Clusters of vibrant red berries contrasted boldly with yellowing leaves below a skeletal ceiling of spruce branches. Flaking orange bark hugged the trunks of dead trees poking up among the shrubs adding vertical patterning to the sprawling sea of color. Then a puffy white cloud passed in front of the sun providing soft, even lighting… click.
Aaah, autumn color was spreading throughout the mountains. I was hiking up the northern flank of Fisher Mountain, south of Creede, with the intent of climbing to the top of the peak. Pockets of aspen had already turned gold on the mountainsides above Roaring Fork Creek, but there was still much to change.
I spent a solid half hour photographing red-berried elder bushes below the beetle-killed spruce trees. The loss of needles allowed more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which led to an explosion of shrubby growth. A textbook example of succession.
I packed up my camera and tripod and started back up the trail. It was difficult going, not because of steepness or trees across the trail, but because I wanted to keep stopping and take more pictures. But I persevered and continued up the trail, as it was my intent to reach the top of Fisher Mountain.
After a while, the trail broke out of the forest to the edge of a boulder field. The jumble of large rocks wound uphill through the forest like a river churning through a canyon. And more yellow-leaved, berry-heavy, elders poked up among the grey chaos. I couldn’t resist my addictive impulses and the camera gear came out of my pack.
I wandered among the lichen-painted boulders photographing the irresistible beauty. First there were the shots of shrubs in the foreground with boulders streaming in the back. Then there were closer shots of sharp yellow leaves and red berries with blurred green lichen blotches on grey rock behind. Finally, there were the close-ups. A cluster of berries filled the frame while a single yellow-green leaf angled through one corner.
Just to the side of the boulder field, red and orange whortleberry hugged the ground. Old, grey rotting logs parted the low-growing shrubs creating lines through the textured color. I moved the tripod, splayed out the legs to get closer, focused, composed, focused again… click… splat. A raindrop hit my camera.
It was then that I realized another hour had passed. At least another hour. I pulled my raincoat out and put my camera into my backpack. BB-sized hail fell from the sky filling the quiet with steady pitter-patter as I ate an energy bar and sipped on water. The shower didn’t last long and neither did my lunch. Soon I was again hiking uphill, but it didn’t last long.
The boulder field topped out overlooking a lush wetland. The sun broke out from behind a cloud side-lighting the expanse of sedges and making them glow gold below a steep cliff face cast in shadow. At the far edge of the wetland, three grey dead spruce with smaller green spruce on either side stood on a mound. This was not the type of scene one acknowledges with a nod and moves on. The camera was out in a flash and another 10 minute delay to reaching my destination.
I walked across the last of the boulders and began the grind up a steep alpine meadow to catch the trail on top of the ridge above me. I didn’t walk far before I reached a shelf, a temporary respite in the steep slope, with an acre of yellow willows stretching toward the continuation of the climb. Two, perfect green Christmas tree spruce poked out of the willows and a band of dark red tundra angled above. Another pause.
Finally, I made it to the alpine ridge and trail, hiked up to “top” and saw the peak of Fisher Mountain a half mile away. I noticed the long shadow cast by a rock cairn, turned, and headed back down without regret. Savoring the journey was more important than reaching the destination.
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.