December 29, 2009

Farms-into-Forest Plan has Unintended Consequences?

The Secretary of Agriculture (and some agricultural lobbying groups) are "viewing with alarm" an unintended consequence of proposed environmental policy.

Would it privilege "farming" trees for the carbon-credit money over growing food crops--and thus keeping Monsanto and John Deere in business?

The latest Agriculture Department economic-impact study of the climate bill, which passed the House this summer, found that the legislation would profit farmers in the long term. But those profits would come mostly from higher crop prices as a result of the legislation's incentives to plant more forests and thus reduce the amount of land devoted to food-producing agriculture.

If I sound cynical, it is because I wonder where the secretary's complaints are when farmland is turned into shopping malls?

You have to look at this kind of alarm-raising in terms of "Who might lose money?" if it passes.

Well, Honey, the GPS Says to Go this Way

Someone else lets the gadget do their thinking for them.

A Nevada couple letting their SUV's navigation system guide them through the high desert of Eastern Oregon got stuck in snow for three days when the GPS unit sent them down a remote forest road.

This reminds me of the game of Dueling Proverbs, in which you come up with contradictory sayings. "Out of sight, out of mind" versus "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

Another saying is "Trust your instruments." If you feel like north is off to your right, but the compass says north is straight ahead, trust the compass.

On the other hand, if the gadget (or the map) sends you down some road in the boonies in the winter, maybe you should think seriously about weather and local conditions.

Two years ago, James Kim (also in Oregon) did not--a similar case with a worse outcome.

December 27, 2009

Why Donald Duck Wore Pants

To conceal his amazing penis.

More Evidence that Franklin's Men had Lead Poisoning.

It has been speculated that the Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 came to grief partly through heavy reliance on lead-contaminated canned food, canning being a fairly new technology of food preservation at the time.

New tests of soup cans probably identical to those on Franklin's ships showed lead levels "off the scale."

My study is cold this morning, and it feels colder when I think of the song "Lord Franklin."
They sailed West and they sailed East
Their ship on oceans of ice did freeze
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through.
Michaél O'Domhnaill and Kevin Burke have the definitive version (YouTube). (Hat tip to Mirabilis.)


December 26, 2009

'Ice Hunter' and the Ice

The big storm that battered the Midwest skipped over us, leaving just a couple of inches of powder snow on top of the icy Forest Service road where I walk the dogs.It's slippery--Fisher comes galloping up to me and makes a sort of canine snowplow turn in order to fully stop.

M. and I took a longer walk up the same road this afternoon, eventually reaching the south-facing stretch that was not so icy.

Coming home, I was thinking of Joseph Heywood's novel Ice Hunter, which M. gave me for Christmas and which I started reading last night.

The plot and characters are sort of Nevada Barr-meets-C.J. Box. Maybe more like Box, since Heywood's protagonist is a game warden—or conservation officer, the Michigan term.

Ice Hunter was published by The Lyons Press,  usually associated in my mind with fly-fishing. Right off Heywood makes a literary link, placing protagonist Grady Service in the same Marquette, Mich., courtroom in which Jimmy Stewart, playing a fly-fishing small town bachelor lawyer, defends the accused in the noirish 1959 drama Anatomy of a Murder.

That movie was based on a novel by Michigan judge John D. Voelker, also a well-known fly-fishing writer under the pen name of Robert Traver, best known for his "testament":

I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful and I hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape; because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don't want to waste the trip; because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid; and, finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant--and not nearly so much fun.

As to Ice Hunter, I am halfway through it and enjoying it. Working any time as a copy editor, however, ruins simple reading. I keep thinking, "Shouldn't that word have been capitalized?" or upon reading that a character got "a B.S. in forestry from the University of Colorado," I want to click Microsoft Word's INSERT menu and insert a COMMENT: "The forestry school is at Colorado State University (Fort Collins), not at CU-Boulder. Suggest change."

That won't stop me from looking for more "Grady Service, woods cop" novels, however.

December 23, 2009

My Eyes! My Eyes!

Like a fool, I followed a link from Smartdogs that led me to doggie butt decorations.

Yes, you read aright.  Just the thing for people who cannot let dogs be dogs.

This is a dog. (video clip, 3 MB)

December 21, 2009

Walk Your Dog, Not Your Friends

Dogs are better walking partners than humans.

What a shock. Dogs don't make excuses (hot weather, headache, just don't feel like it...) And as some commenters note, they train us.

Fisher the hyper-Chessie expects breakfast soon after I get up. And then the morning walk must begin within 10 seconds, or he sits outside the front door, whining and crying.

The below-zero (F.) weather last week had no effect on him. We now say that he is "insulated by insanity."

They Must Grow 'Em Big Back East

One doe can "feed up to 200 people"?

Otherwise, a good story on hunters feeding the hungry while PETA and the "Humane" Society of the United States flail around issuing press releases.

(Hat tip: Outdoor Pressroom)

December 20, 2009

Cattle Mutilations Return? Part 4

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

How do cattle die? Lots of ways. Lightning kills hundreds on the Colorado prairie every year, I learned when I was a reporter. Add in various infections, "hardware disease," rattlesnake bites on the nose—and, yes, four-footed predators.

Back then, I was exposed to all the wildly elaborate explanations of the mutilations, each one requiring more secrecy, more advanced technology, and a bigger cover-up than the last. Occam's razor was nowhere in sight.

Then one day in the early 1980s I was deer hunting in eastern Washington with my father. On our lunch break we crossed the border to visit the ranching cousins on the British Columbia side.

Somehow the conversation turned to predators. My cousin Wendell was saying how right after a cow dies of natural causes, coyotes will approach the carcass but not chew on it right away.  Dad (hunter, forest ranger) nodded in agreement.

"Aha!" I thought. How many times had I been told that it was spooky and weird how coyotes, in particular, would approach a "mutilated" (eyes, rectum gone) cow but not eat from it right away!  Yet here were Dad and Wendell treating that as normal behavior. (more after the jump)

It's Time to Ski in Style

These Finnish ski troopers c. 1939 have the cross-country skiing style as far as I am concerned. Check out the man on the left with his plaid shirt.

Did he have to buy special clothing to make himself look like a multi-colored insect? Absolutely not. (Click photo for larger version.)

You can still find the pull-on knit gaiters as worn by the troopers in the center in surplus outlets sometimes, usually ex-Swedish Army, but they are about the same.

Law professor and blogger Ann Althouse is bucking the Spandex trend. She has that Edwardian look down too.

The Impacts of Off-Road Vehicles are Worse than We Thought

Some links related to abuse of public lands by off-road vehicle riders:

• Paul Vertrees from Backcountry Hunters & Anglers explains just what the problem is:

Off-road vehicles (ORVs) had carved six-inch-deep tracks through a damp alpine meadow in the Pike National Forest southwest of Denver. Soil ripped from the ground by spinning tires washed into a nearby stream, dirtying it with sediment. A Forest Service "No Motor Vehicles" sign lay smashed on the ground next to the ugly tire ruts, scarring what would otherwise have been unspoiled backcountry.

• In related news, Colorado seeks to put ORV user-fee money towards law enforcement

• And an off-road outlaw sees the light:

When I confronted the riders, they had no clue that their raucous invasion had destroyed my outdoor experience. They didn't even think about the impacts their riding had on those who enjoy quiet recreation -- hiking, camping, hunting and horseback riding in our national forests. I knew I had to change my ways. I love ATV riding, but the truth is that my ATV and the millions like it have made severe and cumulative impacts on our public lands and wildlife. The impacts of off-road vehicles are probably even more profound and far-reaching than we think they are

• Take a non-binding poll on appropriate punishment for illegal off-road riding.

Cattle Mutilations Return? Part 3

(Part 1 here. Part 2 here.)

Let's return to Manuel Sanchez's dead calves over in the San Luis Valley. And let's think about wildlife rather than mad cultists, cow-snatching aliens, or secret government agencies.
Let's make "surgical incisions" with Occam's razor.

First, although I am not a rancher, some of my relatives are, and we have talked about how predators and scavengers deal with cattle.

Second, I grew up with big-game hunting, so I know a little big about what happens when you leave a large dead animal out in the wild—in particular, what happens to the gut pile (the internal organs, intestines, etc.).

1. Manuel Sanchez says he lost four calves, one week. Right there I would wonder about mountain lions, which typically eat a deer every week to ten days. Would a large calf be similar enough to a mulie doe as a food source?

2. "Their innards gone. Tongues sliced out. Udders carefully removed. Facial skin sliced and gone. Eyes cored away."

Watch out for those verbs: "sliced" and "cored" and the adverb "carefully." They might imply the use of tools and make you think of human perpetrators. 

Predators such as wolves (not in Colorado in any number) and mountain lions go for the underbelly when opening a carcass—no bones in the way.

3. "Not a drop of blood on the ground or even on the remaining skin."  (more after the jump).

December 19, 2009

Cattle Mutilations Return? Part 2

(Part 1 here.)

The sudden decrease in mutilation reports in the 1980s suggests that what changed was not the phenomenon but the narrative(s) that explained it. True believers like Linda Howe kept telling their stories, but the news media, at least, lost interest in a story that was rural, weird, and had no resolution.

Perhaps the nearest thing to resolution was the Rommel Report, written by former FBI agent Rommel, working as consultant to New Mexico's First Judicial District. His conclusion: "scavenger-induced damage"

The FBI has other PDFs of documents related to mutilation investigations, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Hardcore UFO "researchers" maintained their position. Note the categorical statement in the first sentence. (more after the jump)

December 17, 2009

Cattle Mutilations Return? Part 1

On Nov. 26, 2009  story moved on the AP wire (I know that is obsolete terminology. So sue me.) about "mysterious cattle mutilations."

Cattle mutilations in the San Luis Valley. Oh my, here we go again.

The San Luis Valley of southern Colorado has a reputation for "high strangeness." (Did I mention I was born there? It's true.)

Colorado was central to the "cattle mutilation" wave of the mid-1970s, which actually stretched from Alberta to New Mexico. But were cattle actually mutilated?

During that first "wave," my curiosity about it contributed to my desire to be a newspaper reporter. But by the time I actually was one, the "wave" was over, although I did write one retrospective story in the Colorado Springs Sun circa 1981.

My better piece, "Mutilation Madness," was published in Fate magazine in June 1988. It is not available online. Perhaps I should scan it.

But back to the 1970s ...

The "cattle mutilation" phenomenon, I decided, had two aspects: One was a failure of journalism. The other was observers' tendency to wrap a narrative around just a few shaky points of data. (More after the jump.)

December 16, 2009

December 15, 2009

He Brought the Duke to a Shooting Party

From our minuscule "aristocratic eccentricities" file (insofar as we know no aristocrats), a problem of identity at a country-house weekend.

'Then she said: "You won't be able to shoot as we haven't enough guns, so Gerald will be shooting on your peg."

'To which I replied: "But Gerald doesn't shoot - he's my retriever."

December 13, 2009

Mongols in the San Luis Valley: Not the Movie

A delegation of Mongolian natural-resource managers recently visited Colorado's San Luis Valley to compare notes with the parkies at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Mongolia, which is roughly six times the size of Colorado with half the population, has embarked on an ambitious conservation program that would bring up to one-third of the arid country into a system of preserves and parks.

Synchronicity: Last night M. and I watched Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan(dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2007) .

It ranks highly among "barbarian movies," all of which follow the same gender code:

Men...
  1. Fight
  2. Become blood brothers and thereafter greet one another with an inarticulate "Yaaah!"
  3. Suffer pain
  4. Seek visions
  5. Have sex

Women...
  1. Have sex
  2. Bear sons
  3. Flee from enemies provoked by the men or ...
  4. Are captured by said enemies
  5. Shout curses at numbers 3 and 4.
There is also epic cinematography from Inner Mongolia (China) and Kazakhstan.

Any Westerner who upon seeing the movie thinks something like, "That reminds me of the Wind River Range" —or the Great Sand Dunes—might contemplate how, for instance, the Blackfeet, Sioux, or Plains Cree might have turned out if they had not just horses but also steel weapons, sheep, and wheeled carts—plus a few centuries to refine a lifestyle of nomadism, fearless independence, and blood feuds.

The Merkit people—simultaneously neighbors, enemies, and relatives of Genghis Khan—are even shown as living in tipis.

December 12, 2009

What Every Hiker, Hunter, Etc. Fears

The leader of a gang that broke into cars parked at trailheads in the Denver-Boulder area gets a 20-year prison sentence.

Interesting comments.

But really, who leaves their wallet in their vehicle?

December 10, 2009

Hunting, Food, and Responsibility.

Yet another article on how understanding where food comes from and "eating locally" brings people to hunting.

One person interviewed is falconer Rebecca O'Connor, whose recent memoir I reviewed here.

Church for Dogs


Patrick "Terrierman" Burns posted this image with the title "Dogs in the Woods is like Church."

Today, the dogs and I went to 7:30 Mass today as we do most days. The church was heated to 0 F. (-17 C.)

As usual, they barked during the consecration, ran away during the homily, and as for their offering, you don't want to ask.

December 08, 2009

Indian Trust Accounts Settlement Announced.

Color me impressed. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a settlement of the long-standing lawsuit against the federal government for mishandling Indian trust accounts.

Spearheaded by Blackfeet banker Elouise Cobell, the suit has dragged on for 13 years.

As a girl growing up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Cobell learned the government was supposed to pay out money to the owners of the private lands held in trust for American Indians since 1887 and managed by the Department of the Interior. But she noticed government checks for farming, grazing and timber-cutting on her family's land sometimes arrived, but often didn't.

She recognized many of the problems with the government accounting of the Indian trust accounts when she served as treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation for 13 years.

The Clinton administration never settled, nor did that of George W. Bush. Commenters on the Indian Country Web site, however, offer additional perspectives.

Furthermore, Ken Salazar almost won the Field & Stream Hunting and Fishing Heroes-versus-Villains Face-off.

Bird-Feeding Science Still Inconclusive

As dozens of juncos, plus finches, jays, and other species mob the bird feeders and make serious dents in my black-oil sunflower seed supply, here are some articles on artificial feeding and bird populations:

• A German study suggests that feeding birds in winter is causing one species to divide. (Note:  "bird table" is British for bird feeder.)

• Winter feeding may make for better breeding.

Birdfeeders, populations, and the domestic cat.

Surprisingly, the research team also found evidence in several studies which indicated that the flurry of activity caused by bird feeding does not increase the birds' risk of predation. Counter-intuitively, the presence of feeders has been associated with lower levels of predation by domestic cats.

Yes, I would say that is "counter-intuitive," considering that I have had a couple of cats who would imitate a rock while crouched under the feeder and then shoot straight up, paw extended, to snag a bird.

December 06, 2009

Environmental Causes of Breast Cancer and Asthma?

As mammogram guidelines are debated in the media, I am glad to see someone thinking that perhaps rising breast cancer and asthma rates have to do with environmental pollution, probably endocrine distruptors.

I asked these doctors what they do in their own homes to reduce risks. They said that they avoid microwaving food in plastic or putting plastics in the dishwasher, because heat may cause chemicals to leach out. And the symposium handed out a reminder card listing “safer plastics” as those marked (usually at the bottom of a container) 1, 2, 4 or 5.

The popular Nalgene polycarbonate bottles with a 7 on the bottom are in the "throw out" category, writer Nicholas Kristoff suggests. The company's rather ambiguous position is stated here.

December 05, 2009

Of Body-dumping, Euphemism, and the Forest Service

The always-alert reporter who covers this area for the Pueblo Chieftain was the first to report the discovery of a corpse not far from where I live.

M.  and I had been hiking and locating a geocache right at that spot just two days after the body was found—the crime-scene tape must have been removed by then—and we never knew about the body until we read the Pueblo newspaper the following day.

Note the language "stopped to go to the bathroom" and "the old Florence campground."

The first is a euphemism for pissing. The second requires local knowledge. The Florence Picnic Ground (not campground) was removed by the Forest Service decades ago—in the 1970s, I think. Supposedly this was done because of vandalism, budget issues, or some combination of the two.

But people still talk about it: "I saw some turkeys near the old Florence Picnic Ground," even though there is nothing there but a little meadow.

But by the time the story was picked up by other media, electronic and print, the body had been found by someone who stopped to use the restroom at the campground. There is no restroom (building), no campground. But those people never get out and around much, so they just repeat and misunderstand what they read elsewhere.

Finally, the county weekly got to the story, with much more detail: "Authorities Seek Identity of Headless Corpse."

Note the sheriff's comment:

Jobe said as crime escalates in larger surrounding counties, he feels Custer County, due to its numerous remote locations, will continue to be a dumping ground for murdered bodies.

And if it weren't for hunters and fishermen, who would find them?

When we lived near Colorado Springs (in Manitou), M. and I used to wonder why the El Paso County commissioners did not just create a "body-dumping area" on Rampart Range Road, a favorite spot for Colorado Springs lowlifes to deposit their former drug-dealing associates, unsatisfactory girlfriends, and such.

The county sign shop could have whipped up some appropriate signage: "Body Dumping Area 100 Feet," that sort of thing.

Of course, the feds would have to be involved for national forest land,  and they probably would want an environmental assessment.

December 02, 2009

Life without Plastic

Life without Plastic is a blog about finding alternatives to ubiquitous plastics, particularly in packaging.

More and more, I find store cashiers receptive to my line of "No bag, please." Many admit that they have too many plastic bags in their house too.

December 01, 2009

A Sign of Austerity

-



Due to a lack of money, the Colorado Dept. of Transportation has stopped plowing the road from here to Pueblo at night.

M. shudders every time that she sees the sign, remembering many late-night drives home after teaching a night class at the university. (I did that too, but for just one or two semesters.)

Early-spring snowstorms can be as heavy as you ever saw, a white wall of flakes, so that you wonder where the road is.

More than one night she passed only one other vehicle, a truck with running lights bearing towards her at the foot of Jackson Hill.

Who was out in that weather? None other than the local Schwan's delivery driver. The frozen pot roast and ice cream will go through!

"Neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor heat of day nor dark of night shall keep this carrier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds."

And here you thought that quotation referred to the Postal Service.

A student of mine had once driven a Schwan's route south out of Lamar into far southeastern Colorado, El Cuartelejo, the deep dark heart of the Southern Plains.

He claimed to have spent more than one night in his truck, snowed-in or stuck in some ditch or arroyo. But he had lots to eat.

November 29, 2009

Big Fire Years in the Sangre de Cristos

Going through an old notebook, I discovered notes from a talk given ten years ago by Catherine Alington, at that time a PhD student in landscape ecology at Colorado State University-Fort Collins.

She researched fire cycles on both sides of the northern Sangre de Cristo range, and in some cases was able to go back three centuries. Her work was published in her dissertation, "Fire History and Landscape Pattern in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains" (1998).

According to my notes, some big fire years--when multiple valleys burned--were 1636, 1703, and 1851. Don't you wish you knew what was going on then?

Low-elevation forests burned on the average every 30 years, while higher elevations, above 10,000 feet, burned about every 100 years.

After teaching at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana and at the University of Wellington, New Zealand (her home), she is now, according to Linked-In, the head of professional development for the New Zealand Police.

November 26, 2009

Blog Stew with Fighting Mice

• Steve Bodio writes on on "Darwin's Other Birds," namely pigeons, for which the Cornell Ornithology Lab has a special program for city kids, Project Pigeon Watch.

• I don't hear this from Prowers County, Colorado, but wind-turbine noise is an issue in the UK.

• In California, Ultimate Mouse Fighting.

• British environmental writer George Monbiot slams climate scientists for mishandling "Climategate."

November 25, 2009

Blogging Hermits

What is it with blogging hermits—or quasi-hermits?

Would Henry David Thoreau have had a blog? I am sure of it. Anyone who would edit his autobiography so that two years of experience fit neatly into one literary year has demonstrated the capability of self-romanticizing that blogging requires.

Sunday's Denver Post had a long piece about a man named Daniel Suelo who lives in a cave outside Moab, Utah, never handles money, dumpster-dives, etc.—and blogs about his life, courtesy of the long-suffering local librarians. (Somebody tell him that white-on-black fonts offer poor readability.)

I can see Diogenes the Cynic updating his blog at the public library too: "inabarrel.blogspot.com."

And there are others.

Lately I have been reading As The Crow Flies, who offers this thought:

If you want to be alone, it’s important to know, you can never get far enough away;  humans and their noise producing machines are everywhere.   One thought that helps me, is to think of myself as an alien dropped off on a planet of apes.   Then I can just sit back and enjoy the show—like going to the zoo.

But the post that sold me on her blog is this one.

I cannot get it out of my mind. Maybe it's because M. and I often go several days without talking to anyone else in person (not counting email). Without her (and the dogs), I would soon be wondering the same thing.

Cross-posted to Southern Rockies Nature Blog.

November 23, 2009

In Which We Go Geocaching




 A classic geocache—an old ammo box full of trinkets plus a log book.

Late this morning I broke off from editing a journal article on new religious movements in Ukraine and rousted M. from the sofa (where she was reading Julia Child's My Life in France) to go geocaching.

After all, we own a low-end GPS gadget (Garmin Geko 201), and I knew from the main geocaching web site that there are a couple dozen caches near our home. That comes of living near national forest just off a designated "scenic byway."

M. had not heard of geocaching before, but she likes treasure hunts and tromping through the woods.

We found four caches in short order, picking off the low-hanging fruit, so to speak—sites near roads.

This being America, there is a book to tell you how: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Geocaching. And Google Earth is your friend.

Geocaching's older Anglophile cousin is letterboxing. I know a couple of people who do that too, chiefly in urban areas. From my perspective,  letterboxing seems a little club-ier, more concerned with aesthetics (carving your own rubber stamps!) and mental puzzle-solving.

Does that make letterboxing more like fly-fishing, while geocaching is like cruising the lake with a sonar fish-finder? Either way, you still have to catch a fish.

At least both get you outside and moving around, more or less.

Hunting in these Times

Although I am a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, I am not an online media critic (although I have my opinions).

But it gets my attention that the New York Times has recently run a Style-section photo piece on waterfowling shotguns, another business story on ammunition marketing, and today a straightforward piece on Long Island's first public turkey hunt.

The cooking of wild turkeys is also acknowledged.

Is the "mainstream media" starting to mainstream hunting and shooting just a little?

UPDATE: In her comment, Holly Heyser points to yet another piece about foodies-turned-hunters. It's a trend for sure!

November 22, 2009

Reading Mammoth Dung for Fun and Profit

Image from BBC News.

A study of pollen in mammoth and other megafaunal dung offers more evidence for the climate-versus-overkill debate.

Frankly, I wonder why anyone is talking about asteroids at this point. Was that the reporter's confusion?

"Overkill" refers to the theory that the arrival of humans—in this case, in North America—led to a fairly rapid extinction of big, slow animals.

Some similar happened in Polynesia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, as documented in Paul Martin's Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America.


The place to see lots of mammoth skeletons and reconstructions is here.

November 19, 2009

The Clarity of Winter in the Canyon



Now is my favorite time of year to be on the prairie and its canyons. It's the time when the sun is always in your face, but every stone and prickly-pear spine has an almost-Martian clarity.

It's when you are stepping around the cactus that a little covey of scaled quail flush behind you, land in the junipers, and then scurry out of sight.

But we will remember that spot, the dog and I, and we will return to it.

November 18, 2009

Army Drops Appeal on One Piñon Canyon Expansion Lawsuit

In what sounds like a small victory to the opponents of the Army's desire to expand its training area in southeast Colorado, the Army has dropped its appeal to a court case over its environmental assessment process.

The news hasn't made it onto the opponents' Web site yet.

I have written before on my mixed responses to the creation of the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Area.

I tend to be on the landowners' side here, but I note ironically how the imagery of their Web site evokes SE Colorado of a century ago, more 1909 than 2009.

Meanwhile, Trinidad, Colo., blogger Doug Holdread rounds up all the conspiracy theories.

November 16, 2009

A Tenuous Bond with a Foreign Soul


Early in her falconry memoir Lift, Rebecca O'Connor writes, "Predator or prey, you choose."

As she later elaborates, "Predator worship is an odd thing, but perhaps not so odd for a woman. I am aware that I am more prey than predator."

That dialectic--woman as prey and predator--spirals through Lift, a book that is intensely erotic in the original sense, being about passion, desire, and union with the Beloved, even when the beloved is a bird.

Anyone who has worked with animals (and O'Connor is an experienced bird trainer, author of A Parrot for Life: Raising and Training the Perfect Parrot Companion, not to mention an "Avalon Career Romance" called Falcon's Return) know how intimate the relationship can be. He loves me, he loves me not.

So it's no surprise that her relationship with her first peregrine falcon, Anakin, partakes of First Love, right down to the candlelight dinner of the first duck that the peregrine has brought down. At that point in her life, she admits, her relationship with Anakin  "is the only honest relationship." When frustrated, she catches herself "berating the bird like a lover."

Yet with falconry, there is a bond, but no possession. Battles of wills, development of trust, relationship-building--all of that--but still a falcon does not need the falconer. As O'Connor tries to tell herself when Anakin has disappeared while hunting, "The falcon and I will both be fine on our own."

(You have said that about human lovers, right?)

Thus the book's narrative twists like a mallard dodging a falcon three feet above the water, human relationships intertwined with bird relationships, hunting trips cut by bitter memories and sweet ones.

A lot of the back story of Lift involves things that were done--or threatened--to the author in her younger days, which add poignancy to her struggle to become--in some areas--the predator, confronted with the mysteries of death and blood.

 "Maybe I was wrong. Given the choice I would be the predator. Maybe I'm a hunter after all."

Whether you have felt that bond with an animal or not, by reading Lift, you might learn, in the author's words, "a way of thinking, a means of experiencing life." Not just falconers, but all true hunters, share O'Connor's experience of having touched "nature's senseless violence, clung her stray miracles [and had them] alter our beliefs."

(Rebecca O'Connor blogs at Operation Delta Duck.)

November 15, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt Biography Wins Outdoor Book Award

These are the 2009 winners of the National Outdoor Book Award, by category. I have The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America sitting in my "books to review" stack and will give it a longer review here soon.

History/Biography.  Winner.  The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley

Outdoor Literature.  Winner. Halfway to Heaven by Mark Obmascik
Outdoor Literature. Honorable Mention.  Rowboat in a Hurricane by Julie Angus

Design & Artistic Merit Category. Winner. Lars Jonsson's Birds. Illustrations by Lars Jonsson

Classic Award. Winner.  Kayak: The New Frontier by William Nealy
Classic Award. Honorable Mention. Appalachian Odyssey by Steve Sherman and Julia Older

Nature and the Environment. Winner. Our Living Earth by Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Nature and the Environment. Honorable Mention. Sand: The Never Ending Story by Michael Welland.

Natural History Literature. Winner. Every Living Thing by Rob Dunn

Children's Category. Winner. Whistling Wings by Laura Goering.  Illustrated by Laura Jacques.
Children's Category. Honorable Mention.  Operation Redwood; by S. Terrell French

Instructional Category. Girl on the Rocks: A Woman's Guide to Climbing by Katie Brown.

Outdoor Adventure Guidebooks. Winner. Guide to the Green and Yampa Rivers by Duwain Whitis and Barbara Vinson
Outdoor Adventure Guidebooks.  Honorable Mention. The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking by Dave Eckardt

Nature Guidebooks. Winner. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America  by Roger Tory Peterson
Nature Guidebooks. Honorable Mention  Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson

November 14, 2009

A Snowy Day for Fidgets


Downtown Montreal from Mount Royal's belvedere.

It's snowing here in the Wet Mountains, a wet, soaking snow that is melting in. This would be a good "desk day," especially as I am only partway through sorting out everything on my desk--the ten days' worth of mail, the receipts and notes, etc. from the conference, the new books for reading and/or review.

One review must be completed today, or I will hate myself.

But I am fidgety.  M. and I spent parts of six days on trains, four days in Montreal, one day in Chicago, an afternoon in Albany, and an evening in Schenectady. It was wearing.

(Note: we rode six different Amtrak trains, and all were on time. Someone is doing something right. If you have a layover at Schenectady, refuel at Katie O'Byrne's, hang out on Jay Street.)

On the Adirondack, traveling through upstate New York along Lake Champlain, I would see some little dirt road winding off into the swampy woods, and I wanted to be off the train and walking along it with one of the dogs.

The birds are in hiding too. All that I have seen this morning are one robin and one Steller's jay--a pity, since it is Day 1 of one of our Project Feeder Watch counts. (We are not the only ones happy that PFW has started up again.) Yesterday we saw nine American goldfinches at once.

Other miscellaneous travel observations from the big world:

Traveling east from Colorado, I notice black.

A century ago, two factors favored black clothing in the city:
  •     Lots of coal soot in the air
  •     A lack of washing machines

Now it is just about attitude.  I am refined and/or serious, don't mess with me. Not asceticism.  Urban grime might be an issue, but it cannot be the issue.

In Montreal, where sports team-themed clothing was not as common downtown as in Chicago (although it exists), black seemed almost mandatory.

I probably stood out for wearing one of about four khaki trench coats that I spotted.

Downtown Chicago is noisier than Montreal. For one thing, it has the elevated trains. For another, there always seems to be large construction projects underway, whereas I saw none in Montreal, just street repairs.

People walk faster in Chicago too. But my candidate for a fast-walking city, believe it or not, is Dublin, based on earlier visits there.

November 13, 2009

Camera-Trapping Young Minds

Chris Wemmer describes a school program that uses camera traps (a/k/a scout cameras, game cameras) to interest kids in wildlife.

A complete curriculum is available for teachers. Sounds cool to me.

Amazing Aghan War-Dog Story

A bomb-sniffing dog belong to Australian troops goes missing for 14 months and then reappears, says the Daily Mail.

Sabi the black Labrador was with a joint Australian-Afghan army patrol when it was ambushed by Taliban militants in September 2008.

Nine soldiers were wounded in the ensuing gun battle, which earned one Australian SAS trooper the country's highest bravery award.

But there was no sign of the bomb-sniffing dog after the battle in a remote area of Uruzgan province.

November 12, 2009

The Turkey in Union Station

Walking toward our eastbound train at Chicago's Union Station one evening last week, I saw people pointing at something on the train tracks, below the platform.

I looked. It was a wild turkey, very dead. And very out of place in downtown Chicago.

Then I put some things together.

M. and I had arrived on the Southwest Chief, on that set of tracks, about four hours earlier.

We had seen wild turkeys from the window several times in Kansas and Missouri.

One of them must have flown too late, like the turkeys back home that Shelby the collie chased, not taking to the air until her nose was practically touching their tail feathers.

It was gone today, of course. Someone probably tossed it in the trash.

But when your train enters the long underground train shed, you pass through a dim and sooty passage where I always expect to see rats the size of spaniels scurrying along, not to mention hypothetical asphalt-adapted coyotes.

I imagine one of the above, squinting against the bright lights closer to the station, scurrying out of the shadows to snatch up this unexpected bounty, larger than the usual city pigeons.

But most of my thinking about roadkill is about how casual we are about creating environments that kill animals.

Some people at least eat what they (or others) kill. I have done that too. It makes the equation feel a little more balanced, but only for you yourself.

November 07, 2009

Would You Buy a Pink Gun?

In the beginning, rifle and shotgun stocks were brown-stained wood, except for some playboy-types who went with blond wood. White spacers added accents.

Then came black molded synthetic stocks, then camouflage patterns likewise, plus laminated wood, which I think looks good sometimes. (My waterfowling shotgun has a camo-pattern stock, but I really got it for the non-reflective metal finish, since much Colorado duck hunting is done in sunny weather.)

And now pink.


A lot of pink handguns and pink-stocked long guns are out there now. Who would buy them?

Hunters and target shooters said that the most popular color scheme was camouflage, with 62% of males and 60% of females chiming in with this preference. Other popular colors included black, green and brown, with pink getting 15.4% of women's votes. Again, the lowest preference for both genders included brighter colors -- white, yellow and multicolored. Thirty percent overall did not factor in color when buying firearms and related equipment.

November 05, 2009

The Ecological Value of Top Predators

More evidence on top predators and overall health of the land, this time from Isle Royal National Park. Research at Yellowstone NP showed similar conclusions.

More broadly, losing top predators means more "meso-predators," which different, more negative effects on the ecosystem.

Some findings:
  • Primary or apex predators can actually benefit prey populations by suppressing smaller predators, and failure to consider this mechanism has triggered collapses of entire ecosystems.
  • Cascading negative effects of surging mesopredator populations have been documented for birds, sea turtles, lizards, rodents, marsupials, rabbits, fish, scallops, insects and ungulates. 
  • The economic cost of controlling mesopredators may be very high, and sometimes could be accomplished more effectively at less cost by returning apex predators to the ecosystem.

November 02, 2009

Mystery Nest





M. found this nest under a large juniper tree in the woods not far from our house. You see see its size, and the egg-cup area extends from about 5 to the 9-inch mark on the ruler.

Any thoughts as to who made it?

Real Guard Dogs' Lives

Guard dogs are often touted (from a distance) as the solution for wolf and coyote attacks on livestock.

Cat Urbigkit, whose Wyoming ranch uses guard dogs to protect the sheep, blogs occasionally at Querencia about how guard dogs really live -- and die.

It's not always like the quick takes you get in High Country News and the rest of the environmental press.

Right now, searching for the best breeds of guard dogs from Asia, she confronts the issue of traditional ear-and-tail-docking, and the comment thread is quite interesting.

Overheated Environmental Rhetoric Contributes to Climate Change?

The real problem with the climate-change is how quickly it has become politicized -- or possibly "religion-ized."

I admit that I am surprised by that development, but not in a good way.

Unfortunately, doom-and-gloom is a standby of environmental writing (sometimes with reason--Dust Bowl, anyone?). You can get books analyzing such writing, which has always leaned towards the jeremiad more than the celebration.

When the doom does not occur exactly as predicted, however, the skeptics say, "Oh, there was nothing to that.

As the Times (UK) points out, exaggerated claims of doom don't help the work of environmental cleanup.

Excessive statements about the decline of Arctic sea ice, severe weather events and the probability of extreme warming in the next century detract from the credibility of robust findings about climate change, they said.

Such claims can easily be rebutted by critics of global warming science to cast doubt on the whole field. They also confuse the public about what has been established as fact, and what is conjecture.


Short-term fund-raising goals by environmental groups are one big reason for the exaggeration.

October 28, 2009

Your Butt is a Running Muscle

Not really new stuff -- there were man vs. horse races in the 19th century, and the man could win over distance -- but the New York Times joins the reaction against high-tech running shoes.

October 26, 2009

Nature is Scary! Get Me Out of Here!

The headline: Rescuers Fear Yuppie 911.

People carrying GPS-enabled emergency beacons ("Onstar for hikers", "Yuppie 911") are pressing them whenever they feel mildly inconvenienced, causing problems for seach-and-rescue teams and other first responders.

In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the steep [Grand C]anyon walls.

What was that emergency? The water they had found to quench their thirst "tasted salty."


Or the woman who activated hers because she was frightened of a thunderstorm. Great-grandmother would have hunkered down and waited it out, y'know?

Charging more people for unnecessary rescues seems like one option. Or fining them, as the National Park Service did the Grand Canyon idiots.

In Colorado, purchasers of hunting and fishing licenses automatically contribute to a Search and Rescue Fund that reimburses at least some costs of a rescue. Or you can buy a state SAR card that does the same thing. Three bucks, and you can get it online.

If a service is free, people will misuse it. Ask this guy.

UPDATE: New Hampshire bills hikers for rescues; other states differ.

October 24, 2009

Colorado in the 1930s

Rocky Mountain PBS has an online exhibit called "Colorado in the 1930s." (Funny, why all this interest in the Great Depression?)

The photos are good, although navigation is a little tricky.

While some people had "dust pneumonia," others were taking the ski train to Winter Park.

Dad was in forestry school in Fort Collins, having come here from Tulsa where, he used to say, "There was no Depression."

Meanwhile, my mother's family's furniture store in Colorado Springs was going bust, as people put off buying new furniture (or paying for it) ahead of groceries.

As my uncle (her younger brother) said in an email today, reminiscing about the 1930s, "Times were tough, and furniture stores carried their own paper. Customers couldn’t pay the store. Paper profits were not collected."

October 23, 2009

Blog Stew with Software Skulls

• Trainer killed by ice-skating bear. Because putting bears on ice skates is still a hoot in the former Soviet Union.

• The amazing survival of a coyote. Driver Daniel East, however, not only did not care to check on the coyote, he did not even check his car for radiator leaks, etc. He and sister Tevyn had more important stuff on their minds:  they were on their way to join a community of artists.

•  "Crash-testing" skulls: Video summarizes research on using architectural modeling software to model animal skulls and to see the impact when an animal kills its prey.

Cougars Return (Officially) to Kansas

A Kansas hunter photographs a mountain lion, documenting their return to that state. The photo was taken near WaKeeney, in west-central Kansas.

Since the cat may have come from Colorado, I say, "You're welcome, on behalf of all Coloradans. And please send more quail."

October 22, 2009

Three Dog Books

Some people think that their dogs are "angels" or "fur babies."

I suspect (but I don't know) that most readers of this blog think that they are, in fact, dogs.*

But the first group probably has us outnumbered, and they are spending jillions of dollars on doggie mineral water, doggie day care, and doggie tranquilizers.

That group is chronicled in Michael Shaffer's One Nation Under Dog: America's Love Affair with Our Dogs.


Think of it as ethnography. And for a bonus, here is Shaffer's review of Alexandra Horowitz's Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, which sounds more cynographic.

Along with One Nation Under Dog, I have been reading John and Amy Dahl's The 10-Minute Retriever: How to Make a Well-Mannered, Obedient and Enthusiastic Gun Dog in 10 Minutes a Day. I like it because although it is a general retriever-training book, the Dahls address some particular ... issues ... known to those of us with Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

But the very best book on adopting adult dogs (which we have now done twice) was sent by M.'s sister-in-law, who volunteers with Stray Rescue in St. Louis.

It is Don't Dump the Dog: Outrageous Stories and Simple Solutions to Your Worst Dog Behavior Problems, by Stray Rescue's founder, Randy Grim (with Melinda Roth).

Follow Grim's advice and, Mimosa in hand, you can begin to cope with rescued dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, dog-aggression, extreme fearfulness, and many of the other problems that plague adopted adult dogs.

With chapters like "Dogs Who Lick Baby Snot" and "Cujo in the Dog Park," Grim realistically explains that as much as you can train the dog, maybe you just have to change the environment to make things better. Sometimes, if the dog gets in the garbage, moving the garbage is less stressful than trying to change to dog.

His motto might be, "The perfect is the enemy of the good [dog]."

Animal shelters ought to buy Don't Dump the Dog by the case and give copies to everyone who adopts.

*Dad used to say, though, that "dogs have by nature qualities than humans struggle to acquire," so even we Cliftons can get a little sentimental sometimes.

Skeleton Not Everett Ruess's After All

New tests show a skeleton found in the Utah desert is not that of artist Everett Ruess.

Last spring, I thought the mystery of his disappearance had been solved.

From an AP story:

Everett Ruess vanished in southern Utah in 1934, writing in a final letter to his family in California that "as to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon" and "it is enough that I am surrounded with beauty."

He was 20 and a gifted poet who explored the Southwest over much of four years. In between journeys, he hobnobbed with famous artists of his time.

Initial DNA tests were termed "irrefutable" months ago by University of Colorado researchers, but one of them said Wednesday he accepted as final the new results from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md.

Utah's state archaeologist, Kevin Jones, had questioned the original results, prompting the family to seek a second opinion.

Jones said a recovered lower jawbone was characteristic of an American Indian's, not a man of European descent, and that worn teeth suggested a lifetime diet of coarse grains. It's not known whose remains were actually found.


But I still think he probably was murdered. He remains one of nature religion's saints, Blessed Everett the Martyr, patron of the Canyonlands.

October 21, 2009

The Peeping Trees

Wet snow is falling, with the temperature just at the freezing point.

I walked the dogs a quarter mile or so into the national forest, the road sloppy underfoot. Fisher's gallops left gigantic paw prints.

Across the valley the snowplow blade rattled on the state highway, hidden in the fog.

And several of the large juniper trees along our walk were peeping—full of juncos and other little birds.

October 16, 2009

Turkeys at Twelve O'Clock Low


It's too funny. The wild turkeys that normally live near us on the ridges have been right on the property the past few days, running down the driveway (which is 100+ yards long) when I take the dogs for what I think is a "safe" off-leash walk, gliding out of the tall ponderosa pines, and generally driving the canine family members nuts.

A few minutes ago, Fisher, the Chessie, went dashing off down into a ravine and up the other side. Three turkeys came flying across it, low, over my head and over the house. I called him back and gave him a treat. Shelby, the ninja collie, barked from the veranda but was gated in. She has already had her turkey chase for the day.

In seventeen years, I have never seen them all over us like this. Are the acorns better here?

The photo of the hen turkey was taken through the window of our back door.

Chainsaws Rev Up in Northern Colorado

To protect travelers and campground users, the Forest Service is starting to cut beetle-killed lodgepole pines near roads, trails, and campgrounds in northern Colorado.

Cutting crews are to fan out, lugging gas-powered chain saws along trails and roadways and at campgrounds, working to prevent some of the hundreds of millions of dead trees from falling on hikers and motorists on federal lands.

Yes, "gas-powered, " notes Post reporter Bruce Finley. Years of experience have taught government foresters that two-mile-long power cords for electric chainsaws are not practical.


My own little Husqvarna saw sent me a message yesterday. I went to start it, and the starter cord snapped. I think that it was telling me it really wanted a full-blown, in-the-shop cleaning and tuneup, which it has not gotten for years.

So off to Tap's Small Engine Repair we went. Establishments like that are invaluable.

Until I get it back, I am cutting what I can with a bucksaw that is probably ex-Forest Service too.

October 14, 2009

Firefighters Contemplate Rooftop Solar Panels

Although I have no plans to put them on my house, I like the idea of rooftop solar shingles--especially if they can be integrated with the grid to pick up some of the daytime load.

Firefighters, however, have a different set of concerns. For example:

If there is a solar electric system involved, "pulling the meter" will only kill power coming in from the utility grid. Other circuits may remain live — household circuits if the system has battery backup or an auto-start gasoline generator, and PV circuits whenever the sun is shining. Multiple disconnects for various parts of the system are very common.

Some people in this county have roof-top solar panels. I am not aware of any in my little volunteer department's primary service area, but that is perhaps because I have not seen every single house.

October 11, 2009

Blog Stew is Warming or Cooling

• Greenpeaceniks have climbed the Houses of Parliament to "raise the temperature of the debate," but the BBC admits that the data are confusing. I was looking a pictures of shrinking glaciers in Glacier National Park (I think it was), and that evidence was incontrovertible, but could glaciers be lagging indicators?

• Recent Google searches bring visitors: "mad mountain bird feeders slave labor," "nature bear man blog," "on a map what does a blue line mean," and "beautiful suicides."

• Did things go really wrong on your last walk in the woods? Maybe it qualifies for Hiker Hell.

October 10, 2009

A Plot for Black Hills Bears

I wonder how many people drive past the Bear Country USA private zoo on US 16 near Rapid City and find themselves modifying Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." (Video here.)

It would be something like, "Took all the bears, put 'em in a bear museum / And charged the people fifteen dollars just to see 'em."

(Doesn't scan as well as the original. Blame inflation.)

All through our recent trip, I would do something like leave the cooler outside our pop-up trailer, catch myself—"A bear might get into it!"—and then realize that there are virtually no bears in the Black Hills.

Sadly.

I read that the last Black Hills black bear was shot in 1968 near the hamlet of Rochford, which means there were a few around when I was a boy, but I do not recall anyone needing to be too "bear aware" with garbage cans, etc., back then. (Grizzly bears were extirpated earlier.)

If you see a black bear, you are supposed to inform South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, which categorizes them as "state threatened," and fill out a "Rare Species Report Card," available as a PDF download from the web site.

But if I had (a) lots of money and (b) some close-mouthed co-conspirators, I would acquire the following:
  • one or more large culvert-style bear traps
  • one or more small cargo trailers, modified with additional air vents
  • large pickup truck to pull the above
And we could do our own bear-reintroduction program. After all, there are plenty in Colorado, where they have been taking food out of the mouths of the poverty-stricken Aspenites.

From capture to release should not take more than ten hours, on average—not too long for the bear to be confined. It's feasible.

Really, I am surprised that more black bears have not wandered over from the Bighorn Range or elsewhere in Wyoming. Too much open country, coal mines, Interstate 90, etc. in the way?

Quieter Skies in the Black Hills

Just a couple of things left to say about our trip to the Black Hills. One sneaked up on us after we had been there two or three days--the quiet skies.

Wherever you go in Colorado, you are under some air route centered on Denver International Airport. High-altitude jet noise is just part of the background--and the higher you climb, the closer the airplanes are.

I remember how quiet it right after the Sept. 21, 2001 hijackings when all air travel was shut down. I was sitting over a spring in the Sangre de Cristo range during muzzleloader season when a Learjet streaked overhead (Mr. Big coming back from the coast?) and all I could think was, "Oh shit, we're back to normal."

But Rapid City Regional Airport has far fewer flights, and about a third of them go eastward to the Twin Cities or Chicago, making for much quieter skies.

October 09, 2009

The Siloam Stage Road and an Unbuilt Railroad

What we call "the old road" runs from our house to the national forest boundary. As far as I can tell, it is a piece of the 1870s Siloam Stage Road, which connected Pueblo with the Wet Mountain Valley before a new wagon road was built, more or less where Colorado 96 now goes.

(That is to say, Colorado 96 before the construction of Pueblo Dam, early 1970s, and the Jackson Hill realignment, late 1980s.)

This photo was taken this morning before the sun burned through to start melting yesterday's little snow.

But apparently, in some alternative steampunk universe, I can catch the train coming up from Pueblo and travel to the San Luis Valley, before transferring to a light-rail car to zip from Alamosa to Saguache, for instance.

One hundred years ago, the Wet Mountain Tribune reported,

Incorporation papers have been filed with the secretary of state for an $8,000,000 company which is to build a railroad from Pueblo across the Sangre de Christo mountains and down into Costilla County where an interurban electric system will be established connecting all the towns in the San Luis Valley. According to the plans, a line will be run from Pueblo southwest into the Wet Mountain Valley. Thence it will run southwest into Huerfano County until it reaches the Sangre de Christo range. It will cross the range into Saguache or Costilla counties at a point not yet decided and then proceed to Alamosa, Monte Vista or Del Norte. The electric railway system spreading up and down the San Luis Valley will run spur tracks into the mining regions, the timber areas, the agricultural districts and the quarries.

Yeah, what happened to that?

October 07, 2009

Kirby Clears the Concertina Wire


This image comes from the Denver Post's Captured Photos blog, where it carries this cutline:

In this picture taken Monday, Sept. 28, 2009, U.S. Army dog handler Sgt. Adrian Garcia, 24, from El Paso, Texas, carries Staff Sgt. Kirby over a concertina wire fence during a patrol with 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division in the Jalrez Valley in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo) (Click photo for a larger version.)

Doesn't that photo look as though it could have been taken near Delta, Colorado, if you swapped adobe houses for double-wide trailers?

The Hot Springs Mammoth Site & Other Proboscid News

Earthwatch volunteers at The Mammoth Site. Photo by Chas S. CliftonAbove: Earthwatch volunteers excavate Columbian mammoth skeletons. The skull of a short-faced bear sits on the green sheet of paper at lower center.

Thirty-five years ago a bulldozer operator clearing ground for a subdivision on the edge of Hot Springs, South Dakota, grazed some Columbian mammoth bones—and realized that he had hit something important.

Today that spot is The Mammoth Site, a combination of working excavation, museum, laboratory, and gift shop.

Its structure covers a site that 25,000 years ago was a sinkhole that trapped dozens of mammoths who, perhaps while grazing in lush vegetation growing by the warm spring water, slipped in and could not climb out. (This was thousands of years before the accepted date of human arrival in North America.)

It is disquieting and sad, as M. noted, that all these big animals died struggling to breathe—except, perhaps, the short-faced bear. Did it climb down to gorge on mammoth meat and eat itself to death? Couldn't a big, agile bear make it up the slippery slope of decomposed shale? Or not?

It's a little touristy—get your mammoth hand puppets and key chains here—but definitely worth seeing.

•••

In other ancient proboscid news, a baby Siberian woolly mammoth found nearly intact has provided more information about the species not obtainable from fossils.

"We had no idea from preserved skeletons and preserved carcasses that young mammoths had a discrete structure on the back of the head of brown fat cells," said Prof [Daniel] Fisher.

Meanwhile, on June 1, 2009 two Colorado boys were poking around in a creek bed. They were not engaged in organized youth activities, mentored by adults and involving clear boundaries and a rulebook. They almost certainly were not wearing helmets.

"We were just thinking about walking up and down that stream and looking at the side of the banks to see if we see anything," said Tyler [Kellett] . "That would be fun."

They found a mastodon skeleton.

October 06, 2009

A Tale of Two Caves

Park Service ranger at Jewel Cave National Monument. Photo by Chas S. Clifton.Above: Kids peer up at calcite crystals as our Park Service tour guide describes the formation of Jewel Cave.

Outdoor travel in late September is always chancy. More than once we have faced the "disappearing campground blues," when forest and park campgrounds start closing, forcing you into more crowded quarters at the few the authorities deign to leave open (e.g., Madison Junction at Yellowstone).

In Yellowstone last year, I kept thinking, "If this is the 'off-season,' I am glad that we did not come during the high season." There seemed to be plenty of people at all the auto-accessible geothermal features, not to mention the scores of wolf-cultists.

Likewise the Park Service thinking on ranger-led tours.

When we came to Wind Cave on September 29th, all of the cave tours were canceled but one, the "Garden of Eden" tour, which M. and I decided should be called the "geezer tour." It lasted an hour, but most of that was just standing around listening to the ranger guide tell stories. He told them well, interweaving geology and history, but still, of miles of public cave trail, we saw maybe a quarter mile and three rooms, chiefly the room called the Garden of Eden by its discoverer in the 1890s.

I assume there are staffing issues with seasonal rangers, etc., but it also seems that the Park Service assumes that anyone traveling after Labor Day is decrepit and unable to handle a longer walk and a few more stairs.

For that "geezer tour" you pay $7. And, yes, we had a full tour group on a Tuesday afternoon.

Things were somewhat better over at Jewel Cave National Monument. Again, some of their most interesting tours are offered only in the high season.

But we were able to take the Scenic Tour—a half-mile loop, one hour and twenty minutes, $8 for an adult ticket—a better value than Wind Cave offered. There were more than 20 people in our group, on a snowy Thursday, October 1st, and another group was entering as we were leaving. There are plenty of "off-season" visitors.

You spend a lot of time trooping along clanging industrial aluminum catwalks and stairs, which give the cave a sort of "secret lair of the super-villain" feel. But wood would not last well in the 99-percent humidity. And you see enough rooms, passages, formations, etc., to give you a real feeling for the cave, which actually includes about 140 miles of mapped passages.

Notice the absence of geezers in the photo above. Home-schooled kids? Kids whose parents thought that they would benefit more from a cave trip than the classroom? Either way, I was happy to see them there.

October 05, 2009

Hunting as a Rite of Passage

I am adding Randall Eaton's From Boys to Men of Heart: Hunting as a Rite of Passage to my Amazon wish list one of these days, as soon as Amazon stocks it.

Here is a review from a parenting blog.

The author's web site is here.

Parkitecture in the Black Hills

Above: the State Game Lodge at Custer State Park, built in the 1920s, with its two recent wings.

One way in which Custer State Park resembles a mini-Yellowstone is that it offers a few examples of "parkitecture," the building style of the 1900s-1920s that features massive timbers, rustic stonework, and an overall "hall of the mountain king" effect. (You can see more examples at the Parkitecture web site.)

Norbeck Visitor Center, Custer State Park. Photo by Chas S. CliftonCuster's Peter Norbeck Visitor Center (above) suggests the Norris Geyser Basin Museum in Yellowstone--classic parkitecture. Here (below) is a detail of the copper downspouts:



Wind Cave National Park visitor center, 2009. Photo by Chas S. CliftonThe visitor center at Wind Cave National Park (above), built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, offers a relaxed and inviting face as well.

Although I do not visit just to see the buildings, I make a point of experiencing them—having a drink in the bar while watching tourists interact with the buffalo, wandering the museums, eating a meal in the dining room. It's all part of slowing down and being there.

October 03, 2009

Why We Go to South Dakota

Park ranger at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Chas S. Clifton.Wind Cave National Park ranger Garrett Roke leads a tour underground.

It happened several time that when M. and I told friends we were going to South Dakota, the response was, "Why South Dakota?

Despite the fact that the state tourist authority runs regular ads in the Denver Post Sunday travel section advertising the Black Hills, you do not see many green-and-white Colorado license plates here. Lots of Midwestern plates instead: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.

Bird-hunters may come for pheasant, etc., in the prairie counties, but the Black Hills don't draw us Coloradans.

Too bad.

Yes, the eastern Black Hills are one of the most touristy and billboarded places you will see. When I was a kid, one of my regular playmates was the son of the manager of Reptile Gardens, a private zoo that put up more huge signs than any Black Hills "tourist trap," including Bear County USA, the Big Thunder gold mine, the Circle B Chuckwagon, and all the many others. We thought it was all normal at the time.

One the other hand, Wind Cave National Park (28,295 acres) and the adjacent Custer State Park (71,000 acres) make up a mini-Yellowstone.

What they lack in geothermal features and grizzly bears, they make up in underground stuff, in the case of Wind Cave, where interpretive ranger Garrett Roke describes 133 miles of explored passages underlying a square mile of surface area—incredibly complex, in other words. Exploration began in the 1880s with candles and balls of string and has not finished yet.

Although the local Indian hunters probably knew about the cave's natural opening (still there), which only a small adult could wiggle through, they apparently made little or no use of it. No Chauvet-style cave paintings.

And down the road is Jewel Cave National Monument, with less surface area but even more miles underground. More on it later.

Wind Cave NP and Custer State Park together preserve a good chunk of edge habitat, where the prairie meets the hills, where your hiking plan may have to include a big bull buffalo snoozing in the middle of the traill

While my fondness for the Black Hills starts with having spent eight years there as a kid, I have good reasons for going back now and again.

Some more photo posts will be forthcoming.