Welcome to the From The High Country blog. Here, you can read about life in the mountains of Colorado and see some of my latest work.
Mountain weather can be difficult to predict, and at no time is that more apparent than in spring, when winter and summer seem to fight for ground. As April drew to a close (and after several weeks of warm, calm days), several inches of snow fell over Lake City, Colorado. As a professional should, I suited up and grabbed my camera as most people enjoyed their warm homes and offices.
The local grocery store (subject of a number of From The High Country photographs over the years), a familiar sight to generations of visitors.
The main highway accommodates sporadic traffic flow. Each vehicle leaves a track as identifiable as those found in the forest.
This building lies empty, but holds memories for many. I can also see the lights and hear the voices of nights long passed.
A meeting point for many in winter, the post office is a vital service to small towns.
Many businesses close, especially those catering mainly to tourists, as if hibernating like our bears.
Stark contrasts can be found along waterways when snow-laden trees clash with shadowy, fast-flowing rivers.
Alleyways lie deserted. Only photographers avoiding the public eye use them to get around.
Mountain towns require practicality over aesthetics, although it's hard to deny that a lived-in Jeep has character.
Spring run-off has begun, and the Lake Fork flows with power and grace through a changeable landscape.
Today's photo essay coincided with the unveiling of a new design for 2017. I'm sharing it here because the title fits quite well. Photography is my full-time occupation, and I can't produce blogs like this without your help, so please keep commenting and sharing - here on FromTheHighCountry.com and over at my FB page. I hope you'll think of me when looking for wall art, souvenirs, or need to hire a professional. Without your business, I can't do this.
Late last year, I was asked by fans of my Facebook page what I typically carry in my pack. I'm going to answer that question in today's blog update!
Ultralight hiking is very popular these days, but it's still important to carry enough to keep you safe. I feel that if I get into trouble in the mountains, I should make every effort to get myself out.
Two stories spring to mind when I think of this subject - both of them featuring a senior citizen. In the first, a grandmother's car becomes stuck in a snowdrift, and she survives for multiple days by using the items she had in the car. In the other, a woman's dog runs out of her isolated house one fall evening. She runs after the dog into the fields beyond, until she turns around in the darkness and can't see her house. Hypothermia claims her that night.
There are no second chances in wild places, and they can be closer than you may think. Preparedness and presence of mind can make a vast difference.
My last update showed how to assemble a simple survival kit - something you wouldn't ordinarily touch, but that could save your life one day. You could arguably add to that list a first aid kit and 50 feet of paracord. I've used both in a non-survival situation, so they don't quite fit my definition of survival equipment, but they are certainly essential items. A small flashlight and a sharp knife also have a permanent place in my pack.
High calorie, non perishable food should be a part of any daypack. It's an easy way to supplement your supplies with spare calories - just in case. Water is a tough one. It's heavy and it's often a target for weight saving, but it's extremely important and will have a powerful impact on your performance long before it becomes a matter of life and death. Conditions and individual needs vary, so I will strongly suggest that you carry as much as you need to stay hydrated all day.
Clothing is more simple. I carry everything I need for the expected weather conditions - and one extra layer. if I'm stranded overnight or run into a storm, I'll be glad to have that layer!
If you're in unfamiliar terrain, be sure to carry a map and compass, and know how to use them. GPS devices are a useful alternative, but require a finite power source to function.
Many modern backpacks include a whistle, which is a clever addition. Throw one in your pack if you don't already have one. In a survival situation, signalling by whistle, reflective blankets and flashlights could lead rescuers to you.
It's important to tailor your wilderness equipment to your environment. In winter, the need for heat and shelter becomes more urgent, and I carry a spare pair of gloves. Why? If you lose a glove in a winter storm, your hands can rapidly become too cold to perform some important tasks. Similarly, if you use snowshoes or skis, be prepared to fix problems that arise with them.
It would take a whole book to explain every aspect of wilderness survival, and better qualified people have already done that, so I'll let my contribution end here. I've never been in a real survival situation, although I have learned to build shelters and fires, and to find safe water. I'm mentally and physically prepared for whatever the wilderness will throw at me, which allows me to concentrate on the photography and the outdoor adventure!
The Rocky Mountains of Colorado are my adopted home, but as far back as I can remember I've always enjoyed wild places. I picked up some lessons along the way (especially in the early years) that I take for granted now, and yet some are essential, potentially life saving tips.
The majority of my hikes last 6-10 hours, but I always, without fail, carry enough equipment with me to spend the night outside. This doesn't mean that I always have, for example, a tent, but that I'm prepared to survive that night.
A survival kit is a collection of items that would enable an individual to endure unexpected conditions - usually a longer stay in the wilderness! Ready-made kits are widely available these days, but I've always felt that it's better to assemble your own. It's convenient to just buy one, but if you make your own I think you have a better chance of knowing how to use the items you've selected. This is an important point; simply owning something does not make you an expert. A rifle doesn't make a sniper any more than a camera makes a pro photographer.
If you haven't done so already, learn (and practice) to make a functional shelter, start a fire and to perform basic first aid. An emergency is not the time to do this!
A homemade survival kit begins with something like this old Altoids tin. A tobacco tin or even a film canister can be used as an alternative. It should be big enough to have useful items, and small enough to leave in your backpack (and hope you never need it).
Food and water may be your first thoughts when thinking of survival, but an average human can last 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Hypothermia, on the other hand, can kill in a few hours and can happen in the Rockies at any time of the year. Therefore, fire and shelter are usually your immediate priorities in the absence of a serious injury.
My kits (I have one in each pack - summer and winter) include three methods of starting a fire: matches, a small lighter and a spark generator. It also includes dry tinder (cotton wool, for example), a blade from a utility knife, safety pins, a needle and thread, water purifying tablets and other items.
In addition to the tin of small items and fire-starting tools, I always have at least one reflective blanket (they're so light and cheap that there's not excuse not to) and a disposable water filter.
These items are not all that you would need for an extended stay in a harsh environment, but they can be left in a pack and used alongside your regular equipment to save your life. A good packing list for other wilderness essentials will be the subject of the next update.
Colorado is home to Ursus americanus - the American black bear. The last verified grizzly bear was shot 40 years ago, and they are widely believed to be extirpated from the state. Adult black bears average 200-250lbs in weight, and despite their name they can be brown or even blonde. Bears have a fearsome reputation with a lot of people, but in reality black bears in their natural habitat are usually quite weary of people. As most of you know, I solo hike through the back country all the time. I've seen countless paw prints and claw marks in trees, but I've seen bears up close a handful of times. In most cases, they either didn't know or care that I was there (because they didn't react), and the rest of the time they moved on. Here's some old footage of mine showing a black bear on the other side of a stream.
Black bears are omnivores, but much of their typical diet consists of grasses, roots, insects and berries. While they have been known to hunt, they tend to eat carrion if the opportunity arises. If you're lucky enough to see one in the wild, enjoy the experience! My most popular video shows the moment a black bear is released into the wild. Note how reluctant it is to be around humans!
What to do in bear country
The rules for bears are much the same as for other wildlife:
Keep dogs leashed and children close.
Keep a respectful distance. Many large mammals can act aggressively as a fear response.
If you bump into a bear on the trail, make conversation-level noise to alert him or her to your presence and slowly leave.
Never feed (intentionally or accidentally) a bear. Wild bears can lose their natural fear around humans if an association with food is made.
If you're still uncomfortable, or are camping, consider carrying bear spray. It's very effective in the unlikely event that a confrontation occurs.
Living in bear country
Colorado is bear country. Bears like their natural food sources, but can be attracted to human foods. Once again, never feed (intentionally or accidentally) a bear. In towns, this means securing/bear-proofing trash, pet food, bird feeders, garage freezers, and of course house doors and windows.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife can offer more advice on these topics. In Lake City, I help to run Friends of the Bears - a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing human/wildlife conflict. In most cases, it's just a question of education. Most people are more than willing to do the right thing to keep wildlife and their neighbors safe.
Some have assumed that bear/human conflict is the result of bear population growth (rather than uneducated or lazy humans), but a recent study has shown that "...researchers concluded that increasing bear-human conflicts do not mean the bear population is growing but that bears are adapting to take advantage of urban expansion. This will compel a rethinking of Colorado’s current approach of boosting bear hunting based on the number of conflicts reported in an area. If bears aren’t multiplying, heavy hunting could hurt the species."
The creators of a new documentary on this subject are currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. According to their page, "Bears of Durango is a short documentary film project that dives headfirst into bear dens with a team of wildlife researchers studying the effects of human development on bear behavior and bear population trends." Lake City Friends of the Bears will contribute to this worthwhile project and hopes to use the film for educational presentations.
Bears, like mountain lions, coyotes and moose, are part of what makes wilderness wild. If we respect (rather than fear) them, it's quite possible to coexist.
As I type, the sun is shining in between snow flurries on a late March morning, and I've already tidied my yard after several very warm (for the time of year) weeks. Fresh snow could fall and settle at any time between now and May, but the coldest days have almost certainly passed.
Lake City is a small town, and in winter the population drops to around 400 people. Tourist-oriented businesses close, and the residents are especially appreciative of businesses such as the Packer Saloon and the Mountaineer Theatre through the quiet months.
In town, the streets are deserted, but there are many signs of life in the wilderness nearby. Freshly fallen snow is useful for tracking our furry residents. From mice to mountain lions, each species leaves distinctive tracks. This year I've been surprised at the high mountain locations that I've encountered moose prints, but each set of tracks always tells an interesting story.
Winter activities here include skiing (both downhill and cross-country), ice climbing and (my favorite) snowshoeing. On snowshoes, I can go everywhere I would usually go in summer, even though it may take twice as long!
The wilderness takes on a very different look when snow blankets everything. While the mountain summits are still easily recognizable, narrow forest trails can be difficult to find, and the backcountry adventurer must have a good sense of direction! Wilderness rewards those who make the extra effort with some stunning views.
During the quiet days of winter, and when I'm not shoveling snow or exploring, I work on design projects for the coming year. The beginning of 2017 has been no exception, and my biggest From The High Country project ever has just been sent away for production! Lake City Landscapes is my most ambitious book yet, and features a hand-picked selection of my personal favorites. It's now available for pre-order. I'll tell you more about this and other new products in a separate update later this spring.
Earlier this week, I hiked up to 11,000 ft in the forest and was pleased to find the snowpack is still quite deep, even though my yard in the valley is turning green already. Snow lies in patches at 9,000 ft, and the familiar scents of juniper and coniferous trees drift through the forests up to nearly 10,000 ft. Most terrain above that is still firmly in the grip of winter, but that will change over the next few weeks.
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