Monday, December 19, 2011

Snow Means Sledding in Northern New Mexico

Jeff Roybal, 18, of Santa Fe takes a run at Hyde Memorial State Park during a December 2011 outing. 
After a recent wave of bountiful snowstorms swept through northern New Mexico the sledding season is in full swing and just in time for the holidays.

“We’ve seen a lot of snow up here lately and the sledding has been great,” says Joe Cristopherson, Superintendent of Hyde Memorial State Park in the mountains just above Santa Fe.

The park boasts a couple of 100-yard sledding runs where adults and kids armed with plastic saucers, toboggans or rubber inner tubes can have a ball whisking down the hill.

No metal sleds or dogs are allowed on the sledding runs for obvious safety reasons, Cristopherson says.

A $5 day use fee is required per vehicle while the purchase of a $40 annual pass will provide unlimited visitation to any and all state parks.

Parents using the sledding run are asked to supervise children and encourage them to wait for others to complete their runs before starting down themselves.

Sledding can be accomplished easily with as little as a stout piece of cardboard but others may want to stop in at Cottam’s Ski Shop located inside the state park’s historic lodge and pick up a plastic saucer or toboggan.

Both cost around $20 and visitors to the sledding hill will also find hot chocolate and other refreshments available inside too, says Lyndsay Cottam.

The lodge features an outdoor patio on the backside where folks can relax and watch sledders coming down the hill.

And while store-bought sleds are convenient, it is the inner tube that reigns supreme amongst serious sledders in New Mexico.
Photo Courtesy of Tube Pro Inc. Makers of Commercial Grade Snow and River Tubes.
Inner tubes provide a slick and bouncy, old school kind of ride, and can’t be beat for bouncing off trees and other people.

“We have them on hand especially for those customers,” says Kris Griffin, manager of Discount Tire next to the Horseman’s Haven on Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe.

A rubber inner tube costs from $12 to $20 depending on the size and will provide hours of enjoyment, Griffin says.

And if you’re planning on doing some serious tubing, then there are a couple of spots in northern New Mexico that shouldn’t be missed.
The sledding hill at the Agua Piedra Campground in the Carson National Forest just north of Sipapu Ski Area is, like its brethren at Hyde Park, an old ski run.

One of the first ski areas in the state, the run at Agua Piedra provides cheap thrills in a forested setting on the banks of the Rio Pueblo north of Penasco, says Josie Lopez of the Sipapu Ski Resort.

The store at the ski resort off NM 518 also carries plastic saucers and toboggans as well as groceries and other refreshments, she said.

Sledding is not offered at the ski resort itself.

Those looking for a sunny, gently sloped meadow to sled will find just what they’re looking for on US Hill off NM 518 on the back road to Taos, says Kathy DeLucas, Public Affairs Officer for the Carson National Forest.
This location is a big draw for families because of its gentle nature and great scenery, she says.

Those venturing outside for sledding should expect to work up a sweat while having fun and thus should stayed hydrated, wear appropriate clothing and apply sunscreen too, DeLucas says.

And lastly, those new to the sport should be aware of the inherent rough and tumble nature of the activity and the effect that may have on children.

If You Go: Hyde Memorial State park is located of Hyde Park Rd on the way up to the Santa Fe Ski Area. The Agua Piedra sledding area is located off NM 518 on the road to Mora, just past the Sipapu Ski Resort. Take the highway to Espanola and turn off at NM 76 and follow up to Penasco and then NM 518. US Hill is located off NM 518 also but in the other direction on the road to Taos. An alternate route is following NM 68 out of Espanola, north along the Rio Grande, towards Taos and taking the NM 75 turnoff at Embudo and following to Penasco and on to NM 518.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Hockey & Skating at Los Alamos' Open Air Ice Rink a Real Winter Treat

It’s opening day at Los Alamos’ open-air skating rink and Andy McCown is thrilled to be the only one on the ice during the lunch hour session.


“Because I’m still a little rusty,” he says as he chops and glides his away around the regulation size rink.

McCown enjoys skating during his noon break from the lab and knows it won’t be long before he has plenty of company at the popular recreational facility operated by Los Alamos County.

“It’s even better on a cold, clear starry night when I bring my wife,” he says. “It can be really romantic.”

The rink at Los Alamos is finally open for the season, delayed by a couple of weeks due to emergency repairs to the flood damaged roadway in front of the complex off West Road.

But now the cool, shady canyon will once again resound with the slap and thunk of hockey pucks careening off the boards or the latest hit music drifting out of the facility’s sound system.
Bethany McBride, 18, of Los Alamos shows off a pair of hockey skates for rent at the recently opened Los Alamos County open air ice rink.
The rink is generally open seven days a week, all day long and well into the evening during the three month skate season, says Dianne Marquez, Recreation Program Manager for Los Alamos County.

“We have lots of public skating and one of the one of the largest youth hockey leagues in the state,” she says.

About 300 kids a year are usually enrolled each year including kids of all ages they play teams from Colorado and Arizona.

The Los Alamos High School varsity hockey team calls the rink home and plays teams from Taos, Santa Fe, Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.

Adults with some hockey experience and equipment can show up on Friday around noon or on Sunday and Tuesday evenings for pickup games.

Those just interested in just skating round can find plenty of times available on the schedule too.
Andy McCown, 57, a Los Alamos National Lab employee enjoys a skate during his lunch hour on opening day at the Los Alamos County open air ice rink.
There’s plenty of special events too, including an ongoing tradition on Christmas Eve, the Luminaria Skate.

Marquez says farolitos are arranged on the ice around the edge of the rink while colored lights are draped over the glass on top of the boards.

Staff members have found that a hockey puck placed in the bottom of brown paper bag with a small battery operated light works just fine, Marquez says.

Then all other lights at the facility are turned off and Christmas carols are played over the rink’s sound system while visitors enjoy an evening of skating and holiday merriment.

“It makes for a very special evening,” she says.

Hot chocolate and other beverages are included with admission, she noted.
The Los Alamos rink has been in operation since the 1940s when members of the former boys’ school there dammed up the creek to form an ice skating pond in the canyon.

Over the years the all-volunteer Los Alamos Skating Association made improvements, added buildings and other equipment including one of the original Zamboni ice grooming machines.

The machines invented by Frank Zamboni were designed to scrape used ice clean and then lay down a new layer of water to freeze and form a clean sheet of ice for skating.

The early model obtained by the skating association was mounted on a World War II-era Jeep and provided excellent service until a 1973 fire in its garage left it damaged.
Zamboni # 4 after the fire at the Los Alamos ice rink. Photo courtesy of the Zamboni  Co.
The association wrote to the Zamboni Company inquiring about repair parts for the aging contraption and heard back from the company that the association was in possession of one of the earliest machines the company had ever built.

It turned out that the Zamboni at Los Alamos was only the fourth unit the company had turned out, way back in 1952, and it had toured with the Ice Capades before being replaced by a newer model, according to information about the unit provided by Paula Cooney, Brand Manager for Zamboni of Paramount, Calif.

Zamboni # 4 had ended up in the hands of an Albuquerque ice skating rink operator who would later sell it to the skating association of Los Alamos in 1960.

At the time the Albuquerque rink offered the Zamboni and other equipment to the association for just $1,500 but required all of it to be hauled off within a week’s time.

So a caravan of association members drove down off the hill in their pickups to Albuquerque where they loaded up the gear and then headed home at a snail’s pace with the lumbering Zamboni sandwiched between them.

Once the Zamboni Company discovered this early model, they asked to swap for it and then had it restored. It now rests on display at the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn.

Zamboni # 4 restored to its original condition after the fire at Los Alamos ice rink in 1973
In the meantime the Los Alamos rink was taken over by the county in the mid-1980s and has since traded in the swapped model for a newer one, Marquez says.

In 2002 the county made improvements to the rink by putting in a refrigeration system which has vastly improved ice conditions, Marquez says.

The rink has skate rentals and a snack bar, offers skating lessons for youths and adults and rents the ice for parties or other special occasions.

For more information see the county’s website at

If You Go: From Santa Fe take US 84/285 North to the Los Alamos turnoff at Pojoaque and take NM 502 to Los Alamos. Follow Trinity Drive through town to just past the hospital, turn left onto Diamond Drive and then make a quick right onto to West Rd.
West Rd. leads down to Los Alamos Canyon where the county's open air, ice rink is located. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wildlife Display and More at CWW Feed Store

They were once a staple of many small towns across New Mexico, local feed and supply stores where one could find a decent pair of gloves, all sorts of hardware and some hay for your horse.

These days it’s a lot easier to find one of those dollar stores than an old fashioned mercantile, but there’s a still a few out there and even one that makes stopping by an exciting adventure.

Those who take the time to visit the CWW Feed Store and More in San Ysidro will find menacing mountain lions, snarling black bears and sneaky coyotes among the amazing array of mounted wildlife on display there.

There’s also the big wide head of a water buffalo looking down from a wall, a slinky leopard ready to pounce and the great curved horn of a rhino on exhibit at the busy store.

Store owner Connie Collis says the mounts are her late husband’s trophies from hunts all around the United States, Mexico and even Africa.

“It’s a great attraction,” Collis says of the wildlife display that spans two rooms inside the store. “But it’s also a tribute to him.”

Collis lost her husband Dave, 66, to a stroke last December.

“And this store, this community, has turned out to be my salvation,” she says. “We have made so many friends here over the years.”

Located off US 550 west of Bernalillo at the turn off to Jemez Springs, the store carries a unique line of cowboy boots, biker t-shirts, western wear and cowboy hats.

And of course, good gloves.

There’s an aisle featuring nothing but racks upon racks of nuts, bolts, screws, nails, hard to find mobile home parts, springs, cotter pins and other hardware.

Then there is the assortment of colored lariats, beautifully designed chaps, riding gear and even armored vests and protective helmets for bull riders.

“My heart is with the horses,” Collis says.

That’s where the riding arena, horse stalls and many animals boarded on the property come in.

And when she’s not at the store she can be found running the stables and riding program at Santa Ana Pueblo’s Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa in Bernalillo.

Born and raised on a small farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley along with her two brothers, Mike and Andy, Collis says she always knew she’d grow up to be a cowgirl.

Her upbringing included 4-H classes, involvement in FFA (Future Farmers of America) and riding with the Rodeo Club at school.

Her father, Charles Andrews, was a lineman at Sandia National Laboratories while her mother, Willene, worked as a store clerk.

But they also found time to tend a garden, can vegetables and raised goats, sheep and cows on their small farm.

And they kept horses too.

“I was very lucky to have had that kind of upbringing,” Collis says. “And you know my parents worked but they never missed a meeting or any event of ours. They were the greatest.”

Both have since passed on but would probably be proud to see how their daughter has carried on the family’s traditions.

Collis graduated from Rio Grande High School and went on to spend a year attending the Agricultural College at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

But she discovered college just wasn’t what she wanted right then, she was a hands-on kind of gal who wanted to work.

Her first job as a young teenager was at a chinchilla farm where her mother worked.

Collis cleaned stalls and did other chores around the place and liked it.

She always wanted to marry a cowboy, too, so she did that next, after finding a good one.

The couple traveled, worked on some great ranches and had a lot of fun together, she says.

That first husband would then end up working for the Dunigan family on the sprawling Baca Ranch near La Cueva in the Jemez Mountains.

The ranch is now owned by the public and called the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

“It was his idea to open the feed store,” she said of her start in business over 20 years ago.

So Collis put her love of horses and the related culture into her new operation in the tiny community of San Ysidro, an old Spanish settlement on the Jemez River in the heart of Indian country.

“I was ready to settle down then but he wanted to continue with the cowboy life,” she says. “So he moved on and I kept the store.”

That would later prove to be a blessing.

Collis remained single for several years concentrating on her work, expanding the operation to include a horse arena and holding pens.

Then one day the Baca Ranch hunt manager, a man named Dave Collis, stopped by the store to pick up some salt licks.

The two became friends, then dated and would later marry during a hastily arranged ceremony on Ted Turner’s Armendaris Ranch outside of Truth or Consequences.

Dave Collis was guiding a federal judge on a hunt to cull older bulls from the ranch’s bison herd.

“And we got married over that dead buffalo with the judge doing the honors,” she says.

Collis would later go on to work at the Baca Ranch herself as cook during the hunting season from August through November.

“I absolutely loved working up there,” she says of the ranch’s near pristine beauty.

And what did the wealthy clientele enjoy the most for dinner, you might ask?

“White beans and ham, corn bread and banana pudding for dessert,” she says.

Visitors to Collis’ store will find a big, potbellied stove blazing away while the musky scent of leather from hand-tooled saddles and other gear adds to the store’s stimulating aroma.

And with the holidays coming, visitors will find any number of interesting gift ideas amongst the many items stocked on the stores shelves.

Just don’t be alarmed to find a mean old grizzly bear eyeballing you while you’re browsing the aisles.

If You Go: From Santa Fe take I-25 south to Bernalillo and US 550. Follow to the village of San Ysidro and look for the store at the turnoff to Jemez Springs on NM 4.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Latest San Juan Project to Limit Silt, Improve Fishing.

San Juan Fisheries Biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Marc Wethington, helps direct the placement of boulders for another taxpayer funded fish habitat improvement project on the trophy trout stream.
The popular Braids fishing area of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam will remain off-limits to anglers until sometime in December as construction crews finish installing fish habitat improvements and sediment controls.

“It’ll be worth the wait,” says Marc Wethington, San Juan Fisheries Biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF). “We should see immediate improvements to the fishing up here once they’re done.”

The Braids area features many small islands interspersed by channels where the water is shallow and the trout have only a limited number of places to live.

Improvements to the habitat there should increase the area’s trout holding capacity and angling success, Wethington said.

This island will be filled to help direct more river flow into the Braids area above where numerous  pools are being created to provide more habitat for trout.
Flows on the river have also been dropped from normal levels of about 500 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) to 350-cfs to allow heavy equipment to work within the riverbed.

Some anglers may like the lower flow as it opens up some areas of the river to easier wading and fishing.

So far in the recent weeks crews have completed much of the work on a new catchment basin at the base of Rex Smith Wash which is designed to retain and redirect storm runoff to prevent silt and sediment from washing directly into the river.

The retention pond at Rex Smith Wash is designed to capture storm runoff so silt and sediment can settle and the outflow is directed away from the river.
In previous years heavy flows from the wash were responsible for silting up the popular Kiddie and Texas holes and negatively impacting fish habitat there and further downstream.

At one time runoff from the wash used to flow harmlessly out across what is now the Texas Hole parking lot which was constructed by State Parks to accommodate anglers who pay a $5 a day user’s fee.

But after flooding threatened vault toilets installed there State Parks elected to construct a dirt berm along the edge of the parking lot to channel the wash’s flow directly into the river.

Silt and sediment from Rex Smith Wash dumps directly into the Kiddie Hole where it destroys fish habitat and degrades fishing opportunities.  
The retention pond should now alleviate that problem and end a decade long effort to address it, Wethington said.

Work still to be done to the retention pond includes excavation of the hillside through which Rex Smith Wash flows so runoff can be better directed into the catchment basin, Wethington said.

Outflow from the retention pond will then be directed upstream into a heavily vegetated, marsh area where silt and sediment can settle and the water filter out before draining into the river, Wethington noted.

“The planning engineers on this project have extensive past experience in storm water control,” Wethington said of the pond. “I’m very confident in its design.”

But anglers will probably be more interested in another part of the project which includes remodeling the Braids area to provide more places for fish to live and anglers to stalk.

The foundation of a berm designed to redirect more of the river's flow into the Braids area will be backfilled and planted with native vegetation to appear more natural. 
A mid-stream island is being built up and further out into the river’s flow to redirect more water into the Braids area and increase the depth.

Some side channels will be shut off and filled in while several existing islands will also be consolidated to implement the plan.

Numerous deep holes will then be dug out of the bedrock to provide future homes for fish and willows and other natural vegetation will be planted to return the area to a natural appearance.

“In a few years you shouldn’t even be able to notice the work we’ve done,” Wethington said.

The san Juan River below Navajo Dam in northwestern New Mexico, fall 2011.
The project is the latest of several habitat improvement projects on the river designed to enhance conditions for trout and anglers alike while also serving as a hedge against the possibility of lower water flows in the future.

Riverbend Engineering of Albuquerque and Pagosa Springs, Colo., handled planning for the project while AUI of Albuquerque is providing construction services with assistance from Aquatic Consultants of Albuquerque, Wethington said.

Wethington, a New Mexico Highlands University graduate, has been NMDGF’s Fisheries Biologist on the San Juan River since he joined the wildlife agency back in 1995.

Marc Wethington, 47, of the NMDGF lives with his wife and four kids on the river at Navajo Dam.
His work on behalf of the river and the public is commendable, says his boss, Mike Sloan, Chief of the Fisheries Division for NMDGF.

State Game Commission Chairman Jim McClintic also provided much needed political support to see the project through, Sloan noted.

The $350,000 project cost was funded in part with $250,000 earmarked by former Governor Bill Richardson’s administration. Another $100,000 in federal sport fish restoration funds was also used to meet costs. Those funds are generated through excise taxes on fishing tackle, motor boat fuel and other sporting goods, Sloan said.

Crews will be working long shifts Monday through Thursdays and are expected to finish well before their deadline of January 7, Wethington said.

Anglers are prohibited from entering through the closed area of the river during construction and will be ejected from the park if warranted, Wethington said.

The Braids area between Texas Hole and the Upper Flats is off limits until construction ceases in December. 
Anglers are eagerly waiting to see the results of this latest San Juan River project, says Reel Life Fly Shop Manager, Toner Mitchell, who also serves as current president of the Truchas Chapter of the Trout Unlimited.

“This kind of a marquee project shows people we care about this resource,” he said. “And I think it’s going to make the Braids a whole lot more fun to fish.”

The San Juan River is New Mexico’s premier trout fishing destination bringing in an estimated $30 to $40 million annually to the state’s economy.

The river boasts an estimated 70,000 trout inhabiting the first four miles of river below Navajo Dam where catch and release and two flies only rules exist.

Thom Cole of Santa Fe shows off a typical rainbow trout anglers can catch on the San Juan River below Navajo Dam.
Angler survey results show the river sustains an average of 140 anglers a day who each catch just over a fish an hour averaging 16 inches in length. About 6 percent of those anglers report having caught a trout over 20 inches long, Wethington said.

If You Go: Take US 84/285 north to Espanola, continue on US 84 through Chama to the Dulce turnoff on US 64. Continue to St. Rd 539 and the turnoff to Navajo Dam. Follow across the dam and take St. Rd. 511 down to the river. An alternate route adds about 50 miles but shaves a half hour to an hour from the trip due to higher highway speeds. Take I-25 south to US 550 at Bernalillo and follow to Bloomfield. Then take US 64 East to NM 511 and follow to the river.

This story appeared in the  Santa Fe New Mexican   too.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Fish Sumner Lake While You Can This Winter

Despite reports to the contrary, New Mexico’s popular walleye fishery on the eastern plains, Sumner Lake, has not yet been drained and could actually turn out to be a hot spot for anglers this winter.

“We’ve got plenty of fish here and they’re all bunched up by the dam,” says Sumner Lake State Park Ranger, Lewis Hancock. “People should get out here and go after them.”

The lake’s size shrunk considerably this summer due to the drought and irrigation demands but it still retains a large body of water on its southern end by the dam face where depth is about 20 feet.

The spillway and river below the dam also hold large numbers of fish that have passed through the outlet along with irrigation water, Hancock says.

Storage at the lake stood at about 2,100 acre feet the last week of October which is about 5-percent of its normal maximum capacity of 43,768 acre feet, says Carolyn Donnelly, Water Operations Supervisor for the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Albuquerque.

Due to the low level of the lake competent anglers should find fishing from the bank very productive, Hancock says.

Tom Witmer, 50, of Gallup was lured to Sumner Lake in mid-October by reports it was being drained and anglers could keep anything they caught. He wanted a walleye but caught this fine carp instead.
The best time of day to fish is in the afternoon when a slight breeze is chopping the water and anywhere off the southern shoreline in the area of the dam.

Large and smallmouth bass are still biting and walleye will remain active throughout the winter, Hancock said. The river below the dam is typically stocked with trout during the winter months too, he said.

The stilling basin beneath the dam at Sumner Lake is deep and wide and is known to hold plenty of  fish from the lake and is regularly stocked with trout during the winter.
The state Department of Game and Fish issued a salvage order in early October allowing for the unlimited taking of sport fish at the lake after receiving reports that the lake was being drained.

The salvage order has since been rescinded, the lake’s level has stabilized and boats can take to the water again.

And with the irrigation season ending on Oct. 31 it should slowly begin refilling due to a steady supply of inflow, about 140-acre feet a day, from the Pecos River and other upstream water sources, Connelly says.

Charles Cook, 93, of Gallup found the turtles at Sumner Lake got to his chicken liver bait quicker than anything else which made for an entertaining afternoon nonetheless.
Some of that water will continue to be released downstream to keep the Pecos River wet for the benefit of the blunt nosed shiner, a fish native to the river and listed as a threatened species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, she said.

And some will also be lost to evaporation and other factors but the lake itself should accumulate enough water over the winter to sustain the fishery and bank some water for irrigation.

But next spring when downstream farmers with the Carlsbad Irrigation District (CID) call for their irrigation water the fishery will be once again threatened.

And with yet another dry winter expected due to an anticipated second year of a La Nina weather pattern it’s not expected that Mother Nature will be coming to the rescue like CID did last summer.

CID which owns the stored water in Santa Rosa and Sumner Lakes on the Pecos River had left a substantial amount of water in both reservoirs this past summer to avert draining the lakes and destroying the fisheries.

But the district might not be able to afford to be so generous at the beginning of next irrigation season, said Dudley Jones, CID Manager.

“We’re talking about people’s livelihoods and survival now,” he said.

Another player in the mix, the Fort Sumner Irrigation District, has so far declined to participate in any low flow operation agreement in which they could contribute to a water conservation effort, Connelly said.

The Fort Sumner Irrigation District (SFID) is entitled to the stream flows from the Pecos River up to 100-cubic-feet-per-second but has no storage rights at either reservoir.

Thus that irrigation district typically asks for its due from the river while CID stores anything above 100 cfs that the river carries especially during spring runoff and the monsoon season.

But a lack of any measurable snowpack runoff last winter left Santa Rosa Lake and its downstream partner, Sumner Lake, in sad shape to start off the irrigation year and a sparse summer monsoon season did little to offset that.

Santa Rosa is now only holding about 9,800 acre feet, says Curtis McFadden of the Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque. That’s just about 4-percent of the lake’s 267,400 acre-foot peak capacity.

The rings around the tower at Santa Rosa dam and lake shows just how far the water has dropped this year. 
The federal Army Corp of Engineers oversees operations at Santa Rosa Lake while the federal Bureau of Reclamation does so at Sumner Lake.

Thus it would appear that Santa Rosa lake could be in trouble along with Sumner Lake come spring if the winter proves to be as dry as it is being forecast.

Falling lake levels directly impact local economies and state park coffers.

Sumner Lake saw visitation drop from over 100,000 in 2000 to a low of 22,000 in 2004, a couple of years after the lake had been drained nearly dry by irrigators and the fishery was destroyed, according to the park’s most recent management plan.

A 1996 New Mexico State University Economic Impact study of State Parks determined that state parks bring in about $12 million annually to nearby communities.

This story appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican too.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Elwood Cabin - An Incredible High Country Escape

It sits high atop the San Juan Mountains overlooking a wide meadow of lush grass and wildflowers, a 100-year-old, one-room log cabin from which the world seems a long ways away.

And on a summer’s eve, seated on the front porch of Elwood Cabin, one might hear sheep bawling in the surrounding woods.

A wisp of smoke might be seen curling up from the sheepherder’s camp hidden deep in the trees while the setting sun lights up the rusty colored mountain towering over the horizon.

Then the rain begins and amid the soft warm light of the cabin’s propane lanterns, visitors play cards across the red-and-white checkered kitchen table cloth.

Outside the thunder and lightning is of little concern to those sleeping inside this sturdy little cabin and the following morning should bring bright sunshine and steaming grass.

Now while sipping coffee on the front stoop a visitor might hear the cry of a hawk as it circles overhead and perhaps, finally see the sheep as they cross the meadow, their shepherd patiently watching from astride his horse.

And roving among the ever-shifting flock would be two Great Pyrenees; big white shaggy dogs whose job is to deter predators like coyotes, lions and bears.

Scurrying about the edge of the herd, the more familiar border collies will be quickly and efficiently moving the sheep at the shepherd’s direction.

One can learn a lot about sheep at 11,000 feet with little or nothing else to do.

And that may ultimately be the real beauty of this place, its ability to reconnect visitors with nature and perhaps, what is the real world.

Sitting in a saddle along the southern spine of the Rocky Mountains, Elwood Cabin was built in 1911 as a line shack for crews servicing a transcontinental telephone line.

The phone line has long since been abandoned, but today visitors can reserve a night at the rustic, Forest Service cabin for a minimal fee and enjoy scenery that rivals anything to be found at pricier lodges.

The surrounding high altitude countryside provides a backdrop that encourages contemplation and exploration.

Nearby is the ghost town of Summitville where gold was first discovered in 1870 and then mined until the early 1990s when contaminants leaking off site flowed into the local watershed and the government forced it to shut down.

A publicly funded water treatment plant now dominates the site as part of a federal clean up and its presence is a stark reminder of the hazards of unregulated, industrial, environmental, activity.

Other activities in the area include an abundance of wonderful drives across well-maintained, gravel Forest Service roads, none of which require four-wheel drive.

One can traverse the mountain and drop down to Platoro Reservoir which feeds the Conejos River and provides excellent fishing over many miles of open water. And the nearby town of Platoro, during the summer months, provides plenty of services including gas, food and groceries.

But after consulting a map or two, the area spans both the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests, one might want to instead head the other way.

Maybe take a day trip down to Pogue Lake, an appealing, high country setting where a thriving population of cutthroat and brook trout will rise eagerly to a fly trailing behind a bubble.

Hiking trails also abound in the area but the thin, high mountain air might tax those unaccustomed to the altitude and its effects, so plan accordingly and acclimate first.

By day’s end, returning to Elwood Cabin may be the best part of visiting these mountaintops.

Upon opening the locked gate on the road to the cabin one might experience a sense of ownership that soon turns to communal pride of this public facility that anyone can enjoy.

Journals kept inside the cabin provide entertaining and informative accounts of visits by others who have stayed in the cabin and express similar views.

One wrote that her love for the cabin and its scenery was so intense that she got married and honeymooned there. She wrote of spending a day fixing up the cabin like it was her own.

Others wrote of making an arduous journey to the cabin during the winter months where an adjoining shed full of cut wood and the cabin’s little box stove made for a warm and comfortable stay.

But perhaps the most often mentioned items were those involving wildlife sightings ranging from deer, elk, bears, the resident marmot and, of course, the chipmunks, who make the cabin grounds their home.

Visitors should be aware that the road to the cabin is snowed in most of the year except for several months during the later summer and early fall.

There is no water provided so visitors must carry in what they’ll need, at least five gallons for a couple of people over the course of two or three days.

The cabin kitchen is well stocked with cooking and eating utensils and guests frequently leave behind other supplies like salt and pepper, kitchen matches and canned food.

All trash needs to be packed out and visitors should leave the cabin as they hope expect to find it.

The cabin features two bunk beds with folding frames and thin futons on the bottom that can be made into a small sofa. The top bunks are equipped with traditional mattresses which when placed on the bottom frame with the futon folded up against the back wall make for a cozy nest and good night’s sleep.

Those who would like to stay at Elwood Cabin can make reservations up to six months in advance on the website where one can learn more about it and other cabins available to the public.

To Go Box:

From Santa Fe one can reach the cabin from many different directions including by US 84/285 to Espanola and then take US 285 to Antonito and on through La Jara to the turn off to Capulin on St. Rd. 15. Follow to Forest Road (FR) 252 and Terrace Reservoir. Turn onto FR 250 and take for another 20 miles to FR 380 and follow for nine more miles to the cabin.

Those who prefer sticking to pavement can bypass the Capulin turnoff at La Jara and just continue on US 285 to Alamosa and follow US 285/160 through Monte Vista, Del Norte and then on to South Fork. Stay on 160 towards Wolf Creek Pass and take FR 380, also known as Park Creek Road, all the way up to the cabin. This same route can also be taken by those who want to travel through Chama and Pagosa Springs. The cabin can also be found by those coming over the mountains from the Conejos River and Platoro Reservoir by way of Antonito or Chama. Either way, it’s all good.

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