Author Archives: irinajkd

Watching Crows Watching Me

I wait. Every morning I watch the pine’s upper branches and hope the hidden nest will be revisited. So far the crows are elusive. The dog and I go running, invariably greeted by a few dozen crows that roost down the hill, and I wonder how the people living there have adjusted to the constant cawing. And I wonder whether the babies “we” had last spring live there and recognize us with fondness.

It was last April when I watched one, surely the male, standing defiantly on a pine branch, as his mate alighted beside him and gave him that look, which truthfully he adored. But on this point he was adamant. Why couldn’t she accept that?

“I don’t understand why you insist on so many pine cones every year,” she declared. “They crowd our eggs. It doesn’t make sense.”

The breeze rocked their branch, sunlight speckling their feathers, so black they almost looked blue. She took a step away from him, turning in the other direction. Each spring it was the same story. She and their son pruned twigs for the nest foundation. They flew far to locate tufts of fur no longer in use, thoroughly searched bags on garbage day for shiny baubles and old socks, dryer lint and other soft valuables to be used as bedding.

Bark. Bark was plentiful, its underside soft for their babies.

“I like the pine cones,” he replied, jumping up one branch. “I want our babies to be raised surrounded by meaningful objects. And they’re not as spiky as you seem to think. You just need to be a little more careful,” he said, focusing on the injury healing on the side of her beak.

“Hey guys, look what I hound!” Their son returned from far and wide, speaking around a pinecone.

She threw her wings up in frustration and flew off.

I was digging a new flower bed, getting it ready for poppies, Shasta daisies, and peonies, when the couple flew over me, low, their strong wings flapping audibly. Still arguing.

“No more pinecones!”

They were building a nest near the top of a mature Ponderosa pine, in a cluster of branches close to the trunk, likely in the same neighborhood as their previous address. Several times each day I watched as they remodeled. Breezes swayed their chosen site, but they hopped around, impervious to gravity, 60 feet off the ground. They fluffed up this corner, rearranged that corner, though the particulars of their home were hidden from me. All I saw were heads appearing and disappearing among the needles, an occasional wing flap.

Binoculars didn’t help. What I needed was to climb up to take a look, perhaps offer my help. Reluctantly, I stayed out of their business, tending the flower bed.

Our crows in Colorado are the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), also called the common crow. They build nests often as a family activity, with young from previous broods pitching in. They are non-migratory in Colorado, and territorial, though individuals wander off to sleep with large flocks at roost sites, such as the one along my running route. A roosting site may house thousands of birds, which then disperse as far as 40 miles at mealtime.

There is some uncertainty in how old crows are when they begin to reproduce, but the numbers fall within wide ranges:  males from 2-5 years old, and females 3-6 years. This gives the young plenty of time to help raise their siblings, and perhaps explains the strength of their family units, which may consist of 15 individuals.

This year I studied a single young crow helping to assemble the nest, as did his siblings when he was little. He helped Dad feed Mom as she incubated his future brothers and sisters. New feathers gleamed in the sunlight, his wings strong, allowing him to effortlessly reach the tree top without frantic flapping. Hopefully this nest was more than a decoy built to confound raccoons, owls and hawks. The little family spent quite a bit of time sprucing this one up, and often a pair perched close by while one remained in the nest, so it was promising.

Nearly 2 weeks went by with the trio bringing in load after load, pruning twigs from the chosen site. There might be a single caw, causing me to look up from the Larkspurs I was consolidating in a bed. But they were abnormally quiet, typical of the nest-building and incubation periods. No sense in alerting predators to freshly laid eggs.

After a time, mother stopped leaving the nest, as the other two stood on guard nearby. One particular morning, a pair of undisciplined squirrels playing too close were surprised by the crows. Squirrels ran down the tree, black wings followed, squirrels jumped, until after extensive chippering and cawing, the boundaries of the crow territory were emphatically made clear. At least for the moment.

For weeks the mate and offspring frequently dropped by the nest, mere seconds at a time, hopped to an outside branch, then flew off again. I knew they were bringing the mother her favorite treats, such as mice, earthworms or insects, a side of seeds or fruit, maybe some juicy garbage. Crows also eat other nestlings, and carrion, though I tried not to think of such things. And we don’t have turtles or fish in the immediate area, so I wasn’t expecting piles of turtle shell detritus.

On occasion, I knew she would leave the nest, leaving one of her helpmates to guard, but I can’t distinguish male from female, and had no idea whether she trusted these two knuckleheads that much. The mothers do get a bare “brood patch” on their undersides from where they sit on the eggs, which hasn’t been seen in males. I suppose I could have clomped into the house with muddy shoes to find the binoculars, but I had pine needles to rake from the last winds.

The nest takes up to a couple of weeks to construct the bundle of branches and twigs forming the foundation, roughly 18” in diameter and 9” deep, along with the soft inner cup, up to 14” in diameter. Despite unruly spring weather, it will remain intact, protecting the little ones for their first few weeks.

After the nest is completed, egg laying begins. Another 2 weeks could go by without an egg, but then suddenly, one late morning, like an afterthought, out it comes. Then every day or two, usually late morning, another egg appears, until there are 3-5 eggs, or sometimes as many as 9. The large number of eggs helps offset the 50% mortality in the first year.

What I needed was a drone. There was no way to peer into the nest from below, and I’m not allowed to climb the pine trees anymore. What I expected to find were pale blue to olive green eggs, with brown and grey blotches on the bigger end, maybe ½” long, or as big as 3”. What was in that nest, I wondered.

Incubation takes 16-19 days, but I knew we were past that, that the babies already had hatched, when on June 8 there was a dead baby, just 5” long, with its blunt yellow bill and little feathers. It looked like it had been manipulated, perhaps carried the 100 yards from the tree by the neighbor dog. Had the little thing fallen out of the nest perched so high up? I worried that the nest was raided, but there was still plenty of activity.

To this point, the crows had potentially invested a couple of weeks building the nest, waited 1-4 weeks to have all the eggs laid, and incubated them 2 or so weeks. It was nearly the middle of June and we knew there were probably several other little feathered critters starting to fill up the nest. Dad and sibling became noisy again, but stayed close by, dropping off a constant supply of food. Through the branches I could see tail feathers pointing upward, then downward and a head would reappear.

At about 4 weeks old, the little ones would learn to fly. Until then, the nest was actively defended from the baby squirrels, using the pinecones so enthusiastically collected earlier.

It was the 3rd week in June when, in the quiet of the morning, I first heard baby cawing sounds. This family had trained me to look toward The Tree any time there was cawing. With a mumbling sound that sort of sounded like a duck quacking, a crow arrived in a nearby tree, announcing his arrival. They mumbled back and forth before he approached further, gliding toward an outer branch next to the nest, before hopping to greet Mom and babies. And then these little voices started their muted cawing, presumably to get more food than their sibling. The large crow hopped out of the nest, as the babies stopped crying.

A couple of weeks later, there was a pair of full-sized crows ineptly gliding from branches to ground, hopping around, jumping back up onto branches. These were our new babies, fledging!

I watched proudly as they practiced flight in the trees nearer our house, emulating their big brother. For days they challenged each other to try getting back up to the nest, hopping around the tall grasses as parents looked on, ready to defend them from ground-based predators, then jumping to lower branches, gliding back down.

Before long, before my fascination waned, they were gone. One third of their year had been taken up providing the next generation.

I supposed the large flock that roosted at the bottom of the hill had grown by two, and every time I ran past their territory I hoped they recognized me as an adored aunt.

A year later I watched the tree, hoping for an encore, which of course never came. The old nest would be adopted by hawks or owls, or come summer used for napping raccoons or new little squirrels. And our new crows would find their own Ponderosa to call home.


Further Reading:


No Cartwheels Today

I won’t lie. For a week, I worried about going dirt biking. Already two years had gone by since taking the motorcycle safety class, and the dirt bike was the proverbial horse, unridden before now. Broc generously offered my daughter, Shannon, and other co-workers to go on the dirt track behind the Fox Racing building where they worked, and Shannon enthusiastically volunteered me.

So I worried. Would I remember how to operate a motorcycle? Shifting gears (left hand clutch, left foot gears), braking (right hand front wheel, right foot on the tiny pedal for back wheel, apply both equally). Turning. We did a lot of turning in the motorcycle class, but it was tricky coordinating balance and speed. Compound my rusty skills with a dirt track. Slippery dirt. Probably giant hills. And malicious turns. True, I could have declined. Peer pressure, certainly from a far younger generation, has rarely swayed me. But if I did it without breaking a femur, it would be self-affirming. What a cool thing to have done. The past tense here is what I looked forward to.

After work, Shannon and her co-worker Michelle met me outside their building. Broc walked us past the bikes – 125cc and over 100lbs we’d have to pick up if we fell – as my pulse quickened. Broc is a kind man, tall and gentle, not the hard core image I’d associate with a high adrenaline sport. His love for motocross is evident. He readily put me at ease, having plenty of experience volunteering his skills in education and promotion of the sport.

Broc fitted us with cheerily decorated helmets, excessively padded inside, forcing a look of apprehension in the direction of the bikes. Michelle and I put on chest protectors, alas not like the Kevlar worn by the military, but clearly insufficient for the peril we would shortly face. After a brief overview of how to ride these bikes, Michelle and I hopped on, sitting far forward over the engine for better traction. Clutch in, shift to neutral, jump up and down on the kickstarter lever until finally, stubborn as a lawnmower, it started. Vroom vroom! OK, so maybe this would end up alright. Clutch in, use toes to push the shifter down a notch into 1st, slowly release clutch and off we go. Add a little gas from the right handle grip. Heigh Ho Silver! What fun! I had forgotten the pleasure of the wind surrounding me, the rumbling of the seat and under my feet. I was ready to get on the road and cruise into the sunset.

All too soon a gate faced me. The parking lot was ending. Now what? OK, this was only the first run down the aisle, so foregoing a powered turn, clutch went in as I slowed enough for my feet to guide me around, avoiding a search for the tiny circular pedal that passes for a foot brake. Michelle and I timidly avoided each other with each pass until Broc coerced us into shifting into 2nd for the straightaways. As it turns out, pleasure increases exponentially with respect to velocity.

A few more turns (look Shannon, no feet!) and we were pronounced prepared for the track. Reluctantly, we ushered Broc ahead of us and watched with our mouths agape and eyes riveted as he gracefully followed the contours up, down and around. Hmmm, Silver seemed a bit wary and in need of coaxing. I graciously let Michelle and her mount go first. Up the first little hill, the second larger hill, the third giant hill. They disappeared, leaving us only with the Doppler-shifted rumbling.

After a long moment devoid of screaming or crashing sounds, Silver stopped bucking in fear and we suspiciously entered the track. First hill – cool. Second larger hill – cooler. Third giant hill – aaaaaah, all the way down the precipice, carefully steering through the notch and then to the right. The turns were angled to help you use your center of gravity around the arc, but still I panicked and used the clutch, slowing to avoid a parallel section of track. A few iterations later I rose up on the turns in 1st gear, surely feeling like a true motocross racer. Broc had told us to extend the inside leg and shift our behind to the outside of the seat in turns, but Silver would have none of that.


With a sensitive accelerator, it was tricky keeping a constant speed, even in the parking lot, and here with ups and downs, lefts and rights, this skill completely eluded me. It was at this point I asked Broc for any tips and was rewarded with “Keep your speed steady.” Perhaps another day.


Round and round we went until I found Silver not responding as well. Concluding he was tiring, we clumsily got off the track, preferring to watch Michelle – unflailing Michelle, addicted Michelle – continue to ride the track at full speed, which for us was on the order of 5 mph.


With the exception of the third hill that first run, the ride felt safe. I didn’t fall, there was no blood. From my ski days, I knew this meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. But over the years I have also learned where to draw the line, that if something was worth pursuing, I could find a way to improve my skills at a later date. Just riding the bike was a sufficient goal for today. Going on a dirt track was cake frosting.

Shannon, in the meantime, had wandered to join other colleagues on an umbrella-covered  deck surrounded by the track and flowering bushes. Maria was cooking a savory shrimp, ham and bacon soup on the grill, in genius foil bags that could be opened into a bowl.

I don’t know how Silver was rewarded after our excursion, but for myself there was a scrumptious soup, and the confidence from having ridden that elusive horse.

Canoe vs. Geologist

The canoe was upside down, floating toward the river bend. Hoping their paddles weren’t too far behind, two women climbed the river bank. If they cut across the field, they might be able to intercept their belongings downstream. In their sloshing shoes, bulky life vests hindering their movements, they pulled up on the long grasses and small bushes, hurrying while slipping on the loose dirt of the embankment. We looked back down at our canoe, still safely on shore, as our anxiety grew. We double-checked the knots securing our dry bags, pushed our canoes off the beach into the warm Colorado River, and climbed in as our guides had instructed, wondering how already two canoes in our group had overturned.

Ron and I were among the “more experienced” canoers, having last gone out about 35 years ago. Ron had also canoed a few times when he was growing up, and therefore was assigned the captain’s position in back, to shout out commands to me ensuring we stayed afloat. And so we set off, passing yet another overturned canoe, the guides getting everyone back on board. About 100 yards downstream, the other students were gathering around our geology instructor’s boat, grasping the shore grasses, canoes facing upstream as we had been taught, proud to have made it this far. The first wayward canoe was captured successfully.

We own stacks of books collected on our travels, on paleontology, on anthropology and archeology. We read books on local geology on road trips, stopping to look at faults, layering of formations, synclines, and we excitedly recognize these same things when we hike, deriving wonder from the glimpses of tectonic forces. We have learned that Colorado started out as just an outline in the sea 1.75 billion years ago, just an anticipation of where land would eventually be shoved onto the earliest land mass. At that time, our continent consisted of most of Montana, Wyoming, Utah and the Dakotas attached to the better part of Canada. Island arcs periodically slammed into the little continent from various sides, adding more real estate and forming the lowest layer of rocks under the Colorado Plateau. Continents crashed into each other, then broke apart. Life began on our planet. Colorado moved from the equator north, sometimes above water, sometimes not. The Ancestral Rockies rose, then eroded away. All of this was before the dinosaurs. Land smashing into land causes folds in the rocks, and mountains to be raised up. Other rocks collapse. The rocks high up weather, sediments cover up earlier layers of sediments. The segment of Colorado River we would travel on this day, the grand finale to our geology class, showed layering, volcanoes, and who knew what else. We were excited to get going. Mostly.

Once all the canoes were accounted for and fully loaded, we turned into the current and leisurely paddled downstream. We floated for a time, enjoying the warm sunshine, the immensity of deep blue sky, the calm river, all confirming this would be a perfect day. Well, if you weren’t constantly running through the thistles after your boat. The riverbank rose on one side. Our instructor Bob began to talk about igneous rocks, which melted far below us and spewed out into the volcanoes we saw above us.

“These volcanoes are more recent, from the Upper Tertiary, about 5-24 million years old. But look at the cliff face beside the river. You’ll see even more recent sedimentation, from the Quaternary. And those basalts in the distance came from volcanoes within the last 2 million years, about the time the Ice Age first began.”

geology 1-2Up and down went the land. We could envision it building, eroding, building, eroding. Layers upon layers, mashed together. Forces uncommon elsewhere in the universe, thanks to the high temperatures in our planet’s mantle, and proliferation of water above the crust.

Now the guides, far ahead, were motioning to the right. “Back paddle on the right”, Ron decided. We paddled, picking up speed, moving to the river edge while watching for hidden rocks.

Long stretches of the river were placid, gently moving us. A hammock came to mind as a yawn escaped. It was easy to imagine lying down, to give in to the rocking. I forced my eyes back to reality.

Again, the guides motioned to go right and as, one by one, the canoes moved over, we suddenly saw white water. Was this normal? Could you take a canoe through rapids? Those ahead of us were rocking erratically, not appearing in control at all. Surely we would perish. I quickly got to my knees, wedging them in the bow for stability. Waves crashed into my chest, splashing my sunglasses. Barely able to see, I paddled frantically to avoid hitting rocks that appeared suddenly. We bobbed over waves into the next trough trying to keep from turning sideways to the river. Our canoe seemed to be riding lower, and water enveloped my knees.

As suddenly as the rapids had begun, the calm resumed. I could now hear whooping around me. Grinning from having not drowned, I set to bailing the water out using a bottomless plastic vinegar jug. Someone’s jug floated past us, just beyond reach. We pulled over to wait for the rest of our group. Here came Bob The Geologist, capable and alone in his giant canoe that rode high in front just from his meager weight in back. His floppy sun hat was still on straight, his face devoid of emotion. Clearly he had done this before, was unthreatened by the powerful river. Behind him, a couple of canoes struggled, but everyone remained upright. Geology students WERE trainable!

We tied our canoes to the shore as the guides produced tables and coolers we had somehow brought with us. Bob took us up the hill to inspect rocks as our lunch was being prepared. We identified several different types, and attempted to explain the history of this landscape, using our surroundings to gain further insight into the Maroon Formation, the Dakota Sandstone on top of it, the shales deposited in the Cretaceous Interior Seaway. Bob continued his lecture.

“We just passed through ancient sediments from the Triassic, 320-245 million years old, when the Ancestral Rockies rose and eroded. Remember, these were not in any way related to our Rockies today, other than they are generally in the same location. Notice the red and white layer around us, the Morrison Formation. We are in sedimentary rock from before North America was split vertically by the Cretaceous Interior Seaway. This is when dinosaurs dominated the land, 144 million years ago, in the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous. So you’ll find their fossils if you start digging.” I remembered the dinosaur footprints seen at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison, could see waves lapping along the Colorado coastline.

“Remember that the Morrison Formation is also called the Maroon Formation on this side of the Rockies, because when they were first studied, geologists didn’t realize they were created in exactly the same way,” Bob added.

Back and forth we moved through formations, through time, again to the Upper Cretaceous, then Upper Tertiary. Great forces under our feet, invisible to our short lifespans, were still moving us upward. Forces around us leveled the peaks again. Time periods so long as to be timeless. Even the Colorado River was a marvel. Starting as a trickle in Rocky Mountain National Park just 50 or 60 miles away, here it was wide enough for swimming. Colorado is not known for big rivers. The Big Thompson can nearly be jumped across in places.

A few veggies and fruit remained after the picnic, the Oreos completely gone, and coolers were being packed back into the canoes. We donned our life vests and carefully took our boat a little way downriver. Holding onto the shore grasses, we waited as others joined us. Before lunch, a couple of student canoes had been rafted to guide canoes to provide reassurance and prevent further flipping over. Among them we found our friends who had flipped early on, who now ambled past looking relaxed. We followed them into the sun, the sky still that deep blue seen at high elevation where the black of outer space is sufficiently close to make a difference. There was a light breeze, refreshing on the warm day and we splashed each other and laughed. The guides navigated us around shallows. Left, right, right again. We raced the other canoes, joked with each other, paddling with confidence.

Ahead the river widened, became shallower. Our canoes had been spread out across the river when suddenly the guides motioned right. As the water quickened, Ron and I discovered we wouldn’t be able to follow their path but would be forced into wilder rapids. It soon became evident that these were substantially more extensive than the ones from the morning. The waves slammed into us, splashes going over our heads. We were chaotically thrown over and through, turned sideways. I strained to see below the whitecaps, searching for rocks, using the paddle to push one direction, then the other, fiercely holding on to it. The ride was rough, we were drenched, focusing on just the next wave, then the next trough. We couldn’t gauge how much more we would have to endure, simply worked one wave at a time. When again the whitecaps subsided, so did the fear. I pondered doing it again. Maybe we would bring our kayaks here next summer, see if the experience could be improved upon. Spray skirt, shallow draft. I set to bailing the water out.

One by one, a few student canoes came through the rapids and parked beside us. We waited. Waited some more. We couldn’t see as far as the top of the rapids, but the bottom was empty. Where did everybody go? We laughed nervously, waiting. Surely we were close to the take out point, another bend or two and we should see the bridge and parking lot. But we obediently waited.

A confusing mass of canoes finally appeared in the lower rapids. There was shouting, boats were too close to each other. People were in the water, being held by those in canoes. Then more people were in the water, having jumped or perhaps fallen out. A guide shouted “feet first” repeatedly, making sure nobody crashed backward into a rock. The mass slowly progressed downriver, an amorphous glob of humanity surrounded by canoes and shrapnel – hats, bailing bottles, a sandal. One side raised up over a wave, nudging the other side, threatening to cover the swimmers. Paddles slapped inexplicably. We saw a canoe surface. It was SUBMERGED? The chaos approached, everybody holding on to an arm, a paddle, a boat, forming a gigantic raft.

We expected a return to normality once the raft emerged from the rapids, a sorting out as people got back into their boats. The raft stopped along the shore. Then it continued, a guide still shouting to keep feet headed downriver. They paused again, then again continued toward us. A couple of canoes disconnected from the raft and joined us. Apparently, the rapids had flooded one of a pair of rafted canoes, threatening to flood the 2nd canoe. A large cooler attached between the benches added extra weight they couldn’t compensate for. As the flooded canoe sunk lower and lower, the students got on the benches as the water rose to their waists, then necks. The canoe scraped bottom and finally broke in half. The swimmers were going to have to walk the rest of the way. The guides retrieved what they could, helped several people to the bank, and we watched them climb to the train tracks paralleling the river.

A quarter mile later, as we pulled the canoes up the hill to the parking lot, the walkers arrived. We found ourselves milling around, nobody wanting to leave. A bond had formed that day. A sense of unity resulted from the unexpected forces of nature. We had arrived that morning, a few hours ago, a few hundred million years ago. We had experienced the strength of the force of water, one of many forces molding the earth. We better understood the massive alluvial fans, which had been pulverized as rock swept from countless canyons in the peaks behind us.

The river, the rocks, the tectonic forces; The sun, clouds and rain. Even the grasses and bushes, flower and bees, fish and mammals – these all worked together, worked on the landscape in a seamless fashion. Feeding each other and from one another. Without knowing they were inextricably linked.

And as we milled around, I understood that was what kept us from dispersing to our cars and our other lives. We sensed that we too somehow were part of the mystery of our little blue marble, floating somewhere on an outer part of one arm of a spiral galaxy, seemingly insignificant but, in the end, of unimaginable value.

geology 2-1













geology 3-3

Let’s Catch An Owl

How do you catch an owl? It was the question that brought us to to Rocky Mountain National Park late one afternoon. Turns out it’s not that complicated, and that it mostly takes patience. Oh, and a state or federal permit.

Scott Rashid is THE go to person in Colorado. Not just because he would be our instructor for the 4 hour session that evening, but because he is the ONLY person licensed to band owls in this state. Fortunately he shares his love of owls with anybody willing to learn, and when he speaks, his enthusiasm is evident in the speed with which the words come out of his mouth, sometimes requiring a moment for our brains to catch up.

As the sky darkened, we listened to the recording of a Boreal Owl mating cry, loudly projected from 2 speakers into the forest outside our cozy classroom. Surrounding the speakers were 3 mist-nets, each striped with floppy net sections that could entangle anything coming into contact with it, including rings, velcro, a surprised bear. Or a confused owl, knowing that mating season is over, and yet figuring it prudent to investigate.

The wind was howling. Scott explained that it would be therefore unlikely that we would capture anything. We waited a half hour before checking the nets, happy not to be outside on this chilly October night. No owl.

Scott talked about the 19 species of owls found in North America, of the 10 species found in Colorado, and about little tiny owls that I never knew existed, which immediately triggered my curiosity. Did you know that there are some owls just 6 1/2″ long from head to tail? That would be the Northern Pygmy-Owl. Little owls tend to nest in tree cavities previously created by other birds.

The two we were hoping to band that night were the Boreal, and the Northern Saw-whet Owls, two species of a single genus. The Saw-whet Owls are not all that much larger, 6 1/2 to 8″ long, with the Boreal Owls about 10″ long. The serenade continued in the darkness. After 15 minutes, again we all donned jackets and went into the woods to check the nets. Still no owls.

An accomplished artist, Scott creates watercolors of his beloved owls as well as of other birds using a unique style showing three different poses per painting. His works are beautiful as well as informative. He is also an author, having compiled a compendium of owl facts and stories, in addition to some of his watercolors, into the volume he autographed for us. Look for his book Small Mountain Owls.

We were starting to believe there would be no owl captured that night, but every 15 minutes, faithfully, at least one or two went to check the nets, until … surprise!  What was in the little black cloth bag, jiggling it so vigorously?

Not expecting success on this windy night, we were not prepared for our guest, and now rushed to plug in the scale and enlist someone to neatly record the little Boreal Owl’s curriculum vitae. Bravely, Scott reached into the bag to grab the feet, and out came a bright yellow eyed small bundle of feathers that made eye contact with each of its captors, presumably finding us non-threatening, before finding a new bracelet being attached to its leg. The owl was quickly weighed, its wing length measured, as camera flashes recorded this perplexing misadventure.

P1090468-16 P1090462-13 P1090463-14 P1090466-15

Outside we all went for the dramatic release, whereupon Miss Owl (yes, it turned out to likely be female) flew up, instead of out, and perched in the rafters, safely out of reach, where it was her turn to perform observations. There we were, owl and humans, studying one another.

The recording in the forest was switched to a Saw-whet Owl call, and I really hoped we catch one, as they are as cute as an owl could be, round balls of feathers with yellow eyes, and fuzzy white faces with brown radiating outward. But as the night progressed, we saw it would not be. We waved farewell to Miss Owl, still in the rafters sheltered from the wind, as the evening came to an end.

And that is how you catch an owl!

If you would like more information about small owls, sign up for a class with Scott through the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. Or poke around at the following online resources:

Happy Trails!

Eleven Months of Suspense

Half Dome

When an expanse is too vast, it feels 2-dimensional, a mural. Consider standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Vast, yes. Two-dimensional, yes. Afraid of falling in? Not really.

On the other hand, climb onto a boulder 10’ high and you feel the ground calling.

Now pick something intermediate. Say … Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The summit is at 8839’, the valley floor and closest walls nearly a mile in any direction. It’s potentially scary-vast.


It wasn’t on my Bucket List after both my brother and sister did it in the ‘70s, nor while, my husband and I lived conveniently close through the ‘80s. As I age, the Bucket List becomes more real, and there might be things on it that never get done if I dilly dally. Suddenly Half Dome is in bold font.

We hike and backpack, mountain bike and ski. I like to climb, and heights don’t bother me as a rule. We usually do one or two half marathons a year, to justify our eating habits.

Water frightens me terribly, but I learned to scuba dive – mostly because I don’t like the idea of being limited by my fears. I’m OK ON the water, like in a kayak or on a sailboard. Anyway, the water bit isn’t relevant here, just throwing it in as a freebie.

Bottom line, we’re pretty fit for a couple of old people.

And so when I started talking about doing Half Dome, finding out more about it from others, I was surprised at the responses I got.

My sister Valerie, who admittedly wasn’t fit when she did it as a teenager, said she complained the whole way up, but she nevertheless recounted fond memories of the adventure.

My dental hygienist, an ultra-marathoner with a preference for 100 mile races (!!), said it was hard and that her quads and calves were very sore after.

And yet living at 6700’, in Colorado, the land of THIN air, I was more concerned about air THICKNESS. And by “concerned”, I mean “looking forward to”. We had done the Pikes Peak Ascent several times, a half marathon with elevation gain of 7815’. Pikes Peak summit is 14,114’ – it’s one of the many 14ers in Colorado that we have hiked. So altitude and elevation gain didn’t really concern me. You just take your time and keep on going, and once the air thins out, you step/breathe/step/breathe. Eventually you find yourself at the summit, hopefully without a thunderhead to greet you.

I read that the hike from the Happy Isles trailhead is anywhere from 12-14 miles, to 17 miles. Yes, a HUGE difference! I knew we could handle a half marathon distance pretty readily, but 17 miles is long. How could they not know how long it is? How much food and water would we need to carry? Could we count on the Merced River having measurable water during this severe drought?

The photos of the dome itself are bizarre. Cables are put up May-ish, and taken down usually in October. The 2 parallel cables are braided steel, attached to posts in (hopefully) deep holes drilled into the granite. Each pair of posts has a 2×4 attached to minimize a big slide back to earth. So in the photos you see what appears to be a ladder of posts, cables and 2x4s going straight up. Could that be right?


140828_2193 First, a little background. Like in many National Parks, it’s a bear to arrange lodging on short notice, and Half Dome is so popular anymore that a ranger is posted on a rock about 8 miles from the trailhead, checking your papers like a Customs agent. Permits are assigned by lottery during the month of March for the May-Oct season. Conveniently, the Yosemite NP website shows you charts with odds of lottery success by day and date for the previous year to help you pick your seven preferred climbing dates, and in September we reserved a Curry Village tent cabin for a 3-week window.

By April we knew we won the permit for August 28 and began evaluating necessary fitness requirements. We were well into training for a June half marathon, with a second slated for early August, so at least the 12-, 14-, or 17-mile roundtrip (depending on which source you trusted) should be doable.

August was good because there was less of a chance of afternoon thunderstorms, though an early start would be prudent. Standing on a huge granite batholith with lightning all around would do a job on my hair.

The deep Yosemite valley captures Spring snowmelt from the surrounding backcountry in the form of numerous gigantic waterfalls, but it has the side effect of making the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls too slippery to be safely passable. And we had to go past Vernal Falls to get to Half Dome. Going in August meant we wouldn’t have to use the John Muir Trail “longcut”, although our knees may beg us to come back down that way rather than by the steep big granite steps on the Mist Trail.

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And so it was that during the next 11 months, much to Husband Ron’s pleasure 🙂 , all I talked about was Half Dome, perhaps to reassure myself that it couldn’t be as hard as everybody says.

Pre-dawn August 28 we found ourselves walking from Camp Curry to the trailhead, a quick 3/4 mile warmup walk.

The first few hours of hiking are quite beautiful, going past first Vernal Falls (via Mist Trail, yay!), then Nevada Falls. The Little Yosemite Valley is conifers, at least before the big fire would engulf a portion of it 2 weeks hence. We found a solitary Sugar Pine cone without a Sugar Pine tree in sight. A morning puzzle.

Half_Dome_east_side_001It is as you get further into the valley that you see the backside of Half Dome – the rounded side – and its shoulder, which we would shortly be ascending.

The trail leaves the valley, winding through pine-scented Heaven, to the far side of the shoulder, whereupon we came across the surly ranger and loitering, permit-less hikers hopeful for a slot with another group.

The shoulder has no cables but is a very steep stairway composed of sharp, narrow granite blocks. This is where the fear begins. No handrail, so you watch foot placement carefully, resisting any inclination to admire the breathtaking view.

A couple of short switchbacks and that view has expanded above the trees to 180 degrees. You’re starting to see the big Yosemite Valley below, and the spectacularly smooth white granite walls of Tenaya Canyon to the north, carved during the last ice age by a 2000’ deep glacier.


Two-dimensional landscapes … the world recedes into the haze. You are indeed here, finally, well on your way to earning the plum-colored Half Dome t-shirt.

Up and up you go, switchback after switchback, crawling on slabs of granite when the trail is elusive. After about 45 minutes and .4 miles you have climbed 500’ to the top of the shoulder, where you finally understand the gravity of this undertaking. The cables await. Dauntingly.

I enjoy climbing. I love standing on a precipice, ready to fly. But this … I ponder the line of people that become ants far above, and I am intimidated. I sit and watch, neck craned. From one moment to the next, one person changes position. It’s a slowly evolving arrangement you would miss should you avert your eyes. My mind empties and I just watch the unprotected climbers.

This is a ladder missing most of its rungs. The poles supporting the cables wobble. How deep are these holes anyway? What if someone pulls a pole loose? Would everybody end up in an attached heap, broken, at my feet?

A few people sit beside me watching the acrobatics, having decided this trail, today, ends here.

One young fit couple comes down. This is the husband’s second attempt, his first success. His pronouncement deserves no shame. His wife offers the suggestion to not look down during the ascent. Others recommend descending face to the wall, to hang on tightly.

Ron decides to venture forward, ascending a couple of rungs to determine feasibility. The sun is warm on my face and I wonder whether I have arrived this far only to turn back, content with the prospect. How is this climb even possible? Whose idea was it???

When Ron returns, I put on my pack. We go up, devoid of emotion.


Imagine the granite expanse before you, 400’ vertical, 200-300 yards of cables, and a typical incline of 45 degrees. It is easy to imagine you are the Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale, living alone on a tiny planet.250px-Littleprince

You don’t have the continuity of land expanding for miles, ingrained in Homo sapiens from time immemorial. So when suddenly you appear on the surface of the planet belonging to the Little Prince, it’s disconcerting. This is a DOME. The surface curves away from you in all directions. VERY 3-dimensionally.

Above, people disappear over the granite horizon. Below looks to be straight down. You avoid looking at the unnatural curvature left and right, and correct yourself when your eyes stray to the mountains beyond the glacier carved valleys.

Something primal tears at me. How is it possible this is so popular as to need a LOTTERY system? Who are all these people around me and why are they here? Did they also not believe this would feel EXACTLY like what the pictures show?

I reach another rung, a 2×4 attached too loosely to the metal posts. I contemplate possible paths to the next rung, as I let my arms rest. If I put right foot on that rough spot, I could get left foot to that little knob, and swing right foot over the slab ledge.

Onward I go, sometimes slipping, my gloved hands holding tightly. Hand, foot, other hand, other foot.

The Dome still curves above me, people still vanish, no end in sight. And yet my sister Valerie told me that at the top they played Frisbee.

I look down a few times, holding securely from the relative safety of a 2×4 that seems to have lost one of its anchors over the long summer. The Dome is immense, but not so vast as to be flat, I conclude. A bird goes by. All is silence.

An hour and 20 minutes after Checkpoint Ranger, I see people standing without cables. Could it be?

Soon I too am off the cables, disoriented by granite I can stand on by gravity alone. An eternity has passed. A lifetime having considered what I am made of, surprised at having reached this uncertain goal. This is it? I did it?

Ron sits beside me in the saddle, gazing in happiness at the granite valley before us, far below. We open the bag of Celebratory Dark Chocolate Mint M&Ms, then have a leisurely lunch in the sunshine.

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An hour passes, I build a cairn, the day is glorious.


But then we find the top of the cable section, pausing with uncertainty at what is to come, enjoying the 360 degree view one final time, before joining the mass of bodies on what looks to be a string of fish.


Descending, I feel a new confidence in my abilities, in conquering what I hadn’t expected to be so monumental. I look to the expanse without fear, delighting in my transformation, at a new standard of ability going forward.

The descent is SO much easier. Your entire foot provides traction on the granite, instead of just the toes. You feel secure going hand over hand, stopping to let climbers ascend, and suddenly 25 minutes have passed and you are off the cables again, looking for the start of the steps on the shoulder section. There is no sign of the ranger, and we pass back through the forested switchbacks and the Little Yosemite Valley, down to Nevada Falls where we contemplate filling up our 100 oz camelbaks, close to empty. We’re about 3.8 miles to camp, all downhill, and there is a water fountain at the bridge at Vernal Falls so we continue on, passing the baton from tiring feet to fresh knees as we descend the 500’ in 0.8 miles of the Mist Trail.

IMG_8830-8Refreshed from the water fountain, we go over the bridge, with just 1.75 miles back to the trailhead. Our feet protest, we place them delicately on the ups and downs, then another .75 miles on flat land to our tent, where the beer cooler awaits in the bear locker.

We really did it! We took an unknown and made it ours, an 11 hour hike/climb at a leisurely pace with plenty of rest, but we persevered and got the plum colored t-shirt!



If you plan to do Half Dome, you might consider via ferrata gear (which only a handful of people had), but I HIGHLY recommend climbing gloves AND climbing shoes. My low-top boots didn’t provide sufficient stickiness.

Also, in addition to long distance training and any high altitude training you can squeeze in, exercise calves and upper/lower arms, plus quads. The total mileage I recorded, via Mist Trail both ways, from Camp Curry, is 16.9 miles.

And you may want to fill your camelbak with Gatorade to guard against cramping. Carry more than 100 oz, maybe another liter, or plan to refill at the top of Nevada Falls, being of course sure to purify the water using your preferred method. We carried the UV pen, light and convenient, and the Merced river was flowing nicely.

Unfortunately I’m not aware of any anti-vertigo training, other than standing at the top of Half Dome!


Thanks to my husband, Ron Donaldson, for his photos included above.


The Sadness of Losing a Close Friend

Purple Bike and I came from different backgrounds, had so little in common it was difficult to engage one another at the start.

But as with any relationship, the more time we spent together, the more we came to understand each other’s preferences, and in the end it was hard to part ways. We learned to compensate for each other’s behavior under different conditions and eventually functioned fairly fluidly as one.

The two of us had great adventures as we grew together, riding around DIA when it consisted of a couple of dirt roads, exploring a set of jumps someone had built in an empty lot along the Highline Canal Trail.

We rode up Waterton Canyon and onto the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail – the beginnings of a whole different adventure on single-track that at the time we could not comprehend with its rocks and roots, uphills and switchbacks. We walked hand on handlebar until realizing it would have to wait for another day, and turned around to whoop downhill all the way to where the canyon becomes Plains, bighorn sheep giving us the Evil Eye.

Over the years, we tried other segments of the Colorado Trail, some attempts less disastrous than others.

We rode long sections of the Santa Fe Trail, from Larkspur, through Greenland and Palmer Lake, down to Monument and through the Air Force Academy to downtown Colorado Springs. And back, with Purple Bike doing its best to think “soft seat”.

On warm summer days, Purple Bike came with me to work so we could do our favorite sections of the Santa Fe Trail, up and down through the Ponderosa pines of the AFA. I’m sure it was disappointed and alarmed at the cartwheel through the sandpit, both of its wheels touching the sky, warm handlebars embedded in my chest as I heaved, trying to catch my breath. After that, we became more cautious in the sandpits.

Mt Herman Road was one of our favorites, on weekdays in summer, unchallenged by the cars that kick up too much dust and rocks on weekends, long forested valley below, wildflowers beside, and always the deep blue Colorado skies above. We’d ride up to where it began to flatten out, then enjoy the breeze in our spokes coming back down.

It was with Purple Bike that Ron and I explored the trail park in Monument, the endless interconnected single-track that invariably led to the tower rock, never actually getting lost despite never knowing where we were.

And on days when Purple Bike’s shifters itched for a ride, we wandered the neighborhood, initially on deer paths, then on asphalt as the deer paths were widened and paved. There still remain a few rutted areas that we enjoy splashing through after a rain. It’s not the same, but is it ever?

With the advent of shock absorbers, Purple Bike knew its days were limited when we went to Moab, our downhill song warbled by the slick rock, which isn’t as slick at higher speeds. And sure enough, the very next year, Ron replaced his bike with one that had shocks.

It took a few more years before I replaced Purple Bike, during which we still went out to Greenland Trail, to Spruce Mountain Trail and Dawson Butte, enjoying the smells of the pines, the expansive views of the Front Range, the tight switchbacks and sand pits. We bounced over roots and sometimes flew a little too fast over the bumps. And it was OK, we were a team, we knew how much we could push it!

We did the Danskin Triathlon bike segment together quite nicely, with Purple Bike cheering me on for the run, and for the swim which it knew I feared. And how many Elephant Rock rides did we end up doing together? Twenty to 30 miles on mostly dirt, through Castlewood Canyon, ending on a long downhill, 45 mph back to party at the Castle Rock Fairgrounds.

Purple Bike had become rusted in places, its chain ring had to be replaced, it got shiny new shifters and brakes. But still it was the chosen bike to ride in the Tour de Fat in Denver, a prestigious bike parade with a diverse crowd of riders committed to stop driving cars. Proudly, Purple Bike rode among the tall bikes, the unicycles, the bikes with pedals made of ski sections. It enjoyed the camaraderie at the After Party and never once complained that its chain just didn’t turn as smoothly as in the old days.

And then one summer, it wasn’t ridden at all. It was moved to the upper bike rack, with a young Cannondale replacing it in the lower rack. It saw me approach it often, bike helmet in hand, but my bike shoes clicked these days. Clicked, because I wouldn’t be putting them into Purple Bike’s clips, but instead into the pretty new bike’s cleats.

A couple more summers passed by, its tires becoming more deflated along with its self-confidence. And then, out of the blue, one Spring day, it was taken off the top rack! I pumped up its tires, just like we used to do before each ride. I put on my helmet, put my bike shoes on. Purple Bike felt so good! Memories of its youth resurfacing in profusion, as it switched effortlessly through each gear, braking, turning. We took a short ride, but it was like Heaven for both of us!

I was preparing Purple Bike for a new owner. And she came with a big smile on her face, anxious for what the future would hold as they made their first strained ride down the driveway, teetering to one side, never falling.

Purple Bike found a new purpose in life, was moving closer to town and would ride on the paved trails with the new partner. A new relationship, a renewed sense of optimism.

What would this new adventure bring?

Greenland Trail - Irina P7210053 copy P1020488-1

I Might Be Cat Lady

Shadow was the best cat ever, but before I can explain why, you need context.

I grew up in a somewhat rural area where you had to duck between barbed wire and dodge the horse poop to get a couple houses over to visit a friend. My best friend had chickens and a barn where there lived a wild cat called Pooty. We didn’t see him much, but Janice was somehow attached to him. Or perhaps he was make-believe, I don’t know, we were about that age when we’d go looking in the woods for leprechauns after a rain.

The hills we lived in were full of wild cats that moved around like gypsies.

Barry came one year, depositing a litter of kittens and turning out not to be a male, and leaving before we could have “him” fixed. Which wasn’t something people worried much about way back then.

Orange Minou appeared soon after with a mangled ear and bent tail. He was a tough one, spent a few years with us, allowing me to eventually befriend him, but if he was startled, claws came out targeting the nearest warm body, which was me. Still, he had long orange and white fur, and his purring put both of us into a blissful state. He was such a joy to be around, so accepting and content on my lap, giving just the faintest of impressions of the life he had in the Before. The life which he decided to head back into after his respite with us.

The summer that my brother went to Hawaii with close family friends, and I went to my cousin’s in France, our younger sister got a white cat. White Minou ended up moving through the woods to the neighbor’s so I never really got to know her, but understand she wasn’t terribly friendly.

In my 3rd year of college, I fell in love with a litter of kittens a friend was trying to get rid of, but restricted myself to adopting a single one, a grey and white fluffy fellow who got himself shipped to California to live with my parents after his defiant escape from my apartment, through the landlord’s legs who had come to ask about rumors that I was keeping a pet, which naturally were not allowed. Dark Tagnon moved away before I graduated, so we never became close.

Tribble, a tortoise, came into our lives after I got married, and our son was an infant. She rumbled and rumbled all over, reminding us of the troublesome critters of Star Trek lore. After a few years, her fur fell out, that luscious, previously-thick orange/black/grey/white fur that I loved to run my hands through up until she bit me. The vet said that she had become allergic, suddenly, to her food, and had to be fed some special diet. The new food wasn’t any better, but fortunately we moved to Colorado soon after, At where the fur interestingly came back with a vengeance. A month before we moved into a new town, she decided it was time to go a-wandering. Flyers put up around the neighborhood didn’t bring her back to us, and neighbors never saw her again. Where do cats go when they take off?

As a consolation, Ron gave me Edelweiss, a lovely calico with the required long fur. She was a sweetie for about 2 minutes, then made it clear she couldn’t stand you. But I loved her those 2 minutes, with all my heart, and sometimes I was rewarded by her jumping onto my lap, usually while I was working. Her paws would innocently, presumably, wander onto the keyboard. She got old, and all pets eventually do, she headed to the Great Beyond.

Our daughter acquired a white kitten she, for no apparent reason, named “Snowball”. That one did fine for a while. She was in indoor cat, which worked out well in our rural area where the deer and coyotes roamed. In those days, one didn’t think to get an indoor cat fixed. It wasn’t like she ever had “friends” over, right? But a few years down the road, after she spent 2 weeks howling at us as we tried to leave the house without her, she managed to get out and returned with 3 kittens. Well, 4 if you count Sunfire.

Sunfire was the cat we gave our son when Snowball moved in, and when Sunfire discovered there was warm milk being served, he made his way to the front of the line, blind kittens flying left and right.

But then a miracle occurred.

At work one day, a friend said they were moving to Texas, and that she had to find a home for the sweet kitty living in their barn since leaving a bad situation in a foster home. He was teeny tiny when she found him in her barn fighting off raccoons, and despite her husband’s objections she began feeding him. He grew into a strong, mellow adult, and she teared up telling me that her husband went to the barn with his gun to dispose of the cat because there was no way he’d survive without kibble after they moved.

We didn’t need another cat, but my friend assured me that this one was Special.

She smuggled him into work after I agreed to adopt him, figuring that he could live in the woods if he didn’t fit into our pet-filled home. A big muscular cat with tremendous feet and wide shoulders, a wide face from chewing raw animals, long black fur, he curled up under my desk and there were no shenanigans when Security wandered by, trying to figure out why someone had brought in a pet carrier and kitty litter tray. If you think nobody is monitoring the security cams at work…

From Day 1 he was a keeper! When he refused to be anywhere other than beside me, we changed his name from “Henry” to “Shadow”, and although a little spooked at first, he quickly convinced us that he was the essential part, if not focal point, of this family. He loved to lie on his back on our laps to have his tummy rubbed. We’d massage his feet, causing his big green eyes to slowly close and he’d purr and purr for hours if you didn’t have to get up. Heck, he’d wake up in a patch of sunlight and start purring, just grateful for his raccoon-free home. At the vet he’d rumble so hard that the stethoscope was ineffective. When I began working from home, he was overjoyed and leapt to my lap first thing every morning, where he’d stay all day. Gardening season was fun for him because he’d zip past me and climb every tree, then come back to sit by my side as we planted pansies. He’d rub against my arm, plop down and purr.

Still an avid hunter, he’d shower us with mouse faces. We never saw the mouse bodies, but whiskers and snout often awaited us outside the kitchen door. And when we prepared dinner, he’d sit patiently at our feet until he received a piece of chicken. Even now, sometimes Ron will be preparing some chicken and whisper “[CHICKEN]”, which is how we always envisioned Shadow asking – in a whisper, but emphatically.

Shadow loved being with us on the couch in the evenings while we watched TV, when our laps would not move for a couple of hours and he could have both of us in one place. And I’d rub his belly, his feet, and our day’s stress vanished.

We can ignore the time he manhandled a rabbit through the cat door and chased it around the white carpeting in the great room, because by the time I shut off my computer for the day and walked downstairs, only the lower half of the rabbit remained below the grand piano, guarded by a fat cat.

This cat was completely devoted to us, never left our side for very long, and when out hunting he came back quickly and clean.

As he aged, his effort in walking became pronounced, surely fallen arches I proclaimed. I’d rub his feet and he’d purr, and faithfully he’d still follow me around the house, not hunting as often, and then finally not hunting at all. He slept most of the time, with great effort following the sun around the carpet, waiting patiently for a piece of chicken at dinner time.

And then one night, not just at dusk, but really at night, he insisted on going out. So out of character by then! I knew something was up. His time had come, I could feel it. He knew it. I hesitated. I believe in the circle of life, the ability animals have to know their place in nature, and I watched him staring back at me, begging to go outside. He could hardly walk. All his needs were met inside the house anymore, with litter boxes on every floor so he could minimize going up and down stairs. On cold nights when I drank warm milk at bedtime, I used the big mug that he could put his gigantic head in to lap the last few drops.

And yet he felt the need to go outside, knowing full well the viciousness of the raccoons, coyotes, foxes.

I already missed him as I opened the door, giving in to his great need, that if not tonight, would be another night, as Snowball had proven years before.

Shadow was a cat who lived his life with dignity, with strength and courage. He blessed all of us with his love and faithfulness. And when it was his time to go, he chose the circumstances, facing his destiny without wavering.

Years have gone by. From time to time we think about getting another cat, hoping we could somehow find another Shadow, a cat of a higher standard, who left a huge hole in my heart and that refuses to heal.

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