, share your gifts.

Bury the hatchet, heal the rifts.

As the raven flies, it’s only about twelve miles and a short overflight from the North to the South Rim of  Grand Canyon National Park. For well-prepared people in exceptionally good shape, it’s a 20-mile plus hike from rim to rim, and some folks even “run” the canyon in such fashion, sometimes from rim to rim to rim all in one day.

I’ve not flown over, floated, run or hiked all the way to the bottom and then and out of the Grand Canyon, but you bet I’d go with a party of trusted travelers, and check in with park  officials and others who have safely and successfully made the journey before I’d really consider doing so. By car, of course, you could also drive from one rim to the other over a road distance exceeding 200 miles, via Page, Arizona. Then again you could experience one of the world’s greatest natural wonders via helicopter or chartered plane overflights originating on nearby private and tribal lands.

The Grand Canyon is one of Earth’s few geologic features observable from space, and on the ground it’s equally vast and impressive. About 277 miles long, over a mile deep in some places, and from 12 to 18 miles across, it stretches the imagination, shakes the most jaded humans out of their self-absorbed worlds, inspires silence, awe and humility, and constantly shape shifts before your eyes, ears, heart and soul.

Still it’s not as protected, both in and outside the park, as it could and should be. The September issue of National Geographic points to several challenges to the integrity and future of the Grand Canyon. The Federal Aviation Administration has lifted overflight number restrictions originating on tribal lands just west of the parts of the Grand Canyon. Even within the park, there are many places, especially along the South Rim, where it’s nearly impossible to avoid seeing and hearing aircraft zooming overhead.

Outside the national park to the east, the Navajo Nation debates whether to construct The Escalade Tramway, a high-speed passenger tramway capable of ferrying thousands of visitors daily from the South Rim a mile down to the Colorado River to enjoy the canyon, grab lunch, snacks and souvenirs, and then zoom back up to the South Rim. Many Navajos, as well as people from other neighboring tribes such as the Hopi, consider the proposed location, where the Little Colorado River melds with the Colorado River, as sacred.  I suspect Edward Abbey would be throwing a shit fit as well if he learned about these and other threats to the Grand Canyon..

Then there’s air quality and pollution issues impacting our ability to see great distances and breathe clean air. Near the town of Tusayan on the South Rim, a mega-development housing proposal was shot down recently which would have added thousands of additional dwelling units, potentially contributing to greater traffic, light pollution, and the lowering of the area’s water table. For now, this proposal has been turned down, but it could very well pass on a smaller scale sometime down the road.

This is not all doom and gloom, and it’s not too late to change and correct our course.The Grand Canyon is still mighty grand, even with five million plus visitors annually to the region. Within and outside of this and other national park boundaries, we should exercise greater restraint. We should limit our impacts and actions. We should take the long view. We should more deliberately weigh how a cascade of human activities can ultimately erode, impair and destroy places that deserve to be preserved and protected for future generations.

As President Teddy Roosevelt urged people of his time over a century ago in a much less populated United States, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value.”

 

One of the best things in life for me personally is the ongoing opportunity to explore and share the natural wonders of our one home earth planet with fellow travelers and adventurers.

Some of the hikes I am about to share have been favorites for years, but others I have come to know and love more recently through friends and colleagues who have in turn shared some of their favorite trails.

Please always remember, though, that hiking is definitely a proceed at your own risk type of activity. Consider your current health and fitness level, as well as your physical challenges and limitations, and be forthright with others in your hiking party.

Check on local weather and trail conditions, and check in with the land agency managing the place where you are considering hiking, too. Bring a first aid kit, be prepared, and most importantly, be flexible and willing to forgo or change your plans based on what unfolds on your hiking adventure. Thanks for also practicing Leave No Trace Principles-in sum, leave only footprints, and take only pictures.

Here are a few selected national parks and hiking trails to consider to get you started:

In Yellowstone National Park:

Beaver Ponds Loop Trail near Mammoth Hot Springs is a five-mile meander that takes you through a variety of habitats and a proliferation of wildflowers during the warmer months. This trail is best done early in the day, or in very late afternoon once it’s started to cool down. You can also hike to the Beaver Ponds and then return the same route if you end up hiking mid-day, as that way you will have more shade on your return hike as compared to hiking through open meadows with very little shade if you were to do the complete 5-mile loop. This is a classic “Northern Range” Yellowstone hike with good opportunity to see lots of wildlife, including bears, so be very bear aware of course!

Storm Point Trail east of Fishing Bridge is a wonderful, fairly flat three-mile loop leading you to well named Storm Point overlooking Yellowstone Lake, which is the largest high elevation lake in the U.S. From the actual Storm Point you can look across (on a clear day) to the Red Mountains to the south, to the Absaroka Range to the west, and on super clear days you can even see the Teton Range from here. Marmots are busy hanging out on sunny rocks during the summer months, and hikers often see bison. ground squirrels, rabbits and lots of waterfowl. If you’re looking for a short hike by Yellowstone Lake with a real wilderness feel, this might be a good fit for you!

In Grand Teton National Park:

The Phelps Lake Trail is a beauty and is about a three-mile loop altogether. Consider getting dropped off at the Laurance S.Rockefeller Preserve to get started, as the parking lot here is small and often fills up by late morning. You can increase your distance about a mile by following the trail around Phelps Lake, which is often a very nice temperature to swim in during the hotter summer months of July and August. When the timing is right, there may even be huckleberries to pick and savor! The Rockefeller Preserve is about 4 1/2 miles north of Teton Village..

The Bradley and Taggart Lakes Trails offer options for doing loop hikes totaling about four miles in either direction. If you decide to visit Taggart Lake itself, you’ll be adding another mile to your itinerary, but it is also a gorgeous lake and well worth the effort. The trailhead for these two hikes is about 2 1/2 miles north of the Moose Visitor Center.

In Glacier National Park:

Near Logan Pass, two awesome hikes include the Highline Trail on the north side of the road, and the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail on the south side.

The Highline Trail climbs steadily in elevation and is a fairly narrow trail at times. There are steep drop-offs in places so if heights are an issue for you, consider taking the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail instead. Nonetheless, the Highline Trail gives you a more immediate and palpable sense of what Glacier’s backcountry feels like as it’s not as crowded as the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. The views along the Highline Trail are rewarding and expansive in all directions, but if this is your first time on this particular trail, I’d highly recommend just going in a mile or two then returning to the trailhead the same way you came from (back to Logan Pass and the Visitor Center there).

The Hidden Lake Overview Trail is one of the most amazingly beautiful short hikes you could ever do in the Lower 48 U.S. states, but because of this you might be sharing the trail with quite a few nature lovers. It’s about 1 1/2 miles each way to the overlook, and about a 500 foot elevation gain to boot. If you want to continue down to Hidden Lake, add another three miles to your total trek, plus about an 800 foot elevation drop and then gain as you head hack to the overlook. Regardless of how far you travel, you’ll be rewarded by stunning views. Maybe some bighorn sheep and/or mountain goats might be grazing nearly, marmot chirps and cries will echo off canyon walls, and amazing summer wildflowers will bless your path. Please, though, do not feed any of the begging rodents that may approach you on this trail.

Both the Highline and the Hidden Lake Overview trails are close by the Logan Pass Visitor Center on Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier National Park. I highly recommend taking the free Glacier National Park shuttle buses once you have paid admission to visit the park. That way you’ll miss out on combat parking in the small parking lots and have more time to enjoy all of Glacier in its glory, as the buses make frequent drop-offs and pick-ups at the Logan Visitor Center and other popular park locations.

YOU CAN ALSO GET MORE INFO HERE:

Yellowstone National Park:

http://www.nps.gov/yell

Grand Teton National Park:

http://www.nps.gov/grte

Glacier National Park:

http://www.nps.gov/glac

P.S. I’d love to hear what are some of your favorite hiking trails in these or other national parks, and also receive feedback after the fact if you decide to hike any of these suggested trails. Thanks! As the weather cools somewhat I’ll suggest some hikes in other national parks.

 

When you have little to no contact with nature on its own terms, with wild nature, it’s quite easy to get yourself into trouble. Carnage, injuries, and even death can follow as a result. GPS devices, smart and mobile phones, and all the technological gear you have at hand may not be enough to save your ass or get help when you most need it.

You can also be incredibly experienced and familiar with wild places, and end up that same proverbial creek without a paddle. None of us escapes from having lapses in judgment in life-sometimes we survive them; sometimes we don’t.

Whether we live in large cities, sprawling suburban areas, or rural places closer to wild places, it’s nearly universally rewarding to have spent time in nature, then arrive safely back home elated and re-charged, eager to share stories from our most recent adventures.
.
This summer, though, far too many adventurers to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, have already experienced tragedy and death in the wild..

A few weeks ago Yellowstone had its first thermal feature death in nearly 16 years after a young man wandered off trail with his sister in the Norris Geyser Basin area. Since 1890 there have been at least 22 such deaths in the park, and the two-volume book series, Death In Yellowstone by Lee Whittlesey, continues to educate and warn readers of the myriad unforgiving perils that accompany the remarkable beauty and wildness of this majestic place. No amount of signage, guard rails, or messaging will ever eradicate the real possibility that the park can kill, still.

There were 4,100,000 visitors to Yellowstone in 2015, and current trends indicate that that number may be surpassed this year as well. Since April 2016, at least two other people have experienced thermal burns in the park. In another incident, a Canadian film crew, operating without a commercial permit, deliberately walked and filmed being illegally off trail on fragile crust overlying near-boiling temperature waters near Grand Prismatic Spring.

Well-intentioned visitors removed a lone bison calf from the wild and placed it in their car, concerned about its fate. Later, park officials had to euthanize the calf., as it was no longer accepted by other bison due to being handled by humans. Outside the park, a similar incident occurred when people happened upon a newborn pronghorn antelope..

It’s hard to restrain ourselves when we see a young and apparently helpless animal. We’re used to exciting rescues, miraculous reunions, and happy endings in the media, but nature plays no favorites. Visiting a national park and other wild places begs for more restraint than we may be used to exercising at home. It also begs for being more thoughtful and prepared, and for being more kind and considerate to others who live and visit there, resident wildlife included..

It’s akin to spending time in another culture or country. Before we visit, it’s wise to learn about the customs, manners. nuances and challenges that may be different there than they are at home. National parks and other wild settings are some of the last places where animals such as grizzly bears and wolves can still roam, make a living, and call home. In many ways, we are visiting someone else’s home.

Indeed, despite your own advance preparations, or after having read up on park rules and regulations, you may still see others off trail in thermal areas, or crowding an adult bison (which is always a bad idea) to get a better photo. In another sad incident this spring, someone was struck by a car as she tried to cross the road between Madison and West Yellowstone, near where bald eagles have historically nested. Videos and selfies were also posted on line of folks posing with their backs to bison (another really bad idea), and others of people getting way too close to elk in the park.

It is heartbreaking to hear of people who are killed or seriously injured in a place they very likely have loved from afar and have wanted to visit for a long time. Accidents can and do happen. But please don’t leave your brain at the gate, or join the crowd doing something that will either result in harm to themselves or others. You’re a long ways from a hospital in any direction, and may need a life flight to get urgent medical care and treatment.

Be prepared, and remember that human drivers are far more dangerous statistically than grizzly bears and bison, both in and outside the park.. Where it gets tricky is when and where to intervene with others, and how to be kind and firm if you decide to do so.

It may be tempting to embarrass, ridicule and rapidly judge people who may be behaving in an unsafe manner, whether that’s in Yellowstone or somewhere else they have come to enjoy and experience the natural world. It takes some diplomacy to let them know it’s unsafe without calling into question their intelligence, but again, we all have lapses in judgment, and the goal is to help that person decide to change their behavior so they no longer endanger themselves or others.

I get it that maybe folks just want to contact a ranger to deal with people doing unsafe things in national parks and other public places. People are understandably fearful of an escalating confrontation, plus with national parks allowing people to have firearms within their boundaries (a really really bad idea) that makes many visitors even less likely to speak out when something is awry.

Just like in the natural world itself, there are no easy answers for how to resolve this challenge. It’s so easy to get in deeper than our own comfort zone, but paradoxically that’s where huge learning, discoveries and breakthroughs often occur, if we survive the moment or experience..

Consider that at one time, there were less than 30 remaining wild bison, period, and where their numbers are today. Consider the phenomenal rebound of wolves in Greater Yellowstone after they were extirpated by the 1930s. Until about 1970, people were feeding bears in Yellowstone, and leaving garbage strewn around to attract them for photo opportunities. Collectively and individually, we’ve changed our mindset and ways of relating to nature over time, and hopefully that will continue to evolve.

It’s also easy to believe that our actions don’t matter or are harmless when visiting wild places, but it’s super sad to see a lone petrified tree encased by an iron fence to keep out souvenir collectors in Yellowstone, or people’s initials carved into bacterial and algae mats in many thermal areas.

Being in a crowd and being fairly anonymous drives some folks to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. For some people, they may genuinely not know that something is harmful, or they may not have read the regulations and rules, or they saw someone else do something and decided to follow suit.

For others, they seem to be suffering from a bad case of “No one can tell me what to do,” “You’re trampling on my freedom to do what I want on government land,” or they loathe government entities entrusted with preserving and protecting lands belonging to all Americans..

The National Park Service’s mission, as stated in the U.S. Organic Act of 1916. reads as follows:

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.

Some generations later, the National Park Service’s Centennial Goal is to
“Connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates.”

The number of park visitors will almost certainly continue to grow, prompting some hard conversations about how we can truly protect places and leave them unimpaired for future generations. Connecting with and growing the next generation of park supporters and advocates is also crucial.

That hinges on simultaneously educating people that their actions and inactions do make a difference in the integrity and future of wild places, no matter where their feet are, whether you actually and physically visit a place, or are enjoying and exploring it from afar.

Wild places can be great teachers. Yet they also command respect, restraint and humility, as an excerpt from a 1970 Billings Gazette editorial stressed following the death of a park visitor to Yellowstone that year:

Death is a frequent visitor in raw nature. And Yellowstone National Park, despite the cabins and roads, is raw nature. The Park is the untamed and unfenced wildlife and the amoral energy of thermal wonders. It cannot be treated lightly; when it is it erupts in death…The park is not Disneyland, Rocky Mountain version. Nor is it a zoo with moats and fences separating the wild and the domesticated. For all the trappings of men, it is wilderness. And the man who fails to accept it as such dies.

Travel safely, and travel well this summer!

 

On the back cover of a free tourist magazine for Guanacaste Province in Costa Rica, there’s an advertisement promoting the nation that features a photo of a hummingbird perched on a branch. The tagline reads “A Small Country With A Huge Vision”.

Following the tagline, the ad reads:

This hummingbird lives in a country where nature surrounds you,
where educated people choose peace over conflict,
where quality products are made and shared,
and where talent, innovation and dreams abound.

Costa Rica is an amazingly blessed place. Following a bloody civil war in 1948, it abolished its military. One of the most striking reminders of this is an unnamed work of art in a courtyard outside the Costa Rican Art Museum in San Jose. Old rifles lay partially buried in concrete. exposed to the elements, leaving their meaning and significance open to interpretation by the visitor.

Certainly Costa Rica is not without conflict. Tensions and vigorous debates persist over further development of the nation’s natural resources, creating truly renewable energy options in the face of global climate change, preserving and protecting the nation’s amazing natural biodiversity, and providing for the needs of current and future generations of “ticos” (the nickname Costa Ricans use to describe themselves).

But what really struck me was how generally happy, upbeat and positive ticos were, and this was highly infectious I felt an upwelling of tremendous peace and contentment while traveling together with Erik in this small nation with a mighty heart.  I felt a huge release of sorrow and sadness about my mom’s passing last October meld into the heavy tropical rains that fell one afternoon and evening at our jungle lodge on the Pacuare River.

That same afternoon, I awoke from a deep sleep, then climbed into a small private pool adjoining our cabina that overlooked the jungle and the roaring river below. Toucans flitted by, and small lizards scurried across the deck. Huge blue morpho butterflies flitted throughout the canopy, and howler monkeys boomed in the distance.

The pool was not chlorinated, thankfully. The water, sourced from the hills above and later repurposed for other needs at this remote setting, was a nice, refreshing 70 degrees or so, in contrast to the muggy air temperature and high humidity accompanying the heavy rains.

I plunged in, re-surfaced, opened my eyes and looked out at a revitalized world full of promise, potential and possibility. We all came from and come from here, it seemed. It was great to return, to feel at home in a place where all things came and belonged together.

“Welcome home!” the jungle seemed to speak to me. Even now, at home in Montana, I can envision and sense that same deep sense of peace and belonging.

Welcome home.

In a 1970’s song by America, “A Horse With No Name,” the lead singer describes the desert as an ocean with its life underground, and it’s an apt metaphor for better understanding, exploring and living in this type of environment.

So how do most organisms and other beings manage to live and thrive in the desert, where rain and snowfall are scarce, and in some years no precipitation may fall at all?

Nighttime is the big time to be active, it seems. Kangaroo rats come out of their daytime hiding places to eat, and kit foxes, coyotes and sidewinder rattlesnakes all come out as well. Yucca moths pollinate Joshua Trees, bats and owls zoom across brilliantly clear night skies in search of sustenance.

It’s vital to be resourceful, and adaptive. Some plants lose their leaves entirely during dry spells and regain them after it rains. Other plants have tough, stubby leaves that retain whatever moisture that falls; some in turn have leaves growing at angles that minimize their exposure to the intensity of direct desert sun.

Make the most of what nature and life bring you.  The desert tortoise can go up to one year without drinking water. Somehow, they can sense rain coming before we humans do. Tortoises have been observed digging shallow holes or pits where they lie and wallow and welcome rain when it comes.

Have a back-up plan and more than one option on your plate. In Joshua Tree National Park recently, we learned about the strategies of the cactus wren when it came to nesting in desert environments. We observed unoccupied nests these wrens had created in thorny clumps of cacti to distract predatory snakes hunting for their eggs (and at times, their fledgling newborn). Somehow these birds have learned it’s best to have a few decoy nests to distract those whose plans and goals are different than your own.

Be ready and able to capitalize quickly on what life gives you. So true, whether you are in the desert, or wherever your feet may be. Desert wildflower seeds may lie in the soil for a century, waiting for optimum conditions to flourish. Too much heavy rain or snow all at once doesn’t create such conditions. Instead, gentle, steady rains are the key to what may unfold in the spring here. It’s incredible that something so gorgeous and so fleeting has perhaps been 100 years in the making, such as the extensive ocean of desert gold flowers carpeting the floor of Death Valley nearly a month ago

Be humble, and know that you are not the only one out there trying to thrive and make a living.

The desert highlights the need for healthier interdependence between human-impacted versus our wilder neighboring environments. A desert garbage dump for L.A., for example, would attract ravens, which prey upon younger desert tortoises that haven’t developed their tougher adult shells. These endangered reptiles have enough challenges already to survive and thrive and a garbage dump may very well be the tipping point toward their extinction.

Another example-it makes sense for desert locations to be considered for solar and wind power projects, but location is everything. It’s better to site such projects in areas already disturbed by human activity, but not always. We have to consider other factors, such as where bighorn sheep travel over time in search of water, food, or seasonal habitat, or where desert pronghorn migration routes may still best have a chance for their long-term survival as a species.

In the end, it’s amazing that the desert country of southern California, southwestern Nevada, and Arizona is perhaps the most intact and functioning healthy desert environment we have left on the planet. Not bad for a region with over 20 million folks living in southern California, a few million people living in Las Vegas, and perhaps another five million in Phoenix alone.

It’s a vast, often quiet and unforgiving desert surrounded by an ocean of humanity that many only hurry through to get on with their busy lives. Yet it showers those who bravely venture here with its wild, unmanufactured wisdom, helping us thrive in the so-called “real world” as well.

Birdsong erupts in an awakening land
Osprey’s return is now at hand.

An elk herd gathers on a steep greening hill
Clouds drift above, the air quite still.

In higher mountains
where snow piles up deep
grizzlies and black bears emerge from their sleep.

Down by the river
a drift boat flows past
Fishermen shout as a trout strikes their cast.

Not far from the city a meadowlark sings,
bluebirds and robins, and others take wing.

Sagebrush buttercup blooms close to the earth
Marking renewal, a time of rebirth.

Energy abounds as we all shout and sing
Goodbye Old Man Winter, and welcome back spring!