Saturday, June 15, 2019

A River Runs Through it

All adventures have a flavor to them.  Some are spicy and some are more like vanilla.  My last adventure, reported here,  is difficult to pin down as to exactly what that flavor is.  This trip is like the spice "grains of paradise" or also called alligator pepper, you taste it and have no clue what the pungent peppery flavor mixed in with citrus is from, you just know it is good, maybe great, definitely exotic, and all you know is that you want more, but you also know, it will be difficult to find it again.  So that is as best as I can get in giving you an impression of what I did the last 10 days.
          They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, or at least it should and unfortunately, a lot of what happened on this trip I cannot share, and yes, we also went to Vegas.  Even with releases signed, and on this blog, my blog, I have standards.  It isn't like I or we broke any laws, violated any religious standards...well just setting foot in Vegas might violate that, nor did we even risk the ire of the police but I guess you are just going to have to read the book and I think, now, there will be one.   I've done a lot this year, and have a lot left to do.  No one will read it but that is okay, my kids need a diary of the year that is 2019.  On my newspaper column, I can say even less, I'm not even sure what i can say.  Maybe "we rafted the Grand Canyon as a river runs through it."
          In 2013, my year-long adventure culminated on Attu Island.  This year, it is hard to identify the exact pinnacle of the year that will be 2019.  Was it Africa?  Was it South America?  Was it Tristan?  Was it the big cruise I took in January?  Maybe it will be France, or Galapagos, or possibly Costa Rica?  What I just did this was not even on my bucket-list, it was on my wife’s as it was she that had planned this trip, but that was okay, it was still a great trip.  Yet even this float trip down the Grand Canyon was not her first, yet this one was better, much better, and I think for both of us, the best trip of 2019 will be this one.
            I posted on Facebook this picture, saying:

A view that would overwhelm a painter.  Stephen Greenfield replied, “Photography can't do it justice either. More than any place I've seen, the Grand Canyon requires 3D, to appreciate the immensity of the space.”
            After a few years of waiting on a list to even get the opportunity to go on this special once in a lifetime, trip, we were able to get on with this very special expedition of the Colorado River  organized by Beverly Price of Phoenix.  It would be her 11th organized trip and her probably last such adventure, she is retiring and so, unless someone takes up the mantle of organizing this, this near annual event may end.  It was a trip those other rafter also down on the river last week on other trips that ran into us will be talking about for years maybe more so than their own trip and it wasn't to see Olaf.  
              It should also be noted that 2019 is the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the Grand Canyon National Park, a park the US government has tried repeatedly to destroy by placing dams as recently as a few decades ago and as recently as last year, someone tried to convince the Navajo Nation to allow a cable car and restaurant to be built at the mouth of the Little Colorado River which would be almost as toxic as the building of the Glen Canyon Dam.  This trip was to both celebrate the 100 years of the park and Bev’s ideals of what you should wear or not wear on a rafting adventure,  and it was this that made the trip extra special.  For my efforts, I earned a cute t-shirt, made new friends, and and fell in love with a place I had only seen from the top.  We also tested sunscreen, and it was really good sunscreen.  Later, we made a pilot laugh flying in, and got cheers from passing rafts all in a sense of wonderment, and some from Australia, I think were envious, but then again those from "down under" are more open minded.
            The trip started in Vegas and it ended in Vegas.  It was a gamble of a different type.  I have never been to Las Vegas before one of just three major US cities I've never been to, New York, Jacksonville FL, and Vegas.  I can't say that any more, I'm down to 2.  We met the group and got organized.  Silja and I took in two shows of Cirque du Soleil.  One featured very skimpy clothing while they spun around, and the other, well, the other, they had even less on, what is less than "skimpy"?  This would set the tone for the trip.
            I took Leroy the penguin to see Hoover Dam, I can't show you the picture later from Arizona.

He tried to fly off but I caught him for his Nevada picture and then, we later flew to Marble Canyon over the Grand Canyon to stay at Cliff Dwellers.  Silja had a three-bagger flight, three special bags to remember the flight that came close to the Vermilion Cliffs, my wife never saw them as she had her head in a bag, yea ...that bag.  Would it be an Omen?  It would turn out to be the worse thing that happened to us.
            We met the rest of the expedition at the motel in the desert, mostly couples from all over North America.   Expert river runner and paddler Dave Kashinski led this special Hatch trip as head boatman, a man who has been down the Colorado in a small boat more than anyone has or will be. Dave liked one liners calling the Colorado River “a river too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” He was also featured on the reenactment movie of the 1869 John Wesley Powell’s mapping voyage down the river. 
Our other boatman was Erik Deitemeyer, a quiet guy that plays guitar, and also leads the ski patrol in the winter in Wolf Creek Pass, CO.  He was another hand-picked expert to lead our river run of 188 miles down the bottom of the canyon.  Our swamper was Thad Avery a young man from Flagstaff not even 19, who has been running the river since being fifteen.  He was an amazing guy that had lost his father at aged 12, a famous Neurosurgeon to a freak fall on a rock, yet is one of the most well-adjusted Millennials I have met.  He was a gamer , and by half way through was as much a member of the group as anybody and fit in with the crowd.  He gave me hope for the future.  So along with them, the 32 of us left Lee's Ferry and rafted the river for 8 incredible days last week.
Ron, our photojournalist who drove down from Page and took photos of the start of the trip and from Navajo Bridge.  He gave me a t-shirt, "Raft Naked" I stashed it in the bottom of my boat bag because if one wore the t-shirt....

            Now mind you this was not a trip for everyone as you might guess, but for different reasons.  In fact, floating this part of the Colorado is not for the meek.  There are serious rapids, and just following the Park rules makes for quite a hardship for some.  Bodily functions seem to freak people out.  Dave even told stories about it.  You cannot be shy about the body on these trips.  First, urination is only in the river., men and women, if you go on the sand, it smells like a cat box soon enough.  "The solution for pollution is dilution."  A least that is what Dave said.   Special toilets are set up at the edges of camp for other bodily waste that are quite open, only this last one had any cover at all.  

Toilets with a view, and sometimes like this one directly next to or below my cot.  Showers or baths are in the cold river, and it is unbearably hot outside, peaking at 107 the last day.  Luckily we did not have any freak storms which are historically ferocious.  We slept under the stars,  with camp sites separated by rocks, a few ants or less, but at least off the ground on a cot and generally were in the sight of everyone and everything but the 13 women, 16 men, and three guides on this trip were not shy, in fact, we were the opposite of shy.  Honestly, I’m not sure how the other groups do it.   Like I said, we were testing sunscreen and well, it worked well, 8 days in hot sun on a river with nothing between me and the sun but just this sunscreen and I have a nice light tan, and no burns, nothing even red.
            The trip details, we had two rafts built out of surplus army bridging supplies, and we went 187.4 miles. The canyon was literally overwhelming both in scope and terrain.  The group really meshed and was the most together group I've ever been with on an adventure.  In some respects, we had to be, but everyone noticed this and that was the real highlight of the trip.  The couples were all cool, adjusted and calm, there was no fights, no nothing but pure enjoyment of the outdoors and we worked as a team to get the gear moved and made sure no one got left behind.  
            Sadly after it all, the food, the rapids, the hikes, the laughs, the hugs, the "duffel lines" to move gear, we dressed the final morning at dawn and waited for a helicopter to take us to Bar Ten Ranch

We then boarded three planes from the ranch to take us back to Boulder City and then home

Certainly other people took better photos, and not having the releases myself, I am careful of what views of people to include on these but the views are stunning.  Someday I'll get the official trip pictures and I may share some of them, and again, you might have to read the book to get the full story.

It was no panacea but I saw 18 year birds, the best of course were the condors, but seeing Lucy's warblers were fun

California Condors #9 and #54 at Navajo Bridge, we saw a third later on, then none

Black-chinned hummingbird

Clark's Grebe

Least Bittern in Henderson NV

Lucy's warblers dominated the lower canyon

There is nothing like a Yellow-breasted chat

Common Raven

Common Buckeye

Dainty Sulphur
Pipevine swallowtail (a poisonous butterfly)

Marine Blue
Orange skipperling
Reakirt's Blue

Variegated Frittilary  
Checkered skipper, cannot tell species without sending a specimen to a lab to ID
Desert Spiny Lizard

Western whiptail
Desert Bighorn sheep

I also had a mouse in my shoe, that was unphotographed

So that is it, a crazy and fulfilling trip, tiring and exhilarating.  We got some sun, some birds, and we got wet, very wet.  It was something we will always remember.  It was the seeds of paradise, a flavor and a trip for the ages that I hope, hope others get to go on at least do the regular river rafting adventure.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Buying the Farm (or in my case, the Ranch).

Comedian Joan Rivers once quipped, I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, "Get the hell off my property."  Nothing is comparable to owning your property.  I’m also reminded of John Wayne in Chisum at both the beginning and end of the movie sitting on his horse up on a hill watching over his land, and knowing that everything he is seeing is his. 
            Unless your names are Ted Turner or John Malone (the two largest private landowners in the United States) very few people will ever own enough land to do what John Chisum was portrayed as doing in the movie bearing his last name, but it is a nice dream.  It is said that one should always dream, and I guess, dream big.
            The other day while I was driving around birding seeing migrants arrive into northeast South Dakota for the very first time in 2019, I came across an auction sign not far from Summit.  I was on a road I almost always bird every year.  I tallied my year upland plover sitting on a fence post nearby and then I saw more signs.  It was a huge tract that was at auction and not only that, it was property I knew well for just last summer I hiked on a corner of the property as well as on the adjoining tract of National Wildlife Refuge.  I was not looking for birds but looking for many threatened butterfly species as well as two rare endangered butterflies, the Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling.  This latter butterfly has not been conclusively seen around these parts in over a decade, it is only believed a small population in the prairies of southern Wisconsin have kept the butterfly from being extinct.  In South Dakota, the last one identified on another parcel of the Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, nearer to my cabin.
            What I experienced in 2018 on this parcel of virgin grassland was a cornucopia of butterflies. I saw many species of skipper, fritillaries, and other varieties of the colorful insects, most of which I didn’t knew existed before I found them and looked them up.  
Regal Frittillary

My wife also found a dead Dakota skipper and I photographed another butterfly that made me suspicious for the elusive skipperling.  The photo was inconclusive for identification by experts, however, and probably it was something else but it gave me hope, hope one could still be there, just waiting to be found.
            So there I sat, on the edge of the old Meridian Highway, the name of a route envisioned in 1911 to run from Winnipeg south first to Galveston and later to Laredo.   This was the first north to south route in the middle the United and this was long before large parts were decommissioned after the Interstate system was built and US-81 was moved to I-29 in these parts of South Dakota.  It could be mind boggling to think of how much commerce drove past where I stood.  Now I could lay down in the middle of the road and it could take an hour before anyone would hit me.  It wasn’t the bygone era of travel that I wanted to save, it was the butterflies and I began to think.  Someone needs to buy this property.  If not me, then who?
Olaf had only a Forster's tern to share the view on ranch property on the old Meridian Highway
Black tern

Savannah Sparrow
              I was sure my wife would talk some sense into me but, shockingly, that was not the case.  So, I thought about it.  I talked to people who knew more about land than I did but none of them, not a one, talked me out of it.  So, on the morning of the auction, divided up into three parcels, I woke up at four in the morning to worry about how much I should bid six hours later.
I went birding to think.  I spotted a magnolia warbler and got a really nice photograph.

I thought about butterflies and my legacy.  I thought of quotes from people who knew about the legacy of land than I did.  I even thought about Joan Rivers of all people and the quote above.
I harkened back in thought to those that formed me and my thinking.  I wondered.  What would Edward Abbey say?  In Journey Home he wrote on the appreciation of wilderness “loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see.”  But the land I was looking at was just native prairie, it was not wilderness and Abbey was a creature of the desert. 
I thought about Ted Turner, who still owns more prairie and ranch land than anyone save the US government.  Ted no longer owns the Atlanta Braves, CNN, nor is married to Jane Fonda and is not as rich as he used to be mostly as he gave a billion dollars to the United Nations, but Ted Turner is still buying land.  He wants to own 2 million acres when he dies.  He is 40,000 acres short.  What would Ted Turner say?  He’d say, if you like the view, buy the view.  I guess I like the butterflies so I must buy the butterfly habitat, otherwise someone would destroy it.
I came home and moped and talked to my wife.  She was more willing to bid higher than I was, so I set my price, which would basically be what it took, and then the auction started in earnest.  I watched and then, nearing the end, I bid on the smaller of the two largest parcels, the one nearest the wildlife refuge tract.  I avoided the other, but as the end neared, someone would up the bid on my parcel by a thousand dollars, resetting the clock at four minutes to end.  As I had a large reserve bid, there was little danger of them ever hitting my theoretically highest bid, and at that, I would go higher.  The problem was, this bidder was costing me money and it was making me angry.  He (or she) had the highest bid on the larger parcel, and it wasn’t moving.  So finally, angry that I couldn’t just claim victory and go out and bird, I jumped his bid a thousand.  I was now the high bidder.  With thirty seconds left, he both over bid that by a thousand and jumped mine up five thousand dollars.  Which, again, just cost me some money, and then just as it was going to close, he raised it again by a thousand, resetting the clock. 
Really angry now, as this was the seventh time he’d raised my bid without ever getting near my reserve price, I looked at his higher bid on the big parcel.  I upped him three thousand, and then waited for the four minutes to run past, and he never bid again. Greed had cost him (her), I was willing to share, but no, he had to have it all.   I had won, but all I felt was nervousness.  I get no joy from purchasing anything.  My grandparents had filled me with buyer’s remorse on anything.  Had I done the correct thing?
I was now the owner of two tracts of land joined at the center by a section line.  Combined, I could walk over two miles without ever setting foot on another’s property.  To be honest, it was a bit overwhelming.  The former owner prior to it being taken over by the creditor had filed bankruptcy just before the auction.  Assuming that process didn’t cause some interference, I was now the owner of a ranch.  In relation to Ted Turner, I was just a small landowner but to me and to most people, this was no small matter.  Now I just have to wait until closing and then…figure out what I’m doing with it.  I need to learn about how much grazing is enough.  Who would be a good renter and what would I need to do to promote the colorful residents of the sections of prairie that I now am the stewards of?   I now have more questions than answers.
I don’t expect to get many paying butterfly enthusiasts out there just as don’t expect to see many birders.  This will be a quiet victory as none of the insects or the birds will tell me thanks.  No one will pat me on the back but maybe myself.  I assume this will be a ranch-sized headache but at least it isn’t a house in the hurricane-prone areas. 
I may not be the most handsome or have Ted Turner’s money, but I always say to my wife, “at least I keep it interesting.”  I could be the most interesting man in the world, or so some say.  I name all years, as they all have themes.  Most of them are good, and all have stories attached, sometimes, many stories.  2016 was the year of the big year, and 2017 was the year of the hurricane.  Last year, was the year of the butterfly, and 2019 it appears will be the year of the ranch.  What could happen and what I could find, only God could guess.  All I know is, I have some exploring to do on soon to be, my land.  I have fences to walk and I think I will own something like 22 miles of fence.  I also have lists to make and pictures to take.  It is going to be a busy summer.

A River Runs Through it

All adventures have a flavor to them.  Some are spicy and some are more like vanilla.  My last adventure, reported here,  is difficult t...