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Posts from the ‘Natural History and Bushcraft’ Category

Magpie Talk

          The robin flies low, just barley missing Nikki’s head. Then lands making a sharp“Chit Chit Chit” sound. A few more tail pumps and Nikki is bombed again. In our study of bird language this is fantastic. I feel a little bad causing such stress to the mother who feels that she needs to defend her nest with such aggression. But it is sure interesting to watch.

Nikki is really not that much of a threat. In fact most of the time Nikki can walk right by this robin with out her rustling a feather, so why the agitation today? It is not really Nikki that is causing this. It is the magpie sitting on her shoulder.

Nikki and I have had the opportunity to help rehabilitate this captive magpie destine for release. Magpies are curious and smart birds. They also have been known to raid the nest of smaller birds. The robin is so intent on defending he nest from the magpie that it thinks nothing of flying close to Nikki’s head. The magpie on the other hand would rather be somewhere else than sitting on Nikki’s shoulder. He squats trying to avoid being hit by this frantic mother.

This magpie has been a great teacher for learning bird language. Not only does he cause alarms in nesting song bird like in the video of the dark-eyed junco and robin. But he has keen eye sight. On one of our walks the magpie took on a very squat and defensive posture. It was as if he wanted to become invisible. In a moment we saw the cause.

A prairie falcon came gliding over the ridge.

Leaning bird language has been a fun. It has also helped tune my awareness of different relationships in the world. Once I started paying attention. I began to see the different alliances and conflicts. How the cotton tail rabbit and the Richardson’s ground squirrel will share the same wood pile, both will duck for cover when the robin gives the alarm of a weasel in the neighborhood.

The more tuned Nikki and I become to the language of the bird and other small mammals the more interactions of wildlife we notice. We hear when the goshawk hunts in the forest by the silence that follows her. We can tell when the harrier hunts on the edge of Pine Butte by the wing-shaped alarm of the ground squirrels the sweeps along in front of him.

If Nikki and I are really listening, we may hear the birds scolding the deer or coyote sneaking away from our approach…

As I continue to learn bird language I keep reminding my self that none of the noise the birds make is random. Each one has significance. I won’t always be able to know the meaning of each sound. But if I continue to be curious and ask my self what could that song or call mean. I continue to learn, and the window into the world of bird language may widen to be a door I can walk through.

Bird alarm video links:


Aware(or not)ness


Aware(or not)ness

One of the things Jeff has been working very hard on (and so, by proxy and interest, have I) is awareness.

We all do this every day, and most of us, in defensive of our lives, are very aware when we drive. We use our peripheral vision to watch other drivers, or suicidal deer. We listen to the noises our engines—the rattles and clunks—often without realizing. If you don’t think the average person listens to the car, then pick any episode of Car Talk with Click and Clack.

We listen more than we know.

We feel how our vehicle drive. We know when the accelerator is sticky, or the breaks aren’t sticky enough. We notice when the car smells funny.

We are very aware on the road—most of us, most of the time.

Recently I drove with Jeff to meet John and Nicole Young (of 8 Shields Institute) where they talked about, among other things, natural history and nature awareness.

I took my awareness to a beach near Santa Cruz.  They were busy talking, and there was ocean nearby.

There is nothing quite like the ocean. People say the stars make them feel small, but really, the stars are so vast I have a hard time grappling with the concept.

For me, the ocean is both comprehensibly vast, and incomprehensible in what I am missing. So I sit on the beach and feel small and awed all at the same time.

In Santa Cruz, I had a little over an hour to spend looking at the ocean, so despite local advice on which beach to go to, I drove down the road and stopped at the very first ocean view with a parking lot.

It was a beautiful little cove, with a seaside cave breathing ocean spray like a dragon and pigeon guillemots swimming around looking very formal and serious, until you saw their clown orange feet and heard their squeaking, babbling conversation.

I took my binoculars, because it is the ocean and ocean birds. I love watching their antics with enhanced optics. I wanted to practice my nature awareness, and so I picked a spot on the surprisingly empty beach and glassed out across the ocean.

The guillemots were alternately fishing, then flying to the cliffs to have a lively debate about something—the quality of rocks maybe? The weather? Who had the most orange feet?

I was completely absorbed, when out of my peripheral vision (which I have been working on, as I mentioned) I catch a flash of pink.

Fleshy-colored pink, and a whole lot of it.

Which is how I, working on my great nature awareness, ended up on a naturist beach in Santa Cruz with a set of binoculars.

Awareness. It’s a tricky thing.

The Bear Tree (and eyes in the night)


The trail camera sees what moves around the fringes when we are asleep.

We hike up through the burn, and while I can go on and on about fire ecology, succession plant species, and amazing birds and animals, we see seeking out fire scars among the verdancy, I am focused on a particular tree today.

The Bear tree.

Or the Mountain Lion tree.

Or the Alice Gleason tree.

Or, by it’s scientific name, the pseudotsuga menziesii tree.

Many names for one tree; one enormous Douglas fir tree, somewhere close to ten feet in diameter, but no taller than its small offspring, crowding in around it. All the names for this tree tell us something about it: if you look closely at the thick bark, you can see the long, curly, blonde hairs of a grizzly bear that scratched his back on this tree in early spring, the shorter, brown hairs of a black bear, and the needle thin claw marks of a mountain lion that climbed up the branches in the dark of night.


Another wildlife camera picture

The couple that started this guest ranch in the 1930’s, Kenny and Alice Gleason, marveled at this venerable giant of the forest, and so to honor their dedication in preserving this incredible chunk of the Rocky Mountain Front—we call this the Alice tree.

It is, tagged by science, pseudotsuga menziesii— a Douglas fir tree. It’s only good enough to be a pseudo tree—a pseudo fir (tsuga)…not a real fir tree. You can see the difference between the Douglas fir and other true fir trees in the cones.

Pick up a cone, and look for the mouse sticking its head in to steal the seeds.

A mouse? In a mousetrap?

You have to use a little imagination, but not a lot. The three-pronged bracts protruding from the cone are shaped like the hind ends of mice, as though the mouse stuck it’s head into the cone, got stuck, and now the tail and two back legs are all that is visible.


These three-pronged bracts are diagnostic for a Douglas fir tree, so if the mousetrap sticks in your head, you can identify these trees from the California coast to the Rocky Mountains.

Below this tree shedding cones full of mice, are tracks. An expert tracker could tell you a lot about what has been here. I can tell you a little, but most of the story is hidden from me. Jeff can tell you more, because he has been working hard on his tracking skills.

A motion-activated camera fills in some of the story.

A long, furry trail in the night.

A nose, smearing the lens and readjusting the camera.

I can show just a glimpse of how much I miss. These tracks are all here, undoubtedly, but I don’t see them.  And we move loudly through the forest when we walk or ride, pushing wildlife out in front of us.


I’d hide that beautiful rack in the cover of darkness too (Elk)

That’s not always a bad thing. I certainly don’t enjoy surprising a black bear with cubs. I worry about them, incredible climbers though the cubs are, but surely that must be too high!

Since the wildlife usually moves around us—invisible, out of sight, or during the darkness—I want to show you a little of what the camera’s saw in 2010. Jeff set these up in places we walk or ride, but places that take a while to get to.


ImageMule deer


New fawn


The illusive, unsuspecting current (and former) Pine Butte Staff

The Aspen Stand

A black bear catches our scent, but because we are a long way away with a very large camera lens, can't spot us.

(Continued from last week’s post)

Why take you on this walk of words, you ask, if I’m not even at Pine Butte yet?

Because I want you to get excited to come visit the Rocky Mountain Front with me (and Jeff, several horses and two dogs).  And because I want to show you pictures, to jog your memory, or to show you something new you haven’t seen.

I want you to remember what you thought when you ate breakfast in the Lodge— your eggs to-order and that scone that smelled too good to resist—then we worked it off by hiking all morning.

If you never watched a black bear though my spotting scope, then I want the smudge of your eyebrow pressed against the glass as you see her dig up root bulbs, probably yellow bells and glacier lilies.

If you have, then I want you to disappear from the humming whir of your computer fan and the honk and rumble of traffic outside, and come visit where you can do ear Yoga—yes I said ear Yoga—stretching your hearing out to the soft sounds of nature.

This is me being sentimental, because I am getting excited to head back to Montana. I am listening to the bird songs, and pawing through my flower books and wondering where all that information went. It was in my head, and somewhere— somehow—it dribbled out and I left a trail of natural history knowledge on the ground behind me.

Except the natural history knowledge I that didn’t come from books; the experiences that are more than just a name and a fact. Those stories I tell you have a smell, a taste, a touch…they live in too many spots in my head for me to forget them.

It might take me writing these flimsy words to remember the real reason Soapberry (Shepherida canadensis) is called Soapberry, and the slippery taste on my tongue when I eat one to prove it to you. I’ll make the same pinched face when I try and eat a chokecherry before it’s ripe.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginianus)...the berry that taste great when it's ripe, and makes my toes curl when it's not.

But now I’m distracted, and we haven’t even gone anywhere.

Let’s hike right out behind the Ranch, because going up to North Yeager takes us into a lot of different habitats, and Jeff and I hike it for work and for fun.

And we get to start out in an Aspen stand, and understand that these are the signature trees of the Rocky Mountains for good reason.

They are stunning, and insanely cool.

Here at Pine Butte, we have decided that these hundred or so trees can be divided into two clones. The East Clone reminds me of Mr. Smith from The Matrix movie, making nearly exact copies of himself right down to that ugly wart. Except these are Aspens, so they all have the same genetic information that gives them a strange, somewhat undignified twist in their trunks, but they are still gorgeous.

I rub my hand on the white bark, and it comes away looking Geisha-white. This is how the Aspen keep their photosynthetic bark from sunburn.

You can really see the photosynthetic bark (green chlorophyll) when the aspen are wet.

I know, even the trees have to worry about too much sun damage. So slather on your sunscreen because you just realized you forgot to put it on, or rub some Aspen powder on your face. Either will work, but it’s hard to keep the Aspen powder from blowing off your face as we walk past the other Aspen clone.

This is how we have decided these are two separate clones, by watching them bud-out in spring and change colors in the fall.

The trees, roughly divided by a stretch of grassy field, dress up for spring and dress down for fall in two big blocks. The East block is usually a little quicker than the West block.

But don’t worry; they both get along. They may even be a male clone and a female clone (though I haven’t gotten the nerve to climb up the 40-foot trunks to check their sex in the spring).

A good fall in Rocky Mountain aspen country

But it wouldn’t really matter with Aspen, not in this century, because these clones spread rhizominously.

Yup. That’s a mouthful, and possibly not even a true word. Regardless, Aspens spread with rhizomes, which is a real word derived from the Greek noun rhizoun (to fix firmly) and a derivative of rhiza (root). Aspens spread via their roots, sending them out like giant underground fingers. Every so often, a stem pops out of the soil and an aspen trunk appears.

If you ever have the pleasure, or terror, of witnessing a tremendous windstorm or microburst (more common in Colorado) as it rips through an Aspen stand, you may get to see just how interconnected an entire clone is when the gigantic, shallow root system fails and the trees begin to fall like dominoes.

I’ve seen the aftermath, never the process (thank goodness) of an aspen rhizome clone being ripped from the earth.

Even a dead aspen is a great home. The soft bark is malleable enough for the weak-beak of a red-breasted nuthatch.

More on the amazing aspen next week, and if I stop talking and start walking, we’ll make it to the bear tree.

Getting Ready for Pine Butte Season Three (2012)-Nikki

Hiking at Pine Butte: The Warning

Let me give you the pre-hike warning.

Listen carefully, because this is very important.

Words are dangerous, because no matter how hard they try, they will fail.

They will fail.

The words will tell you that a Cassin’s vireo is whistling at you from the dappled sunlight in the aspen grove, but you won’t hear the sweet, beckoning call even if the words try to fool you into thinking you have.

The words can tell you that an Olive-sided flycatcher is belting out a bird cry of “Quick! Free beeer….Quick! Free beeerrr.” But you won’t laugh with me until you’re actually standing under the Big Sky Montana country on a hillside splashed in yellow blossoms of arrow leaf balsam root and now all you can think about is beer.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

You will be a little out of breath, because this is the thin, clean air of the Rocky Mountain Front and you have come from sea level.  I will be enjoying the break hiking up the mountain, because although I am acclimated to the elevation, and I swore I would exercise more this year, my runs are always shorter than my intentions. Plus standing here catching our breath, we let our eyes wander, and this is landscape is a feast for the eyes.

So consider yourself warned.

We are going on a walk of words, and this is the best that they can do.

And because these are my words, this is the best that I can do.

Lets start wrangling, because although you won’t be up with me, in thin, grey light a touch after five a.m., this is my favorite time of day and I want to share it with you.

Jeff coming in from the morning wrangle

The alarm goes off, and I can’t remember any of the reasons I like five a.m. A robin is softly testing the light with his voice as I put on thermals, because although this is summer, we are in the cold sink of a river bottom. By the time my horse puffs his way to the top of Marmot Rock in time to see the sunrise, I will be too warm and so will he. He will be busy scanning the grass-carpeted hillside for the rest of the horse herd, but I will be distracted.

I am looking out over the expanse of the Great Plains, and it is on fire.

The view from Marmot Rock at 6 a.m.

Not literally, though that may happen later in the summer, but this morning, the air itself is flaming orange and I can see as far as my eyes will stretch.

My horse spooks at a blue-grouse flushing from under his feet in the grass, and my attention returns to my job.

The horses are all the way over at Wire Flats. This is our unofficial nickname for the hidden meadow between two sections of sentinel, burned trees. In country this vast, you need words to communicate locations. We tried “you know, that meadow, just past the other meadow, down from Yeager Flats and when you turn left at the top of the hill.”

It didn’t work.

I know, imagine that.

So I canter over to Wire Flats and in the narrow, mucky drainage that is always a little too dark, and the trees a little too close for comfort, there are fresh bear tracks in the mud. I slow my horse, even though all he wants to do is bolt through and be out on the other side in the sunrise.

I will tell you that the tracks look like a black bear, with more curve at the top of the foot pad than a grizzly and shorter claws, but since I rode over them at a trot, I might be making the tracks fit my fleeting glimpse.

Black Bear track

But statistics will be in my favor. We see a lot more black bears than grizzlies. A lot. And it’s a luck morning wrangling when I ride silent and fast enough to catch a black bear at her breakfast.

Horses are not quiet animals, so we generally don’t sneak up on much. Sometimes, if the wind is blowing our sent away from the bear, and our sound is pushed away by the wind and sheltered by a hill, I see them before they lope away to hide.

Once, in a very late fall morning, I nearly rode into a black bear. Neither my horse nor I noticed it, because it was so dark in the thick, overgrown Douglas-fir forest and it looked like a shadow.

My horse and I both smelled it just before impact, and the clueless juvenile bear finally figured out that we were headed right at it.

I’m not sure who was more frightened, my horse, the bear, or me.

Nope. Didn’t need any more coffee that morning.

But that’s not the case this morning. I don’t run into any bears, and we pick up the stragglers on the mountain side, the sleek horses stuffing themselves with the rich grass and only following the rest of the horses when I turn my ride around and go back to push them on.

These horses know the drill, and for the most part, are compliant.

But there are always the ones that are not sticklers to routine. They would rather try and see if maybe, just maybe, today will be an unexpected day of lingering in the mountains.

I don’t blame them. These are mountains worth lingering in.

(To be continued next Monday…)

Moving forward (Jeff)

It’s been months since we left the trail, and just as long since we last posted.
Since that time I have flown to Wyoming twice, to Vermont, and to Florida.
Nikki and I drove a horse to Texas, crossing the CDT back in Grants New Mexico.
We almost pulled in to eat at the same Mc Donald’s we walked in to how long ago?
Each time I flew over the west I would look down at the mountain ranges.
The Rubies, the Wasatch, the Uintas. Places I have not been.
I would plan routs in my mind, running ridges, looking in to cirques, I imagine the rock the soil. The smell of the sage the crackle and crunch of brown grass stems. I feel that if I could I would leap form the plane, land on a peak and start walking. North.. Always north. It is in-grained now, sun on my back at mid-day. North just feels right.

Flying over the Sierra Madre, on the approach to Denver, I look down and I see lakes and peaks that I know. Where Nikki and I spent a morning, walking slowly picking up the quartz crystal spars that littered the ground. The lake is white now covered with ice, snow.
So far the winter has been, well different. But most things are different than thru hiking. On the trail we always knew what was next. Right foot, left foot, the crunch of stone, the soft padding our feet on grass, sleep, eat, walk.

Back to the outside world. Auto insurance, vet bills, the truck broke down, more than one set of clothes We need jobs. We need a sponsor!
One of the strangest side effects of the trail has been my dreams. They have become so vivid and clear. I have a hard time watching a movie in the evenings. If I do, I know It will show up in my dreams. Not a big deal if it is Rango. But some sort of thriller! No thank you! I spend a lot of the night counting the lumps in the texture of the ceiling. Listening to the wind calling to me through the window.
My horse is better off though. I ride nearly every day. Derringer mirrors my emotions. Together we learn new things, and become more confident and settled.

Leaving the trail has brought perspective and clarity too. I know I want to know more. I want to be able to read stories in the tracks animals leave. To know about not just who they are, but where they are going, what they are thinking, to be able, if I want to trail them all day, for days and may be catch up. To reel in that string that is still attached to the foot than made the last print. I want to heighten my senses. To hear the birds when they are telling each other of the weasel in the shrubs, or if a hawk is coming. I want to share this knowledge with others. To teach in and about the fabulous outdoor world around us.
There is not a day I do not think about the trail and miss it a bit.. But even form this distance it is still guiding me forward shaping my future, and the future is exciting!
Right foot, left foot, sleep and eat!


A Transect of Winds

The Wind River Range

This is as far as my brain really got on this trip – back to the original end destination for a previous epic horseback adventure that ended in chaos.

Hiking into known, deeply familiar territory was both satisfying and disorienting. It felt like Three Peaks Ranch – the lifestyle and job site left last spring- should be the end point…time to go back to work because this is what we do; we get to Three Peaks and go to work.

Surreal to be a guest where, for so many years, we have worked. Fantastic to see friends and feel the cheerful energy radiating off the place.

Transecting the Winds – from South to North, a nine-day slice in two sections, through old memories (this is where that darn horse ran away down the trail, and that is where I saw my first Arctic Greyling fish) to unexplored vistas.

The Winds are still magical, and even after all the country we have covered, and all the time we have previously spent in them, both Jeff and I recounted almost daily that we could see why they were the favorite section for most CDT thru-hikers.

Alpine cirques of snowfields, glacially-carved granite drama, wildflowers and leaping fish on lakes.
On the southern end, we were chasing snorting antelope across fields of sage and islands of five-needled limber pine. Then we disappeared into the thicket of lodgepole pine – a half dead forest of beetle-infested trees that still teems with life among the wartleberry undergrowth and yellow and purple monkey flowers along meadow stream-banks.

Squirrels scold us with their chatter as we head into the high meadows and cathedral peaks of the alpine, along elk trails where their heavy, sweet musk lingers in the air.

We watch the red fins of cutthroat as they leap from ice-blue water – gracelessly belly flopping on their way back in – to catch caddis flys dropping their eggs onto the water’s rippled surface.
Down the Green River – an improbable turquoise hue for water as the glacial till heads down valley, past enormous spruce trees in an ancient, secretive forest where huckleberry ripen and their sweet tang lingers on our tongues.

The high meadows of the extreme northern end of the Winds are drier, a little less mosquito heavy, but in the evening light a grizzly bear wandering across the meadow spooks two adult moose, who canter across our path with huge, ground-eating strides.
Talk about legs!

At night, the burned forest the rings the meadow edge crackles and pops at intervals, as if it is still aflame.

And now, a photographic tour…
















































The Winds were full of people. We ran into our first south-bound CDT hikers, (and after roughly a thousand miles, missed the group of three hikers we wanted to see by an hour on a side trail…go figure), and have a few thank-you’s to make:

Thank you Maggie Rose and crew for all your fabulous tread and trail clearing…


Thank you Plumber Joe and posse for a cold beer on a really hot stretch of two-track. May all future french bread loaves be kind to your teeth…


And, of course, Three Peaks and Crew – go Mighty Mustangs!

Hiking with Barry

There are a lot of logistics involved in through hiking
There are more logistics involved in section hiking.
The rental car company not only rented us a Ford sedan with questionable steering suspension, but also a very bright college student to go with it. We drove up, he took the car back.
And got chased back off the ridge-run we were attempting by thunderstorms which boomed and echoed, bouncing off the high mountain walls in a cacophony of menacing sound.
Jeff runs from lightening.
Which seemed more and more prudent the closer the bolts got – making one feel very small and way too conductive.
We cowered in our tents as hail hammered on the fly followed by spattering rain and the occasional tearing of the sky.
Part of me wishes we, humans, consumers of massive amounts of energy could harness the lightening.
So much power.
The other part revels in a piece of nature unharnessed – uncontrollable and unpredictable.
The next morning, safely unzapped, we cross the ski area along the mountain ridge top.
Jeff finds one lone ski, finally unburied from its wintery coffin.
So he stomps into it with his tennis shoe and skis a bit.
I don’t think he actually can resist. Skis are like limbs to him – natural and instinctive.
See ski…go ski.
We make 97 cents walking along the ski runs, and two usable lighters.
Barry’s pace is much slower than what we have been hiking, so I start rockhounding.
Bad idea.
The granites glitter with chunks of mica, rosy quartz, other minerals I wish to identify but can only love because of color and texture.
My pack gets heavier very quickly.
We hit some snowdrifts with rotten patches, sending Barry postholing to the soggy ground beneath.
One saddle has an interpretive sign, informing us to look at the low rock walls around us.
What rock walls?
We look, and sure enough they are there but we walked right by them. They are drive line from ancient people around 3000 B.C. to, I think, 150 A.D.
This high, nearly barren ridge line is where they ambushed game, driving them into the men who waited with their primitive stone tools – spears and knives.
I look around at this scoured hillside, with its low rock walls, moved one at a time to save these ancient people from starvation.
In the distance, the metal of the ski lift gleams in the sunlight.
How far we have come…how much forgotten.
We descend past an ice lake, stunningly blue, not entirely melted.
Gorgeously forbidding.
The North facing hillside on the way down to the lake we have decided should be camp is heavily drifted and difficult travel.
But the lake is full of fish, rising continuously to the surface in the translucent, mountain water.
Our mouths begin to water.
But we do not eat the greenback cutthroat trout, tasty as they look, because, alas, they are listed on the endangered species list (threatened).
So I appreciate them through the telephoto instead, their sleek, elegant movements and colorful spots.
Lasagna with carrots, broccoli and fresh bluebell leaves instead. Not quite fresh fish, but a more sustainable and still tasty option






Water is pouring out of these mountains – running down the streams, overflowing the lakes, and obscuring the trail under braids of escaping snowmelt.
I take the opportunity to write – hike ahead or stay behind and write, then catch up with Jeff and Barry.
Strangely satisfying to write, not just about the trip, but actually filling in holes – missing scenes – in my novel.
Me, the I-phone, the flexible keyboard and a rock, or a tree, or a book to type on, or a rolled up therma-rest.
It is the strangest assortment of desks I have ever worked at…
And the most awe inspiring.
The mosquitos I could do without, but the clear, elegant call of a white crowned sparrow over the tumbling water off a beaver dam in the reflected sunlight of a nearly perfect mountain day.
Almost too good.
Just a touch hard to concentrate on writing – getting lost in the scenery rather than the fictional word I have created.
Oh well – worth it =)
Chalk creek pass illuminated by alpine wildflowers:purple ski pilot, white and pink clover, sunrise alpine avens
Hancock lake beyond is an aesthetic surprise of alpine glory
With a road right to it.
On the upside, we are switching routes to get out of snow and off high ridge-runs with no easy bail options in these thunder-stormy afternoons.
So we need a ride, which makes the unexpected road a bonus.
As Jeff and bail down the pass to try and catch the three remaining cars to ask if they are headed down the road to the hot-springs, two leave
The other drivers close their doors and take off when we are yards away.
Poor us – we are forced to camp at a beautiful alpine lake in a perfect summer evening.
In the morning we road walk. For the first hour or so, the road is peaceful, easy travel
Then, as if on cue, the ORV’s are released
They come up the road in waves of rental quads, personal quads, those strange Gator things I don’t know the name for, dirt bikes and storm trooper helmets
They are quite friendly, most wave politely
But from the pedestrians perspective, they are incredibly loud
The warbling of vireos is drowned under the horse-power roaring up the hill
Fortunately, five miles later, another Jeff who was out taking pictures of ghost towns and abandoned mine buildings gives us a ride
After a quick stop at the old mining cemetery in Alpine (mostly washed away by a flood) he generously agrees to give us a ride to the Colorado Trail.
If we had known what that county road was like we never would have asked.
One lane, dirt, sidehill, with almost no passing, steep and tons of traffic
People were backing up to let other cars squeeze by with mere inches to spare
Jeff drives very well – thank goodness – and has a cool demeanor in difficult situations.
Thank you Jeff! (Good name by the way)








The Colorado trail is much lower in elevation.
Different climate, different species, or in some cases, the same species just much further long in its annual or perennial cycle
The cicadas are out in full force, making the air vibrate with their buzzing romance calls
The Colorado columbine is doing justice to its namesake – looking flashy and exotic among the aspen stands
The first flowering orchid of the trip – a spotted choral root – which also happens to be the first time I have ever seen one.
Barry pushes hard, a long downhill stretch at the end of the day, and we thankfully call it a day now that we have embarked upon our new route choice




A 3,000 foot climb on an open, baking hillside to start out the morning.
Yes we are out of snow…but cactus, really?
Really, small and withered and blooming.
In contrast, on the stream bank at the bottom I see my first monks hood – a towering stalk, head high, with intricately twisted purple flowers.
A bee twists his way into the royal velvet like blossom, and then wriggles awkwardly back out again – covering himself in pollen.
Natures tricky way of ensuring good pollination.
We hope to find a trash bin on one of our three trailhead crossing
So Barry and Jeff ask an older gentleman hiking down to his car if he wouldn’t mind.
He would in, fact,
As Barry said, “You would have though we asked him to carry dog poop.”
We get a good chuckle about it on the hike up, which in itself maybe worth the trash bulk.
The clouds begin to roll in, darkening the already thick, dense North-facing slope.
We find camp in a lovely secluded spot by a rushing stream
Pink parry’s primrose and tasty blue bells clings to mossy banks





By mid day on the following, my rain jacket finally gets some abuse.
We stop for lunch at Harvard Lakes and Jeff tries to fish amid the beginning of a rumbling, spitting storm.
Fish are leaping out of the shallow lake – cutthroats throwing themselves into the air in flashes of orange.
Not at all interested in his fly.
Harvard Lakes, part of the Collegiate Range – a whole series of about 14,000-foot peaks named after Ivy league schools.
Yale tops them out, as far as we can see on the map.
Mount Princeton is one foot higher than Harvard, or is the other way around.
Either way, we wonder if the surveyor was paid off.
One foot.
I finally learn to use more of my manual camera settings, and feel slightly justified now with a more complicated SLR.
Slightly…the dang thing still knows more than I do.
We wind through dog-haired lodgepole forests.
Unburned ladder fuels just biding their time.
At lunch I read that the squirrels in serotinous (fire-adapted cones that are glued tight shut with sap and pop open at around 113 degrees) lodgepole forest not only leave the serotious cones on the trees for winter, instead of caching them in a ground-level midden, but they also have significantly larger jaw muscles and even a special ridge of bone to strengthen their bite for getting into such difficult cones.
The same species of squirrel in non-serotinous cone forests lack the special bony ridge on their head, and have comparitely wussy jaws and have to work harder caching all their cones.
I look suspiciously at every squirrel I pass.
They chatter agitatedly under such scrutiny, but they don’t look particularly bull-dog-esk.
It rains most of the afternoon, and from at least 2 AM on.
I know this because I was awake, before the hikers came by at 2:30 to start their peak ascent of Mt . Yale, and then after.
And after.
And after.






Chocolate covered coffee beans do not make up for most of a nights sleep, but they help.
The air smells wonderful after all the rain – fresh, sharp – the scents seem to be richer, carry farther, when they aren’t drowned out by shifting heat waves and dust.
The trail has been busy the last few days: a High Mountain Institute Course and all their early-teenage students, a guided Colorado Trails hike with 25 -mostly older -hikers and two guides, the occasional day hiker, the young, ambitious types “bagging the fourteener’s”, and all the people thru-hiking the CT.
Very exciting to see some many people outside, even if it can make the woods feel a little crowded.
Better that than no one in them.




Jeff spends his lunch break fishing – a four inch brooke trout is not big enough to be toted up the 1,110-foot climb
I hike ahead and write in a peaceful aspen stand just shy of the summit
The ants remind me that they make up more biomass than any other animal species
Who knows, but it sure feels like it every time I try to remain stationary
Ants in my pants – annoyingly yes.
Drop nearly 3,000 feet
Barry’s determination far exceeds Jeff and my own. He decides to do the 750 plus foot climb at the end of a long day.
The grunt is worth it, when we drop down the other side and camp in a spacious aspen stand, rather than surrounded by the noises of a busy campground.


The day into Twin Lakes I hiked ahead to retrieve the car and bring it to a better spot.
The moist air warms, wafting the clean smell of un-petroled woods
Eat my first wild strawberry of the season – before it is fully ripe but I have no patience
Leave messages in the trail with my rudimentary artistic tools – hiking poles
Spotted choral root popping up throughout – their red, non-photosynthetic tissues boldly announcing their parasitic tendencies
A surprisingly beautiful section of trail to end a wonderful hike on.




The hike from Ghost Ranch to Chama – by Nikki


Post Ghost Ranch – aka navigation disasters
Complacency is the sore that festers and reappears on a hot, spring day in the badlands east of Ghost Ranch
Were we supposed to be East – absolutely not
Was it stunning country of bizarre topography and colors that must be a quilter’s dream – absolutely
Did we appreciate it right then – nope, hardly at all
Map reading complacency, listening to another hiker’s passing thoughts rather than looking carefully, and just, plain, laziness
Got distracted by a massive amount of obsidian, agate and chert flakes, one rejected arrowhead
Did they work so much rock all at once, or did they come back to that spot for multiple years?
Was it the men, or the women, or both?
Did they sit around and talk as they flaked? What did they talk about?
Did they care about the color of their tool stone (the beautiful agate with red streaks) or just the quality of the the stone (obsidian – hands down)
Jeff and I muse about it on the trail
Flakes of unanswerable questions – mysteries in the rock
We once again hiked through transition zones – desert mesa to montane meadows filled with soon-to-bloom missouri iris, giant false hellebore (or corn lilly, which is a terrible name for it since it is quite deadly)
Stotting mule deer making twenty foot bounds, flashing through white aspen stands
Tufted squirrels, two males and a female, racing through towering ponderosa’s, leaping to the adjoining one, and then a full blown battle, three stories up, which sounds remarkably like a cat-fight without the hissing
We wait for the sky to fall with squirrels, but the male loser gets away and scrabbles up the tree to safety
Camp in a stand of shrub-like Gamble’s oak trees to the disjointed chorus of competing frogs




Just to prove you can make the same mistake twice in a row, we blow the morning’s navigation – twice
Nothing major, we quickly figure out where we are, how to get to the next point on our route without backtracking but still…
totally demoralizing, the storm clouds that have nothing to do with dew point or air temperatures form and rumble along into the afternoon
Slightly mollified by several groups of elk visible in great open meadow parklands patched with aspen stands
Improved even more by the sight of our first pygmy bitterroot – a delicate white flower with pink stripes…or is it the other way around
My retention ability is not improved with fresh air, or the fact that I walked along seeing hundreds of individual flowers
The snow-patches increase along with running water until after dinner, we continue hiking and have to cross
snow melt streams
ice cream headaches transmitted from the feet
turkeys in the denser woods
the heavy, rapid wingbeats of grouse – rapid fire flight
tomorrow there is a steam that can be up to “your waist”
how tall is “your” and does that mean it will be up to my chest in snowmelt
a possible log bridge is mentioned, and I crawl into a warm sleeping bag hoping for downed trees.



Big boys in velvet – bull elk with the promise of massive racks
Past the “Bone Ranch”, a slice of aspen stand heaven with an oversized, flooding creek, open meadows bordered by thick spruce.
Suggestively glacial with polished blocks of granite and terminal moraines cut through by the flooding river
We cannot squeeze between cliff and river, so we have to ford – twice
Jeff, with his river crossing experience, remains comfortable
My heart rate climbs – I am truly afraid of big, pushy water
This is not big, but it is pushy
The drainage we climb up is filled with mounds of quarried rock, half mountains of pick-axe, hand moved rock
An incredible amount of work for a soft yellow metal
We stop to pick some nettles for the vitamins and minerals
And put a small brooke trout out of a desiccating death in his isolated puddle.
Jeff fishes the stream around camp, but the water is high and muddy and the fish are hunkered down
Slanting light through sodden meadows, a few off roaders coming through and heading back to the lakes




Up past and old mining cabin and old beaver dams that are now lush, flat meadows
Antelope at 10,000 plus, four of them sprinting across snow splashed meadows
We decided to go “off trail” a short cut
Beautiful country, easy travel until the backside
Post-holing up to our crotch
Maybe not the best short cut, but Jeff makes a hot lunch which improves moral and helps with the fact that our snack foods are running short
Camp near some horsepackers, which reminds us how much we enjoy our backpacks staying where we put them, and find our later from other hikers that these horsepackers are really people we should have talked to; a very friendly retired couple that move from horse camp to horse camp exploring new country
The wind gains momentum through the night – the stars vanish



Morning brings a frigid river crossing first thing, howling winds, swirling, low black clouds, and big meadows full of elk
We hike fast and continuously through the biting wind – the scenery spectacular
The drifts increase in breadth and depth throughout the day
We continue spooking herds of elk, moving quieter than the wind and scentless
Our first marmot of the trip hears us and whistle-screeches his high,thin alarm call
The strangest aspen clone , all sharing the same genetic code that tells them to grow huge, thick bases and massively forked and branched tops like an old apple tree
On an open ridge, the wind is so strong it blows my glasses off my face. I carry them in my hand and we crab-walk sideways into 80 miles and hour plus
When we hit the shelter of the trees, we also hit sheltered drifts
Finally the road to Chama, NM around six in the evening
Not a heavily traveled road – we get passed by less than ten cars in our attempt to get a ride down to town from Cumbres pass, a little over 10,000 feet up.
After an hour our hopes of a hot meal and getting out of the freezing wind fall, when a white truck that passed us five minutes ago reappears the opposite direction and honks.
We climb gratefully in, as the husband and wife introduce themselves. They are from the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and are on their way back from dropping off their son at school in Rapid City, South Dakota. When we tell them what we are doing, traveling the Continental Divide on foot to try and get to see, to know the land along the way, the husband is thoughtful for a moment and then says,
“That’s is how you get to know the spirits of the land.”
Coming from him, his culture and tradition, it means something more…
The simple statement lingers – captivates





Snow slow

Subway stop just before noon on the way out of town
A sandwich for road lunch, and a dinner we don’t have to cook
Cuba is all that separated us from the sandstone desert and the montane canyon
It was as though we were on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana in mid June
Sitka Valerian (you can grind up the roots and take them as a sleep aid) are flourishing with little white umbrella flowers, blooming strawberry and oregon grape, alder shrubs and spruce three feet in diameter
Tall, tall aspens, stretching for their own piece of sky – sunlight – towering a hundred feet above our heads
A flaming red columbine, tiny flowered but torching
Many other species we pointed out every summer day in Montana – familiar, and totally unexpected
We just left cholla, prickly pear, juniper and pinion yesterday
culture shock but for an ecosystem
ecotone shock
The raging little creek disappeared into snowfields in the long light of early evening
Jeff spotted a snow-free patch around 11 miles later and we claimed it, pitching the shelter and immensely grateful
as the temperature plummeted
for the gift of new sleeping bags – lofty and warm as the temperature dropped below freezing
I slept with the vegetables
Jeff cuddled with the fruit





In the morning, I nearly stepped on an elk calf
In an attempt at defense for the “keen observation skills” of a naturalist,
I was staring into a glaring morning sun, across a snow-covered landscape
And he was curled up in a ball, head tucked, looking like a rock with white snow spots
cryptic coloration and immobility is, after all, their only defense at that age
But when the rock unfolded two feet in front of me, like some sort of giant awkward spider
wobbly legs way out of proportion to the scraggly young body
Well – I was too startled to make a sound
Otherwise I might have embarrassed myself and screamed like a girl
Once the shock subsided, the magic set in
We tried to move back, give the thoroughly uncoordinated calf room to wobble his way up the hill, where he hid in a spruce twenty feet away
we “didn’t see him” and kept walking
The meadows were snow covered bogs
The drift among the trees were almost hard enough in the morning crisp, but occasionally one of us plunged in up to the top of our thighs
Snow buttercups were already blooming anywhere the sun had exposed soggy ground
Down the north side – down out of snow
By the time we hit a merry little creek, recently restored for the Rio Grande Cutthroat trout, spring was back with thickening grass and early bloomers
We took a dinner break near water, as the skies darkened
Persevered and decided to hike with the ominous crescendo of rumbling thunder
Five minutes down the trail, with rain pattering the umbrella we ran into Hike-On
These are trail names, given often without real names and embroidered on the side of their home-away-from-home – their pack
Hike-On is wiry, fit and lean in the extreme – not a spare ounce of fat
He’s retired, 50’s, 60’s,
wizened but wildly enthusiastic
We swap trail information, as he is skipping all over to different sections of the trail. He started at Mexico border, but arrived at the Gila wilderness just as it closed due to an 80,000 or so wildfire
So he skipped North, to hike from Cumbres Pass near Chama, down South and hopefully through the Gila
“I’m planning on taking the full six months,” he informs us, “I don’t have a job, or school to get back to; I’m retired. I want to take my time and enjoy it.”
He enjoyed the PCT trail so much he hiked it twice, and is keeping notes and GPS points of water and good camps because he plans to hike the CDT again.
He beams and wishes us luck as we start hiking again.
“Hike On!” he calls.
We hike on until the wind begins to smell like moisture – the air heavy, pushing the smell of water out in front of the actual storm
Tarp up, everything set up, hot drinks made and in hand
The rain begins, then continues, pinging off the well tensioned tarp like musical notes
Small raindrop – treble
Big, splattering raindrop – base note




We start the next morning by hiking through cliff walls that make both Jeff and I crave the astronaut ice cream of our youth – neapolitan
The sun warms the sandstone ice cream in layers:
pale tan chocolate
dirty white vanilla
then rosy colored strawberry
I just want to eat all the food from my pack – quickly – as we slog up to the top of the mesa
back into cactus again, out of our montane lushness
but more sagebrush this time, less cholla
an emerging cicada, so new it’s wings flop around in the slight breeze like tissue paper
transparent with turquoise lines
When we stop for a snack, the older cicadas with stiff wings sit in the trees above us, their clicking calls almost identical to the static noises under a high-voltage power line
We disturb a prairie dog colony in a high aspen meadow over 8,000 feet
P-dogs are prairie dwellers or desert dwellers
These guys are high on water, and short on time before hibernation
We plunge off the mesa, a knee-crushing series of switchbacks
Worth it, when we emerge into the sculpted walls and turrets of a valley framed by neapolitan ice cream cliffs
And further on, a river with class three rapids – a class from Prescott College learning whitewater rescue techniques





A rain-pattering, slow morning
sunshine interspersed with gusting winds and black skies as we hike to
Ghost Ranch
A Presbyterian retreat recommended as a stop for hikers
With the snow report from Hike-On, we are feeling that a true zero day
no hiking involved
is not only time to rest after ten days without a break, but also more time for snowmelt
Ghost ranch was donated to the church, and is a massive facility of tan stuccoed buildings, cottonwoods, hayfields and fruit trees and is currently hosting somewhere around 75 to a 100 people
Surrounded by sandstone cliffs
This is where Georgia O’Keeffe did a lot of her painting
There is good reason for that
I want to be a painter here, this landscape makes you want to learn to paint
The folks here are super friendly
A cafeteria for meals, a bookstore for niece and nephew gifts that we are very excited about
A library for looking up unknown plants and cactus and a campground for the tent
The atmosphere is great – friendly and relaxed, and we met Fashion-plate Dan, a fifties engineer who is a hiking fanatic and took four days here because of the snow report from guys in front of him
Two other through hikers left right before we came in, they might by the front runners of the pack.
Fashion-plate Dan
All of them out on the trail
Esoteric Ninja is here with us, and the three from Cuba: Abear, E-blanket and Trainwreck are in Santa Fe and due back soon.
This is what we know of CDT hikers so far – some stories, trail names, few details from their lives off the trail, shoe tread patterns and the occasional story from another hiker who ran into them.
I am sure more will pass us, since we are traveling fairly slow, but everyone seems to be slowing down.
Why rush?
Snow travel awaits – maybe impassible or impassible enough to thwart through-hiking plans.
According to Fashion-plate Dan and the snowpack report from Colorado, the first quarter of the state is at or below average snowpack.
The rest is around 200 percent above average.
Last week, hikers were plunging into some serious post-holing around Cumbres Pass, around a hundred miles North of here.
Go sun Go!