Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Colorado Blow Hole

Sweeping was never this much fun.

Spring is here. The high country is thawing. The Forest Service is hiring. There are seasonal jobs for rangers, or fire fighters.

And for removal crews. You don't hear much about them but they're as important as the others.

When the days grow longer, and the snows melt away, it's time once again for spring cleaning in the backcountry, so recreationists can get out and have the kind of quality experience they expect.

Not surprisingly, some people are outdoor slobs. They leave behind spoiled food, wrappers, fuel canisters, discarded clothing, and all kinds of other things. But there is more than that to clean up.

Because not everyone who goes out to the woods comes home again. Especially at popular (and more difficult than expected) destinations, Forest Service crews sometimes have to remove leftover bodies.

It's easy to forget about this in winter when low temperatures keep everything crispy-fresh, and piles of snow hide misplaced campers and hikers. But come spring everything changes. As snows melt and temperatures rise, well, ripening happens.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steven Hauler says that while some cattle are allowed to wander around on wilderness lands, if ranchers have permits for them, day hikers and partiers are harder to track. "You can find them almost anywhere," he said. "Under rocks, up in trees, frozen solid in ponds -- you name it. Sometimes we find whole families melting out of snowbanks, and no one knows how they got there or what they were doing. Least of all them, it seems."

While experienced hikers do get into trouble at times, most come home again, on schedule, no worse for wear. The people in sneakers, wearing shorts and T-shirts, carrying beer and lawn chairs, well they tend to account for the bulk of the frozen dead.

"Last week we found a group of six with no food as far as we could tell, no shelter, practically naked, that had still managed to carry in four kegs of beer -- all frozen solid now, some with cups still in their hands," Hauler noted. "They were in over their heads, literally, in one snow drift."

And in what may be a record, a frozen herd of an estimated former 29 pavement dwellers was found wadded up in an old ranger cabin high in the Rocky Mountains.

"It appears they wandered into the cabin, then died and froze solid when they couldn't find their way back out," said Forest Service Removal Supervisor Dirk Porter, shaking his head slowly. "This is something new. We never used to see groups of weekend dweebs this big, this stupid, and surely not this far from the safety of urban areas," he added. "Right now we're thinking it may take explosives to dislodge them all."

The cabin is a full nine miles from the trailhead, which is much farther than most chug monkeys are capable of walking under any circumstances, let alone unsupervised and off-leash on trails.

Carol Michael, spokesperson for the Wilderness Society of Colorado added, "There is a lot of snow, and it's hard to determine how many are actually in there. Obviously, we don't want them defrosting and contaminating the water of the nearby hot springs. Actual backpackers use that area. Explosives may be the only solution."

"We've learned a lot since the days of Oregon's Exploding Whale," Michael said, summing up. "With a little dynamite we can have this place squeaky clean inside of two weeks."

And she may be right. Helicopters are too expensive. Lack of roads limits truck access. Pack animals are too skittish. But everyone likes blowing things up.


Oregon's Exploding Whale - 1970 KATU (original report)

Forest Service in quandary about Colorado frozen cows