Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thar's Gold in Them Thar Hills!

Columbine Creek
Come greet your newest National Monument:  Chimney Rock!  I read a great book about a new wildlife biologist who fought all kinds of obstacles to save the Peregrine Falcons nesting there: Wings for My Flight.  It's a very scenic spot, so no wonder the Ancient Puebloans build a Great House there.  The book House of Rain has an excellent chapter about the Lunar Standstill event than can be seen from the twin spires of rock that frame the ruin.

Nature's Hardest Hue to Hold
As always, I can't believe another season is drawing to a close.  We've been very busy at Mesa Verde trying to complete our projects.  The new Visitor Center is about to open; it is built on the site of an old corn field worked in the mid 20th century.  Since all the native plants were lost in the plowing of the field, we're working to restore it to some semblance of a natural mix of plants.  It will probably take another five years of consistent effort of planting and controlling invasive plants before it's done.
Columbine Lake (click link for professional photos)

Since our weekends are numbered, we've been sure to get out and enjoy fall every chance we get!  Having been born in Texas, I have a strong bias towards Spring as my favorite season:  redbuds, dogwoods, and magnolias all in full blossom, and whole fields turning blue, red, and yellow with wildflowers as the songbirds migrate up from Central and South America -- I feel like the New Year doesn't really begin until the first flowers.  A Rocky Mountain spring is very different: the weather pattern is chaotic with snows, dust storms and heat waves all in the same week.  The plants (and field technicians) can't trust it.  Oak trees do not leaf out until late May, and even then they can get zapped by frost like many did this year and have to go through a second leafing almost a month later.  Spring tries to start up in the valleys, and moves up the slopes in fits and starts, with July being the best wildflower season since snows have finally melted and monsoon rains hit the lower canyons.

Engineer Mountain
 Autumn is a different story in the Four Corners: the plants and birds all take their cue from the shortened day length and the season is much more organized.  The trees and shrubs all agree Fall is here and the aspens steal the show here with there bright gold leaves.  It is visually stunning to see the quaking leaves suddenly let loose by a strong breeze and rain down along a mountain side.  The air is crisper, so the moon shines bright as geese and humming birds all shuffle for the season.  Colorado's best season for me is Fall.

A scenic overlook of the Ampitheater
Finally, I made the effort to see Columbine Lake.  It's a steep switch-backing trail that heads over Silver Shield basin and up to Columbine Lake (not to be confused with the other 1000 Columbine Lakes).  I saw a Blue Grouse in the park last week, and another as we hiked the Pass Creek trail from Coalbank Pass this past weekend.  It was very windy as we stood below the summit block of Engineer Mountain, so we took shelter behind a lone, stalwart fir and watched a bluebird dance in the gusts.

View from campsite
We camped overnight at Angel Campground, nestled in the cliffs that frame Canyon Creek above Ouray.  This is the same campground I stayed with my brother and friend 4 years earlier before I began working at Mesa Verde.  The following morning, we hiked along the Portland Trail around the Amphitheater, and then went for a long soak in the hot springs.  Driving toward the Matterhorn on the way back home, we had to stop and stare at the aspens framing Mount Wilson.

A cold front was bearing down on the mountains and the first snowfall to hit the Weminuche would begin falling in two days.
Das Matterhorn

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Arrival of Autumn

Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply.

The trees on the hill had nothing to say
They would keep their dreams till another day
So I stood and thought and wondered why
For this was the time of no reply.

Time goes by from year to year
And no one asks why I am standing here
But I have my answer as I look to the sky
This is the time of no reply.  -- Nick Drake

The Equinox is here and the aspens at the higher elevations have already spun their bright gold.  Morning's here are already chilly, so I need to dress for 3 seasons each day.  On the first cool day, we went for a short hike down the lower Dolores River Canyon.  It is like a miniature Grand Canyon experience (excuse the oxymoron); towering red sandstone cliffs capped in white with white and a tiny river flowing down.  We saw an osprey, and at the overlook was a family of white-throated swifts zooming around the cliffs like fighter jets.  The swifts would SWOOOSH right over your shoulder, occasionally starting you to watch them instead of the sweeping vistas.  On the way home, we stopped by Lowry Pueblo with the intent to hide a geocache there.  Every place we thought might make a good hiding place had artifacts on the ground, so decided against it.

The next weekend, I went for a hike up Owen's Basin in the La Plata mountains.  The aspen there were still green, but there were a few groves that had already turned a luminous autumnal orange.  When I arrived at the basin, I saw the Mountain of the North, Dibé Nitsaa, in bright sunshine.  Each time I've been near this mountain, it has sent me discouraging vibes:  rockfalls, snow, storms, tired feets... this time it beckoned.  Even the route up seemed obvious on a mountain that has few obvious routes.  By the time I reached the summit, it was shrouded in thin clouds that swiftly flowed around the summit, making me feel like the summit was moving in a sea of clouds.  Sometimes gaps in the clouds provided views of Mount Moss, Centennial, Durango, and Mancos.  Then a pair of sharp-shinned hawks circled the summit, with one flying straight towards me with a loud SWOOSH as he flew just overhead.  Right after that, the cloud deck lifted quickly, where I could see Sleeping Ute, El Diente, Engineer, and the Needles far in the distance.  A few huge clouds the size of an ocean liner would come sweeping down at the summit, giving the sense it would crash into me with force -- but instead would just wrap around like a light mist and pelt the ground with a few white gems of sleet.

I made my way down along a faint trail and misunderestimated the amount of time required to get back.  Darkness fell, and I neglected to bring a light to save weight in my pack.  I reached the river fording at dark and was scared outta my shoes by a cow-bear!  (a black angus that spooked out from the willows and for a split-second I thought was a bear).  I got back to my truck and noticed some mud and my side mirrors bent -- darn meddling kids!  In the morning light, I realized the mud had huge paw marks on them: there was indeed a bear o'er there!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Goodbye to Pumpkin

This is Pumpkin, aka Squeakers.  She was born in October 1993 and died September 13, 2012.  We already miss her a lot, since as her nickname suggests, she was very vocal about what was going on.  The house is much more quiet without her always getting in the last word.

All our old cats went through varying degrees of renal failure.  Just a few weeks ago we noticed her behavior change; she always begged to go outside to eat grass like a little lamb, watch bugs, and sniff the air.  Instead of eating grass, she just wanted to lick rocks and eat dirt.  We decided she was trying to compensate for something going on in her body, so we took her to the vet for blood tests which showed her kidney disease had become much worse and they could not keep up anymore.  We tried phosphate binders and medicine to help her appetite, but it didn't help enough to overcome the kidney problems.  We helped her along as much as we could, but she just became too tired to move on her own and lost more weight. After consulting the vet, we let her die without more suffering.

Pumpkin was a tiny cat, but had a huge heart.  She was incredibly fierce and not afraid to back down from anything;  the kind of cat that would chase bears out from the back yard.  If we put cat-nip out, I was concerned for the safety of our other pets!  Despite being half the size of our other cats, she defended her food bowl and scarfed food down so quickly she often pushed other cats aside to eat theirs too.  There was even one occasion where she snatched a huge piece of pizza out from the hand of a guest!  Mostly, she enjoyed lying in the sun, playing with her little sockie, and eating grass.

We buried her next to George.  It's a sunny, peaceful spot in a mountain meadow that catches the morning sun... and has lots of grass for our little lambie.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Blue Moon

Lichens on Snowstorm Summit
Last night's blue moon was brilliant over the Four Corners.  I can't believe it's already September, although cooler temperatures at work would be a nice treat.  Our crew is down to three, since one team member has left to study the ecology of non-vascular plants on the Colorado Plateau.  At work, we've been gathering seeds from different wetland plants, such as willows, sedges, and rushes, in order to mitigate an acre of wetland lost to road construction.  It will be interesting to see what will work and what won't, since there is not a lot of information on how this can be successfully done in the arid canyons.

Heterotheca fulcrata near Kennebec Pass
Another huge project at work that is taking place even as I type is ridding the Mancos River Canyon of the noxious invasive weed Acroptilon repens (Russian Knapweed). We had a dirty dozen come help us out from the Lake Mead Exotic Pest Management Team.  The access route is a washed-up two-track that crosses some gullies that are just too steep to get trailers through.  We were able to borrow a fire truck and stage it on a neighbor's property to be a water tender, and then used a UTV with a spray tank to shuffle water back and forth for herbicide spraying.  It was tough and dusty work, but the professional team managed to cover 70% of the entire canyon; quite an accomplishment given the ruggedness of the terrain and hazards such as timber rattlesnakes, hidden fences, thorny plants, and poison ivy... not to mention the heat.  Some of the areas we treated were once old prairie dog towns.  I'd love to restore those colonies once again after the native plants return.

Lewis Mountain
For weekend adventure, I explored some of La Plata canyon.  There aren't many hiking trails in the area, since it is mostly a mining region and so more of a 4-wheeling/mountain biking destination.  I walked my non-mountain bike past Fly-By-Night Gulch (how appropriate is that name for a mine) and up Kennebec Pass.  My goal was to report on the condition of a 100 year old benchmark on the summit of Snowstorm Peak.  I didn't have map or GPS, but recalled Snowstorm was just south of the pass, so I stashed my bike and began huffing my way up some steep slopes.  I climbed two peaks, joined by a narrow saddle, but didn't find the mark on either summit.  I did get great views of Centennial and Hesperus peaks to the west, and a thunderstorm north of Durango.  The stormy weather was building, so I scampered down and hid from sleet in the entrance of an old mine.  The ride down was a hoot; I don't think the brakes or my brains will be the same.

Yellow-bellied Marmot - Mayor of Animas Forks
Another trip was a tour up to Animas Forks, a charming ghost town now inhabited completely by marmots.  Several buildings still stand, and the BLM is trying to stabilize them with new roofs.  My brother and I had always wanted to see the Duncan house since we first saw a photo of it in the Ouray visitor center years ago.  Sadly, he is very scared of ghosts, so now I'll have to kidnap him one day and tell him we're going to a pancake house.  Lisa liked the Gustav House, since it had some of the original wall paper and a few other scraps left behind (greedy souvenir hunters have long since taken every scrap not nailed down).  The walls were insulated with newspaper, including an edition of the Animas Forks Pioneer -- the highest newspaper office in the history of the USA.
Eureka Falls

To the west was the massive ruins of the old Frisco Mill that just turned 100 years old.  The roof is essentially gone, but it would be a shame to see all those huge timbers just rot away.  An entire old-growth forest must've been logged just for that one building; most of the beams are easily 24 x 24" and 20' long... and there's thousands of them.  There doesn't seem to be much left of Eureka, but there is a little canyon there with 3 awesome waterfalls.  A few more waterfalls were along the way.  We camped near a cascade by Animas Forks and awoke to frost on the windshield in mid August -- I can't imagine what a winter would be like there.

Hope everyone has a great holiday weekend!
Rainbow over the Gold Prince ruins