Sunday, July 31, 2016

Back to Golden and Hummingbirds

    We drove back many a windy switch back roads to Golden, which I know one of our friends could have very much done without. But the payoff was amazing views, delicious pit stops, a few critters, and ultimately a shower, washing machne/dryer, and bed!
     We drove through Loveland Pass, on the continental divide, stopped in Georgetown for a place to use the restrooms and eat lunch, drove over the Mountain where Buffalo Bill is buried and then arrived back in Golden.  
We stopped in Georgetown, Colorado for a break in driving- picked up a delicious lunch (veggie burger with cheese, onion rings and BBQ sauce? Yes, please!). I noticed signs for a bighorn sheep viewing area, so I asked if we could make a quick stop. At first, all I found was a loud golden mantled ground squirrel, making a loud, repetitive chirp. The difference between these guys and a chipmunk, is that unlike a chipmunk, this squirrel lacks stripes on its face. But both are rodents and closely related.
But then... (no pun intended)
This is the original photo, zoomed in at 300mm, I was able to spot one bighorn sheep. The viewing area does not by any means guarantee a viewing or a close one at that! The image above this one is severely cropped from this photo. The bighorns are doing as they do-- roaming the mountainside, often high up, with their brown hide allowing them o blend in well to their surroundings.
The "best" photo of this guy. He was so far off from where we stood, but I was very glad to add him to my "30th year species list."
We arrived back to Golden, finding that a wildfire broke out on top of the mountain near where we were staying. We learned this area of the mountain is closed to the public, but lightning strikes are common and can easily start a fire, especially in dry grasses and shrubs.
A lesser goldfinch really knows how to choose a picturesque pose. In reality, these birds love flowers that come to seed, sunflowers, thistle, and similar are favorites. It is recommended if you are a gardener (and a lover of our avian friends), not to clip old flowers- let them be and attract in birds. So even without petals, these flowers can still have a lovely element of beauty, adorned with little yellow birds in place of yellow petals!
And now a lot of hummingbird pictures... (sorry, not sorry)
Who is not enchanted by these amazing creatures?! They were so plentiful in the yard of my Aunt and Uncle's home and I was obsessed. They buzzed, did amazing aerial feats, scuffled on the wing, often making perilous dives that you gasped for their little lives, they were amazing. This is a male broad-tailed hummingbird, back-lit, he seems a bit drab, but add a little light and...
That fuchsia throat comes to life! These guys would perch often in a small oak tree they had adjacent to their feeder and among favorite flowers. When perched, they don't walk, they can't walk- their legs are too weak and small, so hovering and their little flighted moves are advantageous to compensate for that. 
But, they can use their feet to preen and scratch that hard-to-reach itch. Seriously, how adorable is this?!
A common wood nymph, there were TONS of these guys everywhere. Actually, in general, butterflies were super abundant, especially tiger swallowtails. Butterflies were going nuts over thistles and any other flowers that on a singular bush or shrub there would be easily over 10 butterflies at a time. 
Oh yeas, back to hummingbirds-- this is the female broad tailed humming bird. Is she sticking her tongue out at me? Perhaps, she did just finish feeding at the feeder though. Hummingbirds, equipped with that long beak, and a tongue that helps them drink nectar similar to how we use a straw. It is something that I can't explain, so here is an article that does, if you are into the nitty-gritty science. What an amazing little package of bird the hummingbird is!
Even the female, while modest, is beautiful in her own right. Her back is still iridescent green. She is a master builder though, creating nests that belong inside a fairytale story, using moss, spider silk, and natural fibers to make the cutest, daintiest cup for her and her young. I had the pleasure of finding a hummingbird nest once, it's a very special thing to witness.
This little thing only weighs between 3-4grams, that is less than one ounce. And this little bird has a skeleton, organs, a little tiny brain, and covered in feathers- I mean if that doesn't astound you, than I don't know what would! Amazing, that this is a little vertebrate animal!
A female black-chinned hummingbird, getting nectar from some of the plants growing in the garden. She unlike the broad tailed has some spotting on the throat and a little rufous coloring on her flanks.
The same bird from above, amazing how different they can appear as they shift in the available light. These little birds can flap their wings about 70 or more times per second! And their flap is not a simple up-and-down motion, but resembles a figure-8 motion.
Black chinned female at the feeder. Our uncle makes a nice batch of nectar up for the hummingbirds, but the finches also like to steal a sip every so often.
Our evening culminated with a downpour that resulted in an amazing full-arc rainbow. Too lazy to change my lens, I get one end of the rainbow!
     What an amazing trip, I am so thankful to have an amazing family, so very welcoming. They are so kind to share their home and their landscape with us. I loved our trip to Colorado, it was such a great time away, although- not going to lie, we were starting to miss home and all our critters here. A special thank you to our family out in Colorado, we love you so much!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Colorado Trail, Days 6 & 7 - How to Build a Trail

     Normally, I keep my photos nature or animal-oriented, but if you are out enjoying nature, how much do you think about the trail you are walking upon. How much do you think about how the path was scoped out and chosen, how the trail was constructed, who constructed it, how many people it took to make that trail, how long it took, the consideration of drainage, safety, and existing flora through the path. How much do you think about that?
     Before the Colorado Trail Crew, I can honestly say I never thought about that. But from now on, I will! A lot goes into building a proper trail and it sometimes takes a village to get the work done, plus lots of time, food, and tools, and food, food was very important!
     For this post, if you are a hiker, bird watcher, or a lover of nature, if you visit parks- city, state, national, whatever, then you should care about the places you go and the work that goes into keeping them accessible to you. So for this post, I want to share a little look into what we did, work-wise, on our Colorado Trail Crew at Hancock, along the Colorado Trail within the San Isabel National Forest:

Early to rise: Breakfast was served at 7am. On the crew we had to sign up for a certain number of chores. For this crew we had to take on four chores. I liked cooking, so most of mine involved food prep. Breakfast cooks had to have breakfast ready to go by 7am. Food was prepped on 6ft folding tables, food was cooked on propane stoves (in the background). And there was ALWAYS coffee, that was very important! Food was always prepared under these large tents, so rain or shine, food was always on!

Before going out onto the trail, you had to pack your own lunch. So if you were on lunch prep, this also had to be ready and laid out at 7AM. Lunches were simple sandwiches, PB&J, cheese, or cold cuts. A variety of snacks were also available and I learned that we had three breaks, morning, lunch, and afternoon. So extra snacks, especially a nice salty one, like chips or crackers were a good choice.
There is no plumbing, this "water buffalo" was our drinking and cooking water source. Hand and dish washing water came from Chalk Creek, behind our camp. I drank a lot of water, and one very much needed to do so! The spigot for filling is to the right of the license plate. We only really half emptied it, not sure what its filled capacity was.
And this is how we washed dishes. Boiled stream water would be added to 4 buckets used to wash your mess kit in this order: 1. Get the chunks and gunk off with regular water and a scrubber, chunks are discarded into a strainer and bucket for trash. 2. Soapy water and scrub. 3. Rinse with regular water. 4. A dip in a Clorox solution to sanitize safely.
Our communal tents. The right tent is the kitchen. The left tent was full of camping chairs where we'd eat and hangout.
This trailer served as a pantry/storage. Anytime we were away for camp or sleeping, trash and other food stuffs/goods were stashed in here to keep away from bears and any wayward travelers. Inside were coolers for perishables, and boxes were packed and labeled for each day containing non-perishables. Our aunt made amazing menus and edits for dietary restrictions and was responsible for all the food on this trip, which even included appetizers-- now that is camping in style!
Gear for the trail, hard hat, daypack (with lunches and water-- and camera...) and rain gear. Afternoons were the time when rain and storms would typically roll through, so always be prepared! I also wore it to keep bugs off me during breaks, because they were relentless, on any exposed skin you had- they were biting!
Where my husband and I lived for 6 days. It was cold. Even with cold weather sleeping bags I wore many layers to seep, including a hat and gloves. I sometimes shoved a jacket to the bottom of my bag to keep my feet warm, even with 2 pairs of socks on. But otherwise the inside was our sleeping bags, bed rolls, and our pajamas. Much of our other stuff remained in our car, especially with consideration for wildlife, specifically bears.
Vistas on our walk to our work site. At this point it is just around 8:30/9, the sun is just FINALLY warming you up as it breaks over the peaks surrounding our camp. This was a very glorious and happy time as we would celebrate the sun's rays with excitement and many of us basked in them like sun-worshiping lemurs (I went primate over reptile, because I didn't want you to think we laid out on a rock or something...).
I am on the right walking with one of the crew members (this is husband camera vision). I have my rain gear on, still warming up, bandana on under my helmet to keep the sun and bugs off my neck. Jeans or long pants are required as well as sturdy hiking or work boots to protect yourself. The weather was pretty perfect to work in pants and a tshirt without getting too hot or too cold.
More husband camera vision, up the railroad grade road we hiked yesterday.
This trail lead the way to our worksite area.
A three-toed woodpecker, life bird! These guys were pretty plentiful in the area we were in.
Me on a section of trail I created! I am pretty proud of it. The rock work just a little further back was done beautifully by other crew members.
Those little blue flags also mark the "critical edge" of the tread we are making. That is the edge of the trail, so we create trail in from those flags. The tread is supposed to be about a foot long, but clearance around the trail is to allow riders on horseback through. The trail is marked all the way up the slope and the flags guided us as to where we build.
Also created on the approximately 12,000' of trail we made, a really beautifully constructed switchback. It involved a lot of rocks, chopping apart fallen logs, and adding lots of mineral soil from a borrow pit. Borrow pits are where you can grab mineral soil from to add to the tread of the trail, when you are done, the pit is covered up and blended back in to the forest.
From the bottom of the switchback.
Duff, is the soil that contains a lot of organic materials. This soil does not hold together and is not appropriate for tread (where you walk) on a trail. The layer of duff had to be cleared to a layer of mineral soil (containing minerals, and sometimes very clay-like), which is appropriate for tread. Sometimes the duff layer was very, very thick and that meant you had to really work hard to create tread-- because you don't want your trail to become a giant hole, for water to gather, and in general, it's a hazard. So for this, small egg-sized rocks filled in the tread and mineral soil on top of that to create a proper and safe walking surface for human or horse.
It felt good to work the arms this trip. Another requirement besides pants and boots were hard hat, eye protection (from soil, twigs and chipping rocks), and work gloves. I even put a hole in my work gloves-- I really love manual labor and I do really get into a sort of beast mode. It reminded me of my keeper days where my favorite activities were things like shoveling snow, hauling and transporting bales of hay, and carrying bags of feed.
And that tool is a pulaski, you could chop away layers and lever rocks out of the ground plus use the axe end to chop roots. There was so much chopping, it was really fun!
My most favorite tool for use in building is the flat looking rake thing, it is called a McLeod (you say it like McCloud). It is a firefighters tool, usually- but it proves to be a multipurpose trail building tool. It rakes, it chops, it stomps, and it can be used to assess the grade of the trail, as it is not supposed to be completely flat. A 5% grade was to be had do that water could not pool up and just continue on down the slope. By placing the McLeod on its flat surface on the tread surface, if the pole leans past the metal face of the tool, it is too steep, the pole should lead juuuust to the edge of the metal, as if you tied a string to the tip of the pole, the other end would touch the edge of the tool's face.
At the days end, we hiked back to camp, and on this particular day, also carried our tools back. This day was also exciting because in the morning they cleaned out our port-a-potties, which were relatively clean to begin with but, with constant use by 20 people and anyone who snuck into our camp when we were away, fresh bathroom facilities were very exciting.
This white tailed jackrabbit lived around the bathroom area, I bet he/she too was happy the potties were clean!
A sweet little moth appears to glance backwards at me from the grass in camp.
     So the point of this post is really about, don't take the places you explore for granted. They are maintained in a way to allow people to get close to and to be able to experience nature in a safe way. Remember that someone did that for you, some trails are built by volunteers who are passionate about a wild place and who want to give back. So if you ever come upon volunteers working in your favorite wild place to explore, thank them for what they are doing! So many people hiked through camp simply just to say thanks, many of them knew our uncle, he was like a wilderness rock star. It also is heart warming to see people who love this wild place, love the trails, and love to create something that they and other can enjoy and doing all this work voluntarily.
     And every single person on our crew was so kind, it was great hearing stories from different people from different places. I highly recommend taking a trip to work on a crew, it is a unique and truly memorable experience that any lover of nature, hiking, and the outdoors should not miss! To learn more about how to volunteer on a crew, check out the links below:
- Colorado Trail Foundation:
- Volunteer on a Crew:
- "Treadlines" Newsletter:

One last thanks to this amazing crew, the Colorado Trail Foundation, our uncle, and this trail crew was dedicated to his wonderful friend, and friend of the Colorado Trail, Gudy Gaskill. Thank you, Everyone, it was so lovely to spend this crew, my first, and certainly not last, with you all!!!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Colorado Trail, Day 5 - Hike to the Alpine Tunnel

     Our crew was 7 days in length, so we got a day off on Wednesday, ours was spent with the first half of the day hiking to the Alpine Tunnel. This involves a hike up a railroad grade trail, much of it still with railroad ties from its last use in 1910. The railroad grade makes it not super steep, that is until you get to the tunnel. The tunnel is no longer a tunnel, it had damage to it in 1910 and then with landslides and collapse, it is sealed shut. So with the tunnel no longer a tunnel, you then have to climb up and over the continental divide to get to the other side, where a telegraph station and turntable are located. 
     Along the way, especially this time of year, there were lots of blooming wildflowers all along the slopes and within the crags of rock, plus plenty of wildlife that blended into the alpine scenery. It was a long but very rewarding hike with awesome views and great people to experience it all with!
     Enjoy the sights...
Originally, I thought this to be a snowshoe hare.... it is actually a white tailed jackrabbit! There were at least three individuals within our camp, each in their own little territory where they often were seen.
Jack rabbits and hares are basically the same thing, both differ from rabbits, being in general, much larger and having larger ears.
Like snowshoe hares, the white tailed jackrabbit sheds its white fur for a more tawny, brown colored fur to help camouflage themselves in the summer, only to turn white again once winter and the snow settles in.  These bunnies are snow bunnies, they do not hibernate but subsist on grasses and twigs to survive the winter.
Rabbits, hares, and jack rabbits are not rodents - they are known as lagomorphs- they have similar incisor teeth, but have a set of small, peg-like teeth behind those upper incisors, giving them more teeth than rodents.
I think some crew folks were discussing volleyball, while I snapped these photos as this jack rabbit hopped out from the brush, under a camper, car, and onto the very road they were standing on, these buns were not shy!
A bunch of us awesome folks, ready to set off on our hike. I truly enjoyed spending a week with these people!
Lots of Indian Paintbrush, everywhere, some blooms redder than the others. The hummingbirds liked these.
Alpine Mertensia, common and beautiful along the trail.
Subalpine Larkspur. I used this website to help me recall things I was told, because plants... not my forte.
Hiking party among some amazing scenery.
This place reminds you that you really are just a small component of matter on this planet, especially in comparison to these monstrous peaks, valleys, and tress.
Can't remember this one, or find the right match (because, not going to lie, like a novice birder to sparrows, these yellow ones all look the same! Even though I know I was told the name!)
Making our way up the divide.
I drank a lot, I mean, a lot of water this trip.... this was my view when I found a bush to pee near... I mean, that's kind of the best bathroom view ever. I also get to boast, proudly, that I pee'd on the continental divide. Its the little things in life, really.
Is this real? Is it a painting? Scenery from a model train set? Nah, that is real life alpine valley, just off the continental divide!
View of the turntable from above... This is pretty much how you would turn your locomotive around so it can head in the reverse direction from which it came. 
Turntable, from the ground.
The telegraph station (in front of my husband, on the right), is unlocked, you can walk in, see some small exhibits a sign a book, stating who you are and where you are from. A marmot sits on the back stairs, so don't be surprised when a large hairy rodent greets you upon opening that back door from the inside.
Speaking of marmots, this one is a yellowbelly marmot. Think: mountain groundhog.
So at this point, I whipped out my lunch, a peanut butter and bacon sandwich. I am 99% vegetarian, the bacon was calling me for the level of exertion on this trip and dang, was it good! Anyway, once the sandwich came out, so did all the creatures from among the wood... err, rock work.
This marmot ran down the rocks and boulders at the sound of crinkling plastic, or the tempting smell of peanut butter, but he was not the only one, oh no...
Meet the pika. The cutest rabbit relative, its resemblance to a chinchilla is no coincidence, as both chinchillas and pikas are made for living on the cliffs and rocky outcrops among the mountains. But remember, it's not a rodent, unlike the chinchilla, the pika is a lagomorph, like the jackrabbit from earlier.
Clearly, the pika has tasted human handouts before. Everywhere else on the mountain they kept a distance and dove between rocks, giving their (adorable) "yip" of a call. This one did the opposite, this prey animal ran towards a potential predator, me. A sure sign that people stopping here for a lunch/snack break share their food with wildlife, which is a huge no-no, in terms of safety for people and even more so, safety of the wildlife.
Because honestly, chipmunks should never ever run towards a huge scary human being, as this guy did. I mean, he did give me a clear shot, but I prefer wildlife to act and be wild. Oh, and this guy happens to appropriately be a Colorado Chipmunk!
Wildflowers blooming along the mountainsides.
Some of our hiking party atop the continental divide with some lingering ice/snow in the crevices of the slopes. Notice how there are no trees, we are above the tree line which ends at approximately 12,000' in elevation.
You can see how the gradual slope is an easy hike on this railroad grade trail, you can also make out some of the old, 100+ year old ties that lay across the trail. Can you imagine trains running through these mountains? Amazing.
As we hiked closer to camp, I snapped a picture of sawmill curve, a small waterfall fills this pond that empties into the slopes below. My huband and I attempted to use this as a place to rinse off and clean one night. The water was COLD, the pond was mostly silt, to get decent results, you had to get close to the falls, where gravel was the substrate below the water. It worked out alright, but it was good to do on a warmer day, as that water was a tad bit chilly!
    A day off was huge, it made a big difference having a day to rest your arms from digging, chopping, hauling, and pounding trails into place. On Thursday, it was back to work, but we were able to feel "fresh" doing do!
     We capped off this day with a trip to the Mt. Princeton hot springs whre we got 2, YES, TWO showers! And got to rest our muscles in some warm pools. And if that wasn't enough we had dinner in Buena Vista, at our uncle's favorite spot, Jan's. I had a HUGE slice of peach pie a la mode for dessert, IT. WAS. AWESOME.
     So, yeah, it was a very good day off :)