A Bridge Across Time

  • Day 91: August 13, 2016
  • Hike 27
  • Location: Hike to the Old Bridge over the Big Sioux River
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Other Short Walks): 210.58 miles

Rivers have always fascinated me more than lakes. Lakes seem confined by their shores and destined to remain in one location forever, or for as long as they continue to exist. On the other hand, rivers are continuously moving, reacting to events upstream, changing with the seasons, and flowing downstream to affect the land along their banks and influence the wildlife and people they encounter. When you are standing on the bank of a river, each time you close your eyes and reopen them, you see a different river. Never again will you see the same water—it has moved on, the same light—it has shifted, or the same objects floating in the current—they have gone downstream—that you saw before. Continual change is the nature of a river.

Many years ago as a young adult, I lived on a farm in eastern South Dakota south of the town of Brookings. In that flat farm country, finding a place to go on an interesting hike might have seemed problematic. In every direction there were miles of farm fields with little variation in the topography of the land. Although the crops growing in the fields were different from year to year, and the appearance of the fields changed with the seasons, there were no majestic mountain vistas, waterfalls, or tranquil lakes nearby to fill the role of “scenery.” However, about 2 miles down a country road to the west of our farm home, there was an old, one-lane bridge that crossed over the Big Sioux River. Once I discovered the bridge, it became a favored hiking destination.

Standing on the wooden planks of the bridge and looking upstream to the north, I could imagine the many miles that this slow moving river had already traveled. Looking to the south, I could envision the water gradually flowing downstream into the Missouri River and then on to the Gulf of Mexico. In the spring, when the Big Sioux was swollen with snowmelt and overflowed its banks, hiking to the bridge wasn’t feasible until the water receded. Nevertheless, most of the year, this was an easily accessible destination. Once there, I could sit on the bridge and watch the river come and go beneath me. I daydreamed about the Native Americans, the explorers, the pioneers, and the early homesteaders who depended on this river. I also wondered who would visit this river and sit where I was sitting in the future when I could no longer do so.

While I was in Brookings taking care of my grandchildren recently, I had an opportunity to hike to this old bridge with Ransom, one of our Australian shepherds. I was not expecting some of the emotions I felt while sitting on the bridge looking down into the water. Memories of long ago came to the surface. After each of my three children was born, one of the first outings I took with the new arrival was a hike to the bridge. Of course, my children were infants at the time and rode in strollers and likely do not remember their first hikes. However, to me, this first hike with each child was important. I wanted to share this experience with them as a reminder to me not to restrict them by my own expectations but rather to give them room to grow in whatever direction their lives took them. It was here that I committed to each child to let go when the time was right. On this warm August day in 2016, tears flowed down my cheeks as I remembered the small children whose hands I once held on this bridge. They were not sad tears, but rather the tears of nostalgia that parents sometimes feel when reminiscing about the years when their children were small. After a few minutes, I gradually released my memories and let them flow gently downstream with my tears.

All of my children are grown up now with families of their own. Each has taken his or her own path, and I am proud of the individual choices they have made, the wonderful adults they have become, and the ways that they are now raising their own children. Before leaving the bridge, I looked upstream and wondered about the future. I do not know what is coming down the stream, but I am looking forward to this unknown adventure with anticipation.

Ransom at Old Bridge

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Hiking with Grandsons

  • Day 86: August 8, 2016
  • Hike 26
  • Location: Second hike at Dakota Nature Park, Brookings, South Dakota
  • Distance: 4.25 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Short Walks – Not Daily Activities): 203.30 miles

Today I returned to Dakota Nature Park with grandsons Nolan and Connor. (See previous post for more information about the nature park.) Since we planned to hike as well as enjoy the wildlife and beautifully restored ponds, woods, and prairie landscape at the park, we brought the 2-passenger stroller, in case these young ones could not keep up with Grandma on the trails. I have discovered that hiking is one of the few pursuits where I can outlast Nolan and Connor, and pushing the stroller is an easy solution on these flat country trails. In most other activities, Nolan and Connor can keep me on my toes from dawn to dusk and leave me worn out by the time the sun sets and they head off—somewhat reluctantly—to bed.

So what makes a successful hike for a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old?

  • Enjoying a warm summer day on a trail through the woods with mature trees to block some of the sun’s rays
  • Stopping often to admire a flower, or bug, or pinecone, or rock, or stick, or mud puddle
  • Discovering deer tracks and wondering where the deer went
  • Walking on the shore of a pond and watching a startled frog swim away in the clear water
  • Not getting wet while playing on the big rocks by the pond, or at least not very wet….
  • Taking time to throw stones in a pond and trying to make the biggest splash possible
  • Watching 6 or 7 turtles sunning themselves on a log in a small pond in a more remote part of the park
  • Trying unsuccessfully to catch grasshoppers and butterflies
  • Watching fish swimming beneath a picturesque bridge
  • Showing a park naturalist a colorful Monarch caterpillar on an orange butterfly milkweed and helping her put it in a cage with milkweed leaves so that other park visitors can watch it form a chrysalis and eventually turn into a butterfly
  • Eating a picnic lunch, including the gourmet favorite of 2-year-olds and 6-year-olds, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…. (Isn’t this in a food group all its own?)
  • Resting in the stroller as Grandma pushes it back to the car after a long afternoon at the nature park
  • Telling Grandma that you don’t want to leave, but settling for a promise to return someday soon.

Dakota Nature Park

  • Day 84: August 6, 2016
  • Hike 25
  • Location: Dakota Nature Park, Brookings, South Dakota
  • Distance: 3.85 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Short Walks – Not Daily Activities): 198.05

Dakota Nature Park is a former landfill site near Brookings, South Dakota. When I lived in Brookings many years ago, the location was known for ugly gravel pits that did nothing to disguise the presence of the nearby city dump. There was little reason to go to the area, and most people avoided it. Now the site has been transformed into a beautiful nature park that can be enjoyed by all of the citizens of the community, and it is also becoming an important attraction for visitors from other regions.

The park is a wonderful example of successfully redeveloping what once was a waste land and restoring it as a healthy habitat for wildlife and an attractive landscape that shows no sign of the former use of the land. The landfill itself is now a restored prairie, and the nature park includes mature woodlands; wildflowers and other native plants; several healthy, clear-water ponds that are open for activities such as kayaking and fishing; a trail system with both paved and primitive trails; and open spaces that are protected from development. There are also interpretive exhibits, a large nature center building, picnic shelters, and many other amenities.

Although I return to Brookings often to visit family, I have never before taken the time to visit the Dakota Nature Park, walk the trails, and enjoy the peaceful landscape. However, on my current trip, I am spending a couple of weeks caring for two young grandsons, and I want to do things with them that will allow us to enjoy being outdoors. Today my 6-year-old grandson Connor went to a birthday party, leaving his 2-year-old brother Nolan and me behind to entertain ourselves. Since the Dakota Nature Park is less than a 10-minute drive from their home, I decided to visit the park and hike a few of the trails with Nolan. As you will note in the pictures I took, Nolan started our hike by pushing the stroller himself, but after a half-mile or so of walking, he was tired out and opted to ride rather than walk. Soon he fell asleep, but not until he had happily observed butterflies, a monarch caterpillar dining on milkweed, many birds, and a frog. Since Nolan is still so young, he may not remember details of individual outings he takes with his grandmother. However, I hope that times like this along with the many outdoor activities he does with his parents will help him to develop a lifelong love of the outdoors and an appreciation of nature. Other than letting my grandchildren know how much they are loved, I feel like encouraging them to love the land and all wild things that live on it is one of the most important things that I can do.

Shelf Lake Trail

Day 73: July 26, 2016

  • Hike 24
  • Location: Shelf Lake Trail, Pike National Forest
  • Distance: 7.1 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Short Walks – Not Daily Activities): 182.2 miles

I suppose that it is obvious to everyone that some hikes are harder than others. Short hikes at low altitude with little or no elevation gain are usually the easiest. Other factors that contribute to the ease of a hike are good trail signs; smooth, dry trail conditions; good weather; and shade if it’s hot. Finally, it really helps if there are no stream crossings, no biting insects, no deadly poisonous snakes, and no bears, mountain lions, alligators, or other hungry predators in the vicinity. Different hiking groups have different standards for determining the difficulty of a particular hike, but most of them seem to be based primarily on distance and elevation gain. However, I believe that it is probably fair to observe that the more of the other conditions I’ve listed above are not met, the more difficult the hike.

This week I was invited to hike the Shelf Lake Trail in Pike National Forest with four special women, all of them quite fit and considerably younger than I am. However, since I’ve decided that the age of a hiker isn’t a factor in determining difficulty of a trail, we’ll ignore my age for the moment! The 3½-mile trail (7 miles round trip) has an elevation gain approaching 2000 feet. According to one hike difficulty calculator that I found online (http://www.nwhiker.com/HikeEval.html), a trail of this length with a 2000 foot gain in altitude should be at the lower end of the Difficult range, which makes it more difficult than an Easy, Moderate, or Challenging trail, but less difficult than a Very Difficult or Extreme trail. Note that if I were developing a hiking difficulty scale, I’d add another category: Impossible. Those are the hiking trails that you see in extreme sports movies. However, for me, a hike rated merely “Difficult” still seems in the realm of possibility, and so I readily accepted the invitation.

To get to the Shelf Lake Trail, we took the Guanella Pass road north from Grant, Colorado, for about 5 miles. We were pleased and somewhat surprised by the excellent condition of this recently paved road. Then we took Forest Service Road 119, which is more accurately a rough jeep trail requiring a high clearance vehicle, for another couple of miles until we reached a large pile of black rocks on the right-hand side of the road. This was where we had been told to park our vehicle.

There is a small inconspicuous trailhead sign to the right of the large pile of black rocks. The trail starts at about 10,000 feet and proceeds uphill for 3 ½ miles to Shelf Lake, an idyllic mountain lake at about 12,000 feet. The Difficult hike rating is based on this distance and elevation gain. However, there are some other factors that the rating does not consider, including the altitude. Now I have learned through experience that breathing at an altitude over 10,000 feet tends to add to the difficulty of a hike, and that was certainly true on this trail. In addition, we found that much of the trail is quite rocky, and stair climbing and obstacle course skills were sometimes called into play. In particular, during our descent, one of my fellow hikers voiced the opinion that a trail stretcher must have been at work and that a large number of additional boulders appeared to have been added while we were resting by Shelf Lake and enjoying the spectacular alpine views. Since these boulders were evidently not there during our ascent, they caught two of our fellow hikers off guard during our descent, resulting in painful though not debilitating injuries. Fortunately, I was spared from tripping over rocks because my aging memory couldn’t remember whether the rocks were there previously or not. This forced me to create detailed strategic plans for how to navigate over or around each of these rocky barriers during our descent. In addition to an abundance of rocks on the trail, there were just a couple of muddy areas, although it was easy to see that mud could be a much larger consideration at other times of year. Finally, in some of the higher altitude stretches of trail, bushes encroach on the trail on both sides, making it difficult to detect any potential predators lurking around the bend. Of course, we didn’t encounter any bears, mountain lions, alligators (at 12,000 feet in the Rockies???), or other hungry predators, but the thought that they might be there did cross my mind. Due to the additional factors of altitude, rocky trail conditions, and the need to cross several streams, I believe that the Difficult trail rating was definitely warranted.

So what did I think of the hike overall? Forget the difficulty rating! All in all, that was a minor inconvenience. This was a great hike and I’m looking forward to doing it again during this same season in future years. The trail follows a crystal clear creek for much of the route, and Shelf Lake itself is a pristine alpine lake in a spectacular setting. It is surrounded by mountain peaks that were still displaying a few fields of snow in late July, and I believe that it is a worthy destination for both hikers and fly fishermen (or so I am told). I can attest to the presence of trout, since they were rising and sometimes leaping out of the water in pursuit of insects while we sat on the shore and ate our lunches. The alpine flower gardens were at their peak, and I was in awe while observing the abundance of brilliantly colored blooms on the slopes above and below the trail. For example, I have never before seen so many Colorado columbines blooming at the same time in one location—literally thousands. Amazing! While I may have exaggerated about the mysteriously appearing boulders on the downhill trail, I am not exaggerating about the wildflowers. In this case, there would be no reason to exaggerate!

All five of the intrepid hikers on this adventure were quite tired by the time that we returned to the car. However, it was that special kind of tired that comes with a sense of accomplishment and a smile on our faces. I believe that each one of us was glad that we had come and glad that we had completed the hike. I, for one, will always have special memories of this hike.

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Spruce Mountain

Day 71: July 24, 2016

  • Hike 23
  • Location: Spruce Mountain Open Space
  • Distance: 5.7 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Short Walks – Not Daily Activities): 174.1 miles

View from Spruce Mountain 2

After a constant barrage of negative news and dire predictions from the news media during the past few weeks, getting away from all sources of information about terrorism, crime, politics, the economy, and natural disasters is a welcome change for my husband Curt and me. Both of us believe in the power of positive thinking, and sometimes removing all sources of negativity from our lives for a few hours is essential. The best way that we know to do this is to leave televisions, newspapers, computers, and cell phones behind and venture into the many beautiful open spaces, national forests, and parks that are so easily accessible not far from where we live. In addition we find that spending time outdoors renews our peace of mind, and it is the most effective prescription we know for maintaining both mental and physical health. We are so thankful for all of the like-minded conservationists who have helped to preserve these places so that our children and grandchildren will be able to experience and enjoy them as we do today.

On this Sunday morning, Curt and I planned to start our day with an early morning hike while temperatures were still cool. The weather forecast called for another hot July day. In addition, it is monsoon season in Colorado, and weathermen were warning of afternoon thunderstorms. We wanted to complete our hike before the weather had a chance to prove them right. As a result, we arose early, ate breakfast, and drove to the Spruce Mountain Open Space parking lot before most other hikers were stirring.

We breathed in the cool morning air as we hiked up Spruce Mountain. Then we slowly circled the mesa top on the loop trail, taking time to appreciate the beauty of nature that was spread out before us. I never tire of Spruce Mountain, because there are magnificent views in all directions. In addition, throughout the year, seasonal changes make each new hike different from the last. Even within a single day, as the sun moves across the sky, the shadows that are cast on nearby cliffs and distant mountains change in dramatic fashion. As always, this day’s hike at Spruce Mountain was unique. We watched three species of swallows (tree swallows, violet green swallows, and cliff swallows) perform daring aerial maneuvers as they hunted insects above the cliffs. Other birds serenaded us from the treetops as we passed by. Midsummer wildflowers glowed with vibrant colors in the sunshine and beckoned bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to come closer and sample their wares. The light breeze and the shade of towering Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir trees kept us cool as the morning sun began climbing higher in the sky.  We were filled with the welcome certainty that all is well, and by the time we returned to our car, we were renewed, peaceful, and happy. No words were needed, as I smiled at Curt and he smiled at me. How fortunate I feel to be able to have experiences like this with my very best friend and companion, my beloved husband Curt

East Creek Trail

Day 63: July 16, 2016

  • Hike 22
  • Location: Beginning of East Creek Trail into Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Redstone, CO
  • Distance: 5.1 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Short Walks – Not Daily Activities): 160.31 miles

 

Near the East Creek Trail.JPG

Saturday, July 16th was the last full day of our camping trip near Redstone and Marble, Colorado. Ransom and Sophie and I had already hiked more than 18 miles on the previous three days without taking a day off, and I knew that we were all starting to feel the effects. After three days of hiking in uncomfortably warm temperatures, I decided to take advantage of cooler morning temperatures and start hiking as early in the morning as we could rouse ourselves. I knew that Ransom and Sophie seemed to tire fairly easily when we hiked in the sunshine at altitude, so I selected a trail that would be shaded from the sun by the Elk Mountain Range until at least mid-morning. We hiked up the East Creek Trail from the trailhead just north of Redstone and into the Maroon Bells-Snow Mass Wilderness. This trail is rated as “very hard” in some trail guides, but we did not hike far enough to reach the truly strenuous parts of the trail. Nevertheless, there was a 1200 foot elevation gain on the short 2 ½ mile stretch of the trail that we hiked. Ransom and Sophie were dragging a bit, and I soon released my perpetual need to see what’s around the next bend. When we stopped at a small stream crossing, Sophie wanted to lie down in the shallow water, not play vigorously in the current as she would normally do. She was obviously tired, and I knew that we should not go much farther. I did not want to totally wear out the dogs (or myself, if truth be told). Therefore, we turned around and returned to the trailhead before the late morning temperature became too warm. This is a trail that I would like to hike again in the future, but after reading about the difficulty of upper portions of the trail, this is probably not a good hike for me to do with the dogs as companions.

Restoration of Coal Basin

Day 62: July 15, 2016

  • Hike 21
  • Location: Coal Basin Trail, White River National Forest
  • Distance: 6.2 miles
  • Cumulative Distance (Hikes and Short Walks – Not Daily Activities): 155.21 miles

In the late 1800’s, Coal Basin Mine was developed near the headwaters of Coal Creek in a beautiful mountain area west of Redstone, Colorado. The original mine was in operation until about 1908. This early mining operation was relatively small in size, but nevertheless it left scars and refuse on the land and began a long history of erosion and problems with water quality in the Coal Creek floodplain and the confluence of Coal Creek and the Crystal River. Then in 1956, Mid Continent Coal and Coke Company began a much more extensive underground mining operation which continued until 1991. The negative effects of this large scale mining operation on the land and river system in the area were much more widespread, more serious, and more permanent than the already existing issues from the earlier mining operations. I have seen pictures of the scarred mountain sides; the abandoned roads, buildings, and other equipment; and the horrible erosion and watershed problems that were left behind after the mining operation was abandoned. However, my intention here is not to detail the history of the mining operations or the devastating effects on the surrounding landscape and the river systems in the area. Instead, I want to explore the value of land restoration, which I have come to view as land conservation’s very important first cousin.

Conservation of our wild spaces has long been a focus of interest for me. If we don’t actively conserve open land and preserve wildlife and native plant species now, they will not be available for future generations to enjoy. In addition, today’s conservation and preservation efforts are essential for the ongoing health of our planet. But what about the formerly beautiful wild spaces that have already been damaged so extensively that we are prone to mentally write them off as beyond repair? Is there any hope for these spaces and their associated ecosystems?

While I would contend that conservation of existing open spaces and preservation of native plants and animals is not a simple proposition, surely it is easier to conserve and protect that which still exists than it is to restore that which no longer does. Restoration of damaged land and ecosystems is a daunting task, the scope of which I often find difficult to comprehend. However, while we may never be able to completely reverse the degradation that man has caused to the lands and ecosystems on our planet’s altered surface and return them to their original pristine condition, there is much that we can do to bring back both health and aesthetic value to these disturbed places. As the open lands that still exist continue to shrink and ecosystems continue to be altered in the name of growth and progress, restoration of already damaged land becomes more and more important. On the one hand, we need to work to slow the loss of what we still have, and on the other hand, we need to work to repair and restore that which we have already come close to losing.

I have visited some prime examples of restoration of badly damaged land and ecosystems in the Denver area not far from where I live. Perhaps I will hike in some of these areas in the future and report on my experiences. However, while we were camping in the Redstone area, I wanted to visit Coal Creek and Coal Basin and see for myself the results of some of the restoration work that has been done there. I have read about the extensive mitigation, remediation, habitat enhancement, and revegetation projects that have been implemented at Coal Basin, in the affected watershed, and in the surrounding land with much interest. Therefore, I planned a hike with our Australian shepherds, Ransom and Sophie, to Coal Basin.

Early in the morning we drove to Redstone and then turned west on the Coal Basin Road. The road follows Coal Creek upstream. After about 5 miles, we arrived at a White River National Forest parking lot, where we found the trail head for the Coal Basin Trail. Near the parking lot, I was able to observe Coal Creek close up. Although Coal Creek and its watershed have been the focus of much concern and many intense restoration efforts for a number of years, I was pleased to find that it appeared to be clear, clean, and beautiful. Ransom and Sophie gave it an even closer look, and from knee deep in the water, they gave it their stamp of approval. After they shook themselves somewhat dry, we began hiking up the Coal Basin Trail, which at this point is a wide dirt road that is closed to any unauthorized vehicle traffic. After about two miles, we reached picturesque Dutch Creek, another focus of much concern because of the long-term effects of erosion and sediment. Again, the creek looked clear and beautiful as I stepped from rock to rock to cross it. While I was appreciating the apparent health of the creek, Ransom and Sophie enjoyed a brief respite from the hot morning sun that was provided by the shady banks of the creek and the cold water of the creek itself. At this point, the route becomes a narrow foot trail, and the trail begins climbing up the mountain side. As we reached the first major hair pin curve on the uphill trail, I paused to enjoy the wonderful views of mountains both near and far. We had hiked only a mile or so up from Dutch Creek, when I noticed that the previously sunny sky was turning gray and cloudy, and dark clouds to the west were looking threatening. After the first visible lightning bolt and loud crack of thunder, I reluctantly decided that it would be prudent to turn around and hike back to the car. I had hoped to hike closer to Coal Basin itself, but that will have to wait for another hike on another day.

Throughout the hike, I was aware that I was in an environment that had been altered considerably by man. In some areas, I was saddened by what I saw. Obviously, there is much restoration work left to be done. However, the results of years of effort are extremely encouraging. Removal of many of the old mining roads, equipment, and buildings has helped to return a feeling of open space to land where active mining operations were once conducted. Physical alterations to the damaged land have helped to control the serious erosion problems, although that will be an ongoing effort for many years to come. I was especially interested to see how successful some of the revegetation projects have been. Planting native trees and other native vegetation has helped to return many areas to the appearance of natural plant communities, at least superficially. I was often able to forget that I was looking at land that has not only been damaged by man, but also reshaped to help it return to health. I sometimes had to remind myself that the terraces and slopes upon which these native plants were growing were not the natural shape of the land. “What an oddly formed hill,” I found myself thinking several times, before I realized the shape wasn’t natural.

And what was my overall assessment of the restoration effort? Well, I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to have an educated opinion, and I spent just a few short hours in the area. However, from my brief observation, I would say that one of the published goals that I read from the report of the 2012 Coal Basin and Crystal River Area Restoration Workshop is definitely worth pursuing: “Turn Coal Basin into a restoration research and development hub – a real-world laboratory for techniques, materials and designs that could be applied elsewhere.” I will look forward to learning more about the progress of the restoration efforts at Coal Basin in the coming years, and I definitely plan to return.