Beware The Rattle

Throughout our two-plus decades of married life, my husband and I have hiked many miles in many locations. Wildlife encounters have generally enriched the experience and have, mostly, been of the harmless, and feathered or furred kind – birds, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, coyotes. Our somewhat more borderline interactions with brown bears in Alaska are a different story, but will have to wait for another time. With regard to encounters of the scaly kind, we have made the acquaintance of turtles, lizards, and snakes – the latter predominantly nonpoisonous individuals.

Even though many trailheads in Colorado’s foothills and prairie bear warning signs about poisonous rattlesnakes, it was only three or four years ago that we saw our first, when we nearly stepped on a “baby” that sunned itself in the middle of the trail. I had barely enough time to take a few photos before it shimmied away.

Baby rattlesnake. It is difficult to gauge size in this photo, but it was no longer than a foot.

Just a few weeks back, we had our second sighting (or our third, if we count one we saw through the car window during a May trip to northeast Colorado). When my husband suddenly stopped in his tracks during a hike at a local nature preserve, I nearly ran into him. He pointed to a shallow gully about fifteen feet ahead of us, which we had to cross and where we recognized an elongated albeit slightly stocky form. Even though my partner in crime is colorblind, his ability to discern patterns, especially on the ground, is better than mine, and he often notices amphibians or reptiles before I do. “Look at the triangular head,” he said. “That’s a rattlesnake.” A second glance confirmed his impression, as it revealed rattles at the distal end, and pits underneath the eyes. These house heat sensing organs and are responsible for their classification as pit vipers. We were most likely facing a Prairie Rattlesnake.

Three to four feet long, its body extended instead of coiled, and not in striking distance, it did not pose a threat. We watched it closely, as it did us. When three more hikers approached from the opposite direction, we alerted them to the snake’s presence, and they, too, paused, to catch a few glimpses. The reptilian head swiveled back and forth, between them and us, but the cold-blooded creature neither hissed nor rattled, merely flicked its bifurcated tongue from time to time (though never when I took a photo). After I made a wide arc around it to reach the other side of the gully, it, too, made up its mind to move on, though not far. It slithered behind a sun-warmed rock ten to twelve feet adjacent to the trail and curled up, seemingly ready for a siesta, perhaps to digest a recent meal.

We are convinced that we have been scrutinized by wild critters countless times, without ever knowing about it. Their usual modus operandi is avoidance of large animals, humans included. This fortunately peaceful meeting served not only as an opportunity to admire the greenish hue, white facial, and gray dorsal markings of this specimen that seemed particularly unperturbed, but also as a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. It is possible, not to say probable, that on our way back to the car, we looked behind rocks and over our shoulders slightly more frequently than usual. 🙂

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/vorsicht-rasseln/

May Flowers

In the midst of winter, when daylight is fleeting and nature’s attire muted, I thirst for more sunshine and color. It is almost inconceivable that the vegetation that appears lifeless will revive once more. Even though winter solstice holds the promise that daytime will lengthen and nighttime lessen, those changes are imperceptible for nearly a month. The longer days do not translate into Flora’s reawakening immediately, and despite a glimpse of some green here, or of some pink or yellow there, the lifeblood arrives only in a trickle, not a steady flow. At this point I am grateful for the precocious hyacinths and daffodils that peek their little heads above ground, even if it is still blanketed in snow.

When I blink again, it is May, and the trickle-flow has swelled to a flood. Previously leafless trees don first a gauzy veil, and next an emerald robe. Where last season’s flower stalks still stand brown and desiccated, new green shoots suddenly appear, and before I turn around, bear candles of purple, cups of orange, clusters of red.

I am not an ardent gardener, but I like to get soil under my fingernails now and again. Having inherited a patch of soil, we try to keep it up for the birds, the bees, and the butterflies. Previous caretakers left their own touches, and we encourage their legacy, while seed by seed, we add our own. Permissive gardening might be our maxim, and our lawn is the antithesis of immaculate, and our flower beds the opposite of ornamental. We stopped using herbicides a few years back, and other than the occasional digging of dandelions and pulling of other so-called weeds, anything goes.

Where the grass dies, we sow wildflower seeds. Silvery Lupines have established themselves well, similar to its neighbor, Western Blue Flax. Whoever makes its acquaintance learns to marvel at its daily pattern. Come morning, it forms a lake of blue saucers, come evening, its wiry stems are nearly bare. Repeat performance the following day. Every year, the sea of blue extends slightly more beyond the shore, and we look forward to our future backyard ocean.

Various strains of roses, peonies and irises are our only claims to respectability. The yet-to-bloom lilies might qualify as well.

California Poppies tilt their smiley faces toward the sun before wrapping themselves in a tight cone in the course of the day. Goat’s Beard (aka Yellow Salsify), a European import, follows suit, before it transforms into a blow ball reminiscent of dandelions. Johnny Jump Ups are content with their rocky residence at the south side of the house. My favorite childhood flowers, snapdragons, rear up in a variety of locations.

Among our much loved floral companions are columbines. Years ago, a handful of seeds germinated, and what started with a few isolated plants has spread like a joyful riot among the juniper, rose bushes, and cinquefoil. The Colorado Blue Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) happens to be our state flower, and in our yard it coexists with its many variants. Whoever chose its genus name, Aquilegia, saw in its blossom an eagle’s claw (aquila is Latin for eagle); whoever named it columbine, envisioned a dove (columba is Latin for dove).

“Earth laughs in flowers,” Ralph Waldo Emerson concluded. I gratefully join in its laughter.

Pikes Peak

The highest heights have inspired humankind since times immemorial. In Colorado, we are spoiled not only with lofty mountains, but with a generous number of 14ers: at least 53 stretch above fourteen thousand feet, though the actual number is still debated, depending on the definition used. That Colorado Springs was put on the map had much to do with the proximity of one of these giants. The city’s founder General William Jackson Palmer thought it the perfect neighbor.

American Indian tribes knew this mountain, venerated it and its spirits, and called it by different names. Other early visitors to the region likely laid eyes on it, and chose their own appellations. We know that the local band of Utes thought of it as “Tava”, meaning sun, and they were known as Tabeguache (People of Sun Mountain). It is ironic that the man for whom the mountain was named was not among the summiteers, but also understandable, considering that Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) and his men were ill-prepared for a winter ascent in November 1806, when they explored portions of the new United States territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Before designated trails, attaining the mountaintop at 14,115 feet on foot must have been an even greater physical challenge than it is on existing paths today. The most popular approaches are the 12.5 mile Barr Trail from Manitou Springs up its east slope, starting at an elevation of 6,800 feet, and the shorter, 7 mile hike across the northwest slope beginning at an altitude of 10,000 feet near the Crags. Both are worth every drop of sweat and every rise in heartbeat.

As some are not inclined or able to cover such distances on foot, soon after settlement of the region other means to arrive at the summit were contrived. A crude carriage road was completed in 1887, and a railroad in 1891. Improvement on the road commenced in 1915, in order to make it more accessible for automobiles. Eventually, the nineteen mile Pikes Peak Highway between Cascade and the top was paved all the way.

A remarkable woman who challenged herself before the existence of trails and who did not mind the perspiration was Julia Archibald Holmes (1838-1887), one of the Bloomer Girls, and the topic of a previous post, who summited on foot in the summer of 1858. Another visitor particularly entranced by the summit experience was Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), English professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1893, she taught at Colorado College during the summer semester. Unlike Julia, she chose to ride to the roof of Colorado in a carriage. Notwithstanding her breathlessness, the superb vistas moved her to wax lyrical. Her poem was later turned into a song many Americans consider an alternative to the national anthem: America the Beautiful. A bronze plaque at the summit is engraved with the first two stanzas, and a bronze statue of the author gazes at the source of her inspiration from in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum downtown.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties,

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

 

Stratton Open Space

Near the former Stratton Park put onto the map by and named for the remarkable Winfield Scott Stratton after his death, Colorado Springs set aside precious land to preserve and protect from development. Surrounded by human habitation, Stratton Open Space was created in 1998 and represents one of nine open spaces under the city’s jurisdiction.

The 306 acre parcel in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is among my favorite spots for running, hiking, and birding. A maze of trails measuring a total of eight miles welcomes visitors on feet, paws, hooves, and wheels (though a few paths are off-limit for bikes). The relatively compact area encompasses five ecological zones: a riparian corridor and wetlands, prairie-like meadows and a scrub oak/juniper plant community, as well as a ponderosa pine/Douglas fir forest.

With the exception of rows of peaks rising in the west that are best seen from lower altitudes, the higher the vantage point, the broader the panorama. The hulk of Cheyenne Mountain dominates the south, beloved view and destination of Helen Hunt Jackson, one of my favorite historical personalities.

Cheyenne Mountain on a clear day

…and on a not so clear one…

The sonorous chimes of the Will Rogers Shrine on its flank divide each hour and might also rattle the remains of Spencer and Julie Penrose, who built the tower and chose it as their final resting place. Philanthropists and benefactors, they also founded the Broadmoor Hotel, easily visible from the park. It celebrates its centennial this year, having accommodated its first guests in 1918, and prides itself of having received a five-star Forbes rating for 57 consecutive years.

The Broadmoor Resort

Will Rogers Shrine

In the east the ever-expanding suburban space adjoins Colorado’s High Plains which eventually merge with those of our neighboring states, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Eastern sunrise

Eastern balloonrise

As pleasing as the wonderful vistas are the local flora and fauna. Each season has its charms, and even when flowering plants are absent, the dormant vegetation creates color and contrast. At the height of summer, a multi-hued carpet of wildflowers provides a feast for the eyes, and golden tapestries of sunflowers persist well into autumn.

Penstemon

Indian Paintbrush

Mariposa Lily

Purple Prairie Clover

Avian activity abounds year-round, but other critters can commonly be seen as well.

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

Expected

Unexpected

For the last two to three decades, Colorado Springs has been in the throes of rapid, unchecked urban growth. The more buildings, people and traffic, the more indispensable and treasured are oases like Stratton Open Space where, despite a degree of human management, nature still has a chance to run wild.

A Quiet Champion

Soon after the founding of Colorado Springs in 1871, a young carpenter from Indiana moved to the bourgeoning town, attracted by the prospect of gainful employment – new home construction depended on woodworking skills. Wood was his professional life, but within a few years, precious metal filled his dreams. Starting in 1874, he took a yearly summer sabbatical and headed into the mountains to prospect for gold; in the ensuing years he attended college classes in assaying and metallurgy to better the chances at succeeding in his quest.

He had been too young for California’s gold rush of 1848/49, and for Colorado’s ten years later. The discovery of gold in the Cherry Creek area near the future site of Denver in 1858/59 had brought waves of hopefuls to Pikes Peak, but in those early years of exploitation, the region did not reveal its riches. Three decades later, the fortunes of Colorado Springs and many of its residents changed when veins of the shining ore were discovered on the southwest side of the mountain. After 1890, Victor and Cripple Creek arose from the rocky ground almost overnight and, ere long, tens of thousands of optimistic miners called these towns home.

One of the “fortunate” who possessed a claim was Winfield Scott Stratton (1848-1902), said carpenter – after 17 years of tireless exploration. His rich Independence Mine made him one of the richest citizens of Colorado Springs. Unlike other newly minted millionaires, he did not put on airs, or put up a new, ostentatious home for himself. Never forgetting his humble beginnings, he was content to live either in a small shack near his mine, or in relatively modest houses in Colorado Springs. And he was always willing to give to the needy.

Among his beneficiaries was Bob Womack. The old cowboy-turned-gold-seeker might have been the first to find gold in Cripple Creek, but he sold his claim for $500, did not benefit from the town’s bonanza, and remained poor to his end. Mr. Stratton also came to the rescue of the townspeople of Cripple Creek who suffered in the wake of a devastating fire in 1896, when he financed a train to haul necessities from Colorado Springs to the bereft victims. He developed the Colorado Springs & Interurban Railway Company, an electric trolley system that served the city, as well as an amusement park at one of the trolley’s terminals at the west end of town. He called it Cheyenne Park  but it was renamed Stratton Park after his death. Its bandstand was the location of a free concert each Sunday. He donated land for City Hall and the Post Office, financed the Mining Exchange Building, supported Colorado College and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. He gave away vast earnings in various philanthropic ventures, but when he sold his Independence Mine to an English company in 1900, he found himself with an additional 10 million dollars, the equivalent of about 240 million in today’s currency.

Stratton Springs in Manitou Springs, one terminus of Mr. Stratton’s trolley line

The former Mining Exchange, completely financed by Mr. Stratton, now a hotel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money did not buy Mr. Stratton happiness. Once his quest for gold was fulfilled, life did not seem to hold many charms. It is said that he could not walk anywhere without being accosted by someone begging for money. The constant requests for slices of his pie were a heavy burden and the following words are ascribed to him: “Too much money is not good for any man. I have too much, and it’s not good for me. A hundred thousand dollars is as much money as the man of ordinary intelligence can take care of. Large wealth has been the ruin of many a young man.”

Always a recluse, he increasingly preferred a bottle to human company and died in 1902 of liver cirrhosis, at the age 54. A dozen women suddenly declared having been his lawfully wedded wives. He had married once, but the union had ended in divorce. His wife bore a son of questionable fatherhood, but now his purported offspring lay claim to his inheritance. Former mining partners remembered old promises. Aware of his approaching death, Mr. Stratton had willed vast sums to various individuals and institutions. But he had assigned the bulk of his capital to fund “a free home for poor persons who are without means of support and who are physically unable by reason of old age, youth, sickness or other infirmity to earn a livelihood.” It was to be named after his estranged father, Myron Stratton.

Mr. Stratton’s gravestone at Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs

Back side of his gravestone

The uproar created by the opening of his testament could be heard across the country. It was contested by many, including real or imagined relatives, the city and even the state that went so far as to question his mental stability. In the end, after much frivolous litigation and many settlements, his steadfast trustees succeeded in having his wishes honored. With a 6 million dollar endowment, the Myron Stratton Home opened its doors in 1913. It has provided housing, education, and work to countless Colorado Springs residents, and continues to function as a home for seniors in need of assistance today. Many firsthand, inspirational accounts of individuals saved by this foundation speak to its enduring legacy. Winfield Scott Stratton might not have been content with his life’s work, but he would be overjoyed with the wide-reaching windfall his wealth created, for the greater good of mankind.

Mr. Stratton’s statue on the grounds of the Myron Stratton Home

Gone to the Ducks

Birders regularly recall the trigger bird that stopped them in their tracks and awakened their curiosity about the avifauna. While I can’t name one particular trigger species, I owe my fascination for feathered friends to the manifold ducks that migrate to Alaska during the summer. When my husband and I called this northernmost state home in the early 2000s, my interest was aroused whenever we chanced upon colorful waterfowl on the myriad bodies of water that pepper the state. I went so far as to invest in a guide book to Alaskan birds, and even owned a CD with recordings of regional birdsong, but being rather consumed by professional life then, I birded only incidentally.

Ducks, geese and assorted additional water-associated avians are rewarding for beginning birders because their size makes them visible on the water’s surface, and they commonly stay in one place for extended periods, facilitating their proper identification. Now that we no longer live in “The Last Frontier” with its legendary biodiversity, I regret not having dedicated more time to ornithological pursuits there.

My fondness of ducks, nonetheless, abides. It so happens that within walking distance of our current residence in Colorado Springs, two lakes provide habitat for assorted waterfowl.

Quail Lake with view of Pikes Peak

Doubletree Pond with view of Cheyenne Mountain

 I did not acquire a digital camera until we were in the process of closing our Alaska chapter, and consequently don’t own electronic photos of the beautiful winged creatures encountered there. Instead, I would like to share pictures of some of the visitors of these urban oases in Colorado Springs who, likewise, have stolen my heart. Unlike other birds, they stay (or arrive) here in winter and help brighten the darker days.

Mallards are our most common ducks…

…and Canada Geese our most common geese

Northern Shovelers have spatulas for bills

Hooded Mergansers are spectacular in…

…and out of the water

Common Goldeneye, I wonder why

American Wigeon, aka “bald pate”

Doubletree Pond in winter

This, of course, does not qualify as waterfowl, but when I saw this white dove at the Doubletree Pond on January 1, it embodied all my hopes: Peace on Earth for this new year.

Klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version/click here for the German version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/08/entenzauber/

Butterfly Fever

     Late summer and early fall brought an invasion of the Rocky Mountain region by legions of gossamer-winged Painted Ladies. Denver weather radar detected large swarms of these lovely lepidopterans undulating across the screen in what amounted to a seventy mile band. While this is not an unusual phenomenon in eastern states, it was a novelty for Colorado. Many were the reported sightings and resulting delight shared in newspapers, on television, and numerous blogs.

     Between the end of August and the latter part of October, Colorado Springs residents and guests were also treated to a winged visitation of another kind. Thanks to the 10th annual “Flight” event organized by the Rotary Club, twenty-four handcrafted butterflies landed on the lawn of our local Pioneers Museum, where they contributed color and whimsy to an active downtown arts scene. Those steely individuals with three foot wingspans alighted on seven foot tall poles after they were fashioned by Colorado artists. They were subsequently auctioned off at a special fundraiser and the proceeds will support arts and science programs in our largest school district, besides additional worthy causes.

     One of our incredible bluebird autumn days found me at my favorite museum. I benefitted from perfect climatic conditions and clicked away with my camera. Being encircled by a cloud of enchanting, enormous creations resulted in difficulty electing favorites. Each butterfly was named and each told its own story on its ventral and dorsal surfaces, the intricacies of which were impossible to capture. My photos show a small selection of these inspired labors of love.

Transformation-The Flight of the Phoenix

Tiger Passion

Sunset Silhouette

Harmonious Dream

Huichol Wilderness

Into the Light

Beauty and the Beast

The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons

     When, among those immovable creatures, I perceived the quivering of so many mobile wings, delicate in detail yet sturdy enough to convey their owners to distant lands, I was both humbled and exalted to witness this magical moment.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/schmetterlingsfieber/