Spring in the Colorado Mountains

By Maryann Gaug

Spring frees the creek to once again jump, gurgle and sing as it wends its way along the trail. © Maryann Gaug

Early April and I am already seeing changes along my favorite hiking trail near my house. No, the wildflowers are not yet blooming. At 9,000 feet elevation they’re still snuggled under at least a foot of snow, gathering nutrients to burst forth in another month or two. In this country May showers bring June flowers. April embodies a battle between Winter and Spring.

Spring equinox recently passed, and most cultures celebrate this time of fertility, new life, and rebirth. At least in the Northern Hemisphere. Our southern friends celebrate harvest instead and the approaching slumber of life, bringing in crops for the winter ahead. I ramble, but think about the differences across the equator. Differences that northern societies either ignored or didn’t know about when they made up many rules and names for familiar occasions in their part of the world, many of which dominate our present lives.

Back to April. The sun traverses the sky overhead, both higher and farther north than in the cold, dark days around winter solstice. The longer days bring an hour or more extra warmth to my part of the planet. I can see the earth stretching, trying to wake up. The brilliant sun slowly warms the snow, changing the frozen substance into its liquid form, which in turn sinks into the soil. The nearby creek washes away its winter cloak, gaining volume. In no time at all, it is happily singing, free once again.

Ice crystals form on rocks even in the fastest-moving water. © Maryann Gaug

After a few warm days, as the snow slowly softens and sinks, Old Man Winter decides it’s not time for Spring to take over. Another cold front, another snowstorm passes through. Often only a few inches of snow blanket the land again. A thin new sheet of ice may stifle the creek’s enthusiasm, slowing its emergence and growth. Icicles and ice crystals form on rocks and downed trees, creating a mini-winter wonderland along the flowing water. Sometimes a foot or more of heavy wet white stuff dumps from the sky, smothering Spring’s exuberance.

The warmer, higher sun wrinkles the snow’s skin into patterns. I understand why the native peoples of the Arctic North have so many names for snow. I’ve found my own words to describe the snow texture: wrinkled, fried, bubble wrap, crusty, crunchy, hollow, mushy, frozen, slushy, and snow cone to name a few. Wrinkled snow almost matches the wrinkles on my face, created over a life of hiking in the summer sun. Fried represents uneven mini-lumps on the snow surface, as in fried chicken or little penitentes. Bubble wrap looks just like small bubbles in the packing plastic. Crusty snow results from freeze-thaw cycles, the frozen layer covering the softer snow that the sun hasn’t yet melted. In the trail, that snow crunches under my boots, destroying the quiet of earlier softer snow winter hikes. Mushy, slushy, and snow cone are different degrees of water content in the changing snowpack.

“Fried snow” makes for a lumpy and tilted trail – hikers beware! © Maryann Gaug

Hiking trails can be a challenging mess as Spring and Winter fight it out. I carefully watch where I step, making sure to stay on the most compacted part. As the snow melts, the bottom layer becomes rotten, probably due to water running beneath. Easy to break through the hollow snow and sink to my knees, it’s possible to hyperextend that most important of joints. Along a side slope or next to vegetation, the sun reflects off the nearby surfaces, melting the snow closest to them. Walking along an angled snow trail can be challenging, and I slide, even with coils on my boots. In the sunniest spots, mud soon appears, creating a different type of slippery, gooey mess.

Green leaves surface along the trail. Kinnikinnik appear, probably staying green during their sleep time. Sharp-looking dark spear tips show up on aspen tree branches, soon to become a soft leaf bud, ready to burst on the scene. The green shoots of skunk cabbage peek above the ground as if to see if it’s safe to come out. The next storm buries them, but little-by-little they continue to grow.

Occasionally on a sunny day, a little spider wanders across the trail. I’m always amazed that the little creatures can walk on the cold snow. A mourning cloak butterfly appears, the yellow edges of its wings catching my eye. Isn’t it a little early for butterflies? Looking around the woods, I spy the first robin.

Down in the valley, the osprey return from southern climes to their nests, sprucing up their homes of twigs and adding fluff for their soon-to-be-laid eggs and newly hatched chicks. Little calves appear in the ranch meadow, sticking close to Mom and nursing often. Geese arrive to join those that overwintered. The eagles lay an egg or two around the first of March. This year, I’ve only seen one eagle. Perhaps their failure to produce a chick last year sent them to a new nest. My garden slowly awakens from its winter slumber as the green tips of tulips and daffodils poke through the soil and sometimes snow.

This tug-of-war between Spring and Winter continues for at least two months in my world. We have names for this season: fool’s spring, second winter, spring of deception, third winter, egg laying, the arrival of newborns.

Perhaps it’s really the sun that’s winning. Traveling higher, farther north, and lingering longer, its warmth pushes Winter’s last gasp away, slowly but deliberately forging ahead. The sun continues to work its magic and the weather patterns change, sometimes taking until early June. Spring finally wins the battle of the seasons, as Winter retreats into hibernation.