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.

November 30, 2013

On Not Paying Attention to Cranes

Don't use a 200mm lens to take photos of birds in the sky. But it was what I had when these sandhill cranes were overhead. As always, click to embiggen.
Thanksgiving Day, in the dining car of the Southwest Chief, somewhere near Lamar, Colorado. Off in the distance, hundreds of white birds settle into a field. A larger flock is a smear against the northern sky.

"Snow geese," I say to my dining companion (Amtrak uses "community seating). But at the table across the aisle, someone is saying that they are sandhill cranes. I don't think so — they don't fly like cranes, and I have never seen a flock of cranes that big, not even during the evening flight at Bosque del Apache. And the crane migration is pretty much done by now.

I have been writing this blog long enough that I have a bunch of "cranes" entries. In October 2005, standing on a wide, busy sidewalk at Colorado State University-Pueblo and watching a flock overhead, I felt my heart lift, yet I was saddened that no one else looked up. Should I have adopted a prophetic voice? "Behold the cranes, O people, and learn from them!"

A few years later, I was at our little fire station on a warm October day — some of us were working on an engine outdoors — when a migrating flock came over and everyone stopped to watch. I felt better about some of my fellow firefighters that day.

But then I recently heard some long-time locals speak of geese flying over on the same afternoon that I took the picture of cranes chasing a thermal. Just not paying attention? (Shades of the Dances with Wolves soundtrack error.)
Cranes are cumbersome flyers. They prefer to migrate during daylight hours, when the thermals created by the midday sun provide rising air currents which the cranes ride to gain elevation before gliding down to the next thermal. It is this thermal riding which many observers mistake for being lost of confused.
Dale Stahlercker and Martin Frentzel, Seasons of the Crane.

November 25, 2013

I've Had Enough . . .

 . . . of the city, in this case Baltimore, and would rather be at home, where winter has arrived and the county road-and-bridge department is saying "Don't drive if you don't have to."

But I will not be there until Thursday, after three forecast sunny days. Then regular blogging can resume.

Meanwhile, Chicago is next.

November 20, 2013

Wyoming Mountain Living—More than 2,000 Years Ago

Archaeologists find a series of Archaic mountain villages in Wyoming, and the dates lead them to wonder if Numic-speaking people (ancestors of the Comanche, Ute, Shoshone and Northern Paiute) migrated from the Rockies to California, instead of the other way around, as had been assumed.

It reminded me of a trip that I made to the Windy Gap site in Colorado's Middle Park back in my newspaper-reporter days. It dated back at least 5,000 years, and the unusual feature was that it showed evidence of a hut with wattle-and-daub walls. The elevation, as I recall, is at least 9,000 feet.

Wattle-and-daub construction has been found around the world, but its presence suggests at least semi-permanent seasonal occupation, as opposed to building a quickie shelter or small tipi for a hunting camp.

High altitude living probably was not a winter proposition — Fraser, Colo., near Windy Gap, used to claim it was the "Icebox of the Nation." (So have some other towns elsewhere.) The Wyoming sites were probably too chilly too, if one had the option of going lower down.

November 18, 2013

Blog Stew with Sunflower Seeds (You'll Like Them)

¶ You could use this fancy online tool at the Cornell ornithology lab to find the best food for your favorite winter birds. Or you could just put out black oil sunflower seeds because almost all the cold-weather birds like 'em. As one of the local Auduboners once told me, "They're like ice cream for birds."

¶ The US Forest Service takes a step back in its tug-of-war over water rights with ski areas operating on national forest land — which is a lot of them. Durango Herald reporter Joe Hanel writes, "The Forest Service has tried sporadically for years to get legal control over snowmaking water rights, because of worries the rights could be sold to real estate developers or others not interested in using the water for skiing."

That, yes, but also conservation groups like Trout Unlimited have worried about ski areas drying up streams for snow-making.

¶ Workers at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico recently found a large new room. They are calling it Halloween Hall, whether for the date or for the multitude of bat bones in it, I am not sure. Photo at the link.

November 17, 2013

Boots on the Ground, Russian and American

Smith & Wesson Breach boots
In 2007 I wrote an unexpectedly popular post about the Russian military moving away from the old two-sizes-fit-all pull-on boots—with foot cloths. (In Soviet Russia, boots wear you.)

Strategy Page recently summarized combat boot developments among both Russian infantry and Americans in Afghanistan.
Most Russians are also unfamiliar with the foot wrappings (“portyanki”) that soldiers were still taught to use. For portyanki to work the user has to wrap their feet just so before slipping the foot into the “tarpaulin” boots. If you did not do the wrapping correctly some of your flesh would be exposed to the rough inside surface of these canvas boots. This usually leads to debilitating blisters.
The old-fashioned boots were widely disliked by most of the troops forced to use them. The number of older officers who still favored this 19th century footwear are also fading away. So the portyanki and valenki are officially gone this year, along with the old canvas boots that only came in two sizes.
Meanwhile, the American military has modified its boots too:
Over the last decade the army and marines have changed their attitudes towards combat boots. Instead of trying to design boots themselves, the military has recognized the superior design of commercial boots created for hikers, mountain climbers, and outdoor activists in general. This has resulted in a new generation of combat boots that are more durable, and comfortable, than earlier generations of combat footwear. Many troops in the Russian military, especially the career officers and troops, noticed this trend as well and were able to keep up with developments via the Internet. 
As an example, here is a boot review from Chris Hernandez, who served in Afghanistan, discussing Smith & Wesson Breach Athletic Boots:
You need to know if [your boots are] going to lose shape and look like clown shoes within weeks, as my boots from a very popular company did back in the 90’s. You need to know if they’re going to weigh a ton each, like those horrible speedlace boots I was issued in the Marine Corps in 89. You need to know if, like my Danners at Fort Lewis, they’re going to keep your feet all warm and toasty while your footsoaked, freezing, miserable friends mutter curses at you (I still have wet dreams about those boots). You need to know if the soles are going to be worn so smooth after less than six months in Afghanistan, like my issue “desert jungle boots”, that your French buddy asks, “Chrees, did you walk through ze acid in zose boots?” 
Not to mention that there is a military boots blog.  What would Marshall Timoshenko say, were he alive?

November 16, 2013

Meanwhile in the Similkameen Valley

A 1935 Packard that functioned as a "school bus" for ranchers' and orchardists' kids in Keremeos, BC. From left: George Hodson (the driver), Ivadelle Clifton, Art Harris, Ike Harris, Wilson Clifton, Wendell Clifton, Mrs. Harris, Shirley Harris, Mrs. Louise Clifton. Photo taken probably in 1936. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Virtual Museum of Canada)

A couple of days ago I was notified of publication of a new issue of The Goose, an online publication of The Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada. The contents promised, "Harold Rhenisch’s memoir on the Similkameen Valley," which caught my attention, because my Canadian relatives either live there or originated there, particularly in Keremeos, "the fruit stand capital of Canda." (You can download the issue as a PDF.)

Three of those scruffy kids are Dad's first cousins: I still get Christmas cards from Ivadelle, who ended up living just over the line in Washington state, while Wendell and Wilson kept the cattle business going. In fact, thanks to my great-uncle Ivan's reproductive success, the Canadian Cliftons outnumber my side of the family.

"Similkameen Peaches," Rhenisch's memoir, starts in the 1960s. It's a fine piece of impressionistic writing — family, local culture, ecology, and history all tossed together. If I were still teaching nature writing, which I'd rather call nature-and-culture writing, I would assign it.
I’m cold. Men have just walked on the Moon. Charlie still owns the jungle in Vietnam, and just a few weeks ago I watched Canadian fighter jets scramble to meet American fighter jets over the Reserve down south, on the Line, as we put it around these parts, above the dwarf shrews of Nighthawk, Washington, at any rate, above the 1858 American-Canadian border, the one put in to keep the peace, although not between any of the people here. Virtually all the people here were Indians and Americans, who all walked back and forth across the border pretty much as they pleased, and saw, really, no great use for it.
And you thought people only talked that way about la frontera? Even in the 1960s, you get the feeling that in Keremeos, "Canada" was an abstraction. Someplace else.

In fact, reading and hearing and viewing photos about the Old West era there, there is a definite sensation that southern British Columbia was more like eastern Washington or Montana than anywhere else. Ontario? Quebec? Far away and sort of foreign.

(A memory of Wendell slapping the table in a Keremeos cafe: "Ottawa wants to take away our guns!")

Maybe that "Old West" unity broke down somewhat after World War I and Prohibition emphasized the differences between the nations. But there is still a lot of similarity.

My great-uncle made no conscious decision to emigrate, as I understand; he was just a young guy moving from one railroad-telegrapher job to the next. Then he put down roots, literally — fruit trees — and later the cattle business. I remember him in his mid-nineties, tottering out to the barn to show me "my boys," the prize bulls.

November 15, 2013

Are Dogs "Chinese" or "European": the DNA Debate Continues

And it is summarized in this New York Times article, "Wolf to Dog: Scientists Agree on How, but Not Where."
Scientists have long agreed that the closest living relatives of dogs are wolves, their link confirmed by both anatomy and DNA. Somewhere, at some point, some wolves became domesticated. They evolved not only a different body shape, but also a different behavior. Instead of traveling in a pack to hunt down prey, dogs began lingering around humans. Eventually, those humans bred them into their many forms, from shar-peis to Newfoundlands.

November 08, 2013

Clinging to the Panhandle

Kenton, Oklahoma, is somewhere on my list of Towns to Disappear To." It is possible, though, that Kenton might disappear first.

You would not disappear in Kenton though. Any newcomer would stand out.

According to old stories I have heard, shady characters used to like Kenton because it was convenient to the state lines of Colorado and New Mexico and not too terribly far from Kansas and Texas.

Now those state lines pose other kinds of problems.
It’s another reason I [writer Sheilah Bright] have fallen hard for this shriveled land. People don’t dance around how they feel. Nearly everything they say deserves quotation marks. If someone dies of a heart attack or pneumonia or cancer, the burial arrangements are handled quickly since business is so slow. A suicide up on the Black Mesa trail (leading to Oklahoma’s highest peak at 4,973 above sea level), or a missing hiker found dead from heat exhaustion exposes a serious flaw in the system.

Those bodies aren’t supposed to be moved without permission from a medical examiner. The nearest medical examiner office is 220 miles away in Woodward. The next nearest is 379 miles away in Oklahoma City. Temperatures climb well past 100 degrees in the summer.
“By law, I’m supposed to either embalm, bury, or cremate someone within 24 hours unless there’s refrigeration,” said [funeral director Mark] Axtell. “The closest refrigeration is in Oklahoma City. The nearest crematory is in Dodge City, Kan. or Amarillo, Texas. I can’t cross state lines with a dead body without a permit from the medical examiner’s office.”

There is one group of visitors, however, who like the Kenton area just the way it is!

November 06, 2013

Blog Stew with Shredded Tamarisk

¶ In Palisade, Colo., there is an anti-tamarisk militia.

¶ The northern Colorado secession movement did not do too well at the ballot box.  The question is whether it was any sort of symbolic victory.

¶ An Indiana deer hunter is paralyzed by a fall from a tree stand. He tells his doctors to "pull the plug."  Do you wonder if his hunting experiences made him less likely to cling to life as a quadriplegic? There is a possible hint of that in the article.

November 05, 2013

The Tumbleweed Menace

Colorado Springs Gazette columnist Bill Radford notices the tumbleweed hordes of 2013. 

Oh yeah. I am not one of those people who goes around mowing everything mowable — that is so Midwestern— but this year I mowed one little meadow that I had not touched in twenty years, because it was sprouting kochia and Russian thistle, the baddies:
In El Paso County, the two chief culprits are Russian thistle and kochia, [rancher Sharon] Pattee says. The Colorado State University Extension labels them both as "troublesome annual weeds of rangeland, pastures, fields, disturbed areas, gardens, roadsides, ditch banks and small acreages."

Both are non-native species. Russian thistle originated in, yep, Russia, and is believed to have come to the United States in the late 1800s through contaminated flax seed. Kochia is from Asia.
Tumbleweed Christmas trees? Been there, done that. One year when I was little, I was sick in bed during Christmas, so my older sisters decorated a big globe tumbleweed with glass ornaments and put it by my bed.

This was when we lived in Rapid City, S.D., where they were easy to come by.  This year in southern Colorado, every barbed wire fence looks like a fuzzy brown wall. Yeech.