Black bear eating from my apple tree, August night, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Summer Road Trip Planning: Scottsbluff, Nebraska

A photo of the bluffs that I took in 2003. Not much has changed.

Many of us have begun happily daydreaming about the vacations we'll be taking in the upcoming months. I personally prefer to drive versus fly because I love stopping at roadside attractions along the way, like cool old diners, kitschy tourist traps, natural areas, and historic markers. A vehicle is also great if you're bringing along camping gear, bicycles, and dogs.

This summer, if any of my readers are heading near western Nebraska (or even within a hundred miles), I highly recommend a stop at Scottsbluff National Monument. Because I have family in the area, I tend to take this historic site for granted, but its place in American history is well-deserved. Anyone who's driven from Missouri's western banks of the Mississippi out across the Great Plains heading west will attest to how long and monotonous this ride can be. Now imagine you're not in a car, but rather doing this route in a Conestoga wagon, making about 11 miles per day. This is what white pioneer settlers experienced when trekking across the Oregon Trail to the Pacific. Imagine their relief when, after months of flat and endless prairie, they could spot these bluffs on the horizon, signaling that they were closer than ever to the Rockies (although still quite a distance away).

At Scottsbluff NM, you can put your hands into the wagon wheel ruts of the Oregon Trail. Views of the surrounding landscape from the top of the bluff are all-encompassing, and the visitor center features great interpretive displays and friendly staff to answer questions. You can also ask there if someone in your party could use a wheelchair up on the bluff trails.

Related to Scottsbluff NM and nearby is Chimney Rock. From the National Park Service website:

Designated the Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Chimney Rock is one of the most famous and recognizable landmarks for pioneer travelers on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails, a symbol of the great western migration. Located approximately four miles south of present-day Bayard in Millard County, at the south edge of the North Platte River Valley, Chimney Rock is a natural geologic formation, a remnant of the erosion of the bluffs at the edge of the North Platte Valley. A slender spire rises 325 feet from a conical base. The imposing formation, composed of layers of volcanic ash and brule clay dating back to the Oligocene Age (34 million to 23 million years ago), towers 480 feet above the North Platte River Valley. 

A road trip heading west (or east) along Interstate 80 can get a little dull without some diversions. Consider western Nebraska history if you find yourself in these parts this summer. Other fun things to do include hitting the Cabella's Outdoor Outfitters store in Sidney (lots of interesting taxidermy specimens of big game) and stopping along the way to visit historic Pony Express sites. And in the town of Ogallala, you can also check out their famous "Boot Hill," the cemetery for cowboys,outlaws and drifters. Why is the graveyard called Boot Hill? From the Visit Ogallala website:

Most were buried with their boots on, thus the name Boot Hill. The bodies, placed in canvas sacks, were lowered into shallow graves and marked with a wooden headboard. Boot Hill is unique –buried in its sod are the many stories of the early days of Ogallala.

Western Nebraska deserves a few hours of your time, especially if you're heading on to larger landscapes in the mountainous west. The Scottsbluff area played a large part in the settlers' westward migration and is full of  cultural and historical attractions (not to mention a zoo for the kids). You can find out more at this website:

Happy trails!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Spring in Laporte

Click on the garden toad image to find out more about this painting

Spring has definitely sprung around here, with the warm weather, greening of grasses, and budding of colorful tree blossoms. The flora is reawakening, and so, evidently, is the fauna. At least the bird activity has increased.

In the last two weeks I was delighted to see that two pair of osprey were occupying both platform nests here in north Fort Collins, the one near Chapelle Animal Hospital, and the one at Willox and Shields. Have they nested here before? Were they raised here and are nesting for the first time? Where down south did they go this past winter? South America? Whenever the osprey show up, like the turkey vulture and the grackle, I know spring is officially started.

I am also happy to report that the red-tailed hawk nest that was active last year (one chick fledged) in the woods behind my house has birds nesting in it. There's a spotting scope set up on the deck and at any time of day I can usually see an adult sitting on the nest. Usually, it's tail-end toward me, but every once in a while I get a stunning glimpse of the face.

While new species are returning, sadly, my little juncos have disappeared. All winter long they ate millet seed on the walkway outside the kitchen window, and at first light, one hooded individual was always already there eating breakfast when I started my coffee. So, it appears they have done their vertical migration and headed for the hills. And the night time sounds of the great-horned owls, nesting I presume nearby the house, have been replaced with much coyote yipping in the wee hours.

And I mustn't forget the reptiles and amphibians, enjoying the dewy grass, increased insect populations, and bright sunshine to bask in. I've seen several snake-tails slithering in the yard, as well as one fat, greenish-brown toad, which I put in the vegetable garden, as he was being harassed by my dog. I hope he hangs out there all summer beneath the tomatoes and raspberries, enjoying the shade when the days get really hot, and evry once in a while, snapping up a bug or two.