Video: Take a visual tour of the Wichita Mountains

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about a recent trip to the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. It’s a unique landscape of ancient mountains, wide valleys and amazing wildlife.

It’s one thing to see pictures and read words, but another to see it in video. My partner in this adventure, Brian, put together a good compilation of the things we saw and did. It’s about 13 minutes, and it’s definitely worth your time. Have a look:

If you missed it, you can read my two-part series on our Wichita Mountains trip here and here.

Bob Doucette

Advertisements

Return to the Wichitas, Part 2: Hiking Sunset Peak and Crab Eyes in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

Brian heading into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

It usually takes a me couple of days to get used to sleeping on the ground. Fancy mattresses and memory foam have made us weak. Comfy, but weak.

The growing chill of the night and the empty bottles of beer that Brian and I had finished off signaled that it was time to hit the rack. Frankly, I looked forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. It had to be warmer than sitting outside in the cool chill of the wind. But sleep doesn’t come easy. Not at camp, and certainly not with a thin pad between me and the ground. Then again, I knew this. It would be 20 minutes of dozing here, an hour there and so on for several hours, interrupted by the need to roll over to another side, shake off the chill or go outside to take a piss.

What I didn’t expect were the wake-up calls from our neighbors. And by “neighbors,” I mean the furry, four-footed kinds.

Somewhere near the lake, a chorus of howling and yipping pierced the still of the night. A regular coyote party, loud, constant and maybe even a tad aggressive. Those suckers wanted to be heard. And then, as if something caught their attention, it would cease. Not tail off from weariness, but end abruptly. It was weird. The little buggers would repeat this act a couple more times during the night. It wasn’t scary, but it was loud. It’s almost as if they knew they’d be waking us up.

On another occasion, I heard something more sinister. Some rustling, then loud, high-pitched animalistic noises of protest and pain, and finally silence. It wasn’t hard to solve that mystery. One fuzzy creature became another fuzzy creature’s dinner. It’s a hell of a thing to listen to something die.

That happened twice, further disrupting my sleep. The circle of life, on display in the Wichita Mountains: an annoying wakeup call to be sure, but at least I wasn’t someone’s midnight snack.

DAYBREAK

Sunrise from camp. Oklahoma does sunrises right.

Being a night shift worker, I rarely see a sunrise. That’s the beauty of camping, though. When it gets dark, you turn in. When it gets light, you get up. More like it should be outside the artificial construct of things like work, civilization and whatnot.

Dawn broke and I willed myself out of my sleeping bag to get the day going. We had a big day planned, so there was no sense dragging out any more minutes in the bag and on the cold, hard ground.

I was greeted by a cheery sunrise over the lake where we camped. High clouds blown in the from the south added texture to the fiery colors of the rising sun, with the orange, red and pink hues of dawn reflecting off the water. Oklahoma sunrises and sunsets are vastly underrated.

We munched breakfast, gathered our gear and talked about what the day might be like. Seven years of being away from the Wichitas left me wondering if I’d remember how to get to some of the spots I hoped to see. The trails in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area tended to be faint and sparsely marked, and I’ve been known to get lost a time or two.

No matter. We’d figure it out. We got in the truck and headed back to the Sunset trailhead and made our way west.

I told a few stories along the way. As we were hiking through a patch of thickets and blackjack oak, I showed him where I had a close call with a buffalo nearly eight years earlier. Although I wasn’t keen on repeating that experience, I was hoping that we’d see some bison.

Shortly after leaving the woods, we ran up on a trio of hikers coming the other way. A man and his wife, plus another fella were making their way toward us. The second guy, as it turned out, was the other man’s father. His age: 86.

I know plenty of people 10, 20 and even 30 years younger than this guy who’ve long resigned themselves to steering clear of anything remotely close to wilderness exploration. And here he was, pounding dirt on a brisk Saturday morning. Call me impressed.

Eventually we made our way far enough where I could show him where Crab Eyes was, but that side trip would have to wait. The first destination, Sunset Peak, had to come first. We kept hiking west.

Mount Mitchell.

Somehow, I got us on the wrong side of a ridge that was taking us away from Sunset Peak and toward another mountain, Mount Mitchell. I figured this would lengthen our approach (Bad guide! Bad!), but it also showed me a more direct route to Mount Mitchell than the one I’d taken nine years before with my friend Johnny and his sister Ouida. On that trip, we hiked to Crab Eyes, then pointed ourselves toward Mount Mitchell by way of Styx Canyon. The canyon is probably the most rugged patch of “hiking” in Charon’s Garden. There’s no trail, but there is about an hour’s worth of heinous bushwhacking and route-finding before you’re clear of the thickets, thorns and boulders that litter the canyon floor. That’s not exactly what I’d call fun, so finding a smoother, clearer game trail that went straight to Mount Mitchell’s base was a pleasant discovery.

Around the time we were making out way around the ridge and toward Sunset Peak, we had our first megafauna sighting: First, it was one female elk. Then another. And then, more. At least seven of them warily eyed us from the crest of the ridge, then loped away and out of sight. No buffalo yet, but seeing elk in Oklahoma is rather rare unless you’re in the Wichitas.

By now, Sunset Peak’s south summit was in view. It stands out, towering above a high meadow that rests atop a short headwall. The last time I was here, that meadow sported a herd of a couple dozen bison. So I half expected to see them again once we topped the headwall.

But the meadow was empty. It was just us, the wind, and stubborn cloud cover that was keeping the temperatures down. While it would have been fun to see buffalo, at least we didn’t have to worry about navigating around these at-time temperamental beasts. Before long, we at the base of the peak.

SUNSET PEAK

Sunset Peak’s south summit.

Nearly seven years ago, my friend Johnny and I topped out on this mountain. It was tamer than Mount Mitchell, but there were still a few challenges getting up to the top. I remember some fantastic views and a little bit of effort, but I figured this mountain to be solidly Class 2 without any need for Class 3 scrambling unless you wanted it.

What we got was something else altogether.

There’s no trail up the south summit. It’s all about zig-zagging your way up the face, and route-finding is a constant.

My memory must have dimmed a bit on this one. I didn’t recall the thick, intermittent bushwhacking. And I certainly don’t recall as many Class 3 scrambles as we got. Brian readjusted his pack and stowed his trekking poles to handle the climb more easily.

Halfway up Sunset Peak.

Brian tackles a scramble going up Sunset Peak.

We did spot one cairn, so I went over to it hoping it would lead to a more obvious route up. No dice. It was a worthless rock stack, and I should have kicked it over. That took me back to more scrambles up the face before we eventually climbed our way to the big blocks atop the south summit.

One memory did hold, and that was the views. They’re spectacular. Shorter peaks and rock formations littered the surroundings. Farther north, Sunset Peak’s north summit (and true high point) awaited. The big sentinels of the Wichitas loomed in the distance, and for miles to the west, the fringes of the range could be seen rising from the prairie floor from as far away as Altus.

View from the top of Sunset Peak’s south summit.

What I like about these mountains is that they offer something most peaks east of the Rockies don’t: unobstructed summit views. When you’re in the Appalachians, most summits are covered with trees. It’s not until you get to New England that you hit mountains with treelines. The same is true in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and most other mountain ranges east of the Rockies. You’ll get occasional outcroppings with panoramic vistas, but the Wichitas give you that alpine-style, 360-degree view without all the hassles of high altitudes. It’s hard to describe, other than maybe the Wichitas resemble what Joshua Tree might look like if you plopped it down on the Southern Plains.

We took a snack break in a natural wind break. Forecasts called for 60-degree temperatures, but even at 10 a.m., it was just 40 degrees and incredibly windy atop the peak. Soon we headed away from our shelter and down the saddle toward Sunset’s north summit.

Traversing the saddle proved a lot easier than climbing the south summit, and the north summit was an easy hike to the top. No bushwhacking, no scrambles. The north summit might be Sunset’s high point, but it’s considerably milder than its southern neighbor. Sadly, I forgot to take any pics from here. You’ll have to trust me that we got there.

From the east, you can see Sunset Peak’s gentler north (true) summit to the right.

Another view of the Sunset Peak massif. Both the north and south summits are visible.

From there, we stayed on the eastern slopes of the mountain and angled our way down south toward a ridge that stood between us and Crab Eyes. I wanted to avoid the ravine – just more boulder-filled heinous bushwhacking that didn’t look like a lot of fun. As we left the mountain and hiked up the rise, we saw the elk herd again, and just like last time, they eyed us for a few moments and hurried off. Within a half hour, we were back at the junction of the trail we took to Mount Mitchell and the southern trail that led to Crab Eyes, our final destination of the day.

CRAB EYES

A good look at Crab Eyes. This is an older photo from another visit to the formation.

We also talked with a young couple that was camping there: they were among the lucky few that got a backcountry permit. They were relaxed, munching on pizzas they made at their campsite. Cold pizzas, of course: Campfires are forbidden in the wilderness area.

The hike to Crab Eyes is a fun one. You meander through skinny trails that hug rock walls leading to the formation’s base, and then you see it towering above you: enormous granite slabs holding two massive boulders at the top. It looks like a huge, stony hermit crab staring down at you, hence the name.

A view of Elk Mountain, from the base of Crab Eyes.

Every time I’ve come here, I’ve had the place to myself. But this time we had company. I spotted three people at the base, with one person shimmying between two rock slabs. I recognized the move, as the route he was climbing was the “easy” way to the top. It goes something like this:

First, you wedge yourself between two roughly horizontal but slightly angled slabs and crawl your way up. Free of that obstacle, you can do one of two things: Crab-walk up two slabs (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or, for the more daring and dexterous, tightrope-walk up one of the slabs and never mind that 50-foot drop to your left. I’d call it a solid Class 4 route with a no-fall zone to the climber’s left.

As it turned out, they were making this climb to set up an anchor to do a technical climb up Crab Eyes’ east face. This is no small trick.

Though it’s a single-pitch climb, it’s notoriously tough. It’s a crack climb on really grippy granite, but it’s also slightly overhanging in spots. It’s rated a 5.10+, and according to this crew, a tough 5.10 at that.

A climber tackles a technical route on the east face of Crab Eyes. It’s rated a 5.10.

Belaying the climber on Crab Eyes.

I munched a little more and watched one of them negotiate the climb. He handled it expertly, but even after being lowered down, he admitted, “It’s harder than I remembered it.”

His friend piped in, “Just typical climbing in the Wichitas!”

Brian struck up a conversation with a third member of that party. She was considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and given Brian’s interest in through-hiking that Appalachian Trail, talk of gear and logistics came easy. As for me, I munched on my trail fave: summer sausage, cheese and a tortilla.

Tortilla, summer sausage and cheddar. This may be one of the best food combinations ever created.

We headed back not long after, reliving the complications of Sunset Peak and the beauty of the range. Too few people in Oklahoma know of this place, the most rugged patch of rock in the state. Considering the scarcity of public lands and real wilderness, it’s a little surprising to me.

At the same time, it is exactly as I remembered it. Wild, untamed and severe. It was a reminder of what America does right, in that we have long taken seriously the idea of preserving wild places such as this.

I can only hope that sentiment endures. The Wichitas are my Oklahoma happy place, a destination where I can climb rocky crags, enjoy sweeping summit views and tread the same paths of creatures that have called these environs home for longer than people have lived here. I hope it is always so.

Okie mountains rock.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route, Sunset Peak: From the Sunset trailhead, take the trail that starts at the gate of the west side of the parking lot. You’ll hike through a wooded grove until you reach a sign pointing left toward the Charon’s Garden Trail. Go right instead, continuing roughly west. You will cross two dry creek beds, then hike up a rise that gives you a view of the western portions of Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

In less than half a mile, you will run into a junction in the trail. One spur goes south toward Crab Eyes, the other turns into a game trail going west. Keep going west. You will hike toward Mount Mitchell, then turn north at the end of a rocky ridge to your right. Getting around the ridge, you will see Sunset Peak’s south summit. Hike up the headwall and cross the meadow to the peak’s base. From here, you’ll likely zigzag your way up the face. Route finding will be essential. About half this effort will be steep hiking, with some short but numerous scrambles on mostly solid rock. Continue until you get under the summit blocks, then traverse to your right to gain the top.

Once you’ve reached the south summit, hike down the saddle between the south and north summits. You should be able to find easier hiking with a little boulder hopping by staying toward the left side of the saddle. At the bottom, start going up toward the north summit on easy hiking to the top. A small bit of boulder hopping near the top will help you gain Sunset Peak’s true summit.

Round-trip hiking is about 6 miles. The route up Sunset’s south summit is difficult Class 2 to Class 3. The rest of the hike is a Class 1 approach, with class 2 sections on some portions of the mountain’s north summit.

Always something to see.

Crab Eyes: Follow the trail out of the Sunset trailhead parking lot like you would going to Sunset Peak. At the trail junction mentioned above, go left (south) and follow the established trail up toward the formation. The trail will eventually take you to a small headwall at the base of Crab Eyes. Hike left of the headwall, then up and to the right to the base of Crab Eyes. A Class 4 route to the top is the easiest way up if you choose to do it. On the north side of the base, hike up to an upwardly slanted pair of horizontal slabs. To ascend, wedge yourself between the slabs and shimmy your way up about 20 feet. From there, you will see two parallel vertical slabs about three feet apart that make up the main tower of the formation. You can crab walk up (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or tightrope walk up the left slab to the top. This is a very exposed part of the climb, as a 50-foot+ vertical drop is on your immediate left. The climb takes you to the top of the formation where the “eyes” (two large boulders) rest. Don’t bother climbing the boulders.

Otherwise, there are Class 5 routes up both the east and west faces. Bolts are in place on the west face.

The hike to Crab Eyes is Class 1, with Class 2 portions at the end, and is 3.6 miles round trip.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Dawn breaks at the Doris Campgrounds.

Camping: For tent or car camping, the Doris Campground features 90 spots. Some are semi-primitive, others have RV hookups. The east edge of the campground is by the western shore of Quanah Parker Lake. Campsite costs are $10 a night for tent camping. Prices go up for sites with electrical hookups. Restrooms and showers are on site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers limited backcountry camping permits in Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Inquire for reservations; all permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed in the backcountry.

For more, go here.

Read Part 1 of “Return to the Wichitas” here.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 1: Hiking Elk Mountain and Little Baldy in Oklahoma’s rugged Wichita Mountains

Brian checks out the views on the way up Elk Mountain.

Oklahoma is a prairie state. That’s its identity, and for the most part it’s accurate. But that also discounts the fact that the state contains wooded hills, desert-like terrain and in its southwestern reaches, rugged, ancient crags we know as the Wichita Mountains.

They’re not lofty by any stretch. Having stood for over half a billion years, you’ll forgive the effects of erosion over time. The Rockies, the Appalachians and the Ozarks are babies by comparison. But the venerable Wichitas still stand, popping up from the flatness of the Southern Plains between the military towns of Lawton and Altus. They’re out of place: craggy, alien forms that don’t match the sweeping plains dominating this part of the state. You might say there’s a geological generation gap going on there.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time there, hiking the wide valleys and rocky slopes inside this range, sharing the space with buffalo, elk and other prairie wildlife that call the Wichitas home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees and wildlife refuge here, and within that refuge is one of the state’s few true wilderness areas. It’s not big, but it’s definitely wild.

I moved to Tulsa seven years ago, and since arriving, I haven’t been back to the Wichitas. A real shame, because that’s the place I spent time hiking and climbing in preparation for bigger adventures in the Rockies. What I’ve learned is that the Wichitas are a fine destination of their own. I missed this place, my Oklahoma happy place, and yet hadn’t set foot there in some time.

That changed recently. I have a friend who had never been there, someone breaking into the world of hiking and backpacking and eager to test his gear and his legs somewhere. After spending some time on the trails of northeast Oklahoma, he was willing to give the Wichitas a try.

The plan: drive to the refuge, make camp, and hit a few of the easier highpoints before calling it a night. Then get up the next day and do a deeper dive into the wildest patch of the range.

After seven years, I just hoped I wouldn’t get us lost.

A.T. OR BUST

I met Brian Hoover a few years back, probably at one of the races his company puts on. He got into trail running several years ago, began organizing events, and eventually TATUR Racing became one of northeast Oklahoma’s bigger race sponsors and chip timing providers.

More recently, backpacking and bushcraft has captured his interest. Being a goal-oriented fella, the lure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail hooked him hard. He’s done a lot of research and beefed up his gear stash with his eye on attempting the AT in the not-too-distant future.

When I put out some feelers on social media about going to the Wichitas, he was keen to do it. The plan, in his mind, was to see a new place, don his new gear, and test it out. He also wanted the extra burden of loading his pack and doing our day hikes with the same gear he intended to carry on the AT.

The drive from Tulsa to the Wichitas was a quick three hours. We’d hoped to get a backcountry camping permit, but the refuge intentionally keeps permit levels down. Ten were issued, and that was all they could take. We settled for the established campsite at Doris Campground, which was fine by me. I joked that this meant we could use an outhouse rather than pooping in the woods.

After setting up camp, it was time to hit some trails.

ELK MOUNTAIN

There are loads of hiking and climbing areas throughout the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Most of the trails, while scenic, are also easy walks. The gateway to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area – the most rugged part of the range – has long been the Sunset trailhead at the foot of Elk Mountain.

Looking at the Sunset Massif on the way up Elk Mountain.

The mountain itself looks more like a broad mesa from a distance. It’s only when you get up close that the mountain’s rugged nature is revealed. Its southern face is steep, slabby and in spots sheer, and rock climbers can find numerous technical routes there. The northern slopes are gentler, and that’s where the Elk Mountain Trail goes. It ascends several hundred feet to Elk Mountain’s broad summit, where commanding views of Mount Lincoln, Sunset Peak and numerous other high points in the wilderness play out.

Looking north on Elk Mountain.

I opted for a day pack, but Brian went ahead and hiked in his full backpacking kit. Practice makes perfect, and there were going to be plenty of places on the AT where you’d gain hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of feet uphill on any given day. May as well get used to it now.

Bouldery terrain at the top of Elk Mountain.

The trail ends atop Elk Mountain, but doesn’t hit the summit. That would require more off-trail hiking and a little boulder hopping west, toward the steeper cliffs on the south and west sides of the mountain. Stiff, chilly breezes greeted us and a few other hikers on the hill that day. Curiously absent: wildlife. Aside from a few birds, Elk Mountain was quiet.

Brian records some video and sound on the summit of Elk Mountain. Wind is noisy.

West views from atop Elk Mountain.

Brian checks out an overview looking east.

Summit view, looking east.

We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.

LITTLE BALDY

Away from the wilderness area but still in the refuge is Little Baldy, a minor summit that guards over the dam at Quanah Parker Lake. Unknown to me at the time, but there’s a trail that leads from where we camped on the other side of the lake to Little Baldy, but I don’t think we would have been able to complete that hike before sunset.

Quanah Parker Lake as seen while hiking up Little Baldy.

Anyway, the dam is this cool concrete structure that looks like a miniature version of the Hoover Dam, built high in a ravine to impound the waters that now make up the lake. We parked at the dam, then hiked up the trail to the granite dome that is Little Baldy.

For such a small point, it commands excellent views of the refuge and the lake. I opted to take a tougher scramble to the top; Brian wisely chose not to, seeing that he was hiking in his bigger pack (Brian would do a lot of smart things on this trip without any prompting from me).

Looking northwest from the top of Little Baldy. This is a low-commitment, high-payoff summit hike.

Little Baldy’s breezy summit and the lowering sun cued us to hike down and make some dinner before turning in. I’m a night owl, but when I’m camping the setting sun is my sign to hit the sack.

After scarfing down dinner, we stayed up a bit, chatting about hiking, running and gear. I brought a six-pack of beer, a nice after-dinner treat to enjoy with the conversation (Shiner black lager – yum).

With that, we turned in. It would be a cold night – and quite memorable – to set the stage for a more ambitious outing in the morning.

Our camp was on the lake shore, and we had these fellas as neighbors. They were cranky when we got too close.

In the next installment: Brian and I wake up to bitter winds, cloudy skies and a busy day hiking through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route on Elk Mountain: From the Sunset parking lot, cross the first bridge to the Elk Mountain Trail. The trailhead is well-marked, and the trail itself is easy to follow. Class 1, about 2.2 miles round trip.

About the route on Little Baldy: From the Quanah Parker Lake Dam parking lot, follow the paved walkway to the dam and walk across the dam to the trail. The trail is mildly defined from here, and going to the top is a matter of easy route-finding to the top. Route length is 0.6 miles round trip. Class 1, with some minor boulder hopping close to the top.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Bob Doucette

The peril facing public lands: How lawmakers want to sell off America’s natural heritage

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Certain memories never leave you. They make an impression — hopefully for the better — that doesn’t just bring a grin to your face, but becomes a part of the fabric of who you are.

I’ve got a lot of those. Many times, they build on each other, sort of in the way that a series of short outings becomes a longer life journey that takes you where you were always meant to go. It’s a satisfying feeling when you encounter one of those moments, then look back and realize how the events of your past led you to that amazing point in time.

That happened to me about nine years ago on a backpacking trip to northern New Mexico. There were five of us there, and we spent the day hiking up to a high alpine lake perched on the lower slopes of Wheeler Peak. Tall stands of evergreens and aspens were all around, carpeting the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area, a patch of wild land that is part of the sprawling Kit Carson National Forest.

I was first up that morning, crawling out of my sleeping bag and lighting my stove to cook a little breakfast. The rest of the gang was still trying to get a few more minutes of sleep before we’d head up to the highest point in New Mexico, then march back down the hill to civilization.

As I was boiling my water, I looked to my right and there they were — a female bighorn sheep and her lamb, staring at me, then casually easing their way up the slope to investigate our little campsite. They seemed completely unconcerned about the presence of people — this was their land, their home, I guess, and they’d probably seen folks like us come and go many times. They came so close that I felt I could have stood up and scratched mama behind the ears, though I know that would have never happened. Still, when you live in a community measured in the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, real wildlife encounters like that aren’t all that common. Not with creatures like these.

We made a lot of memories on that trip, and yeah, we did bag Wheeler’s summit on a bright, bluebird day. But that morning in camp stuck with me more than anything.

That encounter exemplifies the value of public lands. We were well within the confines of New Mexico, but by law, that national forest and that wilderness area belongs to all of us. The same is true of many other places across the West, and indeed, the entire country. Some plots of land were meant for individual landowners. But some, by their very nature, are just too precious to sell off or give away. They belong to everyone.

Unfortunately, that value — one that was so strong in the hearts of conservationist heroes like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, and still strong with the public at large — is waning in the houses of power.

In Utah, politicians there — backed by lobbyists representing energy and mining interests — are passing laws demanding that the federal government cede those public lands to the states. Utah actually set aside $2 million to sue over it. And the sentiment behind that is only growing.

Changing political tides on the national level are beginning to mirror Utah’s model. In March, the Senate passed an amendment (Senate Amendment 838) to a piece of legislation that would authorize selling or giving away huge quantities of public lands — those in national forests, wildlife refuges, and tracts owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Basically any federal land not already claimed by national parks or national monuments. The amendment passed 51-49, mostly along partisan lines, with three Republicans voting against it.

The measure was advanced with the ever-popular arguments of affirming states’ rights, shrinking the federal government and closing budget holes, but the reality is far more opportunistic. Forest Service and BLM lands are filled with places that have yet to be explored for oil, gas, rare earth metals, coal and other exploitable resources that any number of companies would love to extract. Billions could be made, though that doesn’t necessarily take into account the billions already being earned by people whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars from Americans and foreigners itching to take in the wonders of the country’s vast, wild spaces, some $41 billion a year according to The New York Times. All told, that supported some 355,000 jobs.

I don’t have a problem with people wanting to earn a living, or really make a go at hitting it big. But when you’re talking about the industrialized extraction of natural resources, there is a huge and often permanent cost.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It's pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It’s pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

In another favorite mountain haunt of mine, north and west of Wheeler Peak in southwestern Colorado, is the Matterhorn Creek Basin, a drainage that slopes downhill from Matterhorn Peak, Wetterhorn Peak and a large collection of other, lesser mountains that make up the area’s dramatic, primordial landscape. This place is drop-dead gorgeous, but I can’t filter water there for drinking or cooking, at least not in many of the creeks and streams flowing to the south. Old, small-time mines that are long abandoned still taint the watershed with mine tailings, making the water there unfit to drink. The San Juan Range is pockmarked with gorgeous places just like Matterhorn Creek Basin that are beautiful to look at, but traversed by waterways permanently spoiled by mines of yore.

If you go out east, in Appalachia, or north, near Butte, Montana, you can see much bigger scars on the land. Strip mines, pit mines, and mountaintop removal have all done a number on these places. In my home state of Oklahoma, in an area dubbed Tar Creek, lead and zinc mines left behind noxious chat piles the size of small ski hills, fouling streams and giving local children lead poisoning. Collapsing mine tunnels threaten to swallow buildings whole. It got so bad that the entire area was declared a federal Superfund site, and two towns — Picher and Cardin — were bought out, their residents moved and businesses closed. There were booming times in that corner of Ottawa County decades ago, but now just a couple of polluted ghost towns remain.

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

These are just a few tales from the dark side of harvesting natural resources from the ground. But no matter. Many states are hungry for economic development, and the lands they’d sell off are out of sight and out of mind to politicians in the big cities and manicured suburbs where most of their votes and donors come from. No one knows much about Matterhorn Creek’s spoiled waters because almost no one lives nearby, and getting there takes a little work. I just wish I could show it to them.

I checked a roll call of the Senate vote to approve this particular measure, and not surprisingly, both my senators were in favor of it. I didn’t bother writing Sen. Jim Inhofe. I just didn’t see the point. He’s the guy best known as the Senate’s chief climate change denier, and recently brought a snowball into the Senate chambers to prove that climate change wasn’t real. Conservation isn’t real high on this guy’s list of priorities.

I’ve heard from friends who know Sen. James Lankford, and they say he’s a reasonable man, one who will listen to others’ ideas. So I sent him a message last week. I’m still waiting for a response.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

What I’d like to tell them is that while Oklahoma doesn’t have nearly as much federal public land as many western states, we do have amazing tracts of broadleaf and pine forests in the hills of the Ouachita Mountains (home to the Ouachita National Forest). Within the crags of the Wichita Mountains (where a U.S. wildlife refuge is found) there is an amazing biodiversity that surpasses any zoo. Buffalo, elk, coyotes, eagles — so many creatures in such a rugged, picturesque and special little realm. Do these guys really want to put these places up on the auction block? Have they ever been there? Do they even care?

Conservation has its roots in places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, locales so impossibly gorgeous that they’ve been declared national treasures by men and women far wiser than me. Born from that sentiment was a system of public lands that helped preserve vast acreages of wild spaces that are, many times, no less impressive, places like Wheeler Peak, the Ouachita National Forest, or the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists gave me the ability to camp in a New Mexico alpine forest, deep within the folds of a protected wilderness area where I could bask in that national treasure and share a breakfast moment with a couple of curious bighorn sheep. Hike in to Lost Lake, and you can see that, too.

That’s the beauty of public lands. My experiences can be yours, too. Or anyone else’s. These places belong to all of us. So please don’t tell me that they’re for sale.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma climbing: Quartz Mountain Spring Gathering is April 5-7

Quartz Mountain, also known as Baldy Point.

Quartz Mountain, also known as Baldy Point.

It’s safe to say that Oklahoma is not known as one of the climbing centers if the country, but that belies the fact that there is excellent climbing and bouldering in the Wichita Mountains near Lawton.

One of the prime spots is Quartz Mountain, sometimes known as Baldy Point. Multi-pitch trad routes await on this granite wall that rises out of nowhere on the southwestern Oklahoma prairie.

It’s also the spot for the Quartz Mountain Spring gathering, which is happening April 5-7.

Work is going to keep me from being there, but if you’re in Oklahoma or north Texas and want to get your climb on with a cool crowd, make a weekend of it.

I was reading on a Facebook page for this event a few things that are good to know. Camping is $3 per person per night. There are showers nearby. Camping is pretty much right at the foot of the mountain, so there is a minimal approach and immediate access to a whole bunch of routes to try.

Some more information, this straight from that Facebook page:

Help us protect this pristine area and the privilege to gather here by minimizing your impacts. Please disperse your tent sites, make use of the restroom facilities, and carry-out all trash. By doing so, you will insure that Baldy’s natural resources are protected and that the Park continues to grant the climbing community a special use permit for future events.

Also, please note Quartz Mountain Nature Park’s rules and regulations for the event:

1) No liquor or drugs. Beer is permitted.
2) No firearms.
3) No mountain bikes.
4) No campfires.
5) No tree cutting or trimming.
6) Pets must be on a leash at all times.
7) Barbecue grills are permitted in the parking lot.
8) Bivying and tent camping are permitted 100′ east of the parking lot.
9) Sleeping in your vehicle is permitted.
10) Carry-out and dispose of all trash and waste.

If you want to know more about this event or the Wichita Mountains Climbing Coalition, check out this site. If you have the time and the urge, you should definitely check it out, and maybe do a little exploring in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge while you’re at it. I’m not kidding when I tell you this area is chock full of excellent hiking, climbing and wildlife viewing opportunities.

For more information about Quartz Mountain, as well as directions to get there, go to this link. Enjoy!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

What you think about before you die

Did you ever wonder what might go through your head when your life is at stake?

What would you be thinking about as life appeared to be slipping away? Or when you’re confronted with a threat?

How do most people react? How would you?

Risk. Danger. Those situations where it appears death may be at hand. Most of us don’t have to worry about this in our day-to-day lives, and indeed, most of us won’t confront it at all until our number is up. We’re genetically designed for self-preservation, but intellectually capable of overriding those instincts to do things that are dangerous. At first glance, it’s classic fight-or-flight, but for most of us, it’s much deeper and more complicated than that.

Part of being a reasoning being – humans may be alone in this capability – is that we can contemplate our own demise, and what it means. The confluence of instinct and reason creates some interesting progeny. Toeing the line between survival and risk-taking has helped human beings push the boundaries of exploration, achievement and daring-do.

But on an individual level, it tends to be a lot more basic, more raw.

I was reading a blog post in which the writer describes a dicey situation in which she and a friend of hers, running on the Appalachian Trail, had a run-in with a couple of men who appeared to be a bit on the sketchy/creepy side. It was interesting to see how these two women dealt with the situation, striking the balance of fear and action to get themselves out of a potentially sticky situation.

It got me thinking about a few situations I’ve confronted. It’s not like I put myself in danger all that often. I’m not a cop or a soldier, and I don’t hang from the gnarliest of crags a la Alex Honnold, unroped and hundreds of feet in the air.

But stuff happens. Looking back, I’m a little fascinated at what went through my mind during those times.

In an instant, a hostile wildlife encounter can test your ability to think clearly when the stakes are high.

I’ve written about a certain buffalo encounter I had a couple of years ago, one in which the beast briefly charged at me before turning away and running down the trail. Had it wanted to, it could have trampled or gored me, and there would have been nothing I could have done about it. I didn’t even see the thing until it burst out of the brush.

All I can tell you was how I reacted: A muffled “Whoa!” and a sidestep, and then I watched it as it turned to stare me down. I was surprisingly calm, and my heart rate didn’t rise for another minute or so, well after the initial moment of danger had passed.

That’s the only hostile wildlife encounter I’ve had, and I feel pretty fortunate to have escaped it unscathed. But in my mind, I wasn’t freaking out. It was more of a “Huh. Well, that was close.” And then I moved on down the trail, making a little more noise and looking a little deeper into the woods for other creatures hiding in the underbrush.

Other instances were not nearly so sudden. I’m thinking of another time, four years ago, when I was walking around with a latent case of pneumonia (is there really such a thing?) that suddenly got a lot more serious in a place that was pretty far from anywhere I could get medical attention.

What I was faced with was a step-by-step degradation of my physical condition that started out seemingly benign, but later snowballed into something more serious.

The view from 14,169 feet is pretty spectacular, but it’s no place for a medical emergency. When it happens, decision-making becomes key.

I was hiking up the Denney Creek Trail on Colorado’s Mount Yale, hoping to gain its 14,169-foot summit before noon.

Initially, I started out strong, but as I topped 12,000 feet I started to wear down. No big deal. A lot of flatlanders like me get tired at higher elevations.

Past 13,000 feet, I started feeling a side-stitch on my right side. Cramps. Was I not properly hydrated? I kept drinking and took my time, but that cramp never abated. Probably because of the continued hard work my heart, lungs and legs were doing, I reasoned. It would pass once I started down from the summit.

But it didn’t. And though I was dressed for the conditions, I felt unusually cold. If I stayed still, I shivered. When I moved, I couldn’t catch my breath. And the side cramps were still there.

Then I started seeing things. Mistaking nearby rocks for friends. Something was wrong.

Weather started moving in. I was falling a lot, and getting weaker. I was afraid of getting caught out in the open by a storm, but treeline was still a long ways away. My progress was slow.

Now I started thinking I was in trouble.

With my situation deteriorating and my condition weakening, I had choices to make. Do I stop, eat, and hydrate, or try to fight through it and push on to treeline before the weather hit?

It was sort of self-triage. I chose the former. Nearly barfed up the food I tried to eat. Ran out of water. And the delay did leave me caught in worsening weather, but gratefully it was just light rain.

Even though I was hallucinating a bit and a bit worried about my state of being, I leaned on a lesson I’d been taught: Keep making decisions.

I never thought my life was in danger, but in fact, it may have been – an X-Ray at a hospital later on showed my right lung 75 percent filled with fluid, and those side cramps were symptoms of fluid forming on the outside of my lung and heart. That last condition can kill you.

So yes, kids, pneumonia can also cause altitude sickness, in case you’re wondering. But it doesn’t necessarily cut into your ability to make important decisions and get yourself to safety.

I keep thinking about a much more extreme example of critical thinking in dangerous situations. Aron Ralston comes to mind. Talk about keeping your head under extreme duress! He’s got me beat, and probably almost everyone else on the planet as well.

Like I said earlier, it didn’t dawn on me that I was in mortal danger on Mount Yale, and the suddenness of the buffalo encounter didn’t give me enough time at that moment to contemplate anything other than, “whoa, get outta the way!”

But I can remember another incident where I had more than enough time to think about the idea that I was about to cash it in.

This was also about four years ago.

Southern Thailand is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Its fine-sand beaches are often guarded by towering limestone cliffs, and the place is popular with beachcombers and climbers.

Paradise on earth. But the waters here are deep enough to take you down and keep you there.

I was with some friends on a mission trip, and we were taking a break on Railay Beach – not too far from Phuket – when we went scrambling around some shoreline rocks and came up to a short cliff, maybe 20 feet or so, overlooking the mouth of gorgeous cove. The waters were a little rough, but they were deep just below us.

Can you see where this is going?

Jump off cliff. Land in water. Swim back to the beach 150 yards away. Repeat.

Unfortunately, I’m not the best swimmer. Physically speaking (maybe mentally, too?) I’m pretty dense and not very good at floating. I can get by in good conditions, but even the best swimmers in our group were finding the swim back to the beach a real grind.

I jumped. It was exhilarating. I splashed, sank deep, touching nothing. Then bobbed back up to the surface. After shouting encouragement to my friends above, I began the swim back to shore.

Then I got tired. I stopped to float a bit and rest, but kept sinking. So I tried to swim again. And got more tired. In less than a minute, my fight against the waves and undercurrent started to become a losing affair, as each attempt to resurface became more brief and increasingly urgent.

Then I inhaled my first gulp of sea water. While my mind was mildly annoyed and not yet panicked, my body was in full-on freak-out mode.

When you’re drowning, the body becomes desperate for oxygen. The more fatigued you get, the harder your body has to work to get to a place where gaining a gulp of air is possible. You work harder, your muscles get more tired, and the ability to get oxygen becomes more compromised. It’s a cascading effect in which the body then edges closer to a panic state. If you stay submerged long enough, your body will actually force you to inhale, even though your mind knows full well that the only thing that will enter your lungs is water.

And that’s how you die from drowning.

That’s what was happening to me. I knew it full well.

I was thinking several things at once: The crashing of the waves would make it very difficult for anyone to hear me call out, provided I could get to the surface long enough to do so. But it was my best shot at getting out of this jam, because the chances of me swimming to safety were dropping precipitously.

I was also kinda bumming out over the fact that if I drowned, it would ruin the trip for everyone else. Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that goes through your head when you’re facing your end. And then I remember thinking, “Man, my wife is half a world away and she doesn’t even realize she’s about to become a widow.”

The fact that I’m writing this is the spoiler. The story has a happy ending. I did manage to resurface, call out and wave an arm. And then I did it one more time before my buddy Ben saw me. He and another friend swam out. The fact that I knew they were coming confirmed to me that even if I went under again, I was going to make it.

Back on shore, it took me a good 20 minutes or so for my heart rate to calm down and my breathing to return to normal. Looking back it still amazes me how rational my conscious mind could be while the more instinctual part of me rapidly descended toward something akin to the exhausting and futile flapping of a fish out of water.

Tackling risk is a balance between self-preservation and the urge to push your limits.

I see it almost like a lifelong balancing act, a weird ying-yang thing where on one side of us is a primordial beast which sees things in terms of black-and-white, danger and safety, fight or flight. On the other, our more rational self lives, where there world is more nuanced, colored in varying shades of gray, hues of light and dark where choices and consequences aren’t so narrow, but instead limitless.

Trend toward one side too much and you’ll never risk anything. Total self-preservation will keep you inside, out of harm’s way and honestly, in a state of perpetual boring-ness. Go the other way too far and you end up being reckless and foolhardy, ignoring your own genetic-level instincts that aren’t lying when they say, “Back off, dude!”

And obviously, when they conflict to the point where one overrides the other in a stressful situation – frozen in fear or panicked reaction – you end up in big trouble. Or dead.

In the middle is the sweet spot. Willing to look at a line on the rock, test it out, and then commit to a move that’s a hair or two past 100-percent safe. Or back off when the reward is indeed outweighed by the risk.

I admire the ability of people who can do this when the stakes are high. Someone who can keep a level head and push their boundaries. The guy that can stay calm and talk their way out of a fight or, when that option won’t present itself, fight his way out of a jam without losing his cool.

Striking that balance is what got us to the moon. It’s won battles, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds. It got Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to the summit of Mount Everest. It’s how we conquer fears and grow.

More often than not, I’ve sharpened these senses by accident. I might be accused of being pretty dumb about it sometimes.

But I’m also blessed to be able to think about it later. It’s those hard lessons, learned on the edge of life, that can be some of the most indelible.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Close encounters of the wild kind

Part of the allure of getting outside is to be away from the world we humans have manufactured for ourselves.

Our homes, workplaces, public spaces – they’re all built in ways to cater to our comforts. This is where all of our interactions with people occur, and even where most of our encounters with animals take place.

Seeing that most of those creatures are our pets, well, you get the idea. Very little occurs in our lives that haven’t been skewed by civilization.

That’s why people feel that urge to get away and unplug. They head to the hills, to the woods, to the ocean, to see, smell and hear the world sans civilization.

But those wild places are also home to a lot of creatures we never see close to home. Encounters with them make for some of the most memorable experiences of any adventure.

I spent some time thinking about just that. Several memories come to mind.

Campfire deer

In the middle of the summer of 2004, a group of nine friends and me had the hare-brained idea of backpacking to Missouri Gulch in the Collegiate Peaks region of central Colorado. We had a whole range of people with varying degrees of fitness, outdoor experience and age. One thing we had in common: We all knew how to have a good time.

Get a group of guys around a campfire and good times will abound. Memories of the previous day’s ascent of Mount Belford were retold, each time with a little more drama. Jokes were told. Farts were never funnier.

But as time passed, discussions grew more introspective, thoughtful and serious. The clamor that dominated earlier in the night gave way to calm.

It was about that time a healthy doe ambled into camp. We were right at treeline, but still inside the trees. So none of us saw her coming until she was right in our midst. She showed no fear, only curiosity. Perhaps she thought there might be some easy food to score, I’m not sure. But I like to think that once our group had settled down a bit, she thought it would be safer to join in. Given how skittish deer tend to be, I was amazed at how at ease she was in our presence. There were 10 of us gathered around the fire ring, but she was not bothered. She was with us for a few minutes, and then as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone, melting into the darkness of the surrounding woods.

The feeling I got out of that was not unlike being the dork at the party when the prettiest girl in the room pops in, approaches you, and then spends some time talking to you. Suddenly you’re the luckiest guy in town.

Breakfast with the Bighorn

A few years after that Belford backpacking trip, I went with another group to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in northern New Mexico’s Kit Carson National Forest. We were backpacking to Lost Lake to camp before looking to hit Wheeler Peak’s summit the next day.

No one slept too well that night, and everyone was slow to get up in the morning. I got up first to start boiling water for breakfast when I had some unexpected friends come to join me.

We’d seen bighorn sheep from a distance on the hike up, but on that morning I got a much closer look. While everyone else was snoozing, a spied a mother bighorn and her lamb walking down the slope toward our camp.

They approached within 20 feet of me, calmly inspecting the scene, giving me a glance, then heading down the hill. It was a quiet moment which I alone enjoyed that morning. I was struck by how unconcerned they appeared to be by my presence, more curious than anything else.

Not long after they’d gone, everyone else started crawling out of their tents. They just missed it.

Near miss

I was alone in the middle of a heavy rainstorm in southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, tromping through a thickly wooded stretch of trail. A lot of my plans that day had been derailed by the rain and intermittent lightning, but I was determined to stay out there for the day and make the most of it.

One of the things about the Wichitas is that is crawling with wildlife, probably more here than just about anywhere else in the state. I’ve seen all kinds of creatures here – elk, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs and more.

But the king of the Wichitas is the buffalo. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to the Wichitas and not seen them. But I usually spot buffalo from a distance, and approach them to no less than 50 feet away. They are, after all, wild animals. And they’re big. With horns. Getting gored or trampled by a buffalo does not sound like a good time, and they will charge someone when they feel threatened.

They also seem to be masters of concealment, at least for me.

The woods where I was hiking were thick. So was the underbrush. It was early June and the spring rains had lavished the state with abundance, meaning that the Wichitas were about as green as I’d ever seen them. Unless you were looking down the trail, you wouldn’t see anything more than 10 feet away.

Ahead of me I saw a creekbed that was a landmark of a place where I’d turn toward my next destination. Too bad I didn’t see the big guy in the thicket to my right.

The thickness of the foliage provided some cover from the rain, and I’d used it myself when the downpour was getting particularly hard. While the rainfall had let up some, it was still coming down, creating a soft din of noise that masked the sounds of my approach.

I must have surprised the buffalo that had expertly concealed itself in the underbrush to my right. I didn’t see it at first. I heard it. A miffed snort, and then a dark flash. And a near miss. I jumped to my left to avoid getting hit, turned, and then saw the buffalo down the trail about 50 feet away, facing me.

Fortunately, the big guy wasn’t blocking my path. Only seconds later did my heart begin to race a little, once my mind caught up with the fact that I just missed being run over by a beast nearly eight times my size.

That’s as close as I’d ever been to a wild animal of that sort of size. I felt fortunate to have been spared. I walked away with an appreciation for the risks of hiking solo and a respect for an animal, in its own environment, that was much more powerful than me.

What sort of wildlife experiences have you had that stick with you? Feel free to share!

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088