A western adventure
About 20 years ago Judy and I were traveling some back roads in Colorado, enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery. We had just left Grand Lake, where we had a picnic lunch on the shores of this large, clear water lake. After we left Grand Lake, we headed north on the only road that would eventually turn toward the east.
We were new to the area, and didn’t really know what were getting into. A short distance out of Grand Lake, the traffic was halted. There was a small building in the middle of the road where we paid our entrance fee into Rocky Mountain National Park. After many return trips to that park and other national parks, that is now a familiar sight to us. The road we were on is Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34), which connects Estes Park on the eastern slope and the western slope in the Kawuneeche Valley. This road is only open from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October, weather-permitting. The road takes an extremely winding course, and rises 12,183 feet above sea level. We were excited to see elk in some areas as we traveled Trail Ridge Road, and of course the scenery driving through the mountains is spectacular and a little nerve-wracking at times!
As we passed over the highest point as we headed east, we eventually began coming down in elevation, and ended in the very busy community of Estes Park, Colo. We spent the night there, described the little town as “Eagle River on steroids,” and said we will be back.Since that time we have returned to Rocky Mountain National Park 12 times. Our most recent visit was two weeks ago.
Years ago we had been told that the best time to visit “Rocky”, as the natives call it, is in late September, when the bull elk gather their harems and protect them from other bulls. It was described as tailgating at Lambeau Field. Before retiring from teaching, we made our western trips in the summer, but retirement has allowed us to have the freedom to travel any time of the year.
As mentioned previously, we visited Rocky Mountain National Park, and spent several evenings sitting on our folding chairs along a meadow, watching the bulls trying to keep their cows close to them in tight groups. In addition to the elk, an added attraction is watching the sunsets in the mountains. They are spectacular!
One day we drove along a back road that ran along the edge of a large meadow. The trail that we were on passed through an area where there are a number of cabins that were built before the park was established. The end of this trail was in some very large pine trees that were providing shelter for a herd of elk. We were able to quietly observe the herd of 16 cows and one bull elk, who would occasionally bugle to let other bulls in the area know that this was his herd of cows.
What a great place to eat our picnic lunch while watching these magnificent animals at such a close range. We had this place to ourselves for most of two hours, and were able to get many good pictures. There were several trout anglers who walked past on their way to the nearby stream. Temporarily the elk would move up the hillside a bit, and as soon as the anglers passed by, would return to their place under the trees, which was right in front of us.
During the last several trips to this area, there have been large areas of dead pine trees that show up on the sides of the mountains as a reddish-brown area in the middle of all the green. We attended a Park Ranger program that explained what is killing so many of the pines. Ranger Don Stewart explained that these trees are dying as a result of the mountain pine beetle. He began the program with the question, “Are the beetles friend or foe?”
The females, that are the size of a grain of rice, bore into the bark of the Lodge Pole Pines, creating pitch tubes that look like popcorn on the bark of the infested trees. They lay hundreds of eggs, and excrete pheromones that signal other beetles that that particular tree is a good one to infest. After numerous beetles have infested the tree, they excrete a different pheromone that signals other beetles that the tree is full. The pupae of the beetles are very hardy, and reside under the bark of the host tree. It takes many -30 degree days to kill them. Trees can be sprayed; however, it is only practical to spray what they call “high value trees,” and it must be done yearly.
The infestation will last until there is an extended cold spell, or a fire, and the presence of these dying trees will be very obvious for many years as they die, rot and gradually fall. In the park, some trees are still standing after being killed by the beetles more than 100 years ago.
The bright side to this story is that the beetles do not infect trees 4 inches in diameter or less, and of course, as some of these large trees die, it opens up areas for other vegetation to thrive, and some of the animals benefit from open areas in the forests. There is commercial value to some of the trees. Along with the beetles, some of the trees are also affected by a blue fungus. That wood is aesthetically appealing, but is structurally weak. Some of the trees can be used in the paper industry.
Presently the beetles are killing trees in unnatural numbers because in that area they have experienced mild winters, droughts that have weakened trees and fire suppression. Woodpeckers and hummingbirds are natural predators of the beetles.
Rocky Mountain National Park is not the only area that has to deal with these beetles. The areas they infest run from northern Canada, through the Rockies and down into Mexico.
We have thoroughly enjoyed our western trips, and plan to return. My thoughts now turn to a Colorado Elk hunt in a different area of Colorado, where the elk are not quite so easily found.
Longtime Northwoods outdoors personality Roger Sabota writes a bi-monthly column appearing in the Star Journal.