Spectacular scenes from the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Seeing we’re in mid-summer, the mountain stoke is high. Summer gives us unique access to the high country, and it’s a busy and amazing time to be up there.

This got me to thinking about my favorite mountain range, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

This will be one of those posts with a lot of pictures and not a lot of words. So here goes, my favorite images from the San Juans, starting from this moody image in the Weminuche…

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Not far from there, but about 3,500 feet higher, there’s this…

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

On the eastern edge of the range, snow gives the peaks a whole new appearance…

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

And in the fall, you can see the mountains getting ready to make the transition to winter…

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

Skylines like these speak to how wild these mountains really are…

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

…and how wild the weather can get.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Needless to say, I’ve never had a bad time in the San Juans…

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Bob Doucette

Micro-adventures: A day trip to Natural Falls State Park, Oklahoma

Not quite the prairie scenery people imagine when they think of Oklahoma.

Not quite the prairie scenery people imagine when they think of Oklahoma.

I’m still on this kick about finding local outdoor fixes. Even though the summer heat is kicking into high gear, that’s not a good reason to be stuck inside.

The last of these posts had me looking at what outdoor fun could be had inside the city limits of my hometown. Quite a bit, as I discovered.

Next up, making a drive farther east to see what many consider Oklahoma’s most scenic state park.

Natural Falls State Park is near the town of Colcord, and just west of the Arkansas state line. Out here, you’re flirting with the topography of the Ozarks while also getting into thick woodlands.

The park isn’t very big, certainly nothing like you would see of the great western national parks. It’s just 120 acres, and contains about 4.5 miles of trails.

Natural Falls. It reminds me of a cenote in southern Mexico.

Natural Falls. It reminds me of a cenote in southern Mexico.

What it lacks in size it makes up for in its star attraction. The park is named after a 77-foot waterfall that drains into a pool that is usually fairly clear, but wasn’t on a recent visit. Still, the scene itself reminded me of the tropical cenotes of southern Mexico: A deep, circular stone amphitheater, lined with trees and lush greenery, all surrounding the tall-but-slender falls.

Concrete footpaths lead you to an observation deck overlooking the top of the falls and also take you down to the base. Park benches allow for a place to rest and absorb the view.

A stretch of trail at the park. The trails are anything from flat and easy to steep and rocky.

A stretch of trail at the park. The trails are anything from flat and easy to steep and rocky.

I was going to be a little disappointed if all the trails were paved, but they’re not. The rest of the trail system is all singletrack dirt — some easy hiking, some quite steep, with sections that are somewhat rocky. It’s not a big deal to me, but for your average day trip visitor, some of the trails might be challenging. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

The falls are awesome, but really, the entire park is extremely scenic. The falls and the stream that they feed are tucked into a small canyon, and every bit of bare earth is covered in greenery. You’ve got the typical mix of oaks that you expect in this part of the country, but also lodgepole pines that tower 60 or more feet and a good mix of shrubs and ferns everywhere else. If you’re into nature and wildlife, you’re going to enjoy this place quite a bit.

Some scenes from the trails…

The creek that runs through the canyon.

The creek that runs through the canyon.

Moss-covered tree trunks.

Moss-covered tree trunks.

Another stretch of creek, with clearer water.

Another stretch of creek, with clearer water.

A look up to the forest canopy, anchored by this huge pine.

A look up to the forest canopy, anchored by this huge pine.

Pine bark details. They look like scales of a huge reptile.

Pine bark textures. They look like scales of a huge reptile.

Green. Green everywhere.

Green. Green everywhere.

The topography of the park also makes it different from the woodlands that are more common here. It is its own ecosystem, and a fragile one at that. For that reason, park officials do not allow swimming in the ponds inside the canyon.

The park can accommodate campers on prepared tent and RV sites. There are 44 sites for RVs (seven of which have full hookups) and 17 for tent campers. There are showers available, and areas where you can play volleyball and basketball. Fishing is also on site, as is a nine-hole disc golf course and a playground.

The great thing about a day trip here is you can pack in a lot of outdoor fun without the commitment of a backpacking trip or a long drive. On that count, Natural Falls State Park scores high. Be sure to check it out.

Getting there: From Tulsa, take U.S. 412 east toward Colcord. The drive is about 90 minutes. Using that same highway, it’s anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour west of Arkansas cities such as Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and Bentonville.

Extras: After a good day of hiking, there are plenty of places to eat in Siloam Springs (Tex-Mex, home-style, steaks), and there is a restaurant at the Cherokee-run casino in West Siloam Springs.

Fun fact: Ever seen the movie “Where the Red Fern Grows”? It was filmed here.

Bob Doucette

Can you be a fast runner and also be strong?

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

I saw an article in Outside Magazine recently that attracted a bit of ire from readers. In it, the writer checks out the case of American endurance athlete Ryan Hall, and how being so good at long-distance running made him, physically speaking, weak.

Hall has retired from a prolific and successful career as an elite runner, and has since taken up weight training to go alongside a less intense regimen of running. Since his retirement, he’s packed on some muscle and become noticeably stronger. The conclusion: Elite distance runners are fast on the course, but that speed comes at a cost. Namely, strength.

This is where a bunch of online readers collectively lost their minds. They attacked the article, the writer and the publication. You can read it here.

But what they failed to objectively conclude was that the premise is the article was right.

If you’ve read this blog much, you might be surprised to hear me say that. I’m a committed runner, regularly racing in 15k, half marathon and 25k events. Mostly, I run for fun. How can I dare to say that runners are weak?

Let’s step back a moment. There are some things we have to square away before I can defend the article in question, and my agreement with it.

We need to define “strength.” From the outset, let me say that it takes a mentally strong person to run big distances, and to run those distances fast. Running long distance at higher speeds is grueling. Pain is constant. The body is telling you to stop. You can’t be a sub-1:30 half marathoner or a 3-hour marathoner and not be mentally and emotionally tough, not to mention well-conditioned.

But it’s important to distinguish between being “well-conditioned,” “mentally strong,” and “emotionally strong” and what qualifies as “strength.”

Strength is quantifiable. You can objectively measure it. The easiest way to do that can be found in how much mass you can move. Can you pick that thing up off the floor? How much weight can you lift above your head? These types of questions can be answered — and usually are — in different weight lifting moves. Someone who can deadlift 500 pounds is stronger than someone who can’t. It’s that simple.

At the elite level of long-distance running (or even at distances like the 5k), efficiency is key. The heart and lungs are going to be taxed at the highest levels, so any mass (muscle or otherwise) that is not essential to the goal is either going to slow you down or be pared off your frame. There are muscley people who can do a 5K 21 minutes, but you won’t see anyone who looks jacked running 15-minute 5ks or 80-minute half marathons. The extra muscle competes too much with the rest of the body when the pace approaches that of runners like Hall, or Meb Keflezighi, or even college scholarship athletes involved in endurance sports.

On the other end, it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to see high-level distance runners who can squat or deadlift twice their body weight. The training that goes into running really fast, or really far, or both forces the body to adapt, and when it comes to running, the sacrifice comes at the cost of muscle, and ultimately, strength.

This is even true of fast-but-not-elite runners. The 1:30 half-marathoners, or the 3:30 marathoners, for example. Or most people who run ultras on a regular basis, regardless of pace. Similarly, you won’t find any power lifters running 24-minute 5ks or any bodybuilders breaking four hours in a marathon. They might be strong, but they won’t be fast or be able to go very far.

(I might add for beginning runners and exercisers, you can gain strength and speed for awhile, but those goals will eventually collide.)

I’d look at my own history here. When I run less, I gain strength. When the miles pile up, I lean up. But I also lose strength. Right now, I weigh about 190 pounds. During marathon training, I dipped to 172. I can deadlift probably 80 more pounds now than I could then. But I doubt very seriously I could come within an hour of the time I hit for those 26.2 miles, and my current 5k is a couple of minutes off my PR. (As a matter of disclosure, I have tried to be both, but the results have been predictable: At my best, I’m moderately strong and not very fast.)

What I’d conclude is this: When you see articles like the one mentioned above, don’t freak out. Don’t get offended by a headline that tells you endurance running will make you “weak.” Understand that strength is objectively quantifiable, and being really fast while also being really strong are competing goals that, for most people, won’t happen simultaneously. Go ahead and train hard for the goal you want, and embrace your own “strength.”

Bob Doucette

For the love of dawn

dawn1

I’m not a morning person. Definitely not an early riser. I never have been, and having a night shift job only reinforces that.

But I am a big fan of the dawn.

How it looks, how it feels, what it figuratively represents — yes to all of that.

I joke with people that I get up early for only a couple of things — to run a race or to climb a mountain. Necessity dictates early starts for both, as most road and trail races begin in the morning, and the preparations for race day require you to set an alarm, get fed, and be ready to toe the start line.

It’s a similar deal with the mountains. Most mountain treks start with an early morning drive to a trailhead, a long slog up the slopes, and toward the summit, hard steps or tricky climbing that take time — time that is bought by those early starts. You start early to avoid storms that come with the heat of the day, and to avoid heading down a peak in darkness when you’re beat-up and weary.

dawn2

The mountains are where I’ve seen my most memorable sunrises, and the juxtaposition of the beauty of mountain terrain with the danger and wildness that lies therein makes daybreak in the high country resonate that much deeper.

I’ve been told ultramarathoners who run 100-mile races struggle the hardest in the dark (hundred-milers require runners to run through the night), but usually pick up their strength once the glow of dawn peeks over the horizon. I’ve never run a race like that, but I’ve done the zero-dark-thirty alpine start in the mountains. The slog in the blackness of night, with only a headlamp giving you a ghostly view of the next few feet in front of you, can sap your spirit.

But then the blue-purple glow of fading night spreads to the east, giving way to red, orange, and yellow, and finally it appears — the ever-faithful sun, transforming the haunted domain of darkness into something spectacular, glowing with gold light and long shadows as our nearest star reclaims the land. Without fail, I gain strength and encouragement from that.

We can usually predict when the sun rises in a literal sense, but figuratively, times of darkness don’t have preset starts and endings. They just appear in the form of crises — illnesses, job losses, money problems, break-ups — or set in more glacially, those grinding stretches where one day seems as hard as the last, with no end in sight. The saying goes that it’s darkest before the dawn (and often coldest, especially in the alpine), but in metaphor-land, that’s impossible to measure. As is often the case, however, the figurative deep glow of breaking dawn signals the start of a new day, just as the abating of troubles, or slight improvements in your life, or good fortune, signal brighter times. In hindsight, the deepest, coldest gloom of night might be right before daybreak, but you won’t know it until it passes with the coming day. Such revelations make the good times that much sweeter.

As a committed night owl, there is a good chance I’ll miss tomorrow’s sunrise. But I appreciate the dawn just the same.

dawn3

Bob Doucette

Caution, summer hikers: It’s still snowy in the mountains

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

Last week, a post about a serious accident in the mountains of Colorado prompted a good online discussion about high country safety.

In the post, the woman who wrote it talked about how she and another hiker had gone up Humboldt Peak, and on the descent, attempted a glissade (sliding down a slope on your butt) down a long snow slope. The conditions were icy, and her partner ended up losing control and getting injured. In her attempt to reach him, she also slid and banged herself up but escaped serious injury. The pair was able to contact local search-and-rescue and both were led safely down the mountain.

The accident was somewhat similar to another one on the same mountain several years earlier. In that incident, the climbers involved were more experienced than the pair I first mentioned. In this case, the climber attempting the glissade lost control and was gravely injured. His partner was able to put him in a sleeping bag to keep him warm while she descended for help. He was airlifted off the mountain, but later succumbed to his injuries.

My initial thinking was that this mountain, a Class 2 walk-up, has a spooky nature to it. But a commenter online had a different take. He said that people who have a lot of experience in summer and fall mountaineering aren’t necessarily going to be as proficient when thick snow is present. A second commenter reaffirmed that message. Her take, in short: Snow changes everything.

What got me to writing this is that many weekend day-trippers and out-of-state vacationers are heading to the mountains this month. Even though the calendar makes us think “summer,” the fact is many mountains still have a great deal of snow on them. If you’re determined to climb a mountain in June, you should know that most of these mountains are different now than they will be in a month or two, and potentially more dangerous, depending on the peak.

My experience on snow is limited. I don’t live in Colorado, so I’m a visitor just like so many others. But in my few experiences, here are a couple things I’ve seen:

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

In June 2013, while climbing Mount Sneffels, I saw people who lacked the traction gear needed for the couloir that is the mountain’s signature feature on its upper route. The Lavender Couloir holds snow well into the summer, and when temperatures rise, it can break under your feet and send you skidding down the mountain. One woman I saw, who was “guided” up that portion of the mountain, froze when confronted with the challenges of steeper snow and inadequate gear. Her partner was nowhere to be found, but my group was able to help her down to a safer part of the mountain. Clearly, this was not the mountain experience she thought it would be.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

In June 2014, while climbing Wetterhorn Peak, wet, slushy snow made our descent dicey. Three of us had our footing on the snow give out. Two of us arrested quickly without incident. A third climber slid about a hundred feet and hit some rocks. His injuries were minor, but it was a scary scene nonetheless. Wetterhorn’s standard route is very solid in dry summer conditions. But like I said before, snow changes everything. A slide on the wrong part of that mountain could send you off a 700-foot cliff.

Experienced mountaineers already have the knowledge to operate on snow slopes. But most people heading into what’s considered prime hiking season are not experienced mountaineers. Even those with a couple dozen or more summits under their belts aren’t in the “experienced” category if they haven’t had the time and training to handle snow.

So this post is directed more toward the summer hikers and not those who hike and climb in all four seasons. In light of this, some thoughts:

Check conditions on the route you’re planning. There are often online resources with up-to-date route conditions. Find those and read up. Be aware that late spring and early summer conditions often include the presence of significant snow on the route, and this will affect the difficulty and risk of a climb. Postholing will make your ascent slower and burn more energy. Snow and ice will make conditions slippery. Avalanches (“wet slides” in warmer conditions) are still a concern. A quick check of route conditions can alert you to the presence of these risks.

If you’re determined to climb mountains where snow is present, train for the conditions. Many mountain states have organizations that teach you everything you need to know about reading and traveling through snow conditions. Printed and online resources are out there. Find some friends and practice snow skills on low-risk areas. Be honest about your skills, fitness and risk tolerances.

Own and use the gear needed for snow travel. Sole spikes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters and a climbing helmet should be in your inventory if you’re going to climb snow slopes. Know how to use an ice axe.

If you are reticent to spend the time and money to equip and train for snow travel, consider different destinations or a later time of year to go into the mountains. If you’re hitting the peaks in late spring and early summer, consider lower elevation hikes and climbs. Mid- to late July through early September are much more snow-free if you’re determined to tag higher summits. Plan accordingly.

Lean on friends with high country experience. These folks are more likely to have real-time information on how routes look, they’ll know what equipment to buy and how to use it, and can be steadying influences during a climb. I had a guy like that last summer on an attempt of Longs Peak, and with sketchy conditions that had most of us questioning the wisdom of going forward, his keen eye had a more definitive answer. His word to turn around ended any ambiguity as to what we would do next and all of us got to go home with our health intact.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

June is a funny month  in the Rockies. We all want to get into the mountains and enjoy a little adventure. But at higher elevations, the transition from winter to summer in June is ongoing. If you’re like me and your experience on snow is limited, these are some things to keep in mind.

Bob Doucette

Four takes on what Turkey Mountain’s National Recreation Trails designation means

This stretch of trail on Turkey Mountain is now part of the National Recreation Trails system.

This stretch of trail on Turkey Mountain is now part of the National Recreation Trails system.

National Trails Day brought some good news for conservationists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts in northeast Oklahoma. On Friday. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced six sites as being included in the National Recreation Trails System. Three trails on Turkey Mountain are part of that list.

This, on the day before National Trails Day.

The news was spread pretty quickly, and not just a few people were pretty pleased about the designation. Tulsa’s mayor, Dewey Bartlett, joined the chorus — quite a feat, considering how just months before he was talking about putting a restaurant on Turkey Mountain, and in the weeks and months before that, pulling hard for an outlet mall to be built on Turkey Mountain’s west side.

In any case, the news is, indeed, pretty good. But what does it mean? I did a little looking around to see what might happen next, what people’s questions were, and how this might guide future decisions on green space preservation and development along the Arkansas River, which flows past Turkey Mountain’s eastern flank.

Here’s what I came up with…

Turkey Mountain is on quite a winning streak. The National Recreation Trails designation is the latest of many positive developments for Turkey Mountain and its trail system. The outlet mall plan was scrapped after heavy public opposition, and with the passage of a sales tax package in April, the land in question (which was privately held at the time) was purchased and folded into the River Parks Authority system. The land, which had suffered from tree and brush clearing and illegal trash dumping, is slowly being restored to its natural state while most of the garbage dumped there has been removed. There are now more trails permanently protected, and more natural habitat for wildlife preserved for the future. This also bodes well for the Westside YMCA camp, which has a permanent buffer of woodlands to its south.

The Interior Department’s designation has real benefits. Being recognized nationally gives Turkey Mountain specifically and Tulsa generally positive publicity. It further showcases a recreational asset that is uncommon to Midwestern cities. And, by being a part of the national system, Turkey Mountain is now eligible for promotion, technical advice and even potential grant money to make more improvements.

National recognition does not mean a federal takeover. I read through comments on a story about this news, and there were plenty of people bemoaning federal government involvement, takeover, overreach and all the other buzzwords you tend to hear when anything comes down from Washington. However you feel about the federal government, the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area is still locally owned and controlled by Tulsa’s River Parks Authority. It is not part of the National Parks Service, the National Forest System, the Bureau of Land Management or any other arm of the Department of the Interior. Personally, I’m a huge fan of federal public lands. But I also like what we do here locally at Turkey Mountain. That’s not going to change. But opportunities for future improvements and conservation will be enhanced.

The conversation on urban green space is likely to grow and evolve. Turkey Mountain’s journey from an obscure (and sometimes maligned) park to a popular destination was slow, but it accelerated greatly over the past several years. The outlet mall controversy elevated its profile in the city, and usage of its trail system has grown significantly. There is talk about what trail system could be next for improvements — perhaps Chandler Park (great, scenic trails and rock climbing/bouldering awaits), or other places. Development along the Arkansas River will be a hot topic for years to come, with competing interests seeking commercial development vs. more recreational, park-like development. It’s good we’re having these conversations. There will be tension on this front for quite some time, but if park and river corridor development is done right, the city has the potential to be a prime destination for outdoor recreation tourism, and its assets useful tools for overall business recruitment.

I spent part of National Trails Day getting a little dirt under my feet, running a short, hilly loop through the woods. As usual, I saw mountain bikers, other runners, and plenty of families hiking. This is a great thing, and it can be built upon. Already, efforts to do just that are paying off, and we’re getting noticed — not just by fellow Tulsans and Oklahomans, but by people from across the country.

Bob Doucette

Memorial Day on the trails: An agenda-less run

No training goals. No need for speed. Not a care for mileage, pace or whatever. I hit the trails this weekend with no agenda at all.

I worked most of Memorial Day weekend, so there wasn’t going to be any epic outings for me. But I did have enough time to disappear into the woods and hills at Turkey Mountain for a little while.

It’s late spring, and it’s a little like a jungle out there.

So green.

So green.

Surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of people out there, at least not in the areas where I ran. I’m good with that.

Let me see more singletrack like this, please.

Let me see more singletrack like this, please.

While there weren’t many people, it doesn’t mean I was alone. Plenty of wildlife. The squirrels seems to be the noisiest, crashing through underbrush whenever I approached. Lizards and snakes aren’t nearly as careless. And turtles seem to be the quietest.

A trail runner who was slower than me.

A trail runner who was slower than me.

All in all, the forest was ridiculously scenic. That aspect of trail running is one of its biggest allures, and yet can easily be lost when you’re pushing hard. I took my time and savored the scenes, and still got a good sweat out of the deal. I’ll call that a double-win.

This view does not suck.

This view does not suck.

There is a good chance your weekend rocked a little more than mine. But that’s OK. The lesson here is to take what life gives you. If it’s a month, a week, three days or a couple of hours, take it if you can. See where your feet take you. And don’t forget to look around.

Bob Doucette