A (Sometimes) Overlooked Significance

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

Honestly, it’s something that I think about regularly when I’m planning a trip to a national park. While people frequently visit parks and other protected areas to experience unique and special landscapes, sometimes we fail to see their forests for the trees, or even see their forests at all.

I think this is particularly true of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent recreation areas, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake. The region is most famous for its rugged mountain topography, which I must admit is quite pretty, but visiting here solely to see mountains risks missing some of the best, uncut forests left in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not implying that a visit to a park without admiring trees is somehow less worthy than my slow forest strolls. Far from it; national parks mean different things to different people. But, I find myself drawn to trees, no matter where I go, even among some of the Lower 48’s craggiest mountains.

view of forested valley with tall craggy mountains on horizon

The North Cascades are defined by their ruggedness, and the area’s vertical relief is impressively steep. Ridges and mountain peaks frequently rise above 7,000 feet while deep valleys incise the landscape to near sea level in some places. The Skagit River at Newhalem, for example, flows at 500 feet in elevation while several peaks ascend over 5,000 feet within a few miles. In Stehekin, Lake Chelan sits at a modest 1,100 feet above sea level, but within two and half horizontal miles of the lakeshore, Castle Rock reaches above 8,100 feet.

view of snowy mountains rising above lake

Castle Rock rises 7,000 feet above Lake Chelan.

The rugged topography slowed the march of industrial logging into the mountains, so by the time the North Cascades National Park Service Complex was established in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the forest within the newly protected area had never been logged. In the park today, nearly every low elevation valley holds wonderful examples of wild, unmanaged forests.

Some of the most spectacular and significant trees are found along Big Beaver Creek, which flows southeast into Ross Lake. A section of trail about five miles from Ross Lake passes through a grove of thousand year-old western redcedar.  Preservation of these trees was the catalyst that stopped the expansion of Ross Dam.

bole of large tree with two hiking poles leaning against it

Some western redcedar in the Big Beaver valley are over three meters in diameter at chest height.

hiking trail lined by large redcedar trees

Big Beaver Trail

Along their entire length, both the Big Beaver and Little Beaver valleys harbor incredible forests. The same goes for the Chilliwack River valley and Brush Creek area, so if you hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, you’re in for a spectacular forest hike.

trail winding through dense forest with large trees

Little Beaver Trail

person standing next to trunk of large Douglas-fir

Yours truly and a large Douglas-fir at Graybeal Camp in the Brush Creek valley.

Those places are remote, however, requiring most of a day’s hike just to get near them and several days of backpacking to traverse the valleys. Many other old-growth forests are more accessible. The Stetattle Creek Trail, which starts in the Seattle City Light company town Diablo, ends in a classic example of a climax forest on the west side of the Cascades. This trail is often overlooked and rarely busy. What it lacks in mountain vistas it makes up for in trees.

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Forest near the end of Stetattle Creek Trail

Hiking south from the Colonial Creek Campground, an easy four-mile round trip along Thunder Creek brings you through stately Douglas-fir and western redcedar. People often march through this section, barely stopping to look, as they have their sights set on up-valley destinations, but if you go plan some extra time to stop and admire these trees.

tall trees with foot bridge at bottom

The forest along Thunder Creek

Disturbance—whether brought by fire, avalanche, landslides, or people—is a hallmark of this ecosystem as well. Many large trees stand as witnesses to past and current change.

person standing in front of large tree

Englemann spruce, McAlester Lake Trail

person standing next to large tree with smaller trees nearby

Western white pine, Old Wagon Road Trail

person standing next to large deciduous tree

Black cottonwood, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail

Those that didn’t survive allow us to explore how the ecosystem may cope with future disturbance. I find myself pausing frequently in burned areas and avalanche tracks to admire how quickly the landscape can change.

lightly burned forest with standing dead trees and some minor green vegetation on ground

A recently burned forest along the Park Creek Trail

broken trees in foreground with forests and mountain in background

Avalanches can sometimes devastate otherwise healthy stands of trees. This example comes from the upper Brush Creek valley.

Often overlooked and visited far less than the Highway 20 corridor, the Stehekin valley is the most diverse place in the park complex, both in terms of cultural and natural history. In Stehekin, you can find everything from a historic orchard to plants adapted to desert-like climates growing alongside old-growth groves.

trail through forest with bright yellow fall colors

Stehekin River Trail

red maple leaves in forest

Vine maple splashes the Stehekin valley with color each fall.

Trees persist and even thrive despite the forces constantly working against them. They create vertical habitat, greatly increasing the landscape’s capacity to support life. They tell tales survival and struggle, longevity and adaptability. They are living witnesses to history and catalysts for conservation. North Cascades provides a rare opportunity to explore unmanaged, old forests—habitats that are becoming increasingly rare. And, if you can’t get here, just go to your local park or maybe even your back yard where, I bet, there’s a tree worthy of your attention.

Fishers Return to North Cascades

On an uncommonly sunny day in early February, I stood in a tract of old-growth forest not far from the Suiattle River to watch a missing mammal return to the North Cascades. With the return of the fisher, this area is one step closer to whole.

The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the largest North American weasels. Adult females weigh four to six pounds and measure about 30 to 36 inches long, including tail, when fully grown. Males are about 20% larger, growing upwards of 13 pounds and nearly four feet long. Despite the name, fish are not a primary prey. Instead, fishers are wolverines of the forest. Highly arboreal, cylindrical in shape, and agile in motion, they are formidable predators of rodents, rabbits, hares, grouse, and other small to medium-sized animals.

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

One of the first fishers to be released on February 6. The common name, fisher, is probably a modern English language corruption of “fitch,” a Middle English term for the pelt of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), also known as the common ferret. Not coincidentally, the colonial Dutch fisse and visse as well as the French fiche and fichet, all words for the polecat, sound quite similar to fisher. (NPS Photo)

Fishers were functionally extirpated from Washington by the mid 20th century due to habitat fragmentation and, especially, unregulated trapping. Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find evidence of any viable fisher populations. As a first step to recover the species in the state, a coalition of public agencies, tribes, and private organizations released fishers in Olympic National Park from 2008-2010. This was followed by similar efforts in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park from 2015-2017. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest began to host the fisher’s return last fall, which is how I found myself standing in the woods with about twenty other people on February 6.

Fishers prefer mature forests with a high canopy, relatively large diameter trees, and an abundance of downed trees. Dead standing trees are particularly important to fishers, as they den exclusively in tree cavities. The release site for the fishers this day seemed particularly well suited to their needs.

forest and stream

Fortunately and conveniently, healthy populations of fishers remain in British Columbia and Alberta and they serve as the source for the restoration effort. Fishers from western Canada are also genetically similar to those that used to inhabit Washington. Canadian trappers were paid to capture live, healthy animals. The Calgary Zoo temporarily housed the fishers while veterinarians evaluated their health and surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters to assist biologists in tracking them.

Twelve hours before release, these particular animals were still in Calgary. At 1 a.m., the fishers were flown to Abbotsford, British Columbia where they were picked up by biologists and driven into Washington. By early afternoon, a gang of biologists and a few interested souls like me were unloading the cargo and carrying the fishers a short distance to the release site.

Fisher release, Buck Creek Campground, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest_02062019_4

Fishers were transported in specially designed crates. Two fishers, separated by a partition, are in each crate.

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

Our group formed a semi-circle around the crates to watch the release. Conversations quieted to a whisper or died in anticipation as the crates were opened one at a time. To coax them out, a screened vent was opened at the top and a volunteer blew a puff of air into the container. I’m unsure if this was as annoying as someone blowing air into my ear, but the trick worked. The fishers shot out like a flash and bolted into the forest.

Six fishers were released that day bringing the total number currently released in the area to 24. The release efforts will continue until about 80 fishers are reintroduced to the area. Biologists will track, monitor, and study the animals to assess survival rates, identify where they go after release and where they establish home ranges, the types of foods they eat, and the diseases and parasites they suffer from.

The effort has a high chance of success. Reintroductions, however, are rarely so simple. Fishers, although not well known among the general public, are relatively non-controversial animals. They don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in people as grizzly bears or wolves, for example.

More than that, however, the forested habitats along the core and margins of the North Cascades are largely intact. Land managers needn’t take extreme, expensive, time-consuming measures to restore the ecosystem to a point where it could support fishers again. It could always support them. We just didn’t allow fishers to survive here.

Because prior generations had the foresight to protect places like North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness, we have the opportunity to restore fishers to land they once knew as home. Situations like these are becoming increasingly uncommon. People have fundamentally altered so much of the Earth to preclude the reintroduction of many extirpated species into their historic ranges. (There’s no substantial habitat available for bison in Iowa, for example.)

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Potential future fisher habitat along Stetattle Creek in North Cascades National Park.

As humanity’s footprint grows, undeveloped landscapes are increasingly valuable, not for the resources we can exploit within them (including supposedly non-consumptive uses like solitude), but as repositories of biodiversity and ecosystem health. To adapt an idea from Thoreau, future generations, I believe, will measure our legacy not by what we invented and consumed, not by our material wealth, but by what we can afford to let alone.

I’ll probably never see any of these fishers ever again. Even if the population increases to hundreds of individuals, they’ll remain reclusive neighbors. If I’m lucky, I may find a track in fresh snow or its scat on a log. But even that doesn’t matter. I’ll know they are there and I’ll know the landscape is healthier because of it. The return of the fisher represents, at least in one small way, the success of our ability to let one place—North Cascades—alone.

My Live Bearcam Broadcasts in 2018

This was a busy year on the bearcams, courtesy of explore.org and Katmai National Park. We hosted more live broadcasts this  year than any other year since the bearcams first went live in 2012.

During play-by-play broadcasts Katmai rangers and myself narrated the Brooks River’s wildlife activity, much like broadcasters for sporting event (although the lives of brown bears and salmon is no game). We never knew what might happen during a play-by-play. Watching the prolonged posturing between two of Brooks River’s largest adult males, 856 and 32 Chunk, on July 12 and integrating the ranger’s radio traffic into the September 17th broadcast are two of my favorite play-by-play moments.

The other broadcasts, live chats, typically focused on a specific topic such as bear fishing styles, hibernation, and bear research at Brooks River. Rangers Andrew LaValle and Russ Taylor from Katmai joined me as frequent co-hosts for live chats and I was also fortunate enough to speak with many special guests. Perhaps the most memorable moment from these broadcasts occurred when bear 132 and her spring cub almost stepped on Ranger Andrew and I during our Katmai centennial live chat on September 24.

If you enjoy these, then please watch many other broadcasts hosted by Katmai National Park rangers and staff on explore.org’s education channel on YouTube.

 

Stuff I wrote in 2018

I was busy on a keyboard this year, even though there were long gaps between posts on this site. In case you missed them, here are the posts that I wrote for explore.org in 2018. They are listed in the order they were posted. My personal favorites include “How does a bear family breakup,” “How many salmon will a bear eat,” “Bearcam live chat surprise,” and “Living with Bears in Churchill.”

  • Brooks River Bear Mating Season: In June, food isn’t the only thing on a bear’s mind.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: 503: Emancipated from his adopted mom in the spring of 2016, bear 503, also known as Cubadult, has quickly grown into an energetic and often playful young adult.
  • Early June at Brooks Falls:  Standing at the falls from early to mid June is an exercise in patience and an opportunity to reflect on the changes soon to come.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: The Elders of Brooks River: Their longevity of Brooks River’s oldest bears demonstrates a level of individual success few bears achieve.
  • The Mouth of Brooks River: The lower river cams provide expansive views, colorful sunrises and sunsets, as well as the opportunity to see many yearly and seasonal changes.
  • What to Look for 2018: The Bear Hierarchy: Watching the ebb and flow of the hierarchy allows us to at least partly understand the conflict and challenges faced by bears.
  • Bear 856: On Top Again: Bear 856 appears to be big enough and healthy enough to show the river’s other adult male bears he’s ready to compete once again.
  • Death of a Bear Cub at Brooks River: As the smallest and most vulnerable of all bears, first year cubs (also called spring cubs or cubs-of-the-year) face significant risks and challenges, not the least of which are larger bears.
  • Dumpling Mountain Hike: Rising over 2000 feet above Brooks River, Dumpling Mountain offers anyone a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of Brooks Camp. Each time I hike on it, I get an opportunity to see the land in a new way.
  • Four Cubs for 402 Again: No matter this family’s fate, we can marvel at 402’s determination to follow her maternal instincts in an attempt raise another generation of Brooks River’s bears.
  • How Does a Bear Family Breakup? Until somewhat recently, I stated that 402 had “abandoned” her yearling (now known as 503). While this might be true in a sense, I no longer think that this is an accurate way of describing the event. After reading more about the emancipation process, I’ve come to believe 402 didn’t abandon her yearling in 2014. She emancipated him.
  • How Many Salmon will a Bear Eat? We often observe bears partake in marathon fishing sessions at Brooks Falls, so how much can they eat in a day or season? Quite a lot.
  • Salmon on the Underwater Bearcam: The calmer, deeper water near the outlet of Brooks River provides salmon with a temporary refuge that is relatively safe and costs them little energy.
  • 451 and Her Yearlings: 451 is currently raising her second litter, and it’s easy to see that the family is skinner than many of the other bears on the bearcams.
  • Bearcam Line of Sight: Where are the bearcams and where, specifically, do they look?
  • Brooks Falls Trail: Simply walking to Brooks Falls can be an exciting and memorable experience and allows great opportunities to explore a changing habitat.
  • Mid Summer Change at Brooks River: Are fewer bears at Brooks River a sign of change?
  • An Exceptional August: Regarding bear activity at Brooks River, August 2018 has been exceptional.
  • Fishing By Snorkeling: Efficient and effective, snorkeling is one of the best strategies to scavenge fish.
  • Can a Bear be Too Fat? When you see bears whose stomachs appear to drag on the ground, one wonders if a bear can grow too fat for its own good.
  • Bearcam Live Chat Surprise: “This being a live broadcast it’s entirely possible…a bear could walk through the screen at any time. So if we have to exit or end the broadcast abruptly that’s probably why.”
  • Fat Bear Week Quarterfinal Preview: The competition just keeps getting bigger.
  • Mike Fitz’s Favorite Bearcam Moments of 2018: Here are a few of my favorite bear cam moments for 2018.
  • Evidence of Rapid Change in Katmai: the Ukak and Savonoski Rivers spill across a broad, 1.5-mile wide delta. In a landscape often defined by change, this is one of the most dynamic places in Katmai National Park.
  • 2018’s Top Ten Bearcam Moments: the people have spoken! Bearcam viewers have chosen the top ten bearcam moments of 2018. Each moment is unique and significant for a different reason.
  • Living with Bears in Churchill: The confluence of bears and people in this remote community has created a special set of challenges, which can only be met through the town’s willingness to tolerate the largest four-legged predator on Earth.

The Origin of an Alpine Lake

Despite the area’s formidable topography, the North Cascades are filled with lakes. On a hike late last summer, I glimpsed how many of them formed.

Monogram Lake sits in a small basin perched a few thousand feet above Cascade River. At this elevation, just shy of 5,000 feet above sea level, it’s surrounded by blueberry meadows and scattered woodlands of mountain hemlock and Pacific silver fir. It’s an inviting place to camp for a couple of nights, no matter if you want to lounge by the lakeside or strengthen your quads further by climbing to the surrounding ridges.

small lake surrounded by meadows and mountains

I hiked there late last August hoping to watch black bears feeding on blueberries. The blueberries were reaching peak ripeness when I arrived, but I found no black bears or even any fresh bear sign, so instead of relaxing at the lake I decided to explore the surround terrain and take in some of the iconic alpine views that make the North Cascades so famous.

Not having a specific destination in mind, I was free to wander. These are my most favorite hikes, when I travel more to see what might lie in front of me instead fixating on a pre-determined destination.

Bushwhacking around the lake, I passed through quiet sedge-filled wetlands…

sedge meadow and small pond in mountain basin

…stopped frequently to eat blueberries…

blueberry plants with ripe blueberries

…wandered over a gently sloping boulder field…

meadow and boulder field looking up to a mountain ridge

…to a glacier tucked in a pocket just south of Little Devil Peak.

small, mostly snow free glacier tucked in a basin below a mountain peak

Here, I ate my lunch while contemplating the scene. It was a near perfect analog for the formation of the Monogram Lake basin.

Glaciers form when snow is compressed into mostly air-free ice and attains enough mass to deform and flow. Under the influences of gravity, ice deformation (high pressure within a glacier causes deeply buried ice to behave plastically), and lubrication from water at the its bed, glaciers move along the paths of least resistance. Due to their mass and size, they become powerful agents of erosion. They entrain rock, sand, and anything else as they flow. Forced along by moving ice, rocks at a glacier’s bed are especially erosive. Glacial erosion mills rock so effectively that much is pulverized into a microscopic powder called rock flour. This is the substance that gives glacial runoff it’s milky appearance and can color lakes turquoise.

Where ice had only recently receded at this particular glacier, the bedrock recorded plenty of evidence of the glacier’s past movement.

hiking pole lying on bare rock. Rock shows faint horizontal striations.

Many faint striations were scored into the bedrock near the glacier. The striations run roughly parallel to the hiking pole.

concentric gouges in metamorphic rock

Chatter marks are small, crescentic grooves formed in bedrock by rocks frozen in ice. The rocks chip the glacier’s bed as they are forced forward. The convex face of the marks point in the direction of movement.

Since glacial erosion is most pronounced at a glacier’s base, if topography forces ice through a pinch point then it causes the glacier to carve the underlying land more deeply and quickly than at the glacier’s sides, a process called overdeepening. As ice retreats, overdeepened basins often fill with water. This is the origin of fjords and deep lake basins as well as cirques high on mountainsides.

Monogram Lake occupies a cirque, a half open and steep-sided valley or basin on the side of a mountain. Instead of a clear lake surrounded by meadows, it was once filled with ice just like the basin below Little Devil Peak.

View looking toward a lake in a glacial cirque. Deep valley and snow covered peaks on horizon.

Monogram Lake

view of glacier in mountain basin. Snow covered mountains on horizon.

The glacier south of Little Devil Peak as seen from an unnamed peak above Monogram Lake.

Uniformitarianism is a geologic principle that, in sum, means the key to interpreting the past is to understand processes that occur today. Excluding the three hydroelectric reservoirs in the Skagit Valley, glaciers carved the basins for nearly every lake in North Cascades National Park and Lake Chelan National Recreation area. Even though I wasn’t around to see Monogram Lake emerge in the wake of glacial retreat, all the evidence I needed for this process was right before me.

Return to Bearcam 2018

As many readers of this blog are aware, one of my favorite places in the world is Brooks River in Katmai National Park. There, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, brown bears and salmon gather to create one of the most iconic scenes in America’s national parks.

many bears standing and fishing near a waterfall

Brooks Falls on a busy evening

 

I’m pleased to announce that through the generosity of explore.org, I’ve received a fellowship to work with Katmai’s bearcams, live streaming webcams of at Brooks River.

In conjunction with Katmai’s park rangers, I’ll write blog posts (which you can read on explore.org and Medium), chat frequently in the bearcam comments, and host live chats and play-by-play style broadcasts. I hope to make time to write about my other explorations on this blog as well.

Bearcam season is almost upon us. Webcam technicians are at Brooks River now, upgrading the webcams for a better live cam streaming experience. The first sockeye salmon should arrive at Brooks River in a matter of days and the bears will arrive soon after. This will be an exciting summer, so please join me here and on bearcam.

To Change or Not To Change: A National Park Question

Last year, Isle Royale National Park released a draft plan to determine whether and how to stabilize the park’s wolf population. After evaluating the merits of several alternatives, weeding through public feedback, and with only two wolves remaining, the park has decided to introduce 20-30 wolves over a three-year period. In the park’s decision, managers have affirmed their belief that wolves on Isle Royale are an irreplaceable part of the ecosystem, and their loss is unacceptable.

Parks are being increasingly managed for change, but the myth of national parks as static vignettes of primitive America remains pervasive. As I wrote on this issue last year, parks are not pure. We live in an era of unprecedented change, and situations like Isle Royale’s will only become more common.

The National Park Service has made strides toward acknowledging that parks will change, but it’s time to put a greater effort into planning for it. To help the public better understand the dynamic nature of national parks and their significance—what we’re willing to save and what we’re willing to let go—there should be an effort across the NPS to identify at-risk resources and decide whether to protect them. Resources to protect would be species, habitats, and processes that if lost would impair the significance of the park or reduce biodiversity. This could help guide current and future management of parks, leading the NPS to implement preventative or prescriptive actions to stave off unacceptable impairment instead of waiting until it’s nearly too late.

In areas with endemic or endangered species—such as Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, and Channel Islands—it may be most appropriate to manage against change to mitigate the risk of losing unique habitats or species to extinction.

In other areas where forest compositions will shift, it may be more appropriate to let change happen as long as native biodiversity is protected.

view of tundra and shrubs with mountains and lake in background

In Katmai National Park, shrubs and trees now grow at higher elevations compared to 100 years ago.

view of mountain scenery with craggy peaks and snowfields.

Should this view be protected or should tree be allowed to encroach on the scene? At North Cascades National Park, tree line is expected to rise in elevation which may threaten views like this one near Cascade Pass. Forests in this park, especially at low elevations, are also projected to burn more frequently under a warmer climate.

Importantly, this planning effort could help the public better understand decisions like Isle Royale’s, which seems inconsistent and arbitrary to many people who commented on the plan.

Biologists predict wolves will be extirpated from Isle Royale within a few years without direct intervention, but why intervene on the behalf of wolves at all? Wolves, as a species, don’t need Isle Royale to survive. As the NPS reasons, it’s less for them, and more for the park. Without wolves climate change would have a greater influence on the archipelago. Plant communities would shift dramatically under heavy browsing pressure from moose, causing a cascade of effects and perhaps, according the park’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, become less resilient.

“Under alternative A, increased [moose browsing] is probable and combined with climate change effects, it is likely that the rate of vegetation changes would be exacerbated and potentially accelerated. Additionally, it is expected that the resiliency of current wildlife populations to change would be reduced and contribute to more rapid population swings. Under alternative B [the preferred alternative] and C, it is expected that the project [sic] warming trends influences [sic] on the island would be less likely to be compounded by herbivory and its associated impacts.” (Pg. V)

Scenarios like Isle Royale’s will only become more common as we continue to fragment habitat, introduce invasive species, and change the climate. Not that I want it to be this way. Ideally park ecosystems would remain healthy enough and function normally enough so native species and biodiversity are protected without our heavy-handedness, but unless we shift our priorities dramatically then we’ll find ourselves stepping in at ever increasing rates.

We can no longer afford to think of parks as museums. What exists in them exists because we, directly or indirectly, choose it. In the face of unprecedented change, national parks cannot remain static. It wasn’t feasible in the past and it’s increasingly infeasible now. Where do we draw the line and how do we intervene? That’s something we need to decide right now—nationwide, collectively, and not in a piecemeal manner.

 

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.

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.