Tom Ross: Last call for summer

Ptarmigan already pturning color high on ptundra

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We hiked about as high into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness as a soul can hike during the weekend, hoping to find a snowdrift for the dog to roll in. What we found was even better.

Oh, to be sure, we found beacoup snow. There were big drifts with streams bursting right out of them. And there was a massive avalanche runout where the snow was deep and firm even in the middle of an August afternoon. The snow that lingered from twin avalanches must have measured 250 yards in length, and we felt certain it would persist long enough to to be buried by the first snows of the new season.

And isn't that what matters? The new season? Aren't we due for a big winter of no less than 375 inches of snow?

Well, I have good news to report brothers and sisters. Call it a favorable omen. Call it mighty big ju-ju. High above 11,000 feet there is a sign of a big winter to come.

The ptarmigan already have begun to change their plumage from mottled brown to snowy white. I'm thinkin' they must be getting ready. We had hiked up past the Slavonia mining ruins Sunday morning into the spectacular Alpine bowl that lies beneath Red Dirt Pass. The snow drifts that dot the landscape represent the headwaters of the Elk River. The meadows along the way to Red Dirt Pass are putting on as fine a late summer wildflower display as we've ever seen. There were blossoming penstemon, harebells, bluebells, paintbrush and larkspur. There were blossoms that weren't familiar to us, like rosecrown and Parry primrose. There was even a delicate little blossom called bistort that reminded me of a snowball -- oops, there I go again.

From the mining camp at 10,000 feet, the trail gains 2,180 feet of elevation in 2.5 miles on the way to the summit of Mount Zirkel. And as we climbed, it was as if we were walking back in time in terms of the species of wildflowers that continue to blossom.

Red Dirt Pass sits at just about 11,500 feet, according to my topographic map, and when you sit in its windy saddle, you literally are sitting on the Continental Divide. Looking down at the way you've come, the freshets coming out of the snow banks are destined for the Pacific Ocean. Turn around and look north into Frying Pan Basin and the rivulets are bound for the North Platte River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

We climbed a fair distance above Red Dirt Pass where we glimpsed Gilpin Lake far below us, and wondered at the expanse of big Agnes. On the way down, we were picking our way through rocky tundra when six large birds exploded out of the low vegetation 15 feet in front of us. As they scattered, I immediately recognized them as ptarmigan. Their heads, backs and the tops of the wings were mottled gray and brown -- perfect camouflage in the rocky tundra. However, their breasts and the underside of their tail feathers already had begun the seasonal transition to the camouflage they would need in winter.

It's only August folks, and already the creatures of the high country are preparing for a big winter. How about you?

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