Posts Tagged ‘Poudre River’

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.


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.

Read Full Post »

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.



Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

As a way to usher in a New Year, I like to rise early to take stock of the world outside.

The first dawn of 2015 found me—bundled in warm clothes—wading through five inches of snow that carpeted Poudre Park white on Christmas.

The mountains surrounding this northern Colorado hamlet were splotched in dawn grays. The air was fresh and frigid. It felt like ice crystals formed in my nostrils with each breath.

The first places I visited were the bird feeders in the front yard. The feeders hang from poles about six feet tall. The morning, though, was still too early for the American goldfinches, mountain chickadees, juncos and other types of birds that come feeding during the warmer parts of the day

The snow under the feeders was packed down and marked by hundreds and hundreds of tiny, needle-thin cross-hatches of tracks left by yesterday’s visitors.

Life and death in the snow

When there is snow on the ground, I shovel away a large patch where I can spread around millet, cracked corn and sunflower seeds favored by doves, Stellar jays and other ground-feeding birds.

This morning—a foot or so away from the cleared patch—there was an impression in the snow about the size of my hand if I spread my fingers wide. The edges around the imprint were fluffy.

It took me a moment to realize this was likely a spot where one of the Great Horned Owls that live in the mountain forests swooped in during the night to capture a mouse. Most likely, the mouse was feeding on the nearby seeds and, sensing danger, tried to escape by scurrying under the snow.

It didn’t work. Great Horned Owls have remarkable hearing. Ornithologists say the owls can hear a mouse moving around under a foot of snow.

Stealthy visitor

Our backyard is edged by the Poudre River. The stream is largely frozen over, save for a narrow channel. Farther down the river, as well as up the river a ways, the Poudre freezes over completely. This creates a mass of ice that can be traversed to get from one shore to the other.

For the last couple of years, a bobcat has lived in a den somewhere among the trees and rocky crags of the huge mountain on the far side of the river. Local residents have spotted the cat strolling along the ice-covered shores in the early mornings. Others have heard it screech in the night. I’ve never seen or heard it.

This morning, however, it was clear the bobcat came visiting in the night.

The tracks are easy to identify in the snow. A bobcat’s hind legs sink into the snow and make what looks to be a small handle at the back of the print.

The tracks came down along the river bank and turned up into the backyard. They went straight to an old sawed-off tree stump that’s about a foot tall.

There, the bobcat hopped up on the stump for, I imagine, a better view of the night terrain.

It had been a clear, starry night. The moon is in what’s called the Waxing Gibbous phase. The word Gibbous dates back to the 14th century and is Latin for humpbacked.

In this phase, on the first night of 2015, the moon was more than 80 percent illuminated, but it wasn’t yet a full moon.

For a bobcat, it meant good moonlight for spotting the next meal or identifying lurking dangers.

I wondered: Did the bobcat just pause for a moment on the stump? Or did it stand there for a while contemplating the world, the same as I was doing as the morning light grew brighter?

Read Full Post »

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.


Read Full Post »

The runners arrived in different styles and different speeds, 1,150 of them in the annual Colorado Marathon along the Poudre River. A few were speedy. Some, steadily fast. Most, just jogging along. Some walked. Some limped.

One runner was blind. He kept on track (and on a good pace) with a string connected to a friend running alongside him.

The youngest: 14. Many older runners participated in 2013. Two were 74.

{Click on the video to view the activity at the Friends of the Poudre water station: water-bearers: Jerry Aiken, Bill Bertschy, Patty Jackson, Bill Sears and Charlie Wrobbel.}

All breathed hard and, when they glanced away from the road ahead, they saw the river at a scenic best, small whitewater rapids and dark pools waiting for the high rise of the spring runoff that will come later in May.

May 5 was just right for the long run, cool, refreshing. The sky was a cloudless blue. Wild grasses on the mountainsides were greened up thanks to a 14-inch snowfall that blew in May 1. By the Sunday race day, the day of the marathon, the snow had melted away.

{The Colorado Marathon website and race results.}

As usual, canyon residents staffed a water station at Poudre Park, six miles from the start line. Members of Friends of the Poudre and canyon residents staffed a water station about 10 miles from the start.

And, as usual, those of us at the water stations spent the morning filling and passing out small paper cups containing water or goo (a delightful name for a liquid that replenishes lost electrolytes and other nutrients during extreme exercise). We served up about 50 gallons of water at the Friends of the Poudre water station.

Gracious marathoners

As in years past, the marathoners who passed by the water stations were as polite and thankful as can be—for the cups of water and goo they received from us and particularly for the volunteers who staffed the water stations.

Even after more than a decade of volunteering at the water station, I was still amazed at how gracious and good-humored the runners were by the time they reached the 10-mile mark.

They are always  sweat-covered, drawn-faced, panting, chest-heaving. But the humor remains.

“Margarita?” at least one marathoner a year invariably asks as a small cup of water or goo is handed over. Another traditional quip: “Cold beer?


The Colorado Marathon is promoted as America’s most beautiful marathon. The event also has a half-marathon, and 10k and 5k races. The full marathon goes on Colorado Highway 14 along the river through the lower Poudre Canyon, and then out into the foothills and onto the Poudre River Trail. All of the races end in Old Town Fort Collins. In total, 3,477 runners participated in the 2013 event.

At the finish line

As runners crossed the finish line, an announcer belted out their names and hometowns. This year many non-Colorado runners came from Minnesota and Texas. One hailed from Mexico City.

The three blocks leading to the finish line were lined with enthusiastically clapping onlookers. Many displayed fun signs of encouragement. My favorite:

“Kick Asphalt!”

Read Full Post »

It’s a Poudre spring of rainbow foxes and snow-covered outhouses.

As with the rest of northern Colorado, the Poudre Canyon was hit this week by two spring snowstorms.

Spring snows aren’t uncommon, although we haven’t had many in the last few years of drought-like conditions. In 1980, three feet greeted May Day. In 2003, five feet fell over two days; the snow came up to my chin.

Black fox kit with a white tail outside of its den along the Poudre River. Photo by Gary Kimsey

Black fox kit with a white tail outside of its den along the Poudre River. Photo from spring of 2012 by Gary Kimsey

This time, the first storm started April 14, continued through Income Tax Day, and left behind eight inches of snow in the lower Poudre Canyon where I live. Then came a cold April 16 night. The upper inch of snow froze solid. Then another storm wandered in, this still underway.

Delicate snow

As I type here in my warm office in Sunnyside—the cabin built eight decades ago by my grandparents and now converted into office space—I look out the window and, beyond 3-foot icicles hanging like sharp stalactites from the roof’s edge, see little but white haze as snow flakes drift down.

On the far side of the backyard, the wood fence that is angled down toward the river is topped with a thin, delicate wall of snow. The roof of our outhouse—built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps—is covered with a foot-deep blanket of snow. I’m certainly glad for indoor plumbing.

Snowplows from the highway department have worked diligently to keep the canyon road open, a tough and commendable task.

Rainbow foxes

Driving home from work in Fort Collins late this afternoon, I spotted a fox casually trotting with grace and ease over the top of the snow along the shoulder of the road.

It used to be that we had pure red foxes in the canyon, but a few years ago the gene pool got mixed into. Many Poudre foxes, like this one, are now fancifully sprinkled with rainbows of red, white, black, brown fur.

Last spring I spotted a fox kit lounging outside of its den. The kit was black and it had a white tip on its tail. (See the photo.) In the fall, as I was near the den again, I spotted what I figure was the same fox—an adolescent now, but still black and white-tipped.

This afternoon I could see the back trail of the rainbow fox. It came from a den dug into the side of a small hill.

And there I was fortunate enough to view something I’d never seen before.

Foxy play

Four fox kits were outside the den, light-footedly prancing around on top of the deep snow.

They were loping about four feet up the side of the hill, and then they slid down a narrow chute they had made over the top of the snow. The chute ended near the entrance to their den.

Sometimes a kit came down on all fours. Other times, belly slides. And even a posterior zoom flew down the chute.

It’s a playful spring along the Poudre River.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: