Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Patrolling the Rawah Wilderness

(Photos by Chuck & Nancy Bell

August 10 to 14, 2011
The beauty of the Rawah Wilderness, especially the higher regions, was a major inspiration for me, back in 1995, to found Poudre Wilderness Volunteers.  This area was very special to me, and I was deeply concerned that the cutbacks in the U.S. Forest Service budgets would mean that its pristine beauty would be lost forever through neglect and the onslaught of an uninformed public.  Since then, our volunteers – and the few seasonal rangers the Forest Service has been able to hire over the years -- have done an excellent job of maintaining the trails, cleaning up abused camp areas, and educating the public about how to use this natural wonder in a “Leave No Trace” manner.   As recently as this past week, I heard visitors say they come here because it is one of the best maintained wilderness areas in all of Colorado.   

With the late snow melt and the heavy run-off this year, however, the Rawah is suffering.   There is just not enough manpower, either volunteer or paid staff, to repair the ravages of a tough winter.  Stringer bridges knocked out by high water in June are not being replaced.  Trails blocked by downed trees at the higher elevations are not being cleared.  Signs need to be installed or replaced in several areas.  And fire rings, many dating from last fall’s hunting season, are not being cleaned up or removed.
Washed-out Stringer Bridge

A major problem is tree die-off.   At lower elevations in the Rawah, the Mountain Pine Beetle is ravaging the Lodgepole Pine.  Nearly 50% of the trees in some areas are dead, and most others are probably dying.  At higher elevations, the Sub-alpine Firs are being attacked by fungus and other insects.  The cause of this die-off is due at least in part to climate change.  Drought has made the trees more susceptible to insects and disease, and warmer winters mean less insect mortality.

Despite all this, the Rawah remains a very beautiful, special place as Nancy and I found to our delight in a 5-day patrol as Poudre Wilderness Volunteers.  We made major headway cleaning up downed trees from two primary trails – removing 58 trees in all.  It was hard work but very gratifying!

We also cleaned up fire rings left by uninformed campers.

And we enjoyed talking to some of the very well prepared, knowledgeable hikers and riders that we encountered on our patrols.

Our camp in an alpine meadow at 10,830 feet of altitude (3300 meters) had lots of room for the three llamas that carried our gear up the mountain. 

And with their keen senses, those llamas alerted us to a Porcupine’s visit in the pre-dawn light.

Even a multitude of mosquitoes aren’t a problem if one is properly prepared.

This luncheon table for two has got to be the best anywhere in the world!

It was so attractive, that even the Gray Jays came to the party.

But the real highlight of our patrol was a trip up to the higher Rawah Lakes, known as Rawah #2 and Rawah #3.  The vistas and all the wildflowers were absolutely spectacular.

So the Rawah, despite its problems, remains one of the very special places for us in this world.  We are already planning to go back again next summer, and we invite anyone else who is interested in going up there to get in touch with us for our suggestions on where, when and how to go.

The Goats of Mount Evans

(Photos by Chuck & Nancy Bell)

In mid-July we drove west of Denver to Idaho Springs and then up the highest paved road in the United States to the top of Mount Evans.  Our quest was Mountain Goats, and we hoped to find them close enough to photograph.  We certainly did, “in spades!”  While we were sensitive to the need to keep our distance from the goats (Nancy started out with her 400mm lens), the goats had no such concern for us.  As Nancy sat on a hillside, they surrounded her and stared at her curiously.  She had to retreat, not out of fear of the goats, but to get another lens for closer photography.

We enjoyed beautiful weather both on our first afternoon and the next day, beginning before dawn so we could capture images of the goats in the low morning light.

As we were preoccupied photographing the goats, we were surprised by a small herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that came up the slope.

The sheep were not always out on outcrops with a hundred mile panorama behind them.  A few of them came up to the outhouse to lick the minerals out of the concrete threshold. 

The low carpet of alpine flowers up at 14,000 feet (4300 meters) was also beautiful.  It was hard to walk across a hillside and avoid them.

And goats and sheep were not the only critters at the top of this high mountain.  A couple of little Pika scurried in and out of the skree.  These cute little balls of fur cannot bear warm temperatures, so they hide during the heat of the day.  They are also feeling the impact of global warming, and their days may be numbered in most of the Rocky Mountains.

Marmots were also very much in evidence.   They seemed to have more black on them than their kinfolk at lower altitudes in the foothills.

Sated with far too many photographs – Nancy shot nearly 100 gigabytes – we headed down the mountain for home.  But we did stop to enjoy a walk through the farthest north large stand of Bristlecone Pine, ancient trees that evoke images of hobbits and other mythological creatures.