Can the government track your movements?

I’ve been reading a lot lately on my social media feed about how the government or other shadowy organization is using the COVID-19 pandemic to ramp up its assumed goal of tracking our movements.  Usually it involves something along the lines of how Bill Gates is trying to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 because he wants to use vaccination efforts to insert micro-chips into our bodies so he can get uber-rich and control the world.

For now I will ignore the obvious flaws in this theory, including the fact that Bill Gates already is uber-rich and since he controls the software that controls the world he probably doesn’t really need to go around inserting chips in everyone to achieve this goal.  But I would like to spend some time considering what exactly would be involved if someone DID want to somehow chip us and control us or at least track us.

In what now seems to be another life, I was on a career-track to become a wildlife biologist. One of my first jobs was conducting snow-tracking surveys of forest carnivores in Yellowstone National Park.  We went out on skis and snowshoes following specific routes and counted the number of track crossing of different animals that we encountered in the snow.  I was interested in understanding more about the concept of animal movements and our methods of tracking them and what it all meant and began studying the process through computer simulation as well.  Later, after working on a completely unrelated project for my Masters degree I returned to Montana for a winter and was the lead biologist on a project conducting snow-tracking surveys on a large private ranch outside Bozeman. The next winter I returned to Colorado and worked on the lynx re-introduction where my main duty was to locate lynx tracks and follow them backwards to see if they had been making kills, what kind of habitat they were using, etc.  Around the same time period GPS technology was becoming available which allowed fine-scaled tracking of animal movement patterns and people were beginning to collect a lot of that kind of data. The problem was that nobody knew how to analyze that type of data and so in the fall of 2000 I started a PhD program focused on developing statistical techniques for analyzing animal movement patterns and worked on nothing else for 3 years.  I never finished that PhD for unrelated reasons, but the point is that I did spend a considerable portion of my life thinking about animal movement, how to track it, how to store the data, and how to analyze it and I have some idea about what is required and the technologies that are available.

So let’s think a little bit about what would be required to develop a system of tracking people.  First of all, you would need a device attached to the person. Let’s call this the mobile platform.  In order for that device to collect anything useful it must also be connected to some type of sensor. The most useful sensor would detect a location but other types of sensors might collect information about movement (think FitBit), temperature, heart rate, pressure, oxygen saturation, maybe even blood chemistry. Next you would need some type of data-logger to store the information that the sensors collect. Then you need a way to remove the information from the mobile platform. This might require retrieval of the mobile platform so that the data can be downloaded, but that is time consuming and intrusive. It would be far easier to allow the mobile platform to transmit the data so that it can be read from a distance.  For this, of course, we need a transmitter.  We probably also need the mobile platform to have some kind of receiver so that we can send it commands and tell it what to do.  This could be pre-programmed in advance, however it would be far more useful for us to be able to send commands as we need them. For instance when we are close enough to receive the data, we could send a signal to start transmitting.  This way the mobile platform does not need to be transmitting continuously which would use a lot of battery.  Finally if we are going to be connected to sensors and sending and receiving information we need a power supply, or battery.  With all technologies requiring electrical power there are trade-offs involved.  Some type of sensors (GPS for instance) require a lot of battery power, and of course the further you need to transmit the  data, the more battery power that you need.  In short, however, any practical tracking system would require all of the following components. 1) Mobile platform, 2) Sensors, 3) Storage,  4) Transmitter, 5) Receiver, 6) Power supply.

Now let’s consider the types of tracking systems that are currently in use. We know that we can insert a micro-chip in our pets that can be used to identify them if they are lost and return them to us.  This type of micro-chip implanted under our skin is what most of us will think of when we think of being “chipped” by the government against our will or even unknowingly.  But what is really involved with this technology? These chips are what are known as passive integrated transponders (PIT). They are passive because they have no way to transmit anything on their own. They need to be “read” by a scanner in close proximity.  Close meaning inches or at most a couple feet.  The scanner sends electromagnetic energy to the transponder and the transponder uses that energy to reflect back energy that is organized in such a way that it can be read as a number.  The scanner thus simply returns a number unique to the chip. That is all.  In wildlife biology they are used primarily to identify unique animals to study survival, estimate population density, etc.  They are no more than a fancy form of an eartag or a tattoo.  In some very limited circumstances they can be used to study movement. For instance black footed ferrets use prairie dog burrows and scanners can be placed at the entrance to burrows in order to detect use of burrows. But to really be useful you would need a scanner at every one of the burrows and that may be many thousands of scanners.  They are also used to detect animal movement through road culverts where animals are forced to move through an area small enough for the tag to be read. With pets they are also used to identify an animal by returning a unique number. That number can then be used to search a database of owners in order to find the pet’s home.  This same technology is used in credit-cards that use a chip.  It’s a very useful technology for identifying individuals and the advantage of passive technology is that it does not require a battery and thus theoretically will last forever.  The disadvantage is that you need to be very close in order to read it and thus they are worthless for “tracking” anything. You need to find whatever it is that is carrying the tag by some other means before it can be read.  As a platform for tracking things on a large scale it is virtually worthless.

Other types of mobile platforms used in wildlife surveys require an electronic device attached to the outside of the animal or surgically implanted.  One that was common in the past and still used is a radio transmitter.  Most radio transmitters are very simple.  All that they do is transmit a radio signal. The frequency of the radio signal is used to uniquely identify an individual so the number of transmitters is limited to the number of individually discernible radio frequencies available. It’s possible that they can be programmed to only transmit during certain parts of the day to save battery life although the simplicity of this design allows for relatively long battery life.  Sometimes they are equipped with an activity sensor that will indicate how active the mobile device is. If there is no activity for a specific period of time it is assumed that the animal has died and the transmitter will send out a different signal to indicate mortality.  Radio collars are often used to get location information however the collar itself can only transmit a radio signal on a specific frequency. It does not have a location sensor, nor does it have the ability to transmit data. In order to gather a location someone must have a directional antenna and determine the direction to the animal from one spot.  Then the user must move to a different spot and measure the direction to the animal from that spot.  It is possible then, to determine the intersection of the two directions and thus the location of the animal.  Getting an accurate location for the animal however, requires that the directions are measured accurately (difficult given the nature of radio waves), the location of the person taking the direction is measured accurately (much easier these days with GPS), and that the animal doesn’t move during the time when you are moving between locations.  In the end, the accuracy of locations is generally unsuitable for fine scaled movement data and the level of effort required to get each location is prohibitive. There is also the problem of having to recapture a wild animal to remove the collar before its batteries run out, either to add new batteries or prevent the collar from harming the animal when it is no longer useful. Nevertheless in certain instances this technique can be useful and has provided a lot of information about wildlife movement.  This type of platform only requires a mobile platform, transmitter, and power supply.

When Global Positioning System (GPS) technology became available, wildlife biologists saw a lot of potential to collect more accurate and finer scale movement data.  GPS works by using a system of satellites in the sky to triangulate your location on earth. The satellites are doing the transmission and so the collar only needs a receiver to get the GPS data. A GPS receiver could theoretically collect data every few seconds with an accuracy of only a few meters without any effort from the researchers. This sounds wonderful, however the problem is that the GPS receiver is basically a computer that uses a fair amount of energy to calculate its position from 4 or 5 GPS satellites. That means that it requires much larger batteries than a traditional radio collar and thus were only suitable for larger animals.  GPS collars also needed a way to retrieve the location from the collar and they were quite expensive.  Some collars would transmit location data to a satellite that could then be re-transmitted to the user. This was great for large, wide ranging animals because you never had to worry about where they went, they could always be followed via satellite, but the cost of using the satellite system was quite high and it required a transmitter capable of reaching the satellite.  Other systems would allow you to locate the animal via a traditional radio collar and then establish a radio-based data link to download the locations from the collar.  This system was less expensive but still required you to keep track of the animal via labor intensive radio-tracking methods and if the animal disappeared from the study area it could be very difficult to find and retrieve the data. Another method contained a cellular modem and could transmit locations through the same cell towers that we use for phones.  This worked well if you were working in an area where there was cellular signal but many projects are in remote areas where that does not exist.  An even simpler system just collected GPS data and stored it on board the collar, just before the battery went dead the collar would release from the animal and send out a mortality signal and the researcher could locate the collar using radio telemetry, return it to the manufacturer and the manufacturer would then download the the data and send it to the researcher.

In 2003 I put a single GPS collar on a coyote in Indiana.  This was about the smallest animal that could handle a GPS collar at that time and for an animal that size we could only have enough battery power to collect locations every 5 minutes for 2 weeks. It worked fine for our purposes, which was just to test my methods for analyzing fine scaled movement data but would be insufficient for any kind of real research and that collar cost $2500.  I have not kept up with the capabilities of these collars, I am sure that they are much improved, but I am also sure that battery life and the requirement for at least one other transmitter limits them to larger animals, at least for genuine scientific research purposes.

Another method for tracking animals is using satellite trackers. This technology is similar to and often confused with GPS collars but it is actually quite different.  These transmit a signal to geosynchronous satellite rather than receiving a signal from the satellites.  The mobile platform does not require a computer to calculate the location, that is done on the satellite.  The satellites are directly overhead with nothing to interfere so they do not require a powerful transmitter and thus they do not require large heavy batteries and even be deployed on large birds. Unfortunately the accuracy is often only within 1km so they are not useful for fine scale movement data but they are very useful for tracking migration patterns of wide-ranging animals especially in a marine environment where other forms of location sensors would be very difficult.

It is also possible to collect location data by triangulating from our cell tower network, and indeed our phones will use that method if GPS is not available however the accuracy is usually only +/- 100m or so.

What are some other things that might be useful to collect besides location data? I am a runner and many runners today use a GPS watch to track their runs. I wear mine 24/7 and it measures my heart rate all day long, keeps track of my resting heart rate, level of stress, amount and quality of sleep I get, etc.  It also has an activity sensor that can tell how many steps I take every day, how much climbing I do, even how fast I move.  The watch is fairly large for a watch but not excessively so. I can turn the GPS on when I run to get location information accurate to within 5m.  It will last about a week under normal use but if I keep the GPS on it will only go for 24 hours before needing to be re-charged.  In order to collect this information the watch has to connect to my phone via bluetooth and transmit the data to the phone. The phone can then send that information to a central database over the cellular network.  There are a lot more runners than wildlife researchers in the world and they have pushed the technology for GPS tracking far more than biologists ever could so this probably represents close to the state of the art for a mobile tracking platform. As amazing as it is with all the data it can collect, it still requires being recharged every 24 hours if it is used to collect location data at GPS level accuracy. Probably if it only collected a location every 5 minutes or so it could last a few days but thats it. And even then it cannot transmit that information to anyone without the use of an external cell phone.  There is no way that such a device could track you without your knowledge and consent. It is too big and requires you to recharge it and download the data.  Tracking you without your knowledge for even a month would require several pounds of batteries and a transmitter suitable at least for working on cell towers (and a data plan unless the cell service providers are in on the scheme).

So what would a secret plan to track humans for nefarious purposes require?  Hopefully if you’ve read this far you are at least convinced that its not going to be possible with an implanted micro-chip.  Such a chip would require not just the chip, but sensors, storage, a transmitter, and a power supply.  That is not going to be given to you via a vaccine needle. The costs would also be astronomical, not just for the hardware but for the massive server farms required to store all that data.  So how then would such a massive large scale tracking plan be implemented?  Ideally they would train us to carry the mobile platform around on our own so they wouldn’t have to attach it to us.  They would train us to re-charge it continually whenever the battery was low. If they were smart, they would even get us to pay for the privilege to help mitigate the expense.  Does that get your wheels spinning?  Yes, a large scale micro-chipping via vaccine operation would be technically impossible, and why would Bill Gates even try it?  We already have been trained to carry our tracking devices with us at all times, recharge them when the batteries die, and even pay for the privilege.

I’m not saying that this is happening. I understand a little bit about what would be required to manage that much data and what purpose would it serve either Bill Gates or the government for that matter?  I see zero benefit for anyone to do this to all people all the time and the logistical considerations for managing it are staggering. What I am saying is that if the government or Bill Gates DID want to do that it wouldn’t require a massive new secret technology delivered via vaccines, it would just require a bit of software downloaded to our phones and the technology to do it is already there.  We would do it to ourselves. Fortunately government may not have a reason to track us all but private companies do it all the time and we permit them to do it because it makes our lives better. They may use that information to fine-tune advertising for our specific interests and location but we then have specialized information about things that interest us and are close by.  It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes its annoying, but sometimes it’s very useful as well. And if we don’t like it we always have the option to turn it off. At least that’s what “they” want us to think.

So lets all stop worrying about Bill gates and his micro-chip vaccine.  If you are really concerned about being tracked throw out your cell-phone and accept the consequences because the future is here now and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Then go down to the nearest clinic and get yourself vaccinated. It may save your life.


What can fire ecology teach us about handling our response to COVID-19?

CYA: These are my own thoughts and just that.  I’m not advocating for or against any particular policy, just writing things down and hoping to generate some ideas.

In the early 90’s as I began my college career as a budding wildlife biologist-to-be, the science of Landscape Ecology was in its infancy and becoming a buzzword.  Landscape Ecology is basically the study of ecological processes that occur over large spatial scales.  It is somewhat of a integrative science that drew from diverse fields such as population genetics, computer programming, behavioral psychology, and conservation. Since I was also getting a minor in GIS and Spatial Analysis and was already somewhat of a computer nerd it fit in well with my interests.  One core theme in Landscape Ecology is the concept of connectivity.  Wildlife biologists and conservation biologists were interested in how to keep landscapes connected to allow wildlife populations to function as a single large population.  How much wildlife habitat could be removed before a population got broken up into smaller chunks.  One big population is more secure from a genetics standpoint but separate populations have some advantage in the case of disease spread.  What is the optimum allocation of habitat to ensure the smallest probability of extinction?  These were some of the questions that occupied a lot of my thinking and studies during that period of my life.

At the same time some fire ecologists were thinking of connectivity in different terms.  In 1988 massive fires had burned several million acres in Yellowstone. I started college just 90 miles away in Bozeman in 1990 and spent summers and some winters working in the park so the Yellowstone fires were a very real part of my world as well.  A group of fire ecologists that were studying the Yellowstone fires began to wonder how much of a landscape is required to enable the spread of fire and they began some simple computer simulations that became a core part of the literature of Landscape Ecology.  What would happen if we had 10000 acres of forest and began removing 1 acre pieces at random? How much could be removed before the landscape lost its connectivity and became a group of separate patches across which a fire ignited in one of the patches could no longer spread to the entire landscape?  It turns out that in that simple case the answer on average was somewhere in the mid 60% range. If more than 65% remained, the landscape remained connected and if less than 65% remained the landscape was disconnected into small patches.  Of course that is on average since the acres were removed at random and so the answer was not the same every time the simulation was run.

Screenshot 2020-04-25 14.47.46

Figure 1: With 25% of the forest removed any fire ignited will still rapidly spread across the landscape. There are very no isolated patches of forest

Of course this was a very simplistic simulation. Habitat is not usually removed at random, etc.  Nevertheless it illustrated an important concept about connectivity in that connectivity is not linear.  There are thresholds at which connectivity is broken and at some level things are either connected or not connected.  In this example, you could remove up to 35% of the landscape and the amount of forest that could burn from a single ignition would be linear because it was connected. If you remove 25% of the forest  (Fig 1) you would only reduce the amount of burn by 25%.  But if you remove 50%

Screenshot 2020-04-25 14.49.40

Figure 2: With 50% of the forest removed, large sections still have the potential to spread but the rate of spread will be slower as there are more firebreaks and there are a few isolated patches.

(Fig 2) of the landscape and you end up with large areas that are still connected but there are also large areas that cannot burn and some small isolated patches. Because of this, the rate of spread will be much slower and some areas will be safe.  And if you remove 75% of the landscape the large connected areas disappear and the landscape is largely composed of small isolated patches.  Any fire that ignites will be limited to a small area and even though there is less forest over all, its vulnerability to fire is much lower because a fire would have to ignite in very close proximity to affect it.  Because the landscape is disconnected the process is no longer linear.

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Figure 3: With 75% of the forest removed the landscape is composed mostly of small isolated patches and any fire that is ignited is unlikely to spread very far.

Why is this important for thinking about the current pandemic?  Consider each person as a piece of forest, albeit one that is constantly moving around.  When people are within 6 feet of each other we can consider them to be connected and the virus has the potential to spread between them, Let’s call this a potentially contagious event.  Prior to the pandemic we were often in crowded offices, stores, theaters, etc.  We experienced hundreds or thousands of potentially contagious events every day. We were connected.  Airplanes flew around the world connecting areas that were physically far apart.  Because of this the virus was able to spread rapidly around the world and very quickly in local areas, especially cities, where people were crowded together and in such a connected environment the virus spread, well like wildfire.  But once it became clear how quickly it was spreading and how many people could potentially die, governments began implementing regulations designed to keep people from gathering in crowds and ultimately, even from leaving their houses in some places.  This was a necessary step to force people to take it serious and to flatten the curve. By now the vast majority of the people on the planet get it.  This is serious. We need to adapt. Most of us know people who have been infected, sadly a lot of us know people who have died.  Six degrees of separation and all that. We live in a connected world, but the social distancing has worked.  The curve has been flattened.  In many of the hardest hit areas infections are declining. Sadly in other areas they are still climbing but because we have seen what is possible and have reacted earlier in those places it is unlikely that the progression will be as bad unless there are exigent circumstances such as people being crowded in refugee camps and unable to leave.

Now many areas are considering the possibility of opening up again, albeit maintaining social distancing, etc.  This has caused all kinds of angst.  “Its too soon!!!!”.  But I wonder if it really is too soon.  What will really happen if strict lock-down regulations are eased up?  Will people immediately go back to pre-covid activities?  Crowded bars, theaters, subways, etc?  I have no doubt that if they did that the virus would return to spreading like wildfire again.  But I don’t believe for a minute that this would happen.  People are not stupid.  Most will stay home, continue to limit travel, continue hygiene, continue social distancing when they do go out, etc.  Mostly will probably not be visiting loved ones in nursing homes anytime soon.  Perhaps some people will want to go back to restaurants, concerts, and sporting events but it is unlikely that even if they wanted to that it would be possible. Judging by the rate at which restaurants open and go out of business in towns I’ve lived in I would guess that many restaurants are just getting by.  Will they actually open up again if they only have 25% of their normal customers?  If they were barely getting by with 100% of their customers how could they possibly operate at 25%? Why wouldn’t they stay home and collect the unemployment that they have been paying into all their lives for exactly such a situation as this rather than go broke trying to meet a payroll?  Some may and thats OK because then they can get the customers who are willing to take the risk. Others can spend their time figuring how to adapt, maybe by preparing meals for take out or delivery, maybe finding another use for the space.  The point is that even if regulations are eased, we are not going to go back to pre-covid activities anytime soon. Just by avoiding crowds, practicing good hygiene, limiting travel, etc we can probably reduce our number of potentially contagious events by 90%.  Trying to eliminate the remaining 10% is the problem. Those are the extreme measures that seem like government over-reach and cause people to rebel.

So if we reduce contagious events by 90% does that mean we have to accept 10% of current levels of infection. I would argue that the answer is probably not.  Remember at the beginning of this we had to get the virus’s R value to less than 1.  Greater than 1 and the number of cases increase, at 1 it stays the same, and less than 1 the number of cases eventually go to zero.  Of course the lower the R value the faster it goes to zero.  On that basis even a 90% reduction in the R value would still ultimately lead to the virus extinction.  But remember what we learned about fire ecology. Connectivity is not linear. A 50% reduction in forest doesn’t mean a 50% reduction in the size of a fire. Once the connection connectivity is crossed a 50% reduction in forest means that average fire size might be only 10%. A 90% reduction (Fig 4) probably means that any fire that occurs would be very small and easily managed before it becomes a raging inferno.

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Figure 4: With 90% of the landscape remove, even though 1,000 acres remain, no fire will ever burn more than 8 acres and most will be only 1 acre.  Small fires are much easier to manage and this landscape is safe from catastrophic wildfire events.

I suspect that the same will be true of this virus.  If we can reduce our potentially contagious events, this virus will probably not go extinct but will get to the point where any outbreak will be very small and easily managed.  Trying to eliminate the remaining 10% would be overkill and counterproductive.  Remember we never achieve 100% vaccination rates because there are always vulnerable people who can’t handle vaccination but we have eliminated several diseases through vaccination by making potentially contagious events so rare that there is a very small probability of spread.  We can break the connectivity and most of the danger without resorting to extreme measures.

How much do we have to reduce potential contagious events to break the connectivity that allowed this pandemic to occur?  What is that threshold?  Honestly I have no idea, This was mostly a theoretical exercise but I guarantee you that some very smart epidemiologists are trying to figure that out right now based on the specific characteristics of this virus and massive computer simulations that are orders of magnitude more complex than what I described.  I suspect that we will also soon have some idea based on empirical evidence as restrictions are eased and people start coming out of their houses slowly.  Some will inevitably go too far but probably without major consequence and then we will learn what works and what doesn’t.  I suspect we will find out that we can go out and exercise, that masks are of dubious benefit even in a crowd,  that haircutters and massage therapists who work from home can have customers, that mechanics, and carpenters, and fence builders can work. Some small stores and restaurants can probably open up and/or focus on take-out and delivery.  Whether they will have customers or not is another question, but as long as most of us can keep working from home, avoiding crowds, washing our hands and disinfecting our doorknobs, and screening our customers as much as possible we will probably kick this thing in months rather than years even without a vaccine.  Remember we never got around to developing a vaccine for SARS, which probably was not as contagious as COVID-19 but does seem to have completely disappeared on its own once it was taken seriously (knock on wood)

But what do I know….

Coronavirus thoughts from a population ecology perspective

I am not a doctor and I can’t speak to medical practices. I don’t currently make my living as a biologist but I did intend to at one point in my life and spent over 10 years of college education focusing on quantitative population ecology and statistics. I have published papers on estimation of survival rates in small mammal populations so I am not entirely uninformed in this area and it motivates my thoughts on this subject.  Nevertheless this is mostly my way of organizing my thoughts and I’m not putting too much energy into it….

The population of interest (N) in a pandemic is, by definition, the entire world.  Currently this is about 7.8 Billion people.  Every single one of us can be put into one of two categories. Those who have been tested (Nt) and those who have not yet been tested (Nu).  Most of what we really know to help understand this pandemic is based on those who have been tested.

Those who have been tested can be further divided. The possibilities are

  1. Those who are infected and have died (Ntd)
  2. Those who are actively infected (Nta)
  3. Those who had been infected and recovered (Ntr)
  4. Those who tested negative (Ntn)

Those who have have not been tested can also be further divided

  1. Those who are actively infected but have not been tested (Nua)
  2. Those who have been infected but recovered (Nur)
  3. Those who have been exposed to the virus but were able to fight off and not get infected (Nue)
  4. Those who have not yet been exposed (Nuu)

This is the set of information that, ideally, we would like to have to begin to understand this pandemic and how it may ultimately progress.  Even more ideally we would like to have estimates of each of these numbers for each country or state.  For many reasons we know very little about the numbers in some of these categories and our confidence in the data that we do have varies widely between areas due to differences in testing, differences in health care infrastructure and differences in government.

Let’s discuss these parameters in more detail starting with those who have been infected and died (Ntd).  This is probably the parameter with the most accurate data. Every day each country reports how many fatalities have occurred.  Even here however there are some uncertainties.  It’s possible that some of the early cases were misidentified as the flu or pneumonia. It’s possible that some governments are fudging the numbers in order to prevent people from panicking  or in order to make themselves look better in the eyes of the world.  There are differences in how these numbers are reported as well. In poor countries we have seen large increases in fatalities but without access to hospitals and testing many of these fatalities are not listed as corona virus fatalities.  Some countries have only reported fatalities from hospitals and not counted those who died in nursing homes or in their own houses.  Nevertheless this value is the easiest to estimate. It’s simply a count of the number of people who died of COVID-19 and should be considered to be a minimum as its unlikely that any government is overestimating the number of deaths.

The people who have been tested and are currently infected (Nta) is probably also fairly accurate as each government reports this every day. The problem is that in order for us to really make any inference to the population we want to know the total number of people who are actively infected (Nta+Nua) not just those who have been tested.  It is thought that there may be many more active infections who have not been tested than there are those who have been tested.  Since we know very little about Nua it is extremely difficult to calculate an accurate mortality rate.  Also testing has been done very differently in different countries.  In South Korea and Germany there has been extensive testing and that data probably is the most useful and as one would expect indicate lower mortality rates.  Other countries that have limited testing capacity have only tested people with known exposure or who have symptoms.  Some have not been testing until the symptoms have been so bad that they required medical intervention and of course in these cases it appears that mortality rates are higher because we are missing many people who are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms.  What we know from countries like South Korea and China where the pandemic has largely run its course for now is that there are a lot of mild and asymptomatic cases but it’s not terribly high. Enough to skew the data a bit but not enough to make it completely useless.  Nevertheless the values for Nua are currently unknown and vary from country to country and thus make estimation of mortality rates tenuous at best.

The values for those who have been tested positive and recovered (Ntr) are probably reasonably accurate although they depend on a series of negative test results and in areas where the pandemic is very active, doing those tests are probably not a priority and so those values are probably an underestimate.  Some people may test positive, have a mild case, recover, and never return for the tests required to list them as recovered. Again, this would result in an underestimate of Ntr.  Also, like Nta, what we really need is the total number of people who have recovered which includes those who were NOT tested and recovered (Nur) as well as those who WERE tested and recovered.  Again this is something we know very little about.

So far I have only seen occasional estimates of the number of tests performed which, under certain conditions, would provide information about the prevalence of the virus in the general population.  Those conditions are unlikely to be met however as they would require the tests to be from a completely random selection of people.  Currently tests are biased towards people with symptoms and thus likely to be positive and so attempts to estimate prevalence would be biased high. Nevertheless if we knew both the number of tests performed and something about the way that the tests were distributed it would help elucidate broad patterns and shed some light. EDIT: April 8 – has started to report the number of tests for each country which is interesting. But without information about how those tests were performed it is difficult to interpret them with any level of confidence.

In an ideal world we would learn a lot by doing such a study.  We would sample a proportion of the population at random and test them both for active infections and with an antibody test to see if they had been infected in the past and recovered.  Then we would follow each case through to its conclusion, either death or recovery.  In this way we would be able to estimate both prevalence and mortality along with the effects of covariates such as age, gender, and comorbidity factors without worrying about missing information, sampling bias, or other confounding issues.  Of course some of the parameters of interest would be expected to change over time so sampling would need to be ongoing in order to understand the temporal variability and detect the effects of mitigation measures. I am sure this is being done right now, however it will not be available soon.  This is a long lasting illness.  It takes 5 or 6 days on average to develop symptoms after being infected.  Death occurs on average 18 days after symptoms and it takes on average 25 days for a person to be declared recovered after onset of symptoms.  This means on average it would take a month to get a result for an individual.  The results of this study would have to wait until every subject had an outcome though and that might take 2 months or more.  It’s been two months since the diamond princess cruise ship was infected and 14% of those infected are still active and there are still occasional deaths.  The epidemic is just beginning in the US and it is unlikely that any results will be available for several more months.

In the absence of the type of study outlined above many people have been making all kinds of dubious estimates of mortality rates and making dubious decisions based on those estimates. The simplest and most common way that I have seen, is that people take the number of deaths (Ntd) and divide it by the number of cases (Ntd+Nta+Ntr).  Many people have rightly pointed out this method is likely to overestimate mortality because of the number of people who are infected but with mild symptoms or otherwise untested (Nua+Nur).  This is true but it also true that many of the people who have been infected have not had a result yet and may still die. This would tend to bias the estimate  to be less than the true mortality rate.  This is especially true where the epidemic is recent and increasing. If it takes 18 days for a person to die after onset of symptoms and the epidemic is 15 days old there will be lots of cases and not yet many deaths.  These conflicting confounding factors may equal out and the estimate may actually be accurate if the amount of overestimation due to unknown Nua is the same as the amount of underestimation due to the time lag for death to occur.  However we know that these things vary from place to place due to timing of the epidemic and differences in testing protocols so one would expect the estimate to vary from place to place as well. As a result this method of calculating mortality is fraught with issues and can only provide the most basic large scale comparisons.

A less frequently used method is to only consider the cases that have had an outcome.  The number of deaths (Ntd) divided by the number of  dead + the number of recoveries (Ntd + Ntr).  This method rightfully dismisses the currently active cases because we still don’t know how they will turn out.  It also suffers, however, from the difficulty in knowing how many untested people have recovered (Nur).  It also suffers from time issues.  It takes time for cases to end. Currently in the world there are about 1,500,000 cases but only 400,000 have had an outcome (recovery or death) The outcome from the other 1,100,000 are still unknown.  Also because it takes longer for someone to be declared recovered then it takes for death this method will result in overestimation of the mortality rate.  This is further confounded by the tendency to underestimate the number of recoveries.  This method should be more accurate than the previous one, but only AFTER the epidemic has largely passed and only in areas where there was sufficient testing to believe that the number of infections that were not identified because of lack of testing was low.

The WHO has estimated a mortality rate of 3.4%, mostly based on data from China.  To be honest I don’t know their methodology. I have seen a lot of people, including the President of the US, claim this number is way too high but nobody has provided a rationale.  I would tend to trust the experts over those (including myself) that make such statements based on their gut, or by failing to consider all of the issues discussed above, and especially those that have political motivation to downplay (governments) or upplay (media) those values.  We do have two countries now where the epidemic has largely passed for now and where extensive testing was done.  In China 4% of the case that had an outcome resulted in death.  In South Korea it is 3%. In both countries it is not thought that there were a lot of untested infections.  Those values bookend nicely with the WHO’s estimate, it would make sense that China’s mortality rate was a bit higher because of the much larger number of cases and the overwhelming of the medical system.  I would guess that the WHO’s estimate is probably close to reality as a baseline but that may increase in area’s where the medical system becomes massively overwhelmed and very little individual care is possible or in areas where the health care system is just generally poor and the population has a lot of comorbidity issues.  I see no reason to believe some articles I have read saying that the mortality rate is probably less than 1% as we still have not seen ANYWHERE that even the naive estimates of mortality are that low, other than areas where the epidemic is so new that infected cases have not yet had time to die.

There is reason to be optimistic however that we may still be spared the worst case scenario of global infection rates close to 100% and mortality rates around 3% that we saw with the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

Even in the worst hit areas (currently Italy and Spain) infection rates are low.  Currently around 0.3% of the population.  That means 99.7% are uninfected.  Some are saying the true infection rates are as much as 10x the number that have been tested. Even if this is true 97% are still uninfected and we know very little about those who are uninfected.  Going back to our initial classification we can put the uninfected into two groups. Those who have been exposed but were not infected (Nue) and those who have not yet been exposed (Nuu).  If the majority of those 97% or so have been exposed but remain uninfected it may indicate that most people have immune systems capable of fighting off the virus and the worst case scenario of 100% infection rates are nowhere near imminent.  Even if we see 10% infection rates we will have dodged a bullet and since we have not seen anywhere near infections rates that high we do not yet have reason to expect them.  Even on the Diamond Princess cruise ship the infection rate was only about 20% and that was an ideal environment for transmission and a population biased toward older and less healthy people.

If most of the uninfected people are uninfected simply because they have not yet been exposed to the virus yet then the worst case scenario is still possible.  However in many countries that have had strict quarantine procedures in place for several weeks we are actually seeing that the rate of new infections is no longer increasing exponentially and so we should feel good that we can actually control the spread of the virus.  As more and more countries begin to see increasing cases and each takes a different approach we will have more information about what works and what doesn’t.  This means that even if there are many people still susceptible to the virus, we may be able to approach each new outbreak on a local basis with proven techniques that don’t require extreme measures such as locking down entire countries.  Hopefully countries which have yet to experience significant outbreaks can learn from the mistakes of others at least long enough for the scientists and medical community to improve treatment and maybe even come up with a cure or a vaccine.

In short, since we have seen that governments are now taking this seriously and people for the most part are accepting the extreme measures taken even in liberal democracies I am optimistic that we will get nowhere near the worst case scenario.  That being said the current numbers and continued rate of growth are staggering.  Even if transmission were stopped today the number of cases would continue to increase for a week and the number of deaths would increase for 2 months and so it is unlikely that the world will escape this without deaths in the 6 figures and that only if we are very lucky.  Still it will probably be a long way from the Spanish flu like mortality which would be over 200,000,000 given todays population.

The big question is what will happen next.  The social distancing and government imposed lockdowns are clearly reducing the spread of the virus but they are damaging to the economy and everybody is eager to return to normal life.  Again, this is a long acting disease with many asymptomatic people.  When we start seeing a decline in cases and mortalities as we inevitably will, when will it be safe to let people out of their homes and open up the economy?  And what do we do if, as is bound to happen,  the virus reappears once things open up?  Hopefully when this occurs it will be able to be treated as a local problem. By now we are all aware of the fact that this is serious and we have seen examples of what works and what doesn’t work.  Nobody will be blowing off symptoms any longer and if an outbreak does occur our public health systems will be able to immediately start contact tracing and quarantining individuals rather than entire states and countries.  That has worked many places but only when the outbreaks are relatively small and localized.  The bottom line is that we are all better educated and can approach the next phase systematically and with a solid plan in place.



Thanksgiving week was hectic. As usual tasks piled up at work, car trouble came at the worst possible time, and I had an “issue” with the Mexican government that I needed to resolve or I might not even get to do this trip to begin with. Nevertheless I managed to pull everything together and hit the road around 8 Wednesday night.


I’ve always wanted to go to Vegas but this would have to wait for another trip.

As luck would have it, an old college friend was living in Las Cruces,  NM and we had made plans to have Thanksgiving dinner so I actually had a plan to adhere to. I managed to sleep a few hours at a rest stop south of Pueblo,  and get in a short but sweet bike ride in Santa Fe,  before finally getting a chance to relax during Thanksgiving dinner.

I had hoped to cross the border on Friday but taking care of a few last minute tasks ended up taking the entire day and I slept again at another rest area just outside the border crossing.

When you drive into Mexico,  anywhere outside of Baja or within 20 miles of the US border you need to get a temporary vehicle importation permit. It costs about $40 dollars plus you need to leave a deposit of several hundred dollars that they return when you take your car back to the US. In 2010, on my first trip to Copper Canyon I did all the right things but when I crossed back into the US I failed to have the permit cancelled. I had driven 16 hours from Creel to Nogales and was stuck in line at the border for 3 hours and had never seen anywhere to go to get it cancelled.  Suddenly I was on the US side of the border and was told that I needed to cross back into Mexico in order to get my deposit back. It was late and I was tired and stressed out and I needed to get back for work. Let them keep their $200. I had had an amazing trip that cost far less than I expected and I just didn’t care.

The next time I drove across was in 2013 with my friend Steve. Steve had gone to use the restroom while I got the permit for my truck. I was a bit shocked when I was told that I couldn’t take the truck in because I had never canceled my permit in 2010.

“You have to bring your old permit back” I was told. The permit was a sticker attached to the windshield of the car. A car that had blown its head gasket and been sold for salvage 2 years earlier.

“I don’t have the car anymore, surely there must be a way?” I pleaded.

“No you have to bring the car back”

“I don’t have the car anymore. It no longer exists” I said.

“Then you cannot bring another car to Mexico” I was told.

“Never again”

“Never again!”

“Surely there must be a way to fix this”

“Not without your car”

“But, I don’t have the car anymore”

This went on for a few more minutes. I was exasperated. I had Lola with me so I couldn’t just hop on a bus. I couldn’t believe that this was a problem that could not be fixed. Everything can be fixed in Mexico right?

About that time my friend Steve returned from the rest room. “Is he your friend” I was asked when he walked up to the window where I was arguing over the permit.

“Yes”, I said. “He is with me”.

“Then you can sign your title over to him and then it is his car and HE can bring it into Mexico”. Problem solved. At least for that trip. But I still could not drive a car into Mexico and driving into Mexico was something that loomed large in my future plans. I did some research and learned that this was a big problem and that it actually was very difficult to fix. Apparently it had been done before but nobody seemed to know how. I paid $15 to somebody named Mexico Mike over the internet for a phone number to call but my spanish was too poor to talk to anyone and apparently nobody on the other end spoke English. I also learned that the permit was tied to your passport number.

When I lost my passport this summer it occurred to me that if I got a new passport with a new passport number, that maybe, just maybe, I would be allowed to bring a car into Mexico again. To increase the odds of this happening I waited until the very last minute to get a new passport and when I left Colorado my shiny new passport was less than 24 hours old. But I still didn’t know if it would work….

My blood pressure rose steadily for 2 hours as I waited in line after line at the border to get a tourist card, pay the bank, get my visa stamped, and finally to get my vehicle permit. My stomach was in butterflies when I handed them my passport and watched as they typed my number into their computer, asked me for my drivers license, typed that into the computer, stood up and walked away for three minutes, and finally returned with my brand new permit. All was good and finally i knew for sure that the trip was going to happen and I was legal to drive in Mexico again. Whew…. I headed south with a light heart and a huge smile.

It took over a day to get to Zacatecas. It could probably be done in a day but I have two rules when traveling outside the US. Never drive at night, and never arrive at your destination after dark. Things often don’t go as planned and I always want time to solve problems without the complication of driving around an unknown city in the dark. Of course I have broken both those rules many times, but whatever…

I made it to Zacatecas early Sunday afternoon. I had plenty of time to find my hostel, which is on a narrow one way street. I had to park a few blocks away but the hostel owner followed me to my car and guided me to a parking spot which involved backing up a one-way street for a couple hundred feet. Apparently the direction you are facing is more important than the direction that you are traveling but my third rule of traveling is always listen to the locals so I arrived safely to my parking spot right in front of the hostel.


The narrow colonial streets of Zacatecas.

Zacatecas is an old colonial city founded in 1546. Its streets and buildings existed for several centuries before the existence of automobiles. They are narrow and made from rocks mortared into place. It is also a very hilly city with very hilly streets. The combination makes for an interesting driving experience. Because it is old, however, it is relatively easy to walk around in. The three hundred year old cathedral is less than a block away and that is where I went first.

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The view of the cathedral from my hostel room at night.

Next I saw that I am in between two of the largest hills in town and thus placed well to explore some trails as well. Needless to say I headed up the closest one, Cerro de la Bufa. Zacatecas was founded as a silver mining  town and for several centuries had some of the richest mines in the world. Because of this it has been an important military target and was the site of several key battles in both the Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution. At the top of the hill was a museum, statues of revolutionary heroes, and the Mausoleum of the Illustrious Hombres. On the way back I managed to find an Internet Cafe and printed out directions to my Spanish school.


The trail to the top of Cerra de la Bufa


The view from the top


The Mausoleum of the Illustrious Hombres.


Statues of the heroes of the Mexican revolution.

I had plenty of time in the morning to get to school so I got up early and took Lola on a quick run up the mountain before walking to class. When I arrived at the address I had pulled from the web site I didn’t see anything resembling a school but the director had told me that they had moved the school into their home after enrollment decreased precipitously when the US State department issued travel warnings to Mexico. I knocked on the door and waited but  nobody answered. After a few minutes I saw someone coming out of the house across the street and I asked if they knew anything about the school but they didn’t. I called and my instructor, Arturo, answered.

“Is this Mike?”, I hadn’t been forgotten.

“Yes, I am at 505 Callejón Montalvo, but I don’t see the school”

“I know exactly where you are, the streets in Zacatecas are very old and the numbers are not always easy. I will come by in 5 minutes. You cannot miss me, I am a very good looking man.” I liked this guy already.

When he showed up he told me that they were worried that I was not going to show up. This struck me as odd as I thought I had been on time. Later I discovered that I was in a different time zone and was actually an hour late. I had traveled pretty much due South and the time on my phone had not changed so it never occurred to me that I might be in a different time zone. Gringoes…

Arturo gave me an a valuation and determined where to begin my lessons. He also invited Lola to join us for classes, which made life easier for both of us. Then we began my first day of Spanish class.


Lola’s life on the roof of my Spanish school wasn’t all bad. She had friends.

For the next two weeks, life fell into an easy, predictable, pattern. I got up and ate some fruit with tea for breakfast. Lola and I walked to school, stopping in the park halfway to review my lessons. At school Arturo greeted me with coffee , while Lola got sent to the roof. The first three hours of every day I had formal lessons with Arturo’s wife Lolis. After lunch I had two hours of instructions with Arturo. These were more informal readings and discussions about the history, culture, and present issues of Mexico. This was my favorite part of the day. I found Arturo to be very interesting with much wisdom and insight into his country. I learned a lot and our conversations often went long overtime.

On our way home, I usually stopped for a snack from a street vendor. Typically a tamale, burrito, or an ear of corn on the cob. Occasionally a slice of pizza. The cost for these was generally 6-10 pesos ($0.50-$0.70). When I got back to the hostel I would check my email and take care of any job related tasks that were necessary, and then Lola and I would go for a run. As an old city, Zacatecas had narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks with many steps so we generally headed towards Cerra de la Bufa, which had a network of trails that were much flatter than the streets of Zacatecas.

In the evenings I would make dinner in the hostel kitchen, then read or study spanish. Occasionally I went out to a local cantina for a beer with folks I met at the hostel. I always slept well. Zacatecas is just south of the Tropic of Cancer and so technically it is a tropical city, however it is also 8,000 feet above sea level and thus it can get chilly at night. Several mornings I saw frost on car windshields.

Zacatecas was a bustling city. Everywhere we went people were busy. The streets were full of small stores and offices of every variety. Electronic stores, hardware stores, lawyer offices, repair shops, butcher shops, doctors offices, clothing stores, fruit stores, government offices, restaurants, bars, and there must have been 200 shoe stores. It was refreshing to see so many small businesses with so much variety in such a small area. This, to me, is the true spirit of capitalism, and a stark contrast to the corporate mega-stores we have in the US. The architecture was amazing, every corner I turned there was a new cathedral, or fountain, or theater. At night, the entire city was lit up with lights shining on the old Colonial buildings and even the buildings at the top of Cerra de la Bufa were lit up and shining down on the city.


The old theater in downtown Zacatecas


Breakfast at the Parthenon cafe.


It took me awhile but I finally found the entrance to the Irish Pub and drank the last Guinness in Zacatecas.

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In short, I found Zacatecas to be a very pleasant place to spend time. The climate is nearly perfect year around and I never once felt uncomfortable for my personal safety. The town is known throughout Mexico for its history and colonial architecture. There are several museums and other attractions, as well as plenty of hotels and nice restaurants in the downtown area, so I assume that it sees it’s share of visitors from within Mexico, but I only met one other American who was riding his bike to Panama. It’s not the place to go if you want a vacation with everything served to you on a silver platter but it’s a great place to go if you want to explore a new area and a new culture without the interference of other gringo’s. I highly recommend it.

One of the things I love about traveling is encountering the unknown and unexpected. In this department Zacatecas did not disappoint.


One day I happened to look up and learned that there are cable cars in Zacatecas.


The 40 ft tall christmas tree sponsored by Coca-Cola in plaza bicentenario


A zipline at the top of Cerra de la Bufa where you can fly “Como Superman!”


At 10 o’clock on Friday night I heard loud music that appeared to be approaching my hostel. Looking out the window I saw a brass band being lead by a donkey through the streets.

I would be remiss in my description of Zacatecas if I did not mention that the town seems to love Bugs. New bugs, old bugs, Baja bugs, chopped and lowered bugs, bugs of every color and condition.

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Why did the gringo cross the border? (Por que cruza el gringo la frontera?)

I got this question a lot when preparing for this trip. “Why would you want to go to Mexico all by yourself to a place you’ve never even heard of? Won’t you be afraid?”  I suppose that this is an attempt to explain to those people. Many of my better friends, however, understand exactly why somebody would want to do such a thing. Of course it’s a little frightening to set off into the unknown all by yourself, but I am a disperser. That’s what we do. We are far more excited to explore new places, have new experiences, and meet new people, than we are afraid of the unknown.

This trip began when I re-entered the traditional work force in April after an almost three year hiatus. My new job as the GIS specialist/database manager for an environmental consulting firm in Denver was challenging and time consuming. The company was in the middle of a field season and desperately needed help with managing their raptor surveys for oil and gas projects north of Denver. Their old methods were clearly being pushed to their limits as the workload was increasing and they were in danger of losing control and losing the client. They realized that they needed a more organized, automated approach to increase efficiency and reduce the possibility for mistakes, and that was my main job.

First I had to understand what their needs were, then I had to figure out a solution to address their needs, and finally I had to implement those solutions. If I had had a month or two to figure everything out BEFORE the work began it would have been relatively simple even though it was a fairly complicated project. But coming into this project in the middle of a busy field season posed several problems, most importantly the work had to continue non-stop. And that was a full time job by itself using the systems that they had already established. Everything else had to be done after normal working hours and long story short, I worked A LOT of hours for several months before thing became a little more manageable.

That left me with several months worth of comp-time to use and the boss promised that I could take them over the winter during our slower period. And so I began to plot my temporary escape from the drudgery of wage slavery. Ten years ago I made the decision to try to learn Spanish. I wanted to expand my horizons outside the American bubble and explore new areas. Knowing Spanish would open up virtually the entire hemisphere to me, so I began to study on my own when I had the chance. I felt that I was learning a lot and was excited to take my first trip to Mexico in the winter of 2005, a 5 week camping, biking, running, kayaking and backpacking adventure on the Baja Peninsula. I learned quickly that understanding a bit of grammar and vocabulary from a book was useful for reading but was almost useless for having a conversation.

Fortunately, Baja is populated mostly by gringo ex-pats and my inability to carry on an actual conversation in Spanish was not a deal-breaker. I could read a menu and road signs and order a beer and that enabled me to finish the trip with very few problems. I knew, however, that I needed more exposure with actual Spanish speaking folk if I were ever to become fluent. I did some research and learned that Antigua, Guatemala was a good place to learn Spanish especially for beginners and in February of 2008 I managed to sneak off from work for three weeks there. The first two weeks I enrolled in an immersion Spanish school.

There are many such schools in Antigua and other cities throughout Latin America. All of them go week to week with classes starting Monday and ending Friday. Generally classes are in the morning leaving afternoons free for self-study and exploration. I learned a lot and began to feel confident with my ability to carry out a conversation with my instructor (at least in the present tense). My last week in Guatemala I wanted to get out of Antigua and explore a little. Once again, I was shocked to discover how little I really knew. There are so many people in Antigua enrolled in language school that I think that the entire town has become accustomed to speaking slowly, with a reduced vocabulary and mostly in the present tense. It is confidence inspiring, but as soon as I stepped out of the Antigua bubble I realized that Spanish speakers have a very rich language, full of subtle nuance and a large vocabulary. And they speak very, very, fast. If I had a minute or two I could usually think of a way to ask the question that I wanted to ask but I rarely understood the answer. Having a conversation with someone to learn more about their lives and culture was virtually impossible.

I began to realize that learning Spanish would be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. I managed to get in another trip to Guatemala in 2009. In 2010 I went to Mexico’s copper canyon for the first time for a race but spent most of my time there conversing with other English speakers. I returned in 2011 with the same result. In 2012 I had the opportunity to travel in South America for 2 months and was excited to finally have the chance to really immerse myself in the language in Bolivia and Peru. At the last minute, however, I got talked into going to Patagonia with a friend instead. Patagonia was amazing but my friend had no interest in even attempting to learn Spanish and we spent most of our time staying in hostels and traveling with other English speakers and when I returned I felt like I knew less than when I started because I had been studying pretty intensively on my own in preparation for the trip but had virtually no chance to practice during it.

I returned to Copper Canyon again in 2013 and 2014 with the predictable result of spending most of my time with other English speakers. I met many amazing people and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world but they weren’t very conducive for learning spanish. For nearly a decade I had been learning and getting a little better on every trip but then there would be 10 or 11 months where I would have little opportunity to practice and learning a language is definitely a use it or loose it proposition.

When I realized that I had the chance to take 5 weeks off this year I knew what I wanted. I wanted to go by myself to some place where I could take some more immersion classes, but more importantly to step out of the comfort zone of being with friends, or in an area with a lot of other tourists. I wanted to be in an area where I would be forced to sink or swim on my own. In addition to learning the language I also wanted to try to understand the culture better. I would snicker internally when people would tell me “I love Mexico” and then tell me about their trip to Cancun or Cabo. I had avoided those tourist traps like the plague and spent my time exploring more remote areas. But at the same time I knew that my experiences of Mexico in the sparsely populated deserts of Baja and copper canyon, while fascinating, were not much more representative of the country than those who stayed in the beach resorts.

The question then became where to go. I wanted to go to a more populated area that would be more typical of Mexico, but I wasn’t really prepared to go into the vast 21 million person metropolis of Mexico City. Especially not in my own car and I had to drive as I didn’t want to leave Lola home for 5 weeks. I have wanted to visit Oaxaca for many years but it’s a pretty long drive and I though maybe it would be better saved for a longer trip or when I had the chance to fly or take a bus. I have also heard that Durango was beautiful and it was appealing to me as I have lived most of my adult life in Durango, Colorado.  It also turned out that I had a friend there, who unbeknownst to me, had recently moved from Mexico City to teach in the University. Once we made that connection, however, I began to focus more on Durango. It was not too far to drive and the possibility of having a local friend was appealing.

There was a problem, however. I could not find any immersion Spanish schools in Durango. I found one in Mazatlán and some other cities further south but nothing in Durango itself. I wrote to several of the schools that I had found and discovered that most of them had recently closed. The image of violence in Mexico is bad enough that there are not nearly as many potential students as there had been in the past.  I did get a reply from the director of a school in Zacatecas. He said that they only had one student and had recently had to move out of their building but were still teaching classes out of their house. This appealed to me for several reasons. It meant that I would probably get a better learning experience with more one-on-one time with the teachers. It also meant a more intimate setting, inside someone’s personal house, where it would be easier to see and learn more about how they live.  Finally Zacatecas was the closest school I could find to Durango.

I didn’t know very much about Zacatecas at all. I had met some Zacatecos in Copper Canyon and they all liked their city and I had heard the name before but that was about the extent of my knowledge. A quick wiki-pedia check told me that it was an old colonial silver mining city with a rich history and was at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet. Nothing I saw said anything about tourism. In short, it sounded perfect and I was hooked. I made the final decision only a week before leaving so I didn’t have much time to learn about Zacatecas, nor did I want to. I always prefer to be surprised and let the trip develop on its own. I had the address of the school and of a hostel that they recommended and I had google maps, a valid passport, and a pocket full of pesos so what else did I need? Off I went, and what I found in my first week was amazing. But that story will have to wait for a few days.

On technology and the vagabond lifestyle

It has been said that nothing ever stays the same and I have seen many changes come and go over the past 48 years. Many of these changes leave me melancholy and a little sad. Others have made my heart sing and leave me breathless in anticipation of better things to come. I have seen favorite places lost to development, fires, and floods and I have discovered many amazing new places as well.  I have lost many dear friends to accidents and disease and at the same time I continually meet new friends. I have lived various places.  I’ve picked up and dropped hobbies and interests. I have learned many, many things about myself and the world around me and I have forgotten almost as much as I have learned. In many ways I am a very different person than I was 30 years ago but in many ways it seems that I am the same.

This spring I went through some old photo albums and scanned in a bunch of pictures.  I realized that many of the pictures I took 30 years ago are almost identical to the ones I take now. Pictures of my dog on a mountain. Pictures of whatever van I happened to be living in at a beautiful campsite.  Pictures of empty trails in remote areas.  That process left me wondering whether my life has become stuck in a rut that I have never “matured” out of, or whether I was fortunate to discover at an early age exactly what fuels my soul and continued doing it. I don’t have an answer to that question although I suspect it might be a little of each.  Regardless, I still find myself drawn to travel, to be mobile, to seek out beauty, to hard work, and I still spend more nights in a van than in my bed and I still spend more time with my dog than with people.



Mt. Magazine, Arkansas. 1985




Grizzly Peak, Colorado 2014

When I look back over the past three decades, however, I am struck at how different the experience of travel is today than what it was 30 years ago.  Sure the trails are a bit more crowded. There are more rules, regulations, permits, etc. Everything seems to cost way more than it did.  Those are all subtle changes, however.  Those are the result of continued steady change over long periods of time. It would be difficult to point to any one point in time and say “This changes everything”. Right around the turn of the millennium, however, something changed that represented a complete paradigm shift in the experience of the itinerant traveling lifestyle. That change had to do with the advancement of technology.

There have been many advancements in technology over that time. Some, like GPS, can be quite useful in the outdoor lifestyle. Others like heart rate monitors or iPods may enhance the experience in some ways but might also detract from the experience as well. None of these are exactly groundbreaking.  The biggest affect of technology, the thing that fundamentally changes the very nature of the experience, is the ability to stay connected and to share the experience with others.

When I first hit the road to travel and backpack around the west in 1985 I was alone, except for my dog. Here and there I would meet people and sometimes spend a few days or a week with them but then we would split and I would be alone again. In order to share my experience with someone I would have to tell them a story one-on-one.  I did have a camera and could show a few pictures but photography was much more difficult then and to show the pictures to someone they had to be physically present to look through a large photo album. Certainly 1985 was not 1804 when Lewis and Clark set off on their Corps of Discovery Expedition, but in many ways the ability to stay connected and share experience in 1985 was closer to 1804 then it was to 2010.

Lewis and Clark did not have camera’s but they had artists along who could paint pictures of the places that they visited, the people that they met, and the plants and animals that they saw. Granted, taking a photograph is a bit quicker than painting a picture but in many ways a painting can be far better, at least with my meager photography skills. I was lucky to have had a decent SLR camera with me on my earliest travels. When I was a senior in high school I went to a computer convention with my father and I put my name in a raffle and won. I didn’t win a camera but I won a cabbage patch doll which I had absolutely no use for. But my sister really wanted the cabbage patch doll and she had a camera that I wanted so we worked out a mutually agreeable trade and I was able to record the next 10 years of my travels for prosperity and my sister got an ugly doll.

In 1985, however, photography was very different than it is today. Film was expensive. Developing film was expensive. Camera’s were large and heavy and if you wanted to really be able to capture the experience at a variety of scales it required a set of lenses and filters, and the ability to use them. When a picture was taken, it was often weeks before the result was seen, which made it difficult to learn the skills necessary to take good photos. Because the cameras were heavy and bulky it was unlikely that it would be handy and with the proper lens and/or filter when you happened to get a glance at a bear or a moose or a mountain goat, and even if it was properly equipped it would take a minute or two to take the lens cap off, focus the lens, set the f-stop, etc. You get the picture. Or more likely you didn’t get the picture.

Even when we did eventually get the film developed and managed to get a few decent shots there was nobody around to show them to.  You had to store the pictures in your van for months until you got home and physically hand them to people one at a time to admire. At least Lewis and Clark had artists who could draw the grizzly that they saw from memory and make sure the picture was perfect.  And they could paint the landscape that they saw even if it was looking straight into the direction of the setting sun.  They didn’t have to wait weeks to see the results. They did, however, have the same challenges of protecting the end result and only being able to share them with others one-on-one.

Today we can take an almost unlimited number of pictures from a device that can fit in a pocket and be accessed almost instantaneously. We can see the resulting photo immediately and make an adjustment or simply fix it in photoshop after-the fact.  And when we get an amazing shot, or even just one that doesn’t suck, we can share it with hundreds or even thousands of  people all across the world instantaneously.  I doubt if two dozen people have ever looked at the photo albums I carted around with me for 30 years but I posted one of the pictures from those albums on facebook this morning and 40 people have “liked” it, probably 5 or 10 times that many people saw it, and several thousand have at least a potential of seeing it.

While seeing one picture certainly doesn’t give anyone a full understanding of your experience, seeing many pictures over a few weeks or months certainly gives them a better understanding of your life than no pictures. And knowing that people that you care about understand you a little better is comforting. It makes it easier to talk to people without feeling the need to explain ourselves.  It makes us all feel more connected and less alone and as social creatures, this is beneficial in many ways.

Of course having even an old film camera was certainly better than not having one.  In the summer of 1993 I lost my camera when I swamped a canoe in Yellowstone Lake. For the next 10+ years I traveled around the west for work, made and lost entire groups of friends, spent endless hours watching bears, tracking lynx, and doing other fun field work as a biologist. I saw many amazing things but I never had much money and never bought another film camera so none of that time is documented. Cie la vie. At least I have my memories, for another year or two….


My first van that I converted into a camper. 1985

Lewis and Clark didn’t have phones either, so no voice communication at all. But phones were also very different in 1985. When I was traveling I was mostly backpacking and only occasionally drove through a town between trailheads. Mostly these were small towns in rural areas. They all had pay phones but using them required a pocket full of change at exorbitant cost and it required the person you were trying to call to be within reach of a landline. My family traveled a lot and even when they were home, spent most of their time working outside during the day, so the odds of actually reaching someone was pretty small. And I could never stay in town into the evening because I always had to find a place to camp before dark. As a result sometimes 3 or 4 weeks went by between opportunities to actually speak to someone and even then only for short periods of time. In the interim, even my own mother would not even know what state I was in most of the time.

Mail was equally problematic. It was easier to send a letter than to reach someone on the phone, but getting a letter in return would take weeks. Friends would have to send a letter to my mother who would hold them for me until I was able to reach her on the phone. Then I would give her the name of a town where I expected to be in a week or so to give her time to package it up and mail it to me at General Delivery, Nowhere, Wyoming. Even my best friends only managed to exchange letters with me 3 or 4 times over a 6 month trip. More casual acquaintances rarely heard anything other than “Mikes still alive somewhere in Wyoming”.  Lewis and Clark could do just about as well, sending couriers back to St. Louis with an update on their progress.

It’s amazing that in just a decade or so our entire society has become so used to constant communication by cell phone, text, email, facebook, etc. that it’s nearly impossible to fathom going weeks or months without hearing any news from friends and family. Certainly the experience of most people in 1985 was not being disconnected for long periods of time but that wasn’t the experience of most people in 1804 either. It was, however, the experience of those who took off on their own to travel in remote areas.

Perhaps the biggest difference technology has made is in the ability to stay connected to the people we meet.  I met a lot of wonderful people while I was traveling. I have great memories of all of them, but that’s all I have are memories. I’ve lost contact with every single one. A few people I spent a few days with or even an entire week. Some of those I exchanged addresses with and wrote letters for a year or two, but when both parties were traveling and moving around a lot and mail was the only way to communicate the probability of letters reaching someone after 3 or 4 address changes becomes quite slim.  In fact there are only 6 people I am still in contact with from my entire undergraduate class 1990 to 1994. None of us had email addresses then and all of us moved frequently. Constant address and phone changes made it impossible to stay in touch for long. The classmates who I am in contact with are, with only 2 exceptions, people that I lost contact with for 10 years or so before reconnecting on facebook. Contrast that with todays kids who can only loose touch with classmates when they intentionally “unfriend” them. Its hard for people who grew up in this millennium to comprehend how  you could possibly loose contact with people you care about.


I spent 10 days backpacking with David Allison who I met on the Ozark Highland trail in 1986. We stayed in contact via snail mail for a few years but eventually lost track of each other.

I did a lot of hiking in the Ouchita mountains of Arkansas with Pat Patterson. The first full time traveler I met on the road. He ruined me for life….

The end result of all of this is that we now have a constantly expanding group of people that we are in contact with. Many of them are people we have never even met but somehow connected with through technology on the basis of common interests. These people are usually aware of what we are doing and where we are. Much of my travel these days involves intentional visits to meet friends, but even when I am just going off on my own I know I am never far from someone I “know”, or at least know of. I am never far from a place to park my van, grab a shower, and enjoy a conversation over a meal or a beer.  And when I am home I frequently get the chance to offer the same to folks I know who happen to be traveling through the area where I live.

Things were very, very, different in 1985 when I first left my home to explore the country. I had lived my entire life within 100 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. I had a few relatives and family friends in the Midwest but nobody that I was really close to. Most of that trip I was well over 1000 miles from anybody I knew, even if I had the ability to reach them. If I spoke with someone it was someone I had met only recently and most times would never speak with again. If I needed help it was from a stranger.  When I encountered problems I had to solve them on my own. And I had a few problems…

At that time I was relatively inexperienced and I had very little money. I travelled for 5 months with only $500. Of course gas cost $0.60/gallon and there wasn’t anywhere to spend money in the places I was interested in being, but still there wasn’t money left over for anything other than cheap food and gas. My van was old and the tires were well used but I was too cheap to buy new ones.  When I got a flat I either got it fixed or bought a used tire and as a result I got a lot of flats. I did have a spare but it was always the worst tire I had and there was never a guarantee that it would even have air or if it did, that it would get me out of the woods over 40 or 50 miles of rough road. Once, in the upper peninsula of Michigan I drove a couple hours on dirt roads in the dark trying to find a trailhead I had heard of before giving up and parking alongside the road to sleep, hoping for better luck in the morning. In the morning, however, I discovered that I had a flat tire and that my spare was also flat. Because I had been driving on logging roads in the dark, I really had absolutely no idea where I was or what direction I needed to go. I waited there for two days hoping to flag down a passing truck but nobody came by. Finally I realized that I needed to take matters into my own hands. I threw a tent and some food for me and the dog in my backpack and strapped the tire to it and began hiking. I tried to go generally north as I knew the main road was in that direction but the road system was complicated. After about 6 hours I hit the paved road and was able to hitchhike into town but it was Saturday evening and no garages were open so I camped in the woods until Monday before getting the tire fixed and heading back. Fortunately I had seen a sign on my way out so I knew that the road my van was on was #521. What I didn’t have was a map telling me how to get back. The UP was a bad place for this to happen because there are a LOT of roads and not much in the way of mountains to help you locate yourself. I had gotten a late start and I spent most of the afternoon walking generally south trying to find something that looked familiar and trying to find order in the road numbering system that might help me find Road #521. Finally I gave up and set up my tent just before dark. The next day I decided it would be better to go back in to town and try to find a map than to continue wandering aimlessly. Nobody in the little town I was in had a map so I had to hitchhike to the next town before finally finding one, hitchhike back and hike the remaining 9 miles before arriving back at the van almost exactly a week after getting the flat tire in the first place.

Technology also provides easy access to information. Today it’s rare that I don’t know what the weather is expected to be like a week into the future. I can access that information instantly on my phone from anywhere I have a cell signal. In 1985, however, you either had to hear the weather report on the radio or read in a newspaper.  Both of which were rare in the rural rocky mountains where I spent my time, so most of the time I never had a clue what was about to happen. I set off once on a week long trip in the Flattop Wilderness in Colorado.  The first day was beautiful, but clouds set in early the afternoon of the second day. I made an early camp to avoid the rain but wasn’t worried as I assumed it was just an afternoon thunderstorm. The next day, however it was still raining. It is really hard to think about getting out of a warm dry tent when its raining hard and you know you will start out cold and damp. There is no such thing as a warm pleasant summer rain in the high Rockies. Rain is always cold and staying dry is crucial. So I stayed in the tent and read all day. The next day it was still raining and I began to look at the map for a short cut back. I noticed that I was only a couple miles from a dirt road and there appeared to be a ranch at the end of the road so I decided to head there and see if I could find an empty barn to stay in. It turned out to be an outfitters camp. Nobody was there when I arrived and I snuck into an outbuilding to wait. In mid-afternoon the owners arrived back from town. They offered me a bed and a meal in exchange for doing some chores but told me that it was supposed to keep raining. I was able to dry out all my clothes in front of the fire and get a good night’s sleep. The next day it was still raining and I spent the day helping with chores and drinking coffee in front of the fire, swapping stories with my new friends. When it was still raining the next day I decided to try to bust through back to my van. It would be a long trip but I had eaten most of my food so my pack was light and I was strong after an entire summer of backpacking. I started early and got back to the van just before dark after a solid 16 hours of non-stop walking.

I can also learn anything I want to know about the plants, wildlife, trails, etc just by googling it on my phone. A few years ago while backpacking through Patagonia my traveling companion began having pain in her feet. When we got to a hostel we were able to determine quickly that it was plantar fasciatus through internet research and were able to get advice from 30 or 40 people who had personal experience with that issue and that allowed us to continue our trip with a minimum of pain and without making things worse. In 1985 when my feet began to hurt on a backpacking trip I had no idea why or what to do about it, and no way to find out.

More importantly I can download maps to my phone and use it as a GPS device to locate myself instantly. It’s rare that I don’t know exactly where I am these days, which way I need to go, and what type of terrain I am about to encounter. But in 1985, that was far from certain. Maps were something that you had to seek out and purchase. If you were lucky you could find a ranger station with a topographic trail map for an entire wilderness area but many areas didn’t even have trail maps then. You could buy USGS 7.5’ quads for anyplace if you could find them. But it might take 10 or 12 to cover the area for a one week trip and they were expensive.  The trails on them were also often out of date. The other alternative was to buy maps that covered an entire national forest but these were so coarse that they weren’t very useful and didn’t even include topo maps.  As a result I often hiked for almost a week just with the written description from a guide book or a written description I wrote down myself from a map posted at the trailhead.  Sometimes I didn’t even have that available and just went, figuring I would go for a few days and then retrace my steps.

My last trip that summer was into the Wind River Wilderness of Wyoming.  I had been unable to find a decent trail map and I was unable to afford and unwilling to carry the 12 USGS quads I would have needed to cover a week long trip (even if I had been able to find them), but I did have a very coarse Forest Service road map that showed trails with no topo lines. I was able to work out a loop of around 150 miles and gave myself 8 days to finish it. The first three days were non-eventful on a popular, well-marked and signed trail crossing the Winds from the North Fork of the Popo Agie to the Big Sandy Campground. A few miles from big sandy I ran into someone named Mike who was heading the direction I was coming from. He was starting a week long trip and told me he was camping at Granite Lake to fish for the week. We chatted a few minutes and he invited me to find him if I saw his camp when I went by Granite Lake a few days later. The trails heading north from Big Sandy were not nearly as well used or marked as the trails I had come in on. To make matters worse they crossed a large bench with a mix of trees and meadow for 10 miles or so. It was beautiful but the entire area was grazed by cattle and there were cow trails going everywhere making it impossible to follow the actual Forest Service trail. I followed what I thought was the direction of the trail and was able to locate myself occasionally from finding lakes and occasionally a trail marker but I was far from certain where I was most of the day.  I was able to determine when I reached the next drainage where my route headed over a pass and find the trail again. I ran out of light before I hit the pass and decided to set up camp. I was shocked to realize that I was missing my tent poles.


The Winds are big wild country.

As I had spent most of the day uncertain where I was I realized that it would be impossible to go back and find them, but it was a nice night and sleeping under the stars seemed like a good option. The next morning I decided to push on rather than retrace my steps. Going back I had a slight chance of finding my poles but it was longer and I was concerned about my food supply. Also there was a much larger chance that I would NOT find my poles and I would have to spend an extra night out. I decided to push hard and try to finish my hike in 2 days rather than the three I had planned for.  That meant only one more night without a tent.  As it happened I ran into Mike’s camp on the shore of Granite Lake in late afternoon and he invited me to stop and enjoy some fresh fish he was just cooking up.  I had planned to go longer but real food and a fire was tempting. Conversation flowed and before I knew it, it was dark, but we ended up staying awake and chatting around the campfire. It was chilly, but the stars were still out when I finally pulled out my sleeping bag around midnight. I quickly faded off to sleep planning to get up before dawn as I had given myself an almost impossibly long day if I wanted to avoid camping another night. The next thing I knew I woke up cold, wet, and shivering.


Mike and his dogs at their camp on the shore of Granite Lake, Wind River mountains, 1987

A storm had moved in and it was raining mixed with snow. More cold slush than either water or ice. My down sleeping back was soaked and I knew I was in trouble. I got up and gathered some wood to make a fire but my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t work my lighter or unscrew the cover of my waterproof match case. I alternated doing jumping jacks and placing my hands under my shirt in an effort to warm them up. It took what felt like an hour but I was finally able to get a fire going just as my headlight batteries went dead.  Now I was unable to collect more wood and my only option was to stay close to the fire for warmth and burn the pile of wood that Mike had collected. I felt bad about using his wood but it really was a matter of life and death for me. I did more jumping jacks by the fire and finally got my core temperature back up just about the time it was getting light.

Knowing I had a long day and not wanting to burn any more of Mikes wood, I threw my wet gear in my pack and took off. As I said the map I had was very coarse and had no top lines so I had no idea what to expect in terms of terrain and in retrospect, that was probably a good thing.  All I knew was it was around 30 miles. It turned out to be brutal crossing the continental divide 4 times and another large river valley before heading back up to the ridge where I was parked.  There were also two fairly large river crossings with no bridge. By early afternoon I was exhausted and feeling feverish. A long week and especially two very long days with no sleep and a bit of hypothermia had take their toll on my body.  I reached the road by dark but by that time I had been moving at a snails pace and barely able to walk a straight line for several hours and I felt like I was burning up. Sadly I still had three miles to walk up the road to my van but there was enough moonlight to see the road and afternoon I had several interesting hallucinations to keep me company after all.  By the time I reached my van I knew I was very sick.  Fortunately I had a full bottle of Nyquil and a van full of books and food so I spent the next four days reading, sleeping and resting  until I felt well enough to drive out.


Cirque of the Towers from Jackass Lake 1987

Now, I am not claiming that my early travels compare with the Lewis and Clark expedition. I do think however, that in many ways, the vagabond experience in the days before internet and cell phones was closer to the experience that travelers have had throughout history than the experience that I have traveling today. Today I am in frequent contact with hundreds of people and can get more information than I could possibly use at the touch of a button. In 1985 I was almost completely on my own most of the time, I had very little information about where I was going or what the weather would be like, and I had very limited availability to share my experience with others. In some ways I enjoy the change that technology has brought about but at times I also long to head off on my own and explore places with no pre-conceived expectations of what and who I am about to encounter. I long for the ability to be alone with my thoughts without the constant distraction of communication and the constant influx of information. I long to be surprised with something completely unexpected, good or bad. I long for the days when strangers were just as hungry for conversation as you were instead of spending their time staring at their phones.

I realize I still have the choice to do that but I often bring along a device loaded with kindle books, audio books, podcasts, etc. I find myself thinking that there is so much to learn I need to take advantage of every second. The information age has changed us. In fact there is evidence that our neural networks in side our brains have rewired themselves to expect a constant influx of information, even those of us who have spent most of our lives prior to the advent of pocket technology. Our ability to sit still has been diminished and our stress levels increase when forced to sit alone with no external stimulation. In fact, recent research shows that most people will submit to a strong electric shock rather than spend more than 15 minutes alone. It is true that you can learn a lot about many things while listening to podcasts on a backpacking trip. It is also true that sometimes it is more important to spend time in quiet contemplation and learn about yourself.

It may be possible to find places to travel outside the realm of technology and to experience life the way humans have experienced it for untold millennia but it gets harder and harder every year. The world has changed in a fundamental way. Humans have changed in a fundamental way. I doubt it is possible to reverse course and I don’t know that I would want to but I feel fortunate to have experienced both sides of the technology divide.


I woke up this morning before it was even light and walked out of my house.  Immediately I knew this day would be different when I smelled smoke and could see smoke in the air, even in the moonlight.  I live in the Southwest and fire is part of life here.  In dry years it has a way of becoming on overwhelming part of life.  Is it safe to leave the house?  If I do leave will I be able to get where I want to go?  Will I be able to get home again?  What do I need to have packed to be ready to go at a moment’s notice?  What is really unimportant and can be left behind?

It has been a dry winter and an even drier spring here in the Colorado rockies.  There are three large fires just east of my house that have consumed over 100,000 acres of wilderness and are threatening several entire towns.  The main road between Durango and Denver has been closed for 10 days but we are fortunate to have three other ways to get to town.  Some smaller towns like Creed and Lake City are down to 1, or occasionally no ways in or out.  These towns feel far away as it takes several hours to drive to them by road but in fact they are only 40 or 50 miles away as the crow flies.  In fact I could walk to Creede from my house without crossing a single road.  I could walk to Lake City and only cross two four wheel drive trails that are open less than 6 months of the year.  In between are two raging fires that have burned almost 200 square miles of timber.  It’s not that far but it’s far enough that with the prevailing winds, I don’t feel any immediate danger from these fires.  That was not the case in 2002 when the Missionary Ridge burned 75,000 acres literally in my backyard, coming to within ¼ mile of my house.

During the winter of 2001-2002 we had almost no snow.  I remember vividly that on Christmas day 2001 I went for a hike behind my house up to 10,000 feet above sea level and there was no snow.  Things can change quickly here in the mountains where snowfall is measured in feet rather than inches.  But they didn’t.   Spring wasn’t much better, and by June things were getting downright scary.  The pine trees on my property were dropping needles.  The grass in my newly sodded yard never even turned green.  My family was living outside Denver at the time and we had a family vacation planned in Sedona, AZ so they stopped here in Durango on the way.  As usual, we ate on the deck of the Black Dog Tavern about a mile from my house and while we were enjoying our food we saw a large column of smoke forming between us and town.  It had begun.  My family managed to get to town that night but had a front row seat of air tankers dropping fire retardant as the firefighters scrambled to get the fire put out.  They were successful that time and the following morning we all left for Sedona as planned.

Sedona in June of course is hot and because of the fire danger all the public land in the area was closed.  As in you weren’t even allowed to walk through it which, for me at least, defeats the entire purpose of going to Sedona in the first place. Nevertheless I enjoyed a day or two of family time, swimming in the pool and going on Jeep safari.  The second morning I got up early for a mountain bike ride in reasonably cool temperatures.  When I returned around 8 AM I found my family gathered around the television.
“There is a big fire outside Denver”, they told me, “Our subdivision is being evacuated”.
My sister lived in an area called Roxborough Park just south of Denver.  Her house was fairly low and in open country with plenty of other houses around so the likelihood of fire reaching it was pretty low.  My mother on the other hand, had a condo at the top of the subdivision. Hers was the middle unit in a building with five units.  The National Forest began about 20 feet from the west end of her building and the nearest house in that direction was many, many miles away. She would be on the front line. I watched silently as they strategized about the best course of action and made arrangements for their pets to be taken care of in case of evacuation.  Then I heard my phone beep and noticed I had a message.  It was from my friend Mylea who lived above me and was supposed to be backpacking with my dog.  That was odd.  I listened to the message.
“There is a big fire just outside Durango and we had to cut our backpacking trip short and ‘Tween Lakes is on pre-evacuation”.

My family lived over 6 hours away on the opposite side of the Rocky Mountains but we were both being evacuated from two separate wildfires on the same day.  Still our situations were very different.  Roxborough Park is a wealthy community spread out amongst a well-watered golf course and red rock formations.  It would be well protected by firefighters.  Also my mother’s condo was really only a summer place and there was not much that they could have done if they went home, especially being evacuated.  It was also a 12 hour drive.  They decided to stay.

My situation was different.  I always make airquotes when I call ‘Tween Lakes, where I live, a “subdivision”.  It is a collection of tiny, barely legal, a-frames, straw bale houses, mobile homes, and few not quite legal off-the-grid structures.  Each lot is 3 acres of highly flammable ponderosa pine and scrub oak and only about a quarter of the lots have any structures on at all.  Making things worse, there is only one brutally steep and rough dirt road out and directly to the north was the largest roadless area in Colorado, which was full of tinder dry woodland.  It was a low budget firetrap full of dirtbag hippies and it would be low priority for the firefighters.  In addition I was in the middle of building my house and I had piles of kiln dried lumber and sawdust laying around.  I also had 3 acres of timber that I could start cutting around my house.  I could pack up all my belongings and be ready to move if I needed to.  I had things I could do and I was only 6 hours away, so I went home.

I got back Monday evening and began loading up a trailer.  Tuesday morning I drove in to town and filled a 300 gallon tank full of water as I had not yet drilled a well.   I used it all to hose down my house and deck in the hopes of keeping it moist enough that it would take more than a spark to catch fire.  Of course if a 1,000 degree wall of radiant heat comes along there is nothing that could keep it from burning but at least it wouldn’t be SO vulnerable to sparks and embers.  I spent the rest of the day moving all flammable material away from the house and cutting down trees that were close by.  Wednesday I got more water, moved flammable materials even further away from my house and cut down even more trees.  Thursday morning I also drove to town for water.  On the way back however, I encountered a National Guard setting up a roadblock.
“This road is closed” they told me.
“It wasn’t closed when I went IN to town at 5AM” I said.
“It’s closed now” they replied.
I thought for a second.  They had guns but the roadblock was unfinished, I could get through, and I really didn’t think they would shoot me to save me from burning to death.
“Well, my dog is at home and everything I own is there and I’m going” I said.  “If I’m evacuated I will be back out in half an hour”.  And I went.  And they didn’t shoot me.

‘Tween Lakes was still not evacuated.  The fire had started at the bottom of Missionary Ridge Road about 15 miles to the northwest.  It blew up quickly that first day (Sunday morning) when my friends and dog were backpacking on the next ridge over.  The column of smoke was huge and a helicopter warned them to get out so they did but it was still quite a distance away.  I still laugh when I think about them evacuating from the trail.  That particular trailhead is only about 12 miles from my house but the “road” there is rough and it takes about 1 ½ hours to drive it.  Trying to do it in a hurry escaping from a fire must have been a bit nerve-wracking  because, in order to get out, you had to drive TOWARDS the fire at 5-10 mph.  Still, although I felt justified in doing what I could to fireproof my property, I didn’t really think I was in too much danger from this particular fire.  I just wanted to do everything I could to protect it from the NEXT fire.  It was still burning about 10 miles away to the NW and prevailing winds were to the NE.  In between my house and the fire was Lemon Reservoir which, although mostly dry, was still by far the largest firebreak in the area.  I figured there was very little chance that it would burn away from the prevailing wind, downhill, AND cross the reservoir.  Apparently so did everybody else.

After three days of working dawn-to-dusk cutting wood, moving building supplies, and packing my trailer I was exhausted.  Thursday afternoon I heard on the radio that there was going to be a meeting at the firehouse down the road.  I listened to the meeting on the radio and the local authorities assured people in the two subdivisions nearest the fire that it was still 4 or 5 miles away and would take at least 3 days to get there WORSE CASE SCENARIO.  This was a huge relief and I began thinking of heading down to the Black Dog for a burger and a beer and little relaxation.  The Black Dog Tavern was like my Cheers.  It was only a mile away and had great food, Guinness on tap, pool tables, live music a few days a week and only the highest class of clientele.  Needless to say, everyone there knew MY name.  It happens that the Black Dog was right across the street from the firehouse where they had just had the meeting telling people that the fire was still 3 or 4 days away WORSE CASE SCENARIO and I figured I wouldn’t be the only one with that idea.  As I drove down the hill, however, I saw flames across the road only a few hundred yards up the hill.

I pulled into the Black Dog and ran inside.  “Kathy!  The fires coming”
“Naw”, she said, “These people just came from a meeting across the street, the fire is still 3 or 4 days away, WORSE CASE SCENARIO”
“KATHY!” I said, “I just saw flames 300 yards from Helen’s store!  The fire is HERE.  NOW!”
Her eyes got big and I turned to leave, not wanting to be caught up in the inevitable traffic jam as people tried to get out of the parking lot.  As I was heading out the door I heard peoples cell phones start to ring and as I was driving out I saw a whole lot of folks with surprised looks on their faces running out the door behind me.  I got home, hooked up to the trailer and waited to see what happened next.

It turned out that not much happened that night or the next night either but fire officials learned something new that night and the rest of us learned not to have much faith in what the fire officials told us.  Wildfire is a force of nature.  In optimum conditions with dry fuels, high temperatures, low humidity,and high winds it can get into the crowns of trees and literally create its own reality.  It’s not always that way but it can be, and conditions on Missionary Ridge in June 2002 were about as bad as it could be.  When a fire gets big enough it creates its own weather and there is not much that is out of the realm of possibility.  In general fires burn uphill much faster than they burn downhill.  They burn faster on dry south facing slopes than on wetter north facing slopes.  They generally go in the direction of the prevailing winds and they move from tree-top to tree-top in a predictable fashion and if you can keep the tree tops separated it slows the fire down.  If you create a break in the treetops it creates a barrier for the fire.  These are the normal fire behaviors that emergency officials were counting on when they told us the fire was still 3 or 4 days away WORST CASE SCENARIO.  This is what I was counting on when I assumed that I was actually pretty safe from THAT particular fire.  Occasionally, however, in the right conditions, fires can literally blow up and everything you think you know about fire behavior becomes quite irrelevant.  What happened on Missionary Ridge that Thursday was that in the afternoon the conditions were bad enough, the fire big enough, and the terrain steep enough that there was a natural chimney effect causing the fire to blow up and throwing a plume of smoke 30,000 feet in the air.  It is still the southwest though and it is till the mountains so it still gets cold at night.  As the air cooled rapidly the updraft creating the column of smoke turns into a downdraft and the column of smoke would literally tip over.  The direction that it tipped appeared to be random and had little to do with prevailing wind and when it tipped it shot out a firestorm of wind, flame, and embers for 5 or 6 miles and each of those embers had the potential to spot a new fire.  This is what allowed the fire to move so quickly uphill or down, dry south face or moist north face, against the prevailing winds, and across normally uncrossable fire-breaks.

Fortunately it was one of those spot fires that I saw as I drove to the Black Dog and the main fire was still miles away but it did reach the boundary of the two sub-divisions that had been told three days WORSE CASE SCENARIO in about 45 minutes.  On Friday the fire ran north and gave us all a break but now it no longer seemed to be improbable that it would reach us, it seemed inevitable.  I spent all day Friday and Saturday morning doing more mitigation work at my house but by Saturday afternoon there was more than smoke in the air, there was ash falling and even some singed aspen leaves.  I knew it was time to hook up the trailer.  It happened that my mother and step-father were on the way home from Sedona and decided to stop in.  I told them that I was hooking up my trailer and preparing to be evacuated but that I had been doing the same thing every day for a week.  They came anyway.  “We could see the smoke plume from hours away”, they told me. “It looked like a nuclear bomb went off”.  I couldn’t see anything and I was only a few miles away.

Soon after they got here a police car went up my road sirens blazing.  Not long after that my friend and neighbor Fred stopped by on his way out.  “Fires coming” he told us.  “I could see it jump the river from the ridge”.  It seemed things were coming to a head.  Fred lived at the very top of my “sub-division” right up against the National Forest.  You’ll hear more of his story in a bit.  He had been climbing a little summit above his property every evening to watch the fire and see if it was going to make another run in our direction.  I told my parents I was going to stick around to see if any of my neighbors needed a hand and they drove into town to their hotel room.  I pulled my trailer down to my friend Janets place a mile down the road and in the middle of a large meadow.  We unhooked the trailer and drove back up to our friends Mylea and Todd’s house to see if we could salvage anything from them as they were both still working.  We did manage to save Todd’s irreplaceable collection of old vinyl records and a few other things we could fit in my truck and then we high-tailed it out of there.  Lets just say it’s difficult to convey the emotions one feels when they are driving away from their home pulling a trailer load of stuff and watching flames coming over the hill above their homes in the rear view mirror.

I still owned a mobile home I lived in a few miles away so we went there for the night and as it turned out, the next several nights as we were not allowed home for two weeks.  As crazy as it sounds, we were not even given information about whether our houses had burned or not.  The following Wednesday my friend Steve came to town.  He actually owned the house that Mylea and Todd were living in and we both were quite curious whether or not our homes were still standing.  I was pretty sure mine was as it was low down in the “subdivision” and we had heard that a only few homes had burned on the border with the National Forest.  Steve’s house was right on the border.  We did a bit of early morning trespassing to climb the mountain directly south of my house from which we could look into our subdivision.  As expected my house was fine and fortunately Steve’s house was still fine too although it appeared that the fire had burned right up to it and their next-door neighbor’s house was gone.  When we were finally allowed in we found that it HAD burned right up to within a foot or two of the house.  We were amazed that the firefighters had been able to save it.  Knowing that our houses were safe we joined a few friends in Telluride for the bluegrass festival which turned out to be the perfect way to blow off steam.

Fred was not so lucky.  Fred had been living in what most of us would call a “shack” while he was preparing to build a house.  For two winters he had been cutting timber on his land and cutting it into lumber with his sawmill.  He had it stacked to dry in exactly the same way that you or I would build a campfire.  Needless to say two years of work went up into smoke with his shack and there is no insurance that can replace a labor of love.  Lots of tools, vehicles, and other things burned as well and Fred lost almost everything except his cat Twitchy.  In a somewhat humorous sidenote, the Rocky Mountain News came out and did a story on Fred.  They took a picture of him sitting in the burnt ash of his property holding Twitchy in his lap and put it on the front page of the Sunday edition in full color.  It was a beautiful, heartwrenching photograph but unfortunately they did not take the time to notice that, shall we say in the vernacular of the times “The cows were leaving the barn”  Ok, OK I’ll just say it “HIS BALLS WERE HANGING OUT”.  Yep front page, full color, major Denver newspaper viewed by millions of people, only a week after his house burnt down.  Needless to say, he became a celebrity overnight appearing by phone on all the radio morning shows.  My friends from the front range began to call “Do you know Fred?”  They asked, “He’s hilarious”.  Denver flew him in for a benefit concert at Red Rocks.  People made donations in his name.  It wasn’t near enough to cover what he lost but it was better than nothing.  The Rocky Mountain News was embarrassed.  And afraid.  They paid a consultant to do a detailed photographic analysis and concluded that it was in fact, just an optical illusion caused by an unfortunately placed shadow.  A giant, pink, hairy shadow.  Fortunately for them, Fred is not the litigious type.  Mostly he wants to be left alone and stay far away from cities and lawyers and courts.  I am glad to report, however, that Fred is back on his feet and his new dream home is getting close to being completed.  Last summer I helped him frame and sheet the roof.

The fire had largely left our area and was moving east.  The only development in that direction for 40 or 50 miles is the small community around Vallecito Lake.  This area is mostly summer homes but when full there are a couple thousand people living around the lake.  This year the lake was almost bone dry and most of the people who had bothered to come had already left because of the fire.  There were some full-time residents however and after the near disaster around my house the local officials were taking no chances.  There is only one road and if it were closed all those people would be trapped.  They promised to be extra-conservative in ordering evacuations and as a back-up plan they told people that they should drive to the middle of the now dry lake bed to an established “safe zone” where they could also store their boats, extra cars, RVs, etc.  The lake is over a mile wide so surely they would be safe there, right?  All I can tell you is that if you are ever faced with wildfire don’t ever listen to the local officials.  Think for yourself, have a plan, and in general, get the heck out of dodge.

They did manage to get all the people out before the road was closed but when they returned everything that had been left in the “safe zone” had been destroyed.  Blown across the lake and melted.  The fire hit Vallecito like a tornado and in fact it came down the mountain directly across from the “safe zone” as an actual tornado.  Except this one was horizontal and made of fire as it rolled down the hill and across the lake to the “Safe Zone”.  This was fire behavior that had never been recorded before.

After leaving Vallecito the fire burned east into the Weminuche wilderness, the largest roadless area in Colorado and eventually the summer monsoons came and put the fire out.  “Out” is a relative term however.  For many weeks after the rain came and months after it had passed my house I could walk up into the burn and there would still be the occasional smoking stump.  Every now and then you would even see one in flames.  Of course it was surrounded by ash and had nowhere to go but it was surprising to me how long there was still active fire inside the burn perimeter.

The rain brought other problems with it, however.  With no vegetation to hold the soil the water simply rolled off the mountain taking soil along with it.  The mudslides were almost as impressive as the fire and actually did more damage.  I had taken to sleeping on my porch so I could hear sirens or other activities in case I had to get out quickly and the first time it rained was just before dark in early July.  I enjoyed the coolness of the rain and the sound of it falling on my metal porch roof.  It seemed as if the stress of the last month was being washed away as well.  Finally a good hard rain to put out the fire.  Just as it became dark, however, I heard another sound over the rain.  It sounded like water.  Like a raging river.  I knew it was a flash flood but it was too dark to see where it actually was.  There was a gully about 50 yards east of my house and I assumed it was there but there was really no way to tell.  Let me just say that sleeping on your porch listening to the sound of a flash flood raging by but not being able to see and not knowing whether it was about to take your house and you with it is a bad feeling.  Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep for a few nights.

In the morning I listened in awe to the stories of destruction on the radio.  Houses destroyed, houses filled with mud and rock.  Cars washed away, roads washed out.  I drove up to my friends’ houses higher up in the subdivision to check on them.  There was mud up to the door of my friend Steve’s house.  I had errands to run in town and while I was there I saw some storm clouds building up to the east.  “Good”, I thought.  “A little more rain”.  When I eventually made my way home I was stunned to see evidence of even more destruction ranging from a bit or mud on the road to a volkswagon van stuck 10 feet up in a tree.  Before I got too far the road was closed and I had to take a 15 mile detour only to find that the road was closed from the other direction too.  When I finally made it home it began to rain again and I decided to drive up to my friends house to see if there was anything that could be done as they were out of town.  As I turned into Sunny Lane I saw a flash flood coming towards me down the road pushing boulders ahead of it.  I quickly turned around and got home as quick as I could, shaken to my core.  It just wasn’t safe to be out and about anymore.

This would be routine for the remainder of the summer, every time I left I had to keep an eye on the sky and be ready to run home at the first chance of rain or I might be stuck in town for a day or two.  My house appeared to be safe from direct impacts from mudslides and I managed to dig a diversion ditch above my friend’s which may have helped a little bit.  Many others were not that fortunate and there were stories of mud pushing open people’s doors and filling up bedrooms to the top of the bed and completely filling garages with boulders.

Man’s relationship to fire is a complicated one.  Fire provides a lot of ecological benefits to the landscape and increases species diversity of both plants and animals.  It allows for increased nutrient cycling and increased habitat diversity as well.  Many species of trees are dependent on fire to open their seed cones and/or open up the canopy to allow more sunlight.  Historically the evidence indicates that fires were more frequent but lower intensity.  They kept the organic debris and underbrush controlled so the fires that did exist were ground fires that burned slowly between widely spaced trees.  Many decades of fire suppression have allowed fuel loads to increase to the point where fire can quickly rise to the forest canopy where it can spread rapidly and actually kill trees in large destructive and out of control wildfire.  Several decades of increasing temperatures and drought have added to the problem by drying out the fuels and allowing insect epidemics to kill large stands of forest which further adds to the fuel load.  At the same time increasing populations have resulted in more and more people building houses in areas susceptible to wildfire.  This results in the dangerous situation that we currently find ourselves.  We have large numbers of people living in areas with an increasing risk of fire frequency and severity.  It is a problem of our own making but one without an easy solution.  Fire mitigation on public land surrounding populated areas occurs but is often prohibitively expensive in an era where land management agencies are under increasing pressure to reduce spending.  The most effective mitigation tool is actually fire itself but fuel loads in some areas are so bad that even a controlled burn in “safe” conditions can get out of control and they have, resulting in public backlash against prescribed burns.

Firefighting is also big business in the west.  Many, many, people make a living fighting fire.  Government agencies are under pressure to spend all their fire budget every year to prevent it from getting cut.  Today it is more likely that wildfires in wilderness areas far from people will be allowed to burn. Occasionally however, we still see helicopters being sent out to remote areas to put out small fires that might be a single tree that had been hit by lightning.  Besides being incredibly expensive, these events are largely self-defeating as they only serve to increase the chance of larger catastrophic fires in the future.  I was working as a biologist on the Bitterroot National Forest in the summer of 1994.  We were working on bull trout and our salaries were paid by a research grant through the university but the Forest Service provided “in-kind” services as a contributing partner.  We lived in a forest service bunkhouse in Sula with the fire crew and did our office work at the Bitterroot NF headquarters in Hamilton.  Towards the end of our field season we were doing a lot of office work during a time when there were large fires burning in Idaho and the office appeared deserted.  When someone did come by the question was always “What are you doing here?  Why aren’t you on fire?”.  They offered to pay us to go to training for three days after which we could be on “Stand-by” collecting money just to wait around in case we were needed and if we were needed we could make LOTS OF MONEY with over-time and hazard pay.  As a poor student it was tempting but I had plans to go backpacking in Glacier NP and I had philosophical issues with the very concept of fighting fire.  I told them I was a conscientious objector.  Nobody thought it was funny.  There just had to be something wrong with somebody who refused free-money.

That summer I had my first and only sinus infection after working outside in the smoke for several weeks.  During my backpacking trip in Glacier I watched a helicopter scooping water out of Kintla Lake at a cost of $600 to $1000 per hour.  At 20 minutes per trip I figured it cost about $1 a gallon to deliver water to an 1800 acre fire.  It was a completely worthless endeavor but the fire was on the Canadian border and international relations were used to justify doing “something”.  The fact is that there is simply nothing that can be done to stop a large forest fire in extreme conditions.  All the billions of dollars that are spent are focused on protecting structures.  As someone with a background in fire ecology but who lives in a fire prone areas I find myself conflicted.  I understand that fire is a necessary part of the ecosystem and necessary for healthy forests.  I understand that it is our own fault that forest has become so unhealthy that low intensity, healthy, ground fires are no longer possible.  I have been disgusted with the amount of money that goes into “fighting” fire and the perverse incentives to spend more and more.  I am disgusted by people hoping for a bad fire season so they can earn a lot of money, or even going out and starting fires so they will have one to fight.  I have seen the fire “caches” in large National Parks and forests.  These are large warehouses full of every piece of equipment you could imagine needing to fight a fire under worse case scenarios.  All of it is clean and very well organized, ready to go at a moment’s notice and I compare that to how biologists have to fight for the most basic resources they need to do their job.  I am disgusted with the human cost as well.  A friend lost her fiancé in the 1994 Storm King Fire outside Glenwood Springs, CO that took the lives of 13 other firefighters  as well.  Between the time I began this post and when I finished it 19 firefighters were lost in the Yarnell fire outside Prescott, AZ.  Another friend had recently moved to Prescott to work as a firefighter and it took a day to learn that he had survived.  This stuff is real to me.

Last summer I was heading out for a weekend of camping, running, and mountain biking in the La Plata Canyon.  On the way we saw a large column of smoke just south of the highway.  Flames were advancing north and we had a decision to make.  Turn back, continue with our plan, or come up with an alternative plan.  The problem with the existing plan is that the fire was only a mile from the mouth of La Plata Canyon and if it made it that far, the canyon would act like a natural chimney and there is only one way out which would be back towards the fire.  I’m sure that we could have gotten out going over alpine tundra and down the other side by trail but the truck couldn’t make it.  Nor could my friends dogs who were to old to travel that far.  We made an alternative plan and camped further north in an area where we had multiple escape options but even so we spent a large part of the weekend looking for smoke from the south, and trying to keep track of the fire via internet.

I understand that the only real solution is to allow unhealthy forests to burn and start over.  I also live in a fire-prone area and I don’t want my house to burn.  I have seen firsthand both the futility of thinking you can control or even predict a fire and the incredible professionalism and bravery of those on the front lines.  Even though there is absolutely nothing that they can do to put a large fire out they can be incredibly efficient at structure protection under reasonable conditions.  I don’t have an easy answer.  Ideally we would require landowners to mitigate fire risk on their own properties but that is difficult to enforce.  We would spend resources mitigating fire risk on public land where it borders developed areas but again, it’s a huge job that nobody wants to pay for.  It would be cheaper and more effective in the long run but in this country, in this political climate, we are unable to address the long run and seem stuck in a reactive mode of responding to symptoms rather than addressing root causes.

Fortunately in the few days it took me to write this post, it has rained a few times.  The first few days were more lightening than rain but over the past couple days we got some significant rain.  This morning there were actually puddles in the driveway which is a sign that the soils are actually saturated.  The immediate danger seems to have subsided and we can all get back to living life in the mountains without constantly feeling the need to look over our shoulders.  Until next year.

Musings on the biology of risk and reward

I began thinking along these lines after the death of Micah True.  At that time I was stuck on the couch with my own injury from a mountain bike wreck that could have easily ended in a similar fashion.  I also probably had too much time to think.

I knew Micah. I certainly don’t claim to be part of his inner circle but I considered him a friend and he affected my life deeply, in many ways.  I had been to Copper Canyon twice to run his race.  I had seen him a few times in the states as well.  To me, he was kind of an enigma and I wish I had the chance to know him better.  His death affected me deeply for other reasons as well and I feel fortunate to have had the time to step back and ponder the bigger picture, because for me, Micah was not the first larger-than-life, charismatic, dynamic, inspirational man to enter my life, change the way I think, and leave again far too early. For me he was the seventh.

There are many commonalities amongst all of these men, and I’ve been thinking about things like what makes for a well-lived life? What makes for a good death? Why does it seem like the best among us leave far too soon? What is it that made these men who they were and what drove them to do the things they did.

My friend Bart was a biologist who studied the world’s greatest carnivores.  He grew up in a family of hunters and his dad took him on safari in Africa when he was 12 where he learned to trap with snares.  When the state of Montana began a study of grizzly bears in the Bob Marshall Wilderness they needed to figure out how to trap bears in areas that couldn’t be accessed by trucks.  Bart knew exactly what to do and he was capable of heading into the woods with a huge pack full of snares, bait, and radio collars and wouldn’t come back out until all his collars were gone, often three or four weeks later.  Bart left for Alaska soon after I left for Montana but I met and became friends with other grizzly bear biologists.  They were my heroes.  Bart was their hero.

He was always the one everybody wanted to hunt with.  He was always the strongest and carried the biggest pack, got up earliest and built a breakfast fire, was the best hunter, did the most camp chores, and told the funniest stories around the campfire.  He was also the best looking.  By far… these were not physically attractive men.  His nickname was “Body Beautiful Bart” and when female reporters came to write stories on research projects they often focused on “the bronze heartthrob of Cooke City” instead.  In an Outside magazine article on the Siberian tiger project he was described as “barrel-chested and wasp-waisted with a soft Wyoming drawl…”, which we teased him about mercilessly.  Despite it all he was always more interested in what you were doing then talking about himself.  One year my friend Bill and I went sheep-hunting in the Spanish peaks.  I had spent the summer scouting and could identify individual sheep (I had names for them…) and I knew exactly where they hung out.  When opening day came I told Bill I couldn’t shoot one, I knew them too well, it was too easy.  Bill didn’t take the shot either and we spent the next 10 days wandering the mountain peaks while our rifles stayed in camp.  I expected to be made fun of by Bart who had shot record book rams with a home-made bow (and never bothered submitting them to Pope and Young).  He simply said “You did the right thing and had more fun than anyone else”.  Nothing has ever made me prouder as a hunter.

I lost track of Bart after he went to Siberia and my main connection to him died.  Many years later I was working in Bandelier National Monument with one of their rangers.  It turned out he had worked in Montana on the Hungry Horse grizzly project, so of course I asked him if he knew Bart.  “Sure did, shame about what happened to him”.  That was how I learned that Bart had gone on a solo moose hunt in the Yukon and not returned.  It was later determined that he was at least eaten by a bear, and probably killed by one as well.  After all the dangerous things he had done alone in the woods with large carnivores he was killed sitting in camp.  Outside Life wrote an article about him called The Last Wild Man.

Soon after I began school in Montana I was invited on an ice climbing expedition.  It was put on for beginners by the MSU climbing club and our instructor was Alex Lowe.  I didn’t know who he was at the time but was struck at how vigorous, full of energy, and happy he seemed.  I didn’t take up ice climbing but I had a lot of friends who were climbers and now and then they would mention Alex with reverence, so I had some idea that he was respected, at least by the local climbers, but when I saw him around town he was just Alex.  A few years later my friend Bill and I climbed Mt. Cowen in the Absaroka Range.  We put in two hard days and were feeling good about ourselves when we stopped at Frontier Pies to celebrate.  Alex happened to be there and asked us what we had been up to.  It turned out he had just saved the lives of two climbers on Mt. McKinley by carrying them on his shoulders from 17,000 feet to a helicopter waiting at 19,000 feet.  These are altitudes where most people, even climbers, are barely capable of moving, let alone carrying somebody, but he was more interested in what we were doing.  We told him about our climb, which he had never done (A measly 4th class route but with 7,000 feet of elevation gain and spectacular views).  A few weeks later we saw him at a party and he came over and thanked us for telling him about the climb
“I just went down there Wednesday, it’s a beautiful route” he said with boyish enthusiasm.
“How long did it take?” Bill asked.
“6 hours…”

A few years later I returned to Bozeman for a winter after I finished my MS degree in Colorado.  While I was gone I had read in National Geographic about expeditions that Alex had done in the Himalaya and Antarctica and had come to realize that he was not just a local hero but in fact, probably the best climber in the world.  I walked into the gym one morning and noticed he was working out but I was too shy to say anything.  He came over and said “Hey, you’re Mike right?  Where have you been the past few years I haven’t seen you around!”  Then he offered to spot me on my puny bench press and continued talking as he ripped off 20 one armed pullups.  “Do you have any climbing plans coming up?”  I got to know him a bit better that winter, mostly from talking to him at the gym.  He was always friendly and more interested in what I was doing then in what he was doing, even though I was never going to appear in National Geographic Magazine, or any other magazine either.  After I returned to Colorado that fall I learned from a friend that Alex had been killed in an avalanche in Nepal.  It was a relatively easy peak and they were there mostly to ski.  After all the insanely dangerous things he had done he got killed from an avalanche that began 6,000 feet above him.  Just a random occurrence.

After I moved to Durango I joined the local running club, Durango Motorless Transit.  Mark Witkes was the president.  He seemed to be everywhere in town always running or on his single speed road bike and always smiling.  He didn’t own a car and as a board member of Hardrock, he would ride his single speed bike from Durango to Silverton over two 10,000+ foot passes to attend meetings.  One day at our local Mothers Day 10k I caught up to him on the trail.
“What have you been up?” He asked, and I told him about my meager exploits, secretly proud that I had caught up and passed him.

After the race another runner asked him how he liked the marathon.  It turned out he had run the Shiprock marathon the day before.  Not only had he run a marathon but he had ridden his single speed bike 90 miles there and 90 miles back afterwards and still got up for our local 10k.  But I still beat him….  He had finished several double Ironmans, Hardrock, and the Sri Chimnoy World Harmony Race  where he ran 700 miles in 12 days but when I saw him in town he was always smiling and asking about what I had been up to.  The last time I saw him was after the Iron Horse bicycle race when we rode the train back to Durango together afterwards.  A few months later I was at the gym and heard people talking about him.  He was running the Tuscon Marathon as a Boston qualifier and collapsed in the last mile and died.  For most people, running a marathon is a big deal but for someone like Mark it was just an easy run in order for the chance to run in his hometown marathon.  He was 40 years old.  I turned 41 the day after he died.  Just a random event.

My own father was born into an Amish family but when he was 12 his neighbor took him for a ride in his plane, and four years later my father left his family and the Amish community and went out on his own to pursue his dream of being a pilot. When he began he didn’t even have a high-school diploma but he studied hard and took every opportunity to build up a few flying hours.  This was in the 60s and flying was a little more dangerous in the days before satellite photographs, radar, GPS, and computer models of weather patterns.  Once he was hired by a reporter for the Miami Herald to fly him to Puerto Rico to report on a hurricane that had just hit.  Unbeknownst to them it shifted course and they flew straight through its eye.  I heard stories of engine failures, of flying a single seat experimental helicopter with a 60 mile range across the country, I watched him flying acrobatics in his Pitts special, .  When a plane that he had rented was confiscated by a small Caribbean nation after the renter was discovered to be carrying “contraband” most people would have chalked it up as the cost of doing business.  My father flew to the Caribbean and “unconfiscated” it.  I am certain there are stories of close calls that nobody will ever hear.  Eventually he got a job as a pilot for TWA and worked his way up through the seniority chain. When he died he was captain of the 747 but he was killed in the crash of a plane (TWA Flight 800) on which he was just a passenger. A random event.

Micah ran a lot too.  He ran 100 mile races and was known for putting up huge mileage weeks.  What made him different was that he put in huge mileage in places like Guatemala during a civil war.  He got his nickname Caballo Blanco on the trails around Lake Atitlan which was ground zero for violence during that time.  I’ve hiked and biked some of those same trails and they are sketchy during times of peace.  I’ve heard stories of the atrocities that occurred during those years but when I asked Micah about it he just looked away and said “I’ve seen some crazy shit.”  Then he would ask me what I had been up to.

After meeting the Raramuri runners at the Leadville 100 in the early 90’s Micah went to Copper Canyon to find them and run with them.  Copper Canyon is also quite dangerous.  Even without the narco-violence the trails are steep, loose, unmarked, and unmapped.  The area is remote and sparsely populated so if you needed help it was unlikely you would find it.  Micah ran these trails all the time and he ran them alone, despite being prone to unexplained spells of unconsciousness.  When he died I read many comments about how he lived dangerously running through the wilderness by himself and they were right.  Except on the run he died on he was only a few miles from the home of good friends, in the USA.  His heart just stopped, it was a random event.

These five men all died doing the things that they loved. Every one of them however, had taken great risks in their life and in the end they died doing things that for them were relatively easy and safe. For most people, the things they were doing would have been impossible, dangerous, physically demanding, lonely, frightening, but for these men it was what they did every day of their lives.

They were doing what they loved but that’s not what killed them. They died doing what they loved not because what they were doing was so dangerous, but because they spent so much time doing those things that pure statistical probability made it likely that they would be doing them when their time came. That’s beautiful man. I hope we all live lives like that. I miss all these men greatly and would gladly give a year of my life for one more week with any one of them but they led amazing lives and they died well and with no regrets and I cannot feel sad for them, only for their loved ones who have been left behind.

But I said there were seven and I’ve only mentioned five.  My friend Bill was the best friend I ever had.  I learned more from him in the four years I knew him than from anyone else in my life and I can’t even begin to comprehend the impact he had on me.  At the time I had a pretty unique set of interests. Computer programming, guns, biology, GIS, bears, politics, skiing, philosophy.  Bill, believe it or not, had the exact same set of interests.  One time we got snowed in for three whole days in a small tent miles at the top of the Spanish Peaks wilderness after an early fall storm.  We talked the entire three days, the entire way down the mountain on the way out, and then went to a restaurant and talked for a few more hours until his wife called and asked if he was OK.  You don’t get many friends like that in any life.  Bill had also been a grizzly bear biologist, but he left that field and became a computer programmer because he thought it would be a more secure future. He chose safety but he always regretted that decision. He used to tell me “Bart and Alex are out their making a life and I’m stuck here making a living”. And he was making plans to move to Alaska and join his friend Bart but before that happened he died in front of his computer late one night of a brain aneurism, age 45. A random event. Sure, Bart got eaten by a bear and Alex died in an avalanche and you might think they died because they lived risky lives, but they had no regrets and they outlived Bill who had chosen safety and regretted it his entire life. That is truly sad.

Safety is an illusion my friends. It doesn’t exist. We cannot control the timing or manner of our passing but we can control our lives and for me the lesson of this is to live the best life we can and not get so caught up being afraid of death that we never truly live.

The seventh one pains me most of all. Peter grew up in Jackson Hole in the 50s and became a mountaineer and skier putting up many first ascents and first descents. He had to move to Canada because his conscience wouldn’t allow him to fight in Vietnam.  Because of this interruption in his life he never went to college although he was brilliant and took great pleasure from solving mathematical puzzles I threw his way.  One day we were backcountry skiing and we came across some lynx tracks and I told him about a method I had come up with for estimating animal density from track intersections.  It was based on a problem in geometric probability called Buffon’s needle and when I explained it to me he said “Don’t tell me the answer, I want to figure it out!”  The next day I was shocked when he came to work with half a ream of paper full of scribbles and the correct solution.  (I wouldn’t have actually been able to solve it myself; I just found a novel use for someone else’s solution).  He took up construction to earn a living and I met him when I hired him to help me on a job.  We skied and climbed together for a couple years before he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given six months to live. He beat that by three years and we got to climb a few more mountains together but in the end he suffered a long painful death that was terrible to watch.  He was being kept alive by drugs and machines but spent most of that time fighting with insurance companies for his treatment. Although he lived longer than any of my other friends I would not have wished that on any of them, it would have been a fate far worse than the ones that they received.  And yes, the cancer was a random event.  He was a vegan and had none of the risk factors for this disease.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about these men and what made them different.  As a biologist I can tell you that in every population of animals there is a small segment of the populations that are prone to disperse. These dispersers don’t stay at home and fight for a territory to defend, they head off into the unknown by themselves. Many of them die lonely deaths in wild places but occasionally one succeeds and when they do find another population or an empty patch of habitat they can be wildly successful, spreading their genes far and wide and that keeps the dispersal gene from going extinct. It is a high risk, high reward strategy but it is critical because without these dispersers populations would not be able to expand, or adapt. They would become inbred and stagnant and eventually extinct. Dispersers keep populations vital by connecting them.

Humans have a dispersal gene too. Throughout history, humans have struck out in search of new lands and new people undaunted by the risk they take and many of them do die lonely deaths in wild places but a few become wildly successful and I’m sure we can think of many examples. In today’s world there are not undiscovered lands sadly, but there are still empty places in the world and people to connect and dispersers are out there climbing the peaks, studying the wildlife, flying the skies, running the trails, connecting with new people. They can’t help it. It’s in their genes.

Unfortunately in today’s world there are fewer and fewer outlets for dispersers and many of them end up stuck in cubicles trying to shoehorn themselves into a life that somehow never seems to be a good fit. They have an innate deep seated need to get out and so before they go to work or after they are done they go outside and run, or bike, or climb, or ski. They dream of travelling the world and seeing new places and meeting new people. Their non-disperser friends will never understand but they are dispersers and they can’t help themselves.

If you are a disperser there are some qualities that you’d better have if you’re going to be successful. You better be strong because you are going to encounter some hardship and you might have to defend yourself. You better have a positive attitude because you just have to believe that the grass is greener on the other side. You better persevere because you have a long way to go. You better be comfortable alone because you’re going to be alone a lot. You better be smart so you can adapt to changing situations, you better be peaceable because when you get to where you are going it will be you against everyone else, you better be charismatic because you’re going to want the people you meet to like you. You’d better have love in your heart because the whole point is to spread genes right?

These men I knew had all these qualities in spades. If you’ve ever watched nature shows on TV then you have seen the dispersing wolf trying to ingratiate themselves into a new pack. They don’t come in aggressive and belligerent or they would be killed. They come in humble and submissive, wagging their tails, this doesn’t make them weak just practical.. You see the same thing amongst children on a playground or musicians entering a picking circle at a bluegrass festival. This also seems to be a trait of dispersers and I suspect that if someone had been there to observe it, it would have been the way that Micah approached the Raramuri, humble and submissive and wagging his tail. It works.

Starting a race that became the subject of a best-selling book meant the end of Micah’s simple life in the canyon but it brought a lot of attention to the Raramuri.  The race provided food and money to many but Micah didn’t want to just give them handouts to meet their material needs he also wanted to show them that they were respected and honored by many other people and that they should be proud of their culture because that is not a lesson that they heard very often. And he did, and they responded.  We know what Micah did for the Raramuri but Micah also did the same for many of us who went to the Copper Canyon to run in his race. He gave us a name, called us Mas Locos, and when the world was at war he brought us together in peace at the bottom of a canyon in Mexico, because that’s what dispersers do, they connect us. He taught us, like the Raramuri, that we are not alone, that there are others out there like us who have never really felt part of this modern world. He provided a venue where we could express all these innate qualities that we all share. Strength, perseverance, peace, love, humility. And like the Raramuri, he instilled in us a sense of pride in who we are, and we went home changed people.

And now that Micah has left us I hope that we will take his lessons to heart and we will disperse out into the world with peace and love in our hearts and strength in our bodies and we will find ways to make it a more connected, and vital place.  Micah showed us one way but there are many other and it’s up to us to find them, and while we are searching for our own path I hope we keep in mind one last trait that all of my friends have shared. They gave back far more than they ever got out of the world and they never bothered to collect much in the way of material wealth. Instead they collected experience and relationships and when they died they were wealthy and happy men. It’s a high risk strategy but the rewards are also great. Giving is more powerful than getting.

I’d like to finish with a word to the non-dispersers out there. You will never understand us. We know that, just as we will never understand you. The things we do seem risky and frightening to you. You are going to give us advice like “Never run alone, always tell someone where you are going, be prepared for anything and always carry a massive pack loaded with rain gear, warm layers, extra food and water, a huge first aid kit, a flashlight, a cell phone, a GPS, and a SPOT”. (I have a similar list of things to think about when I go to a city…)  Its good advice and we should probably take it more but often we will respectfully ignore you because we are dispersers. Our destiny lies often in places beyond the reach of cell phones and search parties. We have to travel light, and we have to be free to adapt to changing conditions and we are comfortable being alone and we are comfortable with a little risk. The things we do are not frightening to us, we don’t do them in order to face fear, we do them because it is what fuels our spirit and recharges our soul, we can’t help ourselves. It’s in our genes. Sure, some of us will die out there in the lonely wild places but we are OK with that because we are more concerned with living than dying. Dying in the woods does not frighten us, what frightens us are cities and paperwork, and car crashes and sitting on a sofa watching TV and dying a long slow death trapped in a bed becoming a financial and emotional burden to our loved ones and having insurance companies decide whether it is worth keeping us alive any longer.

I’m not here to tell you to be stupid and take risks and ignore safety and to be unprepared. But nothing in that advice would have kept a single one of my friends from dying. It may have shortened the search but it wouldn’t have saved their lives. Ultimately every one of us is responsible for assuming the level of risk that we are comfortable with and there is nothing wrong with being safe but there is nothing wrong with an occasional calculated risk either. If Micah had listened to that advice he certainly would never have gone to Guatemala in the middle of a civil war and would not have gotten the name Caballo Blanco. He probably would not have become a trail runner because there weren’t many other people to run with in those days, he would not have met the Raramuri in Leadville, traveled to Copper Canyon to live with them and he would never have started his race and many of us would not have been inspired and the world would have missed something beautiful.

So please, let us go, let us explore, and connect, and inspire, and head off into the wild, lonely, empty places with wild abandon. Let us go beyond the range of cell phones and search parties. We know what we are doing, we are listening to our hearts and following our destinies. It’s what we do, we can’t help ourselves and you need us out there, even if you don’t understand why. Just like we know that the world could not function if everyone were like us.  It takes all kinds of people to make this world go around and we all have a place in it.

Veterinarians have more fun!

Last fall I was a bit burned out on running and decided to take a break from ultra’s and focus on shorter distance runs and other things in life.  I knew, however, that there was one I would sign up for.  Born to Run.  This is why.

I arrived at the Chamberlin Ranch on Wednesday night.  The race wasn’t until Saturday and the ranch didn’t open until Thursday noon but I hadn’t found anything worth stopping for in Bakersfield so I continued and arrived at the top of Figueroa mountain only 8 miles past the entrance just in time to watch the sun set.


I awoke to a pretty nice view of the marine layer of fog 2,000 feet below


The drive down seemed to take forever as I envisioned my arrival


I wasn’t totally sure I was in the right place when I arrived at the gate


It wasn’t until Tattoo Mike Rose handed me a shovel and asked me to help clean up the place that I knew I was home.


Before long Luis arrived with the trail marking gear (ribbons, flags, fireball, stakes, and manekin)


It was rough work and Lola turned out to be totally useless at helping the other 7 of us place that pin flag.  She was even worse at drinking the fireball.


And she totally sucked with the manekin.  Rule #1: Don’t ask a question if you are pretty sure you don’t want to know the answer….


By the time we had returned others were beginning to show up.  I have no pictures of what happened next.  Refer to Rule #1.

The next morning began with a pickup game of wiffleball.  Only one person asked what the rules were.  Canadians……


Then Sweeney ruined all the fun by taking things too seriously


I fell on my arse and had a convenient excuse for not actually finishing the race.  Winner!


The day swiftly devolved into more shenanigans.  The beautiful people hoola-hooped.


which turns out to be harder then it looks.


Others expressed their creativity through body sculpting.

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There was a beer mile, which Luis began by making us look away and then sneaking up behind us with a shotgun.


I did not loose, thanks to my pacer and AA sponsor Lola.


We got the best finisher medals ever.  And also did our part to keeping the beaches of southern CA free of trash.  (Or full of crying babies, not sure which exactly…..)


But its a beer mile so really, there were no losers


Then Luis began an American rules Raramuri ball race


I had the misfortune to be in the second heat after the beer mile and got thoroughly schooled by Topher Norling (who rumor has it did the “root beer” mile) and a couple of pre-teen show-offs.  “Look at me, I’m so good at ball racing, I beat the old fat guy!”


Other people had better luck, and the pinata was still smiling and enjoying its short-lived life (Hey! Its so much fun hanging out with you guys!)


Things got more serious as Maria explained to us how the money would be spent by Norawa’s to help buy corn and other necessities for the Raramuri people in the Copper Canyon area of Mexico.


Afterwards we quickly returned to what we were doing until 9:00 when Luis made us all go to bed so we could race in the morning.  I cheated and stayed up until 11 so I could give my friend Kelly a guided tour of the campground when she finally arrived.

Race morning arrived like every other ultra.  Five shotgun blasts at 4:15 AM followed by loud Mariachi music.  Luis explained the course to us (Blue is bad and if you find an empty bottle of Fireball you have DEFINITELY gone to far).  He also told us what we would need to do to win the custom-made surfboards.  Like every other race.


My race began in dead last after Lola got lost and returned to the start after the first mile.


I went back and got her and enjoyed passing a few of the stragglers (good for the ego) and then settled into my normal pace of conversation.   It was a nice cool morning.


Things got a little hot at the second aid station.  I blurred out the barbies in case you are reading this at work.  You’re welcome.


Since Lola ruined my shot at winning the surfboard I had a relaxing run, enjoying the aid stations, meeting old friends and making new ones.

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The day was beautiful and the course was beautiful.

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But it was not without its own set of unique dangers


Halfway through the second lap my knee began to hurt (stupid wiffleball!) and I called it a day.

I was happy though as I found the campground full of friends involved in their favorite ultra-running activities. Like getting tattooed.


Playing didgeridoos.


Selling sandals


Shooting pinatas


and doing unnatural things with dogs. (I blame gay marriage)


Mostly though we just did a lot of this.  Which was really what we had come for after all.

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Saturday night involved continuing frivolities, cheering on the runners still on the course (and frightening them into not stopping).  By sunday morning however it was time to begin cleaning up camp.  Actually it probably would have been a good idea to clean the camp before the weekend….


Finally I had to accept the fact the fact that it was over and take my chair and go home.


I wanted to explore more of the central coast but soon discovered it wasn’t anything like the Chamberlin Ranch


Further adventures lay ahead and I had business further north.  All in all it was a great weekend.  My run was nothing to write about but I was honored to be present as Tyler and Jim ran their first 100’s and Dawn finished her first ultra.  It really wasn’t about competition for me but like every race however there were winners.

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There are those who finish


Those who got lucky


In the end there was really only one loser.


Grizzly! (Part 2, the imaginary ones)

I made it through my first year in Montana without seeing a grizzly.  This was partly due to dumb luck, and partly because I spent more time exploring the areas close to Bozeman and in the Bridgers where grizzlies are less common.

One of my main motivating factors for choosing Montana State University for my undergraduate education was to hunt.  The variety of game animals in Montana is unparalleled in the US and I wanted to hunt everything.  Bighorn sheep are probably the most revered game animal in the nation and for most people a sheep hunt was a once in a lifetime opportunity requiring either a very expensive guide, or a very lucky draw in a lottery.  Montana, however, had two areas that were so remote and where the sheep didn’t get very big and it sold unlimited sheep licenses in those areas.  It was my only chance.  One of these areas was just to the northwest of Yellowstone National Park and I was excited both for the hunt and to explore a new area.

I was hunting by myself and I backpacked in for a week, camping right at timberline near a small stream.  Everyday I spent hiking above timberline and looking for sheep.  I didn’t see any but one evening, as I was returning to my camp I spied a large bear crossing an avalanche path well below me.  Getting a better look through my binoculars revealed it to be a grizzly.  Fortunately it was almost 1000 feet below me and going in the opposite direction from my camp so I just enjoyed watching my first griz for a minute or so and didn’t really think much about it.

After a quick meal in the waning daylight I crawled into my sleeping bag and prepared for a good night’s sleep.  A few minutes later I was surprised to hear loud snorting and pawing at the ground outside my tent.  Suddenly I had a vivid recollection of the bear I had seen 20 minutes before.  Had he smelled me and come running?  He would have had to run FAST to cover that distance in such a short time.  That didn’t make sense.  Bears don’t stalk people from half a mile away, but what else could it be?

I sat up with my rifle pointed at the noise.  Would my sheep rifle stop a grizzly?  What if my foot was in said grizzlies mouth?  Do I take that shot or not? My tent was small and I felt vulnerable laying on the ground, but I couldn’t stand up.  And it was getting darker by the second.  What to do?  I knew I wanted to be standing and able to see what was happening so I gathered my nerves and jumped out of my tent.  Actually the tent was way too small to jump out of.  I crawled out on my hands and knees, grabbed my rifle, and stood up and looked around.  Any bear worthy of the name could have covered 100 yards in the time it took me to do that, but I felt better.  As my eyes adjusted to the growing darkness I was pleasantly surprised to see not a large grizzly, but rather an even larger bull moose.  It was late September and thus the peak of the moose rut when bulls can be quite unpredictable.  Bull moose have been reported to derail freight trains in Norway during the rut.  Moose in Montana are only half the size of northern moose. That’s still pretty big.  At least I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be eaten and being stomped to death somehow is not quite so disturbing.  I waved my arms and yelled at him and was relieved when he wandered off down the mountain, curiosity satisfied that I was not in fact a female moose and therefore completely uninteresting to him for at least two weeks of every year.

The following summer I spent doing construction work in Bozeman but I saved the last week before school began for a trip to Glacier National Park.  My friend Bill had hooked me up with his friend Matt Reid who was making a film about grizzlies.  Matt had invited me to go out with the film crew and I was giddy with anticipation.  I literally couldn’t imagine ANYTHING I would rather do.  When I arrived in Glacier, however, I found Matt also giddy with excitement.  The day before his film crew in Yellowstone was sitting on a bison carcass in the Hayden Valley hoping that a bear would find it when a wolf appeared.  This was BIG news.  At the time wolves had not yet been reintroduced into Yellowstone but a lot of work had already been done towards that goal.  Most of the work that I did in Yellowstone during my time there was gathering baseline data prior to wolf-reintroduction so that it would be possible to evaluate their effects.  Wolf reintroduction was highly controversial in the area, however, and some of the opposition groups claimed that reintroduction was unnecessary, perhaps even illegal, because wolves already existed in the park.  There was not a shred of evidence to support this idea, however, until then.  Matt was pulling the film crew from Glacier and sending them to Yellowstone and he himself was leaving the next morning to fly to New York to appear on the Today show.  It was that big of a deal.

Although I was thrilled for Matt and for the film I was a bit devastated to lose my opportunity to go out with the crew.  Matt told me that his crew had been filming a bear that had been hanging out near No Name Lake and he assured me that if I went up there I would probably see it.  This wasn’t what I had signed up for, but I didn’t want to seem afraid in front of Matt.  He took me to the backcountry ranger’s office at Two Medicine Lake and talked them into giving me an undesignated site permit for the gypsy campground at No Name Lake.  Even then, it was very difficult to get a backcountry camping permit in Glacier.  Backpackers were required to stay in specific campgrounds to protect the resource and provide some measure of safety from bears.  If you had reason to be someplace other than one of the designated campgrounds you could ask for an undesignated site permit.  Rangers didn’t like giving them out but Matt assured me that they couldn’t legally deny them and he stood his ground.  The ranger told me he didn’t recommend it and I was almost ready to bail but he did issue me the permit.  It was for the “gypsy” campground which was an unmarked, hidden campground where trail crews and other park personnel stayed when they were in the area on official business.  I would be there alone.

It was a dreary morning and I was eager to get on my way and set up my tent before it began to rain.  The hike in was 5 or 6 miles and took only three hours.  I managed to find the hidden trail to the gypsy camp and arrived just as it began raining.  I quickly set up my tent and jumped in just as the heavens opened up in a downpour so I pulled my pack in afterwards.  Rainstorms in Glacier are always cold, even in August so I pulled out my sleeping bag and crawled in, thankful that it was warm and still dry.  It had been a long couple days and the next thing I remember was waking up.  As usual it took a few seconds to remember where I was.  Yeah,  Glacier Park.  In a gypsy camp where a grizzly had been hanging out.  All by myself.  And it was dark.  I had slept through the afternoon and into the night.  I was hungry and turned on my headlamp and stared at my pack for a bit as the realization slowly hit me.  All my food was still in it.  The first rule of camping in grizzly country is DO NOT KEEP FOOD IN YOUR TENT.  The second rule of camping in grizzly country is DO NOT KEEP FOOD ANYWHERE THAT IT IS ACCESSIBLE TO A BEAR.  The first is to protect people, the second is to protect bears.  Actually the first is to protect the bears as well.

Bears are highly evolved to remember where to find food in different seasons of the year.  They have incredible memories and will remember and return to places where they have found an easy meal.  In 1989 a train derailed near Marias Pass on the southern boundary of Glacier spilling 10,000 tons of corn. By the fall of 1990 the corn had begun to ferment and had attracted more than two dozen (slightly inebriated) bears to the area and by 1993, nine grizzlies had been confirmed to have been killed by trains, five of them breeding females.  That is a huge loss to the relatively small and endangered grizzly population in the park.  The railroad eventually cleaned up the spill but bears are still returning to the are two decades later looking for corn.  If a bear happens to find a meal in a human campground there is a good chance that it will return as well.  And if it continues to find food it will continue to return until it becomes a “problem bear” and problem bears have very short lifespans.  As I lay awake in my tent pondering the best course of action, I envisioned the newspaper headlines “Wildlife biology student and aspiring grizzly bear biologist mauled to death after doing everything wrong….”.

I weighed the danger of keeping food in my tent versus going outside to hang it in the dark, where a bear might already have been attracted by it and weighing the dangers for itself. Eventually I decided that it was raining hard enough to keep the scent from traveling and hopefully to keep the bears holed up someplace warm and dry, and I faded off to a fitful sleep full of bear attack dreams.

At some point in the night something hit me in the face and I woke up screaming and punching into the dark.  Nothing happened.  I turned on my light and stared into the glowing eyes of a deer mouse sitting on my pack.  It had crawled up the screen door of my tent, worked its way through the zipper at the top and dropped in the dark onto my face.  I’m sure he was more scared than I was….  I grabbed for him but he ducked behind my pack.  I lifted the pack and he ran under my sleeping bag.  I grabbed under my sleeping bag but came up empty handed.  Eventually I gave up and dozed off to sleep again waking occasionally screaming and punching into the night whenever the mouse decided to run across my face.  In retrospect it might have been a good thing I was the only human for miles around.  I might also have scared off any bear dumb enough to wander out into the storm.  Finally I decided I had enough.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle and I put on my raincoat and emptied my tent item by item until there was nothing left inside but me and the mouse.  I cornered him, grabbed him by the tail, and flung him unceremoniously into the dark, wet, cold, night.  I didn’t feel bad.

The next time I awoke it was still dark.  As the fog of sleep left me I realized that I could not move my legs.  There was a large heavy weight pressing my legs against the floor of my tent and that… weight…  could…  only…. be….  A BEAR!!!!!!  I erupted.  Screaming, punching, and kicking again.  Again nothing.   This time I turned my light on and saw that my tent was indeed only half the size it had been when I went to sleep. A quick check outside showed why.  Snow.  In August.  Not an inch or two, but a foot.  Oddly enough it made me feel better, believing that no bear worthy of the name would be out and about and I was still warm and dry so I eventually caught a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.  I awoke to blue skies, the rocky spires of Pumpelley Pillar and Rising Wolf Mountain towering overhead, and the blinding whiteness of newly fallen snow. I was very happy to be alive and breathless at the beauty that surrounded me.  I was however, quite cold, so I gathered my gear, threw it in my pack, and set off down the trail through the unbroken blanket of snow that surrounded me.  Unbroken for about 100 yards at least before I hit my first set of grizzly tracks.  Another 20 yards was another set.  Then they followed the trail in the direction I was heading.  Hmmm, I desperately wanted to move fast to warm my fingers but I didn’t want to catch up to the bear either so I turned around and hiked uphill towards Dawson Pass where I could warm up without going to fast.  Then I turned back around and headed for home confident that any bear that wanted me had their chance the night before and that the bears that were out and about were reveling in the beauty around them just like me and not interested in what I had in my pack.

A few weeks later, exactly a year after my first grizzly and probably not 30 miles away as the crow flies I was hunting again in late September on another ‘only in Montana’ type of hunt.  This time it was elk, but a very unusual type of elk hunt.  When elk are rutting or bugling, they can be called in by hunters pretending to be another bull elk, or if they are smart hunters, a cow elk.  Generally this occurs prior to the rifle season and only bow-hunters are allowed to hunt elk during the bugling season.  The possibility of calling in an elk is the main advantage that bow hunters have, although having a 700 pound bull running up to you looking for a fight might leave you unable to hold your bow steady enough to shoot.  Elk are not stupid, however, and most areas have enough hunters that the elk have gotten smart and don’t respond quite so easily to every bugle and cow call they hear.  This was not most areas, however.  This was Yellowstone.

Normally, someone like myself, who is far too lazy to put in the time to learn how to shoot a bow and learn to sound like an elk, would never have a chance to hunt during bugle season (In my defense I was carrying 21 credits and working 20 hours most weeks).  There is one area in Montana, however, where there is an early rifle season during the rut.  That area is the Hellroaring Creek drainage.  This valley drains INTO Yellowstone National Park from the north and there are no roads into it (not even close) from outside the park.  Hunters are not allowed to go through the park, so the only way to get in is to hike or ride a horse 7 or 8 miles to the top of the ridge that defines the Hellroaring Creek drainage.  That is the beginning of the hunting district.

It is the nature of ridges that once you are on one, the only way to go is down.  A corollary to that natural law is that if you are on the other side of a ridge from your truck, the only way to get back to it is to go up.  And if you happen to have shot an elk on the opposite side of a ridge from your truck you have to take it up and over the ridge with you.  The entire 300 or 400 pounds of meat.  This is not a trivial task if you have horses.  If you have no horses, however, it can be a monumental task.  Needless to say, I was not interested in hunting the lower elevations of Hellroaring Creek.  I stayed on the ridge top.

Late September is a spectacular time to be in the woods, especially in Montana.  The aspen trees are turning gold, the elk and moose are in rut, there is usually a dusting (at least) of snow on the peaks, and all the merry woodland creatures are out and about preparing for a long winter.  Mostly by gorging themselves silly.  This is especially true of bears.  In southwest Montana, the prime source of food for bears at this time of year is the whitebark pine nut.  Whitebark pines are my favorite tree.  They are the last tree species to grow before timberline so they are always in beautiful, remote places.  They have a broad spreading canopy and often multiple trunks which is more reminiscent of a live oak than a pine forest.  There is very little understory so they are easy to walk through.  This is partly due to extreme climate and partly due to intense solar radiation at that altitude which breaks everything down quicker.

My favorite thing about whitebark pines however, is the ecology of their seeds.  They produce a large nut that is high in fat and protein and it plays a large role in the ecology of high elevation forests in this area.  There is a bird, the Clarks Nutcracker, that specializes in harvesting these nuts.  They pull them out of cones still in the trees and cache them two or three at a time (the most they can carry in one trip) around the forest.  Research has shown that they can remember the exact location of thousands of these caches and return months, even years later to retrieve them.  They do not get them all, however, and this is the reason that these trees have multiple trunks.  Research shows that if you plant one seed, you get a tree with one trunk but if you plant two or three seeds together, you get a tree with two or three trunks, so we know that almost all of these trees are planted by this bird.

Red squirrels also feed heavily on whitebark pine nuts.  They climb the tree, cut down a cone, and store the nuts in large middens around the base of a tree.  Whitebark pines, however, are inconsistent producers.  Every two or three years there is a good crop, but the other years there is very little production.  What this means for squirrels is that they can only exist at the lower elevations of the whitebark pine zone where they are mixed with spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine so that the squirrels have a backup during the years when whitebark pine nuts are not available.  At higher elevations where there are only whitebarks, squirrels can’t live and these nuts are left for the birds.  This also has implications for bears as well.  Grizzlies are not the best tree climbers, and, like me, they are somewhat lazy, so they spend their time in the fall looking for squirrel middens to raid.  And research has shown, that in years with high whitebark pine nut production there are very few problems between bears and people, relative to years with low whitebark productivity.  When there are nuts the bears stay on the remote, high ridges, where the living is easy.  When there are no nuts, the bears stay lower down where they are more likely to get in trouble with people.

The fall of 1992 was a time of high whitebark productivity, which had implications for my hunt that I was well aware of.  When you backpack hunt alone just outside Yellowstone you are truly a part of the ecosystem.  On one hand it meant that the bears were more interested in nuts then they would be in me.  On the other hand, it meant that all the bears in Yellowstone were concentrated on the high ridges, such as the one that I was spending a week on.   As I hunted I saw lots of evidence of bears.  I saw lots of scat that was full of pine nuts.  I saw lots of middens that had been raided.  Twice it snowed an inch or two and I saw lots of tracks in the snow.  I found two gut piles from elk that had been shot and field dressed.  Both of these had been mostly consumed by bears.  I ran into a few hunters who had seen bears.  Somehow, however, I managed to go the entire week without actually seeing a bear myself.  Or many elk for that matter.  At least not one that I was willing to cut my hunt short for and pack out 8 miles. I was having too much fun hunting to bother to shoot anything.

On the evening of the last day of my hunt I was coming back to my camp.  It was getting dark and I knew that I was getting close to my tent but I hadn’t seen it yet (it was a natural shade of grey and somewhat dirty…).  Suddenly a spruce grouse flushed about 40 feet in front of me.  I watched it land in a tree branch silhouetted against the setting sun and I felt the saliva begin to flow like one of Pavlov’s dogs.  I hadn’t had meat or any fresh food in a week and grouse sounded delicious.  I quickly shouldered my rifle, took aim at its head and cleanly decapitated it with my first shot.  My eyes followed it as it hit the ground, first with anticipation of my upcoming meal, and second in slowly growing horror as I realized that it had landed only a few feet from my tent, which I had not noticed until that time.  My horror continued to grow as I watched it run a full circle around my tent spouting blood from its neck onto the ground and onto my tent.

There I was again, darkness arriving quickly, in an area that I knew to be full of grizzly bears, and my tent was sitting squarely in the center of a circle of blood.   Yeah….  I saw the headlines already.  “Stupid wildlife biology major and aspiring grizzly biologist found dead after doing every possible wrong thing you can do….”.  I was running out of time, however, so I quickly grabbed my tent and my pack and moved it about 100 yards to the base of a pine tree that had been struck by lightning.  One trunk was still standing and had a few low branches that made it relatively climbable but the other was dead and lying on the ground. Perfect. I faced my tent towards the dead branches and gathered a large pile of dead wood under it.  My theory was that if I heard a bear I could empty my stove fuel on it, turning it instantly into a massive bonfire, which would give me enough time and light to climb the tree.   It wasn’t much but it was all I could do at the time.  Having completed my preparations I cooked the grouse, which was delicious, and crawled into my sleeping bag with a bottle of stove fuel in one hand and a lighter in the other, listening intently to the movement of all the creatures of the night, waiting for the sound of a large, furry, clawed foot on soft moss.  Fortunately it never came.  At least for the 10 minutes or so that I managed to stay awake….

The next summer I got my first real job in the science field as the GIS/GPS coordinator for Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies.  I worked for about a month straight until early July when I finally got caught up enough to take a few days off.  I knew exactly what I was going to do.  We have all seen films of coastal grizzlies (brown bears) in Alaska feeding on spawning salmon.  Most of us, however, are probably unaware that a similar phenomenon exists in Yellowstone.  Yellowstone lake is huge and has a massive population of cutthroat trout (at least it did until some yahoo introduced lake trout a few years back….).  Cutthroat spawn in the spring, which is June in Yellowstone.  The exact time is dependent on the temperature of the water.  When the water in the stream gets warm enough, the trout migrate out of the lake into the streams to breed and some of the bears have learned about this, usually from their mothers, and they spend most of June feasting on spawning trout.  There are not that many bears in Yellowstone and not all of them know about the spawning trout.  There are, however, a lot of streams flowing into the lake and so you don’t get huge concentrations on any one stream as you do in Alaska.

There is one stream, however, which stays cold longer than the others.  In order to keep this special place secret I won’t say where it is or why it is so cold.  Suffice it to say that because it is colder and spawning is temperature dependent, it is the last stream that gets a spawning run.  As I said, bears are very highly adapted to remembering where easy food can be found and for one week in July, this stream is the only game in town and there are a fair amount of bears that have figured this out.  I knew this because I had connections among bear biologists and my best friend Bill had been a bear researcher in the seventies and he focused on the use of spawning streams around Yellowstone Lake by grizzlies.  Over the years he had taken several people to this place and I had heard the stories.  Ten or fifteen bears visible at once was common.  I told him I wanted to go and he gave me all the details.
“They usually come out about an hour before dark” He said.
“So… you watch them for an hour and then walk out in the dark?” I asked.
“Don’t worry”, he said. “They are full of fish and not interested in you”
It sounded good sitting in his living room in Bozeman.

I mentioned this trip to my friend Ann Marie who was working with me that summer.  She said she wanted to come along.  “Are you sure?” I asked.  “The only way to get there is to paddle a canoe for a full day”.
“Yes”, she said.  “I want to come, it sounds amazing!”
I didn’t tell her that I had almost no experience paddling a canoe.
“We’ll be completely isolated and surrounded by bears”  I said.
“I don’t care”, she said “I’m in”.  It’s easy to be brave sitting inside on a couch, but I didn’t argue.  I was pretty sure it would be safer with two people and she had always been good company (Except for one time when she tried to extinguish a burning marshmallow by shaking it rather than blowing it out resulting in second degree burns to everyone sitting around the campfire.  But that is another story….).

Getting where we were going required crossing the west thumb of Yellowstone Lake.  It was a dreary day and by the time we got permits, watched the “camping in grizzly country” video, and found the put-in the wind was picking up.  It was coming from the west which made crossing the west thumb fast and easy.  By the time we reached the east shore, however, the wind had shifted to the northwest.  Getting out of the thumb meant going north diagonally into the waves.  As I said, I was not an experienced canoeist but I learned quickly that you want to be perpendicular to the waves.   Getting parallel to the waves significantly increases the probability that you will swamp the canoe.  Getting out of the west thumb meant we had to go northeast for at least a short bit which put us directly parallel to the oncoming waves.  Just going north meant a lot of zigzagging but we figured it out and although it took longer than expected we made it to the northern end of the thumb.  Getting around the thumb, however,  proved to be more than we were capable of.  We tried everything we could think of but we just couldn’t make the turn without feeling like we were going to swamp.  Eventually we decided that it might not be as dangerous as we thought and we were being scaredy cats.  We went for it and we promptly swamped the canoe.

Fortunately we had not been complete idiots and we made our attempt just 50 feet from shore so we were able to get out of the lake quickly.  I did lose a camera and some pride but other than that, we were fine.  It was cold, however, and we were wet (Yellowstone lake rarely gets above 40 degrees).  We were also miles from where we were legally allowed to camp, but we had no choice.  It was getting late and there was no way we were getting around that bend or back across the west thumb heading into the wind.  We built a fire, dried our gear, and did a bit of exploring before dark.  We were 50 yards from a stream.  All along the stream was bear tracks and scat.  The scat was full of fish scales.  Crap.  I began envisioning the headlines “Idiot wildlife biology student and aspiring grizzly biologist mauled to death after doing everything wrong….”.  It was getting dark.  Yeah, I know.  You think I would learn…..

“Don’t worry” I said. “They are full of fish and not interested in us”
“I didn’t see any fish in the stream” Ann Marie said.
I hadn’t either.
“They’ve probably already gone to where we are headed” I offered, “That scat didn’t look that fresh”
“How do you tell fresh bear scat from day old bear scat?” she asked, unconvinced.
“Its not something you can explain” I promised, “It comes from experience”
“How many times have you been here?” She asked.
“Just go to sleep” I said.

The next morning we woke up to sunny skies and calm weather.  We quickly packed our gear and got out of the thumb while the getting was good.  We paddled for two hours, followed by pelicans and watching bald eagles and ospreys catch fish from the lake and watching elk and one smallish black bear enjoying the day on shore before arriving at the campsite we had a permit for.  We set up our tent and took a nice long nap in the sun.  Around 5:00 we got back in the canoe and paddled the last 2 miles to our destination.
“They come out about an hour before dark” I said.  “Sometimes you can see 10 or 15 at once”.
“So….  You watch them for an hour and then walk by them in the dark?” She said.
“Don’t worry”, I said.  “They are full of fish and aren’t interested in us.  Besides we’ll be sitting at the base of a tree that we can climb”.

We arrived at our destination and tied up the canoe.
“There aren’t many trees around” Ann Marie noted.
“Don’t worry” I said. “They are full of fish and aren’t interested in us”
“I don’t see any fish in the stream” She said.
I hadn’t either.
“The timing is not exact” I said.  “But the bears are here, see look at that scat”
“But they won’t be full of fish” She said.
“Lets at least find a tree” I said.

We walked up the stream ¼ mile before finding a decent tree to sit by.  It was easily climbable and about 75 yards from the stream.  Perfect.  It was 6:30 and in Montana in early July we had almost 2 ½ hours of useful light.  The bears would start coming in an hour or so.

15 minutes went by.  “If we have to climb the tree will we be in it all night?”  Ann Marie asked.
“Don’t worry” I said. “The tree is a last resort, The bears will be full of fish and won’t be interested in us”
“There aren’t any fish in the stream” She said.
“Maybe there are now” I offered.  Apparently I was not very convincing.

Another 15 minutes went by.
“If we have to stay in the tree all night, we’ll have to stay awake won’t we?” Ann Marie said. “Otherwise we’ll fall out of the tree.”
“Don’t worry” I said.  “I know people who have done this.  Nobody has had any problems”
“If the bears show up and there aren’t any fish THEN they will be hungry and bitter, won’t they?” She said.
“There might be fish” I said.

Another 15 minutes went by.
“So….  The hungry, bitter bears will be here soon and then we have to walk through them for ¼ mile to get to our canoe and then paddle back to camp in the dark?”  She said.
“Look, I told you it we were going to be remote, alone, and surrounded by bears.  What exactly did you think that meant?” I asked.
“You said they would be full of fish and not interested in us”
“They might be” I said.
“They might not be” She said.
“I want to go home” She said.
“Me too”

On our way back to the canoe we saw two bears walking up the stream.  They didn’t seem interested in us but we gave them a wide berth.

In 1995 I left Montana and began graduate school at Colorado State University.  When I finished three years later I was burnt out.  School had been stressful but I had also experienced the unexpected death of three people I cared about during that time.  I needed a break and moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for the summer and fall and worked as a roofer.  That fall I realized that I was only a four or five hour drive from the southern boundary of the Yellowstone ecosystem.  The bears would be in the whitebark pines and I could probably find a few.  I hadn’t seen a grizzly in four years.  My friend Mikele was in town.
“Lets go backpacking in Yellowstone next weekend” I said.

I worked out a good size loop south of the park, where I had never been before.  It was a little more than I would have wanted to do but I couldn’t find a shorter loop that would have gotten us in the whitebark pine.  On the drive up it began to rain.  By the time we got to the trailhead it was early afternoon but we had time to hike in a few miles.  We set our tent up in the middle of a large meadow and crawled in with our dogs and fell asleep.  In the morning there was snow on the ground and I got up early and went down to the creek to make breakfast.  A few minutes later Mikele joined me.
“I think there will be too much snow higher up to do the loop “ I said. “But we can do a day hike from here”
“Did you make those bear prints?” She asked.
“What bear prints?” I replied.
“The ones by our tent” she said.
“Show me.”
“Nope, I had nothing to do with those.  In fact I didn’t even see them”.  There were black bear tracks 8 feet from our tent.  Not only did we have no idea, but our two dogs missed it entirely as well.  Or else they just chose to remain quiet…..

After eating we headed off for the high whitebark ridges.  Before long we ran into some of the largest grizzly tracks I had ever seen.  They were longer than my foot and more than twice as wide.
“Told you” I said.
“Cool” said Mikele.
“Let’s follow them” I said.

The ridge we were on contained mostly meadows with an occasional patch of forest.  The bear tracks mostly went through the meadows and we followed it hoping to catch up.  In the meadows we would have seen it from quite a distance away so we weren’t worried.  It was a beautiful day with blue sky and fresh snow and after an hour or two I think we sort of forgot that we were following the tracks of a very large grizzly bear and just began enjoying life.  Suddenly I realized that we were no longer in a meadow but in a dense forest and there was a tree across the trail that I was just about to step over.  The hair went up on the back of my neck.
“You know….” I said.  “This is exactly the sort of place that a grizzly would bed down for the day”
“Yeah…..  Maybe we should NOT track this giant bear into the dense forest and head back to camp”  I said.


Mikele pointing out the grizzly tracks, just as we decided we should turn around.

See?  I am capable of learning from past mistakes after all.  It just takes a few more of them in my case. Unfortunately all that experience has come for naught as for the past 15 years I have been living far from grizzly country.  Black bears, however, are common visitors to my front porch.  Its different though, for instance,, I would NEVER throw an empty bottle of Makers Mark at a grizzly.  But that’s a whole other story….