Friday, March 31, 2006

The view from the top--Chod Hedinger at the birthplace of Kings Creek

The windmill

"We're above timberline now," Chod said.

There is a river (Kings Creek part 4)

It’s a snowball effect. As a blister formed on my left heel, first as a burning sensation so slight it was easy to dismiss and then as a lance impossible to ignore, my body responded by subtly changing its stance as it bipedaled up Kings Creek. I brought my foot down at a slight angle to alleviate the pressure point, which in turn forced the foot higher into the boot until the toes were crammed against the front. Extra stress was placed on the calf muscles, which then began to tighten. All the while I was thinking of moleskin, a simple remedy, and of how I had neglected to bring some along.

All the while I was thinking of a song.

The moleskin was actually less neglect than failure to locate any. The song was different. It had popped into my head a few miles back, no doubt in recognition as I watched water seeping from the hillside into a small ovoid pool.

The first stanza opened with “Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing from the throne of God?” Over and over, with the refrain following in an endless loop.

Its presence was intrusive. I’ve gone beyond the old hymns sung in church, left them behind in search of other forms of spirituality, and to have a remnant of my Baptist upbringing suddenly prattle endlessly in my head was most unwelcome. But it did get me thinking, which removed some of the concern over my foot.

Was it from, or by, the throne of God? I couldn’t recall. But somehow it made a huge difference. As Kings Creek narrowed into a grassy channel meandering upwards toward the rolling hills, I thought of the springs erupting from the desert sands in the Amargosa Valley of southern Nevada.

Ten thousand gallons per minute spew from the earth at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge—streams fully formed at birth. They snake in green ribbons for a quarter-mile or so before sinking beneath the sands just as quickly. From anywhere along their routes one can see their entire length. It’s an impressive sight, especially in such an arid wasteland, but it’s also slightly unsettling. Since they’re viewed in their entirety, gone is the chance to follow the path of waters around the next bend, to trace them back to their source.

Here on Konza Prairie, with the trees now behind us, our course was clearly etched in the folds of the land. One major channel wended southward through a broad valley, and another hooked around a hill toward the northeast. The latter would be our route, Chod said. And then, turning to look back, he grinned and added, “We’re above tree line now.”

The sun was falling from its zenith. In the absence of brushy thickets and narrow ravines we pushed on hard. Dominating the view was an old windmill disintegrating with time amid a lonely cluster of cottonwoods. We soon passed them and turned to follow the north branch. Each step brought into view a sliver of new country.

Each step brought a tiny stab of pain, a reiteration of stanzas. No crystal tides here, only a grassy indentation furrowed by water’s steady percolation; no angel feet, only those of two old sinners hurrying on.


By, I decided. The river flowed by the throne of God.

Our shadows preceded us. Kings Creek zigzagged between treeless knolls, rising steadily. Most of the elevation gain lay in the final half-mile, and as we labored around another bend we saw in the distance a shadow clinging to the hillside. It was the end, and the beginning. The birthplace of waters.

“I’d never be able to do another thirteener,” I joked. After shortening the trekking poles to compensate for the steepness, I leaned into them and used my upper body as much as my feet to propel me up the final slope. The valley fell away. We stood on the high ground, and everything within our purview was below us.

There’s a momentary lull after reaching your destination when time slows to a crawl. This is the self-congratulatory phase, when you realize you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. Then comes the second phase, where you calculate the miles back and gauge your physical shape.
It’s always something of a letdown. But even as I noted the blister and the sore calves and the tightness across my shoulders, even as I thought of the five or so miles that separated us from Chod’s truck, a part of me kept returning to the song. It was an insistent query, an accusatory jab: “Shall we gather by the river, the beautiful, the beautiful, river? Gather with the saints by the river that flows by the throne of God.” Now the song was faith’s interrogator. Shall I?

My lack of belief was a sudden black hole. It wasn’t just the loss of faith but of hearing and sight and physical shape, time’s steady whittling, and for a second I envied believers. And even as we turned to continue on, I thought of that river flowing by the throne of God. If I make it—if indeed it is true—then I picture myself on those banks looking upstream, past the saints gathered there, to where the river disappears around a bend. They can have their streets of gold; I’ll take the headwaters.

“Next time we work our way up to this,” Chod said.

“Amen, brother,” I said, and followed him toward home.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Into the open--the fading of Kings Creek

A sheltered spot for lunch

Into the open—the fading of Kings Creek (Kings Creek 3)

The sun climbed higher in the sky and dragged the temperature with it. The morning wasn’t warm yet and the breeze was chilly, but we walked in a sort of netherworld, down among entwining branches, blocky layers of limestone formations and sudden pools of water, and the combination of our exertions and the sun’s warmth soon heated us through.

Chod stripped off his parka and loosely tied it around his neck in a style favored by fashionable Yuppies, to which I kidded him. We were miles from the nearest human, alone on the Kansas tallgrass prairie, indeed in a place where most people are not even allowed, so the sight struck me as incongruous. But he got the last laugh.

Chod watched with amusement as I wrestled with the zippers on my Gore-Tex jacket. The front was easy enough but the pair beneath my armpits resisted my ministrations. I could have simply removed my jacket but that would entail first dropping the pack, binoculars, and camera and then reversing the order, and that would mean we’d have to stop. We were making good time but there were many miles yet ahead of us, so I twisted and pulled and cursed until he took pity on me.

“Need some help?” he asked with a smirk.

I raised both arms while he pulled the zippers open. Relief was instant.

“Sure you don’t want to take it off?”

“After lunch.”

We moved off, pacing fast. Here, then, is the measure of a true friend: one who will unzip your pit zips.


The trees fell away and returned, and the creek narrowed and widened and narrowed again, and each cycle saw a diminution, a lessening, a giving way to altitude and grass. At a sheltered spot in the lee of a wooded hill we dropped our packs and stripped off our jackets and dug out our lunches. Kings Creek was a dry stony channel. We’d been on the move for over three hours; it felt good to rest.

“How much farther?” I asked.

“We’re not even half way,” he said.

I thought about that for a minute. The length of the creek was allegedly five miles, but was that measured by crow-flight or the meanderings of its footprint? So far we’d kept to the channel except for short stretches where depth or vegetation made it impossible, but once clear of the trees we should be able to pick up the pace. Still, we had a few more miles to our destination, and then the return trip.

The wind whispered in the trees. If not for Chod it would have been a simple matter to stretch out on a limestone block and doze in the sunlight, and when rested to head back downstream. Or better yet to remain here while the sun wheeled across the skies and fell below the horizon, and shadows thickened and the slow unfurling of dusk drew a hush over the land.

After a while we donned our packs and moved on.


Left behind were all traces of man, the mysterious wooden containers lined with wire mesh, the warped and gnawed nest boxes of wood ducks, the measuring rods, the beribboned trees. The creek was an intimate, sheltered place known only to us and the sky above.

And colorful. Emerald pools formed below springs bubbling from the hillsides. Watercress nodded where fast riffles cascaded over limestone shelves. The creek-bed was a carpet of reds and yellows and auburns of fallen leaves. Even the stones were variegated with bands of moss, some dried to a desert tan and others dark like cedars, or streaked with algae so vivid that it seemed somehow unnatural.

We passed an old cement stock tank whose rotted-out bottom now jutted into space, undercut by the creek. A rusted iron pipe led uphill to a spring. Shrubbery forced us to bypass the ruin on the left, our feet squishing in half-frozen muck and the brittle stalks of cattails.

For a while we skirted the creek, now a restricted, brush-choked maze. The last ragged cedars fell away and in the near distance the hills opened up unobstructed, gentle cuestas whose south-facing slopes were treeless and studded with exposed boulders. A thorn forest rose before us and we carefully wended through its bristling stands and broke through into the open.

Trees were now behind us. Our view encompassed only sky and grass and the snaking path of the creek. It was a subdued, placid thing no more than a yard deep and as many more across, and as it rose to the barren heights other feeder creeks branched off and writhed through the prairie undulations. Two major branches could be seen in the distance past a tall windmill, its blades rusted and broken.

“We’ll take the north fork,” Chod said.

I traced it until it disappeared behind a ridge. A mile or two at most. Behind us the Flint Hills rolled away to a horizon smudged with smoke, and far down the valley, at what seemed an impossible distance, the gallery forest was a gray shape mantling the stream.

After a long drink of water we turned and headed uphill. Kings Creek was fading, coming not to an end but to a beginning.

Conclusion next week…

Saturday, March 18, 2006

And on we go, making good time...

The stream narrows and constricts--Chod Hedinger picking the path

North Fork of Kings Creek

Ice patterns on a winter creek

Battleground of waters--the confluence of forks on Kings Creek

The root of all waters (Kings Creek 2)

It came about beforehand that I fell to earth from a very high distance. Below me the world spun on its off-tilt axis, a blue-green jewel pendant in the wasteland of space, and for a moment I studied it from an astronauts’ perspective, saw the western hemisphere from polar cap to polar cap, the graceful curves of shorelines, the dark jungles and forests of the Americas, the bleached deserts, the great shining lakes, the spine of the continent like some bent bow, arced and drawn, and then the strings holding me were sundered and I dropped.

I was a particle of space dust, an asteroid, a comet burning bright. The world rushed up, opened up, spread out like a gigantic burgeoning flower. The seas fell away and the land intervened and swelled and grew until form eclipsed color. An ocean of grass crystallized into broad rivers and undulant ridges, and watersheds appeared like two-dimension roots superimposed on the contours of the land, Nazca lines fashioned not from primitive races but from erosion and gravity, or perhaps by the hand of God himself. In milliseconds woods mushroomed to become a host of individuals and I crashed through to a netherworld of variegated greenish forms.

It looked different on the ground.

Chod disappeared around a long curve. I shifted my pack and followed, stepping lightly around an icy pool gathered in the lee of an oxbow. The dry channel indicated that this somnolent Kings Creek belied its sometimes ravenous character, when walls of water not only plundered trees and shrubs from its banks but occasionally ripped new paths, scribing on the face of the Flint Hills its own meandering history.

I’d seen a fraction of its chronicle before, many times, several hundred feet at the most, sandwiched between two gentle bends with a long cascading riffle rushing beneath the wooden slats of a narrow suspension bridge, and each time I’d paused to listen to its primordial song and to watch jewelwings flutter below like armored butterflies. But to understand its complete record one must escape the bonds of earth.

My view from space and subsequent freefall was courtesy of Google Earth, a Web site combining satellite imagery, maps, and a powerful search engine. On my descent, rapid though it was, I was able to glimpse a macrocosm of Kings Creek, and I understood for the first time how a stream is no more than a tiny rootlet spreading from the larger lateral roots of rivers, which, when combined into bigger waterways, form taproots reaching deep into the world’s oceans.

And now we were below the bridge, perambulating upward, hushed and silent as if cognizant of the special nature of our trespass—granted, to be sure, but only once, only this time, and never more. And in this microcosm we saw another image, not the whole but a tiny part, its limpid pools, its flood-gouged undercuts, its toppled trees and emerald springs matted with fallen leaves of every hue and shape.

A winter wren flew before us. For a moment it balanced on a gnarled wooden tendril, pumping itself in indignation, and then it slipped into the shadows beneath a leaning tree whose roots were grounded in two elements. Deer watched us before flicking their tails and springing away.

The hand of man is light on this prairie creek. Chod pointed out thin rods sunk into the dirt of a bend, placed to measure stream flow; spring and summer projects yet to come. An ancient iron wheel jutted from the bank, rusted and dented. A blend of the old and the new. We passed the research area and walked a stone path leading inexorably upward. Trees blocked our view except for that of the blue blue sky. It seemed the only color in a leached land.

Slowly, slowly, the trees thinned. Our boots beat the stony soil. Bluebird calls supplanted those of woodland species. The creek bed narrowed, flared, and narrowed again. Deep ruts and a raw gravelly scar indicated a collision of torrents at the confluence of the north and south forks. We turned up the north channel where on the far bank a ragged line of cottonwoods stood sentinel, lessened by one of its number which had collapsed into the gully. Beyond was only grassland.

Crawling through a lattice of branches, we passed beyond the realm of trees and became exposed to the watchful sky. I looked up into that blue void and thought of satellites looking down, of the technology involved in placing the mechanisms in orbit and then allowing us to jump off and fall without harm to earth. But ours now was a low-tech exercise, the simple placing of one boot in front of the other.

Our steps were sure. We marched on, unhesitant, toward the birthplace of all the waters in the world.

To be continued…

Friday, March 10, 2006

A path of waters -- Chod Hedinger in lower Kings Creek

Oxbow pool on Kings Creek

Benchmark: a prairie stream in winter (Kings Creek 1)

Chod Hedinger needed to adjust his socks. We found a grassy spot beside the trail, sat down heavily, and shucked our boots. I peeled off my sock liners and groaned with pleasure. A red blister throbbed on my left heel. My feet hurt. My calves were tight and sore. My shoulders were tense.

“We do this because it’s fun?” I moaned.

“Because we’re stupid,” he replied.

The road dropped steadily toward the gray furze of gallery forest far in the distance. At least it was downhill.

“How much farther to the homestead?” I asked.

“A couple of miles.”

“Lie to me. Say it’s a half-mile.”

“I can’t lie.”

I leaned against the pack and let the sun warm me.

It’s a half-mile to the homestead, I decided.

Chod hefted his water bottle and eyed its contents. “Enough for one more swig,” he said, and gulped it down.

I wanted water. I wanted beer, and a juicy green chile cheeseburger or a half-raw T-bone steak with butter-marinated mushrooms and crispy onion rings. I wanted a nap.

After a few minutes we pulled on our boots, laced them tight, complained about getting old and fat, and staggered to our feet. The road went on, and wearily we followed it down.


Twenty degrees. We slipped into jackets, gloves, packs.

There is something fundamentally exciting about that initial weight settling across your shoulders, of snugging down the straps so the pack rides closer to the body—the solidity of it, the bonding of fiber and cloth to torso, the confidence of self-sustainability. The sense of adventure is palpable. From that moment on a person could wander for days or weeks or years, all limits or constraints rendered null and void. Time brought to heel. You are, perhaps, freer than at any other period in your life. The world is yours.

This euphoria will last for four or five miles.

Our breath fogged the morning sun. We crisscrossed cameras and binoculars like bandoleers across our chests. We looked for the heights where Kings Creek is born and saw only stark winter woods and a dusty trail leading from the trailhead to a slight declivity where the forest swallowed it whole. Such was not our path today. We were traveling a road known only to moving waters and a handful of researchers, scientists, and field hands from the faded Dewey Ranch, whose ghosts still wander in the whisper of winds through the tallgrass prairie. And now us, by special permission.

We turned our backs to the trail and walked the road toward the entrance of Konza Prairie Biological Station south of Manhattan. At a barbed wire fence we turned toward the creek and crossed a field of tall yellowed grass and passed through the first stand of woods and dropped into the gravelly bottom. The opposite side of the channel deeply grooved into the hillside, exposing roots that dangled like tresses. The creek was low, with alternating pools and shallow riffles, and ice crusting the edges. On either side the gallery forest hemmed us in.

This is how it started. I looked downstream and thought of the confluence of Kings Creek with McDowell Creek and of the Kansas River beyond. Not too far but far enough over private property to make inaccessible. Half a mile of twists and bends to a conjoining of streams I might never see.

But that was a minor concern. Stretching before us were nearly five miles of prairie waters so pristine that they are among the critically few that all other waters are measured against. Kings Creek is a benchmark, a reference standard, a criterion. Due to favorable topography, a small watershed, the light hand of man, and the protection of the Nature Conservancy, this small trickle of water is little different than that which flowed centuries ago.

Standing there was like stepping back in time. Minnows darted in the pools, quicksilver flashes catching the sun’s hard slant. Drab sparrows and juncos flittered through the underbrush along the banks. I snapped a photo as my own benchmark, a record of the beginning, and turned and followed Chod around the first long bend.

To be continued…