Snowpack Levels Low

Many people don’t realize that the western part of the United States is generally arid to semi-arid. The Pacific Northwest gets biblical amounts of rain, of course, because of the coastal mountain ranges wring the water out of the wet air. Every range of mountains east of the coast catches the ever drier air, and squeezes a bit more moisture out of it. In summer, this water usually falls as rain.

But in winter, the moisture falls in the mountains as snow. The snow builds up over the course of the winter into a thick covering called snowpack. The snowpack only begins to melt in the spring. Depending on how deep the snowpack is, it often lasts into mid summer, giving regional cities and farms a long lasting reservoir of water.

The most important river in the Southwest is the Colorado River, fed by the Green, Upper Colorado, Gunnison, Uncompahgre and San Juan basins. The entire Southwest, including Arizona, Los Angeles, San Diego and the Central Valley of California depend on the rain and snow that fall in these basins that feed the Colorado.

So about this time of year, I begin to watch the snow pack in the mountains to see how dry our summer is going to be. Red is below average, green is above average, white is average, and grey is non-reporting either because it doesn’t have snowpack or there was a glitch.2018-2-23 NRCS Map Jan 2018.jpg

In January, it was looking pretty grim. (January Snowpack) Only the Northern Rockies were in good shape. That didn’t actually surprise me, because we in Colorado hadn’t had any real snow falls in November, December or January.

But starting in February, we’ve had a bunch of little storms. Most of them have dropped less than 3 inches of snow, but it has begun to build up. (February Snowpack) The snowpack isn’t deep enough to make anybody breath easy yet. But the storms have added enough to give us hope that we won’t have water restrictions this summer.

2018-2-23 NRCS Map 4 2018 Feb

NRCS National Water and Climate Center

It all depends on the next three months. Spring is our wettest season, by far. If mother nature is kind, we can make up the deficit.

Fingers crossed.

 

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.