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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Summer in February

The sun shone so brightly that K couldn't keep her eyes open when we sat on an exposed peak.It feels like May. It reached 50 degrees up here at 8200'. I rode my mountain bike with no balaclava, no neck gaiter, and no chemical handwarmers. My tires rolled over some pure dirt trails. I wished for my Safire during one wickedly steep and rocky climb but, alas, I actually needed the studded tires on my Stumpjumper as I churned through some sunlight-bathed snowy areas. The snowy trail to the right traverses an old burn and has baby aspen trees sprouting all over the hillside. The dead trees stood like gnarled skeletons against the snow and sun while the aspens glowed with hope for the future. What a ride.

Today, I rode over the solid snow up to Hug Hill. I lingered on the top to hug K in the warm sun. The view to the west encompassed snowy mountains and the view to the east was dominated by crowded flat plains.

Fortunately, few people know how amazing it is to live in the mountains. Or, perhaps they don't want to live here, an unimaginable state of mind to me. Sure, driving up 3000' to get home can be nerve-wracking in the snow and ice. All of us mountain people have terrifying memories of sliding backward on black ice as we attempted to drive up the hill or sliding off the road while navigating hairpin turns on the steepest downhills. But, that's a small price to pay to live in nature. To have bobcats, coyotes, elk, and even mountain lions outside the door. To have Abert's squirrels peering in the windows like we people are the exotic animals in the zoo. To have only forest in sight. It's my dream life.As I drive home from the city below, I pass a sign that says 'Pavement Ends', and very shortly later, I see a beautiful panorama like the one above. At that point, I transition from city-mindset to mountain-mindset, a drastic change. In the city, I move faster, trying to efficiently 'get things done' and paying little attention to the concrete world around me. In the mountains, I slow down and notice the details of nature. If I wore a blood pressure cuff all day, I'm sure that the reading would drop precipitously when I crest the hill on my way home and see a panorama like the one above.

Today, I had a sweet and mellow mountain bike ride. I enjoyed K's company and then went out to explore on my own. A warm wind blew strongly out of the west. It made holding my line on the open ridges sketchy as the wind actually blew me sideways periodically. But, I didn't mind in the least. I just love the mountains. I rode through some dense pine forests and was shocked by the number of trees infected with pine beetle. In one stand that I passed, more than half the trees harbor beetles. It scares me to think of the brown wastelands that these hillsides might become in a few years. On the hopeful side, I noticed a Douglas Fir understory - and Pine Beetles don't attack Douglas Firs. Perhaps they'll shoot up very rapidly after the death of the pines.

The photo to the right shows a pitch tube on a Lodgepole Pine infected
with beetles. When a beetle bores into the tree, the tree produces resin that pours out around the beetle's tunnel. If this defense works, you might see a dead beetle in the dried resin of the pitch tube. I've never seen that yet.

As I rode along the spine of a ridge, I thought of the cinnamon-colored mother bear and her two cubs who foraged there last summer. I imagined them curled up together sleeping through the winter somewhere nearby. Bears don't go into true hibernation. In true hibernation, the body becomes very cold. In contrast, bears maintain a body temperature only a bit lower than normal during winter denning. Consequently, they awaken easily during the winter and sometimes even leave the den. Although I watched for them, I didn't see any bears today despite the summer-like temperatures.

But, I did see another hibernator venturing out into the summer-like world. When I arrived home, I was shocked to see a Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel eating seeds under our bird feeder. These squirrels are champion hibernators who disappear at the end of September and don't reappear until late April. They sleep for more than half of the year! They literally go into suspended animation, and their bodies consume less than 10% of the calories per day than during summer. As 'true hibernators', they let their body temperature fall until it's only slightly warmer than the air surrounding them, and it usually takes them a long time to fully wake up. I've never before seen a Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel emerge during the winter. The little guy who was up and about today might not have stored enough fat to fuel him for a half year of hibernation. He was stuffing his cheeks with seeds and squirreling them away in his burrow. I kept thinking that he must be a restless sleeper - maybe he needs some Ambien.

After riding, I sat quietly with my three Labradors. All of them seemed content and happy. As the sunlight faded, they started to follow my every movement in anticipation of our sunset hike.


  1. KB- Great post. It got me thinking about living in the mountains, which I did (in Evergreen) for 3 years. I loved the environment, but the big problem for me was that mountain-living outside of Denver meant 2+ hours/day of commuting. I had a pretty time-consuming job during those years, and I found myself living for the weekends, which got to be a drag. And most of my neighbors were in the same way, which meant I never really *knew* any of them very well. I guess the lesson I came away with is that mountain-living is great, but you need a lifestyle/career that works with it. I tried to force-fit a metro-suburban lifestyle/career on a mountain residence, and ended up dissatisfied.

    Re: the pine beetles, you probably know this already, but fire suppression and warm winters both make the problem worse. I’ve heard there’s a stretch of lodgepole forest up in BC the size of Rhode Island that’s just decimated.

    Oh, and since you mentioned little critters- the guy I miss most from CO is Abert’s Squirrel. That is one sharp-looking rodent! (who is sadly absent from the Wasatch.)


  2. The thought of squirrels on ambien made me laugh. I love his cheeks! We have loads of mice, voles and even some wild ferrets, but not many squirrels or chipmunks here. That's why Lilly is SO obsessed with the ones we see in class.

    Sounds like you had a great day, Thursday. The weather has been amazing, which is fine, except it means a scary fire season come summer.

    And, Alex, is right. If I had to commute every day, like my neighbors, I probably wouldn't be as keen on living up high. Thankfully, we've designed our careers around how went want to live.

    I've been writing an article due next week all morning. After a 16+ hour day yesterday, Tom is out chopping wood. Soon ... we'll have lunch together.

  3. Alex,
    You're right - I didn't mean to flippantly ignore the fact that careers get in the way of living in the mountains. I feel like we won the lottery when we figured out a reasonable way to live in the mountains.

    The Abert's Squirrels are my favorites also. What radical ears they have! I have a photo of a jet black one peering in our window that I'll use in a post some time.

    It does worry us as to whether the Abert's Squirrels will survive if we have an extreme pine beetle invasion. They can live only where they have access to Ponderosa Pines. My fingers are crossed.


  4. Great post. We just love living in the mountains, especially in winter.

    I loved every one of the photographs, but I kept going back to see K. What a gorgeous face.


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