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.
The view from the old guard station north and downstream on Long Branch
The Winter trailhead on Long Branch and beginning of Gunnison National Forest Road 780
Skiing on Long Branch looking north at Steepy Mountain
Leah and Draco on Gunnison National Forest Road 780, the lightest skiff of snow evident covering the base
My shadow pointing towards Steepy Mountain over the red-barked willow lining Long Branch
A shepherd on Long Branch
Leah looking up Long Branch
Looking up Gunnison National Forest Road 780 that parallels Long Branch; the old forest facility in the distance
Signage for Gunnison National Forest Road 780
Looking upstream on Long Branch
Leah and Draco on Long Branch above the old forest facility
The trail sign at the end of Gunnison National Forest Road 780
On Long Branch a choice of two trails
A view up the West Fork of Long Branch
A view up Long Branch at its confluence with West Fork
Above West Fork a view downstream on Long Branch
Looking up Long Branch towards the Great Divide
My ski tracks on Long Branch above West Fork
A snowy slope in the Cochetopa Hills along Long Branch
Sunlit cloud above Long Branch
View down Long Branch and up at Quaky Mountain
The end of Gunnison National Forest Road 780 in Winter
The narrow valley of Long Branch
Snow clad Cochetopa Hills