Archive for the ‘rock art’ Tag

Adventuring in Death Valley: It’s the Water   4 comments

Morning light and a clearing winter storm over the Panamints: Death Valley, CA.

Here’s a tip:  don’t run out of water while hiking in Death Valley.  I can already hear you: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”   But there’s a big difference between knowing something is a smart idea and knowing how smart, that is, from experience.  This is a little story about the latter kind of smarts.

I’m doing a series on one of my favorite national parks in the U.S., or anywhere.  It may not seem to be so, but Death Valley is a perfect destination this time of year.  Although I’ve been there plenty of other times in winter, last year I visited over Christmas for the first time.  I found it fairly busy (for Death Valley) and with a higher than normal proportion of international tourists.  As usual, that means a lot of Germans, plus miscellaneous others.  I like to believe I’ve traveled as much as a German who doesn’t travel too much, which is to say I’ve traveled 10 times as much as the average American.  It can be cool this time of year, but rarely is it actually cold.  It’s perfect for camping and hiking.

Hike deep into canyons at Death Valley and you’ll see plenty of paleo-Indian rock art.

A Hard Lesson

The story takes place a long time ago, at Spring Break during my Junior year of College.  I’d been to Death Valley twice at that point, for field studies in consecutive Spring Breaks.  This time I got a couple friends to come along, a fellow geologist and native Alaskan named Mel and another pal, Gene.  Gene was taking classes and also training to be a pilot, riding his bike 50 miles one-way to take flying lessons a few times a week.  He spent time as a bush pilot in AK, & later flew 747s.

After a trip through Nevada in which my Pontiac ended up in a ditch, we arrived with grand plans.  We climbed Telescope Peak through deep snow drifts and slept under the stars in the dunes.  But those are other stories.  One evening at camp we decided to hike the Marble-Cottonwood Canyon Loop the next day.  We weren’t sure of the distance, only that it was long.  But we were at that age when you feel indestructible.  It turned out to be a very long distance indeed, and no wonder it’s known as a backpacking trip (the park’s most popular).

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

We started at daybreak, hiking up through the spectacular narrows of Marble Canyon.  The loop is normally hiked in the opposite direction, but we wanted to be different.  We took only as much water as we thought was necessary for a full day, hoping to pass a spring or two.  I think we were engaged in group self-delusion.  We had enough water for a day in the cool mountains, but not nearly enough for Death Valley at the end of March.

At mid-day we were forced to admit we could not do the entire loop unless we wanted to hike in the dark, without flashlights.  We later learned the distance was 47 miles, and felt better about our decision to bail.  So instead of returning the way we’d come, the three of us put our heads together and hatched a crazy plan to cut distance by climbing up and over the high ridge separating the two canyons.  How many times has taking a shortcut worked out well for you?  Like I said before, self-delusion.

You have to hike quite a distance to reach the marble of Marble Canyon.

Climbing high meant leaving all possibility of shade behind.  We also succeeded in missing the springs, which in these parts are usually located in canyon bottoms.  A crucial error.  Climbing in the heat, we began to exact a real toll on our water supply.  Realizing this, we began to ration.  The ridge turned out to be more of a complex of ridges, and by the time we finally reached the high point and could see down into the upper part of Cottonwood Canyon, we had enough for one tiny sip each from a single water bottle.

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

The rest of the hike was, it should be obvious, one of increasing misery.  We encountered a couple dry falls and had to take creative (and scary) detours to get down.  By the time the canyon started to broaden out, signalling the end was near, dusk was at hand.  All three of us were quite weak, with mouths like sand and epic headaches.  That car never looked so good!  To end things on an interesting note, we had wisely left a cooler filled with Coors and block ice.  Unfortunately we weren’t so wise as to leave any water in the car.

I don’t like admitting the state I drove down to Stovepipe Wells in.  On the plus side the beer was Coors, which at that time was marketed with the slogan “it’s the water.”  Rarely does a slogan come so ready-made for ridicule of the product it’s supposed to promote.  We diluted the beer even more by drinking our fill of water at Stovepipe, and the lesson was learned in the very best way to learn a lesson: painful experience.

Day’s end and the canyon mouth is in view!

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Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!

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VISIT THE MUSEUM

If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at miriam_watson@nps.gov.  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.

ANCIENT TRAVELERS

The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

BASKET-WEAVERS & ANCESTRAL PUEBLOANS

There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.

PAROWAN FREMONT

These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.

VIRGIN ANASAZI

Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.

ARCHAEOLOGY TRAIL

There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

RETURN OF THE WANDERING LIFESTYLE

The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.

 

Northern Namibia   2 comments

A Cape fur seal pup checks me out, thinking I might be mom.

Northern Namibia is a different world.  On my recent trip to Africa, it was the last region I visited.  I also went to Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and those articles are accessible below.  I’ll cover the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland & the Himba tribe.  Etosha National Park I will cover in the next post.  My jumping off point for the north was the town of Swakopmund (Swakop for short).

One of the many shipwrecks along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Swakop is touristy – it’s the go-to beach holiday for Windhoek residents – but I found it pleasant and not at all overdone.  Strangely enough for Africa, white people seem to outnumber blacks.  It’s best feature is that it is right on the beach.  There are the usual tourist attractions here, which I am not generally interested in.  But there are plenty of outdoor diversions too, including great boat tours, excellent bird watching, and the desert is just outside town.  A prime driving route for nature lovers is Welwitschia Drive.

This route, which takes about 4 hours  with stops and does not require a 4×4, takes you east out of town into the northern Namib Desert.  A permit is required, which you can obtain at the Ministry of Environment & Tourism office on Bismark St. in Swakop.  They will set you up with directions and a guide to the natural attractions.  Simple campsites allow you to take your time, and I started late in the afternoon, camping one night and returning to Swakop in the morning.

The dirt road traverses the gravel plains of the northern Namib Desert, which  are uniquely covered with low-growing lichen.  Here you will find the fascinating, namesake Welwitschia plant.  This plant is, strangely enough, related to pines & firs.  Individuals can live over 2000 years!  In the picture below you can see what looks like many large leaves, but it is actually only two leaves that split and wander.  It does not absorb water through roots, but through its leaves.

Next morning there was a dense, moist fog lying over the dry landscape; this is characteristic of the Namib.  And so this strategy makes perfect sense.  There are separate male and female plants, and when I visited, the blooms were on display, meaning that these aged plants still had some youthful exuberance left in them.

Welwitschia plants, well over 1000 years old, grow on Namibia’s gravel plains.

I was eager to head north to the emptiness of Namibia’s famous Skeleton Coast, but before I could leave, a reckless driver, a local woman, slammed into my rental car as I was parking.  She did not even brake, so the damage was severe.  Luckily, Hertz had an office in town, and they were quite helpful in replacing the car.  The unfortunate thing was the woman was claiming it was my fault.  Police here will visit the accident scene, but they refuse to investigate or make a report.  So it is always a he-said she-said situation when you are in an accident.

I completed a police report, but in scanning her report, it was quite obvious who the untruthful one was.  A couple months later, after I had returned home, a Hertz office in Africa gave me a nasty surprise when they tried to charge me $3500 for the damages.  Since the local office had assured me I would not be charged, I was not about to go along with it.  I had to dispute the charge with my credit card company, and thankfully Hertz finally gave up.

Venus flies over the southern Atlantic on the lonely Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

The Skeleton Coast is a lonely piece of coastline, no trees, gravel plains looking inland, and endless beaches seaward.  Numerous shipwrecks dot the coast (its name refers to skeletons of ships), and there colonies of Cape fur seals.  Cape Cross is the easiest colony to access.  I drew up to this site near dusk so it was closed.  Since it was almost dark, I had two choices.  One was to stay at the nearby hotel, newly built and quite nice.  If I were not in the third month of a trip, I might have gotten a room.  But money was running out so I camped.  I found a nice patch of beach to the north of the hotel, where it was just me, the sea and the sky.

The African jackal is a resourceful and intelligent predator that is very similar to the North American coyote.

The wind blew that night and my tent was rocking a bit.  But upon waking in the middle of the night (something I did in Africa more than at home for some reason), I noticed my tent was really moving, and the wind had not increased in strength.  I was about to get out and look for the reason, but before I could I felt a pair of jaws clamp down hard on my big toe!  I yelled ow as the sharp teeth sunk into my tender toe, and yanked my foot away.  I was fully awake and alert by now, believe me.

When I popped my head out, I saw a jackal standing there, staring at me hungrily.  I had to wave my arms and yell  before he took the hint and ran off.  I checked my toe and lucky for me there was no blood.  If he had broken the skin I would probably have had to go to a doctor immediately for the long, painful process of rabies shots.  So that was it.  I actually was bitten by an African animal.  All I know is he must have been awfully hungry to go after me.

Next morning I sleepily rose and walked the beach.  There were many dead seal pups lying washed up on the shore, and I wondered why.  Were they hunted?  Did they die of natural causes?  Later, at breakfast in the hotel, I found out that the males killed many babies, and their bodies wound up spread along the coast.  Sad.  I visited the seal colony and, aside from the incredible stench of thousands of close-packed seals, was truly amazed.  The babies were especially precious.  They waddled right up to me (thinking I was mom I guessed), so I was able to get some great frame-filling shots (top picture).  I also witnessed numerous fights among the males for the title of “beach master”!

After the seal colony, I drove north into the increasingly barren, strangely beautiful landscape.  I spotted numerous mirages (image below); these were the most obvious I had ever seen.  I reluctantly turned away from the coast, and began climbing on the M126.  I entered southern Damaraland, and started to see a very familiar landscape.  With the mesas of reddish volcanic rock, the broad semi-arid valleys and big skies, this area is very similar to eastern Oregon.  Near sunset, I pulled up at a campsite near the World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein.  This is an amazing collection of rock art, and is well worth visiting.  There are numerous campsites in the area, and scattered lodges of various price-scales as well.

A mirage of a lake appears along the extremely dry desert coast of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Next morning I enjoyed a guided hike into the rocky terrain (you must do a guided hike, and there are many available at the entrance station/museum.  It was amazing to see all those African animals etched thousands of years ago in stone.  Most are petroglyphs (carved into the rock) as opposed to pictographs (painted).  They even depicted seals.  It was obvious that in the past the area possessed many more animals – lion, elephant, etc.  Now the animals of this area are difficult to spot.  They travel the long dry river beds between the highlands and coast, and include the famous desert elephants, rhinos and more.  I did not see much, a few antelope and giraffe.  There are opportunities to hike with rangers who go out on anti-poaching patrols, looking for rhino-killers.  Check this site for more info. on this outstanding opportunity (one I sadly did not have time for).

Petroglyphs, including a seal, adorn the rocks near Twylfelfontein, Namibia.

A young Himba woman from northern Namibia has a direct gaze.

I continued north towards Etosha, and near the town of Kamanjab asked at one of the lodges for some local knowledge regarding the Himba.  This tribe, famous for the red clay the women and children spread all over their near-naked bodies, features in many travel photographer’s portfolios (search for images of Himba and you’ll see).  I wanted to meet them and get a feeling for how they lived, to what degree they had been influenced by modern life, etc.  You really have two choices when it comes to the Himba.  You can go to an organized “village”, which are normally run by a lodge which pays Himba from other villages (often quite distant) to demonstrate their way of life.  A mock-up of a village is constructed and tours run.  The other option is to take off on your own and visit villages, asking the chief or elder if you may visit and take pictures.

The second option was my preference, but it is almost impossible to do this without two things: a 4×4 and plenty of time.  Since I had neither (my flight home was 5 days away and I still had Etosha Park to do), I opted for the former.  I expected to be somewhat disappointed, but was surprised to find I had a wonderful time.  Out of a lodge run by a German woman (go figure), I met a nice young guy who took me and an English couple into the “village”.  When we arrived, the Englishman started taking pictures.  Although the Himba are in part there for photography, and they know that, I resisted the temptation to start firing away.  This isn’t really my style.

I instead started to talk to them, of course focusing initially on the precocious butt-naked kids, and then picking on the most beautiful girl there (I’m incorrigible).  I am using “talk” very loosely here, as they did not speak English and I didn’t speak Himba.   But these women (no men, just women and children) were so delightful that I did not have to try very hard to loosen them up.  As I began to take pictures of the pretty girl, who was sitting against a mud hut wall in beautiful open shade, I tickled her feet to get her to smile.  This had the desired effect, and she started cracking up.  Her friend came over and joined in the fun.  She even playfully took her friend’s bare breast in her mouth and…well, I turned red, let me tell you.

The red ochre they mix with animal fats, applying it to their hair and skin.  It helps with their stunning hairstyles, and protects them from the sun and insect bites.  They have began to substitute store-bought vegetable oils because of the intense odor caused by the traditional mixture.  I was told tourists were shying away because of it, and this I found very sad.  I would not have minded the smell.  Their simple beauty attracted me and no matter their (natural) smell.  The Himba are very real, very personable, completely unself-conscious. I loved them.

After getting numerous great photographs, I finally allowed the guide to drag me away.  I will certainly spend more time with these people if I am lucky enough to return to Namibia.  It is also possible to visit San (bushmen) communities in northeast Namibia.  So the combination of Himba, Herrera (whose women wear Victorian dresses) and the San makes northern Namibia one of Africa’s finest destinations for those interested in indigenous culture.  Of course things are rapidly changing; these traditional nomads are transitioning to a settled existence in towns and cities.  So I recommend going soon.

Springbok in Damaraland, Namibia, flee using their signature springing leaps.

A Himba child has an amazing hairstyle, in northern Namibia.

Next up: Etosha National Park (my last wildlife safari in Africa)!

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