Autumn on Gastineau Peak

a walk in the clouds

Early September, and fall has been here for a couple of weeks already. Cottonwood leaves are turning gold, and alder leaves are drifting down into dull, brown heaps. Fireweed has gone to seed, except for a few stragglers that bloomed late. The air feels like fall is here.

Warblers are on the move. Mixed-species flocks of little birds flit through the alders and willows. Townsend’s warblers in fall plumage hobnob with chickadees, orange-crowned warblers, and two species of kinglets, along the banks of Montana Creek. Near Steep Creek, orange-crowns forage with chickadees, kinglets, and myrtle warblers. The birds move rapidly among the branches, feeding on tiny insects. The warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets are headed south for the winter, but golden-crowned kinglets and chickadees stay, toughing it out. Two cedar waxwings pass quickly through, not part of a flock.

One cloudy day, Parks and Rec hikers headed for Gastineau Peak. As usual, some started at the Basin Road trailhead and came up through the mud, while others just took the tram, joining forces at the upper tram terminal. As we went up toward Gold Ridge, the clouds settled in around us, restricting visibility to a narrow strip along the trail.

Wildlife viewing was therefore very limited. We saw one marmot just below the trail, looking up at our ghostly forms with apparent puzzlement. I saw the tails of three robins disappear into the mists, and an unidentified sparrow dove into a conifer thicket. And that was it, for wildlife.

Deer cabbage, avens, and blueberry leaves were coming into their fall hues. Most of the flowers were finished, although there were a few valerian, monkshood, and moss campion to be seen, and some broad-petaled gentians, which almost glowed in the mist. Partridgefoot and the hardy little harebells were still doing well.

Our goal was Gastineau Peak, and we wound up the rocky trail in the clouds. No vistas rewarded us, of course, and the wind was rising rapidly. So, after reaching the peak, we back-tracked to the junction with Gold Ridge and huddled in the lee of a bank by a dried-up pond to gobble a quick lunch. A small, gray and white, very tired butterfly wobbled across the stones at our feet and took temporary refuge on a wet pant-leg.

Back on the trail, we were slammed with a sudden, driving, sleety rain, and gusting winds stiff enough to make balance sometimes dicey. Nothing for it, just put your head down (and your hood up), put one foot in front of the other, and make rueful jokes as the rain found its way inside your raingear. We wondered if the tram would still be operating.

This lasted all too long. When we got down near the windsock, the curtains parted, and we had a good view of Bear Valley, in all shades of green, with the little creek calmly flowing through it. Downtown appeared. No more worries about whether or not the tram was running. From there on, it was ‘cake’.

As we left the lower tram terminal in our sodden, wind-blown state, a tourist remarked that he wished he were where we had been! He persisted, even after I told him what it had been like. Poor guy, he must have been very bored. Hmmm, maybe it was OK, after all! We were, in fact, glad we went, but hot showers and hot tea were sounding really good!

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