Bluebird Day on Gold Creek – December 19, 2016

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On a bluebird day, fresh tracks on the Gold Creek Road

One of my two most frequented and favorite skis in the Gunnison Country are both located on tributaries of Quartz Creek.  This creek is the first major tributary on Tomichi Creek that emanates from the north.  Tomichi Creek confluences with the Gunnison River near my home in the City of Gunnison, Colorado, and thus these two trailheads are located fairly close by while having the added advantages of decent safety from avalanche hazards combined with pleasing montane habitat.  Both also face south and therefore keep relatively warm, although that can be a disadvantage should the Sun’s warmth heat up the snowpack to a point where the snow becomes too sticky for decent skiing.  This day, clear and cloudless, could have been too hot, an odd thing to speculate on in mid-December, however it was especially late in the day when I got my start and could have been fairly warm, but I decided to get out late anyhow lest I should not get out at all on a day that called to my soul with its siren song of blue sky sunny paradise.

Having parked the car at the end of the plowed road, and designated Winter trailhead, I let the dogs out.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds love to frolic in the snow and do so with joy.  Especially after the anticipation having been built up during the preceding ride in the automobile, do they often burst out of the car the moment I open the door, and while I gather my gear they do skitter about from one point to another investigating various odors and scents.  That they did until the moment when I made ready to begin my ski up the trail and called them to my side.  They know the drill, so to speak, and having called them over to the trailhead they began to scamper up the trail, instinctively leading up the road, Gunnison National Forest Road 771, already compacted by over the snow machines.  Although open to snowmobiles this road receives moderate use only, and these track had been laid by a slower beast built not for speed but for prowess and stability in deep powder.  A snow-cat, in others words, with two wide tracks on the outer edge of the cab, which is more car-like in appearance than a snowmobile’s motorcycle-like demeanor.  A local property owner uses the machine to access his home here during the snowy months, and conveniently provides a nice base for the first half a mile of skiing.

Where the snow-cat’s tracks turned off the road I intended to follow the way ahead lay tracked by naught, and a field of unbroken snow stretched across the meadow from forest edge to its opposite side.  The road itself, barely discernible, led into the forest ahead.  Someone had previously been up this way with snowmobiles as the base had been packed down, but whatever tracks they left were subsequently obliterated by the new snow since fallen.  Cutting fresh tracks in the warm Sun, I soon built up heat enough to cause sweating.  I moved slow, happy to reach the shady forest, despite barely six or seven hundred feet of open meadow to cross.  The shepherds exhibited there relief by gulping snow to re-hydrate as well as laying out in the cooling snow, while panting, as I caught up.  The solid base was a gift for the dogs, and myself I suppose, as they could speed around in about eight or nine inches of snow without wallowing up to their chest in the deeper unpacked base found in the adjacent forest.  Not that they didn’t try to get off the road, especially if a squirrel beckoned, but they generally returned to the more practical solid base after a short venture.  I still had to plod along but only up to my shins and not my thighs.  Slowly, yet inexorably, I made my way up to the Gold Creek Campground, where I could enjoy a view of the high ridges above Lamphier Creek all the while sitting at one of the tables.  The campground is also the place I consider to be a minimum distance that I would want to go to consider this a proper outing.

We sat for a spell, enjoying the last bit of warming Sun before the orb sank beneath the nearby ridge to the west.  After warming up significantly during the ski, I began to cool off rapidly once I stopped the physical exertions and even donned additional clothing to ward off the ensuing chill.  The cold increased when the Sun ultimately sank below the ridge and cast a shadow on our locale.  We soon began to return via the route that we came by, making quick headway by retracing the broken trail that I had previously created.  Between the campground and Brown’s Gulch I led the dogs out on short foray into a meadow away from the road and stood on the banks of Gold Creek.  The red-barked willow denoted the path of the creek and I gained a nice view of the surrounding mountains.

As the Sun departure led to a consequent cooling of the snow pack I did not have to worry about snow heated to the point where it would clump on skis hence the glide back down stream went quickly and without any further interruption.  Upon return, the dogs leaped into the open door of the car and soon lay asleep while I unstrapped my skis and otherwise doffed my additional gear and layers of heavy clothing.  I had had a fine end to the daylight hours and enjoyed Winter’s upcoming blessing and aptitude for cleansing the detritus from the previous year’s fecundity.  We drove back down the narrow road and I soon found myself ensconced in the warming comfort of my home, swaddled in my bathrobe.

Skiing on Quartz Creek, Above Pitkin – December 13, 2016

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Draco and Leah on Quartz Creek during a full-Moon night

The day had been one of work, yet I had desired to get out and ski upon the newly deposited snowy base that invited me to ascend the mountains near my Rocky Mountain home in Gunnison, Colorado.  Only a week and a half from Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, by the time I had arrived home from my deleterious method of making income the sky had darkened completely.  However, as is my wont, I had been diligently tracking the Moon’s phase and knew that this night would constitute a full Moon, one so bright that I could easily ski under its illuminating glow sans artificial light so long as the terrain I would choose shouldn’t be too challenging.  Thus, after having consumed a light supper, I did drive up to Pitkin where the plowed road, courtesy of Gunnison County taxpayers, ceases and over snow travel commences.

Pitkin is located on Quartz Creek, the first major northern tributary to Tomichi Creek.  Most of the land in the vicinity is managed by the Gunnison National Forest as part of the domain that belongs to us all, the public.  The night being fairly clear the cold had set in already, and as I stepped out of the warm automobile the chill air awakened my senses to the surrounding conifer forest and its concomitant pleasing odor.  The frozen surroundings felt pure and cleansed, and I breathed deeply before exhaling a plume of curling steam.  The dogs, my two German shepherds Draco and Leah, wagged their tails as I walked around to open their door, both anxiously anticipating the forthcoming explorations.  I let them out and they furiously scurried about using their noses to tell stories of previous canine visitors.

I gathered my gear and made ready my various accouterments.  The dogs ran out ahead on the compacted snow created by the machines that run over the snow.  At this moment all was silence beyond my own skis sliding over the snow, a sound akin to drawing a knife on a whetstone.  I could hear the sound of the dogs’ paws striking the snow as well, a soft thud, perhaps more of a “pish”, repeated incessantly.  For the dogs, Leah especially, these conditions constitute shepherd heaven.  Leah does not care to wallow through deep snow, so to be kept aloft by a well packed trail, easily traversed, creates a joy in her being as she runs along without worry.  The nighttime temperatures, without a searing Sun, kept them at a good temperature for their exertions.  The dogs noticed not the beauty of the snow reflecting off the snow, nor the forest silhouetted against the mountains that were in turn silhouetted against the relatively bright sky, but I did.  They ran around in their own perceptions while I glided about in mine.

We trekked on past Middle Quartz Creek and continued up to the road that leads to the old Alpine Tunnel.  Pleasantness joined our merry caravan and upon stopping I felt exalted due, I would suppose, to the crisp air and bit of solitude found after a busy day of constant commotion.  Winter had arrived in all but name only, since, technically, there yet remained a week and a half of Autumn.  Draco and Leah continued their ramblings and only with a bit of coaxing did I manage to exhort them to sit, down and stay near a sign pointing to the tunnel, a pose that I would capture with digital imagery.  Our stay was brief, and soon we all began the return to the trailhead.  The grade not being too steep I worked almost as much as when I had climbed.  The forest slid by under the shining orb, and the dogs, furry blobs in my vision when a bit distant, continued to run ahead when not playing catch up.  They ambulated along gracefully when naught captured their attention only to burst forth with explosive energy when compelled.

We reached the waiting car, and they ran around the perimeter until I opened a door at which point they eagerly entered the confines before settling down on their designated blankets.  I doffed my gear and stowed it appropriately before myself entering the driver’s seat.  By now some chill had set in and I applauded the genius who, sometime in the late Nineteen Thirties, had realized that adding another miniature radiator in the cab of an internal combustion vehicle would provide warmth and comfort for the occupants.  We drove back down the Quartz Creek Road, the back windows lowered so that Draco could poke his head out to investigate the passing by and the heater blower cranked so that my toes would keep warm against the swirling cold air sinking down to the foot well.  I like these different perspectives, and being out at night is one not often done on skis.  The stars had been dimmed by the Moon, but the glow had lit my way and made for an enjoyable outing.  Quietness had prevailed and I felt blessed to have had another venture into the woods of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Comanche Gulch Ski – December 11, 2016

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The Sun peeking through a cloudy day on Comanche Gulch

Although a week and a half yet remained of Autumn the mountains in my vicinity had begun to take on a very wintry appearance.  A series of storms had left a base deep enough for me to forgo my hiking apparatus and thus on this day, for the second time of the season, I did don my ski gear.  The previous day and night the most recent wave of precipitation had deposited a fresh accumulation such that I could not resist getting out of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, and drive up towards my favorite Nordic ski trek on Gold Creek.  However, upon arriving at the narrow road I found it not yet plowed.  I decided not to test my luck, nor driving skills, pushing my old Subaru up to the trailhead so I stopped at Comanche Gulch and decided to ski along the four-wheel drive road found there.

Comanche Gulch is a tributary of Gold Creek, which runs into Quartz and then Tomichi Creeks, all of which comprise part of the upper Gunnison River basin.  The former two drainages have their headwaters on the southern side of Fossil Ridge, an uplifted mass of sedimentary rock where fossils of marine life are somewhat paradoxically found in limestone.  Those not familiar with the larger workings of the Earth might wonder how rock residing at eleven thousand feet in elevation could contain fossils that indicate an ecosystem residing in the sea.  Perhaps that is the reason that whenever I wander about the mountains I am in awe even though I live here in their presence daily.  The Earth’s geologic story spans millions of years, more than the mind can comprehend, some would say, and involves forces likewise beyond the ken of humanity.  Thus, the force of uplifted mountains combined with millions upon millions of revolutions around our star has led to the startling presence of seashells in the mountains, embedded in limestone that was an ancient reef at one time.

Currently, in our present paradigm, the Gunnison National Forest provides stewardship for the area, and therefore Comanche Gulch is one small piece of the public domain here in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  Administration is further defined by the Fossil Ridge Recreation Management Area, not to be confused with the Fossil Ridge Wilderness that abuts the former.  Honestly, I’m not sure of the purpose of the Area, as its restrictions seem to conform to the remainder of the adjacent National Forest regarding motorized use and road building.  However, it might be that this area provided a more restrictive use of motor vehicles when, back in the day a couple of decades ago, said devices where allowed to leave designated roadways.  Due to the consequent negative environmental damage, the surrounding public lands subsequently allowed motorized and mechanized machines only on designated routes.

There is an old road there, in Comanche Gulch, that carries the current denomination of Gunnison National Forest Road 771.1C.  It runs up towards old mining works and what I believe was once a lumber camp.  Parking at the old Comanche Campground, I attached my skis to my feet and began to push through the snow to the actual gulch, about a quarter of a mile away.  Naturally, I brought along my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, who ran amok from one side of the road to the other, investigating whatever scents led their noses that way.  We made our way across the small alluvial fan where eons of gully washers have left their deposited stones.  Snow coated all surfaces, gathering in clumps in the crotches of aspen limbs and massing on the branches of the evergreens.  All seemed fresh and new, part of the cold season’s cleansing I would suppose.

Once entered into the canyon, fairly narrow it is, we found the snow to be a bit deeper than anticipated.  Such had been the fury of the recent storms to have left two to three feet of snow yet to be compacted.  I didn’t really ski so much as walked or kicked through the accumulation.  However, the dogs struggled mightily even after I had broken trail, wallowing up beyond their chests in the freezing crystals.  Leah, especially, does not have patience for this sort of activity, as I do not like to post-hole my way through deep snow.  Draco gets his game on but after a while it is obvious that, despite his stout heart, he wearies of the activity.  Leah soon took on an attitude of extreme recalcitrance and I had to call here repeatedly to advance.  Her stance was such that it made me think she thought poorly of my decision to engage in this exercise.  We ventured up about a mile or so before I figured that we had had enough of this strenuous activity.  I found a place, a bit more open than the surrounding woods, where we could sit or, in my case, stand idly in the warming sunlight.  After our pause, we returned with a bit more speed, the downhill gravity assist combining with the previously broken trail, and soon returned to the waiting car.

Along the way, many of the clouds had disappeared, burning off with the morning’s scant warmth.  The sun shone down brightly at the end, and the crystals sparkled wherever the light was properly refracted into miniature rainbows.  However, the day was defined by three general colors:  the deep forest green, cerulean sky and white or gray clouds.  Unless I chose to leave the Gunnison Country, these three colors would define my life for the next few months until the melting snow revealed the common earth tones and the flowers began to bloom yet again.  For now, I reveled in the wintry mirth, and enjoyed this quiet and peaceful time of year.  Not too many tourists venture out during these cold months, and the mountains, as well as the humans who live here, could enjoy a respite from the Summer commotion.  Blessed day, I am thankful for the peace of mind that accompanies a ski through the silent forest.

Mill Creek, First Ski of the Year – December 06, 2016

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Skiing along the Mill Creek Road, also known as Gunnison National Forest Road 727

Late Autumnal snows fell during early December and began to accumulate throughout the valley, notwithstanding the potent Sun that melted many southern exposures.  Hiking in the Gunnison Country, where I make my home, became more difficult as what might look like a good hike over bare ground could suddenly come to a halt when passing over a small ridge that descended on a northern-faced declivity choked with icy precipitation.  Likewise, a good ski that began on snow swaddled land could end if the route melted out where sunlight changed ice to water.  I thought out this conundrum and decided to go visit the Mill Creek that is tributary to Ohio Creek.  I figured, correctly as it turns out, that Gunnison National Forest Road 727 would have remained shady enough to accumulate a sufficient covering of snow to allow me to make my first ski of the season.

The shepherds and I didn’t go too far on this initial ski of the season.  We left the Winter parking lot and skied up the road until it ended, and then pressed on following the trail until arriving at a slope I thought looked a bit too unstable.  A storm progressed, bringing in blinding currents of snow, and thus the views of the Mill Creek hoodoos were not meaningfully visible.  We soon began our return to the trailhead.  Nordic skiing has always been challenging for me.  I find it difficult, having learned to ski with a fixed heel, to maintain balance on a free heel.  I finally found the sweet spot on a descent that caused a sudden edification resulting in a sound glide down the hill without my usual gyrations while attempting not to keel over.  Although this particular ski was fairly short it became a good preamble for the remainder of the season.  Could I cause my body to remember the pose a second time, and beyond?  That question became my own cause celebre to be solved on my next and subsequent outings.

Skiing is a great way for me to escape from the constantly taxing complexities of our modern life.  We seem to feel empowered by our technological marvels, one of which allows me to create this blog, to consume and reap, without replenishing.  However, we are blindly approaching a cliff that I fear our civilization will plummet over.  Will we be able to survive the climate change that scientists say will create massive disruptions to our way of life?  What about the intrinsic value of the natural world that, regardless of climate change, our society feels it has dominion over?  The last several hundred years has been fraught with widespread avarice and destruction of what has taken several hundred millions of years to create.  At times, I despair:  The wild world has been hopelessly fragmented, resulting in numerous extinctions of once teeming populations of fauna.  On a personal level I hypocritically add to the total, at least aware, as if that somehow diminishes the impact, of my own sum to the tally while most go blithely about their business.

The natural world is also an escape from the bottom level of capitalist exploitation where I wallow most days.  I work in the food service industry, where worker’s rights are more or less non-existent, witnessing petty harassment and bullying on a daily basis.  Out in the woods none of this exists.  A person can truly exist, just be, without the power trips that people lay on one another.  Nature is a harsh mistress, indeed.  Creatures kill on another to eat and survive, yet there is a wholeness and beauty not to be found in my regular day to day existence.  This may have been a fairly short ski, but it got me started for the year and I learned an invaluable technique for staying balanced.  It also relieved my mind from the anxieties that are daily deposited within my cranium.  While I am thankful for the release of the built up dread that is my life, I am also mindful that the wild world has an intrinsic value of its own, as well as a right to likewise exist.  A blessing this day, bringing in a leavening of snow that will leave this part of the Earth clean and ready for Spring’s renewal.

Cabin Creek, Late Autumn – December 04, 2016

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Aspen forest on Cabin Creek, half a mile to a mile above East Cabin Creek

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would prove to be one of my last hikes for the year prior to me strapping on skis so as to glide over the snowy blanket that would soon envelope the Gunnison Country.  Storms had come and gone since my last perambulation across the country, but none had deposited much in the way of accumulation at the lowest elevations.  The higher country had been slowly closed to trekking yet the lower elevations, especially on the more exposed aspects of the great sagebrush steppe, remained mostly open to that activity.  Thus, on this still day, under a high pressure system that generated the azure cloudless sky, I gathered up my two faithful hiking companions, Draco and Leah, German shepherds both, and drove out some few miles east of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, to the parking area along U.S. 50 where Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Road 3107 begins to parallel Cabin Creek.

Winter would soon arrive, with storms and cold weather probably, as less than three weeks the celestial Winter Solstice would take place.  Already only some ten hours of sunlight daily shone down upon our region, and the Sun was rising and setting fairly far south on the horizon relative to due east or west, respectively.  Today, however, Draco and Leah were both ready to jump out of the car onto the bare ground and subsequently investigate the small rodent activity occurring within the sagebrush.  I followed as the dogs ran out in front, Leah pointing for Draco’s benefit and the latter skittering about, bolting from one sage to another, body stiff and tail up.  I began to stride along with an easy gait, as the two-track is mostly level, only slowly gaining elevation.

In my heart I wasn’t truly prepared for the cold weather.  Physically, I kept warm and dry, as I judge well the nature of any particular day regarding the temperature and precipitation.  Mentally, however, I clung hopelessly to the now fairly long-ago departed Summer.  I hadn’t been getting out into the backcountry as nearly as often as I had all year long.  Of course, the dogs minded not one bit and happily coursed through the sagebrush as I ambled along, taking in the sights along the way.  I noted the crowns of the cottonwood barren of leaves and the roses that grow thick here denuded of leaves exposing their vine-like growth.  I peered upwards to the various high point that rise above the small valley and thought of the various hikes, usually in Spring, made there as well as the views to be found when gazing out.  The land appeared ready for slumber, the great rejuvenation that culminates in Spring’s verdure.  Hard to believe now, on this frosty day, but certain to occur with a miraculous rebound.

The shepherds and I hiked to the confluence of Cabin and East Cabin Creeks.  The road follows the latter, but the dogs and I kept following, via cattle and game trails, the former.  We climbed up along the headwaters for another mile or so.  The cottonwood became intermingled with aspen at the latter’s lower limit, locally, in elevation, and the rose thickets remained in the undergrowth, entwined on logs and itself.  The valley narrowed to a canyon, although still fairly wide and broadly sloped.  Two other fellows were out hunting small game, tracking rabbits through the snow.  Where our Sun could freely fling its rays onto the ground the snow had melted off, but the aspen boles created enough of a shadow to retain accumulation.  I took note of the familiar topography and returned back down to East Cabin Creek, thinking of the Winter to come.  I wandered up the road about a half a mile or so, just enough to reach the basin above and have a look around.  The north face of the ridges easily retained snowy accumulation, the entire slope a blanket of white.  I recall the Sun beating down on my face, reveling in the contrary warmth of the otherwise chill day.  The colder temperatures had set in, and I bravely steeled myself to the elements.

The walk back, the majority of which crossed part of the great sagebrush steppe, gave me time to think about the world going around.  I contemplated the challenging aspects of my life, not necessarily coming to any sufficient resolution but merely weighing one aspect against its opposite.  The steppe, I thought to myself, so sere in its veneer, but a peak beneath reveals a thriving ecosystem all its own.  Many plants and animals are endemic to the ubiquitous grey-green shrub.  I wish that more of its acreage were better protected from the excesses of our consumptive habits but am nonetheless happy that these lands remain within the public domain.  They are good for people as well as the flora and fauna that call it home.  Approaching the trailhead the dogs yet retained their earlier vigor and with vim continued to harass the rodent population.  I called them to me and we all walked the final half a mile back as a cohesive unit.  A low-key day, I felt much better, as I typically do, after this outing into the wild world.