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Monday, August 31, 2009

Colorado's Smoky Mountains

A weight finally lifted from my spirits today. Since I became aware of how rapidly and dangerously my spine is degenerating, each autumn brings worries about how many summers of roaming the forests and mountains I'll have. The future scares me - because exploring the forest and immersing myself in nature is what makes me feel truly alive.

This year's melancholy was triggered by a tingling and numb patch on my calf undoubtedly caused by pressure on a nerve exiting or entering my spinal cord. In a case of bad timing, the odd sensation became too strong to ignore at about the same time as signs of autumn became undeniable. This confluence dragged my spirits downward. The patch of skin is no better yet but history says that it'll probably eventually return to normal. Despite the lack of improvement, the feeling that I'm peering into a dark abyss that represents my future has disappeared.

Because sunrise has crept ever later, the sun rose this morning as I drank my morning coffee on the deck. When I first arrived outside, the sun still hovered below the trees.
But, it rose above them with a glimmer of brilliance and warmth as I watched.
The Broad-tailed hummingbirds who are still visiting our feeder wait for the sun and then they leave their sleeping perches for breakfast. I suspect that these hummers are on rest stop-overs during their southward migration. The last stragglers will probably trickle through our rest stop within a couple of weeks.
Today, K and I rolled through the forest, and it felt like a peaceful oasis. K romped with vigor, occasionally enthusiastically forging ahead of me but mostly staying by my side. I think that she's feeling better every day. Yesterday evening, she even play-fought with R. Sorry for the photo's blurriness - I'm starting to believe that R's high energy aura causes the air molecules to vibrate around him which, of course, messes up my photos.
This morning, I smelled smoke as soon as I rolled out the door, and the mountains looked veiled, almost like dusk was falling. I could barely see the Divide from our favorite little peak.
For a brief time, the mountains glowed almost pink but then returned to gray.
I've read that the smoke is from numerous wildfires in the western U.S., including Colorado, Utah, and California. The forested hills to the southeast looked like photos that I've seen of the Smoky Mountains.
After a relaxing sojourn with K, simply enjoying the silence of the forest while I pedaled and she ran on soft trails, I headed out for a solo ride. I seemed attuned to nature and noticed little details. The goldenrod plant that was speckled with red and black beetles last week still roils with activity. I suspect that the swarm of beetles on it is emitting a plume of pheromones that is calling other beetles to the plant.
I believe that these are Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) who fly in late summer and early autumn. The adults eat mainly nectar and love goldenrod plants. Since spotting this goldenrod that is like a singles bar for soldier beetles, I've been scanning other goldenrod plants for beetles but have seen none.

As I rolled past a trail intersection, towering yellow flowers swayed in the breeze and the blue sky behind them glowed with promise.Finally, as I neared home, I silently flowed through the meadow behind my house. Beneath the tall grass, I spotted understated purple gems, Bottle Gentians (Pneumonanthe bigelovii). These clusters of tiny flowers (closed buds are the width of my pinky) are always the last, the absolute last, wildflower to bloom before winter in our meadow. Like all gentians, the blossoms open and close in rapid response to sunlight and shade. In the cluster below, only one flower was open.
On another plant, several flowers gaped wide open to soak up the sun. The open flowers look like miniatures of the Mountain Gentians that I saw on our recent trip to the San Juan Mountains.
I rolled home, happy and not too tired. Autumn is here, and I think that I'm ready.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Say it ain't so!

The world is changing day-by-day, with summer birds departing, migrating birds passing through, the grass turning golden, wildflowers going to seed, and a smattering of aspen leaves tinting yellow.Another rite of autumn is that our beef order form arrived. A herd of heifers has grazed within our sight all summer long. Believe it or not, we buy one every year to feed our dogs. As a puppy, K had seemingly unresolvable digestive distress and was growing too slowly. We tried every commercial food imaginable. With each vet consultation, my vet would quietly suggest that I try making homemade food because she'd seen a few puppies who could only thrive on a simple homemade diet. Finally, in desperation, I tried it. Almost instantly, K began to thrive, and I've been cooking her food ever since.

We buy grass-fed completely natural beef from our across-the-meadow neighbors, and I use a formula given to me by my vet that specifies the proportions of protein, carbs, and veggies. In addition, the vet has a specific list of supplements that dogs on homemade diets need. I make a huge pot of food about once a week, and it's become an easy routine. Not as easy as buying kibble - but I feel secure knowing exactly what my dogs are eating, especially after that horrible dogfood recall fiasco a couple of years ago.

The hardest part for me is watching the young cattle graze idyllically all summer, knowing that my dogs will eventually eat one of them. At least I know that they had a peaceful and easy existence before becoming beef. You can barely see them under towering James Peak in the photo below.
On the day that the beef order form appeared in the mailbox, the herd had congregated almost next to my mailbox to visually remind of what the form meant.
And, further dog health news... As usually happens once we increase K's thyroid medicine after her fear escalates, her courage is improving noticeably each day. She's less afraid of doorways with the exception of the the screen door. It wasn't open widely enough for her earlier today, and she stood paralyzed with her paws glued to the deck. When she's 'normal', she uses her nose to open it further and comes in without my help.
Today, I had the Lab duo as my mountain biking companions again. At one point during the ride, K forged ahead with her brother. It was the first time that she'd emerged from her post behind me since this fear episode started. Sorry for the blur but everything in R's vicinity moves at a blur-inducing pace!To avoid running into the out-of-control dog pack whose behavior I described yesterday, we sprinted straight up the mountainside at the start of our ride. In my hurry to flee the sound of the pack's barking, I barged right into a berry-rich area that we've been avoiding so that the bears can forage in peace. It was our lucky day - no bears!

The dogs did a sit-stay on top of our peak with the misty Divide behind them and the other trailusers now far below us. It never fails - if I want solitude, I need to find the steepest and toughest hill to climb.After dropping off the duo, I pedaled to the east, and a female Blue Grouse watched me pass by. She didn't flee, very odd, making me wonder if her young were nearby. The brood usually stays with their mother into September.
As I rode, clouds crept over a ridge from the east as I climbed. A chill permeated the air. Fall is coming!
From the top of the ridge, I could still see the mountains peeking through the pine trees.
When I rolled down the steep forested slope to the west, I found bevies of raspberries. I love wild raspberries so I stopped for a long break, foraging like a bear. I started thinking about how hard a black bear must work to eat enough berries to build a layer of fat for the winter. I literally can't imagine picking berries one-by-one, eating them, and actually having a caloric excess to store as fat. Based on some quick research, I'm guessing that each tiny wild raspberry has about 1 Calorie so I'd have to eat 3500 raspberries to gain a pound of fat - and that calculation doesn't account for the energy that I'd expend gathering the raspberries. I'm amazed that bears can survive!
As I ate berries, the clouds moved around me, engulfing my world in a mystical aura. A few Coneflowers still bloomed, glowing like beacons in the darkening sky.
I spun home, feeling happy after a relaxing ride in my forest!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tensions on the trails

Today, my mountain bike ride wasn't blissful and relaxing. Darker days on my bike are rare - I always think that a day with a bike ride is inevitably better than a day without a ride. My spine certainly agrees with that motto.

Things went awry from the start. While I ate breakfast, to my dismay, my neighbor's dog sprinted onto our property, galloping and happy, as he's done regularly since he was born six years ago. The problem is that he's in danger when he's running loose (he lives a half mile away, across a fast road), and I have a deep-seated inability to ignore a dog in danger. So, I phoned the family who said that they'd be "right over". Well, "right over" seemed to take a very long time for rambunctious R and K who wanted to go for a mountain bike ride "right now".

Finally, with our neighbor dog safely heading home in his SUV, the pups and I rolled out onto the trails. It was much later than usual, and we immediately ran into the 8-strong off-leash pack of dogs and their human who scare R out of his wits. Surprisingly, the usually timid K has reached a truce with them over the years and used her usual strategies of ignoring the small dogs and appeasing the huge shepherds today. As a puppy, R took one look at the pack and turned tail to sprint home. In recent months, his strategy has been to hover under my bike, trying to become invisible. As you see, I'm being literal when I say "under my bike".But, the insistent little dogs won't leave him peace so he often gets drawn out of hiding.The big dogs act as the enforcers, and if one of the 'Littles' becomes scared, a big dog appears out of nowhere to protect the little one.

We met them one day earlier this week, and R took a new strategy. He snarled and snapped at the little dogs which, of course, attracted the attention of the big dogs and made R even more scared. His defensive behavior isn't too surprising given how they swarm all over him while barking wildly - but it's not a strategy that I want him to espouse.

Today, I stopped at a distance and shouted a request that my neighbor control her rowdiest canines. While she did that, I placed my bike as a barrier for R and had him sit next to me. As they approached and while we humans chatted, I tried to give R treats to make him associate this pack with something, anything, good! At first, he refused the treats but I asked the woman to stay with me while I worked with him because the encounter was, unlike usual, under control. Eventually, he cautiously accepted a treat, and after five minutes, he was taking them with a modicum of enthusiasm. The pack departed without incident, much to my relief. I don't want R 'practicing' aggression as a solution to fear.

Shortly after the pack ran off, R got the 'zoomies' - tucking his rump and streaking in circles. I think that he was releasing his pent-up tension as we rode up to our favorite lookout point.
Then, as I rolled along with my pups and tried to chill out, I discovered that someone is attempting to shut down my favorite trail that I've ridden for ten years. I sighed deeply and felt deflated beyond words. Why can't we share the woods in peace?

After I dropped the pups off at home, I pedaled off, trying to reconfigure my planned route given the blockage of my favorite trail. I headed through a heavily used open space and found an abandoned party sight. Garbage was strewn everywhere, and worst of all, a campfire flamed. I couldn't stop the flames by myself, and my cell phone didn't work. So, I headed out to a 4WD road and flagged down some ATVers, asking if they had a working cell phone. Their phones didn't work either but they offered to try to put it out.

I led them through the forest to the fire, and indeed, these guys did a good job of drowning and suffocating the fire. However, as we worked, I became unnerved by their roving and lascivious eyes. I was being checked out and in an open and almost aggressive way. I always carry a large can of pepper spray on my Camelbak hip belt, and I noticed the instant when the most worrisome guy spotted the pepper spray. I was so glad that I had it with me. In the end, the guys politely said goodbye, and that was it. Perhaps I overreacted and saw danger where none lurked. But, something about their mannerisms, despite their caring act of putting out the fire, definitely unnerved me.

Moreover, although the campfire was doused, I had no drinking water for the rest of my ride because I'd used it all to douse the fire. It was not my day.

I always gravitate toward the more remote forest when I feel unsettled because its peacefulness permeates my soul. So, I climbed up a steep and very rarely traveled trail toward a meadow frequented by elk in the winter. Indeed, the meadow and forest threaten to reclaim the trail with each passing year because so few humans visit this quiet spot. I whooshed through golden grass taller than me and entered the forest on an off-camber trail paralleling a gulch and creek. It was tough riding - loose gravel, steep uphill, and a sideways slope tending to make me slide into the creek.

As I focused all my mental and physical energy on staying upright, I noticed a huge gray scat with obvious fur and bone pieces in it. I kept pedaling but reminded myself to be on the lookout for lions. But, to my astonishment, another equally impressive scat appeared on the trail in front of my tires almost immediately. In fact, within 30 yards, I saw four mountain lion scats - and two piles looked quite fresh.

I stopped my bike and scanned the forest that leaned over the trail and threatened to engulf it. I peered down into the gulch, and I thought that it looked like a beautiful moist oasis. I took a photo of the tall yellow cone flowers and a box elder sapling down in the gulch.I'd intended to take a photo of the lion scat. But, at just about that instant, I smelled rotting animal flesh, and my mind flashed to the possibility that a mountain lion kill was stashed down in the gulch, very nearby. If I'd been unnerved earlier by the ATVers, the only word for the surge of adrenaline that coursed like hot lava through my veins is 'unhinged'. I started backing away, walking my bike warily for a few minutes while constantly scanning every direction. But, I knew that I wouldn't be able to pick out a lion or even bigfoot from this forest - the foliage was too thick. Finally, I convinced myself that the lion wasn't actually following me, and I remounted my bike. Whew. This ride was definitely not relaxing.

After heading back down to more heavily traveled routes that were eerily devoid of people today, I found a humongous black bear scat - full of berry seeds - in almost exactly the spot where I saw a sow and yearling back in May. I would've enjoyed seeing a bear so I scanned the forests and meadows as I spun uphill with much higher spirits. As I rode, I realized what an oddball I am - black bear scat lifts my spirits!I decided to try a short detour, on trails that I don't know well, on my way home. I rode some sweet pine-needle cushioned trails that I haven't visited in years and started to feel as if my world was returning to an even camber. I even found a new route home - not a bad accomplishment for how many years I've spent roaming these forests.

Then, of course, the sweet and relaxed faces of my Labs met me at home. That never fails to cheer me!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wildlife visits, a ride with the duo, & vacation adventure

Nary an animal ventured past our wildlife camera while we were on vacation. Since returning, we've had a parade of visitors.

A Black Bear lumbered under our bearproof birdfeeding station. I think that he might be a newcomer to the area because he doesn't fit the descriptions of any of the other ursines we've seen or photographed. Perhaps he's a yearling and is on the journey of his life, searching for his own territory. While he visited, he tested our year-old bearproof garbage can, rolling it 10 yards and grappling with it, but it passed the test. It's the first one that's worked for us so we're ready to recommend it if you live in bear (or raccoon) territory. Their website seems to be down today but I hope it's up soon.
A lithe red fox has danced across our wildlife camera's view three times in the past week. I wonder if this fox is a youngster who is now dispersing from his parents and siblings. Unlike coyotes and wolves who usually live in packs, foxes live solitary lives except during breeding and pup-raising times. Like the bear shown above, he may be traveling to find his own territory.
Today, the glory of the Colorado mountains is shining with sunshine and blue skies. I took both canines with me on my mountain bike ride. R's energy astounded me as he streaked from one side of the trail to another. Moreover, he proved himself to be a tailgater of the worst sort. On narrow sections of trail, he'd hover just behind my back wheel, panting loudly, while trying to find an iota of space to squeeze past me. The good news was that he's showing signs of learning to be patient. Although he neglected to use a turn signal before passing, he waited for reasonably safe places before zooming around me.

As I mulled over R's lack of fear of my bike, I realized that he's never seen one of my dramatic crashes. K has seen me launched over the handlebars and landing in a tangle of bushes or a pile of rocks. I think that's why she gives me space but R still tends to crowd me. Perhaps I should stage a crash for him!

During our ride, my heart lifted when I saw K zipping through the forest with R a few times - perhaps she's starting to feel better.

At one point in the ride, I thought that R's intensity and excitement were approaching a full boil so I took a break to do some calm-inducing training. R showed his burgeoning maturity as he found the fortitude to hold a sit despite his sky-high excitement.
Then, because R was exceeding expectations, I asked for a down-stay while I wandered aimlessly around to test his mettle. The boy must be growing up because he didn't even fidget!
After our ride, I headed out for some solo riding, and when I returned home, I saw the heart-warming sight that's been greeting me over the past month or so. Although K had her choice of any dog bed in the house, she chose to lie on a thin piece of carpet next to her brother's crate. This is a major habit change for her. When S was alive, she and S would snooze on the Deluxe dog beds in the living room while R stayed by himself in his crate in the bedroom. I think that K and R are forming a stronger bond.

Vacation tale: Final Bolam Pass ride

On our last night at Bolam Pass, my husband suggested that I do a point-to-point mountain bike ride and meet him down at the highway. My jaw dropped. The thought literally hadn't crossed my mind after the debacle earlier in the vacation. But, I love point-to-point rides (no retracing my steps) so I started reading the guidebooks and perusing the maps. As far as I could tell, the riding and navigation looked easy. I'd take the Colorado Trail toward Durango and then descend to the highway on a 4WD road that followed Scotch Creek.

I hemmed and hawed. I honestly feared a repeat of our last attempt. Finally, I decided to seize the day and take the risk. In that spirit, I departed camp solo the next morning. The dogs barely noticed me glide away as they obsessed over a scent in the wind.As I started climbing up the trail, a jagged ridge towered over me, making me feel like an inconsequential speck in the universe.
I skirted jumbles of boulders on the flanks of a mountain.Across a mountain meadow, barren peaks loomed, including a rock pinnacle known as the "Lizard Head". After looking at it many times from different angles, it still doesn't resemble a lizard head, as far as I can tell.Although the meadows looked more golden than green with every passing day, a few bedraggled wildflowers believed that summer lived on.
As I rode through a forested section, a rock began to waddle in front of me. I looked again - oops, not a rock but a White-tailed Ptarmigan! In fact, a whole brood of young ptarmigans walked awkwardly to move out of my way.The plumage of Ptarmigans lets them blend in with the mountain terrain. They're not agile fliers so camouflage helps keep them safe. I might not have noticed this bird if he hadn't been on the trail before scrambling up the slope.From the front, they're speckled and freckled!
These birds spend the entire year in the alpine tundra. Their feathers turn snow white for the winter. The photo is from Janet Gellhorn's book, "Song of the Alpine".Ptarmigans survive alpine winters by digging down into the snow and roosting within its insulating depths - much like a human in a snow cave (I've spent the night in one, and it was surprisingly warm). Mortality skyrockets in years with little snow because the ptarmigans are forced to remain exposed to the frigid and often windy mountain air. In the winter, they eat the buds from exposed willow branches or they dig down into the powder to find the branches. Unbelievably, ptarmigans gain weight over the winter, reaching their fattest point in April, just before breeding. I felt lucky to have a prolonged time to watch these astonishing birds.

After enjoying the ptarmigans, I climbed up to a pass, still adorned with wildflowers.
I gazed at the rest of my route, all downhill toward the lower elevation hills. It made me sad to descend from the alpine world, knowing that our vacation was winding down.
As I enjoyed swooshing down this smooth and curvy trail, I passed through a meadow still humming with the brilliance of summer.I looked over my shoulder, again and again, to catch glimpses of the high alpine pass that I'd just crossed.As the air thickened and became warmer at lower elevations, bright fireweed flowers smashed into my consciousness. They towered beside the trails.Finally, one last glance at 'my alpine pass' which was slipping out of my grasp and view. Descending gave me a sinking feeling that summer was ending.As I rode next to the creek toward the highway, I realized that I hadn't seen another human over my whole ride. It wasn't until I reached this dramatic canyon less than a mile from the paved road that I met my first human of the day. I love solitude on the trails!I met the rest of my pack at the van, exactly where and when we'd planned - a small triumph for this often-lost mountain biker!