Friday, July 31, 2015

I Cannot Go Back to Toys - Emerson

This year I made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond, and then happened across Emerson's house on the Concord River.  You know what they say - one transcendentalist always leads to another. I've so enjoyed delving into Emerson's writings. He was, after all, Thoreau's mentor and it was on Emerson's land that Thoreau built his cabin at Walden.  One of my favorite passages so far:

My house stands in a low land, with limited outlook, and on the skirt of the village.  But I go with my friend to the shore of our little river, and with one stroke of the paddle, I leave... the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into a delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter without novitiate and probation.  We penetrate boldly this incredible beauty; we dip our hands in the painted element: our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms.  A holiday,...the proudest, most heart-rejoicing festival that valor and beauty, power and taste, ever-decked-and-enjoyed, establishes itself on the instant.  These sunset clouds, these delicately emerging stars, with their private and ineffable glances, signify it and proffer it.  I am taught the poorness of our invention, the ugliness of towns and palaces... I am over-instructed for my return.  Henceforth I shall be hard to please.  I cannot go back to toys.  I am grown expensive and sophisticated.  I can no longer live without elegance... He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.  - Emerson (Nature)

Walden Pond, June 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015

Field Notes 17 July 2015: Ode to Hay

I visited the Popo Agie Ranch easement this week, pictured here with Table Mountain in the background.  The old-timers in Lander used to say that you were safe to plant once all the snow was off Table Mountain.
The smell of fresh-cut hay is one of the raptures of summer.  It sends me back to my childhood: staying with my grandparents on our family farm, shucking sweet corn in the front yard, riding our motorcycles through the fields, and playing with my cousins in the barn.

Most of the easements I visit are on working ranches and some of the most important land they conserve are the riparian bottomlands.  These areas have been irrigated and hayed for well over a hundred years.  Even though it's not a 'natural' system, they provide important habitat for a number of wildlife species.  Flood irrigation in the spring brings an array of water birds, shorebirds and ducks.  Simply put, because birds' natural wetlands are shrinking, flood irrigation seems to offer increased foraging opportunities.  Hay meadows are a great place to watch for sandhill cranes caught up in their mating dance each spring.

Somewhere, someone must have written a beautiful poem as an ode to the hay meadow.  Let me know if you find it.

Also visited the Johnson Ranch this week where they were trying out a new mower.  Because of the phenomenal amount of rain we've received this year, ranchers have hay coming out of their ears, a nice problem to have.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Field Notes 1 July 2015: World Cup Soccer and the Whiskey Tent

On a beautiful summer evening a few years back I found myself inside a crowded bunkhouse watching World Cup soccer with about a dozen Peruvian sheep herders, subjecting them to my bad spanish and swapping recipes with the camp cook.  I always love visiting the Ladder Ranch....

Ladder Ranch entrance with Aldo Leopold Award sign.

The Ladder Ranch sits at the base of Squaw Mountain in the Sierra Madre Mountains of southern Wyoming.  It is the only part of the state that has Gambel oak (which makes it a stunning place for a fall visit).  The easement helps protect a number of species and habitats including key habitat for mule deer and elk.  It also ensures that the land will remain in agriculture for many generations to come.

The Whiskey Tent on the Ladder Ranch - the American Mountain Men Rendezvous was held here in 2013 (photo by Sharon O'Toole).  The area is rich in history: Jeremiah Johnson, trapper and mountain man, lived in the area near the confluence of the Little Snake River and Battle Creek in the late 1840’s. 

The ranch has been in the O’Toole/Salisbury family for over a century.  The family runs sheep and cattle and have been widely recognized for their excellent stewardship of the ranch: in 2014 they received the Leopold Conservation Award.  They are currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to conserve habitat for the greater sage-grouse, a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act.  On my visit this year they showcased the latest work they've done on Battle Creek  to improve stream quality for the Colorado River cutthroat.

Battle Creek stream improvements include deepening the channels with boulder placement, restoring eroded banks due to flooding and planting willows.   It was about 20 years ago that I worked for the Medicine Bow National Forest doing stream enhancement on this very creek, just a few miles upstream.  I always feel like it's a homecoming when I'm in this neck of the woods.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Field Notes 22 June 2015: Musings on Buzzards in the Badlands

Shadows cruising across the Wind River foothills.

As I was ascending a steep ridge, a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) soared overhead in it's teeter-totter fashion and turned it's bald red head to look down at me quizzically. Turkey vultures seem curious to me, I suppose because of the way that they fly low and slow to sniff out the dead stuff. As a scavenger, the "TV" (a.k.a. turkey buzzard) feeds almost exclusively on carrion and unlike other birds, has a keen sense of smell.  It is reported that they can smell a dead mouse under a layer of leaves from a height of 200 feet. (Raptor Rehab of Kentucky).

Vultures in general get a bad rap but not every one sees them as the as the creepy bad guy.  Many cultures regard vultures (as well as condors) as a conduit to heaven or as the precious animal that releases the soul from the body. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform, called a dakhma.  (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).  They also serve an important role in preventing the spread of deadly diseases - they can consume the meat of animals that died of disease and not get sick themselves, because of special enzymes in their stomachs.

I like turkey vultures - they endeared themselves to me years ago when I volunteered at a raptor rehabiliation center.   They were generally shy and usually retreated to the corner of the flight cage when we fed them. But if they feel threatened they will puke up a blob of nasty-smelling half-digested meat. (Ralphing-on-demand also comes in handy when they are too heavy to fly.) If the smell doesn’t drive predators away, the vomit will sting if it comes in contact with the animals' face or eyes.  The ultimate predator defense: projectile vomit aimed right between the eyes.

My vulture was joined by four others that were soaring next to the ridge below me.  It was a treat to watch them with the beautiful Wind River Valley far below and the  badlands stretching out in the distance.

I had just climbed 2,770 vertical feet to a grassy and boulder-strewn plateau. There are no roads or paths leading to this section of land. There's a series of false benches to get the top, which are always so demoralizing and which I conveniently forget about every year.  From here I can see three mountains ranges: Absarokas to the north, Wind Rivers to the west and the Owl Creeks to the east.
This ranch is in the Dubois Valley (in Wyoming we pronounce it Do-Boys).  The Dubois Valley is also called the "Valley of the Warm Winds" and it stays snow-free all winter, which is a huge benefit to the elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep that use this area as winter range.  There are a number of conservation easements in the valley, held by The Nature Conservancy and other organizations that form a critical network of protected properties for wildlife that migrates from the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park area.
The haze on the right is from California wildfires.

View towards the Wind River Mountains and the Whiskey Peak area.  Not a bad place to spend your lunch break (ice-cold watermelon, grilled asparagus and a peanut butter/honey sandwich).

If Vulture has flown across your path:

You are being asked to be patient with yourself and think things through. Take your time before making decisions and choose paths that support your higher consciousness and your heart. Use all of your resources combined with your past experience to approach the problem from a different angle. Know that you are always free to choose your own path but be flexible while moving forward. Allow yourself to use all of your senses to navigate through this situation for your highest benefit. Call on all your resources to get the job done. Alternatively Vulture recognizes that you are fiercely protective of those you feel responsible for but you are reminded that knowing when to allow others to sink or swim is important too. Recognize the need for higher awareness in all those around you.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Field Notes 19 June 2015: Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes sound so ancient and primeval to me. And no wonder - the oldest fossil record for sandhill cranes is from 2.5 million years ago (found in Florida).   I was able to watch this pair up close for quite awhile until the mosquitoes got the better of me. You'll get the sound in the video but the I couldn't zoom in.  No doubt they had a passel of chicks nearby.


This was a great day for bird watching - I also saw pelicans, a prairie falcon, nighthawks, etc...

I love these rivers out on the plains.  You feel like you have the whole world to yourself.  And at night, the stars feel close enough to touch. 

This day couldn't be more different than my last visit to the Sweetwater area (see Blood, Sweat and Cowshit).  It was sunny and the road had dried out enough so that I didn't have to worry about getting stuck.

Years ago this ranch used to be part of the Ellis Ranch.  Lots of history here as it's on the Mormon and Oregon Trails and where St. Mary's Station was located. The Pony Express operated here from 1861-1862.

Anyone know what is this?  It was literally out in the middle of nowhere.  There were stones nearby that looked like the remnant of an old homestead.  And a spring that fed a good-sized stream, a suprise in the middle of the prairie.  There were a few pairs of nesting killdeer and it was rich with other birds.  Something I wouldn't have found if I'd been in my truck - it pays to be on foot or on two wheels.

Our horses Griz and Arizona.  This photo is from last year when I had the bright idea of covering the ranch by horseback.  But there's no "express" with our ponies.  I had a tiny glimpse into what life was like for those tough pioneers so long ago.  The scenery inched by and it started snowing halfway into the ride - tiny hard pellets that stung our faces and hands.  But there's lots of time for contemplation on the back of a horse. 
"The song of the river ends not at her banks, but in the hearts of those who have loved her."
Buffalo Joe

Friday, June 19, 2015

Field Notes 18 June 2015: Blood, Sweat and Cowshit on the Sweetwater River

Disclaimer: I am in no way bashing cattle ranching or cows in this post.  Like anyone else in the West, I like a thick juicy steak.  Also, apologies for the cuss words.  There is no other word for cow....pies.  Trust me.

I parked my truck at the junction of the county road and the nasty two-track that leads to the easement.  My plan was to ride my bike the five miles to the easement since there was no way that I could get there by truck, even in 4 wheel drive. We'd been doused with heavy rain for days and I didn't want to take any chances getting stuck.

                                   My route followed the Pony Express and Oregon Trails.

The sky hadn't cleared much from last night so I loaded only the essentials in my camelback for light and fast travel.  The road was beyond terrible - groups of cattle were congregated in the road and had turned the muddy sections into cowshit swamp-puddles.

The thing about fresh green cowshit is that when it dries it sticks to everything like cement - it's nearly impossible to spray off a bike frame.  And you can't get the smell out of your nose.

I went off-road through the sagebrush prairie to avoid the worst of it. But sometimes there was just no avoiding it because the prairie was just as wet as the road.

It didn't take long for me to get to my destination on the Sweetwater River - it's all downhill.  Much of the Sweetwater River in this area is part of a BLM Wilderness Study Area and it feels very remote and wild.   I've never seen another human out here in all my 12 years of visiting the place.

I did see herds of antelope and deer plus three cow elk.  The easement is at the mouth of the Sweetwater Canyon which provides severe winter relief range for elk.

I took took the requisite photos for the easement visit and started the long slog uphill back to the truck.  As I rode the sky grew darker and more menacing.  I couldn't push myself to ride fast up the steep hills because of a chest cold.  I was about to cough up a lung.  I did the best I could - I have a healthy fear of lightening. Plus I needed to get the truck back on pavement while I still could. Even the county road would be impassable in heavy rain.
I had to cross a few miles of high exposed plains, which made me nervous. It's mostly flat so I rode as fast as I could, not bothering to dodge the muck anymore - just avoiding anything that would hopelessly suck my tires down.

As I crested the last hill I could see a herd of cows (plus one bull) standing in the road. Crap! (The word of the day.) There was a bull pawing at the ground and snorting at my approach.  I weighed my options.  I could make a long detour through a boggy meadow, or I could take a chance that he would move off the road.  He moved off so I crossed my fingers and rode past as fast as I could.

By now I was splattered from head to toe.  I could even feel globs of it in my hair - it somehow got through the vents in my bike helmet.  I was also chilled, dripping in sweat, and had cut my leg on something.  I should get hazard pay.

There's a moment in field work when you spot your truck and know that you're going to make it - despite the fact that you pushed the envelope and/or did something stupid.  And you thank the gods that you will see another day to do it all again.

Clouds + No Wind  = mosquito and black fly bonanza

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Field Notes 15 June 2015: Eagle shadow - First Day in the Field


The shadow of a golden eagle passed directly over me and momentarily blotted out the bright morning sun, reminding me to look up.  The eagle's shadow felt like a more auspicious start to my field season than last year.  Last year on my first easement visit I stepped on and was struck by a rattlesnake. No harm done, it was a dry strike that hit my shoe when I jumped.

I can drive to most of my easements but this one requires hiking in. The easement borders the Nature Conservancy's Red Canyon Ranch but the two track has long since grown over so I followed an antelope trail which leads to an oasis of cottonwood trees - one of my favorite places in Wyoming.
We've had an unusually wet spring and the wildflowers covering the sagebrush grasslands were stunning.  I was especially intrigued by the many colors of Indian paintbrush - from deep reds and oranges to pink to yellow and every hue in between.

Larkspur just starting to bloom.

Sego lily - in all her tidy perfection.


“One is wise to cultivate the tree that bears fruit in our soul.”

Henry David Thoreau