Saturday, September 05, 2020

Below the Snowy Range

The Snowy Range

Cameron Peak Fire

Below the Snowy Range The entire Front Range felt the fires scorching groves deep in the Rockies. From the time I left the Springs, char clung to the air. By Denver, garden-variety smog mingled with the waves of smoke and soot undulating over the mountains, sometimes stopping to fill valleys with billowy clouds that could be mistaken for morning fog. 

At one time I considered Fort Collins an option for working remote. Seeking Old Town, I realized it would not have worked. The neighborhood is small and surrounded by housing for Colorado State University. It felt like more of a large town than a large town with a big college. 

Had I wanted to take a mountain route through Walden and Encampment to hit Saratoga, I could not – the highway through North Par was closed, and rightly so. The billowing smoke came from the Cameron Peak fire, the most northerly and easterly of Colorado’s wildfires. The fire would be visible for most of the drive.

Five miles from Old Town, I was in badlands that already felt like Wyoming. After all the farmland north of Denver, it was jarring to land in northern desert. But this was where the smoke stopped, so it was not all negative. 

After the state line, the road flattened out on its path into Laramie. I felt far from anywhere until the road reach the interstate and suddenly a college town spread out before me. Twenty years ago, one of my good college friends landed at grad school at the University of Wyoming. I bet the main commercial district looks remarkably similar aside from a few craft breweries and freshly painted murals. The university had a shine to it on a sunny morning.

Outside Laramie, the presence of the fire resumed. I was far from where I might smell anything, but the Wyoming state highway ran parallel to the Cameron Peak fire. From there the blaze resembled a volcanic eruption, a massive plume of smoke trailing east out onto the plains. The road wound through a series of meadows and small nameless creeks that spawned broad riparian zones. I began stopped haphazardly, exhilarated by the blooms of wildflowers and half-hoping to catch a moose or elk active in the early afternoon.

The Libby Overlook lies at the top of Snowy Range Pass, and it highlighted the billowing wildfire to the south. The little stone tower sprouted about 20 feet above the mountain plain but provided 360-degree views of the mountains rolling south to Colorado and the glacier-carved peaks of the Snowy Range to the immediate north. Despite how shallow they were, I could not take eyes off the lakes. They might have thawed in the last week or less. The season seemed so much shorter less than 100 miles from Colorado’s highest peaks. 

As parades of tourists came toward the overlook, I decided to wander on some size trails to thin lakes and the krummholz, or tree islands formed by pines growing on boulder piles. Due to the fierce windings pounding the Snowy Range most of the year, the trees have to grow within shelter of the rocks and each other. Trees around the edges of the krummholz tend to form into flag trees, where the winds only allow branch formation on one side of the trunk.

As I grew closer to the Libbey area krummholz, I found they were occupied. The calls of yellow-bellied marmots started quickly. Some idiots let their dog run freely, and the marmots just ducked back into the holes in the rocks. The dogs didn’t come close. I waited till they left, and the marmots rewarded me with lengthy appearances outside their burrows. One stood in fully view outside the rocks, uttering the warning call, watching me the whole time.

Heed the call

 I had a hard time leaving them and their meadows. It was spring in the Snowy Range, never reaching full summer, as the flowers bloomed across the tundra, the treeline petering out much lower than a few hundred miles south in Colorado. 

The wind was staggering to anyone who tried to walk in it. The highest peaks all stood above the pass, a series of stunning blue glacial lakes at their base. Visitors rolled into campsites, clogged trailheads and fished from the banks and kayaks. 

I flagged a fishing overlook in a creek and large marsh as likely moose habitat. In mid-afternoon, there were no moose, just birds and plenty of fish splashing in the shallow waters. I loitered long enough to see people drive in, complain about seeing nothing before driving off. 

The descent from the Snowy Range came quickly, quietly and lonely. There was no one leaving the mountains, just me. I fell back into the scrubby land and passed the ultra-luxury Brush Creek Ranch, mule deer and pronghorn bounding everywhere as I turned into Saratoga.

The faithful lookout


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