On this late December day, I enjoy the wintry brilliance of Elevenmile Canyon for the first time. Knowing it hitherto only in its summer apparel, today I participate in a birding and photography field trip offered by the Colorado Springs Aiken Audubon Society. Only three people signed up, but we benefit from having our leader to ourselves and are even chauffeured in her new car, aptly named Mountain Bluebird. It flies across the 40 miles on Highway 24 in under an hour. In Woodland Park, which lives up to its moniker, City Above the Clouds, we emerge from a veil of mist enveloping Colorado’s Front Range. Farther west in Lake George, we turn south onto Park County Road 96 and reach the entrance booth to the canyon at 9 AM where we pay the $6 fee. Administered by the USDA Forest Service, this site is popular among fisher(wo)men year-round, and on many summer days, the three campgrounds are filled to the hilt.
The gravel road parallels the course of the South Platte River and ends after roughly 11 miles at the foot of the 1932 dam which created Elevenmile Reservoir. The route occupies the former bed of the Colorado Midland Railroad, the first standard gauge railway in the state which primarily targeted the silver wealth of Leadville. Two narrow gauge lines already connected to this boom town, including General Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande, but only by circuitous paths. The main engine behind the Midland, industrialist John J. Hagerman, came to the West for its vaunted healthful climate, like many tuberculosis sufferers. His railroad originated in Colorado Springs in 1886, groaned up steep Ute Pass, and by the following year traversed what was then known as Granite Canyon.
On the morning of our excursion, our drive through three surviving railroad tunnels reminds us of this earlier chapter in the history of what is now Elevenmile Canyon. The temperature climbs from 10 to 43 degrees Fahrenheit, and with warmth increasing, so does our time outside the car. Our leader, having faced conditions as low as minus 19 degrees in years past, thinks us a mollycoddled bunch, but even she lingers in sun-flooded patches which feel downright balmy by the end of the morning. Sun and blue skies are a congenial combination, rendered more so by the presence of snow. Frozen crystals glitter on granite and ground, icy art sparkles on stream and shrubbery.
Among this inanimate splendor, the fluorescent feathers of winged beings flash flamboyantly, drawing our attention to their presence. This area is known to harbor Bald and Golden Eagles and we are fortunate to see both. A young, male Baldy allows us glimpses from nearby, but Goldy is circling high in the sky, close enough for identification, but too far for satisfactory photography.
Where the river remains free of ice, it provides paddling room for Canada Geese, Mallards, Common Goldeneyes. Unexpectedly, we happen across an active American Pipit. Corvids caw in the calm, and the contented chatter of chickadees and nuthatches permeates the air.
Our most popular motifs, however, are American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus), also called water ouzels. They are usually found here in winter, but we are surprised to see one after nearly every bend in the river and count at least 20 individuals. What they lack in conspicuous colors, they make up with curious behavior. This includes the ability to dive, swim, and even walk under water, with the goal of capturing aquatic insects. When not submerged, they bob nearly constantly.
They are solitary and territorial birds and defend their watery realm from neighboring rivals. For the first time in my life I hear their lovely vocalizations, not unlike the tinkling cadence of the element in which they conduct their lives. We have ample opportunity to take pictures, and each of us captures dozens, if not hundreds. But even birders with a long attention span tire. After 3 wonderful hours we nonetheless declare ourselves “dippered out” and leave Elevenmile Canyon in its gorgeous winter raiments behind us, for the time being.
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