Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Swept Away in Henson Creek

mir•a•cle  >n.  a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.
The New Oxford American Dictionary
  Henson Creek—normally a placid, slow moving river during the month of June—became a raging torrent this year due to heavy mountain snowfall and delayed runoff.
  On a Sunday afternoon in late June Tim and I drove the dirt road along Henson Creek near Lake City, Colorado.  Heading downriver toward town we saw several cars alongside the road.  I scanned the hillside across the creek and noticed five Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep—four ewes and one little lamb—walking wearily up the hill.

We stopped the car and got out to view and photograph the sheep.  A couple from Kansas walked toward us with their cameras and recounted a harrowing tale:  
          Earlier, as they drove upriver, they watched four ewes and five baby bighorn sheep bound from the rocks, cross the road, then try to swim across roiling Henson Creek.  All four ewes and one baby made it across but the other four lambs were swept downriver.
The woman from Kansas showed us the picture she took with her digital camera and it was horrifying—four tiny heads bobbing in the raging flow.  (How I wish I had asked her to email me that picture.)  That was 15 minutes ago, she said, and she hadn’t seen them since...  
The lambs were swept away on this section of river.
See below for a picture of this same stretch of water
 during a return trip in September.
  The four ewes and one baby walked gradually uphill and away from the river.  Could the ewes be leaving their other babies behind?  As we watched through binoculars two ewes turned around and looked nervously toward the river.  They opened their mouths and called.  Still no sign of the lambs.  Then the ewes made their way farther uphill.  “We should leave”, I said.  “Our presence here by the river may be causing the ewes to move farther away from their babies—if the lambs are even still alive.”

Ewes call out for their lost lambs.
          As we returned to our cars Tim stopped and scanned the river, then he waved and pointed with enthusiasm.  “There they are! There they are!”  he shouted.  Four drenched lambs, about 50 yards downstream, out of the river and edging upstream along the rocks.  The lambs stood on a ledge around a corner and out of sight of the adults, but they must have called out to their mamas; suddenly three ewes came running down the hillside toward the river.  The lambs huddled by crevices in the rocks until their mothers came to get them.  Then the ewes and lambs—one Mom with her twins and the other two with their single lambs—celebrated a joyous reunion at the base of the rock face.  All seven bighorns then turned and picked their way over the rocks and up the mountainside, joining the other ewe and her lamb.  
Witnessing this extraordinary event were four speechless, ecstatic humans.

"I thought I'd lost you forever."
Notice how the baby lamb (on the right) blends in with the rocks.
          That evening I reflected on the day’s events and had these questions:  
  How did those little lambs survive when a person wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in that icy, turbulent river?  How did they break free from the powerful current, scale the vertical riverbank and escape the churning water?  How did all four lambs find each other and end up together, and on the same side of the river as their mothers?  
           I’ll never know the answers.  A miracle. 
As I turned in for the night I imagined all the tiny lambs snuggled up with their mamas under a star-filled sky.  Safe.  And warm.  And dry.

"Follow me to safety, little one."

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn is a species in peril.  The National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center in Dubois, Wyoming encourages stewardship of bighorns and of all wildlife and wild places.  If you're interested in joining this organization (I have) or in learning more about Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep visit this address:

Below is a photo, taken several months later, of the same stretch of river where the lambs were swept away; the high waters have subsided.  Notice how placid the water is—much safer too.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Treasures of Hovenweep

The Ute Indians named this remote area on the Utah-Colorado border Hovenweep, meaning “deserted valley”.  The name is appropriate; as Tim and I drive south from Blanding to Hovenweep National Monument we’re the only vehicle for miles around.
We pull into the campground on a warm Friday afternoon in March.  The campground, set among junipers and pinyon pines, affords spectacular views of the  snow-capped San Juan mountains to the east.

A Room With a View - Campsite at
Hovenweep National Monument.

After making camp we walk the two mile interpretive trail near the visitor center.  This trail winds along the edge of a canyon and near ruins belonging to the ancient Pueblo Indians.  These structures, built from AD 1230 to 1275, are in remarkably good shape.  How many of our modern-day dwellings will survive 800 years?  As we walk we speculate on what life was like for the peoples of the Colorado Plateau all those years ago:  no roads or campgrounds; no noisy pick-up trucks hauling recreational vehicles; no radios blaring; no jet contrails in the sky.  For a moment I think I would’ve liked to have lived here in AD 1275.  Reality sets in though as we cook dinner at the campsite and I reflect on how convenient it is to have a propane stove heating our stew, to have a vehicle transporting us and our gear to this place.  After dinner we relax by a roaring fire—reading, talking and gazing at the stars.

Ruins Along the Rim Trail.

The following morning after a nourishing breakfast of eggs, hash browns and sausage we prepare to hike the Holly Ruins Trail.  The trailhead starts from the campground; it’s an 8-mile long out-and-back hike.  Near the trailhead the path cuts through a narrow crevice in the rocks; we get a kick out of squeezing through this fissure. The ruins at trail’s end are perched high on a canyon rim with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and deserts.  Archeologists theorize that the Indians built here for defensive purposes and that’s likely true.  But I wonder...could it be that they liked the view just as we do?  Why do we assume that ancient tribal cultures had no sense of aesthetics, that they were only interested in the utilitarian nature of things?
         Tim and I enjoy the easy pace of the hike back to the campground.  Throughout the hike canyon wrens keep us company with their trilling whistles.  You can listen to the song of the canyon wren here:
This evening we relish our dinner of spaghetti, followed by s’mores around the campfire.  Tomorrow we’ll drive back to the 21st century but for now we’re savoring time spent in the shadows of ancestral Puebloan civilization.

Perched on the Rim - Townsite of the
Ancestral Pueblo Indians.

For more information on the ancient Pueblo Indians visit this website:

To plan your trip to Hovenweep National Monument visit this site:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wildflower Season in the Mountains

                People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
                                                                    -- Iris Murdoch
                                               A Fairly Honourable Defeat

               Wildflowers are blooming in the western mountains!  If you've been wondering what happens on the slopes of your favorite ski resorts in the summertime, then you might be interested in these photos from an August trip to Alta in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah:

Albion Basin Wildflower Meadow, Alta Utah

Indian Paintbrush

Pink and Blue Wild Geraniums

Yellow Daisies and Blue Sky

Silvery Lupine and Indian Paintbrush

Bursting with Color

              Several mountain  towns hold wildflower festivals during July and August.  You can find information about the Wasatch Wildflower Festival (Utah) and the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival (Colorado) on these websites:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Born in Iowa? You Could be Famous...

           Iowa is THE place to be born and it makes no difference whether you’re real or fictional.  Who are these famous Iowans?   Travel along to Iowa with me and see for yourself.....
On my way south from Spencer to Clarinda I see a sign pointing west proclaiming:  “Wall Lake—Birthplace of Andy Williams, 3 miles”.  Andy Williams—really?  I didn’t know he was born in Iowa.  And so I'm off to Wall Lake.  Wall Lake is a tiny hamlet; gingerbread-style homes line its Main Street.  Crooner Andy Williams was born here in 1928 in a small white frame house perched on a hill at the southern edge of town.  The house is open for tours during the summer months.

Banner on Main Street of Wall Lake.

          My next stop is the town of Clarinda, birthplace of big-band leader Glenn Miller.  I tour the small home where he was born; a pleasant historical society volunteer is stationed inside the house and she's eager to show me around and to answer questions.  Clarinda is very proud of its native son and hosts a Glenn Miller festival every year.  People come from all over the country and the festival boasts big name musical entertainment.  However on this rainy May day I am the only one touring the Glenn Miller birthplace.

Inside Glenn Miller's Living Room—Clarinda.

The next day I drive through Ottumwa, fictional birthplace of Radar O’Reilly, company clerk of television “M*A*S*H” fame. 

Company Clerk Radar O'Reilley
Photo from Internet Movie Data Base

After spending a night in Keokuk I decide to beam on up and boldly go 80 miles north to Riverside—the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise.  In the 1960’s television show “Star Trek” it was well-known that Captain Kirk was from Iowa, but from where in Iowa?  The town of Riverside petitioned Gene Roddenberry, executive producer of “Star Trek”, to have their town proclaimed Captain Kirk’s official birthplace and Roddenberry approved.  Thus, on March 22, 2228 one James T. Kirk will officially be born here.  Kind of silly, but it works for the town.  Every year in June the town holds a Trek Fest, attended by loyal trekkies from the far reaches of the universe.

Can't wait until 2228!

  In the town of Anamosa I find the Grant Wood Museum.  Grant Wood, Anamosa native and artist of the famous “American Gothic” painting, also painted many scenes depicting small-town Iowa life. 

"American Gothic" by Grant Wood.

             On the final day of my Iowa tour, before heading back to Des Moines, a brief sightseeing stop takes me to the town of Mason City, made famous by native son Meredith Wilson who wrote “The Music Man”.  I stop at Music Man Square on Pennsylvania Avenue to see the museum and the re-created street scene of fictional River City, Iowa.   

Birthplace of Meredith Wilson in Mason City.
Bad weather and bad timing prevented me from touring two other Iowa birthplace towns:  Mamie Eisenhower’s birthplace in the town of Boone and John Wayne’s birthplace in the town of Winterset. 

It seems that being Iowa-born could be the ticket to fame and fortune.  Want to discover the homes of these and other eminent Iowans?  Visit this website:

             Did you enjoy this Iowa travel tale?  Here's a link to a post about another famous Iowan:  Dewey the Library Cat.