The Wild Life of Rocky Mountain National Park

When I was a kid, family vacations always involved camping at state and national parks. We lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where our interaction with wildlife was limited to sightings of cardinals, robins, squirrels, lightning bugs, cicadas, garter snakes, and the occasional raccoon.

A bull elk crosses Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as travelers gawk in awe. ©Kelly Prendergast

A bull elk crosses Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as visitors gawk in awe. ©Kelly Prendergast

That’s probably the wildlife status of most people, but if you visit national parks, the repertoire of wildlife expands dramatically. Eagles, marmots, prairie dogs, bears, coyotes, antelope, manatee, wolves, herons, pine marten, wolverines, mountain lions, vultures, bighorn sheep, sand cranes.

Now I live in Colorado, where I have easy access to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, which received 4.4 million human visitors in 2017. People from all over the world travel to the peaks and alpine meadows hungering for nature and hoping to spot the state flower, the columbine, and wild animals. The bigger, the better.

In summer, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic on Trail Ridge Road, which runs through Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the highest continuous motorway in the United States, with a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet. There are frequent pullovers and parking areas along Trail Ridge Road so you can get out and marvel atthe spectacular views of the powerful mountain ranges around you.

Visitors in a parking lot along Trail Ridge Road photograph the passing elk herd. ©Kelly Prendergast

Visitors in a parking lot along Trail Ridge Road photograph the passing elk herd. ©Kelly Prendergast

Surprised by Moose

In July, my husband and friends went hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy the scenery and escape the heat of the city. They weren’t surprised to encounter deer and elk along the way. My parents live in the town of Estes Park, the gateway to the eastern entrance of Rocky Mountain Park. In Estes Park, herds of elk and deer hang out in their neighborhood subdivision and the nearby golf course. Once a bobcat took a nap on my parents’ deck. Coyotes occasionally hunt deer near their house. Beaver used to build dams along Fish Creek until the 2013 flood turned the placid stream into a river. (A few tentative beaver seem to be moving back in and engineering their water lodges.)

My husband and our friend Kelly Prendergast (who took the photos for the blog) drove in the early morning over Trail Ridge Road to the west side of the Continental Divide for their hike. (Locals know that to beat the traffic into the park, you have to get up at dawn. Rocky Mountain’s Bear Lake parking lot routinely fills up with cars by 7:00 a.m. And it’s not unusual to encounter a queue of a hundred or more cars lined up at the Park Entrance by 9:00 a.m. to pay the fee to get in.

On any given summer day, park visitors should expect to have abundant, repeated sightings of herds of wild Homo sapiens.

This Mama Moose was on alert as hikers stumbled upon her and her baby. The hikers stopped, turned away and took a different path so as not to disturb the family. ©Kelly Prendergast

This Mama Moose was on alert as hikers came near her and her baby. The hikers stopped, turned away and took a different path so as not to disturb the family. ©Kelly Prendergast

Yet despite the crush of sunscreen-slathered, photo-snapping, soda-slurping humanity, Rocky Mountain Park usually delivers actual encounters with magnificent quadrupeds. When they reached their trailhead, Ken and friends were surprised to see a mother and baby moose, just standing there. Moose can be very dangerous, especially moms with young, so all the hikers kept quiet and moved slowly so as not to alarm the massive animals, and let them move along as they pleased.

Just a bit later, on another fork in the trail, another pair of moose appeared! That’s the magic of the wilderness, and generally moose prefer to be in quieter, more marshy areas of the park. (And by quiet, I mean there are fewer bipeds.)

Another female moose nuzzles her long-legged offspring right at the trailhead to Green Mountain. ©Kelly Prendergast

Another female moose nuzzles her long-legged offspring right at the trailhead to Green Mountain. ©Kelly Prendergast

Elk, on the other hand, are abundant even in areas where there are a lot of people. When a muscle-bound elk bull packing a full rack of sharp antlers decides to walk in front of your car, you let him! In Rocky Mountain Park, if traffic slows and cars get jumbled on the sides of lanes, you can be sure it’s an elk jam—even if you’re too far away to see the mammals. Courageous tourists get out of their cars to shoot videos; the more timid remain in their cars and peep wide-eyed through the windows.

I can’t say I’m super comfortable with 4.4 million of my own species in a land preserve for wild flora and fauna. Most of us visitors are not indigenous to these lands, and it breaks my heart when tiny tundra flowers are trodden. But I get it: People crave the outdoors; they love to breathe fresh, pine-needle-scented air and to jump on rocks or wade across a glacier stream. To be in nature is to feel alive—to become a T-shirt-wearing creature of the wilderness for an hour or two, or eight or ten.

This is why we need national parks—to strip off neckties and power suits—and rediscover our own nature, our own inner moose or magpie, elk or hawk or chipmunk. In nature, we commune with our planet and its infinite diversity. And we’re all better for it.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Moose Crossing: This species loves marshes and lakes. This moose was spotted in the Colorado River along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. ©Kelly Prendergast

Moose Crossing: This species loves marshes and lakes. My husband and friends spotted this moose in the Colorado River along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. ©Kelly Prendergast

 

 

 

 

Three Views of Coastal Maine

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me); It’s always our self we find in the sea.”       —e.e. cummings

Portland Head lighthouse ©Laurel Kallenbach

Portland Head Lighthouse is dramatically set on rocky Cape Elizabeth just outside of Portland, Maine. Good weather was with me on the day I visited … and then a sightseeing boat passed by to further dramatize the shot.

 

Wild beach roses on dunes ©Laurel Kallenbach

These small wild sea roses, nourished by salt spray, brightened the natural dunes all along Crescent Beach near Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

 

Rocks and tidal pools ©Laurel Kallenbach

On my walk along Crescent Beach near Inn by the Sea resort, I was drawn to the weathered rocks and tidal pools that added variety to the waterscape. Seeing the etched grooves, which are literally carved in stone from a million tides, reminded me of how punishing the waves can be along the coast.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Lessons in the Simple Life: Maine Schooner Style

On our sailing trip aboard Isaac H. Evans, an 1886 schooner, we had access to the endless outdoors: voluminous sky, sea, and islands—and stars galore. Note: Since I took this trip, the Isaac Evans was renamed the Boyd N. Sheppard, and is under new ownership).

Big water, little sky. The scenery while sailing Maine’s Penobscot Bay is spectacular. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Yet, on a schooner, you’re confined to a small boat except for the times when it’s anchored and you debark. The reality of “tiny” hit me when I first saw our cabin; there was so little space in our bunks that we couldn’t sit up in them. We had to sort of crawl in horizontally. And only one person at a time could stand up to dress or brush their teeth. (There is a tiny sink in the cabin, which was quite convenient.)

However, over time, Ken and I wrapped our brains around the idea of “smallness,” and the bunk became a cozy haven—especially when at night we placed a hot soapstone (heated in the massive galley stove) under the covers.

Ken tucked into the lower bunk in our cabin on the Isaac Evans schooner. (Some cabins have double beds; you get a choice.) Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

I’m not saying we didn’t smack our heads a few times on the beams, but I realized how little “stuff”—and space—you need on this type of adventure.

Loo with a Shower

Having a nice hot shower in the teeny-tiny head—basically a Port-o-Potty—was also a funny lesson in “less is more.” Here’s the drill for whenever you decide it’s time to freshen up.

First, you go barefoot and wear as few clothes as possible into the shower/toilet. Then, inside the head, you stand in front of the toilet (the only place you can stand, really), undress, hang your clothes on the wall pegs, and cover them with the tiny plastic shower curtain. The four inches behind the curtain are the only part of the head that don’t get sopping wet.

Next, you grab the handheld showerhead and spray yourself with the hot water. Turn the water off (we’re always conserving water on a boat), lather up with shampoo and soap; then rinse. There’s not much elbow room, but after a couple of days, it feels wonderful to be clean.

Having a sink in the cabin was handy…but you still have to climb the ladder to get to the loo. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Finally, you towel off, pull on your (mostly) dry clothes, and emerge smelling clean, fresh and rather victorious after having succeeded in the tiny-shower quest.

Needless to say, there are no hair-driers—unless you count the breeze.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted August 2012

15 Green Reasons to Take a Wind-Powered Schooner Trip in Maine

Choosing your transportation well is an important part of greening your vacation. On a Maine windjammer trip, the transportation—a historic, wind-powered schooner—is the vacation. As you sail past quaint lighthouses and pristine, rocky islands in Penobscot Bay, you’ll feel like a sailor of yesteryear, traveling by sea without creating carbon emissions.

The Isaac Evans sails past the Rockland Breakwater. Photo by Annie Higbee, courtesy Maine Windjammer Association

Through the Maine Windjammer Association you can book one- to six-night sails aboard 13 historic tall ships. Some cruises have a special focus—lighthouses, pirate adventures, photography, knitting, stargazing, food and wine, family trips.

But regardless of the type of trip, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the views and feel the breeze without a noisy engine or gasoline fumes to spoil the experience. (However, schooners have motor-powered yawl boats to push the ship on windless days.)

Sailing, Sailing

My husband and I sailed for four nights aboard the 1886 ship Isaac H. Evans (now renamed the Boyd N. Sheppard and under new ownership) a National Historic Landmark. We arrived, settled into our cabin—teensy but cozy—and Captain Brenda Thomas and her crew oriented us 18 passengers to life aboard a ship. When we set sail, we glided along like magic. No worries about seasickness here.

A schooner trip is a little like camping on water—no need for fancy clothes, just a mix of foul-weather gear for rain and a swimsuit for hot days when you feel like diving into the clear ocean water.

Here are just a few excellent reasons to sign aboard one of these beautiful sailing ships for a unique Maine getaway:

  1. Be the captain. Take the helm and learn how to steer the ship.
  2. Kids have a blast. Regardless of your age, you’ll learn something about maritime history and be enchanted by life at sea. (Not all ships take children; the Isaac H. Evans specializes in family trips.)
  3. Help hoist the sails: Lend a hand with the sails and anchor.
  4. Learn sailor lingo. After a day or two, you’ll be throwing around terms like “fore,” “aft,” “bow,” “stern,” and “jib” like a pro.
  5. Be entertained as porpoises and seals frolic around the boat.
  6. Feast on fresh-baked lobster on the beach.
  7. Sit on deck and watch as the pine-covered islands drift by.
  8. Row ashore small islands and explore them on foot.
  9. Explore picturesque fishing villages.
  10. Eat heartily. Menu highlights include blueberry pancakes, fish chowder and cornbread, crab-stuffed haddock, fresh green salads, homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie.
  11. Enjoy the peace and quiet of traveling “unplugged.” No TVs, phones or computers on this vacation!
  12. Master the art of coiling lines so they don’t tangle.
  13. Ask the captain to tell some sailor’s tales. Captain Brenda Thomas can recount stories of notorious female pirates!
  14. Spot loons, gulls, osprey and other sea birds through the ship’s binoculars.
  15. Watch the moon rise over the water as the ship is anchored in a quiet cove.

Crew member Aiden Ford takes a break from her sailing duties on the Isaac H. Evans. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

P.S. The crew of the wind-powered Isaac H. Evans is eco-conscious. They recycle everything, collect food scraps and give them to a local pig farmer, and practice Leave No Trace principles when visiting islands. They even encourage guests to collect any trash they see, leaving islands cleaner than when they came. When you spend as much time outdoors as these sailors do, you learn to appreciate and protect nature.

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Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted August 2012