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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

Yesterday evening, the clouds blazed orange just after the sunset. We skiied through our meadow and watched the sky.This morning, for the first time in days, the storm clouds had parted, and I could see the mountains, resplendent in their snowy cloaks.
The pups and I did some skiing, burning off a fraction of their limitless energy supplies.
R has been playing a game in the ski tracks that K doesn't like. He lies in the middle of the track, blocking her path, obviously prepared to pounce on her if she tries to pass him. This morning, K responded with a 'calming signal', basically saying 'Chill out, R' by sitting and looking away.
It worked. The jet black Lab stood up and started trotting ahead of K. It's fun watching the communication among dogs and their attempts to communicate with us. These 'calming signals' seem to be a key component of their communication.During our ski, we saw a maze of elk tracks, criss-crossing the hillsides. At least part of the herd trudged through the deep snow in our forest and meadow last night.After I dropped off the pups at home, I went out for a bike ride on our dirt roads. It was, bar none, one of the messiest rides I've ever done. The snow was melting in the sun, creating a roux of mud and slush. My fenders worked well but even slow-moving vehicles sprayed me in mud. Moreover, parades of hunters drove back and forth along the road, visually searching for deer or elk, rather than braving the deep snow to hunt in the forest. The sheriff and a D.O.W. vehicle drove past me several times - I think that their hands were full trying to deal with people who thought that it was OK to hunt from a residential road. The most obvious scofflaw had removed both license plates from his truck. Unbelievable.

It was one of those rare days when I was glad to arrive home, away from the crazy people who seemed to have taken over our world. I did see some gorgeous views during my ride. This one includes the peak that K and I almost summitted in September. On that summer-autumn day, a few flakes of snow fell on us during a thunder storm - a prelude to the winter that's taken hold.
Happy Halloween from me and the furry creatures!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Out there

Yesterday evening, the pups and I skiied out into the meadow behind our house. The light had a twilight hue, turning the snow a bluish shade. Near the start of every off-leash outing, I do some recalls. Below, R porpoised through the deep snow to arrive at my feet pronto!

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A moment later, K had her chance. Notice that the older and wiser of the duo, K, takes a route under a tree, avoiding the deepest snow for part of her sprint.
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Shortly later, I saw a mule deer wading through the snow up on a ridge above us. The small doe was moving slowly through snow that reached almost the top of her legs. Fortunately, the dogs didn't see or smell her so she kept plodding along at her slow pace despite our presence. The moon weakly glowed through the clouds in the sky opposite the doe.
Because we make vigorous exercise a high priority for our dogs, they rest easily in the evening. In fact, after R's recent spate of mischief, we increased his exercise, and it's made all the difference. Exercise is one of the keys to good behavior - for me and my dogs!This morning, the wind howled and the sun didn't burn through the cloud roof right away. The eastern horizon glowed weakly, assuring me that the sun had indeed risen, like it has every day for the past 4.5 billion years.
For some reason, K resurrected an old game during today's ski. Last winter, she liked to hide and then refuse to come to me unless I used a formal "K come". I think that her motivation is that that specific phrase, "K come", means that she gets a jackpot of treats when she arrives. Today, for the first time since last winter, she hid but I picked her tiny form out from among the boulders and trees.
I zoomed in. Yes, it was definitely K. Busted!
I don't like this game because it scares me. If I don't manage to pick K out of the forest, I start to panic that she really did wander off. Moreover, she chooses dangerous places to hide. Today's hiding place was exactly on the path where I've seen mountain lion tracks more than once, and large boulders loomed above her. So, today, I ignored her and departed so she'd get no positive feedback for hiding. Of course, I was making the leap of faith that no lion lurked there today... and fortunately, I was right. K followed after we disappeared around a curve.

R also resurrected an old game. As puppies, all of our dogs have bitten our ski tips and poles. R has retained this playful habit for much longer than any of our previous dogs. Here, he's about to pounce on a ski tip which barely peeked above the snow. This seals our conclusion that R is still a puppy, albeit a 2-year old one!
Because of the howling wind, the ski track that I worked so hard to lay down yesterday was mostly filled with drifted snow. However, the remaining furrow in the snow must have provided easier walking for the deer than the completely unpacked powder. Parts of the trail harbored the tracks of a slow walking deer - if you look closely in the trough of my ski tracks, you can see the tracks. Perhaps it was the same doe as I spotted last night.
After our ski, I kept my vow not to ride my indoor bicycle trainer for even one more day. I'd put my extreme studded mountain bike tires on my old bike, and headed out to ride on our snow-packed and icy roads. These studded tires work like magic on ice. In fact, if part of the road is muddy and the other part is hard ice, I choose the ice strip when I have these tires under me!
Today, the biggest problem for bike riding was the wind which relentlessly sent snow drifting into the road. These tires don't deal with powder as well as ice. Although no snow fell from the sky, snow blew horizontally almost the whole time - as shown in the photo below.
I rode along in alternately white-out and sunny conditions. During the white outs, it felt like I was in a boat on the icy sea with needle-like frozen ocean droplets pelting me in the face. At the beginning of the ride, I was miserable, wondering why I chose to endure these conditions. I decided to cut my ride very short. However, at the intersection where I planned to turn toward home, I completely unconsciously turned away from home and straight into the wind.

Amazingly, at about that instant, I relaxed into my ride and started enjoying the conditions. I enjoyed them because I knew that I was alive, truly and painfully alive. I enjoyed them because I wasn't in the sealed and warm environment of my house but was out in nature. I enjoyed churning through the snow, working my muscles and feeling blissfully tired. I honestly don't understand what caused the change in my mindset. But, I loved the rest of my ride.

I heard a cacophony of squeaks coming from above me, sweet music on a winter's day. I noticed a pine tree covered in birds, all busily foraging among its boughs. Birds are so common in the summer that I stop noticing every single one. Today, I stopped and reveled in the hardiness of these birds. These tough but beautiful birds had flocked together, survived the storm, and were having a pine cone party!

If you click on the photo, it magnifies the birds. Notice that the two top birds are red but a lower one is yellow - a clue to their identity I think. My best guess is that they are Red Crossbills, birds that appear in our forest in huge numbers in the winter but then vanish without warning.
I rode past a herd of cattle, whose keeper didn't expect such an early season storm or they would have been down in the plains before it. Fortunately, the bovines had hay to eat but they also had to endure the blowing snow. Behind them in the photo, the snow is whipping from west to east close to the ground in this vast meadow.
By the end of the ride, I felt grateful that I hadn't gone home during that moment of indecision early in the ride. Even when the wind blows snow in my face, it's better for me to be 'out there' than in the cocoon of my home.

And, the sun shined on nature's wonders for the first time in days! I was glad to be there to see it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Winter survival

I discovered from the wildlife camera that coyotes visited on the first night of the storm before the snow had piled up to travel-stopping depths.
In past years, I've observed that many mammals follow our ski tracks because the packed tracks provide an easier walking surface than the rest of the vast forest. When there's a big storm, we are usually the only humans who use the forest so all ski trails start and end at our house. Consequently, in past years, I've seen all sorts of mammal tracks tromping straight into our clearing in our ski tracks. This winter is our first with a wildlife camera ready to take photos. It'll be interesting to see if a wider variety of species show up in our clearing than in the summer.

Yesterday, Khyra's human sent me information about a tragedy. A pair of coyotes killed a promising young folk singer hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. My internet searches indicate that very few people have ever been killed by coyotes in North America. Our western coyotes are dwarfed eastern coyotes, and the tragedy occurred where huge (up to 60 lb) eastern coyotes roam. This post talked a bit about eastern coyotes.

Our local coyotes flee people. However, they've been known to be aggressive toward dogs. Although I've seen and heard coyotes in our forest innumerable times, I felt scared that I might be attacked in only one encounter that happened a few years ago. I've worried much more about our dogs being hurt or killed than about myself around coyotes.
My opinion is that we should make room for wildlife, even animals who scare and threaten us. We need to be smart about taking precautions (like carrying pepper spray, avoiding their favorite haunts, and controlling our dogs) when we go into the forest. But, I'd never stay home because of wildlife fears or kill wildlife just because of a potential threat.

Intriguingly, in coyotes, attempts to reduce their population through poisoning, shooting, and trapping have had the opposite effect. When coyotes become sparse, they deliver larger litters of pups and more pups survive to adulthood. Consequently, the coyote has flourished despite the efforts to eradicate or reduce their numbers throughout the country. Some people believe that, through our efforts to eliminate coyotes, we've accidentally selected for coyotes that are more clever about avoiding our violence. The survival of the adaptable coyote contrasts markedly from the our effects on other predator populations, like wolves and grizzly bears.

Today, the pups and I skiied on our trails, and it was difficult to tell that we'd tracked those same paths yesterday. Yesterday morning, the snow on our deck looked deep.
This morning, it looked bottomless. That's a normal height deck table almost completely swamped by the snow!
K and R tended to stay in the faint furrow that was the last remnant of my trail-breaking work of yesterday. It was difficult to pick out the trail but the dogs' noses did the job!As I trudged along trying not to tweak my spine again, I noticed the dogs' snouts point upward and their bodies go on high alert as we approached a boulder-strewn area within the forest. The blanket of snow hid the boulders well but small patches of red rock peeked through and objects the size of volkswagons obviously hid below the snow.Cloven tracks of mule deer marched up the slope and around the boulder outcroppings. I honestly don't understand why the deer hang out in this area. It's a lion route, and there isn't much deer food. It would seem safer for the deer to avoid areas with such great lion hiding, ambush, and stalking terrain. However, over many years, a small herd of deer has consistently lived in this patch of forest. They must have some wisdom that eludes me. Below, their tracks head uphill around the boulder field.
R started to investigate, and when I called him back, he almost got lost in the snow depths after leaping off a big boulder.
He made it to me but thank goodness he's black, and not white, or I might have lost him in the snow!
I decided to do an 'out and back' ski so that I could enjoy the fruits of my snow packing efforts on the way home. Look at the nearly 2' tall walls of snow on each side of the ski tracks.
Just before we arrived home, the sky magically cleared, giving me a view of a nearby rocky peaks, now adorned with patches of snow.
The storm is winding down but, once again, it reminded me of the power of nature. Last week, I rode my bike in shorts and animals lolled about with ample food all around them. Today, I wore many layers and wondered how plant-eating large mammals survive. I know that elk cooperatively use their hooves to dig down to grass in meadows and even resort to eating aspen trees. As elk move long distances in deep snow, they walk single-file, leaving a deep track like my ski track. I'm guessing that they take turns at the front, trampling the snow to make walking easier for the other herd members.

Our animals amaze me with their tenacity and clever tactics for survival. By comparison, I have it easy - I simply have to figure out how to keep my spine happy despite the lack of mountain biking. I'm hoping to ride my studded mountain bike tires on our roads tomorrow. It'll take a few days before the trails get packed sufficiently for Mr. Fatback to float over them!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snow, snow, snow

The snow storm silently enveloped our world yesterday afternoon. At first barely noticeable, a few fluffy flakes floated out of the sky. Steadily the flakes fell with more urgency and pelted my face during our evening hike. Notice that I had the honor of three Labs accompanying me. We took care of K's boyfriend, another chocolate lab named JB, for a couple of days.Although JB is about 10 years older than R, he loves to play. While we all relaxed by the fire with the storm's fury outside, R and JB played.Then, JB joined K on her bed. They are a study in contrasts. K is petite Lab while JB is an elegantly long-legged Lab who moves like a small deer.
The world outdoors was starkly transformed overnight. Trees drooped with pillows of snow and boulders wore white cloaks. The snow muffled sound, and the forest seemed silent and still. I saw some large animal tracks on a hillside of boulders and pine trees but the snow had covered up the details. Both dogs sprinted toward the boulders like an animal had wandered among them recently.
Although the snow already measured about 18" deep, the dogs joyously porpoised through its powdery depths while I broke a cross-country ski trail.
R had to leap vertically to move forward!
Somehow, R found a stick in the depths of the snow, and it became the center of attention for about a mile. The duo both clamped it in their jaws of steel and sprinted through the snow like insanely happy dogs. I couldn't help but stop in my tracks to watch their antics!
The dogs arrived home happy and tired. A tired Lab is a good Lab!
The forecast says we'll get almost continuous snow until Thursday night, reaching a total of about 3' of snow. Watching the snow cascade out of the sky, I'm getting a niggling feeling that the forecast is underestimating our total. It's at least 2' already. I'm amazed that we still have power and internet - they usually fail in storms like this one.

Alas, although I loved being in the forest on my skis, it made my neck hurt and gave me a heinous headache by compressing nerves leaving my cervical spine. Based on my extensive experience, I knew that I had two treatment choices - pharmaceuticals or riding a bike. The snow bike wasn't an option because the snow on the trails wasn't packed yet. And, I didn't want to ride on the road with the possibility of a car sliding into me. So, I chose the indoor bike trainer, settled into a good spin, and read a book by a mountain lion researcher. Biking has magical healing power for my spine, and I finished my ride with my neck and head feeling almost normal.
Even though this snowstorm is definitely hampering my bike riding, it has magically transformed our world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The calm before the storm

We're bracing for a big snow storm, promising to bury us in anywhere from 10" to 26" of the powdery white stuff. The wide range of predictions both amuses and frustrates me. I once rode a chair lift with a stranger, and I launched into a tirade about the vagueness of the meteorological predictions for an approaching storm. He defensively lectured me about the unfathomable effects of the nearby Continental Divide. He finally admitted to being meteorologist! I was embarrassed that I'd just been denigrating his profession...

But, the view of the Divide last night certainly told me that storms hovered over the mountains. It looked like a roof had unfurled that barely cleared the summits of the Divide.
At twilight, the sun rays from behind the mountains shined on the clouds from below, streaking the sky with color.
This morning, K and I rolled out into a muted world, except for the eastern horizon which glowed orange.
We had a quiet ride, enjoying each other's company. Today, we were in a zone where we moved synchronously with almost no talking. I loved hearing her light footfalls next to me as she gracefully galloped through the forest. I often say that my first ride is 'for K', meaning that the goal is to give her exercise, but it's just as much for me. I feel so lucky to have her as my furry best friend.
We rolled to a lookout point and an eerie silence enveloped the forest. No wind whooshed off the Divide or through our forest - the calm before the storm. Unusual clouds hovered over the Divide, small gray umbrella-like clouds.
I wondered if this storm will be 'it' - the end of seeing much dirt for the winter. Usually, that transition occurs around Thanksgiving but this autumn has been on an accelerated schedule.

K and I descended onto a tricky ledge trail and rode about half of it. This trail is challenging without snow so a thin layer, barely hiding rocks, roots, and logs, makes it treacherous. Once the snow gets deep but packed, it's much easier to ride. K loved it. Perhaps the cushioning of the snow felt good for sprinting.
After I dropped off K at home, I rode toward a ridge to find dry trails and views. In the photo below, you can see the path ahead of me, up the dry spine of the ridge. The spine of this ridge marks an abrupt transition between meadows on the south-facing slope and a dense pine forest on the north-facing slope. I've seen almost every local large mammal species (deer, elk, bear, lion, bobcat, coyote, fox) along this trail. I think that they love it because it's an easy travel route with handy hiding places in the forest to the north. They can disappear in an instant when I roll along.
As I rode along the ridge, the world transformed before my eyes. Initially, a brightness made the snowy mountains glitter.
Thin clouds filtered the sun before it illuminated the mountains.
By the time I turned into the dense forest to descend, the clouds loomed gray and heavy, bringing our first big storm of the year.
I'm not ready for the stunning transformation of a full-blown winter storm. However, I try not to fret over things that I can't change. Tomorrow, I may be cross-country skiing on our trails rather than riding. The hard part for me is that riding has a unique effect on my back spasms. Nothing can replace it. So, I lament the winter days when riding is tough but I do enjoy the beauty of a good snow storm!

The flakes just started floating out of the sky. And, the weather service just narrowed their prediction to 18-24"! A big one...