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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.

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