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.


The Long Haul Project said...

I love all the adventures with squirrels from your trip. Sounds like the Colorado squirrels are pretty bold! Next time, best bring a squirrel can...

Monkey @ Life Refocused said...

The snowshoe hare was pretty spectacular and maybe even worth the gazillion mosquito bites I got. Next time--we must remember the bug spray. And the Xanax.