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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peace and strength

Today, Mr. Fatback, my amazing mountain bike for riding in snow, made it possible for me to take a trail ride on deeply snow-covered paths.
K and I rolled out into blustery cold, heading straight for a viewpoint. We had the idea that we might be able to see the mountains, unlike yesterday.
Indeed, the snow covered peaks jutted up through the swirling white clouds. Someone recently asked me why the mountains and the forest animals continue to fascinate me after I've seen them so many times. The person was obviously struggling to understand me. The truth is that the mountains mysteriously change daily and noticing the nuances makes me feel alive. And, the animals? Almost everything about them is still a mystery to me so each glimpse and photo gives me new insight.
K stuck to my side like my guardian angel today, barely straying to check scents or tracks. We seemed to float over the snow, like a pair of ghosts. I love riding with K, and I'll miss it so much during my enforced layoff after my surgery.

After I dropped off K at home, I rode up a trail that I haven't visited in at least a month.
In June, the view from the top combined bright green leaves with snow-dotted mountains.
Today, the view was much harsher, with skeleton trees and the Divide completely enshrouded in clouds. The wind gusted crazily, and a shimmering fog of snow blew across the surface of the ground. The flying crystals reflected the sun with a rainbow of sparkling colors. At one point, I crouched down to watch the blowing snow from ground-level. It was surreal so it makes sense that I couldn't capture it in a photo.
As I crouched down, I noticed brilliant splashes of red - rose hips! Many of the thorny bushes still had shriveled berries hanging from them. I've read that deer and elk love eating these berries in mid-winter.
After a much longer-than-planned ride, I returned home to find R stretched out on his bed, snoring away. Notice that his first gray hair is visible on his cheek in the photo. I wanted to join him but had things to do!
I wish you all an adventurous and peaceful new year. May you have the strength and flexibility to thrive no matter what unexpected twists and turns you encounter.

Happy New Year from your romping friends in Colorado.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sunrise ride and dog training class

At dawn, I launched myself out the door on my bike, with a headlamp leading the way. The sun still hovered below the eastern horizon.
Gradually, the sky turned pink, reflecting off the snow. For a brief instant, every tree, boulder, snowflake, and hill turned pink.
Clouds floated above and among the high mountains to the west, embued with a golden hue from the rising sun.
After the sky grew bright blue, I climbed up a packed trail. To my surprise, I found a spine lying on the snow. It was fairly fresh, with nerve fibers still coursing through its canal and out the holes in the sides of the vertebrae. Finding a backbone felt ironic given my rapidly approaching spine surgery.
A large quadruped had carried the backbone to the trail but wind had obscured the details of the tracks so I couldn't figure out whether it was a dog or a wild animal. The tracks leading to the spine marched purposefully across the windpacked snow.
As I arrived home at the end of the ride, I noticed that a bobcat had strutted across our land.
The bobcat stayed on the fringes, away from our wildlife camera. Near the corner of our property, he carefully constructed a small pile of snow. I could visualize his motions, walking in circles and kicking the snow, based on the tracks surround the pile. In the middle of the snowy hillock, he left his scent marking, a 3" long scat.
I wish he'd posed for our wildlife camera like he did previously. I'll watch to see if he uses this route regularly and perhaps put a camera next to the scent post.

After my ride, the whole pack went to dog training school. Usually, I work with K but, today, I worked with R for most of the class. It felt odd because I've had K as my dance partner in class for 6 years. I even called R by K's name repeatedly.

R is such a sweet soul. He desperately wants to make us humans happy but can barely control his exuberance for life. Even an errant feather fluttering past us prompted a leap. But, then he remembered that he was supposed to be heeling, and did a beautiful job of refocusing his attention. What a sweetheart.I worked with R partly to prepare for the post-surgery time when I might need R to heel nicely on a leash for me. I think that he's ready for that job!

Below, R approached the other dog in class very diplomatically, turning his lowered head and making his body into a "C" pointed away from the white fluffy dog.The young fluffy dog jumped all over K after a brief play session. K doesn't look too happy, does she?
Despite her look of stoic forbearance, K bounced back rapidly, looking relaxed again in the blink of an eye. That's a great sign that she not in a very fearful period.

Finally, after a long day in the city, I drove up the mountain to my peaceful home. What a wonderful feeling to have the forest surrounding me rather than concrete. I wouldn't have it any other way!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Walking a tightrope

K and I headed out to ride the snow-packed trails this morning. Clouds hung low, giving the forest a muted atmosphere. The snow-cloaked mountains melded with the sky.
We rolled along silently with the sounds of crunching snow and exercising lungs as our only accompaniment. Then, to my surprise, I heard birds chirping. As I scanned nearby trees, I spotted a mixed flock of chickadees and pygmy nuthatches. Those hardy birds live in our forests all year long, enduring the wickedly fierce winter storms and wind. Then, as my eyes scanned further, I spotted a Robin. I've been seeing robins, every now and then, all winter long. This feathered beauty perched silently, all alone, among the aspen tree twigs.
While I photographed the Robin, K sat patiently behind me, covering my back. I always feel most vulnerable to our mountain lions when my eye is on the camera viewfinder so I truly appreciate my guardian!
After restarting, we almost immediately encountered the boys of our pack, out for a run. K and R took advantage of a minute together to raucously play.
After parting ways with the boys, K and I rolled deeper into the pine forest, and I caught a photo of K sprinting back to me. When she gallops, she bursts with strength and power although she lacks the gracefulness of a greyhound or field lab. Interestingly, after a year of always deferring to R and allowing him to win 'races' during recalls or stick play, K recently turned on the afterburners when sprinting next to R. Believe me, she can sprint like a rocket. The only reason why R outruns her in 'races' is her naturally reticent nature.
Before taking K home to let her snooze, we stopped at a favorite viewpoint. K glowed more brightly than the sky or mountains early this morning.
Soon after I headed out on my Fatback solo, I ran across cat tracks. They were small and definitely left by a bobcat rather than a lion.
I abandoned my bike and started following the trackway. First, the bobcat marched straight up a slope, using a direct-registering walk, where the hind paw lands exactly in the imprint from the front paw. This style of walking probably saves energy in the snow because only the front paws have to 'break trail'.
After attaining the top of the slight ridge, the bobcat began checking under pine trees, perhaps checking for prey scent.
Then, he headed down the other side of the ridge and crossed the paths of several deer, barely veering from his path that headed directly for the base of a pine tree. In the photo below, the bobcat's tracks travel from the bottom to the top while the deer tracks travel from left to right.I stopped tracking him at this point. But, I realized that I would love to spend time following around the tracks of our carnivores and recording them on GPS. Then, I might start to see patterns as to where various species like to travel. I'll be able to snowshoe soon after my cervical fusion surgery, assuming the snow isn't too deep, and I think that I'll start this project then.

I'm developing a long list of projects for my recovery time. Because I'm having 5 of the 8 total cervical vertebrae fused, I'll have an extended period of no car travel (not even as a passenger) or much of anything besides walking or riding a recumbent stationary bike. So, I'm scheming about projects that I'll enjoy undertaking.

Today, after tracking the bobcat, I hopped back on my bike and did an almost entirely trail ride. I floundered, had my wheels wash out, and then pushed through deep snow. In snow biking, I frequently accidentally veer off the packed path into deep powder and become paralyzed as I try to avoid falling while I attempt to steer back onto the packed path. For a few seconds, I enter a state of suspended animation, barely moving forward. I gently pedal and steer a tightrope toward the packed path, trying not to pedal too vigorously or over-correct, both of which will lead to a bail-out. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don't.

Today, as I teetered on this fine line, I thought about how navigating life sometimes feels like snowbiking. It's easy to get paralyzed when the 'right' path isn't glaringly obvious - and when I find it difficult to obey an expert's recommendations without understanding the nuances. I need to understand all the pros and cons myself rather than relying on someone else's judgment when it's my life that's on the line. Navigating the spine surgery decision-making tree makes me feel like I'm walking a tightrope that's stretched between the two walls of the Grand Canyon. Which, believe it or not, bears remarkable resemblance to snow biking on sinuous trails.

Despite how hard the riding was today, I'll take the trails over the roads any day, especially if they have views like the one below.
We ended our day with a view of the faint glow of the sun dipping below the Divide.
And, over our shoulders, we saw the moon rising high into the sky.
Regardless of the details of my surgery, the sun and moon will rise and set every day, and I'm sure that I'll have the chance to gaze at them again. I need to remember that the simple joys of life will remain.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Solitude on snowy trails

This morning, I rolled out on my Fatback to try to navigate our snowy trail system on wheels. After a holiday weekend of an unprecedented number of trailusers, the snow was packed and ready for my bike. The two dogs joined me, making the ride even more fun.
Although it was a wintry 9°F when I emerged from the warm house, I quickly overheated as I pedaled smoothly with my Labs just ahead of me. Having the snowy mountains as a ever present background is a joy.
As always, we mixed dog romping with dog training. R did a recall, gracefully galloping toward me at warp speed with the low sun behind him. The tracks crossing the trail just under R's paws were left by a cloven-hooved deer heading down from this high plateau toward the meadow below us. About six sets of tracks all meandered in the same direction, spread out over 50 yards. The scent of deer probably permeated this area which was why I chose it for R's practice recalls.
K did a recall later in the ride. I don't watch for tracks or other signs to choose where to practice with her because she's proven herself to be reliable around every animal we've encountered in the past year. So, I just call her when the spirit moves me, showering her with treats when she arrives.
K sat when she arrived and gave me one of her soul-searching looks that melts my heart.
As I adjusted something on my bike, the Labraduo held a sit-stay in a scenic spot. My fingers get cold in a big hurry when I work on my bike in this weather so the sit-stay was brief!
We ended by rolling out to a favorite viewpoint, catching a glimpse of a unique view of the Divide.
The forest helped calm my spirit today as I wound my way through the golden hued forest. The low sun filtered through the pine trees who cast long shadows, lending the snowy world a mysterious ambiance.

Despite the sunny day, I didn't see another human on the trails. Solitude is part of what I love about exploring our forest. On 'normal' days, only a few people travel through the forest all day long, making it a silent and peaceful oasis ruled by animals with the occasional human or canine visitor. If I'm alert, I see a plethora of large animal signs, including a maze of tracks from coyotes, bobcats, deer, and elk searching for food. I love seeing the evidence of the web of life buzzing in our forest even when I don't see the animals themselves.

I feel lucky to have a wild forest surrounding my home and to have the freedom to roam in it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunrise ride, elk, lion signs, and dog calming signals

Amid a sea of contemplation of whether there's any way I can put off my surgery for another year, I rode my bike out into the crystal world at sunrise. The sun barely peeking over rocky pinnacles nearly blinded me. The beauty made me forget my turmoil as it almost always does.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw the golden hue on the mountains. It's worth waking up early to feel the world awakening around me.
I rode down a shaded gulch that the sun hadn't touched yet. I heard the soft high-pitched mewing of a yearling elk separated from his mother. When I scanned the meadow, I spotted a splinter faction of elk observing my passage. The youngest elk in the herd were born last May or June, up high in the alpine meadows. Thus, they're about 7 months old now. To my surprise, one of the youngsters knelt down on his front legs and nursed from his mother's teats. He repeatedly jerked his head upward, as if he was trying to force more milk out of her breasts. It's the first time that I've seen an elk calf nursing at this time of year. The nursing elk wasn't in this photo.
As I coasted further into the depths of the gulch, the world darkened still more. In the foreground of the photo below, the dark gulch surrounded me but the snowy mountains stood out like beacons to the west.
In this gulch, I noticed a huge, fur-filled scat. My chemical handwarmer serves as a scale - it's 3.5" long. I think that a mountain lion left this scat.
Very nearby, as the crow flies, I found a fascinating cat sign the other day. In the photo below, a muddy paw print is on the left and the blood of a prey animal stained the ground in front of it. Around this spot, I saw signs of struggling, lots of cat tracks, and many bits of fur.
The paw print was large, almost 3.5" in length and width - as you can see by comparing it to my handwarmer below. Moreover, because it was a mud print rather than an imprint, it couldn't have been enlarged by melting. My best guess was that a smallish mountain lion left the track as he hunted.
Today, shortly after I saw the lion scat, tracks from a huge elk herd crossed my path. The pattern continues - when I see elk signs, I tend to see lion signs nearby.
After my intriguing ride, replete with myriad animal signs, I headed home and picked up the pups for a short ski. They'd already had a romp in the morning (without me) but I needed my own 'doggy fix'.
We visited our favorite lookout. The mountains shined a brilliant and sparkling white in the late morning sun. The three of us sat on a log together and enjoyed the silence of our mountains. It rejuvenates my spirit to visit spots like this one.
When we arrived home, the dogs still had energy to burn and began wrestling. They wrestled for a while with both of them seeming relaxed. As R became revved up, K started giving calming signals, like this tongue flick, even though R was trying to be very non-threatening by lying on his back.R saw the calming signal and returned it. They mutually took a break before restarting the fun. It's amazing to spot these subtle forms of communication between the duo.
After wrestling, K found a spot in the sun, where her fur glowed resplendent with what I hope is good health.