Castle Of The Plains

My recent journey to southeast Colorado revived memories of earlier stopovers at one of the region’s legendary landmarks: Bent’s Old Fort. Also known by the evocative title above, this National Historic Site is unusual, in that the National Park Service reconstructed the original building from scratch, thanks to detailed descriptions, drawings, and diary entries of erstwhile visitors, first and foremost the meticulous sketches of Lieutenant James W. Abert, a topographical engineer, who stayed there twice in the 1840s.

Mein Ausflug in den Südosten Colorados vor kurzem erinnerte mich an vorherige Besuche eines der bekanntesten regionalen Wahrzeichen, Bent’s Old Fort (Bents altes Fort), das auch als Schloß der Prärie bekannt ist. Dieses Denkmal ist ungewöhnlich, weil es von der Verwaltung der amerikanischen Nationalparks auf historischer Grundlage wieder aufgebaut wurde, was durch detaillierte Beschreibungen, Zeichnungen und Tagebuchaufzeichnungen ermöglicht wurde, insbesonde diejenigen von Leutnant James W. Abert, der sich in den 1840er Jahren zweimal dort aufhielt.

Built in 1833 under the direction of brothers William and Charles Bent, and their friend, Ceran St. Vrain, near the present-day town of La Junta, the fortification became the major hub of commerce along the 844 mile Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail, which connected Independence, Missouri, with Santa Fe, New Mexico. A multi-cultural and multi-national nexus, it embodied a model of peaceful, if short-lived, coexistence between American Indians, Hispanics, and Europeans. Beset by disease and declining economic fortunes as a result of diminishing trade in beaver pelts and buffalo hides, the fort was abandoned, before it perished in a conflagration in 1849, likely the work of William Bent himself, after his offer to sell it to the US Army was declined. He subsequently operated a trading post forty miles east, which became known as Bent’s New Fort.

Das Fort wurde 1833 unter der Leitung der Brüder William und Charles Bent sowohl ihres Freundes Ceran St. Vrain nahe der heutigen Stadt La Junta errichtet, und diente als Haupthandelszentrum entlang der etwa 1360 Kilometer langen Bergroute des bekannten Santa Fe Trails, der die Stadt Independence in Missouri mit Sante Fe in Neu Mexiko verband. Es repräsentierte einen multinationalen und –kulturellen Schnittpunkt, und ein Modell friedlicher Koexistenz zwischen Indianern, Mexikanern und Europäern, wenn auch nur auf kurze Zeit. Von Seuchen und sinkenden Umsätzen geplagt, was hauptsächlich auf das zurückgehende Gewerbe mit Biberpelzen und Büffelfellen zurückzuführen war, wurde die Festung  aufgegeben und fiel 1849 einer Feuersbrunst anheim, die wahrscheinlich das Werk von William Bent persönlich war, nachdem sein Angebot, das Fort an die US Armee zu verkaufen, abgelehnt wurde. Danach eröffnete er 65 Kilometer weiter östlich einen weiteren Handelsposten, der als Bents neues Fort bekannt wurde.

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The once bustling center of Bent’s Old Fort was reclaimed by prairie for more than a century, until the structure was resurrected in 1976. Its attractive adobe attire is well-suited for an area that offers limited timber and abundant soil, is furnatially hot in summer, and teeth-chatteringly cold in winter. In exploring this eye-catching edifice and environs, where history comes alive during various annual reenactments, one gains an inkling of what it might have meant for weary travelers to reach this welcoming haven on the mighty Arkansas River. For a short while, it offered water, food, rest, and refuge from the dusty, dangerous wagon tracks, before it was time to resume the perilous, protracted journey.

Die Prärie verleibte sich das einst geschäftige Zentrum von Bents altem Fort über ein Jahrhundert lang ein, bis das Bauwerk 1976 neu errichtet wurde. Sein attraktives Adobegewand ist für diese Gegend gut geeignet, die sich durch niedrige Baumbestände und reichhaltige Böden sowie durch backofenheiße Sommer und zähneklapperndkalte Winter auszeichnet. Beim Erforschen dieses ins Auge springenden Gebäudes und seiner Umgebung, wo Geschichte mehrmals jährlich duch historische Nachstellungen lebendig wird, bekommt man/frau eine kleine Ahnung dessen, was es für müde Reisende bedeutet haben könnte, diese einladende Oase entlang des mächtigen Arkansas Flusses zu erreichen. Für eine kurze Weile gab es Wasser, Proviant, Erholung und Sicherheit von der staubigen Wegstrecke, bevor es mit der gefährlichen und langwierigen Reise im Planwagen weiterging.

Southeast Colorado

In addition to constant Snow Goose sightings, the High Plains Snow Goose Festival in Lamar last month offered many memorable moments. Colorado is known chiefly for its Rocky Mountains, but over a third of our state occupies the Great Plains. Despite a dearth of peaks and a landscape that appears monotonous and barren at first glance, the plains scenery is variable and punctuated by unexpected rises and falls, as we festival participants experienced during field trips to both public and private properties.

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The plains are windy places, and not a single day passed without a breeze at best, gale-force gusts at worst. During the three-day event, we enjoyed only a few calm hours. On a single-digit morning, we braved a biting wind, before it blew us back into our vehicle. At times, we hid behind the bus or a building in order to steady our binoculars and cameras. Native Americans and homesteaders had to be a hardy lot to survive in this challenging climate, with freezer- and furnace-like conditions alternating in the course of the year. Petroglyphs and smoke-darkened caves bespeak long-term human activity in the region, and ruined homes and artifacts tell of those hopeful settlers who arrived, but could not make a go of things.

Lamar exists because the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail traversed the southeastern portion of Colorado. From 1821 until 1880, the legendary trade route connected the US with Santa Fe, which was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was appropriated by the US. The arrival of the railroad consigned the trail to history books, until the 1987 creation of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail by the National Park Service. A series of historical markers, which we encountered on several occasions, recall its historic significance.

Lamar Mural

Lamar Mural

While Coloradans have reason to celebrate some past events, we still try to come to terms with others. Southeast Colorado has borne witness to, and bears the scars of, several inglorious acts. It saw the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which Colorado militia attacked a group of peaceable Arapahoe and Southern Cheyenne, camped under express US government protection. Close to 200 persons perished, among them women and children. The area also witnessed the construction of Camp Amache, one of ten internment camps that imprisoned American citizens of Japanese descent from 1942 until 1945, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.

Wherever I am, experiencing the beauty and order of the natural world while being reminded of some of the inhuman acts perpetrated by humans on one another is a source of never-ending sadness and outrage. I continue to struggle with negativity and cynicism about humankind, but I don’t want to give up hope that we can yet find a way to make this earth a welcoming home for all people, as well as for all our fellow creatures.

White As Snow

During January’s excursion to seek out the Pink-footed Goose, a rare European visitor in North America, I also beheld a handful of Snow Geese, mixed in with gaggles of Canada and Cackling Geese. In February, my attendance at Lamar’s 17th Annual (my first) High Plains Snow Goose Festival in Colorado’s southeastern corner, exposed me not only to a handful, but to a multitude of Snow Geese on their late winter northward migration. During various festival-associated field trips, we saw and heard Snow Geese nearly incessantly—feeding on fields, flying in formation, or floating on lakes—in numbers that ranged from single birds to thousands.

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We birders good-naturedly ridicule ourselves for willingly forsaking sleep to catch the early bird, so to speak. On the event’s final day, a sunrise trip was offered to a reservoir, where Snow Geese are known to roost. Seven of us gathered at the meeting place at 5:15 AM, before we climbed onto the school bus that carried us to our destination in utter darkness. Once there, our driver turned off the engine, and we were greeted by countless bird voices, even before we could discern the whitish ribbon of their mass at the water’s edge in the graying morning light.

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife ranger who accompanied us, we were looking at 15,000 geese. The day before, he had counted 40,000. As the sun slowly bathed the scene in an auburn glow, one vociferous skein after another arrived, carrying an estimated 10,000 additional birds. They gathered along the far shore of the lake, and I was unable to capture a single close-up. Fortunately, I had no trouble approaching the migrant geese winging their way through a beautiful mural in downtown Lamar, and they are depicted in the topmost photo.

One of the reasons the birds kept their distance—hunting. They were wary of humans. Like many nature lovers, I have mixed emotions about this activity. Not a hunter myself, I am nonetheless aware of the necessity of controlling certain animal populations. Snow Geese winter in the US or Mexico and migrate all the way to the Canadian and far-northern Alaskan tundra for the breeding season. Global warming and civilization have benefited their species. Earlier snow melts in the Arctic prolong the breeding season, and the availability of man-made reservoirs and agricultural crops in what was once wild prairie, improve survival during their twice-yearly journey. They have, however, been too successful, and depletion of their precious Arctic habitat is of concern not only for themselves, but also for other animals.

Even though it saddens me to visualize people shooting at these beauties with guns instead of with cameras, my rational self knows this is a necessary and beneficial intervention. We no longer live in Eden, where nature can balance itself. It is easy to criticize hunters, but in many instances their fees help protect crucial animal habitat, and their actions help maintain healthy populations. Instead of disparaging one another, we need to collaborate to tackle today’s challenges. “We’re all in this together,” as Red Green has long been telling us.

Lost?

To look for one bird in a flock of thousands is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. When I arrive at Milavec Reservoir in Frederick, about 100 miles north of Colorado Springs, on this early January day and am greeted by the resounding calls of countless Canada and Cackling Geese, I know that my chances of finding my hoped-for goose are slim. Ever since the report a few weeks ago of the first-ever Colorado appearance of a Pink-footed Goose, which typically breeds in Greenland and Iceland, and overwinters in Northern Europe, a great buzz has energized the regional birding community. Occasional sightings in Canada or the East Coast have occurred, but this species’ presence in our state is sensational.

I am not the only one with binoculars on this frosty morning—two fellow bird enthusiasts are scanning the lake with their optics, and I make their acquaintance. Joe, who has already seen the bird twice, has brought his brother, Steve, to show him this rarity. As on so many previous occasions, I benefit from the heart-warming kindness of strangers, because Joe’s subsequent discovery of the goose allows me a brief glimpse—just long enough to capture two photographs—before I lose it in the ceaseless ebb and flow of myriad geese. I clearly notice its short beak, responsible for its scientific name, Anser brachyrhynchos (Anser is Latin for goose, and brachyrhynchos is Greek for short-billed). Interestingly, the German common name, “Kurzschnabelgans,” reflects the short beak, whereas the English focuses on another prominent feature, the birds’ feet, described by Joe as “bubble-gum pink.”

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Alas, I never see the goose’s legs, but I do not mind terribly, especially when I realize that other seekers, who arrive a little later, do not get to observe any part of the bird. I indulge in the enjoyment of other geese, whose visits to Colorado are limited to wintertime.

This Pink-footed Goose makes my birding heart beat happily, and even though it is far off-course, reminds me of the amazing miracle of bird migration that spans our one-of-a-kind globe, of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and of the desperate need to get our act together, so that our fellow creatures may continue their age-old movements across continents, which have inspired humans since the dawn of consciousness.