A Hike to Sun Park – May 28, 2016

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Caltha leptosepala, a Marsh Marigold by another name, near Sun Park. Welcome to Spring!

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.

Triple Header: Myers Gulch, Mesa Creek and Blue Mesa Reservoir – May 26, 2016

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Myers Gulch under Black Mesa

There are so many nooks and out of the way places to visit that I can’t conceivably visit them all in one lifetime.  This will haunt me to a certain point, but will escalate only if I don’t try to visit some of them.  Thus, I drove out from Gunnison towards the upper end of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  Unlike my adventure a couple of day previous, this was not in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park but rather Curecanti National Recreation Area.  There are three dams upstream from the national park that impound the Gunnison River and the reservoirs of said dams form the basis for this area’s existence.

While I am not a fan of dams or artificially created reservoirs the protected area does include some wildlands that I have found worth visiting repeatedly.  On this particular day I decided to visit two areas that don’t have any developed trails and can simply be called landscape.  I had passed both of these on my way to and fro from the national park and had made a mental mark to come back and explore.  My first stop was at a wide place in the road where a four-strand barbed-wire fence was interrupted by a gate of the same construction.  This type of fence and gate is familiar to anyone who spends much time in the outdoors, at least in the interior western United States.  I parked and let the dogs out so that they could run amok a bit and we all then passed through or over the gate, the shepherds the former and me the latter.

For a few dozen miles west of Gunnison lie a number of mesas looming over the Gunnison River.  These mesas were created by a volcanic period some thirty million years ago or so.  This event also created the San Juan and West Elk Mountains, to the south and north, respectively, and as the lava flowed the river was pushed back and forth until settling in its current alignment.  I was in the drainage named Myers Gulch and above me were the vertical cliffs of Black Mesa, igneous in nature.  What a fine day to be here.  The aspen and all the vegetation from grass to shrub were a fresh green that bespoke of the oncoming Summer season although it was still a month away.

I had thought that there might perhaps be an un-maintained trail that led from the gate to a point of interest but I was definitely wrong about this.  Therefore, Draco, Leah and I bushwhacked our way about a half a mile or so until we came to a large meadow that allowed a somewhat expansive view of the surrounding mesas and canyons.  The cloud cover kept the temperatures moderate and I found a nice place to sit for a spell and gaze out over the world.  Deer and elk sign were in abundance here and this felt like one wild place.  Time passed slowly, and I breathed in the fresh air scented with sagebrush and pine and other odoriferous vegetation that all mixed into an amalgamation that jolted my mind into thinking “Hail the Rocky Mountains!”

My next stop was another half a dozen miles down the road.  Here Colorado 92 crossed aptly named Mesa Creek and I found a wide place to park and begin my short foray up along this creek.  I had left Curecanti National Recreation Area and crossed some private property before passing into the Gunnison National Forest.  The United States Forest Service had closed an old two-track and I followed this for a half a mile before again finding a place to sit and watch the world go by.  Not feeling too adventurous, I decided not to cross the creek and further my explorations.  I must have been feeling wan.  I have learned when to say enough is enough.  Nonetheless, my heart grew when I saw all the green aspen.  I didn’t want to hike so much as frolic.

I meandered back to the car, studying whatever the natural world shared, whether it be beasts, greenery or rocks.  When a gust whipped by I wondered about it.  The Sun’s position across the ecliptic was noted as were the slowly breaking apart clouds.  The topography of Mesa Creek as it falls off into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  We could live in such beautiful splendor regardless of our constructs but for some reason we choose to do otherwise.  That is something of a philosophical conundrum, so I choose to play my own game not liking the rules of the other.

Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, had been kenneled much of the previous week and I felt that they both desired and would benefit from a bit of ball play at Blue Mesa Reservoir.  I do feel guilty playing on the shores of the dead river, a well known gold medal trout river that has never been truly replaced, but since it is here I find it convenient to use.  The dogs don’t know the difference and they get joy and contentedness from chasing the ball into the water.  I chuck the ball and with a certain amount of glee one retains the ball while the other connives and plots at its theft.  They race about on land through the grass, all exuberant and dashing about.

A fine day had we all, and I shall present a short list justifying my statement:  Mild, comfortable temperatures; good, furry company; and a noble setting in the woods of the Western Slope of Colorado.  I felt blessed to be rewarded with such a day.

An Overnight Visit to the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Within the National Park of the Same Name, Day 2 – May 24, 2016

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In the Black Canyon of the Gunnison at the base of SOB Draw

I rose early in the day, just at first light, so that I could hike down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  This descent is arduous, so much so that the National Park Service requires anyone who journies into the interior of the canyon to pull a permit.  The previous night I had stayed at the North Rim Campground that is perched on the edge of the great defile.  Thus I chose to climb down SOB Draw for two reasons.  One, the draw is located near the campground so I could easily walk from my site to the trailhead and not have to start the car and drive all over creation.  Two, the route down is relatively easy.  That being said, it would still be a challenge for most people and many would call this route extremely strenuous.

I had wanted to visit the canyon’s interior for many years but had never had the time do so.  After visiting the Great Plains to volunteer for a wildlife enhancing fence removal project, I still had a couple of nights to spend the way that I saw fit.  Therefore, the dogs were already kenneled which worked well for this hike since canines are not allowed to visit the park beyond the roads’ edge.  Not only that but I was intimidated by the daunting challenge that would challenge my confidence and abilities, physical and mental.  Thus, I would not have taken the dogs even had it not been prohibited.

I hefted my pack upon my shoulders and walked briskly past the trailhead and to the nearby ranger station where I pulled the required permit.  My next move was to return to the trailhead and begin the long descent.  The first part was really a nice hike through the flowers and shrubbery commonly found on Mesa Inclinado.  However, that part of the trek did not last long as the descent became suddenly steep and strewn with large boulders that required using my hands to help guide me down the route.  I use the term route because the at is what the National Park Service uses.  They do not consider this to be a trail, so perhaps I should be referring to my start point as a “routehead” rather than a trailhead.

In the last few years I have decided to hike with long pants and long sleeved shirts so as to keep the sun from scorching my vulnerable skin.  Also, the clothing does add a small layer of protection from the brush and external parasites that may be found here and there.  On this quest to reach the bottom of this gorge, the extra protection is almost mandatory.  The potential to scrap a shin, for example, on a jagged piece of rock is much greater than my normal hikes.  I also donned leather gloves to help with the rock work.  Another consideration is that the draw is choked with noxious plants that could cause red swelling and incessant scratching.

I made my way down steadily and carefully, being aware of not twisting an ankle on the jumbled rock.  My view was limited by the walls of the draw, and I could see only a thin slice of the sky directly above me.  The entire time I could hear the thundering roar of the Gunnison River as it poured down the steep canyon, and this sound of tumultuous whitewater became louder as I descended.  The noise was almost ominous in its intensity, and perhaps that is what distracted me about three-quarters of the journey down the declivity as I inadvertently placed my foot in a crevice that nearly caused me to sprain or twist my ankle.  Fortunately, I was swift enough in my reaction to yank the foot out without causing any real damage, but I was sore for the remainder of the scramble down.

An hour after I started I reached the bottom.  I unstrapped my pack and laid it down on the ancient rock that mostly consists of Precambrian gneiss.  I looked up the route that I had just traveled and was amazed at the perceived ruggedness.  Had other people not made this trek already I know for sure that I would not have attempted it.  Nonetheless, I was proud of my achievement and stood on the river bank watching the water move by swiftly.  So swiftly that it was really one long stream of frothing whitewater that churned down a number of chutes between gigantic chunks of tumbled down rock.  Looking upstream I saw the canyon’s nearly vertical walls, rising up on sheer faces from the narrow gap that carries the Gunnison River.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is spectacular from the rim but it is extraordinary to peer up from the raging waters to the thin sliver of sky above.

I reached the river’s bank just in time enough to see the pale orange light from the morning’s early sun strike the rims of the cliffs.  I couldn’t do much more than sit upon a boulder and stare at my immediate surroundings.  Soon, though, I found myself moving about.  The bank of the river offered many opportunities for scrambling around on the large pieces of gneiss and each perspective was a reward in itself.  The boulders felt old and I imagined back to an era some one point eight billion years ago when this rock was part of an ancient mountain arc.  Since then, this rock as been repeatedly pressed and molded by the titanic forces within the Earth’s interior until it has returned to the surface as an uplifted metamorphic wonder.  It has been speculated that this specific formation underlies much of the Rocky Mountains.  Wrapping my mind around such a great span of time and space demanded a meditative contemplation on the wonder of the universe in its formation and continued movement along the time-space continuum.

Time flowed by just like the river, both following an inexorable course along their respective paths.  After an hour I rose and began to retrace my route upwards.  On the descent it was fairly obvious which way to go but on my upward trek I realized that there were many more side gullies than I had noticed prior.  I could see how easy it would be to take the wrong route as the view above was often obscured by shrubbery or rock.  Generally, however, the obvious route was easy enough to discern.  Towards the top, though, the routes begin to divide and it was surprisingly difficult to figure out where I was exactly.  I could no more than trust that the path led to a viable exit from the canyon and this was eventually borne out.

In the end, the exit from the canyon that I used was something of a shortcut to the campground.  It had taken me about an hour and a quarter to return from the depths.  I usually count on an hour for each thousand feet of vertical climb that I ascend on any given hike.  Perhaps because I didn’t cross much horizontal distance is the reason why my ascent was paced so quickly.

I returned to camp and packed up my gear in preparation for my imminent departure to my home in relatively nearby Gunnison, Colorado.  I took one last stroll around a nearby meadow and could see the Painted Wall with its streaks of intrusive rock.  Flowers were in bloom, and the verdure was of that particular shade that indicates fresh growth on the grasses and shrubs.  I gazed about and wistfully stroked a handful of new leaves before turning and making my way to the car.  The old engine fired up willingly and I drove out away from the great rendering in the topography of the region.  I retraced my route from Gunnison and drove on Colorado 92 to U.S. 50, eastbound on both.  The groves and forests of aspen were just leafing out and throughout the region Summer’s promise was about to be fulfilled.  It was a good time to be living the dream.

 

 

An Overnight Visit to the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Within the National Park of the Same Name, Day 1- May 23, 2016

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The Gunnison River flowing through its Black Canyon, as viewed from Deadhorse Overlook

After my adventure to the Great Plains I returned to my mountain home in Gunnison, Colorado, and decided that I would like to visit the South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  The canyon is a vast defile through ancient rock that forms the foundation of the Rocky Mountains in this part of the world.  Although more efficient routes for the river to flow are available the water has been caught in an trap due to the resistant nature of the rock and the regional uplift that continues to add height to the great chain of peaks and high ridges.

The canyon is some two thousand feet in depth but the true spectacle comes from the nearly sheer walls of metamorphic rock criss-crossed with intrusive igneous dikes and sills.  There is one place where the opposite wall is only about a quarter of a mile from it twin.  As the river drops through the canyon, steadily wearing at the boulders fallen from the rim above, its cascading roar can be easily heard from the rim.  Nay, you cannot escape the steady sound of turbulence from below.

I drove out to the North Rim Campground and made camp by early afternoon.  The drive out from Gunnison to the northern entrance of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is via Colorado 92, a windy highway that skirts the rim of the upper portion of the canyon where the drop off is merely eight hundred to a thousand vertical feet.  The route passes through large groves of aspen that were clad in new Spring verdure.  Combined with the cerulean sky and white, puffy clouds the colors were dazzling in their May splendor.

This time of year finds the serious climbers flocking to the park and I felt lucky to find a camping site as the area filled up to capacity later on during the evening.  Having time to explore I decided to drive out along the road that skirts the rim.  This area is called Mesa Inclinado and that is what it is – an inclined mesa.  What I find fascinating is that the last remnants of the overlying sandstone are being washed away as the mass of Precambrian gneiss slowly sheds the overburden.  The various sedimentary layers can be found a short distance away from the rim where they remain extant.  The story of the regional geology is too complicated for me to competently explain but I would recommend Roadside Geology of Colorado by Chronic and Williams as a fine guide.

I first stopped to peer into the canyons from the Kneeling Camel overlook.  I failed to see any such camel in the surrounding rock but that may be more a function of my lack of imagination.  I did see and hear the river as it poured through the canyon so far below.  The views are stunning, something I hesitate to say since that exclamation is overused.  That being said, I was awed by results of eons of the abrasive power of water pushing along tons of boulders, cobbles, stones and sand.  Time factors into the equation as well, and over millions of years the topography reflects the persistence of the scouring effect of the river.

After bending my mind over the four-dimensional  nature of the geologic world I departed the overlook and drove out to the end of the road where the Deadhorse Trail begins.  Although in awe of the canyon itself I was conscientious of the flora now budding.  The Gambel’s Oak was just entering its phase of verdant leaf growth.  The only real oak in the mountains, it is also one of the last deciduous trees in the area to bud.  Many other wildflowers were in bloom and some hillsides were a spectacular riot of color.  Yellow Mule’s Ears, a favorite of mine; other yellow Asteraceae, proliferate and difficult to identify; orange paintbrush, Castilleja, spp., purple delphinium, part of Ranunculaceae; and white death camas added their spectrum to the grey-green of the sagebrush.

The two and a half or so miles of easy trail was one step after another of revelation.  The blooming flowers and new, green growth of grass and shrub brought forth a mirth found throughout the land.  Winter has passed and Summer is near.  Bluebirds flitted by before perching and subsequently sending out their pleasing song.  Raptors rode currents over the canyon and ravens did the same, their ubiquitous squawks and calls making for interesting conversation.  Squirrels ran up and down trees while chipmunks cruised horizontal logs.  I saw no mammalian predators but did see their sign on occasion.  Deer where seen and game trails coursed through the nearby hills.

Eventually I arrived at the end of the trail where the overlook allowed me to peer down into the canyon.  The rugged walls of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison descend at a less steep angle in this area.  The view was sumptuous and I found a ledge to perch myself on so as to stare off into the ethereal void.  I often visit the park in Winter when all is white and I now enjoyed the verdant contrast in late Spring.  The crashing water sent up its steady noise and lulled me into peaceful contemplation of the world around me.  The sun’s relatively low angle sent shafts of light across the gap and my heart soared in jubilation at the majesty found all around.

I hiked back to the trailhead and continued to marvel at the scenery. Portions of the the West Elk Mountains could be seen on the horizon to the east.  They remained swathed in snow, a reminder that the high country had yet to melt out.  Reaching the car, I unloaded my pack and drove back to the campground where I parked the old Subaru station wagon.  I then took an evening walk on a nature trail near the campground that has dazzling views of the sheer cliffs of the canyon.  The view of the Painted Wall was impressive.  This wall is the tallest cliff in Colorado and rises some twenty-three hundred feet above the Gunnison River.  Its name is derived from the streaks of intrusive rock that look as if some giant had deftly flicked his brush of white paint against the black canvas.  Spires of rock rise vertically at the margins of the cliffs, looking like so many needles of rock.  I could look down at the river below, so far away that movement of water could not be discerned.

Soon afterwards I wandered back to camp to start a fire and sit about enjoying the celestial display of stars against the dark heavens.  I consumed dinner enjoying the extended company of my fellow campers.  The campground, as aforementioned, had filled and I ended up being hailed by acquaintances from Crested Butte who shared the site with me.  The darkness enveloped us all as the campfire dwindled into ashen coals and I slowly made my way to the tent where I would sleep peacefully until the morning’s dawn.

A Trip to the Great Plains, Day 3 – May 22, 2016

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A new day in southeastern Bent County

This final day of my visit to the lands protected by the Southern Plains Land Trust started much the same as the previous day.  I rose early and walked out to the bluffs to watch the sunrise and meld with the wildflowers.  I was greeted by the Sun, our great life-giving orb that rises each day to invigorate life and allows our flora and fauna to thrive on this lonely planet that sails through the great void of space and time.  The crepuscular colors are always my favorite and the sky lit up into a veritable rainbow of color as the sun peaked over the horizon and shot rays of light across the prairie.

A community breakfast was prepared prior to our departure for the work site.  On our way to demolish the old fence we stopped to observe the captive herd of bison that had been acquired by the organization so as to help restore the prairie ecology.  Magnificent beasts, it was thrilling to see them even though they aren’t truly wild and are confined to a relatively small pasture when compared to the millions of acres that had formerly been their ancestral home.   Still, by proper rotation and management, they will complement the region’s wildlife.

We worked for about half a day or so and managed to finish up the fencing project.  What a fantastic change, knowing that one less mile of wildlife damaging fence had been permanently removed from the land.  It was hot work in the driving wind but it was so rewarding that I did not mind.  The wind did help to evaporate the sweat from the body and thus added a cooling effect.  However, the blowing air also desiccates and I again needed much water to keep hydrated.  Sunglasses and sunblock were also used assiduously to ward off reddened skin.

Work was finished near noon.  We returned to camp and packed up our assorted gear before heading out towards are various homes.  What a rewarding and special weekend I had just had.  A mile of wildlife hindering fence had just been removed and I feel that our collective action had helped to create a better world, even if only by a marginal amount.  I said my farewells and drove out the many mile of dirt road to the paved state highway.  I was sad to leave, as I enjoyed helping create a better place for us all, animal and human alike.

The drive home was hot, especially from Las Animas to Pueblo.  It remained hot until Canon City, and the whole drive was into a fierce headwind.  But isn’t that Spring time in the Rocky Mountains?  By the time I had reached Salida, I was firmly entrenched into the rocky fast that is my home.  I believe that this country is all special, but have often felt that the change from the prairie to the mountains is one of the more special areas in the world.  I used to live near that boundary.  I do love my home here in Gunnison, but at times miss having the Great Plains as a neighbor.  The coolness enveloped me as I drove up to Monarch Pass where the snow had yet to melt entirely.  Soon, the mountains would feel the ensuing embrace of Summer’s salubrious grace.  But I now know that Spring in the Great Plains is a marvelous alternative to the mountains’ muddy season.

A Trip to the Great Plains, Day 2 -May 21, 2016

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Morning dew on what might be a member of the Vervain Family, possibly Glandularia bipinnatifida

The wind rollicked all night long, pushing the air currents from the south as the atmosphere heated up for Spring’s transition into Summer.  Wide awake, I rose early and took a short hike out to the bluffs where my compatriots and I had walked the previous evening.  My goal was to watch the sun rise as well as to edify myself as to the forbs and other flora that grow out here in the Colorado prairie in the southeastern corner of Bent County.

What I enjoy so much about visiting another realm than that which I call my home is that many of the flowers I see are obviously related to those I am familiar with.  They are similar but different.  The same families, sometimes the same genus and rarely the same species can be found in the mountains, deserts and plains of the western United States.  I have noted with delight seeing lupine and paintbrush in coastal California, as well.  As I stood facing the wind I marveled at this expansive ecosystem and said a short prayer for its eventual restoration into a place where all wildlife can be at home.

Part of what I was doing here this day helped to further those goals.  I was volunteering for an organization named Southern Plains Land Trust whose stated intent is to purchase and restore lands in the short grass prairie of southeastern Colorado for the benefit of the native flora and fauna.  I find this laudable and am motivated to see the conversion of private property into habitat.

Returning to camp I met and renewed acquaintances with the volunteers and staff that would be working to remove an old barbed-wire fence that has been replaced with a wire fence engineered to allow safe passage for the native pronghorn.  These fleet footed ungulates, about the size of a typical deer, can run like the wind and often outpace it at their top speed of over sixty miles an hour.  However, they cannot jump any great height and fences can create havoc with their migration routes and daily life.  It is sadly not uncommon to find them tangled up in the wire upon an unsuccessful attempt to cross over.  This results in numerous injuries and often death.  The new fence, built to contain a tamed herd of bison, has its bottom wire lifted up from the ground so that the pronghorn can slip under without threat of entanglement.

After breakfast we drove out to the work site and began to tear down the old fence.  Part of the problem with this specific fence was that it was used to enclose calves and thus had a mesh on the bottom two-thirds which obviously added inhibition to the pronghorns’ movement.  The day was spent with the gusting wind and strong heat bearing down on one and all.  I drank over two gallons of water during the day as shade was nonexistent.  By the end of the day we had removed nearly a mile of fencing, the metal of which would be sent to the recycler.

Returning to camp we all shared in a community meal, as we had done during breakfast, before taking another short stroll out to the bluffs to watch the setting sun.  The sunset colors were spectacular.  Brilliant, glowing reds, yellows and oranges lit up the western clouds such that the horizon was lit up like a canvas of neon lighting.  It was a fine way to end the day before heading back to camp for a good night’s rest prior to finishing our task the next day.  I was happy to be doing good work that would have a lasting benefit for the natural world.

A Trip to the Great Plains, Day 1 – May 20, 2016

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Sunset over the prairie

Some five hours east of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, is the City of Las Animas.  Situated out on the Great Plains this small city is a regional center for commerce and the county seat for Bent County.  I had decided to spend a weekend volunteering for the Southern Plains Land Trust, an organization dedicated to purchasing and setting aside land for conservation.  I would help to tear down some old barbed-wire fence, the removal of which would facilitate passage of wildlife that would otherwise struggle to pass through their ancestral homeland.

Due to arrive in the evening, I left early so that I would have some time to explore some of the nearby public lands.  The Comanche National Grassland is made up of land the Federal Government purchased back from homesteading families at the height of the Dust Bowl when it became apparent that agriculture was impractical.  Now part of the great public domain the area is open to hiking, hunting, horseback riding, mountain biking and any number of other recreational pursuits.  I stopped at a place called Vogel Canyon, a shallow defile that was alive with wildflowers and other flora and fauna.

As I drove out of the mountains to the plains I came up to a proverbial wall of heat.  The temperatures ranged from about eighty-five to ninety degrees, and after a long, cold Winter in Gunnison I just about melted.  In some ways the warm weather was refreshing – it was nice not to have to worry about having a jacket immediately at hand!  My usual perspective of high ridges and snow-capped peaks was replaced with rolling hills of green grass, swales filled with verdant cottonwood and endless views to distant horizons.  Clouds heaped up in great piles sailed across the sky, puffy, bilious whiteness against the cerulean heavens.

I didn’t have too much time to explore at Vogel Canyon, south of La Junta, but the short walk I took allowed me to breath deeply and adjust myself to this new reality.  I was especially mesmerized by the cactus flowers, a bright lemony yellow the beauty of which belied the prickly needles that adorn the fleshy leaves.  This, I believe, was a species of prickly pear.  The folks who manage this land have set up a trail network that allows for some nice hiking.  I could have trekked about this area for much longer than I did, but I was pressed for time so I hiked only the Overlook and Canyon Trails.

The Overlook Trail, as its name suggests, led to an overlook that allows a fine view of the main portion of the canyon system.  It was interesting to me to note that this canyon has been cut through sandstone.  I believe that these are the same formations that have been bent skyward where the Rocky Mountains had pushed them out of the way with the upward movement derived from the orogeny that created the mountains.  I wondered down into the canyon to look at some petroglyphs carved into the wall of the canyon and was disappointed to note the vandalism that has occurred.  Why is it that so-called civilized humans must destroy such valuable artifacts from gone-by days?  I truly think that it is a form of greed that compels some people to take whatever liberty they believe they can make off with.  I reflected on those thoughts on my hike back to the car as I enjoyed the wind’s passage across waving fields of short grasses.

Once at Las Animas, I turned to the south and drove out to the preserve roughly located in the southeast corner of Bent County.  I found the headquarters where I would be staying for the next two nights and checked in before taking a short hike with the group on the bluffs located nearby.  There are a number of wind turbines here and they somewhat interrupt the view, but I must admit to also finding them strangely soothing in their silence as the enormous blades inexorably rotate.  I can’t say that they are unimposing but they aren’t as intrusive as I would have thought.  Yet, there are issues with the towers regarding raptors and I can only hope that in the long term the technology becomes available to reduce the number of birds that are shredded by the large blades.

The wind was ever present as we hiked out to watch the sunset and this fact was startling to me.  Gunnison may be one of the colder places to live in the United States but the recompense is that the winds are minimal.  Having previously lived not too far away in Huerfano County for a number of years I could remember the relentless nature of the blowing air currents found there.  Still, I enjoyed the setting and the bright moon and stars as the latter winked on one by one.  The bluffs held a number of flowers that were new to me and I was thrilled to be in this fine location with people whose values echoed my own.