Another Autumnal Hike at Hartman Rocks – November 04, 2009

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Uncompahgre Peak on the horizon seen from Hartman Rocks

As I write this, nearly seven years after the fact, Summer has begun here in the Gunnison Country.  Barely a week since the Solstice and the temperatures are still warming.  It is difficult to imagine that fresh snow could fall, as it most certainly had done recently when I took these photographs, while the previous Winter’s accumulated snows are still melting.  My axiom for the Gunnison Country is something like this:  In Winter it is difficult to believe in Summer and in Summer it is difficult to believe in Winter.

Not too surprisingly I barely remember this hike.  I don’t remember anything specific about this day and have only the vaguest recollections of making a series of hikes during this Autumn at Hartman Rocks.  I’m not sure why, but these hikes that I took at this time have more or less escaped my mind.  Perhaps it is simply a case of me not really challenging myself with what I consider to be iconic hikes such as the ones that I made in Spring and Summer of the same year.

Snow doesn’t appear to have fallen at the lower elevations around my home in the City of Gunnison but it obviously has dusted the higher peaks surrounding the basin.  The San Juan, Elk, West Elk and Sawatch Mountains all are coated with the sure indicator of Winter’s oncoming.  As the length of days shorten, the snows begin to accumulate and soon enough hiking will be one of many things that go dormant during the cold, dark days of Winter.

Because of my lack of clear memory regarding this short hike, I cannot say exactly where I was on this day beyond that it was somewhere in the confines of the aforementioned recreation area that is Hartman Rocks.  I would guess that I walked up Bambi’s Trail before heading a bit further south towards a group of rocks that I am attracted to.  It would seem that I didn’t take any photographs of my route, which is not surprising considering how familiar I am with the locale, and that all of them consist of the various peaks found on the horizons.  All ten snapshots were taken in a span of two to three minutes.

Looking at these images I am stuck by the clarity of the sky.  Not a cloud in sight whichever way I look, and the air itself seems to be dry unlike in the Spring when the melting snows create a certain amount of humidity and concomitant haziness that obscures features of more distant skylines.  The dry, clear air is one of the features that makes Fall my favorite season.  From my vantage point that day, I could make out many named mountains and peaks, including the Baldies in the West Elk Mountains, Carbon Peak, Mount Axtell, Whetstone Mountain, Sawtooth Mountain, Razor Creek Dome, Uncompahgre Peak and Henry Mountain.  Not a bad view to be had.

The colder temperatures of the Autumn require a certain amount of preparation that I tend to have to relearn with the onset of chilly weather.  I don’t want to burden myself with too much gear but at the same time I am not a fan of being excessively cold.  This blue sky day most likely started off below freezing but I would guess it warmed up quickly once the sun began blazing down.  In fact, when I looked closely at some of the images I realized that snow had fallen at lower elevations but had already melted off.  The evidence is the scant amount of snow remaining in the shadier aspects.

Hartman Rocks has many fine attributes.  It is part of the sagebrush steppe that provides habitat for a variety of wildlife and vegetation.  It also consists mostly of a bedrock that looks like granite and many folks like to climb and scramble on the various outcroppings.  Although there are many folks riding around on bikes and motorcycles, as well as people out in their four-by-fours, there exists the opportunity for solitude and reflection should that be what the soul desires.  While I would now guess that I was happy enough to run around on foot, shortly I would be joining the masses who congregate there to enjoy the skiing.  I am blessed to have such a fine recreational opportunity a short five to ten minute drive from my home.  Did I mention the views?  They are fantastic and always command my attention no matter what the day.

Sheba at Home in Gunnison, Colorado and A View from Nearby Hartman Rocks – October 28, 2009

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Storm clouds rolling in from the west over the Gunnison Country

I recognize this view, the gap in the mesas where the Gunnison River cuts down through the numerous igneous layers.  I can only guess that I was somewhere in Hartman Rocks on what must have been a blustery day.  The clouds kept the sun at bay and thus the temperatures would have been chilly this late into October.  Or so I am guessing for I do not remember this hike whatsoever.  Like so many of my other hikes in the Autumn of Twenty Aught-Nine not only the details have escaped my memory but the occurrence of the event is a total blank.  Therefore all that I write about this day is mere supposition, inference and conjecture.

I wonder about the one photo of Sheba the German shepherd that I took.  She is laying there eating out of her food bowl with a bone nearby and I would guess that I left her and Lady Dog at home as I went out hiking.  I suppose that I was attempting to capture a moment for posterity and that I did although I don’t believe it to be the best that I have made.  I can’t imagine that I took a long hike that day, nearly seven years ago, when I consider the location and wonder why I left the dogs at home.  Perhaps I merely wanted some time to myself.  It is also possible that I judged the canines to be too weary to hike, as, if I remember correctly, Sheba might have been in the nascent stages of cancer of the lymph nodes.

The Gunnison River’s location has a somewhat interesting geologic history.  For eons, that is tens of millions of years, it had drained the western slope of the young Rocky Mountains.  The mountains grew and the river washed away the rocks towards the ancient ocean.  It would scour the bedrock and surrounding sedimentary layers, abrading and eroding a gouge into the Earth’s surface.  Then, roughly thirty-five million years ago, two great volcanic fields poured forth immense, almost unfathomable, volumes of igneous rock from the depths of our Earth.  The various volcanoes, calderas and rift zones eventually became the West Elk and San Juan Mountains, rising above our storied river to the north and south, respectively.

With each eruption one or the other volcanic field would belch out a quantity of magma or ash that would flow down whichever slope and dam the river and subsequently push it one way or the other.  The events originating from the north pushed the river towards the south and vice versa.  As the hot igneous rock cooled it became relatively flat on its surface and thus were formed the mesas that can be seen throughout the region.  From any proper vantage point it becomes obvious, to this day, that the mesas to the north of the river are slightly tilted to the south denoting the ancient slope that the viscous and molten rock flowed down.  Of course, the mesas to the south are sloped so that their surface aspect faces towards the north.  Once the eruptions ceased the river became set in its current location and has been, along with the various and numerous tributaries, eroding the rock into the sculptured landscape that we see today.

Oddly enough, Hartman Rocks consist of bedrock that is much older than any of the surrounding rock.  It gives a slight glimpse into what this area would have looked like, geologically speaking, prior to the inundation of volcanic rock.  I don’t know if the area was never covered by the eruptions or if what might have covered the area was subsequently eroded away.  Furthermore, I wonder what happened to the sedimentary layers that are found throughout the area and should be here.  I don’t really know.  Nevertheless, the geology is fascinating and even a brief hike like the one I made that day gives me pause when I consider the forces at work.  In the end, it is yet another reminder to slow down and take a look at the world around you and revel in the magnificence of our existence.  Life is great!

Sailing the Sagebrush Sea in Hartman Rocks – October 26, 2009

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Carbon Peak seen from Hartman Rocks

Hartman Rocks is a industrialized recreation area just south of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, that still retains much of its natural beauty and grandeur.  Part of the vast sagebrush sea that sprawls out over millions of acres, it provides much needed habitat for sage grouse and other endemic species.  Sadly, much of this landscape throughout the country has been decimated by a variety of modern influences and the stark looking countryside has been abused to the point that many of the animals that make their home there are now vanishing.

This specific area is managed by the local field office of the Bureau of Land Management and they do a fairly good job of juggling the various influences that our hectic society places on the land.  Thus, although open to motorized and mechanized uses that could be called heavy, the area still provides needed habitat for numerous species including one plant that is found nowhere else.

Nearly seven years have passed since I took this hike and like so many others from this time frame the details have slipped my mind.  It took me awhile to study the few snapshots that I made and then determine from what general location they were taken.  I don’t remember nor can I deduce the exact location but the general locality is obvious to me.  The real clue was recognizing Carbon Peak in the last photograph I took on this excursion and the angle from which it was taken.

I would hazard a guess that I hiked up Bambi’s Trail to an overlook of South Beaver Creek but the possibility exists that I hiked out from the Base Area.  Since all my images were made within a few minutes of each other and none were taken as I was hiking out, so it would seem, I have no way of reconciling my route excepting what I remember.  Not remembering this hike at all I therefore have no clue as to my exact route.  However, Bambi’s is one of my favorite access points to this area and I use it frequently.

Judging from what I see in the images I would guess that I had a pleasant day.  The sky wasn’t completely clear of clouds but what little overcast was present likely did not impede the Sun’s warmth on that long ago Autumn day.  Here now, the first full day of Summer, all is green and writing this out is a reminder that the long, warm days do not last long.  Three months from now the landscape will look much like it does in these few photographs and we will then be grasped by Winter’s icy grip.  In other words, seize the day!

Although a harbinger of the long cold that envelopes the Gunnison Country, the mid-Autumnal days are incredibly beautiful.  Some of the more pleasant aspects are mild temperatures, minimal winds, lack of biting insects and relatively few people in a hurry to get from one place to another.  Generally, I consider mid-September to mid-October to be my favorite month.  The Ides of October had just passed so I would be preparing for the cold months and whatever hikes I could do before the snows hid away the land I would have been grateful for.  I notice that the high peaks already had snow on them.  Old Man Winter was knocking on the proverbial door!

Out in the Sagebrush Steppe Somewhere in the Gunnison Country – October 22, 2009

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Sheba the German shepherd somewhere in the sagebrush steppe about the Gunnison Country

Here is yet another instance where I took a hike nearly seven years ago and now that I am finally getting around to writing about it I can no longer remember the details nor the exact location.  Making the task of remembrance insurmountable is the fact that I took only one snapshot of this trek.  Thus, I have no real idea of the length and duration, these specifics being lost in the fog of memory with the other details.

Sheba the German shepherd obviously accompanied me on this journey.  It is probable that Lady Dog came along as well but I can only speculate on this.  Lady Dog is now twelve years old and is no longer an able hiker having had a leg amputated a few years back after it was disclosed that her hip socket and the ball on her femur had both disintegrated and the leg was effectively useless.  Still, she displays keen spirit and seems to enjoy life to this day.  Sheba passed away less than two years after this photo was taken having been felled by cancer.

Sheba had some physical defects as the result of probable inbreeding as is not uncommon in German shepherds and other purebred dogs.  Mentally, however, she was about as solid and confident as possible.  She was truly a joy to be around and loved to meet new people and dogs.  She never started a fight and rarely allowed herself to be dragged into one.  The only real problem I have with her is that now my two current German shepherds have no hope of measuring up to her standards!

In the semi-arid regions of the western United States the sagebrush steppe is a ubiquitous part of the landscape.  Most people find it boring and don’t bother to investigate it at all, merely bypassing the sage on their way up to the more scenic mountains or rivers.  Yet this sea of sagebrush provides a home for many species some of which are endemic to the shrub.  Elk and deer also browse the sage during the Winter especially as it may be the sole source of habitat during the cold months.

I tend to visit the sagebrush sea during the Spring especially when many of the first blooms in the Gunnison Country, where my home is, can be found.  The grass growing between the individual shrubs is green and the flowers add fragrance and color.  Considering the dogs, there is also more likely to be found remnant snow pack on the shady aspects and from this the canines can quench their thirst by gorging on mouthfuls of snow.  During the Summer it is sere and I avoid hiking there during the middle of the day.  If I do hike then I must know where water is so that the dogs do not become overly parched.  The Fall is also a good time to hike when the weather has cooled off a bit but again I must be knowledgeable about locations of water as the snow has yet to build up.  Winter can be a fine time to visit the sagebrush sea but it is cold and windy and some would say it is stark.

Most of the steppe country is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and thus is part of the extensive public domain that belongs to all Americans.  It is a blessing to have this landscape nearby so that I am able to hike whenever I have the whimsy, but it is just as important to protect the steppe from those who see no more value in it beyond what they can exploit for pecuniary gain.  They often leave a wake of destruction that does little to enhance the natural values that so many value.  Of course, those creatures that call the steppe home are also displaced and this adds to the extinction crisis that we are facing.  Is there anything better than smelling the fragrance of sagebrush on a dew filled morning as the sun rises over the horizon?  I always look forward to those moments.

At Home With a Kestrel – October 13, 2009

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An American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, trained for falconry

A long time friend here in the Gunnison Country is a trained and permitted falconer who had, at the time, recently begun to work with an American kestrel that she had captured and trained.  On this day she had brought the bird over to my home in the City of Gunnison so that I could have a chance of handling the bird and seeing her up close.

For me, this was a wonderful opportunity to see in close proximity a bird that for many years I had held in high esteem.  I have many fond memories of watching these raptors hunt in the western portion of Yellowstone National Park.  At that time I was a biological technician on the wolf project there.  From a nearby ridge I used to make a perch from which I could observe a wolf den so as to gather data and make observations.  It was also a fine location to watch kestrels go about their hunting of the small prey they are fond of.  Of particular interest to me, that which fascinated, was that kestrels have the ability to almost hover in the air.  From that singular point in the three dimensional world they could establish a viewing platform where none would have otherwise existed.  Those observations have left an indelible image in my memory.

The American kestrel is widespread throughout North and South America.  One of the smaller raptors, they typically hunt mice, insects like grasshoppers and small birds such as sparrows.  They can kill larger birds on occasion when the opportunity permits.  However, the colloquial names of sparrow hawk and grasshopper hawk suggest what their main prey base is.  The kestrel’s ability to survive on a wide prey base throughout a variety of habitats has led to this predator’s establishment in most regions of the country and I have found them ubiquitous wherever I am in the western portion of the United States.  Their reddish backs, and on males chest, and slate colored wings make them readily identifiable and unlikely to be mistaken for another bird.

I remember how thrilling it was to have this bird perched on my hand, of course using the proper gear to protect myself from the strong talons, and being able to look at her close up where I could look into her eyes and study her plumage.  I am almost sure that this specific bird was indeed a female based on plumage.  Also, females are larger than males and this would mean from a falconry perspective that the females would be able to catch a wider array of prey.

It takes much work and effort to keep a bird like this and to meet their specific needs.  One of the most daunting challenges is to keep the birds at a specific weight so that they are not either food stressed or too disinterested from abundant food to hunt.  My friend is diligent about the bird’s needs that she handles and the few times I have been out to see her trainees in action are always thrilling.  I find it commendable that she generally trains the bird for a season and then after they, the birds that is, have better learned to hunt she releases them back into their native habitat.  That was the fate of this bird and now, nearly seven years gone by, it is likely that she has perished but I hope that her offspring are still out there fulfilling their biological imperative.

Autumnal Hike on Mill Creek – October 09, 2009

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Cliffs made from breccia on Mill Creek

Mill Creek, an appellation that is used repeatedly throughout the Rocky Mountains and North America, is located up Ohio Creek.  The latter is a major tributary of the Gunnison River upon the banks of which sits the City of Gunnison where my home is located.  This drainage that I explored that long ago day is one of the more scenic locations in the Gunnison Country.  The soil and rock is formed of breccia, an igneous rock formed of large chunks suspended in a matrix of finer grains, and when it erodes the creations are unusual and speak to the imagination of the Creator.

Writing this blog entry nearly seven years after the fact I have forgotten many of the details of this particular hike.  However, unlike many of my other adventures so long ago, I do recognize the drainage by dint of familiarization.  There are no other places that look remotely like Mill Creek and the setting is instantly recognizable to someone who has been there dozens of times.

This hike is notable also because my cousin joined me to explore the region.  The vast majority of my hikes are made solo and it is unusual to have another soul along.  What is not clear in my memory is how far up the drainage we hiked.  The images I made suggest that we didn’t go much further than where the trail crosses the creek but I have a vague memory of hiking to a point about four miles up valley.  It may be that that memory belongs to another trek.

Regardless of our ultimate destination that day it is obvious that the weather was nothing short of fantastic.  A perfectly blue sky denotes that there must have been a high pressure system sitting over our part of the Rocky Mountains.  Those systems generally produce the cloudless days that are so salubrious to my senses.  It might have been cold in the morning, but the afternoon was sure to have been nearly perfect temperature-wise.

Although most of the leaves had already fallen from the aspen trees, the meadows stand out in golden splendor.  The angle of sunlight at this time of years adds a dimension of lighting that heightens the sublimity of any landscape.  This day, striking the cliff walls, the area was lit up in a manner best described as awe inspiring.  There was naught to do but bask in the glory of the day.  It would have been the perfect day to sit under a tree and watch the clouds go by except that there weren’t any to be seen.

As wonderful as the weather was it would have been short lived.  I notice that the highest summits have a dusting of snow on them, a sure indicator that Winter was soon to arrive.  These days are, therefore, meant to be treasured and cherished, and I feel fortunate that I was able to experience such a day.  I am furthermore lucky that Gunnison County is endowed with a large amount of public lands upon which I can tramp around at will.  This area is managed by the Gunnison National Forest and the upper portion of the drainage is within the West Elk Wilderness.  Besides being a home for the wild things that live here, the wilderness also allows us humans to commune with Nature and breathe a bit easier.  That is a good thing.

A Short Hike on Copper Creek Above Gothic – October 01, 2009

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Gothic Mountain with a dusting of snow; Lady Dog on the Copper Creek Trail

Here is yet another hike that has evaded my memory and of which I have no direct recollections.  Fortunately for me, however, I was able to recognize from the three different views that I captured this day where I was and thus the location of my trek, at least, is not a mystery.  As I write this I realize just what a blur of memory the late Summer and early Fall of Twenty Aught-Nine has been with nary a one of my hikes having made a strong imprint upon my mind.  There is an exception or two to this statement but that just proves that the generality is correct.

Because I don’t remember anything about this hike what follows is written from rote, the product of the last decade’s hiking and exploring the upper basin of the Gunnison River.  It would seem that on this first day of October I drove up from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, past Crested Butte and then just past the small ghost town of Gothic where I would have parked the car and begun to hike up along the Copper Creek Trail.  This area is managed by the Gunnison National Forest and therefore the trail also carries the designated numeral of 739.

The first portion of the hike is fairly rocky and is a reroute to avoid private property through which the trail formerly ran.  Where this newer portion of trail intersects the old trail, which is itself an old mining road, Copper Creek can be heard rumbling as it cascades down Judd Falls.  If I stopped and visited the falls I didn’t take any photographs, but that would not be unusual as I have found the falls difficult to capture decent images of.  After this first mile or so of hiking the trail crosses the boundary of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, one of the larger such designated areas within the state.  The wilderness encompasses a large portion of the Elk Mountains and peaks abound in every direction a gaze is cast.

The sky that I notice in the few images I made is partially cloudy and it appears that there may have been some precipitation recently deposited prior to my hike as all the high peaks are coated in a thin dusting of snow.  I love this first month of Autumn and the yellowed vegetation, blue sky and white snow create a fine and colorful combination at which to stare.  With the end of Summer and the cooling down of temperatures I also find this a great time of year to reflect on my life and to what purpose I serve.

It is difficult to say with any certainty but I would hazard a guess that my short trek took me no further than the first crossing of Copper Creek.  This estimation is based solely upon the study of the photographs I made and knowing my own mind.  I would not be surprised had I simply decided not to hassle with wading across the cold water and enjoyed the meadows and fine scenery already at hand.

Reflecting now, I realize how lucky and privileged I am to live in this area that has such abundant wildlands to explore.  Of course, to afford the time to get out and hike I must eschew the more common forms of work and consequently don’t earn as much of an income as I would like.  I sometimes jokingly, but with a serious undertone, call my hiking and exploring work.  The more proper word to use would probably be hobby especially since I derive no income from my activities.  Still, it keeps my mind in good shape as well as my body and I truly believe that the world would be a better place if people could more often do what they want rather than what they must.