Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Denali 8. Mr Cheep’s revenge

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Day 7:

Last full day in the park.

My plan is to pack up and get to the road in time to meet the first bus out in the morning. I have some things to do in Anchorage so I want to get back ASAP. I think the first bus leaves Wonder Lake at 6:30 but I’m not sure, and more importantly I don’t know how far Wonder Lake is. So since the weather is a bit crappy today anyway, I pack up my day pack and hike to the road. I get on a bus to Wonder Lake. It is weird to be among: 

  1. people 
  2. other campers 
  3. tourists

I realize that the landscape around Wonder Lake is much more in line with the kind of view that Sydney Laurence was portraying of Denali. This picture would be a very Sydney Laurence view of Denali, if not for the clouds.

On top of everything else I hadn’t seen a real TREE in 6 days. Also, I realized that if I were to ever come back here, I might want to use the campground at Wonder Lake as a base. This is what I saw a lot of people doing.

The Wonder Lake area is beautiful. There were a lot of mosquitos, and I felt a smug satisfaction at how much of a hardship this seemed to be for some of the tourists. I used a urinal, and washed my hands in a sink. Seeing my face in a mirror was also kind of strange.

I ride the bus back, past my valley to the Eielson Visiter Center. This is a pretty amazing place with a lot of info. I watch a 17 minute movie about climbing Mt. McKinly. I don’t need to do THAT. A bear shows up and the rangers have to close down one of the trails and one of the observation decks. I have to exert effort not to feel blasé and superior. Yes the guy who spilled half his water the on his first night is now Grizzly Adams.

I had been to the Visiter Center on my way in. All of the buses make a stop at all of the half dozen or so facilities like this. It’s set up very much as a way for people who are only visiting the park on the road to get a direct sense of the park. And they do a good job. I saw a small family get off a bus, kids running around and screaming. Later I saw a ranger corral the same kids, put her hat on each of their heads, make them do something like a scouting salute and swear an oath to protect the environment. The look in the kids’ eyes was really kind of cool. Like a lot of rangers that I’ve met, these people have a sense of which war they’re in the front lines of.


In addition to the bear, there was an arctic fox who appeared to be quite habituated to the center. Nothing was closed down when this guy showed up.

These moose skulls were reportedly found in this locked state.

One spur of one’s antler stabbing deep into the eye socket of the other. They died like this.

John Muir is still very much a guiding spirit in a park like this. Denali National Park would probably not exist without him. There is a stone at the visiter center with a quote by him carved into it:

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

My life is continually teaching me that this is true in art. This thought made me feel closer to Muir than I think I ever have before.

I talk to a ranger after the bear goes away. Mostly I want to verify some things about the caribou from yesterday. I also talk to the bus dispatcher about my plan for tomorrow. Everyone is gratifyingly happy that I’ve been out for week. They say things like “Nice going!” or “Well done!” I don’t know if they would say that if they had seen me stumbling around out there, but it makes me happy. I eat my lunch at a table!! I get a bus back to Mt. Galen and take a bit of a detour to look at the expanse of the Thorofare River delta.

I see another bear on the way back but he doesn’t affect my route.

However, when I get back, Mr. Cheeps is again upset.

Here is some video I shot of Mr. Cheeps the ground squirrel: YouTube video of Mr Cheeps

He has even acted out a bit. There are now two little nibbles out of the heel of one of my Crok flip-flops that were in the vestibule of the tent. More dramatically there are two little holes in the largest of my water bags. It is now useless. Harumph!

As I write this, I am reminded of something Lynn Schooler said to me about nature documentaries. He was talking about how, over the years that he was serving as a guide for a lot of documentaries, he saw a decline in quality, which he correlated with the educations and interests of the people who were shooting them. To paraphrase and generalize: It used to be that they were being shot by people who deeply understood the biological and zoological science behind what they were doing. Genuine experts who were interested in getting good footage that accurately represented the true nature of the animals and environments they were filming. The shift has been towards expert cinematographers who have a deep understanding of dramatic structure who are interested in getting cool shots of good looking animals doing exciting things, whether it’s scientifically representative or not.

He said: If you’re watching something and they give an animal a name… be careful.

So I’m very aware when I anthropomorphize a caribou or a ground squirrel that I am skating on thin ice. I actually have a deep problem with it. As I think I’ve said before, I think when we anthropomorphize, we’re cutting our imaginations off from exploring forms of consciousness that are significantly different from our own. I don’t think that whales are beautiful because they demonstrate sentience that is similar to ours. I think they’re amazing because they are the apex of a form of sentience that is their own. Just as we are. We are profoundly “other” to each other. And therefore we must tread softly when around each other. We can’t assume we know what’s going on in the other mind, and we diminish it when we try.

But Mr Cheeps is a water bag & flip-flop nibbling little terrorist who deserves to be reduced to a YouTube cliche! As much as I can be interested in the alien mind of the other… this guy was driving me NUTS! Cheeping like that RIGHT BESIDE MY HEAD…

Denali 7. WOW!

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Day 6.

July 9th, 2012


It starts with another crystal clear view of Denali during a 2am pee, but even when I get up later it is still clear.

Panorama I stitched together with Photoshop

For part of the morning, Denali is wearing a small beret of cloud but no matter. The range is as clear as could be as the moon makes a slow daylight journey over it.

Hard to see the moon in pictures, but it’s there above Denali.

I spend the bulk of the morning just watching the light move across.

I am in a heightened and constant state of utter awe for the entire morning. I take a lot of photos. I rig my Gorilla Tripod to my treking poles as a makeshift tripod.

I realize that this day is why I came here! This is my gift from Denali! I savor it.

I was so concerned that I get a good picture that I spend 15 mins cranking the handle on the weather-band radio which has a USB power output, to get just enough charge on my iPhone to get the above picture. I crank and crank and crank, get the one shot and it dies… This is perhaps the one day, I wished I had a better camera. I don’t mind not lugging a huge lens around to get close-ups of bears, but I do wish I could have given the mountains and sky more justice.

The day is clear and warm, and after lunch I look at the broad green slopes that lead up the north side of Mt. Galen and I decide to take a walk. I decide NOT to commit to climbing Mt. Galen. Just a walk in that direction that might end up on the summit.

Photoshop panorama of Mt. Galen

I’m prepared either way. I get to a point further North than I’ve yet been and am looking up the slopes when, BAM! There’s a bear. Smack dab in the middle of where I need to go to approach the mountain. I have time, and he is plenty far away, so I sit and watch him to see what his intentions are. It quickly becomes clear that napping is the order of the day for him. I keep an on him as he shifts positions in his snoozing. The term “lolly-gaging” comes to mind. For fierce beasts these things can get pretty silly.

This is again the age-old paradox: The beautiful landscape can kill you. The terrifying predator is cute. etc. It is disturbing to think how accurate Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree actually is.

The fact of the matter is that in the environment I was in, a bear would first appear in the landscape as a fuzzy caterpillar. That’s what I would look for, perhaps because I grew up with caterpillars and can see them more easily. It reminds of a time when I was a teenager, shortly after moving to North America from Japan; I was riding my motorcycle at night, and suddenly there was a deer right in front of me, and I had to swerve rather violently to miss it. The thing is that it took several seconds, after I was safe and the adrenaline was dripping off of my brain, to realize that it was a deer. The alarm thought in my head was “That’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen in my life!” Now that I knew to look for fuzzy brown caterpillars on the hillsides, I was seeing the bears.

At one point, I think he’s gone, but then his head pops up as he is apparently doing the back-stroke in the bushes. It becomes clear: Mt. Galen, by the Northern route, is off for humans today.

This is the thing about this place: You don’t try to alter the environment to your wishes. You adapt to it. You evolve. You change. And it’s not about being powerless or weak. It’s about being attentive and in tune. I’m not saying that I am. But I am beginning to hear that I am off key…

I took some time, while I waited, to use another piece of equipment that I bought at REI in Anchorage. My Sanitary Trowel. I haven’t been bringing that up, but yes, I have been using my trowel from time to time.

A scoping of the river valley to my left reveals that it is open, so I cut down to the river and continue exploring upstream. After quite a bit of picking my way up the river I hear a trotting sound and a caribou comes jogging almost right up to me. I see him before he sees me and when he does see me he stops and does a kind of “Oh Shit!” and then buries his head in a bush, almost casually, as if to play nonchalant.

My first sensation is relief that it isn’t a moose, followed by “what do I do now?” The valley here is narrow enough that it’s hard to simply move around each other, and my prime directive in Denali is to not alter the behavior of wildlife, so I began to calmly back away, as I gingerly get my camera out.

He turns and trots back the way he came, and I turn and move downstream a bit more quickly.

After a bit though he turns around again and tries to pass me on my right.

He stopped and looked right at me basically posing for a picture, while we both seemed to be feeling an awkward sense of, hoping no one was looking, because this was NOT how we were supposed to interact. There was a weird sense of embarrassment. And wonder… Embarrassed wonder.

He gives up and backs off again before trotting past me on my left with an almost audible “Fuck it!”

I wonder if all the moose tracks that I’ve been seeing are in fact caribou, so I go over and check…

…and these are indeed quite different.

When I get back to camp, there is a ground squirrel near my tent who seems to have had it with me. He is “cheeping” and running around. I explain to him that I’m leaving soon and am sorry if I’ve caused distress. Every once in a while he pops out to check things out, or he just “cheeps” at me when I’m in my tent.

All in all, an AMAZING day…

Denali 4. Dragon Faces

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Day 3:

Didn’t sleep too well. 2 AM pee not as spectacular as night before, but on balance, completely stunning.

I’m talking about the view/experience of the environment here. Not the actual urinating…

Woke up with headache. Took two Advil. Back to sleep. Finally got up about 9 AM. Feeling better. Used freeze-dry envelope for oatmeal. Much more satisfactory. Bugs are bad. Wind was keeping them at bay.

Pack up daypack with rain gear, water kit, map + compass and head out to scout the area. Find a probable site for better camp north of current site. Base to summit view of Denali. Spend time overlooking the small river. Glass it for a long time. Pleasant. Take some pictures.

Make my way down to river. Hike upriver a ways. Human and Moose tracks.

It is interesting to me that almost everyone you talk to who spends a lot of time out in these wilderness areas tells you that the animal that they are REALLY afraid of is the moose. Specifically a large moose cow. Despite this, there is almost zero information offered about how to avoid a moose or what to do when you encounter one. The best I could come up with was “…Just run. As fast as you can. Serpentine if you’re out in the open, but find something to hide behind if you can…” This is not comforting advise. Especially when you’re in a place without a real tree to speak of or really ANYTHING that could actually hide me from a moose. I think what it comes down to is that although a moose is probably never going to hunt you and eat you, it is much less predictable than a bear. You just don’t know what it’s going to do. Not that I’ve been led to believe that bears are exactly predictable, but they do seem to have patterns. From what people have said to me, moose are just giant masses of biological fury that will come at you for no apparent reason and use you as a punching bag until they calm down.

Fill water bottles, and climb back up. Scout around top of bluff. Confirm campsite. after yesterday’s fatigue want to take it easy. Decide to move next day. Get back to camp. Make miso soup and coffee. Sit on hillside and read with the bugs. Occasional stints glassing the mountains. Faces the snow.

It’s kind of an amazing thing and not something that comes across in pictures very well; there are so many faces of the mountains that literally begin to look like faces after awhile. I know it’s a natural and almost inevitable instinct that we anthropomorphize the universe when we look at it, but I’ve never noticed it this intensely. The snow and rock are so sensitive to the changing light, and I watched for hours to see little nuances of expression passing across these stern visages.

I heard once that the geomancers of the Fensghui tradition were actually trying to see “the Dragon” in the mountain, so that they could site buildings in places that would not be on a toe or something that would irritate the dragon. The longer I am out in the wild, the less poetic and more practical this seems. Perhaps it is the merging of the practical and the poetic that the wilderness is constantly waiting for us to catch on to.

Dinner of freeze-dried chicken and rice. Best one so far. A few drops of rain as I finish up. I put up everything and get in tent. Strange sound like swarm of insects from direction of creek. Bits of rain as evening wears on. Hard not to get down in evenings. Worries about coping with real rain. Wondering if other campsite is too exposed.

I’m working on it…

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I’m working on a couple of blog posts (replete with pictures) about my experience with the kayak rangers in September.


I’m back in Juneau. Working on The Blue Bear.

This article about Voices Of the Wilderness came out today. There’s a section about me:

Yeee haaaa…

Stay cozy everyone!

Zone 4 Zest

Monday, March 8th, 2010

This posting is an unsolicited plug for my sister Faith’s new blog Zone 4 Zest: Growing and Foraging for Fabulous Food in the North. I don’t live in Zone 4, nor do I have a garden, so a lot of her stuff doesn’t apply directly to me, but I always appreciate her writing because she has a kind of philosophical bent that I have always liked.

For me, she meets Alan Watts’ definition of a philosopher as a slack-jawed yokel who stands in awe before things that most other people find obvious or too mundane for serious, extended attention.
I remember one time during a visit to her home in Vermont, she took me out into the woods because there was one particular tree she wanted to show me. When we found it, she presented it to me with the exclamation “Isn’t he handsome!”

I’ve been a frequent beneficiary of the edible fruits of Faith & Eric’s labor, but she topped it all two Xmases ago when she gave me a worm-bucket. I am now an avid urban vermicompster, and have been sharing my worms far and wide.

Faith once said to me, “Civilization will finally fall, when there are no more people in it who touch dirt every day.” Thanks to my worm-bucket I touch dirt… in my kitchen… every day. So go ahead civilization. Do your worst. Make your iPads and Academy award ceremonies… Faith and I have your back.

Check out Z4Z. Let it inspire you.

Help Haiti

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

I don’t have any personal knowledge specific to Haiti, but I do know this: These kinds of things are MUCH more urgent and extreme than they seem through the media filter. As hyperbolic as some of the coverage has been, I think it’s safe to assume that it isn’t capturing the scale and precariousness of what is going on.

If you didn’t hear Jason Beaubien’s on-air moment and the reaction to it on NPR, check out this story.

Partially because this blog started in response to the Katrina-Rita thing in the Gulf, I feel moved to use it to join the chorus of voices asking for help in Haiti.

We need to take these moments to not only reflect upon how fragile the systems that ensure our own physical security are, but to recognize that as people who CAN help, we MUST help.

I’m struck by the stymying of certain relief efforts by the destruction of critical infrastructure. All the high-tech aircraft in the world can’t help when the airports been destroyed. But at our end, far from the scene, technology actually helps us help. It makes sharing our own resources easier and (hopefully) more transparent.

There are tons of things you can do but the no-brainer, why-haven’t-you-already-done-it thing, if you have a cell phone in the US is to text “Haiti” to 90999. This donates $10 to the Red Cross, and as far as I can tell, this is on the up and up.

There are other ways to help. I won’t go on and on.

I’ve been appreciating the coverage on the Huffington Post.

The situation seems to be critical, dangerous and if not helped, headed towards something from Kormak McCarthy.


Saturday, August 29th, 2009

People keep dying.

Celebrities. Relatives. Some obscure people. Some powerful people. People no one has or ever will hear of.

More U.S. Solders died in Afganistan this month than in any other since the current war there started (beating out last month’s record).

Why does this seem remarkable? Is there anything different about it right now? How many times in this last year have we heard the phrase “…end of an era” as a way of marking the death of someone or another. I do wonder if it has to do with the whole Obama thing giving us a sense of historic focus. But then we also have the wars and the recession/depression thing too.

Today is the confluence of Michael Jackson’s birthday (which is remarked upon because of his death), the funeral of Ted Kennedy, and the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast. Add to this, personally, that one of my uncles just died. What to choose… What to feel… hmmm…

Totally off topic here but I do have a Ted Kennedy joke I’d like to share: You know it turns out it wasn’t the tumor in his head that killed him. It turns out there was another tumor on the grassy knoll…

…too soon?

One thing I’ve been glad of is that I haven’t seen very much reference to the “Celebrities Die in Threes” trope. It’s always bugged me. I mean it has to be one of the stupidest things EVER. It could well be that when the human race slips into extinction we will find out that the total number of humans who ever existed will be a multiple of three. Or at least the total number of celebrities will be divisible by three. But its more likely that the number will not be a multiple of three, and more importantly, as the species disappears, is this REALLY going to be the most important question?

ANYTHING can be grouped into threes. Look at the stars. They’re all arranged in threes!… I’ve even noticed that after a cycle of three days, my life repeats and has ANOTHER cycle of three days!… spooky… Like all forms of numerology, it says more about the creativity of the numerologist than the nature of any kind of hidden order.

There is a thing about “Beginning-Middle-End” that makes groups of three deeply calming to our innate desire for order. So when two people die, we probably look for the third as a way of containing death. So that it won’t go on some kind of rampage in which EVERYBODY eventually dies, which is of course the big truth that we spend most of our lives distracting ourselves from. The theory of three deaths, is like a mini religion.

Truth is the boomers are dying. The post-war demographic bulge of births from the late 40s to the early 60s is falling off the cliff of time. And people who were important to the boomers are being noticed as they go. Presumably this will go on for awhile.

Or is it just that I’m getting to that age when I notice the obituaries more…


A meerkat on the eve of election

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I’m back in Boulder Co. One thing I’ve learned about coming up to this altitude is that physical exertion (and daily Emergen-C) is the best way to acclimatize. To me, the most attractive physical exertion available round these parts, is hiking in the front range of the Rocky Mountains. So I’ve been going out almost every day for extended sojourns into the almost stereotypically beautiful woods.

There is an astounding degree of horticultural and geological variation in the few square miles of public lands just outside of Boulder, and the well groomed and well used trail system is a testament to a community that knows what’s it got here and doesn’t take it for granted. Aside from serving as a large scale dog-run and non-threatening casual date spot for the E-conscious CU gang, it is also a training ground for a wide variety of athletes. There’s a good number of olympians and other serious performance junkies who live up here specifically to train at this altitude, and there’s nothing in the world like the feeling when you’re picking your way up a steep rocky trail in all your hiking gear, and a guy in shorts tee-shirt and running shoes (no water) bounds past you up the slope faster than you can run on a flat surface at sea level.

Near the end of the time that I was here in March I hiked to the summit of Green Mountain (8144’). This suddenly connected the hiking that I was doing here to the “mountain climbing” that I used to do in Japan as a teenager. The difference here was that I was doing it alone, whereas in Japan I always went with other people. Now that I’m back here I find that I’m drawn to summits. I’ve already been up on Bear Peak (8461’), and South Boulder Peak (8549’). Although these are far from serious mountains on the scale of mountains in the world, these climbs are significantly more strenuous than the flatter trails people are walking their dogs on. They require a modicum of planning and preparation, and I find that, at my current level, I need recuperation after them.

So I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I’m so drawn to these peaks. Getting to the top of a mountain is a singular thing. Tibetan monks prescribe it as a cure for depression. It is literally elevating and suspiciously spiritual. But in my experience a sense of conquest is not a part of it. I’m acutely aware that I’m not climbing these things cause I’m a boy. Part of how I know this is that back in the day in Japan, the sense of conquering the mountain was more a part of it. Now it’s coming from something else.

I think it’s the meerkat in me. Walking around in the woods, I want to get up above the trees to look around. Not to command. To locate. I want to know where I am. To experience where I am. Turn my head and see Denver, a mile high below me. Turn my head and see the Nazca lines of Aspen, telling the space aliens where we ski.

Green Mountain is very present when you’re in Boulder it looms above the Flatirons like a theatrical backdrop. But when you actually walk to it, it’s much further back in the range than it seems. The Front Range is actually deeper than it is high, which is hard to feel in the foreshortened perspective from the Whole Foods parking lot. Maps hint at this, but a map is not the territory. I “know” that I’m on the surface of a sphere, but when I look across the sweep of the Rockies at peaks I know are higher than the mountain I’m standing on, and they’re “below” me, I’m actually experiencing the curvature of the earth with my senses.

The map is not the territory and a picture is not the scenery. There is no way to climb a mountain except by climbing it. Putting one foot in front of the next. One at a time. This is catnip to my current philosophical obsession with the idea that the really important truths about reality are not only obvious, but self evident and right in front of our noses. We have used our massive cerebral cortex to invent confusion and ignorance.

But the reason the meerkat stands up is because it’s scared. And it’s scared because there are things threatening it’s survival which seek to exploit limitations in it’s sphere of awareness. If it ignores a slice of it’s sensory pie, thats the angle the predator will use to come in.

It’s possible to see the woods as a Disneyscape of benign peace. But it’s also a corpse strewn deathscape filled with nervous animals desperately scratching out their survival between the crush of last winter and the next, amongst the cadavers of trees, shattered and rotting. The other day, there was a fly buzzing around me and I thought to it “What are you doing?” And it answered, “Checking to see if you’re dead so I can lay my eggs in you. What are YOU doing?” “Touche!”

It has been found that if you were to translate into human emotional terms, the experience of being almost any animal on the planet, the default state is one of fear, bordering on terror. Yet, when I look at the birds, squirrels and deer along the trails, I see them not as scared, but alert. It is clear that this fear they live in is not a negative thing. It is an essential component of their vitality. When they lose it (in a zoo for example) they are in a way similar to many humans; dead.

There is something deeply compelling about walking into a place where a misstep could result in serious injury, and a mountain lion or bear, could in an instant remind me where I actually am on the food chain. And as beautiful as it is, when I’m out there, part of the experience is that I’m afraid. I think that’s normal. I think that’s healthy.

I’m going to go to the top of the mountain and look around. See what’s coming to get me.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

It’s 2008!

Looks alot like 2007. If you look in the right direction, it looks just like 1843 or 1214 or 25,000 BC. I wonder if it looks like the year 5008.

Nothing points out the indifference of nature/the universe to me the way a day like this does. There is NOTHING to mark this “New” year. Where is the starting point or the ending point in the track around the sun? It is gray and hazy in New York right now. Bits of rain. Does this “mean” anything? Does it have any relation to the rest of the 360 some odd days that today is now part of.
Then again, it’s all about how you look at it, and maybe marking a day like this is a way of making ourselves conscious of things like time, it’s passage, and how for us it can be fleeting. My problem is that what people say about this kind of thing is something that I aspire to infuse every day with. To never engage in the drudgery of yet another day following day.
So I tend to get prickly about holidays simply because they point out both nature’s indifference and our inability to make every day special.

But for today, here’s how I’m going to take it: This is practice. I’m going to take everything associated with New Years, new beginnings, clean-slate, hopefulness for change and growth. I’m going to take all of this and touch in with it today, as a way of seeing it. Then I’ll try to check in with it every day. To see if I can make every one of the next 360 some odd days as hopeful and clean-slate as this one. Then I’m going to see if I can do the same thing with the other holidays that make me prickly (easy to say now that the “season” is pretty much over).

Maybe that’s just a garden variety new year’s resolution. Hopefully not.

I’m sorry I’ve not been blog-prolific of late. Since getting back from Japan we’ve been busy working on the new SITI production “Who Do You Think You Are”. At the same time I got a cold (actually two of them) and had kind of a tough time. Then we got a pretty big homework assignment to work on during our holiday break so, although I haven’t been working EVERY MINUTE, I’ve been pretty busy.

I have at least one more post about Japan, sort of summing up, and I need time to sit down and finish it, but I haven’t taken that time yet, so. I’ll put it aside for now and see if I can get back to more regular blogging.

Have a good one.