February 28, 2015

Colorado Snowpack, February 25, 2015

From the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center, which supplies fire weather forecasts but has quite a bit of current weather information.

February 17, 2015

The Ultimate "Prepper" Gun?

Check that store-bought hex nut.
At The Firearms Blog, Nathaniel F. reviews a Mongolian snaplock carbine owned by friend-of-this-blog Steve Bodio.
In Central Asian villages, even blacksmiths are uncommon, which means field-expedient repairs are common, and many percussion weapons get converted to the easier-to-maintain flintlock ignition. Purpose-built guns like these would be purchased by shops on rare trips to larger towns. The quality of the weapons would typically be fairly uneven, so patrons would not be allowed to fire the guns before buying, lest the shop be left with a bunch of undesirable junk guns. As a result, interesting superstitions about how to tell the quality of a rifle came to be, including putting a steel pin in a puddle of saliva on the barrel, and slowly rotating the barrel.  By watching the rotation of the pin in the saliva, supposedly they could tell which barrels were good.
It is no antique: Bodio estimates that it was made in the 1950s. Simple, reliable, easy to repair.

February 08, 2015

How Not To Become Prey

Bears biting backpackers. Mountain lions munching mountain bikers.

Every time that some carnivorous critter bites or kills a human, there will be voices proclaiming, "They were here first. We live on their territory."

That is true in a long historical view —  and it is also true that human populations have lived alongside big carnivores throughout history — but Wyoming writer Cat Urbigkit's new book, When Man Becomes Prey: Fatal Encounters with America's Most Feared Predators, adds some nuance and some new information.

Her book is divided into species-specific chapters
  • Black bears
  • Coyotes
  • Gray wolves
  • Mountain lions
  • Grizzly nightmares
  • Greater Yellowstone grizzlies
plus two more, "Habituation and Alaska Attacks" and "Learning to Coexist with Predators."

Each chapter begins with some narratives, the kind that you want to read in the daytime with a clear view of your surroundings. They then cover relevant scientific research and practical ways to avoid conflict with bears, mountain lions, or whatever. "For some hikers [in coyote habitat] rocks-in-pockets becomes a routine at the start of every hike."

For instance, I was raised to believe that while they were a threat to dogs and cats, coyotes left adult-size humans alone. Urbigkit leads with the 2009 killing of Taylor Mitchell in Cape Breton Highlands National Park by a small pack of three coyotes — all healthy. "Wildlife officials suspected that these coyotes had become habituated to humans during the tourist season, and this may have involved the animals receiving food rewards from humans." (There have been other attacks on children and adults , but she was the only recorded adult human fatality.)

Attacks on pets, even leashed dogs with people, are also increasing. Geographically, coyote attacks seem most common in parks, where no hunting is allowed, and into urban areas, again without hunting and with a variety of food resources.

A certain degree of hunting, she suggests, does encourage predators to stay away from people. Yet with mountain lions, for instance, "wildlife managers believe that when heavy localized hunting results in the harvest of older mature males, more young mountain lions are likely to disperse into those areas, creating an increase in [lion-human] conflicts."

Some other take-aways:

• While people think that black bear sows with cubs are the most dangerous, "the majority of the fatal attacks on humans involved male bears, and most attacks took place during the daylight hours." While most black bears are shy, some do prey on humans deliberately. Also, "no one killed in a black bear attack carried bear spray."

• Urbigkit, who lives on a sheep ranch south of Grand Teton National Park, believes in bear spray: "You don't have to be an excellent shot to be effective with a can of bear spray — a cloud of spray between you and a charging bear should be enough for your immediate retreat from the area."

She also offers a case where bear spray stopped an attacking mountain lion. I myself have used it only on aggressive dogs, where it worked well, so I suspect that it would work just as well on a wolf or coyote.

• There are no documented cases of black bears attacking humans in defense of a carcass, but as Northern Rockies hunters are learning, grizzlies, where present have done that a number of times.

• The old idea, from books like Jim Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944), is that the predators who attack humans are usually elderly, crippled, or wounded. With grizzly bears, that is sometimes true, Urbigkit writes. But there also more North American predators than there used to be, thanks to recovery programs and more-regulated hunting. In addition, we have created such predator-friendly places as parks and food-rich subdivisions.

Consequently, they become habituated to us — and we become habituated to them, sometimes forgetting that they "are not loveable toys to be enjoyed when convenient [Yellowstone wolf tours?] and then discarded or destroyed when they reveal their true natures.

"Predators should be treated with a realistic acknowledgment that they are animals that kill prey to survive, and should be respected for the wild creatures that they are."

Any backcountry hiker or hunter, anyone who visits parks like Yellowstone or Great Smokies, and anyone who sees bears, coyotes, or deer in their neighborhoods — where there are deer, there are lions — ought to read When Man Becomes Prey.

It is available from the publisher, Lyons Press, or from the usual online source.

February 07, 2015

How to Give Directions

Seven or eight of the volunteer firefighters are engaged in hauling brush that a resident cut back around his barn — part of a grant-funded wildland fire mitigation project.

When it's loaded, the chief gives directions to the ranch where the brush will be dumped into gullies for erosion control:

"Go down J_________ Hill and turn left by the corral where they found the body."

And I have now lived here long enough that I knew where he meant.

February 06, 2015

Waiting for Some Snow

Click to embiggen.
Put this snowpack map together with this news release (PDF) from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service: "Snowpack Percentages Decline throughout Abnormally Dry January," and you will see why we are hoping that the predictions for a wetter spring come true.
January is an important month for mountain precipitation over the course of the average year.The month of Apriltypically provides the most mountain precipitation at 3.6 inches, followed by March at 3.4 inches, and January coming in the third highest at 3.2 inches. This January provided only 1.47 inches of mountain precipitation, 45% of the average. The South Platte saw the greatest precipitation totals compared to normal at 62% of average. 
Here in the foothills, I have had my snowblower out only three times, and the deepest snow was only seven inches. (Via Coyote Gulch, the go-to Colorado water blog.)

February 04, 2015

It Is a Cold, Foggy Day . . .

January 20, 2015, up behind the house.
. . . so I am posting a picture of a gray fox, because I like them.

February 02, 2015

Back in the Burn, Ten Years Later

Part of the Mason Gulch burn, ten years after.
M. and I were both feeling housebound yesterday, so we went for a walk up on the Mason Gulch Burn ( from the July 2005 fire — related blog posts here).

I wanted to see if there was a noticeable game trail in a certain area, and I found it, but it was faint and intermittent. Still, it gave me a new clue as to how elk in particular might move through that country — worth remembering and revisiting.

The woods were quiet. No one down on the road. Some sports thing going on, apparently.

January 29, 2015

"The Big Burn" Coming to PBS

Based on Timothy Egan's excellent book The Big Burn, an upcoming episode of PBS' The American Experience,  "The Fire That Changed Everything," is devoted to the largest forest fire complex in the history of the United States, which rampaged through northern Idaho and western Montana in 1910.
In the summer of 1910, hundreds of wildfires raged across the Northern Rockies. By the time it was all over, more than three million acres had burned and at least 78 firefighters were dead. It was the largest fire in American history, and it assured the future of the still-new United States Forest Service. 
Rocky Mountain PBS has it scheduled at 8 p.m. on February 3.

I have already seen commenters on a wildfire-related site say, hey, that man is using a pulaski too, which postdates the fire and assistant ranger Ed Pulaski's heroic actions. Well, yes, I don't think there was any movie footage in 1910, so the filmmakers probably substituted footage from the 1920s–1940s (the pre-hard hat days).

Bill Gabbert here offers some "behind the scenes" images, including the firefighters trapped in the Pulaski Tunnel, a/k/a the War Eagle Mine.

January 24, 2015

Why You Don't Want a 'Water Feature' in Bear Country

The attribution for this photo was stripped off in the process that brought it to me, but I understand that it was taken in Beulah, Colorado (western Pueblo Country), located in the foothills of the Wet Mountains, which have a healthy population of black bears.

Bears will walk along a shallow stream flipping over rocks to see if anything edible is underneath — these two probably found nothing in the artificial pond and stream, but being bears, they had fun anyway.

January 17, 2015

Would You Have Eaten What George Melville Ate?

Jeannette's boats are separated in a gale. Illustration from "In the Lena Delta"
In July 1879, the USS Jeannette, a former Royal Navy gunboat with both sails and a steam engine, left San Francisco Bay for the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean beyond.

Its purchase and outfitting expenses were chiefly covered by newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett, Jr.,  sort of the Ted Turner of his day, with the ship being commissioned by the US Navy and given a Navy crew—plus two native Alaskan dog handlers and a veteran whaling captain to serve as "ice pilot."

For two winters Jeannette explored northeast of Siberia, looking for a hypothesized open water projected — by eminent geographers— to exist north of the band of pack ice. For most of the time, of course, the ship was stuck in the pack ice, carried along by the polar drift while the crew carried out scientific observations and visited some hither-to unknown islands.

In June 1881 Jeannette was released by the ice—but then re-caught by moving floes. Despite the hull reinforcements added in preparation for the voyage, this time the ship was crushed. The crew had warning and had evacuated many supplies, sleds, dogs, and three of the ship's boats.

And then the hard part started. The story of Jeannette, the sinking, the horrible sled journey south, south, south, and the open-boat voyage toward the Siberian cost are told in Hampton Sides' book In the Kingdom of Ice, and if you like stories of adventure and endurance, you will devour it like a starving sailor eats raw fish.

But there is more. When the story shifts to the struggles of the castaway sailors and the search for the missing, Sides relies quite a bit  on In the Lena Delta (1884), an account written by the senior surviving officer, George Melville, the ship's engineer. So I had to get it.

Only two months after being rescued by some native Siberian Yakuts and still suffering from frostbite and malnutrition, Melville organized a November dogsled expedition to look for more survivors beyond those already found. (He did receive significant assistance from Russian imperial officials, once they learned of the castaways' existence.)

At one point, in the middle of howling winter gales, Melville and his Yakut guides (who always lived on the ragged edge of starvation anyway) ran out of food and were reduced to eating bits of leftover frozen reindeer and bones that the Yakuts cached here and there on their trapping routes. He writes,
With an axe the rib pieces were soon severed from the back-bone, and then from the inside of these the natives cut strips with their sheath-knives and handed me a chunky moral from the loin, as breakfast. I bit into it without any ceremony, while the dogs clamored frantically for a share. So long as it remained frozen the meat did not exhibit the vile extent of its putridity; but directly I had taken it into my mouth it melted like butter, and at the same time gave off such a disgusting odor that I hastily relinquished my hold upon it, and the dogs captured it at a single gulp. The natives first stared in genuine astonishment to see me cast away such good food to the dogs, and then burst forth into hearty laughter at my squeamishness. But I was not to be outdone, much less ridiculed, by a Yakut, and so ordered some more, perhaps a pound of the stuff, cut up into little bits. These I swallowed like so many pills, and then gazed on my Yakut friends in triumph; but not long, for in a little while my stomach heated the decomposed mess, an intolerable gas arose and retched me, and again I abandoned my breakfast — my loss, however, becoming the dogs' gain.

At this the natives were nearly overcome with mirth; but I astonished them by my persistence, requesting a third dose, albeit the second one had teemed with maggots; and swallowing the sickening bits as before, my stomach retained them out of pure exhaustion.
Remember this the next time you notice that the package of meat in your refrigerator is past its expiration date.

And In the Kingdom of Ice is a great cold-weather read. Unless you are in Yakutsk (a locale that figures in the story), it will make your winter seem like balmy spring.

January 14, 2015

The Benevolent Order of Middle-Aged Adrenaline Junkies

1. You see a neighbor at a cafe during lunch in Nearby Town, 15 miles away. Eight hours later, you meet her at the site of a one-pickup truck rollover accident on a snowy highway near home. She was wearing her EMT gear at lunch—must have been her shift on Nearby Town's ambulance.

2. Responding to the call in your POV (personally owned vehicle), yours are the only tire tracks on the snowy county road. In the headlights' beams, the track of a fox weaves back and forth across the road. Red flashes bounce off the pine trees — now they are echoed by other flashed on the highway.

3. On the scene: the sheriff's deputy, a state snowplow driver, and the volunteer firefighter who just walked over because it happened in front of his little ranch. The ambulance goes to the home where the truck's occupants, not seriously injured, had gone, following the lights. "Someone was pounding on my door," the firefighter says, "but by the time I got there, they were gone." They went up the canyon and across the road — probably highly agitated.


4. Another volunteer arrives. You and he climb down the slope to where the red Chevy lies pillowed on crushed willows — maybe they cushioned it, preventing serious body damage. Passenger-side window broken out (crash or evacuation?), windshield badly cracked, but no leaking gasoline, no smoke, no crackling or hissing sounds. No blood either, that's good.

5. Your engine arrives with three on board. The deputy is relaxed. The Colorado State Patrol is  not coming, he says. No wrecker coming tonight either. So there is no need to direct traffic. You say hello to the chief of the Nearby Town VFD, who followed the ambulance out to the scene (adrenaline junkie that he is). Say hello to the neighbor. Tell the deputy we're clearing the scene. Tell "Central" we're clearing the scene.

6. You all go your separate ways. The chief will do the incident report. You drive back down the quiet road to your house, cutting the fox tracks once again.

January 13, 2015

Yes, It's Pretty, But We're Sick of It


Four days of freezing fog in the last week. M.  is complaining loudly that it's too icy for her daily walks. Sometimes, even gravel and bare dirt are slick. This is completely un-Southern Colorado, and we do not like it.

January 07, 2015

Six Views on Getting in Firewood

What my friends think I do.
What my family thinks I do.
What Society thinks I do.
What my wife thinks I do.
What I think I do.
What I really do.