Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lake Powell--Siren Of The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Wahweap Marina
As much as I disliked wearing a sunhat, I bought one anyway--a simple straw visor embellished with a rainbow and the words: Lake Powell. The narrow brim would interfere only a little with my using a camera, yet afford ample protection from the water-reflected glare of the bright Arizona-Utah springtime sun.

Less than a half hour out on the lake, the wind scooped the hat from my head, sailed it end over end, then plunked it down at the tail of our tour boat's silvered wake where it bobbed feebly before disappearing against the turquoise of Lake Powell's vast expanse.

Tour Boat
I resigned my fate: in a short while my nose would be a definite pink. By the end of the day it would be utterly Rudolphian. The only alternative was to go below where I could sit in comparative luxury, surveying the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area's slick rock desert and jagged-edged shoreline from behind large picture windows.

But no more would I know the way the tour boat's sleek, white hull sliced the morning-blue water or the way the sunlight refracted her wall-like oversplash. Gone, too, would be my completely unobstructed view of of the rusty-red buttes against the cloudless sky, wind-honed cliffs shaped like crazy stacks of phyllo dough, and sheer sandstone slabs that pierced the mid-lake waters like giant shark fins from some mysterious netherworld. Besides, upper deck seats were at a premium and once relinquished, would never be recovered. All things considered, it was better to stay topside and burn. So I did. Both

More than two million people annually visit this aquatic playground in the desert. At least 75 percent end up on the lake. A few are content to simply toe-dip the edges or cast a line from shore; most launch private boats or marina rentals, then venture far out into the lake's seemingly endless reaches.

At any given time of year, kayaks slip into dead-end canyons and water skiers zig-zag behind a powerboat's high, white plume. Canoes make their way into quiet coves while scuba divers investigate the glassy waterworld from the bottom up.

Somewhere along the lake's 1,960 miles of canyon-indented shoreline houseboats glide past petrified sand dunes, fishermen wait in shaded nooks, para-sailors catch the currents, and tour boats set their course for Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

The slick rock bridge is Glen Canyon's supreme attraction. And little wonder. The soaring ribbon of sandstone is world's largest natural bridge--a symmetrical formation that stands 290 feet high, spans 275 feet, and is so wide across it could easily accommodate two lanes of traffic.

The Navajo named it Nonnezoshi or "rainbow turned to stone." To them, the salmon-pink bridge with its tar-like patina of desert varnish was a sacred shrine, and Indian lore claimed that those who dared walk beneath must first say a special chant.

Today, tour boats regularly make their way up Forbidding Canyon to the mouth of Bridge Creek, tie up at a park service courtesy dock, and allow passengers to disembark. From there it is an easy quarter-mile walk to the bridge.

Before Glen Canyon was flooded by impounding the Colorado River to create the 186 mile-long Lake Powell, the trip into Rainbow Bridge was so long and arduous only an intrepid few ever stood in awe of this wind-polished masterpiece.

Now they come by the score--youngsters to splash in the water's of Bridge Creek and adults to crane their necks and snap innumerable photos. A small sign along the trail claims that "those who pass beneath the shadow of this bridge will leave their troubles behind." Perhaps it is but the poetic thought of modern man. Maybe it is an Anglo rendition of an ancient Navajo chant.

Glen Canyon Dam
Although Rainbow Bridge is one of nature's grandest accomplishments, the bridge and dam at Glen Canyon are two of man's top  engineering feats. The quarter-mile long bridge is the world's second highest steel arch bridge--a graceful span that rises 700 feet above the Colorado River,yet is set between cliffs so steep and sheer it seems little more than a child's matchstick miniature.

The dam itself is a white monolith--a 710 foot-high, 1,560 foot-long concrete crest that holds back the combined waters of five rivers: the San Juan, Dirty Devil, Escalante, Green, and Colorado. At full lake capacity it impounds 27 million acre-feet of water--nine trillion gallons that transformed Glen Canyon's arid side canyons into yawning bays, its buttes into islands, and its inaccessible wilds into a watery highway.

Today's Glen Canyon is a far cry from the historical watercourse along which prehistoric Indians built their cliffside homes and early Franciscan friars sought desperately to cross. Neither is it the "carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcoves, gulches, mounds, and monuments" first officially mapped and described by the adventurous one-armed Civil War veteran, Major John Wesley Powell.

Whether this longest of the Colorado River's named canyons has been improved or ravished depends largely upon one's point of view. There remains, however, some constants: this is still a desolate and ruggedly beautiful land wherein only four paved roads lead. It is still a place where titanic chambers glow with the soft, subtle colors of the Southwest, where rock is water-smoothed and wind-honed into Swiss cheese look-alikes, and sunsets are so electrifying they set aflame an infinity of sandstone statuary.

And it is still a land tortuously dissected--a place crushed and cemented by the intense pressure of ancient seas, then uplifted, sheared, tunneled, and polished to such a degree that investigating Glen Canyon itself (or any of its major 96 side canyons) requires either a boat or a sturdy pair of hiking shoes and the constitution of an Olympic athlete.

A boat is easiest. Packaged tours are easier still. True, scheduled excursions do not turn around to retrieve wind-stolen hats, nor do they pull into one of the lake's five marinas just because you desperately need sunburn cream for your fragile nose. There are, after all, things to do, places to see, and miles to go before the sun goes down.

But there are plenty of pluses. A skilled skipper can get back into side canyons so narrow and twisted you'd never have the nerve to go there by yourself. And you'll be put ashore at Rainbow Bridge just in time for lunch--along with enough food to feed yourself plus Paul Bunyon and his blue Ox, Babe. You'll get a close-up  view of Glen Canyon Dam from the backside and enough historical information to satisfy even the keenest curiosity.

But even above all that, you'll enjoy the leisure of skimming past Kodachrome reflections without having to worry about whether the red channel guides are supposed to be on the boat's left or right side or whether that white thing in the water is a shoal warning or a regulatory marker. For true landlubbers, there is no better way to explore this varicolored vastness. I'm glad I went. And I'll go back again. Only next time I'm taking a tie-on hat and enough sunburn cream to (pardon the pun) sink a ship.


Glen Canyon National Recreation Area comprises 1.2 million acres of vermilion cliffs and dramatic rock formations astride the Arizona/Utah border. At its heart lies Lake Powell, the second-largest manmade waterway in North America (bested only by Lake Meade, another Colorado River impoundment farther south).

The recreation area has five marinas. Wahweap Marina in southern Arizona is accessed via Highway 89 from Page, AZ. Bullfrog Basin, Hall's Crossing, and Hite Marinas in Utah are accessible via Star Routes 276, 95, and 263 from either Hankville or Blanding. Dangling Rope Marina, approximately 50 miles uplake of Wahweap, can be reached only by boat.

The National Park Service maintains public launching ramps and small campgrounds at Wahweap, Bullfrog, Hall's Crossing and Hite. Park Headquarters is located just outside of Page, AZ. Self-guided tours of the dam begin in the Carl Hayden Visitor Center and take approximately 3/4 of an hour.
For more information, contact the Superintendent, Glen Canyon NRA, Box 1507, Page AZ 86040

Monday, January 30, 2012

Utah's Eroded Fantasy

Photos seldom do
justice to those places
created on such a
grand magnitude.
In southwestern Utah, a land already filled with spectacular scenery and eroded landscapes, is a horseshoe-shaped basin that centuries ago the Paiutes named, "unka-timpa-wa-wince-pockich." The translation says, "red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped canyon." Today, this place has another name. The Pink Cliffs of Utah. Or perhaps, more popularly, Bryce Canyon National  Park.

Since the first time we
visited, some of the
formations have collapsed.
It is a large amphitheater, intricately carved and vividly colored--a paint pot of multi-hued rock formations that stretches in length for three miles, in width for two, and is hundreds of feet deep.

Thor's Hammer
A confusion of reds, yellows, oranges, whites, and pinks shaded with a subtle brown, the ravine is filled with fantasy shapes sculpted in stone. Some of the formations have names: Gulliver's Castle, The Queen's Garden, Thor's Hammer, The Temple of Osiris.

Named after Ebenezer Bryce, the first white settler to herd his sheep and cattle through this picturesque valley, the history of the Pink Cliffs goes far back in geologic time. Before the settlers and the Paiutes. Back to the early Eocene age--sixty million years ago.

Millenniums had passed since the last ocean covered southern Utah. Layer upon layer of sediments had already been deposited and hardened into rock beds 12,000 feet thick. Then the entire region of southern Utah began to move. Almost imperceptibly, at most a few feet at a time, the lands rose from what was once sea level to heights of 10,000 feet. Great beds of rock separated into blocks many miles in length and width. The earth strained. Fractures and breaks occurred. Southern Utah split into seven distinct plateaus with a variation in relative elevation of as much as 2,000 feet.

The Three Hoodoos
As the land pushed upward, it also eroded. Rivers and streams formed by melting snow carried off tons of loose material and exposed layer upon layer of rock. Deep canyons appeared. Forms developed in colored sandstone--windows, caves, bridges, and arches with hidden recesses and giant mushrooms standing atop isolated obelisks.

The trails into the canyon's
interior are easily accessible
and none are difficult.
For millions of years the erosional forces continued. They are still at work today. Almost invisibly the castles and pinnacles are re-shaped by rain, frost, and running water working through alternate strata of softer and harder limestone. Sometimes the erosion is so complete a formation collapses. New forms begin emerging. The process never ends and the canyon's rim wastes away at the rate of one foot every fifty years.

I've seen this canyon is
the heat of August and the
late snow of May. It is
beautiful in any season.
If you desire to see much of the park in a few hours, take the 20 mile Rim Drive from the entrance station to Rainbow Point. But be warned. Stay only a few hours and you'll be cheating yourself, for the time spent driving the rim or gazing at a single viewpoint will give only a slimmer of what this park is all about.

Rather not hike? The
park offers horseback rides
into the canyon's interior.
Stay a few days. Take time to enjoy the sun rising and setting against the pink cliffs. Listen to the wind whistling its eerie tune as it twists among the formations. Walk the trails descending into the chasm's awesome stillness.

The original Bryce Canyon Lodge, built
during this country's Arts & Crafts era,
is today listed in the National Register of
Historic Places.
This is a land inspiring silence. Eons have passed. Natural forces have eroded the already eroded, and rather than destroying, they have created anew. Bryce Canyon is continually producing yet another version of itself. It is old while it is young. It is the nature of this place--the Pink Cliffs of Utah.

The park has two campgrounds: North and
Sunset. We always stayed in Sunset. It
is close to the Visitor Center and is more
highly wooded.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Christmas Flower

Poinsettia growing wild
in Central America
It's that time of year again. I don't know about you, but our family always stayed home for Christmas so I have no exciting places in mind to tell you about. I can, however, tell you about a Central American native that we all know and love. In fact, this native is the world's most popular Christmas decoration and has traveled widely. We know it as the poinsettia. And how it got from it's native land to every doorstep, store window, shopping center mall, florist shop, and all points in between is an interesting tale.

Exactly how did this lovely flower escape its bounds to spread so far and wide? Plain old serendipity--a fancy word that means "happy chance." And that happy chance came at the hands of the first United States Ambassador to Mexico--Joel Roberts Poinsett.

Joel Poinsett
While visiting Taxco in 1828, Poinsett happened upon a plant with brilliant red blooms. He'd never seen anything like it, so he took some cuttings and sent them back to his home in South Carolina. He may have been an Ambassador, but his hobby was botany.

Once home, Poinsett began propagating the plants which the Aztecs had called cuetlaxochiti. Well, Poinsett gave a plant to a friend to propagate and he in turn gave a plant to a friend, and so on and on it went. Somewhere around 1836 the red-leaved stunner was named Poinsettia after--well, you can figure it out.

Poinsettias readily
grow from cuttings.
Outside of its native habitat, the poinsettia is a house plant that needs to be babied. But in Southern California, all you have to do is talk a neighbor out of some cuttings, stick them in the ground and ignore them. In a few years you'll have a cavalcade of brilliant flowers that bloom atop multiple green-leaved branches. And while the plant never dies back or goes into hibernation, it is only at Christmas that the flowers begin to show.

The Paul Ecke Ranch,
world's largest poinsettia
California produces ninety percent of all the world's poinsettias. The bulk are grown just north of San Diego and visiting the enclosed fields this time of year is a feast for the eyes. Of all the poinsettias available here in Southern California, my favorite is the double flower. It is exquisite in form and just as easy to grow as the regular variety. In the house I used to live in, there was a huge double poinsettia just outside my kitchen window.

The flaming red
plants liven up
many a doorway
Neighbors informed me that some years ago, the previous owner had stuck some clipping in the ground and done nothing more than to water them once in a while. God only knows what those cuttings would have become had the owner actually taken care of them. Those plants were so tall and so filled with flowers that we had to cut one of them back a bit in order to see out the window. But it was all for the good. I had a home filled with vases of vibrant flowers just at the time of year when Christmas decorations adorned nearly every room in our house plus our front porch, the steps leading up to the door, and all along the porch handrail. Where this joyous flower is concerned, there is no such thing as too much.

So now you know that we humans aren't the only ones who travel. Appears to me that the poinsettia has been to more places than most of us.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

World Heritage Parks--A Global Legacy

Independence Hall. The Grand Canyon. What could a red brick building in Philadelphia possibly have in common with a mile-deep canyon in Arizona? And how do either relate to Mesa Verde's prehistoric cliff dwellings or Olympic's temperate rainforests or Yellowstone's plethora of mudpots and geysers? All are superlative examples of our country's historical, geological, and biological heritage and as such as part of our national park system.

But even above that, the World Heritage Committee has declared them to be World Heritage Sites. This designation puts them on a select list of protected areas around the world whose exceptional cultural and natural qualities represent a shared inheritance so irreplaceable their preservation transcends political and national boundaries.

They are universal treasures. All have been evaluated against World Heritage guidelines and meet at least one (usually more) of the criteria involved: some represent outstanding examples of the earth's evolutionary history; others illustrate ongoing geological processes, biological evolution, or man's interaction with his environment.

Some contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty; others bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a civilization which has disappeared. Some are the foremost habitats where threatened or endangered species still survive; others are associated with events or ideas of beliefs of outstanding universal significance.

Since its 1972 founding, the World Heritage Convention  has identified 936 World Heritage Sites in 145 countries, and because the process is on-going, the list will continue to grow. As of now 21 of those sites lie wholly within U.S. boundaries, and another straddles the border between Alaska and Canada. Yet no matter what their location, these best of the best all claim a common denominator: each is the legacy of every man, woman, and child on earth.


Yellowstone's mudpots
and geysers are filled with
water hot enough to boil the
skin off your fingers in
a millisecond.
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming comprises the world's largest concentration of hot springs and geysers, the remains of innumerable lava flows, 41 waterfalls, petrified redwoods, and the largest free-ranging herd of bison left on earth. The park also represents the flowering of an idea that has since been exported around the world. Today, more than 100 nations have their own national parks or equivalent reserves.

The Everglades sawgrass
rivers are one of a kind.
Everglades National Park in Florida is the place where temperate North America meets the tropics. Its landscape is characterized by marshes or glades that, en masse, constitute a "river of grass." It is one of the last remaining marshlands, and as such is a watery haven inhabited by more than 300 bird and animal species, 15 of which are endangered or threatened.

Photos never do
the canyon justice.
You can't imagine
the scope unless you
see it yourself.
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is one of nature's finest monuments to the combined forces of deposition, uplift, erosion, and gravity. The awesome chasm reveals the world's most complete record of geologic time--2 billion years recorded in stone. It is here that the Colorado River has sculpted the earth in a grandiose fashion, creating a system of canyons, gorges, ravines, peaks and buttes that is unparalleled in the world.

The Great Smoky
Mountains are lovely
any time of year, but
especially so in autumn.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee contains the largest block of virgin red spruce left on earth, the finest collection of pioneer log structures remaining in the U.S., and a large and diverse collection of plant and animal communities. It is the largest park east of the Mississippi River, and while it is little more than a half-million acres in size, its yearly visitation is nine million--nearly four times that of Yellowstone, the largest park in the contiguous 48 states.

Independence Hall,
where American freedom
was born.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA is one of the world's outstanding cultural resources, possessing important associations with ideas, beliefs, and events of outstanding historical importance. It was here that the two most important documents in human history were adopted and signed: the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Both have transcended their own particular circumstances to become part of the political and philosophical heritage of the world: the Declaration as a vital precedent for nations struggling to win independence from colonial powers and the Constitution as the oldest formal document of its sort still in use.

The tour guide asked if
anyone wanted to go back
as this was the last chance
to get out of the cave.
I raised my hand without
thinking twice. Jim and the
kids stayed. Daredevils.
Mammoth Cave National Park in KY contains the longest known cave system in the world. Nearly every type of cave formation is known within this site and the geological processes involved in cave formation continue. The long passages, huge chambers, vertical shafts, stalagmites, stalactites, gypsum flowers and needles are all superlative examples of their types. In addition, the cave's flora and fauna is the richest caverniculous wildlife known, numbering about 200 species--of which 12 are rare and endemic to the cave system. If you are a cave lover, which I am not, this is the one to see.

Getting to this stone city
involved climbing a rope
ladder up a cliff and crawling
through a rock tunnel.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado contains the remains of one of the earliest native American civilizations in the U.S. Some 4,000 prehistoric sites have been identified, of which 600 are the famous cliff dwellings. It is one of the best preserved ruins in the Southwest, and was the first U.S. National Park set aside strictly to commemorate the works of man.

The Olympic rainforest has
a subdued beauty all its
own. One expects to see
elves hiding beneath
the duff.
Olympic National Park in WA boasts the largest intact stand of mixed coniferous forests in the lower 48 states, and most of the world-record specimens of major coniferous species are found here. The park contains the Western Hemisphere's best example of virgin temperate rainforest--a living biomass which may be the highest of anywhere in the world. Olympic's varied topography takes in everything from sea level to ski level and its mountains house 60 active glaciers that are at the lowest latitude in the world at which glaciers begin and exist.

The coast redwoods
are mind-boggling.
Can you spot the car
on the roadway?
Redwood National Park in CA is home to the world's tallest living things, the coast redwoods or sequoia sempervirens. The trees are known for their ability to withstand fire, insects, and disease. They are long-living, with 2,000 years not uncommon. These trees are a remnant specie predating the dinosaurs, and while their ancestors once covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, today's redwoods grow only along a narrow stretch of northern California coastline--with the giants residing inside park borders. The redwoods are often mistaken to be the same tree that grows in Sequoia NP, and while the two are cousins, they are far from identical.

I've never climbed
El Capitan. My mother
didn't raise any
Yosemite National Park in CA contains outstanding examples of North America's Ice Age--a time when great frozen rivers flowed down Yosemite's streamcut canyons to sculpt the incomparable Yosemite Valley, leaving behind highlands dotted with erratics (boulders dropped by melting ice), glacial ponds, and polished domes. The park claims El Capitan, the world's largest exposed block of solid granite; five of the ten highest waterfalls on earth; and three groves of giant sequoias or sequoiadendron giganteum--the largest living things in the world.

When I was a child my
family visited the
statue. We all climbed
a rickidy stairway to
the crown, where we
peeked out our heads and
took photos.
The Statue of Liberty in New York is a triumph of late 19th century art and engineering. The 152-foot copper statue, created by French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, was presented to the American people in 1886 as a gift from the people of France, commemorating the ties forged between the two countries during the American Revolution. For many years the Statue remained the tallest freestanding colossal image in the world, and it is still one of the most widely-known works of art. Although the statue was conceived primarily as an international gesture of friendship it has long been a premier symbol of the Untied States, representing the idea of democracy and freedom--largely because of its close proximity  to Ellis Island, the primary U.S. immigration reception center from 1892-1954.

In all our years of travel, Jim and I hauled our kids around from place to place, taking in many of these sites, long before there ever was a World Heritage List. We tented, as that's all we could afford to do. We cooked and ate outside--at a picnic table if we were lucky enough to have one. We hiked the trails, watched the wildlife, and tried to stay away from bears--though we weren't always completely successful. One year at Yosemite, a brown bear walked into camp to check out our food supply. Luckily, we had stored it in the bear proof bins. His pal hid out inside the ladies restroom--something we didn't know till we heard the screams and resultant ruckus of the ladies who met him face to face. Would I do it all again? You bet. And even though the above list is not all encompassing, seeing any or all of our nation's World Heritage Sites is far better than sitting in history class just reading about them. Trust me on this.

Jim and the kids at the rim of Grand Canyon. We went back
many times as the kids grew and the last time we were
there we hiked part way down into the gorge. We
would have gone farther, but hadn't thought to take
water with us. Big mistake.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rossiya--California's Russian Fort

The Russians have landed. They came ashore undetected and it was months before the rest of the world knew of their continued eastward expansion. By then it was too late to block their colonization, for the Russians had built themselves a wooden, well-armed and vigilantly- manned fort which they named, Rossiya.

So might an 1812 newspaper have declared when it was finally discovered that ninety-five Russians along with forty-five native Alaskans (Aleuts and Kodiak Islanders) had sailed their ship, the Chirikov into a cove along the rugged northern California coast, boldly coming ashore where there was good farm land and fresh water.

There had been no one to stop  them. Nearly half a century earlier, in 1769, the Russians presence in the Pacific Northwest had prodded the Spaniards into occupying Alta California. But on that day in 1812, their northernmost Spanish settlement was at San Francisco Bay, many miles south.

France, Great Britain, and Russia--along with the other major powers of the time--were involved in a European War. Napoleon's army was in the heart of Russia, headed toward Moscow and England was at war with a small but rebellious colony which had broken away and named itself The United States of America.

During the summer that the fort was built, the world had been so engrossed in their own immediate problems they had neither known nor guessed Russia's plans for further colonization. And so, what had begun nearly 250 years earlier, under the reign of Russia's first Tsar, Ivan-The-Terrible, continued: eastward expansion.

The California sea otter was long thought
 to be extinct due to over hunting. In 
1938 a small colony was spotted
at the mouth of Bixby

Creek Bridge on the
Big Sur Coast.
The Russians had came for several reasons. Sea otter were plentiful here and they desired to hunt them for their valuable fur. The farm land was good and there were wheat and other crops that must be supplied to Russia's Alaskan settlements. Trade with Spanish California was profitable and in spite of the protests and direct orders to leave, the Russians pretended not to understand the Spanish language and openly traded along the coast. And there was, of course, the very real but unspoken motive of further colonization.

1838 sketch of the Fort
Rossiya settlement.
The village and fortress of Rossiya contained forty or fifty buildings outside of the stockade. There were the high-roofed cottages of the Russian settlers, the flat-topped homes of the native Alaskans, and intermingled here and there, the cone-shaped dwellings and dance houses of the Pomo Indians who used this area seasonally to collect seafood. With the advent of the Russian settlement, and because the Russians were careful to maintain a good relationship with the Pomo tribe, the Indians stayed. Many were eventually absorbed into the Russian culture through marriage or employment.

Living history in July,
visitors more than
Inside of the fort's twelve-foot-high stockade walls, the Russians built a commandant's house, two blockhouses--one with eight sides and one with seven--a two-storied warehouse, officer's quarters, several miscellaneous buildings, and a church.

The fort's Russian
Orthodox Chapel was
built in 1825. It was
destroyed by fire in
1970 and has since been
completely rebuilt.
There were at least twenty (though some speculate as many as forty) canons mounted here and there within the fort. To be sure, a canon guarded each of the three sally-ports. Other canons of brass and iron stood at the windows of the two blockhouses, their cold black metal barely visible. Some say two canons, one on each side of the altar, stood just inside of the chapel. Sentinels patrolled the walls at night and holidays saw weapons practice. To all intents, the Russians were here to stay. And they did. For nearly thirty years.

In December of 1841, after failing to sell Rossiya to the Mexican government as well as others they had approached, the Russians made an agreement with John Sutter from Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Within a few short months of selling Rossiya, the Russians had packed up their belongings, boarded their ship, the Constantine, and sailed away. They disappeared from our shores--along with the sea otter they had so mercilessly hunted.

View across the compound
to the eight-sided
Fort Rossiya, now called Fort Ross, still stands. It is weather-beaten, ravaged by the elements, and a hollow shell of its former self. But stand it does--atop the golden headlands of the Sonoma coast. Many of the original buildings are gone, and most of those that remain have been reconstructed, largely out of original materials.

The three sally-ports stand open now. On a clear day the view from the openings is worth the short walk from the visitor parking lot to the old fort site. The giant bell hanging outside the chapel is a child's delight, just made for ringing. Its clear, low tone reverberates throughout the compound and across the countryside. The new Commandant's House with its rough-hewn timber floor and walls smell of dust and times-past. It now houses the Visitor Center and a small gift shop.

Walk through the buildings and about the grounds. Touch everything. There are few ropes here to keep the curious out. Climb the narrow stairs of the two blockhouses, touch the canons still guarding their windows. Examine the exhibits. Enjoy the view. Fort Ross, as it is now called, is a State Historic Park and as such is under the jurisdiction of California's Department of Parks and Recreation. It lies just north of San Francisco. It is a remnant of our historic past when the Russians landed, but did not stay. What they left us is a one-of-a-kind: America's only Russian fort.

Author's note:

The first time we visited Fort Ross was during the late 1950s when the fort lay right alongside The Old Coast Highway and was so intriguing, it demanded we stop. Our kids loved exploring the buildings, climbing into the blockhouses, and ringing the church bell. The next time we went back more of the buildings had been reconstructed and plans were in the making for eventually restoring the fort to its original state. This is a place your family will love--especially your children.

Friday, September 16, 2011

America's Forts And Battlefields--Echos In Time

Scattered across America are bits and pieces of yesteryear, places where the past permeates the shadows and memories lie tucked away like old clothes in dusty, forgotten attics. It is in these places that pulse-quickening accounts of long-ago battles stir the imagination. Sometimes the tale is of impossibly heroic feats. Other times it relates dogged resistance against overwhelming odds. Still other times it is the story of two cultures clashing head-on, writing history in indelible red. All are echos in time. And they have names like Vicksburg, the Alamo, and Custer Battlefield.

They are fragments of the time when America was being forged. Yet they are places that can never be fully understood or appreciated, for no longer does the air surrounding them reek with the pungence of burning powder. Nor does the ground reverberate with the shock of bursting shell. Neither does the wind carry the cries of the wounded or dying. All are peaceful now; almost parklike.

Hastily fashioned earthworks have rounded off into smooth hillocks overgrown with grassy mats; dusty swales have turned into shaded glens; cannons stand silent, guarding imaginary foe; old battlelines are edged with miles of serpentining asphalt.

Our historic lands have been redefined--by man and time. Yet not entirely. Pieces of the puzzle remain: here a Mississippi bluff where the Confederates made a a grand stand; there a Montana grassland speckled by white grave markers; over there a crumbling church where 183 determined men fought to the death against thousands of Mexican soldiers.

Fit into the puzzle the irregular shapes of the Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, the ruts of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, and the many forts that marked the ever-changing forefront of western civilization and you have a picture of America being forged. Rich is the one who pokes through the past long enough to see how the pieces fit together. Each is an outdoor archive and en-masse they bespeak the courage and tenacity of a people who took a wilderness called the New World and carved out of it one of the most powerful nations on earth. They are yesteryear's legacies. And all you need do to find them is stand very still...and listen for the echo.


Looking toward the Little Bighorn River's
treeline along U.S. 212 in Montana.
While other battlegrounds have undergone some transformation, little has changed in the Valley of the Little Bighorn since that fateful June day in 1876 when 700 men of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer met up with the largest concentration of Plains Indians ever to assemble--about 10,000-12,000, almost half of them warriors.

The 285 men fighting alongside Custer perished. Those under the command of Captains Benteen and Reno saw heavy losses, although they managed to hold their defensive line throughout the two-day battle. The siege ended when the Indians withdrew, just ahead of approaching columns of additional cavalry.

The Custer Battlefield of today remains almost as it was. The river has not altered its landscape. Neither has a modern city paved it over. With few exceptions, it is still a simple expanse of hilly grasslands where crickets buzz nosily and grasshoppers hide amidst tangles of amber stalks. It is, perhaps, this very consistency that evokes in visitors the unexplainable impression that the Last Stand battle is only just over.

Perhaps the cause of this eerie mood is the reality of the landscape. Or the mournful silence. Or the fact that the battlefield sits at the heart of the Crow Reservation. Maybe it's that many of the visitors are native Americans, come to experience for themselves the site of their ancestors' greatest victory over those who would take their land and engulf them forever.

Maybe it's the cluster of small white tombstones along the ridgeline. Maybe it's the hundreds more that dot the hills--one here, a couple over there, a little grouping somewhere else. Each marks the spot where a soldier's body was found, more than 300 in all, creating a visual zig-zag of flight that stretches almost from the river's edge to just beyond the crest of the highest bluff--a great sweeping emptiness where there is still no place to run and nowhere to hide.


The Alamo is in San Antonio, TX
There are no markers for the men who died at El Alamo in San Antonio, for there were no bodies to inter after the 13-day siege in which all 188 of the defenders lost their lives. The merciless Mexican general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, heading an army of 5,000, ordered the 188 dead carried outside the walls, stacked like firewood and torched.

Today only a hollow tomb marks the spot where the butchered remains of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, James Bonham and a host of lesser-known but equally heroic patriots were cremated on a cold, wet day in 1836.

The stench of the funeral pyre is long gone. So are the little gray tents of the Mexican army--a canvas blanket that stretched across the rolling prairie almost as far as the eye could see. Gone, too, is the blood-red flag hoisted by Santa Anna as a warning that there would be no quarter; no mercy; that any man left alive when the Alamo fell would be put to the sword. No more does the countryside resound to the bugled strains of the Deuguello, and old Moorish chant that roused the Mexican army to the cutting of throats.

The small Spanish mission has since been called the "Shrine of Texas Liberty" for little more than a month after the Alamo's fall, the 800 men of the Texas army launched a furious attack on the army of Santa Anna. He was captured and Texas became a free republic.

The Alamo still stands--a reminder that the price of liberty is often high. Of course, the years have wrought some changes. The San Antonio river, which once flowed almost directly in front of the old mission, is now channeled underground, and the far-reaching mesquite thickets and undulating prairies have been covered over with the concrete and neon of modern San Antonio. But step inside the Alamo walls and you're in another dimension--a sort of twilight zone where time and space seem almost to have vanished.

Two Spanish cannons guard the southeastern gate, two more the western gate. In the courtyard stands a 12 pounder used to defend the Alamo, and the well, dug so hastily by those inside the crumbling walls, is now a wishing well. The chapel is hushed and dimly lit, its shadows pulsating a silence that is felt rather than heard. Here is the Baptistery where 14 women and children hid during the killing time. Here, too, is the room where Jim Bowie died. A cubicle along one wall contains a Kentucky rifle found after the battle; another houses the flags of 20 states and six countries, origins of the patriots who fell here.


Many of the park's 124 cannons reside
as they once did--along battlelines.
The defenders of the Alamo held out for 13 days before the end came. The people of Vicksburg, Mississippi were locked inside their town for 47 days during a crucial Civil War battle, before Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton was forced to surrender both the city and his men to Ulysses S. Grant.

It was not that the Vicksburg defenders had lost the will to fight. It was only that munitions were critically low, water was scarce, and food had dwindled down to horsemeat, mulemeat, and as many rats as could be found.

The victory gave the North control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two. But it was not without cost. About 17,000 Union dead lie in the adjoining national cemetery. The Confederate dead are in the city cemetery.

The town, of course, still sits atop the 200 foot-high bluffs that made it one of the most formidable Confederate defense spots on the Mississippi River. The artillery batteries that lined the waterfront are gone. So are the cannons that blazed from atop the city's ramparts.

Time has healed the obvious wounds. Tall, widespreading trees have replaced those cut for parapets or blown apart by artillery fire; houses and buildings have been rebuilt or restored; and cannon-cratered soil has rounded out. But the Confederates' sturdy earthworks still command the heights. And just to their east, 500 yards away at most, are the Union's parallel siege lines.

Vicksburg Military Park is but a vignette of light and space, and walking this gently rolling countryside is a bit like looking into a mirror with silvered backing that has succumbed to the ages: All is still visible, and yet it is not.

On the highest grassy hill stands the Rebel's Great Redoubt, an earthen fort so well-designed and well-staffed it was impregnable; further along is the Second Texas Lunette, a crescent-shaped earthwork that the Yankees tried twice to overrun and could not. Just to the east is Battery DeGolyer, a Union siege line where cannons still guard a rebel redan. And everywhere are the monuments, granite reminders of the states that fought here.

That is reality. But when the Mississippi's gray-gauze mist rolls in and the air hangs heavy and sounds are smothered, shadowy images of those 46 days in 1863 float across the mind's eye: teenage soldiers with sweat running down their powder-blackened faces; sharpshooters manning rifle pits, taking aim at anything that moves and seldom missing; infantrymen using short-fused shells as hand grenades, wreaking havoc on their foe in the ditches; thousands of dead and wounded lying for two days where they fell; farm boys killing farm boys; the brave standing against the brave.

Perhaps the reason our yesterdays remain so visible is that our nation is relatively young and its history lies close to the surface of the land. For the most part, our pockets of the past are still out in the open, tiny islets in time where the ghosts refuse to lie quietly and the deeds of bygone days remain undisturbed.

They are flights backward through time, and whether the site is marked by white headstones or a hollow tomb or granite monuments, each is easy to find. Most are designated as under either state or federal protection. Listed below are but a few of those the whole family will find interesting.

Fort Smith NHS in AR was one of the first military posts in the Louisiana Territory.

Fort Point NHS in CA is a mid-19th Century coastal fortification modeled after Fort Sumter.

Bent's Old Fort NHS in CO was established in 1833 and until 1849 was the chief way-station on the Santa Fe Trail.

Chickmanga and Chattanooga NMP on the GA/TN border is our largest and oldest national military park and the site of some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War.

Fort Larned NHS in KS was established by the U.S. Army in 1859. A key frontier post on the Santa Fe Trail, the fort served as a base of operation against attacks from Southern Plains Indians.

Fort Scott NHS in KS was built in 1842 by Dragoons, the elite troops of the frontier army. It was part of a chain of outposts that reached from MN to LA.

Antietam NB in MD was the scene of a bloody Civil War battle that ended Robert E. Lee's first northern invasion and drastically altered the course of the four-year war.

Fort Snelling HC in MN was established in 1820 at the junction of the MN and MS Rivers. It was the northernmost link in a chain of forts that reached from Lake Michigan to the Missouri River.

Wilson's Creek NB in MO is the place where, on August 10, 1861, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of the Missouri River during the first year of the Civil War.

Fort Robinson SP in NE was founded in 1874 as a post Civil War Indian Agency protective post. It was here that Chief Crazy Horse, who defeated Custer at the Little Bighorn, was mortally wounded by resentful soldiers.

Fort Union NM in NM was occupied from 1851-1891 and was not only the Southwest's largest military post, but a key defense on the Santa Fe Trail.

Moore's Creek NB in NC is the site of a brief but violent battle during the opening phase of the Revolutionary War.

Fort Clatsop NM in OR was founded in 1806 and commemorates the place where explorers Lewis and Clark wintered after their arduous journey from St. Louis MO to the West Coast.

Fort Necessity NB in PA was established by George Washington in 1754 and was so named because of his army's dire need for a haven against mud, rain, and swamps.

Fort Sumter NM in SC is the place where, on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired the opening shots of the Civil War.

Shiloh NMP in TN is the site of the first major battle of the Union's campaign to control the Mississippi River.

Manassas NB in VA is the site of two Civil War battles called the First and Second Manassas, better known as Bull Run.

Fort Vancouver NHS in WA was the western headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company and from 1825 to 1849 it was the hub of all the Pacific Northwest fur trading activity.

Fort Laramie NHS in WY was originally established in 1834 as a privately-owned fur trading center. In 1849 it became a military post guarding emigrants along the Oregon Trail as well as passengers on the Overland Stage and riders for the Pony Express.

This is not a comprehensive listing of our national historic sites or battlefields or forts--they are but examples of places where our nation's history can be seen, touched, and explored.