Ella Mighell: Rainbows of the Dirty Devil

ellaEight days into our sandal and sock slodge through the Dirty Devil, we left behind a campsite with an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl and fossilized Grallator tracks, headed for higher ground. Today we would be hiking on a road, in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area on BLM land in a canyon described as “extremely isolated.” As we hiked we stopped to observe purple blooming fishhook cacti, changing geological layers from the Paleozoic period, petrified wood, pictographs from the ancient Fremont, and a 2007 mining claim preserved in a PVC pipe. Standing on top of a Shinarump Formation terrace, the late morning sun was still on our backs as we faced the yellow, red and purple layered Chinle Formation. Below our feet were water-weathered stones from the ancestral Rockies. We were on “roadless” Wilderness Study Area (WSA) land, but were using an illegal mining road from the late 70s. My mind wandered to what this landscape would have looked like if large-scale mining had taken place in the uranium filled Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations; would it even be open to the public, and what would these canyons have become if gas prices increased and uranium became more profitable?

I was finding that the Dirty Devil was a place of contrasting truths. At first it welcomed with its varnish stripped canyon walls and blooming desert primroses. Then it betrayed, the sun blistering my neck and quicksand engulfing me to my hips. Land management of the Dirty Devil is also bewildering in its conflicting and complex ways.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contorts its management plans to fit several contrasting missions. Through a presentation and discussion with a BLM manager, I came to understand the muddied management practices, why I had never heard of the BLM before coming to Utah, and why there was a mining road in the middle of WSA land. This includes their complicated history of admittedly poor public communications and original agency formation from the 1946 forced marriage of the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office.

The BLM was created to manage public lands for grazing, mining, oil and gas. It wasn’t until 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that BLM management was expanded to include recreation and wilderness in their 270 million acres. The BLM multiple use management gets pretty contradictory when they are mandated to facilitate resource extraction, and also preserve the natural integrity of that land. Things get even more complicated when we include state sections. Basically the state of Utah is strongly incentivized to sell or swap school sections to extractive energy companies. Ironically, the state is also pushing their industrial tourism sector in neighboring areas. According to the manager we spoke with, BLM offices, while trying to base their management plans on science, are mostly driven by social values.

To throw some more sand in this Dirty Devil, local culture is often at odds with federal land control, but many ranchers have subsidized grazing leases on this public land. The BLM’s relationship with environmental groups is often just as polar. The state wants the BLM to give more access to the extractive agencies, while environmentalists think the BLM has given too much. Basically the BLM is at the center of a complex love triangle where one spouse supports the BLM while in litigation with the opposing love interest, and the other way around.

One of the main takeaways from speaking with the BLM manager was that people value public land for different reasons. My relationship with natural landscapes most likely looks very different than yours, but both views have equal value and salience. Public values are multidimensional, and as values change, so must management practices. The complex mission of the BLM’s multiple use management was created in a conflictive system where collaboration and compromises were not encouraged. Yet here I sit on a Shinarump Formation overlook, surrounded by orange canyon walls contrasting with the blue sky. This section of the Dirty Devil has been determined to have “designated wilderness characteristics” and is a Wilderness Study Area. Tomorrow we will hike out of the WSA, and although a fence does not mark the divide, the complex history of this landscape does.

Many Utahans support a mining future, finding hope in the extractive industries and continuing their culture of freedom and rebellion in the wild west. Others, from both in-state and out, hold a similarly strong love and hope for these wild lands, but expressed very differently through federal protection and land use limitations. I fall on the latter side of this divide, but I know that no issue in southeastern Utah is simply environmentalism versus extraction. However, I do question the standing of my opinions as a visitor on these publicly owned lands, without a tie to the local economic well-being of the area.  As I hike further down the Dirty Devil, black and white issues are further greying in complexity, or as Dave, one of our instructors says, it is simply rain-bowing.

Isa Caliandro: Reading Between the Lines

Horseshoe Canyon 3

Horseshoe Canyon. Photo by: Nick Littman. 

Looking up the fence the differences on either side were subtle at first, yet the closer I looked the more obvious they became. On the right there were grasses, hillsides unmarked by trails, and cottonwoods peeking around the corner. I could just see around the bend where sunshine was streaming through tall grasses. To the left there were shrubs, sagebrush, and terraced hills. The only trees were pinyon pines, their twisted lines a replica in plant form of those of the towering sandstone around me. On the right, bright greens; on the left sandy soils, together they represented a difference.

Our journey to this line began one prior. We had been following the curves, patterns, and streambeds of Horseshoe Canyon at a naturalists pace. Taking the time to inquire, examine, and take note of the nuances of the species magically thriving in this landscape. Hailing from the Northeast this new flora and fauna, coupled with the landscape was completely new. Each day, travelling deeper and deeper into the heart of the earth I was growing to love it more and more. Finding sand in my shoes at the end of a day of walking, and getting to explore alcoves tucked away in small side canyons I was beginning to find desert treasures. After a week I was beginning to be able to trace my hands along the softer desert plants and echo their names in my head. It was all beginning to come together, why certain plants had spines and grew on the higher up rocky soil, which animals were avoiding. I had learned how to follow and scout for cow paths so as to not disturb the fragile desert crust. These cow paths mark the driving force between the differences on each side of the fence: grazing.

In Horseshoe Canyon there are two ruling designations that have come to shape the landscape: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and The National Park Service. The BLM is an agency in the U.S. Department of Interior that has multi purposes.  Its roots are in grazing and land distribution. The BLM leases out land along the canyon to ranchers, which allows them to graze their cattle on the land. This is the land designation for the start of the canyon until about halfway down, at which time the land designation switches to the National Park Service, whose mission is recreation and preservation. They strive to survive and want everyone to be able to see the gems in the nooks and crannies of the great and vast American Landscape. These two approaches to land management ultimately determined the ecological composition of the landscape.

After the fence we followed a very different canyon. As Barrier Creek, the river that flows through Horseshoe Canyon and eventually into the Green River, grew to that of a trickle and the banks completely changed, we began to learn about a new kind of desert ecology. The grasses now grew above my head, dead leftover from last summer and fall; they swayed with the gentle cool breeze. Cottonwoods, previously a rare sighting, now filled the creek banks. They grew tall, sideways, and were full of leaves marking the warmer temperatures to come. They provided shade for the creek gathering strength, and a stunning contrast against the cornflower blue sky. A few days past the fence the canyon melody began to grow. The canyon wren threw its call down the canyon walls where it was met in patches of willows by the industrious hum of bees. Around each turn there was more and more life, and the song grew stronger. It felt as if the birds, especially the canyon wren, was ushering us deeper, and deeper, among the contours and sandy hues to a more magical place. The further we wandered from the cows, the further past that line and the deeper between the lines of sandstone the more deeply the canyon breathed and came to life, it was lush. This stark difference has really made an impression on me, yet more importantly a greater one on the landscape.

A naturalist, and fellow enthusiast, of the Colorado Plateau Thomas Fleischner has detailed the history of the area around Horseshoe Canyon in his book “Singing Stone.” He said, grazing was introduced to the United States by way of Mexico in 1540. Its spread, development, and regulation or lack there of has become deeply rooted within its own culture. Largely out of the public eye, grazing wasn’t a cause for concern until the Dust Bowl when over grazing contributed to the loss of topsoil. It was only in 1934 that the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, mandating government control over grazing. This led to the creation of the U.S. Grazing Services; that was eventually joined with the General Land Office to become the BLM. Then it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the livestock industry and grazing truly came into the public eye. I was surprised to find out Regan even included it in his campaigning in the west. It was only until a few days ago that this livestock issue really took stock in my life but I can safely say it has my attention.

I am by no means an expert on ranching, Utah, the West, or even Horseshoe Canyon. Yet, I do know that in the layers of sandstone, hidden alcoves, and the gentle sway of willows I find great joy. I know the ecosystem on the side of the fence where it lies protected, and un-trampled feels more vibrant. I know without munching, stomping, and tramping this vibrancy thrives and the canyon is just that much more wild. I feel that I can even go as far as to say, the grass is truly greener on the other side.


Anna Martone: The Sounds of Silence

Horseshoe Canyon

Photo By: Nick Littman 

HHEEELLOOO  HELLLOO hellloo hello………When you speak to the canyon, the canyon speaks back, echoing down through layers of Navajo sandstone. Now stop, stand still and listen. The silence will move over your body like chills in a brisk wind. Sounds can be deceiving in the Horseshoe Canyon, but if you listen closely, there may be more noise than you originally perceived.

As our WRFI group descends down one of the only accessible trails into the heart of the canyon, we become separate from the world above us. The steep canyon walls enclose us in a world unknown and mysterious, and my excitement starts to grow. As we stand in the wash, I am immediately taken by the absence of noise and stillness that permeates throughout the environment. No longer do I hear cars rushing down a highway, doors slamming shut, cash registers chiming with every purchase, or day-to-day, white noise sounds I have become so used to. It is quiet.

As days go on and we casually stroll down the 30-mile stretch that is Horseshoe Canyon, my perception of sound begins to change. I begin to notice more. I begin to question more. I begin to interpret the world around me and traits of a naturalist start emanating throughout my body. Horseshoe Canyon has opened its doors to show a diverse, captivating ecosystem that encapsulate sounds around every alcove. If you listen closely you might hear a canyon wren whistling above, a cottonwood swaying in the breeze, a whiptail lizard scurrying across slick rock, or a burrow off in the distance. But to the untrained ear, canyons can become silent escapes; drastically different from the world we left behind.

As days pass, my ears become accustomed to the deservingly quite desert and I begin to recognize the silence as much more. For me, the absence of sound speaks greater volumes than anything outside these red stained rocks. As I begin to get acquainted with the environment around me, I start to question and ponder what sounds have echoed loud through these rocks long before we ever found our way down. What sounds are no longer present here but have shaped the biological and physical aspects of this canyon?

Millions of millions of years ago heavy rivers cut deep through layers of sandstone to form what is now Horseshoe Canyon.  As I look up at the escarpment of rocks that have fallen from high above, I imagine the vibrations of sound made as boulders crash and tumble on to hard ground. Desert varnish paints the walls deeper red, showing evidence of what was once a larger sandstone rock.  As I peer up at the stone around me, I start envisioning that last moment when the crack in a rock becomes its own boulder, flying high through the sky ready to make a grand entrance into the wash of the canyon………. BOOOOOMMMM. Rocks scattered across our trail shouting as we cross over them.

Stepping over rocks that once made vibrations through the narrow wash of the canyon, I notice the absence of water. As we walk through what used to be a river, flowing deep within the walls, water is now barren. No longer do sounds of rushing water, splashing against mud rock surround the area. The wash runs dry, but the water has not left without leaving its mark. Through dips in smooth rocks, branches pushed up along the base of cottonwoods, steep banks and muddy shores, we can begin to find clues to where the last floods seeped through. Interesting how what has shaped these giant canyons walls, is now nowhere to be seen or heard. The water that once flowed through can now only be heard through ones imagination.

Evidence of life permeates through every corner, and my imagination runs wild. A dinosaur track prompts our group to embody what we think this animal sounded like, walked like, looked like. Different interpretations travel through our minds, questioning what the world was like 65 million years ago. What sounds encapsulated the area as this dinosaur moved through the land? Through pictographs and petroglyphs sprawled over alcove walls, chert found between layers of other rocks, footprints of animals not to far head of us, and old bones of different mammals, I begin to recognize it wasn’t always so quite down hear.

On the count of three open your ears-1, 2, 3………..What do you hear?


Rachel Bowanko: Unexpected Discoveries

rachelWhen I was first instructed to find a plant that I did not know the name of, observe it for an hour, and then identify it, I assumed that the assignment was going to be the longest hour of my life. I walked around for a while in search of a plant, realizing that I knew the names of very few of them. I looked at the plants around me and decided to perch my chair in an equally shady and sunny location. I sat down with my snack, water bottle, and notebook and stared out at the vibrant tree standing before me.

I watched a chipmunk scurry around on the branches and watched the needles on the tree stretch upwards towards the sun. I noticed the bright red hue of the cones and smelled a welcoming pine fragrance as I crushed the needles between my fingers and palm. I grazed my fingers over the rough bark and traced them along the trunk to where the tree came into contact with the ground. Before I knew it, I had spent well over an hour with this tree and could easily recognize its bark, trunk, branches, needles, and cones. This tree became familiar to me, and I felt that I had known it for much longer. Suddenly a task that seemed to be so arduous was something I never wanted to stop doing.

With excitement, I went down to the plant guide to identify my tree. I found it immediately, matching the description up with my notes. I read about it and learned that it was an Engelmann spruce, a member of the Pine family. I read about its cones and needles and the animals and plants that rely on it. I began reading about the uses of this tree and found my connection with it to grow even deeper. The Engelmann spruce is the common Christmas tree- a holiday that is central to my family where endless traditions and games make the season one of my most cherished times of the year. This tree is also used to make violins, an instrument that I grew up playing- an instrument that helped instill a love for music in me and helped to shape the path that my life would take. Perhaps even most relevant to my current passions and educational path, the bark of the Engelmann Spruce is used to make canoes. Ever since I was young, my earliest memories of the outdoors have centered about canoe trips full of wildlife sightings and watching the changing of the seasons around me. Canoeing helped foster the love I have for being outside today as well as my passion of conserving our planet. It has led me on several new adventures throughout my life and will lead me on countless more adventures to come.

Since that warm afternoon where I sat down with my tree, I have thought daily about all the lessons it taught me. Watching the tree provide shade for smaller plants, and shelter for animals such as the chipmunk, taught me about the importance of living at peace in a mutually beneficial relationship with your surroundings. Sitting above the vast and deep root system, this tree showed me the importance of being grounded. While only one species, this tree is connected so intricately with the environment around it forming a larger system. This larger system included both the living and non-living aspects of the environment and all the relationships encompassed within these. This bigger system was comprised over many relationships, only some of which included humans.

Even more striking than these lessons was how connected I was to a single species, and in turn to an entire ecosystem. Without this assignment, I may never have discovered its fundamental importance in my life and the life of thousands of other people.

While studying human land relations we read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” and a piece by Noss entitled, “Biodiversity and Its Value.” In Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” I was particularly drawn to the “community concept.” In this section, Leopold explains that as a member of a community we are drawn to both compete but also cooperate with others. He goes on to expand what is typically defined as a community to include soil, water, plants, animals, and the land. As part of a community with all the biotic and abiotic factors included, we as humans shift from a role as a “conqueror or the land” to a citizen of it where there is mutual respect and love between all organisms and the land on which we thrive and survive.

In Noss’ discussion on biodiversity, I was most captivated by the concept of the intrinsic values that nature has – values beyond the ones that are obvious to humans (such as food and fuel). Noss defines intrinsic values as “the spiritual and ethical appreciation of nature for its own sake” (Noss, 22). Both authors wrote about the innate value found in nature and the importance of all organisms. As I spent time with my Engelmann Spruce and the species surrounding it I fostered a deep level of respect in myself for not only this marvelous tree but all other living organisms. I was not only able to see the value of the tree through its connection to me and its connection with the other living organisms surrounding it, but I also was able to see its innate value and the necessary role it plays in the ecosystem.

If one species of tree could have such a profound impact on my life, who knows how many other species I could be just as connected to. If spending some time by one tree can grow my respect for nature and an urge for preservation so much, imagine where we would be as a society if people watched the land, spent time in nature, learned from the land, and learned to experience the land on new levels based out of respect and love. When our value of nature extends beyond human use, but instead is anchored on the intrinsic value of nature we will be able to live in harmony with the environment, protecting it and allowing it to flourish.

As I watched my tree stretch out towards the warm afternoon sun, I felt a desire to protect my tree. I wanted to wrap my arms around its gray trunk and never let go. However, I quickly came to the realization that in order to protect my Engelmann Spruce, I would need to protect the plants living below it. I would need to protect the fungus that provides nutrients to the soil that houses the roots of my tree. The soil giving it life and all the plants keeping the soil from eroding deserve respect and protection. The animals amongst the branches that helped to spread the seed of this tree need to be protected. This is where the concept of community that Leopold spoke about really hit home to me- to protect this tree I need to protect its surroundings. To live in a community with this tree I need to recognize its value beyond the one it provides humans (such as its use in violins and canoes). Living with the land in one community can be found where the value of human use and ecological use is equally appreciated and respected. Living with the land in ways that protect the resources for both human and ecological use; a way of living with the entire system.

Devon Calvin: Lessons from Munching Burnt Quinoa


There exists some sacred, indefinable core between people who you have munched burnt quinoa with, slept beneath shooting stars and howling coyotes, and shared alpenglow sunsets with. Between our group of students this core transgressed our contrary backgrounds, histories and interests. It caused each and every one of us at the end to be utterly nostalgic at the prospect of heading our separate ways with nothing left but sweet memories and phone numbers. Yet it also taught me to value relationships much more than I ever have before.

Throughout the turbulent years of late high school and early college, I lived by a “wilderness essence,” a vision of a lawless, untouched paradise that I could reach primarily through reckless exploration: commonly alone, running along some mountain ridge and without bear spray or cell phone. This perspective characterized my relationships with people and the outdoors. During college I became infatuated with planning out the places I would go, and only became friends with other climbers or skiers. The realization that I was spiraling into a routine and not having the new experiences I had hoped for in a college experience caused me to take a leave of absence for the following fall semester to find something more meaningful than just my personal athletic development.

Coming into the first day of WRFI my head was very much centered around managing a life back home in Central Oregon, and scrambling to find something meaningful to do in the gap semester after the course was over. I felt distant from my peers- and slightly confined by the group dynamics where conservative decision-making took higher precedent over the familiar pursuit of freedom. On our first front country camp at the Nature Conservancy’s Pine Butte Preserve I ran down winding trails at 5:30 AM to experience the area in the way I was used to: quickly, more solitary, and without a plan. The wild morning encounters with skunks, deer, grouse and winding rivers confirmed my belief in a wilderness essence and in a singular mode of experiencing wilderness.

On our second day of a 30 mile, 8 day hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I decided to wet a line on a small section of the South Fork River during a little free time before dinner. I moved downstream, and found myself a mile down the river casting into deep turquoise holes before I thought to check my watch. When the sense of urgency at returning in time for dinner finally hit, I scrambled up the steep creek bank and started running back. After a few minutes another realization hit me- I had left the borrowed fly box and rod case as well as my license down beside the river! I cursed myself, and took off again back to the fishing grounds. By the time I sheepishly ran back into camp, the group was circled, munching burnt quinoa. It was an illuminating moment. At that moment I recognized that my egocentric wild desires were self-inflicting, isolating, and were less valuable than the time spent with others.

Throughout the span of six weeks I learned that happiness cannot be found just in wilderness, alone. On our last night of WRFI as we munched on burnt quinoa, I looked at each and every fellow classmate, adventurer and friend with a newfound appreciation for giving me a sense of clarity about wilderness, relationships and myself. I learned that my happiness originates through friendships over a mutual enjoyment of experiences. I learned to slow down, and focus on the moments spent outside with others rather than the speed or mode of travel. Within six weeks I began to appreciate others not for their level of gnar, similar perspectives, or granola personalities, but for their enjoyment of life and indomitable spirits. As I forge new relationships and revisit old ones, I believe I will now see in people not only what qualities they possess, but rather the soulful fire that drives them to be such diverse, inspiring people. And as a friend, I will stoke it as best I can.


2016 Wild Rockies Summer Semester Students

Ben Warzon: The Uplift of Education

benWe often spend our days of academia sedentary, stimulating only our brains, and that’s on the best days. For many of us on this course, sitting in one place being showered in fluorescent light is one of the hardest tasks of the day. Sure, if you asked me to haul an 80-pound pack up 8,000 vertical feet in a day, I would do it. But sitting in a plastic chair for two hours of PowerPoint guided lectures? I’ll pass on that. Of course, this is no revelation. This topic has been studied, discussed and experienced by many people for years.

The true realization though, comes with living in a state of both education and exercise in the field. On our layover day of the Scapegoat backpack, we participated in an hour long study of a single plant. This was one of the most interesting academic exercises I have ever done, and still, I could not truly focus. I gained a plethora of information and certainly appreciated it, but I was not feeling satisfied immediately after. The afternoon held a hike up Scapegoat Mountain for 5 of us. Leaving camp sometime around 3 pm, time wasn’t plentiful, but vertical gain to the top certainly was. We endeavored on a roughly 6-mile round trip with 2700’ to climb, and then descend. As we motored out of camp, lactic acid and heavy breathing came very quickly. The focus I had lacked that morning came even faster though. The lung-busting, screaming-quad climb was as much mental therapy as I have ever had. My mind was instantly able to focus on the Shrubby Cinquefoil, my plant friend from the morning.

As we sat atop the striking Scapegoat, one of my biggest life lessons of the course this far was certainly not novel, but it was starkly clear. Our mental and physical selves are much more integrated than they are separate. This course and form of education in general, give us the invaluable gift of working both concurrently and equally. The words “holistic” and “unity” are often condemned as “hippie ideals,” but, as we are in touch with ourselves, the two halves integrate so instantaneously. Do we really believe that the minds of young women and men will be more open while in physical captivity? Certainly the education system is much more good than bad, but this is a huge oversight it has.

As I move through the landscape dominated by towering limestone cliffs, I can’t help but relate to it. These striking features formed through eons, first born as an ancient sea bed. The land lay dormant and gathered huge amounts of material as creatures passed away and sediments settled. Physical motion caused the uplift 170 million years ago that made this into an inspiring landscape able to share its lessons readily. Much like these mountains once buried and since uplifted, it is our motion and exposure to the real world that makes all of the material we have gained in school usable and impactful.

Kimberly Rivers: An Old Question with a New Answer

kimberly-riversEvery summer of my life has been spent in my home state – North Carolina – and that has been very comfortable. Easy trips to the beach and long days spent by the pool. This past year, though, something changed. For the first time in my life, I wanted to make myself uncomfortable. It was my last summer before graduating from college, and I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone a bit. By sheer luck, I found out about Wild Rockies Field Institute from a flier all the way across the country from Montana, in a classroom building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fast forward through the application, the invitation to join, and my decision to take the Environmental Ethics course – that’s when I first asked myself my big question of the summer: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Before taking the WRFI course, I had never been to Montana, never backpacked, and had never even been outside of North Carolina for longer than a week or so. After learning more about the intensity of the course and all the equipment we would need, I wondered: “What have I gotten myself into?” When literally everyone I told about the course warned me to watch out for bears, I asked it yet again. I had no experience and really didn’t know what to expect. The closer it got to the start of the course, the more nervous I became. I packed my new, huge backpack before I flew out to Montana, and after struggling to lift it up and put it on, I asked the question yet again.

For our first day on the trail, my new WRFI friends and I were only hiking about 3 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to get to our first campsite in the backcountry. It became clear very quickly, however, that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Our instructors estimated that our packs weighed about 45 pounds each, (which is heavy, y’all!!), and of course we got rained on. I just knew that I had made a mistake, and that I was going to be miserable for the three weeks of the course.

I started off the trip doubting myself and the course itinerary, but let’s fast forward one more time – I made it through the trip, and ended up having an incredible time. Together, my classmates and I backpacked in two different wilderness areas and Glacier National Park, spoke with members of the Blackfeet Tribe, swam through a canyon to a secret waterfall, scrambled up to a mountain peak, and engaged in meaningful conversations about climate change and life itself, among other really cool things. I learned so much about myself and could feel proud for what I had accomplished. My whole perspective about traveling and the world changed – I knew I loved traveling and wanted to do more of it before I came on the course, but new ideas about what I could do were exploding in my head. I again began asking myself the same question: “What have I gotten myself into?”, but now it had begun taking on a new meaning.

Before the course, my question had been one of doubt and fear. Now, it’s a door to new opportunities and possibilities. By taking the WRFI Environmental Ethics course, I have gotten myself into a new mindset, and a new perspective. I cannot thank my instructors Pat and Katie, as well as the rest of the WRFI crew, enough for everything they did for me to ensure that an inexperienced girl from North Carolina had the best experience possible through their amazing program. If you’re thinking about taking a WRFI course, I urge you to find out what you can get yourself into. I’m so glad I did.