A Winter Cycling in Death Valley

Author’s note: Over ten years ago, I wrote this essay about my cycling experiences at Death Valley. In it you may notice a bias against car travel because I wrote it for a cycling audience in mind, particular those who travel by bicycle. I even pitched it to a cycling magazine (they liked it but needed more quality photos).

I continue to ride my bicycle a lot, and I highly encourage everyone to do so (it’s better for you and the Earth), but over time I’ve come to realize that I should be less judgmental of people who experience parks in different ways than me. Still, I chose not to edit this essay—even though it could certainly use it, especially stylistically. With that being said, here it is, unadulterated and unedited.

I had never been anywhere this windy. I was out for a leisurely overnight trip from Furnace Creek in the heart of Death Valley to the town of Shoshone and back. All went well during this ride—my legs felt strong but worked, I was able to relax, the temperature warmed to a comfortable level (it was December), and I was surrounded the whole way by beautiful scenery. All went well, that is, until the wind hit me like a punch in the face.

Visibility was great earlier that day, and the wind was mostly calm. I could see fifty miles to the north along the wide-open expanse of the valley floor, but there appeared to be a haze obscuring the most distant mountains. My attention was repeatedly drawn back to this haze because it was moving closer. As I rode north, it moved south further obscuring the horizon. By the late afternoon, it was easy to see what was approaching, one of Death Valley’s infamous wind storms.

I’m slow on my bicycle and even more so when it is loaded down with camping gear. The windstorm, if it had any malicious intent, couldn’t have chosen a better time to try and wipe me out. It was late afternoon. I had already ridden sixty miles and my energy levels were dropping. Home was only a dozen or so miles away but the wind forced me to drop into the granny gear. Then it blew even harder. Sand stung my face and dust irritated my eyes. I felt like I was trying to pedal through water. I gave up riding a few miles from home and started to walk.

View of dust storm approaching from right.

A dust storm blows across Death Valley.

That day was rough, as were many others, but I always felt compelled to go back out. After all, there was a 3.3 million acre national park surrounding me. In many areas of the United States, the winters may be soaking wet or too cold to bicycle. Occasionally those things can combine to make Death Valley a not-so-fun place to ride. The odds of that happening, however, are very much against it.

It was an easy choice for me to not bring a car to Death Valley National Park, because I don’t own one. I had lived without a car in remote areas of New Mexico and Washington State before, but still I was a little apprehensive about living and working in Death Valley without the ease an automobile would provide (the supermarket lies sixty miles distant from Furnace Creek). It’s not uncommon to read about a car being a “must have” in order to visit and explore Death Valley. For typical national park visitors, this is true. However, I don’t consider touring cyclists to be typical visitors. Without a car, and on a bicycle, is one of the best ways to experience this park.

On average Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in the United States. The books written about it are full of superlatives describing its extreme heat and changes of elevation. The Badwater Basin, elevation -282 feet, is the lowest dry land point in North America. Telescope Peak, the park’s highest point at elevation 11049 feet, looks right down upon Badwater from its western foothold. Temperatures exceeding 120° F are routine anywhere in the valley during the height of summer. The earth’s second hottest temperature ever recorded, 134° F, was measured at Furnace Creek*.

Those are a couple of the most notable features of Death Valley National Park, but during the five months I spent there I discovered that there were many things rewarding to find, and most of those things I would have missed if I hadn’t been riding my bicycle.

I would have missed the level of fitness Death Valley propelled me to. I spent the previous winter and summer in one of the flatter portions of Maine. Cycling there kept me fit, but not like Death Valley. When you’re in the valley, especially at Badwater, there’s only one-way to go—up. The easiest way out of the Death Valley is on a road that climbs over 3000 feet in 20 miles. That’s the pass that I tackled first. From there, the roads became more challenging and exciting. Days riding with 4000 feet and 5000 feet of elevation gain, or more, became common. Whether or not I was loaded up with camping gear or out just for a day ride didn’t matter. The challenge was always there. Over the course of the season, I pounded at the roads daring gravity to slow me down. Of course gravity did its job, but with each passing week my legs became stronger, mountain passes became less daunting, and the return trips down those monster climbs became more rewarding.

That’s something else I would have missed without my bike, the challenge and reward of it all. How far could I safely ride this day or that? What discoveries does that canyon next to the road offer? I found that some days were devoted to cycling, some were devoted to hiking, and some were devoted to both.

I sometimes carried my hiking boots, daypack, lots of water, and trusty bike lock in a couple of panniers. After finding a suitable road sign near a promising destination or hiking route, I would lock my bicycle to the signpost confident that bicycle thieves probably were not perusing the roads. After that, it was just a matter of hiking in.

I wandered to some spectacular places on those days—canyons with waterfalls (yes, even waterfalls can be found in Death Valley if you know where to look), mountain peaks, and the ruins of mining operations gone bust. The lack of daylight during the winter months was limiting however, even more so than my energy levels on some days. I would regretfully leave the mountaintop I reached or the deep canyon I was sheltered in only to be surprised by what I could find while cycling back home.

Without my bicycle, I would’ve missed the surprises that even the ordinary roadsides offered. It was sometimes as simple as being surprised by how different the land looked under different light, how hard cycling can be when you just don’t feel as energized as you wish you were, or sometimes it was just the simple presence of wildflowers that surprised me.

Obviously, Death Valley is a very dry place. Furnace Creek averages less than two inches of rainfall per year. Plant life is not abundant. Occasionally though, winter rains can help produce spectacular flower blooms during the late winter and spring seasons. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those winters. Hardly any rain fell, even by Death Valley standards. However, some areas did receive a light rain shower or two. Annual and perennial plants will respond to such things in due time. I must admit, I’m a bit of plant nerd and easily get distracted by things such as roadside wildflowers. Still, it may seem oxymoronic to go to Death Valley to see wildflowers, but in the right place at the right time of the year flowers can appear.

Along a road I pedaled numerous times, light rain had fallen months before. When I came back that way early in March, I was surprised to see the diversity and results of that rain. That day I was sailing down the road on its 6% grade until I noticed the scattering of flowers along the shoulder. I was distracted and surprised enough by them that I barely covered a mile in the next hour. These flowers didn’t produce much along the lines of lushness, but the land no longer felt as desolate as before.

I couldn’t say the same for other areas of the park. “No Services Next 54 Miles.” “No Services Next 72 Miles.” These were some of the road signs I encountered in the Death Valley region. Remoteness and desolation were in no short supply, and that’s part of why people are fascinated with this place. Other than roads, Death Valley has very few developed areas. Yes, there certainly are the typical campgrounds, restaurants, and trinket shops one expects to see in a national park, but the lack of water mercifully limits these services to a very limited number of places. Away from those places, nothing seems to stop the desolation and expansiveness of this place.

The Harrisburg Flats, which the Emigrant Canyon Road crosses, was once the site of a thriving mining community, and like most mining towns in the area it went bust. Now, not much more than rusting tin cans scattered amongst the low shrubs reveal the town’s location. This area, with its evidence of people come and gone and its lack of people today, filled me with the sense that this is about as lonely and desolate of an area as I’ve ever visited.

I cycled up the long haul through Emigrant Canyon for miles and miles to this point with only a handful of automobiles passing by. When I reached the Harrisburg Flats, ten then twenty minutes came and went between cars. I was alone. The old tin cans didn’t offer any company and neither did the northern harrier and the golden eagle I spotted flying nearby. This certainly was a desolate spot, but a blissful one as well. If I had reached this spot in a car after an hour of driving, instead of several hours of pedaling, the emotion of the moment would have been lost. It’s a moment I sometimes think about when streets are crowded and society is noisy.

A lot would be lost without exploring this park on a bicycle. Even the wind added to the experience. The same wind that forced me to walk my bike and flung dirt in my eyes and mouth made plenty of noise. It howled through the edges of the doors and windows of my home. It roared across my ears when I cycled drowning out almost all other sound. But when the wind quit, which it often does (trust me), the silence of Death Valley took over.

During one wonderfully calm day, in the midst of a ride that climbs a vertical mile from Furnace Creek to Dante’s View, I was fortunate to discover just how quiet Death Valley really is. Few cars had passed by me that day in November, which certainly was welcome. However, it wasn’t the lack of cars that I discovered that day. What struck me the most was the immense silence. As I ascended the last few miles to Dante’s View, I only heard two things: the sound of my tires gripping the pavement and my heart pounding in my chest. After I stopped and rested, I didn’t even hear those things.

View of salt flats and mountains

Looking into Death Valley from Dante’s View.

Minus forests, abundant streams, and maybe a conveniently placed bicycle shop, Death Valley offers all a cyclist could want. Ascents of challenging mountain passes, the land’s vast and subtle beauty, the isolation and desolation, the new discoveries, even the wind—it was always these things that brought me back out to ride again. You can even find trees and water if you look for them. Would I have experienced all of these things if I was traveling by automobile? Possibly. Would they have been as fulfilling? Never. The views were never as grand, the flowers never as pretty, and the wind never blew as hard as it did when I was riding my bicycle.

*This is now considered the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

Northern Elephant Seals

Northern elephant seals are one of the largest pinnipeds on Earth. Large males can weigh as much as an SUV—four to five thousand pounds. Females are much smaller, topping off at only about one thousand pounds. Since the first few pairs began to haul out at Point Reyes in the 1970s, more and more have arrived each year.

seal resting on cobble beach, dock and boathouse in background

A subadult male elephant seal rests on a cobble beach in the Chimney Rock area at Point Reyes National Seashore.

This aggregation is a seasonal event. Unlike many mammals, the birthing and breeding season coincide in elephant seals. Males arrive first, establishing beach front territory where they’ll be able to establish and protect a harem. Pregnant females show up next, after which they soon give birth. Pups are weaned after about a month of nursing. Like bears, female elephant seals fast while giving birth and nursing. They do not eat, drink, or leave the beach during this time. Consequently, they lose 30-40% of their body weight during this short time. Mating occurs before the females depart to the open ocean. Adult males stick around longer, aiming to increase their chances of mating with as many females as possible.

Males have unique individual calls, and helps them recognize each other and avoid some physical conflict. While my mid January visit was too brief and my viewing was too far away to make such differentiations, there was plenty of activity to see and hear.

The biggest bulls already had established territories and harems. Newborn pups cried nearly constantly, especially when a wave of cold water washed over them. Females barked at each other too. For gregarious creatures, they sure let others hear it when their personal space is encroached upon.

(This place could really benefit from a webcam.)

The main overlook provided the best viewing opportunity to see bulls with harems. The females didn’t seem to be ready to mate, having just given birth or just about to, but that didn’t stop some of the bulls from trying. Forced copulation is not uncommon among elephant seals. Females can be seriously injured and pups crushed by randy males.

I also found good viewing opportunities nearby at the old U.S. Life Saving Station.

elephant seal resting on side with penis emerging

I had no idea what was going on here, but later learned this is an elephant seal’s penis. (Also, I’m told, these are nicknamed a “pink floyd.”)

Northern elephant seals were once thought to be extinct from decades of unrelenting and unregulated hunting, then a small population was found off of the Mexican coast in the early twentieth century. Luckily, the species was given strict protection while their ocean habitat remained largely intact, and their population has grown about six percent per year since the early twentieth century. There are now probably more than 150,000 northern elephant seals.

Many marine mammal species were once so rare that we can’t take them for granted, and we need to ensure their habitat and food sources are protected. If you’re in the neighborhood of Point Reyes National Seashore in January and February, you must stop and see elephant seals at Chimney Rock.

Winter Frogs

At Oregon’s South Beach State Park last month, I heard a chorus of frogs hidden among the grassy dunes. Following the calls, I found a few dozen Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla) in a shallow ephemeral pool where the males were calling loudly in an effort to attract females. When I stooped low to record a video, they were so loud I should’ve been wearing earplugs.

A few of the males got lucky too.

frogs in amplexus


These frogs can be active all year when conditions are right. My night at the state park coincided with a stretch of very warm weather that coaxed the frogs out of their torpor. (The daytime high in Newport was 62˚F, a new record for the date.)

Winter weather in coastal Oregon and northern California is often wet and chilly, but low elevation areas rarely experience freezing temperatures. For someone who grew up in Pennsylvania and spent several winters on the Alaska Peninsula, “normal” winter still includes ice and snow, so the climate along Pacific Ocean remains somewhat novel. Seeing frogs in January, especially, enhanced that feeling.

Fault Creep

The San Andreas Fault may be the most famous fault on Earth. For roughly 750 miles (1200 km), it creases California and marks part of the tectonic boundary between the North American and Pacific plates. It creates tangible examples for us to see plate tectonics in action.

Aerial view of landscape with fault line at center right.

The San Andreas Fault cleaves the land on the Carrizo plain. Photo courtesy of Ikluft and Wikipedia.

For about 75 miles, California State Route 25 (CA 25) roughly traces the path of the San Andreas Fault as the highway passes through an open valley filled with cattle ranches. (If you’re visiting the east side of Pinnacles National Park, you’ll drive this road.) From the ground, the fault is relatively hidden in most places even though the highway crosses it several times. On Google Earth, it shows a bit more clearly.

Google Earth image of creek valley with buildings at center.

A group of buildings, sitting just to the east of CA 25, is bisected by the San Andreas Fault. The red line marks the fault’s approximate location.

This part of the fault creeps along at a slow rate, maybe an inch per year. When covered by soil and vegetation, the resulting displacement would be nearly invisible on a yearly basis. When we pave the landscape with asphalt or concrete, however, the fault’s movement can manifest itself in ways that are easy to see.

About a ten-minute drive north of Pinnacles National Park’s east entrance the San Andreas Fault crosses CA 25. Here, the San Andreas Fault is slowly tearing the pavement apart.

Road with crack running from middle left to lower right.

This is essentially the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Land and water on the fault’s west and south side is moving north relative to the North American continent.

Person standing on road. Land to right is North American plate. Land on lower left is Pacific plate.

Yours truly straddles the plate boundary between North America and the Pacific.

According to Greg Hayes on his Geotripper blog, this section of road was repaved in 2008. When he visited this site in 2017, the yellow center line paint had not yet split. When I stopped on the morning of January 31, 2018, the paint was clearly cracked.

Crack in pavement across yellow line.

View is looking north.

This movement has been going on for millions of years. The rocks of Pinnacles National Park, now most famous for scenery and condors, are part of a volcanic field that erupted almost 200 miles to the south. Since then, movement along the San Andreas has displaced the rocks northward, leaving about a third of the volcanic field behind.

Road pavement with crack. Text reads "To Alaska" and "North"

Land on the south and west side of the San Andreas Fault is on track to meet Alaska in a couple hundred million years.

The crack in the pavement is the current surface expression of the fault’s movement. Fault creep is evident elsewhere in California. In Hayward, creep along the Hayward Fault is splitting the city hall in half.

This section of the San Andreas provides a rare opportunity to observe the Earth’s tectonic plates in motion. Because it happens over immense time scales, geologic change is most often undramatic and unnoticed. It happens slowly in rivulets of erosion on a hillside, waves reworking sand on a beach, dust blown in the wind, and creep along faults. As passengers on Earth’s brittle crust, we’re always moving relatively speaking.

Google Earth image of road moving north to south.

You can visit this site on CA 25 at 36°35’54.27″N, 121°11’40.19″W. Please be cautious though; this is a busy highway with a high speed limit. It’s also surrounded by private land, but you can find a couple of small pullouts about a hundred yards from the fault.

Drivers of Hibernation

Brown and black bears hibernate to avoid winter famine. For five to seven months, they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate, a strategy quite unlike other mammalian hibernators. Chipmunks, for example, cache food to eat in between bouts of torpor. Marmots and arctic ground squirrels don’t eat during winter and survive off of their fat stores like bears, but they activate their metabolism periodically to wake and urinate.

I recently spent about 40 hours reviewing studies related to hibernation and denning in brown bears for a chapter in my book on Brooks River’s bears and salmon, which reminded me just how remarkable this process is. While in the den, bears spend about 98% of their time not moving. Their heart rate declines dramatically from 50-60 beats per minute during summer to 10-20 per minute in hibernation. During this time, they hardly breathe, taking 1.5 breaths per minute on average. Their body temperature drops several degrees entering them into a state of hypothermia. Finally, the metabolic rate of a hibernating bear is 70-75% less than its summer peak. To survive, bears subsist on their body fat, catabolizing it into energy and water.

brown bear sitting on rock surrounded by water

All brown bears, like this adult male known as 89 Backpack, get fat to survive.

Despite their lack of physical activity, hibernating bears maintain muscle strength and bone health. Even if immobilization didn’t cause starvation, osteoporosis, and atrophy in people, we would die of dehydration if placed in an equivalent situation. Hibernating bears, however, are nearly completely self-supporting. The only input they need from the outside world during hibernation is oxygen.

The physiology of bear hibernation is complicated and not fully understood. Scientists are still elucidating basic details about this remarkable process. For example, what causes bears to enter and exit the den? How long do bears need to switch their metabolism from to hibernating mode? As it turns out, the switch is a long process.

Researchers in Sweden used implanted heart rate monitors and GPS-enabled tracking collars on fourteen brown bears. The devices recorded the movement, heart rate, heart rate variability, and body temperature as well as ambient temperature and snow depth. The results, published last year in “Drivers of hibernation in the brown bear,” are insightful because it allowed the researchers to develop correlations between the variables that drive and trigger and hibernation.

In fall, well before hibernation begins, body temperature and heart rate of bears began to decrease. Heart rate started to slow, on average, 24 days before den entry, and body temperature began to drop 13 days before den entry. Overall activity lessened 25 days before entry, but metabolic activity declined steeply just as the bears entered their dens. It took an additional 20 days after for heart rate and metabolic activity to bottom out.

The transition back to a more active physiology started long before bears left their dens. Heart and metabolic rate began to rise one month and 20 days, respectively, before den exit. Body temperature began to rise even earlier, a full two months before den exit when winter still locked the landscape in ice and snow. All bears left the den when their body temperature was 36.7˚C (98˚F) ± 0.15 °C, the active-state body temperature for brown bears. As the researchers note, the narrow temperature range at this time suggests bears exit the den when their body temperature reaches a specific point. Body temperature and metabolic rate stabilized 10 and 15 days, respectively, after den exit, but heart rate didn’t stabilize for another month.

Graph that shows the timing of several variables affecting the start and end of hibernation in bears.

These graphs chart the relationship between physiological parameters of brown bears in Sweden. Den entry (left column) and exit (right column) are indicated by time zero (the green vertical line) to determine the sequence of physiological events. SDANN is the standard deviation of heart rate variability over five minute intervals. It was used a proxy measure of metabolic activity. A red line denotes when a variable was decreasing, while a blue line indicates when a variable was increasing, with the number of days from the entry/exit indicated. From Drivers of Hibernation in the Brown Bear and reposted under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License.

Even though the bears’ physiology initiates the ultimate beginning and end of hibernation, climate plays a role in this process too. Changes to body temperature before den entry were affected by ambient air temperature, but bears largely relied upon a physiologic slowdown to cool themselves. In spring, bears left the den when the weather was right, exiting when air temperature rose to above 3.7˚C ± 1.5 ˚C (38.7˚F ± 2.7˚F).  Some biologists have suggested that food availability drives the timing of den entry, but this study did not attempt to test the hypothesis.

As a survival strategy, bear hibernation is remarkably efficient, and no other animal attains the same physiologic feats. Small mammal hibernators wake to pee; bears don’t even need to do that. Changing from an active metabolism to one of hibernation and back again takes a lot of time. If you are fortunate enough to see a bear in the middle of fall or the middle of spring, that bear is likely living in a transitional body equipped to handle two worlds—one with food and one without.


Filling the Gaps: 274

In the fall of 2016, a bear with a distinctive light-colored patch of fur on its left shoulder was seen at Brooks River. The identity of this bear, at the time, was a mystery. It behaved like it knew its way around the falls and looked like a bear I should recognize.

The problem was I didn’t. So, I speculated. Based on the bear’s shoulder patch, I said it could be 469, a bear who is not often seen at Brooks River but became of interest to webcam viewers in 2013 as he dealt with a leg or foot injury.

Afterwards, the mystery bear was sometimes labeled as 469 in photos and videos.

I was never sure of this ID. The bear’s face, overall fur color, and body size didn’t match 469, but my suggestion fueled further speculation when the bear returned in 2017.

I now know my identification was incorrect. Katmai’s staff has since identified this bear as 274.

bear standing in water with gull in background

Bear 274 Overflow on September 27, 2017. NPS photo.

274 is a maturing adult male and is believed to be the offspring of 438 Flo. Unlike most brown bear cubs, he and a sibling remained with their mother through four summers (most mother bears in Katmai keep their cubs for two to three summers). This is the only example of a brown bear family in Katmai remaining together for four summers.

bear family with older cubs sitting on grassy island

438 (center right) sits with her two 3.5 year-old offspring in 2010. One of these cubs, perhaps the bear on the far left, is believed to be 274.

I never had the opportunity to watch 274 in person in the fall as he is an infrequent visitor, which is perhaps the reason I was mistaken originally. Bears have distinctive features that allow us to identify them across seasons and years. Yet, they can be notoriously difficult to recognize from early summer to fall. 274’s wide-set blond ears and shoulder patch should remain distinctive identifying features during future autumns. His current shoulder patch, it should be noted, wasn’t present in 2012, the last time he was positively identified in the fall.

bear walking in water next to grassy bank

Bear 274 in September 2012. NPS photo.

As he continues to grow, we could see 274 attaining a higher rank in the bear hierarchy. During the last few years he’s not been timid when using Brooks Falls, but he’s also not been large enough to occupy the most preferred fishing spots without being displaced regularly. If genes (which control his potential for growth, health, and lifespan) and fortune (which provide the opportunity for him to attain his physical potential) align, then 274 could become one of the more dominant bears at Brooks River.

brown bear sitting and looking towards camera

Bear 274 in July 2016.

Filling the Gaps

Last July on bearcam, we witnessed the ascent of 32 Chunk in the hierarchy at Brooks Falls. Chunk was the largest bear to consistently use the falls in July, and most bears didn’t challenge him. We watched Chunk interact with many bears, occasionally with some that I (and many bearcam watchers) didn’t recognize. In mid July, for example, we saw Chunk displace another large adult male.

GIF of bear on left moving away from approaching bear who appears at right.

In this GIF from July 2017, a unidentified bear avoids the approach of 32 Chunk.

At the time, a few bearcam watchers speculated the subordinate bear may have been 856, who was the most dominant bear at Brooks River for many years. As I wrote in a previous post, I didn’t think this was 856. So who was it? Was he a previously identified bear or a newcomer to the river?

Before his seasonal position ended this fall, Ranger Dave from Katmai posted photos of several bears who were seen along the river, but were unknown or unrecognized by webcam viewers. Assuming Ranger Dave’s IDs are correct, which they are much more often than not, the unknown bear in the GIF above could be #611.

brown bear standing in water

Bear 611 at Brooks Falls in 2017. Photo courtesy of Dave Kopshever and Katmai National Park.

611 is a bear I don’t know much about. According to my notes, he was first identified in 2015, but only in September and October not in July. Preliminary bear monitoring data from that fall state this bear was an older subadult or young adult at the time.


611 in September 2015, the first year he was identified. NPS photo.

I may be splitting hairs or misunderstanding Dave’s intent, but note that Ranger Dave said, “This is believed to be 611” when he posted the photo. Perhaps there’s still some uncertainty regarding the ID. Filling in the gaps of who’s who at Brooks River can be difficult, and it isn’t possible to identify every bear with certainty. But—based on scars, size, head shape, and ear color—I am fairly convinced the bear in the 2017 photo posted by Ranger Dave is the same bear that Chunk displaced in the GIF above.

At Brooks River, I made the effort to learn to recognize the bears who used the river frequently. Since bear behavior is often complex and can vary from animal to animal, recognizing individual bears leads to a better understanding of their growth, behavior, and strategies for survival. If 611 returns in 2018, we’ll have another opportunity to observe his behavior. Will he challenge other adult males for fishing spots or will he avoid confrontation more often than not? Whatever happens, it will allow us to learn just a little more about the bear world.

Burpee Hill

Dry weather has been infrequent in western Washington this fall, so when a clear day dawned earlier this week I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a wandering bike ride, one of my favorite pastimes. Over the last several years, my bicycle rides and hikes have become far more leisurely since I have become more prone to distraction. Without a fixed agenda though, I’m more open to discovery. Why, for example, would anyone pass on the chance to see a baby snake?

tiny snake in palm of gloved hand

This tiny garter snake was basking on the side of the road on a warm fall day in late October. Concerned it might become road kill, I moved it off of the pavement.

With temperatures near freezing on Monday, I wasn’t going to find any snakes, but over a fifty mile round trip—from Skagit River to the end of the road near Baker Lake—I found more than enough to hold my attention. After a mere two miles of pedaling, I found a reason to pause.

I began at the old concrete silos in Concrete, a small town along the middle reaches of Skagit River…

Concrete silos. Text on silos reads,

Why was Concrete named Concrete? You only get one guess.

Cycling route profile from Google Maps.

No, I didn’t ride the hill as slowly as Google Maps says it will take.

…and immediately began a steep climb up Burpee Hill. In two miles, the road gains over 800 feet of elevation, although I didn’t mind the opportunity to warm up with frost lingering on the grass.

The North Cascades region is the sum of a complex geologic history. Large-scale mountain building, volcanism, and extensive glaciation created and shaped a landscape of unparalleled ruggedness in the Lower 48 states. This area’s geology is, well, complicated. Just take a look at the geologic map.

screen shot of geologic map of Mount Baker and Baker Lake area


On a bicycle, unlike in a car, stopping to check out roadside curiosities—wildlife, road kill, trees, wildflowers, rocks, scenery—is very easy and is an important reason why I enjoy it so much. About half way up the Burpee Hill climb, I stopped to ponder some interesting sediments exposed in a road cut. The coarse to fine grained sediments were well sorted, indicating flowing water had deposited them, and were capped by a mix of unsorted rocks. This is one piece of a grander glacial puzzle.

view of road cut

A few exposures of loose and coarse sediment can be found on the Burpee Hill Road.

Maps that outline the last glacial maximum in North America give the impression that ice flowed largely north to south. While generally true, the story is a bit more complex on a local scale, as Burpee Hill illustrates.

Glaciers are masses of ice that flow and deform, and they behave differently than ice from your freezer. Set an ice cube on a table and strike it with a hammer and it will fracture. Ice in a glacier’s interior, however, is under tremendous pressure. Ice crystals are altered and deformed like plastic putty, so much so that only the upper 30 meters of temperate glaciers are brittle. (The relatively consistent maximum depth of crevasses reveals this fact. Below 30 meters, deforming ice seals any crevasses. Cavities at the base of glaciers have been measured to seal as fast as 25 centimeters per day.) The ice is not impervious to liquid water though. Within temperate glaciers, ice remains at or slightly above freezing, which allows meltwater to percolate to the glacier’s base. Pressure from overlying ice also causes some water to melt at the bed. Once there, meltwater acts as a lubricant helping the glacier slide. These factors, combined with gravity’s pull, drive glaciers along the paths of least resistance, and sometimes these paths lead uphill.

Between 19,000 and 18,000 years ago, a broad lobe of the cordilleran ice sheet invaded the lowlands of Puget Sound. Fingers of the ice sheet reached into the North Cascades as it continued to advance southward. Around 16,000 years ago, the ice sheet reached its maximum extent in western Washington, reaching south beyond Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia.

On the margin of the ice sheet, lowland valleys like the Skagit offered ice easy passage as it advanced. About 18,000 years ago in the lower and middle reaches of the Skagit valley, ice flowed in the opposite direction of the modern Skagit River. Burpee Hill is largely the result of this process. It’s a 200 meter-thick layer of glacial outwash, glacial lake sediments, and glacial till deposited at the front of ice as it advanced up the Skagit valley. The features are clearer in a LIDAR image.


Burpee Hill is the wedge-shaped feature in the center of the image.

LIDAR image with labels. From left to right:

Glacial ice from the Puget Sound area flowed east over the current location of Concrete. The sediments that make Burpee Hill were deposited in front of the advancing ice.

Since its formation, erosion and landslides have eaten away at Burpee Hill, and it is easy to overlook when the lure of craggy peaks and snow-capped volcanoes always dangles ahead. If volcanoes and orogenies are architects of this landscape, then glaciers are certainly its sculptor, reshaping landforms in profound ways. Stories like this are tucked away everywhere. Landforms are rarely ordinary.

I continued my ride, which (in case you’re wondering) was wonderful even though temperatures remained near freezing. As I expected it to be on week day in early December, the road was quiet. The views of Mount Baker, pockets of old growth forest, and Baker Lake were worth the effort.
view of snow capped volcano and creek valley

Hey National Parks: You Need More Webcams

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a place of unparalleled resources. It’s studded with over a dozen active volcanoes and protects the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century. Its lakes and rivers are swarmed annually by millions of salmon. Abundant food and an undeveloped landscape provides habitat for over 2,000 brown bears, more than any other national park. For 9,000 years people have made it their home, adapting to the landscape’s constant change and challenges.

pumice covered landscape with volcano in background

Mount Griggs towers behind Baked Mountain in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

As a park, it’s very remote and expensive to experience. Its coastline, measuring over 400 miles, and almost all of the rest of the 4.1 million-acre park remain roadless. For nearly a century after its establishment, Katmai was only accessible to people who could afford to visit and were physically capable of doing so. Webcams (bearcams) changed that.

Webcams allowed Katmai National Park to democratize itself, providing audiences all over the world with meaningful opportunities to connect with the park, especially its bears, and build stewards on a global scale. Survey results* indicate watching the bearcams increased viewer interest in Katmai and wildlife conservation, and viewers’ interest in national parks and wildlife conservation is on par with on-site visitors. Essentially, webcams can inspire stewardship on the same level as a physical visit to a park. They are powerful interpretive tools with great potential to increase awareness, understanding, and stewardship of wildlife and conservation areas. Yet, national parks rarely utilize webcams to their full potential and online audiences are either ignored or deemed secondary to on-site visitors. This needs to change.

bear sitting on rock in river

Bear 708 Amelia sits on a rock–a typical scene on Katmai’s webcams.

Inspired by the success of Katmai’s webcams and to communicate the need to utilize them in more places, I’ll be leading a session at the 2017 National Association of Interpretation Conference. Roy Wood, Katmai’s former Chief of Interpretation and the current Chief of Interpretation and Education at Shenandoah National Park, and Ryan Sharp, Assistant Professor of Park Management and Conservation at Kansas State University will join me. Roy and I will discuss our methods to interpret bears, salmon, and other park resources to online audiences. Ryan will present survey results exploring the online bear viewing experience at Katmai and its influence on support for bear conservation and management.

screen shot of description of conference presentation

If you’re interested in watching but can’t  attend, don’t worry. A presentation about Katmai’s bearcams wouldn’t be complete if it wasn’t streamed live on bearcam. That’s why I made tentative plans with explore.org, who hosts and funds Katmai’s webcams, to live stream the presentation. The session begins at 10:45 a.m. PT on November 16.

In the age of internet and social media, traditional interpretive programs catering solely to on-site visitors (through guided walks, ranger-led talks, slide shows, etc.) are no longer adequate to build and maintain widespread stewardship for parks and other conservation areas. When I worked at Katmai National Park, I was amazed, awestruck really, at the reach and effectiveness of the bearcams. Nearly everyday, I could find evidence of people connecting in meaningful ways with Katmai’s wildlife. Katmai is better protected today than it was even ten years ago due to the awareness and understanding its webcams have brought to people around the world.

The bearcams annually reach tens of millions of people worldwide. With effective interpretation, webcams consistently and positively engage viewers, increase public awareness and stewardship of wildlife, expand messaging to pre and post on-site visitors, and extend interpretive messages to audiences worldwide. Existing technology now provides conservation organizations with the ability to reach people all over the world, not just those who are fortunate enough to visit. We need more webcams and more rangers on them. This is how parks take their message to the world.

Update (Nov. 17, 2017): A replay of my presentation is now online.

Download the slide presentation in PowerPoint (199 MB) or Keynote (127 MB).

*Sharp, Ryan, J. Skibins, and J. Sharp. Online and onsite brown bear viewing: Influence on visitors’ support for conservation-based management at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Unpublished Report to Katmai National Park and Preserve. Kansas State University. Jan. 23, 2017.

Late Season Bears on Dumpling Mountain

Dumpling Mountain, in west-central Katmai National Park, rises gently between Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Overridden repeatedly by glaciers during the last ice age, its slopes contour less abruptly than taller mountains to the east. About half the mountain’s topographical prominence lies above timberline. The upper mountain is a chilly, wind-swept place (especially in mid October) where only hardy, ground-hugging shrubs and forbs grow.

tundra and view of low mountain

Tundra on upper Dumpling Mountain on August 22, 2015

snowy tundra

Tundra on upper Dumpling Mountain on September 30, 2015.

The Dumpling Mountain Cam recently captured footage of a mother bear and three yearling cubs there.

The Dumpling Mountain Cam is located about 2,150 feet above sea level on the mountain’s dry alpine tundra, just under 300 feet below and .75 miles distant from the mountain’s 2,440-foot high summit. I hiked up Dumpling Mountain dozens of times, mostly to escape the relative hustle and noise of Brooks Camp, but I rarely saw bears on the mountain. Tracks, sure. Scat, definitely. But bears? Almost never. They don’t use the mountaintop as frequently as other areas. So why would bears venture nearly to the summit of Dumpling now? Are they migrating to a denning site?

Last fall, in a blog post for explore.org, I discussed what is known about the denning habits of Brooks River’s bears. From limited radio tracking studies done in the 1970s, we know these bears probably den on steep, well-vegetated slopes that collect a lot of snow. The same study determined Katmai’s bears denned, on average, at 1,300 feet in elevation.

Dumpling Mountain offers much suitable denning habitat. Although none of the bears radio-collared at Brooks River in the 1970s were tracked to it, I found at least three areas with bear dens in my explorations of the mountain. None are visible within the Dumpling Cam’s viewshed, but they aren’t very far away either.

Screen shot from Google Earth. Purple polygon is viewshed of Dumpling Mountain Cam. Text reads: "Dumpling Mountain Cam" "Bear Dens" "Bear Dens" "Bear Den in Video"

All the dens I found on Dumpling Mountain were around the 2,000 foot elevation line or lower. The purple area represents the Dumpling Mountain Cam viewshed.

Person squatting in entrance to bear den.

Yours truly sits at the entrance of a bear den on Dumpling Mountain.

Bear dens are cozy places. An entrance tunnel leads to a sleeping chamber, which is usually just large enough for the bear crawl into and turn around. Brown bears have the strength and endurance to dig their dens quickly, but den excavation typically takes place over several days. They may also make several excavations near their denning site, perhaps aborting these first attempts due to poor soil conditions.

Bear abundance at Brooks River peaks in late September and early October then decreases coincident with fewer spawning salmon. The bears’ migration away from the river doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll immediately head to their denning site. Bears can still find opportunities to feed elsewhere, even on Dumpling.

These bears on Dumpling may not have been moving to a denning site. Instead, they could’ve been there to eat. Their time on camera showed them traveling, playing, and grazing. Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), alpine or bog blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitus-vitae) all grown on the mountain’s tundra and can be important, and easily accessible foods for bear. Wild berries in Katmai are a fickle crop though. Some years, berry plants produce bumper crops, while in others I was hard pressed to find many berries at all. When one or all are abundant, however, berry-filled scat reveals the bears’ motivation on the mountain. In October, all three species can linger on the bush, but lingonberries are most likely to remain abundant into fall.


Dumpling Mountain offers several things bears need—food in the form of seasonally abundant berries, open space relatively free of human disturbance, and pockets of prime denning habitat. Bears using the mountain, especially in the fall, could be there to locate a denning site, to graze frozen berries, or simply on their way from one place to another.


Some bearcam viewers have speculated the bear family recently seen on Dumpling Mountain was 854 Divot and her three yearlings. While the video evidence is inconclusive I saw Divot on Dumpling Mountain in the spring of 2015, so the mountain is part of her home range.