Friday, May 29, 2009

Road-Trip Part 3: All About Cedar Gnats

IMG_0161 I’ve already mentioned how the rainy weather was a mixed blessing, in that it led to the change of plans that took us to the mysterious Chacoan-style ruin on the Ute Mountain Reservation. But it turned out to be a boon in another regard as well. On the drive back from the hike in the tribal van, I chatted a bit with 2 women (both Cortez locals) seated next to me. I mentioned how sketchy the weather was, and they pointed out that I should be glad because the rain and cold had driven away the Cedar Gnats. They went on to say how this is one of the worst/earliest gnat seasons they can remember. Sure enough, our camping experience that evening was gnat-free.

Tangent: Nice as they were at first, I began to suspect later on during the ride that my seatmates were a few spokes short of a true wheel. I overheard them talking about UFOs and how the international space station crew had been forced to shut off their 24x7 external cameras because it had become too time-consuming to edit out all of the UFO-filled frames before passing along the feed to Earth-bound viewers below.

ufo1 Nested Tangent: This is as good a time as any to share one of my half-baked theories: Why Otherwise Reasonable People Believe Weird Stuff. I don’t mean like crazy people who think God is telling them to kidnap child-brides. I mean otherwise normal people who believe that aliens regularly visit the Earth to mutilate cattle and impregnate rural people, or who pay to visit “psychics”, or who think evolution is bogus because it’s “just a theory”, or who believe that enviro-liberals cooked up the whole global warming thing so that government could “have more control” over people.

Lots of smarter folks than me have weighed in on this topic- Michael Shermer*, the Editor of Skeptic Magazine, even wrote a book entitled Why People Believe Weird Things. But that never stopped me before from coming up with a half-baked theory of my own, so here’s mine: Because they’re fearful, lazy, or both. People believe weird stuff largely because they lack an understanding of the function, wonder and beauty of the natural world. IMG_0366And because they don’t understand how the world works or how fantastic and beautiful it is, they see it as cold and strange and ugly and scary, and so they turn to stories that seem to provide explanations and excitement and meaning and wonder, when the truth is that if they just spent a little time and effort and attention to understand the real world, they’d see that excitement and beauty and wonder are all around them right now.

*Shermer is also a former bike racer who had a hand in the design of modern-day bicycle helmets.

When people who don’t know much about the desert learn that I like to camp, bike and hike in Southern Utah, they often ask me whether I’m worried about various creepy-crawlies, including scorpions, rattlesnakes and tarantulas. They want to know if I’m afraid of them (I’m not), whether I might step on them (probably not), or if they ever crawl into my sleeping bag (no.) None of these critters worry me. The one critter that does worry me, they never ask about- gnats.

culicoides -1 If you’ve ventured into Southern Utah between late May and July 1, you know exactly what I’m talking about- those little “midges” or “no-see-ums”. They’re always right there, hovering around your eyes and ears, driving you crazy. And when they bite, their evil little wounds somehow itch worse than any mosquito bite*.

*And they always seem to get me on the ears, where mosquitoes almost never bite, and those ear-bites just itch like crazy…

culicoides-mosquito-flyGrowing up in New England, I had lots of experience with mosquitoes and black flies. While both are annoying, they’re at least big enough to see, and so you stand a chance of killing them. But Cedar Gnats are so tiny as to be quasi-invisible; you wave and swat, but you almost always miss them.

IMG_0330 On our last day the weather improved, and we stopped for a hike in Hovenweep National Monument (pic right). And for the first and only time of the long weekend, we finally encountered gnats. Not many, but enough to be aware of. And as we hiked between the fantastic ruins surrounding a large arroyo, I thought about gnats, and realized that I wanted to know 4 things about them:

1- What are they?

2- Why are they biting me?

3- Why are they only a problem in late Spring/early summer?

4- Why are they only here?

This post is what I found out.

What Are They?

Biting Midges occur world-wide. There are thousands of species in the family Ceratopogonidae (blood-sucking flies), some 500-1000 of which (depending on who’s counting) belong to the genus Culicoides. Most midges/gnats are found in wet or semi-aquatic climates, but a smaller number have adapted to more arid environments.

What we call Cedar Gnats in Southern Utah are specifically 9 different (maybe more) species of Culicoides. They hatch in (non-flying) larval form from eggs laid in Spring or early Summer in fissures in the bark of Utah Juniper trees, and crawl around the fissures eating plant debris and algae. The larvae overwinter in the bark fissures until the following Spring when they pupate (like what a caterpillar does to become a moth or butterfly) into flying adult gnats. (Graphic not mine)

midges02 The males typically emerge first, and wait around for the females to appear. Mating often occurs at the site of a blood host, shortly after the female has fed.

Tangent: Here’s something cool- a number of Culicoides species are parthenogenetic, meaning they have no males. Alas, I’ve been unable to determine whether any of “our” 9 species are parthenogenetic. The parthenogenetic females still require a blood meal to produce eggs.

Why Are They Biting Me?

Adult Culicoides gnats don’t typically eat blood, but rather subsist on nectar, and in fact they serve as pollinators for some flowers. But the female requires a blood meal to produce eggs (just like mosquitoes) and she seeks a vertebrate* from which to obtain it. So far, this sounds pretty much like the deal with mosquitoes. But here’s where it gets different.

*There are indications that she may hone in on CO2 exhalations to do so.

A female mosquito pokes a teensy hole in your skin with its specialized proboscis, injects a bit of anti-coagulant, and then sucks up your blood through the same organ. The itching you experience is a reaction to the anti-coagulant.

Gnat Mosquito But a Cedar Gnat uses its mandibles to actually saw a hole in your skin, then spits anti-coagulant onto the wound, and then sucks up the pooling blood with its non-piercing proboscis. It’s a sort of more “violent” wound, and this may be why their bites are so much more annoying (and lasting) than those of mosquitoes.

Bad_Culicoides-obsoletus The bites aren’t really harmful to us, with the important exception of people who experience an excessive allergic reaction to the anticoagulant. But they are dangerous to both livestock and wild animals, including horses, cattle, deer and pronghorns, as they serve as a transmission vector for several pathogens, most notably the Bluetongue virus*.

*This one affects only ruminants, not humans.

Horses, in particular, also suffer a much worse allergic reaction than us to the anti-coagulant, a condition known as “Sweet Itch”, which can result in severe skin irritation and hair loss.

Side Note: But in other parts of the world, including Central and South America, biting gnats are transmission vectors for a number of human pathogens, including filarial worms. (Elephantiasis is caused by a type of filarial worm, or more correctly, nematode.)

Why Now?

Between May 15 and June 15 is when they pupate, mate, feast and lay eggs, up to 100 in a batch. Some Culicoides species lay 2 batches of eggs.

Why Are They Only Here?

IMG_0135 The thing that always bugged me about these little guys is, why aren’t they in town? By which I mean that you can be out and about in Canyonlands or Arches (pic right = Twin A & me in Arches NP) or on the Slickrock Trail and the gnats will be driving you bonkers, but if you go into a town in the same area/climate, like Moab or Blanding or Cortez, they completely disappear. Why should this be? If they’re so hot for a blood meal, why don’t they zip into town, where there are people (and pets) galore to feed upon?

IMG_0299Because they’re lousy fliers, with a typical range of no more than 300 feet from their hatching tree, and generally Utah Juniper (pic left) doesn’t occur in the middle of a town.

Tangent: There’s still an unanswered question for me though. I can’t swear to it, but I’m almost certain that I’ve been plagued by gnats in open desert/shrubland, when I’ve been well over 300 feet from the nearest Juniper. Either I’m mistaken (always possible), or their range is greater than 300 feet, or they’re able to nest/hatch in the bark of shrubs, such as Sagebrush or Rabbitbrush or Shadscale… I’ll have to pay closer attention on my next encounter…

IMG_0265 The easiest way to deal with the gnats is simply to avoid the desert for a month or 2, but late May is otherwise one of the most pleasant times in Southern Utah. Mountain biking in particular is a tricky undertaking. So long as you’re rolling, all is wonderful. But stop for a rest, or a mechanical, and they’re all over in under 30 seconds. Of course they disappear shortly after sundown, but that leaves the issue of what to do with the 16 hour days we currently enjoy…

Tangent: Years ago, I did a solo mtn biking/camping trip in mid-July up on Boulder Mountain. The mosquitoes were unbelievable. On my last ride, I did a 10-mile singletrack out & back- 5 out, 5 back. At mile 9- a mile from the car- I flatted. I had to make a split-second decision: change the tube, or run with my bike for a full mile. I chose the former. I kept my cool, but just barely. With my hands busy, dozens and dozens of mosquitoes feasted on me. Had I flatted a second time (or screwed up the repair) I almost certainly would’ve dropped the bike and run for it.

If you do go desert camping or backpacking in gnat season, the toughest part is sitting around camp. Here are the 2 pieces of protective gear I recommend you bring.

IMG_0401 1- Bike socks. If like, me, you typically wear sandals in camp, they’ll go for your ankles/feet. Lightweight bike socks under your sandals will protect them.

2- Head-net. Yes, it looks dorky. After about an hour you won’t care. IMG_0402Arizona Steve and I bring these on every Spring backpack trip. They’re particularly valuable when your hands are busy – cooking for example. We’ve even eaten dinner with them on, raising the lower elastic ring to the “moustache-line” between mouth and nose.

So that’s the deal with those gnats. Me, I’m done with the desert for a few months, so I won’t tangle with them again anytime soon. I think.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Road-Trip Part 2: Phil’s World and Eating the State Flower

Although the focus of the long weekend was visiting Anasazi ruins, no trip to the desert is complete without a little mtn biking and botany, both of which I enjoyed on our Memorial Day Family Road-Trip. But first, let’s talk about something a little closer to home.

The Problem With Lambert Park

If you live and mtn bike in Northern Utah, you’re probably familiar with Lambert Park. It’s a modest-sized network of not-very-difficult trails in Alpine, which is tucked into the Northwest Corner of Utah Valley. I think most area mtn bikers would classify the Lambert Park trails as fun, nice-to-have-close-by, but not amazing.

Tangent: I have a Love-Hate relationship with Lambert Park. For several years I would head down there ~once a year, usually in March or April. Much of Lambert is low, open and South-facing, so it’s quick to melt out in the Spring. To drive there from my house (up by the zoo) is the better part of an hour.

Twin A Head caption Every year I’d go down and jump on the trails and be like, “Wow! This is awesome! How come I never come down here? I’m going to start riding these trails all the time!” Then, about 20-30 minutes later, I’d be like, “OK, that was fun, but I think I’ve looped past this point at least 2 or 3 times already, I wonder what else is around here… “ And then finally, after riding around in various circles for about 45-60 minutes, I’d think, “That’s it? I drove all the way down here for this? This is so lame… I’m not driving all the way down here again!”

And then another year passes, the memory fades, Spring rolls around, and I think, “Hmm. I wonder if Lambert Park’s melted out- I should go check it out!” and I do the same frustrating day all over again… Because when you get right down to it, I am a total Utard.

What If…?

IMG_0178 Lambert’s fun for people who live close by, but it’s not quite worth driving ~an hour for. But imagine if Lambert were different. Imagine if instead of covering maybe a dozen acres, it covered a couple hundred acres. And imagine if it included over 20 miles of trail- all great singletrack- trails that didn’t just criss-cross each other in circles and figure-8’s, but trails that really went places, and went to places that were kind of different- some through woodland, some through open flowery meadows, some over slickrock slabs along canyon rims.

IMG_0267 Then imagine that instead of being set in the scrub oak at the base of the Wasatch, it was set in the high desert through Piñon-Juniper Woodland. And then lastly, imagine that the trails Freaking Rocked. Like wild, buff, fast roller-coasters, where you hit maybe 2 G’s at the bottom of a trough and then 0 G at the next crest- over and over and over again, while turning and banking and twisting this way and that.

Seriously, how could it get any cooler than that? Here’s how- if it existed. And coolest of all- it does. It’s called Phil’s World.

PW Map captions Phil’s World lies just 3 ½ miles East of Cortez, close enough to sneak out, ride at dawn, and get back just as the family is stirring.

eLodge Tangent: There is a delicate art to waking and exiting from a motel room before dawn without waking anyone else in the room. I am a master of this art. The key is to have everything that can be left in the car the night before- helmet, gloves, glasses, extra layers, etc.- already in the car, and to have a small pile of stuff at the door with things that cannot be left in the car the night before- shorts, jersey, socks, wallet, phone, keys and of course, bike.

I never leave my bike in or on the car in a motel lot. Yeah I know, most motels have those big “No Bikes in Room” signs nowadays. Screw that. Just get it inside fast, get it out at dawn, like a tree falling in the forest…

IMG_0221 Nested Tangent: We also camped one night, which I mention only to highlight, once again, what an Excellent Camper I am. We had plenty of rain in the evening, but for the Well-Equipped Excellent Camper, rain is no obstacle. Here’s Awesome Wife happily toasting a marshmallow under the protective cover of the Single Best Piece of Camping Gear I Have Purchased This Decade- the Kelty “Noah’s Tarp” 9’x9’ fly. I cannot recommend this item highly enough- best $60 I ever spent.

IMG_0259 The trails are in excellent condition and the soils respond well to moisture/heavy rains, becoming firm, not muddy. The trails are that weird, wonderful combination of interesting-but-not-actually technical, so that you feel like you’re riding really, really well, but when you stop and think about it, you realize you’re not riding anything all that difficult. The climbs are minimal, fast and moderate- just enough to provide a little elevation gain for the fast, thrilling descents. I rode it 3 times over the long weekend, twice at dawn and once before dinner, a different combination of trails each time.

IMG_0256 Extra Details: I strongly recommend Rib Cage and Stinky’s Loop. The Ledges Loop (pic left) is a bit less exciting, but possibly the most beautiful, with a nice combination of woods and meadows. There are little signs at most junctions, making it near-impossible to get lost.

IMG_0266 Bonus Tip: One of my rules when I get to a new trail network for the first time is this: If there’s a trail with the word “stinky” in its name, take it. “Stinky” trails are always great. I don’t know why this is.

Seriously, you gotta go check it out.

Riding The Southwest Uplands

As longtime readers know, I welcome any excuse to spend time in P-J woodland, and this is another reason to ride Phil’s; it’s classic Southwest Uplands riding. IMG_0177 In many ways it’s similar to the flora atop Gooseberry or Little Creek, but it lies a couple hundred miles to the East, and as I’ve become more attuned to desert plants, I’ve started to notice little differences. The Utah Juniper is the same, but the Piñon here is 2-needled Colorado Piñon (pic left), rather than the 1-needled Singleleaf Piñon common to the St. George/Hurricane area. There’s Mormon Tea all around, but only of the “Green” variety (Ephedra viridis.) The “bluer”, more angular Torrey Mormon Tea (E. torreyana) that’s all over hills surrounding St. George is absent.

The Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) seems lusher, leafier and more strongly aromatic, probably in part due to heavy recent rains and time of year, but also I suspect due to elevation; Phil’s World lies ~6,200 – 6,500 feet, while Gooseberry and Little Creek range from ~5,400 – 5,800 feet.

IMG_0227 These minor floral differences extend beyond Phil’s World. Here’s a shot of a Gambel Oak leaf against my hand that I took up in Mesa Verde; it’s bigger than any such leaf I’ve ever seen in the Wasatch. The higher mesas/cuestas support Ponderosa Pines in the sheltered draws. On Saturday as we hiked down the long, narrow canyon to the Ute Reservation-ruins site, Ponderosas started appearing in the lower, shadier, wetter reaches of the canyon.

IMG_0224 Tangent: Several of the canyons up in Mesa Verde National Park have spectacular flora. A good example is the canyon in which Spruce Tree House is located, which includes everything from Juniper to Piñon to Gambel Oak to Skunkbush, Sagebrush, Mormon Tea, Poison Ivy, Hackberry and even Douglas Firs in the canyon bottom. Here’s a shot of some Eaton’s Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) also called Firecracker Penstemon, blooming alongside the trail down to the site.

IMG_0283 Even the lichens were different. Bright orange Elegant Sunburst Lichen, Xanthoria elegans, which is all over the place around St. George, is almost absent around Cortez (though it seems common a bit further West, out at Hovenweep.) And foliose lichens (pic right), so rare around SG, are common throughout the area, both in P-J woodland and in open shrublands.

IMG_0179 Phil’s World had a number of nice wildflowers in bloom, some familiar, some not. Groundsel was all over the place, but it wasn’t the Singlestem Groundsel/Lambstongue Ragwort, Senecio integerrimus, that’s all over the Wasatch right now. Instead it’s Lobeleaf Groundsel, S. multilobata (pic left.) You can tell by checking out the leaves, which are smooth and well, “multi-lobed”, rather than simple and hairy like our Groundsel up here.

But let’s zero in on my favorite, which was blooming all over the place: the fabulous Sego Lily, Calochortus nuttallii, which happens to be the state flower of Utah.

IMG_0173 We’ve already talked about Desert Mariposa Lilies (genus = Calochortus) back down in St. George, when I woke up next to a Winding Desert Lily on my overnighter with KanyonKris. The Sego Lily is a close cousin of that flower, with an identical petal/sepal architecture. You can take your pick as to which is the more beautiful (I slightly prefer the C. flexuosus), but they’re both absolute stunners.

IMG_0241 The Sego Lily earned its state-flower crown largely due to its supposed* role in early pioneer times. In the early years of Utah settlement, cricket infestations caused significant crop damage. According to tradition, famished pioneer families augmented their diets with the edible bulbs of Sego Lilies.

*The story may be apocryphal. I don’t know, but many of these early pioneer stories often are. A prime example is the Seagulls eating the crickets story, in which it’s usually told that Seagulls never existed in Salt Lake Valley before the crickets showed up. It’s not true; guano deposits on islands in the Great Salt Lake have been dated back over 5,000 years.

How I Really Am Like Euell Gibbons After All

IMG_0242Now, longtime (and I mean really longtime) readers may recall that I have a continuing fixation/jihad on identifying, collecting and consuming edible foods in the wild. The reasons for this are convoluted and, well, probably stupid, and I’ve already detailed them in another wandering, stream-of-consciousness tangent in another post, so I won’t repeat them here. But suffice it to say that most of my efforts to date- such as digging up Glacier Lily corms and roasting Gambel Oak acorns- have turned out pretty dismally. So I was determined to give Sego Lily bulbs a try.

IMG_0270 On Monday morning’s Phil’s World ride I collected a couple of bulbs (pic left) and returned to the motel, where the Trifecta and I sampled the goods. And the verdict was… OK. Definitely edible. Though the Trifecta had no urge to indulge in seconds, I found the flavor not half-bad, and I daresay that a suitable quantity, sautéed lightly in butter or olive oil, might just make an appealing side dish. Have to tear up a lot of pretty flowers though.

So there we are. I like fry sauce and Sego Lily bulbs*, and I’ve got a whole posse of Mormon friends ready to baptize me just as soon as I kick the bucket. I think I’m a real Utahn now. Gotta get me a handcart!

*Oooo….. Maybe I should try dipping Sego Lily bulbs in fry sauce…

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Road-Trip Part 1: Bushwhacking to Cliff-Dwellings

IMG_0238 Years ago, OC Rick told me about the best trip he ever did with his (then teen-aged) daughter. They drove down to the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation in Southwest Colorado and spent 2 days with a native guide touring old ruins and cliff dwellings. It sounded like a wonderful trip, and I thought, “I’ll have to do that with my kids someday…” Around May 1, I suddenly realized that “someday” was “now”, and we quickly planned a road trip down that way for Memorial Day weekend.

Tangent: My realization was spurred by the greater realization that the Trifecta, who will turn 10, 8 and 8 this summer are in the “Golden Window” of childhood. As a parent, raising your children goes through these 6 phases*:

CR Guide *Botany, Biking, Bugs, Birds and now Parenting Advice. I am telling you, this blog just keeps getting better and better.

**Why do we always have to say “gifted”, anyway? Why can’t we just say, “smart”?

With my kids firmly in the Golden Window, I knew the time for the trip was now.

Nested Tangent: Already, Bird Whisperer displays hints of Phase #4. He’s more likely to decline a Daddy-invite for a hike/outing/whatever than even a year ago, and he openly dissed the “Junior Ranger” program when we stopped by Hovenweep National Monument Monday on our way home.

IMG_0325 Our weekend also included visits to ruins at both Mesa Verde and Hovenweep (pic left), but it was the Ute Mountain day that made the trip. But before I talk about our day on the res, I should explain a bit about the Utes. And before I talk about the Utes, I should explain a bit about Indians in general around the Four Corners region.

All About Indians

Side Note: I’m using the term “Indian”, not “Native American.” I know “Indian” is based on an error, but so is “American” with its undue credit to Amerigo Vespucci. I also find “native” patronizing, as it implies a somewhat static and limited perspective of peoples who participated in many significant historical migrations, some of which I’ll mention below. Of the Indians I’ve spoken with (admittedly not a large sample) I’ve heard more describe themselves as “Indian” than “Native American.”

A more correct approach might be to just refer to Indians by their specific tribe names, but most of the names we use for them- including “Navajo” and “Ute”- are names other tribes gave them. Most Southwestern tribes use a word for “people” to name themselves: “Dine” for the Navajo, “Nunt’z” for the Utes.

TaosPuebloSony_filtered Most of the Indians around Four Corners can be grouped into one of three very broad categories. First are the Puebloans. Their ancestors have been in this part of the country the longest, and they appear to be descended from the so-called “Anasazi” who built the various stone dwellings in this part of the country between around 900 and 1300 AD.

Side Note: I recognize the term “Anasazi” is also somewhat out of favor. I believe the Park Service now prefers “Ancestral Peubloan”, but this seems a mouthful…

Second are the Athabaskans, who include the Navajo and Apache , and well as some smaller tribes (Mescalero, Chiricahua.) They’re “recent” immigrants to Southwest, having arrived around 1400 AD, and their languages show a close kinship to tribes in Western Canada.

numic1 Third are the “Numic-speaking” peoples, who include the Utes, Shoshone, Paiutes, Goshutes and others. It’s not clear exactly when these guys arrived , but there’s little archeological evidence for them around much before 1400 AD. The Numic-speakers ancestral homeland is thought to be further West, maybe somewhere around Death Valley. They’re part of a broader and much larger linguistic group called Uto-Aztecan, which includes lots and lots more Indians, including- as might be guessed- the ancient Aztecs*, as well as the Tarahumara, the legendary ultra-runners of Mexico’s Copper Canyon region.

*Also misnamed, as I discussed in this post.

Side Note: The Aztecs spoke a language called Nahuatl. It’s not clear how far back Nahuatl and the modern Ute language diverged, possibly sometime around the birth of Christ.

And while we’re on the topic, what’s with all the linguistic stuff? Why not look at DNA? Primarily because most tribes don’t like participating in DNA sampling efforts. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are probably valid, but the topic is beyond the scope of this post.

OK, so what about the Utes?

All About The Utes

ute4 At the time of European contact, the Utes occupied most of Colorado and Utah, from the Front Range to the Wasatch. They weren’t any kind of organized geo-political state, but rather (at least) 7 distinct bands with common language and customs. In the 1600’s the Utes were possibly the first tribe to acquire horses and quickly become skilled mounted hunters and warriors. During this time they were frequent raiders against both Spanish-ruled Puebloan and Navajo communities, but also allied themselves from time to time with the Navajo to raid the Spanish/Puebloans.

ute_map_1 Tangent: I’m fascinated by the Utes, for 2 reasons. First, I’ve lived the last 2 decades of my life on former Ute lands. My home in Colorado sat on the edge of a series of meadows (Evergreen Meadows) that were the site of regular Ute summer camps. And here along the Wasatch Front is where the Ute and Paiute ranges met.

The second reason is something I don’t know if anyone else ever noticed: the traditional range of the Utes coincides almost perfectly with the range of Gambel Oak. As longtime readers know, I’m fascinated by Gambel Oak, and over the past decade+ I’ve come to associate being around Gambel Oak with being “home.” I suspect the Utes did as well.

IMG_0290 At the close of the 19th century, the Utes were confined to reservations. The largest today is the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Eastern Utah, North of the Book Cliffs, and this group is called the Northern Utes. The second is the Southern Ute Reservation, centered around Ignacio, CO, and this is the richest of the three, with substantial revenues from both gaming and minerals.

In 1897, the Weeminuche band of Utes split off from the Southern Utes and formed the Ute Mountain Reservation is the extreme Southwest corner of Colorado.

All About Ute Mountain Tribal Park

IMG_0222 9 years later, Mesa Verde National Park was formed to protect the fabulous Anasazi ruins up on the mesa* (pic right). But the ruins aren’t restricted to the mesa; the whole area is thick with them, including the Ute Mountain Reservation immediately to the South. The park’s boundaries expanded southward early on as new archeological sites were identified and the original authorization for the park allowed for possible future expansions as far South as the Mancos River, well into the Reservation. In the 1960’s, Chief Jack House proposed the establishment of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, both to bring income to the tribe, but also to act as a possible buffer against further Southward expansion of Mesa Verde NP. The proposal was highly controversial within the tribe, but eventually came to pass, with tours beginning in 1981. Access within the park and to ruins is with by appointment, with a Ute guide only.

*Mesa Verde technically isn’t a “mesa”; it’s a cuesta, meaning that it’s steep on one side, but gently sloping on the other.

We met Saturday AM at the park headquarters (a converted service station.) Coincidentally, Memorial Day is the park’s “open house”, means that the tours are ½ price, and as a result a number of Cortez locals showed up.

Side Note: Prices for kids appear to be somewhat elastic. I was told $13 on the phone, then told $27 (adult price) when we showed up. We ended up settling on $8 each.

Map captions Our planned destination was a ruin called Porcupine House, probably the best-known site within the park. Our group numbered 20+, led by a very knowledgeable Anglo guide- let’s call him “Fred”- and a Ute ranger. We drove for an hour along unpaved roads in a tribal van, followed by 4 private vehicles. But after an hour we stopped and had a discussion. Rains the day/night before had been heavy, and the guide feared we wouldn’t make it. After general discussion and agreement among the group to take on an hour+ hike, we changed plans, and backtracked a bit to where we parked, hopped a fence and started hiking.

IMG_0183 Our guide had visited the target site a couple of times previously, most recently several years earlier. He warned us before setting out that the site wasn’t “hardened,” meaning that it had never been documented or surveyed by archeologists and he cautioned us on the steps and care we’d need to take in visiting it. We began descending a broad draw, hopping a few more fences, before entering the head of a narrow canyon. The “trail” was long since overgrown, and for the next almost 2 hours we bushwhacked down the overgrown canyon, the guide pausing repeatedly to point our recent bear and cougar tracks.

Side Note: I’m not giving explicit directions, since you can’t visit the site unguided anyway. If you’re curious, it’s situated in a tributary of a tributary of Johnson Canyon, which is in turn a tributary to Mancos Canyon. The location is on the reservation, but actually outside of the tribal park.

IMG_0212 We finally reached the site and spent another brushy 20 minutes or so scrambling up the side of the canyon to the ruins at the base of the cliffs. The site consists of several rooms, probably constructed around 1050-1100AD, in impressive condition, given that no reconstruction or stabilization has occurred. The site is beautiful and historic, but to an untrained eye not much different than the other 100+ sites in the area. As we examined the site, Fred told us what makes it so unique within the park, and the region as a whole.

The masonry of Mesa Verde and nearby sites, such as within the Tribal Park, Hovenweep, and Canyon of the Ancients, is of a distinctive, large-blocked “Mesa Verde” style (Pueblo III.)

MV Masonry There are of course many other ruins and cliff dwellings throughout the Southwest, built along some different styles. One of the best known, though slightly earlier styles, is “Chacoan”, named after Chaco Canyon in Northwest New Mexico.

Ch Masonry Chacoan masonry uses more small blocks interspersed with large blocks, making it distinctively different from the Mesa Verde style. The site Fred led us to was built in the Chacoan style, the only such structure he’s aware of in the entire greater Mesa Verde region.

IMG_0191 Why it should be here, and who built it are unknown. In fact across the canyon, only about 300 yards downstream is another, similar-sized site, built in the standard Mesa Verde/Pueblo III style.

IMG_0207 We also saw a fair amount of rock art within the park. These figures, painted in red ochre were adjacent to (and probably contemporary with) the site we visited, and we saw numerous later drawings by Utes both on the hike as well as on the drive in.

IMG_0203 The hike back out was easier, as we wisely forsook the “trail” stuck to the bottom gully. The Twins led the way, blazing ahead, their small bodies easily twisting through and around vegetation the adults struggled with. That evening we camped on the reservation, in the otherwise-unoccupied “campground” along the Mancos River. We saw and heard no one and nothing except for the flow of the river and the light patter of rain throughout the night, dozens of hidden ruins in the hills and canyons above us.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blog-Plan For The Week

IMG_0217 We’re back from a fantastic long holiday weekend. We did a road trip to the Cortez, Colorado area that focused on visiting Anasazi ruins, but the weekend also included camping, biking, botany and bugs. (pic left = wiped-out twins in tribal van after full day of bushwhacking to cliff dwellings) Here’s my blogging-plan for the week. I can’t promise I’ll stick to it (busy work week ahead) but anyway I’ll tell you what I hope to cover now, so you can tune in for the stuff that interests you and blow off what doesn’t.

IMG_0193Wednesday: Cliff Dwellings & Indians. We did an amazing guided bushwhack on the Ute Mountain Reservation to a cliff dwelling that’s not on any map, not in any book, has never been properly documented/excavated and is structurally/architecturally unique in the greater Mesa Verde area. In the course of the post I plan to explain the basics of past & present-day 4-Corners-area Indians, their histories, language groupings and relationships to each other, as well as enough basics of Anasazi cliff dwelling architecture so that you get why the one we visited is so darn interesting.

IMG_0170 Thursday: Biking & Botany. A lighter post focusing on the excellent mountain biking around Cortez and a little botany thrown in for good measure.

Culi1 Friday: All About Gnats. If you’re a desert-lover, like me, who has been driven absolutely &%#$house by those little gnats/no-see-ums that always show up down there this time of year and wondered what the deal was with those awful bugs, then this will be the post you don’t want to miss.

Phew. Just re-read the above. Sounds like a lot of work- better get cracking!