Nebraska’s Ocean

Until the final two days of our May trip, we were not aware that Nebraska, a landlocked state, has its own ocean. Confused? So were we. If we had been blindfolded and dropped in this location, we might indeed have deemed ourselves at the beach of a vast sea, stretching from horizon to horizon. With our toes digging into fine sand and touching the edge of an immense body of water, we were able to relate to “Nebraska’s Ocean,” one of Lake McConaughy’s playful monikers (another is Big Mac), even after we learned that it is “only” the state’s largest reservoir, twenty-two miles long and four miles across at its widest point. Created by impounding the North Platte River behind Kingsley Dam which was constructed between 1936 and 1941, the reservoir provides and controls the water supply for agricultural use, and generates energy via a hydroelectric power plant.

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The lake has become a major destination for vacationers as it offers boating, fishing, hunting, and camping. With numerous campgrounds, particularly along its northern shore, the main difficulty for us in choosing a campsite would have been an embarrassment of riches. Instead, by following the suggestion of the friendly receptionist at the visitor center, we enjoyed the smaller and less busy Lake Ogallala campground at the foot of Kingsley Dam. A stiff breeze was blowing all afternoon on the day of our arrival, and an impressive storm illuminated the surrounding night sky, but only touched us with brief lightning, claps of thunder, and a few heavy droplets. In the wake of this unsettled front followed two calm nights and days.

    Our daytime hours were filled with birding, reading, writing, and simply hanging out to enjoy the scenery. As we traveled during the week before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, we knew we would have to deal with increasing numbers of campers, but we were fortunate to have considerate neighbors, so that all we heard at night were the hoots of owls and the shrieks of grebes. As Nebraska’s feathered denizens differ from Colorado’s, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with more Midwestern species.

My most memorable avian encounter happened not at Lake Ogallala, but at “Big Mac.” As one of the few inland breeding sites of a rare species, portions of the beach are off limits to human use during the summer months, but the birds in question occasionally venture outside. On our second evening, we took a couple hours to explore stretches of the north shoreline, where several had been sighted. After two or three unsuccessful stops, I made one last effort and strolled down to the water’s edge. Wishful thinking sometimes makes us see things that are not there, which was the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw a diminutive bird chase away a Killdeer, nearly twice its size. My heart skipped a beat when, staring through my binoculars, I grasped that I was, indeed, looking at a Piping Plover, one of an estimated 8,400 individuals worldwide, all of which live in the Americas. Of the two existing populations, one breeds at the Atlantic seaboard in the Northeast; another prefers lakeshores and rivers of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. In the Great Lakes region, they are considered threatened; in the other two endangered. Adding this little lifer was a big deal, and, according to my husband, my formerly tenuous mood improved immediately. I hate it when he is right!

To avoid the weekend crowd, we slowly packed up on Friday morning, then bid Nebraska goodbye, grateful for a week packed with many new impressions and much food for thought.

Colorado’s Prairie

“Colorado” evokes tall mountains, alpine activities, winter wonderlands. While our fifty-three 14ers are magnificent landmarks, at least one third of our state consists of prairie and forms part of the High Plains. On a map, these predominantly eastern areas are customarily depicted in white, suggestive of emptiness. Most travelers who spend long hours traversing these vast stretches in their cars might share this impression, which was the case for my husband and me, until we decided to explore this seemingly “empty” portion of our state during repeated excursions.

The plains landscape is no less impressive than the remainder of the state, if only at closer inspection. While today’s prairie differs from its one-time state, and while agricultural fields and livestock pastures predominate, shortgrass islands survive, or have been restored. Woven of wild grasses and wild flowers, they thrive on little annual precipitation. Sundry spring and summer blooms are outlasted by enduring sunflowers whose yellow petals enliven the fetching, if muted, fall attire. During periods of drought, the hues might be subdued year-round. I see parallels between the prairie and Colorado’s upper elevations. Splendid cottonwoods along waterways are equivalent to the aspen trees of the montane zone and, like them, turn a luminous gold in autumn. The wide-open grassland is not unlike the tundra above treeline.

This predominantly flat world whose altitude gradually and imperceptibly drops from about 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs to 3,400 feet at the Kansas border seems to consist solely of two elements: earth and sky. The latter might be as blue and friendly as the cornflowers that line the roadsides in summer, or assume a threatening gray. Thunder, lightning, and the potential for tornadoes are fearsome reminders of nature’s less benignant powers. Breezes, common if not constant companions, contribute to an ever-changing cloudscape that seems to arise out of the blue. They also propel ubiquitous windmills to pump ground water into holding tanks for domestic and feral visitors. Emerald ribbons on the capacious canvas indicate streams. Rivers, like the Arkansas and South Platte, with their tributaries, equal life. Without water, there would be no reservoirs, no successful settlement, no farming, no animals.

In fact, the fauna is plentiful and varied. Pronghorn browse on nourishing forbs, always with a suspicious eye on humans who nearly blasted them into oblivion before their numbers recovered. These fastest land mammals in the western hemisphere supposedly developed their speed to outrun the now extinct American Cheetah. The estimated sixty million bison that once roamed these reaches were less fortunate, and if and where reintroduced, are confined by fences. Pointed ears among the grasses might belong to a Swift Fox, or a jackrabbit. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs linger near the entrances to their burrows, which are frequently shared with Burrowing Owls. What might appear to be “a flying dog” will, at closer inspection, prove to be a an owl with lengthy limbs and expressive eyes.

Thanks to low population density and little light pollution, glimpses into the Milky Way and more distant galaxies are afforded the stargazer. We love to camp, and the thin fabric of a tent allows greater awareness of nighttime sounds. Quivering leaves resemble falling rain when stirred by a breath of air. The nocturnal silence is punctuated by the hooting of owls, the croaking of frogs, the multifarious vocalizations of coyotes. Few creatures epitomize the West like these wild cousins of our beloved domestic animals, and few creatures polarize as much – esteemed by some, despised by others.

One of the main motivations for most of our journeys nowadays is my desire to acquaint myself with inhabitants of the avian kind. Because eastern Colorado is part of the Central Flyway, numerous species pass through it. Thanks to its high numbers in this environment, the Lark Bunting was chosen as Colorado’s state bird. Flocks flutter alongside the car, similar to Horned Larks who risk their lives, darting in front of speeding vehicles. Orchard and Bullock’s Orioles, Brown Thrashers, and various sparrows abound, similar to Western and Eastern Kingbirds who owe their common names to their regal appearance, and their scientific name, Tyrannus, to their aggressive territorial behavior. The Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos (literally many-tongued mimic), likewise lives up to its reputation and impresses with a repertoire of musical scales copied from any number of feathered fellows.

Since those first encounters a few years back, I have discovered almost every one of these species in eastern El Paso County’s own prairie habitat, much nearer to our doorstep, in corroboration of the old adage that one only notices what one knows. Far away or close to home, the Western Meadowlark is among my favorites. To assert that one is never out of earshot between the edge of our town, and the edge of our state, is no exaggeration. Its full-throated melody brings cheer to my heart every single time and reminds me that Colorado’s prairie, rather than being empty, is filled with lovely sounds and sights.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/06/06/colorados-prarie/

Did They Dance the Charleston?

Unexpected discoveries often occur in unusual locations. During a camping trip in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest a few weeks back, my husband and I enjoyed two calm nights under a full moon at Davenport Campground adjacent to Squirrel Creek, where large historic markers recount a fascinating chapter in the local history, and what follows is my own simplified version.

In the wake of southcentral Colorado’s devastating Ludlow Massacre which affected coal miners and their families in 1914, unions gained increasing influence, working conditions for various laborers finally improved, and vacation time was at their disposal for the first time. The working classes became interested in recreation, and discovered the plentiful woods west of Pueblo as a camping destination. It soon became evident that the unstructured foray of masses of humans into the forest created attendant problems.

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Arthur Carhart (1892-1978)

In 1919, landscape architect and World War I sanitation officer, Arthur Carhart, was recruited by the National Forest supervisor to come up with solutions to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and destruction of land and timber. Arthur was a visionary who anticipated the growing utilization of natural places, and the resultant need for infrastructure. When Congress refused to allot funds for recreation for the Forest Service, he did not capitulate, but founded a private non-profit corporation, with Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron one of its major contributors, the same responsible for the infamy committed at Ludlow.

Mr. Carhart is credited with designing the first modern campground along Squirrel Creek, with each site including space for tents, picnic tables and benches, fire rings, and access to so-called “sanitaries”, ensuring the separation of human waste from drinking water. Having camped at numerous private, state, and federal campgrounds, we were intrigued to learn who masterminded this nearly ubiquitous layout. In 1922, he also adapted a wagon trail along the stream for automobile use, which became known as Squirrel Creek Road and improved accessibility to a mounting number of recreation sites.

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Camping before the advent of structured campsites

For travelers not inclined to sleep under canvas, Carhart planned the Squirrel Creek Lodge in 1922, a two-story structure whose rooms were complemented by a center hall, two large fireplaces, a roomy kitchen and — a dance floor. What else could one ask for after escaping the sweltering heat of Pueblo, but to seek shade under the cool forest canopy, and to cut a rug, dancing the wildly popular Charleston during the Roaring 1920s?

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Great Depression followed the upbeat twenties, and additional tourist attractions by the early 1940s led to a decline in the popularity of the Squirrel Creek developments. The death knell was sounded in 1947 after a flood washed out portions of the road and campgrounds, plus several bridges.

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Hiking trail along the former Squirrel Creek Road

For modern day visitors, this story comes alive along the former Squirrel Creek Road, now a hiking trail, which starts at Davenport Campground and connects to the Pueblo Mountain Park approximately 5 miles east, as the crow flies. Along its course are scattered remnants of picnic tables, fire rings, concrete anchors for wooden guardrail posts, and a reconstructed Adirondack-style picnic shelter. After years of disuse, a conflagration claimed the lodge in 1979, and all that survives today is its foundation.

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Foundation of former Squirrel Creek Lodge

However, when I listened closely, mixed in with the murmuring of Squirrel Creek, the breeze stirring the boughs of ponderosa pines, and the haunting tune of a hermit thrush, I’d swear I heard soft notes of dance music drifting through the air.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/haben-sie-den-charleston-getanzt/