Packing for Utah and Website Updates

28 May 2009

We have 0nce again dumped all our gear boxes on the floor and have gone through everything, packing and arranging, and amending our packing lists yet another time.  The Landcruiser is nearly packed up and readied, and Nicolai and I are both excited to go.  We will leave Monday morning for a couple of weeks, plus or minus, in the beautiful desert of southeast Utah.

Each trip holds something new for us, aside from the obvious experiences of exploring Utah and the canyons in general. As Nicolai grows we are able to do a little more, go a little further each time we head into the bush. On this trip Nicolai will do his first overnight backpack.  We actually have three possible overnights planned.  We’ll do one and see how it goes, and then make a call on the others.  Each can be as short as two or three miles one way, so it will be easy enough for him in terms of the walk.  And he will only be carrying his Camelbak with water and survival items.  I will carry his sleeping bag, pad, and most of his gear, adding 5 or so pounds to my ultralight pack.

The Itinerary
The three trips I have planned all have interesting things to see despite their short lengths. I picked three canyons with easy entrances- we’ll be entering right at the head of each one.  One hike is near Canyonlands south of Moab, the other two are in Grand Gulch. The hike near Canyonlands was chosen for its abundant wildlife- it has a large beaver pond not a mile down from the entrance, and it has some moki steps to ponder as well.  The two in Grand Gulch have prehistoric ruins, a cowboy camp, and rock art panels with archaic anthropomorphic figures as well as a few Kokopelli figures.  All three are well-worth visiting and perfect for the young explorer.


Our backpack version of Pho, packed and ready for testing in Utah.

Backpack Meals
Nicolai and I spent some time over the last couple of weeks making up more backpack meals, breakfasts and dinners mainly.  We also worked on a new recipe- a backpack version of Vietnamese Noodle Soup or Pho.  The recipe is up on the Single Pot Meals page at the Desert Explorer website. It is definitely a tasty meal, even though it may not be completely authentic.

Tracking and Bikepacking
For those that missed it, I have also added Tracking pages and begun a  Bikepacking page on the Desert Explorer website.  A couple of the tracking pages are re-posts from this blog.  One of the pages covers a brief morning of tracking after our final inch of snow this past April. That post is based on notes from our tracking journal and discusses tracking in the snow.

The Bikepacking Page has been on my mind for some time, since last summer and my ride of the White Rim trail.  It gives a definition of bikepacking and outlines my packing list from the White Rim ride. I will update that page in the near future as my plans for a solo, ultralight ride of Kokpelli’s Trail become finalised. One of the goals of the present trip will be to recon cache sites for water resupplies on the second half of the Kokopelli’s ride, once I have left  Dewey Bridge and the Colorado River. There are no permanent water sources again until the very end of the ride.

From the Road
We will make every effort to make a quick post from either Moab or Monticello on the way south, then another from Bluff after we leave Cedar Mesa. We’ll be sure to include some photos from the adventure as it unfolds.

Tracking and Observing Coyote and His Friends

21 May 2009

My son Nicolai and I went out tracking coyotes a few days back. We left late in the day with the intention of finding a hide and watching the coyotes come out at dusk.  As usually happens, we found so many other things to look at, so many tracks to follow, that by the time the coyotes started to yip and howl we were still following some fresh horse tracks from the previous day.  The coyotes did appear right on time- they saw us first, but not until they had been communicating for some time just over the ridge from us. We got to hear them up close, and try to translate what they were saying.  Coyotes use yips, howls, and yip-howls to communicate with each other and between groups.  The Desert Explorer website has more on the lives of coyotes. When they saw us they headed off  quickly in a safe direction.

nico_trackWe found the usual fresh coyote tracks throughout the area, and the track we chose to follow led us to a curious feature in some tall grass.  It appeared that a few coyotes, including a couple of pups whose tracks we were following, had stopped and played there.  The tracks led into the grass, and then out of it. We found a couple of pieces of old garden hose that they had chewed, possibly thrown around or played tug-o-war with as pups do (much of the area was farm and ranch land in the past and old dumpsites can be found in some of the washes). There were small teeth marks on the ends of the hoses, as well as on a few other pieces of hose that had been chewed off.


Tall grass pushed flat from coyotes playing in it.


The Racer posing for us in the grass.

As we left the feature in the grass to continue tracking the group up the wash, we met a Racer that stood perfectly still for us, probably very frightened. Its bright color made it stand out against the green of the grass. They average between 56-82 centimeters in length, with females being longer, according to Hammerson’s Amphibians and Reptiles in Colorado.  Ours was on the long end of the range, near three feet in length.

Besides the Racer and the coyotes we met up with three Great Horned owls.  Nicolai was leading as we walked into a stand of cottonwoods along a creek and two of them took off right above him.  We stopped to watch them fly off and land in some more trees close by.  It was then that we heard the third owl just 20 feet away.  The three began communicating with hoots, barks and what might have been the call of a juvenile. The barking, perhaps of the female, is the most interesting of their vocalisations.  After they flew off we concluded from their sign that they had been using the trees as a perch for some time. We watched them for a while with binos, and got to see and hear them again at dusk as we left by the same trail.


Great Horned owl perched on the roots of a cottonwood tree over a stream.

We spent a couple of hours just following the trails the coyotes had made up and down all the washes.  They are so prominent that it is impossible to lose them.  It offers a great opportunity for Nicolai to practice his tracking skills.

Well-traveled coyote trail in the bottom of a wash.

Well-traveled coyote trail in the bottom of a wash.

The area we visit is alive with wildlife.  Many birds live and travel through the area.  At this time of year the Killdeer are everywhere.  They were screaming at us during our entire hike, from the ground and the air.  Some were undoubtedly trying to coax us away form their nests, as plovers are known to do.  The chorus frogs have quieted down some, but we still heard them here and there.

Our next trip out we will be sure to settle down as the sun sets and let the coyotes begin their evening in peace, and if we are lucky we’ll get a couple of good photos of them.

Tracking- Getting Started, Guidebooks

12 May 2009

I have been tracking in some form as long as I can remember. As a kid I would find a track, or what I thought was a track, and follow it.  I remember searching for and finding sign of different animals- birds, muskrat, rabbit, beaver- from a very young age. I never had any sort of formal instruction and did not know that there were any formal terms or techniques for tracking until after I had done it for many years. Not that my tracking followed any form of technical or traditional tracking lines of thought, or so it seemed- I went out, found tracks, and followed them.  I used common sense- moved quietly, slowly, moved around tracks, observed them from high and low and made it a point to try and think like the animal I followed. After reading a number of tracking guides I found that these are the basics to tracking.  And again I was reminded that our  nature as creatures of the wilderness has not been lost to the modern world.  If you let yourself go with it, it will come back to you.

Tracking With My Son

Since my early endeavors at tracking I have read a few of Tom Brown’s guides including his Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking and his book The Tracker. I have picked up bits of tracking skill over the years from other books such as texts about the Kung of the Kalahari desert, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee novels (it’s true- Chee can teach you something), and from locals during my travels in the jungles of Mexico and Belize. In recent years I have given much more thought, time and effort to my tracking endeavors.  Much of this has to do with tracking with my son and teaching him the skills. Tracking is an important part of his wilderness education and is something I am now “formally” teaching him.

Nicolai on his way to visit our local coyote friends.

Nicolai on his way to visit our local coyote friends.

Tracking is another great way for us to spend calm, quiet time together as we hone our powers of observation and enjoy being outside. We are lucky in that we have access to a few square miles of old ranch land close by which has become a sanctuary for wildlife escaping the encroaching subdivisions. We visit the place often observing coyote, fox, prairie dog, rabbit, and red tail, Swainson’s and marsh hawks, to give a short list. My son really loves the aspect of stealth- we walk slowly and quietly together, without talking, and when we get close enough, we change from tracking posture to stalking posture, crawling along the ground and observing from behind cover. We have even developed our own hand and arm signals for communication.  My goal is to make tracking second nature, whether we are walking across the grass at the park or up a remote desert canyon in Utah.

Tracking Humans

In a recent post I mentioned an old friend of mine who was attending the British Army Tracking School in Brunei. You can read his informative posts at MichaelYon-online. Since reading his near daily posts from the school, I have become motivated once again to move forward with tracking skills. I have done some research on tracking, tracking schools, and books on the subject.  Much of what I found had to do with military and law enforcement tracking, and many of the guides were written with tracking mainly humans in mind.  However, I personally recommend both of the Tom Brown books noted above as a place to start.  They are simple and clear with story lines that develop as they entertain and inspire.  They introduce you to basic animal tracks as you read along and treat tracking as an almost spiritual undertaking. When you reach the end of them you will have a thorough understanding of basic animals tracks, tracking techniques and of the “tracking mind”.


One of the benefits of tracking- adding to the collection of skulls and bones. Nicolai holds the skull and mandible of a house cat he found along our track. It's likely that it had been a meal at some point for the coyotes we were tracking.

Another recommended title, which has just come out in a revised edition, is Bob Carss’  SAS Guide to Tracking.  Carss was an SAS soldier for 20 years and taught at their tracking schools. His book starts by giving definitions and explanations and is aimed not only at soldiers, but at teachers and parents- he wrote it as a guide to help teach tracking to his son. The book is much more technical in its layout than Tom Brown’s guides, and has chapters on finding lost tracks, types of sign, aging of sign, stalking, and observation.  You cannot come away from this book without learning at least the basics, even if you do not do any of the exercises or drills that Carss provides. This book has become our textbook for the formal study of tracking.

These volumes together are very complementary, covering human and other mammal tracking, and the technical, military side of tracking as well as the spiritual side.  They both stress the same points for the beginner who wants to explore tracking, such as lots of practice, moving slowly and quietly, observation, study, and thinking like your quarry. Both volumes also discuss the need to let go of the modern world and move into the tracking mind to be a competent tracker.  Tom Brown explains it as developing a “deeper awareness”, making the process a sort of meditation, which is reason enough to read his work.

Wilderness Kids- Thoughts on Teaching, Learning and Unschooling

6 May 2009

I typically use my blog and website to discuss my interaction with the wilderness, to explain and share where I have been, what I have learned, and my personal experiences. I try to stick to topics related to backpacking, floating, biking and hiking. Since I have a four year old and I am passing on my skills to him, I include my thoughts on teaching and some of our experiences in my posts. I have been asked again and again about how my plans for my son’s education are going to work, why I have decided against sending him to school, and what is unschooling. This post addresses those questions and expands on my previous posts, covering my thoughts on teaching and learning in general.

My “Teaching Philosophy”

In other posts I have talked about the things my son and I do together, how we go about being in nature together.  I have briefly touched on my “teaching philosophy” on the Wilderness Kids pages of my website.  The basic concept behind my philosophy is unschooling, that is, letting Nicolai learn what he wants to learn when and how he chooses. This differs form homeschooling in that we have no set schedules or curriculum. That does not mean I sit idly by. I have a very active part in the process. When he expresses an interest in a topic it is my job to help him along on that path of discovery, wherever it might take him.  For example, he is interested in pirates- we might choose to explore such topics as the history of the Spanish and British Empires, colonialism and manifest destiny, the exploration of the new world, the people of the new world, mapping and navigation, early medicine and surgery, the history and use of coinage, gold and silver, underwater archeology, scuba diving, not to mention sailing ships and their history- the list could go on endlessly. One topic can lead to another, and a lifetime of study. This is how the process of unschooling works for us.

A Modern Education

A post on teaching cannot be complete without at least touching on the “modern” educational system. As I am trained as an anthropologist, this gives me some license to critically analyse the creations of humans. I think it is important to remember that the “modern” system of education has only been around a hundred years or so. Our education, our “modern” educational system and the way we are taught, are products of the Industrial Revolution. We are learning based on a system that is about one hundred years old. With that fact in mind, my question is- what about the teaching “systems” of the other 40,000 years of our evolution as modern humans? What about the process of elders and peers telling stories and relating knowledge and experiences to the younger members of the family? What about children watching and helping and learning as they do? How can we ignore this and what are the implications of denying our children the process of learning naturally? I feel this can leave a void in the person, inhibiting their full development for countless reasons, not the least of which is lack of relationship to family.

Common Questions I am Asked- Socialisation

I have been asked endless questions about the impacts of choosing to not send my son to school.  The most common question is: “Aren’t you worried about socialisation, about Nicolai making friends?” The answer to this question is addressed by Neufeld and Mate in their book Hold On To Your Kids. In it they discuss the importance of the parent-child relationship, and how it is being replaced by the peer-child relationship. The conclusion is that healthy peer relationships are developed by the child through the bond, the attachment relationship he has developed with his parents.

The relationship between child and parent is the most important relationship to be made, and the stronger it is, the healthier the child will be in the relationships he chooses to develop with others. Without a strong and healthy parent-child relationship, socialisation, and  healthy relationships with adults and peers, cannot occur.  Sending children off to school and other engagements every day of the week is not building that relationship, it is allowing the parent-child bond to be broken, and for children to raise children.

As regards options for learning and socialisation, our process is not limited to our learning together. A common misconception is that unschooled or homeschooled kids study their lesson and are then secreted away in dark rooms and kept from all outside interaction.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. Nicolai attends music class, soccer, and swimming lessons, and as he gets older we have discussed joining a chess club and attending weekly science and language classes at our local homeschooling center. We attend concerts and lectures and community events.  We have plans to volunteer at  the natural history museum, there are lectures and classes there, and we can sit in on lectures at the university.  The possibilities are endless and only limited by us.

My Son as  a Leader

Another argument for public schooling is that since my son shows such great aptitude for learning, such passion and intelligence, don’t I feel obligated to send him to public school, to pass his passion and knowledge on to other kids? My answer: the best thing I can do for the world is to “raise” my son and “teach” him how to live right- to give him the love and care and understanding he needs so he can develop into a full human being.  For me this means helping him along on his learning journey by being an active part of the process, not by letting  a flawed system that teaches children to pass state exams, compliance to clocks, schedules, and presumed authority take over for me.

I know this may sound a bit harsh at first, but introducing children to a 9 to 5 schedule (in their case 8 to3) has foremost as it’s goal the preparation of children to be “productive” adults- to work their 9 to 5 job and fit in with the rest. Learning does not occur from 8 to 3, for 9 months a year. It is a lifelong, every day process. I absolutely do not accept the concept of 9 to 5 and would never dream of imposing it on my son.  In the end, he may choose to wander the wilderness for the rest of his life (my dream).  Or he may choose to lead the world- but the choice will be his, and he will make it based on his own desires and the knowledge he has chosen to develop.

Doing the Right Thing

I have also been asked, “How do you know what to do, that you are doing the right thing?”  How? This is part of the lesson in it for all of us: we all know what is right, we all have it in our genetic makeup to make the right decisions. Today we make informed decisions, based on collection and interpretation of data.  We too often forget to look inside, to trust our intuition, the knowledge we were born with.  I feel that modern education  stifles that intuition, even crushes it.  I owe it to my son to allow him to experience life to its fullest, to learn to trust himself, and develop the confidence to make decisions and know they are right. When he sees me confidently making decisions and living my life the way I feel is right, he learns to do the same.

What About College?

The final common question I will address regards higher education.  Many have asked me if my son will be able to go on to college, and how unschooling will affect his chances of acceptance into universities.  All that is required for college entrance is a piece of paper stating he has learned for 12 years, and a set of scores for the SAT.  So the simple answer is to take the GED and SAT tests.  It will be easy enough for him to pass the GED, probably around age 12 or 13 at the rate he is going.  And then he will just take the SAT, submit the applications like everyone else, if he chooses to do so.  He will enter college based on his knowledge and his merits, and will have no problems doing so.

Final Thoughts

I understand it is not possible or even desirable for every family to homeschool or unschool their children. If children go to public schools it does not mean they will be ruined for life. Every parent must take and active role in the rearing of their children, and take responsibility for making the parent-child bond.  Parents must be part of their kid’s learning process every day to insure that their children learn and live and grow into healthy adults. All parents must be leaders in their children’s lives, showing the confidence, passion, and courage that their children need to see in their primary role models. Unschooling parents must posses these traits as well as the motivation and resolve to be their child’s guide through learning.

It was my intention with this post to convey my thoughts as inoffensively as possible and without ranting too much.  I hope I have not alienated anyone who finds, or found, my posts informative. I apologise if I have. As regards this topic, my inspiration and background comes from the work of Maria Montessori, John Holt, and Gordon Neufeld.  Find books by them and read them if you have any interest in learning more.  I will post some titles on the Desert Explorer website, on the Recommended Books page soon. For an answer to the question, “what is unschooling?”, see the John Holt website. For background on unschooling, see the article on Unschooling Journal blog. And finally I’ll share a favorite quote,by Mark Twain, that started me thinking about the educational system: “Don’t let the university get in the way of your education.”

Canyoneering Lecture, Thoughts on Tracking

1 May 2009

Friday morning- I have time for a quick post. I went to the Boulder REI last night for a lecture on Canyoneering.  It was very informative, and mostly confirmed what I thought I knew about the “emerging sport”. It also answered a bunch of questions that I had.

First, according to A.J. Pastula (his website is, who gave the lecture, Canyoneering is defined as traveling through canyons.  In every other part of the world the sport is referred to as “Canyoning”.  So, I have been Canyoneering for years and years.  I have been doing non-technical Canyoneering for the most part, although there have been times when I have been in very technical situations.  Canyoneering is different from climbing in that you are traveling down for the most part, or laterally,  and not up.  The technical aspects of climbing- ropes, anchors, belays and so on are still very applicable. There are many new and exciting challenges in Canyoneering that you won’t find in climbing a big, dry wall.  You can still fall, break something, or worse.  But in Canyoneering you can get stuck in a muddy pothole in the middle of a canyon, in the middle of nowhere, with no way out.  It has happened to many people, some who have been rescued, and some who haven’t .

Preparedness, caution, and common sense are key to enjoying and surviving the sport.  Leaving an itinerary, knowing wilderness skills, traveling in goups, and carrying a personal locater beacon are all recommended precautions.

For more information on Canyoneering, visit the American Canyoneering Associatiton website.

On to Tracking

I have noted in many of my posts how my son and I do a lot of tracking, how we follow tracks whenever we find them while hiking- coyote, fox, rabbit, dog and human- to name a few.  I am now taking our tracking further.  I have just ordered a couple of books on tracking- humans mainly- from Amazon.  I will post more about them once I get them reviewed, in the next couple of weeks.  They were on the recommended reading list from the Tactical Tracking Operations School, one of the leading military and law enforcement tracking schools in the U.S.

I found out about this school from the recent Blogs posts of an old friend of mine- a photographer, journalist, and war corespondent-  who is currently attending the British Army combat tracking course in Borneo.  You may recognise him- he has been featured on manymajor news outlets including CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and NPR. You can read his posts from the course at his website- Michael Yon Online. His posts from the tracking school are very interesting.  He is learning some great stuff.  Be sure to take a look at his writing and photos from Iraq and Afghanistan where he has spent many years covering the situations there.

Look for more on both of these topics soon on the Desert Explorer website.