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The season of fall is upon us in our quiet niche in the world, as we are nestled in a small northern Colorado mountain valley along the Cache la Poudre River.

We’ve reached the time of year when the river, flowing along the north side of the valley and alongside our backyard, drops to a level where it’s possible to wade across with only getting wet up to the knees. Gone is the raging, muddy flooding of the spring. Gone is the summer waterway of clear, swirling eddies and frothing whitewater rapids so loved by anglers, rafters, kayakers, hikers, picnickers, and folks who just enjoy watching things of Mother Nature.

A view across the river during the Oct. 9 snowstorm that signaled the change into the season of fall.

Many people incorrectly think this seasonal change in the river is the stream’s natural ebb and flow. It is a way, sort of. When my grandparents arrived in the valley in 1929—into what is now the hamlet of Poudre Park where Patty and I live—the river roared in the spring with cold water from snow melted in the high mountains of the Continental Divide 40 miles up the Poudre Canyon. By the end of August, the river was often completely dried up and remained that way until the spring flooding began in the next May.

Then, as the years passed, came the construction of high-mountain reservoirs to store drinking water for cities like Fort Collins and Greeley on the plains to the east of the mountains. Farmers of corn, wheat, sugar beets, millet, sunflowers, and other crops are also beneficiaries. And, with the construction of the high-mountain reservoirs, so came the building of reservoirs on the plains.

The same view across the river as the snowy photo above. This was taken four days later as Indian Summer set in.

Starting in late spring, the high-mountain reservoirs are drained of the snow-melted water captured during the winter. The water is run through the canyon of the Poudre River and into canals inside and outside of the canyon. The canals dump their flows into the plains reservoirs that have been emptied through use over the previous months.

This cycle keeps the river running higher and longer throughout the year than the waterway naturally would. It’s a man-made cycle that most people are unaware of. At this very moment in October, the high-mountain reservoirs are empty, ready to be filled by snowmelt next spring; the plains reservoirs are full enough for use during the coming months. And the river still flows, although significantly low at this time of the year, unlike when it typically dried up in my grandparents’ era.

Drifting from one season to the next

I like the times of the year when one season drifts into the next. I suspect many Americans are unfortunately too busy to pay much attention—beyond a nod or a quip—to the shifting of the seasons. It’s far too easy to be guilty of violating that ol’ saw about stopping and smelling the roses. In the case of where Patty and I live, it’s a matter of stopping and smelling the freshness of the mountain air. The air is brisk and a welcomed seductive onslaught that makes nostrils flare and senses open wide to the feeling of wanting life to go on forever.

This year, the seasonal change into fall came much as it often does. The dry late summer was enhanced by sunlight so bright you have to blink a lot when you’re outdoors. In late September, a snowstorm usually races by, leaving in its wake heavy, wet snow that breaks limbs of riverside cottonwoods still thick with leaves. The ponderosas, spruces and white pines covering the mountainsides hunker down, their snow-laden boughs every now and then giving a springy shake to rid themselves of the burden.

The first snowstorm came a bit late this year—on October 9 a storm swept in from the north and deposited six inches. On the next day, the sun was back out in a delphinium-blue sky and most of the snow melted away.

Now, we’ve reached Indian Summer where the weather will likely remain mild—in the 60s and 70s in the afternoons—until Halloween when cold rainstorms typically arrive, signaling the approach of winter.

I’ve always been fascinated by the term “Indian Summer.” Where did it come from? Well, hey, Siri…?

The term Indian Summer seems to have been first recorded in 1778 when native Americans described to the American English how the first frost is followed by a spell of warm weather, a good time to go hunting. In other parts of the world, such a short warm period in the fall is marked by names as All-Hallows Summer (Britain); été de la Saint-Martin (France; happening around Feast Day on Nov. 11); and St. Luke’s Summer (or Little Summer occurring around St. Luke’s Day on Oct. 18).

The one thing that Siri notes is an emerging political incorrectness with the use of “Indian” in the “Indian Summer” name. I’m usually in favor of political correctness, but, you know, the words “Native American Summer” just don’t roll off the tongue very well…

Critters and such

The critters that we see in our valley are different at this time of the year.

The blue Stellar Jays—they have tall dark blue topknots like Woody Woodpecker—have returned from their summer sabbatical in the higher mountains. The Stellars have an ingenious strategy. They learn who—“who” being among the couple of dozen residents of Poudre Park—throws out sunflower and millet seeds for the birds. In the early mornings, one Stellar becomes the lookout. When I step outside to toss around seeds, the lookout starts squawking with a loud vigor.

By the time I get back my front door, a dozen or more Stellars have arrived for their breakfast. Next come Flickers, American Goldfinches, Mourning Doves, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Mountain Chickadees. Sometimes it looks as if our yard is vibrating with a swarm of colorful birds.

In mid-morning, squirrels wander into the mass of birds to grab breakfast. These are fox squirrels, the largest species of tree squirrels native to North America. They have a beautiful light brown fur, swashed slightly with a reddish hue, and huge fluffy tails of golden brown fur. During most of my life, we never had squirrels in Poudre Park. Then, about two decades ago, they wandered up the river from the plains and settled in our valley.

A seldom-seen Abert’s Squirrel that visited us this summer–black fur and tassels on the tips of its ears.

On very rare occasions, another variety of squirrel wanders into our community, this an Abert’s Squirrel, a black-furred creature with tall ears tipped with furry tassels. The Abert’s Squirrel typically sticks to the quiet forests far away from civilization.

This summer one decided take a vacation among us; it showed up daily for about a month in our yard to gather seeds. It never seemed as comfortable as birds and fox squirrels do among the trappings of civilization. Every time a vehicle drove along the dirt road at the south edge of our property, the Abert’s jumped in surprise straight up more than a foot into the air and scurried off to the safety of a tree. I figure the frightfulness of our civilization eventually overwhelmed the Abert’s sanity and it escaped back into the nearby forests.

The Great Horned Owls have returned. They roost for the winter in the pine forests on the mountains surrounding the valley. Late at night, they hoot back and forth from one side of the valley to another. It’s a non-rhythmic symphony of wonderfully eerie sounds. Sometimes I just can’t help myself: I step out into the night and shout out hoots. There’s always a silent pause from the owls. It’s as if they’re trying to figure out who or what this hooting interloper is. Within a minute they’ve decided that I’m not a threat and I should be ignored, and they return to communicating with one another in their own special language.

A black bear has come snooping into the valley late at night to raid apple trees. It’s a quiet creature. We only know of its presence because of the huge piles of feces it leaves behind. Meanwhile, a mother mountain lion and her two nearly grown cubs recently explored our valley. Cubs remain with their mothers for two years to learn hunting skills. The trio was spotted at various locations throughout our valley. One night they decided to take a nap in the yard of my son Clay and his wife Meri next door. Okay, I can never resist a bad pun—the mountain lions took a “catnap.”

A black moose on a walkabout along the river.

A few mornings ago, I was lucky enough to look across the Poudre River at the right moment and saw a black moose wandering along the grassy shores of Gordon Creek, which flows into the river. Considering the small size of its antlers, the moose was probably a youngster. We don’t often see moose around here. They usually stick to the marshes of willow bushes 50 or 60 miles up the canyon.

Sometimes, though, a moose will unexpectedly show up, hang out for a day or two in Poudre Park, and then head downriver in search of willow bushes to eat. I liken these wanderers to the indigenous Australian male adolescents who go on walkabouts as a right of passage into manhood.

By the way, I didn’t exaggerate when I wrote the moose was black. Most moose have brown fur interspersed with blackness. This one, though, was starkly black in color, as black as could be. Set against the backdrop of the green grass and the varying grays of the hillsides flanking Gordon Creek, the moose looked like it was in a colorful photograph where its body was cut out and replaced with black construction paper cut in the same shape as the animal’s body.

The days of fall

The light of the mornings now, at the start of our Indian Summer, arrives late, around 7 a.m., when the sun slowly inches over the crest of Rainbow Ridge, the tall mountain at the east end of the valley. The mountaintop has the long, bowed shape of a rainbow and it is over that mountain where rainbows show up after rainstorms.

Today, the birds and fox squirrels arrived as the sun melted away a thin layer of frost that covered everything. After the day warmed up a bit, Patty and I went out and worked on our fall chores. I’ve known Patty since 1963, the year JFK was assassinated, and she still emanates the same impressive energy, steady calmness, and stunning beauty as she did when I spotted her in the crowded hallway of our junior high school.

My main chore for this day was to put away the river pump. This is the pump that we use to water the yard and flowers during the drier times of late July to mid-August. After then, the daily Southwest Monsoon, which comes north from the Gulf of Mexico, deposits showers of fine rain onto the valley.

Putting away the pump is a process. Both ends of a water pipe along the bottom of the east fence must be opened and all spigots along the pipe must be twisted opened so every drop of water is drained, lest the pipe and spigots freeze and break during the winter. The pump, which sits at a corner of our backyard, has to be thoroughly drained and then carried about 40 yards to storage in our garage.

I’ve noticed the pump gets heavier every year. Twenty years ago, when I was a youngster in my mere 40s, a pump was a wee thing of no weight at all. Now it’s as heavy as an elephant. Hmm, that’s an equation they didn’t teach us in our high school math classes: An inanimate object—regardless of whether it’s a square, rectangle, octagon, hexagonal pyramid, or river pump—exponentially increases in weight as the age of the bearer increases in years.

Patty with the last of our flowers picked prior to the onset of a snowstorm in the fall.

Before I flexed my muscles and began grunting, I paused and watched Patty as she worked in one of the dozen flower gardens around our land. The sunshine caused her gray hair to glitter as she bent to pick the last of the flowers, pull out this or that frost-killed annual flower and trim back a fading perennial. I reflected on whether my grandfather—when he and his wife lived on this land—stopped to watch his lady working in the sunshine as I did today with Patty, with respect, admiration, and love. I’m sure he did. They were married very happily for five decades before they passed away.

From where I stood, I heard the river trickle over small, rounded rocks. The tall cottonwood trees along the riverbanks are turning golden. A cool breeze fluttered leaves away from the trees. I inhaled the brisk freshness of the mountain air. Fall is, indeed, upon us.

Afterword

I wrote this column on Oct. 13. It’s intentionally longer than ones I usually write. This I did for two reasons. One reason was so our friends—many of whom we met a half-century ago during all of our days together at Van Horn High School in Independence, Missouri—are able to see how Patty and I live in Colorado. Secondly, and definitely most importantly, Oct. 13 is the anniversary of the date when Patty and I were married. I hope she enjoys this as an anniversary thought on how enjoyable our lives are.

Carl_2_300

Carl

The historic hamlet of Poudre Park held its annual Happy Fourth of July Parade today with a record-turnout of one red fire engine, emergency lights and siren blaring; three golf carts; a tractor; three cars, one with wooden speakers strapped on top to broadcast patriotic music; and kids on their bikes.

The vehicles, as well as the 30 participants and spectators–another record turnout, by the way–were decorated with red, white and blue streamers, Fourth of July bling and U.S. flags, a big-hearted way to celebrate Independence Day.

The parade journeyed past Poudre Park’s community center and volunteer firehouse and went all of the one-eighth mile (maybe less, who’s counting?) of Poudre River Road, passing 20 homes, most of which date back to the 1920s and 30s.Tryke_300

With great enthusiasm, the parade turned around at the end of the dirt road and made the festive trek back to the other end of the road.

All in all, a 15-minute parade, perhaps world records for the shortest of time and distance covered for Fourth of July parades.

The annual event was started several years ago as a way to demonstrate patriotism. It has grown from a few kids on bicycles to the rousing participation of the 2016 event.

Poudre Park, located along the Cache la Poudre River in northern Colorado, is in the mountains 20 miles northwest of Fort Collins.

Photos were taken by Patty Jackson.

backseat_300

 

Diane_300

Diane

 

Jim and Velma. The Air Force uniform still fits!

Jim and Velma. The Air Force uniform still fits!

Carl and Gwen and their grandkids.

Carl and Gwen and their grandkids.

On this summer solstice of 2016, giant orange poppies beautify Poudre Park, the hamlet where we live along the Cache la Poudre River in the northern Colorado Rockies.

The poppies grow in pockets throughout our little mountain valley—in corners of our neighbors’ yards, along fences, singularly here and there like steady sentries, and wildly on vacant land.

The orange is a stunning contrast to the many different shades of green—ponderosa pines, blue spruces, cottonwoods, lilacs, apple trees, and grasses—that color the valley and surrounding mountains.

Pink roses and poppies planted decades ago by Ethel Kimsey at Sunnyside in Poudre Park, Colo.

Pink roses and poppies planted decades ago by Ethel Kimsey at Sunnyside in Poudre Park, Colo.

Most of the poppies are descendants of ones planted by my grandmother seven decades ago. Neighbors liked them so much they came and asked her if they could dig some up for their own yards. The poppies spread over the decades from here to there to over there.

I enjoy them. They give an important sense of place, heritage and history, something many Americans lack in today’s all-too mobile society. It’s a loss to be regretted.

Without the feeling of familial connection and landed roots, it’s easy for some people to become less secure in soul and life. Such a condition can lead to drifting philosophically and morally, sometimes resulting in less compassion for people of varying origins, religions, lifestyles and, as we see today, a desperate need to latch blindly on to political leaders who falsely boast they will make everything great.

The poppies of Poudre Park start blooming before summer solstice and are usually gone a few days after. This year’s solstice on June 20 coincided with the full moon, a rare occurrence. The day was the longest of the year, about 17 hours of daylight in Colorado. The poppies loved this flood of light.

A painting of a Sunnyside poppy by Patty Jackson.

A painting of a Sunnyside poppy by Patty Jackson Kimsey.

My grandparents—Charlie and Ethel—purchased our property for $100 on Sept. 29, 1929. Compared to the great expanse of some land ownership in the West, it’s a tiny lot: a mere 100 by 200 feet, which comes out to Charlie and Ethel paying less than half of a penny per square foot.

However, I suspect the purchase may never have happened if they had waited a month: October 29 was the start of the Great Crash that heralded in America’s worst depression. As with most Americans, Ethel and Charlie became financially distressed because of the Great Depression.

Back then, the price of riverside land in Poudre Canyon plummeted to 50 cents an acre. I once asked my father why he and my grandparents didn’t buy up a bunch of property. His reply: “Like everyone else, we didn’t have 50 cents to our name.”

Now, on this summer solstice of 2016, the cost to buy such land can be more than $100,000 an acre.

Our property is flat except for the north edge where a rocky bank slopes down to the Poudre River. When my grandparents bought the site, it was covered with tall wild grasses; Colorado thistles with white flowers; bull thistles that blossom purple flowers; mullein that has velvet-like leaves; prickly pear cactus and ball cactus, both of which bloom delicate yellow flowers; sagebrush with gray-green leaves; dagger-pointed yucca; and thickets of aquamarine-colored willows on the river bank.

Charlie and Ethel cleared the land and built a three-room cabin, not an easy task since there was no electricity and boards were sawed by hand.

The well was dug by hand by two hardy neighbors, Frank and Louie Gueswel. This, too, was no easy task. Through the eons the river meandered back and forth across the valley, leaving a base of river rocks to be found only an inch or two below the top soil. To dig a post hole, one uses not a shovel but a long crowbar for prying out rocks.

For more than three decades—until electricity arrived in Poudre Canyon in the 1960s—water for drinking, cooking, and washing dishes and bodies was drawn from a hand pump.

At sunrise on the summer solstice: Poppies in Poudre Park.

At sunrise on the summer solstice: Poppies in Poudre Park.

The outhouse was constructed by workers from the Civil Conservation Corps, which Franklin D. Roosevelt created during the Great Depression to employ men who tackled projects that improved America’s infrastructure. In the Poudre Canyon, CCC crews built hiking trails for the public, outhouses for the dozen homes in Poudre Park and other projects.

My father was 14 years old when Charlie and Ethel purchased the land. He wanted to name the site “Deadman’s Inn.” Wisely, my grandparents settled on another name: Sunnyside. My lovely partner and wife, Patty Jackson Kimsey, and I now call it “Sunnyside on the Poudre.”

In addition to the poppies, my grandmother planted pinks roses and small succulent plants called “hens and chicks.” After Charlie and Ethel died, my parents—Glen and Lucille—built a house on the site–replete with a bathroom and all sorts of modern conveniences. Both of my parents have been gone for three decades. My children, Clay and Kate, were raised at Sunnyside; my first wife Connie passed away there in 2011.

In the 1990s, we remodeled the old cabin into office space with big windows that look out at the river flowing past the backyard. My grandmother’s pink roses remain; they are in bloom right now, surrounded by poppies. Her hens and chicks still thrive. The CCC’s outhouse still stands, although seldom used since we have indoor plumbing. The well remains, too, even though the hand pump no longer works.

And, of course, the poppies look beautiful on the summer solstice, reminding me of the importance of place, heritage and history.

 

Although the ground is covered with a foot of newly fallen snow, spring has arrived in our hamlet of Poudre Park in the northern Colorado Rockies.

The snowstorm that began in the early hours of April 17 is just a tiny hiccup in the grand scene of spring.

The snow will be melted away in a day or two, and wild grasses on the mountainsides will continue to turn emerald green. Cottonwoods along the Cache la Poudre River are budding. The seasonal arrival of hummingbirds is underway.

As the days lengthen and warm, the snowmelt in the high mountains to the west has crept along. The river has risen a half-foot in the last week, and it won’t be long until the June Rise—what we call the annual spring runoff—will be in full force.

Spring Time_350

Spring snow in Colorado, April 17, 2016, in the Poudre Canyon. View from our backyard: the river and one of the mountains in Poudre Park.

Anxious to be once again on the river, kayakers have been out searching for rapids deep enough to paddle. Anglers are casting for rainbows and Browns in the deep holes and the eddies.

This snowstorm began in the way mountain spring storms often will—a steady rain throughout the day and evening until the cold air of late night transformed raindrops into snowflakes. By morning, the ground was covered and all day the snow continued to fall, sometimes so heavy we couldn’t see the summits of the mountains surrounding our narrow valley.

There is something bold and wonderful about a spring snowstorm. Winter storms in December through February often come with dry snow flakes that fall like fine dust. But spring storms bring thick, heavy, wet flakes. The air smells fresh and invigorating.

Spring snows can be a time of surprises.

Three and a half decades ago, three feet of snow fell on May 1, when everyone incorrectly assumed the snow season was already over. It was a tragic time. A few days earlier, a young boy disappeared from a hiking area a couple of miles down the Poudre Canyon from us. Hundreds of people turned out to search for him. Then the storm hit. The search was called off. He was never found.

Five feet of snow: In 2003, a spring storm brought five feet of snow to Poudre Park. It came up to my mustache. Just to see what would happen, I set our three cats out on top of the snow. They sank in, all the way down. And I did find out what would really happen, by the way. I still have scars on the tops of my hands from angry scratches when I retrieved the cats.

Cats, I discovered, don’t like snow.

Now, to the south of us, the mountains along the Front Range and Denver are socked in, some areas with two or more feet of snow from this storm of less than 24 hours. Spring storms bring the most amount of water to Colorado than any other weather event of the year. When the warmth of summer comes on, the snow will melt in the high mountains; the runoff will flow into manmade reservoirs that capture the water for irrigation and communities throughout the year.

In our tiny niche in the world, our three dozen neighbors hunkered down during this spring storm. The snow-covered dirt road that runs through our hamlet had no tire tracks on it. The snow was so wet that it stuck onto lines that go from telephone poles to homes. The lines sagged low under the weight, almost to the point of snapping, and people had to venture out and use brooms to knock off the snow.

Snow gathered in big, heavy clumps on the boughs of tall ponderosa trees along the banks of the Poudre River flowing by our backyard. The weight of the snow forced the boughs to sag at odd, unnaturally downward angles.

Springy boughs: Every now and then a bough would give what resembled a moaning shake—although I know it was just movement caused by the snow’s heavy weight—and moments later the bough would dip even farther down and a huge clump of snow plunged away. It hit the snow-covered ground with a soft thwoop sound and next came a thin, flighty veil of snow floating downward from the bough. Relieved of the weight, the bough sprang up and down, up and down, before returning to rest at its natural angle.

This morning I went out, bundled up in warm clothes, including, of all things, a bright red, soft woolen scarf that my parents bought me for Christmas way back in 1966, and I shoveled an area where birds can feed on sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn that I sprinkled around.

Feathered strategies: Regardless of the time of year, we always have birds that frequent our feeders. Sometimes, flocks and flocks of birds.

On a normal day—that is, a clear day as the morning sun comes up bright from behind Rainbow Ridge Mountain at the east end of our valley—flocks of birds hang out first in the yard of our neighbors, Dave and Diane, immediately to our west. The feathered critters search for food there because that’s where the warm sunshine first comes onto the valley. Nothing like breakfasting in warm morning sunshine.

Next, as the sun rises higher and causes more of the mountain shadows laying upon the valley to disappear, the sunshine is cast upon our yard, and we become the grateful hosts of the flocks. Then, the birds keep moving on to the east as the sun goes higher in the sky. The birds swoop over to feed at our neighbors, Dale and Val, cattycorner and a bit farther east along the road; then they move on to new pickings at Steve’s cabin farther to the east as the sunshine lands there.

After the sun completely clears the Rainbow Ridge summit and the valley become fully awash in sunshine, all feeding strategies are tossed aside. The birds go here and there and over there and willy and nilly as they like.

Tribe vs. tribe: On a snowy day like this, when the sun’s trapped behind snow clouds, the birds flock to clear areas under spruce trees where thick boughs kept snow from passing through. Or they zero in on spots where snow has been shoveled aside for them, like in our yard at Sunnyside on the Poudre, our home.

Competition becomes fierce. Patty and I sit in our living room fascinated as we watch the vigorous activity through a picture window. It’s like viewing a mini-lesson on the trials and tribulations of living things. It’s all about supply and demand and want and envy and greed, and, of course, food and survival. One tribe wants what the other tribe has.

Today, the first to arrive were the tiny birds: gray-headed juncos, dark-eyed juncos, mountain chickadees, nuthatches, the bright yellow American goldfinches, the red-headed house finches, all five inches or less in length. They swooped in en masse, dozens and dozens of them. There were so many hopping around in the cleared area that the ground appeared to vibrate.

Some departed when flocks of Stellar Jays and Eurasian Collared-Doves cruised in. These are larger birds, about 12 inches in length. Like most of the tiny birds, they are year-round residents of Poudre Park, and they and the tiny birds mostly tolerate each other’s presence.

Bullies: Then came a flock of visitors—a species that migrates through Poudre Park at this time of the year. These are Common Grackles, big black birds, about 13 inches long. They stop here for a few days on their way east to the farmlands on the Colorado High Plains. They travel in a big flock of 50 or more, and their massive onslaught scares away smaller birds. I don’t care for Grackles; they have beady eyes and they are pigs in their feeding habits. For me, their main redeeming quality is the blue-black iridescence of their head feathers.

The Grackles took over today, bullying away others so the food was theirs and theirs alone.

What’s that old saying? There’s always a bigger fish in the pond? In this case, bigger birds.

A small flock of American Crows—four or five of them—spends part of the year at the far eastern end of Poudre Park. Now and then, when their feeding grounds there are covered with snow, they wander our way in search of food. They are huge birds, 18 inches in length and thick-chested, and so black in color that you can’t even see their eyes.

When the crows landed, the Grackles fled.

The crows didn’t remain long. In my mind, I suspected they came by just to harass the Grackles, just for the fun of it. That’s how crows are, I think. They have fun.

So then the feeding area was without birds. That did not last long. The flocks of tiny birds hurried back in. The ground vibrated, again, as they hopped around and fed.

It was the day of the spring snow.

 

 

 

Early morning: Webster Mountain, across the river, covered with snow from the November Witch Storm

Early morning: Webster Mountain, across the river, covered with snow from the November Witch Storm

Our little hamlet of Poudre Park in the northern Colorado Rockies was gifted last night with the season’s first snow. By the time the sun rose on this Veterans Day, about six inches covered our valley and surrounding mountains.

The storm started early last night when a steady rain began pittering onto the roof of Sunnyside, our little, cozy home along the banks of the Poudre River. The pittering eventually faded away as rain turned to soft snow that landed gently and silently.

The National Weather Service calls this a “November Witch” storm, an intense system, moving fast, spreading blizzards and high winds through the Rockies, Great Plains, Upper Midwest, Ohio Valley, and the Great Lakes. It was during one such Nov. 10 Witch Storm 40 years ago that the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior. Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the tragic event in his 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—“That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed…Twas the witch of November come stealin’…”

When the first snow arrives, I usually think not about the sunken freighter but about Gary Snyder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Zen poet who melds together ecology and spirituality in his works.

A look out the front window of Sunnyside: Snow everywhere. Photo by Patty Jackson

A look out the front window of Sunnyside: Snow everywhere. Photo by Patty Jackson

When I was a young and very green newspaper reporter five decades ago, I had a long interview with him, all interesting and insightful, I still remember, although the forgetfulness of my aging has blurred much of what he said. During most of my ensuring wandering years, I carried around one of his poetry books that contained a poem that I particularly loved. Alas and woe, though, the treasured book was lost somewhere along the way.

But the favored poem I remember clearly—and I think about it when life is about to change on first snowy days. The poem, “After Work,” was written from Snyder’s experience of coming out of chilly weather and into the shack where he lived with a woman:

The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog

I pull out your blouse,
warm my cold hands
on your breasts.
you laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
hot iron stove.
bring in the axe, the rake,
the wood

we’ll lean on the wall
against each other
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark
                  drinking wine.

I always interpreted the poem to mean that each of us should be prepared for everything, the storms and calms of life, and we should keep life simple and take care of what we have, and, most importantly, embrace and appreciate the comfort and pleasures and the warmth of human companionship.

I asked Gary Snyder about the poem when I interviewed him all those long years ago. How did he come up with imagery? Here’s what he replied: “A storm was coming and I thought I better get the stuff in. And my hands were cold so I copped a feel to warm them up.”

Such is the makings of poetry, and many things in life. There is always an underlying flow, something else happening, an extra element, or a surprise, that you may not see right way unless you keep your eyes and mind open wide. Yet sometimes it all depends on your view. Potatos, Po-taatoes. Half-empty, half-full.

With all these thoughts in my mind, Patty and I scurried about yesterday preparing for the oncoming storm. The day started bright and warm, with a sunny blue sky in early afternoon, and then the light of mid-afternoon hazed into a dim grayness as dark, cold clouds wandered in from the west.

We pruned the apple tree; pulled gladiolus bulbs from the flower garden to store them inside for the winter; we yanked up dead sunflower stalks and black-eyed susans that had been so yellowy fun this summer but now are brown and dry; we placed the snow shovel outside next to the front door, within easy reach; and we moved terracotta flower pots and three metal lounge chairs onto a porch where they will be protected from the vagaries of winter.

The chairs are leftovers from when my grandparents built Sunnyside in the 1920s and lived there many decades. After their deaths, the chairs were always left out, exposed to wintry elements, and eventually became rusty and sorrowful-looking. But this summer Patty spent hours sanding away rust and painting them with bright, happy colors, an homage to my long-gone forebearers.

Ice crystals forming on rocks along the shore of the Poude River.

Ice crystals forming on rocks along the shore of the Poude River.

We tossed the sunflower stalks and black-eyed susans onto the part of a river bank that we’re trying to restore. We could see ice crystals that had formed around rocks partly submerged in the water near shore.

The river, at low stage as it now is, is flowing just as it should be at this time of the year, rippling its melodious tinny sounds along. In another month or two a thick layer of ice will cover this stretch of the river. Even then, we will still be able to hear the rippling music, muted a bit, as the stream continues onward under the ice. I know this from past winters.

By 8 o’clock this morning, the November Witch Storm was over in the northern Colorado Rockies. It moved rapidly to the east, leaving behind a cloudless delphinium-blue sky, a soft breeze puffing snow off pine boughs, and a good day ahead, a good day ahead.

Life comes in small, simple, enjoyable things along the river.

There are, definitely, great advantages to napping.

I’ve been blessed with the uncanny ability to nap at any time, in any position, at any moment’s notice.

I’m sure many people have wondered if I was napping as they talked to me—even though my eyes were open and I appeared awake.

Not so many years ago, as I fished one April morning along the Poudre River in the northern Colorado Rockies, all I heard were trout laughing at me. Well, some giggled, too.

A merganser female (left) and male on the Poudre River. Photo by Edie Palmer, taken from her backyard in the lower Poudre Canyon.

A merganser female (left) and male on the Poudre River. Photo by Edie Palmer, taken from her backyard in the lower Poudre Canyon.

I came upon a deep pool fed by whitewater rapids, and decided upon the most productive, the best and the most logical course of action. I stepped over to a grassy shelf of soft, pillowy wild grass jutting out a bit into the pool.

Nap time: I laid down. With creel to one side, fly rod to the other, the back of my head comfortably on a flat rock, I gazed up at a sky as blue as a delphinium flower. The temperature was in the magical realm where neither heat nor cold could be felt. The air smelled so fresh that I took deep, meditative gulps through my nostrils.

It was perfect reclining there, slipping into what I do best: napping.

Sometime later I was awakened by loud grukking. The sound resembled off-key music made by a sharp-toothed orangutan blowing spit through a twisted copper pipe. In other words, indescribable unless you hear it yourself.

I had heard such sounds before, in the springtime when a dozen or fewer mergansers annually return to the Poudre for the summer. There are so few of these ducks that not many people have ever seen them, so any sighting is a blessing.

The mergansers hang out for a while along this stretch of the river and get acquainted before heading upstream to create baby mergansers.

By getting acquainted, I mean the lady does the choosing, and the guys do the strutting to gain her favor.

Beautiful babe: From my reclined position, I saw a female merganser move quickly down the rapids. She reached the bottom and swam into the middle of the pool, not far away from me.

I knew if I moved, even twitched my nose, she would take flight. Mergansers are skittish.

Her sleek body was replete with feathers of shades of brown and white. Her head was crimson, her topknot feathers wild and glorious.

All in all, a stunning babe.

And then came the source of all the grukking.

What ensued next was a classical look at the ways of many members of the animal kingdom, even humans and more specifically, unfortunately, some male humans.

The Three Stooges: Three male mergansers, each grukking boldly, cascaded down the rapids. With their black top feathers and white feathery bottoms, they bounced like fishing bobbers through the whitewater and onto the pool.

They hurried over to Babe, encircling her, dashing around and around, keeping her in dead-center.

She wasn’t having none of that.

She broke through the entrapment, hurrying away, leaving the surprised guys staring blankly at each other.

My childhood memory of Moe, Larry and Curly on TV came to mind as the guys grukked angrily at each other.

If they had hands rather wings, they surely would have slapped each other silly. As it was, they nipped at each other. Mergansers are diving ducks so they have sharp serrated bills for catching and eating fish. In contrast, mallards, often seen on the river, are puddle ducks with less vicious bills; they typically feed by tipping into the water rather than submerging.

Screaming out a world-class gruk, each of the Three Stooges reared up on their webbed feet, necks outstretched, chest feathers puffed out, and freight-trained across the surface of the water straight at each other.

The three ruffians collided with a calamitous gruk and bounced back, stunned. Necks flopped askew. Bills twanged. Bodies teetered this way, wobbled that way.

Babe’s escape: Unimpressed, Babe took a short run over the surface of the water, as ducks do when they are taking off, and became airborne.

She was gone from sight by the time the Stooges recovered. They looked around every which way, and I could feel their thoughts form:

Where’d that beautiful dame disappear to?

Finally, one of them geared up, sprinted across the water and flew downstream—just guessing on Babe’s flight plan, I suspected.

He let out a grukking raspberry to his two competitors.

They were having none of that.

Within moments, all three Stooges were speeding in flight downstream–in the opposite direction of Babe’s upstream journey. She was safe.

Back at my grassy riverside spot, I was having some of that: three bullies outwitted by a lady. I decided it’s always good to take a nap.

You never know what you’ll discover when you wake up.

 

To learn more about mergansers, read the March 26 poudreriver.org blog.

To contact this blog’s writer: GaryKimsey@yahoo.com. Cell: 970.689.2512.

They have once again returned to the Poudre River—the mergansers. It’s a sure sign that spring is headed our way in northern Colorado.

If you believe in weather lore—how wild animals might predict the coming weather—the time of their arrival may speak volumes about the next six months.

A male merganser (left) and female lounging on a boulder in the Poudre River that flows along my backyard.

A male merganser (left) and female lounging on a boulder in the Poudre River that flows along my backyard.

I started tracking the mergansers about three decades ago, and I’ve noticed how the timing of their arrival seems to predict the amounts of rain for the coming summer: a mid-March arrival may mean a summer of average rainfall; earlier than mid-March, more rain, and thus a wet summer; and later than mid-March, less rain, an abnormally dry summer.

In 2000, for example, when the mergansers arrived extremely late—six weeks beyond their average mid-March arrival—northern Colorado had its worst-recorded summer drought.

Back then, the mergansers may have mysteriously and magically known that dry times awaited them at their summer home, so they continued hanging out wherever it was that they wintered over. Or they may have taken a short vacation to some other wet area before journeying to the Poudre.

A miracle: There are so few of them—a tiny, tiny handful of these members of the duck family—and they blend in so well with the river’s whitewater rapids, sun-reflecting ripples and deep greenish-blue pools.

Given those conditions, it’s a miracle the mergansers are noticed at all.

But they are. Residents living along the river where it passes through the mountainous lower Poudre Canyon 20 miles northwest of Fort Collins, Colo., keep watch for them.

This year, in mid-March, Bill Sears and Edie Palmer were the early ones to spot the mergansers. The news was relayed to Steve Den, a Poudre Park resident and retired Poudre School District teacher who writes a popular weekly Mountain Messages blog about local Poudre people and things. Steve alerted others by email.

Usually, the mergansers arrive almost with the uncanny accuracy of the famous swallows flying back to Mission San Juan Capistrano. As a rule, as many as 34,000 swallows return March 19 to the California mission. Their annual return from wintering over in Argentina is considered a religious miracle by some observers since the arrival takes place on St. Joseph’s Day.

Things are a bit different along the Poudre. The merganser population is fragile. Usually only six or seven mergansers show up. In some years, there may be as many as a dozen.

Few people even know about the mergansers. The birds are tough to spot.

Lazily drifting: The males are 23 to 28 inches long, about the length of two shoes heel-to-toe of a big-footed man. The heads of male mergansers are black with an iridescent green gloss. Their backs are coal-black. They have thin orange bills and—here’s the great identifier—lower sides of snowy-white feathers. Their wings are partly white and partly black.

Females are about the same size as males, with the same bill color. But their heads are rusty red with feathers of a mod ragged style. Females have a grayish brown body and off-white chest feathers.

The ladies blend in with the river’s shifting shadows. Males are easier to spot because of their white feathers. The males resemble big, white-bottom bobbers as they float with the current.

If you’re quick-eyed and lucky, you may see them lazily drifting on the river in early mornings. In the afternoons, they often tend to hide out—or, as I would, nap—in riverside foliage. They come out again before dusk.

Chances are you’ll spy a male, thanks to his bobbing whiteness. Look closely. There’s likely to be a female with him, but she’ll blend in with the water and you might not see her unless you specifically search for her.

The mergansers hang out for a while—resting up, feeding, courting, gossiping—along a 4-mile stretch of the river that goes from Picnic Rock, the first picnic area just inside the canyon, to the first bridge that spans the river.

Some of the river curves away from the road (Colorado Highway 14), requiring an easy bit of footwork to get to the stream. But there are some long rippling stretches and still pools where mergansers can be seen from the adjacent road.

Once they are rested and mated up, the mergansers head upriver to nest and hatch the next generation.

Fancy drinks, sunglasses: The mergansers on the Poudre are Common Mergansers. Colorado also has Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers, but they live in other areas. The famous bird artist, John James Audubon, went on a quest in about 1820 to paint every bird in America. The Common Merganser was one of his subjects; he called it a Buff-breasted Merganser.

Some mergansers winter on Colorado Front Range lakes where the weather is mild enough for ice to be sparse. Others head to the warm climates of Mexico or Central America, where I’m sure they wear sunglasses and sip fancy drinks with tiny paper umbrellas stuck in them.

That’s what I’d do if I were a merganser, of course, naturally.

Learn more about common mergansers:

Watch for the next poudreriver.org blog on March 31: Merganser love on the Poudre

To reach Gary Kimsey: GaryKimsey@yahoo.com. Cell: 970.689.2512.