Thursday, August 31, 2017

Detour to the San Juans

Returning to Littleton from Crested Butte, I opted for a detour to the south, covering a stretch of landscape between Gunnison and Creede that I had not previously explored.  Just west of Gunnison, at the east end of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, I turned south on Colorado 149, undulating across sage grasslands that are broken by rocky outcrops.

After dipping through a few creek valleys, the highway makes a significant descent to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River which it follows upstream.  Hemmed in by cliffs of volcanic sediments, the river rises in the northern San Juans near Lake City.  After passing through that town, Route 149 begins a climb toward Slumgullion Summit, about 11,600 feet; en route, the road offered a spectacular view of Lake San Cristobal and, at the summit, a broad view of majestic peaks to the northwest.  Unfortunately, bark beetles have decimated the forest in this area (as in many other areas of the San Juans); dipping through pockets of dead and cleared forest, the highway crosses the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass (a thousand feet lower than Slumgullion Summit) and begins a winding descent toward the Rio Grand River.

Along the way, an overlook provides a magnificent view of the uppermost Rio Grand Valley, including the Rio Grande Reservoir and Pyramid Peak; the north flank of that mountain has been officially recognized as the source of the Rio Grande.  Paralleling the river just upstream from Creede, Route 149 winds eastward along the Rio Grande all the way to South Fork, Colorado, where it intersects US 160 and the river's southern fork.  Turning east on this highway, I headed toward the San Luis Valley and familiar landscape.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Up to Crested Butte

Despite numerous road trips throughout Colorado over the past thirty years, I had yet to visit Crested Butte.  Facing two days with no commitments, I decided to remedy that deficiency and set out from our Littleton farm early this morning; three hours later, I was in Gunnison, enjoying a delicious brunch.

Colorado 135 leads north from Gunnison, crossing the Gunnison River and then following it upstream to Almont, where it rises from the merger of the East and Taylor Rivers.  Before heading to Crested Butte, I drove northeastward on Route 742 through the scenic Taylor River Valley which is quilted with ranches and resorts; numerous pull-offs along the road offer access to the beautiful river, a popular stream for fly-fishing.  About 15 miles from Almont, I reached the spectacular Taylor Park Reservoir, backed by the high peaks of the Sawatch Range.  Returning to Highway 135, I then continued north through the East River Valley which is bordered on the west by the volcanic West Elk Mountains; nearing Crested Butte, the road angles northwest along the Slate River (a tributary of the East), which parallels the base of the Ruby Mountains.

The Old Town area of Crested Butte offers a mix of shops, pubs and cafes while the ski area (Mt. Crested Butte), northeast of town and on the north side of Crested Butte (12,162 feet), has the look and feel of a modern resort.  Before getting some dinner in Old Town, I drove past the ski area and continued northward on Forest Road 317 which yields broad views of the Elk Mountains and of the upper East River Valley at their base.  Throughout the day, I enjoyed the company of mountain bluebirds, Steller's jays, Clark's nutcrackers, pine siskins, magpies and, of course, those vocal subalpine residents, red squirrels.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Science, Disaster & Denial

Just a few days ago, when Harvey was but a tropical depression in the Western Gulf of Mexico, meteorologists predicted that it would strengthen into a hurricane and then stall along the Texas Coast, causing widespread, disastrous flooding in the region.  No doubt, many in Texas and across the country ignored (and perhaps ridiculed) that forecast.  Unfortunately, the scientists were right.

This week, our anti-science, pro-coal President will likely fly over the extensive flooding; if he sticks to his script, he will express dismay over the tragedy and promise that the Federal Government will provide ongoing assistance.  Once the disaster has resolved, however, he will go back to denying climate change and other inconvenient science-based predictions.

A warming climate will surely increase the incidence of flooding events in coastal regions in addition to its other life-threatening effects across the globe.  Yet, the fossil fuel industry, based in Texas, has long denied the role of human activity (specifically oil, gas and coal consumption) in global warming, contrary to the findings of its own scientists.  No doubt, some evangelical ministers will blame the social tolerance of progressives for this divine retribution and our anti-science, pro-business EPA Director will go on slashing environmental regulations.  The scourge of mysticism will maintain its grip on a large segment of human society, imperiling all life on our planet. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Western Heat & Texas Floods

An atmospheric ridge, characterized by a dome of high pressure, currently sits over the Southwestern U.S.  Over the past few days (and for several more to come) sinking air within the dome has pushed afternoon highs near 90 degrees F here in Metro Denver.  In concert, the stagnant high pressure has diverted Pacific storm systems to the north and has cut off the Southwest Monsoon moisture from the south.

This same atmospheric ridge will keep the remnants of Hurricane Harvey along the Texas and Louisiana Coasts, perhaps allowing it to re-strengthen.  Preventing the storm from moving northwestward into the Southern Plains, the high pressure dome will also deprive the Gulf Coast region of Pacific fronts that, under other circumstances, might pull the tropical system into the Midwest and thence to the Mid-Atlantic or New England.

Stuck in place, the remnants of Harvey will drop flooding rains from Corpus Christi to San Antonio and northeastward into Louisiana.  Meanwhile, those of us in the Southwest will have to rely on pop-up showers and thunderstorms to provide relief from the heat and drought.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Harvey Approaches Texas Coast

Just a tropical depression 36 hours ago, Hurricane Harvey rapidly strengthened over the very warm waters of the western Gulf of Mexico.  Current forecasts indicate that it will strengthen further, perhaps to a Category 3 storm, before making landfall just north of Corpus Christi.

Counter-clockwise winds of 125 mph or more will lash the coast north of the hurricane's center, producing a storm surge of 9 feet or more in some areas.  Of course, wind damage and widespread inland flooding are also expected.

Indeed, the major problem with Hurricane Harvey is that the storm is moving slowly and will not be whisked away by any approaching fronts.  Rather, the hurricane (or its remnant system) is forecast to meander along the Texas Gulf Coast for several days, dumping prodigious amounts of rain on an area that has already experienced a wet spring and summer.  Two feet of precipitation (if not more) will fall in some locations and widespread, severe flooding is almost certain to occur, perhaps as far inland as San Antonio.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Bad Habits, Good Genes

Most of us have had friends, family members or acquaintances who, despite unhealthy habits (smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, a junk-food diet and a lack of aerobic exercise) live long, disease-free lives; having practiced medicine for forty years, I encountered many such individuals.  Of course, these persons were saved by a genetic allotment that prevented the consequences of their careless behavior.

Exposure to such individuals tends to make the rest of us fate-oriented and may convince us to abandon efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle; when one's parents lived to an advanced age despite bad habits, the delusion is especially powerful.  However, we each have our own, unique set of genes and until such time that genetic screening is widely available at a reasonable cost (and completely understood by the medical community), it is wise to cut your risk by adhering to healthy life choices.  Counting on your genes to protect you is just a game of chance.

Finally, most of us will face serious health issues in the course of our lives and the effort to remain active and healthy beforehand will significantly improve our ability to survive such insults, whether they be accidents or illnesses.  We can't change our genes (at least not yet) but we can try to prevent disease by avoiding toxic behaviors, ingesting a healthy diet, engaging in regular aerobic activity and adhering to appropriate screening recommendations.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Scotts Bluff

Returning to Colorado after the solar eclipse, I angled southwestward to Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, in an effort to escape the heavy traffic.  While that plan failed miserably, I was able to view Scotts Bluff itself, protected in a National Monument since 1919.  This massive erosional remnant rises up to 800 feet above the North Platte River, which sculpted most of its broad valley over the past 5 million years.

During the Cretaceous Period, some 100 million years ago, a shallow sea covered most of the High Plains region, leaving behind shale and sandstone as the Rockies rose and the sea retreated.  In concert, the mountains eroded as fast as they rose and sheets of sediments were spread across the adjacent plains; volcanic debris also blew in from the San Juans of southwest Colorado.  Periods of uplift, especially in the Miocene and Pliocene, intensified the erosion and fed large, meandering rivers.  Today, Scotts Bluff, like the cliffs along the edge of the North Platte Valley, is a testimonial to that natural history; it is a layer-cake of sedimentary rocks deposited during the Oligocene and Miocene Periods, some 34 to 20 million years ago.

Named for Hiram Scott, a fur trapper who died in this area in 1828 (at the age of 23), Scotts Bluff has long been an important landmark, both for Native Americans and for settlers who traveled west on the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.  I would have visited the Monument myself but I had eight hours of stop-and-go traffic ahead of me.

Monday, August 21, 2017


As I left Denver this morning, a magenta sunrise spread across the eastern horizon; I wondered if the solar eclipse would match the beauty of that brilliant display.  Heading northeastward along Interstate 76, I crossed the rolling grasslands of the High Plains, adorned in late summer by swaths of prairie sunflowers.  Near Wiggins, the highway drops into the valley of the South Platte River, often shrouded in a dusky fog during the early morning hours.

I exited the Interstate in a pea-soup fog at Sterling, Colorado, and headed north on Route 113, climbing from the valley and re-entering the bright sunshine; wind turbines lined the crest of the escarpment, east and west of Peetz.  Farther north, I crossed Interstate 80 at Sidney, Nebraska, and continued northward on US 385, dipping through the North Platte River valley at Bridgeport, where the first eclipse-watching celebrations lined the roadway.  South of Alliance, I cut westward on a graveled road, finally escaping the parade of vehicles that had accompanied me all the way from Denver.

Choosing a location along a wooded ridge, I waited for the big event; the skies were clear except for a few high cirrus clouds.  A north wind raked the ridge and a loggerhead shrike provided company, hunting along a fence line.  About fifteen minutes before totality, a faint darkness began to envelop the landscape, suggesting the onset of dusk; the rate of darkening increased until totality occurred, when the sun's corona produced a brilliant ring around the edge of the moon's dark disc.  While the total solar eclipse was spectacular (and well worth my five hour journey), it was the sudden return of brilliant sunshine, shattering the darkness, that, for me, produced the emotional highlight of this celestial event.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

North to the Darkness

Tomorrow, I plan to head north to view the solar eclipse.  My current plan is to drive northeastward to Sterling, Colorado, then northward to Sidney, Nebraska, and then farther north to somewhere in the North Platte Valley to experience the spectacle.

While I look forward to the event and hope that clear skies enhance nature's show, I must admit that we Americans seem to be over-reacting to an astronomical convergence, one that happens somewhere on our planet every 18 months or so.  For scientists, the eclipse will provide a unique opportunity to study the sun's corona but, for most of us, it will be more of an emotional event; no doubt, some will ascribe mythical significance to this transient phenomenon.

Whether I actually reach the zone of totality or not, I'll enjoy the road trip which will take me across the stark landscape and grassland ecosystems of the High Plains.  More on the entire experience tomorrow evening.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Prickly Lettuce in Bloom

Favoring sunny areas and dry soil, prickly lettuce is one of the most abundant wildflowers (some would say weeds) along the Colorado Front Range.  This week, those on our Littleton farm are blooming, their numerous, small, pale-yellow flowers adorning the landscape.

One of many wild lettuces across the globe, this wildflower is also closely related to dandelions and, like the latter, is an introduced native of Eurasia.  Despised by gardeners, this tall plant has prickly, deeply-lobed leaves that alternate sides along the branched stems; since the leaves twist to face the sun, prickly lettuce is also known as the compass plant.  Like dandelions, the leaves and flowers of this wildflower are edible but the milky sap, used for a variety of medicinal purposes, produces a bitter taste and the foliage must be properly cleaned before consumption (not my area of expertise).

Having yanked many stalks of prickly lettuce from our flower beds and shrub lines over the years, I understand those who prefer to call it a noxious weed.  But when the plant blooms (anytime from July to October), it is an attractive wildflower in my book. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Subalpine Solitude

For a naturalist, the Colorado Front Range is a wonderful place to live; within an hour's drive of our Littleton farm, I am able to explore five life zones.  On the other hand, the region has become increasingly congested with humans and I now limit my mountain excursions to weekdays, avoiding the clogged highways and crowded trails that develop on holidays and weekends.

This morning, I set my sights on locations near Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet) that I had not yet visited.  The pass itself, on US 285, is crossed by the Colorado Trail and thus receives a fair number of hikers and backpackers throughout the week; for that reason, I chose other sites that are reached by unpaved roads and remain unknown to tourists and most Front Range residents.  There, surrounded by a subalpine forest of pine, spruce, fir and aspen, I parked my pickup and sauntered along the jeep trails.  Enjoying the cool, fresh mountain air, I was joined only by wildlife that inhabit the woods and meadows; red squirrels, Steller's jays, common ravens, mountain chickadees, gray-headed juncos and least chipmunks were most conspicuous.

Offering views of the Continental Divide, the Mt. Evans massif and the Platte River Mountains, these secluded areas may not have the notoriety of Colorado's tourist hotspots but they share the same mountain climate, topography and ecology.  Better yet, they offer solitude!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Un-American President

Having entered politics by leading the "Birther" movement, Donald Trump spent most of his Presidential campaign ridiculing his opponents, denigrating world leaders and stoking hatred for immigrants and minorities.  Nevertheless, he was elected due to a host of promises that have yet to be realized; among these were building a Wall along the Mexico border, repealing and replacing Obamacare, reigniting the coal industry and keeping jobs in America.  Supporters appreciated his straight talk and, one suspects, his racism.  The fact that he refused to reveal his personal finances and repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, the brutal dictator of Russia, seemed to have little effect on his legions.

During his campaign, Trump denied knowing anything about David Duke and white supremacists.  Now, after the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, he once again has refused to directly denounce those home-grown terrorists.  Beyond his bigotry, his war-mongering, his assault on human rights and his impulsive tweets against allies and his own cabinet members, Trump denies the threat of global warming and has rolled back environmental regulations (see The Anti-Environment President).

While his dedicated believers may be willing to overlook his narcissistic behavior and his coddling of racists and dictators, the majority of Americans must reclaim the principles upon which our country was founded.  We need not wait for the next election to dethrone this wayward, self-absorbed President.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Genetic Bond

Of all human relationships, the parent-child bond is surely the strongest.  While romantic relationships are often intense for relatively short periods of time, the biologic connection between the parent and his/her child is permanent, reinforced by the genetic imperative, a force that governs life in general.

Human parents are both conscious of the physical and emotional needs of their offspring and subconsciously devoted to protecting their own genes that the child now carries.  In other words, we dearly love our children for both altruistic and selfish reasons.  No other human relationship (except perhaps that between grandparents and their grandchildren) shares this dual motivation.

Indeed, while marriages often end in divorce, very few parents divorce their children and, in such cases, some form of mental illness or emotional turmoil in the parent is usually to blame.  On the other hand, the genetic bond is unidirectional; the child may be devoted to their parents due to the nurturing that they provided and the traits that they passed along but their "genetic focus" is on their own offspring.  Above all else, life is devoted to protecting and perpetuating itself; human life is no different in this respect.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Swainson's Hawks at Dusk

This evening, as dusk enveloped our Littleton farm, a trio of Swainson's hawks soared overhead, dipping and hovering as they circled the property.  Now that their breeding season has ended, these attractive Western buteos begin to gather in flocks.  By the time they leave for Argentina, in late summer or early autumn, those flocks may be comprised of hundreds if not thousands of hawks, often mingling with other migrant raptors.

Feasting primarily on mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits during the breeding season, Swainson's hawks switch to an insect diet for the rest of the year, snaring dragonflies, butterflies or moths in the air or chasing grasshoppers across fields.

Our visitors appeared to be hunting insects as they cavorted in the darkening sky.  Then again, they may have just been soaring for the fun of it, energized by the cool air and preparing their flight muscles for the long migration ahead.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Back in Rainy Colorado

After three weeks in the hot, dry Midwest, an area known for frequent summer showers and thunderstorms, I have returned to the semiarid landscape of the Colorado Front Range; arriving late yesterday afternoon, I was greeted by torrential rain along the eastern and southern edge of Metro Denver.  Intermittent rain and thunderstorms continued into the evening and, after a respite this morning, they have returned this afternoon.  Indeed, rainy, cool weather has dominated the region for more than a week.

High pressure over the Great Plains, combined with a stationary front through the Rocky Mountain corridor, is funneling monsoon moisture into the region.  In concert, the same dome of high pressure has cut off the flow Gulf of Mexico moisture to the Heartland and has been shunting Pacific storm systems across the northern U.S., depriving the Plains and Midwest of any prolonged rain events.

When weather patterns become stagnant, copious precipitation may drench normally dry regions while rain and humidity fail to reach reliably wet areas (e.g.. the Corn Belt).  Here in Littleton, our farm has regained its spring-like greenery, a dramatic change from the dry, browning property that I left behind three weeks ago.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sand Wasps

While sitting on the beach at Sandy Lake yesterday, I noticed a large number of plump "bees" burrowing into the sand.  These were female sand wasps which lay eggs within the burrows and provide paralyzed insects for the larvae to feast on once they hatch.

Male sand wasps neither dig burrows nor feed the larvae; like many human males, their parental activity is limited to sperm donation.  While the adult females spend much of their time hunting for insects to feed the larvae, they, like the adult males, feed primarily on nectar, thereby pollinating a variety of flowers.

Sand wasps are found across the globe, utilizing the sandy soil of beaches, floodplains, deserts and prairies.  Since they are colonial nesters, these wasps are often overlooked until one comes across their nesting site (or until the wasps start digging near your beach chair).

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Return to Sandy Lake

This week, we have returned to Sandy Lake, in Portage County, Ohio, where my wife and her siblings own a lakeside cottage.  We have brought along two of our grandsons, ensuring more entertainment and less relaxation.

Like most of the Temperate Zone, this glacial lake in northeastern Ohio is in its summer doldrums.  A few ospreys and double-crested cormorants visit the lake each day and a noisy flock of purple martins have re-established residence in their man-made complex at the end of our dock.  Otherwise, the bird population has been relatively inconspicuous, represented by house sparrows, blue jays and a changing assortment of common summer residents.  Frogs and aquatic turtles grab the attention of our grandsons and, to the delight of the oldest, the bluegills have been biting.

Fortunately, the temperature has been relatively mild and the air pleasantly dry.  Rain is forecast to move in by tomorrow but the moisture is needed in this area and we'll get in our swimming and kayak excursions between the showers.  After all, keeping the grandsons entertained is a vital priority!