Saturday, June 15, 2013

Colorful Colorado: a tale of caterpillars and pine beetles

I pulled over and parked next to the bright yellow sign with red lettering that said, “Leaving New Mexico: Land of Enchantment.” Thick black smoke billowed up from behind a copse of spindly, eerily leafless aspens down the mountainside. Several other cars, two motorcycles, and an official-looking red truck were already parked there. People stood staring down the steep slope. On the side of the truck was the logo: Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The object of everyone’s attention was the train, which was the source of the black smoke. It also was emitting loud mechanical grunts in fits and starts. But it wasn’t moving. Something was wrong.

The narrow gauge, coal-fired Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad runs from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado. Once part of a utilitarian mining route, it now serves tourists who flock to enjoy the combination of railroad nostalgia and magnificent scenery. Today’s run was in trouble.

I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie and went over to the man holding it. He wore a gray uniform and matching cap with the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad insignia on it. I asked if the train always struggled with the slope like this. He shook his head. “What’s the problem?” I asked. He simply pointed down to the crushed gravel surface at our feet and said, “Them.”

I looked down and was startled to see the ground crawling with caterpillars. The black and yellow stripes that ran the length of their bodies were very familiar: tent caterpillars. I looked more closely at the leafless aspens. The forks of their limbs and the crooks and nodes of even the smallest branches were black with caterpillars crawling over the silky web-like “tents.”

Adding together the clues, but having a hard time believing the sum of my calculus, I asked the railroad worker, “You mean the train can’t move because the tracks are too slick with caterpillars?” He nodded with frustration tempered with what seemed like a hint of amusement at the irony.

Through the crackle of the radio I heard, “Back her up and try to get running start.” The engine hissed loudly, spit steam, belched more smoke, and then the train slowly backed down the tracks. The crowd of spectators waited and speculated. I told a couple of helmeted motorcycle riders near me what the maintenance worker had said. Amazement, incredulity, and amusement fought in their expressions. After a moment, disgust was added to the mix.

While we waited I inspected (and photographed) some of the tent-like nests that hung near eye level at the edge of the embankment. I crouched to try to frame a shot that included the tents in the foreground and train in the background (above.) When I arose a dozen or more caterpillars of various sizes were climbing the legs of my pants. I flicked off as many as I could see.

One of the bikers noticed and said, “There are a few on your back,” and flicked them off for me. He looked down at his own clothes nervously. I assured him that they were harmless—to us. I looked again at the defoliated aspens; white, encrusted with caterpillars and their tents. Something was very wrong and not just the delayed tourist train.

Then I looked up the slope above the road. Ranks of similarly spindly, leafless aspens shone stark white, like brittle bones. Then I looked across the valley that had appeared so beautiful on the drive up from Chama. The mountainsides were a tapestry of interwoven bands of pines and aspens. The pines were such a deep green they appeared nearly black. The aspens should have complemented the pines with a bright opalescent green radiant with sunshine. No: all white. As far as I could see.

I’ve since heard that the caterpillars arrived in the area last summer, but the infestation and devastation this year have been far worse. They are native to North America and I’d seen periodic outbreaks in my youth in New York. (I vividly remember my father breaking off tents, dousing them with kerosene and setting them on fire!) But I’d never experienced anything this bad.

My mind dredged up the Hopi word, Koyaanisqatsi, from a 1982 movie by that name. It means “life out of balance.”

With a final check of my clothing I got back in the car and headed towards higher elevation. I passed a dark brown wooden sign with white lettering that said, “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” As I passed mile after mile of white stands of aspen I tried to be hopeful.

I reached Cumbres Pass at around 11:30 and pulled into the station parking lot. The train had been due at 11:00. I told a couple who were there waiting what was happening. The man looked at me skeptically and said, “You mean, the train was stopped by a bug?!”

“No,” I said. “Lots of them. They’re defoliating all the aspens.”

Before driving off he added, “First the pine beetles and now this.”

At the pass I turned off onto a forest service road into the Trujillo Meadows recreation area. Most of the forest here was tall, straight pines, probably lodgepole or subalpine fir. The dark green I’d seen at the lower elevation here was tinged with grayish brown. Many of the trees were completely gray.

I passed the largest, densest patch of dandelions I’d ever seen. (Do they cultivate them here?) Not knowing Colorado, I wonder if this is another example of life out of balance. Prettier, at least, than dead trees. Surrounding the open meadow was a mosaic of green, brown, and gray conifers. As I wound up around a switchback I was relieved to see a few small stands of healthy-looking aspen. However, clearly visible among the shimmering green leaves were the web-like white tents.

I climbed higher. The deeper I went into the forest, the more prevalent became the dead or dying conifers. At least the scent of the pine forest remains, I thought, as I breathed deeply that treasured aroma through the open windows. That’s Colorado! Then, before long, that scent was overlain with another one. It smelled familiar but seemed out of place and I couldn’t quite name it.

Newly sawn stumps along the side of the road jolted my memory: the smell was sawdust. It was a smell I associated with sawmills, construction sites, and shop class. Not a smell I wanted to associate with a leisurely drive through the forest.

Of course, I know where the wood comes from that goes to sawmills, construction sites, and even shop classes. But still, something about this seemed wrong. There did not seem to be an organized logging operation going on. Farther up the road I came upon two men with a chainsaw cutting up a huge tree trunk that was lying horizontally. The open back of their unmarked pickup truck was stacked high with thick round disks of lumber. The license plate was an unofficial one, ordinary Colorado registration. One of the men waved as I went by. The other revved up the saw and pushed it into the trunk.

At this point all I could see were stumps and dead trees, their branches drooping like the shriveled carcasses of spiders. The greenest parts of these trees were the gray green fungi that clung to the drooping branches like clumps of lint. I had to turn back. This forest of corpses was no longer a pleasant place to be.

Pine beetles, tent caterpillars, dead forests and scavengers. Koyaanisqatsi. The climate is changing; are we ready for it?

The National Forest Service reports that the mountain pine beetle epidemic is waning. That is, it’s expanding at a lower rate than last year. Small comfort. Meanwhile, the report goes on, the spruce beetle is spreading.

Balance will be reestablished. The earth will survive. Forests will grow again. But at what cost? Will we recognize these new forests? Will we still want to ride the train up over the pass and through the remains of its magnificence?

(On the way back down I learned that the train had made it nearly to Cumbres, but then it had slipped off the rails. That’s a powerful bug!)

As I left Trujillo Meadows I happened to glance to the side. This doe was sitting there peacefully. She was alert to my presence but, as long as I stayed in the car, unalarmed. I rolled down the window to shoot one final image. This is the one I want to remember about my short excursion into colorful Colorado.

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