Zen and the Canyons

zion zen

Business and athletic competition took me to Saint George, Utah last month, and I took the opportunity to spend time out in the canyons of the Southwest corner of the state.

First I went to Zion, knowing that my favorite hike was still closed due to the landslide that blocked it a few years ago, and grumbling that our tax dollars go into so much nonsense and waste and not into outdoor recreation—so important to the mental health of our people. 

It would be a hit and run visit. I arrived in the evening to a full park. No surprise. My plan was to continue the celebration of my athletic victory (reward myself for the austerities of months of training and preparation) by having a few beers at Zion Brewery, located at the front gate of the park, and sleep in my van among the fellow dirtbags—hiking and climbing guides—in the parking lot (an outfitter is next door).

In the morning I decided to go hike the closed trail. It’s a nine mile round-trip up to a lookout at the northeast end of the canyon. I figured it was only the first mile that was taken out by the landslide that I saw from the opposite rim the last time I was here. But I happened upon a ranger who told be that the landslide had taken out the shelf—an exposed rock strata—that allowed the trail to cross a sheer wall. So the trail would be impassable. I had to do the West Rim hike again—the only real hike from the valley floor. This route shares the first couple of miles with the paved “trail” to “Angels Landing,” the top priority of, I’d say 95%, of Zion hikers. It’s a zoo, and I was in great condition, so I blew by everyone on the trail, seeking peace at the fork, where I’d turn left and they’d turn right. Beyond the fork, once I calmed down, the beauty of the canyon began to erode my displeasure with our national parks and the crowds. This canyon is spectacular, and now, out alone, moving along the rim, the enchantment came that always comes, and I hiked in awe. 

I was reminded of the last time I was in this area—just a few years ago—and my thoughts as I hiked then. Thoughts I had wanted to develop and never did. Questions I wanted to pose and never did. 

I have given presentations to photo clubs, beginning with the statement, “I’m not really a photographer. I’m an artist who uses a camera.” I don’t know much about the technical aspects of photography. People who appreciate my images have a particular sense of aesthetics, and respond to my compositions. I don’t mind anyone blaming me for being arrogant, or delusional if I say that these people have a refined sense of aesthetics.

I have a natural eye, but that was just the raw material that I was able to develop a bit more by studying Japanese aesthetics with Dr. Shozo Sato, a genius and master of the subject. Unfortunately, I still fall way short of his comprehension of aesthetics, but the Japanese approach—more accurately the Zen approach—to aesthetics suits me. It is in accordance with my own way of appreciating beauty. 

Japanese Tea Ceremony, Chado, was created as an opportunity for the samurai and nobility to calm down and appreciate beauty. The beauty to be experienced during tea can be very subtle, yet sublime. I do not have the expertise in Zen aesthetics to be writing anything educational here, but I can tell you what comes to my mind. My thrill at the sculptures in the red sandstone walls reminds me of the raku and other types of pottery tea bowls that look like stone—indeed that are masterful imitations of the work of nature.


And the occasional twisted, bent and wind-pruned juniper reminds me of bonsai trees, but who (yes, I think of them as individuals), due to their freedom from any pruner, have developed themselves in such a way to express what I call “grace in the face of adversity.”

old juniper

And the lone pine, growing majestically on some small ledge of the huge vertical wall expresses a thriving in wabi-sabi, vitality in an environment that is lonely, forlorn yet serene, intensely quiet, yet intensely vulnerable to the forces of nature.

pine on canyon wall

I was reminded of my solo river trip on the Green River, when I spent a week paddling my folding kayak 100 miles through Canyonlands National Park. It was a nonstop gallery of sculpted walls that I admired all day, every day, for a week. I’d photograph some, analyzing my options for compositions within the rectangular viewfinder. This seemed like it was my duty—as a human with a rectangle—to study the wall and isolate the best composition of cracks and fissures and stains. I take the challenge seriously, and I have no idea why. It just the natural thing to do—its obvious.

Then there are the courageous junipers. Each with their own form. And it seems to be my duty to acknowledge the best of them, but they are SO difficult to isolate for a composition. I get a little frustrated because it seems like a waste for them to develop themselves in such exquisite form and not be photographed—like a great singer never to be recorded. There is only my mental message to them: “I see you. Well done”.

All of this involved judgement and evaluation, analysis and decision making. Seems crazy. But I hike these canyons to experience this, even if no photo comes of it. 

Side note: Studying Geography at Rutgers in the 70’s, I’d sometimes take an easy class to lessen my burden while meeting my credit requirements. The best of these was “Ideas of Nature” taught by Cal Stillman. Professor Stillman was an old man who taught me to ask questions about my experiences in the wilds. The one phrase that he offered and that I will never forget—like so many of the teachings of academia—was his concept of “Appreciation without appropriation.” That is, can we appreciate nature without coming home with something, even a photograph. 


From Zion I went to the Escalante region to explore. unfortunately the skies were filled with chem trails most of the time, but I had some good hikes. after a few days, continued up to Capitol Reef National Park to hike the length of a ten-mile canyon I had seen some of during my last visit. It is exquisite, and the upper section is inhabited by a particularly joyful band of ravens that I enjoy watching. 


I love the Utah landscapes, and will return for the experience of rapture; a filling of the soul with the provision of divine beauty. I’ll honor it with my little rectangular viewfinder, offer my best images for a few people to enjoy, and write about my experience for a few people to read. Most people would see it as wasted time, this effort, but just seems like it’s the thing I have to do. 

capitol reef

Prints of all images are available. See www.tomreed.com for prices. Email me at tomreed@mcn.org to order prints


High Lakes of the Wallowa range

A friend told me his son loves new shoes. I was the opposite as a kid and to this day I love old shoes. They fit so well. 

In the late summer and early fall of 2018 I wore my old backpacking boots out during three long backpacking trips in the High Sierra, but even though the boots were too far gone to take on another multi-day hike, I still used them on several monster day hikes into the high peaks of the Rockies in late summer/early fall of 2020. 

In 2021, After a summer of smoke, the air cleared for a few days and I got up into the Wallowa Range of NE Oregon for a three-day hike, wearing new boots. I had only done one hike this summer—an eight-mile lap around a small mountain in the Elkhorn Range—and I had worn my low-cut day hikers.  Even though my legs are strong in the gym, they were not ready for this 25-mile tour. But worse was that the boots hurt my feet. Sore feet can make you dread every step, so I did not do my usual off-trail exploring. I stuck to the trails.

I hiked about nine miles from Wallowa Lake, at 4400 ft, up into “Lake Basin” at 7200 ft. The ecosystem was drier, but not too different from that around my Alaska Cabin. Huckleberries, watermelon berries and salmon berries were abundant. There was an occasional patch of fireweed. There were plenty of vulnerable grouse along the trail, and the lonely peent of the red breasted nuthatch in the otherwise silent woods, just as September in the woods at my cabin. But the trees of the forest, though similar, are different, and I don’t know them. 

I made camp on the top of a 20 ft vertical granite cliff over a deep clear lake, with no one around. In the middle of the night a big animal came into camp. It took a while for me to determine, from the sounds, it was an elk. In the morning I realized I had been wrong. The tracks showed it was a horse!

I had not been impressed by the first day’s hike. I was just a long walk in the woods gaining elevation and access to the high country. It tired me, but I slept well despite the sub-freezing temps in pre-dawn hours. I have taken very good care of my sleeping bag, but after 25 years it is simply worn out. I bought it as a two-bag system when I was planning to climb a volcano in Ecuador. The first part of the trip would have been in warm tapir-filled forests where I would use the liner bag. The middle part of the trip would be in cool temps, where I could use the outer bag, and once I got up into the snow, above 10,000 ft I’d combine the two bags that could zip together. The trip never happened, but the outer bag has served me well on countless adventures from Alaska to Argentina. Now it has been demoted to a summer bag, good to 40 degrees only.

The air at dawn was much colder than the water of the lake, so the lake was steaming as the sun rose over the ridge.

Lake Smoke

I felt good when I got on the trail again in the morning, and the landscape quickly improved as I entered the high lakes surrounded by granite peaks. This kind of country is what makes such hikes. And at this time of year the fall colors of the tundra touch my heart in a more masculine way than the green heather and flowers of summer.

Looking to the NW from Glacier Pass

Crossing over Glacier Pass at 8600 ft, I descended into the fine-art landscape of Glacier Lake, tucked below a wall of granite on the south shore—several hundred feet tall. I lounged in the tundra with a granite backrest at the lake while having lunch. A camper told me it had been a cold and windy night, and I was still 12 miles from the trailhead, so I pressed on down the impressive canyon, enjoying the beauty despite the pain of each step.

Wallowa Canyon

At a stream crossing I walked among big boulders of white marble—I suppose the result of the grnite intrusion baking a layer of limestone. After 10 miles I made camp in a meadow by the Wallowa River. 

six mile meadow

The problem with camping in a north-south valley near equinox is that the morning sun comes late, so I broke camp in the shade, with frost still covering my tent. Those aluminum tent poles always kill my fingers on sub-freezing mornings. 

Hiking out, I followed the tracks of a family of elk for miles, until they drifted off the trail into a meadow. 

Once at the trailhead the boots came off and I was ready for the traditional post hike beer, but first I used my Photon Signature Disc to inform the water of Wallowa Lake.

Wallowa River

Prints of these photographs are available. just email me at tomreed@mcn.org.


The Green through Canyonlands

In the mid 90’s I was phasing out of a five-year period of intense training in the art of aikido. I had been training at a dojo in Ventura, California, where there were lots of students and a full schedule of classes. But between the crowds and the expense of living in Southern California, it seemed I should find another place to live, and maybe open my own dojo. I got on the road in October.

I was a lifelong coastal resident, but I thought I should consider living inland, so I took a tour, just to see how it felt in places like Moab, Utah, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

At the time my vehicle was a priceless 1982 Toyota four-wheel-drive pickup. It was an amazing truck that could go anywhere. While in the Moab area, I drove the rocky cattle roads and jeep trails of Canyonlands N.P. (including the 100 mile “White Rim” loop and the Shafer trail down the most amazing set of switchbacks I’ve ever seen), and was captivated by the Green river, which carves through the park. Indeed, it made the park. The green water was flanked by golden cottonwoods as it passed below canyon walls of rusty red-brown Navajo sandstone.

The Green originates in the Wind River Range of Western Wyoming and flows south until it meets the Colorado River in Southeast Utah. For the last 100 miles before that confluence, the Green meanders through spectacular Canyonlands. I needed to float that stretch of river.

By the following spring I had organized a trip. Three couples would paddle the through the canyons for a week. Two couples were in canoes. I had my folding kayak. My girlfriend had no boating or river experience, and no outdoor skills. Once I had my kayak assembled and packed I told her we were ready to go. We stood in knee deep water in the desert brush at Ruby Ranch, which had road access to the river above the canyons. The river was moving quickly with the spring runoff from the mountains upstream. “Which way are we going?” She asked. “Whichever way you want.” I replied. She surveyed the river. “Lets go that way.” she said, pointing downstream. “Good idea.” I said.

packing the Folbot at the put-in

After a couple miles of paddling by flat desert scrub, we saw the banks rise as we entered the canyons. This 100 mile stretch flows through two canyon systems: Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons. I had a little plastic camera with a roll of 36 exposures to record the trip.

entering the canyons
thrilled to be in the canyons and nowing we had six more days to enjoy the sculpted walls
there was an excellent lunch stop every day
the Folbot is a good vessel for this trip

One of our crew had written the first and most popular of guidebooks to mountain biking the area. He lived in Moab and was well educated about the trails that led from the river into various side canyons or up to the rim, so on most of our seven days of the trip we had a good hike.

hiking up the canyon wall

The river is so snaky in Stillwater canyon that at times you round a bend of 180 degrees to paddle the next section of river in the opposite direction you were traveling in the last stretch. This meant that on a windy day you could paddle a few miles into a headwind, only to round a bend an have a tailwind for a few miles. We took advantage of one of the tailwind sections to rest. I lashed the three boats together and rigged a tarp as a sail between our vertical kayak paddles.

It’s an easy trip. One of the most difficult aspects is spotting good places to camp. Established camps are often hard to see because they are behind a wall of tamarisk brush. To find them you have to look for a tunnel through the brush, and they are easy to miss. indeed I missed one, which cause us to miss a great hiking trail from that camp.

Evenings were festive, and in the tradition of river trips, we even had a costume night, but we didn’t bring costumes! So it got creative.

There’s nothing like floating along a river through majestic canyons, and this trip is unique in that there are no rapids until the confluence with the Colorado. Once on the Colorado River there is one long riffle to run before the beach where a jetboat will come to pick you up and shuttle you 40 miles or so up the Colorado to Moab.

About 15 years later I was craving some adventure during a winter surfing on the Mendocino Coast of California. I decided I would spend the spring running rivers in the West. With no small stroke of luck, I was invited on an early season kayak float of the Owyhee in SE Oregon, and also won the lottery to get a permit to float the San Juan in SE Utah. I also got a tip from an old friend from whitewater guiding days that he knew of a crew that needed a boatman for a Grand Canyon trip. And the put-in dates for all these trips worked well, except for a big 10 day gap between the San Juan take-out and the Grand Canyon put-in. I decided to run the Green again, alone. River trips are almost always done in groups. I had done countless solo backpacking trips, and rowed my dory on solo trips around Katchemak Bay in Alaska, but although I’ve probably done over a hundred river trips, I never ran a river by myself, so I threw the folding kayak in the back of my pickup when I left the coast in April. I’d have two months of back-to back river trips, culminating with the mother of them all, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon (for my 3rd time).

Once again the Green was a magical float, maybe more so, with fewer distractions from the majesty of the landscape. Admittedly, nights were not even nearly as much fun. This time I had a real camera with me and got a few photographs:

majestic buttes stand like castles along the river
dramatic lighting always pleases me
the abstracts of the canyon walls were my daily delight and contemplation
I studied the art of composition: selecting what would be included in a rectangular frame

Prints of these photos are available. Just contact me through www.tomreed.com


Barrancas del Cobre

Backpacking in Mexico’s Copper Canyon

I have to move again, so I am reducing my belongings, and part of that effort is to digitize old photos. As you may know, for years I traveled with no camera. I grew weary of carrying the camera and lenses and film in my adventures. When my camera was run over by a truck while I was sailing in the Caribbean in 1980, I chose not to replace it. I went for years with no camera, but in the mid 90’s I got a little plastic one—just for snapshots. One of the first trips I took the camera on was a Christmas trip to backpack in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, a huge area of six canyons, larger than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, and sparsely populated by the Tarahumara Indians—“the running people”—and by cougars. 

I talked a friend into going with me on this adventure. We flew to Tuscon, got on a bus to the border, walked across, and got on another bus to the city of Los Mochis, on the Eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez. We got a cheap hotel and spent a day walking around that town eating street food and waiting for the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico or “ChePe” train to take is on the famous ride through the main branch of the canyon, along the sides of cliffs, through many tunnels, and across numerous bridges, to hop off in the little town of Creel, at 7,677’ above the Sea of Cortez, and in freezing temperatures.

We found topo maps (military), and got supplied with food for a five-day trip at a little grocery store.

Soon we head out via bus to find a trail indicated on the map. The adventure began as we found what seemed to be the trailhead. Our route of travel from the snowy pine-forested rim to the bottom of the canyon was only suggested by the topo maps. In reality the trail forked about every 50 yards (due to use by goatherds), and at each fork we had to decide which to take. My decisions were as much intuition, based on years of trail hiking, as they were based on the map and observation of the trail itself—its width and the amount of overgrowing vegetation. 

As we entered the canyon views of its expanse were impressive. It’s green. The canyon walls are much more vegetated than the Grand canyon.

The next day we were at the bottom of the canyon, where we had to cross the clear cold river. To do so safely, I chose the shallowest part of a deep pool to avoid having to deal with whitewater and rocks. I was not certain how deep the pool was. I stripped, put my pack on top of my head and walked on the sandy bottom. The water reached my chin at the deepest part. My partner was a bit shorter, so he knew his challenge: to follow my route and allow the water to rise up to his forehead, knowing he would resurface for air in 4 or 5 steps.

On Christmas eve we were camped on a sandy beach, a few thousand feet into the earth and in a pleasant climate. 

Now I will tell a funny story: 

I stashed my backpack in a hollow space between big boulders beside the river, and occasionally, as I needed things from my pack, I would lean over the boulders and rustle though the pockets to retrieve an item. I was doing this when I heard a voice coming from my pack! Can you imagine? My first thought was that it must be the acoustics of this hollow between the boulders. Maybe the sound of the gurgling river was entering the hollow from a gap between the rocks and the sand and resonating upwards. I explored the hollow by moving my head around in different positions where the acoustics might coalesce to simulate a voice. Nothing.

I told my partner. Of course he thought I was nuts, and laughed. But I knew what I had heard. Later I was looking for something else and heard it again! WTF?? I pulled the pack out and went through everything. Mystified and in a twighlight zone, I decided that maybe the little repair kit I had, which included some coiled baling wire, some safety pins, and was contained in an Altoids can, was acting as a radio receiver and picking up a broadcast.

I proposed this theory to my friend. “Tom,” he said, “The nearest radio station is probably over 100 miles away, and even if there is one closer, we’re in the bottom of a deep canyon. There would be no reception here even if you had a radio.” I was losing my mind. I knew what I heard, but there was no explanation for it.

Still searching my pack for some source of the voice, I finally I pulled out a little package from the top pocket.

I had recently met a beautiful woman and was drawn into a passionate romance. We lived four hours apart, so she mailed me a Christmas gift that I was instructed to take into the canyon and open on Christmas morning. I held the package up. “This better talk to me when I open it up tomorrow morning.” 

Sure enough, the gift was an alarm clock with my girlfriend’s sweet voice as the wake-up sound. It had a button that would play the recording, and my rustling in the pack would cause the button to be depressed. What a relief.

Reading the card that came with the gift on Christmas morning. The stick in the sand is our Christmas tree. It was decorated with things found along the river’s edge: underwear and strips of cloth that I later learned were what the Indians upstream used as toilet paper!

We worked our way along the river for a little while and then spent two more days climbing up out of the canyon. At the rim we flagged down a bus and got a ride back to Creel to restock, and after a day of rest and big plates of the regional favorite foods we got on another bus to a different part of the canyon complex for another five-day hike. This time we’d drop down to see an old mine and mission ruins at the canyon floor.

At the bottom of the canyon we crossed the river on a cart suspended by a cable. A short climb up the other side brought us to the ruins of a mission. We made camp right in the ruins. To our surprise, we were met by a miner. Quite the character, this Indian was squatting in the rectory of the mission, which he rehabilitated to be a viable shelter. There he housed is wife and four kids while he pecked away at the walls of the abandoned mine, discovering an occasional hunk of turquoise, or other colorful rocks which he considered to be precious. It was from him that I learned the Spanish word for lead, ploma, which I could never forget because of the association with lead pipes and plumbing. 

Our visit was an event for the family. We arrived on new year’s eve, and they insisted that we hike up a trail to the south, to arrive in an Indian village that would have a New Year’s celebration the next day. 

My partner had been a Theravada buddhist forest monk in the back country of Thailand for seven years, so it was important for us to mediate on the first morning of the year. This turned out to be a strange experience, since we were camped in the “dungeons” of the mission, where it was likely that slaves were kept, and who knows what atrocities those slaves were subjected to right where we sat. It was a strange vibe, even after 300 years.

But of course we followed the commands of our hosts, and after meditation and breakfast, strolled up to the village. We were met with great surprise and welcome. The first people we me led us into an adobe room which was fiesta central—where the barrel of tesguino was kept. Tesguino is the traditional Indian corn beer that is immensely important for bringing in the new year. The people spend many hours growing the corn and fermenting it properly to create a high quality beverage for festive occasions. At the time my Spanish was limited, but the demands of our simple conversations were not great, so I held my own. My partner had only his smile to communicate.

Our cups were refilled constantly, as is the way of poor people’s generosity, and after a while we were overtaken with an inebriation that came on suddenly. When another round was offered by ladle, my buddy declined. This created a cultural disconnect and confusion. It took a while for me to realize that, in their culture, you don’t turn down the offer to refill you cup. My partner was rubbing his belly trying to convey that he was too full to drink any more. The men didn’t get it. So I explained that he was pregnant, and the baby’s name was Tesguino. This brought them all into hilarity, and all the tension was relieved. We were able to stumble out of there on good terms and somehow made it back to the mission before dark. 

I was like a magician as I fascinated the miner’s kids by playing my girlfriend’s voice over and over for them. They did not tire of it. After dozens of plays they were still captivated by the voice from this little box.

The next day I bought some turquoise from the miner as a token of appreciation for his hospitality, and we continued our sojourn through the canyon, eventually arriving on the rim, where we played fungo—using our oak hiking staffs (my old marital arts weapons) to bat pine cones to be fielded—until a bus came along.

Soon we were delivered to a small log building at a remote intersection where were were told to wait for the bus to Los Mochis.

It was a memorable trip that satisfied my need for some adventure in mid-winter.


Ascent of Long’s Peak

Last month I went up to the top of Long’s Peak. This is the dominant Mountain in the area of Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259’  https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/longspeak.htm,   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longs_Peak   

In the summer, mountaineers begin their ascents as early as 2am to be sure to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms that are common, but in the fall the thunderstorms are few. I left home at 4am and was on the trail at 5, beginning at 9,200’. I hiked for a couple hours with a headlight until first light came just as I left tree line, having gained 2,000’ of elevation.

sunrise from treeline

The wind was stiff as the red sun rose among clouds and smoke.

Plodding along on what was, in areas, an excellently crafted stone path (see: https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/716972245564586), I passed a woman, then a man.  My plan was to refill my water bottle (I carry a UV light to kill microbes, instead of carrying lots of water) in an area of talus aptly called “the boulderfield.” But the water level had dropped since I was there in the summer, so I had to retrace my steps back to water deep enough to fill my bottles for the ascent, and the man and woman both passed me. The wind got stronger. Soon I had my long underwear on, with gloves and raincoat hood drawn tight, a belly-full of water and one-and-a-half liters to carry. When I hit “the keyhole” pass, the wind was howling through it. I took out the shoulder strap I had made for this trip, and slung my 5’ hickory staff over my shoulder so I could use both of my hands. In the pass I caught up with the two ahead of me. The guy was “DJ” a roughneck from the oilfields of Wyoming. The woman was Jelena, a mountaineer from Serbia. There was no decision or agreement made, but we began traveling as a trio, traversing the steep north slope of the peak; so steep that a slip and fall would mean death or worse. Once completing that section, we ascended a steep couloir, made difficult because the early snow of 10 days prior had not melted in this shaded chute. This ascent gave us most of the elevation to the summit.

Jelena and DJ traversing the East face

Next we had to traverse the East face on ledges across cliff faces to get to the final ascent up a crack in the steep granite wall of the East face. At 14,000 feet the oxygen is sparse, and after 7.5 miles and over 5,000′ of elevation gain, the thighs burn as you are forced to make long steps to the next foothold.

looking to the northeast while ascending the granite face to the summit
the crack that leads to the summit

The top of a mountain is always fairly uneventful for me, because there is no photographic composition to be made.

see a video on the peak: https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/689754581637511

The wind was gusting to 60 mph, so we looked around a bit, got a bite to eat, and began the long trip back to the trailhead. In the 10 minutes of sitting on a boulder, my thighs had stiffened significantly, making the descent of the steep section more difficult that they should have been. It was a long 7.5 miles back to the trailhead. Our trio split up once we got down the coulior, and after the keyhole, survival was guaranteed as long as you put one foot in front of the other for a few hours. I hit the trailhead just before 5pm, and drove to the Knotted Root Brewery in the little mountain town of Nederland to ease the fatigued thighs with a world-class unfiltered IPA, and met DJ there for a celebratory pint.

It is quite a mountain–about all I’d want to do without ropes. in fact, people die on it every year when the slip and fall in a bad spot. but it’s a beautiful mountain. Albert Bierstadt recognized this an painted its portrait:

Bierstadt’s Long’s Peak


The Summer of the Shovel

I’m back from two months on my property in Alaska. My time was spent working hard to dig a water catchment pond and dam, dig a 5’ deep hole under the old cabin and a trench to allow a 1,000 gallon tank to slide into it. I also dug turf from a two-foot-wide border around my buildings and filled the space with washed gravel (wildfire protection).  It was “The Summer of the Shovel”. Even though I was in decent shape before, (I had won the Denver Indoor Rowing Championship in February) my body went through some uncomfortable reorganizing to be able, at the end, to shovel dirt into a wheelbarrow and move it around the land for 7 hours straight. My hands are so calloused so that I cannot feel things like hair or tissue paper. I am lean and wiry, and my spirit renewed.

As every other year, I was once again thrilled with the view of the mountains and glaciers across the bay and the dynamics of the weather upon them, thrilled to listen to the biophany of bird songs at 4am in the peak of nesting season, thrilled to be able to harvest wild vegetables every day for my meals, and thrilled to experience the wilderness just beyond the edge of my little development of cabins and sheds. I witnessed a big black bear capturing a moose calf (I was chased my the frustrated mamma moose), and a bald eagle pouncing upon a snowshoe hare and taking off with the prey in its talons. Various birds landed beside me as I sat on my balcony, giving me smiles and goosebumps.

Video: The Biophany at my Alaska Cabin

Here is a collection of photos from this summer, all captured from my balcony

(prints are available upon request):








Nunataks of the Dixon





clouds over throne

Clouds over the throneroom





storm on the throne.daily

Storm on the Throne


half moon painting small

Midnight Moon







Canoeing the Adirondack Autumn


“Raquette Reflections”

It has been a bit of a drought for outdoor adventures due to my acceptance of a job managing the installation of 400,000 square feet of tile on a project just outside on New York City.  I was there for over 7 months, and only took weekends off. Most of those summer weekends were spent in my home town on the South Jersey beach, playing in the warm ocean and hanging out with my old rowing partner Kevin McFadden, and other friends from lifeguard days in the late 70s.


 My new partner, Don McEachern, and I took 2nd in the Alumni Race (Kevin beat us)

But as the project neared completion I was able to get away for a long weekend in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with Lauren who lives in Vermont. She wanted to canoe there, as we did 10 years ago. On that trip we paddled a series of lakes, portaging between them and making a 4-day loop. This time I wanted to paddle a river. The many river trips of my life have all been one-way, due to the flow, and so they require shuttle-driving between the put-in and take-out (sometimes hundreds of miles), but I found a slow-flowing river that allowed us to put-in and take-out at the same spot.

So we paddled up the Raquette River. This took a little focus and intention to make headway by staying out of the current. Having read many stories of the adventurers of the last few centuries who routinely paddled upriver as well as down, it was an interesting experience. We were six miles upriver in less than three hours. There we found a quiet lean-to just below a long stretch of rapids and falls which ended the possibility of up-river travel except by the tedious work of lining the boat from shore and portaging around each of the falls.


Canoes are cargo vessels, especially the lake canoe which we were paddling, so provisions were plentiful for an enjoyable Italian dinner. Wet wood made a fire something that needed constant tending and fanning (the cutting board was an ideal flame-fanner)

The next morning we hiked up a few miles along the fast water and enjoyed the remote forest in the early stages of fall color. It was a Monday, not a soul was around.

The float downriver was easy and peaceful. I enjoyed watching the reflections of the foliage in the glassy river, and watching the river bottom slide by. A black bear was swimming mid-stream as we rounded a bend, and it burst out of the water and up the bank with that bear speed that looks effortless, but is awesome once you look at what the animal just did, and imagine how long it would take you to do the same.


kingfishers and red-brested nuthatches, chickadees and blue jays, warm autumn sun, the smell of wet leaves, and the delight of the colors on the trees. The silence of the canoe passing over the river bottom, leaves drifting crazily off the trees after a puff of wind.




Unexpected Old Growth Forests in Autumnal Foliage

I just drove about 6,000 miles, from San Francisco up to the Columbia River, and then crossing the country, with stops in Colorado, Vermont, New Jersey and North Carolina.

On the way I hiked in the woods, beginning with my favorite redwood hike in Prairie Creek State park.


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I wasn’t thinking of fall color because I knew I’d be hitting Vermont after the colors had peaked, but I was in for many surprises. The first of these was the intense color of the underbrush of the old growth coniferous forest at the crest of the Cascades in Oregon.

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I crossed hundreds of miles of high plains sage in Idaho and semi-arid scrub in Utah, and when I visited my favorite put-in of all whitewater rivers, Deerlodge Park on the Yampa River in NW Colorado, I was surprised that I was lucky to catch the riparian old growth cottonwood groves in peak color.

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Further on, after passing Steamboat Springs I was in the Rockies enjoying the brilliance of the aspen groves on mountainsides of dark coniferous forests.

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When the road passed through an aspen grove, I’d stop and walk through the splendor.

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It was a long haul from Colorado to Vermont, and the forests of the midwest, East of the Mississippi were not memorable. Even when I got to the hills of Eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, the colors were not impressive. New York had a few nice groves along the thuway, but the western edge of Vermont was well past peak color, cold and rainy.

Southward, New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway was a pleasant surprise, as was I-95 south through Delaware and Maryland. I decided to detour into the Shenandoah of Virginia, and was rewarded not only with some beautiful color, but with occasional groves of old growth Eastern Hardwood Forest.

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This brought back great memories of college days when I spent so many autumn weekends in the Appalachians. Old growth forest is rare in the Northeast, but my school of agriculture and environmental science had its own majestic grove of huge oaks, maples, ashes, hickories, sweet gums and more of the many species of the East. After school I spent one fall walking through Vermont and have fond memories of old growth beech forests–massive elephant-skin trunks in an atmosphere and carpet of yellow leaves. These can no longer be found. Because they are so rare, the mature Eastern Hardwood forests probably fill my heart more than it did the painters of the Hudson River School, who have had such an influence on my eye as well as my heart.

Imagine then, what I thrill it was to discover the abundant old growth forests of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. I had never been in this area before, and I had assumed old growth forests were as rare here and anywhere else in the East. Indeed, the maps I’ve seen of the last vestiges of virgin forests in the United States have never shown anything in the Southern Appalachians. I had my mind blown by the extent of mature stands of trees with a diversity beyond anything I’ve ever seen in North America. Species of the North, like Maples, grow in the shady north-facing coves, while on South-facing slopes I saw my first huge mature ancients of Southern species like Sassafras. There are well over a hundred species here.

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It turns out that there are over 100,000 acres of virgin forests in the Southern Appalachians. ( https://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/magazine/july-2005/ancient-appalachia-the-southeasts-old-growth-forests/ )

The first question that comes to mind is “Why?’ I assume these areas escaped the pressures that the industrialization of the North put on those forests. Also, these Southern species tend to be softer and not preferred woods for shipbuilding.

They can tower 125 feet tall, with trunk diameters of 4 feet or more, like this majestic oak:


But even the areas of younger trees had a charm:


Maybe it was because they were enchanted, or maybe it was me that had been enchanted.



Blog readers are welcome to buy prints of these photographs at a holiday discount of 50% until December 15. Because I am on the road, I cannot sign the prints. They will be shipped to you directly from the printer. the discount prices are:

11×14″ $78,          16×20″ $150,             24×30″  $225.              tall aspen photo, 8×16″  $70.

Not all photos an be printed at any size. Please email me to inquire: tomreed@mcn.org



Backpacking in the High Sierras

I was so busy at my job from 7/1/17 to 6/1/18 that I never was able to take a vacation day. So I decided that after I left work on June first, I’d go to Alaska for a few months, then I’d take an extended backpacking trip in the High Sierras. I had the idea of hiking from Bridgeport to Lone Pine–surely a great trip—an I applied for a permit that would allow me to cross Donohue Pass, just south of Tuolumne Meadows, but I did not win a permit in the daily lottery on any of the 14 days I entered my name. So I decided to enter the mountains just south of that pass, from the June Lake area, but in the spring I was working hard all week and moving out of my apartment on weekends, so didn’t have time to plan the trip. What needs to be planned?  The resupplying of food and a few other things like batteries. No big deal, I thought, I’ll pull it together once I arrive in the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierras. But after a couple days in the towns along Highway 395 I realized I had to shift to plan C. I couldn’t get a single horse or mule packer to take a supply of food into the mountains for me. Back-country lodges who offer resupply services to thru-hikers require that you mail them your provisions at least 3 weeks in advance.

Well, I’ve seen most of the country I was going to hike–been on most of the trails already. Plan C: go hike some sections of trail I’ve never seen.

My first hike began at South Lake, West of Bishop. The route would take me over Bishop pass (11,972’), down to LeConte Canyon, Northward, over Muir pass and into Evolution Valley, and then up the Piute Canyon heading Eastward and over Piute pass to North Lake. I would then try to hitchhike back to South Lake. It would be a 56 mile route if I didn’t deviate from the trail, but I wanted to explore the high lakes near Piute pass. So it would be 60 miles in 6 days.  Just right.

The first day retraced the route that I hiked in 2010 with Lauren and Dan–over the pass and into Dusy Basin. Dusy is such a beautiful setting—many small lakes at the feet of granite peaks—that on the last trip we laid over for a day and explored the basin and the high granite beyond it to the south without backpacks. This time I blew right through to the West end of the basin, trying to get some miles to allow me to be near Muir Pass the next day. Notable during the hike was the collection of about 15 deer carcasses in the talus just below the pass. I’m guessing they gathered on a cornice in winter and the cornice broke. They fell and the cornice toppled on them burying them in snow. After the hot summer all that was left was bones, some dried and hardened sinew being picked by ravens, and a little fur.

I found a good camp at the lowest lake of the basin as light rain began. A few aspirin helped me sleep with the elevation headache that I expect–a guy from sea level arrives to the Sierras and carries a pack over an 12,000’ pass.


Dusy Basin

The morning light was good, and I got a few photos before I descended to LeConte. That descent was so beautiful (again) that it made me a little mountain drunk and I took a brief video of the experience:

And that was before descending into the grove of huge, ancient Junipers that made Lauren cry on the last trip. There trees are spectacular and have stood on these slopes for many centuries.

At the bottom of the canyon I hit the Pacific Crest Trail (also the John Muir Trail) and turned North instead of the South turn we made last time. Heading into new country, I hiked for a few hours among thick-trunked old growth pines with sheer granite walls overhead. Eventually the forest dwindled as I gained elevation and in the late afternoon I was hiking in a barren rock landscape towards Muir Pass (11,955’). There is a series of lakes on the approach to the pass, and they are surrounded with talus, so tent sights are few and far between. A hiker who was descending told me he saw a good camp on a hogsback between the trail and the stream about a half-mile ahead, and I was looking forward to dropping my pack. When I got there another hiker had taken the site. I pushed on to the next lake which was in a bowl of talus and had no place to camp. I dropped my pack and looked all over, finally finding a flat rock just big enough for my tent. It had a bunch of marmot shit on it, and a puddle of water from last night’s rain right in the middle of it, but it looked good to me. 

In the morning I was over the pass within an hour of breaking camp. This pass features a stone hut with an igloo-like dome roof. It was built in 1930 for hikers to take refuge if needed. 

Down I went, through Evolution Valley, where the granite is more broken and fractured than I had hoped. Funny how we respond to the aesthetic quality of unbroken granite; its resistance to erosion, its clean lines. I was reminded of the forward that Thomas Campbell wrote for Moved By A Mountain. 

This basin has many features named by John Muir: lakes named for his daughters (how did he support them if he was out screwing around in the mountains all the time?) and peaks named for scientists with insights about evolution.

After about 11 or 12 miles, I wandered through the woods, way off the trail to the edge of Evolution Creek and made camp on a smooth granite bench beside a small waterfall.


Evolution Creek

A big tree fell in the middle of the night.

In the morning it was onward to low elevation along the creek, only to turn up Piute Canyon and make for the high pass. I am always trying to travel light, and water is heavy, so if I think I can get water ahead, I will allow myself to run out of the life-giving liquid. Sometimes I make a mistake. The big side-valley on the north side of Piute Creek  had been baked by the sun all summer and was bone dry. I was parched by the time I hit water about 4 miles into the ascent. I drank a liter and refilled for the rest of the day’s  ascent. I positioned myself for the off-trail exploring the next day, and made camp by Piute Creek, well below tree line. Besides the beauty of being in old-growth forests of pines and aspens, and being able to get more oxygen from the air, there are two good things about the low country in the valleys between the high granite of these mountains. One is the ability to have a fire at night, the other is the ability to bathe in the streams (the water and air are a bit warmer, making it tolerable). This year all fires were prohibited, but I got clean two nights in a row.

On day five I approached Piute Pass (11,9460’), but left the trail a half-mile before the pass to cross a tundra valley, and scramble up talus to the shore of Muriel Lake, and from there on up to Goethe Lakes, a pair of tarns sitting in a cirque with the same name. As the sun lowered, the views from the ridge above the lake were rewarding. The granite walls of Goethe Cirque were well-lit.


Goethe Cirque

And Mt. Humphreys, to the North, took on a glow:


Mount Humphreys from camp in Goethe Cirque

My last day was an easy descent to Piute pass and on down to North Lake. I got lucky and was back at my van at the South Lake parking lot an hour after hitting the road, thanks to a pair of kind drivers.

After a few days of eating in Bishop, including the traditional steak at the bowling alley and a few fine ales at the new brewery, Mountain Rambler, I was ready for another hike. 


from the Pine Creek trailhead

A bartender at the brewery became my friend, and he recommended the country above Pine Creek. It was a good idea. I had no set plan of travel. The idea was to ramble around the high granite and lakes in the area. I went up into the Granite Park area, but drifted off trail towards an inviting pass where I made camp at 11,800’ on the shore of the upper Royce Lake.

At this elevation the sky on a clear day is dark blue, and if I had better eyesight I could probably see stars.

Before my dinner of instant mashed potatoes and butter and jerky, I reconnoitered the next pass to the North and found it passable. So in the morning, after a night under the brilliant full moon, I traversed the talus and slid through the pass on a snowfield, and descended into the Granite Park, an impressive amphitheater. I was on a mission to cross two more passes that day, so I didn’t linger. I had lunch in the lee of a big boulder in Italy Pass, in the NW corner of the “park”, at about 12,000’. The wind was stiff and chilly, so I didn’t hang out long. Through the pass, I immediately traversed the talus bowl around Rubble Lake to walk through the pass to White Bear lake to the South, and then to the shores of Black Bear Lake, which is nestled up against the west side of the wall that forms the west side of Granite Park. Here was my camp, at 11,600’, and I had time to go explore the neighboring lakes, all with bear names. These are the Bear Lakes, at the Eastern foot of the majestic peak called Seven Gables. 

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Seven Gables from Black Bear Lake

There is a pass from Black Bear Lake into the Granite Park, and it looks like a cakewalk from the lake, but having been through the park the day before, I knew it was very steep on the other side, and I was working on deciding where to go in the fine morning. The other passes in the area all lead to valleys that drop below tree line, and I didn’t want to leave the high country, so I decided to negotiate that steep pass. I was on no mission this day, so it was a lazy morning, and only a one-hour ascent to the pass—easy, at times following deer prints in the scree which gave me confidence. If deer can do it, I can. Another lunch in a pass (cheese and jerky). I walked along the top of a tiny glacier (the remnants of a much bigger one on the map) hanging in the pass, trying to see what challenges were below, and I couldn’t see. It was that steep. But off to the North side I found a route through the steep talus and scree, and took it, slow and steady, for an hour until I was able to traverse out of what was a very wide couloir, and on to a ridge that led back into the “park.” I was crossing the bottom of the amphitheater when I turned around to see the granite spires beyond a nearby small waterfall, and was stunned. What a gorgeous place! Why go anywhere else? It was only noon, but I dropped my pack. This would be my camp. I wrapped my pack in my silver groundcloth and took off to see the rest of the amphitheater.


Camp (tent at right) in Granite Park

After all this time in the high country I had produced more hemoglobin to carry every bit of oxygen that I could grab out of the thin air, and with no pack I felt good scrambling around the big basin, but when I climbed the central knoll, I was still breathing hard—“Sucking the wind”, we used to say as oarsmen. I typically breathe like Darth Vader if I’m ascending a slope at over 12,000’.

The view from the knoll was impressive:

My camp was stunning, at the base of a granite outcropping, with a large tundra meadow carved by deep rivulets of pure water, home to young trout. Wandering about the meadow, I enjoyed the last sun of the day and got in bed once that heat source was gone and the temperature dropped. I was up at midnight though to enjoy the moonshine that lit the park well.

By morning the slow-moving sections of the rivulets were capped with ice, and the meadows were alive with flocks of pipits looking for breakfast. 

After breakfast I was almost out of food, so I walked about 10 miles and descended about 3,500’ to the trailhead, with great pleasure. See video:

My lunch spot was a sweet crossing of Pine Creek that, lower down, tumbled off steep slopes of granite. I sold books in the trailhead parking lot, and took the money to Bishop to buy food and ale at Mountain Rambler. 

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An ancient juniper overlooking the Owens Valley

I was running out of time before my school started in September, but had a few days to spare, so I decided to hike up to Mono Pass from the Mosquito Flats trailhead, which is way up a road from Tom’s Place. This was an easy hike up to Ruby Lake, where I dropped my pack, and then a steady climb to the pass (10,600’).

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The ascent to Ruby Lake

In the pass there is a small lake that has good water. From there I ascended the ridge between the pass and the Fourth Recess. Years ago, on another backpacking trip with Dan and Lauren, we camped at the Fourth Recess and explored Pioneer basin. We entered the mountains from Lake Thomas Edison, about 15 miles to the west, down Mono Creek. It was interesting to look down on all that country, and so much of the country to the North to study the lay of the land. in the distance were the Minarets, which I wrote about in this blog just a couple years ago. See video:

 back at the lake I had a little bivouac in some small firs on a granite ledge overlooking the glacial tarn, and watched trout breaking the surface for bugs at sunset. See video:


I would hike out the next day and make my way back to the Bay Area, making the traditional stop at the Iron Door Saloon, the oldest continually operating saloon in California, for their spicy “Rimfire Burger” and a local IPA.

The high granite is medicine for my soul that makes me feel more alive, fills me with appreciation for this planet, and appreciation for my strong body.  The views are stunning, but when you’ve spent so much time up there that you no longer get stunned, its time to leave.


The Aleutians

It’s not often that a guy gets a job because he rowed lifeguard surfboats through the waves, and rafted many whitewater rivers. Alaska Maritime Expeditions needed someone to drive an inflatable skiff to take marine biologists from the 72’ steel hull Puk Uk to stellar sea lion rookeries in the Aleutian Islands. I was recommended for the job, and though I have more hours in oared boats than in motorized, I got the job.

I flew to Dutch Harbor, where we began a 900 mile round-about sojourn back to Homer, visiting rookeries and haul-outs along the way so that the biologists could track the many animals that they had branded.

See video on GAP facebook page:


I have surfed beside stellar sea lions out on the wild coast of Northern California, so being close to these beasts was to be nothing new, but I was hoping to photograph the fantastic volcanoes of the archipelago, and maybe I’d get the thrill of seeing a walrus.

The Aleutians sit on the downstream side of a tectonic subduction zone; the Aleutian Trench–a 2400’ deep arching crease in the floor of the North Pacific. Here the sea floor is being thrust Northward and slides under the floor of the Bearing Sea. Once down in the Earth’s boiler room, some of the crust boils back up to the surface to form cones of basalt. These are the chain of islands; a necklace of volcanoes in various states of erosion. Those in the Eastern half of the chain are sitting on top of the continental shelf–relatively shallow water

But the wild waters of the two seas (North Pacific and Bearing) do not honor this boundary of trench and volcanoes. The waters mix, and they mix violently. I have never seen such intense currents, especially the tidal currents between islands. Running the skiff was often more similar to running on a river than on the ocean, with tall standing waves in a current of 8 knots or more. We had to time our travel with the tides to avoid wasting time and fuel by fighting the current.




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For 16 days we did this, and unfortunately, in high winds and  rough seas. But my problem was that the skies were almost always cloud-covered, and often socked-in with a low dark ceiling. I only had two opportunities to see a volcano, and both times I saw the same one, Mt Shishaldin, once from the West, once from the East, each time through a hole in the clouds.

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These mixing waters stir up lots of nutrients in the waters and they are rich with fish, bringing many whales to feed. We saw more than 50 humpbacks, sometimes very close to the boat. There are rafts of northern fulmars numbering in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of birds; birds on the water every in direction as far as you can see.


Immense flocks of tufted puffins–ten thousand swirling over the water like starlings in tight formation. There were frequent flocks of storm petrels, auklets, murres, and then there were the occasional loners: the laysan albatross, with an 8’ wing span passing by, hugging the contours of the waves, the parasitic jaeger in a direct flight, a few red-necked phalaropes bobbing.

As we traveled Eastward towards the Akmak Island rookery, we passed near the southernmost enclave of walrus. Off the bow I saw what looked like a whale, but it was rust-colored. Immediately I grabbed the binoculars, and during brief window of sunshine, a big walrus rose up from the water and looked right at me; tusks, whiskers and all.


February 2023

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