Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shop - design and a cabinet

Producing interesting new work is generally accomplished by pushing one's boundaries, experimenting, and focusing on the creative process; however, the goal is seldom attained on each new project. (Sometimes, ideas seemingly explode out of nowhere, but those ideas are often hatched from some latent genesis - read"Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell) We tend to move forward in fits and starts; thinking, applying the knowledge of our errors, contemplating what-ifs, acquiring new skills, and infusing new views into our vision.

I have completed several recent projects which have included design elements that I wished to incorporate into some new work - a kind of uber project which includes all of my recent ideas. I got the impression of a wall cabinet with exposed joinery. A modern piece; tall and thin with compartments, drawers, and cubbyholes. On a recent trip to San Antonio I had some time to draw and flesh-out some of the details. After quite a few pages of doodles I had a workable design and I liked it so much that I thought I would make two and try to get one into a show or gallery. On the way home I ran into such a gallery owner on the plane - how convenient! Yes, I did get her card.

I generally draw my projects in CADD and work out all of the dimensions; however, with this cabinet I only sketched all the parts and pieces and then went and found the wood. I was thinking of hickory with walnut details as I was looking for high contrasts and unusual grain. This time I let the wood dictate the size and to some degree inspire the details.

There's a story in all this. In the midst of building this cabinet I was digging through the stacks in the library at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and found a book by Krenov. I was vaguely aware of him, but never studied his work. I was fascinated, his work is beautiful, his process seemingly renown, and I found, unknowingly, my cabinet was very much in the vein of his work. My work most likely mirrors his because he has so strongly influenced fine wooodworking today. I went on to read about him. He was very influential in establishing the studio craftsmen movement and especially the high level of skill with joinery which very much defines the best work now produced. I have unquestionably inherited those ideals and strive to attain that mastery.

Here's what he said about design; " ... however some of us may be able to sketch or imagine things in our mind, there are surprises, and problems, when it comes to the the work itself. We may have a fair idea of how we think a piece will look and may even make drawings, yet there are certain aspects in the nature of various forms and proportions - and especially in the material we work with, wood with its own graphic messages - that turn the whole process of working from a matter of certainty, or even rather definite suppositions, to a series of adventures that takes us from one uncertainty to another, with hopes of reaching a turning point."

I'm working toward more of a journey with my designs - it makes a pleasing destination and the time spent along the way is focused, intense, and ingrossingly serene.

I still have to make the inside of this cabinet and it is still unfinished, but I include pictures to illustrate what Krenov said, as it is what I experienced.

So far the joinery includes; through splined tenons, mortise and tenon - frame and panel doors, tapered sliding dovetails and tongue and groove back.

For now, I'm content to walk out to the shop and see if the piece works. To see if the proportion likes the low light, the bright light, the shade. To perceive what one might expect when it is opened. To find the shape of the handles while I wonder around my imagination and hover over my old and worn bench.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Shop - oak and leather headboard- post two

With the two rails of the headboard complete I also needed make the stiles, which also held the leather panels. This connection requires little strength so a lap joint is sufficient. I milled these up on the table saw. A rabbit in each rail and a rabbit in the stiles will hold the leather panel. The rabbit in the rails also holds the stile.

Once these tasks were complete the first glue-up was ready. It is important to make certain everything fits before glue-up. The process must go quickly and smoothly. Prepare everything and prepare for cleanup. No matter how carefully you spread the glue there will be a little squeezed out - especially on a mortise and tenon joint. A little bit a tape along the joint can prevent most of the squeeze-out from getting on the wood thus making clean-up easier and more effective.

In the previous post I briefly discussed wood movement. The bottom tenon was almost 10" long. To accommodate the wood movement I only applied glue to a little more than half of the top of the tenon. This will allow the wood to move downward. Also the tenon should be cut somewhat smaller across the width so as to allow for this movement.

After gluing up the rails and posts I set them aside and milled up the top from 3/4 and 5/4 oak. I then glued the two together and set them aside for the next day. The next day I joined their common edge and connected the top to the rails using biscuits.

Next the leather panels - the leather must be glued to something very smooth as any defect in the surface behind the leather will show on the face of the leather. I used smooth birch plywood, but I wanted the back of the headboard to all be oak too and the panels were not going to be covered. I milled up 1/4 oak and applied it to the back of the plywood creating what amounted to an oak panel. I used Titebond and spread the glue evenly with a tile trowel and then clamped all of the panels up in a large stack.

I didn't want to apply the leather until the wood color was applied and there was one coat of polyurethane on everything, so as to not discolor the leather. Again, I used water-based aniline stain. Tammi's the color expert and always helps me mix the colors and she matched the nightstands exactly. Because aniline stain is water-based it raises the grain so the wood must be hand sanded one final time.

I finished the headboard with a mixture of linseed oil, polyurethane, and thinner. I gradually increased the mix so that the last several coats were only polyurethane. This gives the finish a very deep and lusterious look.

With the panels finished it was time to apply the leather. Previously, I applied a small piece of leather to the birch plywood with regular wood glue (Titebond III) and everything appeared fine. The drying glue didn't bunch the leather and the connection was very strong. Also, I precut leather panels somewhat larger than needed intending to trim it tightly and neatly when the glue dried. I applied leather conditioner to the finished side of the leather, faced the finish sides to one another, and stacked and pressed the leather flat for a day or so. I didn't want, or need much glue on the panel to hold the leather; however, I did need a nice consistent application so I used a foam roller to spread the glue. This gave the surface a nice even spread. The leather, once fixed, was rolled out with a rolling pin, stacked, and clamped. Once set I trimmed the edges flush and set the panels in the rabbits designed to receive them. I trimmed out the interface of the panel and rabbit with quartersawn 5/16" x 1-3/8" oak strips.

I was very happy with the results and I fully expect to incorporate wood and leather together in the future.This is the king size headboard which is just over 6 foot long.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Shop - oak and leather headboard - post one

Design, it seems, never comes easy. It's difficult to just sit down and create; to bring an the feel of an idea into reality. In addition, when money and so much time and effort go into the final product the design is often the monster in the closet. I had been thinking about making a headboard for some time, but I wanted to modernize the look of the nightstands, which match the other antiques dressers. I was generally thinking about some kind of metal panels surrounded by the oak. Perhaps a typical country-type Victorian headboard, but replacing the panels with plate steel. However, the idea never really gelled as the elements were just a little too incongruent and a little too harsh. I just never could make it work.

For some reason the idea of replacing the metal with leather came to me and I really liked the possibilities. I did some research on gluing leather to wooden panels and the process was very workable. I then began drawing up some ideas which incorporated the look of the nightstands into a headboard with leather panels. It was fairly easy to come up with a good look as a headboard is fairly simple.

I found some nice cow hides at an eBay store and paid about 40-bucks for an entire hide! It was very good leather and the color worked with the intended color of the oak. I began looking for the oak and found two absolutely straight grained, rift-sawn, wide boards. They were perfectly sawn being perhaps the straightest grain boards of this length I'd ever seen or at least worked with. These two boards supplied the majority of the visual elements and the remainder was found rough-sawn at the local lumber yard. When working with a very heavy-grained wood like oak you have to pay attention to the visual aspects of the grain. Crazy grain (unless desired) going in all directions can really change the look of something - generally negatively. In addition, of equal importance, is what the grain is creating in the board - warp, twist, cupping, and other undesirable traits. For wide boards that include joinery (in this case tenons) it is important the boards be rift or quarter sawn to avoid expansion and contraction problems. I did some calculations of the widest boards as constructed and determined that the boards potential worst-case expansion could be about 3/16" perhaps 1/4". This calculation is based upon species, some low and high moisture content assumptions, width, and grain orientation. I'll discuss the construction details later.

I often use mortise and tenon joints and planned to on this headboard; however, I usually make the tenons on the table saw. Six foot boards make that impossible so I set up the router. With very wide tenons a router works well, but the set up, from start to finish, must be precise. On the table saw the repeatability of machine crates accuracy. With a router the accuracy must be created by you. First, as usual, make sure your boards are evenly dimensioned and exactly squared. There are some things to pay attention to: First of all you should try to mill all of the tenons at one time so I clamped both boards together. This eliminates two set-ups, but more importantly ensures that both boards are milled exactly the same. The tenons should be left a little thicker than needed and planed to the exact needed size before glue-up. I left these 1/64" large. Another key element is leaving the boards with several extra inches on each end. Only waste the center leaving the extra length proud so as to support the router. You must transfer the lines from one side to the other very carefully. Mark the guide board, not the cut. This ensures that the guide board remains in the same location and that the cheeks of of each tenon are even on each side once the tenon is fit into the mortise. Mess this up, even a little, and you'll have a big problem.

Once both ends are milled on both sides the boards can be unclamped and the tenons cut to their final size.

I made these tenons quite beefy with only an 1/8" shoulder as I wanted lots of strength and my mortise was being cut into a 6/4 post. After previously milling up the posts they were ready for mortises. I cut these with a mortiser.

I always carefully lay out my cuts on the wood even though I have to set up the machine. This keeps mistakes down to zero (hopefully). Again, lay out all of your pieces, clamped together, at the same time. I even mark out the waste so I don't cut on the wrong side of the line. This is always good practice and is usually learned the hard way. Once the machine is set up the mortises are easily cut and cleaned up with a sharp chisel.

Once all the pieces are cut they are ready for preassembly. This is when you check everything before applying glue. The tenons should fit snugly in the mortises, but not too tightly. Square everything up just as it will be assembled. Plane the tenons to just the right size.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Shop - a simple box

I had some scrap maple taking up space and had been thinking about making a small box with it. Those thoughts turned into this. This design is superb, but I can't claim the idea of this simple box. However, when I saw the picture I knew the maple was going to be this box. Making boxes is a great way to use scrap and to acquire and gain new skills.

The tiger maple is colored with a water-based aniline stain, and finished with a mixture of linseed oil, polyurethane, and thinner. This kind of finish, as you can see, brings out the beauty of the maple. I enthusiastically recommend this type of finish for many projects and dye for all woods where you need to bring out the figure. It works wonderfully with quarter or rift sawn oak, quilted or tiger maple, sycamore, and many exotics. On the previous picture frame post I did not use dye as I did not want the flake to pop.

The box was formed by using only a box core bit and hand planes. The two sides are simply routered with a 1/2" box core bit at the "handle" while the angled part below is cut off on the table saw leaving half of the original radius. The rounded top of the sides was formed by hand. The sides are lower than the bottom and thus form two legs. The top is hand planed to round with the box core bit forming a hollowed out area in the inside. In addition, the box core bit formed the indent in the front and top which provides a handle. The bottom was fit into a dado. The side and bottom are 1/2". The box is about 12" long and is the new home of Tammi's jewelry.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Shop Made Picture Frames - MDF - post three

By far the easiest, cheapest, and most numerous frames that I make are made out of MDF. Medium-density fiberboard is an engineered wood product made by breaking down softwood into wood fibers and combining the fibers with wax and a resin binder, and forming the panels by applying high temperature and pressure. It is a building material similar in application to plywood but made up of separated fibers, not wood veneers. It is denser than normal particle board. MDF has a homogeneous structure with uniform texture and properties throughout.There are no identifiable grains or knots seen at the edge, end or face, nor any internal voids or pits or variation in surface hardness. MDF can't be stained or colored like traditional wood so it must be painted. Also, it could be gilded; work I've done on steeples and something I wish to apply to picture frames, but I have yet to try it.

MDF is highly machinable so just about any profile you can machine may be incorporated into the picture frame. It can also be glued together face to face and machined so that profiles thicker than 3/4 can be obtained. In this simple finished example, the frame is about 6 inches wide with a rounded inside and outside. The inside is 1/2" and the outside 1/2" and 3/4" creating a type of torus or thumb. See figure 2. (The painting is by Tammi and is of Bridger sleeping. One of his toys, a large praying mantis, contrasts innocence with impending and inherent danger. There was a lot of light scatter on the painting so the picture isn't the best.)

To create the overall profile I start by ripping 8' runs of the flat sections to the desired width of the frame . Due to weight and cost savings I generally make the flat sections out of 1/2" MDF. I then mill up the various profiles from smaller rips of either 1/2', 3/4" sheet or some glued up combination and then apply the milled profiles to the 8' sections. This effort often results in the use of quite a few clamps along with some creative clamping. After the glue drys I then cut the miters and assemble.

The Miter Sled

The miters must be absolutely precise. The best way to saw wide miters is to build a miter sled for use on the table saw. Of course the wider the miter, the more a fraction of a degree shows. With a picture frame this error is multiplied by eight. This means that a error of 1/8 of a degree will produce, in a picture frame, three tight miters and a miter that is off one degree!

Painted MDF tends to show every flaw, and I mean every little flaw. So, exactitude is critical. The miter sled setup must therefore be exact. A miter sled is built like a typical sled with the guides for the miters fixed at the correct angles rather than having a back fence. The best way to accomplish an exact 45 degree angle is to assemble the sled minus the miter guides and run the sled up and down the table saw with the blade down and off. Mark the front and back of the sled at the exact center of the blade. Draw a line which connects the two points. You now have the exact center line of the blade. Determine the location of the "point" of the miter on the sled along the center line. This line marks the shortest part of the cuts mites, which will be on both the left and right miters. With a beam compass set the one point at the intersection of the back of the sled and the center line. (I suggest using a point rather than a pencil) Stretch the compass to the predetermined point of the miter and scribe a radius. An exact 45 degree angle is now described by the two points which intersect the back of the sled at the outside of the radius and the miter "point". (The rear of the sled must be exactly perpendicular to the center line to achieve accuracy. If not, scribe a perpendicular line to the center line. The further apart all of these line and points are, the greater the accuracy of the setup. The easiest way to accomplish a perpendicular line is to again use your compass. Move the center point along the center line a short distance and increase the diameter. Scribe two points where this radius meets the original radius. Connect these two points with a straight line and you have two perfectly perpendicular lines. ) Next, prepare absolutely straight miter guides for the sled. It is beneficial to cut a small dado along the length of the guide at the intersection of the sled and the guide so any sawdust or other obstruction is prevented from affecting the angle of the miter. Attach the miter guides, add some clamps to keep things in place and you're done.

Three Examples

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3


After cutting the miters and glue-up the frames must be painted. Before painting I run a very tight bead of caulk around each milled section. This keeps any small cracks from showing and creates a more professional finish. I always spray paint the frames flat black and then spray a light coating of satin varnish. This keeps the frame from looking flat and also too shiny.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Shop made picture frames - post two

I thought that I would do a series on picture frames having done the previous post. I get a fair number of hits on the blog for woodworking. Oddly enough wood movement seems to be the most popular. Tendons come a close second. As Tammi is an artist, I've made quite a few frames and have perfected a way of making very cheap ones. I'll cover those next post.

Getting anything framed is a serious investment; however, shop-made frames don't cost too much. Some can even be made for a few dollars. One of the essential elements is design. Time spent in design always pays off. Responding correctly and appropriately to the artwork is essential. Always remember that it is the art that's primary. A frame just shows it off.

Tammi needed a frame for one of her early shows and the painting clearly called for an unusual frame. This is a large painting - just about four feet tall. Tammi came up with an idea and I tried to carry it out. This crazy frame what we came up with in the end. (Double click for a larger view.) The wood is riftsawn oak and came from one board. I found the board at Home Depot while looking for something else and scarfed it up. At a mill it would have gone for many times the price of normal or flat sawn oak.

The point of this frame is that, expect for the curved miters, it is very simple. The painting is held with a simple rabbit which I milled before cutting out the curves. The outer edge is rounded over with a 3/8 roundover bit. The finish is simple Danish Oil, but before putting on the oil I rubbed in red pigment. Thus, the frame has a very subtle red color. With a very complex painting a simple frame works very well. Keeping away from complex wood grain is critical. If you used these curves with a complex grain, the painting would be overcome and the striking curves lost in the conflicting grain.

What is unusual about this frame is the curved miters, but keeping away from straight lines is what really makes this frame sing. I made the curved miters by making a full-sized template of the entire design out of 1/4" plywood. I laid out the full frame and cut the template out, one miter both sides at a time. I had to layout the frame slightly larger than needed to account for the cuts. Thus each miter mirrored the other side. I then worked each side of the miter until both fit tightly as the width of the blade forced the "low points" and "high points" apart. Once all four miters (eight sides) were tightly fit I laid the four templates along the board and marked the board. After cutting out the oak about 1/4" wide of the line I used the template as a router guide and cut left, right, top, and bottom out with the router. I used double sided tape to adhere the plywood to the oak.I assembled the frame using biscuits located on some of the straiter curves.

I like to hang around Tammi's paintings at the openings and listen to the comments. During this opening two men who where quite obviously gallery owners spent some time in front of Tammi's painting. After discussing it at length, one said, "I like the painting, but I could never sell the $800 frame." Wrong, she didn't spend that kind of money, but she does have to put up with me.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shop made picture frame

Tammi painted a landscape for me from our Yellowstone vacation of which I'm very fond. This picture does not do it justice, but you'll get the idea.

Early one morning near the end of our vacation we packed up and headed out and the buffalo were heading down to the creek for an early morning drink. The Tetons were still hazy in the morning light and the breath of beasts hung in the air. It was a perfect scene and one I will always remember. Some of the pictures from that morning are on this post.

The painting itself is about two-foot wide and almost four-foot tall, so it's a large work. The painting has been drying for a while and I've been contemplating how best to frame it. I wanted to reflect the ruggedness of the Tetons, but give it a modern feel too. Both aren't easy to accomplish. I've been milling over the design in my head for quite some time. I was all over the place, but I had one overriding idea. I had a piece of beautifully-grained fir that seemed perfect for the piece, but I wanted to push the rugged idea a bit and create a feeling of roughness. I randomly worked the surface with a 1/2" gouge - this took about 3 or 4 hours. I knew it was exactly the look I wanted as soon as I had a small section done and it looked great against the strong grain of the fir. Keeping the gouge sharp and not splintering the splinter-prone fir was quite a challenge, but it was easy to go over the many splintered areas again. That done, I knew I would have to combine the rough look with something smooth and I worked with numerous ideas - a different grained wood, using the fir as a band, inside, outside, similar to a mat, and many more.

I played around with some of my ideas and finally put some of them into CAD. I came up with this. I switched the fir from being lower than the surround to being on top of the surround. I still was unsure of the colors of everything. I initially envisioned the rough fir being stained about the color of the buffalo with the surround being very light using a grainless very even wood. I began shaping the fir.

I cut the straight edges to round forming a gentle curve along each side. I then beveled the back so that the rough board would appear to float over the surround. This created the inside. I wanted a contrast to the roughness of the fir and thus went for something very smooth - I used MDF. I spray painted it black and then gave it a coat of polyurethane. I used a varnish-tung oil mix on the fir. When it came together, I had three nice contrasts; the light and the dark, the rough and the smooth, and the round and the straight. I was quite happy with the results and will no doubt play with this design in the future. It is quite striking and shows off Tammi's work very nicely.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Beef Basin and the Anasazi

In June the grass grows tall and straight in Beef Basin. It rises from the red clay and the white sand and on strong heads and bares its fruit; lush and green in great waves it bows to the wind as it has for thousands of years. For a brief time it is lord over the sage and king of all that it surveys. But soon the heat will topple its throne, bake its temple as with fire, and then, the wind will only find dust.

The Basin, this improbable place, this enigma, this island, lies wide in the mist of chaos. To the north, hard up against the valley sit the Needles - Ceder Mesa Sandstone worn into knotted canyons, jumbles of small ravines and pinnacles, and vertically walled narrow valleys. To the west lies Gypsum Canyon. Deep and rugged its jagged edge cuts the valley and spews its collected hate into the Colorado - always the lowest elevation in the area and fixed at the confluence of Gypsum and the Colorado at 3,700 ft. To the south-east the Abajo's cut the sky. The highest peak within the range is Abajo Peak at 11,360 ft (3,463 m). These steeply sided peaks covered with impenetrable deep bush, Gambel oak, and Ponderosa Pine are igneous intrusions laid down about 25 million years ago and thus are younger than the surrounding and lower mesas. Much of the water in the south part of the valley derives its source from the flanks of the most westerly peaks. To the south Dark Canyon cuts a ragged swath leading again to the Colorado. The moat complete, the valley rests in its peaceful solitude. I have never seen another soul in Beef Basin. It is visited, but not often.

Beef Basin is an archaeologically rich area. (See The Shell Bead) Although many of the ruins are widely known long explorations in the canyons and washes produce wondrous finds, but be prepared for rough country, climbing, and a little suffering. The ruins range from the open Hovenweep style (albeit with different masonry) of the "The Farm House Ruin" to high cliff dwellings; some extremely hard to find and get up into the ledge systems. The "Farm" complex is quite interesting and connected, I think, to other similar ruins in the valley. At some point in time the valley had a significant population. Interestingly, the farm complex is absent water today, whereas the other similar ruins are all tied to water. I suspect these ruins were abandoned in the drought from 1276 to 1299, but many have held up quite well. Some of the more remote ruins seem newer and still tied to the water that flows there today.

Beef Basin can best be accessed from the north and east with a normal 4x4 from Beef Basin Road, which leaves the pavement at Indian Creek, or from the south and west, on North Cottonwood Road just west of Blandings. From the pavement it is a committing drive either way.

One could easily spend two-weeks wondering among the mesas and canyons and only through several trips there have I truly appreciated its rugged beauty, its uncompromising remoteness, and unusual character of its location.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

David Lavender...a Connection

When I first walked into Lavender Canyon and began to find out who it was named for (and later found differently) I certainly didn't know I would discover that David Lavender and I had a connection of sorts. It's an interesting story.

In One Man's West Lavender has a chapter called High-Altitude Athletics. He spins numerous yarns about our beloved mountains, but one in particular left me thunderstruck. Lavender begins:

There was the time when three of us back-packed into the head of Titcomb gorge in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. We left timber line far behind, slogging along a stream milky with the floured rock discharged by the glaciers. The gorge was hung with a necklace of tiny sapphire lakes shimmering in cups of solid rock. Patches of moss were springy underfoot from snow just gone; draft blossoms of forget-me-not, primrose, king's-crown, and gentian, unable to exist in these rigorous climes as single plants formed societies of solid color. Bibs of white circled the peaks. Rank after rank, tier after tier. Thumbs and fingers and fists all pointing skyward. A dazzling world of swift, sharp lines and crystal light.

He goes on to describe the climb and near the end he identified the peak: Twin Peaks; which, because they were the first ascenders, they named. He never said who the other men where, but when I read Twin peaks my memory was taken back to 1991 and I was suddenly sure I had seen his name before and in his own hand.

Ross and I always kept a climbing journal and we've traded possession of the little worn green book a number of times. Currently, he was the keeper. I sent him an email and asked him to call me that night with the book in hand. He did, I read him the story, he let out a yell at the sound of Twin Peaks. He too had remembered. He looked up the day and we had a great time remembering the climb.

In 1991 my buddy and I climbed Gannet in the Wind Rivers walking from Gypsum Creek west of Green River Lakes to do so. We came out in Elkhart Park - a journey of about 60 miles through some pretty rough country; much of it trailless. After we climbed Gannet, we came back down on the west side of the divide and broke camp and headed for Titcomb Basin on the east of the divide via a peak that was almost never climbed - Twins Peak. On it was the original summit register (something I had never seen nor have ever heard of since that time, and I think a rare and interesting document) and the first name on the list was D. Lavender. The date of our climb was 13 August 1991 and the date Lavender listed was 10 August 1930. The three climbers were Lavender, Dudley Smith, and Bucknell. Three days later on 13 August 1930 Lavender climbed the peak again with Forrest Greenfield and Kendrick - the same day we were on the summit, but 61 years later. I recall a note they left calling Twins a"miserable summit". With the exception of a few early climbers around that 1930 date; including Petzolt and Koven (killed on Denali), no one climbed the peak again until late in the 1950's.

Lavender closed out his story of Twins with a story of suffering, but he said this first of that day.

Sitting in such a spot, hugging your knees, you can sense as a tangible thing the hurtling sweep of the earth on its orbit. The very vastness of the pattern stabs you to the heart. But it is not humility. Man would not aspire; he would not be laying his bold chains on every cosmic force he can reach were he only meek. The insignificance some persons profess to feel on seeing a natural wonder which more determined men, given motive, could sail over, tunnel under, or fly around is to me incomprehensible-a hang-over, perhaps, of the oriental fatalism that early tinged our religion. Why not a healthier pride-without arrogance-in being able to muster the courage to see and touch and share the fringes of creation, knowing that if we work well others can share still more?

The photos that day only have Ross on the summit, thus this is Twins looking north-west with my friend on the summit. The next picture is of me, but the previous day having climbed Gannet.(note the wool shirt and wool pants - it really doesn't seem that long ago!)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Desert and the Anasazi - Lavender Canyon

The cliffs and mesas on the Colorado Plateau are a unique place with unique qualities. The red walls peel away memory – the memory of other places, of other times, and even the memory of self until all that is left is this space – this red cathedral and the thousands of years it whispers of in a thundering, but empty and still crescendo. The cliffs rise as memories fade.

Although I have not wandered in these canyons for almost a year, the intervening time is stolen – filtered in the sands - lost. That year fades like a single drop of sweat on hot Navajo Sandstone until even the feeling of memory is lost. Now, this place, this time is all I have; all I know; and all I desire - a jealous lover whose beauty bares no wayward glance and whose caress steals the heart – forever. It is also best to pay attention to this lover in the heat of summer or she will have her vengeance.

I have journeyed here again to find the anasazi, to wander in the beauty of the desert, and to lose myself; to let sun bleach my soul, to filter it through the hot sand and to have the ancients return it to me cleansed and clear. They have walked here until decades are measured in moments — they know the paths, the secret places, and the beginning and end of a footstep and the sum of a life. Perhaps the solitude here is part of the revelation - the serenity drives a kind of relentless introspection.

I lean heavy against the red escarpment as if to push it away like great Atlas or Hercules - palms outstretched, fingers pointed toward the sky, back bent, head bowed. The moments slip and I think about these things. The week lies ahead. Eventually, I pull away and stand erect. The moisture of my palm prints, much like the painted palm prints of the Anasazi, traces the outlines my hand. Another journey begins -discovery in many forms awaits.

Lavender Canyon lies between Bridger Jack Mesa and Salt Creek Canyon on the south side of Canyonlands National Park. I wished to explore the upper and deeper part of the canyon because of its proximity to Salt Creek Canyon. Tammi and I had been backpacking down Salt Creek a couple of years back and were surprised by the number of ruins and gliffs. Salt Creek has the largest ruin outside of Mesa Verde (Big Ruin) and is home to such famous pictographs as All American Man and the Four Faces.

Lavender Canyon was named after David Lavender. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer prize this rancher and all-around western man; who was mostly a hard scrabble cowboy, put his mark on western history and literature. Near Durango, as a young man, he worked a silver mine and on his stepfather's cattle ranch as a cowboy, helping with all the work until a drought and the Depression forced the ranch's closure. Near to my heart he was also an avid mountaineer. Among other things, he was a Princeton grad. He later became a dedicated conservationist. He realized the west he knew was dying and the result of this realization was his most well-read book which was published in 1943, "One Man's West". The book is in reprint by Bison Books and out in a new edition with notes and added material by David Lavender's son, David G. Lavender.

Armed with a permit you can drive into Lavender Canyon from Canyonlands, but that approach is best for uninitiated and untested. It is best approached from the most south-southwestern side of Bridger Jack Mesa. The 4x4 road that leads north around the west side of Bridger Jack makes for an easy passage, but it is a bit narrow. I don't know the name of the Mesa the road sits on (it is unnamed on the topo), but the camping on the Mesa is fine. Let's call it Little Bridger Jack Mesa. The mesa burned quite some time ago, so the top is mostly grass and offers easy going. I found the reason for the fire on the way back up. There is an old uranium mine just off the cliff on the southwest corner. It looks like the miner's camp was the source of the fire.

The way down off Little Bridger Jack is hard and the way up even harder, but it does make a good day's walk. You can also get down Dry Fork Canyon - I walked around to look off the side and the way is quite easy. The north end of Little Bridger Jack looks passable on the topo, but the lower wall can not be breached without a rope.

Lavender Canyon is deep and the walls consistently vertical. The first picture shows the central part of the canyon - about 1000 foot from the mesa top to the creek at the bottom. There are ruins in the canyon and some looking around will reward a good search; however, the wild parts of the canyon are pristine and the wildflowers were wonderful - Shooting Star, Pestemon, Desert Indian Paintbrush, coreopsis, and plenty of blooming cactus.

In a side canyon I found fresh cougar track, the rear paw measuring just over 4" wide. He was a big boy and I was weary coming back at dusk that evening. A few deer tracks and a bit of water gave up the reason for his night's vigil. (I've looked at this picture a few times and sometimes get the illusion that the print is "pushed up", not in to the soil - if you get that look again) There were few signs of the usual leftovers of Anasazi habitation in the canyon itself. Although the Anasazi did live here I suspect the times were shorter and the water and game scarcer. I saw no gliffs except at the ruins; however, there are more than likely some around. The wall are generally dead vertical too - there simply aren't many building sites.

As soon as I got near the lower parts of the canyons the deer flies began to attack in hordes. I nearly went crazy slapping and swatting and Deet didn't make any difference whatsoever. I eventually put on pants and the incessant biting stopped - the horde just swarmed my legs. I seldom wear pants in the desert, but from now on in June I think I will always wear them. The gnats and no-see-ems were no fun either. I'm still itching a week later.

Besides the canyon itself there is another reason to visit; Cleft Arch. Cleft arch is a graceful and massive arch, thick and even, wide and tall. It juts into the the canyon and demands a visit. I approached it from the south and begin to friction the lower steep slaps and faced climbed the remainder. It can be free climbed, but it took me some time to work it out and I am a fairly experienced climber (the face: friction -5.9, face - 5.7/8). I recommend the northern side as it provides only a steep walk. Begin up thru the narrow slot when you first see the northern side of the arch. Of interest is the arch itself - its name becomes apparent once inside. It is now actually two arches joined together by a narrow, but very deep cleft no more than 1/2" wide. Lying on the hot sand blue sky is visible thru the vertical shaft, which must be 30 or more feet thick.

I walked and explored throughout the day and in the afternoon periodically sought some shade as I began to overheat. The canyon become hotter and the little thermometer on my pack strap soon slipped to 110 degrees. The afternoon, the sand, the ceders, the cactus, and the terrain turned against me. I had gone too far, climbed too much and still had much of the mesa to ascend to get to camp. I ran out of water and I had started with 200 oz - more than 1-1/2 gal. The setting sun gave me respite from the heat and I struggled slowly up the last 700 foot of Little Bridger Jack Mesa, through the cliff bands, and made my way toward camp. I had suffered a good bit in the end, but the day was worth the effort. The thirteen-hour exploration had left its mark and tomorrow I would drive to Beef Basin. Here's how David Lavender said it:

"Fortunately God gave man a poor memory for physical discomfort. The active ingredients which made the hurt so brutal at the moment lose their keen edge in retrospect: we are able to look back on them with certain detachment and even make them subject matter of our dearest conversation pieces."

These canyons don't yield their beauty easily - especially in late June and the home of the Anasazi is seldom hospitable. Discovery is never easy - any kind of discovery.

Correction! I had read that Lavender Canyon was named for David Lavender, but according to a much better source, David G. Lavender (the writers grandson), Lavender Canyon is named for Ed Lavender (David Lavender's step-father). Apparently, Ed used to drive cattle he bought from Ed Scorup ( the then owner of the Dugout Ranch on Indian Creek now just outside Canyonlands National Park). See page 328 of the new edition of "One Man's West". Anyway, I'll keep the post - surely Ed would approve of his son's fame.

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