Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Mountain's Cradle

As my time in Colorado draws to a close, the desire to explore is growing exponentially.  Yesterday I was thinking that while I have ridden in the canyon below the ranch, I have not really taken my time poking around its massive meadows and caves.  So I emerged from my bedroom bright and early this morning, donned a smelly pair of cowboy boots and lassoed my palomino gelding, Capelli D’oro.  In less time than it takes to walk the dog, I was on my pony and heading south…down, that is.  Over rolling, jagged rocks and sweeping meadow, Capelli D’oro bore me into the gaping mouth of the rugged canyon.
            Flowers, cacti, pines, aspen, cougar, elk and bears…the variety of life who calls this canyon home is seemingly endless.  Half of my exercise today was simply climbing in and out of the saddle to take pictures of the breathtaking views.  With sides bared like the bones of a dinosaur, the canyon’s red rocks jut dauntlessly from the cloak of the pines. 
          After exploring a cave-like split in the sandstone’s cliff face, I rode deeper into the canyon until I came across a sweeping meadow.  Despite the thrill of climbing the cliffs and the awe of finding a spectacular view, the meadows remain my favorite parts of the canyon.  Not only do they give you room to appreciate the vastness of the ravine; they also provide Capelli with the opportunity to gallop.  There are few things in this world that I enjoy more than soaring over a prairie on the back of a spirited horse.

         As the day grew into the afternoon, the rain clouds passed and left us to bake in the noonday sun.  Despite my appreciation for the opportunity to work on my feeble tan, it didn’t change the fact that I was getting uncomfortably warm.  But on our way home, I began thinking about the bears and cougars.  Soon I was glancing sheepishly into the trees and caves, wondering if there were any hungry cats lurking in their shadows.  Then, as my sister’s mare caught my eye, I realized that Capelli and I had nothing to worry about.  I didn’t have to outrun a bear.

          All I had to do was outrun the mare.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Heart of the Ranch

          In the mountains of southern Colorado, opportunities to explore, enjoy and envision are truly endless.  I have ridden in the rocky cradle of the canyon, galloped across the grassy meadows of the mountain, and lounged in the evening’s crimson sunsets as they blossomed over a distant peak.  This is an entirely different world than the one I came to love in Ireland.  I have a completely untamed, unknown land to explore.  And none of my discoveries could have been made without the heart of the ranch.
This ranch has six horses, one pony and a mule who call it home.  They each have seen many more seasons than my own horse and even in their ever climbing age, I can’t think of many animals that are luckier.  If I were a horse, this is where I would want to retire.  Here, the animals have a vast expanse of green pasture to roam while soaking up the rays of a heartwarming sun; all the while still able to take on a rider and explore the wild Rockies.
Perhaps the most majestic of the six horses is the Andalusian gelding, Llanero.  With his solid neck and massive hooves, Llanero makes an intimidating presentation.  One second in his pasture, however, proves that looks can be deceiving.  He is a kind, curious soul who will back halfway to Canada if he thinks there’s a chance to get his back scratched.  With a big appearance and a heart to match, Llanero adds an impressive spirit to the valley.
Llanero’s counterpart would have to be the very, er, full bodied pony: Summer.  Her quiet, fearless nature makes her the pony of choice for many of the ranch’s riders.  She is, as they say, ‘bomb-proof’.  Not only will Summer get a rancher home safely, she will do it in only a halter.  No matter where a person ventures, Summer knows her way home.
One of the most difficult of the geldings to photograph has to be the kindly Quarter Horse: Ray.  This isn’t due to lack of participation—quite the opposite, really.  When I entered their pasture, Ray trotted up to me and that is where he stayed for the remainder of my photo shoot.  Even when I sat on the ground in the corner and tried to look as unobtrusive as possible, Ray’s nose was in my camera.  Finally, I gave in.  Ray gets the ‘totally hypnotized’ picture.


Just as Llanero had his opposite, so does Ray.  The two old girls of the back pasture have been retired from riding for more years than I’ve been alive.  Sugar, the aging mare, has the quiet, sleepy understanding that comes with experience.  She does not seem to care if someone is brushing her or if she is relaxing in the shade of one of the ponderosa pines.  The mule, however, has not let anyone get close to her for years.  Aside from Sugar’s company, the mule remains completely happy to be left alone.  On my first day at the ranch, I looked out the window and was surprised to see the mule trotting through the backyard.  Catching her was proving to be an impossible task until someone realized that all the mule needed was for someone to put Sugar back in the pasture.  Like two old friends reveling in each other’s quiet, the mule went where the easy going mare went.  If not for Sugar, I don’t doubt that she would be halfway to Texas by now.
One of my favorite geldings to ride is Knot.  He is soft, smart and remarkably curious.  When I was in his pasture, Knot hurried over and stood next to me, resting his head against me as he waited to get his neck rubbed.  Like Ray, he was so persistent that I couldn’t get far enough away to snap a picture.  Even when I gave up and went into the next pasture over, Knot was sure he could squeeze through the panels to pursue his new admirer.
Another pleasure to ride is the old ranch horse, Hank.  He’s a big Quarter Horse with powerful legs and a soft mouth, making him ideal for working cattle or climbing out of the canyon.  Used to my little Palomino gelding, Capelli D’oro, riding Hank was an entirely new experience.  Luckily for me, he made it a good one.
If Llanero gives the valley its power, the Arabian gelding Antara gives it its eloquence.  With the endurance of its desert racing forefathers and the quiet of his curious spirit, Antara offers a beautiful ride as well as a pleasant companion.  I discovered while readying him for his portrait that Antara’s sweet spot is right under his chin; he would have let me pet him all day long.
Whether they were rescued from an abusive past or raised right here, these eight spirits are what give the ranch its character.  Gentle and curious, the horses are perfectly content nuzzling a photographer’s shoulder and waiting for their rub downs.  Now I only have to keep straight who wants their chin scratched, their back rubbed and their neck massaged.  Who owns who here?
Silly question.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Great Sand Dunes

     So I’ve been surfing in County Mayo, Ireland…I’ve been skiing in Northern Minnesota, USA…but I have to say that I never thought I would consider snowboarding in southern Colorado on a hot summer’s day.  Actually, until I saw some guys grab their boards and rip down a sand dune, I probably would have laughed at the idea.  Can’t say that I’m laughing now.  Actually, I’m busy dealing with the horrendous amount of sand that’s in my mouth, eyes and ears.  At least snow melts…

     The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southwestern Colorado, USA is nestled in the San Luis Valley immediately before the Sangre de Christo Mountains.  The long, winding drive through the southern Rocky Mountains preluding our arrival at the preserve made me have my doubts on what to expect.  How could there be a sand dune hidden in these rolling hillsides that are dotted with sage brush, tumbleweed and ponderosa pines?  I began to suspect one of two things: either the sand dunes were an unremarkable pile of dry dirt or we were hopelessly lost.  Thankfully I was wrong on both accounts…as I’d hate to have driven so far to see a sandbox and if our GPS managed to get us lost in the Rocky Mountains, I’d hate to think how we would find our way back out again!
     The dunes are a magnificent piece to the 330 square mile sand deposit that covers a portion of this wild valley.  The largest dune in the park (or North America, for that matter) is the Star Dune, rising 750 feet (229 meters) above the already soaring San Luis Valley.  I’m afraid that I didn’t climb that one (the sand is HOT HOT HOT) but I did watch a few guys snowboard (sandboard?) down the side of one.  Not understanding the size of these dunes before arriving, I didn’t think to bring my own gear, but I did try to sled down one on me…er, rear.  That probably had something to do with my sandy discomfort on the way home. 
     The dunes, despite their lifeless appearance, support a wide variety of wildlife and flowers.  There are tiger beetles, sunflowers, and a few unhappy looking bees as well as several other species of insects that are so well adapted that they cannot live anywhere else.  Poor guys.  I also discovered a beautiful, flowering, starvation prickly pear in the grasslands surrounding the dunes.  All I have to say about those little dudes is that you want to watch where you kneel when you’re photographing them.  Prickly, sandy jeans…not exactly an equation for a comfy ride home.  These gnarly little cacti really live up to their name (and yes, you can actually eat them…just not like a pear…if you value your tongue.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The American West

In June, Northern Minnesota is gloriously lush and potently fragrant with a myriad of blossoming shrubs.  The fishing is at its best and birders are quickly overwhelmed by a symphony of song.  The weather is pleasant, the lakes are crystalline and despite all of this, it is close to unbearable.  While the loon may be the State’s official bird, a running contender has been and always will be that six legged pest: the mosquito.  June is bug month and these critters fly rampant over the countryside, frolicking on dozing fishermen and whining against those bothersome screened windows.  For visitors to this area, mosquitoes are a pest…but one that can be dealt with.  For a resident, the bugs’ persistence is enough to make even the heartiest of fishermen a little (sometimes a lot) crazy. 

          Even though my phone (tired and old as it is) can receive text messages from across the world via outer space, technology still is yet to come up with an effective cure-all for repelling mosquitoes.  So, when they descend upon our home like the aliens from Mel Gibson’s Signs, there is only one way to escape.  Run away.  Far, far away.  1400 miles, to be exact.

          A recent invitation from a couple of wonderful friends currently living in southern Colorado has provided my family and I with the unique opportunity to explore the great American west.  The ranch home is flanked by the Rocky Mountains on its western border, New Mexico’s flatland to the south and rolling hills to the north and east.  A gaping canyon of toothy sandstone cradles the rolling pastures that our Midwestern horses are now kicking their heels up in.

          In a week my palomino gelding will have acclimated to the altitude (7000+ feet in the ranch’s valley) and I will be free to explore the mountains, canyons and forests.  I’ve heard rumors of trout filled streams and hidden pools nestled in the mountain’s secret reaches and the canyon promises to be every bit as exciting—especially if the cougars take interest in my yellow horse.  As it is, the palomino and I have several hundred acres of valley to nose around in for the next several days.  Already I can feel this Colorado sun scorching my Minnesota/Ireland skin and I’m hoping for a summer tan by the time I venture back north.

             For now, I’m off to find my guitar and a patch of shade beneath one of those ponderosa pines.  Maybe a wide brimmed hat and a margarita while I’m at it.  Might as well make the most of the summer.  Slainte, mosquitoes!


Thursday, June 13, 2013


So I’m sure everyone out there has had those days that just…well, suck.  Or maybe even those weeks…months…yeah, you get my point.  Luckily for me, I know a place that always seems to pull up my spirits and gets my mind back on track.  Aptly abbreviated S.O.S., Smitty’s on Snowbank resort of Ely, Minnesota has just the medicine for anyone going a little (or even a lot) city crazy. 
Located half an hour northeast of the already rural Ely, Minnesota; S.O.S. is just the escape I need.  Julie Schmidt, a co-owner/manager of the resort, will provide you with a hearty, American style breakfast before you venture out into a wilderness that only Minnesota can provide.  During blueberry season, I have been known to lounge on an island in the middle of the lake and delight in the abundance of berries before swimming back to the mainland/boat that I first leapt from (provided my lift hasn’t bored with that particular fishing hole and left me bobbing in the middle of the lake).  Speaking of fishing, I have never had better luck than on the crystalline waters of Snowbank Lake.  Large and Small Mouth Bass, Walleye, Northern and Silver Pike, Lake Trout, Eelpout, pan fish…Snowbank has something for everyone!  I usually catch and release, but if I ever am craving a delicious supper, there is none fresher than a fillet of Walleye or Bass.
And if I’m not having any luck on the water (which, of course, is unheard of……) S.O.S. is a hop, skip and a jump away from the trailhead for Kekekabic hiking trail (to be on the safe side, I usually just call it the ‘Kek’), which winds through forty miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  I have seen wolves, moose, deer, bear and an overabundance of rampaging squirrels during my hikes there.  And yet, strangely enough, the only time I have ever heard anyone scream was when my mother discovered a Pink Lady Slipper orchid growing along the side of the trail (she’s a retired naturalist…go figure).
After a day filled with so much adventure, nothing feels better than to return to the resort, enjoy one of Julie’s home-cooked dinners and share some belly-laughs with Den and Ron Schmidt, co-owners of the family-run resort.  I have to say, after our third or fourth trip out to S.O.S., I felt like part of an ever-growing family.  Now when I need a break or simply want to enjoy the best part (in my humble opinion) of Minnesota, I know that Smitty’s on Snowbank is waiting for me at the end of the road.  Check it out for yourself at and discover why I call Minnesota home.  I’m off to take Beau for a swim, because honestly; S.O.S. is a doggie’s paradise too.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Luck of the...Minnesotan?

      The six hour difference between Ireland and Minnesota made for a fantastic amount of jet lag last week.  Four in the morning every morning for seven days, I was wide awake in Northern Minnesota.  By seven in the evening I routinely passed out, no matter what I was doing (playing cards, watching a movie, having a conversation…) or where I was (at the table, in a chair, standing on the porch…) or how much coffee I forced into my system (caffeine has finally failed me).  Actually, there was only one good thing about that detestable situation.  I was bright eyed and bushy tailed for every sunrise—the perfect time to sniff out some good fishing.
      Of all the things that I missed about Minnesota, fishing had to be one of the biggest.  The cool air of an early dawn, the placid shoreline shrouded by pockets of mist, the crisp smell of a frigid lake…there is a spectacular tranquility to rhythmically casting your line out and waiting for that small tug.  Just being on the water with some good friends and a quiet morning is more than enough to make me happy.  As the saying goes, “Fishing was good.  Catching was bad.”

      That said, it’s always a bonus to catch a fish (and slightly less humiliating).  Sometimes we save them for a fresh supper, but the majority get to go free (after taking pictures, of course…because the fishing stories tend to be heard with a skeptical ear). It’s especially important to let the big ones go this time of the year, because the bass are full of new little fish.  I’d rather skip the fresh supper than have no luck fishing next year. 

      With fishing opener just passing and the beauty of Minnesota in full bloom (before the hordes of mosquitoes come looking for a snack), the best places were crowded with hopeful fishermen.  It felt good to be back on the water and asking fellow Minnesotans what’s biting.  Even if inquiries to what people are fishing with have vague answers, it always feels good to boast a nice catch.  That morning we caught walleye and small mouth bass (and I snagged a Northern Pike, whose teeth will give any potential swimmer a worried pause) and everything seemed right in the world.  There are many places of beauty in the world, but I can’t but agree that “there’s no place like home.”