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 www.recreation.gov 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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grizzly Hackle Shortage Tied to Feather Fashion Trend

Toner Mitchell of The Reel Life Fly Shop in Santa Fe, NM says the  feathers are flying off his shelves to feed a fashion trend sweeping the nation.
It’s a fashion fad that many fly fishermen hope will fade fast.

Fly-tying feathers are being snatched up at an alarming rate by hairdressers who weave them into their clients hair for a flashy new look.

The growing fashion demand has since depleted a limited supply of special roosters bred and harvested to meet the fly fishing industry’s needs.

A grizzly hackle rooster. Photo by Bluedun at Backyard Chickens.com
 Now the feathers are hard to come by and expensive if found.

But Toner Mitchell, manager of the Reel Life Fly Shop in Santa Fe says he’s got a special order coming in and his longtime customers will get first dibs when the shipment arrives.

“I’m going to squirrel most of that away for my secret stash,” Mitchell says. “We’ll put the word out over the internet and let our regular customers know we have some behind the counter.”

And that’s what it has come down to as the solitary sport finds itself thrust into the fashion limelight.

The fad took off over the last year as celebrities, models and then the public embraced the fashion trend which employs the use of the long, slim, eye-catching feathers which are attached to their hair for a new style.

“There’s was a line of girls waiting to get them at a booth during Indian Market,” says Jesse Lee, a guide who also works the counter at the Reel Life. “She (the hairdresser) was getting something like $30 for a couple of feathers. What a racket!”

And of course the most popular fashion feather being used today is the one most widely used for western, dry-fly patterns, the grizzly hackle.

Reyna Robinson wears a single strand of grizzly hackle and a  blue feather in her hair.
Those who tie their own flies to avoid paying up to $2 a piece at a fly shop used to be able to pick up a “100-pack” of Whiting’s grizzly hackle feathers for about $20.

And inside that package they would have found about a dozen long, slender, uniformly sized feathers which could produce about a hundred, dry, flies.

Dry flies are typically used by trout anglers to catch fish feeding on bugs found on the surface of rivers, lakes and streams. They are tied in any number of patterns to imitate different insects with the most popular for trout being the Adams dry fly.

And the Adams is heavily dependent on use of grizzly hackle in its production.

Now those same long, slender, 10- to 12–inch feathers that once might have been used exclusively to produce this very effective dry fly are being quickly and easily clipped into people’s hair and fetching up to ten bucks a piece.

These feather extensions --as they are called -- can last for months if cared for properly and produce a unique fashion statement that is very popular among the younger crowd, says Albuquerque hairdresser Reyna Robinson of Foxy’s on 14th Street in the North Valley.

“It’s different and unique” she says.
Noelle Dorrance, 22, of Albuquerque got some feathers attached to her hair during a recent visit to Foxy's salon on 14th Street in Albuquerque's North Valley.
And while fly shop managers like Mitchell might be inclined to put aside some of his supply of grizzly hackle for his regular customers, others in the business are more than willing to feed the fad.

“I’m happy to sell those feathers to anyone who walks through the door to buy them,” says Mark Sawyer, Manager of the Los Pinos Fly Shop in Albuquerque. “We are a retail store after all.”

And while business in the sale of grizzly hackle necks, saddles and packages of individual feathers was great for a while there the supply has since dried up, Sawyer says.

“I don’t think you can find a saddle anywhere in the state” he says. “They’re pretty hard to come by.”

The problem is the hackle industry only breeds so many of the highly specialized birds each year to supply the fly tying industry and when they’re gone, the feathers are too.

Now it remains to be seen how the industry responds to the sudden popularity of its products or if the fashion trend fades.

Mitchell said he expects to see an increase in the price of hackle and dry flies as well as a run on other fly tying materials as hairdressers experiment with other types of feathers due to the short supply grizzly hackle.

Various feathers typically found on a fly tiers bench are now part of a hairdressers inventory. 
The country’s largest supplier of hackle, Whiting Farms of Delta, Co declined to respond to emailed questions about the issue and what, if any, plans were in the works for addressing their longtime customers’ needs.

Mitchell says Whiting’s sales reps have been pushing “fashion packs” that include other types of feathers they hope hairdressers will take to.

In the meantime there’s a brisk business for the highly prized grizzly hackle feathers on the web at sites such as eBay.

“I’ll admit I’ve thought about doing that too,” Mitchell says. “But I think I’ll just stick to the high road and keep my regular customers supplied.”

Mitchell says there has been one thing he’s liked about the feather extensions fashion trend.

“I’ve never seen this many good-looking, young women wander into my fly shop before” he says. “And that’s been kinda nice.”

Monday, September 05, 2011

Richard "Dick" Moffatt - A Life Well Lived

They were a couple of Vietnam vets who returned home tormented by demons from the war.

And they paid the greatest honor an old soldier like my Dad could receive when they told the audience at his memorial service that he had literally saved their lives.

But it wasn’t on the battlefield, it was here, back home in Las Cruces, where while working as a mental health counselor that my Dad was able to help them confront and control their demons.

One vet went so far as to say his anger was so deep that my Dad’s counseling not only saved his life, but that of his family also.

They were just a couple of “Dick’s Desperados,” a support group of military vets my Dad had formed in the Mesilla Valley to help each other deal with their war experiences.

Thus it was a fitting gesture that a military honor guard and his fellow soldiers were at the memorial to salute him for the selfless service that he had given his country and community.

Widow, Eleanor Moffatt, was presented a U.S. flag by two U.S. Army soldiers during Richard Moffatt's Memorial Service in Las Cruces on Aug. 27, 2011.
Richard “Dick” Moffatt died on August 3, 2011, after 83 years of rich and rewarding life during which he celebrated over 60 years of marriage, raised four good sons and found his calling in a career that allowed him to care as much as this big-hearted man could.

I was lucky to have spent several days at his bedside while he was hospitalized fighting the cancer that eventually claimed his life and discovered something only a dying man might tell his son.

“You are one of my greatest accomplishments,” he said with a wink of his eye and squeeze of his hand.

I figured he was speaking collectively, as he frequently did when talking about his four sons, making sure to never put one above the other.

But it was later that I realized just how proud he was of me, when after the memorial service one of the vets remarked about how much he spoke of his son, the journalist, and then asked, which one of us was he?

Now in the wake of his death, I see the memories of our life together, like little video clips, and realize how much he helped to shape and form me into the man I am today.

There was the trip as a teenager, by bus, from our hometown of Malden, just outside of Boston, all the way up to Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the tallest mountain on the East Coast and notorious for its nasty weather.

Dick Moffatt and his son, Karl, on a trip to Mount Washington in New Hampshire  in the early 1970s.
We made the long climb to Tuckerman’s Ravine where I sat at the base camp with only a chipmunk for company crying out for my Dad who was somewhere out on the mountain enveloped in the low hanging clouds.

Like waves, the clouds washed in and then receded, exposing for a moment the grey, misty, mountainside.

And then I heard it, a faint “Hallo” echoing in the gloom. He had made it to the top.

It was he who stoked my love for the outdoors, something that is my primary focus these days as I photograph and write about New Mexico and the West.

I got to return the favor one day when my Dad asked me to teach him how to fly fish.

There was a beautiful, little, cutthroat trout stream off the High Road to Taos that I knew of where I took him one fine day.

There I watched as Dad crept into the thick streamside brush and used a bow and arrow cast to shoot a caddis fly into a swirling pocket of water.

Then I heard him laugh as he hooked a trout.

Beaming like a kid he extended his hand to show me a beautiful, little, cutthroat, ablaze with color.

Dad would later join the local fly fishing club but soon dropped out, having failed to find the camaraderie he was seeking and lamenting the snobby, elitist, attitude of some members.

I had tried to warn him about fly fishing, that it was a solitary sport and one in which some fishing buddies didn’t necessarily make for good friends.

Dick Moffatt's fly fishing gear will see action again someday.
Dad’s heart lay more with the common man, stemming perhaps from his small-town upbringing in the hill country of Pennsylvania where at the age of 18, having just graduated from Leachburg High, he enlisted in the Army.

He was trained to be a MP, a military police officer, and was shipped overseas to serve with the occupation forces in Japan.

He spent weeks traveling the ocean on an aging troop carrier and that’s where he learned to play cards, a talent he unveiled to two of his unknowing sons one evening at the kitchen table.

He took all of our spare change in a humiliating defeat and then returned it all the next morning.

That was just the kind of guy he was.

The war era colored my Dad’s worldview and his military service proved to be a defining experience in his life.

PFC Moffatt, left, and an unidentified Army buddy, Japan 1947.
I can only wonder how much of that played a role in my own decision to enlist in the Army and serve overseas.

My Dad’s pride in that showed through later when he made a contribution to the construction of a veteran’s memorial in Las Cruces in both our names; that way two bricks, one each inscribed with our name, unit and dates of service were laid out next to each other in the pavilion.

My Dad was a sensitive man with a keen, artist’s eye.

I’m blessed to have a great big oil painting of his, depicting a thunderstorm over the western plains, hanging upon my bedroom wall.

But it was his love of photography that really stuck with me.

His family photographs are cherished records of our upbringing and a historical record that I hope will be preserved and shared with future generations.

My Dad also instilled in all of us a love of reading as he exposed us to good books, magazines and newspapers during our upbringing.

Now I can’t sleep at night unless I’ve done my reading.

He taught us all a work ethic born of the Depression era and most of our family get-togethers over the years have revolved around one form of a work party or another, whether it be painting the house, building a shed or doing some spring cleaning around his place.

Our world will be a lonelier place without him, for he was the glue that held us together.

A Moffatt family get together at the wedding of Karl and Wren Propp in  Jemez Springs, NM,  September, 2007.
He was a prolific writer, producing a very popular, weekly, “Friday Gram” for everyone on his email list and before that, yearly newsletters with notes from his trips and other goings on in his life.

They made for good reading and provided a fine historical record of our family life.

He even wrote his own obituary which can be read in the Las Cruces Sun-News at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/lcsun-news/obituary.aspx?n=richart-moffatt&pid=153266540 or the Pittsburgh Tribune at http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/obituaries/?mode=view&obit_id=214824 .

But most of all he managed to finish 18 chapters of his own book, a semi-autobiographical, wartime, account that I still haven’t summoned the courage to begin reading.

I felt that writer’s spirit when my mother, recovering from cataract surgery, had called for my help in looking through my Dad’s papers before the memorial service. We were looking for a journal of notes to his heirs and a list he had written of things he would miss when he was gone.

Like maybe buttermilk with a dash of ground black pepper, I wondered as I sat at his desk.

It was there that I felt his spirit envelope me like one of the many hugs he was so fond of giving.

And I feel that spirit in the kitchen too.

You see, my Dad was a line cook in college, at Kent State University in Ohio where he met my mother, a waitress, at the K-Shop Diner.

A Dick Moffatt self-portrait of he and his beloved wife, El.
And while we were growing up it seemed there was no meal my Dad loved to make better than breakfast.

I can remember him frying up eggs in a cast iron skillet, ladling hot bacon grease over a couple of sunnyside up eggs and watching as the clear, runny, whites bubbled up and cooked through.

Or flipping omelets, their underside a beautiful, crisp, brown with melted Velveeta cheese oozing out of the sides.

It’s my favorite meal now too.

He was a fun loving guy, a devilish flirt and possessed a great sense of humor -- traits I’ve tried to emulate with only limited success.

Dick Moffatt and son, Karl, share a laugh on a rare, snowy, Christmas Day at the family home near Dona Ana, New Mexico.
I remember when we were kids that he liked nothing better than to perch us atop his spinning barber’s stool and shave our heads until only a Mohawk remained.

Then he’d chuckle as he made us sweep up our shorn hair and called out, “next!”
The author at two sporting a Dick Moffatt Mohawk.
Once he took us all to a baseball game at Fenway Park, a long, rigorous, trip into Boston in those days, requiring numerous bus, trolley and subway transfers.

To avoid losing any of us he’d rope us all together, running the strand through our belt loops and towing us along, much to the amusement of the other riders.

At least that’s how I remember it.

And there are so many other memories that have come flooding back since he passed.

And questions that will now go unanswered.

This was my first birthday without a card from him in the mailbox and I knew then that he was really gone.

But in the end, there he was flirting with the nurses, demanding some real food and talking about how we’d get together again once he beat this thing.

We had planned on making it to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta this year.

And somehow I think we will, Dad.

Now that he’s gone, the thing I come away with most from having known this wonderful man is that he always strived to keep himself active, engaged and informed, whether it was through his weekly coffee klatch, meeting with his vets or doing some kind of research on the Web.

And my Dad always tried to be a good, kind, compassionate man, one who put his life to good use and in which he helped his fellow man.

And if his memorial service was any indication and my memory serves me right, he succeeded in doing just that.

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