October 01, 2018

These Texans Could Have Used Some Blog Stew

• What could be romantic than coming from Texas to Colorado and proposing marriage on a mountain peak? How about getting lost on the way down? That sure will test your compatibility!

• Do you wonder why you see more of some birds and fewer of others during the winter? Cornell University's annual Winter Bird Highlights is available for download. It is a PDF file (2.2 MB).

• Our favorite wildlife rehabilitators (now in their third decade at that site) were profiled recently on a Colorado Springs television news show. There is video this year's bunch of bear cubs too.

• I was outside yesterday and heard that sound southbound Sandhill cranes passing overhead. I have two memories associated with it — one good, one sad. The sad one was walking down a crowded sidewalk on the Colorado State University-Pueblo campus when a flock was passing overhead and not one person looked up, except me. Should I have turned into a sidewalk bird evangelist, exhorting the students to connect?

On the other hand, one October morning when I was new to the volunteer fire department, we were doing some engine maintenance outdoors on the concrete apron in front of the fire house. A flock passed over on the same flight path as yesterday's, and those stopped to watch. So I figured that they were all right.

September 27, 2018

Lambsquarters Is the New Kale

Some tiny lambsquarters seeds and a book that has nothing
about lambsquarters in it.
M. and I ate a lot of lambsquarter (lambsquarters? lamb's-quarter(s)? anyway, Chenopodium album) this summer, as I wrote in early July: "Not-Gardening in a Time of Drought."

They, wild amaranth, and our nettle patch provided most of our early-summer greens — on their own, mixed into pasta, or baked with cheese in Greek pie (spanakopita).

We did not know how trendy we are! Lambsquarters was (were?) recently featured in a Los Angeles Times lifestyle blog: " Lambsquarters: Weed harvested as wild food."
Volunteer lambsquarters.
Mia Wasilevich, a wild foods chef, and her partner, Pascal Baudar, lead classes in foraging in the environs of L.A. When they have collected a wild harvest, Wasilevich transforms the weed into something more civilized -- pesto or spring rolls with a brilliant green dollop of lambsquarters glistening under the rice paper.

“It’s a wild food and I prefer to cook it down, even for a short time,” she says. “I do a pureed green velvet soup with it that’s lovely. It can go in any number of sauces. I just did a lambsquarters benedict, like a florentine, with quails eggs. It makes a beautiful sauce.”
I guess that makes M. a "wild foods chef" too, since she is also adept with mushrooms.

But there is more. Ethnobotanists are pursuing lambsquarter(s) as well.
"It's a bit like Jurassic Park," I told a greenhouse visitor while I tucked another inflorescence into a glassine paper bag. "People ate this like quinoa almost 4000 years ago. The variety grown here vanished hundreds of years ago, but with a bit of work we can bring it back". . . .
In the past, lambsquarters may have been prepared and eaten the same ways as quinoa and huauzontle. The archaeological data are clear that lambsquarters was an important crop in prehistoric eastern North America, but many details about the extinct crop are hard to pin down. Where did it come from? How was it grown? How was it eaten? What is known comes from seed cashes and storage pits where seeds passed the centuries until archaeologists uncovered them.

And from the sadly defunct Colorado foraging blog Wild Food Girl, recipe for "Lambs' Quarters Pesto with Sunflower Seeds."

More:
This is a weed of garden beds and landscaping. Like a dedicated pup, it follows us humans around, much as we have sought it out. In The Forager’s Harvest (2006), Sam Thayer explains that the goosefoot C. berlandieri has been used by native people here for thousands of years, prior to contact with European settlers, who brought their own strain of edible Chenopodium to North American soils, whether or not intentionally. There is archaeological evidence for Chenopodium seeds in North America dating back thousands of years, he explains, citing Smith (1992). “Depending on classification, these seeds may or may not represent C. album; but some of them certainly represent plants that would commonly be called “lamb’s quarters,” he writes.
In past years, we have always counted in the lambsquarters coming up on its own in various spots. Unlike the guy in LA, we don't have to keep them a secret — they are right next to the house.

What we have done this year is gather some seeds, just to make sure that they keep coming up. Who knows, maybe we will devote some garden space to lambsquarter(s) — our own little Neolithic Revolution. You can be a foodie and eat like the Old Ones at the same time!

September 24, 2018

Sumac and Hummingbirds


I took a break this afternoon to walk up one of the nearby roads. The sumac is turning red already. It can't wait. Somebody always wants to be at the head of the line.

Saturday night when we ate supper on the porch, not a single hummingbird came to the feeder. "It's like they have a calendar," I said. "They know when it's the equinox!"

Ah, the Calendar of Nature. And then last evening one came by — it's always a female broad-tailed — proving that, as usual, not every individual reads the manual.

But none today.

September 17, 2018

Quick Review: "Alpha," Where Boy Meets Wolf (Dog).

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Keda with a Czechoslovakian wolfdog that plays Alpha
(who has a surprise for the humans)
Just to save you the trouble, I will list some things that anyone familiar with hunting large animals will object to in the movie Alpha.

And then I will tell you that this story of a boy and his wolf is worthwhile anyway.

First of all, if the village hunters were going after Pleistocene bison, they would not walk miles and miles, leaving their families behind. Everyone would go. Non-hunters could still help drive the buffalo over the cliff by flapping skins and making a commotion. Throwing spears to create a "fence" is not going to stop charging bison.

When it is time to process the meat, you need everyone. And a lot will still be wasted, as archaeologists can tell you. Or visit the most famous and weirdly named such site in North America! (The movie too was filmed in Alberta, except for the CGI parts.)

Second, according to my archaeologist friend, 20,000 years BP is too early for bows and arrows, according to current information. I would give the movie-makers a pass on that one.

Third, when winter comes, why do people keep living in a windswept snowfield in what looks like northern Labrador instead of moving to a more sheltered place that might offer some fuel?

Fourth — and this is more of a continuity lapse — during his time along, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) starts to grow some teenage whiskers, yet in the final scene, they are gone. But going by his father's beard,  this is not a culture where men shave.

And a goof, which someone at Internet Movie Database also noted, "In the first cave scene, Kedi [sic] is kneeling to approach the wolf, and the bottom of his boot clearly shows a rubber lugged sole." Yeah, it did.


Now for the positives

First,  Alpha is a beautiful movie to watch. Some of that is Alberta and a lot of it is CGI, I will grant. But wow, Shining Times. If you were an old man by forty, you still would have lived a life filled with wonder.

Second, it's a "dog story" with a happy ending, a bit like the lines from Kipling's Jungle Book:

When the Man waked up he said,
'What is Wild Dog doing here?'
And the Woman said,
'His name is not Wild Dog any more,
but the First Friend,
because he will be our friend
for always and always and always.'


Its images and story will stay with you.

September 16, 2018

Bears Are Hungry in the Fall

Grizzly bears (US Fish and Wildlife Service)
Tennessee: A black bear killed a man in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some confusion ensues.
Park officials have shot and killed the bear associated with the investigation into a man's death.
Spokeswoman Julena Campbell said it happened around 9:45 Sunday morning [Sept. 9].
A news release Wednesday said the National Park Service had euthanized a male bear after finding it near a man's body in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On Friday, the park said rangers actually had not yet found and killed the bear.
Wyoming: A bowhunter and his guide were attacked by grizzly bears in the Teton Wilderness; the guide was killed.
As initially reported, a grizzly bear attack on an elk hunter and his guide wounded the client hunter Corey Chubon, from Florida, and left the guide, Mark Uptain, dead. His body was recovered yesterday from the scene in Turpin Meadows at approximately 1:15pm.
After interviews and visiting the scene, Undersheriff Matt Carr said Uptain was rushed by a grizzly bear in “a very aggressive manner.”
“They were field dressing this elk. They were in thick timber and this bear was on them very quickly,” Carr said. “There was apparently no time to react.”
UPDATE: More information on the incident. Apparently bear spray was used.
Oregon: A woman hiking was killed by a mountain lion in the Mount Hood area.
The hiker who went missing on Mount Hood in late August and was found dead at the bottom of a ravine Monday was likely killed by a cougar, authorities said — a shocking twist in the missing persons case. 

The body of Diana Bober, 55, was found Monday [Sept. 10] at the bottom of a 200-foot embankment on the famous Oregon mountain's Hunchback Trail, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.

End of the Season in a Mountain Town


M. and I went over to Westcliffe Friday night to watch a movie in a real (and historic) theater.

Westcliffe is not a ski town, not a river town, not a mountain-biking town. When its one ski area, Conquistador, finally faceplanted too many times and shut down in 1993, the town gave a collective yawn and got on with its real industry, building mountain mini-mansions.

There are a bazillion photos taken looking west down Main Street toward the Sangre de Cristo Range, all variations of this one:
Add more a few more trees, neo-historic streetlamps, paving, and diagonal parking,
and you have the Westcliffe of today.


It occurred to me as I sat on a street bench across from the Jones Theater that you could pick up the whole place and set it down in, say, Phillips County—only with neo-historic streetlamps and a "dark skies" ordinance. The two counties' populations are about the same, and the buildings would fit right in.

The only difference is that almost no one is building mini-mansions all around Phillips County, thus supporting numerous small construction firms. On the prairie there is maybe less talk about agricultural "heritage" and more actual agriculture.

Walking down Main Street, it seemed like every third retail space was for rent and almost every restaurant for sale. Chappy's, our favorite bar for Westcliffe visits, was "closed for renovation." I hope that's not a euphemism.

The Chamber of Commerce types want more economic activity. Factories? In all these towns and small cities the refrain is, "We don't want our kids to move away." But guess what, the kids are going to move away.  Maybe some will come back later and find a way to make a living. Most will not. (Did I go back to Del Norte or Rapid City? Nope.)

What you can get in a place like Westcliffe:
  • First-run movies
  • Hardware store merchandise (the Ace store is pretty good)
  • Carhart clothing (at the hardware store)
  • "Western decor" items
  • Paintings by local artists
  • Grass-fed beef
  • "Lowest-common denominator groceries" (M.'s phrase)
  • Hiking boots 
  • Firearms
  • Automotive repair
  • The rural health clinic

What you cannot get:
  • Auto parts
  • Books
  • Other clothing
  • Appliances
  • Specialized medical care
  • All kinds of other things that send people "down the hill," leading to much Facebook angst about road conditions
Then there is the new but growing Amish population (buggies at 8,000 feet!) who have a different set of shopping needs and probably rely sometimes on mail order from Gohn Bros. or wherever.

So there is much complaint about how retail businesses (except hardware) cannot succeed with a season that is only four months long.

On the other hand, there seems to be little desire to be one of those resort towns with a different manufactured "festival" every other weekend throughout the year. The argument goes around and around.

But the views!

September 13, 2018

What I Found in the Woods on Wednesday

First there was the jawbone. I went to check the cameras at Ringtail Rocks (more coming from them — you saw the sexy skunks, right?) and there on my usual route was this mandible. The size and shape said "fox" to me, and the Internet tells me that is probably from a red fox, not a gray fox. Both live on that the ridge.

"Digested" grass.

At another time, I was coming down with The Dawg, not taking our usual path, when I saw this large clump of partially digested-looking grasses (compare to pine cones). My first thought was "stomach contents of a deer or elk," but there were major problems with that.

No one has been hunting up there during bow season. Second, if there had been any carcass or gut pile, said Dawg would have smelled it and run like an arrow straight to it, because there is nothing he loves more than Dead Things. That close to our usual path, I would have smelled it too.

So where did these tightly clumped grasses come from? They had a look of nesting material too. Had someone — perhaps someone of the ursine persuasion — dug out a wood rat's nest? I looked around but did not see any such disturbance.

Sorry about the backlighting, but the sun was not yet
over the ridge to the east (behind me).
Aha. The grass was part of a disintegrating squirrel nest, probably Abert squirrels, since they are all over these pine woods. Here's a great read on the relationship between squirrels, fungus, and trees.

The only difference is that 98 percent of our Abert squirrels are the black (melanistic) color phase, not the two-tone variety seen in Arizona and New Mexico.

September 12, 2018

It Takes Two (Skunks) to Tango

The testes of the male spotted skunk "are most massive by late September."

But it looks like the fun has already started up on the ridge, where  Western spotted skunks are exhibiting "courtship behavior," and maybe something more.

These little skunks (smaller than the more common striped skunks) like "arid, rocky and brushy canyons and hillsides," which pretty well describes where I live.





Range of the Western spotted skunk.

September 11, 2018

Deception Works!

"Wildlife Survey. Please Do Not Disturb."

I have a few scout cameras out in the woods most of the year, some on our property, some on nearby BLM or national forest land.

This one is about a quarter-mile from the house, on national forest, on a lightly used game trail that no one ever travels on two legs, as far as I can tell. It has produced some of my best bear photos.

"Never say never."

A couple of days ago, I was starting up the Forest Service road on The Dawg's morning walk when I see a man in full camouflage coming down, carrying a compound bow. (It's archery season, has been since August 25th.)

"Is that a Chesapeake?" he asks as he is being sniffed, thus establishing himself as a Friend of Dawg.

We chat a moment, then a younger man walks down the road, also with a bow. It turns out that they are father and son, from a little town to the south.

They are hunting deer but don't know this area well, so it's partly a scouting trip. The son got close to some, but not close enough to loose an arrow.

"I went up this little drainage," he says, "and I saw this CPW scout camera . . ."

I am biting my tongue. What I said about no one going into the woods at that location? I was wrong.

But the son not only buys into my camera's "camouflage," he is convinced that its presence means that this is a good deer area. After all, while standing by the camera, he heard a twig snap.

It's true that Colorado Parks and Wildlife has done some deer research nearby, but it's more of the tranquilizing-and-radio-collaring variety, not with scout cameras.

I could plead no-contest to impersonating a state government camera. Having had one stolen, I will take the risk.

I am mostly just laughing at myself at this point. Never say never.

September 06, 2018

Gnawing at Memory on New Mexico 21

The Tooth of Time at Philmont Scout Ranch.

New Mexico Highway 21 is the platonic ideal of a foothills road, climbing, turning, and dipping, but never  so much as you can't enjoy the scenery. On the right (west) side as you're going south lies the huge Philmont Scout Ranch, which reaches from the High Plains up into wooded mountains.

On the left (east) side, is the big Express UU Bar Ranch, managed for cattle, hunting, and vacations, and owned by Oklahoma businessman Bob Funk (I've met him) a self-made land baron who owns a swath of Colfax County, including the outlaw-haunted St. James Hotel in Cimarron, and operates through a subsidiary the municipal airport at Raton.

A few yards from the asphalt you can spot the ruts of the Mountain Branch of the  Santa Fe Trail. South of Raton Pass, it hugged the foothills, presumably for better access to water, grass, and firewood, while today's railroad and Interstate 25 run further out on the plains.

Once at some event I talked with a National Park Service staffer from the Santa Fe office. He had bicycled the trail — whether the whole thing or just from Bent's Old Fort down to Santa Fe, I don't recall.

He talked about the Tooth of Time — everything at Philmont is the Tooth of Time This or That. People traveling on US 64 get a glimpse of it, but when you follow the Trail, he said, you stay in sight of it for at least a couple of days, traveling at bicycle speed. For the teamsters walking alongside their laden freight wagons, it meant that only a week of travel was left before reaching Santa Fe.

Stay on the Trail, and you can end up in the Mora valley. In the old days, people were always coming and going from there to Fort Pueblo and other places—its agricultural products were sent north and south. Now, Mora is out of the way; it's a place that you have to want to visit, whereas it was on the main route of the Santa Fe Trail.
Rayado at Philmont—I think the dining hall was in the farther building,
and we slept in wall tents on platforms back beyond that.

I stopped at Rayado. It's kind of dangerous to go back to some place that you last saw when you were 14 years old. But I did not have to worry about a golden haze of nostalgia—Rayado looks better now than I remembered. Lusher and irrigated. A thicker riparian forest.

Because it was Labor Day weekend, everything was locked up and deserted, which made the visit feel more dreamlike — just me and the landscape of memory. I could have told it like, "I dreamed I was in this valley — there was a long adobe building . . ."

I was there for some kind of "conservation camp" (two weeks?), not the usual Philmont backpacking trek. (Now there is a Roving Outdoor Conservation School, which combines the two — fieldwork and backpacking. Sounds like fun, but you have to be 16.)

So what did we do? There had been a flash flood earlier that spring  — I think we built check dams, etc. Do we get any credit for the improved riparian area?

There was a little classroom time — basic forest ecology and so on — and one shorter backpack trip into the high country where we cut dwarf mistletoe out of pine trees with pruning saws, probably a useless exercise.

I remember the poker games after hours in the tent, but not the organized activities. That figures.

September 04, 2018

Yes, It's Real Hunting. Yes, I Might Well Do It If I Had a Speedy Terrier


My sister just posted on Facebook that her Lhasa Apso killed a rat in the flower garden. See, all those little dogs have a genetic urge to hunt rats!

August 31, 2018

I Was Here, Where Were You?


Encountered in the Wet Mountains

I feel like I have been somewhere, that is for sure. I was on-deadline the second half of August, and while the grass grew and the dog's walks were a little shorter than they should have been, I bashed out the 8,000 words required. But I missed blogging.

Now I am at a Secret Location in far-northern New Mexico, clearing out my emails. It's nice when Secret Locations have decent wifi.

Meanwhile: here are a few things of interest.

How they used to burn the prairies. Not just the prairies. As I ride Amtrak through the Midwest, I often mentally conjure a dry, breezy day and a line of people with drip torches. (Link goes to video.) I mean, there used to be buffalo in Kentucky.

• I remember my dad walking through our garden in the Black Hills, pulling the husks off ears of corn, and tossing them away with a curse if they were infected with smut. Sadly, he did not know that the Ancestral Puebloans (and the Aztecs) considered Ustilago maydis to be a delicacy and derived nutritional benefits from eating it!

• From Women's Outdoor News, some tips and hacks for better family car-camping. With S'mores, so you know it is family-friendly.

July 23, 2018

A Little Weirdness — but Polite Weirdness

Abandoned railroad tunnel on Gold Camp Road (Atlas Obscura).
Last Tuesday, the 17th, I talked with a man whose ball cap displayed a Bigfoot silhouette and the words "Gone Squatchin'." Bigfoot-hunting, in other words.  It's something you can do, like rock-hounding or ghost-hunting. Or skeleton-hunting, apparently.

A couple of days later came this unrelated email:
I have an emotional and perhaps strange inquiry I was hoping you could help me with. First of all, I am a hiker from Denver who found you through google searches. I found a particular article in CoZine magazine (http://cozine.com/2003-november/ghosts/). You talked about your childhood pet, and his grave at Eagle Rock.

I realize this may be hard to read and I apologize for that. The reason I am writing you is that I was up off Gold Camp Road [SW of Colorado Springs] exploring today, and I found a shallow grave. I have been researching all day for possible human disappearances. Your story matches up to what I saw today. I found the site right off the road. There were a few rocks covering it, and an old college blanket on top.

If this is indeed your beloved dog, please know it should be covered up with more rocks. I can help if needed. I have dogs and know how much they mean to people.

All I would like to know is that I don’t need to go to the police for some poor buried person up there. Thank you for reading this and I hope you have a nice day. The GPS coordinates of the burial are 38.XXXXX, -104.XXXXX 
I wrote back and said, "Thank you for writing, but my dog was buried in Park County," whereas the "hiker from Denver"  had been in El Paso County.

And only then did it really hit me: "researching all day for possible human disappearances." Really? That's a thing?

It's true that people from Colorado Springs have used Gold Camp Road, a former railroad right-of-way that runs to Victor and Cripple Creek, to dispose of unwanted romantic partners, drug-dealing associates, and the like.

The other favorite locale for body disposal was (is) Rampart Range Road, which climbs from the west side of Colorado Springs and makes for a twisty, gravel route to Woodland Park.

If I were this guy, I would search there too.

July 20, 2018

I Skipped National Grasslands Week — for a Reason


You probably missed this because you were watching migrating birds or something, but National Grasslands Week was June 18th-24th.

Or maybe you skipped it because the Comanche and Cimarron national grasslands are interesting country but it's just too damn hot there in June for recreation. Especially this year. (There are other national grasslands as well.)

I went to the Purgatory River dinosaur trackway that week in 2015, and while it was a good experience, I would much rather have gone in December. I have hunted in shirtsleeves on New Year's Day in southeastern Colorado.

January is also good, absent any blizzards. Or February. I used to take the nature-writing students out to Vogel Canyon (in the upper-left light-blue area on the map below) in early February.

It's a good entry point for the grasslands experience — all that aridity and melancholy and mysterious rock art.

It must have been someone sitting in an air-conditioned office who put National Grasslands Week in June. The bureaucratic mind at play.

July 18, 2018

An Injured Bobcat and the Seduction of the "The Mission"

Will s/he make it through the night?
The call came as M. and were finishing supper and planning to watch an episode of Orange is the New Black. A game warden wanted to meet us in the next county to the north with an injured bobcat, which we would take to the rehabilitation center.

There was the usual back and forth over where to rendezvous; then I grabbed a bobcat-sized carrier (medium) and my welder's gloves, and we were off.

Pretty soon we're at the rendezvous point, and here comes this shiny black Colorado Parks & Wildlife truck. And in the back in another carrier is a very displeased bobcat who did not want to move from its carrier into mine, so I had to reach in and grab him.

Touch not the cat bot a glove, as the Scots said. There is some truth to that. It was kind of a "Here, hold my beer" moment, only I had no beer.

I stuffed the unhappy cat into my carrier, and we set off. At the center, we put the carrier in one of the enclosures. The bobcat will get food and water, and in the morning — if it's still alive — its caretakers will decide what to do next.

The backstory was kind of sketchy — someone in the Colorado Springs area had found it apparently dead (hit by a car?) and put it in a pillowcase in order to deposit it in a trash can (!!), when it came to life. Or something like that. Internal injuries?

As we drove to meet the game warden, I was thinking how I am someone who lives in his head a lot, usually having internal dialogs about how this project is behind and how I need to get going on that article and when am I going to fix XYZ around the house and on and on.

And then, whether it is the volunteer fire department or the wildlife transport gig, the radio squawks or the telephone rings and  . . . that's it. Get the appropriate gear and go.

The change is almost relaxing. It's like an altered state. There is only The Mission, and everything else is shoved into the background. I think we humans like that state of being.

A fire call came in last winter for a structure fire at the far edge of our service area, about a 45-minute drive from the firehouse.

One engine had taken off ahead of me, and I was driving a second one, alone— a violation of the procedure that normally required a minimum of two firefighters per engine, except that another guy was coming in his own vehicle to meet me on-scene.

It was just before dawn, and I was going up this lonely winding canyon road with the red and blue lights bouncing off the rocks and cliffs beside the road, like my own private rave.

Dream-like. . . . I could have gone on and on and on.

UPDATE, JULY 25, 2018:  The bobcat was released today in the foothills near the rehabiliation center. The rehabbers said that it took off like a rocket when they opened the door of its carrier.