Wonderful Lives

Kristina and I have made an annual holiday tradition of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – with its message about one person’s life making a difference to so many other lives. This seems especially pertinent to me now because over the past several months so many people I was connected with passed away – including a couple of cousins, three aunts, and my blacksmithing teacher – and I’ve thought about how each of them made a difference to me and to the other people around them.

Making a difference to others isn’t just about people. In the past year Kristina and I also lost a dog and a cat, and we have often thought about the positive impacts they had in our lives.

And we ourselves have had opportunities to make a difference – not just to other people, but also to members of other species, including the hungry, sick little Siamese kitten we found at the end of our lane. We took her in, named her Loki, cared for her, and now she’s a beautiful, rambunctious member of our household.

I think we should go even further and acknowledge positive connections with all kinds of organisms, including plants. For example, Kristina and I are still benefitting from last year’s wonderful harvests from our apricot tree and our apple tree. What a great relationship – we give them some care and watering and they give us bushels of fruit!

I also feel like I benefit so deeply from wild plants and animals. I get joy from hiking or skiing in forests or deserts, and from seeing wild animals (or from just knowing they’re out there, doing the things wild animals do). And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships between forests and wildlife.

A few years ago while hiking in a nearby National Forest with my dad, sister, and niece, we were heading down a steep slope toward a stream. I went ahead of the others to find the best route down – and part way down the slope I came to a tall ponderosa tree that had a little flat area just downslope from it. This little flat area had a fallen ponderosa on one side of it, creating a protected area.

The area was covered with pine needles and had the look of a nice little bed, where wild animals might want to hunker down and rest. It looked like such a nice place to hang out – and I noticed evidence that something had been hanging-out there: a little bit of fur mixed into the pine needles, and a bunch of scat (apparently bear) downslope from the bed.

Life got busy and a few years went by, but I didn’t forget about the bed on that slope – and I kept thinking about putting a trail camera there for wildlife photos. Then one February day I called my dad and asked him if he’d like to go back to the area with me, and he agreed. It was a relatively snowless winter so conditions didn’t stop us from going there on Dad’s eighty-second birthday.

Dad hiked with me to the rim of the canyon and watched while I went down the slope and secured a camera to the limbs of the fallen tree next to the bed. Then I hiked back up, and Dad and I had a good hike back to the vehicle – talking and snapping photos as we went – and enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we drove down from the mountain.

The camera sat there for over a year and a half – until I came back last summer to check it, this time with Kristina. There were no bears in the photos, but what I saw was striking.

Many other animals had stopped at this little protected spot in the forest, from squirrels, to deer, to coyotes. Looking through my trail camera photos, I realized that it’s a place where many kinds of animals are able to take a little break from their busy lives and rest in a comfortable, cozy place.

I have come to call the area “the resting place” not only because animals like to stop there, but also because it’s the final resting place of a tree, dead and fallen but still making a difference to other lives by providing shelter. It’s amazing to see what a difference a couple of trees in the right location, alive or dead, can make in the lives of so many different wild animals.

So much can be lost when even the smallest piece of habitat is damaged or destroyed. I hope that generations from now that little place in the woods is still protected and offering wild animals a safe spot to rest.

As we begin this new year, and this new decade, may we humans do all we can to make life better – not only for other people, but for all of the other organisms we share this earth with; may we appreciate not only the things other people do for us, but the things all kinds of other life forms do for us and for each other; and may we always remember, as George Bailey had to realize in that timeless movie, that it truly is a wonderful life.

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An elusive wildman, Homo sapiens chadii, reposing

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A herd of Rocky Mountain elk, Cervus canadensis nelsoni. There are at least seven in this photo

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A red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

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Three Rocky Mountain mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus hemionus

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A mule deer fawn making a bed

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A mule deer fawn relaxing in bed

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A mule deer buck, his growing antlers covered in velvet, checking things out

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An apparently happy little mule deer fawn

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A two-point mule deer buck (possibly the same buck as earlier after a month’s growth)

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A young mule deer resting

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An elk in a December snowstorm

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A coyote, Canis latrans, checking-out the elk bed – a little over 3 hours after the photo of the elk

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A bobcat, Lynx rufus, approaching the camera

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The bobcat inspecting the camera

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A mountain cottontail (also called Nuttall’s cottontail), Sylvilagus nuttallii

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A bobcat, out and about in the middle of the day in January

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A black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia (bottom center of photo)

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A pack of coyotes. One came and laid down and then the others joined it 

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One coyote in the afternoon of the same day as the previous photo (a lot of snow had melted)

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A coyote the day after the previous photos. Note the fresh snow at the site – and on the coyote.

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A Steller’s jay, Cyanocitta stelleri (center left of photo between ground and snow)

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A coyote in April

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A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Callospermophilus lateralis (they look like chipmunks but without the facial stripes)

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An amazing woman, Homo sapiens kristinii, contemplating

Oh Christmas Tree!

I’ve been humming “Oh Christmas Tree” a lot this year. It started two days after Thanksgiving, when Kristina and I went to the mountains to do a little skiing. After so much time preparing food, and so much time eating food, an outdoor adventure seemed like a good idea. I knew I could use some fresh air and some exercise, and there are few things I enjoy as much as cross-country skiing.

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As we prepared for our adventure I thought about the roads and wondered how drivable they would be, with the new snow from a recent storm. What I didn’t think about was that this was the weekend after Thanksgiving and everybody and their dog would be going to the mountains to cut Christmas trees for their homes. So when we drove to the canyon we found not only deep snow in the roads, but a lot of pickup trucks plowing their way through that deep snow. Normally when we go to the mountains we hardly see anybody, but this time there were people all over the place.

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When I was a kid my family had real Christmas trees, but we never cut them ourselves. Instead we’d wait for school to let out for Christmas break, and then we’d go take the tree from the school my dad taught at (saving somebody else the work of getting rid of it). To this day my mom dislikes the idea of going out and cutting a live tree to briefly put in your house and then toss.

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One year a woman who spoke at a Christmas church service talked about an especially beautiful little tree growing on a rugged ledge, visible from a road the woman’s family frequently traveled on, and she said each time she’d seen that tree she’d commented about how much she wanted it for a Christmas tree. She went on to say that one year her husband and sons made their way out onto the ledge and cut the tree for her and hauled it to their home. After the church service my family talked about the story and my mom insisted the woman shouldn’t have been happy about having that tree in her house, but instead should’ve been sad that she would never again see it out there on the ledge where it belonged. I agreed with Mom.

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During my years as a bachelor I didn’t see the need for a Christmas tree in my house. A time or two I did put lights on a houseplant, and once I bought one of those little potted trees that you’re supposed to plant after the ground thaws – but it didn’t survive much past Christmas.

Then one year when I went to the Holly Fair, where people sell crafts, and at one of the booths I saw a bunch of old pallet boards cut and nailed together in the shape of a Christmas tree, about four feet tall, and I decided that would be my annual Christmas tree.

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A few years went by, I married Kristina, and today those old boards nailed together in the shape of a Christmas tree are still doing their job. It doesn’t look like much until it’s decorated, but then it looks pretty good – thanks especially to Kristina’s idea of putting little nails on the boards to hang ornaments and lights from. It does a great job of making our little old house look festive and cheerful.

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“But what about the Christmas tree smell?” you might ask, “Your little pallet tree doesn’t have that smell does it?” No it doesn’t, but I have an answer for that. Go out to the woods and find a live tree and enjoy its smell, and enjoy the fresh air around it, and enjoy the fact that it’s taking in carbon dioxide and pumping out fresh oxygen. Don’t cut it down and haul it to your house – leave it there to enjoy again the next time you visit it.

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You won’t just enjoy it for a few weeks and then have to get rid of it. You can keep going back to the same tree year after year, watching it grow – winter, spring, summer, and fall. And it doesn’t have to be a tree that would fit in your house – it can be whatever size you can find in your nearby woods.

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Or you can find a new tree to celebrate each year. You can have several Christmas trees, and visit them throughout the year. And you should know that when nature takes its course and a tree dies it still plays a role in the ecosystem – providing habitat for animals, and eventually putting nutrients back into the soil.

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Back to our post-Thanksgiving ski adventure. Kristina and I pulled off on the side of the road. As we put on our skis and headed off through the sagebrush a few trucks went by with cut trees loaded in the back, and I noticed that some of them were ponderosas – one of my favorite species. There’s a ponderosa in a nearby canyon that’s one of my favorite trees I’ve ever met. I love to climb up into it and enjoy the view from its branches, and I love the characteristic vanilla smell of its bark. I’m so glad nobody cut it down for a Christmas tree when it was small, and I hope nobody ever cuts it down for any reason. It’s an amazing tree.

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I broke ski-trail through the fresh snow, with Kristina following in my tracks, and we gradually got further and further from the road. As we wove our way through the forest we were struck by how beautiful the trees were with their blankets of new snow.

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We came to a ponderosa that stood out not only because it was bigger than most of the others, but because its bark was so orange that it almost seemed to glow. I turned to Kristina and asked, “Honey, can this be our Christmas tree this year?”

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Seeing this tree reminded me of a time before I met her when I’d skied alone in the mountains on Christmas Eve. I’d come to a big old spruce tree and had stopped and admired it for a while and had said to myself, “This is my Christmas tree this year.” I’d then skied out onto an open point as it got dark, looked out at the lights in the distance below, sang a few Christmas songs, and then skied back to the road.

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I told Kristina about this memory as we skied around the golden-barked ponderosa, and under it’s drooping limbs that almost touched the ground in places. She agreed that we should call it our Christmas tree for this year. We skied back to our vehicle and headed home.

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It’s the day after Christmas and we’re enjoying our little re-purposed pallet tree, looking so pretty on our wall with its lights and pretty ornaments. But I’m also thinking about our other Christmas tree, snug in its home in the mountains, with its glowing orange bark that smells like vanilla – and I’m still humming “Oh Christmas Tree.”

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A Walk In A Wild Oregon Forest

This afternoon Chad and I found ourselves in a wild forest full of towering trees, a multitude of mushrooms, and glowing autumn leaves. And when I say we found ourselves there, I mean that we got back to some integral, essential part of who each of us are, and who we are as a couple. Not that these parts were lost, just too darn busy.

We decided to move from Northeast Utah to Southwest Oregon over the summer. This decision was motivated by various factors, including me losing a job, and it wasn’t a decision taken lightly. We loved our high desert haunts in Utah, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I sobbed like a baby when the reality of moving kicked in. I knew I would miss our special desert hiking spots, and indeed, I do.

So finding a hiking spot of our own in our new location was very important for us. Spending time in a wild place that is minimally touched by human intention is, for both of us, healing, rejuvenating, and exhilarating. Today we enjoyed those feelings as we walked through the forest under the incredible heights of douglas firs, hemlocks, western red cedars, and many other species of beautiful trees.

It is enlightening to see what nature does when left to its own devices. The trees that fall to the forest floor are allowed to remain there, decomposing, creating a delightfully spongy surface to walk on. We kept noticing pairs of trees growing side by side: one douglas fir and one hemlock, with each tree thriving as they grow closely side by side.

The past several months have been exceptionally busy for both of us. Moving is a major feat that comes with several different varieties of stress to deal with, not to mention all the unpacking and getting settled in. Chad is adjusting to a new job, and I am starting up a new business. Our new life in a new community has been full of warm social interactions and exciting cultural opportunities. Yet, life isn’t quite in balance until we have our wild places. And now we do.

Cape Blanco Cabin Camping and a Farewell

Back in May, Chad and I traveled through Oregon and made a stop at Cape Blanco State Park, on the coast. We arrived at the park in early evening to a cool and cloudy 53 degrees. The campground is nestled into a forest populated mainly by giant, spooky looking Sitka Spruce trees. The forest is dense and the lower limbs of the trees tend to be broken off and covered with moss. You take a short walk out of the forest and find yourself on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

After walking through the gloomy forest and braving the coastal winds, we headed back to our cozy cabin. The cabin featured a nice little back porch and had a picnic table and fire pit but it was just so windy that we decided to spend the evening in the cabin rather than hanging out under the night sky. It was also late by then so we decided to just eat some snacks instead of having a proper dinner.

We had a good night’s rest in the cabin and were delighted to see that the weather had calmed and that the sun was peaking down through the trees. We ate our camping breakfast (yogurt, peanut butter, fruit, GF cereal) out on our little picnic table and then wandered around the campground a bit, enjoying the sun peaking through the trees.

It seems that we were there at the right time of year as far as flower-viewing goes. Everything seemed to be in bloom! We walked over the bluffs checking out the local vegetation and eventually headed down to one of the state park’s beaches.

We had the entire beach to ourselves and of course, ended up doing things that you feel compelled to do on a beach: run around on the sand, frolic in the surf, watch the waves, and bust a few yoga poses.

We also had a mission for our beach visit – scattering the ashes of one of Chad’s recently departed friends, John. John’s wife Mickey had a novel idea for spreading his ashes – she put the ashes into small bags and asked everyone who attended his memorial service to scatter them in places that he would have loved. As a fellow outdoor and wilderness lover, Chad thought that John would appreciate having a tiny part of himself left at wild and rugged Cape Blanco. It felt good to do something symbolic to memorialize him.

Just as we were about to leave the beach, Chad noticed something in the water. A little head bobbing above the waves that almost looked like a person. What swims in the water and has a head that looks like a person? A ghost? No. A sea lion.

Spending time on a beach is exhilarating for so many reasons. Of course, there’s the wind, the waves, the sand. For me there is excitement in being at the edge of a whole different habitat, the ocean. Catching glimpses of this alien but very earthly world is a good reminder to me that our day-to-day concerns (for instance, whether we get to our next destination on time) are small and probably not all that important. And maybe if things don’t go as planned, something wonderful will end up happening…

 

Harley hikes Sheep Creek Canyon

We spent a weekend in the Flaming Gorge area recently and took a drive to one of my favorite places in this part of the state, the Sheep Creek Canyon Geological Area, also known as Sheep Creek Canyon Loop. Chad took me here on one of my first visits to Utah and I was awed by the fascinating geology. So I was looking forward to returning – this time under a beautiful blue sky and bringing our dogs along with us.

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The geological loop is one you can enjoy entirely from your car should you choose to. In winter part of the loop is usually closed due to unsafe conditions. So when we reached the gate and could drive no further, we got out, found a nice spot near some conifers, had a picnic and sat, enjoying the scenery.

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I loved the variety of textures and colors offered by the geology in the canyon and kept looking in amazement when I’d notice something new: striations, cliffs, landslides, jagged peaks, diagonal layers, pinnacles. This area is a visual feast.

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After our meal, we decided to hike up the road that was closed off. I thought to myself that we’d have to see how far Harley could go, and might have to cut the hike short if he seemed like he was struggling.

Harley is our elderly dog. He’s 13 or 14 and has been having a few issues lately because of his advanced age, yet he remains amazingly sweet, patient and good-natured. He still jumps excitedly when it’s meal time and often bounces eagerly along on our daily walks, but there have been times lately when he looks up at me with his big sad eyes and lets me know he’s too tired to go on those walks.

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On this walk, Harley surprised us all. Not only did he have plenty of energy, he took the lead, and I had to keep adjusting my pace to keep up with him. He strode along the road looking like he knew exactly where he was going – and was in a bit of a hurry to get there! He only got sidetracked to munch on patches of snow a few times. Chad and I kept laughing at what an amazing job Harley was doing hiking with us, making this one of those special memories we’ll always cherish.

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The views along the road were amazing, and Chad, who usually likes to bushwhack off-trail, was as happy as I was that we decided to hike along the road instead of in a dense thicket of saplings.

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Leo and Charlie obviously had a great time too. They had noses to the wind the whole time, no doubt taking in an exciting array of wild aromas.

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By the time we made it back to the car, the clouds had started rolling in, covering the beautiful blue sky, and we were all well-exercised and feeling good. The dogs snoozed happily in the back seat as we made our way back towards Red Canyon Lodge, although sadly, we did not encounter any yaks along the way.

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