Land, Water and People
Reading stories written on the land
By Mike Blakeman
The ancient grey log lying in the grass was only a broken husk of the tree it once was. There wasn’t any bark on any part of the log. It was broken into several chunks with spaces where the tree had become one with the soil. Several wide slivers of wood curled up on the outer core of the lower section as if someone used a carpenter’s plane part way and then pulled back. The center of the log was hollow – rotted out long ago.
The entire tree had blown over, as evidenced by the stubby root wad still attached. Several rocks were still wedged between the weathered roots. Patches of green, grey and golden lichen dotted all sides of the rocks and part of the trunk. A large currant bush grew up where part of the tree once had been. This tree had blown down a long, long time ago.
I stopped to examine this old rotting tree a couple weekends ago while hiking in the Farmers Creek area a couple miles southeast of Creede. The snow on the lower few miles of the trail melts off early most years because the main slope faces south to southwest. As much as I enjoy playing in the snow, my favorite recreational activity is hiking, so I start wandering on the south facing slopes as soon as they start to dry off.
The Farmers Creek Trail starts at an elevation of about 8,800 feet and extends all the way up to Wason Park in the La Garita Wilderness. The lower section of the trail wends its way up over mostly open slopes broken up with patches of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. The cooler north-facing slopes in some of the drainages have thick stands of mostly Douglas-fir, while the open ponderosa patches are found on the drier, warmer slopes.
Blackened bark and fire scars can be found on many of the large older trees. Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine are well adapted to fire. They both have thick bark that protects them from the heat of the fire and they drop their lower branches as they get older, which reduces the chance of a ground fire climbing up into the crowns of the trees.
Many of the big old trees have cracks spiraling down from their tops to the ground. These cracks indicate the trees were once, or more than once, struck by lightning – a good fire starter. But the blackened bark and chunks of charcoal that can be found throughout lower slopes of the Farmers Creek area may not be from a lightning started fire. Much of the black could be from a human caused fire.
The way I understand the story, in 1893, a fire started near Spar City. The fire burned around Snowshoe Mountain and then jumped across the Rio Grande near Wagon Wheel Gap. It raced across the slopes around Bellows and Farmers Creek and burned above the town of Creede. The people living at Bachelor had to fight the fire to protect their homes as the inferno circled around towards Shallow Creek. The fire burned all summer. The air quality in Creede that year must have been worse than the smoggiest of days in modern Denver!
As I sat there examining the rotting log, I looked up and saw several others that were in equally advanced stages of decay. Things rot slowly on such a dry slope, so maybe these are left over from the big fire of 1893. I imagined these trees dying in the fire and standing for several years while their roots slowly rotted and then blowing over in a spring wind.
The decomposing tree carcass by me feet was once a living fifty to sixty foot tall ponderosa pine. Its growth was fueled by the energy of the sun, minerals in the soil, carbon dioxide from the air and water from the sky. And now it was slowly giving everything back while providing us with just a hint of what once was.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.