Showing posts with label Wet Mtns.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wet Mtns.. Show all posts

July 30, 2021

All My Flycatchers, Season 17: The "Spare Tire" Strategy


 Season 17.
There is nothing like monitoring a bird's nest to collapse time — it is like there is only one spring and one summer, constantly cycling, and in the end — some day — I will be this grumpy old man who cares about nothing except whether a pair of Cordilleran flycatchers have returned in June.

This year's "Lucinda" built a nest on the Official Flycatcher Nesting Shelf, sheltered under the eave on the back of the house, above human head height, and protected (I would like to think) from most predators.

She laid three eggs, pictured. And then a few days later, a fourth, which never hatched. This seems to be a pattern — a late fourth egg, maybe intended as a sort of "spare tire." Sometimes there is fourth chick, but they never seem to live. Several times, when cleaning out the nest (flycatchers do not re-use nests), I have found the desicated featherless body of the fourth chick.

"Trying their wings" is not a metaphor

Meanwhile, eating breakfast and supper on the front porch this past week, I was watching a flycatcher making its short hunting flights from a dead limb on a ponderosa pine tree. It seemed like a good hunting spot, since it overlooked a small open area.

Then I saw the bird land on another larger limb and watched it with binoculars. Wow! another nest, with three little heads poking out. I got my spotting scope and a small tripod that fit on the table top. I know, very Ranger Rick, birding between bites of breakfast.

Two days ago, one chick was stretching out a wing that looked fully fledged. Yesterday morning, it was out of the nest, sitting on the branch beside it, but still being fed by one of the parents. 

This morning, all three were out of the nest. If they were raptors, I would call them "branchers," but do you use that word with passerine birds too? Anyway, there they were, outside the nest but sticking close, occasionally beating their wings without taking off. (We could hear the soft thumps from twenty yards away.) 

The adults, meanwhile, kept up a steady cycle of fly in, land, feed one or two young, fly away, perch, hunt, and repeat.

By late afternoon, the nest and the branch that it sits on were empty of flycatchers. Maybe the lease ran out on July 30th.

I wonder if there is a forgotten fourth egg up there.

July 12, 2021

Rolling Down from Rattlesnake Gulch

 

A smokey sunset over the hood of Engine 968. This was a Jeep wreck up the canyon, not a fire call, but I still like it when I can work the place name "Rattlesnake Gulch" into my report in the National Fire Incident Reporting System. It's just so by-gawd Western.

May 06, 2021

If Looks Could Kill . . .


 . . . then these tom turkeys would be dead, because they are engaged in a hostile stare-down with their own reflections. Angry gobbling was heard.

Some mule deer in the background. Southern Colorado foothills life, at some friends' house.

April 19, 2021

Who Needs Bigfoot? We Have Mystery Beasts

 I know what they are, but where did they come from? 

First, an orange cat. He looks a lot like Charlie, a neighbor's cat who frequently visited people staying in the guest cabin in the early teens. Then he vanished, as semi-feral cats often do. But now there is another orange cat, presumably the source of cat tracks seen on snowy mornings.

Then this yellow dog has turned up a few times this spring on a scout camera near the house. We don't recognize him — and M. is the sort of person who walks a lot and knows the local dogs better than she knows their owners. But I can't believe he is living on his own.


Another camera, which was set to video, picked up some visiting black dogs — and then this, which definitely is not a dog.


That was on March 31st, between snowstorms. Obviously a pig. M reminded me that certain neighbors, who keep making inept experiments at homesteading, had two piglets last summer — once or twice they came visiting and then trotted home. 

One piglet was black, she said. I don't remember. But this one does not look like it's trotting home. In fact, it is moving in the opposite direction in a determined manner.

I have not picked it up again on a camera since then. Is it running free? Maybe there will be a good acorn crop this year, but not for six months, so root, hog, or die.

Just something else to watch out for. Like stray tortoises.

March 23, 2021

Giving Names to Boulders

I mentioned the ill-fated Bonsai Rock on March 21st — ill-fated from the "bonsai" trees' perspective, pretty much life as usual for a boulder, except for some flaking due to heat.

Pasqueflowers growin on a boulder.
So M. and I have been walking this ridge for some years now, and we have not named too many boulders. There is Hairy Rock (its flat top catches pine needles, giving it a shaggy look), Pasqueflower Rock (they bloom there early, maybe because it warms up early), and Ringtail Rocks, a collection of huge boulders fallen from the rimrock above, including two that formed a sort of lean-to shelter.

No sign of earlier human inhabitants in the shelter though, unless some Middle Archaic hunter dived in there to get out of a thunderstorm. It's pretty cramped. But the buried hunter from a cave just a little farther north was only 5 feet 3 inches tall, said the experts. 

Two days ago, we took a different path and came to a boulder above the "shelter" that I had not examined previously, although I had been setting a scout camera not far from it, picking up ringtails, gray foxes, and occasionally black bears.

 The last of recent snowstorm was melting—and more was coming—so we were taking advantage of a typical warm pre-storm day.

A gray box barking last September. Note the boulder's base at upper right, in shadow.

On top of the boulder, we found the smallest of vernal pools . . .


"Skywater!" M. said, thinking of one of her favorite novels, Melissa Worth Popham's Skywater. (Preview it here.

I looked around and was thinking more in terms of "Fox Shit Rock." Obviously, this is the place to proclaim your superior fox-ness through high-level pooping.


But I think it's going to be Skywater Rock.

February 23, 2021

Woods Work — The Firewood Scramble

I feel like I was more the grasshopper than the ant this wood-burning season. I blame that on 2020 and on repeated bouts of Influenza B — or whatever it was.

Last spring we got a bonanza of scrap wood, free for the hauling, but really it amounted to only about one cord, good until Christmas or so. The trouble was that I was feeling easily fatigued and lung-congested. The fall season was pretty much of a waste for hunting, wood-cutting, anything.

I got better after the new year, and by then we were about out of wood, so it was time for quick scavenging of Gambel oak, dead junipers, whatever. I located a nice beetle-killed ponderosa pine that I had overlooked, felled it . . . . and while the tip section was dry, the butt section was still too moist to burn. 

A smaller pine lasted ten days through the mid-February cold snap, when the lowest temperature was -16° F. — warmer than out on the High Plains, though.

And then I remembered a larger Douglas fir that was back in an oak thicket, another windstorm casualty. It had lots of forearm-size branches that make for that perfect intermediate size log to transition from kindling to big chunks. 

It might get us through March, and then April is anyone's guess.


Here is the butt section (about 16 inches diameter) of a Douglas fir that toppled
in a windstorm several years ago.
When I started splitting, it was primo — perfectly dried.
The little dirt road up back is too muddy for driving on,
so the load comes down one wheelbarrow at a time.

February 07, 2021

'Firewood Warms You Twice' — Another Cruel Lie

You cut the tree — now how many times will you lift it?

I heat with wood, mostly. There is a propane furnace to keep the house at 55° F, and my wife and I make judicious use of electric heaters, like in the bathroom when showering, but when we want to raise the overall temperature from "not-freezing" to "cozy," we burn wood. 

And there is lots of wood around: the natural self-coppicing of Gambel oak, elderly junipers, and thanks to the mountain pine beetle and its associated fungus, occasional dead ponderosa pine trees.

Tell people you heat with wood, and they will present you with their Great Wisdom(TM): Firewood warms you twice. My normal response is this mental picture (right), not for wood-cutting but for skull-slicing

Who gets the blame? Henry Thoreau drops this particular Great Wisdom (TM) in Walden (1854): "As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, [these stumps] warmed me twice—once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat."

So he admits he was just recycling some existing New Englander Great Wisdom (TM).

Yet there are earlier printed references going back as far as 1808. I will come to one in a minute.

But that's not half of it. Sometimes wood-cutting reminds of coal-mining, back when it was done with picks and shovels, only without working bent over in the half-darknesss for a ten-hour shift.

I cut a medium-sized dead pine yesterday, limbed and bucked it, and moved the rounds down to a little dirt road that runs up behind the house.

There was no way to bring my utility trailer near the tree, and if I had come as close as possible, I would still have been carrying all the rounds uphill to the trailer.

So I opted to roll them downhill, sort of a two-handed bowling. They roll a few yards, then fetch up against a pine truck or a cluster of oak brush. I pick them up and "bowl" them again. Eventually they go where they are supposed to — except for the occasional escapee that has to be tracked down.

By that point I have lifted the weight of the entire tree at least four times. That is when I start thinking about the old-time miner shoveling tons of coal.

Add it up what is left to do:

  1. Stack the rounds (that's a lift)
  2. Split them (that's more handling, another lift or two). It would be the same even with a power splitter.
  3. Load the splits into a trailer or for smaller runs, a wheelbarrow (it's a lift either way)
  4. Dump them at the house, then carry them up to the porch to the woodbox (a lift)
  5. Carry them as needed inside to the stove (a lift)

So now I have picked up that tree nine times. Warms you twice

One source for the proverb seems to be the mountainous French department of Jura. According to an 1819 text,

The peasant who sets out for that purpose [to collect fuel] of a winter's morning from his house in the valley, begins by ascending some neighboring mountain, and having there made up the pieces he has cut into the form of a rude sledge, and secured them together properly on the brink of the declivity, he takes his station on the load, so that he can touch the ground at pleasure with his feet, and committing himself to a narrow, winding, slippery path, and frequently of beaten snow, and generally bordered from place to place by precipices, he gets back to his family with almost aerial velocity. Others again, who live on the top of some naked hill, and who cannot find a declivity suitably gentle to admit of their using a sledge on the mountain where wood is to be obtained, are obliged to throw it down the precipice, at the bottom of which they afterwards collect and carry it home on their shoulders. The proverb of the country is, that wood warms a man twice.

A firewood sled. I think I tried that once with with an Army-surplus pulk. But "throwing it down the precipice"—been there, done that. Five stars, will do again.

December 12, 2020

Black Bears Matter


M. and I  been watching (and hauling food for) this young black bear sow since July, when she was brought to our neighbors' rehab center after having been arrested in the little town of Beulah on a charge of raiding chicken coops and porches for food. Not the most efficient raider, she weighed only about 35 lbs. (16 kg.) at the time— undersize for a yearling.

So she came to the center and occupied a large enclosure alone, being too big to be put in with this spring's group of orphan cubs. She ate. She was bored. They tried to give her some "enrichment" — things to play with etc., most of which she destroyed, being a bear, after all. She smashed a couple of dogloos too —again, not a surprise. (They go through a lot of dogloos.) And she ate.

I saw her on the two weeks ago and was astonished at how she had grown — up to 140 lbs. (63.5 kg.), they said.

Gretchen Holschuh, the district wildlife manager who had trapped her (that's her cranking open the gate) chose the release site, which was on private land this time, with a cooperating landowner. They always wait for all the big-game hunting seasons to be over before releasing bears — by December, bears should know it's time to get serious about hibernation.

Free at last, she ran off into the snow as fast as she could. Considing the summer's drought, she was probably better off in terms of weight than most of the other bears. I hope she stays away from chicken coops this time.

November 01, 2020

Skinny Mom, a "Cinnamon" Bear

Cubs playing in the little spring — Mom still wearing last year's coat.


About 45 minutes' walk from the house (over a steep ridge) is a tiny spring that is a wildlife magnet.  That is where I have gotten my only scout camera mountain lion pictures, including this one.

Last year the camera photographed a cinnamon-phase black bear that looked skinny and unhealthy. I mean like cigarettes-and-Pepsi-Cola skinny. But she was back this year — with cubs. Wild animals . . .

I hung the camera in early May, and the batteries died on July 15th. What happened after that, I do not know. But here she was, wallowing in the spring that the elk had been stomping through.





It's a hard life being a bear mom in a drought year. I wonder where they are now.



September 28, 2020

A Mountain Lion in the Morning

 

I hung this scout camera on May 9th at a little seep that I call "Camera Trap Spring." (You won't find that name on Google Earth, not if I can help it.)

It's in little bowl in the foothills about 45 minutes' walk from my house, but a walk that involves scaling a step ridge, negotiating a small talus slope, and winding through a lot of oak brush. 

The camera also recorded turkeys, bears, deer, elk, and gray foxes, all drawn by a tiny water source that kept running through this drought summer. When I finally got motivated to retrieve the camera today (the batteries had died in mid-July), I was truly surprised to find water there. That probably explains the bear with a muddy rump that was captured on another camera on my side of the ridge—if they can't do more, bears like to just plop their butts down in the water.

When I stand up at the spring, I can see houses, maybe hear a far-off dog bark, and watch traffic moving on the state highway. Yet because there is no vehicular access—and it's a serious hike in—the animals act undisturbed, like this cat having a drink at 8:49 a.m., no fear at all.

The camera recorded some deer there two hours earlier. I wonder if he was thirsty after a meal.

May 22, 2020

A Blue Bird, but not a Bluebird, Out of Place

Mountain bluebird — not what I was
seeing (Cornell University).
After my experience while mushroom-hunting last August, I am half expecting to bump into the Realm of Faerie again.

So when I looked out the front window and saw an abnormally blue little bird (junco-size) pecking around one of the sunflower seed feeders, I could have just said, "Well, it's some weird pet of the Other Crowd, you know. Better leave it alone."

But no. I flipped through some bird guides, trying to figure this out. It looked like someone took a junco and dunked it in blue hair dye.

I knew it was not a mountain bluebird. They are relatively common once you get out of the thick trees and into some open country, and they are a big ol' thrush, relatively speaking, like an American robin.

Indigo bunting (Cornell University).
I even tried Merlin, Cornell's online bird ID guide (which I have on my phone), and which tried to tell me that it was either a mountain bluebird or a white-breasted nuthatch or something else completely wrong.

So I started asking birder friends (and my patient spouse),  and they all came back with "indigo bunting." Obviously the Merlin app was fooled because they are not supposed to be here, but hey, it's May, when migrants are migrating and birds pop up where not expected.

When you look at the indigo bunting's range map, my house is not in its territory, but you know how it is, sometimes wild animals forget to read their owner's manuals. What was it doing up in the montane pine forest? I don't know. It did not stick around.

March 26, 2020

Piñones 2: The Lemonade Stand Rule

Bagged piñon nuts for sale by a roadside vendor.
The "Lemonade Stand Rule" originated when I was driving one time on US 20 across western Nebraska. I went through a little town — Rushville? Hay Springs? —  and saw two little kids selling lemonade on the sidewalk in front of a Victorian house.

It was a picture-perfect small town scene. I was trying to be a photojournalist and to build up my stock-photo portfolio. But I knew that if I stopped to photograph them properly, I would have to track down a parent and get a signed photo release, which would mean some explaining— and did I really want to do that when I had an interview scheduled with this USFWS guy at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge (further east) later that afternoon?

I eased off the gas, thought for moment, and then drove on. But I soon berated myself on two counts: "You dummy! There were those kids alone under a big prairie sky. At least you could have bought some lemonade to cheer them up! And why didn't you take the time to get a good clear photo? You'll never be a professional!"

The Lemonade Stand Rule (LSR) states that unless I am extremely pressed for time or the traffic is impossible, I will always stop for kids' lemonade stands. In this over-regulated age, selling lemonade is a sem-Free Range Kids things to do, and the sellers should be supported.

(There should be an Oshá Stand Rule too, after the time I failed to stop at a table selling oshá root down in San Luisand something bad happened.)

What about piñon nuts (piñones) then? 

Last January I was driving and saw a pickup parked by the side of the road with a sign advertising piñon nuts. I applied the LSR, made a quick left across the oncoming traffic and pulled up behind it.

I got to talking with the vendor—he was a re-seller, a local guy—and we were trading a little basic info. He said he lived in the Wet Mountains, and I said, "Oh, up on XXXX  Creek?" and I was right. We had some things in common, and when he volunteered that he had done a little federal prison time (for a nonviolent offense nearly twenty years ago), I knew exactly what that had been about.

The nuts were not cheap. My last post explained why that is. But I bought a small bag and got back in the Jeep, thinking, "I must have lived here for a while."  (I have the photos too, but I am not using them here.)

Please stop for lemonade stands. Fight the Machine.

March 07, 2020

"The Hatch is on"

The highway goes over this little crest and then turns down and left.
If you don't turn left too, bad things happen.

With a title like that, you probably think this blog post is about fly-fishing. It's not. I wish that it were. To be honest, I have had this flu-like virus since early December. It's not "the" flu with fever and body aches; it was more like fatigue and sore eyes and insomnia and shortness of breath with bronchial wheezing. Since breathing difficulties are listed as a symptom of coronavirus, I was saying that I had coronoavirus before coronavirus was cool, but in fact, it must have been something else.I thought that I had pretty well beaten it, but then it came back for a farewell tour this week.

It has all left me uninterested in x-c skiing, fishing, late-season quail hunting, anything of that sort. Just some hikes close to home, before February's snows made that about impossible. And wood-cutting. Always wood-cutting.

As I prepared for an afternoon of editorial work (editing someone's book proposal), everything electronic started pinging and dinging. "Motorcycle wreck at mile marker such-and-such. Unknown injuries." And  . . . we're off. The ex-chief and one volunteer were leaving the station in one brush truck — a small wildland fire engine; we use them for traffic control too. On the radio, he asked me to bring another, so I was about five minutes behind them, heading up a twisty mountain highway, babying the diesel engine until it fully warmed up.

This happens every warm weekend — clumps of motorcycle riders, from 8 to 20 or so, out for a ride on twisty mountain roads. "The hatch is on," M. and I say to each other when we hear the rolling thunder out on the state highway. Not caddis flies or mayflies or anything like that.

On the way, the dispatcher broke in, saying that the air ambulance had been "stood down." That could mean one of two things: injuries were minor and the county ambulance service had the situation in hand, or, no one needed an ambulance.

Twenty minutes later, I was on-scene, and Ex-chief positioned me to slow down traffic in a spot where oncoming drivers could see me, but I myself could not see down into the accident scene. No problem — I had gone through this year ago, when another rider went over the edge at the exact same spot, and we had to guide the helicopter in to pick up him up.

After a time, he called me up to the scene itself, because it was body-recovery time, and they needed more muscle. We zipped the victim into a body body . . . and then another body bag because that one had ripped because of barbed wire . . . and then six of us (two fire fighters, one deputy, one sheriff's posse member, and the two female EMTs) carried him up the steep rocky slope.

We stood around while the EMT's filled out the appropriate body tags. A mortician from a town twenty-some miles away arrived in an anonymous Ford Flex van, which he opened to reveal a gurney. We loaded the victim, strapped and zipped him in, and he was gone.

As we stood there, more clumps of motorcycle riders went by, slowing down to gawk. Sometimes I think we could carry a sign on the fire engines that we could set up at the scene: "This could be you!" The hatch definitely was on.

Everyone these days describes peak experiences in terms of "It was just like a movie!"

I get it. This was like the History Channel's Vikings series. A big guy (like 300 lbs. big) with a scraggly blond chin beard, he must have laid the bike over on his left side, which tore the foot and ankle nearly off. Then his un-helmeted head collided with a couple of granite boulders, leaving big deep lacerations down to the bone — maybe deeper. All I could think was that he looked like the loser in a Viking ax-fight.

Mountain Bluebird (Cornell Univ.)
Back at the fire house, more motorcycles were still passing, heading back to Colorado Springs or to the Denver-plex. (Our victim was from Aurora, if I heard correctly.)

But two mountain bluebirds zipped past over the concrete apron outside the engine bays, a sign of spring that I could endorse.

February 03, 2020

Exurban Mule Deer: Middleweight Sparring

These boys don't care who is watching. Or maybe they want an audience.

December 11, 2019

Sheriff Porter Gets His Man, Part 2: Moonlight Subterfuge

First you should read Part 1: The Trip to Babcock's Hole
Babcock Hole, in 2004, looking south, before the forest fires of 2005 and 2011.

Babcock Hole, looking east, 2019. A ranch is in the farthest meadow, center,
and that was probably the site of Goodnight's line camp as well. In terms of tree cover,
this might be more similar to the 1877 version. The stage road came ran at the base
of the farthest ridge (right to left), passed the ranch site, and then passed out of the frame
at left.


On June 29, 1877, the moon was three nights past full. If Sheriff Porter and his companions left Greenwood at 10 p.m., they would arrive at Aikin's cabin about when a still-bright gibbous moon was rising.

The printed account suggests that storekeeper Morgan guided them over the saddle between the Hardscrabble Creek drainage and the small valley known as Babcock's (or Babcock) Hole, then turned back. Although Porter needed a guide — he was in unknown country and it was nighttime — the group was probably just following the Siloam Stage Road, which started in Pueblo, ran southwest to the community of Siloam, then into Babcock's Hole, and thence up Hardscrabble Canyon to the mining town of Silver Cliff in the higher Wet Mountain Valley.

Charles Goodnight, about 1880.
Babcock's Hole itself was part of the Rock Canyon Ranch, owned by the famous cattleman Charles Goodnight (1836–1929), who lived near Pueblo from 1868 to the mid-1870s, when he returned to Texas. He had established a permanent camp in the Hole, one of several "line cabins" used by his cowboys on the open range.

There was also logging in the Hole by at least 1873, with trees being cut for railroad ties, among other uses. A small stone foundation, possibly for a steam engine or boiler, still survives.

So the Hole was not exactly the deepest wilderness. Porter could probably have ridden into the valley in his wagon, but that was not his plan.
Learning that Aikin had a large family, Porter determined that it would be better, if possible, to get him away from his house before making the arrest, thereby avoiding the risk of hurting other members of the family.

It was therefore agreed that they should represent themselves as a party from Chicago who, in looking around the country, and desired to be piloted out to Greenwood. Going up close to the house, which was a low double-log cabin, Porter called until Aikin came to the door and inquired what was wanting. History of White County, Illinois, 1965 [1883].
Aikin agreed to guide them for $5. Porter assumed that he was armed with a revolver. They started out of the hole, "guided by the uncertain light of the moon, which was just breaking over the huge mountains and down into the dark valley."
When the party had gone about a mile from the house and reached an open glade where the moonlight fell full upon them, according to prearranged programme, one of the assistants walking behind suddenly, in a deep, stern voice, cried "Halt!" The prisoner turned to see what it meant, and at the same instant Porter, presenting his gun to his [Aikins'] head, ordered him to throw up his hands, which he did, and the shackles were put upon him and he was informed that he was arrested for murder.
One of the deputies returned to the Aikin cabin to inform the family that the man of the house was never coming back and also to procure additional clothing for him. Once he returned, the group walked back to Greenwood, retrieved their wagon, and rattled into Cañon City about six o'clock the following morning.

Then, with Aikin handcuffed to his wrist, Sheriff Porter retraced his rail journey to Carmi, Illinois.
The prisoner at all times denied his identity, refusing to recognize men with whom he had been acquainted for years, and while admitting that his name was John Aikin, denied that he was the man that had formerly been arrested for the murder of Stewart, until several weeks after he had been placed in jail his sister-in-law visited him, and seeing that was impossible longer to deny it, admitted his identity.
After trial in a neighboring county, he was found guilty and given a life sentence in the prison at Joliet (now a tourist attraction and concert venue).

My one remaining question: how did Sheriff Porter's no-doubt-modest budget cover this trip? Or did citizens of White County engage in a little 19th-century crowdfunding?

December 10, 2019

Sheriff Porter Gets His Man, Part 1: The Trip to Babcock's Hole

White County is in SE Illinois, part of "Little Egypt."
On the evening of March 19,1864, a prosperous farmer in White County, Illinois named Augustus Stewart was murdered in front of his family by home invaders. These were two robbers who, as it turned out, had a man on the inside, an apparently lone traveler who had arrived earlier and asked permission to stay the night. The three fled together.

Stewart's neighbors tracked the robbers' horses for some distance the next day. Two of them, the Glide brothers, escaped, but the "inside man," John Aikin, was captured and confessed. Held for trial, he broke out of jail and disappeared.

"Thirteen long years had passed away, the wife of the murdered man had gone to her grave, the children scattered, and the awful crime had almost faded from the public mind amid the ever-changing scenes and busy strife of the world." History of White County, Illinois, 1965 [1883].

The "old" White Co. courthouse, built
in 1828. Presumably Sheriff Porter
knew it well.

Then White County Sheriff Thomas I. Porter learned from one of Aikin's cousins that Aikin was in "the southern part of Colorado" and set out to bring him to justice. In June 1877 he left for Colorado, maybe on the Illinois Southern Railroad (later calld  the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad), which passed through the county seat of Carmi, according to the map above. It was a trip of more than 1,000 miles, back when trains poked along at 25 mph or so.

After reaching Denver on June 28, he procured "necessary papers from the authorities of Colorado" and started for "Cannon City" (Cañon City, that should be), presumably on yet another train with a change in Pueblo. He arrived on June 29th.

He learned from the Fremont County sheriff there that Aikin "lived about twenty-five miles southeast, in a place called Babcock's Hole, up among the Rocky Mountains; and to effect his capture the greatest caution and vigilance would be required, as he was considered a dangerous man."

Babcock's Hole is actually in Custer County, but Custer County had been carved out of Fremont by action of the legislature only three months before, and most of its population was up in the Wet Mountain Valley to the west.

How did the Fremont sheriff know Aikin was so dangerous, if he was living peacefully? Or is the author just exaggerating? At any rate, Sheriff Porter decided to make his move at night.
Taking two Fremont deputies with him, he rented a spring wagon and team and departed about three in the afternoon. The drive might have taken him four or five hours, presumably on dirt roads that approximated today's Colorado highways 115 and 67. Or maybe longer: the text says he arrived "about dark" in the settlement of Greenwood, south of Wetmore, three miles short of the Hole. The officers "put up" their team and ate supper themselves.
Greenwood in the 1880s, a decade later. Note store building in center distance.
Taking Mr. Morgan, the storekeeper, as their guide, they set off on foot about 10 p.m.

November 13, 2019

Pine Trees, Electric Lines, and Fire Fears

A small Stihl saw dangling from his harness, Jesse nips bits of the problem
branch from between the electric lines.
All summer I had been noticing that some branches from one of our pine trees were becoming entangled with the electric wires coming from the nearest pole to our meter. Some heavy wet snow, and the branches might force the wires into contact with each other.

In early October, I took a photo and emailed our local electric coop. I heard nothing until today, when I got a phone call, and 40 minutes later a truck pulling a wood chipper rumbled up the driveway.

The two young guys aboard were tree-trimmers, not properly "linemen." They both said they were waiting for lineman apprentice positions to open up. They wanted to become qualified—one said he hoped some day to be an engineer, and his buddy laughed and said, "Nah, you'll be a lineman."

"Get that certification, and you will never be unemployed," I said.

They grinned and agreed.

There are miles and miles of electric lines running through pine forests in southern Colorado. You have heard about PG&E lines starting fires in California — we have had the same problem on a smaller scale.

I have seen scorched branches on my place, and helped to put out fires started by electric lines. The worst one, seven years ago, took out fourteen houses nearby — not exactly Paradise, California, but still pretty shocking in a smaller community.

The then-fire chief of Rye, Colorado, once told me he lost count of how many fires they have had started from power lines (none really bad so far).

Unfortunately, my pruning saw is only 12 feet long, and I lack professional tree-climbing gear, not to mention the aptitude. So I was happy to see Jesse and Bill arrive, do the job, chip the limbs (biomass, always so much biomass!), and head off to their next assignment.

One less thing to worry about.

November 10, 2019

The Walls of the Old Ones — Old Cowboys, That Is




Not too far from where I live, a steep ridge crowned with rimrock separates two drainages.  On the right hand side (upper photo) or left side (lower photo) was ranch land controlled by famous cattleman Charles Goodnight in the 1870s.

At some point, someone — more likely, several someones — rode up there  (it's easier from the other side than the Goodnight side) and stacked slabs of the native sandstone to make drift fences where there were breaks in the rimrock. Evidently, they did not want cattle drifting from one side over to the other.

For a variety of reasons, I think this was done in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, not in Goodnight's day. A generation after him, in the 1890s, the whole area was being logged — but by the 1950s it was grazing land again, thanks to a Forest Service grazing lease.

As is typical all over the West, there were drastic changes from one generation to the next. No one figured out a life that was truly sustainable.

Maybe this needs a longer blog post, so I can tell the tale of Sheriff Thomas Porter of White County, Illinois, who tracked an escaped murderer all the way here and arrested him by clever subterfuge. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the rock walls — never really finished — remain. There are others lower down. Think of someone grunting with the effort . . . slipping around in smooth-soled cowboy boots — maybe he just ran out of suitable stones that he could lift.

October 04, 2019

A Strange Summer for Southern Rockies Gardeners

The Green Roof Farms honor-system farm stand.
Your money goes in the white-painted ammo box at lower right.


Scott's working 1950s Farmall Cub tractor, perfect for the small operation.

M. was at the hair salon last week, and her stylist, who lives in Colorado City, was lamenting how her garden had produced poorly this summer. Well, join the club. I have been hearing that a lot.

Let's review the year.

After a cool wet spring. Colorado was declared drought-free. I expected a great spring wildflower show, and while that was true at higher elevations, it was not true here in the ponderosa pine forest. Some regulars, like wild geranium, hardly showed up at all. Subsoil moisture still not replenished?

Then it got hot in July, but that was followed by a decent "monsoon" that gave us an adequate if not great mushroom harvest in early August and the usual flash floods below the recent burns.
Wild bee on some kind of
groundsel, at about 9800 feet,
early August.

Then more hot and dry weather all through September and into October. Up near Poncha Pass, a lightning-caused forest fire, the Decker Fire, that was burning up beetle-killed timber in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, has now crossed control lines and is moving towards foothills subdivisions and little communities along the Arkansas River like Swissvale and Howard.

The violent changes have been hard on garden plants and flowers. In some cases, we have just cut back perennials and let them go while focusing on collecting seeds from annuals. No hard freeze yet at this elevation, but the dryness is as good as a freeze. I have rolled up hoses and pronounced the season over.

In Florence, where there is irrigation water, truck gardeners Scott and Robin have been supplying us from their farm stand, which often just operates on the honor system. (M. says that reminds her of her girlhood visits to the Vermont side of her family.) If you are in that area, you can find them under "Green Roof Farms" on Facebook.

Thanks to them, we are drying tomatoes and have plenty of squash, peppers, and onions.

Some migratory birds left on schedule (black-headed grosbeaks, for one) while others are hanging around way past their usual departure dates (band-tailed pigeons, broad-tailed hummingbirds.) But that is another topic.

September 27, 2019

"Nice Job, Pixies" — a Weird Day in the Woods

Something weird happened last month while mushroom-hunting. I still have not quite figured it out.

During mushroom season, which peaks in August hereabouts, there is a ridge in the Wet Mountains that M. (my wife) and I try to visit every week. It abuts an area that we named The Mushroom Store; unfortunately, that spot has been discovered, but we are willing to walk farther at 10,000 feet than some mushroom hunters are.

We have been visiting that area for more than ten years, so we have our landmarks: the "long meadow," the cow elk's skeleton, the "little gate," the "big gate," and so on.

The plan, as usual, was to walk downhill parallel the "long meadow," loop around to the south and back east to the crest of the gentle ridge, where we would hit a barbed-wire drift fence that we would then follow north to "the big gate," and from there it is a short walk to where M's Jeep Wrangler would be parked.

So we did that. We were going along according to plan, finding an occasional "good" mushroom, and I was feeling pretty about my deep-woods navigational skills. (Don't get cocky, kid!)

At some point, as we swung back toward the top of the ridge, I looked down to my left and instead of a glimpse of the "long meadow," there was a steep ravine there, so steep that fir trees barely clung to its sides. Where had it come from? 

It was between us and the Jeep (I figured), but I did not want to go down into it and try to climb out again

I looked ahead — the top of the ridge was only maybe 200 yards away. M. looked at me and asked if I was lost. I said something noncommittal, but afterwards at home she said, "I can read you like a book. You were lost." (She will cheerfully admit to being a poor navigator herself, so she trusts me to do the job.)

That feeling you get, a punch in the stomach. Where am I? How did I get here? 

On the ridge crest, I looked south. There was Little Sheep Mountain, a little closer than it should have been, and also a road that I recognized. I knew where I was — I just was not where I should have been.

"Nice job, pixies," I said aloud.

Since I was high enough up to get a signal, I pulled out the iPhone, turned on the GPS and loaded the Avenza Maps app with a county road map. Yep, there we were — the pulsing blue dot —  about where I reckoned we were. Thus oriented, we walked down the other side until we hit a certain little dirt Forest Service road and followed it to the Jeep.

At home, there were mushrooms to be sliced and dried, and life otherwise got in the way. But after a couple of nights I opened Google Earth, where our mushroom sites are marked, and took a look. Everything seemed as it should have been, but I could not find that steep ravine.

OK, so Google Earth gives false ideas of slope. Next, I studied the topographic quad map for that area. I could not find the steep ravine there either.

In the old stories, you go through a portal into the fairy mound, and you eat and drink, and when you come out, a hundred years have passed. Or something like that.

We went back a couple of weeks later for one last foray. Maybe we should walk south and try to find that ravine, I suggested.

"Let's not, and say we did," M. responded.

I did not try to persuade her otherwise.