In spite of some very cushy times in Colorado, our time in the state wasn’t all indoor plumbing and Jacuzzi sessions.
The first three trails were with Oliver. First, we hoofed it upwards for five miles, through beetle-killed forest, to an old fire lookout, only to have the skies open up and pour rain and lightning down on us once we made it our destination.
|Hungry Hungry Hikers|
The last one for this stint in the park was an easy morning walk, in blazing sunshine, around a meadow filled with elk and through grassy hills and sun-warmed rocks.
On our second, solo, visit to Rocky Mountain, Ashek and I got more ambitious (I think we were finally adjusting to the elevation) and went up to a beautiful lake above the snowline, and then beyond, over snow fields to the bottom of a breathtaking glacier. We finished up with another short and steep hike, to Bierstadt Lake and then down switchbacks with views of the whole park below us.
What struck me most at Rocky Mountain, however, wasn’t the jagged peaks or even the crystal-coloured lakes. It was all the dead trees. Pine beetle has come to Rocky Mountain in a big way, and much of the forest – acres and acres of it – is dust-colored, and slowly falling down in the wind.
It’s particularly scary to see as a British Columbian, because it feels like looking into our future. Speaking with Colorado locals, the story is familiar: they haven’t had the cold winters they need to keep the beetle’s numbers down, and so the insect has truly taken over. Instead of attacking only sick or weak trees, as they typically do, they are after healthy pines as well, with a vengeance. In parts of BC the story is already playing out: we have many bright red forests, the colour the trees go when they first are infected. To imagine swaths of gray like those here in Colorado covering the province is deeply disturbing. The silver lining may be that they are, in some places, past the worst. The pines are dead, gone – but Aspen, Fir, and other trees and plants are already filling in the gaps, eagerly seeking the newly available sunlight. In some ways, though, it’s cold comfort. I’m no environmental scientist, but I wonder what the larger ramifications are for the ecosystem when such a dramatic die-off occurs. Certainly something we heard from many in the state was that flooding and erosion are made worse when fires come through, removing the stabilizing effect of healthy root systems. I imagine beetle-kill writ large would have similar impacts. If nothing else, thousands of acres of dead trees surely make fire more likely.
Climate change has been something of a theme of this trip. We hear it everywhere, again and again: it’s different than it was, more extreme. Drought, floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, extreme heat: almost every community we’ve visited has a story about the changes of recent decades, and how they are more difficult to adjust to and cope with than the more gradual fluctuations of times past. None of this is new information, of course. For me, however, seeing the effects in the microcosm of people’s lived experiences strips some of the abstraction away. People need help to deal with the impacts of climate change. Our societies are going to have to develop ways of coping with this, of providing assistance and support to those whose lives are changing too quickly for easy adjustment. This is abundantly clear in the case of climate refugees from other parts of the world, running from drought, famine, or related conflicts. It is also true for many farmers, fishers, and loggers right here in North America. How our societies deal with the existing crises of climate change will say as much about us as a species as how we approach efforts to slow its progress. Will we look on those who are more severely impacted with compassion, or will we fall to the usual tropes of blame, telling them to work harder and criticising them as burdens on society? It is time to look climate change in the face. And it is time to look at its victims, and to recognize their need, and their humanity.