Professor Nature

Autumn officially arrives in eight days. I took the photo above pausing to rest and reflect, in the mountains of Colorado, while pursuing elk during archery season. The three weeks of the season thus far has proved incredible. I’ve seen or heard game every day except one, afield this season.

I’ve had to relearn to slow down, to be still, to listen, to observe, to be intentional but not predictable. I’ve bugled back and forth to bull elk and been in a staring contest. Each day the elk outsmarts me means an additional day observing an amazing world.

Sure, I could observe nature without hunting, but I would not stay afield until dark. It would mean missing out on the beauty of a bull elk’s white ivory tipped tine as I catch his face in my binoculars.

I arise at 4:00 am to walk back into the Aspen forest in the pre dawn light. I wait and listen for a bull to bugle first and give away his location. He remains silent, forcing me to walk noisily in the forest. So the game goes, me learning new lessons by living in his world for a short time.

So too, have I learned new lessons from bears, deer, turkeys, pine squirrels, grouse, bees, ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I’ve witnessed the Aspens morph from chartreuse green to brilliant orange to golden yellow.

In my 53rd year I am grateful for a worn but healthy body to continue to be taught by mother nature. Spending much time outdoors in different recreational activities every year offers a multitude of perspectives. In this I pray I function better in comunity with my own species, the human race. My wish is to learn and never know it all, for how mundane and boring would that be?

Day 7 – Soaring Spirits

I’m a morning person. My best energy and attitude generally is as I wake and then it drifts as the day goes on. With backpacking by the time I crawl in my tent I’m spent. It is then that I think about the days remaining on the trip, how residual fatigue begins to build, and my motivation can then wane. A message from my wife, Pam, will do wonders to help me re-focus. “You are doing an amazing thing” she writes. Am I?

When I awake each morning on the trail I observe in wonder how the body can recover from day to day. This morning I am grateful for the pit toilet at the campground. Not so

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Frost frequents Colorado’s high country

much that I can sit on a toilet, because I don’t mind squatting, but I tire of digging cat holes and bagging used toilet paper to haul back out of the mountains. (Yes, I believe in doing this now. I didn’t always do it, but it has become a big enough problem, that I firmly believe in the Leave No Trace principles.)

I sleep in until 5:00 and take my time getting moving at 5:55. Before it is barely light I can make out a mule deer buck bedded 50 yards off the trail. I’m surprised he just stares at me and doesn’t stand up. I barely move further down the trail when I see a small group of elk off in the distance. They are much more wary, and even at 500 yards or more I stand out to them and they move away. I count eighteen, making it a great morning and I have not walked more than a mile thus far. Before I get to where the elk were at I see another mule deer.

I cross Highway 550, which seems like playing Frogger after so many miles on a dirt trail. I’m now on segment 25 proper and it’s a continued wildlife bonanza this morning. I see a pair of bucks, then four does a few minutes after them. I have a very light spirit this morning as I make my way toward Durango, still 72 miles away. I only have three days left and now I am beginning to grieve the end of this time on trail. I intend to move more slowly in my head today; observing, taking photos and seeing the smaller things.

 

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Deer strike the perfect pose and spacing for me!

 

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Throughout the San Juans the geological layering is impressive

 

The landscape becomes more open, with vast, expansive views of amazing striated mountains. Photos do not do them justice so I try to commit them to memory. There is a feeling as I walk in the early morning that is palpable. It’s a committed memory, something that I know I can always reflect upon with a sense of awe and wonder; a memory that will always take my breath away, cause my heart to skip a beat or bring immediate lacrimation. A week afoot on trail has shed the “toughness” that needed to be tenderized. I have realized that I am fairly insignificant in the scope of this amazing world, that I am vulnerable, reminded that all that separates me from this world, I carry on my back. My resume, my accomplishments, my bank account and my worldly possessions mean nothing to the deer, elk, mountains, sky, clouds and grandeur that surrounds me.

 

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Yellowing Corn Husk Lily hints at autumn approaching

The trail is “all day trail” and even though I am at 11,500′, it feels like I am at sea level. The steps are effortless, the body feels grand and the grades are manageable. After days in the tundra, I am happy and “at home” back in sub alpine forest. The trail flirts with tree line only rising above it a few times during my day as I cross a “low” pass of 12,500′.

Different spots of the mountains appear jade like green in nature. I ask a mountain biker if he knows anything about the local geology, hoping to find out why the sides of the mountain are green. I find out he is not from the area, but from Utah and is riding to Durango on a supported bike trip along with two friends. I see quite a few cyclists today along with a few trail runners, but not many backpackers.

I continue to see single and pairs of deer throughout the day. I pass my now third herd of sheep for the trip and even though I could see the sheepherders tent from a distance, once I arrive at the actual flock, there is little order to the group. They are wandering everywhere doing their own thing, very different from yesterday’s herd. I wonder if the sheepherders of Colorado are anything like the ones I had met when I lived in Romania, for those fellows also made friends with the local brandy while out tending sheep; which could account for a missing sheepherder if he is sleeping one off in his tent.

 

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A new plant begins to emerge in this part of the state. Corn Husk Lily nearly creates the feeling of walking through a tunnel on certain parts of the trail. It seems to proliferate at the elevation where the landscape changes from sub-alpine to alpine, right at tree line. Perhaps due to the severe drought that western Colorado is experiencing it is drying out and yellow in nature; but it makes for a striking contrast and also a reminder that the short Colorado summers are coming to an end and autumn is approaching. Many wildflowers past their peak confirm the pending change of season.

 

 

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I move out of segment 25 at Bolam Pass Road and move on to the short segment 26 without missing a beat. The skies turn a little darker and it begins raining hard enough to warrant my rain jacket, of which I have not used in a few days. Now with just a few hours of light remaining, and having not seen anybody for a some time, the feeling of loneliness creeps in. It’s amazing how the mood can change throughout the day; not as in a bad mood, but merely experiencing and acknowledging the change in mood.

I filter water to get me through the night and to begin tomorrow morning. I have already eaten my dinner so I can walk until close to dark. I’m with my thoughts and maybe even chatting out loud to myself as I often do, when I see two tents off to the right of the trail.

 

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Falls at Cascade Creek. Initially, I was not thrilled with this photo, but when editing, I was drawn in by the brown and bronze coloring in the rock.

 

I crane my neck forward looking right and see two figures in one of the tents, what appears to be a floorless tarp tent. I shout hello and get a response in return. I take a few steps off trail engaging in typical conversation. A man and woman are relaxing together, having settled in at their camp for the night.

After some conversation, the gentleman advises me not to be on a certain part of the trail in the late afternoon tomorrow. This goes contrary to my plan, which would put me on Indian Trail Ridge late the next day. There is something about the way he says it which implies I should listen to him. I think I know who he is and ask him his name.

“I’m Jerry Brown”, and this tells me enough. Jerry Brown is a surveyor and has marked every data point on this trail which makes up the Databook for the Colorado Trail. The Databook might as well be the Bible. In fact, for CT users it gets read more than the Bible, as it contains information regarding every trail intersection, water source, camping spot and scenic sight to see, all in a handy little pocket edition. I thank Jerry for his sound advice and tell him that I’ll make changes in my itinerary. (Jerry went on to finish his seventh through hike of the Colorado Trail three days later. Amazing!)

I leave the pair and venture on, wanting to get to a spot below Blackhawk Pass before dark. A mile or so before my stop I’m passed my one more bikepacker, farther along I almost keep pace with him as he has to walk his bike up the steeper, rockier trail approaching Blackhawk Pass. I wonder whether he will be camping at the same spot, but then see that he is already higher than where I will be stopping. I sigh inwardly, thinking it would have been nice to have company tonight.

 

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I made my camp below the low saddle, Blackhawk Pass.

 

I make my camp with enough time to go sit on a log and gaze into the valley below me, making notes about my day. This was my best day on the trail. I saw an abundance of wildlife today, 19 deer, 18 elk and 6 grouse. Toward the end of the day, as I tired of just being by myself I became a play by play announcer for the elk vs. deer daily count. And in the end, just toward evening, I rounded a bend in the trail to see a doe and two fawns. It put the deer over the top 19-18 and I made wild crowd noises announcing to the forest around me how amazing it was the two “rookies” brought home the tying and winning runs for the deer, overcoming an 18-1 deficit that the elk held early in the day. My imagination, along with the raw edge of reality in this wilderness creates the perfect narrative to my day.

Backcountry Archery Hunt – Day 1 Scout

 

I uncharacteristically took my time getting ready to head off to set up camp for a short archery deer hunt on Friday morning. Awakening at my usual time of 4:30, I did my journaling, walked the dogs with my wife, Pam, and then made myself breakfast. Just before 7:00 I was on the road to the Roosevelt National Forest.

As I pulled into the huge parking lot my Subaru Forester was the only vehicle. I took advantage of the toilet, strapped my Mathews Switchback bow to my backpack and hit the trail. I had supplies for three nights, but for some reason I wasn’t itching to hunt like I typically am. The season started tomorrow morning.

Walking the two and a half miles back to where I would set up camp I took in the scenery with two different views of the big mountain where the elk like to play. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t more excited for the hunt. I was unsuccessful in drawing an elk tag for the second year in a row for this area. Since I am running a 40 mile mountain trail race in one week I didn’t want to pack deep in to the area where I’ll hunt elk (9 miles one way) so I am hunting deer on this trip. There are far more elk high in this area ranging from 9500’ in elevation to 11,500’. The last two years I’ve hunted deer lower, but it is warm there and tends to have more people milling about in the areas. This would hopefully be quieter and a little more remote.

After an hour I arrived at the area I had surveyed on the map for decent camping. I didn’t have water at my site but a five minute walk farther down the trail gave me access to fresh water. I went about pitching my tent and found the spot ideal. I was far enough off the trail that no hikers would notice my camp, but if you knew where to look you could see it from the trail. While in timber, 99% of hikers never look more than a few feet in front of them, so I was confident my biggest concern would be errant bears in the area. Even though I was seven miles as the crow flies from where this incident happened earlier this year and the culprit had been dispatched of.

After filtering enough water for this day and the next morning I went back and took a few shots with my bow at a stump to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack on the hike in. I found a suitable dried out stump that would stop my designated practice broadhead but not damage it. I was walking about eating some Fritos Scoops when I set up the stump. Needing a small aiming point I wedged a Scoop into the stump and walked about 25 yards away. As I surveyed the target, a camp robber came flying onto the stump. The Clark’s Nutcracker proceeded to steal my Frito and fly away! I had to laugh out loud at how these birds will find a camp within minutes knowing that people mean easy food. They are noisy birds and make a regular racket in the forest. Fortunately, I brought along a two inch orange dot for this very purpose. After shooting a bit, my long shot at 35 yards landed just a few inches to the right.IMG_4504

By now it was mid morning and I gathered my pack, some food and other items to hike to where I’d be hunting for a little scouting. I was forced to make my camp outside of a specific perimeter which meant my area for the morning hunt would be a 2 1/2 to 3 mile hike from where I slept. I wanted to do a dry run and check the area again. After an hour’s walk I was at treeline and sitting in a spot where I had seen three mule deer bucks a week ago, one a very nice 4×4 and quite large. But it was now midday and nothing was about that I could see. Not a worry, because tomorrow was when I wanted to see game.  I headed back toward my camp but this time headed over the mountain and bushwhacked versus the road I had come up on.

That is what separates this kind of trip from a trail backpacking trip. While backpacking, the trail is not always easy but it is always a trail. Scouting to hunt and hunting involve miles across backcountry; off trail and in rough country. Areas can be steep, so steep you can reach out and touch the mountain in front of you. Deadfall typically is everywhere and makes it difficult to walk a straight line. On this trip, my clothes were constantly sticky with sap from limber pines and got on everything. Once above tree line, steps have to be chosen carefully so rocks don’t dislodge and trap a leg or worse. Backpacking is tiring, but predictable. Backcountry hunting is hard work and exhausting and mentally draining at times. But the physical nature is much more intense than trail backpacking; at least in my opinion.

I soon was in an area where I had written a post from a week ago. I sat for a while, now late afternoon, and after glassing an area that I knew contained elk, and hoping to also see deer, nothing seemed about. Hmmm…maybe everything moved to a different area. Large game animals move about in patterns and don’t always just stick to one area, hence the challenge of hunting them. It was approaching 5:30 and I decided to begin moving back to camp to make myself some dinner before dark.

I stood up, donned my pack and began to slowly walk. I hadn’t moved much when I heard animals. Only elk make so much noise. There was some gentle mewing which sounded like a calf or cow. I turned my attention down the mountain where it seemed like the elk were at. Then I heard what sounded like antlers banging into branches and clacking about. I was positioned in a very small opening with none of the Limber Pines or Englemann Spruce right by me. I caught movement to my right and saw antlers flash and elk moving toward me. I quickly crouched down to make myself invisible or at least as small as possible! Pulling my camera out I hoped to capture the unfolding scene. The elk were moving and feeding at the same time, heads down, intent on ingesting calories. One bull was on his way to where he would cross right in front of me. He finally cleared a tree where he saw me and stopped on a dime. Guess what? I was not invisible! Thus began the staredown as I pressed the shutter on my camera. I was operating on the fly, not being able to make adjustments, just trying to get as many shots of him as possible. He had five points on his right beam and four on his left, the top point on that side not splitting like the right did and he qualified as a “raghorn”.

As we had our little staredown another bull was on a path where he would walk right into me. But he, too, saw things were not as they should be on this stroll to their feeding

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Bull #2 – I’m not sure if the camera had trouble focusing or my hands were shaking too much!

ground. He now was directly off to my right and I gently turned the camera toward him to snap off some shots.

Meanwhile three more bulls were milling about behind bull #1, two were small raghorns and another was still in the velvet with small spikes that split up high and he was probably a one and a half year old, mabye two and a half.

After a few minutes they decided I was out of the ordinary enough to warrant heading back to where they came from. Bull #2 actually wheeled a bit and was more spooked than bull #1. Likely, he had caught my scent.

After they left I heard two barks and decided the exciting event of the last few minutes was now just a memory. I sort of sat there, gathered myself and allowed my adrenaline to settle back down. Again I heard some gentle mewing and knocking of antlers below me. I slowly proceeded ahead and was able to look down into a large park, about 400 yards long running up the mountain in an east/west fashion. Down below were the five elk, they had not fled the area but merely circled lower to get to their feeding ground. I now recognized the different racks and viewed them through the binoculars. As I checked them out, more bulls now came into view. One had an either broken or misformed right main branch, another seemed to be a nicer 5×5 and a two more small bulls. This group of four headed into a slightly different area. So near as I could tell I had nine bulls within a few hundred yards of me. I was literally surrounded by elk, which is an incredible experience in the wild. It is one thing to see the elk bugle at Rocky Mountain National Park but to have a 15-20 yard encounter with a bull elk is someting different altogether. It is a treat, an experience to treasure, and something that doesn’t happen when you walk on designated hiking trails. Below is a slideshow of Bull #1.

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With the wind blowing up the mountain I was happy the elk were not disturbed. I would not be hunting them tomorrow but somebody might be (however, I doubted this) and I felt it prudent to sneak out of there without them getting bumped out of the area.

While finishing up watching them (it is difficult to break away from such magnificence!) I heard a few snorts. My mind was so intent on the elk that I didn’t weigh its significance. While elk will bellow, bugle, mew, bark and are very vocal, they do not snort. Deer snort. As I looked up I saw a small mule deer buck bounding back across the large meadow toward the dark timber. I am sure he did not see or hear me, but he may have been bothered by all of the bulls. I watched as he bounded lightly across the grassy meadow in the evening light. So…this would be an okay area for deer as well. However, I was already set on spending the morning up higher.

I made my way straight down the mountain, mentally making a note how much easier it is to drop down in a line 856 vertical feet in the distance of six tenths of a mile. Hiking back up that way is much, much slower, especially off trail!

I arrived in camp at dusk, having just enough light to heat water for dinner. I donned my headlamp to go filter water. This is my least favorite part of the backcountry hunting solo experience; doing all the camp chores in the dark. The best hunting is at first and last light, often meaning 16 hours away from camp if one is covering ground looking for game. Naps help but I never am able to sleep for more than 20 minutes during the day. This is where having a buddy along would be a lot of fun. Instead, I crawled in my tent and never even opened my book on my phone. I shot a satellite text to Pam that I was safe for the night and made sure the alarm was set for 4:00am. It was before 9:00 as I fell asleep after an adventurous first day.

 

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.