Signal Peak – March 11, 2014

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Early March, 2014 and it is still winter.  Spring is nearing, but the land is still clad in snow.  The deer and elk have a difficult time finding forage under the white blanket and were aspect and weather combine to create open patches of sagebrush, their sign is strong.  Scat and tracks abound.  I keep the dogs close, as I don’t want to unduly stress them more than their fat reserves can tolerate.

Specifically, it is March 11.  Signal Peak is my kick-off hike of the year.  It signals the time to switch from winter’s frolicking in the snow to trekking over the land.  Well, that’s the ideal.  There is enough snow clinging even to the rapidly melting south-facing slopes that I decide to strap my snowshoes to my pack.  It proves to be a wise move.  I walk along U.S. 50 east of Gunnison for a mile or so before turning north through the subdivision just past the cemetery were I access Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.  The gate is already closed on the two-track to control erosion damage from motorized vehicles and protect nesting sage grouse.  The grouse are hurting and nobody knows why.  Everyone points fingers at one another, but the only real action has been to lock gates during mating and nesting seasons and ask the non-motorized public to wait until after nine in the morning to hike and bike.  Out of respect, I wait until nine before beginning this hike.

After about a half a mile or so, the road leaves the sheltered valley and begins to climb towards the peak.  I start weighing the pros and cons of this hike, one that I have done often at this time of year.  At first, I think that I can just walk over the snow sans snowshoes, but I quickly begin to post-hole up to my calves and knees.  It is strenuous to plod along like that for a hundred feet, not to mention mile after mile.  I quickly come to my senses and strap on the snowshoes.  That was one of the better decisions I have made, bringing and using them.  The going is still slow, climbing up one ridge after another, but much better than knee-high crusted snow.  The ‘shoes keep me afloat and I slowly but steadily climb.

Towards the summit, especially on the northern aspects, the snow loses its crust and even with snowshoes I sink deeply.  The shepherds begin to flounder, having to leap through the deep snow.  Leah gives up quickly and follows my tracks.  She is a pampered pup and isn’t much for adversity, while Draco continues on ahead, bounding through the snow.  The climb to the peak is arduous especially with the snow covering the sharp rocks.  Any slip or miscalculation could cause severe injury.  I take my time and finally reach the summit.  Naturally, the wind is furious.  I’m not sure in the dozen or so times I have visited this peak that it has ever been still.  The summit visit is quick, and I plod down the east aspect about twenty feet to get into the lee where I have lunch and enjoy the vista.

Signal Peak isn’t very high sitting just above 9,000 feet.  I suppose nine thousand is plenty high in some quarters, but the surrounding peaks top out over fourteen.  What I like about this hike is that I can literally walk out my back door and climb the 1,300 feet to the summit.  Also, Signal Peak provides a great view of the surrounding forks of the Gunnison Valley.  A body can look down into Tomichi Creek as well up the main stem of the Gunnison River.  The Ohio Creek Valley is also very visible.  In the old days, a person in Tomichi Creek could have signaled another person on the peak who could then relay the message to a third body who otherwise would have been out of sight.

After a quick snack and some contemplation time, I rounded up the shepherds and began the trek home.  Personally, I love to hike in loops.  It isn’t always possible to do so, but I can on this hike.  Instead of heading south down the gully I came up, I trek to the west and follow the high dividing ridge between the Gunnison River and Tomichi Creek.  I am especially glad to have the snowshoes over this long two and a half miles of heavy snow.  Had I been solely in my boots, I would have suffered greatly and probably caused some injury to my joints and tendons.  Coming off the summit was a bid dodgy in the ‘shoes, but I again took my time and made it safe and sound, bypassing the worst of the sharp rocks obscured by snow.

Along the way, I spotted the herd of elk I thought my have been close by.  They were not happy to see us, but didn’t panic and flee for which I was grateful.  Once spotted I adjusted my course but slipping down the opposite slope from the elk relative to the high ridge I was following.  This caused some difficulty in my travels, but when you consider that the elk are cold and munching sub-standard forage and that I have nothing more to do than hike a few miles before reaching the comfort and succor of my house, I didn’t mind the additional effort.

Finally, at the “old car” (a beat up relic from the 1950’s that is pockmarked with bullet holes and has had its roof caved in from the addition of heavy rocks) I followed a small side gully on the east side of the radio tower.  At the “old car” I took off the snowshoes, after having trekked nearly five and half miles in them.  In the past, I haven’t had the ‘shoes and have paid dearly for my transgression.  Today, my trek was made better by their addition.  The ease, comfort and smoothness of this hike makes me think that this upcoming hiking and trekking season will be one of my best ever.

Keep on hiking!

Road Trip, Part 2, Joshua Tree National Park – February 27, 2014

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After a restful night sleeping under the stars and clouds, I rose early and consumed a quick, cold and satisfying breakfast.  The sun had just risen and was shining clear and bright despite fast moving clouds blotting out about half the sky.  I gathered my gear and began to hike about a tenth of a mile east of the Belle Campground to the California Riding and Hiking Trail, a long trail the winds throughout Joshua Tree National Park.  My plans were to hike the five and half miles to Geology Tour Road and then return.  The part of the trail lies at a higher elevation than the surrounding valley bottoms and consequently is a bit cooler and moister.

Hiking through the low desert is such a different experience than the high, interior desert that surrounds Gunnison.  It is much more barren, yet any observant person will take note of the numerous species of life in the low desert.  The high desert, or more accurately, the high semi-arid lands, sleeps its winter slumber beneath a heavy blanket of snow while the low desert gets a thin sheet of snow rarely.  The Mojave Desert is already bequeathed in glorious colored beauty, as the flowers bloom under the clear, bright desert light.

Throughout the hike, I again marveled at the tenacity of the early travelers who crossed the immensity of the Mojave on horseback, especially the pathfinders who had no clear knowledge of the layout of the land nor location of reliable water sources.  A strong Pacific storm was blowing in from the coast, so as I walked to the west in the morning the wind was in my face.  Although relatively warm out, the wind combined with the colder temperatures kept my hands cool.  The vegetation was all new to me.  Most of the fauna I didn’t recognize although I could narrow most of what I saw down to family and occasionally genus and species level.

We are lucky to live in a country that values its wildlands and open space.  That we can get out and walk around and get away from the noise and cacophony of modern life, that we can let time slip away or at least slow down a bit and remove ourselves from the daily grind and unrelenting motion.  I guess it keeps me a bit sane.  To perceive how nature moves at her own pace.  To appreciate the land and its denizens just for their own sake and the sacredness of being.  Just because.  Those people who fought for and set aside these places, they are my heroes.

The next morning, I left early from my campsite and drove west into Los Angeles, about as completely opposite adventure that I could have from my previous two days.  I took the 60 Freeway into Riverside and then followed Mission and Valley Boulevards into downtown, where I stopped and walked around Chinatown for an hour or so.  I then drove up Sunset Blvd. to Hollywood simply to enjoy the city.  All of this I did during a fierce Pacific storm that brought much needed rain to the area, but made driving a bit hazardous.  I left Los Angeles via the Hollywood Freeway and continued north on U.S. 101 to Ventura, where I took a short detour on S.H. 33.  I then continued north on U.S. 101 all the way to San Jose and Sunnyvale.

I then spent two days with Dan, Laura and the two young children.  Mom and Dad came down to spend a night and we all had a great visit what with the seriously animated antics of the children and general hub-bub.  I left Sunnyvale early on Monday and drove over Altmont Pass into Stockton where I took S.H. 88 over to Gardenville, Nevada.  This was a fine, narrow two-lane road for the most part and was very scenic passing through the high sierras.

From Gardenville, I drove north along U.S. 395 and into Carson City.  From there I turned east and followed U.S. 50 all the way back to Gunnison.  I stopped near Austin, Nevada at a nice hot springs and was able to marvel at the geological complexity of the Basin and Range Country all the while immersed in a comfortable hot bath.  The view went on for forty or fifty miles, if not further; on the far side of a sagebrush strewn valley lay a long, narrow chain of snow-clad mountains, looming up against the horizon.  As usual, I enjoyed the crossing, so relatively quiet and open.

Road Trip, Part 1, Joshua Tree National Park – February 26, 2014

 

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Tuesday morning.  All was packed, the house was clean and the shepherds were off to the doggy boarding facility.  The car was loaded, Lady Dog was given a bone and I was off on yet another road trip to California.  I paced myself down to Montrose over Cerro Summit, simultaneously enjoying the winter scenery and the visceral thrill of traveling over highway both old and familiar and new and ripe for exploring.  The first day out, I drove over Dallas Divide, past Telluride and over Lizard Head Pass and then into Cortez.  As usual, the road between Telluride and Dolores was a feast for the eyes.  The general southwest aspect and moisture laden valleys produce a warm, inviting climate.

Once in Cortez, I drove south to Shiprock, New Mexico.  Somewhere between the two towns I made the transition between mountains and desert.  Maybe even before Cortez.  The natural geologic sculptures are amazing.  The land seems timeless.  The air is so clear, anyone paying attention can see for miles in any direction, and yet objects seem much closer than they are.  I spent the night near Chinle, Arizona in the middle of Navajo Country.  I rose from my comfortable sleeping arrangements and began the next day’s drive early.  Soon, I was in Winslow, Arizona and stopped at a Denny’s along Interstate 40.  It was about 4:30 A.M. and despite the early hour, the truck traffic was considerable.  Once breakfast was hastily consumed, I began driving in a westerly direction on a variety of backroads that took me to Flagstaff were I rejoined the interstate and continued west.

At some point, the highway dropped off the high plateau that Flagstaff and points east sit on and dropped into the low-lying desert below.  Spectacular scenery near Flagstaff and for many miles west through ponderosa pine forest.  Near Seligman, I drove over old Route 66, through Peach Springs and into Kingman.  What once was the main road is now fairly quiet.  Not the way to go if in a hurry, but enjoyable for the scenery and general tranquility.  At Kingman, I stopped and had lunch in a city park right off the main drag.  After that, I followed the Interstate to Needles, California, where I then followed U.S. 95 south.  That highway had quite a bit of traffic and was fairly narrow and rolling.

At the junction with S.H. 62, I travelled west out into the middle of the Mojave desert.  I stopped along the road to shed some layers of clothes and marveled at the warmth of the sun.  The previous day had begun around ten degrees and now, suddenly, it was near eighty.  It felt great, so I enjoyed the respite from speed and soaked in the rays.  Continuing onward, I reached 29 Palms were I gathered in supplies before I finished my second day’s journey by entering and camping at Joshua Tree National Park.  Since I arrived fairly early in the day, I had enough time to return from the high campground to the lowlands around 29 Palms and take a short hike to the 49 Palms Oasis on the Park’s northern boundary.

Coming from the high Colorado Rockies, were the land was solidly encased in snow and ice and general coldness, it was amazing to see flowers blooming and rocks and earth just sitting there, all out in the open and soaking up the glorious golden rays cast forth by the giant orb millions of miles distant.  Recently, I had read some of the adventures of the mountain men from the 1830’s and 40’s.  The desert hosts an amazing array of diverse life, yet in the sense of free-flowing water the desert is also rather barren.  And the thought that human beings riding horses could pass over that immense desert boggled my mind and defied commonsense.  To be sure, the tales I recall were filled with numerous close calls with death in one form or another including dehydration.  To the modern, contemporaneous human, this oasis, named 49 Palms, may not seem like much but it was (and is) a sure sign of water flowing freely near the surface.  A source of water, that chemical nectar that keeps all us mammals functioning, after scores of miles of nothing but scrubby brush must have seemed like a miracle or salvation.

In this technologically enhanced era, I was able to drive my own chariot to within an easy one and a half mile hike to the oasis.  Although my passage through the desert was an easy eight hour drive, I could feel for those who had preceded me.  I enjoyed the coolness of the palms, as well as the relative dampness of the micro-climate in the general vicinity of the palms.  On my way back up to the campground, I stopped to take a few pictures of the Joshua Trees while bathed in the late evening sunlight; that low-angled light that produces such nice reds and oranges, and has a special calming quality not found at any other time.  I then proceeded to my own bit of desert where some thoughtful person had planted a metallic cooking apparatus on which I ignited my charcoal and broiled a steak to perfection all the while soothing and calming the senses with a 24 ounce tall-boy PBR.  I thoroughly enjoyed the late evening lights, and the cloud cover made for a nice backdrop. Between the clouds, stars twinkled and constellations came and went.  I was happy to be there.  I marveled at how easy it was to be transported from the extremes of one climate to that of another in such a short time.  Then I slipped off to slumberland.

 

Gold Creek – February 19, 2014

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I do like to experience nature and the outdoors at any time of year, but generally during winter I limit my explorations to areas that I know well and am familiar with.  I don’t mind saying that I am shy of snow slides and avalanches.  So, I often find myself repeating the same snowshoe treks or cross-country ski adventures.  This year was no exception.  Back on the 19th of February, I parked at the winter trailhead on Gold Creek, north of Ohio City and snowshoed up to the Gold Creek campground.  I waded through the deep snow over a two-track forest service road that gets occasional snowmobile use and heavier use during the summer and fall.  Generally, when the road is open, I drive my vehicle up to the campground to start hikes.  But as can be seen from the photographs I took, that wasn’t possible what with the deep snow.  Many of my winter hikes I either don’t bother to bring the camera or I bring it and then don’t use it.  The reason for this is simple:  I have covered certain terrain so many times that I have a good collection of photographs, and don’t see the reason to add more.  Especially during winter,  many of my treks are just to alleviate the cabin-fever and to keep in good physical shape.  That being said, there are times when something is so gorgeous that I want to take a photograph.  Or, perhaps, I just feel like taking photos.  This particular day, I wanted to take some shepherd photos and that is the majority of what I took.  My two faithful German shepherd dogs, Draco and Leah, accompanied me on this day.  They comprise my traveling and trekking pack and with Lady Dog, now advanced in age and relegated to the home yard, make up the house pack.

Gold Creek is one of my favorite areas to do a bit of winter trekking.  The creek itself drains off the southern side of Fossil Ridge and where I was trekking is mostly sub-alpine forest with some open meadows.  I never cease to be amazed at how different an area is in winter as opposed to summer.  Although open to motorized use, I rarely see anyone in the vicinity and generally have nice and quiet outings.  In fact, although the snow was in great condition for snowshoeing, having good buoyancy and not sinking too deep, there was only one set of tracks in the area.  After parking at the trailhead, the pack and I trekked a half mile up the road past a handful of buildings dating from perhaps the early twentieth century and then continued on the next mile to the campground.  I like the campground setting, in an open meadow just off the creek and with a nice view to the north where Mill and Lamphier Lakes sit in their respective basins.  This day was cloudy and chilly, being a bit damp out, so I didn’t linger too long.  Resting at the campground, I ate a quick lunch, fed the dogs a snack, plodded my way up another quarter mile to the Lamphier Lake trailhead and then returned to the car.  The Gold Creek road is fairly narrow and a challenge in itself so I took it easy on the way down and within thirty minutes was back home to enjoy the comfort and warmth of my house.  I always feel contemplative whenever out in the woods, and this journey left a fine afterglow long after the sun set.

Addendum: I didn’t see too many tracks out in the snow, as the latest snowfall had been fairly recently.  Some rabbit tracks, a flurry of activity near squirrel middens; but one set of tracks stood out:  I’m not sure for certain, but I found what may have been moose tracks.  They seemed a bit too big for even a large bull elk and were cruising and coursing  through thick willow groves.  They were deep enough to almost entirely swallow up one of the shepherds.

Near Snodgrass Mountain – February 18, 2014

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After a fairly dry January, the upper Gunnison basin saw a wet and wild first half of February, with multiple feet of snow falling in the high country.  On Tuesday, the 18th of February, I went on a short snowshoe tour with the High Country Citizen Alliance, a local environmental advocacy organization.  A small group of us snowshoed on the east side of Snodgrass Mountain.  After all the snow and clouds, it was nice to get on a clear, blue day.  On the southern aspects of our tour, it was quite warm in the sun.  We trekked through a nice grove of aspen, and gathered in the view of the surrounding mountains.  I wasn’t in much of a photographic mind state, but I did have to take a few including a couple of a large avalanche.  The recent wet, heavy snow on top of well-packed base produced a slick fault the created some large avalanches.  The snow-pack has since settled a bit, but folks still need to be aware of their surroundings when in avalanche country.

Cabin Creek – February 02, 2014

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Naturally, the day was ruined by having to work.  Spending most of the day indoors, in a noisy and turbulent atmosphere overwhelmed by fumes; it could have been bad.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to start  until well after the sun was sailing the high sky and I was able to make the most of the early morning by taking the shepherds out for a quick run to the sacred spot down by the creek.  After the daily grind was safely astern, I put another plan into action.  I packed up the least amount of gear necessary for a cookout at the mountain park that the City of Gunnison owns, up in Taylor Canyon.  Really, after all, it was a bluebird day, nary cloud nor wind to be seen or felt.  The cookout was a spectacular success, set in the quiet canyon.  There is still much snow, and I had to dig out the grill.  But the Caguama went down easy, and the quiet was soothing; the late sun’s light dramatic, brightening up the granite cliffs.

Some month and change ago, I took the shepherds out to Cabin Creek, some few miles east of Gunnison.  It was a cloudy and chilly day, easier to stay indoors, perhaps.  Nonetheless, I could feel a certain anxiousness emanating from the canines.  Cabin Creek is a wide, sagebrush strewn watershed that provides some good winter habitat for the resident elk.  After snowshoeing a mile or so, well past the power lines and up by the old corral, I found a herd of about 80 to 100 elk grazing the bottom lands.  The elk have a difficult time of it during this time of year, as their fat supplies have dwindled during the long winter, and yet no new grass will be ready for another month or even six weeks.  So I immediately stopped, gathered the dogs and held my ground.  Fortunately, they didn’t notice my presence, or weren’t bothered by it, for they didn’t move and continued to graze. I quickly came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a good way to circle around without potentially disturbing the herd, so after watching them for a couple of minutes and taking a handful of photographs, I turned around and headed home, calling it a day.  I had seen all I needed to see, inspired by the inherent wildness of the elk.

Curecanti Creek – May of 2006

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The days get longer and warmer as the sun slowly but steadily arcs northward on its annual journey towards summer solstice.  A fortnight from now, and we will be at spring’s equinox.  Currently, all is white as the snow covers the ground and doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to melt and give way to the waiting verdant.

These photos from May of eight years ago remind me that, despite the overwhelmingly abundant snowy evidence, spring is on its way.  It may be delayed, it may come late, it may even seem as if it won’t happen at all – but it will.  Patience.  The green up will happen.  I have proof!  It has happened before and will again.

My good friend Katherine and I took this hike from Pioneer Point to the reservoir waiting below, and spent the day tossing sticks for the dogs and fishing.  Pioneer Point is located on SH 92, a dozen or so miles west of Blue Mesa Dam.  The dam itself is located at the entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a deep gorge carved by water through resistant granite.  Currecanti Creek has carved its own side canyon at this location, and at the confluence is located Currecanti Needle.  This needle is a column of granite, tall and imposing.  When the mainline of the Denver and Rio Grande ran through this canyon, this needle was part of the corporation’s emblem.

At the parking lot, there are some picnic tables and a few short trails that lead to various overlooks, which provide for dramatic views of the canyon’s depth.  The long trail leading from Pioneer Point winds its way down to Currecanti Creek and then parallels the creek to Morrow Point reservoir.  About two miles in length, the trail descends nearly a thousand feet.  Above the parking lot, the creek is a gentle stream, the low gradient allowing the creak to meander and drop sediment.   Below the parking lot, the creek’s gradient increases to the point where the gentle stream’s character changes to that of a raging, frothing beast best described as a muddy torrent.

This is a good hike in spring, as the snow recedes from this bright southern exposure early.  This particular hike back in May of 2006 occurred at the height of spring runoff.  The water was rushing down this canyon and would have swept a person to their doom had they fallen in.  It was truly a spectacle to see and hear the commotion.  At one time, Currecanti Creek would have made a confluence with the Gunnison River.  Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, the river was tamed and a series of dams were constructed within the Black Canyon.  The dams created artificially calmed waters, which this day was a stark contrast to the roiling waters pouring in.

At the end of the trail, Katherine and I settled in for a day of fishing and amusing the dogs.  Her Lucky was with her, and I had my three pups along as well.  At one point, Katherine caught a trout.  We thought it a great idea to cook it up, but had not planned for this contingency.  Rummaging through our gear, Katherine found a ceramic bowl she had brought along as a water bowl for the dog.  A campfire was constructed, the trout was eviscerated and cooked over the fire within the bowl.  We added orange pieces and dried cranberries.  A great meal, as the fruit complimented the trout perfectly.

Lucky, Lucky Dog, Lady Dog and Sheba had a great day of it, chasing sticks thrown into the water.  It was a fairly warm, lazy day, and the dogs enjoyed keeping cool in the water.  After a relaxing day, we all hiked back to the trailhead and took in the views.

Keep on hiking!