Saturday, July 14, 2012

Carson Ghost Town

Some places call us repeatedly to return. For most of my family Lake City, Colorado, is such a place, starting with our grandparents in the late 1940s. 

The ghost town of Carson, with timberline just above (Photos by Narca)

Not too far from Lake City are the ruins of Carson, the ghost of a mining town that once thrived high in the San Juan Mountains, slightly below the Continental Divide. A miner, Christopher Carson, staked claim to the Bonanza King in 1881, and within a few years a town of 400 to 500 hardy souls had sprung up. The town's establishments included a livery stable, hotel and restaurants. Gold and silver briefly flowed, but winters proved too difficult, silver was devalued in 1893, and the town declined to extinction after the early 1900s. Its sheer inaccessibility presented a huge challenge to would-be residents.

Stampede to Timberline, Muriel Wolle's fascinating account of Colorado ghost towns, notes that Carson was built on an iron dike and therefore attracted far more than its fair share of lightning strikes!

Clumps of Mertensia are beautiful against the weathered gray wood.

Today, Carson is one of the best-preserved of Colorado's old mining camps, thanks to funding provided in large part by the federal government. New metal roofs have halted the disintegration of many of the cabins.

Yellow-bellied Marmots inhabit Carson today, as they no doubt did 100 years ago.

Beyond Carson, the wild San Juan Mountains beckon.

My grandparents spent most of their summers in Lake City, and the trip to Carson was a familiar one. Back then, the tiny town dump still held treasures of old purpled glass. Then, as now, the road up Wager Gulch to Carson required high clearance and 4-wheel-drive. When you reach Carson, you step back in time, to the era of oldtime, hardrock mining. What stories must haunt these log and plank walls!

Bighorn Sheep are among the rarer mammals of the San Juans. This bachelor group was spotted by our friend Jim Shiflett, between Creede and Lake City, during our June trip.

Today the high country around Carson is as exhilarating as ever. Lynx prowl the area. In most summers, the high mountain meadows are thick with flowers and butterflies. This year, after the lack of winter snow, a few flowers bloom, but it's only a ghost of the normal display.

Scarlet Gilia blooming at Carson

One of the yellow alpine paintbrushes...

... and its rosy relative, both at Carson

The only butterfly much in evidence is the Arctic Blue. On this cool, rainy day, they are hunkered down on the big composites, and little else is flying.

Arctic Blue clings to a composite on this chilly day.

Beyond Carson stretches a mountain wilderness. The old jeep road over the divide at Carson and down into Lost Trail Creek has degenerated into a simple trail. Barely accessible even in the 1950s and 1960s, Lost Trail was a lure for fly fishermen, because it still held a healthy population of native Cutthroat Trout. Our family would occasionally plan a camping trip to this wilderness, where, for shelter, we erected our tent within the log walls of a fallen-down cabin.

Today, while the others explore the road to the divide to see what shape it's in now, I walk alone through the spruce forest, past beaver ponds, and past the ruins of this cabin-with-a-view, which is perched above Wager Gulch and the distant valley of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.

Clouds shroud the high peaks. I see no Lynx, but this American Red Squirrel charms. 

American Red Squirrels are a close relative of Douglas Squirrel from the Pacific Northwest and Mearns' Squirrel from Baja California.

The songs of Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes spiral around me. Drumming woodpeckers duel. Mountain Chickadees and warblers feed their young. Mountain air is sharp and scented. How good to be back in the San Juans!

Friday, July 13, 2012

School for Thrashers

This morning a small Western Diamondback rattlesnake meandered into the yard. We knew a snake was nearby from the turmoil among the thrashers, cardinals, and Black-throated Sparrows. Nothing else stimulates such a flashing of wings and intense glaring.

A family of four Curve-billed Thrashers––both adults and their two fledglings––was especially emphatic. The adults seized the opportunity to teach their young a thing or two about the danger posed by snakes. Judging from the way the young joined the action, they are now well-schooled.

Curve-billed Thrasher protests a rattlesnake. (Photos by Narca)

A few minutes later a single Crissal Thrasher came in for a drink. This bird had no family in tow, but joined the general melée anyway!

A Crissal Thrasher joins the fracas.

Crissal Thrasher's best distinguishing marks––the chestnut undertail coverts and strong malar––aren't obvious here, but you can see the less-orange eye. To me they seem a little more slender and elegant than the Curve-billeds, with a slightly longer, slightly more curved black bill. With practice, you can learn to distinguish at a glance the subtle differences in proportions––but then confirm your impression by checking that malar mark and chestnut under the tail! Thrashers can pose identification challenges!

The business end of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, staked out and patiently waiting for a meal.