Rocky Mountains Reflections: The Landscape

My, my, how the week just gets away. April slipped out while I was busy with other things and now it’s a full week since I had the good fortune to be here.

Rocky Mountain Foothills, near Denver

And here.

Moraine, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

And here.

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Compared to many of you, I’m sure, I have lived a very sheltered life close to home. It’s not for want of desire to travel. As a child I was wildly jealous of my best friend and her frequent travels to places beyond our small town. She summered in these mountains at a camp called Cheley. You can see it here if you look hard.

Cheley

Don’t see it?

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She spent her summers riding horses (something else I longed to do, as all girls do at some point) through this landscape.

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Now, I love my state. I could never live in Colorado because of the water factor. It’s hard enough living in mid-Michigan when you grew up with sailboats and freighters and seagulls and drawbridges. But I understand why Colorado sucks people in.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by this?

Rocky Mountains

And this.

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountains National Park, CO

And this.

Rocky Mountains

And this.

Leaving the Rockies

It is fantastically beautiful, inspiring us to stop and reflect on our own cosmic insignificance — were we not made by the same creative and loving hand as each of those mountains. Yet we are known as intimately and cherished as closely. The same God who caused the earth to push up Long’s Peak…

Long's Peak at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountains National Park

…causes the earth to push up the mountain crocus.

Mountain Crocus

He bids us leave our homes, get out of our cars, get off our duffs, and start to climb.

ClimbingUp

He calls us to seek higher ground, not for safety’s sake, but so that we can see the world closer to His vantage point.

Rocky Mountain National Park

He calls us to love and care for this incredible planet, and for all of the living things He put here for our enjoyment and education and inspiration.

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And to pass that love and sense of responsibility down to our wide-eyed children.

Tina and Micah

He calls us to notice the shade of the dirt…

Abandoned Mining Operation?

…the sound of the river…

St. Vrain River

…and the chaotic flight of the swallows.

BirdWatching

My first trip to the Rocky Mountains was entirely too short. But I will be back, with husband and son in tow. Because beauty like this is meant to be shared.

Friends1

A Peek at What’s to Come…

Clouds over the Rockies

This is where I spent my weekend. I’ll be working through photos and sharing my thoughts on my first trip to Rocky Mountains National Park, as well as lessons I learned hanging out with my childhood best friend, over the coming week or so. I hope you’ll be back to share it with me.

“In the solitary forest, by the rushing Taquamenaw…”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe second day of our hike, Alison and I ran across a number of areas with young maples sprinkled between the pines and firs and showing off their fall colors.

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The ferns in the open areas were browning and made an interesting color combination with large patches of fuzzy seafoam green lichens.

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The woods through which the second half of the Wilderness Loop winds are alternately close and open. The open areas would be hot in sunny weather, but we had clouds and some breeze the whole way.

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Here Alison takes a moment to enjoy the color in a rare ray of sunshine. I believe she is preparing mentally for the many more soggy spots we will encounter as we race the thunder on the way to Clark Lake campsite. (Little does she know at this point that her right foot is soon to be ankle-deep in cold, black swamp water.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is one of the very best “bridges” Tahquamenon has to offer in the backcountry.

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Seriously, this was one of the most sound structures on the trail, and it looked like it had been decomposing for nigh on a decade. There was one real bridge. As we passed over it we realized we were also passing yet another beaver dam, this one far taller than the last.

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So, campers, what have we learned from the above diagram? That’s right! The Department of Natural Resources can build a bridge…when it so chooses.

We passed by the wetland created by this second industrious beaver…

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…and soon arrived at the Clark Lake campsite where we were again the only people. We took a two-hour nap that afternoon as rain pounded down on the tent. It was glorious.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And we happily made use of this very handmade bench.

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We filtered water from Clark Lake. It’s always a little unnerving to drink brown water, even if you know the microbes and nasty little beasties have been filtered from it. Here’s some of the leftover water in a clear glass at home so you can see the tannins leeched from the cedars, which gives the falls their distinctive color.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe week after this hiking trip, my mother came to watch the boy while Zach and I traveled to St. Louis for ACFW. She was nice enough to wash all of my clothes–not just the really nasty ones from the hike, but from all of the hampers and baskets and dividers in the house.

The packs are still in my sunroom, waiting to be returned to storage, where they will wait patiently…for next year.

 

Unintentional Water Features at Tahquamenon Falls

Remember way back when wetlands were just called swamps? Someone in the 1970s or 1980s apparently endeavored to put a more positive spin on these soggy topographical features. Wetland sounds so much more pleasant than swamp, after all.

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Well, if you hike north from the Upper Falls at Tahquamenon along the Giant Pines Trail Loop and the Wilderness Trail Loop, you will find yourself in a landscape that tends strongly toward swamp. Remember the soggy areas Alison and I encountered on the trail between the Lower and Upper Falls? Multiply that by, oh, let’s say 500–or 50, I don’t know. But whatever the correct number, if you plan to hike this section prepare to get your feet wet. Also, unless the DNR or whoever gets out there with a chainsaw soon, prepare to duck under and crawl over many, many trees.

Despite some sludgy trail conditions, there were some nice surprises early on, like this enormous, 185-year-old white pine tree, which was approximately 120 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and has a circumference of nearly 16 feet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy sister looked pretty small next to it.

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Not far from this mammoth lifeform we found this fat little caterpillar, which I think will be a Luna Moth when it’s all grown up.

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But not too far into our second hike of the first day, the surprises turned simultaneously more unpleasant and more impressive.

Alison and I first noticed a tree across our path that had obviously been cut down by a beaver–its distinctive teeth marks cluing us in. A moment later we realized that we were walking alongside a lake. And that the water level was a foot or so higher than the soggy ground upon which we were treading.

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Yes, we were at the edge of a beaver’s carefully constructed dam.

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And, as I said, we were alternately amazed and irritated. The amazement is obvious. Beavers are incredible creatures with incredible talents. The beaver here had created his own perfect environment. That first photo in this post was of the beautiful wetland home he had made possible by building this:

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He built it not across a rushing river but along the outskirts of the slowly moving water of some sluggish swamp, and we were on the very edge of it. It’s an enchanting position to be in.

The irritation may not be so obvious from these photos. But this next one may give you a hint:

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You see that slim tree with the blue painted blaze? That, my friend, is the indicator of the North Country Trail. And, as I’m sure you noticed, it’s been incorporated into this beaver’s swimming pool. In fact, the beaver had obliterated much of the trail. I don’t know if he just made this dam this summer or if it really has been a long time since anyone at Tahquamenon Falls State Park has bothered to groom their backcountry trails (I kind of suspect the latter, frankly). Either way, it was slow, wet going here. It was swamp here.

At one point we realized that the only semi-dry option to move forward was to walk along the top of the dam itself as we tried to get back on the trail. We stepped gingerly, grasping at branches the beaver had as yet left untouched, leaned away from the water, and prayed that he was a good builder who didn’t cut corners.

We did make it past the wetland eventually, but with very wet shoes and socks and more than a few near-misses. As evening approached and the gray skies above rumbled a warning of the storms we knew were supposed to come that night, we tried to make up time as we rushed toward the Wilderness Campsite. We got the tent up before dark, ate a late supper, and used the surprisingly unsmelly and amusingly exhibitionist toilet.

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It made me think of this iconic moment from Scrubs:

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Yes, that’s Michael J. Fox’s Dr. Kevin Casey finally overcoming his OCD in order to sit on the roof toilet.

We bedded down for some much needed sleep as the forest darkened swiftly around us and flashes of lightning occasionally lit up the tent. As we fell asleep that night, or else as we woke the next morning, it’s hard to recall, we heard the strangest bird call, like a cartoon siren that ended with a honk. Or like a loon on steroids. It sounded like it had to come from a very large bird. After listening to some calls, I think it is quite possible it was a sandhill crane. Go to about the 1:50 mark on this video and you’ll hear just about what I think we heard:

In the morning I remembered to get a photo of our campsite before we packed back up to face yet more trail challenges and more rain on the way to our next campsite.

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We were surrounded by utter silence, complete solitude, and zillions of wild blueberries (the presence of which during our entire hike had me ultra aware of the possibility of encountering black bears fattening up for winter).

It was beautiful.