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Fire and Snow – Colorado, early September 2020

September 9, 2020

When there were still mushrooms. Nancy collecting boletes on Rabbit Ears Pass summit. August 2010 – our 35 anniversary celebration, ten years ago

Mushrooming in Colorado and Finland

Every late summer about this time – late August and early September – until recently, I’ve participated in what amounts to a personal annual ritual – mushroom hunting in the Colorado mountains. There are a number of favorite places but by far my “favorite” favorite is on Shrine Pass. From the visitor center near the summit of Vail Pass there is a dirty road that heads west onto Shrine Pass. The road runs west behind Vail Mountain and the ski resort there and empties into Red Cliff just east of Highway 24.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been there, mostly with Nancy, sometimes alone, once with a colleague from University of Denver – Korbel. Almost always we’ve come away with a nice bundle of fresh mushrooms – usually boletes, an occasional steinpilz and on a few occasions, chanterelles. We’d clean them out the spot and as soon as returning home to Denver process them immediately to minimize the danger of worms. Some we’d eat that evening.

A hobby first learned in Finland in the late 1980s for the few blissful hours up there in the mountains, my mind almost always returns to Finland, to fall mushroom forays into the woods of the northern areas of Vantaa and beyond and to the family outings that brought so much pleasure to us all. It’s been a full thirty years since the family returned from living there. I’m not a mushroom “expert” and an not interested in becoming one. Like Nancy, I know a number of common species that I gather, avoiding those I don’t know. Used to collect two bags, the edibles and one I simply called “Ronald Reagan’s bag.” Occasionally we’d take an unknown variety to the Denver Botanical Gardens to i.d. but not that often.

On occasion I’ve gone out with someone who knows far more than I do and have enjoyed learning from them.

And then mushrooming in the Rockies changed.

The years that we’d be up in the mountains alone were over. More and more people were mushrooming, especially eastern Europeans – Poles and Russians in particular in these parts. The mushroom hogs. They’ve ruined the fun of it. For some of them mushrooming was less of casual and enjoyable activity and a source of profit. They do so with a vengeance. Some people – I’m not one of them – keep their favorite mushrooming sites as something close to a state secret, their own “private property” so to speak. We noticed that some of our favorite spots had been picked clean, or nearly so, by the time we got to them. The mushroom hogs had beat us to it. One vivid memory comes to mind. Nancy and I were on Shrine Pass having a fine time when two other people, two German women who worked at Vail joined us. They were quite excited but also rather impatient. I had seen several patches of mushrooms, some of which I always leave for others, myself not wanting to be a “mushroom hog.”

Seeing that the two Germans were having a bad time of it – and had actually walked by several fruitful sites – I made the mistake of suggesting that they go in a certain direction. Bingo, they’d found some, edibles, golden bolettes, small, tasty. After that they started to follow me through the woods, thinking that I knew something they didn’t (which frankly wasn’t the case). When I realized that is what they were doing, I asked them to join me which they did. I’d see a bunch, point them out and the  two would rush over, at first somewhat embarrassed but after a while shamelessly making sure they’d beat me to the spot. There was something so pathetic about them and I pictured them – perhaps unfairly – waiting for a friend or relative to die so they could walk away with the dying person’s prize possessions even before his death. A scene from “Zorba The Greek” where that happened came to mind.

The two German “mushroom hogs” on Shrine Pass were just a hint of what was to come as more and more people went mushrooming there and elsewhere, taking a great deal of the pleasure out of the passtime.

Then the long term drought, that Colorado continues to experience began to set in. This summer, on a hike, Nancy found one mushroom. One. It was the first we’d collected in four or five years.

Many people do not realize that technically speaking much of the state – with an annual rainfall from 15.9 to about 17″, and in recent years less, is a semi-arid region. Desert areas are those getting less than 10″ annually; semi-arid regions – that is to say near desert areas – get less than 20″. Colorado fits comfortably into that category. The state has been in the midst of long-term drought form 21 years; in the early part of this drought, the mountains did not seem to suffer as badly as the eastern plains, but eventually they felt the brunt of it too. Yet people continue to move into Colorado from all over the country in large numbers. The population on the Front Range continues to surge. As the sayng goes… this is unsustainable.

The forest fires

With the drought the mushrooms – almost literally – disappeared, but if the mushrooms disappeared, something new took their place: nasty and aggressive forest fires, like the ones we are experiencing right now, some of the largest and nastiest forest fires in the state’s history.

This past Saturday, September 6, ash particles from the Cameron Peak fire some 75 -80 miles away, were falling on the tomato plants in the garden. In the late afternoon, the temperature had climbed to 101, a record for early September here. Forest fires have been raging in the state for weeks. One closed down the interstate – I-70 – in Glenwood Canyon. A second a bit northeast of Grand Junction, the Pine Gulch Fire, has turned out to be the largest forest fire in Colorado history having burned close to 140,000 acres before being mostly contained. The Cameron Peak fire, a little north and west of Ft. Collins near Red Feather Lakes, was closing in on the Pine Gulch fire for total damage. As of two days ago (September 7,) it had burned some 107,000 acres and was still going strong. Before the snows started falling there it was only 4% contained. Nearby Rocky Mountain National Park has been closed.

I stayed indoors most of the time until the snow started falling yesterday to help clear the air. And then a freak early September snow storm, with temperatures dropping from 101 on Saturday to the high 20s in Denver last night, more than 70 degrees in a few days. In Fort Collins, the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University measured 0.3 inches of snow Tuesday morning, tweeting “the earliest accumulating snow ever observed in over 130 years of records!”

And here we haven’t even talked about the Coronavirus…

Cameron Peaks fire from Trail Rridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ric Baty posted on Facebook September, 6, 2020. Looks like an atomic bomb was dropped.

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