Colorado River Canoe

One of the things that I love about Colorado is that you can drive a few hours in any direction, and be in an entirely different environment. Normally, I spend a lot of time in the high country.

But last week my husband and I traveled to Grand Junction, in the western part of Colorado, to canoe an easy stretch of the Colorado River with a group of friends. Instead of the alpine tundra, we traveled through the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

The Colorado River starts in the Kawunechee Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park at 10,000 feet (3048 meters), and quickly drops to the Colorado Plateau (4444 feet or 1355 meters where we put in) around Grand Junction. From there it meanders southwest through Utah to cut the incredible Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona.

On our canoe trip, we expected to see bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons and other water birds, and we weren’t disappointed. The only one I got photos of, though, was a great blue heron along a shallow stretch of the river. And this late in the year, a good portion of of the River was shallow.

Great blue heron (2)

A Great Blue Heron fishing in the Colorado River.

I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of traveling by canoe or kayak, mostly because animals come down to the river to drink or feed, and you, traveling slowly and quietly, can approach them fairly closely. That allowed me to get close enough to the heron to get a good shot.

Great blue heron (1)

Herons, more than almost any other bird, show me that birds are descended from dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, we drifted a little too close, and he took off as we passed.

I also got shots of a lot of animals we didn’t expect to see.

At our lunch spot for the second day, some of our canoe group floated around the bend in the river. They came back very excited about seeing desert bighorn sheep. People with cameras headed back to shoot the sheep.

Desert bighorn sheep are a subspecies of their better known cousins, bighorn sheep.

bighorn herd

Herd of about thirty desert bighorn sheep. Almost as many were down along the river (background) and in the junipers behind us.

Both types of bighorns love steep, rocky areas, but desert bighorns are lighter in build, and have horns that are a little more spread away from the sheep’s head.

bighorn sheep-47

Desert bighorns are lighter built, and have wider-spread horns.

 

Our second campsite was in a canyon cut into the surrounding mesa. The rocks along the entire trip were old — 250 million years old, or more. Laid down in a sandy desert of their own, they were a beautiful red that intensified in the evening light.

Black Rock Campsite at evening

My brother loves to experiment with his camera, always trying new things. On this trip, he took pictures of the night sky. We lose a lot when we have street lights on every corner.

Milky Way (2)

Milky Way from the Colorado River near the Utah border. In the top center of the photo is a faint streak in the image. At first, I thought it was something on his lens. Instead, it was probably a shooting star.

 

When we started our trip, we were warned to watch out for scorpions, which like to crawl into shoes and packs at night. The warnings were justified — we found a scorpion in our second camp. Seeing it made me very glad I had put my sandals on when I had to get up in the middle of the night.

Scorpion

This little guy is only about an inch and a half long, but his sting would still pack a wallop. (That’s a technical term for “really really really hurt badly.”)

As we were packing up to leave break camp the second day, we were incredibly luck to spot a family of  otters playing across the river. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a family group of otters is called a “romp” (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Arapaho/wildlife_and_habitat/northern_river_otterindex.html). How appropriate. They did indeed romp through the water, over the rocks and down the bank. Watching those guys play may have been the highlight of the trip.

We didn’t get any shots of the family of otters, but as we were pulling out of the campsite, we did see the male taking a dust bath.

Otter dust bath-3

River otters rely on their incredibly dense fur to keep them warm and dry. That means they have to take really good care of it. This guy is rolling in dust, probably trying to get rid of parasites.

River otters are on the Federal Endangered Species list. When I was researching them at the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife website for this post, I saw a notice asking that if you saw an otter, to please let CDPW know about it. I complied, happy to be a tiny part of the otter’s recovery efforts.

Otter dust bath-1

CDPW asked me to estimate how big this guy was. I said about 48-50 inches and 30 pounds, which is about as big as river otters get.

Further down the River, my friend started calling to me and pointing vigorously at the bank. Finally I could hear her yell “Wild turkeys!”

Wild Turkeys-04

If you heard my interview with Colorado Public Radio (Colorado Matters Over Trail Ridge Road), you know that I get really excited about wild turkeys.

Wild Turkeys-03

My husband did an admirable job keeping the canoe from tipping over while I took photos.

I’ve struggled for a couple of days with how to end this post. In the end, I decided that this trip affected me more than I expected it to. It made me realize, again, that although we are surrounded by a lot of ugliness in our daily lives, there’s a lot of beauty in the universe as well, if we just stop to take a look at it.

Milky Way (1)

The Milky Way arcs over a campsite lit by a candle.

 

Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans

I finally made it up to the tundra yesterday, not Trail Ridge Road this time, but Mt. Evans, outside of Denver.

Mt. Evans is nearly unique in the world in that it is a 14,130 foot mountain with a road essentially to the top (you have to park and walk the last thirty feet or so). It makes it an easy trip to get to my favorite biome — the alpine tundra.

I went up hoping, as always to see wildlife. But what I got an eyefull of was flowering plants.

Alpine garden

Summit Lake flowers — American bistort, alpine avens, and goldflower.

This view is of Summit Lake, actually a mile or so before the actual summit. Initially, I was going to just take a picture of the white American bistort in the foreground, but this was such a beautiful shot, I took it first.Goldflower (3)

Goldflower is in the sunflower family. It is one of the larger flowers in the tundra, standing several inches tall. About half of that is take up with the big flower disk.

fly on alpine avens

Fly pollinating Alpine Avens

One of the things that surprised me was the number of flies on the flowers. But then I found out that bees don’t make it up this high, and so flies are the main pollinators.

fly on American bistort

Fly on American bistort flowers.

I don’t get repulsed by much, but it is hard for me to have kind thoughts about flies in general. But if they are pollinating flowers, I guess I need to try to think better of them.

American bistort (3)

American bistort at 12,000 feet.

Bistorts are in the buckwheat family. This species is relatively large at several inches.

Alpine bistort

Alpine bistort.

Most alpine flowers, though are tiny, like this alpine bistort, standing about an inch tall. To get this shot, I had to lie down on my stomach, with my camera on the ground.

purple fringe 3

Purple fringe usually grows at lower altitudes, where it can stand upright.

Even if the plant normally grows upright, the frequent winds forces them low to the ground.

Alpine Indian Paintbrush maybe

Alpine Indian paintbrush? If so, it, too, normally grows upright.

I had a heck of a time figuring out some of these plants. I think this is alpine Indian paintbrush. If you know, let me know.

Mountain goat (2)

Mountain goat blowing her winter coat. Look at how thick it is!

At the very top of Mt. Evans, I finally found some mountain goats. Mountain goats are different from Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. They are goats (duh!), with very sharp horns and a hump at their shoulder.

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Bighorn rams in the Big Thompson Canyon battle it out.

Bighorn sheep, on the other hand, have thick horns that they use to batter each other with. They have no hump at their shoulders.