Dropping into Cove Canyon


While thousands of boaters float down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon every year, dozens of side canyons branching off the river receive much less attention. During my recent float trip, we explored several technical canyons. Because of the small amount of daylight in late November and December in the Canyon, side trips required an early start and several ended by headlamp in the dark. My favorite side trip was in Cove Canyon which comes into the Colorado around river mile 175. From our camp at the mouth of Cove Canyon six of us departed before first light. A bit over 12 hours later we made our way back into camp after navigating the final plunge pool and rappell via headlamp.

Click here for a gallery of images documenting our approach and descent through this wild slot canyon in the Arizona Desert!


Grand Canyon Wildlife, Birds, and Tracks

Wildlife and signs of wild animals abound along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The silty banks of the river hold the tracks of many species large and small while birds, from tiny canyon wrens to California Condors can be spotted on the water, in the brush or soaring above the canyon walls. Here is a little bit of what I found on my recent float trip down the river.

Animal Tracks in the Grand Canyon

Footprints of a wild animals were abundant along the banks of the Colorado river. Click here to view an entire gallery of images of wildlife tracks I took while on the river along with a few clues on how to tell what they are!

Right front (on the left) and hind tracks of a grey fox. Grand Canyon, Arizona. Click on this image to view a gallery of wildlife track photos from the Grand Canyon.

 Grand Canyon Birds

Though I am not much of a birder I amassed a species list of about 35 birds during my November-December trip down the Canyon. The abundance and diversity of birds definately increased towards the end of the trip. Here are a few I managed to snap a photo of.

A great blue heron takes flight along the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona. A great blue heron takes flight along the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona.
_MG_0267 Ross’s x Snow goose hybrid. We saw a single pair on the river. They had probably stopped during their southern fall migration.
Canyon Wrens were one of the most common birds to see or hear along much of the river. Their beatiful lyrical song echoeing off the canyon walls was one of the most amazing sounds on the river. Grand Canyon, Arizona.
A common raven looks out from a perch on a sandstone ledge. Grand Canyon, Arizona.
A first winter white-crowned sparrow. Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Rock wren. Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Patience and careful observation revealed this ruby-crowned kinglet in the brush up a side canyon. Grand Canyon, Arizona. Patience and careful observation revealed this ruby-crowned kinglet in the brush up a side canyon. Grand Canyon, Arizona.

See more of my Bird Photography here!

Grand Canyon Mammals

While footprints revealed the presence of a great many more species of mammals than we actually had live sightings of our party saw bighorn sheep on several occasions and had some notable interactions with ringtails. Perhaps most unusual was the discovery of a ringtail in one of our party’s tent when he retired for the evening!

A bighorn sheep ram foraging along the shore of the Colorado River. Grand Canyon, Arizona.
A group of bighorn sheep ewes in Tuckup Canyon, a tributary to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Check out more of my mammal photography here!

Another Look at Northern Flying Squirrel Tracks

Perhaps because of the forest habitat they occupy and tendency not to travel for long distances on the the ground, clear footprints of the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) have rarely been detected in the wild, or at least rarely documented. I personally have never definitively identified this species’s tracks in any substrate other than loose snow. As such producing reliable illustrations for the tracks of flying squirrels is challenging. In writing my field guide I had less direct field data on this species than any other mammal species whose tracks are illustrated in the book. The illustrations, measurements and description of northern flying squirrel tracks in Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest are based on the following data sources:

  • Snow tracks found in conjunction with definitive flying squirrel sign, typically the landing mark at the end of a glide.
  • A plaster cast of a number of tracks of a single flying squirrel which was collected for me by Kevin Mack,  at PAWS in Lynwood, WA from a captive female northern flying squirrel which was being rehabilitated for release there.
  • Sketches, notes and photographs I took from study skins of northern flying squirrels from the Mammalogy Collection at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington.
  • Photographs and illustrations of the tracks and signs of this species from other wildlife tracking literature, (all included in the bibliography of my field guide).

In the spring of 2012, while delivering a Tracking Certification with Dr. Mark Elbroch, author of a number of books on wildlife tracks in North America, Mark offered me the feedback that his most recent research on this topic suggests that his original depiction of northern flying squirrel feet in Mammal Tracks: A Guide to North American Species, along with my own are inaccurate. In Mark Elbroch’s most recent book, co-authored with Jonah Evans and Michael Kresky, Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scats of California, the authors present a revised illustration of the tracks of this species based on their inspection of study skins and footprints collected from sooted track plates. Following this conversation, I revisiting my own original research materials, as well as the literature and made a follow up trip back to the Burke Museum, where I reexamined study skins as well as a fresh specimen which was waiting to be processed.

As Elbroch, Evans, and Kresky depict, northern flying squirrels do have a distinctive, though subtle, anatomical feature in their hind feet which is unique among squirrels in the Pacific Northwest and California. Toe number 5, the outside toe, is longer than is typical for squirrels or other rodents. Inspecting the actual feet of a frozen flying squirrel as well as numerous study skins, this toe, while not quite as long as the central three toes is nearly so, and visually apears in a similar plane to them, while toe 1 is distinctly shorter and falls on a seperate plane. This feature is present in the tracks collected from the sooted track plate which is published in Elbroch, Evans and Kresky. While the only clear tracks in a natural substrate I have been able to examine, those of the captive animal’s which were collected in sand, do not show this characteristic as distinctively as it appears in sooted track plates and on the actual feet themselves, I suspect that it would likely often be apparent in tracks in natural substrates.  This characteristic, not currently illustrated or described in Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, could be used to distinguish the tracks of this species from the related Douglas (Tamiasciurus douglasii) and red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which share the Pacific Northwest and much of the rest of North America with northern flying squirrels.

Because there is such limited data on this topic, I have included photographs and sketches from my research for review by others. Similarly, if others have photographs, sketches or access to northern flying squirrel’s I would love to see their material and explore this subject further. Thanks much to Jeff Bradley at the Burke Museum, and the Burke Museum in general, as well as Mark Elbroch for their assistance with this topic.

IMG_0958 The left hind foot of a frozen northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) from the Burke Museum’s Mammalogy Collection. Note that toe 5 is nearly as long as toes 2-4, while toe 1 is distinctly shorter.
Northern Flying Squirrel worked up Rubbings made from a plaster cast of the tracks of a captive northern flying squirrel in sand. Collected by Kevin Mack at PAWS in Lynwood Washington. Various feet are labeled.
Rubbings plus digital overlay copy A digital drawing over the rubbings to help enhance the appearance of the structure of the tracks.
original burke notes Original notes and sketches from my book research on the species from 2009.
Burke Flying Squirrel Notes and Sketches 25APR2012 copy Notes and sketches from my research at the Burke Museum from 2012.


Mount St. Helens Institute Track and Sign Certification

This past weekend the Mount St. Helens Institute, in collaboration with the Mount Adams Institute, hosted a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event close to the town of Trout Lake in the southern Washington Cascades, a landscape with a diversity of plant communities, striking geography, and bountiful wildlife.

Matt Nelson, Track and Sign Specialist, assisted me in the delivery of the evaluation. Here Matt is leading a discussion around the remains of a mule deer which was killed and butchered by a human hunter and subsequently scavenged by coyotes. Questions around this carcass led to a lengthy and detailed discussion on how to differentiate the patterns of sign left behind around carcasses by other large carnivores such as mountain lions, black bears, and wolves.
Naturalist Dan Daly inspecting a beaver chewed stick along the banks of the Klickitat River. Dan performed impressively and with a score of 98.5, earned his second Level 3 Certification. Nice work Dan!
Matt Nelson photographed me leading a discussion on the identification of a collection of feathers from a Ruffed grouse found on the side of a forest road. David Scott (Track and Sign Specialist) and Casey McFarland (Specialist and Evaluator for Cybertracker Conservation) are the authors of the excellent resource pictured here, Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species.
The camber of this primary wing feather is an important clue about the original owner of it. The heavy downward curve in wing weathers is typical for game birds such as Ruffed grouse. This curve helps give them explosive take off power, an important survival trait for ground birds trying to escape terrestrial predators.

Congratulations to everyone who earned a Track and Sign Certification through the Event! For a complete list of certified Trackers in North America click here.

Level 1

Corwin Scott
Hanna D. Gomes
Fred Engelfried

Level 2

Heather Harding
Levi Old

Level 3

Maureen Corlas
Ashley Conley
Daniel P. Daly

Wildlife Tracking in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia

In late September, the Slovak Wildlife Society hosted a weekend Wildlife Tracking Workshop in Liptovský Mikuláš, a village in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. The Slovak Wildlife Society is involved with a range of conservation projects focusing primarily on the region’s large carnivores including working to prevent negative interactions between wolves and bears with humans.

Here are a few of the highlights from my trip to the region and the class with a collection of very fine European naturalists and wildlife trackers.

My initial impressions of northern Slovakia during my train ride through the country was that it reminded me much of the state of Montana, with the notable addition of castles. My initial impressions of northern Slovakia during my train ride through the country was that it reminded me much of the state of Montana, with the notable addition of castles.
Tracks of a European Red deer (Cervus elaphus). Tracks of a European Red deer (Cervus elaphus).
The right hind track of a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). The right hind track of a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).
European river otter (Lutra lutra) tracks.
European lynx (Lynx lynx) track. Tatra Mountans, Slovakia.
A spring in the forest used extentively by Wild Boar as a wallow. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia
A tree close to a spring wild boar’s use as a wallow. Robin Rigg, Slovak Wildlife Society Founder and Director, inspects the scar and mud on the base of the tree is from repetitive rubbing from boars on the tree. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.
A red fox moves through the brush in morning light. Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.
Participants in the wildlife tracking workshop Slovak Wildlife Society hosted.
Evening light in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

Making Hay in the Caucasus Mountains of the Republic of Georgia

September is harvest season for folks who live in the Sveneti Region of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus Mountains are a land steeped in history and located at a geographic and cultural crossroads of Asia and Europe. Traveling through the remote villages situated among the soaring ridges and peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, felt at points like a trip back in time. This feeling was perhaps most distinct in watching the process of cutting and storing hay which was in full swing during my time in the region.

Three men from the village of Iprali work in concert cutting wild hay in a high elevation meadow in the Sveneti region of the Republic of Georgia.
Careful attention to keeping you blade sharp is required for cutting hay with a scythe. Men will typically sharpen their blade after each row of hay they cut and the distinctive sound of sharpening stones against the metal blades of scythes rung out across many of the mountain valley’s we traversed during our fall travels in the region.
Often, hay is carefully collected into mounds which are left to dry before being hauled back to the village and stored for the winter.
Hay mounds dotted hillsides up and down the mountainsides across much of Sveneti during the fall. Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia.
Hay mounds are eventually collected and loaded onto either trucks or wooden sleds pulled by cattle to be hauled into the village.
Hay being hauled out of the mountains to the village of Ushguli. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia.
A wooden hay sled sits in front of a modern barn built with a traditional design, while two cows rigged for hauling it rest in the shade. Hay is stored in the top while livestock are penned below during the winter. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia.
A massive and growing ravine sits on the edge of a village in Sveneti. Intensive and long term cattle and other livestock production have left many hillsides scared with with such erosion, while thistles and other weedy species that tolerate heavy grazing pressure flourish in much of the range lands in Sveneti.
Part of the welcoming committee for the village of Ushguli. On our walk into the village we were also greeted by a horse, several pigs, and a very large but quite amiable dog. Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Georgia.
The abandoned village of Ghuli sits below the imposing summit of Mount Ushba. While wolves and bears are reported to still roam these mountains, during two weeks of trekking in the region I never saw sign of even a single wild hoofed mammal or any other terrestrial wildlife larger than a fox. Millennia of pastoralism have left a heavy mark on this staggeringly beautiful landscape. Sveneti, Republic of Georgia

Jefferson Land Trust Track and Sign Certification

This past weekend the Jefferson Land Trust hosted a Track and Sign Evaluation in the northeastern section of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Jason Lake, instructor for Ceder Root Folk School, volunteered four days of his time to assist in setting up and delivering the Evaluation. The evaluation was held on a combination of Lands owned or under conservation easements managed by the Land Trust and public lands in the area.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Evaluation and…

Congratulations to the folks who earned certificates:

  • Level 1: Peter Craig, Sarah Spaeth, Isabelle Luna, Rachel Webber
  • Level 2: Lee Corum, Heather Harding, Dustin Ryerson, Nicole Larson
  • Level 3: Erik Kingfisher

For a list of all of the certified trackers in North America click here.


Mother of Rivers: the Mountains of Georgia’s Caucasus Range

The massive relief of the Caucuses Range in the the Republic of Georgia’s Sveneti Region are staggering in their own right for their sheer natural beauty. Though much less well known then the Alps in western Europe, the Causcuses, straddling the southern border between Europe and Asia are the highest mountain range in Europe.

During the first part of my recent trip to the region, I spent several days trekking around Mount Ushba, one of the most striking mountains I have ever encountered. Like most of the highest peaks in Georgia, it sits along the international border with Russia.

Though not the highest peak in the range, at 4,710 m (15,453 ft), Mount Ushba is a massive peak and generally considered the most challenging mountaineering objective in the range. Seen hear at sunset with a steady stream of clouds forming and streaming off of the lee side of the summit. Though not the highest peak in the range, at 4,710 m (15,453 ft), Mount Ushba is a massive peak and generally considered the most challenging mountaineering objective in the range. Seen hear at sunset with a steady stream of clouds forming and streaming off of the lee side of the summit.
Mount Ushba (left), neighboring Mazerie Peak, and the massive rock covered lower portion of the Ushba Glacier photographed via moon and starlight.
Murky waters pour out of the snout of the Ushba Glacier, one of the headwaters of the Inguri River, one of the largest and economically most important river in Georgia.
Intrepid traveler crossing the ragging glacial outflow several miles downstream from the snout of the Ushba glacier in the Republic of Georgia’s Sveneti region.
The torrent of water pouring over the glacier carved cliffs bellow Mount Ushba have carved out a deep ravine into the landscape. Svaneti Region, Republic of Georgia.

The Shkhara massif sits south and east of Mount Ushba and includes Mount Shkhara and several other 5000+ meter peaks, the highest part of the Caucuses in Georgia. Fall temperatures had turned the mountain ash red on the alpine mountain slopes and dusted the ridgetops, peaks, and glaciers with fresh snow.

The massive bulk of Jhanga peak and Mount Shkhara from the west, drapped in ice and fresh snow, give birth to another tributary to the Inguri River. Sveneti Region, Republic of Georgia.
A rainbow straddles the mountain valley and snout of the valley glacier flowing off of the Shkhara massif. Georgian Caucuses Mountains.
Mountain ash’s brilliant red-orange after the onset of fall temperatures above the glacier fed river leading down to the tiny and remote village of Adishi. Sveneti Region, Republic of Georgia.
The Lamaria Church, near the town of Ushguli, with the southern face of Mount Shkhara, 5,193 m (17,040 ft), in the background.
Downstream, the impacts of primitive sewage systems, unbelievable garbage disposal practices, unfettered livestock access, old mining activity, and a massive hydroelectric dam take their toll on the Inguri River, but here at its headwaters it flows free and beautiful off of some of the highest peaks in the world.

North Cascades National Park Wildlife Tracking Certification

In mid-June North Cascades Institute hosted the first Wildlife Tracking Certification Event in North Cascades National Park. Besides a diversity of tracks and signs some challenging field conditions including some classic North Cascades rain and multi-element bushwacking/wading added to the experience for myself as the evaluator and for participants! Here are a few of the highlights from the Evaluation.

The right front foot of a mink (Neovison vison) in fine glacial silt found close to the mouth of Thunder Creek.
These tracks of a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) were found just down the shore from the mink.
This unusual sign of a beaver (Castor canadensis) in the riparian forest along Thunder Creek stumped many.
Roger Bean, who earned a Level III Track and Sign Certification contemplates the beaver feeding sign during the evaluation.
The weathered track of a black bear (Ursus americanus).
Terry Kem, founder of Deerdance, earned a Level III Cerftication as well on the evaluation, seen here photographing a sign post tree well used by black bears along Thunder Creek.
Moose (Alces alces) are rarely sighted in western portion of the North Cascades, but these pellets indicate one had passed by the Easy Pass Trailhead along the North Cascades Scenic Highway.
Scat from a bushytailed woodrat (left, Neotoma cinerea) and a pika (Ochotona princeps) were both discovered in a large talus field.
Susan Brown, a graduate student in the North Cascades Institutes Masters of Education program, assisted with the evaluation. Pictured here by a powerline pole that had been bitten and rubbed on by black bears.


Congratulations to everyone who participated in the Evaluation. Of 10 participants, 3 Level III , 3 Level II , and one Level I certificates were awarded. For a list of certified trackers in North America click here.

Alpine Skills Training at Northwest Outward Bound School

mg_4933.jpg?w=300 Outward Bound Instructor Sam Ecenia dives into Alpine Skills Training on Mount Hood to start of the summer field season for Northwest Outward Bound School’s summer season.

The first staff training of the year for Northwest Outward Bound School‘s Odin Falls Basecamp in Central Oregon was a great success. Myself and five participants headed out to eastside of Mount Hood. Blue skies and generally excellent weather made for five very productive days from a basecamp we established on a moraine to the south of the Elliot Glacier, culminating in a summit climb via the lovely Cooper Spur Route (see photos below). We also spent a day working on rescue skills and student management on the basalt cliffs by the school’s Bascamp along the Deschutes River at the end of the training.

Along with being an instructor and trainer for Northwest Outward Bound School, I recently joined the Board of Directors for the school. After months of being involved with all the many things that go on behind the scenes to help ensure that Outward Bound Instructors have the chance to deliver life changing experiences to our students in the field, spending a week in the field with this group of instructors  in the backcountry was a good reminder for me about why the work that Outward Bound does is so powerful for students and instructors alike.

mg_4893.jpg?w=300 Heading up towards our camp on Mount Hood.
mg_4909.jpg?w=300 We set up our camp at the end of this glacial moraine above the terminus of the Elliot Glacier.
mg_4992.jpg?w=300 Our camp on the moraine above the Elliot Glacier on Mount Hood
mg_4928.jpg?w=300 Six year Outward Bound veteran Jess Stuecklen practices her self arrest skills.
mg_4938.jpg?w=300 Outward Bound Instructor Sam Ecenia self arrests after a face first digger. Being able to stop yourself from sliding on steep snow is a fundamental alpine climbing skill.
mg_5017.jpg?w=300 Outward Bound Instructor John Rudolph practicing his crevasse rescue skills–building a snow anchor and transferring the weight of a fallen climber from his harness to the anchor.
mg_5037.jpg?w=300 Jess bounds in a snow anchor. Participants had 15 minutes to construct an anchor and transfer the “fallen climber” to it during this drill.
mg_4958.jpg?w=300 Outward Bound Instructor Molly Hayes relaxes in camp after a full day of skills practice.
mg_4963.jpg?w=300 Mount Hood as seen from our camp location.
img_0997.jpg?w=300 We left our camp at 2 am for our peak bid, arriving at the base of the steep terrain close to the summit just as the sun was about to rise


img_1029.jpg?w=200 Hard snow up to about 55 degrees made for fun and exciting climbing conditions on the way up.


img_1007.jpg?w=300 img_1007.jpg?w=300Sunrise over the Columbia River as seen from about 9000′ on the Cooper Spur route
img_1031.jpg?w=300 Laura Berglund and Sam Ecenia pause for a moment as we get into the steepest portion of the climb



img_1032.jpg?w=300 View from a belay close to the summit.


img_1036.jpg?w=300 Sam Ecenia constructing a snow anchor for the final pitch of the climb. One of the basic educational concepts of Outward Bound is to “Impell People into Value’s Forming Experiences”. In classic Outward Bound fashion participants in the training practice all of the components of the peak ascent on the days leading up to the climb and then were impelled to put the skills into use to ensure the safety and success of our team endeavor on the climb.


img_1049.jpg?w=300 After leading the final pitch of the climb, Jess Stuecklen belays Laura Berglund as she crests the summit of Mount Hood, the tallest peak in the Oregon Cascades.


img_1083.jpg?w=300 View of the final portion of the Cooper Spur route which ascends the wind sculpted lower slopes before weaving through the bands of rocks to reach the summit.
img_1089.jpg?w=225 John Rudolph demonstrates one of Outward Bounds educational tenets–craftsmanship–in the fine meal he prepared for us at the end of our summit day. Nothing says excellence in alpine cooking like long strands of gooey melted cheese!


img_1027.jpg?w=300 The Northwest Outward Bound School Mission is to conduct safe, adventure-based experiences structured to inspire self discovery, self reliance, compassion for others, and care for our environment.For more information about Northwest Outward Bound School, vist nwobs.org.
mg_49981.jpg?w=300 The silhouettes of Mount Adams and Mount Rainer at sunrise as seen from the northeast side of Mount Hood. Northwest Outward Bound runs courses in some of the most stunning and wild places in the Pacific Northwest including mountaineering courses in the Oregon and Washington Cascades. To sign up for courses visit outwardbound.org.


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