Archive for the ‘conservation’ category

TAKING OVER MALHEUR

January 18, 2017

We “took over” Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for one beautiful late October morning when we were the only visitors. The photographs here were taken during those enchanted hours.

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote trotting along the Central Patrol Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The spicy scent of sagebrush fills the morning air. Mist rises from wetlands teeming with waterfowl. A Coyote trots across a meadow with a purposeful gait. In a burst of energy a cloud of thousands of dazzling white Ross’s Geese take to the air in a frenzy, only to settle back down a minute later. The quiet returns.

These are among my fond memories of Malheur, based on numerous trips to the remote wildlife refuge over the last 25 years. Malheur and its setting is a slice of the old West, quiet and sparsely populated and much loved by residents and visitors alike.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1908 by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” This immediately followed an era in which plume hunters killed all the Great Egrets in the Malheur area in order to obtain feathers for a women’s hat craze of the era. Which, of course, illustrates why regulation of natural resource harvests came to be: if everyone has unlimited access to harvest what they want, the resource inevitably disappears. This has been true of virgin forests, Passenger Pigeons, whales, Beaver, and every other form of nature that has an economic value.

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa

Central Patrol Road on a foggy autumn morning

Prior to the refuge, Indians inhabited the Malheur region for 15,000+ years, leaving evidence of their camps and graves in what became the refuge headquarters area. Eventually, Malheur became a case study in mistreatment of Indians: a Malheur Reservation was created by the federal government in the 19th Century, but that was followed by a chipping away of the reservation to give land to settlers. Treaty hunting and fishing rights were abrogated. Eventually, the whole tribe was forced to march in snowy weather, without enough food, over two mountain ranges all the way to the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Many died along the march and in their years of exile. A sad and typical tale of mistreatment of our first peoples.

The Great Depression hit America with an iron fist. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt responded with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program to put young people to work on conservation projects all around America. Shortly after that, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge received three CCC camps, and over 1,000 young men worked on the refuge over seven years. They built dikes and dams and roads and fences. They constructed four fire towers, quarried the stone and built the beautiful headquarters buildings, and started Page Springs Campground. Every visitor today can see the dramatic results.

Mule Deer in Car Headlights in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Mule Deer crossing road, illuminated by my car headlights

For all its conservation accomplishments, the CCC also had a major economic impact upon Burns and other surrounding communities by spending $15,000 per month in those towns on supplies, rentals, and payroll. It was a win/win for everyone involved. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment was in giving young men jobs at a time of near-hopelessness; this instilled a work ethic in these young men, who later became the heroes who won World War II.

In sum, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the preeminent conservation success stories in America, with two of my favorite presidents–Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt–contributing to its success. Over the decades, Malheur became a legendary location for birders and other outdoor recreationists, including hunters and fishermen. I consider it one of my favorite landscapes in North America, blessed by its remoteness, beauty, silence, and wildlife. People of the region came to love it, and there was a good agreement on a management plan that was hammered out between ranchers, naturalists, hunters, and other stakeholders that was considered a model for refuges across America.

Female Ring-necked Pheasant at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Female Ring-necked Pheasant at Malheur NWR

Then came the Bundy occupation of the refuge in the first days of 2016. A group of armed state’s-rights zealots took over the refuge headquarters, and occupied the beautiful CCC buildings for over a month before finally leaving. Their occupation disrupted the good work of the refuge, created division across America, made a mess of the place, and included thefts of equipment. One occupier died while reaching for a gun at a roadblock. For all this, a runaway and misguided jury refused to convict the perpetrators on a single count–a travesty of justice that still makes me incredibly bitter.

There is a movement in rural parts of the West to give away our national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other federal lands to the states. Why? Because many people want local control of the land so that they can clear cut more timber, strip mine more coal, loosen environmental regulations, and hunt, graze, fish, and trap to their heart’s delight. I vehemently disagree.

Cattle Grazing on a Ranch near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Cattle grazing on ranch lands adjacent to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

If states were given the land, they would sell off much of it to private companies, and access by hunters, hikers, fishermen, and other recreationists would be either denied or made expensive. For example, on Weyerhaeuser land in Washington State, access that was once free or low-cost has now become expensive, with a family camping permit for a year costing $300: Weyerhaeuser Fees 2016. If land was sold off by the states, we would end up with a patchwork of permit systems that would be costly for families to access the land. I can understand the position of Weyerhaeuser: before the permit system, they had a lot of cases of illegal dumping and vandalism on their land–just as we would have in the national forests if there were no rangers on patrol.

Mule Deer at Deep Dusk Lit by a Headlamp

Mule Deer doe at deep dusk lit by my headlamp

I also have concerns about potential subdivisions in the forest. If land was sold off to developers, many of our beautiful forests and lake shores would become housing developments–nice for those who live there but a blight on the landscape for those of us used to the expanses of natural beauty we now enjoy–and that we now own. Who would pay for fire suppression for all these new developments? The federal government? I can’t see the states doing it and I certainly don’t think that the owners of these forest homes would want to pay the thousands of dollars per year for each home to have special fire insurance to fund large scale firefighting efforts. So I suspect that the Forest Service would end up providing free firefighting services to save homes all across the West.

These lands represent our national heritage, and belong to all of us. We paid for them and have cared for them for over 100 years. When people say that local people could manage the land better than professional rangers, foresters, wildlife managers, and other biologists, what they are really saying is that they want to make money by taking timber, minerals, and grazing at little or no cost to themselves.

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa

Central Patrol Road near P Ranch on an October morning

For example, Cliven Bundy has grazed his cows on federal land for years and refuses to pay the over $1 million in fees that have accrued since the 1990s. He thinks that he should be able to graze his cattle on public land for free. Anyone who has been paying attention to the conservation battles of the last century knows that where there are limited resources–in Bundy’s case, grass for his cattle–unlimited and unregulated use will inevitably ruin the resource. That’s why we have grazing allotments that ranchers pay for, and why we have professional grazing managers to determine how much grazing the land itself can allow.

This is a sad new chapter in our history; anyone who wants to read more about it can refer to the links at the bottom of the weblog. I, for one, intend to stand with our finest conservation presidents, Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, to preserve our shared national heritage.

Mule Deer Doe in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Mule Deer doe wet with heavy morning dew

But enough about armed thugs and their bad ideas. Malheur is still there, with its vibrant beauty ready to overwhelm visitors. We were heading home from an extended southwestern trip in November of 2016, long after the occupation had ended but before the headquarters reopened to visitors. Unarmed, except with cameras, we took over the refuge for a morning, as we were virtually the only people enjoying its silent vastness. The photographs here are all from that brief time in a Shangri La of the old west, during our enchanted takeover.

To view more work by photographer Lee Rentz, go to Lee Rentz Photography. Photographs are available for licensing.

To learn more about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, go to Malheur NWR, Malheur Occupation Aftermath, Conservation Setbacks, Bundy Grazing Controversy, and Portland Audubon: Malheur.

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote crossing Central Patrol Road

Buena Vista Ponds in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

View from Buena Vista Ponds toward an escarpment and mesa

Autumn Textures in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Textures and colors of grasses and willows

View from Buena Vista Overlook in Malheur National Wildlife Refu

View from Buena Vista Overlook across the expanse of Malheur

Road through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Road near Buena Vista Ponds

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA

Vast seasonal wetlands in Malheur NWR

Coyote Hunting in Meadow in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote in a wet meadow, alert to the intruder

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa

Storm clouds in the distance, with sunlit meadows in the foreground

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote pausing to look back along the road

 

 

NEST BOX CHRONICLES: Hatching Hooded Merganser Ducks

May 6, 2014

2009_WA_8890A male Hooded Merganser during courtship season

For 17 years, my wife Karen and I have been providing nest boxes for wild ducks at our Fawn Lake home, which is located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Originally, we set up a box to attract Wood Ducks, but we found that Hooded Mergansers (another kind of duck) also used the box. We started with one box, and eventually built and installed three boxes on Bigleaf Maple tree trunks at the water’s edge.

After 15 successful years, 2013 was a debacle. A Raccoon heard the peeping chicks on the night before they were to leave the box; it skillfully bypassed our predator guards and managed to tear apart the nest box, killing and eating the mother duck and her 15 or so babies. Then it raided a second box and destroyed that one as well. We were heartsick.

Later that year, we beefed up our security on the boxes by adding still more metal sheathing on the tree trunks and cutting away as many branches as we could reach. It was with some trepidation that we repaired and cleaned out the nest boxes and prepared for the 2014 nesting season.

In this blog we show the successful results of our efforts in three videos showing the young ducklings as they hatch out of their eggs and successfully fledge from the first nest box. Watching the duck behavior for all these days makes us emotionally attached to these ducks, which is why it was so devastating for us when the Raccoon got into the boxes last year. This year I felt like handing out cigars after the 11 chicks successfully fledged, and we felt a pang of postpartum depression when it was all over.

Below the videos, we have provided an extensive selection of our written 2014 field notes describing the behavior of the ducks during incubation, for anyone who is interested in the background leading up to the successful fledging.

In this video, we see the first hole appear in an egg, and watch the mother merganser’s behavior as more and more eggs hatch. Hatching began after 34 days of incubation, and the family stays in the nest box overnight before fledging the next morning.

This video from a camera inside the box shows the mother leaving, followed soon by all 11 chicks when she signals that it is okay to leave.

This view from outside the nest box shows the mother looking outside to make sure the drop zone is safe; then she calls to the chicks and they follow one by one, leaping to the lake surface. Be sure to turn up the volume on your device so that you can hear the mother’s chuckling call, the babies’ excited cheeping, and the splashing when each bird hits the water.

The following notes are from a journal I kept during the time from the day we installed the camera to the morning of fledging. If you are a birder or enjoy detailed natural history observations, as we do, then these notes may be of interest. These are the highlights; my other notes in the series are more routine.

SATURDAY, MARCH 15

Today we hauled out the ladder to clean out the nest boxes, which I will designate as Duckbox L (for left), Duckbox C (center), and Duckbox R (right).

When I climbed the ladder to clean out Duckbox C, I opened the maintenance door and saw the wide eyes of a very startled Hooded Merganser looking back at me. She gazed at me for a second or two, then scrambled up to the entrance and out, protesting noisily as she flew out to her mate in the middle of the lake. Presumably, she told him the scary story of a big fat human face looking at her from two feet away!

She left two eggs sitting atop the sodden wood chips left from last year. I carefully removed the two eggs and the old wood chips, carrying them down the steep extension ladder in a plastic bucket. Then I ascended the ladder and sprayed the box with Lysol (to discourage wasps from making it home), then put in fresh aspen chips that I bought in the pet section of Walmart. Lastly, I set the two eggs in the middle of the box, and covered them with a thin layer of aspen chips.

I proceeded to also clean out Duckbox R, which is attached to the same Bigleaf Maple tree as Duckbox C and is two feet higher on the other side of the tree. This box was empty of eggs and ducks, but had been used as a night roost during much of the winter by a Northern Flicker, who I saw entering the box at twilight on quite a few nights.

Then I moved the ladder to Duckbox L, which was filled to the rafters with bright green moss. This was one of the nests of a Douglas Squirrel. I had observed the squirrel taking whole peanuts from my feeder into that box several times this winter, so I wasn’t surprised to see the mossy nest and a cache of perhaps 100 peanuts, some of which were getting moldy from having been stored so long.

I evicted the squirrel’s possessions, figuring that it could find another nest location, justifying my action on the fact that I had originally set up this box for ducks, not rodents.

Later that day, after I had installed infrared nest box cameras in Duckboxes L and C, we observed a pair of Hooded Mergansers below the nest boxes on Fawn Lake. Suddenly both took off together and did a wide circle of the lake, eventually boomeranging back to the nest box upon reaching the proper altitude. The female abruptly put on the brakes and came to rest in the opening of Duckbox C, where she inspected the box before entering.

After she came into the box, she clearly realized that changes had been made. She spent a couple of minutes standing with her legs awkwardly sprawled wide, looking warily up at the camera, which had not been there before Eventually she seemed to grow more comfortable with her renovated apartment, and proceeded to lay an egg with rhythmic contractions of her body. This was the third egg in the box, and she carefully covered all three with wood chips.

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

After several days away, I returned home and switched on the television that we use to monitor the next boxes. Almost immediately, a female Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and proceeded to uncover the eggs. There were now four eggs, so presumably one additional egg had been laid on Monday. This appeared to be a juvenile female who did not have a mate (there was no male waiting for her below the box, which is the usual practice), and she seemed to be practicing motherhood by moving around the eggs with her bill and feet, and sitting on them for brief stretches. Eventually she left the box, but left all four eggs uncovered. Bad babysitter! She still has some techniques to learn. Hooded Merganser pairA breeding pair of Hooded Mergansers on Fawn Lake

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

At 7:45 a.m., a female Hoodie entered Duckbox C and proceeded to lay a fifth egg (I didn’t see them all afterward, so I am making a presumption here). She departed and joined her mate down on the lake.

A bit later, another pair appeared and I think the female entered the cameraless Duckbox R, presumably to lay an egg.

Duckbox L is still empty.

With Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks, it is normal to lay eggs over a period of many days, but not to begin incubating until all the eggs have been laid. That way, all are incubated for the same amount of time and are ready to hatch together.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

When I wandered out to view the nest boxes on the television at 6:45 a.m., there was already a Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C, with a male on the lake below. We watched her until she laid what we think is the 6th egg in the box, then carefully covered them up and departed.

At about 8:30, a pair of Wood Ducks appeared in the Bigleaf Maple tree where two nest boxes are located. We think this was a reconnaissance trip, since we had not seen them before. Female Wood DuckA Wood Duck female; notice how she has a similar head shape with a crown as that of the Hooded Merganser.

At about 9:15 a.m., the female Woodie entered Duckbox L, which had had no activity until now. She sat on the wood chips and worked them around a bit, as if testing for suitability.

A couple of minutes later, fireworks began when a female Hooded Merganser entered the same box. There was a brief battle, then it quieted down, with the Wood Duck firmly gripping some of the Hoodie’s tail feathers in her bill. Eventually the Hoodie jumped up to the opening, where she sat for a couple of seconds. Then she twice went back down into the box for another go-round with the Woodie. Eventually the Wood Duck won and remained in charge of the box.

The Wood Duck left the box at about 9:30 a.m. and we don’t think she laid an egg.

At about 6:00 p.m. I saw a Northern Flicker quickly dash into Duckbox R, where it has spent many nights roosting. We can’t see it, because there is no camera in that box.

At 9:45 p.m. I turned on Duckbox C Channel, and found all six eggs uncovered. I believe that an immature female Hoodie came into the box and was badly practicing being a mom, and left after uncovering and sitting on the eggs briefly. Of course, teenagers of many species aren’t known for their sense of responsibility.

SUNDAY, MARCH 23

At 6:40 a.m. the Hooded Merganser mother entered the box right on her schedule, in which she has been laying an egg every other day. Today she laid egg seven. One thing we noticed after she went through the contractions of her body necessary for laying an egg was that she began shivering. She shivered for several minutes while sitting on the eggs, then used her bill to cover up all the eggs before leaving the nest box.

In the afternoon, I took the ladder down to the tree and attempted to ratchet in a lag bolt that is exposed in the Duckbox C camera view, but gave up when it was apparent that I was about to break the bolt. I checked Duckbox R, and there were two duck eggs in the box. I carefully covered them with wood chips before departing.

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

All quiet today until about 4:00 p.m., when the juvenile Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and uncovered all the eggs. She moved them around a bit and tried sitting on them, but apparently got bored and left the box with all the eggs uncovered. When I looked out at the box, there was a female Wood Duck sitting on top of it, looking down and into the box, while her mate clung to the trunk of the tree nearby, apparently waiting patiently while she tried to make a decision to enter the box.

Eventually the female Wood Duck entered Duckbox C, where she immediately saw all the uncovered eggs. She sat down on them and rearranged them, trying it out for several minutes. Then she leaped up to the box opening and left with her mate.

Meanwhile, a female Hooded Merganser went into Duckbox R while her mate waited on the water below. I suspect she was laying another egg, but I’m not sure since we have no camera in that box. It was an exciting 20 minutes!

THURSDAY, MARCH 27

Incubation begins in Duckbox C!

This morning very early a duck came into the Duckbox C and uncovered quite a few eggs, then left. I assume this is the juvenile female with a bad habit.

Later, in mid-day, a female Wood Duck came into the box after staring down into it from the roof for several minutes. She proceeded to inspect the box carefully and to sit on the eggs in several positions. After about two minutes, she covered up all the Hooded Merganser eggs like a good mother and then left.

Several times during the day, a European Starling came to the entrance of Duckbox C, but I never saw it actually enter.

At about 6:30 p.m., a female Hooded Merganser entered the box with her mate on the water below. I presumed that she was going to lay another egg, and I’m not sure that she did. But she did remain in the box until darkness fell … and was still there when I came to check on the box at 5:15 a.m. on Friday. So, incubation has officially begun. There is a minimum of eight eggs, which is much lower than in past years, but there could be a couple more.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28

The Hoodie that stayed in Duckbox C stayed all night, but left at dawn. As of noon, she has not returned.

Meanwhile, at noon there is a Hoodie in Duckbox L, with her mate on the lake below. Hopefully she will start laying eggs. She certainly looks comfortable, and now she’s pulling chips toward the center as if she is covering eggs. So my guess is that she did. She is leaving as of 12:02 p.m.

SUNDAY, MARCH 30

At 10:25 a.m., the female entered Duckbox C, with her male resting on the water below. She may have laid an egg. There are now many eggs–at least ten. The wood chips now have down feathers woven into them, creating a kind of blanket that can be pulled over the eggs. She left at 2:20 p.m. after covering up all the eggs.

As of 6:30 p.m. the female was back in the box with no male below. 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2

The female in Duckbox C has settled into a routine of incubating the eggs all night, then leaving in the early morning for a break of an hour or so, then returning. I observed her leaving again in early afternoon, then returning, then doing the same in the early evening.

TUESDAY, APRIL  8

First thing this morning, I saw the bird in Duckbox C pecking at a black object in one corner of the box. I believe that I could see the head of a swallow that had come into the box and was killed by the Hooded Merganser female, though I’ll have to double check that when I eventually clean out the box.

Other than that, the normal routine of incubation with a couple of breaks during the day continues.

FRIDAY, APRIL 18

The last week has been routine in the extreme, with no new news.

Until this morning, when two Wood Duck pairs showed up at the nest boxes. I noticed it first when the female Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C vigorously opened her bill and seemingly hissed at an intruder; I looked out at the nest box and noticed a female Wood Duck on top of it, so it had apparently looked inside.

At one point, the two Wood Duck pairs were sitting atop Duckbox L and Duckbox R at the same time (we’re still not sure if R is occupied by a merganser). One or the other pair also perched atop Duckbox C several times, but did not dare to venture inside. Finally, a Wood Duck female entered Duckbox L and within seconds, laid an egg and left. A little while later, a second female entered Duckbox L and also laid an egg. We think this has the potential to be a “dump box,” where eggs are laid by a female with no intent to incubate, but with hopes that another female might do the incubation duties. Neither egg was covered up with wood chips in the box. It seemed that the females just tried to dump the eggs as quickly as possible. [Note: the box did not end up being a dump box but we will have to watch for the two species of ducks if the brood hatches.]

About 12:30 p.m., a Hooded Merganser female entered Duckbox L, and stayed in there quite a while as her mate waited on the lake below. When she left, there was a third egg sitting next to the other two laid just this morning.

So, in the space of half a day, we went from no activity and no eggs to three females of two species entering the box and leaving three eggs. Life in Duckbox L is finally getting interesting.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30

When I returned home at about 8:00 a.m. this morning, the female Hoodie in Duckbox C was perched in the opening looking out, with all her eggs covered up. Meanwhile, there was also a Hoodie in Duckbox L, where she now remains 45 minutes later. She now has quite a few eggs, and I expect that incubation will begin soon.

I thought that the Hoodie had returned to Duckbox C at about 8:35 a.m., but I now believe that she was a third female. She entered the box, nestled on a few eggs–but never uncovered them all–then covered up the few she had exposed and left the box. There was a male Hoodie on the lake below, and I think she was paired with him. Kind of late to be looking for a nest box.

As of 9:30 a.m., with the regular mother back in Duckbox C, I believe I am seeing the first small black hole where a young bird starts to chip away at the egg from the inside, using its egg tooth.

YES! This is the day for Duckbox C!

At about 11:00 a.m., the first duckling cracked its way out of the egg. As the day went by more and more holes began appearing in the eggs and more and more babies hatched out.  They are so wet and bedraggled at first and they look like it could be days before they dry out, but it actually happens very quickly.  When an egg shell is empty, the mother will pick it up and thrash it, apparently getting some nutrients from the liquid and the shell itself.

By evening we were counting 8 babies pretty consistently, but the mother is still incubating and it will be interesting to see if any more appear.  The young periodically emerge and scurry around the mother, looking cute as they pop their heads out from under her wing. At other times all will be quiet with the youngsters invisible to us, gathered under the mother, where she is keeping them warm.

When the young are active they learn to use their bills as a tool, pecking each other and at their mother’s head, bill and sometimes her eye, which she tolerates patiently.

When we went to bed we knew that tomorrow morning the fledging would occur.

THURSDAY, MAY 1

During the night when I got up to go to the bathroom I would also check the TV to see inside the nest box and illuminate the outside of the box itself with a powerful headlamp to make sure that no raccoons were trying to approach the box (after last year’s debacle). 

In the morning the mother left once for a bathroom break and came back.  While she was gone the chicks all huddled together, quietly as if she had told them to stay put and remain quiet.  They were huddled so tightly that we couldn’t count the number of chicks.

We had set up our cameras at 6:00 a.m. in preparation for the fledging, but it took longer than expected.  Lee ended up having to change batteries two more times. While trying to be as quiet as we could, it is possible that we delayed the fledging with the noise of our activity below the box. Karen was video taping the outside of the box and had to change tapes three times, as each tape was only 60 minutes long.

At about 9:25 a.m. the mother ascended to the nest box opening, where she waited for several minutes looking around to make sure that it was safe for the babies. She started making a chuckling sound, then dropped down to the lake below, all the while continuing the sound that would draw the babies to follow her.  Then one by one the babies appeared at the nest box opening, hesitated briefly, then made a leap of faith to the lake below, landing with a small splash and scurrying to join the mother.  This event was disrupted a bit by the presence of a male Hooded Merganser, who was accompanying a different female that was in Duck Box L.  He and the new mother squabbled a bit, splashing around.  Within about two minutes all of the babies had leaped and gathered around the mother and she led them off along the lake shore.  We knew that we would never see them as a family again, and are feeling a bit of postpartum depression.

There were three eggs left unhatched in the box after the family had left; one of which might have just been laid the day before by a different female.

SATURDAY, MAY 3

Last night was the first full night that the Hooded Merganser spent in Duckbox L, so we officially proclaim that incubation has begun. That puts hatching at around June 1, if all goes well. Wood Duck maleA Wood Duck male, showing his bling To see more of my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

ROUND ISLAND: Walrus Sanctuary in Peril

April 22, 2014

Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodulesPacific Walrus male

Horned Puffin on cliffHorned Puffin near our campsite

There are times that remain hazy and golden in my memories; times when life came to a peak of wonder that is only rarely experienced. Five days on Round Island was one of those defining times in my life.

In 2009 my wife and I flew to Alaska, then took a second flight to Dillingham on the west coast, then boarded a beat-up puddle jumper to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak, then sped by tiny boat, piloted by a man of that Eskimo village, across part of Bristol Bay to Round Island, where we were greeted by Alaska Fish and Game staff. We set up camp on the small island, on platforms erected atop campsites used by ancient peoples, then set off exploring the island. Within a minute we were watching a Horned Puffin about 50 feet away standing atop a rock jutting out over the ocean. Later that day we watched half a dozen Pacific Walrus stretched out, resting atop a flat rock near shore.

Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFlat Rock with first view of walruses, with Dragon’s Tail in the distance

Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaOur expedition tent enduring high winds

Headlands Trail on Round Island on windy dayTrail along the grassy headlands near camp

Sanctuary Office on Round IslandStaff quarters and sanctuary headquarters

As the days went by, we listened to giant blubbery walruses singing sweetly. Endangered Steller Sea Lions performed synchronized swimming as their “Jabba the Hutt” harem defender gazed out imperiously. Wildflowers were at their peak, including the bright yellow Alaska Poppy. Red Foxes trotted around the island unseen by us, like ghosts of the landscape. Beaches were entirely filled with pink walruses resting after days of diving deep into the ocean. A high wind came up and rattled the tent with its terror all night. Parakeet Auklets gossiped constantly on the rocks below. A Tufted Puffin watched us watching him, and only snuck into his burrow when we glanced away briefly.

Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's TailDragon’s Tail and its walruses from the top of the island

Pacific Walrus males on haulout at Dragon's TailTide’s coming in!

Castle-like formation on Round IslandJagged rock formations atop Round Island’s peak

As I said, it was a peak experience, but those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know that I have already written at length about our Round Island experiences in these blogs:

Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

I Am the Walrus

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

So, why am I returning to Round Island in this blog? Because I passionately love this place and I believe that it is in danger.

Pacific Walrus threat postures in a haulout

Pacific Walrus tusk and shadow

Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round Island

Pacific Walrus male pale from deep ocean diveWatching the walruses basking and sparring and emerging from the depths is always entertaining

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. There will be no seasonal staff to serve as island stewards, and the important work they’ve done in scientifically monitoring walrus and sea lion numbers will be abandoned. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Why do I care? Because this is one of the greatest places in the world to experience wildlife that is not behind bars. Yes, there are a few walruses protected in zoos. After returning from Round Island, we went to see walruses in the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washingon. It was a profoundly sad experience. The walruses had lost their tusks completely, as they often do in captivity. They were trained to open their mouths to have their teeth brushed and to take a fish on command, then they would swim a pattern back and forth, back and forth, in the big tank lined with fake rock. This is not how sentient creatures should live.

Swimming Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion harem and young out for a swim

Pacific Walrus exhalingWe could often hear the walruses coming up for a deep breath

Pacific Walrus portrait

People need to see wild creatures in wild places, and that’s where Round Island shines. After we left the island, the next visitors coming were high school students from all over Alaska, camping on the island for days to study the wildlife of that magnificent place. The memories of that experience will remain with them for their entire lives. When we were there, the other visitors were two men from Manhattan, making their second trip to Round Island. Photographers and videographers from all over the world have come here to create a record of walrus behavior. Including me.

Alaska PoppyDelicate Alaska Poppies, one of scores of kinds of wildflowers at the height of summer blooming during our visit

Tufted Puffin at burrow entranceWary Tufted Puffin

Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayBlowing bubbles while surfacing

Cook tent on Round IslandShelter provided for campers to eat and hang out during times of high winds and rain

Dramatic clouds over Round Island summitLooking up at the top of the mountain during a morning of unsettled weather

Alaska Fish and Game claims that they might still issue some permits to visit the island, but I suspect those will be few and far between. Instead, we are more likely to have surreptitious visitors shooting walruses for the ivory, and boats and planes buzzing the walruses and creating panicked stampedes that will trample and kill individuals. People will be able to land on the island with nobody knowing, and will undoubtedly force walruses away from the beaches. The island will no longer be a sanctuary.

Is this speculation on my part? Of course, but it is informed speculation based upon my experience on the island. When we were there, we felt that the two staff members were extremely serious about their jobs, and that their first priority was to protect the walruses. When we were seen by the refuge manager watching walruses from atop a cliff, we were told in no uncertain terms to crouch down so that our silhouettes wouldn’t scare the walruses off their rock. I felt bad at violating the rules, and in retrospect I’m glad that someone was there to keep protection of the walruses as top priority.

Abandoning the camp on Round Island would save $95,000 per year, which I think is a drop in the bucket compared to the lost opportunities for environmental education and tourism in the region, which bring far more dollars than that to the Alaskan economy (our trip alone added $5,000 to the Alaska economy–it isn’t cheap to get to remote places!).

Can this decision be modified or reversed? Who knows? All we can do is try. If Alaska Fish and Game is adamant that they are going to save money this way, perhaps they could come up with a Memorandum of Understanding with The Nature Conservancy or another not-for-profit to operate the island as a sanctuary with a provision for allowing visitors to come and camp. Perhaps the National Park Service should buy it from Alaska and operate it as a national park unit, similar to the manner in which Channel Islands National Park off the California coast in operated. Perhaps an Eskimo corporation could run it. Maybe volunteers could assist a paid staff member. Perhaps the University of Alaska could run the visitor operations in conjunction with research. Since the infrastructure is already there, it would be obscene to just abandon it, and it seems that the state has not explored these and other avenues for protecting the sanctuary.

In the meantime, if you would like to write a rational and passionate letter supporting the continued use of Round Island as a place to view Alaska’s native wildlife, please contact:

Alaska Department of

Fish and Game

P.O. Box 115526

1255 W. 8th Street

Juneau, AK 99811-5526

Or email them from their website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=contacts.emailus

Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving the island

Charter boat loading passengers for trip back to TogiakFerrying gear to the small boat just prior to departure

Karen Rentz and PiperThe small plane we arrived on in the Eskimo village of Togiak

Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaDaily scene in Togiak

Air drying Sockeye SalmonSome of the Sockeye Salmon from Bristol Bay smoking at an Eskimo smokehouse in Togiak; the Sockeye Salmon fishery here is called the most sustainable fishery in the world, but the Pebble Mine proposed in the watershed could change that. That is another important environmental issue facing the region (see below for a link to more information).

 

For what could be your last chance to visit this enchanting isle, go to http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is

To read the article that announced the closure of Round Island, go to Round Island Closure

To read what Trout Unlimited has to say about the Pebble Mine, go to Save Bristol Bay

To see my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

 

 

 

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL: Still Living the Dream

August 4, 2013

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Hiking down from Trap Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail on a perfect summer day, I saw a single hiker ahead, trudging up the trail toward me. It was a man of roughly my age, carrying a heavy backpack. When we met and exchanged greetings, he asked if I was with the Forest Service. I said no, but I realized that I was wearing a light green shirt and dark shorts, and it did look a bit like a U.S. Forest Service uniform.

Then he remarked on my “Michigan” baseball cap, with its indigo color deeply faded by many days in the high country, but the maize embroidery of my alma mater’s name still bright. He said he had gone to the University of Michigan as well. He asked when I attended and I said I was there from 1968 through 1972. He said he was there from 1970 through 1974. He asked what I had studied, and I said I was in the School of Natural Resources. Turns out, he was too, so our paths would have crossed many times during the two years of overlap. Alas, neither of us recognized the other’s name, but I would have been two years older, and our classes would have been different.

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In the 1960s and early 1970s, most of us entered the School of Natural Resources because we loved being outdoors and dreamed of a career that would keep us close to the forests and lakes and mountains that we loved. I loved hiking and fishing; others loved hunting ducks and deer, but all of us had the wilderness in our souls. The school had a feeling of camaraderie at the time, and I think most of us thought of ourselves as natural resource students first, and University of Michigan students second. In addition, both of us were at the school when the first Earth Day happened, so our environmental interests coincided with the awakening feeling that caring for the environment should become an urgent national priority.

He asked who my favorite professor had been, and I answered S. Ross Tocher, a charismatic man who taught park planning and nature interpretation, and who introduced me to photography and spurred my buying of a good quality camera. Dr. Tocher gave me a start on my careers in interpretation and photography through his classes, and asking me if I would like to participate in an arboretum design for Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, along with a landscape architecture student. This was the first time I participated in a project at a professional level, and it was thrilling. Tocher later moved to the Puget Sound region and spent his retirement years about ten miles from where I now live, though we didn’t get reaquainted in later years, something I now regret, since this great man passed away several years ago.

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My new trail acquaintance had spent the early part of his career working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Monte Cristo Ranger District in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. He wasn’t a forester, but he recalled asking his forester colleagues if the timber harvest they were hauling out of the woods was sustainable. That would have been in the early 1980s, when logging was increased dramatically on Forest Service lands. They laughed and said absolutely not, but there was nothing they could do about it. One of their agency’s goals at the time was to make sure that all the old-growth timber on the district was harvested by 2010. They didn’t quite reach their goal, despite a valiant effort that left much of the Pacific Northwest with a brush cut, because the increasing scarcity of the Spotted Owl intervened and effectively cut off the harvest. Thank God and his little owl.

I told my new friend about my zigzag career path, having worked as a nature center director in upstate New York and as a freelance nature photographer in the years since, as well as shorter stints with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. I even did three summers of challenging work fighting forest fires in the California mountains.

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He spent the latter part of his career working for Seattle City Light doing environmental projects. And he spent lots of his own time in the mountains, enjoying the glorious yearly summer respite between spring and autumn rains in this moist region.

This conversation got me thinking about others I went to school with and the paths their lives have taken. Most I lost contact with, of course, but I’ve run across the names of some through the years in various ways. My roommate at forestry summer semester went into the Peace Corps and spent five years working on natural resources in Columbia, before the drug trade turned it into a terrifying place for outsiders. He later became a craftsman, creating a company that forged decorative bronze bells. I ran into him at an art show some 15 years ago in Cleveland, where we each had a booth.

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Another friend, for whom I was an usher at his wedding, went to graduate school, and later became a professor in Arizona. I heard him talking on NPR’s All Things Considered a few years back about tourism, his specialty. Another worked at a nature center, then departed for grad school and spent the rest of his career in Wisconsin doing graphics and photography for a university.

I was in college at the peak of the hippie era, and some of the guys I knew followed their passions in completely different directions. One formed a band performing in the style of old western music: they had an NPR program for many years and did a gig at the White House for Ronald Reagan (this guy also started the “Paul is Dead” rumor that swept the USA like wildfire–though Paul McCartney just gave a dynamite performance for 45,000 people in Seattle a week ago, so the report of his death was a bit premature, or else he’s had a great imposter for 40+ years). Another man–a man with a talent for talk–became an agent booking country and bluegrass acts out of Nashville. Still another became a restaurant manager in Cleveland.

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Our lives and careers have taken many routes. But as my new friend said as we departed: “It’s good to see some of us are still living the dream.” Indeed. I cannot imagine a life without spending a great deal of time outdoors in beautiful country. I invited him to join us on a week-long hike in The Enchantments, but he declined. He had other plans, and another route through life.

One last thing: the man remarked twice to me: “I can’t believe how young you look!” Well, take off the baseball cap and you see the lost hair that once flowed long and blond, while the sunglasses mask skin damage from so many days spent outdoors in the days before sunscreen. I like my disguises and have no illusions of youthfulness.

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We departed. He headed up the trail toward the pass and I headed down the trail to join my wife and our friend on the hike back to the trailhead. Old times and early ambitions were coursing through my head as I thought about forks in the road I’ve taken. Some with regrets, but most just are what they are. At this point in life, I’m as happy as I’m likely to be, and things have turned out pretty well. Life is our own personal version of the Pacific Crest Trail, filled with adventures on a long and wandering route through space and time.

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

BRIDGES OVER TROUBLED WATERS: With a Dollop of Heavy Crude

February 20, 2013

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyThe Charlotte Highway Bridge, built in 1886, is  now located in Historic Bridge Park near Battle Creek, Michigan

While I was young, my family had a cabin in northern Michigan that we would drive up to on weekends throughout much of the year. We knew we were getting close when our Chevy station wagon crossed the Muskegon River over a rusty steel truss bridge near the village of Hersey. The backwater pool under the bridge, with its sandy river bottom, became our favorite swimming hole and canoe launch point. While swimming there, local teenagers would sometimes climb to the top of the spidery bridge and launch themselves like bad boy Olympic high divers down to the river far below. It was a center of the community in summer.

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyMore views of the beautiful Charlotte Highway Bridge

Alas, the old steel bridge was replaced several decades ago by a concrete structure that is undoubtedly stronger and wider and safer than the original bridge–but has none of the charm and grace of the older structure. This has been the story across America, as bridges over troubled waters run into trouble themselves, and are replaced with more mundane structures.

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge, built in 1891 by the Michigan Central Railroad, is a semicircular stone arch bridge; Norfolk Southern and Amtrack trains pass overhead

One man saw the disappearance of iron and steel truss bridges as a sad Michigan and American trend, and he had the vision to create something truly unique. Dennis Randolph, Managing Director (at the time) of the Calhoun County Road Commission, assembled a team of staff and volunteers to move five bridges from various parts of Michigan to a small park along the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek. In a few short years, the bridges were brought in and lovingly restored by Vern Mesler and many other dedicated workers.

The park became Historic Bridge Park, and I was thrilled to walk through the park when it first opened. The old iron and steel bridges were elegant and beautiful in their engineering, and the restoration appeared to be impeccable. I know of nowhere else in America that has an outdoor bridge collection, and I applaud the people who made this possible.

Entrance Sign for Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIEntrance sign for Historic Bridge Park

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIToday the Gale Road Bridge crosses Dickinson Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River

Alas, on July 25 & 26, 2010, a 30″ diameter pipeline carrying diluted heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, burst near Marshall, Michigan, close to Historic Bridge Park. Before the leak was discovered and the flow stopped, 819,000 gallons of dark crude spilled into Talmadge Creek, then flowed into the Kalamazoo River, contaminating birds and fish and the whole riverbed for several miles. Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the spill, spent two years cleaning up the oil spill with crews and equipment working full time to restore the damaged section of the Kalamazoo River. Historic Bridge Park was necessarily closed to public use for nearly two years.

Part of the cost of cleanup and mitigation for Enbridge was to provide improved facilities at Historic Bridge Park. With these funds, new restroom and canoe launch facilities were provided, and the park got an endowment to help with future maintenance. Historic Bridge Park reopened in 2012, and it is now more beautiful than ever.

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIThe Gale Road Bridge originally spanned the Grand River in Ingham County, Michigan, from the time it was built in 1897

Bridges at Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County near Battle CrSix bridges in close proximity make Historic Bridge Park an outdoor museum

When I was in Historic Bridge Park, I noticed blue paint slashes on some of the trees. These are markers for a long distance hiking route: the North Country Trail. If I was of a mind to, I could shoulder a backpack and hike this trail south into Ohio, then east into Pennsylvania and on into Upstate New York, taking my last step in some of my favorite mountains: the Adirondacks.

Alternatively, I could hike the other way out of the park and head to Michigan’s “up north,” eventually crossing the Mackinaw Bridge, walking through the vast north woods of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, then ending up in the sea of grass of the North Dakota prairie.

Alas, I cannot do either, as it is time to leave Battle Creek and fly back to Washington State, crossing the snowy winter landscape at 35,000.’

Limestone Steps in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIBeautiful limestone steps ascend the hill so visitors can cross the Charlotte Highway Bridge on foot

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge passes under the route of the Norfolk Southern tracks

Kalamazoo River in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIThe beautiful Kalamazoo River, where it flows past the park

For specific information about the bridges in the park, go to Historic Bridges.

For information about the Enbridge Energy oil spill, go to Kalamazoo River Oil Spill.

The visionary engineer behind Historic Bridge Park, Dennis Randolph, is also a prolific administrator and author. He has written a good book about community engineering: Civil Engineering for the Community.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Raw and Magnificent Royal Basin

September 15, 2012

Corona of the setting moon behind the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin

As evening clouds started leaking, we crawled into our tents early and listened to the staccato pelting of hard rain on taut nylon. I drifted off to sleep within minutes, as usual after a hard day of high country hiking. Later, I awoke to use the facilities (a euphamism if there ever was one), and quickly realized that the lighting was dramatic. The moon had just descended over a ridge and it was dramatically backlighting the clouds that were streaming over the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin. As a bonus, there was a corona of all the colors of the rainbow in those clouds. The contrast of the starkly black and jagged ridge with the ethereal light of moon on clouds was a reminder of what a special and elemental place this is.

Fast-moving clouds and stars above the ridge

I hadn’t hiked to Royal Basin in 22 years. Last time I was there, hiking with Karen, we had shaggy, shedding Mountain Goats come into our campsite uninvited, like party crashers, hoping to score a lick of urine-soaked soil near our tent. Yeah, it was gross, but that’s what Mountain Goats do when there are lots of humans around. They follow hikers hoping to lick the sweat off their thighs or trail after them into the woods, knowing that that’s where humans go to urinate. And why do the goats like our bodily wastes? Because they crave salt. It is apparently an addictive need for them, and these mountains don’t provide enough salt in the soil to satisfy them. The goats can get pesky, and even aggressive, when around humans. In fact, during the fall of 2010, a 370 lb. adult male in breeding craziness gored a hiker about four miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. The hiker died after the goat’s sharp horn penetrated an artery in his thigh. Mountain Goats are not native to the Olympic Mountains, and sometimes it seems that they just don’t belong here.

On that same earlier trip we also observed a marmot murder. Marmots are territorial and can be aggressive toward each other. In this case, one marmot chased another across a subalpine meadow; the one being chased decided that its only option was to go down a steep snowfield, which ended abruptly at a tarn. The marmot hurtled down the mountain, slipped down the snowfield, and splashed into the tarn. It swam for a while, but it was unable to climb back up the steep, icy sides of the tarn. Eventually, it succumbed to the icy water and drowned. In the court of Olympic Marmot behavior, the marmicide was deemed manslaughter, and we suspect that the suspect was unrepentant. A heroic young woman fished the corpse out of the tarn so that future hikers could safely get their water here.

Warm light of sunrise bathing the cirque

Those were my most salient memories of our earlier trip to Royal Basin, but I remembered being impressed by the rugged cirque of the upper basin. What I didn’t recall was how hard the hike was, but even at 22 years older, we were able to hike the 7+ miles and 3,100′ gain with no problems, other than being dead tired by the end of the long march.

The lower trail winds through a mossy forest

The hike starts, like most hikes in the Pacific Northwest, in the deep Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock and Western Redcedar woods. Following Royal Creek, the trail eventually breaks into subalpine forest with small meadows, and after six miles arrives at Royal Lake. We briefly pondered staying at Royal Lake, but there were lots of backpackers there, wearing headnets to protect themselves against an onslaught of mosquitoes, which had hatched in hordes following the melting snow.

Beautiful Royal Lake is the destination for many of the hikers, though it doesn’t have the sublime wild terrain of the upper basin

More impressive here were the clouds of Chironomids, also known as “non-biting midges,” which danced in shafts of sunlight in swarms of thousands. Up close, these creatures look quite a lot like mosquitoes, but they don’t lust after our blood. Hiking through a swarm tickles a bit, and breathing bugs into an open mouth is a coughing and spitting experience, but otherwise these little bugs are benign and bordering on wondrous. When they are backlit by a low, late-summer sun, the effect is spectacular, like a galaxy of dancing stars. I had first seen these columns of dancing chironomids in Grand Valley in the Olympics many years ago, and had photographed them then, but this time I had the advantage of digital photography, so I could check my photographs immediately and adjust exposures accordingly. It was an unforeseen highlight of the hike.

Chironomids dancing in a shaft of sunlight

These non-biting midges are about the size and shape of mosquitoes (with whom they share the shores of Royal Lake), but these little creatures don’t have vampire tendencies

I have never before seen such a concentration of tiny, dancing insects!

I used a time exposure to capture the chaotic flight of these thousands of chironomids

Detail of a time exposure, this one capturing the rhythmic wingbeats of the insects

All good things come to an end, and here thousands of Chironomids have returned in death to fertilize the lake in which they lived as larvae

Wildflowers were late again this year, because of a heavy snowpack in the Olympics. In some years, the flowers would be shriveled and brown by the week before Labor Day, but not in this late summer. There were sky blue lupines and extensive meadows of scarlet paintbrush. Tall Cow Parsnip and Angelica were in the last stage of fowering. Arnicas and Senecios (two yellow flowers in the sunflower family) were at their peak.

Mountain Bog Gentian heralds the end of summer with its bloom

Edible Thistle is a memorable plant of Olympic subalpine meadows

Kneeling Angelica flowering in a mountain meadow

Fireweed blooming along Imperial Tarn in upper Royal Basin

Arnica blooming near our campsite

We climbed still higher beyond Royal Lake, into upper Royal Basin, which is a huge cirque of rugged mountains. We quickly set up camp on the first flat place we could fine, which was a bed of gravel sorted by a stream coming right out of a snowfield. Cold, wonderful water right next to our tents! There were five of us in the group, and we set up three tents. Two climbers had set up their tent before us, but the gravel bed easily accomodated all of us. Peaks glowed red in the setting sun, and the cirque was wild with a sense of unleashed natural forces.

The rocks tell stories of deposition in quiet seas, followed by the incredible power of volcanism as the Pacific plate slid under the North American plate. The rocks tell tales of the earth’s violence over millions of years; pillow lava along the trail was once formed by magma vents on the bottom of the ocean, now these rocks are found a mile high in the mountains in sheer cliffs. Breccia, a combination of jagged stones embedded in a lava matrix, looks like petrified geological pudding.

Breccia and snowfield along Imperial Tarn

Breccia up close, showing rough rocks embedded in a matrix that was once molten

Though the glaciers are gone, Imperial Tarn is still colored a vivid aquamarine by glacial flour that was formed by the scraping of glaciers against rock

Around us that evening, the setting sun caught spires of rock known at The Needles. High ridges surrounded us, separating us from Desolation Basin and other wild Olympic valleys. Not long ago, this was a place of glaciers, and named glaciers are still found on some topographic maps of the area. These tongues of ice shaped this high basin over thousands and thousands of years, leaving massive jumbles of rocks all over the basin. Alas, the days of glaciation are at an end; when we asked the climbers if they had crossed any glaciers, they insisted that there were no longer any glaciers here. I’m inclined to agree. We tried to make cracks across the long snowfields into crevasses, but I think we were just dreaming. There was no breaking end of the snowfield that would indicate glacial movement. So, I’m afraid we can chalk up the loss of still more glaciers to global warming. On the other hand, if we were in an era of growing glaciers, Royal Basin would be a lot less accessible.

The snowfield previously known as a glacier

An unnamed tarn in Royal Basin, with Mt. Clark and The Needles towering above

I explored the stream below this waterfall, where an American Dipper was feeding in the rapids and along the waterfall itself

The next morning, our little stream had largely dried up. During the warm day, snow melts and feeds the streams, while the chill air of night largely stops the melting. One of our group later watched the stream suddenly come to life later in the morning, and followed its progress as it trickled down the mountain.

After our gourmet breakfast of bean soup, instant coffee, and hot chocolate, we set off for a day of exploring upper Royal Basin. We climbed moraines, located hidden tarns filled with aquamarine water, photographed wildflowers, explored a tall waterfall, and enjoyed the company of perhaps 20 Olympic Marmots.

Our BPA-free water bottles colorfully catch the sunrise

The marmots were my favorite part of the day. The young of the year were adolescents at this point, and were out exploring and feeding on their own. One young marmot insisted upon eating False Hellibore–a lily that is poisonous to humans and sheep. I wanted to yell “Don’t eat that!” at the top of my lungs, but like many rebellious teens he probably would have told me to go stick my head in a burrow.

Young Olympic Marmot bending down a False Hellibore for its lunch

The marmots remind me of Teddy Bears; notice the hands built for digging burrows

Olympic Marmots are found nowhere else on earth. They were isolated from Hoary Marmots–the species found in the Cascades–by the ice age. Now these beautiful tawny-haired creatures thrive in the subalpine meadows between Royal Lake and upper Royal Basin. Their piercing cries warn each other of hikers and coyotes and bears and other nasty creatures. They spend much of the year hibernating deep underground, snug in a sedge-lined nest, and the rest of the year mating and eating. Sleep, sex, and food … not such a bad life!

Marmot at its burrow entrance above Royal Creek

These two young marmots are a bit uncertain about the photographic intruder into their lives

After hours of watching the marmots, we returned to camp and enjoyed talking about the adventures of the day during dinner. That was the night that rain came early, where I started this tale.

Shelter Rock near Royal Lake is made of pillow lava that was once extruded from volcanic vents beneath the ocean; the collision of plates shoved immense deposits of pillow lava up onto the continent

In contrast to the giant forces forming mountains; here a tiny stream sprayed water droplets onto a bed of moss

The next morning, we packed up and began the long hike out, stopping for a while at Royal Lake. There was a breeze at the lake, and we wondered where all the midges had gone. One of us, walking into the woods to use the facilities, discovered that the little bugs were all hunkered down on branches, waiting out the wind and hoping for steady sun so they could resume their wild mating dance.

Beautiful light on upper Royal Basin

The National Park Service closely controls the number of backpackers in Royal Basin, following an era of overuse that resulted in trampling of beautiful wildflower meadows. Our permit allowed us to stay in the upper basin, where a total of 12 people in a maximum of four groups could camp. Royal Lake could accommodate more people, and there is a ranger station there (but no ranger during our stay; we wondered if the backcountry ranger had left for college or to fight a forest fire).

The lower trail passes thimbleberries and big firs and hemlocks

Fast hikers can explore Royal Basin as a day hike of 14+ miles, which is more than I would care to do in a day. We watched two guys descending a steep snowfield near the rim of the cirque; they had come from largely snowclad Deception Basin, over the ridge, and down the snowfield. They used crampons on their boots to allow safer passage on the hard snow of morning, and used treking poles to help stabilize themselves on the steep slope. These guys were really tired after a tough hike, and still had a good seven miles to go.

Footbridge crossing the lower reaches of Royal Creek

We enjoyed chatting briefly with a group of young people who had backpacked in. They had come to Royal Basin as part of their freshman college orientation, and were uniformly enthusiastic about the experience. The Puget Sound region is so beautiful that outdoor activities like this are part of the pulse of living here.

Hemlock forest along the trail

An impressionistic view of the hemlock forest

Fireweed against a sky of delicate cirrus clouds

For more information about Royal Basin hiking go to:

Washington Trails Association Hike of the Week

Royal Basin, National Park Service

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

THE NEBRASKA SANDHILLS: Loving the Great Plains

June 27, 2012

Colt following its mother in the Nebraska Sandhills

I’ll get the embarrassing stuff out of the way first: I got my vehicle stuck in the sand of Nebraska’s Sandhills. I was heading back on a 28 mile paved one lane road (paved so the tourists don’t get stuck!) that was about ten feet wide; after a particularly rewarding stretch of birding and photography, I decided to return to see if I could get any other photographs. Near a cattle guard I swung the van wide right off the pavement and then proceeded to take a wide U-turn. The sand on the other side of the road was softer than I expected, and the van’s rear wheels began spinning, cutting deeper into the sand like a chain saw. Within seconds, the van was resting on its transmission and the back wheels were spinning freely.  At this point, with my hands on my hips and any hint of a smile vanished from my face, I stared at my predicament. I wasn’t going to get out by myself with the equipment I had, yet it was 25 miles back to the main road and cell phone reception.

The thin ribbon of pavement leading out through the Sandhills; is it paved so that the tourists don’t get stuck in the sand?

My van, stuck in sand beside the paved one-lane road to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Here the van was resting on its transmission with the wheels spinning freely … I guess I should have gotten a 4WD van!

This is about as lonely as a road gets, but within a minute or so, I saw a truck towing a horse trailer approaching. As it drew next to me and slowed, I looked up at the driver and was surprised to see a cute teenage cowgirl, blond hair in a pony tail flowing out from behind a baseball cap. I immediately thought of the old “Take it Easy” Eagles’ song lyric:

“It’s a girl my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me …”

Well, not at me, but at my predicament. I told her the obvious, that I was stuck, and asked if she had a way to pull me out.

“Sure.”  she said, “But I have to take care of something first; I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I appreciate your help,” and watched as she drove away. Then I spent the next half hour on hands and knees digging out as much sand from in front of the rear wheels as I could, not that it helped all that much, but it gave me something to do while waiting.

Then I heard the distant drone of a motor across the sandhills, and watched the flat-bed Ford and horse trailer returning. This time the girl brought her dad with her, and he matter-of-factly hooked a heavy tow chain to my rig and I was out in a couple of minutes. He looked like a rugged and handsome 40-something rancher from Central Casting, with a cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and a blue western shirt, deeply tanned with thin wrinkles radiating out from his eyes. I shook his hand and thanked him and his daughter for their help, and I was back on my way–albeit with his friendly admonition to stay on the paved road!

Back on the road again, crossing a cattle guard with a cactus sticking out of it

Western boundary of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and about 25 miles along this sand road to the nearest hamlet

The lonely landscape

The Sandhills of western Nebraska are a place apart, dotted with lonely ranch houses that might be a dozen miles from the nearest neighbor. When meeting a pickup virtually anywhere in the Sandhills, the driver will almost always wave. This happens only in the REALLY rural, sparsely populated parts of America.

The grass-covered sand dunes of the Sandhills

When this region was first settled in a land rush just after the turn of the last century, the new owners got 640 acres of government land under the Kinkaid Act passed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, and set about to raise crops and dairy cattle. Earlier, settlers had gotten 160 acres of land, but that proved to be too little to make a living on, or even to starve decently, so the 640 acres was a better deal. But this is a harsh land, and the story of ranching and farming here has been one of farm failure, followed by gradual consolidation into large ranches.

Two-track road winding over the dunes in the Nebraska National Forest

I’ve loved this region since I first saw it some 20 years ago. It is truly big sky country, with wave after wave of sand dunes stretching far, far beyond what the eye can see. These are not dunes in the sense of barren and blowing beach dunes; these are dunes covered with grasses that wave in the constant winds. The sand dunes are no longer active, since the region gets enough rain now for the dunes to support the grasses that stabilize the sand. The exception is where wind undermines the grass cover on the dunes in a “blowout;” this has happened consistently enough through the eons that one endangered wildflower–the Blowout Penstemon–is actually adapted to colonizing and stabilizing these blowouts.

I rescued this Ornate Box Turtle from the middle of the road, after I took his picture

The Ornate Box Turtle has a hinged lower shell in front, which it draws up to shield its face from intruders; this was one of the few pictures I took after he finally decided I was not much of an adversary and went strolling away

Western Meadowlark viewing its territory from atop a wooden fencepost

Prairie Rose in bloom

Western Spiderwort brightening the landscape with blossoms that seem to reflect the vast blue sky

Winds are constant in this open land. Ranchers catch the winds with old-fashioned windmills, which pump water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer up to tanks for watering cattle. Many of these windmills have seen service for many decades, and the Great Plains would look even emptier without them. The landscape is wonderful for raising cattle, horses, and wildlife–all of which take advantage of the open tanks of water below each windmill.

Windmill pumping water for cattle in the Nebraska Sandhills

Each windmill pumps water, as long as the wind is blowing, into a stock tank; birds and other wildlife also take advantage of the good source of water

Patience is a virtue when waiting for bulls and calves to leave the road

The Ogallala Aquifer is Nebraska’s most precious natural resource, other than the future potential of wind. The aquifer is the reason that the Nebraska Sandhills made the national news for the first time in my memory. A Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., proposed to route the big Keystone XL oil pipeline across the Sandhills, which would bring black gold from Alberta tar sands down to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. When President Obama announced a delay in approval of the pipeline in November 2011, a lot of Americans howled in protest, convinced that the delay was a political move, but not the conservative ranchers of the Sandhills. They know that their livelihood depends upon the health of the Ogallala Aquifer running below these old sand dunes, and that a serious oil spill could ruin the clear liquid gold that lies below the sand. These ranchers vociferously protested the proposed route of the pipeline, and I suspect that they will eventually win in the battle to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills.

Prairie pothole and dramatic cirrus clouds

One area of the Sandhills is dotted by prairie pothole lakes; here the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for ducks and wading birds, as well as songbirds and other wildlife. During my brief visit, I glassed a flock of American White Pelicans; huge birds that were resting on an island in the middle of a small lake. Near them, at a few feet higher in elevation than the pelicans, was a colony of nesting Double-Crested Cormorants. My favorite bird of the refuge was the Long-Billed Curlew, a large wading bird with an impossibly long and slender curved bell. Pairs of curlews were flying wildly above, frantically calling with the urgency of breeding. What an exuberant display of summer life on the prairie!

Prairie pothole lakes dot the landscape in the vicinity of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Upland Sandpiper nervously watching me

Long-billed Curlew opening its impossibly long and curved bill

Juvenile American Avocet foraging among flies along the edge of a prairie pothole

The other sound that I associate with the Great Plains is the call of the meadowlark. The first time I drove across the country, now over 40 years ago, I was on the way from my Michigan home to fight forest fires in the California mountains. I had just read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, about his journey to rediscover America by traveling the back roads. I did some of the same on my trip, and I recall driving through Kansas with the windows open on a hot spring day–this was before air conditioning isolated most of us from the sounds of the outside world–and hearing the constant melodies of meadowlarks perched on fenceposts and telephone poles. I’ll always associate the prairie with that experience.

Western Meadowlark bursting into song

When I first visited the sandhills back in the mid-1990s, I photographed an old gas pump in front of an abandoned building, where an old steel advertising sign faded in the prairie sunlight. On this return trip, I discovered that the pump and old sign have since been removed, presumably by antique collectors, leaving just a sad old building in a row of sad old buildings. In fact, this town of Whitman is trending toward an agricultural ghost town as the Great Plains depopulate.

I photographed the Jewel Diner in Mullen back in the 1990s; there is now just a concrete slab where the diner once stood

When I photographed this building in the 1990s, there was a classic old gas pump and two old metal signs; these are now gone 

Old and abandoned buildings in Whitman, as the village slides toward being an agricultural ghost town during my 2012 visit

Old false-front building in Whitman in 2012

In the nearby village of Mullen, I photographed the Jewel Diner years ago. This abandoned diner was in the classic old tradition of 1930s era art-deco diners, but it was tiny and cute as can be. I remember being thrilled to see and photograph it. Since then, the diner was removed and installed in a steel barn owned by a private collector. Here is what I said about the Jewel Diner after first encountering it a decade-and-a-half ago:

“Just before photographing this ghost of an old diner, I stopped for lunch at a small town restaurant just down the road. After seeing what other patrons were eating, I ordered the local specialty — a dinner plate-sized (really!) slab of breaded and fried pork served with mayo on a huge bun. We’re not going to talk about my cholesterol level right now, thank you.

After rolling out the door and down the road, I immediately stopped to photograph this jewel of a diner. With the art deco details, it would have been the most modern building in this Nebraskan sandhills town back in the late 1940s. When I took the photograph in 1999, the Jewel Diner had sat there closed and empty, probably for several decades.

At an art show in Cincinnati, one woman was thrilled to see this photograph. She told me that she was raised in Mullen and frequently ate at the Jewel Diner all those years ago. Recently she returned to the town and found that the diner had been moved–apparently to restart its career serving up chicken-fried steaks and home fries.” 

I camped one night in the Nebraska National Forest–yes, you heard that right, the Nebraska National Forest. To anyone who has driven the endless miles on Interstate 80 across this prairie state, the notion of a national forest here sounds silly. This is an unusual national forest, however, one that started in the dreams of a University of Nebraska botanist named Dr. Charles E. Bessey. He thought that with the rainfall in the Sandhills, there was enough moisture to support trees. He convinced Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that his idea was sound, and they convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to support the idea. So in the first decade of the 20th century, a small army of planters planted trees in the grasslands of the Nebraska Sandhills. These 25,000 acres of trees became the Nebraska National Forest in 1908.

A segment of the sandy Circle Road leading through the hand-planted trees of the Bessey Ranger District in the Nebraska National Forest

Pine forest along the Circle Road

Junipers scattered at the edge of the national forest

The Scott Lookout Tower, built in 1944, still operates as a fire tower in this land of dangerous range wildfires

Bottlebrush Squirreltail Grasses wave in the wind in the moist landscape around a windmill

The Charles E. Bessey Nursery grows tree seedlings and other plants for reforestation efforts; it is over a century old, having been established during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt

Prickly Poppy looks like an unlikely cross between a thistle and a poppy

Though the Nebraska National Forest never became the supplier of fenceposts and timber than Dr. Bessey had imagined, it is still an iconic and fascinating part of the Great Plains. There is even a fire tower where visitors can climb and look out over the entire expanse of this unit of the forest.

Circle Road leading up and down and around the Sandhills

There is a loop road through the forest, which I decided to drive in my van. I soon discovered that roads through the Sandhills are made of … sand, so they make for interesting driving in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Where I entered the 20+ mile road, there was no sign stating that it was for four-wheel drive vehicles, so I decided to try it. I found that it was awfully iffy going up the sandy dunes in my vehicle, but as long as I kept up my momentum, I was all right. So, I probably crested 150 hills by gunning the engine and maintaining momentum. It was a relief when I finally got to the other end of the loop road and back on gravel–and at that end of the road there was a sign saying “four-wheel drive only.” This was the day before my adventure getting stuck in the Sandhills, so I guess it gave me a false confidence.

To many coastal Americans, this is flyover country, but I just love exploring these remote places

I left the Sandhills late in the day after getting freed from the sand. When I drove into the town of Alliance, I found roads everywhere in the town blocked by police, and it was hard to get through the town to the freeway. Later, I checked the news and found that a man was barricaded inside a pharmacy with an assault rifle and other weapons. He had shot and wounded two police officers and the pharmacy owner (who was a hostage until he made a daring escape) during a botched robbery attempt, and was under suspicion for a murder in a trailer park nearby. He was later found dead after the swat team went in that evening. I was reminded of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s dark song about a murdering rampage across the prairie fittingly called “Nebraska,” in which Springsteen voices the murderer:

“They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”

Yes, there is. But there is also the kindness I found in the Nebraska Sandhills. Thank you, unknown rancher and rancher’s daughter. for helping a stranger in a strange land. And make sure the water below the surface stays clear and clean forever.

Colt nursing in this wide-open and beautiful land, which I think of as the gateway to the American West

For more information about the Nebraska Sandhills, go to the following sources:

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Nebraska National Forest

Keystone XL Pipeline (if you Google this, you will find arguments on all sides of the pipeline issue)

Nebraska Sandhills

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


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