Friday, May 25, 2007

Juniper Dunes, North Entrance

Sand shifted beneath my
boots. Sweat dribbled down
my forehead into one eye and
twisted my face into a grim
ace.
I wiped the eye with a
finger behind my glasses. I
huffed down a bucket of air
and puffed it out, huff-puff,
huff-puff, etc.
Climbing an 800-foot-tall
sand dune in the Juniper
Dunes Wilderness on a bright,
90-plus afternoon compares
with an afternoon walk in the
park as plucking out whiskers
one at a time with clam-shell
tweezers compares with get
ting a barbershop shave.
One demands attention.
The other doesn't. That's my
guess, anyway.
The particular 800-foot
dune mentioned above,
spread thick with shiny ruby-
red sand dock halfway up the
slope, slanted steeper than
the normal 35 degrees or so.
That's when piled-up grains
of sand answer the call of
gravity.
I've never heard it, but with
dry sand and a big slide, a
bellowing sound occurs, often
called ``singing sand.''
I paused, leaned back and
peered upwards through a
tight squint. The top 20 feet of
naked sand seemed to lean
over me, defying gravity.
The leaning ridge reminded
me of a snow ledge ready to
become an avalanche.
I'm no Chicken Little
exactly, but my attention
piqued, and I scooted out of
its potential path. Who needs
a sand slide, singing or not.
Despite the heat, and the
attention demanded by the
terrain, a trip to the Juniper
Dunes Wilderness area IS
worth the effort, especially at
the north entrance.
You reach that gate through
a section of pasture on the
Juniper Dunes Ranch. It's
accessable only during
March, April and May.
So, as May threatened to
slip away, I left home at 11:03
a.m. one day last week. I
stopped twice along
Blackman Ridge Road to snap
horned lark photos.
Sadie the Dalmatian stayed
home, so cattle in the parking
area corrals barely glanced
my way. By 1:03 p.m. I signed
in at the wilderness gate.
It's possible to leave the
gate, climb a short distance
(30-40 yards?) to a path off to
the left (south) and avoid
some of the really steep early
dunes.
My strategy, however, since
few trails exist, involves walk
ing more or less in a straight
line, dunes and all.
At the gate I attached my
GPS unit to my upper left arm
with a velcro strap. It plots a
line on a map as I walk, so I
can track my route (with di
rection, moving time, stop
ping time and distance).
A compass would suffice,
but the GPS gives more infor
mation, so I carry it. If I don't
forget it.
Actually, on a clear day, a
hiker may climb a tall dune
and see the Juniper Dunes
Ranch.
With the GPS in place, I
climbed the first dune and
angled to the right
(southwest).
The largest number of
250-300-year-old juniper trees
cluster in that direction. I
stopped often to photograph
flowers, interesting patterns
in the sand (created by wind-
blown grasses), animal tracks
(including those left by mice
and Morman crickets) and
scenic views.
Once a lizard skittered be
neath a sage bush. I wanted it
to be a horned toad, but it
wasn't. It bobbed up and
down on the sand among a
maze of sage bush branches
and leaves.
I switched the camera to
manual focus and snapped
several photos. For no appar
ent reason, other than my
presence, the lizard leaped
from the sand and clung to a
branch. I snapped a final
photo and left.
I've seen deer, porcupines
and coyotes among the dunes
(along with deer hunters and
illegal motor bikers) there,
but the lizard and Mormon
crickets were the main
critters I saw last week.
As usual, time rushed by.
On the north or west side of
the dunes, hidden from the
light breeze, the heat
pounded me. On the ridges,
however, the breeze felt cool
against my damp nylon shirt.
I swigged from the
100-ounce CamelBack water
bag as I walked. It contained
ice cubes, so the water tasted,
well, like that fabled elixir.
After 2 hours, 38 minutes, I
dropped the daypack and
cameras beneath a aromatic
juniper. Sweat soaked the
back of the bag and my back.
The breeze felt cool as I sat on
the ground in the shade.
I sipped ice water and
munched two PowerBars.
The GPS said I'd walked
1.74 miles, moving for 1 hour,
45 minutes and stopping for
53 minutes. I'd made a
squiggly path in the sand.
Before I started again, I
took off my boots, pulled up
my socks and retied my laces,
a bit tighter than before, to
give my feet better support on
the shifting sand.
I slipped into the daypack
and camera bag and headed
east. After a few hundred
yards, I turned north.
My energy flagged a bit,
and I chose routes around
dunes when possible. I
paused for a few photos of
scenes and bugs on flowers.
At the gate I checked the
GPS. I'd covered 3.97 miles,
walking for 2 hours, 44 min
utes and stopping for 58:37
minutes.
I'd turned the GPS off when
I sat beneath the juniper tree.
I drove slowly past the Juni
per Dunes Ranch to keep the
dust down and show appreci
ation for the owners' toler
ance of visitors.
And I was in no hurry. I
could drive the 75 miles or so
home in less than two hours,
so I would probably be in time
to wrangle a bowl of soup
before bedtime.

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