My weather app is predicting “thunder snow”. I have never heard of that before, apparently its a thunderstorm with snow instead of rain… I am sitting inside a cosy little diner in the small mountain town of Grand Lake. The thought of going out there into the wind and snow to set up my tiny tent is even less appealing ever since I am in here. I find it easy to sleep outdoors at night, when I am already out there all day. And I usually love sleeping outside, even in the cold. But then I am usually up in the mountains or off-grid somewhere. Where I am now, the population is more dense than I predicted. It is not only the cold, but a sensation of fake adventure that keeps me from wanting to camp out, when there are all kinds of roofs around.
This trip is starting off differently than I expected. But I make the most of it, and frankly, I have not only enjoyed my day very much, but have also learned a lot.
In the morning I have a chat with Allison. She works at the Western Riviera Lakeside Lodge, where I had spent the night. She is a warm and welcoming friendly host and she immediately starts checking the map, when I tell her about my trip. Holding a degree in environmental science, she is also very conscious of the importance of preserving and protecting the Colorado River for the future. She is proud to be from here, the place where the Colorado River is born. As she is sitting there, smiling contently, I almost envy her for feeling her roots so strongly.
I then walk back up to Kawunchee Visitor Center, for a long, very interesting and passionate chat with Maci and Christy, two of the local park-rangers. Rocky Mountain National Park, as I have previously noticed, is apparently run by women.
Maci and Christy tell me about their work, an impressive variety of interpretation and education about the National Park and the environment, which they provide to schools and all other visitors.
I learn that it is quite common now to talk about the effects of climate change. Up here it is impossible not to notice them. Pine and spruce bark beetles are forest insects that have evolved with the forests of Western North America since at least the last ice age, but the recent outbreak of pine bark beetles is unprecedented in its size and severity, impacting over 90% of the pine forests in the Park. Drought, a decrease in severe winter low temperatures, and longer growing seasons are all contributing factors.
Forest fires are increasing in size and severity, while the length of the fire season across the American West continues to grow. Rocky Mountain National Park has had more fires in the past 6 years than in the previous 90. But there are many more scary factors.
Rocky Mountain National Park has experienced a decrease in total snowpack and a 2-3 week earlier onset of snowmelt over the past 30 years. The annual number of frost free days at the Grand Lake weather station has increased from around 60 in the 1940s to around 100 in the past few years. There are winters (unlike this one) when it hardly snows sufficiently to provide enough water to the communities up here.
Thinking about this with the other water shortages further down the river in mind, this is alarming. As I walk back into town, I am sure this won’t be the last time I come across this topic on my trip. And I wonder, once again: How in the world can this country be run a president like Donald Trump, (who blatantly denies the fact of climate change, only to name one thing), when all the people I meet ever since I am here seem to be so educated and conscious? (I just saw this episode of “Late Night” the other day, and I warmly recommend it with regards to this topic…)
But then I get back into town, where the streets are twice the size of the very poorly insulated houses and everyone is not only driving pick-up trucks, but leaving the motor running while they go into a store. Roaring snowmobiles are polluting the air, even now, off-season, and one can hardly get any food without large amounts of waste attached to it.
Like in Europe, just on a different scale one thing becomes abundantly clear: it is one thing to be conscious, but an entirely different one to act on this consciousness as thoroughly as it would now be necessary. Especially when that means abstaining from personal comfort or fun. I know the feeling…
What makes it even more difficult here, is the long established system people grow up and live in: US-American society makes it almost impossible to even live without a car, for example.
In the afternoon I hike up to the place where the headwaters of the Colorado River flow into Grand Lake. It is mostly frozen and the river-bed is covered in snow. From there I walk around the lake to the site of the Colorado Big-Thompson Project (C-BT).
This massive water collection system provides more than 200,000 acre feet of water annually. From the reservoirs on the west side of the Rockies, the water is pumped trough a 13,1 mile long tunnel to the east side, where it provides power to the hydroelectric plants, and water to cities like Boulder and Fort Collins and to farmlands and industries. The tunnel, that cuts right through the National Park was built though the main range, the core and heart of the Rocky Mountains. To me all this seems impressive and painful at the same time. Impressive because of the inherent engineering skills and painful because a large portion of the Colorado Rivers water is already being taken from it at its birthplace, even before the gathering bodies of water get the chance to flow as one.
I have spent all day, writing bits and pieces of this blog-post. Now I am back at the Lodge, spending another night in the warm cosy room. It is snowing outside, and temperatures are supposed to drop even lower tomorrow. Zach, from Kokopelli Packraft called me to say that it will be impossible to run the section of the river that we were going to do tomorrow, because the danger of ice-dams, aufeis and frozen chunks of ice in the river is too big. So I will continue on foot, hoping for warmer temperatures. Part of this trip is to embrace whatever happens and make the most of it.
I also talk to Kyle Patterson again, public affairs officer at Rocky Mountain National Park. She gives me some hope in the end of this day, by telling me more about the efforts made by the National Park Service Response. They are working with academic researchers and agency partners to collect the best scientific information. Kyle says, they are mitigating climate change impacts thorough increasing the energy efficiency of their park buildings, by reducing water consumption, and increasing the fuel efficiency of the park vehicles. According to her, they are adapting to climate change by increasing the resiliency of park ecosystems by, for example, restoring riparian ecosystems, controlling non-native invasive plants, and protecting migration corridors on a local, regional, and international scale.
Hearing all this sounds like things are cooking. Trump or not, it’s the people that count. And one thing I find US-Americans to be very good at, is the sense at activity of community. So let’s keep pushing!