Enroute to Sacramento Creek Ranch on a recent evening, I make a quick stop at the grocery store for a bag of dogfood, coffee, and groceries before heading out through the swirling wind and empty darkness of Highway 285 over Kenosha Pass toward Fairplay. As I approach Como, 200 pairs of illuminated eyeballs beyond the fence on the periphery of my headlights remind me that South Park is a crucial migration and wintering ground for elk herds. I tense my grip on the wheel for a moment before realizing that the elk are not trying to cross the highway, but simply huddling for cover on the leeward side of a small rise.
It must be my night, because as I accelerate past the lights of Fairplay, I catch a glimpse of a coyote trotting parallel to the highway. It’s heading uphill along Highway 9, moving with a confident, measured purpose.
Pulling into the gate of Sacramento Creek Ranch a few miles later, I notice a solitary line of tracks heading dead west along the driveway and into the forest. It’s late and half an inch of snow has fallen earlier in the day. Despite a slight wind, the tracks appear fresh and show four nail marks above four soft pads. Could they belong to the same coyote? Probably not, the tracks are heading in the opposite direction; perhaps created within the past few hours. They are narrower than Lula’s, who wants to tug me down the trail into the dark to see where they lead.
The air is crisp and cold, but the wind has stopped, and the stars are overwhelming in their brightness. The creak of leaning lodgepoles and the occasional snap of a branch in the darkness keep my senses occupied. I’m aware there may be some nocturnal activity in the trees beyond the driveway where my vision is of little use at this hour. The dog and I strain to see into the forest, our breath rising in the starlight. Her sense of smell tells her more than I can see about what is happening across the creek, but I’m holding the leash, and my ears are hyper-focused on the sounds of my growling stomach.
Edward Abbey had a line that has resonated with me lately: “Simply breathing, in a place like this, arouses the appetite”. Standing out amongst the trees and stars has done it for me, and I want to fix some dinner, so I tell Lula we’ll hit the trail in the morning, after breakfast, of course. I’ve got an armful of groceries, popcorn, and hot chocolate on the brain and I’m ready to settle in. We ponder the sky and tree line for a few more moments and then head inside, where the dog is suddenly much more interested in the warmth of the blanket on the couch and the contents of her own food dish.
In the morning, it’s clear and the wind is light. The temperature won’t get above 18 degrees today, but we’ve got work to do outside. Stepping out, I immediately see that while we were sleeping, there was plenty of activity out on the trails and in the forest. Within a few feet of the front door, we spot rabbit tracks leading off into a stand of young aspen trees.
As Lula leads me across the creek and up the two-track of the Hershey Trail, the array of footprints in yesterday’s snow is incredible: squirrel, bobcat, deer, fox, snowshoe hare, moose, field mice, and coyote prints scatter through the forest ahead of us.
As we walk, I keep an eye out for other signs of wildlife. Winter is generally a time for hibernation in the high-country and many species migrate to warmer areas or lower elevations. However, to say that winter is lifeless here would simply be incorrect. There is plenty happening each day, especially early in the morning. The day-old snow provides a perfect medium to showcase the wildlife activity that is abundant at 10,200 feet if you know how to read the signs.
This morning is a good one for wildlife. We come across a pile of gray-brown fur and bright red blood spattered at the base of a conifer. A midden, which is a pile of pinecone scraps used by squirrels to store food in the winter, surrounds the base of the tree. It appears an unlucky squirrel met its end and some sort of small mammal, a marten, bobcat, maybe lynx, found a meal.
As we reach the top of the property where a small bench looks westward toward Mt. Sherman and the Mosquito Range, Lula tenses and her ears perk up. I can’t immediately see what she already knows is there, but I don’t have to wait long. Within a few seconds, I hear something large moving through the brush and willows below us. We crunch through the calf-deep snow to the edge of the trail to look down on the creek floodplain below. Moving at a trot along the frozen channel is a large cow moose who has heard us approaching and prefers not to be disturbed. The moose moves quickly up the opposite hillside, crosses Sacramento Creek Road and heads north into the forest glancing back once to make sure we’re not following.
Catching a glimpse of a moose is always exciting due to their size and status as Colorado’ largest animal. They have been active around the property lately and their tracks are easy to recognize due to the huge imprint of their hooves and the trails they plough through deep snow. We stop for a few more minutes to admire the view before heading off on our ultimate objective: finding a place to set up MALT’s wildlife camera.
Some species are harder than others to spot. Today Lula and I are searching for a location where our camera will help capture images of the critters wandering through the forest when we’re not around. My plan is to find a place in the willow and alders along Sacramento Creek where signs of activity are abundant. The riparian vegetation offers good cover from the elements and a food source for ungulates like deer and moose. We travel along the frozen surface of the creek where the snow is only a few inches deep and a fox has clearly traveled within the last 12 hours. Moose trails meander through the willows and tiny field mouse prints leave feather soft paths between tufts of grass poking through the snow.
As we approach the main beaver pond, I spot a burrow hole the size of a volleyball at the base of a large cluster of willows. There are some snowshoe hare tracks leading past the entrance and the creek bed is only about 20 feet away. Lula seems interested in the burrow, which tells me it’s being used by some sort of critter. I position the camera facing the burrow through an opening in the vegetation and check its settings. The slope of the land and the coverage from the trees mean the snow drifts aren’t too deep in the area. My hope is that the mammals traveling through appreciate it for similar reasons. I won’t know for at least a day, when I return to swap out the memory card and download the images, whether the camera location has been a success.
Part of the beauty of winter at Sacramento Creek Ranch is that things can unfold slowly. The payoff of observing winter wildlife isn’t always immediate; sometimes a pattern of tracks over the course of several days is required to catch a glimpse of something special. Luckily, the combination of habitat and trail access at Sacramento Creek Ranch means that a little patience and quiet walking can be rewarded.