Thursday, August 28, 2008

End of the trail: Jim, Dwight and Chod at Bear Lake

Lazy marmot

The dark pool

The Roaring River, Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park

Rocky Mountain interlude (Part 12)

The marmot’s posture said it all: torso draped over a fallen log, head resting on its front paws, eyes slitted to the early morning sun. Too weary to lift its head or run from the idiot snapping its picture, it was the very embodiment of overindulgence. I felt the same. It was time to go home.

But first was a quiet interlude, our first and last for this trip, a two-night stay in a very nice house back in the woods above Estes Park with an extensive deck overlooking feeders whose occupants were montane species new to the trip: pygmy nuthatch, black-headed grosbeak, mountain chickadee. Our hosts, Dwight and Linda, were not only blessed with an extraordinary amount of patience to handle three increasingly-surly codgernauts, they were both gourmet cooks and wine lovers and we ate and drank accordingly. Plus she kept the coffeepot going.

Without the need to drive halfway across a state as we had done everyday for a week there was time to relax, but on a rapidfire pace merging our two passions, photography and birding. We began at the Horseshoe Park area where a dam bursting in 1982 deposited an alluvial fan heaped with splintered trees and stones the size of cars, a ghostly scar yet to heal. Dropping from a rocky ledge in a whitewater foam, the Roaring River spilled out into broad grassy meadows thick with elk including young ones we were careful to avoid. It was here that Jim found a red-naped sapsucker, a lifer for him, itself a flood of excitement replete with shouts and gesticulations of a nature sufficient to alarm bystanders, some of whom eyed us warily as if we’d gone batty or might even pose a danger. Unimaginative boobs. In the rapids below the falls we watched the antics of a dipper leaping into the current like some northern form of penguin though on a vastly smaller scale. 

But then this place was all about scale, something a ranger told me at the visitor center. People tend to think in present time, in generational time, he said, when nature thinks in geological time. Not in a matter of years or even decades but in hundreds and thousands of years. Millions of years. The forests so blighted and dying were merely a part of it, an ecological blip and no more, and not for the first time. The ponderosas would fade and something else would replace them, probably lodgepole pines which require fire to scarify their seeds and make them viable. And fire would come, the ranger promised; that, too, was guaranteed. In a hundred years the western forests would look much different and yet be healthy and vibrant, a transition reaching beyond our own short lives. His calm matter-of-factness allayed my fears, reminding me again of how short-sighted I can be. When these woods are again healthy I shall be dust.

Some of our leisurely haste could be attributed to a looming sense of finality. After all, this was our concluding moment to bird, to photograph, to take in the majestic scenery and capture it for our departure and beyond. This is where the road had taken us; by evening it would be finished, the hours remaining no more than an extended run for home. The realization whetted our appetite for more, and as we wended the winding roads of the park we each followed our own vision, Jim and Chod the narrow view with their long-range lenses, me a broader field with a superwide lens, Chod taking off after a coyote, me after a butterfly, Jim taking it all in with a solemnity almost spiritual in measure, his pale eyes offset against a sunburned face and a shock of hair as white as the snows on the upper peaks of the Mummy Range. 

The end came later, when we reached the house and packed our bags and stowed them by the door, and sitting down to a wonderful meal with the wine flowing and conversation and the bittersweet surety of closure and new friendships. 

But the true end occurred at an alpine lake at the end of the road, with storm clouds seething above the rocky crags of Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak, the steely-gray waters rippling in an icy breeze. We parked and slipped into our jackets and entered a lodgepole forest half in dusk, the trail drifted in deep snow softly glowing in the twilight, the air sharp with the scent of pine needles, and at last broke out onto the pebbled shore of Bear Lake. I spotted a boulder jutting above the shallows and made my way to it and crouching down framed it within the eyepiece with the lake behind and Flattop Mountain a stark monolith and snapped the shutter on what would be the final photo of the trip.

That evening I phoned Lori and her voice possessed a frailty I’d not heard before. She said lightning took out the furnace and air conditioner and the stereo as well and more violent storms were predicted. And already the western skies were black, laced with lightning, thunder rising from the earth itself.

One more day, I said. 

Hurry, she whispered, and as the line went dead the night gathered about me like a mantle of crows summoning the storm, and if I heard the coming tempest in that dark, dark night it was not something dredged from desperation or loneliness but merely prophetic.

(To be continued)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

View from the top

The passing of the great western forests (Part 11)

We first noticed it when crossing the Uintah Mountains, vast stretches of ponderosa pine forests turned brown and brittle and dying before our eyes. If not for the cobalt sky and the layered azure of distant mountains, the occasional splash of yellow or crimson of wildflowers nodding in the breeze or the luminous lime of quaking aspen, the high mountains were as lifeless as the Chihuahuan Desert and the same ochreous hue. 

Once noticed it became startlingly obvious, as if blinders had been removed and our eyesight sharpened to a godlike perspective. The pestilence was there on the steep slopes of Rabbit Ears Pass, but the scope of the coming plague became manifest when we turned off Highway 40 at the small town of Granby and began our ascent to the upper reaches of the Never Summer Mountains. Mile after mile after mile of ponderosas were exanimate husks waiting for a castoff cigarette, a sizzling bolt of lightning or an unwatched campfire. The few patches of pines still living were visibly weakened and blotchy with disease. For these woods there would be no resurrection without conflagration.

It was heartbreaking and terrifying and probably none more so than to residents of mountain towns such as Grand Lake, squalid and mean even in its lust for grandeur, positioned smack in the middle of a tinderbox that once started would have no end until scorched earth and blackened stone were the only remnants. 

The culprit was a small insect known as the western pine beetle. This wasn’t a case of an introduced species but a naturally-occurring pest whose impact to healthy forests is usually minimal. Years of drought and fire in every western state have sapped the pines of their resistance and resilience, and coupled with explosive reproduction, the lack of natural predators and the impossibility of forest managers to combat the insect without harming other species—as if budgets allowed for such magnitude or exactitude—the great western pine forests are disappearing.

“We’re the last generation to see these woods,” Jim said. He was right, and from the amount of devastation it was evident that they’ll be gone long before we are. Considering the importance they’ve meant in my life, this plunged me into a deep funk. 

To our danger we imagine nature a benign and benevolent force. And yet behind us lay a trail of destruction, not merely woods but towns such as Jewell, Kansas, smashed flat by the same supercell formations that had chased us across Nebraska, hailstorms of biblical proportions, tornadoes, straight-line winds, nightly visitations of violent unpredictable tempests and constant, unflagging tension for residents of the Great Plains. While we were blithely traipsing across the West our wives back home were under assault. Nor as the week progressed did the news get any better. More than once I questioned the wisdom of continuing our trip but found no way to broach the subject to my companions. And so we betrayed our loved ones.

Snow was hip-deep on top of Milner Pass, the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre a white surge erupting to foam down grassy boulders into meadows without end. The road took us higher still hugging the curve of the mountain in a thin narrow path that seemed little more than a goat trail and altogether insubstantial. Firs and spruces grew stunted and dwarfed, their boles twisted like corkscrews from the incessant frigid wind. As we broke above timberline the sky opened into a depthless cobalt cathedral and the rainshowers relented. Clouds pulled back revealing endless ranges with their jagged peaks and snowfields shimmering in the sunlight. 

Several buildings at the Alpine Visitor Center were buried in snow but the gift shop was open for business and the parking lot mostly cleared of drifts. We slipped into our Gore-Tex jackets wishing for heavier winter gear and debated taking the trail to the overlook, about a third of a mile across the tundra. Jim, who had groused about the narrowness of the road and the lack of guardrails, spit out a dare to us and disappeared into the warmth of the shop. I hated to tell him that if he didn’t like the road thus far he was really going to dislike it when we started across the high tundra.

Perhaps due to his challenge we set off at a brisk pace. An observer might indeed have thought us in competition, which at this altitude, slightly more than two miles in elevation, was a foolish and dangerous thing for flatlanders to do. Our boots pounded through snowdrifts gone to slush and pools of gelid water soon to freeze solid with the setting of the sun and the wind sharp as razors. Within minutes I felt a deep throbbing headache forming behind my eyes and a band tightening around my head. My legs burned and felt heavy as stones and my breath came up short. It’s one thing to be out of shape and another to be unacclimated and here I was under the influence of both and refusing to slow down. An American pipit landed but we barely gave it a glance though it was new for the trip. My eyes roved ceaselessly looking for pikas. We pushed on to the top and sagged against a wooden post announcing the elevation at 12,005 feet. 

Once this place was a second home and now I was getting nailed with altitude sickness. The headache blossomed into white light and my stomach grew queasy. “I have to get off this mountain,” I said.

But first were a few photos, shaky and windblown, of the western ranges. Strange how I never looked to the east where with only a little imagination the farflung skies were Kansan. 

(To be continued)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pronghorn against the Never Summer Range

White-tailed prairie dog, a Western-slope specialty

The barn

Storm over the Park Range

The road to Araphao National Wildlife Refuge, North Park, Colorado

Where rivers are born (Part 10)

“C’mon, Brewer’s sparrow.”

For several days Jim had clamored for the bird, a drab species of the high sagebrush desert and a lifer if we could find one. As we entered Colorado he hunched forward in his seat, proclaiming every little brown job that flew before us a Brewer’s and then cursing and saying he couldn’t be sure, followed by a moment of silence where he weighed our doubts and a gruff reminder that it was his list and he could do whatever he wanted with it, and if he called that fleeting brown streak a Brewer’s then dammit it was a Brewer’s. To which we could only shrug.

We did, however, get into the spirit of his quest by trying to beat him to the punch.

“A Brewer’s sparrow!” we’d sing upon seeing a unidentifiable bird.

After a quick glance Jim would study us through slitted eyes and spit an obscenity. Typical codgernaut behavior.

The extreme western slope of Colorado is a Colorado of ageless memory, a Colorado predating people or pollution or cities, a great swath of sagebrush emptiness fringed with snowy ranges and a single lonesome road climbing ever higher. For hours the scenery changed little though its very remoteness appealed to me deeply so that I daydreamed of how it would be to live there, to exist so apart from humanity that elk, bear and coyotes form surrogate neighbors. But the winters must be bitter.

Steamboat Springs stood in stark contrast with its rich homes, requisite Starbucks and interminable panoply of Hummers and Beamers, sort of a lesser Jackson sans celebrities. Against my will I found myself liking it. Mountain bikers were plentiful as was housing for the middle classes, something rare in those glitzy enclaves. The raging Yampa River carved a broad channel through the valley, undercutting the highway in places and engulfing the lowlands. CDOT worked feverishly to stabilize the banks on one sharp bend but the river implacably devoured the hillside and the road itself. Beyond that decremental constriction we ascended a long series of switchbacks to the pass and crossed over and descended into North Park, a vast glacial basin where the North Platte River is born. 

In the center of this bowl a series of shallow ponds and marshes encompass Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge. On all sides mountain ranges ripsawed the horizons—the Medicine Bows, the Park Range, the Rabbit Ears Mountains and the Never Summer Range, the latter wreathed in storm clouds. 

“What do we do if the pass is closed?” Jim asked.

It was a question suddenly on our minds. Only two other routes existed to Estes Park, both requiring at least a hundred extra miles of driving. That fact that it was early June meant nothing at 12,000 feet. Not for nothing are they named the Never Summer Range.

I turned onto a narrow dirt road and stopped long enough for us to unsheathe our binoculars and ready our cameras. Jim rolled the window down and leaned forward, gripping his binoculars tightly. The breeze was raw and unforgiving.

A small sparrow darted across the road. I braked and three pairs of binoculars raced it to the crest of a tall sage.

“Lark sparrow.”

Another few yards, another sparrow, another stop. Heavily-streaked breast with faint yellow lores, a Savannah sparrow. Next a song sparrow. And vesper sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, horned larks, meadowlarks, killdeer and sparrows that took to ground and could not be found, sparrows that kept flying and disappeared against the backdrop of the snowy mountains, sparrows that played hide-and-seek in willows and thickets only half-leafed out in this place where summer is the shortest season of all.

After a few near-misses, Jim turned to me and said, “I’ve known several birders who didn’t know how to apply the brakes. Next time I say stop, stop!”

The road meandered through dense sagebrush, wet sloughs and grassy meadows. Past a small rise a pond opened before us, its cobalt surface rippled with waves and the bobbing forms of waterfowl. My hearty application of the brake pedal was sufficient to nearly unseat my navigator, who cursed loudly and soundly.

“Like that?” I asked.

Colors at this altitude—8,200 feet—seemed exaggerated as if to make up for winter’s latent white shroud.  The golden feathers of yellow-headed blackbirds fairly pulsed in the thin air, matched only by the rich chestnuts of cinnamon teal and the baby-blue bills of ruddy ducks. Indigo skies bled like ink into the pools and sloughs, deepening and intensifying their hues. Clouds launched blindingly white off the high peaks, their ponderous shadows eclipsing whole sections into temporal gloom, while beyond luminous shafts of sunlight skipped over the valley like some lambent finger tracing enigmatic hieroglyphs.

The road circumnavigated a wet meadow to a massive foursquare structure that if not for the cupolaed roof might have been the remnant of a frontier Army palisade. Its weathered boards were deeply furrowed and desiccated to a pale colorless gray. We parked beside it and stepped into the cold wind and framing the barn in our cameras captured it in a shuttersnap of time.  

On we went down an ever-narrowing two-track, mountains ringing us singing to us, the wind whispering and the immense cloud-freckled sky the greatest of the elements. A curtain of rain dragged a charcoal veil across the distant Park Range. White-tailed prairie dogs barked and scampered toward their burrows. A pale drab bird flushed and landed in the middle of the road as if to block our passage. Hard brake, lurch forward, settle back. Binos locked on. Breaths held, and held, and held. A slow steady exhale. 

“Is that—?”


(To be continued)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The trail

Desert in bloom

Old cottonwood, Dinosaur Nat'l Monument

On the shoulder of the Uintah Mountains, Utah, looking east

Ground fog rolling in, early morning at the Tetons

The road through time (Part 9)

One last stab at the Tetons, first light sharp on the snowy peaks, shadows long, air crisp and fragrant of wet sage and pine, distant meadows pebbled with the shambling forms of bison and elk, ground fog masking the river, photographers huddled over their tripods like protective mother birds and the clattering of camera shutters harmonizing with the trilling of a green-tailed towhee. Surely the ghost of Ansel Adams haunts this hallowed space and these photographers here for a séance divining their cameras the proper conduits for summoning the dead. Please, Mr. Adams, guide our aperture settings, let the light fall soft and luminary on the long curving sweep of the Snake, bless these our humble offerings so they may grace our walls.

Everybody juggled for The Same Angle. I spotted a lone pine in the sagebrush below the ridge and dropped down to frame it in my superwide lens. The upper branches arced into the cobalt sky as if supplicant to the mountains marching away in shimmering serrated ranks. The shutter snapped on what would become the defining image, my own iconic take. 

South then, following the spine of the Rockies, the Hoback River shining in the morning light. Chod, our driver for the day, was uncharacteristically grumbly so we tried humor to alleviate the tension. After a while I noticed that though we were going downhill the river flowed toward us. It was unnerving. When I pointed this out, Chod snapped, “No it’s not.”

Jim rolled his eyes and laughed and I retreated to silence. What we needed was some levity. It came in the form of a Nebraska car in front of us that braked hard and swung to the shoulder in a spray of gravel, the occupants gawking at a powerful bull bison standing in a meadow. The creature was noticeably fashioned from some form of metal. “It’s nice to see people enjoying an authentic western experience,” I said.

We dropped toward the Little Colorado Desert, the mountains falling behind and the land opening up and with each mile drying and growing more desolate.

After a while, Chod said, “The river is flowing uphill.”


The Green River, known to the Crow as the Seeds-ka-dee-a, or River of the Prairie Hen, was a braided ribbon of green in an ochre sunblasted land, and Fontenelle Reservoir a drawn-down puddle of colorless water braced by rocky bluffs scraggly with sage. Below its namesake town the river withdrew into the distance and collected into the upper reaches of Flaming Gorge Recreation Area. The term recreation as applied here equates to watercraft and little else, though we found a campground seemingly in the middle of nowhere and pulled in for lunch. We’re reduced to dregs now, cleaning out the icebox in preparation for civilization, and lunch a mishmash of odds and ends.

As we ate we huddled beneath a picnic shelter to shield a cold wind. The few trees were mostly Russian olive and barely alive. It was a hellish place where even the sagebrush looked anemic, but the shoreline was rich with gulls, most of them Californians. A black-capped bird with massive orange bill flew over and we tracked it feverishly. My first thought, Caspian tern, was verified when it stooped over the gulls. Its size alone identified it—with a 50-inch wingspan, nothing else compared. It’s the first tern of the trip and cause for a celebration though the beer was long gone and coffee but a dream.

This was once subtropical waters and shorelines shaded with palms and ferns, the haunt of crocodiles and gar. Mostly it appeared as if everything of value had been stripped to fashion the world elsewhere. Before us rose the blue mass of the Uintah Mountains lying crosswise across the normal axis of the Rocky Mountains, an anomaly announcing an end to Wyoming. As the road ascended it twisted and writhed back on itself and passed through layers of stone and compressed sand each with its own tale of ageless ages, each tilted crazily, each marked by signs explaining the fossils implanted within each strata and the dates thereof. I remarked how our old Baptist preacher who calculated the world a smidgen over 6,000 years old would have found the signs blasphemous. 

The upper reaches of the Uintahs were forested with pine and aspen and delightfully cool. Were I alone I would have pitched camp there and enjoyed the mountains one last time but we crossed over to the southern flanks and descended into Vernal, Utah. The temperature spiked to an uncomfortable level so we sweated like pigs when setting up our tents at a crowded KOA. It was a ghastly place to spend the night. Being back in civilization was an unwelcome experience which I longed to escape, and we did shortly with a jaunt into Dinosaur National Monument.

Here were cataclysmic geologic forces evident, with uplifts and faults and erosional beds the graveyard of saurians. It was a raw land though sprinkled with wildflowers and redrock pinnacles and deep rocky gorges carved by the Green and Yampa rivers heavy with snowmelt. Being cramped in the truck all day gave our feet momentum when we spilled out at the first trailhead and hastened toward a line of bluffs. The trail entered a bloodred arroyo and curved and twisted snakelike, its sandy floor scribbled with the irregular tracks of lizards and voles. The light dimmed as clouds boiled up and cloaked the sun.

A small trail branched off and I broke from the others. The path climbed precipitously to the base of a perpendicular cliff and petered out in a small clearing. There carved in the rock were two suns and two concentric circles, their pocked etchings a paler hue stark against the darker patina varnished by time and the relentless elements. So sudden was their appearance that it felt like trespassing and then like homecoming and I reached out to touch the indentations and paused with my finger an inch away and lightly traced its shape in the air and withdrawing my hand turned and left that place to the whispering wind and whatever spirits still lingered.

(To be continued)