Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quest for the Grail

To find the Grail, that quarry of legend, a quest is essential. And Noel and I have quested, for years. (For Alan, it is more of a diversion from ice cream, not so much a quest.) We have sought our Grail––the Lustrous Copper––at Slate Peak in the Washington Cascades, in the high Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming––and right here at Engineer Pass in the San Juan Mountains, where today we return, with my brother Brandon and his family.

Noel at Engineer Pass, looking southwest (All photos by Narca)

From our vantage point at 12,800 feet, the air is thin and our footsteps slow. A wilderness of jasper-laced peaks and high rolling tundra billows beneath us. To the northeast jut the San Juan's crown jewels: Uncompahgre, the Matterhorn, the Wetterhorn. To the southwest are arrayed the San Miguels: Mt. Sneffels, Teakettle. A Golden Eagle soars over, on its own quest for Picas and Yellow-bellied Marmots.

A sentinel Pica in talus at Engineer

Such diversity of flowers emblazons the high country: Pink Elephants, Purple Fringe, a zillion composites, Skunk Cabbage, Parry's Primrose, paintbrush of many hues, geraniums, Monkshood, Delphinium, Colorado Columbine. Wouldn't a Grail butterfly be found here, wanton amid the flower fields? Actually, no.

Trail across talus slope at 12,800 ft

We turn to the treacherous talus slides, and I find a nearly-level trail that crosses one. Soon one of Noel's lesser prizes appears, a Rockslide Checkerspot, and he is setting up to photograph it, when I call out "Lustrous Copper!" (Uh-oh: dilemma.) Within about a half-hour, we've found at least nine of the beauteous coppers scattered about the talus trail.

Rockslide Checkerspot at Engineer Pass

Male Lustrous Copper

Two views of a female Lustrous Copper

Next my nephew Torin (in a miraculous visual feat) spots a fox, and then another, probably denning in some crevice beneath the huge boulders that tumbled into the talus slope. They are Red Foxes, but of a very unusual melanistic coloring. The first is a variant known as a Silver Fox, all slaty-silver with a white tail tip.

Silver Fox in the boulder fields

The second is a Cross Fox, with big blonde patches contrasting with blacks and grays. From this great distance, I can only manage poorer-quality photos, but here they are. No doubt the foxes are raising their kits on Picas, which are abundant in the rockfields.

Cross Fox at Engineer Pass

When we are nearly back to the jeeps, Brandon's sweetheart Aimee finds this exquisite butterfly:

Milbert's Tortoiseshell in the San Juan Mountains

Back to the Lustrous Copper... how does one celebrate this pinnacle of achievement, this finding of the Grail? Why, with ice cream. Of course.

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