Category Archives: Scientific Phenomenon

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 2

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Before moving to Colorado, I experienced seasons in a completely different way.  While there would be some anomalies, for the most part, winter was winter and summer was summer.  Snow was something I experienced starting in November, through the winter, probably one last time in early April, and then not again for 6-9 months.  Likewise, heat would be primarily confined to the summer months.  In other words, I experienced being cold and being warm in two separate parts of the year.  The experience would generally only mix during the in between seasons; mid-spring and mid-fall.

In Colorado it’s all different.  In Denver I’ve seen temperatures reach the lower 70s (23 C) in the middle of February.  At higher elevations snow can fall nearly year round, and there are places where snowpack persists well into the summer.

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Saturday morning, the start of my second day in the Weminuche Wilderness, was a cold one.  The chill had awoken me at 3:00 in the morning, when I reached for my warm hat and for the zipper to zip my sleeping bag all the way shut.  At roughly 6:30 I woke up for good, and crawled out of the tent to find ice on the fly!  Frost was found on many of the items we left outside, including this bear cannister.

It warmed up fairly quickly at the campsite making me wonder why I did not simply stay inside the tent for another hour.  All the weather forecasts we had looked at prior to this backpacking trip had indicated that a wet period was coming to a slow end, and that each day would get progressively drier (lower probability of rain).  Yet, in the morning I saw something that would indicate differently; alto-cumulus clouds.  These are puffy clouds with a base somewhat higher up in the sky than the clouds we typically see.  On some storm chases, the presence of alto-cumulus clouds indicated the presence of moisture at higher levels of the atmosphere.  This was seen as a good sign on a storm chase, but, on a backpacking trip, is a bad sign.

The first few miles of the day took us by a lake we are glad we did not chose to camp at the prior evening, and then back into the woods, where once again the trail was muddy kind of on-and-off.

Headed farther up in elevation, towards the summit of the day, we approached the tree line, encountering several waterfalls.  This one, by far, was the most pictureqsue.

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I did not even know the name of any of these waterfalls.  In fact, I did not even verify that they even have a name.  It didn’t even seem important at the time.  We just liked what we saw.  At that time, most of the conversation within our group revolved around whether we would see marmots in the nearby rocks, and speculation as to what elevation the tree line was at at this latitude.

We followed the Rincon La Vaca (Cow Canyon) trail, which is also considered a section of the Continental Divide Scenic trail, above the tree line, and approached a rock formation we had been looking at since early the prior afternoon, “The Window”.

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This is where we decided to stop for lunch, at a lake where we could safely refill our water bottles.

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It was noon when we finished eating lunch and, four of us (out of a group of six) decided, despite the potentially ominous weather, to make a side excursion.  We dropped our packs and hiked the 500-ish feet (and half a mile) up to “The Window”

We got back to the lake, where our backpacks were, around 1:00.  As soon as we prepared to move, and catch up with the rest of the group, it started to rain.  A few minutes later, ice pellets began to fall from the sky.

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We briefly took shelter from the inclement weather, but eventually soldiered on through the not quite rain not quite ice, which would eventually change over to snow!

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I experienced a lot of this living in Chicago.  I called it “precipitation jambalaya”.  But, I never thought I would hike through it, and, well, am used to experiencing this in December, not late August!  Once again, that thing about the seasons!

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The precipitation stopped right before we turned off the Continental Divide/ Rincon la Vaca trail, and started looking for the trail we would take back towards the reservoir, the East Ute Creek Trail.

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The scene looked familiar.  The shape of the Ute Creek Valley where we were headed, with an open meadow surrounded by mostly dead forests on either side looked quite similar to the Weminuche Creek Valley we had hiked through the prior day.  The trail, though, was hard to find.

For the first mile we kept losing the trail, or we just saw it show up only as a barely visible line in the grass.  We actually speculated as to whether or not this trail was so infrequently used and/or maintained that mother nature was basically starting to take it back!

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We hiked until roughly 5:00 P.M., and by the time the day was over we hike a total of 10.2 miles (11.2 for those of us that took the side excursion to “the window”).  The last hour featured two crazy river crossings where we actually removed our socks and shoes.

We found a campground near a small lake called Black Lake, where, once again, the weather took a turn for the worse.

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The rain started shortly after 6 P.M., and did not let up until after sundown.  I rushed back into my tent!  With all of the experiences of the day, the mixed precipitation at over 12,000 feet elevation, wading through water, and now, once again, more icy rain, I was cold!  I was way colder than I wanted to be, and way colder than I ever imagined being in the month of August.  For the first 20-30 minutes, I had to lie sitting still inside my sleeping bag, otherwise I would start to shiver.

All I could think of were things that were HOT and DRY.  I wasn’t even thinking of warm, pleasant experiences, like drinking rum on a beach in Puerto Rico at sunset.  I was thinking about things that would immediately heat me up and dry me off; sheets that were pulled directly out of the drier, a sauna, Death Valley!

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With the hard hiking parts over with, I had originally hoped to have kind of a party with the group on Saturday night.  We had even brought flasks, filled with whiskey for such an occasion.  But, the weather changed my plans, as the rain continued and I continued to periodically hear thunder through the 7:00 and 8:00 hours.

I also did something I never do on group trips; read.  I joke I often bring a magazine or even a book, places, but never touch it.  This time I actually read.  It was the July edition of Adventure Cyclist.  Fitting for the mood, thinking about warm places while trying to stay warm, I read full stories about cycling journeys through Morocco and Hawaii, both warm places!

I guess regardless of whether you are in an urban setting or in the wilderness, life has a way of changing plans.  In the city, it is some merger, or a random change in commodities prices.  In nature, it is the weather.  But, when it comes to rain, and anytime rain changes my plans, I always do my best not to complain.  Even while I was bummed that I was not partying with my friends and hating how cold I was in my tent, I was mindful to remember that rain is necessary for the food we eat, the water we drink, as well as everything that made this trip possible in the first place.  I do not want to be one of those people that fails to realize this, and cannot put up with a little bit of rain.

 

Lessons Learned?

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Some events in life are clear.  They can be clearly labeled a success or a failure.  The reason for the success or failure is clear, and there is a clear lesson to be learned from it.  One comes out of an event of this nature much like an idealized application of the scientific method.  A piece of new information is obtained.  It either strengthens a pre-existing theory or calls it into question.

In the real world is not ideal like that.  Many observations, an many of our life experiences do not even produce a clear cut data point, a clear “success” or “failure”, or a clear lesson to be learned.  This was certainly the case on my first storm chase of the 2016 severe storm season, on Saturday, May 7th.

It was a day that did not require me to travel far to chase.  In fact, I returned home to Denver less than eight hours after departure, something that cannot typically be expected.  If I lived in a City right in the heart of “tornado alley”, such as Oklahoma City, Topeka, or Lincoln, I would expect to be able to regularly see great storms without having to allocate an entire day.  However, Denver is a bit West of the region most prone to severe thunderstorms, much the same way Chicago is a bit East of that region.  When I moved to Denver, I did have to make some adjustment with regards to storm chasing, but I did not significantly alter my expectations regarding time spent or distance traveled on a typical one-day storm chase.

Saturday’s severe storm setup provided me with a somewhat familiar dilemma, and one that is even more common chasing storms in Colorado, where many thunderstorms are initiated by orographic features.  Severe storms need a certain environment to thrive, one that is warm an moist, but also with some kind of boundary to create low-level wind sheer, which creates the rotation necessary for supercells, and tornadoes, to form.

Saturday was not that kind of day in the Denver metropolitan area. The Denver area spent the entire day in a thick field of low level cloudiness that prevented the air from warming up.  The high temperature at Denver International Airport was only 53.  Ideal conditions were farther East.  That day the high in Fort Morgan, close to where a lot of the violent storms would hit, was 68.  As is the case with any storm chase, it is important to get into an area where the environment will be favorable for storm development.  So we drove East of the cloud deck.

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But then it happened, forced by the Palmer Divide, thunderstorms formed just to the North and East of Colorado Springs, in an area where conditions were not favorable for severe storms.  Sitting in Byers, roughly 40 miles East of Denver, we had a choice; do we go South and West to catch the storm now, or do we hang back and wait for the storm to reach our current location, in a more favorable environment?

Staying back means potentially missing what the storm does in its early phases.  However, being more aggressive means possibly missing a different storm, that may form in an area with better conditions for severe storms.  On Saturday, after some deliberation, we decided to go after the first storm.  We felt cold air, possibly the coldest I have ever been in while observing a thunderstorm, and saw a strong downdraft.  This is consistent with an atmosphere that is cooler and drier than the ideal one for producing severe weather.

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The storm raced northward.  We ended up being a little bit limited by the relatively sparse road network in Northeastern Colorado, having to follow the storm along a series of dirt roads that connected Strasburg, CO (along I-70), to Wiggins, CO (which is along I-76).

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In fact, there was even a time when we were pretty much directly under where the RADAR echoes showed the center of circulation to be.  This situation sort of made me nervous.  At the time I was thinking that if a tornado were to form, it might form quite close to my current location.

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For roughly an hour, it seemed like the storm was kind of teasing us.  One minute, these clouds would appear to be lowering and rotating, as if a tornado were ready to form, the next minute it would all just simply disappear.

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It was around this time that the storm reached I-76 near Wiggings.  Here, the storm interacted with a previously existing boundary, and, according to sources, went tornadic.  However, we were never able to observe the tornado.

After this, the storm transitioned, as many severe storm clusters often do, into a large bow echo.

This is a clear indicator that the storm is entering a different phase, often associated with decay.  It has become dominated by downdrafts.  The most likely result is severe straight line winds.  At this point in time, the best thing to do is simply observe this gigantic thunderstorm, as despite no longer having the low-level rotation necessary for tornado formation, it is quite breathtaking in its own way.

Storm chasing, and storm observation is about more than just tornadoes, and it is quite unfair to describe all chases that do not result in viewing a tornado as a “failure”.  We really could not have picked a better place.  There was only one other cluster of storms that day that produced numerous severe storm reports.  That one formed farther East, a bit later, and produced tornadoes when it interacted with the same East-West oriented boundary.  We also still observed some interesting severe convective storms.

But still, it is frustrating to know that there was indeed a tornado, verified, within ten miles of where I was sitting, and I somehow did not get to actually see it.

I know being in position to view this storm was quite challenging, and it is likely that few chasers found themselves in such position to view the tornado.  But I wonder, had my group reached the I-76 corridor 15-20 minutes earlier, would we have been in the right position to see it?  We knew this boundary was there, and it was in the area with the most ideal conditions.  Was going after the storm initially an exercise in impatience?

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The day ended with a return trip, along I-76, back to Denver, through the area that was clearly just recently pelted with hail.  I returned knowing that there are aspects of this chase that can be considered a “success”, but others that can be considered a “failure”.  I also returned still wondering how to strike that proper balance between aggressively chasing after storms that initiate, and patiently waiting for storms to form or reach the location where the conditions appear to be most favorable.

A Stormy January Weekend in the Mountains

2015 is already off to an adventurous start for me.  This past weekend, the first weekend of the new year, I had the opportunity to accompany some friends on a trip to their cabin in Alma, Colorado.  Alma is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States (with permanent residents).  It is about 15 miles South of Breckenridge Ski Resort along state highway 9.  However, between Alma and Breckenridge lies a mountain pass, called Hoosier Pass, as well as the Continental Divide.

Still, visiting Breckenridge ski resort is significantly easier staying at a place like this than it is driving up there from Denver in the morning.  Not only is the distance much shorter, but there is no need to plan around the traffic patterns along I-70.  On a typical weekend day in Colorado, skiers traveling along I-70 from Denver to the area ski resorts must leave by around 6:00 A.M. to avoid significant delays.  The trek from Alma up to Breckenridge is typically only delayed by weather, and even if delayed will take significantly less time.

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Unfortunately, this past weekend turned out to be one of those weekends.  Waking up Saturday morning (after driving up from Denver Friday evening), I was amazed by the views from the cabin!  The cabin, which is located in town, and walking distance from the town’s main street, sat on the side of a hill, with forests around it in every direction.  However, I was also startled to see some low clouds appearing to our North, the very direction we needed to travel to get to Breckenridge.

The ski day was kind of a mixed bag.  With a significant amount of recent snowfall, the snow was in really good shape- neither icy nor “skied off”.  However, as the day progressed, the snow began to pick up, and so did the wind.  With temperatures in the mid to upper teens most of the day, and winds picking up to about 15 mph, the wind chills were commonly near 0!  This, along with the sensation of snow hitting me in the face at high speeds (especially on faster trails going 50 mph), made the conditions less than ideal.  In the end, we decided to do slower runs in the trees, and still ended up with a really good day of skiing.

This weekend’s weather caught us by surprise– partially.  I know it is quite dangerous to be in the mountains when a major storm hits.  And, when a major storm is on it’s way, I tend to stay home.  However, this weekend’s storm was quite minor by Colorado standards.  48 hour snowfall totals across most of the region were only a couple of inches, not enough to make me reconsider any plans.  However, an area of heavier snow happened to occur right over Breckenridge.  The map below indicates snowfall totals this weekend.  The one little “bullzeye” of snowfall exceeding 6″ is located right over Breckenridge!  So, we were impacted by the most significant part of fairly minor storm system.

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This made for a treacherous drive back over Hoosier Pass at the end of the day.  However, when we got back to Alma, it was not snowing at all.  In fact, the vehicle left at the cabin did not have any snow on it, and we did not have to shovel snow in front of the cabin.

In many parts of the country, seeing such drastic differences in weather conditions over the stretch of only 15 miles is quite a strange occurrence.  However, up here in the mountains, it is actually quite normal due to the impact the topography has on storms coming through.  Alma is considered part of South Park, a flat region of Central Colorado with elevations near 10,000 ft.  Due to it being surrounded by mountains in all directions, this region is significantly drier than other parts of the state.  The town of Breckenridge, at 9600 ft. in elevation, is actually more than twice as likely to receive significant precipitation in the winter than the South Park area, and receives more precipitation all year round.

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When selecting a home, whether it be a permanent residence, or a second home (vacation home), there are many factors to consider, one of which is location.  This weekend, with it’s kind of moderate snow event, provided a good showcase of both the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a place like Alma to have a cabin.

The major advantage seems to be how much you get for your money.  This place we stayed at is quite nice.

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It has three levels, each with it’s own sizable bedroom.  Each one has a different theme appropriate for the mountains.  The middle floor has a large kitchen, dining, and entertaining area.  And, perhaps one of the best features is the water heaters, which provide so much hot water that one can take a lengthy hot shower after a long day in the snow without having to worry about running out of hot water.  Overall, it is way more luxurious than any place I had stayed at closer to the ski resort.  I can imagine a place like this closer to one of the major ski resort being significantly more expensive.

However, the drive over Hoosier Pass in the snow was a clear demonstration of the downside of choosing a location like this.  Those with second homes in town would not have to travel too far to get to the resort, and not have to deal with icy roads and dangerous conditions.

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In addition, from this location it is also significantly less convenient to reach some of the other major ski resorts in the area, particularly Vail, Beaver Creek, and Copper Mountain.

Of course, the entire construct of this tradeoff implies a passion for skiing, because it is this passion for skiing that largely forces the pricing of these second homes in Central Colorado.  For those who prefer other activities, Alma, and the rest of South Park is quite an attractive location.

In the summertime, it is quite easy to reach tons of great hiking trails, including about a dozen “14ers” (peaks of 14,000 feet or higher).  And, a straight shot down an easy to travel highway is Buena Vista, the site of the most popular whitewater rafting river (the Arkansas River) in the country.  Finally, for those who just like solitude, the town’s population is only 270.

Due to the uncomfortable conditions, we decided not to ski again on Sunday.  Rather, we slept late, and made a leisurely journey back to Denver avoiding any traffic delays that could have built in the afternoon.  It was the prudent choice, even if we theoretically could have pushed ourselves a bit more.  Part of life in the mountains is having to accept some last minute changes in plans based on highly variable weather conditions.  So, in a way, changing up the plan for Sunday was part of an authentic mountain experience.

 

Funnel Clouds and UFOs

Chugwater, Wyoming is not known for tornadoes, nor is it known for UFOs.  When people think of major tornadoes, they typically think of places like Oklahoma and the rest of the Great Plains.  Most consider “tornado alley” to be to the east of Wyoming.  Likewise, when people think of UFOs, the town of Roswell, New Mexico comes to mind, as it is not only the location of a major event related to UFO conspiracy theories, but also in a region dense with UFO reports.

Chugwater is a town of barely more than 200 people roughly 40 miles north of Cheyenne.  The only thing it is really known for is chili.

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I have never actually tasted Chugwater Chili, but others have told me that it is really good.  Enough people like it to support an annual chili cook-off in the town, which has been going on for twenty-nine years!

However, yesterday, the last day of May, a trip to Chugwater helped shed some light on both phenomenon.

It was a day where thunderstorms fired up across a wide area that stretched all the way from Saskatchewan to just southwest of Colorado Springs.  After an examination of weather conditions, we determined that the best possible conditions for seeing some good thunderstorms within a reasonable drive of Denver would be in Southeast Wyoming.

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In the early part of the afternoon, a series of storms popped up in the region, but fizzled out and died fairly quickly.  It was not until mid-afternoon when we finally encountered a major storm brewing over the Laramie Mountains to the west of Chugwater.

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From a hill just to the west of town, we were able to observe this storm gradually move towards us as the afternoon progressed.  The entire day felt quite strange to me.  In every single way, it felt like a typical storm chase.  The procedure of heading towards an initial target location, then heading towards a storm as it forms, and observing it along a country road was exactly as I had done probably close to 100 times throughout my lifetime.  The air felt warm and moist, and the wind picked up as the storm approached, just as I had always remembered it.  Even the ground looked as green as it had looked in most of my chases in places like Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and even Illinois.

However, this was Wyoming.  What we were observing today is quite atypical for Wyoming.  The ground, typically quite brown here, had turned green due to a recent uncharacteristically rainy period.  Additionally, it was quite moist that day, also atypical for the region.  All the conditions had come together to produce a scene, and event, and a feeling, that felt way more like Kansas, or even Oklahoma, than Wyoming.

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However, this region is still naturally dry, and as the storm developed, the somewhat random mixing of moist and dry air produced a somewhat chaotic storm structure.  For a period of time the storm structured itself in a manner that looked quite like a UFO.  Well, at least it looked like a UFO in the way it is typically portrayed in the movies; a gigantic circular object with a hole in the middle (the hole being where the aliens come down and abduct the humans in many scenarios).

The other major difference between this chase and a typical chase is the presence of mountains.  The mountains seen in the background of these pictures, which are facing West-North-West, are not nearly as tall as some of the region’s bigger mountains.  However, contemplating this UFO-like shape in the cloud feature did make me wonder if a similar phenomenon in Southern New Mexico, which also has a dry climate and more modest sized mountains, could explain some of the UFO sightings there.

Of course, there are many theories behind not only UFO spottings, but any observation that does not appear to be sufficiently explained.  The world often appears to operate in a manner that seems inconsistent with what we have been told by official sources, experts, and authority figures.  This is the primary driver of conspiracy theories.  While these theories largely have not been verified, I do sympathize with the intellectual curiosity that often leads people to explore these theories as a possible explanation for what they are observing in life.

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Roughly half an hour after the storm’s “UFO” phase, it produced a funnel cloud.  A funnel cloud is the beginning phase of a tornado.  However, not all funnel clouds reach the ground and produce tornadoes.  The reasons as to why some storms with the same rotation produce active, life-threatening, tornadoes while others don’t has been the subject of scientific research for decades.  I’m not going to figure this out by staring at this storm west of Chugwater.  I just came here because I love storms.

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After about 10 minutes the funnel dissipated, without producing a tornado.  As the storm began to produce greater and greater amounts of rainfall, it got darker, making the storm features harder to see.  This prompted us to go home, as we were already quite satisfied to have seen a funnel cloud.  In fact, this was the first time I got a picture of a funnel with mountains in the background.

This trip to Chugwater reminded me that every location has a story.  Even if a place seems boring, quiet, and insignificant, there is still the potential for something quite amazing to happen there, and there is still the potential for answers to some of life’s important questions to be found there.  Prior to 1947, I doubt too many people knew where Roswell, New Mexico was, or ever really thought about the place.  Now, a lot of people think of it whenever they think about aliens and UFOs.  While Roswell did not answer anything there are plenty of events occurring in all sorts of places around the world that may offer us answers to all kind of questions from curing diseases to questions of sociological and genetic nature.  What other obscure location could have the answers to some of the most pressing question of our day?  And, how do we go about finding it?

Back on the Reservation

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit an Indian Reservation for the first time in my life.  I learned quite a bit from that visit.  I learned that these reservations do not look like many of us imagine them to.  I also concluded that our history is complicated.  I do not have a good understanding regarding why relations between us and the Native Americans progressed the way they did, and it would be disingenuous for me to take a position on these issues.  However, I did see people in need due to their circumstances.

There are some things universal about helping out those in need.  Contrary to some people’s belief, helping out those in need is not dependent on ideology, wealth, or status.  It is only loosely dependent on what someone believes about the person (or people) they are helping.  Caring parents will often bail out their children with financial or housing support even if they believe their child had been lazy, stupid, or malicious in the behavior that led them into trouble.

In my belief, in order to be genuine in helping someone out, there are two necessary conditions.

  1. There must not be coercion.  This one is obvious, being forced to help someone out, or forcing somebody else to help someone out is not genuine charity.
  2. There must be no expectation of a reward.  This includes not only a monetary reward, but also the guy who does charity work and then starts telling girls at the bar about it to help him get lucky.  Or, likewise, anyone that hopes for any praise or increase in status from their charity work.  To be fair, rewards can come.  But they have to not be the reason for it.

For this reason, I was hesitant about writing about this in my blog.  It could come across that I am trying to show off that I did charity work.  I am really just trying to explain the reason I went back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as it is one of the poorest places in the country.  But, you have no real way of knowing that for sure.  Maybe I could have left this whole part out.

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in Southwestern South Dakota, with it’s southern border being the Nebraska/South Dakota border.  So, as soon as we entered South Dakota, we were on the reservation.  Last week, this area got an unexpected early season blizzard.   In the Black Hills, to the north, some places got over 40″ of snow.  This is something that rarely ever occurs in mid-winter in this part of the country, let alone in early October.  Pine Ridge, more on the southern flank of this storm, got about 12″, still a lot, and the evidence of this snowstorm could still be seen.

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The task yesterday was tiling, and we put up tiling like the one pictured above at a couple of houses in this neighborhood in Pine Ridge.  So, just like the day before,  I learned a new activity.  In fact, I continued on the theme of expanding my comfort zone, as over the course of the day I became comfortable using machinery that initially intimidated me.

Spending an entire day on the reservation, I made a couple of observations I hadn’t last time (when I was only there for the morning).  Last time I felt that the reservation may have just as poor as some of the dispirited urban neighborhoods I had previously observed, but not as dangerous.  However, I was only there for the morning, which tends to be the least dangerous time of day.  I noticed this hole in the window of one of the homes I helped work on.

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This hole in the window may just be more evidence that the area is poor and do not have the resources to repair such a thing.  Still, I wonder who it got there.  Stray bullets from gang related activity tends to be one of the biggest fears one has about visiting poor neighborhoods in the United States.  Either way, I am not about to go ask the homeowner how this happened- that would be rude.

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I was also quite astonished by the number of stray dogs in the neighborhood.  All day long, I encountered stray dogs just wandering up and down the street.  I recall one of my former co-workers in Chicago telling me that stray dogs were common on the south side, but I have no idea what that meant.  Occasionally I would see a stray dog in my neighborhood, but usually there was someone there to call animal control, or try to find them a shelter.  Here they were everywhere, wandering in and out of people’s yards, sometimes getting into people’s trash, and even pooping in the yard (which I was lucky to avoid).  I guess I just wonder why there is a different attitude towards dogs here than what I am used to.

The return trip also gave me an unexpected surprise; the quintessential Nebraska experience.  For me, this means thunderstorms and steak.  On the return trip southbound across the Nebraska Panhandle, we encountered a series of really fun storms, with lots of lightning.

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Thunderstorms are my favorite type of weather, at least from an observers point of view.  There really is nothing like the raw, natural power of these storms.  I also love the differentiation within the storms, and how abruptly things change inside a thunderstorm.  With the heavy rain, frequent lightning, hail, and abrupt wind changes, there is so much to see.  There is so much going on I feel like I can make a diagram like those Xs and Os the football commentators make.  It is the weather phenomenon for people who love to see all things energetic.

It is also the weather phenomenon for people who love efficiency.  Seattle and Kansas City average about the same amount of annual precipitation (37-38″).  However, in Seattle, precipitation occurs 155 days per year, while in Kansas City, precipitation only occurs 104 days per year.  Kansas City achieves the same result with 41 more rain-free days.  In addition, many days with thunderstorms are mostly sunny for large sections of the day, with the exception of the hour or two when the storms are rolling through.  Overall, many more productive hours.  For me, it is the long, humid day, followed by the abrupt thunderstorm that makes the Great Plains what it is.

We stopped at a steakhouse called Cantu’s in the town of Bridgeport, NE right after we finished rolling through the storms.  The place is right on highway 385, the main street through the center of town.  I have many times stopped at random places I encounter on the main streets of towns while driving through.  I really like doing this because it gives me a sense of what makes that town unique to every other town I have ever been to, something I won’t get by eating at a chain restaurant.

Of course, I have had a variety of experiences, ranging from great to horrible at restaurants like this.  However, when on the Great Plains, particularly in areas near a lot of ranches, I’ve have mostly good experiences with steakhouses.  The trend definitely continued today.  I really enjoyed my sirloin steak at Cantu’s.

An Unexpected Glacier

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It’s the first of October.  The temperature is around 60 degrees, and the sun is shining.  It is the type of weather that would have certainly depleted 6-12 inches of snow back in any East Coast or Midwestern city.  And that is with a wintertime sun angle, and much more atmosphere to obstruct the sun’s impact on the snow.  With this weather being possible on the first of October, it is quite likely that many warmer days occurred on St. Mary’s Glacier during July and August.  Despite all of this, the Glacier still sits here, occupying the little piece of ground in the mountains of Central Colorado that it occupies.

Part of me is actually bothered by it’s existence.  At roughly 11,000 feet in elevation, and at about the same latitude as Denver, it feels like it needs to be either higher or significantly farther north to exist.  Most other glaciers in Colorado are significantly higher in elevation.  So, knowing it is at a latitude an elevation that produces so many 60 degree+ temperatures, how does St. Mary’s glacier exist?

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That is the question I pondered today, after driving past some of the best fall foliage I had seen thus far in Colorado, and climbing a rocky 3/4 mile trail to the base of St. Mary’s Glacier.  Before getting to the glacier, the trail meanders by St. Mary’s lake, a lake pretty much produced by melting glacial waters.  I would not recommend going into this lake, as the water is really cold!  However, it would be really dumb of anyone to not realize this, as the glacier is in clear view, along with the water running off from it.  It is clear for anyone to see that the water in this lake was recently part of that glacier 100 feet or so up the hill.

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The cascades of water along the trail were moving quite fast on this day.  That made sense, given the warmth and sunshine.  But, it still seems to me that 4 months worth of weather like this would eliminate any snow and ice remaining on the surface.  So, what is going on?

Well, the weather in Colorado is actually quite complicated, and highly dependent on local terrain features.  Snowfall rates can vary significantly from location to location in the mountains depending on the wind pattern and terrain.  In fact, this variance caused enough frustration to motivate a local ski enthusiast to create a web page dedicated to finding the best snow and snow conditions in the area.

The terrain features at this particular location must cause snowfall to be significantly higher here than at similar locations I had previously visited.  Earlier this summer, I climbed Gray’s and Torrey’s Peaks.  The trailheads were at about the same elevation as the base of St. Mary’s Glacier, maybe even a little bit higher.  Yet, no glaciers existed.  Another possible part of the explanation is cold air funneling between the two mountain peaks that surround the area.  Unfortunately more detailed observations would be needed to actually conclude that this is why this glacier exists at an altitude where it shouldn’t.

Another conclusion that cannot be made simply from my observations today is the long-term (decades) fate of this glacier.  With the current heated debate about anthropogenic global warming, it is easy for one to view how rapidly the glacier is melting today and consider it evidence that the earth is warming, and that this glacier is melting.  However, the melting of some of the ice and snow on the glacier during the summer months is actually part of a glacier’s annual cycle in which snowfall in the cold season adds to its’ mass and melting in the warm season reduces it’s mass.  If there were no mass reduction of a glacier in the warm season, they would ever expand at the expense of our oceans.

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In fact, a close up view of the glacier’s ice shelf showcases this annual cycle.  This ice shelf has very white looking snow on top of a darker layer of snow.  The snow on top is newer snow, most likely from the most recent snow season.  On a warm day like today, it had the consistency of wet, snowball making snow.  However, the dark layer of snow underneath had a much icier consistency, indicating that it had survived multiple summers.  This is, in fact, an easy way to verify with no other observations or knowledge that the snow field you are looking at is indeed a glacier (as opposed to just residual snow from last spring).  Some of the ice in this middle part of the glacier has likely been around for decades.

The bottom layer of the ice shelf was dripping pretty rapidly from the melting.  There may be some really fun icicles here on some cooler days.  Given that melting is occurring this rapidly October 1st, it is possible to speculate that this glacier is losing mass over time, but that can only be concluded with more observations.

With it being warmer here than at most glaciers, it makes sense to me that this would be a popular attraction.  What makes less sense to me after today is why people seem to prefer to drink water from glaciers.  At least I see it all over advertisements for bottled water (i.e. the Evian Logo).  Today I saw ice and snow in constant direct contact with dirt and rocks, walked on by humans and dogs, melt and run off into cascading streams where the water is also consistently in contact with dirt, rocks, and possibly more dog pee.  This did not feel to me like the cleanest water I could be drinking.  I guess there are no chemicals.  Still, I think I will trust my city’s water purification system.

Maybe rather than being bothered by this glacier’s existence, I should be inspired.  This glacier has managed to continue to exist despite not so favorable conditions.  It is much like the one remaining factory in a decaying rust-belt town, or that tree in Wyoming the grew out of a rock.  They later built Interstate 80 around this tree, further disrupting it, but it still persists to be alive.  Like that tree, St. Mary’s glacier, and that one person you know who doesn’t seem to have any bull-shit at their job, evidence that bucking the trend is possible is still out there.  It is just a matter of finding out how they did it, and how much of it is luck.

Mount Evans The Easy Way

The United States of America is not perfect.  There are definitely some aspects of our history that seem a bit shady, and there are definitely some things I would change if I had my way.  But I still love this country, and feel lucky to live here.  One of the things I love about this country is that we attempt to accommodate nearly everybody.  We have lifestyles that range from the crowds of Manhattan to empty parts of Wyoming, and many other things in between.  Despite the fact that I have come across a few Americans who would like to eradicate one or more of our prevalent lifestyles, we remain a county that accommodates.  If anything, we are becoming more accommodating, as more and more places add bike lanes, and some communities allow people to follow their dreams of traveling everywhere by golf cart.

To get to the top of the mountains in Colorado, we also accommodate many different methods.  Most Coloradans prefer to hike up our tallest peaks, and nearly every tall mountain here has multiple hiking trails to the top.  Two of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Mount Evans and Pike’s Peak, have paved roads to the top.  During the summertime, people can drive or ride a bicycle to the top of these peaks.  In fact, the ride from Idaho Springs to the top of Mount Evans was featured as one of Bicycling Magazine’s Top Bike Rides.  Pike’s Peak can even be reached by train.

The easiest way to the top of a mountain is to drive.  Having already hiked three of these peaks this summer, I decide to take a drive (or, more accurately, go along for a ride) up Mount Evans.  The road up to Mount Evans is actually North America’s highest paved road, and a very scenic one.  There are plenty of wonderful places on the way up this highway, including dense pine forests, alpine lakes, and places where you can see the mountains in the distance.  These are the kinds of images you will often find on a calender.

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One added bonus of taking this trip in late September was the fall colors.  The fall colors here in Colorado come primarily from the Aspen trees, and primarily turn the color yellow.  This makes a fall image here in Colorado quite different than what you would see in the east.  Firstly, with more pine trees here, not all of the trees are changing colors.  And, with the trees mostly changing the same color, yellow, there is less variety.  In that sense, I would say anyone looking to take a vacation for the primary purpose of viewing fall foliage would be better off going to New England or the Smoky Mountains.  But, the colors did add an extra element to the views on this trip.

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Some places in higher terrain just recently received their first snow of the season.  The snowfall was not particularly heavy, but it still could be seen, especially from the shaded areas once we climbed above 9,000 feet.

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As a result of this recent snowfall, as well as a heavier snowfall at the highest peaks (during the floods a couple of weeks ago), the road was not open all the way to the top of Mount Evans.  The farthest up we could go is Summit Lake, which is around 12,800 feet in elevation.  This is not too atypical, as these higher elevations typically start receiving snow in September, and plowing a road at this elevation is not an easy task.

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I love science!  I love the way some scientific phenomenon can create some unique observations, and I love the process of figuring it all out.  It was a very windy day at Summit Lake, and I could feel it as soon as I got out of the car.  In fact, the wind confirmed for me that it would have been quite unpleasant to try to hike at this elevation.  What I observed on this lake is a phenomenon I had seen years back when I was living in Madison, WI.  On a cold, windy morning, the wind blows water off of the lake onto nearby grass and rocks.  If it is cold enough, those water particles freeze on contact, much as they would in an ice storm.

When I observed this in Madison, WI, it was a similar situation.  In that case it was December, as it gets cold a lot earlier in the year at high elevations, but the progression of events is the same.  Water has a higher heat capacity and therefore both warms up and cools down slower than air.  It takes more than a few cold mornings to freeze over a lake, even a smaller lake like this one.  So, at the time of year when winter-like chill first arrives, this phenomenon can be observed near lakes.  Larger lakes like Lake Michigan and Lake Superior never freeze over in the winter, and sea spray events like this one can be observed pretty much all winter long.  Although I have seen the result of this combination of weather conditions a couple of times, I am now kind of curious to see it actually occurring.

The world is a tough place to understand.  Life often seems to unfold in ways that do not make too much sense.  Often times, after a particular endeavor does not turn out the way I had hoped, I spend a good deal of time scratching my head, wondering why.  When something impacts my life in a negative way, my response is always to try to figure out where it went wrong, as to avoid making the same mistakes.  But, most of the time it does not work that way, particularly when social interactions and group dynamics are involved.

In a way, I feel like I can take comfort in science.  In science, there are universal laws, and certain things that will always behave the same way, even in an unfamiliar place.  The cold windy night on Summit Lake created the same ice patters that it did on Lake Mendota.  No matter where you are light waves of 550nm will appear green to the human eye.  This, and a host of other things, can be counted on, will always make sense, and can provide some comfort in unfamiliar situations.  Yet, unlike some predictable things, like re-watching movies and T.V. reruns, it does not become mundane and uninteresting over time.  There is always something new to be discovered, a new phenomenon to be observed and investigated, and a new possibility to be opened up.

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On the return trip, we stopped in Idaho Springs, walked around and ate lunch.  I have driven by this town many times, but never really spent much time here.  In a narrow valley, with steep terrain on either side, the town actually has some houses on higher terrain.  From the highway, it’s appearance consistently reminds me of model train sets.  In addition, the town, which champions itself as “Where the Gold Rush Began”, actually named it’s high school team the “Golddiggers”.  I still wonder if the the marching band plays that Kanye West song when the team comes out onto the field.

I was pretty impressed with the downtown.  It is a nice, kind of small, western town.  It is not over touristy, as it is not adjacent to a big attraction the way Estes Park is.  The shops seem well kept, and also seemed to have variety.  We ate at Tommyknockers, a microbrewery downtown with bar food, and also a lot of buffalo burgers.  From walking around town, I see several other places I would like to try, on subsequent trips.  But, I really do not know when I will be coming into town again, as it is not a typical stop-off for me on ski trips and such.