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

Day 3 – Lost Creek Wilderness Loop

Click here to see a map of my third day.

And click here for the profile, type of terrain and such.

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Looking southwest from my camp of the second night

I sleep in a little bit compared to yesterday. I leave myself enough time to have TWO cups of coffee before I pack up and hit the trail. By 6:10 I’m off and the sun is shining brightly. I have a finishing point in mind today and estimate it will take me 22-24 miles to get there. There is also the prospect of a short side trip to Refrigerator Gulch, one of the main attractions of Lost Creek Wilderness. However, I had a hard time incorporating it into my intended route, so I hope to skirt down to check it out.

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Chartreuse early season aspen contrast against the red granite and blue skies

The views early in the crisp morning air are fantastic. My body feels pretty good after the long day yesterday and in about a mile I am at a trail junction and heading south. Shortly thereafter I take a left and up on the Lark Park Trail, a route that I was on with my son Ben just over a year ago. I miss him immensely as he has just gone off to boot camp with the US Navy. He dominates many of my thoughts during this trip.

A few hours into my morning and I stop in Lake Park for some food and a chance to relax. I’m pretty tired after just five miles and as I sit upon a log I feel as though I could take a nice long nap. I snap some photos with my phone and keep moving along. Shortly thereafter I’m doing my deep breathing at nearly 11,000′ when I look to my right and see two young women having breakfast on a log. We chat for a bit and then I continue on.

I sense that with today being Friday I will see many people coming into the area for the weekend, especially since I will be heading to the extreme southeast trailhead, Goose Creek trailhead, which is one of the most popular entry points for the Wilderness area. I’m not sure why it is so popular because it is not particularly easy to get to and requires driving through almost 25 miles of burnt out forest from the Hayman Fire in 2002, which at the time was the largest fire in the history of the state, burning 138,000 acres.

Sure enough as I move from the Lake Park Trail to Hankins Pass Trail heading east and down, down, down I come across many people heading into the forest for the weekend. With 11 miles underfoot I find a wonderfully shady area by Goose Creek just before noon to have some lunch, filter water and wash up.

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One of the most prevalent wildflowers I saw on my trip, appropriately called Shooting Star.

As I gather my things to move on, the sun is now high and it is warm. I opt for a long sleeved button shirt which has UV protection to keep me cool. I have my goofy hat which covers my neck and I head up the trail, tick-tocking along as my trekking poles tap out a metronomic rhythm on the trail.

The trail is gloriously wide, with nary a rock and rises gently along Goose Creek. After just a mile or so it meanders away from the creek and I begin to get some views of the granite domes which are the signature landmarks of the southern part of Lost Creek Wilderness. The trail steepens at times and then falls away, only to rise again over the miles. The weekenders that were ahead of me begin to come back quickly and it motivates me as I motor along. Day hikers come the other way along with occasional backpackers. I have never been on this trail and while I have read so much about it I confess that I am underwhelmed. The views from within the steep canyon are not as spectacular as those I have seen from above on different trails overlooking the rock formations.

Farther along, the trail becomes narrower, steeper and rockier. I begin to pay the piper now for my ego fueling me along earlier. I’m beat and my left shoulder is taking a beating from my pack. I stop along the trail, check my GPS app to see where I am and find I’m not far from a trail junction. I re-don my pack and make it the short way to the next spot where there is another backpacker and two dogs.

He left the same day that I did and is doing a popular loop of Lake Park, McCurdy Park and back Goose Creek. We sit for a while and talk about our different treks and wait for his friend, who is climbing up to where we are from Refrigerator Gulch. His gentleman arrives and I know that he is 60 years old because the friend told me so. He comes over to sit down, big gray beard, cutoff Carhartt type pants, old cotton T-shirt and an aluminum external frame pack with his tent rolled up inside his foam sleeping pad strapped on the bottom and a sleeping bag strapped to the top. “That is a classic pack” I tell him.

“Yeah”, he replies, “I think I got this back in the mid 60’s”. We commence to talk about anything under the sun. The younger of the two pulls out a ceramic pipe and asks me if I smoke. I tell him no and he and the older guy pass the weed pipe back and forth. It’s life in the backcountry, there is no judgement. Everybody has walked a long way regardless of miles traveled and the atmosphere is one of relaxation and not caring about the little shit of the world. It is paradise.

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The view at Lake Park early in the day while ingesting some calories.

I fill them in on the trail where they are going and offer suggestions for camp and available water. They are appreciative of the information and we part ways. I head north and climb up for another mile before heading down the other side and out of the Tarryall Mountains toward Wigwam Creek. I had been in that area one other time about four years ago and knew of a nice camping area by the creek where I could take a nap, filter water and make my final one mile push up toward a saddle to camp for the night. I had decided against checking out Refrigerator Gulch, leaving that for another trip in the future.

Dragging myself along the trail I come to the campsite I had in mind and find two people sleeping on logs where I had envisioned myself resting! Goldilocks and Goldilocks Jr fill my space. I dejectedly walk past and see the trail heading up and north where I will need to go. However, I need to filter water so I turn around to head back to the creek, seeing that one of the two is now sitting up. It is a woman and she says hello and asks if I know where she is at.

I am grateful to walk over and sit down as I throw my pack to the ground. It seems that she and her now also awake friend headed on the wrong trail the previous evening and were not quite where they thought they were. I get them oriented and we laugh about heading down wrong paths for I have done the same with friends and family in the past.

Eventually they move on for a late day hike and I filter my water and hump it up one mile to my camp, giving me 22 for the day and stop at a splendid little spot I remember from years ago, albeit fairly busy with mosquitoes this evening. It is the end of what ended up being much more of a grind than I had anticipated; however, quite normal after the big day yesterday. Tomorrow will be my last day and should be pretty easy heading out.

As the mosquitoes attack the netting of my tent while I read after dinner, I am grateful for the bug net and not having opted for a tarp tent years ago. Again, my eyes are shut before natures lays the sun down to set for the day.

Lost Creek Wilderness Big Loop – Day 2

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Just after dawn my shadow casts long in a saddle at 11,600′ on the Ben Tyler Trail.

Click here to view a map of Day 2

Click here to see elevation profile, type of tree cover and land cover!

I sleep like I typically do in the backcountry. Waking up through the night as I turn from one side to the other. At one point the intensely bright moon wakes me as if someone is shining a flashlight in my face. Unless it is raining heavily I always sleep with the fly open so I can stargaze when I awake at night. Later, my phone begins its gentle crescendo at 4:00 waking me from my slumber in Craig Park.

Today is my birthday and I’ll celebrate 52 years hanging about in this world. I’ve backpacked and hiked many 20+ mile days but I have never done a 30 miler. Today will be the day I go for that goal; in fact I’ve decided to make it a 52 kilometer day which converts to 32.5 miles.

I heat water for one cup of coffee under my headlamp, tear down camp quickly and am on the trail at 4:50. I have to navigate some snow as I move through the dark timber and one puddle I come to has a skin of ice on it, verifying freezing temperatures I experienced during the night.

In the first hour I am treated to a beautiful expanse at 11,600′ of open terrain dotted by rocky hills. The sun shines so as to cast long shadows from my lanky frame. As I cross the park on a trail that is marked by posts dotting the way I begin to drop down in elevation. I look on the horizon and make out one, then two elk feeding in the early shadows. They are fairly distant and I can just make out six or eight as the impending sun makes it difficult to discern the shapes of the large grazers.

The day will consist of time on new trail and trail I have traversed times before. I keep dropping in elevation and see a camper parked in a small clearing by  Rock Creek. I’ve come six miles and dropped down to 9700′. A gentleman is outside and we stop and chat for awhile. He comments that his furnace in his camper was non-functional and asks if I felt that it was very cold last night. He inquires about the weight of my pack, my route, etc. I tell him of where I came from and he indicates that that is where he will go explore today. I’m only a few hours into my day but I haven’t had a human encounter since 1:30 the previous afternoon and as I make my way onward, with a marathon yet ahead of me, my spirits are lifted by the brief visit.

I hit the junction with the Colorado Trail heading east. Previously I have come the opposite way with my friend Jamie and a different time two years ago with Pam. I recognize the trail well and know landmarks which tell me where I am on the trail. In an area surrounded by Bristlecone Pines I see a group of four dainty orchids a step off the tread. I drop to the ground, pack still on my back and begin taking photos of the Calypso Bulbosa,

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Fairy Slipper (calypso bulbosa)

commonly called Calypso Orchid or Fairy Slipper. Two years prior when here with Pam I had stopped and photographed these same four flowers. Each year, they rise and flower after heavy winter snows. Lying just one literal step off the trail they are a prime example of what LNT or Leave No Trace is all about. And if I get a little preachy and political forgive me. As a visitor to this dedicated Wilderness area I agree to abide by the guidelines that have been established to protect this area. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in 1964. You can read in the link above what those regulations are, but Wilderness in conjunction with Leave No Trace means you leave it as you found it or in even better shape, i.e. taking out trash you find. If I had picked these orchids two years prior, they would not have been here for me and hundreds of hikers on the Colorado Trail to enjoy this year. Theoretically I could bring a grandchild here 20 years from now to see these same flowers! Taking care of our environment is not a “today” table item. It’s not even a “lifetime” table item. It is a philosophy and responsibility that spans generations, centuries and millenia. I think there are certain high ranking politicians in our country that fail to understand the scope of this concept. I choose to leave the beautiful, delicate Fairy Slippers as they are. Not just for my fellow American visitors that may come across this spot but for my fellow man of all nations who visit this area and might enjoy it. We must come together as a world of people to preserve our planet as we enjoy it, during our miniscule period of time in the scope of personal history before our physical bodies become a part of it.

Before noon I come to the west end of Lost Park and the North Fork of Lost Creek. I lose my pack and sit up against a tree to have an extended break. I’ve covered half of my distance for the day. I’m on schedule to finish before sunset as long as my body does not rebel. I eat some cheese, pumpernickel bread, sausage and head down the trail.

Lost Park is another long narrow park, just like Craig Park of the previous day. I’m looking forward to losing 700′ of elevation over the next nearly six miles. I estimate I’ll get to the east end of Lost Park in the neighborhood of 3:00 and have roughly 22 miles under my belt for the day. But the trek through here is a disappointing drag. The sun is shining on my pack causing me to be hot and sweaty. I maintain my fluid intake so as to not become dehydrated beyond repair later in the day. I eventually pop out on the east side and filter some more water for the last 10 1/2 miles.

As I regain the tread, now heading south on the Brookside-McCurdy trail I am off the CT and back onto brand new trail, making things a little more interesting again. I stop to answer a question another backpacker has. He is an older gentleman with a yellow lab by his side. The dog is sleeping soundly. The man has his tent pitched and we trade information about routes, where we have camped, where we are going and stories about the wilderness and those who have perished here! As we chat, I envy him. He is done for the day and relaxing at a lovely little spot. I am having to move 2,000′ higher into the late evening and possible changes in weather. However, the potential regret of not finishing out this day as I have planned, outweighs the temptation of company for the remainder of the day.

Over the next miles I pass established campsite after established campsite. One group numbers over a dozen teenagers with adults mixed in. A bit later, there are the bearded 20-30 somethings with their tarp tents. In a bit, the trail pitches so sharply upward that after 28 miles in my legs I am forced to count 100 steps and then stop to regain my breath. I am approaching the area of Bison Peak and the trail tops out at 11,800′ and it is a steep pitch.

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The area of Bison Peak. Note the snow capped peaks to the back right of the photo. Elevation at this spot is 11,800′.

I have expansive views in all directions and the wind has nothing to stop it here above treeline. As I huff and puff to crest into the high meadow I am amazed by the sight. It is beautiful. An area big enough to host numerous soccer fields fills the scene marked by huge granite domes. I make a mental note that this will be an area to come back and bring others to enjoy this site.

It is now just a 5k until I am done for the day. My whole attitude begins to shift and I am elated that while my head is pounding a bit and my left shoulder is aggravated from my pack, my legs are relatively fantastic. The lower body has held up tremendously and I begin to try and estimate where I will finish for the day. I now begin to enter the Ghost Forest of the Wilderness. Over 100 years ago a forest fire burned through this high mountain area. The trees, while dead from the fire, remain as burned out sentries standing guard over this stark, exposed, eerily pleasant area in the waning daylight hours of my birthday. The trail ribbons its way ahead of me and I can see it peeking in and out of the landscape disappearing over the knolls.

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Appearing as totems, dead trees begin to mark the beginnings of a ghost forest.

I think about the significance of these dead trees. Over 100 years old, still standing, still evident of a century of history, having survived season after season, high winds and all that nature has to offer. How much longer will they be here? 100 years after I am gone will my life remain so tall and gracious for the world to see?

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Dead for over 100 years, yet standing as sentries for visitors to this ghost forest.

As I tick down the final steps of my day, my phone chirps indicating that I have cellular service. I have just a few tenths of a mile to walk until I cross my “finish line” and I can make camp for the day. I pull out my phone and call Pam and amazingly she answers! I am elated! We talk as I finish out my day and it is the perfect gift on my birthday. As I talk to her, after having walked for 14 hours and 32 1/2 miles I am physically and emotionally spent and I profess my love to her like we are childhood sweethearts. As I say goodbye and wend my way forth looking for a spot to camp, I am nearly in tears. Emotion of family and the relationship to my wife and my son overcomes me. I finish my day a little more complete than when I began it back in the darkness of Craig Park before dawn.

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Rock dome in Lost Creek Wilderness. 

Lost Creek Wilderness Backpacking Day 1 – Big Loop

 


Click here to view a map of the first day

Click here to see cool stuff like elevation profile, slope, tree cover and land cover!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Four of the last six years I have gone backpacking during my birthday which is June 15th. It began in 2012 after one of my best friends passed away that spring. I missed the following year and I missed last year. If my birthday falls on any day except Wednesday I shut my business down for a long weekend and make anywhere between a three and five day trip of it.

This year, I had blocked out the time but didn’t have any big plans or a spot picked out to venture to. A lot has to do with how much snow remains in the high country and typically mid June still holds much snow above 11,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado. However, the Lost Creek Wilderness missed the big May storms of this year so it became an eligible area for a four day trip.

Because I was going solo it also allowed me to chase some backcountry goals that are better pursued alone, versus having another being succumb to my crazy ideas of fun. The Saturday before I did a 15 mile trail run up into the Platte River Mountains to see if the hills held much snow on the north facing slopes. As luck would have it, there were only a few patches of snow and as I dropped into the area of Craig Park between the Platte River and Kenosha Mountains it was blissful. I had decided on my loop.

I’ve always been an endurance athlete with some years-long breaks over the past nearly 40 years. Since I began backpacking I also began running and trail running to complement the off trail experience. Last October I picked up a dropped yoga practice from the past decade and have had a nice balance of yoga and trail running this spring. I had not donned a 20-30 pound pack yet this year but felt confident in my base fitness. The fact that I’ve spent over 50 nights sleeping in the wilderness over the previous two years, I felt that my body and muscle memory would serve me well. So, I decided to go big for my 52nd birthday trip.

I had one massage to give on Wednesday morning and had packed my bag the previous day. At 11:00am I headed south on highway 285 to Bailey, Colorado. I parked at the Payne Creek Trailhead and hit the trail shortly after noon. It was pleasantly warm as I headed south and up with my beginning elevation of just over 8,000’

It felt good to just walk and not be running. Albeit my long trail runs have been at three and a half hours and this would be a four day trip using most of the light each day. The north part of the wilderness goes from drier areas through mountain timber and after just a mile and a half I came to four younger people having lunch at a creek crossing. “Where you headed for the night?” I asked them.

They looked about at each other and one young lady replied “We’re not really sure”. With four of them, hopefully they had the resources to figure it out and not need help. Last year I invested in a DeLorme Inreach satellite device of which the big selling point for me is the the ability to satellite text to my wife or friends and also to throw up an SOS if an emergency should ever occur. In addition I leave a map with my wife of my intended route and also leave the same information with an experienced friend that knows how to come help if I don’t return on time. When I left the parking lot I sent out a text to both of them that said, “I’m parked here (with GPS coordinates) and off on my trip!”

LCW Permit sign

Lost Creek Wilderness requires you obtain a permit from a handly little box station. Fill out the card, where you’ll be spending your nights, leave part in the box and take a small section with you. It’s used primarily for research purposes.

I hiked steadily until reaching the saddle of the mountain 3,000’ higher from my departure point and then descended 500’ into Craig Park. Craig Park is a park or “meadow” that is roughly 1,000 feet wide that runs in a NW/SE direction for about six miles. Craig Creek runs right through it and it is surrounded by marshy areas with occasional beaver dams and potentillas on the upper edges. The Platte River mountains rise to the north of the park about 1,000’ up and the Kenosha Mountains are south and slightly higher at 1,500’ above the park. Small peaks of both ranges rise and fall on either side of the valley. It is a beautiful area that is not well traveled by evidence of the scant trail running through it. The trail was narrow enough as I hiked northwest that potentilla scraped my calves and after a bit I collapsed my trekking poles because they kept getting caught on the shrubs along the trail.

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Craig Park looking south with Platte River Mountains left, Kenosha Mountains to the right and lots of blue sky and “Toy Story” clouds!

I walked for a few more hours until I arrived at the upper reaches of the park. I still had daylight left but did not want to drop down into the dark timbered forest. Even though I would be sleeping at 11,500’ it would be warmer higher and drier. I was camped well away from the creek and I had filtered water a mile or so back, so I had plenty to cook with and begin my day the next morning.

I quickly pitched my tent even though there was no looming bad weather. It’s a habit that is hard to change. Nobody likes putting up a shelter in the rain and it is always the first priority once the decision to stop has been made. Rain and hail is not a horrible thing if you are warm and dry. But…once wet it can be uncomfortable and downright dangerous in the high country.

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Camp! Night #1!

I had climbed about 3,500’ for the day, trekked 12.6 miles and my pack would only get lighter now from my beginning weight of 32.5 pounds. I made myself dinner and as I brushed my teeth a short distance from the tent I saw some elk feeding on the opposite hillside. After sauntering a little closer for a better look I headed back to my campsite and was in my bag and looking at the stars with my fly drawn back on my little tent. I set the alarm for 4:00 in the morning. I wanted an early start to what would be the longest single day of backpacking in my life. Everything was in place, I just had to execute tomorrow.

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
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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.

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Clouds form a line shrouding the Continental Divide in the distance

Six Stories Above Sea Level -2017.03.29

Six Stories Above Sea Level

  • Wednesday, 29 March 2017
  • Wellington Environmental Preserve, Palm Beach County, Florida
  • Time 1105 EDT
  • Elevation – Sea level
  • 80F, partly cloudy, calm

The view north from the observation tower reveals a lone Great Egret looking for lunch

It is a roughly one mile walk on a beautifully maintained winding path through the Wellington Environmental Preserve out to a lone standing structure. I reach the bottom and begin to climb. Sixty steps and six stories later I am at the highest level of an observation tower, giving me a magnificent view of the 365 acre facility, surrounding Palm Beach County and the edge of the Everglades. The city of Wellington in partnership with the South Florida Water Management District, built the facility in compliance with the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which requires rainwater to be cleansed of phosphorus before it enters the Everglades.

The first thing I notice as I step on the top platform is that it is necessary to sidestep some orange, fruity, pulpy mess. Someone or something or some bird seems to have regurgitated a large amount of fruit. And while it is colorful it’s a reminder that not all that is observed is necessarily beautiful.

I set my small pack down on the opposite side of the platform, swill some icy water and begin to think about which direction I should look. The view is expansive, and bird life is abundant in the Preserve. Less than 100 yards from the southwest corner of the tower I see an alligator in the water! For locals this would be no big deal, but for a Coloradoan it is exciting. In shallow water he moves deliberately, churning up mud in his wake.  He continues to snake his way in a southerly direction, then east. I’m reminded of any number of Disney movies, any one of sinister characters that create havoc on the peaceful creatures that live in the Preserve. He winds and wends his way around grassy sections in the water slowly moving toward two American Coots that are paddling about. As he gains on them he then stops, slowly sinking lower in the water, just his long nose above the surface. The Coots are on to his game and don’t take flight but stay a safe distance, ten yards ahead. He is looking right at the closer of the two. But there is a violent splash to the gator’s right as a fish breaks out of the water. The alligator immediately turns 90 degrees to his right swims a few yards and stops. The drama is over, the Coots move on, Mr. Gator is left to bask in the sun.

I move to the opposite side of the tower and look north. Birds and calls of birds dominate the scene. I watch a Great Egret make its way through the water, looking and fishing. Over the course of the hour I remark how the Egrets light upon vegetation in the swampy area, seeming as though they would rather not get their feet wet.

I move from side to side of the tower taking in the view, the beautiful day, the serenity of this area. To the west I notice a wake and see a second alligator moving through the waters. Over the course of the hour I see a smaller third gator and notice that the two larger ones cover a lot of area in the water and are very active, a remarkable difference in predator versus prey contrary to my previous week’s observations.

An osprey flys by at one point. Red winged blackbirds chime relentlessly overshadowing the softer coo of doves that are in the area. I spy a great blue heron off to the east, standing vigilant and at attention. To the north, I can see a woodpecker with a red spot on his head clinging to a bird box. Without my binoculars I cannot positively identify him. Also north, I seen a couple of common moorhens gliding in the water. Blue jays fly by and the area is also abundant with boat tailed grackles.

Further out in the water I see a limpkin and have decided that on this trip, the limpkin is my favorite bird. Over the past days there has been one sitting in a tree where I have been fishing at a canal. In the 1800’s European settlers found them so tame they supposedly could sometimes catch them in their nest.

At one point I am joined by a gentleman who has climbed the tower while his wife waits for him below, choosing not to ascend higher on this warm day. He tells me that on the walk in, of which he took a different route than I, they saw two juvenile alligators by the one catwalk. He tells me they still had their “stripes” indicating their age. Seeing I have a pad in my hand he asks if I am a researcher. I explain that no, I’m merely an observer of what is going on around me at the moment.

The hour comes full circle, the sun warming the day and high clouds creating enough of an effect so as to make it “not as hot”, but not really cool. The humidity of the area is refreshing compared to the 16% relative humidity Colorado has been experiencing in previous weeks. I make my way back down the steps of the high tower, a sentinel overseeing this edge of the Florida Everglades.30734816_Unknown

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.

Four Legged Fur(r)y – 2017.03.10

Four Legged Fur(r)y

  • Saturday 10 March 2017
  • Broomfield County Commons Dog Park, Colorado
  • Time 1308
  • Elevation – 5,335’
  • 41℉, mix of large puffy white and stomy gray clouds interspersed with occasional blue sky
IMG_3825.JPG

Coada chases a new friend

I’m finding that a key to keeping this project going on a weekly basis is flexibility. I had planned on one location yesterday and my schedule didn’t allow for it. This morning I awake and as I let the dogs out in the still dark morning I see large raindrops on the back porch. Back to the proverbial drawing board.

Later in the day, without a car, I saddle up my mountain bike, grab one of my two dogs and we slowly make our way north 1.7 miles to the local dog park, my place to sit and observe for one hour. I want to sit in various public places and while it is still fairly cool today, I feel there will be some good activity at the newly redesigned dog park.

Joining me is my 6 ½-year-old spaniel/hound mix Coada (pronounced Kwah’-duh). Leaving behind my older dog Izy is a difficult choice but she doesn’t do well with hard running anymore so I sadly leave her at the house as we head out.

I find a bench, sort out my things and encourage my pup to go play. The initial ratio of dogs to people is 2:1, with about eight dogs running about. I tune in to some crows cawing and prairie dogs chirping in the background. But the main focus of my attention is confined within the fence of this park. The energy early on is building as a dog comes flying in front of Coada and me. Only after he passes do I notice that while he has front wheel drive intact he only has one leg driving in back. He moves so fast that it is easy to miss that he is only three-legged and he doesn’t seem to care one bit.

Eight minutes into our watch Coada lies down in the gravel by the bench. He is hyper alert and can’t sit still for long. Yet, he does not engage with the other dogs and begins his barking and howling, mainly at me, but sometimes at dogs that come close to us.

I throw a ball and he surprisingly loses to a cattle dog that has poached the tennis ball that I have thrown. The cattle dog is quicker, more nimble and on watch for any loose balls that are thrown. I dub him “King of the Tennis Balls.”

An adorable four month old Norwegian Elkhound saunters underneath my bench. His fur is soft and clean, and as I stroke him he caves in to my touch, clamoring for more. Coada jealously nudges him out of the way.

The mood of the park is of general good fun, people converse, the dogs breaking down the social barriers, as folks inquire about names, ages and such. I note what I hear for a few minutes. It’s banter that you would only hear if you were at a dog park or a day care center.

  • “Are you a mountain goat?”
  • “Shavano, c’mon. Good boy!”
  • “Oliver? Come here.”
  • “Shavano (in a gleeful tone), you have a runner to play with!”
  • (In a low rumbling voice by a young woman) “Hey! You’re adooooorable!”

At 30 minutes Coada has become territorial, guarding the 20 yard radius of the bench upon where I sit. He is barking more than not and basically being anti-social. I break my rule of sitting in one spot and we head about for a walk of the space. He seems a bit out of sorts without his good friend, Izy, as they are rarely separated. As we walk he does not leave my side and I have to encourage him to engage with the other dogs, but he really doesn’t want to and when he does he runs at one or a few, begins to howl and then runs back to me. He is the loudest dog in the park. A gentleman with a black labrador remarks that if a dog can’t bark at a dog park, well, where can he bark?

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There are easily now twice as many dogs as when I arrived and the energy is very high. Dog parks are mainly about posturing among the canines. If the “babysitting adults” were not in the way they would probably have an even greater time amongst themselves.

Back at the bench I notice an “outsider” walking on the outside with her human. She looks in at the dogs but is more interested in the prairie dogs that scamper about outside the chain link fence. Our little area is also very popular because I have a small water bowl that most of the dogs with long snouts drink out of. Those with broad snouts are out of luck because they can’t force the fold of the flexible bowl open in order to get at the liquid relief.

Many of the dogs come running as I take photos with the camera, seemingly hamming it up but instead are fooled because they think I have treats, especially when my hands goes in and out of my pocket. The regulars know how to work it, they were not born yesterday.

As I near the very end of the hour the whole mood has changed and somehow nearly all of the dogs have disappeared. There remain just two pointers running about that have Coada’s attention as he makes a run at one of them only to come bounding back to me. We pack up our things and make our way back to my bicycle for the slow ride home. It was good to bring a fine friend along for my venture. He’ll earn an extra scoop of kibble for his help today once we arrive home!

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.