Aspen Princess: Signs of fall and climate change are in the air |

Aspen Princess: Signs of fall and climate change are in the air

Alison Berkley Margo
Aspen Princess

Last week I took babe and pug to the Maroon Bells for some fall foliage viewing and what turned out to be a somewhat ambitious hike.

I say that only because I was carrying my 32-pound child in what should probably no longer be referred to as “the baby backpack,” but also because the pug isn’t exactly what you call an athlete. Even though we always tell gawking onlookers that she is a rare breed of mountain pug, the truth is the poor girl can’t breathe when it’s warmer than 65 degrees out. Plus, there is no way in hell the hike to Crater Lake is only 1.4 miles, as the sign at the trailhead indicates.

Even in late September, it was 80 degrees at 9,000 feet. The dog was overheating and snorting like a pig within the first 10 minutes, causing grave concern among passersby.

“That’s what she always sounds like,” I tell them, only to be met with skeptical, if not scathing, glares.

I told myself not to worry, I’d cool her off in the creek I knew we’d come to low on the trail. But the creek bed was empty. A swath of dry rocks lay under the bridge like a pile of bones.

Meanwhile, Levi fell asleep in the backpack almost immediately, the front of his limp head bonking against the back of mine every other step.

“You are such a strong mom!” people yelled as they passed by, which struck me as a little odd. Can’t you see my kid is sleeping? I know this isn’t the place to go when you want to escape people, but for my young son, it’s all about the bus ride. Even in the midst of some of the most epic fall glory that can be found anywhere on the planet he exclaimed, “the bus is down there!”

I had to stop every 500 yards to let the pug rest and to give her some water. I considered turning around, but kept thinking “the lake is only 1.4 miles.” I’ve done this hike many times, but under the circumstances, my monkey mind was playing tricks on me. Here’s the other thing: Gertie can hike just fine when it’s not hot. Since it’s late September, I assumed it was not going to be hot, but then I remembered: This thing they used to call “Indian Summer” is now just climate change.

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m getting older and have more perspective after all this time, but the damage we’re doing to the planet is starting to become startlingly evident. When we finally made our final approach to the lake, I squinted and blinked to see there was no lake. There’s not even a trickle of water — nothing. Just a big, empty swath of sand where a bunch of guys speaking a foreign language I couldn’t identify were playing frisbee. Levi approached them without hesitation, walking over and toting his stuffed raccoon as if he were in college and not still in diapers. They let him throw the frisbee a few times and were very friendly, but it was an odd scene. Meanwhile, my poor little dog panted frantically under a nearby tree. I gave her all the water I had, and she drank eagerly.

Thank god Levi hiked almost the whole way down by himself, climbing up rocks and jumping off them, making a game of picking a good route. “Good choice, Mom,” he’d say when he turned around to see how I was going down, again sounding eerily like a teenager. When had he started calling me “Mom?”

We ran into a couple of hunters with heavy packs who had turned back because they assumed there would be water at the lake they could filter for drinking water, which again evoked this haunting feeling.

We made it back to Maroon Lake with a little time to spare before the last bus, scanning the lake’s edge for a break in the new fence line so Gertie could cool off at last. When had they put that in? I recalled seeing a “digger” on our last visit here, and figured restoration of the lake shores and its water were likely necessary with the number of people who visit every year. I didn’t think too much more about it and was relieved to see a dog bowl filled with water sitting next to the drinking fountain. Why did I feel so underprepared for what I’d consider to be a very short hike?

I asked a nice couple to take our photo. The woman snapped several and then handed me the phone. As I scanned through the images on the bus ride back to Highlands, I was disappointed in the shots this nice stranger had taken of us. Despite the glorious fall colors and the epic scenery, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it looked somehow unnatural, like a museum or a zoo or Disneyland.

It wasn’t until a friend of mine posted a grievance about the fencing around Maroon Lake that it hit me. This was what spoiled my photos.

I don’t dispute the need for restoration and I certainly trust the Forest Service works hard and does what is best to protect the land. The problem is so much bigger than that. There are just too many people, but who is to say they shouldn’t have the same access I do, what, just because I got here first? I never understood that mentality.

What I do understand is I have been alive long enough to have witnessed real change in the world around me, and not all of it for the better. It is hotter. It doesn’t snow as much as it used to. Truly remote and unspoiled places are harder to find. Wilderness as we know it feels as if it might truly be endangered.

I’m just not sure what we can do about it, except one thing: vote.

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