The day began like so many others at this time of year. I rose from bed and as I did so the dogs became animated and initiated their primary movements for the day: stretching, yawning, milling about, jumping on the bed for either ear rubs or to check my prognosis getting dressed… I open the door and they all amble out into the backyard. Usually Leah leads the way, all business, investigating the new scents. Draco follows, ball in mouth, in high spirits. Lady Dog finishes up the motley crew, hopping along on three legs yet eager to get out and romp. I make breakfast and coffee… coffee first, or course. Then we all go upstairs so that I can work on this blog and the pups snooze while I type.
In mid-morning, after I had finished typing away, we depart for a hike. I have decided to visit an area that is close to my home in Gunnison, Colorado. I am surprised whenever I find a new place to explore a mere fifteen minutes drive from home, but this landscape, colloquially known as the Gunnison Country, never ceases to amaze me with its diversity of topography. The shepherds and I drive out to the Gunnison State Wildlife Area, a portion of land bought by the state for conservation. Lady Dog has remained at home, due to her having only one hind leg. I won’t be using a trailhead today, but rather will just start hiking wherever I find a convenient place to park the car.
The wildlife area is set within a sea of Bureau of Land Management property, managed by the Gunnison Field Office, and on the latter’s land I find a wide place in the road to park. I am at the junction of Roads 3228 and 3228a, examples of the various control numbers that the BLM uses to denote the various routes found here. The wildlife area is mostly an old ranch that was advantageously set in the bottoms of North Beaver Creek where much good grass can be grown for the ungulates that need it. Above the creek, and so commonly found here, is the sagebrush steppe. Through this steppe I begin to trek, shepherds flitting about investigating whatever scents grab their interest. The gray-green sagebrush sea is dotted with orange paintbrush and white phlox. With the snow melt and moisture found in the soil, this is the only time that this area will bloom. It isn’t technically desert, but it is hot and dry.
We climb BLM Road 3228a until we reach the dividing ridge between North Beaver and Sun Creeks. At this point I turn right on BLM Road 3228a1 which essentially follows the divide across relatively grassy flats until terminating at the fence line that marks the boundary between the BLM lands and those stewarded by the Gunnison National Forest. It is warm out on the southern exposure, but the grass is all green and the white clouds mix with the blue sky to create a salubrious atmosphere. From the fence line I begin to climb in earnest, a steeply descending slope that leads down from the mesa above. This mesa is long and narrow, the remnant of one of the numerous lava flows that occurred as the West Elk Mountains rose up on the flanks of the Rocky Mountains with each subsequent eruption.
The mesa is tilted along its long axis, rising up towards the central portion of the West Elk Mountains. But, once on top of the mesa the sagebrush begins to thin and aspen and Douglas fir and other conifers become more dominant. The canyons have all been carved deeply into the earth, and gives a fairly good idea of what thirty odd million years of erosion can do. Sun Park, my destination is some four or five miles distant and lies at the place where the elevation from the ridge I am on meets with the upper head waters of Sun Creek. There is some wildlife sign up here, and I keep the dogs under close watch lest we should scare off an elk or bear.
As we climb the vegetation suggests an increasing moisture content. The forest becomes predominantly aspen and the Douglas fir gives way to spruce. Sun Park lies at ten thousand feet and there are still patches of snow here and there. The grass has yet to green up and even the aspen are barely hinting at leafing out. Typical early season wildflowers grow in the numerous swampy areas. I see many large patches of marsh marigolds in particular. The soil is mostly muddy due to the high moisture content from the melting snow, but I find a dry place to sit and watch the clouds go by. Here, the dogs and I have a lunch. The clouds are gathering and although not too threatening the boom of thunder peals a bit too close for comfort. We hasten to pack up and walk back down in the relative safety of Sun Creek. I was glad to have hiked up the ridge initially, for I would not want to hike down it now. The Spring weather is tumultuous and although lightening isn’t rampant at this time of year I still avoid situations that leave me exposed on high or open places.
Our hike back down Sun Creek is without incident. As we descend the clouds break up a bit and the thunder becomes no more than a faint and dull roar. The aspen increase in greenness as we descend to the warmer regions. The hike is easy, not too steep, and I pause often to admire my surroundings. Where this road, Gunnison National Forest Road 859, crosses into private property I skirt up to the dividing ridge that I had initially ascended. I walk back to BLM Road 3228a but then go back down to Sun Creek to investigate a point of access regarding the private property that I had diligently avoided. As best as I can tell, I did not need to divert my path to avoid the private land as the road across is some sort of easement if not a county road. Part of the reason I had never come here is because I had thought that it was impossible to legally access this area. Now I know that it is legal.
The dogs are hot and no water will be nearby for them to lap up on the final mile so I find a place on Sun Creek, up past the private property and on public land, for them to get into the water before our return to the car. The sagebrush is hot but beautiful. I love the distant views of the San Juan Mountains, clad in snow, rising above the numerous intervening ridges. I think of what this land must have felt like when still wild. I feel like we lost something when the predators were wiped out and fences went up to hinder the free movement of the regions ungulates. I say a prayer and beg forgiveness for the crimes against wildlife that have been committed in my name. I will also sing back the swan and dream back the buffalo, but for now I am contented to have walked out in one wild portion of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.