Outdoor Skills

Giving people the tools to feel confident in the outdoors is something that I enjoy taking part in any way that I can.  My latest effort was to write a “skill builder” article for Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine.  The article I submitted on how to build the perfect campfire was published this November 2014 issue.

The pyramid method
The pyramid method

Some of my fondest memories involve sitting around a campfire, telling stories, keeping warm and even just staring into the flames and letting my imagination wander.  I firmly believe that my strong connection with nature helps my creativity and is the core of my confidence.

Knowing how to build a good fire is part of that confidence foundation. Being able to build a good fire is enjoyable and gives me the confidence that I  can control of one of the basic elements that sets humans apart from other animals.  If I was lost in the wilderness, I know that I could build a fire to stay warm, cook food or signal for help.

The odds of me getting lost in the wilderness are low, but the odds of me camping with friends and family is high.  I love creating the perfect campfire to sit around and share an evening under the stars.

With people spending more time than ever indoors, passing basic knowledge like how to build a good fire is slowly being lost.  I want to share that wisdom with anyone that wants it.  Hopefully the article will inspire someone to take the time to learn how to build the perfect campfire as well and take ownership  of one of the most basic human skills.


Multi- Generational Birding

When I was a teen ager I never woke up until my mother made the third trip into my room to give me the final warning. I would lumber out of bed, get dressed, mumble something and get in the car to either go to school or off on an outdoor adventure with my family. Thirty years later, it’s my turn to make the trip down the hall to my mother’s motel room to give her the final call to rise and shine for another day of birding for the week- long event of the Greater Texas Birding Classic.

Family Birding Team
Family Birding Team

My mother is the one that got me and my uncle hooked on birding, and she was thrilled when I married a man that loved to hike, camp and bird as much as we did. When it came time to choose team members for the week-long event of the Greater Texas Birding Classic there was no question in my mind who my first draft picks should be. Even with the handicap of not rising early, my mother is still the prime birder that adheres the rest of us together. She is the president of the Travis Audubon Society and has spent the majority of her career helping set aside land for conservation purposes. My nearly deaf uncle cannot hear the birds, but is an excellent spotter. My husband is a casual birder with a great eye for wildlife photography, excellent at navigation and a champ on adventures. Myself, I’m a fair birder with bird-dog hearing just hoping to learn what I can.   Between us we had at least one set of good eyes, one pair of good ears and one experienced birder.

Our journey took us from Austin, TX to the Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas Coast, through the rolling oaks and finally to the lost pines of Bastrop. We traveled almost 1,000 miles through rain and dust storms to make 22 individual birding stops. We did not consider the addition of the Red Tailed Hawk at the Dairy Queen in Three Rivers an independent birding stop, but it was a good spot none-the-less. At each stop my mother, Valarie Bristol, shared her vast knowledge of how that park or birding center came to be, who purchased or gave the land, what wildlife or resource it was set aside for and what birds we could hope to find there. Each story was shared with great detail and a heap of laughter. But her knowledge didn’t stop there. She also knew where most of the birds we were viewing had come from, where they were going, what plants they liked to eat and how long they would be vacationing in Texas as they migrated through. The few things she did not know, she quickly found in a book or she ask me to look at my “magic phone” to find the answers. Herron at Port Aransas

Birding is an endurance sport with long hours spent in the car traveling from one eco-region to the next to view a different yield of birds. To fill the void, my uncle read to us from the book “Why Stop: A Guide to Texas Historical Marker.” Since my husband is not a native to Texas he isn’t a hundred percent sure why we Texans are so obsessed with our state’s history. However he started to get the picture of why Texas history maters so much to our family as we bumped along HWY 281, just a stones throw away from the boarder, towards the towns of Weslaco and Ed Couch. We regaled him with the tales of our adventuresome great, great uncles that founded the towns. I have to wonder what the bird migrations must have looked like back then when the region was still mostly brush country with dappled resacas laced along the mighty river. After all, the birds that live and travel through Texas are also part of our collective history. Their migration patterns formed thousands of years before the arrival of humans and have stayed consistent despite the many adversities such as; loss of habitat, altered food sources, power lines and an increase in extreme weather.

On Padre Island we experienced a fall out with birds literally sitting on the ground too tired to move after traveling across the Gulf of Mexico. I could hardly keep up with scribbling down the names of the birds as my team members called them out. My husband danced around taking photos, while my uncle gathered information from the local birders. My mother just kept saying, “poor things, they must be starving.” It finally dawned on me, that she was telling me that she was starving since we had not stopped to eat since mid-morning. But we were there to bird, so I kept the team focused until sunset. The rest of the birders moved on, but we lingered in the fading light to watch the heron’s fish in the shallows of the Laguna Madre. The simplicity of the birds fishing was in drastic contrast to the biker rally that raged just a few blocks away. Finally we finished birding to forage for food of our own.

Crested Caracara in the thorn scrub
Crested Caracara in the thorn scrub

Our family birding journey took us through 8 separate eco-regions and 21counties to spot over 170 types of migrating and native birds. As we arrived at Goliad State Park on San Jacinto Day and got ready to settle into another round of Texas history lessons woven through our birding hike- we got a call. My cousin called to say that the newest member of the family was on the way and would we please return my uncle ASAP for the joyous event. Alas, we had to abandon the birds of Goliad for a quick trip back to Austin.



Life at 25 Miles Per Hour

Polebridge, MT where the preferred method of travel is walking.
Polebridge, MT where the preferred method of travel is walking.

“The reason I pulled you over today mam is because you were going 38 miles per hour on a 25 mile per hour road,” stated the kind, nice looking police officer that pulled me over in Whitefish, MT. (I did not get a ticket- thankfully)

Montana has a reputation that people can drive as fast as they want, anywhere they want. That might be true as long as their desired speed is 25 miles per hour or less. Some roads post a speed limit of 45, or even 70, but that’s only meant for a few days in August when the driving conditions are perfect. The rest of the time the weather can slow things to a crawl with; howling winds, fog as thick and white as Santa’s beard, ice, snow, rain, freezing rain, sleet, and my favorite- freezing fog.

I suppose that driving slow along the mountain roads is a good thing. It makes everyone slow down and take notice of the vistas and the amazing nature that the state has to offer. It’s safer for the millions of senior citizens that visit Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley. And it is a great moneymaker for the municipalities that can afford a nice, handsome, young cop to enforce the traffic laws.

Winter storm in September. I was the last car over the pass.
Winter storm in September. I was the last car over the pass.

Even if folks wanted to drive fast there is yet another special Montana feature that can grind even the most skilled speeder to a gruesome halt- potholes. Dirt roads, paved boulevards, gravel driveways- they all suffer the affliction of road acne. Some roads flaunt their potholes and celebrate them with great depth and girth; others hide them under calm pools of muddy water that seem shallow at first, but are in fact great craters. Some roads give warning that they have potholes and support a great amount of washboard before and after each hole; others have smooth pavement that leads right to edge of their abyss. My father, George Bristol, once wrote a humorous poem called Potholes in Paradise to share his love of the Montana speed bumps. They are notorious.

Wildlife is another hazard. Unlike Texas, most of the wild animals in Montana are large and can cause serious damage to your car if you hit one even at 25 miles per hour. And on the Indian Reservations, all livestock and house hold pets are free roaming- even on the highways. The good news is, if you are driving slow, you don’t have to slam on the breaks to get a good photo of a bear feeding on the side of the road; instead you can just ease off the pavement or stop in the middle of the road to take the picture.

Loose dogs, kids and potholes in East Glacier, MT
Loose dogs, kids and potholes in East Glacier, MT

Life at 25 miles per hour also means, being late is okay. No one will believe you if you tell them you hit traffic on the way to an appointment, but they will believe and forgive you if you tell them you had to slow it down because of the new potholes. Somehow going slow in the land of glaciers seems natural and warranted. Its maybe what we should be doing all the time instead of racing around trapped in our own time driven frenzy. So while in Montana, I will do as the Montanans do and drive 25 and drink in the beauty of nature.



Glaciers, Wolverines and Me

At the top of the world.
At the top of the world.

At 7,000 feet, it’s hard to say what burned more, my legs or my lungs. But my eyes and mind were rewarded with the vistas of majestic snow dusted peaks, big horn sheep, mountain goats and the turquois pools of glacier fed lakes. At the end of the 3.8 mile journey up the side of the mountain lies Grinnell, Salamander and Gem Glaciers. For most of the hike Salamander and Gem Glaciers can be seen and add to the drama of the peaks. However, Grinnell Glacier now rests in a bowl or hanging garden that can only be seen by hiking to the very end of the steep, rocky trail.

Grinnell Glacier 1938-2006
Grinnell Glacier 1938-2006

The first time I hiked to this amazing place was in 1981 when I was 10 years old. I sat on the glacier and shivered in my thin cotton t-shirt and jeans. At that time you could still hike out on the glacier and it was about 20% larger than what it is today. As the human population continues to expand, so does our impact on all aspects of the natural world; glaciers are part of that. Between 1966 and 2006, Grinnell Glacier has shrank 40% from what it was in the 1850’s when it was first discovered and measured by George Bird Grinnell. When G.B. Grinnell first recorded it, the glacier covered about 710 acres and now it covered only 220 acres. As I crested the hill to see my old friend, I could see the remarkable diminished difference in the size and shape of the glacier.

I had hiked this trail once again in 2004, but turned back after seeing a wolverine. I didn’t know it then, but seeing this amazing creature is something only a few people have ever had the privilege of seeing. Wolverines are elusive and well camouflaged against the rocks of the valley and do most of their hunting in the evening. I know now that the valley where Grinnell Glacier resides is one of the most important habitats for the remaining 500 or so wolverines that live in the lower 48 states.

Big Horn Sheep grazing next to the trail.
Big Horn Sheep grazing next to the trail.

Like many of the animals and fish that live in and around Glacier National Park, the wolverines are dependent on cold, snowy winters with a slow, gradual thawing in the spring. When things thaw too quickly, the water rushes away from the snow fields instead of slowly soaking into the ground to allow for the plants to be healthy and bloom when they should. It is a delicate balance in the land of the mighty glaciers and one that we can all do something to prevent when we take the time to reduce our personal carbon footprint.

Hiking down is harder on me as I get older, and is something I have to put my entire focus into. On this day I really wanted to catch the 4:15 pm boat that shaves off an additional 2 mile hike back to the Many Glacier Hotel. But as I rounded the corner of the red rocks at about mile 2 coming down from the glacier, I could see the boat arriving at the dock and knew I would have to hustle to even make the 5:15 pm boat.

Bear and her cubs in Many Glacier Valley
Bear and her cubs in Many Glacier Valley

Sitting on the hard wood benches of the Morning Eagle tour boat that was built in 1930-something feels wonderful after hiking 8 miles straight up and down. I sat among 35 other people, and I was proud to be one of only a few that had made the full hike. Then, as if the valley wanted to give me one last reward for my efforts, I spotted a black bear and her cubs playing on the slopes above the lake. I hope I will return to the valley again and again for the rest of my life. But I have to acknowledge that at our current rate of global climate change, the glacier will be gone in my lifetime and so then will the delicate balance of all the wildlife it supports. I hope we can change that and will work to do all I can.

Here are some ways you can reduce you’re carbon foot print that contributes to climate change:

  1. Drive less. Try working from home at least once a week and plan errands carefully.
  2. Turn off lights and electronics when you are not using them at home and at work.
  3. Plant more native plants and trees in your yard, at church or your school.
  4. Use less plastic made products.
  5. Turn your AC up to 80 when you are not at home. (Or even when you are at home.)
  6. Hang up your clothes to dry instead of using the dryer when you can.

Remember- it all adds up and does make a difference. The glaciers, wolverines, bears, fish, big horn sheep and moose all need us.

For more information about wolverines read:  The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick  

For more information about glaciers read: The Melting World, by Christopher White

Hiking the Highline

At the trail head- Logan's Pass
At the trail head- Logan’s Pass

One step, two step, three step- into the clouds we go. The draw of the long, breathtakingly beautiful hike along the Garden Wall, is a calling I feel year after year. I cannot heed the call every summer, but I do as often as I can. I never grow tiered of seeing the familiar rocks that pass below my feet and tower over my head. They were laid down millions of years ago, and tossed around by glaciers as they ebbed and flowed, but for me, in my tiny time on earth they are concrete reminders that time can stand still when we let the beauty of nature surround us, and calm us.

This year I hiked the 16 mile trail with my husband and oldest brother who are both stronger and faster hikers than me. As the elements pounded at my thin rain jacket and obscured my views, I steadily walked on knowing that the only way I was going to reach my destination was to carefully put one foot in front of the other. The clouds boiled up from the valley below and slowly curled upward along the Garden Wall and with them came more rain, and a visibility of only about 15 feet. But when the cloud finally lost the war with the wall and had to fall back to the valley below, the view was that which dreams are made of.

At mile 8 we took a break at the Granit Park Chalet and escaped the wind and rain for a short lunch and shared laugh. The Chalet was built 1914 to be a place for visitors to the newly formed Glacier National Park could hike or ride horses to and see the rugged splendor of the glacier carved valleys and peaks. 100 years later, visitors are doing the same as they did back then, just with better clothing, hiking shoes and a camera in every backpack.

Big Horn Sheep just off the trail.
Big Horn Sheep just off the trail.

As a child we use to hike to the Chalet and enjoy home cooked meals while warming by the wood-burning stove. I remember on more than one occasion watching grizzly bears from the front porch. I was never afraid of the giant omnivores when I was a child, and I still don’t fear them, but I respect their power and grace. I find that fear make people do stupid things around wildlife; while respect allows people to pass through that fear and live as one in the space that they share for that moment.

Looking East from Swift Current Pass.
Looking East from Swift Current Pass.

Mile 9 is a grinder up and over the Swift Current pass and the wind picked up with a vengeance. But the views from mile 10 to 12 are the best in the world and worth every painful step. The Swift Current Valley spreads out before us in sunbaked reds, golds, greens and blues. Five small lakes dot the valley floor and on this hike, from our high vantage point we spotted a young bull moose slowly walking in the shallows of Bull Head Lake. The trail that hugs along the side of the mountain is not for the faint of heart and at times is only a thin ribbon of dirt and rock with shear cliffs casting down below and a wall of rock on the other side.

36,000 steps later we reach our destination, but not before we spotted a grizzly bear feeding on the slopes above Red Rocks Falls. The bear is a nice addition to the list of mega fauna such as big horn sheep, mountain goats, and moose that we witnessed earlier on in the day. My dad waited patiently in the parking lot to gather us and quickly transport us to the Many Glacier Hotel for well-deserved drinks and a dinner fit for a king. The journey takes almost 9 hours to complete and 2 full days to recover from. For me it is over too soon and as we depart the valley I hear again the calling, and back to the misty mountains I wish to go. Logan's Pass



Let’s Talk About Hair

Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Giant.  She always had great cowgirl hair.
Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Giant. She always had great cowgirl hair.

All cowgirls know that proper hair care is very important to maintaining a true cowgirl image.  So I went to get my hair cut the other day and had a very pleasant experience, but to be honest, it was a little boring. The stylist is very nice and a little Austin edgy; her hair is always a different color each time I see her. The salon is very nice too- it’s filled with lots of yummy smelling products and potions that I feel certain will make me look younger and hotter.

But for all the niceness, it makes me long for the golden days of gossip while getting my hair cut at the Best Lil Hair House in Texas on Chestnut Street in Bastrop, TX. Those ladies might not have been as well trained or as polished as the Austin team, but they were world-class gossips. Within their halls of heavenly hair, I learned all about the news of the town that wasn’t fit to print in the town news paper- The Bastrop Advertiser.

I might not have ever gotten a deep scalp massage at the Best Lil Hair House, but I got very best Texas tall tale ear tickling in the state. From the constant chatter I learned all about who in town was broke, who was getting a divorce, who was having another baby and what new businesses where coming to town- or leaving town because of some sorted affair. All that information actually served me in some strange way in my own business. Inside the crowded paper thin walls of the renovated house, every towns person was suspect, and every story could quickly be spun into grandeur with a simple, “I’ve always wonder about them.”

Homecoming and prom where the times for the stylist to show off their creativity and it was the crossroads for gossip and prediction. Mothers and daughters predicted who would be crowned at the homecoming game and gossiped about who had been left heart broken in the wake of a dating coup.  It was worth it to schedule a quick trim to listen to the stories and see the high school girls have their hair turned into towering piles of glittering curls. When I lived in Bastrop it seemed like body and hair glitter was very popular.

Indeed, those where the good old days of hair care. With Austin growing by 110 people a day it just makes it too hard to gossip in the way that a small town can. So yes, it is nice to listen to the soft meditative sounds of pan flutes while letting the stylist lather my locks; but I would rather be straining my ears to listen to the lady next to me tell her tale of woe while her head is tipped back in the bowl.

Transforming Our Yard

We moved into our new house in February of 2014 and I quickly started documenting what birds and other wildlife frequented the yard. My goal is to turn it into a certified wildlife habitat and restore it to a more native state.  We live in what was once the edge of Austin, TX, but is now part of the heart of the city. From our back porch we can hear I-35 raging in it’s dramatic hurry day and night, yet our house feels in many ways like a remote park.

Red shoulder hawk in the morning
Red shoulder hawk in the morning

We chose the house because it is surrounded on two sides by a greenbelt and the house sits on .5 acres on a small hilltop in the middle of a neighborhood that was once a massive live oak forest. Before many of the older oaks died from oak wilt, there were trees that were 300-400 years old lining the small wet weather drainage areas that twist down to Walnut Creek. In the parking lot of the motorcycle dealership across I-35 there is an ancient oak tree that was a sapling when Christopher Columbus sailed for the America’s; the tree sits alone, walled in by asphalt with a single historic marker that tells of its life.

Understanding how my little yard fits into the greater scheme of the ecosystem that surrounds me is important so I can make choices that have a positive impact rather than a negative one. The new house has a good foundation for changing the landscape to something that will really attract birds, butterflies, toads, lizards, deer and other wildlife that might move through the area.

green lizard 2014 Through out the spring and summer I have observed what naturally occurs in the yard, studied how the light changes during the seasons, and how the water flows. The observations will be my guide as I start the journey of removing the traditional yard to replace it with native plants, add bird feeding stations, and provide water sources for avian, mammal and reptile species.

Once the fall bird and butterfly migration has ended in December, I will have a pretty good understanding of the baseline from which I can start my documentation of the changes that occur as I alter the food and water sources. Currently, the yard has very few flowering native plants- so it wont take long to increase the butterfly, moth and hummingbird population. Stopping the bi-monthly pesticide treatments that the person that lived here before subscribed to has already increased the lizard and toad populations- they are more effective at killing bugs anyway.

This is my journey to return .5 acres of urban yard to a more native space that uses less water and attracts more wildlife.

Current trees: Live oak, Pecan, Shin Oak, Red Oak, Hackberry

Current shrubs: Yaupon, Boxwood (not native), Nandina (not native), Mountain Laurel, Jade Bush (not native), Lantana, two other’s that I’m not sure about.

Sunday Morning

Many people spend their Sunday mornings at church and that brings them peace. They feel comfort in the hymnal songs and are brought inspiration in the words delivered in the service. I too enjoy finding, peace, comfort and inspiration on a Sunday morning, but I prefer to do that outdoors with the creatures God granted us the honor of sharing this world with.

Sunflowers in the back field.
Sunflowers in the back field.

Today I spent my Sunday morning on a trail ride with my big, grey mare. At 7:45 am, there are few other people at the barn, and I could enjoy all the natural sounds of morning and few human-made noises. Although, if I stand at the right place at the barn, I can hear the droning sounds of the cooling system from the Sam Sung Plant that is a few miles away. Mostly the air is filled with the calls of the grackles, white wing doves, house finches and cardinals, with an occasional dog barking in the distance.

My mare is a quiet sole so I don’t talk that much to her when we are tacking up, or even on the trail. We can communicate a lot of information by just the most delicate of touches as we plod through the meadows and along the trails. With all the recent rains and wind storms there are a lot trees that have fallen along the path that we have to negotiate, Breeze always chooses the right path to glide over a log or get me safely under a branch- and for that I am grateful.

On today’s ride I had a certain goal in mind when we left the barn- I wanted to see the big cottonwood tree at the furthest point we can ride to on the property. The tree rests in an ox bow of one of the creeks as it cuts along through the black land prairie. The tree has stood there long before Sam Sung built their plant, or before the first rancher laid claim to the land, it has peacefully watched over the changing creek for over 100 years.

On the way back, we stopped for a quick look at the field of sunflowers. Their happy, bright yellow faces turned to greet the sun as it climbed higher over our heads. The sun was already getting hot so we returned to the barn with a slow walk through the woods where the red shoulder hawks were teaching their young to fly and the wood peckers pounded away- looking for a meal. No song I’ve ever sung in church or words from a sacred book have ever been able to fill me with the inspiration,joy and since of responsibility that I find while quietly walking through the woods, observing all God’s gifts. For each it is different; for me- this is heaven on earth.

Howdy y’all!

The name Atomic Cowgirl is something that blends the two worlds that I straddle in my daily life; the fast-paced urban world and the slower-paced realm of nature.  Growing up in Austin, TX- I have seen lots of changes since 1973, but I can still find that balance between city life and country life that I grew up with.  Granted, that balance isn’t always easy to find and some days are a struggle to continue to have that connection with nature when the demands and distractions of the urban world are pounding at the door.  I hope you will enjoy the chronicle of my journey to stay firmly planted in both worlds and perhaps you too can start to consider how you will find that balance in your life.