Linda Ballou

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An Anasazi Indian legend speaks of the Spirit Horse that appears as a flashing light in dreams. He seeks the rider untamed enough to follow him and the most honorable and outrageous dreams to grant. In the case of Gene and Jan Roberts he didn’t need to do much tempting to get them to climb aboard. Gene was an accountant and Jan was a nuclear medicine technologist when they met on a ski slope 37 years ago. They both suffered from an unrequited love affair with horses. Wilderness Trails Ranch, a 160 acre ranch nestled in the Pine River Valley, sheltered by “purple mountains majesty” is here today for you and me to enjoy because they doggedly pursued a dream to make horses, via a guest-ranch enterprise, the central point of their lives.

Located 35 miles east of Durango in Southwestern Colorado their ranch is hidden from the trappings of civilization at the end of a single track that travels around Vallecito Lake. When fires roared through the region in the summer of 2002, the isolation of the ranch proved to be a mixed blessing. Flames consumed the forests along the lake road and threatened to jump the ridge of Piadra Wilderness at their back door. Whether it was the prayers of the Roberts family; the protecting spirits of the Ute Indians, who pitched their teepees in the cottonwoods in Pine River Valley and considered it their sacred hunting ground; or the unswerving efforts of ten firemen working day and night to save the lodge and outlying cabins from destruction, the ranch was spared. It is as though a heavenly hand hovered over the lush valley, guarded by imposing granite peaks, and kept Wilderness Trails Ranch from harms way.

4abc8850As I enjoyed a hearty country breakfast in the dining hall of the rough -hewn lodge, I looked out over the pastures where horses grazed peacefully. The only remnants that I could see of the fire that flared through the Southwest  was a blackened ridge that silhouettes the remaining Spruce and Ponderosa Pine, stacked halfway up the steep bluff to the north. Gunmetal gray clouds settled in the cleft of the peaks at the head of the valley while morning mists rose over a small lake on the valley floor. Rust and muted green grasses and rangey Corn Lilies, bent low to the ground in the meadow, spoke of fall.

It is September, the end of a summer the Roberts will not soon forget, and it is adult week at Wilderness Trails. Gene starts the week as usual with an orientation to set the ground rules for visiting dudes. Whether you are a greenhorn who has never graced a saddle or a seasoned hand with your own horses at home, there are rides for you to enjoy and something for you to learn.

“Good horsemanship is good horsemanship,” says Gene, a certified riding instructor, who encourages the use of cross-training in clinics given at the ranch. He cut his riding teeth on cows, and the hard ways of cowboys used in bygone days. Today he believes dressage is the ultimate communication between rider and horse. When asked which trainer he emulates, he says he takes bits and pieces from all of them including Pat Parelli of Natural Horsemanship fame, Dennis Reis who works with police horses and makes them bomb proof; and Monty Roberts who the Robert Redford character in Horse Whisperer was based upon and was a guest at the ranch.

4acc8850“They all have a common thread. They try to understand how the horse thinks and how the herd communicates. We try to understand how a horse thinks and fit ourselves into their program not the other way around. In our training we strive for safety through control and understanding. We don’t want our guests to just be passengers. We want them to come away from the ranch experience knowing how to speak a little “horse” as well as have a great time.” Gene explained.

I asked if it was okay for me to post to the trot in a western saddle. “Absolutely, in fact it’s better for the rider and the horse,” Gene said emphatically. Jan added that she once confronted the local wisdom of western riders in the region on this subject. I was relieved to know that this English riding method that keeps me comfortable in the saddle and protects my back is condoned at Wilderness Trails.

In peak summer season the ranch is filled to capacity with parents enjoying time with their kids and is geared toward the family experience. Activities, like sing-alongs and hayrides around the campfire, are arranged for family fun together, yet, kids and adults get to have some time away from each other as well. They have separate rides for the kids, as well as short supervised hikes, and they can visit the foals in their pasture, or swim in the 72-foot heated pool. For the adults there is a bubbling spa and a masseuse on site to soothe muscles at the end of a days ride. It takes a full staff of 25 to cater to the families needs. During adult week the group is smaller, the staff is scaled down and rules are more relaxed.

Over one of the many scrumptious meals rustled up by Gary, the ranch’s Cordon Blue Chef, we talked about the affects of the fire. Gene said. “Even though we got smoked out and evacuating 80 head of horses was not a lot of fun, we needed that burn.”

4aec8850“The back country horsemen helped us get the stock out and neighboring ranches provided accommodations for our guests. Neighbors around the lake and in Bayfield called each other daily providing fire updates. It was the hardest of our thirty three summers at Wilderness Trails.” Jan said, blinking back tears from fire opal eyes.

“Lending a neighbor a helping hand is what our Western Heritage is all about.” Gene chimed in. He is the Vice-President of the Dude Ranchers Association and works co-operatively with over 120 dude ranchers sharing information and helping to maintain standards for guests at member ranches.Gene and Jan’s son, Lance, gave a talk to guests about the fact that forest soils, grasses, and wild flowers are reinvigorated by the natural process of fire. Fires in Ponderosa and Lodge pole Pine forests such as the ones that surround the ranch, clear out small trees and needle mats and release nutrients to stimulate fresh undergrowth of grasses and forbs. Burns create new openings in the dense forest canopy that are beneficial to wildlife as well.

“We plan on helping mother-nature by clearing the trees near the lodge and cabins then spreading some grass and wildflower seed.” Gene said. These efforts combined with the often 300 inches of snow that comes to the valley each winter should add up to an abundant spring bouquet. One of the guests interrupted the talk about fire to complain that “Food should not taste this good.” I had to agree. I broke “training” during my stay, unable to turn down chicken and ribs with tangy BBQ sauce, chicken-cheese enchiladas, prime rib, roast pork all served with fresh salad vegetables and homemade desserts. Eggs benedict, pecan pancakes and my personal favorite, the Mediterranean omelette, were a few of the breakfast specials. I still haven’t stepped on a scale. Vegan meals are provided upon request.

During adult week the wranglers, who work during the summer, go back to college leaving Jan and Gene along with their daughter Erika to lead the rides. Smaller groups ranging from 3-4 riders afford the opportunity to trailer the horses to less-traveled trailheads. Erika’s cross-training includes cow punching, dressage, jumper classes and a couple of weeks of fox hunting in Ireland thrown in to test her metal. She is the barn manager at Wilderness Trails and is studying to be a veterinarian. She offered to be my guide for a day-ride when the rest of the group opted to take the Mesa Verde day trip offered by the ranch.

Mesa Verde, the largest archeological preserve in North America with some 4,000 known sites dating from A.D. 600 to1300, includes the most impressive cliff dwellings in the Southwest. The Anasazi, referred to as ” the ancients” by their Hopi descendants, chose sites sheltered by immense sandstone arches that protected them from predators and the elements. There are many theories about why they left sophisticated dwellings that often took more than a century to build, but it is presumed that they simply exhausted their natural resources. There is a fine museum next to Spruce Tree House and an inspiring walk along the rim of Spruce Tree Canyon. At the top of Park Point, the highest plateau in Mesa Verde you can enjoy a 360 degree view that takes in the four corners where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet.

4adc8850Though dark clouds swarmed overhead, Erika and I decided to take our chances. We tacked up and loaded our horses in the trailer. At 7,800 feet the weather can be moody, but the upside is that there are very few insects and no poisonous snakes. My mount, a robust quarter horse named Copper, was invigorated by the crisp air, and felt eager to stretch out. We moved into a ground gathering trot along the trail that winds up a rugged canyon on a shelf overlooking the Pine River into the depths of the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest roadless area in Colorado. The smell of blue-tipped Spruce and Ponderosa Pine filled the air. Chartreuse aspen with golden crowns stood in sharp relief against staggered layers of deepening green that sheath Granite Peaks. The mist turned to intermittent rain, but we were snug in our slickers.

Birds flitted amongst boughs dripping with glistening droplets. The clouds broke up and the sun, flirting with the clouds, brightened the leaves of maidenhair ferns, and wild rose, making the green world sparkle. When we reached the “Steel Bridge,” six miles up canyon, we met a man carrying a full backpack coming down from the old mining town of Silverton, 80 miles away. He had hiked alone through some of the “gnarliest” terrain the state has to offer.  Most folks reach the tiny western burg via the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, another popular daytrip offered by the ranch. The track, laid 122 years ago for the coal-stoked train that chugs through Animus canyon at 18 miles an hour, is still considered an engineering marvel. We had a quick lunch beside the bridge that spanned the gushing upper Pine River, bulging from recent rains. On the way home Erika let me take the lead, which she often does during adult week, if the rider demonstrates good horsemanship.

4afc8850Waterfalls tumbled down the sheer gray rock walls glistening with seeps. Towering white cumulus clouds mushroomed through a patch of bluebird sky. My heart was as light as the day and my mind was set free to wander. I loosened the cinch on my own spiritual steed, and thanked him for the plaintive whinny that lured me to the Southwest, a land of dramatic desert mesas and plateaus, rugged 14,000 foot peaks, and the allure of open spaces. I thank Gene and Jan Roberts for following their dream to blend the authentic western experience of the past with the creature comforts of the present in a land that demands endurance, and inspires undying love.

In New Zealand, a country that embraces tourism like no other, the outdoor loving Kiwis have made nature’s treasures accessible to all. A network of trails from mild to wild, are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation. Numerous outfitters are happy to take visitors hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, whale watching, birding and more. Just bring a fit body, plenty of sun block, and a sense of humor to the other land down under. You will be amazed at the variety of terrain from the snow-crowned Southern Alps with glaciers descending into lush rainforests, to rugged valleys carved by wild rivers rushing to sun-washed shores.

New Zealand consists of two major islands -the North and the South- and many smaller islands, including Stewart Island, recently given National Park status. Three-quarters of the not quite four million people that call themselves Kiwis live on the more temperate North Island. The South Island has the most spectacular scenery with nine National Parks dedicated to preserving the splendid native forests. The isolation of the landmass that split off from the South Pole eighty million years ago has engendered flora and fauna that is totally unique. Over 250 birds species are found nowhere else but New Zealand. Giant trees, ferns and mosses endemic to the region seem other-worldly.

The best time to visit is in spring (November) through fall (March). The temperatures these times of year are mild, averaging about 70 degrees with a tantalizing breeze, and the days are long with sunlight until about nine at night. I met Kyle, my guide from Active New Zealand, in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. This London knockoff is the start and end point for most outfitters and independent travelers as well. He picked me up in the van that would be my home away from home for the next two weeks. We collected the other five guests; a telecommunications whiz kid from Dallas, a systems analyst escaping from the deserts of Qatar, and a mature gentleman with his “thirtyish” daughter and son-in-law. Soon we were barreling up Highway One, a two-lane road that makes a giant loop around the South Island with unlimited opportunities for side trips to adventure.

I chose this moderately priced Kiwi owned tour group, because they offer the closest thing to independent travel available with the comforts of lodging, food, toys and transport in an all-inclusive carefree package. The popular multi-sport adventure I selected from their list of options is an action-packed holiday. It proved to be so eventful I can only detail a few of the highlights of my incredible journey that included trekking, kayaking and biking through magical terrain filled with beautiful surprises.  It’s wonderful to be chauffeured, especially when everyone is driving on the “wrong” side of the road. The panoramic windows of our van brought the magnificent scenery closer to view as we cruised past golden pastures sprinkled liberally with sheep along a rugged windswept coastline. We averaged a couple of hours of driving a day between adventures. Each evening brought us another lovely setting to explore while Kyle prepared a home-cooked meal for us. Our lodgings were a mixture of small motels with self-contained units, bed and breakfasts and even a shearer’s lodge on a remote knoll overlooking Mt. Cook.

It’s tough to choose from the fine experiences I had in the incredible terrain of the South Island, but my top four outdoor adventures on this whirlwin holiday are as follows:

Trekking in Nelson Lakes National Park

There are eight great walks on the South Island that require several days to complete. They are challenging, but the reward is the solitude of the native bush and genuine outback experience. Active New Zealand is one of two commercial outfitters with permits into the less-traveled Nelson Lakes National park at the northern tip of the Southern Alps. The Cascade track we were to take to the summit has a 3,500-foot elevation gain in thirteen miles. Throughout our journey we were given many choices in activities and on this leg of the trip we were offered a less strenuous track or kayaking while those who chose to do the more demanding trek were away.

914c0800Bent on having the quintessential Kiwi tramping holiday, I strapped on a backpack, even though I’d never worn one before, and followed the others in my group just as eager to get into the bush as I was. After a mellow march along the shore of sparkling Lake Rotoiti we spent a night at Lake Head Hut. It’s oddly peaceful to bed down with about twenty strangers on a communal mat like sheep in the meadow.

91adc930Next morning found all six of us rested, standing in tall grass spiked with purple foxglove beside the Travers River. Kyle pointed to the slate gray, snow-streaked peaks in the distance and said “That is where were we will sleep tonight.”  The under-thirties sprang like jackrabbits up the trail and were soon out of sight. I followed behind Lutz, a fit 64 year old Californian, whose stocky body was dwarfed by his pack. He picked his way through the root-strewn trail that led us through the towering red and silver beech forest. Three-quarters of the amazing variety of plants growing in this preserve are endemic.
Spreading fronds of giant tree ferns, and thick layers of moss, lichens and epiphytic vines converge to create a symphony in the key of green. Birds like the tomtits, robins, the tiny rifleman and the flashy fantail twitter from the depths of the cool forest. The friendly gossip of the energetic Hukere Stream churning over black boulders kept us company all along the challenging climb to its headwaters.

91c70a80Kyle, whose father is a Maori chief, unfurled a palm frond for us to examine. The tendrils of the mother fern hide thousands of fern pods that the Maori people saw as children of the forest. Soon the pods will propagate and this world will be rejuvenated with new life. The fierce looking faces of the Polynesian people, ancestors to the Maori, who sailed here in large canoes about 1200 years ago, became gentle to me with this knowledge. The swirling tattoo patterns that covered their faces and bodies were simply imitations of the ferns in the lush rain forest they lived in. No wonder the fern is the national symbol of New Zealand.

When we reached Angelus Hut, the hub of the Nelson Lakes trail network, we were greeted by an international array of hikers. Kyle whipped up a pasta dish for us that made the rest, eating from freeze-dried packets, envious. I fell asleep to a cacophony of snores that did not betray an accent. The hike out of the park from Angelus Hut across Robert’s Ridge involved a scramble up a steep face, followed by boulder hopping on a goat trail, to reach an undulating easy romp across the top of the world. For several hours, Lutz and I walked the spine of the mountain enjoying outrageous vistas of serrated peaks and the gold and green patchwork quilt of farms far below. Warm sun tempered by an intoxicating breeze kept my engine purring. Once down from the mountain, we cooled our “dogs” in glacier-fed Rotoroa Lake where Kyle waited for us with an ice chest full of cold drinks.

Kayaking in Okarito Lagoon on the Wild West Coast

We spent a couple of restful days in Okarito, a laid-back beach community, a few miles north of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the windswept west coast of the South Island. At the Royal Motel, a cluster of cozy cottages framed in flowers, Kyle grilled up lamb, sausages, chicken and fish fillets and served them with mounds of fresh fruits, salad and vegetables to fortify us for our kayak outing in the morning.

916c0800The Okarito Lagoon is home to the only white heron rookery in the Southern Hemisphere and locals are proud of the 150 species of bird that breed in the region. It is the largest undisturbed wetland on the South Island and home to one of the last stands of the Kahikatea tree, the tallest of the native trees that takes hundreds of years to mature.

We were greeted with a perfect paddle day; glassy calm water, a mist hanging over the shoulder of the snow-frosted Southern Alps in the distance and a couple of promising patches of blue overhead. Wet suits, self-guiding maps and kayaks were provided by Okarito Nature Tours. Pole markers placed in the lagoon form a water trail to deep channels and the best birding spots. The estuary is a network of protected waters lined with flax, bright orange flowers, stalks of shimmering gold pampas grass (toitoi) and cabbage trees that look like a cross between a cactus and a palm. Tui, black birds with a puffy white ball at their throat, chortled as they plucked seeds from the purple seed stems of the flax. The thrum of cicadas filled the air. A flock of black swans drifted in the reflection of the shaggy Rimu and Kowhai trees, famous for yellow dripping flowers lining the shore.

Biking through Eglinton Valley to Milford Sound

No trip to the South Island is complete without a jaunt through Fiordland into moody Milford Sound on the southern tip of the Island. We did ours riding mountain bikes on the two lane road winding through bewitchingly beautiful Eglinton Valley. We pedaled past jade green Gunn Lake, stopping to admire the snowcapped spires reflected in Mirror Lake. Just before the Divide, the highest point on the route, we made a detour to hike Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. This switchback to the heavens provides staggering views of the Hollyford Valley. Once aloft, an undulating nature trail wraps around a sapphire glacier cirque, framed in low-slung alpine shrubs and ground hugging white flowers. On this plateau, I felt very close to the gods.

91887cb0From there we did a glide to our lodging in Milford Sound on our mountain bikes. The corkscrew descent through this spectacular valley takes you past a dozen waterfalls sliding down slick steep granite walls shimmering in the sun. We made a quick side trip at the Chasm where turbo-charged water has carved holes in huge boulders that look like great skulls with water gushing from the eye sockets. We spent the night in moody Milford Sound that reclaims its haunting majesty at the end of the day when all the tourist buses have gone back to Queenstown or Te Anau.

Jet Boating in Pristine Wilkin’s Valley

The jet boat, that rides on a cushion of air at about 60 MPH, was invented by a New Zealand farmer who wanted to get his sheep to market via rivers plagued with shifting gravel beds, snags and other obstacles. With veteran guide Brent at the wheel, we blasted up the Wilkin’s River Valley at the foot of white-caped Mt. Aspiring. A warm wind teased the sun-spangled water into small ripples. Cows munching peacefully on green grass on the shore made fun targets for Brent who swerved the boat sharply sending a rooster spray in their direction. He handily sideswiped trees growing on islands in the middle of our path. I shrieked with delight, as we charged up the river in a series of serpentine moves designed to provide maximum thrill. Brent revved the engine to power our way up a set of rapids and capped off the maneuver with a 360- degree spin that left me wet with spray and screaming at the top of my lungs. It was grand!

920dd930The sheer volume of soul stirring vistas and heart-thumping adventure on this journey was amazing. With the shackles of daily life put down for a time, my mind was free to roam unfettered. I felt soothed, as if I’d soaked in a tranquil lagoon for a century or two. Now that I’ve gained an overview of this fun-filled country, I hope to return for more of the “other land down under” where there are “no worries mate.”

New Zealand – If You Go

The best time of year to visit New Zealand is from November (spring) to March (fall).

Clothing: A light shirt, fleece jacket and hiking pants are best. Be sure to have a good rain slicker in your daypack.

For a complete listing of trip options and itineraries offered by Active New Zealand go to ( They have tours of the North Island and Aussie Walks, as well as the unusual policy of allowing travelers to join them on portions of their trips on a pro-rated basis.
Air New Zealand is the national carrier. ( My flight arrangements were made by Down Under Answers ( including strongly recommended travel insurance.
A world of information about tracks and national parks may be found at ( the Department of Conservations website.
For general information and deals offered in New Zealand go to ( New Zealand Tourism Online

My initial contact was World Outdoors, a Colorado based tour company arranging off-the-beaten path adventures. For over 15 years The World Outdoors has offered Multi-Sport and Hiking vacations throughout the Americas and South Pacific. Featuring small groups, local guides and personalized itineraries and Best Value in Active Travel Guarantee 1-800-488-8433 or (

Note – If you are traveling independently you may take advantage of Tourist Information offices found in most cities to locate accommodations on short notice. However, they close at 5:00 pm daily. Online reservations may be made at (


Spray splashed over the bow of our ferry chugging across the wind-tossed Hauraki Gulf to Tiritiri Mitangi Island in New Zealand. The white tower of the landmark lighthouse built in 1894 atop the island still gives warning to ships sailing into Auckland Harbor. It stands guard over remote Tiritiri, a 220-hectare, island habitat reclaimed by caring Kiwi’s for rare, endemic birds.

Like much of the North Island, Tiritiri was shaved clean of its forests for farming. For many years the island was uninhabited, save for the lighthouse keepers, and considered a useless, vermin infested, rock. Today, the island provides a unique opportunity for visitors to walk through native forests and hear the din of wild birds that proliferated before human contact, and it is a monument to what caring people can do.

961dc910A visit to Tiritiri Mitangi is part of the itinerary for visitors enjoying the hospitality of Karen Baird and Chris Gaskin, operators of Kiwi Wildlife Tours specializing in birding hotspots throughout New Zealand. I stayed with them at their wood and glass bird lodge nestled in the treetops of a re-generating Kauri forest, about thirty miles outside of Auckland. Avid birders, Chris and Karen, love to share their knowledge with guests, and take turns topping each other with special finds in the wild.

We boarded the ferry to Tiritiri in Gulf Harbor and joined a host of independent travelers who had begun their journey in Auckland. The colorful sails of the yachts entered in the America’s Cup race shared the channel with us as we plied our way up the Hibiscus Coast. The sun was high overhead in a brilliant blue sky when we tied up at wooden pier at Tiritiri. The swimmers and sunbathers aboard headed for the crystalline water of a nearby Hobbs Beach, a sandy cove beneath sea cliffs draped in morning glories, while birders made their way to the forests.

960dcaf0Miles of trails fan out over the island, encouraging guests to wander freely. Raised boardwalks beneath the cool of the native tree canopy make walking through the lovingly restored native bush a pure joy. Bird voices ring out in clear, lilting tones. It’s easy to spot the source of the music because the wooden walk brings you almost to eye level with the tree canopy of the immature forest. Among the birds flitting in and out of the shadows was the tui, or parson’s bird. This black bird with the white tufts at his throat is a mimic and alternates between sweet tones that sound like that of the Bellbird (extinct on the northland for more than 100 years, but surviving on Tiritiri) to hearty chortles and squawks with a fire and brimstone fervor.

In this aviary without walls, birds gather at feeders lodged in cozy glens with seating platforms for visitors. I spotted the endangered saddleback, a large black bird with a clamorous song that is enjoying a comeback here. The haunting voice of the increasingly rare and shy kokako, a large gray parrot that cannot fly, drifted through the forest. The reclusive stitchbird revealed itself, along with a chatty fantail that spread its’ tail feathers for all to see. The most rare bird on the island is the takahe, a giant flightless rail, thought to be extinct for 50 years. There are six breeding pairs nesting successfully here, raising their chicks in the wild.

962b9ef0Since 1984, over two- hundred thousand trees have been planted on the island by volunteer workers. Altogether, thirty-eight different trees and shrub, including cabbage trees, flax and wattle, provide seeds and berries for the birds. Restoration of the island has been a product of community effort. Service clubs, students, and outdoor recreation clubs provided free labor and donations. Together they exterminated a huge population of Pacific rat before the replanting of the island. They built hundreds of nesting boxes for the birds, including a special underground site for the nocturnal blue penguin. They made sure that stoats, weasels and possums that feast on bird’s eggs and the tender shoots of sprouting trees do not exist here. These vermin, introduced to New Zealand’s delicate ecology through trade and tourism, are the bane of the birds and native bush on the mainland.

95bdc990After a picnic lunch, we made our way across the spine of the island to a valley where a primordial coastal forest has survived. These trees are the source of seeds for re-vegetating the island. Sun streamed through the sprays of immense silver ferns shading the walkway that took us past an ancient Pohutukawa tree with gnarled limbs that spread out in a tortured circle. This tree, flushed with a crown of crimson blooms, was here when the Maori people lived on the island hundreds of years ago. It is believed that the early Polynesian setters cleared the island to plant fern beds for food. This mighty tree witnessed the destruction and the resurrection of the island ecology at the hand of humans. Today, the open sanctuary created for the birds on the island of Tititiri Matangi is free, with the price of a ferry ticket, for all to enjoy.

If You Go to Tiritiri Matangi:
Kiwi Wildlife Tours host guests at their home and take them to local birding hot spots, that include a visit to Tiritiri Matangi, as well as arrange tours through the North South and Stewart Islands with birding in mind. e-mail Phone: +64 9 422 2115.  Chris and Karen will pick you up at the Auckland Airport when you arrive.

Auckland Harbor ferries departing from Pier 3 next to the Ferry Building in Auckland provide transport to and from Tiritiri Matangi on Thursday and Sunday plus Saturday in summer. 0800-424-5561. Island conservation guides greet independent travelers at the pier with self-guiding maps.

Adventure Cruising Company operates nature cruises that include Tiritiri Matangi. One tour includes overnight accommodations on the Te Aroha, the Tiritiri evening birdsong chorus, and a guided bird walk at dawn. Phone/fax 09-444-9342.

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That was a good point. I was her guest. She wanted to show me the Golden Horseshoe, a loop that takes you to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon
Territory in Canada, that circles back down through great expanses of open country in British Columbia, into the United States via the Chilkat Pass, and
back to Haines on the Alaska Highway. When I had lived in Haines, thirty-five years ago, there was no access to the Yukon, save the turn of the century narrow gauge train that still chugs up the ravine, overlooking the Skagway River. The Gold Rush train hauled freight and passengers to Whitehorse. The Klondike Highway opened in 1978, and now the train is used for round-trip tourist excursions to Lake Bennett. The opportunity to drive the road that parallels the path of the river overlooking the Whitehorse Pass trail used by the “stampeders,” was exciting to me.
We rolled off the Malispina, the oldest ferry in the Alaskan Marine Highway
fleet, behind a row of Harley Davidson motorcycles with California license

“If I’d known I wasn’t driving, I would not have committed to this trip.” I
said. “Neither would I,” She replied, pressing her foot firmly down on the gas
pedal. I told my nephew reading comics in the back seat to buckle up.
We skirted the town of Skagway. I remembered it as a deserted, windblown burgh, streets pockmarked from frost boils, with gangs of mangy dogs roaming free. Ten years ago it was declared, “The Klondike Historical National Park.” Today, wooden sidewalks and old west storefronts, with flowers bulging out of window boxes, make it look like a spring maid. Located at the top of the Lynn
Canal, it is the destination for numerous cruise ships. The year round population of 800 is over-run with 800,000 present day “stampeders” during the summer.

We passed the grave of Soapy Smith, who met an untimely end because he regularly fleeced prospectors of their poke as they were coming back from the Klondike . I spotted the road to Dyea where the Chilkoot trail begins and heads for the sky. I imagined Jack London slogging up the trail darkened by hanging glaciers, and crossing gorges choked with foaming water, strapped into the
150 pound pack that he carried on his back. Originally a trade route for native people, the thirty-three mile trail was abandoned for sixty years after the 1897 Gold Rush. Today, it is refurbished, and enjoyed by about 3,500 hardy hikers a year.

Trying to distract myself from imminent disaster, I stared out the window at the heart-catching scenery. I heard the whistle blast of a steam engine and looked down to see the Gold Rush train hugging the canon wall as it puffed up the steep grade. Thirty men died blasting the shelf of granite for the rails overlooking the 500-foot drop. They built the 600-foot tunnels through rock, and the wooden trestles over roaring falls which are considered an historic civil engineering feat.

Mom pointed to a ramshackle wooden mine suspended precariously on the canyon wall high above us. I desperately wanted her to stop being a tour guide and to keep her eyes on the road. She asked me if I wanted to pull over on a narrow shoulder of the snaking road where a sign was posted, “No Stopping Anytime.” I said. ” No thanks. Keep going,” pressing my nails deeper into sweating palms. She continued to hurtle up the switchbacks in silence. She wanted to get my nephew to the bike shop in Whitehorse before the stores closed. Now it was apparent to me now that I was the captive audience of a Granny with an agenda. It would be a short, sweet, sad, ending: “Three Generations Lost in Fiery Inferno” would be the headline. Grandma Bell, daughter Linda Jane, and nephew Rusty rocket to bottom of ravine; car bursts into flames on impact!” I breathed a sigh of relief when we crested the pass, leaving behind the glacier scarred rock and boulder strewn gorge.
Once we were above the timberline, the scenery changed to a string of turquoise, glacier lakes. Dwarf alders and low flung shrubs are all that survive the cruel winds on the summit. They cling to life in the crevices of the lichen- covered rocks. A small,
unheralded road sign points to the end of Chilkoot Trail where it deposited Klondikers on their way to the gold fields. The daunting passage saw the death of thousands of horses and pack mules. Their limbs snapped in the twisting trail or they tripped and fell into the frigid, foaming water and were pinned to the bottom of the river by their heavy loads. They were left
to rot in heaps along the way, while grown men sat down and wept from

Once on the summit, Jack London and others, were faced with the reality that
they must build a boat for the second leg of their journey. Jack had
seafaring experience from his boyhood days as an oyster pirate in Oakland,
California, so he decided to build his own craft. It had to be strong enough
to navigate six hundred miles down the string of lakes and connecting rivers
from the upper reaches of the Yukon to the tent cities on the goldfields. The
route he followed carried his party through five narrow lakes: Lindeman,
Bennett, Laberge, Marsh, and Tagish, known then as Caribou Crossing, today
shortened to Carcross.

Mom made a pit stop at Carcross, popping out of the car, leaving the engine
running and the door open, presumably, for a fast get away. The restored
railroad station, left from the days when the Whitepass train came all the
way to Whitehorse, make this a significant stop for tour buses. The original
general store, a weathered train trestle, and few scattered log cabins are
all that’s left in this time warp.
We sped through an unlikely desert region, and passed Emerald Lake, which is a phenomenal deep jade green color due to an algae called marl. Once in Whitehorse, we pulled into the parking lot of the well-heeled High Country Inn where a hundred foot, wooden Mountie stands guard. When the stampeders reached the Canadian border, they were turned back if they didn’t have 1550 pounds of supplies to ensure that they could survive the winter. The Canadians didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths that would take place due to the foolishness of the cheechakos (new comers). Mom made arrangements for us to see the Frantic Follies, a laugh-a-minute corn- fest. The show’s main stay are tourists off buses from Skagway, but Mom was a regular, coming back for the third time. I recalled my stint in the “The Smell of the Yukon” and my days as a Can-Can dancer when I was in high school. I’m certain I could not get my foot anywhere near the top of my head today, but I can still squeal with the best of them. Sam McGee, the star, assumed dead from the cold, is thrown into the fiery steam ship boiler. Instead of finding a charred cinder the next day, we see him laughing because this is the first time he’s been warm since he came to the North.

Backing out of the hotel’s parking lot the next morning, Mom bounced off the
bumper of an SUV. She admitted she wasn’t good at “city driving” and
reluctantly relinquished the wheel. I could feel the spring of tension in my
belly uncoil as I drove toward Miles Canyon where a suspension bridge crosses
the Yukon River. Nephew, Rusty and I walked on the paths that lace the cliffs
overlooking the treacherous Box Canyon rapids, yet another trial for Jack
London and his party. The river runs for nearly a mile through a ravine that
narrows down to a mere slit in the plateau. Midway in the trough is a
widening out where a whirlpool churns slowly around. Jack steered his
homemade craft through the “madness of motion” successfully, then returned to
help other parties make the passage.

Once through this tumultuous stretch of water, he faced the even more
formidable Whitehorse Rapids, so named because the foamy crests of water
resemble the mane of a white horse in flight. The trick for the rafters was
to ride the crest of the mane to safety. “On the side of the Mane was a
corkscrew curl-over and suck-under, and on the opposite side was the big
whirlpool. To go through, the Mane itself must be ridden.” Jack London. Jack
managed all of that and made it to the gold fields, but he didn’t find any
gold. He left the Klondike with a bad case of scurvy, and fodder for four
novels and numerous short stories.

Once back on the open highway, we barreled through great expanses of open
country. In September, the tail end of the season, the long caravans of RV’s
and campers that roam these roads in the summer have all boarded ferries and
gone home. It was as though someone opened the door to the cage of a wild
animal. Riding the crests and dips of the uninterrupted road, blasting
toward the horizon after being gridlocked in Los Angeles was beyond
exhilarating. It was soul-cleansing.

We crossed numerous tributaries of the mighty Yukon River as we flew past
the rust-colored marshes the moose call home. A fresh dusting of snow on the
distant mountains tops, clumps of aspen leaves spinning gold against the
velvet green spruce forest, and dark clouds hugging the horizon spoke of
fall. Splotches of raindrops beaded on the windshield. I opened the window
to suck in the pine-scented air.

When we reached “Supernatural” British Columbia,” Mom wanted to get back at
the helm. I heard her emit a sigh of contentment as she gripped the wheel
with both hands and focused her attention like a laser beam on the sweeping
expanse of open road ahead. Like a low flying jet, we swooped down the
valley, meeting only one car in over an hour. I looked at my snow-haired
mother and realized the ghost of a long-distance truck driver had slipped
into her frail body when I wasn’t looking.

“When did you develop road fever?” I asked.
“I always loved to drive, but your father wouldn’t allow me to when he was
alive.” A perfect example of how a person’s heritage can double back on them in
strange and devious ways when they least expect it. My circumstance today was
a direct result of the fact that my father had wasted a lot of energy trying
to dominate an indomitable spirit.
We headed south on the last leg of the Horseshoe. The road became more familiar when the foreboding granite spires that guard Chilkat Pass came into view. Frothy clouds moving fast across crystalline skies churned about the jagged peaks. Tundra meadows, home to the Willow Ptarmigan and the lone wolf, stretched out in rusty green expanses dotted by mud-colored pools.
“This is where they filmed White Fang,” my Mother said, pointing to a barren gray slope, uninspiring without a blanket of snow. Hollywood chose to use the more accessible Dalton Trail from Haines to the Klondike to re-enact the fabled climb of the stampeders up the ice steps of the Chilkoot Trail. “Up its gaunt and ragged front crawled a slender string of men. …And it went on, up the pitch of the steep, growing fainter and smaller, till it squirmed and twisted like a column of ants and vanished over the crest of the pass” was how Jack London described the sight.

The highway takes you within spitting distance of Dezadeash Lake. My father
loved the brisk wind blowing across the wild heather meadows and purple crags
in the high country. Fly fisher people dotted the shore in bright yellow
slickers. They were casting for Artic grayling, a true Alaskan, dependent
upon clear, cold streams and lakes that exist only in the north. My father’s
ashes are scattered in this lake among his favorite meal.
Once back in the U. S., we crossed the path of an excited river. I looked up
to see a sparkling waterfall tumbling down moss-covered walls of rock. The
Chilkat Valley was as I remembered: lush, verdant, fecund, and bursting with
life. About twenty miles out of Haines, the Chilkat River widens and
parallels the highway. The silt green water spreads into a wide fan laced
with sandbars. I saw the white heads of eagles, scrunched down into their
black bodies, sitting in the trees. Mom pulled over so I could use the new
high-powered spotting scopes installed to allow the roadside traveler to
observe the thousands of birds that congregate in the Eagle Preserve. I saw
an adult pair of the regal birds tugging with strong yellow beaks on
spawned-out salmon. The male looked up and stared back at me with
intelligent, indifferent, orange eyes.
I recalled the day my family arrived in Haines. We were thrilled to see hundreds of black lumps hunkered in the treetops. The highway through the valley has been widened since then, my mother’s platinum-do and pink cheeks give her the countenance of an angel, and my father, who brought us here, is gone. But, the harsh, immutable truths of the north that Jack London captured in his stories remain unchanged.

(All quotes taken from Jack London and The Klondike, by Franklin Walker)

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Moab, in Southeastern Utah, is a gritty desert town filled with old hippies, cowboys and artists. The gateway to the Colorado Plateau, it serves as the jumping-off point for hikers, mountain bikers, river rafters and rock
climbers. The year round population of 8000 bulges to 40,000 in the summer when people come from around the world to visit nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The rangers speak of the “sound of silence” on guided walks in Arches National Park, but in order to know what that means you must get out of the busy parks and down onto the rivers.

Whether it is the Colorado, or it’s largest tributary the Green, the secrets of this sandpaper rough region lies hidden in the 300 million-year-old canyons carved by the rivers. Gray clouds were swarming overhead when I reached Ruby Ranch, the “put-in” point for outfitters on the Green River, thirty miles west of Moab. Anyone traveling in this remote area with limited access should be prepared to cope with desert emergencies and know the BLM River Regulations for low impact backcountry travel. Most outfitters carry VHF aircraft radios and Satellite phones for emergency communications. Our guide, Chuck, the owner of Nichols Expeditions, pointed to rounded hummocks of dark clouds. “Those are called mammaries. They mean there’s a lot of turbulence building,” he said.

The Ruby Ranch, an oasis in this desolate region, has survived since the turn of the century for two reasons: there is a water wheel to irrigate green alfalfa fields for cattle, and two, the original owners were kind to outlaws. Members of the Wild Bunch, of Butch Cassidy fame, often stopped by for a home-cooked meal on their way to Robber’s Roost sixty miles away. The $20 gold piece left under each plate allowed the owner to buy more cattle and survive while other settlements along the river went back to sand.

The Green is, in fact, ruddy colored from sediment run-off. The murky water did not entice me to swim even though it was a pleasant 67 degrees. The current was strong solid and swift in this so-called lazy river. Paddling a kayak for fifty miles on flat water appealed to me. I envisioned an effortless glide through Labyrinth Canyon with plenty of time for rubber necking and a chance to hone my river skills. It was the end of the driest summer in the history of Utah. The volume of the river was low; 1700 cubic feet per second as opposed to the normal 8,000 cubic feet per second. A kayak is a good choice for this river because it is more maneuverable and easier to lift off of a sandbar than cumbersome rubber raft. It’s also the best river for a novice to learn how to kayak.
The rudders of the six kayaks lined on the shore were tied in place to idiot proof the trip. “With the river this shallow the rudder could get stuck; besides you can steer quite readily with your paddle.” Chuck said, during his safety lecture in which he demonstrated basic paddle techniques. My fellow adventurers lined on the shore included Stan, an off duty fire fighter with extensive outdoor experience, Jack a CPA counting his days to retirement who had paddled a bit, but had never camped out, and a yuppie couple who often paddled together at home in Maryland. I had a week of sea kayaking in Baja to brag about. Our levels of river skills were as varied as our body shapes and income.

Once out on the water we were greeted with strong head winds and a smattering of rain. It only rains a total of nine inches a year here, but we were just lucky. I could see rain tendrils twisting down to earth from murky skies
ahead. Desert storms can be intense violent thunder and lightening storms that cause flash flooding. I wondered how much of the dark side of the desert we would see as we slogged into the wind with the rain tapping a merry tune on my plastic hood.

The current carried me easily along as I gave the Chinook, a stable sea kayak, gentle guidance with my paddle. Each time I took my paddle out of the water to glide, she tried to do a pirouette. Chuck made us practice eddy
twirling so we knew how to tuck in behind a rock sheltered by the eddy fence if we needed to take a rest. Most kayak tip-overs take place on take-out and departure so it’s best if you take breaks on the water.
Patches of blue promised relief as we approached our beach camp for the night. When I nosed the Chinook into the shore, John, our cook, was offloading the support raft weighted down with kitchen and camping gear. It’s
been a full season since Chuck has been down the Green and it doesn’t look like anyone else has been here either. We had our pick of choice sandy spots, shaded by cottonwood trees for out tents. Sitting on a scalloped sandstone ledge, I peered up at bronze bluffs stained with dark patches of patina called desert varnish. The setting sun broke through the clouds illuminating the canyon walls, turning them to a copper blaze.

Day two greeted us with a perfect paddle day. The storm front had passed and blues skies beckoned. The sun-spangled river was glassy and calm. I slid into Chuck’s wake watching him rock rhythmically from side to side, making metronome strokes in his tiny river kayak that appeared to be an extension of his body. “Every time I get into one of these I think of the Aleut.” He says. “How connected they are to their world and have been for thousands of years.” No one knows when the people of the Aleutian Islands began paddling the skin boats we call kayaks. The biodegradable components of their crafts decomposed making it impossible to know their exact age. Slinking through the silky water, the kayak did seem the perfect mode of transport to explore the
secrets of the Canyon. Without the interference of engine noise we could hear the screech of the Peregrine falcon nesting in the cleft of the cliffs a thousand feet above us.

Each bend in the river revealed another even more immense set of towering rock behemoths. I saw a row of Pharaohs standing next to Nefertiti, with a regal lion lying at her side, gazing down on us with indifferent eyes. A squaw and her stern chief husband called “The Lovers”, stand in relief from the rock. The ominous, foreboding faces look down on the mortals passing through their canyon. They watched Major John Wesley Powell, the first to record explorations of the river, come though in 1869; Butch Cassidy and his gang herding stolen stock down narrow ledges in the 1900’s; moon-shiners burying kegs of whiskey in the sand during prohibition; and the uranium boys blasting out roads in the 50’s. Unmoved, unshaken, uninterested in human struggles, they watch the river carve its way through Earth time.
We slid in close to the canyon walls where solution pocks, holes caused by erosion, make nice homes for swallows. The birds darted in and out of their mud nests clinging to the sheer rock walls. We stopped for a simple lunch on a powdered-sugar sand beach under the Thunderbird. The face of the great bird with wings spread open is considered by the Indians to be a bearer of happiness. I couldn’t argue. We shared our beach with the only other people we would see on the river that week, a solitary couple on an outing for their silver anniversary. This stretch of the Green is so calm it is safe for independents that have some river savvy.

By afternoon the river had taken me completely under its spell. I was mesmerized by the reflection of the bushy Tamarisk lining the shore, and the ruddy terracotta stone towers shimmering in the water as it rippled off my
paddle. There’s something about making new tracks in unmarked time that humans enjoy. We drifted under the shade canopy of the willows bending over the river. A beaver curled under the surface at our approach. I saw an
undulating light rippling up the rock face like an upside down waterfall; just another unexplained desert phenomenon.
From out of nowhere a stiff headwind came up. The still water turned to rippled chop, and the journey became a “bit of a grunt.” I consoled myself with the thought that the extra paddle effort would work wonders on my
ever-expanding waistline. I was falling behind Chuck and the others who were chatting and paddling with seemingly no effort. I could touch bottom with my paddle, so I wanted to stay close to Chuck and follow his lead through the narrow sandy channels. My right wrist was tingling with tendonitis and my left hand was cramping. If I was left behind, I could get hung up on a sand bar and be forced to drag my kayak through knee-deep, sucking mud. I felt panicky. I considered crying, but stuck to hysterical titters. That’s when the wind really picked up.
Chuck could see I was in trouble and doubled back to help me.

“You’re working too hard. Follow the bubble line. That’s the strongest point in the current. Let it carry you along. Let your hand drag in the water to cool it off. Don’t hold on with such a death grip. Relax your hand on the
paddle with each stroke.” He said, demonstrating the proper approach. Under pressure to perform, I straightened my torso and made myself mindful of each stroke. It became easier, but I was still playing caboose to the caravan. Stan, a direct relation to the Energizer Bunny, paddled circles around me. “Someone has to be behind.” he said. “Besides you take the pressure off the
rest of us to perform.”

How sweet! My position, pulling up the rear, was serving a useful purpose to others in life on the river. I crested with a second surge of energy, but felt relieved to see Chuck heading for the narrow beach that would be our camp for the night. He signaled to the group to wait until he and John secured the cumbersome support raft. The other kayakers lined up like 747’s on the tarmac waiting for take off on the far side of the river. They positioned themselves strategically to traverse the river and catch the flow high enough above the beach to make a tidy landing. I cleverly tucked myself behind a large downed tree in the water where I could rest out of the current.
As John trundled by me, he looked alarmed. “You’re in the worst place you could be.” he yelled. “Keep your boat tipped downstream when you come out of there.” he said.
Unwittingly, I had placed myself exactly where every seasoned river guide fears to tread. I was pinned by the strong current against a snag. The current could easily suck me under and I could get a limb in the groin, or
worse. It looked like I was going to be the first one to take a bath on our four day outing on a lazy river. Chuck waved me in first. If I did tip, he wanted Stan on the water so he could come to my aid. I nudged the nose of the Chinook forward and felt the current start to drag us under. I pushed hard with my paddle against the tree to dislodge myself, but found I was securely fastened. I lurched forward with my body rocking the boat free, then used my paddle to circumnavigate the submerged monster. I got free, sailed around the limb and shot downstream. I made a clumsy landing, nearly losing my sandal to the sucking mud on shore.

“Good work.” Chuck said extending me a hand.
“You mean it?”
“Yes. Snags are one of the reasons we go in the fall. In the spring the water is so high you can’t see them.”

That night I felt I’d earned my tender streak grilled to delicious perfection. Each meal on our outing topped the last one. After leading kayaking and mountain biking trips about the globe for twenty years, Chuck has a flare for seasoning food that rivals any gourmet chefs. On the first night he doctored a salmon fillet with a snappy wasabi-ginger sauce. We enjoyed fresh steamed vegetables, organic green salads, and luscious local
melons from the Ruby Ranch with our entre. John produced brownies, cakes and muffins “to die for” from his Dutch Oven on the camp stove. Ever since his mountain bike tour in Tuscany, Chuck is in the habit of keeping a pot of espresso brewing on the back burner for guests who need a real java jolt.

Next day, Stan and Chuck headed up a slot canyon where they hoped to see some wildlife. They could see cougar, coyote, mule deer or a Golden Eagle wheeling overhead. There are numerous hikes up these canyons to the rim. The hike at Two-mile and Horseshoe are considered the best. Two-mile Trail takes you up to Five Window Arch, a spectacular catacomb with views of Canyonland. It is possible to loop down through the deep, rugged and wild Horseshoe Canyon past petroglyphs chipped into the desert varnish centuries ago by native peoples.During prohibition the Green River was one of the favorite places for a still, inaccessible with plenty of water to “cool the coils.” There was a still in the little canyon coming into Horseshoe off the Spur. Bootlegger’s
buried their kegs in the sand to hide them from the sheriff’s posse and to allow the whisky to age. If you stumble on a keg, beware! The last man who sipped some of this buried treasure said when he tried to stand he found he
was paralyzed in his chair.

We glided past Hey Joe Canyon where one of the largest uranium mines was located. Chuck told us about the seventy-year-old woman he took on this trip. She came to see where her late husband had struggled for so many years. Women were not allowed in the mine camps. It was rough and grizzly work. Many men died blasting out the mines and others died from uranium contamination. She cried at the sight of the solemn copper colored monoliths in Labyrinth Canyon that her husband called his cathedral.

We made camp at Bowknot Bend where I enjoyed a room with a view. My boulder bench seat wrapped by an enormous amphitheater of striated bluffs overlooked a sagebrush meadow sprinkled liberally with yellow rabbit bush. Below I could see the khaki colored Green snaking through the canyon. I imagined Powell and his party coming around the bend in their wooden boats. A self-educated naturalist and geology professor, the Major could read the messages recorded in the rocks and was transformed. He saw his God in the sublime landscape of a world where terror and wonder hold hands. Following in the explorer’s footsteps, I hiked up a steep trail through sloughing sandstone to what he dubbed Bowknot Ridge. From the narrow ledge I saw the serpentine river doubling back on itself in a seven-mile loop. With the river on both sides of the ledge it felt as though I was standing inside a funhouse mirror. Suddenly, I realized I’d found it. The “sound of silence”. My response. After a few meditative moments, I couldn’t resist yelling out at the top of my lungs and listening to my own voice reverberate through the vast stillness.
Once back in the Chinook, I floated effortlessly through a seamless day. I followed the bubble line, finding the swiftest part of the current and used my paddle as a rudder to catch the glide. I stuck close to Chuck weaving in
around the sandbars and narrow channels. I found my rhythm and felt I could do shallow, light strokes for as far as the river would take me. Tomorrow the rest of the group would do a quick change into mountain biking gear at Mineral Bottom. They were heading for the famous White Rim Trail. The abandoned mining roads carved into the cliffs during the uranium boom are a magnet for bikers around the world. I was to return to Moab on the support van with the kayaks. After exchanging travel tales around the campfire we said our goodbyes and then I drifted to a dreamless sleep feeling river wise.