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Nights along the Poudre River are full of mystery and wonder, and maybe even a vampire or two.

We’re fortunate in Poudre Park, a tiny mountain hamlet along the river in the northern Colorado Rockies, to live without bright city lights. Two-thirds of the U.S. population unfortunately cannot clearly see the Milky Way, if at all, because of light pollution.

I’m outside at various time late at night, keeping guard on my dog Amber when she goes out to do her business. Amber is a 29-pound sweetheart, a perfect snack for any mountain lion that might wander by. I’m unsure what I would do if a mountain lion did come for dinner, but it’d probably involve a lot of yelling and screaming.

On clear nights, the stars are twinkling gems that seem so close I should be able to jump straight up and grab one. But my grasp never exceeds my jump, so safe are Cassiopeia, Cepheus the King, Orion and the Seven Sisters.

On a clear night right before the start of a Feb. 21-22 snowstorm, there was what astronomers called a dance in the sky. It was a rare occurrence. Venus, Mars, Uranus and the crescent moon were all visible together, to be seen by the naked eye. Mars was a glittering ruby.

moon_owl_300WThe owls

Regardless of the time of night or the season, Amber and I are invariably greeted by the hooting of Great Horned Owls in the nearby pine forests.

Often, owls perched in a half-dozen different locations carry on a hoot fest at the same time. Each has its own pitch and intensity of sound, and intervals between hoots. This has something to do, I’ve read, with mating, hunting and warning away interlopers. Owls mate for life, so sometimes spouses talk back and forth.

It’s the orchestra of the night, and the owls don’t even seem to care when I join in. Their hooting pauses for a few moments and then picks up again. I suspect some of their hooting is their way of giggling over my stupid hoots.

There have been a few times—when the moonlight is just bright and right enough—that I’ve seen an owl suddenly swoop out of the darkness, headed straight for me, and then veer away at the last moment to avoid crashing into my face.

It’s an owl’s maneuver to protect territory. And, for a human, it’s a formidable encounter. Great Horned Owls have wingspans up to four feet, and they make no sounds as they descend upon victims. They arrive out of nowhere.

The vampires

When these sudden events occur, my wits shatter, primal fears take over, and my terrified thoughts always race straight to Bela Lugosi, the Count Dracula of the 1931 vampire movie.

Compared to today’s standards of cinematic horror, Bela Lugosi’s vampire was a cuddly kitten. Nonetheless…Bela_Lugosi_300W

I remember—as a young kid in the mid-1950s—sitting on the living room couch, scared and shaking, as my mother and sister screamed in fright when the big, flying vampire bat suddenly transformed into the fanged count, evilly stepping forward, his black cloak enveloping his next victim.

Since then, somewhere in my mind, the sudden appearance of a big, flying creature in the black of night equates to a Bela Lugosi vampire. Oh, how random thoughts twist together so wildly.

There are bats along the Poudre—gentile, unintimidating Little Brown Bats with short wingspans—but they fly only in warm weather. In the winter, they hibernate away.

They are not scary. Bela Lugosi would enjoy their cuteness.

Out of the blackness of night

When I was a young man, I went cross-country skiing at night on a trail farther up the Poudre Canyon. The snow was soft powder, coming up as high as my knees. The trail meandered through meadows and forests. The full moon was low in the sky, at an angle that cast black shadows off trees.

I was about a minute ahead of my companions. I crossed a meadow—the terrain was smooth and graceful—and I was almost into the thick shadows of the forest when what my mind imagined was a giant vampire bat swooped straight out of the blackness, aimed directly for me.

Bela Lugosi, come to drain my blood!swooping_owl_400

I was so startled that I lunged to the left, plunging head-first into the snow.

It’s always awkward getting up with cross-country skis on, but I quickly managed it with all sorts of grunts, groans and curses, lest my companions catch up and have a good chuckle over my clumsy predicament.

The moment I stood, my balance teetering, another vampire bat darted out of the black shadows, coming straight for me, Count Dracula again.

This time I ended up face-first in the snow to my right.

As I lay there, tangled up in skis, snow wadded into my nostrils and icicled into my eyeballs, I knew good and well that the second damn Great Horned Owl was the same as the first damn Great Horned Owl. It had just circled around and come back, trying to scare me away from its territory.

And it was having a good laugh at my expense, too.

My companions arrived. “Trouble standing?” one asked wryly.

I swallowed the snow that had taken up residency in my mouth, and mumbled, “I just saw Bela Lugosi.”

 

Poudreriver.org is written by Gary Kimsey, a guy who likes bats, except for those that transform into Bela Lugosi. Gary’s email: poudrewolf@aol.com.

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By Gary Kimsey

For the last year, Mother Nature has reminded those of us living along the Poudre River that she does what she does regardless of whether humans and our trappings of civilization are about.

Nothing new about that message, of course. But it helps remind us of a sharp, biting lesson. Our presence really means nothing in the scope of things when it comes to such forces of Nature as forest fires, floods and mudslides.

Photo above: The Poudre River behind our house on Sept. 13. In comparison, the photo below shows how the river there typically looks at this time of the year. The two boulders seen are completely inundated in the photo above.

Photo above: The Poudre River behind our house on Sept. 13. In comparison, the photo below shows how the river there typically looks at this time of the year. The boulders in the photo below are completely inundated in the photo above.

Last summer the lightning-caused High Park Fire destroyed 87,000 acres of northern Colorado mountain forests. Residents of the Poudre Park hamlet where Patty Jackson and I live were evacuated for three weeks.

Since then, with trees gone and little ground-cover to waylay rain on steep slopes, water pours off the mountains during rain storms, picking up soot and dirt, creating mudslides that have closed the canyon road (Colorado Highway 14) more times than I can recall.

The most recent storm started Sept. 11. A huge system stalled over much of Colorado’s Front Range, causing terrible flooding in Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Estes Park, Fort Collins, Lyons and other communities. Newscasters said the storm has produced “biblical proportions” of rain.

The Poudre Canyon wasn’t left out of the storm’s grasp. More than 12 inches of rain fell within two days. As a comparison, note that the annual rainfall average is 17 inches, so the current rain came within reach of doubling the average amount that falls throughout a year.

Photo taken in early September, prior to the flooding, by Kelly Champagne.

Photo taken in early September, prior to the flooding, by Kelly Champagne, Patty’s daughter who was visiting us from Independence, Mo.

The river rose from the low, clear stream that it typically is at this time of the year, almost shallow enough to wade across, to a wild torrent, black with soot that flowed out of the High Park burn areas. News reports cited experts saying the river’s flow was more than a hundred times higher than it typically is at this time of the year.

Logs—the remains of charred trees that fell during the High Park fire—were swept off mountainsides and into the river. As the current carried them by Sunnyside, our home, the logs looked like Tinker Toys amid the river’s mad rush.

At one point, a 10-foot metal culvert, washed into the river somewhere upstream, suddenly popped straight up out of the current, like Moby Dick spearing out of the dark ocean, and then plunged back in, gone from view.

The heavy rain pushed boulders and rocks down into gulches and then shoved them into the river, where they built up peninsulas that reshaped the stream’s channel.

The presence of the canyon highway, which runs alongside the river, made no difference. Within a few hours, many parts of the highway were buried by deep mud, boulders and logs.

Right now, Poudre Park is cut off. The highway in both directions—east into Fort Collins and west farther into the mountains—is covered with mudslides or undercut by the river.

Our neighbors—there are about 30 homes scattered throughout this tiny mountain valley—are doing the same as we are, hunkering down and waiting for the Colorado Department of Transportation to undertake the hard task of repairing the byway.

Near Picnic Rock, at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon, the flood-swollen river undercut Colorado Highway 14. Photo by Diane Sanford of Poudre Park.

Near Picnic Rock, at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon, the flood-swollen river undercut Colorado Highway 14. Photo by Diane Sanford of Poudre Park.

We have plenty of food. The Internet works. TV, too. It’s an afternoon of sunshine today (Sept. 14), occasional clouds, a few sprinkles of rain. Folks are out cutting their grass. Patty is pulling weeds from our flower gardens. Our dog, Amber, is asleep in shade coming off one of the spruces in the front yard. Early this evening we’ll gather with our neighbors for a potluck dinner in the community center across the dirt road from Sunnyside, a time to commune and hear news updates about the floods coming out of the Poudre, Big Thompson and other Front Range streams.

All in all, as we wait, life is normal, except, of course, for the endless background roar of the river running high at the edge of our backyard, a reminder that we may think of ourselves as residents but, in reality, we’re just visitors in Nature.

Postscript: I wrote the blog above on Sept. 14. The news at the potluck dinner was good–the highway into Fort Collins was to be temporarily opened today (Sept. 15), with the state police leading vehicles past the washed-out part of the road (see photo).

However, this morning we received word that problems arose during the night and the damaged part of the highway is now impassible.

Rain began again last night. It’s continued into early evening. We’re still cut off. Still waiting. And still thankful that at least we have homes to wait in, unlike many in Colorado who have been driven out by the floods.

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