Estes Park and the Battle for Spring

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Longs Peak, elevation 14,259 ft., shows itself through the clouds

Since childhood, my family regularly made it out to Colorado.  It was where my father was from and it was there my love for nature came.  My parents retired and settled out there in the town of Estes Park, below the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park.  The town of Estes Park has a population of around 10,000 but fluctuates much higher with tourists.

As a mountain town dependent on tourist dollars, Estes Park becomes a balancing act between the natural and the man-made.  A river runs through downtown, elk graze on the golf course, the peaks of the continental divide look down on gas stations and t-shirt shops.  And overseeing all of this is Longs Peak, the last fourteener in the Rocky Mountains as one heads north.  

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Leaf buds getting ready to blossom

My son and I went out for a visit during the last week of March.  The calendar said it was Spring, but Spring was still duking it out with Winter up in the Colorado Rockies.  It is interesting observing the change of seasons between different areas.  In Southern California, the coming of Spring is wishy-washy.  Warm gorgeous sunny days appear for a few days, followed by cool cloudy days.  A  lazy rain may drift through or maybe not.  Then perhaps a few more sunny days.  Whatever…

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A cold chilly morning.  By the afternoon both the deer and snow will be gone.

But up in Estes, Winter and Spring battle for control.  Sunny skies in the morning would be swallowed up by swirling clouds, temperature dropping quickly.  Fierce winds howl and everyone retreats to warm homes.  The next morning, the ground is white with snow that is quickly ushered out by the warming sun. 

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While Spring fights for control of Estes Park, ten miles north and 1500′ higher up Winter still holds domain

Go one valley over it and it’s the opposite.  Eventually Spring will win, but it may take a month or two.  Snow has been recorded in Estes Park every month of the year except August, so Winter can make an appearance anytime.

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A herd of elk (Cervus canadensis) relax the morning away

While Winter fights to hold on, Estes Park is a great place to see wildlife.  Seeking shelter from the bitter cold of the high mountains, herds of elk (Cervus canadensis) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) become tourists themselves, visiting the town.  It is not unusual at my parents’ house to wake up in the morning and look out to see elk or deer in the yard.  While small numbers of elk can be found anytime of the year in Estes, in winter time herds up to a hundred elk can spend the day in someone’s backyard, grazing on the grass and brushes.  Sometimes they will lay around for hours, hardly moving.  Or they slowly meander through the neighborhood, grazing.

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A bull elk hanging out in the neighborhood

Seeing the elk up close, one is struck by their size.  The bulls with their big rack of antlers are a majestic site.  In early Spring though the elk can appear a little mangy as their thick winter coat starts shedding in patches.

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Are you looking at us?

These big animals aren’t necessarily skittish, but they do look at people warily.  From the distance, they may appear to be paying little attention to you, but they do have an eye on you.  Get a little closer, those laying down will get up and the herd will start moving.  Too close and you might have an elk charging at you.  At seven hundred pounds, not a pleasant prospect.

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Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) grazing in someone’s front yard

The mule deer usually keep separate from the elk.  They form smaller herds and, like the elk, spend the day slowly grazing through a neighborhood.  More modest in size, their tawny grey coats blend them well into the brush.  Their name comes from their large stiff ears.  When they want to get away, they don’t run.  They bounce much like Tigger, a more efficient way to maneuver through the clutter forest floor.

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Drivers need to stay alert as wildlife can be crossing roads any time of the day

Both species tend to segregate themselves by sex, the fawns with the mothers.  Young males, sometimes call spikes because their short unbranched antlers, may still hang with the females.  But the following year they will be with the males.

Few yards in town have nicely manicure gardens for rare is the plant safe from grazing.  Even planting a deer-resistant brush won’t help.  Deer may be deterred but the elk don’t mind.  They are the goat of the deer family, eating anything.  So any successful gardening that is done is done behind high fences.

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Nature decorates down to the smallest details

But why garden when you can have nature do most of the work?  My parents’ yard is pretty much left alone.  Occasionally my Dad will plant a tree or bush surrounded by a mesh cage to protect it from the elk and deer.  But his main task is to walk the property and pull out any of the invasive plants that try to take root.

As with Los Angeles, invasive plants are a problem in Estes Park.  But where as in LA the battle is more about managing plants that are already established, in Estes it is working to prevent them from getting established.  Thistles are my Dad’s main arch-enemy.  But one plant that may have already won the battle is cheat grass (Bromus tectorum).

As with many invasive plants, there is few, if any, animals that will eat it.  And this is true with cheat grass — not even the elk will nibble on it.  There is even talk that Colorado may take it off its invasive species list because it has become too well establish.  My Dad would fight the good fight but even if he got rid of all the cheat grass on his property, without all the neighbors being equally diligent it will be a losing battle.  With seed heads that cling to anything, any animal or person walking by will re-seed it.

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Visitors’ cars fill the parking lots in town.  Come summer traffic on the main roadway can rival Los Angeles’ worst avenues.

But the real challenge for Estes Park is how to keep its natural elements while meeting the demands for growth.  The eastern slope of Colorado is experiencing heavy population growth.  But every house, apartment building, or business built destroys some of that open space that draws people.  If we humans are good at one thing, it is loving things to death.

Near the downtown area, in the midst of town is an open natural area called the Knoll-Willows.  Not large, just a few acres of land left as a natural space.  Several short trails wander through it.  On the top of a rocky knoll is the remains of a stone cabin.  As far as the views are concern, it was a great spot for a cabin, but great views don’t trump bad building design.  

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Ruins of Birch’s cabin overlook the town

Situated on a rocky crag, the cabin was built for Albert Birch, city editor of the Denver Post, in 1907.  Made from local stones, the walls and fire place required a lot of extra support on the uneven ground.  Large logs provided support to the foundation but may have not been the best material to use underneath the fireplace.  The story is on the first night in the cabin a fire was light in the fireplace and the heat  ignited the logs supporting the walls.

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The Needles seen from the stone ruins

Oh well, at least it is a picturesque ruin.

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The meadow and the replacement cabin used by the Birch family up to the 1980’s

Below the ruins is a meadow with a small creek running down.  At the edge of the meadow sits an old wood cabin built to replace the burnt down stone cabin above.

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Running water and icicles

With small patches of snow on the ground, the creek flowed freely, a few icicles on the rocks edging the water.  Little green was to be seen, but signs of the plants coming out of their winter dormancy appeared in leaf buds forming. 

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Pioneers of Spring, green sprouts break through the leaf litter

Occasionally a little green sprout was found among the leaf litter.  After pushing itself out of the dirt and litter it’s first thought was probably, ‘Ah crap, should have waited another week…’. Of course up in the mountains, there is no guarantee Spring would be in charge by then.

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Soon traces of Winter will be gone as Spring fades into Summer

It will come.  The meadow below the ruins and my parent’s yard will turn bright green speckled with wildflowers.  The temperature will rise and the snow flurries will be replaced with afternoon thunder storms.  Most of the elk and deer will follow the greening fields up into Rocky Mountain National Park till they’re grazing in the green tundra, 11,000 feet above sea level.  But a few deer and elk will linger among the yards and fields of Estes Park.

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Why head uphill when everything one needs can be found in town?

While my son and I visited at the end of March, I didn’t get this published till late April.  (So I’m not the fastest blogger…). The forecast for Estes Park this coming week includes two days of snow.  Winter ain’t giving up…

All photographs by Alan Starbuck

3 responses to “Estes Park and the Battle for Spring

  1. A log foundation? hmmm. under a fireplace?
    There are actually a few old buildings here that used old redwood stumps as foundations. They are so big and heavy, that they are sufficiently stable. They decay extremely slowly. There were a few stumps at my home that were over a century old, and just as stable as they had always been. I built a shower inside one, and an outhouse on top of another that was hollow on the inside.

    Liked by 1 person

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