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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hide and seek

The thermometer read 30 degrees, and the sun filtered through our pine forest. As I sat by the fire, it looked like an easy and warm day for a mountain bike ride.

K and I headed out on the trails while the almost fully recovered R went for a run with my husband. Despite the benign-looking scene outside our snug
home, the wind howled out on the trails. When I was in the forest, the sound of the wind drowned out most other noises. Many of the pine trees end up leaning eastward due to eons of being hit by winds out of the west. In the photo, K looks worried that the ancient Ponderosa Pine might topple on her any second.

Most of the trails still harbored significant snow so I was able to see the animal trails that K investigated. I find it to be amazing that she explores almost totally by smell while I explore by vision. In the summer, I can't tell what she's investigating. Thanks to the snow, today I knew that K first checked out a coyote trail and then a bobcat trail. The snow makes me aware of how the woods bustle with animal activity while we humans sleep.

K and I fall into an easy partnership when we're on the trails together.
We've spent so much time as companions in the woods that we move in unison. She's at a wonderful age - so healthy and well behaved - but we've had time to build an incredible bond.

Today, K decided to show me that she's not quite as mature as I thought. K initiated a hiding game that she uses to train me to do her favorite thing in the world: a recall. She hasn't played this trick recently so I thought that my strategy of ignoring her while she was hiding was working. But, today she had an exceptional hiding place. On the left, the landscape is normal size, and K's almost invisible. With zoom, she's busted!

After riding with K, I headed out on a road toward another trail
network, and I met a woman who accusingly said to me, "You seem to ride your bike throughout the whole winter but then never in the summer". I realized right away why it seems that way to her. In the summertime, I can ride trails from my backdoor for several hours without ever colliding with civilization so car drivers never see me.

'Our' trail network connects to others via connector trails have so far been unrideable in the snow. They tend to be rocky and exposed because they're built into west-facing hillsides that harbor seemingly bottomless snow drifts. My current bike, a Specialized Stumpjumper with studded tires, bogs down in the snow, and I end up pushing it endlessly.
I'm hoping that the super wide tires on my soon-to-arrive snowbike, the Fatback, will change this situation. For now, in the winter, I use roads to connect the different trail networks. Consequently, it appears to the casual observer who drives our roads that I *only* ride my bike when it's snowy and cold.

Today, I explored a wind-blasted exposed area. Looking to the east showed open water ringed by hills. Then, over my shoulder, I glimpsed the snowy Divide.

Stunted ponderosa pines, many only 10-15 ft tall but full and bushy, littered the landscape. At first, I thought that the wind had stunted them. Then, I found that the trees harbored beautiful little growths that I later identified as dwarf mistletoe. This parasite stunts tree growth and
eventually kills most trees.

I underestimated the power of the wind today, and started to wonder if I had enough energy to pedal all the way home. I struggled up a long climb with the wind pushing me backward, thinking 'boom boom, out go the lights', as cycling commentator Paul Sherwin likes to say when a racer hits the wall. Although I enjoyed my adventures, I was relieved when I finally pedaled into my driveway.

At sunset, the trio of dogs and I rambled through the meadows. The encroaching weather front painted a glorious sunset.

Friday, January 30, 2009

I'm free

The lyrics to The Who's "I'm free" danced through my head as I pedaled onto the trails with my dog, K. At first, I couldn't figure out why those lyrics fit my mood so well, and then I knew. Finally, after five days of relentless pain, my neck-induced headache had vanished without a trace. Being free of pain is amazing - but I don't always notice it right away.

The sky held numerous trails of airplanes. They made me realize that I couldn't imagine anyplace I'd rather be than riding my bike on the trails with K. Even K's eyes glittered in the sunlight.

After K
had galloped and sniffed to her heart's delight, I headed for an area that I think of as the 'banana belt'. I rode over a small ridge that sits to our east, and as soon as I dropped onto the other side, the natural world changed. The soil was dry and sandy with reddish boulders dotting the landscape. Rocky Mountain Juniper trees mixed in with the Douglas Firs and Ponderosa Pines (right).

Today, I rode to a trailhead that I haven't dared to visit for a couple of years. My last trip there was dominated by dodging gonzo mountain bikers who seemed intent on catching big air than noticing the beauty around them. Today was my lucky day - the parking lot was empty.

I descended a south-facing trail into a canyon. This trail traverses terrain that feels a million miles away from my pine-forested mountain home. It's rocky and open, and in a couple of months, Sceloporus ('sagebrush') lizards will be doing pushups on the sun-warmed rocks. Believe me, no lizards skitter on the rocks near my mountain home.

I easily rode to the floor of the canyon and its rushing creek, only crossing a few patches of snow and a frozen creek. The wind and sun must have blown away and melted the snow. The canyon felt almost claustrophobic with rockfaces towering over the rushing creek. The water
cascaded over ice-covered rocks. I paused and soaked up the beauty.

I started to pedal up the steep north-facing side of the canyon, and immediately ran into snow amidst a Ponderosa Pine forest. This terrain felt like home as opposed to the south-facing descent which felt like Moab. To my surprise, I easily rode over the packed snow and ice to the top of the canyon. I truly didn't expect to be able to ride the north-facing canyon wall - I figured that it would either be too snowy or muddy. I didn't see another soul. It truly was my lucky day.

As I pedaled home, I saw the Continental Divide over a partly frozen body of water. Then, within
a few pedal strokes of home, I saw a pair of coyotes hunting in a meadow. I watched and gave thanks for a pain-free day out in the natural world.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wind-shaped landscape

Today, rambunctious R eagerly insisted that he needed to run! It's truly amazing to watch how fast a dog in the prime of life heals. So, I rode through the forest while my two pups, K and R, played and covered at least twice as much ground as I did. Sometimes, I think that K would prefer that we not bring along her little brother - afterall, our bike rides have always been our special time together. However, the two of them seem to bond as they explore the woods and play together.

Prior to discovering and treating K's hypothyroidism, she seemed afraid of R, and he was still a smallish puppy. Thank goodness that her thyroid medicine changed her mental outlook so dramatically. Occasionally, R is still a bit too rambunctious for K but most of the time, she loves frolicking with him in the woods.

After I dropped the dogs off at home, I explored on my own, going places where I can't easily take the dogs. The high winds that visit every winter, and have been blowing for days, had left indelible signs in the landscape.
First, I wound through a canyon-type area that's well protected from wind and sun. Snow still carpeted the basin, and large pine trees dominated. Sadly, I found a giant Ponderosa Pine that's fighting a Pine Bark Beetle infestation. The right photo below shows a pitch tube - a sap tunnel through which the tree tries to eject the beetles. The tree is still alive - you can see only the bottom quarter of it in my photo - but its bark is scarred by many pitch tubes.

As I rode through the canyon, I felt warm and comfortable in the calm air. Then, I noticed that my Camelbak had frozen, and realized that it was much colder than I thought.

Shortly later, I climbed onto an exposed southwest-facing plateau and a
sidewind buffeted me. The wind found every tiny gap in my protective clothing but the sun kept me reasonably warm. The wind had blasted away almost all of the snow except snow that had been packed down by tires or sleds. In the photo, you can see my tire tracks from a few days ago as a band of snow. While I'd been in a moist pine forest only moments before, the plateau I now traveled across was an arid desert-like landscape. The plateau's exposure to wind and sun dries it out, and cacti flourish on the hillside. After our recent winds, the hillside doesn't harbor a single snowflake. The studs on my mountain bike tires seemed a ridiculous for this brief part of my ride.

Amazingly, after quarter mile descent, I was again
surrounded by a moist pine forest. It felt and looked like mid-winter in the cold air of the gulch. Wind-blown snow left me floundering for traction on my mountain bike. All the snow from the desert-like plateau must have ended up down here by the stream. Lots of animal tracks adorned the snow: deer, elk, rabbit, coyote, and shrew (tracks below). This gulch teems with life.

I've read that the Front Range has wildly
variable ecosystems in small areas due to the cliff-like steep foothills. The steep hills are moist and shady on their north sides and are dry and sunny on their south sides. It certainly makes winter mountain biking interesting.

When I first moved here, I met a couple of professional endurance athletes who were moving away from the Front Range due to the wind. I scoffed at the notion - but I hadn't yet experienced the winter winds. I'd never dream of leaving here but the winds are exhausting. Just being outside in them leaves me tired. Riding directly into them sometimes stops me in my tracks. But, the winds are part of what makes this place so wild and desolate, and I love that aspect of the winds.
As a sidenote, during today's relatively warm and calm ride, the local weather station says that it reached a balmy 18 degrees and the wind consistently gusted up to 45-50 mph. You can see the wind-blown clouds and snow trailing off of the Divide below. I guess that a person can get used to almost anything.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An internal battle

Last night, our youngest lab's immune system decided to post 'No Trespassing' signs to keep out the invading antibiotics. R was in the midst of a rapid recovery from a bad clostridium infection. Our awesome vet had prescribed a pair of antibiotics that was destroying the evil bacteria. The bad news was that R's immune system didn't realize that the antibiotics were his friends and decided to fight them. The allergic reaction that followed scared me - itching, agitation, hives, and vomiting. I'd previously seen this scenario in my now deceased search and rescue Lab, C. Her allergic reactions sometimes threatened her life. Fortunately, R's allergic reaction went no further.

Due to our nighttime veterinary adventures, my plans for the day were obliterated. Someone needed to be with R until he stabilized. So, I rode in the morning and watched R for the rest of the day. He's a lovable little guy so watching him is a pleasure. Below, R plays with a toy a year ago when he weighed about 10 lbs, and then, more recently, he lies in the lap of luxury.

Early this morning while my husband watched R, I pedaled into the darkness on wind-packed snowy trails and watched the sun burn below the horizon. I always feel reluctant to venture into the night but I never regret it. Today, no cat eyes awaited me when I started my ride. Rapidly, colors emerged over the eastern foothills.

The clouds turned crimson and orange.

Then the sun shined so brightly that I picked up my guardian dog, K, to romp next to me. K seemed to know that I was worried (about R), and she stayed glued to my side.

In contrast to my last dawn ride, I had no wildlife encounters today except for hearing some distressed vocalizations emanating from the shadowy fringes of a meadow. The only fresh tracks nearby were left by a prowling bobcat. The wind was covering my tracks with snow so rapidly (see snow-level view on right) that the bobcat must've been very close for his tracks to still be visible. However, after listening to bobcat sounds, I'm certain that it wasn't a bobcat vocalization.

After more research, I think that I heard an
adult cow elk call. I've heard the mewing calls of separated calves and their mothers but this was a more distressed sound. The link above claims that the recorded vocalization was from a cow elk in estrous, which is not likely to be true at this time of year, but I have no doubt that this is what I heard.

When I returned from my ride, I hung out by the fireplace with R and the other pups. He seemed tired but on the mend.
R is starting new antibiotics, and my bet is that he'll be super-dog again by tomorrow, albeit missing some fur where he chewed his itchy paws last night. I wish that *I* had the healing powers of a full-grown puppy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Anything is possible

Today felt like an important day for me to celebrate life. Exactly 21 years ago, my mom lost her battle with breast cancer. The recent death of women's basketball coach, Kay Yow, really hit home for me. Kay Yow and my mom were diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year. That fact brings home how long Coach Yow fought and lived with cancer. I can't imagine the mountain of strength it takes to live with dignity while fighting cancer.

My mom taught me to believe in myself and that anything was possible. Most days, I feel like I truly learned the lessons. Most of all, since my mom died very young, I internalized the lesson that my life might be short like hers was, and I better do what I love rather than what the world expects me to do.

In that spirit, I did what I love. My labs and I romped and rolled through the forest and delighted in the mountain spirit. Today was cold and blustery. The wind relentlessly blew from the west and tore the snow off the west side of the trees but not the east side (right photo).

My youngest Lab, R, was the one with 'gastric distress', and his tests showed a bad bacterial infection. Despite an illness that would've floored me, R's rambunctious spirit continued to burn. He's a super high energy dog, like most field labs. In fact, after going through the rehabilitation period for his elbow dysplasia surgery, we've become afraid of the wild puppy that he becomes when he doesn't get to run. So, when he insisted that he wanted to go with me this morning, I listened. The good news is that his illness seems about 85% better and the running did no harm that we can see. It might've helped by preventing the stress that he obviously feels when cooped up.

We've been getting a couple of inches of new snow each night, and it's building up. Fortunately, I'm becoming better at biking in the snow. I've learned a couple of lessons: 1) when going uphill, never stop pedaling even if I'm losing traction until I start to fall over. I've been surprised by how often my tires gain traction at the instant when I'm about to topple over. 2) I usually can recover from a skid by letting up on the brakes and steering correctly.
Moreover, I rarely gain enough speed in snow biking to have a bad crash. If I skid and fall, it's usually a pathetic little wipe-out.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm much more careful about avoiding crashes than most riders. My docs have warned me about the risk of a spinal cord injury with a spine as messed up as mine. But, quitting riding isn't an option that I'll consider. Instead, I ride a bike, because I love it too much to stop and it reduces my back pain. In deference to my spine, I try to be very careful. Of course, that approach isn't foolproof - last summer, I crashed for no apparent reason and broke a rib - but that's another story.

Today, I followed a trail that I haven't been on in a year. First, I climbed up to a high point, making 'first tracks' in a sun-bathed snowfield (right, above). Then, I took a steep descent to a gulch that leads down to the water's edge of a reservoir (below).

Based on the tracks, it appeared that the ice fishermen that I
met the other day finally found their ice here. It's a beautiful spot but I still can't imagine enjoying ice fishing. In the photo, the wind is driving the snow sideways. I became chilled within a minute of stopping at the water's edge. I'm sure those guys were puzzled by my snow-biking but I think that I'm even more puzzled by ice fishing.

To stave off the cold, I rapidly turned around and started the long climb up the gulch (right photo above). As I climbed, I thought about my mom and felt thankful that I'm carrying on my mom's spirit on this beautiful Earth.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Knowing when

This morning dawned icy cold with a couple of inches of new snow. I peered at the skylights that were snow-covered and then at the below zero reading on the outdoor thermometer. I burrowed back under the covers.

The frigid cold seemed like a bigger deal due to a rough night of being awakened by neck pain, a headache, and a dog with 'gastric distress'. To top it off, the coyotes decided to have a howling concert outside our window at 2 AM. I usually like their concerts - but it was just one more wake-up last night.

Up until this winter, I always grudgingly rode my indoor bicycle trainer when the temperature was below 20 degrees. Then, I started reading about the exploits of mountain bikers in Alaska and other frigid climates, and I decided to start venturing out into the winter weather. This season, I've discovered that I absolutely love riding my mountain bike on snow in the crackling cold winter air. Despite that discovery, I still find myself reluctant to plunge out the door.

This morning, I decided to do a few chores before riding my mountain bike, hoping that it might warm up at least a little. I was almost immediately punished for my procrastination as the outdoor temperature fell by another degree. Waiting was a bad strategy.

I pedaled, with tires squeaking in the new snow, into the -2 degree world with trepidation. I told myself that I could go only a half mile if I was too cold. I use that trick on myself a lot, and I've never actually turned around after a half mile.

K and I were solo today because our youngest Lab, R, was on his way to the vet. K behaves differently when it's just the two of us. We get into sync, each of us watching out for the other, pushing hard on the same sections of trail, and then stopping for a furry warm hug. Today, she sat patiently waiting while I took photos, and her chin gradually became frostier as we rode through the icy air.

After K and I had explored our trail network, I headed out on my own. Amazingly, although the temperature hovered near zero, I had dressed perfectly and was warm. I thought to myself that it felt like the temperature had risen to 20 degrees but it was only 3 degrees when I arrived home. I also figured out how to keep my drinking water flowing in super cold weather - by keeping my camelbak hose inside my jacket. I'm sure that many of you know this trick - but I'd never thought of it until today.

Throughout the ride, I heard booms coming from the direction of the Continental Divide and initially my brain thought that they were thunderstorms. Gazing at the icy world reminded me that the booms couldn't be thunderstorms. It's more likely that explosives were mitigating the avalanche danger up near the Divide.

I rode a trail that I traveled during our spring sojourn less than a week ago. The willows turned reddish green and looked alive during the pseudo-spring. Today, they looked like ice sculptures.

Toward the end of my ride, I was sorely tempted to ride up into a favorite trail network despite the weather looking threatening (below) and an unrelenting headache. No humans had tread on the fresh snow so I'd be able to see animal tracks. In fact, I saw the tracks of two coyotes at the trailhead. I stood paralyzed as my urge to investigate the animal tracks battled the tiny iota of good sense that I have. For one of the few times in my life, I knew when to say when. Although it had probably been slowly building, my headache - caused by nerve pressure by damaged discs and bone spurs in my neck - had finally roared into my consciousness and was the deciding factor in ending my ride. I'm an expert at ignoring pain but I pay an exorbitant price. After hours of pretending that I'm not in pain, I fall into a deep fatigue that's like being physically and mentally mired in deep thick mud. Ignoring pain consumes lots of energy.

With that brief flash of wisdom, I headed home.