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.
Fire has been a part of life in the wilderness long before humans discovered how to make it. Some trees and plants actually require fire to disperse seeds. Without getting into a history of land management, there are two important changes to the landscape to consider now - people and an increasingly hot and dry climate. Fires are becoming bigger and more catastrophic, burning through towns and virtually anything in the path of a creeping inferno.
At the time of writing, Lake City has seen two fires within 10 miles of the town in the last month. Both were spotted and attacked very quickly, and there is no active threat in the area at the moment, but the 416 fire near Durango still rages, and smoke can blanket the area if winds carry it in this direction. A large fire can bring devastation; obviously the forests are turned to ash, but infrastructure is wiped out and the economic impact (both fire-fighting operations and the aftermath) is immense.
A small fire near Hill 71 after being contained.
Fires are often caused by lightning, but there are many accidental or intentional ways that humans can start a disastrous wildfire. Rather than devote an entire post to this subject, I'm going to strongly suggest that you avoid bringing any ignition source into forests and grasslands when there is even a remote chance of starting a fire. That includes obvious things such as open fires and cigarettes, but also chainsaws and vehicles (hot engines can easily ignite grass). Always check for and read the fire restrictions for the areas you plan to visit. I've never seen the local forests in a more worryingly dry state. Where there would have been lush vegetation, now dead leaves and grass crunch under my feet. San Juan National Forest is currently closed. That's 18 million acres that are in such extreme danger that Stage 3 restrictions have been imposed for the first time ever. Do not take chances with fire.
Heavy smoke from the 416 Fire - 06/10/18
The same mountains in early fall.
If you live in an area that could be threatened by a fire (you may be surprised), there are things you can do to give yourself and your property a better chance. Think about what you may have to take with you if you evacuate. Think about the routes you can take. Look at your property, and learn about defensible space. In short, this means clearing away particularly flammable materials from around your home, such as brush piles, dead trees or plants, long grass etc.
Summit of Slumgullion Pass in 2014.
The same summit after beetle kill, logging and now smoke from distant wildfires.
If you are hiking during fire season, you need to be well prepared. Always check news outlets for local fires. Always have an escape route. This is one of the first lessons I learned about hiking. You must always have a plan involving an alternative route to safety, whether it's due to fire or severe weather. Be prepared to abandon your hike if you see smoke from an unexpected location (and report it). Since I spend so much time in wilderness, I have studied wildfire behavior and even read official reports where wildfires have caused firefighter fatalities. It makes grim reading, but you will never take a risk around wildfires (did you know that a fire can outpace a human at full sprint?).
Heavy smoke over Lake San Cristobal - 06/10/18
The same lake on a clear day.
Finally, don't be tempted to go out and watch a wildfire. Drones pose hazards to aircraft and firefighting drones, and onlookers can block traffic and generally make a tough job more difficult.
Fires are not going to go away. They are a part of life in remote areas, and are getting larger, hotter and more destructive. Winters are becoming more mild (with less snow), and summers are becoming hotter and drier. In many cases, it just isn't safe to burn certain areas, because the landscape is too fire-prone to be able to fully control. The public must be vigilant by firstly doing all that they can to prevent fire, and secondly by reporting possible fires (smoke plumes in a forest, for example) immediately to emergency services. A small fire can usually be stopped in its tracks if there is time.
Since my work as a wilderness photographer takes me into the unforgiving forest and mountain environments of the Rocky Mountains, I often find myself having to replace my equipment. Boots, gloves, backpacks - you name it and I've probably had to find a more durable version over the last few years. As a result, I don't typically write reviews. Photography equipment is a matter of personal choice, and there are so many factors to consider when choosing outdoor gear that I tend to avoid making recommendations. However, there is one brand that has never let me down, and there is one product that has either been worn or carried on hundreds of solo hikes involving thousands of hours in extremely rugged and unforgiving terrain.
Snowshoeing off-trail in winter, wearing the mountain shirt.
Buffalo Systems, based in the UK, has been producing a range of clothing that uses a combination of Pertex fabric and pile insulation for over 30 years. The range is popular with outdoor professionals for good reason. While conventional outdoor wisdom calls for the use of multiple clothing layers, the mountain shirt can be worn alone, saving weight and space in your pack (especially important if your pack is already filled with heavy cameras).
I've hiked and snowshoed through dense forests and mountains at around 2.5 miles above sea level, fought against 40mph+ winds, and struggled through blizzard conditions as cold as 0°F (-18°C), all while wearing the same mountain shirt. I have additional Buffalo layers (the Belay hooded jacket, the unlined windshirt, and lightweight Teclite trousers) that add flexibility and allow me to operate in any weather conditions at any time of the year.
Unit stills photographer on the set of Hoax, wearing the belay jacket.
My Buffalo gear isn't just for exploring the back country. I've spent mid-winter days photographing ice climbers, and autumn nights in a remote forest filming location, dressed head-to-toe in Buffalo.
San Juan Solstice 50 mile race start line, wearing the windshirt.
My windshirt has seen action on mountain biking adventures and even a 50 mile ultra-marathon. Even on a hot summer afternoon, it offers protection from the sun while keeping me cool.
Photographing moose, wearing the windshirt.
If I could change one thing, it would be the lack of pockets in the Buffalo trousers. There are two, but I've used the six pocket configuration for so long that I'll wear them over the top. Other than that, it's difficult to find anything to complain about with Buffalo. If fashion is a concern, perhaps you'll want to look elsewhere, but the bears and mountain lions don't seem to mind my understated look!
In the quest for a quick profit, many manufacturers have ruined their once-great reputation for high standards. I can think of several examples from tools, appliances and outdoor clothing. Buffalo has only improved their products as the years have passed, and they've kept me comfortable enough to concentrate on my work (or my navigation) outdoors, where second chances are rare.
Read more about Buffalo here, and be sure to tell them Craig sent you!
In the natural world, the circle of life is evident everywhere. The four seasons, new plants, old trees, calves and cubs, and of course the occasional carcass or skeletal remains all help us to celebrate life and remind of of our own mortality. I covered that subject in more detail in Wilderness Wisdom. Today's subject is a little different.
Earlier this week, I hiked up to a mountain lake. Even in summer, it isn't one of the most popular hikes (the longer trail is probably one reason). I needed my snowshoes for most of the journey, as you may expect for this time of year. Usually, I'm struggling in knee or thigh-deep snow, but this time the calf-deep snow stuck to my snowshoes like thick, clay-rich mud on boots. I half-expected that, given the conditions in the valley, but I was struck by a scene as I searched for the lake (I always lose the trail for the last half-mile). I climbed to a clearing to look for the frozen lake (and catch my breath), and as I stood motionless I heard a chorus of woodpeckers. They're a common sight, but there must have been at least a dozen, and the bark that they chipped away fell like rain through the lower branches.
Over the years that I've lived in Colorado, the landscape has changed noticeably. Bark beetle infestations have devastated huge swathes of forest. Some studies report that an area of forest the size of Colorado has been ravaged by the beetles in the Western US. These insect parasites have always been around, but in the past they have been checked by typical Rocky Mountain winters. Several consecutive days of intense cold can stop an infestation. The current assault is the result of warm weather and drought-stricken trees. Without their natural defenses and help from Old Man Winter, the trees have nothing to fight back with.
This photo shows me training for the San Juan Solstice race back in 2014. Those dead and dying trees have now been cleared for several reasons (not least public safety), but away from the roads, forests are still filled with dead trees, and the woodpeckers can almost always be heard, looking for a beetle snack. Many trees survived, and you may be surprised to find that a patch of forest that looks completely dead from afar is in fact still very much alive. Many of the oldest trees were killed, but younger, healthier trees can be found in abundance. They have dodged the beetles; let's hope they can withstand the coming droughts.
Perhaps more worryingly, I've noticed an increase in the amount of dead and fallen aspens over the last year or so. There is an aspen beetle, but I don't have any information that leads me to believe it's here. Once again, however, drought is playing a part. There is evidence to suggest that aspens on south-facing slopes are more susceptible to sudden aspen decline, the theory being that heat stress is the killer.
From my personal perspective, I already know that there are photos I will never be able to repeat, including some of my favorites in Lake City Landscapes. The trees in this view of Crystal Lake are now brown and dead, as are those above Lake San Cristobal in the second shot.
The death of so many trees is the elephant in the room. I've had to be increasingly careful with the views I select for my photographs. Nobody wants to see dead trees in a photo, and yet at the same time I feel the urge to document those changes as a kind of natural historian. More importantly, the loss of different tree species will surely have a negative impact on wildlife. Their habitat will change, along with some food sources, and if a small animal species dwindles, their predators will also suffer from a lack of food.
Earlier today, I rode my mountain bike (standard mud tires) from Lake City to make a full circuit of Lake San Cristobal. In a normal winter, the road would be covered in packed snow, and the eastern side of the lake would be excellent back-country skiing terrain. This is not a normal winter. With the melting of an already pitiful snow pack, humans will see a poor wildflower year and few white water rafting opportunities, and more serious problems for those using water from the Colorado River. Already stressed forests could endure their worst year yet, where snow pack acts as a seasonal reservoir in an already arid climate.
Projections based on current weather trends suggest that the Rockies are going to be dramatically changed as the decades pass. The range for many coniferous tree species will shrink and retreat further north. Aspens will suffer a similar fate. The places we know and love are going to look quite different by the middle of the century.
As Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Being a freelance photographer in a tiny mountain without a large network of contacts, I have to make my own luck. I work hard to create photographs and related products that I would buy (while not compromising my principles). As most of you know, this year I released my greatest book yet, Lake City Landscapes. It represents some of my best work over five years in the mountains, and shows the reader some of the hidden gems I've found while exploring the wilderness.
I like to let the photographs speak for themselves in my work, but I've noticed a great deal of interest in my choice of words when introducing images on social media and in my books. In the drab days following another display of fall colors, I decided to commit some of my thoughts to a new project. Over the weeks that followed, this became Wilderness Wisdom - 25 Life Lessons from the Landscape, a compact and concise ebook.
As the title suggests, Wilderness Wisdom is a collection of my reminders and realizations that crossed my mind while wandering through unspoiled forests and mountain ridges. Each subject features an account of one of my adventures and a thought-provoking image to illustrate the lesson. You will find no over-used inspirational quotes - every phrase and photo is my own.
Wilderness Wisdom is available in all e-reader formats (including PDF), so anyone reading this can enjoy the book. I hope it will become a handy guide to happier living in our modern lives. At the time of writing, it has been submitted to all major ebook retailers (but may not appear for a few days).
Readers of this blog entry can get a 20% discount on the $5 purchase price by using this code - ww20 - during checkout here.
Edit - now available here:
Fall enters with a whisper. It's almost something you can sense in the breeze. The first leaves to fall do so seemingly in secret. They drop from the tips of branches onto a green forest floor, often out of sight for most visitors.
Soon enough, the first patches of color appear on mountainside aspen stands. Those who make the effort to reach them can be rewarded with a rich tapestry of gold and green against an increasingly turbulent sky.
Under the canopy, forests in full sunlight take on a golden glow. To stand alone among the aspens is an experience that will stay with you.
The timing of fall varies from year to year, slope to slope, and even tree to tree. A keen eye and a patient mind is required to photograph each area at its best.
Mountain weather can be changeable (to put it mildly) at the best of times, but as the cool breeze becomes a cold wind and snow lingers on high ground, the forest canopy changes from day to day. The transitory nature of the natural world (and indeed life) is inescapable to the onlooker at this point. By the time peak colors arrive, some areas are already bare, and the leaves form a golden carpet over trails and undergrowth alike. Long after the 'peak', there are still gems to be found in the high country, such as this patch of fiery color in an otherwise barren canopy.
The last of the colors and the first snowfall often coincide. The next morning, leaves fall like rain onto a pure white reminder of the season that will surely follow.
I shot segments of video as I wandered the forest throughout this latest fall season, so you can experience the sights and sounds as I did:
Finally, to illustrate the rapid change of seasons in the high country, use the slider on the image below to compare two photos of Lake San Cristobal from the same shooting position.
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