Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Black Hills

Wyoming Sunrise
It was Saturday afternoon when I was sitting in McClaren Hall skyping with parents when I realized that I should probably go for a long road trip since I had Monday off. I had been living in Estes Park for a month and a half and had not really explored much of the area outside the eastern fringe of Rocky Mountain National Park. But I realized that my exploration of the high mountains would have to wait another couple of months until the conditions permitted easy passage. So I set my sights on Wyoming and debated going to the Tetons & Yellowstone or heading to South Dakota to tour the Black Hills. 

Wyoming Countryside
After some debate, I thought it best to leave the Tetons and Yellowstone for an occasion when I had more time to explore so the Black Hills it was. After a restless nights sleep I hit the road at around 4:30am and drove through the highway 34 canyon until I hit 25 and headed north. I caught a beautiful sunrise in Cheyenne and found the desolate driving across Wyoming to be very peaceful. I got off the main drag and took US 26 to WYM 270 and I found this terrain to be a pleasantly monotonous trudge. Growing up in Ohio there were cornfields, bean fields and wheat fields as far as the eye could see but Wyoming had a whole new landscape of repetitiveness to offer and enjoyed immersing myself loneliness of the vast expanse of treeless plane. 

To my right and left were infinite plots of sage brush with a dusting of white powder and the occasional pack of antelope.  I made a hard right turn in Manville onto US 18/20 then started north on 85 before veering east once again onto US 18 which brought me across the boarder into South Dakota.

Wind Cave NP
There was a interesting shift in landscape and though I new little of the Black Hills, I assumed I had entered them based on my surroundings. I made one final turn onto 385 and headed into Wind Cave National Park. I parked near the main entrance, signed up for a cave tour later in the afternoon and hit the trails. I first headed out on the Wind Cave Canyon Trail and was intrigued by the great diversity of landscape. When I started the run, I was on a grassy plane but that quickly gave way to gentle rolling hills with a scattering of Ponderosa Pines. I quickly entered a canyon that was short in stature, but rich in color and diversity of flora. 

Canyon Trail
The craggy rock faces were painted in burnt orange and brick red hues and Ponderosa saplings clung to whatever soil they could find on the surface. I could tell that bison had taken this trail earlier in the day, for obvious reasons, however, I did not spot my first Bison until I did some running off trail. After reaching a dead end on the trail I back tracked and headed up the Highland Creek Trail and decided to veer off trail and run up a slight ravine, and after reaching the top I spotted an enormous bison and quickly turned and headed back down to the trail. 

In Wind Cave
It was a perfect day, the sun was shining, the temperature was a mild 50 degrees and the wind was howling and whipping across the planes at speeds that I had never before felt in such idealistic conditions. After getting in part one of my three a day, I started the boxwork cave tour. The cave is quite impressive, as it is one of the longest and most complex networks of mazes in the world. It is estimated that the cave is approximately 195 kilometers when each of its offshoots is totaled. The tour that I took highlighted the boxwork formations in the cave, which Wind Cave is thought to have the most well-formed of these formations in the world. 

View from the Lookout
After roaming around below the surface for a few hours, I made my way back above ground to explore the northern stretches of the park. I ran the short trail to the Lookout Tower that sits 5013 feet above sea level and enjoyed the panoramic views of the Black Hills, even catching a glimpse of my next destination, The Badlands.

Once more I hopped into the car and traveled north into Custer State Park, along the way passing several bison heard numbering between 15 and 20. They appeared to be of similar size to my Nissan Versa and were quite intimidating creatures even from the safety of my car. Since I was in the area and it was presidents day weekend, I thought I would head to Mount Rushmore. Though it was probably the least interesting sight of my road trip and probably hold Crazy Horse and his monument in much higher esteem, I’m glad I got the chance to see it. 

Mt Rushmore
I was able to snap some photographs and get in a few more miles before the sunset on day one of my second winter road trip of 2013. I stayed the night in Rapid City and departed in the early morning for Badlands.

Badlands NP
I arrived at the Badlands, wandered around the visitors center and then started out on the road to peer out over some of the most interesting rock formations in the United States. I do not believe that I saw more than three other cars the entire day… I had the park to myself. Rightfully so, I suppose, it had to have been about 25-30 degrees with a frigid wind chill. If the trip had one theme it was loneliness and isolation. As an only child and self-proclaimed loner, this feeling of isolation only added to unique experience of the trip. 

The Badlands offered the most hauntingly beautiful landscape I had ever seen and since laid eyes upon. The conditions of the trip were so ideal that I am reluctant to ever return for fear that my memory of the sacredness of the place will forever be tarnished. As much as I dislike driving in a national park, when I have the option to run instead, it was a beautiful drive that was carved through the landscape. At the end of the paved road I decided to try my luck taking the dusty dirt Sage Creek Road. 

I vividly recall travelling slowly over the washboard road, blasting the radio and passing heard of both Big Horn Sheep and Bison. I believe the ewes seemed kind fond of the Who’s Baba ‘O riley as I passed, but this is purely speculation.

Yellow Mounds



Big Horn Sheep

Chimney Rock
After making it off the dirt road without a punctured tire, I hit Bigfoot Trail (27) which took me through the Pine Ridge Reservation and by the tragic sight of Wounded Knee. I then decided to head south through Nebraska on 87, on my way back to Estes Park. I continued to debate making a side trip to the mecca of Chadron, Nebraska, former home town of Baldwin Wallace cross country & track coaching legend William Taraschke who has retired this year after 31 years of coaching (Perhaps for the most astute readers, you may discover a link between the title of my blog the preceding sentences). 

Nebraska Landscape
But I decided that I would save this for another occasion. At any rate I continued to head south and visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site, this may hold some meaning to those interested in the history of the Oregon Trail. After running a few miles around ranch land surrounding this auspicious spire that was such an important landmark, I took to the back roads once again on my quest to return to my home to resume my duties in the RMNP greenhouse. As with most of my trips it was short lived, but full of memories, even 28 months later, I can still vividly recall the sights, sounds and the feelings that the journey to the Black Hills evoked.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Brazoria & San Bernard NWR

American Alligator (Brazoria)
All week I pondered how I should spend the first weekend of June down here in central Texas. My time in the state is limited and my goal is to see as much of it as I can before I begin the next chapter of my life in the Pacific Northwest. I have been fortunate enough to live in three beautiful and ecologically distinct areas of the United States in my twenty-five years and I like to take full advantage of exploring each of them. 

Salt Marsh
Fortunately, Texas is encompassed by many different ecosystems, which makes exploring this state even more rewarding. I started with the wooded trails around McKinney Falls in Austin when I first arrived, then enjoyed a sunrise highlighting the impressive sotol covered hillsides of Texas Hill Country during the Cactus Rose 50 Miler, felt the palpable salty breeze billowing off the Gulf on Padre Islands north shore, experienced the isolation of the Chihuahuan Desert and the cool crisp air of the Chisos Mountains. However, I had yet to experience the salt water marshes of Southeast Texas; and what better place to experience that than Brazoria and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuges.

Bobcat Woods (San Bernard)
As with most of my long road trips in this scorching state, I hit the road at 3am to avoid the stresses on my car and on myself in the form of traffic. I arrived at Brazoria around 7am, paged through some informational packets and went for the first of a series of runs for the day. 

Trail along Rogers Pond
I started on the Big Slough Trail, ran over the boardwalk and sprinted through the trail to unsuccessfully allude the black flies which had an insatiable appetite for a total of .75 miles. My intention was to run a few loops to rack up a few miles, but the flies made that an unappealing option. So I hit the stone trail to jog the 7.5 mile interpretive loop. I took a few side treks that amounted to another 1.5 miles. 

Alligator with a Catch
I caught my first glimpse of the majestic American Alligator near Olney Pond, and after passing the Slat Marsh and Mud Flats I jumped onto a grassy single track skirting along Rogers Pond. As the grass height became increasingly high I turned back in order to avoid a potential encounter with a venomous snake. I continued on the trail passing Teal Pond and Cox Lake and then looped back to Olney Pond where I watched the alligators hunt. The flocks of birds were impressive and the bayou was alive with their calls in addition to the masses of amphibians and insects.

Wolfweed Wetlands
After a 9.75 miles around Brazoria NWF, I decided to take a drive down to San Bernard NWF, where I was informed that there not only freshwater and salt marshes but also woodlands. I was intrigued by the diversity of San Bernard NWF, I first took the Bobcat Trail into the wooded section, but the vegetation was shoulder high in spots and after seeing a Copperhead slither by, I decided to cut the hike short. 

Wolfweed Wetlands Overlook
I ran the boardwalk over to the Wolfweed Wetlands, which were teaming with birds and alligators. The wetlands were quite interesting because it felt like I was running back in Ohio on the gridded out croplands, however, instead of corn in the fields and pavement over the path, it was shallow marshes divided by grassy pathways. I learned from an interpretive sign that the area was indeed a series of croplands before a partnership of companies converted it into a wetland. 

Alligator Looking My Way
Low value wolfweed was grown in the area before, but the land was converted into a network of reservoirs in order to create habitat for migratory birds. The wetlands also created a habitat for the alligator and after seeing the large animal thrashing about in the water on both sides of me, I decided it was time to get off of the narrow trail between the reservoirs. Due to an overwhelming thirst and dehydrated state I decided to simply drive around Moccasin Lake and head toward my next destination. I ran another 3 miles at San Bernard bringing day my total to 12.75.

Bobcat Woods (San Bernard)
I had intentions of camping out on the beach near Surfside, where I read of a couple of free campsites, so I headed in that direction. On the way I spotted another wildlife refuge and stopped in for a bit to relax under the shade of some mighty live oaks and went for a shakeout run around a densely wooded trail. Once I got to the beach, I realized I had made a mistake, there is no worse place to be than on the gulf coast of Texas in the summer. 

It is a cluster of people with large trucks, loud generators, bad music in addition to litter and general overconsumption. I reluctantly pulled into a beach entrance and spent about an hour swimming in the Gulf. The water was pleasantly warm and it ended up being quite relaxing when I got out far enough to convince myself that I was on a random remote coastline somewhere far away from the over abused disrespected beaches of Texas. I decided to return to Brazoria NWR to enjoy once last glimpse of what the Texas coast should resemble. I ran another 2 miles, bringing my Saturday total to an unimpressive 15.75 miles. 

I could not believe how sore I was despite taking Friday off and only intermittedly running throughout the day. Perhaps the increased race load and quickened pace of 2015 is beginning to take a toll or hopefully the lack of sleep and water were the main culprits. At any rate, I watched the sun set on the bayou and reflected on all the amazing things I was fortunate enough to see because of the hard work and dedication of those who believe in preserving Texas as a destination for migratory birds, amphibians, reptiles and future generations to enjoy for years to come.

With that said, I would like to add another component to my blog, as much as I enjoy providing race reports and describing various trips to amazing places; I believe it is quite important to preserve these amazing places and the wildlife that inhabits them so that everyone can get a chance to experience the wonders of nature in the future. Therefore, my fiancĂ©, bird and undulate expert, Apryle Craig will be providing insights into her research and describing the importance of conservation sporadically on the Harriers to Chadron platform starting this week.