The Rocky Mountain Wonderland Part 6
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One evening I climbed a high ridge that stood about half a mile in front of a heavily forested peninsula which the fire-front would reach in a few hours. The fire was advancing across the valley with a front of about two miles. On arriving at the top of the ridge, I came up behind a grizzly bear seated on his haunches like a dog, intently watching the fire below. On discovering me he took a second look before concentrating his mind on a speedy retreat. Along the ridge about a quarter of a mile distant, a number of mountain sheep could be seen through the falling ashes, with heads toward the fire, but whether they were excited or simply curious could not be determined.
The forested peninsula which extended from between two forested canons had a number of meadow openings on the slopes closest to me. Around these were many brilliant fiery displays. Overheated trees in or across these openings often became enveloped in robes of invisible gas far in advance of the flames. This gas flashed and flared up before the tree blazed, and occasionally it convoyed the flames across openings one hundred feet or so above the earth. Heated isolated trees usually went with a gus.h.i.+ng flash. At other places this flaming sometimes lasted several seconds, and, when seen through steamy curtains or clouds of smoke, appeared like geysers of red fire.
At times there were vast scrolls and whirling spirals of sparks above and around the torrential, upstreaming flames of the fire-front.
Millions of these sparks were sometimes formed by high outflowing air streams into splendid and far-reaching milky ways. In moments of general calm the sky was deeply filled with myriads of excited sparks, which gradually quieted, then floated beautifully, peacefully up to vanish in the night.
Meantime the fire-front was pushed by wind-currents and led by ridges.
By the time the fire-line had advanced to the steeper slopes it was one vast U about three miles long. Its closed end was around the peninsula toward me. The fire-front rushed upward through the dense forest of the peninsula steeps more swiftly than the wildest avalanche could have plunged down. The flames swept across three-hundred-foot gra.s.sy openings as easily as breakers roll in across a beach. Up the final two thousand feet there were magnificent outbursts and sheets of flame with accompanying gale and stormy-ocean roars. Terrific were the rushes of whirled smoke-and-flame clouds of brown, ashen green, and sooty black. There were lurid and volcanic effects in molten red and black, while tattered yellow flames rushed, rolled, and tumbled everywhere.
An uprus.h.i.+ng, explosive burst of flames from all sides wrapped and united on the summit. For a minute a storm of smoke and flame filled the heavens with riot. The wild, irresistible, cyclonic rush of fiery wind carried scores of tree-limbs and many blazing treetops hundreds of feet above the summit. Fire and sparks were hurled explosively outward, and a number of blazing treetops rushed off in gale-currents.
One of these blazing tops dropped, a destructive torch, in a forest more than a mile distant from the summit!
High up in the Rocky Mountains are lakes which s.h.i.+ne as brightly as dewdrops in a garden. These mountains are a vast hanging garden in which flowers and waterfalls, forests and lakes, slopes and terraces, group and mingle in lovely grandeur. Hundreds of these lakes and tarns rest in this broken topography. Though most of them are small, they vary in size from one acre to two thousand acres. Scores of these lakes have not been named. They form a harmonious part of the architecture of the mountains. Their basins were patiently fas.h.i.+oned by the Ice King. Of the thousand or more lakes in the Colorado mountains only a few are not glacial. The overwhelming majority rest in basins that were gouged and worn in solid rock by glaciers. John Muir says that Nature used the delicate snowflake for a tool with which to fas.h.i.+on lake-basins and to sculpture the mountains. He also says: "Every lake in the Sierra is a glacier lake. Their basins were not merely remodeled and scoured out by this mighty agent, but in the first place were eroded from the solid." The Rocky Mountain lakes are set deep in canons, mounted on terraces, and strung like uncut gems along alpine streams. The boulders in many of their basins are as clean and new as though just left by the constructive ice.
These lakes are scattered through the high mountains of Colorado, the greater number lying between the alt.i.tudes of ten thousand and twelve thousand feet. Few were formed above the alt.i.tude of twelve thousand, and most of those below ten thousand now are great flowerpots and hold a flower-illumined meadow or a grove. Timber-line divides this lake-belt into two nearly equal parts. Many are small tarns with rocky and utterly wild surroundings. Circular, elliptical, and long, narrow forms predominate. Some lie upon a narrow terrace along the base of a precipice. Many are great circular wells at the bottom of a fall; others are long and narrow, filling canons from wall to wall.
[Ill.u.s.tration: CRYSTAL LAKE, A TYPICAL GLACIER LAKE]
Glaciers the world over have been the chief makers of lake-basins, large and small. These basins were formed in darkness, and hundreds and even thousands of years may have been required for the ice to carve and set the gems whose presence now adds so much to the light and beauty of the rugged mountain-ranges. The ponderous glaciers or ice rivers in descending from the mountain-summits came down steep slopes or precipitous walls and bore irresistibly against the bottom.
The vast weight of these embankments of ice moving almost end-on, mixed with boulders, tore and wore excavations into the solid rock at the bottom of each high, steep descent.
Nature's ways are interestingly complicated. Both the number and the location of many of these glacier lakes are due in part to the prevailing direction of the wind during the last glacial epoch. This is especially true of those in the Snowy Range of the Rocky Mountains, which fronts the Great Plains. The majority of the lakes in this range are situated on its eastern slope. Westerly winds undoubtedly prevailed on these mountains during the depositing of the snows which formed and maintained the glaciers that excavated these lake-basins.
As a result, much of the snow which fell on the summit and its westerly slope was swept across and deposited on the eastern slope, thus producing on the eastern side deeper ice, more glaciers, and more appreciable erosion from the glaciers. The eastern summit of this range is precipitous and is deeply cut by numerous ice-worn cirques which extend at right angles to the trend of this range. These cirques frequently lie close together, separated by a thin precipitous wall, or ridge. On the westerly side of the range the upper slopes descend into the lowlands through slopes and ridges rounded and but little broken. Over these it is possible to ride a horse to the summit, while foot travel and careful climbing over precipitous rocky walls is in most places required to gain the summit from the east.
Westerly winds still blow strongly, sometimes for weeks, and the present scanty snowfall is largely swept from the western slopes and deposited on the eastern side. So far as I know, all the remaining glaciers in the front ranges are on the eastern slope. The Arapahoe, Sprague, Hallett, and Andrews Glaciers and the one on Long's Peak are on the eastern slope. They are but the stubs or remnants of large glaciers, and their presence is due in part to the deep, cool cirques cut out by the former ice-flows, and in part to the snows swept to them by prevailing westerly winds.
Though these lakes vary in shape and size, and though each is set in a different topography, many have a number of like features and are surrounded with somewhat similar verdure. A typical lake is elliptical and about one fifth of a mile long; its alt.i.tude about ten thousand feet; its waters clear and cold. A few huge rock-points or boulders thrust through its surface near the outlet. A part of its circling sh.o.r.e is of clean granite whose lines proclaim the former presence of the Ice King. Extending from one sh.o.r.e is a dense, dark forest. One stretch of low-lying sh.o.r.e is parklike and gra.s.sy, flower-crowded, and dotted here and there with a plume of spruce or fir. By the outlet is a filled-in portion of the lake covered with sedge and willow.
In summer, magpies, woodp.e.c.k.e.rs, nuthatches, and chickadees live in the bordering woods. In the willows the white-crowned sparrow builds.
By the outlet or in the cascades above or below is the ever-cheerful water-ouzel. The solitaire nesting near often flies across the lake, filling the air with eager and melodious song. Along the sh.o.r.e, gentians, columbines, paintbrushes, larkspur, and blue mertensia often lean over the edge and give the water-margin the beauty of their reflected colors.
These lakes above the limits of tree-growth do not appear desolate, even though stern peaks rise far above. The bits of flowery meadow or moorland lying close or stretching away, the songful streams arriving or departing, soften their coldness and give a welcome to their rock-bound, crag-piled sh.o.r.es. Mountain sheep are often visitors. They come to drink, or to feed and play in the sedgy meadow near by.
Ptarmigan have their homes here, and all around them nest many birds from the southland.
Into these lakes swift waters run, and here the snowy cataract leaps in glory. From the overshadowing cliffs, flattened and lacy streams flutter down. During the summer there is the ever-flowing harmony, the endless animation, of falling water; and in winter there is the silent and architectural symphony of the frozen waterfall. Many lakes during summer are partly edged with inthrusting snow and ice piles; from time to time fragments of these piles break away and become miniature icebergs in these small arctic seas.
Although filled with the purest and clearest water, from a distant height they often appear to contain a brilliant heavy liquid. Under different lights and from different points of view they are emerald, opal, inky black, violet, indigo-blue, and sea-green. I have approached one from a high distant point, and as I descended and waveringly advanced, the lake took on a number of deep colors, each melting like a pa.s.sing shadow from one into the other. Occasionally, too, it almost vanished in dull gray or flashed up in molten silver.
The colors shown were as vivid as if made of the brilliant fire of the northern lights. All these changing colors played on the lake, while the surrounding peaks towered in cold and silent desolation, changeless except when occasionally swept with the filmy bluish shadows of the clouds.
Below the timber-line these lakes are more appealing, and many in the midst of groves and meadows help to form delightful wild parks. Others are hidden away in black forests; tall, crowding firs and spruces rise from their edges and hide them completely, even when one is only a yard or two from their sh.o.r.es. I camped for a week within a stone's throw of one of these forest-embowered gems without suspecting its presence. Returning to camp one evening from an encircling ramble, I was startled by stepping into a lake-edge. For a moment I was puzzled.
Instinctively I felt that my camp was about the width of the lake ahead of me. Although I felt certain of my bearings, my mental processes were such that I was unwilling to trust this strange lake.
Instead of walking around its poetic sh.o.r.e, I lashed two water-soaked logs together with willows and on this rude raft made my way directly across. My camp was within fifty feet of the place where I landed.
Elements of peculiar attractiveness are combined in the lakes that are situated along the timber-line. Some have a treeless mountain or a rugged snow-piled peak rising boldly behind, and an acre or so of meadow between one sh.o.r.e and the forest. A segment of wind-distorted trees, a few enormous rock domes, a fine pile of boulders, and a strip of willow with clumps of spruces and firs combine to give a charming border.
Among the best known of these Colorado lakes are Grand, Trapper's, Bierstadt, Trout, San Cristoval, Chicago, Thunder, Silver, Moraine, and Twin Lakes. Grand Lake, probably the largest, is about three miles long by one mile wide. Its basin appears to be largely due to a morainal dam. The San Cristoval basin appears to have been formed by a mud stream which blockaded a mountain valley. The lakes of the Long's Peak region are my favorites. These are numerous and show a variety of forms. Grand Lake and a few others lie to the west; Thunder Lake, Ouzel Lake, and a dozen others are in Wild Basin to the south; Odessa, Bierstadt, and the score of lakes in Loch Vale and Glacier Gorge are to the north. All are within ten miles of the summit of this peak.
These lakes and their splendid mountain setting will in time give scenic fame to the region.
The alpine lakes in the mountains of the West are but little known to travelers. Many Western people appreciate the beauty of the Swiss and Italian lakes but do not even know of the existence of the s.h.i.+ning lakes in their own mountains. But the unexcelled beauty and grandeur of these lakes, their scenic surroundings, and the happy climate in which they repose will in due time give them fame and bring countless travelers to their sh.o.r.es.
[Ill.u.s.tration: TRAPPER'S LAKE]
In exploring the mountains I have often camped on a lake-sh.o.r.e. These camps were conveniently situated for the exploration of neighboring slopes and the valley below; or for making excursions to the more rugged scenes,--the moraines, snow-fields, cirques, and peaks above. Many an evening after a day with the moraines and the forests, or with the eagles and the crags, I have gone down to one of these ideal camping-places. Here through the night my fire blazed and faded in the edge of a meadow before a templed cl.u.s.ter of spruces on a rocky rim above the lake.
Many times camp was so situated that splendid sunsets or the lingering pink and silver afterglow were at their best behind a broken sky-line ridge. My camp-fire was reflected in the lake, which often sparkled as if enamel-filled with stars. Across one corner lay softly the inverted Milky Way. Shooting stars pa.s.sed like white rockets through the silent waters. The moon came up big and yellow from behind a crag and in the lake became a disc of gold. Many a night the cliffs repeated the restlessness of the wind-shaken water until the sun quieted all with light. During the calm nights there were hours of almost unbroken silence, though at times and faintly a far-off waterfall could be heard, the bark of a fox sounded across the lake, or the weird and merry cries of the coyote were echoed and reechoed around the sh.o.r.e.
More often the white-crowned sparrow sang hopefully in the night.
Morning usually was preceded by a horizon of red and rose and gold.
Often, too, vague sheep and deer along the farther sh.o.r.e were slowly developed into reality by the morning light. From all around birds came to bathe and drink, and meet in morning song service.
Occasionally I remained in camp almost motionless from early morning until the stars of evening filled the lake, enjoying the comings and goings and social gatherings of the wilderness folk.
These lakes, if frozen during calm times, have ice of exceeding clearness and smoothness. In early winter this reflects peak, cloud, and sky with astonis.h.i.+ng faithfulness. In walking across on this ice when the reflective condition was at its best, I have marveled at my reflection, or that of Scotch, my dog, walking on what appeared to be the surface of the water. The lakes above timber-line are frozen over about nine months of the year, some of them even longer. Avalanches of snow often pile upon them, burying them deeply.
Gravity and water are filling with debris and sediment these basins which the glaciers dug. Many lakes have long since faded from the landscape. The earthy surface as it emerges above the water is in time overspread with a carpet of plushy sedge or gra.s.s, a tangle of willow, a grove of aspen, or a forest of pine or spruce. The rapidity of this filling is dependent on a number of things,--the situation of the lake, the stability of the watershed, its relation to forests, slopes, meadows, and other lakes, which may intercept a part of the down-coming sediment or wreckage. This filling material may be deposited evenly over the bottom, the lake steadily becoming shallower, though maintaining its original size, with its edge clean until the last; or it may be heaped at one end or piled along one side. In some lakes the entering stream builds a slowly extending delta, which in time gains the surface and extends over the entire basin. In other lakes a side stream may form an expanding dry delta which the gra.s.s, willows or aspens eagerly follow outward and cover long before water is displaced from the remainder of the lake's rock-bound sh.o.r.es. With many, the lower end of the basin, shallow from the first, is filled with sediment and changed to meadow, while the deep upper end lies almost unchanged in its rock basin. Now and then a plunging landslide forms an island, on which the spruces and firs make haste to wave triumphant plumes. Lake Agnes on the northern slope of Mt. Richthofen was formed with a rounded dome of glaciated rock remaining near the centre. This lake is being filled by the slow inflow of a "rock stream."
Landslides, large and small, often plunge into these lakes. One of the largest rock avalanches that I ever saw made one wild leap into Chasm Lake and buried itself. This was about the middle of June. This glacier lake is on the eastern side of Long's Peak and is in a most utterly wild place. The lake was still covered with thick ice, and on the ice the snow lay deep. But spring was melting and loosening things in the alpine heights. As I stood on a talus slope above the outlet of the lake, an echoing on the opposite cliffs told me that a rock-slide was coming down. Almost instantly there was the ripping whizz of falling stone. A huge stone struck and pierced twenty feet of snow and more than four feet of ice, which covered the lake. At the same instant there came sounds of riot from above. More stones were coming down. The crash of their striking, repeated and reechoed by surrounding cliffs and steeps, made an uproarious cras.h.i.+ng as though the top of Long's Peak had collapsed. It was an avalanche of several thousand tons off the slope of Mt. Was.h.i.+ngton.
This avalanche was formed of a quant.i.ty of broken granite sufficient to load a number of freight-trains. It smashed through the icy cover of the lake. The effect was like a terrific explosion. Enormous fragments of ice were thrown into the air and hurled afar. Great ma.s.ses of water burst explosively upward, as if the entire filling of water had been blown out or had leaped out of its basin. The cliffs opposite were deluged. The confused wind-current which this created shredded and separated much of the water into spray, das.h.i.+ng and blowing it about. I was thoroughly drenched. For half a minute this spray whirled so thickly that it was almost smothering.
Water and ice are incessantly at work tearing down the heights. Water undermines by was.h.i.+ng away the softer parts and by leaching. Every winter ice thrusts its expansive wedge into each opening. Places are so shattered by this explosive action that thousands of gallons of water are admitted. This collects in openings, and the following winter the freezing and forcing continues. During the winter the irresistible expansion of freezing water thus pushes the rocks and widens the openings with a force that is slow but powerful. Winter by winter rocks are moved; summer by summer the water helps enlarge the opening. Years or centuries go by, and at last during a rainy time or in the spring thaw a ma.s.s slips away or falls over. This may amount to only a few pounds, or it may be a cliff or even a mountain-side.
The long ice-ages of the earth appear to have their sway, go, and return. These alternate with long climatic periods made up of the short winters and the other changing seasons such as we know. The glacier lake is slowly created, but an avalanche may blot it out the day after it is completed. Other lakes more favorably situated may live on for thousands of years. But every one must eventually pa.s.s away. These lakes come into existence, have a period of youth, maturity, and declining years; then they are gone forever. They are covered over with verdure--covered with beauty--and forgotten.
A Mountain Pony
A Mountain Pony
Our stage in the San Juan Mountains had just gained the top of the grade when an alert, riderless pony trotted into view on a near-by ridge. Saddled and bridled, she was returning home down a zigzag trail after carrying a rider to a mine up the mountain-side. One look at this trim, spirited "return horse" from across a narrow gorge, and she disappeared behind a cliff.
A moment later she rounded a point of rocks and came down into the road on a gallop. The stage met her in a narrow place. Indifferent to the wild gorge below, she paused unflinchingly on the rim as the brus.h.i.+ng stage dashed by. She was a beautiful bay pony.
The Rocky Mountain Wonderland Part 6
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The Rocky Mountain Wonderland Part 6 summary
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