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June 17, 2015

The Art of Self-Orientation By Joseph Fellows BFA Sculpture 2016

by Joseph G. Fellows

Going into my project at the Great Sand Dunes, I knew that there would be a lot of problems to solve right away.  I didn’t know exactly how welcoming the Ranger Staff would be, I wasn’t sure exactly how well some of my equipment would perform in the field, I wasn’t sure exactly how much support I would get, and I wasn’t sure how many of my skills would find a use out here in no-nonsense country.  However, I was sure that I had a framework in place that would allow me to effectively problem solve immediately upon my arrival.

The plan was to test my limits immediately and decide on the most sustainable approach.  I planned to avoid any costs for lodging by renewing a backcountry permit daily and setting up camp back into the nature preserve. It’s important to me that I avoid passing costs along to the park. I decided to pack in all my camping, scanning, and photographic equipment to see how I would do hiking the eight miles, round-trip, to my site and back for the first few nights.   I learned quickly that although this was doable, it certainly wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t possibly pack enough food and water with all my equipment to be out for more than a day and expect to have enough calories to stay upright.

Storm rolling in over Medano Creek as it flows past the SouthWestern par of the Dunes

Storm rolling in over Medano Creek as it flows past the Southwestern par of the Dunes

Instead I decided that I could be more effective if I could find a permanent place to set up camp, and then make day trips to various locations to do any scans.   After a bit of asking around, I went to a campground right outside the park gates. I had heard that they were short-handed and the owner was willing to take me on for some hours on the weekends to at the cash register in exchange for a patch of dirt to call my own.  She kindly allowed me access to wi-fi as well as an employee discount on some basic supplies which has allowed me more consistent access to maps, and articles that have informed my movements through the park.   It has also served as a way to introduce myself to members of the local community.

Great Sand Dunes Backcountry View Looking West

Great Sand Dunes Backcountry View Looking West across Medano Creek

My next task was making contact with my internship supervisor at the park.  A productive first meeting  opened a dialogue around the tools I brought with me.  Unfortunately he suddenly fell ill with pneumonia and was out for almost a week.  While he was recovering I spent the week trying to see as much as I could, photographing as many different subjects as possible and scanning whenever I could.  Once he returned, I was  connected with the park Geologist, who showed me the LiDar scan that was done of the Park.  I’ll admit to feeling somewhat out-gunned in that moment.  However it certainly underscored the appetite for new methods.  The opportunity to create something sculptural from the LiDar scan did excite me, though it would certainly require some problem solving to devise the necessary processing to create a printable/machinable mesh from such a large dataset.

Herd of Mule Deer along Medano Pass Primitive Road

Herd of Mule Deer along Medano Pass Primitive Road

What I found fascinating about the scan is that they have yet to have completed its evaluation. They are still finding features on the dunes and surrounding Sangre De Cristo Range that hadn’t been identified before.  It was only recently that they discovered a crater on the Northwest side of the park that they’ve just started to study.  They’ll likely repeat the process every few decades to track the way that the sand shifts.  Unique to this park, is that the topography of the park is constantly changing.  Often times the shifting sands reveal artifacts and fossils uncovering a fascinating history of life in the valley.Sample Scan of a tree stump

The entire San Luis Valley was once wetlands, inhabited humans alongside a diversity of wildlife including Mammoths, Bison. An archeological survey conducted after Great Sand Dunes became a park, surveyors found mammoth bones, prehistoric bison fossils, fish fossils, and various artifacts from the Ancestral Pueblo.

As I continued my survey of the park, I visited the northern gate, known as Liberty Gate. It was named for the now ghost town of Liberty a few miles in.  It is visited by very few due to its remoteness.  As such I had a hunch I might be able to get some images of the large Elk Herds that roam the plains in the park.  Upon arriving I met an older gentleman from Kansas who had been hiking in from the North with his five Mules.  He was regrouping in the parking lot as his dog had been injured after accidentally stumbling into  a coyote den.  You could tell immediately that he’d spent a good amount of time on his own in the camping in the wilderness as our casual conversation carried on for nearly 2 hours.   He’d been exploring the North side for a few weeks now.  He described to me how high the creek crossings were (in his mind their  was rated on a scale of one to “my boots got a little wet” ) as well as where he’d seen wildlife.  He told me the elk herds come down from the mountains at 5:00 AM, so if I wanted some pictures, I’d have to come early.  Also, that the Bighorn sheep were right near his campsite at about 10,500 feet, and that although a park ranger had said that he was full of it, he had in fact seen a Lynx in the park.  It seemed that his primary interest had been some of the abandoned mines.  He’d found quite a few further in by looking for the quartz veins in the rock, the same that the first gold miners would have looked for.

In any case, despite a few early logistical bumps in the road, the Park has started to unfurl in front of me; the history, the pre-history, the culture, the science, the beauty.  All of these things have become clearer with every day that passes, and through that process my ability to contribute becomes more tangible.  In many ways my supervisors absence has helped me structure my own investigation of the area, separate from their needs and interests, I think it will be valuable to maintain that balance as I continue to become more involved with the Rangers here. For me it has extremely exciting to feel a response of excitement, enthusiasm, and collaboration from the rangers I’ve spoken with so far over the past week and a half.  I have high hopes for the coming days and weeks and feel confident that as my opportunities to contact park staff become more frequent my ability to see the park for everything it has to offer will become greater and will ultimately allow me to pursue solutions in the interest of the Park as well as in the interest of my own personal growth as an artist.

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