February 21, 2016

Winter Camping and the "Hundred-Mile Stare."

The view from my tent
Winter camping

It's the third day, and my hands are already looking wrinkled and cracked. It's so easy to get dehydrated.

Last night I kept zipping up my oversize Big Agnes sleeping bag more and more as drafts snuck down my back. And sometimes my feet slipped off the closed-cell foam pad, so with only some snug socks and two layers of nylon between them and the snow, they got cold.

It must have been colder than the previous night. My confact lenses froze in their case, but if I slip them in the pocket of my nylon cargo pants, they will warm up quickly.

I sit up, slip on a jacket, and pull the Nalgene water bottle out of the sleeping bag, where I put it so it would not freeze.

I pour some in a pan, click a cigarette lighter under the stove, and whoosh. Soon I will have a mug of tea to clear my head. The view from the tent door is a perfect Colorado winter day.

This is winter camping too

Your name is Sarah Graves Fosdick. You are 22 years old. Eight months ago, you married a man named Jay Fosdick, age 23. You thought that he was Mr. Right. You were happy together as the wagons crossed the Kansas prairie in the summer of 1846.

Now, just a few feet away from where you sit in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, someone is roasting his heart on a stick over a campfire. You don't mind. You took the one usable item of clothing from his frozen body — a black silk scarf he had wound around his neck — everything else is rags — and you turned your back. In fact, you told the others, "You cannot hurt him now."

For reading, I had tucked into my pulk* a copy of The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party.



Sarah Graves Fosdick (undated)
I thought that I knew something of their story, but Brown gives it greater depth, and he goes into "rabbit trails" on such topics as the celebration of Christmas in the 1840s, the physiology of starvation, and how 19th-century people had no concept of "post-traumatic stress disorder." 

Many people perhaps assume that the Donner Party, about eighty people, after taking bad advice about a "cut-off" south of the Great Salt Lake, were snowed-in and forgotten at Truckee Lake, now called Donner Lake.

Not so. Their companions who had taken the longer, less-risky route missed them and wondered why they had not come over the mountains on time. Were they camped for the winter at Truckee Meadows (site of Reno, Nevada today)?

Actually, two members of the party had already crossed the mountains to get provisions at Sutter's Fort and take them back to the main group.

When the heavy snow of that El Niño winter came early, the Anglo pioneers already living in this area near today's Sacramento organized several relief expeditions, but initially found it impossible to bring horses and mules through four then six then eight feet of snow. Rescuers had to travel by snowshoe.

Relief parties did reach the stranded pioneers, although for some it was too late. Men carried small children for days on their backs, and some of those children lived well into the 20th century.

Sarah's father, Franklin Graves, age about 57, was a frontier farmer. He was a skillful man, and he knew about snowshoes from his boyhood in Vermont. He split the wooden wagon bows to make snowshoe frames, and the women cut strips from the hides of the oxen they had eaten and wove the webbing and made harnesses — fifteen pairs in all.

The "snowshoe party" was one of several breakout attempts from the famished camp on the eastern slope. It was successful, sort of.

Fifteen of the fittest people, including Sarah, Franklin, and Jay, started out. (Two of them were Miwok Indians who worked for John Sutter of Gold Rush fame, whom he had sent east to meet the travelers earlier, along with supplies.) There were nine men, five women, and a boy.

They left the lake on December 16th, struggling with unfamiliar gear in fresh powder snow. They were slammed with more bad weather as they topped the range. The sun shone on the alpine landscape, and they had no protection against snow blindness. Progress was slower then they had planned, and their provisions ran out.

Their guide — one of the two emigrants who had already crossed over and come back — was suffering snowblindness and exhaustion. Eventually he sat down to smoke his pipe and refused to get up. They went on without him. (His bones were found later, at the spot where he smoked his last tobacco.)

They missed the route — the wagon tracks were buried under snow — ending up in the canyon of the North Fork of the American River.

Out of their home country, the two Miwoks were as lost as the others. Antonio, one of Sutter's vacqueros who had been sent to aid them, was also lost.

Franklin Graves died during a storm, urging Sarah and her sister to push on for the sake of their mother and siblings back at the camp. Another of the party, an Irishman named Patrick Dolan, died the next day, as did Antonio, followed soon by the 13-year-old boy.

The cannibalism began. Carrying more flesh for provisions, they pushed on. Eventually they could travel without snowshoes, but they had to fight through manzanita brush and mud.

One man killed a deer, but it was not enough. Jay Fosdick, weak and falling behind, heard the gunshot but was too feeble to catch up. Sarah stayed with him as he died during the night.

It was mid-January when the survivors (two men, five women) came to a settlement, and mid-February before the "First [Successful] Relief Party" in turn reached the camps at Truckee Lake. And the saga was far from over.

People talk about combat soldiers displaying the "thousand-yard stare." Not to say anything against them, but I think that Sarah and her companions in the "snowshoe party" must have had "hundred-mile stares."

A young Engishwoman living in California met Sarah and the other snowshoe survivors and wrote, "I shall never forget the looks of those people, for the most part of them was crazy & their eyes danced & sparkled in their heads like stars."

Yet they carried on.


• • •
Brown's writing is restrained. He lets the Donner Party speak for themselves, but diary entries and letters are often so terse that it is hard to say whether their style reflects hunger and fatigue or just a controlled habit of mind. What he offers is not speculation but context for their suffering.**

The Indifferent Stars Above is meticulously documented, and Brown traveled much of the party's route from Illinois to Bear Valley, California. Oddly, it lacks maps, but you can find those online.

If, like me, you thought you knew the general story of the Donner Party, you will get much more from reading it.

 * Pulk: a human-drawn transport sled, from the Finnish pulkka.

** As the emigrants struggled in the snows, Sir John Franklin's two doomed ships were icebound looking for the Northwest Passage. No one was expecting him to return until at least 1848, however, so they were not yet a subject for concern.

February 16, 2016

Is DWR as Dangerous as Scotchguard for Your Outerwear?

Interstate 5 in southern Oregon, with a sign reading "San Francisco."
When I was a college student — and for a while afterwards — I had this two-layer Egyptian cotton anorak — from REI, as I remember. It was a well-made garment in a sort of burnt-orange color.

I loved it. It was my magic hitch-hiking anorak. But it was cotton — and I lived then in the Pacific Northwest.

It had a waterproof coating, which wore out, so I think that I sprayed it with Scotchguard. Later we learned that Scotchguard was bad stuff to be around. (See comments.)

Now it is 2016, and there is a debate around another waterproofing compound for outdoor gear,  DWR, "Durable Waterproofing Repellent."

In this article at the Section Hiker blog, "Why Does DWR Suck?" Phillip Werner raises questios about both cost and health:
When water soaks into the fabric of a rain jacket, you can just forget about breathability. The system is a complete sham but people keep buying into it, including the need to reapply the DWR coating several times a year. It’s the hidden cost of owning a waterproof/breathable rain jacket: the need to keep buying Nikwax TX-Direct or Gear-Aid Revivex to repair the DWR when it wears out so the (really expensive) breathable fabric part of your jacket can work.
The debate continues in the comments.

Everyone is looking for the magic waterproof-but-light-and-breathable combination. I am glad that I live now in Colorado where rains rarely last all day, and I can put on a poncho (even a heavy old coated-nylon Army poncho) and then put it away again. What would I do if I still lived in Oregon?

February 15, 2016

Western Snowpack, February 14, 2016

This map shows only the automated SNOTEL sites, which are at high altitudes. It looks pretty good, but my local meteorologist, who falls in the "serious amateur" class and whose family has been measuring snow here in the foothills since the 1920s, at least, says that we are only at 60–65 percent of seasonal average snowfall, which means that The Kid still has a job to do.

Or fire season might get serious again.

Down at the little volunteer fire department, we had a work session on Saturday for maintenace. My main contribution was sorting out a little issue with the pump on one of the brush trucks; I have now been with the department long enough to learn how certain pieces of equipment are likely to malfunction.

But then I went to start up the older pumper, which I had not driven in more than a year, and I was cranking it and cranking it —until I remembered that it has a manual choke. Pull choke knob — truck starts. And then it was a matter of becoming reacquainted with its two-speed rear axle while going up and down hills.

February 14, 2016

My Firewood Is Just Not Good Enough


I have been outside splitting wood this morning, but I know that my firewood quality does not measure up to these guys. Is it even "filling-station grade"?

I feel so bad, like I should just hang up my Monster Maul in shame.

February 12, 2016

Of Sage Grouse and Prairie Chicken Display


This is the time of year when people are booking tours to the dance grounds (leks) of sage grouse and prairie chickens.

If the tours are full, here is some footage from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, outtakes and behind-the-scenes material from the film The Sagebrush Sea.

I have long assumed that some of the traditional Plains Indian dance-costuming and moves are based on these amazing spring displays.

February 01, 2016

Where's That Snow Plow?

Screen shot of the area around Florence this morning.
Apparently, The Kid is paying us a visit, having dropped six inches (15 cm, 1/3 cubit) overnight with more expected today.

Out walking the dog, I could hear the rattle of a snow plow on the state highway. But I could have stayed indoors and played with the computer, where a new system lets you track Colorado state snow plows online.
The Automated Vehicle Locator (AVL), will allow the public to go online to see which areas have already been plowed in a snowstorm. 
With that information, users can see which roads are the best for driving. People will also be able to check a plow's current location and see the direction they're traveling.

Plows that haven't moved for more than 16 minutes will not be visible. CDOT says 860 of 970 plows will be outfitted with the AVL system.
Track the plows here, or go to the highway-information home page for links to webcams and other information.

January 16, 2016

Andre Norton Messed with my Mind

Reconstruction of a man checking the roof
on his house framed with mammoth bones.
(The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, S.D.)


Recent Web-surfing (Do people still say that?) led me this fascinating article on Gizmodo: "A Mysterious Mammoth Carcass Could Change Human History."

The problem was that I read as far as this line — "A rounded hole through the interior jugal" —and immediately I think, "A bullet hole! Time travelers!" (And as a second thought, "What caliber for mammoth?")

Whose fault is that? Andre Norton's — pen name of Mary Alice Norton (1912–2005), who published in days when female SF writers pretty much had publish under male names for a nearly all-male readership.

Specifically I am thinking of her novel The Time Traders (1958). Wikipedia summarizes the beginning of The Time Traders
At the end of the Twentieth Century petty crook Ross Murdock is given the choice of facing a new medical procedure called Rehabilitation or volunteering to join a secret government project.

Hoping for a chance to escape, Ross volunteers to join Operation Retrograde and is taken by Major John Kelgarries to a base built under the ice near the North Pole. Teamed with archaeologist Gordon Ashe, he is trained to mimic a trader of the Beaker culture of Bronze-Age Europe.
(The Time Traders and one of its sequels, Key Out of Time, are available as free e-book downloads from Project Gutenberg.)

When I read it, after finding it in my tiny branch county library in Lakewood, Colo., I was maybe 11. It was not a good time— my parents had separated — Dad had moved out —and my mother was seeing some counselor whose office was in the same strip mall, so she would park me at the library. Then he moved back in — I was so glad —and then he moved out again. So maybe that was actually a good time for time travelers and for thinking about that evocative phrase, "the Beaker People."

Meanwhile, about that mammoth.
This 45,000 year-old mammoth’s life ended violently at the hands of hunters. That wouldn’t be surprising—it’s well known that Pleistocene humans were expert mammoth killers—but for the location. It was excavated from a permafrost embankment at Yenisei bay, a remote spot in central Siberia where a massive river empties into the Arctic Ocean.

That makes this brutalized mammoth the oldest evidence for human expansion into the high Arctic by a wide margin. Its discovery, published today in Science, might push back the timeline for when humans entered the northernmost reaches of the world—including the first entries into North America.
Reading about it is still a form of time travel, but I want to go to the Bronze Age via a secret base in the Arctic, damnit.

January 02, 2016

Propping up Charlie Goodnight's Barn

Goodnight's barn — the oldest standing structure in Pueblo?

"Charles Goodnight c. 1880" (late 40s) by University of Oklahoma Press; photo by Billy Hathorn -Wikimedia commons.
Famed cattleman Charles Goodnight is usually associated with the Texas Panhandle region, but he had a ranch in the 1870s that stretched southwest from Pueblo into the Wet Mountains. A feature of this ranch was a sandstone barn built in 1870. Goodnight dreamed big, but he never would have dreamt that his barn would have its own Facebook page.

And its own preservation committee, whose website says, 
Charles Goodnight was born in 1836 in Illinois and when he was 10 years of age his family moved to the newly formed State of Texas. Here learned about cattle herding and began his life-long love affair with Texas Longhorns. He and Oliver Loving began trailing Longhorns north to Colorado and Wyoming in the 1860s. Goodnight invented the chuck wagon in order to more easily feed the drovers on the trail.
In 1868, Goodnight put down roots just west of the newly created town of Pueblo, Colorado. He built his Rock Canyon Ranch below the bluffs of the area just west of what is named Goodnight Street. He ran his cattle all over the Gervacio Nolan Grant and had line camps over the area, including Babcock’s Hole Ranch in Wetmore, Colorado. The ranch remains today as a testament to Goodnight’s western heritage.
Goodnight and his wife lived several years in Pueblo before he transferred his headquarters to Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo. The barn lies between the Arkansas River and Thatcher Boulevard/Colorado 96 on the city's west edge. Formerly it was surrounded by the buildings and machinery of a gravel operation mining the alluvial deposits. Now all that is gone.

In a classic bureaucratic snafu, there is a sign by the barn about its history, but you cannot
The Goodnight barn about 1900 with windmill.
(legally) enter the property, even it is (I think) state-owned now. Bring your big telescope.

The barn needs structural help. As the committee reported last week,
The City and County are set to approve $5,000 each toward the cost of Construction Documents and Specifications. The total for the documents is $37,500.00! Frontier Pathways and HPI are funding $1,000 each toward this amount. The Committee is giving $26,540.00 which we raised already! . . . . In April we will be writing a State Historic Fund Grant for $200,000 to begin the exterior work on the barn next Autumn. Our grant writer is also submitting grants to go toward the cash match and more. We are looking forward to a HUGE 2016!
Assorted factoids about Charles Goodnight from Wikipedia and elsewhere.

• Young Charlie was too busy being a cowboy and then a Texas Ranger to be bothered much with schooling, never learning to read and write. About the time the barn was going up, he married Mary Ann "Molly" Dyer, a Texas schoolteacher, who handled all written matters for him. She died in 1926.

• He smoked numerous cigars every day.

• He is credited as the (very loose) inspiration for the character of Woodrow F. Call in Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove (1985) yet also appears himself as a minor character.

• At the age of 91, after Molly's death, he married a woman of 26. She got pregnant, but miscarried. (He and Molly had no children either.) He died two years later at the age of 93.

January 01, 2016

El Niño ya viene

When I posted those snowpack numbers, I knew that for the Arkansas River drainage, where I live, the better-than-average figure represented snowfall along the Continental Divide. At my foothills location, the ground is mostly dry, and the High Plains mostly likewise.

But this latest NASA report suggests that we may yet get the big snow. Maybe it will be "three feet of glop," as sometimes happens in the spring.

Must. Cut. More Firewood. Now.

Let's Start 2016 with a Look at the Snowpack

Lots more information at the National Weather and Climate Center.

December 29, 2015

Bear with Me — There's More

Bear enjoying late-season tomatoes.
More links that I need to clear . . . 

• "The Hermit: New Mexico's First Mountaineer" — it's a story of religion, violence, penitence, and isolation, in other words, New Mexico.

• Some birds do well in cities and suburbs. How can we help them?

• We are told the decades of forest-fire suppression has led to hotter, bigger files. But a CU study suggests that severe fires are not new on Colorado's Front Range.  

Plans to sequence the genome of the oldest dogs found in North America.

Outdoor magazine's best 25 books for well-read explorers. Old Glory, yes!

• Everyone hears about Coronado's expedition in the American southwest,  no one about Francisco Leyva de Bonilla's. Maybe that is because it was such as disaster.

• Saving a big piece of southeastern Colorado's canyon country. And a chunk of the High Plains east of Pueblo.

Why are we still talking about Chris "Supertramp" McCandless?
Twenty-three years after his death, McCandless still has people talking — debating his cause of death, condemning his choices and discussing how perhaps they, too, can leave everything behind and walk into the wild.
A "river of sheep" in northwestern Colorado. Good photos.

December 28, 2015

Massive 2015 Year-End Link Dump! Something for Everyone!

Chef Jess Noy. See squirrel item.
I too often save a link to blog about it but them am too busy to do so. So here they are! All free!

Aspens in western Oregon could be "refugees" from Ice Age floods.

An article on Outdoor Wire wondered if the movie Wild would give a boost to backpacking or if The Hunger Games would increase the sale of archery gear. Well, did they?

• Not sure how this turned out: a Jewish kind-of-guru and a land-use battle in the Huerfano Valley of southern Colorado.

• What is the best survival knife? I would say that it's the knife you have with you. But, gear heads, read this article.

• When I was in the 6th grade at Kullerstrand Elementary School in Wheat Ridge, Colo., my teacher, Miss Carter, became engaged to the son of a carnation-raising family. She took us on a class trip through the commercial greenhouses — there used to be operations like that all over the area. Then, boom! no more. All the cut flowers came from Colombia, thanks to the War on Drugs ("We will pay them to grow roses instead of coca.") Now, "Colorado farmers, florists seek renaissance for local flower scene."

• Cañon City commercial herb and flower grower Tammy Hartung blogs on "Protecting Wildlife in the Garden & Farm Landscape."

• BoingBoing offers "The Best Adventure Stories for Kids from 1965." Is having adventures retro-cool? Elidar was actually one of Alan Garner's weaker books, I thought.

• Counting roadkill is depressing: "Our Highways' Toll on Wildlife." A game warden in Fremont County, Colo., once told me that he figured a deer or elk was killed every night of the year by a motor vehicle. No doubt some of those drivers think that hunting is cruel.

The English discover that squirrels are tasty. Also, redheads rule.

The Salton Sea was an accident, but birds love it. I finally saw it this past March.

• It's cold this week. Are you at risk for "the frozen five"?

The "locavore movement" boosts deer hunting, in case you did not know.

• What southern Colorado needs is a good "guntry club." But I expect that northern Colorado will get (or has gotten) one sooner, since that is where the money is. Still, I can fantasize.

• Are you feeding the birds this winter? Some thoughts on where to put your feeders. And keep them clean.  And if you want birds, you have to tolerate some insects.

• What happens when a professional wedding photographer goes elk hunting.

Don't make these dumb moves when you go to a gun shop.

• I have heard some of these: "Female Hunters Share Tales of Sexism."

How to shoot down a drone. Hint: they are more like pigeons than geese.

• It kind of amazes me that Bishop's Castle is the must-see tourist attraction in the Wet Mountains. But almost everyone who rents our cabin goes there.

• When I worked at the Cañon City Daily Record, part of my job was visiting the local humane society and photographing the adoptable pet of the week. I learned some these things by trial and error, but I wish that I had had this article to read.

December 25, 2015

Maybe I Should Call This "Marginal Galaxy Nature Blog"



Maybe not. I am better at thinking about the migration paths of elk than the migration paths of galaxies. But it is a stunning video. Laniakea means "immeasureable heavens" in Hawaiian. More here.

December 23, 2015

Best of Bigfoot, 2015


"Local" decor in the new Trader Joe's grocery store in Colorado Springs.
Via the Bigfoot Lunch Club blog, Animal Planet's ten best Bigfoot video clips of 2015.

These have a short commercial at the beginning. At least one that I watched was for cosmetics, which means that someone thinks that there are female Bigfoot fans too (I always think of Bigfoot-hunting as a guy thing, for some reason) or else there is a joke in there about putitng lipstick on a sasquatch.

In related news, Bigfoot-hunting figures into the upcoming trial of Eddie Tipton, the "former Multi-State Lottery Association security director who is accused of rigging jackpots in Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin, Kansas and Oklahoma from 2005 to 2011 to enrich himself and his friends."

It was all for science!

In yet other news, a Canadian Native band gets their 75-year-old sasquatch (?) mask back from a museum.

December 18, 2015

Look What Smokey Bear Left in my Stocking!

The Fiddlin' Foresters
Am I opening presents early, when Smokeymas is still a week away? Not really, I found this CD, "In the Long Run" by the Fiddlin' Foresters, at ARC today.

I had no idea that (a) the US Forest Service had an "official old-time string band" and (b) that their website had been presidentially singled out by Barack Obama as an example of government waste. Was that a taxpayer-funded banjo too?

Thank heaven we have saved $10 annually on domain registration fees. The deficit will melt like snow in May if we keep this up.

The album is still available.

I played it on the long drive home from Colorado Springs. They do a tricky thing in the middle, moving from the campfire-singalong jollity of "Smokey the Bear" through another cut and then into "Cold Missouri Waters," which is a song I rarely listen to because it interferes with my vision, and that's not what you want at 65 mph. Jane Leche gets into Joan Baez territory with the vocal track (YouTube).

"Is that about a wildfire?" M. asks.

"Mann Gulch," I manage to say, although my voice sounds funny.

But let's be real. The song is a weeper, but I was not even born yet when the events took place.

I am thinking more of a sunny dining hall at the Wheaton College science station/summer camp in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. A boy sits off in a corner while his father, the Pactola District ranger, gives some students a quick version of what would be today the S-190 and S-130 "red card" wildfire-training classes, in case they have to fight a fire on or near their 50-acre site.

Sheet music to "Smokey the Bear" sits on the rack of the upright piano in the dining hall, and the ranger is telling the students how you should never run uphill from a fire, how something bad happened in Montana not too many years before.