Patricia Prijatel

Writer, Reader, Watcher

Our Friendly Little Place

January 31, 2018


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My mantra when we were building was, “It’s just a mountain cabin.” So, pretty much, it’s just a mountain cabin, but a beautiful welcoming home and I truly love it. The housing appraiser called it a “friendly little place” and my sister Phyllis says it reminds her of a dollhouse.

It’s a tiny charmer, built with love and by my family—the siblings and nieces and nephews who still live in Colorado all had a hand in it. My brother Ed and his son Matt built the main part: the exterior, a simple double-garage sized rectangle, 480-square-feet, with a green metal roof. The rest of us finished the interior and built the decks.

Our kitchen cabinets are antique cupboards from Pella, Iowa. The coffee table is a wooden icebox my dad made sometime in the 1950s. The heavy wood toolbox he used to lug tools all over Pueblo when he built his house sits along one wall. The bed is a walnut four-poster that Joe and I got from Goodwill when we were first married in 1970. If I did it again, I would have more windows, but those we do have bring in the Colorado sun and light up the place like a welcoming lantern.

 

 

 

We’re all off the grid, with solar power, propane gas, a composting toilet, a small wood heating stove, and well water. Our only utility is the phone line and that is erratic. Cell coverage is minimal because we’re in a mountain valley.

Our deck faces the meadow and the mountain, with the back of the cabin to the road. There’s little human activity on the road, although we often see signs of bear and deer and, once, a mountain lion, on it. The only people who ever use it are family, friends, or people who are lost, usually looking for the scout camp. We have to tell campers they can’t get there from here, that our road is a dead end and they have to turn around and drive another 45 minutes back and around, even though it’s only a mile away.

This is an excerpt from my book about the East Peak Fire and its aftereffects, tentatively called Burn Scars.

A third of the recently burned forests in the American West will never regenerate, according to research led by Colorado State University foresters and published in the journal Ecology Letters.

“In many places, forests are not coming back after fires,” says Camille Stevens-Rumann, assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at CSU.

When forestry scientists studied burned forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, they found no seedlings—none, zero—in one-third of all the sites. These areas will most likely not return as forests, but as shrublands, a consequence of climate change. These forests were too dry to begin with and their fires burned too hot, which killed not only their trees but their ability to grow new trees.

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Healthy aspens growing alongside locusts on our ridge four years after the East Peak Fire of 2013.

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A three-year-old seedling planted on the burned ridge is surrounded by wildflowers and downed trees.

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Shrubs and weeds are replacing centuries-old trees.

Our ridges burned exceptionally hot in the East Peak Fire of 2013, leaving much of our forest with hydrophobic soil–soil that burned so hot it had a waxy cover afterward that  repelled water, hence the name, which translates to “afraid of water.” In the years since the fire, we have not seen a single evergreen seedling grow naturally in the burned areas. Aspens have regenerated beautifully, however; their underground root system survived the fire. Starting in 2014, we’ve been replanting with evergreens from the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Program. Most of the  pines, spruces, and firs have survived so far, but some have been crowded out by scrub oaks and locusts. The forest seems naturally inclined to come back as shrubland.

Our lack of tree regeneration is typical of what researchers observed.  Across the sites and throughout all the states studied, low–or no–regrowth was the standard.

“We expect variability in how long forests take to recover after wildfires, but the decrease in tree regeneration between the late 20th and early 21st century was pretty striking, and it’s consistent with what we expect to see as climate becomes warmer and drier,” says University of Montana fire ecology Professor Philip Higuera.

“Even if we plant trees in those areas, it’s unlikely to be successful,” Camille Stevens-Rumann. “We need to start expecting that these landscapes aren’t going to look the same in the future, whether it’s reduced density of trees or no longer a forest.”

One solution is to plant different types of trees that might be more suited to a hotter and drier environment, she says.

We’ll keep planting and watching on our little plot of land. We know the forest will never again be what it was, but with help we hope it will at least be a forest of some sort.

 

 

 

The Mountain’s Dance of the Clouds

January 20, 2018


IMG_0413.jpgThe view of southern Colorado’s East Spanish Peak from our cabin is mesmerizing, especially when the mountain dances with the clouds. Sometimes this is a prelude to rain, but often it is just the magic of nature. Watch it dance below.

 

I can see the pirate on the mountain from the window in front of my desk in the cabin.  It’s a formation of trees and rocks that create a Johnny Depp sort of swashbuckler, with features defined by 50-foot ponderosa pines poking out of granite skin. He has a pert nose, neat beard, and a large, graceful hat; one eye squints and the other one is covered with a patch. He’s maybe a thousand feet in diameter, about a fourth of the height of the section of mountain we can see from our land. Can you see him in the center of the photo below? It takes a little imagination, but once you see him, he’s always there.

In the trees that form the top of his hat sits a tiny miner’s cabin, built by neighbors more than 100 years ago. In the ravine to the left of the pirate is their mine, which never yielded anything other than a bad back. The cabin is often a stopping off place for hikers climbing the peak—the tin roof still provides shelter. (Photo from 2012)IMG_1473

The pirate was perhaps the largest casualty of the 2013 fire, at least in terms of volume.

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Most of his eye and nose are gone, his beard a pale shadow, barely visible against the rock of the mountain. His eye patch, plume, and part of his hat are mostly alive, the rest is burned away. We haven’t been up to check on it, but we hear the miner’s shack is also gone. (Photo from 2016)

The East Spanish Peak Before and After the Fire

January 1, 2018


The mountain in 2012 (left) and in 2016 (right), as seen from our cabin. Groves of centuries-old firs, spruces, and pines create the dark green cover on the mountain face in the image on the left, taken a year before the fire. More than half of the trees have died in the image on the right, taken three years after the 2013 fire. While our meadow was spared, thanks to firefighters, several old growth trees alongside it were still burned.

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The bear lived in this singed grove, about 30 feet from the cabin

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The muddy print on our porch measured 6.5 inches. Smaller than our neighbor, so it was a different bear.

We hear a shuffling, then see a movement in front of us, a shape on the boulder less than five feet from us. A furry foot is reaching from the rock to the deck. A big furry foot. Attached to a bear. Seems he’s planning on coming onto the deck.

“Shoo!” I shout. Seriously, this works on black bears. He probably weighs three times as much as me, even though he is fairly small—he looks like he is only a year or two old. Plus he has some pretty serious claws going on. Still, he runs away when I yell at him. He trundles up the hill toward the shed then stops, turns, and looks at me, wondering if I am serious. “Shoo!” I shout again, clapping my hands. This time he lumbers all the way to the road. He stays there and watches us. I yell at him again. He stays put.

He’s the mangy fellow who has invited himself to be our neighbor, moving in within throwing distance of the cabin, in a cove of trees that dips into the creek. His coat is dirty beige and looks like the stuffing from a 100-year-old mattress. But he usually leaves us alone. When we work outside, he calmly grazes in the grass just yards away from us, barely paying attention to us. Until now, we’ve not appeared to be worth his time.

I shout at him again. “Get out of here!” He looks at me. Shrugs. “Shoo! Get!” He finally bumbles down the road, muttering to himself, his ratty butt swaying with each step.

The next morning, we find a muddy paw print right next to our door, facing the cabin. The other print is about five feet up the wall.  We measure them: 6.5 inches. Smaller than the bear we saw, so it was probably a different one. After that, we lock the door at night.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.