Late May – Tippy Canoe

For much of the year, the White River is a typical western river, meandering shallow and weak through canyons, shrublands and high desert. But like Cinderella at the ball, the White flares into muscular magnificence during spring runoff, when it swells mightily with snow melting from the Uintah Basin drainage.

Our family discovered the  river’s untamed character over Memorial Day on a guided canoe trip with Centennial Canoe Outfitters. From the put-in near Bonanza, UT (just west of Rangely, CO), we paddled 35 miles downstream, through remote and rugged landscape right out of a JohnFord western.

 

 

 

Our group included 18 voyagers—3 guides, our family of 4, two Russian couples, a guy travelling solo, a couple from Basalt and a mom with her two little girls and their grandmother. My husband Rick and 13-year-old daughter Olivia paddled in one canoe, myself and 17-year-old German-exchange-student daughter Mirjam in another. It was supposed to be an easy family trip, but the river, bulging with water muscle like a bodybuilder on steroids, had a different fate in store for us.

We started out with canoes lashed-together in pairs for stability because the river was so high and running so fast. By the lunch stop all of us but the canoes with the 2 little girls (each in a separate canoe pairing) had our “canoe legs,” and were confident enough to unlash and go as single canoes (each with two paddlers). The White usually doesn’t have much in the way of rapids but this year, it did. At the first significant one, the canoes still lashed together got into trouble. Not able to bob and move independently, the first double-boat got cross-wise in a rapid, took on water in one canoe, which dragged the other down so it filled too, and they were soon swamped. One of the little girls was thrown into the very-cold water and snagged partly under a log. Her grandmother lunged and grabbed her and eventually they made it to the bank, where we all helped pull them out, get them in warm clothes and warm them up. The poor child was very frightened, crying, teeth chattering—a traumatic experience that could have been a tragedy but luckily ended all right.

Somehow we all maneuvered the canoes to the bank, untied all the gear (totally soaked and streaming) and dried it off. Eventually we re-loaded the canoes and after probably an hour and a half, set off again. That was just the first adventure of the day. Next the guide’s canoe swamped and dumped. The rescue, dry off, reload process was repeated. The second double canoe was now downstream from the rest of us so we paddled across the river and the guide got out and climbed a bluff to scout ahead. Her canoe partner, however, lost his
grip on the overhanging branch that was keeping him at the bank, and downstream he went, over another small rapid backwards! The guide returned to find herself without a canoe! So we moved gear around and she climbed into a canoe with one of the adults and one of the small girls.

And so it went, a long, chilly, wet weekend on the river. But exhilarating! How boring to have done an easy paddle as the current carried us downstream. The weather for the 3 days was mixed sunny and overcast, with bouts of rain, and the camping was a little chilly. But the guides fixed terrific meals for us, set out as a buffet atop the canoes, flipped over for use as counterspace. Emboldened now by experience, we faced the river and the rapids with fortitude and at the end of the journey, our party of two canoes (Rick and Olivia, me and Mirjam) was the only one in our group not to swamp or overturn.

The terrain was wild and remote, though in reality the desert above us is dotted with oil and gas wells, roads and other evidence of resource extraction. We saw and heard a variety of birds, including yellow warblers, song sparrows, lazuli buntings, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks and great blue herons. I had hoped to see desert bighorn sheep but saw only their domestic cousins.

We even had a UFO sighting! Around 4 am Sunday night, beneath a hailstorm of stars, Rick and I saw two extremely bright, huge stars, very close to each other, moving across the sky, seemingly close enough to touch. From one of the stars a wide, vapor-trail shape protruded in a straight line then angled off at about 30 degrees. I almost hid behind a bush so the aliens wouldn’t see me when they landed! What was it? We figured out next morning it was the space shuttle just having undocked from the International Space Station! Or that’s the official story. I think it was really aliens…

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Summer Hiatus Ends – Blog On!

This is my first blog post since May and what can I say? I’m
a bad blogger — Bad blogger, bad, bad!

Not that I haven’t had plenty of ideas, and content, but I’ve just been too busy having a
fantastic summer outdoors. Now that summer is winding down, I’m going to start
posting based on this summer’s NatureWest outings. I hope you’ll share your doings and sightings as well.

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Lizard a Welcome Sighting on the Prairie

I was biking the Hidden Mesa Trail in Douglas County last week when a blink-of-an-eye flash of movement across the trail almost under my front tire caught my attention. Kamikaze prairie dogs darting in front of me, horned larks flushing from the dirt, grasshoppers ricocheting every which way, dragonflies, ground beetles, even the occasional elk in the distance—all of these I am used to. But beyond an occasional bullsnake or garter snake, reptiles are not common sightings. This tiny scurryer, however, just seemed like something more interesting than an insect…

I stopped my bike and approached cautiously, scanning the ground for what I hoped was a vertebrate. There, frozen on the dirt by a clump of dried blue grama, was a one-and-a-half inch (tail included) brightly-striped lizard. A newly-hatched prairie lizard, also called an eastern fence lizard. A handsome creature, its pale stripes gleamed bright in contrast to its darker stripes, its fresh scales unworn and new-minted as a penny.

Prairie lizards used to be lumped along with plateau lizards (of western Colorado) as eastern fence lizards, but the two were split into separate species designations in 2002. Prairie lizards, found in eastern Colorado, come in two basic patterns (like sofas, I guess!). Ones that hang out on rocks and trees have black chevrons. The striped version, like the one I saw, prefer life on the ground, where they scurry under rocks and shrubs for cover. Both are nicknamed “bluebellies” because males challenge each other by doing pushups to flash bright blue patches on their chests and sides. These lizards doing pushups– up, down; up, down–on their front legs is fun and funny  to watch.

Reptiles, from lizards to snakes to turtles, have had a hard time along the Front Range corridor, as development destroyed their habitat —and them — and recreationists like me have created further pressures in the pockets of habitat where the survivors cling. I was delighted, then, not only to see this species but to realize it was a young one. A baby liz is evidence of continued successful breeding in spite of housing developments, pollution,
noxious weed invasion, loose dogs, horses, cyclists and the endless list of human activities that impact the wildlife of Colorado.

adult Prairie Lizard - photo by Lauren Livo/Steve Wilcox

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Winter At 11,000 Feet

 

What animals endure winter at 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains? Well, a lotta critters, as it happens. On two snowshoe hut trips into the Colorado back country this winter, I saw how a number of species manage to soldier through in the cold months at and above timberline. 

In late January, I helped my friend Saralynn Crock, owner of BellaRock Adventures, guide a women’s snowshoe trip to one of the back country huts operated by the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association. Walter’s Cabin is a stunning hut built of massive logs with a commanding view of the Ten Mile Range and the ski runs of Copper Mountain. It’s one of 3 cabins that make up the Shrine Mountain Inn  huts, above Vail Pass.

 
 

In March, I went again with my family, staying in Jay’s Cabin, one of the smaller huts.

 

Jay's Cabin

 

Tired snowshoers

The designs of animal tracks braided the snow in many places. The wide hind feet of snowshoe hares told me that these hardy rabbits remaind very active among the spruces. Smaller prints of pine squirrels and very tiny prints of mice scampered here and there. Squirrels go into periods of reduced activity in winter but not the deep hibernation of many ground squirrels. Mice, and pikas, remain active below the snowpack, feeding on stored grasses or seeds.

The larger tracks of a coyote followed the tracks of the rodents and rabbits. They were very visible in March, but I don’t recall them in January. I suspect that the longer and warming days of spring lured them above timberline in search of a meal.

Gray jays, often called camp robbers, were very active—landing boldly on the deck railing as we ate breakfast out in the sunshine. Tipping their heads this way and that, they asked, “are you gonna eat that?” I also saw ravens and mountain chickadees and a possible pine grosbeak.  

As global climate change alters the ecology of the high country, allowing plants and trees from lower elevations to creep upslope, I wonder how the species we see here in winter are going to change? As their alpine habitat is squeezed from below, the plants and wildlife that inhabit this top-of-the-world zone don’t have anywhere to go. Biologists in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California are reporting losses of populations of alpine-dwelling pikas, though the evidence in Colorado is not so clear.

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Turkeys Gone Bad

The turkeys in my neighborhood are running wild.

I live in the Colorado foothills near Denver, next to a large ranch covered by oakbrush and ponderosa pines. Wild turkey heaven.

Fall through spring, groups of turkeys filter out of this wild habitat to forage through yards and open spaces, gorging on spilled birdseed, pet food, earthworms and backyard berries, and cavorting in backyard ponds.

The wild turkeys I’ve known as a birdwatcher are shy and secretive, sifting into the forest like smoke if they detect a human. Caught off-guard, they might take off running like ungainly sprinters or leap into the air with much flurry and flapping, flying away to safety in the trees.

But the birds that roam our neighborhood are Turkeys-Gone-Bad. They slump through yards in close-packed groups like sullen teenagers. They shuffle through leaf litter and bark chips, gobbling up insects and acorns, heedless of private property rights. If a vehicle slows to watch them, they mob it, intent on car-jacking. For some reason, they often cluster around the community mailbox. Drivers stopping to get their mail are sometimes flocked by ferocious turkeys that peck at the doors and attack anyone who gets out.

I think I even saw some turkeys smoking behind the lunchroom at recess.

Have these suburban turkeys been ruined by modern life? I thing they’ve gotten used to us humans, who have invaded their neighborhood. Instead of something to fear, they see us now as creatures to take advantage of. The word is out about the pond in the yard with the big pines, the house on the corner that fills its birdfeeders every Wednesday and the over-the-top landscaping at the bottom of the hill that is loaded with seeds and berries.

Yesterday I counted at least 40 of them — yes 40 — mostly hens and last-years-young, still looking like gawky teens. Very soon, the toms will be displaying grandly, the turkey version of “BAY-Bee!” Then the hens will melt back into the pine forest to nest and lay their eggs and we’ll see them again in the fall, trailing lines of pint-sized poults brought to learn about the feast their human neighbors offer.

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Welcome to NatureWest!

I’ve been writing about the wildlife, landscapes and natural heritage of Colorado and the West for 24 years, reaching hundreds of thousands of fellow nature-lovers. Now I am finally entering the 21st century with a blog that will focus on the natural world we all love so much.

In the foreword to A Sand County Almanac, the incomparable Aldo Leopold wrote:  There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. If you are reading this blog, you, like me, are one who cannot.

I’ve been blessed to earn my living as a nature writer these past 20+ years. Launched from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, I quickly realized I was not destined for a life in academia. So I melded my biologist’s discipline, my naturalist’s knowledge base and my writer’s love of words into a life devoted to helping others connect with the natural world. My thought for this blog is to share anecdotes, adventures, studies and other content about the natural world of our home–Colorado and the American West. It will surely evolve as it goes. I invite posts from others and we will take this journey together.

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