Posts Tagged ‘nature’

I meant to post this immediately after my Denali posts, but forgot. Life kinda gets in the way of blogging, ya know? Anyway, Grizzly Man is a film, by noted director Werner Herzog, about Timothy Treadwell, a surfer-turned-actor-turned-grizzly activist who decided to spend several summers living amongst bears in Alaska, to “bring awareness to their plight”.

Grizzly Man

This recommendation dovetails not only into Denali, but also into my Chiricahua post. That post was about man’s stupidity (specifically my own stupidity) in the face of nature. That post and this film tell a valuable story: nature is not to be trifled with. It doesn’t care who you are, or what you do, or how “in tune” you think you are with it: when nature needs you to be food, you will become food, regardless of how high-minded you think you are or how many trees you hug.

So here’s the spoiler: Treadwell eventually gets eaten. Well, it’s not that big of a spoiler really, it’s pretty much said right up front this story is a tragedy. What makes this film so compelling is you see what’s coming, the ending is so patently obvious, yet Treadwell plods right along to that ending, making bad decision after bad decision, all leading up to a certain, gruesome fate. I won’t spoil it any more, it does have to be seen to be believed.

Some watch Grizzly Man and feel sadness for a poor, kindhearted soul who only wanted to do the best for the poor bears and paid the ultimate price. I see this as the story of an egotistical idiot who, like Steve Irwin, though nature was his playground, mealticket, and the means to inflate his own arrogant self-worth. In his case, like Irwin’s, nature turned its mighty claw and gave him a swipe.

Just to remind him, and us, who’s boss, I suppose.

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Autumn in Denali

Autumn is the best time to visit Alaska and especially Denali. Of course, being far north, Alaskan autumn starts in the last week of August, so plan accordingly. But it’s a great time to see the Last Frontier.

Valley and Pond © 2009 America in Context

The first thing about Alaskan autumn is it does get chilly, so dress accordingly. And that’s awesome for tourists. See, I’m a firm believer that our National Park sites should be experienced. This means getting off your dead ass and getting into the park. Hike a trail, paddle a river, climb a mountain, dive into the ocean. Do something, anything, whatever is appropriate to the park, but also do it out there, in the wild.* And in the Alaska parks, where it’s winter 7 or 8 months out of the year, the least you can do is experience it in the colder weather. How can you possibly experience Alaska without layers of clothing and a bit of a chill? Summer travel is for wussies. You can get better deals at the end of the season anyway :-P.

* Note: when I say “go into the wild”, I don’t mean drop all your worldly possessions and live in the wilderness. All I’m saying is get away from the visitor center and out of your car and walk a trail. The wonder of these places can’t be seen from a roadside overlook. And safety first: travel in a group, carry the right equipment, don’t overextend your abilities, etc., etc., etc.


Purple © 2009 America in ContextIf you haven’t been to Alaska’s interior before, let me give you a primer. In Denali, there aren’t as many pine forests as you might think. The nature of the tundra doesn’t lend itself to big trees. But there is fall color out there. There are great swaths of birch and other low trees & shrubs, which do turn gold and red. The real autumn glory rests right on the ground, a low carpet of moss, grasses and other tundra-loving plants native only to this particular latitude and altitude. This is where the beauty of the Alaskan autumn comes from: a cavalcade of color coating all the hills, vales, and even some of the glaciers, a carpet you can walk on and, if you’re wearing the proper waterproof gear, sit on for lunch. This is the foliage of interior Alaska: a kaleidoscopic carpet covering the scenery, and if you walk out in Denali, you’re towering above it all.

Speaking of scenery, well, I shouldn’t have to tell you Alaskan scenery is fantastic. It’s world famous, so unless you’re spending all your days playing Second Life, you should have heard about it. But there’s special coolness in the Alaskan scenery in autumn. Winter comes so quickly to Alaska, you can see the changing season in just a few days. When I arrived at Denali, the lower mountains were bare, but by the time I left, only three days later, these same mountaintops were frosted with snow. It was great, an evident change of seasons. The other thing in play was the sun, moon and stars. The long days of summer are over in late August, there’s more of a balance between day and night, which means, yes, you can see an aurora borealis and thousands of stars in a sky devoid of light pollution during the regular tourist season. True, auroras are rarer that time of the year, but it’s still possible. One occurred when I was there, it was a nice touch.

Pine and Brush © 2009 America in Context

But, by far, the coolest thing about autumn in Alaska is the wildlife. Again, the fauna of Alaska is world-famous, and fall brings it out in droves, and in great glory. I saw lots of bears out on foraging runs, doing last-minute feedings in preparation for long hibernation. I saw ptarmigans turning from summer brown to winter snow-white. I saw packs of wolves stalking caribou, not for hunting (yet), but on training runs with the younger members of the pack. I saw more moose than you can shake a stick at (which would be a bad idea, by the way). I saw one of the most beautiful animals in North America, a northern fox with a gorgeous winter coat. The neatest thing I experienced, though, was a close encounter with caribou.

I took a heli-hiking tour of the tundra region in Denali State Park (you can’t heli-hike in the national park). Basically, they take you up into the higher regions of the area via helicopter, drop you off with a guide and you trek down the mountain for a few miles and radio in for a pickup. It’s incredible! The wide-open spaces, far away from civilization, just you, your companions, and miles and miles of colorful, mountainous, utterly incredible scenery. Our guide was a strapping young guy who clearly loved his job (how can you not, I wonder?). He was pointing out all the various features and critters: the wild blueberries, the turning fireweed, the Dall’s sheep on the mountainside, the moose in the birch thicket, and, of course, the caribou. We caught sight of a big bull out in the distance. Binoculars in hand, I watched the beautiful beast. He was accompanied by a couple of females, one older and one younger, all nibbling their way across the fields.

Caribou on Tundra © 2009 America in Context

Suddenly, and without warning, our guide put his hands up in the air and started prancing about like a wide receiver after making that big touchdown catch. None of us could figure out what he was doing – then he started to explain. “See,” he told us, “once spring comes, the great herds of caribou break up and go out on their own. The females stick together in small groups, protecting their young from predators. The males go out on their own, wandering and feeding across great regions of the tundra and taiga over the entire summer. When autumn comes, however, the caribou slowly regroup. They have this big socialization process, basically they prance around like this, and then race each other and, if accepted, the small groups join up. So,” he continued, “are you ready to run with the caribou?”

My brain barely had time to register: “um, what?” The next thing I know, he yells out “run now!” and takes off across the hillside. We all run along as best we can, up and down hill and vale, and over to our right, running along in parallel, is that same big bull and his two friends! It was awesome! Here I was, a tenderfoot product of New England suburbia, running along with the caribou across the Alaskan tundra! It didn’t last long (I run like a bag of wet cement), but it was great. It was the most fun I’ve had on any of my park trips, and an experience I won’t forget until the end of my days.**

** Note: what I did would actually be illegal in the national parks. Don’t mess with the animals in the National Parks, even the herbivores. They are not only dangerous when provoked, but contact with humans can screw up their lifestyle. I was in a state park when I did this, which I suppose doesn’t make it any less unethical, but at least I didn’t break the law.

Buddies for Life, Eh?  © 2009 America in Context

I had an absolute ball at Denali. I recommend that everyone take a trip there once in their life. Make sure you take that heli-hiking trip!

[All pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. Please don’t reuse without my permission. All of my other Denali pics are here. But go to Alaska and take yer own damn pictures, ya rascals!]

Spot of Blue © 2009 America in Context



Denali National Park

Michigan’s Tech Aurora Page

Alaska Wildlife Conservation (includes tips on safe viewing)

Encyclopedia of Earth’s article on the Alaska tundra

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Who Cares National Park

Poor Cuyahoga: the Park of No Love. The great national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Acadia, all the others) have huge amounts of visitors and worldwide acclaim. They have spectacular geologies or magnificent trees or rare wildlife. Everyone knows their names, knows what they are about. But no one cares about a little strip of land on a forgotten river nestled between two Rust Belt cities, a little strip of land known as Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Brandywine FallsCuyahoga is a park that preserves a small valley cut in the Appalachian Plateau. The Cuyahoga itself is a meandering river, most notable for a series of canals used as transport in the late 18th to early 19th century (before railroads took over). It’s nice that preservationists lobbied to protect this patch of river. I believe that we should strive to protect all natural areas (not just those with spectacular flora, fauna, or geology) wherever possible.

The problem lies with putting this spot in the National Park System. If you listen to “park-o-philes”, like those on National Parks Traveler, Cuyahoga NP is the result of pork-barrel spending that most Americans heavily despise. I don’t know how to react to that. Usually pork projects only benefit those who win the contracts to build them. Sometimes these projects end up having no value to the community whatsoever, being proverbial white elephants until some future pork barrel project tears them down or repurposes them in an endless cycle of valueless taxpayer expenditures.

Everett Road Covered BridgeBut does government money spent on natural preservation count as “pork”? Many believe so. I don’t. See, I believe that natural preservation is the gift that keeps on giving. Natural lands help clean the air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and plants. They also act as carbon sinks, something the world needs a lot more of right now. Parks also provide venues for recreation and a chance for urbanites and suburbanites to experience nature (something heavily needed in the manufacturing-laden cities of the Old Northwest Territories).

ButterflySome, especially those who want to profit off land development, think these “benefits” are a crock of tree-hugging bullshit. It’s just getting in the way of progress and economic development. But think about it: do we really need to carve up more of our fields & woodlands? Do we really need to divert more rivers or fill in more swamps in the name of “economic development”? Take a look around: everywhere you travel, you see abandoned properties, empty factories, vacant strip malls. Do we really need to pave over nature to build more crap, when we have thousands, if not millions, of already-paved land just sitting there, doing nothing? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, redevelop these existing stains on the landscape for economic development? Do we really need to make new stains? That’s what I think is bullshit.

Yeah, turning Cuyahoga into a National Park probably wasn’t the best use of taxpayer money, but at least there’s a stretch of green in the middle of Rust Belt America. I think it’s needed.

Beaver Marsh

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cuyahoga Valley. Pics are courtesy of the National Park Service. Actually, they have some pretty nice photos on their Cuyahoga website.]

[UPDATE: I visited Cuyahoga again since my original post. I now have some pics, located here.]



Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Benefits of Open Space Preservation: Land Trust Alliance

Citizens Against Government Waste 2008 Report (Dept. of Interior)

Google map to Cuyahoga Valley

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Missing the Point

When I go to a National Park Service site, I really try to get the point of the place. I’ve got to get out of the car, strap on my boots, and hit the trails. I have to get in a kayak and paddle the lakes. I have to clamber through the caves. I have to hit the vistas and the valley floors. Doing any less is missing the point. I don’t want to just go to the visitor’s center and buy a lapel pin, I don’t want to just take the scenic drive and stop at the overlooks. I don’t want to just look at stuffed animals on display. I want to feel the parks, get the sense of what they’re all about, even commune a bit with nature, as corny as that sounds. True, I don’t do hardcore wilderness backpacking (I’m too fond of hot showers and soft beds), but I still make that effort to get my boots dirty and breathe the clear air.

When it came to the City of Rocks, I blew it.

Westward Wagons © 2008 America In ContextThe City of Rocks is an expanse of rock formations, eroded from ancient strata over millions of years. It’s in the high-desert region of southern Idaho, so it is hot & dry, but it’s actually a pretty cool place, very Flintstone-esque. It was a landmark on the California Trail, supposedly earning its name from comments made by the first of the westward wagon trains in 1849, but its biggest claim to fame is its status as a great place to go rock-climbing.

Rock climbing is one of those things I’ve never done. Not being particularly athletic, and having some physical limitations (namely extreme nearsightedness that even contact lenses can’t fully correct), there are a lot of things I haven’t done. Rock climbing, however, is something I should be able to do. OK, I’ll probably never scale Half Dome, but there’s really no reason I can’t do simple climbs, with a little training and some hard work.

Worm From Dune © 2008 America In ContextBut when I went to the City of Rocks, I didn’t even think about rock climbing. I didn’t research the place at all, didn’t even know rock climbing was what CoR was all about. So, when I went, and saw all those climbers over all those rock formations, and I felt left out. It probably would have been very simple to sign up for some beginning rock climbing lessons while I was there, but alas, my pre-planning was completely absent. It was my own fault, and I had no time left to get into the groove (pun intended, I suppose).

Some time ago, I posted a comment about over-researching a park and only hitting the popular highlights. To me, that’s like only seeing blockbuster movies while missing great independent films. There are a lot of great hidden jewels in the parks that can be stumbled upon by walking the lesser-traveled paths. But City of Rocks taught me a valuable lesson: you should at least do a little reading before you go anywhere, to make sure you don’t end up missing the point.

[Photos on this post are the property of the blog owner. Please do not use without express written permission. A few more CoR pics can be found here.]


City of Rocks National Reserve

Rock Climbing at City of Rocks (notice “quantity of climbs = lifetime”)

Google map to City of Rocks

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Dull Is Good

Chickasaw, located in south-central Oklahoma, is part of the transition zone between eastern woodlands and the great plains, and contains campgrounds, hiking trails, horse trails, and the large, artificial Lake of the Arbuckles. Like Catoctin Mountain, Chickasaw is sparse on natural wonders and unremarkable in flora and fauna, but it serves a purpose in providing recreation to the hard-working folks of Oklahoma.

Black Sulfur Springs Pavilion -- Public Domain Photo Courtesy of National Park ServiceIt does have some funky natural springs. There’s something exotic in the geology of the area that causes half a dozen or so natural springs of differing qualities. Some are infused with sulfur (hence the name of the nearby town of Sulphur) and are therefore highly poisonous. Others have similarly nasty high levels of arsenic, or high levels of copper, or are perfectly safe mineral springs. For amateur geologists in the audience, the place is pretty interesting for these features. The Chickasaw Nation Native Americans saw the value of these springs soon after they were relocated from Alabama & Mississippi, and preserved it for decades before deeding it to the National Park Service.

Chickasaw NRA was originally called Platt National Park, which brings up a different topic. If one looks at the range of spectacular sites called National Parks, from the Everglades to Yellowstone to the Gates of the Arctic, most of them have truly spectacular vistas, abundant & rare wildlife, or grand natural features. But some preserved sites in the NPS, like Chickasaw, Catoctin Mountain, Cuyahoga Valley, and others, aren’t particularly grand or exciting. I’m sure it begs the question: why are these lackluster sites part of the National Park Service?

Travertine Creek -- Public Domain Photo Courtesy of National Park ServiceIn my opinion, one of the big problems with this country is its evolution from the United States of America to the United States of Generica. From sea to shining sea, almost without fail, you’ll see the same strip malls, the same chain restaurants, the same big box retailers. Even regional slangs & accents are starting to disappear, thanks to mass media. It’s nice in one way, you can travel across this whole country without getting into serious cultural trouble. But it has also made the country less interesting, blander, more vanilla.

Unfortunately, in a world of cookie-cutter cul de sacs, abusive irrigation, strip mining, and invasive plant species, the nation’s natural diversity is also at risk of “genericization”. People tend to want to preserve grandiose vistas, but aren’t particularly interested in preserving boring things like hardwood forests, meandering rivers, or expansive grasslands. These things are boring, so, why bother, right? Well, all of these things help keep America beautiful, keep it from becoming one great swath of vanilla blandness.

It’s nice that the people of Oklahoma can experience a natural blend of eastern deciduous forest and prairie grassland at Chickasaw. It’s nice to see the people of Maryland can experience a natural mountain forest at Catoctin. It’s nice to see the people of Ohio can experience a natural river ecosystem. Yes, these things aren’t particularly interesting to tourists, but they keep the country from truly becoming the United States of Generica in a natural sense. These sites act as anchors to the world as it used to be, and provide the variety our country needs.

Sunset Over Lake of the Arbuckles -- Public Domain Photo Courtesy of National Park Service

[Sadly, I didn’t have a digital camera when I visited Chickasaw. Public domain photos courtesy of the National Park Service]


Chickasaw National Recreation Area

Chickasaw Indian Nation

Support Generica!

Google Map to Chickasaw

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Mother Nature Gives a Sign

Imagine you’re part of a wagon train during the great westward migration. For days on end you’ve seen nothing but flat grassland prairie. You’re only marker on the trail is the rising and setting sun, and the North Star. You wonder if you’re even making any progress, of if you’ll even manage to keep your sanity amongst the boredom.

Suddenly, it looms before you. Chimney Rock, sticking straight up into the sky, visible for miles around. The first sign that the plains are ending, the first sign that the next phase of the journey – the crossing of the great Rocky Mountains – is coming. At least it represents change.

Chimney Rock © 2008 America In Context

The story of Chimney Rock is the story of westward migration, but (like most of the nation’s natural landmarks), it was also of sacred importance to the native people of the land. Then again, like almost everything else, that meant little to the newcomers, the white man. Just like the land and the environment, Chimney Rock was a cast-off on the way to prosperity, something to be used and then discarded. The sacred pillar was even used for target practice by army gunners during the Indian Wars, how’s that for a slap in the face?

When I see Chimney Rock, I don’t see the spire as a pointer to riches in California. I see the Great Nature Spirit giving us all the finger.

The Finger © 2008 America In Context

[A short post for a small site. Pics are mine & copyrighted thusly.]


Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Google map to Chimney Rock

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Babies on the Rocks
Little Catoctin Mountain Park is sort of a red-headed stepchild of the National Park System. It’s just a “park”, not a “national park” nor a “national monument” nor a “national historic park” nor any other such designation. It doesn’t have any grand natural wonders: no canyons, no snow-capped peaks, no staggering escarpments, no 2,000-year old trees. It doesn’t have herds of buffalo, grizzly bears, elk, or endangered manatees. Maybe a few bald eagles, that’s about it.

It does fit two good niches, however. First, a portion of Catoctin was carved out and turned into the Presidential retreat of Camp David, site of important moments in American history from FDR’s war councils, to the Sadat-Begin summit in ’78, to Iraq war lie crafting by the Bush administration. I’m sure having a National Park Service site as a neighbor helps with Camp David’s security and secrecy (although ask any pizza delivery guy in the area and you’ll get instant directions to the place, proving that even the greatest military power in world history still travels on its stomach).

Vista © 2008 America In Context

The second, and in my opinion more important, niche that Catoctin fills is it’s status as a destination campground available to millions of people in the greater Baltimore-Washington metropolis. I’m a firm believer that everyone should have access to the great outdoors, especially those in the big cities who might otherwise not even think about trees & forests. In Catoctin’s case, it provides access for millions in just an hour’s drive or so. It certainly seemed quite popular when I visited: the campground area was nearly sold out, and dozens of folks were hiking the trails.

Wolf Rock © 2008 America In ContextThere’s a popular spot in Catoctin called Wolf Rock, a flat granite expanse full of cool nooks & crannies. Hopping over all the crevices is pretty entertaining, especially for the pre-teens in the crowd. Boys and girls alike were having all sorts of fun clambering over the rocks and jumping the various pits & cracks in the rock face. Just good, old-fashioned, dangerous fun, the kind kids have been having for hundreds of years. I’m not one of those adults who think kids should be prevented from having dangerous fun, the danger is part of the fun and needs to be embraced by kids. After all, it’s healthier than sitting in a sheltered environment playing video games. Let’s see: a slight risk of a head injury, or a near certain future of obesity and Type 2 diabetes? I’ll take the craggy rocks, thank you.

Say No To Crack © 2008 America In ContextBut let’s get realistic here. After my own brief experience hopping craggy rocks (much more difficult on 40-year-old joints than 12-year-old joints), I headed back to the trail. I passed a group of young adults with backpacks, obviously ready for their own turn on Wolf Rock. Turning for a polite “good morning” to my fellow park enthusiasts, I noticed one of them actually had a baby on a backpack carrier, ready to walk on craggy Wolf Rock! Now I think kids need to be exposed to the risks of the world, and I don’t think parents of young children should be captive in their own homes, but come on! It’s a craggy rock face full of sharp points and deep crevices, and you bring your baby with you? Come on, kiddies! You’re parents now, show some responsibility, for God’s sake! Taking the baby into the woods is fine, but be careful where you’re walking, folks.

I’ve seen lots of people doing stupid things in the National Parks, but bringing a baby onto Wolf Rock is definitely in the Top Ten Stupidest list.

Rolling Hills © 2008 America In Context

[All pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. This is just about the extent of my pics of Catoctin, however. It’s a nice spot, to be sure, it’s just not particularly photogenic. A couple more photos can be found here]


Catoctin Mountain Park

Brief History of Camp David

Google map to Catoctin Mountain Park

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