Staunton Jaunt

Just before Jamie shuts the car off in the parking lot I see the air temperature. 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The expected high is to be in the 40’s, but that will be after we finish. I’ve dressed for about a mid 20’s start so it seems as though I’d better generate some heat.

We embark on the Mason Creek Trail in Staunton State Park, a park of the Colorado State Parks system that gets better every time I visit. They groom the trails in winter allowing hikers, fat tire mountain bikes and snowshoers alike to enjoy the winter trails.

The trail is snow packed, but not quite icy as we move into the Mason Creek drainage. It’s evident that it had been above freezing yesterday as there are deeper frozen footprints, but not so many as to rut the trail out and make it difficult passage.

On either side of Mason Creek the mountain rises steeply. The temperatures must be in the single digits here. I’m layered properly on my torso, but can feel the cold air on my legs, having opted out of wearing a base layer. My cheeks catch the cold air and I wiggle my finger tips to keep them warm inside my wool mittens. After some time I can feel the cold permeating the soles of my trail runners. The cold affects the tendon in my left knee, causing it to be a little more stiff. It’s all perfectly acceptable, just awareness in my body but little cause for alarm. As we rise out of the drainage the temperature will warm and eventually we will be in the sunshine.

As I look at Jamie I realize just how cold it is!

One trail runner passes us, then shortly thereafter we hear voices and another pair moves past. Eventually we ascend into some aspens and the air temperature is much less intense. The trail dips and rises, winds and wends in and out of the aspens.

The sight of the aspens brings longing for summer days, sounds of hummingbirds and overnight backcountry trips. I reign in my anticipation, to not waste the day I have right now, a bluebird day, with clear blue skies contrasted by the bright white landscape.

Back home, even after the Bomb Cyclone a few days ago, I can see spring growth emerging and a neighbor’s crocuses blooming. But here, if one is to step off the packed trail, it’s at least knee deep snow at 9,000′.

At Staunton we’re still in the Front Range but not in the true high country. The big mountains have received an abundance of moisture this year, with every river basin in the state over 100% of average snowpack. This is welcome after the drought of last year and dreadful wildfires that ravaged significant portions of the state’s forest. It will be late June or even July until some of the high mountains are accessible.

Jamie and I pause in the aspens allowing the sun to beat upon our faces as we soak up the warmth. It is a windless day, which is absolutely lovely. Not wanting to posthole over to a log we opt to stand in order to take in a snack. Early on, I blew the line to my hydration bladder clear because it was so cold. I attempt to draw water through the tube and I feel like a kid trying to suck a thick chocolate shake through a straw, unsuccessful to draw any water through the tube. Some banging on my pack by Jamie and blowing back and forth finally breaks the ice dam free that must have formed, and I am able to take a drink.

Exiting the aspens we enter back into the darker timber. Not as many people have ventured here and I begin to remark that the trail is softer when my right leg sinks knee deep into snow. I do my own version of an Irish jig as I quickly step out of the post hole attempting to keep my balance.

I’ve been on this trail just once, I believe, and I was running at the time. So now, moving at a slower pace, and in winter, it all looks different to me. We comment how we’re hoping to intersect another trail versus having to backtrack when we finally arrive at the Old Mill, built here in the 1930’s. The old building stands defiant to the elements high on the mountain, nestled between the rocks that make up much of this park. I marvel at how they got various pieces of large equipment up here nearly 90 years ago. The resourcefulness and perseverance of the people impresses me.

We don’t linger long and venture lower on the Old Mill trail and intersect with a main trail that takes us back to the parking lot. Now there is much more activity with fat tire bikers, hikers and snowshoers. We have timed it right as the trail is now beginning to thaw out and muddy up when we arrive back where we started to a now full parking lot.

Reflecting on the morning warms my heart as we move into spring and the transition of longer days, blooming plants and more time afield. I look forward to many more trips this year, and hope to explore some new places as well.

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?

Back on The Colorado Trail

This is the year that I am going to finish the Colorado Trail, the footpath/bicycle path that goes from south Denver in Waterton Canyon to Durango, spanning 475 miles through the Rocky Mountains. I began backpacking the CT in June, 2014. Since then I have completed 261 miles of the trail covering both the Collegiate West portion as well as the Collegiate East section. After knocking out a few segments each year and doing a ten day trek in 2015, I decided to finish out the remaining 230 miles from Monarch Pass to Durango. An earlier blog post this spring gives a little bit of the backstory as to why I decided to push through to finish this year.

The venture will be an aggressive one. I have ten days to cover 230 miles. It is not a given that I will complete the task. I have a specific start and finish date due to business and family situations. I plan on a rest or “zero” day in Lake City, meaning I have decided to take nine full days to complete the route. In short, I will need to walk the distance of a marathon each day to make it to Durango by Saturday, August 11th. Not just walk, but don a backpack averaging 25 pounds and climb an average of three to four thousand feet each day largely at an altitude of 10,000-13,000’. I have once again taken on a challenge of which will be outside the scope of anything I have done before. In 2015, I chose a fairly leisurely 10 day trip, stopping to fish with sidetrips, etc and averaging about 13 miles a day. This will be double that.

Starting off from Monarch Pass between Poncha Springs and Gunnison

I leave Broomfield with my good friend, Jamie, who has also completed half of the trail. We will walk the first five miles together, after which he will head north for a few days on trail he has not explored while I continue on toward my destination of Durango.

Our separation point is where the East and West portions of the Collegiate routes come together south of Highway 50 and Monarch Pass. I make myself a cup of coffee, we sit at 11,900’ on a calm day, devoid of any wind. Nearby are some other hikers chatting while we hang out. After ten minutes or so, Jamie and I do the fist bump thing and he descends down into Fooses Creek while I head south along the ridge of the Continental Divide. It is great beginning with him and hard to say goodbye. Going solo, well, is solo, and hence can get a bit lonely from time to time.

I am splitting the trip into two parts with the rest day in between. However, in order to afford this luxury I need to cover 104 miles in the first four days. Today, I only began at 8:30 so I am already giving away some good light. Yet, the trail is fast and smooth, allowing for pretty good time and miles covered. But I really need to ease into the trek and not go crazy on the first day.

Fleabane

I am on the trail well after the “bulk” of hikers that started the complete trail earlier in summer. Many are anxious to head out in June, and I, too, have done that in the past. But with an early start comes lingering snow fields. July is a great time to be on the trail as the wildflowers are peaking in the mountains, but with July, also comes monsoon rains and dangerous electrical storms. By leaving in August I am hoping to to avoid the heavy monsoons but still catch a good dose of wildflowers. I am not dissapointed early on, as I have good “eye candy” with wildflowers throughout the first day.

Come mid afternoon, I run into some motorcyclists traveling northbound. Parts of the trail are open to motorized travel and segment 16, which I am on now, is one of those segments. A group of four are riding some really nice BMW 1200 off-road touring bikes with panniers, much like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman used in Long Way Round. Two riders pass by and then I come upon a third, walking the trail, one arm holding onto a nature made crutch of a stick. “How’s it going”, I ask.

“It’s been better”, he replies, “I think I broke my ankle.”

I carry an emergency transponder device with me so I can satellite text my wife, Pam, and it also doubles as a SOS device for emergency situations. “Do you need any help with anything?” thinking perhaps this guy needs emergency evacuation. He replies that he has all that he needs and seeing he has buddies with him, I move on down the trail. He is a pleasant enough chap considering he has a potentially serious injury and also that his other buddy is looking for their own lost GPS device that had bounced off another bike.

I continue to run into both day hikers and thru hikers. I keep a good pace, only stopping for a quick lunch and later to filter enough water for the rest of the day. I know that from many past treks I will average 2.2 mph overall for the day. I never want to fall below that number and know that on good sections of smooth trail I can move faster. The amount of uphill does not make as much difference to me as much as the condition of the trail. If it is smooth “all day” trail, I can motor along at a consistent pace. If it gets rocky, it will be my downfall. I don’t move quickly through rocky trail so I always try to make the best of the good trail when I have it. Below is a good example of “all day” trail.

All Day Trail, like I wish I had this all day to walk on!

I do encounter some tougher trail by late afternoon, but I trudge through it, my goal being a stream where I can filter more water, have dinner and then carry on for another hour or so. Sure enough, I arrive at Tank Seven creek with a good day in my legs. As I filter water above the creek, I can see other trekkers at a camp. There is a lot of laughing and talking going on; backcountry thru hikers enjoying a beautiful evening and nice camp. I yell hello to them and they let me know that they have space for another tent. I reply that I’ll be going further, but after I heat and pour boiling water into my food pouch, I cross back over the creek and join them while I eat.

We exchange names and hometowns and within five minutes we are all laughing and joking. “Walking Man” is probably about my age and I quickly find out that he has hiked the Appalachian Trail as well as the Arizona Trail. The other two are an older couple, very easy going and immediately likeable. All three started in Denver and are going through to Durango. It is what I like about this trail. We are all here for the same reasons, we love to hike, camp and experience trail life. I’d really like to stay and linger but want a few more miles today. I bid them goodbye and am on trail again by 7:00.

I walk another hour, moving into Cameron Park and just beyond. It is the “golden hour”, the time of day just before sunset when wildlife is beginning to move about. Sure enough I see four mule deer, two of them majestic bucks as I move into the open park. I’m forced to show my hand as I move through and they bound ahead of me. I see one of them later and she poses for a nice photo.

The whole day has been smoky, from the fires in Northern California. It has kept the sun off my body, but now night is quickly approaching. I come upon a huge open meadow and quickly make camp, pitching my little single wall, one man tent. I’m sleeping at 11,300’. As I settle into my bag, I acknowledge that while my body performed ably during the day, my legs are throbbing, especially my right knee. This is slightly disconcerting because I felt this same thing earlier in the spring after an aggressive run. It did not resolve quickly then; I hope this is not the case now in August. As dusk turns to dark, a bull elk lets out a squeal above me high in the meadow. I already miss Pam, as is always the case, the first night out on a solo venture. Sleep is fitful and it rains during the night off and on. I keep waking and remind myself that I am dry and somewhat warm. I’ll take care of wet gear once it is daylight, which will come after my alarm goes off in the morning.

Day 1 total miles traveled – 26

Total elevation gained – 3,738’

Reflecting on the Past Year

Sifting through images I came across this video I shot in mid June during a 4 day backpack trip. It was one of the best hours of the past year. A gentle uphill trail, butterflies afloat filling the air around me, wildflowers in abundance and aspens 🌳 hitting their early chartreuse green. It was a magical morning on trail.

Timberline in August – 2017.08.18

  • Friday, 18 August 2017
  • Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve, Roosevelt NF, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1324
  • Elevation – 11,016’
  • Blue skies, warm temperatures, high friendly clouds
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A Limber Pine lives a hard life at 11,000′

As I look to my left and north I see Niwot Mountain, 11,471’ high. A saddle runs southwest of the peak to another peak that is unnamed, yet is higher than Niwot standing 11,557’ above sea level. Running southeast of the saddle is a drainage that becomes Fourmile Creek and I am sitting on the south side of the drainage looking down into it. As the crow flies, the peak of Niwot Mountain is .7 of a mile away on a 26 degree bearing. That perplexes me because it seems that it should be slightly northwest, but later as I look at a map I see I was tricked by the terrain.

I first made my way to this mountain in the fall of 1991, coming from the southeast, miles away and walking largely off trail. In recent weeks I have re-familiarized myself with the area, one day running completely around the mountain. Today, I have come two and a half miles on trail and then another mile or so up and a thousand feet higher. Surprisingly, the direct ascent up the mountain was not too difficult, but it was necessary to take frequent breaks in order to allow my breathing to catch up to my pace.

I’m here in the area looking for a place to camp next weekend and waiting for game to start moving about. The wind blows upon my back, but also swirls as the minutes pass. The mountain, mostly bathed in sunlight, occasionally becomes shrouded in cloud cover; big, puffy white clouds pose no threat to me as I flirt with the treeline and tundra.

I realize that my left forearm and my pants are sticky with pine resin. I battle the residue on my arm and then grab some dirt, form a fine dust and rub it over the annoying spot. Problem resolved! Back on August 1st I had glassed (used binoculars from a distance) the mountain from two miles away and saw 14 elk grazing on the mountainside. As I sit on the ground the musky smell of elk permeates the area as it mixes with the scent of pine. I regret not having my tree guide with me as I look at the different fir trees. I do know, however, that my very pokey next door neighbor is a juniper. Aspen shoots no more than a foot high grace the hillside along with willows that are knee high, a favorite food for elk and especially moose. A few Engelmann Spruce stand tall and upright but are outumbered by the dominant scrubby and bent Limber Pines. I walk over to get some close up photos for positive identification later (I was initially wrong on the spruce and pine). The Limber Pine has needles in clusters of five. The Engelmann needles grow individually directly off the branches. There is so much I do not know about the flora of Colorado. Each year I try to learn more, but I think I forget more than I learn. Below are close ups of the Engelmann Spruce, left, and Limber Pine, right.

I’m enjoying this time just at treeline, where the high alpine forest turns to tundra. The breeze changes and I’m overwhelmed by a pungent whiff of elk. The tundra holds delicate grasses and plants. The elk have come high to feed on the most tender of plants that contain the highest nutrients. Close by is a pine branch

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A limb bears scars from a bull elk

that has been battered by a bull elk, who are just weeks away from the magical time of year when they will begin to bugle, establishing dominance in the herd and the right to breed the cows of their harem.

Wildflowers still bloom here. Yellow sedum grows by me as well as blue harebell. A raucous Gray Jay screams out at 33 minutes into the hour. They are abundant here and rather noisy at times. White yarrow also dots the landscape.

I observe a tiny sparrow alight on a branch fifteen yards away. Through the binoculars I see the wind ruffle his feathers and hairdo, creating a tiny mohawk courtesy of the local stylist, Mother Nature. He is there for maybe a minute before flying away. Big fat flies buzz around my knees but don’t really bother me.

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The summit of Niwot Mountain

The hour begins to tick down quietly. The afternoon drawing longer, shadows creating a different canvas across the vast, large drainage. It’s peaceful here this afternoon, a welcome break from the many violent storms and rain that have been prevalent over the past weeks. White billowy clouds pass easily overhead, no threat at this time to change the current serene landscape high in the tundra.

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.

Lake Park

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 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.

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.