On the Mountain: Vanishing species

John Colson

About 20 miles east of Meeker is a tributary of the White River named North Elk Creek, a valley of lush undergrowth and tall pines, steep hillsides and long approaches to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.And until only a decade ago or so, it was a sanctuary from civilization, peopled by ranchers, visited by a select few fishers and boaters.Like everywhere in Colorado, though, things are changing.Invited by some friends whose family has maintained a small hunting camp on North Elk for half a century, Anne and I trucked our way up from Carbondale through a rainy Friday evening to bed down in a two-room, rustic cabin to one side of the valley. We slept to the sound of North Elk Creek as it babbled a few feet away each night. Other cabins, a decent distance apart, made up the hunting camp, each occupied by a separate part of the larger party.By day, everyone did his or her own thing, hiking out of the valley into the surrounding high country. Anne and I spent most of one day exploring the East Fork of North Elk, passing by a venerable cow camp that seemed still to be at least partially in use. A nearby corral, in good repair, showed that the cowboys still came up to the valley to gather their herds in the fall or scatter them in the spring.Bear scat could be seen everywhere, as could ample piles of deer and elk droppings, and the occasional scat from a coyote or a mountain lion, but the wildlife generally avoided us like the plague we are. Only the red-tailed hawks and ravens showed themselves, calling and wheeling above us, flying from high perch to high perch in what seemed to be a diversionary tactic to make sure we didn’t molest their nests.This paradise is threatened, though, by dude ranches and other holdings being gobbled up and converted into a private playground for the wealthy. One such man, by the name of Wheeler, has been hassling our friends at North Elk, accusing them of trespassing (untrue), building roads everywhere and setting up a subdivision of McMansions to sell for profits he clearly doesn’t need. How long will it be before the onslaught of urban-style services, paved roads, convenience stores nearby?Thankfully, for now, the hawks and ravens are the only audience for such questions, and they never respond.