The winter season in Southwest Colorado is one of beauty, change, quiet and inspiration. It is difficult to imagine a more picturesque winter mountain setting than what each one of us is blessed with on a daily basis. People from across the country travel here to experience the aesthetic beauty possessed by the mighty San Juan Mountains. When the snow has fallen and many trails, peaks, and alpine lakes seem inaccessible, know there are safe locations to travel to and different methods to reach those special places.
The informed winter enthusiast must always consider the topography and potential for avalanches, current snow condition, future weather possibilities, and have the proper gear and the knowledge of its use. Even when all of these factors are prepared for, during certain weather conditions there is always the potential of avalanche danger. Remember this simple but important truth, “Enough snow to ride? Enough snow to slide.”
While we don’t want to deter folks from getting out in the snow, the winter recreationist should know the potential for danger if the proper precautions are not taken into account. Any number of different “gear lists” can be found on-line for different occasions; some essentials to bring on your San Juan adventure include: at least one detailed map of the area, a compass, extra warm clothing, a warm blanket (in case of an unplanned overnight stay), flashlight or headlamp, pocket knife, first aid/survival kit, extra nonperishable food, and more water than you think you would need. The San Juan National Forest offers a free winter guide/brochure, “Where to Go in the Snow, on San Juan Public Lands”, which includes a gear list as well some avalanche awareness and survival tips.
Purgatory, Hesperus, Telluride, and Wolf Creek are good options to downhill ski and snowboard, but where would a person go in the San Juans if they were looking to walk a trail, snowshoe, cross country ski (XC ski), or snow-bike? Haviland Lake about 17 miles north of Durango offers a wonderful winter trail system. This is an area with minimal avalanche danger, a well-established and maintained trail system, it is right off Highway 550, and no major mountain pass prevents its access. Are you looking for more snow and a higher elevation experience? A little further to the north past Purgatory lies the Molas Pass Winter Recreation Area. If the snowpack is minimal, or there is an early or late season urge to snowshoe, Molas Pass is where to go. Just to the south of Silverton off Highway 550, at an elevation of 10,910 feet is where you will find this gem. There are 200 acres designated specifically for non-motorized use, which allows for more of a wilderness experience and provides a safer environment for all.
Closer to Cortez and Dolores there are some good prospects to be explored. Just north of Dolores is the Boggy Draw trail system, which functions as a snow-bike and snowshoe trail system in the winter months. Closer to Mancos is the Chicken Creek XC Ski area, which provides another nicely groomed trail system with the emphasis here being on cross country skiing. These areas near Dolores are a bit lower in elevation, so if we experience a lack of a winter like last year these locations may not be covered in snow. Up near Lizard head pass next to Trout Lake on the Uncompahgre National Forest is another vast winter playground to explore. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snow-biking, and snowmobiling each can find a home here at 10,222 feet on Lizard Head. The trail destinations mentioned in this article have been selected because they generally do not exhibit extreme avalanche danger. However safety and preparation are ultimately up to the user, one must “know before you go”. For more information about winter safety and recreation please visit or contact the San Juan Public Lands Center at 15 Burnett Court in Durango or (970) 247-4874. The Public Lands Center contains one of our bookstores for the San Juan Mountains Association; we have an assortment of guide books and maps available, along with first-hand knowledge and information to benefit any winter recreationist.
The snow covered peaks of the San Juan Mountains are sure to inspire and charm, but must also be respected. The solitude one can find in these mountains is utterly remarkable, there is an entire outdoor recreation industry in the Four-Corners which can attest to that. Even in winter, John Muir knew exactly what he was saying, “the mountains are calling, and I must go.”
By Gabi Morey, Education Outreach Director, San Jun Mountains Association
Sometimes winter in the forest can seem like there isn’t much going on – especially if, like me, you might be out there with a group of 60 excited school children. Wildlife often make themselves scarce when that school bus pulls up. However, even if I don’t see them, I always know that an animal I love to teach and learn more about, the Abert’s squirrel, is around from the evidence they leave behind. Curious? Read on to find out more.
If you’re lucky enough see an Abert’s squirrel, you’ll recognize it most likely from its signature ear tufts, or tassels. These can be longer in the winter, and may almost seem to disappear in the summer. These squirrels typically have a grey back with reddish color on the sides, with a white belly. They weigh about 2 pounds and their head and body are about 12 inches long, and tail is about 9 inches long. They mate in the spring and have a litter of 2 to 5 pups about 40 days later.
Abert’s squirrels are found in Colorado, southeast Utah, and south into New Mexico, Arizona, and even Mexico. There are 9 subspecies of Abert’s squirrels that are associated with different areas, but one commonality among almost all the geographic areas (Mexico excepted) is the presence of ponderosa pine trees. Abert’s squirrels have a mutualistic, symbiotic relationship with these trees, which provide them with just about everything they need in terms of food and shelter. They eat seeds from the pine cones, inner bark, buds, and pollen cones. They will pluck a mature pine cone from a tree, remove the scales, then eat the protein-packed seeds. They also eat pine needles and the ‘inner bark’, or phloem, of twigs from the trees. One of my favorite ‘nature finds’ in the winter are the ends of ponderosa pine twigs on the ground. Abert’s squirrels gnaw off the ends of the branches, letting the pine needle ends fall to the ground. They retain the remainder of the branch, removing the outer bark, and eating the inner bark. The dropped twigs can coincidentally provide food for mule deer. In the summer the squirrels will collect mushrooms, and hang them all over trees to dry. These become winter meals for the squirrels. For shelter, the squirrels build nests out of small branches of the ponderosa pine that they can weave into a safe place to raise young. They also often use mistletoe found in the trees as a great place to build a nest.
Some researchers have found that Abert’s squirrels return to the same ponderosa pine trees year after year. It appears that trees the squirrels prefer have more sugary sap, as well as more carbohydrates, nitrogen and sodium, and less iron, and mercury. Other researchers have found that the preferred trees may simply have bark that is easier to remove.
Interestingly, the squirrels actually help the ponderosa pine trees, in addition to using them. Ponderosa pine trees have a mutualistic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, found in the soil. The fungi extend the reach of the tree’s roots, helping it get to more water, phosphate, nitrogen and other nutrients, while the tree provides the fungi with carbohydrates. From late spring to early fall, the squirrels eat the ‘fruiting body’ of the ectomycorrhizal fungi – the part that shows up above ground for part of the year. This mushroom has spores throughout it, which the fungi use to reproduce. When eaten, the spores survive through the digestive tract of the squirrel, coming out in its scat, and get spread throughout the ponderosa pine forest, especially those trees where the squirrels like to hang out. This is an amazing trifecta of a mutualistic relationship – among the Abert’s squirrels, ponderosa pine trees, and ectomycorrhizal fungi.
Of course, the squirrels are a continuing part of the food chain. Goshawks, a type of forest raptor, are the main predator of Abert’s squirrels. Other predators may include bobcats, mountain lions, and coyotes.
This winter when you are out exploring our beautiful ponderosa forests, take a quiet moment to look around – chances are you’ll find evidence of some of our tree-dwelling, and tree-helping, friends around.
By MK Gunn
Many outdoor enthusiasts in Southwest Colorado aren’t kept inside by cold weather. As the old adage goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” Undoubtedly, there are folks outside every day of the year whether in the mountains or the desert canyons. And not even night time can drive some of us crazy people on to the warm, cozy couch. Yes, we camp out and even go backpacking in the dead of winter.
Aside from the right clothing, all you need is the right attitude and a few tricks of the trade. For general backpacking tips, refer to my February 2017 Stewards of the Land column. Then, read this article for tips specific to camping in snow and/or freezing temperatures.
Now, you may have heard me lecture about minimalist, lightweight backpacking. You should still strive for minimalism in the winter, but you’ll need more stuff and it’s going to weigh more. But you’ll thank yourself later. Here’s what you might want to add to your pack besides extra clothing, a warmer sleeping bag, and maybe a four season tent.
Stoves – White gas stoves such as the MSR Whisperlite are ideal for sub-freezing temperatures. The stove’s design easily vaporizes the liquid fuel. Isobutane canister stoves are difficult to use because the gas liquefies in cold temperatures. If you wear thick gloves or mittens (or maybe you’re a human radiator and can do it bare handed), you can warm the canister by holding it in your hands while the stove is running. This can be a tricky endeavor unless you have a stove system where the pot connects to the stove. Whatever stove you bring, be sure to carry lots of fuel. You may need to melt snow or ice for water and I bet you’ll indulge yourself in a hot drink or two.
Stay warm – Besides the proper clothing (you can have enough puffy down garments), hand and toe warmers can keep you from getting cold. I put hand warmers in my down booties. And then I stick toe warmers to the clothing on my abdomen. And a few nips of liquor can help, too, even if the science doesn’t back it up!
Sleep warm – Bring a water bottle with a trustworthy lid that can handle boiling water. Stash this piping hot bottle in your sleeping bag. This will keep you warm and will keep your water from freezing. Also, break out some fresh hand warmers. The packaging does say that you shouldn’t sleep with them, but I’ve never had a problem. Just be sure that they are not contacting bare skin. If you’re going to add extra socks or gloves, warm them up first by stashing them down your shirt for half an hour.
Use your sleeping bag to keep other things warm – If you aren’t sleeping in ALL of your clothes, keep the extra clothes in your sleeping bag. You’ll be happy about this in the morning. You will also need to snuggle with your electronic devices and isobutane canisters.
Pack out your human waste – Disposing of your human waste can be tricky if it’s snowy or the ground is frozen. The responsible way to go about it is to pack it out. WAG Bags, Restops, Cleanwaste, and other brands of human waste bags make it easy to pack out your human waste and simply deposit the used bag in a trash can once you return to the front country. Yes, these bags do seem wasteful. However, the alternative is that your human waste will wash into the fresh mountain streams come summer. Yuck. Please pack it out.
It’s so dark out! – Not sure how to cope with 14 hours of darkness? Well, aside from whipping up copious amounts of hot drinks, be sure to bring a star chart or download a star app. See what you can learn about the night sky. As for constellations, many people know some of the ancient Greek constellations, but do you know the various Native American constellations? And there’s nothing that says you can’t make your own constellations. I have a winter constellation that represents my old cat. He is forever chasing a mouse that he will never catch. You can also pack in a book. Don’t have time to read in this busy world? You’ll have plenty of time with 14 hours of darkness. Or, you can just catch up on your sleep. Most of us don’t get enough of that, anyway.
Looking for more tips on sleeping out in the cold? Check out backpacking.net/wintertips. But remember, no matter what time of year, your attitude has a lot to do with how much fun you have out there. Us crazy people will be out there waiting for you.
Small rural cemeteries of La Plata County have played an important role in the lives of early settlers. These burial places have allowed individuals to honor their families and friends while fulfilling burial practices that often reflected their ethnic origins and customs. The cemeteries provided a mechanism to record their testaments to a loved one, giving future generations an intimate glimpse into their lives, personalities, and pasts. These monuments are chroniclers of past lives; the witnesses for cherished souls now gone.
For historians and genealogists, carved inscriptions and images provide valuable clues about family histories and past lives. Inscriptions give information about family relationships; religious beliefs; occupations; countries of origin; and health, mortality and disease. Images give us additional information about their lives through artistic expression. Marker materials and fabrication speak to family and community economics and technology. On the Kansas plains, an elaborate Victorian tombstone tells of a family’s heartfelt loss by depicting a young girl eternally asleep in an open shell of marble. Along Colorado’s isolated Purgatory River, at a lonely windswept cemetery, the love and loss of Hispano families is carved on sandstone tombstones with folk art images of stars, flowers, diamonds, and moons mixed with handcrafted Spanish inscriptions. In rural La Plata County, hardy early pioneers are remembered with markers of wood, sandstone, and metal in small hidden cemeteries. In some cemeteries, loved ones were buried with a boulder or fieldstone as the only indication of their passing.
For the past three years, the SJMA has conducted a project to document the small county cemeteries. Our work builds on the previous recording efforts and existing burial records. Our project goals are to work with existing cemetery associations to assemble cemetery records to help preserve historical information, and to develop a searchable on-line database. This information will help family researchers and historians locate the final resting place of individuals who migrated into La Plata County in the past; these burial records may provide the important missing piece in the family story.
As we have recorded the graves of loved ones, we have been touched by the realization that early life in the County was hard. Fairly consistently about one third of the graves are for children under 10 years of age, many from the same families. Loving tributes to mothers are found at all the cemeteries over all the years. And in small lonesome cemeteries, small American flags flutter at the graves of veterans, reminding us of the lives lost on our behalf. One of the most poignant markers was a marker in loving memory of a young 19 year old sailor lost on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1944. These inscriptions remind us of the lives of real people that have passed on.
April 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. With the war, our country sent many young men to join European forces to fight in various war theaters. At home, Americans supported the war effort through numerous conservation efforts. One of the sayings at that time was “Conservation is Patriotic”. Even though the War effort focused attention on conservation, resource conservation, as an attempt to achieve sustainability, has at least a thousand-year history in Southwest Colorado.
Anthropologists and historians have studied human exploitation and adaptation to our fragile environments to understand prehistoric and historic occupations in our area. Numerous studies have described prehistoric human activities to cope with uncertain environmental conditions, including strategies to manage water, soil, and domesticated and wild plant foods. Research indicates that early inhabitants struggled to meet their food needs using a variety of conservation practices. Ethnographic data indicates that in many places traditional conservation techniques are still practiced and that these traditions remain an important part of the communities.
Historic records provide interesting documentation about efforts to conserve food resources. As the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson established the US Food Administration that called upon Americans to plant gardens and grow their own produce, so that government supplies could be used for the war effort. Slogans such as: “Eat potatoes, save the wheat; drive the Kaiser to defeat” were heard. In response, existing family gardens were expanded, vacant lots and parks were planted and became known as “Victory Gardens” and Americans produced about 75% of their household food needs. In 1918, the La Plata County Women’s Council established a community kitchen to train young women to can fruits and vegetables, Fort Lewis Junior College students harvested crops, and Durango planted Victory Gardens and participated in meatless and wheatless days. During World War II, family gardens again provided household produce when food rationing was implemented.
Today, household and community gardens abound to provide healthy produce for our consumption. Farmers’ markets, edible gardens and old and new orchards provide area residents with food sources that have their beginnings with indigenous and pioneer settlement, western sustainability and, more recently, the conservation efforts stimulated by World War I.
Ruth E. Lambert is the cultural program director at SJMA. Reach her at 970-385-1267 or email@example.com.