Westward Wanderlust Day 23 Fawn Valley Inn, Estes Park, CO August 1, 2012 And before we knew it, it had finally arrived, the last day of our Summer 2012 Westward Wanderlust. We woke with a bittersweet excitement. We were looking forward to another day in the Rockies, yet were slowly coming to terms with the fact that our trip was almost over. It had finally arrived, the last day of our Summer 2012 Westward Wanderlust. We drank coffee on our deck and watched the hummingbirds zip through the crisp morning air. I decided to take a walk down to the banks of Fall River and enjoy the quiet while D enjoyed a morning dip in our hot tub.
I found a small bench along the riverside trail and watched the morning light creep around the river bend. Fall River burbled over the rocks, a soft but determined current swirling eddies in the pockets between tumbled stone and down branches. The constant movement shifted the surface, creating dark, rolling patterns and shapes that disappeared as soon as they were appeared, morphing into another pattern, and another as the twisted further down stream. As I watched the mesmerizing motion of the river, a bright light dashed through my field of vision. Startled from my gaze, I looked up. Another bright light sped over the surface of the river, then straight up in the air. Hummingbirds! There were about three or four tiny birds dashing and chasing each other just above the surface of the river. As one would hover over the current, another would appear beside it. The first one would fly straight toward the second, then shoot straight up in the air. I watched their dizzying display for quite a while, mesmerized by their phenomenal speed and accuracy. The tiny birds flew mere inches above the river, seemingly unbothered by the churning surface below them, each swift swoop expertly timed and executed. I must have taken at least 100 photos, trying, usually in vain, to capture an image of the tiny winged bodies moving at breakneck speed above Fall River. Amazingly, I was able to get a few shots to give some of an idea of the aerial acrobatics I was witnessing.
Eventually, I torn myself from the show and headed back to our hotel. We packed up our belongings and headed back to Rocky Mountain National Park. Soon after entering the park, we turned on to Fall River Road and headed northeast. Fall River Road is a one-way road stretching 11 uphill miles toward the Fall River Pass The dirt road is narrow, winding one steep switchback after another. We inched along at about 15 mph, enjoying our road less traveled.
Eventually we emerged on the main road and followed Trail Ridge back up through the Alpine region to the far west side of the park. We had high hopes for more moose today and had decided to head back to the Timber Creek area to hike and watch for moose. As we approached the Coyote Valley Trailhead, we spotted two moose munching not too far from the side of the road.
With promising moose action close by, we decided to hike the Coyote Valley Trail along the Colorado River. It was a beautiful day.
We followed the trail for a while, before we decide to blaze our own along the riverbank. Though hoping to see some more wildlife, we didn’t necessarily want to sneak up on a moose. They seem docile enough from a distance, but moose are very dangerous animals and moose mothers maintain a fiercely protective reputation. With both of our eyes scanning the woods, we paid close attention to any movement or noise. But even when we didn’t see anything, we knew a moose had blazed our trail first. Our eyes and ears on alert, we continued on our hike.
As we came around a bend that led to a clearing, I threw my arm out to stop D. A juvenile moose stood right along the edge of the trees ahead of us.
We stood still and watched him saunter through the tall grass and out of our sight. Moose proximity confirmed – we would have to stay alert. We continued carefully along the edge of the moose-y terrain. Three moose in the span of about an hour was pretty good, we thought. A few nice pictures too. We continued to follow the solid ground that bordered the marshy spaces that make this area so attractive to moose. D walked on ahead of me as I stopped to take a picture. As I lowered my camera and looked at D I saw that he had stopped in mid-stride and was standing very still. He slowly extended his left hand and motioned for me to come forward, turning his head slightly, placing his right index finger in front of pursed lips. I quietly walked toward him and looked toward the tall grass before him. There he was, busily foraging. “I see him!” I whispered. D shook his head and pointed to the right toward a clump of pines. I didn’t see her at first, her body completely hidden except for her head, her dark hide that easily blended into the tree bark and shadows. She was sitting down, peering out from behind the branches. I nodded my head and went for my camera. D stopped me and continued to gesture further to the right. There stood a cow and her calf chomping on the reeds. My eyes grew wide and D smiled. I raised my camera and began to shoot.
I panned back to moose no.2 who sat just barely in view, I watched her come to attention as she looked to my left. She straightened her neck, opened wide her previously lazy-looking eyes, and stretched her head out as her ears pointed forward.
I lowered my camera and slowly turned to my left. We had company. The lone moose we had seen earlier was approaching the group, heading straight for the large cow sitting along the tree line.
The meeting seemed amiable enough, perhaps last year’s yearling stopping by for a quick visit? But he didn’t stay long. Big Mama Moose send the young male back out the way he came, and then turned her attention to us.
This was our queue to leave. We backed away slowly, trying to keep the younger cow and her calf to our right in our sights, along with the older cow, and one eye on the young male retreating to the left. I took one last scan of the scene before we left and made a surprising discovery, much closer than we realized.
I pointed moose number six out to D. This time, his eyes grew wide as we carefully made our retreat. Can you believe there are (at least) five moose in this picture?
WOW! What an amazing moose experience! We talked excitedly as we made our way to the park trail and followed it back to the beginning. The clouds were growing bigger and grayer and the sky was getting darker. The forecast had called for early afternoon rain, and it looked like it was about to begin. We made it back to our car just before the rain started. We headed to the Bowen/Baker Trail, just north of where we were. The rain fell heavier and as we drove down the road to the trail, several cars drove out. By the time we go to the trailhead, there was only one other car in sight. We sat in our car until the rain let up a bit, then climbed out of the car and prepared for our hike. But as we looked across the river, we changed our minds.
The Colorado River was the only thing separating us from the cow and her calf. We stayed close to our car and watched the two moose meander along the riverbank.
The calf stayed very close to its mother. When a particularly delicious patch of grass would distract him, he would bury his snout in deep in the foliage, momentarily forgetting his apprehension and move further away from his mother. Often ending up behind him and out of his immediate sight, the mother continued to graze casually along the riverbank. When the calf came up for air and looked around, you could detect a distinct moment of panic as he looked around for his mother. The calf whipped his snout around, his eyes wide and darting. We felt an urge to call out to him, to comfort him and reassure him that his mother had not abandoned him. Though the realization of our presence would have been far from comforting. We were downwind of the moose and it was as if they did not even realize we were there. When the finally calf caught sight of his mother, he bolted to her side. His mother barely looked up, giving him a sideways glance as if to say, “I’m right here, silly.” Moose are surprisingly expressive. Their large eyes accompanied with the telling positions of their ears seem to communicate their emotions as clearly as a human facial expression. The hide across their snout stretches tight, revealing the contours of the muscles and bones that shape their massive heads. The line of their mouths wrapping around the end of their snout can pass for a smile when the moment is right. Sometimes, when a moose opens its jaws just slightly, it looks as though they are curling their lip into a smirk, or are about to tell you something just under their breath. When a moose’s mouth gapes open, they sometimes look like an old loudmouth friend, spilling the latest gossip out of their side of their mouth.
As we watched, the cow suddenly raised her snout to the wind; she smelled something. Not us, but something coming from upwind, something (or someone) that she didn’t seem to care for. With that, mama moose did something took us a bit by surprise. She began to cross the river…aiming for a spot on our side of the bank about 20 feet? from where we were parked. We slowly maneuvered to the far side of our car. We thought it would be best at least have our car between us if we spooked her. The calf stepped tentatively into the water and followed his mother’s lead. Once they crossed the river, they stopped on the bank and resumed their feasting. Now they were about 12 feet from our car. The calf stayed close to his mother’s side now. D and I stood in awe of the up close and personal moose moment we were sharing.
The moose continued to eat their way further from the riverbank toward the Bowen/Baker trailhead. It was then that we saw the owners of their other parked car, tromping over the bridge completely unaware of the moose that were about to cross their path. Unsure how to warn them without spooking the mother moose, we watched nervously as the two hikers rounded the curve and stopped. Thankfully, they saw the moose. The cow seemed very aware of their presence and seemed okay as long as they didn’t get too close. The two hikers then (in our mind somewhat recklessly) continued on the trail, crossing right over the would-be path of the moose. Luckily, they passed quickly and calmly enough that mama moose did not feel too threatened. There is no way D and I would have continued along the trail as these people did until the moose has crossed and continued on their way. Crossing in front of a moose mother and her baby is not a risk worth taking.
After a few more minutes with the moose, we continued on our way. Ten moose in one day! A fantastic experience for the last day of our journey. It was 70 degrees and 3:45 p.m. when we left Bowen Gulch and headed back through the park for one last look at the Rockies from the high-winding Trail Ridge Road. On the way, we also saw two very impressive elk relaxing on the mountainside.
We made one last stop before we left the park. Since it goes right though the park, we felt that before we left the Rocky Mountains, we had to hike a section of the Continental Divide Trail. This somewhat unnerving trail guard greeted us.
As we exited the park, the Rockies sent us off with a special farewell.
It was like a reflection of our happiness, a manifestation our accomplishment. In 21 days, we had visited 19 National Parks and 2 National Monuments. Every moment of it had been fantastic. D and I have always shared a love of nature, camping, and travel, but this trip brought these shared passions to an entirely new level. As we rolled along HWY further and further from the Rockies, we reminisced about our last 3 weeks of adventures. It was impossible to pick a favorite moment, or a favorite park. With each National Park providing its own unique environment and experience, we were in love with them all. We were fixed on our new goal: to visit all of America’s National Parks together. This summer’s travel’s would allow us to add 19 more parks to the “Complete” list that until now had only included 4 parks: Acadia National Park in Maine, The Great Smokey Mountains in Kentucky, and Denali National Park and Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. With BLANK more parks to go, we were hooked and already looking forward to next summer. We had planned one other stop on our way home, Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colorado.
We enjoyed our meal over an Oskar Blues IPA. For dinner I had Spinach Ricotta Ravioli and D enjoyed Blue Burger. It was 8:00 pm and 71 degrees when we left the brewery and turned our nose toward Wisconsin. Switching off driving, we were determined to make it home by the next day. We rolled into our driveway in Kiel, Wisconsin at 3:30 pm on August 2nd. Our odometer revealed that we had traveled 9,185.8 miles. Not bad for 23 days! Our first summer as teachers was fantastic. Unbelievable. In addition to taking advantage of the time we had together, we have started on an exciting journey together. As we continue visit America’s most incredible natural places we will try our best to promote their protection and share their magnificence. These places belong to us, to all of us. It is our responsibility to keep them natural and safe. The National Parks are where we can go to listen, to see, to experience, and to learn. They are something wonderful you can someone you care for or witness in spectacular solitude. We are as much a part of the natural environment within the parks as the flora and fauna. Like the moose in Rockies, the hot wind in Death Valley, and the geysers in Yellowstone, we belong there. It is in nature that we can learn how to become our true selves. We can stop and listen and look and realize that life is about more than getting there fast, having the most, or beating the other guy. It’s about enjoying the journey, rejoicing in new growth, embracing challenges, and appreciating each moment we are able to wake up and know we can enjoy another day on Earth. As nature prudently exists on a schedule of darkness and light, we too follow the days as they rise and fade. We remove ourselves from the natural world and often view it as a commodity instead of an experience. A convenient backdrop instead of unexpected gift. Nature is all around us, existing without needing our authorization, yet suffering from our callousness. If we all take the time to visit at least one of these natural places and sit there, quietly enjoying the gift maybe we can all realize that we belong, that we are a part of nature and it is an inseparable part of us. Maybe that will make even more people understand how important it is to preserve and enjoy our National Parks. That it’s not about today, or tomorrow, but the future. If Ulysses S. Grant had not decreed Yellowstone the first National Park in 1872 or Teddy Roosevelt championed the National Park system in the early 1900’s, the who knows if any of these treasured places would be here today. Roosevelt’s words on Yellowstone’s North Entrance arch say it all; these places are “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It is our privilege and pleasure to experience the wonderful wildness of nature. The experiences we shared traveling the American West and enjoying the National Parks have left an indelible mark within us. The Parks have become part of us, part of who we are. As John Muir said in 1870, “These beautiful days must enrich all my life. They do not exist as mere picture maps hung upon the walls of memory to brighten at times when touched by association or will, only to sink again like a landscape in the dark; but they saturate themselves into every part of my body and live always.”