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.

Divide

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
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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.

Shift Change – 2017.02.18

Shift Change

  • Saturday, 18 February, 2017
  • Brunner Reservoir, Broomfield County, Colorado
  • Time 1711
  • Elevation – 5318’
  • 60℉, slight breeze
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Streetlights on a walkway reflect upon the water as night falls and in my mind act as landing lights for approaching waterfowl.

I break out of the house for the last hour of daylight, the last hour of the week for my project. Having been down and out with a bad cold, some kind of inspiration flows through me and I grab a jacket, two different hats, the camera, journal and walk down the street.

I  move toward Brunner Reservoir, sit on the south bank and look north over the little body of water that lies east of the community senior center. To my right is my neighborhood, behind me are ball fields, a linear open space park, condominiums and a skate park. This is classic surburbia.

Canadian Geese fly in from the west, some landing on the open water while others head to soccer fields beyond. Red Winged Blackbirds’ musical trills echo across the water emerging from cattails, brown in color, devoid of life, a better indicator of the season than the unusually warm temperatures that we have been experiencing of the last few days.

Sitting on the bare dirt, it is comfy enough. A breeze picks up from the west. People are still out and about. There is a bicycle, and in the background my ears detect the smack of skateboards, the proverbial dog barking in the distance, geese honking occasionally.

Halfway across the water, a Bufflehead, my favorite duck, dives under the water. He is back up, then gone again, repeats the cycle and drifts with the current.

A parent pedals by over on the street with a child in a trailer behind. A dog walker is out. A gull flies over, makes a loop, keeps flying.

The banks of the reservoir are comprised of large pieces of rock, big chunks too heavy to carry.  As I gaze at the east bank I notice a ring along the bank, much like you’d see in the bathtub after a crusty kid has exited. It tells me that the current level is down a good foot from whenever that high water mark was last made.

18 minutes into the hour I reflect on the previous 36 hours, most of which I have spent in bed, down and out with a bad cold. Fresh air is welcome and I am grateful to get out for the last hour of light for this week. Illness will not interrupt my hour of stillness. A fool? Perhaps. But this spot is within walking distance of my front door, a card in the deck that I can play when I need it.

Unfortunately, the Bufflehead and a buddy of his are reluctant to come close to my side of the water. Children’s voices can be heard from two parks close by; one to the west and another to the northeast.

A radiant brilliance lights up the west sky halfway through the hour and coincides with me being able to breathe deeply, if just for a few minutes, which feels so nice.

An accented adult voice moves in from my left circling the sidewalk that runs fifty yards behind me. There are three bikes and a little scooter, the scooter ahead of the bikes. A father and three boys, too far away for me to make out complete sentences, I tune in more to the pitch of voice. Dad herds the three like a good shepherd would on a mountainside, reminding me of shepherds I had met while living in Romania. “Go left, go left”, the father shouts as they move north into the neighborhood, a train of bodies on wheels heading home after time together on a wondeful, warm February Saturday evening.

Back on the water, silhouettes of ducks move closer to me, yet not close enough to photograph. They look to be either Northern Shovelers or Mallards.

Skateboards still click and clack behind me in the distance. My raspy cough breaks the quiet at my immediate spot. At 5:49 it is still 61 degrees, the sun behind the mountains to the west and there is a slight chill in the air. It is still light, the days are lengthening as February rolls by. A dog barks again and I roll my shoulders to warm up a bit as I decide to stand for the last twenty minutes of my vigil.

Moving from sitting, to crouching, to standing, I look to my left and see a muskrat 30 yards away. He must sense me and disappears under the water, later appearing as his wake gives away his direction heading for the cattails on the west side of the reservoir. One Red Winged Blackbird signals. I realize they have been largely quiet for some time.

47 minutes and tail lights from cars in distant streets become more prominent in the twilight. A number of streetlights on a bike path just north of the reservoir reflect their light back across the water.

I’m about to wrap up my time. I look at my watch, three minutes left. I’m ready to go home and eat soup, read a book and curl up. Wait! Again I am amazed at what remains in just a few minutes. To the north coyotes begin to yip and howl just as the light from the day begins to fade for good. They carry on like children getting out of school, reaching a quick crescendo. Then, behind me the honking ensues and flock upon flock of geese, numbering well into the high hundreds, too numerous to even begin to count, fly onto the small reservoir. I barely make out that geese already on the water make way for the new arrivals. It’s a flurry of activity that harnesses an intense energy completely different from the first 57 minutes of this hour.

I think about the refuge this water offers for all of these geese that are flying in from areas of the south, where they have been feeding throughout the day. As the coyotes begin to sing and carry on I think about how this world is about to change in the coming minutes, as humans seek refuge in their lighted, warm homes and in nature the night shift comes on for duty.

Aquatic Eagle Paradise – 2017.02.08

Aquatic Eagle Paradise

  • Wednesday, 8 February 2017
  • Barr Lake State Park, Adams County, Colorado
  • Time 0718
  • Elevation – 5098’
  • Soft breeze, cloudy to blue skies, 41℉
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Frozen Barr Lake is an oasis for wintering Bald Eagles. Binoculars are a must for viewing the expansive lake in order to view dozens of eagles.

I make my way to another one of the 42 state parks in Colorado. This time it is Barr Lake State Park. The park is popular for birders and fishermen and boasts of a massive lake which is encompassed by an 8.8 mile trail.

I read where the Bald Eagles are en masse at the park right now, so I decide this is a great place to come spend an hour. I park at the visitor’s center and take a very short walk out to the boardwalk that leads to a covered platform.

The forecast calls for stiff winds throughout the day but just past sunrise there is merely a light breeze. I am on the south shore of the lake gazing north. The lake was originally a natural depression and in 1908 a dam was created combining two smaller reservoirs into what is now Barr Lake. I can see the front range mountains from here on the prairie but they are partially shrouded in clouds, prohibiting a view of the Continental Divide. The sun has broken the horizon off the back of my right shoulder but my attention is on the ice.

The lake is not completely frozen and is not at its full capacity as evidenced by the rocks directly underneath the platform I am standing on. Yet, only a few more feet away there is a mix of ice and open water. Canadian geese are both on my left and off to my right. Over the next hour they fly in and out of the area like planes landing and taking off.

In a stand of trees a few hundred yards east of me an immature bald eagle roosts. He appears to be busy either eating or preening himself, but at the moment I am overwhelmed by the number of eagles on the ice. I use my 8×42 binoculars to begin to check out the majestic birds. I get so busy glassing the ice that I miss the fact that the immature baldie has vacated his perch. I mentally kick myself because my camera is not of the type to get photos of the eagles that are hundreds of yards and miles away from my viewing spot. I have missed the best opportunity for a decent photo of one of the eagles.

Before I know it, time is racing by. Already 30 minutes in, I decide to scan the lake and make a count of the eagles. Most of them are sitting on the ice, a few are in flight over an open channel of water in the middle of the lake. There are a some that are solitary on the ice far from open water. Many others congregate in groups ranging from a pair to nearly a dozen. At one spot I probably count fifteen as I scan the ice and far shore. I can see mature eagles roosting far across the lake, their white heads creating a sharp contrast as they catch the morning sun. Where there is one in the trees, there is usually a pair. Making what I hope to be an accurate count involves intense concentration and focus. It takes me five minutes to do the job and I know that I must have missed birds and perhaps misidentified others. At best I am a very amateur birder, but I tally 73 eagles. (The past weekend a photographer had counted 53 and I messaged the park after I got home and they told me that there have been counts of 75 in past years) Certainly there are dozens upon dozens of eagles. Ironically, the lake itself is home to only one nesting pair, yet many times that congregate here over winter.

I narrow my focus following a few that are in flight. One flies from right to left, soaring above the water and then moves lower, lower and is merely inches away from the softly lapping water. It lifts gently and then lands next to three buddies on the ice.  Others circle much higher overhead, diving down to the water only to pull back up and get a different vantage point as they hunt for fish. A few others put on an aerial display like fighter pilots twisting, climbing, diving and turning. Upon reflection, it seems the mature eagles fly together and the immature keep their distance in their own groups. Or perhaps that is just me thinking it is that way.

As I continue to observe their behavior, I notice that the breeze has now changed to more of a windy disposition. A sudden “crack” causes me to break away from the magnifying eyes I am looking through and brings me back to things immediately in my vicinity. Ice begins to creak and groan off the catwalk. I watch as it ever so slightly heaves and then lowers, the wind pushing the water beneath it as it takes on an almost respiratory quality. It makes me think of all the signs in my neighborhood that state “Ice is never safe!” Looking at the ice in front of me I think, “You’re darn right it isn’t safe!” and with that I make sure my camera, notebook and belongings are secure from becoming victims of Barr Lake’s waters.

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A lone mature bald eagle in a fly by

While my focus has been on the Bald Eagles, our national bird, I have also seen Buffleheads, Mallards, Gulls and many other birds that I could not identify. A birder would be busy for hours here yet my goal is to try and encapsulate this magic into one hour. It is tantalizing to be able to see so many eagles, the most I have ever seen in one single sitting and not have them just a wee bit closer. With just ninety seconds left in this hour four white capped eagles rise up and fly southwest over the water, coming closer than any others have all morning. One breaks formation and  circles northeast in front of me. I make a feeble effort at getting his photo. As he soars back over the ice he seems as though he dips his wings to me like a Navy pilot making his way back off into this aquatic eagle paradise.

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
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The ice queen, Elk Falls, frozen. My pack is the speck at the bottom of the falls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.