March 29, 2016

Western Snowpack March 28, 2016

Here in southern Colorado, we are seeing the result of several storms that went north. My area got six inches of wet snow on Saturday the 26th, which was nice, but now it's dry and windy again.

March 28, 2016

Read the Secret Code of Buck Knives

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Buck 285 BLW Bantam Camo Folding Hunting Knives as a premium for donating $50 or more.

I said yes to the gift this time, because you can always use another knife, whereas M. and I are swimming in tote bags, have plenty of coffee mugs, and don't need more daypacks, baseball caps, shoulder bags, or fleece vests.

My normal-carry knife is a little hardware-store two-blade folder, dainty by today's standards ("Is that a real knife"? asked the fire chief, grinning.). It's good enough for opening packages and cutting string — maybe not for cutting three-inch hose, but when would I have to do that?

I don't understand people who load up their pockets. ("My normal pocket-carry pistol is a Model 1911, and I forget it's there!") I hate to have stuff thumping against my legs when I walk around. If it weren't too hot for vests five months of the year, I would wear one every day. (If there is any truth to the cliche of the vest-wearing cowboy, well, try reaching into your front jeans pocket when you're on horseback. Or driving a car.)

So, knife in hand, I decided to research it a little, and came across this: You can date your Buck knife by the symbol next to the model number. My new knife was made in 2015.

Maybe everyone who owns one already knows this. The symbols remind me of one of the old esoteric alphabets, like "Passing the River." Is the company sending a message, one letter per year?

March 26, 2016

Juncos Get Smart, Get Fat?

Dark-eyed juncos working on a suet cake.
This is the winter that the juncos got smart, and as a result, my bird-food costs are rising.

Along with the feeders offering sunflower seeds and niger thistle, a/k/a black gold, I usually have a couple of holders for suet cakes. The box for the current offering lists its ingredients thus: rendered beef suet, milo, millet, sunflower seeds, wheat, corn.

These suet cakes generally attract omnivorous and agile birds: jays and chickadees, plus nuthatches, who like to hang upside down and peck at them — and woodpeckers of course, which for us means mostly downies.

Meanwhile, the dark-eyed juncos, in their dozens, are on the ground under the sunflower feeders, or sometimes up in them, sometimes on the thistle feeders too, but predominately on the ground.

Until this year. It's like they suddenly figured out the suet cakes and figured, what the heck, a little beef fat won't hurt us in cold weather. Yum, beef fat!

One year, as part of Cornell University's Project Feeder Watch, which M. and I have been participating in since the mid-1990s, some bird-seed company asked us to study the preferences of different species for different seeds.

We put out samples of, for instance, milo (grain sorghun), millet, and sunflower seeds on paper plates and then were supposed to count how many and what species came to them for a span of time.

Milo and millet bulk up many of the wild bird seed mixes that you see as "attracting many species" and such, but the fact is that they are second and third choices for the birds — except for juncos, doves, and maybe pheasants — but we don't see pheasants here, and the wild turkeys rarely come into the yard.

Finches, in my experience, tend to high-grade the sunflower seeds and ignore the rest.

So now the question is, are the juncos going for the fat, or are they picking the milo out of it because they like the stuff?

March 13, 2016

Does Wildfire Threaten Your Town? Check the Map

This interactive map shows communities threatened by wildfire. The baseline is "one or more 100+ acre wildfires within 10 mile of town from 2000 through 2014." It seems to cover the Lower 48 only.

Right off, I can see that my little village is not listed, even though we had four or five fires that qualify easily. Grumble grumble. We're bigger than Springview, Nebraska, pop. 227. We have a post office.

But play with it and see what you think.

March 12, 2016

Gopher Graffiti


We have been here all winter, under the snow. Now we are waiting for you to plant tasty treats in the garden.

March 11, 2016

Don't Panic!, Mountain Biking Mecca, and Other Shorts


Outdoor Survival - Chapter 4 - Controlling Panic from Colorado Parks & Wildlife on Vimeo.

•  People outside of Fremont County, Colo., are learning that there is great mountain biking, almost year-around, on the Bureau of Land Management land north of town. Rock climbers already knew that.

• Talks are underway about extending the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument from New Mexico into southern Colorado. (Article may be partly paywalled.) 

Site of the Rough Riders reunion
• The Southwest is dotted with former Harvey House hotels and restaurants. Fred Harvey's enterprizes crosscut much late 19th and early 20th-century history:
From the manhunt for the escaped “Billy the Kid” in 1881 (a local celebrity in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Fred had two restaurants and two hotels, which Billy sometimes patronized), to the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889 (which left from the Arkansas City, Kansas Harvey House and Santa Fe depot), to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (for which Fred helped cater the biggest lunch in American history for the opening ceremonies and parade).
There’s also the Rough Riders reunion in 1899 (held at the new Fred Harvey resort hotel, La Castañeda, in Las Vegas), and the development of the Grand Canyon as an international tourist attraction (Fred’s son Ford ran all the hotels at the canyon, and was a major player in the development of the national park system).

March 09, 2016

What Does and Does Not Happen on NOLS Planet


WMI instructor Amy Shambarger demonstrates creating a quick compression splint.

Last weekend was devoted to the two-day wilderness first aid class, taught by instructors from the Wilderness Medicine Institute, (WMI)  part of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming.

It is an excellent course — the instructors are strong — and to quote the website, it is for "the needs of trip leaders, camp staff, outdoor enthusiasts and individuals working in remote locations."

I have taken it twice now, with two different sets of instructors, to keep on the two-year recertification for the fire department, thinking mainly in terms of accidents during wildland firefighting — I am not an EMT and don't want to be.

But there are some curious omissions and asumptions. I suspect that they derive from the NOLS model of a trip with designated leaders that goes into a designated park or wilderness area in North America.

It is assumed that Search & Rescue and/or a medical-evacuation helicoper will come. Of course, you can now be choppered off Mount Everest, for a fee.

One odd omission was our friend the rattlesnake. (I could have guest-lectured.) I do see that the advanced version of the course (five days instead of two) includes "bites, stings, and poisonings."

Likewise, does the five-day course include gunshot wounds? I know, I should have asked. But I was busy sorting gear. ;)  I am not thinking combat-medic stuff here so much as the unfortunate accidental discharge.

I suspect, however, that guns do not exist on NOLS Planet, but "individuals . . . in remote locations" maybe ought to know. Here again, some people are teaching "shooter self-care" classes, but not in my area, unfortunately. There's an opportunity for someone.

(If you think there was a golden age of safe gun-handling, read some of the accounts of mid-19th century wagon trains, for example.)

March 03, 2016

March 2016 Western Snowpack

Averages dropped in many areas, since February was somewhat dry, but I keep hearing prediction of a snowy spring.

Meanwhile, I am sniffling from tree pollen and watched migrating tumbleweeds while driving to Colorado Springs yesterday. Troops at Fort Carson are starting grass fires in February, instead of waiting until March as usual. And a down powerline kicked off a nice little burn along the Huerfano River yesterday.

March 02, 2016

Recommendations for National Rifle Association Directors

If you are a voting member of the National Rifle Association, here are two sets of recommendations (with overlaps) from bloggers I respect.

Lawyer Dave Hardy offers his selections at his Of Arms and the Law blog.

At Shall Not Be Questioned, Sebastian weighs in selections and the Grover Norquist-recall question that is also on the ballot.
 
As for the rest of the candidates, I will never vote for Bob Barr of Georgia. It might be true that the Second Amendment defends the First, but Barr has demonstrated in the past that he has a poor grasp of the First.

Some people also think that colorful rocker Ted Nugent has passed his sell-by date.

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.