East, sun rises anew,
Spring Equinox dawns.
West, waxing moon sets,
Capping winter’s rest.
Full moon awaits,
To rise in the eve.
Spring emerges complete,
Winter left to grieve.
East, sun rises anew,
Spring Equinox dawns.
West, waxing moon sets,
Capping winter’s rest.
Full moon awaits,
To rise in the eve.
Spring emerges complete,
Winter left to grieve.
It’s getting to the time of year where I want to be doing more and longer hikes and trail runs. With an open schedule I planned to do a run/hike somewhere near Golden, Colorado. But Tuesday brought snow and much of it to the slightly higher elevations. This meant that a) I would need to get an early start before it warmed up to 50℉ and b) I needed to go high to avoid a sloppy muddy mess for my hike.
I change my mind, sticking close to Boulder starting at South Mesa Trail as I leave the car at roughly 7:00. I pass a runner, then a hiker with a dog and have the snowy trail to myself. After two miles I stop to put gaiters on as snow begins to sift through the tops of my hiking boots. I come to the Fern Canyon trail and I know things are about to get serious. Over the next 1.3 miles I have to ascend roughly 1,600’ to get to Bear Peak, a 8,241’ high point above Boulder, Colorado. I will do a loop but have not picked out a spot where I will actually sit for an hour. Going up Fern Canyon is steep but I prefer it to coming down and this counter clockwise loop is my typical route for this hike.
I stop before the trail tilts up in earnest and peel off a top layer so I only have a long sleeved top and sleeveless base layer underneath. I begin climbing, trekking poles making no sound in the deep snow. At spots the trail requires me to pull myself up rocks and get good purchase with one foot above my waist as I do a reverse one legged squat to pull myself up the trail. But the trail is good, with switchbacks the first half mile. And it is during this portion of the trek that I decide on stopping at Bear Peak.
It is already an unusual day because I am the first one to climb this trail today. This is somewhat incredible in this hotbed of recreational activity. I decide that being the first one up the trail for the day allows me to play king of the hill once I get to Bear Peak. I’ll sit there for one hour and ask a certain question of each hiker that comes up after me. This gives me purpose as I hit on up the trail with renewed vigor.
I hit the saddle which gives me a view of Green Mountain to the north. I snap a few photos and now head directly south on the ridge to climb up to Bear Peak. The trail disappears and as the wind has swept across the ridge it has deposited snow resulting in thigh to waist deep drifts at times. I burn some good calories by the time I arrive at the post and trail marker at 10:06.
I hit the stopwatch immediately because I’m not wild about being up here in a sweaty state and getting sick. I settle in to observe what is happening around me.
I am not actually on the peak but just beneath it sheltered on the east side out of the wind. It is calm, warm, serene. The sun is bright as I pull my ball cap down on my ears and switch out sunglasses. A knife ridge runs north/south here, a popular route for people that do the “traverse” bagging the various peaks directly west of Boulder. From where I stand I have views east surveying the plains and west to the Continental Divide.
20 minutes pass and I predict that I am not going to see a soul up here on the peak. Regardless that it is a weekday, that not one person would be on Bear Peak between the hours of 10:00 and 11:00 is incredible. I have to wait and see what happens.
I look to the east and decide to inventory the bodies of water that shimmer in the sun amongst the white snowscape. I count, lose track, start over, and eventually quit at 25. As I look farther east high clouds create shadows making it difficult to distinguish landmarks.
Roads, creeks and trails create dark ribbons against the contrast of the new snow left from the day and night before. As a black vulture rides the thermals below me, I, too, have a bird’s eye view of Boulder, Jefferson, Broomfield, Adams, Larimer, Weld and Denver Counties.
I had passed budding shrubs earlier, but now snow clinging to branches and rocks brings about the look of winter instead of spring. But it is indeed a wet, heavy spring snow that has allowed me to pack down a spot in which to stand. I inadvertently left my seating pad at home and I stand for the entire hour. In fact, by the time I reach the parking lot I will have been on my feet for six hours without once sitting down.
At one point I begin whistling “My country ‘tis of thee” very softly as I take in the views from Divide to Plains. The hour draws to a close and is anti-climactic today with not one person arriving to answer my question. While the views here are fantastic, the trek to get here was more stimulating and full of adventure. I don my pack for the two hour, four mile descent back to the car. Gentle smoke drifts out of two chimneys from houses to the west as I step through the deep snow finding the trail on the west side of Bear Peak. I”ll save my question for another day, another trek, another time.
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.
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.
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 ground, 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.