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Entries about insects

Adventures On The Great Sand Dunes

Visions of Sand, When Adventure Starts, Moonlight Dune Climb

sunny 94 °F

Sand Lands
The View From My First Campsite.
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Velvet Buck.
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Pine Meadow.
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Prairie Sun Flower.
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Self Portrait.
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Sex.
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The Edge of the Dunes.
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Sand and Pine.
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“Ha ha ha…. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! What a Predicament… ha ha ha…”
It was hot. The sun blazed overhead turning the dune landscape into a sandy broiler. I felt like a twice baked potato. Temperatures on the sand of Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during midday. The park service warns against walking on the dunes during this time, but there I was, padding along in the deep sand just after noon (a mistake). I began to feel woozy. I stopped to take another swig from my water bottle. I still had enough water, but the next creek was three miles further along the trail. I had long way to go to get there, if I got there.

My pack felt exceptionally heavy. I chose my food and equipment poorly for this trek. The problem was that I had made the plan to hike deep into the mountains after I had gone shopping the day before. Therefore, I was stuck with too many heavy food items. I love my new pack, but the weight dug into my shoulders and drove the load down my legs and into my feet, which sunk into the dune a good four inches. I could feel a moving pocket of sand inside both of my hiking boots. It was annoying, but that was the least of my problems.
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My left leg began to hurt. With each step in the sand, my left hip ached. Then I began to feel an aching knot in my calves as well. I rarely feel any soreness in my body. When I do, I know I am straining my body too hard. I kept going, though I was noticeably slower than when I started this trek. The sand was going to be my downfall. Thinking back to my planning in the Visitor’s Center, I remember the ranger didn’t mention the first ten miles was through sand. He must have assumed I’d know. At the time, I felt good about my chances of hiking ten miles on the first day. Out on the sand, I laughed aloud at my stupidity.
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On the trail in front of me, were fresh footprints of a black bear. The bear seemed to be following the trail. I had first noticed its huge prints in the mud near the last creek I crossed. I had not yet seen the bear, but I sang out once in awhile to avoid a surprise encounter. Bears don’t like surprises, and I don’t like surprising bears. Sure, it’s exciting, but the outcome in never certain.

An ominous roll of thunder sounded off to the west. The hazy bluish clouds of the front were building on the far side of the valley and moving east. The thunder was a subtle reminder of the power of a storm. The park service also warns hikers that “lightning can kill.” They go on to recommend leaving the dunes area immediately upon seeing signs of a storm. I looked at my GPS again. The elevation read just over 9,000 feet, which meant I was nearing the high point of this section of trail. Damn.

I took another twenty steps along the sandy trail before I stopped again. I was panting, and I bent over to rest my hands on my knees. I felt lightheaded. I took another swig of water, and realized that there was no way in hell I was getting to the Sand Creek campground. It was still six miles away, and I was feeling like crap. I had to get out of the sun. Ahead of me were some pine trees that offered a bit of shade. I left the path, and crossed two hundred yards of sage covered flatland to the pines. I dropped my pack in the sand, dug out my other water bottle and sat down in the shade with a plop. I was beat.

Now I had to decide what to do. I grabbed some food, and while I munched I took stock of my situation: I was five miles out on the edge of the dunes. I was showing signs of heat exhaustion. My left leg hurt a lot. I was following a bear. The nearest water was a mile and a half back down the trail, or three miles ahead of me. There was a thunderstorm approaching from the west. And I was fairly exposed high on top of the dune. Mulling this, I decided that, “Yes, this was a good one.” I had not been up against adversity in awhile, and this was a pretty good pickle.

Yvon Chouinard once said that, “Adventures start when everything goes wrong.” It was safe to say, this trek wasn’t going according to plan. But what to do? I know my limits, and I’m good at recognizing bad situations (and good ones, too). To continue would be foolish. If I decided to stay where I was to avoid the heat, my water would run out, and I would be exposing myself to the thunderstorm. I knew I was close to a campground, but since it didn’t have water, I couldn’t stay there either. I decided water was the key. I needed water to stay hydrated, and the nearest source was back the way I came. I also decided that though I was very tired, that it would be in my best interest to get off the exposed dune. My leg was sore, but there was nothing to do about that. The bear would show up, or it wouldn’t. I’d deal with it if I had to. Satisfied with my rational thinking, I heaved my pack up on my shoulders and started back down the trail.

As I walked, the thunderstorm passed by me to the north. It rumbled a bit, but it didn’t rain. Nor were there any terrifying lighting bolts to dodge (as if I could). The heavy clouds blocked out the sun, and I relished the cooling change. My trek back to the creek was uneventful. I was still sore, but I would heal. I drank the last of my water before I pumped more into my bottles. I continued on to Little Medora Campground where I set up my camp. Easing into my hammock, I contemplated the day and laughed. I had just enjoyed yet another near life experience.

Starlight Dune Climb
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I looked up at the stars to check my orientation. The North Star was still off to my right, and I could still see one of the two bright stars I had been using as a guide ahead of me. Not that star navigation was necessary, the dune field was directly west of the campground. All I really needed to do was walk toward the giant blob of sand. But I like to practice navigation, and stars are an easy guide to use at night.

I chose to hike the dune at night for several reasons. It is much cooler at night than during the heat of the day. I wanted solitude, and nobody else was getting up at 3:30 in the morning to climb the dune. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of the dune. I wanted to photograph the dunes with good light. Finally, I figured it would be an awesome experience to hike the dune at night, then watching the day dawn over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado.
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My feet made a “Hisssssk-Hissssk” sound with each step I took on the cool sand. I couldn’t see the definition of the dune I was climbing due to the almost total darkness. The moon had set two hours ago, and the only light available was starlight. I had a flashlight, but where was the challenge in that? The dune began to climb again, and so did I. I was more or less climbing this dune by brail, only instead of using my hands, I used my feet to sense the changes of the dune.

The dune I was climbing was the highest sand dune in North America. At its highest point, it rose seven hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. My calves began to throb with the increasing pitch of the pyramid I was climbing. This dune isn’t one giant wall of sand. It has twisting ridges, valleys and pits. Just when I reached the top of one ridge and followed to a peak, I found that I had to descend down into a pit and climb an even higher pyramid. It wasn’t easy, but it was enjoyable.
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The stillness and silence of the desert was complete. I’m not sure I have heard a silence as deep as that anywhere else on earth. It was so quiet, I swear I could almost hear the energy of the sand. It sounded like a very low hum on the lowest frequency that I can hear. Maybe I was imagining things. At any rate, I felt a strong connection to the earth and the dunes.

I started the final climb. I could only take thirty steps before I was gasping with the effort. The dry air parched my throat. After my breath settled, I took another swig of water. Then I would climb another thirty steps. There might have been easier ways to climb the dune, but I couldn’t see them. I had a sure fire way of getting to the top, which was simply to keep climbing up.

Then, with a push, I was on top. I rested my hands on my knees and let my heart and lungs slow down. Then I looked about at the expanse of the sand plateau all about me. It was amazing. I went in search of the perfect spot. My perfect spot needed to meet the following criteria: It needed a view of the dune field below me. It needed to be photographically interesting. It needed to be a good breakfast spot. After wandering another two hundred yards, I found it. Satisfied, I pulled out my breakfast (an orange and a Clif bar), and settled in to enjoy the start of the day.

The Dune Field In Pictures
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"Behold, The Sands of Thom!"
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Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes parks flowers hiking colorado adventure sunrise sand insects photography dunes Comments (1)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

On the Cuyahoga River, Ohio and Erie Canal, Great Blue Herons, Fischer's Cafe and Pub

sunny 85 °F

I was looking at a map of northeast Ohio, and saw to my surprise that there was a national park not too far away from where I am hanging out this week. Who knew Ohio had a national park? I didn’t, but when in roam, make like the roamers, and so we headed on down to check out Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga (pronounced Cay-uh-ho-guh) means “Crooked River” in Mohawk. It seems to me that every river I’ve ever encountered suffers from this same affliction. Are there straight rivers? Never make a deal with a river, it’ll probably gyp you out of something.

The Cuyahoga Valley has been the stomping grounds for man for eons,perhaps 12,000 years or so (but who’s counting?). In more recent history (the 1800‘s), the Ohio and Erie canal ran through here, partially watered by and parallel to the Cuyahoga. The canal also had an impressive system of locks, which allowed barges to make navigate the elevations between Akron and Cleveland. The canal was a huge success, and allowed settlers and trade goods to be passed along between Akron and Cleveland. In short, this canal helped open up Middle America for settlement.
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There isn’t much left of the canal today. It was abandoned in 1913, and nature has been slowly reclaiming its territory ever since. Today it’s a lush swampland full of plants wetland flowers and animals that love the water and thrive here.
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My adventure partner is a bit limited in her mobility just now, so we took it easy and went for a stroll on the Towpath trail, near Ira. We followed the white gravel trail until we crossed over a series of wooden walkways over a beaver pond marsh. Given our limited mobility, this seemed like a good place to see some wildlife, and I wasn’t disappointed.
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The beavers have done a terrific job of creating a beautiful wetland full of wildflowers, swamp grasses and reeds. This habitat provides a good home to a wide diversity of animals and insects including turtles, fish, frogs, herons, butterflies, bees and other birds.
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It took me 29 years to capture a good photograph of a great blue heron, and I had to go to Mexico to take it. I guess the first one is the hard one to get, because since that one, I’ve had no problems getting the herons to pose for me. Out on the boardwalk, one of these beautiful birds was sitting silently on a log not more than forty feet away from me. Knowing how long I had to wait for the first picture of one, I took the opportunity to take a few more.
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This particular heron sat motionless for some time, but then, slowly, moving its long sticklike legs very carefully and deliberately it began positioning its lanky body to snatch a fish out of the water. Herons like other water birds use slow movements and infinite patience to catch their prey off guard. The fish get used to seeing an unmoving heron standing in one place and grow complacent. Then when they aren’t suspecting, SNAP! They are in the long beak of the heron and down the gullet.
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I watched this heron do just that. It slowly uncoiled its body, and positioned its long neck closer and closer to the water. With surprising speed, it shot its beak into the water and snatched the fish. It happily ate it, and I watched the small lump travel all the way down the long heron neck.

Besides the heron, I was struck by the white water lilies that were in bloom on the surface of the water. They seemed to have a subtle grace and beauty to them that I found very alluring. I made several portraits of these flowers and couldn’t decide which I liked best, so I’ll let you decide.
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The trail was busy. It was full of families riding bikes, runners, joggers, lurchers (people who jog with weird strides), and walkers like us. It was a summer weekend, and it was good to see everyone out and about.

We finished off our visit with a stop in the small, picturesque little village of Peninsula. We ate lunch at Fischer’s Café and Pub, and it was very tasty. I’d eat there again, and recommend you stop in if you are in the area. I went for classic man food, a BBQ cheeseburger with fries, and it was delicious.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park isn’t a wild park. It’s pretty tame in comparison to some of the other national parks I’ve visited recently (Glacier Bay National Park, in Alaska), but it does have its charms. The history of the place, combined with the natural beauty found there make for a pleasant place to spend a day or two poking around. I would definitely go back, and would like to bike the length of the Towpath Trail.
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I didn’t see the entire park either, I’d like to check out Brandywine falls in autumn, and Tinkers Creek Gorge. I’d also like to see more of the canal, and see some of the rebuilt canal boats that used to navigate the canal. As I was just thinking about it, a possible interesting canoe trip would be to canoe the entire length of the Erie Canal, some 380 miles of it, but I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore.

I guess it’s safe to say, I’ll be back to the Cuyahoga Valley someday.

“The profit system follows the path of least resistance. Never follow the course of least resistance, because following the course of least resistance is what makes a river crooked. Hmph!” Utah Phillips

Posted by Rhombus 09:52 Archived in USA Tagged birds turtles food parks flowers insects photography ohio butterflies wetlands herons Comments (1)

The Best of a Mexican March: Part 1

A Vagabond's Last Takes On A Winter in Mexico.

sunny 79 °F

With only just over a week left here in Mexico, I feel a bit overwhelmed thinking about all the writing and photography I’d like to share about this remarkable peninsula. The problem lies in the fact that I want to get out and play, savoring my last week before starting the long ten-day voyage back to the United States and Alaska. Once again, I’ll solve this problem by offering a photographic journey through some of the desert and ocean scenes that I’ve enjoyed so much.

Sperm Whales
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Sperm Whales were on my list of whales I really wanted to see while down here in Mexico. I had visions of Melville’s classic ‘white whale,’ and I wanted to see one for myself. Sperm whales have a very different shape than the other whales I’ve seen, and their spout is distinguishable from others as it comes out diagonally from their blowhole

I witnessed three separate pods, and a huge solo male. Sperm whales are very social; the females tend to stay together with calves and it almost as though they are synchronized swimming. They would rest on the surface in between dives, and it was during this time when I could get a really good look at them. When at last they had rested enough, they would take a final breath, and begin the long slow process of diving. First, the head would go down, and like a cracking whip, the rest of the body would follow. I could see the dorsal bend and submerge which would lift the huge flukes of the whale’s tail to a near vertical position. Seeing the humungous fluke lift out of the water is amazing. It is among my favorite views of the whale, any whale. It’s as though they are waving goodbye before disappearing into the depths for several minutes.
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Animal Prints
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The desert is full of nocturnal animals. They come out at night to eat, drink, and be merry--avoiding the harsh light and heat of the day. I was lucky enough to get out at first light, and spent the golden hours of the morning admiring the simple beauty and design of animal prints on the sand dunes.
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Two Sunrises
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I told Clay our Chief Engineer that the sky would light on fire this morning. He was skeptical, and impatiently called me out when at first the clouds remained unlit by the rising sun. I told him to be patient and wait, that it would happen. Ten minutes later, the sky smoldered and caught, briefly highlighting the large gray clouds in sunrise orange over the ocean and Isla San Francisco. Sunrise orange is hard to describe, it’s not pink, orange, or gold but some amazing mixture of them all.
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It was a cold, windy morning on Magdalena Bay. It was brisk. I watched a panga of anglers slowly work their lines in the choppy seas. I thought about the life of an angler here in Mexico; the long hours, the hard work, for not very much money. Two things stuck in my mind. One was that I was more or less living the same life, working all night on a boat to watch the beauty of the rising sun and cloud. The other thought I had, was that to work outside for a living is a good life. To immerse oneself in the golden glow of a sunrise for its entire duration is better than the best corner office with a good view in the world. Money is worthless in comparison to a life lived well.

Desert Plants and Landscapes
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What do you think of when you think of a desert? Perhaps you think of a flat, bare, plain, rocky, desolate with the odd scrounging a living here and there. The desert of Baja is a lush desert full of desert plant life. It’s varieties of plants, cactus, shrubs and flowers is quite impressive for how little water falls here.
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Boojum Trees
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We took a field trip in buses to a Boojum Tree forest. The Boojum tree is a funky looking tree, with a white trunk and hundreds of think twig like branches extending about a foot from the trunk. It grows tall; maybe thirty to forty feet high twisted and bent high into the desert sky. It looks like a tall inverted white carrot.
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The desert where these trees are located was superb. It was full of a wide variety of flowering plants and cactus. I loved the silence of the desert solitude. The only sound was that of the occasional bird, or the buzzing of giant bumblebees, and the cursing of your absent-minded author as he accidentally thrust his foot into an extremely sharp ball of needles that punctured deeply into his foot. This marked the first time I had received a puncture from a cactus spine in four and a half months of sandal wearing wandering. I was due, and didn’t let it slow me down.
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Snorkeling at Isla San Marcos
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The island of San Marcos is a geological gem, and an amazing setting to don your snorkel gear and see what’s going on below the surface of the water. The shoreline was a jagged rock wonderland of arches, sea caves, overhangs, spires and coves. The water was cool and refreshing, and as I made that first lunge into the darkness of the sea cave, I gave a little yelp as the water reached my sensitive areas. I don’t dive with a wet suit, as the water temperature here is about the same as Lake Superior in mid July.
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I swam deeper into the dark water, heading underneath a giant arch and to the greenish glow of sunlit water some distance away. It was very cool to swim through the darkness of that cave, and to emerge into the bright sunny water beyond. I saw at least ten varieties of fish swimming lazily through the coral covered giant rocks and boulders. The water was warmer in the sunlight, but occasionally a cold current would swirl over me, mixing warm and cold water over my body leaving my skin tingling in delight.

This was among the best snorkeling I’ve done here in Mexico, and I hope to return one more time before I leave.

Dolphins

Dolphins are good for the soul.
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Desert Insects and Animals
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The desert is full of life. The best advice I can offer is to walk slowly, take your time, and look at each rock and plant before you move much. Often these insects, birds, and animals are lazily sunning themselves in the heat of the day.
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So Ends Part One. There's more to come this week, so stay tuned!
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Posted by Rhombus 11:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged cactus plants whales deserts oceans insects dolphins photography dunes Comments (0)

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