Archive for May, 2007

Freezing GabOn May 22, 1915 the continental United States saw its first major volcanic eruption of the 20th Century when northern California’s Lassen Peak, honored as Lassen Volcanic National Park, exploded with terrifying force.

During the week of May 21-27 we will be highlighting volcanic National Parks with writing so bold and forceful that you just might explode with giddy anticipation. Monday went went to New Mexico’s Capulin Volcano National Monument. Today we’re at Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

It’s hard to imagine the desolate land around us as being alive. The unforgiving clusters of gigantic razor sharp rocks, the flat fields of jagged asphalt, the frozen air, the waterless terrain and the barren chasms of red rocks. The land looks like an abandoned strip mine left to ecological ruin.

But these rocks are alive. Not alive through water and air; this land is reliant on fire. Molten lava gives life to this terrain. It sustains, creates and rules with an exclusionary iron fist. Humans have never and will never master this terrain. Only the most daring and most (fool)hardy flora and fauna attempt to call this place home. Their rent is about due. Their fiery landlord maintains a strict schedule.

Every 2,000 years the lava returns, bubbling out and flowing across its domain. It came 15,000, 12,000, 10,000, 7,500, 6,000, 4,000, and 2,000 years ago. The landlord could return tomorrow.

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Conventional wisdom doesn’t work at Big Thicket National Preserve. Logic, ecological understandings, park boundaries, National Park Service protection, floral roles; throw these things out the window. Nothing here is as it seems. Everything collides in the thicket.

The land itself is a dark stew of mysterious swampland caused by the convergence of the southeastern swamplands, eastern deciduous forest. the Midwestern prairie, and the Southwestern desert. Flooding is common and necessary; it regulates the diversity of life. Brown bear and mountain lions hunt feral pigs and exotic nutria alongside alligator and bobcat. Fifty species of reptiles hunt insects alongside Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and sundews.

The Bachman’s sparrow calls these woods home. She is found only in the continental United States, the only sparrow to hold this distinction. Could we find her? “Not a chance,” we thought. We’re only novice birders and sparrows are difficult to pinpoint. We headed out into the swamp and onto a boardwalk trail. Rain fell above us, caught on the floral canopy above. The dark black waters of the surrounding swamps dutifully reflected the large oaks and beech trees. Despite the overwhelming visual evidence, Big Thicket did not feel like the swamps of the south. There are few palmettos, less green and more browns. It felt like a wet, overrun Pennsylvania forest. But unlike our northeastern forest land, the Big Thicket’s mucky earth holds a vast liquid treasure: oil.

Admittedly, the world’s first oil strike, in 1859, did happen in a Pennsylvania forest, but that black gold was in very short supply. America’s next major oil discovery wouldn’t happen until 1901 at Spindletop, a hill a few miles south of Beaumont, Texas and a few miles south of the lands now preserved as Big Thicket.

Big Thicket’s parklands do not connect. Some of the land follows rivers, some follow creeks and some protect important habitats. When you look at a map the Park’s boundaries looks haphazard and non-nonsensical. Suburbs, towns, oil sites and private Texas land strangle the park’s deceivingly large 97,000 acres. Each disconnected Park Unit has a different purpose. Some are for hikers, some are for canoers, and some are for hunters. However, by 2001 Big Sandy Creek, a hunting Unit, had become increasingly poached for its oil. The land was being destroyed, the animals were fleeing because of the unending noise and the hunters weren’t happy. Who were the poachers? Who was harming the land? The National Park Service.

It is hard to believe that the Park Service would harm the land for its own profit. But it happens. As a result, the Sierra Club sued. And in 2006, a U.S. District judge ruled that the Park Service was in the wrong; they had not done enough to address the environmental impact. Their drilling decisions were “not supported by reasoned explanations, and hence are arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.”

Big Thicket’s boardwalk dips, takes many turns and is under constant attack from flooding. One break in the wood required a running start and a determined long jump. Gab’s leap cleared the muck below by mere inches. We were ready for a rest. Luckily, there was a wooden bench nearby. We sat mesmerized by the sounds of birds and the rain above. Then, in the underbrush ahead, Gab spotted a bird. She kept her binoculars fixed while Michael read from the Sibley Guide:

M: Found in open pinewoods with patchy understory of brush and palmetto.
G: Yes, yes, that’s where we are.
M: Solitary and secretive; difficult to see except when singing.
G: Well, he’s singing now from the bottom limb of the brush!
M: Does he have a buffy, er orangish, breast that constrasts with a whitish belly?
G: I’m pretty sure.
M: Is there reddish stripes on his head and one that stripes from his eye?
G: I think, he’s got to turn..oh, darn. he just flew away. I’m sure it was the Bachman’s sparrow. It had to be it had to be. Can you believe we just saw one?
M: Not really. But if you say so than, wow, that’s some kind of sighting. You think we can spot another one?
G: Why not?

So we sat for a little bit longer enjoying our time in the most unlikely of places.

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Capulin Sky

On May 22, 1915 the continental United States saw its first major volcanic eruption of the 20th Century when northern California’s Lassen Peak, honored as Lassen Volcanic NP, exploded with terrifying force.

During the week of May 21-27 we will be highlighting volcanic National Parks with writing so bold and forceful that you just might explode with giddy anticipation. First up: New Mexico’s Capulin Volcano National Monument.

We are driving up a volcano, circling around its base, steadily climbing to its mouth. The sky climbs even higher. Untold blues, soaring clouds, no haze, no limits no imaginable end. The land below feels further and further away. The road lifts our Altima like a jet, the cars below and their lonely two-lane road looks smaller and smaller by the second. We have arrived. We are at the top.

We scurry out of the car to look into the heart of this once snarling beast. She erupted 60,000 years ago. The ground shook for days. From an innocent hole some 1,100 feet below our present location, the volcano’s base, steam blew, then…explosion. Cinders, rock and other debris flew into the air forming Capulin. This debris fell from the sky in near perfect symmetry, stacking and creating the volcano we now stand on.

The land below stretches endlessly. Five states are visible they say. We can see the barren earth and their bumpy undulations. Underneath the reborn grasslands and swaths of yellow wildflowers is lava, lava that flowed from Capulin.

A mile-long trail leads around this dead monster’s rim. A one-mile circumference, 1,000 feet deep volcano. Imagine the eruption, imagine the debris, imagine the power! Mini-Capulin’s are more visible from the high lookout. They are everywhere. These small volcanos rose quickly, like Capulin, in the blink of a geological eye. Some are as old as Capulin, 62,000 years, some are much older. They are all extinct, but if there had been scientists at the time of Capulin, they would have said the field was dormant too.

The rim trail has surprises of its own. A pleasant western aroma wafts from its numerous junipers and hardy sages, wildflowers bloom with unexpected color and jays loudly announce their presence. And what is this? The rocks lining the trail look to be moving; their richly-red lichen won’t stand still. Wait. Those are ladybugs. Thousands of ladybugs. We walk further. The ladybugs swarm around us. They land on our arms they land on our heads they envelope us they welcome us into their unbelievable world.

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Atop the Swiftcurrent

Look outside. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the trees are blooming. The road beckons. It’s official: we have cabin fever. This weekend, Shenendoah NP, you could be ours. In the meantime, here at usa-c2c.com we are looking at park sites with famous cabins.

What do you call a well-to-do cabin? A chalet, and no National Park has a more high profile chalet than the two at Glacier NP: the Historic Sperry Chalet and Historic Granite Park Chalet. Both hold court at the top of the world, reigning above the glorious mountains and glacier-formed U-shaped canyons below. Both are isolated in their own alpine paradise, reachable only by foot traffic and closed to visitors for much of the year.

Did we make it to either of these cabi..er..chalets? No. There were no rooms in the inns. Their $270 (Sperry) and $163 (Granite Park) per night price tags might also have been a deterrent. We did intend to hike to Granite Park and we got close. But, alas, we never made it. It had been a long day.

The day started like any other. We emerged from our tent, greeted the sun and stretched. Gab ambled around the tent with her head down. She gathered things, laced her boots and, with visible resignation, prepared herself for a 16-mile round trip hike. “Gab, pick your head up” Michael whispered as she grabbed the water bottles and single-mindedly moved towards the pump. “No, really” he sternly whispered “Stop what your doing and pick your head up. There is a bear walking 15 feet in front of us right now.” That got her attention.

By this time Michael had slowly moved behind our martyrdom-ready Nissan Altima placing it between us and the bear. Gab had an idea, “I want to get in the car right now, please get out of the way.” Michael calmed her down, “just relax, she’s just passing through. Stay still and we’ll be fine.” We did, the bear passed through and we were fine.

Pre-BearA few hours later the tables were turned. The hike up the Swiftcurrent Pass to the Chalet had not yet started to get difficult. The 2,300 foot elevation gain would come in about 2 miles. We could see the canyon slopes in the distance and appreciated the flat walk paralleling a meandering creek. The vegetation around us grew more dense; this would be the perfect place to spot some big wildlife. “Uh, Gab” Michael mustered. Just a few steps to our left was a giant moose. We knew what to do. We were confident. Our time at Isle Royale NP had taught us well. We paused and waited until she put her head down then slowly inched away from her territory. We weren’t that scared. It’s not like she has sharp teeth and claws.

The path continued over a small wooden suspension bridge (see picture) and then around a blind corner. Michael turned the corner to see a smallish brown bear munching on some kind of bush. He didn’t concern himself with the details. He slowly walked backwards, whispered for Gab, turned his head and saw her put-putting along head down without a care in the world. She hadn’t yet seen what was just 20 feet in front of us. Michael did the only sensible thing: he said, “Gab look up” and jumped behind her, transforming his wife into a human shield. The bear looked up and towards us, laughed heartily, took a few more bites and then scurried away.

“Did you get a picture,” Michael asked. “You had the camera, that’s why I jumped behind you.” “Really,” Gab chortled as we continued our hike. We reached the Swiftcurrent Pass and the Continental Divide a few hours, a few miles and dozens of dizzingly steep cliff edges later. The Chalet was just a short distance below. “Do you want to go?” one of us asked. “That would mean we’d have to walk back up to this spot. Let’s just turn around. It’s a long way back.” And we did. The return trip was delightfully bear-less, the night sky was clear and bright and the sleep was good.

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Bald Eagle

Two days ago Michael was walking along Riverfront Park in Harrisburg. For those not acquainted with our lovely town, Riverfront Park parallels the mile-wide Susquehanna River for nearly the city’s entire length.

As Michael peered over the water looking towards City Island, he saw something. He was pretty sure of what it was but could not believe his eyes. His mind’s eye checklist scanned thoroughly: extraordinary size (check); white tail (check); white head (check); agile flying (check); fishing behavior (check). Even without binoculars he knew he was watching a bald eagle. A bald eagle in downtown Harrisburg!

After some dexterous swoops and turns the great bird dove, talons cocked, into the river and emerged with a fish. He continued his flight upwards into a City Island perch just a few yards from where Harrisburg’s minor league baseball team plays. Could this extraordinary raptor be making his home in our fair city this summer? Who knows? Be sure to keep your eyes open and alert while crossing the Susquehanna.

In honor of of feathered friend we are recounting the trip’s first bald eagle sighting while at a National Park Site: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. That sighting wouldn’t be our last. We saw bald eagles in dozens of states and in a variety of natural settings. Every spotting brought the same excitement, the same awe and the same appreciation of how lucky we are.

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