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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The weight of the wait

The weight of waiting has flattened my spirits. I'm starting to feel a glimmer of hope that S will be OK - that we're dealing with an infection and abscess rather than cancer - but I know that slides with little clumps of cells on them are sitting on a lab bench, waiting for someone to declare them guilty or innocent. It's hard to feel light-hearted while waiting.

On an absurd note, the vet asked me to take a daily photo of S's anal sac so that she can see the progression without seeing S himself daily. I feel completely nuts while doing this. Now, I have to figure out how to prevent these anal photos from appearing in the random slide shows that my computer launches when it's idle. I can visualize guests hanging out eating appetizers and one of *those* photos appearing!

Both K and R joined me for some snowbiking this morning. Joyfulness permeated their beings, especially after R sniffed out and then excavated a tennis ball from under a foot of snow.
The mountain air was frigid and the snowpack was frozen solid. The Fatback is such a fun bike, opening up the forest trails to me in snowy conditions. It's not easy riding - I need razor sharp focus on the snowy trail to stay upright. Below, the trail stretches in front of me. But, as you can see, it's not much of a trail - a single snowshoer tramped through soft and soggy snow which then froze rock solid. For a snowbike, that means ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, as each wheel sequentially falls into a track. Then, perfect timing of a hard pedal stroke gets me through the unpacked snow between tracks. I usually enjoy immersing myself in single-minded physical work but my enthusiasm was a notch below normal today.And, in keeping with my guarded mood, I found myself yearning for the freedom to go on long mountain bike adventures, like the ones just before my vacation, that are only possible when the snow melts. Once I stopped this thinking, I did end up enjoying my snow ride with my happy pups.

During a pause in our ride, I captured one of my first photos with R looking at the camera. I've been training R to like cameras by giving him treats whenever I point a camera at him (similar to the technique used by the Dog Geek with her puppy and loud noises). He now knows that a cascade of treats follows a photo so he stares at me intently when the camera points at him. The only problem is that he sometimes drools in anticipation of yummy morsels which isn't so photogenic. This image looks like an elementary school photo because R looks so darn serious. Treats are serious business for him! Prior to this positive 'camera conditioning', R invariably looked away from the evil camera eye that was staring him down.

The mountains have hidden behind a cloud wall since we returned home from vacation.
I've been surprised to see many deer and elk tracks despite the thick and crust-covered layer of snow. Perhaps they know that descending to lower elevations doesn't yield food after spring storms. Spring storms often are 'up-slope storms' that dump more snow on the foothills than on the mountains. So, heading down could waste energy without the benefit of better foraging. Below, the elk hang out on a forested hillside with snow literally up to their knees.
Based on tracks and observing the elk in deep crusty snow, it looks like the herd crowds into a small area of meadow. Then, they trample and paw the snow until dry but edible grass pokes through. In past years, I've observed that coyotes wander through the unconcerned herd while the elk trample and paw the snow. I never understood why the coyotes would linger so close to animals that could injure them with one swift kick. Now I've read that the coyotes hunt for rodents, especially mice, on the ground exposed by the elk. Without the work by the elk, the coyotes can't break through the crusty snow to find their favorite prey.

Also, since returning home to deep snow, I've seen no carnivore tracks whatsoever. Their absence is odd after seeing their tracks on almost every ride this winter. I wonder what the bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and lions are doing. Did they move to new terrain after our big storm? If so, where did they go? Am I the only person on Earth who spends so much time wondering what the wild animals are up to? I probably am.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Western extremes

It's a good distraction for me to write about our trip while I anxiously wait for news about S's health. I talked with an experienced vet from our regular vet hospital today, and she offered a more optimistic view than the emergency vet. In her view, the good news is that an infection set in yesterday. In her long experience, it's not common for an infection to accompany an anal sac cancerous tumor. So, it's conceivable that S has a treatable condition. Although her assessment helped buoy me, all of us are nervously awaiting the biopsy results. Yet again, we're being reminded to savor each day with our dogs.

As I write, I'm sitting next to a fire, as winter has gripped the Front Range again. It's ironic to be sorting through desert photos while immersed in a snowy and cold landscape. Earlier today, I rode my snowbike over deep crusty snow. Temperatures skied to 50 degrees yesterday and then plummeted to the mid-teens this morning. Those extremes set up a perfect snowpack for snow biking!

After our Fruita area adventures, we had a wild and windy drive to Moab. We took Highway 128 that follows the Colorado River with looming red cliffs on either side. The river canyon funneled a whirling, gusting, and destructive west wind. Swirling and looming clouds of dust obscured the view of the river and cliffs. Tents erected in riverside campgrounds were being pummeled and shredded by the wind.

Red sandy dust clouds blocked the sun so that it felt like a storm cloud hovered over us. In fact, few actual clouds marred the sky - just red dust. The scene was so freaky that I forgot to take any photos. Also, we were worrying about where to spend the night because forecasters predicted sand drifting that could close desert roads and rain showers that could turn red dust into impassable gooey clay.

We stopped at the Visitor's Center where the prevailing advice was 'Do Not Camp' - go to a hotel. We didn't heed that advice but headed for a developed campground where being stuck in sand drifts or mud seemed unlikely. We planned to dive into undeveloped areas the next day.

We holed up in our van and watched a psychedelic sunset as the van shook and shimmied in the gusting wind and the sound of sand blasting the van almost overwhelmed us.Two members of our pack told secrets to tease the rest of us.The wind dwindled to a stiff breeze overnight, and we headed straight for a dramatic canyon-side campsite in the morning. Once we arrived, K and I geared up for what I expected would be rollicking fun ride in the cool weather. Alas, K's boots terrified her so much that she visibly shook - even though she's worn them before. Then, when I started to ride, she repeatedly stopped and finally refused to budge. To make sure that the boots were the terror-inducing culprit, I tried taking them off - and she sprinted ahead as if I'd relieved her of a 2 ton weight that she'd been hauling up the canyon.

Unfortunately, I knew that bare-pawed running wasn't a viable long-term option because the slickrock would scrape the leather off her paw pads. So, we did short and sweet rides each morning (sans boots), trying to avoid the slickrock that surrounded us. Some of K's irrational fearful behaviors have recently reemerged. Last summer, they disappeared almost magically after we fixed her low thyroid condition. I think that I need to get her thyroid levels rechecked - after we get through our current veterinary crisis.

During our rides, the red cliffs towered over us. Junipers, pinyon pines, paintbrush, and Newberry's Twinpod flowers eked out an existence in the shallow patches of cryptosoil that punctuated the otherwise endless expanse of rock.Our young lab, R, didn't like his boots either. However, once his passion for running kicked in, he happily joined my husband on trail runs. As I watched them depart from our campsite for a run, they looked tiny compared to the grandiose red cliffs.
When we explored the area around our campsite that evening, we saw that people had inhabited these harsh canyons thousands of years ago and left us petroglyphs to enjoy. It felt mysteriously eerie to be standing in the same place as our ancient ancestors. The petroglyphs combined with the landscape accentuated the feeling that I'm an inconsequential tiny being in the history of the Earth.The winds blasted each evening. They blew away everything that wasn't anchored down, including large metal dog bowls filled with water. It was impossible to prepare dinner outdoors because anything that we didn't hold with an iron grip blew eastward. But, each morning dawned much calmer, allowing us to play in the canyons.

On the last day, I did a point-to-point ride and met my pack on a road across the canyonland. I savored one last view from our campsite near Courthouse Rock and pedaled off.I followed a Rim Trail, teetering on the edge of cliffs but seeing incredible 360 degree views. The faraway and snowy La Sal mountains contrasted with the imposing red rock formations.
I looked across the canyon and saw towers of red rock - the 'Determination Towers'.I descended from the rim and had 1.2 miles of deep sand to reach my destination of the Monitor and Merrimac buttes. I foundered, swerved, stalled, walked, and sometimes pedaled to them. I saw lots of cacti plus rabbit, fox, and perhaps bobcat tracks.While I passed between the buttes, I glided easily on red rock and felt like a tiny speck in our spectacular world.
I marveled at the tough juniper and pinyon pine trees surviving and even flourishing against the cliffs of the buttes.After passing between the buttes, it was about 3.5 miles downhill to our meeting place. When I planned the ride, I assumed that I'd glide down in a short time. But, I didn't count on dunes of wind-drifted sand covering the trail (see right photo). I wished for my Fatback snow bike since the wide tires might have floated across the sand. Alas, those few miles took almost an hour with lots of trudging next to my bike. Fortunately, my husband and dogs didn't abandon their chronically late mountain biker.

We spent the rest of that day driving to the wintery world of Aspen, where we winter camped in our van and visited family. In a few hours, we traveled from sand drifts to snow drifts. What a day!

As a former East Coaster, I never cease to be awed by the extremes, the wildness, and the expansive landscape of the west. This is where I belong.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

For the love of our dog

I was a little slow writing my first post about our trip because our 13.5 year old dog, S, started manifesting some health issues soon after we arrived home. He had an awesome trip, galloping and gallivanting with the other dogs. However, shortly after arriving home, he had some anal bleeding and a visit to the emergency vet. The bleeding seems to be caused by a mass in his anal sac. They took a needle biopsy, and we're awaiting the results while keeping S comfortable. The worry is that it's anal sac adenocarcinoma - a fairly nasty cancer.

Needless to say, I'm feeling worried, worried, and more worried. I feel simultaneously wired and sick at times like this. I hope that the wait for news isn't too long.

In the photo below from our vacation, S sported his fleece-lined windproof jacket that he likes to wear in the mornings and evenings while camping. He gets cold very easily.On the good news side, my friend's dog, Julius, does NOT have hemangiosarcoma or any kind of cancer. The splenic tumor was benign. That's cause for joy.

Visiting summer in western Colorado

What a topsy-turvy trip! From dry winter weather at home, to hot summer in Fruita, to wind and dust storms in Moab, to a snowbike ride in Aspen, and finally returning to a pile of fresh snow at home. This post is about our visit to the Fruita (far western Colorado) part of the trip.

We departed in our Sportsmobile which my husband outfitted with three seat belt sockets so that the dogs could ride on the bed while safely constrained in their doggy seatbelts.We drove over the snowy Continental Divide to the Fruita area. We camped in Rabbit Valley in a 'campground' that has only one campsite (much the consternation of everyone else while we occupied it). The campsite sat on the protected north side of the conical rock shown below with juniper trees providing even more shade.Summer prevailed in Fruita. K and I did short rides together each morning before the searing sun threatened to overheat K. Dogs keep their core body temperature down by panting. They sweat only from their paw pads and their noses - and it's not enough sweat to help much with cooling. Their cooling mechanisms are wimpy by comparison to ours. So, heat that's mild for a human can be lethal for a running dog. To deal with warm days, I try to get out early, and I've trained K to drink from my Camelbak. But, despite keeping her topped off with water, I made sure to get K back to our shady campsite before the sun roasted us.

Below, K panted as we rode along a rim trail overlooking the Colorado River.
The rim trail bordered sheer cliffs so I kept K in a heel for most of the ride. We were the first travelers of the day, besides a coyote who had trotted along the rim trail, leaving clear tracks in the sand, earlier in the morning. We had complete solitude on this narrow path teetering on the edge of the world until the last vista. Then, we spotted a person standing on the edge of the cliff hurling rocks into the abyss. I felt lucky that K was mature enough *not* to leap off the cliff to retrieve the rocks - but I held her collar until he stopped because those hard-wired retriever instincts can take possession of a lab's soul in an instant.

As we rode along the rim of the cliff, I spotted what I'm pretty sure was a prairie falcon sitting on the cliff's edge and his partner swooping in the thermals below him. I was surprised to see a prairie falcon in this environment but a favorite habitat, arid juniper and sagebrush plains, surrounded the river canyons and cliffs. Based on their obsession with the spot, I think that this pair might be nesting on the flat topped dome below the lip of the cliff (left photo). Believe it or not, the trail followed the lip of the cliff in the left photo quite closely.

A few flower species bloomed, bring us to a halt to appreciate the splashes of bright yellows and purples splotching the landscape. In addition to the purplish Desert Phlox and the yellow Newberry's Twinpod below, I saw purple milkvetch and red paintbrush in full bloom.

Before heading down to camp, we peeked back for one more view of the incredible landscape.On our way down to camp, we spotted some lizard tracks (left photo - tip of index finger for scale). Small brown lizards (about 4" long including tail) basking in the sun on the trail skittered to hide under plants and rocks as I rolled along the sandy trails.

We also saw kangaroo rat tracks, a desert rodent that hops on its hind legs. Kangaroo rats thrive in the desert with specially adapted kidneys that allow them to live on almost no water. Kangaroo rats are active at night so I saw their tracks early in the morning. In the photo, the hopping tracks parallel my tire tracks. Both lizard and kangaroo rat tracks were an unusual treat for this mountain dweller.

From the highway, the Fruita area looks like a wasteland that I would never consider visiting for fun - and I ignored my friends' advice to visit it for years due to the freeway view. However, away from the concrete and traffic noise, the stark landscape is astonishing. It's a harsh environment with little water (except the river) or shade, and wind storms that whip sand across the plains. However, it's also an area sculpted by the powerful Colorado River, leaving behind a labyrinth of cliffs, canyons, and caverns. It's like a different planet compared to my mountain home.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vacation, flowers, and butterflies

We're taking a trip toward warmer climates for a little while. Our trip has been delayed while we've waited for our van to be fixed. It's finally ready - so we're heading out!

Just before we departed, a big event happened for us high-altitude mountain folks - our first wildflower, the pasqueflower (a wild crocus), blossomed in a few select sunny spots. It's such a big event that everyone in the neighborhood leads off conversations with "Did you see the pasques?". Then, they list all the places where they've seen them. It's our first glimpse of spring.

A second, less flashy flower also blossomed - the flowers are tiny - about a centimeter across. The name used for it around here is "snowdrops" but I'll have to look it up when we get back from vacation.Finally, I saw a Mourning Cloak Butterfly this morning! Spring is breaking out here. It'll be fun to see the myriad of changes when we return.

For our trip, we're first going to Fruita where there's beautiful canyon country near the Colorado River.Then, we're heading to Moab for slickrock mountain biking and trail running. Yes, we're prepared with 13 boots to protect every dog paw in the pack - and to account for the one that we'll surely lose! Below, you can see our campsite from last year's trip.
And, K and R galloped on the slickrock. We learned last year that even if the dogs are relatively sedentary during a visit to the slickrock, they need Ruffwear boots. All three pups had sore paw pads.
And then snoozed in the sun.
To end our trip, we're returning to winter by visiting family in Aspen. This photo is not a winter scene but rather a fall foliage scene - I found that I don't have any winter Aspen photos. I plan to ride my Fatback snowbike up toward the highest pass above Aspen. That'll be fun.I'll be off-line almost the whole time because we'll be camping. I hope that everyone enjoys the slow dawning of springtime in this wonderful time of year!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Loping lions and walking bears

We're trying, very hard, to get out of town for our first trip in almost a year. We have a wonderful camping van, a Sportsmobile, that we'll use for the trip. We planned to leave on Sunday. My husband drove the van to town last week for servicing. Then, on Saturday, he tried to move it down our driveway to the house for loading. Everyone's worst nightmare happened - the brakes failed. We have a semi-circular driveway that's all downhill - a great feature in the snow - but a terrible feature when driving a runaway van. He managed not to crash through some quick thinking and good luck. I hate to think of the horrendous consequences if the brakes had failed as gravity pulled the van down our road - it drops 3000 ft in 5 miles. Now the van is in the shop - and each day something goes wrong in the process of getting it fixed. So, we still have no van.

The upside is that I had a blast riding my bike today. K's energy is burning like a supernova again. In contrast, I woke up feeling lousy, with an unhappy lower back, from being on my feet for too long packing for our trip. But, K led me out the door like an unstoppable freight train. K and my other dogs keep me going when I want to pull the pillow over my head and give up. Their undying hopefulness that today's going to be an awesome day tugs at my soul and gets me going. They're almost always right - going out to play in the woods is a joy. Today, like usual, easy spinning made my back pain ease up.

This morning, the sun behind the clouds made a streaked backdrop for our meadow.And, the turbulent clouds highlighted the starkness of the leafless aspens.K and I saw the same group of deer three separate times on our ride, and K wasn't as reserved about them as yesterday. 'Leave it' wasn't sufficient to tear her away from a chase - so I went to a full-on recall and then put her into a heel for a while. I'm amazed the boldness of the deer around K. Perhaps these deer know her and that she doesn't truly chase them.

The sun burned through by the time we made it to the top our world. Here, I'd just called K back from a foray after the deer herd. Then, she decided to hide in a juniper bush to watch the herd while I took photos from the peak.
After I dropped K off at home, I headed up a dusty, sometimes muddy, 4wd road. I was moving fast - when I spotted some tracks that made me skid to a halt. No human tracks were anywhere nearby but huge lion tracks briefly emerged from a boulder pile next to the road, followed the road for about 50 yards, and then dove into the forest on the other side of the road. By themselves, the tracks don't look impressive until you realized that my energy gel packet is 4" long. So, this track was about 3.5" long and wide, and it had no claw marks. The track pattern indicated a lope - a slow rotary gallop as the cat moved along the open road. I bet that he was hurrying to minimize his exposure along the road.

Later in the ride, with the lion tracks on my mind, I felt a little nervous as I rode up a willow, aspen, and cottonwood choked gulch but arrived safely at the top to a mountain view. Amazingly (to me), I was riding a heavy bike with studded tires with a mellow attitude but my time up the climb was only 2 minutes longer than my best for last year. From the viewpoint, I dropped like a rock rolling off a cliff down to a trail that was drifted with deep snow a couple of weeks ago. Today, it was so melted that I rode all but about 50 yards of it. It's a favored animal trail because almost no people use it. I saw lots of bobcat scat, dropped into shallow depressions scraped out by the cat. It seems that a bobcat owns this trail.

As I rolled along this trail, I kept glancing out to the west for views like the one below and almost missed the big find of the ride!Black bear tracks! This trail is where I usually see my first indesputable bear signs each spring, and it didn't fail me this year. On a section with a thin layer of old snow, I noticed what looked like barefoot human tracks - until I looked closely.

In the track to the right, you can see the five claw marks puncturing the snow ahead of each toe. Then, the human-like toe marks although the outermost toe (analogous to our pinky toe) doesn't show up in the photo but its claw does. Finally, the ball of the foot is obvious but the heel mark is faint. The faint and small heel mark indicates that this track is from a front paw. Some other tracks had deep undeniable heel marks but they didn't photograph well.

I've always guessed that this almost vertical northwest facing hillside would be a great denning place for bears. Few people ever explore it. And, based on my snowy adventures this winter, the elk, deer, and their stalkers, the lions, also stay away from it when it's snowy. That makes sense because there's too much snow for deer and elk to find food. I suspect that lions are the only animals who would attack a sleeping bear - so their winter absence is a boon to denning bears.

Sometimes bears wake up briefly and then go back to sleep, especially if the weather turns wintery. If they're awake for good, they start out in 'walking hibernation' - a time during which they stumble around like a human who hasn't had her coffee yet. They don't eat because their digestive tract isn't working yet. A little while after awakening, they dispense an 'anal plug' of dense grass and other dead plant material. I actually found a bear plug one spring - and it wasn't gross. It's just a scat-shaped dense cylinder of dead grass. Then, they slowly start eating and revving up their metabolism. Only time will tell if our bears are awake for good or if they decide to pull the pillow over their heads for some more slumber until their normal wake-up time of mid-April. In the meantime, I guess we need to turn on our electric fence that protects our bird feeders. The photo above shows a bear contemplating how to beat our bird feeder system.I love reading nature, finding signs, and figuring out what the wildlife is up to. So, today's ride ranks as a great one - just like last night's sublime sunset!