Brooks Range Expedition: Alaska 1984

The story of our 1984 journey to Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of far north Alaska in words and in photographs. Below the story there are many more photographs that you can click on to enlarge and also see photo captions.

“You guys might want to get out of the tent … there’s a Grizzly out here.” Denis Davis startled us out of our perpetual twilight dreams with that simple statement, and we’ve rarely gotten dressed so fast. The Griz was several hundred yards away on the Arctic tundra and was steadily traveling up the treeless valley. If it smelled us–which it probably did given that we had been backpacking for a week–it didn’t stop to check us out or even look our way. For that we were grateful, given that we had no protection in the era before real bear spray.

This two-week backpacking trip in Alaska’s Brooks Range originated in Denis’ Christmas card for 1983, in which he suggested several possible adventure trips for the coming year to a number of his friends. We were the only ones who responded, and we liked the idea of backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was at that time a newly minted national park. 

Karen Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

We began planning for the trip in conjunction with Denis and his wife at the time, Elaine. We needed to carefully consider every aspect of our equipment for weight and usefulness. I needed camera gear, including a 500mm lens for wildlife, a macro lens for wildflowers, and a wide-angle lens for landscapes, plus 25 rolls of Kodachrome film. Tents at the time were limited, and we needed a tent strong enough to withstand possible snow, so we brought the legendary North Face VE-25, a favorite of Mount Everest expeditions, but which weighed 12 pounds! Karen brought a hiking staff that was actually a beaver-chewed stick from the Adirondacks; she had to check it on the cross-country flight because the gate attendant said it looked like a weapon. Our clothing was in the pre-fleece era and included items Karen sewed from Frostline kits. We had jeans, army surplus wool pants, wool shirts and sweaters, long underwear, rain-resistant pants, and Frostline parkas. We also each had an insulated Frostline vest; these would also serve as pillows. Plus stocking caps and Frostline mittens and heavy wool socks for hiking. Water-resistant hiking boots were essential to combat the wet tundra and snow. 

Lee Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

Considering food, we had to keep it light. Karen used our dehydrator to dry all sorts of precooked meals, not all successfully. Dried shredded cheddar cheese was crunchy and tasty, but melted away needed fats. For lunches we ate Pemmican Bars, which were an early protein bar from the 1980s. For breakfast and dinner we cooked on a Svea stove that ran on white gas. Our simple meals included a commercial beef stroganoff, rice and beans and dried cheese and chocolate. Breakfast always included hot drinks: our standing joke on this mosquitoey trip was that when a mosquito would land in the hot chocolate, we would fish it out, but any leftover mosquito legs would just go down the hatch. We lost weight on this trip because our calorie intake couldn’t possibly keep up with our exertions.

At the start of the trip, Lee’s backpack weighed 78 lbs, with Karen’s about 59. Karen had a full bright orange daypack lashed on top of her backpack; she sewed it from a Frostline kit.

After all our preparations, the time for travel came in late July, 1984. We flew from Syracuse, New York to Anchorage, Alaska. There we boarded a flight to Fairbanks, and then a smaller plane to Bettles, a tiny Alaskan bush town on the Koyukuk River. This is where we did our final planning and packing for the trip, with our gear splayed across the runway’s edge. We talked to some guys who were heading into another part of the Brooks Range who had long rifles with them for protection and hunting; we felt quite naked by comparison. But at the time, it was illegal for hikers to carry a gun in a national park, so that wasn’t even a possibility for us.

With our packs finally stuffed, we walked to the office of the bush plane to give them our final itinerary. We were to be dropped off by float plane at a small lake in the western part of Gates of the Arctic National Park, then we would hike for about two weeks and 50 miles through Arctic tundra, following rivers. Our biggest challenge would be a climb over unnamed mountains, hoping we could get to the crest, then down the steep cliffs on the north side. This was all uncertain, because it was possible no human being had ever traveled this route over the mountains and the available topographic map was not detailed enough to confirm cliff locations. This was real, raw wilderness in the extreme. If all went well, we would follow a drainage from the mountains, hiking north until we reached Kurupa Lake, where we would be picked up by float plane.

Dramatic arctic landscape between the Arctic plain and the high summits of the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA

We finally shouldered our heavy packs and walked to the Koyukuk River, where our float plane magic carpet awaited. This was a Canadian-made bush plane, a De Havilland Beaver, that was and is the workhorse of the far north. We took off from the river–our first experience on a float plane–and followed the river west for a ways, with us watching for Moose among the Black Spruce trees along the river. Eventually the pilot left the river and turned the plane north, taking us over turquoise tarns and rugged, sharp peaks where the trees eventually dwindled to none, leaving us over a treeless tundra. We came to a broad opening in the mountains where several lakes shimmered, and one of those was our destination. The pilot descended and made a smooth landing on the lake, then taxied over to the shore. We didn’t even get our feet wet while unloading our gear. After confirming our final meeting point for a rendezvous two weeks later, the pilot taxied into the center of the lake, then took off with a roar, leaving us feeling lonely on the vast tundra. The pilot had been instructed to pick us up at Kurupa Lake, but if we weren’t there, then he would look for us at our drop-off lake in case we couldn’t make it over the mountains.

Two things happened within minutes: we found a distinct fresh Gray Wolf track in the wet soil between tussocks, and mosquitoes descended upon us in Biblical multitudes. We were in the Alaska Wilderness!

After a few minutes of gazing out over the lake, we pulled out our mosquito head nets, shouldered our lead-filled packs, and set out on a two-week journey through one of the wildest places in North America. We consulted our topographic maps, then headed over a ridge that looked down over a long valley stretching toward a line of mountains in the distance. Our route would take us down the valley along an unnamed river past unnamed mountains. 

Our trip took place at the warmest time of year in the Brooks Range, with temperatures hovering above 70°F. At our feet, arctic wildflowers bloomed in profusion–most of them hugging the ground to avoid the drying winds–while along the river Arctic Fireweed was vivid. In this warm weather, the clouds of mosquitoes were legendary. To cope we wore head nets, plus applications of DEET-containing Jungle Juice. Karen had sewn the placket gaps above our sleeve cuffs shut to keep the bugs out. But we discovered that they could still bite through our jeans, so we ended up with a lot of itchy welts. During the first two days of hiking along this long valley, we saw no large charismatic wildlife, so we focused upon cool birds we had never before seen, such as a Wandering Tattler on its nest site, an American Golden-Plover, and a Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch.

We set up our first campsite on the lower flanks of a mountain high above the valley. This was northern Alaska during the height of summer, so the sun barely set, making the inside of our yellow tent look like perpetual dim daylight all through the long night. We thought it might be hard to sleep in these conditions, but we were so worn out from hiking with heavy packs that sleep was not a problem. As we gazed up the valley the next morning we could see where we would camp the next night; an expansive view.

Grizzly Bears were always on our minds, but not enough to keep us from sleeping. Without bear spray and without guns, our defense lay in our numbers–with four of us, that should work as a deterrent against daytime attacks. At night, we needed to protect our food supply from bears, but there was no place on the open tundra to hang our food. Each night we took our packs and placed them together about 100 yards downwind from our tents. Atop the packs we placed our cooking pots with stones in them, so a raid on the packs would alert us with noise. We also had little mesh bags made by Karen containing mothballs that we hoped would cover up the scent of food, or at least serve as a repellent. While hiking, the mothballs were triple bagged to contain the strong fumes.

The next day we hiked further along the river, coming upon a spot where there was enough shade from the mountains that river ice several feet thick had not yet melted; it resembled glacial ice, with its aqua-blue color. Later, we were setting up camp when we heard the blowing and galloping of a mammal coming our way. It was our first Caribou, and it appeared to be running in terror. But nothing was chasing it, and it was possible that there was a parasitic larva called a nosebot driving it crazy. Or maybe it was the ever-present mosquitoes.

The third day out, we left our broad, open valley and began ascending a steeper route into the mountains. This was the drainage we hoped to take over a high pass at the northern crest of the range. As the day wore on, the cloud cover increased and there was a noticeable chill in the air. We set up our tents high in a cirque, with sharp peaks rising around us, then finished our camp chores and wriggled into our sleeping bags. A drizzle began, followed by rain, then silence.

When we awoke the next morning, there was about four inches of fresh snow on the tents. It was cold, and we decided it would be too treacherous to make our climb over the pass in these conditions. So we took a snow day, mostly napping and reading inside our tents, waiting for the weather to pass.

We hiked to a snowy, high, unnamed pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, in the northern part of the Brooks Range, Alaska, USA [No model release; available for editorial licensing only]

The following morning the weather had again changed, with sunny blue skies appearing between clouds still hanging in. We decided this was our day to face the biggest challenge of the trip, so we loaded up and headed straight up the snowy steep and rocky slope toward the pass. When we reached the pass, the view straight north to the Arctic Plain greeted us. The wind was blowing hard over the pass, so we took shelter against a rock buttress and ate lunch. Then Denis and Lee split up to try to find a safe route down from the pass. Denis went to the east and Lee ascended to the west, each looking carefully at our chances. When we got back together, Denis said his side of the pass was not feasible, but Lee decided we had a good chance of making it if we carefully went in his direction. It involved climbing higher, then going sidehill in snow while hugging a cliff above a steep, snow-covered dropoff. If we went far enough, we would reach a scree slope leading all the way down to the valley at a steep angle.

Lee turned to Karen, who gets nervous with exposed heights, and said “You’re going to have to be brave.” She was, and we carefully inched along the cliff face without mishap, then began our steep descent. The scree slope was snow covered, but we forcefully stuck our legs through the snow to the soft rocky debris (almost like a fine gravel dune) and felt almost entirely safe. When we made it to the bottom, it was with a sense of triumph and relief that the most difficult part of the journey was behind us. We celebrated by making a no bake boxed cheesecake chilled in the snow, and all was right with the world.

The bad weather closed in again the next morning, and we hiked down the length of a lake with wet snowflakes steadily falling. Very briefly the mosquitoes were too chilled to move. The mountains were gleaming with their coat of fresh snow. We climbed out of the valley into some foothills. Then, while eating lunch we saw movement in the distance. Binoculars revealed one of the most amazing sights of our lives: thousands of Caribou traveling across the rocky terrain! We changed our route to intercept the herd and over the following days we watched and photographed them extensively, burning the sight into our memories as well as on film.

We camped that night on a ridge in the path of the Caribou, and all night we could hear the clicking of tendons in their ankles as they walked past our tents. It is a fascinating phenomenon, and apparently it serves to keep herds together as they travel–even in the clouds and fog of the mountains they can hear each other enough to stay together. The Caribou traveled well-worn paths along mountain slopes and through wildflower meadows. There were bull Caribou with huge antlers, as well as females with smaller antlers and young of the year racing around. These were part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which migrates twice yearly between the calving grounds on the Arctic Plain and the wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. When we saw them, they were gathered together in a huge group, but not yet beginning their fall migration south. Our days among the Caribou were wonderful, as we saw them crossing streams and silhouetted against snowy mountains.

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, migrating through the mountains of Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

On another morning about this time in the trip we saw our first Grizzly Bear; fortunately it didn’t pay us any attention. It was astounding to see how large it was and how prominent was the hump on its back. One advantage of hiking in the tundra is you can see bears from a long way away. We still remember Denis and Elaine talking about being first on the scene of a near-tragedy in Glacier National Park. A family of four had been hiking together when they surprised a Grizzly in the forest. It attacked, and had one child’s head in its gaping mouth when the father jumped on its back. The bear broke the man’s arms but then called off the attack. But enough about scary bear stories. 

Our packs were now a bit lighter from the food we had consumed, and our still-young bodies gained strength as the days wore on. One day Denis proposed we go off on our own and he and Elaine do the same. That sounded good, and we ventured into the Kurupa Hills. Our highlight was seeing a young Dall Sheep lying on the tundra, and later seeing some adults crossing a talus slope. At our campsite we enjoyed watching an Alaska Marmot, though not-so-much an Arctic Ground Squirrel who chewed through one of our plastic water containers. During the second half of the trip we saw Peregrine Falcons, which were truly rare in the lower 48 during the 1980s because of the effects of DDT, as well as a Long-tailed Duck on a tundra pond, and Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers, which flew at us aggressively when we got too close to their nesting grounds.

Hiking further, we approached our destination, Kurupa Lake. Denis didn’t tell us at the time, but later said an early oil prospector’s report described the “herds of Grizzly Bears” at Kurupa Lake. Fortunately, we encountered no herds, but we did see a second Grizzly Bear on the other side of the lake, where it paused to furiously dig up an Arctic Ground Squirrel’s burrow. It is astounding how fast those massive muscles and claws allow a Grizzly to dig. We assumed it got the squirrel. 

We stayed two nights at our last campsite, giving the bush plane plenty of time to retrieve us. While we waited, Karen and Denis both fished, each catching a Lake Trout and observing Arctic Char. Denis released his fish, but Karen was determined to eat ours. So we cleaned the fish and boiled it, tossing the carcass into the lake to reduce the scent. It was good, but the scent from the cooking would have clung to our wool clothing, undoubtedly acting as a lure for a bear. Fortunately we didn’t attract any bears to camp.

There was always a chance the plane would not appear on our pickup date; if fog or other bad weather delayed previous days’ retrievals, people would be picked up in order and they would get to us as soon as possible. We were getting low on white gas and food and speculated that if we were delayed by days we would be eating raw fish.

We were entranced by the whole experience, and Lee could have turned around and stayed in the wilderness for another two weeks if we had the time. Alas, work called and we needed to return. On our last day we needed to pack early and have our gear ready to go. In the afternoon we heard the whine of a plane approaching, and it turned and descended to our lake. The pilot had instructed us to leave a tent up so he could spot us along this large lake. As soon as we knew the pilot had spotted us, the tent was quickly collapsed and we hoisted our packs to trudge down to the shore, then loaded our gear onto the float plane. When we took off, it signaled the end to one of the signature experiences of our lives.

The photographs below show a map of our route, final packing on the runway in Bettles, our flight north through the mountains, and our first moments on the arctic tundra. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view and more information.

As we hiked across the tundra with our heavy packs, the Arctic revealed itself in beautiful wildflowers, distant views, Caribou antlers, fast streams, and campsites with glorious views.

We identified and photographed wildflowers and lichens and ferns that we had never before seen. The tundra plants are short, hugging the ground to stay out of the wind and take advantage of the warmth near the ground; most of the wildflowers are pollinated by flies, since bees are scarce in the Arctic.

When we reached the end of a long valley and several days of warm temperatures, our route next led us into the mountains. After setting up camp, rain turned to snow. After a rest day, we climbed steeply up into the mountains, not knowing if we could cross the range here. It turned out that we could, although there were challenges of negotiating ice and snow and a steep scree slope.

After the steep mountain crossing we hiked down a long valley in rain and snow, passing alpine lakes and crossing a stream. Here our wildlife sightings began in earnest, with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and birds we had never seen before. Seeing thousands of Caribou was a highlight of our lives.

After all our time in the wildest wilderness we had ever experienced, it was time for a float plane to pick us up at Kurupa Lake on the north side of Gates of the Arctic National Park. We arrived two days early and spent the extra time fishing and hiking. Alas, we heard the plane overhead and quickly packed up, ending one of the premier adventures of our lives.

Wilderness and adventure in far off places would lure us to distant locations and backpacking trips during the ensuing decades, but nothing would be quite the challenge as this trip to the Brooks Range. Looking back now, nearly four decades later, we both think of it as a highlight of our lives.

To see more of the work of Lee Rentz, go to http://leerentz.com.

October at Staircase in Olympic National Park

The pleasant white noise of water running over rocks in the North Fork Skokomish River blends with the occasional warning clicks of a concerned Pacific Wren and the wind rushing through the needles and leaves of conifers and maples. Low angle sunlight occasionally shines through the brilliant orange leaves of Bigleaf Maples along the river’s edge. A family of American Dippers walks underwater through the rapids, searching for insect larvae. A cousin of the robin, the Varied Thrush, has migrated in for the winter and individuals are foraging through the mossy forest.

Each time I come to Staircase, named for an actual wooden staircase that a military expedition built to climb over rugged nearby cliffs, I am enchanted by the exotic lifeforms that populate this rainforest. There are the Icicle Mosses that drape the limbs of maples and dead conifers so thickly that I wonder how the branches can support the weight of this wet mass of moss.

There are Dog Vomit Slime Molds that we encounter in the woods. These are neither plant nor animal and normally live their lives as single cells, but when something triggers them, these cells come together to act as a larger organism that actually oozes through the forest in a search for food.

There is the Methuselah’s Beard, the longest lichen in the world, hanging like Spanish Moss from the limbs of riverside maples and firs. It is the Methuselah’s Beard that attracts me to frequently return to Staircase. There is one special Bigleaf Maple that the lichen has enjoyed living on for years, to the point that much of the tree looks decorated in fake spider webs for Halloween. I thought I was the only photographer attracted to this tree, but it turns out there are many others; on one recent trip two photographers came by while I was photographing and said that they make pilgrimages to photograph this tree every autumn. This lichen species is extremely sensitive to air pollution and is used by scientists as an indicator of poor quality air; it has been declining across much of its range around the world for this very reason. But at this location on the Olympic Peninsula, bathed in moisture coming off the Pacific Ocean, the air is clean and wonderful. The lichen thinks so as well, and looks to be content living here.

Click on each of the photographs below to see them larger. Much more of my work is at leerentz.com. Reach out to me at lee@leerentz.com if you have any questions.

Focus on the Inner Mind

While visiting the lovely little Yashiro Japanese Garden in Olympia, Washington, I at first didn’t know what to photograph. The garden was pretty, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with a desire to take pictures. I decided to stay longer and work at it, freeing my mind from preconceived notions of what might make strong photographs here. Eventually the details captured me, and I chose to take a zen approach to my photography, focusing narrowly on detail and letting the background float away into a wash of color.

Click on the photographs above to see them larger. To see more of my work, go to my website: leerentz.com There you will see thousands of photographs and can order prints in a variety of sizes

NEW BETHLEHEM LIVING HISTORY MUSEUM

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be: now it is infused with selective memories and applied to politics. This work of fiction explores a way of returning to the past, a past that I experienced in real time. It is filled with the details of the 1950s that some may remember and others will find entirely strange and foreign. The photograph here is of my mother, with me and my brother, taken in the mid-1950s in the suburbs of Detroit.

I first read about a new project some two years ago, during the height of President Trump’s sway over nearly half of Americans. Two Republican billionaires got together one evening for a steak dinner; over martinis they brainstormed ways to take America back to the values of the 1950s, as they fondly remembered their favorite decade.

Adam Friedman and William Rand were both born in the early 1950s, and raised by loving and wealthy families through the 1950s and 1960s. Both went to Yale, followed by Harvard Business School. After early dalliances with left wing ideas in their college years, both became fanatically loyal to the ideas of President Ronald Reagan, and they never looked back. Well, they did look back to their favorite decade: the 1950s, as did Reagan. They fervently believed in the idea of the self-made man, and considered themselves among the most successful of that genre. Let’s listen in to their conversation.

William Rand said “As you know, I have long been disturbed by America’s socialist drift. The idea of a federal minimum wage is disgusting; people should be paid what they’re worth. And don’t get me started on government regulations; you can’t believe the hoops my bank has to jump through to set up secret bank accounts for some of our friends. I just wish we could bring back the 1950s, before the age of government interference in our lives and when communists were kicked out on their ears.”

Adam Friedman replied “You’re right. We’ve tried for years to appropriately blame the government for all our problems, but people seem to love their Social Security and Medicare, so socialism is deeply engrained.”

Rand said “I would love to somehow educate children in the American Way much earlier, like they did back in the ‘50s. We turned out okay. 

Friedman said “My grandmother found a way in her generation to instill traditional values. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution back in the day, and she gave a couple of million to found a living history farm in the Berkshires. She had visited Colonial Williamsburg and loved it, and wanted to take the idea of living history into the late 1900s, a time she felt was a high point for America and when my family first made its fortune.”

Smiling, Rand responded “What did she find so enchanting about the era of outhouses and horses?”

Chuckling, Friedman replied “I’m quite sure she wasn’t thinking about the inconveniences, but she loved the lack of regulations from that era. People just seemed more independent and stalwart back then. But the point was, she invested her money in a project that pointed average Americans back to a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” time.”

Rand replied “Well, I never understood how bootstraps could pull up a man, but I catch your drift. I just wish we could return to the postwar period, when everyone in America knew their place. American manufacturing and style was the envy of the world and Americans were optimistic about the future.”

Friedman said “Yeah, I wish Americans were as grateful today for what we’ve given them.” 

Rand said “This is a stretch, but I wonder if your grandmother’s living history idea could be applied to the 1950s? I mean, could a living history museum be set up that would give people a sense of what it was like to live in the ‘50s?” 

Friedman said “Interesting idea. I’m betting that it could …”

And so, an idea was born. Adam Friedman and William Rand went on to form a partnership in philanthropy, or so it seemed. They hired a prominent museum consultant to brainstorm ideas for the 1950s living history project and to develop a business plan and a list of locations. Oh, and to tell the billionaires that it would cost approximately $95 million to get it off the ground. Smith and Rand initially balked at the cost, until the consultant told them that a survey showed that people would be willing to pay a high admission fee for a week-long residency in the community. Bottom line: it could work as a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit, and the investors could potentially profit handsomely, especially with a tie-in to a feel-good television series and potential movie deals based upon the values of the new community.

During the next three years, after sifting through locations throughout the East and Midwest and studying market surveys, the new corporation picked out a beautiful spread of rolling hills outside of New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not all that far from Pittsburg so people could fly in easily, and which had a perfect Christian name for the project. The county readily agreed to an infusion of money and tourism, so it put the development on a fast track. These businessmen knew how to get things done quickly, so the land was surveyed and development began within months.

For the first phase of the development, 62 homes were designed in what was to look like a postwar suburban development, with front yards, back yards, garages, driveways, and modest homes with brick or grooved shingle siding. In addition, ten homes, designed to look like farmhouses, were placed among the hills where corn and beans were soon to be grown. A town center, designed to look like a traditional small town in upstate New York or rural Pennsylvania was established, with false front commercial buildings and a town square with a beautiful wooden gazebo. Finally, a traditional wooden church and an early 1950s school building were created to round out the experience.

It is now two years later, and this reporter arranged to tour the now operational living history town with Laura Reagan, the public relations contact who works for the corporation. I had asked for an informative tour after the facility has opened, so I might see families experiencing the living history of the 1950s. Mrs. Reagan turned out to be a young woman who graduated from Michigan’s Hillsdale College about ten years before. She carried herself with the confident self-assurance that comes from being convinced you are on the side of good.

Mrs. Reagan graciously let me tour one home among the few vacancies this week. When we drove up in an electric version of a ’57 Chevy, in turquoise paint, we parked in the driveway and chatted for a few minutes before entering the house. The yard was well kept, and there were cement sidewalks along both sides of the street. Here and there, kids were riding bicycles along the sidewalks, and a touch football game was going on in the yard across the street. The children had come home from school during the lunch period and had an opportunity to play before returning to school. A young couple was strolling, consuming ice cream cones as they walked.

I said “Mrs. Reagan, it is an attractive community, and I’m amazed that you have been so successful in filling it with families so quickly.”

She said “We think there is a deep hunger in America to return to traditional values, and we mostly marketed the New Bethlehem experience through churches in the Midwest and Northeast. We tell parents that this will be a special immersive living history experience, not just a brief tour, so we ask that they stay at least a week for families to get a feel for the rhythm of living in real America.”

Me: “Real America?”

Reagan: “I know that’s a loaded phrase, but we think it represents well the America before the time of WiFi and so many screens, when families dressed up to go to church and children recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, and even prayed as the school day began. It was a time when children were safe to roam outdoors, until Mom or Dad yelled for them to come in and wash up for dinner. It is safe here.”

Me: “As I drove through the gate to the orientation center, I noticed the high fence topped with razor wire.”

Reagan: “Yes, we decided that the temptation for the outside world to invade our safe enclave was too great, so we fenced it to give our visitors peace of mind. There are also armed guards patrolling the perimeter with German Shepards round the clock, as well as a state-of-the-art digital surveillance system. But enough about that, let me show you inside.”

We walked to the front door, which she opened without a key (“Our visitors are good Christians.”), and walked inside.

Reagan gestured toward the furnishings as she spoke: “We have given each of the homes a slightly different look. This one celebrates the atomic age, with its big sunburst wall clock and kidney-shaped coffee table. It is a small, middle class house, one that might have been owned by a life insurance salesman with his stay-at-home wife. Wall-to-wall carpet was still relatively new, and this rose beige tone would go with anything. The curved sectional sofa was a classic. The home was too modest to have a classic Eames Lounge Chair, which would have been appropriate for an executive with modern taste, but was far too expensive for this family.”

A television sat in one corner of the room, facing the curve of the couch. Laura turned it on, and the fuzzy black and white picture played a vintage soap opera, “The Secret Storm.”

Reagan explained: “We have one channel that plays a schedule of 1950s classics, starting with a televised national anthem first thing in the morning, followed by “This is the Life,” a dramatized church series from the 1950s that dealt with family issues of the era. Before school, the kids get to watch Captain Kangaroo with Mr. Green Jeans, a wholesome show for young children.”

Me: “Do you broadcast these shows over the air? I see a rabbit ears antenna atop the television.”

Reagan: “Oh no. One of our accommodations to the current era is using cable technology to bring the old shows into every home with a consistent look, and without the reliance on the 1950s technology that required so much maintenance by so many people. This is all automated to keep our corporate personnel cost as low as possible.”

I look back at the rounded screen of the TV, set inside its futuristic rounded metal case. “What other shows do you offer?”

Reagan: “We have a series of soap operas for the housewife to enjoy, including “The Secret Storm” and “The Guiding Light,” which are followed in the afternoon by “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” which was a variety and talk show. After the evening news, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, we have a variety of family-oriented programs. “Leave it to Beaver,” of course, is a favorite. “Lassie” is wonderful. “I Love Lucy,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and “The Lone Ranger” are popular, as are the full lineup of westerns. “Davy Crockett” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” are especially popular with the kids, according to our surveillance of what families are watching. Of course, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” with the Lennon Sisters and the bubble machine, is always a fun variety show. But we don’t encourage families to spend all their time watching television because there is so much fun to be had outdoors playing croquet and badminton in the back yard.”

She next guided me toward the kitchen, which was compact and efficient and featured a gleaming white rounded refrigerator and electric range. The countertops were pink formica with little green and yellow boomerang shapes for decoration. The floor was linoleum in a subdued pink, with a texture that looked a bit like terrazzo. The dinette set was classic, with its bright chrome legs and red formica top. It looked durable and easy to clean, and stylish enough in a retro way for any era.

Me: “What do people eat?”

Reagan: “That’s everyone’s first concern when they think about coming here. We have a week’s worth of food available for each family in the cupboards and in the fridge and freezer, as well as a book of recipes to guide the housewife on how to cook the classics. Breakfasts aren’t all that different from what people are used to, with cereal and toast and eggs and bacon and orange juice. For school lunches, the kids take peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread, with some Oreo cookies and a classic Delicious apple. They get fresh milk at school. Supper is when food becomes quite different from what people are used to, and there are no McDonalds or Burger King restaurants nearby for people to go to. Even if there were, that would be cheating because there weren’t many fast food franchises in the 1950s.”

She continued: “Our time-tested dinners include a series of classic meals:

Tuna Noodle Casserole with canned tuna, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, grated American cheese, and a topping of crushed potato chips. It is delicious. We combine it with a simple green salad of iceberg lettuce and cucumbers and radishes, topped with French dressing.

Another favorite is Meatloaf, made with ground beef and a filler of breadcrumbs. This may be the favorite dinner for people of all ages, because it is classic comfort food that never goes out of style.

In the freezer we have a good selection of Swanson TV Dinners, including Turkey & Gravy and Salisbury Steak. Each comes with side dishes of mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as mixed vegetables and a healthy dessert of stewed apples. Everyone loves the classic aluminum trays.

Ambrosia is a special favorite, with its mix of canned mandarin orange slices, coconut, miniature marshmallows, and maraschino cherries, topped with Cool Whip.

Jello molds are available, of course, for combining Jello with cottage cheese, celery, oranges, and canned crushed pineapple. Many current cooks have never made Jello, but with our instructions it is easy as pie.

Other foods available to our residents include Spam and fish sticks. Oh, and lots of canned vegetables. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried canned asparagus topped with melted Velveeta.”

Me: “That’s certainly different from what I’m used to.”

Reagan: “That’s the point. We want to take people out of their immediate comfort zone and take them back to the comfort era, when food was manufactured in clean, well-lit factories.”

Me: “What can parents do after dinner to keep the kids entertained?”

Reagan: “Let me show you the closet in the den.”

She opened the closet door and there was a tall stack of jigsaw puzzles and board games. The puzzles included some classic scenes, such as a snowy New England village and a British thatched cottage reflected in a farm pond. There were also puzzles based upon popular television shows, including one of a red-jacketed Canadian Mountie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his sled dog and horse Rex. There was another of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and several others based upon classic westerns.

Me: “Where did you get all these old puzzles?”

Reagan: “Oh, they’re not really old. They are based upon original puzzles, but we had them specially made in quantity for our New Bethlehem homes.”

There is also a stack of board games, including Scrabble–always great for adults and teens. Monopoly, of course, is the classic board game that teaches the wonderful theme that “greed is good,” and is what powers America. 

Reagan said: “Our guests also enjoy Clue, with its murder mystery theme set in an English country tudor mansion. It reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel, with half-a-dozen suspects that include Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and Professor Plum. The murder weapons are really cool; a little pewter candlestick and dagger and lead pipe. Everyone loves that game.”

There was also a stack of toys for children that encouraged use of the imagination.

Reagan saw me looking through the stack of toys and said “Did you know that Lincoln Logs were invented by John Lloyd Wright–the great architect’s son?”

Me: “No, but I’m not surprised; architecture must have been in the genes. Without their electronic games, do these imaginative toys engage today’s children?”

Reagan: “We have found them to be timeless, crossing the generations. That’s why we provide Mr. Potato Head–with potatoes available in the pantry–and an Erector Set, Pick-up Sticks, and Tinker Toys. For the youngest children we have a bag of maple blocks that they use to create buildings and bridges and boats.”

Other toys included Hula Hoops, Matchbox Cars, Play-Doh, a Doctor and Nurse Kit, and various dolls–but no Barbie Dolls.

Me: “Barbie seems to be conspicuously absent.”

Reagan: “Barbie wasn’t marketed until 1959, so we think it really belongs to the 1960s. Besides, we chose to have more wholesome dolls; Barbie has a sexual edge to her that many conservative parents object to.”

Closing the closet, Reagan pointed to a record player with a shelf of records.

She said “We also have a great Crosley record player.”

Me: “I saw that. And your shelf of vinyl is well-stocked with 12” LPs.”

I thumbed through them: Frank Sinatra, Patty Page, Big Crosby, Perry Como, Pat Boone, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Me: “Hey, you’ve even got Tony Bennett! I can’t believe he is still making records 70 years later!”

Me: “But I don’t see any early rock & roll. Shouldn’t there be some Elvis or Chuck Berry?”

Reagan: “We don’t stock rock & roll from the ‘50s. Our founders think that rock & roll was driven by sex and drugs, so we ended our music list just prior to that era. We think it makes for a more wholesome experience.”

Me: “But can’t people bring in their own soundtracks on an iPhone?”

Reagan: “Not really. Part of the agreement in coming to a living history community is that they have to leave behind the entertainment from the modern era, and almost everyone seems to obey. It helps that we paid to remove a nearby cell tower, so there is no phone reception. There is no WiFi, so people don’t need to keep in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We have a boy deliver a daily newspaper to each family daily. It’s filled with wholesome stories from here and the outside world, and kids love the funny pages, with Popeye and Blondie and Mary Worth and all the other great ‘50s strips. It’s called the New Bethlehem News.”

Me: “What about clothing? The people out on the street don’t exactly dress like they do 70 years later.”

Reagan: “We want to give them the whole experience, so we have a “clothing shop” as part of the orientation center where they can pick out appropriate dresses, trousers, and shirts; these are returned at the end of the experience. They bring their own socks and underwear, of course. Everyone LOVES getting into costume for their week here. Tell you what, why don’t we drive to the school where you can see the children in class.”

We walked outside into the bright spring sunshine, got into the Chevy, and drove the three blocks to the school.

Me: “I don’t see many other cars.”

Reagan: “We had extensive discussions about cars, since the 1950s were such a car-loving decade. In the end, we decided that the community is small enough that we didn’t need to issue each family a car, though they can borrow one for a few hours just to have the experience.”

When we reached the school, we parked in a small parking lot next to a Studebaker and a Nash Cosmopolitan.”

Reagan: “Those are the teachers’ cars. We wanted just enough cars in the community to give it a period feel.”

The school itself was a miniature version of what a suburban school would have been like in the 1950s, with banks of big windows, a flat roof, and easy access directly outside. On the school grounds, there were teeter-totters, a jungle gym with hard soil underneath, and a merry-go-round spinning a mile a minute with happy and terrified kids, some being thrown off by centrifugal force. It was recess, and there were probably 50 kids playing on the school grounds, many involved in a game of kickball on the school’s baseball diamond. Good times.

I asked Reagan what the children learned in the school.

She said “We don’t have a lot of time with them, about six hours a day for four-and-a-half days, so we mostly try to balance their schooling in their regular lives with a more traditional viewpoint. The children in elementary school get an introduction to cursive writing, and a lot of practice writing short essays about what they love in America. They also learn lessons about diverse American heroes, especially George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump, explaining all the good things they did for our nation. There are also daily Bible lessons and a morning prayer.”

She continued “The secondary students start the morning in a similar way, with prayer and Bible study, but the subjects are different. We examine the great issues of the 20th and 21st centuries in economic terms, explaining how the socialism promoted by FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama has made life far worse for American families by giving them too many unearned benefits. This has robbed people of an incentive to work hard.”

Me: “Do you teach science at all?”

Reagan: “We do, although we have limited time, so our emphasis is on the issues surrounding science. We discuss the issues of evolution, climate change, viruses, and killing babies through a lens of morality and truth.”

Me: “Isn’t that kind of one-sided?”

Reagan: “Our founders feel strongly that Americans have been led astray by fake science, so we see it as our job to be a countervailing force. That is our essential mission, and one that we extend to adult classes here. Why don’t we take a bit of time and go downtown; that’s where we have a good bookstore, a soda fountain, and a movie theatre that plays classic American movies every night. And that’s where the meeting places for adults are.”

Me: “Sounds great. I could use a chocolate malt.”

Our drive downtown was short, only about six blocks, but I was impressed by the traditional look of Main Street. It had all the hallmarks of a traditional American town of our collective memory, with gas lights, brick two story buildings with welcoming storefronts, and a feeling of complete safety. By the time we left the soda fountain, school was out and families were walking Main Street together. Some were lined up to see a long double feature of Gone With the Wind and Atlas Shrugged. Tomorrow’s lineup was to be a John Wayne movie marathon.

I glanced into the display window of the bookshop, and wasn’t surprised to see new editions of The Federalist Papers, The Conservative Mind, and leather-bound volumes of the Ayn Rand classics. We stepped into the bookshop, where an adult book club was discussing Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman. I overheard one blond, middle-aged woman earnestly stating that “taxation is theft,” with heads around the book circle nodding in agreement.

Reagan softly said “We think it’s important that people step away from their everyday lives to consider the great issues of our time through a conservative lens.”

Me: “Does it change minds?” 

Reagan: “The people who come for a week are already patriotic Americans, so I think that most of what we do is to reinforce their beliefs and give them talking points based upon the great thinkers. We aren’t necessarily stirring them to direct action, but we give them a sense that there are many others who think as they do. It is absolutely thrilling for a lot of people.”

We quietly left the bookshop and strolled down Main Street, heading back to the Orientation Center.  

Me: “This living history center seems to be really successful.”

Reagan: “Yes, and beyond our wildest dreams. We are almost completely booked by families for the next two years. People have formed online discussion groups based upon their experience here, and some think it’s the beginning of a new grassroots political movement.”

Me: “So, what’s next?” 

Reagan: “Our founders are extremely satisfied with the financial results of the New Bethlehem Living History Experience. We don’t want to make this public quite yet, but they are thinking of expanding the idea to new living history centers in the South, the Great Plains, Arizona, and Idaho, where there are concentrated numbers of patriots. It’s looking good.”

Me: “Thank you so much for showing me around. You’ve given me a lot to think about on the way back to the Pittsburgh airport.”

Reagan: “It has been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading about your experience here.”

As I left New Bethlehem, I couldn’t shake the idea that this living history experience was like a bizarre version of a Disney theme park. Sure, the 1950s were a decade of explosive economic growth after the trials of the Great Depression and World War II, and it was a fun decade for many, in which the suburbs really came into being and “teenagers” became a thing. People who lived through those years were generally happy with their lives, and even people who had less than a high school education could raise a large family on one salary. The wealthy were with us, of course, but they were heavily taxed and the gap between rich and poor was far smaller than it is now.

It just seems to me that if the founders of New Bethlehem Living History Experience want to go back to the 1950s, they should reexamine the reasons why the ‘50s were so good for so many, instead of dropping a hazy golden myth over that decade.

Note: This story is entirely fictional and is a bit of a strange combination of a political story and details of my life as a young boy. I wanted to juxtapose details of the way people lived in that decade with the yearning among the American right wing to go back to that time and place. But going back is not an option, as everything has changed. Three quotations come to mind: 

“You can’t go home again”  Thomas Wolfe

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”  James Sherman

“You can’t always get what you want”  The Rolling Stones

Times change, and no amount of play acting and indoctrination in a living history experience is going to change that.

The photographs below are ones that my Dad took in the 1950s, or perhaps stretching a couple years into the 1960s. My Dad had served in the South Pacific during World War II; when he returned he married the girl next door, whom he had grown up with, in 1948. I was born in 1950, with my brothers following in 1952 and 1957. It was a happy family. My parents bought a home in Detroit before I was born, and I remember playing outdoors in that neighborhood until 1955, when they moved out of Detroit to the suburbs. I lived a life similar to that of the New Bethlehem community, but lived it in real time instead of as an aspirational memory. My parents lived long lives and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

By the way, I grew up with all these toys, all these movies, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, saying prayers in elementary school, playing kickball, and all the rest, and I STILL turned out to be a liberal. Let that sink in.

Exploring the stunning formations of WHITE POCKET

Twisting and swirling, the red rock follows the random paths of a wild dream, then skirts a dome of white Navajo Sandstone cracked into nearly perfect polygonal plates, enchanting under a perfect sapphire sky. All of it originated 190 million years ago with a Jurassic sand dune that became saturated with groundwater, then experienced a sudden disruption–perhaps by an earthquake–that suddenly contorted the whole wet jumble while it had been hardening into sandstone. Incredible beauty resulted from this chaos.

Our time is short for exploring before the short period of golden light near sunset, so we walk around quickly to get a feeling for the whole area, which is about a square mile in size. An outfitter got us here and we have about 20 hours from mid-afternoon today to mid-morning the next day to explore and photograph before we have to leave. We are on our own, except that the outfitter provides dinner, a tent, and breakfast the next morning. The reason we came with a touring company is that we don’t have a rugged 4-WD vehicle to get us through the March mud quagmires and deep sand traps along the access roads. A tow out would cost $2,000 and is not covered by AAA. So here we are.

I once worked for the Bureau of Land Management on the Arizona Strip, a part of Arizona between the Grand Canyon and the Utah state line. This is an arid landscape that includes pockets of incredible beauty, such as Paria Canyon, The Wave, and White Pocket. When I was there with BLM in 1977, I was working as a writer and pen-and-ink illustrator for a book of wildflowers (still in print 43 years later!), but White Pocket was virtually unknown at the time, except for some ranchers and probably a handful of government employees. I certainly didn’t know about it and even if I did, my big Chrysler at the time couldn’t have dreamed of getting there. The name White Pocket originated from the desert term “pocket” which referred to a rock depression that can hold water–an important feature for cattle ranching and desert travelers. At that time the world hadn’t yet discovered much of the stunning beauty of red rock country. While at BLM, I heard the geologist for our district remark to my boss that he thought it was better in the desert when it was all considered a wasteland, and environmental regulations didn’t need to be followed. Fortunately, times have changed.

We spend the hours before dark exploring and photographing in great light, then walk back to camp for a meal of barbecued salmon or chicken or steak (another value in contracting with an outfitter!), then we venture back out into the contorted lands for hours of night photography. We return to camp sometime after midnight, then get up at 4 a.m. for dawn photography, so not much sleep. We stay until afternoon, delayed for a couple of hours by a vehicle problem, and we don’t mind the delay in the least, because it gives us more time to explore this place torn from time.

The photographs here give the visual story of White Pocket, which is the most stunning desert location we have visited.

Navajo Sandstone formations of White Pocket
A dome of Navajo Sandstone shaped like cauliflower, cracked into polygons
Layered sandstone formations in White Pocket
Sculptured and striated Navajo Sandstone formations of White Pocket
A polygon of Navajo Sandstone with etchings in the shapes of lichens, the etchings created by acids from the fungal hyphae of the lichens that dissolve rock to obtain nutrients
A closeup view of the lichen etchings, created when living Tile Lichens, Lecidiea tessellata, dissolve rock using acids
Sculptured and striated Navajo Sandstone at White Pocket
Karen Rentz exploring a once-inhabited cave at White Pocket
Ancient corncobs, potsherds, and animal bones left in the cave by early inhabitants at White Pocket, probably over 800 years ago. Remember that it is against the law to remove anything from federal lands!
Bighorn Sheep and Elk or Mule Deer Petroglyphs made by ancient peoples at the cave in White Pocket
Hiker’s shadow crossing sculptured and striated Navajo Sandstone
The golden hour light just before sunset is particularly stunning on these formations
Karen Rentz illuminating a cauliflower rock formation in White Pocket with her headlamp
Starry sky above the Navajo Sandstone formations of White Pocket
We illuminate the rock formations with a headlamp
As the night wore on, the Milky Way above White Pocket is the brightest I’ve ever seen
The next morning, photographers are out before dawn to explore the formations
First light is magical
Sunlight descending upon the Navajo Sandstone formations
Early light on a Pinyon Pine heroically growing in a crack in a sandstone dome
Reflections of Navajo Sandstone on a pond at White Pocket
Swirling and sculpted sandstone formations; this photograph gives a good sense of the whole area
The natural designs of these formations, originating in the Jurassic world, is astounding
There is little evidence of human use here, except for an old cattleman’s barbed wire fence and the damming of the pond to make it larger
The oranges and reds of the sandstone are colored by iron oxide
A stunning chaos of sandstone
All good things must pass, and we must say goodbye as a cirrus cloud appears over a sandstone dome

Rather than give you directions and maps and more cautions, I will refer you to three good websites that cover all that information. Be advised that there have been discussions at the Bureau of Land Management about requiring a permit so the area does not become overused, so make sure you check with them about current rules and regulations (and road conditions) before you attempt traveling to White Pocket.

The American Southwest–White Pocket

BLM: White Pocket Trailhead

Dreamland Safari Tours

My work appears on my photography website: leerentz.com and on my Facebook page: Lee Rentz Photography

MONARCHS IN WINTER

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

As a fifth grade student back in Michigan, now many decades ago, my teacher, Mrs. Triff, took us on a field trip to see migrating Monarchs at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, which sticks down into Lake Erie like an arrowhead. There the migrating Monarchs are stopped in their flight path by the barrier of Lake Erie and concentrate there until the winds are favorable to continue the journey to Mexico’s mountains. The extraordinary experience of seeing so many beautiful creatures in one place never left me, so I jumped on the chance to see them again.

In January of 2020 we traveled to Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach to see the winter gathering of Monarchs. We had read about it for years, but there is nothing like seeing a magnificent gathering in person. These pictures are from the two balmy days we spent along the California Coast.

In Santa Cruz, we got directions to where the Monarchs were gathered, which happened to be next to a large surfing competition for young people (what could be more Californian than a sunny day filled with surfers catching the waves rolling in?). Meanwhile, the 2,500 or so Monarchs were tightly clustered on two individual trees: a Monterey Cypress and a Blue Gum Eucalyptus. In the clusters the Monarchs hung upside down, their wings tightly overlapped and the exposed wings were the undersides, so there were patterns but with the subdued colors more suitable for camouflage. When a Monarch flew into the roosting group, several butterflies had to resettle themselves to accommodate the newcomer, briefly flashing the vivid orange-and-black patterns on the tops of their wings. We found the experience extraordinary, but local old-timers (our age!) who walked or cycled by said that this was NOTHING compared to the butterfly gatherings of their youth, when apparently the California coast was a Woodstock for butterflies. But then Jimi Hendrix died and the world went to hell and all we have left is fond memories of our youth. But I digress …

The butterflies apparently come to the same trees each year, which is extraordinary, since NONE of the butterflies here this year were here last year. When they start their migration, the generation of butterflies heading south and west from all over the western states and western Canada are bigger, stronger, and brighter than the Monarchs of summer gardens. These SuperMonarchs are able to fly up to thousands of miles to those few trees guided by what: Genetic memory maps? Scents left on trees? Scientists don’t agree on the mechanism, although day length and perhaps the drive for food as the north gets colder in the fall are the triggers for starting the migration. For a fascinating discussion of the theories, go to Monarch Butterfly Migration.

After leaving lovely Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, we drove south to another winter Monarch gathering of about the same size in Pismo Beach. Here the Monarchs were gathered on a few eucalyptus branches, with an endless stream of people migrating toward them on the path below, and pausing in a cluster to look up in wonder. Some of the Monarchs were getting in the mood for mating. An aggressive male would force a receptive female to the ground and laboriously try to pick her up. When he did, he would take her on a maiden flight into the treetops where, as the volunteer tour guide explained to the children, “they went for their honeymoon.” Extraordinary!

When spring approaches, the Monarchs begin their northward journey. The fact is, unless their summering grounds are near their wintering grounds, NONE of these individuals will make it. They procreate along the way, leaving eggs to hatch on milkweed plants. Then the hatched caterpillars voraciously feast on the milkweed, gaining nourishment and toxins (to repel predators), followed by the miracle of entering a chrysalis with golden stitches and eventually emerging as butterflies. Then the new butterflies head north, and repeat the whole process several hundred miles on, and so on for three or four summer generations. Then, come fall, the whole cycle repeats as a new SuperMonarch begins the migration south. And my sense of wonder is refreshed.

All photographs in this blog are available for licensing for use in publications or for personal use, and are also available as limited edition prints on fine art papers or metal. Contact lee@leerentz.com for a quotation.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach
People viewing Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA [No model releases; available for editorial licensing only]

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterfly Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus, sipping nectar from Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, flower at its winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterfly Courtship at Pismo Beach
Pair of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, engaging in courtship at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, later, the male picked up and flew away with the female, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Sign Explaining Monarch Butterfly Migration along California Coa
Interpretive sign explaining the migration of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

 

 

OUR FIRST VISITS TO POINT OF ARCHES: Looking Back to the Winter of 1991

There are places where experiences are so profound that they draw you back time after time. Olympic National Park’s Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches is such a place for me. The words in this story are from our 1991 field notes of our first visits to this transcendent place, illustrated with new and old photographs presented in a nostalgic style.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Hikers and Point of Arches rocks at sunset, viewed from Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park

January 18-21, 1991

With a weather report of sunny weather for Western Washington through the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we made a quick decision on Thursday to leave Friday for a three-day backpacking trip along the coast at Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches. Little did we know it would be the most spectacular weekend trip of our lives.

We drove to Kalaloch on the Washington coast Friday night and camped in the Olympic National Park campground along the shore. Clear skies, with intense starlight, were followed by a heavy frost the next morning.

Arising early, we drove to Neah Bay and the Makah Indian Reservation. The road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay hugs the twists and turns of the coast. Along this stretch of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we observed four immature Bald Eagles perched in the trees between the road and the water. Additionally, a male and female Harlequin Duck perched together on a small emergent rock. We also observed loons and scoters offshore, as well as Double-Crested Cormorants.

Neah Bay, the heart of the Makah Reservation, is like a small town on the Newfoundland coast, with scattered houses strung along the shore, a small fishing fleet, and no pretense of being a tourist town. These Indians had a centuries-old tradition of whaling from open canoes.

Hiking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz hiking on Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park

We followed a convoluted route to the trailhead, through town and along some potholed roads. Along Waatch Creek, we came upon wintering Trumpeter Swans. The brilliant white swans made a wonderful sight as they swam across the peaceful river surface, which reflected the pale blue of the winter sky. Their resonant trumpeting provided a sound track for the experience.

The two-mile hike to Shi Shi Beach was a muddy challenge [much improved in recent years], but the sounds of the roaring surf urged us on.

At our first ocean overlook, we watched waves crashing through the offshore sea stacks. As we started eating lunch, we noticed two mature Bald Eagles majestically perched together atop a high sea stack. Looking through binoculars at the ocean’s expanse, while enjoying a trail lunch of summer sausage and Wheat Thins, I spotted the spouts of three Gray Whales offshore; these were unmistakable columns of mist going straight up from the ocean.

Driftwood Logs on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Driftwood logs deposited during fierce winter storms on Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean

As we shared a chocolate bar, Karen noticed that a “log” rocking on the waves was, in reality, a Sea Otter. Floating on its back, it was holding a Sea Urchin up to its mouth with its front paws. The back paws were stuck up in the air. The otter floated like a cork over crests and troughs of the waves–except when a giant wave toppled toward it–then it would plunge into the wave and emerge on the other side.

Hoisting our packs, we continued down the trail and in a few minutes descended to the beach. We were surprised to see a young man running along the beach and through the surf in shorts, sans top, and barefoot; his girlfriend sat in the sand and watched and shivered at the thought of it.

We decided to set up camp near the Olympic National Park boundary, at a place where a Raccoon-proof cable was strung between two trees [currently ALL overnight visitors are required to bring bear-proof canisters].

Then we hiked north along the beach we had examined from above. From the shells on the shore, it was evident that there were extensive California Mussel beds offshore. We also saw a few Razor Clam and Butter Clam shells; opened and empty, but (like the mussels) the hinges still held the two shell halves together and flexible. A Common Loon dove just offshore, as did a Surf Scoter; we saw the Sea Otter’s head poke up a few times as well. An occasional Bald Eagle sailed overhead.

Ripples in Sand on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Sandy shore ripples of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Karen went around the next small point to the north and saw parts of an old shipwreck. Two large rusted hulks were on the beach, one large section out near a sea stack with a “gun turret” point projecting, and other pieces of metal scattered through the bay. Karen continued north to the beginnings of a cave being formed, and then further to a deeper cave which was still inaccessible because the tide was not low enough. The sun was setting though, so it was time to head back to camp.

When we returned to camp, we discovered that a Raccoon had unzipped Karen’s pack and investigated all its contents. We knew immediately that the culprit had been a Raccoon (and not a person), since Karen’s driver’s license and credit cards lay prominently on top of the pile spread across the ground–the Raccoon apparently didn’t have much use for Master Card. It had chewed up part of a roll of toilet paper, but otherwise no damage was done, since the food was strung safely up on the wire.

We crawled into our sleeping bags at 8:30 pm, and fell asleep shortly after. At midnight, we awoke to the sound of packs being rifled. Lee checked with a flashlight and caught the eye shine of two Raccoons. He crawled and chased them off. Undaunted, they returned a few minutes later, so Lee crawled out again and escalated the conflict by tossing sticks and stones at the creatures. This worked for a time, but they were back again a couple of hours later. This time Lee was running around barefoot in his underwear yelling and throwing stones at the guerrillas.

Lee awoke to the screeching and snarling sounds of a Raccoon squabble a little while later, but soon the action quieted down and the rest of the night was peaceful.

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Waking up groggy and grumpy the next morning, Lee had a hard time getting started–as might be expected. After hot instant coffee and cold granola with powdered milk, we started down the beach in the cold gray of dawn. Again, there was frost whitening all the drift logs and grasses on the beach. The sand above the high tide line was frozen.

Shortly we came upon a dead seal washed up during the night’s high tide. The 5-foot long seal appeared freshly dead; one eye had been pecked out by crows or gulls.

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with a tide pool along Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Far down the beach we spotted a live Harbor Seal wiggling its way from the high tide line toward the sea. Obviously uncomfortable on land, it moved vigorously with ripples of fat rolling like ocean waves down its body. It would rest briefly, then struggle on. It finally reached the water and prayed for a big wave to carry it off–one of which arrived several waves later. We examined the tracks, which showed the lines where flippers made their marks, perhaps 2 feet apart. One flipper consistently dug in deeper than the other–perhaps indicating an injury that would have made movement more difficult.

The beach was relatively free of human detritus, though there were the usual fishing net floats, lengths of bright polypropylene rope, and tattered net fragments. At the highest wave line, there was a sprinkling of tiny bits of brightly colored plastic–which looked like plastic confetti. This was the first time we’ve seen such plastic bits. The larger pieces break into small pieces from the incessant pounding of the Pacific.

Wet Sand and Rocks at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic Natio
Wet sand and rocks on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Never still (even on perfectly calm days under an intense high pressure zone like these days) the Pacific shore here always has the hearty roar of the surf as kind of a white noise in the background. Lee remembered talking with Dad on the phone, when he mentioned being at Kalaloch during the 1970s, and turning the car so its headlights struck the ocean, and being astounded and (if I may read something into this midwesterner’s memories) a bit intimidated by the churning, pounding, roaring surf that never ends. His memories of the violent Pacific were vivid, having stood watch in a crow’s nest atop a WWII destroyer during a big storm at sea.

As we stood among the sea stacks, on rocks exposed by low tide, we were awed by the pulsing power of the surf as it crashed into the monoliths and surged into the bays. The rocks absorbed the power and broke up the waves, thank goodness. Note that the big waves came in surges of a half dozen or more high peaks, followed by a period of relative calm. Reading Ricketts and Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides, the authors say that being within 20 vertical feet of the ocean is actually risking one’s life; clearly we need to be prepared for these big wave surges.

Man Walking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Man walking in the morning sea spray mist on Shi Shi Beach

As we sat down for lunch, Lee saw a falcon hunched on the beach just above the wave line. It remained for a minute or so, then took off with powerful wing beats and flew past us along the beach. It was a Peregrine Falcon, the Pacific Northwest dark phase of the bird.

We spent the late afternoon on the exposed rocks, watching the scene and photographing the sunset colors playing among the sea stacks.

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Sunset behind sea stacks at Point of Arches

We waited until dark to start back toward camp, and enjoyed an enchanting 1-1/2 mile walk along the beach by the bright light of a winter moon. The dance of moonlight on waves, the sound of surf, the call of a distant foghorn, the rhythmic ray of the Tatoosh Island lighthouse, and the Milky Way and stars shining intensely overhead all made for a memorable night walk on the hard-packed sand at low tide.

Another dread night of the living Raccoons lay ahead. This time they attacked even before we got in the tent; but Lee savagely counter attacked with driftwood missiles. After a couple of half hearted sorties around the tent, the Raccoons retreated, granting us peace the rest of the night.

Morning dawned with a light mist over land and sea, and we headed down the beach again.

When we got to Point of Arches, we scrambled out on the exposed rocks. Karen discovered that there were indeed a great many starfish, despite the initial feeling that few were there. A few bright orange individuals stood out from their hiding places because of their brilliant color, but most of the sea stars were camouflaged by their subtle red-purple coloration, which perfectly matched the shade of the red algae covering their hiding place. Scores of them were tucked under ledges in shallow pools.

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star at Point of Arches

Another sea star was astounding! With 22 legs and an 18″ legspan, the reddish-purple Sunflower Star moved rapidly (for a sea star) over the rocks as it hunted. It had an orange central (or almost central) spot on the top side of the body.

Karen also noted the abundance of Hermit Crabs: when we walked up to a tidepool it would be alive with movement for a moment, but then everything would freeze and the pool would appear lifeless. In reality, nearly all the shells were inhabited. Karen saw two hermit crabs fighting over a rock overhang. Neither were inside shells, but one of them had two small shells on its smaller claws–like boxing gloves–and it really looked funny.

Two Black Oystercatchers perched on a nearby rock, one facing one way, one the other. They often stayed on rocks that the incoming tide surged over, perhaps finding these conditions ideal for feeding.

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatchers gathering at Willoughby Creek on Shi Shi Beach

We then wandered south along the beach while the tide was still low, exploring sea caves and arches along the way. A mature Bald Eagle patrolled the beach overhead. On the next point there were vast, flat exposed tidal areas.

The highlight here was seeing two male Harlequin Ducks in exquisite low-angle sunlight. They were perched on a rock in the middle of a tide pool, both facing the same direction. Lee grabbed some quick pictures, but scared them into the ocean, where they were joined by another male and two females. These birds float over the crashing surf with ease, ducking under a cresting wave when need be.

We decided that there are up to three hours on each side of the low tide mark when it is safe to round the Point of Arches. Next time we want to spend more time exploring the next point south, which has many arches; we walked through one.

in Olympic National Park
Lee’s sandy and wet bare feet on Shi Shi Beach

There were Deer and Raccoon tacks on the sand, and people occasionally see Black Bears and Cougars on the beach. There were a few exuberant people sharing the beach these couple of days, and I think everyone felt that it was a special time to explore this most wild and glorious of places.

We found a size 3-1/2 women’s Nike tennis shoe with Gooseneck Barnacles inside. Further down the beach, Karen found the mate to the shoe, also with barnacles inside. There was ship that lost a container of Nike shoes off the coast, and they show up occasionally.

The trail guidebook says the total round trip to Point of Arches and back is 7 miles. There were quite a few campsites along Shi Shi Beach, even fairly close to Point of Arches, and water was plentiful. At a dry time of year there would always still be water available at a stream 2/3 of the way toward Point of Arches. Even though it was sunny, it was relatively cold. Saturday Karen wore jeans, but Sunday and Monday it was wool pants, long underwear, and wearing almost all of the layers we brought. In the shade the heavy frost never melted on Sunday and Monday. With our winter-weight sleeping bags we stayed cozy and warm at night.

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star with arms around an anemone at Point of Arches

Lee ran out of film on this trip; he said it will never happen again.

We hiked back to the car, feeling ecstatic about the wildlife and wondrous landscape we had experienced.

February 15-18, 1991

We camped at Kalaloch campground on Friday night, then left at about 8am and headed for Neah Bay. We saw 20 Bald Eagles on the winding road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay. A River Otter was sprawled atop a low rock on its stomach, eating a sea urchin or sea star. On a tall rock just 5 feet away, an immature eagle was glaring down at the otter. When the otter finished eating it slid into the water and disappeared.

On a rock surrounded by waves we observed Surfbirds for the first time, with Black Turnstones among them. There were lots of cormorants, with their wings spread to dry them; there were also a male and a female Harlequin Duck swimming at the edge of the water.

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch at Point of Arches

We watched a raft of about 200 Bufflehead, mixed males and females, just offshore. The raft moved here and there randomly. Individuals within the group would dive and then “pop” up, but there were no group dives. Also in the surf we observed Common Loons, and White-winged and Surf Scoters.

Along the trail to Shi Shi Beach we took a side trail down to a sandy cove located just beyond the first projecting headland. We observed ten Black Oystercatchers together on one rock, with cormorants drying their wings on the top of the rock and oystercatchers below. It was a beautiful small beach, very secluded. A couple of campsites, but on the Makah Reservation. From the beach we spotted our first group of Sea Otters, rafted together. From that vantage point there appeared to be 6 or 7 Sea Otters [Note that this route has since been closed to hikers, and there is now no trespassing allowed].

Northern Kelp Crab at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Northern Kelp Crab in a tide pool with a lot of hermit crabs at Point of Arches

We took the next side trail, which led to an old concrete military bunker overlooking the ocean towards the south. From high above the secluded cove we had just visited, we watched nine Sea Otters below us. Five of them were rafted together, floating on their backs, with their back feet sticking straight up. Two of them were diving, going after Sea Urchins in the kelp beds. We watched one come up with an urchin, eating it while using its stomach as a dinner plate. The urchin was purplish-red in color, with numerous delicate spines; when it was broken open, the interior was brilliant orange. A Western Gull watched the Sea Otter eat the urchin, hoping for scraps.

The Sea Otters were extremely sociable, with one gray-faced adult swimming around, coming up beneath the others and touching them; a behavior that we also noted with one darker individual. When they were rafted together they were often touching. We watched a mother with its baby, which was probably one-third the length of the mother. The baby often floated beside the mother, in the area next to the mother’s head. A couple of times the young otter climbed on top of the mother’s stomach and rested there for some time.

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Underwater view of Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches

We saw a seal off of Shi Shi Beach. After hiking 2/3 of the length of the beach, almost to the stream that flows into the ocean, we set up camp in a nice exposed location overlooking the whole beach. The next morning we awoke at 5:30am. Hit the snooze alarm three times, had granola and coffee, then set off down the beach just before sunrise. It rained off and on lightly all day. There were lots of people, including a Boy Scout troop from Tacoma, whose leader said they usually take the boys to the mountains, but can’t at this time of year. Although last month they had snow camped.

As Lee photographed a couple in bright red jackets sitting on a rock in front of the sea stacks, we talked to them briefly. They seemed so sad; this was their last trip to Point of Arches before moving to Iowa the next week for a job opportunity.

We observed River Otter tracks on the beach; one time the otter tracks appeared on a beach that we had walked a few hours before; they hadn’t been there earlier. We saw two Raccoons running around the point ahead of us, then later saw another running along the base of a sea stack toward the ocean. We observed an eagle on the beach eating a fish or other prey. Half a dozen crows gathered around and two other eagles sailed overhead, while the eagle tried to eat its meal in peace. One crow even went so far as to try to sneak up from behind and snatch the prey from between the eagle’s legs. That was the last straw, and the eagle flew up to a tree with its meal clutched in its talons. We watched it tearing off pieces flesh and eating them.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset viewed from Shi Shi Beach

We also watched as a male Peregrine Falcon zoomed up and down the beach, then landed in a tree perhaps 150 feet away from us and 60 feet above the ground. This is the same area along the beach where Lee observed a Peregrine Falcon in January. It was the best view we had ever had of this falcon; we could see the barring across its chest and its distinctive head patterns.

We watched a raft of 4 or 5 Sea Otters in the bay just south of Point of Arches. These were in rougher water than those we had observed on Saturday.

That night we had a sliver of moon overhead, and could see the Big Dipper, North Star, lights of crab boats working far offshore, campfires down the beach, and the light from the Tatoosh Island Lighthouse.

We awoke early again the next morning and headed down the beach. The day was gray, with leaden clouds and a more persistent rain than we had had the day before; but we still enjoyed periods without rain. We hiked to Point of Arches and arrived at low tide; it was a lower tide than we had seen before at Point of Arches.

Emarginate Dogwinkle at Point of Arches n Olympic National Park
Striped Dogwinkle with barnacles on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Then we decided to hike on to the second point, arriving as the tide was coming in. We knew we didn’t have much time, but were fascinated by all of the arches we found; many of them multiple, complicated arches. At the furthest point we scared up a large group of Black Turnstones. They have a beautiful, bold, black and white pattern when they fly, but when they land their camouflage allows them to blend into the rock. We saw hundreds of Ochre Sea Stars (which are actually in vivid shades of orange, ochre, and purple) clinging to the rocks as the waves crashed.

Yes, the waves were crashing and we knew we couldn’t stay long, though it was an exciting spot. We saw a few groups of barnacles and then Lee discovered a Blood Star, small and bright red. Karen convinced him to photograph it, even though it was so dark and he had trouble focusing.

Blood Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Blood Star at Point of Arches

When we packed up to head back we discovered that we had dallied too long, the tide had risen and cut off our return to the beach. It seemed that the tide was rising very fast, so we waded through a thigh-deep channel; getting our boots full of water and our pant legs wet. Walking on the kelp-covered (i.e. slippery) rocks is a challenge with heavy packs, demanding a good sense of balance and careful attention to the placement of each foot.

We continued to be fascinated by the tide pools, which seem alive with hermit crabs scurrying around everywhere in all sizes and shapes of shells. Where are shells with their owners to be found? There are all sorts of kelp too, as well as anemones, mussels, and barnacles.

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

We hiked back, stopping for lunch at the campsite closest to Point of Arches. This campsite had a large (6′ long) wood sculpture (totem) of a bear or beaver [and is no longer there after the ensuing decades]. Under the trees we were protected from the rain and ate brownies that Lee had baked.

Back at camp we changed into dry socks and Karen put dry pants on; making the hike out a little more comfortable. The hike out was in a steady rain and the route back to the car was long and muddy. Lee discovered that singing helped to shorten the distance and lighten his mood. We were glad to reach the car, though.

We are so thankful for this seaside wilderness!

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Shafts of morning sunlight penetrate a wave-cut natural arch along the Pacific Ocean at Point of Arches

If you wish to hike to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in 2018 or beyond, you will need to check out the current regulations and permits needed. Here are some links to get you started with obtaining the necessary permits:

Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.

Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.

Parking Permit Bring cash of $10 per day as of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.

In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.

This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!