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 January, 2008

Magnificent Experiment or Simply Forerunners of the Hippies?

posted: January 30th, 2008 | by:Bert

Rocky Trail to Yaquitepec

Rocky Trail to Yaquitepec

©Bert Gildart: The desert has always attracted unusual characters, but perhaps the strangest of all were Marshall and Tanya South.

South lived at the end of the steep, rocky trail Janie and I were now climbing, and when we reached it, we hoped to find the abandoned ruins of a weathered homestead that has come to represent one of the most remarkable lifestyle experiments America has known.

Viewed in these contemporary fast-paced times some would call the Souths and their three children forerunners of the Hippy movement. But the Souths were different, they were searching for a way of life that would allow them to work as writers, poets and artists, and do so without relying on handouts. More significantly, they simply loved nature and for 16 years (between 1930-1946) they lived here, attempting to make their style of life work for them.

The South’s almost succeeded and under slightly different circumstances their way might have worked. Janie and I, who had once lived in a 20×24 size cabin in the Arctic, both believed we could understand–at least in part–their motives.

We hiked on, awed by yet another magnificent desert scene…


Fifty years ago, had Janie and I been hiking this trail, we would have encountered before reaching the old homestead a sign that read as followed:

This is Yaquitepec-Our Home
And in Accordance With the Ideals Of Peace,
Sunshine, Health, Simplicity, Bodily Freedom
And The Simple Faith In The Great Spirit
For Which This Desert Mountain Retreat
Was Established
If you Cannot Accept And Conform To,
In Clean-minded Simplicity,
The Natural Condition Of Life,
We Ask In All Friendship,
That You Come No Further,
But Return By The Path You Came.
Be With You Always

Marshal & Tanya South

As Janie and I proceeded toward the mountain’s crest, we half expected to see such a sign, but nothing barred our way–and we continued on, passing through magnificent boulder fields, cresting to overlooks that gazed over some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.


We were engulfed by the Carizzo Badlands, as well as the Vallecito, In-Ko-Pah and the Laguna Mountains–all nestled in the shadow of Ghost Mountain, the actual peak on which they lived.

View from Ghost Mountain

View from Ghost Mountain

Why in the shadow of such overwhelming beauty where Marshal and Tanya produced countless numbers of magazines articles and well received novels did the couple ultimately fail? Those are concerns we wanted to learn more about, but are thoughts we’ll defer for another day or two, giving us time for yet further reflection.

Janie and I hiked on anxious to see what Yaquitepec, the old homestead, might reveal.



4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Hellhole Canyon

posted: January 29th, 2008 | by:Bert

Hiking into Hellhole

Hiking into Hellhole

©Bert Gildart: Words evolve with time and often begin with two separate thoughts, such as, “That canyon is sure one ‘hell’ of a ‘hole.’”

That could be what happened here. Years ago ranchers used the canyon that can sometimes funnel roaring and damaging winds from the mountains and toward our campground–and did so in the summer when still-air hung thick and sent temperatures soaring. Then, when they had to retrieve their cattle amidst the cholla, ocotillo, fishhook cactus, beavertail cactus, their impression deteriorated further–and can’t you just hear an hear an old cowboy saying, “Man, that hole is sure hell on me and my hoss’.”

With time someone would recall again the potential conditions and say, “Got to go to Hell-hole today, the cattle are still there. Eventually, the hyphen was dropped until the concept became a single thought as in, “Drive the cattle into Hellhole for the spring. We’ll hope they stay in that God-forsaken canyon and don’t wander down into Mexico.”

After the last three days, I can add my own thoughts, which are conflicting. First are those associated with a wonderful hike to a palm oasis, made in this canyon with its evolving name.


But then, yesterday, my impression changed. It did so when winds of 60 miles per hour pounded down Hellhole Canyon, and then caught the lip of the window guard on my Airstream that I had foolishly left up. The wind was so powerful that it tore the four-foot wide cover from its moorings.

But we were lucky. Camped adjacent to us was a retired aircraft mechanic who has owned Airstreams and said he had a rivet gun with him and that it would be a simple manner to replace. “Won’t be able to tell what happened,” said Manfred, the mechanic, whose reputation with me soared even more when he said he had also been an aircraft inspector.


That leaves me now with my first impression of Hellhole Canyon, which is of a kinder and much more gentle canyon. Historically, that image is also appropriate for cowboys who established a trail through the canyon also referred to it as the Palm Creek Trail.

Until yesterday’s wind, that’s more what we recall.

We recall a short hike of about one mile with Polly, the lady in the campsite next to us. She had an interest in natural history and the three of us spent most of the day admiring the cactus and wondering about the animals that seem to negotiate this maze of spines and thorns with impunity. Along the way we saw several of the huge-eared desert hares as well as the sign of coyotes, and probably a bobcat.

Hellhole or an oasis of water and palms

Hellhole, or an oasis of water and palms?

And then, finally, there was the oasis of palms and maidenhair fern, with the stream that flowed quietly through them, and we all concluded that on a hot summer day, this could be anything but a hell hole. In fact, after Manfred helps me remount the rock shield, I’ll probably forget the harsh winds that can roar down out of Hellhole and think more of a hike through a canyon of much enlightenment, taken along the Palm Creek Trail.

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Learning about The Antiquities of Anza-Borrego with a Park Archaeologist

posted: January 28th, 2008 | by:Bert

Boulder with Morteros

Boulder with Morteros

©Bert Gildart: We were a small group of about nine and had joined Sam Webb, a volunteer archaeologist in Anza Borrego, on a hike described as the Morteros Hike. Less than a hundred yards into the walk Webb stopped and asked our group what we saw.

Webb was looking at a small pile of rocks that didn’t appear particularly unusual, and when none responded he picked up one of the rocks and asked us if we could see the darkness in the rock. “Burn marks,” he added, helping us out.

We moved on a few steps further and then he turned and asked us about a huge boulder which glistened with smoothness. “It’s a milling slick,” said Webb. “It’s where the Kumeyaay Indians worked so hard preparing flower the granite became smooth.”

The amount of Indian ruins in Anza Borrego is immense, but as we had been discovering the past few days, all is not apparent. To improve our chances of learning more about the way in which the various tribes once lived, we concluded that we’d be much further ahead joining a naturalist-led walk. Yesterday, that’s what we did, driving from our campground over Yaqui Pass to Blair Valley just off Highway S-2.


In this way we learned over a relatively short period of time about some of the problems now confronting park archaeologists as they attempt to catalogue the richness of a past culture. On this short walk of about one-mile, Webb led us to morteros, pictographs, and one rock grinding that was a thousand-year-old predecessors to pornography pictured in Playboy. There’s just no other way to describe it.

“It’s probably about fertility.” said Webb. “Maybe there was sickness and many in their tribe died; maybe warfare. Who knows? It does seem to be an obvious attempt to foster procreation, but perhaps,” he added with a chuckle, “it’s just the interpretation of a deranged archaeologist…” Then growing more serious, he added, “Native American informants don’t say much; in fact they’re non committal about such subjects.”

Artifacts that required but little explanation were some of the morteros, and one huge boulder included four. Here, the Kumeyaay placed the agave into holes–the morteros–where they ground it into flour. As well, they pulverized seeds from the mesquite. They flocked to such areas on a seasonal basis–but mostly when the agave bloomed. They stayed for several months.

Because the boulder with morteros also contained a number of smaller holes, Sam thought the rock might have possessed a spiritual component. “The smaller holes,” theorized Webb, “the cupoles, may have been created to release the spirits.”


Another large boulder contained a mortero in which the bottom had been drilled through, a condition Webb revealed by inserting his hand from the bottom of the hole. “Maybe the Kumeyaay were trying to simplify their techniques for recovering the flour.”

Sam Webb asks about unusual morteros

Sam Webb asks about unusual morteros?

Interlaced throughout this vast boulder field were a number of pictographs. Most were deteriorating with time, and were difficult to interpret (not like the ones in Zion we photographed several weeks ago), but not all. One huge boulder contained a pictograph, one that appeared as though it had been made yesterday–but that wasn’t the case. Several decades ago an archaeologist had enhanced the badly deteriorated image created hundreds of years ago from pigments. “Our policy has changed since that time,” said Webb. “Now we simply let time take its toll. That seems to be what Native American advisors want us to do.”


Throughout the walk Webb also shared some of his concerns for the future of Anza-Borrego State Park. He said there was a certain element that had little regard for the park’s antiquities. “Someone came out here and dug around this rock,” said Webb, pointing at what appeared to be a small pounding rock. “They thought the rock was a mortar, and were trying to abscond until they discovered the exposed portion was part of a huge boulder the rest of which was covered by dirt.”

Enhanced pictograph

Enhanced pictograph

Other activities also worry park officials, one that might seem innocuous, but which is not. Geo-caching (where participants leave an object and then challenge others to find it with the pro-offered clues) in fragile areas can be detrimental to the resource. Several years ago someone directed geo cachers to the area protecting the Kumeyaay morteros-and other antiquities. In the course of looking for the geo-cached item they destroyed Native American works that had been created hundreds of years ago.

“The superintendent was furious,” said Webb. “For one thing, park policy specifically states that you take nothing-and leave nothing. Here’s an example of what can happen when those rules aren’t followed.”

The day’s explorations lasted several hours, and though we didn’t cover many miles, we learned a great deal. As well we were delighted to realize the degree to which the park’s volunteers are attempting to preserve resources that are struggling in this premier desert park for their very existence.




4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Coyote Canyon and the Anza Expedition

posted: January 26th, 2008 | by:Bert

Crossing Coyote Creek

Crossing Coyote Creek

©Bert Gildart: On December 20, 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza led 240 Sonoran colonists through the same valley that Janie and I toured yesterday. Because the valley remains under the control of California’s Anza Borrego State Park, little about the area has changed.

The valley can only be accessed by driving along a sand road, and then only for a limited distance. For us, that distance was dictated by the rocks that began to crop up along the jeep road and the fact we did not want to take any chances of damaging the four-wheel drive truck we rely on to pull our Airstream . Though others continued on (we might return with mountain bikes), we stopped several miles short of the road’s terminus.

Still, our explorations provided great insights into the struggles Anza confronted. Eventually, he continued on with the colonists to found San Francisco, but the obstacles from 1775 remain today.


The valley is cut by Coyote Creek and flanked to the east by the Coyote Mountains and to the west by the San Ysidro Mountains. But it was the valley floor that grabbed our attention.

First, we came to a trailhead sign pointing to Alcoholic Pass, named according to a guide book for the switchback-ish nature of the trail.

Next, we came to an area our map referred to as the Desert Gardens. We spent several hours hiking around–taking photographs–not only because of the garden’s beauty but because it had once been the home to a group of Native Americans known as Cahuilla.

“A Canyon Called Home,” began an interpretive panel. “People raised families in Coyote Canyon… With sheltered canyons and year around running streams, Coyote Canyon was the perfect place to call home.”

Appreciating cacti

Appreciating cacti

Another nearby interpretive sign proclaimed that this canyon was home to a greater diversity of life than anywhere else in the park; adding that five separate areas here had been designated as “sensitive habitats” and that Anza-Borrego contained one quarter of all the lands in California designated as state wilderness. We understood that part of the sensitivity was out of concern for the Peninsular bighorn sheep, now endangered. Though we didn’t see sheep yesterday, we certainly saw sign.


Cacti were dense and though we could easily side step them, we wondered about de Anza and his stock. We had the luxury, however, to appreciate the biology of the cholla and other plants with thorns, recalling that botanists say that thorns evolved from leaves–and served specific functions in this land of little rain. Janie and I photographed the cholla, using two strobe lights, firing them remotely using the built-in strobe on the Nikon D300. (Nikon refers to this capability as its “Advanced Wireless Lighting,” as no chords are required.)

As well I selected the manual exposure mode, exposing at f22 at 250 of a second, thinking that by overpowering ambient light and, so, creating a black background, I could dramatize the thorns.


From the gardens we drove another mile, stopping shortly after crossing a stream at another interpretive panel. This one further described the hardships of Anza’s expedition, explaining that Gertrudis Rivas Linares gave birth to a son, Salvador. “Next day she mounted a horse for the journey north.”

Plant profusion of the Desert Gardens

Plant profusion of the Desert Gardens

Here we turned around, reaching the Desert Gardens just as the sun began dipping into the San Ysidro Mountains. The sun backdropped the cholla, imparting a radiance not possible with other types of lighting.

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Rain, Leaves and the Ocotillo Plant

posted: January 24th, 2008 | by:Bert

Cycling to Yaqui Pass

Cycling to Yaqui Pass

©Bert Gildart: We’ve settled into a campground in Borrego Springs and have been making daily excursions from our Airstream into the surrounding desert. For Janie, yesterday was laundry day, so I got out my bike and peddled what our neighbors (Steve and Linda) said would be a wonderful loop outing. Their recommendation was not to be taken lightly for last year they cycled from northern California to Maine on a tandem bike, taking a total of 96 days.

My loop of yesterday was substantial enough, climbing 1,860 feet from Borrego Springs to Yaqui Pass and returning me to the campground 36 miles later. The route exposed me to a variety of different types of moistures conditions, which in turn affected the appearance of cacti and other thorn-like plants.


Earlier I had learned about one of the plants, the ocotillo, at the park’s informative visitor center. It’s a plant that produces scarlet tubular flowers atop the graceful stems, and can at times lend a colorful counterpoint to the drabness of the desert in mid-winter.

Yesterday, the ocotillo was also showing the effects of small amounts of rain, which is the beginning of flowers. Several days ago, the Borrego Springs area had been touched by a brief rain. To Janie and me, the rain seemed insignificant, but the plants didn’t “think” so; they responded as though doused with profuse heavenly showers-something I noticed as I was cycling. Here and there, particularly as I ascended the flanks of the Pinyon Mountains, I could see the start of leaves.

“That’s all it takes,” said a volunteer at the Anza-Borrego Visitor Center. “The leaves will flourish, but, then, if the ocotillo isn’t exposed to more rain, the plant doesn’t have sufficient energy to maintain the leaves, so they fall off. The process will, of course, repeat itself, until the ocotillo has sufficient energy to produce flowers.”


As I neared Yaqui Pass I stopped to examine an ocotillo plant, which was in fact, beginning to produce small leaves in large numbers. I photographed the stems and leaves, using the built-in strobe on my Nikon D300. I set the camera’s lens to “macro,” and then framed the image so that a few rays of sun would be included. Liking what I saw in the camera’s screen, I peddled on.

Rain leaves and Ocotilla

Rain, leaves and Ocotilla

After reaching Yaqui Pass I then coasted down almost four miles, and because the desert air was so cool I stopped once to dig out a wind breaker. After the long descent the road leveled and the remaining five miles was an easy pedal. That’s not to say I wasn’t tired and slept about as well last night as I have in a long time.

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Slot Canyon and Kangaroo Rats

posted: January 23rd, 2008 | by:Bert

Slot Canyon Overlook

Kangaroo Rat

©Bert Gildart: Two days ago Janie and I stood at Font’s Point and peered down and into the Borrego Badlands. In the shadow of such overwhelming beauty, it seems natural to wonder what the maze of land might contain.

If you don’t mind doing a bit of hiking, Slot Canyon provides answers, and with that goal in mind we drove along another sandy wash, once again using information in Lowell and Diana Lindsay’s book to get us to the trailhead.


From the trailhead, also a canyon overlook, we dropped down a path created by use and were soon enveloped by steep walls. We began threading our way through a narrow defile the authors’ caution is not a hike for big people.

They quote Mark Jorgensen, the park’s superintendent and a man whom I remember as being a stout person. Jorgensen says he had to “walk sideways and often stand on his tip toes.”

Though neither Janie nor I are large people, nevertheless we had to do a bit of squeezing ourselves. In places the walls squeezed in so tightly we had to remove our day packs and camera packs and swing them ahead.

The canyon meanders and the walls rise

The canyon meanders and the walls rise

The walk through the slot proceeds through yellow sandstone that rises abruptly on each side to heights of more than 50 feet. In places we saw swallow nests, but other than that no evidence of wildlife. The walk required about an hour.

On the way back, however, there was evidence of mammalian life all around. At the base of creosote bushes the holes of kangaroo rats were everywhere, and in places were so dense that the ground caved in beneath us as we strolled across the desert.

The canyon squeezes

The canyon squeezes

At one place we stopped for a few moments to test the advice of a park naturalist who said that if we patted holes used by kangaroo rats, “and if you pat enough of them,” we’d hear a response.


The response is described as having a churring or fluttering quality, similar to the noise of a flying quail. Edmund Jaeger in his book The California Deserts writes that it is “probably a signal of alarm or note of challenge made with the hind feet striking repeatedly and rhythmically against the sands.”

Patting hoping for a response

Patting, hoping for a response

Janie said she was glad that no one was around, but she still craned her head hoping to hear some response. In years past we’ve seen kangaroo rats, hopping around, and know that the biology of their desert adaptations is interesting. For instance, they seldom drink free water, relying rather on the moisture in the plants they consume.

We patted half a dozen holes but never heard a response. But we’ll keep trying, for out here in the desert it’s just one of the things sane people do to occupy themselves. Just imagine our response when something responds.

We’ll let you know.

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The Compulsion of the Borrego Badlands

posted: January 22nd, 2008 | by:Bert

Navigating Fonts Point Wash

Navigating Font’s Point Wash

©Bert Gildart: For a photographer, I can not imagine a better spot to begin touring Anza Borrego State Park in California than Font’s Point. Noted for its views of the Borrego Badlands, the patterns therein provide a fascinating array.

If captured appropriately, the badlands leaves viewers wondering about the power of nature, the power of erosion, the difficulty of navigating such broken land. As well, these broken lands leave viewers wondering about the creatures that may once have lived here, which were, in fact, many.

The view from Font’s Point also reveals much about this largest of state parks in California. Facing south, your gaze embraces Mexico, just 25 miles away. It encompasses Borrego Springs to the west and the Salton Sink with its Salton Sea to the east. Turning around, your gaze falls on the Santa Rosa Mountains to the north.


Font’s Point also suggests a historic association, and the assumption is correct, for Pedro Font was the chaplain and navigator on Spain’s second expedition from Tubac, Mexico to Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in California, in 1775-76. The expedition was led by Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, for whom this park was named, in part (the other part, Borrego, for the endangered peninsular desert bighorn–yesterday’s post). On this expedition, which brought colonists from Mexico to establish the pueblo of San Francisco, Font’s role was multi-purposed, for he also served as the expedition’s diarist.

Yesterday, we reached the overlook following a four-mile drive from our campground in Borrego Springs to the Pegleg Smith’s memorial, then another few miles along the Palm Canyon Road to Font’s Point Wash. The jeep road is sand covered, and though you don’t have to have four-wheel drive, it makes traction through the four-mile-long wash a bit more secure.

Travel along the wash is another four miles, and ascends to Font’s Point Overlook, and if you think the setting created by the Borrego Badlands appears timeless, you are not mistaken.


First, the badlands are protected under both federal and state laws, and in Lowell and Diana Lindsay’s book, The Anza Borrego Desert Region, the authors suggest that the badlands contain an immense number of fossils to include the ground sloth, short-faced bear, dire wolf, sabertooth cat, mastodon, mammoth, giant zebra, half-ass, camel, yesterday’s camel, llama, giant camel, pronghorn, elk, deer, shrub oxen, and the Bautista horse.

Borrego Badlands

Borrego Badlands

But those are abstractions, obscure and sometimes unfathomable findings from a different millennium. What seems to draw so many now is the staggering beauty, which seems to illicit different reactions. As visitors gaze over this sweep that extents south to Mexico, some call out to friends and family members to hurry; they can’t wait to share the immense beauty. Others simply stand and stare, at a loss for words.

My reaction, the reaction of a photographer, was to mount my camera on a tripod and then search for some balanced and coherent pattern in this maze that will suggest something other than confusion. That’s not to say my gaze provided understanding, rather it was more like the displacement reaction of a startled goose that starts pecking at stones because it is at a momentary loss for anything else to do.

Perhaps I’ve succeeded with my photography, but, if not, the Borrego Badlands have been a million years in their creation, and will most likely be there tomorrow. What’s more, I’m sure these badlands draw people back time after time, for they are endlessly changing–and that’s what makes them so compelling.

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Eyes of the Canyon

posted: January 21st, 2008 | by:Bert

Palm Canyon Nature Trail

Palm Canyon Nature Trail

©Bert Gildart: Because the peninsular desert bighorn is an endangered species, I wanted to try one more time to create a photo that captured the essence of the species and the environment in which it lives.

And so we returned early yesterday morning to the Palm Canyon Trail to try once again to photograph the sheep. From previous experience I knew the chances were not necessarily good, despite the fact I’d seen them the previous day.

As anticipated, the sheep had moved, and despite the fact we glassed the slope we knew that somewhere the sheep were probably watching us. We knew the eyes of the canyon were upon us, and wondered if we’d see this endangered species before day’s end.

Sheep have incredible vision, and if they don’t move the chances of seeing them are not very good. They blend perfectly with the harsh environment that is their home. As a result, we hiked on–a little disappointed–but determined to make the day count for something, for the canyon is best known for the stand of palms.


Palm Canyon Trail was inspired by Mike Merkel, revered as California’s first state park naturalists. He laid out the three-mile round-trip trail, and I mention his name because the trail is inspirational and includes so many features. Cahuilla Indians once established homes in the area, and if you know what you are looking for, you can find morteros (grinding holes) and grinding slicks (metates).

Palm Oasis

Palm Oasis

We didn’t find any Indian artifacts and that may be because of the devastating flood that knocked out about one third of the palms that grew in the oasis created by runoff from the area’s much higher reaches. Evidence of the 20-foot high waters were everywhere and included the huge trunks of palm trees, some of which now covered the huge boulders.

We were delighted when we reached the oasis and saw that despite the flood, a number of palms still remained. The oasis was cool, and though the January temperatures were certainly comfortable, we could appreciate the shade these towering trees could create on a summer day.

Cactus country is bighorn country

Cactus country is bighorn country

These were California fan palms, and a recently acquired book on the park by Lowell and Diana Lindsay described them as the only palm tree native to California.

We spent about an hour at the oasis, then began our return. About half way we encountered a lady who worked in the park as a volunteer. She was a delightful person, and we visited with her for close to half an hour.

Endangered magnificence

Endangered magnificence


She was a person much to be admired, for only a few months ago she had had both hips replaced. But here she was, determined to continue her work as a naturalist. Soon our conversation drifted to sheep, and she suggested that to optimize our chances of seeing them, we return via an alternative route.

Half an hour later, we came to a likely looking area and again sat and began glassing the slope. Suddenly movement caught our eye, and we began seeing sheep everywhere, some relatively close and moving along a steep cliff face.

We settled in to wait, and about an hour later our efforts were rewarded, for one ram was moving our direction. From the segments in the ram’s horns, we figured him to be a five-year-old ram.

He was a magnificent animal made even more admirable by virtue of the imposing country through which he moved. Casually, he moved through a jumble of ocotillo, cholla and barrel cacti, while behind him a steep cliff provided escape terrain.

Because we were sitting, he was comfortable with our presence, and then he moved onto a rock outcropping and surveyed his country. And that’s when I began clicking off images that included poses where he seemed to be studying us as intently as we studied him.

For me, this animal epitomized the Sonoran desert more than any other component, and as he moved on with the others in his band, we were delighted we had returned to this desert trail. Certainly the eyes of the canyon had been on us, but with patience, we had returned their studied gaze.

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Anza Borrego’s Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

posted: January 20th, 2008 | by:Bert

Bighorns spar throughout year

Bighorns spar throughout year

©Bert Gildart: Bighorn sheep don’t normally fight in the winter, but as Janie and I ascended the Palm Canyon Trial in California’s Anza Borrego State Park, we could see two young rams butting horns. The fighting wasn’t intense, but it was persistent, and began moments earlier when one of the two males crashed his head time after time against a large rock. Then, another ram walked into the scene, and Ram Number One turned his attention.

Janie and I had come to this premier park to gather material for a travel story. As well, we wanted to learn more about the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. Only 280 of this subspecies remain in the United States and 200 find refuge in the park. This was not the first time we had visited Borrego to find sheep, but yesterday was the first time we did, in fact, find them. As a photographer I was delighted by the action of the two rams, knowing, however, that such bouts occur throughout the year, and that often by the time mating season rolls around in the fall, a hierarchy among males has long been established.

Ten years ago Janie and I had visited Anza Borrego, and because I was working on a book about Bighorn Sheep (published by Northword) I had visited with Mark Jorgensen (now the park’s superintendent). At the time he was the park’s terrestrial ecologist and he had related to me a story about just how hard it can be to find bighorns.


Jorgensen said that in 1993 he had found a sick ram in Borrego Springs and that he had captured it and then placed it in a wild animal park to convalesce. Three weeks later, they radio collared the ram and then released it near Montezuma Grade, where it immediately traveled 70 miles. From there the ram traveled 45 miles to In-ko-Pah near the Mexico border, where he stayed for a full year until the next summer’s breeding season.

Collaring reveals sheep still migrate immense distances

Collaring reveals sheep still migrate immense distances

“Then,” Jorgensen had explained to me, “Number 270 disappeared.” Using aircraft they eventually found the old ram now another 75 miles away. “Number 270 had crossed five mountain ranges and moved through dozens of canyons.”

The sheep we saw yesterday could have been moving, just as Jorgensen’s Number 270, for sheep are famous for their migrations. Sheep, in fact, were not native to North America, having migrated from Siberia over 10,000 years ago. They are a magnificent animal well known for their social hierarchy, much of which is established by battles that can sometimes be brutal.


Heads and horns of bighorn sheep have evolved to withstand the impact of forceful collisions, and scientists have determined these collisions are substantial. When two rams collide their combined speeds can equal 50 to 70 miles per hour. Multiplying that figure by the weights of the two animals suggests a combined output of 2,400 foot pounds of energy.

Head and horns adapted to withstand immense blows

Head and horns adapted to withstand immense blows

That’s just one of the “Believe-it-or-Not” type features of this magnificent animal, and we are indeed lucky biologists are working hard to preserve this particular subspecies. In fact, the park now has an ongoing program to help the Peninsular Bighorn. Projects include construction of six water sources in the Vallecito Mountains, fencing of the park boundary to exclude trespassing cattle, the live removal of wild cattle from many of the west side canyons, and removal of exotic trees from desert water holes.

Judging from all the people–to include a local school group–who had assembled on the trail to watch the rams, the biologists’ efforts are much appreciated. Several in the group wondered about the scratch marks on the back of one of the rams, which we all concluded could have been made by a cougar. If that was the case, this ram was indeed lucky.

Students stop to admire the endangered Peninsular bighorn

Students stop to admire the endangered Peninsular bighorn

Janie and I sat along the edge of the trail for over an hour, and before departing, counted 21 rams. They continued to move toward us, and for awhile, we had the group all to ourselves. Every now and then two of the rams would face one another, and occasional butt horns, but soon they moved on.

Because of previous attempts to find this endangered species, we knew we had been fortunate indeed. As Janie likes to say, it’ all because we paid respect in Zion National Park to the sheep images Native Americans had created in the form of their Rock Art .

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Departing Zion Amidst Disturbing News

posted: January 18th, 2008 | by:Bert

Welcome reprieve

Welcome reprieve

©Bert Gildart: We departed Zion yesterday following another night of subfreezing weather. The canyons have trapped unusually cold weather and when we awoke, it was about 18°F, cold for this part of Utah, but certainly not like what friends and relatives back home in Montana’s Flathead Valley say they’ve been experiencing. There, we understand, it has been -8°F.

Still, Zion was a welcome reprieve after traveling from Ogden to Spanish Forks. In the entire 90 miles (which includes Salt Lake City) we couldn’t find a single place to pull over and use the bathroom in our trailer. Conditions seemed more intense than driving around Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans, Lousiana, L.A., California. Everywhere were huge trucks pulling two–and sometimes–three trailers of gravel, earth-moving equipment, and mobile homes. There were horns blaring–and new cookie cutter homes everywhere.

What a relief to pull into Zion and spend a few quiet days hiking. Little competition from others on the trail, either, and that was nice, too. In fact, we were one of about six campers in the park’s Watchman Campground.


A friend in the valley also wrote me about some disturbing news, saying that the school board in Choteau, Montana had cancelled Dr. Steve Running’s speech. Running is one of the scientists who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Global Warming. His speech was intended for Choteau’s high school students.

Looks like they believe the best way to gain ground on an issue is to silence their opponents.

Though I have strong feelings on the issue and wrote a story this summer for the magazine produced by the Wilderness Society (and another –and another –for this blog) I do believe others have well thought out opinions on the subject, and would certainly post opposing views. In a free country the school board’s actions seem unprecedented for good decisions are generally made after all the facts have been gathered.

I’ll bet the Choteau School board gets more grief from its decision than they ever thought possible.

For several days at any rate, all these concerns were pushed into the background by the beauty of Zion National Park–its towering peaks and the slick red rock, which carried names such as Court of the Patriarchs, Temple of Sinewava, The Great White Throne… Together these magnificent forms pushed unsettling thoughts into the recesses of our minds.

The Way to Angel's Landing

The Way to Angel’s Landing

That’s the way it was for us in Zion, and I’ve posted several photographs from our hike toward Angel’s Landing, the latter portion of which was closed because of dangerous ice conditions. Amidst such beauty all else is forgotten–at least for the moment.

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Zion’s Ancient Rock Art

posted: January 17th, 2008 | by:Bert

The Ancient Ones once gathered here

The "Ancient Ones" once gathered here

©Bert Gildart: Years ago, when I first ventured into Zion National Park, one of the most interesting discoveries was to learn that the park once served as the hunting grounds for the Anasazi people who inhabited the area from A.D. 200 to 1250. The Kaibab Paiute also lived here, occupying the area for the last 800 years, and all these people created rock art, also known as petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are images that have been chipped into a rock surface as opposed to pictographs, which are images created with the pigments of plants or pulverized rock.


Janie and I learned about one such panel about 15 years ago, having stumbled onto a canyon in the course of one of our hikes. The park, of course, knows about these panels, and now show photographs of them, but there are no interpretive signs saying “Pull over, Indian Rock Art Ahead.” Instead, they wait for a visitor to ask about their presence, then they point the way, reminding people that there is a protocol for visitations.

Each time Janie and I visit the site, we do so hoping to see that they have not been defaced, as so many have in other parts of the Southwest. In Dinosaur National Monument, for instance, a certain type of person has used petroglyphs for target practice.

Sheep, common motif

Sheep, common motif

But we were so happy to see on this trip that this particular panel has endured, suggesting that perhaps the majority of visitors are beginning to appreciate such mysteries. Of course, signs posted near the panels advising that it is illegal to deface such archaeological treasures and that fines up to $20,000 may be imposed, could also help.


Though no one knows what motivated Native Americans to create these panels, some scientists believe they were inspired by hunters, hoping to lure sheep back to sites through which they might once have ranged. Because sheep are the dominate theme that theory seems plausible. In fact, as we examined the panels we discovered that literally thousands had been pecked into the rock. Some of the sheep had huge horns, others, the females, had large bellies, suggesting a desire to see sheep procreate. Though some of the sheep are fading from sun, wind, rain and general weathering, several images remain vibrant.

Mysterious forms

Mysterious forms

This canyon also contains images that are difficult to interpret, and these include circles, and images that depict the human form. Scientists have made attempts to age these glyphs and brochures say that they are on the verge of creating new techniques that may help.

We spent about an hour yesterday, photographing the art of the Ancient Ones, using both natural light and strobe lights. No one else was around, just us–and the ancient art left by a people who once came here to create a magic that still endures. By their art we could still sense their presence.

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Day’s Best Photo from Zion National Park

posted: January 16th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Zion National Park is a photographer’s paradise, and we’ll be here for a few more days. We’re amassing a large number of new images for our stock photo files (much of our business), and over the next few days we’ll be posting one or two from each day’s outing.

Moon rising in Temple of Sinawava

Moon rising in Temple of Sinawava

The image posted today was taken in the Temple of Sinawava, at the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is about six miles from the park entrance. The advantage of visiting at this time of year is that you are not required to take the shuttle, which increases your ability to move around. The image was made late in the day, and at the time a crescent moon was rising over this huge mass of slick rock, which was capped with snow. The dark trees in the foreground add depth, and the deepening shadows some sense of drama.

Because the moon is small on most computer screens, the image looks better as a slightly larger image. Still, I think it shows the potential of photography in Zion National Park, so I’ve posted it as my day’s best.


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Grand Transitions

posted: January 15th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: From winter to spring, that’s what the day was all about. Winter in Ogden, Utah, yesterday morning and, then, spring-type weather (at least if you’re from Montana) half a day later.

Winter, yesterday morning, Ogden, Utah

Winter, yesterday morning, Ogden, Utah

And so, following a six-hour drive, passing around Salt Lake City, then dropping several thousand feet from the huge cedar plateau for which Cedar City and Cedar Breaks National Monument derive names, we arrived in Zion National Park, temperature about 55 degrees. We parked in Springdale (1/2 miles from the park) in a commercial campground, and then spent several hours organizing.

Zion NP six hours later Watchman Campground

Zion NP, six hours later, Watchman Campground

Zion is like an old friend and over the years, I’ve contributed a number of stories to various magazines, but perhaps most notably, chapters to a Sierra club book on national parks of the Southwest. The book is still in publication and my chapters concerned Bryce and Zion. Returning to Zion is almost like returning to a former home.

Janie and I love hiking the canyons here, and that is one of our reasons for returning. Once in fall, Janie and I hiked much of the Virgin River canyon, famous for its narrow but towering walls. We hiked the river in late summer, when the river was warm.

Yet another time, I took my son, David, out of school for a week and, together, with a young friend of his, hiked 50 miles though the park. At the time, David and Kyle Bristol (son of the man with whom I climbed Mount Rainier this summer) were about 14.

But this time, Janie and have no particular agenda, just to gather more photos and stretch our legs after two long days of driving. Our campground is located at the base of The Watchman, and the mountain can be a challenge to photograph.

Last night, however, the light was perfect. The sun was low enough in the winter sky that it created warm, dramatic side lighting.

The Watchman soaking up the evening sun

The Watchman, soaking up the evening sun

Then I waited until the shadows moved up from the base of the mountain, helping to further dramatize the mountain’s craggy nature.

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Monida, A Dying Little Town

posted: January 13th, 2008 | by:Bert

Monida a Dying Little Town

Monida, a Dying Little Town

©Bert Gildart: And so after a week of waiting for storms to abate, we’re off. But first, we alarmed the house, informed neighbors of our travels, got a periodic house sitter, loaded our Airstream, loaded the back end of the truck, boxed up camera gear–and are now back on the road and will be for the next four months. We’re excited about all the potential photography, for we have a number of assignments in some very beautiful settings.

Though we’re eager to see sunny skies, that doesn’t mean we got far yesterday, day one; no further, in fact, than Deerlodge, Montana, about four hours from home. Today, we didn’t get too far either, as we stopped at several places of interest. As well, the winter roads slowed us.

Monida Pass was the spot that most captured our interest. Located at the junction between Montana and Idaho (Mon & Ida=Monida) it is a lofty pass located on the Continental Divide at an elevation of 6,820 feet. The setting is gorgeous, but this is one of the first times we’ve passed through this part of southwestern Montana that we have not had to contend with brutal storms. One time we camped in this small, almost deserted settlement and awoke next morning to a foot of fresh snow and howling wind. The conditions caught the weather man by surprise–and, consequently, us too.


Years ago I wrote a story about the mailman who worked out of this tiny settlement. The man’s name escapes me but he claimed his route, which in winter was all covered on snowmobile, was the most remote route in the Lower 48. In the late 1800s stagecoaches ferried tourists from the railroad at Monida Pass to Yellowstone Park until Union Pacific built a branch line to the park. Little seems to have changed.

Today, when we detoured off Interstate 15 for a stop at this empty settlement, the weather was relatively pleasant. Though not warm or snow free, at least the wind wasn’t howling. But the houses all seemed deserted and if anyone was living in them, residents certainly didn’t broadcast their presence. Songwriter Jimmy Buffet wrote a song about one such Montana town, and rather than “Ringling, Ringling, it’s a dying little town…” he could also have written about Monida, for it, too, is pretty darn bleak.

Windswept barn Mondia Pass

Windswept barn, Monida Pass

An old barn, back dropped by the Pioneer Mountains, captivated my interest. Unused and unattended the barn has been shaped by wind and snow. (From previous posts, some will recall I enjoy photographing old structures.) We parked for a few minutes on the single road that passes thorough the settlement and, then, on to several of the ranch families that live in the area.

We spent about an hour here then moved on, for the weather man said another storm was brewing, and this time he could be right. In places the roads were packed with snow, so we didn’t make great time.

By day’s end we pulled into a snowy commercial campground in Ogden, Utah. Our truck thermometer indicate a high of 33. At eight it dropped to 19. I got a shower in the camper and Janie wanted one too, but in the 30 minutes required to reheat water in the hot-water heater, our outside hose froze. Sorry, Janie, no shower tonight. Remember, please, I said you could go first.

Tomorrow, if we’re lucky–and if we don’t get sidetracked–we’ll pull into to Zion National Park, destination number one. After Zion we have a number of assignments in different states and national parks in California, Oregon and Nevada. On this particular trip, which will be one of many this year, we’ll be on the road for almost four months.

We hope you’ll tag along.

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Mice, Airstream–and Now Hantavirus?

posted: January 11th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: I’ve received a number of e-mails regarding my post on mice in our Airstream (see & see ), some from family members explaining that mice are dangerous “they carry Hantavirus, don’t you know,” and then kind statements from loves ones such as: “your elevator isn’t going to the top floor.”

Perhaps I am too cavalier about mice, but that attitude derives from years of exposure to mice and pack rat droppings in cabins throughout Glacier, where I worked as a ranger. Remote snowshoe cabins and ranger stations can be musty places, prime attractors of microtids, and over the many years I have cleaned up piles and piles of mice and packrat turds. I’m still here and don’t recall any down days following even extended stays. Of course, back in those days I didn’t know I should have been worried.

I never heard the word Hantavirus until about a decade ago, and then suddenly the disease became endemic. Native Americans in the Southwest had apparently contracted it, but that didn’t appear to be something that should concern me. But several years ago a death occurred here in Montana near Glacier National Park. The assistant superintendent had been cleaning out the barn (on a recently purchased piece of property, I believe), which apparently was full of mice dropping. Several days later he fell ill and, then, several days after that he died, apparently from Hantavirus.

With those thoughts in mind and with all the concern expressed by a number of people about mice I did a little research and here’s what I’ve learned about Hantavirus and how to deal with it.

Hantavirus was discovered in 1993 and since that time doctors have reported a total of 465 cases. Reports continue saying that 35% of those cases [that's 161] have resulted in death. Symptoms cropped up soon after exposure and always seem to include fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups-thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. In other words, it can be like flu.

Infection occurs most commonly through the inhalation of saliva or excreta. “Transmission,” reports say, “occurs when dried materials contaminated by rodent excreta are disturbed and inhaled.” Reports also say that persons have acquired Hantavirus after being bitten by rodents, and (and this part is for my son-in-law, Will, who intends to convert an old barn into a rec area) “from cleaning rodent-infested structures.”

What to do under such circumstances? “Wear a surgeon’s mask,” says yet another report.

Unfortunately, the culprit in the transmission of this disease is directly linked to the deer mouse, the “Pero” of my last week’s posting. However, research has shown that only about 10% of deer mice tested showed evidence of infection.

In other words, am I going to worry about dropping in our Airstream–and should Janie or I have worn face masks when cleaning the relatively small amounts of mouse droppings? I don’t think so. But are we going to sanitize areas where we’ve found droppings? Certainly, and I hope we get all those little droppings.

But I’m not going to loose sleep, either, about anything we might have missed.

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Montana’s Pryor Mountains

posted: January 10th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Several days ago Tom Palesch posted a comment on one of my blogs (Photoshop Revisited ), asking if I’d visited the Pryor Mountains in southeastern Montana. Like me, Palesch also writes for Airstream Life Magazine.

If you review his comments you’ll see he was fascinated with this vast recreational complex and asked me to post a few photographs of the area–if I had any.

Bighorn Sheep Wild Horses

Like Palesch, I’m intrigued with the Pryor Mountains and if you are the type who likes to make plans in the winter for summer adventures, the following photos may suggest possibilities. Palesch’s comments might do the same.

Essentially, Palesch and I were fascinated with the Pryors for similar reasons, and here are a few.

The Pryor’s are home to some of the state’s most incredible geology, having been carved out by the Bighorn River years ago. The result is Bighorn Canyon, shown in one of my photos.

The Spanish visited the area and left behind horses, and so the wild horses seen in another of the posted photos are thought to be genetically related. DNA testing helped shape that opinion.

Bighorn Canyon

Bighorn Canyon, carved through the millennium by the Bighorn River

As Palesch said, bears, elk and deer inhabit the area, as do bighorn sheep. What’s more the area provides excellent fishing and wonderful camping, making the area an ideal destination for the RVer.

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Extreme Ice Fishing

posted: January 8th, 2008 | by:Bert

Extracting fish from 70 foot net

Extracting fish from 70′ net

©Bert Gildart: Stringing a net beneath 70 feet of ice in -30°F temperatures, and then returning to a remote Athabascan Village located immediately adjacent to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with well over 200 pounds of fish should certainly rank as an “extreme” experience.

For me it was the ultimate ice fishing experience, and I’m reminded of it now as I’ve just enjoyed some darn good outings with my group of Grumpy Old Men . What’s more, we’re soon to depart on another Airstream adventure , and such outings seem to prompt reflection.

But serving as even more of a reminder was a telephone visit this past weekend with my very good native friend, Kenneth Frank, of Arctic Village, Alaska , the man who invited me to accompany him several years ago. Whenever we visit long distance, as we’ve done many times over the past 18 years, we always visit about some of our many adventures together, none the least of which was our trip to Old John Lake on one very brutal Arctic day.


To better envision the setting, first you must fly to Fairbanks, then transfer to a small nine passenger bush plane and fly to Fort Yukon on the Yukon River. This is the latitude designating the Arctic Circle, that point at which the sun neither rises nor sets on the day noted by the equinoxes.

checking ice on old john lake

Checking ice on Old John Lake

But we were flying further north; we were flying yet another 100 miles north to the Gwich’in Indian village of Arctic Village, inhabited by a group of about 80 men, women and children. Here, because we’d be so far north, in winter, the sun is obscured far longer than just the one day experienced at Fort Yukon. Here the sun is obscured for months.

maintaining hole in ice

Maintaining hole in ice

In this setting live the most northern of all Indian groups, virtually all of whom we know from having worked in a summer school teaching program there in the early 1990s.

Residents befriended us, and now we continue to remain in constant contact, once having spent four months on the Yukon in our Johnboat visiting Kenneth and Caroline and other Gwich’in Indians in other villages, all of whom we’ve come to know well. But Arctic Village is the point to which Janie and I returned for my extreme ice-fishing trip

This particularly ice fishing trip, however, was made in November, and several days after Janie and I reached Arctic Village, Kenneth and I loaded his two snowmobiles, then rode them over Datchanlee Mountain arriving 13 miles later at Old John Lake.

The temperature was -36°F, and on this late November day the sun just barely rose above the level of the horizon, where it then floated for several hours before dipping down below the horizon to create what is known as Civil Twilight.

“Look hard and enjoy it,” said Kenneth. “In another week the sun will be gone and we won’t see it until February.”

northern lights

Northern lights

Time was critical for Kenneth that day, but first he tested the ice by walking out about 100 yards, listening for any signs of weakness. Satisfied, we drove the snowmobiles to a point where he said he knew from summer experiences that a drop off existed.


Kenneth then dug out his ice auger and we took turns drilling 10 holes over a distance of about 70 feet. The holes were all in a straight line facilitating placement of a net beneath the ice. To do so, Kenneth then took a pole about 12 feet long, attached one end of the net to the tip, and then shoved it to the next hole where I was waiting.

Reaching into the water, I’d grab the pole with net, anchor it until Kenneth moved up to where I was, then we’d repeat the process with Kenneth now shoving the pole toward hole number three where I was again waiting–and looking.

ultimately a 200 pound catch

Ultimately, a 200 pound catch

In this way we positioned a 70-foot-long net beneath the ice, which was weighted on the bottom to keep it open, giving it (if you were underwater and could see it) a fence-like appearance.

Then we returned to Arctic Village. By now it was dark, and northern lights blazed overhead, creating all the light we needed to find our trail.


Next day Kenneth and I again returned to Old John. We cracked open the holes now skimmed with ice with an ax, and then grabbed the far end of the net. We attached a 70-foot-long rope so we could easily reposition the net later by pulling. Then Kenneth pulled the net up through the ice at the far hole.

“Anchor the rope,” called out Kenneth in the clear Arctic air. “Then come see what we’ve got.”

Walking over to the net I could see fish of various species to include lots of whitefish, trout, and one Kenneth called a lush. When finished Kenneth and I calculated he had about 250 pounds of fish that would augment his supply of caribou meat and so feed his family.

I’ll never forget the experience, nor will Janie and I forget Kenneth, Caroline, Tishina, and Crystal–his entire family–who once visited us here in Montana. They remain among some of our best friends and we are hoping to see them again this summer.

And then, who knows, perhaps we’ll plan another extreme ice fishing trip, or perhaps a river-boat trip to Old Crow, Yukon Territories , where the Gwich’in Gathering will be held this summer.

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

Read Comments | Post a Comment »

All Along It’s Been Raccoons

posted: January 6th, 2008 | by:Bert

All along it's been raccoons

All along it’s been raccoons

©Bert Gildart: Each day our bird feeder here in Montana’s Flathead Valley sees lots of activity, and over the past few months we’ve counted no fewer than 30 different species. In fact, there are a few species one wouldn’t expect to see, such as the Turkey and the Pileated Woodpecker .

Recently we’ve been concerned that the turkeys have been taking more than their share of the feed. Several mornings, in fact, we’ve found the seed completely consumed and the grated container holding the suet empty. Five days ago we found one of the plastic windows on our octagon-shaped feeder cracked.

Wow, we said, a bit angrily, the turkeys have really been going at it.

We may, however, have been accusing the wrong critter, for at 5:30 this morning I discovered a new species, one we’ve not seen since we moved from the nearby town of Kalispell 12 years ago, and into the country. What I discovered was a raccoon. In fact, as my eyes adjusted to the night light, I discovered not just one, but three; three huge ones.


They were bold animals, and when I turned on the porch light, tapped on the widow, and peered through the blinds, they simply stared back. That’s when I ran back to the bedroom got Janie, got my camera, and then yanked open the sliding door out onto the deck. Immediately my actions created pandemonium, for the home security alarm went off, the three raccoons–one on the deck and two on the banister–clawed their way onto the adjacent tree and then began descending.

Meanwhile Janie was calling out that she didn’t have her glasses on, couldn’t see the numbers on the panel to neutralize the security system, now ringing throughout the house. Worse, we knew our alarm system would soon notify the Sheriffs office, our neighbors, and the office of the ADT Security System that a trespass was in progress.

But I persevered and managed to snap a quick picture, documenting that sometimes the turkeys are not the culprits. Shortly thereafter I found my glasses, neutralized the security system but not quite soon enough, I fear–for we only have 60 seconds. Now we’re waiting for a call from the Sheriff’s office–and I can’t wait to tell him our story.

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Ice Fishing Gear

posted: January 5th, 2008 | by:Bert

Otter makes excellent shelter

Otter makes excellent shelter

©Bert Gildart: Becoming a grumpy old ice fisherman (see previous post) requires years of perseverance and real honest-to-goodness dedication, but not a tremendous outlay of equipment, much of which is available from your local sporting good store.

Though you won’t need all the items shown below, you will certainly need some of it. So here’s a list for both the Minimalist and the Maximist.

John Clay tends to be more of a Maximist, while the other two ice fishermen of my last posting (though not absolute Minimalists) certainly fished with less. Sometimes it’s just a matter of preference.

Obviously you’ll need a fishing pole, and all of my friends from the other day had two, which helps optimize the action. These rods are much shorter than the spinning rod you use in the summer. They are also more sensitive for bait presentation and for fish strikes.

Because you’ll often be venturing some distance over the ice you’ll need a sled to haul your gear. If you are a Maximist, you’ll also want a gas-powered ice auger, unless you want to invest more time chopping with an ax than fishing. The minimalist might just use a hand-operated ice auger or an ice chisel. On some occasions the hardcore Minimalist might just use an ax. StrikeMaster makes augers, both gas- and hand-powered ones.

For comfort, you’ll appreciate a fold-out ice tent (mounted on a sled) and John Clay, who has researched the line, purchased an Otter. It’s a two-person tent, but Otter makes tents both smaller and larger. Inside that tent he placed a small portable “Mr. Heater.” When the wind started blowing (he let me in), I for one appreciated the heater. When the wind really starts blowing, Clay anchors his tent with “Ice Locks,” which Cabella’s carries.

You’ll appreciate a fish finder and a number of companies make them, but each of my three companions had a Vexilar so, obviously, that brand has made a hit with this group.


From the Internet I learned about Vexilar’s 200kHz system, which reads depths to 200 feet and can pick out targets as small as ½ inch! This detail allows you to follow the path of your lure and to then position it above an individual fish or a school of fish. The ad with this model says that with the “live action, 3-color sonar display, you’ll have an amazing window on the world of the fish!”

For more information follow the link, above.

Vexilar fish finder

Vexilar fish finder

All totaled, becoming a grumpy old passionate ice fisherman requires an outlay of about $1,000, if you want to be a Maximist. Of course, you can get by with much less, and another good friend of mine, Bruce May, a retired fishery biologist, gets by with a pole and a bucket on which to sit. Sometimes he carries a Thinsulite pad on which to lie. He’s a deeply philosophical person and questions the wisdom of standing when you could be seated–and the wisdom of sitting when you could be lying.

He uses no Vexilar, but then he’s one of the most frugal people I know. In fact, if there were a nominating committee for inducting friends into the hollowed league of Grumpy Old Men, Bruce–for reasons other than frugality–would be my first nominee.

Elaborate gear is not necessary to catch perch

Elaborate gear is not necessary to catch perch

For those of you who follow my blog you may be wondering why we’re not yet on the road and the answer in short is: weather. As a result, I’ve immersed myself in ice fishing.


But we are on a countdown and are hoping we can pull out next Wednesday for an extended trip into the southwest. Though I’ve pulled our Airstream (Airstream Life Magazine is example of why we venture out) over snow-packed roads, it’s nerve racking, and because we’re not under any real time constraints, we’ll bide our time.

However, the plumber is scheduled to winterize our house next Tuesday, so we are trying to lock everything into place. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, expect a few more tales from Montana’s winter woods .

Note: For links to other informative ads on ice-fishing equipment provided by Google, click on my title, above, colored orange.

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Grumpy Old Men

posted: January 3rd, 2008 | by:Bert

Clay hauls ice tent

Clay hauls ice tent


©Bert Gildart: Tarnations! How can aging male ice fishermen be anything but Grumpy Old Men? Up at the crack of dawn, pulling heavy sleds loaded with all kinds of gear–sinking at times to our ankles in the mush ice that capped Lake Mary Ronan. Little wonder that during down time on this northwest Montana lake we tended to dwell on sciatic nerves, rotator cups, and PSA levels.


Yesterday, there were four of us: John Clay, John Moore, Marc Nichols, and yours truly, and we all had visions of the mighty perch dancing in our heads. In this part of the country perch are no different from perch anywhere else. They have dorsal fins that jut up about one-half inch, and body color that tends to be chartreuse. As well, they have vertical par marks.

Catching perch does not require a great effort other than just enduring temperatures that on a typical day may not rise much above single digit figures.

Set up time may be the most difficult part of an outing. After towing sleds several hundred yards, you’ve got to dig holes in the ice using a gasoline-powered auger. That takes some time as each fisherman requires three holes: one for the Vexilar Fish Finder, and two for the two poles that ice fishermen tend to use to optimize opportunities.

John Clay’s setup took the most time, for he had a tent mounted on a sled that required some unloading before a quick unfolding. The advantage is that he could encase himself in his own little cocoon, which naturally was the subject of derision by those getting cold.

“Five dollars for five minutes if you’re cold and want to get warm,” yelled Clay from inside where temperatures from his heater approached 70. “Hey, don’t be throwing those small ones [perch] over here. I’ve got pride you know.”


After setup things got serious. Short rods were quickly baited with tiny ice jigs. Maggots were then attached to the hooks and then lowered through the holes. Depths depend on location in this several mile long lake nestled between the Salish and Mission mountain, but yesterday was about 20 feet.

Marc greets rising sun

Marc greets rising sun


As the novitiate in the group, I joined John Clay inside his tent and he explained the benefits of the Vexilar Fish Finder that the other two fishermen also had. Clay explained that the Vexilar emits a cone of signals from the transducer that is sensitive enough to follow the descent of our lures to the bottom.


Perch, we could see from blips on the screen of the finder, were thick and we positioned our lures just above the schools. Often we could follow the action of the fish, watching them as they rose to take the bait. Because I was as interested in photography as I was in fishing, I was in and out of Clay’s shelter (”Hey, you’re letting the cold in.”), trying to learn from everyone about this art of ice fishing.

“Fish haven’t got a chance,” laughed John Moore, who quickly began pulling perch from the hole. “When perch bite you can hardly feel it, and sometimes you know it only by the slight wiggle in the tip of the rod.”

“Don’t yank too hard,” admonished Marc Nichols, picking up his skimmer to scoop out slush ice forming in the hole. “Don’t want to tear the lure loose–or throw out your rotator cup.”

John catch of perch

John with perch


Because each female perch produces thousands of eggs and because so many live, there’s no limit on the amount of perch you can keep. Most were small, though several may have approached 10 to 11 inches. We fished for about five hours and our combined catch averaged about 15, meaning that my eight were offset by the 50-plus caught by Moore, Clay and Nichols.


“It’s a slow day,” said Moore, who often returns with 30 to 40 perch following a day’s fishing–as well as a few kokanee salmon and rainbow.

Mess of perch

Mess of perch


Gathering our fish, we tossed them into a bag. But then comes the hard part, for the rule among sportsmen is nothing you catch goes to waste. For me, that meant about an hour of filleting, setting me up as the grumpiest Old Man of the day, for the work is tedious, particularly if you haven’t done it for awhile.

But the rewards that night of fresh perch for dinner removed the grump from the Old Man part of my day’s designation. But I’m not sure about the others, who are probably still talking about rotator cups, sciatic nerves and (the Good Lord only knows) the amount of Omega 3 fatty acid in their daily diets.

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