Ever dream of being a river ranger? Here’s a piece I did for the Jackson Hole Magazine on David Cernicek
Ever want to know how to properly skin a deer? I thought so.
Check out this latest article in OutsideOnline. Plus, some very good advice from my dear friend Tyrel “Texas” Mack.
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Utukok River, Alaska 68°44’3.29″ N 161° 3’39.90″W Elevation 484 meters.
When Steve, a biologist specializing in Arctic birds, saw the gyrfalcon friends who’ve known him much longer said they’ve never seen him so excited.
Our adrenalized chatter turned to silence as the swift white arrow circled overhead scolding us with her high-pitched scream. If I’d stuck with Latin in college, I’d know that gyr refers to the Latin gyrus, or curved path. After all, this falcon is the only one that circles while seeking prey.
Gyrfalcons dress in a variety of colors—white, brown, black and anything spotted in between—Steve marveled at seeing one so white, pure as snow.
“The white ones are from Greenland,” he whispered.
As the falcon circled, a single white feather fell from the sky. I half-heartedly paddled toward it in my kayak—wanting to catch it; wishing it were falling instead towards Steve. In medieval times the gyrfalcon, because of the difficulty in capturing them for falconry, were reserved for royalty. Steve, passionate about the Arctic and its future; a king of conservation, seemed most deserving.
The journey from Greenland to this remote spot on the Utukok River was over 2,000 miles. Nothing, perhaps, for this hearty bird that spends much of the winter riding out the cold on sea ice far from land.
Our meeting lasted maybe a minute, but it was a minute that mattered. Years later I still remember the moment and the bird has evolved into a symbol of hope—hope that maybe my words can help. Help save what I hold sacred. Who knew when I’d be in the Arctic again.
Last week, three years later when I least expected it I met a gyrfalcon again; this time a speckled specimen. He was captive, in the hands of a falconer, but stunning all the same.
The falconer, Jason, introduced us to a great horned owl, golden eagle, osprey and a kestrel. The gyrfalcon was the final act. With each bird, he rattled off a list of facts that differentiate one raptor from another. Ospreys are the only raptors that rely only on fish. They nest on the tip tops of old snags, trees and telephone poles while bald eagles prefer to roost just a little ways below. Want to know how to tell a bald eagle from a golden? (When they’re immature it’s not always easy to tell the difference.) Golden’s legs are coated in feathers all the way down to their talons. Bald eagles are bald. We don’t have many goldens in the Tetons because we don’t have enough of their favorite delicacy, rabbits. But if we did, you might notice that the females (which are bigger) target different prey than the males in order to maximize a single territory’s bounty. Meanwhile peregrine falcons eat most anything. That’s why they’re so widespread.
Jason brought out a peregrine falcon, who surveyed the crowd with her deep obsidian eyes. He asked us to guess how much she weighs. 30? The bidding began. We were hopelessly off target. Jason stuck his finger into the bird’s chest, his finger disappearing up to his second knuckle in a thicket of feathers. The bird weighs just three pounds, the size of two fists stacked upon each other capped with a head.
Peregrines have been clocked at 250 miles per hour while gyrfalcons, the largest raptor of all, hold the record in straight flight. Owls, on the other hand, are extremely slow flyers, able to idle out at ten miles an hour as they listen for the sounds of prey hiding the dark. What owls lack in sight—they only see in grey scale—they make up for with their ears. An owl can hear your heart beating in your chest and can pinpoint prey buried up to 18 inches in the snow. The reason owls can turn their heads so far? 14 bones in their necks. As humans we have to settle for seven.
Listening to the traits specific to each raptor, I was amazed at the specificity of each species niche. As a result, there isn’t a singular King (or Queen) of the sky. Success takes on a wide definition; strength takes many forms. Each bird was born to do what it does, diverse as that may be. Maybe a birdbrain is a blessing—seems to me, our species spends far too much time building definitions that were never meant to be and in the process forgetting that power lies in our differences.
Here’s an article in E- The Environmental Magazine that I just finished about a place I’m in absolute awe of—Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. Few Americans are aware of this treasure—check it out at the link below…..
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 36° 7’0.11″N 112°13’48.31″W Elevation 821 meters.
Ever hear the word “fretwater”? Know what it means?
It doesn’t have to do with playing guitars. It’s a term I learned last week while doing some background research for an article on the Grand Canyon. Fretwater Press is the name of eminent Grand Canyon historian Brad Dimock’s publishing company based in Flagstaff, Arizona. But it’s something else too.
According to Dimock, fretwater is a term coined by John Wesley Powell and his crew during Powell’s second descent down and the Green and Colorado River in 1871. The men named one of the rapids in Desolation Canyon, Fretwater Falls, a testament to the tumultuous, fretting nature of the water. On his website, fretwater.com, Dimock writes;
“Powell’s men could have saved a day of toil, trouble, and abuse, by just floating down the middle of this insignificant riffle. Fretwater seems to signify fretting and stewing over something entirely trivial, as we so often do in life. We’d all be better off damning the torpedos and flying right down the middle, full speed ahead.”
If you’re interested in more of Brad’s writing, books and progress on his boat building projects, check out his blog, Fretwater Lines (http://fretwaterlines.blogspot.com/)
Along these lines, one of my favorite books is Homeground edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It’s a 449-page dictionary of the American landscape detailing lesser-known words for describing features of the natural world. The entries are not standard Merriam-Webster entries, but instead short essays scribed by writers that bring the word alive through experience and history.
The notion that Eskimos have dozens of different words to describe ice and snow is often quoted. Well, there are dozens of words for creek, forest, hill and mountain too—but we’ve mostly forgotten them, relying on a few over-used terms to describe things that are actually very different.
As someone that loves the challenge of trying to convey the power of a landscape to others, I felt like I’d found a treasure when I’d happened upon Homeground five years ago. It echoed of an era when more attention was paid to the land, and the nuanced differences between features were celebrated.
I especially loved the regional terms—a detail that can bring a deeper sense of place to a description. In a time when localism and globalism duke it out, utilizing region-specific terms for the land, seems like an important yet underutilized way to uphold local traditions and identity.
Finally, specific words paint a more accurate picture. You’d never call a river a rivulet; why would you call a tuckamore a krummholz? Only problem is we just have to remember (or relearn) what those two words means.
Here are a few of my favorites from Homeground:
In the Dutch language, kill, is used to describe streams and river channels, and is literally translated into English as brook. So it is not surprising to find the term commonly applied to parts of the American East originally settled by the Dutch. On maps of the upper Hudson Valley and the Delaware Valley one can find landforms, rivers and towns containing the word—the Catskill (Cats Creek) Mountains of southeast New York State, and the mighty Schuylkill River (or “Hidden Channel River”) that flows through Philadelphia. Although the Dutch also settled the lower Hudson Valley, kill is not widely used there, perhaps because the Dutch culture was subsumed after 1664 when the English captured the colony of New Netherland and renamed it New York. Elsewhere on the continent, landforms and communities are named for the act that involves the taking of a life. A mountain in North Dakota, once known by a Sioux phrase, Tah-kah-p-kuty, “the place where they kill the deer,” is now simply Killdeer Mountain. –Jan DeBlieu (page 200)
In the northeastern United States, lumbermen called the stagnant backwaters of lakes and rivers pokelogans. Th word appears to be cognate with pocosin. The root sense may have meant something like “land covered with shallow water,” but whereas a pokelogan is always a part of a larger body of water, a pocosin is landlocked. Thoreau heard the term on his first trip to Maine from George McCauslin, a log driver on the Penobscot River: “Now and then we passed what McCauslin called a pokelogan, an Indian term for what the drivers might have reason to call a poke-log-in, an inlet that leads nowhere.” Such places as Pocasset, a village on Cape Cod, are etymological cousins, at a greater or lesser remove, of pocosin and pokelogan, according to William Tooker, writing in an 1899 edition of American Anthropologist. Did the Euro-American settlers realize that they were naming their community something like Backwater or Large Puddle?
-Franklin Burroughs (p. 275)
The beaver meadow is considered by many to be the most valuable of all meadow types. Where waterways—creeks, streams or rivers—are blocked or slowed by beaver structures, a creeping wetland is created. In addition to the myriad species that thrive in such a locale, the wetland acts as enormous biological filters. Beaver-created wetlands not only cleanse the water, but in detaining it permit the percolation of that water to the layer that holds groundwater. When a given dam is abandoned—the beaver having eaten their way through he softwood trees (aspen cottonwood willow) and moved on—the land will quickly revert to forest but with a revitalized soil base. Such is the case with western New York’s Beaver Meadow Creek Park, as well as Beaver Meadow Falls near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. The value of a beaver-created meadow was recognized by explorer Antonio Armijo in 1892. When he came upon a rich mosaic of springs, mesquite and grass meadows as well as an abundant population of beaver in what is now southern Nevada, he named the place “Las Vegas,” meaning “the meadows”—beaver meadows in this case. At that time millions of beaver populated the continental United States. In fact they are second only to humans in terms of the role they’ve played in shaping the American landscape. –Antonya Nelson (p. 31)
So much more to the Grand Canyon than just the rapids—just had an article come out in the Wall Street Journal all about it.
Check out out photos of friends Alyssa Firmin, Andy Tyson, Evan Horn and Andy Brown.
Check out this piece just out in Sierra magazine about Robert Thompson’s work:
When I was in the Khumbu I did some for work the World Oral Literature Project, recording Sherpa talking about their daily life. Among those was recordings with the Everest Ice Doctors. Ang Nima, the leader of the pack recently passed away. Here’s a link to an Alpinist article about it and some of my recordings. I know he will be missed by many.
Here’s the link:
Prince Albert National Park, Canada: 53°58’44.39″N 106°17’22.43″W Elevation 533 meters
This past September, as the sun set on Granite Creek, strange grunting sounded from the river. I left the campfire just in time to see five river otter—a mom and four pups—loping down shore, sliding in and out of the water. I chased them downstream, wistful to flow between liquid and land.
Otters aren’t something I think about much in winter, so when Brad pulled the car over and mentioned the otter tracks I didn’t know what to expect. Something like a beaver perhaps? A fat dragline in the snow bordered by scuttling paws. But instead, it was a long, smooth sliding mark followed by four prints. Again and again. The picture was painted so clearly—a leap then a long slide. It looked like pure, unbridled, foolish fun. But it turns out tobogganing around also serves a practical purpose. It’s a much quicker way to move between the safety of waterways, where the otter is inaccessible to the hungry jowls of a wolf or other predators. Running otters can reach speeds up to 16 kilometers per hour but sliding? 25 kilometers per hour!
I was chasing otters in Prince Albert National Park, smack in the middle of Saskatchewan. It’s a part of the North where water begins overtaking the land. The map shows a landscape pocked by lakes and rivers. Some, like the Churchill River, are so big and wide they look like lakes. Here, land crossings are the exception rather than the norm. So much so that they warrant their own vocabulary—portages. No wonder otters love this country.
Brad Muir, who works as an interpretive ranger in Prince Albert in the summer and runs Sundogs Sled Excursions the rest of the year, is a master naturalist and I’m fortunate enough to be spending the day with him.
He bends down in the snow for a closer look—four of them, he says and explains how otters typically travel in a family of four to six and will lay claim to a section of river or lake.
At the Lake Waskesiu Narrows, we walk to the shore, drawn by piled up snow on the lake, remnants of where the otters have bored through to the surface. Right at the dock’s edge, we find a small hole but it’s already iced over. Brad explains how the otters will find a patch of thin ice and crack the ceiling with their heads and noses until a portal breaks open. Pointing at the brown pile of scat beside the hole, Brad tells me otters are the only animal he knows of with two specific names for their droppings—wedgins and spraint. The lucky guys! Who would have thought? And don’t even think of calling them whiskers, they’re vibrissae of course.
Looking out over the snow-covered lake, Brad says that otters actually have it easy. With a dense, waterproof coat, they’ve got a built in dry suit. While wolves and terrestrial mammals have to worry about getting wet, drying off and staying warm in an environment where temperatures can drop into the negative double digits for days on end, the otter simply slips back underground where the food supply is abundant and the temperature is reliably above freezing.
A few days earlier back in La Ronge, a town of 10,000 and 111 miles to the north, I stopped in Robertson’s Trading Post, a cultural landmark and hodgepodge grocery store, trophy room and fur-trading outpost. I’d run my hand along the long oblong shape of a beaver hide. There was a large box of otters ready to be packed up and sent to fur brokers. Personally I prefer live otters to dead ones, but this is Canada after all where trapping is a rich part of the history, although apparently First Nations people considered it bad luck to hunt otter. By the early 1900s, European fashion demands had driven the river otters into a dangerous decline. In some areas they were successfully reintroduced. In others, like the U.S.’s Southwest, they still haven’t recovered.
We stand quietly by the water watching the snowfall, listening to the cluck of ravens and the hammer of Pileated Woodpeckers. But mostly what we’re listening for is the muted sneeze of the otters making noise under the ice. Finally we hear one and then another. It’s soft but undeniable evidence of the vibrant, underwater world carrying on underneath winter’s blanket of snow.
With cold toes and miles more to go, we turn to leave otterless. We haven’t seen the creature we’d hoped for but whose to say seeing is better than hearing? I never knew otters made such sounds. Turns out listening was just as rewarding.