Sunday, April 19, 2009

Into the Fiery Furnace

Arches National Park, as one might imagine from its name, is well-endowed with natural arches, windows and bridges. Actually, all those three features are one and the same thing, as I recently re-learned on a ranger-led hike into the ‘Fiery Furnace’. The most bizarre concentration of fins and narrow slot canyons, I know I felt like a rat in a maze. The red sandstone and a hot day complete worthiness of the name.
DeeDee and Ursula, old friends from Bozeman/Livingston days, visited last week on their way back to Montana from Zion National Park. DeeDee was celebrating a birthday and requested a special hike, but unfortunately, an ankle injury prevented her participation. Doug resisted calling in sick at the hardware store. So, Ursula and I joined the 20+ other eager Furnace-walkers, and I was surprised to also see our nightly rental guests in attendance. We were in the good hands of Ranger Ann, a young interp ranger who reminded me just how stimulating giving guided walks can be. It brought back memories of my years in Yellowstone.

I had taken this hike 10 years ago, when my balance, lower back, and knees were non-issues. Ah, the curse of aging. In addition to our nightly rental guests, who had two kids (ages 5 and 7), there was also a family from Israel, a family from British Columbia, a Green Bay Packer family, and an assortment of others. At our first stop, as Ranger Ann was describing some of the flora and fauna, there was one kid scribbling all over the rock on which he was sitting. He was hidden by his father. As we assembled to depart and Ranger Ann saw what he had done, she spoke to them and made them rub sand over the graffiti to remove it. Right on, Ann!

National Parks have strict rules about destroying natural features. It’s just not tolerated. In addition, you can’t remove any natural feature from the Park. That includes a tiny rock, one little flower, one bird feather, etc. The basic idea is that if each and every one of us did that, there wouldn’t be anything left for the next guy. Simple, but oh so hard to put in to practice. I know.

Having led ranger-led walks and hikes for several years, I know they aren’t for everybody. I love to hike alone (except for the accompaniment of a canine companion), but it’s very easy to miss things. Without this hike I wouldn’t have known that there are actually shrimp in tiny pools that lay eggs that stay dormant for as long as 30 years until the pool fills again. Or, that the scrub jay can make a call that mimics a rattlesnake. I wouldn’t have seen the pack rat skull that one of the hikers found and we passed around. And I wouldn’t have seen the shared excitement on everyone’s faces as we rounded every fin, or side-stepped along the ravine, or sucked in our stomachs through the tight places. Ursula and I volunteered to be the sweeps, and we got to see it all.

It is strongly recommended that you go through the Fiery Furnace on a ranger-led hike, at least the first time. However, you can get a permit to do it yourself. You have to watch a 5-minute video (what exactly can you learn in 5 minutes), and have backcountry skills. But you aren’t given a map. And GPS aren’t reliable back there. We saw quite a few people wandering around with permits strapped onto their daypacks. Some were folks who looked like they just walked out of the shopping mall. One guy, in a very German accent, asked us if we “knew the way out”. In reply, we asked him “don’t you?” He answered “NO”. We then suggested that he follow us, but he went the other way. He might still be wandering around.

The Fiery Furnace is one of those hikes that, no matter how many times you walk it, you are bound to experience something new. So, Julian, are you and Gwenda ready for a little Fiery Furnace when you are in Moab in a few weeks????

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