Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Great Sky Road

Columbines, Medicine Bow Mountain
Thirty miles west of Laramie, Wyoming (in the southeast corner of the state), the Rocky Mountain front rises abruptly from the plains as the Medicine Bow Mountains.  (Don't you love that name?)  These mountains are actually a northward continuation of the Snowy Range that includes the mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park.

While we were in northern Colorado two weeks ago, Kali and I crossed the state line into Wyoming for a two-day visit to southeast Wyoming, and driving to Snowy Pass in the Medicine Bow Mountains was one of our goals.  The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest has developed the Snowy Range Scenic Byway - the second designated scenic byway in the national forest system - to acquaint drivers with the splendors of the Medicine Bow Mountains.
Medicine Bow Peak above Bellamy Lake
We set off from Laramie about 1 p.m. to explore the sub-alpine area at the top of the pass, and arrived at the summit (10,660 feet) about an hour later.  Because Kali had hurt her ankle a few days earlier, she elected to stay at the car to enjoy the scenery while I set off to walk a portion of the Lake Trail in the shadow of Medicine Bow Peak (12,013 feet).
Lake Trail heading northward above Mirror Lake; flank of Medicine Bow Peak left rear
The trail led along a bench on the east side of the mountain and followed the shoreline of Mirror Lake.  Alpine wildflowers were abundant everywhere, but as I rounded a bend in the trail I came across a rock outcrop that sported a particularly spectacular display of wildflowers, especially columbines.

Natural rock garden

A profusion of columbines
After photographing the natural rock garden, I ventured a bit further north along the trail.  After a half-mile or so, I decided to turn around because (1) thunder foreshadowed the imminent onset of summer mountain thunderstorms and (2) the trail began ascending rapidly and I was out of breath at 11,000 feet.  When I turned around and looked back along the way I had just hiked, I was struck by how clearly the topography had been influenced by glaciers.  Medicine Bow Peak and its neighbors formed the western wall of a cordilleran glacier during the last Ice Age.  The glacier flowed southward, grinding and polishing the mountain slopes and gouging out basins now filled by lakes.  With no matching set of peaks to the east to confine the glacier, the ice sprawled across the landscape, scraping a relatively level area today known as Libby Flats.
The glacial-carved eastern flank of the Medicine Bows in a view southward - the direction of glacial flow
Nearing the parking lot, I noticed low-growing wildflowers carpeting rocks alongside the trail.
Lichens and a cushion of wildflowers
A study in pink
I got back to the parking lot just as rain began to fall.  By the time we had turned the car eastward toward Laramie, the wipers could barely keep the windshield clear enough to drive.  What timing!  As we came out of the mountains and were cruising across the plains (where we saw a pronghorn on a ranch), the rain stopped.  Looking back toward Medicine Bow, though, we saw that the mountains remained shrouded in low, dark clouds and impenetrable curtains of rain. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Too Tame for Eric

Eric Weihenmayer (left; back to camera) with uncles and nephews
Kali and I had the privilege of walking three miles in my preserve with blind adventurer Eric Weihenmayer yesterday.  Eric is the nephew of one of my board members; he was in town with his wife, daughter, and adopted son for a family reunion.  We were joined on our walk by several uncles, nephews, and nieces.

Eric, who has been blind since his early teens, has climbed the highest peak on each of the seven continents, including Mt. Everest.  He is planning to kayak through the Grand Canyon when he can find a radio communication system reliable enough to allow him to negotiate the rapids with the guidance of coaches traveling with him.

Eric is a motivational speaker and a mentor to other people with handicaps.  This is the second opportunity I've had to walk with him; he's very knowledgeable about the natural world (but not terribly familiar with the flora and fauna of the mid-Atlantic since he has relocated to Colorado) and - as you might imagine - extraordinarily self-reliant.

We had a good walk, but the biggest challenges I could offer Eric were a few muddy spots in an otherwise mostly smooth trail.

Eric (left), holding his daughter's shoulders, and flanked by his wife and adopted son (in a brown t-shirt)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Poudre Ponds

Riverbend Ponds Natural Area
Kali and I have returned to southeastern Pennsylvania after spending 10 days in the West - five in northern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, and five in San Diego.  Although the trip gave us a chance to get away from our workaday routine for a while, it wasn't much of what we'd consider a real vacation in which we could forget about the "real" world and get lost in another landscape or culture.

We traveled to northern Colorado for the specific purpose of checking on our "retirement house" northwest of Fort Collins.  While we were there, we also spent two days in southeastern Wyoming in and around Laramie, where we visited the University of Wyoming's geology (and dinosaur!) museum and two fine natural areas (stay tuned for details). 

The trip started off badly.  After dinner in Fort Collins on Saturday night, Kali and I veered off the sidewalk and into the street to avoid lawn sprinklers that were spraying onto the sidewalk.  Kali couldn't see well in the low light and stepped off the very high, irregular curb along the street.  Down she went, badly twisting her ankle and the knee of her opposite leg, and scraping her elbow.  Though she was able to hobble back to the hotel two blocks away, I was sure that our trip was over (and that I would have to drive her to work for the next eight weeks).

It appears that she just badly sprained her ankle and knee because she could walk on them the next morning, though she definitely was in pain.  Nevertheless, she said that she wanted to try to take an easy walk that day, so I suggested we visit one of the many natural areas set aside by the the city of Fort Collins along the Cache la Poudre (pronounced "cash la POO-der") River.  The Riverbend Ponds Natural Area offered winding trails circling a series of ponds in the river's floodplain.  I hoped there'd be birds to observe even if we didn't walk far.  So, off we went after breakfast.

I have no idea about the origin of these numerous ponds.  They were probably gravel or borrow pits excavated on the floodplain.  Now, they serve as wildlife habitat and water storage basins when the river (rarely) floods.  Birds were numerous but not diverse or particularly exciting, with the avifauna dominated by Red-winged Blackbirds, Boat-tailed Grackles, and Canada Geese.  But, we did see Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers, and an Osprey nest with at least two chicks.

Spiny softshell turtle (Trionyx spinifereus)
In fact, the first animal we encountered was a Spiny Softshell Turtle sunning on a log.  I haven't seen a softshell turtle in decades (I can remember when and where I saw my first), so the sighting was a treat.

Milkweed on the floodplain (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweed grew and bloomed abundantly on sunny, exposed banks of the river and the shores of the ponds.
Cache la Poudre River on the plains
The Cache la Poudre River, the only federally designated Wild and Scenic River in Colorado, rises in Rocky Mountain National Park, roars down the incredibly scenic and rugged Poudre Canyon (site of last summer's High Park forest fire), and then flows out onto the plains where it finally joins the South Platte River in eastern Colorado.  In Fort Collins, the river has completed its transition from whitewater to prairie river, so the riparian area is flat.

All in all, we walked about three miles but finally had to retreat back to our hotel because most of the walk was in the sun and temperatures were in the upper 80s or low 90s.  Between Kali's physical problems and the relentless sun and heat, we were beat.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Rain Forest

Harper's Run in the county park downstream
It's official: June 2013 was the wettest June on record here.  We ended the month with 0.5 inches more rain than the second-wettest June.  And, we're 2.5 inches above normal for the year so far.  Except for last Friday (June 28), it has rained part or all of every single day here for the last two weeks, and in between storms the air's has been so humid it's nearly visible.  As you might imagine, everything is sodden, soggy, dripping...you get the point.  If I were through-hiking the Appalachian Trail this year, I'd probably give up.

I decided to venture down to my garden last evening; I really hadn't visited since I planted my tomatoes on Mother's Day--they usually can take care of themselves, the mosquitoes have been ferocious, and the humidity means I start to drip as soon as I open the garden gate.  Thankfully, the weeds weren't as dense as I thought they might be.  However, my plum-shaped Roma tomato plants are all dying, even as they are loaded with tomatoes.  I'm sure it's because of the incredible and relentless humidity.  So far, the Big Boy hybrids still look alright, but they don't produce good tomato sauce like the Romas do.

Sunday morning, before the rain started and it got too warm, Kali and I walked three miles in the county park along "my" creek downstream of "my" preserve.  The trails there are drier than the trails at my preserve, so we walk at the county park when it's too wet here.  We'd planned on four miles, but thunder warned us to shorten our hike, and we got back to the car just before the rain started and washed out the afternoon.  

Kali on the footbridge over Harper's Run


To my followers, I apologize for not posting much lately.  I have been very ill for the last two weeks and am slowly recovering, which limited my time outdoors.  (Of course, the lousy weather didn't help, either.)  Upcoming, Kali and I will be traveling to Colorado and California for 10 days, so I won't be posting again until mid-July.  I look forward to communicating with you again then!