Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for May, 2006

Exploring Death Valley

posted: May 31st, 2006 | by:Bert

Sand Dunes, Death Valley

Sand dunes make noises

EXPLORING DEATH VALLEY (From our book, cited below) ©Bert and Jane Gildart: In Death Valley (map), not far from Badwater, California (an expanse of foul-tasting water and dreadful land that is also the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere), there extends a forbidding landscape officially known as the Devil’s Golf Course. Throughout the year there are many days in this area that often are very hot, still and unearthly quiet.

One January day several years ago, we walked into this jagged land and heard sounds during lulls in our conversation. Pausing and cupping our ears, we listened. All around us, the ground spoke: it snapped, it crackled, and it popped.

Although the sound emanated from beneath our feet, the cause remained a mystery, and it wasn’t until Ranger/Naturalist Charlie Calligan enlightened us at an evening program that the mystery became apparent. Calligan explained that the sounds were the results of the incredibly dry air sucking every last drip of moisture from the chalky landscape. The friction of salt granule against collapsed salt granule created the snapping, cracking and popping. Intriguing as that phenomenon proved to be, we also learned that it was just one of the park’s many mysteries…

Badwater, Death Valley

Badwater, where the Amargosa evaporates

The above was taken from our book: A Falcon Guide, Death Valley, A Guide to Exploring the Great Outdoors. The book was published in 2005 by Globe Pequot Press and is available from them and from the book store operated by the park’s Natural History Association.

Outside of parks in Alaska, Death Valley is the nation’s largest national park, and if you plan to visit it, you’ll benefit from our repeated trips and month’s of research.

Coyote Stalking Food

Coyote stalking Death Valley

The park is an ideal place in which to spend a week or two in the fall, winter or spring, and we’ve done so repeatedly. During these trips, we’ve seen coyotes stalking the desert floor, searching perhaps for a careless kangaroo rat. We’ve trailed the Amaragosa River from where it flows with grace and power into the park, and then watched it get sucked dry and literally disappear in a place called Bad Water.Death Valley is a special park and we count ourselves among the fortunate to have spent so much time exploring its 1200-foot high mountains—and its deep desert floor, which descends at one point to -272 feet.

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Power of One

posted: May 31st, 2006 | by:Bert

The Power of One in a Remote Land

Sarah James

Sarah James illustrates the Power of One

Native activist Sarah James leads Alaska’s ‘Caribou People’ in defense of their way of life north of the Arctic Circle

© Bert Gildart | Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ARCTIC VILLAGE, ALASKA(map)- In this tiny Alaskan town of 120, north of Anchorage and the Arctic Circle, beyond the imaginary line where summer days and winter nights become endless, Sarah James, a Gwich’in Indian leader, is rolling in cash – $130,000 to be exact, a 2001 grant from the Ford Foundation.

Even though the foundation is not connected to the Ford Motor Co., it sounds as though it’s an unlikely pairing. Ford products devour oil and gas; the Gwich’in (pronounced guh-WHICH-in) depend on caribou for everything from their meals to the gloves that keep their hands warm.

Ostensibly, then, they are rivals when it comes to the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), home to the Porcupine Caribou upon which the Gwich’in depend. Adjacent to Arctic Village, the refuge is coveted by petroleum companies and guarded zealously by activists like Ms. James.

Last November, the foundation awarded James a fellowship as part of its Leadership for a Changing World program, a group of 20 outstanding but little-known national leaders.
According to information from the Ford Foundation, the annual awards go to those who have “addressed a range of social problems and have skillfully achieved support of groups ranging from grass-roots organizations to government officials.”

James, however, attributes the honor to her simple “common sense,” a gift she believes she has received from the land – and a grounding she’s used to defend the ANWR.

Caribou Heads Cooking

Caribou heads cooking

“I grew up on fish and berries and Porcupine River caribou,” says James in her sometimes-hurried English. “When you got to think about where food comes from, you know mighty quick that you can get by on very little and still have darn good life. It’s just common sense.”With legendary modesty, James says she’s not sure how she was picked from an imposing list of 3,000 nominees, and insists that others are better educated. But she’s always had a vision of helping her people mobilize around a cause.

Ambitious, perhaps, for a woman who heard little English until age 16, and grew up toiling with nomadic parents in their search for fish and caribou. Some of James’s earliest childhood memories are of wandering the cold, forested land with her parents in the 1940s as they traveled with dogs, lugging their winter supplies. In spring, they left their small cabin to travel the Yukon, Porcupine, and Salmon Rivers, sometimes using boats framed of birch and covered with hides of moose or caribou, heading upriver, where James’s father would hunt.

Because of her family’s lifestyle, James did not attend school until she was about 10. Six years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent her to an Indian boarding school in Oregon. “I had to study from time I got up till time I go to bed,” she recalls.

She graduated from high school in 1967 at age 21, and took a job in San Francisco as a typist.

After two years, she returned to Arctic Village – today a Gwich’in community consisting of a cluster of about 40 cabins, a school for 50 children, a water tank, a gigantic freezer for preserving meat, a community center, and a tiny, beautiful Episcopal log church.

James quickly learned how to publicize Gwich’in concerns, typing hundreds of letters and helping form the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a grass-roots organization devoted to preserving caribou.

Along the way, James began speaking out for other groups of natives. Before long, her simple, direct approach was attracting national recognition.

In the 1990s, she traveled to Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, speaking for the underprivileged and the hardships they endure – and, as always, the caribou. Simultaneously, she began appearing on television programs, including a CNN telecast, the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and the CBS Evening News.

Late in the decade, she led several gatherings to the steps of the US Capitol, crusading for caribou and for preservation of the ANWR. She and the Gwich’in who accompanied her to Washington have tried to clear up concepts that they believe petroleum companies misrepresent.

In their mythology, the Gwich’in – spread among 17 villages, extending to the McKenzie River in the Northwest Territories – were derived from a heart shared with caribou, so each will always know what the other is doing. Little wonder many refer to the Gwich’in as “People of the Deer,” or simply as “Caribou People.”

As James explains it, the Porcupine Caribou herd needs the arctic refuge for calving, a life cycle forged more than 100,000 years ago. According to the Gwich’in, the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are the core and sacred birthplace of the herd, the vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii – or “sacred place where life begins” – and this wild nursery must remain intact.

caribou crossing

Caribou crossing

Despite their regal appearance and the odd fact that both males and females grow antlers, caribou are best known for their annual migration, which, in the case of the Porcupine Caribou herd, often extends more than 1,000 miles – from the Arctic Ocean almost to Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. Migrating herds can travel in the tens of thousands, and when they move, the land itself seems to pulse.

Biologically, caribou seek the north slope of the Brooks Range for a variety of reasons. They need an area far enough from mountains to be safe from bears and wolves, and they need a place where winds blow consistently to reduce insects.



The Gwich’in also say that caribou need an area where vegetation is lush, and, according to James and most biologists, the caribou’s core calving grounds host one of the richest concentrations of vegetation on the North Slope.

The oil companies say that the Central Caribou herd, which calves near Prudhoe Bay, has expanded its numbers despite drilling. That, James admits, is true. But she insists such expansion is “only part of the story.”

James says the untold story concerns geography. In the area where the Porcupine herd calves, the Brooks Range is separated from the Arctic Ocean by about 15 miles. Not so just to the west, where the Central Caribou herd calves. There, as you proceed from east to west, the Brooks Range sweeps to the south, so much so that the mountains are separated from the Arctic Ocean by almost 100 miles.

While the Porcupine herd, according to James, is about 130,000 strong, the Central herd numbers but 25,000. “When trucks and big rigs disturb caribou in Central herd, those caribou can move ’cause they got all that 100 miles of room north of mountains where grass is green and wind still blows. But our caribou got only around 15 miles – with five times more animals.”

James says that if oil giants drill into the core calving grounds (called the 1002 Area by the oil companies), the Porcupine herd must move to areas less ideal – areas where “there’s bears,” says James, “away from Arctic Ocean. They move from those good strong winds. They move back to area where’s there’s many bugs. They move to area where there’s not so much of that good green grass…. They don’t die right away. But undernourished young die in winter, when times get tough. That’s what biologists with fancy degrees say. But you don’t need PhD to know that, just common sense.”

Although most petroleum companies claim they can drill in the refuge without consequence to the caribou, most Gwich’in – and many independent biologists – disagree.
Biologists emphasize that although the Porcupine Caribou population is large, drilling would reduce the herd size. If that happens, caribou might choose new migration routes, completely bypassing this international group of villages established initially to intercept the herd.

Stephen Frost Makes Butchering into Art

Stephen Frost turns butchering into an art form

James insists the Gwich’in people need those caribou. Adjusting a pile of caribou antlers, she explains that each family in Arctic Village harvests about 15 caribou a year, as the animals migrate to and from their refuge. As in the days of old, the Gwich’in use every single part of the animal.

The Gwich’in position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has set them at odds with Inupiat Eskimos, who have the only community actually within the 19-million-acre refuge. The Inupiat believe that money they stand to receive from commercial oil drilling in a 1.5 million-acre portion of the ANWR will help lift them from subsistence living.
Both sides have lobbied Congress vigorously.

With a shrug of her shoulders, James says she’s not completely against opening a portion of the refuge to drilling. She says that in 20, maybe 30 years, science might create technology sophisticated enough to extract oil without harming the caribou.

“But it’s not there now!” she exclaims. She also fears that if oil companies do drill in the arctic refuge, they’ll keep most of the profits for themselves, and they won’t hire locals – a habit that James says makes her people feel worthless, and may account for some of the tribe’s social problems, such as high rates of alcoholism and suicide.

Standing in a graveyard, pointing to a flower-strewn site, James recalls how, in 1998, her 17-year-old niece took her own life. “Too many of our young people want to get to Fairbanks, where there’s drugs and alcohol. They’ve lost touch with the land, and that’s when we lose our pride.

“I’m proud to be Gwich’in,” she continues. “But we’ve got to keep telling that to the young. Maybe one day they’ll believe again.”

Over the years, some have heard her words clearly. Evon Peter, the 25-year-old chief of Arctic Village, says he’s benefited from her leadership. Faith Gemmill, current director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, agrees, and adds that James helped groom her for the position.

Both of these young leaders have made trips to Washington with James. And both have testified on behalf of their people’s needs, relying on James’s guidance. In this way, they have helped James fulfill a mandate of “skillfully building a consensus by mobilizing grass-roots organizations.”

Because the sight of the tundra teeming with caribou remains an important vision for the Gwich’in, James also plans to use Ford funding to help with gas payments (about $4 per gallon) required to transport youngsters upriver to distant camps. There, she hopes, they’ll marvel at the caribou, gain pride in their roots – and perhaps gain a taste for grass-roots activism in defense of their way of life.

Or maybe they’ll learn to resist the temptations of a more “civilized” lifestyle.

“When I’m on the land,” said one young man who had recently been placed on parole for drug violations, “I really do great. It’s where my grandfather used to take me.”

Perhaps James has “mobilized” yet another young person, but she plans to do more. She’s definitely a woman with a well-defined mission in service to her people.

And if common sense can be considered a discipline of deeds underscored with care and love, then James may be ready for her PhD.

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Glacier Park Wildflower Photography

posted: May 29th, 2006 | by:Bert

Glacier Park Orchids

Glacier Park Orchids

©Bert Gildart: Today, it is overcast and is coupled at times with a slight drizzle. And though we are in Glacier National Park, looking for photographs that will show the grandeur of its mountains, we’re not disheartened, for this is a perfect time to focus on some of the gorgeous flowers now blooming in the park’s meadows, and in its deep woods. In other words, it is a perfect May-day for close-up flower photography. Awaiting us are a variety of species to include orchids, glacier lilies and a number of others species that grow as large shrublike plants, such as the dogwood and the choke cherry (once used by Native Americans to mix with buffalo meat to create pemmican.)

Part of the fun of flower photography is finding your subject, and generally that means locating the best specimen that you possibly can. Some flowers, you’ll find, have petals rendered unsymmetrical by fallen branches, hooves of a deer, or the puff of a breeze. Also, some are just naturally arranged better than others, by virtue of luck. Once you find that perfect specimen, set up your tripod on plane with your subject; which generally means at a ground-level position. To help, we often carry in our camera packs a small tarp to keep our equipment—and sometimes ourselves—dry. Then we set about positioning our camera for composition.

Like all other forms of photography, flower photography requires patience. Because good depth of field requires small apertures, your tripod will serve to offset the correspondingly slow shutter speeds. Then, you’ll need the patience to refrain from clicking the shutter until the petals are perfectly still. Often you will be shooting at shutter speeds of ½ to one full second.

Pictures in such subdued natural light make exquisite images—and are perfect subjects for overcast days because the light is flat and has no harsh shadows. Such pictures have a quality hard to duplicate. Nevertheless, you can come close using strobes. In fact, if the breezes are strong you’ll have no other choice other than to use strobes, and if you want natural-looking photographs, you’ll need two strobes, one as a main light, the other as fill. The main light is held off camera (by your spouse, perhaps) and high, while the fill-light is mounted on your camera’s hot shoe. The two lights are connected with a dedicated TTL cable. You can also use this technique on harsh sunny days. Under such conditions, strobes can be set to override existing sunlight, rendering a dramatic black background, as in above photo of orchids.

We use strobes often, ones that have TTL capabilities. With such flash units, everything is automatic and it is difficult to make a mistake. But there are some lighting suggestions. One technique I practice often is to back off on the fill strobe by 1/3 of a stop. That technique creates shadows, but shadows into which you can still see. Of course, you may not have electronic flash units, in which case, simply wait for overcast days with slight drizzles, for then the light can be near perfect.

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Joy Of Travel

posted: May 28th, 2006 | by:Bert

Apostle Islands

Apostle Islands

For us, it’s mostly about travel. But it’s also about adventure and recording those adventures with pen and pad and, then, with cameras, too. In the course of pursuing stories, at times we’ve found ourselves in the high Arctic; other times, in areas throughout Canada and the Lower 48, often in our national lands, national parks and national historic areas. Sometimes, however, we’ve sought out small towns–even big cities–trying to make sense of all the unfortunate disasters that have so recently occurred

For the most part, our travels now are made from the comfort of an RV, in which we have carved out the requisite amount of working space, both for loading images into our computers, and for producing our stories. Our Airstream is our base and we use it for venturing off, sometimes for days and weeks on end, traveling, then, with backpack, boat, snowmobile, kayak, canoe and bush plane.What we want to do is share some of these outdoor travel adventures, as well as some of the techniques we use as photographers and writers who are on the go. And, of course, let’s not beat around the bush, we want to sell more pictures, more stories, and more books through our web site.You can see more of our work by going to AgPix.com/gildart—or by further diving into the accompanying pages. That will better give you an idea of the types of things we do and that might prompt you to check in here often.

 Natchez Trace

Natchez Trace

Stay tuned to our blog, we’re just back from Big Bend National Park; from San Antonio with its historic Alamo and European-styled River Walk; and from the Four Corners, where we amassed more photographs, particularly ones relating to the Anasazi. In July, we’ll be going to Nova Scotia and points along the East Coast gathering stories for a number of publications, but mostly for the RV magazines, which we contribute to often. From those points we’ll be adding posts about camera techniques and about some of the people we meet and the places we encounter. We’ll be trying to learn about our incredible national heritage and its diversity of people, and believe we can do that most satisfactorily by exploring our national lands. Perhaps we’ll see you along the way.In the meantime, good shooting, but most of all, safe travels.

560 Big Ben National Park

Big Bend Sunset

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The Gwich’in and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

posted: May 23rd, 2006 | by:Bert

Gwichin Kids

Gwich'in Kids

© From National Wildlife Magazine: Above timberline, above Arctic Village, Alaska—120 miles above the Arctic Circle—my wife, Jane, and I watch with Kenneth and Caroline Frank, a Gwich’in Indian couple, as the first caribou of the season return from summer calving grounds located along the Arctic Ocean. Though Kenneth is a hunter, he restrains himself. Customarily, the Gwich’in permit the first caribou of the season to pass so they won’t turn tail and alarm the closely-trailing major herd. “We should wait,” says Kenneth. “There will be more in a day or so.”

For Kenneth and Caroline—and for all the Gwich’in—the return of the caribou is a major event. For many of this most northern of all Indian tribes spanning two nations in about 13 different small villages, the return means that stomachs will be full when it is 70 degrees below zero and game is not moving. But there is more. Now, when the caribou return, the migration is cause for even more celebration, for it means the Gwich’in have thwarted another year of attempts to undermine their way of life. If petroleum companies have their way, they will construct oil rigs in the precise area where members of the Porcupine Caribou Herd have always calved. The Gwich’in are firmly united in their denunciation of these efforts by oil companies and say so in a variety of ways that represent their concerns for themselves and the caribou…

That’s the way I began my story for National Wildlife magazine, and now, several years later, I stand by my convictions that there needs to be one place left in the world where natural processes regulate rather than ones imposed by man. If it means I have to pay more at the pump for gasoline to enjoy the travel I so thoroughly cherish, so be it. Higher prices may prompt us as a nation to do some of the things we should have done 30 years ago during our first national energy scare. But all is not lost. This current energy crisis might prompt us to develop bio fuels, purchase small cars (which Janie and I have done for times we’re traveling in Montana, our home state), improve further hybrid vehicles, and explore alternative sources of energy. It might prompt us to insist that our government become involved in the Kyoto Accord. It might prompt us to drive 55.

But to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and convert it into another Prudhoe would be a travesty. And I say this not as someone who has never stepped foot in the refuge, rather as one who has backpacked (A Christian Science Monitor story) through the entire refuge, floated its rivers, and stood in awe and watched as thousands of caribou streamed across cold, Arctic rivers. As well, Janie and I once served as teachers in many of the Gwich’in Indian communities, and we have a real soft spot for all the people of these most northern of all Indian (not Eskimo) communities.

Several years ago I flew over Prudhoe Bay on a photography assignment for The Wilderness Society. The flight was an eye opener; sprawling beneath like the filaments in a spider web was a dense interlay of pipes. From these conduits forming the Pipe Line, statistics show oil spills on average of ONCE A DAY.

Biologists working for the oil companies say the Central Caribou herd has expanded, implying that oil pads and dericks are good for caribou. What they don’t say is that in the area of Prudhoe Bay, the Brooks Range sweeps to the south, creating a seperation between the Arctic Ocean and the mountains of about 100 miles. This seperation provides the Central Caribou herd with room to move, so its no wonder that herd has not been troubled. But such is not the case in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where the Brooks Range holds firm at about 30 miles from the Arctic Ocean. Here is where the Porcupine Caribou herd gathers each summer to calve, and “Here,” as Sarah James (Another Christian Science Monitor story “The Power of One”) of Arctic Village says, “the caribou got no place to go.”

Standing United Old Crow

Standing United at Old Crow

If we were to tap oil in the refuge, we coudn’t have it at our pumps for another 10 years, and most believe the supplies are limited. Wouldn’t it be a shame to eliminate one of the world’s last totally wild places in exchange for some unknown quantity of oil? I want to maintain my life stye as an adventure travler, and if I have to pay more to do so, then I’ll sacrifice elsewhere.

Hurrah for the Gwich’in, who stand united in their determination to save the Arctic Refuge from development.

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Fall Along the Natchez Trace

posted: May 4th, 2006 | by:Bert

From Bert’s book on the Natchez Trace, available either from us or from American Geographic. (A modified version appeared in Airstream Life magazine.)

Airstream and Falls

Natchez Trace

©Stretching from historic Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, is a highway that parallels an old trail, a trail which once was a major thoroughfare for an emerging nation. Stepping from a pull-out on the modern highway, we walked down a short path that ended where the much older trail began. Spanish moss on the trees above drooped over this pathway, while along the ground lay dense carpets of darkening leaves. Deeply eroded, the trail appeared ancient. Here ran the old Natchez Trace highway, a trail of sublime beauty that once had seen the passage of Meriwether Lewis, Andrew Jackson, Aaron Burr… as well as countless others, whose faces remain nameless. Fate smiled kindly on many of these travelers, but not all. One black night Lewis was mortally and mysteriously wounded.

The Old Natchez Trace harbors many serets, and we took a few more steps, to learn about the lives of those who had preceded us and to absorb the path’s pristine beauty…

The Trace is well known for its fishing, antebellum homes, alligators, bicycling and for its superb scenery. Our book will help you to better enjoy your travels; it will reveal some of the wonders we discovered after we took those first tentative steps. Illustrated with many color photographs, the book is available from the National Park Service in Tupelo, Mississippi–or from us.

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