April 22, 2017

First There Is A Mountain, Then There Is No Mountain

Click to embiggen.
I look at the façade above the front door of the defunct Ponderosa Restaurant in Magdalena, New Mexico, and I wonder why it is asymetrical.

Then I see that it duplicates the outline of Magdalena Peak on the southern horizon.

And I think of a pleasant piece of psychedelic pop from years ago.

April 14, 2017

MOAB (Mother of All Bison) and Other Links

Steppe bison were the ones painted at
Altamira Cave in Spain (Wikipedia).
Research suggests that all North American bison (buffalo) are descended from one steppe bison, or Bison priscus, an ungulate that roamed Europe and Asia for millions of years.

And they were a lot bigger in the good ol' days:
"The scientists compared the mitochondrial DNA from the fossil found at Ch’ijee’s Bluff [Yukon] to that taken from 45 other bison remains, including one of the oldest and most interesting specimens, the fossil of a giant, long-horned bison — belonging to the species Bison latifrons — found in Snowmass, Colorado.

Bison latifrons is an interesting beast,” said Dr. Duane Froese, a geologist with the University of Alberta, in a separate statement.

“Its horns measured more than two meters across at the tips, and it was perhaps 25 percent larger than modern bison.”
All the kool kidz will be using these on their desert campouts soon. The Burners will have to have them. 

• Another illusion shattered. Human flesh may not be as nutritious as you thought.

April 13, 2017

America's Best Outdoor Recreation Value Will Cost a Little More

Trail signs, Colorado National Monument.

America's best recreational value.
Maybe someone realized that ten dollars for a lifetime senior national parks pass was just too good a deal in 2017. At any rate, the cost is going up — to $80.

If you are 62 or older, however, there is still a window to buy the pass at the old cheap price:
But if you get a lifetime pass before the change is implemented, it will cost only $10. Passes can be purchased online for an additional service fee of $10 or at any of the parks without an extra charge.

National Park Service officials are unsure how long it will take to implement the change, but it’s expected before the end of 2017. Meantime, they are spreading the word informally.
It's one good deal. Just show that pass to the ranger at the gate, and a whole carload of people get in. Some groups have been known to rearrange themselves so that the pass holder is driving, but I don't know if that is really necessary.

Even at $80, the pass would pay for itself if you made three national parks visits in a year.

IN OTHER PARK SERVICE NEWS:  President Trump donated his first-quarter 2017 salary to the National Parks Service, according to The Hill, a website focused on political news. That sum of 78,333.32 is, what, about equivalent to the annual salary of national monument supervisor? What do they make, anyway?

It's a nice gesture — and an under-reported one — but the park system needs a lot more money than that, mostly for non-spectacular stuff like repairing water systems, upgrading employee housing, fixing roads, etc.

April 09, 2017

Colorado Sand Dunes from Space and How to Say the Creek's Name

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
photographed from the International Space Station (NASA photo).
I came across this quick explanation for why southern Colorado has sand dunes on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve's Facebook page.
Many visitors wonder: Why is there so much sand only here, but not at other locations along the mountains?

In this view from space, part of the answer becomes clear. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are curved here, and at the same location are low passes to funnel wind and sand from the valley floor into this pocket.

Then why doesn't sand accumulate, for instance, at the base of La Veta Pass to the south? The mountains also curve there below a low pass.. The answer is that this northeast part of the San Luis Valley is a closed basin. Streams carrying sand into this basin don't exit, so all the sand they carry is deposited here. In the past, these streams fed into huge lakes; when these lakes disappeared through natural climate change, vast quantities of sand blew and accumulated here below Mosca, Medano, and Music Passes. In other parts of the valley, and in most places in the Rocky Mountains, sands are continually washed away and carried downstream into larger and larger rivers.
That is the San Luis Valley on the lower left and the Wet Mountain Valley to the upper right, so the top of the photo is roughly northeast.

A lot of visitors also pronounce the name of the creek that flows by the dunes as "Meh-DAH-no," thinking that that is the correct Spanish pronunciation, whereas in the Wet Mountain Valley, you hear something more like "MAD-uh-now" or "MAD-uh-no," usually in reference to Medano Pass, which connects the two valleys.

The latter is actually closer to the Spanish Médano — note the accent mark — which means "sand dune" and comes from an old Castillian word for mountain.

April 04, 2017

Geoffrey Chaucer Understood Our Weather—If You Change One Word

When that aprill with his blizzards soote
the droghte of marche hath percèd to the roote,
Than dogges go they forth to play,
And what they thinke, Ich ken ne say.

March 28, 2017

A Colorado Moment and a New Book on Yellowstone Death, Nature, & Science

So I sold a pair of World War 2-vintage snowshoes on eBay and used the money to buy hemp oil (CBD) for my dog.

A Colorado moment, circa 2017.

I probably could have asked more if I could definitely have linked those 1943 snowshoes to the 10th Mountain Division — Dad did acquire them in Colorado in the 1960s — but that was just a "maybe."


What I want to read:
 
Jordon Fisher Smith, whose Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra is one of my favorite reads, has a new book out, Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature.
"Harry Walker had come to Yellowstone in 1972 in search of himself. Instead, he became a tragic symbol of poor wildlife management and the killer grizzly bear. Walker’s death prompted a fierce debate over the human role in engineering nature, with some of the biggest names in wildlife biology at the time on either side.

"While a tempest of people, places and ideas rage within the pages of Engineering Eden the author is a calm voice in the storm, letting the reader take it all in and form an opinion of their own."
In this interview with a Florida NPR station, he says,  "“I wanted the artistic form of this narrative nonfiction work to resemble the endless interconnection of nature itself. Instead of saying to my reader, ‘Okay, now watch this. I’m gonna try to really make this complex web of relationships right in front of you,’ I just did it.”

(I really dislike the phrase "find yourself" or "in search of himself," etc. You don't just find yourself out there lying on the ground out in the woods; you build yourself by what you do day to day.)

March 20, 2017

Let the Women Carry the Loads

Women carrying cassava root (?) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Some time ago, I blogged a fascinating tale of South American exploration, The Lost City of Z. Oh, to enjoy the bounty of "rain, unceasing rain" again, as it fell six springs past!

More recently, I returned again to that book, following trails out from it, as in reading advice on wild-country travel by Francis Galton (1822–1911), a long-time member and officer of Britain's Royal Geographical Society. Its author, David Grann, writes,
During the Society's early years, no member personified the organization's eccentricities or audacious mission more than Sir Francis Galton. A cousin of Charles Darwin's, he had been a child prodigy who, by the age of four, could read and recite Latin. He went on to concoct myriad inventions. They included a ventilating top hat; a machine called a Gumption-Reviver, which periodically wet his head to keep him awake during endless study; underwater goggles; and a rotating-vane steam engine. Suffering from periodic nervous breakdowns––"sprained brain," as he called it––he had a compulsion to measure and count virtually everything. He quantified the sensitivity of animal hearing, using a walking stick that could make an inconspicuous whistle; the efficacy of prayer; the average age of death in each profession (lawyers: 66.51; doctors: 67.04); the exact amount of rope needed to break a criminal's neck while avoiding decapitation; and levels of boredom (at meetings of the Royal Geographical Society he would count the rate of fidgets among each member of the audience).
Galton attempted to quantify everything about exploration, from daily dietary needs to the maximum feasible load for a donkey, mule, horse, or camel on different types of terrain.

You may sample his calculations in his book The Art of Travel; Or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries, available as a free download from the inestimable Project Gutenberg.

He also rated women highly as "native bearers" for several reasons, quoting the explorer Samuel Hearne on the matter:
As the [Chipawyan?] chief said . . . "When all the men are heavy laden, they can neither hunt nor travel to any considerable distance; and if they meet with any success in hunting, who is to carry the produce of the labour?" . . . "Women," said he, "were made for labour: one of them can carry or haul as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night; and in fact there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country [northern Canada] without their assistance."
"Women," said he again, "though they do everything are maintained at a trifling expense: for, as they always cook, the very licking of their fingers, in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence."
That was Galton quoting Hearne, I believe, but the original speaker may have been a man named Matonabbee, who has his own Wikipedia entry. In his own voice, Mr Galton comments further, videlicet:
I believe there are few greater popular errors than the idea we have mainly derived from chivalrous times, that woman is a weakly creature . . . . It always seems to me that a hard-worked woman is better and happier for her work. It is in the nature of women to be fond of carrying weights; you may see them in omnibuses and carriages, always preferring to hold their baskets or their babies on their knees, to setting them down on the seats by their sides.
So, gentlemen, if you go afield backpacking with a member of the female sex, let her carry the tent.

March 13, 2017

Tunnel Vision, Survival, and Who Lives

Your ship sinks, your airplane crashes, you are sliding on your back down an icy slope into a crevasse — will you be the survivor?

I had read bits of Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why but never the whole thing until a couple of weeks ago when I chanced across a used copy.

The first part mixes stories with a quick guide to brain function, especially Our Friend the Amygdala and the wondrous intelligence-reducing effects of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes you stupid.

Or as Gonzales' father, a World War II bomber pilot said, "When you walk across to your airplane, you lose half your IQ," a line echoed by a contemporary Navy pilot who observes that during the stress of a nighttime  carrier landing, "Your IQ rolls back to that of an ape."

It's that stress-induced tunnel vision that comes up again and again. Learning to get past it is the most valuable thing, whether it is through training, through mentally rehearsing scenarios, a little bit of body memory —or maybe the need to focus on other people's needs.

I am not a pilot, but I remember one day when I was still new to our little volunteer fire department. I had to take out the brush truck (small wildland fire engine) for a call. Normally you need two people, minimum, but this was a case where I would be picking up the second person en route to the incident, which is permitted.

I opened the engine bay door, walked around the truck to check for open compartment doors, unplugged the battery trickle charger (I've heard of other people at other departments driving away and yanking out the wires!) and started the engine. I pulled out, thumbed the door-close button on the remote, and called Dispatch to say I was leaving the station.

Then I pulled out onto the highway and could not remember how to turn on the overhead light bar. Traffic was light, I kept going, and when I pulled off to pick up the other firefighter, it hit me: You move that little lever down there. Maybe having someone else with me reduced my stress enough that I could remember. Memory of what to do came flooding back.

In this book's second half, he drops the brain chemistry, instead mixing his stories with Stoic philosophy, the Tao Teh Ching, and some distillation of basic principles for survival.

When you look at Gonzales' twelve-step plan for survivors, you have to realize that it is not all about falling a mountain or lying alone in a life raft. Maybe you need those twelve steps on the day your boss calls you in and says you're laid off. (He has a newer book called Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things that I would like to read too.)

March 11, 2017

What Keeps Me Awake at Night

How to lay sandbags: the right way, the wrong way, and the Army Corps of Engineers way.
The future seems to have two probable paths.

1.  A dry winter thus far here in the foothills (the high mountains have lots of snow) means extremely high fire danger this spring and summer. Despite Nature's and humans' best efforts, we have not yet burned all the trees around here.

2. Some typical spring snows and rains break the winter drought but also create debris flows and flooding coming off last October's 18,400-acre burn scar, much of it coming past my area and down into town. (Not as big as 2013's floods up north, but potentially devastating on a two-county scale.)

My house is well above any potential flood short of the "End of the Ice Age" melt, but if both of two bridges were slammed by floating logs or otherwise knocked out, I would be back in the foot-travel and dog-travois era. 

A team from the Army Corps of Engineers Albuquerque district office has been here. They are quite excited about studying the burn scar's flood potential from hydrological and other perspectives, but that is all they can do for us short of a federal disaster declaration, which has not happened yet. (A few body bags would speed up the process, one suggested.)

The flood potential may last for years. That's what they want to study. Yay science!

They did conduct sandbag training today, however. I feel so much better. A neighbor and I laid the first few bags today to protect our shared well house, which sits closer to the creek.

All joking aside, isn't it better to do something and also worry instead of just worrying by itself?

March 10, 2017

Nuts to You, Says Abert's Squirrel

Abert's squirrel in ponderosa pine.
Everyone thinks of squirrels as caching nuts (thus inadvertently planting trees), but not the Abert's squirrel of the Southern Rockies and Colorado Plateau.

They just eat their favorite tree, ponderosa pine, which happens to be my favorite tree too, although I rarely eat any parts. (The pollen is a tonic, though.) Colorado Parks and Wildlife says, "Abert’s squirrel does not hoard food, but eats whatever part of its host tree, ponderosa pine, is available in season: cones and inner bark of twigs."

Many are a sort of salt-and-pepper grey (like these), but in southern Colorado they are mostly black. I think I have seen one grey one near the house in twenty years.

This degenerate squirrel has abandoned its healthy wild lifestyle
to eat sunflower seeds under the bird feeder.
Its name is one of those 19th-century "Westward the course of empire" relics, for it is named after James William Abert—explorer (Corps of Topographical Engineers), artist, and Civil War staff officer.

James William Abert
As Lieutenant Abert roamed the West in the 1840s, his proud father wrote to John James Audubon, "My son, Lieut. A., has some taste for Natural History. He has just returned from Santa Fe, having been on General Kearney's expedition. . . "

Together with collecting specimens, he also discoursed in the 19th-century manner on color theory for artists interested in natural history.

You can see Lt. Abert's reconstructed room and sketchbook at Bent's Old Fort, where he (and Everyone who was Anyone) stayed c. 1846.

February 26, 2017

A Kid, a Dog (?), and the World's Greatest Cave Art

What he or she saw: lions and prey at Chauvet
Sometime, say 26,000 years ago or more, a kid and a canid (wolf? dog? wolf-dog?) went exploring  underground.
The human prints are of a barefooted child aged eight to ten years old and standing about 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) tall. The child was walking, not running, although at one point it appears that he or she slipped a little in the soft clay. Researchers know that the child carried a torch because there is evidence of him/her stopping at one point to clean the torch, leaving behind a stain of charcoal.

It is amazing to think of a Paleolithic kid exploring this ancient cave, examining the paintings and bear skulls that were placed reverently at the back of the cave. Even more amazing is that accompanying (not stalking) the child’s footprints are the paw prints of a wolf (or possibly a large dog). This timeless image of a child and dog shatters the notion that dogs were only domesticated 15,000 years ago. More importantly, the new time period radically alters the answer to how dogs became man’s best friend.
OTHER NEWS: 

There are more prairie dog towns in Colorado than we thought. But I am still sorry that my sister did not ever follow up on her plan to clandestinely reintroduce them in South Park, from where, she said, they had all been poisoned in the mid-20th century.

• Hunting writer Dave Petersen of Durango interviewed in High Country News.
When I interviewed Western writer David Petersen for a magazine article several years ago, I really only had one question to ask him: Could hunting be morally defended in the 21st century?

At a time when few people seem concerned about that question — either they’re already convinced that hunting is barbaric, or just the opposite, that it’s a right that ought to be exercised with as few restrictions and as easily as possible — Petersen has spent much of his life examining what it means to kill in order to eat.
More about his hunting-ethics documentary here.

New study revises tree-ring dating of archaeological sites.
Currently, archaeologists have to rely on relatively sparse evidence for dating the history of Western civilisation before 763 BCE, with Chinese history also only widely agreed from 841 BCE. For example, they depend on ancient records of rare astronomical phenomena, such as the solar eclipse during the ninth year of Ashur Dan III of Assyria, to determine the age of historical events. In the absence of such records, standard radiocarbon measurements provide the best estimates, but these are still often only accurate to within 200 to 300 calendar years. If the radiocarbon spikes in the tree-ring data were also found in archaeological items attributable to specific historical periods, the information could be used to anchor exactly when events occurred, says the paper.

February 25, 2017

Colorado Forests Are Changing. Part of Me Likes That.

Pine beetle-killed lodgepole pine in Colorado (University of Colorado).
I spent last weekend camping with friends on the White River National Forest in Summit County, Colorado. The mountain pine beetle worked its magic there some years ago, which means there is lots of firewood in the form of dead trees.

As humans, I think we are hardwired for orgies — not talking about sex here, but more in the sense of "Run all the buffalo over a cliff and eat meat until you fall down!" "Dig all the gold!" "Drink all the beer!" Or in our case, "Build big fires!" Really, it makes our little ape-hearts feel good.

Let's take the long view, if we can. Only what we think is a long view is just childhood for a tree.

According to the Colorado State Forest Service, one in fourteen forest trees in the state is dead, for a total of 834 million standing dead trees. (A projection from sample counts, that has to be.)
Infestations of mountain pine beetles and spruce beetles are the main cause of the die-off, [State Forester Mike] Lester said. Beetles are native to the state but have caused far more damage than normal over the past 20 years, attacking more than 7,900 square miles of forest, or more than 20 percent of total forested land.
Standing dead trees made fighting last summer's 38,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire more difficult, fire  commanders said. Earlier studies about dead trees' effects on fire were more ambiguous, so I wonder if the pendulum will swing.

A big post-fire issue is flooding with associated erosion — I will be writing more about that later this spring.

And then there is Our Friend the Spruce Beetle.
At this point, there’s nothing stopping the spruce beetle. We’re observing it. We’re going to let nature run its course,” said state entomologist Dan West, who helped run aerial surveys with the U.S. Forest Service involving 40 flights over forests.
Some people are saying that the highly visible, highly visited forest along the Front Range will "never look the same."
Limited conifer regeneration following wildfires in dry ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado Front Range, by Fire Ecologist Monica Rother and CU-Boulder Professor of Geography Thomas Veblen, surveyed conifer regeneration at six low-elevation Front Range sites that burned eight to 15 years before. Released in December and published in the journal Ecosphere, it found that "current patterns of post-fire seedling establishment suggest that vegetation composition and structure may differ notably from historic patterns and that lower density stands and even non-forested communities may persist in some areas of these burns long after the fire[.]"
That prospect does not bother me on one level. I find the "start-up phase" of forests to be interesting. The big-game hunting is better too. Now if your house in the woods burned to the ground, you may not feel that way. And if you look at trees just as unharvested timber, you may not agree with me.

(But some of the land that has burned around me was never logged, because it is just too steep and rough. Other areas were logged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but then not managed for timber sales after that because of low productivity.)

"Lower-density stands"? Bring 'em on. Along with a predilection for orgies of food, drink, and firewood, I favor those evolutionary psychologist who think that human inherently like a meadow-and-forest (or savannah-and-trees) environment better than dense forest or grassland.

February 04, 2017

Out of Asia, Always Something Old

Float like a snowshoe, glide like a ski

At 145cm, Altai's Hok backcountry ski
is about the same length as my old Army
surplus trail shoes — but they glide, some.

When it comes to outdoor sports, Americans tend to favor gear over technique. We want to ride or ski on what the racers use, or what the pros use. "I know that this $1,200 fly reel machined from unobtainium alloy will make me a better angler!"

I chuckle a little at the converts to tenkara fly-fishing with their newly learnt Japanese vocabulary, because I think it is just the 17th-century English fly-fishing that Izaak Walton would have recognized — but with contemporary high-tech materials.

Yet I appreciate and support the minimalism of tenkara. A rod, a line, a few flies —go do it! It really works.

Getting around in the snow.

I have owned snowshoes since my teens, then got cross-country skis in my twenties (I wish that I had started sooner). 

Both let you move through snowy landscapes (not too steep). Both have long historical pedigrees. We identify snowshoes with North American Indians, but they were also used in Stone Age Europe. They are what you make with stone tools. 

With metal tools, you can cut and shape boards, giving you skis. Archaeologists suggest that skis were invented in Central Asia, but maybe they were invented independently in Scandinavia.

In a century, ski touring bindings went from simple straps that you slip your toe under (why Finns wore boots with turned-up toes) to these (or fancier). Synthetics largely replaced wood.

Ski like a Mongol/Tuvan/Kazakh/Siberian

Even as tenkara gets rid of the reel and the long fly line, a new Asian-inspired approach to ski touring takes a middle road between snowshoing (slow, utilitarian) and Nordic skiing (faster but trickier on steep slopes).

Some skiers are even getting rid of ski poles and returning to a simple stick, like these guys:


Or, more appropriately, like these guys — contemporary skiers in the Altai Mountains.
Contemporary Altai Range skiers. OK, I do see some ski poles there. (Photo: Alta Skis)
Formed in 2011, with offices in the US and Canada, Altai Skis revived the Central Asian style of wide skis with skins permanently attached. Their first model, the Hok (from Tuvan for "ski"), comes in just two adult lengths, 125cm and 145cm (and a 99 cm kids' model). It has metal edges and a permanently installed nylon skin with waxable Ptex tips and tails.

If you're more of a snowshoer at heart, you can buy bindings that fit any winter boot. If you come from an x-c ski background, you can get regular or cable 75mm three-pin bindings or adaptors for other styles, like NNN.

And for forty bucks, they will sell you a Tiak ("stick") if you can't make your own.

The problem with skiing here in the southern Rockies is that good snow and gentle terrain does not happen often enough. To get good snow, you have to move into more rugged forested areas and break trail. Lots of people use snowshoes with ski poles, which seems silly on level ground but helps when you're in powder on a slope.

After decades of flipping between speed (x-c skis) and flotation (snowshoes), I learned about the Altai Skis and bought a pair of 145cm Hoks (They also have a slimmer, faster backcountry model called the Kom,with fishscale waxless bottoms.)

I put three-pin cable bindings on them, because I have the boots, and in a nod to old-school skiing, have been using some old bamboo poles. I always wanted to be the last guy in Colorado with bamboo poles. One day I will cut a pine stick though; skiers with sticks do have an archaic silhouette. The stick is for balance and braking, but does not give the diagonal-stride push of the ski pole.

I took them out for two short test runs along the Sangres and then yesterday for a two-hour trip along the base of the Sawatch Range. My first thought was "Comfortable! I can go right into the trees with these."

The first two trips were more for familiarization and adjusting bindings. Yesterday I alternated between following a marked trail and going into untracked snow, up to knee-deep with some wind crust in places.

The Hoks certain held me up better than my skinny skis as I moved from soft snow to crusted powder to packed powder-and-ice. But unlike with snowshoes, I could get a little bit of a glide. Breaking trail is always work no matter what you use.

I have not yet used the Hoks in fresh deep powder, but an opportunity will come.

• • •

About that headline: The Romans used to say, "Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre" (Out of Africa, always something new.) They in turn got it from the Greeks, but to them it had the connotation of "Out of Africa, always something weird."

Aristotle, (384 to 322 B.C.), referred to the proverb in two of his books, Historia Animalium and Generatione Animalium, to explain the wild mélange of animals in Africa. He wrote that many of the animals unique to Africa were strange hybrids, suggesting that the lack of water forced the animals to meet at watering holes where they mated indiscriminately with one another.

February 02, 2017

When Bears — and Deer and Badgers — Wear Fur Coats

Fawn on furs (Wet Mountain Wildlife).
M. and I swung through Pueblo last week on a typical supply run and picked up some fur coats — one rabbit, one mink.

They are for the bears. Or the fawns. Or whatever other young animals turn up at the wildlife rehabiltation center west of town later this spring.

A program called "Coats for Cubs," run by resale clothing retailer Buffalo Exchange, collects unwanted fur coats for rehabilitation centers nationwide.
To celebrate a new year and a new you, donate fur to Coats for Cubs! From January 2 to April 22 (Earth Day), Buffalo Exchange locations across the country will be collecting real furs in any condition. We then ship them off to wildlife rehabilitators, who use them to create a nurturing environment for injured and orphaned animals. 
Our friends at the center here got a deluge of coats this summer. They have always put stuffed toy animals in with some of their orphans, such as foxes. But the furs were better.
In fact, Sanders was amazed how well the animals took to the furs, noting a bond that was formed between the baby mammals and donated items.

“I just couldn’t believe the response from the animals,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything bond with anything like that before. They really love them.”
After that story ran in the Pueblo Chieftain, a new donor got in touch with the center directly, hence our coat-transport.

So if there is an unwanted fur coat in your house, contact Coats for Cubs, which maintains a list of participating wildlife rehabilitation centers around the country.