Monday, June 28, 2021

Splitting the Shift and an Incomplete Hike


As I was greeting the sunrise today (Apr 26) from the comfort of my camp-chair I got to thinking about the rut I was in.

Not that I felt there was anything inherently bad about my rut! In fact I'm perfectly content with my rut. But there are those that say stepping outside your comfort zone, outside your rut, once in a while, is good for you.

Now I am definitely a morning person and by late afternoon/early evening I am typically settling down for the night, but this morning I let that "rut" stuff get inside my head and began wondering what I was missing out on by not taking a late-day hike once in a while.

Transit workers often work split-shifts. They put in half their hours during morning rush, are off through the middle part of the day, then finish their day working the evening rush.

Not sure what got into me to knock me clean off the rails of my rut (Yeah, mixed metaphors, but I can live with it.) while I was so comfortably kicked back there in my chair like that, but right then and there I decided to work a split-shift today by taking a modest hike this morning and then another one near sunset.

The Mesa Loop, the lolly-popped upper half of the track above, seemed like a good candidate for a modest hike.

The loop doesn't connect with a road anywhere, but if I used The Van to get myself up to a closer trailhead than here at camp I could save about 6 miles of hiking, (Hey! I'm not a complete idiot! - - - though I guess that makes me a fractional-idiot - - - ) turning this hike, after adding the one-plus  mile out and back to the boundary gate at the county road, a bit of trail I'd never been on before, into 9 mile morning stroll. (It turned out to be a 7.5 mile stroll for reasons you will see soon enough.)

So that's how it came to be that I finished up breakfast, fired up The Van, and a few minutes later left it in the overflow area just outside the gate to the now deserted horse camp

and started hiking down into the canyon that I needed to cross before reaching the mesa rising up there on the other side.

My plan was to get down to the canyon then initially bypass the Mesa Trail cutoff so I could first go check out the gate out there at the county road. That way I wouldn't be tempted to use the excuse of tired old legs to chicken out on this little side-excursion, as might happen if I left it until after doing the Mesa Trail.

But even before I hit the canyon floor there was a problem with that plan. You know, the furry kinda problem with very real horns and a bad temper.

In fact, as I got a little closer I could see that there were several problems with my plan.

Now there are some that would say "Oh heck, they're just like cows. What's the big deal?!" 

But those people have no idea what they are talking about. (Besides, have you ever been on foot in a pasture full of angry cows? I have and it's not fun!) The truth is, unlike cows which have been domesticated for thousands of years,  Bison have only been fenced in for just over a hundred years and are still wild animals. 

Bison are to cows what coyotes are to yappy little Fifi.

We have a large ranching operation near home and they run a fair sized Bison herd on part of it. You never see the ranch-hands, who will wade on foot into a herd of cows without a second thought, anymore than a couple steps from their trucks or horses when working the Bison. And these guys are around these barn-born and pasture-raised Bison every day.

The Bison here in Caprocks are not barn and pasture animals! Within the boundaries of the park they live their lives pretty much the way their ancestors did. (The range managers move them around by turning off select water supplies while turning others on to encourage the herds to move to different areas.) Wild and free and defending themselves and their calves from predators - like bad ol' me.

But then it began to look like all was not lost as they started moving away from me,

leaving their mark as they crossed

a couple meanders of the river as

they vacated the trail so I could continue on as per my original plans.

They cleared the way out as far as the cutoff to the Mesa Loop and I thought maybe I could make it all the way to the gate after all, so I kept going.

But about the time I had gone just a few dozen paces further down the trail

I began to notice ghostly shapes out in the brush flanking me to the right and left.

At this point I decided the better thing to do was to come back for the gate later in the hike, tired or not, and, for now, return to the Mesa Loop. (The advantage of decision making by a fractional-idiot rather than a complete idiot!)

As I started up toward the mesa I had reason to wonder if Bison kids are as sneaky about hiding  their vegetables rather than eating them as human kids are.

Up on top of the mesa is a network of old fence-lines revealing that livestock were regularly run up here sometime in the past.

And very recent tracks speak of a different kind of inhabitant that is still running, or rather sliding, around up here!

After making the loop and coming back down off the mesa I didn't see any bison lurking around in the bottom of the canyon. And believe me, I was looking!

So I hung a left and once again headed down the trail towards that gate.

As I approached one of the old livestock handling areas near the river the coast was still clear,

and I went around to the other side to check out the solar panel, which is new since the last time I was here.

It appears to feed a pump down in the old well that, if working, which it wasn't today, pumped water out a pipe and down into this low area.

You see that bit of raw earth in the top-right background? That's the far bank of the river and just beyond that is the intersection with the Canyon Rim Trail that comes down from Honey Flats where the main campground sits.

Just beyond that intersection is the half-mile of trail out to the gate. My current destination.


Maybe not!

Seems that a portion of that Bison herd has now bedded down, literally, right on top of the trail-intersection over there. (See the trail sign right in the middle of them?)

When I stood and watched for just a little too long a couple of the protective moms started my way with tails raised - never a good sign -  and I decided the gate was just going to have to wait for another day.

I turned around and headed back in the direction of The Van at, for me anyway, an uncharacteristically brisk pace.

Stand by for part 2 of my "split shift".

Monday, June 21, 2021

Mildly Terrifying


A new morning!

              A new hike!

I did the Lower Prong loop yesterday, so it just seemed to make sense to do the Upper Prong loop today. (Apr 25)

And if I break from tradition and do the loop clockwise the trailhead is just a few steps away from The Van!

This shot clearly shows the oldest, Permian layer, shot through with horizontal veins of gypsum at the bottom, the relatively smoothly eroded Tecovas layer on top of that, topped by the more raggedly eroded Trujillo layer. At this point in the canyon the uppermost layer, the caprock formed from the debris of the erosion of the Rocky Mountains, has already been worn away. I'm standing on the remains of the Permian Sea. Depending on how far down I actually am, on material laid down somewhere between 300 and 230 million years ago! Long before dinosaurs existed!

So with the sun starting to paint the fins towering precariously above me

 as well as the ridges lining the western edge of the Upper South Prong Canyon

I lay boot to trail,

much to the annoyance of this inhabitant.

In this light I can't really make out enough details to identify it, (OK, let's be honest. I probably couldn't identify it in perfect light either, but it sounds good to pretend that I can.) but it follows me for a while, crying out every time it lights nearby. I can't tell if it's a warning, or a protest, or maybe a little of both, but whatever it is its loud duwee duwee woochi woochi woochi woochi clearly marks my position as I move along the trail.

But that doesn't stop me from continuing up the canyon away from camp, (back there under the red arrow)

the whole time being watched over by the Guardian of the Canyon.

I don't know if that's her official name, or if she has a name at all, but that's what I've been calling her for years.

In my mind she was embedded in the earth hundreds of millions of years ago and patiently waited her turn to be exposed by wind and water to take up her duties of watching over the canyon. And when her time is done there are others like her, still waiting deep in walls of the canyon for their turn to take up the mantle of Guardian.

At a horizontal erosional rate of about a quarter inch per year these canyons are going to be here for a long time and take a lot of watching over!

I know the Guardian's job is to watch over the canyon and its inhabitants and not me, a temporary interloper, but I hope a little of that guardianship is spilling over on me this morning because soon I'm headed up the face of that white ridge there in the background.

There are three sections of trail in this park classified by the park service as Extremely Steep & Rugged.

Having been on all three in the past I propose a slight modification, in that one of those sections be reclassified as Mildly Terrifying to differentiate it from its slightly gentler cousins.

And, of course, that's the one I happen to be headed for this morning - - -

However it's classified, here I'm standing at the base of it and if you look close there behind the branches of that tree you see a large bolder (About Smart-Car size) sitting on the edge of a ledge going to the right.

Nope, as tempting as it is when you get up there, and it has clearly lured in many hikers, that's not the trail, because once past the rock that inviting ledge quickly pinches out to nothing and leaves the hiker stranded above a long drop.

Nope! Not the way to go!

Rather, when you hit the vertical wall at the top of that first scramble, instead of turning right, the proper action is to turn left,

towards this much less inviting visage.

Yep, that little ledge over there is the trail you're looking for. But in order to reach that trail, to get from here to there, you have to drop into this half-bowl right in front of you and scale the smooth-faced, 5' tall lip on the other side.

And, just to make it interesting, this is what is waiting just off your left side when you're in the bottom of that bowl. (As you can see by my foot, the camera is pointed pretty much straight down here.)

Which is why, now that I've finally scraped up enough wisdom to buy them in the first place, back there at the base of that first scramble I used a little bit of that hard-won wisdom to sit down long enough to pull on my spikes.

Those 12 carbide tips do a much better job of grabbing onto the rock than my bare-boots.

So now the question is; why am I doing this? Just - why? (Moms want to know the answer!!)

Well life is a gift, and one best honored by living it with enthusiasm. At my age circumstances could force me into living that life as a sedentary observer. Maybe that happens next week. Maybe next decade. I don't know. But in the meantime I'm going to go out there, I'm going to push myself, and when I come out the other side I'm going to feel alive!

Besides, let's be honest here, plenty of people have hiked this bit of trail before me and will after me, so it's not like I'm being nearly as heroic as I'd like to believe - - -

An intermediate reward for making the climb is this view back down the canyon from part way up. Just don't lean out too far while snapping that photo!

Once on the other side of that half-bowl there's still plenty of climbing (If you look close, there near the top, just a shade right of center above that bit of slick-rock you can see one of the trail markers luring me on.)

and edging along left to do

before making it to the intersection with the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail at the top of the ridge.

But there's little respite to be found up there at the high point of this hike before beginning the drop down towards Fern Cave.

On this profile the Steep and Rugged doesn't look all that much different than the Mildly Terrifying, but believe me, when you are the one on the ground Steep and Rugged is a lot less scary than Mildly Terrifying!

That's Fern Cave down there, though it's more of a grotto than a cave.

But the ferns that normally thrive in the cool, (usually) damp environment of this shelter have been looking a little tough for the past couple of years.

This is what they look like today,

and this is what they looked like in 2018.

From Fern Cave I'm working my way down the rugged upper end of Upper North Prong Canyon, thinking the challenging part of the hike is behind me, so just chilling out and minding my own business, when a touch of reality lodged itself into my brain like a pebble in my boot.

In this case reality is a bit of Bison wool laying right in the middle of the trail. You know, fluffy, light-weight stuff that will quickly drift into the snags of the surrounding vegetation at the slightest breeze. And spring around here means plenty of significantly more than slight breezes. Which tells me that this bit of fluff left lying there was on a 1500 pound beast not all that long ago!

It doesn't help the anxiety levels that here in the upper end of the canyon it is so steep and narrow that the trail often has to share the bottom with the creek-bed, which doesn't leave much room to get out of the way if the situation calls for it!

But a few steps later I'm distracted again by wondering how this sign, which is supposed to be about 3/4's of a mile away and some 600 feet higher,

up there on that ridge in the background, managed to get down here.

One of the many interesting things to be found in the Upper North Prong Canyon is a pair of hoodoos called The Last Dance.

If you keep your eye on them as you hike down the canyon from above 

you can actually see, in the changing aspect, the pair dancing around each other up there.

Until they gradually conceal themselves


against the background.

If you are coming up the canyon from below, unless your turn around and look over your shoulder once in a while you may not even know they are there.

Another cool thing that can be seen is the many interesting forms the exposed layers of gypsum can take, such as this bubble that collapsed at some point to form a rustic planter.

But eventually I walk out of the canyon and find the intersection with the North Prong Loop that will take me back to a trailhead, and another  mile along the road from there, back to camp.

I did make a quick stop along the way at the backpacking campsite but honestly it's not all that much to write home about.

A handful of bare-dirt campsites with a composting toilet nearby.

I get all that where I'm at in the South Prong Tent Camp  and I don't have to walk a mile to get there! On top of that, if you are so inclined, which I very rarely am, there's a fire-ring in my campsite whereas here in the backcountry ground-fires are prohibited.

I was pretty much expecting a peaceful wind-down of the day after my hike, but as I was sitting there in camp eating my one-pot dinner and minding my own business, I suddenly had a 1500 pound visitor!

Being camera-less at the moment I gently eased my phone out of my pant's pocket and shot a couple photos. Surreptitiously, as if being captured on film (well - you know what I mean) is the thing that's going to piss him off!

I'd have invited him to the table, but there just wasn't enough room under my 8x8 canopy for both of us. Besides, The Van's freezer is way too small for the other 1499.75 pounds of meat - - -