Posts Tagged ‘environment’

The Dwarf Cypress Stand at Tate’s Hell

By Ric Sitler
Over the years, probably a half-a-dozen people have told me to go there, so visiting hell in the Florida panhandle –Tate’s Hell State Forrest that is – was an obvious and overdue choice. Five or six arrow-straight dirt trails dissect this coastal swampland creating a large grid pattern. And some of these routes even have names like Dry Bridge and John Allen, the two roads I hoped would lead to my goal, which according to the sign was straight ahead.

These dwarf trees - some only six feet high - are the main visitor attraction in this part of Tate’s Hell.

Unlike legendary farmer Cebe Tate, I had the comfort of my RV, something in the cooler to drink, and a map of this foreboding terrain bordered to the south by State Highway 98. It was improbable that like ole’ Cebe I’d be lost here for weeks only to eventually exit the swamp screaming my name and proclaiming, “I just came from Hell.”

The brochure claimed this was the only remaining stand of Bonsai or Hat-Rack Cypress trees, which isn’t exactly so. Other mini-cypress samples can be found in the Everglades and many parts of the Big Cypress National Preserve, but these dwarf trees—some only six feet high—are the main visitor attraction in this part of Tate’s Hell.
The strange thing is that these trees, some which are 300 years old, are no different genetically from normal full-size cypress trees. Their seeds appear to be the same and when planted in other areas grow to typical full-size trees. Why they flourish as a dwarf species here remains something of a mystery, but it appears to be a combination of soil, nutrients, year-round flooding and a clay-bedrock foundation.
Since 1999 a cooperative project involving various state and federal agencies has been underway to restore the natural hydrology of the area and improve growing conditions for swamp grasses and preserve the small trees.
As desolate and remote as Tate’s Hell is – more than 202,000 acres  – a handicap access boardwalk provides an excellent treetop view of the swampy miniature tree stand. There’s parking for five or six vehicles, no porta-potties or picnic shelters or water, but hey, this ain’t Disney World. An easy 100-yard stroll takes you to the boardwalk for a panoramic view of the little trees, assorted birds, wildlife and grass-filled brown tea waters. The cypress tree tops below the boardwalk look fuzzy, kind of like a well worn green and gray wool blanket, their twisted trunks submerged in the dark swamp water. If you’re patient…and quiet…you’ll most likely see turtles, a snake or two and an amazing variety of birds.
When you return to the parking area, you may spot the site’s one amenity, one forlorn charcoal grill. No tables or benches, just one unipod grill stuck in the ground. Unless you’re absolutely compelled to roast a hotdog here, a better option is get out of Hell and drive into nearby Carrabelle where you can order the fresh catch of the day at Old Salt’s Café & Oyster House just down the street from another mini-attraction, The World’s Smallest Police Station.
Freelance writer Ric Sitler is a retired military public affairs specialist and former ad agency writer with an interest in “practically everything except sushi.” His diverse writing and photo credits include Musician, Stars and Stripes, and Old Cars Weekly.



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Guarding the Loggerheads

by Emily Young

Sea turtles cry when they lay their eggs. Biologists say it’s their way of shedding excess salt, but Jim Wilson, Fort De Soto Park supervisor and sea turtle steward, thinks it’s something more. “I’m sure turtles have feelings,” he says.

If Jim is right, then a loggerhead hatchling trapped in Nest 30 must be feeling pretty lonely. Her 71 siblings left her behind when they burst from their nest and headed for the sea. With a crumpled right flipper, the tiny hatchling couldn’t follow. She huddles underneath the sand amid a pile of empty eggshells and waits.

“Turtles have a built-in GPS,” says Fort De Soto Park ranger Jim Wilson. “Like salmon, turtles return to the place where they were born to lay their eggs."

That’s where park rangers come in. Jim Wilson tries to let the loggerhead nests on Fort De Soto beaches hatch naturally, but he can’t help worrying about them. A loggerhead hatchling is shorter than an average kitchen toothpick. They weigh 0.7 ounces. Storms drown them. Fire ants eat them. Ghost crabs attack them as they race across the beach to the ocean. As Jim often remarks, hatchlings are at the bottom of the food chain. He monitors the nests like a protective father, digs out the stragglers, and helps gimpy hatchlings stretch out their flippers. Once the hatchlings leave Fort De Soto, they’re on their own; but as long as they remain on the beach, they’re under his careful supervision.

Today, Jim’s mission is to perform a recovery on Nest 30, which means gathering data on the number of successful hatchings and searching for any stragglers. When most people are just waking up, he’s already busy inspecting sea turtle nests. Shortly after dawn on September 8, 2009, I meet him outside park headquarters.

“Good morning!” Jim sings out. His white hair and beard stand out against his suntanned skin. Dressed in his uniform – khaki shirt, gray shorts and a gold badge – the ranger looks wide awake.

A hatchling is waiting for him.

Jim motions me toward a white truck. “Hop in!” He rolls down the windows and a fresh sea breeze wafts in. Over the water, the clouds are lavender with pink smudges underneath. As we drive along deserted beaches, Jim stares at the thin blue lines of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in the distance. He says he feels sorry for people who cross the bridge on their way to desk jobs.

Some people wouldn’t like getting up at 5 a.m., but Jim likes to check the turtle nests for activity before any visitors appear at the park. We pass a woman walking her black lab near the picnic area. She and her dog come to Fort De Soto early every morning. “Lucky dog,” Jim says.

Over 1,000 loggerheads hatched on Fort De Soto’s beaches last year. Rangers recovered another 18 from their nests. One was the tiny hatchling Jim rescued.

On the channel side of the beach, Jim stops the truck for his first nest check of the day. He walks over to a mound of sand, which looks like a small dune. A yellow sign warns visitors not to disturb Nest 38. Bending over, Jim sticks his fingers in the sand to see if it’s soft. He points out the concave area, which he says means “activity.” In other words, some little sea turtles are getting impatient inside their nest. Who wouldn’t feel cooped up after spending almost two months underground?

Turtles are buried alive.

It takes a team effort to dig out. Cracking his shell open with his egg tooth, the first hatchling snacks on the yoke, gathers strength, and waits for his siblings to hatch. Once most of the group hatches, it’s time to climb.

The scrambling hatchlings kick sand into the bottom of their nest, raising the level bit by bit and creating a kind of turtle lift to the top. They wait near the surface until the sand temperature drops after dusk, then pop from the nest and race to the ocean. Strength lies in numbers. If a straggler is left behind, he won’t be able to climb out alone.

For now, Jim is satisfied with Nest 38. On the way back to the truck, he walks past a ghost crab hole and shouts, “Stay down there!”

Ghost crabs are pale: the kind of pale that looks as if it would rub off like too much white powder. At night, they drag baby loggerheads into their holes and eat them for dinner. The next morning, trails in the sand whisper how the hatchling was taken. The ghost crabs’ scuttling sideways gait makes them look even guiltier.

Until they hatch, the eggs inside Nest 38 are relatively safe from predators. When rangers first discover a nest, they put wire mesh over it to keep out raccoons and coyotes. They record the coordinates and landmarks on a nesting form. Three days after the nest is emptied, they perform a “biological evaluation,” or “recovery.”

Nest 30 is scheduled for recovery today, but Jim can’t find it.

By October, Fort De Soto’s sea turtle season is over, and so is Jim’s role as turtle steward. Next May, the process will start all over again.

He gets out of the truck and searches for it along the beach. Instead of Nest 30, he finds a half-filled water balloon in the scrub. “A balloon!” he says, throwing it in his truck. “They’re really bad. You know what these are mistaken for in the water? Jellyfish.”

As we walk along the shore, Jim describes a juvenile loggerhead’s life in the ocean. In summer and early fall, the Gulf Stream carries floating sargassum weed close to Fort De Soto’s beaches. After hatchlings race into the ocean, they swim 15-20 miles until they reach the sargassum. “That’s their life blood for a while,” Jim explains. The hatchlings cling to the golden algae, eating bugs, worms, snails and barnacles snagged in the weeds. Their camouflaged upper shells, or carapaces, match the green and yellow hues of the sargassum. Safe in their drifting habitat, the turtles spend their early years riding ocean currents around the world. But sometimes a jellyfish or a balloon tempts them to leave their home. “One of these little babies floats by” – Jim indicates the balloon – “and one of the turtles might peel off o’ the grass to get it, and get picked off by a dolphin or a cobia.”

Once the shells of juvenile loggerheads grow to the size of dinner plates, they leave the open ocean to forage in shallower coastal waters. Their size makes them less likely to become lunch. But man-made dangers still claim their lives.

Two years ago, a fisherman on Fort De Soto’s Gulf Pier called Jim for help. He had hooked a sea turtle and cut her loose. It was bad timing. A lightning storm raged over the Gulf of Mexico.

Jim found the turtle struggling in the ocean just off the beach. A stainless steel cable with multiple hooks was wrapped around her body, pinning three flippers. One hook pierced her mouth and another punctured a rear flipper. She fought to keep her head above the choppy waves as lightning flickered across the sky. Rain pummeled the sand. “The lightning was the stuff that was scaring me. It was popping all around us,” Jim says.

When the tide swept her onshore, he set to work. He pushed the first hook through her mouth and cut off the barb, freeing her body from the cable. She raced back to the ocean, pulling Jim along for what he calls a “turtle ride.” Loggerheads can swim up to 15 mph. Jim had just a few seconds to cut the cable and let her go. The remaining hook would rust out of her flipper. Unlike many loggerheads, this one survived her encounter with a fishing line.

Jim doesn’t often get the chance to rescue adult sea turtles. Rescuing trapped hatchlings is another matter. This year, he and the other rangers will search for them in all 38 loggerhead nests at Fort De Soto. Usually it isn’t in the middle of a lightning storm, which makes the process easier.

When rangers first discover a nest, they put wire mesh over it to keep out raccoons and coyotes. They record the coordinates and landmarks on a nesting form. Three days after the nest is emptied, they perform a “biological evaluation,” or “recovery.”

But today there seems to be a problem. Jim calls another ranger for back-up.

They get out their tools: a yellow shovel, a hand-held GPS and a Garrett Crossfire metal detector. “Welcome to the wonderful world of turtling,” Jim says. Shovel in hand, he stares at the nesting form like it’s a treasure map and paces back and forth. He gently plunges the shovel into the sand as he walks: scrape, scrape, scrape.

According to the nesting form, Nest 30 is near an osprey pole. There are lots of osprey poles at Fort De Soto. We drive to another beach.

On the way, a Laughing Gull tries to fly across the road, his wing flapping uselessly. Jim gets out of the truck. “Hey buddy, what’s going on with you?” he asks the gull. He catches the bird, deftly.

The gull is quiet as Jim puts him in a cage in the back of the truck. Later he’ll be taken to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. “It’s not just turtling,” Jim says. Saving the birds is just as important as the turtles.

On the bayside of the beach, the rangers finally locate Nest 30 and Jim begins the recovery. He wears blue gloves to protect his hands because he doesn’t want to smell like turtle eggs all day.

He scoops out handfuls of sand until he finds the first egg, which looks like a small white ball. It didn’t hatch. The next egg is in pieces, which means its hatchling is now somewhere in the ocean. Jim looks pleased. His face is bright red from the heat, and beads of sweat glitter on his forehead and neck. Just over his shoulder, the bare branches of a dead Australian pine don’t provide any shade.

He piles the round eggs up like golf balls. The smell is bothering him.

What causes it?

“Rotten eggs.”

But Jim’s next discovery makes us forget the smell.

He pulls out another handful of eggs. A live hatchling wriggles among the broken shells. “We’ve got a turtle!” Jim announces. Her short flippers squirm furiously. Sand coats her dark carapace and she squints against the sunlight.

A loggerhead hatchling is shorter than an average kitchen toothpick. They weigh 0.7 ounces. Storms drown them. Fire ants eat them. Ghost crabs attack them as they race across the beach to the ocean.

When I hold her up, she flaps her front flippers as if trying to swim through the air. “She’s been trapped for a while. She’s ready to go,” Jim says.

Nobody knows if the hatchling is a girl or a boy. Warm sand makes girls. Cooler sand makes boys. In-between temperatures yield a mixture. But Jim doesn’t know how hot or cold the sand was when this hatchling grew inside her egg.

For now, Jim decides she’s a girl.

Her right flipper is crumpled – Jim says it has a “giddy-up” in it. He puts her in a sand-filled bucket to stretch. She crawls in circles, her flippers scraping the edges of the container. “That’s the sound we like to hear,” Jim says, happy to have found an energetic hatchling.

The rangers record the nest productivity on the form: 71 hatched eggs, 42 infertile and 7 discernable embryos. One live turtle.

Back at headquarters, Jim places her in a larger bucket and sets a cardboard box on top. She has a long journey ahead, and he wants her to rest before he releases her tonight.

A hatchling’s chance of survival is 1 in 2500. With Jim nearby, this hatchling won’t need to worry about ghost crabs or gulls as she crosses the beach. But the sea has its own set of hazards. “Hatchlings are at the bottom of the food chain,” Jim reminds me, in case we see a large fish snatch her from the ocean as he releases her.

At 7 p.m., the darkening sky is streaked with pink and yellow stripes. Jim takes the hatchling out of her bucket and places her on the soft sand, hoping she’ll scurry into the ocean. She doesn’t budge. After a while, she stretches her long neck forward as if smelling the water. Jim is encouraged. “That’s right! Big strong girl!” he says. He moves her onto the hard-packed sand near the water’s edge.

At 7 p.m., the darkening sky is streaked with pink and yellow stripes

She lets the wave wash carry her in to shore, out to sea, in to shore. Jim hovers over her like a father watching his daughter take her first steps. “Come on baby girl,” he coaxes. Finally, a wave drags her into deeper water and she falls to the bottom. Jim yanks off his shoes and socks and wades in. He puts his hand under her and helps her take a breath. After all, he just rescued her from starving. He’s not about to watch her drown.

He takes his hand away. The hatchling flaps her flippers and propels herself to the surface. In the clear water, it looks like she’s flying. Her head pops up. Her tiny mouth opens. Bubbles rise as she gulps in a breath of air.

She is exhausted from the effort. Jim fishes her out of the water and points out her carapace. The sand has washed away, revealing the green and yellow shell underneath.

She is dressed for sargassum grass.

But the hatchling isn’t ready for her grassy home yet. Jim takes her back to headquarters so she can rest before beginning the 20-mile swim to the sargassum weed. If she is too weak to swim away, she may live the rest of her life in captivity at the Clearwater Marine Science Center.

Three hours later, at 10 p.m., Jim gives the hatchling one more chance. He covers his flashlight with a red lens, knowing sea turtles can’t see red, so she won’t be distracted by the artificial light. She needs to navigate by the light of the moon. This time, the hatchling crawls to the water’s edge and hesitates for a second before scurrying into the ocean. An outgoing tide sweeps her away. Twenty meters out, she surfaces to take a breath, a speck in the middle of the ocean. Jim watches her come up once more before she vanishes underwater.

The rest of the journey is up to her.

By October, Fort De Soto’s sea turtle season is over, and so is Jim’s role as turtle steward. Next May, the process will start all over again. “He’s a true steward of the environment,” says Terry Tomalin, the St. Petersburg Times Outdoors and Fitness Editor. “Having someone at Fort De Soto who truly cares and has a personal stake in the turtle population probably makes a difference in the percentage of turtles who hatch and make it to the sea.”

Over 1,000 loggerheads hatched on Fort De Soto’s beaches last year. Rangers recovered another 18 from their nests. One was the tiny hatchling Jim rescued. If she survives to adulthood, Fort De Soto will see her again in 15 to 30 years. “Turtles have a built-in GPS,” Jim says. “Like salmon, turtles return to the place where they were born to lay their eggs.” Thirty years from now, Fort De Soto’s beaches won’t be cluttered with condos. Hatchlings who return as adults will see the same stretch of beach they left as babies.

A ranger will be waiting to watch over their eggs.

Emily Young is a freelancer who enjoys writing anything – whether features or fiction – if it makes for a good story. She has lived on Florida’s Gulf Coast her entire life and has never seen snow. She is currently completing an undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida. For a glimpse into Emily’s world, visit her blog, The Essential Emily.

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Unspoiled. Writers Speak for Florida’s Coast  is a new anthology that reminds Floridians why our state needs to retain its ban on offshore drilling: to protect our environmental and economic interests.

Unspoiled.,  spawned before the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, compiles 38 essays by writers, scientists and students, including paddleandpath.com’s Edward C. Woodward, who describes a day with his daughter revisiting an AmeriCorps beach nourishment project.

You can learn more about the anthology’s origin in an interview with co-editor Susan Cerulean. Proceeds benefit the Red Hills Writers Project.

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Be a river deFENDER. Pick up and paddle.

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DSC04349How to Fill a Tin Canoe: pick up and paddle.

“… all this abstract fooling around we do now just ain’t satisfactory. That’s why people act so silly. If there is no point to what you do, you might as well become a consumer.”

– Robb White, author of How to Build a Tin Canoe

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The Beaten Path

By Grant Donaldson

Author’s note: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana is not a high value tourist attraction because it is overshadowed by Yellowstone National Park next door, but its beauty and majesty rival that of even Glacier National Park. It is considered a private treasure by many Montanans.

I was standing outside my snug cottage on the banks of East Rosebud Creek in south-central Montana watching a storm front roll off the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range 15 miles to the southwest. Thirty minutes later the cauldron enveloped my little valley. The temperature dropped 30 degrees. Snow and rain reduced visibility to zero and the downdraft of wind off the mountains exceeded 100 miles per hour, leveling evergreen trees in neat rows.

I retreated to the security of my sturdy cottage and experienced another typical late-September Montana snowstorm.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

The battering of the wind on the windows reminded me of another experience on the top of that same mountain range a few years earlier in which the only protection between nature’s wrath and myself was a thin layer of nylon tent fabric. I was hiking with my co-worker and friend Rod Plowman and we had stood at the base of the Clarks Fork Trailhead  near Cooke City off Highway 212 in our hiking shorts, boots and backpacks, ready to embark on a six-day hike across the largest plateau above 10,000 feet in the lower forty-eight states.

We were most concerned with grizzly bears and had our bear spray canisters in our hands and revolvers strapped to our thighs as we stepped into the silent forest. But we would soon realize that bears were the least of our challenges. The standard backcountry joke is that the spray is for the bears; the revolver is to be used on you if the spray fails.

We’re Florida boys, unaccustomed to the steep grades of the mountain west and we were determined not to be one-upped by Montana locals who glided up and down the grades with the ease of mountain goats. For weeks we had both trained in our own way to get fit. The workouts would prove beneficial but hardly sufficient for the abuse our bodies were about to endure.

One day after work I had spied Rod striding down Tampa’s yuppie promenade of jogging political correctness (Bayshore Boulevard) clad in hiking boots, shorts, and a backpack full of bricks. He was oblivious to the multicolored, Lycra-clad joggers streaming past him.

I had spent my training time on the steep stairs of Plant Hall, a historic landmark on the campus of The University of Tampa. We were both confident of our lower body strength as we started up the gradual grade ascending the Plateau. And we were comforted somewhat by the trail description of the Beaten Path: “long and strenuous, but not technically difficult or dangerous.”

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Rather than doing the sensible thing and hiring a guide, we had stubbornly decided to navigate with a “topo” map, compass and a few pages of the hike description from the Falcon Guide series. The ubiquitous Falcon series covers almost every trail in the West with accurate descriptions from author Bill Schneider who seems to have personally hiked most of them during a long career.

I had toured the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness by car via Highway 212 a few years earlier and I was vaguely familiar with some of the trails that laced the plateau. I offered Rod two options. We could drive from Red Lodge, MT to the top of the range in Wyoming and take a series of trails that would lead us back to the car, or we could take the Beaten Path that would terminate on the northwest side of the range at East Rosebud Lake  in Montana where we would be more than 100 miles from the car with no way back.

With a predictable indifferent shrug Rod picked the Beaten Path route that would take us over 26 miles of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the lower U.S., featuring remnants of ice age glaciers, hundreds of fish-filled alpine lakes, unnamed waterfalls and the state’s highest mountain at more than 12,799 feet, Granite Peak.

We were both tired of Tampa’s horizontal glut of traffic, general congestion, heat and job stress and we longed to withdraw, if just briefly, to a few days of basic essentials like sleeping, eating, and walking in the company of our friend Jack Daniel’s.

Bourbon was our weightiest commodity but we were willing to bear the extra poundage in our backpacks.

Long distance trekking is all about the weight you carry. Unlike many specialties that produce useless products, the backpacking industry has miniaturized almost everything. High tensile tents that protect you in a gale have been reduced to three or four pounds. Tiny gas-powered MSR cook stoves weigh just ounces and will cook food for several people. A folding saw is essential. Sleeping bags must be light but warm at zero or below. A lightweight water filtration pump is a must to protect you from Giardia lamblia that has infested even the alpine water sources thanks to the introduction of livestock grazing.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

A tube of toothpaste can feel like five pounds by the second day. Two pair of shoes: one to wear and one to dry. Jeans are heavy and don’t dry easily. “Cotton kills,” goes the saying. And it’s true in more ways than one. Lightweight, lined polyester and nylon shells dry fast and protect against the cold. A roll of toilet paper ranks up there with bourbon, and the carrier of this commodity is given special deference.

Even with careful planning, we were never able to get our packs below about 60-70 pounds and we’ve suffered the consequences many times at 10,000 feet in thin air with our legs burning and lungs screeching.

As we made camp in a box canyon about 1,000 feet below the plateau rim that night, we got our first taste of changeable Montana weather. Within minutes the sun blotted out, temperatures dropped, a mixture of rain and snow descended. The thunder was like the constant roar of a stream in snowmelt, amplified as it rolled around the walls of the small canyon. The savagery of it made you feel naked in your flimsy tent. Whole trees were blown off the sides of the cliffs and came crashing down. The next day we would be exposed to the full force of the summer weather on the open plateau.

The following morning we saw splinters of trees and entire trunks on the ground, but no fire.

As we broke camp we stumbled over the putrid carcass of a winter-killed moose not 20 yards away and out came the bear spray again.

Ahead of us was a steep 1,000-foot climb of switchbacks to the undulating plateau above the timberline. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness alone is 943,377 acres, but it is contiguous to the Yellowstone and Wind River ranges that stretch 100 miles to South Pass, WY, that comprise more than 5-million acres of wilderness. The Beartooth Wilderness is so large it creates its own weather. In summer, the high plains can be baking under searing-dry heat for 100 miles in any direction and snow and rainstorms will be raging in the Beartooth with temperatures in the 20s and 30s.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

It is one of the world’s largest hydrological machines, spewing water out through nine major drainages to the thirsty desert year round.

After we topped the rim of the plateau on the second day the going was easier. Lichen covered rocks and fields of wild flowers poked through the snow patches and a relatively gentle 20-knot breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay unless you stopped in the lee of a scrubby tree. The mountain mosquitoes are gentle compared to Florida’s saltwater variety that provoke instant flailing. These cold weather cousins just sit there and drink until you run your hand over them. Their bite is hardly worth noting.

The literature says the Beaten Path and its network of trails can swallow a thousand hikers. We saw only three or four parties in our six-day crossing and all but one party were day hikers at either end of the trail.

We were grateful for the one party that had preceded us because they broke trail through a two-mile field of knee-deep snow along the edge of Fossil Lake, the highest elevation of our trek. Even at 10,000 feet, the peaks still towered above us. One end of Fossil Lake flows into the Rosebud drainage of Montana. The other end connects to a lake chain that feeds the spectacular Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone that flows east onto the Great Plains of Wyoming and north into the Yellowstone River of Montana.

We set up camp on a dry spot beside Fossil Lake the second night in anticipation of a trail dinner consisting of a brimming pot of macaroni and cheese sauce, topped off with candy bars and hot coffee with a splash or two or more of Jack Daniel’s. Freeze-dried soups, pasta, rice and other condensed foods sound ghastly back in urban society but they are epicurean delights when your life has been reduced to the essentials of food and shelter.

The Montana night sky at 10,000 feet glows with luminescence that appears to be obscured by dust clouds until you realize the clouds are actually shoals of stars and galaxies whirling through space. The magnitude of it humbles the soul and reminds you of your insignificance.

I crawled from my tent the next morning to see a plume of black smoke rising into the clear, still Montana sky. The source of the plume was our campfire as Rod incinerated a pair of heavy black boots he had been lugging for three days. The scene would have driven a Sierra Club member into seizures but Rod had carefully weighed the amount of the environmental damage against the strain on his back and arrived at a logical conclusion. He was pleased with himself.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Most afternoons we were chased by sudden soaking rain and snow flurries, high winds and swollen streams. We learned that Gortex-lined waterproofed boots are of little value if the stream depths exceed the height of the boot. So we sloshed along, absorbed in the knowledge that we were seeing pristine country as it was when Lewis & Clark came through in 1803.

We had saved the best for last, which is why we had started at the Cooke City end of the trail. As we tipped over the northwestern side of the plateau at the Fossil Lake outlet we descended through a nine-mile canyon of thunderous waterfalls, each one spectacular in its own way. And each one, had it been located back east, or nearer civilization, would be a major tourist attraction.

We camped amidst the roar, tried to dry our boots and finished off the last of the Jack. “No Trace” camping is the rule out West, a concept that seems to have escaped the Eastern hiking mentality. During six days along the trail we had picked up a single crushed beer can that had perhaps fallen out of a saddlebag.

The trail terminated at a deserted campground and a community of cabins built around deep, clear East Rosebud Lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we were still 20 miles from the nearest paved road. There was one occupant in the state campground. But he was packing up and offered to drop us at the small community of Roscoe, home to the famous Grizzly Bar and its platter-sized steaks, gigantic hamburgers and inexhaustible quantities of beer.

Satiated with the glories of red meat and beverage, we stumbled down to Highway 78 with our gear, which was now becoming burdensome. An early model Ford LTD the size of a yacht cruised by in the opposite direction, turned and stopped next to us. It was driven by a mid-fortyish piano teacher on her way to a lesson but she would be happy to take us 20 or so miles into Red Lodge where we could find beds, showers and food.

Montanans are famous for their generosity to fellow travelers. A cynical friend of mine says it’s because people know that if they don’t lend assistance, especially during the winter, the stranded traveler could be dead from hypothermia in an hour. I have witnessed a car go over an embankment and within 10 minutes there are half a dozen cars and pickups stopped. Ropes, shovels, and chains come out to assist and within minutes the driver is either back on the road, on the way to a hospital or at least out of the ditch.

Grant Donaldson nears Cooke City

Grant Donaldson nears Cooke City

After a night on clean sheets and a soak in a hot tub in Red Lodge it took us two more rides to get back to the rental car. The first was with a young man and his kids and dog, towing a boat who stopped to let us pile into the truck bed on top of his camping gear. A family from Iowa on their way to Cooke City took us the rest of the way to the car.

We would be back in Tampa before it dawned on us that the headaches, dizziness, extreme exhaustion and sense of motion that we experienced for days afterwards were all symptoms of altitude sickness. Maybe it was better that we didn’t know. But it wouldn’t have changed our plans anyway.

The author is an outdoor writer who has fished and hiked the remote reaches of Florida and the Western states for 25 years. Grant Donaldson can be reached at: Stillwater2007@verizon.net

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