At first blush, Madison County and the Rocky Mountains might not seem to have much in common. But I was surprised on my first visit to the Rockies last week by how many species central Indiana and Colorado share.
My wife, son, two daughters and I spent four days in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. Our timing was perfect to witness the transition from winter to spring.
Drifts of snow up to 15 feet high still stood along Trail Ridge Road, which climbs 12,000 feet above sea level. The snow was melting, sending trickles down the slopes and tumbling into great churning whitewater that nourishes plateaus where elk graze.
Whereas we needed heavy coats on the trails near the alpine peaks, 4,000 feet down near the eastern entrance to the park, T-shirts and shorts kept us warm at midday.
At this elevation, the robin was a ubiquitous sign of spring weather, just as it is in Indiana. The melodies of sparrows, finches and swallows pierced the quiet. I watched for a half-hour one morning as hummingbirds darted about a small grove of pines.
We also saw rabbits and ground squirrels that looked exactly like those in Indiana, and Canada geese passed in pairs low overhead.
As we were hiking in the park, my younger daughter, Alix, encountered a young mule deer browsing among the trees. To our untrained eyes, it looked just like the white-tailed deer here at home.
We were thrilled by our first sighting of elk and pulled off the park entrance road to watch them. That night, I glanced out our motel window to see elk on the golf course next door. They grazed on the fairways and pranced on the greens under the spray of sprinklers. I wondered how many new “hazards” golfers would encounter on the course the next day.
I don’t believe 18th- and 19th-century pioneers in Indiana encountered elk, big-horn sheep (we spied some on a mountainside in Rocky Mountain National Park) or moose (we saw one grazing in a meadow), but I’m fairly sure they ran into pumas and black bear.
Black bear and mountain lions still live in the Rockies, and bear encounters in Rocky Mountain National Park are not unusual. Mountain lion sightings are rare. These stealthy cats can range more than 100 miles and remain wary of humans.
There is one last animal I want to tell you about: the humble marmot. This creature resembles a small groundhog and can be found many places in the Rockies. It thrives in the treeless alpine tundra. At 11,000 feet above sea level, a marmot, seemingly oblivious to our presence, waddled up to the trail and licked minerals from rocks at our feet.
We used to shoot groundhogs on the farm where I grew up in northern Indiana to prevent them from eating our crops and making axle-breaking holes in our hay fields. Three decades later, a groundhog-like creature in another environment was revealed as a hearty and unique species, worthy of our fascination and of preservation.
Editor Scott Underwood’s column appears Mondays. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @THBeditor. Contact him at email@example.com and 640-4845.