Spring had sprung, the weather more or less consistently balmy although the snowpack yet clung to higher elevations. The heavy snows and cold temperatures of mid-Winter had caused concern about the valley’s ungulates, as they couldn’t get to the cured grass and forbs below the snow and the chill caused them to burn energy at a prodigious rate. Spring can, surprisingly enough, cause even more concern, as, though the temperatures have warmed, the new grasses are yet meager and the old have been depleted. Thus, this year, I have foregone trekking about most of my common haunts in the sagebrush steppe, where the snow has been vanquished but the wildlife habituate seasonally. This early May day, however, I couldn’t stand still as the blue sky and moderate warmth beckoned with the Siren Song of Nature. I decided to go above the wildlife and visit a drainage that I thought could be snow free enough to hike through.
By seven thirty in the morning Draco, Leah and I began hiking from Gold Creek north of Ohio City about two miles. I wanted to find Gunnison National Forest Trail No. 610, a somewhat hidden route, that leads west towards the upper reaches of Willow Creek. I often hike and ski in Willow Creek, but this year it provided critical habitat for deer and bighorn sheep so I forwent with Spring trekking there. However, I deduced, if this trail went where I thought it would, then I would emerge well above, by a few miles, of any likely use by them or elk. However, within the first quarter of a mile it proved unlikely that I could or, really, would want to buck the deep snowdrifts that still accumulated on the trail. I could wait on this hike until the snow further melted out.
Instead, I found a way up the nose of a rocky outcropping so that we could climb instead the ridge to the north of Bear Gulch, which the trail ascends. I had no goal in mind, except to attain some sort of high point or to where snowpack made further progress impractical. I followed at times a lightly used game trail or else bushwhacked up the steep ridge. The forest consists mostly of Douglas fir and aspen groves. A few green leaves and verdant grasses were sprouting but mostly the new growth had yet to emerge. We gained nearly twelve hundred feet in about a half a mile, and by the time we reached Point 10208 I felt the effort. The snow had been absent at the lower elevations on the exposed faces but had steadily increased from small patches to large as we climbed. Once the point was reached I had a fine view of Gold Creek and decided to stop here. I could see Quartz Dome on the east side of Gold Creek, covered in a dense forest of lodgepole pine. To continue on the ridgeline would have meant descending on a shady aspect well buried in snow and I didn’t feel the further effort worth the potential peril.
We reached the point just before nine and the Sun shone with mountain intensity. Clouds rolled by, puffy and mostly as white as the snow. No real threat of storm and infrequently was the Sun blotted. Despite the early hour a warmth pervaded, and a fine respite was had by all. The shepherds had used their enhanced canine capabilities to scamper up the ridge with alacrity. The rested but shortly before a stick was found and employed as a toy. The resulting banter soon grew to a crescendo upon which a series of growls, yips and barks echoed into the surrounding canyons. Finally, when the toy became forgotten and further reaches of straying commenced I chose to rise myself and begin the trek back the way we came.
I took my map out and held it as we descended. Going up to a highpoint is an easy bushwhack. All one has to do is to keep going higher, but on the way down it is easy to become disoriented and erroneously choose the wrong ridge to follow down. This may lead to impassible terrain or drop you into a watershed that leads away from your destination. I had no problem finding my way back down, but often I would assiduously study the map to determine where the topographic pitfalls lay. I found two new-to-the-season wildflowers, a sure sign of Spring’s inexorability. Upon an outcropping nearly sheer above Bear Gulch I did stand and gaze about, happily content to wander thus aimlessly in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In days gone by, Grizzly bears and wolves would have been part of the megafauna and as I watched the world go by I felt diminished by their absence. Living with such creatures is challenging from a agricultural point of view, and I often hope that some rational compromise can be reached but am often doubtful given the obstinacy of human nature.
We climbed back down through the sagebrush, forest and meadow, over the last steep outcropping of sharp rock, until reaching the road below. I felt great and the dogs scampered about with abandon. I still had time enough to drive further up the road to the Winter trailhead. From here I could hike further up the road, basically remaking one of my favorite skis into a pleasant early-season hike. Quite a bit of snow remained on the road, but it had been thawed and frozen so many times that I didn’t really have to worry about sinking up to my knees in its depths. An often enough the snow had melted out completely leaving great patches of exposed soil. We hiked up to the campground, Draco and Leah oft enthralled with the chattering of the tree-dwelling rodents. The wee beast might be thirty or forty feet above in a branch but that doesn’t prevent Draco from rearing up and placing his fore-paws upon the trunk so as to get that much closer to his quarry.
Reaching the campground we, as is our customary wont, appropriated one of the more sunny tables and sat there to munch snacks. We explored the nearby creek, as we had done on our way up often straying from the road to walk through a meadow that would otherwise remain hidden. Gold Creek, like others in the region, had swollen up into the nascent phase of a freshet. Still, the waters flowed by fairly gently. The mountain climate on a such a day as this induced a feeling of euphoria that I don’t often find elsewhere. Leaving the meadow I wandered about more or less aimlessly in indolent peregrination. Fine, I thought, looking at the snow-clad mountains rearing above the little sunny meadow, sky cerulean glory and even the dark green of the evergreen forest shining under the strong Sun.
This state of mind I kept for an hour or so until reality intruded into my conscious. I yet had to work my shift this night and needed to return home so as to change over from sojourner to line cook. Still, I lingered before departing, basking in the Sun. The walk back to the car I made slowly, taking time to watch the dogs in their antics or to astray from the road to see exactly what it was they were so eager in sniffing. Often it would prove to be a squirrel midden, a large mound of debris derived from their disposing of the outsides of the conifer cones they pluck the seeds from. These heaps can reach large proportions, and the dogs are continuously attracted to them. We passed the old Sandy Hook Mine and its collection of small dwellings still in infrequent use. As many time have I walked by this place I still can’t help but admire the old log cabins and leaning boarding house. A short walk later brought us back to the car. I loaded up the pups and myself, gave thanks for the great day, and drove back home to Gunnison, enjoying the scenery on the way back, windows down and fresh air filling my lungs and soul with well-being.