June 28, 2008

Zion: Angel's Landing

I've hiked a lot of trails that many people would consider crazy. From climbing Long's Peak in Colorado, to traversing a cliff in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park wearing a 50 pound backpack. There have even been a few times on a trail when I seriously questioned my judgement (or lack thereof). While Zion's Angel's Landing trail doesn't necessarily top my list of "crazy" hikes it certainly deserves a placement near the top.

I had originally planned to do the hike as sort of a celebration for the exciting news I got earlier in the day. Unfortunately due to Sonja's sore knee she couldn't go along. So, in order to make for a safer hike everyone wanted me to do it in the company of one of Zion's interpretive rangers, who was doing a guided hike up to Scout's Lookout at the top of the Walter's Wiggles section of the trail, rather than go it alone. But after speaking with the ranger prior to her hike, she suggested that if I wanted to make it to the top I should probably just do it on my own anyway. It was already 6pm and sunset was in three hours, so if I was gonna go, I had to just do it. I figured there'd be plenty of people on the trail with me if something did go wrong, so I went for it.

This was my destination, the top of that large sandstone "fin" in the center of the picture. The trail begins right about where I'm standing and proceeds along the left base of the cliff until it cuts sharply uphill, then scales the left side of Angel's Landing.

This was the lower half of the uphill section, looking down from near the base of Walter's Wiggles, one of the more famous sets of switchbacks in the national park system.

Now, I had mentally prepared myself for one helluva strenuous hike. I mean, I'd seen pictures of the wiggles and heard stories of it taking almost three hours to just get to the top of them. So when I reached this section I started climbing it with the belief that this was just the warm-up for the big push up the wiggles once I got to the top of these. I mean, it hadn't even been 45 minutes and I was already within two or three switchbacks of the top of this set. There just had to be more to go. Or so I thought.

Imagine my surprise when I climbed over the rise to see this in front of me. That's Angel's Landing, which meant that the section I had just powered through was "Walter's Wiggles". I seriously turned around in disbelief and asked a guy who was journaling nearby, "That was it?!?" He kind of looked at me weird and then nodded.

It actually wasn't until after my elation at discovering the "hard" part of the hike was over that I got a good look at what I still had to do.

Just looking at this picture it doesn't look so bad. I mean, there are steps carved into the rock and a handy chain to hold onto. Doesn't really look so bad. At least, not until you glance to either side of the trail...

This was the view directly to my left as I ascended the Landing. That ground you see above my hand is more than 1,600' below where I was crouching. And it wasn't a nice sloping descent to reach it either, but rather a sheer, vertical cliff straight down to the bottom. I didn't actually have the nerve to poke my head over the edge to look. It was hard enough to stretch my hand that close to the cliff. I wasn't about to actually lean out over it.

Now, it would be challenging enough to have to endure this view from one side of the trail. But no, on the hike up to Angel's Landing, you get it from both sides!

To really get what I'm talking about you'll need to click on the above picture to enlarge it. This is the section known as "the bridge". On the left, no more than 12 inches from my left foot, is a sheer drop of over 1,600'. On my right, no more than three feet from my right foot, is a sheer drop of over 800'. And directly in front of me the trail actually gets narrower by about a foot or two! Nice, eh?

The image is a little deceptive, since my grip on the chain doesn't really look all that desperate, but in order to click the shutter button on my camera I needed to use my right hand. Unfortunately, the chain was also on my right, and I wasn't about to stand there without holding onto something attached to the rock. So, I contorted myself to be able to capture the scene in two photographs without having to release my death grip on the chain.

Of course, it didn't really occur to me that it might be a little easier to just turn around and face the other direction. At least not until about five minutes ago as I was typing this.

This is looking back down towards the bridge section from about 2/3's of the way to the top. The entire time I was climbing, fighting vertigo and taking photographs to document the hike, I kept thinking about how much more difficult this was going to be on the way back down.

But the view that grew more impressive the higher I went kept spurring me forward and upward.

And I really mean upward. This was the last 50 yards of the trail to the top, and to take the picture I had to look practically straight up. This trail has been officially designated as non-technical (meaning it doesn't require ropes and harnesses), but I think that's being very generous. If they hadn't installed the chain there's no way it was pass muster. Not that it would prevent crazies from trying to scale it anyway.

And the requisite self-portrait from the summit, with the setting sun turning the cliffs of Zion Canyon brilliant shades of crimson and gold.

I had made it to the summit in a little more than an hour and a half. Not bad for an old, fat, out-of-shape park ranger, eh? While I was sad that I couldn't share the experience with Sonja (who was also sad she couldn't go along with me), I was relieved that she didn't try it. Attempting this hike without being 100% would be begging for a disaster. Besides, even at our best I would have been a nervous wreck, worrying about Sonja slipping on the rocks or not holding onto the chain tight enough. Next time we're in the Southwest we'll summit together, though.

I'm really glad I did it. The hike was pretty damn amazing.

June 25, 2008

Zion: The Call and The Narrows

One of the most memorable experiences I had at Zion was receiving the phone call from Glacier informing me that I was being offered the job. Now, normally, I can't stand seeing people talking on cell phones in national parks. In fact, I usually have to resist the urge to rip it out of their hands and throw it over the edge of the cliff. Seeing "that guy" blabbing away on his phone (it's never a woman doing this...it's always a man) when he should be enjoying his vacation is a source of constant irritation for me. So, you can imagine my disgust when I suddenly realized I had, at least temporarily, turned into "that guy". Not only that, but my father-in-law just happened to be ready with his camera to capture it.

Of course, the fact that this was an extremely important call that would ultimately reshape the course of Sonja and my lives, I think I can forgive myself for the temporary lapse in judgement. And, yes, this photo does actually capture the precise moment when I learned I got the job at Glacier. Pretty cool, huh?

So, after all the excitement of "the call" we all needed to go cool down in the Virgin River that flows through the heart of Zion Canyon. We headed up the Riverside Trail to the beginning of the Zion Narrows, one of the more famous and popular hiking spots in the park.

No one but Sonja and I had the guts to go wading upstream, though. So while Mom, Dad and Nick relaxed at the end of the foot trail, Sonja and I splashed our way up into the Narrows.

There were a lot of other people with us, so it wasn't the most tranquil experience, but it was a lot of fun. It also felt really nice to be partially submerged in 58 degree water while the sun was baking us overhead.

Next up: Angel's Landing and Antelope Canyon

Exploring Zion National Park, Part 1

With Sonja's parents and nephew visiting for a little while we felt it was appropriate to take some time off and do a little exploring with them. This is Nick's first trip out to Arizona and thought it would be a good opportunity to show him some of this beautiful state. So we decided to take him to Utah. He can see Arizona some other time.

Our first big destination of their visit out here was Zion National Park. Neither Sonja nor I had ever been there, so this meant that all of us would get to see something new. Of course, I knew it was going to be beautiful, but what we saw just took my breath away. Zion is by far one of the top five most beautiful places I've ever been.

But we had to get there first, which involved an eight hour drive (including side-trips and meandering back-roads) from our place to the Bumblebutt Motel just outside the park entrance.

Even though it was ungodly hot outside (the high that day was 109), Nick seemed to enjoy his first view of the Colorado River when we crossed over it at Marble Canyon.

Sonja also enjoyed taking in the view.

We opted to take a more meandering scenic route past the Vermillion Cliffs, location of the original California Condor release site. We didn't see any condors, but the views of these monstrous red cliffs were spectacular.

Uh, yeah, I realized after I wrote that how not monstrous those cliffs look in that picture. Oh well, you'll have to take my word for it that they're big.

Speaking of enjoying the view, as you can see Nick was often so moved by what he saw that he felt the need to turn away and text his girlfriend to keep from weeping.

We spent most of the day on Monday exploring some of the trails along the scenic drive in Zion Canyon. It really doesn't matter where you go in the park, it's all gorgeous. This is one of the views from the Emerald Pools trail.

The Emerald Pools offered a chance to walk behind several small waterfalls, which was very refreshing as the temperature slowly crept its way up the thermometer throughout the morning.

By the time we reached the upper pool we were all pretty relieved to be out of the sun and enjoying the towering cliffs surrounding us. But it was still early and we had a lot more to see...

Next up: Exploring the Zion Narrows and Angel's Landing...

**All the photos in this post (and the subsequent vacation posts yet to come) were taken by me even if you don't see my name on them (it's easy to take nice pictures when you visit a place like Zion). If you want to see them a bit larger, just click on the image.

Wild Montana Skies!

Well, I've got news. While I know that some of you were at least aware that I had applied for a few select positions at other parks, I'm sure many of you will be surprised by the news that I was recently offered (as in Monday morning) and accepted a new job. Yep, Sonja and I will be leaving the Verde Valley in probably no more than three weeks, just in time to escape the humidity of the monsoon season.

As you can probably surmise from the title of this post, our destination is somewhere in Big Sky Country. And for a park ranger, moving to Montana can mean one of two things: enduring the remote lifestyle at any number of tiny, po-dunk, backwoods national monuments out in the middle of the endless prairie or, living the high life as a ranger at arguably one of the most sought-after national parks in the entire country.

Guess which one applies in our case? Here's a hint:

Yeah, baby! By the end of July Sonja and I will be moving into our new home at Glacier National Park while I begin my role as the Research Education Coordinator for Glacier's Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center. While I won't be doing much front-line interpretation, I will be helping to bridge the gap between the research done in the park and the programs given to the public. I'm really excited about the possibilities this job offers. I'll be able to help shape the future of education and interpretation in the park, making the science that occurs there more relevant and more accessible to the public. It's gonna be awesome!

I always hoped that someday I'd be able to work at Glacier. Ever since my family began taking summer vacations there back in the 70's, I dreamed of that possibility. In fact, if you had asked me just a few weeks ago to rank all of the 391 national park units in preference of where we wanted to work the most Glacier would have been sitting pretty in the top spot.

Like with any big transition, though, it's still hard to comprehend it as a reality, despite the fact that I just spoke with my new boss this morning and began discussing the various projects I'll be working on when I arrive. I don't think that will change until we actually arrive there next month, either. But I'll be too busy finishing up here at Montezuma Castle to have time to worry about that. Yikes...

Anyway, I'll be posting some pictures from our weekend trip up to Zion National Park later today. I just wanted to get the big news out.

June 22, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy

It's been a little crazy around here the past week or so. We've had house-guests pretty much daily since last Monday, which doesn't provide much time for blogging. First it was some NPS colleagues of mine who were here to help me lead the interpretive training for our seasonal rangers. Now, Sonja's folks and nephew Nick are here for a visit.

Later today we'll be leaving for Zion National Park for a few days, but when we get back I hope to have some exciting news. In the meantime, enjoy this photo from an early morning birding trip I took with Nick yesterday. He hardly even flinched when I woke him up at 5:30am to get ready to go. I think he even enjoyed the whole experience, even though we didn't find the bird we were looking for. He even spotted some birds I would have missed, including a nice look at a Blue Grosbeak. Not bad for a 16 year old non-birder.

Red-tailed Hawk
at Montezuma Castle

June 11, 2008

I Wanna Wear Olive Green

I thought this was pretty fun. It definitely made me smile.

And happy birthday to Sonja! She turns old-thirty today!!

This is the look everyone gets a few days before turning 31, I guess. I'll post more pictures from last weekend's hike into Clear Creek Canyon tomorrow.

June 10, 2008

Turtles and Skunks

As a biological technician for the monument, Sonja gets to help out with all sorts of cool research and management projects. One of these involves trying to capture the two species of turtles that live in the Well, Sonora mud turtles (native to the Well) and red-eared sliders (pet store turtles that people released into the Well). One of the techniques they have begun to try is to set up "have a heart" live traps, which are essentially wire cages with a spring-loaded door that snaps shut when an animal (hopefully a turtle) climbs into the cage. They're hoping to catch some of the invasive sliders so they can be removed from the well.

So, yesterday was the first time they tried this technique, and it was Sonja's job to wake up early and check to see if the traps had caught anything.

Well, it did. But it wasn't what they were intending to catch.

Instead of a turtle, they accidentally caught a hog-nosed skunk (here's a link to a simple, but interesting page from Tonto National Monument's website on the four species of skunks in Arizona). Now, releasing any other small mammal from a live trap would be a relatively simple procedure, involving nothing more than opening the hatch and letting it out. But skunks require a level of care and patience way beyond other furry little guys. That is, if you want to avoid getting sprayed.

Sure, the video's a little boring, but it gives a neat insight into some of the things Sonja gets to do on a daily basis.

On another note, I had an interview for a job at the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center, which is located in Glacier National Park, yesterday morning. I think it went pretty well, but I won't know the results for at least a week and a half. I'll keep you all posted!

**FYI -- No skunks were harmed in the making of this post. The little guy eventually walked out of the trap and waddled away into the wilds.