November 27, 2015

Of Avalances, Machismo, and Derring-Do

Local search-and-rescue groups on Facebook are all cross-posting this Denver Post article: "Ignorance and Early-Season Avalanche Danger."

The author, columnist Steve Lipsher, writes,
Each year, it seems, the reckless streak grows bolder among Colorado skiers and snowboarders, eager to show off their GoPro videos on YouTube and earn bragging rights among their friends.
And each year, on average, six or seven of them will die in avalanches.
He is not sold on the latest gadgets:
[Other backcountry snow enthusiasts] carry specialized equipment designed to help them breathe in a burial or inflate giant airbags instantly to help them stay on top of an avalanche, falsely thinking that replaces good decisions or adequately protects them.
The SAR groups will still have work to do. Humans are hard-wired for risk. I am all for education on avalanche-awareness, but education will never reach them all.

November 18, 2015

Mushrooms: Manipulating Your Mind . . . and the Weather?

Helen Macdonald's latest New York Times column is on mushroom hunting, in which she observes,
Hunting for mushrooms can feel surprisingly like hunting animals, particularly if you’re searching for edible species. Looking for chanterelles, I’ve found myself walking on tiptoe across mossy stumps as if they might hear me coming. It’s a bad idea to walk around and try to spot them directly. They have an uncanny ability to hide from the searching eye. 
And they can change your perception too — and I am not talking about the designated "hallucinogenic" mushrooms either, but the ones we eat for food. 

Beyond that, some researchers suggest that mushrooms can make it rain. Their spores are like cloud-seeding.
“We can watch big water droplets grow as vapor condenses on (the mushroom spore’s) surface,” said senior author Nicholas Money of Miami University’s Biology Department. “Nothing else works like this in nature.”
Read the rest.

November 17, 2015

Waiting for El Niño or Someone Like Him

Other than some rain in October, it has been a dry few weeks here in the southern Colorado foothills. Dry — and sometimes windy enough — to bring back bad fire memories, like the one in NE Custer County near Wetmore on October 23, 2012.

And it is supposed to be an El Niño year, so where is the snow?

Finally something blew in last night. Although areas north of Colorado Springs (the Palmer Divide/Monument Hill), some High Plains counties, and Raton Pass into New Mexico had blizzard conditions, we awoke to about an inch of snow with a lot of a wind.

(There is more snow in the high mountains, and ski areas are opening.)

Because the 1997–98 El Niño announced itself with a three feet of snow on Thanksgiving weekend, I was expecting more.

But contrary to the "worst yet" headlines, this blog post by Bob Tisdale answers the question "Is the Current El Niño Stronger Than the One in 1997/98?" with "No." Lots of charts and graphs that you can read for yourself.

Still, a little more than an inch would be nice. But a dry early winter is not uncommon here — so long as it is followed by the usual March and April snows. The 1997–98 El Niño actually faded in the spring, which was not extraordinarily snowy.

Yes, there is a Psychedelic Era pop-culture reference in the blog title.

November 09, 2015

The Farmer Wave and the Jeep Wave

Call it the Farmer Wave, the Rancher Wave, or the [Blank] wave, you had better learn it hereabouts too. In Iowa, it has an official week, which is just now ending.

And then there is the Jeep Wave. Instead of saying "I trust you," it is saying, "You're more hardcore than I am. And I trust you."

Protocol dictates that (usually) the owner of the newer Jeep wave first, so when driving my 1973 CJ-5 I can just cruise regally along, awaiting my due acknowlegement.
It gets at least 50 points on this scale. 

But I keep an eye out for that guy down in town who has the CJ-3B.

October 26, 2015

A Mountain Cabin Mystery, Part 2

M. and I were gone on vacation from September 1–30. Then we came down with terrific colds (thanks, Swiss Air), and the weather was a little showery. She took the dog up back for a walk and came back saying something about a "board" on the Quonset cabin.

I had a look on my next walk up there and yes, a 4 x 8-foot piece of particle board was nailed across the empty hole where the living room window had been removed. Well, that was odd. Did Tim, the new owner of the adjacent property to the south, come up from his house and think he was doing me a favor?

I could have investigated more, but as I said, the head cold was killing my brain power, and I had a lot else to do. That may seem too laid-back, sorry.

But then came something I could not ignore. After my contractor friend said he thought that the dirt road to the cabin was too rough and rocky for his trailer, I decided to improve it. I contacted a neighbor who does "dirt work" locally.

He showed up with his tractor, blade, and rock-ripping teeth, and I went to open the gate for him.  What's this? The gate normally was secured by a chain with two padlocks on it. One was for the rural electric co-op, and the other was mine. Now someone had cut the chain and inserted a third lock!

Hike across the land and poke around a little, that's no big deal. Start cutting your way in, and that is something else.

After he finished his road work, I started making phone calls. How about the former owner of Tim's property? He owns hundreds of acres here and there, has a crew employed fulltime on various projects, and has been known, shall we say, to extend his fences beyond where he should. We had already had one go-round with him about that habit.

I called him, and we had an amiable chat. He was in his "the squire" persona. Oh no, he said, it was not his crew. (When they follow his orders and get him in trouble, he blames their poor language skills. Algunos no hablan inglés.)

I called the real estate agent who has listed property to the north of ours. Did he sell it, and did the new owner think that my road gave them access? Oh no, he said, the property had not been sold, and he knew that any buyer had no right to that road.

I called my contractor friend. Had he changed his mind about the salvage project and come back up there? Oh no, he had not.  (Too bad.) Maybe someone is "homesteading," he suggested.

To make things worse, the local paper ran a "25 Years Ago" item about law-enforcement officials launching an "intense vigil" right hereabouts for a fugitive described as "homicidal." Tracking dogs had followed him into these hills.

That was two years before we arrived. I had heard too about some fugitive hiding in the camping trailer that was there before the Quonset, but I cannot say if it was the same individual or a different one

M. and I paid an armed visit to the cabin. The rear door was locked — and as I wrote in Part 1, I never locked it.

I finally walked over to Tim, the new neighor's, house. No, neither he nor his kids had been inside the cabin. But "three weeks ago" he had heard a truck going up the road, followed by "banging." Maybe that was the nailing of the board.

I went home and called the sheriff's dispatcher. After about three hours, a deputy called me back. I gave him the facts. He clearly did not want to drive to this corner of the county — it was after dark, and he was the only patrol deputy on duty. That was OK, I told him, I just wanted to get something on the record in case I found a meth lab or a dead body or something else nefarious inside.

The next morning, I located the keys, and we went back. I sidled up to the door and unlocked it. Nothing was changed, except for the number of mouse turds. A ladder that I had there seemed to be in a different place.

So these are the facts:

1. Someone had cut the gate and installed their own lock, as if they planned to come back. (I, of course, took bolt cutters and removed that lock.)

2. Someone, maybe the same someone, had boarded up the empty window. You would do that only if you wanted to protect the property or make it more usable later.

3. Someone had locked the door, which makes no sense if you do not have a key to let yourself back in.

4. There were no signs of occupancy. No lights, no food, etc. The dog did not react when he was near the cabin.

Right now, it seems to us that Dick Y., the former owner, fits the frame for these reasons.

1. Because he helped to build the cabin and his family owned the land for 30-plus years, he probably feels a sense of ownership, and it may bother him to see it neglected. (Too bad, Dick, I would have the fire department burn it were it not for the wildfire hazard.)

2. He doesn't like us, why, I never fully understood. Neither does his sister.

3. He knows his way around up there, and he lives only an hour away. He could have retained a key to the house.

So Dick is the prime suspect, but I have absolutely no evidence. The sheriff is not going to get excited over a cut gate unless something else goes with it: burglary, cattle-rustling, poaching, etc. All we can do is be more vigilant.

As we were finishing supper, the telephone rang with a Reverse 911 call to all residents. "There is an armed and dangerous subject in your area. Last seen on foot near highway XXX and County Road XXX. Subject is wearing a blue polo shirt, khaki shorts and a khaki hat. Caucasian male, brown hair, tattoo of  'Ezekiel' on his neck. Please do not approach. Do not pick up any hitchhikers. If seen call 719-XXX-XXXX."

That at least ten miles away. Rural life goes on.

A Mountain Cabin Mystery, Part 1

Not what you think of when you hear "mountain cabin"?
In 2011, M. and I dug deep and bought the twenty acres up behind our house when they came on the market. We gained lots of rocks, the little dirt road where we walked the dogs anyway, many pine and juniper trees — including enough beetle-killed pine to keep us in firewood for a while — and "the Quonset."

It's not a true Quonset hut, but that name comes near enough. It is a pre-fab metal structure like you would see sheltering farm implements (tractors, etc.) out on the High Plains, but finished inside with a drop ceiling, walls, and carpeting.

When we came here, the owners, a family from southeastern Colorado, had a old travel trailer parked up there, with a wood-frame extension and a porch built on to it. But in about 1994, the younger generation apparently decided to build Mom and Dad a proper mountain get-away, so they visited their favorite ag-machinery-prefab-building dealer and ordered a 20 x 40-foot model. They brought up a small electric cement mixer and poured their own foundation, erected the galvanized metal roof — all of it.

And then their frequency of visits dropped way off. The cabin just sat there, looking like a big blister on the mountainside. The Y____ family, the owners, were not terribly friendly. Once, when I approached them about chipping in on the maintenance of our shared driveway, part of which led to their road, I got a small contribution, wrapped in a diatribe of a letter about how people were cutting trees on their property (not me), how people were saying nasty things about the metal cabin, etc. etc.

Fast-forward to 2011. We made an offer, two-thirds of what they asked. The agent conveyed it, but then he said they had turned it down. "Oh well," we thought. And two weeks later, he came back and said that Mom had told the kids (now in late middle age) that they should take it, and they did. (Dad was no longer alive.) After a very chilly closing — the kids, Dick and Judy, would not even speak to us — we owned it, down to the expired and bulging canned goods in the kitchen cabinets.

My friend Ray helped with the initial clean-out. Furniture was hauled away, scrap aluminum — the skin of the old trailer —sold to the recycler. The refrigerator went to the volunteer fire department, where it cools our bottled water and Gatorade. Lots of things went to the department's annual yard sale.

The cabin was not up to code: no well or cistern, and no indoor plumbing either, although it did have electric service. Located at the top of a steep dry-weather-only road, it had zero potential as a rental, and we already have a guest house.

One neighbor was interested in taking the metal shell to build a garage, but his eight-day-a-week job as a ranch manager got in the way. Some friends scavenged bits: a door here, a window there, a kitchen counter unit.

Then progress stalled. I pulled some of the carpet, but I kept having too much else to do. A contractor from Pueblo thought he might tear the building down for scrap — the metal roof and studs — but he was not sure he could get his big cargo trailer up the road.

I never locked the place. There was nothing to steal, and if an occasional person hiking around looked inside, I did not care. The terrain and the locked gate kept motorized visitors out — I thought.

October 23, 2015

A Mysterious Antique Box: Book Trailer from Florence, Colorado

No one is making movies in Florence, Colo., that I know of, but a book trailer was shot there for the novel Come Six to Seven by Mac Evenstar.

I am still wrapping my head around the idea of books having "trailers," but this one gives you a good luck at the self-proclaimed "antiques capital of Colorado" — and why not, Denver's South Broadway district ain't what it used to be.

This goes on the "to read" list, thanks to the Florence blog True Story Club.

October 22, 2015

Could We Have a Natural Control for Horrible Cheatgrass?

A cheatgrass monoculture (Bureau of Land Management).
If it were possible, I would nominate these scientists for a prize.
Now, some 65 years after famed naturalist Aldo Leopold summed up the general consensus in the battle against cheatgrass as hopeless, there might be hope.

"We're in a better position to fight back than we have ever been," said Susan Meyer, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist working with fungus at the Shrub Sciences Laboratory in Provo, Utah.
 Why is cheatgrass a Bad Thing?

• It comes up early in the spring. At that point it is soft and green. It looks good to eat, hence the "cheat" part.

• But very soon it sets its seeds in horrible, prickly awns that hurt grazing animals' mouths, puncture people's shoes and socks, catch in other animals' coats, and spread wherever they are  carried. 
In addition to being a wildfire threat and an ecological problem, cheatgrass can harm animals. Its stiff, spiny seedheads, called awns, can work their way into the ears, eyes or mouths of everything from cats to cattle.
• Because it dries out early in the summer, it carries fire easily.
The keys to cheatgrass spread are its short life cycle and prolific seed production. Because cheatgrass stands dry out by mid-June, fires are more likely to occur earlier in the season. These mid-summer fires are tough on native forbs and grasses.
Cheatgrass seeds drop prior to fires and will germinate with fall precipitation. This gives rise to dense, continuous stands that make additional fire ignition and spread more likely. Fire return intervals have gone from between 60–110 years in sagebrush-dominated systems to less than 5 years under cheatgrass dominance. With every reoccurring fire, cheatgrass becomes more dominant and expands its range further. 
• It has damged the West by reducing feed for both wildlife (elk, deer, pronghorn antelope) and domestic animals:  
“Cheatgrass has probably created the greatest ecological change in the western United States of anything we’ve ever done,” said Steve Monsen, a retired Forest Service botanist in Utah who conducts research for the agency.
It can be grazed when young and green, but unlike native perennial grasses, it does not "cure" on the stem for winter consumption.

On my own little patch of Colorado, I watched cheatgrass move from roadsides, seemingly leap over healthier pastures, and appear in groves of pines trees.

So what Is the new development?

There are pesticides that work against cheatgrass, but the invasion is too big to spray it all. Susan Mayer and others are looking at bacteria instead:
Meyer and Ann Kennedy, a scientist in Washington state working with bacteria, are drawing attention from top land managers and policy makers — and research money — after showing that the seemingly invincible cheatgrass might have an Achilles' heel. 
"We've found several organisms that are really good at colonizing the root of the seed, and reducing the elongation of that root," said Kennedy, who works at Washington State University. "Then that cheatgrass is less competitive the next spring."
This will all cost a whole lot of money. But isn't the West worth it?

October 11, 2015

War and Groundwater

Someone once explained the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel fought off Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and ended up controlling the Golan Heights, in terms of water.

By capturing the Golan Heights, the article asserted, the Israelis controlled the recharge area where precipitation filtered down to the wells watering their farms.

Western kid that I was, I thought, "Oh, I get it, it's all about water. No wonder the tanks are rolling."

Some students and I once kicked around alternative bioregional histories for southern Colorado. I suggested that if Kansas and Colorado were separate countries fighting over the Arkansas River's flow, we probably would have had a hard time stopping their troops. The citizens of Pueblo would have been digging trenches, like those of Warsaw in 1920. The border would probably be at Fowler now.

Fortunately, we have a judicial system which settled things, meaning that Coloradans do not have to say "Ar-KAN-sas" like those barbarians to the east. But I digress.

We all have heard about the California drought and the over-pumping of groundwater there. We should know that the same thing is happening on the High Plains (another argument for industrial hemp over thirsty corn).  Cities such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, not to mention some Denver suburbs, depend on ground water—how long will that last?

What I did not know is that the Saudi Arabs have been playing the same game, and in about thirty or forty years they have drained an aquifer in the name of growing wheat. Saudi Arabia a wheat-exporting country? Who knew? Not me. But they are hitting the wall called No More Groundwater.

Just one more thing to stir up the Middle East. Over there, the tanks do roll.

October 03, 2015

Bears in Greece and Colorado

Louie and two smaller pals.
When I was in Greece last month, I saw no Eurasian brown bears, since I was on the bear-free island of Corfu. But in the English-language edition of the newspaper Kathimerini (sort of the Wall Street Journal of Greece), I did read about a sanctuary for bears that for one reason or another cannot be released into the wild.

In that sense this sanctuary, Arcturos, is more like Mission: Wolf here: it offers fairly large, fairly wild enclosures to animals that still must be fed by their human caretakers.
Having eaten his watermelon, 15-year-old Manolis stands up on both feet and appears to wave. His brother, Kyrgiakos, continues to munch away at his own watermelon a few meters away, indifferent to our presence. When they were cubs, the two brothers were found by a person who took them in as pets. But when they tipped the scales at 250 kilograms [550 lbs.] and grew to 2 meters in height, they simply became unmanageable. When Arcturos was called in to help, the two bears were completely used to living with people. It would be impossible for them to live in their natural habitat now, which means they will have to live their whole lives in captivity. However, they could do far worse than the Arcturos Sanctuary, an area of some 50 acres offering food, guaranteed care and optimal living conditions.
 Greece does still have a small, but growing, population of wild bears:
“With more than 450 registered bears, Greece’s bear population is considered one of the most significant in the Balkan region. The bears are part of a common clade ranging from the Swiss Alps to Greece. This new evidence challenges data found in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of endangered species, which suggests that there are no more than 200 bears living in Greece,” Arcturos’s scientific coordinator, Alexandros Karamanlidis, told Kathimerini in a recent interview.
Home from our trip, M. and I yesterday visited the local wildlife rehabilitators and saw a Colorado celebrity, Louie the pizza shop bear.
Blanca Caro, the Colorado Springs police school resource officer at Palmer High School, said the bear's presence in downtown Monday nearly caused the school to go on lockdown. But further investigation revealed that the animal was not a threat to students and had made its way to Louie's Pizza on North Tejon Street.

Lockdown. For a bear cub. I can only hope that they were protecting the bear cub from high school students, not the other way around.

Louie and his two companions (from another rescue) were very shy, which is good. The rehabbers predict that with about ten weeks to go, they can have the cubs fat enough to enter hibernation in the wild. I need to drop off a contribution of puppy chow. A 40-pound sack should last them . . . two days?  We brought watermelons and acorns yesterday. Both Greek and American bears love watermelon.

September 15, 2015

Sigh, I Won't Get These on my Scout Cameras

Lynx . . . somewhere (Colorado Parks and Willdlife).
Colorado Parks and Wildlife releases some photos of lynxes taken with scout cameras.

After reintroduction in the early 2000s, biologists believed that there was a vialble population by 2010.

The current estimate is 200–300 lynx.

If you see one, there is an online lynx-sighting form.

They are not in the montane forest where I do most of my "camera-trapping," however, but mostly three or four thousand feet higher up.

September 13, 2015

What They Drank at Chaco Canyon

Pitchers from Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Via Western Digs, more study of Anasazi pottery residue shows that people — at least some people — were not only drinking cocoa, but also the "black drink" associated with the Midwestern and Southern tribes.

The latter has caffeine, the essential ingredient for civilization — like at Cahokia.
Moreover, making both cocoa and ‘black drink’ required plants that grew in far-off climates, researchers say, indicating that the Southwest was part of an ancient ‘caffeine trade network’ that extended from the foothills of the Rockies to the heart of Mexico.

“There are no known plants in the Southwest or Northwestern Mexico that have caffeine,” said Dr. Patricia Crown, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who led the study.
  Kakawa in Santa Fe serves various cacao-and-chile drinks. How long until they add Yaupon holly-based "black drink?" 

Just don't use the botanical name, Ilex vomitoria.

I still think that the ancient Pueblo cuisine was pretty grim. How do you want your corn today, fresh mush or refried mush? 

September 11, 2015

A Fistful of Euros

Blogging will be light, erratic, or off-topic for the next couple of weeks. M. and I are going on a trip. Maybe we need a theme song:

It was the movie that made Clint Eastwood famous, incidentally.

September 10, 2015

"Leaf Spot" Threatens Fall Aspen-Viewing, Oh No!

This appears to be a "leaf spot" fungus on Gambel oak.
Many Colorado aspens will not be as intensely gold this fall as normal, thanks to "leaf spot" fungus.

Even though this article is from the Colorado Springs Gazette, it is probably a re-written Colorado State Forest Service news release, hence the northern Colorado focus (just another microaggression).
Some stands of aspen and cottonwood trees across northern Colorado and along the Front Range won’t be their most picturesque this fall, due to leaf spot diseases that benefited from an unusually wet spring and early summer, state foresters say.

Foresters say they’ve seen an unusually high degree of leaf blight in the mountains and along the Front Range – as far south as Aspen, the Collegiate Peaks and Colorado Springs – for about a month.

At least two fungal diseases are to blame for the leaves now showing significant spotting or dark splotches. Marssonina leaf spot is caused by the Marssonina fungus and is the most common leaf disease of aspen and cottonwoods in Colorado. The disease can be identified by the presence of dark brown spots or flecks on leaves, which can then fuse into large, black splotches on severely infected leaves.
I have been seeing a browning of Gambel oak leaves in some clone-stands all summer, and since it could not have been from pesticide (not on our land), what was causing it?

Apparently the fungus affecting oaks is different, Discula quercina (and maybe others), but the look is the same: "Leaves have scattered brown, irregular spots that can coalesce into nearly completely brown leaves." And the extremely wet spring is to blame.