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Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. Bryce Andrews. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster. New York. 2014. 238 pp.

A short, powerful memoir, Badluck Way chronicles a year in the life of a Seattle-born lover of Montana who follows his heart to a huge conservation-oriented cattle ranch in the state’s Madison Valley.617XgEfo2oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

With an unflinching eye, Andrews recounts his own struggles to harmonize his environmental ethic with the raw demands of protecting huge herds of heifers and steers as they grow on the ranch’s range. Especially difficult is trying to deal with the predations of a resident wolf pack. One the one hand Andrews is awed and humbled when confronted with the wolves’ unabashed wildness in situ while on the other hand, he finds himself growing ever more antagonistic as the wolves begin pick off his charges with apparent impunity.
The explosive crisis which he describes in all its conflicting emotions and necessities becomes a nerve-wracking. soul-searching window into all humanity’s muddied waters of pure vs. situational ethics and what that means for all of us environmentalists as we try to place ourselves in the all too real non-human world.

His descriptions of the Sun Ranch’s lonesome and brutal landscape are often achingly moving. I’m not so sure about his use of the occasional chapter written ostensibly from the wolf’s point-of-view. I see what he wants to do and probably even why: It does a great job of dialing back the emotional level while providing helpful information. But even as he makes the point that wolves don’t see the world as we do, he raises the question “how does he know?” and illustrates some of the pitfalls of trying ever to get into another’s head, and complicated by the fact that it’s a non-human’s psychology he’s exploring.

Overall the book is thought-provoking and extremely well written. And I can only admire his candor about his own conundrums and the impossibility of bringing his conflicting values together into a philosophical whole. Rarely are authors so honest with themselves or their readers.

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Madera Creek © SR Euston

Madera Creek © SR Euston

On Monday we visited a beautiful, remarkably biologically diverse habitat, Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains about 15 miles southeast of here. Renowned for its bird life and rare riparian habitat, it’s a naturalist’s paradise.

Or so they say. While it’s true Madera Creek is running (an unusual and delightful) event, water music was the only sound I heard the whole morning except for airplanes and a crow (or maybe it was a raven, I didn’t see it.) And along the trail we saw any number of unidentifiable plants including a flexible, soft two-needle pine, (like a white pine but it has five needles or perhaps it was a mutant three-needle Chihuahua?), and a multi-trunked shrub with alternate, smooth, leathery oval leaves with grey undersides (like a silver buffaloberry but they don’t grow in Arizona).

For me, this describes my all-too-common naturalist experience: Rarely do I see anything (especially wildlife) and if I do I can’t figure out what I’m looking at (especially plants). So I’ve come up with a few observations and recommendations for other amateur naturalists as they head out on the trail:

  1. You’ll almost never see what’s in the guide. Be it animal, vegetable or mineral, your specimen will always be unique.
  2. So go ahead and be decisive when identifying. Probably nobody else saw that bird you just  pointed out. And if anybody did, do they have a photo? If not, louder, bigger and absolutely certain usually wins. So go for it. Case in point: that was a Mexican Jay we (hardly) saw in Madera Canyon.
  3. Shrubs are a real thicket. Oaks too. Nobody knows and don’t let anybody  tell you otherwise. Your Emery oak is bound to be somebody else’s Gambel’s. Not to worry. Even the oaks don’t know. They’re too busy interbreeding. And shrubs? There’s a reason why most guides use line drawings. It’s up to the identifier to sketch in the details. Ferns and grasses? Forget it.
  4. My best advice? Marry a naturalist who’s been looking around at the natural world longer than you have. Even better, marry one with an encyclopedic memory for everything from the Golden Guide to North American Birds to the Boy Scout Handbook to Thoreau’s Journals (all fourteen volumes). Then go forth (together) and identify!
    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Pine © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Unknown Shrub © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

    Naturalist on the Snowy Trail at Madera Canyon © AME

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Two days ago we were on a lonely beach near the New River, a bit north of Cape Blanco, the wind whipping the sand. Ann saw something in the far distance. She pointed. It took me a while to make out the thin undulating line far in the distance. Then we heard the unmistakable cries and honks of the migrating geese, approaching nearer and nearer, soon overhead in steady flight, headed to their breeding grounds in the mist shrouded Aleutian Islands.  Flustered, I nearly dropped my camera in the sand. I had no high powered lenses, and am not a wildlife photographer. I just looked into the sun and shot. I previewed the LED screen, and the image naturally was terrible. Well, it was just as well, because I now could concentrate on this wilderness journey heading north to lands I will never see, but can imagine. Suddenly, we see more incoming, waving wild banners, Vs folding into long wavy horizontal lines, regrouping, separating, lead birds rotating, a few stragglers. The honks became a wild cacophony. I keep thinking, unimaginatively,  “call of the wild”. But it is wild, as wild as the Amazon. Geese flying north as they always have, following instincts and urgings we know nothing of, this surge of life heads to it’s native grounds. Ann and I don’t run out of excitement, even after the passing of twelve or fifteen flocks, maybe 1500 birds. At some point in all this I was a bit more prepared with my camera. No close ups —no lens for that. But the waving, flying banners? That’s what I hoped to capture—just to hint at this life force in motion.

These Aleutian geese mostly winter on the Northern California and Oregon coasts. A few years ago this sub-species was threatened, headed sadly to the “going, going gone” category. Federal endangered species legislation saved the day. Today, 60,000 to 100,000 of these geese fly north about this time. They face the winds, they make me glad to be alive. Thank heavens for Earth Day! Out of its power came the Endangered Species Act, the most effective conservation tool we have, and sadly one that those short-sighted, stunted politicians who would steal from the creation want to eviscerate. Let’s hope for better times ahead.  SRE

BOUND NORTH…

All photos © SR Euston




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Oregon’s coast is no old, established, seldom-changing landscape.

Take the New River. Once quiet Floras Creek flowed due west directly into the ocean. But in 1890, a great flood created New River by filling the Creek’s original mouth and carving out a 10 mile long north flowing channel behind the dunes. Since then its course has varied. Some years it adds as much as one quarter mile to its length.

On a dappled Sunday, we visit the Storm Ranch unit of the New River Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). The New River ACEC, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, protects a ten mile ribbon of sand beach and dune coastline, all the way south to Floras Lake. This is prime nesting habitat for the threatened Snowy Plover.

Pond and Shore Pine © SR Euston

The gentle trails at Storm Ranch offer a unique coastal mix: lowland woods of doug fir, shore pine, huckleberry, manzanita and madrone; wetlands; ponds; meadows; and parallel rises of stabilized dunes. The trails run down and over numerous of these old vegetated dunes. Picturesque shore pine cover the dune crests. The depressions sometimes have vernal pools, alive with froggy singing. The New River is a great place for birdwatching and today we spot buffleheads and canada geese.

Birdwatchers in the Blind © SR Euston

We end our trip, as always, by coming out east of the marshland, up the stabilized dunes and onto the Cranberry Bog overlook. Coos County is notable for its cranberry bogs, which produce the reddest cranberries in the US.  In one of our myriad farming schemes, we had hoped to purchase a bog north of here in Bandon. But the deal fell through.

This Westmoor bog, now returning to its natural state, was planted around 1915 with a hybrid wild/cultivar cranberry named Stankevich. Cranberries were harvested through the early 1950s, in dry conditions by bent-back locals, and, in flooded fields, by others. These cranberries were then shipped as far away as Los Angeles.

Viewing the old bog, Stan, who grew up in Los Angeles, wonders if, on Thanksgivings past, he may have feasted on cranberries from this very place.

The attachment to place can be indirect, and just as unlikely as that.

Reflections © SR Euston

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Tuesday is the first not-a-cloud-in-the-sky sunny day we’ve had in the 25 days we’ve been here. We need to be out in it.

We choose Arizona Beach, just north of us, an acquisition that came into the Oregon State Park system just last summer. What used to be a private campground right on the beach is now a day use area. On the east side of US 101 is a large grassy area where the weathered gray wood recreation hall and group showers stand shuttered. There is also shallow man-made fishing pond. The access road continues beneath the highway and ends at a small grassy knoll, dotted with splintery old picnic tables, above a sheltered sand beach. Tansies bloom. Myrtle Creek cuts beneath the knoll, and right now it’s flowing fast enough to prevent beach access.

We spend a warm glorious morning tramping around the cattail-choked pond. It has been lowered for cleaning before restocking with rainbow trout for summer, kids-only, fishing. In the shallows we watch four-inch-long, rough-skinned newts, the males bright with their yellow/orange bellies, readying to mate. They look like eels as they swim, tucking in their tiny legs and undulating their long vertically flattened tails. Occasionally one bobs up to the surface to catch a breath of air. In the clear pond water we count scores of them skimming along the bottom.

Stranded above the pond’s scummy edge are giant blobs of viscous green. Looking close we see they are this year’s new crop of Pacific tree frogs, Hyla regilla, the same genus we called “peepers” back east. It looks like zillions wait to hatch from their dark round eggs. As the unexpected sun begins to warm the exposed eggs, a few hatch out, wiggling toward the water. But marooned and dry, it’s hard to imagine much early success.

Still, the sheer exuberance of egg numbers seem bound to trump this minor setback. Last night while out looking at the starry night, we hear the tree frogs’ familar nocturnal chorus: a creaky song which rises from ditches, puddles and marshes everywhere along the coast.

Driftwood Reflection © SR Euston

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Blacklock Point North © SR Euston

Blacklock Point, north of Cape Blanco, is a treeless promontory a few miles west of US 101 down the airport road. There are two choices signed at the trailhead: For Blacklock Point the arrow points to the left, Floras Lake slightly to the right. We have decided to try for Floras Lake today but in fact we use a trail directly behind the sign. It’s the only one that’s not a major puddle. The trail passes through what appears to be a boggy marsh and often we are forced to climb into the salal, sword fern and rhododendron to avoid sinking ankle-deep in black ooze and water. We hear bullfrogs and tree frogs in the thickets. All the trail guides say this is a wet trail. It’s true, especially in winter.

At a T-intersection we head west toward the sound of the waves and into a deep coastal forest. It’s not actually raining but the landscape is saturated. We look in vain for the promised 150 foot waterfall and eat among the douglas-fir. We cross a bridge at the base of a valley the trail has dipped down into. This isn’t like other coastal canyons: It’s a wider flatland not the typical narrow gash, and people have obviously camped here under giant sitka spruce.

Land's End © SR Euston

We’re wondering vaguely where we are when we come out into chopped-back salal, cross a sandstone outcrop and ta-da! There’s Floras Lake ahead, a shallow windblown lake with a treeless shoreline. It’s apparently a place for windsurfing. From looking at it this winter, it’s hard to believe.

Our trail crosses the stabilized dunes and there stretched before us is a wide, long, beautiful and totally deserted beach. We spend some time agate hunting.

Returning, we finally reach the T intersection and head back toward the airport runway. Along the way through a coastal forest of shore pine and sitka spruce we encounter four salamanders of two species. We have seldom run into these slow moving amphibians. Nor can we identify them for sure from the field guide. All we can say is one was big smooth and thick tailed, the other small, ridged, with long thin tail and yellow/orange feet.

You’d think those characteristics would make it obvious wouldn’t you?

Blacklock Point © SR Euston

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Door in New Mexico Winter ©SR Euston

Yesterday I was sitting in the living room reading the Sunday comics. Given the toxic nature of public “conversation” these days, the comics have become my only consistent must-read in the daily newspaper. Red and Rover is my favorite. (Check it out at http://comics.com/red&rover/)

I heard a thump at the front of the house. Nothing particularly noteworthy. Lots of things go thump around here: Sassy jumping down from her kitty food bowl perch, a poorly aligned stack of refrigerated leftovers finally giving in to gravity, our dog Clara getting off the sofa.

But a few minutes later it happened again. This time brought me to the front door where a remarkable display was under way in the courtyard’s pyrocantha bushes.

So that’s where the thumps were coming from! There must have been at least 50 robins, darting, eating and fighting over the bright orange-red berries in the bushes and strewn on the ground. Backup diners lined the roof, lurked in the spruce tree and jetted back and forth. Miscued by the reflection of blue and clouds, flying robins were hitting our front windows.

Pyrocantha Berries ©SR Euston

Also working the berries were smaller yellow-sided, crested, cedar waxwings. In the oversized juniper the resident ladderback woodpecker began his tap, tap, tapping, heard but, as usual, not seen.

All at once what had seemed such a bleak and lifeless cold winter’s day was converted to a bustle of avian activity.

Preparing to head south in autumn, robins gather in giant flocks, often mixed with waxwings and other species. The largest flock winters near St. Petersburg, FL. Its estimated size peaked in 2007 at over 700,000 individuals.

Who’s does this surprisingly accurate counting? Participants in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs). Now in its 110th year, from mid-December to early January, events are scheduled around the nation. Group leaders train participants on bird ID and the how-tos of counting. In New Mexico over 30 events are on tap, from Farmington to Eunice, from Peloncillo to Clayton. Compiled statistics and sightings help assess the health of bird populations and support ongoing conservation efforts.

Want to see what CBCs are available in your area? Go to: http://www.audubon.org/Bird/cbc/.

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Sandhill Crane Up Close ©SR Euston

Sandhill Crane Up Close ©SR Euston

Evening approaches at Socorro County’s Bosque del Apache. We hurry to the northern end, where the cornfields and shallow wetlands are. Across the field we spot an enormous, restless, white, honking swath. Looking closer, we see it’s a giant gaggle of snow geese, recent arrivals from the north.

Overhead, ragged streamers of huge gray sandhill cranes circle, their gravelly voices filling the dusky sky. They land and mingle gracefully among their smaller cousins, all of them feeding contentedly.

But the show is just beginning. At some command, unheard by human ears, the snow geese and sandhills, almost as a whole cloth, rise up in a deafening rush of white and gray and black wings. They move just southeast and, with quieting calls and honks, settle in for the night among the ducks in the shallow darkening water and bent reeds across the road.

Dusk and Cranes ©SR Euston

It’s a remarkable experience of pure wildness. And it’s a show that happens at the Bosque twice each day, from November through February—sunrise as the flocks leave, and sunset, when they return.

Some winters upwards of 80,000 birds converge on the Refuge, a birdwatcher’s paradise of ducks, snow and Ross’s geese, and the Bosque’s most famous visitor, the Sandhill Crane.  And it is one of New Mexico’s great environmental success stories with the revitalization of a severely damaged Rio Grande ecosystem and the resulting rebound of the once endangered sandhill crane population. 15,684 were counted in February of this year.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), about 20 miles southeast of Socorro, is a 57,000+ acre chunk of prime riparian and mountainous desertland. Created in 1939 to restore migratory waterbird habitat, it is protected and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Much of the upland is an officially designated wilderness. But 7000 acres of intensively managed and irrigated farm and wetlands along the Rio Grande are open to the public. Here, along a 12 mile dirt road loop lies a remarkable mix of desert, mountain vistas, irrigated fields, marshes and cottonwoods.

As well as ample blinds, decks and pullouts for watching the avian winter show.

Bosque Autumn ©SR Euston

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Out of Monahans, West Texas we dipped due south, across the Pecos River and up the Stockton Plateau. Past the Glass Mountains, the Wood Hollows, and, beyond Marathon, we followed the old Great Comanche Trail toward the “big bend”, that portion of the Texas/Mexico border where the Rio Grande’s flow abruptly changes direction from southwest to northeast.

The landscape began to improve. Twenty six hundred forty seven miles into the trip we crossed the Santiago Mountains’ Persimmon Gap and

Octotillo ©SR Euston

entered Big Bend National Park. Spreading out to the horizon were 800,000 acres of protected Chihuahuan desert (an area larger than Rhode Island): a sea of grass, mesquite, scarlet-tipped ocotillo, prickly pear. We could see in the distance, jutting up between us and the Rio Grande, the silhouette of the High Chisos Complex, a broken jumble of desert mountains.

I guess big desert spaces scare some people, especially those used to seeing no farther than across the street. As for me, it was love at first sight.

We checked in with the volunteer ranger at the entry station. But our “Official Big Bend Greeter” turned out to be a bobcat, who, although typically a nocturnal creature, stood out in the open by the roadside in mid-afternoon, giving us a long leisurely stare before sauntering off into the mesquite. Less than a mile down the road we stopped to view a rattlesnake, sunning on the macadam. When we looked up there was a tarantula! By the time we broke camp at Rio Grande Village a week later, we’d seen such an array of roadrunners, raccoons, bats, rabbits, owls, squirrels, skunks, ringtails, insects and lizards, the coyote’s daily lunchtime stroll around the campground had come to seem pretty ho-hum.

Today as I look back, 30 years older, I mark that bobcat “howdy” as the moment my internal tectonics shifted. I knew. I had come home to the West.

Prickly Pear ©SR Euston

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In September we camped at Hovenweep National Monument. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t, including many of our Southwestern friends. Although it’s been a national monument since 1923, less than one million folks have ever visited.

Hovenweep (Paiute/Ute for deserted valley) straddles the Utah/Colorado border in the Four Corners area, less than 30 miles from Mesa Verde as the crow flies. While much less celebrated than its neighbor, Hovenweep is one of the most fascinating of Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Above pinon dotted canyons, finely masoned towers up to 20 feet high are posted like sentinels watching over the vast mesaland landscape. Those which remain standing are architectural wonders, some perfectly square, some round, some D-shaped. The masonry is exceptional, the stones fitting together with remarkable precision. Many perch directly on the knife edge of sheer canyon walls and seem almost to have grown organically from the mesas.

It’s quiet, definitely off the beaten southwestern loop—a pleasant secret of spectacular ruins and Great Sage Plain.

On our second afternoon we had a desert downpour that rocked our little car and tent. When it stopped around 4:30 pm, we set off for two little-visited ruins, Horseshoe and Hackberry, about six miles north of camp. Down a rutted dirt road we reached the trailhead and skirted across a mesa top toward the ancient towers. Along the trail we watched and were watched back by three gray foxes. When we first spotted them I couldn’t believe they weren’t coyotes. But the large ears, bushy tails and pointy snouts were unmistakable.

Late Afternoon—Hovenweep

Late Afternoon—Hovenweep

But the best came last. On the trip back we looked south across a desert panorama blown clean by rain. Through the fresh washed air we watched as the storm moved off toward Arizona and Utah. From our upland vantage point looking south, we named the mountains along the horizon—San Juans, Ute Mountain, Shiprock, Chuskas, Abajos, La Salles. And there, 85 miles southwest, like a tiny, distant cityscape between the Chuskas and the Abajos, stood Monument Valley, etched against the darkening sky.

That night we slept peacefully beneath the star-filled bowl of desert night. Far away, coyotes howled in the wilderness.

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