Of Frozen Fall, Raven and Moss – 2017.01.23

Of Frozen Fall, Raven and Moss

  • Monday 23 January 2017
  • Elk Falls, Staunton State Park, Park County, Colorado
  • Time 1035
  • Elevation – 8600’
  • Calm, silver grey skies, 36℉
  • Distance one way  from car – 5.5 miles/ 2 hour 15 minute hike
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The ice queen, Elk Falls, frozen. My pack is the speck at the bottom of the falls.

This is my first time coming to Elk Falls. I’ve hiked many of the trails in Staunton State Park, one of Colorado’s newest state parks, which opened in May of 2013. The hike in is pleasurable, with the sun attempting to play peek a boo among snowflakes and grey skies.

After more than two hours of hiking, the anticipation is great of this new place to explore. As I come to the bottom of a large canyon I am surprised by the silence. Winter has stifled a mammoth cascade and frozen it in her icy grip. I confess, that initially I am underwhelmed and disappointed but it is only 4 ½ minutes into my hour watch here at Elk Falls.

Again, this week, I face south with steep rock walls all around me. This place, on a quiet, grey Monday morning with tiny flakes of snow bouncing off my knees, feels like a catacomb, tomb like and eerie.

Far off I hear the chirps from birds but the opposing mountain is so vast, so grand that I cannot begin to make out where the songsters are located. Shortly thereafter I can identify different birds; a raven, a jay and a distant bird of steel with engines, a ghost in the clouds above me.

The raven becomes raucous below me, upset about something. Two now banter back and forth and suddenly one is close by. I see him fly up the canyon now! A shiver goes through me with his throaty croak coming loud and louder as he flies closer. And as he comes even nearer I can now hear the beat of his wings, adding to the sinister nature of his arrival. He alights on a high branch of a Douglas Fir, takes note of the surroundings much like a scout, and then descends southwest and then southeast out of the twisting canyon.

Rock faces opposing me hold an angle of which this morning snow sticks and does not slide off. Nor has it been warm enough that any snow melts except for the flakes that settle on my gloves, my body heat rendering them to liquid, then to gas as they disappear.

The rock is granite. Part of a large formation called the Pikes Peak batholith, it is colored in pink, grey, black and sparkles even on this overcast day. It is covered in lichens adding a seafoam green color to the granite rocks. I then notice a softer, hairy, darker green moss as well. The moss, being a plant, is much different from the lichen. I can gently comb it’s hairs with my gloved finger, soft enough that it yields to my pressure, whereas the lichen is brittle, dry, more expansive and like parchment coating the rock.

moss-lichen

Moss, lichens and granite

I marvel that at 35 minutes into my watch I have become lost in moss, it’s texture, how it creates a shelf for the soft, fluffy flakes of snow and I feel as if I am in a terrarium, ant like if I were to be seen from the high trail above me that I, myself, cannot see.

Gazing to my left at the frozen falls I can discern movement in the lower reaches of this blue sculpture. Listening intently I can hear a glub, a pop, but not really a trickle. At 50 yards away I can barely hear it and appears to the eye much like a darker vein running under milky, paper thin skin. It is the only evidence I can detect of moving water under the falls. In late spring, early summer it must ravage off the cliff with the snowmelt, but today, in late January, it is frozen in time.

At 51 minutes I stare at the green and brown trees to take in the falling snow. So light, so dainty, that it does not fall as much as drift through the air. Now, the lightest of breezes carries it diagonally and as I turn the page of my journal, there are darker spots where the flakes have  been trapped between sheets, sheets that were once trees but are now instruments to capture graphite as it scratches across lines to retain my thoughts of this hour, this week.

With two minutes to the hourglass, the sun strains to shine through the clouds and causes me to squint as I look at it’s orb; a final stamp of beauty to the hour just passed.

Winter’s Solace – 2017.01.16

Winter’s Solace

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A “fish-eye” view of windmills, grasses and the front line of the front range of Colorado

  • Monday 16 January 2017
  • Jefferson County, Colorado
  • Time 1603
  • Elevation – 5955’
  • Calm, overcast, four inches of snow from morning, 36℉

My goal is to sit on a ridge for the last hour of daylight. That changes when the trail I need to take to get there is closed due to muddy conditions. With four inches of fresh snow on the ground, I am looking forward to the contrast, allowing me to scan a larger area where wildlife might “pop” out against the white landscape.

I head back to “option two” of which I had passed earlier on my way to “option one”. Having already forgotten my gloves this is not panning out in the way I had hoped. Thus, I end up creating a rule of sorts. “There shall be no switching plans in hopes of a better hour, better observations and better reading”. Stick to the plan, stay committed, it’s all part of the process and project.

I pull off the road and park the car. Shuffling along on a sidehill I find a spot overlooking the Rock Creek drainage. I want to drop far enough off the road to avoid being seen by traffic. I grab my little insulated pad which will protect my bottom from freezing.  I have a 180° view as I sit facing south overlooking the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which, oddly enough is host to vast wildlife including deer, elk, coyotes, bears, mountain lions and a proliferate bird population. I say oddly enough because the government used to manufacture plutonium triggers in a factory on the site during the cold war. There is a plan to open parts of the area to the public this year. I’m not sure I’m comfortable trekking out there when they do, but I’ve seen a herd of up to 100 elk from this little spot where I’m currently sitting, so I feel it might be a good venue for an hour to sit and hang out.

To the west seven wind turbines stand at attention unmoving. There is a plant beyond the turbines where they produce expanded shale and clay lightweight aggregate. A large smoke stack emits what I guess to be steam and for my interest today acts as a wind indicator. The steam moves straight toward the heavens confirming that it is a very still day. The clouds hang gray, heavy and low over the prairie. I am privy to the foothills that run from the city of Boulder south to Golden. I can make out Eldorado Mountain and Goshawk Ridge, which was “option one”.

Air traffic moves overhead from the nearby airport and there is a constant hum of vehicular traffic behind me. I block out the vehicles for the next hour focusing on what lies to my fore. The vista is open prairie, looking down into a drainage and upon closer inspection I’m able to make out that there are numerous valleys between me and a larger mesa in the distance. I remember from many past trips here in car and on bicycle that wildlife can quickly escape from view because of the undulating nature of the landscape.

Immediately below me is a lot of scrubby brush and yucca plants. The name of the yucca plant escapes me and I realize that I am harried and mentally scattered. I gather the binoculars to narrow my field of vision, somewhat overwhelmed by the miles of views in front of me. I scan the areas where I know game can hide from the naked eye. In less than a minute I see bodies, ears, heads and make out about eight deer. Before long they disappear into a ravine.

Being bare handed is not yet a concern. It’s amazingly comfortable even sitting on the snowy ground due to the fact that it is so calm. I sip from my bottle of hot tea, so hot that I add snow to my beverage to bring it down from scalding.

At 35 minutes my hands begin to chill and even without the indication of the sun, I can sense that the day is ending and evening begins to make its presence felt. A silent, soft breeze comes from the south. I look to the smokestack and see that the steam is now leaning north, pointing like a giant finger out of the sky.

41 minutes into my watch bright red blinking lights catch my attention. Fixtures on the wind turbines which burn brightly in the darkening sky.

Birds chirp, but I never see them, can only hear them and in turn sense the direction that they are flying. In other months this drainage can be filled with color. Today white on black is the dominant color theme. It is indeed the deep of winter. I often think about the animals that make these lands their home. Food is scarce, and today snow covers much of it. Animals, large and small, are careful not to expend energy and burn calories unnecessarily. Ironically many of the female elk, deer, moose and bears are carrying young in their wombs. Their gestation period happens during the hardest time of the year, growing these babies inside so that they can deliver them during the best time of the year, the spring, when the natural world is more gentle and forgiving. Mothers bear the burden of the harshest of seasons to carry their newborns into an appropriate time to find new life.

At 53 minutes I begin to think about how much I miss each and every day. Distractions abound, my mind can wander, attention spans can run short. Behind me I hear the “thump, thump, thump” of bass from a car stereo. I’ve done well over the past hour to mentally drown out the constant drone of traffic. Now it brings me back to the present. I check out of my daydream having lost track of time and discover I am 30 seconds beyond my hour for today.

Finding Flags – 2017.01.08

Finding Flags – 2017.01.08

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  • Sunday 08 January 2017
  • Inner Harbor, Baltimore County, Maryland
  • Time 1353
  • Elevation – Sea Level
  • Strong northwest winds, clear skies, 23℉

Not wanting to be overwhelmed by the music and people I walk out to a pier where the USS Constellation is moored. I am at Inner Harbor, or more technically, the Port of Baltimore, a 300 year old port. The Inner Harbor contains the Patapsco River which eventually flows out past Fort McHenry to the Chesapeake Bay.

The sun beats strongly and I opt to face south, seated on a bench, hood pulled over my head to shield me from a strong west wind. The air is cold and biting with the wind strong enough at times to send my little journal sliding across the bench even though my body acts as a windbreak.

Noises! Sirens sound shrilly to the west. Music emanates from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory mixing with song from other restaurants. It beckons to patrons that are largely non-existent on a blustery, bitter Sunday afternoon in January.

Gulls abound and determine that I am a poor source for food and handouts, thus leaving me to myself. I have just one that nests on the walkway a few feet from my own perch here on the bench.

A Water Taxi pulls out with one passenger as the Captain takes her away from the dock. In the distant southeast, my eyes strain to make out the different buildings, construction cranes, boats and landmarks. The Domino Sugar building stands out against the rest.

People watching is scarce with most hearty souls bundled up in heavy jackets moving from point A to B. No loungers keep me company. A seagull squeals and a helicopter flies rather low from east to west and will come by again later.

Across the harbor the American Flag stands at attention, ablaze in the light against the pale blue sky. A pair of Mallard ducks float past me and then a bitter gust of wind blasts across my body, carrying with it grains of snow, abrasive like sand blowing in the desert.

I look in my 360 degree circle and note how the wind curls around buildings belying its actual direction. Thirty-one minutes into my watch sirens sound again, this time from the northeast.

The USS Constellation, an old civil war ship staged here for tours, creaks eerily. It moves with the wind, protesting its mooring. I believe it begs to sail again, to live its life as it was meant to be, on the open seas, not as an object to be taken pity upon, an old warhorse lying immobile.

As boredom and complacency fight for my attention, I begin to play a game of “find the flag”. Pivoting in my seat I attempt to pick out as many official flags as I can. This…is much like looking for a bedded deer in the forest. I focus as I look for a tip of a pennant catching wind from behind a building. Here, not far from where The Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key, are many flags. After a few turns I count 25 different national, state and local flags.

Counting flags brings about a different sentiment; one that surprises me. It is one of history, national pride and all that has gone before me and this country. Forty minutes of exposure to wind and cold has stripped away a leathered layer of my personality and exposes appreciation. Pride surfaces as I think about my nephew currently serving in the US Army, my son enlisted and preparing for boot camp with the US Navy and an 8 month old great nephew with a future ahead of him and very little in the way of day to day worries. Familial and national pride sends my chest swelling and I’m very surprised by this feeling, for it was not what I anticipated to come forth from this time. I’m brought back to the present as the sun plays peak a boo with a stray cloud and Pat Benatar belts out “Love is a Battlefield” from across the water.

To my east I look at a submarine and the National Aquarium and with five minutes remaining on my watch the ¾ moon appears over the cityscape. It is a ghost rising up, preparing for the night shift as the sun makes its exit for this day. As I finish, 15 seconds have yet to tick off as I stand from the bench, turn to face it and see the wind blow my items onto the brickwork below emphasizing the end to my time here.

New Year’s Sunrise – 2017.01.01

New Year’s Sunrise

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Peering through Eldorado Canyon, Standley Lake shimmers below vibrant orange clouds.

  • Sunday 01 January 2017
  • Walker Ranch, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 0638
  • Elevation 7291’
  • Strong west winds, 32℉

It is 16 degrees when I leave the house. I am hoping for warmer temperatures even though I will be 2,000’ higher at my destination. Gratefully, it is twice as warm at the parking lot, but with increased temperatures come strong west winds.

Darkness reigns, with clear skies, but no moon as I make my way down the trail at Walker Ranch. I have a specific spot in mind for this first official “hour of stillness” for 2017. Picking a specific time, (sunrise), on a specific day, (New Year’s Day) means I am at the mercy of the weather. As I arrive at my designated spot, light just begins to emerge from darkness with the sunrise another forty minutes away.

I crawl below the high point of the hill and settle in on the leeward side, which offers me a 180 degree view. As I nestle down on the ground I adjust in my spot placing my left hand on the ground. My first sensation of this spot, still very dark, is one of a sharp prick and I realize that a small cactus has poked through both my glove liner and heavy lobster claw glove. Over the next hour I am careful not to  place my hand there again. I have picked my spot and I need to make do with it, adjusting to the surroundings, a visitor on this mountain, a spectator to nature’s first sunrise of the New Year.

A juniper full of berries is on my right shoulder, sheltering me from the wind. Immediately to my left is a Ponderosa Pine, limbs shifting in the gusting wind. I face east, looking through Eldorado Canyon and can see the shimmering water of Standley Lake. There are many blinking red lights in my view as I also look toward the National Wind Technology Center  located south of Boulder. Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport is off in the distance. As I was coming into this spot a train rumbled on the south mountain, its train whistle blowing in the stiff wind and lights ablaze in what appeared to be a passenger car.

As the minutes pass my eyes adjust to the increased light in the expanse below me. My index finger chills on my pen and my knees are cold pressing against my pants as I sit cross legged. I begin to notice my breath in the cold air as I exhale. The sky on the horizon brightens and my eyes play tricks on me as I think I see an aircraft, or perhaps a UFO. Focusing my field glasses I realize it is a high, lonesome cloud.

I stretch my legs and my metal water bottle, which contains hot coffee, falls and clatters loudly against the rocks causing an unnatural sound as it is muffled by the hum of the wind.  

No animals are stirring as 2017 makes its fierce entrance; maybe a morning for wildlife to sleep in, nestled under pine boughs, escaping the wind. I’ve seen no deer, elk or grouse this morning; all creatures that I have seen in this area on past trips.

The sun breaks the horizon in earnest at 7:19, forty minutes into my morning watch. Five minutes later the dawning light fills the mountain, brightening winter grasses as tremors settle into my body from the chilly morning. I now squint as I look east and turn to the right behind me to escape its rays.

Four minutes remain of the hour as I snap photos trying to capture “good light”. As a mere two minutes remain nine deer suddenly appear to my right, coming around the corner of the hillside 30 yards away. We all see each other at the same time, with a few of the lead deer bolting down into the draw. The others look at me, cock their heads this way and that and eventually make their way toward the others. As the clock expires on my hour, I quietly go about gathering my gear. My binoculars case has blown 15 feet below me and I scramble down to get it as the deer mill about, feeding, moving and seeking cover from the blustery day.

Walking back to my car, I fully realize the force of the wind as it makes its cold presence known chapping my cheeks and causing me to burrow down into my jacket. On this, the first day of a brand new year, the wind is the star of this morning premier.