Bald Mountain 2017.08.11

  • Friday, 11 August 2017
  • Bald Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1017
  • Elevation – 9,031’
  • Warm, sunshine, clouds, and inversion below
Weather

Storm clouds move in from the top right as an inversion dominates the scene in the lower left.

After a long hiatus from sitting still for an hour, I am back. Spring came, the world outside came alive and I needed to be moving. I’ve spent much of my time this summer on the move, covering many miles in the mountains, running, hiking, backpacking. In a few weeks the activity will become a dichotomy. On Labor Day weekend I will be running a one day mountain trail race called the Grand Traverse, 40 miles of high country running from Crested Butte to Aspen. During the month of September I will also be spending a number of nights in the backcountry pursuing Mule Deer and Elk during the archery season. Hunting is a part of me and has been for most of my life. There are many opinions on it, but it is where I found my first connections to the wilderness. It involves immense amounts of time not moving, being still, listening and tuned in to creatures that move at a very slow pace, slower than the human race and in turn completely tuned in to their surroundings. I think I’ll share the experience of being outside, vulnerable and alone during those times in September. So I invite you to stay tuned for that. It will not be a story of a harvest as much as a story of the experience of pursuing something elusive.

This morning, however, I am sitting on Bald Mountain facing east looking at Sugarloaf Mountain. I drove up out of a cloudy, foggy Boulder and rose above the inversion. This is a strange area. In all directions I can see residences of people that live in the hills above Boulder. To them, I am sure they feel like they are “getting away” from the city. But in short order, one crosses many different roads in this area. It is busy with campers, hikers, locals, transients and a weird existence where they all come together. I don’t find much comfort here because man has imposed so much of himself into this area that it doesn’t seem wild, only weird. Behind the mountain to the southwest is a huge scar from a wildfire that was caused by an out of town transient visitor last summer that had to have a campfire. Many are drawn to this area because Colorado has become a land of milk and honey, or, weed and edibles.

But I am literally above all of this. It feels great to sit back directly on the damp ground. My butt gets a little wet, but today it’s sunny and summertime. I’ll dry out quickly. The breeze is soft, the sun warm. Insects buzz about, birds chirp and grasshoppers flutter and buzz about like dying helicopters. An insect I cannot identify goes ‘tick, tick’. A cacophony of flying bugs creates a chorus of music here in this meadow atop the mountain.

The hillside is gorgeous. Tall grasses tickle my arms. Mountain Mahogany lies off to my left and slightly uphill. Butterflies flit about, one being an American Lady, who upon

IMG_4432

American Lady

inspection of a photo, later reveals that it has been battered about here on the mountain. There are various wildflowers including dwarf lupine and asters. Berries are also close by and reminds me that the bears of the mountains are entering into hyperphagia, a period where they consume up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation to fatten up before hibernation in the winter. As berries ripen they will feast on them and be happier than Yogi Bear at a pick-a-nic!

Sinister clouds begin to form behind me to the west, rolling in from the Continental Divide. It is the monsoon season and while on the front range we do not experience the deluges like they do in the deeper San Juan mountains, we have had some heavy rains in the previous days. An inversion remains below me in the Boulder Valley and I sit in sunshine between the threatening high clouds above and the oppression of higher humidity below. Cooler air blows up from the valley below me.

It’s now 10:59 and I realize that everything is moving quickly and I have not stopped enough in the past months to see all that is happening around me! Summer is fleeting and it leaves a sad pit in my heart. There is now immense calm on the mountainside and it seems a storm is imminent. Voices carry up to me from below, either hikers, locals or campers. Tiny raindrops begin to dot my pants at 11:04.

As I finish out my hour I’m thankful for the time here. It is a new place and one I wanted to check out. Yet, I doubt that I will come back here anytime soon. The views are fantastic, but there is too much actiivty for my liking. Perhaps I’ll bring a friend back for a winter hike, but in summer, the high country calls to me more. I desire places where the air is thinner, the weather a bit more unpredictable and the solitude easier to find.

Day Hikes Start in the Dark

I’ve done this trip enough times in the last three years that I can almost do it in my sleep. The ritual goes like this; set the alarm for 3:30, out the driveway by 4:00 and hiking from the trailhead at first light just after 5:00 during this time of year.

When I first began making my way back into the reaches of Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Arapaho Pass I would have trouble sleeping. Last night I awoke only once at 1:30 and looked at the clock, toyed with the idea of leaving early but quickly went back to my slumber.

Part of the restlessness is the nature of the trip. The first three miles gain in elevation from 10,100′ to 11,900′, so it’s a gasper right out of the parking lot. The trail is fair enough and the views are phenomenal. This time of year if you know where to look and have good binoculars you can see elk feeding at dawn above timber line on the high ridges to the south. This morning I could see three elk silhouettes with the naked eye and my binoculars revealed they were three bulls hanging out in a “bachelor group”.

However, the stopping and looking at wildlife extends the trip to the Continental Divide at Arapaho Pass. So I make my way west and up, now fully exposed to the wind on the ridge top, but not so cold as to stop and put on my light wool gloves. I make my way 1,000′ down in elevation switching back and forth on the trail until I am down into the area of Caribou Lake. The trail has been snow free to this point, but wet off and on. Because this area is notoriously wet I have worn boots today. I rarely do this anymore choosing to do most of my hiking in Altra Lone Peak trail runners. Very light, very comfortable and quick on the tread. However, during my archery elk hunting trips last year my feet were wet for five days straight on two separate occasions, thus the need to go with waterproof footwear. Today is a trial run of the Gore-Tex boots, yes waterproof, but much heavier and very clunky.

As I move north of Caribou Lake I now head off trail through the swampy, grassy meadow area. I’m heading to a shortcut that the elk use that I discovered two years ago. However, there are still heavy snow fields here and I see that the elk have not used this route as of yet. We had very heavy snows in May and it has made it difficult for summer to fully shine through. Once I navigate my way to the bottom of the draw I see a set of elk tracks that seem rather large. They could be moose, but I think they are elk because the tracks go higher in the direction I am moving. The elk has left behind two large cloven hoof marks with dew claws dotting directly behind. It seems that maybe two elk moved through the area.

I know exactly the route the elk take and it also provides me with the easiest way to a little spot that rests higher above the dark timber. I note that quite a few trees have fallen since last fall as I pick my way up the mountain. As I come closer to an area that the elk “play” in during the warmer summer temperatures I slow my pace more out of habit than really expecting to see any elk in the area. As I peek out into a small meadow that is typically a bog in the summer I see that it is completely covered in snow and frozen over. There are two lines of tracks moving through the area, but it looks like one elk came and went and the tracks are frozen hard in the snow.

White Tailed Ptarmigan change clothing with the season so as to blend with the surroundings and conceal themselves from predators. It seems to be working!

I pull my pack off my back and am glad to put the 18 pounder on the ground. It’s heavier than necessary but I was liberal with throwing things into it, so that I could get some light “training” with the heavier boots instead of the usual light trail runners and a running pack. I pull out a trail camera which operates on a motion sensor that I will place over the area. It will be a while before the elk frequent this area, but I want it in place so I don’t have to worry about it. Last summer, I had hundreds of images and video of elk playing in the swampy area, typically on rainy days.

The one drawback to this area is the distance required to get here. I’m now six miles from the car and it’s been a haul to get here; and that was taking a bushwhack shortcut. The advantage to it being so remote is that I rarely see anyone once I am off the trail. In fact, where I am at right now, I have never seen another human, which is why the elk like the area.

I get the camera set and having felt fatigued from the beginning of the hike I decide to begin to make my way back to the car. I drop off the mountain eventually gaining the Arapaho Creek trail. It still holds plenty of snow and there are a few old boot tracks on the trail. I pick my way along the trail climbing back up to Caribou Lake and meet my first person of the morning. We greet each other and I begin the hike back up to the Continental Divide.

It’s a nice walk back and I now encounter more hikers making their way in. Numerous folks ask me about trail conditions, how far I went and just what time did I start? I’m back at the car just before noon. Seven hours, 12 miles and time to get home and catch a well deserved afternoon nap before turning on the switch to give a massage this evening to a client. Business has been slow this year; not so great for paying bills but great for enjoying the mountains and beauty of Colorado! I’ll always enjoy the latter!

It will be a good wildflower season in the Indian Peaks Wilderness this year

Question on Bear Peak – 2017.04.05

Question on Bear Peak

  • Wednesday, 5 April 2017
  • Bear Peak, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1006
  • Elevation – 8,241’
  • 40℉, windy, but sheltered, blue skies, new snow
peak.JPG

Looking northeast from Bear Peak to Boulder and beyond

It’s getting to the time of year where I want to be doing more and longer hikes and trail runs. With an open schedule I planned to do a run/hike somewhere near Golden, Colorado. But Tuesday brought snow and much of it to the slightly higher elevations. This meant that a) I would need to get an early start before it warmed up to 50℉ and b) I needed to go high to avoid a sloppy muddy mess for my hike.

I change my mind, sticking close to Boulder starting at South Mesa Trail as I leave the car at roughly 7:00. I pass a runner, then a hiker with a dog and have the snowy trail to myself. After two miles I stop to put gaiters on as snow begins to sift through the tops  of my hiking boots. I come to the Fern Canyon trail and I know things are about to get serious. Over the next 1.3 miles I have to ascend roughly 1,600’ to get to Bear Peak, a 8,241’ high point above Boulder, Colorado. I will do a loop but have not picked out a spot where I will actually sit for an hour. Going up Fern Canyon is steep but I prefer it to coming down and this counter clockwise loop is my typical route for this hike.

I stop before the trail tilts up in earnest and peel off a top layer so I only have a long sleeved top and sleeveless base layer underneath. I begin climbing, trekking poles making no sound in the deep snow. At spots the trail requires me to pull myself up rocks and get good purchase with one foot above my waist as I do a reverse one legged squat to pull myself up the trail. But the trail is good, with switchbacks the first half mile. And it is during this portion of the trek that I decide on stopping at Bear Peak.

It is already an unusual day because I am the first one to climb this trail today. This is somewhat incredible in this hotbed of recreational activity. I decide that being the first one up the trail for the day allows me to play king of the hill once I get to Bear Peak. I’ll sit there for one hour and ask a certain question of each hiker that comes up after me. This gives me purpose as I hit on up the trail with renewed vigor.

I hit the saddle which gives me a view of Green Mountain to the north. I snap a few photos and now head directly south on the ridge to climb up to Bear Peak. The trail disappears and as the wind has swept across the ridge it has deposited snow resulting in thigh to waist deep drifts at times. I burn some good calories by the time I arrive at the post and trail marker at 10:06.

I hit the stopwatch immediately because I’m not wild about being up here in a sweaty state and getting sick. I settle in to observe what is happening around me.

I am not actually on the peak but just beneath it sheltered on the east side out of the wind. It is calm, warm, serene. The sun is bright as I pull my ball cap down on my ears and switch out sunglasses. A knife ridge runs north/south here, a popular route for people that do the “traverse” bagging the various peaks directly west of Boulder. From where I stand I have views east surveying the plains and west to the Continental Divide.

Bear Peak behind me

20 minutes pass and I predict that I am not going to see a soul up here on the peak. Regardless that it is a weekday, that not one person would be on Bear Peak between the hours of 10:00 and 11:00 is incredible. I have to wait and see what happens.

I look to the east and decide to inventory the bodies of water that shimmer in the sun amongst the white snowscape. I count, lose track, start over, and eventually quit at 25. As I look farther east high clouds create shadows making it difficult to distinguish landmarks.

Roads, creeks and trails create dark ribbons against the contrast of the new snow left from the day and night before. As a black vulture rides the thermals below me, I, too, have a bird’s eye view of Boulder, Jefferson, Broomfield, Adams, Larimer, Weld and Denver Counties.

I had passed budding shrubs earlier, but now snow clinging to branches and rocks brings about the look of winter instead of spring. But it is indeed a wet, heavy spring snow that has allowed me to pack down a spot in which to stand. I inadvertently left my seating pad at home and I stand for the entire hour. In fact, by the time I reach the parking lot I will have been on my feet for six hours without once sitting down.

At one point I begin whistling “My country ‘tis of thee” very softly as I take in the views from Divide to Plains. The hour draws to a close and is anti-climactic today with not one person arriving to answer my question. While the views here are fantastic, the trek to get here was more stimulating and full of adventure. I don my pack for the two hour, four mile descent back to the car. Gentle smoke drifts out of two chimneys from houses to the west as I step through the deep snow finding the trail on the west side of Bear Peak. I”ll save my question for another day, another trek, another time.

Divide

Clouds form a line shrouding the Continental Divide in the distance

Walkabout – 2017.03.24

Walkabout

  • Saturday 24 March 2017
  • Forsythe Canyon, Roosevelt National Forest, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1035
  • Elevation – 7,844′
  • 50F, mostly cloudy, light breeze

I find my spot on a rock after having hiked the area of Forsythe Canyon and Twin Sisters Peaks for the last few hours. Ironically I can throw a rock to my car which is parked 100′ below me as I face north overlooking County Road 68, a four wheel drive dirt road frequented by recreationalists from nearby Boulder.

When I rounded the corner earlier this morning driving to my normal parking spot I was greeted by a large herd of elk. They were too great in number to count and were on either side of the road, spread out around local residences here in the foothills. In my estimation there were 150-200. (How many can you count in the image above?) After hiking for a while I decided to venture back to where I began and observe the herd.

As I now sit looking north I see a small fraction of them bedded in an island of Ponderosa Pines, on the edge of a large meadow, in what would actually be considered someone’s front yard, except it is in the mountains. I sit on public property, but the elk are bedded down on private property, about 500 yards away.

I hear voices from the east and six cyclists pick their way down the steep dirt county road. I view them through my binoculars and I think I recognize the fifth rider as John Talley, an old friend I raced with a few years ago in front range races. I refrain from shouting at him and am always amazed how one, while just sitting still, can go unseen by humans, yet animals much farther away will tune in to me so easily and quickly, more often than not, because my scent gives me away.

The elk number about a dozen and one feeds while the others rest, all heads alert and looking south/southwest where the noise and activity comes from. Their coats are ragged like moth eaten garments, as they move from enduring the winter toward spring, a season of renewal. I’ve seen the new grasses begin to emerge which will offer key nutrients to the elk, especially the cows, as they prepare to give birth to their calves and will be supplying milk for the newborns.

The thin clouds above offer a cool day, the sun working hard to make its heat felt but never shining completely through. Two more cyclists move down the dirt road below me, their voices echoing for minutes before I ever catch sight of them.

After 25 minutes I glass to the west of the dozen and spy more elk in the trees. I see a head of one, the horizontal line of another as it lies down in the grass, just the elongated snout of one farther away mainly obscured by a pine. They have been here the whole time but when they are not moving it is much more challenging to pick them out, even as there are more than a hundred in the area.

Friends of mine often comment how surprised they are that we don’t see more wildlife when out hiking. But large mammals of the forest do not move much. Their life consists of eating, resting and procreating. Wasting precious energy means burning valuable calories, making them vulnerable to conditions and predators. For many hours of the day, especially during daylight hours, they are bedded down watching the world around them, alert to any potential dangers.

The two groups of elk now begin to converge, with some feeding toward the other group. I think I’ve missed one jumping a fence but upon closer observation I realized that there are only posts in the ground, no actual physical boundary connecting each of them.

A black billed magpie lands on the back of a feeding elk. The elk, either used to this kind of activity or oblivious to the fact that the bird is on its back, continues to feed without missing a beat. The magpie walks the length of its spine and then flies off. I’ve read that magpies will do this with mule deer, picking lice and bugs out of the hair. They must do the same with elk, who have much longer hair than their ungulate cousins. The magpie doesn’t stay long and I wonder if bugs and such would not be present yet this early in the season?

In summer and fall when I have frequented this area I have seen many deer and even moose on one occasion. But the elk only winter here, arriving in late fall when the snows and lack of feed force them down from the nearby (some 15 miles as the crow flies) Continental Divide. They migrate gathering numbers as they cover the miles on their annual journey. This makes them a “migratory” herd. (There is a herd where I sat earlier this year that never migrates, staying in one large general area on the plains. They are considered a “residential” herd.) The elk will remain here until the cows calve in May. Not long after, as the temperatures rise and snows begin to melt, they will all move back to the high country and separate out into smaller groups for the summer months until the whole process repeats itself again in the fall.

As I sit and continue to observe the elk I remark in my mind of how peaceful it is today. There are the occasional cyclists and I can hear some local residents working outside but by and large it is calm, serene and beautiful today. There is an ease about it as my hour here draws to a close. I’m grateful for the opportunity to observe this herd of elk. They have been particularly gracious as they can prove skittish, elusive and mysterious during other times of the year. I look forward to observing them in other locales during this coming year as part of this project, for they capture my soul like no other member of the deer family.

Soul Soothing -2017.03.18

Soul Soothing

  • Saturday, 18 March, 2017
  • Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 0620
  • Elevation – 6250’
  • Calm, slightly cloudy, 35℉

Taking the last morning of the week, my journey seeking stillness comes at a good time. I’d spent the last day working on a landscape project at my house and had come to a challenging crossroad. Leaving the trailhead in the dark, the moon is waning but still large and glowing, and I opt to forego a headlamp and make my way up the wide four track trail. After ten minutes, I head off trail and go straight up the ridge. I’ve run and hiked around this ridge many times over the past five years, once even doing a hike with a group under a full moon.

I pick my way slowly over the rocks, downed trees and grassy hillside. I’m not sure when but there had been a fire here some time ago. The hillside contains low vegetation, popular with the deer in the area but the large trees are scarred ghosts from before the fire.

As I hit the ridge, I climb south and slightly higher. I have a beautiful view of the moon which plays peek a boo behind a tall soldier of a tree. I stop, having not even found my spot to sit, having not pulled out my notebook, and take my camera trying to capture this feeling. These weekly ventures have become a vitamin for my soul, a connection to the earth, to God and a world away from distaction. My mind drops right into the moment and I attempt to begin to take it all in.

A few moments later I find a nice spot on a rock, pull out my trusty pad to sit on and make a note of the time, which is 6:20. It has taken me half an hour to get here in the dark without a light for guidance.

The scene is one of being in a crows nest in a ship. Bare trees surround me acting like masts on this narrow ridge top. I have views of Boulder valley and Denver to my east. Behind me is Eldorado Canyon State Park (again) and a network of trails, open meadows, ponderosa pines and beautiful rock formations.

My notes in my little book are large because I choose to not use any artificial light and merely feel my way along. The sun begins to brighten the sky to the east and it becomes very much like a fireworks show, changing every few minutes as the light changes my world. I forego much notetaking and snap photos instead. I rotate 360 degrees for interesting light and interesting shots. It is breathtaking and emotional.

Being days away from spring it feels as though the earth is about to burst. Birds chirp and sing and there is a different tone to their song. One of hope and excitement. The cold morning air will give way to much warmer temperatures later in the day, and as I breathe in I feel the cold air in my lungs. It is refreshing, knowing that later in the day the sun, so warm so early in the year, will be an abrupt presence.

Forty minutes in  I finally take a break from capturing photographs of the scene unfolding as the sun makes it way toward the line of the horizon. Magpies call back and forth and eight of them alight in a tree about 50 yards away. They sit there roosting in the tree, a raucous bunch as if plotting out where they will go to next and raise some hell. Eventually, my movement startles one, sending it into flight and the group mentality follows, the unruly teenage types flying northeast.

Awhile later I am visited by two Steller’s Jays and they land on the branches of a tree to the south opposite of where the Magpies were. The Jays, also typically loud and obnoxious, are quiet this morning. Perhaps, maybe, they are courting, requiring more polite behaviour as love may be the motivator for them this early morning.

I pull my binoculars out over the last fifteen minutes, as there is now enough light to be able to scan the open meadows and more importantly, the edges, for this is where the deer will be located. To my southwest I spot the hind end of a deer. It moves within seconds behind some trees and then reappears a few minutes later.

My hour here draws to a close. I had solved my landscaping challenge on the way to this spot before the “work” of observing began. It’s already been a great day.

For my readers, wherever you might live, this time of year is a grand occasion. Babies will soon be born by deer, elk, bears and larger mammals. Birds will be courting. Vacationing species of feather will come back from their winter haunts to find their summer homes; a remarkable spectacle and annual event for many. I highly recommend taking a morning to venture from the covers before first light, getting to a nice spot and watching a sunrise. I don’t think you will regret it.

A Prelude to Change – 2017.03.02

A Prelude to Change

  • Thursday, 2 March, 2017
  • Roxborough State Park, Douglas County, Colorado
  • Time 0945
  • Elevation – 6,785’
  • 45℉, blue skies, light wind, sunshine
caps

Only caps remain from acorns that dropped the previous autumn from the Gambel Oaks.

It’s been years since I have been to this park and I’ve only been once, probably more than fifteen years ago. So much time has passed that I don’t remember what it was like. Having been sick for two weeks, I’m happy to be outdoors. I missed last week’s trip of sitting outside because it was too cold, too windy and I was having trouble getting healthy.

But today is sunny, it is going to top out at 50℉ and the feeling of my feet hittting a dirt trail is soothing to my soul. Heading toward Carpenter Peak I don’t have a spot in mind as much as a place of respite. I’m seeking a feeling, not a destination, and when I come to a split in the trail I opt for Elk Valley instead of Carpenter Peak, the trail showing fewer tracks in the snow versus the icy path moving higher.

I make my way to my chosen spot in the valley after having walked in from the northeast and then back out of it to the west. As I explored the upper reaches there didn’t seem to be as much “life” to the area, so I backtrack and find a spot nestled between three Ponderosa Pines.

Looking across the little valley my eyes tell me it is still winter. Thin snow covers the hillsides to the south that face north. I am on the north side of the valley that roughly runs east/west. On the large mountain behind me the terrain is dominated by Gambel Oak, mostly barren now at the end of winter. I’ve heard Gambel Oak also called “Scrub Oak”. It is more like a shrub than a tree, growing about chest high with crooked branches that reach out in all directions. It provides food and cover for black bears, wild turkey and mule deer. It has an extensive root system from which it spreads. Acorns provide food for wildlife, and birds forage on the ground beneath fallen leaves. It is so thick on the mountains in this area that if a fool were to attempt to walk through it from the bottom of the mountain to the top, he would  exhibit scratches from head to toe on exposed skin, and clothing that covered the body would likely suffer tears in the fabric.

As I close my eyes I am fooled into believing that it is spring. Bird life is abundant here as they sing, chirp and squawk. A fly buzzes by my feet, the first insect that I have seen this year in my time afield. On my right cheek I feel the cool breeze and chill of the air. Conversely, on my left cheek and shoulder the warm radiance of the sun, as winter and spring play a game of tug of war with my senses.

My ears tune in to the breeze as it builds in energy creating different sounds around me. As the invisible force moves through the pine needles of the ponderosa it creates a soft whisper. A few leaves hang on the oaks behind me, spinning, rustling, a natural wind chime here in the valley. My own body creates a disturbance of the moving air as it buffets my chest, resulting in more of a deeper tone. It all takes on a pleasant air as I embrace the wind in lieu of shuttering away from it. The force uses all that is in its way to create music in the outdoor world; my body, the trees, the contour of the mountain acting as reeds creating a symphony in nature.

From behind comes the now familiar sound of rustling leaves on the ground. All morning I have been slightly startled by the noise. The fallen oak leaves litter the spottedtowheeground, crunchy in texture as they sit on the dry mountainside exposed to sun, wind and drying elements. It sounds as though someone or some little thing is raking the leaves, persistent, moving about as the leaves take on a life of their own. There is a flutter of wings and I see the spotted towhee, somewhat difficult to pick out on the ground as it searches for food among the leaf litter. I’ve posted a photo to the right of one I saw from my walk in. Can you see it? Look for the unusually colored eye, then you might see the rest of it.

A hawk soars above the valley and flies north. At 36 minutes a hiker comes along the trail, merely 30 yards below me. I sit still and watch. He is intent on the trail, trekking poles in hand, click-clack, click-clack, a light pack on his back and a large brimmed hat on his head. He never sees me as he heads through the valley, lost in his own world enjoying the first days of March.

The spot I am in is so comfortable and cathartic that I could easily stretch out and nap. I’m brought out of my daydream by incessant chattering from a pine squirrel in the fold below. It is immediately met by the scolding of a steller’s jay. The jay silences the squirrel, a feat upon itself, and then flies through the valley allowing me a glimpse of this striking bird of blue and black with its signature crested head.

I scan back and forth taking in all that Elk Valley has to offer to the eye. To the west about 300 yards away I am sure I see some faint movement. Binoculars reveal a mule deer doe barely moving, almost imperctible as she forages in the dense cover of oaks moving toward a small grove of aspens. She blends in so well that I can not make out her full body, just a head, then the horizontal line of her back. Behind her another deer appears out of the brown oaks. As I check out this deer the other disappears not to be seen again this hour.

My time here ends and I know there will still be some snowy days yet to come. Yet my spirit lifts in knowing that as the days lengthen and warm in the coming weeks, that there will be an abundance of birth and growth in the world outside. Nature is about to begin its second act entitled Spring.

The Witch’s Cauldron – 2017.02.01

 The Witch’s Cauldron

  • Wednesday, 1 February 2017
  • Winiger Ridge, Roosevelt National Forest, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 0825
  • Elevation – 8000’
  • Windy, 40℉
  • Distance one way  from car – 1.6 miles

 

This marks the fifth week of this project for 2017. Not until Wednesday did I get out this week and thus, I’m making my first entry for the month of February. I head to a predetermined area expecting to experience one thing; at the end of the hour I end up in a much different place.

I traverse over a mile and a half from the car. My original intent was to trek most of the day and find a spot to sit. But my work schedule changed and I need to make this a morning venture.

I arrive at  Winiger Ridge, an area I have visited many times before, but always in late summer or autumn. This is elk wintering ground and where deer live year round. On my drive in I passed by a herd of elk so I’m guessing I won’t find them on this ridge today.

The wind is strong from the west and while it is not cold I don’t want to endure an hour of the wind in my face. I find a spot at a charred, living Ponderosa Pine. I remove my glove and touch the bark. My finger picks up the charcoal and I make a note not to lean back against the tree and muss my jacket. Sitting at the top of a draw below the ridge and out of the wind, I know it is a good spot because three feet below me is a bed from an animal. The area is swept clean of debris where the ungulate created a space to rest. It’s a typical spot, high up in the draw, but below the ridge. The vantage point is a good one. 

I face south/southeast. Glancing left in the draw the area is barren, with little in the way of trees. The hillside contains cactus, a few large rocks and grasses. No snow lies on this south facing east side of the draw. Gazing down and then up the west side of the ravine the landscape is much different; completely snow covered, a nice stand of Ponderosa Pines, a smattering of Aspen trees and some shrubs. The snow is covered in elk tracks up and down the hillside. This is where they were.

Again, I have a big view. It is the season of dormancy. Nothing is growing and the birds are quieter. There is not much in the way of smell. Because of this, I tend to go for a bigger view of things, to gaze upon a grander scale.

A weather phenomenon is taking place. I drove through it, and then up and out of it when I came here, almost 3000’ higher than where I started back at my house. Today, an inversion is occurring. It’s not uncommon on the front range of Colorado. Cold dense air (24ºF this morning) becomes trapped below warmer air (about 40ºF where I sit) that reigns higher up in altitude. Fog remains trapped in a valley below, or in this case, the plains which begin to spread east from the Rocky Mountain’s front range. 

As I have driven and then climbed higher than the inversion I am now witness to the spectacle below me. I gaze toward Eldorado Canyon and see the fog and clouds fighting to climb out of the valley to the higher elevations above. Tendrils rise in and out of the ridges, allowing me to see more easily the topography and definition of the mountains to my southeast. I am able to count nine ridges between where I sit and Eldorado Mountain, the rising clouds assisting in delineating the different ridgelines.

I hear birds below me and with the aid of my field glasses I can make out a few flitting about in the pines 100 yards away to my right. My mind drifts to spring, the sounds and smells, but I discipline my mind and attention to stay in this moment, this hour, 28:20 into the winter watch.

At 32 minutes I don my lined, deerskin gloves over top of my wool gloves as the chill sets in. To the west, the sky is brilliant blue. In the east there are clouds and horizontal lines in the sky. Opposing views battle for my attention. The drama playing out in the east wins this morning.

The clouds, or rather, rising fog is mesmerizing. I feel as though I am watching a boiling witch’s cauldron. The rising and falling of the smoky steam, lifting, dropping, growing, evaporating. Over the past 40 minutes the fog has lifted slightly west and gained altitude. It moves faster and collects above the ridges, three banks merging in an attempt to collect as one unit.

My fingertips and knees grow chilled at 45 minutes. The area, so tracked up from wildlife is devoid of animals this morning. It matters little as I gaze at the fog in the valley that now appears as ocean spray. Waves curl back as the surf moves in, and repeats its cycle, then goes calm as I sit patiently for the next wave to come forth.

A train whistle blows, battling to be heard above the wind. As I close this hour, I’m grateful I walked five more minutes to gain the vantage point I currently have. Had I stopped on the east side of the ravine I would have missed the spectacle of the morning’s inversion.

These times, the hours sitting out of doors, bring about the unexpected. I ask each week, “What could I possibly see that is different in nature, from previous weeks?”

“I have so much to show you”, nature replies, “give me your time and you’ll have no regrets.”

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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
falls

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.

New Year’s Sunrise – 2017.01.01

New Year’s Sunrise

onehour_010117_sunrise

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.

 

Staring Contest – 2016.12.23

Staring Contest

eyes-on-me

“As soon as the breath escapes my nostrils the forest explodes and ten of the eleven deer bound out of sight. The closest one remains, a beautiful doe with dark eyes and a dark nose, highlighted by white around its edges.”

  • Friday 23 December 2016
  • Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1023
  • Elevation 7623’
  • Blue skies, strong west wind, 45℉

I didn’t choose this spot as much as it chose me. I venture to a trail I have not been on before, with a destination in mind. But I follow an old road in the forest, not the official trail, as I’m often prone to do. Like a child following a trail of candy, I follow a set of week old elk tracks in the snow.

My plan today is to perhaps find a spot to sit and observe the world  for an hour. I say perhaps, but I have my camera, a small brown leather journal measuring 3 ½” x 5 ½”, pen, small pad to sit on so as to be comfortable and clothes suitable to endure an hour sitting still in December.

I crest a small undulation and the forest erupts in movement. I see bellies, legs and necks heading in various directions much like a game of  Hide and Seek and someone has called out “Olly, olly, oxen free!”. Attempting to count the mule deer my mind can process eight or more but then they are still, running, hopping and one is still in its bed. The small herd has not vacated the area entirely and after a few minutes of crouching on the ground I find a soft spot to sit down.

For the next forty minutes I remain as still as possible and find myself in a staring contest with eleven does and yearlings. Even though I am close to a national forest boundary these are “city deer”. The younger ones are nervous, bounding off at times, only to make their way back to the herd. Always, there are at least five sets of eyes on me at any one time. The mothers, typically the most wary while their youngsters are frolicking are habituated to humans. They keep a close eye on me and even venture closer, not exactly sure what this lump on the ground is.

About twenty minutes into our game, I hear a loud snort behind me and can’t help but whip my head to my left behind me just in time to see another deer bound off. I can’t tell its gender but while I have been preoccupied with the eleven fore of me, one snuck up surprising me. I don’t think the eleven have seen the one behind, but only heard it. They are on high alert, as am I now, but they don’t move off. Now nearly all eyes are on me. I attempt to relax in my posture, thankful for a yoga practice that has begun to hone core musculature as I seek comfort in this spot. In that vein, I slowly exhale through my nose, but it is just slightly audible, yet not so much that if I were in a quiet room visiting with others that they would notice. But now, amazingly, with the closest deer perhaps 25 yards away, as soon as the breath escapes my nostrils the forest explodes and ten of the eleven deer bound out of sight. The closest one remains, a beautiful doe with dark eyes and a dark nose, highlighted by white around its edges.

I fear the gig is up, but after a few minutes, remarkably, the deer all begin to return again. They move about to more feeding and move from in front of me to my right and south. Something has changed in them, and while they find me slightly unsettling, I feel the heavy winds beyond this depression unsettles them more and they will tolerate a human or strange presence rather than be out in the open.

This new level of their comfort allows me to pull out my journal and frantically make notes, fearful that I will forget many details of our encounter if too much time passes. I see twigs close by that are mangled from the browsing deer, ruminants that have four chambered stomachs and therefore chew their cud, breaking down plant matter to stimulate digestion. I watch the beautiful doe as she reaches up to nibble on a Douglas Fir, which surprises me. I wasn’t aware that mule deer ate evergreens.

I notice the plant life around me and am surprised that the kinnikinnick still has its leaves. Back in September the kinnikinnick at 10,000’ had lost its leaves. Maybe the late warm autumn that has just passed spared this plant to lose it leaves as of just yet.

As I sit on this little overgrown road that runs north/south I feel the sun on my right side as it warms my face and right shoulder while my back left shoulder is considerably chilled in the shade. I’m amazed now with just minutes left in this hour how quickly it has passed. The observations of the deer has allowed me to miss so much more that is around me. But the exercise I have chosen is to be for precisely one hour, not more, not less.

I stand with just four minutes remaining to see a bit more of all that is around me. I determine that my field of vision has been no more than 60 yards, as it is rather dense here with the tall Douglas Firs. I can just make out the back side of Bear Peak which juts up in front of me as I have been facing east for the last hour.

I pack up my items, double checking not to leave any sign of my presence behind. I’ve come 1.54 miles from the parked car and will make a bigger loop back there as I process what I’ve been privy to over the last hour, a trial run of single hours that will come in 2017. I determine that the test run has been a success.