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Monday, November 30, 2009

K's belated birthday adventure in the desert

After spending a couple of hours in an MRI tube today, my brains feel scrambled and my back isn't too happy either. But, I want to start the story of our trip, and I'll continue it in the coming days.

Last weekend, we started on the east side of the Continental Divide at about 8000' in our snowy world. We drove up a couple of thousand feet, across the arctic world of the Divide, and down the Western Slope. As we descended toward Colorado's western border and the Colorado Plateau, the snow thinned and finally almost disappeared. The mountains seemed stunted compared to the alpine wonderland we'd just traversed but many of them glowed red, like fiery rock monuments.

We descended to about 5000' elevation next to the mighty Colorado River. The raging river shaped the land over millions of years, leaving sculpted rocks and cliffs. We arrived at our destination near the town of Fruita after dark. Our first sight upon awakening was a polished smooth cone of honey colored rock, towering as high as a two-story building and surrounded by juniper trees.
In the uncluttered desert-like world, the temperature had plummeted after sunset, reaching around 20 degrees, and then soared as the first sun rays reached our campsite. Most days, the air reached a comfortable 45-50 degrees by late morning. We stayed warm overnight thanks to our comfortable Sportsmobile van with a recently installed heater. I love the heater! Yes, I'm getting soft in my middle years...
On our first day, my back felt horrendous after the several hour drive the day before. However, I reminded myself that riding is almost always the best remedy, and it proved to be true again. Riding works far better than any of the prescription medications that my docs advocate.

K ran and I pedaled up a sinuous path toward the White Rim Trail in Rabbit Valley. I planned to take K for a short ride and then leave her in camp with the rest of the pack. However, she emanated energy and happiness to such an extent that I couldn't possibly leave her behind for part of the ride.
So, I decided that ride would be her special birthday adventure. We missed our yearly special outing on her birthday this year due to her pancreatitis. We had a blast on her belated birthday ride. We didn't see another soul and explored starkly striking terrain. At one point, I literally started laughing out loud as I rode. I felt so happy - on top of the world with my favorite riding partner. What a day!

Our trail followed the rim of a cliff with spectacular views down into the plateau containing the Colorado River.
Over millions of years, raging waters have shaped a maze of rock cones just below the overhanging cliff. Our trail followed the cliff above the cones in the photo below.
Parts of the trail followed the cliff's edge while others meandered onto red dusty soil inland from the rim. The trail wove among gargantuan boulders that, in the midst of rumbling and tumbling down the cliff, haphazardly stopped on the edge of the abyss eons ago.
These precariously perched monsters reminded me that our world is still changing. No doubt, they'll teeter and fall off the cliff when they're next disturbed. The volkswagon sized boulder shown below, with hollowed out caves like eye sockets, hung on the rim of the cliff. Somehow, I don't know how, friction is still winning the fight with gravity, holding that boulder on the edge of a several hundred foot fall.
After a blissful ride, K and I headed to our next campsite overlooking the Colorado River.
We continued to enjoy utter solitude. Over the entire day, we spotted only a few other people in this usually extremely popular area. K snoozed in the sun on the cushioned dog bed, contentedly tired and happy after our ride.
Toward sunset, we walked along the rim overlooking the river. Young and boisterous R remained leashed. If a rodent skittered over the edge, we feared that he'd follow!
The photo above also shows that it snowed in the days leading up to our visit. In the gullies on north-facing slopes, the sight of snow surprised me every time.

In the evening, we watched the sun set over the river next to a campfire. A coyote howled again and again. Based on his canine song, we could tell that he moved speedily along the opposite rim of a side canyon. We felt lucky that this wonderland was our private paradise for a day.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bustling with wildlife

Over the past week, we visited extraordinarily different landscapes, from the sandstone canyons of western Colorado, to the red rock vertical canyons of Moab, and finally to the snowy winterland of the western slope of the Continental Divide.

Here's a photo of K in Moab, next to a red rock wall with the moon rising over it.
I plan to write about those adventures in the coming days. However, first, I wanted to share the photos that I captured with my infrared wildlife camera (Bushnell Trophy) that I set up next to a boulder outcropping that overlooks a meadow. Over the years, I've noticed fresh carnivore scat in this spot regularly. I set up the camera a little more than a week ago. The photo below shows the spot the camera is focused on but no animals.
A bobcat visited this boulder on the second night that the camera was in place. I believed that it was fresh bobcat scat that I saw regularly, and my guess was confirmed. Notice that, with an IR camera, the nighttime photos are black and white. Moreover, despite the dim red light emitted by the camera, the cat's eyes shine brightly.Here's a zoomed in view of the cat.
The next morning, in the rosy hue of sunrise, a coyote couple visited the same spot.
They stayed long enough for a few photos, sniffing the ground carefully. I wonder if they smell the bobcat. My research has revealed that coyotes hunt and eat bobcats. However, that seems like a very tough meal for a coyote!
Below, one coyote departed but the sleepy one moved more slowly. He yawned before heading down to the meadow. Throughout our vacation, a pair of coyotes visited the area under our birdfeeding station nightly. I wonder if this pair is the same - I suspect so.
A few nights later, a tasty meal for either a bobcat or a coyote visited the same spot.
He headed directly for the hole at the bottom of the boulder. He's barely visible in the photo below as his head was already in the hole.
A slightly zoomed view shows that he did head for the hole. In the next photo taken 8 seconds later, he'd disappeared into the hole. This camera automatically takes three photos at 8 second intervals when triggered.
The rabbit didn't reappear so I suspect that he used an alternative escape hatch from this burrow.

All in all, the first week of having my IR camera in the field was a huge success! A bobcat, coyotes, a rabbit, and a squirrel (not shown) all visited this spot. I'm going to keep the camera there a bit longer to see who else shows up!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sleepwalking bear

K and I rolled out for a peaceful ride on the snowy trails. She did some recalls, showing her polite tongue flick just before arriving at my feet, forewarning me that, although she was barging directly at me, she meant no harm.
The blue skies and snowy mountains awed me.
After riding with K, I heard a rumor that a north-facing remote trail had been packed down by an ATV. Sure enough, this usually impassable trail was ready for my snow bike!
I rolled easily along in the ATV tracks, enjoying the mountain views out to my west and scanning for animal tracks. This route is a favorite of cats, deer, and bear.

Suddenly, in the middle of the two tire tracks, I saw what initially looked like human boot tracks.
As I tried to ride while looking at the tracks, I noted that it looked like a four-legged animal had made them.
Then, the identity of the tracks became undeniable when I noticed claws protruding from some of the tracks.
No doubt, a very sleepy black bear walked this trail in the last few days. Bears do not truly hibernate. In other words, they don't allow their core body temperature to fall as low as the air temperature. Although they sleep for most of the winter, they awaken often, to toss and turn in the den or to go out for an amble. I suspect that this bear has already hibernated for at least a month but decided to go for a walk recently. Some scientists think that these short ambles play a key role in preventing the bear from losing too much muscle and bone mass despite lying still for close to 6 months.

Today, I followed the bear tracks for about a mile. No food, except an occasional rose hip, was available along the trail, and the bear left no scat. I doubt that he ate a thing. Rather, he just walked, enjoying a pretty winter day.

I've always thought that the north-facing slope that I traversed would be perfect for bear hibernation. It's rough and tumble terrain so it gets little traffic. Moreover, it builds up snow all winter long. Only a few sections of the trail ever see the sun from November through February. Building up a snow layer helps insulate a sleeping bear. Seeing those tracks today strengthens my view that it's a favorite denning spot for our ursines.

After exploring a snowy slope today, I'm heading off to the high desert for a camping trip. I'll be far from any internet connection so this blog will be on vacation!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Winter and wildlife

Twenty degrees and no clouds in the sky - a perfect day for a snow bike ride! K and I vanished into the forest early, and explored our territory. Our network of trails has gradually expanded as we've packed down the snow on more of them and as the sun has done its work. K found a dirt patch to stand in rising rays of the sun this morning.We rode directly to a lookout and gazed westward at our mountains, towering up into the endless blue sky. I could lose myself in this view every day.I rolled a little further out onto the lookout point and glanced at the ski area slopes. The resort opened today - but, for now, my decision is that I won't be dancing and gliding down the slopes on my telemark skis. I think that the dangers are too great for the fragile state of my spine.I remember the day before my fusion surgery years ago. I went telemark skiing all day long as a last hurrah. As I wistfully departed at the end of the day, I promised myself that I'd be back someday. That's one promise that I might end up breaking.

After that wave of morose thoughts, I looked back toward the east, and I saw K standing guard over me next to my snow bike. The sun rose behind her. No matter what - I have many things in my life to be thankful for. Indeed, I have a deluge of good things raining down on me. I decided to focus on them.
You might wonder why I think that riding a bike in snow is safer than downhill skiing. It's mostly about the number of hours that I've spent honing my biking skills and judgment. Those bike hours dwarf my downhill telemark skiing hours. It's also that skiing at a resort involves trusting that other people won't bombard recklessly into me. The bottom line is that I don't trust 'em! Finally, skiing routinely involves lots of spine twisting and biking doesn't. That last factor means that biking stresses my spine much less than telemark skiing.

After pedaling away from the lookout point, K and I churned over the frozen snow, moving silently through the forest except for the crunch of the snow crust under my wheels. We fell into that wonderful meditative zone, where physical effort lets the mind float free. It feels to me like I stop being a separate entity from the rest of the world when I settle into this mind state. I unconsciously monitor K's whereabouts, notice tracks, and scan for animals as I pedal. But, I do little else.

After seeing countless deer and coyote tracks, K and I stopped at another nice vista. I propped my bike, and she hopped on a boulder. It looked, just for a second, like she planned to ride away on my bike!
I dropped K at home, and I kept riding the snowbike. I was the first human to trample a favorite trail of mine. However, elk, deer, and a bobcat had walked purposefully along the trail. This trail never fails to harbor bobcat tracks, and I've become oddly attached to this bobcat! But, today, he had left a patch of bloody urine so I'm worried about him. It's a tough life for a wild animal. A urinary track infection could kill him while we and our pets can get antibiotics to cure it. I'll keep watching for his tracks with my fingers crossed.

Below, you can see that although no people have used this trail since the snow, plenty of forest dwellers have!
My Fatback snow bike makes me feel like I have super powers. To my amazement, I was able to churn along this trail almost the whole way. I stalled only briefly when the snow deepened and the pitch turned upward.
In addition to the solitude and quiet, my reward was a wonderful view.
After arriving home, I checked our motion-sensitive wildlife camera outside the house, and a coyote had made a lengthy visit last night. I'm truly starting to wonder if our infrared camera, now posted out in the forest but previously posted next to our other wildlife camera, somehow scared the coyotes away. The true test will be if I return the infrared camera to our yard and the coyotes flee again... but after spending a long time setting up the IR camera in the forest, I hesitate to do that. Perhaps I'll do that test if no animals show up near the IR camera in the forest.

I liked this particular photo (out of 60 taken) because the coyote appears to have used a 'calming signal'. Among dogs, lifting a paw is a way to tell other dogs to chill out. I wonder if the coyote was telling others in his pack to relax.
The infrared camera is in theory the camera that causes wildlife less stress, and it is now pointed at a rocky spot where bobcat scat appears regularly. It's at the base of a pile of boulders on an east-facing slope above a meadow.
I sincerely hope that the camera doesn't somehow scare away the animals who have used this site for years, based on my observations. I'll keep you posted. My goal now is *not* to check the IR camera for at least a week so that my scent doesn't deter animals from visiting. So, the updates won't be too frequent. This hobby takes patience, and patience is not my strong suit!

I could learn a thing or two about patience from my Labs who are now waiting like silent saints for me to take them for a hike!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

K and I meet the pack on the trails

K and I rolled out early again today after yesterday's ride reminded me of how I love snow biking when the snowpack is still frozen solid early in the morning. In the photo below, if you zoom in, you can see that K is wriggling on her back on the trail just as it curves to the right. I guess that another advantage to early morning riding is that the snow feels good on her back!
The color of K's fur in the morning light melts my heart.
We stopped to gaze at the mountains. My favorite snowy weather lookout sits directly on a lion path where I saw tracks multiple times last winter. Today, just after I captured the photo below, I heard what I thought was growling coming from a wall of boulders. K, who uncharacteristically hovered within a foot of me, turned and started growling back at the boulders. I decided that it was time to move onto someplace else in the forest but at least we'd glimpsed the mountains!
Snowbiking is not a fast mode of transport until the trails get perfectly packed - and they haven't achieved that nirvana state yet. Since our latest snow, K has seemed confused about why I'm not going as fast as usual. So, she gallops ahead, and then has favorite 'rest stops' to wait for me.
This morning, we ran into the pack of seven dogs and their human. Their pack is comprised of a clear-cut alpha dog, mostly German Shepherd, who I'll call the "Enforcer". The others are a Shelti, and five miniature dachshunds (who I'll call the "Littles"). Their human, a friendly neighbor, took some photos of me and the dogs interacting. Some of her dogs were distracted by something in the forest and don't appear in any photos. However, the others were focused on me and K.

Below, we just met a minute before. I'm trying to calm the "Littles" who bark in a frenzy, and sometimes yelp as if they're being hurt, until they make friends with me. I need to reestablish our friendship each time we meet to quiet them. At this instant, I wasn't aware that the Enforcer was sitting behind my bike with her eye on K, who is skulking to the left of my bike. K's body language says that she's not comfortable with the situation.
A few seconds later, the Enforcer has moved very close to the back of my bike and K is trying to crawl underneath it either to get closer to me or to use the bike as a barrier.
I feel kind of silly that I was oblivious to K's consternation until she wriggled under my bike to get away from the Enforcer who was now on the opposite side of my bike, where K had been just seconds before.
Finally, the Enforcer decided to march around to K's side of my bike. K lowered her body, didn't look at the Enforcer, leaned on my leg, and started biting at the snow - likely a 'displacement' activity to release nervous energy. The posture adopted by the Enforcer in the photo below makes me nervous. It looks like she's ready to pounce on K, and believe me, she doesn't play with K. Rather, she puts K in her place. However, nothing happened today. K seems to have figured out how to be sufficiently submissive to keep the Enforcer from attacking. I should add that the Enforcer has never hurt K physically, even when she has pounced on K while making growling noises.
This encounter ended with no altercations. But, with photos taken by someone else, I can see how stressful these meetings are for K. I think that the sheer number of dogs in the running pack makes a solo dog feel vulnerable.

After K and I had ridden our local trail network to our hearts' content, I dropped her off and switched to my ice bike with extreme studded tires on it. It turned out to be a bad choice because many trails along our road looked worth trying to ride on my snow bike - but I knew that I shouldn't even try to ride them on the relatively skinny tires on my ice bike. Oh well.

One good thing came out of riding on the roads. I passed my friend's horse standing in her meadow, and I saw that a utility wire had fallen from the poles. It lay curled and coiled in the meadow snow, about 25 yards from the horse. I immediately went to find my friend who lives a short distance from her horses. She wasn't home but I found a neighbor who knew how to move the horse to a small safe area and called the utility company. I was glad that I passed the scene when I did!

On a final note, a coyote has visited on a couple of nights in the past week. On one occasion several nights ago, the infrared wildlife camera picked up his image but our regular one did not. Notice that despite the very soft red light used to take this night-time photo, the coyote still has eye-shine. That fact made me wonder if it seems brighter to him than to me. I took my own photo with it - and I don't get red eye or eye shine.
Then, two nights ago, I'd just brought in the infrared camera to ready it for the field, and a coyote visited. Our wildlife camera with a regular incandescent flash caught his photo. What a luxurious coat! His eye shine doesn't look any more intense with the blinding incandescent flash, making me wonder even more if the infrared camera is indeed less disconcerting to an animal than the regular camera. I bought the IR camera specifically to reduce my impact on the animals.
I'm moving the infrared camera to near the entrance to a bobcat hide-out. It's under a boulder on an east-facing slope just above a meadow. I find bobcat scat there every time I check. I've learned that coyotes attack and eat bobcats and not vice-versa, much to my surprise. So, our regular coyote visitors outside our house likely deter bobcat visitors (I've captured only one bobcat photo by our house in six months despite regular sightings by my neighbors). I hope to get a bobcat photo out in the field!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sunrise ride and dog training class

Today, we rolled onto the firmly packed trails early, just as first sun rays filtered over the eastern horizon. The sunrise embued the snowy mountains with an otherworldly aura.
The melted and then refrozen snow formed intricate sculptures around tall golden grass, flattened juniper shrubs, and pine saplings. The long shadows embellished the alien moonscape and allowed me to take a photo of me and K without using my camera's timer.
K's fur glowed in the sunrise, looking like rich milk chocolate.
By the end of our ride, the sun glowed high above the hills to our east, and another bluebird day had emerged.
After our ride, K and I went to drop-in dog training class, held at a dog park about 3000' below my home. The transformation in the world as I dropped in altitude on our wall-like road astonished me. It's commonly said that for every 1000' loss in elevation, autumn-winter is 10 days behind. By that logic, the season today at the mile-high elevation of dog training class was the same as a month ago at my home. Moreover, under normal climactic conditions, the temperature rises by 5.8°F for every 1000 ft of elevation lost. And, as that rule predicts, it was 15-20 degrees warmer down at dog training class than at home.

As you can see in the photo below, brown grass, rather than snow, predominated in the foothills behind our dog class site.
K behaved confidently for most of class, after she quashed her pre-class hyperactivity. During the opening play session, she rarely hovered next to me. Clinging to me is her modus operendi when she's nervous. We knew only a couple of dogs in class today but, in the photo below, she took the initiative to meet some of the rowdy puppies.
Looking at the photo above, K's usual demeanor with other dogs is obvious. Her body, head, and tail are lowered. She wags her tail widely back and forth, just a bit below horizontal. She never approaches another dog's head straight on, but comes in from the side or back. Her body language constantly broadcasts that she's not a threat and is willing to appease the new dogs if needed.

Interestingly, when K and R recently met our local dog pack of seven running with their human, the 'enforcer' of the pack, a German Shepherd, approached R as if she meant to establish who was boss. Despite K's long-lasting fears of the enforcer, she body-blocked for R, stepping between him and the GSD. That diffused the situation, and R has been much less fearful around the pack than he used to be. The surprising aspect of the story was K's courage relative to how skittish she tends to be around assertive dogs. Although she didn't take an aggressive stance, she moved into a position to block for her brother.

We ended class working on down-stays. At first, I kept K on the outside of the group, where she could monitor everyone's activity. When she's in her 'nervous' mode, she breaks out of down-stays if she can't see all the other dogs. However, today, she calmly acted like the dozen dogs and their humans didn't faze her. So, I tried moving her to the middle of the pavilion and then gradually worked myself away from her. Each time she let me step a little further away, I returned and rewarded her. By the end, I could chat with another handler at a distance while K lay by herself. Although K's eyes stayed glued on me, she stuck like velcro to the ground and showed no distress. Way to go, Girl!
After reading about the trials and tribulations of other dogs with fear issues, I feel lucky, in an odd way, that her sporadic fear problems are medically based. When her thyroid levels dip too low, it causes her to be fearful and unpredictable. And, over the summer, her smoldering chronic pancreatitis probably contributed to the crazy swings in her behavior. By controlling both of those medical problems, we seem to have reached calm seas for the moment. Let's stay there!

I have a new challenge ahead of me. I want to start taking R to training class on alternate weeks. However, I feel like I'll break K's heart. She loves going (when she's feeling well), and she's my special girl. But, I'd like to learn to work as a tighter team with R, for those days when he joins us on our morning mountain bike ride. Today was going to be R's first day... but I chickened out when I looked at K's face. Has anyone else faced this dilemma? Any advice?

Although I enjoy dog training class every time (it's the fastest-passing hour of the week because I become so focused on working with K), I'm always glad to flee the bustle of the city and glide down our driveway into the peaceful forest. Even though it's a chilly winter day up here and a warm autumn day down there, I'm happiest up here in the thin air where I can gaze at the alpenglow over the mountains every morning if I want to.