Burning Bear, Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

Burning Bear Creek Trail #602

Location: Pike National Forest north of Grant, Colorado.

Directions: From C-470, take Highway 287 west toward Fairplay for about 39 miles. At the town of Grant, turn right onto CR-62, or Guanella Pass Road. Follow Guanella Pass for approximately 5 miles. The trailhead for the Burning Bear Creek Trail will be on the left at the top of the hairpin turns and there will be a small parking area on the right side of the road. There is a brown, wooden trail sign at the entrance to the meadow where the trail starts.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours.

Route: Follow the Burning Bear Creek Trail – there is only one route out and back.

Access Notes: The parking for this trail can accommodate no more than several cars. You may need to park lower down on the road and walk up a quarter of a mile if you can’t find parking across from the trailhead. It takes about an hour and a half travel time from Westminster/Arvada to arrive at the trailhead without traffic. Guanella Pass Road does not go all the way through to Georgetown as of 9-10-10 due to construction and landslide abatement, so taking CR-62 from Grant is the only way to and from the trail. Guanella Pass Road is a gravel road with limited winter maintenance and in dry conditions is easily passable by passenger car to the Burning Bear Creek Trail. Dogs are allowed.

The Hike

View from the Burning Bear Creek Trail

This hike begins in a marshy meadow on top of a constructed, elevated path that turns into a wooden bridge that crosses the Burning Bear Creek before it enters the shady confines of the trees. There are views of surrounding mountains: Arrowhead Mountain (el. 11,209 ft.), Kataka Mountain (el. 12,441 ft.) and Geneva Mountain form a bowl of rounded peaks directly to the east-northeast of the trail. To the west, the direction the trail runs from Guanella Pass, you’ll see distant Red Cone (el. 12,801 ft.) and Handcart Peak (el. 12,518 ft.). There’s very little discernable elevation gain the first 2 miles of the trail, only occasional undulations as it runs alongside the soft swells of a forested hill where it meets the meadow.

The winding creek at the start of the hike was a strange shade of teal blue when I was there – perhaps mineralized runoff or bacteria was coloring the water. It was running low but with enough volume to indicate at least a little bit of precipitation had fallen recently in the mountains up slope. The trees at the start of the hike are mostly pine and spruce, but aspens do make an appearance about a mile in. Across the large meadows you’ll see a house and perhaps some horses and cattle, but it won’t be long before you’ll have more of a sense of wilderness as you walk deeper into the forest. It is quiet here, being that it is so far from Highway 285 and the traffic is considerably lower on Guanella Pass since its closure at the half-way point.

Wild mushroom

The creek is much smaller and closer to the trail about a mile up, and you can stop to enjoy the sound or just dip your feet for a while. In late summer, the trail close to the creek appeared eroded from mud, so I imagine that it can be quite muddy on parts of the trail in early- to mid-summer. Look for mushrooms in the darker, moister areas, some of which can grow to the size of large grapefruit. Just don’t pick them or eat them—mushrooms can be toxic and only an expert can be sure if they are or aren’t.

Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

It was a sunny, breezy and warm day when I hiked this trail for the first time early in September. There were hardly any signs of the approach of autumn on the drive up yet, with the exception of a few patches of orange-yellow from select branches of narrow-leaf cottonwoods and aspens along the South Platte River to the west of Conifer. On the relatively flat path in the woods at the start of the trail, I would occasionally hear the rumbling and clattering of tractor trailers as they lumbered up Guanella Pass to where they were doing road work. Otherwise, the sounds of trees and birds was soothing and pleasurable. A woodpecker would pound its head against a dead tree trunk and make a repetitive, hollow sound like a tiny jackhammer. A breeze would comb through the hillsides and down the meadow through the brush, as grasshoppers took off and landed, took off and landed underneath my feet, their flight haphazard and brittle-sounding.

The woods changed texture and shape the further I went. At first, the branches were lower and greener, creating a dark green canopy with a lap of mossy growth at the base. Then the trees got leggier, with bare branches reaching further up and allowing more sunlight and warmth to the floor. An amber light enveloped the trail at that point, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

A series of raven cries got my attention at the point where the path led out of the woods into a grassy area. There, about 100 yards away from the trail in the meadow, were about a dozen of the big, confident birds, perched on what appeared to be a large black boulder with white streaks in the middle of the straw-colored field. Some of them were flapping their wings and some were balanced squarely on the edge of the black object. I walked off trail toward the scene, curious and suspecting it might be a dead animal of some kind. The ravens departed as soon as they realized I was approaching, cawing and fussing at me for encroaching on their prize.

I got as close to it as I dared before I realized it was a dead cow. It had been laying in the field for some time, its interior completely caved out by scavengers. The white streaks on the black hide were bird feces from the ravens, disrespectful and crass by human standards, normal protocol by bird standards. I snapped a couple of photos and returned to the trail.

It was there that I saw the rest of the herd: cows laying about, slowly chewing their cud, moving like ghosts between the trees, quiet and contemplative in their bovine repose. Whether they knew about their fallen herd member or not, it was hard to tell. They seemed to be enjoying a rest in the shady woods and staying far away from the gruesome scene in the sunlight. They didn’t seem concerned or frightened or worried. Whatever killed their fellow cow was no longer threatening them—or never did to begin with. Maybe the cow died of a heart attack or stroke. Do animals get strokes?

Before I returned to the  trail I noticed a bleached animal skull – I’m guessing another cow skull from a different season, a different year, perhaps, decorated the trail nearby. I bent down to touch the teeth. They were like human teeth: rounded, white, solid molars toward the back and pointier, more jagged teeth for slicing in the front.

I always wonder why we don’t see more carcasses of dead animals and birds around. There are thousands of birds in a suburban neighborhood. There are maybe dozens of squirrels and rabbits. Sure, once in a while I’ll see a stiff corpse of a bird or a flattened rabbit in the gutter, but is that it? Surely, the rate of casualties must be high in the animal world where the average life span is a few years or less. Nature’s trash collectors and recyclers must do a bang-up job disposing of remains.  No landfill needed. No morgue, or hospital, or hospice necessary. Death seems to occur in private, in burrows and ravines and under vegetation.

An hour later, after an exploratory taste of the woods deeper into Pike National Forest, I turned around to head back to the car. I passed the scene of decay once again. I began to hear strange clicks and murmurs coming from the trees. It took me a while to confirm the sounds were coming from the flock of ravens I had disturbed earlier. They had flown up into the trees above the trail and were having conversations. These weren’t the insistent “caw caw caw” sounds you typically hear from crows or ravens when they’re announcing their location or yelling at each other. These were alien-like whispers, trilly little clacks and brrreeps and bird-like clucks of the tongue (do ravens have tongues?). They were quiet conversations; gossipy and bantering. When I stopped to look up to see where the sounds were originating, I would be startled by a sudden swoosh and a flapping of black wings overhead. The ravens didn’t like to be observed.

I continued walking and just listened. I imagined their exchange went something like this:

“You think she’s going to want to eat some of our beef, Bob?”

“Probably not. She looked a little freaked out by it.”

“Whatever. I’m pretty full anyway. That meat was a little on the tough side.”

“Yeah, but I hear there’s a fresh kill of elk just over that ridge there. Maybe we should check it out later.”

“You go. I need a nap first, Phil.”

I wondered what the take-away message was from this hike and I decided there wasn’t really a message. I had stepped into the living (and dining) room of Burning Bear Creek, intruded on a lunch buffet, eavesdropped on afternoon gossip, and tromped through what may have been a period of bereavement or rest for a tribe of cows. It was regular life and death drama, going on as it does every day, every month, every year, whether humans see it (and hear it) or not.

Imagine what it would be like if one day a couple of squirrels with backpacks decided to walk through your house for entertainment, exercise and to take in “the view.” You and your family would be enjoying a roast at the dinner table and one of them would jump up on the table, get a good look at the scene on the serving platter, and then continue on his merry way to your kitchen, then bedroom, then your den. One of them would stop and pee in a corner behind a chair. On their way back out, they’d pass through where you were sitting in the living room, pausing only briefly to look at your with mild curiosity and amusement as you discuss the day with your spouse. Then they’d go back to their tree and wonder what it all meant.