Thursday, August 21, 2008

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)

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