John and I celebrated his birthday with a hike to Bierstadt and Bear Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. We hadn’t been all the way to the Park for a couple years and were shocked at the advance of pine beetle kill into the Park itself. In some places, the damage looked about 50%, with some whole patches standing dead across the slopes.
The Park now runs shuttles to popular areas in an attempt to cut down on traffic, a terrific idea, so we left our car at the park-n-ride near Moraine Park to catch the shuttle and got off again at the Bierstadt Lake trailhead to stay out of the crowds heading toward Bear Lake. A sign inside the shuttle warned us to watch for falling trees, presumably so we could stay out of their way. With so much pine beetle damage, falling trees must be a more common danger than it used to be, but we wondered how much time we’d have to clear a path once a tree started to fall.
Bierstadt’s a wonderful trail, only 1.3 miles of moderate slope, mainly switchbacks across the side of the mountain. The view of the peaks is tremendous, a panorama of sights from sagebrush to aspen to wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, fireweed, harebells, arnica, sunflowers, and mountain asters.
Once at the lake, we watched a duck diving for food and bobbing on the gentle waves that come with the mountain breezes. Like many small mountain lakes, Bierstadt feels enclosed, like a small bowl of water set down in the middle of jutting peaks. Walking partway around the lake, we found deer tracks on the sandy part of the shore near a sculpture of branches tipied together.
Bierstadt gets overlooked because of its proximity to Bear Lake, but we were glad for the solitude. How infrequently we make moments to sit and rest amidst the mad pace of our comings and goings. But in nature we remember how the earth surrounds us, even when it’s covered in asphalt and concrete.
From Bierstadt, we had to decide whether to hike back down the switchback trail that we’d ascended or hike over to Bear Lake through the trees, a bit uphill and then down to the lake itself. We knew that the closer we got to Bear Lake, the more people we would see, but we decided to go that way for a change of scenery.
Next time, I think we’ll hike back down the Bierstadt Trail, opting for more quiet and mountain vistas than tourists and trees. I hadn’t been on that section of trail for twenty years and I was disturbed at the graffiti alley of names carved into aspens as we neared Bear Lake. Perhaps the loss of so many trees inspires some people to carve their name into one, but to me the signatures seem too proprietary, a shattering of the tree’s inherent beauty in the ecosystem.
Back at our lodge that night, we asked the innkeeper if they sprayed their trees for pine beetle kill. Yes, for the twenty years she’s been there, they’ve always sprayed. She shrugged her shoulders at our lamenting the loss of trees in the Park. “It’s just nature, “ she said, and we let it go at that. We are certain that human fossil fuel consumption is warming the planet more quickly than mere natural causes could affect but we didn’t want to enter that conversation with our host. Not after such a beautiful day, a wonderful dinner at the Rock Inn, and the gift of cool mountain air.
But as we drove home, we noted the dead pines along the highway and said to each other, “It’s just nature.” That will be our new mantra, our shorthand way of noting the human refusal to admit our trespasses and the knowledge that nature will react in kind.