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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tumultuous skies

The world seems to have leveled out for me - no sudden lurches in my universe in the past 24 hours. I'm still scared and vigilantly watching for any more symptoms. The upside to fear is that it's a good motivator to get to the bottom of the visual special effects that visited me the other night. I'll be spending more time than I'd prefer in medical facilities next week - but I love my life too much to surrender to the urge to deny, deny, deny. The best case scenario is that it was an 'ocular migraine', and the descriptions of the visual symptoms seem to fit perfectly. Moreover, the usual triggers - fatigue and stress - were overwhelming me that night. So, I feel relieved that one potential diagnosis is not life-threatening. The ER doctors were pretty focused on the life-threatening scenarios - leaving me petrified.

This morning, K and I headed out, rolling on trails that were more dirt than snow. We stopped for a view of the mountains at the start of the ride, and the deep blue sky dominated. Just 20 minutes later, we zipped out to the same viewpoint to avoid a dog that scares K, and the transformation stunned me. Both photos show almost the same view - although the trees are the only hints of similarity. Mountain weather can change in a heartbeat - just like life itself.K's thyroid adjustment has almost completely changed her personality. She's zipping around with the energy and confidence of a well-adjusted dog. I loved rolling through the forest with her today, feeling like I was slowing her down. When her thyroid levels were low, I felt the opposite - that I was pushing her too hard. So, life is good in K's universe.

Below, K was wired to riding this morning, and played hard with her brother, R, while she waited for me. It's interesting to notice that, at the end of each bout, she shakes, like she's shedding water. Behavior books says that shaking is a stress-reducer, like she's shaking off her tension. Interestingly, R doesn't mirror her behavior. When S used to play with her, they'd both shake at the end of a bout. The second thing to notice is that K sneezes twice at the end of the second bout - she almost always does this to end a play session as have our other dogs. So, in past play pairings, a bout would end with both dogs sneezing up a storm! Again, R doesn't mirror the sneezing.

The news on S is also pretty good - he'd definitely taken a downturn early last week, with a loss of hind end strength that hasn't returned, but now he's staying about the same. He's hiking twice a day - alas, a bit more slowly than before - but he's a happy hiker! He's tolerating the steroids so well that we're not tapering back as initially planned. He's also taking two herbal remedies that our vets recommended. Neither has side-effects, and, who knows, they might help. I'm laboring, with some success, to enjoy each day with S as opposed to constantly worrying about his future.

After I dropped off K today, I rolled along noticing that the springtime transformation has taken off like a runaway train. First, I noticed male catkins on a willow, blurring between red and yellow. The photo below includes catkins early in their development, when the red and yellow of the tiny flowers is just emerging through the fuzzy covering.In willows, an individual tree has either male or female catkins. The male catkins (shown here) are a collection of many stamens, each of which produces pollen. Below, a catkin that's further along in development has reddish and yellow pellet-like structures, anthers, on the ends of long hairs. Anthers produce pollen that must be transported to a female catkin on another willow tree for reproduction. Some trees rely on the wind to capriciously carry their pollen to receptive female catkins and others rely on insects and birds. Apparently, willows need insect and bird reproductive assistance.
Based on watching the development of catkins on deciduous trees, it makes sense that my pollen allergies are starting. In previous years, I was mystified about why they started before anything obvious blossomed - I'm learning a lot this year!

Another new bloomer caught my eye today, the Oregon Grape.Before photographing it with my macro lens, I didn't realize that the 'grapes' which become bitter-tasting fruits later in the season, start life as tiny flowers. Moreover, it looks like the flowers sprout from the left-over leaves from last season. In the photo below, the leaves are about the size of holly leaves - and you can see the tiny clusters of flowers to the right of them. If I hadn't been laboriously pushing my bike up a wall-like rocky trail while staring at the ground as I passed them, I would've never noticed the flowers.After pushing my bike to the top of the ridge, I discovered that the face of the mountains had changed again - the word 'tumultuous' came to mind. But, the snowy brightness of the mountains glowed through the clouds and blue sky shone overhead. That vision best describes the mixed up emotions in my life right now.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Off kilter

Flashing lights fluttered in the edge of my vision. Self-tests showed that the lights appeared in the far right of my vision when I had either eye open alone - suggesting the brain as the source rather than an eye problem. I gave it a few minutes, thinking that the weirdness would pass, but it didn't. My husband called a nurse's hotline provided by our insurance - her order, and I do mean *order*, was to call 911 asap. Given the relatively remote place that we live and the nurse's urgent warnings, we decided to drive straight to the ER. Meanwhile, my vision went back to normal as rapidly as it had gone haywire - adding up to about 20 minutes of crazy vision. At the ER, a CAT scan showed no dramatic underlying culprit, like an ongoing stroke or a tumor - so that's good news. Now I start the follow-ups, the search for why. But, most of all, I feel shaken to the core. I've had more than my share of health problems but my brain has never gone haywire. That's scary. And, the thought that I can't rely on my brain to work smoothly makes my stomach churn.

The doc said that there was no reason for restricted activity so I rode my mountain bike this morning, albeit with unusual tentativeness. My world felt out of kilter, almost like it might suddenly tilt and toss me off my bike. I didn't feel my usual joyfulness over the details of nature. I just rode, seeking to feel normal and safe. K joined me at the beginning, and she seemed wired - fake-chasing a small deer herd traversing a hogback, accelerating after squirrels, and crazily sprinting through snowdrifts sending wet snow flying into the air. She bordered on manic - so perhaps my sensitive girl was picking up on my angst.The morning was sun-soaked and warm. Butterflies flitted in pairs, flies buzzed, innumerable hummingbirds trilled overhead, and new bird songs wafted out of the pine forest. Swallows and mountain bluebirds vied for a nestbox and let me get closer than usual as they fenced with each other.The swallows maneuvered like fighter jets, swooping around my head. It seemed like about 6 tree swallows and one bluebird pair all wanted to claim the one nestbox. Maybe I should put up some more.A new wildflower bloomed on a sun-baked south-facing hillside. While I photographed and examined it, I realized that, in my absorption with the flower (a Twinpod, I think), I'd briefly felt like myself. I'll find my inner peace again - soon, I hope. For the moment, I'm trying to appreciate the things that I love.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tale of a lost dog

This morning was full of surprises. K and I snowbiked together, moving mellowly through the forest. I finally felt like I'd broken out of the doldrums, a tired and empty feeling that I'd had in my legs for days. My muscles had refound their zing, and my energetic pedaling matched the sparkle in K's eyes.When I dropped K off at home, a neighbor walked up the driveway in tears. Her 14 year old female yellow lab, L, had vanished in the dark of the night during a potty break. They'd been criss-crossing the land near their home since dawn. L can't walk far so they reasoned that she'd still be close to home.

They found tracks leading down to the fringes of a meadow and a spot where it looked like L had curled up in the snow. But, beyond that point, the snow had melted so they couldn't track her. As I stood by myself in that spot, my first thought was that a confused and physically challenged dog would probably keep moving downhill - simply because it's physically easier than the alternatives. I also noticed a bunch of ravens downhill and across the meadow - but they weren't super concentrated on one spot, giving me hope that they weren't focused on a dead body. So, I rode my bike around the meadow to check out the area where the raven flock was cawing.

When I got there, my neighbors were already at that spot, and they'd found L alive. She was lying in about 6" of frigid snow-melt. She initially looked unscathed but cold and shocky. But, a closer examination showed bite marks on L's haunches. Fresh and large coyote tracks in the snow on the meadow's edge made us guess that the bites were inflicted by coyotes. The size of the tracks led me to wonder if the coyote who visited my land yesterday left them.

L is resting in the hospital, getting patched up, warmed up, and pumped full of fluids. She'll be coming home tonight. That's a much better outcome than I initially visualized when I learned of the elderly L's disappearance. L is in a similar stage of life as our S, where her days left on this Earth seem too finite. But, I'm grateful that she didn't die by herself in the cold water of the meadow with scary predators watching her.

Based on tracks and conjecture, our best guess is that L got disoriented and wandered around, initially lying down next to the meadow in the snowy spot close to her house. Then, she wandered downhill into the meadow and met up with one or more coyotes. The coyotes half-heartedly attacked her from behind but didn't truly try to kill her. L is so slow and wobbly that they certainly could've killed her if they'd chosen to. Then, the coyotes might have lurked at the meadow's edge waiting and watching for her to die but their plans were thwarted by L being rescued.

The good news is that my neighbors philosophically, and without anger, said something like, "That's just coyotes being coyotes". Then, they made a vow not to let L outside by herself anymore. I think that's how all of us who live in wild country need to think - we need to adapt our habits to the wild animals rather than trying to exterminate those animals to make a perfectly safe and sanitized world.

I've read that coyotes generally don't kill large prey, like a disabled 75 lb dog who poses no territorial threat. Rather, if they notice that a large animal is wobbly and weak, they wait for the animal to die before moving in for a meal. Of course, the observations that I'm referring to involved prey like deer or elk, not a dog, but I'm guessing that the strategy would be similar. I wonder if the large group of ravens who initially caught my attention were also watching L, waiting for her to die. I'm so glad that she lived!

After all that drama, I'd burned a lot of the energy that I usually use for bike riding. But, I did a quick loop on a ridge that was almost completely melted out since our huge snow storm. Our snowy weather has slowed the emergence of wildflowers - but dandelions were a new bloomer today. They're actually quite beautiful when you closely examine them. They require bees to pollinate them, and I haven't seen any bees yet. I always wonder how nature gets the intricate timing of flowers and pollinators, and of predators and prey, just right. Global warming is likely a huge threat to that timing since the emergence of flowers and of bees might be affected differently by changing temperatures.We have more snow in the forecast so the flower blossoming progress may be halted once more. At least, the snowpack on the mountains, our reservoir for summer water, looks thick and plentiful.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Coyotes, bobcats, skunks, and snow biking

Last night's sunset gave the weather forecast - stormy skies on the horizon.I opened my blurry eyes to white-covered skylights and about 4" of new snow. As I ate breakfast, a coyote with a luxurious reddish tan coat and thick black-tipped tail appeared outside the window. He seemed nervous, constantly shifting his eyes from one direction to another. Because my husband and the lab trio were out hiking and I wanted to avoid our dogs romping into the coyote, I watched briefly and then scared him off. He was hyper-wary and fled when I simply cracked open a window (I'd been planning to try yelling at him). He loped and then walked through deep snow straight uphill from our house.
The coyote looked huge to me. Standing by himself, I would've guessed that he rivaled our labs in size. However, our labs are each about 55 lbs, and my book about western coyotes gives a wide range, 18-44 lbs, for their weight. Either this guy ranks at the top of the range or his plush fur coat makes him look heavier than he actually is.

Later, when I looked for tracks, it appeared that he'd had at least one partner waiting in the forest. Moreover, a bobcat had walked almost the same path as the coyotes. I wondered how close they came to bumping into each other and how such an encounter would've gone down. I suspect that the bobcat would have fled up a tree but I don't know for sure. A bobcat track is below - it's a bit distorted because the cat was using a direct-registering walk, meaning that the hind paw landed almost exactly in the front paw's track.After the coyote vanished into the woods, the dogs returned from their hike, preceded by a skunk stench. Western Spotted Skunks live at our elevation, although they're fairly rare. Yesterday evening during our hike, we smelled skunk spray near a trail, but didn't see the distinctive black and white creature. This morning, our amazing tracking dogs (ha) found the skunk, and, of course, got sprayed. Not a full-on spray, where you can smell the dogs from 50 yards away outdoors - but a spritzing that left them putrid enough that my husband banished them to the mudroom until they were de-skunked.

Videos and books show that spotted skunks go through a whole series of warning behaviors before they spray. They stamp their feet and posture, trying to warn off their attackers. I imagine that K and R were totally oblivious to the warnings, and charged like labradors in a china shop. When a spotted skunk decides to spray, he does a handstand, literally balancing on his two front legs and sprays the attacker in the face. The fact that this skunk had released some spray yesterday probably spared us his full fury. The good news is that Nature's Miracle Skunk Odor Remover works well. We'd kept a bottle in our cabinet for years, knowing that a household of three labradors would get a skunking again someday.

As a side note, the sage S stayed out of the fray and smelled like roses by comparison to the young hooligans.

After all the excitement, I headed out for a ride on my Fatback with K and R. The Fatback with its 4" wide tires rules - I wouldn't have been able to negotiate the combination of the old crusty deep snow and the new powder on a regular mountain bike. I was grateful to be out on the trails rather than slogging along on the muddy roads. The Divide was completely obscured by clouds at the start of our ride.But, then the sun burned through and the mountains sparkled with new snow.But, looking over my shoulder to the east, I saw that the up-slope snowy weather advancing up the gulches. It's time for spring, not snow - someone please tell the authorities!Something about fresh snow sends young dogs into a joyful and frolicking mood. My dog trainer says that fresh snow is the one distraction that makes it almost impossible to teach a dog new tricks. Certainly, today, all K and R wanted to do was play, play, and play some more. I propped my bike against a tree and enjoyed the infusion of happiness and energy that I always get when I watch them cavort.

Watching the videos showed me that R has learned how to play with K. K is a sensitive girl who stops playing when R gets too rough, even when K's thyroid levels are normal. In the sequences above, R's exuberance is toned down one notch, and consequently, K keeps playing and playing. The video clips show only a fraction of their frolicking. I love seeing them becoming such good playmates.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nature's power

Yesterday evening, we went for a hike in the melting snow with our friend V and her handsome chocolate lab, JB.JB, the eternal puppy, taught R about getting muddy in puddles. The two boys splashed around and chased each other in big snow-fed puddles. This morning, both K and R anxiously awaited me outside the bathroom door as I brushed my teeth before heading out on my mountain bike.Before the sun rose too high in the sky, the snowbiking conditions were perfect. The wet snow had frozen solid, and I magically zipped over snowdrifts, feeling like I was riding a roller coaster. The two dogs ecstatically played with sticks - sometimes tug-of-war and sometimes sprinting side-by-side while jointly carrying the stick.After dropping off my pups, I mostly rode trails, instead of roads, for the first time since the big storm. The snow layer persisted in wooded and north-facing areas but my Fatback handled it. The astounding change was the number of down trees. Their trunks had snapped under the uneven weight of the snow. The pine trees in our area tend to have more branches growing on the downwind (east) side of the trunk so the snowladen branches unevenly load the trees and can snap the trunks.

Maneuvering through the downed trees that completely spanned and blocked the gulch I was following required acrobatic moves and some sheer stubbornness. At one point, I burst out laughing, thinking that my bike and I were permanently wedged between a downed pine and a willow tree.

While I was struggling fruitlessly, I noticed a willow branch in my face that looked beautiful against the blue sky. I stopped struggling for a moment to take a photo.I eventually extricated myself but thought that a big cat should set up an ambush by that spot to get an easy meal as silly travelers like me get stuck. Humans who are so clueless that they pause to take photos while wedged between two trees would be particularly easy meals!

I had big cats on my mind because abundant clues told me that the elk herd had lingered in the area after the big snow storm - probably to graze on the south-facing snow-free slopes. The elk hooves had sunk 4" deep into the mud as they trudged along the trail in the melting snow. My observations this winter have taught me that the lions follow the elk. Thus, I kept a wary roving eye, even glancing over my shoulder a number of times. Almost exactly a year ago, I found a lion-cached elk carcass in a ravine next to the trail where I rode today.

When lions kill a large animal like a deer or elk, they usually haul it at least a short distance away from any trail, eat some of it, and then cover the remainder with pine needles and other forest debris. The lion then has the luxury of staying in the area - lounging, sleeping, and eating - until he needs to find new prey. For an adult male lion, a deer a week suffices. For a female with up to 4 cubs, she must hunt down many more deer or elk per week during the 18 months that she provides for the cubs.

As I neared the top of the gulch, a patch of rejuvenated Pasqueflowers opened their petals wide to gather the sun's rays. Amazing - they survived being buried under feet of snow and now flourish. Life is miraculous and tenacious. Just watch the elk, lions, and flowers - you'll be astonished by how they fight to stay alive and even blossom under harsh conditions. At the very top of the gulch, the snowy mountains almost shined through their pure white cloud cover.Despite the chilling winter wind blowing off the mountains, I lost myself in the woods today and arrived home feeling like I'd taken a nourishing journey. I think that my mind unconsciously wrestles with tough things like S's cancer during these bike rides. Whatever the reason, I feel more at peace about S today. No doubt, the simple fact that he currently is able to go on our family hikes makes everyone happier. S sparkles when he's in the woods with his dog and human family.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The watcher

I drank my coffee while watching the birds at our feeders this morning. Suddenly, a head popped up, not 3 feet away, but on the other side of the window. Our recently apparent Fox Squirrel stood on his hind legs and quietly observed me through the window.We never had any of the gargantuan Fox Squirrels at our elevation until a couple of years ago. Now, we usually have one hanging out near our feeders in the spring, summer, and fall. I don't know where he goes in the winter. Rumor has it that global warming is allowing the Fox Squirrels to expand their range higher into the mountains at the expense of our distinctive Abert's Squirrels. Below, an Abert's squirrel watched me from outside a couple of years ago. Sometimes, we feel like the zoo animals that the wildlife watches!
The tufted-eared Abert's squirrels must eat Ponderosa Pine seeds to survive, and these pines flourish in a fairly narrow range of elevations. Thus, people worry the 'flatlander' Fox Squirrels, who are flexible enough to live almost anywhere including the city, could threaten the survival of the Abert's squirrels by dominating their habitat. I hope not.

This morning, the air hung thick with moisture. Riding through the forest felt almost like riding through a thick and heavy cloud of water. I could barely make out the forms of the catkin-laden aspen trees.Over the warmth of the past week, spiders have busily knitted webs on the bushes. In today's subfreezing fog, the frosty fog clung to the webs, causing them to stand out like blooming flowers. In fact, the sparkly webs highlighted the first signs of baby green leaves on the shrubs.A closer look at the web showed the frost droplets outlined the thickest parts of the web but many finer threads intricately wove it together.
Today was the first day that K and I ventured onto the trails for mountain biking since our monster snow storm. The temperature dropped below freezing last night, making the snow slightly easier to negotiate without crashing. K seemed thrilled to be out together and stayed very close. In the photo below, she's peeking up at me from under my 'pogie' - a large insulated and water-resistant mitt that encloses my hand and the handlebar.I tried out a new piece of equipment today - a Golite rain jacket. The weather today was classic hypothermia weather for a bike rider. Even though it wasn't actively raining most of the time, my outer layer rapidly became soaked as I whooshed through the water-laden air. I've never had a real rain jacket for biking - and this new one is worth its weight in gold. The rain didn't get through my jacket but I didn't get clammy and sweaty when I worked hard. The perfect combination. And, it weighs only 250 grams and only cost me $40 at their semi-annual sale.

The new jacket also protected me against the attack of the killer wet pine needles hanging across the trails. Without a good jacket, brushing up against these frosty wet needles soaks me to the skin and then freezes me to the bone.After I dropped off K, I passed through some varied terrain, including a snow-melt swollen stream. The huge water-laden snow dump of last weekend followed by sun-soaked days has changed our creeks from trickles to torrents. The bushes lining the creek edge have turned red - another sign of spring on this freezing day!
And, within a quarter mile of the stream, I spotted some Prickly Pear Cacti, one of which had an eye-catching red crown. From a distance, I thought that the pear cactus might be blooming but I've learned that they don't bloom for another month or so.Up close, it looked like an odd red-orange crown. My books say that it's a left-over fruit from last year. People and wild animals eat the fruits, albeit very carefully to avoid the spines protecting them!The day's dimness, in some ways, matched my energy and mood. I'm feeling run-down, heavy-legged, and heavy-hearted with the stress of S's cancer - and those stresses make my own health issues seem worse. However, pedaling my bike through the beauty of nature with my joyful K almost always lifts my spirits and helps my spine pain. So, despite the atrocious conditions, I rode my bike in the forest with my beloved K today, and it made me happier.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dog life and spring wildlife

Yesterday evening, we decided to try hiking on the parts of our trails where the snow was the thinnest to see if S could handle it. S trucked along, looking very pleased to be out with his pack. And, we felt grateful to have him with us after almost a week's hiatus from the trails for him due to deep snow.

S's hind end is getting noticeably weaker, despite the steroids that he's been taking for almost 2 weeks. His cancerous lymph nodes deep in his abdomen may be causing it by reducing the blood flow to his hind legs. We're hoping, however, that the setback was partly caused by too much exertion in the deep snow - and that he'll rebound now that he can walk easily on our trails again. Only time will tell. For the moment, I'll simply enjoy having S with us on our evening hikes.

I've been trying to spare everyone my daily ruminations on S's cancer, as I know that some of you have endured this odyssey in your own lives and might not want to have it replayed for you. I find myself closely watching him each day and putting far more significance on every nuance than I should. One day, I think that he's losing the battle quickly, and the next day, I think that he might be with us through the summer. I had a good talk with my vet last night. The bottom line is that we don't know and we can't control it - all we can do is take each day as it comes and be grateful for each one. Some days I'm better at that dance than other days.

During yesterday evening's hike, we saw that some patches of dirt had emerged from beneath the original 4.5' of snow. Amazingly, a couple of blooming Pasqueflowers stubbornly persisted despite their week-long snow burial. The blossoms looked a bit worn and tired, as if the effort of surviving almost depleted them. Knowing these tough little flowers, they'll be rejuvenated after a few days in the sun.
Then, the five of us watched the sun fall behind a shadowy curtain of gray clouds over the Divide. Actually, I don't think that the dogs noticed the visual show - they were focused on the wildlife scents wafting down the hillside next to us. This morning, to my delight, I heard the wing trill of a male hummingbird near our deck. He spotted our feeder and zipped in for some food. Have you noticed that hummingbirds either hover in place or zoom at mach speed? Studies show that Broad-tailed hummingbirds zip around at speeds of 18-29 mph and almost never use slower speeds. Moreover, their wings flap at an incredible 40 times per second during forward flight and 50 times per second during hovering. Imagine how many calories they must burn as they migrate from Central America to the Rocky Mountains. They feast prior to migration, gaining as much as 40% in body weight as extra fuel. It must be a delicate trade-off between the advantage of carrying extra fuel and the disadvantage of the extra calories they burn to haul it over their long distance migration.

Regardless of the physiology behind it, I think that the word 'awesome' is appropriate for describing the feat that these hummingbirds pull off every spring and fall.Wildlife sightings dominated my ride today. Within minutes of leaving the house, I noticed that the Wyoming Ground Squirrels, who stood out like flashing neon signs on the snow just yesterday, now foraged on mostly bare ground. They blend into their environment perfectly when no blanket of snow ruins their cover.Just after seeing the cryptic ground squirrels, I spotted a familiar form moving carefully across the still snowy meadow toward the ground squirrel colony. A lone coyote walked next to a pond with his tawny form reflected in the water.Up until about three weeks ago, I sighted a pair of coyotes in these meadows almost daily. Since then, my rare sightings have been of lone coyotes. I'm wondering if something happened to his mate, if his mate is in the den with a litter of pups, or if this is a non-breeding pack member on solitary hunting expeditions. I think that our blizzard probably presented terrible hunting challenges for the coyotes so I hope that they weren't trying to feed a litter of pups then.

Still within the first 30 minutes of my bike ride, I spotted the elk herd for the first time since the blizzard. The elk huddled in the shade of some trees, with a craggy mountain overlooking them. They obviously found the sun and the 45 degree air temperature to be beastly hot! Every spring, they become heliophobic and rarely leave the shade at the meadow's edge. Later in the summer, the bull elk have an extra cooling mechanism. The velvet on their growing antlers holds a dense labyrinth of blood vessels that can easily dump heat into the surrounding air. Scientists believe that the antler velvet helps keep the bull elk cool - until they shed the velvet shortly before the fall mating season.

After all of my wildlife observations at the start of the ride, I simply enjoyed riding my bike for the rest of my time outside. I tried to access the trails at four different spots but biking was still impossible. Either the slurpy snow was too slippery for my tires or the mud was up to my axles. At the rate that the sun is melting the snow and drying the world, it shouldn't be too long before I'm back in the forest on my bike.