The first hint that we were going to have a good wildlife day came just as we started up the switchbacks on the beginning of the Stony Pass road. We spotted an animal bounding up a slope just in front of us, quickly moving out of sight. It looked to us like a fisher, a large member of the weasel family. It was dark brown and black, with a long tail held flat to the ground while running, and it moved with the classic undulating motion of a weasel. We didn't get a good look at its head, darn it. Our identification of it as a fisher is questionable, however, because all the references we can find say that fishers don't live here. So we're not sure what it was!
Then we started seeing deer. Lots of deer! Most of the deer we sighted were does, but we did see a buck or two. No fawns. All looked healthy, though a few looked a bit thin. Just south of Stoney Pass, on the long stretch of switchbacks through meadows that have lots of irises in them, we saw a buck off the road just above us. When the buck ran, he flushed a large bird. I walked up where the buck was, and flushed a large female grouse – first one we've seen here.
As we came to the bottom of those iris-filled meadows, we had the wildlife-spotting highlight of the day: Debbie spotted something moving in a meadow across the canyon, at about a mile and a half away. In the binoculars, we could see that it was a herd of elk. Elk! First we've seen on this trip. The herd was crossing an open stretch where we could see them, and we watched for 15 minutes or so as 30 to 40 animals crossed that stretch (we weren't counting). There were at least 10 calves, most of which scampered across the open area faster than the adults.
At one point as we got closer to the Rio Grande reservoir, we heard some birds fussing about above us. I poked my head out the window, and there just 20 feet away from me was a medium sized hawk perched in an aspen tree, being harassed by a pair of very angry flickers. We're guessing the hawk was near their nest. The hawk was one we're not familiar with. A few miles down the trail, we saw another hawk of the same species. We also saw a woodpecker we don't know, much larger than any woodpeckers in San Diego. We saw a lot of mountain bluebirds, too. Altogether the bird population in this area is much more diverse than anything we've seen in other places in this area.
Along the Rio Grande river, there are lots and lots of beaver ponds, most of which are obviously still being maintained. The geography is perfect for beavers: the river meanders through a large, relatively flat valley. Nearly every possible place for a beaver pond is occupied by one. Lots of them have ducks in them. All of them are surrounded by a rich flora, dominated by willows. The ponds make for very pretty and interesting travel, except for the bugs...
All the really good stuff ended as we approached the Rio Grande reservoir. The area along the road gets gradually more “civilized” as you go, with more and more people and houses. The reservoir itself is 40' or so below capacity, making for a large ring of unattractive area around the smaller-than-usual reservoir. Toward the dam (south end), we started running into areas burned in the recent fires – and the areas that weren't burned were filled with dead conifers, killed by drought and bark beetle. The aspens, interestingly, were still healthy and vibrant green. We saw numerous stands of aspen that had survived the fire, though they were surrounded by burned out lunar landscapes.
We headed north to Lake City, where we enjoyed a repeat of pulled pork and great coffee. Then we headed up Cinnamon Pass for home. Along the way we saw a big moose cow munching happily on willow in the Gunninson River valley. This trip was completely uneventful, aside from seeing a few deer. No rain, no hail, no jeeps over the edge, and nobody needed jumper cables :)
By the time we finally got back to the cabin, we were quite tired – 12 hours on the road will do that to you. My right leg muscles were sore from handling the throttle all day!
To answer an inquiry from a reader: the FJ has been performing flawlessly. It has done everything we asked of it, and we've asked a lot. Today's trip was a good example: the road between Stony Pass and the Rio Grande reservoir has many places that are quite rough. There are many very steep and narrow places, usually “paved” with big rocks. The FJ handled it all with ease, though we were thankful on many occasions for the armor (skid plates and rock rails) as we bumped and scraped along big rocks. There hasn't been any point, no matter how challenging the terrain, where we had any trouble at all with traction or handling. Between the tires, airing down, and the FJ's traction control and differential locks, everything we've run into has been easy – and safe – to deal with.
Race, our border collie, has recently taken a disliking to rough terrain. Every time we drive into something challenging, he starts going a little crazy. We have no idea why he suddenly developed this new behavior (about three days ago). It begins and ends very quickly as we move on and off rough terrain, and he shows no reluctance to get in the truck. He just doesn't like the rough stuff :)
|Waterfall along the road in Stony Pass with a five second time exposure...|
|A little higher on the same waterfall...|
|And a little higher yet, this time a seven second exposure...|
|Through the aspens between Stony Pass and the Rio Grande reservoir...|
|On a rock road cut, at about 11,000 feet south of Stony Pass...|
|On that same rock road cut, and hard to photograph in deep shade...|
|Just north of the Rio Grande reservoir...|
|A snowshoe hare, as good as it's going to get with a wide angle lens...|
|Looking toward the Rio Grande reservoir, overlooking a beaver pond (see the lodge?)...|
|The widening valley on the approach to the Rio Grande reservoir, along the Rio Grande river...|
|Looking toward Animas Forks from just below Cinnamon Pass...|