Skiing up to the Gold Creek Campground – February 19, 2017

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At the old Sandy Hook Mine stands a few old structures, swaddled now in Winter’s blanket

On the day the clouds mostly dominated the sky leaving but a few patches of cerulean to entertain my hopes for sunny warmth.  Rather, I dressed the part of mid-Winter and generated heat by skiing up past the old Sandy Hook Mine on Gold Creek.  There didn’t seem the likelihood at first of further snowy precipitation yet the potential existed.  Regardless, this morning found me at the Winter trailhead on the aforementioned creek.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherd companions, demonstrated their usual affinity for the crystalline base layer, romping to and fro with near abandon as either squeaky tree-dwelling rodents beckoned or some odor wafting out from its source drew their attention.  Thus, once again, I found myself at my favorite Nordic ski trail.

To be sure, the trail is an open road known by its denomination as Gunnison National Forest Road 771.  Lower in the drainage where private property abounds it is also known as Gunnison County Road 771.  As in so many other counties across the interior west were public land abounds there is a certain amount of contention regarding who should foot the bill for maintenance or who has ultimate say in management.  There is also a certain expectation of largess to be supplied by the Federal Government to the county for improvements and such, seeing how the public land deprives the county from raising additional property taxes.  There is also something known as Payment In Lieu of Taxes made annually by the Treasury in Washington, D. C. that addresses this supposed inequity.   This is all to be expected and both sides use their respective leverage to gain their goals, as each sees its duty to their respective constituency, when parlaying over paving projects, grading or right of way access.  I sometimes roll my eyes at all the maneuvering, knowing that generally the situation will balance itself out, yet also know that both sides, if so desired, will often work in tandem with all the good graces that can be mustered.  I put those worries aside as I glide away from the trailhead, happy that Gunnison County and Gunnison National Forest seem to have reached a harmonious state of affairs.

Indeed, as the day progressed the clouds gathered into a heavy covering and snow seemed increasingly a possibility.  The winds remained more or less calm but the occasional gust suggested gathering energy.  I skied up through dense, heavy snow noting the various topographic, geologic and biologic features of my surroundings. I wasn’t feeling too much endowed with stamina to push through the deeper un-tracked snow ahead so we stopped at the campground near where three different trails lead off up into the wooded mountains.  The road itself continues up along Gold Creek under the western slopes of Fairview Peak.  From the open meadow adjacent to the campground I could discern the small rock block house that served one year over a century ago as a fire lookout after which it was decided that too often lightening struck in the vicinity or directly.

While at first the sky hinted at a partially sunny day the clouded light now made the day seem gray and drab.  Still, the feel of the crisp air on my face, the spiritually uplifting affects of my being in woods where I could free myself from the machines and electricity that while creating comfort also create commotion, the scent of the conifers mingling with the pure snow, made the entire effort worthwhile.  Even the shepherds had had their fill by this point and after ten to fifteen minutes of standing around I began the descent.  When it became apparent what my intentions were they both sprinted off ahead towards some object of canine desire.  I would ski by them as they remained entranced until with a frantic burst of energy they would sprint to catch up and pass me.  This joyous dynamic entourage kept this up until we returned to the trailhead.  A short outing but nonetheless, this small ski was a gift and I felt all the better for making the effort.

Skiing on Long Branch – February 18, 2017

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Snow clad Cochetopa Hills

When I look back at my snapshots for this ski I must admit that my photography skills just didn’t do a good job of capturing my sense of elation that engaged me while I was out sliding around over the snow in the Long Branch drainage.  The short of the long of it is that I had a great ski on this day but the digital images I generated seem dull when I now view them.  Still, I would like to share my experiences of this day and the positive remembrances stored in my mind.

Driving east from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, on U.S. 50 I almost reached the small hamlet of Sargents before turning off onto a small Saguache County Road where I parked the car at Gunnison National Forest Road 780.  No government entity plows the latter road and it is lightly used for over the snow recreation.  Naturally, I brought along my two outdoors companions, Draco and Leah, stalwart German shepherds, to partake in the day.  As I geared up they romped around making canine merry.

Snowmobiles had packed the road and a crust had built up on the adjacent virgin snow so that the dogs didn’t sink at all and could run amok wherever they pleased.  Likewise, I glided over the crust parallel to the machine made tracks.  I felt exhilarated and alive in the cold air, as I drew each breath into my lungs and my heart pumped warm blood to my extremities.  The snow’s perfection for my type of Nordic skiing conveyed me enthusiastically along the route and as the dogs ran to and fro I would occasionally whoop it up a bit in a fit of giddiness.

In the warmer months I have no compunctions about driving back on this road to the guard station, now more or less abandoned, some two miles distance from the paved highway.  On this snowbound day, however, I enjoyed traversing the lower reach of Long Branch and admiring the willows lining the stream’s banks.  On the relatively dry slopes above the small valley grow groves of Douglas fir, and spruce in the wetter northern faces and wet glens.  Sagebrush also proliferate as the dominant shrub in the vast steppe found throughout the lower elevations of the Gunnison Country.  The air is scented with all this vegetation and other flora, creating a pleasant odor familiar to outdoor enthusiasts throughout the interior western United States.  From the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada in California, through Nevada and Utah, up to the crest of the Great Divide in Colorado does this ecosystem prevail.  This so-called sagebrush sea extends north at least up into Washington and Montana, and south into Arizona and New Mexico as well.

Reaching the old station I felt heady imbibing the invigorating perfume and breathed deeply in such a manner as to facilitate a pleasing equanimity.  I could choose to now take a fork to the left or right.  I had already preordained venturing along the western branch, following the main stem of the Long Branch another mile up to yet another fork where the road ends and two trails begin.  The valley above the old forest facility narrows and Forest Road 780 enters a moderate-sized conifer forest.  A mile and a quarter or so later the road ends at the aforementioned forks where a meadow opening allows views up both forks as well as down towards Tomichi Creek into which Long Branch flows.  To the west the dry faces of the slopes rise up in swaths of snow the when melted out reveal the Artemisia tridentata in all its grey-green splendor mixing up its colors with the reddish volcanic rock.  Here I stopped to take in the wintry view.

The recent month had been relatively devoid of snow fall and the warm Sun had produced days of ample heat to melt the snow surface that would subsequently freeze overnight in the colder temperatures.  I glides along effortlessly over the slick surface until I began to break through the now heated crust that when gives way reveals an mass of snow not congealed into ice.  I perhaps had skied an additional half a mile before retiring from advancement.  Here I set down my pack while I reveled in the scenery and warmth.  I noted the spore of the fauna that overwinter with activity, mostly the tracks and stride of coyotes or the erratic wanderings of the various rodents.  Occasionally the bounding trail of small weasels can be espied, the litter creatures ceaseless activity evident in the kinetic nature of the tracks.   Large strides and abrupt changes in direction are frequently noted for these small packets of energy.

I studied the upstream features noting the geography and my memories of Summer views from this same relative position when verdure dominates.  The willow now bare has bark the adds a red tint to the landscape otherwise dominated by white snow, dark forest green and cerulean sky.  Gray tones mix it up in the firmament, so tangible to my senses seems the ethereal atmosphere that I believe I could reach up and grab a cloud.  Oftentimes the distant ridges present themselves such closeness that I feel as if I could stretch out my arm and touch the tips of the various peaks I see.  Certainly if I had previously walked about the area I can imagine in my mind what lies where I am looking.  I noted that upstream I could see a portion of the Great Divide where it runs along the Cochetopa Hills.  These are hills only in the sense that they don’t rear up in elevation like the adjacent Sawatch Range or San Juan Mountains, but they contain some rugged country nonetheless.  Long Branch drains a nice patch of these hills and I always enjoy my outings within their expanse.

My wanderings ceased and my out of body mind, having consciously and purposefully left, returned and brought my thoughts back to my surroundings.  Worried about the deteriorating integrity of the crust I chose to return to the trailhead.  Mostly still slick, especially in the shaded forest, I swiftly returned to the forest station.  The lower two miles of the ski the snow began to grip a bit but generally I glided along with minimal friction.  Despite using relatively minimal energy to propel myself to the waiting transport the heat of the day warmed me up to an amazing degree considering the season.  These Winter days can be especially enjoyable and salubrious under the correct conditions, and I basked in it now as I made my strides with an enormous grin that defined my countenance.

Reaching the car I made a blessing for the day and safety of my pack.  I took the skis off at the top of the snowbank that reached nearly to the car’s roof before climbing down.  The rushing traffic on the nearby highway reminded me of my imminent immersion into the mainstream.  I whistled for the shepherds and held open the door as they leaped up in tandem.  I then started the car and lowered the windows as the dogs pushed out their snouts in unison on opposite sides.  Leah settled down into a ball of repose shortly afterwards followed by Draco.  Both dogs slumbered as I piloted the car back west on U.S. 50 to my home just off this continental road.

Evening Ski at Hartman Rocks – February 15, 2017

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Looking west as sunset approaches; the gap on the horizon is where the Gunnison River enters the Black Canyon

A bluebird day, defined as clear skies sans clouds, had graced this mid-February date but I had had to work indoors without enjoying the warmth and graciousness that accompanies such spectacle.  Fortunately, I was relieved by the night crew with enough time left in the day to get home and don my ski gear before I took myself and my two German shepherds out to Hartman Rocks for an evening adventure.  We drove out on this salubrious late afternoon east of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, a scant few miles until we turned off on Gunnison County Road 32, also known as McCabe’s Lane.  Driving another couple of miles or so we arrived at the Winter trailhead on the west side of this special recreation area administered by the Bureau of Land Management.  The Gunnison Field Office manages this area in conjunction with the County of Gunnison and other interested entities that provide a multitude of recreational activities over a few thousand acres of public land.

Winter had progressed to this point about two-thirds through the season but it already felt like Spring.  The still air admirably warmed during the day felt good on my minimally exposed skin as I stepped out of the car and gathered my gear.  The shepherds ran amok from one scent post to another, not so discretely leaving their own mark.  Despite the warmth I wore my Winter clothing since I knew that the Sun would soon sink below the horizon and the cold temperature would immediately return at dusk.  For the moment, however, the Sun blazed away and I reveled in the warmth as I began to glide along Bureau of Land Management Road 3500.  There are no named drainages in this area other than South Beaver Creek, just a bunch of gullies and gulches that drain this rocky highland to the aforementioned waterway.

The cottonwood at the entrance to one such drainage stood stark and bare against the reddish rock, an ancient granite that has mostly been covered by a huge mass of basalt and rhyolite emitted from the less ancient calderas that formed the San Juan and West Elk Mountains.  The trees stand at the entrance to a small gully up which the road goes.  The Gunnison Nordic Ski Club maintains some of the roads for skiing and I followed this road up between the granite protrusions until I reached the upper exit and the junction between this road and BLM Roads 3505 and 3565.  The Sun was quickly sinking towards the horizon but I nonetheless decided to follow the former a short distance towards the so-called base area of Hartman Rocks.  As I climbed a small hill towards its apex the views became expansive and I reveled in the views.

I could see the main mass of rock that denotes the area in general and also could see the West Elk Mountains and numerous other peaks to the north.  My view to the west took in the gap in the receding ridges that the Gunnison River flows through.  As I stood here on this snowy summit the Sun did sink below the horizon and I was greeted with a fine sunset, expansive in the clear air.  I felt great.  There is something in the air at this time of year when the weather is nice that makes me feel happy to be alive.  Perhaps it is the promise of another Spring on the seasonal horizon.  I stood and admired the view as the shepherds investigated clumps of sagebrush previously visited by other canines.  My heart soared on this day, I remember it quite clearly.  As the Sun continued inexorably towards the day’s completion I had to tear myself away from the scene so as to make my way back to the car located at the trailhead ere darkness engulfed all.

I called the shepherds to me and we retraced our path, me on skis, back the way we came.  The Sun set as I entered the gully and by the time I reached the car the clouds were colored with the vibrant orange and rose hues found at dusk or dawn.  I felt energized and enlivened by this ski.  Hartman Rocks, the area, is an asset to our community here in Gunnison, Colorado, allowing a plethora of recreational activity a mere few minutes drive from downtown.  There is much motorized activity here, something I am not keen on as it disturbs my equanimity, but generally everyone is respectful towards each other.  Regardless, this sagebrush studded landscape can soothe frayed nerves after a long day at work, and I felt blessed to have this time skiing out under the wide open sky on a pleasant day in mid-Winter.

Moonlit Ski on Old Monarch Pass – February 09, 2017

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Draco and Leah on Old Monarch Pass, during a moonlit ski adventure

The storms that had precipitated an immense quantity of snow in the first half of January had more or less dissipated, leaving behind a deep and bountiful snowpack that promised to bring about lavish displays of wildflowers in the coming months.  However, when I made this ski trek in the second week of February verdure was far from my mind excepting those dark hues that grace the conifer forests.  What did intrigue me was the nearly full Moon, still technically in the waxing gibbous phase, that lit up the night’s sky.  After a long tedious day at work I returned home to cook a quick bachelor’s supper, something I specialize in, before I gathered up all my gear and headed up to Old Monarch Pass for a moonlit ski up to the Great Divide.

As I unloaded my gear one other intrepid soul with skis drove by and gave me a honk and a wave, a salute to our similar spirits.  I headed out, leaving the highway behind, making my way uphill towards the now stilled chairlifts that service the ski area adjacent to my climb.  The moon cast a deep shadow and I could see fairly vast distances such that it was easy for me to make out individual peaks with ease.  I don’t have the technical skills nor equipment to make but he most basic nighttime snapshots, thus I don’t even attempt to capture an image of anything remotely distant.  But what an exhilarating experience, out in the chill air breathing deeply amid the moon glow filtered through the spruce forest, whooping it up with my two German shepherd companions.  As I climbed at a steady pace they would race ahead then return to investigate something behind me before sprinting out front again.

The road to the summit isn’t very long, about a mile and a half I believe.  Naturally, a breeze broke through the gap in the mountains although nearly everywhere else in the vicinity was stilled.  This locale is notoriously windy.  Upon looking west towards the Gunnison County whence I came I could make out a dazzling sight.  I could espy the San Juan Mountains, some seventy miles distance, such was the brightness of the undimmed moonlight.  Likewise, I could also easily discern the West Elk Mountains on the far side of the City of Gunnison.  My heart soared out into the darkened basin now awash in dim illumination.  I have often stood in this place admiring the view, and noting all the places where I had visited, but those observations had occurred during the day.  The nighttime perspective enhanced my appreciation of this wild country simply by a difference in presentation.  I amazed myself at how many topographic features I could point out and name despite the dozens of intervening miles.

Draco and Leah romped around in the snow, oblivious to the cold.  We returned by the route we arrived and along the way I could see Mount Aetna and Taylor Mountain rearing up above other ridges.  They stood out in the light, monoliths of stone and rock, reflecting the moon light from their snow clad slopes.  I skied awash in light, so bright was this night with its large orb sailing across the firmament.  I believe these (nearly) full moons to be a blessing of sorts, and I happily reveled in the cool blueness of the night.  Looking up, I could still make out some of the more prominent constellations, adorned as they are by the brighter stars.  Most of the minor stars were, of course, blotted out by the illumination, but that mattered not to me for the Moon shone such that I could discern color.  A spectacular night, when the clouds, the few that appeared, literally had a silver lining, such was the glow.  A fine night I had, and a blessed one.  We returned to the car, and making sure that the shepherds didn’t dash out into the highway, I prepared for our imminent return to my home in Gunnison, Colorado, a little over a half an hour’s drive to the west.  Traffic was minimal during this quiet time of year, and as I let the car drift down the west side of Monarch Pass I thought about how wonderful it is to live in this place.