From The High Country | Blog

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.

The Abandoned Cabin

July 26, 2018  •  6 Comments

Over the years, I've found several old cabins away from the roads and ghost towns around Lake City. Most had some connection with mining, while a few may have been hunting cabins. I thought the chances of finding a new one were slim, but I recently noticed a dot on a very old map (1905) and decided to try hiking through some new terrain to find it. I checked aerial imagery in the area, and discovered a possible ruin.

It's blurry and low quality, but it sure looks like a cabin-sized rectangle!

With enough evidence to act upon, I plotted a route in. The cabin lies within a steep sided valley, and the route taken by prospectors is now a tangled (and at times nearly impassable) mess of fallen trees, dense vegetation and steep, loose ground. I decided to head up to the high ground, follow that until I hit a ridge running behind the cabin site, and then drop back into the valley (using terrain features to navigate throughout).

Shelter from the sun ahead, but still a long ascent.

It started well, and after a few minutes of trail, I ventured into wilderness and picked up deer trails whenever they headed in a convenient direction. Given the hot weather, I was carrying extra water (over a gallon) in addition to my camera and first aid/survival gear, and the shade offered by aspen forests was a welcome relief even in the early morning.

Evidence of prospecting on the ridge.

There were no signs of human activity on the 2500' climb to the ridge, but as I followed it I soon noticed what looked like a prospect pit (a small hole dug by prospectors looking for signs of valuable ore). Was this the work of the cabin's builders? Quite soon I would follow my plan and descend 1200' in 30 minutes, hopefully reaching a creek with my objective on the opposite bank. I took a last look at my landmarks and dropped into mixed forest.

An unexpected find - collapsed portal in the background.

Knowing that I was heading into an area with a history of mining that is rarely visited by humans, I paid extra attention to my surroundings. I've found unlisted mines in the past, and did not want to step into one! As I began to doubt my navigation skills, or at least my chances of finding a log cabin in the middle of a forest, I spotted a feature and a small cabin on my immediate right. The feature turned out to be a collapsed portal, or tunnel entrance, and the cabin was quite small, with few clues to its exact purpose (since my objective - a larger cabin - was a quarter mile away). Having peered into the darkness of the adit and found nothing around the cabin, I continued toward the objective.

The main cabin.

I ran into a surprisingly healthy-looking stream that ran perpendicular to my route, as expected. It was small enough to jump across, and I was scanning the forest for signs of a man-made feature as soon as my feet hit the far bank. After 10 minutes of searching, I noticed a surprisingly solid and robust wall. It was time to drop my pack and investigate further!

An overview of the cabin.

The structure was larger than most I've found. Those far away from ghost towns are usually quite small and less thoughtfully built. It was clearly intended to last for many years, and if not for 100 years of Colorado winters (most with no maintenance), the roof may have been intact. Without it, the cabin was doomed.

The main entrance.

While it was in an advanced state of decay, it was still obvious that the builders knew their craft. One of the doors was still mostly intact, and framing for all openings was still attached to the log walls, which had been carefully reduced in width in those areas. At each corner, the logs had been cut into dovetail joints to create a durable structure. The builders clearly took pride in their work. Inside, I found an old metal tray, but decades of leaf litter probably hid any other artefacts.

Dovetail construction - impressive!

As I broadened my inspection to the surroundings, I found the usual can dump (thankfully we didn't have plastic back then), a few shards of ceramics and glass, and part of the soles of some very old boots. Who wore them and quite what they did out there, we'll never know.

Remains of a boot belonging to the previous occupants.

Again, the leaf litter and cabin debris may have hidden any other fragments of interest, but I looked in wider arcs to be sure. I did stumble on two cans (Coke and Shasta) dating back to the early 1970's, when perhaps the original trail wasn't completely overgrown. I wonder if the roof was intact 45 years ago....

Trash from the last visitor?

I still had a long journey ahead, so I took a long drink and then followed what little remained of the original trail until it was fully reclaimed by the wilderness. Fresh bear scat illustrated the fact that this secluded patch of forest was once again a refuge for wildlife. Perhaps the bear had watched this wanderer cross through his or her territory. I soon ran into fallen trees and steep creek banks once again (the reason I had taken the scenic route in), so I decided to climb out to another ridge, where a relatively easy journey home could be found.

Wilderness returns where a trail once existed.

The forests and mountains are filled with surprises, both natural and man-made, and while the old cabin was my stated reason for such an arduous day, the sights, sounds and scents always make the journey worthwhile, even without uncovering a piece of Colorado's history.

 

If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other posts from the menu below (or to the right, depending on the format).

 


New in Lake City, Colorado for 2018

July 16, 2018  •  1 Comment

As many of you know, I had an unexpectedly busy start to the summer season in Lake City. Bookings for photo shoots flooded in after a quiet spring, and then requests for a 2019 calendar built to a point where it just made sense to print my sixth in as many years.

The 2019 calendar almost didn't happen. Working in a town as tiny as Lake City is unpredictable by nature. Businesses change hands all the time. Sometimes the rent is too high, landlords too difficult, trade too low, or sometimes people just want to move on to something new. That's all fine, but for me it's just about impossible to plan ahead or really invest in anything more than my personal photography equipment. With last year's closures (including a couple of my retail partners and one community-minded art collective), I was ready to shut down my retail product development and sales entirely, but that changed when fans of my Facebook page placed orders for my 2019 calendar before I even shared the new cover design!

#3 Calendar 2015#3 Calendar 2015

After impressive sales wiped out my supplies before I could get significant numbers into stores, I have decided to reorder one more time. Calendars (and my book, Lake City Landscapes) will be available at the Lake City Trading Company, Bluebird Boutique and Silver Spur Gifts in downtown Lake City.

Lake City Landscapes is entering its second year of sales, having outsold both of my previous books combined. Since it's a limited edition, self published book, I will not print more - once they're gone, that's it!

To celebrate the book's sales and the many compliments I've received, I created a new video. Enjoy some behind-the-scenes footage here:

You can buy the book and calendar online simply by visiting my store (click here), where you'll find exclusive offers such as the combo deal (save $10 when buying both) and some other items. As always, I'll be glad to sign the book for you - just ask!


Wildfire Safety

June 12, 2018  •  1 Comment

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.

 

Fire prevention

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.

 

Fire Safety

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.

 


In Praise of the Buffalo Mountain Shirt

April 03, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

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.

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!

 


Death in the San Juans

February 01, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

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.”

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