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

IMG_4517

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

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
20170818_134045

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

20170818_143250

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.

20170818_142734

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.

Bald Mountain 2017.08.11

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4432

American Lady

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

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

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

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

Day 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.

IMG_4146

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.

keeper

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.

IMG_4160

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.

Six Stories Above Sea Level -2017.03.29

Six Stories Above Sea Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walkabout – 2017.03.24

Walkabout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soul Soothing -2017.03.18

Soul Soothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Legged Fur(r)y – 2017.03.10

Four Legged Fur(r)y

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

Coada chases a new friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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
blog

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.