Ever wonder about the difference between reindeer and caribou? Here’s a piece I just wrote Smithsonian.com that came out over the holidays all about these gorgeous animals.
Skiing in the Teton Mountains The Boston Globe
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
By Molly Loomis | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
DRIGGS, Idaho — The moment Katie crested the hill she stopped.
“Those can’t be dogs,” she said.
We caught up just in time to see four animals dashing across a bench on the other side of the small valley. Too large to be coyotes, too small and high in the mountains to be elk, they were wolves. Four of them.
Our group of eight friends was less than 7 miles, as the crow flies, from the town of Driggs and just a half-hour ski tour from the comfort of our backcountry yurt. Still we had managed to enter the wolves’ domain. We stood silent, watching spellbound as they proceeded right up the center of Beard Mountain’s steep north face — a route we would consider skiing only in the most stable of avalanche conditions. The wolves chugged up the slope in tight formation, the largest and darkest of them breaking trail. Within minutes they had crested the ridge top and disappeared over the horizon into the adjoining valley.
Using strips of synthetic fur-like material attached to the bottom of our skis (climbing skins) we ascended the hill after the wolves. It took us longer but soon we were skiing down a slope of knee-deep power, paralleling the animals’ tracks — the only lines marking the otherwise clean slate of snow.
Two days earlier our crew had traveled 4 miles from Teton Valley’s floor to the Commissary Yurt, one of four backcountry yurts owned and operated by Idaho’s Rendezvous Backcountry Tours. Just as the sun began sinking in the sky, we found the yurt nestled in a grove of Douglas fir. We started the fire and heated water on the propane stove, preparing to welcome the rest of our crew with hot drinks and dinner.
The beauty of a yurt-based backcountry skiing trip is that it maximizes the pleasures of winter travel while minimizing the inevitable ills. Because the yurts are equipped with sleeping bags, mattresses, cooking supplies, cords of wood for the stove, and even games for long winter nights, our backpacks were weighted with just layers of clothing and food. (If we had wanted to go deluxe, we could have even hired porters to carry our gear and guides to cook gourmet meals.)
Best of all, instead of spending the night in a frosty, frigid tent, we would be snug inside the yurt and wake up to fresh cups of coffee instead of nylon walls plastered with frosty condensation.
The first morning, after a hearty breakfast of egg, cheese, and bacon burritos, we loaded up our daypacks with snacks and thermoses of tea and headed out to explore the terrain. Over the years I have visited all four of the yurts tucked into the Teton’s folds and part of the appeal is that each is easy to access and offers a variety of terrain. Experts can get their kicks hucking cliffs off steep north faces but there are plenty of low-angle glades for those newer to powder skiing or for times when the visibility is low or avalanche conditions are high. (Guides are available for hire.)
With sunshine and low avalanche conditions, we started up the long, broad ridgeline curving east toward Beard’s summit. Excited to explore terrain that bad weather or unstable snowpack had kept us from skiing in the past, we quickly got distracted from the summit by couloirs unfurling through the ridgeline’s rockband in steep, white ribbons. After digging pits in the snow and performing the requisite tests for gaining a better understanding of the likelihood of avalanche, we put away our shovels, ripped off our climbing skins, pulled down our goggles, and lined up for the descent.
Living in the Tetons, I ski powder a lot, but that never diminishes the feeling of pure joy that powder skiing elicits, and that particular run was no exception. Each turn was cushioned by a downy sea of snow that tingled on my face. Runs like that can never be long enough. Our euphoric crew reunited at the bottom. It wasn’t long before we had broken a zig-zag track back up the slope. We repeated the routine over and over and over again.
Eventually we made our way back to the yurt, trading our boots for slippers and hanging our gear by the roaring fire. Trevor and Andy stacked poker chips on the table, while Mark and Kristi readied strips of elk and fresh vegetables for dinner. Katy distributed hot toddies to the most recent arrivals. For our group, yurt trips are all about good friends, ample hang time, delicious food, and copious amounts of snow — all in a spartan setting without distractions.
It didn’t take long to lose my pile of poker chips. I crawled into my bunk and closed my eyes. I listened to the laughter around me and smiled at the thought of the next three days and the welcomed monotony of these simple joys playing out over and over again.
Click on the link to check out the latest in winter gear. I covered
winter camping. Brrrrr
A Climb Through Mountaineering History in the Tetons
Sunday, August 26, 2012 Boston Globe
By Molly Loomis | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The Tetons are the kind of archetypal mountains that etch themselves on your memory. Even if you don’t like climbing, they are unforgettable. Reminiscent of the Alps’ craggy outline, these granite peaks form a stunning, jagged skyline that rises abruptly off the sagebrush flats of the Snake River Plain.
The Grand Teton reigns as the range’s crown jewel, towering over the other peaks at an elevation of 13,770 feet. A climb up the Grand Teton is not only a great adventure but also a trip through the history of US alpinism.
I wanted to experience it.
GABE ROGEL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
The author on Grand Teton’s Lower Saddle before summiting the next day.
Less than a mile from our departure point at the Lupine Meadow’s trailhead, my climbing partner, Andy, and I set our packs down. It wasn’t that we were already tired — we still had 6 miles and 4,500 vertical feet of elevation gain until camp at the Lower Saddle. It was that a black bear and two cubs were in a pine tree right beside the trail. Watching the sow giving a tree-climbing lesson, I recalled hearing a wildlife biologist say that Grand Teton’s combination of accessibility, quality climbing, and wildlife is unparalleled. Andy and I hid behind a snowberry bush, watching for nearly an hour.
But we had a mountain to climb, so eventually we picked up our loads and began winding across a series of gentle switchbacks that led up a hillside of native wildflowers — arrow leaf balsam root, bluebells, and monkshood. Bradley and Taggart lakes sparkled emerald green on the valley floor far below us. Before long we rounded a bend into Garnet Canyon and the giant granite monolith of the Middle Teton, the Grand Teton’s southern sister, greeted us front and center — intimidating and inspiring all at once.
Two hours later after working our way through an idyllic alpine meadow, then the lunar landscape of the Middle Teton Glacier’s moraine, we set up our tent at the Lower Saddle, the classic camping spot for Grand aspirants. The peak glowed orange in the setting sun. This time, the view was simply intimidating.
It is not unusual to hear people refer to the Grand Teton as a “hike.” While there are routes that are reasonable for a fit, less experienced mountaineer, the Grand Teton is not a hike. All routes to the summit require ropes and most years park rangers recover the body of someone who couldn’t make the distinction between climbing and hiking. But there are options for adventurous, fit non-climbers. The summit of the Enclosure, a spur jutting off the Grand’s western flank, is attainable with a few serious scrambling moves.
At 3 a.m. a guided group wakes us heading up the Owen Spalding, their early start a technique for avoiding adverse weather. The Owen Spalding may be the Grand Teton’s easiest means of ascent, but that distinction doesn’t do justice to the thousands of feet of butterfly-inducing exposure on sections of the route such as “The Belly Roll” and “The Crawl,” or the ice-choked rock and cold temperatures that can be encountered any month of the year on this northwestern face.
The debate over who was the first to climb the Grand Teton is considered by some to be one of US mountaineering’s greatest controversies. William Owen ascended the peak via his namesake route in 1898 with three partners, but the mystery remains as to whether or not Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson had beaten them in 1872. Climbing historians hypothesize that Langford and Stevenson may have been aided by a mass migration of grasshoppers that froze to the peak’s steep slopes. (Due to solar radiation, their dark bodies created divots in the snow as they melted that the pair used as footholds in their ascent. But the validity of their ascent remains debated to this day due to a summit description that subsequent teams deemed confusing and questionable.
We rolled back over for another few hours of sleep, the clank of carabineers and the crunch of footsteps serving as a lullaby. In just a few hours we would begin climbing up the Petzold Ridge, a prominent stepped ridge on the Grand Teton’s southern face.
“On belay, Molly,” called Andy, signaling that I could begin up the section of rock he had just ascended. “Climbing,” I shouted in response. I was about to launch onto what a friend had described as the “wear your adult diaper” move of the route: a careful step onto a wafer ledge hanging in thin air. I took a deep breath, delicately transitioned my weight onto my extended foot, and pulled up through the move.
Like the Owen Spalding, the Petzoldt Ridge is also steeped in history. Legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, who established the route in 1924, not only introduced guiding to the Tetons in the early 1920s (after climbing the Owen Spalding at 16 in a pair of cowboy boots), but also helped found renowned institutions like Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School that are still in operation today.
As I climbed up through such unique features as large garnet chunks and a delicate granite arch, I considered what outdoor and experiential education would be like in this country without Petzoldt’s significant contributions.
After eight pitches, we finished the Petzold Ridge proper, but were still a ways from the summit. We traversed to the west, then linked in with the Exum Ridge just above the spot where in 1932, Petzold’s protégé Glenn Exum took his famous leap of faith through thin air onto a boulder while clad in football cleats. That daring move allowed him to access the Exum Ridge, now the peak’s most popular intermediate route. Exum went on to establish Exum Mountain Guides, which is still in operation and boasts a roster of some of the country’s most accomplished mountaineers.
Twelve hundred feet later, after a mix of scrambling and roped climbing up pitches of golden knobs, knife-edged prows, and cracks split through rock with laser precision, we arrived at the summit.
The rumpled topography revealed a sea of eight other mountain ranges encircling us and the Grand’s subsidiary peaks rose up to greet us. I peered over the edge of the blocky summit studying what I could see of the famed North Face, the North Ridge, and the East Ridge — all significant climbs. I was already planning my next ascent.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 Teton Valley Magazine
By Molly Loomis
Teton Valley has lots of migratory residents—second-home owners who flock to the valley for relaxation and recreation; commuters who drive back and forth to jobs in Jackson Hole; migrant workers from other countries in search of better wages and opportunity—and, of course, creatures like Canada geese and sandhill cranes.
Another wildlife species garnering a growing amount of attention is the mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus—namely, a large herd of mulies that migrate each year between the Tetons and the Teton River Canyon, situated roughly twenty miles northwest of Driggs. (This is not to be confused with the canyon of Teton Creek, known locally as Teton Canyon, which is east of Driggs.)
Deer, both mulies and whitetails, are hardly an unusual sight around the valley—hunters track them every autumn and gardeners curse their uninvited browsing. But what’s noteworthy about this herd is its size and the migration corridor it utilizes.
Each fall an estimated 2,800 mule deer make their way out of the Tetons, some of the animals coming from as far away as Jackson Lake on the east side of the range. The herd descends into Idaho through the Bitch and Badger creek drainages, eventually settling on the slopes of the Teton River Canyon—an 800-foot-deep gorge—where they’ll ride out the winter on south-facing slopes, munching on exposed plants like bitterbrush, juniper, and leftover crops and forbs. The deer will also populate the canyon’s north-facing slopes, living amongst old growth Douglas fir and stands of aspen. In low-snow years, the deer will utilize more of the canyon rim, fields, and aspen “eyebrows,” as isolated groves are known. As the weather warms, typically sometime in March or April, they’ll begin following the growth of new forbs and grasses back toward the foothills.
Matt Lucia, stewardship director at the Teton Regional Land Trust (TRLT), explains that mule deer exhibit a tremendous degree of fidelity to traditional migratory paths. Unlike elk or certain other big-game species, mule deer are unlikely to adapt when faced with blocked migratory paths, increased human disturbances, or changes in available forage. When those critical elements fail or become degraded, the deer simply don’t survive. With that in mind, the TRLT, along with other conservation organizations and agencies—like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game—are keeping a close eye on proposed development in the migration corridor and on the rim of the Teton River Canyon.
Hollie Miyasaki, regional wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), has spent the past four years studying the Teton herd. “If you prevent them from getting to someplace where they can [feed during] winter, it’s going to be really hard for them to survive year to year,” she says. “So, these corridors are really important to mule deer. They’re not going to find someplace new.”
Fellow IDFG biologist Rob Cavallaro calls the mule deer a “catalyst for conservation”— a species whose preservation benefits the survival of many others. In the case of the Teton River Canyon, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, flammulated owls, nesting eagles, Townsend’s big-eared bats, and Yellowstone cutthroat trout are all species that benefit from healthy habitat along this stunning section of river.
Luckily, to date, the Teton River Canyon and the migratory corridor through Bitch and Badger creeks are all in relatively good shape, especially when compared to terrain in the Big Hole Range and south of Victor—land utilized by the valley’s other herds (domestic, that is). But it could have gone the other way. In 2007, at the height of the building boom, a thousand acres of rolling farmland in this area were put on the market. These farm fields support crops of potatoes, barley, and alfalfa, and have interspersed among them CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acreages and aspen eyebrows. This land runs right up to the rim of the Teton River Canyon.
Cavallaro, who at the time was the TRLT’s stewardship director, recalls how overnight the situation changed. “That wasn’t the front lines [before the building boom],” he says. “And all of a sudden, there was a new planning front.”
While many hunters believe the biggest threat to the mule deer population is increasing numbers of wolves and mountain lions, regional scientists assert that a decline in habitat quality, in migration corridors, and in winter and summer range constitutes the biggest potential obstacle to the herd’s survival. And suddenly, in the mid- to late 2000s, the Teton River Canyon mule deer population was faced with the prospect of housing developments springing up in its migratory path, a situation which did not bode well for the future.
“Land up to the edge of the canyon is important for both foraging and accessing the canyon,” explains Miyasaki, adding that the more time deer spend reacting to humans, the less energy they have to make it through the winter. “This isn’t a herd that’s got it easy by any means—they have some of the most severe winter range in our area. They need all these components [functional migration corridors; winter and summer range] in their life history to make it.”
But since the real estate boom disintegrated into a bust, much of that land has gone back to the farmers. Lucia says that while potato fields aren’t ideal, at least agricultural land doesn’t inhibit migratory movements like subdivisions would have.
Currently, the Bureau of Land Management’s Upper Snake Field Office, which oversees 3,500 acres of public land in the Teton River Canyon, is revising its Resources Management Plan. By January 2013, the BLM hopes to release a draft for public comment regarding management plans for land it administers in the canyon. Several of the proposed options include designating the BLM’s 3,500 acres as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). Brought to the attention of the BLM in 2008 by several governmental agencies and the TRLT, the area is considered worthy of consideration for designation due to its scenic attributes, noteworthy wildlife and aquatic habitats, and riparian and upland communities.
ACEC designation could limit certain kinds of activity on the land, like mineral extraction, logging, and/or motorized recreation. BLM public affairs manager Sarah Wheeler emphasizes that the ACEC designation wouldn’t affect private land, but it could present funding opportunities for landowners interested in creating conservation easements on their property.
“We’re not looking to preemptively take over someone’s land,” Wheeler says. “The [ACEC] designation just allows for better funding opportunities—federal dollars become available to purchase conservation easements.” She points to the Henry’s Lake area, north of Teton Valley near the Montana border, and the South Fork of the Snake River, two places where this approach has been successful.
While some residents may lament the potential economic gains never realized due to now-defunct developments, a healthy deer population creates another moneymaking opportunity—one that’s yet to receive much attention in Teton Valley. According to Cavallaro, deer fawns in the Teton herd tend to be bigger than fawns in other parts of the state, due to the quality forage on their summer ranges. Many other herds must rely on the scant offerings of a desert landscape during the summer. A tag offering the opportunity to hunt a Teton buck in the fall is a prize. This past year just fifteen tags were issued.
“It’s a big asset—a large deer herd,” says Gary Robson of Robson Outfitters, who’s been guiding hunters in the area since 1968. Robson has clients fly in each year from around the country, hoping to bag a Teton buck. “From an outfitter’s perspective, there’s a lot of revenue that comes to the state from those tags.”
But it’s not only the state coffers that see economic benefit from hunting. According to the Idaho Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, statewide hunting supports 11,500 jobs and generates upwards of $598 million dollars each year through the purchase of equipment, hunting tags, outfitter fees, food, and lodging. Teton Valley hasn’t yet maximized the economic opportunity, and Robson doesn’t mind admitting that there’s room for more hunting guides here. “It could expand a lot,” he says.
While Robson sees large predators like wolves and cougars as threats, he also acknowledges that development could endanger the herd and, in turn, his livelihood. “Any time you’re digging up their habitat and building a house, that’s going to hurt their population a little,” he says.
To date, the Jackson Hole conservation community has demonstrated little interest in the Teton River Canyon mule deer herd, despite the fact that the animals spend part of their year in Teton County, Wyoming. Nonprofits and land managers alike are hopeful that Jackson conservationists will begin to take note.
“How can we get more engagement from nonprofit and conservation groups based in Jackson?” asks Lucia. “This part of Wyoming [on the Tetons’ west side] doesn’t get as much attention as the other side of the slope.”
While humans may make a distinction as they migrate from one side of the Tetons to the other, the animals have yet to see the difference. It’s all just home to them.
Saturday, March 3, 2012 Teton Home and Living Magazine
By Molly Loomis
At an age when most young boys are busy with sports, their friends, or trying to figure out girls, Terry Winchell, owner of Jackson’s Fighting Bear Antiques, was getting started on a lifelong journey into the world of all things old.
“From the time I was little, I always loved finding stuff and cleaning it up,” says Winchell, now age sixty-two. As a child, he recalls that each spring he would anxiously trawl his uncle’s recently plowed fields to see what was unearthed from the land that pioneers on the Oregon Trail had once traversed. From his first sale, made in a parking lot at the age of twelve, Winchell was struck with what he describes as “the fever.”
Fifty years later, that fever is still burning. Winchell not only continues to run the area’s most enduring antiques store but has also become a world-class expert on rustic furniture maker Thomas Molesworth.
From the way he runs his business to the manner in which he and his wife Claudia Bonnist live (on the second floor of their store), Winchell is truly a man with one foot in the past and one foot (or maybe just a toe?) in the present.
Winchell first came to Jackson in 1978, keen to ski and looking for an escape from the fast pace of development in Crested Butte, Colorado. His business started off on rocky footing. The space he and his former wife, the late Sandy Winchell, had rented for a holiday show here caught on fire, literally burning them out of operation. Undeterred, the couple relocated to Jackson’s East Simpson Street, which would be the home of Fighting Bear Antiques for the next twenty-plus years.
Initially, Fighting Bear housed an eclectic collection of antiques from different eras and regions, much of which had found its way to Jackson over Teton Pass from Victor, Idaho’s train depot. But as local dude ranches began selling their furniture (known as rustic antiques in the industry), Winchell began to realize the untapped opportunity right in his own backyard.
Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s, area craftsmen had spent long Wyoming winters building furniture with local supplies like lodgepole, fir, and animal hide. Much of this furniture, with its durable frames, comfortable dimensions, and strong materials, ended up in use at dude ranches. The style’s rugged practicality appealed to Winchell. As luck would have it, he was in the right place at the right time, as rustic antiques were about to make a resurgence in markets around the country.
In 1995, Winchell received what would turn out to be the call of a lifetime from the Hunter Hereford Ranch, located on Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park. The contents of the ranch had been left to the Teton County School District, with the items to be auctioned off. Was Winchell interested? He had no idea where he might sell the goods, but he knew he wanted in and he scrambled to pull enough money together to purchase all thirty-five hundred pieces.
The majority of the haul turned out to be by Molesworth—one of the West’s iconic furniture designers. The transaction proved to be an impetus that elevated Fighting Bear Antiques and Winchell to a new level in the industry.
Winchell, who barely knew of Molesworth prior to the phone call, began combing the West for more of the designer’s elegant and whimsical pieces; he gradually grew into one of the world’s experts on the man and his designs. Soon he began speaking at conferences, appearing on television, and even penned a book called Molesworth: The Pioneer of Western Design (Gibbs Smith, 2005).
“I’m always excited about going to an old ranch, but I had no idea what I was walking into,” says Winchell. “To find something where you can step in and virtually control the market, that only happens once in a career.”
Since that first experience, Winchell has been involved in the transfer of several other Molesworth collections—another highlight coming three and a half years after the Hunter Hereford Ranch auction. It involved the Brandeis collection, that of a couple who owned a high-end department store in Omaha, Nebraska, and lived in a penthouse apartment above the store.
Although E. John Brandeis had been dead since 1974, no one had touched the apartment since his passing in a gesture of respect.
“It was like walking into a time warp,” says Winchell, who bought the entire contents of the apartment on the spot.
Best of all, just days later, Winchell was able to sell everything to a single person who was just as excited as he was about keeping the collection together in its entirety.
But not all sales are such a slam-dunk. Winchell says he’s learned his lessons through the school of hard knocks, which has meant sometimes paying too much for something or ending up with something unexpected. For example, a skeleton used for rituals by the Knights of Pythias came out of a lodge in Riverton, Wyoming; Winchell admits to being so frustrated with trying to figure out the logistics of its disposal, he was tempted to burn it.
Winchell has learned to do his homework and trust his instincts. Forays into “latest trends” like Warhol and Nakashima have not paid off. As Winchell has grown more experienced, he’s found himself avoiding potential mistakes that might have cost him dearly. For instance, at a sale in 2003 in Denver, paying attention to hairs rising on the back of his neck kept him from spending $75,000 on three tobacco bags; they turned out to be expertly crafted reproductions.
Tom Towner, owner of American Indian Art Restoration in Denver and one of Winchell’s mentors, remembers advising Winchell early on that for every piece purchased, he should also buy two or three books. Winchell’s hard work and course of study has paid off. “He’s really acquired a great eye for the material,” Towner says.
By the late-1990s, Winchell was ready for a new lair for Fighting Bear. Discouraged by so many modern buildings sprouting up around Jackson, he enlisted the help of builder Mike Beauchemin and architect Danny Williams to create a store with a living space appropriate for a business selling western antiques.
“People really expect the western, ranching feeling when they come to visit [Jackson],” Winchell says. “I think we’ve lost a lot by going so modern.” One of the biggest compliments he can get is when customers ask what the Fighting Bear building used to be. “If we’re going to act like we’re the last of the old West, then we should look like it.”
Like store owners in Europe or during another era in America, living above Fighting Bear made perfect sense to Winchell. It was the only way he could afford to build a nice store and own a home. But some neighbors were opposed to the zone change, so he embarked on an arduous process with the town council and planning department to gain permission for his building. “I think they were nervous about what it would look like,” Winchell says.
Ironically, fourteen years later, the town of Jackson is now promoting the idea of developing South Cache, the street where Fighting Bear is located, into an area of storefronts with living space above. Winchell laughs, describing how a town planner recently called Fighting Bear a “poster child” for South Cache development.
“Hopefully, this will give people the opportunity to own their own spaces,” he says. “I have a lot of friends in town with other stores and all they have to show for it is some merchandise.”
With Fighting Bear’s combined shop and living space, Winchell and Bonnist are able to show clients how antiques can be used in a home, and not just be reserved as show pieces.
Another advantage is sharing ways in which old and new styles can be effectively combined. Modern paintings hang on the Winchells’ walls next to intricately beaded artifacts crafted by Plains Indians; Roche Bobois chairs face a big-screen TV; vintage art books share shelf space with modern favorites.
Winchell says people often expect that it’ll be like “walking into a museum,” but the difference is that everything is meant to be used and touched.
Making antiques livable ties directly into Winchell’s goal of getting the next generation interested in antiques.
“The disinterest of youth is discouraging. A lot seem more interested in buying a new phone rather than something with residual value. But unless you stimulate interest, young people won’t find it interesting,” he says.
Winchell attributes his own passion for antiques to his grandfather and numerous trips to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska, where the Winchell boys—Terry and his twin brother Barry—would look for agate. Then they’d all stop at the Harold Cook Ranch, where the youngsters would play for hours with Sioux and Cheyenne artifacts
Fighting Bear Antiques does have some younger patrons, a few of whom began coming to the store as children with their parents. Winchell suggests that younger, budget-conscious shoppers who are interested in starting their own collections should keep an eye out for auctions in the surrounding areas. There, they will often find a quality item for much less than they’d pay at Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn.
“Buy practical things you’re going to use,” he cautions. “I learned a long time ago not to buy things that aren’t comfortable or functional.”
Winchell’s dedication to scouring the country for the highest quality goods, his knowledge about western antiques, and a reputation for honesty and fair transactions have earned him a long list of return customers, including celebrities like Harrison Ford (who, Winchell mentioned, had stopped into Fighting Bear the day before our interview).
The best part of the business, he says, is the relationships they’ve developed with clients over the years. “Some of our best friends are our customers,” Winchell says. “It’s kind of the old way of doing business, but I find it the most satisfying.”
It seems nothing could be more appropriate for someone whose life revolves around celebrating the best of a bygone world.
Friday, February 10, 2012
Writers on the Range; A service of High Country News
On Jan. 24, an avalanche raced down the slopes of Mount Taylor, a 10,352-foot peak in Wyoming’s Teton Range. You might think this is hardly worth mentioning, since thousands of avalanches scour mountainsides in the West each winter.
The Mount Taylor avalanche, however, has launched a flurry of debate in the world of backcountry skiing — a place where there’s no admission and few enforced safety regulations. Because even though the parking lot at the base of this popular backcountry ski area was packed with cars, the slide — which turned out to be massive — had been intentionally triggered by a local mountain guide. Luckily, no one was hurt, though someone might easily have been; hundreds of skiers were in the area.
Strange as it may sound to non-skiers, intentionally triggering an avalanche is a common safety practice in backcountry skiing. In theory, it allows an experienced skier to blunt the potential danger of a future avalanche from the relative safety of the top of the slope. With this in mind, Greg Collins, who had skied Mount Taylor hundreds of times, deliberately set off the avalanche. He publicly apologized later, explaining that he never expected the slide to be as big as it was. The avalanche tumbled over 2,500 feet before plowing over a creek often crossed by skiers.
“It would have been a fatality (if anyone had been there),” David Fischel told the Jackson Hole News&Guide; he had skied down Coal Creek shortly after the slide occurred. “I hope this will be a lesson for folks who ski up there. They put people like me at risk.”
But has any lesson been learned? Comments from people have poured in from the international backcountry skiing community, and they range from outrage and anger to strong support for Collins. Critics decry Collins’ actions as selfish and irresponsible — especially considering this winter’s unpredictable snow conditions — while many of his defenders say uphill skiers bear no responsibility for the people below them. Risk, they insist, is inherent in any wilderness experience. After all, as some have pointed out, “wild” is a part of wilderness.
But does skiing in heavily used areas such as Teton Pass truly constitute an outing in the wild? And where’s the line between pursuing your own goals and ignoring the safety of other people in the neighborhood? If this had occurred in a ski resort with rules and regulations, the answers would be easy. But it happened in the backcountry on public land, where we all have equal opportunity to recreate and where the only bosses are usually ourselves.
Moreover, the Tetons aren’t the only place an event like this has occurred. Utah and Montana have had similar incidents. If it hasn’t already happened in other mountains ranges around the West, it likely will, sooner or later.
Before anyone decides to ski in the backcountry, there are lots of questions to answer, ranging from choice of equipment to current weather and snowpack conditions. Yet there seem to be few rules for acceptable behavior once we’re out there. Of course, that’s why many of us are drawn to mountain towns where we can escape into crowds of aspens, not people.
But like it or not, the woods are filling up with more and more people doing their own thing. When that is combined with unclear ethics, such as the degree to which a skier is or isn’t concerned about other skiers, I’m reminded that Americans have become extraordinarily willing to sue each other. Are we heading toward a future backcountry filled with ski cops and a fat book of rules, or will we be forced to accept reduced access?
It is ironic that for years many skiers have fought to keep snowmobiles out of popular backcountry skiing terrain, in part fearing the hazard of a snowmobile racing up a mountain to “high point” and triggering an avalanche. Now, I fear, we have brought that kind of argument into our own ranks. Are we going to return to the days of tire slashing in the Tetons, as happened at the height of the skiing-snowmobile controversy? One blogger suggested aggressive bumper stickers might be a first step: “I intentionally kick off avalanches. Skiers below beware.”
Instead, why don’t we thank the powder gods that it didn’t take a fatality to get this conversation going? All too often in an event like this, tears drown out the sounds of dialogue. Let us hope that this avalanche — which harmed no one — will wake us up to our responsibilities as backcountry skiers. Let’s remember that although we choose to ski in a wild place, we are not always alone — so let’s make sure that our fun remains as safe as we can make it.
Molly Loomis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives on the west side of Teton Pass in Victor, Idaho.
Ponder Your Place In Nature: Ghost Bird
Thursday, December 15, 2011
By Molly Loomis
“IT’S A BIRD!” Tim shouts through the fog.
Anywhere else in the world, his phrasing would have struck me as lame and obvious. But here, I drop my shovel into the cache I am digging and look up, frantically scanning the sky—afraid that, like a shooting star, the bird might vanish before I see it.
This is Antarctica. Deep Antarctica—a windswept glacier in the icy interior called the Branscomb, from which the continent’s highest peak, Mt. Vinson, rises. Here, no penguins waddle through rookeries, no seals slip between waves, no albatross glide over icebergs. It has been 43 days since I last saw a living creature other than a human. In fact, in my three summers working in Antarctica I have yet to see any animal other than Homo sapiens.
The white body of a snow petrel blends into the dense fog—the outline of its outstretched wings, oversize sails for its delicate body, is barely visible. The bird hovers like a ghost, bobbing on a wave of wind. Its beady coal eyes and obsidian feet are the only signs of color. It circles, etching a carving into my memory.
With the subtle shift of a wing, the snow petrel charts a new course—evaporating into the milky soup that surrounds us. It is gone.
Later, during the daily radio check, I tell our base crew at Patriot Hills, 120 miles to the south, about the unexpected visitor. I am curious how many other birds have been seen at Mt. Vinson. I poll the Antarctic veterans. They tell me snow petrels are sighted at Patriot Hills maybe once a year, but no one has ever heard of a sighting here at Vinson Base Camp. That night, with my hat pulled hard over my eyes to block out the ever-present daylight, I listen to the rat-tat-tat drumbeat of graupel against my tent. The image of the petrel keeps resurfacing. Our encounter was brief—less than two minutes—but the lone bird swoops back and forth across the canvas of my closed eyes.
Despite their delicate physique and thin veil of feathers, snow petrels live in Antarctica year-round. They spend much of the year at sea, then at breeding time fly up to 200 miles inland to reunite with their mates and scratch out nests high on rocky outcroppings. Back and forth the birds fly from the land to the ocean, where they snatch krill, mollusks, and fish from the icy waters. The food sustains them and their chick until the fledgling is ready to fly.
I burrow deeper and listen to the wind grow to a whine. I think of the six plane rides it took to get here—Jackson to Salt Lake to Dallas to Santiago to Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills to Vinson. In a few weeks, we’ll retrace our journey back to warmer climes. And when we get home, we’ll share photos and stories and brag about our ability to survive in this stark, inhospitable place.
But the petrel, it will stay.
Right now, though, I find myself wondering whether I really have any business on this ice cap. If it weren’t for the minus-40- degree-Fahrenheit sleeping bag I’m swaddled in and my 800-fill down parka, I wouldn’t last more than a few days. And if my survival was at stake, I’d quickly pluck the petrel’s feathers to warm myself, then eat its carcass raw. These are the thoughts that creep in during Antarctica’s relentlessly sunlit summer nights.
Sorry, little bird. I meant to say, thank you.
Molly Loomis writes from her home outside Grand Teton National Park.
Setting Sail: Enthusiasts spread their wings and fly over snow
Sunday, November 20, 2011
BY MOLLY LOOMIS
PHOTO BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
It’s a cold February day. Strong winds have compacted the snow into a hard, breakable crust. Fred’s Mountain at Grand Targhee Resort is veiled in a storm cloud. Instead of enduring a drive up Teton Pass and a Shackelton-esque outing into the backcountry, we turn toward Tetonia’s potato fields, lying cold and dormant under a blanket of snow.
We aren’t the only ones that figured today would be a great day for kite skiing—already half a dozen cars are parked alongside the road. Brightly colored sails fill the air, and skiers and boarders rip across the barren, white ocean of snow. I unwind the lines running between my steering bar and the kite, don my harness, and orient my sail to the wind. Meanwhile, my husband Andy pumps air into his kite—a different design than mine, with inflatable baffles. I clip into my skis, pull down on the steering bar, and spend a few minutes reacquainting myself with the steering motion of angling one end of the bar towards me and then the other, while the sail floats high above in an elegant figure eight. I cut the turn short and hold the kite at the edge of the wind. The yellow nylon grows taut and off I go, racing over the snow.
Yep, just when you thought you had all the winter stuff you needed, here’s an excuse to add yet more gear to the collection. Kite skiing is gaining momentum in the Tetons as one more way to get outside when snow blankets the ground. In fact, kite skiing conditions are often best on days when sitting on a chair lift or backcountry skiing above tree line is less than appealing. When the wind is howling, that is.
Relying on wind for travel in winter conditions was a practice used as early as 1911, when Roland Amundsen and company used sails for their return journey from the South Pole. More recently, European daredevils have brought attention to kite skiing as they careen down steep mountainsides in the Alps before launching into the air in a heart-racing combination of skiing and paragliding. The sport was slowly making inroads in the United States, until an important equipment innovation new just five years ago—a safety release that allows kiters to exit the system if headed toward dangerous obstacles—helped kite skiing’s popularity surge here. Kite skiers (and boarders) can now be seen on winter days around the country, whipping across fields, launching off jumps, and even getting tugged uphill by the force of nature.
Tetonia-based Steve Shepro started kite skiing seven years ago, after being introduced to the sport by his uncle, an avid windsurfer.
“I had flown small stunt kites at the beach as a kid, so the mechanics made sense,” Shepro says. “But what really excited me about it was realizing the power you get when you harness the wind, even with something like a small trainer kite. It’s amazing.”
Shepro recommends that newcomers to the sport use new gear if they’re going to fly anything bigger than a trainer. “The equipment has gotten much, much better in terms of ease of flying and safety,” he says. He also recommends a lesson: “It’s like going rock climbing—you don’t want to climb on an old hemp rope and you want to know how to be safe.”
For those seeking formal instruction, local kiting guru Wayne Phillips provides a free lesson with kite rental; he’s the contact person for Jackson Hole Paragliding, which also offers lessons. Phillips started experimenting with the sport back in 1998, when he’d use an old stunt kite to pull him around on a skateboard. The next year he upgraded and has been hooked ever since. He is now at the core of a group of locals helping to put our region’s potato fields, sagebrush flats, rolling hills, and expansive frozen lakes on the kite skiing map.
Phillips acknowledges that the sport has been slow to catch on in places like the Tetons, where so many people come specifically to ski. He finds that many kiters are ski bums who, after decades of sliding down the slopes at the resorts, are searching for a new experience.
With a kite, Phillips loves having the ability to not only ski downhill, but also uphill.
“There’s one spot by Craters of the Moon [National Monument & Preserve] where you can climb up over three thousand feet in less than fifteen minutes,” he says. He predicts the sport will continue to grow, especially in Teton Valley, in part because of relatively easy access to a number of good sites. One of his favorite places is a hilltop just north of Hatch’s Corner between Tetonia and Driggs.
Phillips is enthusiastic about sharing his passion for the sport with others and highlighting the area’s fantastic terrain. He posts wind and condition updates, as well as links to videos from recent exploits, on his Jackson Hole Kiters Facebook page.
“This is a really windy place, [and] there are a lot of rolling hills that are easily accessible from the road,” he says. “You can find wind any day, from ten minutes to two hours away.”
Blowin’ in the Wind
Wayne Phillips is planning a kite skiing gathering for January 2012. Check out the Jackson Hole Kiter’s Facebook page for more information—although some details, like the exact location, will be dependent on the wind.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
A Piece of Quiet—Backpacking with a leading natural sounds activist
America’s leading advocate of wilderness silence shows the way to Mt. Rainier National Park’s quietest corner. Plus: 9 more campsites with life-list listening.
by: Molly Loomis
As the Seattle skyline grows closer through the plane’s oval window, I wonder if Gordon Hempton is listening. If he is, I’m sure he’s annoyed. Hempton, part natural sounds recording artist and part silence activist, regards it as his personal mission to protect our parks from noise. Airplanes, like the 737 I’m on, are the biggest offenders. It’s an ironic start to my quest. For the next three days, I will join Hempton on a backpacking trip into Mt. Rainier National Park in search of quiet fewer than 200 miles away from a major city. Looking down on the expanse of concrete and asphalt stretching in every direction, I feel skeptical. But Hempton has a plan.
He has chosen our destination of Palisades Lakes strategically. By targeting the park’s northeastern corner, the Rainier massif should block noise from Seattle and Tacoma. On a micro level, a series of small ridges running east to west should deflect sound from the nearby town of Enumclaw. Plus, Dicks Lake, where we’ll make camp, is situated in a naturally muffled cirque whose walls will further insulate us from traffic and park sounds.
At the trailhead, as rain drizzles in air cold enough that we can see our breath, Hempton advises me to keep an open mind about what we won’t—and will—be hearing. Most hikers don’t know what kind of “music” is out there until they really start listening, he says.
At Hempton’s request, we walk the first mile without speaking, allowing us to “shed the baggage of daily life.” I’m bursting with questions, but I keep it zipped. It feels strangely liberating.
Hempton has dedicated his life to recording the natural world. He sells his work to galleries, musicians, and corporate clients like Microsoft and the Smithsonian, and you can buy his clips on iTunes. He won an Emmy for a PBS documentary in which he literally chased dawn, capturing its sounds on six continents. A stickler for quality and authenticity, Hempton does not alter his recordings—if a plane buzzes by, the integrity of the audio is ruined. Over the course of the last 15 years, Hempton has found it increasingly difficult to locate places where he can record for more than a few minutes without man-made interruptions, which led to his work as an environmental activist.
On Earth Day, 2005, he launched the One Square Inch of Silence campaign. OSI is a one-inch by one-inch speck in Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest that Hempton has spent the last six years lobbying to keep devoid of unnatural sounds. If he can protect one tiny area from human noise, his theory goes, an exponentially larger area will benefit. In the case of Olympic, which Hempton calls “the listener’s Yosemite” for its diversity of sound, he estimates a 20-mile radius would be freed from human-made noise if we preserve that single square inch.
Hempton stops at a creek just off the Palisades Lakes Trail, and explains how the highest sound frequencies are the first to fade, while the lower ones carry farther. Sure enough, the stream’s tone brightens as we approach, tinkling high sounds joining the initial baritone rumble. He points to rocks lodged in the water’s path, refers to them as notes, and explains how the stream will “tune” itself, or change pitch as rocks move. I nod, pretending to understand, but I’m lost somewhere between the real and the real esoteric. Clearly, I’m not the first to straddle this fine line. He reaches into his bag to fish out his equipment.
“I use these microphones to demonstrate what is possible to hear,” he says. “It’s a dichotomy of the modern world. We’re biologically prepared to listen, but we’re not hearing anything meaningful because there’s so much din in our lives.” I put on the headphones, and it’s like I’m hearing the woods for the first time. The forest swells with a symphony of subtleties like the flap and buzz of birds and insects.
My ears feel newly calibrated as we hike-listen-hike our way to Dicks Lake. We pause so often that it takes us four hours to cover the three miles to our basecamp, even though Hempton, 57, has the stamina and physique of someone half his age. He has backpacked much of his life, tackling long, challenging routes, but his discovery of sound changed all that.
“As soon as the microphone went on, I was like a five year old, ‘Why must we go so soon? Everything is so fascinating right here,’” he says.
After dinner beside the small tree-lined lake, I scurry to my tent, dodging raindrops. Lying in my sleeping bag, I recall one of Hempton’s favorite facts—that humans have eyelids, not ear lids. I listen intently to rain pattering on my tent fly—interrupted by Hempton’s snoring, the loudest sound he’s made all day.
A clear morning at dawn is typically when natural sounds travel best—the air is cool and less humid, and the world hasn’t woken up yet. This is when Hempton determines whether or not a place is quiet. How does he define it? Fifteen-minute periods without any intrusions of man-made noise. In 1984, Hempton identified 21 places in Washington with consistent noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer. By 2007, just three of those places were still quiet. Today, Hempton says, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas and national parks has shriveled to less than five minutes during the daytime.
“We should ask ourselves not how much noise we’ll tolerate in our national parks, but does that noise have to be there at all? Does somebody flying from China to Los Angeles have to fly over Olympic National Park? No, they definitely do not,” says Hempton, who has calculated a detour that he claims would add less than one minute to the flight time and one dollar to the ticket price. “If you could go to Kayak.com and see that an airline is going to help keep our parks quiet, how could you not choose that airline?” he asks, as a mid-morning drizzle adds percussion to our soundtrack.
Hempton wakes me from an afternoon nap later that day, noting that the birds and insects have gotten louder. “I think we might have a break in the weather,” he says, smiling from under his red and white umbrella. We hike up the trail to a small creek running into Upper Palisades Lake, which Hempton noted as having remarkable tuning.
He equips me with a set of earphones and two microphones on a portable stand, positioned to mimic the distance between my two ears.
“Have fun,” he says. “Just experiment.” I head off to create my own sound portrait—the audio equivalent of a photo essay.
The scrape of my raingear screams in my ears as I walk toward the small creek, and I immediately understand why Hempton—dressed in a pair of brown canvas pants, an army-green cotton vest, and cotton layers—wears all natural fibers, no matter the weather. Even his equipment bag and backpack are heavy cotton canvas.
Carefully, I poke the microphones into crevices and hollows between mossy rocks. I am transfixed by all of the intricacies I’ve never heard. Every inch of the creek carries its own distinct sounds: whooshing, flushing, crisp rat-a-tats, hollow plunkings. I continue downhill, and the creek grows louder, losing some of its delicate finesse as the angle steepens. I stop, muddy and smiling, at the lake. As a professional mountain guide and climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, I spend more than half of my year in the backcountry. I’ve appreciated the thrumming of a sage grouse and the tinkle of aspen leaves shaken by the breeze. But this is an awakening.
“How long do you think that took?” asks Hempton.
“Thirty minutes?” I guess.
“More than an hour,” he says. Losing sense of time is one of the reasons Hempton always records alone, not tied to anyone else’s schedule.
“If you’ve only got two hours, forget it,” he says. “That’s like saying, ‘Honey, I’ve got two minutes, let’s make love.’”
Back at camp, over tea, we recount some of the creek sounds (and the frequent interruption of airplanes). The gurgling water and rustling wind I recorded today are obviously anything but silent. “You’re right,” Hempton says. There is no such thing as true silence. The whole world vibrates.”
But the absence of sound isn’t really the goal. While “silence” makes a great buzzword, what Hempton really wants might best be described as sound preserves, places where you can listen to nature’s vibrations without interruption.
“Man-made noise is an emission that’s being dumped into the most sensitive areas in the country,” he says.
For Hempton, the solution is simply a matter of getting people to tune into the wilderness and recognize that what they hear should be treated like endangered species. “Hikers know the serenity this brings better than anybody,” he says.
The sky clears on our last night, and before going to bed, Hempton predicts, “Dawn should bring a wonderful listening opportunity. It’ll be clear, and the birds will have a pent-up need to reestablish territories.” That’s a need Hempton can appreciate.
Visit Mt. Rainier’s silent side.
>> Get there From Enumclaw, take WA 40 33 miles southeast to the White River Entrance Station. Go 10.5 miles up the winding road to the parking lot for Sunrise Point.
>> Permit Required (free for walk-ups, $20 reserved). Pick up at the White River Entrance Station or Sunrise Visitor Center. Make reservations from March 15 through September 30 (see contact).
>> Access On October 14, the road closes at the junction with WA 410. It typically reopens by July 1.
>> Bears Pack bear-bag gear and hang food 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the tree.
>> Contact (360) 569-6575; nps.gov/mora
9 more hikes where natural sounds rule
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest
Trek into the white noise capital of the East.
If the sounds of babbling water and wind through the leaves soothe a frazzled mind, then the 13.3-mile Slickrock Trail might just be the country’s most relaxing hike. You’ll cross Slickrock Creek 12 times in the first six miles and pass three named waterfalls on your way to a breezy campsite at Naked Ground Gap, a tree-covered pass at 4,000 feet. From the Slickrock Creek trailhead at 1,060 feet, wind along the creek, heading upstream along a gentle grade. Seven miles in, listen to the crash of 30-foot Wildcat Falls and its four separate drops. At camp, perk your ears for great horned, barred, and screech owls. Hike out the way you came.
>> Map Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Citico Creek Wilderness ($10, fs.fed.us)
>> Info (828) 479-6431; joycekilmerslickrock.org
Canoe Area Wilderness
Hike beneath airplane-free skies.
Along with the White House and Area 51, the Boundary Waters prohibits planes—even float, bush, and fire-detection flights—from flying below 4,000 feet. Result: no drone. Take the Angleworm Trail on a 14-mile short-handled lollipop loop that gradually wends 500 feet up a granite ridge, through groves of red and white pines. Angleworm, Home, and Whiskey Jack Lakes each have a symphony of loons, geese, and occasional wolves. One of our scouts even heard canis lupus devouring a kill near here. Can you handle -30°F nights? Snowshoe this route to hear whines, gurgling, and gunshot cracks as ice forms across these narrow lakes. One ranger says it sounds like whale song. Typically, this annual sonorous event occurs in December or early January. Camp on the eastern bank of Angleworm, near mile seven at a site overlooking the water.
>> Map Boundary Waters Canoe Area West ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (218)-365-7600; bwca.com
Navajo National Monument
Hike through the Southwest’s best-preserved ancestral pueblo.
Northern Arizona’s celebrity attraction, the Grand Canyon, hogs hikers’ attention—but it is also plagued with tourist flyovers. Navajo National Monument’s 17-mile (round-trip) Keet Seel Trail is reliably empty and quiet. It’s more than two hours from Flagstaff, the nearest city larger than 10,000 people; the trailhead is literally at the end of the road (AZ 564) in Navajo Nation; and strict permitting limits access to 20 daily. From the Keet Seel trailhead, drop 1,000 feet through sandstone rubble and dunes to the canyon floor, where you’ll cross Keet Seel Creek. The only hubbub is the wind in the junipers.
>> Map Provided at orientation
>> Info (928) 672-2700; nps.gov/nava
City of Rocks National Reserve
Camp in a Martian landscape with noise-canceling formations.
Marooned on a high desert plain of sagebrush, just outside of Almo (population 150), City of Rocks’ granite domes and spires once served as a crucial landmark for pioneers traveling west to California. Today, the surreal surroundings are a stomping ground for rock climbers, hikers, and solitude-seekers. Spend a night in one of the City’s campsites tucked into the aspen groves, then dayhike. From Pinnacle Pass, head north cross-country, using the west side of the formation as a handrail to reach the least-visited pocket of the park. Next day, hike seven miles from Circle Creek Overlook trailhead to the Indian Grove campsite. From here, scramble 8,867-foot Graham Peak. Listen for red-tailed hawks, scurrying rabbits—and ghosts. Some hikers say they have heard train robbers hiding gold amongst the rocks.
>> Map Sawtooth National Forest Map ($10, fs.fed.us)
>> Info (208) 824-5910; nps.gov/ciro
Kings Canyon National Park
Follow the footsteps of John Muir, one of our country’s first natural-sounds enthusiasts.
Although Muir trod through the West’s wilderness long before the era of microphones and digital recorders, his writing captures the sounds of nature in thoughtful and captivating prose. (Hempton once spent an entire summer searching out the sounds of Muir’s writing in Yosemite’s backcountry.) But instead of battling the crowds and tour buses clogging Yosemite Valley, head to Tehipite Dome, 1.7 miles inside Kings Canyon’s western boundary, which Muir argued rivaled its famous neighbor in splendor. Start at the Sierra National Forest’s Rancheria trailhead, and as you hike the 13.5 miles to its base, see if you can hear the difference between Jeffery, fox tail, and lodgepole pine. Really. Camp creekside near Deer Meadow or Crown Creek.
>> Map Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (559) 565-3766; nps.gov/seki
Death Valley National Park
Let your ears ring in Nevada’s Funeral Mountains.
Proof that the best things in life are never easy? Hiking into Death Valley’s Red Amphitheater area in the Funeral Range. There are no trails, it is brutally hot for much of the year, and backpackers must carry in all of their water. But the silence is absolute. Rangers say that the air can be so still that the predominate sound is your own heartbeat. Drive to the end of Hole in the Wall Road (4WD required) and hike up the obvious drainage. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure-area ripe for exploration. A ring of 7,000-foot peaks encircle the drainage. Situated in Death Valley’s eastern sector, this area escapes the bulk of the military overflights which boom through the rest of the park. However, if you’re lucky, you may hear grasshoppers, crickets, bees, or tarantula hawks flying through the air. Bigger birds include Merlin, peregrine, and prairie falcons.
>> Map Death Valley National Park ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (760) 786-3200; nps.gov/deva
Great Sand Dunes National Park
and Preserve Camp in the country’s biggest sandbox.
Sand dampens sound waves—some recording studios even use it. So it’s safe to say that any peep in this 30-square-mile dune field doesn’t stand a chance. There are no trails either—hike more than 1.5 miles into it, and you can camp anywhere. Target Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at nearly 1,000 feet high, and listen as the sand vibrates beneath your boots, alternately sighing, whistling, grunting, groaning, and barking. Then head north out of the dunes to link the Sand Ramp and Sand Creek Trails. Go north up the Sand Creek drainage to alpine terrain housing the turquoise waters of Sand Creek Lakes (13 miles). Listen for the bugles of the resident elk herd.
>> Map Sangre de Cristo Mountains ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (719) 378-6399; nps.gov/grsa
Susquehannock State Forest
Find deep silence in the state’s largest roadless area.
North-central Pennsylvania is a world away from Pittsburgh and Philly: It’s home to the state’s largest roadless area and darkest skies. It’s perfect then, that the Susquehannock Trail System, an 85-mile loop, is right in the middle of its deepest reaches. Start from East Fork Road, near the hamlet of Cross Fork and hike five miles to The Pool, a deep 30-foot diameter pond (a local astronomy group’s favorite tent site). Camp, or continue three miles gaining 1,100 feet to a plateau covered in mountain laurel. Then drop 800 feet to the waters of Cross Forks. Keep your ears alert for the slap of beaver tails in dammed areas. Shuttle, retrace your steps, or finish the whole circuit to join the 1,000-plus strong Circuit Hiker Club.
>> Map Guide to the Susquehannock Trail System ($8, see Info)
>> Info (814) 435-2966; stc-hike.org
Isle Royale National Park
Mingle with moose in one of the country’s quietest parks.
This rugged island is one of our least-frequented national parks. Add to that its location 75 miles from the mainland—in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes—and it’s no wonder that this 571,790-acre park is also one of the five quietest, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Leave the chug of the ferry to access the 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the island’s craggy backbone. Spend your trail days listening to the soft rustling of white spruce, balsam fir, and, on the island’s western end, maple, aspen, and birch. Pass your evenings on the shore of small inland lakes, with water lapping around your toes. Lucky listening: The splash of a moose’s hooves as it snacks on vegetation in the shallows or as it thunders away from hungry wolves.
>> Map Isle Royale National Park ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (906) 482-0984; nps.gov/isro