I was the kind of kid who was into Captain Cook and tall ships. It wasn’t long before this interest blossomed into a fascination with the Pacific, that incomprehensibly vast ocean with its myriad constellations of islands both windswept and verdant, flat and precipitous, tiny and vast. I read a lot about it. Adventure tales at first, but as my fascination with biology grew, it became the nexus for this as well, especially the particularly biodiverse and wild southwest corner known as Melanesia.
From 2008-2011, I spent four summers in the tropical Pacific — in Papua New Guinea, Guam, and the Northern Marianas — working, traveling, conducting research, taking meticulous daily notes in black leatherbound journals that sure better be fodder for a book some day. Despite having been away from it for several years, it remains an incredibly important place to me. Certainly in an intellectual sense, but also emotionally, something tied tightly with my sense of self, as anything so huge to your formative years is sure to do.
Two weeks ago, I had the chance to return, this time to Fiji. Kate’s mother, Elizabeth Holland, has (for the past 3 years) been a professor of climate change at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, the nation’s capitol, and with extraordinary generosity served as our conduit and host in the islands that have become her home. The dry and oppressive heat of Denver in the summer left behind, we flew ten and a half hours from Los Angeles to Nadi (pronounced Nandi), crossing the dateline and the lion’s share of the world’s largest ocean.
The trip was unusual for me in solidly qualifying as a vacation: short in duration, with no fieldwork to lend it purpose, with plenty of time planned in comfortable accommodations. But perhaps because of this flexibilty (and its languid pace), it was a pretty good one for taking pictures, and looking for cool birds and plants. Below lies a lengthy photo essay of sorts, with numerous digressions that I hope someone finds interesting. Probably long enough to merit a coffee or beer, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The day after arriving in Suva, and visiting the doctor to pick up a prescription for antibiotics to treat the strep throat I had conveniently picked up, we left for on the island of Kadavu (again, pronounced Kandavu) on the ferry Sinu-i-Wasa (formerly the Straightsman out of Hobart, Tasmania). Boarding at 8PM, we slept fitfully for the ten-hour passage on blue benches on the main deck. My fever broken, I was still in relatively poor shape, and grateful when at dawn we arrived at Vunisea, Kadavu’s sole town of note.
Kadavu, at 411 square kilometers, is the fourth largest of the Fiji group’s 333 islands, and the southernmost of any significant size. Because of this, and its greater exposure to the massive South Pacific, it has a bit of a reputation among other Fijians as being “cold” (a “little New Zealand,” as one put it.)
We scoffed, but arriving in what was already an unsually chilly Fijian winter, found its reputation warranted. I am not sure what the mercury read our first day, gray with rain and windlashed, probably something in the 50s, but I know I wore my wool sweater far more than I could ever have anticipated.
Most of Kadavu’s serpentine coastline is undeveloped, and the only way to get from one village to another along its length (barring a short stretch of road near Vunisea) is by boat. We stayed at a small resort in the Fijian style — individual bures, or bungalows — in a bay along the north coast, riding a dingy through the spray for an hour or so.
The first few days were quiet, mostly, as I got over my illness and we watched the sky and the ocean in its daily pageant of change. At night, we were treated to the incomparable wonder of the milky way from the South Pacific — where, due to vagaries of the earth’s orbit and a lack of pollution, seven times as many stars as can be seen in the northern hemisphere are visible — and at dawn, the pale fire of a sunrise we couldn’t quite see but that spilled over the forest to the tops of the palms and the breakers on the reef.
Both good things, though in terms of quality respective to one’s peers, Matthiessen wins. I’ve often found reading about some environment diametrically opposed to your surroundings — in this case, the Himalaya — to be a nice pairing.
A common and beautiful plant of the dry forest understory (possibly Vavaea amicorum; Meliaceae, though the orange venation is unusual. Identification courtesy of Tom Gillespie.)
Mangroves along the Kadavu coast. You’ve probably heard of mangroves: their intertidal swamps are of great importance for biodiversity, the stability of coastal ecosystems, and (most importantly for Homo sapiens) as breaks against storm surge, sea level rise, erosion, and other nasty things. Predictably, it’s an endangered habitat.
Taxonomy nerd digression: mangroves are not a monophyletic group, meaning there is no mangrove family or genus. Instead, it’s a grouping based on growth pattern, ecology, and life history comprised by species from various unrelated families. I like taxonomy, so I find this fascinating, though I’ll forgive you if you do not.
Canopy cover is typically estimated with the help of a device known as a densiometer, which quantifies the portion of light breaking through the trees. I think this photo depicts what, exactly, a densiometer is measuring nicely.
This corner of Kadavu is covered in cyclone-disturbed tropical dry forest, reminiscent to me (minus the nasty limestone substrate) of forest in the Mariana Islands. With few emergents and relatively small boles, it’s not a dramatic habitat, but nonetheless high in biodiversity and critically endangered across the Pacific, where it is usually the first forest to be cleared for agriculture.
In the sheltered valleys along streams, a much wetter microclimate prevailed, with more typical moist forest vegetation, including beautiful Cyathea tree ferns. Improbably tall, improbably ancient, they are gap specialists, and at the small theatre of cascades that was terminus to all my runs, they arced gracefully in front of the falls.
I never did get a camera up there.
Casuarina spp. of the understory. Casuarina is so named after its needle-like leaves’ resemblance to the quills (feathers) of the Cassowary, a dinosaur-like flightless bird of New Guinea and Australian rainforests. Despite resembling a pine, the Casuarinaceae are not conifers, but angiosperms.
A young breadfruit (Artocarpus altillis). This ubiquitous fruit tree was the trigger for Captain Bligh’s (Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) ill-fated voyage to Tahiti, where he intended to pick up breadfruit plants to transport to the West Indies in the hopes it would be a cheap and nutritious source of food for slaves. As the well-told story goes, his crew mutinied, dumping him in a 23 foot launch and prompting one of the most remarkable feats of navigation and survival ever, a 3618 nautical-mile journey from the central Pacific to Timor.
Staying on Kadavu, we managed to squeeze in three dives. I was SCUBA certified back in 2008, but have barely had a chance to use it since. Returning to the sport six years later was uncomfortable at first, but once I readjusted to its decidedly unnatural premise and equipment, I became much more relaxed, and remembered what a strange and wondrous joy it can be.
Fiji is the so-called soft-coral capital of the world, and relatively unaffected by coral bleaching. While I have little experience to confirm or deny this boast, I can say the reefs we visited, though seen only on modest dives near the resort, were healthy and spectacular.
A fifteen-minute paddle across the lagoon brought us to an unihabited islet covered in dense brush. Beneath the scrubby, windswept forest that covered the islet grew a surreal carpet of spikey, purple-green houseplants. (I’ve been unable to identify them, though they were common elsewhere along the Kadavu coast as well.)
As elsewhere in the rural Pacific, the presence of Cocos nucifera along the coast indicates the location of a village, either past or present, coconut palms being critical sources of food, water, and building materials across Oceania.
Interestingly, the geographic origins of the coconut palm are hazy. While currently found throughout the world’s tropics, it’s theorized the species probably originated somewhere in the Indian Ocean, its current pantropical distribution being mostly a result of human migration, though likely partly also due to its incredible dispersal ability (think floating coconuts.)
As fun as the ferry was, we were lucky enough to snag a flight back to Suva from Vunisea. The Vunisea airport begins about 20 feet inland from this beach. Pulling the dinghy up on the sand, we waded to shore, pushed through the littoral scrub, and entered the terminal. Things like this are why I love traveling.
We returned to Suva on a Wednesday, five days before our flight home. As is my unfortunate tendency, I took nearly no photos of the city itself. Which is a shame, as it’s a fascinating place, the beating heart of the South Pacific, as it were.
Lying at the crossroads of Melanesia and Polynesia, the city has relatively high standard of living, a functional benign dictatorship, the best university in the region, and the presence of numerous Western governmental agencies. As a result, its cultural influences are numerous, from the Indo-Fijians brought over by the British to work sugar cane plantations, to Solomon Islanders from the remote province of Temotu. There are mosques, Hindu temples, evangelical churches, international schools, shanty settlements, expat apartment complexes, and the best museum this side of Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología. The food is even passable.
Colo-i-Suva lies 9km north of the city, a mix of reclaimed mahogany plantation and remnant old growth. We spent Thursday morning hiking in the park, primarily for the purpose of birding.
Bird nerd digression: Bird photography is beyond the limits of my camera and my skills, which is why birding receives little mention on this primarily image-driven blog, but it’s another fascination of mine. Fiji is a rewarding place to do it. Species numbers are relatively low, as the theory of island biogeography would predict, but endemism — both local and region — is incredibly high.
Kadavu alone has four endemics (the Whistling Dove Ptilinopus layardi, the spectacular Kadavu Shining Parrot Prosopeia kadavensis, the Kadavu Honeyeater Xanthotis provocator, and the Kadavu Fantail Rhipidura personata), all of which I managed to see during our relatively long stint there. Viti Levu has its own raft of endemics, and while having only a single morning to devote to finding them meant I missed plenty of species, even easily-spotted ones, we saw plenty to keep us occupied. Highlights included Masked Shining Parrots (Prosopeia personata), Barking Pigeons (Ducula latrans), Blue-crested Flycatchers (Myiagra azureocapilla), and Fiji Goshawks (Accipiter rufitorques), among others.
Most of my experience with birds has been in New Guinea and Australia, and the taxa present in Fiji are primarily of Australasian derivation, making the broad groups — if not the species themselves — pleasantly familiar to me. (One exception to this rule are the enigmatic Prospeia parrots, believed to have originated in New Zealand.)
Beth’s colleague Pete is heavily involved in the resurrection of traditional sail travel in Oceania. You get the sense it’s an exciting time to be working on it: with an upcoming trip in a traditional voyaging canoe to Sydney in time for a global conference on climate change, and the collaboration of skilled boat-builders from all corners of the Pacific, momentum seems to be building to resurrect this ancient art to a level not seen since the end of the 19th century. (For more information on the movement, the Vaka Tamakau Project is a good place to start. We had the chance to meet crew members Simon Salopuka and Dixon Holland Wia, both from the Solomon Islands, prior to our departure for Kadavu. Good people, who were kind enough to let me practice my Tok Pisin.)
Pete’s work centers around the canoe-builders of the Korova in Suva. Korova is a settlement adjacent to USP consisting of several families from the Lau group in remote eastern Fiji, a region historically renowned for its boat-building. Korova was initally settled by drua, a fantastically fast and agile dual-hulled voyaging canoe that hasn’t been built for the greater part of a century.
These days, the artisans at Korova are hard at work preparing a camakau, or single-hulled outrigger canoe, to be used in training a new generation of Oceanic voyagers. Meanwhile, ambitious plans to complete a new drua simmer.
We spent our final afternoon in Fiji at Korova, drinking kava and eating cassava and coconut bread. Kava, the famous intoxicant of the South Pacific, is prepared from the roots and bark of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. In some regions, such as Vanuatu, it’s incredibly potent; in Fiji, the effects are more muted, and you can drink more of it more often. It remains hugely important for both ceremonial and entertainment purposes, though the taste takes some getting used to, to put it mildly.
It was perhaps as perfect an ending to our time in the archipelago as we could have asked for.
On July 12th, in the Mosquito Range east of Leadville, I won my first race, the Silver Rush 50 miler. To win was both incredibly gratifying, and seemed somewhat beside the point.
Feeling as though I raced to my potential is a marker — however ephemeral — of some success in a sport I’ve put a lot of myself into over the past few years. But like most days that go well, I don’t have much of interest to say: there is little narrative interest to be had in recounting successes. Nonetheless, I’ve been in the South Pacific for the past two weeks, and will soon be subsumed by writing about the South Pacific again, so it’s time to get this one out of my head, per the terms and conditions of any blog with a M/U/T focus.
A brief lead-up: I’ve never really been able to train consistently in the summer, due to the conflict of fieldwork overseas, and so seeing a month and a half of uninterrupted time in Denver, I knew I wanted a target race. I liked Leadville, and Silver Rush 50 fit the bill timing-wise, so I signed up. I ran decent volume and some fast workouts, and knew my lungs could work in the thin air. I tapered a little bit. I camped with Kate near the base of a favorite pass, woke up early, drank coffee, stripped down in the cold of the predawn hours at 10,000’ in the sky.
Following Choulber’s shotgun blast people sprinted up the steeply graded ski hill at the race’s start in vying for LT100 entry tokens. I jogged slowly, and then ran easily to the front of the pack, where I lead the first seven or so miles on jeeptrack through lodgepole pine forest on a clear and beautiful morning. As the course began to climb more in earnest, the sound of a snot-rocket (glamorous business, trail running) alerted me to competition approaching, and then Timmy Parr drew even with me. I had been laboring under the vague idea he was somewhere up ahead, having come to the race considering him the major competition, and so was pleased if unsurprised to see him. I figured he’d be on his way shortly, but tucked in behind him for the remainder of the first climb, a long, straight, low-grade grind to 12,000’, at the base of Mosquito Range 14er Mount Sherman.
We then turned onto a broad dirt road contouring the ridge to our north, and ran fairly hard for several miles back downhill, and to the west the high peaks of the Sawatch emerged from a sea of cloud in a blaze of lucid sunlight, and it was hard not to smile at the wonder of it all. Which is certainly preferable to succumbing to the fear of hard miles and sore quads and failure that always flits about at the edge of your subconscious, early on in these things.
We ran more jeeptrack through lodgepoles, Timmy pointing out mining-related landmarks of historic interest. Timmy is a history teacher at Leadville High, and thus was good company to have on a course that climbed back through the years as it climbed up through the Rockies. We began a second long ascent to another pass above 12,000’, circling Ball Mountain, where the tundra was green and lush with early summer snowmelt. We ran down to the mile-25 turnaround, still matching each other stride for stride, and passing through aid, to the cheers of Kate and Sue, I felt a bubble of confidence slowly rise within me, the faintest hope that perhaps, just perhaps, I was relaxed and fit enough to pull off the win. We mostly hiked back up to the pass, learning en route third place to be some 20-30 minutes back.
We ran some more, chatting now and then, though more often in companionable silence. We passed through two more aid stations, maybe running a bit more slowly now, but still hanging together. And though I was tired and my legs were growing sore the confidence grew, stemming less from any tactical calculation of Timmy’s effort or pace than from feeling there wasn’t much in the world I’d rather be doing, and that this feeling mattered. The protracted and fatiguing climb to the final 12,000’ mark of the day was clearly not the strongest running either of us had done, but as soon as we began the last long descent I noticed something hesitant in Timmy’s step, and in a few minutes I passed him, thinking only to lead for a while, perhaps shake him slightly psychologically. But then, on irrepressible impulse, I began to pick up the pace, and didn’t look back. Feeling I had enough water for the last 7 miles, I blew through the final aid station, and began to really race. Racing, as in to run as hard as you think you can hold for the rest of the course, a touch harder, even, the kind of discomfort bordering on ecstasy you do twenty-mile marathon-pace runs to discover within yourself and be able to summon (on rare occasions) on command.
The road went ever on and on, winding here and there, but all things must come to and end, and so did this. I crossed the line in 7:01:26, in first place, to the relative hoopla of a Leadville Race Series event, feeling gratitude in having had, as they say, my day. It began to rain not long after Timmy arrived about 12 miles later, and I soon left for a burger and a beer at the Dillon Dam. And then, a few days later, I left for Fiji, where I write these words, in a a bizarre coda to this report, from a world away.
What’s next? In September, I’ll be running Pine to Palm 100, my first (official) stab at the distance. Maybe I’ll run well, maybe I won’t. But I’m grateful that I’ll now always have one perfect July day flying through the high mountains of Colorado to look back on, where running, if not quite effortless, richly rewarded my efforts.
And of course, grateful for Kate and Sue’s wonderful support, Timmy’s day-long company, and the Leadville Race Series for a beautiful and smoothly run event.
I went back to Crested Butte and Gothic last weekend for the first time since leaving for good in May. I ran a race, ran for fun, drank some beers.
First, a note on the seasons. During the winter, when I’d see photos of the area taken in summer, they’d seem fake. Too intense were the colors. They were photoshopped, subject to tacky HDR manipulation, I’d think, staring back out the cabin window at the monochrome sweep of snow and dark trees. But now, here in high summer, the dog days, I’m forced to eat my proverbial trucker’s cap. Turns out Crested Butte really is that spectacularly hued. The totality and depth of its greenness in July cannot be exaggerated. The aspens and skunk cabbage in their brief months of growth and glory. Emerald tundra draping itself around the last long fingers of solstice snow. Tourists with marijuana-themed shirts.
Anyway, the race. Friday, July 4th was the 46th annual Gothic to Crested Butte 1/3rd marathon. Clearly, an event with some tradition. The course, a bit under 9 miles, grinds gently uphill for the first 4 miles on dirt road to 9600′ or so, then plummets five hard asphalt miles to town at 8900′. It’s a road race, but a classic, and given the vast number of times I had skied the first half of the route to get to town during the winter, I had to sign up.
We showed up at 2AM that morning and slept out next to the car at the fringe of a crowded campsite north of the town. I netted 3 hours of sleep before waking in a gentle rain to brew coffee and eat a banana. A few hours later, at the wave of a butterfly net, I was running off the starting line (a garden hose, actually) a bit too fast. The altitude hit, I slowed down, and got passed by three runners: two from Western State College in Gunnison, one from Grinnell (working at RMBL for the summer).
This moment in any race is always discouraging, and I’m not very good at seeing any other eventualities beyond the present reality, at least in these short, fast affairs. Fitness seems too fixed, the competition’s stride too fluid, my world too painful and narrow. But because everyone is hurting, more often than not, something gives. On this day I inexplicably began to gain on the second WSCU runner, then passed him on a short hill. As I pulled onto the pavement the Grinnell runner held 2nd place some 30 seconds up, and for the next few miles of hard downhill running he slowly increased that gap. I turned my feet over as quickly as I could, and didn’t look back for fear of the pursuit, but assumed my place was secure in both directions.
Queue the dramatic finish: as the grade lessened a mile from town, I began to gain on him, slowly but surely. With a half mile to go I pulled even and we blazed towards main street. We were both in a lot of pain, and some softer part of my being compelled me to clap him on the shoulder and offer an encouraging word as I began to pass. At which point he kicked hard and crossed the line a second or so ahead. Next time, I’m going to try to be demoralizing.
I ended up running 50:19 for my 3rd place finish, or around 5:45 pace, which I’ll take without complaint.
Third, a run for fun. Sunday, sore but less sore than Saturday, I joined Sean and Peter (who had also raced and finished a strong 4th and 7th, respectively) for a classic bit of Crested Butte mountain running. Leaving from Elk Avenue, we ran up the east ridge of Red Lady (12392′), traversed Scarp Ridge, bombed down to Lake Irwin, and cruised a mix of dirt road, adjacent singletrack, and asphalt back whence we came. Someday, I’ll try and put some words down that do justice to how life-affirming this sort of running is, to try and capture the electric thrill of looking up from filling your bottle with snowmelt rushing through the tundra at the mountains before and behind wearing nothing but shorts and racing flats. Suffice it to say it was a perfect morning. 22 miles and 4600′ was a bit of a stupid move taper-wise, but it toured as spectacular a landscape as I’ve seen in Colorado, and finishing something like that feeling as strong as I did is always a big confidence builder.
More importantly, though, life is short, and you just can’t pass these opportunities up.
Another prosaic skiing post following a long winter of them. Except maybe not so prosaic for its novelty, because it’s mid-June. At any rate, Peter lured me out to Indian Peaks Wilderness against my better, dirt-loving judgement. We ended up climbing Mt. Audubon (13,233′), and skiing its south face via the Crooked Couloir. It’s a fantastic line: 1600′, much of it sustained over 40 degrees, plum-lining but for a slight dogleg towards an alpine lake that even now in the onset of a hot summer was still frozen over and showing only veins of aquamarine on its surface. Firm but edgeable up top, creamy and not too ridged down below. Certainly a pleasing descent.
The rest of the day highlighted the absurdity of ski mountaineering as an end unto itself. We spent nearly 7 hours out to slide down that vein of snow, the vast majority hiking in trail shoes. This included a solid 6 miles of asphalt road in getting to and from the trailhead from the winter closure gate. Why this gate is still closed is a secret known only to the Forest Service — it will probably open tomorrow — but as we failed to bring bikes, the joke is on us.
Certainly the crux of the trip was the usually mellow tundra walk up Mt. Audubon’s east ridge, which became a draining ordeal in constant, 35 mph + winds. Talus-hopping required particular patience, as a poorly timed leap into the ravenous gusts could easily sweep you off the feet. We huddled in the summit’s rock castles for some time, trying to muster enthusiasm for the unseen plunge.
As reported, it turned out great, and we soon were at the shores of Blue Lake, faced with at least six miles of slogging over melting snow and that cursed asphalt back to the car, a slow, relatively low-exertion sort of travel that is nonetheless uniquely exhausting to me. Inevitably, we joked half-seriously about whether it was “worth it.” Perhaps not, but I think the beauty of the sport is how thoroughly it ignores, defies, subverts such valuations. An old axiom in mountaineering (c.f. “Conquistadors of the Useless”), but one that bears repeating, I think.
And once in a while, relearning firsthand.
Looking north to Longs Peak massif and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Peter wishes it weren’t windy.
Blue Lake from the entrance to the couloir. Beginning at a welcoming 35 degrees, it quickly steepens.
Peter, halfway down.
Mt. Toll (12979′)
Crooked Couloir is the obvious top to bottom chute in the center of the frame.
Went to Leadville, read Stegner in my sleeping bag, as you do. I bookended a night under the lodgepoles — droning mosquitoes, skies of impossible clarity — with runs up Mt. Elbert (14,440’) and Hagerman Pass to the Continental Divide (12,100’).
What is it about running at high elevation that is so captivating? Perhaps it is the world reduced to a handful of parameters: breathing, footfall, stark lines and golden light. Simple, symmetrical goals. Struggle and resolution. I’ve lost my acclimation down here in the mile-high, but that’s okay. I can still move pretty quickly in the thin air.
After jogging up and down Elbert, a glissade thrown in for good measure, I soaked in the headwaters of the Arkansas, frigid and raging with snowmelt. That evening I was utterly rejuvenated, a touch of tendonitis I’d been managing all but gone. I set out for an evening shakeout along Turquoise Lake, my legs feeling the best they’d felt all week. The body often defies mechanical logic.
The next morning, Hagerman beckoned, and the long, mellow incline to to the spine of the continent slipped away without much effort. There are still some impressively deep drifts of snow up there: even in a dry subrange of generally dry mountains, I’m always impressed at the vagaries of land and climate in producing these patches of lushness. Back at the car, I basked and ate a banana.
But now I am back in Denver, discontented. I left Leadville midday after hemming and hawing about staying another night, but some sense of obligation and rationality drove me down. I should look after the house while Kate’s away; I should be in the city because it’s less fun and makes me feel more like I have a real job; it’s in the name of injury prevention. Reasons that got me on I-70, but were immediately regretted when I hit the Front Range. When I’m feeling charitable, Denver has its perks but can be a hard place to live. When I’m feeling uncharitable, this town sucks.
There are good reasons I’m here, but busyness and the need to be productive isn’t one of them, as my job is based elsewhere and mostly remote — should I have needed to call in, City on a Hill would have been fine. I am not a more moral creature for coming down early. Probably the opposite.
The May 12th issue of the New Yorker (available here from the E.O. Wilson Foundation) features an article by D.T. Max, profiling The Nature Conservancy (TNC) CEO Mark Tercek, and more broadly detailing a rift in the conservation community that has arisen over the past decade or so. The rift, between so-called “new” and “old” schools of conservation thought, is of great interest to me, both in its intellectual and personal implications.
Briefly put, the rift has arisen between two ideological strains within the greater movement. On the one hand, “new” conservation (best embodied by Tercek, TNC Chief Scientist Peter Karieva, Stuart Brand) moves away from traditional modes of land protection to emphasize “sustainability”, less strident rhetoric and inclusivity (particularly courting urban populations), climate change, and works to create partnerships in the corporate world (this is a particular focus of the Max article). On the other hand, “old” conservation (best embodied by Michael Soulé, Dave Foreman, E.O. Wilson, Reed Noss) puts primacy on biodiversity, and the permanent protection of land parcels selected for their biodiversity value — national parks, wilderness areas, refuges.
Despite these ostensibly aligned goals — and let me emphasize off the bat these goals are all good things, in theory — debate between these factions has proved acrimonious. “Old” conservationists accuse “new” conservationists of being conciliatory, of supporting a water-down, domesticated version of nature, wherein (to quote Michael Soulé) “wild places and national parks [are replaced] with domesticated landscapes containing only nonthreatening, convenient plants and animals.” “New” conservationists in turn accuse the old guard of being unrealistic, unpragmatic, misanthropic, perhaps racist.
There is, of course, truth to some of these claims. We need novel solutions. Historically, nature preserves (notably in Africa) have been created with utter disregard for indigenous inhabitants. The old guard of conservation, mostly pioneers from the emergence of conservation biology as a science in the 1980s, are a uniformly white, over-educated, privileged lot (Soulé, Noss, Wilson). But then again, so are Tercek and his ilk, so I’m not sure this criticism carries much weight, at least as a reason to choose one camp over the other.
So goes the synopsis. But why is this relevant to me and this blog? Because I am at once a member of the generation that has come to understand environmentalism almost solely in terms of “new” conservation as an ideology (the urban-chicken, web-activist, composting set) and yet grew up ensconced in “old” conservation culture, courtesy of my parents’ professions. And ultimately, it is the latter set of values, not the former, where my sympathies lie.
I read Peter Karieva and Michelle Marvier’s (notable nü-conservationists) textbook on ‘Conservation Science’ during a seminar class in 2012. My dislike of it was immediate. From its cover (featuring a monoculture — a rice paddy) to its passive-agressive jabs at conservation biologists (not a holistic enough field, apparently, for the authors), the book grated. Moreso did an infamous article by the same authors entitled Conservation in the Anthropocene. To quote one of its defining passages: “…instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.”
In other words, conservation should be guided by our own self-interest. In my mind, nü-conservation as a package reeks of intellectual and moral laziness: we are nature, ergo everything we do helps nature, ergo there is no need to modify our behavior. (Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity posts a great rebuttal here.) But more important to picking a side than simply disliking this approach, I feel a strong allegiance to the word view and values of the old guard. Values that are distinctly lacking in environmentalism’s post-modern iteration. To again quote Michael Soulé, from the Max article: “It’s emotional…I don’t mind admitting that I’ve just always been in love with wild nature.”
This is the reason I wanted to become a biologist as a grade schooler, why I’ve signed off the next 5 years of my life chasing a Ph.D., probably even the reason I run too much. But I sense little room in the self-professedly “inclusive” tent of nü-conservation for non-anthropocentric world views, and little to inspire the requisite passion for conservation in a movement to protect convenient species in domesticated landscapes while dismissing conservation of our relictual wildlands as “misanthropic.”
All of which may come of as an arcane, academic, inconsequential debate. But it matters to me, and if it matters to you, too, I’d like to hear from you.
The results of illegal logging operations in the Bewani foothills await export in Vanimo, Papua New Guinea. It’s a sad cliché, but we’re losing species before we even know they exist.
It almost never happens, though. And slowly, I’m starting to see that as a good thing. I’ll always be tangled up in the places I’ve lived or stayed. Too many messy endings. But those same loose ends will hopefully drag me back someday, or at least maintain a stronger connection in memory than something that provided more closure.
Last Thursday, the county plowed the road into Gothic, and then the following day opened it for public traffic. I spent one last weekend at my cabin, no longer snowbound or alone, surrounded strange things like other people and laughter and headlights and wildflowers, before loading my life into my car and driving down to Denver.
Patrick and Taylor, one month in to a summer road trip odyssey, joined me for my final days.
We skied up Copper Creek with the intention of climbing White Rock Mountain, but spooky snow and bad navigation foiled our efforts. Not that I had much to complain about.
Mt. Whetstone (12,527′) is the first major peak you see driving into Crested Butte. It’s a beautiful, imposing mountain, the sort you immediately want to trace lines on, but access is tricky due to an encircling belt of private property. Given this, and its distance from Gothic, I didn’t expect to get the chance to ski it this winter. Which is why when I met Sean during Saturday’s race and he suggested we ski something on Sunday, I mentioned it, and found myself hiking out of Gothic at 5AM on fried legs wondering what the hell I was doing.
We started in Crested Butte, climbed over the insanely steep and forested ridge that backs the town to the south, lost a depressing amount of elevation and switched to hiking to get to the mountain’s base. From there, we skinned and booted almost 3K to the summit. Confession: I really enjoy hiking in ski boots for some reason (it’s situational, not ergonomic). I got to do plenty of it.
Looking northeast, with Mt. Crested Butte visible across the valley, Gothic and Snodgrass on the far left, and most of the Elk Range in the distance.
Our line of descent doglegged left into the mountain’s east-facing bowl, then followed the avalanche path in the trees below to a somewhat spicy exit gully full of rotten snow.
Whetstone’s south ridge, with myriad wet slides. Temperatures were in the 60s most of the weekend.
Carbon Peak (12,079′).
Despite worrying about summiting too late in the morning during our endless approach, we ended up timing our descent perfectly on soft but supportive corn. Sean shreds. Since he’s a splitboarder, I think I can use that word with a straight face.
After the snow ran out, we ‘schwacked out to a Forest Service road that eventually brought us back to 135, where Sean’s girlfriend obligingly picked us up. Thanks Kylee!
My GPS eventually died, but the point to point route ended up being something on the order of 8 miles and 4500′ of gain, which undersells the difficulty of the terrain, at least in late spring conditions. I ended the weekend feeling thoroughly worked but gratified by my labors. The juxtaposition of snowy alpine above and budding willows and aspens below — from cornices to butterflies — was certainly a treat. .
How does skiing fitness translate to running? That was the question of the hour at the 2014 Sageburner 25K at Hartman Rocks just outside of Gunnison, Colorado. Other than the odd jog when down in Denver, I had mostly stopped running after becoming snowed in last November. At the start of April, with (infrequent spells) of warmer weather hinting at a still-hypothetical but approaching summer, I started to make the trip down to Gunnison or Crested Butte to rehabilitate my legs to repetitive impact. After a month and a half, I had logged a few long runs in Boulder, a handful of decent track workouts, and a 15 mile tempo run in 1:39. Some quality, but not much in the way of volume, rarely getting out to run more than two or three times a week. I did, however, continue to ski plenty.
And the skiing seemed to help, to a point. I struggled tackling uphills with any measure of speed, and felt the miles in my legs much earlier than I would have liked, but overall leg strength let me hang on once my shallow running base failed me. I ran in 6th for the first third of the race, before slipping past Bobby Reyes on one of the more technical descents and moving in behind Timmy Parr before he decided to get down to business and jump into second place ahead of Sean and a Western State cross country runner. The WSCU runner eventually blew up, and I had a nice time chatting with Sean before I pulled into 3rd on an extended downhill, a position I held for the rest of the race, with a brief scare around mile 12 when Bobby pulled back into my peripheral vision and goaded me into picking up the pace. I hammered the final descent down from Hartman’s slickrock spine and crossed the line in 2:02:30. Slower than I was hoping, but the race ended up being close to a mile long, so I’ll take it.
The course itself is a deceptively challenging bit of running, but beautiful.The trails at Hartman Rocks were designed with mountain bikes in mind, alternatively technical or buffed, rock or sandy, and constantly rolling. Bobby described it a bit like running fartleks: you’re either hitting 12 minute pace uphill or 5 minute pace downhill, and never get the chance to fall into a groove. You’re also always between 7800′ and 8400′ elevation. But spring in sagebrush country is lovely, pale green affair, and you get to soak it in for 25K, winding in and out of little washes, around rocky outcroppings, and through the odd grove of marooned aspens. Certainly a race worthy of your consideration.
Picea englemannii up close and personal. A large number of individuals around Gothic show red-orange bark (versus a more typical gray). I like these trees.
The Camel’s Humps are locally prominent twin peaks in the Copper Creek drainage, visible from much of Crested Butte. Besides holding their own on the horizon and sharing a name with my favorite mountain, they manage to earn 13er status by 40-odd feet, the closest summits to Gothic to do so. With winter hanging on like a lamprey (22 inches of snow in 24 hours from Sunday to Monday, 12 degrees this morning, no imminent respite forecasted), it seemed time to tick ‘em. Two and a half hours of alternating skinning and booting brought me to their apogee, having climbed the final pitch in the footsteps of a mountain goat. Where it was going, I’m not sure, but it showed an uncanny ability to find firm purchase among the deeper drifts and loose stones of the peak.
The Camel’s Humps are the twin peaks to the right of the frame. Photographed in drier conditions a few weeks ago. I skied from the rightmost summit, sticking to climber’s left of the exposed scree ridge.
Looking to the southwest from the the summit. The craggy ridge in the center of the frame terminates in Avery Peak’s diamond slab. Gothic and Snodgrass are visible in the middle distance, with glimpses of Mounts Axtell, Emmons (Red Lady), and Owens left to right in the background.
Looking east at White Rock Mountain (13,540′, right) and its smaller sibling the White Widow (left).
Unfortunately, the morning never really warmed up as predicted, instead clouding over and bringing unwelcome snow squalls. I ended up descending on a hard crust, with here and there a skim of powder. I’ve done a bunch of skiing on relatively steep, hard, consistent snow lately, and have managed to refine my technique to the point where it’s fairly comfortable and I don’t skid out too much (doing so on light skis and tech bindings replicates the sensation of having your legs hammered repeatedly with a baseball bat). The “loud powder” (as Patrick calls it) can be its own sort of fun. Stem christies help.
Someday I’ll ski with other people again and they can take photos of me.
The ominous devil goat from an earlier tour remains. Watching. Ever vigilant.