December 31, 2013

Wildfire Investigations and the Rumor Mill

Two weeks ago I was emailing back and forth with a reporter friend about the still-undisclosed cause of the Royal Gorge Fire last June in Frémont County.

It seems that the feds still have not said anything—she got the usual "bureaucratic syrup" (full of empty calories) from a Bureau of Land Management spokesman: "The cause of the fire is still an active and on-going investigation."

So does that mean that it is a criminal investigation? And if so, why not say so?

The conventional wisdom is that the 2013 Waldo Canyon Fire was started by an escaped campfire, but no one has been fingered for setting it. (Hard to catch them, I realize.) That same summer there was a string of small arson-caused wildfires in nearby Teller County as well.

And last summer's big Black Forest Fire started at a private home—but how?

No wonder rumors are flying, or as the Colorado Springs Gazette recently headined, "Languishing Colorado wildfire investigations feed rumor mill."

All they can say for Black Forest is,
No obvious accelerant were uncovered in the evidence collect from the place where the Black Forest fire started, just one of multiple clues that have pushed investigators to lean toward a conclusion that fire was accidentally started.
Instead we see a lot of coverage of the Black Forest fire chief and the El Paso County sheriff having a pissing contest in the news media.

Government "public information" at its finest . . .

December 30, 2013

What Does the Fox Take?*

What does the fox take?
See the while ball with part bitten out? I found it a few days ago while scrambling through a brushy, rocky up behind the house, an area that today (after a light snow) is a maze of fox tracks.

And the other balls? Someone carries them two or three hundred yards up from the neighbors' houses, only to decide that they are not edible.

Maybe the fox thinks that they are eggs. Red fox or gray? That I do not know, but I am putting more scout cameras up there.

And the teddy bear? Same story, from the other side of the ridge.

*It just hit me that if I don't use this headline now, it will be spoofing last year's catchphrase, and no one will know what I meant, ring-ding-ding.

December 29, 2013

Sleeping in the Cold

A young guy in northern Minnesota decides to try sleeping outdoors for a year in the back yard. He started out in a kind of tree house, but then winter came.
The snow house smelled like straw, which littered the white floor. In this holiday season, Hummel seemed to be occupying his own Nativity scene.
Lots of foam pads, that's the secret. (Via Free Range Kids.)

I have done some winter camping, but a year—I respect that.

M's and my second dwelling was a sort-of-winterized little house in Manitou Springs. We slept in an unheated, uninsulated sun porch. It did have glass windows—jalousies that did not seal too well and let little patches of snow drift in.

But our rule was that when the temperature in our bedroom dipped much below 20° F (-7° C), we would move into the indoor guest room.

December 27, 2013

The Revolution Was Not Televised, So I Missed It

From the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, as reported in the Cañon City Daily Record.

Wednesday, December 18: FCSO captain spoke with two parties in the lobby demanding assistance with contacting the Secret Service. One party had been contacted several times in the past week regarding the same request. Today he had an accomplice who was wearing a green mask and cape and wouldn't identify himself or speak. They warned that there would be a revolution on Friday.

Thursday, December 19: FCSO in Cañon City, male party was in the lobby again asking for the Secret Service and updating the captain on Friday's revolution. He stated it wouldn't take place in Fremont County.

I was in one Fremont County town on the 22nd and streets were quiet. I may be down in Cañon City today, and I will keep my eyes open. But I remember what Gil Scott Heron used to say.

December 26, 2013

Killing Eagles for Green Energy

Eagles are still federally protected — except when they get in the way of "green energy."

I have been fuming for two weeks, ever since reading that the Obama Administration signed off on letting wind farms kill them (not to mention other birds and bats) for the next thirty years:
Hundreds of thousands of birds die each year flying into the deadly turbine blades atop the soaring towers that compose wind farms. The rule will give wind farms thirty year permits for the “non purposeful take of eagles-that is where the take is associated with but not the purpose of, the activity.’’ The take of eagles is also a euphemism for the slaughter of them. (Video at the link)
Why, it's a "struggle to balance," notes the New York Times:
[The Obama Administration] has increasingly found itself caught between two staunch allies: the wind energy industry and environmental organizations. . . . “A 30-year permit is like a blank check,” said David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, which was involved in months of negotiations on the rule. “It basically says you can go operate these wind turbines and kill as many eagles as happen to die.”
And you can tell whose votes Obama's people take for granted.

Here in Colorado, the Danish wind-turbine firm Vestas threatens layoffs unless they keep getting federal tax breaks, and noted conservationist Senator Mark Udall is all for it, trumpeting how he is all about the tax credits:  "The wind production tax credit supports Made-in-America energy and jobs across Colorado."

I do think the day will come when we have something better than wind-energy— fuel cells the size of air conditioners or something else that generates fairly clean power around the clock and does not fill up thousands of square miles of land with bird-swatters.

Then people will look at wind farms the same way that we look at passenger zeppelins—an interesting technology that failed to work as advertised.

December 24, 2013

Great Tumbleweed Migration

On the prairie west of Pueblo, the tumbleweeds are migrating.

Think nature-documentary film: "Onward they come, their destination unknown, driven by a force they cannot name. In twos, sixes, and twenties, large and small, the tumbleweeds march inexorably eastward across the savannah."

The wind was blowing the dogs' ears inside out, and a cloud of dust in the distance looked an awful lot like a grass fire, but was not.

(M.'s thought: "At least we have both dogs with us." My thought: "It's too far from my department's territory—unlikely that we would be called out.")

Fisher the maniacal Chesapeake galloped into the wind, propelled by jets of craziness from his butt — or whatever motivates him.

When he squatted to poop, tumbleweeds piled up against his legs.

December 20, 2013

More People Hunting and Fishing, says Multi-state Survey

This news comes from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which in its news release cited these factors:
Responsive Management, a public opinion research organization specializing in survey research on natural resource and outdoor recreation issues, focused on recent showing a nine percent increase in hunter participation among Americans nationwide from 2006 to 2011.

The study pinpoints 10 major reasons for the increases:

•    The economic recession

•    Higher incomes among some segments of the population

•    Hunting for meat and the locavore movement

•    Agency recruitment and retention programs

•    Agency access programs

•    Agency marketing and changes in licenses

•    Current hunters and anglers participating more often

•    Returning military personnel

•    Re-engagement of lapsed hunters

•    New hunters and anglers including female, suburban and young participants
Just to pick a few numbers, Colorado resident hunting-license sales are up 14 percent since 2006 but New Mexico are down 3 percent. Illinois, however, saw a 78-percent increase in those years — one of the larger increases. In many cases, these numbers represent an upturn after several years of declines. So it is not a complete turnaround by any means.

Interestingly, the top major influence to go hunting listed by respondents (68 percent of them) was "Interest in hunting as a local, natural, or green food."

Read the complete survey (PDF).

December 19, 2013

Blog Stew in Abandoned Houses

¶ Kind of a fairy-tale ambiance, if your idea of fairy tale runs to weasels, fog, and decay: "Forest Animals Living in Abandoned Houses." From Finland—where is the Southern Rockies version?

¶ A guide to telling what is eating your livestock.

¶ Colorado College professor Walt Hecox gets an environmental-policy award.

¶ Always topical: Survival Mom's guide to "50 Last-Minute Ways to Prepare for an Emergency." A lot of it is about water.

December 18, 2013

No Blog Stew, Please, We're Neanderthals

¶ Ongoing study of Neanderthal DNA genes in modern humans, including adaptation to UV light: 
Interestingly, the authors note, the geographic distribution of the Neanderthal genomic region suggests that UV-light mutations were shown to be lost during the exodus of modern human from Africa, and reintroduced to Eurasians from Neanderthals. “Overall, it is still very controversial whether there is more Neanderthal DNA contributions to Asians than Europeans, as we have evidence to argue against this,” said Lin. “Although in the case of the Hyal2 variant, it did indeed have a higher frequency in Asians.
¶  Another study suggesting that Neanderthal people did bury their dead, as opposed to the notion that modern archaeologists misinterpreted bone deposits:
The findings center on Neanderthal remains first discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The well-preserved bones led its early 20th-century excavators to posit that the site marked a burial ground created by a predecessor to early modern humans. However, their conclusions have sparked controversy in the scientific community ever since, with skeptics maintaining that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burial may not have been intentional.

December 17, 2013

Mindworms at the Woodpile

Why is it that I cannot cut and carry pine logs — especially at this time of year — without hearing a particular Victorian Christmas carol in my mind? (The tune itself is from the13th century, and the original lyrics referred to springtime!)

And why is it that when I split the logs, I cannot avoid thinking of Saying 77 of the Gospel of Thomas?

We need to be able to delete "files" from our memories, I think, as we do on our computers. I get tired of the repetition.

December 14, 2013

Lost Italian Restaurants, Ghost-Town Guidebook Snobbery, and a Whiff of Coal Smoke in the Air

A wave of disappointment rippled across southern Colorado on December 4th when an article in the Pueblo Chieftain announced that Merlino's Belvedere restaurant was closing at the end of 2013, a casualty, its owners said, of the economy in general—and maybe another domino following after last summer's Royal Gorge Fire.

Opened in 1946 in the fruit-growing area of Lincoln Park, on the south edge of Cañon City, it had been operated by three generations of the Merlino family and drew diners from at least four counties.

We still go back there for dinners with visiting friends and relatives, so last Friday night we decided to make a farewell visit. An early time would be OK, we thought.

So did about seventy other people — and they had reservations.

We ended up instead at the Royal Gorge Brewing Co. in downtown Cañon City, eating OK pub food, but it wasn't the spaghetti aglia e olio that M. had set her heart on.

Sali's Club Paradise, 807 Cyanide Avenue, Prospect Heights, from old postcard.
And we talked about restaurants and about our six years (1986-1992) in Cañon City, which started in near-poverty and ended with us on our way up and out.

We went there because I had a magazine-editing job that collapsed with the magazine itself — most start-ups fail. Then 1987 was the worst — collecting unemployment, doing odd jobs, selling a few freelance pieces, with the emphasis on few.

When we could afford a cheap dinner out, we did not go to Merlino's but to somewhere even closer to our modest 1908 smelter worker's cottage in South Cañon — Sali's Paradise, haunt of movie stars and (reputedly) Pueblo and local mafiosi looking for a quiet place to eat their steak, noodles, and red sauce.

Cañon City, we learned, was glued together from three towns: East Cañon, South Cañon (our part, sort of the wrong side of the tracks), and Cañon City proper.

Then there was unincorporated Lincoln Park and other little towns: tiny Prospect Heights with its abandoned one-cell jail, Brookside (former location of the Hell's Half Acre saloon district), and the other "coal camps": Radiant, Rockvale, Coal Creek, Williamsburg, Chandler — some reduced to true ghost-town status, others merely clinging on.

Gus and Doris Salardino (hence "Sali's") had come from Rockvale, where the family had the Gold Nugget saloon before coal mining dropped off in the 1920s. But at Sali's Paradise, the calendar seemed to have stopped in 1948, with the neon lights in the bar and the big sepia photo of President Harry Truman hanging in the dining room.

But they got the antipasti to the table fast, and if they were out of the wine you ordered from the modest list, the waitress would scamper across Cyanide Avenue to the liquor store.

That's right, the restaurant stood unabashedly at 807 Cyanide Avenue. And there are streets named "Cyanide" in neighboring Florence, Colo., and Lead, S.D., among other places I have been. It's a mining-town thing.

Something I had already figured out was that there is a sort of "class line" in Colorado ghost town writing. You can find lots of books by authors such as Sandra Dallas about the precious-metals mining towns — you get St. Elmo, Victor, Blackhawk, East TIncup, etc. etc. over and over again.

But you never hear about the coal camps: Cokedale, Segundo, Coal Creek, and the rest.  Because gold and silver are romantic but coal is dirty? The work, the labor issues, the mining-town life — a lot of that seemed about the same. (1)

M. and I had thought of moving to Rockvale — it seemed safe from any threat of gentrification —  but there was no irrigation water, so we ended up in South Cañon as shareholders in the DeWeese-Dye Ditch, which gave our quarter acre plenty of water once I re-dug the lateral. (2)

When the annual meeting came, I would collect my neighbors' proxies and attend, just for more "time travel." We would meet in Brookside Hall, a bare rectangular room furnished with folding chairs, bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, and a whiff of coal smoke in the air. 1948? It was more like maybe 1932. Someone would come around holding out his Stetson had, and you would toss your ballot in.

But "time travel" and the odder nooks of eastern Fremont County could not hold us forever — we wanted cooler summer temperatures and trees, and so we moved upwards in elevation, out of the piñon-juniper belt and into the pines.

And for several springs thereafter I would get this uneasy feeling in March: "When is a good windless day to burn the ditch?"

Sali's Paradise is long gone, Merlino's Belvedere is closing, and I don't know where the ditch company holds its annual meeting anymore.

(1) Some of the coal camps were company towns, such as Chandler, and the mining company sold off all the buildings when the mine shut down.

(2) Acequita to my New Mexico readers.

December 10, 2013

It's a Deer's Life

November 11: There is something odd going on the woods. I'll slip around before dawn on this concealed trail!

November 22: I feel safer now, and it's time to party! Where are the ladies?

November 25: Did someone say "party"?

December 09, 2013

Looking for Cameras in the Snow

That scout camera is near here somewhere.
Hardly anyone climbs this ridge. In fact, until last November 1st, I had not been up it in years, although it is quite close to home.

That day, working my way up through the thick trees and rocks, I found myself looking at cut stumps from spindly north-slope Douglas fir. I had wandered into the edge of the burn, and here, at my feet, was the ragged "scratch line" dug through the rocks by the San Juan Hotshots on July 3, 2011. Theirs were probably the last boots on this part of the mountain.

I remember the day of the fire, hearing their chainsaws whining way up the slope. I was with our department's water tender on the Forest Service road lower down. It was our job to refill our brush truck's tank, emptied as its crew chased hot spots up and down the road — the fire kept wanting to jump over it.

Sure, it would have been more fun to be in the thick of things, but my assignment meant that I could literally run 200 yards home and warn M. if the fire changed direction and headed for our house. That it did not do. A fast initial response with federal hand crews, two or three volunteer departments' engines, and air assets stopped its run, and we slept in our own bed that night.

And the ridge was given back to the deer, the bears, and the foxes. 

Even before the fire, I had been placing a scout camera on a certain game trail low on the ridge, where the bears in particular follow their own parallel way to the road.

Finally late this autumn, I got more ambitious. I put one camera, call it #2, midway up the slope, and on November 1st, I revisited the ridge's crest and placed another, #3,  at what seemed a likely pinch point.

Two days ago, with snow on the ground and temperatures well below freezing, I figured that all the camera batteries were probably dead and that I really ought to get the cameras down off the mountain.

The trail to camera #1 is easy, a walk in the park. I pass it and keep climbing. Where was #2. It's so confusing — the thick woods, the shallow ravines. Which is which? I should have brought my GPS receiver, since I waymarked it back in October.

Now I know that I have climbed above it. I might as well keep going for the crest, look for #2 later.

It's cold, maybe 15° F. I need to pee, so I face downhill, and realize that the tree trunks are all scorched on the uphill side. I have wandered east into the burn.

I move fifty yard west, detour around some fallen trunks, and I think that I am on the right path, more or less. There are deer tracks going up, and I follow them. Will they crest the ridge at the right point? Underfoot are tumbled rocks, a sort of lightly forested talus slope, covered with snow. Maybe the deer know the best way up and over.

Following the deer tracks, I climb to the top — and I am staring right at camera #3. It was well-placed!

I unstrap it from the tree, sling in my shoulder, and start down, following the 2011 fireline (I think). The snow has covered my little marker cairns, most of them.

I am making good progress going down — and not falling! — until I look out through the trees, spot a neighbor's house, and realize that I have now drifted too far west. So it is time to contour to the east until I intersect my upward-bound footprints.

Still no camera #2. I will just have to come back with the GPS receiver and find it. I make my excuses: everything looks different in the snow.

And then I see it. And I see my tracks not six feet from it. I had walked right past it while looking off to the other side. Some woodsman I am!

I sling #2 on my other shoulder, continue on down, sure of the way now, collect #1, and walk down the snow-packed road to home.

Photos to follow. I need to learn that piece of country better.

December 08, 2013

Here Is Your Winter

As good or better than the Farmer's Almanac.  You could probably extrapolate that Northern Rockies precipitation forecast into Alberta and eastern B.C. Click to embiggen.

December 07, 2013

Winter Camping in the Age of Ignorance

I was skimming this article (and its informed comments) about temperature rating on winter
This looks like my childhood sleeping bag.
sleeping bags
and how many manufacturers (in the writer's opinion) overstate them. In other words, a bag rated to -20° F (-28° C) is really more like a -10° bag for a man — maybe a -5° bag for a woman.

With the temperatures hovering around 0° F. outdoors, I remembered my first serious winter camping trip and sleeping in a Korean War-surplus M1949 "down and feathers" mummy bag.

That was not the worst of it. Compared to the rest of my gear, that was a high-tech sleeping bag.

My Boy Scout troop went to the annual Winter Camporee, held in Rocky Mountain National Park — near Bear Lake, I think. I was about 12 years old.

The troop supplied canvas tents, while we Scouts brought our own personal gear. Maybe if Dad had been around, he could have offered good advice and some of his own stuff — he got me started on camping and backpacking, after all — but at this point, the marriage was dissolving, and he was living elsewhere.

As I recall, I was equipped with cotton long underwear, probably cotton socks, cotton blue jeans, some kind of shirt and sweater (?), a not-great ski parka, knit hat, and mittens. On my feet were oiled leather pull-on boots, "Wellingtons" in the American sense of the word. They leaked.

If you had a down parka back then, you were probably a pro mountaineer, like Jim Whittaker on Mount Everest, or else had the money to pretend to be one.

Under my M1949 sleeping bag was a plastic-covered foam-rubber pad off a patio chaise longue. And maybe a GI poncho.

I shivered through the night and spent part of the morning standing next to the campfire that was slowly sinking down, down into the snow. (We "cooked" on campfires, as I recall).

I learned some things right away, such as that blue jeans freeze, and since there were no outhouses, just the woods, you can spend hours working up the courage to take a shit in the snow.

On the plus side, I spent a lot of time snowshoeing, and that plus the bright Colorado sunshine warmed me up. The snowshoes kept my inadequate boots up out of the snow as well.

The second evening, the Scout leaders loaded us into their cars and took us to some Park Service building where we watched a natural-history movie. I suspected even at the time that the real reason for the trip was to let us spend a couple of hours inside a heated structure.

I made a few improvements to my bed, survived the second night, and ran in the snowshoe races the next day. And then it was time to head home. I thought that I had had a good time overall, and I proudly sewed the Winter Camporee patch onto my uniform.

December 06, 2013

'A Giant Suffering Mass'

A series of photos compare purebred dogs from a century ago and now. Compare, for example, the change in the St. Bernard "from useful happy work dog to giant suffering mass." (You could say the same thing about Newfoundlands. too.)

December 05, 2013

Browns Canyon and a New Spin on Wilderness Advocacy

Senator Udall outlines his bill.
Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) stood up in front of a group of mostly Chaffee County folks on Tuesday to announce that his bill to create the Browns* Canyon National Monument soon start its perilous journey downstream through the dark canyon that is Congress.

As snow swirled outside the venue, the reception area at Noah's Ark Whitewater Rafting, no doubt some of those present were mentally calculating what percentage of a decent snowpack had accrued thus far in the season.

This proposal has been a long time coming. I remember seeing Browns Canyon from a raft for the first time in 1986 or '87 — and that trip was a junket organized for some conservation group (Trout Unlimited?) connected either with Browns Canyon or the proposed Arkansas River state park. And I can recommend testifying at a public meeting in Buena Vista six (?) years ago before Ken Salazar when he was in the Senate. And there has been a lot more done along the way.

Part of the proposed national monument — to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, not the Park Service — has been a BLM wilderness study area (WSA) since the 1980s, at least.

Like a lot of the BLM WSA's, it is a not a high-altitude alpine forest-and-snow area, but would protect lower elevation forest (important big game habitat) and riparian areas. It had a road into it to an old mining camp. And lots of people wanted a say for or against the proposal: recreational gold miners, hunters, dirt bikers, four-wheelers, cattlemen, commercial rafters, private rafters, anglers . . . and one group that surprised me, but whose inclusion makes perfect sense.

Over the years, compromises were made, and the original proposal shrank down to about 10,000 acres.

Udall praised the effort as "emblematic" of how a public lands bill should be crafted, from the bottom up and as a "common sense proposal" that would "protect all existing legal uses."

Then came brief statements from supporters. There was the motel owner-real estate agent from Buena Vista, who said that a designated national monument would bring more visitors. I suspect that he is right. The vice president of the commercial rafters association made a similar point, noting that whitewater rafting on the Arkansas is a $54 million industry.

Another outfitter, Bill Dvorack (holder of Colorado outfitting license #1) spoke about protecting wildlife habitat. Bill Sustrich of Salida, at 87 years probably the oldest life member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, talked about ATVers ruining elk hunting.

Interestingly, there was another speaker from a nonprofit group helping veterans reintegrate into society. He identified himself as a former Army sniper in Iraq, and talked about the part that public lands recreation played in his own de-stressing from his war experience.

That rang a bell — I remembered outdoor writer and vet Galen Geer writing an article about how hunting did something similar for him after his tours in Vietnam. His article seemed to stand alone at the time (the late 1980s or early 1990s), but now people are organizing such outdoor experiences.

* About a century ago, the US Board of Geographic Names or some such agency decided that the possessive apostrophe was too complicated for them.

December 03, 2013

Reading Water Flows with Trees

Via Coyote Gulch, I learned about TreeFlow, a project to reconstruct centuries' worth of river flows in the West through correlating them with tree rings. "A tree-ring reconstruction is a best-estimate of past streamflows, based on the relationship between tree-ring data and observed streamflow over the modern period."

Here, for example, is the reconstruction of the Colorado River's flow at Lees Ferry, Arizona, going back to 750 CE (scroll down for that graph).

Closer to home, the Arkansas River at Cañon City, Colorado, from 1685–1987.

The process correlates tree rings with observed data from the late 19th century to the present, then projects the correlation back over older tree ring samples from cores or archaeological sites. More about the process here.
The persistent drought conditions that emerged across the West in 1999, especially the extreme drought year of 2002, indicated that the observed records of streamflow in the region did not capture the full range of natural hydrologic variability. This drought, along with increasing demands on water supplies led to a need to assess the range of drought conditions that were likely to occur. Tree-ring reconstructions of streamflow, extending several hundred years or longer, provide a more complete representation of past variability. Accordingly, streamflow reconstructions attracted more interest within the water management community as a potentially useful tool for planning.

December 02, 2013

Blog Stew for Free-Range Kids and Tactical Barbequers

¶ A northwest section has been added to the Colorado Birding Trail. The "trail" is a series of wildlife-watching stops and driving loops. Here is the site for all the "trails."

¶ Exurban Kevin rounds up some of the "tactical" Christmas-gift ideas out there. A MOLLE-gear barbeque apron? Tactical paper? I never go hiking without it.

¶ It snowed last week in Walsenburg too. With photos.

¶ No MOLLE gear, but check out "A Terrible Mother's Holiday Guide to Dangerous Gifts," via Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog.

December 01, 2013

Turkeys in the Snow

M. and I came home Thanksgiving Day to find about eight inches of crusted snow on the ground, the remains of a storm from three days earlier.  These photos were taken Saturday the 29th, when eight wild turkeys showed up just in time for a Project Feeder Watch count day. The turkeys were scuffling around under the bird feeders looking for sunflower seeds that the jays had pushed out.

It's tough being a ground-feeding bird in snowy weather, which is why they usually for south-facing slopes and other places that melt out early.  The monsoon rains this summer brought on a good crop of native grass seed, which they will eat when it is exposed — and I have mixed feelings about that. Sure, turkeys got to eat, but I wanted to see some of that blue grama etc. germinate and fill in the bare places.

Sure, my opinion matters a lot to the turkeys!

Meanwhile, the snow. The first county road we take on the way home was fairly clear, but the second was icy. At the right moment, I popped the Jeep into 4WD and gunned it for the first little hill in our unplowed driveway, making the first turn and slewing in S-curves through its dips and rises (must get new tires!) up to the house.

Wind and freeze-thaw cycles had made the snow compact and granular, hard to shovel and too chunky for my big snow-blower. More sunny days and cold nights have turned the tire tracks into ice ribbons. If more snow falls soon on top of them, the result won't be pleasant.