In Search of Wolves, Day 3 (Craig, Colorado, Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, Cold Spring Mountain; Hiking Limestone Ridge) – March 07, 2020

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Looking at the top side of Irish Canyon; Vermilion Bluffs to the left

Having had time in the previous evening to analyze my attempt to find wolves in northwestern Colorado I was nonetheless not sure what plans I should make for this day.  I could repeat my search in the same area.  Or I could go north, south, east or west.  It was very possible that I was searching fifty miles or more away from where I would have any hope of finding the slightest sign.  I thought the Sand Wash Wild Horse Management Area a good place to look, east of Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, but was wary of the muddy conditions that could quite literally bog me down miles from anywhere.  South seemed good, but I didn’t know my way around.  West into Utah would just add yet more miles to my early morning drive.  I chose north in the end if for no other reason that I could explore a portion of Cold Spring Mountain that I have been curious about for reasons other than wolves.  I could see some habitat, and maybe accomplish two tasks – find wolves, explore landscape – simultaneously.

Again I rose at four and brewed a pot of coffee.  I had brought along my go-cup and a large thermos.  The latter proved especially useful considering that my energy level was so high that I easily ignored hunger pangs in my pursuit of wild canines.  Black coffee alone kept me going.  Once again I left town in darkness and exited Craig, Colorado, via U.S. 40 towards the west.  Thirty miles of highway led me to Maybell, where I bought a half a tank of gasoline – the country I was about to enter being so remote that I filled up anytime the tank capacity became less than half – and drove again down narrow Colorado 318.  I decided not to stop to listen for howls at Sand Wash and CR 67 but I did stop at Moffat CR 46 to make a listen.  Nothing.  Except that I was treated to an orange moon-set.  I had thought the day before that the orange clouds I had seen on the western horizon were due to streetlamps in Vernal, Utah.  Now I realized that I had seen the Moon dipped below the horizon and those clouds had been  moonlit.  It was now five-thirty in the morning, and the eastern horizon was barely lit from the encroaching Sun.

Why I was out in Moffat County in the first place is a long story, one that I have begun exploring in other blog posts.  The first part I wrote about in my post that also included a ski with the shepherds on March 04, 2019.  There I wrote about the wolf issue finding me here in the Gunnison Country, although I had essentially been keeping it at bay for the last decade and a half.  In my post for March 05, 2020, I described my amazement at finding myself indexed in Rick McIntyre’s book The Rise of Wolf 8.  Rick’s book brought about in me a better understanding of how individual wolves can shape not only a pack’s future but the regional population.  My stint studying wolves was in retrospect fairly short and while I had recognized wolves as individuals I had never seen the bigger picture.  I am grateful for this new-to-me perspective.

I continued west on Colorado 318 until I reached the turnoff for Moffat County 10N.  This road is more or less a highway that connects Craig, Colorado, to Rock Spring, Wyoming, and I have seen some fairly heavy truck traffic along this route.  I drove north until at some point about a mile or so south of a small archaeological site I pulled over to again shut off the engine and listen for the presence of a pack.  Hearing nothing but the easy sigh of the morning breeze I continued north towards the southern entrance to Irish Canyon.  Thirty-five minutes later found me atop a high point just north of Irish Canyon.  In the two-mile diameter meadow between my observation post and the north entrance to Irish Canyon I espied a small band of fourteen cow elk.  They were a bit too far away to determine how many of them might have been the previous year’s calves.  They seemed to be grazing easily without too much concern; had wolves preyed on this small herd the predation would have been a while back.  I noted that this was the same place from where I had taken a hike down into Vermilion Creek the previous October.  At that time some other people had made a inconclusive but convincing video of two wolves in the pack that I now sought sign of.

Rick’s book fascinated me but I also knew that I was part of a queue of interested people who were all waiting their turn.  So after one read I dutifully returned the book to the library.  Almost by happenstance I looked over the small section in the stacks where books on wolves are kept.  I saw Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf on the shelf and after looking it over decided to check it out.  I suspected that this story would be revealing but I wasn’t honestly prepared for the emotional fall out that would follow.  The book to me is essentially a biography of a wolf and the story of that wolf’s influence on other wolves and the humans beings whose lives all intertwined.  If Rick’s book had been the primer then American Wolf was the fuse; the two combined to detonate the load of emotional dynamite that I had laid aside some decade and a half prior, almost forgotten.

I watched the elk graze for about fifteen minutes.  After that I decided to drive up to CR 72 and follow it west as far as I could.  This road would allow me to view the north side and much of the higher country of Cold Spring Mountain.  The first thing I noticed was the numerous pump-jacks that indicated the presence of an extant oil field.  Then I saw the numerous small herds of pronghorn that dotted the sagebrush strewn expanse of G Flats.  There were well over a hundred, if not hundreds.  I drove slowly by and startled only a few that were fairly close to the road.  I couldn’t help but smell the noxious fumes emitted from the industrialized landscape.  Honestly, I thought something was wrong with my car.  It might not be too far-fetched to say that this is the result of recent deregulation of industry on the public lands. This pollution of an otherwise clean air-shed should not be allowed to occur to such an extent.

A decade and a half doesn’t tell the whole story.  That is merely the time since I let my passion fade.  Last year I had a bout of sciatica that left me nearly debilitated.  Fortunately, I was able to work with the trainer at the gym and he helped me recover fairly quickly.  This was accomplished by exercising and stretching under his tutelage.  At one point, though, I could see a slight frown in his countenance as he studied my motion and he then said something akin to “it’s like you’ve been holding something in for forty years”.  I don’t know if he realized how close to the mark he hit.  I took note, though, and it caused me to review the events in my childhood that had left me emotionally crippled as an adult.

I drove up about four miles on CR 72 before a large snowdrift prevented any further progress – not that someone hadn’t tried.  I turned around and drove back down a half a mile before parking the car.  From there I hiked up a small ridge that allowed me to look down into Talamantes Creek and at the northern face of Cold Spring Mountain.  I didn’t see anything that suggested that elk had been in the area.  I saw some intriguing tracks from a distance but due to the snow condition and issues with property boundaries I decided not to pursue my investigations.  Besides, what I had intended as a slight easy meander up to a high point turned into a two mile hike without water or any other gear.  So I returned to the car and found other similar intriguing track sets that were fairly easy to visit from the road.  These were either deer or pronghorn, and not canine related.  Most likely the others were produced by an ungulate as well I concluded.

It frustrates me to say the least.  That my mind could produce in me a passion that could motivate and yet simultaneously place in me a debilitating emotional block.  After a decade and change were my driving motive sent me into the world of wolves I had pulled back.  Now, all this time later I found myself examining why.  Why I had never developed the emotional capability to trust other people.  Ultimately, I left the world of wolves not because I was bored with the animal itself but rather because I could not find the strength to break down the emotional barriers that I had erected.  When friends tried to reach out and understand why I had abandoned my love for wolves I would give as excuse some legitimate reason that told only part of the story.  Those would have been surface details.  I never had the courage to show what was underneath.  To be sure, I never lied but did obfuscate. To protect myself.

Not finding wolves or any sign did not surprise me, but I was hoping to find more elk.  I had thought of this area as being elk-rich but was having trouble finding them.  Either I was had overestimated the elk population or their presence was eluding me.  I suspect the latter.  Big country best describes this area and it gives me pause to think how little I saw of it during two days.  The wolves could have been anywhere, as could the elk, and I wouldn’t be the wiser.  After my exploration of the north face of Cold Spring Mountain I decided to return to my first high point.  The elk had departed and not much moved except some ravens as I cooked my breakfast.  To my west sat Limestone Ridge and a sub-bench that sits between the ridge and the meadow below.  To my east lay Vermilion Creek.  I had hiked down to the stream the previous October.  So, after contemplation during my repast I decided to hike up to the sub-bench.  There appeared to be a two-track that led off from the meadow and up a ridge to reach the sub-bench.  I drove down to its intersection and parked the car.

I was familiar with the details of the story told in American Wolf – I had heard the general specifics, and I remember one morning hearing my former supervisor on the radio talking about these events as I prepared for work – but they had seemed abstract to me.   I had placed most of my value for wild wolves on the population, although I could clearly see that wolves posses individuality.  What I had missed after I left Yellowstone makes me shake my head.  I’m sorry that I didn’t see some of it myself.  From the start I realized that this book would affect me more that I would perhaps like to admit.  I quickly read through the first half in a couple of days.  When I realized that the fuse had been lit I abruptly snuffed it out, so to speak, and put the book down for four days more as I let work life consume my time.  I wasn’t sure I could bear to finish the story – to let the charge detonate.

The wind had been blowing most of the day, so a hike uphill seemed like a great idea to keep the cold off if nothing else.   Leaving the car behind I walked along the two-track as it crossed the grassy meadow.  My path led fairly quickly to a forest of pinyon and juniper.  Here sat exposed numerous outcroppings of the various sedimentary layers that had over millions of years been uplifted and contorted.  Relatively hard sandstone.  Softer shale.  The differing erosion rates of these types of rock create some of the drama seen in the western landscape.  At one point I saw some elk tracks that at first I could imagine to be wolf tracks.  There was plenty of sign of elk but nothing for wolves.  Some coyote sign, too.  Reaching the base of the steep ascent up to the sub-bench I hiked along slowly but without interruption until I had gained a fine view of the world around me.

Finishing American Wolf, when I finally got around to it, set off the charge.  My mind had been blown wide open.  The story told could affect anyone.  That the story of one wolf could contain such a mix of joy and rapture, tragedy and pathos hadn’t been lost on numerous people.  That this story now affected me to the point were I was openly crying I’m not embarrassed to admit.  It was beautiful, and it was sad.  What this story did in addition, especially when combined with my new perspective gained from reading The Rise of Wolf 8, was to create in me a realization of just what it was that I had missed because of my underlying emotional state.  More challenging was the near instant realization that if any of this had any real meaning then I would need to have a concomitant emotional reckoning as well.

That this somewhat harsh landscape could bear so much life made a strong impact on me.  My hike had led northwest but once atop the bench I turned back south and walked an additional mile.  I found a nice place to sit and admired the up-close view of Limestone Ridge as well as the distant Vermilion Bluffs.  To the north lay a huge expanse of rolling mesas that stretched out to the horizon.  When I scanned the world around me with my binoculars I found what I believe where the same group of elk I had seen earlier.  They were bedded high up above me, about a half a mile away, only a hundred feet or so below the ridgeline.  I ate the lunch I had packed and took in the scenery.  That same scenery which the past October hadn’t looked to me much more than a template for wildness now gave me reason to believe that wildness had returned.  That tingle that said wolf.  Just the thought of it.

What can I say? I was distraught that I had missed so much.  Could I possibly move forward?  Could it be that my passion for and interest in wolves could remain extant after all this time?  I had to mull it over.  How could I give an account of myself without addressing all the emotions that I had internalized and inhibited over such a long time.  Twenty-twenty had started off with a proverbial bang.  Besides this sudden revitalization of my interest in the world of wolves I had also had contact with a couple of individuals whom I hadn’t seen in a decade.  One was a former cook who stopped by just because he wanted to tell me how much he had admired my outlook on life and how that outlook had positively impacted him.  That about floored me.  Another old friend from high school had reached out, and his story of woe that rivaled my own helped me gain aspect into the human condition.  I’m constantly amazed at how many people who seem so confidant are yet racked with self-doubt and insecurity.

Returning by the same trace that I had ascended, my return to the car was a bit more swift.  On my way uphill I had occasionally turned my head to see the new view.  Now downhill, I could take in the view continuously excepting an occasional glance at the two-track lest I should stumble over some unanticipated bramble.  Once I had concluded the hike my hunger made itself known to me.  I decided to drive down through Irish Canyon and visit Crook Campground.  This is where I had originally intended to car-camp.  Seeing the placid and serene setting of cottonwoods, mostly snow free albeit a bit muddy, I somewhat regretted my decision to get a motel.  Still, things worked out well enough.  I found a picnic table the setting of which seemed especially salubrious.  Here I made a quick camp-style dinner.  There wasn’t as much wildlife to watch as the previous evening’s dining locale but it was quiet and out of the wind.  As the Sun set and the light shone through the limbs of the large trees I thought of the last two days, and how these adventures had made for a nice segue into the next part of my journey.

Just why wolves matter to me is difficult to explain.  There are many aspects of wolves that I appreciate, including the biological services they provide keeping their prey healthy.  But in the end I would have to say it’s their sociability that really fires my interest.  Now, with my emotional life put into stark relief I wondered if I could transcend my usual state of ennui.  Somehow, I doubted it.  My life these last many years had been one of diminished expectations and I saw no reason why that would change.  Yet my passion for wolves had been rekindled.  With a new outlook on life I thought about what I wanted to do next.  The first step would be to put aside the political wolf for a moment and focus on the real wolf.  Go out an explore my joy.  Having set aside a block of time to visit Utah I quickly changed course and decided instead to visit Yellowstone National Park during Winter for the first time in nineteen years.  I was anxious to see what it was that I had been missing for so long.  I also knew that if I wanted to I could have an emotional reckoning, and for the first time in my life attempt to explain my outlook on the world to my friends.

Finishing supper I drove up to Colorado 318 and began the drive back to Craig.  There was still plenty of light to see the deer that were still flinging themselves recklessly across the highway.  The posted limit was sixty but I drove well under that.  When the speed limit decreased to forty-five I slowed down even more.  I’m glad I did, because last year’s fawn jumped out in front of me from behind a grove of especially large sagebrush such that there was no possible way to avoid a collision.  I slowed as much as I could but nonetheless knocked the fawn off its feet and sent it skidding across the opposite lane.  Hitting the shoulder, its hooves dug in and sent a spray of mud that landed on my hood and windshield as I rolled by.  The fawn rolled down the embankment as an explosion of fur lingered in the air.  I drove up about two-hundred feet to where I could safely make a U-turn and pulled over before I went back to look at the poor crushed sub-adult.  I expected the worst, and thought that my trip to Yellowstone had come to a sudden end.  Instead, I found the most minimal exterior damage and a solid cooling system.  I had expected to find coolant leaking at a prodigious rate.  Returning to the scene within a minute I was further overjoyed to find that the “crushed” deer had run off to join its parent.  It definitely looked a bit shaken up, and could have been next on the wolves’ menu due to sustained injuries, but for the moment the poor little beast seemed as well as could be.  I drove on, a bit more paranoid especially when what little light remaining fell into darkness.  I was happy to reach Craig safely and after winding down a bit soon fell into slumber.  I knew the next day would be long, as had been the last three, so I wanted to rest well and make an early exit.  Many thoughts were crossing my mind…

1 thought on “In Search of Wolves, Day 3 (Craig, Colorado, Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, Cold Spring Mountain; Hiking Limestone Ridge) – March 07, 2020

  1. Pingback: In Search of Wolves, Day4 (Craig, Colorado, to Gardiner, Montana; Yellowstone National Park) – March 07, 2020 | Rocky Mountain Hiker

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