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.

 

Over Trail Ridge Road with Nathan Heffel of Colorado Public Radio

Last week, I took Nathan Heffel of Colorado Public Radio over Trail Ridge Road. As we drove, Nathan interviewed me about my book, A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky. (A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road)
Our trip started with a gobble when we saw wild turkeys on Deer Ridge, where US 34 and

Wild turkey hens under ponderosa pine forest.

Wild turkey hens under ponderosa pine forest.

US 36 meet. I’ll have to update my book, because I didn’t know that turkeys had returned to Rocky. These birds were probably hens, foraging in the ponderosa pine litter for pine seeds and other edibles. (Let them eat pine nuts)
Nathan found a long striped turkey feather that one of the hens had dropped. After

Wild turkey hen.

Wild turkey hen.

inspecting it, we put it back where we found it. This is a National Park, after all, and we didn’t take anything from it except some great memories.

 
In the krummholz, we stopped at one of my favorite places on Trail Ridge Road – an ancient game drive used by Archaic and Ute peoples for thousands of years. It was difficult to get to, but worth showing to Nathan.
The cold wind blew steadily from the north as we carefully struggled our way across the

Elk trotting between walls of ancient game drive.

Elk trotting between walls of ancient game drive.

tundra to a low saddle in the ridge. Since the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, deer and elk have made the autumn migration up and through the low spot to descend to the valley on the other side; they continue to do so today.  The ancient people knew this, and laid a trap for the animals.
The early people built dozens of small piles of stone in two converging lines. Within each

Upright of wall stone still has support stone in place. The stone supported a stick with buckskin on the top.

Upright of wall stone still has support stone in place. The stone supported a stick with buckskin on the top.

pile of rocks, they put a short stick, and at the top of the stick, they tied a piece of buckskin to flutter in the wind. Deer and elk won’t pass between these fluttering flags, and so the piles of rock form virtual “walls”.

Looking up wall from the kill area.

Looking up wall from the kill area.

The evening before the hunt, the men took their positions just over the crest of the low saddle, downwind of the path the animals would take. The men hid behind big rocks and

Hunter's blind in kill area.

Hunter’s blind in kill area.

blinds dug into the shallow soil, and spent a frigid night on the tundra. In the morning, the women, children and elderly walked up the slope, slowly driving the elk and deer before them. The animals bunched up as they passed between the two lines of rock walls. When the elk or deer reached the blinds where the hunters were hidden, the hunters sprang up and shot the animals with arrows or spears. This was a very successful way the people could get extra meat for the winter; game drives were used for thousands of years.
It is important to note that I don’t encourage people to strike out over the tundra. The reason people don’t live up here is that it is very dangerous; not even the native people spent any more time up here than they had to. At 11,000 feet, you get tired, dehydrated and disoriented far faster than you realize – both Nathan and I had problems catching our breath and tired quickly. As we came down, even though I knew exactly where I was going and what I was looking for, I had trouble finding the van.
In addition to the danger to people, walking on tundra is dangerous to the plants. Although these plants can survive tremendous wind, cold and drought, they cannot stand to be broken by hiking boots. They can be killed by an incautious footstep. Their loss takes hundreds of years to replace. (tundra fall)
After the game drive, I took Nathan to the Alpine Visitor’s Center to peer over the edge of the Fall River Cirque, where the Fall River Glacier began. The word cirque comes from the French word for circle or ring. And that is what we saw – a circle three quarters of a mile across and half a mile deep, cut into the mountain by thousands of years of ice sliding down the valley.

Fall River Cirque, 3/4 mile wide by 1/2 mile deep. The cirque was cut by the Fall River Glacier.

Fall River Cirque, 3/4 mile wide by 1/2 mile deep. The cirque was cut by the Fall River Glacier.

By now, it was evening and time for our final stop of the day, in Beaver Meadows. There, we saw, and more impressively, we heard, elk bugling.
In the fall, elk and deer migrate down from the high country to mate. The elk gather in the open meadows, or parks throughout the mountains. The parks of Rocky Mountain National Park are some of their favorite places to come.
Once in the meadows, the male or bull elk try to gather a harem of female, or cow elk. The

Harem of cow elk.

Harem of cow elk.

bull that we were watching had gathered about a dozen cows. He spent the evening running from one side of the harem to the other, head thrust out, keeping the cows in a tight bunch.

Bull elk herding his harem.

Bull elk herding his harem.

One of the cows got fed up with the bull’s bullying, and trotted through a gap in the human spectators lining the dirt road and into the meadow beyond. The bull glared at the people along the road, but he wouldn’t follow the cow because that would separate him from the rest of his harem. Finally, he let the defiant cow go, and returned to the others.
As I watched the bull trying to keep the females together, I realized that while the cows had been grazing constantly, he hadn’t had a mouthful. It is still early in the season. If he keeps up at the pace he was going, he is going to burn off all the fat he stored through the summer and go into winter in poor shape. Such is the cost of a harem.
Bull elk call the cows to them by bugling. The name is somewhat misleading, because elk bugles are actually more of a whistling call. They are mesmerizing to hear.

Bull elk bugling.

Bull elk bugling.

When I was a girl, the etiquette for listening to the elk bugle was that you stayed quietly in your car so that everyone could hear them. Few people had heard about elk bugling, and so it was a rather lonely, but tremendously rewarding pass time.
Fast forward to today: Elk bugles are so beguiling that people come from hundreds of miles away to hear them, lining Rocky Mountain National Park’s roads where ever harems are to be found. The influx of people means that what you hear today is gravel crunching under car tires, car doors slamming, people chatting, and, through all the background noise, possibly some elk bugling.
But occasionally, as the elk begin to be more active, the humans settle down to watch and listen. As they did, we heard the eerie whistling calls of the elk. Nathan had a field day recording the bulls.
Finally, though, the elk moved up into the darkening forest, and we called it a day.

To hear Nathan’s interview of me, go to Colorado Public Radio Colorado Matters (Colorado Matters). The interview will air September 29 at 10:00 am, and repeat at 7:00 pm.
My thanks to Nathan and Colorado Matters for taking the time and interest to interview me about my book. It was a wonderful experience. Merci, gracias, danke, domo arrigato – all the ways I know to say thank you.