This month I was given an unsolicited Wednesday through Tuesday stretch of one week off from work.
Hubby, upon hearing the good news, immediately put in for the same week off, and so last week we found ourselves blessedly on vacation with big plans to go big places and do big things.
My Handsome Hubby has a truly unique and challenging project for his photography website and blog (www.jamesbeissel.com), which involves photographing as many Colorado mammals as possible (excluding a few very rare species, and several rodents which have proved too numerous, too fast, and too potentially disease-ridden for an individual with a full time job to try to pursue). While some headway has already been made, there are countless critters left to find, photograph, and post. You can read all about it here! http://www.jamesbeissel.com/blog/2012/05/17/the-colorado-critter-challenge/
As the doting wife I have found myself alternately in the positions of cheerleader, photo critic, support staff, adoring audience, Critter Challenge companion, and (occasionally) the-impossible-to-drag-out-of-bed hinderance to the whole thing. Here’s where our week off comes in. An entire week of crittering!
(Crittering, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is going places with the specific intent of finding and photographing critters.)
Porcupines are very high on our list of critters to photograph, so we planned to start our week off by driving out to Steamboat Springs, where (they say) porcupines roam in abundance, noshing the trees, recklessly leaping in front of cars, copiously quilling unsuspecting canines, and generally making their presence known in every conceivable way there is for a large rodent to do so. Wednesday morning we woke certain that we’d return home with an endearing, well composed, perfectly lit photograph of a porcupine. Preferably one doing something adorable, like eating a flower.
We got our usual crack ‘o noon start and had made it about 30 minutes past Silverthorne by late afternoon when Clementine (my trusty Subaru) decided it was time to switch on the check engine light.
Few things are less appealing than being stranded by the side of a mountain highway with a smoking engine and no cell phone reception, so after a brief moment’s debate we turned back to Silverthorne to have it looked at.
It’s nothing serious (Clementine lives on) but we felt unwilling to venture any deeper into the mountains, thereby tempting fate and putting ourselves at risk of some late-evening, mountain road hitchhiking, so back to Boulder it was. By the time we got home it was dinner time and hardly worth transferring all our gear to the other car and heading out again, so we brought everything upstairs and had dinner instead while we revised our crittering plans.
By the way, I can only imagine how all of this looked to our neighbor, who had watched us pack a week’s worth of camping gear and supplies and take off, only to see us return four hours later, unpack a week’s worth of camping gear, and settle in for dinner and a little television. Clearly we must be extremely heavy packers to need so much gear for an afternoon excursion!
Thursday we woke determined to see some critters, porcupine or not. A fact which may or may not be commonly known is this: Most bison in this area have been cross-bred with cattle to help boost their previously declining numbers. The purest strain of bison in Colorado live at The Rocky Mountain Arsenal where they can happily roam the 15,000 rolling acres of prairie pretty much at will. Hubby and I spent the day traversing some of the mild trails, which cross many acres of grassland and wrap around several patches of wetland. We saw the herd of bison (at a distance, through a few fences, after risking life and limb crossing a very busy highway!) but couldn’t get a very satisfying photo through all that fencing. However, it was still a successful day for crittering. There were multitudes of prairie dogs barking at us from their holes, the babies lined up like meerkats along the ridges of the mounds that mark the entrances to their burrows. A lone coyote trotted along one of the fences in the distance. Several white tailed deer waited out the heat of the day in the shade of flowering shrubs. Bunnies (mostly cottontails) eyed us nervously from the low grasses, and in one of the ponds, right there in broad daylight, a raccoon was fishing for frogs. Not to mention the birds! Herons, hawks, mallard ducks, Canada geese, and even a snow-white pelican all made appearances. In all a rewarding day with some fun photos to show for it!
(Baby Prairie Dogs at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Photo by James Beissel)
Friday morning Hubby woke me up at stupid o’clock of the early to head down to Colorado Springs to continue the porcupine hunt. Fountain, a small town at the south end of the Springs, is home to a nature preserve which hosts a wide variety of wildlife. On a previous visit we noticed what looked to be porcupine gnawings on many of the trees. Now that we finally had time to go down and really check it out again we wanted to get a full day in! We arrived in Fountain early (and cranky, and sleep deprived, and hungry for breakfast…well, I was anyways…) and found the day to be cold, windy, cloudy and altogether unappealing.
We hiked along one of the trails and saw many trees that had been munched by a porcupine whom we now presume must have been just passing through. Upon closer inspection, however, none of the gnawings looked fresh at all! Besides a short glimpse of the tail feathers of a Great Horned Owl, most of the wildlife seemed to be doing the smart thing…which is to say sleeping in! Between the wind, the cold and a suddenly urgent need for coffee, we called it a day at noon and headed into Colorado Springs for lunch.
After lunch we spent some time driving around, touching down briefly in Garden of the Gods and Bear Creek Park, not seeing much in the way of wildlife and generally killing just enough time to place us on the road home right smack dab at the start of rush hour. Quickly realizing our mistake, we hopped off the interstate at the next exit and killed some time by going to see Dark Shadows.
I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying that it was hilarious, highly entertaining, and gave me bad dreams all night!
We spent Saturday recuperating.
Sunday was Mother’s Day and we (my sisters, my brother in-law, Handsome Hubby and me) surprised my mom by heading up and having lunch ready when my parents arrived home from church! We made Mom’s favorite chicken stew, supplemented by homemade bread and fresh green salad, with Hot Milk Cake (an wonderful, old-fashioned vanilla cake…which recipe I will share with you soon!) and strawberries for dessert! Then we watched all but the Christmas Special episode of season 2 of Downton Abbey (I’m officially obsessed).
Monday we chose to stay in and relax and catch up on some household chores. But since we were on vacation, we went to see The Avengers as well.
I don’t need to tell you. I’m sure you’ve already seen it. I love me some superhero entertainment!
Tuesday was our last day of freedom and we launched ourselves out the door early to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park. I promptly fell asleep in the car and didn’t wake up until Hubby pulled into the parking lot at the Cub Lake trailhead. He’d been crittering from the car without much success for two hours as I snored softly and ungracefully in the passenger seat. Now it was time to hike!
It was a gorgeous day, warm but not too warm, with a cool refreshing breeze. It being office hours of a weekday morning we pretty much had the trail to ourselves and we set off on the relatively short hike (relatively meaning a short jaunt for Handsome Hubby, an epic journey for me…) and almost immediately came upon a young marmot, barking his guts out from atop a large boulder where he had been sunning himself when a large hawk soared overhead and (I like to assume) spooked him. He spent several minutes barking up a storm, with intermittent responses from a nearby but unseen companion.
(Young marmot, Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by James Beissel)
I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Holy smokes! Did you see that hawk?!?”
“Yeah, it was huge!!!”
“It could have eaten us!”
“Yeah! We could be dead!”
And so on…
Meanwhile the hawk had disappeared into a crystal blue expanse of sky, apparently having had no interest in these two young marmots in the first place.
We continued along the trail, me hobbling sadly on woefully un-trail-worthy shoes, and I got to thinking about mountain lions.
Mountain lions are one of the spookiest animals to live in our mountains, I think. They are swift and silent. I’ve seen one, once, several years ago. I was hiking a popular trail in Boulder alone, and some sensation prompted me to turn around and there it was, padding down hill on heavy paws not fifty feet from where I stood. It was completely silent and studiously ignoring me (nothing can ignore you like a cat). I hadn’t heard a thing. Spine tingling I stopped and warned myself not to do anything silly (like scream or cry or faint), but in the amount of time it might have taken me to lose my wits it was gone.
Anyways, the moral of the story is, a mountain lion could sneak up on you and eat you in a matter of nanoseconds, and you would never even see it coming.
Never mind that Hubby reminds me daily that research has shown that cougar attacks against humans are rare, and even more rarely are they deadly. Mountain lions just aren’t inclined to snack on human when an endless supply of plump mule deer is close at hand. Even so, even if they don’t eat people on a regular basis, I know in my heart of hearts that they could. And if there is anything Monster and Friday (our resident felines) have taught me, it is that cats (and I assume cats of all sorts) will take any opportunity to be rotten.
I was deep in the throes of these ponderations when suddenly there was a loud crash in the shrubs ahead of me and something came bursting out of the underbrush and darted straight towards me. In that instant I just knew that my food project and all of my recent culinary indiscretions had finally made me fat and juicy enough to bother with, and death by mountain lion was near at hand. I came out of my reveries with a poorly smothered half-shriek, and the noisy culprit came to a startled halt on a fallen tree about five feet away from me.
It was a tiny golden mantled ground squirrel with a mouth full of tender, young greens. It sat back on its haunches and regarded me for a long, careful moment during which I fervently considered the possibility that it must intend to run up my pant leg and bite me and what horrific, scurrious diseases should I be worried about when it does? Then it dropped back down on all fours and scurried across the path and into the bushes on the other side. I burst into a nervous giggle as Hubby watched and wondered at my disconcertingly sudden incapacity to deal with nature.
We continued on and I managed to maintain my composure for the rest of the hike, even when not fifteen feet down the trail two more twitterpated ground squirrels came blazing out of the shrubs and dashed across the trail so close to my shoes I could feel the breeze created by their passing! We listened as they crashed through the bushes on the hill side, arguing loudly as they went. I’d never realized how much racket those small, scurrying critters can make when they want to!
We arrived at Cub Lake, a small body of water whose shallow shores are lined with lily pads and boulders of all sizes. We stopped for a moment to take in the view, and I scrambled up onto a small boulder to sit and rest up. A lone pair of mallard ducks cruised languidly around the edges of the lake until they reached the boulder on which I was perched, at which point the sweet little brown female hopped out of the water onto my rock. She waddled up to me, then settled down to preen just a couple of feet away. She spent a few minutes shaking the water off her feathers, then turned her head to the side and gave me a cheeky once over before suddenly taking flight and buzzing over my head. The male remained more distant, nibbling at the weeds along the edge of the lake but never leaving the water.
(Me and my duck friend, Cub Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by James Beissel.)
After a hike out filled with multiple rolled ankles and numerous muffled curses directed at my shoes (I’ll admit it…they were designed for running on treadmills–which they have never been used for, not hiking on uneven terrain…) but otherwise uneventful, we arrived at the car and drove over to Sprague Lake for lunch and moosing.
Moosing is like crittering but specifically to find moose. Which we didn’t.
Then we drove up to the top of Trail Ridge Road. Because it is open (two weeks early this year) and because it is there!
Then we went into town and had ice cream, which is always my standard reward for hiking. Or for accomplishing something big. Or for cleaning house. Or for doing the dishes. Or for waking up. Or for breathing.
You know. The big stuff.
And then we drove home.
It was a great week.
But not a single porcupine!
If there is such a thing.
I’m beginning to have my doubts…
(To see more of James Beissel’s wonderful nature and wildlife photography please check out his website and blog at www.jamesbeissel.com and prepare to be amazed!)