Wednesday, August 17, 2011


One day of school (Freshmen Day doesn't really count), and already a few challenges. Apparently, my yearbook staff will be expected to gather a grand photographic record of the 2011-2012 school year with a total of four cameras (all of various models, with various degrees of quality, wear, etc.). That isn't going to cut it. So, what do I do, having no money in the budget and probably not having anything available from the district (their money is already spent resupplying after the fire)? Well, for one, I am hoping several students will be able to use personal cameras. The digital interfaces would be the same (i.e., USB), so we could still upload them to the server. But, I am curious as to how the situation came to be as dire as this. No finger-pointing, here, however.

My second challenge came when my editor, a highly reliable girl who is a good writer and a conscientious worker had to resign. Her class schedule forced her to drop the yearbook class in order to take an honors anatomy class. If she can't be in class, she can't be the editor. I understand why she has to step down, but it still stinks. As a result, I need to switch editors. This is not so big a deal this early in the year (and we haven't gotten a whole lot done yet, anyway), but I don't like having to switch editors, at all. There are too many issues to go into here, but it is not an easy process, especially in a class where I am only familiar with about three of the kids.

Oh, well. I expected this year to be a challenge. However, like most challenges, I didn't expect these. And, also like most challenges, I didn't expect them now. I guess that's why they are challenges.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Already Busy

And so here is how it most likely will be for a while: dashed off communiques between work and sleep.

First day for freshmen today, followed by open house meant getting home at eight. Currently, I am sitting on the sofa waiting for Monkey to bring me some leftover pizza. In an hour it's off to bed so I can get ready for tomorrow.

I will let you know about anything exciting. Currently number one on the excitement meter is this bit of news: CLICK ME!

Until next time...

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Magic Comes to an End

It turns me upside down
Summer, summer, summer
It's like a merry-go-round.
--The Cars, "Magic"

This is always a bittersweet time of year for me. Tomorrow is the first official day that teachers are to report for duty. Students will not arrive until next Tuesday, and I have actually been doing some form of "work" or another since last Tuesday, but tomorrow it is official.

On one hand, I am, as I am every year, excited to get back to teaching. I am eager to get to know my new classes and eager to meet all the challenges that a school year brings (some more than others, of course). I am also looking forward to some new challenges, as this year marks my first as yearbook adviser and I have been asked to mentor a new teacher. Every school year seems to bring something new: a new standardized test, a new policy, a new appraisal process, a new administrator, a new class to much new.

But, as I look ahead upon the challenges that await, I also look back on the freedom that I will lose, again, for nine months. No more sleeping until seven or eight (or later, if I wanted to). No more travel (not much, anyway). No more choosing to do anything without thinking of the five AM wake up on the other end, or the stack of papers to grade, or the lesson to tweak.

In the long run, that's okay. After all, it is a luxury few people have, an eight week layoff with pay. So, I am sad to see it go, but appreciative that I had it.

I didn't really do much professional work this summer, which is fine by me, but that is a rarity. Almost always, I have a workshop or a class to attend, or I read something directly related to my field (besides journals). This year, I did nothing like that. In some way, as an English teacher, every book I read is some small form of professional development, but my choices this summer were selfish. Nothing I might teach as a whole class novel (but plenty I would recommend as personal reading).

So, this summer, perhaps more than any summer since Monkey and I went to Italy, has been a treasure and a joy. It didn't go exactly as I wanted it. My peppers and tomatoes are still lagging behind; I didn't fish as much as I might have liked; I didn't write enough. However, except for the tomatoes, I can say that about every summer.

I'll miss you, my good friend, Summer. I have enjoyed every sweat bead and sun burn, every glass of iced tea and cold beer, every tomato cheese sandwich. I enjoyed crabbing with my nephews and helping them master the techniques of boogie boarding. I enjoyed getting obliterated by post-storm waves in the cool surf of the Atlantic. I enjoyed hiking the Rockies and going toe-to-toe with belligerent rodents. I enjoyed a few lazy days reading with Monkey. I enjoyed the occasional ice cream cone. I enjoyed sporadically interrupted fireworks and a trip to Fenway Park on the fourth of July. I enjoyed it all.

Until Saturday night, but, Summer, I will forgive you a ferocious thunderstorm that breaks my trees and cuts off my power for twenty four hours every now and again. Especially since I also enjoyed a ferocious looking light show after the storm.

Now, it's time to get serious (but not too serious) and get to work. Bring it!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Unexpected Visitors (Another in an Irregular Series of Very Long Stories), Part The Last: Fairly Treacherous Snow

As evening drew to a close the night before, the batteries died in the camera, so, while others were able to snap pics with their new-fangled iPhones, I was left with nothing to offer in the way of visual accoutrement.

We arose later than I anticipated from our tents along Fern Lake, but, after breakfast and discussion, Laura decided to stay at the campsite, while Mike, Monkey and I trekked the three-quarters of a mile or so up to Odessa Lake. More altitude gain on this hike, but, with a base camp, we were able to walk unencumbered. It was a nice change of pace.

As we made our way, we continued to look back for satisfying views of Fern Lake below. We neared Odessa Lake and passed an older gentleman on his way back down. We hailed him. His report: "There's some fairly treacherous snow up ahead."

Inside, we all laughed. It seemed that at every turn someone was warning us of snow. Not only did it seem ridiculous in late July, but each report turned out to sound worse than it actually was. And this case was no different.

Arriving at the lake, we did have to cross a wide stream on a snow bank under cut by rushing water. It was a large patch of snow, maybe a couple hundred yards, maybe less, but it was solid and only as slippery as any snow one might encounter. So, we conquered that little obstacle and came upon another poster-worthy alpine lake. And more trout (definitely fishing next year). And a couple of better behaved ground squirrel.

We walked around the lake for a little while, then turned and made our way back to camp. We packed up, not forgetting to fetch our food out of the woods, and slung our burdens back up. Of course, most of this hike would be down hill, so a little easier to haul. We made it back to the car in good time and drove back to the brown cabin, where we all had well-deserved showers and porch front cocktails.

And another unexpected visitor: an elderly woman, out for an evening stroll, who promptly invited herself up to the porch to converse with us. After Laura fetched her a chair, she stayed for a lengthy spell. Honestly, not my favorite part of the trip, but she was harmless, and she told a few interesting stories. After she left, we ate, then turned in, trying not to think that tomorrow was the end of our trip.

Of course, Monkey was kind of looking forward to a visit to Chic-fil-a in Loveland on the drive back, so, there was a slight silver lining, I guess.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Unexpected Visitors (Another in an Irregular Series of Very Long Stories), Part Four: Fairly Aggressive Ground Squirrels, or It Goes in the Bear Can

As these things sometimes happen, yesterday’s debacle of the “lighter” backpack was not to occur today or tomorrow, since we were planning an overnighter, and I was encumbered with far more than just an extra jacket or two. We had purchased a new pack, with a much larger capacity, allowing me to carry tents, sleeping bags, food, and other gear, along with my normal “bare necessities.”

Our destination on today’s hike was Fern Lake, another beautiful destination that required a good deal of “vertical” hiking. The trail was only about three or four miles, so we didn’t head out until mid-day, but that gave us plenty of time to take an unhurried hike and set up camp before any weather might hit.

You might recall our last overnight hike involved a two-stage ascent of Longs Peak, and that the weather overnight at our campsite was pretty horrendous. We spent the bulk of that night huddled in our tents, listening to thunder crash all around us, as rain pelted our fabric roofs without cease. We hoped for better weather this time, and even expected it, since our campsite this year was still well below the timberline and, thus, less exposed to the mercurial thunderstorms of the alpine region.

Regardless of the weather, this year’s hike included a guaranteed new experience: we had to carry a bear can. A bear can, you might think, is a can full of bear. After all, a beer can is a can full of beer. You would be mistaken. A bear can is a container that is theoretically bear-proof, into which backcountry hikers place their food. The bear can is then placed in the woods, far from camp. The can is supposed to contain the smell of the food, keeping the bears from being attracted to it; however, if a bear does smell the food, the can will a) lure it away from camp and b) prevent it from eating your food (but not from a) carrying off your food or b) throwing your food off the nearest cliff or c) coming to look for the joker who put the food in a bear-proof can). I volunteered to carry the bear can, since, you know, I love bears.

We left from the dusty Fern Lake trail head and, for the first two miles or so, enjoyed a pretty easy walk along Big Thompson River. Then, at a trail junction by a place known as The Pool, the trail inclines steeply, gaining over 500 feet in about three-quarters of a mile. With about thirty pounds on one’s back, such a climb can be a sweaty, leg-wearying affair; however, this slog leads to Fern Falls, where the mist cools you and the falling water wows you. We paused here, taking a snack break and temporarily removing our burden.

Back on the trail, it is another mile and a quarter and another 800 feet in elevation. Just when I thought I might have to call a halt, the trail levels off, and the last fifteen minutes of the trail treated me gently. We came to a ranger’s station, which was not manned at the time, and, on the other side, the calmly beautiful Fern Lake appeared. Our campsite was on the other side of the lake.

Crossing the outlet of the lake on a small timber bridge, we could see the poetic form and motion of mountain trout swimming in the current. The water was so clear and the fish so attractively colorful, I thought for a moment I could just reach out and grab one of those piscine treats, but I soon realized that leaning out over the bridge with all that weight would signal a cold wake up to my system—not to mention that those trout are fast and slippery fish-types. Across the bridge and to the campsite we walked.

We set up our tents and took some beef jerky and trail mix down to the lake for a little afternoon snack. Sitting on a large tree fall, gazing out at the few fly fishermen making their last casts of the day, we noticed a ground squirrel come from behind us to survey not only us, but the delectables we had with us. He jumped right and left, forward and back, trying to get as close as he dared, but we shooed him and tried to be as gently belligerent as we could. After several minutes in which we felt that Mr. G Squirrel was overstepping our comfort zone, I playfully stood up and approached him, placing my feet and raising my hands in a Jack Johnson (not the “Banana Pancakes” guy), nineteenth century-style boxing pose. We all fell out when the squirrel appeared to raise his own little mitts and waved them at me in response before he bolted for the safety of his burrow under a nearby stump. Of course, this amusement would not last long, as we were soon visited by other rodents with designs on our goodies.

We unpacked our food, preparing for dinner and packing into the bear can, but, as we continued to develop our campsite, the clouds rolled in and it began to rain. We retreated to our tents, hoping that the storms would be short-lived. They were. About twenty minutes later, the skies cleared. Monkey and I looked out our tent screen and saw a ground squirrel approach our bagged nuts and jerky. Neither of us had shoes on, and, as I groped for footwear, Monkey thought it would be wise to frighten the invader.


She screamed from the tent, hoping that the ground squirrel would not notice that she thought she was yelling at a chipmunk of great size. He froze for a second and then crept closer to his quarry.

By now, I was coming out of the tent. I was just in time, too. The squirrel had reached the piled provisions and had his mitts around a bag of trail mix, I saw the bag slide an inch down the log on which it sat just as I reached it, stomping to ward off the camp pilferer. He dropped his booty and headed for shelter. After that incident, we were more concerned with ground squirrels than bears, and we made a concerted effort to always keep everything clamped down in the bear can.

Everyone else joined me outside our tents, and we boiled up some water for hot soup to enjoy along with various other “cold” foods. I had brought along a pre-packed slice of Spam, and my only regret was that I only brought one. It was an exquisite camp hors d’ouvre.

After dinner, we took another walk around the lake, spied many more trout (next year, we’re fishing!), and returned to camp to wind down and eventually settle in. The mosquitoes soon became too much for every one but me (I don’t know why they don’t seem that interested in me sometimes), and I sat on a stump and watched the sun set. Just before I retired, myself, on a final check around camp, I saw what I thought was a domestic cat creeping through the underbrush behind our tents. On close inspection, it turned out to be a snowshoe hare, its brown fur and white boots giving me a distinctly cat-like initial impression. I watched it hop and feed for a few minutes, until it got almost too dark to see. I had never seen a snowshoe hare in the wild. It was no moose, and it was no bear (thank goodness), but for me, it was a highlight of the trip. So, satisfied, I settled in for some fitful sleep in the strangely silent mountain forest. Monkey tossed and turned beside me, and we waited patiently for a new day and a new adventure.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Unexpected Visitors (Another in an Irregular Series of Very Long Stories), Part Three: The Mountain Doesn’t Care About You

When she's on her best behavior

Don't be tempted by her favors

Never turn your back on mother earth.

--"Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," Neko Case

After the previous day’s hike to the glorious Lake of Glass, I made a disastrous miscalculation that had a detrimental effect on our mid-week hike. I normally take even the shortest ramble with essential gear that might be needed in an emergency. The minimum amount of gear I usually hike with includes: matches, compass, map, fishing line and hook, multi-tool, rain coat, fleece jacket, water, food, and some small piece of rubberized material that could be used for shelter. It is usually a heavier pack than most would carry, but I like to be prepared for at least a chance to survive should the worst occur. Most survivalists suggest you carry more than this, but, to me, this is the bare minimum. Unfortunately, after two great hikes with balmy temperatures and few clouds, let alone rain, I decided to lighten my load and leave my fleece at the cabin.

The lighter pack was a welcome change. Every pound makes a difference when you are carrying it on your back, and today’s hike to the summit of Flattop Mountain featured more altitude gain that our previous hikes. We left early from the Bear Lake trail head, avoiding the cramped shuttle bus this time, and the start of our hike was morning cool. However, from the start, we were on the ascent, and the lighter pack put a little spring in my step.

After about a mile and a half of “upping” through predominantly aspen forest, our first stop was a gorgeous overlook that provided a bird’s eye view of Dream Lake. From this vantage point, we could also look along Glacier Gorge where we had hiked yesterday. The river’s white water, bursting with runoff from the surrounding heights, looked like a line of snow through the middle of the valley.

We continued on, climbing higher still, until, at about 11000 feet, we reached the timberline, where trees became shorter and sparser. Soon, we passed out of the trees. Above, the skies began to darken, and the wind whipped along the ridge. Behind us, I watched as the moist air rose up the windward side of a peak and began forming a cloud on the leeward side. It was an amazing sight, but it made me a bit nervous about the weather.

After a few switchbacks, we came to another overlook, which provided perilous views of Emerald Lake, which seemed to be directly below us. I imagined that, were one inclined, a person could leap from the overlook and do a perfect swan dive into the lake’s dark waters. Of course, that perfect swan dive would be the last dive of that person’s life, but it would be a wild last ride.

Needless to say, there was no diving from our party. But, the wind was picking up in intensity, and the temperature felt like it was dropping quickly. I pulled on my rain jacket, hoping it would act as a sort of wind breaker, but it only provided momentary relief.

We plodded on, through the alpine tundra, reaching heights of about 12000 feet. At one point in the trail, there was a sign, informing hikers of weather dangers above the treeline (lightning and white outs in all seasons). The eye-catching bold print at the top of the sign: “THE MOUNTAIN DOESN’T CARE ABOUT YOU.” No kidding, I thought, blowing on my frigid fingers. The mountain-side view was awe-inspiring, and, as I kept a watchful eye for a possible ptarmigan (an alpine bird) I enjoyed a few peeks at the ever-present, ever-squeaky pikas that frequent the rocks at this altitude. But, boy, was I getting cold.

We continued along the rocky trail, and could see, over at least one more ridge, the summit (which is more like a really flat plain (i.e., the mountain’s name, I guess). As I walked along, I noticed a young girl, maybe 14, huddled in a little rock cave at the side of the trail.

“You okay,” I asked her.

“Yeah. I’m just waiting for my dad. He’s really slow.”

“Okay. Stay warm.”

Which was exactly what I was trying to do.

As we rounded one more bend in the trail, and I saw how much farther we had to go, I had to surrender. I knew now (I had seen it in print) that the mountain did not care about me. I also knew that I had made the worst possible decision by not bringing the proper gear. After consulting with the rest of the party, we decided to chalk this one up to Flattop, and try to tackle the old man on another day.

On the way back, the young girl was still huddled in the cave, looking less than comfortable. I noticed that she only had one glove. I decided to give her some advice. Yes, me, the bone head who didn’t bring a jacket, but still. I suggested that she get up and start walking back toward her dad, since sitting on the side of a mountain in the freezing wind was probably not going to keep her warm. She took my advice, and, after she’d walked about thirty yards, her dad came around the bend. So, its not like I saved a life or anything.

We headed back down the trail, desperate to get back below the timber line and out of the wind. Once we did, it took a while to get the blood moving, but we eventually warmed up. I was pretty angry at myself for being unprepared. Were we disappointed that we hadn’t reached the summit? Absolutely. Were we glad we’d followed the old cliché of discretion being the better part of valor? I was.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Unexpected Visitors (Another in an Irregular Series of Very Long Stories), Part Two: Keeping Your Junk Dry (8/2/2011)

Our Tuesday hike was planned to Sky Pond, approximately 10,000 feet in the mountains, and about five miles from the Glacier Gorge trail head. Glacier Gorge has been the site of some beautiful hikes over the past few years--to Mills Lake and Black Lake to name a few. It is also a major view from the north side of Longs Peak, where you can look down from 13000 feet and see an entire valley of shimmering alpine pools.

The day itself started well, as the ranger who greeted us at the park gate gave us a detailed forecast (unlike a different ranger a few days later), but then turned on an admittedly sour note, as we arrived at the park far too late to get a parking spot at the trail head. We had to park at a satellite lot and take the shuttle. By the time we got to the park, that meant an overcrowded park bus with more than one screaming child on it. This was not my idea of a pleasant ride; however, we survived, and were soon making our way under clear blue skies along the raging torrent of snow melt that filled the gorge and turned Alberta Falls into a most impressive spectacle.

The trail rose, along with the river, and then rose above the river. We trekked along to a trail split, with Mills Lake hikers (not us) heading one way, and Sky Pond hikers (that’s us) heading another.

Our first extremely beautiful spot was the Loch, a gorgeous lake, where we stopped and had a snack and snapped some pics from an awesome lakeside rock perch. Monkey and the rest of us were able to eat our snacks without being accosted by any birds, but I did spy a Clark’s Nutcracker in the trees across from our rock keeping a watchful eye on us.

After a snack and a breather, we were off for Sky Pond. We wended our way along the banks of the rushing creek, spying the occasional fly fisherman and taking in the constantly picturesque setting. After a while of hiking along wet trails, we began to encounter sporadic banks of snow. As we passed a few out-bound hikers, they told us that ahead of us the snow was too treacherous to continue much farther. Undaunted, however, we continued on.

But soon, we did come to longer stretches of snow-covered trail, and soon, an expanse of ascending white stretched before us. At this point, two of the party settled in to wait, while the other half splay-stepped up the snow. At a halfway point, I (being one of the thru-hikers) consulted with my partner, and, thinking we had decided to climb some rocks to out right, headed off that way. But, I was mistaken, and my partner headed off to the left. I had some great views back down the gorge from atop the rocks, but I soon realized that I had misunderstood, and I scrambled down the rocks and headed back across the snow to meet up with my climbing partner.

We shuffled along a snow ridge and found ourselves at the base of a scramble from which a chilly waterfall descended. We paused to consider our options and consult with another hiker returning from the top of the scramble. He told us it was not too hard and completely worth it. We followed his advice.

The snow was cold, and we had to climb through most of it on hands and knees, so, after a few minutes, the palms of my hands were burning with that “I have been making snowballs without my mittens” kind of cold. Soon, however, the snow bank ended, and we scrambled over twenty yards of rocks to reach the plateau on which we found the wind-blown (and totally misnamed) Lake of Glass.

From here, the view down into the valley was even more vista-riffic. And beyond was Sky Pool. The skies were starting to turn a bit, and it was getting later in the afternoon. Also, half of our party was waiting a few hundred feet below for us to return. We decided to make Lake of Glass our turn-around point for the day.

On our descent, we watched a marmot (one of my favorite animals, you may know), as he made his own way up the snow bank to the rocks above. As he walked he had a peculiar gait, his front end low, and his tail high in the air. His back legs were spread wide, and his bottom was lifted as high off of the icy surface of the rock face as he could get it. At first, I thought he was mooning me or showing me some other form of whistle pig disdain. I soon realized, however, that he was merely trying to keep his junk dry. Another unexpected visitor teaching another unexpected lesson: yesterday’s gray jay teaching us not to wave our apples around; today’s groundhog demonstrating the most effective high-altitude method to avoid shrinkage. Emerson and Thoreau were correct: nature is this planet’s greatest teacher.

Back below, reunited with the rest of the group, I enjoyed a PB and J, and a few minutes of relaxation as I sat on a dry spot, with my back against a rock. I said a little prayer hoping that if I died at exactly that moment no one would ever move me from that spot, and that my junk would stay perpetually dry.