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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Peace

We let S go yesterday. It was time. Life had become more struggle than sweetness for him. The battle had exhausted every last ounce of energy in his body. He needed to rise above his failing body and find peace.

Tears are streaming as I write this. Writing it in black and white makes his death more real. Missing him literally hurts somewhere deep in my chest and there's a gaping hole in my soul.

Yesterday morning, he soaked up the sun on our deck one last time, next to his sister, K. What an amazing big brother he was for K.
As a young dog, fearful K looked to S for guidance about how to cope with her demons, like her fear of certain corners of the house. S taught her with his steady and happy character. He also played with her light-heartedly.Cancer's insidious assault on S's body stole precious parts of him, one by one. A couple of weeks ago, the disease zapped the energy that he needed for a long-term ritual that I loved. When he and my husband woke up in the morning, they'd walk past my side of the bed, and S would snuzzle my sleeping face as he passed. He first did it years ago seemingly as a lark but my giggling response encouraged him to snuzzle me every day. What a wonderful wake-up reminder!

Another ritual stopped a little earlier. S loved his morning and evening hikes on the trails behind our house. He'd anticipate the evening hike for hours, shadowing my movements to make sure that I wouldn't forget to take him. Then, as we made final preparations for the hike, I'd reach for his collar to attach his bells. Every time, as I reached, he'd do a spin, a simple expression of joy. I had an inkling that his 'spin ritual' might become too tough for him, and I recorded one of the last times that he did it. My videography isn't good but it captures the spirit of S's spin.

video

Today, although I've been shedding tears on and off, I've seen S in every beautiful detail of nature. K and I went for a mountain bike ride, and the flowers in the meadow shouted with life. Nature marches on.When I took a closer look, the intricate details astonished me. Our meadow is a mosaic of green, blue, and yellow. I took the photo, and I cried with K licking my face. I wish that S could be by my side and healthy for this summer.
Later, a glorious view met me: flowers in the foreground, green aspens next to the trail, and snowy mountains in the distance.
As I gazed at the amazing beauty, my main thought was that I was so glad that S lived in this nourishing and invigorating place. And, I felt grateful that he loved us and let us love him.After my first dog died, many years ago, I initially thought that I'd never let another dog touch my soul because the parting hurt too much. But, after a while, I realized the folly of that thinking. I would have never known the joy and love given to me by S and my other beloved dogs. A song by Kate Wolf sums up my feelings about opening up to a dog's love.

Give yourself to love. By Kate Wolf.

Kind friends all gathered 'round, there's something I would say:
That what brings us together here has blessed us all today.
Love has made a circle that holds us all inside;
Where strangers are as family, loneliness can't hide.

You must give yourself to love if love is what you're after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.

I've walked these mountains in the rain and learned to love the wind;
I've been up before the sunrise to watch the day begin.
I always knew I'd find you, though I never did know how;
Like sunshine on a cloudy day, you stand before me now.

So give yourself to love if love is what you're after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.

Love is born in fire; it's planted like a seed.
Love can't give you everything, but it gives you what you need.
And love comes when you're ready, love comes when you're afraid;
It'll be your greatest teacher, the best friend you have made.

So give yourself to love if love is what you're after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Bear magnet and looming clouds

I'm having a tough day today, contemplating the most difficult decision of them all. But, as always, I went out for a spin on my bike. It soothes my soul to spend time in the peacefulness of the wilderness.

I started my mountain bike ride with my pup, K, and we gave S a frozen kong before we departed. Even now, he dives in and devours these treats!
K is a sensitive dog who seems to intuit my feelings. She stayed close today, acting like my guardian angel. We rode a technical trail, and I hammered as fast as is possible on such a rough trail, feeling the spark in my legs that was burned out yesterday. As we followed the sinuous and rocky path along a hillside, we traversed pine forests, aspen groves, and finally reached a big meadow. This meadow overslept this spring. Whereas most of the local meadows awakened weeks ago, this hillside meadow only now looks like a living and growing organism.
After dropping off K, I took a fairly non-technical route that also goes through prime wildlife habitat. The first wildlife that I saw was a large group of campers surrounded by several police cars and other official vehicles. I skirted the conflagration as it didn't look pleasant. However, I am glad that the officials are finally taking the abuses by campers seriously, as it's an area that's been degraded heinously by uncaring beer-fueled campers for years.

About a half mile later, I spun my pedals rapidly to climb a wall-like rise, and just as I reached the summit, I spotted a black bear, huge and close, on the trail. I stopped to let her flee because the steep hill had blocked her view of me until I was within her 'safe' space. But, she acted like a good wild black bear, and lumbered into the forest, stopping about 20 yards into the stand of pines. I snapped a few photos as she stood statuesque.
I never saw a cub so I'm not absolutely sure that this is the same bear who I saw a week ago. However, this spot is within a mile, as the crow flies, of where I saw the sow and cub.

During the few moments that she stood still, I noted her shiny long fur, big claws, and powerful build. She looked healthy. She then galloped deeper into the pine forest, out of my sight. I scanned everywhere, including the treetops, for the cubs before riding on. I always worry about angering a sow by getting too close to her young but I never felt afraid today.

I think that I must be a 'bear magnet' this year - I don't usually spot bears in the wilderness so frequently. I love seeing them so I'm not complaining!

I'm in a worrying mood - so I have to admit that I contemplated whether the absence of cubs was related to the nearby police activity. I sure hope not.

I headed down to the creek-side gulch where I spotted the bear last week. I rode hard, until my breathing and heart seemed so loud that I wouldn't have heard if a rockslide had started above me. It felt cleansing to burn off some of my anxious emotion and to feel the power flowing from my legs.

On a whim, I took a sharp turn and rode a trail that steeply climbs the north face of the gulch to a beautiful meadow. Officials closed this area to motorized traffic a few years ago, and nature is healing the wounds left by ATVs and jeeps. The double-track below was a deeply rutted road and now is like a pair of parallel foot paths. The elk clearly love the closure. Their tracks pocked the meadow everywhere I scanned.
Back down at the gulch, I spotted a favorite flower. It looks so papery delicate that it's hard to believe that it can survive our storms. The photo shows a side-view that emphasizes how the stamens and pistil jut out so prominently from this Stemless Evening Primrose (Oenothera caespitosa). I believe that the 'T' shaped structures are the male stamens, topped with pollen-producing anthers. The unique filament topped with four yellowish and sticky-looking branches is the pistil (far right of photo). Primarily moths pollinate these blossoms, moving the pollen from the anthers to the pistil. I must add, however, that I'm finding that almost no flowers fit the 'typical' anatomical drawings so I could be mistaken in my explanation. If anyone can help, please do!
What appeared to be the same plant had both white and pink flowers. The petals of the pink beauties weren't opened wide. According to guidebooks, the pink flowers are probably the elder ones on the plant.
After checking out the flowers while keeping a careful eye on my back after my 'bold bobcat' experience the other day, I spun home. The mountains had metamorphosed from the placid snowy oases (shown below) that K and I rode past early this morning.
When I passed them on my way home, storm clouds loomed over the Divide. This dramatic metamorphosis occurs almost daily in the summer. As a 'cloudophile', I think it's beautiful. But, today in particular, the tumultuous and scary skies seemed to symbolize the anguish that we're feeling over what's looming so close.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Brief escape of a bike ride

Today, I needed a mellow bike ride to escape reality. It worked, until I arrived home, and remembered what I'd been escaping. Some days, the feeling of freedom from a bike ride lasts for hours, and on other days, it abruptly vanishes as I walk through the door.

I'm feeling sad about S, as we watch the cancer take its toll and know that the end is drawing near. In the midst of the sadness, I've felt like S has been reaching out to showing me his love. S is an independent dog, who likes being petted and hugged, but only briefly. He doesn't seek lavish attention and isn't ecstatic when he gets it. The past two evenings, just before I climbed into bed, S followed my face with his deep brown eyes, and I felt certain that his eyes radiated love. Both times, I snuggled with him, and he seemed more content with my closeness than ever before. That's a gift.

I felt particularly lucky to have K with me during our mountain bike ride today. No matter what, she and I get only a limited number of days on this Earth, and I don't plan to squander them. My legs felt tired, lacking any spark, so I decided to simply enjoy the spring day at a slow pace. We rolled through a wet pine forest amidst the sweet scent of sun-warmed pine duff. At the transition to an aspen forest, the piercingly bright combination of white tree trunks, dark green leaves, and deep blue sky became our entire world.
I've vowed to climb to one new lookout spot or explore an uncharted section of forest frequently this summer. It's too easy to fall into ruts, riding the same trails each day and never bothering to explore the new territory that's literally next to the well-traveled path. Today, I propped my bike against a tree and climbed a big pile of boulders that blocked our view to the west.
K leaped from rock-to-rock and stopped for a stretch on her way to the view point.
At the top, a small fortress had naturally emerged with boulders surrounding a small sandy pit. It looked like an ideal spot for an animal to relax during the day, completely invisible, but I didn't see any obvious wildlife signs. It also looked like a great spot for a small tent, assuming no lightning storms arrived. The view was stupendous.At the next intersection, we detected a vague trace of a trail and followed it. It led to a logged area, where aspens and shrubs are flourishing, and the plowed down pine forest has created views.
We kept taking right turns, hoping to make a new loop from this almost non-existent, and at times undetectable, path. Alas, my lack of an internal compass left my head spinning when we entered a dense pine forest. I turned around, following my tracks out and vowed to bring my GPS next time. I think a nice, previously undiscovered by me, loop might exist in this forest.

We took an aspen-dominated trail toward home, and soaked up the beauty.After I dropped off K, I continued my leisurely pace, enjoying the sun and warmth. After riding a ridge, with a sea of white, yellow, and purple flowers lining the trail, I dropped down into a dense pine forest, and to my surprise, I saw another mountain biker. He's someone I've wanted to meet for years, as I've heard other local mountain bikers mention him. What a nice guy - we talked about neighborhood trail issues, the unique mountain mindset, and laughed a lot.

After emerging from a long conversation in the pine forest, I discovered that I had a race on my hands. Towering cumulus clouds had accumulated on the western horizon, foretelling lightning storms. Racing thunder storms provides me with 'speed workouts' every summer.Today, I won the race, but only by seconds, arriving home just as the first thunder rumbled. My trifecta of wonderful labradors awaited me, giving me the hero's welcome that I always enjoy. They reminded me of how lucky I am to be loved by each of them but also reminded me of the well of sadness deep in my heart.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bold bobcat

This morning, I pedaled purposefully up steep rocky trails to a gorgeous view with the deepening green aspen leaves, a new coat of snow on the mountains, and a clear blue sky. I stopped and hugged K, my inspiration to hurry out the door many mornings.
Shortly after our visit to Hug Hill, we rolled past the bear-plundered stump that I wrote about yesterday. The animal scene had transformed. A new, larger, and aggressive species of ant had attacked the orange ants who'd been trying to salvage their nest and larvae yesterday. The large brown ants swarmed over the area, covering almost every square inch of the stump and the forest floor surrounding it. Some orange ants valiantly defended their nest. However, when a big brown ant honed in on an orange one, the fight lasted only seconds. Then, the brown ants carried the dead orange ants away.
An hour later, when I passed the stump again, the brown ants had vanquished the orange ants. Now, I understand why the orange ants worked so feverishly yesterday trying to hide away their larvae and burrow a nest further under the stump. Maybe their furious efforts saved part of the colony.

Early this morning, as I watched the ants and snapped a few photos, K took care of her self-appointed job of covering my back. Later in this ride, when K wasn't with me, I had an animal pass close behind me, demonstrating how valuable her protection is.
After I dropped off K, I rolled through a meadow and spotted a Yellow-Bellied Marmot sunning himself on a boulder. As I watched, a second marmot climbed from below the rocks to lie on an adjacent boulder. Marmots are huge rodents, up to 11 lbs in weight, who live in rock outcroppings. They dig extensive dens under the rocks and spend 80% of their lives underground. Much of that subterranean time is during hibernation which comprises about 60% of the year. Our elevation is about as low as marmots live. They prefer eking out an existence in the tough conditions of the alpine tundra. On the tundra, they seem to line the trails, whistling shrilly and standing tall to look at passing hikers. Today, they lazed in the sun, unconcerned with the mountain biker photographing them.
After passing the marmots, I crossed a stream that's running faster and deeper than I've ever seen it and then climbed up to a favorite ridge. New wildflowers caught my eye, and I carefully scanned the area for bears or other animals before photographing them. I haven't been able to identify the first yellow flower that I photographed but my current best guess is a Bladderpod.
The leaves and buds of the Leafy Cinquefoil (Drymocallis fissa) covered the meadow next to the trail, and I spotted one flower that had dared to open. Later, these yellow flowers will cover our meadows, making a beautiful golden carpet.
As I photographed the cinquefoil in the transition zone between a meadow and a dense forest, a brownish form moved in my peripheral vision. I startled, jumped up, and saw a powerful cat saunter across the trail about 15 yards away. Having been so absorbed in the flowers, my first reaction was a jolt of terror, until I did a quick inventory of his smallish size, mottled body color, and short tail. I realized, with a flood of relief, that he was a bobcat and not a mountain lion.

Despite that conclusion, he still scared me more than I would've expected. Up close, I could see his carnivorous face, with long whiskers and powerful jaws. His body rippled with muscle, like a coiled spring ready to take-off. Based on his heavily muscled hind legs, I wouldn't be surprised if he were capable of jumping 10 ft into the air. But, as he passed me, the bobcat moved with the pride of an animal who believed that he owned the wilderness. He even twitched his short tail like lions do while hunting, showing a flick of white from its underside and then black from its topside. Sadly, my camera was set on 'macro' mode for close-up photos when he surprised me so I have no photos, except of the empty landscape that he'd traversed.

As I rode along the ridge after the bobcat spooked me, I realized that a lion could easily stalk me while I'm absorbed in flowers or other small things like ants. After all, a bobcat walked within 15 yards of me before I noticed him, and he didn't look like he was trying to be sneaky. I think that I'll save my closeup photography for when K is guarding my back.

I pedaled home with an extra keen eye scanning the territory in front of me but, alas, my bobcat had truly vanished. It's amazing to me that such a ferocious and wild animal still flourishes in the remaining wilderness, moving mostly invisibly through our world. I feel lucky to have seen this cat in his true habitat - the wilderness.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bear digging in the mist

K galloped with high energy, enjoying the cool air, and I pedaled lethargically, feeling slightly blue about another day of gray murky fog. At times, the fog seemed to muffle the forest sounds. But, then the flute-like songs of Hermit Thrushes perched high in the pine trees floated down to me, and the world felt like a place of supernatural wonders.

As we rode along a trail with aspen groves on one side and dense conifer forest on the other side, my front wheel almost slipped out from under me. I avoided a crash and then saw that I'd slipped on a slimy piece of rotting wood that had been tossed onto the trail. As I looked more closely, I realized that a black bear had flung it backwards as he dug under a stump for ants.
The bear had used his long and sharp claws to pry off the side of a stump. Then, he'd dug a foot-deep hole under the stump. The debris from his powerful digging strokes spread at least 5 feet from the stump.

The hole teemed with orange, diminutive (3 mm long) ants. Every iota of space bustled with action as this ant colony worked to deal with the disaster that had befallen them. Undoubtedly, the bear ate an unfathomable number of ants. However, two things baffle me. How does an animal as big as a bear get worthwhile fuel from eating tiny ants? And, how does he eat them without getting nasty bites on his lips? The bright color of these ants made me think that they probably stung when they delivered a bite so I kept my fingers and K away from them.
Many of the ants struggled to move white worm-shaped larvae. Ants go through four developmental stages: eggs, larva, pupa, and adult ants. Larva start tiny but grow to the size of an adult ant. Larvae are groomed and fed regurgitated food by adult worker ants - an obvious case of the adults raising the next generation for their colony. When a larva grows to full size, it spins a cocoon around itself (pupal stage) and metamorphoses into an adult ant.

As I watched the flurry of activity, I noticed that the ants were focusing their energy on moving the biggest larvae, perhaps trying to drag them to protected crevices where they could survive despite the 38 degree temperature.
The larvae almost matched the worker ants in size so moving the larvae looked like arduous work. The ants mostly pulled and dragged the larvae across the rough ground, although their destinations weren't obvious. Sometimes, multiple ants worked together to move a larva.
Through all of this, K lay next to my bike looking profoundly anxious. She drooled, a classic sign of anxiety, as she always does near bear scent. However, I felt confident that the bear had passed through many hours earlier based on my observation that the pelting overnight rain had erased his tracks.
When we reached our favorite vista, the mountains had vanished behind the storm clouds. But, the sun weakly burned through the fog, illuminating phantom aspens and pine trees.
Later in my ride, a hummingbird hovered around me, convinced that my purple jacket contained nectar. This cold weather is tough on these tiny high altitude birds, and they need amazing quantities of nectar to fuel their flight and keep them warm. A few minutes later, he found a better source of nectar.
As he hovered, this Broad-tailed Hummingbird drank nectar from a red currant bush with elongate bugle-like pink blossoms.
I enjoyed this touch of summer in a cold and gray ride. Just a bit later, another touch of summer crossed my path. I spotted my first Cordilleran Flycatcher of the spring. These olive-green birds, who subsist on flies that they snag out of thin air, nest under my deck every summer. They migrate, albeit in a leisurely trip, from Mexico to places as far north as Alaska. That's awe-inspiring to this mountain biker who gets tired just crossing her trail network.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Delicate beauties and Little League reminiscence

As I sipped my morning coffee, the cacophony of S and K playing with kibble-dispensing balls dominated. S might be sick - but he cannot resist the allure of a ball filled with treats! He's the sagest of the three dogs about how to extract the ball from tight spots. Neither K nor R has learned by watching him - R barks at stuck toys and K gets too scared to try to reach them.
After nearly a full day of gully-washing rain yesterday, green was the color of the day although the low cloud ceiling gave a dull gray background. K and I rolled through a towering aspen grove as we headed for the high trails. At this time of year, the trails that require sweat and panting to attain them are the only empty ones. That's a contrast to the winter when only a few hardy souls travel any of the trails!
I spotted fluorescent orange clusters on a dwarf juniper bush, so bright that they stood out like a neon flashing sign from 50 yards.
I believe that this intricately constructed fungus is Cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiana). It swells, making itself obvious, in wet conditions - like the last few days.
From our local summit, I saw that fresh snow completely covered the only mountain illuminated in sunlight.
The rest of the towering giants looked as threatening as yesterday, with swirling dark clouds shrouding them but a sliver of blue sky hovering over them.
As I rolled through a mossy pine forest, I spotted about ten delicate orchids, Fairyslippers (Calypso bulbosa), that have just blossomed. From a distance, they're not noticeable. Each plant stands only about 6" tall, with a red stem, a single basal leaf, and a nodding pink flower. But, if you lie on the forest floor to look up at these rare flowers, their beauty is inspiring. They use a 'pollination by deception' technique. They look like flowers that have nectar but produce none. However, their pretty blossoms attract insects seeking nectar who then pollinate the next blossom they visit. Eventually, an insect realizes that none of these flowers have nectar but usually pollinates a few blossoms first.
Incongruously, as I sat in the previously peaceful pine forest enjoying the orchids, a fighter jet zoomed overhead, a sonic reminder of the Memorial Day celebration underway in the city. It made me reminisce about my most traumatic Memorial Day ever - the year that I was the first and only girl in my town's Little League Baseball program - and was supposed to march, in uniform, with my team in the town's parade.

Title IX had forced the uncooperative league to let me join, and Memorial Day was near the the season's end. Over the season, I'd taken heaps of abuse, mostly from fathers, yelling awful things at me as I played 2nd base or batted. I loved playing - so I was willing to endure the nastiness on the field - and, to my surprise, was named to the All-Star Team by the coaches. However, I truly dreaded having to march in our town's Memorial Day parade with my team. I asked my mom if I could get my waist-length hair cut short before the parade to make my gender less obvious from a distance. My mom, as usual, rose to occasion, pointing out how I needed to march proudly for all girls who wanted to play sports - and that the insult-hurling grownups were small-minded people with cold hearts, certainly not worthy of a haircut. As it turned out, although people gawked with surprise at a long-haired girl in a baseball uniform, the long parade passed faster than I expected. In retrospect, I bet that it was one of my mom's proudest days.

Today, I was pulled back to the present when I reached a vista, and storms were collapsing onto me from all sides. The view to the east:
And the view to the west:
Those clouds launched me into time-trial mode in a race to beat the storms home. I passed through parts of the forest where hail clumped in piles next to the trail and mud from a very recent downpour sucked my tires into the ground. But, I outran the storms, arriving home dry and happy.

It seems that the daily thunderstorm part of summer has arrived. Now, please, could the sunny and warm part start?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A cleansing ride

I had a cleansing mountain bike ride today which I'll show you mainly in photos - the wonderous natural world was incredibly photogenic today. What an amazing day of contrasts!

K and I rolled onto the trails under piercingly blue skies and a forest that had become exponentially greener from overnight rains.
I wanted solitude so I pedaled directly up to the highest trails using secret routes. K and I emerged onto Hug Hill to a mosaic of snowy mountains, puffy white clouds, oozing gray fog fronts, and a few threatening dark clouds.
Some peaks glowed in sunlight while others hid behind clouds.
The cloud front seeped along the base of the mountains and some clouds rose up into the craggy wrinkles.
Next, we headed to our favorite secluded trails. We mellowly enjoyed the forest peacefulness and the unique synchronicity that K and I share. It's an amazing feeling, having a dog by my side who acts like she knows me better than I know myself. She's woven herself into the fibers of my heart.
After I dropped off K, the clouds began their sneaky march toward me.
While the sun still warmed my back, I spotted nascent sprouts, maybe 3" tall, with red stems and leaves. If you look carefully at them, they're a natural wonder - so delicate and intricate - yet somehow they pushed up through the dirt toward the sun. These sprouts are the birth of what I believe are Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), an orchid with no chlorophyl. Rather than living by photosynthesis, Coralroots collaborate with fungi to draw energy from the decomposing duff on the forest floor. This energy fuels the growth of beautiful spotted flowers later in the summer.
I pedaled up to a secluded trail where I've never run into anyone else. It's deep in the pine forest with no distant views so I had no idea that a ferocious storm was about to assault me. First it rained and then it hailed. The hail was impetus to seek refuge under a dense pine tree. Close to the trunk, its canopy completely sheltered me from the ice pellets and raindrops. Have you ever noticed how birds perch under dense tree canopies during storms? They're onto something.
Alas, my refuge under the tree ended with the first thunderclap. I was near the high point of my ride - a stupid place to be in lightning - so I put my head down and pedaled toward home. Rain cascaded down my face while muddy water and grit sprayed me from below. However, to my amazement, I realized that I was enjoying myself despite what seemed like horrendous conditions. In one of my few smart moves, I'd brought rain clothes, and consequently, the chill had barely reached my fingertips. I think that I needed a cleansing and hard ride like this one to wallop me out of my doldrums.

On my way home, the rain and thunder didn't relent but the mountains and their cloud covering started to brighten.
As the thunder and lightening moved threateningly toward me, I put my head down and hammered toward home. I nearly did an endo when a mule deer pronked across my path just 15 yards ahead of me. I scanned the forest and saw that other cryptic deer watched me from the sidelines.
Sometimes I forget that the wild animals have to survive our ferocious mountain storms with only the forest to shelter them. I snapped a quick photo and moved away from the deer herd so that they could focus on staying warm and away from the lightning.

I arrived home to a waiting thermos of hot tea and warm towels. While watching the rain and hail pelt our house and the temperature plummet to 40 degrees, my husband had become convinced that I would be hypothermic. So, he was waiting by the door to help me. I think that I'm a very lucky girl!