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People would feel foolish standing on the deck of a boat looking out over the ocean and declaring that nothing could be living underneath the water simply because they couldn’t see it.  Yet the same people drive past expansive grasslands and open country saying that “nothing’s out there” because they can’t see it.

Grasslands are like the ocean, with a sea of life swimming past.  The land undulates like waves, hiding animals from view. The frothy grass heads washed windward mask a multitude of little things.  You just have to wade through the grass and find these things.

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The easiest to find are the birds because they will rise above the waves of grass.  Harriers swoop low over the land, trying to scare up rodents. Falcons, hawks and owls perch on fenceposts and  in trees by creeks to scan for meals.  Even doves and meadowlarks use whatever they can find as a singing platform.

Then there are the mammals that can move through the grass, but use it for shade and cover.  Deer, pronghorns, bison all eat the grass, bed down in it, move through it.  Deer have a way of appearing suddenly out of grasslands, invisible until you get a white flag flipped in your face and see slender legs bounding away from you.

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Prairie dogs live under the sea bottom, and coyotes hunt at the bottom.  Black footed ferrets, rabbits and badgers keep the dogs company, while the real canids sniff around looking for a rodent, berry, or insect meal.

And then there are the really little things- bugs and bones, plants and fungi, rocks and flowers.  Even geologic monuments installed long, long ago. Finding all the interesting living and non-living things in a grassland sea even a mile square can take you hours, from dawn to dusk to catch them all.

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On my first day at American Prairie Reserve, I decided to walk the road to the Buffalo Jump by Jones and Telegraph Creeks.  I loaded up a pack with water, lunch, snacks, clothes, and binoculars, brought two cameras, and set off on foot, using the same mode of transportation as the Plains Indians to approach the site hundreds of years ago.

Why walk?  It’s a decent gravel road. Trucks haul trailers on this road. People drive and mountain bike it. Walking the road is unusual enough that a USFWS ranger stopped to ask if I needed help.

I could have gotten there in my car and then added on a whole lot more to my day, but there are many reasons to walk. First, because I can.  As a young-in-life owner of a fake hip joint, I know what it feels like to hobble in agony 1/3 mile down a flat road to the mailbox.  I know how small the world becomes when everything is about managing pain, how you lose peripheral vision and fight discouragement. Walking for me – and many people- is a restored blessing, and I don’t take it for granted.

I wanted to take it slow, look at the landscape, find the little things.  I couldn’t do that from a car or bike.  And finally, I’m so sick of sitting in a cubicle, a car, a train, a bus that I could run screaming. I wanted outside, sun and wind on my face.

After a mile or so past camp, I passed the Enrico Science Center, a remodeled ranch home. The vans you see parked there were assisting the 2016 Transect, an 11-day trek across North Central Montana hosted by APR.  I ran into the group and APR staff at the Buffalo Jump and was instantly converted by their sunny friendliness (shocking, as I live in the land of the notoriously unfriendly “Seattle Freeze”). dsc_0681_edited-1

browneyedsusanOn my trek to the jump,  I found butterflies, prairie dogs, and of course, bison.  I flushed upland birds (probably grouse), took pictures of tracks and scat, and put one foot in front of the other,  mile after mile.

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Prairie dog- notice the ear bling indicating tagging and perhaps vaccination.

The road traverses into Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and eventually crosses a bridge over what I believe is Jones Creek.  By that time I’d met the ranger, who sympathetically gave me his NWR map, saying I would need it, and recommending a trip to the elk viewing area on the auto tour road (later post on that).

The road wound upward to the top of a hill blanketed with clumps of yellow-flowered brush perhaps marking where long-ago tipis would have stood as the First Peoples prepared to herd bison to their death below.aprflowersbelowjump

Buffalo jumps may seem gruesome to us today because we don’t see our food die. Unless we’re farmers or hunters, harvest occurs in slaughterhouses far away from our tables. For all we know, steaks are made in a factory and shrink-wrapped in plastic and styrofoam.

First Peoples used suitable natural cliff formations in an organized effort to harvest an animal that at the time, was far more dangerous to hunt on foot.  Buffalo jumps are full of secrets from long ago:  no one seems to have a good handle on the dates they were used, and conventional wisdom about their use falls all the time. The only thing that seems sure is that Plains Indians stopped using the jumps when horses became available.

Like me, the Plains Indians would have reached the jump on foot.  Unlike me, they were supremely fit, trained, acculturated, and prepared for a dangerous effort critical to their survival.Experience and ritual guided a highly coordinated effort.

Buffalo jumps are sacred to Native Americans even though all known jumps have been excavated, sometimes for bones to be used as fertilizer and other times to either steal or preserve the past. Out of respect, I ate my lunch across the road from the jump, where I met the friendly people on the APR Transect.

I didn’t really know what to look for at these sites until I later visitied the Madison Buffalo Jump. There, I was enlightened by excellent, informative signage, and could imagine the drive up a ramp behind the jump, and the massive processing occuring near a creek below the jump.  I’m glad there isn’t signage at APR- it would have stood out by a mile in the landscape- but I will go there again with wiser eyes after having done some reading.

On the return trip, I passed two little snakes in the road, enjoying the heat of day.  One was a Western rattlesnake, the other I can’t tell (looks like a prairie hognose, but doesn’t have the upturned nose- so much for pictures on the Web).

I thought about all the perils the Plains Indians faced just trying to survive.  Weather, starvation, predators, snakes, childbirth, and on and on. If I had lived then, I would have been among the women processing bison for hide, meat, brain, sinew, bladder.  One of the women working for the survival of my people. And yet, the only thing I have in common with those brave, strong women was that I came to the site on foot.

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The unwitting subject on top of the jump gives a sense of scale.

 

 

aprbuffalocampIt’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

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Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

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If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

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After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

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On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

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Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

 

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The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…

 

 

 

 

 

CoyoteRealizaton

Canis latrans follows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets.  Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America.  As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded.  They grew bolder. After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half, and they abandoned the apex predator behavior they had assumed.

My valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time, until the neighbor without adequate protection for his sheep started taking them out in revenge for lamb nabbings.  A year later, the rabbit population exploded and garden destruction began.  Worse, the mesh fence my neighbor put in to keep his wayward cows out of my yard blocks the travel of coyotes. Now, I’m happy to see any coyotes at all.

I knew I had a coyote around somewhere in June:  scat with cherries and occasional hair was appearing on the road and in my horses’ paddocks.  I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was meandering around the fields on a rental tractor, mowing thigh high grass.  Many raptors follow tractors, for good reason.  The rumbling and vibration of the machinery chases mice and voles from the grass, where they become easy prey.  Those that don’t survive the tires or blade become dinner for scavengers.

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This young pup is on her own early.  In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.

At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance.  I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet.  She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles. Another coyote learning the ways of her ancestors, following people for our scraps.

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Not a great picture, but you get the idea how young and scrawny this coyote is.  Most pups don’t survive their first year.

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She seems to have figured out that the tractor means food.

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Success- chewing on a vole

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She got braver as the evening wore on, even though her belly started to look round with the feast.

 

It’s the baby time of year- they’re starting to leave their nests and find their way in the world.  Sometimes mom and dad is there to help, but eventually, they gotta fly on their own.  None of this college graduate living at home with a mountain of student debt for them….

 

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I look like one of those people, but I’m not.  No, I don’t watch television.  There is too much else to do. But that “else” isn’t pursuit of the spiritual, the religious, the social. I do things with my beat up hands, with my land, with my horses. In my spare time, I either stay home or pack bags and go:  near or far, with a pass or a passport; drive, take the bus or train, or fly; stay in a tent or a motel or a hut.

I’m not a total luddite:  I will indulge in crazy animated movies once in awhile. I obviously use electronics, digital cameras, a computer, a smartphone, a tablet.

 

But a bald eagle tumbling through the air grabbing at the talons of a territory-invading hawk is a commercial free distraction. The dark eyes of a harbor seal that has followed my kayak home and hovers in the pool by the beach is a soulful farewell. A hummingbird that weighs less than a nickel defending a stand of bee balm from butterflies, bees, and birds entertains.  These moments are far more arresting than a conversation over chai tea in a carefully designed faux salvage cafe decor.

HummerBranchThis region’s legendary traffic is my excuse for not indulging in urban cultural events and going to dinner with friends.  My friends live three dozen miles away, south on a perpetually crowded freeway, or a thousand miles away.  My family, like many, is spread across the country. But travel isn’t really the barrier, because I do that a lot.  I just like wandering around by my lonesome, in the moment, in as natural an environment as I can find. dragonfly1

I paid my dues retrieving my mother’s blood spattered, broken glasses from the wreckage of her truck 30 years ago. Already supremely independent and restless, I’ve never again been that easy close to people after that little tragedy.  I wander afar, road trip, hike, and camp on my own, or stay home to do artwork and landscaping in the company of animals, most of them wild. In practice, I’m an absent, unrelaible friend, checking in sporadically with pictures and stories about travel and home. RedSnake

So I don’t watch television, attend retreats to become mindful and soulful, seek cultural events and stimulating conversation over gourmet meals. I sound awful.  But I’m not a hermit: I work with the public and give volunteer presentations and workshops whenever I’m asked. I’m friendly to every friendly person I meet. I care about the friends I don’t keep up with. I’m interested in other people’s stories. It’s just that when the day is done, I take my stories home, disconnect from humanity, and go where the wild things are.

And that’s okay.  The world has enough people- it doesn’t need me out there.

VultureOnSlashPileThe animal company I keep does need people, though.  They need us to plant more trees and shrubs, build more rock piles and slash piles, hoist up more nests until there is enough nature to build their own.  They need cleaner, cooler water and skies without flight hazards and light pollution. At my little sanctuary, they reward my efforts by mulitplying and bringing their offspring back each year. My visitors are a study in simplicity, with simple wants:  food, family, turf, home. This, I understand.

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.
Rachel Carson

 

This was true in Rachel Carson’s United States after people annihilated bird populations with DDT and other pesticides meant to protect us from pests.  New Zealand’s birds have been silenced by another human behavior: bringing the world of pests with us when we travel.

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Takahe on Kapiti Island. The North Island takahe went extinct.  The South Island takahe seen here was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered.

New Zealand floated alone in the Pacific for 80+ million years, far away from Australia, Tonga, Fiji.  Like a person spending a lot of time alone, it developed some interesting features. In the beginning, there were only birds, and perhaps a bat species or two.  No mammals at all to scavenge nutritious eggs and snatch fledglings.  The birds didn’t need to go far, so flight fell by the wayside for some birds, and others are weak fliers.Giant moas grew to 8 feet tall at the shoulder; their only predator, the Haast’s eagle, weighed 30+ lbs.

And then it all changed 800 some years ago when the Maori arrived hungry, and accompanied by kiore, Polynesian rats. Then came stoats, cats, wasps, goats, deer, sheep, cows, dogs, red tailed oppossums, ship rats, Norway rats and so on.  Man is often called the worst pest because we hunt animals to extinction, burn down forests for pasture and farmland, and point skyward to justify our destruction.KiwiZoneSign

Today, we continue to bring pests, some too small to be seen.  On my recent trip to New Zealand, we were scrubbing and disinfecting shoes to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, a fungus. Then, we were picking through packs for plant material and small rodents before going to Kapiti Island sanctuaryKapiti-IslandWoodSign

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Around the world, concern about vanishing nature has occurred in waves throughout history.  We’re at a sort of end time in some places like New Zealand, where it’s an all-out war on pests to keep what’s left alive.  Sanctuaries are established offshore or behind fences, and then pests are poisoned, shot, trapped, lured to their deaths with Judas animals. The Goat Musterer has removed 20,000+ feral goats for food use. There are still a lot to go.

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It’s not a pretty approach, and intolerable to people with softer sensibilities living in sprawling countries like America.  We think there’s enough space, another way to do this. On the other side, some folks believe wiping out the indigenous flora, fauna (and sometimes people that were not considered to be such) is evidence of humans’ entitled dominion over the earth. On the other side, some believe we deserve Zika, Ebola, terrible influenzas.

I believe in balance.DangerTrapInside

In New Zealand, I found it strange to be in lush native bush with no birdsong. Protected sanctuaries immediately stand out for the melodic songs of tui and bellbirds. It’s taken years to bring them back, and constant vigilance to keep them that way, free of pests that overwhelm birds with no ability to adapt. People can live among the wild peacably:the Barrett family of Kapiti Island, holdouts who refused to sell their land for a sanctuary, are perfect examples of this.

When I came home to my postage stamp of a restoration project, rich with birdsong, bees, frogs, and butterflies, I realized we don’t have to take a bow and leave.  Sixteen years ago, I moved in to acres of invasive foreign grass on a horse property barren of life.  Sixteen years later, I come home to a wildlife sanctuary.  If we have courage, it can work.

The Home People

 

The scene couldn’t have been more grand. Two men dressed in black carrying long carved horns heralded us from the long ramp descending to Floor 3 of Te Papa Museum.  They motioned us to move forward and disappeared around the corner into the airy and elaborate Te Marae hall. We followed, well over a hundred of us, herded by our Maori hosts as we gaped. The meeting house (wharenui) rafters danced with radiantly colored exotic beings that had just banished their father to the sky to liberate us all from darkness.  Reveling in their success, they now reined in the sun to slow it down and give the people full days.

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The women in our group took seats in the back row not, as we were told before the ceremony, because we were lesser people or unclean.  We represented the next generation, the future, and historically, if the greeting ceremony between the Home People and the Visitors didn’t go so well, we were closest to the door and could get out of Dodge fast.

The welcoming ceremony customs were all shaped by the potential for people to be warlike, which we might object to, though most certainly we are. Paora Tibble of Te Papa represents the Home People, and recites their whakapapa (roughly, genealogy, but more broadly, origin).  PaoraTibbleCeremony

Paora breathes imagination, and must live in more than three dimensions filled with stories (listen to “Kiore Whispers” as he transforms into a Polynesian rat sailing to the Land of the Long White Cloud).  Later, at a workshop, he will pass around a family mere pounamu, one that has been laid upon the dead.  “Don’t worry,” he tells us, “I’ve blessed it so you will be safe.” I’m deeply honored, but uncertain as your usual sinner whether the dead listened to the blessing.

Back at the ceremony, Paora closes his speech and Joe Hariwi, our representative, steps forward.  He tells the Home People we are from Aotearoa, Australia, and far abroad.  We are storytellers and we come to share stories and discuss the telling of each others stories.  We ask them to welcome us.JoesTeMoko

Joe is a compelling representative, with a full face te moko that he acquired in 2008 as a form of “cultural advocacy” despite concerns from coworkers.  He found an authentic te moko artist, who studied patterns from old photographs and paintings, the art having been lost when missionaries banned it as a heathen practice. “We all have moko,” he said.  “It’s your DNA, where you are from, your skills and talents.  Mine is in linear form, on my face.”

Joe is open, honest, and funny, so of course he should be our representative.  Paora accepts us on behalf on the Home People, and then we have to sing.  We have little pieces of paper with the lyrics in Maori, and I find that if 170 people are singing, and some are good, and some know the language, you can fake it and sing along without feeling too tone deaf.

We participate in the hongi, the gracious nod toward another that involves touching nose and forehead and breathing in the essence of the other.  It is so civilized, so dignified, to go through these ceremonies in a year of barroom brawls and snark fests that pretend to be presidential campaigns. I tap only one person’s forehead getting the hang of it (it’s not rugby).

But I am mostly lost to the ceiling of the whenui (meeting hall), with the radiant colors and wild spirits.  I will visit in a quiet time later, and realize that we are all there, the people who gained light from the strength of Tane:  musicians and scientists, prisoners, famers, carpenters, and film makers all stand in the panels beneath the surging gods and dragons.  I want to live there, in a panel, step backward and disappear as a figure forever, the new Home People.

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Way back when, at the very start of the new millenium, I traveled to New Zealand and Tonga. The purpose was simple- a friend asked me to go to Tonga to avoid the impending Y2K disaster and greet the new year, and I didn’t even know where it was, so I said yes.  To maximize the very long air travel, I took a month extra to travel in the “jump off” country- either Australia or New Zealand.  Since Australia is full of poisonous, venomous, man-eating things, I decided to travel New Zealand.  A now-former friend and I traveled the north and south islands in a campervan, hiking, kayaking, and camping.  One of the early forays being Tongariro Crossing, in Tongariro National Park.

I remember the volcanic plateau on the North Island as a magical place, a hike across the moonscape of an explosion crater up over a ridge to see the angry colors of an earth ripped apart.  It was a long hike, I recall, and rugged, but beautiful dropping over the ridge to Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes.

When my application for the International Conference for Interpretation was accepted, I had the perfect opportunity to go back to the Crossing, this time with a digital camera to capture the magic and colors.  I have pictures of that 2000 trip somewhere tucked away in an album, in a box, in the back of a closet.

And I need to find them now, because something has changed.  I have, surely, 16 years older, with an engineered hip and a decade and a half of wear on a body never built for what I’ve put it through.  But I expected that.  It’s the Crossing itself that’s changed, by people and for people.

The first warning came in the form of signs in National Park Village.  Shuttle rides advertised everywhere.  CrossingAdForgot your gear?  We rent jackets and boots and packs and trekking poles.  BootsForHire

 

 

 

 

The nice staff at the Park Hotel said, “Oh, you were here when it was a tramp.  Now it’s just a walk, really. But the weather can go quite bad.”

Once you get on the trail, signs let you know exactly how long you’ll take to get anywhere.

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And a sign acts as a stern parent in case you’ve forgotten your galoshes- or in the case of the wispy lady who streamed by it, if you’re heading up on a socked in day in sparkly keds, skinny jeans, with your iPod and earbuds and k-pop still audible to the world.AreYouPrepared

The thousands of stairs painstakenly laid to make travel safer caused pain for any of us with old joints and fake parts.  Two tough ladies in their 70’s trooped up the trail, but cursed the stairs on their way out.

I was lucky to be there in the “slow” season.  There were a fair number of travelers, but only a small fraction of the 4500 my shuttle driver said streamed over the trail on Waitangi Day.  “Queues at the loos, lines at the steep bits,” he said.  “It’s the thing you do in New Zealand,” said the nice Irish lady at the hotel desk.  “You check in to National Park one day, do the hike the next, complain if the weather’s bad, then leave the following morning.” The Department of Conservation changed the name in 2007 to the Tongagiro Alpine Crossing to stress the potential danger, but perhaps to no avail.

Well, I’d taken five days to hike, and I could wait for a chance of decent weather.  I hiked it on Day 3. It was socked in at the South Crater, but suddenly a chill wind swept across the crater and the ridge came into view.  The clouds continued to depart in the stiff breeze, unveiling the rich volcanic colors under bluebird skies at the Red Crater.

The descent was indeed a walk- I did it in my runners to give my feet a break.  On the way, I stopped to take photos of the Te Maari crater, the latest eruption site from 2012.  A ranger passing by volunteered the story and pointed out where the lahar had destroyed vegetation in its path.  I commented that this volcano complex was far more angry and volatile than our Mt. St. Helens. “We like our volcanoes lively here,” he said. Traveling through the lahar zone at the bottom, I could see he was right.

I hope the crowds see this terrain for its mercurial power and grandeur, an abstract painting of the earth turning itself inside out.  I hope they look at the view behind the selfie and beyond the congratulatory t-shirt and the Lord of the Rings filming locations. This hike was was a measure of how much I’ve changed, and how much the way we play has changed.  I won’t go back- there are beautiful places more remote and peaceful to challenge my ageing bones, but the amazing volcanic landscape won me over again.