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Wild Life on the Rockies
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Mountain Parks and Camp-Fires

THE Rockies of Colorado cross the State from north to south in two ranges that are roughly parallel and from thirty to one hundred miles apart. There are a number of secondary ranges in the State that are just as marked, as high, and as interesting as the main ranges, and that are in every way comparable with them except in area. The bases of most of these ranges are from ten to sixty miles across. The lowlands from which these mountains rise are from five to six thousand feet above sea-level, and the mountain-summits are from eleven thousand to thirteen thousand feet above the tides. In the entire mountain area of the State there are more than fifty peaks that are upward of fourteen thousand feet in height. Some of these mountains are rounded, undulating, or table-topped, but for the most part the higher slopes and culminating summits are broken and angular. Altogether, the Rocky Mountain area in Colorado presents a delightful diversity of parks, peaks, forests, lakes, streams, canons, slopes, crags, and glades.

On all of the higher summits are records of the ice age. In many places glaciated rocks still retain the polish given them by the Ice King. Such rocks, as well as gigantic moraines in an excellent state of preservation, extend from altitudes of twelve or thirteen thousand feet down to eight thousand, and in places as low as seven thousand feet. Some of the moraines are but enormous embankments a few hundred feet high and a mile or so in length. Many of these are so raw, bold, and bare, they look as if they had been completed or uncovered within the last year. Most of these moraines, however, especially those below timber-line, are well forested. No one knows just how old they are, but, geo logically speaking, they are new, and in all probability were made during the last great ice epoch, or since that time. Among the impressive records of the ages that are carried by these mountains, those made by the Ice King probably stand first in appealing strangely and strongly to the imagination.

All the Rocky Mountain lakes are glacier lakes. There are more than a thousand of these. The basins of the majority of them were excavated by ice from solid rock. Only a few of them have more than forty acres of area, and, with the exception of a very small number, they are situated well up on the shoulders of the mountains and between the altitudes of eleven thousand and twelve thousand feet. The lower and middle slopes of the Rockies are without lakes.

The lower third of the mountains, that is, the foothill section, is only tree-dotted. But the middle portion, that part which lies between the altitudes of eight thousand and eleven thousand feet, is covered by a heavy forest in which lodge-pole pine, Engelmann spruce, and Douglas spruce predominate. Fire has made ruinous inroads into the primeval forest which grew here.

A large portion of the summit-slopes of the mountains is made up of almost barren rock, in old moraines, glaciated slopes, or broken crags, granite predominating. These rocks are well tinted with lichen, but they present a barren appearance. In places above the altitude of eleven thousand feet the mountains are covered with a profuse array of alpine vegetation. This is especially true of the wet meadows or soil-covered sections that are continually watered by melting snows.

In the neighborhood of a snowdrift, at an altitude of twelve thousand feet, I one day gathered in a small area one hundred and forty-two varieties of plants. Areas of “eternal snows,” though numerous, are small, and with few exceptions, above twelve thousand feet. Here and there above timber-line are many small areas of moorland, which, both in appearance and in vegetation, seem to belong in the tundras of Siberia.

While these mountains carry nearly one hundred varieties of trees and shrubs, the more abundant kinds of trees number less than a score. These are scattered over the mountains between the altitudes of six thousand and twelve thousand feet, while, charming and enlivening the entire mountain-section, are more than a thousand varieties of wild flowers.

Bird-life is abundant on the Rockies. No state east of the Mississippi can show as great a variety as Colorado. Many species of birds well known in the East are found there, though, generally, they are in some way slightly modified. Most Rocky Mountain birds sound their notes a trifle more loudly than their Eastern relatives. Some of them are a little larger, and many of them have their colors slightly intensified.

Many of the larger animals thrive on the slopes of the Rockies. Deer are frequently seen. Bob cats, mountain lions, and foxes leave many records. In September bears find the choke-cherry bushes and, standing on their hind legs, feed eagerly on the cherries, leaves, and good-sized sections of the twigs. The ground-hog apparently manages to live well, for he seems always fat. There is that wise little fellow the coyote. He probably knows more than he is given credit for knowing, and I am glad to say for him that I believe he does man more good than harm. He is a great destroyer of meadow mice. He digs out gophers. Sometimes his meal is made upon rabbits or grasshoppers, and I have seen him feeding upon wild plums.

There are hundreds of ruins of the beaver’s engineering works. Countless dams and fillings he has made. On the upper St. Vrain he still maintains his picturesque rustic home. Most of the present beaver homes are in high, secluded places, some of them at an altitude of eleven thousand feet. In midsummer, near most beaver homes one finds columbines, fringed blue gentians, orchids, and lupines blooming, while many of the ponds are green and yellow with pond-lilies.

During years of rambling I have visited and enjoyed all the celebrated parks of the Rockies, but one, which shall be nameless, is to me the loveliest of them all. The first view of it never fails to arouse the dullest traveler. From the en trance one looks down upon an irregular depression, several miles in length, a small undulating and beautiful mountain valley, framed in peaks with purple forested sides and bristling snowy grandeur. This valley is delightfully open, and has a picturesque sprinkling of pines over it, together with a few well-placed cliffs and crags. Its swift, clear, and winding brooks are fringed with birch and willow. A river crosses it with many a slow and splendid fold of silver.

Estes Park and the Big Thompson River from the Top of Mt. Olympus

Not only is the park enchanting from the distance, but every one of its lakes and meadows, forests and wild gardens, has a charm and a grandeur of its own. There are lakes of many kinds. One named for the painter, now dead, who many times sketched and dreamed on its shores, is a beautiful ellipse; and its entire edge carries a purple shadow matting of the crowding forest. Its placid surface reflects peak and snow, cloud and sky, and mingling with these are the green and gold of pond-lily glory. Another lake is stowed away in an utterly wild place. It is in a rent between three granite peaks. Three thousand feet of precipice bristle above it. Its shores are strewn with wreckage from the cliffs and crags above, and this is here and there cemented together with winter’s drifted snow. Miniature icebergs float upon its surface. Around it are mossy spaces, beds of sedge, and scattered alpine flowers, which soften a little the fierce aspect of this impressive scene.

On the western margin of the park is a third lake. This lake and its surroundings are of the highest alpine order. Snow-line and tree-line are just above it. Several broken and snowy peaks look down into it, and splendid spruces spire about its shores. Down to it from the heights and snows above come waters leaping in white glory. It is the centre of a scene of wild grandeur that stirs in one strange depths of elemental feeling and wonderment. Up between the domes of one of the mountains is Gem Lake. It is only a little crystal pool set in ruddy granite with a few evergreens adorning its rocky shore. So far as I know, it is the smallest area of water in the world that bears the name of lake; and it is also one of the rarest gems of the lakelet world.

The tree-distribution is most pleasing, and the groves and forests are a delight. Aged Western yellow pines are sprinkled over the open areas of the park. They have genuine character, marked individuality. Stocky and strong-limbed, their golden-brown bark broken into deep fissures and plateaus, scarred with storm and fire, they make one think and dream more than any other tree on the Rockies. By the brooks the clean and childlike aspens mingle with the willow and the alder or the handsome silver spruce. Some slopes are spread with the green fleece of massed young lodge-pole pines, and here and there are groves of Douglas spruce, far from their better home “where rolls the Oregon.” The splendid and spiry Engelmann spruces climb the stern slopes eleven thousand feet above the ocean, where weird timber-line with its dwarfed and distorted trees shows the incessant line of battle between the woods and the weather.

Every season nearly one thousand varieties of beautiful wild flowers come to perfume the air and open their “bannered bosoms to the sun.” Many of these are of brightest color. They crowd the streams, wave on the hills, shine in the wood land vistas, and color the snow-edge. Daisies, orchids, tiger lilies, fringed gentians, wild red roses, mariposas, Rocky Mountain columbines, harebells, and forget-me-nots adorn every space and nook.

While only a few birds stay in the park the year round, there are scores of summer visitors who come here to bring up the babies, and to enliven the air with song. Eagles soar the blue, and ptarmigan, pipits, and sparrows live on the alpine moorlands. Thrushes fill the forest aisles with melody, and by the brooks the ever-joyful water-ouzel mingles its music with the song of ever-hurrying, ever-flowing waters. Among the many common birds are owls, meadowlarks, robins, wrens, magpies, bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and several members of the useful woodpecker family, together with the white-throated sparrow and the willow thrush.

Speckled and rainbow trout dart in the streams. Mountain sheep climb and pose on the crags; bear, deer, and mountain lions are still occasionally seen prowling the woods or hurrying across the meadows. The wise coyote is also seen darting under cover, and is frequently heard during the night. Here among the evergreens is found that small and audacious bit of intensely interesting and animated life, the Douglas squirrel, and also one of the dearest of all small animals, the merry chipmunk. Along the brooks are a few small beaver colonies, a straggling remnant of a once numerous population. It is to be hoped that this picturesque and useful race will be al lowed to extend its domain.

The park has also a glacier, a small but genuine chip of the old block, the Ice King. The glacier is well worth visiting, especially late in summer, when the winter mantle is gone from its crevasses, leaving revealed its blue-green ice and its many grottoes. It is every inch a glacier. There are other small glaciers above the Park, but these glacial remnants, though interesting, are not as imposing as the glacial records, the old works which were deposited by the Ice King. The many kinds of moraines here display his former occupation and activities. There are glaciated walls, polished surfaces, eroded basins, and numerous lateral moraines. One of the moraines is probably the largest and certainly one of the most interesting in the Rockies. It occupies about ten square miles on the eastern slope of the mountain. Above timber-line this and other moraines seem surprisingly fresh and new, as though they had been formed only a few years, but below tree-line they are forested, and the accumulation of humus upon them shows that they have long been bearers of trees.

The rugged Peak looks down over all this wild garden, and is a perpetual challenge to those who go up to the sky on mountains. It is a grand old granite peak. There are not many mountains that require more effort from the climber, and few indeed can reward him with such a far-spreading and magnificent view.

One of the most interesting and impressive localities in the Rockies lies around Mt. Wetterhorn, Mt. Coxcomb, and Uncompahgre Peak. Here I have found the birds confiding, and most wild animals so tame that it was a joy to be with them. But this was years ago, and now most of the wild animals are wilder and the birds have found that man will not bear acquaintance. Most of this region was recently embraced in the Uncompahgre National Forest. It has much for the scientist and nature-lover: the mountain-climber will find peaks to conquer and canons to explore; the geologist will find many valuable stone manuscripts; the forester who interviews the trees will have from their tongues a story worth while; and here, too, are some of Nature’s best pictures for those who revel only in the lovely and the wild.

In the Uncompahgre Mountains

It is a strikingly picturesque by-world, where there are many illuminated and splendid fragments of Nature’s story. He who visits this section will first be attracted by an array of rock-formations, and, wander where he will, grotesque and beautiful shapes in stone will frequently attract and interest his attention.

The rock-formation is made up of mixtures of very unequally tempered rock metal, which weathers in strange, weird, and impressive shapes. Much of this statuary is gigantic and uncouth, but some of it is beautiful. There are minarets, monoliths, domes, spires, and shapeless fragments. In places there are, seemingly, restive forms not entirely free from earth. Most of these figures are found upon the crests of the mountains, and many of the mountain-ridges, with their numerous spikes and gigantic monoliths, some of which are tilted perilously from the perpendicular, give one a feeling of awe. Some of the monoliths appear like broken, knotty tree-trunks. Others stand straight and suggest the Egyptian obelisks. They hold rude natural hieroglyphics in relief. One mountain, which is known as Turret-Top, is crowned with what from a distance seems to be a gigantic picket-fence. This fence is formed by a row of monolithic stones.

One of the most remarkable things connected with this strange locality is that its impressive landscapes may be overturned or blotted out, or new scenes may be brought forth, in a day. The mountains do not stand a storm well. A hard rain will dissolve ridges, lay bare new strata, undermine and overturn cliffs. It seems almost a land of enchantment, where old landmarks may disappear in a single storm, or an impressive landscape come forth in a night. Here the god of erosion works incessantly and rapidly, dissecting the earth and the rocks. During a single storm a hilltop may dissolve, a mountain-side be fluted with slides, a grove be overturned and swept away by an avalanche, or a lake be buried forever. This rapid erosion of slopes and summits causes many changes and much upbuilding upon their bases. Gulches are filled, water-courses invaded, rivers bent far to one side, and groves slowly buried alive.

One night, while I was in camp on the slope of Mt. Coxcomb, a prolonged drought was broken by a very heavy rain. Within an hour after the rain started, a large crag near the top of the peak fell and came crashing and rumbling down the slope. During the next two hours I counted the rumbling crash of forty others. I know not how many small avalanches may have slipped during this time that I did not hear. The next day I went about looking at the new landscapes and the strata laid bare by erosion and landslide, and up near the top of this peak I found a large glaciated lava boulder. A lava boulder that has been shaped by the ice and has for a time found a resting-place in a sedentary formation, then been uplifted to near a mountain-top, has a wonder-story of its own. One day I came across a member of the United States Geological Survey who had lost his way. At my camp-fire-that evening I asked him to hug facts and tell me a possible story of the glaciated lava boulder. The following is his account: —

The shaping of that boulder must have ante dated by ages the shaping of the Sphinx, and its story, if acceptably told, would seem more like fancy than fact. If the boulder were to relate, briefly, its experiences, it might say: “I helped burn forests and strange cities as I came red-hot from a volcano’s throat, and I was scarcely cool when disintegration brought flowers to cover my dead form. By and by a long, long winter came, and toward the close of it I was sheared off, ground, pushed, rolled, and rounded beneath the ice. ‘Why are you grinding me up?’ I asked the glacier. ‘To make food for the trees and the flowers during the earth’s next temperate epoch,’ it answered. One day a river swept me out of its delta and I rolled to the bottom of the sea. Here I lay for I know not how long, with sand and boulders piling upon me. Here heat, weight, and water fixed me in a stratum of materials that had accumulated below and above me. My stratum was displaced before it was thoroughly solidified, and I felt myself slowly raised until I could look out over the surface of the sea. The waves at once began to wear me, and they jumped up and tore at me until I was lifted above their reach. At last, when I was many thousand feet above the waves, I came to a standstill. Then my mountain-top was much higher than at present. For a long time I looked down upon a tropical world. I am now wondering if the Ice King will come for me again.”

The Engelmann spruce forest here is an exceptionally fine one, and the geologist and I dis cussed it and trees in general. Some of the Indian tribes of the Rockies have traditions of a “Big Fire” about four centuries ago. There is some evidence of a general fire over the Rockies about the time that the Indian’s tradition places it, but in this forest there were no indications that there had ever been a fire. Trees were in all stages of growth and decay. Humus was deep. Here I found a stump of a Douglas spruce that was eleven feet high and about nine feet in diameter. It was so decayed that I could not decipher the rings of growth. This tree probably required at least a thousand years to reach maturity, and many years must have elapsed for its wood to come to the present state of decay. Over this stump was spread the limbs of a live tree that was four hundred years of age.

Trees have tongues, and in this forest I interviewed many patriarchs, had stories from sap lings, examined the mouldy, musty records of many a family tree, and dug up some buried history. The geologist wanted in story form a synopsis of what the records said and what the trees told me, so I gave him this account: —

We climbed in here some time after the retreat of the last Ice King and found aspen and lodge-pole pine in possession. These trees fought us for several generations, but we finally drove them out. For ages the Engelmann spruce family has had undisputed possession of this slope. We stand amid three generations of mouldering ancestors, and beneath these is the sacred mould of older generations still.

One spring, when most of the present grown-up trees were very young, the robins, as they flew north, were heard talking of strange men who were exploring the West Indies. A few years later came the big fire over the Rockies, which for months choked the sky with smoke. Fire did not get into our gulch, but from birds and bears which crowded into it we learned that straggling trees and a few groves on the Rockies were all that had escaped with their lives. Since we had been spared, we all sent out our seed for tree-colonies as rapidly as we could, and in so doing we received much help from the birds, the squirrels, and the bears, so that it was not long before we again had our plumes waving everywhere over the Rockies. About a hundred and sixty years ago, an earth quake shook many of us down and wounded thousands of others with the rock bombardment from the cliffs. The drought a century ago was hard on us, and many perished for water. Not long after the drought we began to see the trappers, but they never did us any harm. Most of them were as careful of our temples as were the Indians. While the trappers still roamed, there came a very snowy winter, and snow-slides mowed us down by thousands. Many of us were long buried beneath the snow. The old trees became dreadfully alarmed, and they feared that the Ice King was returning. For weeks they talked of nothing else, but in the spring, when the mountain-sides began to warm and peel off in earth-avalanches, we had a real danger to discuss. “Shortly after the snowy winter, the gold-seekers came with their fire havoc. For fifty years we have done our best to hold our ground, but beyond our gulch relentless fire and flashing steel, together with the floods with which out raged Nature seeks to revenge herself, have slain the grand majority, and much, even, of the precious dust of our ancestors has been washed away.”

A Grass-Plot among Engelmann Spruce

With the exception of the night I had the geologist, my days and nights in this locality were spent entirely alone. The blaze of the camp-fire, moonlight, the music and movement of the winds, light and shade, and the eloquence of silence all impressed me more deeply here than anywhere else I have ever been. Every day there was a delightful play of light and shade, and this was especially effective on the summits; the ever-changing light upon the serrated mountain-crests kept constantly altering their tone and outline. Black and white they stood in midday glare, but a new grandeur was born when these tattered crags appeared above storm-clouds. Fleeting glimpses of the crests through a surging storm arouse strange feelings, and one is at bay, as though having just awakened amid the vast and vague on another planet. But when the long, white evening light streams from the west between the minarets, and the black buttressed crags wear the alpine glow, one’s feelings are too deep for words. The wind sometimes flowed like a torrent across the ridges, surging and ripping between the minarets, then bearing down like an avalanche upon the purple sylvan ocean, where it tossed the trees with boom, roar, and wild commotion. I usually camped where it showed the most enthusiasm. Here I often enjoyed the songs or the fierce activities of the wind. The absence and the presence of wind ever stirred me strongly. Weird and strange are the feelings that flow as the winds sweep and sound through the trees. The Storm King has a bugle at his lips, and a deep, elemental hymn is sung while the blast surges wild through the pines. Mother Nature is quietly singing, singing soft and low while the breezes pause and play in the pines. From the past one has been ever coming, with the future destined ever to go when, with centuries of worshipful silence, one waits for the winds in the pines. Ever the good old world grows better both with songs and with silence in the pines.

Here the energy and eloquence of silence was at its best. That all-pervading presence called silence has its happy home within the forest. Silence sounds rhythmic to all, and attunes all minds to the strange message, the rhapsody of the universe. Silence is almost as kind to mortals as its sweet sister sleep.

A primeval spruce forest crowds all the mountain-slopes of the Uncompahgre region from an altitude of eight thousand feet to timber-line. So dense is this forest that only straggling bits of sun-fire ever fall to the ground. Beneath these spiry, crowding trees one has only “the twilight of the forest noon.” This forest, when seen from near-by mountain-tops, seems to be a great ragged, purple robe hanging in folds from the snow-fields, while down through it the white streams rush. A few crags pierce it, sun-filled grass-plots dot its expanse at intervals, and here and there it is rent with a vertical avalanche lane.

Many a happy journey and delightful climb I have had in the mountains all alone by moonlight, and in the Uncompahgre district I had many a moonlight ramble. I know what it is to be alone on high peaks with the moon, and I have felt the spell that holds the lonely wanderer when, on a still night, he feels the wistful, tender touch of the summer air, while the leaves whisper and listen in the moonlight, and the moon-toned etchings of the pines fall upon the magic forest floor. One of the best moonlit times that I have had in this region was during my last visit to it. One October night I camped in a grass-plot in the depths of a spruce forest. The white moon rose grandly from behind the minareted mountain, hesitated for a moment among the tree-spires, then tranquilly floated up into space. It was a still night. There was silence in the treetops. The river near by faintly murmured in repose. Everything was at rest. The grass-plot was full of romantic light, and on its eastern margin was an etching of spiry spruce. A dead and broken tree on the edge of the grass-plot looked like a weird prowler just out of the woods, and seemed half-inclined to come out into the light and speak to me. All was still. The moonlit mist clung fantastically to the mossy festoons of the fir trees. I was miles from the nearest human soul, and as I stood in the enchanting scene, amid the beautiful mellow light, I seemed to have been wafted back into the legend-weaving age. The silence was softly invaded by zephyrs whispering in the treetops, and a few moonlit clouds that showed shadow centre-boards came lazily drifting along the bases of the minarets, as though they were looking for some place in particular, although in no hurry to find it. Heavier cloud-flotillas followed, and these floated on the forest sea, touching the treetops with the gentleness of a lover’s hand. I lay down by my camp-fire to let my fancy frolic, and fairest dreams came on.

It was while camping once on the slope of Mt. Coxcomb that I felt most strongly the spell of the camp-fire. I wish every one could have a night by a camp-fire, — by Mother Nature’s old hearthstone. When one sits in the forest within the camp-fire’s magic tent of light, amid the silent, sculptured trees, there go thrilling through one’s blood all the trials and triumphs of our race. The blazing wood, the ragged and changing flame, the storms and calms, the mingling smoke and blaze, the shadow-figures that dance against the trees, the scenes and figures in the fire, — with these, though all are new and strange, yet you feel at home once more in the woods. A camp-fire in the forest is the most enchanting place on life’s highway by which to have a lodging for the night.

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