Hiking high country, sobering signs of drought

| Aug 23, 2018

Although Crested Butte is famously known as the wildflower capital of Colorado, hiking there two weeks ago, I found very few flowers. On the wonderfully named Oh-Be-Joyful trail, which follows the river through mountain meadows, the only flowers I saw were one or two Indian paintbrush with pencil-thin flowers. All the grasses were brown and some were flattened, as if the unusual heat had made them give up.

I should have expected this lackluster scene: The southern part of Colorado is in an extreme drought. I had thought that being high up in the mountains, it might be cooler and wetter. But even at 9,000 feet, the temperatures were in the 80s and the river thin and weak.

In the northern part of the state, we’ve been spared the worst of the drought, but last week on the Blue Lake trail in the Brainard Lake area, something was not quite right. At an altitude of about 10,000 feet, I was happy to find flowers — mostly purple asters, yellow groundsel and elephant’s heads (top picture at left) — but many of the ponds along the trail were already dried up, and the sky was a heavy gray, filled with smoke from all the fires in the West. On top, where the krummholz grow in thick clusters of fir to protect themselves from the fierce winters, I saw many with brown/red needles (2nd from top). Even these tough trees are having a hard time with this unfamiliar weather.

On both these hikes, I started distancing myself from nature — without consciously knowing I was doing this. I want my familiar and beloved summer mountain landscape: the jagged peaks outlined against the deep blue skies, fields of flowers and creeks brimming with snowmelt. Instead, everything seems wrapped in a muggy haze, the heat paralyzing the landscape, so it seems to have been lulled into a stupor.

But I realized I was separating myself from what I love, cutting myself off from my source of joy. Challenged by the dry and hot weather, the trees, flowers and grasses were doing everything they could to survive: producing smaller flowers, reducing their growing season, bravely withstanding the heat. The least I could do was recognize their courage and endurance, be on their side, cheer them on, recognize that we’re all in this together. If they are brave enough to withstand a new world, so can I.

On my drive back from Crested Butte, near Fairplay, I hiked to a grove of limber and bristlecone pine trees that are 1,000 years old (bottom two pictures). It’s almost impossible to imagine what they have faced over the millennium: droughts, floods, strong winds, freezing temperatures and deep snows. Their twisted trunks are a testament to their ability to do whatever they need to survive: turn away from the fierce western winds, cling to the rocks among which they grow, digging their roots down wherever there was a space between boulders — and a little water.

Sitting among these trees that predate much of human settlement in this country — and mark the mere beginnings of Western civilization — gave me hope in a hot, dry summer. Life has endured for a long time, and we can only hope that it finds ways to survive into the unknowable future.

Photos by the author. You are invited to read more articles by Kathy Kaiser on her blog, “Cabin Journal,” where this article first appeared.

1 comment

  1. Carol Knight says:

    Nicely written essay on our beautiful Colorado environment and the threats and challenges we all face as the climate gets warmer. I relate to the author’s reaction of withdrawal — after all, we can still easily turn on the faucet and get water to sustain us on our hikes. She obviously empathizes, however, with the struggles of high country flora.

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